They were dressing for the great annual Heskett Foundation dinner, final ensemble of the Conference, at which his appointment as managing secretary would be announced.
“You always look so distinguished in your tuxedo, Giddy,” she said.
“Oh, not so much. Well, go on. You haven’t told me anything yet about shopping with George.”
“I think most men do look better, dressed for dinner, but especially a man with a beard. That’s where the English are so smart, dressing for dinner. My, that must be a grand city, London — and neither of us ever seen it yet! England’s a so much more civilized country — as the English themselves so often tell us. Will we go and live in London some time, when we’re rich, sweetheart?”
“Go on. Tell me. What’ve you been up to?”
“Gideon! I did promise not to throw money around this time, didn’t I!”
“It was a voluntary promise. I never asked you to make it.”
“I know you didn’t. So don’t you see?”
“Well, after we found George his pajamas — my gracious, now that’s a slip, isn’t it, you better page Dr. Freud, I guess — and anyway, after we found the pajamas for his wife — and George and that giggling hyena of a saleswoman did make me kind of sore, even though they were just joking, his putting his arm around me like that and pretending to show her his wife’s bust measurements with me for model. I told George I had a good mind to slap his ears off. But anyway, I certainly did pick her out some lovely pajamas, my, I’d like to have ’em myself, all silk, in peach color with green piping and —
“But anyway, as I was saying, George insisted we might as well look over the department store while we had the chance, and we went up and down on the escalators, gee, that was fun, and the things I wanted to buy, heavens and earth, you have no idea how strong-minded I was — a white bearskin rug that would be so delicious on my toes on a winter morning, and a portrait of President Andy Jackson — Daddy says we’re related to him somehow, way far back — and an electric drink-mixer — it would really be economical, it would save so much time, but I was firm, and oh, Gid-e-on, a real Finnish hand-carved wooden salad bowl!
“They’d all be so useful, but I was adamant, absolutely adaMANT. Maybe it just shows us that pride goeth before the most God-awful fall, because George and I stopped at the antique jewelry counter and oh, honeybun, you’ll probably murder me, but it did look cheap, and so darling, oh, the loveliest thing I ever saw, and it didn’t seem expensive and — Let’s get it over. Look at it.”
She had sneaked out from the dressing-table drawer a ring with a sparkling oval center.
“God! Not diamonds?” he grunted.
“No, don’t you see? It’s steel points, antique. But it was expensive, I’m afraid.”
He winced. But he was quickly on another track.
“I’m glad George Riot didn’t give it to you.”
“The funny thing is, he offered to.”
“Oh, he did, did he!”
“Prob’ly not seriously. Not on a professor’s salary!”
“So he offers you rings! He pretends to be buying pajamas, and feels you up! Damn him, I’ll show him!”
“Why, Gideon Planish! Do you mean to say you’re jealous?”
“M-maybe, a little.”
“I’m tickled to death! Seems like you haven’t been jealous for a long time, lover. But you don’t think I fell for him, do you? . . . Do you?”
“No, I guess you and I are about as loyal as any couple living. That’s ONE thing where we aren’t phony humanitarians.”
“Why, Gideon Plan-ish! What do you mean? To dare and say a thing like that, when we’re giving up such a lovely job as editor and dean and all, and just sacrificing and sacrificing and SACRIFICING, and not even buying the white-bear rug or the salad bowl or anything. What a thing to say about yourself just when you’re starting this wonderful new path of service!”
“I know. We really are beginning to dedicate ourselves to mankind. I don’t know what made me say that. And you’re sure you still love me?”
“Shall I show you?”
“No, no — this is the only clean dress-shirt I got along. But do you love me better than George Riot?”
“Manny darling, you aren’t going to get a grouch on George, I mean and show it, are you?”
“No, no, course not. He’s helping me to get planted in the organizational field more than anybody else, isn’t he? Oh, no, no, no, no, sweetheart, you mustn’t misunderstand me about old George. They don’t make ’em any better than old George.”
“So now, you see, everything’s fine, isn’t it, hero! You don’t suppose I could afford an orchid tonight, do you? Or do you feel like GIVING me one?”
The dinner guests clapped profusely when Dr. Kitto announced the appointment of Dr. Planish as managing secretary.
Dr. Planish lubricatingly told them of his practically rural birth and rearing.
Miss Bernardine Nimrock was not present.
They gave her a rising vote of thanks.
That night, Dr. Planish turned and turned in bed.
“What is it, faun? I know something’s bothering you. It isn’t my new ring, is it?”
