Babbitt By Sinclair Lewis Chapter 29

Next morning he hated himself that he should have sunk into a position where a fifteenth-rater like Fulton Bemis could rebuke him. He perceived that, since he was making love to every woman possible, Tanis was no longer his one pure star, and he wondered whether she had ever been anything more to him than A Woman. And if Bemis had spoken to him, were other people talking about him? He suspiciously watched the men at the Athletic Club that noon. It seemed to him that they were uneasy. They had been talking about him then? He was angry. He became belligerent. He not only defended Seneca Doane but even made fun of the Y. M. C. A, Vergil Gunch was rather brief in his answers.

Afterward Babbitt was not angry. He was afraid. He did not go to the next lunch of the Boosters' Club but hid in a cheap restaurant, and, while he munched a ham-and-egg sandwich and sipped coffee from a cup on the arm of his chair, he worried.

Four days later, when the Bunch were having one of their best parties, Babbitt drove them to the skating-rink which had been laid out on the Chaloosa River. After a thaw the streets had frozen in smooth ice. Down those wide endless streets the wind rattled between the rows of wooden houses, and the whole Bellevue district seemed a frontier town. Even with skid chains on all four wheels, Babbitt was afraid of sliding, and when he came to the long slide of a hill he crawled down, both brakes on. Slewing round a corner came a less cautious car. It skidded, it almost raked them with its rear fenders. In relief at their escape the Bunch — Tanis, Minnie Sonntag, Pete, Fulton Bemis — shouted "Oh, baby," and waved their hands to the agitated other driver. Then Babbitt saw Professor Pumphrey laboriously crawling up hill, afoot, Staring owlishly at the revelers. He was sure that Pumphrey recognized him and saw Tanis kiss him as she crowed, "You're such a good driver!"

At lunch next day he probed Pumphrey with "Out last night with my brother and some friends of his. Gosh, what driving! Slippery 's glass. Thought I saw you hiking up the Bellevue Avenue Hill."

"No, I wasn't — I didn't see you," said Pumphrey, hastily, rather guiltily.

Perhaps two days afterward Babbitt took Tanis to lunch at the Hotel Thornleigh. She who had seemed well content to wait for him at her flat had begun to hint with melancholy smiles that he must think but little of her if he never introduced her to his friends, if he was unwilling to be seen with her except at the movies. He thought of taking her to the "ladies' annex" of the Athletic Club, but that was too dangerous. He would have to introduce her and, oh, people might misunderstand and — He compromised on the Thornleigh.

She was unusually smart, all in black: small black tricorne hat, short black caracul coat, loose and swinging, and austere high-necked black velvet frock at a time when most street costumes were like evening gowns. Perhaps she was too smart. Every one in the gold and oak restaurant of the Thornleigh was staring at her as Babbitt followed her to a table. He uneasily hoped that the head-waiter would give them a discreet place behind a pillar, but they were stationed on the center aisle. Tanis seemed not to notice her admirers; she smiled at Babbitt with a lavish "Oh, isn't this nice! What a peppy-looking orchestra!" Babbitt had difficulty in being lavish in return, for two tables away he saw Vergil Gunch. All through the meal Gunch watched them, while Babbitt watched himself being watched and lugubriously tried to keep from spoiling Tanis's gaiety. "I felt like a spree to-day," she rippled. "I love the Thornleigh, don't you? It's so live and yet so — so refined."

He made talk about the Thornleigh, the service, the food, the people he recognized in the restaurant, all but Vergil Gunch. There did not seem to be anything else to talk of. He smiled conscientiously at her fluttering jests; he agreed with her that Minnie Sonntag was "so hard to get along with," and young Pete "such a silly lazy kid, really just no good at all." But he himself had nothing to say. He considered telling her his worries about Gunch, but — "oh, gosh, it was too much work to go into the whole thing and explain about Verg and everything."

He was relieved when he put Tanis on a trolley; he was cheerful in the familiar simplicities of his office.

At four o'clock Vergil Gunch called on him.

