THE GREAT events of Babbitts spring were the secret buying of real-estate options in Linton for certain street-traction officials, before the public announcement that the Linton Avenue Car Line would be extended, and a dinner which was, as he rejoiced to his wife, not only a regular society spread but a real sure-enough highbrow affair, with some of the keenest intellects and the brightest bunch of little women in town. It was so absorbing an occasion that he almost forgot his desire to run off to Maine with Paul Riesling.
Though he had been born in the village of Catawba, Babbitt had risen to that metropolitan social plane on which hosts have as many as four people at dinner without planning it for more than an evening or two. But a dinner of twelve, with flowers from the florists and all the cut-glass out, staggered even the Babbitts.
Babbitt marveled, Of course were up-to-date ourselves, but still, think of us entertaining a famous poet like Chum Frink, a fellow that on nothing but a poem or so every day and just writing a few advertisements pulls down fifteen thousand berries a year!
I dont think its nice to be funny about a matter like that. Think how wonderful it must be to speak three languages, and so useful and And with people like that, I dont see why we invite the Orville Joneses.
Ill admit a laundry hasnt got the class of poetry or real estate, but just the same, Orvy is mighty deep. Ever start him spieling about gardening? Say, that fellow can tell you the name of every kind of tree, and some of their Greek and Latin names too! Besides, we owe the Joneses a dinner. Besides, gosh, we got to have some boob for audience, when a bunch of hot-air artists like Frink and Littlefield get going.
Oh, you do, do you! Sure! I talk all the time! And Im just a business manoh sure!Im no Ph.D. like Littlefield, and no poet, and I havent anything to spring! Well, let me tell you, just the other day your darn Chum Frink comes up to me at the club begging to know what I thought about the Springfield school-bond issue. And who told him? I did! You bet your life I told him! Little me! I certainly did! He came up and asked me, and I told him all about it! You bet! And he was darn glad to listen to me and Duty as a host! I guess I know my duty as a host and let me tell you
and I have to go out and buy the flowers, and fix them, and set the table, and order the salted almonds, and look at the chickens, and arrange for the children to have their supper upstairs andAnd I simply must depend on you to go to Vecchias for the ice cream.
He was surprised and blasted then by a thought. He wondered whether Floral Heights dinners were worth the hideous toil involved. But he repented the sacrilege in the excitement of buying the materials for cocktails.
He drove from the severe rectangular streets of the modern business center into the tangled byways of Old Townjagged blocks filled with sooty warehouses and lofts; on into The Arbor, once a pleasant orchard but now a morass of lodging-houses, tenements, and brothels. Exquisite shivers chilled his spine and stomach, and he looked at every policeman with intense innocence, as one who loved the law, and admired the Force, and longed to stop and play with them. He parked his car a block from Healey Hansons saloon, worrying, Well, rats, if anybody did see me, theyd think I was here on business.
He entered a place curiously like the saloons of ante-prohibition days, with a long greasy bar with sawdust in front and streaky mirror behind, a pine table at which a dirty old man dreamed over a glass of something which resembled whisky, and with two men at the bar, drinking something which resembled beer, and giving that impression of forming a large crowd which two men always give in a saloon. The bartender, a tall pale Swede with a diamond in his lilac scarf, stared at Babbitt as he stalked plumply up to the bar and whispered, Id, uh Friend of Hansons sent me here. Like to get some gin.
The bartender gazed down on him in the manner of an outraged bishop. I guess you got the wrong place, my friend. We sell nothing but soft drinks here. He cleaned the bar with a rag which would itself have done with a little cleaning, and glared across his mechanically moving elbow.
The decayed and drowsy voice of the loafer, the agreeable stink of beer-dregs, threw a spell of inanition over Babbitt. The bartender moved grimly toward the crowd of two men. Babbitt followed him as delicately as a cat, and wheedled, Say, Oscar, I want to speak to Mr. Hanson.
It was a beautiful card, an engraved card, a card in the blackest black and the sharpest red, announcing that Mr. George F. Babbitt was Estates, Insurance, Rents. The bartender held it as though it weighed ten pounds, and read it as though it were a hundred words long. He did not bend from his episcopal dignity, hut he growled, Ill see if hes around.
