Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 33

Carrie cried, “I have my job! Draftsman in a Hartford airplane factory. I’m leaving this evening.”

Peony fussed, “You’ll never be able to stand it, away from New York.”

“With all my young men in the service, I won’t miss one thing in New York, except Stan MacGovern’s Silly Milly cartoons, and the music on WQXR,” said the modern young woman. There was a distinct period in her sentence before she added, “Oh, and you and Daddy, of course.”

When Dr. Planish saw her off on the train, when it had slipped away in the mammoth cave of the Grand Central, he felt that it had been years ago that she had gone from him, and that he could not remember her face exactly.

A week later, Peony said, “It seems so strange not to have her around, turning to me for advice and help every minute, and I know you feel awfully blue, breakfast all by yourself. And yet, in a way, I’m relieved. Young people today have no discipline, like you and I were brought up to. They think the world’s created to serve and please THEM! So they never can settle down to really serious work.”

Peony herself was extremely settled down to serious work, for Winifred Homeward, her boss, was now doing a bi-weekly Interpretation of the War News on the radio. Peony and she read the newspapers daily. As there was a lot of valuable news in the papers, so inevitably there was a lot of valuable news in Winifred’s broadcasts, and after telling the far-flung what the far-flung had themselves already read in the papers several hours before, Winifred revealed pantingly that the Japanese were now going to invade India — or else they weren’t — maybe they were going to invade Siberia.

So Peony received thirty-five dollars every Friday, and spent fifty of it every Saturday, and began to explain to Dr. Planish just what the Japanese and India and Siberia were.

The Doctor himself was also serious. With Sherry Belden and Otis Canary, he was preparing blue prints (that’s what they called them) for a new Marduc organization to be entitled “The Citizens’ Post–War Reconstruction Advisory Planning Unit, Inc.,” and already he was sending things for Professor Campion to sign.

The Doctor suddenly had new burdens, for Sherry Belden came in, without warning, in uniform, and he was decidedly impertinent before he went off to take a train:

“Good luck to the Unit, Planish. I suppose you’ll pussyfoot just as successfully on freedom for India, and freedom for the Negroes in America, as we did during the revolution in Spain. Good hedging, Brother. I’ll write you from Iceland or Dakar.”

Now was that nice? the Doctor asked himself.

He could have taken a month’s vacation, two months, whatever he wanted, and apparently no one would have cared, but Peony was a busy and important person who could take only one week, and that in late August, and he nervously waited for her . . . and he still had not said one word about becoming president of Kinnikinick.

He told her on the Maine coast, on the sea-washed rocks, by moonlight.

“Gosh, this certainly is beautiful, Peony — the way the moonlight falls on that — the tide, I suppose you’d call it, I don’t know much about oceans, all these waves and foam and so on coming back and forth, and so clear — you could almost read by this moonlight — don’t you think it’s beautiful, pet?”

“Yes, I love Nature. When you’re on vacation, I mean. You’re real happy here, aren’t you, Gid.”

“Yes, it’s so nice and quiet. I don’t somehow seem to sleep so well in the city. But I’m afraid it’s been TOO quiet for you here. Hasn’t it?”

“Well, God Almighty, figure it out for yourself! Whole tourist business shot to pieces by this gas rationing, and me with a new wardrobe that would knock your eye out, and nobody to impress with it — not even hardly any dancing, except with college-boy waiters! And the way I been working on the war effort — if anybody ever deserved a swell vacation, I do. And we can’t even go see if the other resorts are better. I think it’s an outrage you and I can’t get more gas. If that isn’t Government usurpation, I just don’t know what Government usurpation is, that’s what I think about this Government usurpation!”

“But we got to save gasoline for the army.”

“Oh, stuff! That’s all very well for the common ordinary people that where the hell have they got to go to if they DID have any gas, but people like us, that have been sweating our souls out on behalf of Democracy and the common people, and that have got the qualifications to appreciate scenery and had ought to get around and look over the general feeling in various parts of the country and report on it, why, when WE can’t get enough gas, it’s an outrage! And they expect us to not get any real vacation and go back to our long winter’s work in New York, so tiring —”

“Peony! Sweet! Darling! Shut up and listen! THIS winter in New York, maybe, but after that — Austin Bull and the trustees of Kinnikinick seem to want me for his successor when he retires in the spring of 1943.”

“You’re craaaaazy!” was his spouse’s comment. Her further remarks occupied something over ten minutes, but they may be summed up in the statements that she did NOT think it would be agreeable to live in a house on Lake Elizabeth, that she did NOT wish to be refreshed by association with the young, and that she had NOT, in her experience, ever found one of the Kinnikinick male faculty members with whom it was pleasurable to dance. She did not mention Professor Planish as an exception.

He interrupted; he tried to sound like Colonel Marduc:

“Now wait — wait a minute! You’ve been doing all the talking. What you overlook is that I do want to take this job, and I fully intend to. You might just as well get ready to come along.”