Babbitt was agitated, but Gunch began in a friendly way:

"How's the boy? Say, some of us are getting up a scheme we'd kind of like to have you come in on."

"Fine, Verg. Shoot."

"You know during the war we had the Undesirable Element, the Reds and walking delegates and just the plain common grouches, dead to rights, and so did we for quite a while after the war, but folks forget about the danger and that gives these cranks a chance to begin working underground again, especially a lot of these parlor socialists. Well, it's up to the folks that do a little sound thinking to make a conscious effort to keep bucking these fellows. Some guy back East has organized a society called the Good Citizens' League for just that purpose. Of course the Chamber of Commerce and the American Legion and so on do a fine work in keeping the decent people in the saddle, but they're devoted to so many other causes that they can't attend to this one problem properly. But the Good Citizens' League, the G. C. L., they stick right to it. Oh, the G. C. L. has to have some other ostensible purposes — frinstance here in Zenith I think it ought to support the park-extension project and the City Planning Committee — and then, too, it should have a social aspect, being made up of the best people — have dances and so on, especially as one of the best ways it can put the kibosh on cranks is to apply this social boycott business to folks big enough so you can't reach 'em otherwise. Then if that don't work, the G. C. L. can finally send a little delegation around to inform folks that get too flip that they got to conform to decent standards and quit shooting off their mouths so free. Don't it sound like the organization could do a great work? We've already got some of the strongest men in town, and of course we want you in. How about it?"

Babbitt was uncomfortable. He felt a compulsion back to all the standards he had so vaguely yet so desperately been fleeing. He fumbled:

"I suppose you'd especially light on fellows like Seneca Doane and try to make 'em — "

"You bet your sweet life we would! Look here, old Georgie: I've never for one moment believed you meant it when you've defended Doane, and the strikers and so on, at the Club. I knew you were simply kidding those poor galoots like Sid Finkelstein.... At least I certainly hope you were kidding!"

"Oh, well — sure — Course you might say — " Babbitt was conscious of how feeble he sounded, conscious of Gunch's mature and relentless eye. "Gosh, you know where I stand! I'm no labor agitator! I'm a business man, first, last, and all the time! But — but honestly, I don't think Doane means so badly, and you got to remember he's an old friend of mine."

"George, when it comes right down to a struggle between decency and the security of our homes on the one hand, and red ruin and those lazy dogs plotting for free beer on the other, you got to give up even old friendships. 'He that is not with me is against me.'"

"Ye-es, I suppose — "

"How about it? Going to join us in the Good Citizens' League?"

"I'll have to think it over, Verg."

"All right, just as you say." Babbitt was relieved to be let off so easily, but Gunch went on: "George, I don't know what's come over you; none of us do; and we've talked a lot about you. For a while we figured out you'd been upset by what happened to poor Riesling, and we forgave you for any fool thing you said, but that's old stuff now, George, and we can't make out what's got into you. Personally, I've always defended you, but I must say it's getting too much for me. All the boys at the Athletic Club and the Boosters' are sore, the way you go on deliberately touting Doane and his bunch of hell-hounds, and talking about being liberal — which means being wishy-washy — and even saying this preacher guy Ingram isn't a professional free-love artist. And then the way you been carrying on personally! Joe Pumphrey says he saw you out the other night with a gang of totties, all stewed to the gills, and here to-day coming right into the Thornleigh with a — well, she may be all right and a perfect lady, but she certainly did look like a pretty gay skirt for a fellow with his wife out of town to be taking to lunch. Didn't look well. What the devil has come over you, George?"

"Strikes me there's a lot of fellows that know more about my personal business than I do myself!"

"Now don't go getting sore at me because I come out flatfooted like a friend and say what I think instead of tattling behind your back, the way a whole lot of 'em do. I tell you George, you got a position in the community, and the community expects you to live up to it. And — Better think over joining the Good Citizens' League. See you about it later."

He was gone.

That evening Babbitt dined alone. He saw all the Clan of Good Fellows peering through the restaurant window, spying on him. Fear sat beside him, and he told himself that to-night he would not go to Tanis's flat; and he did not go . . . till late.

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