From the back room he brought an immensely old young man, a quiet sharp-eyed man, in tan silk shirt, checked vest hanging open, and burning brown trousersMr. Healey Hanson. Mr. Hanson said only Yuh? but his implacable and contemptuous eyes queried Babbitts soul, and he seemed not at all impressed by the new dark-gray suit for which (as he had admitted to every acquaintance at the Athletic Club) Babbitt had paid a hundred and twenty-five dollars.
Say, uh, Im going to have a party, and Jake told me youd be able to fix me up with a little gin. In alarm, in obsequiousness, as Hansons eyes grew more bored, You telephone to Jake about me, if you want to.
Hanson answered by jerking his head to indicate the entrance to the back room, and strolled away. Babbitt melodramatically crept into an apartment containing four roundtables, eleven chairs, a brewery calendar, and a smell. He waited. Thrice he saw Healey Hanson saunter through, humming, hands in pockets, ignoring him.
By this time Babbitt had modified his valiant morning vow, I wont pay one cent over seven dollars a quart to I might pay ten. On Hansons next weary entrance he besought Could you fix that up? Hanson scowled, and grated, Just a minutePetes sakejust a min-ute! In growing meekness Babbitt went on waiting till Hanson casually reappeared with a quart of ginwhat is euphemistically known as a quartin his disdainful long white hands.
Nup. Twelve. This is the real stuff, smuggled from Canada. This is none o your neutral spirits with a drop of juniper extract, the honest merchant said virtuously. Twelve bonesif you want it. Course y understand Im just doing this anyway as a friend of Jakes.
Sure! Sure! I understand! Babbitt gratefully held out twelve dollars. He felt honored by contact with greatness as Hanson yawned, stuffed the bills, uncounted, into his radiant vest, and swaggered away.
He had a number of titillations out of concealing the gin-bottle under his coat and out of hiding it in his desk. All afternoon he snorted and chuckled and gurgled over his ability to give the Boys a real shot in the arm to-night. He was, in fact, so exhilarated that he was within a block of his house before he remembered that there was a certain matter, mentioned by his wife, of fetching ice cream from Vecchias. He explained, Well, darn it and drove back.
Vecchia was not a caterer, he was The Caterer of Zenith. Most coming-out parties were held in the white and gold ballroom of the Maison Vecchia; at all nice teas the guests recognized the five kinds of Vecchia sandwiches and the seven kinds of Vecchia cakes; and all really smart dinners ended, as on a resolving chord, in Vecchia Neapolitan ice cream in one of the three reliable moldsthe melon mold, the round mold like a layer cake, and the long brick.
Vecchias shop had pale blue woodwork, tracery of plaster roses, attendants in frilled aprons, and glass shelves of kisses with all the refinement that inheres in whites of eggs. Babbitt felt heavy and thick amid this professional daintiness, and as he waited for the ice cream he decided, with hot prickles at the back of his neck, that a girl customer was giggling at him. He went home in a touchy temper. The first thing he heard was his wifes agitated:
Well now, its darn seldom I do, and it certainly makes me tired, after going into a pink-tea joint like Vecchias and having to stand around looking at a lot of half-naked young girls, all rouged up like they were sixty and eating a lot of stuff that simply ruins their stomachs
With a jar Babbitt realized that his wife was too busy to be impressed by that moral indignation with which males rule the world, and he went humbly up-stairs to dress. He had an impression of a glorified dining-room, of cut-glass, candles, polished wood, lace, silver, roses. With the awed swelling of the heart suitable to so grave a business as giving a dinner, he slew the temptation to wear his plaited dress-shirt for a fourth time, took out an entirely fresh one, tightened his black bow, and rubbed his patent-leather pumps with a handkerchief. He glanced with pleasure at his garnet and silver studs. He smoothed and patted his ankles, transformed by silk socks from the sturdy shanks of George Babbitt to the elegant limbs of what is called a Clubman. He stood before the pier-glass, viewing his trim dinner-coat, his beautiful triple-braided trousers; and murmured in lyric beatitude, By golly, I dont look so bad. I certainly dont look like Catawba. If the hicks back home could see me in this rig, theyd have a fit!
