MISS McGOUN came into his private office at three in the afternoon with "Lissen, Mr. Babbitt; there's a Mrs. Judique on the 'phone — wants to see about some repairs, and the salesmen are all out. Want to talk to her?"
The voice of Tanis Judique was clear and pleasant. The black cylinder of the telephone-receiver seemed to hold a tiny animated image of her: lustrous eyes, delicate nose, gentle chin.
"This is Mrs. Judique. Do you remember me? You drove me up here to the Cavendish Apartments and helped me find such a nice flat."
"Sure! Bet I remember! What can I do for you?"
"Why, it's just a little — I don't know that I ought to bother you, but the janitor doesn't seem to be able to fix it. You know my flat is on the top floor, and with these autumn rains the roof is beginning to leak, and I'd be awfully glad if — "
"Sure! I'll come up and take a look at it." Nervously, "When do you expect to be in?"
"Why, I'm in every morning."
"Be in this afternoon, in an hour or so?"
"Ye-es. Perhaps I could give you a cup of tea. I think I ought to, after all your trouble."
"Fine! I'll run up there soon as I can get away."
He meditated, "Now there's a woman that's got refinement, savvy, CLASS! 'After all your trouble — give you a cup of tea.' She'd appreciate a fellow. I'm a fool, but I'm not such a bad cuss, get to know me. And not so much a fool as they think!"
The great strike was over, the strikers beaten. Except that Vergil Gunch seemed less cordial, there were no visible effects of Babbitt's treachery to the clan. The oppressive fear of criticism was gone, but a diffident loneliness remained. Now he was so exhilarated that, to prove he wasn't, he droned about the office for fifteen minutes, looking at blue-prints, explaining to Miss McGoun that this Mrs. Scott wanted more money for her house — had raised the asking-price — raised it from seven thousand to eighty-five hundred — would Miss McGoun be sure and put it down on the card — Mrs. Scott's house — raise. When he had thus established himself as a person unemotional and interested only in business, he sauntered out. He took a particularly long time to start his car; he kicked the tires, dusted the glass of the speedometer, and tightened the screws holding the wind-shield spot-light.
He drove happily off toward the Bellevue district, conscious of the presence of Mrs. Judique as of a brilliant light on the horizon. The maple leaves had fallen and they lined the gutters of the asphalted streets. It was a day of pale gold and faded green, tranquil and lingering. Babbitt was aware of the meditative day, and of the barrenness of Bellevue — blocks of wooden houses, garages, little shops, weedy lots. "Needs pepping up; needs the touch that people like Mrs. Judique could give a place," he ruminated, as he rattled through the long, crude, airy streets. The wind rose, enlivening, keen, and in a blaze of well-being he came to the flat of Tanis Judique.
She was wearing, when she flutteringly admitted him, a frock of black chiffon cut modestly round at the base of her pretty throat. She seemed to him immensely sophisticated. He glanced at the cretonnes and colored prints in her living-room, and gurgled, "Gosh, you've fixed the place nice! Takes a clever woman to know how to make a home, all right!"
"You really like it? I'm so glad! But you've neglected me, scandalously. You promised to come some time and learn to dance."
Rather unsteadily, "Oh, but you didn't mean it seriously!"
"Perhaps not. But you might have tried!"
"Well, here I've come for my lesson, and you might just as well prepare to have me stay for supper!"
They both laughed in a manner which indicated that of course he didn't mean it.
"But first I guess I better look at that leak."
She climbed with him to the flat roof of the apartment-house a detached world of slatted wooden walks, clotheslines, water-tank in a penthouse. He poked at things with his toe, and sought to impress her by being learned about copper gutters, the desirability of passing plumbing pipes through a lead collar and sleeve and flashing them with copper, and the advantages of cedar over boiler-iron for roof-tanks.
"You have to know so much, in real estate!" she admired.
He promised that the roof should be repaired within two days. "Do you mind my 'phoning from your apartment?" he asked.
He stood a moment at the coping, looking over a land of hard little bungalows with abnormally large porches, and new apartment-houses, small, but brave with variegated brick walls and terra-cotta trimmings. Beyond them was a hill with a gouge of yellow clay like a vast wound. Behind every apartment-house, beside each dwelling, were small garages. It was a world of good little people, comfortable, industrious, credulous.
In the autumnal light the flat newness was mellowed, and the air was a sun-tinted pool.
"Golly, it's one fine afternoon. You get a great view here, right up Tanner's Hill," said Babbitt.
"Yes, isn't it nice and open."
"So darn few people appreciate a View."
