Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 5

He had a rich brown small beard, a good thick beard for a man of twenty-nine. He had grown it to give a more interesting look to a certain commonplace squatness, and he had cultivated a trick of glancing sharply at people who spoke to him, then casually looking away, as though he had already learned everything about them. He wore brown tweeds and a bright-blue shirt and a loose purple bow-tie. He hoped that all the respectable people on the Pullman chair-car would be puzzled and excited, and wonder whether he was a college professor or the kind of Englishman you read about in H. G. Wells, the kind who was intellectual but who rockgardened in front of an artistic converted mill in Surrey.

And at twenty-nine, in 1921, he really was a college professor. He was Professor Gideon Planish, Dr. Planish, Ph.D. of the University of Ohio, Professor of Rhetoric and Speech in Kinnikinick College, Iowa.

That was a small college with beautiful elm trees, a faint Episcopal flavor — esthetic but responsible — and a pleasant feeling that scholarship and piety were good old historical principles but shouldn’t be overdone. The college was attended by the sons and daughters of manufacturers and physicians in Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas, and it had football, but not too much, music, but not too much, and co-educational flirtation, but not too public.

Professor Planish was well esteemed, in Kinnikinick. He looked at the athletes, he looked at girl students who came to beg him prettily to raise their marks from C Minus to C, he looked at the trustees and the new president, new since last Christmas, as though he was on to all their charming little dodges, but was amused by them and didn’t mind.

He also did some teaching, in a fair routine way.

He did well at lectures to the women’s clubs in Central Iowa, for which he was often paid twenty-five dollars and expenses, with attendance for tea at the banker’s house obligatory. The clubwomen admired him, admired his beard, admired his merry eyes, admired his trick of becoming moistly ecstatic as he recited W. B. Yeats, then chuckling at himself and at them for their emotion.

Yet he was not quite happy. He was, he felt, too young and strong to go on sitting in classrooms. He was a bachelor, and the girls bothered him, their legs bothered him, their knees mocked him, and he was obsessed and extremely annoyed by their sailor blouses. He was afraid that he wanted, even more than crowds and glory, to be holding one of these sweet, collapsible little flappers in his arms. It seemed, he groaned, to be the Lord’s incomprehensible purpose that a pure and studious young man who took cold showers regularly and played tennis and was willing to serve the people as a United States Senator should keep having Evil Thoughts about the flashy way in which these young women crossed their legs as they sat in front of him.

Of course the way out, and the Biblical way at that, as suggested by that wise old Y.M.C.A. man, St. Paul, was to be married. But Professor Planish had never yet found a young woman who combined the three imperative elements: that she should be young and curving; that she should appreciate his humanitarianism and his gift for high hot wordings; and that she should have the bland social talent that would help him to go higher. He had not found her as yet, but meantime he was able to control himself by his early Christian training and by the constant availability of his mistress.

She was Teckla Schaum, and she was really a good soul, with money of her own.

He had spent the summer of 1921 in the Yale Library, being snubbed by such professors as were not up in Vermont being snubbed by the farmers or over in England being snubbed by the professors at Oxford. He believed that he had been trying to write a book on what he called The Genius of American Orators: Webster, Lincoln, Calhoun, Bryan, Ignatius Donnelly and all persons named Roosevelt. He had done only two chapters of the book. Years afterward, he found them in a trunk, and turned them into a singularly useful pamphlet which showed that True Americanism was synonymous with extensive giving to uplift organizations. But he had had good luck with the daughter of his landlady, out on Orange Street, and he had learned to appreciate lobsters, salt water and dancing cheek to cheek. He had spent a week in New York, and he could find his way from the Grand Central Station to the Public Library to Billy’s speakeasy in Greenwich Village.

He was ready to take his place in the world of the Eastern Seaboard, but those damned snobs of Columbia and Harvard and Princeton and Yale, those high-voiced academic Pharisees, did not encourage him. Perhaps what he needed was a loving girl who would, like a domesticated Joan of Arc, show him the path.

Professor Planish decided that the passengers on the chair-car from Chicago to Kinnikinick hadn’t even noticed him. He looked gloomily at his new tan-leather kit bag, with the grand gold letters GP. It didn’t seem worth while to have paid so much for it.

He sighed, shook his head at the porter’s “Brush you off, sir?” and carried his own bag to the vestibule.

