At Carrie's, Tanis did not have to work at being hostess. She was dignified and sure, a clear fine figure in the black chiffon frock he had always loved; and in the wider spaces of that ugly house Babbitt was able to sit quietly with her. He repented of his first revulsion, mooned at her feet, and happily drove her home. Next day he bought a violent yellow tie, to make himself young for her. He knew, a little sadly, that he could not make himself beautiful; he beheld himself as heavy, hinting of fatness, but he danced, he dressed, he chattered, to be as young as she was . . . as young as she seemed to be.
As all converts, whether to a religion, love, or gardening, find as by magic that though hitherto these hobbies have not seemed to exist, now the whole world is filled with their fury, so, once he was converted to dissipation, Babbitt discovered agreeable opportunities for it everywhere.
He had a new view of his sporting neighbor, Sam Doppelbrau. The Doppelbraus were respectable people, industrious people, prosperous people, whose ideal of happiness was an eternal cabaret. Their life was dominated by suburban bacchanalia of alcohol, nicotine, gasoline, and kisses. They and their set worked capably all the week, and all week looked forward to Saturday night, when they would, as they expressed it, "throw a party;" and the thrown party grew noisier and noisier up to Sunday dawn, and usually included an extremely rapid motor expedition to nowhere in particular.
One evening when Tanis was at the theater, Babbitt found himself being lively with the Doppelbraus, pledging friendship with men whom he had for years privily denounced to Mrs. Babbitt as a "rotten bunch of tin-horns that I wouldn't go out with, rot if they were the last people on earth." That evening he had sulkily come home and poked about in front of the house, chipping off the walk the ice-clots, like fossil footprints, made by the steps of passers-by during the recent snow. Howard Littlefield came up snuffling.
"Still a widower, George?"
"Yump. Cold again to-night."
"What do you hear from the wife?"
"She's feeling fine, but her sister is still pretty sick."
"Say, better come in and have dinner with us to-night, George."
"Oh — oh, thanks. Have to go out."
Suddenly he could not endure Littlefield's recitals of the more interesting statistics about totally uninteresting problems. He scraped at the walk and grunted.
Sam Doppelbrau appeared.
"Evenin', Babbitt. Working hard?"
"Yuh, lil exercise."
"Cold enough for you to-night?"
"Well, just about."
"Still a widower?"
"Say, Babbitt, while she's away — I know you don't care much for booze-fights, but the Missus and I'd be awfully glad if you could come in some night. Think you could stand a good cocktail for once?"
"Stand it? Young fella, I bet old Uncle George can mix the best cocktail in these United States!"
"Hurray! That's the way to talk! Look here: There's some folks coming to the house to-night, Louetta Swanson and some other live ones, and I'm going to open up a bottle of pre-war gin, and maybe we'll dance a while. Why don't you drop in and jazz it up a little, just for a change?"
"Well — What time they coming?"
He was at Sam Doppelbrau's at nine. It was the third time he had entered the house. By ten he was calling Mr. Doppelbrau "Sam, old hoss."
At eleven they all drove out to the Old Farm Inn. Babbitt sat in the back of Doppelbrau's car with Louetta Swanson. Once he had timorously tried to make love to her. Now he did not try; he merely made love; and Louetta dropped her head on his shoulder, told him what a nagger Eddie was, and accepted Babbitt as a decent and well-trained libertine.
With the assistance of Tanis's Bunch, the Doppelbraus, and other companions in forgetfulness, there was not an evening for two weeks when he did not return home late and shaky. With his other faculties blurred he yet had the motorist's gift of being able to drive when he could scarce walk; of slowing down at corners and allowing for approaching cars. He came wambling into the house. If Verona and Kenneth Escott were about, he got past them with a hasty greeting, horribly aware of their level young glances, and hid himself up-stairs. He found when he came into the warm house that he was hazier than he had believed. His head whirled. He dared not lie down. He tried to soak out the alcohol in a hot bath. For the moment his head was clearer but when he moved about the bathroom his calculations of distance were wrong, so that he dragged down the towels, and knocked over the soap-dish with a clatter which, he feared, would betray him to the children. Chilly in his dressing-gown he tried to read the evening paper. He could follow every word; he seemed to take in the sense of things; but a minute afterward he could not have told what he had been reading. When he went to bed his brain flew in circles, and he hastily sat up, struggling for self-control. At last he was able to lie still, feeling only a little sick and dizzy — and enormously ashamed. To hide his "condition" from his own children! To have danced and shouted with people whom he despised! To have said foolish things, sung idiotic songs, tried to kiss silly girls! Incredulously he remembered that he had by his roaring familiarity with them laid himself open to the patronizing of youths whom he would have kicked out of his office; that by dancing too ardently he had exposed himself to rebukes from the rattiest of withering women. As it came relentlessly back to him he snarled, "I hate myself! God how I hate myself!" But, he raged, "I'm through! No more! Had enough, plenty!"
He was even surer about it the morning after, when he was trying to be grave and paternal with his daughters at breakfast. At noontime he was less sure. He did not deny that he had been a fool; he saw it almost as clearly as at midnight; but anything, he struggled, was better than going back to a life of barren heartiness. At four he wanted a drink. He kept a whisky flask in his desk now, and after two minutes of battle he had his drink. Three drinks later he began to see the Bunch as tender and amusing friends, and by six he was with them . . . and the tale was to be told all over.
Each morning his head ached a little less. A bad head for drinks had been his safeguard, but the safeguard was crumbling. Presently he could be drunk at dawn, yet not feel particularly wretched in his conscience — or in his stomach — when he awoke at eight. No regret, no desire to escape the toil of keeping up with the arduous merriment of the Bunch, was so great as his feeling of social inferiority when he failed to keep up. To be the "livest" of them was as much his ambition now as it had been to excel at making money, at playing golf, at motor-driving, at oratory, at climbing to the McKelvey set. But occasionally he failed.
He found that Pete and the other young men considered the Bunch too austerely polite and the Carrie who merely kissed behind doors too embarrassingly monogamic. As Babbitt sneaked from Floral Heights down to the Bunch, so the young gallants sneaked from the proprieties of the Bunch off to "times" with bouncing young women whom they picked up in department stores and at hotel coatrooms. Once Babbitt tried to accompany them. There was a motor car, a bottle of whisky, and for him a grubby shrieking cash-girl from Parcher and Stein's. He sat beside her and worried. He was apparently expected to "jolly her along," but when she sang out, "Hey, leggo, quit crushing me cootie-garage," he did not quite know how to go on. They sat in the back room of a saloon, and Babbitt had a headache, was confused by their new slang looked at them benevolently, wanted to go home, and had a drink — a good many drinks.
Two evenings after, Fulton Bemis, the surly older man of the Bunch, took Babbitt aside and grunted, "Look here, it's none of my business, and God knows I always lap up my share of the hootch, but don't you think you better watch yourself? You're one of these enthusiastic chumps that always overdo things. D' you realize you're throwing in the booze as fast as you can, and you eat one cigarette right after another? Better cut it out for a while."
Babbitt tearfully said that good old Fult was a prince, and yes, he certainly would cut it out, and thereafter he lighted a cigarette and took a drink and had a terrific quarrel with Tanis when she caught him being affectionate with Carrie Nork.