BABBITT was fond of his friends, he loved the importance of being host and shouting, Certainly, youre going to have smore chickenthe idea! and he appreciated the genius of T. Cholmondeley Frink, but the vigor of the cocktails was gone, and the more he ate the less joyful he felt. Then the amity of the dinner was destroyed by the nagging of the Swansons.
In Floral Heights and the other prosperous sections of Zenith, especially in the young married set, there were many women who had nothing to do. Though they had few servants, yet with gas stoves, electric ranges and dish-washers and vacuum cleaners, and tiled kitchen walls, their houses were so convenient that they had little housework, and much of their food came from bakeries and delicatessens. They had but two, one, or no children; and despite the myth that the Great War had made work respectable, their husbands objected to their wasting time and getting a lot of crank ideas in unpaid social work, and still more to their causing a rumor, by earning money, that they were not adequately supported. They worked perhaps two hours a day, and the rest of the time they ate chocolates, went to the motion-pictures, went window-shopping, went in gossiping twos and threes to card-parties, read magazines, thought timorously of the lovers who never appeared, and accumulated a splendid restlessness which they got rid of by nagging their husbands. The husbands nagged back.
Throughout the dinner Eddie Swanson had been complaining, publicly, about his wifes new frock. It was, he submitted, too short, too low, too immodestly thin, and much too expensive. He appealed to Babbitt:
Thats all right now, said Swanson. Im authority enough so I know it was a waste of money, and it makes me tired to see you not wearing out a whole closetful of clothes you got already. Ive expressed my idea about this before, and you know good and well you didnt pay the least bit of attention. I have to camp on your trail to get you to do anything
There was much more of it, and they all assisted, all but Babbitt. Everything about him was dim except his stomach, and that was a bright scarlet disturbance. Had too much grub; oughtnt to eat this stuff, he groanedwhile he went on eating, while he gulped down a chill and glutinous slice of the ice-cream brick, and cocoanut cake as oozy as shaving-cream. He felt as though he had been stuffed with clay; his body was bursting, his throat was bursting, his brain was hot mud; and only with agony did he continue to smile and shout as became a host on Floral Heights.
He would, except for his guests, have fled outdoors and walked off the intoxication of food, but in the haze which filled the room they sat forever, talking, talking, while he agonized, Darn fool to be eating all thisnot nother mouthful, and discovered that he was again tasting the sickly welter of melted ice cream on his plate. There was no magic in his friends; he was not uplifted when Howard Littlefield produced from his treasure-house of scholarship the information that the chemical symbol for raw rubber is C10H16, which turns into isoprene, or 2C5H8. Suddenly, without precedent, Babbitt was not merely bored but admitting that he was bored. It was ecstasy to escape from the table, from the torture of a straight chair, and loll on the davenport in the living-room.
The others, from their fitful unconvincing talk, their expressions of being slowly and painfully smothered, seemed to be suffering from the toil of social life and the horror of good food as much as himself. All of them accepted with relief the suggestion of bridge.
Babbitt recovered from the feeling of being boiled. He won at bridge. He was again able to endure Vergil Gunchs inexorable heartiness. But he pictured loafing with Paul Riesling beside a lake in Maine. It was as overpowering and imaginative as homesickness. He had never seen Maine, yet he beheld the shrouded mountains, the tranquil lake of evening. That boy Pauls worth all these ballyhooing highbrows put together, he muttered; and, Id like to get away fromeverything.
Mrs. Swanson was pretty and pliant. Babbitt was not an analyst of women, except as to their tastes in Furnished Houses to Rent. He divided them into Real Ladies, Working Women, Old Cranks, and Fly Chickens. He mooned over their charms but he was of opinion that all of them (save the women of his own family) were different and mysterious. Yet he had known by instinct that Louetta Swanson could be approached. Her eyes and lips were moist. Her face tapered from a broad forehead to a pointed chin, her mouth was thin but strong and avid, and between her brows were two outcurving and passionate wrinkles. She was thirty, perhaps, or younger. Gossip had never touched her, but every man naturally and instantly rose to flirtatiousness when he spoke to her, and every woman watched her with stilled blankness.
Babbitt was too languid this evening to pursue his duty of being a captivating (though strictly moral) male. He ambled back to the bridge-tables. He was not much thrilled when Mrs. Frink, a small twittering woman, proposed that they try and do some spiritualism and table-tippingyou know Chum can make the spirits comehonest, he just scares me!
The ladies of the party had not emerged all evening, but now, as the sex given to things of the spirit while the men warred against base things material, they took command and cried, Oh, lets! In the dimness the men were rather solemn and foolish, but the goodwives quivered and adored as they sat about the table. They laughed, Now, you be good or Ill tell! when the men took their hands in the circle.
All of them hunched over, intent. They startled as some one drew a strained breath. In the dusty light from the hall they looked unreal, they felt disembodied. Mrs. Gunch squeaked, and they jumped with unnatural jocularity, but at Frinks hiss they sank into subdued awe. Suddenly, incredibly, they heard a knocking. They stared at Frinks half-revealed hands and found them lying still. They wriggled, and pretended not to be impressed.