Kinnikinick was now galloping past the train: two fat-bellied oil tanks, a yard littered with shattered old automobiles, two gangling grain-elevators, one exclamatory in red and the other of gray galvanized iron, standing raw against the faded prairie. It all seemed cluttered and flimsy to Professor Planish, after the shaded security of New Haven, but he was comforted when, as he hitched down the train steps, carrying the big bag, he was greeted by the station agent with a hearty “Welcome back, Prof!”

He was home. On the plank platform, by the small red frame station, a pretty girl junior was evidently pointing him out to a garland of still prettier freshmen — pointing at him and whispering, while the girls all looked at him gravely, without giggling. He was home, and he was important, and the driver of the flivver taxicab was calling, “Back again, Prof? Can I drive you up to the house?”

It was the custom at that time and place for the young men to paint their ancient and derivative automobiles with such texts as “Pike’s Peak or Bust — Busted” or “How about it, Babe?” None of these amateur exhibits was so florid as this taxi, this open Ford touring car, which was labeled “Kinnikinick’s Komical Kommon Karrier,” and decorated with a mural of young men in white evening ties and ladies in indiscreet evening gowns attending a rural picnic at which was served nothing but bananas and hard-boiled eggs. Professor Planish felt humiliated at having to come back from the elms of Hillhouse Avenue to such frippery, and he sat in the flivver glaring, his stout little beard straight out.

It all seemed better when they came to the campus. On the bluffs of the Kinnikinick River, which curved like a question mark, the half-dozen gray Tudor buildings enclosed a quadrangle shady with oak and maple, a place for contemplation. Looking at it, young Professor Planish exulted, “Not as big as Yale, maybe, but a lot purer architecture and sounder scholarship — and a damn sight more human!”

The flivver left him at his residence, a bedroom and a study in the square white house of Mrs. Hilp, a widow woman whom no one ever noticed and nobody has ever described. She stood on the wide screened porch, crying “Welcome home, Professor!” and heating up his sense of his own importance. He unpacked by throwing his clothes on the bed and leaving them for Mrs. Hilp. He was not a particularly tidy man.

It was still warm enough for him to show off the new linen suit he had bought in New Haven, and in that pale angelic glory he started out on his errands — a man who was again wanted and needed. He looked into his private office, a grim and slate-floored coop in the basement of the Administration Building, and looked at his secretary, a lady who adored him but who was stringy and virginal. She had answered all his mail, and he hadn’t a thing for her to do, so he patted her on the shoulder, to show that he was friendly but also keeping his sharp eye on everything.

He went through the memorial gateway, ornamented with the shields of nine New England colleges, and walked down Wallace Avenue to the Kollege Klothes Korner, where he bought a bright green tie that he didn’t need, and to the Smokes & Book Co-op, where he bought a red rubber eraser that he didn’t like. Thus he was able to receive from the clerks, “Well, well, we missed you, Professor. Glad you’re back with us.”

He had planned his call upon Mr. W. C. Pridmore, president of the Drovers’ National Bank and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Kinnikinick College, for half-past three, when the bank would be closed to the public — a caste to which he still referred as “the hoi polloi.” At five he would call on the new president of the college. This expert schedule of weighty conferences would give him, in between, three-quarters of an hour for the demands of love, which just now concerned the slim person of Dr. Miss Edith Minton.

Mr. W. C. Pridmore sat near the entrance to the bank, in a compartment railed with golden oak and of the general size of a pigpen. But neater, much neater. He was a gentle, anxious man, with a stubby mustache, and he was always sorry when he had to foreclose a mortgage. And as he thought that Professor Planish was going to marry his widowed daughter, Teckla, and as he considered Professor Planish to be the most book-read and eloquent young man that he knew, yet with sound principles about the Republican Party and with a decent salary, he rose from his steel desk — the look of which gave money-borrowers a headache — he held out his shaky hand, and cried, “Well, well! Teckla and I missed you, Gideon. You’re a sight for sore eyes!”

Professor Planish wondered if it really would take as much as ten years for him to become president of the college.

He told Mr. Pridmore that there were fine bank buildings and large factories in New Haven, also some scattered college buildings, but as for him, he was mighty glad to be back among friends.

At five minutes to four, Professor Planish was at Lambda Lambda Lambda House, slightly nervous, to call upon Dr. Edith Minton, proctor of the House and instructor in English. All summer he had been thinking about her, remembering her as a quartz crystal, as a doe with large eyes and tiny elegant hoofs. What a mistake he had made, this past school year, not to have seen more of her!

He had to wait in the Lambda reception-room, an apartment with Maxfield Parrish prints, and throne chairs so straight and stiff and hard that they caused you to wonder whether it was really the heads of the crown-wearers that got so uneasy.

