Part 1 - Babbitt Audiobook by Sinclair Lewis (Chs 01-05)


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Transcript:
CHAPTER I
THE towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and
cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.
They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-
buildings.
The mist took pity on the fretted structures of earlier generations: the Post
Office with its shingle-tortured mansard, the red brick minarets of hulking old
houses, factories with stingy and sooted windows, wooden tenements colored like mud.
The city was full of such grotesqueries, but the clean towers were thrusting them
from the business center, and on the farther hills were shining new houses,
homes--they seemed--for laughter and tranquillity.
Over a concrete bridge fled a limousine of long sleek hood and noiseless engine.
These people in evening clothes were returning from an all-night rehearsal of a
Little Theater play, an artistic adventure considerably illuminated by champagne.
Below the bridge curved a railroad, a maze of green and crimson lights.
The New York Flyer boomed past, and twenty lines of polished steel leaped into the
glare.
In one of the skyscrapers the wires of the Associated Press were closing down.
The telegraph operators wearily raised their celluloid eye-shades after a night of
talking with Paris and Peking.
Through the building crawled the scrubwomen, yawning, their old shoes
slapping. The dawn mist spun away.
Cues of men with lunch-boxes clumped toward the immensity of new factories, sheets of
glass and hollow tile, glittering shops where five thousand men worked beneath one
roof, pouring out the honest wares that
would be sold up the Euphrates and across the veldt.
The whistles rolled out in greeting a chorus cheerful as the April dawn; the song
of labor in a city built--it seemed--for giants.
II
There was nothing of the giant in the aspect of the man who was beginning to
awaken on the sleeping-porch of a Dutch Colonial house in that residential district
of Zenith known as Floral Heights.
His name was George F. Babbitt.
He was forty-six years old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular,
neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses
for more than people could afford to pay.
His large head was pink, his brown hair thin and dry.
His face was babyish in slumber, despite his wrinkles and the red spectacle-dents on
the slopes of his nose.
He was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads, and the
unroughened hand which lay helpless upon the khaki-colored blanket was slightly
puffy.
He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic; and altogether unromantic
appeared this sleeping-porch, which looked on one sizable elm, two respectable grass-
plots, a cement driveway, and a corrugated iron garage.
Yet Babbitt was again dreaming of the fairy child, a dream more romantic than scarlet
pagodas by a silver sea.
For years the fairy child had come to him. Where others saw but Georgie Babbitt, she
discerned gallant youth. She waited for him, in the darkness beyond
mysterious groves.
When at last he could slip away from the crowded house he darted to her.
His wife, his clamoring friends, sought to follow, but he escaped, the girl fleet
beside him, and they crouched together on a shadowy hillside.
She was so slim, so white, so eager!
She cried that he was gay and valiant, that she would wait for him, that they would
sail-- Rumble and bang of the milk-truck.
Babbitt moaned; turned over; struggled back toward his dream.
He could see only her face now, beyond misty waters.
The furnace-man slammed the basement door.
A dog barked in the next yard. As Babbitt sank blissfully into a dim warm
tide, the paper-carrier went by whistling, and the rolled-up Advocate thumped the
front door.
Babbitt roused, his stomach constricted with alarm.
As he relaxed, he was pierced by the familiar and irritating rattle of some one
cranking a Ford: snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah.
Himself a pious motorist, Babbitt cranked with the unseen driver, with him waited
through taut hours for the roar of the starting engine, with him agonized as the
roar ceased and again began the infernal
patient snap-ah-ah--a round, flat sound, a shivering cold-morning sound, a sound
infuriating and inescapable.
Not till the rising voice of the motor told him that the Ford was moving was he
released from the panting tension.
He glanced once at his favorite tree, elm twigs against the gold patina of sky, and
fumbled for sleep as for a drug.
He who had been a boy very credulous of life was no longer greatly interested in
the possible and improbable adventures of each new day.
He escaped from reality till the alarm- clock rang, at seven-twenty.
III
It was the best of nationally advertised and quantitatively produced alarm-clocks,
with all modern attachments, including cathedral chime, intermittent alarm, and a
phosphorescent dial.
Babbitt was proud of being awakened by such a rich device.
Socially it was almost as creditable as buying expensive cord tires.
He sulkily admitted now that there was no more escape, but he lay and detested the
grind of the real-estate business, and disliked his family, and disliked himself
for disliking them.
The evening before, he had played poker at Vergil Gunch's till midnight, and after
such holidays he was irritable before breakfast.
It may have been the tremendous home-brewed beer of the prohibition-era and the cigars
to which that beer enticed him; it may have been resentment of return from this fine,
bold man-world to a restricted region of
wives and stenographers, and of suggestions not to smoke so much.
From the bedroom beside the sleeping-porch, his wife's detestably cheerful "Time to get
up, Georgie boy," and the itchy sound, the brisk and scratchy sound, of combing hairs
out of a stiff brush.
He grunted; he dragged his thick legs, in faded baby-blue pajamas, from under the
khaki blanket; he sat on the edge of the cot, running his fingers through his wild
hair, while his plump feet mechanically felt for his slippers.
He looked regretfully at the blanket-- forever a suggestion to him of freedom and
heroism.
He had bought it for a camping trip which had never come off.
It symbolized gorgeous loafing, gorgeous cursing, virile flannel shirts.
He creaked to his feet, groaning at the waves of pain which passed behind his
eyeballs.
Though he waited for their scorching recurrence, he looked blurrily out at the
yard.
It delighted him, as always; it was the neat yard of a successful business man of
Zenith, that is, it was perfection, and made him also perfect.
He regarded the corrugated iron garage.
For the three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth time in a year he reflected, "No class to that
tin shack. Have to build me a frame garage.
But by golly it's the only thing on the place that isn't up-to-date!"
While he stared he thought of a community garage for his acreage development, Glen
Oriole.
He stopped puffing and jiggling. His arms were akimbo.
His petulant, sleep-swollen face was set in harder lines.
He suddenly seemed capable, an official, a man to contrive, to direct, to get things
done.
On the vigor of his idea he was carried down the hard, dean, unused-looking hall
into the bathroom.
Though the house was not large it had, like all houses on Floral Heights, an altogether
royal bathroom of porcelain and glazed tile and metal sleek as silver.
The towel-rack was a rod of clear glass set in nickel.
The tub was long enough for a Prussian Guard, and above the set bowl was a
sensational exhibit of tooth-brush holder, shaving-brush holder, soap-dish, sponge-
dish, and medicine-cabinet, so glittering
and so ingenious that they resembled an electrical instrument-board.
But the Babbitt whose god was Modern Appliances was not pleased.
The air of the bathroom was thick with the smell of a heathen toothpaste.
"Verona been at it again!
'Stead of sticking to Lilidol, like I've re-peat-ed-ly asked her, she's gone and
gotten some confounded stinkum stuff that makes you sick!"
The bath-mat was wrinkled and the floor was wet.
(His daughter Verona eccentrically took baths in the morning, now and then.)
He slipped on the mat, and slid against the tub.
He said "Damn!"
Furiously he snatched up his tube of shaving-cream, furiously he lathered, with
a belligerent slapping of the unctuous brush, furiously he raked his plump cheeks
with a safety-razor.
It pulled. The blade was dull.
He said, "Damn--oh--oh--damn it!"
He hunted through the medicine-cabinet for a packet of new razor-blades (reflecting,
as invariably, "Be cheaper to buy one of these dinguses and strop your own blades,")
and when he discovered the packet, behind
the round box of bicarbonate of soda, he thought ill of his wife for putting it
there and very well of himself for not saying "Damn."
But he did say it, immediately afterward, when with wet and soap-slippery fingers he
tried to remove the horrible little envelope and crisp clinging oiled paper
from the new blade.
Then there was the problem, oft-pondered, never solved, of what to do with the old
blade, which might imperil the fingers of his young.
As usual, he tossed it on top of the medicine-cabinet, with a mental note that
some day he must remove the fifty or sixty other blades that were also temporarily,
piled up there.
He finished his shaving in a growing testiness increased by his spinning
headache and by the emptiness in his stomach.
When he was done, his round face smooth and streamy and his eyes stinging from soapy
water, he reached for a towel.
The family towels were wet, wet and clammy and vile, all of them wet, he found, as he
blindly snatched them--his own face-towel, his wife's, Verona's, Ted's, Tinka's, and
the lone bath-towel with the huge welt of initial.
Then George F. Babbitt did a dismaying thing.
He wiped his face on the guest-towel!
It was a pansy-embroidered trifle which always hung there to indicate that the
Babbitts were in the best Floral Heights society.
No one had ever used it.
No guest had ever dared to. Guests secretively took a corner of the
nearest regular towel.
He was raging, "By golly, here they go and use up all the towels, every doggone one of
'em, and they use 'em and get 'em all wet and sopping, and never put out a dry one
for me--of course, I'm the goat!--and then
I want one and--I'm the only person in the doggone house that's got the slightest
doggone bit of consideration for other people and thoughtfulness and consider
there may be others that may want to use
the doggone bathroom after me and consider- -"
He was pitching the chill abominations into the bath-tub, pleased by the vindictiveness
of that desolate flapping sound; and in the midst his wife serenely trotted in,
observed serenely, "Why Georgie dear, what are you doing?
Are you going to wash out the towels? Why, you needn't wash out the towels.
Oh, Georgie, you didn't go and use the guest-towel, did you?"
It is not recorded that he was able to answer.
For the first time in weeks he was sufficiently roused by his wife to look at
her.
IV Myra Babbitt--Mrs. George F. Babbitt--was
definitely mature.
She had creases from the corners of her mouth to the bottom of her chin, and her
plump neck bagged.
But the thing that marked her as having passed the line was that she no longer had
reticences before her husband, and no longer worried about not having reticences.
She was in a petticoat now, and corsets which bulged, and unaware of being seen in
bulgy corsets.
