Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 31

Dr. Planish and the other directors of the DDD decided that, since they were kept from co-operation by a little group of willful men, they might as well help out the Government. When Washington announced to some millions of newspaper readers that it wanted scrap iron, the Doctor’s bulletins hastily told several thousand members that the DDD was thinking of letting the Government have some scrap iron.

When the Government got tired of H. Sanderson Sanderson–Smith’s taking too much German money without registering as an agent, and sent him to the Federal penitentiary, Dr. Planish rushed in to expose Mr. Sanderson–Smith; and who but he presided at the meeting where Dr. Elmer Gantry came right out and denounced his former buddy, Ezekiel Bittery, as a deceiver, a turncoat, a Fascist, a Fifth Columnist, a renegade, a snake in the grass, a Ratzi and an anti-Semite. (This was less than a fortnight after Mr. Bittery had joined Mr. Sanderson–Smith in his cell.)

With each of these courageous deeds, Dr. Planish felt justified in sending out a few letters suggesting an increase of contributions to the DDD.

In a general sort of way, at this time Dr. Planish and the DDD also arranged a large public dinner, not because it had any value, not because anyone, except persons who like to be naked in public, could find it anything but agonizing, but because it was an American primitive tribal rite, astonishingly like the orgies of the Penitentes, except that the Penitentes do not have a busy paid secretary. In New York it is always possible to persuade from six hundred to fifteen hundred persons to put on evening clothes and pay from $3.50 to $7.50 each for a very bad dinner, at which very bad speakers, mostly throat-clearers, will arise and say nothing at all at preposterous length, with an “uh” between every adjective and noun. It is even possible to get these speakers, these non-private persons, not only to endure the horrors of oratorical vacuity, but also to put up with the torture of a reception before or after the dinner, when they will shake hands with strangers and smilingly listen to them without once protesting, “Everything you are saying to me is complete foolishness.”

It is not Broadway that is the Main Street of New York, but the long, thin, prandial Speakers’ Table, and every familiar — too, too familiar — face along it knows intimately and detests furiously all the other inevitable and self-opening faces there.

And one of the largest and dreariest of these rain dances was whipped up by the DDD.

So the Doctor was able to make a good report when a former acquaintance named Hatch Hewitt jeeringly asked, in a bar, what he had been doing about the war. This Hewitt was in uniform as a major of marines, and when Dr. Planish took the trouble to ask him where he was going, the man merely growled “Abroad,” and when, even more politely, the Doctor said that he felt like joining up, too, the Major observed, “————!”

Yet with all this effort driving the Doctor half-mad, Colonel Marduc incessantly asked that his name and his Marduc Plan for Permanent Peace be mentioned in more radio talks, more interviews, and in mid-spring, he was suddenly demanding publicity also for his daughter, Winifred Homeward the Talking Woman.

Colonel Marduc was on the loose that evening. He felt lonely and misunderstood; he felt his sixty years.

He had had words with his most recent mistress on the subject of telephoning to her at 3 A.M. If he found that she was then asleep, he was angry at her for neglecting him; if she was awake, he stated that she must have another lover with her; if she didn’t answer at all, he called her at 6 A.M. to rebuke her for the sleep she had made him lose. His last attention to her had been a slap.

He scouted into his favorite stalking ground, the Vicugna Bar, where Park Avenue met Prospect Park and stage celebrities went to stare at the suave and beautiful visitors from Omaha. The Colonel walked up to the bar as if he owned it. He did.

Three drinks later, he felt healed enough to look around. One young woman, at a table with another girl, looked familiar: a slim redhead with a face as pert as a pearl button against black cloth. The Colonel, with an indifferent bend of his finger, brought the manager of the Vicugna on the run. “The redhead — what gives?” he grunted.

“I don’t know, Colonel. I’ll try and find out right away, Colonel,” panted the manager, a less collegiate Sherry Belden, but more useful. While the hero stood erect and drank, always too dignified to squat on a stool at the bar, the manager scuttled through the cafe interviewing waiters, and came back to groan, “I’m terribly sorry, Colonel, but nobody seems to know who she is.”

“Have I got to do my own seductions, at my age? Imperial power, intellectual panders on the court payroll, and still beneath the ermine the emperor is naked, nicht wahr?”

“That’s so, sir,” said the manager, who had understood only the words “payroll,” “naked” and “nicht wahr.”

“Go to hell,” said the Colonel.

The manager went.

The Colonel watched the redhead till her girl companion had gone off to what, in the infinite delicacy of modern American saloons, is known as “the powder room,” then moved on her like a traditional grand duke, like a mighty bull of Bashan. He sat down at her table without invitation, and she stared at him, breathless, frightened and already conquered.

