Part 1 out of 7
Scanned by Charles Keller with OmniPage Professional OCR software
To EDITH WHARTON
THE towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel
and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.
They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully
The mist took pity on the fretted structures of earlier generations: the Post
Office with its shingle-tortured mansard, the red brick minarets of hulking
old houses, factories with stingy and sooted windows, wooden tenements colored
like mud. The city was full of such grotesqueries, but the clean towers were
thrusting them from the business center, and on the farther hills were shining
new houses, homes--they seemed--for laughter and tranquillity.
Over a concrete bridge fled a limousine of long sleek hood and noiseless
engine. These people in evening clothes were returning from an all-night
rehearsal of a Little Theater play, an artistic adventure considerably
illuminated by champagne. Below the bridge curved a railroad, a maze of green
and crimson lights. The New York Flyer boomed past, and twenty lines of
polished steel leaped into the glare.
In one of the skyscrapers the wires of the Associated Press were closing down.
The telegraph operators wearily raised their celluloid eye-shades after a
night of talking with Paris and Peking. Through the building crawled the
scrubwomen, yawning, their old shoes slapping. The dawn mist spun away. Cues
of men with lunch-boxes clumped toward the immensity of new factories, sheets
of glass and hollow tile, glittering shops where five thousand men worked
beneath one roof, pouring out the honest wares that would be sold up the
Euphrates and across the veldt. The whistles rolled out in greeting a chorus
cheerful as the April dawn; the song of labor in a city built--it seemed--for
There was nothing of the giant in the aspect of the man who was beginning to
awaken on the sleeping-porch of a Dutch Colonial house in that residential
district of Zenith known as Floral Heights.
His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years old now, in April,
1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry,
but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could
afford to pay.
His large head was pink, his brown hair thin and dry. His face was babyish in
slumber, despite his wrinkles and the red spectacle-dents on the slopes of his
nose. He was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads,
and the unroughened hand which lay helpless upon the khaki-colored blanket was
slightly puffy. He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic; and
altogether unromantic appeared this sleeping-porch, which looked on one
sizable elm, two respectable grass-plots, a cement driveway, and a corrugated
iron garage. Yet Babbitt was again dreaming of the fairy child, a dream more
romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea.
For years the fairy child had come to him. Where others saw but Georgie
Babbitt, she discerned gallant youth. She waited for him, in the darkness
beyond mysterious groves. When at last he could slip away from the crowded
house he darted to her. His wife, his clamoring friends, sought to follow,
but he escaped, the girl fleet beside him, and they crouched together on a
shadowy hillside. She was so slim, so white, so eager! She cried that he was
gay and valiant, that she would wait for him, that they would sail--
Rumble and bang of the milk-truck.
Babbitt moaned; turned over; struggled back toward his dream. He could see
only her face now, beyond misty waters. The furnace-man slammed the basement
door. A dog barked in the next yard. As Babbitt sank blissfully into a dim
warm tide, the paper-carrier went by whistling, and the rolled-up Advocate
thumped the front door. Babbitt roused, his stomach constricted with alarm.
As he relaxed, he was pierced by the familiar and irritating rattle of some
one cranking a Ford: snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah. Himself a pious
motorist, Babbitt cranked with the unseen driver, with him waited through taut
hours for the roar of the starting engine, with him agonized as the roar
ceased and again began the infernal patient snap-ah-ah--a round, flat sound, a
shivering cold-morning sound, a sound infuriating and inescapable. Not till
the rising voice of the motor told him that the Ford was moving was he
released from the panting tension. He glanced once at his favorite tree, elm
twigs against the gold patina of sky, and fumbled for sleep as for a drug. He
who had been a boy very credulous of life was no longer greatly interested in
the possible and improbable adventures of each new day.
He escaped from reality till the alarm-clock rang, at seven-twenty.
It was the best of nationally advertised and quantitatively produced
alarm-clocks, with all modern attachments, including cathedral chime,
intermittent alarm, and a phosphorescent dial. Babbitt was proud of being
awakened by such a rich device. Socially it was almost as creditable as buying
expensive cord tires.
He sulkily admitted now that there was no more escape, but he lay and detested
the grind of the real-estate business, and disliked his family, and disliked
himself for disliking them. The evening before, he had played poker at Vergil
Gunch's till midnight, and after such holidays he was irritable before
breakfast. It may have been the tremendous home-brewed beer of the
prohibition-era and the cigars to which that beer enticed him; it may have
been resentment of return from this fine, bold man-world to a restricted
region of wives and stenographers, and of suggestions not to smoke so much.
From the bedroom beside the sleeping-porch, his wife's detestably cheerful
"Time to get up, Georgie boy," and the itchy sound, the brisk and scratchy
sound, of combing hairs out of a stiff brush.
He grunted; he dragged his thick legs, in faded baby-blue pajamas, from under
the khaki blanket; he sat on the edge of the cot, running his fingers through
his wild hair, while his plump feet mechanically felt for his slippers. He
looked regretfully at the blanket--forever a suggestion to him of freedom and
heroism. He had bought it for a camping trip which had never come off. It
symbolized gorgeous loafing, gorgeous cursing, virile flannel shirts.
He creaked to his feet, groaning at the waves of pain which passed behind his
eyeballs. Though he waited for their scorching recurrence, he looked blurrily
out at the yard. It delighted him, as always; it was the neat yard of a
successful business man of Zenith, that is, it was perfection, and made him
also perfect. He regarded the corrugated iron garage. For the
three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth time in a year he reflected, "No class to that
tin shack. Have to build me a frame garage. But by golly it's the only thing
on the place that isn't up-to-date!" While he stared he thought of a community
garage for his acreage development, Glen Oriole. He stopped puffing and
jiggling. His arms were akimbo. His petulant, sleep-swollen face was set in
harder lines. He suddenly seemed capable, an official, a man to contrive, to
direct, to get things done.
On the vigor of his idea he was carried down the hard, dean, unused-looking
hall into the bathroom.
Though the house was not large it had, like all houses on Floral Heights, an
altogether royal bathroom of porcelain and glazed tile and metal sleek as
silver. The towel-rack was a rod of clear glass set in nickel. The tub was
long enough for a Prussian Guard, and above the set bowl was a sensational
exhibit of tooth-brush holder, shaving-brush holder, soap-dish, sponge-dish,
and medicine-cabinet, so glittering and so ingenious that they resembled an
electrical instrument-board. But the Babbitt whose god was Modern Appliances
was not pleased. The air of the bathroom was thick with the smell of a heathen
toothpaste. "Verona been at it again! 'Stead of sticking to Lilidol, like
I've re-peat-ed-ly asked her, she's gone and gotten some confounded stinkum
stuff that makes you sick!"
The bath-mat was wrinkled and the floor was wet. (His daughter Verona
eccentrically took baths in the morning, now and then.) He slipped on the mat,
and slid against the tub. He said "Damn!" Furiously he snatched up his tube
of shaving-cream, furiously he lathered, with a belligerent slapping of the
unctuous brush, furiously he raked his plump cheeks with a safety-razor. It
pulled. The blade was dull. He said, "Damn--oh--oh--damn it!"
He hunted through the medicine-cabinet for a packet of new razor-blades
(reflecting, as invariably, "Be cheaper to buy one of these dinguses and strop
your own blades,") and when he discovered the packet, behind the round box of
bicarbonate of soda, he thought ill of his wife for putting it there and very
well of himself for not saying "Damn." But he did say it, immediately
afterward, when with wet and soap-slippery fingers he tried to remove the
horrible little envelope and crisp clinging oiled paper from the new blade.
Then there was the problem, oft-pondered, never solved, of what to do with the
old blade, which might imperil the fingers of his young. As usual, he tossed
it on top of the medicine-cabinet, with a mental note that some day he must
remove the fifty or sixty other blades that were also temporarily, piled up
there. He finished his shaving in a growing testiness increased by his
spinning headache and by the emptiness in his stomach. When he was done, his
round face smooth and streamy and his eyes stinging from soapy water, he
reached for a towel. The family towels were wet, wet and clammy and vile, all
of them wet, he found, as he blindly snatched them--his own face-towel, his
wife's, Verona's, Ted's, Tinka's, and the lone bath-towel with the huge welt
of initial. Then George F. Babbitt did a dismaying thing. He wiped his face
on the guest-towel! It was a pansy-embroidered trifle which always hung there
to indicate that the Babbitts were in the best Floral Heights society. No one
had ever used it. No guest had ever dared to. Guests secretively took a
corner of the nearest regular towel.
He was raging, "By golly, here they go and use up all the towels, every
doggone one of 'em, and they use 'em and get 'em all wet and sopping, and
never put out a dry one for me--of course, I'm the goat!--and then I want one
and--I'm the only person in the doggone house that's got the slightest doggone
bit of consideration for other people and thoughtfulness and consider there
may be others that may want to use the doggone bathroom after me and
He was pitching the chill abominations into the bath-tub, pleased by the
vindictiveness of that desolate flapping sound; and in the midst his wife
serenely trotted in, observed serenely, "Why Georgie dear, what are you doing?
Are you going to wash out the towels? Why, you needn't wash out the towels.
Oh, Georgie, you didn't go and use the guest-towel, did you?"
It is not recorded that he was able to answer.
For the first time in weeks he was sufficiently roused by his wife to look at
Myra Babbitt--Mrs. George F. Babbitt--was definitely mature. She had creases
from the corners of her mouth to the bottom of her chin, and her plump neck
bagged. But the thing that marked her as having passed the line was that she
no longer had reticences before her husband, and no longer worried about not
having reticences. She was in a petticoat now, and corsets which bulged, and
unaware of being seen in bulgy corsets. She had become so dully habituated to
married life that in her full matronliness she was as sexless as an anemic
nun. She was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one, save
perhaps Tinka her ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware
that she was alive.
After a rather thorough discussion of all the domestic and social aspects of
towels she apologized to Babbitt for his having an alcoholic headache; and he
recovered enough to endure the search for a B.V.D. undershirt which had, he
pointed out, malevolently been concealed among his clean pajamas.
He was fairly amiable in the conference on the brown suit.
