Through all his fear ran defiance. He felt stubborn. Sometimes he decided that he had been a very devil of a fellow, as bold as Seneca Doane; sometimes he planned to call on Doane and tell him what a revolutionist he was, and never got beyond the planning. But just as often, when he heard the soft whispers enveloping him he wailed, "Good Lord, what have I done? Just played with the Bunch, and called down Clarence Drum about being such a high-and-mighty sodger. Never catch ME criticizing people and trying to make them accept MY ideas!"
He could not stand the strain. Before long he admitted that he would like to flee back to the security of conformity, provided there was a decent and creditable way to return. But, stubbornly, he would not be forced back; he would not, he swore, "eat dirt."
Only in spirited engagements with his wife did these turbulent fears rise to the surface. She complained that he seemed nervous, that she couldn't understand why he did not want to "drop in at the Littlefields'" for the evening. He tried, but he could not express to her the nebulous facts of his rebellion and punishment. And, with Paul and Tanis lost, he had no one to whom he could talk. "Good Lord, Tinka is the only real friend I have, these days," he sighed, and he clung to the child, played floor-games with her all evening.
He considered going to see Paul in prison, but, though he had a pale curt note from him every week, he thought of Paul as dead. It was Tanis for whom he was longing.
"I thought I was so smart and independent, cutting Tanis out, and I need her, Lord how I need her!" he raged. "Myra simply can't understand. All she sees in life is getting along by being just like other folks. But Tanis, she'd tell me I was all right."
Then he broke, and one evening, late, he did run to Tanis. He had not dared to hope for it, but she was in, and alone. Only she wasn't Tanis. She was a courteous, brow-lifting, ice-armored woman who looked like Tanis. She said, "Yes, George, what is it?" in even and uninterested tones, and he crept away, whipped.
His first comfort was from Ted and Eunice Littlefield.
They danced in one evening when Ted was home from the university, and Ted chuckled, "What's this I hear from Euny, dad? She says her dad says you raised Cain by boosting old Seneca Doane. Hot dog! Give 'em fits! Stir 'em up! This old burg is asleep!" Eunice plumped down on Babbitt's lap, kissed him, nestled her bobbed hair against his chin, and crowed; "I think you're lots nicer than Howard. Why is it," confidentially, "that Howard is such an old grouch? The man has a good heart, and honestly, he's awfully bright, but he never will learn to step on the gas, after all the training I've given him. Don't you think we could do something with him, dearest?"
"Why, Eunice, that isn't a nice way to speak of your papa," Babbitt observed, in the best Floral Heights manner, but he was happy for the first time in weeks. He pictured himself as the veteran liberal strengthened by the loyalty of the young generation. They went out to rifle the ice-box. Babbitt gloated, "If your mother caught us at this, we'd certainly get our come-uppance!" and Eunice became maternal, scrambled a terrifying number of eggs for them, kissed Babbitt on the ear, and in the voice of a brooding abbess marveled, "It beats the devil why feminists like me still go on nursing these men!"
Thus stimulated, Babbitt was reckless when he encountered Sheldon Smeeth, educational director of the Y.M.C.A. and choir-leader of the Chatham Road Church. With one of his damp hands Smeeth imprisoned Babbitt's thick paw while he chanted, "Brother Babbitt, we haven't seen you at church very often lately. I know you're busy with a multitude of details, but you mustn't forget your dear friends at the old church home."
Babbitt shook off the affectionate clasp — Sheldy liked to hold hands for a long time — and snarled, "Well, I guess you fellows can run the show without me. Sorry, Smeeth; got to beat it. G'day."
But afterward he winced, "If that white worm had the nerve to try to drag me back to the Old Church Home, then the holy outfit must have been doing a lot of talking about me, too."
He heard them whispering — whispering — Dr. John Jennison Drew, Cholmondeley Frink, even William Washington Eathorne. The independence seeped out of him and he walked the streets alone, afraid of men's cynical eyes and the incessant hiss of whispering.