Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 9

For three nights the insomnia returned, with its mockery. For three nights he told himself that he was protecting Peony and her reputation; for three nights he retorted that he was really afraid only for his own job, which he would lose if it should be known that he was a tamperer with virgins. It seemed to him that his rooms, with their suggestions of a professorial life, their piles of The Annals of the Northern and Midwestern Society for Semantics, brought on his illness. If he could go off to a fresh rude place, then he could sleep.

After the third night of torture, on an edged late afternoon of November he tramped out to the Pridmore shack, by the rustic shore of Lake Elizabeth. He had told no one but his landlady. He was not in a mood to have Teckla come mothering him.

The six-mile walk, the first two miles a panting discomfort but the rest a vigorous swing, deep-breathing through the dusk, with the smell of leaf mold and fresh lake water and cornstalks about him, restored his life. He carried a professorial briefcase, but he swung it buoyantly.

He had his own key to the shack. Whistling, he opened the door, groped in the one rough room, lighted a lantern, lighted a fire in the small stove. The room smelled pleasantly of fresh-cut wood and burning resin, and in it there was healing and woodland peace. From his respectable briefcase, of unscarred and glossy tan leather with GP stamped on it in sleek gold, he took out one large pork chop.

He dropped it into the frying pan, and the sizzle was cheerful and somehow manly. Sure. He was an outdoor man as well as a deep scholar, and some day he was going to cut down a tree. Maybe not too big a one, for a start.

He gnawed at the pork chop when it was practically cooked and, more daintily, he ate a chocolate bar, and humped over in a chair beside the stove, his arms hanging between his knees and, without quite remembering what it was, he hummed a lyric of his boyhood:

You hold her hand and she holds yours,

And that’s a ve-ry good sign

That she’s your tootsy-wootsy

In the GOOD old SUM-mer TIME.

Yes. Everything would come out all right, in the providence of God and President T. Austin Bull and the courageous Professor Planish. He laughed, he opened the stove door and spat into it as gallantly as a lumberjack. And then he yawned. . . . He’d loaf a moment before basking in the pages of The Americanization of Edward Bok, which was in his briefcase, just slightly spotted with pork.

Still dressed, and purring, he lay meditatively on the lower bunk. Just how everything would come out all right, he was not quite sure, but he’d do something clever — he’d count on Mrs. Bull — count on Peony, who was smarter than any of the faculty — good old summer time and that’s a very good sign — summer time, summer meadows, deep meadows with Peony —

The wooden latch of the cottage was creaking. A thousand years later, the door was closing and whole armies were blundering across the room with thunderous efforts to be mice. If he just kept hidden in that deep soft dark well of sleeping, they would go away and not torture him.

A whole history after that, he had a witch-led illusion that he had heard Peony’s giggle. Giggle — chuckle — low laugh — what would he call it? Illusion, all illusion. But revolving aeons after that, he came sharp awake as some one sat on the edge of his bunk. Bewildered, defenseless, he heaved up his ponderous head — and, by God, it was Peony Jackson sitting there.

“Hello,” said Peony.

“What in the — How did you —”

“Why, I walked, same as you did, great one. My gracious, that’s a long dark walk through all those woods, even if I did borrow Mrs. Hilp’s electric torch. Twice I got lost, and I’ve looked into more darn shacks that WEREN’T yours — you’d be surprised if you knew how many shacks on this ole lake aren’t this one, even after you prowl around ’em and burgle ’em —”

“But how in-”

“Your landlady said she thought you’d come out here. Of course I knew in a general sort of way. When we had the Lambda picnic out here on the lake, all the girls pointed out the Secret Love Nest of the Widow Schaum and Professor Planish.”

“R!”

“But it’s simply classic how different it looks in the dark, with all the cunning ole tree roots reaching out to trip you up.”

“LOVE NEST! Now what do you mean by —”

“Oh, yes. That’s one of the reasons why you’ll have to marry me. Professor Planish, how could you! The other reason is that it’s now seven minutes past midnight —”

“What?”

