He had, without explanation, the impression of a slaggy cliff and on it, in silhouette against menacing clouds, a lone and austere figure. He was dismayed by a sudden contempt for his surest friends. He grasped Louetta Swanson's hand, and found the comfort of human warmth. Habit came, a veteran warrior; and he shook himself. "What the deuce is the matter with me, this evening?"
He patted Louetta's hand, to indicate that he hadn't meant anything improper by squeezing it, and demanded of Frink, "Say, see if you can get old Dant' to spiel us some of his poetry. Talk up to him. Tell him, 'Buena giorna, senor, com sa va, wie geht's? Keskersaykersa a little pome, senor?'"
The lights were switched on; the women sat on the fronts of their chairs in that determined suspense whereby a wife indicates that as soon as the present speaker has finished, she is going to remark brightly to her husband, "Well, dear, I think per-HAPS it's about time for us to be saying good-night." For once Babbitt did not break out in blustering efforts to keep the party going. He had — there was something he wished to think out — But the psychical research had started them off again. ("Why didn't they go home! Why didn't they go home!") Though he was impressed by the profundity of the statement, he was only half-enthusiastic when Howard Littlefield lectured, "The United States is the only nation in which the government is a Moral Ideal and not just a social arrangement." ("True — true — weren't they EVER going home?") He was usually delighted to have an "inside view" of the momentous world of motors but to-night he scarcely listened to Eddie Swanson's revelation: "If you want to go above the Javelin class, the Zeeco is a mighty good buy. Couple weeks ago, and mind you, this was a fair, square test, they took a Zeeco stock touring-car and they slid up the Tonawanda hill on high, and fellow told me — " ("Zeeco good boat but — Were they planning to stay all night?")
They really were going, with a flutter of "We did have the best time!"
Most aggressively friendly of all was Babbitt, yet as he burbled he was reflecting, "I got through it, but for a while there I didn't hardly think I'd last out." He prepared to taste that most delicate pleasure of the host: making fun of his guests in the relaxation of midnight. As the door closed he yawned voluptuously, chest out, shoulders wriggling, and turned cynically to his wife.
She was beaming. "Oh, it was nice, wasn't it! I know they enjoyed every minute of it. Don't you think so?"
He couldn't do it. He couldn't mock. It would have been like sneering at a happy child. He lied ponderously: "You bet! Best party this year, by a long shot."
"Wasn't the dinner good! And honestly I thought the fried chicken was delicious!"
"You bet! Fried to the Queen's taste. Best fried chicken I've tasted for a coon's age."
"Didn't Matilda fry it beautifully! And don't you think the soup was simply delicious?"
"It certainly was! It was corking! Best soup I've tasted since Heck was a pup!" But his voice was seeping away. They stood in the hall, under the electric light in its square box-like shade of red glass bound with nickel. She stared at him.
"Why, George, you don't sound — you sound as if you hadn't really enjoyed it."
"Sure I did! Course I did!"
"George! What is it?"
"Oh, I'm kind of tired, I guess. Been pounding pretty hard at the office. Need to get away and rest up a little."
"Well, we're going to Maine in just a few weeks now, dear." "Yuh — " Then he was pouring it out nakedly, robbed of reticence. "Myra: I think it'd be a good thing for me to get up there early."
"But you have this man you have to meet in New York about business."
"What man? Oh, sure. Him. Oh, that's all off. But I want to hit Maine early — get in a little fishing, catch me a big trout, by golly!" A nervous, artificial laugh.
"Well, why don't we do it? Verona and Matilda can run the house between them, and you and I can go any time, if you think we can afford it."
"But that's — I've been feeling so jumpy lately, I thought maybe it might be a good thing if I kind of got off by myself and sweat it out of me."
"George! Don't you WANT me to go along?" She was too wretchedly in earnest to be tragic, or gloriously insulted, or anything save dumpy and defenseless and flushed to the red steaminess of a boiled beet.
"Of course I do! I just meant — " Remembering that Paul Riesling had predicted this, he was as desperate as she. "I mean, sometimes it's a good thing for an old grouch like me to go off and get it out of his system." He tried to sound paternal. "Then when you and the kids arrive — I figured maybe I might skip up to Maine just a few days ahead of you — I'd be ready for a real bat, see how I mean?" He coaxed her with large booming sounds, with affable smiles, like a popular preacher blessing an Easter congregation, like a humorous lecturer completing his stint of eloquence, like all perpetrators of masculine wiles.
She stared at him, the joy of festival drained from her face. "Do I bother you when we go on vacations? Don't I add anything to your fun?"
He broke. Suddenly, dreadfully, he was hysterical, he was a yelping baby. "Yes, yes, yes! Hell, yes! But can't you understand I'm shot to pieces? I'm all in! I got to take care of myself! I tell you, I got to — I'm sick of everything and everybody! I got to — "
It was she who was mature and protective now. "Why, of course! You shall run off by yourself! Why don't you get Paul to go along, and you boys just fish and have a good time?" She patted his shoulder — reaching up to it — while he shook with palsied helplessness, and in that moment was not merely by habit fond of her but clung to her strength.
She cried cheerily, "Now up-stairs you go, and pop into bed. We'll fix it all up. I'll see to the doors. Now skip!"
For many minutes, for many hours, for a bleak eternity, he lay awake, shivering, reduced to primitive terror, comprehending that he had won freedom, and wondering what he could do with anything so unknown and so embarrassing as freedom.