THE summer before, Mrs. Babbitt's letters had crackled with desire to return to Zenith. Now they said nothing of returning, but a wistful "I suppose everything is going on all right without me" among her dry chronicles of weather and sicknesses hinted to Babbitt that he hadn't been very urgent about her coming. He worried it:
"If she were here, and I went on raising cain like I been doing, she'd have a fit. I got to get hold of myself. I got to learn to play around and yet not make a fool of myself. I can do it, too, if folks like Verg Gunch 'll let me alone, and Myra 'll stay away. But--poor kid, she sounds lonely. Lord, I don't want to hurt her!"
Impulsively he wrote that they missed her, and her next letter said happily that she was coming home.
He persuaded himself that he was eager to see her. He bought roses for the house, he ordered squab for dinner, he had the car cleaned and polished. All the way home from the station with her he was adequate in his accounts of Ted's success in basket-ball at the university, but before they reached Floral Heights there was nothing more to say, and already he felt the force of her stolidity, wondered whether he could remain a good husband and still sneak out of the house this evening for half an hour with the Bunch. When he had housed the car he blundered upstairs, into the familiar talcum-scented warmth of her presence, blaring, "Help you unpack your bag?"
"No, I can do it."
Slowly she turned, holding up a small box, and slowly she said, "I brought you a present, just a new cigar-case. I don't know if you'd care to have it--"
She was the lonely girl, the brown appealing Myra Thompson, whom he had married, and he almost wept for pity as he kissed her and besought, "Oh, honey, honey, CARE to have it? Of course I do! I'm awful proud you brought it to me. And I needed a new case badly."
He wondered how he would get rid of the case he had bought the week before.
"And you really are glad to see me back?"
"Why, you poor kiddy, what you been worrying about?"
"Well, you didn't seem to miss me very much."
By the time he had finished his stint of lying they were firmly bound again. By ten that evening it seemed improbable that she had ever been away. There was but one difference: the problem of remaining a respectable husband, a Floral Heights husband, yet seeing Tanis and the Bunch with frequency. He had promised to telephone to Tanis that evening, and now it was melodramatically impossible. He prowled about the telephone, impulsively thrusting out a hand to lift the receiver, but never quite daring to risk it. Nor could he find a reason for slipping down to the drug store on Smith Street, with its telephone-booth. He was laden with responsibility till he threw it off with the speculation: "Why the deuce should I fret so about not being able to 'phone Tanis? She can get along without me. I don't owe her anything. She's a fine girl, but I've given her just as much as she has me. . . . Oh, damn these women and the way they get you all tied up in complications!"
For a week he was attentive to his wife, took her to the theater, to dinner at the Littlefields'; then the old weary dodging and shifting began and at least two evenings a week he spent with the Bunch. He still made pretense of going to the Elks and to committee-meetings but less and less did he trouble to have his excuses interesting, less and less did she affect to believe them. He was certain that she knew he was associating with what Floral Heights called "a sporty crowd," yet neither of them acknowledged it. In matrimonial geography the distance between the first mute recognition of a break and the admission thereof is as great as the distance between the first naive faith and the first doubting.
As he began to drift away he also began to see her as a human being, to like and dislike her instead of accepting her as a comparatively movable part of the furniture, and he compassionated that husband-and-wife relation which, in twenty-five years of married life, had become a separate and real entity. He recalled their high lights the summer vacation in Virginia meadows under the blue wall of the mountains; their motor tour through Ohio, and the exploration of Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus; the birth of Verona; their building of this new house, planned to comfort them through a happy old age--chokingly they had said that it might be the last home either of them would ever have. Yet his most softening remembrance of these dear moments did not keep him from barking at dinner, "Yep, going out f' few hours. Don't sit up for me."
He did not dare now to come home drunk, and though he rejoiced in his return to high morality and spoke with gravity to Pete and Fulton Bemis about their drinking, he prickled at Myra's unexpressed criticisms and sulkily meditated that a "fellow couldn't ever learn to handle himself if he was always bossed by a lot of women."
He no longer wondered if Tanis wasn't a bit worn and sentimental. In contrast to the complacent Myra he saw her as swift and air-borne and radiant, a fire-spirit tenderly stooping to the hearth, and however pitifully he brooded on his wife, he longed to be with Tanis.
Then Mrs. Babbitt tore the decent cloak from her unhappiness and the astounded male discovered that she was having a small determined rebellion of her own.