“You heard me, dearest. So I’ll have to stay all night, now — Cheer up, poor lamb. You don’t really have to marry me, you know. I don’t care a hoot.” She bent, to kiss him lightly. “I want you to quit worrying about that poor lil freshman gal, Jackson. ‘Professor, my feeling is that a girl like her, with her upbringing and her father the best wholesale grocer in Southeastern Minnesota, a girl that would do a thing like that, absolutely pursuing that poor man out to the shack where he’d fled to hide from her after he’d been so careful and not even said a word to her after the college show, why, she deserves all she gets, because she must ‘ve known what she was doing.’ And did she know?”

Peony was off the bunk, swiftly crossing to his sacred briefcase, while he was still rubbing sleep out of his hair and eyes. “Of course she did, the little devil!” said Peony.

Busy and monkeylike as always, brimming and gay with monkeyism, she was pawing into his briefcase and bringing out his chaste bachelor possessions. “Hm. Silver-mounted hair brush. Pretty choice . . . Squibb’s toothpaste. You don’t keep the tube rolled up tightly enough. I see where I’ll have to educate you . . . A book? Now what do you need a book for? Don’t you KNOW? . . . And pajamas. Aw, the sweet lil baby-blue pajamas! Aw, Gid-eon! They’re too sweet for words! With his lil monogram embroidered on his lil pocket! I’ll look lovely in them!”

He was shocked now out of his immense lassitude and he was on his feet, weaving over to her. “Baby, you’ve got to go home. I’ll take you home.”

“Do you think it would be any better for my reputation to have people see me walking into Kinnikinick with you at two o’clock in the morning?”

“Why —”

“Besides, I’m in Davenport. Staying overnight with my aunt. As I explained to Dr. Minton. Golly, I’ll have to do some work on that aunt. How old do you think she’d be? Gideon, I’m going to stay. You know I’m always right. I always have been, all these years with you, haven’t I!”

He rather thought that she always had been right, all these years, and anyway, with this particular young woman, how did you persuade her to let you be gallant if she didn’t see anything in gallantry? With a prodigious effort, Professor Planish rose above the middle-class chivalry which he believed himself to have exemplified all these years. He kissed her, very close to her, and, hastily getting away from that, he commanded — only it sounded more as though he was petitioning —“All right. Probably it would be safer for you not to show up till tomorrow. You crawl in that lower bunk the way you are, and go to sleep, and I’ll take the upper one. And I’ll be good.”

“Of course you’ll be good, Professor Planish. You’d always be good to a poor freshman, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh, shut up! You better take your shoes off.”

“Do you honestly think that would be safe? To take my shoes off?”

“Oh, please shut up, darling! Good night.”

With dignity he hoisted himself to the upper bunk. She had turned down the lantern but she had not blown it out. As in a Pullman berth, he wriggled out of his coat and vest and tie, tried to hang them on the edge of the bunk, then in fury threw them into the air, to flop on the floor.

Lying rigid, he realized that the room was rustling with the soft sound of buttons, of a zipper, of garters being unhooked, of the tiny plump of silk on the table. He looked over the edge and he could see his own pajamas being fantastically flapped in the air as she put them on. He lay back, sternly, and heard her blowing out the lantern; heard then, in the lake-whispering darkness, small bare feet crossing the floor, and the creak of the lower bunk.

In twenty seconds he went through a million light-years of sensations which he supposed to be thoughts. He had lost his fear of her and of her encroachment. He knew that it was not that she “trusted him,” but that, for some imponderable reason, she cared enough for this poor thing, himself, not to care whether he was to be “trusted” or not. He knew that he was now married, in the most old-fashioned and undivorceable monogamy.

Then, terrifyingly, she was sobbing, down there below him. He was out of his bunk like an alarm rocket, sitting by her and begging, “What is it, what is it, sweet?”

“I feel so shamed!”

“Oh, no!”