“I seem to know you, young lady.”

“Oh, yes, Colonel. I guess you must a seen me. I’m a stenographer at the DDD.”

“M?”

“Up on the third floor. Under Mr. Vesper. I’ve seen you when you’ve come into the Doctor’s office.”

“Doctor? Doctor? Which Doctor?”

“Why, Dr. Planish!”

“Oh. HIM!” A huge silence. “Yes, yes, a Christian gentleman and a fine scholar. Undoubtedly. I’m sure that you girls enjoy working for him.”

“He’s awfully sweet and kind — you know, kind of jokey.”

“I see. Jokey — Look, dear, get rid of that piece of fluff that’s with you, and we’ll go drink some champagne at the Syrinx Den. Here she comes.”

The redhead talked to her friend, aside. She came back to the Colonel and his bulbous stare as timidly as though it had been she who had started all this. She was amazed when, in the taxicab, he did not kiss her, but only patted her hand. At the Syrinx cabaret, where he didn’t actually order champagne but a couple of innocent-tasting drinks called “zombies,” he respectfully asked her opinion of Dr. Planish’s latest pamphlet, Defend Your Dollars — which she had liked very much but which she had not read. Not till she had chattered herself into loving companionship did he ask her name.

“Flaude Stansbury. It’s a kind of corny name, ain’t it! My ma was romantic.”

“No worse a name than Marduc, precious.”

“Maybe I ought to use my married name.”

“Nonsense! You can’t be married! You’reyoungenoughtobemygranddaughter!” (But inwardly he was congratulating himself, “That’ll save trouble!”)

“Oh, I am so married, Colonel!” (He had not asked her to call him “Charley,” and he never did. Seduction was to Colonel Marduc no ground for impertinence.)

“And who’s the lucky boy, Flaude? I’ll bet the dog is handsome.”

“He isn’t a boy. He’s pretty old.”

“Not as old as I am, I bet.”

“He’d be twice as old as you are even if he was only half as old. Oh, I’m not kicking. Honestly I’m not! I hate these wives that whine and complain, don’t you?”

“I certainly do!” said Colonel Marduc, with great sincerity.

“I thought it would be kind of different — he’s such a student and idealist and all that junk, and he was so desperately in love with me — and God knows, I didn’t want to always have to go on earning my living, and he was so in love and — No soap. The poor thing does try so hard, but he’s such a cold fish — and then he wants me to kneel down and pray with him! Figure that one!”

“Who is this egg?”

“He’s my immediate boss — Mr. Carlyle Vesper.”

“Vesper? Oh, that flunky at the DDD— excuse me, I mean clerk. But he’s a million years older than you are!”

“I’ll say!”

“And he’s some kind of a Holy Roller preacher, isn’t he?”

“God knows what he is, except that — Oh, Colonel!”

He kissed her, so openly and so ignoring of all the drinkers packed in around them, that nobody paid any attention. And in the Colonel’s kiss there was nothing of cold-fishness.

He took her to what she considered the most beautiful apartment she had ever seen, and he considered the most horrible burlesque in New York: a hotel suite choked with Spanish beams, escritoires in five kinds of wood and three kinds of carving, coffee tables shaped like drums, and armchairs that were also radios and smoking-stands and magazine racks. There was a bathroom with flimsy nightgowns and cosmetics for women, and in the kitchen, along with sound Bourbon, were creme de rose and Dantziger Goldwasser.

The young lady cried on his shoulder, but it was no cry of unhappiness.

He thought, as he met Flaude at the Vicugna for the third time, that the square-nosed man at the bar was shadowing him, but he forgot it in her young hand-clasp. Her husband, Flaude said, was out this evening, attending some dreary committee meeting. . . . The Colonel had seen to it that Carlyle Vesper should be attending a dreary committee meeting.

He wanted to see Flaude’s home, particularly to look over her wardrobe, with a view to improvements.

As they entered that skimpy flat, a rear walk-up near the East River, he ached for his poor little friend. The place had none of the lip-stick flavor that he had expected; there wasn’t so much as a tall gilt basket tied with a rosy ribbon. The living-room was hilly with old gray books, and between the two narrow and sooty windows, which faced the courtyard, was a prie-Dieu.

He growled, “What a dump! Come here and I’ll give you something to make up for it.”

Over her shoulder, as he kissed her, he could see, slowly coming through the door of the bedroom, slow and silent and gray, a man who looked like a hill-billy preacher, a thin and sallow man, his mustache dribbling.

