HIS wife was up when he came in. "Did you have a good time?" she sniffed.
"I did not. I had a rotten time! Anything else I got to explain?"
"George, how can you speak like—Oh, I don't know what's come over you!"
"Good Lord, there's nothing come over me! Why do you look for trouble all the time?" He was warning himself, "Careful! Stop being so disagreeable. Course she feels it, being left alone here all evening." But he forgot his warning as she went on:
"Why do you go out and see all sorts of strange people? I suppose you'll say you've been to another committee-meeting this evening!"
"Nope. I've been calling on a woman. We sat by the fire and kidded each other and had a whale of a good time, if you want to know!"
"Well—From the way you say it, I suppose it's my fault you went there! I probably sent you!"
"Well, upon my word—"
"You hate 'strange people' as you call 'em. If you had your way, I'd be as much of an old stick-in-the-mud as Howard Littlefield. You never want to have anybody with any git to 'em at the house; you want a bunch of old stiffs that sit around and gas about the weather. You're doing your level best to make me old. Well, let me tell you, I'm not going to have—"
Overwhelmed she bent to his unprecedented tirade, and in answer she mourned:
"Oh, dearest, I don't think that's true. I don't mean to make you old, I know. Perhaps you're partly right. Perhaps I am slow about getting acquainted with new people. But when you think of all the dear good times we have, and the supper-parties and the movies and all—"
With true masculine wiles he not only convinced himself that she had injured him but, by the loudness of his voice and the brutality of his attack, he convinced her also, and presently he had her apologizing for his having spent the evening with Tanis. He went up to bed well pleased, not only the master but the martyr of the household. For a distasteful moment after he had lain down he wondered if he had been altogether just. "Ought to be ashamed, bullying her. Maybe there is her side to things. Maybe she hasn't had such a bloomin' hectic time herself. But I don't care! Good for her to get waked up a little. And I'm going to keep free. Of her and Tanis and the fellows at the club and everybody. I'm going to run my own life!"
In this mood he was particularly objectionable at the Boosters' Club lunch next day. They were addressed by a congressman who had just returned from an exhaustive three-months study of the finances, ethnology, political systems, linguistic divisions, mineral resources, and agriculture of Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia, and Bulgaria. He told them all about those subjects, together with three funny stories about European misconceptions of America and some spirited words on the necessity of keeping ignorant foreigners out of America.
"Say, that was a mighty informative talk. Real he-stuff," said Sidney Finkelstein.
But the disaffected Babbitt grumbled, "Four-flusher! Bunch of hot air! And what's the matter with the immigrants? Gosh, they aren't all ignorant, and I got a hunch we're all descended from immigrants ourselves."
"Oh, you make me tired!" said Mr. Finkelstein.
Babbitt was aware that Dr. A. I. Dilling was sternly listening from across the table. Dr. Dilling was one of the most important men in the Boosters'. He was not a physician but a surgeon, a more romantic and sounding occupation. He was an intense large man with a boiling of black hair and a thick black mustache. The newspapers often chronicled his operations; he was professor of surgery in the State University; he went to dinner at the very best houses on Royal Ridge; and he was said to be worth several hundred thousand dollars. It was dismaying to Babbitt to have such a person glower at him. He hastily praised the congressman's wit, to Sidney Finkelstein, but for Dr. Dilling's benefit.
That afternoon three men shouldered into Babbitt's office with the air of a Vigilante committee in frontier days. They were large, resolute, big-jawed men, and they were all high lords in the land of Zenith—Dr. Dilling the surgeon, Charles McKelvey the contractor, and, most dismaying of all, the white-bearded Colonel Rutherford Snow, owner of the Advocate-Times. In their whelming presence Babbitt felt small and insignificant.
"Well, well, great pleasure, have chairs, what c'n I do for you?" he babbled.
They neither sat nor offered observations on the weather.
"Babbitt," said Colonel Snow, "we've come from the Good Citizens' League. We've decided we want you to join. Vergil Gunch says you don't care to, but I think we can show you a new light. The League is going to combine with the Chamber of Commerce in a campaign for the Open Shop, so it's time for you to put your name down."