They were beside the fireless fire-place, in the evening.
"Georgie," she said, "you haven't given me the list of your household expenses while I was away."
"No, I--Haven't made it out yet." Very affably: "Gosh, we must try to keep down expenses this year."
"That's so. I don't know where all the money goes to. I try to economize, but it just seems to evaporate."
"I suppose I oughtn't to spend so much on cigars. Don't know but what I'll cut down my smoking, maybe cut it out entirely. I was thinking of a good way to do it, the other day: start on these cubeb cigarettes, and they'd kind of disgust me with smoking."
"Oh, I do wish you would! It isn't that I care, but honestly, George, it is so bad for you to smoke so much. Don't you think you could reduce the amount? And George--I notice now, when you come home from these lodges and all, that sometimes you smell of whisky. Dearie, you know I don't worry so much about the moral side of it, but you have a weak stomach and you can't stand all this drinking."
"Weak stomach, hell! I guess I can carry my booze about as well as most folks!"
"Well, I do think you ought to be careful. Don't you see, dear, I don't want you to get sick."
"Sick rats! I'm not a baby! I guess I ain't going to get sick just because maybe once a week I shoot a highball! That's the trouble with women. They always exaggerate so."
"George, I don't think you ought to talk that way when I'm just speaking for your own good."
"I know, but gosh all fishhooks, that's the trouble with women! They're always criticizing and commenting and bringing things up, and then they say it's 'for your own good'!"
"Why, George, that's not a nice way to talk, to answer me so short."
"Well, I didn't mean to answer short, but gosh, talking as if I was a kindergarten brat, not able to tote one highball without calling for the St. Mary's ambulance! A fine idea you must have of me!"
"Oh, it isn't that; it's just--I don't want to see you get sick and--My, I didn't know it was so late! Don't forget to give me those household accounts for the time while I was away."
"Oh, thunder, what's the use of taking the trouble to make 'em out now? Let's just skip 'em for that period."
"Why, George Babbitt, in all the years we've been married we've never failed to keep a complete account of every penny we've spent!"
"No. Maybe that's the trouble with us."
"What in the world do you mean?"
"Oh, I don't mean anything, only--Sometimes I get so darn sick and tired of all this routine and the accounting at the office and expenses at home and fussing and stewing and fretting and wearing myself out worrying over a lot of junk that doesn't really mean a doggone thing, and being so careful and--Good Lord, what do you think I'm made for? I could have been a darn good orator, and here I fuss and fret and worry--"
"Don't you suppose I ever get tired of fussing? I get so bored with ordering three meals a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, and ruining my eyes over that horrid sewing-machine, and looking after your clothes and Rone's and Ted's and Tinka's and everybody's, and the laundry, and darning socks, and going down to the Piggly Wiggly to market, and bringing my basket home to save money on the cash-and-carry and--EVERYTHING!"
"Well, gosh," with a certain astonishment, "I suppose maybe you do! But talk about--Here I have to be in the office every single day, while you can go out all afternoon and see folks and visit with the neighbors and do any blinkin' thing you want to!"
"Yes, and a fine lot of good that does me! Just talking over the same old things with the same old crowd, while you have all sorts of interesting people coming in to see you at the office."
"Interesting! Cranky old dames that want to know why I haven't rented their dear precious homes for about seven times their value, and bunch of old crabs panning the everlasting daylights out of me because they don't receive every cent of their rentals by three G.M. on the second of the month! Sure! Interesting! Just as interesting as the small pox!"
"Now, George, I will not have you shouting at me that way!"
"Well, it gets my goat the way women figure out that a man doesn't do a darn thing but sit on his chair and have lovey-dovey conferences with a lot of classy dames and give 'em the glad eye!"
"I guess you manage to give them a glad enough eye when they do come in."
"What do you mean? Mean I'm chasing flappers?"
"I should hope not--at your age!"
"Now you look here! You may not believe it--Of course all you see is fat little Georgie Babbitt. Sure! Handy man around the house! Fixes the furnace when the furnace-man doesn't show up, and pays the bills, but dull, awful dull! Well, you may not believe it, but there's some women that think old George Babbitt isn't such a bad scout! They think he's not so bad-looking, not so bad that it hurts anyway, and he's got a pretty good line of guff, and some even think he shakes a darn wicked Walkover at dancing!"
