Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 18

It was not the success of his circular so much as his genius in foreseeing the stock-market crash of October, 1929, that brought Dr. Planish to the acute personal attention of Mr. Hamilton Frisby.

All that summer and early fall, America had been speculating on a soaring market. Kitchen girls had made five thousand dollars, managing editors of newspapers had made a million — all on paper, which meant that they left their suppositious profits to double, triple, increase a hundredfold.

But the Planishes, the gamblers with life, for once were not gambling. It was Peony’s doing. She had pinned the Doctor in a corner and given an order: “You’re not to buy one share of stock, on margin or any other way. We’re more broke than ever. If we invested, we’d have to borrow some more money, and we mustn’t do that. Never. It’s a matter of principle — Besides, there’s nobody we can borrow from. Dad turned me down!”

This was a new Peony, much firmer than any he had known. She was a little frightened by the stretching, paw-curling indifference of the great cat, Chicago. And they had not met any of the magnificos with whom she had expected to dine and dance. They knew only a couple of dentists, a couple of liberal pastors, an insurance broker, an instructor from Northwestern, some minor philanthropists and a graduate student in the University of Chicago. Peony was in a constant frenzy of being calm and economical, and she announced to the Doctor, though pleasantly, that she wasn’t interested in one thing except the price of onions and the fact that Carrie, in public-school kindergarten, had an Italian “boy friend,” aged seven, who gave her green lollipops.

The Doctor dared not deceive her and make investments secretly, though his obedience was grievous to him, because he was certain, after looking glassily at the stock-market pages of the papers every day, that he could easily make a million. Indeed one day he made, on two sheets of quite inexpensive yellow scratch-paper, $7,880 clear, though hypothetical. He was keeping up his brief lecture tours, but Peony made him turn over every check, and she banked it, with no more extravagances than a weekly bottle of vodka.

Now in that day and among the people he knew, you had either to invest frantically, throwing in the laundry money and Aunty Emma’s $100 legacy, or be willful and prophesy disaster. If you did the latter, it was believed that you lacked faith in the Pilgrim Fathers, and were either a drug-user or a dog-poisoner. But Dr. Planish was trained to dazzle audiences with words that sounded bold, no matter what they meant, and he brazened out his unpatriotic shame.

The Reverend James Severance Kitto, S.T.D., said to him, “Doctor, as you know, I entirely disapprove of gambling, but the present Wave of Prosperity shouldn’t be called gambling; it’s more a rising tide of democracy, and I rather think anybody who doesn’t take advantage of it is failing to show his trust in American Institutions. I’m two hundred thousand ahead of the game — at least on paper — and I can give you a straight tip on a wallboard stock that will double in the next month.”

“I’m sorry, Doctor, but I think the market is going to crash,” said Dr. Planish.

Dr. Kitto looked at him as at one who had slapped the baby.

Mr. Hamilton Frisby said, “Planish, I’ve got a tip on a radio stock for you. Quadruple in a week.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Frisby, but there’s something phony about this bull market.”

“Oh, you think so, do you! Well, let me tell you that I’m two million bucks ahead right now — on paper, but I could cash in tomorrow. And I’m a director of two banks, and supposed to be able to find my way down State Street without a Seeing–Eye Dog!”

Early in November, when all the paper that those profits had been on blew up the chimney, blazing, both Dr. Kitto and Mr. Frisby telephoned to him, in the tones of men just out of the hospital, and timidly asked how he had known the disaster was coming. For weeks afterward, he found himself everywhere revered as a wizard in finance, the one art that transcended theology and music, as really meaning something. His acquaintances begged, “Give us the lowdown, Doctor. When the next big bull market comes, say couple months from now, I don’t want to make the same mistakes I must ‘ve made this last time.”

The world got progressively more suicidal, and many supporters of national organizations went bankrupt. But the Heskett Fund could still support Dr. Planish’s good works, and he was out of debt, and felt superior as an Angora cat.

In December he was invited by Hamilton Frisby to go down to a shooting-box in Louisiana.

