HE tried to explain to his wife, as they prepared for bed, how objectionable was Sheldon Smeeth, but all her answer was, "He has such a beautiful voice — so spiritual. I don't think you ought to speak of him like that just because you can't appreciate music!" He saw her then as a stranger; he stared bleakly at this plump and fussy woman with the broad bare arms, and wondered how she had ever come here.
In his chilly cot, turning from aching side to side, he pondered of Tanis. "He'd been a fool to lose her. He had to have somebody he could really talk to. He'd — oh, he'd BUST if he went on stewing about things by himself. And Myra, useless to expect her to understand. Well, rats, no use dodging the issue. Darn shame for two married people to drift apart after all these years; darn rotten shame; but nothing could bring them together now, as long as he refused to let Zenith bully him into taking orders — and he was by golly not going to let anybody bully him into anything, or wheedle him or coax him either!"
He woke at three, roused by a passing motor, and struggled out of bed for a drink of water. As he passed through the bedroom he heard his wife groan. His resentment was night-blurred; he was solicitous in inquiring, "What's the trouble, hon?"
"I've got — such a pain down here in my side — oh, it's just — it tears at me."
"Bad indigestion? Shall I get you some bicarb?"
"Don't think — that would help. I felt funny last evening and yesterday, and then — oh! — it passed away and I got to sleep and — That auto woke me up."
Her voice was laboring like a ship in a storm. He was alarmed.
"I better call the doctor."
"No, no! It'll go away. But maybe you might get me an ice-bag."
He stalked to the bathroom for the ice-bag, down to the kitchen for ice. He felt dramatic in this late-night expedition, but as he gouged the chunk of ice with the dagger-like pick he was cool, steady, mature; and the old friendliness was in his voice as he patted the ice-bag into place on her groin, rumbling, "There, there, that'll be better now." He retired to bed, but he did not sleep. He heard her groan again. Instantly he was up, soothing her, "Still pretty bad, honey?"
"Yes, it just gripes me, and I can't get to sleep."
Her voice was faint. He knew her dread of doctors' verdicts and he did not inform her, but he creaked down-stairs, telephoned to Dr. Earl Patten, and waited, shivering, trying with fuzzy eyes to read a magazine, till he heard the doctor's car.
The doctor was youngish and professionally breezy. He came in as though it were sunny noontime. "Well, George, little trouble, eh? How is she now?" he said busily as, with tremendous and rather irritating cheerfulness, he tossed his coat on a chair and warmed his hands at a radiator. He took charge of the house. Babbitt felt ousted and unimportant as he followed the doctor up to the bedroom, and it was the doctor who chuckled, "Oh, just little stomach-ache" when Verona peeped through her door, begging, "What is it, Dad, what is it?"
To Mrs. Babbitt the doctor said with amiable belligerence, after his examination, "Kind of a bad old pain, eh? I'll give you something to make you sleep, and I think you'll feel better in the morning. I'll come in right after breakfast." But to Babbitt, lying in wait in the lower hall, the doctor sighed, "I don't like the feeling there in her belly. There's some rigidity and some inflammation. She's never had her appendix out has she? Um. Well, no use worrying. I'll be here first thing in the morning, and meantime she'll get some rest. I've given her a hypo. Good night."
Then was Babbitt caught up in the black tempest.
Instantly all the indignations which had been dominating him and the spiritual dramas through which he had struggled became pallid and absurd before the ancient and overwhelming realities, the standard and traditional realities, of sickness and menacing death, the long night, and the thousand steadfast implications of married life. He crept back to her. As she drowsed away in the tropic languor of morphia, he sat on the edge of her bed, holding her hand, and for the first time in many weeks her hand abode trustfully in his.
He draped himself grotesquely in his toweling bathrobe and a pink and white couch-cover, and sat lumpishly in a wing-chair. The bedroom was uncanny in its half-light, which turned the curtains to lurking robbers, the dressing-table to a turreted castle. It smelled of cosmetics, of linen, of sleep. He napped and woke, napped and woke, a hundred times. He heard her move and sigh in slumber; he wondered if there wasn't some officious brisk thing he could do for her, and before he could quite form the thought he was asleep, racked and aching. The night was infinite. When dawn came and the waiting seemed at an end, he fell asleep, and was vexed to have been caught off his guard, to have been aroused by Verona's entrance and her agitated "Oh, what is it, Dad?"
His wife was awake, her face sallow and lifeless in the morning light, but now he did not compare her with Tanis; she was not merely A Woman, to be contrasted with other women, but his own self, and though he might criticize her and nag her, it was only as he might criticize and nag himself, interestedly, unpatronizingly, without the expectation of changing — or any real desire to change — the eternal essence.