THE assurance of Tanis Judique's friendship fortified Babbitt's self-approval. At the Athletic Club he became experimental. Though Vergil Gunch was silent, the others at the Roughnecks' Table came to accept Babbitt as having, for no visible reason, "turned crank." They argued windily with him, and he was cocky, and enjoyed the spectacle of his interesting martyrdom. He even praised Seneca Doane. Professor Pumphrey said that was carrying a joke too far; but Babbitt argued, "No! Fact! I tell you he's got one of the keenest intellects in the country. Why, Lord Wycombe said that — "
"Oh, who the hell is Lord Wycombe? What you always lugging him in for? You been touting him for the last six weeks!" protested Orville Jones.
"George ordered him from Sears-Roebuck. You can get those English high-muckamucks by mail for two bucks apiece," suggested Sidney Finkelstein.
"That's all right now! Lord Wycombe, he's one of the biggest intellects in English political life. As I was saying: Of course I'm conservative myself, but I appreciate a guy like Senny Doane because — "
Vergil Gunch interrupted harshly, "I wonder if you are so conservative? I find I can manage to run my own business without any skunks and reds like Doane in it!"
The grimness of Gunch's voice, the hardness of his jaw, disconcerted Babbitt, but he recovered and went on till they looked bored, then irritated, then as doubtful as Gunch.
He thought of Tanis always. With a stir he remembered her every aspect. His arms yearned for her. "I've found her! I've dreamed of her all these years and now I've found her!" he exulted. He met her at the movies in the morning; he drove out to her flat in the late afternoon or on evenings when he was believed to be at the Elks. He knew her financial affairs and advised her about them, while she lamented her feminine ignorance, and praised his masterfulness, and proved to know much more about bonds than he did. They had remembrances, and laughter over old times. Once they quarreled, and he raged that she was as "bossy" as his wife and far more whining when he was inattentive. But that passed safely.
Their high hour was a tramp on a ringing December afternoon, through snow-drifted meadows down to the icy Chaloosa River. She was exotic in an astrachan cap and a short beaver coat; she slid on the ice and shouted, and he panted after her, rotund with laughter.... Myra Babbitt never slid on the ice.
He was afraid that they would be seen together. In Zenith it is impossible to lunch with a neighbor's wife without the fact being known, before nightfall, in every house in your circle. But Tanis was beautifully discreet. However appealingly she might turn to him when they were alone, she was gravely detached when they were abroad, and he hoped that she would be taken for a client. Orville Jones once saw them emerging from a movie theater, and Babbitt bumbled, "Let me make you 'quainted with Mrs. Judique. Now here's a lady who knows the right broker to come to, Orvy!" Mr. Jones, though he was a man censorious of morals and of laundry machinery, seemed satisfied.
His predominant fear — not from any especial fondness for her but from the habit of propriety — was that his wife would learn of the affair. He was certain that she knew nothing specific about Tanis, but he was also certain that she suspected something indefinite. For years she had been bored by anything more affectionate than a farewell kiss, yet she was hurt by any slackening in his irritable periodic interest, and now he had no interest; rather, a revulsion. He was completely faithful — to Tanis. He was distressed by the sight of his wife's slack plumpness, by her puffs and billows of flesh, by the tattered petticoat which she was always meaning and always forgetting to throw away. But he was aware that she, so long attuned to him, caught all his repulsions. He elaborately, heavily, jocularly tried to check them. He couldn't.
They had a tolerable Christmas. Kenneth Escott was there, admittedly engaged to Verona. Mrs. Babbitt was tearful and called Kenneth her new son. Babbitt was worried about Ted, because he had ceased complaining of the State University and become suspiciously acquiescent. He wondered what the boy was planning, and was too shy to ask. Himself, Babbitt slipped away on Christmas afternoon to take his present, a silver cigarette-box, to Tanis. When he returned Mrs. Babbitt asked, much too innocently, "Did you go out for a little fresh air?"
"Yes, just lil drive," he mumbled.
After New Year's his wife proposed, "I heard from my sister to-day, George. She isn't well. I think perhaps I ought to go stay with her for a few weeks."
Now, Mrs. Babbitt was not accustomed to leave home during the winter except on violently demanding occasions, and only the summer before, she had been gone for weeks. Nor was Babbitt one of the detachable husbands who take separations casually He liked to have her there; she looked after his clothes; she knew how his steak ought to be cooked; and her clucking made him feel secure. But he could not drum up even a dutiful "Oh, she doesn't really need you, does she?" While he tried to look regretful, while he felt that his wife was watching him, he was filled with exultant visions of Tanis.
"Do you think I'd better go?" she said sharply.
"You've got to decide, honey; I can't."
She turned away, sighing, and his forehead was damp.
Till she went, four days later, she was curiously still, he cumbrously affectionate. Her train left at noon. As he saw it grow small beyond the train-shed he longed to hurry to Tanis.
"No, by golly, I won't do that!" he vowed. "I won't go near her for a week!"
But he was at her flat at four.
He who had once controlled or seemed to control his life in a progress unimpassioned but diligent and sane was for that fortnight borne on a current of desire and very bad whisky and all the complications of new acquaintances, those furious new intimates who demand so much more attention than old friends. Each morning he gloomily recognized his idiocies of the evening before. With his head throbbing, his tongue and lips stinging from cigarettes, he incredulously counted the number of drinks he had taken, and groaned, "I got to quit!" He had ceased saying, "I WILL quit!" for however resolute he might be at dawn, he could not, for a single evening, check his drift.
He had met Tanis's friends; he had, with the ardent haste of the Midnight People, who drink and dance and rattle and are ever afraid to be silent, been adopted as a member of her group, which they called "The Bunch." He first met them after a day when he had worked particularly hard and when he hoped to be quiet with Tanis and slowly sip her admiration.
From down the hall he could hear shrieks and the grind of a phonograph. As Tanis opened the door he saw fantastic figures dancing in a haze of cigarette smoke. The tables and chairs were against the wall.
"Oh, isn't this dandy!" she gabbled at him. "Carrie Nork had the loveliest idea. She decided it was time for a party, and she 'phoned the Bunch and told 'em to gather round. . . . George, this is Carrie."
"Carrie" was, in the less desirable aspects of both, at once matronly and spinsterish. She was perhaps forty; her hair was an unconvincing ash-blond; and if her chest was flat, her hips were ponderous. She greeted Babbitt with a giggling "Welcome to our little midst! Tanis says you're a real sport."
He was apparently expected to dance, to be boyish and gay with Carrie, and he did his unforgiving best. He towed her about the room, bumping into other couples, into the radiator, into chair-legs cunningly ambushed. As he danced he surveyed the rest of the Bunch: A thin young woman who looked capable, conceited, and sarcastic. Another woman whom he could never quite remember. Three overdressed and slightly effeminate young men — soda-fountain clerks, or at least born for that profession. A man of his own age, immovable, self-satisfied, resentful of Babbitt's presence.
When he had finished his dutiful dance Tanis took him aside and begged, "Dear, wouldn't you like to do something for me? I'm all out of booze, and the Bunch want to celebrate. Couldn't you just skip down to Healey Hanson's and get some?"
"Sure," he said, trying not to sound sullen.
"I'll tell you: I'll get Minnie Sonntag to drive down with you." Tanis was pointing to the thin, sarcastic young woman.