Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 15

The Heskett Foundation conference did not assemble in a hotel, with thunderous celluloid badges, sales managers boosting quotas by awarding to the best go-getter a golden calf, and a procession of delegates trotting damply to the bar and their wives to the Powder Room. It convened at the Foundation Building, and there were only a hundred delegates.

Dr. and Mrs. Planish, a little rustic with suitcases and a paper parcel, went to the fabulous Golden Strand Hotel, on the north side of Chicago — naturally they went there, and naturally they took a suite, for the Foundation was paying the expenses of delegates.

A little muted and impressed, Peony looked at the lilac-colored couch with silver-brocade pillows, in front of it a carved teak coffee table covered with glass, at one end of it a super-heterodyne radio in a Sheraton cabinet, and at the other a Russian brass table holding a Swiss smoking-set made in Japan, while behind it stood a Japanese screen made in Switzerland — she looked at all this richness, and sighed, “This is what I like! This is by golly what we’re going to have all the time, from now on. I tell you, most people don’t understand will-power, if you choose to use it, isn’t that so?”

He agreed.

The Heskett Foundation Building, when they found it, was less than magnificent: a barracks made by throwing two brownstone houses together. The lower floor was all in offices lathered with enlarged photographs of unhappy country schoolchildren, and the second leaked pamphlets, but the third floor an auditorium which, packing them close, would hold three hundred people, especially educative people, who are not very well fed. “This hall is fancied up real nice, with those silk curtains,” admired Peony. There were two murals, showing a teacher leading her flock from dark pigpens up to a lighted mountain peak — nobody ever did say how it would have been if the pigpens had been lighted and the peak in darkness — and of Madame Montessori chatting with William Penn, Socrates and Bronson Alcott.

Peony giggled. “That ole girl’s got some awful stuffy boy-friends,” she said.

“Sweet one, you mustn’t sneer. All earnest effort is commendable,” the Doctor gently instructed.

“Oh, I know. I’m sorry, lover,” she whimpered.

“And I’ll bet they laid out not less than ten thousand bucks on those murials,” admired the Doctor.

“Well I’ll be damned!” his wife said fondly.

Then, at the secretarial and registrative desk of Miss Bernardine Nimrock, they met their first leaders of the organizational world. They had not experienced such handshaking, such a counterpoint of congratulatory voices, since their last Freshman Reception at Kinnikinick.

Dr. James Severance Kitto shook hands with them as though he enjoyed it. He had a broad soft red face and a broad soft white hand, and his voice was wonderful: molasses basso with a stick of Scotch in it.

“I feel that you and I can do great things together, Dr. Kitto, and I want you to meet my wife,” said Dr. Planish.

Dr. Kitto held Peony’s ardent paw almost permanently; he looked at her and then he looked at Dr. Planish, and he boomed, “Right you are! GREAT things!”

More satisfying, even, was the meeting with the Reverend Dr. Christian Stern, of New York, chairman of the executive board. He was a sandy-looking man in his late thirties, dry, thin and galvanic. He said that he was fond of Tolstoy and canoeing, and his sandy hair was parted in the middle, but his handshake was powerful.

Dr. Planish bubbled, “It’s most annoying, Doctor. I keep hearing such praise of you from everybody that goes to New York. We all get very jealous!”

“Well, well, Doctor! Is that true!” said Dr. Stern.

A crew of others, less brisk about Heskett Foundation politics yet actually more famous in the banquet world in general, made as though they were delighted to have the Planishes introduced to them. There was Maude Jewkins, M.D., who said, humorously but pretty often, that women were better doctors than men because they weren’t so poetic. There was Mrs. Natalia Hochberg, of New York, who was now trying to settle a horde of violently unwilling sweatshop workers on the wholesome farm land.

There was Mr. H. Sanderson Sanderson–Smith, born in New England but a graduate of Columbia and therefore refined, and now resident in the hobohemian hinterland of California; book-reviewer and editor of Little Magazines and founder of leagues for nudism, Thomism, cricket and the black mass. He had red whiskers and pale eyes and a merry smile, and he had once been taken for a son of Bernard Shaw. He kept on saying that he did not believe in Democracy, but he said it with such gentleness that you thought he didn’t mean a word of it — that’s what you thought. He remarked to the Planishes, “I dare say I am the only person in this rapturous assembly who is at once a Nietzschean and a cabalist.” They weren’t sure what that meant, and they didn’t like him very much.

