Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 8

Two weeks gone; they were in October, and he had a birthday and was thirty years old. Teckla gave a birthday party just for the two of them, with cake and ice cream, and a bottle of Iowa corn whisky for a present. Still he could not tell Teckla, except by a cagy flinching which told her too well, that his love had left her and flown off to the wars.

Yet he was less afraid of Teckla than of Dr. Edith Minton. It was distinctly out of his way to pass Lambda House, where Dr. Minton dragoned it and Peony lived in horrid security from seduction, but he passed it, twice a day. He tried to look like a real professor, bustling along in strict devotion to paragraphing and suffixes, but he could not help peering hungrily at the yellow wooden Ionic of Lambda House. It did seem reasonable that just once, at least, he might see Peony up there in her room, shining in a chemise, but what he more often saw was the eyeglasses of Dr. Minton.

She would probably rush out some day and grab him and haul him off to President Bull. Oh, he was a most harassed young professor!

He hated Dr. Edith Minton, he hated President Bull, he was afraid of Teckla Schaum and her father, and he was done with college — place of twittering and of marks. He wanted to be out on the broad highway, skipping hand in hand with Peony, and he was willing now to take any highway — even an insurance agency. He had written to a dozen colleges about a brighter job, but his letters conveyed no huge confidence in his own ability to go on tenderly leading Youth amid the orchards of knowledge.

He who had often told his students, “An inspired business letter can pull the heart-strings of the prospect just as well as the best love lyrics by Shelley or James Whitcomb Riley”— he himself could think of nothing more forceful to write than, Please, he would like a new job.

He hadn’t enough Boosters or Contacts, he decided. He had no one but President Bull to recommend him. The authorities at Adelbert College and the University of Ohio did not, he guessed, feel strongly about him; in fact, they had distinctly stopped feeling about him at all. Somebody had said that Hatch Hewitt, his sardonic classmate, was already a powerful newspaper reporter in New York, but just where was he?

Professor Planish sighed, and wrote in his notebook, “In future career shd cultivate hold onto friends more esp ones w influence, big bankers, journalists, must be sure to do this, memo: ask P what she thinks, she has so much sense.”

He mustn’t let himself get lost in the thicket of academic life, he warned, and in a fury of contemporary research he read almost entirely through a copy of the Nation — until he realized, from the fact that it commented not too affectionately on Mr. Harding’s campaign, that it was a year old.

Professor Planish persuaded himself that he studied current events as carefully as an undertaker. But this autumn of Peony, he noticed nothing except that Mr. Harding was a handsome, confidence-showering man, and that, after Wilson’s demands, it was “fine to be back to Normalcy.” He stated this often at party dinners full of the two kinds of faculty wives: those who sighed and were shabby and talked about diapers, and those who were hard and flirtatious and shiny, and talked about the latest shows in New York. Of the two sorts, the latter was the more provincial and more likely to send him off yelling for Peony.

The casting and direction of the college play, to which he had looked forward as an orgy of unacademic art and a much better ground than classrooms for getting thick with the pretty girls, proved, entirely on account of Peony, to be an embarrassing game of hide and seek.

The play this time was a nasty little work called Poor Papa’s Prize, one of those farces (1 set, inter., 3 acts, 6 f. 5 m.) jammed with references to Hoboken and mothers-inlaw, which in 1921 were still the delight of provincial colleges that twenty years later would be haughty with Saroyan and Sherwood and Maxwell Anderson. It was the idea in such colleges then, and often much later, that the position of Professor of Speech and Rhetoric automatically equipped the holder with a tricky and veteran art in such matters as lights, make-up and stealing lumber for scenery, and that a Professor Gideon Planish ranked with Belasco and Lincoln J. Carter.

He agreed, and he considered Poor Papa’s Prize as on the same level with Aristophanes. He thought it was a very funny scene when Papa’s prize turned out to be ten thousand plugs of tobacco, not dollars. He felt masterful about stage business and gestures, but with all this wizardry he was overthrown by the fact that, even with the grossest nepotism, there was no way of wedging Peony Jackson into the cast.