She had become so dully habituated to married life that in her full matronliness
she was as sexless as an anemic nun.
She was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one, save perhaps
Tinka her ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that
she was alive.
After a rather thorough discussion of all the domestic and social aspects of towels
she apologized to Babbitt for his having an alcoholic headache; and he recovered enough
to endure the search for a B.V.D.
undershirt which had, he pointed out, malevolently been concealed among his clean
pajamas. He was fairly amiable in the conference on
the brown suit.
"What do you think, Myra?"
He pawed at the clothes hunched on a chair in their bedroom, while she moved about
mysteriously adjusting and patting her petticoat and, to his jaundiced eye, never
seeming to get on with her dressing.
"How about it? Shall I wear the brown suit another day?"
"Well, it looks awfully nice on you." "I know, but gosh, it needs pressing."
"That's so.
Perhaps it does." "It certainly could stand being pressed,
all right." "Yes, perhaps it wouldn't hurt it to be
pressed."
"But gee, the coat doesn't need pressing. No sense in having the whole darn suit
pressed, when the coat doesn't need it." "That's so."
"But the pants certainly need it, all right.
Look at them--look at those wrinkles--the pants certainly do need pressing."
"That's so.
Oh, Georgie, why couldn't you wear the brown coat with the blue trousers we were
wondering what we'd do with them?" "Good Lord!
Did you ever in all my life know me to wear the coat of one suit and the pants of
another? What do you think I am?
A busted bookkeeper?"
"Well, why don't you put on the dark gray suit to-day, and stop in at the tailor and
leave the brown trousers?" "Well, they certainly need--Now where the
devil is that gray suit?
Oh, yes, here we are." He was able to get through the other crises
of dressing with comparative resoluteness and calm.
His first adornment was the sleeveless dimity B.V.D. undershirt, in which he
resembled a small boy humorlessly wearing a cheesecloth tabard at a civic pageant.
He never put on B.V.D.'s without thanking the God of Progress that he didn't wear
tight, long, old-fashioned undergarments, like his father-in-law and partner, Henry
Thompson.
His second embellishment was combing and slicking back his hair.
It gave him a tremendous forehead, arching up two inches beyond the former hair-line.
But most wonder-working of all was the donning of his spectacles.
There is character in spectacles--the pretentious tortoiseshell, the meek pince-
nez of the school teacher, the twisted silver-framed glasses of the old villager.
Babbitt's spectacles had huge, circular, frameless lenses of the very best glass;
the ear-pieces were thin bars of gold.
In them he was the modern business man; one who gave orders to clerks and drove a car
and played occasional golf and was scholarly in regard to Salesmanship.
His head suddenly appeared not babyish but weighty, and you noted his heavy, blunt
nose, his straight mouth and thick, long upper lip, his chin overfleshy but strong;
with respect you beheld him put on the rest of his uniform as a Solid Citizen.
The gray suit was well cut, well made, and completely undistinguished.
It was a standard suit.
White piping on the V of the vest added a flavor of law and learning.
His shoes were black laced boots, good boots, honest boots, standard boots,
extraordinarily uninteresting boots.
The only frivolity was in his purple knitted scarf.
With considerable comment on the matter to Mrs. Babbitt (who, acrobatically fastening
the back of her blouse to her skirt with a safety-pin, did not hear a word he said),
he chose between the purple scarf and a
tapestry effect with stringless brown harps among blown palms, and into it he thrust a
snake-head pin with opal eyes.
A sensational event was changing from the brown suit to the gray the contents of his
pockets. He was earnest about these objects.
They were of eternal importance, like baseball or the Republican Party.
They included a fountain pen and a silver pencil (always lacking a supply of new
leads) which belonged in the righthand upper vest pocket.
Without them he would have felt naked.
On his watch-chain were a gold penknife, silver cigar-cutter, seven keys (the use of
two of which he had forgotten), and incidentally a good watch.
Depending from the chain was a large, yellowish elk's-tooth-proclamation of his
membership in the Brotherly and Protective Order of Elks.
Most significant of all was his loose-leaf pocket note-book, that modern and efficient
note-book which contained the addresses of people whom he had forgotten, prudent
memoranda of postal money-orders which had
reached their destinations months ago, stamps which had lost their mucilage,
clippings of verses by T. Cholmondeley Frink and of the newspaper editorials from
which Babbitt got his opinions and his
polysyllables, notes to be sure and do things which he did not intend to do, and
one curious inscription--D.S.S. D.M.Y.P.D.F.
But he had no cigarette-case.
No one had ever happened to give him one, so he hadn't the habit, and people who
carried cigarette-cases he regarded as effeminate.
Last, he stuck in his lapel the Boosters' Club button.
With the conciseness of great art the button displayed two words: "Boosters-Pep!"
It made Babbitt feel loyal and important.
It associated him with Good Fellows, with men who were nice and human, and important
in business circles. It was his V.C., his Legion of Honor
ribbon, his Phi Beta Kappa key.
With the subtleties of dressing ran other complex worries.
"I feel kind of punk this morning," he said.
"I think I had too much dinner last evening.
You oughtn't to serve those heavy banana fritters."
"But you asked me to have some."
"I know, but--I tell you, when a fellow gets past forty he has to look after his
digestion. There's a lot of fellows that don't take
proper care of themselves.
I tell you at forty a man's a fool or his doctor--I mean, his own doctor.
Folks don't give enough attention to this matter of dieting.
Now I think--Course a man ought to have a good meal after the day's work, but it
would be a good thing for both of us if we took lighter lunches."
"But Georgie, here at home I always do have a light lunch."
"Mean to imply I make a hog of myself, eating down-town?
Yes, sure!
You'd have a swell time if you had to eat the truck that new steward hands out to us
at the Athletic Club! But I certainly do feel out of sorts, this
morning.
Funny, got a pain down here on the left side--but no, that wouldn't be
appendicitis, would it? Last night, when I was driving over to Verg
Gunch's, I felt a pain in my stomach, too.
Right here it was--kind of a sharp shooting pain.
I--Where'd that dime go to? Why don't you serve more prunes at
breakfast?
Of course I eat an apple every evening--an apple a day keeps the doctor away--but
still, you ought to have more prunes, and not all these fancy doodads."
"The last time I had prunes you didn't eat them."
"Well, I didn't feel like eating 'em, I suppose.
Matter of fact, I think I did eat some of 'em.
Anyway--I tell you it's mighty important to--I was saying to Verg Gunch, just last
evening, most people don't take sufficient care of their diges--"
"Shall we have the Gunches for our dinner, next week?"
"Why sure; you bet." "Now see here, George: I want you to put on
your nice dinner-jacket that evening."
"Rats! The rest of 'em won't want to dress."
"Of course they will.
You remember when you didn't dress for the Littlefields' supper-party, and all the
rest did, and how embarrassed you were." "Embarrassed, hell!
I wasn't embarrassed.
Everybody knows I can put on as expensive a Tux. as anybody else, and I should worry if
I don't happen to have it on sometimes. All a darn nuisance, anyway.
All right for a woman, that stays around the house all the time, but when a fellow's
worked like the dickens all day, he doesn't want to go and hustle his head off getting
into the soup-and-fish for a lot of folks
that he's seen in just reg'lar ordinary clothes that same day."
"You know you enjoy being seen in one. The other evening you admitted you were
glad I'd insisted on your dressing.
You said you felt a lot better for it. And oh, Georgie, I do wish you wouldn't say
'Tux.' It's 'dinner-jacket.'"
"Rats, what's the odds?"
"Well, it's what all the nice folks say. Suppose Lucile McKelvey heard you calling
it a 'Tux.'" "Well, that's all right now!
Lucile McKelvey can't pull anything on me!
Her folks are common as mud, even if her husband and her dad are millionaires!
I suppose you're trying to rub in your exalted social position!
Well, let me tell you that your revered paternal ancestor, Henry T., doesn't even
call it a 'Tux.'!
He calls it a 'bobtail jacket for a ringtail monkey,' and you couldn't get him
into one unless you chloroformed him!" "Now don't be horrid, George."
"Well, I don't want to be horrid, but Lord! you're getting as fussy as Verona.
Ever since she got out of college she's been too rambunctious to live with--doesn't
know what she wants--well, I know what she wants!--all she wants is to marry a
millionaire, and live in Europe, and hold
some preacher's hand, and simultaneously at the same time stay right here in Zenith and
be some blooming kind of a socialist agitator or boss charity-worker or some
damn thing!
Lord, and Ted is just as bad! He wants to go to college, and he doesn't
want to go to college. Only one of the three that knows her own
mind is Tinka.
Simply can't understand how I ever came to have a pair of shillyshallying children
like Rone and Ted.
I may not be any Rockefeller or James J. Shakespeare, but I certainly do know my own
mind, and I do keep right on plugging along in the office and--Do you know the latest?
Far as I can figure out, Ted's new bee is he'd like to be a movie actor and--And here
I've told him a hundred times, if he'll go to college and law-school and make good,
I'll set him up in business and--Verona just exactly as bad.
Doesn't know what she wants. Well, well, come on!
Aren't you ready yet?
The girl rang the bell three minutes ago."
V Before he followed his wife, Babbitt stood
at the westernmost window of their room.
This residential settlement, Floral Heights, was on a rise; and though the
center of the city was three miles away-- Zenith had between three and four hundred
thousand inhabitants now--he could see the
top of the Second National Tower, an Indiana limestone building of thirty-five
stories.
Its shining walls rose against April sky to a simple cornice like a streak of white
fire. Integrity was in the tower, and decision.
It bore its strength lightly as a tall soldier.
As Babbitt stared, the nervousness was soothed from his face, his slack chin
lifted in reverence.
All he articulated was "That's one lovely sight!" but he was inspired by the rhythm
of the city; his love of it renewed.