"What do you think, Myra?" He pawed at the clothes hunched on a chair in
their bedroom, while she moved about mysteriously adjusting and patting her
petticoat and, to his jaundiced eye, never seeming to get on with her
dressing. "How about it? Shall I wear the brown suit another day?"
"Well, it looks awfully nice on you."
"I know, but gosh, it needs pressing."
"That's so. Perhaps it does."
"It certainly could stand being pressed, all right."
"Yes, perhaps it wouldn't hurt it to be pressed."
"But gee, the coat doesn't need pressing. No sense in having the whole darn
suit pressed, when the coat doesn't need it."
"But the pants certainly need it, all right. Look at them--look at those
wrinkles--the pants certainly do need pressing."
"That's so. Oh, Georgie, why couldn't you wear the brown coat with the blue
trousers we were wondering what we'd do with them?"
"Good Lord! Did you ever in all my life know me to wear the coat of one suit
and the pants of another? What do you think I am? A busted bookkeeper?"
"Well, why don't you put on the dark gray suit to-day, and stop in at the
tailor and leave the brown trousers?"
"Well, they certainly need--Now where the devil is that gray suit? Oh, yes,
here we are."
He was able to get through the other crises of dressing with comparative
resoluteness and calm.
His first adornment was the sleeveless dimity B.V.D. undershirt, in which he
resembled a small boy humorlessly wearing a cheesecloth tabard at a civic
pageant. He never put on B.V.D.'s without thanking the God of Progress that
he didn't wear tight, long, old-fashioned undergarments, like his
father-in-law and partner, Henry Thompson. His second embellishment was
combing and slicking back his hair. It gave him a tremendous forehead,
arching up two inches beyond the former hair-line. But most wonder-working of
all was the donning of his spectacles.
There is character in spectacles--the pretentious tortoiseshell, the meek
pince-nez of the school teacher, the twisted silver-framed glasses of the old
villager. Babbitt's spectacles had huge, circular, frameless lenses of the
very best glass; the ear-pieces were thin bars of gold. In them he was the
modern business man; one who gave orders to clerks and drove a car and played
occasional golf and was scholarly in regard to Salesmanship. His head
suddenly appeared not babyish but weighty, and you noted his heavy, blunt
nose, his straight mouth and thick, long upper lip, his chin overfleshy but
strong; with respect you beheld him put on the rest of his uniform as a Solid
The gray suit was well cut, well made, and completely undistinguished. It was
a standard suit. White piping on the V of the vest added a flavor of law and
learning. His shoes were black laced boots, good boots, honest boots,
standard boots, extraordinarily uninteresting boots. The only frivolity was in
his purple knitted scarf. With considerable comment on the matter to Mrs.
Babbitt (who, acrobatically fastening the back of her blouse to her skirt with
a safety-pin, did not hear a word he said), he chose between the purple scarf
and a tapestry effect with stringless brown harps among blown palms, and into
it he thrust a snake-head pin with opal eyes.
A sensational event was changing from the brown suit to the gray the contents
of his pockets. He was earnest about these objects. They were of eternal
importance, like baseball or the Republican Party. They included a fountain
pen and a silver pencil (always lacking a supply of new leads) which belonged
in the righthand upper vest pocket. Without them he would have felt naked. On
his watch-chain were a gold penknife, silver cigar-cutter, seven keys (the use
of two of which he had forgotten), and incidentally a good watch. Depending
from the chain was a large, yellowish elk's-tooth-proclamation of his
membership in the Brotherly and Protective Order of Elks. Most significant of
all was his loose-leaf pocket note-book, that modern and efficient note-book
which contained the addresses of people whom he had forgotten, prudent
memoranda of postal money-orders which had reached their destinations months
ago, stamps which had lost their mucilage, clippings of verses by T.
Cholmondeley Frink and of the newspaper editorials from which Babbitt got his
opinions and his polysyllables, notes to be sure and do things which he did
not intend to do, and one curious inscription--D.S.S. D.M.Y.P.D.F.
But he had no cigarette-case. No one had ever happened to give him one, so he
hadn't the habit, and people who carried cigarette-cases he regarded as
Last, he stuck in his lapel the Boosters' Club button. With the conciseness of
great art the button displayed two words: "Boosters-Pep!" It made Babbitt feel
loyal and important. It associated him with Good Fellows, with men who were
nice and human, and important in business circles. It was his V.C., his
Legion of Honor ribbon, his Phi Beta Kappa key.
With the subtleties of dressing ran other complex worries. "I feel kind of
punk this morning," he said. "I think I had too much dinner last evening. You
oughtn't to serve those heavy banana fritters."
"But you asked me to have some."
"I know, but--I tell you, when a fellow gets past forty he has to look after
his digestion. There's a lot of fellows that don't take proper care of
themselves. I tell you at forty a man's a fool or his doctor--I mean, his own
doctor. Folks don't give enough attention to this matter of dieting. Now I
think--Course a man ought to have a good meal after the day's work, but it
would be a good thing for both of us if we took lighter lunches."
"But Georgie, here at home I always do have a light lunch."
"Mean to imply I make a hog of myself, eating down-town? Yes, sure! You'd have
a swell time if you had to eat the truck that new steward hands out to us at
the Athletic Club! But I certainly do feel out of sorts, this morning.
Funny, got a pain down here on the left side--but no, that wouldn't be
appendicitis, would it? Last night, when I was driving over to Verg Gunch's,
I felt a pain in my stomach, too. Right here it was--kind of a sharp shooting
pain. I--Where'd that dime go to? Why don't you serve more prunes at
breakfast? Of course I eat an apple every evening--an apple a day keeps the
doctor away--but still, you ought to have more prunes, and not all these fancy
"The last time I had prunes you didn't eat them."
"Well, I didn't feel like eating 'em, I suppose. Matter of fact, I think I
did eat some of 'em. Anyway--I tell you it's mighty important to--I was
saying to Verg Gunch, just last evening, most people don't take sufficient
care of their diges--"
"Shall we have the Gunches for our dinner, next week?"
"Why sure; you bet."
"Now see here, George: I want you to put on your nice dinner-jacket that
"Rats! The rest of 'em won't want to dress."
"Of course they will. You remember when you didn't dress for the
Littlefields' supper-party, and all the rest did, and how embarrassed you
"Embarrassed, hell! I wasn't embarrassed. Everybody knows I can put on as
expensive a Tux. as anybody else, and I should worry if I don't happen to
have it on sometimes. All a darn nuisance, anyway. All right for a woman,
that stays around the house all the time, but when a fellow's worked like the
dickens all day, he doesn't want to go and hustle his head off getting into
the soup-and-fish for a lot of folks that he's seen in just reg'lar ordinary
clothes that same day."
"You know you enjoy being seen in one. The other evening you admitted you
were glad I'd insisted on your dressing. You said you felt a lot better for
it. And oh, Georgie, I do wish you wouldn't say 'Tux.' It's 'dinner-jacket.'"
"Rats, what's the odds?"
"Well, it's what all the nice folks say. Suppose Lucile McKelvey heard you
calling it a 'Tux.'"
"Well, that's all right now! Lucile McKelvey can't pull anything on me! Her
folks are common as mud, even if her husband and her dad are millionaires! I
suppose you're trying to rub in your exalted social position! Well, let me
tell you that your revered paternal ancestor, Henry T., doesn't even call it a
'Tux.'! He calls it a 'bobtail jacket for a ringtail monkey,' and you couldn't
get him into one unless you chloroformed him!"
"Now don't be horrid, George."
"Well, I don't want to be horrid, but Lord! you're getting as fussy as Verona.
Ever since she got out of college she's been too rambunctious to live
with--doesn't know what she wants--well, I know what she wants!--all she wants
is to marry a millionaire, and live in Europe, and hold some preacher's hand,
and simultaneously at the same time stay right here in Zenith and be some
blooming kind of a socialist agitator or boss charity-worker or some damn
thing! Lord, and Ted is just as bad! He wants to go to college, and he
doesn't want to go to college. Only one of the three that knows her own mind
is Tinka. Simply can't understand how I ever came to have a pair of
shillyshallying children like Rone and Ted. I may not be any Rockefeller or
James J. Shakespeare, but I certainly do know my own mind, and I do keep right
on plugging along in the office and--Do you know the latest? Far as I can
figure out, Ted's new bee is he'd like to be a movie actor and--And here I've
told him a hundred times, if he'll go to college and law-school and make good,
I'll set him up in business and--Verona just exactly as bad. Doesn't know what
she wants. Well, well, come on! Aren't you ready yet? The girl rang the bell
three minutes ago."
Before he followed his wife, Babbitt stood at the westernmost window of their
room. This residential settlement, Floral Heights, was on a rise; and though
the center of the city was three miles away--Zenith had between three and four
hundred thousand inhabitants now--he could see the top of the Second National
Tower, an Indiana limestone building of thirty-five stories.
Its shining walls rose against April sky to a simple cornice like a streak of
white fire. Integrity was in the tower, and decision. It bore its strength
lightly as a tall soldier. As Babbitt stared, the nervousness was soothed
from his face, his slack chin lifted in reverence. All he articulated was
"That's one lovely sight!" but he was inspired by the rhythm of the city; his
love of it renewed. He beheld the tower as a temple-spire of the religion of
business, a faith passionate, exalted, surpassing common men; and as he
clumped down to breakfast he whistled the ballad "Oh, by gee, by gosh, by
jingo" as though it were a hymn melancholy and noble.
RELIEVED of Babbitt's bumbling and the soft grunts with which his wife
expressed the sympathy she was too experienced to feel and much too
experienced not to show, their bedroom settled instantly into impersonality.
It gave on the sleeping-porch. It served both of them as dressing-room, and on
the coldest nights Babbitt luxuriously gave up the duty of being manly and
retreated to the bed inside, to curl his toes in the warmth and laugh at the
The room displayed a modest and pleasant color-scheme, after one of the best
standard designs of the decorator who "did the interiors" for most of the
speculative-builders' houses in Zenith. The walls were gray, the woodwork
white, the rug a serene blue; and very much like mahogany was the
furniture--the bureau with its great clear mirror, Mrs. Babbitt's
dressing-table with toilet-articles of almost solid silver, the plain twin
beds, between them a small table holding a standard electric bedside lamp, a
glass for water, and a standard bedside book with colored illustrations--what
particular book it was cannot be ascertained, since no one had ever opened it.
