THE ASSURANCE of Tanis Judiques friendship fortified Babbitts self-approval. At the Athletic Club he became experimental. Though Vergil Gunch was silent, the others at the Roughnecks Table came to accept Babbitt as having, for no visible reason, turned crank. They argued windily with him, and he was cocky, and enjoyed the spectacle of his interesting martyrdom. He even praised Seneca Doane. Professor Pumphrey said that was carrying a joke too far; but Babbitt argued, No! Fact! I tell you hes got one of the keenest intellects in the country. Why, Lord Wycombe said that
He thought of Tanis always. With a stir he remembered her every aspect. His arms yearned for her. Ive found her! Ive dreamed of her all these years and now Ive found her! he exulted. He met her at the movies in the morning; he drove out to her flat in the late afternoon or on evenings when he was believed to be at the Elks. He knew her financial affairs and advised her about them, while she lamented her feminine ignorance, and praised his masterfulness, and proved to know much more about bonds than he did. They had remembrances, and laughter over old times. Once they quarreled, and he raged that she was as bossy as his wife and far more whining when he was inattentive. But that passed safely.
Their high hour was a tramp on a ringing December afternoon, through snow-drifted meadows down to the icy Chaloosa River. She was exotic in an astrachan cap and a short beaver coat; she slid on the ice and shouted, and he panted after her, rotund with laughter.... Myra Babbitt never slid on the ice.
He was afraid that they would be seen together. In Zenith it is impossible to lunch with a neighbors wife without the fact being known, before nightfall, in every house in your circle. But Tanis was beautifully discreet. However appealingly she might turn to him when they were alone, she was gravely detached when they were abroad, and he hoped that she would be taken for a client. Orville Jones once saw them emerging from a movie theater, and Babbitt bumbled, Let me make you quainted with Mrs. Judique. Now heres a lady who knows the right broker to come to, Orvy! Mr. Jones, though he was a man censorious of morals and of laundry machinery, seemed satisfied.
His predominant fearnot from any especial fondness for her but from the habit of proprietywas that his wife would learn of the affair. He was certain that she knew nothing specific about Tanis, but he was also certain that she suspected something indefinite. For years she had been bored by anything more affectionate than a farewell kiss, yet she was hurt by any slackening in his irritable periodic interest, and now he had no interest; rather, a revulsion. He was completely faithfulto Tanis. He was distressed by the sight of his wifes slack plumpness, by her puffs and billows of flesh, by the tattered petticoat which she was always meaning and always forgetting to throw away. But he was aware that she, so long attuned to him, caught all his repulsions. He elaborately, heavily, jocularly tried to check them. He couldnt.
They had a tolerable Christmas. Kenneth Escott was there, admittedly engaged to Verona. Mrs. Babbitt was tearful and called Kenneth her new son. Babbitt was worried about Ted, because he had ceased complaining of the State University and become suspiciously acquiescent. He wondered what the boy was planning, and was too shy to ask. Himself, Babbitt slipped away on Christmas afternoon to take his present, a silver cigarette-box, to Tanis. When he returned Mrs. Babbitt asked, much too innocently, Did you go out for a little fresh air?
Now, Mrs. Babbitt was not accustomed to leave home during the winter except on violently demanding occasions, and only the summer before, she had been gone for weeks. Nor was Babbitt one of the detachable husbands who take separations casually. He liked to have her there; she looked after his clothes; she knew how his steak ought to be cooked; and her clucking made him feel secure. But he could not drum up even a dutiful Oh, she doesnt really need you, does she? While he tried to look regretful, while he felt that his wife was watching him, he was filled with exultant visions of Tanis.
He who had once controlled or seemed to control his life in a progress unimpassioned but diligent and sane was for that fortnight borne on a current of desire and very bad whisky and all the complications of new acquaintances, those furious new intimates who demand so much more attention than old friends. Each morning he gloomily recognized his idiocies of the evening before. With his head throbbing, his tongue and lips stinging from cigarettes, he incredulously counted the number of drinks he had taken, and groaned, I got to quit! He had ceased saying, I will quit! for however resolute he might be at dawn, he could not, for a single evening, check his drift.