The man was Carlyle Vesper. He was carrying an old-fashioned razor, the blade clear and vicious even in that muggy light. His mouth was wide and trembling.

In a Harlem den, the Colonel had once seen a man sliced up with a razor, but he was interested to notice that he was not afraid. With no especial haste, he swung the girl round behind him. Then he laughed.

Solemnly, methodically, but with speed, a man who had been standing outside on the fire-escape was sliding up the half-open window, falling into the room, seizing Vesper from behind. He was the squat man who had been tailing the Colonel.

The Colonel gave Flaude three hundred dollars, which would more than take her back home to Stansbury Center — her great-grandfather had been the founder of the village, her grandfather a loafer and her father a drunk. He helped Flaude pack her two bags.

The detective was explaining to Carlyle Vesper that they just wanted him to understand that unless he kept his mouth shut, he would be killed. “I do mean killed — and I DO mean YOU!” said the detective, cheerfully, and he bent Vesper’s left middle finger back and back till the man screamed, “Don’t — oh, please don’t! I’ll keep still. Anyway, can’t you see I don’t want to hurt her any more than I have?”

When they left him, the man was lying on his bed, sobbing.

The Colonel said, “Sniveling little bastard. By the way, flatfoot, how do you get a man killed?”

“Search me. I just read about it in detective stories, same as you. I’m very fond of a good detective story, though I don’t know but what I like a Western better. How do you suppose these fellows think up all these ideas for stories?”

When they were seated in the back room of a saloon, the Colonel said blandly, “Come across. Who put you on me, and how much do you want?”

“Oh, well, Colonel, no use bluffing you. I won’t ask you more ‘n a couple hundred bucks, because it was only your daughter, Mrs. Homeward.”

“Oh . . . Winifred . . . Sweet girl . . . Idealistic.”

“That’s a fact. But Jesus, how she talks! A check would be all right, Colonel. I don’t think you’d stop payment on it.”

“You mean, not twice I wouldn’t.”

“That’s the idea!”

The two men of the world laughed together.

When someone — the voice was unfamiliar — telephoned to Dr. Planish that Mr. Carlyle Vesper would be unable to return to the office, and would they please send Vesper’s things to this address, the Doctor was pretty indignant.

In Vesper’s desk, Bonnie Popick and the Doctor found a small leather-bound copy of the Imitatio Christi.

The good Doctor protested gently, “Now isn’t that just like a shiftless beggar like Carlyle to go and blow in his money on such an expensive piece of junk! On HIS salary! Anyway, it was very inconsiderate of him to have married that Stansbury girl in the first place. If he’d asked my advice, I’d ‘ve told him not to. I’ve always stood ready to give him anything — I mean, any advice — but do you think he appreciated that? Now, I suppose he and his wife will go batting all over the country, never thinking for one second how inconvenient it is for ME to have ’em walk out and leave me flat this way, with all I’ve got to do. As I’ve always said, ingratitude and disloyalty and lack of imagination are worse crimes than — than — than —”

“Barratry,” said Bonnie.

“What?” said Dr. Planish.

The Colonel had invited his daughter to come down to the office for a drink.

“I always do think you’ve got the nicest diggings here,” she said.

“When the hell did an office become a ‘diggings’?”

Her laughter tinkled lightly — anyway, she meant it to be lightly — tinkling, as in the newspaper items about her. “Of course. How silly of me!”

“What makes you so Park Avenue today? Or are you being English? You must have been bumming around with some new lover — maybe your husband!”

“Dear Father, what’s all this rudeness a prelude to?”

“Why are you trying to get the goods on me?”

“Trying?”

“All right, getting ’em. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to come and ask me about my affairs? I can tell you much more than Operative Skink of the O’Pook Agency.”

“Hm?” She looked glazed and impenetrable.

“He’s now on my payroll. Just what is your game, my child? Are you trying to get something on me so you can step on my face and climb up over me, as you’ve been doing to other people all your life, starting with your classmates in Miss Mitch’s School and continuing on up to your husband? Are you turning your fancy lightly to patricide?”

“Do you know that when you talk in that silly, self-dramatizing way, it’s very hard for me to remember that you’re my father — presumably? Of course I’ve been checking up on your little excursions. I have to protect you against yourself; I have to know just what exhibitions of puerility you’ve been up to, and decide whether to let your various associates know about them. My dear Father, if you had the slightest idea what I’ve gone through in my efforts to keep your old friends, even your own doctor, loyal to you —”

“You —”

“If you could hear the way they confide to me that they’re just about fed up with your incessant drunkenness and whoring, and your badly informed talk-talk-talking about foreign affairs —”

“ME talk —”

“I’ve pled with them and I’ve begged them to remember that behind all your senile capers —”

“Senile!”

