Babbit, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 17

THERE are but three or four old houses in Floral Heights, and in Floral Heights an old house is one which was built before 1880. The largest of these is the residence of William Washington Eathorne, president of the First State Bank.

The Eathorne Mansion preserves the memory of the “nice parts” of Zenith as they appeared from 1860 to 1900. It is a red brick immensity with gray sandstone lintels and a roof of slate in courses of red, green, and dyspeptic yellow. There are two anemic towers, one roofed with copper, the other crowned with castiron ferns. The porch is like an open tomb; it is supported by squat granite pillars above which hang frozen cascades of brick. At one side of the house is a huge stained-glass window in the shape of a keyhole.

But the house has an effect not at all humorous. It embodies the heavy dignity of those Victorian financiers who ruled the generation between the pioneers and the brisk “sales-engineers” and created a somber oligarchy by gaining control of banks, mills, land, railroads, mines. Out of the dozen contradictory Zeniths which together make up the true and complete Zenith, none is so powerful and enduring yet none so unfamiliar to the citizens as the small, still, dry, polite, cruel Zenith of the William Eathornes; and for that tiny hierarchy the other Zeniths unwittingly labor and insignificantly die.

Most of the castles of the testy Victorian tetrarchs are gone now or decayed into boarding-houses, but the Eathorne Mansion remains virtuous and aloof, reminiscent of London, Back Bay, Rittenhouse Square. Its marble steps are scrubbed daily, the brass plate is reverently polished, and the lace curtains are as prim and superior as William Washington Eathorne himself.

With a certain awe Babbitt and Chum Frink called on Eathorne for a meeting of the Sunday School Advisory Committee; with uneasy stillness they followed a uniformed maid through catacombs of reception-rooms to the library. It was as unmistakably the library of a solid old banker as Eathorne’s side-whiskers were the side-whiskers of a solid old banker. The books were most of them Standard Sets, with the correct and traditional touch of dim blue, dim gold, and glossy calf-skin. The fire was exactly correct and traditional; a small, quiet, steady fire, reflected by polished fire-irons. The oak desk was dark and old and altogether perfect; the chairs were gently supercilious.

Eathorne’s inquiries as to the healths of Mrs. Babbitt, Miss Babbitt, and the Other Children were softly paternal, but Babbitt had nothing with which to answer him. It was indecent to think of using the “How’s tricks, ole socks?” which gratified Vergil Gunch and Frink and Howard Littlefield — men who till now had seemed successful and urbane. Babbitt and Frink sat politely, and politely did Eathorne observe, opening his thin lips just wide enough to dismiss the words, “Gentlemen, before we begin our conference — you may have felt the cold in coming here — so good of you to save an old man the journey — shall we perhaps have a whisky toddy?”

So well trained was Babbitt in all the conversation that befits a Good Fellow that he almost disgraced himself with “Rather than make trouble, and always providin’ there ain’t any enforcement officers hiding in the waste-basket —” The words died choking in his throat. He bowed in flustered obedience. So did Chum Frink.

Eathorne rang for the maid.

The modern and luxurious Babbitt had never seen any one ring for a servant in a private house, except during meals. Himself, in hotels, had rung for bell-boys, but in the house you didn’t hurt Matilda’s feelings; you went out in the hall and shouted for her. Nor had he, since prohibition, known any one to be casual about drinking. It was extraordinary merely to sip his toddy and not cry, “Oh, maaaaan, this hits me right where I live!” And always, with the ecstasy of youth meeting greatness, he marveled, “That little fuzzy-face there, why, he could make me or break me! If he told my banker to call my loans —! Gosh! That quarter-sized squirt! And looking like he hadn’t got a single bit of hustle to him! I wonder — Do we Boosters throw too many fits about pep?”

From this thought he shuddered away, and listened devoutly to Eathorne’s ideas on the advancement of the Sunday School, which were very clear and very bad.

