THE great events of Babbitt's spring were the secret buying of real-estate options in Linton for certain street-traction officials, before the public announcement that the Linton Avenue Car Line would be extended, and a dinner which was, as he rejoiced to his wife, not only "a regular society spread but a real sure-enough highbrow affair, with some of the keenest intellects and the brightest bunch of little women in town." It was so absorbing an occasion that he almost forgot his desire to run off to Maine with Paul Riesling.
Though he had been born in the village of Catawba, Babbitt had risen to that metropolitan social plane on which hosts have as many as four people at dinner without planning it for more than an evening or two. But a dinner of twelve, with flowers from the florist's and all the cut-glass out, staggered even the Babbitts.
For two weeks they studied, debated, and arbitrated the list of guests.
Babbitt marveled, "Of course we're up-to-date ourselves, but still, think of us entertaining a famous poet like Chum Frink, a fellow that on nothing but a poem or so every day and just writing a few advertisements pulls down fifteen thousand berries a year!"
"Yes, and Howard Littlefield. Do you know, the other evening Eunice told me her papa speaks three languages!" said Mrs. Babbitt.
"Huh! That's nothing! So do I — American, baseball, and poker!"
"I don't think it's nice to be funny about a matter like that. Think how wonderful it must be to speak three languages, and so useful and — And with people like that, I don't see why we invite the Orville Joneses."
"Well now, Orville is a mighty up-and-coming fellow!"
"Yes, I know, but — A laundry!"
"I'll admit a laundry hasn't got the class of poetry or real estate, but just the same, Orvy is mighty deep. Ever start him spieling about gardening? Say, that fellow can tell you the name of every kind of tree, and some of their Greek and Latin names too! Besides, we owe the Joneses a dinner. Besides, gosh, we got to have some boob for audience, when a bunch of hot-air artists like Frink and Littlefield get going."
"Well, dear — I meant to speak of this — I do think that as host you ought to sit back and listen, and let your guests have a chance to talk once in a while!"
"Oh, you do, do you! Sure! I talk all the time! And I'm just a business man — oh sure! — I'm no Ph.D. like Littlefield, and no poet, and I haven't anything to spring! Well, let me tell you, just the other day your darn Chum Frink comes up to me at the club begging to know what I thought about the Springfield school-bond issue. And who told him? I did! You bet your life I told him! Little me! I certainly did! He came up and asked me, and I told him all about it! You bet! And he was darn glad to listen to me and — Duty as a host! I guess I know my duty as a host and let me tell you — "
In fact, the Orville Joneses were invited.
On the morning of the dinner, Mrs. Babbitt was restive.
"Now, George, I want you to be sure and be home early tonight. Remember, you have to dress."
"Uh-huh. I see by the Advocate that the Presbyterian General Assembly has voted to quit the Interchurch World Movement. That — "
"George! Did you hear what I said? You must be home in time to dress to-night."
"Dress? Hell! I'm dressed now! Think I'm going down to the office in my B.V.D.'s?"
"I will not have you talking indecently before the children! And you do have to put on your dinner-jacket!"
"I guess you mean my Tux. I tell you, of all the doggone nonsensical nuisances that was ever invented — "
Three minutes later, after Babbitt had wailed, "Well, I don't know whether I'm going to dress or NOT" in a manner which showed that he was going to dress, the discussion moved on.
"Now, George, you mustn't forget to call in at Vecchia's on the way home and get the ice cream. Their delivery-wagon is broken down, and I don't want to trust them to send it by — "
"All right! You told me that before breakfast!"
"Well, I don't want you to forget. I'll be working my head off all day long, training the girl that's to help with the dinner — "
"All nonsense, anyway, hiring an extra girl for the feed. Matilda could perfectly well — "
" — and I have to go out and buy the flowers, and fix them, and set the table, and order the salted almonds, and look at the chickens, and arrange for the children to have their supper upstairs and — And I simply must depend on you to go to Vecchia's for the ice cream."
"All riiiiiight! Gosh, I'm going to get it!"
"All you have to do is to go in and say you want the ice cream that Mrs. Babbitt ordered yesterday by 'phone, and it will be all ready for you."
At ten-thirty she telephoned to him not to forget the ice cream from Vecchia's.
He was surprised and blasted then by a thought. He wondered whether Floral Heights dinners were worth the hideous toil involved. But he repented the sacrilege in the excitement of buying the materials for cocktails.
Now this was the manner of obtaining alcohol under the reign of righteousness and prohibition:
He drove from the severe rectangular streets of the modern business center into the tangled byways of Old Town — jagged blocks filled with sooty warehouses and lofts; on into The Arbor, once a pleasant orchard but now a morass of lodging-houses, tenements, and brothels. Exquisite shivers chilled his spine and stomach, and he looked at every policeman with intense innocence, as one who loved the law, and admired the Force, and longed to stop and play with them. He parked his car a block from Healey Hanson's saloon, worrying, "Well, rats, if anybody did see me, they'd think I was here on business."
He entered a place curiously like the saloons of ante-prohibition days, with a long greasy bar with sawdust in front and streaky mirror behind, a pine table at which a dirty old man dreamed over a glass of something which resembled whisky, and with two men at the bar, drinking something which resembled beer, and giving that impression of forming a large crowd which two men always give in a saloon. The bartender, a tall pale Swede with a diamond in his lilac scarf, stared at Babbitt as he stalked plumply up to the bar and whispered, "I'd, uh — Friend of Hanson's sent me here. Like to get some gin."
The bartender gazed down on him in the manner of an outraged bishop. "I guess you got the wrong place, my friend. We sell nothing but soft drinks here." He cleaned the bar with a rag which would itself have done with a little cleaning, and glared across his mechanically moving elbow.
The old dreamer at the table petitioned the bartender, "Say, Oscar, listen."
Oscar did not listen.
"Aw, say, Oscar, listen, will yuh? Say, lis-sen!"
The decayed and drowsy voice of the loafer, the agreeable stink of beer-dregs, threw a spell of inanition over Babbitt. The bartender moved grimly toward the crowd of two men. Babbitt followed him as delicately as a cat, and wheedled, "Say, Oscar, I want to speak to Mr. Hanson."
"Whajuh wanta see him for?"
"I just want to talk to him. Here's my card."