The mattresses were firm but not hard, triumphant modern mattresses which had
cost a great deal of money; the hot-water radiator was of exactly the proper
scientific surface for the cubic contents of the room. The windows were large
and easily opened, with the best catches and cords, and Holland roller-shades
guaranteed not to crack. It was a masterpiece among bedrooms, right out of
Cheerful Modern Houses for Medium Incomes. Only it had nothing to do with the
Babbitts, nor with any one else. If people had ever lived and loved here,
read thrillers at midnight and lain in beautiful indolence on a Sunday
morning, there were no signs of it. It had the air of being a very good room
in a very good hotel. One expected the chambermaid to come in and make it
ready for people who would stay but one night, go without looking back, and
never think of it again.
Every second house in Floral Heights had a bedroom precisely like this.
The Babbitts' house was five years old. It was all as competent and glossy as
this bedroom. It had the best of taste, the best of inexpensive rugs, a
simple and laudable architecture, and the latest conveniences. Throughout,
electricity took the place of candles and slatternly hearth-fires. Along the
bedroom baseboard were three plugs for electric lamps, concealed by little
brass doors. In the halls were plugs for the vacuum cleaner, and in the
living-room plugs for the piano lamp, for the electric fan. The trim
dining-room (with its admirable oak buffet, its leaded-glass cupboard, its
creamy plaster walls, its modest scene of a salmon expiring upon a pile of
oysters) had plugs which supplied the electric percolator and the electric
In fact there was but one thing wrong with the Babbitt house: It was not a
Often of a morning Babbitt came bouncing and jesting in to breakfast. But
things were mysteriously awry to-day. As he pontifically tread the upper hall
he looked into Verona's bedroom and protested, "What's the use of giving the
family a high-class house when they don't appreciate it and tend to business
and get down to brass tacks?"
He marched upon them: Verona, a dumpy brown-haired girl of twenty-two, just
out of Bryn Mawr, given to solici-tudes about duty and sex and God and the
unconquerable bagginess of the gray sports-suit she was now wearing.
Ted--Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt--a decorative boy of seventeen.
Tinka--Katherine--still a baby at ten, with radiant red hair and a thin skin
which hinted of too much candy and too many ice cream sodas. Babbitt did not
show his vague irritation as he tramped in. He really disliked being a family
tyrant, and his nagging was as meaningless as it was frequent. He shouted at
Tinka, "Well, kittiedoolie!" It was the only pet name in his vocabulary,
except the "dear" and "hon." with which he recognized his wife, and he flung
it at Tinka every morning.
He gulped a cup of coffee in the hope of pacifying his stomach and his soul.
His stomach ceased to feel as though it did not belong to him, but Verona
began to be conscientious and annoying, and abruptly there returned to Babbitt
the doubts regarding life and families and business which had clawed at him
when his dream-life and the slim fairy girl had fled.
Verona had for six months been filing-clerk at the Gruensberg Leather Company
offices, with a prospect of becoming secretary to Mr. Gruensberg and thus, as
Babbitt defined it, "getting some good out of your expensive college education
till you're ready to marry and settle down."
But now said Verona: "Father! I was talking to a classmate of mine that's
working for the Associated Charities--oh, Dad, there's the sweetest little
babies that come to the milk-station there!--and I feel as though I ought to
be doing something worth while like that."
"What do you mean 'worth while'? If you get to be Gruensberg's secretary--and
maybe you would, if you kept up your shorthand and didn't go sneaking off to
concerts and talkfests every evening--I guess you'll find thirty-five or forty
bones a week worth while!"
"I know, but--oh, I want to--contribute--I wish I were working in a
settlement-house. I wonder if I could get one of the department-stores to let
me put in a welfare-department with a nice rest-room and chintzes and wicker
chairs and so on and so forth. Or I could--"
"Now you look here! The first thing you got to understand is that all this
uplift and flipflop and settlement-work and recreation is nothing in God's
world but the entering wedge for socialism. The sooner a man learns he isn't
going to be coddled, and he needn't expect a lot of free grub and, uh, all
these free classes and flipflop and doodads for his kids unless he earns 'em,
why, the sooner he'll get on the job and produce--produce--produce! That's
what the country needs, and not all this fancy stuff that just enfeebles the
will-power of the working man and gives his kids a lot of notions above their
class. And you--if you'd tend to business instead of fooling and fussing--All
the time! When I was a young man I made up my mind what I wanted to do, and
stuck to it through thick and thin, and that's why I'm where I am to-day,
and--Myra! What do you let the girl chop the toast up into these dinky little
chunks for? Can't get your fist onto 'em. Half cold, anyway!"
Ted Babbitt, junior in the great East Side High School, had been making
hiccup-like sounds of interruption. He blurted now, "Say, Rone, you going
Verona whirled. "Ted! Will you kindly not interrupt us when we're talking
about serious matters!"
"Aw punk," said Ted judicially. "Ever since somebody slipped up and let you
out of college, Ammonia, you been pulling these nut conversations about
what-nots and so-on-and-so-forths. Are you going to--I want to use the car
Babbitt snorted, "Oh, you do! May want it myself!" Verona protested, "Oh,
you do, Mr. Smarty! I'm going to take it myself!" Tinka wailed, "Oh, papa,
you said maybe you'd drive us down to Rosedale!" and Mrs. Babbitt, "Careful,
Tinka, your sleeve is in the butter." They glared, and Verona hurled, "Ted,
you're a perfect pig about the car!"
"Course you're not! Not a-tall!" Ted could be maddeningly bland. "You just
want to grab it off, right after dinner, and leave it in front of some skirt's
house all evening while you sit and gas about lite'ature and the highbrows
you're going to marry--if they only propose!"
"Well, Dad oughtn't to EVER let you have it! You and those beastly Jones boys
drive like maniacs. The idea of your taking the turn on Chautauqua Place at
forty miles an hour!"
"Aw, where do you get that stuff! You're so darn scared of the car that you
drive up-hill with the emergency brake on!"
"I do not! And you--Always talking about how much you know about motors, and
Eunice Littlefield told me you said the battery fed the generator!"
"You--why, my good woman, you don't know a generator from a differential."
Not unreasonably was Ted lofty with her. He was a natural mechanic, a maker
and tinkerer of machines; he lisped in blueprints for the blueprints came.
"That'll do now!" Babbitt flung in mechanically, as he lighted the gloriously
satisfying first cigar of the day and tasted the exhilarating drug of the
Ted negotiated: "Gee, honest, Rone, I don't want to take the old boat, but I
promised couple o' girls in my class I'd drive 'em down to the rehearsal of
the school chorus, and, gee, I don't want to, but a gentleman's got to keep
his social engagements."
"Well, upon my word! You and your social engagements! In high school!"
"Oh, ain't we select since we went to that hen college! Let me tell you there
isn't a private school in the state that's got as swell a bunch as we got in
Gamma Digamma this year. There's two fellows that their dads are millionaires.
Say, gee, I ought to have a car of my own, like lots of the fellows." Babbitt
almost rose. "A car of your own! Don't you want a yacht, and a house and lot?
That pretty nearly takes the cake! A boy that can't pass his Latin
examinations, like any other boy ought to, and he expects me to give him a
motor-car, and I suppose a chauffeur, and an areoplane maybe, as a reward for
the hard work he puts in going to the movies with Eunice Littlefield! Well,
when you see me giving you--"
Somewhat later, after diplomacies, Ted persuaded Verona to admit that she was
merely going to the Armory, that evening, to see the dog and cat show. She was
then, Ted planned, to park the car in front of the candy-store across from the
Armory and he would pick it up. There were masterly arrangements regarding
leaving the key, and having the gasoline tank filled; and passionately,
devotees of the Great God Motor, they hymned the patch on the spare
inner-tube, and the lost jack-handle.
Their truce dissolving, Ted observed that her friends were "a scream of a
bunch-stuck-up gabby four-flushers." His friends, she indicated, were
"disgusting imitation sports, and horrid little shrieking ignorant girls."
Further: "It's disgusting of you to smoke cigarettes, and so on and so forth,
and those clothes you've got on this morning, they're too utterly
ridiculous--honestly, simply disgusting."
Ted balanced over to the low beveled mirror in the buffet, regarded his
charms, and smirked. His suit, the latest thing in Old Eli Togs, was
skin-tight, with skimpy trousers to the tops of his glaring tan boots, a
chorus-man waistline, pattern of an agitated check, and across the back a belt
which belted nothing. His scarf was an enormous black silk wad. His flaxen
hair was ice-smooth, pasted back without parting. When he went to school he
would add a cap with a long vizor like a shovel-blade. Proudest of all was his
waistcoat, saved for, begged for, plotted for; a real Fancy Vest of fawn with
polka dots of a decayed red, the points astoundingly long. On the lower edge
of it he wore a high-school button, a class button, and a fraternity pin.
And none of it mattered. He was supple and swift and flushed; his eyes (which
he believed to be cynical) were candidly eager. But he was not over-gentle. He
waved his hand at poor dumpy Verona and drawled: "Yes, I guess we're pretty
ridiculous and disgusticulus, and I rather guess our new necktie is some
Babbitt barked: "It is! And while you're admiring yourself, let me tell you
it might add to your manly beauty if you wiped some of that egg off your
Verona giggled, momentary victor in the greatest of Great Wars, which is the
family war. Ted looked at her hopelessly, then shrieked at Tinka: "For the
love o' Pete, quit pouring the whole sugar bowl on your corn flakes!"
When Verona and Ted were gone and Tinka upstairs, Babbitt groaned to his wife:
"Nice family, I must say! I don't pretend to be any baa-lamb, and maybe I'm a
little cross-grained at breakfast sometimes, but the way they go on
jab-jab-jabbering, I simply can't stand it. I swear, I feel like going off
some place where I can get a little peace. I do think after a man's spent his
lifetime trying to give his kids a chance and a decent education, it's pretty
discouraging to hear them all the time scrapping like a bunch of hyenas and
never--and never--Curious; here in the paper it says--Never silent for one
mom--Seen the morning paper yet?"
"No, dear." In twenty-three years of married life, Mrs. Babbitt had seen the
paper before her husband just sixty-seven times.