Edith Minton slipped in, and his bounding heart told him that here was his true love wending; that Edith would be a credit to him and adorn his dinner parties, no matter how great a magnifico he might become. He was a little touched by his own cleverness in having recalled her so accurately: pale, reedy, erect, and undoubtedly very soft and pleasing under that armor of gray suit and crisp lace jabot. He thought about trying to kiss her, but the Infinite shot a warning to him. He shook her hand, her thin strong hand, and waved her to a chair — in her own house.

“You’re looking fine, Edith. Have a good summer?”

“Not bad. I spent two weeks at a Wisconsin lake, but mostly I stayed in Chicago and worked on Chaucer.”

“Oh, I forgot to thank you for your card. I enjoyed hearing from you. Well . . . You’re looking fine. You look as if you’d had a good summer.”

“Yes.”

“Well, back to the mine.”

“What do you mean?”

“Back to work.”

She thought this over. “Yes, that’s so. Back to work now.”

“Yup. On the job now.”

“I suppose you liked New Haven better than here.”

“I did not! They want to see your passport and a certificate signed by three respectable clergymen that you attended Hotchkiss, before they’ll say good morning. No!”

“And yet you aren’t content to be here, either!”

“A man has to keep on advancing, doesn’t he? But why am I being jumped on, my dear?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Gideon. I forget you’re my superior officer, don’t I!”

“Nonsense — nonsense — nonsense! Academic democracy — all on the same level — even undergraduates — in some respects. But why so grouchy?”

“Oh, I’ve just had an afternoon of girl freshmen who couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted to be scholars or women or have careers. I get a little cranky.”

“You’ll get over it!” He arose in a superior sort of way and patted her shoulder as chastely as he had that of his secretary. “Now get a good rest. See you soon.”

“She doesn’t think so doggone much of me. She’d never be one to appreciate me and help advance my career. God but she’s bloodless and sexless and conceited! . . . No, she’s all right. Maybe she sees through me! Maybe there isn’t so much in me to appreciate, except punchful words. I’ll have to realize that and profit by it — study and do a lot of hard, quiet thinking,” meditated young Professor Planish.

He was clumping back to Administration Hall, his beard bright in the September sun. With his self-confidence and his determination to make an impression on the new regime flowing back into him, he walked boldly into the green-carpeted, portrait-fretted anteroom to the president’s office.

He was a full professor; he was kept waiting only five minutes and admitted to the fervid cordiality of the Rev. Dr. T. Austin Bull, the new president of Kinnikinick.

There are rambling and rustic fellows, beanpoles with long noses and disordered hair, who prove to be suave Men About Town in New York or London, polo players or editors of gossip magazines, up to the latest thing in music and morals. By contrary, there are sleek, slender, quick-moving men, curly-headed and neat-featured, who wear their clothes like popular actors, who are as quick as cavalry captains and poised as infantry majors, but who prove to be studious pastors, doctors of divinity, or teachers of manual training.

Of these deceptive elegants was T. Austin Bull who, after a Methodist boyhood, a decade as an eloquent and money-raising Episcopal minister, and a couple of years as secretary of an elephantine university, had, at forty-four, come to Kinnikinick as president.

The business was under new management; the sales and advertising departments were being reorganized; and the highest standards of American business, piety, learning and manhood were to be advanced. Dr. Bull was against sloth, debt, the teaching of Greek except in graduate schools and the seduction of co-eds.

His handshake was virile, small though he was, and he greeted Professor Planish in the best of glee-club tenors:

“Thank you for coming to call so early, Professor, but I’m not sure but that I should have called on you. I’m so new to this job that I imagine I’ll have to lean heavily on your experience.

“Let’s see now: three years you’ve been at old Kinnikinick. I can’t tell you what splendid reports I get of your splendid teaching and your, uh, your splendid effect on the morale of the students. Oh, everywhere. But — There is one thing, one small detail, that I should like to take up with you — oh, more in a spirit of asking advice than of giving it, perhaps.

“Will you have a cigar, Professor? Of course as an ex-parson, I don’t smoke much, but I find that a really good cigar at once cheers the heart and clears the head, provided it’s a really good cigar, I mean, not a five-cent one — and light, I mean. Good! Now settle back in your chair, all comfy, and try and have the patience to hear me out.

“What I’ve ventured to think about, in a very tentative way, is: I’m sure you make every effort to shelter our darling girl undergraduates just as much from yourself as from any other man, but have you ever given thought to the somewhat disturbing position of a strong, young, unmarried man among so many lovely girls?”

