Babbitt By Sinclair Lewis Chapters 22-23

CHAPTER XXII

I

HE drove to the City Prison, not blindly, but with unusual fussy care at corners, the fussiness of an old woman potting plants. It kept him from facing the obscenity of fate.

The attendant said, "Naw, you can't see any of the prisoners till three-thirty — visiting-hour."

It was three. For half an hour Babbitt sat looking at a calendar and a clock on a whitewashed wall. The chair was hard and mean and creaky. People went through the office and, he thought, stared at him. He felt a belligerent defiance which broke into a wincing fear of this machine which was grinding Paul — Paul — —

Exactly at half-past three he sent in his name.

The attendant returned with "Riesling says he don't want to see you."

"You're crazy! You didn't give him my name! Tell him it's George wants to see him, George Babbitt."

"Yuh, I told him, all right, all right! He said he didn't want to see you."

"Then take me in anyway."

"Nothing doing. If you ain't his lawyer, if he don't want to see you, that's all there is to it."

"But, my GOD — Say, let me see the warden."

"He's busy. Come on, now, you — " Babbitt reared over him. The attendant hastily changed to a coaxing "You can come back and try to-morrow. Probably the poor guy is off his nut."

Babbitt drove, not at all carefully or fussily, sliding viciously past trucks, ignoring the truckmen's curses, to the City Hall; he stopped with a grind of wheels against the curb, and ran up the marble steps to the office of the Hon. Mr. Lucas Prout, the mayor. He bribed the mayor's doorman with a dollar; he was instantly inside, demanding, "You remember me, Mr. Prout? Babbitt — vice-president of the Boosters — campaigned for you? Say, have you heard about poor Riesling? Well, I want an order on the warden or whatever you call um of the City Prison to take me back and see him. Good. Thanks."

In fifteen minutes he was pounding down the prison corridor to a cage where Paul Riesling sat on a cot, twisted like an old beggar, legs crossed, arms in a knot, biting at his clenched fist.

Paul looked up blankly as the keeper unlocked the cell, admitted Babbitt, and left them together. He spoke slowly: "Go on! Be moral!"

Babbitt plumped on the couch beside him. "I'm not going to be moral! I don't care what happened! I just want to do anything I can. I'm glad Zilla got what was coming to her."

Paul said argumentatively, "Now, don't go jumping on Zilla. I've been thinking; maybe she hasn't had any too easy a time. Just after I shot her — I didn't hardly mean to, but she got to deviling me so I went crazy, just for a second, and pulled out that old revolver you and I used to shoot rabbits with, and took a crack at her. Didn't hardly mean to — After that, when I was trying to stop the blood — It was terrible what it did to her shoulder, and she had beautiful skin — Maybe she won't die. I hope it won't leave her skin all scarred. But just afterward, when I was hunting through the bathroom for some cotton to stop the blood, I ran onto a little fuzzy yellow duck we hung on the tree one Christmas, and I remembered she and I'd been awfully happy then — Hell. I can't hardly believe it's me here." As Babbitt's arm tightened about his shoulder, Paul sighed, "I'm glad you came. But I thought maybe you'd lecture me, and when you've committed a murder, and been brought here and everything — there was a big crowd outside the apartment house, all staring, and the cops took me through it — Oh, I'm not going to talk about it any more."

But he went on, in a monotonous, terrified insane mumble. To divert him Babbitt said, "Why, you got a scar on your cheek."

"Yes. That's where the cop hit me. I suppose cops get a lot of fun out of lecturing murderers, too. He was a big fellow. And they wouldn't let me help carry Zilla down to the ambulance."

"Paul! Quit it! Listen: she won't die, and when it's all over you and I'll go off to Maine again. And maybe we can get that May Arnold to go along. I'll go up to Chicago and ask her. Good woman, by golly. And afterwards I'll see that you get started in business out West somewhere, maybe Seattle — they say that's a lovely city."

Paul was half smiling. It was Babbitt who rambled now. He could not tell whether Paul was heeding, but he droned on till the coming of Paul's lawyer, P. J. Maxwell, a thin, busy, unfriendly man who nodded at Babbitt and hinted, "If Riesling and I could be alone for a moment — "

Babbitt wrung Paul's hands, and waited in the office till Maxwell came pattering out. "Look, old man, what can I do?" he begged.

"Nothing. Not a thing. Not just now," said Maxwell. "Sorry. Got to hurry. And don't try to see him. I've had the doctor give him a shot of morphine, so he'll sleep."

It seemed somehow wicked to return to the office. Babbitt felt as though he had just come from a funeral. He drifted out to the City Hospital to inquire about Zilla. She was not likely to die, he learned. The bullet from Paul's huge old .44 army revolver had smashed her shoulder and torn upward and out.

He wandered home and found his wife radiant with the horified interest we have in the tragedies of our friends. "Of course Paul isn't altogether to blame, but this is what comes of his chasing after other women instead of bearing his cross in a Christian way," she exulted.

He was too languid to respond as he desired. He said what was to be said about the Christian bearing of crosses, and went out to clean the car. Dully, patiently, he scraped linty grease from the drip-pan, gouged at the mud caked on the wheels. He used up many minutes in washing his hands; scoured them with gritty kitchen soap; rejoiced in hurting his plump knuckles. "Damn soft hands — like a woman's. Aah!"

At dinner, when his wife began the inevitable, he bellowed, "I forbid any of you to say a word about Paul! I'll 'tend to all the talking about this that's necessary, hear me? There's going to be one house in this scandal-mongering town to-night that isn't going to spring the holier-than-thou. And throw those filthy evening papers out of the house!"

But he himself read the papers, after dinner.

Before nine he set out for the house of Lawyer Maxwell. He was received without cordiality. "Well?" said Maxwell.

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