"Lots of news. Terrible big tornado in the South. Hard luck, all right. But
this, say, this is corking! Beginning of the end for those fellows! New York
Assembly has passed some bills that ought to completely outlaw the socialists!
And there's an elevator-runners' strike in New York and a lot of college boys
are taking their places. That's the stuff! And a mass-meeting in Birmingham's
demanded that this Mick agitator, this fellow De Valera, be deported. Dead
right, by golly! All these agitators paid with German gold anyway. And we
got no business interfering with the Irish or any other foreign government.
Keep our hands strictly off. And there's another well-authenticated rumor from
Russia that Lenin is dead. That's fine. It's beyond me why we don't just step
in there and kick those Bolshevik cusses out."
"That's so," said Mrs. Babbitt.
"And it says here a fellow was inaugurated mayor in overalls--a preacher, too!
What do you think of that!"
He searched for an attitude, but neither as a Republican, a Presbyterian, an
Elk, nor a real-estate broker did he have any doctrine about preacher-mayors
laid down for him, so he grunted and went on. She looked sympathetic and did
not hear a word. Later she would read the headlines, the society columns, and
the department-store advertisements.
"What do you know about this! Charley McKelvey still doing the sassiety stunt
as heavy as ever. Here's what that gushy woman reporter says about last
Never is Society with the big, big S more flattered than when they are bidden
to partake of good cheer at the distinguished and hospitable residence of Mr.
and Mrs. Charles L. McKelvey as they were last night. Set in its spacious
lawns and landscaping, one of the notable sights crowning Royal Ridge, but
merry and homelike despite its mighty stone walls and its vast rooms famed for
their decoration, their home was thrown open last night for a dance in honor
of Mrs. McKelvey's notable guest, Miss J. Sneeth of Washington. The wide hall
is so generous in its proportions that it made a perfect ballroom, its
hardwood floor reflecting the charming pageant above its polished surface.
Even the delights of dancing paled before the alluring opportunities for
tete-a-tetes that invited the soul to loaf in the long library before the
baronial fireplace, or in the drawing-room with its deep comfy armchairs, its
shaded lamps just made for a sly whisper of pretty nothings all a deux; or
even in the billiard room where one could take a cue and show a prowess at
still another game than that sponsored by Cupid and Terpsichore.
There was more, a great deal more, in the best urban journalistic style of
Miss Elnora Pearl Bates, the popular society editor of the Advocate-Times. But
Babbitt could not abide it. He grunted. He wrinkled the newspaper. He
protested: "Can you beat it! I'm willing to hand a lot of credit to Charley
McKelvey. When we were in college together, he was just as hard up as any of
us, and he's made a million good bucks out of contracting and hasn't been any
dishonester or bought any more city councils than was necessary. And that's a
good house of his--though it ain't any 'mighty stone walls' and it ain't worth
the ninety thousand it cost him. But when it comes to talking as though
Charley McKelvey and all that booze-hoisting set of his are any blooming bunch
of of, of Vanderbilts, why, it makes me tired!"
Timidly from Mrs. Babbitt: "I would like to see the inside of their house
though. It must be lovely. I've never been inside."
"Well, I have! Lots of--couple of times. To see Chaz about business deals,
in the evening. It's not so much. I wouldn't WANT to go there to dinner with
that gang of, of high-binders. And I'll bet I make a whole lot more money than
some of those tin-horns that spend all they got on dress-suits and haven't got
a decent suit of underwear to their name! Hey! What do you think of this!"
Mrs. Babbitt was strangely unmoved by the tidings from the Real Estate and
Building column of the Advocate-Times:
Ashtabula Street, 496--J. K. Dawson to
Thomas Mullally, April 17, 15.7 X 112.2,
mtg. $4000 . . . . . . . . . . . . . Nom
And this morning Babbitt was too disquieted to entertain her with items from
Mechanics' Liens, Mortgages Recorded, and Contracts Awarded. He rose. As he
looked at her his eyebrows seemed shaggier than usual. Suddenly:
"Yes, maybe--Kind of shame to not keep in touch with folks like the McKelveys.
We might try inviting them to dinner, some evening. Oh, thunder, let's not
waste our good time thinking about 'em! Our little bunch has a lot liver times
than all those plutes. Just compare a real human like you with these neurotic
birds like Lucile McKelvey--all highbrow talk and dressed up like a plush
horse! You're a great old girl, hon.!"
He covered his betrayal of softness with a complaining: "Say, don't let Tinka
go and eat any more of that poison nutfudge. For Heaven's sake, try to keep
her from ruining her digestion. I tell you, most folks don't appreciate how
important it is to have a good digestion and regular habits. Be back 'bout
usual time, I guess."
He kissed her--he didn't quite kiss her--he laid unmoving lips against her
unflushing cheek. He hurried out to the garage, muttering: "Lord, what a
family! And now Myra is going to get pathetic on me because we don't train
with this millionaire outfit. Oh, Lord, sometimes I'd like to quit the whole
game. And the office worry and detail just as bad. And I act cranky and--I
don't mean to, but I get--So darn tired!"
To George F. Babbitt, as to most prosperous citizens of Zenith, his motor car
was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism. The office was his pirate ship but
the car his perilous excursion ashore.
Among the tremendous crises of each day none was more dramatic than starting
the engine. It was slow on cold mornings; there was the long, anxious whirr
of the starter; and sometimes he had to drip ether into the cocks of the
cylinders, which was so very interesting that at lunch he would chronicle it
drop by drop, and orally calculate how much each drop had cost him.
This morning he was darkly prepared to find something wrong, and he felt
belittled when the mixture exploded sweet and strong, and the car didn't even
brush the door-jamb, gouged and splintery with many bruisings by fenders, as
he backed out of the garage. He was confused. He shouted "Morning!" to Sam
Doppelbrau with more cordiality than he had intended.
Babbitt's green and white Dutch Colonial house was one of three in that block
on Chatham Road. To the left of it was the residence of Mr. Samuel
Doppelbrau, secretary of an excellent firm of bathroom-fixture jobbers. His
was a comfortable house with no architectural manners whatever; a large wooden
box with a squat tower, a broad porch, and glossy paint yellow as a yolk.
Babbitt disapproved of Mr. and Mrs. Doppelbrau as "Bohemian." From their
house came midnight music and obscene laughter; there were neighborhood rumors
of bootlegged whisky and fast motor rides. They furnished Babbitt with many
happy evenings of discussion, during which he announced firmly, "I'm not
strait-laced, and I don't mind seeing a fellow throw in a drink once in a
while, but when it comes to deliberately trying to get away with a lot of
hell-raising all the while like the Doppelbraus do, it's too rich for my
On the other side of Babbitt lived Howard Littlefield, Ph.D., in a strictly
modern house whereof the lower part was dark red tapestry brick, with a leaded
oriel, the upper part of pale stucco like spattered clay, and the roof
red-tiled. Littlefield was the Great Scholar of the neighborhood; the
authority on everything in the world except babies, cooking, and motors. He
was a Bachelor of Arts of Blodgett College, and a Doctor of Philosophy in
economics of Yale. He was the employment-manager and publicity-counsel of the
Zenith Street Traction Company. He could, on ten hours' notice, appear before
the board of aldermen or the state legislature and prove, absolutely, with
figures all in rows and with precedents from Poland and New Zealand, that the
street-car company loved the Public and yearned over its employees; that all
its stock was owned by Widows and Orphans; and that whatever it desired to do
would benefit property-owners by increasing rental values, and help the poor
by lowering rents. All his acquaintances turned to Littlefield when they
desired to know the date of the battle of Saragossa, the definition of the
word "sabotage," the future of the German mark, the translation of "hinc illae
lachrimae," or the number of products of coal tar. He awed Babbitt by
confessing that he often sat up till midnight reading the figures and
footnotes in Government reports, or skimming (with amusement at the author's
mistakes) the latest volumes of chemistry, archeology, and ichthyology.
But Littlefield's great value was as a spiritual example. Despite his strange
learnings he was as strict a Presbyterian and as firm a Republican as George
F. Babbitt. He confirmed the business men in the faith. Where they knew only
by passionate instinct that their system of industry and manners was perfect,
Dr. Howard Littlefield proved it to them, out of history, economics, and the
confessions of reformed radicals.
Babbitt had a good deal of honest pride in being the neighbor of such a
savant, and in Ted's intimacy with Eunice Littlefield. At sixteen Eunice was
interested in no statistics save those regarding the ages and salaries of
motion-picture stars, but--as Babbitt definitively put it--"she was her
The difference between a light man like Sam Doppelbrau and a really fine
character like Littlefield was revealed in their appearances. Doppelbrau was
disturbingly young for a man of forty-eight. He wore his derby on the back of
his head, and his red face was wrinkled with meaningless laughter. But
Littlefield was old for a man of forty-two. He was tall, broad, thick; his
gold-rimmed spectacles were engulfed in the folds of his long face; his hair
was a tossed mass of greasy blackness; he puffed and rumbled as he talked; his
Phi Beta Kappa key shone against a spotty black vest; he smelled of old pipes;
he was altogether funereal and archidiaconal; and to real-estate brokerage and
the jobbing of bathroom-fixtures he added an aroma of sanctity.
This morning he was in front of his house, inspecting the grass parking
between the curb and the broad cement sidewalk. Babbitt stopped his car and
leaned out to shout "Mornin'!" Littlefield lumbered over and stood with one
foot up on the running-board.
"Fine morning," said Babbitt, lighting--illegally early--his second cigar of
"Yes, it's a mighty fine morning," said Littlefield.
"Spring coming along fast now."
"Yes, it's real spring now, all right," said Littlefield.
"Still cold nights, though. Had to have a couple blankets, on the
sleeping-porch last night."
"Yes, it wasn't any too warm last night," said Littlefield.
"But I don't anticipate we'll have any more real cold weather now."
"No, but still, there was snow at Tiflis, Montana, yesterday," said the
Scholar, "and you remember the blizzard they had out West three days
ago--thirty inches of snow at Greeley, Colorado--and two years ago we had a
snow-squall right here in Zenith on the twenty-fifth of April."
"Is that a fact! Say, old man, what do you think about the Republican
candidate? Who'll they nominate for president? Don't you think it's about
time we had a real business administration?"
