Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 6

Professor Gideon Planish was not satisfied with the workings of Providence, at the beginning of this college year of 1921–22. He was not satisfied with Teckla Schaum. Oh, she admired him, in her shallow womanly way, but she did not understand the complications of a statesman’s career, did not even understand the problem of his beard — how he looked rustic if he had one, and yet if he took it off now, everybody would laugh.

She couldn’t tell him how to jump from college to the Senate chamber without going through a lot of sticky handshaking. She actually thought he might go on teaching, and yet she didn’t see how embarrassing it was for him to have, as rival star in his department, a new English professor who had taken the advantage of actually being English.

No, he was alone with his high dreams, no one to help him, no one to hold his hand while he followed the road to the stars.

Damn it, he wasn’t even quite sure that he ought to go on being Teckla’s lover. Maybe it wasn’t altogether moral.

One of his most prickly grievances was that in this small college, with only thirty-one on the faculty, he had to take the huge required freshman class in Introductory Rhetoric and Composition. He was happy enough in his small seminars in inspirational subjects like Argumentative Composition, Oral Interpretation of the Drama, Persuasion, and Speech Psychology, but to process this knotty raw material of almost a hundred freshmen of every state of sex and unenlightenment was to pant and strain at an intellectual assembly-line. Yet all that Teckla said about it was, “You ought to feel that it’s a privilege to stir up all these young minds.”

So it was with a shaky feeling of having been unjustly used that he began his first lecture to the class in Freshman Rhetoric.

He came through the R. U. E. entrance into Atkinson Amphitheater, carrying only a thin notebook. He was proud that he was too well organized to need the green bag or the pile of shaggy brown books with which the old troupers among the faculty messed up their unstylized entrances.

With stilled and waiting power he looked at the huge class — ninety-seven of them, all green. With most of them he hadn’t even had consultations. Ninety-seven children from supercilious but provincial households, all busy with apples, chocolate, tennis rackets, newspapers, and with one another, boy drawn to girl already, in the first week of college, in a jungle of young life that was uninterested in professors — even those with rich beards. If he did manage to stand there, looking a little amused, a symbol of cold dominant wisdom, it was entirely an act and he an actor. Inside, he felt lonely and, at best, he hoped they wouldn’t find him very funny or intolerably dull.

He gravely laid down his notebook, rapped his desk, and croaked:

“Young ladies and gentlemen, let us start this consortium, in which we are compelled to be associated for the next nine months, nine long long months [he did get a smile on that line], by firmly understanding certain fundamental principles. Doubtless some of you are Shakespeares, piping your native woodnotes wild, but for most of us, the magic art of Rhetoric is rules, rules, rules, and yet more rules.

“It is discipline. It is a humble and willing subjection to the great formulae worked out for us long ago by the Masters. We are not here to show off or to think we are smart enough to do everything in new ways. I shall tell you, and I shall expect acute attention when I tell you, what the Masters have decided, in all such supreme mysteries as style, beauty, conciseness, aspirations toward the Divine, the correct ratio, in fiction, of analysis and narrative and description to dialogue, scientific paragraphing, appeal to the nobler emotions such as love and patriotism, the accepted punctuation and gosh —”

The last word had not been said aloud.

He couldn’t be sure that her name did begin with an A or B, the girl at the right end of the center section of the front row, for the ushers had not yet assorted the class alphabetically. Maybe she was sitting there so close to him because she wanted to listen to him. But whether she began with an A or a B or a C or a Z, she was his true love forever.

It was true that her shoulders, like his own, were menaced by plumpness, but her legs were sleek, her ankles fairly thin, and if her little paws, twisted together on the writing tablet of her chair as she listened to him, were not so delicate, they were white and sweet and shapely. And her face was as amusing as a monkey’s, round and pert. She had wise and lively eyes, astonishingly wise and determined for a girl who couldn’t be over nineteen, and her friendly lips, not tight nor thin, kept moving with excitement. Her high pride was her brown hair, shining like polished walnut and, unusual here and now, not bobbed but flauntingly feminine.

He was already telling her, under the campus maples by moonlight, that she must be careful with her diet and not get fat — lovely child like her — while his outer voice was rolling on:

“— and take, for instance, the case of a novelist less known than Dickens or Thackeray or Harriet Beecher Stowe, yet always to me one of the lords of language, Andrew — ah, Jupiter nods, I mean of course Anthony — Anthony Trollope. Did a tremendous writer like Trollope think the proper stunt was to go and live with a lot of Bohemians and Frenchmen in an attic and try to invent a lot of new rules? He did not! He was the soul of discipline. While constantly traveling as a — as a school inspector in a — in a number of parts of England, he made himself sit down every day and write — and write — and write, and all according to the accepted RULES!”