He had met Taniss friends; he had, with the ardent haste of the Midnight People, who drink and dance and rattle and are ever afraid to be silent, been adopted as a member of her group, which they called The Bunch. He first met them after a day when he had worked particularly hard and when he hoped to be quiet with Tanis and slowly sip her admiration.
From down the hall he could hear shrieks and the grind of a phonograph. As Tanis opened the door he saw fantastic figures dancing in a haze of cigarette smoke. The tables and chairs were against the wall.
Oh, isnt this dandy! she gabbled at him. Carrie Nork had the loveliest idea. She decided it was time for a party, and she phoned the Bunch and told em to gather round.... George, this is Carrie.
Carrie was, in the less desirable aspects of both, at once matronly and spinsterish. She was perhaps forty; her hair was an unconvincing ash-blond; and if her chest was flat, her hips were ponderous. She greeted Babbitt with a giggling Welcome to our little midst! Tanis says youre a real sport.
He was apparently expected to dance, to be boyish and gay with Carrie, and he did his unforgiving best. He towed her about the room, bumping into other couples, into the radiator, into chair-legs cunningly ambushed. As he danced he surveyed the rest of the Bunch: A thin young woman who looked capable, conceited, and sarcastic. Another woman whom he could never quite remember. Three overdressed and slightly effeminate young mensoda-fountain clerks, or at least born for that profession. A man of his own age, immovable, self-satisfied, resentful of Babbitts presence.
When he had finished his dutiful dance Tanis took him aside and begged, Dear, wouldnt you like to do something for me? Im all out of booze, and the Bunch want to celebrate. Couldnt you just skip down to Healey Hansons and get some?
Miss Sonntag greeted him with an astringent How dyou do, Mr. Babbitt. Tanis tells me youre a very prominent man, and Im honored by being allowed to drive with you. Of course Im not accustomed to associating with society people like you, so I dont know how to act in such exalted circles!
Thus Miss Sonntag talked all the way down to Healey Hansons. To her jibes he wanted to reply Oh, go to the devil! but he never quite nerved himself to that reasonable comment. He was resenting the existence of the whole Bunch. He had heard Tanis speak of darling Carrie and Min Sonntagshes so cleveryoull adore her, but they had never been real to him. He had pictured Tanis as living in a rose-tinted vacuum, waiting for him, free of all the complications of a Floral Heights.
When they returned he had to endure the patronage of the young soda-clerks. They were as damply friendly as Miss Sonntag was dryly hostile. They called him Old Georgie and shouted, Come on now, sport; shake a leg... boys in belted coats, pimply boys, as young as Ted and as flabby as chorus-men, but powerful to dance and to mind the phonograph and smoke cigarettes and patronize Tanis. He tried to be one of them; he cried Good work, Pete! but his voice creaked.
Tanis apparently enjoyed the companionship of the dancing darlings; she bridled to their bland flirtation and casually kissed them at the end of each dance. Babbitt hated her, for the moment. He saw her as middle-aged. He studied the wrinkles in the softness of her throat, the slack flesh beneath her chin. The taut muscles of her youth were loose and drooping. Between dances she sat in the largest chair, waving her cigarette, summoning her callow admirers to come and talk to her. (She thinks shes a blooming queen! growled Babbitt.) She chanted to Miss Sonntag, Isnt my little studio sweet? (Studio, rats! Its a plain old-maid-and-chow-dog flat! Oh, God, I wish I was home! I wonder if I cant make a getaway now?)
His vision grew blurred, however, as he applied himself to Healey Hansons raw but vigorous whisky. He blended with the Bunch. He began to rejoice that Carrie Nork and Pete, the most nearly intelligent of the nimble youths, seemed to like him; and it was enormously important to win over the surly older man, who proved to be a railway clerk named Fulton Bemis.
