He was relieved to find Tanis cheerful, unreproachful, and brilliant in a frock of brown net over gold tissue. "You poor man, having to come out on a night like this! It's terribly cold. Don't you think a small highball would be nice?"
"Now, by golly, there's a woman with savvy! I think we could more or less stand a highball if it wasn't too long a one — not over a foot tall!"
He kissed her with careless heartiness, he forgot the compulsion of her demands, he stretched in a large chair and felt that he had beautifully come home. He was suddenly loquacious; he told her what a noble and misunderstood man he was, and how superior to Pete, Fulton Bemis, and the other men of their acquaintance; and she, bending forward, chin in charming hand, brightly agreed. But when he forced himself to ask, "Well, honey, how's things with YOU," she took his duty-question seriously, and he discovered that she too had Troubles:
"Oh, all right but — I did get so angry with Carrie. She told Minnie that I told her that Minnie was an awful tightwad, and Minnie told me Carrie had told her, and of course I told her I hadn't said anything of the kind, and then Carrie found Minnie had told me, and she was simply furious because Minnie had told me, and of course I was just boiling because Carrie had told her I'd told her, and then we all met up at Fulton's — his wife is away — thank heavens! — oh, there's the dandiest floor in his house to dance on — and we were all of us simply furious at each other and — Oh, I do hate that kind of a mix-up, don't you? I mean — it's so lacking in refinement, but — And Mother wants to come and stay with me for a whole month, and of course I do love her, I suppose I do, but honestly, she'll cramp my style something dreadful — she never can learn not to comment, and she always wants to know where I'm going when I go out evenings, and if I lie to her she always spies around and ferrets around and finds out where I've been, and then she looks like Patience on a Monument till I could just scream. And oh, I MUST tell you — You know I never talk about myself; I just hate people who do, don't you? But — I feel so stupid to-night, and I know I must be boring you with all this but — What would you do about Mother?"
He gave her facile masculine advice. She was to put off her mother's stay. She was to tell Carrie to go to the deuce. For these valuable revelations she thanked him, and they ambled into the familiar gossip of the Bunch. Of what a sentimental fool was Carrie. Of what a lazy brat was Pete. Of how nice Fulton Bemis could be — "course lots of people think he's a regular old grouch when they meet him because he doesn't give 'em the glad hand the first crack out of the box, but when they get to know him, he's a corker."
But as they had gone conscientiously through each of these analyses before, the conversation staggered. Babbitt tried to be intellectual and deal with General Topics. He said some thoroughly sound things about Disarmament, and broad-mindedness and liberalism; but it seemed to him that General Topics interested Tanis only when she could apply them to Pete, Carrie, or themselves. He was distressingly conscious of their silence. He tried to stir her into chattering again, but silence rose like a gray presence and hovered between them.
"I, uh — " he labored. "It strikes me — it strikes me that unemployment is lessening."
"Maybe Pete will get a decent job, then."
Desperately he essayed, "What's the trouble, old honey? You seem kind of quiet to-night."
"Am I? Oh, I'm not. But — do you really care whether I am or not?"
"Care? Sure! Course I do!"
"Do you really?" She swooped on him, sat on the arm of his chair.
He hated the emotional drain of having to appear fond of her. He stroked her hand, smiled up at her dutifully, and sank back.
"George, I wonder if you really like me at all?"
"Course I do, silly."
"Do you really, precious? Do you care a bit?"
"Why certainly! You don't suppose I'd be here if I didn't!"
"Now see here, young man, I won't have you speaking to me in that huffy way!"
"I didn't mean to sound huffy. I just — " In injured and rather childish tones: "Gosh almighty, it makes me tired the way everybody says I sound huffy when I just talk natural! Do they expect me to sing it or something?"
"Who do you mean by 'everybody'? How many other ladies have you been consoling?"
"Look here now, I won't have this hinting!"
Humbly: "I know, dear. I was only teasing. I know it didn't mean to talk huffy — it was just tired. Forgive bad Tanis. But say you love me, say it!"
"I love you.... Course I do."
"Yes, you do!" cynically. "Oh, darling, I don't mean to be rude but — I get so lonely. I feel so useless. Nobody needs me, nothing I can do for anybody. And you know, dear, I'm so active — I could be if there was something to do. And I am young, aren't I! I'm not an old thing! I'm not old and stupid, am I?"
He had to assure her. She stroked his hair, and he had to look pleased under that touch, the more demanding in its beguiling softness. He was impatient. He wanted to flee out to a hard, sure, unemotional man-world. Through her delicate and caressing fingers she may have caught something of his shrugging distaste. She left him — he was for the moment buoyantly relieved — she dragged a footstool to his feet and sat looking beseechingly up at him. But as in many men the cringing of a dog, the flinching of a frightened child, rouse not pity but a surprised and jerky cruelty, so her humility only annoyed him. And he saw her now as middle-aged, as beginning to be old. Even while he detested his own thoughts, they rode him. She was old, he winced. Old! He noted how the soft flesh was creasing into webby folds beneath her chin, below her eyes, at the base of her wrists. A patch of her throat had a minute roughness like the crumbs from a rubber eraser. Old! She was younger in years than himself, yet it was sickening to have her yearning up at him with rolling great eyes — as if, he shuddered, his own aunt were making love to him.
He fretted inwardly, "I'm through with this asinine fooling around. I'm going to cut her out. She's a darn decent nice woman, and I don't want to hurt her, but it'll hurt a lot less to cut her right out, like a good clean surgical operation."
He was on his feet. He was speaking urgently. By every rule of self-esteem, he had to prove to her, and to himself, that it was her fault.
"I suppose maybe I'm kind of out of sorts to-night, but honest, honey, when I stayed away for a while to catch up on work and everything and figure out where I was at, you ought to have been cannier and waited till I came back. Can't you see, dear, when you MADE me come, I — being about an average bull-headed chump — my tendency was to resist? Listen, dear, I'm going now — "
"Not for a while, precious! No!"
"Yep. Right now. And then sometime we'll see about the future."
"What do you mean, dear, 'about the future'? Have I done something I oughtn't to? Oh, I'm so dreadfully sorry!"
He resolutely put his hands behind him. "Not a thing, God bless you, not a thing. You're as good as they make 'em. But it's just — Good Lord, do you realize I've got things to do in the world? I've got a business to attend to and, you might not believe it, but I've got a wife and kids that I'm awful fond of!" Then only during the murder he was committing was he able to feel nobly virtuous. "I want us to be friends but, gosh, I can't go on this way feeling I got to come up here every so often — "
"Oh, darling, darling, and I've always told you, so carefully, that you were absolutely free. I just wanted you to come around when you were tired and wanted to talk to me, or when you could enjoy our parties — "
She was so reasonable, she was so gently right! It took him an hour to make his escape, with nothing settled and everything horribly settled. In a barren freedom of icy Northern wind he sighed, "Thank God that's over! Poor Tanis, poor darling decent Tanis! But it is over. Absolute! I'm free!"