Diffidently Babbitt outlined his own suggestions:

“I think if you analyze the needs of the school, in fact, going right at it as if it was a merchandizing problem, of course the one basic and fundamental need is growth. I presume we’re all agreed we won’t be satisfied till we build up the biggest darn Sunday School in the whole state, so the Chatham Road Presbyterian won’t have to take anything off anybody. Now about jazzing up the campaign for prospects: they’ve already used contesting teams, and given prizes to the kids that bring in the most members. And they made a mistake there: the prizes were a lot of folderols and doodads like poetry books and illustrated Testaments, instead of something a real live kid would want to work for, like real cash or a speedometer for his motor cycle. Course I suppose it’s all fine and dandy to illustrate the lessons with these decorated book-marks and blackboard drawings and so on, but when it comes down to real he-hustling, getting out and drumming up customers — or members, I mean, why, you got to make it worth a fellow’s while.

“Now, I want to propose two stunts: First, divide the Sunday School into four armies, depending on age. Everybody gets a military rank in his own army according to how many members he brings in, and the duffers that lie down on us and don’t bring in any, they remain privates. The pastor and superintendent rank as generals. And everybody has got to give salutes and all the rest of that junk, just like a regular army, to make ’em feel it’s worth while to get rank.

“Then, second: Course the school has its advertising committee, but, Lord, nobody ever really works good — nobody works well just for the love of it. The thing to do is to be practical and up-to-date, and hire a real paid press-agent for the Sunday School-some newspaper fellow who can give part of his time.”

“Sure, you bet!” said Chum Frink.

“Think of the nice juicy bits he could get in!” Babbitt crowed. “Not only the big, salient, vital facts, about how fast the Sunday School — and the collection — is growing, but a lot of humorous gossip and kidding: about how some blowhard fell down on his pledge to get new members, or the good time the Sacred Trinity class of girls had at their wieniewurst party. And on the side, if he had time, the press-agent might even boost the lessons themselves — do a little advertising for all the Sunday Schools in town, in fact. No use being hoggish toward the rest of ’em, providing we can keep the bulge on ’em in membership. Frinstance, he might get the papers to — Course I haven’t got a literary training like Frink here, and I’m just guessing how the pieces ought to be written, but take frinstance, suppose the week’s lesson is about Jacob; well, the press-agent might get in something that would have a fine moral, and yet with a trick headline that’d get folks to read it — say like: ‘Jake Fools the Old Man; Makes Getaway with Girl and Bankroll.’ See how I mean? That’d get their interest! Now, course, Mr. Eathorne, you’re conservative, and maybe you feel these stunts would be undignified, but honestly, I believe they’d bring home the bacon.”

Eathorne folded his hands on his comfortable little belly and purred like an aged pussy:

“May I say, first, that I have been very much pleased by your analysis of the situation, Mr. Babbitt. As you surmise, it’s necessary in My Position to be conservative, and perhaps endeavor to maintain a certain standard of dignity. Yet I think you’ll find me somewhat progressive. In our bank, for example, I hope I may say that we have as modern a method of publicity and advertising as any in the city. Yes, I fancy you’ll find us oldsters quite cognizant of the shifting spiritual values of the age. Yes, oh yes. And so, in fact, it pleases me to be able to say that though personally I might prefer the sterner Presbyterianism of an earlier era —”

Babbitt finally gathered that Eathorne was willing.

Chum Frink suggested as part-time press-agent one Kenneth Escott, reporter on the Advocate–Times.

They parted on a high plane of amity and Christian helpfulness.

Babbitt did not drive home, but toward the center of the city. He wished to be by himself and exult over the beauty of intimacy with William Washington Eathorne.

II

A snow-blanched evening of ringing pavements and eager lights.

Great golden lights of trolley-cars sliding along the packed snow of the roadway. Demure lights of little houses. The belching glare of a distant foundry, wiping out the sharp-edged stars. Lights of neighborhood drug stores where friends gossiped, well pleased, after the day’s work.

The green light of a police-station, and greener radiance on the snow; the drama of a patrol-wagon — gong beating like a terrified heart, headlights scorching the crystal-sparkling street, driver not a chauffeur but a policeman proud in uniform, another policeman perilously dangling on the step at the back, and a glimpse of the prisoner. A murderer, a burglar, a coiner cleverly trapped?