He beheld the tower as a temple-spire of the religion of business, a faith
passionate, exalted, surpassing common men; and as he clumped down to breakfast he
whistled the ballad "Oh, by gee, by gosh,
by jingo" as though it were a hymn melancholy and noble.
>
CHAPTER II
RELIEVED of Babbitt's bumbling and the soft grunts with which his wife expressed the
sympathy she was too experienced to feel and much too experienced not to show, their
bedroom settled instantly into impersonality.
It gave on the sleeping-porch.
It served both of them as dressing-room, and on the coldest nights Babbitt
luxuriously gave up the duty of being manly and retreated to the bed inside, to curl
his toes in the warmth and laugh at the January gale.
The room displayed a modest and pleasant color-scheme, after one of the best
standard designs of the decorator who "did the interiors" for most of the speculative-
builders' houses in Zenith.
The walls were gray, the woodwork white, the rug a serene blue; and very much like
mahogany was the furniture--the bureau with its great clear mirror, Mrs. Babbitt's
dressing-table with toilet-articles of
almost solid silver, the plain twin beds, between them a small table holding a
standard electric bedside lamp, a glass for water, and a standard bedside book with
colored illustrations--what particular book
it was cannot be ascertained, since no one had ever opened it.
The mattresses were firm but not hard, triumphant modern mattresses which had cost
a great deal of money; the hot-water radiator was of exactly the proper
scientific surface for the cubic contents of the room.
The windows were large and easily opened, with the best catches and cords, and
Holland roller-shades guaranteed not to crack.
It was a masterpiece among bedrooms, right out of Cheerful Modern Houses for Medium
Incomes. Only it had nothing to do with the
Babbitts, nor with any one else.
If people had ever lived and loved here, read thrillers at midnight and lain in
beautiful indolence on a Sunday morning, there were no signs of it.
It had the air of being a very good room in a very good hotel.
One expected the chambermaid to come in and make it ready for people who would stay but
one night, go without looking back, and never think of it again.
Every second house in Floral Heights had a bedroom precisely like this.
The Babbitts' house was five years old. It was all as competent and glossy as this
bedroom.
It had the best of taste, the best of inexpensive rugs, a simple and laudable
architecture, and the latest conveniences. Throughout, electricity took the place of
candles and slatternly hearth-fires.
Along the bedroom baseboard were three plugs for electric lamps, concealed by
little brass doors.
In the halls were plugs for the vacuum cleaner, and in the living-room plugs for
the piano lamp, for the electric fan.
The trim dining-room (with its admirable oak buffet, its leaded-glass cupboard, its
creamy plaster walls, its modest scene of a salmon expiring upon a pile of oysters) had
plugs which supplied the electric percolator and the electric toaster.
In fact there was but one thing wrong with the Babbitt house: It was not a home.
II Often of a morning Babbitt came bouncing
and jesting in to breakfast. But things were mysteriously awry to-day.
As he pontifically tread the upper hall he looked into Verona's bedroom and protested,
"What's the use of giving the family a high-class house when they don't appreciate
it and tend to business and get down to brass tacks?"
He marched upon them: Verona, a dumpy brown-haired girl of twenty-two, just out
of Bryn Mawr, given to solicitudes about duty and sex and God and the unconquerable
bagginess of the gray sports-suit she was now wearing.
Ted--Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt--a decorative boy of seventeen.
Tinka--Katherine--still a baby at ten, with radiant red hair and a thin skin which
hinted of too much candy and too many ice cream sodas.
Babbitt did not show his vague irritation as he tramped in.
He really disliked being a family tyrant, and his nagging was as meaningless as it
was frequent.
He shouted at Tinka, "Well, kittiedoolie!" It was the only pet name in his vocabulary,
except the "dear" and "hon." with which he recognized his wife, and he flung it at
Tinka every morning.
He gulped a cup of coffee in the hope of pacifying his stomach and his soul.
His stomach ceased to feel as though it did not belong to him, but Verona began to be
conscientious and annoying, and abruptly there returned to Babbitt the doubts
regarding life and families and business
which had clawed at him when his dream-life and the slim fairy girl had fled.
Verona had for six months been filing-clerk at the Gruensberg Leather Company offices,
with a prospect of becoming secretary to Mr. Gruensberg and thus, as Babbitt defined
it, "getting some good out of your
expensive college education till you're ready to marry and settle down."
But now said Verona: "Father!
I was talking to a classmate of mine that's working for the Associated Charities--oh,
Dad, there's the sweetest little babies that come to the milk-station there!--and I
feel as though I ought to be doing something worth while like that."
"What do you mean 'worth while'?
If you get to be Gruensberg's secretary-- and maybe you would, if you kept up your
shorthand and didn't go sneaking off to concerts and talkfests every evening--I
guess you'll find thirty-five or forty bones a week worth while!"
"I know, but--oh, I want to--contribute--I wish I were working in a settlement-house.
I wonder if I could get one of the department-stores to let me put in a
welfare-department with a nice rest-room and chintzes and wicker chairs and so on
and so forth.
Or I could--" "Now you look here!
The first thing you got to understand is that all this uplift and flipflop and
settlement-work and recreation is nothing in God's world but the entering wedge for
socialism.
The sooner a man learns he isn't going to be coddled, and he needn't expect a lot of
free grub and, uh, all these free classes and flipflop and doodads for his kids
unless he earns 'em, why, the sooner he'll
get on the job and produce--produce-- produce!
That's what the country needs, and not all this fancy stuff that just enfeebles the
will-power of the working man and gives his kids a lot of notions above their class.
And you--if you'd tend to business instead of fooling and fussing--All the time!
When I was a young man I made up my mind what I wanted to do, and stuck to it
through thick and thin, and that's why I'm where I am to-day, and--Myra!
What do you let the girl chop the toast up into these dinky little chunks for?
Can't get your fist onto 'em. Half cold, anyway!"
Ted Babbitt, junior in the great East Side High School, had been making hiccup-like
sounds of interruption. He blurted now, "Say, Rone, you going to--"
Verona whirled.
"Ted! Will you kindly not interrupt us when we're
talking about serious matters!" "Aw punk," said Ted judicially.
"Ever since somebody slipped up and let you out of college, Ammonia, you been pulling
these nut conversations about what-nots and so-on-and-so-forths.
Are you going to--I want to use the car tonight."
Babbitt snorted, "Oh, you do! May want it myself!"
Verona protested, "Oh, you do, Mr. Smarty!
I'm going to take it myself!" Tinka wailed, "Oh, papa, you said maybe
you'd drive us down to Rosedale!" and Mrs. Babbitt, "Careful, Tinka, your sleeve is in
the butter."
They glared, and Verona hurled, "Ted, you're a perfect pig about the car!"
"Course you're not! Not a-tall!"
Ted could be maddeningly bland.
"You just want to grab it off, right after dinner, and leave it in front of some
skirt's house all evening while you sit and gas about lite'ature and the highbrows
you're going to marry--if they only propose!"
"Well, Dad oughtn't to EVER let you have it!
You and those beastly Jones boys drive like maniacs.
The idea of your taking the turn on Chautauqua Place at forty miles an hour!"
"Aw, where do you get that stuff!
You're so darn scared of the car that you drive up-hill with the emergency brake on!"
"I do not!
And you--Always talking about how much you know about motors, and Eunice Littlefield
told me you said the battery fed the generator!"
"You--why, my good woman, you don't know a generator from a differential."
Not unreasonably was Ted lofty with her.
He was a natural mechanic, a maker and tinkerer of machines; he lisped in
blueprints for the blueprints came. "That'll do now!"
Babbitt flung in mechanically, as he lighted the gloriously satisfying first
cigar of the day and tasted the exhilarating drug of the Advocate-Times
headlines.
Ted negotiated: "Gee, honest, Rone, I don't want to take the old boat, but I promised
couple o' girls in my class I'd drive 'em down to the rehearsal of the school chorus,
and, gee, I don't want to, but a
gentleman's got to keep his social engagements."
"Well, upon my word! You and your social engagements!
In high school!"
"Oh, ain't we select since we went to that hen college!
Let me tell you there isn't a private school in the state that's got as swell a
bunch as we got in Gamma Digamma this year.
There's two fellows that their dads are millionaires.
Say, gee, I ought to have a car of my own, like lots of the fellows."
Babbitt almost rose.
"A car of your own! Don't you want a yacht, and a house and
lot? That pretty nearly takes the cake!
A boy that can't pass his Latin examinations, like any other boy ought to,
and he expects me to give him a motor-car, and I suppose a chauffeur, and an areoplane
maybe, as a reward for the hard work he
puts in going to the movies with Eunice Littlefield!
Well, when you see me giving you--"
Somewhat later, after diplomacies, Ted persuaded Verona to admit that she was
merely going to the Armory, that evening, to see the dog and cat show.
She was then, Ted planned, to park the car in front of the candy-store across from the
Armory and he would pick it up.
There were masterly arrangements regarding leaving the key, and having the gasoline
tank filled; and passionately, devotees of the Great God Motor, they hymned the patch
on the spare inner-tube, and the lost jack- handle.
Their truce dissolving, Ted observed that her friends were "a scream of a bunch-
stuck-up gabby four-flushers."
His friends, she indicated, were "disgusting imitation sports, and horrid
little shrieking ignorant girls."
Further: "It's disgusting of you to smoke cigarettes, and so on and so forth, and
those clothes you've got on this morning, they're too utterly ridiculous--honestly,
simply disgusting."
Ted balanced over to the low beveled mirror in the buffet, regarded his charms, and
smirked.
His suit, the latest thing in Old Eli Togs, was skin-tight, with skimpy trousers to the
tops of his glaring tan boots, a chorus-man waistline, pattern of an agitated check,
and across the back a belt which belted nothing.
His scarf was an enormous black silk wad. His flaxen hair was ice-smooth, pasted back
without parting.
When he went to school he would add a cap with a long vizor like a shovel-blade.