The conversation of the Bunch was exclamatory, high-colored, full of references to people whom Babbitt did not know. Apparently they thought very comfortably of themselves. They were the Bunch, wise and beautiful and amusing; they were Bohemians and urbanites, accustomed to all the luxuries of Zenith: dance-halls, movie-theaters, and road-houses; and in a cynical superiority to people who were slow or tightwad they cackled:
Babbitt was to be heard sonorously agreeing with the once-hated Miss Minnie Sonntag that persons who let a night go by without dancing to jazz music were crabs, pikers, and poor fish; and he roared You bet! when Mrs. Carrie Nork gurgled, Dont you love to sit on the floor? Its so Bohemian! He began to think extremely well of the Bunch. When he mentioned his friends Sir Gerald Doak, Lord Wycombe, William Washington Eathorne, and Chum Frink, he was proud of their condescending interest. He got so thoroughly into the jocund spirit that he didnt much mind seeing Tanis drooping against the shoulder of the youngest and milkiest of the young men, and he himself desired to hold Carrie Norks pulpy hand, and dropped it only because Tanis looked angry.
When he went home, at two, he was fully a member of the Bunch, and all the week thereafter he was bound by the exceedingly straitened conventions, the exceedingly wearing demands, of their life of pleasure and freedom. He had to go to their parties; he was involved in the agitation when everybody telephoned to everybody else that she hadnt meant what shed said when shed said that, and anyway, why was Pete going around saying shed said it?
Never was a Family more insistent on learning one anothers movements than were the Bunch. All of them volubly knew, or indignantly desired to know, where all the others had been every minute of the week. Babbitt found himself explaining to Carrie or Fulton Bemis just what he had been doing that he should not have joined them till ten oclock, and apologizing for having gone to dinner with a business acquaintance.
Every member of the Bunch was expected to telephone to every other member at least once a week. Why havent you called me up? Babbitt was asked accusingly, not only by Tanis and Carrie but presently by new ancient friends, Jennie and Capitolina and Toots.
If for a moment he had seen Tanis as withering and sentimental, he lost that impression at Carrie Norks dance. Mrs. Nork had a large house and a small husband. To her party came all of the Bunch, perhaps thirty-five of them when they were completely mobilized. Babbitt, under the name of Old Georgie, was now a pioneer of the Bunch, since each month it changed half its membership and he who could recall the prehistoric days of a fortnight ago, before Mrs. Absolom, the food-demonstrator, had gone to Indianapolis, and Mac had got sore at Minnie, was a venerable leader and able to condescend to new Petes and Minnies and Gladyses.
At Carries, Tanis did not have to work at being hostess. She was dignified and sure, a clear fine figure in the black chiffon frock he had always loved; and in the wider spaces of that ugly house Babbitt was able to sit quietly with her. He repented of his first revulsion, mooned at her feet, and happily drove her home. Next day he bought a violent yellow tie, to make himself young for her. He knew, a little sadly, that he could not make himself beautiful; he beheld himself as heavy, hinting of fatness, but he danced, he dressed, he chattered, to be as young as she was ... as young as she seemed to be.
As all converts, whether to a religion, love, or gardening, find as by magic that though hitherto these hobbies have not seemed to exist, now the whole world is filled with their fury, so, once he was converted to dissipation, Babbitt discovered agreeable opportunities for it everywhere.
He had a new view of his sporting neighbor, Sam Doppelbrau. The Doppelbraus were respectable people, industrious people, prosperous people, whose ideal of happiness was an eternal cabaret. Their life was dominated by suburban bacchanalia of alcohol, nicotine, gasoline, and kisses. They and their set worked capably all the week, and all week looked forward to Saturday night, when they would, as they expressed it, throw a party; and the thrown party grew noisier and noisier up to Sunday dawn, and usually included an extremely rapid motor expedition to nowhere in particular.