Fellow-poets, rats! Where d you get that stuff? protested Vergil Gunch. I suppose Dante showed a lot of speed for an old-timernot that Ive actually read him, of coursebut to come right down to hard facts, he wouldnt stand one-two-three if he had to buckle down to practical literature and turn out a poem for the newspaper-syndicate every day, like Chum does!
Thats so, from Eddie Swanson. Those old birds could take their time. Judas Priest, I could write poetry myself if I had a whole year for it, and just wrote about that old-fashioned junk like Dante wrote about.
You forgot to give um the address: 1658 Brimstone Avenue, Fiery Heights, Hell, Gunch chuckled, but the others felt that this was irreligious. And besidesprobably it was just Chum making the knocks, but still, if there did happen to be something to all this, be exciting to talk to an old fellow belonging toway back in early times
Babbitt had a different worry. Suppose Chum Frink was really one of these spiritualists! Chum had, for a literary fellow, always seemed to be a Regular Guy; he belonged to the Chatham Road Presbyterian Church and went to the Boosters lunches and liked cigars and motors and racy stories. But suppose that secretly After all, you never could tell about these darn highbrows; and to be an out-and-out spiritualist would be almost like being a socialist!
No one could long be serious in the presence of Vergil Gunch. Ask Dant how Jack Shakespeare and old Vergthe guy they named after meare gettin along, and dont they wish they could get into the movie game! he blared, and instantly all was mirth. Mrs. Jones shrieked, and Eddie Swanson desired to know whether Dante didnt catch cold with nothing on but his wreath.
But Babbittthe curst discontent was torturing him again, and heavily, in the impersonal darkness, he pondered, I dont Were all so flip and think were so smart. Thered be A fellow like Dante I wish Id read some of his pieces. I dont suppose I ever will, now.
He had, without explanation, the impression of a slaggy cliff and on it, in silhouette against menacing clouds, a lone and austere figure. He was dismayed by a sudden contempt for his surest friends. He grasped Louetta Swansons hand, and found the comfort of human warmth. Habit came, a veteran warrior; and he shook himself. What the deuce is the matter with me, this evening?
He patted Louettas hand, to indicate that he hadnt meant anything improper by squeezing it, and demanded of Frink, Say, see if you can get old Dant to spiel us some of his poetry. Talk up to him. Tell him, Buena giorna, señor, com sa va, wie gehts? Keskersaykersa a little pome, señor?
The lights were switched on; the women sat on the fronts of their chairs in that determined suspense whereby a wife indicates that as soon as the present speaker has finished, she is going to remark brightly to her husband, Well, dear, I think per-haps its about time for us to be saying good-night. For once Babbitt did not break out in blustering efforts to keep the party going. He hadthere was something he wished to think out But the psychical research had started them off again. (Why didnt they go home! Why didnt they go home!) Though he was impressed by the profundity of the statement, he was only half-enthusiastic when Howard Littlefield lectured, The United States is the only nation in which the government is a Moral Ideal and not just a social arrangement. (Truetruewerent they ever going home?) He was usually delighted to have an inside view of the momentous world of motors but to-night he scarcely listened to Eddie Swansons revelation: If you want to go above the Javelin class, the Zeeco is a mighty good buy. Couple weeks ago, and mind you, this was a fair, square test, they took a Zeeco stock touring-car and they slid up the Tonawanda hill on high, and fellow told me (Zeecogood boat but Were they planning to stay all night?)
Most aggressively friendly of all was Babbitt, yet as he burbled he was reflecting, I got through it, but for a while there I didnt hardly think Id last out. He prepared to taste that most delicate pleasure of the host: making fun of his guests in the relaxation of midnight. As the door closed he yawned voluptuously, chest out, shoulders wriggling, and turned cynically to his wife.
It certainly was! It was corking! Best soup Ive tasted since Heck was a pup! But his voice was seeping away. They stood in the hall, under the electric light in its square box-like shade of red glass bound with nickel. She stared at him.
George! Dont you want me to go along? She was too wretchedly in earnest to be tragic, or gloriously insulted, or anything save dumpy and defenseless and flushed to the red steaminess of a boiled beet.
Of course I do! I just meant Remembering that Paul Riesling had predicted this, he was as desperate as she. I mean, sometimes its a good thing for an old grouch like me to go off and get it out of his system. He tried to sound paternal. Then when you and the kids arriveI figured maybe I might skip up to Maine just a few days ahead of youId be ready for a real bat, see how I mean? He coaxed her with large booming sounds, with affable smiles, like a popular preacher blessing an Easter congregation, like a humorous lecturer completing his stint of eloquence, like all perpetrators of masculine wiles.
He broke. Suddenly, dreadfully, he was hysterical, he was a yelping baby. Yes, yes, yes! Hell, yes! But cant you understand Im shot to pieces? Im all in! I got to take care of myself! I tell you, I got toIm sick of everything and everybody! I got to
It was she who was mature and protective now. Why, of course! You shall run off by yourself! Why dont you get Paul to go along, and you boys just fish and have a good time? She patted his shoulderreaching up to itwhile he shook with palsied helplessness, and in that moment was not merely by habit fond of her but clung to her strength.
For many minutes, for many hours, for a bleak eternity, he lay awake, shivering, reduced to primitive terror, comprehending that he had won freedom, and wondering what he could do with anything so unknown and so embarrassing as freedom.