BABBITT’S preparations for leaving the office to its feeble self during the hour and a half of his lunch-period were somewhat less elaborate than the plans for a general European war.
He fretted to Miss McGoun, “What time you going to lunch? Well, make sure Miss Bannigan is in then. Explain to her that if Wiedenfeldt calls up, she’s to tell him I’m already having the title traced. And oh, b’ the way, remind me to-morrow to have Penniman trace it. Now if anybody comes in looking for a cheap house, remember we got to shove that Bangor Road place off onto somebody. If you need me, I’ll be at the Athletic Club. And — uh — And — uh — I’ll be back by two.”
He dusted the cigar-ashes off his vest. He placed a difficult unanswered letter on the pile of unfinished work, that he might not fail to attend to it that afternoon. (For three noons, now, he had placed the same letter on the unfinished pile.) He scrawled on a sheet of yellow backing-paper the memorandum: “See abt apt h drs,” which gave him an agreeable feeling of having already seen about the apartment-house doors.
He discovered that he was smoking another cigar. He threw it away, protesting, “Darn it, I thought you’d quit this darn smoking!” He courageously returned the cigar-box to the correspondence-file, locked it up, hid the key in a more difficult place, and raged, “Ought to take care of myself. And need more exercise — walk to the club, every single noon — just what I’ll do — every noon-cut out this motoring all the time.”
The resolution made him feel exemplary. Immediately after it he decided that this noon it was too late to walk.
It took but little more time to start his car and edge it into the traffic than it would have taken to walk the three and a half blocks to the club.
As he drove he glanced with the fondness of familiarity at the buildings.
A stranger suddenly dropped into the business-center of Zenith could not have told whether he was in a city of Oregon or Georgia, Ohio or Maine, Oklahoma or Manitoba. But to Babbitt every inch was individual and stirring. As always he noted that the California Building across the way was three stories lower, therefore three stories less beautiful, than his own Reeves Building. As always when he passed the Parthenon Shoe Shine Parlor, a one-story hut which beside the granite and red-brick ponderousness of the old California Building resembled a bath-house under a cliff, he commented, “Gosh, ought to get my shoes shined this afternoon. Keep forgetting it.” At the Simplex Office Furniture Shop, the National Cash Register Agency, he yearned for a dictaphone, for a typewriter which would add and multiply, as a poet yearns for quartos or a physician for radium.
At the Nobby Men’s Wear Shop he took his left hand off the steering-wheel to touch his scarf, and thought well of himself as one who bought expensive ties “and could pay cash for ’em, too, by golly;” and at the United Cigar Store, with its crimson and gold alertness, he reflected, “Wonder if I need some cigars — idiot — plumb forgot — going t’ cut down my fool smoking.” He looked at his bank, the Miners’ and Drovers’ National, and considered how clever and solid he was to bank with so marbled an establishment. His high moment came in the clash of traffic when he was halted at the corner beneath the lofty Second National Tower. His car was banked with four others in a line of steel restless as cavalry, while the cross town traffic, limousines and enormous moving-vans and insistent motor-cycles, poured by; on the farther corner, pneumatic riveters rang on the sun-plated skeleton of a new building; and out of this tornado flashed the inspiration of a familiar face, and a fellow Booster shouted, “H’ are you, George!” Babbitt waved in neighborly affection, and slid on with the traffic as the policeman lifted his hand. He noted how quickly his car picked up. He felt superior and powerful, like a shuttle of polished steel darting in a vast machine.