“Oh, yes, I’ve given thought to it!”

“I imagined perhaps you had. And may I, in the most impersonal way, ask if you have any plans for getting married?”

“I can’t say anything definite just at this moment — only rash fools tempt the gods by prophecy, you know.”

“How true that is!”

“But I hope before long to have something very interesting to tell you.”

“That’s fine, that’s fine. I’m very pleased, Professor.”

To himself Professor Planish grunted, “Yeh, it WOULD be interesting to know who the dickens this is that I’m going to marry! And it would be interesting to Prexy if he shadowed me for the next few hours and found out why I’m not likely to be a menace to the cute co-eds!”

So he tramped to the little gray widow’s-house where lived Teckla Schaum.

He knocked, instead of bursting in as he usually did. It would be a pleasure to see her tremblingly peeping out, in hope. She’d be at home, all right; hadn’t he telephoned her that he was back! She would never spoil the perfect art of his return.

He knocked and rang the bell, and with perfect timing, as rehearsed in his mind, there she was, edging the door open, then throwing it wide as she whimpered, “Oh, Gid, you’re here!”

“Me? No! I’m in New Haven. You know — in Connecticut.”

He closed the door behind him, to shut off the censorious eyes of Kinnikinick, and kissed her profoundly, holding her small frail figure close to him, conscious of her fine springy back.

“I’ve missed you so,” she was sighing.

“Missed you, too. Nobody I could talk to.”

“But you must have met some wonderful people in New Haven.”

“Sure. Some swell English scholars — some real word-painters — make Beowulf sit up and beg. And boy! What buildings and old New England churches, and a very fine old town, Guilford, quite convenient on the trolley, but — Jesus, Teckla darling, how I did miss talking to you! You know — natural.”

He was relieved to find that he could, without straining, tell her the truth. He reflected that for all his talent, maybe genius, he was a simple fellow who hated talking through pink gauze to Edith Minton or President Bull. He wondered if he might not actually be a little in love with Teckla. There was only one thing against the theory — he didn’t like her very much.

Teckla Pridmore Schaum, daughter of the head of the college trustees, was four years older than Professor Planish. For two years she had been married to a promising young townsman, head of the Power and Light Company, who had been killed when an automobile turned over. She was incessantly hungry for the smell of a man’s pipe, the horizon thunder of his grumbling. All the past winter she had been going to bed with Professor Planish, but she didn’t know much about him. She thought he was a simple and friendly young man who wanted to help his students. She was four years older, and thin, and she hadn’t much of a complexion, nothing very interesting in the way of hair or a nose or wit; nothing at all but a rigid passion for him and an unquestioning joy when she could comfort him and assure him that he was a superior man. She knew that he was not in love with her, but she went on convincing herself that some day the darling boy would see the gold she gave him.

“That’s the sweetest new linen suit!” she adored.

“Like it? From the East! God-awful expensive!”

“It’s so smart.”

“Huh! I bet you think President Bull dresses better than I do. I just saw him. He wore a double-breasted gray suit with the waist cut in like a chorus man, and damned if he wasn’t wearing a red carnation — the curly-headed dude! Don’t you think so?”

“Father and I always thought he was such a good scholar. But now you speak of it, I guess he is a little dandified. You’re so deep and discerning about people.”

“No, I just get around a lot.”

“Dear, why don’t you take your coat off? It’s terribly hot, for September.”

“That’s not such a bad idea, at that.”

“And I know you’d like a highball.”

“That proposition certainly has a lot of merit in it.”

With such delightful love talk and academic interchange of ideas, they played along.

There was no Prohibition-era drinking at Kinnikinick, which was moral though Episcopal. There were no saloons in town; Holy Communion was drunk in grape-juice; and at large public dinners, the bishop and the football team were toasted in Coca–Cola. The students carried abstinence so far that they never drank in the dormitories, except in the evening, and perhaps afternoons. The president had to be known as a teetotaler, and it was only in the houses of the professors who had married money that there were any very large private cellars.

Not having had a drink since he had left his rooms at Mrs. Hilp’s, the Professor chummily helped Teckla crack the ice, open the White Rock bottle, and look over her Prohibition stock: four bottles of Bourbon whisky, two of Scotch, twenty-seven gin, and a bottle of rock-and-rye like an anatomical specimen in a museum.