Proudest of all was his waistcoat, saved for, begged for, plotted for; a real Fancy
Vest of fawn with polka dots of a decayed red, the points astoundingly long.
On the lower edge of it he wore a high- school button, a class button, and a
fraternity pin. And none of it mattered.
He was supple and swift and flushed; his eyes (which he believed to be cynical) were
candidly eager. But he was not over-gentle.
He waved his hand at poor dumpy Verona and drawled: "Yes, I guess we're pretty
ridiculous and disgusticulus, and I rather guess our new necktie is some smear!"
Babbitt barked: "It is!
And while you're admiring yourself, let me tell you it might add to your manly beauty
if you wiped some of that egg off your mouth!"
Verona giggled, momentary victor in the greatest of Great Wars, which is the family
war.
Ted looked at her hopelessly, then shrieked at Tinka: "For the love o' Pete, quit
pouring the whole sugar bowl on your corn flakes!"
When Verona and Ted were gone and Tinka upstairs, Babbitt groaned to his wife:
"Nice family, I must say!
I don't pretend to be any baa-lamb, and maybe I'm a little cross-grained at
breakfast sometimes, but the way they go on jab-jab-jabbering, I simply can't stand it.
I swear, I feel like going off some place where I can get a little peace.
I do think after a man's spent his lifetime trying to give his kids a chance and a
decent education, it's pretty discouraging to hear them all the time scrapping like a
bunch of hyenas and never--and never--
Curious; here in the paper it says--Never silent for one mom--Seen the morning paper
yet?" "No, dear."
In twenty-three years of married life, Mrs. Babbitt had seen the paper before her
husband just sixty-seven times. "Lots of news.
Terrible big tornado in the South.
Hard luck, all right. But this, say, this is corking!
Beginning of the end for those fellows!
New York Assembly has passed some bills that ought to completely outlaw the
socialists!
And there's an elevator-runners' strike in New York and a lot of college boys are
taking their places. That's the stuff!
And a mass-meeting in Birmingham's demanded that this Mick agitator, this fellow De
Valera, be deported. Dead right, by golly!
All these agitators paid with German gold anyway.
And we got no business interfering with the Irish or any other foreign government.
Keep our hands strictly off.
And there's another well-authenticated rumor from Russia that Lenin is dead.
That's fine. It's beyond me why we don't just step in
there and kick those Bolshevik cusses out."
"That's so," said Mrs. Babbitt. "And it says here a fellow was inaugurated
mayor in overalls--a preacher, too! What do you think of that!"
"Humph!
Well!"
He searched for an attitude, but neither as a Republican, a Presbyterian, an Elk, nor a
real-estate broker did he have any doctrine about preacher-mayors laid down for him, so
he grunted and went on.
She looked sympathetic and did not hear a word.
Later she would read the headlines, the society columns, and the department-store
advertisements.
"What do you know about this! Charley McKelvey still doing the sassiety
stunt as heavy as ever. Here's what that gushy woman reporter says
about last night:"
Never is Society with the big, big S more flattered than when they are bidden to
partake of good cheer at the distinguished and hospitable residence of Mr. and Mrs.
Charles L.
McKelvey as they were last night.
Set in its spacious lawns and landscaping, one of the notable sights crowning Royal
Ridge, but merry and homelike despite its mighty stone walls and its vast rooms famed
for their decoration, their home was thrown
open last night for a dance in honor of Mrs. McKelvey's notable guest, Miss J.
Sneeth of Washington.
The wide hall is so generous in its proportions that it made a perfect
ballroom, its hardwood floor reflecting the charming pageant above its polished
surface.
Even the delights of dancing paled before the alluring opportunities for tete-a-tetes
that invited the soul to loaf in the long library before the baronial fireplace, or
in the drawing-room with its deep comfy
armchairs, its shaded lamps just made for a sly whisper of pretty nothings all a deux;
or even in the billiard room where one could take a cue and show a prowess at
still another game than that sponsored by Cupid and Terpsichore.
There was more, a great deal more, in the best urban journalistic style of Miss
Elnora Pearl Bates, the popular society editor of the Advocate-Times.
But Babbitt could not abide it.
He grunted. He wrinkled the newspaper.
He protested: "Can you beat it! I'm willing to hand a lot of credit to
Charley McKelvey.
When we were in college together, he was just as hard up as any of us, and he's made
a million good bucks out of contracting and hasn't been any dishonester or bought any
more city councils than was necessary.
And that's a good house of his--though it ain't any 'mighty stone walls' and it ain't
worth the ninety thousand it cost him.
But when it comes to talking as though Charley McKelvey and all that booze-
hoisting set of his are any blooming bunch of of, of Vanderbilts, why, it makes me
tired!"
Timidly from Mrs. Babbitt: "I would like to see the inside of their house though.
It must be lovely. I've never been inside."
"Well, I have!
Lots of--couple of times. To see Chaz about business deals, in the
evening. It's not so much.
I wouldn't WANT to go there to dinner with that gang of, of high-binders.
And I'll bet I make a whole lot more money than some of those tin-horns that spend all
they got on dress-suits and haven't got a decent suit of underwear to their name!
Hey!
What do you think of this!" Mrs. Babbitt was strangely unmoved by the
tidings from the Real Estate and Building column of the Advocate-Times:
Ashtabula Street, 496--J. K. Dawson to Thomas Mullally, April 17, 15.7 X 112.2,
mtg. $4000............
.
Nom
And this morning Babbitt was too disquieted to entertain her with items from Mechanics'
Liens, Mortgages Recorded, and Contracts Awarded.
He rose.
As he looked at her his eyebrows seemed shaggier than usual.
Suddenly: "Yes, maybe--Kind of shame to not keep in
touch with folks like the McKelveys.
We might try inviting them to dinner, some evening.
Oh, thunder, let's not waste our good time thinking about 'em!
Our little bunch has a lot liver times than all those plutes.
Just compare a real human like you with these neurotic birds like Lucile McKelvey--
all highbrow talk and dressed up like a plush horse!
You're a great old girl, hon.!"
He covered his betrayal of softness with a complaining: "Say, don't let Tinka go and
eat any more of that poison nutfudge. For Heaven's sake, try to keep her from
ruining her digestion.
I tell you, most folks don't appreciate how important it is to have a good digestion
and regular habits. Be back 'bout usual time, I guess."
He kissed her--he didn't quite kiss her--he laid unmoving lips against her unflushing
cheek. He hurried out to the garage, muttering:
"Lord, what a family!
And now Myra is going to get pathetic on me because we don't train with this
millionaire outfit. Oh, Lord, sometimes I'd like to quit the
whole game.
And the office worry and detail just as bad.
And I act cranky and--I don't mean to, but I get--So darn tired!"
>
CHAPTER III
To George F. Babbitt, as to most prosperous citizens of Zenith, his motor car was
poetry and tragedy, love and heroism. The office was his pirate ship but the car
his perilous excursion ashore.
Among the tremendous crises of each day none was more dramatic than starting the
engine.
It was slow on cold mornings; there was the long, anxious whirr of the starter; and
sometimes he had to drip ether into the cocks of the cylinders, which was so very
interesting that at lunch he would
chronicle it drop by drop, and orally calculate how much each drop had cost him.
This morning he was darkly prepared to find something wrong, and he felt belittled when
the mixture exploded sweet and strong, and the car didn't even brush the door-jamb,
gouged and splintery with many bruisings by fenders, as he backed out of the garage.
He was confused. He shouted "Morning!" to Sam Doppelbrau
with more cordiality than he had intended.
Babbitt's green and white Dutch Colonial house was one of three in that block on
Chatham Road.
To the left of it was the residence of Mr. Samuel Doppelbrau, secretary of an
excellent firm of bathroom-fixture jobbers.
His was a comfortable house with no architectural manners whatever; a large
wooden box with a squat tower, a broad porch, and glossy paint yellow as a yolk.
Babbitt disapproved of Mr. and Mrs. Doppelbrau as "Bohemian."
From their house came midnight music and obscene laughter; there were neighborhood
rumors of bootlegged whisky and fast motor rides.
They furnished Babbitt with many happy evenings of discussion, during which he
announced firmly, "I'm not strait-laced, and I don't mind seeing a fellow throw in a
drink once in a while, but when it comes to
deliberately trying to get away with a lot of hell-raising all the while like the
Doppelbraus do, it's too rich for my blood!"
On the other side of Babbitt lived Howard Littlefield, Ph.D., in a strictly modern
house whereof the lower part was dark red tapestry brick, with a leaded oriel, the
upper part of pale stucco like spattered clay, and the roof red-tiled.
Littlefield was the Great Scholar of the neighborhood; the authority on everything
in the world except babies, cooking, and motors.
He was a Bachelor of Arts of Blodgett College, and a Doctor of Philosophy in
economics of Yale.
He was the employment-manager and publicity-counsel of the Zenith Street
Traction Company.
He could, on ten hours' notice, appear before the board of aldermen or the state
legislature and prove, absolutely, with figures all in rows and with precedents
from Poland and New Zealand, that the
street-car company loved the Public and yearned over its employees; that all its
stock was owned by Widows and Orphans; and that whatever it desired to do would
benefit property-owners by increasing
rental values, and help the poor by lowering rents.
All his acquaintances turned to Littlefield when they desired to know the date of the
battle of Saragossa, the definition of the word "sabotage," the future of the German
mark, the translation of "hinc illae
lachrimae," or the number of products of coal tar.
He awed Babbitt by confessing that he often sat up till midnight reading the figures
and footnotes in Government reports, or skimming (with amusement at the author's
mistakes) the latest volumes of chemistry, archeology, and ichthyology.
But Littlefield's great value was as a spiritual example.
Despite his strange learnings he was as strict a Presbyterian and as firm a
Republican as George F. Babbitt. He confirmed the business men in the faith.