“Good Lord, no!” (That is what Peony sensibly expected him to say.) “I just can’t get that Nimrock woman’s face out of my mind — this afternoon — so scared, and all blubbered up with crying.”
“Silly! Dear silly! Progress has to go on, doesn’t it? We know as students of biology that certain lower forms of life are bound to suffer. Indeed, if they didn’t suffer and get themselves eliminated, they would block all true progress, wouldn’t they? But do you know what I’m proudest of you for? For being so sensitive to the feelings of others. I suppose that’s what has made you a humanitarian and a sort of prophet instead of just an ole college professor. So proud!”
“Well —” said Dr. Planish.
They had the Chinese Chippendale cabinet, the Chinese rug, and the porcelain clock crated and sent on to Chicago in early August. They left behind them the leather pouf. “It looks kind of hick to me now. Goodness gracious! How one’s taste does get improved by traveling!” said Peony.
They drove by automobile from Des Moines to Chicago, with an overnight stop at Davenport, three hundred miles in the brilliant heat; and Dr. Planish said, over and over, that it was the most enjoyable trip he had ever made, and that little Carrie was proving to be a True Gipsy, like her parents.
Now that they were practically started for New York and London, and she was therefore no longer bound to debts and worry, Peony was a foamy cataract of ideas dashing around and over any vulgar rocks of fact. Her ideas all entailed the Doctor’s doing a lot of work and magicking a lot of important people, but she looked side-wise at him, at the wheel, with such wide admiration that he had to accept them. (He was still doing most of their driving at this time; it would not be for five more years that she alone would be trusted with the car.)
He was to be a senator, after all, but from Chicago or New York, where he wouldn’t have to pretend about country road-taxes. After that, he was to consolidate a string of small colleges, be president of the lot of them, run them like chain-stores, and give them such sprightly advertising — and profits — as no university in history (since the U. of Al–Azhar, Cairo, f. 970, colors: green) has ever enjoyed.
He was to combine the foreign missions of all Protestant churches, and take personal charge of them. (She would simply love traveling with him through India, and seeing palm trees and natives.) And as the start of all these glories, he was to get rid of Dr. Kitto and Mr. Hamilton Frisby and control all the funds of the Heskett Foundation, and she rather thought she would like to have one room of their house in Paris all in scarlet and black.
As Peony chattered, as she read the map and navigated, as she slipped down from the car to take Carrie to a “rest room,” Dr. Planish loved her each moment with a more wistful amazement at being with his own particular girl, who would always be there, and give him a purpose for living and laboring. He marveled at her swift evolution. She was so smart, in her black and mustard suit, her black cloche hat. How had she done it? He was almost forty, and he had seen the world, had spent an entire week in New York, but it seemed to him that his country chick was as old and worldly wise as he himself, that she knew everything there was to know — except possibly the exact time of day, the amount of her bank balance, and how to spell Cincinnati — and that there was nothing that a trudger like himself, learned, rock-steady and fanatically honest though he was, could better do than to follow her divine intuitions in everything.
Peony was the best of traveling companions, interested equally in a meadow lark or a special-job Cadillac, uncomplaining of cold or heat or hunger. Only once did she worry him.
The first day, the car had run too easily, and at each restaurant they had said, “Oh, we’ll find a better place farther on.” Toward three, they were passing a converted village store-building with a shaky home-painted sign announcing EATS. At this suggestive word, Carrie howled.
The interior was gaunt and long and skinny, with three round tables, a gas stove, a lunch counter behind which were shelves of cigarettes and horrible candy bars, and a sign “Not respble for hats coats.”
While Peony and Carrie were in the washroom, the lone waitress, a frightened-looking woman in a red sweater and lilac slacks, dropped on the wet surface of the table in front of Dr. Planish a hand-written menu presenting “Ham and eggs, Steak, Hamdburger sandwich, Hot Dog sandwich, cofee, coke.”
“Uh — what kind of steak you got?”
“We’re just out of steak.”
“Let’s, uh, let’s have three orders of ham and eggs.”
She went to a mysterious back door and yelled. As she came back, she looked at him wearily, and suddenly he knew all about her; he was one with her in the devastating struggle to keep on living. He greeted her as a fellow human being with a cheerful, “Business not so hot just now, I guess.”
“Mister, there ain’t any business. God, I don’t know what my old man and me are going to do. I hear where there’s a big stock-market boom. I guess that’s where all the money’s going then, stock market. Yours’s the first order that’s come in here today.”