As always he ignored the next two blocks, decayed blocks not yet reclaimed from the grime and shabbiness of the Zenith of 1885. While he was passing the five-and-ten-cent store, the Dakota Lodging House, Concordia Hall with its lodge-rooms and the offices of fortune-tellers and chiropractors, he thought of how much money he made, and he boasted a little and worried a little and did old familiar sums:
“Four hundred fifty plunks this morning from the Lyte deal. But taxes due. Let’s see: I ought to pull out eight thousand net this year, and save fifteen hundred of that — no, not if I put up garage and — Let’s see: six hundred and forty clear last month, and twelve times six-forty makes — makes — let see: six times twelve is seventy-two hundred and — Oh rats, anyway, I’ll make eight thousand — gee now, that’s not so bad; mighty few fellows pulling down eight thousand dollars a year — eight thousand good hard iron dollars — bet there isn’t more than five per cent. of the people in the whole United States that make more than Uncle George does, by golly! Right up at the top of the heap! But — Way expenses are — Family wasting gasoline, and always dressed like millionaires, and sending that eighty a month to Mother — And all these stenographers and salesmen gouging me for every cent they can get —”
The effect of his scientific budget-planning was that he felt at once triumphantly wealthy and perilously poor, and in the midst of these dissertations he stopped his car, rushed into a small news-and-miscellany shop, and bought the electric cigar-lighter which he had coveted for a week. He dodged his conscience by being jerky and noisy, and by shouting at the clerk, “Guess this will prett’ near pay for itself in matches, eh?”
It was a pretty thing, a nickeled cylinder with an almost silvery socket, to be attached to the dashboard of his car. It was not only, as the placard on the counter observed, “a dandy little refinement, lending the last touch of class to a gentleman’s auto,” but a priceless time-saver. By freeing him from halting the car to light a match, it would in a month or two easily save ten minutes.
As he drove on he glanced at it. “Pretty nice. Always wanted one,” he said wistfully. “The one thing a smoker needs, too.”
Then he remembered that he had given up smoking.
“Darn it!” he mourned. “Oh well, I suppose I’ll hit a cigar once in a while. And — Be a great convenience for other folks. Might make just the difference in getting chummy with some fellow that would put over a sale. And — Certainly looks nice there. Certainly is a mighty clever little jigger. Gives the last touch of refinement and class. I— By golly, I guess I can afford it if I want to! Not going to be the only member of this family that never has a single doggone luxury!”
Thus, laden with treasure, after three and a half blocks of romantic adventure, he drove up to the club.
The Zenith Athletic Club is not athletic and it isn’t exactly a club, but it is Zenith in perfection. It has an active and smoke-misted billiard room, it is represented by baseball and football teams, and in the pool and the gymnasium a tenth of the members sporadically try to reduce. But most of its three thousand members use it as a cafe in which to lunch, play cards, tell stories, meet customers, and entertain out-of town uncles at dinner. It is the largest club in the city, and its chief hatred is the conservative Union Club, which all sound members of the Athletic call “a rotten, snobbish, dull, expensive old hole — not one Good Mixer in the place — you couldn’t hire me to join.” Statistics show that no member of the Athletic has ever refused election to the Union, and of those who are elected, sixty-seven per cent. resign from the Athletic and are thereafter heard to say, in the drowsy sanctity of the Union lounge, “The Athletic would be a pretty good hotel, if it were more exclusive.”
The Athletic Club building is nine stories high, yellow brick with glassy roof-garden above and portico of huge limestone columns below. The lobby, with its thick pillars of porous Caen stone, its pointed vaulting, and a brown glazed-tile floor like well-baked bread-crust, is a combination of cathedral-crypt and rathskellar. The members rush into the lobby as though they were shopping and hadn’t much time for it. Thus did Babbitt enter, and to the group standing by the cigar-counter he whooped, “How’s the boys? How’s the boys? Well, well, fine day!”
Jovially they whooped back — Vergil Gunch, the coal-dealer, Sidney Finkelstein, the ladies’-ready-to-wear buyer for Parcher & Stein’s department-store, and Professor Joseph K. Pumphrey, owner of the Riteway Business College and instructor in Public Speaking, Business English, Scenario Writing, and Commercial Law. Though Babbitt admired this savant, and appreciated Sidney Finkelstein as “a mighty smart buyer and a good liberal spender,” it was to Vergil Gunch that he turned with enthusiasm. Mr. Gunch was president of the Boosters’ Club, a weekly lunch-club, local chapter of a national organization which promoted sound business and friendliness among Regular Fellows. He was also no less an official than Esteemed Leading Knight in the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, and it was rumored that at the next election he would be a candidate for Exalted Ruler. He was a jolly man, given to oratory and to chumminess with the arts. He called on the famous actors and vaudeville artists when they came to town, gave them cigars, addressed them by their first names, and — sometimes — succeeded in bringing them to the Boosters’ lunches to give The Boys a Free Entertainment. He was a large man with hair en brosse, and he knew the latest jokes, but he played poker close to the chest. It was at his party that Babbitt had sucked in the virus of to-day’s restlessness.
