Miss Sonntag greeted him with an astringent "How d'you do, Mr. Babbitt. Tanis tells me you're a very prominent man, and I'm honored by being allowed to drive with you. Of course I'm not accustomed to associating with society people like you, so I don't know how to act in such exalted circles!"
Thus Miss Sonntag talked all the way down to Healey Hanson's. To her jibes he wanted to reply "Oh, go to the devil!" but he never quite nerved himself to that reasonable comment. He was resenting the existence of the whole Bunch. He had heard Tanis speak of "darling Carrie" and "Min Sonntag — she's so clever — you'll adore her," but they had never been real to him. He had pictured Tanis as living in a rose-tinted vacuum, waiting for him, free of all the complications of a Floral Heights.
When they returned he had to endure the patronage of the young soda-clerks. They were as damply friendly as Miss Sonntag was dryly hostile. They called him "Old Georgie" and shouted, "Come on now, sport; shake a leg" . . . boys in belted coats, pimply boys, as young as Ted and as flabby as chorus-men, but powerful to dance and to mind the phonograph and smoke cigarettes and patronize Tanis. He tried to be one of them; he cried "Good work, Pete!" but his voice creaked.
Tanis apparently enjoyed the companionship of the dancing darlings; she bridled to their bland flirtation and casually kissed them at the end of each dance. Babbitt hated her, for the moment. He saw her as middle-aged. He studied the wrinkles in the softness of her throat, the slack flesh beneath her chin. The taut muscles of her youth were loose and drooping. Between dances she sat in the largest chair, waving her cigarette, summoning her callow admirers to come and talk to her. ("She thinks she's a blooming queen!" growled Babbitt.) She chanted to Miss Sonntag, "Isn't my little studio sweet?" ("Studio, rats! It's a plain old-maid-and-chow-dog flat! Oh, God, I wish I was home! I wonder if I can't make a getaway now?")
His vision grew blurred, however, as he applied himself to Healey Hanson's raw but vigorous whisky. He blended with the Bunch. He began to rejoice that Carrie Nork and Pete, the most nearly intelligent of the nimble youths, seemed to like him; and it was enormously important to win over the surly older man, who proved to be a railway clerk named Fulton Bemis.
The conversation of the Bunch was exclamatory, high-colored, full of references to people whom Babbitt did not know. Apparently they thought very comfortably of themselves. They were the Bunch, wise and beautiful and amusing; they were Bohemians and urbanites, accustomed to all the luxuries of Zenith: dance-halls, movie-theaters, and roadhouses; and in a cynical superiority to people who were "slow" or "tightwad" they cackled:
"Oh, Pete, did I tell you what that dub of a cashier said when I came in late yesterday? Oh, it was per-fect-ly priceless!"
"Oh, but wasn't T. D. stewed! Say, he was simply ossified! What did Gladys say to him?"
"Think of the nerve of Bob Bickerstaff trying to get us to come to his house! Say, the nerve of him! Can you beat it for nerve? Some nerve I call it!"
"Did you notice how Dotty was dancing? Gee, wasn't she the limit!"
Babbitt was to be heard sonorously agreeing with the once-hated Miss Minnie Sonntag that persons who let a night go by without dancing to jazz music were crabs, pikers, and poor fish; and he roared "You bet!" when Mrs. Carrie Nork gurgled, "Don't you love to sit on the floor? It's so Bohemian!" He began to think extremely well of the Bunch. When he mentioned his friends Sir Gerald Doak, Lord Wycombe, William Washington Eathorne, and Chum Frink, he was proud of their condescending interest. He got so thoroughly into the jocund spirit that he didn't much mind seeing Tanis drooping against the shoulder of the youngest and milkiest of the young men, and he himself desired to hold Carrie Nork's pulpy hand, and dropped it only because Tanis looked angry.
When he went home, at two, he was fully a member of the Bunch, and all the week thereafter he was bound by the exceedingly straitened conventions, the exceedingly wearing demands, of their life of pleasure and freedom. He had to go to their parties; he was involved in the agitation when everybody telephoned to everybody else that she hadn't meant what she'd said when she'd said that, and anyway, why was Pete going around saying she'd said it?
Never was a Family more insistent on learning one another's movements than were the Bunch. All of them volubly knew, or indignantly desired to know, where all the others had been every minute of the week. Babbitt found himself explaining to Carrie or Fulton Bemis just what he had been doing that he should not have joined them till ten o'clock, and apologizing for having gone to dinner with a business acquaintance.
Every member of the Bunch was expected to telephone to every other member at least once a week. "Why haven't you called me up?" Babbitt was asked accusingly, not only by Tanis and Carrie but presently by new ancient friends, Jennie and Capitolina and Toots.
If for a moment he had seen Tanis as withering and sentimental, he lost that impression at Carrie Nork's dance. Mrs. Nork had a large house and a small husband. To her party came all of the Bunch, perhaps thirty-five of them when they were completely mobilized. Babbitt, under the name of "Old Georgie," was now a pioneer of the Bunch, since each month it changed half its membership and he who could recall the prehistoric days of a fortnight ago, before Mrs. Absolom, the food-demonstrator, had gone to Indianapolis, and Mac had "got sore at" Minnie, was a venerable leader and able to condescend to new Petes and Minnies and Gladyses.