“And you might just as well get ready to take a tumble to yourself! For years and years and years I’ve done nothing but toil and sacrifice and stay home twenty-four hours a day, devoting myself to your comfort and welfare, but the day passed twenty years ago when women were nothing but slaves!”

“Why, Peony!”

“Oh, I know, you’d like to go on selfishly demanding that all my ability be devoted to you and your whims and comfort and your alleged important position in the world, but — you may not ‘ve heard about it! — there just happens to be a certain Mrs. Winifred Homeward, who needs me in her ve-ry import-ant undertakings, and I do not intend to bury myself in that dusty hole of a tenement and sit back any longer and watch you showing off and making speeches and making a monkey of yourself all day long and every evening — to say nothing of your Teckla Schaum, the old hag — oh, I suppose you two old playfuls had a lovely time tickling, when I wasn’t there to —”

“By God, I’ll divorce you and marry Teckla and BE president of Kinnikinick!”

“By God, you’ll do nothing of the kind! A sanctimonious backwoods school like that — you think they’d stand for a divorced president — even if she was the daughter of the chief grafter? No, no, my boy, you better get wise to yourself. I’d hoped I’d never have to tell you, but you might just as well know that neither Winnie Homeward nor the Colonel thinks you’re so hot, and they’d of muscled you out of the DDD long ago, if it hadn’t been for me!”

So rigid he sat, so frozen in the moonlight, that she stopped, made a sound of regret, and poured herself all over him:

“Oh, I didn’t mean that! I was just trying to get your goat! All I mean is, the Marducs think I’m pretty good, too. Oh, my little big, forgive your bad Pansy! It makes me mad when you even THINK of admitting that New York has licked you, and want to sneak back, without ever stopping to think and realize how wicked and horrible it is to expect me to live in a corncrib and not even be able to go to the Stork Club with Hal Homeward — oh, no, no, my precious, you wouldn’t do that to me, when I’ve given my whole life to you!”

“Maybe you would find it kind of slow back there, but still —”

They went happily enough to bed; they said nothing more of Kinnikinick; and when they had returned to New York, he devoted himself to Gilroy, Kevern, Vandewart and all the other millionaires who, in the dread and misty future, might provide inspiration if Colonel Marduc should unfrock him.

Ex–Governor Thomas Blizzard, in September, back home in Waskeegan, was nominated for United States Senator.

Dr. Planish gloated, “I certainly am glad I haven’t slipped up on keeping Tom informed about the organization racket here, all these months. His chances to be President look better and better and — Peony! How’d you like to be wife of the Minister to Cuba or Sweden some day?”

“And how’d I like to be MINISTER to Cuba or Sweden!” she shrieked, and laughed a great deal.

Two days later, toward the close of his office day, Dr. Planish had a long-distance call from Kinnikinick:

“That you, Gideon? This is W. C. Pridmore. I’ve got some bad news. President Bull died suddenly this morning. . . . Yes, it was sort of terrible. It was the first meeting of the student assembly, I was there, and he started to address the students, and then suddenly he stopped and looked kind of shocked and he crumpled up on the floor and before I could reach him, I and Dr. Evarts, he had already passed away.

“I’m speaking from the bank. The trustees, there’s a quorum of ’em here, and they all send you their regards, they think very highly of you, and we want to offer you the college presidency officially. How about it, son?”

Dr. Planish stammered, “I’ll call you back tomorrow morning. Ten-thirty, at the bank? Fine. Oh, give Mrs. Bull my extreme regrets. Call you tomorrow. Oh, give my love to Teckla.”

Dr. and Mrs. Planish actually had no engagement that evening. No one had telephoned to them; no one to whom they tried to telephone was at home. Naturally, that was pretty distressing to Peony, and she whimpered, “This is the coldest, most indifferent town. Nobody in New York cares about anybody else. Sometimes I almost think you were right last summer — that we might ‘ve been happier in Kinnikinick. After all, I must admit that as the president’s wife, I would have a secure position. I could even tell Winifred to go to hell!”

The Doctor was certain now that there would be a God-given moment, some time this evening, to tell her.

They took a Fifth Avenue bus to 34th Street and walked up the Avenue in the autumn evening. The whole city was dimmed out. With the shop windows dark, the traffic lights showing only as small red and green crosses, the avenue was like a country lane. But the softened light merely lured Peony’s excellent imagination, which played tonight about furs and diamonds. War-savings did not seem to stand high in her fancy. She looked into the shadowy shop-windows, at the veiled glimmer of glass and silver and suave wood, and crowed, “You wait till I’m making as much money as you are — you know how I hate to waste it, but what a shopping bat I’m going to have, one of these days! Oh, I do love a city where you can make money in the first place and have somewhere to spend it in the second!”