Gunch shouted, “How’s the old Bolsheviki? How do you feel, the morning after the night before?”
“Oh, boy! Some head! That was a regular party you threw, Verg! Hope you haven’t forgotten I took that last cute little jack-pot!” Babbitt bellowed. (He was three feet from Gunch.)
“That’s all right now! What I’ll hand you next time, Georgie! Say, juh notice in the paper the way the New York Assembly stood up to the Reds?”
“You bet I did. That was fine, eh? Nice day to-day.”
“Yes, it’s one mighty fine spring day, but nights still cold.”
“Yeh, you’re right they are! Had to have coupla blankets last night, out on the sleeping-porch. Say, Sid,” Babbitt turned to Finkelstein, the buyer, “got something wanta ask you about. I went out and bought me an electric cigar-lighter for the car, this noon, and —”
“Good hunch!” said Finkelstein, while even the learned Professor Pumphrey, a bulbous man with a pepper-and-salt cutaway and a pipe-organ voice, commented, “That makes a dandy accessory. Cigar-lighter gives tone to the dashboard.”
“Yep, finally decided I’d buy me one. Got the best on the market, the clerk said it was. Paid five bucks for it. Just wondering if I got stuck. What do they charge for ’em at the store, Sid?”
Finkelstein asserted that five dollars was not too great a sum, not for a really high-class lighter which was suitably nickeled and provided with connections of the very best quality. “I always say — and believe me, I base it on a pretty fairly extensive mercantile experience — the best is the cheapest in the long run. Of course if a fellow wants to be a Jew about it, he can get cheap junk, but in the long RUN, the cheapest thing is — the best you can get! Now you take here just th’ other day: I got a new top for my old boat and some upholstery, and I paid out a hundred and twenty-six fifty, and of course a lot of fellows would say that was too much — Lord, if the Old Folks — they live in one of these hick towns up-state and they simply can’t get onto the way a city fellow’s mind works, and then, of course, they’re Jews, and they’d lie right down and die if they knew Sid had anted up a hundred and twenty-six bones. But I don’t figure I was stuck, George, not a bit. Machine looks brand new now — not that it’s so darned old, of course; had it less ‘n three years, but I give it hard service; never drive less ‘n a hundred miles on Sunday and, uh — Oh, I don’t really think you got stuck, George. In the LONG run, the best is, you might say, it’s unquestionably the cheapest.”
“That’s right,” said Vergil Gunch. “That’s the way I look at it. If a fellow is keyed up to what you might call intensive living, the way you get it here in Zenith — all the hustle and mental activity that’s going on with a bunch of live-wires like the Boosters and here in the Z.A.C., why, he’s got to save his nerves by having the best.”
Babbitt nodded his head at every fifth word in the roaring rhythm; and by the conclusion, in Gunch’s renowned humorous vein, he was enchanted:
“Still, at that, George, don’t know’s you can afford it. I’ve heard your business has been kind of under the eye of the gov’ment since you stole the tail of Eathorne Park and sold it!”
“Oh, you’re a great little josher, Verg. But when it comes to kidding, how about this report that you stole the black marble steps off the post-office and sold ’em for high-grade coal!” In delight Babbitt patted Gunch’s back, stroked his arm.
“That’s all right, but what I want to know is: who’s the real-estate shark that bought that coal for his apartment-houses?”
“I guess that’ll hold you for a while, George!” said Finkelstein. “I’ll tell you, though, boys, what I did hear: George’s missus went into the gents’ wear department at Parcher’s to buy him some collars, and before she could give his neck-size the clerk slips her some thirteens. ‘How juh know the size?’ says Mrs. Babbitt, and the clerk says, ‘Men that let their wives buy collars for ’em always wear thirteen, madam.’ How’s that! That’s pretty good, eh? How’s that, eh? I guess that’ll about fix you, George!”