His girl in the front row nodded. There was a serious-minded and helpful young woman. He could imagine her being witty at a soda-fountain or bouncing in her seat at a high-ranking basketball game — full of fun, a jolly companion, but with a heart that would appreciate idealism and ambition.

He was explaining to the class that elegant language was useful not only to preachers and editorial writers but also to businessmen. Which, he put it to them, would sell a vacuum cleaner better: a rich, full, mellifluous address (and he strikingly illustrated it, playing both the salesman and a pleased housewife), or a mess of crude language, as used by persons who didn’t go to Kinnikinick and love their Rhetoric class?

The girl’s eyes forcefully agreed with him.

And for such of them as planned to enter politics — what was it that elected Woodrow Wilson? His titanic knowledge of history? No, never! It was the discriminating way in which he laid words end to end according to the rules.

The end of Professor Planish’s discourse was somewhat in the style of the courtroom scene in The Merchant of Venice. He stopped dead, he fixed them with the eye, he raised the hand, he gave with the voice: “Let me conclude in the words of Alexander Pope’s immortal translation from Horace.” He glanced at a slip filled with the handwriting of Teckla Schaum.

“Sages and chiefs long since had birth

Ere Caesar was or Newton named;

These raised new empires o’er the earth,

And those, new heavens and systems framed.

In vain they schemed, in vain they bled!

They had no poet, and are dead!”

He wondered if, after all, he shouldn’t have been a leading actor instead of a senator or a college president. Wouldn’t his girl down there have appreciated him even more? He calculated that she was near to weeping. He looked at her knowingly, eye understanding eye, heart snatched out of his body and joined to hers. When all the others had gone, after only half a hundred fool questions about hours and assignments and at what sort of an establishment did one accomplish the abnormal feat of buying a book, he saw that she was still waiting, at one side of the room.

She came up to his platform-table. Who said her shoulders were too plump? Why, they were lustrous and soft for a man to lay his head —

Professor Planish caught himself. After all, he wasn’t a mooncalf any longer. This was a jolly-looking young woman, but she was no Theda Bara. Seated with the table safely between them, she standing humbly below, he looked at her like a judge.

“May I bother you a moment, Professor?”

“What is it?”

(These were, definitely, the first words between the celebrated Romeo and Juliet of Kinnikinick.)

“I want to see if you’ll let me take Oral Interpretation of the Drama.”

“That’s an upper-class subject.”

“I know. I just want to take it as an auditor, without credit.”

“Isn’t your schedule full?”

“I’ll say!” She shuddered.

“Then why do you want to take it?”

“Oh, I think maybe I might be an actress and —”

“Yes?”

“And I’d like to have another class with you!”

She was delicately shameless, and he stiffened with interest. He marveled, “But why?”

“Oh, it was so stimulating today, and the other day I listened to you in the hall — I was waiting for a vaccination appointment, in front of C7, and I heard you talking to Professor Eakins. He was so sort of dry and cranky — they all are, all but you — and I’ve snooped into a lot of classes and listened — they just grind out a lot of information — gee, Professor, I guess maybe I’m being fresh, but I’ll bet you a billion dollars the rest of the faculty think you’re too dramatic, too exciting to listen to.”

“My dear young lady —” Then his flatulent academic tone changed into a boyish demand: “What’s your name?”

“Peony Jackson. From Faribault, Minnesota. I was on the platform when you got off the train.”

He got back the professorial manner. The self-protective superiority. The armor against the mirth of young women.

“Well, Miss Peony Jackson, from Faribault, Minnesota, I’m sure you mean to be complimentary, but the fact is, the members of the faculty, however much they may differ —”

Never again, in private, did he speak to her with this stage burlesque of himself — not to Peony. Raw and boyish again, remembering that he was only ten years older than she, he cried, “Let’s sit in the front row — all these dumb freshmen gone now — come on!” They laughed; they sat side by side. Probably to the eye even of President T. Austin Bull they would have seemed decorous enough, but Professor Planish felt as though he were holding her hand.