"Yes." She spoke slowly. "I haven't much doubt that when I'm away you manage to find people who properly appreciate you."
"Well, I just mean--" he protested, with a sound of denial. Then he was angered into semi-honesty. "You bet I do! I find plenty of folks, and doggone nice ones, that don't think I'm a weak-stomached baby!"
"That's exactly what I was saying! You can run around with anybody you please, but I'm supposed to sit here and wait for you. You have the chance to get all sorts of culture and everything, and I just stay home--"
"Well, gosh almighty, there's nothing to prevent your reading books and going to lectures and all that junk, is there?"
"George, I told you, I won't have you shouting at me like that! I don't know what's come over you. You never used to speak to me in this cranky way."
"I didn't mean to sound cranky, but gosh, it certainly makes me sore to get the blame because you don't keep up with things."
"I'm going to! Will you help me?"
"Sure. Anything I can do to help you in the culture-grabbing line--yours to oblige, G. F. Babbitt."
"Very well then, I want you to go to Mrs. Mudge's New Thought meeting with me, next Sunday afternoon."
"Mrs. Who's which?"
"Mrs. Opal Emerson Mudge. The field-lecturer for the American New Thought League. She's going to speak on 'Cultivating the Sun Spirit' before the League of the Higher Illumination, at the Thornleigh."
"Oh, punk! New Thought! Hashed thought with a poached egg! 'Cultivating the--' It sounds like 'Why is a mouse when it spins?' That's a fine spiel for a good Presbyterian to be going to, when you can hear Doc Drew!"
"Reverend Drew is a scholar and a pulpit orator and all that, but he hasn't got the Inner Ferment, as Mrs. Mudge calls it; he hasn't any inspiration for the New Era. Women need inspiration now. So I want you to come, as you promised."
The Zenith branch of the League of the Higher Illumination met in the smaller ballroom at the Hotel Thornleigh, a refined apartment with pale green walls and plaster wreaths of roses, refined parquet flooring, and ultra-refined frail gilt chairs. Here were gathered sixty-five women and ten men. Most of the men slouched in their chairs and wriggled, while their wives sat rigidly at attention, but two of them--red-necked, meaty men--were as respectably devout as their wives. They were newly rich contractors who, having bought houses, motors, hand-painted pictures, and gentlemanliness, were now buying a refined ready-made philosophy. It had been a toss-up with them whether to buy New Thought, Christian Science, or a good standard high-church model of Episcopalianism.
In the flesh, Mrs. Opal Emerson Mudge fell somewhat short of a prophetic aspect. She was pony-built and plump, with the face of a haughty Pekingese, a button of a nose, and arms so short that, despite her most indignant endeavors, she could not clasp her hands in front of her as she sat on the platform waiting. Her frock of taffeta and green velvet, with three strings of glass beads, and large folding eye-glasses dangling from a black ribbon, was a triumph of refinement.
Mrs. Mudge was introduced by the president of the League of the Higher Illumination, an oldish young woman with a yearning voice, white spats, and a mustache. She said that Mrs. Mudge would now make it plain to the simplest intellect how the Sun Spirit could be cultivated, and they who had been thinking about cultivating one would do well to treasure Mrs. Mudge's words, because even Zenith (and everybody knew that Zenith stood in the van of spiritual and New Thought progress) didn't often have the opportunity to sit at the feet of such an inspiring Optimist and Metaphysical Seer as Mrs. Opal Emerson Mudge, who had lived the Life of Wider Usefulness through Concentration, and in the Silence found those Secrets of Mental Control and the Inner Key which were immediately going to transform and bring Peace, Power, and Prosperity to the unhappy nations; and so, friends, would they for this precious gem-studded hour forget the Illusions of the Seeming Real, and in the actualization of the deep-lying Veritas pass, along with Mrs. Opal Emerson Mudge, to the Realm Beautiful.
If Mrs. Mudge was rather pudgier than one would like one's swamis, yogis, seers, and initiates, yet her voice had the real professional note. It was refined and optimistic; it was overpoweringly calm; it flowed on relentlessly, without one comma, till Babbitt was hypnotized. Her favorite word was "always," which she pronounced olllllle-ways. Her principal gesture was a pontifical but thoroughly ladylike blessing with two stubby fingers.
She explained about this matter of Spiritual Saturation:
"There are those--"
Of "those" she made a linked sweetness long drawn out; a far-off delicate call in a twilight minor. It chastely rebuked the restless husbands, yet brought them a message of healing.
