THEY had four hours in New York between trains. The one thing Babbitt wished to see was the Pennsylvania Hotel, which had been built since his last visit. He stared up at it, muttering, “Twenty-two hundred rooms and twenty-two hundred baths! That’s got everything in the world beat. Lord, their turnover must be — well, suppose price of rooms is four to eight dollars a day, and I suppose maybe some ten and — four times twenty-two hundred-say six times twenty-two hundred — well, anyway, with restaurants and everything, say summers between eight and fifteen thousand a day. Every day! I never thought I’d see a thing like that! Some town! Of course the average fellow in Zenith has got more Individual Initiative than the fourflushers here, but I got to hand it to New York. Yes, sir, town, you’re all right — some ways. Well, old Paulski, I guess we’ve seen everything that’s worth while. How’ll we kill the rest of the time? Movie?”
But Paul desired to see a liner. “Always wanted to go to Europe — and, by thunder, I will, too, some day before I past out,” he sighed.
From a rough wharf on the North River they stared at the stern of the Aquitania and her stacks and wireless antenna lifted above the dock-house which shut her in.
“By golly,” Babbitt droned, “wouldn’t be so bad to go over to the Old Country and take a squint at all these ruins, and the place where Shakespeare was born. And think of being able to order a drink whenever you wanted one! Just range up to a bar and holler out loud, ‘Gimme a cocktail, and darn the police!’ Not bad at all. What juh like to see, over there, Paulibus?”
Paul did not answer. Babbitt turned. Paul was standing with clenched fists, head drooping, staring at the liner as in terror. His thin body, seen against the summer-glaring planks of the wharf, was childishly meager.
Again, “What would you hit for on the other side, Paul?”
Scowling at the steamer, his breast heaving, Paul whispered, “Oh, my God!” While Babbitt watched him anxiously he snapped, “Come on, let’s get out of this,” and hastened down the wharf, not looking back.
“That’s funny,” considered Babbitt. “The boy didn’t care for seeing the ocean boats after all. I thought he’d be interested in ’em.”
Though he exulted, and made sage speculations about locomotive horse-power, as their train climbed the Maine mountain-ridge and from the summit he looked down the shining way among the pines; though he remarked, “Well, by golly!” when he discovered that the station at Katadumcook, the end of the line, was an aged freight-car; Babbitt’s moment of impassioned release came when they sat on a tiny wharf on Lake Sunasquam, awaiting the launch from the hotel. A raft had floated down the lake; between the logs and the shore, the water was transparent, thin-looking, flashing with minnows. A guide in black felt hat with trout-flies in the band, and flannel shirt of a peculiarly daring blue, sat on a log and whittled and was silent. A dog, a good country dog, black and woolly gray, a dog rich in leisure and in meditation, scratched and grunted and slept. The thick sunlight was lavish on the bright water, on the rim of gold-green balsam boughs, the silver birches and tropic ferns, and across the lake it burned on the sturdy shoulders of the mountains. Over everything was a holy peace.
Silent, they loafed on the edge of the wharf, swinging their legs above the water. The immense tenderness of the place sank into Babbitt, and he murmured, “I’d just like to sit here — the rest of my life — and whittle — and sit. And never hear a typewriter. Or Stan Graff fussing in the ‘phone. Or Rone and Ted scrapping. Just sit. Gosh!”
He patted Paul’s shoulder. “How does it strike you, old snoozer?”
“Oh, it’s darn good, Georgie. There’s something sort of eternal about it.”
For once, Babbitt understood him.
Their launch rounded the bend; at the head of the lake, under a mountain slope, they saw the little central dining-shack of their hotel and the crescent of squat log cottages which served as bedrooms. They landed, and endured the critical examination of the habitues who had been at the hotel for a whole week. In their cottage, with its high stone fireplace, they hastened, as Babbitt expressed it, to “get into some regular he-togs.” They came out; Paul in an old gray suit and soft white shirt; Babbitt in khaki shirt and vast and flapping khaki trousers. It was excessively new khaki; his rimless spectacles belonged to a city office; and his face was not tanned but a city pink. He made a discordant noise in the place. But with infinite satisfaction he slapped his legs and crowed, “Say, this is getting back home, eh?”
They stood on the wharf before the hotel. He winked at Paul and drew from his back pocket a plug of chewing-tobacco, a vulgarism forbidden in the Babbitt home. He took a chew, beaming and wagging his head as he tugged at it. “Um! Um! Maybe I haven’t been hungry for a wad of eating-tobacco! Have some?”
They looked at each other in a grin of understanding. Paul took the plug, gnawed at it. They stood quiet, their jaws working. They solemnly spat, one after the other, into the placid water. They stretched voluptuously, with lifted arms and arched backs. From beyond the mountains came the shuffling sound of a far-off train. A trout leaped, and fell back in a silver circle. They sighed together.