An enormous graystone church with a rigid spire; dim light in the Parlors, and cheerful droning of choir-practise. The quivering green mercury-vapor light of a photo-engraver’s loft. Then the storming lights of down-town; parked cars with ruby tail-lights; white arched entrances to movie theaters, like frosty mouths of winter caves; electric signs — serpents and little dancing men of fire; pink-shaded globes and scarlet jazz music in a cheap up-stairs dance-hall; lights of Chinese restaurants, lanterns painted with cherry-blossoms and with pagodas, hung against lattices of lustrous gold and black. Small dirty lamps in small stinking lunchrooms. The smart shopping-district, with rich and quiet light on crystal pendants and furs and suave surfaces of polished wood in velvet-hung reticent windows. High above the street, an unexpected square hanging in the darkness, the window of an office where some one was working late, for a reason unknown and stimulating. A man meshed in bankruptcy, an ambitious boy, an oil-man suddenly become rich?

The air was shrewd, the snow was deep in uncleared alleys, and beyond the city, Babbitt knew, were hillsides of snow-drift among wintry oaks, and the curving ice-enchanted river.

He loved his city with passionate wonder. He lost the accumulated weariness of business — worry and expansive oratory; he felt young and potential. He was ambitious. It was not enough to be a Vergil Gunch, an Orville Jones. No. “They’re bully fellows, simply lovely, but they haven’t got any finesse.” No. He was going to be an Eathorne; delicately rigorous, coldly powerful.

“That’s the stuff. The wallop in the velvet mitt. Not let anybody get fresh with you. Been getting careless about my diction. Slang. Colloquial. Cut it out. I was first-rate at rhetoric in college. Themes on — Anyway, not bad. Had too much of this hooptedoodle and good-fellow stuff. I— Why couldn’t I organize a bank of my own some day? And Ted succeed me!”

He drove happily home, and to Mrs. Babbitt he was a William Washington Eathorne, but she did not notice it.

III

Young Kenneth Escott, reporter on the Advocate–Times was appointed press-agent of the Chatham Road Presbyterian Sunday School. He gave six hours a week to it. At least he was paid for giving six hours a week. He had friends on the Press and the Gazette and he was not (officially) known as a press-agent. He procured a trickle of insinuating items about neighborliness and the Bible, about class-suppers, jolly but educational, and the value of the Prayer-life in attaining financial success.

The Sunday School adopted Babbitt’s system of military ranks. Quickened by this spiritual refreshment, it had a boom. It did not become the largest school in Zenith — the Central Methodist Church kept ahead of it by methods which Dr. Drew scored as “unfair, undignified, un-American, ungentlemanly, and unchristian”— but it climbed from fourth place to second, and there was rejoicing in heaven, or at least in that portion of heaven included in the parsonage of Dr. Drew, while Babbitt had much praise and good repute.

He had received the rank of colonel on the general staff of the school. He was plumply pleased by salutes on the street from unknown small boys; his ears were tickled to ruddy ecstasy by hearing himself called “Colonel;” and if he did not attend Sunday School merely to be thus exalted, certainly he thought about it all the way there.

He was particularly pleasant to the press-agent, Kenneth Escott; he took him to lunch at the Athletic Club and had him at the house for dinner.

Like many of the cocksure young men who forage about cities in apparent contentment and who express their cynicism in supercilious slang, Escott was shy and lonely. His shrewd starveling face broadened with joy at dinner, and he blurted, “Gee whillikins, Mrs. Babbitt, if you knew how good it is to have home eats again!”

Escott and Verona liked each other. All evening they “talked about ideas.” They discovered that they were Radicals. True, they were sensible about it. They agreed that all communists were criminals; that this vers libre was tommy-rot; and that while there ought to be universal disarmament, of course Great Britain and the United States must, on behalf of oppressed small nations, keep a navy equal to the tonnage of all the rest of the world. But they were so revolutionary that they predicted (to Babbitt’s irritation) that there would some day be a Third Party which would give trouble to the Republicans and Democrats.

Escott shook hands with Babbitt three times, at parting.

Babbitt mentioned his extreme fondness for Eathorne.

Within a week three newspapers presented accounts of Babbitt’s sterling labors for religion, and all of them tactfully mentioned William Washington Eathorne as his collaborator.