One evening when Tanis was at the theater, Babbitt found himself being lively with the Doppelbraus, pledging friendship with men whom he had for years privily denounced to Mrs. Babbitt as a rotten bunch of tin-horns that I wouldnt go out with, rot if they were the last people on earth. That evening he had sulkily come home and poked about in front of the house, chipping off the walk the ice-clots, like fossil footprints, made by the steps of passers-by during the recent snow. Howard Littlefield came up snuffling.
Hurray! Thats the way to talk! Look here: Theres some folks coming to the house to-night, Louetta Swanson and some other live ones, and Im going to open up a bottle of pre-war gin, and maybe well dance a while. Why dont you drop in and jazz it up a little, just for a change?
At eleven they all drove out to the Old Farm Inn. Babbitt sat in the back of Doppelbraus car with Louetta Swanson. Once he had timorously tried to make love to her. Now he did not try; he merely made love; and Louetta dropped her head on his shoulder, told him what a nagger Eddie was, and accepted Babbitt as a decent and well-trained libertine.
With the assistance of Taniss Bunch, the Doppelbraus, and other companions in forgetfulness, there was not an evening for two weeks when he did not return home late and shaky. With his other faculties blurred he yet had the motorists gift of being able to drive when he could scarce walk; of slowing down at corners and allowing for approaching cars. He came wambling into the house. If Verona and Kenneth Escott were about, he got past them with a hasty greeting, horribly aware of their level young glances, and hid himself up-stairs. He found when he came into the warm house that he was hazier than he had believed. His head whirled. He dared not lie down. He tried to soak out the alcohol in a hot bath. For the moment his head was clearer but when he moved about the bathroom his calculations of distance were wrong, so that he dragged down the towels, and knocked over the soap-dish with a clatter which, he feared, would betray him to the children. Chilly in his dressing-gown he tried to read the evening paper. He could follow every word; he seemed to take in the sense of things; but a minute afterward he could not have told what he had been reading. When he went to bed his brain flew in circles, and he hastily sat up, struggling for self-control. At last he was able to lie still, feeling only a little sick and dizzyand enormously ashamed. To hide his condition from his own children! To have danced and shouted with people whom he despised! To have said foolish things, sung idiotic songs, tried to kiss silly girls! Incredulously he remembered that he had by his roaring familiarity with them laid himself open to the patronizing of youths whom he would have kicked out of his office; that by dancing too ardently he had exposed himself to rebukes from the rattiest of withering women. As it came relentlessly back to him he snarled, I hate myself! God how I hate myself! But, he raged, Im through! No more! Had enough, plenty!
He was even surer about it the morning after, when he was trying to be grave and paternal with his daughters at breakfast. At noontime he was less sure. He did not deny that he had been a fool; he saw it almost as clearly as at midnight; but anything, he struggled, was better than going back to a life of barren heartiness. At four he wanted a drink. He kept a whisky flask in his desk now, and after two minutes of battle he had his drink. Three drinks later he began to see the Bunch as tender and amusing friends, and by six he was with them ... and the tale was to be told all over.
Each morning his head ached a little less. A bad head for drinks had been his safeguard, but the safeguard was crumbling. Presently he could be drunk at dawn, yet not feel particularly wretched in his conscienceor in his stomachwhen he awoke at eight. No regret, no desire to escape the toil of keeping up with the arduous merriment of the Bunch, was so great as his feeling of social inferiority when he failed to keep up. To be the livest of them was as much his ambition now as it had been to excel at making money, at playing golf, at motor-driving, at oratory, at climbing to the McKelvey set. But occasionally he failed.
