With Verona he sounded fatherly again, and firm. He consoled Tinka, who satisfactorily pointed the excitement of the hour by wailing. He ordered early breakfast, and wanted to look at the newspaper, and felt somehow heroic and useful in not looking at it. But there were still crawling and totally unheroic hours of waiting before Dr. Patten returned.
"Don't see much change," said Patten. "I'll be back about eleven, and if you don't mind, I think I'll bring in some other world-famous pill-pedler for consultation, just to be on the safe side. Now George, there's nothing you can do. I'll have Verona keep the ice-bag filled — might as well leave that on, I guess — and you, you better beat it to the office instead of standing around her looking as if you were the patient. The nerve of husbands! Lot more neurotic than the women! They always have to horn in and get all the credit for feeling bad when their wives are ailing. Now have another nice cup of coffee and git!"
Under this derision Babbitt became more matter-of-fact. He drove to the office, tried to dictate letters, tried to telephone and, before the call was answered, forgot to whom he was telephoning. At a quarter after ten he returned home. As he left the down-town traffic and sped up the car, his face was as grimly creased as the mask of tragedy.
His wife greeted him with surprise. "Why did you come back, dear? I think I feel a little better. I told Verona to skip off to her office. Was it wicked of me to go and get sick?"
He knew that she wanted petting, and she got it, joyously. They were curiously happy when he heard Dr. Patten's car in front. He looked out of the window. He was frightened. With Patten was an impatient man with turbulent black hair and a hussar mustache — Dr. A. I. Dilling, the surgeon. Babbitt sputtered with anxiety, tried to conceal it, and hurried down to the door.
Dr. Patten was profusely casual: "Don't want to worry you, old man, but I thought it might be a good stunt to have Dr. Dilling examine her." He gestured toward Dilling as toward a master.
Dilling nodded in his curtest manner and strode up-stairs Babbitt tramped the living-room in agony. Except for his wife's confinements there had never been a major operation in the family, and to him surgery was at once a miracle and an abomination of fear. But when Dilling and Patten came down again he knew that everything was all right, and he wanted to laugh, for the two doctors were exactly like the bearded physicians in a musical comedy, both of them rubbing their hands and looking foolishly sagacious.
Dr. Dilling spoke:
"I'm sorry, old man, but it's acute appendicitis. We ought to operate. Of course you must decide, but there's no question as to what has to be done."
Babbitt did not get all the force of it. He mumbled, "Well I suppose we could get her ready in a couple o' days. Probably Ted ought to come down from the university, just in case anything happened."
Dr. Dilling growled, "Nope. If you don't want peritonitis to set in, we'll have to operate right away. I must advise it strongly. If you say go ahead, I'll 'phone for the St. Mary's ambulance at once, and we'll have her on the table in three-quarters of an hour."
"I — I Of course, I suppose you know what — But great God, man, I can't get her clothes ready and everything in two seconds, you know! And in her state, so wrought-up and weak — "
"Just throw her hair-brush and comb and tooth-brush in a bag; that's all she'll need for a day or two," said Dr. Dilling, and went to the telephone.
Babbitt galloped desperately up-stairs. He sent the frightened Tinka out of the room. He said gaily to his wife, "Well, old thing, the doc thinks maybe we better have a little operation and get it over. Just take a few minutes — not half as serious as a confinement — and you'll be all right in a jiffy."
She gripped his hand till the fingers ached. She said patiently, like a cowed child, "I'm afraid — to go into the dark, all alone!" Maturity was wiped from her eyes; they were pleading and terrified. "Will you stay with me? Darling, you don't have to go to the office now, do you? Could you just go down to the hospital with me? Could you come see me this evening — if everything's all right? You won't have to go out this evening, will you?"
He was on his knees by the bed. While she feebly ruffled his hair, he sobbed, he kissed the lawn of her sleeve, and swore, "Old honey, I love you more than anything in the world! I've kind of been worried by business and everything, but that's all over now, and I'm back again."
"Are you really? George, I was thinking, lying here, maybe it would be a good thing if I just WENT. I was wondering if anybody really needed me. Or wanted me. I was wondering what was the use of my living. I've been getting so stupid and ugly — "
"Why, you old humbug! Fishing for compliments when I ought to be packing your bag! Me, sure, I'm young and handsome and a regular village cut-up and — " He could not go on. He sobbed again; and in muttered incoherencies they found each other.