Where they knew only by passionate instinct that their system of industry and manners
was perfect, Dr. Howard Littlefield proved it to them, out of history, economics, and
the confessions of reformed radicals.
Babbitt had a good deal of honest pride in being the neighbor of such a savant, and in
Ted's intimacy with Eunice Littlefield.
At sixteen Eunice was interested in no statistics save those regarding the ages
and salaries of motion-picture stars, but-- as Babbitt definitively put it--"she was
her father's daughter."
The difference between a light man like Sam Doppelbrau and a really fine character like
Littlefield was revealed in their appearances.
Doppelbrau was disturbingly young for a man of forty-eight.
He wore his derby on the back of his head, and his red face was wrinkled with
meaningless laughter.
But Littlefield was old for a man of forty- two.
He was tall, broad, thick; his gold-rimmed spectacles were engulfed in the folds of
his long face; his hair was a tossed mass of greasy blackness; he puffed and rumbled
as he talked; his Phi Beta Kappa key shone
against a spotty black vest; he smelled of old pipes; he was altogether funereal and
archidiaconal; and to real-estate brokerage and the jobbing of bathroom-fixtures he
added an aroma of sanctity.
This morning he was in front of his house, inspecting the grass parking between the
curb and the broad cement sidewalk. Babbitt stopped his car and leaned out to
shout "Mornin'!"
Littlefield lumbered over and stood with one foot up on the running-board.
"Fine morning," said Babbitt, lighting-- illegally early--his second cigar of the
day.
"Yes, it's a mighty fine morning," said Littlefield.
"Spring coming along fast now." "Yes, it's real spring now, all right,"
said Littlefield.
"Still cold nights, though. Had to have a couple blankets, on the
sleeping-porch last night." "Yes, it wasn't any too warm last night,"
said Littlefield.
"But I don't anticipate we'll have any more real cold weather now."
"No, but still, there was snow at Tiflis, Montana, yesterday," said the Scholar, "and
you remember the blizzard they had out West three days ago--thirty inches of snow at
Greeley, Colorado--and two years ago we had
a snow-squall right here in Zenith on the twenty-fifth of April."
"Is that a fact! Say, old man, what do you think about the
Republican candidate?
Who'll they nominate for president? Don't you think it's about time we had a
real business administration?"
"In my opinion, what the country needs, first and foremost, is a good, sound,
business-like conduct of its affairs. What we need is--a business
administration!" said Littlefield.
"I'm glad to hear you say that! I certainly am glad to hear you say that!
I didn't know how you'd feel about it, with all your associations with colleges and so
on, and I'm glad you feel that way.
What the country needs--just at this present juncture--is neither a college
president nor a lot of monkeying with foreign affairs, but a good--sound
economical--business--administration, that
will give us a chance to have something like a decent turnover."
"Yes.
It isn't generally realized that even in China the schoolmen are giving way to more
practical men, and of course you can see what that implies."
"Is that a fact!
Well, well!" breathed Babbitt, feeling much calmer, and much happier about the way
things were going in the world. "Well, it's been nice to stop and parleyvoo
a second.
Guess I'll have to get down to the office now and sting a few clients.
Well, so long, old man. See you tonight.
So long."
II They had labored, these solid citizens.
Twenty years before, the hill on which Floral Heights was spread, with its bright
roofs and immaculate turf and amazing comfort, had been a wilderness of rank
second-growth elms and oaks and maples.
Along the precise streets were still a few wooded vacant lots, and the fragment of an
old orchard.
It was brilliant to-day; the apple boughs were lit with fresh leaves like torches of
green fire.
The first white of cherry blossoms flickered down a gully, and robins
clamored.
Babbitt sniffed the earth, chuckled at the hysteric robins as he would have chuckled
at kittens or at a comic movie.
He was, to the eye, the perfect office- going executive--a well-fed man in a
correct brown soft hat and frameless spectacles, smoking a large cigar, driving
a good motor along a semi-suburban parkway.
But in him was some genius of authentic love for his neighborhood, his city, his
clan.
The winter was over; the time was come for the building, the visible growth, which to
him was glory.
He lost his dawn depression; he was ruddily cheerful when he stopped on Smith Street to
leave the brown trousers, and to have the gasoline-tank filled.
The familiarity of the rite fortified him: the sight of the tall red iron gasoline-
pump, the hollow-tile and terra-cotta garage, the window full of the most
agreeable accessories--shiny casings,
spark-plugs with immaculate porcelain jackets tire-chains of gold and silver.
He was flattered by the friendliness with which Sylvester Moon, dirtiest and most
skilled of motor mechanics, came out to serve him.
"Mornin', Mr. Babbitt!" said Moon, and Babbitt felt himself a person of
importance, one whose name even busy garagemen remembered--not one of these
cheap-sports flying around in flivvers.
He admired the ingenuity of the automatic dial, clicking off gallon by gallon;
admired the smartness of the sign: "A fill in time saves getting stuck--gas to-day 31
cents"; admired the rhythmic gurgle of the
gasoline as it flowed into the tank, and the mechanical regularity with which Moon
turned the handle.
"How much we takin' to-day?" asked Moon, in a manner which combined the independence of
the great specialist, the friendliness of a familiar gossip, and respect for a man of
weight in the community, like George F. Babbitt.
"Fill 'er up." "Who you rootin' for for Republican
candidate, Mr. Babbitt?"
"It's too early to make any predictions yet.
After all, there's still a good month and two weeks--no, three weeks--must be almost
three weeks--well, there's more than six weeks in all before the Republican
convention, and I feel a fellow ought to
keep an open mind and give all the candidates a show--look 'em all over and
size 'em up, and then decide carefully." "That's a fact, Mr. Babbitt."
"But I'll tell you--and my stand on this is just the same as it was four years ago, and
eight years ago, and it'll be my stand four years from now--yes, and eight years from
now!
What I tell everybody, and it can't be too generally understood, is that what we need
first, last, and all the time is a good, sound business administration!"
"By golly, that's right!"
"How do those front tires look to you?" "Fine!
Fine!
Wouldn't be much work for garages if everybody looked after their car the way
you do." "Well, I do try and have some sense about
it."
Babbitt paid his bill, said adequately, "Oh, keep the change," and drove off in an
ecstasy of honest self-appreciation.
It was with the manner of a Good Samaritan that he shouted at a respectable-looking
man who was waiting for a trolley car, "Have a lift?"
As the man climbed in Babbitt condescended, "Going clear down-town?
Whenever I see a fellow waiting for a trolley, I always make it a practice to
give him a lift--unless, of course, he looks like a bum."
"Wish there were more folks that were so generous with their machines," dutifully
said the victim of benevolence. "Oh, no, 'tain't a question of generosity,
hardly.
Fact, I always feel--I was saying to my son just the other night--it's a fellow's duty
to share the good things of this world with his neighbors, and it gets my goat when a
fellow gets stuck on himself and goes
around tooting his horn merely because he's charitable."
The victim seemed unable to find the right answer.
Babbitt boomed on:
"Pretty punk service the Company giving us on these car-lines.
Nonsense to only run the Portland Road cars once every seven minutes.
Fellow gets mighty cold on a winter morning, waiting on a street corner with
the wind nipping at his ankles." "That's right.
The Street Car Company don't care a damn what kind of a deal they give us.
Something ought to happen to 'em." Babbitt was alarmed.
"But still, of course it won't do to just keep knocking the Traction Company and not
realize the difficulties they're operating under, like these cranks that want
municipal ownership.
The way these workmen hold up the Company for high wages is simply a crime, and of
course the burden falls on you and me that have to pay a seven-cent fare!
Fact, there's remarkable service on all their lines--considering."
"Well--" uneasily. "Darn fine morning," Babbitt explained.
"Spring coming along fast."
"Yes, it's real spring now."
The victim had no originality, no wit, and Babbitt fell into a great silence and
devoted himself to the game of beating trolley cars to the corner: a spurt, a
tail-chase, nervous speeding between the
huge yellow side of the trolley and the jagged row of parked motors, shooting past
just as the trolley stopped--a rare game and valiant.
And all the while he was conscious of the loveliness of Zenith.
For weeks together he noticed nothing but clients and the vexing To Rent signs of
rival brokers.
To-day, in mysterious malaise, he raged or rejoiced with equal nervous swiftness, and
to-day the light of spring was so winsome that he lifted his head and saw.
He admired each district along his familiar route to the office: The bungalows and
shrubs and winding irregular drive ways of Floral Heights.
The one-story shops on Smith Street, a glare of plate-glass and new yellow brick;
groceries and laundries and drug-stores to supply the more immediate needs of East
Side housewives.
The market gardens in Dutch Hollow, their shanties patched with corrugated iron and
stolen doors.
Billboards with crimson goddesses nine feet tall advertising cinema films, pipe
tobacco, and talcum powder.
The old "mansions" along Ninth Street, S. E., like aged dandies in filthy linen;
wooden castles turned into boarding-houses, with muddy walks and rusty hedges, jostled
by fast-intruding garages, cheap apartment-
houses, and fruit-stands conducted by bland, sleek Athenians.
Across the belt of railroad-tracks, factories with high-perched water-tanks and
tall stacks-factories producing condensed milk, paper boxes, lighting-fixtures, motor
cars.
Then the business center, the thickening darting traffic, the crammed trolleys
unloading, and high doorways of marble and polished granite.
It was big--and Babbitt respected bigness in anything; in mountains, jewels, muscles,
wealth, or words. He was, for a spring-enchanted moment, the
lyric and almost unselfish lover of Zenith.
He thought of the outlying factory suburbs; of the Chaloosa River with its strangely
eroded banks; of the orchard-dappled Tonawanda Hills to the North, and all the
fat dairy land and big barns and comfortable herds.
As he dropped his passenger he cried, "Gosh, I feel pretty good this morning!"
III Epochal as starting the car was the drama
of parking it before he entered his office.