In his embarrassment Babbitt could not recall his reasons for not wishing to join the League, if indeed he had ever definitely known them, but he was passionately certain that he did not wish to join, and at the thought of their forcing him he felt a stirring of anger against even these princes of commerce.
"Sorry, Colonel, have to think it over a little," he mumbled.
McKelvey snarled, "That means you're not going to join, George?"
Something black and unfamiliar and ferocious spoke from Babbitt: "Now, you look here, Charley! I'm damned if I'm going to be bullied into joining anything, not even by you plutes!"
"We're not bullying anybody," Dr. Dilling began, but Colonel Snow thrust him aside with, "Certainly we are! We don't mind a little bullying, if it's necessary. Babbitt, the G.C.L. has been talking about you a good deal. You're supposed to be a sensible, clean, responsible man; you always have been; but here lately, for God knows what reason, I hear from all sorts of sources that you're running around with a loose crowd, and what's a whole lot worse, you've actually been advocating and supporting some of the most dangerous elements in town, like this fellow Doane."
"Colonel, that strikes me as my private business."
"Possibly, but we want to have an understanding. You've stood in, you and your father-in-law, with some of the most substantial and forward-looking interests in town, like my friends of the Street Traction Company, and my papers have given you a lot of boosts. Well, you can't expect the decent citizens to go on aiding you if you intend to side with precisely the people who are trying to undermine us."
Babbitt was frightened, but he had an agonized instinct that if he yielded in this he would yield in everything. He protested:
"You're exaggerating, Colonel. I believe in being broad-minded and liberal, but, of course, I'm just as much agin the cranks and blatherskites and labor unions and so on as you are. But fact is, I belong to so many organizations now that I can't do 'em justice, and I want to think it over before I decide about coming into the G.C.L."
Colonel Snow condescended, "Oh, no, I'm not exaggerating! Why the doctor here heard you cussing out and defaming one of the finest types of Republican congressmen, just this noon! And you have entirely the wrong idea about 'thinking over joining.' We're not begging you to join the G.C.L.—we're permitting you to join. I'm not sure, my boy, but what if you put it off it'll be too late. I'm not sure we'll want you then. Better think quick—better think quick!"
The three Vigilantes, formidable in their righteousness, stared at him in a taut silence. Babbitt waited through. He thought nothing at all, he merely waited, while in his echoing head buzzed, "I don't want to join—I don't want to join—I don't want to."
"All right. Sorry for you!" said Colonel Snow, and the three men abruptly turned their beefy backs.
As Babbitt went out to his car that evening he saw Vergil Gunch coming down the block. He raised his hand in salutation, but Gunch ignored it and crossed the street. He was certain that Gunch had seen him. He drove home in sharp discomfort.
His wife attacked at once: "Georgie dear, Muriel Frink was in this afternoon, and she says that Chum says the committee of this Good Citizens' League especially asked you to join and you wouldn't. Don't you think it would be better? You know all the nicest people belong, and the League stands for—"
"I know what the League stands for! It stands for the suppression of free speech and free thought and everything else! I don't propose to be bullied and rushed into joining anything, and it isn't a question of whether it's a good league or a bad league or what the hell kind of a league it is; it's just a question of my refusing to be told I got to—"
"But dear, if you don't join, people might criticize you."
"Let 'em criticize!"
"But I mean NICE people!"
"Rats, I—Matter of fact, this whole League is just a fad. It's like all these other organizations that start off with such a rush and let on they're going to change the whole works, and pretty soon they peter out and everybody forgets all about 'em!"
"But if it's THE fad now, don't you think you—"
"No, I don't! Oh, Myra, please quit nagging me about it. I'm sick of hearing about the confounded G.C.L. I almost wish I'd joined it when Verg first came around, and got it over. And maybe I'd 've come in to-day if the committee hadn't tried to bullyrag me, but, by God, as long as I'm a free-born independent American cit—"
"Now, George, you're talking exactly like the German furnace-man."
"Oh, I am, am I! Then, I won't talk at all!"
He longed, that evening, to see Tanis Judique, to be strengthened by her sympathy. When all the family were up-stairs he got as far as telephoning to her apartment-house, but he was agitated about it and when the janitor answered he blurted, "Nev' mind—I'll call later," and hung up the receiver.