“I— I—” Babbitt sought for amiable insults in answer. He stopped, stared at the door. Paul Riesling was coming in. Babbitt cried, “See you later, boys,” and hastened across the lobby. He was, just then, neither the sulky child of the sleeping-porch, the domestic tyrant of the breakfast table, the crafty money-changer of the Lyte–Purdy conference, nor the blaring Good Fellow, the Josher and Regular Guy, of the Athletic Club. He was an older brother to Paul Riesling, swift to defend him, admiring him with a proud and credulous love passing the love of women. Paul and he shook hands solemnly; they smiled as shyly as though they had been parted three years, not three days — and they said:
“How’s the old horse-thief?”
“All right, I guess. How’re you, you poor shrimp?”
“I’m first-rate, you second-hand hunk o’ cheese.”
Reassured thus of their high fondness, Babbitt grunted, “You’re a fine guy, you are! Ten minutes late!” Riesling snapped, “Well, you’re lucky to have a chance to lunch with a gentleman!” They grinned and went into the Neronian washroom, where a line of men bent over the bowls inset along a prodigious slab of marble as in religious prostration before their own images in the massy mirror. Voices thick, satisfied, authoritative, hurtled along the marble walls, bounded from the ceiling of lavender-bordered milky tiles, while the lords of the city, the barons of insurance and law and fertilizers and motor tires, laid down the law for Zenith; announced that the day was warm-indeed, indisputably of spring; that wages were too high and the interest on mortgages too low; that Babe Ruth, the eminent player of baseball, was a noble man; and that “those two nuts at the Climax Vaudeville Theater this week certainly are a slick pair of actors.” Babbitt, though ordinarily his voice was the surest and most episcopal of all, was silent. In the presence of the slight dark reticence of Paul Riesling, he was awkward, he desired to be quiet and firm and deft.
The entrance lobby of the Athletic Club was Gothic, the washroom Roman Imperial, the lounge Spanish Mission, and the reading-room in Chinese Chippendale, but the gem of the club was the dining-room, the masterpiece of Ferdinand Reitman, Zenith’s busiest architect. It was lofty and half-timbered, with Tudor leaded casements, an oriel, a somewhat musicianless musicians’-gallery, and tapestries believed to illustrate the granting of Magna Charta. The open beams had been hand-adzed at Jake Offutt’s car-body works, the hinge; were of hand-wrought iron, the wainscot studded with handmade wooden pegs, and at one end of the room was a heraldic and hooded stone fireplace which the club’s advertising-pamphlet asserted to be not only larger than any of the fireplaces in European castles but of a draught incomparably more scientific. It was also much cleaner, as no fire had ever been built in it.
Half of the tables were mammoth slabs which seated twenty or thirty men. Babbitt usually sat at the one near the door, with a group including Gunch, Finkelstein, Professor Pumphrey, Howard Littlefield, his neighbor, T. Cholmondeley Frink, the poet and advertising-agent, and Orville Jones, whose laundry was in many ways the best in Zenith. They composed a club within the club, and merrily called themselves “The Roughnecks.” To-day as he passed their table the Roughnecks greeted him, “Come on, sit in! You ‘n’ Paul too proud to feed with poor folks? Afraid somebody might stick you for a bottle of Bevo, George? Strikes me you swells are getting awful darn exclusive!”
He thundered, “You bet! We can’t afford to have our reps ruined by being seen with you tightwads!” and guided Paul to one of the small tables beneath the musicians’-gallery. He felt guilty. At the Zenith Athletic Club, privacy was very bad form. But he wanted Paul to himself.
That morning he had advocated lighter lunches and now he ordered nothing but English mutton chop, radishes, peas, deep-dish apple pie, a bit of cheese, and a pot of coffee with cream, adding, as he did invariably, “And uh — Oh, and you might give me an order of French fried potatoes.” When the chop came he vigorously peppered it and salted it. He always peppered and salted his meat, and vigorously, before tasting it.
