The militiamen were turning the parade down a side street.
"They got just as much right to march as anybody else! They own the streets as much as Clarence Drum or the American Legion does!" Babbitt grumbled. "Of course, they're — they're a bad element, but — Oh, rats!"
At the Athletic Club, Babbitt was silent during lunch, while the others fretted, "I don't know what the world's coming to," or solaced their spirits with "kidding."
Captain Clarence Drum came swinging by, splendid in khaki.
"How's it going, Captain?" inquired Vergil Gunch.
"Oh, we got 'em stopped. We worked 'em off on side streets and separated 'em and they got discouraged and went home."
"Fine work. No violence."
"Fine work nothing!" groaned Mr. Drum. "If I had my way, there'd be a whole lot of violence, and I'd start it, and then the whole thing would be over. I don't believe in standing back and wet-nursing these fellows and letting the disturbances drag on. I tell you these strikers are nothing in God's world but a lot of bomb-throwing socialists and thugs, and the only way to handle 'em is with a club! That's what I'd do; beat up the whole lot of 'em!"
Babbitt heard himself saying, "Oh, rats, Clarence, they look just about like you and me, and I certainly didn't notice any bombs."
Drum complained, "Oh, you didn't, eh? Well, maybe you'd like to take charge of the strike! Just tell Colonel Nixon what innocents the strikers are! He'd be glad to hear about it!" Drum strode on, while all the table stared at Babbitt.
"What's the idea? Do you want us to give those hell-hounds love and kisses, or what?" said Orville Jones.
"Do you defend a lot of hoodlums that are trying to take the bread and butter away from our families?" raged Professor Pumphrey.
Vergil Gunch intimidatingly said nothing. He put on sternness like a mask; his jaw was hard, his bristly short hair seemed cruel, his silence was a ferocious thunder. While the others assured Babbitt that they must have misunderstood him, Gunch looked as though he had understood only too well. Like a robed judge he listened to Babbitt's stammering:
"No, sure; course they're a bunch of toughs. But I just mean — Strikes me it's bad policy to talk about clubbing 'em. Cabe Nixon doesn't. He's got the fine Italian hand. And that's why he's colonel. Clarence Drum is jealous of him."
"Well," said Professor Pumphrey, "you hurt Clarence's feelings, George. He's been out there all morning getting hot and dusty, and no wonder he wants to beat the tar out of those sons of guns!"
Gunch said nothing, and watched; and Babbitt knew that he was being watched.
As he was leaving the club Babbitt heard Chum Frink protesting to Gunch, " — don't know what's got into him. Last Sunday Doc Drew preached a corking sermon about decency in business and Babbitt kicked about that, too. Near 's I can figure out — "
Babbitt was vaguely frightened.
He saw a crowd listening to a man who was talking from the rostrum of a kitchen-chair. He stopped his car. From newspaper pictures he knew that the speaker must be the notorious freelance preacher, Beecher Ingram, of whom Seneca Doane had spoken. Ingram was a gaunt man with flamboyant hair, weather-beaten cheeks, and worried eyes. He was pleading:
" — if those telephone girls can hold out, living on one meal a day, doing their own washing, starving and smiling, you big hulking men ought to be able — "
Babbitt saw that from the sidewalk Vergil Gunch was watching him. In vague disquiet he started the car and mechanically drove on, while Gunch's hostile eyes seemed to follow him all the way.
"There's a lot of these fellows," Babbitt was complaining to his wife, "that think if workmen go on strike they're a regular bunch of fiends. Now, of course, it's a fight between sound business and the destructive element, and we got to lick the stuffin's out of 'em when they challenge us, but doggoned if I see why we can't fight like gentlemen and not go calling 'em dirty dogs and saying they ought to be shot down."
"Why, George," she said placidly, "I thought you always insisted that all strikers ought to be put in jail."
"I never did! Well, I mean — Some of 'em, of course. Irresponsible leaders. But I mean a fellow ought to be broad-minded and liberal about things like — "
"But dearie, I thought you always said these so-called 'liberal' people were the worst of — "
"Rats! Woman never can understand the different definitions of a word. Depends on how you mean it. And it don't pay to be too cocksure about anything. Now, these strikers: Honest, they're not such bad people. Just foolish. They don't understand the complications of merchandizing and profit, the way we business men do, but sometimes I think they're about like the rest of us, and no more hogs for wages than we are for profits."
"George! If people were to hear you talk like that — of course I KNOW you; I remember what a wild crazy boy you were; I know you don't mean a word you say — but if people that didn't understand you were to hear you talking, they'd think you were a regular socialist!"
"What do I care what anybody thinks? And let me tell you right now — I want you to distinctly understand I never was a wild crazy kid, and when I say a thing, I mean it, and I stand by it and — Honest, do you think people would think I was too liberal if I just said the strikers were decent?"
"Of course they would. But don't worry, dear; I know you don't mean a word of it. Time to trot up to bed now. Have you enough covers for to-night?"
On the sleeping-porch he puzzled, "She doesn't understand me. Hardly understand myself. Why can't I take things easy, way I used to?
"Wish I could go out to Senny Doane's house and talk things over with him. No! Suppose Verg Gunch saw me going in there!
"Wish I knew some really smart woman, and nice, that would see what I'm trying to get at, and let me talk to her and — I wonder if Myra's right? Could the fellows think I've gone nutty just because I'm broad-minded and liberal? Way Verg looked at me — "