All this happened at tea — the Heskett Foundation and Miss Bernardine Nimrock sprang to tea and raisin cakes as readily as a policeman springs for pretzels.

“Didn’t I TELL you so?” whispered Peony. “Some day we’ll be meeting John D. Rockefeller and Bishop Manning and the Prince of Wales!”

Then they saw President T. Austin Bull of Kinnikinick, standing alone, like a solitary birch tree on the Iowa prairie. “My, how we’ve missed you and Mrs. Bull!” caroled Dr. Planish, and the President yelled, “And how we’ve missed you dear people!”

But the Planishes met their one real treasure in Professor George Riot.

They had heard about Professor Riot, so young and yet so brilliant and so deep. At only thirty-one, he was Professor of the Philosophy of Education in Wisteria College for Women, and author of Don’t Be Afreud. He had had a little trouble, which made the Planishes only the more sympathetic with him; the sensational newspapers said that in a lecture he had asserted that, by Federal law, no girl ought to be allowed to remain a virgin after twenty-six. For two years now the poor fellow had had to go all over the country explaining (at $150 per denial) that he hadn’t meant that at all, but merely something that sounded the same.

He looked like an English Guardsman, on the tall thin side.

The Planishes and he instantly drew toward each other, since they were so much younger than the other uplifters: Dr. Planish, thirty-seven, Riot, thirty-one, and Peony but twenty-seven. She whispered to her two men, “Let’s shake this bunch of old dodoes and sneak out and have a cocktail.”

“Splendid!” said Professor Riot.

At cocktails, Dr. Planish anxiously watched Peony watch Professor Riot. At last she turned to her husband and nodded, and he went into his act:

“Dr. Riot, my girl and I don’t hardly know a soul here, except President Bull, and I hope we three can play around together. Without handing ourselves too much, I feel maybe we three have a slightly more man-of-the-world attitude toward education than antiques like Bull and Kitto — but not cynical, you understand, Doctor!”

“I know just how you mean, Doctor,” said Dr. Riot.

“Perhaps more sophisticated, Doctor.”

“Yes, I think that might be the word — more urbane and realistic, Doctor.”

“That’s what I mean, Doctor.”

“You boys have another drink,” said Peony.

The three musketeers, after an evening in the Heskett Auditorium devoted to enduring it through addresses on Religion in Education by Reverend Kitto and Education in Religion by Reverend Stern, hastened to the Planishes’ suite, and they parted at 3 A.M.

They were calling one another George and Gid and Peony by then. The Planishes did not merely consider Riot useful now; they really liked him, which in the philanthropic realm was extraordinary.

Dr. Planish had explained that he would be willing to become managing secretary of the Heskett Foundation. There were wonderful things he wanted to do for the country schools, and after his experience on Rural Adult Education —

“Right-oh! I’ll put it over,” said George Riot. “You and I could work out some plans together. Besides, I don’t see why Kitto and Stern should go on hogging the whole three million. But have you got acquainted with Hamilton Frisby?”

“With who?”

“Little sawed-off lawyer — an uh’er — he says, ‘I, uh, I feel that, uh, we should, uh —

“I think I ran into him. What is he?”

“The real works behind the Foundation. He’s trustee for the whole Heskett estate — the heirs are all imbeciles or painters or both; they live in Italy or the Berkshires and leave everything to Frisby.”

“F-R-I-S-B-Y.” Peony was writing it down. “He’s in the bag already, George. Hey! Put more soda in.”

Next noon, the Planishes had lunch with President Bull, and Dr. Planish was full of ideas about What Could Be Done. That afternoon, he read before the Conference a paper that proved you can’t have spirituality in a school without sewerage. Late that afternoon, the Planishes had tea with Dr. Christian Stern, and cocktails with Mr. Hamilton Frisby, who liked the Doctor’s ideas about golf. Before this, Dr. Planish had said lavishly to the Reverend Dr. Kitto, “I know how busy you must be, Doctor, with this Conference as well as your tremendous regular clerical duties, so how about our having breakfast together, tomorrow?”

