Babbitt By Sinclair Lewis Chapters 19-20



THE Zenith Street Traction Company planned to build car-repair shops in the suburb of Dorchester, but when they came to buy the land they found it held, on options, by the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company. The purchasing-agent, the first vice-president, and even the president of the Traction Company protested against the Babbitt price. They mentioned their duty toward stockholders, they threatened an appeal to the courts, though somehow the appeal to the courts was never carried out and the officials found it wiser to compromise with Babbitt. Carbon copies of the correspondence are in the company's files, where they may be viewed by any public commission.

Just after this Babbitt deposited three thousand dollars in the bank, the purchasing-agent of the Street Traction Company bought a five thousand dollar car, he first vice-president built a home in Devon Woods, and the president was appointed minister to a foreign country.

To obtain the options, to tie up one man's land without letting his neighbor know, had been an unusual strain on Babbitt. It was necessary to introduce rumors about planning garages and stores, to pretend that he wasn't taking any more options, to wait and look as bored as a poker-player at a time when the failure to secure a key-lot threatened his whole plan. To all this was added a nerve-jabbing quarrel with his secret associates in the deal. They did not wish Babbitt and Thompson to have any share in the deal except as brokers. Babbitt rather agreed. "Ethics of the business-broker ought to strictly represent his principles and not get in on the buying," he said to Thompson.

"Ethics, rats! Think I'm going to see that bunch of holy grafters get away with the swag and us not climb in?" snorted old Henry.

"Well, I don't like to do it. Kind of double-crossing."

"It ain't. It's triple-crossing. It's the public that gets double-crossed. Well, now we've been ethical and got it out of our systems, the question is where we can raise a loan to handle some of the property for ourselves, on the Q. T. We can't go to our bank for it. Might come out."

"I could see old Eathorne. He's close as the tomb."

"That's the stuff."

Eathorne was glad, he said, to "invest in character," to make Babbitt the loan and see to it that the loan did not appear on the books of the bank. Thus certain of the options which Babbitt and Thompson obtained were on parcels of real estate which they themselves owned, though the property did not appear in their names.

In the midst of closing this splendid deal, which stimulated business and public confidence by giving an example of increased real-estate activity, Babbitt was overwhelmed to find that he had a dishonest person working for him.

The dishonest one was Stanley Graff, the outside salesman.

For some time Babbitt had been worried about Graff. He did not keep his word to tenants. In order to rent a house he would promise repairs which the owner had not authorized. It was suspected that he juggled inventories of furnished houses so that when the tenant left he had to pay for articles which had never been in the house and the price of which Graff put into his pocket. Babbitt had not been able to prove these suspicions, and though he had rather planned to discharge Graff he had never quite found time for it.

Now into Babbitt's private room charged a red-faced man, panting, "Look here! I've come to raise particular merry hell, and unless you have that fellow pinched, I will!" "What's — Calm down, o' man. What's trouble?"

"Trouble! Huh! Here's the trouble — "

"Sit down and take it easy! They can hear you all over the building!"

"This fellow Graff you got working for you, he leases me a house. I was in yesterday and signs the lease, all O.K., and he was to get the owner's signature and mail me the lease last night. Well, and he did. This morning I comes down to breakfast and the girl says a fellow had come to the house right after the early delivery and told her he wanted an envelope that had been mailed by mistake, big long envelope with 'Babbitt-Thompson' in the corner of it. Sure enough, there it was, so she lets him have it. And she describes the fellow to me, and it was this Graff. So I 'phones to him and he, the poor fool, he admits it! He says after my lease was all signed he got a better offer from another fellow and he wanted my lease back. Now what you going to do about it?"

"Your name is — ?"

"William Varney — W. K. Varney."

"Oh, yes. That was the Garrison house." Babbitt sounded the buzzer. When Miss McGoun came in, he demanded, "Graff gone out?"

"Yes, sir."

"Will you look through his desk and see if there is a lease made out to Mr. Varney on the Garrison house?" To Varney: "Can't tell you how sorry I am this happened. Needless to say, I'll fire Graff the minute he comes in. And of course your lease stands. But there's one other thing I'd like to do. I'll tell the owner not to pay us the commission but apply it to your rent. No! Straight! I want to. To be frank, this thing shakes me up bad. I suppose I've always been a Practical Business Man. Probably I've told one or two fairy stories in my time, when the occasion called for it — you know: sometimes you have to lay things on thick, to impress boneheads. But this is the first time I've ever had to accuse one of my own employees of anything more dishonest than pinching a few stamps. Honest, it would hurt me if we profited by it. So you'll let me hand you the commission? Good!"


He walked through the February city, where trucks flung up a spattering of slush and the sky was dark above dark brick cornices. He came back miserable. He, who respected the law, had broken it by concealing the Federal crime of interception of the mails. But he could not see Graff go to jail and his wife suffer. Worse, he had to discharge Graff and this was a part of office routine which he feared. He liked people so much, he so much wanted them to like him that he could not bear insulting them.

Miss McGoun dashed in to whisper, with the excitement of an approaching scene, "He's here!"

"Mr. Graff? Ask him to come in."

He tried to make himself heavy and calm in his chair, and to keep his eyes expressionless. Graff stalked in — a man of thirty-five, dapper, eye-glassed, with a foppish mustache.

"Want me?" said Graff.

"Yes. Sit down."

Graff continued to stand, grunting, "I suppose that old nut Varney has been in to see you. Let me explain about him. He's a regular tightwad, and he sticks out for every cent, and he practically lied to me about his ability to pay the rent — I found that out just after we signed up. And then another fellow comes along with a better offer for the house, and I felt it was my duty to the firm to get rid of Varney, and I was so worried about it I skun up there and got back the lease. Honest, Mr. Babbitt, I didn't intend to pull anything crooked. I just wanted the firm to have all the commis — "

"Wait now, Stan. This may all be true, but I've been having a lot of complaints about you. Now I don't s'pose you ever mean to do wrong, and I think if you just get a good lesson that'll jog you up a little, you'll turn out a first-class realtor yet. But I don't see how I can keep you on."

Graff leaned against the filing-cabinet, his hands in his pockets, and laughed. "So I'm fired! Well, old Vision and Ethics, I'm tickled to death! But I don't want you to think you can get away with any holier-than-thou stuff. Sure I've pulled some raw stuff — a little of it — but how could I help it, in this office?"

"Now, by God, young man — "

"Tut, tut! Keep the naughty temper down, and don't holler, because everybody in the outside office will hear you. They're probably listening right now. Babbitt, old dear, you're crooked in the first place and a damn skinflint in the second. If you paid me a decent salary I wouldn't have to steal pennies off a blind man to keep my wife from starving. Us married just five months, and her the nicest girl living, and you keeping us flat broke all the time, you damned old thief, so you can put money away for your saphead of a son and your wishywashy fool of a daughter! Wait, now! You'll by God take it, or I'll bellow so the whole office will hear it! And crooked — Say, if I told the prosecuting attorney what I know about this last Street Traction option steal, both you and me would go to jail, along with some nice, clean, pious, high-up traction guns!"

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