They dined with elegance in the Plaza Oak Room. Peony seemed to be in a tender mood, whether because of the chicken casserole, or the fact that Caesar, the headwaiter, remembered their name, or just out of fondness for her loving man; and the Doctor took the chance. He addressed her as carefully as though she were an audience of willing philanthrobbers:

“Dear, listen to me now, and don’t say anything till I’ve finished. I know what a wonderful, loyal heart you have. When I hear fellows like Homeward or Gantry kick about what grafters or conceited gabblers their wives are, I always think how very fortunate I’ve been, all these years, in having my own little steadfast Peony. Hey — hey — wait ‘ll I finish! I know sometimes you get a little impatient with the slowness of life — all of us ambitious people do — but I know that in the long run, you’re as faithful as Ruth — you have the genius for love that so few people have — you’d follow your husband wherever he had to go, even amid the alien corn, hunh?”

Though affected unfavorably by the mention of corn or other crops indigenous to the Middlewest, Peony said Yes, she certainly was a Ruth.

“Then — listen now, and don’t interrupt — poor old Austin Bull dropped dead this morning.”

“Oh, I’m sorry!”

“Pridmore telephoned me — they want me to take the presidency right away. Remember that it would be a job for keeps, not dependent on Marduc, and with a pension. We could get away every summer, and come to New York or, after the war, go to Paris. Don’t be one of these stubborn women that, just because you said no before — And I’ll fix up something so that you’ll have a job of your own, and be just as important as I am — maybe I’ll get the college to start a radio. Sweetheart, this is important, and it’s immediate. Can’t I count on you?”

“Oh, Gideon, I don’t want to be unreasonable. I know. I suppose I would be sort of a queen in Kinnikinick — that would be a joke on all the people that highhatted me when I was just a squab there, and — Do you solemnly promise we’ll go to Paris if — My God, will you look who’s here!”

By himself, lordly in a leather armchair at one of the small tables against the wall, was Thomas Blizzard, Senatorial Nominee Blizzard, who was supposed to be at home in Waskeegan.

Peony dashed to him — Dr. Planish rolled across the room more slowly.

Blizzard rumbled, “Just a little strategic surprise visit. Flew on here from home to address the big rally at the Imperial Temple tonight — fly back tomorrow. You two come and sit on the platform with me. Be some big guns from Washington there — the Chancellor General and the Secretary of Education and Arts. Doc, your reports have been fine, and you, young woman, I hear you’re developing quite a knack of winning friends and influencing people. Maybe you’ll be quite useful to the crass Blizzard machine, some day. You’re going to bring your husband and sit up on the platform, like a crown princess, aren’t you?”

“You bet your life I am — you bet we are!” said Peony.

They came through velvet curtains as tall as a political lie out on the mammoth platform. Rising four full stories to the top balcony, so vast that they ceased to be individual human beings and became a mass of white dots on a dark sloping tarpaulin, were an audience of fifteen thousand.

“Look at ’em!” exulted Peony.

Her husband bleated, “You know, we have quite big crowds at Kinnikinick College, too.”

“Not a quarter this size, not even at a football game, and nothing like so many photographers, and lookit the flashlights! Now you got to admit it’s pretty nice to be up here with all these famous people, and all those dubs down there staring and staring up and thinking what important somebodies WE must be!”

“I don’t take any interest in showing off to a crowd.”

“Rats! You do so!”

“Anyway, not like I used to.”

“Well, I do!”

Peony sat on the platform between her husband and the Chancellor General of the United States of America. To the husband she whispered, “Think, prob’ly just this morning the Chancellor was at a cabinet meeting, talking to the President and getting the lowdown on Russia and the second front and the Solomon Islands and everything — just like in history! And me sitting here right next to him, with ten trillion women looking up and envying me! And you expect me to go back and give teas for all the old maids on the college faculty!”

“Oh, I know,” sighed Dr. Planish, and after a long time, “I know.”

Afterward, when the audience trailed up on the stage to get the Chancellor’s autograph, several of them asked Peony for hers, and one of them took her for the Chancellor’s wife. She giggled about that, on the bus home; then she spoke with high seriousness:

“Honeybird, don’t you worry if old Marduc lands in the alcoholic ward, and leaves you without a job. The way I’m beginning to stand with Winnie Homeward and Tom Blizzard, I can always support you, and you can stay home and have a nice, long, quiet rest.”

The distant urgent whistle of a ferry, laden with freight cars from Winnemac and Iowa and the uplands of California, awoke him, and for an instant his square face moved with smiling as in half-dreams he was certain that some day he too would take a train, and in some still valley find honor and dignity.

But the whistle sounded again, so lost and lonely that Dr. Planish fell back into his habitual doubt of himself, and his face tightened with anxiety and compromise. He felt now, at fifty, that though he might follow the path of notoriety for another quarter century, he would never recover from his mountain-sickness.

“Are you awake? Will you get me a glass of water?” said his faithful wife.

“Yes,” said Dr. Planish.

“Do you know what? Some day we’re going to have a penthouse on East End Avenue!”

“Yes?” said Dr. Planish.

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