That evening, the Planishes were the dinner hosts to Mrs. Hochberg, Mr. Sanderson–Smith, Dr. and Mrs. Stern, Professor Riot, Mr. Hamilton Frisby — and Miss Bernardine Nimrock, whom Peony encouraged to talk her heart out.

She didn’t seem to have much to talk out.

The others left at ten, busily but courteously, as great humanitarians and the whole tribe of Celebrities usually do, and the Planishes and George were left to themselves.

“That Sanderson–Smooch is a cross between a cobra and a pussy cat,” yelled Riot.

“Mrs. Hochberg keeps on being so rich, Bull tells me, because she never gives anything to her own charities,” shouted Dr. Planish.

“That poor Nimrock woman had on the damnedest hat I ever saw!” screamed Peony.

“Oh, by the way, speaking of that, and I do hope I won’t be infringing on your good nature,” said George, “but will you go shopping with me tomorrow afternoon, Peony, and help me buy some pajamas for my wife? Gracious, she certainly would’ve come along if she’d known I was going to meet you folks instead of a lot of windbags like Chris Stern.”

Sure she would.

They had another drink, and said they were having SUCH a good time. They had still another drink, and became cultural.

“The trouble with a lot of these muffs like Stern and Kitto and your poker-faced President Bull is that they haven’t any sense of the artistic,” said Professor Riot.

“That’s so. Like music,” mused Dr. Planish. “You bet. I certainly am fond of music. I wish I had time to hear some now and then.”

“So do I. I certainly do like to hear Beethoven. And Rimsky–Korsakoff,” cried Professor Riot.

“You bet! And Rosa Bonheur,” said Dr. Planish.

“I don’t think she was a composer. Wasn’t she a shark about radio or radium or something?” worried Peony.

“Oh, that’s so, of course she was.” Dr. Planish laughed heartily. “Just for the moment I got her balled up with that French woman composer. YOU know, George.”

“Of course I do, Gid. Know her name ‘s well as I do my own, but just for the moment it slips my tongue. Claudette? No, that’s not right. But anyway — Don’t you play the piano, Peony?”

Dr. Planish said, weeping, “George, do you know that, for my sake, Peony gave up a career which would have made her the greatest woman pianist? . . . Sweetie pie, how long is it since you’ve touched the piano?”

“What of it?” explained Peony.

“You see? Gave it all up for our sake — no, for sake of cause of — What’s our cause, George?”

“Idolism — i — idealism.”

“No it ain’t! It’s cause popular education and honesty politics, strickly honest!”

“Same thing. Hurray f’r idealism! This dumb country-lot of farmers, pot-wallopers. Where’d it be if wasn’t for us, Gid?”

“Hurray for us!” said Dr. Planish.

“Oh, boys,” wailed Peony, “I think I’m getting a little tight!”

They both kissed her tenderly.

The Executive Board of the Heskett Foundation met at 10:30 next morning. They decided to buy a new carpet for the auditorium, to appoint a committee to elect a chairman to authorize the secretary to draw up a resolution to inform Professor John Dewey that they agreed with him in principle, to publish a symposium on spreading democracy by saluting the flag in all schools, and to elect Dr. Gideon Planish as managing secretary of the Foundation, at $3,900 a year.

Professor Riot went to see if he would accept.

“Gid, I’m sorry as hell I couldn’t jack ’em up higher than thirty-nine hundred, but that’s all the tightwads would stand for. And you getting forty-two hundred already! Still, I do think this slow-poke institution might lead the way to nobler and much better publicized organizations. How about it, Gid?”

Dr. Planish said bravely, “Yes, it may be a step into a wider and more useful field. I’ll take it, George. By the way, I hope they’re pensioning off Bernardine Nimrock.”

“Yes — eleven hundred a year.”

“Oh, fine! I certainly would hate to think I was doing that poor old hen out of a job. A fellow’s got to be chivalrous, George, no matter what.”

Peony fondly protested, “Now I won’t hear a word about either of you boys ever being anything but chivalrous!”