His fellow guests were Frisby’s old intimates, Dr. Alwyn Wilcox, the surgeon, and Jesse Veith, the investment counselor, who had so brilliantly guided his clients through the boom and the crash that he himself had not gone bankrupt. Frisby had taken two drawing-rooms on the southern train for them. Dr. Planish happily noted that he was apparently not expected to spend any money, and he liked this touch of high life.

In one of the drawing-rooms, they opened up on him as soon as the train had started and they had poured out the first of the illicit drinks.

“Planish, now there’s just us girls here and we’ve all taken our hair down, tell us: what inside dope did you have on the stock market?” said Frisby, with the awful geniality of a detective being chummy with a murder suspect.

The other men bent toward the Doctor like two older and tougher detectives.

“I didn’t really know anything special. I just figured it out, as a mathematician would.”

“You a mathematician, Doc?” said Jesse Veith.

“It’s one of the branches I specialized in-sort of,” beamed Dr. Planish.

“Tell me how much the cotangent of the ellipse of the cube root of seven is.”

“Oh, shut up!” Frisby remarked to Veith. Dr. Wilcox did not look much amused.

Then Dr. Planish knew where he was, realized what memory it was that he had been trying to tag. “I certainly have been here before!” he shuddered. These three rich men were the bulky, silent, sardonic football players who used to terrify him in freshman year at college, squatting around him with this same placid and beefy intention of taking him to pieces to find out why he was so earnest and funny.

Frisby was purring on, “What did Marduc tell you?”

“Marduc?” Dr. Planish was puzzled.

“You mean to pretend you don’t know him?”

“I don’t believe I do.”

“Colonel Charles B. Marduc, the big New York advertising man and publisher — Marduc & Syco?”

“Oh, yes. I think he’s sent us a sizable contribution. But I’ve never met him. What would he know?”

“That man’s a buddy of all the billionaires, and somebody has told me that you saw him when he was in Chicago, a couple months ago.”

“No, I didn’t. Never met him.”

Veith snorted at Frisby, “I told you so. This Planish guy hasn’t got any more of the lowdown than —”

“Than an investment counselor!” suggested Dr. Wilcox.

“Oh, shut up. Let’s play a little bridge,” said Veith.

Mr. Frisby brought out the cards, very silently.

For all of that horrible week-end, during which they did three hours of card-playing and drinking to one hour of hunting, Dr. Planish felt that he was endured only because they had to have a fourth at bridge. When he pumped up something neat to say, they ignored it. Over against their pretentious laced boots and plaid Mackinaws, in his old gray suit and khaki shirt he felt over-refined and over-fussy.

During every hour of this rich-man’s vacation, he longed to take the money and power away from this gang of bullies, and give it to Peony.

On the train back to Chicago, Frisby led Dr. Planish aside, looking as though he must have met him before some place.

“Doc, you seem to me a very confused person,” said Frisby.

“How’s that?”

“Maybe I ought to tell you the facts of life about the Heskett Foundation, and most other philanthropic foundations — not all of them, but a good share. You’re supposed to be a professional organizator —”

“A what?”

“Fellow that makes his living by running an uplift organization; a professional at begging for money to use in publicizing the statement that when the world becomes civilized, two plus two will equal four. An organizator. He’s the fellow that starts a society first, and then looks around for a purpose for the society afterward. And the rich suckers that give him the money, either to soften their own consciences or to climb socially by associating with Vanderbilts on committees, or to show off, or once in a while even because they think that a social club chartered to befriend Liberia may really help the Liberians — these come-ons I always call the PHILANTHROBBERS.

“But Old Man Heskett was no philanthrobber, and neither were quite a few of the other moguls that set up Foundations. Here’s their idea: With the increase in taxes, especially this damn income tax and supertax, a man can’t afford to have too much income. And yet he wants to keep control of the big corporations in which he owns a majority of stock. So he places a big block of it in a Philanthropic Institution, in a trust fund — he doesn’t get the interest, but he doesn’t have to pay any pyramiding taxes, and he or his agents — that’s me, for the Hesketts — hold the voting proxies on the donated stock, and control the corporation as much as before.