"There are those who have seen the rim and outer seeming of the logos there are those who have glimpsed and in enthusiasm possessed themselves of some segment and portion of the Logos there are those who thus flicked but not penetrated and radioactivated by the Dynamis go always to and fro assertative that they possess and are possessed of the Logos and the Metaphysikos but this word I bring you this concept I enlarge that those that are not utter are not even inceptive and that holiness is in its definitive essence always always always whole-iness and--"
It proved that the Essence of the Sun Spirit was Truth, but its Aura and Effluxion were Cheerfulness:
"Face always the day with the dawn-laugh with the enthusiasm of the initiate who perceives that all works together in the revolutions of the Wheel and who answers the strictures of the Soured Souls of the Destructionists with a Glad Affirmation--"
It went on for about an hour and seven minutes.
At the end Mrs. Mudge spoke with more vigor and punctuation:
"Now let me suggest to all of you the advantages of the Theosophical and Pantheistic Oriental Reading Circle, which I represent. Our object is to unite all the manifestations of the New Era into one cohesive whole--New Thought, Christian Science, Theosophy, Vedanta, Bahaism, and the other sparks from the one New Light. The subscription is but ten dollars a year, and for this mere pittance the members receive not only the monthly magazine, Pearls of Healing, but the privilege of sending right to the president, our revered Mother Dobbs, any questions regarding spiritual progress, matrimonial problems, health and well-being questions, financial difficulties, and--"
They listened to her with adoring attention. They looked genteel. They looked ironed-out. They coughed politely, and crossed their legs with quietness, and in expensive linen handkerchiefs they blew their noses with a delicacy altogether optimistic and refined.
As for Babbitt, he sat and suffered.
When they were blessedly out in the air again, when they drove home through a wind smelling of snow and honest sun, he dared not speak. They had been too near to quarreling, these days. Mrs. Babbitt forced it:
"Did you enjoy Mrs. Mudge's talk?"
"Well I--What did you get out of it?"
"Oh, it starts a person thinking. It gets you out of a routine of ordinary thoughts."
"Well, I'll hand it to Opal she isn't ordinary, but gosh--Honest, did that stuff mean anything to you?"
"Of course I'm not trained in metaphysics, and there was lots I couldn't quite grasp, but I did feel it was inspiring. And she speaks so readily. I do think you ought to have got something out of it."
"Well, I didn't! I swear, I was simply astonished, the way those women lapped it up! Why the dickens they want to put in their time listening to all that blaa when they--"
"It's certainly better for them than going to roadhouses and smoking and drinking!"
"I don't know whether it is or not! Personally I don't see a whole lot of difference. In both cases they're trying to get away from themselves--most everybody is, these days, I guess. And I'd certainly get a whole lot more out of hoofing it in a good lively dance, even in some dive, than sitting looking as if my collar was too tight, and feeling too scared to spit, and listening to Opal chewing her words."
"I'm sure you do! You're very fond of dives. No doubt you saw a lot of them while I was away!"
"Look here! You been doing a hell of a lot of insinuating and hinting around lately, as if I were leading a double life or something, and I'm damn sick of it, and I don't want to hear anything more about it!"
"Why, George Babbitt! Do you realize what you're saying? Why, George, in all our years together you've never talked to me like that!"
"It's about time then!"
"Lately you've been getting worse and worse, and now, finally, you're cursing and swearing at me and shouting at me, and your voice so ugly and hateful--I just shudder!"
"Oh, rats, quit exaggerating! I wasn't shouting, or swearing either."
"I wish you could hear your own voice! Maybe you don't realize how it sounds. But even so--You never used to talk like that. You simply COULDN'T talk this way if something dreadful hadn't happened to you."
His mind was hard. With amazement he found that he wasn't particularly sorry. It was only with an effort that he made himself more agreeable: "Well, gosh, I didn't mean to get sore."
"George, do you realize that we can't go on like this, getting farther and farther apart, and you ruder and ruder to me? I just don't know what's going to happen."
He had a moment's pity for her bewilderment; he thought of how many deep and tender things would be hurt if they really "couldn't go on like this." But his pity was impersonal, and he was wondering, "Wouldn't it maybe be a good thing if--Not a divorce and all that, o' course, but kind of a little more independence?"
While she looked at him pleadingly he drove on in a dreadful silence.