"In my opinion, what the country needs, first and foremost, is a good, sound,
business-like conduct of its affairs. What we need is--a business
administration!" said Littlefield.
"I'm glad to hear you say that! I certainly am glad to hear you say that! I
didn't know how you'd feel about it, with all your associations with colleges
and so on, and I'm glad you feel that way. What the country needs--just at
this present juncture--is neither a college president nor a lot of monkeying
with foreign affairs, but a good--sound economical--business--administration,
that will give us a chance to have something like a decent turnover."
"Yes. It isn't generally realized that even in China the schoolmen are giving
way to more practical men, and of course you can see what that implies."
"Is that a fact! Well, well!" breathed Babbitt, feeling much calmer, and much
happier about the way things were going in the world. "Well, it's been nice to
stop and parleyvoo a second. Guess I'll have to get down to the office now
and sting a few clients. Well, so long, old man. See you tonight. So long."
They had labored, these solid citizens. Twenty years before, the hill on
which Floral Heights was spread, with its bright roofs and immaculate turf and
amazing comfort, had been a wilderness of rank second-growth elms and oaks and
maples. Along the precise streets were still a few wooded vacant lots, and the
fragment of an old orchard. It was brilliant to-day; the apple boughs were
lit with fresh leaves like torches of green fire. The first white of cherry
blossoms flickered down a gully, and robins clamored.
Babbitt sniffed the earth, chuckled at the hysteric robins as he would have
chuckled at kittens or at a comic movie. He was, to the eye, the perfect
office-going executive--a well-fed man in a correct brown soft hat and
frameless spectacles, smoking a large cigar, driving a good motor along a
semi-suburban parkway. But in him was some genius of authentic love for his
neighborhood, his city, his clan. The winter was over; the time was come for
the building, the visible growth, which to him was glory. He lost his dawn
depression; he was ruddily cheerful when he stopped on Smith Street to leave
the brown trousers, and to have the gasoline-tank filled.
The familiarity of the rite fortified him: the sight of the tall red iron
gasoline-pump, the hollow-tile and terra-cotta garage, the window full of the
most agreeable accessories--shiny casings, spark-plugs with immaculate
porcelain jackets tire-chains of gold and silver. He was flattered by the
friendliness with which Sylvester Moon, dirtiest and most skilled of motor
mechanics, came out to serve him. "Mornin', Mr. Babbitt!" said Moon, and
Babbitt felt himself a person of importance, one whose name even busy
garagemen remembered--not one of these cheap-sports flying around in flivvers.
He admired the ingenuity of the automatic dial, clicking off gallon by gallon;
admired the smartness of the sign: "A fill in time saves getting stuck--gas
to-day 31 cents"; admired the rhythmic gurgle of the gasoline as it flowed
into the tank, and the mechanical regularity with which Moon turned the
"How much we takin' to-day?" asked Moon, in a manner which combined the
independence of the great specialist, the friendliness of a familiar gossip,
and respect for a man of weight in the community, like George F. Babbitt.
"Fill 'er up."
"Who you rootin' for for Republican candidate, Mr. Babbitt?"
"It's too early to make any predictions yet. After all, there's still a good
month and two weeks--no, three weeks--must be almost three weeks--well,
there's more than six weeks in all before the Republican convention, and I
feel a fellow ought to keep an open mind and give all the candidates a
show--look 'em all over and size 'em up, and then decide carefully."
"That's a fact, Mr. Babbitt."
"But I'll tell you--and my stand on this is just the same as it was four years
ago, and eight years ago, and it'll be my stand four years from now--yes, and
eight years from now! What I tell everybody, and it can't be too generally
understood, is that what we need first, last, and all the time is a good,
sound business administration!"
"By golly, that's right!"
"How do those front tires look to you?"
"Fine! Fine! Wouldn't be much work for garages if everybody looked after
their car the way you do."
"Well, I do try and have some sense about it." Babbitt paid his bill, said
adequately, "Oh, keep the change," and drove off in an ecstasy of honest
self-appreciation. It was with the manner of a Good Samaritan that he shouted
at a respectable-looking man who was waiting for a trolley car, "Have a lift?"
As the man climbed in Babbitt condescended, "Going clear down-town? Whenever I
see a fellow waiting for a trolley, I always make it a practice to give him a
lift--unless, of course, he looks like a bum."
"Wish there were more folks that were so generous with their machines,"
dutifully said the victim of benevolence. "Oh, no, 'tain't a question of
generosity, hardly. Fact, I always feel--I was saying to my son just the
other night--it's a fellow's duty to share the good things of this world with
his neighbors, and it gets my goat when a fellow gets stuck on himself and
goes around tooting his horn merely because he's charitable."
The victim seemed unable to find the right answer. Babbitt boomed on:
"Pretty punk service the Company giving us on these car-lines. Nonsense to
only run the Portland Road cars once every seven minutes. Fellow gets mighty
cold on a winter morning, waiting on a street corner with the wind nipping at
"That's right. The Street Car Company don't care a damn what kind of a deal
they give us. Something ought to happen to 'em."
Babbitt was alarmed. "But still, of course it won't do to just keep knocking
the Traction Company and not realize the difficulties they're operating under,
like these cranks that want municipal ownership. The way these workmen hold up
the Company for high wages is simply a crime, and of course the burden falls
on you and me that have to pay a seven-cent fare! Fact, there's remarkable
service on all their lines--considering."
"Darn fine morning," Babbitt explained. "Spring coming along fast."
"Yes, it's real spring now."
The victim had no originality, no wit, and Babbitt fell into a great silence
and devoted himself to the game of beating trolley cars to the corner: a
spurt, a tail-chase, nervous speeding between the huge yellow side of the
trolley and the jagged row of parked motors, shooting past just as the trolley
stopped--a rare game and valiant.
And all the while he was conscious of the loveliness of Zenith. For weeks
together he noticed nothing but clients and the vexing To Rent signs of rival
brokers. To-day, in mysterious malaise, he raged or rejoiced with equal
nervous swiftness, and to-day the light of spring was so winsome that he
lifted his head and saw.
He admired each district along his familiar route to the office: The bungalows
and shrubs and winding irregular drive ways of Floral Heights. The one-story
shops on Smith Street, a glare of plate-glass and new yellow brick; groceries
and laundries and drug-stores to supply the more immediate needs of East Side
housewives. The market gardens in Dutch Hollow, their shanties patched with
corrugated iron and stolen doors. Billboards with crimson goddesses nine feet
tall advertising cinema films, pipe tobacco, and talcum powder. The old
"mansions" along Ninth Street, S. E., like aged dandies in filthy linen;
wooden castles turned into boarding-houses, with muddy walks and rusty hedges,
jostled by fast-intruding garages, cheap apartment-houses, and fruit-stands
conducted by bland, sleek Athenians. Across the belt of railroad-tracks,
factories with high-perched water-tanks and tall stacks-factories producing
condensed milk, paper boxes, lighting-fixtures, motor cars. Then the business
center, the thickening darting traffic, the crammed trolleys unloading, and
high doorways of marble and polished granite.
It was big--and Babbitt respected bigness in anything; in mountains, jewels,
muscles, wealth, or words. He was, for a spring-enchanted moment, the lyric
and almost unselfish lover of Zenith. He thought of the outlying factory
suburbs; of the Chaloosa River with its strangely eroded banks; of the
orchard-dappled Tonawanda Hills to the North, and all the fat dairy land and
big barns and comfortable herds. As he dropped his passenger he cried, "Gosh,
I feel pretty good this morning!" III
Epochal as starting the car was the drama of parking it before he entered his
office. As he turned from Oberlin Avenue round the corner into Third Street,
N.E., he peered ahead for a space in the line of parked cars. He angrily just
missed a space as a rival driver slid into it. Ahead, another car was leaving
the curb, and Babbitt slowed up, holding out his hand to the cars pressing on
him from behind, agitatedly motioning an old woman to go ahead, avoiding a
truck which bore down on him from one side. With front wheels nicking the
wrought-steel bumper of the car in front, he stopped, feverishly cramped his
steering-wheel, slid back into the vacant space and, with eighteen inches of
room, manoeuvered to bring the car level with the curb. It was a virile
adventure masterfully executed. With satisfaction he locked a thief-proof
steel wedge on the front wheel, and crossed the street to his real-estate
office on the ground floor of the Reeves Building.
The Reeves Building was as fireproof as a rock and as efficient as a
typewriter; fourteen stories of yellow pressed brick, with clean, upright,
unornamented lines. It was filled with the offices of lawyers, doctors,
agents for machinery, for emery wheels, for wire fencing, for mining-stock.
Their gold signs shone on the windows. The entrance was too modern to be
flamboyant with pillars; it was quiet, shrewd, neat. Along the Third Street
side were a Western Union Telegraph Office, the Blue Delft Candy Shop,
Shotwell's Stationery Shop, and the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company.
Babbitt could have entered his office from the street, as customers did, but
it made him feel an insider to go through the corridor of the building and
enter by the back door. Thus he was greeted by the villagers.
The little unknown people who inhabited the Reeves Building
corridors--elevator-runners, starter, engineers, superintendent, and the
doubtful-looking lame man who conducted the news and cigar stand--were in no
way city-dwellers. They were rustics, living in a constricted valley,
interested only in one another and in The Building. Their Main Street was the
entrance hall, with its stone floor, severe marble ceiling, and the inner
windows of the shops. The liveliest place on the street was the Reeves
Building Barber Shop, but this was also Babbitt's one embarrassment. Himself,
he patronized the glittering Pompeian Barber Shop in the Hotel Thornleigh, and
every time he passed the Reeves shop--ten times a day, a hundred times--he
felt untrue to his own village.
Now, as one of the squirearchy, greeted with honorable salutations by the
villagers, he marched into his office, and peace and dignity were upon him,
and the morning's dissonances all unheard.
They were heard again, immediately.
Stanley Graff, the outside salesman, was talking on the telephone with tragic
lack of that firm manner which disciplines clients: "Say, uh, I think I got
just the house that would suit you--the Percival House, in Linton.... Oh,
you've seen it. Well, how'd it strike you? . . . Huh? . . . Oh,"
irresolutely, "oh, I see."
As Babbitt marched into his private room, a coop with semi-partition of oak
and frosted glass, at the back of the office, he reflected how hard it was to
find employees who had his own faith that he was going to make sales.