“Peony — Miss Jackson — you don’t want to take that Oral Interpretation junk. It’s a lot of stupid analysis.”

“Well, I came here to get educated, didn’t I?”

He felt a tiny chill. “Did you?”

“That’s what they claim!”

“Don’t give it a thought.”

“I won’t!” They laughed, like freshmen, or very aged professors. “Honestly, Professor, I just love the way you treat your students — tell ’em they’re a bunch of lil Socrateses one minute and then jump right down their throats the next. That would make even a dumb bunny like me get busy and learn something — learn K-A-T, the cat, sat on the M-A-T-T, mat. I betcha I learn enough here so’s the court will let me get married.”

“And who may this be that you are going to marry?” Very coldly.

“I haven’t got the slightest idea.”

Was it possible that she was looking at him with appraisal?

“Look, Miss Jackson — Peony. I’ve got the idea. Forget the Oral Interp. Did you know that it’s part of my job here to coach a play, four times a year?”

“Swell.”

“We’ll have try-out for the first one, Poor Papa’s Prize, in just a few days now.”

“Swell.”

“And will you read for it?”

“Sw — You mean, try and see if I can act one of the parts?”

“Professionally, we call it ‘read for a part’.”

“I’ll be glad to.” Her wrist-watch, he noted, was rather expensive. “Gee, I got to be skipping along now.”

“Don’t go yet!”

“I got a date.”

“With some boy, I suppose!”

“Uh-huh.”

He was writhing. He was sick. These blab-mouth freshmen boys! Not human yet!

“Well, look, Peony, I’d like to have more chance — I mean now, at the beginning of the year, when we’re sort of making plans — I mean, for the year — and I’m very interested — I mean in your reactions to the different — you know, different styles and modes of instruction — and it’s so interesting to get your reactions and —”

“Aw, Professor, you don’t want any reactions from a Problem Child.”

“Give me some, and see if I don’t!”

“Swell!”

“Where are you living?”

“At Lambda House.”

“Um! Well, look. I’ll be in Postum’s drug store at exactly ten o’clock tonight, buying a soda.” He remembered that he had an engagement which might be expected to last all evening, but he kicked out the thought. He could not wait for forty-eight hours to see Peony again. “Exactly ten. Suppose you happened to be there, and had a soda with me?”

“I thought the co-edibles weren’t supposed to have dates with the faculty.”

“They aren’t. But if you just happened to be dropping in there to buy some talcum powder —”

“I got some talcum powder!”

“Are you going to be there or are you not?”

“Maybe so. We’ll see. G’ bye!”

He was nervous. Had he given one of his natural enemies, an undergraduate, a hold over him?

He was jealous. Peony was off to meet some brash and unknown boy, who had the worst of intentions, while he himself had nothing but an innocent engagement with Mrs. Teckla Schaum.

Teckla’s father, the banker and trustee, owned a one-room cottage with a cook-stove and a two-story bunk, six miles out of town, on Lake Elizabeth, to be reached by a sandy trail, on foot or with horse and buggy. The Pridmores had given him a key and told him to call the shack his own; here he had worked undisturbed on his book about the American Orators — it was, in fact, an excellent place for catching up on sleep. And here, this evening, while the early autumn was still warm, he was to picnic with Teckla.

The road to the lake was deep in scrub oak and hazel-nut and sumac; flies gyrated in a backward dream of summer; and the aged Pridmore horse moved unambitiously. The time should have been full of contentment, but Professor Planish, driving, his shoulder bundled against Teckla’s, felt that he was wasting his talent. He was impatient even with the glimpses of the lake through networks of brush, for he wanted to be undisturbed in his thoughts of Peony Jackson. Yet Teckla took this touchy time to chatter, looking at him as though she owned him, as though she were his mother, his true sweetheart.

“Did the Freshman Rhetoric go well, Gideon? Was it a terrible ordeal?”

“What do you mean, ‘ordeal’?”

“You always say the freshmen are so stupid —”

“I never said anything of the sort! I said some of ’em are. But some of ’em are mighty bright. MIGHTY bright! Keen, unspoiled minds. They’re eager, not blase or fussy, like a lot of older people.”

“I suppose that’s so — Did you use my stuff about Trollope?”

“No, I didn’t!”

“Oh.”

“Well, I used part of it. And I had to go to the dentist’s, this noon.”

“Oh, you poor darling! Did he hurt you?”

“No, he didn’t!”

“You sound so tired and cross, dear.”