Nothing had brought Babbitt quite so much credit at the Elks, the Athletic Club, and the Boosters’. His friends had always congratulated him on his oratory, but in their praise was doubt, for even in speeches advertising the city there was something highbrow and degenerate, like writing poetry. But now Orville Jones shouted across the Athletic dining-room, “Here’s the new director of the First State Bank!” Grover Butterbaugh, the eminent wholesaler of plumbers’ supplies, chuckled, “Wonder you mix with common folks, after holding Eathorne’s hand!” And Emil Wengert, the jeweler, was at last willing to discuss buying a house in Dorchester.

IV

When the Sunday School campaign was finished, Babbitt suggested to Kenneth Escott, “Say, how about doing a little boosting for Doc Drew personally?”

Escott grinned. “You trust the doc to do a little boosting for himself, Mr. Babbitt! There’s hardly a week goes by without his ringing up the paper to say if we’ll chase a reporter up to his Study, he’ll let us in on the story about the swell sermon he’s going to preach on the wickedness of short skirts, or the authorship of the Pentateuch. Don’t you worry about him. There’s just one better publicity-grabber in town, and that’s this Dora Gibson Tucker that runs the Child Welfare and the Americanization League, and the only reason she’s got Drew beaten is because she has got SOME brains!”

“Well, now Kenneth, I don’t think you ought to talk that way about the doctor. A preacher has to watch his interests, hasn’t he? You remember that in the Bible about — about being diligent in the Lord’s business, or something?”

“All right, I’ll get something in if you want me to, Mr. Babbitt, but I’ll have to wait till the managing editor is out of town, and then blackjack the city editor.”

Thus it came to pass that in the Sunday Advocate–Times, under a picture of Dr. Drew at his earnestest, with eyes alert, jaw as granite, and rustic lock flamboyant, appeared an inscription — a wood-pulp tablet conferring twenty-four hours’ immortality:

The Rev. Dr. John Jennison Drew, M.A., pastor of the beautiful Chatham Road Presbyterian Church in lovely Floral Heights, is a wizard soul-winner. He holds the local record for conversions. During his shepherdhood an average of almost a hundred sin-weary persons per year have declared their resolve to lead a new life and have found a harbor of refuge and peace.

Everything zips at the Chatham Road Church. The subsidiary organizations are keyed to the top-notch of efficiency. Dr. Drew is especially keen on good congregational singing. Bright cheerful hymns are used at every meeting, and the special Sing Services attract lovers of music and professionals from all parts of the city.

On the popular lecture platform as well as in the pulpit Dr. Drew is a renowned word-painter, and during the course of the year he receives literally scores of invitations to speak at varied functions both here and elsewhere.

V

Babbitt let Dr. Drew know that he was responsible for this tribute. Dr. Drew called him “brother,” and shook his hand a great many times.

During the meetings of the Advisory Committee, Babbitt had hinted that he would be charmed to invite Eathorne to dinner, but Eathorne had murmured, “So nice of you — old man, now — almost never go out.” Surely Eathorne would not refuse his own pastor. Babbitt said boyishly to Drew:

“Say, doctor, now we’ve put this thing over, strikes me it’s up to the dominie to blow the three of us to a dinner!”

“Bully! You bet! Delighted!” cried Dr. Drew, in his manliest way. (Some one had once told him that he talked like the late President Roosevelt.)

“And, uh, say, doctor, be sure and get Mr. Eathorne to come. Insist on it. It’s, uh — I think he sticks around home too much for his own health.”

Eathorne came.

It was a friendly dinner. Babbitt spoke gracefully of the stabilizing and educational value of bankers to the community. They were, he said, the pastors of the fold of commerce. For the first time Eathorne departed from the topic of Sunday Schools, and asked Babbitt about the progress of his business. Babbitt answered modestly, almost filially.

A few months later, when he had a chance to take part in the Street Traction Company’s terminal deal, Babbitt did not care to go to his own bank for a loan. It was rather a quiet sort of deal and, if it had come out, the Public might not have understood. He went to his friend Mr. Eathorne; he was welcomed, and received the loan as a private venture; and they both profited in their pleasant new association.

After that, Babbitt went to church regularly, except on spring Sunday mornings which were obviously meant for motoring. He announced to Ted, “I tell you, boy, there’s no stronger bulwark of sound conservatism than the evangelical church, and no better place to make friends who’ll help you to gain your rightful place in the community than in your own church-home!”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38