"I think I'll go up-state to a farm do you want me to have the Siddons lease copied this afternoon?"
"Oh, no hurry about it.... I suppose you have a great time when you get away from us cranks in the office."
She rose and gathered her pencils. "Oh, nobody's cranky here I think I can get it copied after I do the letters."
She was gone. Babbitt utterly repudiated the view that he had been trying to discover how approachable was Miss McGoun. "Course! knew there was nothing doing!" he said.
Eddie Swanson, the motor-car agent who lived across the street from Babbitt, was giving a Sunday supper. His wife Louetta, young Louetta who loved jazz in music and in clothes and laughter, was at her wildest. She cried, "We'll have a real party!" as she received the guests. Babbitt had uneasily felt that to many men she might be alluring; now he admitted that to himself she was overwhelmingly alluring. Mrs. Babbitt had never quite approved of Louetta; Babbitt was glad that she was not here this evening.
He insisted on helping Louetta in the kitchen: taking the chicken croquettes from the warming-oven, the lettuce sandwiches from the ice-box. He held her hand, once, and she depressingly didn't notice it. She caroled, "You're a good little mother's-helper, Georgie. Now trot in with the tray and leave it on the side-table."
He wished that Eddie Swanson would give them cocktails; that Louetta would have one. He wanted — Oh, he wanted to be one of these Bohemians you read about. Studio parties. Wild lovely girls who were independent. Not necessarily bad. Certainly not! But not tame, like Floral Heights. How he'd ever stood it all these years —
Eddie did not give them cocktails. True, they supped with mirth, and with several repetitions by Orville Jones of "Any time Louetta wants to come sit on my lap I'll tell this sandwich to beat it!" but they were respectable, as befitted Sunday evening. Babbitt had discreetly preempted a place beside Louetta on the piano bench. While he talked about motors, while he listened with a fixed smile to her account of the film she had seen last Wednesday, while he hoped that she would hurry up and finish her description of the plot, the beauty of the leading man, and the luxury of the setting, he studied her. Slim waist girdled with raw silk, strong brows, ardent eyes, hair parted above a broad forehead — she meant youth to him and a charm which saddened. He thought of how valiant a companion she would be on a long motor tour, exploring mountains, picnicking in a pine grove high above a valley. Her frailness touched him; he was angry at Eddie Swanson for the incessant family bickering. All at once he identified Louetta with the fairy girl. He was startled by the conviction that they had always had a romantic attraction for each other.
"I suppose you're leading a simply terrible life, now you're a widower," she said.
"You bet! I'm a bad little fellow and proud of it. Some evening you slip Eddie some dope in his coffee and sneak across the road and I'll show you how to mix a cocktail," he roared.
"Well, now, I might do it! You never can tell!"
"Well, whenever you're ready, you just hang a towel out of the attic window and I'll jump for the gin!"
Every one giggled at this naughtiness. In a pleased way Eddie Swanson stated that he would have a physician analyze his coffee daily. The others were diverted to a discussion of the more agreeable recent murders, but Babbitt drew Louetta back to personal things:
"That's the prettiest dress I ever saw in my life."
"Do you honestly like it?"
"Like it? Why, say, I'm going to have Kenneth Escott put a piece in the paper saying that the swellest dressed woman in the U. S. is Mrs. E. Louetta Swanson."
"Now, you stop teasing me!" But she beamed. "Let's dance a little. George, you've got to dance with me."
Even as he protested, "Oh, you know what a rotten dancer I am!" he was lumbering to his feet.
"I'll teach you. I can teach anybody."
Her eyes were moist, her voice was jagged with excitement. He was convinced that he had won her. He clasped her, conscious of her smooth warmth, and solemnly he circled in a heavy version of the one-step. He bumped into only one or two people. "Gosh, I'm not doing so bad; hittin' 'em up like a regular stage dancer!" he gloated; and she answered busily, "Yes — yes — I told you I could teach anybody — DON'T TAKE SUCH LONG STEPS!"
For a moment he was robbed of confidence; with fearful concentration he sought to keep time to the music. But he was enveloped again by her enchantment. "She's got to like me; I'll make her!" he vowed. He tried to kiss the lock beside her ear. She mechanically moved her head to avoid it, and mechanically she murmured, "Don't!"
For a moment he hated her, but after the moment he was as urgent as ever. He danced with Mrs. Orville Jones, but he watched Louetta swooping down the length of the room with her husband. "Careful! You're getting foolish!" he cautioned himself, the while he hopped and bent his solid knees in dalliance with Mrs. Jones, and to that worthy lady rumbled, "Gee, it's hot!" Without reason, he thought of Paul in that shadowy place where men never dance. "I'm crazy to-night; better go home," he worried, but he left Mrs. Jones and dashed to Louetta's lovely side, demanding, "The next is mine."
"Oh, I'm so hot; I'm not going to dance this one."
"Then," boldly, "come out and sit on the porch and get all nice and cool."
"Well — "
In the tender darkness, with the clamor in the house behind them, he resolutely took her hand. She squeezed his once, then relaxed.
"Louetta! I think you're the nicest thing I know!"
"Well, I think you're very nice."
"Do you? You got to like me! I'm so lonely!"
"Oh, you'll be all right when your wife comes home."
"No, I'm always lonely."
She clasped her hands under her chin, so that he dared not touch her. He sighed:
"When I feel punk and — " He was about to bring in the tragedy of Paul, but that was too sacred even for the diplomacy of love. " — when I get tired out at the office and everything, I like to look across the street and think of you. Do you know I dreamed of you, one time!"
"Was it a nice dream?"
"Oh, well, they say dreams go by opposites! Now I must run in."
She was on her feet.
"Oh, don't go in yet! Please, Louetta!"
"Yes, I must. Have to look out for my guests."
"Let 'em look out for 'emselves!"
"I couldn't do that." She carelessly tapped his shoulder and slipped away.
But after two minutes of shamed and childish longing to sneak home he was snorting, "Certainly I wasn't trying to get chummy with her! Knew there was nothing doing, all the time!" and he ambled in to dance with Mrs. Orville Jones, and to avoid Louetta, virtuously and conspicuously.