She came faithfully to the try-outs, happy and handsome in the best green sweater that ever came out of Faribault, Minnesota. She read in turn for the parts of the ingenue, the mother, the comic great-aunt and the comic Swedish maid, and she read them all with the same pleased smile, the same accent, and the same complete lack of meaning. Sitting back in the unlighted auditorium, his hat over his eyes and his legs thrust way out, like a professional director, Professor Planish pitied her and loved her for her lack of talent.

She stopped, looked down into the dark pit, smiled in unspoken agreement, and said, “My, I am rotten, ain’t I! Do you suppose I could do the props, Professor Planish?”

“You can! You shall!” he shouted.

But before working the properties, she had first to acquire them, which was a combination process of theft and brazen borrowing, and though his one dream had been of snuggling beside her in the darkness, she was rarely there at rehearsals. He was cross about it. He scolded the actors, and they hated him; and all this time the letters he was getting from other colleges in answer to his petitions indicated that they thought he had too big a job already.

At last Professor Planish knew every one of the fine and racking sorrows that glorify young lovers.

She was there for a moment after rehearsals, painting a pine box which was going to impersonate a grandfather’s-clock, and he gave her the first of all his gifts. In the window at Postum’s College Pharmacy he had seen a “Novelty Gift Make-up Kit” that had tickled everything that was young and fanciful in him: a pink, leather-covered box containing nail polish and drying cream and all the feminine idiocies that seemed to him strange and luxurious; with a mirror, inside the lid, that was shaped somewhat like a shield and somewhat like a diamond and a good deal like the map of Africa. It cost $5.65, which was, except in the case of Teckla’s bracelet, $2.65 more than, on any grounds, even those of extreme passion, he had hitherto ever been willing to pay as love’s tribute. He bought it, but he had them wrap it in plain white paper. Full–Professor Planish did not wish to be seen going about with Novelty Gift Kits.

After rehearsal, back-stage, he was able to slip the package covertly into Peony’s hands. She yanked off the wrapping, let the paper slide to the floor — he picked it up — and opened the box.

“Oh!” she squealed, with an ecstasy that delighted and rewarded him. She would have made an excellent monkey to have around and smile at, if her face had been thinner and less fair. She picked out each of the charming bottles, she studied them with pleasure, she pinched them, she smelled them, and then she kissed him in the double rapture of love and cosmetics.

Every night, without ever having quite agreed upon it, they headed for that same dim bower behind a prop fireplace — every night until, just as he scrambled over a saw-buck and a pile of flats to reach her, he saw Dr. Edith Minton watching him from the shadows beside the switchboard.

His talent for swift intrigue was considerable. With no especial stress he called, “Uh, Miss — Miss Jackson — when can you help Miss Smidley with the gelatines? Good gracious, I wish I could make you children understand the importance of lights!”

Peony had an even richer natural intrigue. She could actually see nothing more menacing than a roll of canvas and the beard of Professor Planish, but she replied loudly, in the naked tone of a scared freshman, “Oh, I am trying to get to it, Professor, but I’ve been studying so hard.” (Followed in her miniscule silvery murmuring that could not carry beyond him, “You little sweet thing. Who is it? Go bite hell out of him.”)

He turned his back on her, turned his back on everything that was joyful and fresh and living, and not too elaborately he then proceeded to discover Dr. Minton, off R. “Why, hel-lo, Edith!”

(“The blasted iceberg! I suppose she wants to bawl me out for something. I ain’t going to take it. I’m her boss.”)

But Dr. Minton was smiling in a puzzling, diffident way, and as he wabbled up to her she hesitated, “I’ve been listening from the back of the auditorium. I think you’re doing wonderfully with the rehearsals, Gideon. Have you finished for tonight? You don’t happen to be walking my way, do you?”

“Fine! Let’s go!”

Professor Count Cagliostro pranced away with the princess. There were times when he wished that he were not a charlatan, not even a charlatan of genius, but the ear for applause, the taste for spiced meats, always dragged him on.

