"Glad I had some sense for once.... Curse it, I wish I'd tried. She's a darling! A corker! A reg'lar charmer! Lovely eyes and darling lips and that trim waist — never get sloppy, like some women.... No, no, no! She's a real cultured lady. One of the brightest little women I've met these many moons. Understands about Public Topics and — But, darn it, why didn't I try? . . . Tanis!"
He was harassed and puzzled by it, but he found that he was turning toward youth, as youth. The girl who especially disturbed him — though he had never spoken to her — was the last manicure girl on the right in the Pompeian Barber Shop. She was small, swift, black-haired, smiling. She was nineteen, perhaps, or twenty. She wore thin salmon-colored blouses which exhibited her shoulders and her black-ribboned camisoles.
He went to the Pompeian for his fortnightly hair-trim. As always, he felt disloyal at deserting his neighbor, the Reeves Building Barber Shop. Then, for the first time, he overthrew his sense of guilt. "Doggone it, I don't have to go here if I don't want to! I don't own the Reeves Building! These barbers got nothing on me! I'll doggone well get my hair cut where I doggone well want to! Don't want to hear anything more about it! I'm through standing by people — unless I want to. It doesn't get you anywhere. I'm through!"
The Pompeian Barber Shop was in the basement of the Hotel Thornleigh, largest and most dynamically modern hotel in Zenith. Curving marble steps with a rail of polished brass led from the hotel-lobby down to the barber shop. The interior was of black and white and crimson tiles, with a sensational ceiling of burnished gold, and a fountain in which a massive nymph forever emptied a scarlet cornucopia. Forty barbers and nine manicure girls worked desperately, and at the door six colored porters lurked to greet the customers, to care reverently for their hats and collars, to lead them to a place of waiting where, on a carpet like a tropic isle in the stretch of white stone floor, were a dozen leather chairs and a table heaped with magazines.
Babbitt's porter was an obsequious gray-haired negro who did him an honor highly esteemed in the land of Zenith — greeted him by name. Yet Babbitt was unhappy. His bright particular manicure girl was engaged. She was doing the nails of an overdressed man and giggling with him. Babbitt hated him. He thought of waiting, but to stop the powerful system of the Pompeian was inconceivable, and he was instantly wafted into a chair.
About him was luxury, rich and delicate. One votary was having a violet-ray facial treatment, the next an oil shampoo. Boys wheeled about miraculous electrical massage-machines. The barbers snatched steaming towels from a machine like a howitzer of polished nickel and disdainfully flung them away after a second's use. On the vast marble shelf facing the chairs were hundreds of tonics, amber and ruby and emerald. It was flattering to Babbitt to have two personal slaves at once — the barber and the bootblack. He would have been completely happy if he could also have had the manicure girl. The barber snipped at his hair and asked his opinion of the Havre de Grace races, the baseball season, and Mayor Prout. The young negro bootblack hummed "The Camp Meeting Blues" and polished in rhythm to his tune, drawing the shiny shoe-rag so taut at each stroke that it snapped like a banjo string. The barber was an excellent salesman. He made Babbitt feel rich and important by his manner of inquiring, "What is your favorite tonic, sir? Have you time to-day, sir, for a facial massage? Your scalp is a little tight; shall I give you a scalp massage?"
Babbitt's best thrill was in the shampoo. The barber made his hair creamy with thick soap, then (as Babbitt bent over the bowl, muffled in towels) drenched it with hot water which prickled along his scalp, and at last ran the water ice-cold. At the shock, the sudden burning cold on his skull, Babbitt's heart thumped, his chest heaved, and his spine was an electric wire. It was a sensation which broke the monotony of life. He looked grandly about the shop as he sat up. The barber obsequiously rubbed his wet hair and bound it in a towel as in a turban, so that Babbitt resembled a plump pink calif on an ingenious and adjustable throne. The barber begged (in the manner of one who was a good fellow yet was overwhelmed by the splendors of the calif), "How about a little Eldorado Oil Rub, sir? Very beneficial to the scalp, sir. Didn't I give you one the last time?"
He hadn't, but Babbitt agreed, "Well, all right."
With quaking eagerness he saw that his manicure girl was free.