Paul and he took up the spring-like quality of the spring, the virtues of the electric cigar-lighter, and the action of the New York State Assembly. It was not till Babbitt was thick and disconsolate with mutton grease that he flung out:
“I wound up a nice little deal with Conrad Lyte this morning that put five hundred good round plunks in my pocket. Pretty nice — pretty nice! And yet — I don’t know what’s the matter with me to-day. Maybe it’s an attack of spring fever, or staying up too late at Verg Gunch’s, or maybe it’s just the winter’s work piling up, but I’ve felt kind of down in the mouth all day long. Course I wouldn’t beef about it to the fellows at the Roughnecks’ Table there, but you — Ever feel that way, Paul? Kind of comes over me: here I’ve pretty much done all the things I ought to; supported my family, and got a good house and a six-cylinder car, and built up a nice little business, and I haven’t any vices ‘specially, except smoking — and I’m practically cutting that out, by the way. And I belong to the church, and play enough golf to keep in trim, and I only associate with good decent fellows. And yet, even so, I don’t know that I’m entirely satisfied!”
It was drawled out, broken by shouts from the neighboring tables, by mechanical love-making to the waitress, by stertorous grunts as the coffee filled him with dizziness and indigestion. He was apologetic and doubtful, and it was Paul, with his thin voice, who pierced the fog:
“Good Lord, George, you don’t suppose it’s any novelty to me to find that we hustlers, that think we’re so all-fired successful, aren’t getting much out of it? You look as if you expected me to report you as seditious! You know what my own life’s been.”
“I know, old man.”
“I ought to have been a fiddler, and I’m a pedler of tar-roofing! And Zilla — Oh, I don’t want to squeal, but you know as well as I do about how inspiring a wife she is. . . . Typical instance last evening: We went to the movies. There was a big crowd waiting in the lobby, us at the tail-end. She began to push right through it with her ‘Sir, how dare you?’ manner — Honestly, sometimes when I look at her and see how she’s always so made up and stinking of perfume and looking for trouble and kind of always yelping, ‘I tell yuh I’m a lady, damn yuh!’— why, I want to kill her! Well, she keeps elbowing through the crowd, me after her, feeling good and ashamed, till she’s almost up to the velvet rope and ready to be the next let in. But there was a little squirt of a man there — probably been waiting half an hour — I kind of admired the little cuss — and he turns on Zilla and says, perfectly polite, ‘Madam, why are you trying to push past me?’ And she simply — God, I was so ashamed! — she rips out at him, ‘You’re no gentleman,’ and she drags me into it and hollers, ‘Paul, this person insulted me!’ and the poor skate he got ready to fight.
“I made out I hadn’t heard them — sure! same as you wouldn’t hear a boiler-factory! — and I tried to look away — I can tell you exactly how every tile looks in the ceiling of that lobby; there’s one with brown spots on it like the face of the devil — and all the time the people there — they were packed in like sardines — they kept making remarks about us, and Zilla went right on talking about the little chap, and screeching that ‘folks like him oughtn’t to be admitted in a place that’s SUPPOSED to be for ladies and gentlemen,’ and ‘Paul, will you kindly call the manager, so I can report this dirty rat?’ and — Oof! Maybe I wasn’t glad when I could sneak inside and hide in the dark!
“After twenty-four years of that kind of thing, you don’t expect me to fall down and foam at the mouth when you hint that this sweet, clean, respectable, moral life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, do you? I can’t even talk about it, except to you, because anybody else would think I was yellow. Maybe I am. Don’t care any longer. . . . Gosh, you’ve had to stand a lot of whining from me, first and last, Georgie!”
“Rats, now, Paul, you’ve never really what you could call whined. Sometimes — I’m always blowing to Myra and the kids about what a whale of a realtor I am, and yet sometimes I get a sneaking idea I’m not such a Pierpont Morgan as I let on to be. But if I ever do help by jollying you along, old Paulski, I guess maybe Saint Pete may let me in after all!”
“Yuh, you’re an old blow-hard, Georgie, you cheerful cut-throat, but you’ve certainly kept me going.”
“Why don’t you divorce Zilla?”