They had a week before their families came. Each evening they planned to get up early and fish before breakfast. Each morning they lay abed till the breakfast-bell, pleasantly conscious that there were no efficient wives to rouse them. The mornings were cold; the fire was kindly as they dressed.
Paul was distressingly clean, but Babbitt reveled in a good sound dirtiness, in not having to shave till his spirit was moved to it. He treasured every grease spot and fish-scale on his new khaki trousers.
All morning they fished unenergetically, or tramped the dim and aqueous-lighted trails among rank ferns and moss sprinkled with crimson bells. They slept all afternoon, and till midnight played stud-poker with the guides. Poker was a serious business to the guides. They did not gossip; they shuffled the thick greasy cards with a deft ferocity menacing to the “sports;” and Joe Paradise, king of guides, was sarcastic to loiterers who halted the game even to scratch.
At midnight, as Paul and he blundered to their cottage over the pungent wet grass, and pine-roots confusing in the darkness, Babbitt rejoiced that he did not have to explain to his wife where he had been all evening.
They did not talk much. The nervous loquacity and opinionation of the Zenith Athletic Club dropped from them. But when they did talk they slipped into the naive intimacy of college days. Once they drew their canoe up to the bank of Sunasquam Water, a stream walled in by the dense green of the hardhack. The sun roared on the green jungle but in the shade was sleepy peace, and the water was golden and rippling. Babbitt drew his hand through the cool flood, and mused:
“We never thought we’d come to Maine together!”
“No. We’ve never done anything the way we thought we would. I expected to live in Germany with my granddad’s people, and study the fiddle.”
“That’s so. And remember how I wanted to be a lawyer and go into politics? I still think I might have made a go of it. I’ve kind of got the gift of the gab — anyway, I can think on my feet, and make some kind of a spiel on most anything, and of course that’s the thing you need in politics. By golly, Ted’s going to law-school, even if I didn’t! Well — I guess it’s worked out all right. Myra’s been a fine wife. And Zilla means well, Paulibus.”
“Yes. Up here, I figure out all sorts of plans to keep her amused. I kind of feel life is going to be different, now that we’re getting a good rest and can go back and start over again.”
“I hope so, old boy.” Shyly: “Say, gosh, it’s been awful nice to sit around and loaf and gamble and act regular, with you along, you old horse-thief!”
“Well, you know what it means to me, Georgie. Saved my life.”
The shame of emotion overpowered them; they cursed a little, to prove they were good rough fellows; and in a mellow silence, Babbitt whistling while Paul hummed, they paddled back to the hotel.
Though it was Paul who had seemed overwrought, Babbitt who had been the protecting big brother, Paul became clear-eyed and merry, while Babbitt sank into irritability. He uncovered layer on layer of hidden weariness. At first he had played nimble jester to Paul and for him sought amusements; by the end of the week Paul was nurse, and Babbitt accepted favors with the condescension one always shows a patient nurse.
The day before their families arrived, the women guests at the hotel bubbled, “Oh, isn’t it nice! You must be so excited;” and the proprieties compelled Babbitt and Paul to look excited. But they went to bed early and grumpy.
When Myra appeared she said at once, “Now, we want you boys to go on playing around just as if we weren’t here.”
The first evening, he stayed out for poker with the guides, and she said in placid merriment, “My! You’re a regular bad one!” The second evening, she groaned sleepily, “Good heavens, are you going to be out every single night?” The third evening, he didn’t play poker.
He was tired now in every cell. “Funny! Vacation doesn’t seem to have done me a bit of good,” he lamented. “Paul’s frisky as a colt, but I swear, I’m crankier and nervouser than when I came up here.”
He had three weeks of Maine. At the end of the second week he began to feel calm, and interested in life. He planned an expedition to climb Sachem Mountain, and wanted to camp overnight at Box Car Pond. He was curiously weak, yet cheerful, as though he had cleansed his veins of poisonous energy and was filling them with wholesome blood.
He ceased to be irritated by Ted’s infatuation with a waitress (his seventh tragic affair this year); he played catch with Ted, and with pride taught him to cast a fly in the pine-shadowed silence of Skowtuit Pond.
At the end he sighed, “Hang it, I’m just beginning to enjoy my vacation. But, well, I feel a lot better. And it’s going to be one great year! Maybe the Real Estate Board will elect me president, instead of some fuzzy old-fashioned faker like Chan Mott.”
On the way home, whenever he went into the smoking-compartment he felt guilty at deserting his wife and angry at being expected to feel guilty, but each time he triumphed, “Oh, this is going to be a great year, a great old year!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57