As he turned from Oberlin Avenue round the corner into Third Street, N.E., he peered
ahead for a space in the line of parked cars.
He angrily just missed a space as a rival driver slid into it.
Ahead, another car was leaving the curb, and Babbitt slowed up, holding out his hand
to the cars pressing on him from behind, agitatedly motioning an old woman to go
ahead, avoiding a truck which bore down on him from one side.
With front wheels nicking the wrought-steel bumper of the car in front, he stopped,
feverishly cramped his steering-wheel, slid back into the vacant space and, with
eighteen inches of room, manoeuvered to bring the car level with the curb.
It was a virile adventure masterfully executed.
With satisfaction he locked a thief-proof steel wedge on the front wheel, and crossed
the street to his real-estate office on the ground floor of the Reeves Building.
The Reeves Building was as fireproof as a rock and as efficient as a typewriter;
fourteen stories of yellow pressed brick, with clean, upright, unornamented lines.
It was filled with the offices of lawyers, doctors, agents for machinery, for emery
wheels, for wire fencing, for mining-stock. Their gold signs shone on the windows.
The entrance was too modern to be flamboyant with pillars; it was quiet,
shrewd, neat.
Along the Third Street side were a Western Union Telegraph Office, the Blue Delft
Candy Shop, Shotwell's Stationery Shop, and the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company.
Babbitt could have entered his office from the street, as customers did, but it made
him feel an insider to go through the corridor of the building and enter by the
back door.
Thus he was greeted by the villagers.
The little unknown people who inhabited the Reeves Building corridors--elevator-
runners, starter, engineers, superintendent, and the doubtful-looking
lame man who conducted the news and cigar stand--were in no way city-dwellers.
They were rustics, living in a constricted valley, interested only in one another and
in The Building.
Their Main Street was the entrance hall, with its stone floor, severe marble
ceiling, and the inner windows of the shops.
The liveliest place on the street was the Reeves Building Barber Shop, but this was
also Babbitt's one embarrassment.
Himself, he patronized the glittering Pompeian Barber Shop in the Hotel
Thornleigh, and every time he passed the Reeves shop--ten times a day, a hundred
times--he felt untrue to his own village.
Now, as one of the squirearchy, greeted with honorable salutations by the
villagers, he marched into his office, and peace and dignity were upon him, and the
morning's dissonances all unheard.
They were heard again, immediately.
Stanley Graff, the outside salesman, was talking on the telephone with tragic lack
of that firm manner which disciplines clients: "Say, uh, I think I got just the
house that would suit you--the Percival House, in Linton....
Oh, you've seen it. Well, how'd it strike you?...
Huh?
...Oh," irresolutely, "oh, I see."
As Babbitt marched into his private room, a coop with semi-partition of oak and frosted
glass, at the back of the office, he reflected how hard it was to find employees
who had his own faith that he was going to make sales.
There were nine members of the staff, besides Babbitt and his partner and father-
in-law, Henry Thompson, who rarely came to the office.
The nine were Stanley Graff, the outside salesman--a youngish man given to
cigarettes and the playing of pool; old Mat Penniman, general utility man, collector of
rents and salesman of insurance--broken,
silent, gray; a mystery, reputed to have been a "crack" real-estate man with a firm
of his own in haughty Brooklyn; Chester Kirby Laylock, resident salesman out at the
Glen Oriole acreage development--an
enthusiastic person with a silky mustache and much family; Miss Theresa McGoun, the
swift and rather pretty stenographer; Miss Wilberta Bannigan, the thick, slow,
laborious accountant and file-clerk; and
four freelance part-time commission salesmen.
As he looked from his own cage into the main room Babbitt mourned, "McGoun's a good
stenog., smart's a whip, but Stan Graff and all those bums--" The zest of the spring
morning was smothered in the stale office air.
Normally he admired the office, with a pleased surprise that he should have
created this sure lovely thing; normally he was stimulated by the clean newness of it
and the air of bustle; but to-day it seemed
flat--the tiled floor, like a bathroom, the ocher-colored metal ceiling, the faded maps
on the hard plaster walls, the chairs of varnished pale oak, the desks and filing-
cabinets of steel painted in olive drab.
It was a vault, a steel chapel where loafing and laughter were raw sin.
He hadn't even any satisfaction in the new water-cooler!
And it was the very best of water-coolers, up-to-date, scientific, and right-thinking.
It had cost a great deal of money (in itself a virtue).
It possessed a non-conducting fiber ice- container, a porcelain water-jar
(guaranteed hygienic), a drip-less non- clogging sanitary faucet, and machine-
painted decorations in two tones of gold.
He looked down the relentless stretch of tiled floor at the water-cooler, and
assured himself that no tenant of the Reeves Building had a more expensive one,
but he could not recapture the feeling of social superiority it had given him.
He astoundingly grunted, "I'd like to beat it off to the woods right now.
And loaf all day.
And go to Gunch's again to-night, and play poker, and cuss as much as I feel like, and
drink a hundred and nine-thousand bottles of beer."
He sighed; he read through his mail; he shouted "Msgoun," which meant "Miss
McGoun"; and began to dictate. This was his own version of his first
letter:
"Omar Gribble, send it to his office, Miss McGoun, yours of twentieth to hand and in
reply would say look here, Gribble, I'm awfully afraid if we go on shilly-shallying
like this we'll just naturally lose the
Allen sale, I had Allen up on carpet day before yesterday and got right down to
cases and think I can assure you--uh, uh, no, change that: all my experience
indicates he is all right, means to do
business, looked into his financial record which is fine--that sentence seems to be a
little balled up, Miss McGoun; make a couple sentences out of it if you have to,
period, new paragraph.
"He is perfectly willing to pro rate the special assessment and strikes me, am dead
sure there will be no difficulty in getting him to pay for title insurance, so now for
heaven's sake let's get busy--no, make
that: so now let's go to it and get down-- no, that's enough--you can tie those
sentences up a little better when you type 'em, Miss McGoun--your sincerely,
etcetera."
This is the version of his letter which he received, typed, from Miss McGoun that
afternoon:
BABBITT-THOMPSON REALTY CO. Homes for Folks Reeves Bldg., Oberlin
Avenue & 3d St., N.E Zenith
Omar Gribble, Esq., 376 North American Building, Zenith.
Dear Mr. Gribble: Your letter of the twentieth to hand.
I must say I'm awfully afraid that if we go on shilly-shallying like this we'll just
naturally lose the Allen sale. I had Allen up on the carpet day before
yesterday, and got right down to cases.
All my experience indicates that he means to do business.
I have also looked into his financial record, which is fine.
He is perfectly willing to pro rate the special assessment and there will be no
difficulty in getting him to pay for title insurance.
SO LET'S GO!
Yours sincerely, As he read and signed it, in his correct
flowing business-college hand, Babbitt reflected, "Now that's a good, strong
letter, and clear's a bell.
Now what the--I never told McGoun to make a third paragraph there!
Wish she'd quit trying to improve on my dictation!
But what I can't understand is: why can't Stan Graff or Chet Laylock write a letter
like that? With punch!
With a kick!"
The most important thing he dictated that morning was the fortnightly form-letter, to
be mimeographed and sent out to a thousand "prospects."
It was diligently imitative of the best literary models of the day; of heart-to-
heart-talk advertisements, "sales-pulling" letters, discourses on the "development of
Will-power," and hand-shaking house-organs,
as richly poured forth by the new school of Poets of Business.
He had painfully written out a first draft, and he intoned it now like a poet delicate
and distrait:
SAY, OLD MAN! I just want to know can I do you a whaleuva
favor? Honest!
No kidding!
I know you're interested in getting a house, not merely a place where you hang up
the old bonnet but a love-nest for the wife and kiddies--and maybe for the flivver out
beyant (be sure and spell that b-e-y-a-n-t, Miss McGoun) the spud garden.
Say, did you ever stop to think that we're here to save you trouble?
That's how we make a living--folks don't pay us for our lovely beauty!
Now take a look:
Sit right down at the handsome carved mahogany escritoire and shoot us in a line
telling us just what you want, and if we can find it we'll come hopping down your
lane with the good tidings, and if we can't, we won't bother you.
To save your time, just fill out the blank enclosed.
On request will also send blank regarding store properties in Floral Heights, Silver
Grove, Linton, Bellevue, and all East Side residential districts.
Yours for service,
P.S.--Just a hint of some plums we can pick for you--some genuine bargains that came in
to-day:
SILVER GROVE.--Cute four-room California bungalow, a.m.i., garage, dandy shade tree,
swell neighborhood, handy car line. $3700, $780 down and balance liberal,
Babbitt-Thompson terms, cheaper than rent.
DORCHESTER.--A corker! Artistic two-family house, all oak trim,
parquet floors, lovely gas log, big porches, colonial, HEATED ALL-WEATHER
GARAGE, a bargain at $11,250.
Dictation over, with its need of sitting and thinking instead of bustling around and
making a noise and really doing something, Babbitt sat creakily back in his revolving
desk-chair and beamed on Miss McGoun.
He was conscious of her as a girl, of black bobbed hair against demure cheeks.
A longing which was indistinguishable from loneliness enfeebled him.
While she waited, tapping a long, precise pencil-point on the desk-tablet, he half
identified her with the fairy girl of his dreams.
He imagined their eyes meeting with terrifying recognition; imagined touching
her lips with frightened reverence and--She was chirping, "Any more, Mist' Babbitt?"
He grunted, "That winds it up, I guess," and turned heavily away.
For all his wandering thoughts, they had never been more intimate than this.
He often reflected, "Nev' forget how old Jake Offutt said a wise bird never goes
love-making in his own office or his own home.
Start trouble.
Sure. But--"
In twenty-three years of married life he had peered uneasily at every graceful
ankle, every soft shoulder; in thought he had treasured them; but not once had he
hazarded respectability by adventuring.