Dr. Minton was saying, as they cantered respectably to Lambda House, “I was admiring the way you taught that stupid boy his Irish accent for the play. Do you know, Gid — I’ve never confessed this to any one at Kinnikinick — when I was a girl, I wanted to be an actress.”

“No!”

“I had a lot of eagerness and maybe some ability. But I had to take care of mother, and I got into graduate work, and my thesis was so demanding, and there never happened to be any chance and — Oh, I guess it’s better the way it is — Gideon!”

He jumped. “Yes, Edith?”

“You haven’t been at Lambda House for quite a while now. Do drop in, won’t you?”

“Oh, yes — yes, sure.”

“And Gideon!”

“Ye-es, Edith?”

“Let me know if any of my girls in the play are ever lazy or impertinent, and I’ll take their heads off. It does seem to me that this year they’re the most undisciplined gang of young female rowdies I’ve ever had to deal with. You’re lucky you don’t know any of them outside the classroom, as I have to.”

“Ee — that’s so.”

“It’s this Post–War Generation, and Prohibition. But I know how to handle ’em. Don’t let them waste your time. Good night. Such a pleasant walk!”

He was aghast. “She likes me a lot better than I thought. There’s a volcano under that ice-cap. How come both Teckla and Edith like me? Oh, I suppose there isn’t much for ’em here — nothing but undergraduates, and all married men on the faculty except me and one pansy and one drunk.

“Nothing but undergraduates — but that’s what Peony will be falling for — some hairy-chested young clown of a football player, as soon as she gets over the novelty of my being crazy about her. Oh God, I’m sure to lose her!

“But Edith Minton — she is good-looking, too, in that Diana sort of way. I might of had a chance, if I’d gone right after her — no, no, I mustn’t think about such things. I’m absolutely faithful to Peony, absolutely, the damn Cheshire cat, the way she grins at me, she’s absolutely onto me and yet she still likes me — But for her sake, I ought to give her up entirely. After all, she is a freshman. Not twenty yet. Just a baby, the darling. If Edith, the vixen, ever thought a faculty-member had so much as patted Peony’s hand, out she’d go — they’d send her home, with a scandal tied to her, nobody would know exactly what it was, but it would get worse year after year.

“If I could marry her now — No, she ought to finish her college course. A college course is absolutely necessary, nowadays. I suppose colleges have some value. Hell, of course, they must have! Didn’t I do time breaking rocks for three whole years so I could get a Ph.D.? Then after she graduated, I could marry her, if she wanted me, but I’d be too old and she’d of met so many boys — Oh God!”

Out of all his babbling as he walked home, as he clumped about his white plaster bedroom, nothing came out clearly except that for Peony’s dear sake, he ought honestly to give her up.

And for her sake he did honestly give her up; he did incredibly force himself to something he did not want to do.

Until the opening of the play, which had a successful run of two nights, it was not difficult to avoid her. He did not go back-stage when he felt, as he always did feel, that she was there. His dread was that she would come up after his Rhetoric class and demand to know why he was neglecting her. All through each class, he was enormously busy not looking at her, and thinking of the coming horror of her reproach.

The real horror was that she went placidly out with the other students, not glancing at him at all. So! he gasped. She wanted to break it off, too.

That made it harder.

The opening night of the play should have been his compensation. The college auditorium was full, with sixteen people standing; President and Mrs. Bull and Mr. Pridmore and a man from Buffalo, New York, were there; and sixteen newspapers were represented, in the persons of two student correspondents.

But except for Teckla Schaum, Edith Minton and Mrs. Bull, nobody congratulated Professor Planish, the director. In fact, most of the mob did not know there was such a thing as a director, and it was the actors and the student orchestra whom the groundlings applauded. When the comic Irish hired man tried to be Irish and comic, this supposedly cultured audience (the Professor noted bitterly) clapped and whistled as though it hadn’t been the director who had hammered every ringing “Shure an’ Oi will” into that stiff Pottawattamie County larynx.

The hall was rich in college flags and fragrant bundles of kinnikinick; the light caressed the actors capering up there in the magic frame of the stage picture; and even old Professor Eakins leaned forward with a refined leer. But no one looked gratefully at Professor Planish; no one knew.