“— you do have a generous heart, and a pretty good brain, at least for business. Me climb? Me step on people’s faces? Why, the only thing I’ve ever wanted from life was to go on being an adoring wife and daughter, stay home and sacrifice everything to help my husband and my father, and if I’ve ever stepped out and taken some poor, pitiful little interest in public affairs, it’s only because I’ve been so sick at heart over the way you two men have made childish drunken spectacles of yourselves. I just couldn’t endure sitting idle and helpless at home another hour. I’ve undoubtedly kept both of you out of jail, or out of the alcoholic ward, by my hourly and incessant struggle, and as for you — I warn you that from now on I’m going to take charge of your political career. Entire charge!”

On the Colonel’s desk, the telephone that was connected only with his secretary was ringing. It was Winifred who answered it. She gurgled, “Oh, yes. Send him right up.”

She turned on the Colonel in a sunburst of sweetness. “It’s a reporter from Events. He wants your opinion on the psychology of the Japs.”

The young man came in, nodded tolerantly to Winifred, and said to the Colonel, “The boss thinks your ideas about Japan ought to be valuable. He says you handled a lot of publicity for the Japanese Government a few years ago.”

The Colonel sputtered, “Nonsense — nonsense! Just a few routine matters — some commercial promotion that happened to come into our office — carelessness on the part of an underling — fired him the moment I heard he’d accepted the vile stuff!”

Winifred Homeward, delicately gesturing with a cigarette, her bright voice soaring, caught the reporter’s attention:

“But you’re perfectly right to come to him. Even if he is my father, I must say there’s no one who has more information about Japan and how to crush it than the Colonel, whether as a soldier or an administrator. Here’s the way he and I feel about it. What’s the shortest way from New York or Detroit or Pittsburgh or Washington or St. Paul, or for that matter, from Toronto, to Tokio or Kobe or Yokohama or, what really counts, to Korea where, we have inside information, the natives are ready to rise against their Japanese overlords —”

Colonel Marduc presently wandered out of the room, quite unnoticed, and did not return until after this spirited interview with him was over.

Winifred said to Peony, “These MEN— even the talented ones, like my father and your husband and mine — they do mean so well, but they have no sense of orderliness and human values, like us. I suppose we get it from housekeeping and from mothering them.

“We women have always controlled school-teaching in America, and conversation and manners, but now that so many of the men are away at war, here’s our chance to have a much higher sphere of influence. When the time comes, I’m going to run for the city council in New York, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t be governor. I’m going to start an organization of my own, something like the DDD, but much more hooked up with practical politics. When peace comes, there’s no reason why women shouldn’t be in power, and dictate the terms. We’re so much less emotional.

“You could save my life, Peony. I want you to start business school, right away, and learn typing and shorthand, and be ready to boss the corps of secretaries I’ll have to have. I’ll pay your tuition, and pay you twenty dollars a week while you’re learning. How about it?”

“Swell!”

Peony had been bored. With shopping, movies, reproving Carrie, playing bridge with a gabby sister-inlaw of Chris Stern, eating and a prodigious quantity of sleeping, she had put in twenty-four hours a day, but she had not met many of the powerful people whom the Doctor was always quoting. She had even been driven to taking courses in economics and history at Columbia, sometimes showing up as often as every other class.

Now, business college was the liveliest party she had known in months. She was thirty-nine, but she found herself of the same age with all the girls of twenty-two and the undrafted boys of eighteen in the school; with them, at the Palais de Hamburger, she gigglingly exchanged such conversational delights as “What’s cooking in your filing class? Say, did you see the expression on that old bag’s face when I DID know the symbol for February? In the groove! That’s cooking with gas!”

She was at home now; she had found that gay, urbane New York that she had known must exist; and when George Riot slipped into town and on the telephone muttered that she must meet him again at the dreary Hex Hotel, she refused, because she was going to a party to be given by the clever Miss Teddy Klutz, aetat 24, the youngest and liveliest teacher at their Qwick–Shure Secretarial and Executive Commercial College, Positions Guaranteed.

Late every afternoon Peony was at Winifred Homeward’s office, mixing Sazarac cocktails or confidentially helping the great woman in affairs too delicate for the routine hands at Attention!; working on the grand list of influential women all through America who were, know it or not, fated to be Winifred’s future corps of Black Blouses.

Not Colonel Marduc nor the chirping Deacon Wheyfish and certainly not the anxious Dr. Planish had ever had so much fun in the invisible empire of propaganda as Peony Planish.

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