“Shamed and scared and lonely. It did seem like such a bright idea, back in town. I thought, ‘Maybe he’s lonely for me.’ I thought, ‘Maybe he wants me, dreadfully.’ And I was so busy rushing out here, stumbling and getting sand in my shoes and losing my way and laughing — I thought it was fun — I never really thought till now, maybe you don’t want me here. It’s hard to realize, maybe to you I’m just another fool girl —”

He as nearly came of age then as Gideon Planish ever could. He grunted, “Move over.” He patted her head down on his shoulder, and as her whimper died away and she was trustfully sleeping, moving her head only to burrow closer into his shoulder, he lay awake with no insomnia but with happiness and security.

They laughed as she dressed in the morning — she was approximately modest about it, but not a fanatic. They breakfasted on the end of the chocolate bar and pure cold water. They tramped, arms about each other while he swung his briefcase high, two miles to a farmhouse, where he hired a Ford. In town, while she sat on the floor of the car, out of sight, he recovered from the station the suitcase with which she had ostensibly been traveling, then drove her to Aloosia, and put her and the suitcase on the train there, so that she could return from Davenport in all decorum.

By this time they had been married, had honeymooned in Europe for a half year, had produced a family — four sons, and seen United States Senator Planish into his second term in Washington, and they thought extremely well of it all.

He called on Teckla Schaum that morning at 11:30, which for her was early. Widowhood had made of her a late lier, an avoider of all the problems of boredom which daylight brought to a lone woman.

He was shocked that it meant so little to him now to see Teckla in negligee, while to encounter Peony thus meant so much. He was, in fact, sorry for himself that he should have to feel so sorry for Teckla, but Peony’s valor was with him, and he plunged:

“Honey, I guess the kindest way would be for me to come right out and —”

She wailed, “The kindest way for you would be to wait till I’ve had some coffee before you do whatever unpleasantness you refer to as ‘the kindest thing.’ Would you like a drink?”

“So early? No indeed!”

“Well, don’t be so virtuous about it. Sit down and read the paper and I’ll be with you in a minute.”

He felt that Teckla was being pretty frivolous. Frivolity was all right for a girl like Peony, but Mrs. Schaum was supposed to be tragedy in a black veil — Oh, let the poor thing cling to her fool’s paradise for a few minutes more, the poor thing.

She was back in the room, dressed in rosy gingham, before he had finished sneering at the morning editorials. She said calmly, “Gid, I imagine you’ve come to tell me that you’ve finally managed to fall for some girl. Is that it?”

“Something like that, I’m afraid. But listen, dear: it’s because I was a lonely scholar and you accustomed me to a woman’s tender care that I ever began looking around —”

He was wondering whether he could get away with it. He was wondering why he was always honest — within reason — with Peony, yet capable of such acrobatics with other women.

She ignored his craft. “Gid, I suppose you wouldn’t understand it, would you, if I said that I used to be so fierce and proud and pure that no one ever dared to try and use me; that if I’ve ever humbled myself to you, it’s because Max’s death broke me; and that I’m still at least proud enough not to hate you? I don’t want to know about your girl, and I shan’t snoop. Go with my blessing, if you still care for it.”

“I do care for it, and I do need it, Teckla. I won’t try to be proud —”

“Is that a crack?”

“No, honest to God it isn’t! I mean, I can’t afford to be proud, because if your father, as a trustee, got a down on me, it would probably ruin me, whereas if he thought it was you that — Don’t you see?”

“I suppose that’s fair. He might think you’d been trifling with the poor widow-woman. I suppose he’s so strong himself, in a queer, lonely, rustic way, that it wouldn’t ever occur to him that, far from being too strong and vicious, you were so weak that you were perfectly willing to be my house cat. I’ll have to tell him I threw you out —”

He told her that he’d see her in hell first. He was for a moment willing to give up Peony and the mild honor of wearing a professorial white collar rather than endure her sneering. Then she kissed him, as fondly as she ever had, and speculated, “Maybe you will grow up. Maybe I’m fond enough of you to want you to. Maybe that girl, whoever she is — oh, blast her! — can do it. I never could. So run along, and I’ll take care of Father Pridmore — Oh, Gid, be true to that poor girl, won’t you? Women need loyalty so much; they’re so bewildered when they don’t get it, no matter who they are, young or old or famous or humble.”