“That’s a shame. I certainly hope you and your husband catch on soon.”
Peony reappeared, and he looked at her in a dazzle of admiration. This released and Chicago-bound Peony was a new woman to him. She was so solid on her two feet, yet her fresh cheeks and reckless eyes were as adorably young as when she had first sat in front of him, a baby student.
“What do we draw?” she said amiably, as she tucked Carrie into a chair.
But that was the last cheerful thing she said at EATS. She pointed out that they had had to ask for water three times, that the table was damp, that there were no napkins in sight and no sugar, that cigarette butts covered the floor, and that the eggs were sour, the ham was salty.
“A woman that serves the public as badly as this ought to be arrested for slow murder,” muttered Peony.
“Oh, the poor thing’s hard-up and untrained.”
“You’re SORRY for her?”
“Yes, I am!”
“I’m not, one bit. The slut!”
Their daughter Carrie spoke: “Mama, what’s a slut?”
“You shut up now, sweetest honey-pie, and eat your nice ham.”
“You said it wasn’t nice ham.”
“Now don’t interrupt, little mocking bird. Mama and Papa are discussing philosophy.”
“Why?” said Carrie.
Dr. Planish went on, “After all, that’s going to be our job now, to encourage rural rehabilitation for just such poor victims of environment as this woman. We got to educate them.”
“Wh —” Carrie had started, but she found an enchanting fly.
“Oh, pooh!” said Peony. “You can’t educate animals like that. I’m terribly glad you’re dedicating yourself to uplifting the soggy masses, big one, but don’t wear yourself out getting sentimental about them. They’re hopeless. You devote yourself a little to your wife.”
“Course you do! Me just cwoss. But just the same, don’t waste your time trying to help a lot of unemployables. You can’t get around it: people with good taste don’t decorate restaurants with fly-specks. Yes, my Hari–Carrie, Papa and Mama are going to get started now, and off for the pretty Chicago we go, all of the jingle bells gay in the snow.”
“Why?” objected Carrie.
Their overnight halting-place in Davenport was the first large hotel in which Carrie had ever slept. She was not at all frightened by the crowd in the lobby, nor by the near-marble pillars. When the clerk leaned across the desk and chirped at her, “And is this little lady staying with us, too?” she looked at him and gravely nodded.
After dinner, Carrie was put to bed in a tiny single room, and Peony urged, “Will my darling be awful scared if Papa and Mama slip off to the early movie, and get back by nine?”
“No,” said Carrie.
“This sweet, old-fashioned, maply bedroom — doesn’t my babykins think it’s the sweetest little room she ever saw?”
“No,” said Carrie.
“What, my pretty?”
“I’m sorry, Mama, but I don’t.”
“And pray why not?”
“I think the wallpaper is silly — all those flowers like pink worms.”
Peony looked at her husband adoringly. “Will you listen to that now, will you? For six years old, isn’t she the grown-uppedest thing you ever saw!”
“N-yes — oh, yes,” said Dr. Planish,
For three days Peony shopped through Chicago for a flat, and in the evenings she cried against Gideon’s shoulder. Doubtfully they leased an apartment in an oldish building on the South Side, decent enough but depressingly inferior to their green and silver cottage in Kinnikinick, their canary-yellow flat in Des Moines. She shuddered, “I wonder if we really are going ahead so fast? I never realized how hard it is to make a dent in a place like Chicago.”
Their flat was all in brown, a clean but sullen brown; all long and tiresome lines, all tightness and a smell of respectable resignation; and it looked across the street to the brownstone front of a house wearily resigned to dullness.
“We won’t stay in this dump long,” vowed Peony. “You’ll shake a bigger salary out of Hamilton Frisby — looks like he’s the one that guards the Foundation cash. Pretty soon we’ll have a modernistic apartment, right on the lake.”
He felt guilty.
Within two days, Peony was caroling that the Chinese rug, the cabinet, the airy French clock “brightened up the flat something wonderful.” But, naturally, she had to buy a few other things — “gay and civilized junk that you can live with,” she called them: a chromium and black-glass portable bar, a pale birch radio cabinet, a sage-green Chinese lamp imitating jade, and a Gauguin print.
By laying out only $362.75 for these adornments, Peony concealed the insoaked brownness of the place phenomenally. The only slip was that they were again two hundred dollars in debt.
“Why?” asked Dr. Planish, but Peony kissed him.
He was busy now at the Heskett Foundation offices, finding out what Miss Bernardine Nimrock had done, and hemming, and telling the stenographers to go right on doing it — only more so.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57