"Don't you go raising my rent on that account! Oh, that was naughty of me! I was just teasing. Seriously though, there are so few who respond — who react to Views. I mean — they haven't any feeling of poetry and beauty."
"That's a fact, they haven't," he breathed, admiring her slenderness and the absorbed, airy way in which she looked toward the hill, chin lifted, lips smiling. "Well, guess I'd better telephone the plumbers, so they'll get on the job first thing in the morning."
When he had telephoned, making it conspicuously authoritative and gruff and masculine, he looked doubtful, and sighed, "S'pose I'd better be — "
"Oh, you must have that cup of tea first!"
"Well, it would go pretty good, at that."
It was luxurious to loll in a deep green rep chair, his legs thrust out before him, to glance at the black Chinese telephone stand and the colored photograph of Mount Vernon which he had always liked so much, while in the tiny kitchen — so near — Mrs. Judique sang "My Creole Queen." In an intolerable sweetness, a contentment so deep that he was wistfully discontented, he saw magnolias by moonlight and heard plantation darkies crooning to the banjo. He wanted to be near her, on pretense of helping her, yet he wanted to remain in this still ecstasy. Languidly he remained.
When she bustled in with the tea he smiled up at her. "This is awfully nice!" For the first time, he was not fencing; he was quietly and securely friendly; and friendly and quiet was her answer: "It's nice to have you here. You were so kind, helping me to find this little home."
They agreed that the weather would soon turn cold. They agreed that prohibition was prohibitive. They agreed that art in the home was cultural. They agreed about everything. They even became bold. They hinted that these modern young girls, well, honestly, their short skirts were short. They were proud to find that they were not shocked by such frank speaking. Tanis ventured, "I know you'll understand — I mean — I don't quite know how to say it, but I do think that girls who pretend they're bad by the way they dress really never go any farther. They give away the fact that they haven't the instincts of a womanly woman."
Remembering Ida Putiak, the manicure girl, and how ill she had used him, Babbitt agreed with enthusiasm; remembering how ill all the world had used him, he told of Paul Riesling, of Zilla, of Seneca Doane, of the strike:
"See how it was? Course I was as anxious to have those beggars licked to a standstill as anybody else, but gosh, no reason for not seeing their side. For a fellow's own sake, he's got to be broad-minded and liberal, don't you think so?"
"Oh, I do!" Sitting on the hard little couch, she clasped her hands beside her, leaned toward him, absorbed him; and in a glorious state of being appreciated he proclaimed:
"So I up and said to the fellows at the club, 'Look here,' I — "
"Do you belong to the Union Club? I think it's — "
"No; the Athletic. Tell you: Course they're always asking me to join the Union, but I always say, 'No, sir! Nothing doing!' I don't mind the expense but I can't stand all the old fogies."
"Oh, yes, that's so. But tell me: what did you say to them?"
"Oh, you don't want to hear it. I'm probably boring you to death with my troubles! You wouldn't hardly think I was an old duffer; I sound like a kid!"
"Oh, you're a boy yet. I mean — you can't be a day over forty-five."
"Well, I'm not — much. But by golly I begin to feel middle-aged sometimes; all these responsibilities and all."
"Oh, I know!" Her voice caressed him; it cloaked him like warm silk. "And I feel lonely, so lonely, some days, Mr. Babbitt."
"We're a sad pair of birds! But I think we're pretty darn nice!"
"Yes, I think we're lots nicer than most people I know!" They smiled. "But please tell me what you said at the Club."
"Well, it was like this: Course Seneca Doane is a friend of mine — they can say what they want to, they can call him anything they please, but what most folks here don't know is that Senny is the bosom pal of some of the biggest statesmen in the world — Lord Wycombe, frinstance — you know, this big British nobleman. My friend Sir Gerald Doak told me that Lord Wycombe is one of the biggest guns in England — well, Doak or somebody told me."
"Oh! Do you know Sir Gerald? The one that was here, at the McKelveys'?"
"Know him? Well, say, I know him just well enough so we call each other George and Jerry, and we got so pickled together in Chicago — "
"That must have been fun. But — " She shook a finger at him. " — I can't have you getting pickled! I'll have to take you in hand!"
"Wish you would! . . . Well, zize saying: You see I happen to know what a big noise Senny Doane is outside of Zenith, but of course a prophet hasn't got any honor in his own country, and Senny, darn his old hide, he's so blame modest that he never lets folks know the kind of an outfit he travels with when he goes abroad. Well, during the strike Clarence Drum comes pee-rading up to our table, all dolled up fit to kill in his nice lil cap'n's uniform, and somebody says to him, 'Busting the strike, Clarence?'