"I don't know, I guess I'll have a manicure after all," he droned, and excitedly watched her coming, dark-haired, smiling, tender, little. The manicuring would have to be finished at her table, and he would be able to talk to her without the barber listening. He waited contentedly, not trying to peep at her, while she filed his nails and the barber shaved him and smeared on his burning cheeks all the interesting mixtures which the pleasant minds of barbers have devised through the revolving ages. When the barber was done and he sat opposite the girl at her table, he admired the marble slab of it, admired the sunken set bowl with its tiny silver taps, and admired himself for being able to frequent so costly a place. When she withdrew his wet hand from the bowl, it was so sensitive from the warm soapy water that he was abnormally aware of the clasp of her firm little paw. He delighted in the pinkness and glossiness of her nails. Her hands seemed to him more adorable than Mrs. Judique's thin fingers, and more elegant. He had a certain ecstasy in the pain when she gnawed at the cuticle of his nails with a sharp knife. He struggled not to look at the outline of her young bosom and her shoulders, the more apparent under a film of pink chiffon. He was conscious of her as an exquisite thing, and when he tried to impress his personality on her he spoke as awkwardly as a country boy at his first party:
"Well, kinda hot to be working to-day."
"Oh, yes, it is hot. You cut your own nails, last time, didn't you!"
"Ye-es, guess I must 've."
"You always ought to go to a manicure."
"Yes, maybe that's so. I — "
"There's nothing looks so nice as nails that are looked after good. I always think that's the best way to spot a real gent. There was an auto salesman in here yesterday that claimed you could always tell a fellow's class by the car he drove, but I says to him, 'Don't be silly,' I says; 'the wisenheimers grab a look at a fellow's nails when they want to tell if he's a tin-horn or a real gent!"'
"Yes, maybe there's something to that. Course, that is — with a pretty kiddy like you, a man can't help coming to get his mitts done."
"Yeh, I may be a kid, but I'm a wise bird, and I know nice folks when I see um — I can read character at a glance — and I'd never talk so frank with a fellow if I couldn't see he was a nice fellow."
She smiled. Her eyes seemed to him as gentle as April pools. With great seriousness he informed himself that "there were some roughnecks who would think that just because a girl was a manicure girl and maybe not awful well educated, she was no good, but as for him, he was a democrat, and understood people," and he stood by the assertion that this was a fine girl, a good girl — but not too uncomfortably good. He inquired in a voice quick with sympathy:
"I suppose you have a lot of fellows who try to get fresh with you."
"Say, gee, do I! Say, listen, there's some of these cigar-store sports that think because a girl's working in a barber shop, they can get away with anything. The things they saaaaaay! But, believe me, I know how to hop those birds! I just give um the north and south and ask um, 'Say, who do you think you're talking to?' and they fade away like love's young nightmare and oh, don't you want a box of nail-paste? It will keep the nails as shiny as when first manicured, harmless to apply and lasts for days."
"Sure, I'll try some. Say — Say, it's funny; I've been coming here ever since the shop opened and — " With arch surprise. " — I don't believe I know your name!"
"Don't you? My, that's funny! I don't know yours!"
"Now you quit kidding me! What's the nice little name?"
"Oh, it ain't so darn nice. I guess it's kind of kike. But my folks ain't kikes. My papa's papa was a nobleman in Poland, and there was a gentleman in here one day, he was kind of a count or something — "
"Kind of a no-account, I guess you mean!"
"Who's telling this, smarty? And he said he knew my papa's papa's folks in Poland and they had a dandy big house. Right on a lake!" Doubtfully, "Maybe you don't believe it?"
"Sure. No. Really. Sure I do. Why not? Don't think I'm kidding you, honey, but every time I've noticed you I've said to myself, 'That kid has Blue Blood in her veins!'"
"Did you, honest?"
"Honest I did. Well, well, come on — now we're friends — what's the darling little name?"
"Ida Putiak. It ain't so much-a-much of a name. I always say to Ma, I say, 'Ma, why didn't you name me Doloress or something with some class to it?'"
"Well, now, I think it's a scrumptious name. Ida!"
"I bet I know your name!"