If Babbitt had not been certain about Vergil Gunch's avoiding him, there could be little doubt about William Washington Eathorne, next morning. When Babbitt was driving down to the office he overtook Eathorne's car, with the great banker sitting in anemic solemnity behind his chauffeur. Babbitt waved and cried, "Mornin'!" Eathorne looked at him deliberately, hesitated, and gave him a nod more contemptuous than a direct cut.
Babbitt's partner and father-in-law came in at ten:
"George, what's this I hear about some song and dance you gave Colonel Snow about not wanting to join the G.C.L.? What the dickens you trying to do? Wreck the firm? You don't suppose these Big Guns will stand your bucking them and springing all this 'liberal' poppycock you been getting off lately, do you?"
"Oh, rats, Henry T., you been reading bum fiction. There ain't any such a thing as these plots to keep folks from being liberal. This is a free country. A man can do anything he wants to."
"Course th' ain't any plots. Who said they was? Only if folks get an idea you're scatter-brained and unstable, you don't suppose they'll want to do business with you, do you? One little rumor about your being a crank would do more to ruin this business than all the plots and stuff that these fool story-writers could think up in a month of Sundays."
That afternoon, when the old reliable Conrad Lyte, the merry miser, Conrad Lyte, appeared, and Babbitt suggested his buying a parcel of land in the new residential section of Dorchester, Lyte said hastily, too hastily, "No, no, don't want to go into anything new just now."
A week later Babbitt learned, through Henry Thompson, that the officials of the Street Traction Company were planning another real-estate coup, and that Sanders, Torrey and Wing, not the Babbitt-Thompson Company, were to handle it for them. "I figure that Jake Offutt is kind of leery about the way folks are talking about you. Of course Jake is a rock-ribbed old die-hard, and he probably advised the Traction fellows to get some other broker. George, you got to do something!" trembled Thompson.
And, in a rush, Babbitt agreed. All nonsense the way people misjudged him, but still—He determined to join the Good Citizens' League the next time he was asked, and in furious resignation he waited. He wasn't asked. They ignored him. He did not have the courage to go to the League and beg in, and he took refuge in a shaky boast that he had "gotten away with bucking the whole city. Nobody could dictate to him how he was going to think and act!"
He was jarred as by nothing else when the paragon of stenographers, Miss McGoun, suddenly left him, though her reasons were excellent—she needed a rest, her sister was sick, she might not do any more work for six months. He was uncomfortable with her successor, Miss Havstad. What Miss Havstad's given name was, no one in the office ever knew. It seemed improbable that she had a given name, a lover, a powder-puff, or a digestion. She was so impersonal, this slight, pale, industrious Swede, that it was vulgar to think of her as going to an ordinary home to eat hash. She was a perfectly oiled and enameled machine, and she ought, each evening, to have been dusted off and shut in her desk beside her too-slim, too-frail pencil points. She took dictation swiftly, her typing was perfect, but Babbitt became jumpy when he tried to work with her. She made him feel puffy, and at his best-beloved daily jokes she looked gently inquiring. He longed for Miss McGoun's return, and thought of writing to her.
Then he heard that Miss McGoun had, a week after leaving him, gone over to his dangerous competitors, Sanders, Torrey and Wing.
He was not merely annoyed; he was frightened. "Why did she quit, then?" he worried. "Did she have a hunch my business is going on the rocks? And it was Sanders got the Street Traction deal. Rats—sinking ship!"
Gray fear loomed always by him now. He watched Fritz Weilinger, the young salesman, and wondered if he too would leave. Daily he fancied slights. He noted that he was not asked to speak at the annual Chamber of Commerce dinner. When Orville Jones gave a large poker party and he was not invited, he was certain that he had been snubbed. He was afraid to go to lunch at the Athletic Club, and afraid not to go. He believed that he was spied on; that when he left the table they whispered about him. Everywhere he heard the rustling whispers: in the offices of clients, in the bank when he made a deposit, in his own office, in his own home. Interminably he wondered what They were saying of him. All day long in imaginary conversations he caught them marveling, "Babbitt? Why, say, he's a regular anarchist! You got to admire the fellow for his nerve, the way he turned liberal and, by golly, just absolutely runs his life to suit himself, but say, he's dangerous, that's what he is, and he's got to be shown up."