“Why don’t I! If I only could! If she’d just give me the chance! You couldn’t hire her to divorce me, no, nor desert me. She’s too fond of her three squares and a few pounds of nut-center chocolates in between. If she’d only be what they call unfaithful to me! George, I don’t want to be too much of a stinker; back in college I’d ‘ve thought a man who could say that ought to be shot at sunrise. But honestly, I’d be tickled to death if she’d really go making love with somebody. Fat chance! Of course she’ll flirt with anything — you know how she holds hands and laughs — that laugh — that horrible brassy laugh — the way she yaps, ‘You naughty man, you better be careful or my big husband will be after you!’— and the guy looking me over and thinking, ‘Why, you cute little thing, you run away now or I’ll spank you!’ And she’ll let him go just far enough so she gets some excitement out of it and then she’ll begin to do the injured innocent and have a beautiful time wailing, ‘I didn’t think you were that kind of a person.’ They talk about these demi-vierges in stories —”
“— but the wise, hard, corseted, old married women like Zilla are worse than any bobbed-haired girl that ever went boldly out into this-here storm of life — and kept her umbrella slid up her sleeve! But rats, you know what Zilla is. How she nags — nags — nags. How she wants everything I can buy her, and a lot that I can’t, and how absolutely unreasonable she is, and when I get sore and try to have it out with her she plays the Perfect Lady so well that even I get fooled and get all tangled up in a lot of ‘Why did you say’s’ and ‘I didn’t mean’s.’ I’ll tell you, Georgie: You know my tastes are pretty fairly simple — in the matter of food, at least. Course, as you’re always complaining, I do like decent cigars — not those Flor de Cabagos you’re smoking —”
“That’s all right now! That’s a good two-for. By the way, Paul, did I tell you I decided to practically cut out smok —”
“Yes you — At the same time, if I can’t get what I like, why, I can do without it. I don’t mind sitting down to burnt steak, with canned peaches and store cake for a thrilling little dessert afterwards, but I do draw the line at having to sympathize with Zilla because she’s so rotten bad-tempered that the cook has quit, and she’s been so busy sitting in a dirty lace negligee all afternoon, reading about some brave manly Western hero, that she hasn’t had time to do any cooking. You’re always talking about ‘morals’— meaning monogamy, I suppose. You’ve been the rock of ages to me, all right, but you’re essentially a simp. You —”
“Where d’ you get that ‘simp,’ little man? Let me tell you —”
“— love to look earnest and inform the world that it’s the ‘duty of responsible business men to be strictly moral, as an example to the community.’ In fact you’re so earnest about morality, old Georgie, that I hate to think how essentially immoral you must be underneath. All right, you can —”
“Wait, wait now! What’s —”
“— talk about morals all you want to, old thing, but believe me, if it hadn’t been for you and an occasional evening playing the violin to Terrill O’Farrell’s ‘cello, and three or four darling girls that let me forget this beastly joke they call ‘respectable life,’ I’d ‘ve killed myself years ago.
“And business! The roofing business! Roofs for cowsheds! Oh, I don’t mean I haven’t had a lot of fun out of the Game; out of putting it over on the labor unions, and seeing a big check coming in, and the business increasing. But what’s the use of it? You know, my business isn’t distributing roofing — it’s principally keeping my competitors from distributing roofing. Same with you. All we do is cut each other’s throats and make the public pay for it!”
“Look here now, Paul! You’re pretty darn near talking socialism!”
“Oh yes, of course I don’t really exactly mean that — I s’pose. Course — competition — brings out the best — survival of the fittest — but — But I mean: Take all these fellows we know, the kind right here in the club now, that seem to be perfectly content with their home-life and their businesses, and that boost Zenith and the Chamber of Commerce and holler for a million population. I bet if you could cut into their heads you’d find that one-third of ’em are sure-enough satisfied with their wives and kids and friends and their offices; and one-third feel kind of restless but won’t admit it; and one-third are miserable and know it. They hate the whole peppy, boosting, go-ahead game, and they’re bored by their wives and think their families are fools — at least when they come to forty or forty-five they’re bored — and they hate business, and they’d go — Why do you suppose there’s so many ‘mysterious’ suicides? Why do you suppose so many Substantial Citizens jumped right into the war? Think it was all patriotism?”
Babbitt snorted, “What do you expect? Think we were sent into the world to have a soft time and — what is it? —‘float on flowery beds of ease’? Think Man was just made to be happy?”
“Why not? Though I’ve never discovered anybody that knew what the deuce Man really was made for!”