He had to force himself to go back between acts and congratulate his cast. They scarcely heard him, for they knew how good they were, even if they blissfully didn’t know how good they weren’t. He made much of ignoring Peony, but as she was helping shift scenery, she did not notice. He left by the stage entrance and walked half-way around the building to the lobby, chilled in the darkness of an early November night, more chilled in the wind of man’s ingratitude and woman’s greed. In the lobby, he posed a little, not too conspicuously, but it did no good. President Bull said only, “I think they are doing very well.”

THEY!

Mrs. Bull, Teckla and Edith Minton did recognize him as somebody they had seen somewhere, but the rest of the herd did not look at him — they were right there at the Battle of Waterloo, and Wellington was riding past them, and all they talked about was the costumes of the lesser drummer-boys.

After the play he went home, with the curtest of congratulations to the cast and the stage crew. And Peony had had the nerve to smile at him as if everything were all right!

He was extremely angry with Peony. And it scarcely seemed worth while now to have attended two real stage plays in New York and one in New Haven in order to equip himself as a professional director.

He sat in his room, and earnestly kept from telephoning to Peony at Lambda House. She might have known, mightn’t she, that he was doing this, and have telephoned to him instead? Mightn’t she?

For the first time in his life, Professor Planish had insomnia, which to him had been merely a silly word, like prolegomenon. He had sometimes lain awake for five minutes, but then his face, tucked deep into the pillow, would turn peaceful and childish and still. Now, he went to bed tired and drowsy, but there was no sleep. It simply was not there. He was as astonished as though he should put down his hand and find his familiar legs missing.

This was all nonsense. He’d lie still and quit thinking about Peony and Teckla and Edith; he’d relax. He did relax, so elaborately that he was frantic with the tension of keeping himself limp.

All right then; hell with it. He just wouldn’t do anything. He’d trick himself. He’d pretend not to notice himself, and drift off into sleep.

None of this strategy worked, and he kept on being very noticeable indeed to himself. He was sleepy and there was no sleep. The machine, always as dependable as light or air, was not working.

It was with surprise, and some pride in finding himself so complex a person, that he realized that this was insomnia — the sort of thing that Mrs. Bull boasted of having. Well, he WAS a case! Insomnia! Hopeless love and self-sacrifice and a theatrical opening and insomnia all on the same day!

He became bored even by his singularity. It was interesting to have spiritual distress up to the point of insomnia, but he wanted to get some sleep along with it. He was becoming distinctly tireder, but ever more resolutely awake. Well, why not give up the insomnia for the present, and try it tomorrow night? Just now, he needed a little sleep, to be fresh for his Oral Persuasion class in the morning.

The insomnia would not be given up. It calmly stayed on, and Professor Planish was annoyed.

Well, he was a man of the world and a psychologist. He’d rise and smoke a cigarette and relax and lie down again. Certainly. He was one who could always turn the current of his thoughts.

He smoked the cigarette and lay down again, and instantly he was as awake and quietly frantic as ever.

He seemed to be in an unfamiliar and unwelcoming world, with its own cold tone and every sensation different from the secure world of daytime. Nothing could be identified. There was a rattle that might be far off, on the campus, and might be fearfully near him, in the house — something like the rattle of a milk wagon or a lame man walking or clicks from a revolver. The half-drawn window shade quivered with but little breeze, and its half glow seemed to change, as though some one were passing between it and the street lamp down below. The night sounds were woven together, defying his vulgar daytime ears to identify them.

He had been seeing images of Peony, her young breast and her smile of friendly irony, but now he was not thinking at all, nor feeling. He floated in a sublimated current in which no thought was definite, no emotion quite real.

The urgent whistle of the Chicago Special, hastening to the East and all its glories, awoke him, and his square face moved with smiling as in half-dreams he was certain that some day he would take that train and be welcomed in lofty rooms by millionaires and poets and actresses. But he wanted to know them so that he might take their friendship and glory to Peony, he thought in his descending sleep.

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