“They don’t care what the Foundation income is spent for, as long as their name gets whitened — and how many coats of whitewash it does take, sometimes! A man that slashed a billion acres of timber buys the reputation for loving the trees and birdies. And Heskett was a pretty typical case. He made his dough by bankrupting small businesses through lowering competitive prices, and he got so rich that he had to turn philanthropic — that’s a lot showier sign of great wealth than any nonsense like buying yachts or titles. Then he had a second reason for protecting his financial controls. His children and his nieces and his nephews are idiots — all of ’em. One sculps and one married a Communist and one lives on an island called Lesbos. Heskett hated ’em all, and he put his boodle into two trust funds, of which the Heskett Foundation is one, and made me trustee of both, because I am, somewhat to my own surprise, comparatively honest.

“Now I advise you, as a simple-hearted organizator, to blow in as much of the Foundation income as you want to. Even with this stock-market crash, there’s twice as much as you’ve been spending. Go ahead — do anything that will advertise the grand old pioneer name of Heskett. Only don’t forget that I still audit the books.”

Dr. Planish felt shy but desperate. “Then how about raising my own salary? I could use it.”

“Certainly not. It’s much more likely to get lowered, if this depression gets bad enough. You have some reputation — not much, but you have been dean of a hayloft college, and a lecturer — but how would it adorn the sacred Family Name to pay you more than rock-bottom wages? You talk about economics, Planish. Be realistic!”

Dr. Planish sat and hated him.

Peony cried, as he came in, “Did you have a lovely time, Gidjums?”

“Oh, yes, sure — you know — hunting. And bridge.”

“Do you think I’d like Dr. Wilcox and Mr. Veith?”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t! Listen, Peony, let’s not make any special effort to work up a circle of friends here in Chicago. I have a hunch we’ll be able to hit New York before TOO long.”

“Swell!” said Peony.

Dr. Planish was sitting in his office on the Friday before Christmas, filing his nails and thinking that it would be nice to write a book — maybe about the use of radio in schools — and hating Hamilton Frisby.

His secretary brought in the card of the Midwestern representative of a new schoolbook factory, one Mrs. Eaglestopper, a shiny woman. She said, in coloratura, “Dr. Planish, you mentioned our series of school readers once, at a teachers’ convention.”

“I’m afraid they’re not very good.”

“Oh, now, YOU!” She looked coy. “That’s because you haven’t examined them closely enough. I want you to take a real good look at them, and at our new series of geographies — they’re written by such a fine university scholar who’s also a champion swimmer! I’m going to send you all of them.”

“I’m afraid I’m pretty busy —”

“Why, Dr. Planish!” She was prettily shocked. “We wouldn’t DREAM of asking you to bother with them, we know what demands there are on your time, without compensating you. Here’s a — nice Christmas present!”

He peeped into the envelope she had handed to him. He lost his presence of organizational mind. “Are you trying to bribe me?” he snorted.

She rose. “My dear man, I most certainly am not! We just want you to appraise the books, and we know there’s no scholar in America whose time is worth more. If you do like them — you’re the judge — then you might care to mention them in your Foundation literature and your lectures. Otherwise, distinctly not — distinctly! Good-bye and merry Christmas, and give my love to your wife. I hear she’s the sweetest and smartest woman in Chicago. Let me know anything I can do.”

Out of the envelope he fished two hundred-dollar certificates. They looked as different from dull-green five-dollar notes as blessed light from dubious darkness. The fat ciphers did go on and on so cheerfully after the digits. He took them home, to discuss with Peony the legitimacy of accepting them.

“Anything you can put over on that bullfrog Frisby is proper,” she said; and, “This just about fixes up my Christmas problem. Now I can get you something that I’ve been longing all week to give you — a cedar blanket-chest, bound with the loveliest ornamental brasswork that you ever laid an eye on, going for a hundred dollars — just giving it away. It would just MAKE this hallway, don’t you think so? Or am I being a teeny mite extravagant?”

“Anything you do is always all right with me,” he said.

Carrie trotted in. Peony knelt beside her and gurgled, “Oh, baby, Mammy’s going to get the loveliest new cedar chest!”

“Why?” said Carrie.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57