There were nine members of the staff, besides Babbitt and his partner and
father-in-law, Henry Thompson, who rarely came to the office. The nine were
Stanley Graff, the outside salesman--a youngish man given to cigarettes and
the playing of pool; old Mat Penniman, general utility man, collector of rents
and salesman of insurance--broken, silent, gray; a mystery, reputed to have
been a "crack" real-estate man with a firm of his own in haughty Brooklyn;
Chester Kirby Laylock, resident salesman out at the Glen Oriole acreage
development--an enthusiastic person with a silky mustache and much family;
Miss Theresa McGoun, the swift and rather pretty stenographer; Miss Wilberta
Bannigan, the thick, slow, laborious accountant and file-clerk; and four
freelance part-time commission salesmen.
As he looked from his own cage into the main room Babbitt mourned, "McGoun's a
good stenog., smart's a whip, but Stan Graff and all those bums--" The zest of
the spring morning was smothered in the stale office air.
Normally he admired the office, with a pleased surprise that he should have
created this sure lovely thing; normally he was stimulated by the clean
newness of it and the air of bustle; but to-day it seemed flat--the tiled
floor, like a bathroom, the ocher-colored metal ceiling, the faded maps on the
hard plaster walls, the chairs of varnished pale oak, the desks and
filing-cabinets of steel painted in olive drab. It was a vault, a steel chapel
where loafing and laughter were raw sin.
He hadn't even any satisfaction in the new water-cooler! And it was the very
best of water-coolers, up-to-date, scientific, and right-thinking. It had cost
a great deal of money (in itself a virtue). It possessed a non-conducting
fiber ice-container, a porcelain water-jar (guaranteed hygienic), a drip-less
non-clogging sanitary faucet, and machine-painted decorations in two tones of
gold. He looked down the relentless stretch of tiled floor at the
water-cooler, and assured himself that no tenant of the Reeves Building had a
more expensive one, but he could not recapture the feeling of social
superiority it had given him. He astoundingly grunted, "I'd like to beat it
off to the woods right now. And loaf all day. And go to Gunch's again
to-night, and play poker, and cuss as much as I feel like, and drink a hundred
and nine-thousand bottles of beer."
He sighed; he read through his mail; he shouted "Msgoun," which meant "Miss
McGoun"; and began to dictate.
This was his own version of his first letter:
"Omar Gribble, send it to his office, Miss McGoun, yours of twentieth to hand
and in reply would say look here, Gribble, I'm awfully afraid if we go on
shilly-shallying like this we'll just naturally lose the Allen sale, I had
Allen up on carpet day before yesterday and got right down to cases and think
I can assure you--uh, uh, no, change that: all my experience indicates he is
all right, means to do business, looked into his financial record which is
fine--that sentence seems to be a little balled up, Miss McGoun; make a couple
sentences out of it if you have to, period, new paragraph.
"He is perfectly willing to pro rate the special assessment and strikes me, am
dead sure there will be no difficulty in getting him to pay for title
insurance, so now for heaven's sake let's get busy--no, make that: so now
let's go to it and get down--no, that's enough--you can tie those sentences up
a little better when you type 'em, Miss McGoun--your sincerely, etcetera."
This is the version of his letter which he received, typed, from Miss McGoun
BABBITT-THOMPSON REALTY CO.
Homes for Folks
Reeves Bldg., Oberlin Avenue & 3d St., N.E
Omar Gribble, Esq.,
376 North American Building,
Dear Mr. Gribble:
Your letter of the twentieth to hand. I must say I'm awfully afraid that if
we go on shilly-shallying like this we'll just naturally lose the Allen sale.
I had Allen up on the carpet day before yesterday, and got right down to
cases. All my experience indicates that he means to do business. I have also
looked into his financial record, which is fine.
He is perfectly willing to pro rate the special assessment and there will be
no difficulty in getting him to pay for title insurance.
SO LET'S GO!
As he read and signed it, in his correct flowing business-college hand,
Babbitt reflected, "Now that's a good, strong letter, and clear's a bell. Now
what the--I never told McGoun to make a third paragraph there! Wish she'd
quit trying to improve on my dictation! But what I can't understand is: why
can't Stan Graff or Chet Laylock write a letter like that? With punch! With a
The most important thing he dictated that morning was the fortnightly
form-letter, to be mimeographed and sent out to a thousand "prospects." It was
diligently imitative of the best literary models of the day; of
heart-to-heart-talk advertisements, "sales-pulling" letters, discourses on the
"development of Will-power," and hand-shaking house-organs, as richly poured
forth by the new school of Poets of Business. He had painfully written out a
first draft, and he intoned it now like a poet delicate and distrait:
SAY, OLD MAN! I just want to know can I do you a whaleuva favor? Honest! No
kidding! I know you're interested in getting a house, not merely a place
where you hang up the old bonnet but a love-nest for the wife and kiddies--and
maybe for the flivver out beyant (be sure and spell that b-e-y-a-n-t, Miss
McGoun) the spud garden. Say, did you ever stop to think that we're here to
save you trouble? That's how we make a living--folks don't pay us for our
lovely beauty! Now take a look:
Sit right down at the handsome carved mahogany escritoire and shoot us in a
line telling us just what you want, and if we can find it we'll come hopping
down your lane with the good tidings, and if we can't, we won't bother you. To
save your time, just fill out the blank enclosed. On request will also send
blank regarding store properties in Floral Heights, Silver Grove, Linton,
Bellevue, and all East Side residential districts.
Yours for service,
P.S.--Just a hint of some plums we can pick for you--some genuine bargains
that came in to-day:
SILVER GROVE.--Cute four-room California bungalow, a.m.i., garage, dandy shade
tree, swell neighborhood, handy car line. $3700, $780 down and balance
liberal, Babbitt-Thompson terms, cheaper than rent.
DORCHESTER.--A corker! Artistic two-family house, all oak trim, parquet
floors, lovely gas log, big porches, colonial, HEATED ALL-WEATHER GARAGE, a
bargain at $11,250.
Dictation over, with its need of sitting and thinking instead of bustling
around and making a noise and really doing something, Babbitt sat creakily
back in his revolving desk-chair and beamed on Miss McGoun. He was conscious
of her as a girl, of black bobbed hair against demure cheeks. A longing which
was indistinguishable from loneliness enfeebled him. While she waited, tapping
a long, precise pencil-point on the desk-tablet, he half identified her with
the fairy girl of his dreams. He imagined their eyes meeting with terrifying
recognition; imagined touching her lips with frightened reverence and--She was
chirping, "Any more, Mist' Babbitt?" He grunted, "That winds it up, I guess,"
and turned heavily away.
For all his wandering thoughts, they had never been more intimate than this.
He often reflected, "Nev' forget how old Jake Offutt said a wise bird never
goes love-making in his own office or his own home. Start trouble. Sure.
In twenty-three years of married life he had peered uneasily at every graceful
ankle, every soft shoulder; in thought he had treasured them; but not once had
he hazarded respectability by adventuring. Now, as he calculated the cost of
repapering the Styles house, he was restless again, discontented about nothing
and everything, ashamed of his discontentment, and lonely for the fairy girl.
IT was a morning of artistic creation. Fifteen minutes after the purple prose
of Babbitt's form-letter, Chester Kirby Laylock, the resident salesman at Glen
Oriole, came in to report a sale and submit an advertisement. Babbitt
disapproved of Laylock, who sang in choirs and was merry at home over games of
Hearts and Old Maid. He had a tenor voice, wavy chestnut hair, and a mustache
like a camel's-hair brush. Babbitt considered it excusable in a family-man to
growl, "Seen this new picture of the kid--husky little devil, eh?" but
Laylock's domestic confidences were as bubbling as a girl's.
"Say, I think I got a peach of an ad for the Glen, Mr. Babbitt. Why don't we
try something in poetry? Honest, it'd have wonderful pulling-power. Listen:
'Mid pleasures and palaces,
Wherever you may roam,
You just provide the little bride
And we'll provide the home.
Do you get it? See--like 'Home Sweet Home.' Don't you--"
"Yes, yes, yes, hell yes, of course I get it. But--Oh, I think we'd better
use something more dignified and forceful, like 'We lead, others follow,' or
'Eventually, why not now?' Course I believe in using poetry and humor and all
that junk when it turns the trick, but with a high-class restricted
development like the Glen we better stick to the more dignified approach, see
how I mean? Well, I guess that's all, this morning, Chet."
By a tragedy familiar to the world of art, the April enthusiasm of Chet
Laylock served only to stimulate the talent of the older craftsman, George F.
Babbitt. He grumbled to Stanley Graff, "That tan-colored voice of Chet's gets
on my nerves," yet he was aroused and in one swoop he wrote:
DO YOU RESPECT YOUR LOVED ONES?
When the last sad rites of bereavement are over, do you know for certain that
you have done your best for the Departed? You haven't unless they lie in the
the only strictly up-to-date burial place in or near Zenith, where exquisitely
gardened plots look from daisy-dotted hill-slopes across the smiling fields of
BABBITT-THOMPSON REALTY COMPANY
He rejoiced, "I guess that'll show Chan Mott and his weedy old Wildwood
Cemetery something about modern merchandizing!"
He sent Mat Penniman to the recorder's office to dig out the names of the
owners of houses which were displaying For Rent signs of other brokers; he
talked to a man who desired to lease a store-building for a pool-room; he ran
over the list of home-leases which were about to expire; he sent Thomas
Bywaters, a street-car conductor who played at real estate in spare time, to
call on side-street "prospects" who were unworthy the strategies of Stanley
Graff. But he had spent his credulous excitement of creation, and these
routine details annoyed him. One moment of heroism he had, in discovering a
new way of stopping smoking.
He stopped smoking at least once a month. He went through with it like the
solid citizen he was: admitted the evils of tobacco, courageously made
resolves, laid out plans to check the vice, tapered off his allowance of
cigars, and expounded the pleasures of virtuousness to every one he met. He
did everything, in fact, except stop smoking.
Two months before, by ruling out a schedule, noting down the hour and minute
of each smoke, and ecstatically increasing the intervals between smokes, he
had brought himself down to three cigars a day. Then he had lost the schedule.