“Me? I’m not tired! OR cross!”

A vast silence, fringed with the tiny barbaric music of the flies and the thump of reluctant hoofs.

Professor Planish was not a cruel man; at least, he had no definite pleasure in giving pain, not even to those he loved. He said repentantly, “I’m sorry if I sound touchy. I’m just worried — about the students.”

“About what are you worried about about them?”

“About their morals! Freshmen girls making dates with unknown, immature boys! Very dangerous!”

“Is it?”

“Certainly it is! And then I’ve got to make out a whole lot of notes for — In fact I have to be back in town by 9:30 sharp tonight.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s such lovely soft fall weather. I was hoping we might stay at the shack all night.”

“I’d like that fine — nothing I’d like better — but tonight I just can’t make it. Have to be back by 9:30 at the latest.”

Silence.

She said slowly, “I wonder how long it’ll be before some sweet young thing that’s lots younger than I am will take you away from me.”

He started to forswear himself, then felt honest. He not infrequently did. He spoke affectionately — to the little mother:

“I don’t know. Maybe some time. Not for a long time, let’s hope. But if that ever does happen, no girl can be half as tolerant of me and all my fool talk about fool ambitions as you are.”

“No, she won’t be. Kiss me!”

The Pridmore shack, unpainted but clean and trim, was of the same autumnal golden-gray as the long rough grass upon the bluff above the lake, which slept in a stilly haze. Peace came upon the Professor, and for seconds at a time he forgot Peony Jackson and his need of her. Stripped to trousers and thin ribbed undershirt and looking, with his brown beard, like a Manet portrait of an artist picnicking on the Seine, he ran along the pebbly edge of the lake, and skimmed stones across the tender-colored water, savagely breaking its pliant surface. Teckla was happy because his fretfulness seemed to be over, and happily she spread their supper on a black-and-red tablecloth in front of the shack. The lake was half copper, half rose, now, and the western horizon exclamatory.

When she called him to supper, he felt young and gay. But she was looking at him with such possessiveness. And she was always doing things for him — oh, he liked to have things done for him, but he certainly didn’t like to have people think that he ought to think that they were doing things for him.

She had brought out for him a canvas reclining chair, but she herself squatted on the grass.

He raged to himself: that was how she’d try to hold him — by pretending to be so thoughtful that he would try not to hurt her feelings. And she was so settled and routine. He wanted adventure. “I’m going places,” he vowed. Yet he was surprised to hear himself bawling at her, “Oh God, not hard-boiled eggs again!”

He would have thrown himself pettishly into the canvas chair, but it just wasn’t the kind of chair you threw yourself into — not pettishly. He lowered himself into it, as he went on, “You’re always kind to me, Teckla, but you haven’t got one bit of imagination.”

Was this nice, to be hurting her like this? No, maybe not; but he’d better get it over, for keeps. “Can’t you ever think of anything new? You’re in a rut, just like Kinnikinick College. Wake up!”

She mutely turned her eyes away from his scolding. She sat limp and wordless, then crept up into his lap, softly kissing his cheek, forgiveness-begging for whatever terrible thing it was that she must have done.

He thought, gosh, this chair will collapse with the two of us, but how can I tell her to get the hell off my lap, the poor darling, the damn sentimentalist?

He thought, she’s so hot and sticky, her hand feels sticky as fly-paper, and it beats all get-out how heavy she is for such a thin woman.

He thought, this Peony Jackson is so fresh and jolly and COOL. Even if she is a little plump. And so brainy. Wouldn’t have to keep explaining and apologizing to HER all the time.

He said aloud, “Forgive me for being such an old sorehead today. I always am, the beginning of the school year. Well, we better get busy with the chow, or the cold eggs will get cold!”

He was at Postum’s drug store at 9:56.

Miss Peony Jackson wiggled in at 9:59. Without looking at him she went to the cosmetics counter and said, “Have you a small box of rice powder?” She was even fresher and softer and more miraculously special than he had remembered.

As she turned around, he said, “Oh, good evening, Miss Jackson.”

She said, “Oh, good evening, Professor.”

“Can I buy you a soda?”

“A soda?”

“Why, yes.”

“Oh, a soda. I’m afraid it’s very late, Professor.”

“No, do sit down and have a soda. Or a sundae. I want to ask your opinion about — weekly themes.”

“Well —” Her voice was plain, but as she sat down her eyes seduced him.

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