“That’s sweet of you, baby,” admired Professor Riot. “You’re a real Hypatia — if that was her name. So I’ll tell ’em the thirty-nine hundred bucks is okay, Gid?”

“Yes, you may tell them so. I think I may honestly consider myself non-commercial,” said Dr. Planish.

He had already decided that since he never actually got more than twenty-eight hundred out of Joslin, he would take the new job even at three thousand. He continued:

“But they must understand what a sacrifice I’m making.”

“I’ve already explained that to them. You bet I have!” said Professor Riot.

“The first quality an organization executive has to have is willingness to sacrifice.”

“That’s so,” sighed Professor Riot. “I wish the public who bellyache over their privilege of giving a little to philanthropy out of their great treasury would appreciate that fact.”

The telephone rang.

Dr. Planish answered it. He stuttered, “I g-guess you better let her come up.” He turned to his guerrilla forces with a terrified “It’s Bernardine Nimrock!”

Peony seized Riot’s arm and melodramatically muttered, “Let’s skip in the bedroom! Giddy can get rid of her quicker without us!”

Three minutes later, Miss Nimrock crept into the living-room, a dusty moth of a woman, fluttering, and Dr. Planish backed away from her. This was not going to be fun. He felt that it was very unjust of Peony and his old friend George Riot and the Reverends Kitto and Stern to put this upon him. Her mouth was working queerly. Was she crazy? Sometimes frail women picked up things like that Bourbon bottle and killed powerful men.

“Dr. Planish, I’ve just heard that the Foundation plans to fire me, after ten years’ service, and give you my job, and you don’t need it — you don’t need it — you’re a man and you’ve been a college professor and you could always get some kind of job. But I’m supporting my mother, and Dr. Kitto promised I should have the job always, and if I never have accomplished much as managing secretary, and I know I haven’t, it’s because I’ve had to submit everything to Dr. Kitto for his okay, and I’d never get it — I’d wait and wait and telephone and never get it. It’ll kill me and kill my mother if you just amuse yourself by coming in and taking this job away from me — I’ve got to have it — oh, you’re not a hypocrite like Dr. Kitto, or cruel like Mr. Frisby, are you? You’ll stop and think about this, won’t you? You’ll try and see if there isn’t something else you can find to do, won’t you? I’ve never been a beggar like this before. I thought I was a decent independent woman and I worked so hard. You are a man of honor, aren’t you? You won’t kill us, just to get ahead?”

He had backed clear to the windows; he stood with his hands behind him, twitching at the net curtains. He had to say something.

“Well, this is all news to me — practically. I’ve just heard rumors. Certainly the last thing in the world I’d want to do would be to injure you two ladies. Yes, I’ll look into this —”

Miss Nimrock was looking at him with sunny, adoring eyes. She seemed almost young and pretty. This was what he could do for women, the poor things! He went on, “Certainly look into this right away, and see if we can’t —”

Then Peony walked in.

She charged on Miss Nimrock like St. Catherine, or Mrs. Calvin routing a witch, and this time it was Miss Nimrock who backed up, as Peony chanted, “Oh, I didn’t know you were here. Isn’t this dandy! I did want a chance to congratulate you on getting that lovely eleven-hundred-a-year pension, so you can have that and still get a second job if you want to, any job you want, say like teaching, my, you’ll be making so much money you won’t know what to do with it, and personally I should think you’d be glad to get away from Kitto, the ole stuffed shirt —”

She had Miss Nimrock through the door into the corridor, she closed the door while the adversary was trying to speak, and she cried to Dr. Planish and the now cautiously emergent George Riot:

“My, I do think women are the worst sports! Imagine her trying to welsh like that! I did hate to be so mean to her, poor thing, but I thought it would be kindest to just be brutal, really, and get it over. Poor Gideon, I was so sorry for you, and for you, too, George, and I guess that calls for a drink. Let’s make it a quickie, because I got to go out shopping with George and get some pajamas for his little wife, I swear, I’m so jealous of that girl of yours, I could bust, George, and me promising I wouldn’t do one ounce of shopping all the time I was in Chicago, and save and scrimp and economize and — there you are, boys.”

Where, glowed Dr. Planish, was there another wife like that?

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