He found that Pete and the other young men considered the Bunch too austerely polite and the Carrie who merely kissed behind doors too embarrassingly monogamic. As Babbitt sneaked from Floral Heights down to the Bunch, so the young gallants sneaked from the proprieties of the Bunch off to times with bouncing young women whom they picked up in department stores and at hotel coatrooms. Once Babbitt tried to accompany them. There was a motor car, a bottle of whisky, and for him a grubby shrieking cash-girl from Parcher and Steins. He sat beside her and worried. He was apparently expected to jolly her along, but when she sang out, Hey, leggo, quit crushing me cootie-garage, he did not quite know how to go on. They sat in the back room of a saloon, and Babbitt had a headache, was confused by their new slang looked at them benevolently, wanted to go home, and had a drinka good many drinks.
Two evenings after, Fulton Bemis, the surly older man of the Bunch, took Babbitt aside and grunted, Look here, its none of my business, and God knows I always lap up my share of the hootch, but dont you think you better watch yourself? Youre one of these enthusiastic chumps that always overdo things. D you realize youre throwing in the booze as fast as you can, and you eat one cigarette right after another? Better cut it out for a while.
Babbitt tearfully said that good old Fult was a prince, and yes, he certainly would cut it out, and thereafter he lighted a cigarette and took a drink and had a terrific quarrel with Tanis when she caught him being affectionate with Carrie Nork.
Next morning he hated himself that he should have sunk into a position where a fifteenth-rater like Fulton Bemis could rebuke him. He perceived that, since he was making love to every woman possible, Tanis was no longer his one pure star, and he wondered whether she had ever been anything more to him than A Woman. And if Bemis had spoken to him, were other people talking about him? He suspiciously watched the men at the Athletic Club that noon. It seemed to him that they were uneasy. They had been talking about him then? He was angry. He became belligerent. He not only defended Seneca Doane but even made fun of the Y. M. C. A, Vergil Gunch was rather brief in his answers.
Afterward Babbitt was not angry. He was afraid. He did not go to the next lunch of the Boosters Club but hid in a cheap restaurant, and, while he munched a ham-and-egg sandwich and sipped coffee from a cup on the arm of his chair, he worried.
Four days later, when the Bunch were having one of their best parties, Babbitt drove them to the skating-rink which had been laid out on the Chaloosa River. After a thaw the streets had frozen in smooth ice. Down those wide endless streets the wind rattled between the rows of wooden houses, and the whole Bellevue district seemed a frontier town. Even with skid chains on all four wheels, Babbitt was afraid of sliding, and when he came to the long slide of a hill he crawled down, both brakes on. Slewing round a corner came a less cautious car. It skidded, it almost raked them with its rear fenders. In relief at their escape the BunchTanis, Minnie Sonntag, Pete, Fulton Bemisshouted Oh, baby, and waved their hands to the agitated other driver. Then Babbitt saw Professor Pumphrey laboriously crawling up hill, afoot, Staring owlishly at the revelers. He was sure that Pumphrey recognized him and saw Tanis kiss him as she crowed, Youre such a good driver!
Perhaps two days afterward Babbitt took Tanis to lunch at the Hotel Thornleigh. She who had seemed well content to wait for him at her flat had begun to hint with melancholy smiles that he must think but little of her if he never introduced her to his friends, if he was unwilling to be seen with her except at the movies. He thought of taking her to the ladies annex of the Athletic Club, but that was too dangerous. He would have to introduce her and, oh, people might misunderstand and He compromised on the Thornleigh.
She was unusually smart, all in black: small black tricorne hat, short black caracul coat, loose and swinging, and austere high-necked black velvet frock at a time when most street costumes were like evening gowns. Perhaps she was too smart. Every one in the gold and oak restaurant of the Thornleigh was staring at her as Babbitt followed her to a table. He uneasily hoped that the head-waiter would give them a discreet place behind a pillar, but they were stationed on the center aisle. Tanis seemed not to notice her admirers; she smiled at Babbitt with a lavish Oh, isnt this nice! What a peppy-looking orchestra! Babbitt had difficulty in being lavish in return, for two tables away he saw Vergil Gunch. All through the meal Gunch watched them, while Babbitt watched himself being watched and lugubriously tried to keep from spoiling Taniss gaiety. I felt like a spree to-day, she rippled. I love the Thornleigh, dont you? Its so live and yet soso refined.