A week ago he had invented a system of leaving his cigar-case and
cigarette-box in an unused drawer at the bottom of the correspondence-file, in
the outer office. "I'll just naturally be ashamed to go poking in there all
day long, making a fool of myself before my own employees!" he reasoned. By
the end of three days he was trained to leave his desk, walk to the file, take
out and light a cigar, without knowing that he was doing it.
This morning it was revealed to him that it had been too easy to open the
file. Lock it, that was the thing! Inspired, he rushed out and locked up his
cigars, his cigarettes, and even his box of safety matches; and the key to the
file drawer he hid in his desk. But the crusading passion of it made him so
tobacco-hungry that he immediately recovered the key, walked with forbidding
dignity to the file, took out a cigar and a match--"but only one match; if ole
cigar goes out, it'll by golly have to stay out!" Later, when the cigar did go
out, he took one more match from the file, and when a buyer and a seller came
in for a conference at eleven-thirty, naturally he had to offer them cigars.
His conscience protested, "Why, you're smoking with them!" but he bullied it,
"Oh, shut up! I'm busy now. Of course by-and-by--" There was no by-and-by,
yet his belief that he had crushed the unclean habit made him feel noble and
very happy. When he called up Paul Riesling he was, in his moral splendor,
He was fonder of Paul Riesling than of any one on earth except himself and his
daughter Tinka. They had been classmates, roommates, in the State University,
but always he thought of Paul Riesling, with his dark slimness, his precisely
parted hair, his nose-glasses, his hesitant speech, his moodiness, his love of
music, as a younger brother, to be petted and protected. Paul had gone into
his father's business, after graduation; he was now a wholesaler and small
manufacturer of prepared-paper roofing. But Babbitt strenuously believed and
lengthily announced to the world of Good Fellows that Paul could have been a
great violinist or painter or writer. "Why say, the letters that boy sent me
on his trip to the Canadian Rockies, they just absolutely make you see the
place as if you were standing there. Believe me, he could have given any of
these bloomin' authors a whale of a run for their money!"
Yet on the telephone they said only:
"South 343. No, no, no! I said SOUTH--South 343. Say, operator, what the
dickens is the trouble? Can't you get me South 343? Why certainly they'll
answer. Oh, Hello, 343? Wanta speak Mist' Riesling, Mist' Babbitt talking. .
. 'Lo, Paul?"
"'S George speaking."
"How's old socks?"
"Fair to middlin'. How 're you?"
"Fine, Paulibus. Well, what do you know?"
"Oh, nothing much."
"Where you been keepin' yourself?"
"Oh, just stickin' round. What's up, Georgie?"
"How 'bout lil lunch 's noon?"
"Be all right with me, I guess. Club?'
"Yuh. Meet you there twelve-thirty."
"A' right. Twelve-thirty. S' long, Georgie."
His morning was not sharply marked into divisions. Interwoven with
correspondence and advertisement-writing were a thousand nervous details:
calls from clerks who were incessantly and hopefully seeking five furnished
rooms and bath at sixty dollars a month; advice to Mat Penniman on getting
money out of tenants who had no money.
Babbitt's virtues as a real-estate broker--as the servant of society in the
department of finding homes for families and shops for distributors of
food--were steadiness and diligence. He was conventionally honest, he kept his
records of buyers and sellers complete, he had experience with leases and
titles and an excellent memory for prices. His shoulders were broad enough,
his voice deep enough, his relish of hearty humor strong enough, to establish
him as one of the ruling caste of Good Fellows. Yet his eventual importance
to mankind was perhaps lessened by his large and complacent ignorance of all
architecture save the types of houses turned out by speculative builders; all
landscape gardening save the use of curving roads, grass, and six ordinary
shrubs; and all the commonest axioms of economics. He serenely believed that
the one purpose of the real-estate business was to make money for George F.
Babbitt. True, it was a good advertisement at Boosters' Club lunches, and all
the varieties of Annual Banquets to which Good Fellows were invited, to speak
sonorously of Unselfish Public Service, the Broker's Obligation to Keep
Inviolate the Trust of His Clients, and a thing called Ethics, whose nature
was confusing but if you had it you were a High-class Realtor and if you
hadn't you were a shyster, a piker, and a fly-by-night. These virtues awakened
Confidence, and enabled you to handle Bigger Propositions. But they didn't
imply that you were to be impractical and refuse to take twice the value of a
house if a buyer was such an idiot that he didn't jew you down on the
Babbitt spoke well--and often--at these orgies of commercial righteousness
about the "realtor's function as a seer of the future development of the
community, and as a prophetic engineer clearing the pathway for inevitable
changes"--which meant that a real-estate broker could make money by guessing
which way the town would grow. This guessing he called Vision
In an address at the Boosters' Club he had admitted, "It is at once the duty
and the privilege of the realtor to know everything about his own city and its
environs. Where a surgeon is a specialist on every vein and mysterious cell of
the human body, and the engineer upon electricity in all its phases, or every
bolt of some great bridge majestically arching o'er a mighty flood, the
realtor must know his city, inch by inch, and all its faults and virtues."
Though he did know the market-price, inch by inch, of certain districts of
Zenith, he did not know whether the police force was too large or too small,
or whether it was in alliance with gambling and prostitution. He knew the
means of fire-proofing buildings and the relation of insurance-rates to
fire-proofing, but he did not know how many firemen there were in the city,
how they were trained and paid, or how complete their apparatus. He sang
eloquently the advantages of proximity of school-buildings to rentable homes,
but he did not know--he did not know that it was worth while to know--whether
the city schoolrooms were properly heated, lighted, ventilated, furnished; he
did not know how the teachers were chosen; and though he chanted "One of the
boasts of Zenith is that we pay our teachers adequately," that was because he
had read the statement in the Advocate-Times. Himself, he could not have given
the average salary of teachers in Zenith or anywhere else.
He had heard it said that "conditions" in the County Jail and the Zenith City
Prison were not very "scientific;" he had, with indignation at the criticism
of Zenith, skimmed through a report in which the notorious pessimist Seneca
Doane, the radical lawyer, asserted that to throw boys and young girls into a
bull-pen crammed with men suffering from syphilis, delirium tremens, and
insanity was not the perfect way of educating them. He had controverted the
report by growling, "Folks that think a jail ought to be a bloomin' Hotel
Thornleigh make me sick. If people don't like a jail, let 'em behave 'emselves
and keep out of it. Besides, these reform cranks always exaggerate." That was
the beginning and quite completely the end of his investigations into Zenith's
charities and corrections; and as to the "vice districts" he brightly
expressed it, "Those are things that no decent man monkeys with. Besides,
smatter fact, I'll tell you confidentially: it's a protection to our daughters
and to decent women to have a district where tough nuts can raise cain. Keeps
'em away from our own homes."
As to industrial conditions, however, Babbitt had thought a great deal, and
his opinions may be coordinated as follows:
"A good labor union is of value because it keeps out radical unions, which
would destroy property. No one ought to be forced to belong to a union,
however. All labor agitators who try to force men to join a union should be
hanged. In fact, just between ourselves, there oughtn't to be any unions
allowed at all; and as it's the best way of fighting the unions, every
business man ought to belong to an employers'-association and to the Chamber
of Commerce. In union there is strength. So any selfish hog who doesn't join
the Chamber of Commerce ought to be forced to."
In nothing--as the expert on whose advice families moved to new neighborhoods
to live there for a generation--was Babbitt more splendidly innocent than in
the science of sanitation. He did not know a malaria-bearing mosquito from a
bat; he knew nothing about tests of drinking water; and in the matters of
plumbing and sewage he was as unlearned as he was voluble. He often referred
to the excellence of the bathrooms in the houses he sold. He was fond of
explaining why it was that no European ever bathed. Some one had told him,
when he was twenty-two, that all cesspools were unhealthy, and he still
denounced them. If a client impertinently wanted him to sell a house which had
a cesspool, Babbitt always spoke about it--before accepting the house and
When he laid out the Glen Oriole acreage development, when he ironed woodland
and dipping meadow into a glenless, orioleless, sunburnt flat prickly with
small boards displaying the names of imaginary streets, he righteously put in
a complete sewage-system. It made him feel superior; it enabled him to sneer
privily at the Martin Lumsen development, Avonlea, which had a cesspool; and
it provided a chorus for the full-page advertisements in which he announced
the beauty, convenience, cheapness, and supererogatory healthfulness of Glen
Oriole. The only flaw was that the Glen Oriole sewers had insufficient
outlet, so that waste remained in them, not very agreeably, while the Avonlea
cesspool was a Waring septic tank.
The whole of the Glen Oriole project was a suggestion that Babbitt, though he
really did hate men recognized as swindlers, was not too unreasonably honest.
Operators and buyers prefer that brokers should not be in competition with
them as operators and buyers themselves, but attend to their clients'
interests only. It was supposed that the Babbitt-Thompson Company were merely
agents for Glen Oriole, serving the real owner, Jake Offutt, but the fact was
that Babbitt and Thompson owned sixty-two per cent. of the Glen, the
president and purchasing agent of the Zenith Street Traction Company owned
twenty-eight per cent., and Jake Offutt (a gang-politician, a small
manufacturer, a tobacco-chewing old farceur who enjoyed dirty politics,
business diplomacy, and cheating at poker) had only ten per cent., which
Babbitt and the Traction officials had given to him for "fixing" health
inspectors and fire inspectors and a member of the State Transportation
But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practise, the
prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against
motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red
Cross, and the Y. M. C. A.; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated
only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to
trickery--though, as he explained to Paul Riesling:
"Course I don't mean to say that every ad I write is literally true or that I
always believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong
selling-spiel. You see--you see it's like this: In the first place, maybe the
owner of the property exaggerated when he put it into my hands, and it
certainly isn't my place to go proving my principal a liar! And then most
folks are so darn crooked themselves that they expect a fellow to do a little
lying, so if I was fool enough to never whoop the ante I'd get the credit for
lying anyway! In self-defense I got to toot my own horn, like a lawyer
defending a client--his bounden duty, ain't it, to bring out the poor dub's
good points? Why, the Judge himself would bawl out a lawyer that didn't, even
if they both knew the guy was guilty! But even so, I don't pad out the truth
like Cecil Rountree or Thayer or the rest of these realtors. Fact, I think a
fellow that's willing to deliberately up and profit by lying ought to be
Babbitt's value to his clients was rarely better shown than this morning, in
the conference at eleven-thirty between himself, Conrad Lyte, and Archibald
Conrad Lyte was a real-estate speculator. He was a nervous speculator. Before
he gambled he consulted bankers, lawyers, architects, contracting builders,
and all of their clerks and stenographers who were willing to be cornered and
give him advice. He was a bold entrepreneur, and he desired nothing more than
complete safety in his investments, freedom from attention to details, and the
thirty or forty per cent. profit which, according to all authorities, a
pioneer deserves for his risks and foresight. He was a stubby man with a
cap-like mass of short gray curls and clothes which, no matter how well cut,
seemed shaggy. Below his eyes were semicircular hollows, as though silver
dollars had been pressed against them and had left an imprint.