He moved majestically down to mix the cocktails. As he chipped ice, as he squeezed oranges, as he collected vast stores of bottles, glasses, and spoons at the sink in the pantry, he felt as authoritative as the bartender at Healey Hansons saloon. True, Mrs. Babbitt said he was under foot, and Matilda and the maid hired for the evening brushed by him, elbowed him, shrieked Pleasopn door, as they tottered through with trays, but in this high moment he ignored them.
Besides the new bottle of gin, his cellar consisted of one half-bottle of Bourbon whisky, a quarter of a bottle of Italian vermouth, and approximately one hundred drops of orange bitters. He did not possess a cocktail-shaker. A shaker was proof of dissipation, the symbol of a Drinker, and Babbitt disliked being known as a Drinker even more than he liked a Drink. He mixed by pouring from an ancient gravy-boat into a handleless pitcher; he poured with a noble dignity, holding his alembics high beneath the powerful Mazda globe, his face hot, his shirt-front a glaring white, the copper sink a scoured red-gold.
Bustling into the dining-room, moving each glass a quarter of an inch, rushing back with resolution implacable on her face her gray and silver-lace party frock protected by a denim towel, Mrs. Babbitt glared at him, and rebuked him, Certainly not!
The cocktail filled him with a whirling exhilaration behind which he was aware of devastating desiresto rush places in fast motors, to kiss girls, to sing, to be witty. He sought to regain his lost dignity by announcing to Matilda:
Well, be He was dizzy. His voice was thin and distant. Whee! With enormous impressiveness he commanded, Well, be sure now, and minced into the safety of the living-room. He wondered whether he could persuade as slow a bunch as Myra and the Littlefields to go some place aft dinner and raise Cain and maybe dig up smore booze. He perceived that he had gifts of profligacy which had been neglected.
By the time the guests had come, including the inevitable late couple for whom the others waited with painful amiability, a great gray emptiness had replaced the purple swirling in Babbitts head, and he had to force the tumultuous greetings suitable to a host on Floral Heights.
The guests were Howard Littlefield, the doctor of philosophy who furnished publicity and comforting economics to the Street Traction Company; Vergil Gunch, the coal-dealer, equally powerful in the Elks and in the Boosters Club; Eddie Swanson the agent for the Javelin Motor Car, who lived across the street; and Orville Jones, owner of the Lily White Laundry, which justly announced itself the biggest, busiest, bulliest cleanerie shoppe in Zenith. But, naturally, the most distinguished of all was T. Cholmondeley Frink, who was not only the author of Poemulations, which, syndicated daily in sixty-seven leading newspapers, gave him one of the largest audiences of any poet in the world, but also an optimistic lecturer and the creator of Ads that Add. Despite the searching philosophy and high morality of his verses, they were humorous and easily understood by any child of twelve; and it added a neat air of pleasantry to them that they were set not as verse but as prose. Mr. Frink was known from Coast to Coast as Chum.
With them were six wives, more or lessit was hard to tell, so early in the evening, as at first glance they all looked alike, and as they all said, Oh, isnt this nice! in the same tone of determined liveliness. To the eye, the men were less similar: Littlefield, a hedge-scholar, tall and horse-faced; Chum Frink, a trifle of a man with soft and mouse-like hair, advertising his profession as poet by a silk cord on his eye-glasses; Vergil Gunch, broad, with coarse black hair en brosse; Eddie Swanson, a bald and bouncing young man who showed his taste for elegance by an evening waistcoat of figured black silk with glass buttons; Orville Jones, a steady-looking, stubby, not very memorable person, with a hemp-colored toothbrush mustache. Yet they were all so well fed and clean, they all shouted Evenin, Georgie! with such robustness, that they seemed to be cousins, and the strange thing is that the longer one knew the women, the less alike they seemed; while the longer one knew the men, the more alike their bold patterns appeared.