He made talk about the Thornleigh, the service, the food, the people he recognized in the restaurant, all but Vergil Gunch. There did not seem to be anything else to talk of. He smiled conscientiously at her fluttering jests; he agreed with her that Minnie Sonntag was so hard to get along with, and young Pete such a silly lazy kid, really just no good at all. But he himself had nothing to say. He considered telling her his worries about Gunch, butoh, gosh, it was too much work to go into the whole thing and explain about Verg and everything.
You know during the war we had the Undesirable Element, the Reds and walking delegates and just the plain common grouches, dead to rights, and so did we for quite a while after the war, but folks forget about the danger and that gives these cranks a chance to begin working underground again, especially a lot of these parlor socialists. Well, its up to the folks that do a little sound thinking to make a conscious effort to keep bucking these fellows. Some guy back East has organized a society called the Good Citizens League for just that purpose. Of course the Chamber of Commerce and the American Legion and so on do a fine work in keeping the decent people in the saddle, but theyre devoted to so many other causes that they cant attend to this one problem properly. But the Good Citizens League, the G. C. L., they stick right to it. Oh, the G. C. L. has to have some other ostensible purposesfrinstance here in Zenith I think it ought to support the park-extension project and the City Planning Committeeand then, too, it should have a social aspect, being made up of the best peoplehave dances and so on, especially as one of the best ways it can put the kibosh on cranks is to apply this social boycott business to folks big enough so you cant reach em otherwise. Then if that dont work, the G. C. L. can finally send a little delegation around to inform folks that get too flip that they got to conform to decent standards and quit shooting off their mouths so free. Dont it sound like the organization could do a great work? Weve already got some of the strongest men in town, and of course we want you in. How about it?
You bet your sweet life we would! Look here, old Georgie: Ive never for one moment believed you meant it when youve defended Doane, and the strikers and so on, at the Club. I knew you were simply kidding those poor galoots like Sid Finkelstein.... At least I certainly hope you were kidding!
Oh, wellsureCourse you might say Babbitt was conscious of how feeble he sounded, conscious of Gunchs mature and relentless eye. Gosh, you know where I stand! Im no labor agitator! Im a business man, first, last, and all the time! Butbut honestly, I dont think Doane means so badly, and you got to remember hes an old friend of mine.
George, when it comes right down to a struggle between decency and the security of our homes on the one hand, and red ruin and those lazy dogs plotting for free beer on the other, you got to give up even old friendships. He that is not with me is against me.
All right, just as you say. Babbitt was relieved to be let off so easily, but Gunch went on: George, I dont know whats come over you; none of us do; and weve talked a lot about you. For a while we figured out youd been upset by what happened to poor Riesling, and we forgave you for any fool thing you said, but thats old stuff now, George, and we cant make out whats got into you. Personally, Ive always defended you, but I must say its getting too much for me. All the boys at the Athletic Club and the Boosters are sore, the way you go on deliberately touting Doane and his bunch of hell-hounds, and talking about being liberalwhich means being wishy-washyand even saying this preacher guy Ingram isnt a professional free-love artist. And then the way you been carrying on personally! Joe Pumphrey says he saw you out the other night with a gang of totties, all stewed to the gills, and here to-day coming right into the Thornleigh with awell, she may be all right and a perfect lady, but she certainly did look like a pretty gay skirt for a fellow with his wife out of town to be taking to lunch. Didnt look well. What the devil has come over you, George?
Now dont go getting sore at me because I come out flat-footed like a friend and say what I think instead of tattling behind your back, the way a whole lot of em do. I tell you George, you got a position in the community, and the community expects you to live up to it. And Better think over joining the Good Citizens League. See you about it later.
That evening Babbitt dined alone. He saw all the Clan of Good Fellows peering through the restaurant window, spying on him. Fear sat beside him, and he told himself that to-night he would not go to Taniss flat; and he did not go ... till late.