Babbit, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 28

MISS McGOUN came into his private office at three in the afternoon with “Lissen, Mr. Babbitt; there’s a Mrs. Judique on the ‘phone — wants to see about some repairs, and the salesmen are all out. Want to talk to her?”

“All right.”

The voice of Tanis Judique was clear and pleasant. The black cylinder of the telephone-receiver seemed to hold a tiny animated image of her: lustrous eyes, delicate nose, gentle chin.

“This is Mrs. Judique. Do you remember me? You drove me up here to the Cavendish Apartments and helped me find such a nice flat.”

“Sure! Bet I remember! What can I do for you?”

“Why, it’s just a little — I don’t know that I ought to bother you, but the janitor doesn’t seem to be able to fix it. You know my flat is on the top floor, and with these autumn rains the roof is beginning to leak, and I’d be awfully glad if —”

“Sure! I’ll come up and take a look at it.” Nervously, “When do you expect to be in?”

“Why, I’m in every morning.”

“Be in this afternoon, in an hour or so?”

“Ye-es. Perhaps I could give you a cup of tea. I think I ought to, after all your trouble.”

“Fine! I’ll run up there soon as I can get away.”

He meditated, “Now there’s a woman that’s got refinement, savvy, CLASS! ‘After all your trouble — give you a cup of tea.’ She’d appreciate a fellow. I’m a fool, but I’m not such a bad cuss, get to know me. And not so much a fool as they think!”

The great strike was over, the strikers beaten. Except that Vergil Gunch seemed less cordial, there were no visible effects of Babbitt’s treachery to the clan. The oppressive fear of criticism was gone, but a diffident loneliness remained. Now he was so exhilarated that, to prove he wasn’t, he droned about the office for fifteen minutes, looking at blue-prints, explaining to Miss McGoun that this Mrs. Scott wanted more money for her house — had raised the asking-price — raised it from seven thousand to eighty-five hundred — would Miss McGoun be sure and put it down on the card — Mrs. Scott’s house — raise. When he had thus established himself as a person unemotional and interested only in business, he sauntered out. He took a particularly long time to start his car; he kicked the tires, dusted the glass of the speedometer, and tightened the screws holding the wind-shield spot-light.

He drove happily off toward the Bellevue district, conscious of the presence of Mrs. Judique as of a brilliant light on the horizon. The maple leaves had fallen and they lined the gutters of the asphalted streets. It was a day of pale gold and faded green, tranquil and lingering. Babbitt was aware of the meditative day, and of the barrenness of Bellevue — blocks of wooden houses, garages, little shops, weedy lots. “Needs pepping up; needs the touch that people like Mrs. Judique could give a place,” he ruminated, as he rattled through the long, crude, airy streets. The wind rose, enlivening, keen, and in a blaze of well-being he came to the flat of Tanis Judique.

She was wearing, when she flutteringly admitted him, a frock of black chiffon cut modestly round at the base of her pretty throat. She seemed to him immensely sophisticated. He glanced at the cretonnes and colored prints in her living-room, and gurgled, “Gosh, you’ve fixed the place nice! Takes a clever woman to know how to make a home, all right!”

“You really like it? I’m so glad! But you’ve neglected me, scandalously. You promised to come some time and learn to dance.”

Rather unsteadily, “Oh, but you didn’t mean it seriously!”

“Perhaps not. But you might have tried!”

“Well, here I’ve come for my lesson, and you might just as well prepare to have me stay for supper!”

They both laughed in a manner which indicated that of course he didn’t mean it.

“But first I guess I better look at that leak.”

She climbed with him to the flat roof of the apartment-house a detached world of slatted wooden walks, clotheslines, water-tank in a penthouse. He poked at things with his toe, and sought to impress her by being learned about copper gutters, the desirability of passing plumbing pipes through a lead collar and sleeve and flashing them with copper, and the advantages of cedar over boiler-iron for roof-tanks.

“You have to know so much, in real estate!” she admired.

He promised that the roof should be repaired within two days. “Do you mind my ‘phoning from your apartment?” he asked.

“Heavens, no!”

He stood a moment at the coping, looking over a land of hard little bungalows with abnormally large porches, and new apartment-houses, small, but brave with variegated brick walls and terra-cotta trimmings. Beyond them was a hill with a gouge of yellow clay like a vast wound. Behind every apartment-house, beside each dwelling, were small garages. It was a world of good little people, comfortable, industrious, credulous.

