"Well, now, not necessarily. Of course — Oh, it isn't so specially well known."
"Aren't you Mr. Sondheim that travels for the Krackajack Kitchen Kutlery Ko.?"
"I am not! I'm Mr. Babbitt, the real-estate broker!"
"Oh, excuse me! Oh, of course. You mean here in Zenith."
"Yep." With the briskness of one whose feelings have been hurt.
"Oh, sure. I've read your ads. They're swell."
"Um, well — You might have read about my speeches."
"Course I have! I don't get much time to read but — I guess you think I'm an awfully silly little nit!"
"I think you're a little darling!"
"Well — There's one nice thing about this job. It gives a girl a chance to meet some awfully nice gentlemen and improve her mind with conversation, and you get so you can read a guy's character at the first glance."
"Look here, Ida; please don't think I'm getting fresh — " He was hotly reflecting that it would be humiliating to be rejected by this child, and dangerous to be accepted. If he took her to dinner, if he were seen by censorious friends — But he went on ardently: "Don't think I'm getting fresh if I suggest it would be nice for us to go out and have a little dinner together some evening."
"I don't know as I ought to but — My gentleman-friend's always wanting to take me out. But maybe I could to-night."
There was no reason, he assured himself, why he shouldn't have a quiet dinner with a poor girl who would benefit by association with an educated and mature person like himself. But, lest some one see them and not understand, he would take her to Biddlemeier's Inn, on the outskirts of the city. They would have a pleasant drive, this hot lonely evening, and he might hold her hand — no, he wouldn't even do that. Ida was complaisant; her bare shoulders showed it only too clearly; but he'd be hanged if he'd make love to her merely because she expected it.
Then his car broke down; something had happened to the ignition. And he HAD to have the car this evening! Furiously he tested the spark-plugs, stared at the commutator. His angriest glower did not seem to stir the sulky car, and in disgrace it was hauled off to a garage. With a renewed thrill he thought of a taxicab. There was something at once wealthy and interestingly wicked about a taxicab.
But when he met her, on a corner two blocks from the Hotel Thornleigh, she said, "A taxi? Why, I thought you owned a car!"
"I do. Of course I do! But it's out of commission to-night."
"Oh," she remarked, as one who had heard that tale before.
All the way out to Biddlemeier's Inn he tried to talk as an old friend, but he could not pierce the wall of her words. With interminable indignation she narrated her retorts to "that fresh head-barber" and the drastic things she would do to him if he persisted in saying that she was "better at gassing than at hoof-paring."
At Biddlemeier's Inn they were unable to get anything to drink. The head-waiter refused to understand who George F. Babbitt was. They sat steaming before a vast mixed grill, and made conversation about baseball. When he tried to hold Ida's hand she said with bright friendliness, "Careful! That fresh waiter is rubbering." But they came out into a treacherous summer night, the air lazy and a little moon above transfigured maples.
"Let's drive some other place, where we can get a drink and dance!" he demanded.
"Sure, some other night. But I promised Ma I'd be home early to-night."
"Rats! It's too nice to go home."
"I'd just love to, but Ma would give me fits."
He was trembling. She was everything that was young and exquisite. He put his arm about her. She snuggled against his shoulder, unafraid, and he was triumphant. Then she ran down the steps of the Inn, singing, "Come on, Georgie, we'll have a nice drive and get cool."
It was a night of lovers. All along the highway into Zenith, under the low and gentle moon, motors were parked and dim figures were clasped in revery. He held out hungry hands to Ida, and when she patted them he was grateful. There was no sense of struggle and transition; he kissed her and simply she responded to his kiss, they two behind the stolid back of the chauffeur.
Her hat fell off, and she broke from his embrace to reach for it.
"Oh, let it be!" he implored.
"Huh? My hat? Not a chance!"
He waited till she had pinned it on, then his arm sank about her. She drew away from it, and said with maternal soothing, "Now, don't be a silly boy! Mustn't make Ittle Mama scold! Just sit back, dearie, and see what a swell night it is. If you're a good boy, maybe I'll kiss you when we say nighty-night. Now give me a cigarette."
He was solicitous about lighting her cigarette and inquiring as to her comfort. Then he sat as far from her as possible. He was cold with failure. No one could have told Babbitt that he was a fool with more vigor, precision, and intelligence than he himself displayed. He reflected that from the standpoint of the Rev. Dr. John Jennison Drew he was a wicked man, and from the standpoint of Miss Ida Putiak, an old bore who had to be endured as the penalty attached to eating a large dinner.
"Dearie, you aren't going to go and get peevish, are you?"
She spoke pertly. He wanted to spank her. He brooded, "I don't have to take anything off this gutter-pup! Darn immigrant! Well, let's get it over as quick as we can, and sneak home and kick ourselves for the rest of the night."
He snorted, "Huh? Me peevish? Why, you baby, why should I be peevish? Now, listen, Ida; listen to Uncle George. I want to put you wise about this scrapping with your head-barber all the time. I've had a lot of experience with employees, and let me tell you it doesn't pay to antagonize — "
At the drab wooden house in which she lived he said good-night briefly and amiably, but as the taxicab drove off he was praying "Oh, my God!"