“I will!” said Professor Planish.

He had always been a good hand at Seeing the Proper People. He was calling upon the president’s wife at five o’clock; he was drinking tea, with no especial distaste, and being eloquent.

Mrs. Bull was the first of many influential women whom he was to call “dear lady.”

Dear lady, he explained, he was throwing himself upon her mercy; he was turning to her as the only human being who would understand. He was in love. (But purely.) Believe it or not (only she’d better believe it if she didn’t want to mangle his heart), the first thing that had attracted him to this girl (no, wait, he’d tell her the name later) was that she was so much like Mrs. Bull; the same aristocratic manner, the same womanly sympathy, the same gimlet of intelligence and, if he might be so brash, the same agate eyes.

But, and here were the old accustomed woes, and Abelard and Heloise, and Rutherford B. Hayes and the postmistress, his girl was an undergraduate, here in Kinnikinick, and according to college regulations, and possibly the Bible and the State Constitution of Iowa, if they were married, she would have to drop out of college and less agile minds might even hint that there had been goings-on inconceivable in a rhetoric professor. And what would a lofty Puritan like President T. Austin Bull think about a teacher who confessed himself more enthralled by all women who reminded him of Mrs. T. Austin Bull than he was by the use of the semi-colon?

“You just leave that man Austy to me!” beamed Mrs. Bull. “Now what is your girl’s name?”

At Christmas Holiday he was, for the first time, part of an authentic home.

There had been little of home in the thin brick house of his father in Vulcan — only a resentful contest between parents and children, between brother and brother. Professor Planish did have two brothers and a sister, but since he had left home they had existed for him only as a theory.

This Christmas, Peony masterfully carried him up to her family, to Whipple Jackson, vestryman and wholesale grocer, in Faribault. The place was bursting with brothers, sisters, aunts, sets of Walter Scott and Washington Irving, fudge, plum pudding, mandolin-playing, rum punch and family prayers immediately followed by family laughter; a wide white house that had thrown off wings and porches as a fountain throws off spray, up on the bluff near the Immaculate Conception church, looking across the noble Cannon River Valley to the towers of a whole tribe of preparatory schools.

President Bull had forgiven Peony and Professor Planish; he even seemed to think the marriage an excellent escape. He and the aged dean would permit Peony to take all the courses she wanted, as a special student, and they would manage to break the laws legally and give her a degree.

Teckla had had Peony to tea, and advised her about buying cuts of beef. But Dr. Edith Minton had looked at Professor Planish with astonishment and a certain fear in her eyes. That was the only thing he had to brush off in order to be riotous at Christmas. He did brush it off, very satisfactorily.

His welcome in the Jackson mansion was as warm as the forgiveness at Kinnikinick. Whipple Jackson was a rangy, nervous, good-tempered man, with ideas. “Gideon, my boy,” he said, “Peony tells me you have a hankering to get into politics.”

“I don’t know, but anyway, I don’t want to be stuck at teaching all my life.”

“Well, if you ever want to start in here, let me know and I’ll give you a job and introduce you to all the Boys. You’ll like Faribault — best prep schools in the country, and did you know Faribault is the peony capital of the world? That’s how I happened to name my girl. But if you’re going in for politics — Belong to a church, Gid?”

“Presbyterian.”

“That’s not so bad. The voters sure do like a man to be liberal in morals and illiberal in theology. But what about a lodge? Do you belong to the Masons? Oddfellows? Elks? Modern Woodmen? Knights of Pythias? No? Better join ’em all; fine bunch of friends and they’ll all vote for you, and speaking both as a patriotic citizen and a good churchman, there’s only one thing a politician ought to bother about — the votes. Heh?”

“That’s right, all right,” said Professor Planish fervently, rejoicing at having a family to back and guide him. They were married, Peony and he, in Easter vacation, 1922, with the Bishop starring. But if Peony played nothing more than ingenue at the wedding, it was she who took the lead when they returned to Kinnikinick, and she who chose a gold-and-scarlet cabinet to brighten up their cottage, and Professor Planish was so proudly in love that he liked it.

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