In the autumnal light the flat newness was mellowed, and the air was a sun-tinted pool.

“Golly, it’s one fine afternoon. You get a great view here, right up Tanner’s Hill,” said Babbitt.

“Yes, isn’t it nice and open.”

“So darn few people appreciate a View.”

“Don’t you go raising my rent on that account! Oh, that was naughty of me! I was just teasing. Seriously though, there are so few who respond — who react to Views. I mean — they haven’t any feeling of poetry and beauty.”

“That’s a fact, they haven’t,” he breathed, admiring her slenderness and the absorbed, airy way in which she looked toward the hill, chin lifted, lips smiling. “Well, guess I’d better telephone the plumbers, so they’ll get on the job first thing in the morning.”

When he had telephoned, making it conspicuously authoritative and gruff and masculine, he looked doubtful, and sighed, “S’pose I’d better be —”

“Oh, you must have that cup of tea first!”

“Well, it would go pretty good, at that.”

It was luxurious to loll in a deep green rep chair, his legs thrust out before him, to glance at the black Chinese telephone stand and the colored photograph of Mount Vernon which he had always liked so much, while in the tiny kitchen — so near — Mrs. Judique sang “My Creole Queen.” In an intolerable sweetness, a contentment so deep that he was wistfully discontented, he saw magnolias by moonlight and heard plantation darkies crooning to the banjo. He wanted to be near her, on pretense of helping her, yet he wanted to remain in this still ecstasy. Languidly he remained.

When she bustled in with the tea he smiled up at her. “This is awfully nice!” For the first time, he was not fencing; he was quietly and securely friendly; and friendly and quiet was her answer: “It’s nice to have you here. You were so kind, helping me to find this little home.”

They agreed that the weather would soon turn cold. They agreed that prohibition was prohibitive. They agreed that art in the home was cultural. They agreed about everything. They even became bold. They hinted that these modern young girls, well, honestly, their short skirts were short. They were proud to find that they were not shocked by such frank speaking. Tanis ventured, “I know you’ll understand — I mean — I don’t quite know how to say it, but I do think that girls who pretend they’re bad by the way they dress really never go any farther. They give away the fact that they haven’t the instincts of a womanly woman.”

Remembering Ida Putiak, the manicure girl, and how ill she had used him, Babbitt agreed with enthusiasm; remembering how ill all the world had used him, he told of Paul Riesling, of Zilla, of Seneca Doane, of the strike:

“See how it was? Course I was as anxious to have those beggars licked to a standstill as anybody else, but gosh, no reason for not seeing their side. For a fellow’s own sake, he’s got to be broad-minded and liberal, don’t you think so?”

“Oh, I do!” Sitting on the hard little couch, she clasped her hands beside her, leaned toward him, absorbed him; and in a glorious state of being appreciated he proclaimed:

“So I up and said to the fellows at the club, ‘Look here,’ I—”

“Do you belong to the Union Club? I think it’s —”

“No; the Athletic. Tell you: Course they’re always asking me to join the Union, but I always say, ‘No, sir! Nothing doing!’ I don’t mind the expense but I can’t stand all the old fogies.”

“Oh, yes, that’s so. But tell me: what did you say to them?”

“Oh, you don’t want to hear it. I’m probably boring you to death with my troubles! You wouldn’t hardly think I was an old duffer; I sound like a kid!”

“Oh, you’re a boy yet. I mean — you can’t be a day over forty-five.”

“Well, I’m not — much. But by golly I begin to feel middle-aged sometimes; all these responsibilities and all.”

“Oh, I know!” Her voice caressed him; it cloaked him like warm silk. “And I feel lonely, so lonely, some days, Mr. Babbitt.”

“We’re a sad pair of birds! But I think we’re pretty darn nice!”

“Yes, I think we’re lots nicer than most people I know!” They smiled. “But please tell me what you said at the Club.”

“Well, it was like this: Course Seneca Doane is a friend of mine — they can say what they want to, they can call him anything they please, but what most folks here don’t know is that Senny is the bosom pal of some of the biggest statesmen in the world — Lord Wycombe, frinstance — you know, this big British nobleman. My friend Sir Gerald Doak told me that Lord Wycombe is one of the biggest guns in England — well, Doak or somebody told me.”

