RELIEVED of Babbitts 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 furniturethe bureau with its great clear mirror, Mrs. Babbitts 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 illustrationswhat 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.
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.
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 Veronas bedroom and protested, Whats the use of giving the family a high-class house when they dont 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. TedTheodore Roosevelt Babbitta decorative boy of seventeen. TinkaKatherinestill 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 youre ready to marry and settle down.
But now said Verona: Father! I was talking to a classmate of mine thats working for the Associated Charitiesoh, Dad, theres 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 Gruensbergs secretaryand maybe you would, if you kept up your shorthand and didnt go sneaking off to concerts and talkfests every eveningI guess youll find thirty-five or forty bones a week worth while!
I know, butoh, I want tocontribute 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 Gods world but the entering wedge for socialism. The sooner a man learns he isnt going to be coddled, and he neednt 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 hell get on the job and produceproduceproduce! Thats 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 youif youd 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 thats why Im where I am to-day, and Myra! What do you let the girl chop the toast up into these dinky little chunks for? Cant get your fist onto em. Half cold, anyway!
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 to-night.
Babbitt snorted, Oh, you do! May want it myself! Verona protested, Oh, you do, Mr. Smarty! Im going to take it myself! Tinka wailed, Oh, papa, you said maybe youd drive us down to Rosedale! and Mrs. Babbitt, Careful, Tinka, your sleeve is in the butter. They glared, and Verona hurled, Ted, youre a perfect pig about the car!
Course youre 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 skirts house all evening while you sit and gas about liteature and the highbrows youre going to marryif they only propose!
Youwhy, my good woman, you dont 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.
Ted negotiated: Gee, honest, Rone, I dont want to take the old boat, but I promised couple o girls in my class Id drive em down to the rehearsal of the school chorus, and, gee, I dont want to, but a gentlemans got to keep his social engagements.
Oh, aint we select since we went to that hen college! Let me tell you there isnt a private school in the state thats got as swell a bunch as we got in Gamma Digamma this year. Theres 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! Dont you want a yacht, and a house and lot? That pretty nearly takes the cake! A boy that cant 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 bunchstuck-up gabby four-flushers. His friends, she indicated, were disgusting imitation sports, and horrid little shrieking ignorant girls. Further: Its disgusting of you to smoke cigarettes, and so on and so forth, and those clothes youve got on this morning, theyre too utterly ridiculoushonestly, 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 were pretty ridiculous and disgusticulus, and I rather guess our new necktie is some smear!
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 dont pretend to be any baa-lamb, and maybe Im a little cross-grained at breakfast sometimes, but the way they go on jab-jab-jabbering, I simply cant stand it. I swear, I feel like going off some place where I can get a little peace. I do think after a mans spent his lifetime trying to give his kids a chance and a decent education, its pretty discouraging to hear them all the time scrapping like a bunch of hyenas and neverand never Curious; here in the paper it says Never silent for one mom Seen the morning paper yet?
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 theres an elevator-runners strike in New York and a lot of college boys are taking their places. Thats the stuff! And a mass-meeting in Birminghams 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 theres another well-authenticated rumor from Russia that Lenin is dead. Thats fine. Its beyond me why we dont just step in there and kick those Bolshevik cusses out.
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. Heres 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. McKelveys 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 tête-à-têtes 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! Im 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 hes made a million good bucks out of contracting and hasnt been any dishonester or bought any more city councils than was necessary. And thats a good house of histhough it aint any mighty stone walls and it aint 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!
Well, I have! Lots ofcouple of times. To see Chaz about business deals, in the evening. Its not so much. I wouldnt want to go there to dinner with that gang of, of high-binders. And Ill bet I make a whole lot more money than some of those tin-horns that spend all they got on dress-suits and havent 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, 496J. 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, lets 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 McKelveyall highbrow talk and dressed up like a plush horse! Youre a great old girl, hon.!
He covered his betrayal of softness with a complaining: Say, dont let Tinka go and eat any more of that poison nutfudge. For Heavens sake, try to keep her from ruining her digestion. I tell you, most folks dont appreciate how important it is to have a good digestion and regular habits. Be back bout usual time, I guess.
He kissed herhe didnt quite kiss herhe 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 dont train with this millionaire outfit. Oh, Lord, sometimes Id like to quit the whole game. And the office worry and detail just as bad. And I act cranky and I dont mean to, but I get So darn tired!