The drinking of the cocktails was as canonical a rite as the mixing. The company waited, uneasily, hopefully, agreeing in a strained manner that the weather had been rather warm and slightly cold, but still Babbitt said nothing about drinks. They became despondent. But when the late couple (the Swansons) had arrived, Babbitt hinted, Well, folks, do you think you could stand breaking the law a little?
Ill tell you, George: Im a law-abiding man, but they do say Verg Gunch is a regular yegg, and of course hes bigger n I am, and I just cant figure out what Id do if he tried to force me into anything criminal!
Gunch was roaring, Well, Ill take a chance when Frink held up his hand and went on, So if Verg and you insist, Georgie, Ill park my car on the wrong side of the street, because I take it for granted thats the crime youre hinting at!
Babbitt clamored, How did you guess it, Chum? Well, you-all just wait a moment while I go out and get thekeys to your cars! Through a froth of merriment he brought the shining promise, the mighty tray of glasses with the cloudy yellow cocktails in the glass pitcher in the center. The men babbled, Oh, gosh, have a look! and This gets me right where I live! and Let me at it! But Chum Frink, a traveled man and not unused to woes, was stricken by the thought that the potion might be merely fruit-juice with a little neutral spirits. He looked timorous as Babbitt, a moist and ecstatic almoner, held out a glass, but as he tasted it he piped, Oh, man, let me dream on! It aint true, but dont waken me! Jus lemme slumber!
I sat alone and groused and thunk, and scratched my head and sighed and wunk, and groaned, There still are boobs, alack, whod like the old-time gin-mill back; that den that makes a sage a loon, the vile and smelly old saloon! Ill never miss their poison booze, whilst I the bubbling spring can use, that leaves my head at merry morn as clear as any babe new-born!
Babbitt drank with the others; his moments depression was gone; he perceived that these were the best fellows in the world; he wanted to give them a thousand cocktails. Think you could stand another? he cried. The wives refused, with giggles, but the men, speaking in a wide, elaborate, enjoyable manner, gloated, Well, sooner than have you get sore at me, Georgie
When, beyond hope, the pitcher was empty, they stood and talked about prohibition. The men leaned back on their heels, put their hands in their trousers-pockets, and proclaimed their views with the booming profundity of a prosperous male repeating a thoroughly hackneyed statement about a matter of which he knows nothing whatever.
Now, Ill tell you, said Vergil Gunch; way I figure it is this, and I can speak by the book, because Ive talked to a lot of doctors and fellows that ought to know, and the way I see it is that its a good thing to get rid of the saloon, but they ought to let a fellow have beer and light wines.
Howard Littlefield observed, What isnt generally realized is that its a dangerous propsition to invade the rights of personal liberty. Now, take this for instance: The King ofBavaria? I think it was Bavariayes, Bavaria, it wasin 1862, March, 1862, he issued a proclamation against public grazing of live-stock. The peasantry had stood for overtaxation without the slightest complaint, but when this proclamation came out, they rebelled. Or it may have been Saxony. But it just goes to show the dangers of invading the rights of personal liberty.
Yes, thats so. But the trouble is the manner of enforcement, insisted Howard Littlefield. Congress didnt understand the right system. Now, if Id been running the thing,Id have arranged it so that the drinker himself was licensed, and then we could have taken care of the shiftless workmankept him from drinkingand yet not ve interfered with the rightswith the personal libertyof fellows like ourselves.
Gunch interrupted, Wait! Let me tell you mine! Littlefield snorted, Beer! Rats! Thing to do is to ferment cider! Jones insisted, Ive got the receipt that does the business! Swanson begged, Oh, say, lemme tell you the story But Frink went on resolutely, You take and save the shells from peas, and pour six gallons of water on a bushel of shells and boil the mixture till
There was a good deal of friendly argument among the men as to which should go in last, and while they were crossing the hall from the living-room to the dining-room Vergil Gunch made them laugh by thundering, If I cant sit next to Myra Babbitt and hold her hand under the table, I wont playIm goin home. In the dining-room they stood embarrassed while Mrs. Babbitt fluttered, Now, let me see Oh, I was going to have some nice hand-painted place-cards for you but Oh, let me see; Mr. Frink, you sit there.