Now, as he calculated the cost of repapering the Styles house, he was
restless again, discontented about nothing and everything, ashamed of his
discontentment, and lonely for the fairy girl.
>
CHAPTER IV
IT was a morning of artistic creation.
Fifteen minutes after the purple prose of Babbitt's form-letter, Chester Kirby
Laylock, the resident salesman at Glen Oriole, came in to report a sale and submit
an advertisement.
Babbitt disapproved of Laylock, who sang in choirs and was merry at home over games of
Hearts and Old Maid. He had a tenor voice, wavy chestnut hair,
and a mustache like a camel's-hair brush.
Babbitt considered it excusable in a family-man to growl, "Seen this new picture
of the kid--husky little devil, eh?" but Laylock's domestic confidences were as
bubbling as a girl's.
"Say, I think I got a peach of an ad for the Glen, Mr. Babbitt.
Why don't we try something in poetry? Honest, it'd have wonderful pulling-power.
Listen:
'Mid pleasures and palaces, Wherever you may roam,
You just provide the little bride And we'll provide the home.
Do you get it? See--like 'Home Sweet Home.'
Don't you--" "Yes, yes, yes, hell yes, of course I get
it.
But--Oh, I think we'd better use something more dignified and forceful, like 'We lead,
others follow,' or 'Eventually, why not now?'
Course I believe in using poetry and humor and all that junk when it turns the trick,
but with a high-class restricted development like the Glen we better stick
to the more dignified approach, see how I mean?
Well, I guess that's all, this morning, Chet."
II By a tragedy familiar to the world of art,
the April enthusiasm of Chet Laylock served only to stimulate the talent of the older
craftsman, George F. Babbitt.
He grumbled to Stanley Graff, "That tan- colored voice of Chet's gets on my nerves,"
yet he was aroused and in one swoop he wrote:
DO YOU RESPECT YOUR LOVED ONES?
When the last sad rites of bereavement are over, do you know for certain that you have
done your best for the Departed? You haven't unless they lie in the Cemetery
Beautiful,
LINDEN LANE the only strictly up-to-date burial place in or near Zenith, where
exquisitely gardened plots look from daisy- dotted hill-slopes across the smiling
fields of Dorchester.
Sole agents BABBITT-THOMPSON REALTY COMPANY Reeves Building
He rejoiced, "I guess that'll show Chan Mott and his weedy old Wildwood Cemetery
something about modern merchandizing!"
III
He sent Mat Penniman to the recorder's office to dig out the names of the owners
of houses which were displaying For Rent signs of other brokers; he talked to a man
who desired to lease a store-building for a
pool-room; he ran over the list of home- leases which were about to expire; he sent
Thomas Bywaters, a street-car conductor who played at real estate in spare time, to
call on side-street "prospects" who were unworthy the strategies of Stanley Graff.
But he had spent his credulous excitement of creation, and these routine details
annoyed him.
One moment of heroism he had, in discovering a new way of stopping smoking.
He stopped smoking at least once a month.
He went through with it like the solid citizen he was: admitted the evils of
tobacco, courageously made resolves, laid out plans to check the vice, tapered off
his allowance of cigars, and expounded the
pleasures of virtuousness to every one he met.
He did everything, in fact, except stop smoking.
Two months before, by ruling out a schedule, noting down the hour and minute
of each smoke, and ecstatically increasing the intervals between smokes, he had
brought himself down to three cigars a day.
Then he had lost the schedule. A week ago he had invented a system of
leaving his cigar-case and cigarette-box in an unused drawer at the bottom of the
correspondence-file, in the outer office.
"I'll just naturally be ashamed to go poking in there all day long, making a fool
of myself before my own employees!" he reasoned.
By the end of three days he was trained to leave his desk, walk to the file, take out
and light a cigar, without knowing that he was doing it.
This morning it was revealed to him that it had been too easy to open the file.
Lock it, that was the thing!
Inspired, he rushed out and locked up his cigars, his cigarettes, and even his box of
safety matches; and the key to the file drawer he hid in his desk.
But the crusading passion of it made him so tobacco-hungry that he immediately
recovered the key, walked with forbidding dignity to the file, took out a cigar and a
match--"but only one match; if ole cigar goes out, it'll by golly have to stay out!"
Later, when the cigar did go out, he took one more match from the file, and when a
buyer and a seller came in for a conference at eleven-thirty, naturally he had to offer
them cigars.
His conscience protested, "Why, you're smoking with them!" but he bullied it, "Oh,
shut up! I'm busy now.
Of course by-and-by--" There was no by-and- by, yet his belief that he had crushed the
unclean habit made him feel noble and very happy.
When he called up Paul Riesling he was, in his moral splendor, unusually eager.
He was fonder of Paul Riesling than of any one on earth except himself and his
daughter Tinka.
They had been classmates, roommates, in the State University, but always he thought of
Paul Riesling, with his dark slimness, his precisely parted hair, his nose-glasses,
his hesitant speech, his moodiness, his
love of music, as a younger brother, to be petted and protected.
Paul had gone into his father's business, after graduation; he was now a wholesaler
and small manufacturer of prepared-paper roofing.
But Babbitt strenuously believed and lengthily announced to the world of Good
Fellows that Paul could have been a great violinist or painter or writer.
"Why say, the letters that boy sent me on his trip to the Canadian Rockies, they just
absolutely make you see the place as if you were standing there.
Believe me, he could have given any of these bloomin' authors a whale of a run for
their money!" Yet on the telephone they said only:
"South 343.
No, no, no! I said SOUTH--South 343.
Say, operator, what the dickens is the trouble?
Can't you get me South 343?
Why certainly they'll answer. Oh, Hello, 343?
Wanta speak Mist' Riesling, Mist' Babbitt talking...'Lo, Paul?"
"Yuh."
"'S George speaking." "Yuh."
"How's old socks?" "Fair to middlin'.
How 're you?"
"Fine, Paulibus. Well, what do you know?"
"Oh, nothing much." "Where you been keepin' yourself?"
"Oh, just stickin' round.
What's up, Georgie?" "How 'bout lil lunch 's noon?"
"Be all right with me, I guess. Club?'
"Yuh.
Meet you there twelve-thirty." "A' right.
Twelve-thirty. S' long, Georgie."
IV His morning was not sharply marked into
divisions.
Interwoven with correspondence and advertisement-writing were a thousand
nervous details: calls from clerks who were incessantly and hopefully seeking five
furnished rooms and bath at sixty dollars a
month; advice to Mat Penniman on getting money out of tenants who had no money.
Babbitt's virtues as a real-estate broker-- as the servant of society in the department
of finding homes for families and shops for distributors of food--were steadiness and
diligence.
He was conventionally honest, he kept his records of buyers and sellers complete, he
had experience with leases and titles and an excellent memory for prices.
His shoulders were broad enough, his voice deep enough, his relish of hearty humor
strong enough, to establish him as one of the ruling caste of Good Fellows.
Yet his eventual importance to mankind was perhaps lessened by his large and
complacent ignorance of all architecture save the types of houses turned out by
speculative builders; all landscape
gardening save the use of curving roads, grass, and six ordinary shrubs; and all the
commonest axioms of economics.
He serenely believed that the one purpose of the real-estate business was to make
money for George F. Babbitt.
True, it was a good advertisement at Boosters' Club lunches, and all the
varieties of Annual Banquets to which Good Fellows were invited, to speak sonorously
of Unselfish Public Service, the Broker's
Obligation to Keep Inviolate the Trust of His Clients, and a thing called Ethics,
whose nature was confusing but if you had it you were a High-class Realtor and if you
hadn't you were a shyster, a piker, and a fly-by-night.
These virtues awakened Confidence, and enabled you to handle Bigger Propositions.
But they didn't imply that you were to be impractical and refuse to take twice the
value of a house if a buyer was such an idiot that he didn't jew you down on the
asking-price.
Babbitt spoke well--and often--at these orgies of commercial righteousness about
the "realtor's function as a seer of the future development of the community, and as
a prophetic engineer clearing the pathway
for inevitable changes"--which meant that a real-estate broker could make money by
guessing which way the town would grow. This guessing he called Vision.
In an address at the Boosters' Club he had admitted, "It is at once the duty and the
privilege of the realtor to know everything about his own city and its environs.
Where a surgeon is a specialist on every vein and mysterious cell of the human body,
and the engineer upon electricity in all its phases, or every bolt of some great
bridge majestically arching o'er a mighty
flood, the realtor must know his city, inch by inch, and all its faults and virtues."
Though he did know the market-price, inch by inch, of certain districts of Zenith, he
did not know whether the police force was too large or too small, or whether it was
in alliance with gambling and prostitution.
He knew the means of fire-proofing buildings and the relation of insurance-
rates to fire-proofing, but he did not know how many firemen there were in the city,
how they were trained and paid, or how complete their apparatus.
He sang eloquently the advantages of proximity of school-buildings to rentable
homes, but he did not know--he did not know that it was worth while to know--whether
the city schoolrooms were properly heated,
lighted, ventilated, furnished; he did not know how the teachers were chosen; and
though he chanted "One of the boasts of Zenith is that we pay our teachers
adequately," that was because he had read the statement in the Advocate-Times.
Himself, he could not have given the average salary of teachers in Zenith or
anywhere else.
He had heard it said that "conditions" in the County Jail and the Zenith City Prison
were not very "scientific;" he had, with indignation at the criticism of Zenith,
skimmed through a report in which the
notorious pessimist Seneca Doane, the radical lawyer, asserted that to throw boys
and young girls into a bull-pen crammed with men suffering from syphilis, delirium
tremens, and insanity was not the perfect way of educating them.
He had controverted the report by growling, "Folks that think a jail ought to be a
bloomin' Hotel Thornleigh make me sick.
If people don't like a jail, let 'em behave 'emselves and keep out of it.
Besides, these reform cranks always exaggerate."