“Oh! Do you know Sir Gerald? The one that was here, at the McKelveys’?”

“Know him? Well, say, I know him just well enough so we call each other George and Jerry, and we got so pickled together in Chicago —”

“That must have been fun. But —” She shook a finger at him. “— I can’t have you getting pickled! I’ll have to take you in hand!”

“Wish you would! . . . Well, zize saying: You see I happen to know what a big noise Senny Doane is outside of Zenith, but of course a prophet hasn’t got any honor in his own country, and Senny, darn his old hide, he’s so blame modest that he never lets folks know the kind of an outfit he travels with when he goes abroad. Well, during the strike Clarence Drum comes pee-rading up to our table, all dolled up fit to kill in his nice lil cap’n’s uniform, and somebody says to him, ‘Busting the strike, Clarence?’

“Well, he swells up like a pouter-pigeon and he hollers, so ‘s you could hear him way up in the reading-room, ‘Yes, sure; I told the strike-leaders where they got off, and so they went home.’

“‘Well,’ I says to him, ‘glad there wasn’t any violence.’

“‘Yes,’ he says, ‘but if I hadn’t kept my eye skinned there would ‘ve been. All those fellows had bombs in their pockets. They’re reg’lar anarchists.’

“‘Oh, rats, Clarence,’ I says, ‘I looked ’em all over carefully, and they didn’t have any more bombs ‘n a rabbit,’ I says. ‘Course,’ I says, ‘they’re foolish, but they’re a good deal like you and me, after all.’

“And then Vergil Gunch or somebody — no, it was Chum Frink — you know, this famous poet — great pal of mine — he says to me, ‘Look here,’ he says, ‘do you mean to say you advocate these strikes?’ Well, I was so disgusted with a fellow whose mind worked that way that I swear, I had a good mind to not explain at all — just ignore him —”

“Oh, that’s so wise!” said Mrs. Judique.

“— but finally I explains to him: ‘If you’d done as much as I have on Chamber of Commerce committees and all,’ I says, ‘then you’d have the right to talk! But same time,’ I says, ‘I believe in treating your opponent like a gentleman!’ Well, sir, that held ’em! Frink — Chum I always call him — he didn’t have another word to say. But at that, I guess some of ’em kind o’ thought I was too liberal. What do you think?”

“Oh, you were so wise. And courageous! I love a man to have the courage of his convictions!”

“But do you think it was a good stunt? After all, some of these fellows are so darn cautious and narrow-minded that they’re prejudiced against a fellow that talks right out in meeting.”

“What do you care? In the long run they’re bound to respect a man who makes them think, and with your reputation for oratory you —”

“What do you know about my reputation for oratory?”

“Oh, I’m not going to tell you everything I know! But seriously, you don’t realize what a famous man you are.”

“Well — Though I haven’t done much orating this fall. Too kind of bothered by this Paul Riesling business, I guess. But — Do you know, you’re the first person that’s really understood what I was getting at, Tanis — Listen to me, will you! Fat nerve I’ve got, calling you Tanis!”

“Oh, do! And shall I call you George? Don’t you think it’s awfully nice when two people have so much — what shall I call it? — so much analysis that they can discard all these stupid conventions and understand each other and become acquainted right away, like ships that pass in the night?”

“I certainly do! I certainly do!”

He was no longer quiescent in his chair; he wandered about the room, he dropped on the couch beside her. But as he awkwardly stretched his hand toward her fragile, immaculate fingers, she said brightly, “Do give me a cigarette. Would you think poor Tanis was dreadfully naughty if she smoked?”

“Lord, no! I like it!”

He had often and weightily pondered flappers smoking in Zenith restaurants, but he knew only one woman who smoked — Mrs. Sam Doppelbrau, his flighty neighbor. He ceremoniously lighted Tanis’s cigarette, looked for a place to deposit the burnt match, and dropped it into his pocket.

“I’m sure you want a cigar, you poor man!” she crooned.

“Do you mind one?”

“Oh, no! I love the smell of a good cigar; so nice and — so nice and like a man. You’ll find an ash-tray in my bedroom, on the table beside the bed, if you don’t mind getting it.”