Ordinarily the men found it hard to talk to the women; flirtation was an art unknown on Floral Heights, and the realms of offices and of kitchens had no alliances. But under the inspiration of the cocktails, conversation was violent. Each of the men still had a number of important things to say about prohibition, and now that each had a loyal listener in his dinner-partner he burst out:
Did you read about this fellow that went and paid a thousand dollars for ten cases of red-eye that proved to be nothing but water? Seems this fellow was standing on the corner and fellow comes up to him
But they all felt that it was rather in bad taste for Orville Jonesand he not recognized as one of the wits of the occasion anywayto say, In fact, the whole thing about prohibition is this: it isnt the initial cost, its the humidity.
It was often and admiringly said of Vergil Gunch, Gee, that fellow can get away with murder! Why, he can pull a Raw One in mixed company and all the ladies ll laugh their heads off, but me, gosh, if I crack anything thats just the least bit off color I get the razz for fair! Now Gunch delighted them by crying to Mrs. Eddie Swanson, youngest of the women, Louetta! I managed to pinch Eddies doorkey out of his pocket, and what say you and me sneak across the street when the folks arent looking? Got something, with a gorgeous leer, awful important to tell you!
Orville Jones announced, Say, I heard a Good One the other day about a coupla Swedes and their wives, and, in the best Jewish accent, he resolutely carried the Good One to a slightly disinfected ending. Gunch capped it. But the cocktails waned, the seekers dropped back into cautious reality.
Chum Frink had recently been on a lecture-tour among the small towns, and he chuckled, Awful good to get back to civilization! I certainly been seeing some hick towns! I mean Course the folks there are the best on earth, but, gee whiz, those Main Street burgs are slow, and you fellows cant hardly appreciate what it means to be here with a bunch of live ones!
You bet! exulted Orville Jones. Theyre the best folks on earth, those small-town folks, but, oh, mama! what conversation! Why, say, they cant talk about anything but the weather and the ne-oo Ford, by heckalorum!
Gosh, thats right, said Babbitt. I dont want you highbrows to get stuck on yourselves but I must say it keeps a fellow right up on his toes to sit in with a poet and with Howard, the guy that put the con in economics! But these small-town boobs, with nobody but each other to talk to, no wonder they get so sloppy and uncultured in their speech, and so balled-up in their thinking!
Orville Jones commented, And, then take our other advantagesthe movies, frinstance. These Yapville sports think theyre all-get-out if they have one change of bill a week, where here in the city you got your choice of a dozen diffrent movies any evening you want to name!
Same time, said Babbitt, no sense excusing these rube burgs too easy. Fellows own fault if he doesnt show the initiative to up and beat it to the city, like we donedid. And, just speaking in confidence among friends, theyre jealous as the devil of a city man. Every time I go up to Catawba I have to go around apologizing to the fellows I was brought up with because Ive more or less succeeded and they havent. And if you talk natural to em, way we do here, and show finesse and what you might call a broad point of view, why, they think youre putting on side. Theres my own half-brother Martinruns the little ole general store my Dad used to keep. Say, Ill bet he dont know there is such a thing as a Tuxas a dinner-jacket. If he was to come in here now, hed think we were a bunch ofof Why, gosh, I swear, he wouldnt know what to think! Yes, sir, theyre jealous!
Chum Frink agreed, Thats so. But what I mind is their lack of culture and appreciation of the Beautifulif youll excuse me for being highbrow. Now, I like to give a high-class lecture, and read some of my best poetrynot the newspaper stuff but the magazine things. But say, when I get out in the tall grass, theres nothing will take but a lot of cheesy old stories and slang and junk that if any of us were to indulge in it here, hed get the gate so fast it would make his head swim.