That was the beginning and quite completely the end of his investigations into Zenith's
charities and corrections; and as to the "vice districts" he brightly expressed it,
"Those are things that no decent man monkeys with.
Besides, smatter fact, I'll tell you confidentially: it's a protection to our
daughters and to decent women to have a district where tough nuts can raise cain.
Keeps 'em away from our own homes."
As to industrial conditions, however, Babbitt had thought a great deal, and his
opinions may be coordinated as follows:
"A good labor union is of value because it keeps out radical unions, which would
destroy property. No one ought to be forced to belong to a
union, however.
All labor agitators who try to force men to join a union should be hanged.
In fact, just between ourselves, there oughtn't to be any unions allowed at all;
and as it's the best way of fighting the unions, every business man ought to belong
to an employers'-association and to the Chamber of Commerce.
In union there is strength. So any selfish hog who doesn't join the
Chamber of Commerce ought to be forced to."
In nothing--as the expert on whose advice families moved to new neighborhoods to live
there for a generation--was Babbitt more splendidly innocent than in the science of
sanitation.
He did not know a malaria-bearing mosquito from a bat; he knew nothing about tests of
drinking water; and in the matters of plumbing and sewage he was as unlearned as
he was voluble.
He often referred to the excellence of the bathrooms in the houses he sold.
He was fond of explaining why it was that no European ever bathed.
Some one had told him, when he was twenty- two, that all cesspools were unhealthy, and
he still denounced them.
If a client impertinently wanted him to sell a house which had a cesspool, Babbitt
always spoke about it--before accepting the house and selling it.
When he laid out the Glen Oriole acreage development, when he ironed woodland and
dipping meadow into a glenless, orioleless, sunburnt flat prickly with small boards
displaying the names of imaginary streets,
he righteously put in a complete sewage- system.
It made him feel superior; it enabled him to sneer privily at the Martin Lumsen
development, Avonlea, which had a cesspool; and it provided a chorus for the full-page
advertisements in which he announced the
beauty, convenience, cheapness, and supererogatory healthfulness of Glen
Oriole.
The only flaw was that the Glen Oriole sewers had insufficient outlet, so that
waste remained in them, not very agreeably, while the Avonlea cesspool was a Waring
septic tank.
The whole of the Glen Oriole project was a suggestion that Babbitt, though he really
did hate men recognized as swindlers, was not too unreasonably honest.
Operators and buyers prefer that brokers should not be in competition with them as
operators and buyers themselves, but attend to their clients' interests only.
It was supposed that the Babbitt-Thompson Company were merely agents for Glen Oriole,
serving the real owner, Jake Offutt, but the fact was that Babbitt and Thompson
owned sixty-two per cent. of the Glen, the
president and purchasing agent of the Zenith Street Traction Company owned
twenty-eight per cent., and Jake Offutt (a gang-politician, a small manufacturer, a
tobacco-chewing old farceur who enjoyed
dirty politics, business diplomacy, and cheating at poker) had only ten per cent.,
which Babbitt and the Traction officials had given to him for "fixing" health
inspectors and fire inspectors and a member of the State Transportation Commission.
But Babbitt was virtuous.
He advocated, though he did not practise, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised,
though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he
contributed to the church, the Red Cross,
and the Y. M. C. A.; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was
sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery--though, as he
explained to Paul Riesling:
"Course I don't mean to say that every ad I write is literally true or that I always
believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong selling-spiel.
You see--you see it's like this: In the first place, maybe the owner of the
property exaggerated when he put it into my hands, and it certainly isn't my place to
go proving my principal a liar!
And then most folks are so darn crooked themselves that they expect a fellow to do
a little lying, so if I was fool enough to never whoop the ante I'd get the credit for
lying anyway!
In self-defense I got to toot my own horn, like a lawyer defending a client--his
bounden duty, ain't it, to bring out the poor dub's good points?
Why, the Judge himself would bawl out a lawyer that didn't, even if they both knew
the guy was guilty!
But even so, I don't pad out the truth like Cecil Rountree or Thayer or the rest of
these realtors.
Fact, I think a fellow that's willing to deliberately up and profit by lying ought
to be shot!"
Babbitt's value to his clients was rarely better shown than this morning, in the
conference at eleven-thirty between himself, Conrad Lyte, and Archibald Purdy.
V Conrad Lyte was a real-estate speculator.
He was a nervous speculator.
Before he gambled he consulted bankers, lawyers, architects, contracting builders,
and all of their clerks and stenographers who were willing to be cornered and give
him advice.
He was a bold entrepreneur, and he desired nothing more than complete safety in his
investments, freedom from attention to details, and the thirty or forty per cent.
profit which, according to all authorities,
a pioneer deserves for his risks and foresight.
He was a stubby man with a cap-like mass of short gray curls and clothes which, no
matter how well cut, seemed shaggy.
Below his eyes were semicircular hollows, as though silver dollars had been pressed
against them and had left an imprint.
Particularly and always Lyte consulted Babbitt, and trusted in his slow
cautiousness.
Six months ago Babbitt had learned that one Archibald Purdy, a grocer in the indecisive
residential district known as Linton, was talking of opening a butcher shop beside
his grocery.
Looking up the ownership of adjoining parcels of land, Babbitt found that Purdy
owned his present shop but did not own the one available lot adjoining.
He advised Conrad Lyte to purchase this lot, for eleven thousand dollars, though an
appraisal on a basis of rents did not indicate its value as above nine thousand.
The rents, declared Babbitt, were too low; and by waiting they could make Purdy come
to their price. (This was Vision.)
He had to bully Lyte into buying.
His first act as agent for Lyte was to increase the rent of the battered store-
building on the lot. The tenant said a number of rude things,
but he paid.
Now, Purdy seemed ready to buy, and his delay was going to cost him ten thousand
extra dollars--the reward paid by the community to Mr. Conrad Lyte for the virtue
of employing a broker who had Vision and
who understood Talking Points, Strategic Values, Key Situations, Underappraisals,
and the Psychology of Salesmanship. Lyte came to the conference exultantly.
He was fond of Babbitt, this morning, and called him "old hoss."
Purdy, the grocer, a long-nosed man and solemn, seemed to care less for Babbitt and
for Vision, but Babbitt met him at the street door of the office and guided him
toward the private room with affectionate little cries of "This way, Brother Purdy!"
He took from the correspondence-file the entire box of cigars and forced them on his
guests.
He pushed their chairs two inches forward and three inches back, which gave an
hospitable note, then leaned back in his desk-chair and looked plump and jolly.
But he spoke to the weakling grocer with firmness.
"Well, Brother Purdy, we been having some pretty tempting offers from butchers and a
slew of other folks for that lot next to your store, but I persuaded Brother Lyte
that we ought to give you a shot at the property first.
I said to Lyte, 'It'd be a rotten shame,' I said, 'if somebody went and opened a
combination grocery and meat market right next door and ruined Purdy's nice little
business.'
Especially--" Babbitt leaned forward, and his voice was harsh, "--it would be hard
luck if one of these cash-and-carry chain- stores got in there and started cutting
prices below cost till they got rid of competition and forced you to the wall!"
Purdy snatched his thin hands from his pockets, pulled up his trousers, thrust his
hands back into his pockets, tilted in the heavy oak chair, and tried to look amused,
as he struggled:
"Yes, they're bad competition. But I guess you don't realize the Pulling
Power that Personality has in a neighborhood business."
The great Babbitt smiled.
"That's so. Just as you feel, old man.
We thought we'd give you first chance. All right then--"
"Now look here!"
Purdy wailed.
"I know f'r a fact that a piece of property 'bout same size, right near, sold for less
'n eighty-five hundred, 'twa'n't two years ago, and here you fellows are asking me
twenty-four thousand dollars!
Why, I'd have to mortgage--I wouldn't mind so much paying twelve thousand but--Why
good God, Mr. Babbitt, you're asking more 'n twice its value!
And threatening to ruin me if I don't take it!"
"Purdy, I don't like your way of talking! I don't like it one little bit!
Supposing Lyte and I were stinking enough to want to ruin any fellow human, don't you
suppose we know it's to our own selfish interest to have everybody in Zenith
prosperous?
But all this is beside the point.
Tell you what we'll do: We'll come down to twenty-three thousand-five thousand down
and the rest on mortgage--and if you want to wreck the old shack and rebuild, I guess
I can get Lyte here to loosen up for a building-mortgage on good liberal terms.
Heavens, man, we'd be glad to oblige you! We don't like these foreign grocery trusts
any better 'n you do!
But it isn't reasonable to expect us to sacrifice eleven thousand or more just for
neighborliness, IS it! How about it, Lyte?
You willing to come down?"
By warmly taking Purdy's part, Babbitt persuaded the benevolent Mr. Lyte to reduce
his price to twenty-one thousand dollars.
At the right moment Babbitt snatched from a drawer the agreement he had had Miss McGoun
type out a week ago and thrust it into Purdy's hands.
He genially shook his fountain pen to make certain that it was flowing, handed it to
Purdy, and approvingly watched him sign. The work of the world was being done.
Lyte had made something over nine thousand dollars, Babbitt had made a four-hundred-
and-fifty dollar commission, Purdy had, by the sensitive mechanism of modern finance,
been provided with a business-building, and
soon the happy inhabitants of Linton would have meat lavished upon them at prices only
a little higher than those down-town. It had been a manly battle, but after it
Babbitt drooped.
This was the only really amusing contest he had been planning.
There was nothing ahead save details of leases, appraisals, mortgages.
He muttered, "Makes me sick to think of Lyte carrying off most of the profit when I
did all the work, the old skinflint! And--What else have I got to do to-day?...
Like to take a good long vacation.
Motor trip. Something."
He sprang up, rekindled by the thought of lunching with Paul Riesling.
>
CHAPTER V
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.
II 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.
III 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--"
"These WHATS?"
"--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!"
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