“Well we know — not just in the Bible alone, but it stands to reason — a man who doesn’t buckle down and do his duty, even if it does bore him sometimes, is nothing but a — well, he’s simply a weakling. Mollycoddle, in fact! And what do you advocate? Come down to cases! If a man is bored by his wife, do you seriously mean he has a right to chuck her and take a sneak, or even kill himself?”
“Good Lord, I don’t know what ‘rights’ a man has! And I don’t know the solution of boredom. If I did, I’d be the one philosopher that had the cure for living. But I do know that about ten times as many people find their lives dull, and unnecessarily dull, as ever admit it; and I do believe that if we busted out and admitted it sometimes, instead of being nice and patient and loyal for sixty years, and then nice and patient and dead for the rest of eternity, why, maybe, possibly, we might make life more fun.”
They drifted into a maze of speculation. Babbitt was elephantishly uneasy. Paul was bold, but not quite sure about what he was being bold. Now and then Babbitt suddenly agreed with Paul in an admission which contradicted all his defense of duty and Christian patience, and at each admission he had a curious reckless joy. He said at last:
“Look here, old Paul, you do a lot of talking about kicking things in the face, but you never kick. Why don’t you?”
“Nobody does. Habit too strong. But — Georgie, I’ve been thinking of one mild bat — oh, don’t worry, old pillar of monogamy; it’s highly proper. It seems to be settled now, isn’t it — though of course Zilla keeps rooting for a nice expensive vacation in New York and Atlantic City, with the bright lights and the bootlegged cocktails and a bunch of lounge-lizards to dance with — but the Babbitts and the Rieslings are sure-enough going to Lake Sunasquam, aren’t we? Why couldn’t you and I make some excuse — say business in New York — and get up to Maine four or five days before they do, and just loaf by ourselves and smoke and cuss and be natural?”
“Great! Great idea!” Babbitt admired.
Not for fourteen years had he taken a holiday without his wife, and neither of them quite believed they could commit this audacity. Many members of the Athletic Club did go camping without their wives, but they were officially dedicated to fishing and hunting, whereas the sacred and unchangeable sports of Babbitt and Paul Riesling were golfing, motoring, and bridge. For either the fishermen or the golfers to have changed their habits would have been an infraction of their self-imposed discipline which would have shocked all right-thinking and regularized citizens.
Babbitt blustered, “Why don’t we just put our foot down and say, ‘We’re going on ahead of you, and that’s all there is to it!’ Nothing criminal in it. Simply say to Zilla —”
“You don’t say anything to Zilla simply. Why, Georgie, she’s almost as much of a moralist as you are, and if I told her the truth she’d believe we were going to meet some dames in New York. And even Myra — she never nags you, the way Zilla does, but she’d worry. She’d say, ‘Don’t you WANT me to go to Maine with you? I shouldn’t dream of going unless you wanted me;’ and you’d give in to save her feelings. Oh, the devil! Let’s have a shot at duck-pins.”
During the game of duck-pins, a juvenile form of bowling, Paul was silent. As they came down the steps of the club, not more than half an hour after the time at which Babbitt had sternly told Miss McGoun he would be back, Paul sighed, “Look here, old man, oughtn’t to talked about Zilla way I did.”
“Rats, old man, it lets off steam.”
“Oh, I know! After spending all noon sneering at the conventional stuff, I’m conventional enough to be ashamed of saving my life by busting out with my fool troubles!”
“Old Paul, your nerves are kind of on the bum. I’m going to take you away. I’m going to rig this thing. I’m going to have an important deal in New York and — and sure, of course! — I’ll need you to advise me on the roof of the building! And the ole deal will fall through, and there’ll be nothing for us but to go on ahead to Maine. I— Paul, when it comes right down to it, I don’t care whether you bust loose or not. I do like having a rep for being one of the Bunch, but if you ever needed me I’d chuck it and come out for you every time! Not of course but what you’re — course I don’t mean you’d ever do anything that would put — that would put a decent position on the fritz but — See how I mean? I’m kind of a clumsy old codger, and I need your fine Eyetalian hand. We — Oh, hell, I can’t stand here gassing all day! On the job! S’ long! Don’t take any wooden money, Paulibus! See you soon! S’ long!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11