Vergil Gunch summed it up: Fact is, were mighty lucky to be living among a bunch of city-folks, that recognize artistic things and business-punch equally. Wed feel pretty glum if we got stuck in some Main Street burg and tried to wise up the old codgers to the kind of life were used to here. But, by golly, theres this you got to say for em: Every small American town is trying to get population and modern ideals. And darn if a lot of em dont put it across! Somebody starts panning a rube crossroads, telling how he was there in 1900 and it consisted of one muddy street, count em, one, and nine hundred human clams. Well, you go back there in 1920, and you find pavements and a swell little hotel and a first-class ladies ready-to-wear shopreal perfection, in fact! You dont want to just look at what these small towns are, you want to look at what theyre aiming to become, and they all got an ambition that in the long run is going to make em the finest spots on earththey all want to be just like Zenith!
However intimate they might be with T. Cholmondeley Frink as a neighbor, as a borrower of lawn-mowers and monkey-wrenches, they knew that he was also a Famous Poet and a distinguished advertising-agent; that behind his easiness were sultry literary mysteries which they could not penetrate. But to-night, in the gin-evolved confidence, he admitted them to the arcanum:
Ive got a literary problem thats worrying me to death. Im doing a series of ads for the Zeeco Car and I want to make each of em a real little gemreglar stylistic stuff. Im all for this theory that perfection is the stunt, or nothing at all, and these are as tough things as I ever tackled. You might think itd be harder to do my poemsall these Heart Topics: home and fireside and happinessbut theyre cinches. You cant go wrong on em; you know what sentiments any decent go-ahead fellow must have if he plays the game, and you stick right to em. But the poetry of industrialism, now theres a literary line where you got to open up new territory. Do you know the fellow whos really the American genius? The fellow who you dont know his name and I dont either, but his work ought to be preserved sos future generations can judge our American thought and originality to-day? Why, the fellow that writes the Prince Albert Tobacco ads! Just listen to this:
Its P.A. that jams such joy in jimmy pipes. Saybet youve often bent-an-ear to that spill-of-speech about hopping from five to f-i-f-t-y p-e-r by stepping on her a bit! Guess thats going some, all rightBUTjust among ourselves, you better start a rapidwhiz system to keep tabs as to how fast youll buzz from low smoke spirits to tip-top-highonce you line up behind a jimmy pipe thats all aglow with that peach-of-a-pal, Prince Albert.
Prince Albert is john-on-the-jobalways joyusly more-ish in flavor; always delightfully cool and fragrant! For a fact, you never hooked such double-decked, copper-riveted. two-fisted smoke enjoyment!
Go to a pipespeed-o-quick like you light on a good thing! Whypacked with Prince Albert you can play a joyus jimmy straight across the boards! And you know what that means!
Now that, caroled the motor agent, Eddie Swanson, thats what I call he-literature! That Prince Albert fellowthough, gosh, there cant be just one fellow that writes em; must be a big board of classy ink-slingers in conference, but anyway: now, him, he doesnt write for long-haired pikers, he writes for Regular Guys, he writes for me, and I tip my benny to him! The only thing is: I wonder if it sells the goods? Course, like all these poets, this Prince Albert fellow lets his idea run away with him. It makes elegant reading, but it dont say nothing. Id never go out and buy Prince Albert Tobacco after reading it, because it doesnt tell me anything about the stuff. Its just a bunch of fluff.
Frink faced him: Oh, youre crazy! Have I got to sell you the idea of Style? Anyway thats the kind of stuff Id like to do for the Zeeco. But I simply cant. So I decided to stick to the straight poetic, and I took a shot at a highbrow ad for the Zeeco. How do you like this:
The long white trail is callingcalling-and its over the hills and far away for every man or woman that has red blood in his veins and on his lips the ancient song of the buccaneers. Its away with dull drudging, and a fig for care. Speedglorious Speedits more than just a moments exhilarationits Life for you and me! This great new truth the makers of the Zeeco Car have considered as much as price and style. Its fleet as the antelope, smooth as the glide of a swallow, yet powerful as the charge of a bull-elephant. Class breathes in every line. Listen, brother! Youll never know what the high art of hiking is till you TRY LIFES ZIPPINGEST ZESTTHE ZEECO!