He was so twitchy that when he rounded a corner and chanced on two acquaintances talking—whispering—his heart leaped, and he stalked by like an embarrassed schoolboy. When he saw his neighbors Howard Littlefield and Orville Jones together, he peered at them, went indoors to escape their spying, and was miserably certain that they had been whispering—plotting—whispering.
Through all his fear ran defiance. He felt stubborn. Sometimes he decided that he had been a very devil of a fellow, as bold as Seneca Doane; sometimes he planned to call on Doane and tell him what a revolutionist he was, and never got beyond the planning. But just as often, when he heard the soft whispers enveloping him he wailed, "Good Lord, what have I done? Just played with the Bunch, and called down Clarence Drum about being such a high-and-mighty sodger. Never catch ME criticizing people and trying to make them accept MY ideas!"
He could not stand the strain. Before long he admitted that he would like to flee back to the security of conformity, provided there was a decent and creditable way to return. But, stubbornly, he would not be forced back; he would not, he swore, "eat dirt."
Only in spirited engagements with his wife did these turbulent fears rise to the surface. She complained that he seemed nervous, that she couldn't understand why he did not want to "drop in at the Littlefields'" for the evening. He tried, but he could not express to her the nebulous facts of his rebellion and punishment. And, with Paul and Tanis lost, he had no one to whom he could talk. "Good Lord, Tinka is the only real friend I have, these days," he sighed, and he clung to the child, played floor-games with her all evening.
He considered going to see Paul in prison, but, though he had a pale curt note from him every week, he thought of Paul as dead. It was Tanis for whom he was longing.
"I thought I was so smart and independent, cutting Tanis out, and I need her, Lord how I need her!" he raged. "Myra simply can't understand. All she sees in life is getting along by being just like other folks. But Tanis, she'd tell me I was all right."
Then he broke, and one evening, late, he did run to Tanis. He had not dared to hope for it, but she was in, and alone. Only she wasn't Tanis. She was a courteous, brow-lifting, ice-armored woman who looked like Tanis. She said, "Yes, George, what is it?" in even and uninterested tones, and he crept away, whipped.
His first comfort was from Ted and Eunice Littlefield.
They danced in one evening when Ted was home from the university, and Ted chuckled, "What's this I hear from Euny, dad? She says her dad says you raised Cain by boosting old Seneca Doane. Hot dog! Give 'em fits! Stir 'em up! This old burg is asleep!" Eunice plumped down on Babbitt's lap, kissed him, nestled her bobbed hair against his chin, and crowed; "I think you're lots nicer than Howard. Why is it," confidentially, "that Howard is such an old grouch? The man has a good heart, and honestly, he's awfully bright, but he never will learn to step on the gas, after all the training I've given him. Don't you think we could do something with him, dearest?"
"Why, Eunice, that isn't a nice way to speak of your papa," Babbitt observed, in the best Floral Heights manner, but he was happy for the first time in weeks. He pictured himself as the veteran liberal strengthened by the loyalty of the young generation. They went out to rifle the ice-box. Babbitt gloated, "If your mother caught us at this, we'd certainly get our come-uppance!" and Eunice became maternal, scrambled a terrifying number of eggs for them, kissed Babbitt on the ear, and in the voice of a brooding abbess marveled, "It beats the devil why feminists like me still go on nursing these men!"
Thus stimulated, Babbitt was reckless when he encountered Sheldon Smeeth, educational director of the Y.M.C.A. and choir-leader of the Chatham Road Church. With one of his damp hands Smeeth imprisoned Babbitt's thick paw while he chanted, "Brother Babbitt, we haven't seen you at church very often lately. I know you're busy with a multitude of details, but you mustn't forget your dear friends at the old church home."
Babbitt shook off the affectionate clasp—Sheldy liked to hold hands for a long time—and snarled, "Well, I guess you fellows can run the show without me. Sorry, Smeeth; got to beat it. G'day."
But afterward he winced, "If that white worm had the nerve to try to drag me back to the Old Church Home, then the holy outfit must have been doing a lot of talking about me, too."
He heard them whispering—whispering—Dr. John Jennison Drew, Cholmondeley Frink, even William Washington Eathorne. The independence seeped out of him and he walked the streets alone, afraid of men's cynical eyes and the incessant hiss of whispering.
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