He was embarrassed by her bedroom: the broad couch with a cover of violet silk, mauve curtains striped with gold. Chinese Chippendale bureau, and an amazing row of slippers, with ribbon-wound shoe-trees, and primrose stockings lying across them. His manner of bringing the ash-tray had just the right note of easy friendliness, he felt. “A boob like Verg Gunch would try to get funny about seeing her bedroom, but I take it casually.” He was not casual afterward. The contentment of companionship was gone, and he was restless with desire to touch her hand. But whenever he turned toward her, the cigarette was in his way. It was a shield between them. He waited till she should have finished, but as he rejoiced at her quick crushing of its light on the ashtray she said, “Don’t you want to give me another cigarette?” and hopelessly he saw the screen of pale smoke and her graceful tilted hand again between them. He was not merely curious now to find out whether she would let him hold her hand (all in the purest friendship, naturally), but agonized with need of it.

On the surface appeared none of all this fretful drama. They were talking cheerfully of motors, of trips to California, of Chum Frink. Once he said delicately, “I do hate these guys — I hate these people that invite themselves to meals, but I seem to have a feeling I’m going to have supper with the lovely Mrs. Tanis Judique to-night. But I suppose you probably have seven dates already.”

“Well, I was thinking some of going to the movies. Yes, I really think I ought to get out and get some fresh air.”

She did not encourage him to stay, but never did she discourage him. He considered, “I better take a sneak! She WILL let me stay — there IS something doing — and I mustn’t get mixed up with — I mustn’t — I’ve got to beat it.” Then, “No. it’s too late now.”

Suddenly, at seven, brushing her cigarette away, brusquely taking her hand:

“Tanis! Stop teasing me! You know we — Here we are, a couple of lonely birds, and we’re awful happy together. Anyway I am! Never been so happy! Do let me stay! Ill gallop down to the delicatessen and buy some stuff — cold chicken maybe — or cold turkey — and we can have a nice little supper, and afterwards, if you want to chase me out, I’ll be good and go like a lamb.”

“Well — yes — it would be nice,” she said.

Nor did she withdraw her hand. He squeezed it, trembling, and blundered toward his coat. At the delicatessen he bought preposterous stores of food, chosen on the principle of expensiveness. From the drug store across the street he telephoned to his wife, “Got to get a fellow to sign a lease before he leaves town on the midnight. Won’t be home till late. Don’t wait up for me. Kiss Tinka good-night.” He expectantly lumbered back to the flat.

“Oh, you bad thing, to buy so much food!” was her greeting, and her voice was gay, her smile acceptant.

He helped her in the tiny white kitchen; he washed the lettuce, he opened the olive bottle. She ordered him to set the table, and as he trotted into the living-room, as he hunted through the buffet for knives and forks, he felt utterly at home.

“Now the only other thing,” he announced, “is what you’re going to wear. I can’t decide whether you’re to put on your swellest evening gown, or let your hair down and put on short skirts and make-believe you’re a little girl.”

“I’m going to dine just as I am, in this old chiffon rag, and if you can’t stand poor Tanis that way, you can go to the club for dinner!”

“Stand you!” He patted her shoulder. “Child, you’re the brainiest and the loveliest and finest woman I’ve ever met! Come now, Lady Wycombe, if you’ll take the Duke of Zenith’s arm, we will proambulate in to the magnolious feed!”

“Oh, you do say the funniest, nicest things!”

When they had finished the picnic supper he thrust his head out of the window and reported, “It’s turned awful chilly, and I think it’s going to rain. You don’t want to go to the movies.”

“Well —”

“I wish we had a fireplace! I wish it was raining like all get-out to-night, and we were in a funny little old-fashioned cottage, and the trees thrashing like everything outside, and a great big log fire and — I’ll tell you! Let’s draw this couch up to the radiator, and stretch our feet out, and pretend it’s a wood-fire.”

“Oh, I think that’s pathetic! You big child!”

But they did draw up to the radiator, and propped their feet against it — his clumsy black shoes, her patent-leather slippers. In the dimness they talked of themselves; of how lonely she was, how bewildered he, and how wonderful that they had found each other. As they fell silent the room was stiller than a country lane. There was no sound from the street save the whir of motor-tires, the rumble of a distant freight-train. Self-contained was the room, warm, secure, insulated from the harassing world.

He was absorbed by a rapture in which all fear and doubting were smoothed away; and when he reached home, at dawn, the rapture had mellowed to contentment serene and full of memories.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/babbit/chapter28.html

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