Teckla had no servant, but her kitchen was nearly automatic, and brutally handsome. The electric stove resembled a mahogany hope chest; the sink was of stainless steel; the cupboard of steel enameled a pale blue; and off the kitchen was the “breakfast nook,” a pair of cherry-red settees facing each other across a blue metal-topped table, with wallpaper flourishing strawberries and bluebirds.

In this metallic lovers’ bower, where the rosebuds were pink electric bulbs, Professor Planish and his Aspasia grew happily drunk. Before that, the Professor gloated, “You haven’t asked about my present for you.”

“You don’t mean you brought ME a present?”

“Ha, ha, who else would I bring a present to!”

He curvetted back into the living-room, which was in blue and silver with an Arthur Rackham print, and from his coat pocket he took a jewelry-box of the most elegant pasteboard, icy to the fingers outside, with the most luxurious honey-colored satin lining. His left hand on her shoulder, leaning over her, he flashed the bright costume-jewelry bracelet which he had anxiously bought on Madison Avenue, in New York ($11.99 cash).

“Oh, darling, it’s lovely, just lovely! It shines so — like diamonds! You shouldn’t of!”

He kissed her, and for some seconds he was almost certain that he loved her. But he was thirsty, and the ice and amber of his drink lured him back to the settee across from her.

“Gideon, I think I’ve done something really useful for you this summer.”

“What’s that?”

“I’ve been reading Trollope for you.”

“Oh, yes — uh — Trollope.”

“You know: Barchester Towers.”

“Oh, I remember. I tackled that guy once, but he was pretty strong going. Not even a shooting. Too slow for me.”

“Well, you know in your Rhetoric lectures, where you say an author can have humor and excitement without falling into bad taste and immorality, like all these young writers, Trollope would be a dandy illustration. I made some notes for you on his plots and moral principles.”

“Oh, swell! Fellow busy as I am, trying to ram art and eloquence down a lot of boneheads, to say nothing of all the work I do on committees, he don’t get time to do all the reading he’d like. It’s a great sorrow to me, sometimes, Teckla. What I always say is, there’s no friend like a great book.”

“Oh, I know how it is. Gideon! There’s a hero in Trollope that’s so much like you — the same combination of learning and virility. He’s a clergyman, but he has a beard just like yours.”

“Do you think I ought to go on wearing a beard? I thought President Bull looked at it kind of funny.”

“Don’t you ever dare take it off! It makes you so distinguished. Like that minister in the book.”

“You know, I’ve worried a good deal, off and on, whether I hadn’t ought to gone into the ministry, instead of teaching. Of course what I always say is, a man can do as much good by training these young minds in oratory as in purity, but I guess I’m kind of a perfectionist — I’m funny that way — I can’t seem to be satisfied unless I follow the highest and noblest and no compromise, yes, sir, and no matter how practical we are, still we had ought to imitate the lives of the saints and sacrifice our all to humanity without flinching and HOORAY, I feel wonderful!”

He had a quick one, without ice or soda. Was he — he pinched his mind, to see if it hurt — was he getting lit? Oh, what the devil! He had to celebrate his homecoming, didn’t he? And Teckla looked at him with such admiration and surrender. Pity she was so much older than he.

She was breathing, “Oh, I know how you want to help and lift up this poor bewildered world. But I honestly don’t see how you could do any more good in a church than in your wonderful work of teaching your students to write and orate so beautifully, and then those of them that get a call to go out and influence mankind will be just that much more gifted.”

“Anyway, I’m not sure I’ve got the right kind of a voice for a clergyman.”

“Do you know the kind of voice you ought to have?”

“What?”

“Just the kind you got now, dear!”

“Oh . . . But do you think it’s deep enough?”

“It doesn’t sound like a rainbarrel, if that’s what you mean — thank Heaven! But listen, darling: you haven’t told me one word about New Haven. Of course I understood perfectly that you were working so hard you didn’t have time for much letter-writing. But now tell me about it. Did they offer you a position there?”

“I’ve got a more interesting idea than New Haven.” He rose. “Come!”

Mutely she followed him into the living-room, sat on his lap, fondly rubbed her cheek against his chest, while he stroked her knee.

The Professor sighed to himself, “She’s a good woman. She’s one person that does appreciate what I am. It’s a darn shame that she’s so small-town and ordinary. It wouldn’t be fair to her to take her off to New York and Washington and face those snobs and intriguers.”

She said, as though the words meant something quite different, “Getting hungry? I’ve got the nicest little steak for you.”

“Don’t you think that can wait a while, sweetheart?”

“Yes, maybe it can,” she whispered.

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