Particularly and always Lyte consulted Babbitt, and trusted in his slow
Six months ago Babbitt had learned that one Archibald Purdy, a grocer in the
indecisive residential district known as Linton, was talking of opening a
butcher shop beside his grocery. Looking up the ownership of adjoining parcels
of land, Babbitt found that Purdy owned his present shop but did not own the
one available lot adjoining. He advised Conrad Lyte to purchase this lot, for
eleven thousand dollars, though an appraisal on a basis of rents did not
indicate its value as above nine thousand. The rents, declared Babbitt, were
too low; and by waiting they could make Purdy come to their price. (This was
Vision.) He had to bully Lyte into buying. His first act as agent for Lyte was
to increase the rent of the battered store-building on the lot. The tenant
said a number of rude things, but he paid.
Now, Purdy seemed ready to buy, and his delay was going to cost him ten
thousand extra dollars--the reward paid by the community to Mr. Conrad Lyte
for the virtue of employing a broker who had Vision and who understood Talking
Points, Strategic Values, Key Situations, Underappraisals, and the Psychology
Lyte came to the conference exultantly. He was fond of Babbitt, this morning,
and called him "old hoss." Purdy, the grocer. a long-nosed man and solemn,
seemed to care less for Babbitt and for Vision, but Babbitt met him at the
street door of the office and guided him toward the private room with
affectionate little cries of "This way, Brother Purdy!" He took from the
correspondence-file the entire box of cigars and forced them on his guests.
He pushed their chairs two inches forward and three inches back, which gave an
hospitable note, then leaned back in his desk-chair and looked plump and
jolly. But he spoke to the weakling grocer with firmness.
"Well, Brother Purdy, we been having some pretty tempting offers from butchers
and a slew of other folks for that lot next to your store, but I persuaded
Brother Lyte that we ought to give you a shot at the property first. I said
to Lyte, 'It'd be a rotten shame,' I said, 'if somebody went and opened a
combination grocery and meat market right next door and ruined Purdy's nice
little business.' Especially--" Babbitt leaned forward, and his voice was
harsh, "--it would be hard luck if one of these cash-and-carry chain-stores
got in there and started cutting prices below cost till they got rid of
competition and forced you to the wall!"
Purdy snatched his thin hands from his pockets, pulled up his trousers, thrust
his hands back into his pockets, tilted in the heavy oak chair, and tried to
look amused, as he struggled:
"Yes, they're bad competition. But I guess you don't realize the Pulling
Power that Personality has in a neighborhood business."
The great Babbitt smiled. "That's so. Just as you feel, old man. We thought
we'd give you first chance. All right then--"
"Now look here!" Purdy wailed. "I know f'r a fact that a piece of property
'bout same size, right near, sold for less 'n eighty-five hundred, 'twa'n't
two years ago, and here you fellows are asking me twenty-four thousand
dollars! Why, I'd have to mortgage--I wouldn't mind so much paying twelve
thousand but--Why good God, Mr. Babbitt, you're asking more 'n twice its
value! And threatening to ruin me if I don't take it!"
"Purdy, I don't like your way of talking! I don't like it one little bit!
Supposing Lyte and I were stinking enough to want to ruin any fellow human,
don't you suppose we know it's to our own selfish interest to have everybody
in Zenith prosperous? But all this is beside the point. Tell you what we'll
do: We'll come down to twenty-three thousand-five thousand down and the rest
on mortgage--and if you want to wreck the old shack and rebuild, I guess I can
get Lyte here to loosen up for a building-mortgage on good liberal terms.
Heavens, man, we'd be glad to oblige you! We don't like these foreign grocery
trusts any better 'n you do! But it isn't reasonable to expect us to sacrifice
eleven thousand or more just for neighborliness, IS it! How about it, Lyte?
You willing to come down?"
By warmly taking Purdy's part, Babbitt persuaded the benevolent Mr. Lyte to
reduce his price to twenty-one thousand dollars. At the right moment Babbitt
snatched from a drawer the agreement he had had Miss McGoun type out a week
ago and thrust it into Purdy's hands. He genially shook his fountain pen to
make certain that it was flowing, handed it to Purdy, and approvingly watched
The work of the world was being done. Lyte had made something over nine
thousand dollars, Babbitt had made a four-hundred-and-fifty dollar commission,
Purdy had, by the sensitive mechanism of modern finance, been provided with a
business-building, and soon the happy inhabitants of Linton would have meat
lavished upon them at prices only a little higher than those down-town.
It had been a manly battle, but after it Babbitt drooped. This was the only
really amusing contest he had been planning. There was nothing ahead save
details of leases, appraisals, mortgages.
He muttered, "Makes me sick to think of Lyte carrying off most of the profit
when I did all the work, the old skinflint! And--What else have I got to do
to-day? . . Like to take a good long vacation. Motor trip. Something." He
sprang up, rekindled by the thought of lunching with Paul Riesling
BABBITT'S preparations for leaving the office to its feeble self during the
hour and a half of his lunch-period were somewhat less elaborate than the
plans for a general European war.
He fretted to Miss McGoun, "What time you going to lunch? Well, make sure
Miss Bannigan is in then. Explain to her that if Wiedenfeldt calls up, she's
to tell him I'm already having the title traced. And oh, b' the way, remind me
to-morrow to have Penniman trace it. Now if anybody comes in looking for a
cheap house, remember we got to shove that Bangor Road place off onto
somebody. If you need me, I'll be at the Athletic Club.
And--uh--And--uh--I'll be back by two."
He dusted the cigar-ashes off his vest. He placed a difficult unanswered
letter on the pile of unfinished work, that he might not fail to attend to it
that afternoon. (For three noons, now, he had placed the same letter on the
unfinished pile.) He scrawled on a sheet of yellow backing-paper the
memorandum: "See abt apt h drs," which gave him an agreeable feeling of having
already seen about the apartment-house doors.
He discovered that he was smoking another cigar. He threw it away, protesting,
"Darn it, I thought you'd quit this darn smoking!" He courageously returned
the cigar-box to the correspondence-file, locked it up, hid the key in a more
difficult place, and raged, "Ought to take care of myself. And need more
exercise--walk to the club, every single noon--just what I'll do--every
noon-cut out this motoring all the time."
The resolution made him feel exemplary. Immediately after it he decided that
this noon it was too late to walk.
It took but little more time to start his car and edge it into the traffic
than it would have taken to walk the three and a half blocks to the club.
As he drove he glanced with the fondness of familiarity at the buildings.
A stranger suddenly dropped into the business-center of Zenith could not have
told whether he was in a city of Oregon or Georgia, Ohio or Maine, Oklahoma or
Manitoba. But to Babbitt every inch was individual and stirring. As always he
noted that the California Building across the way was three stories lower,
therefore three stories less beautiful, than his own Reeves Building. As
always when he passed the Parthenon Shoe Shine Parlor, a one-story hut which
beside the granite and red-brick ponderousness of the old California Building
resembled a bath-house under a cliff, he commented, "Gosh, ought to get my
shoes shined this afternoon. Keep forgetting it." At the Simplex Office
Furniture Shop, the National Cash Register Agency, he yearned for a
dictaphone, for a typewriter which would add and multiply, as a poet yearns
for quartos or a physician for radium.
At the Nobby Men's Wear Shop he took his left hand off the steering-wheel to
touch his scarf, and thought well of himself as one who bought expensive ties
"and could pay cash for 'em, too, by golly;" and at the United Cigar Store,
with its crimson and gold alertness, he reflected, "Wonder if I need some
cigars--idiot--plumb forgot--going t' cut down my fool smoking." He looked at
his bank, the Miners' and Drovers' National, and considered how clever and
solid he was to bank with so marbled an establishment. His high moment came in
the clash of traffic when he was halted at the corner beneath the lofty Second
National Tower. His car was banked with four others in a line of steel
restless as cavalry, while the cross town traffic, limousines and enormous
moving-vans and insistent motor-cycles, poured by; on the farther corner,
pneumatic riveters rang on the sun-plated skeleton of a new building; and out
of this tornado flashed the inspiration of a familiar face, and a fellow
Booster shouted, "H' are you, George!" Babbitt waved in neighborly affection,
and slid on with the traffic as the policeman lifted his hand. He noted how
quickly his car picked up. He felt superior and powerful, like a shuttle of
polished steel darting in a vast machine.
As always he ignored the next two blocks, decayed blocks not yet reclaimed
from the grime and shabbiness of the Zenith of 1885. While he was passing the
five-and-ten-cent store, the Dakota Lodging House, Concordia Hall with its
lodge-rooms and the offices of fortune-tellers and chiropractors, he thought
of how much money he made, and he boasted a little and worried a little and
did old familiar sums:
"Four hundred fifty plunks this morning from the Lyte deal. But taxes due.
Let's see: I ought to pull out eight thousand net this year, and save fifteen
hundred of that--no, not if I put up garage and--Let's see: six hundred and
forty clear last month, and twelve times six-forty makes--makes--let see: six
times twelve is seventy-two hundred and--Oh rats, anyway, I'll make eight
thousand--gee now, that's not so bad; mighty few fellows pulling down eight
thousand dollars a year--eight thousand good hard iron dollars--bet there
isn't more than five per cent. of the people in the whole United States that
make more than Uncle George does, by golly! Right up at the top of the heap!
But--Way expenses are--Family wasting gasoline, and always dressed like
millionaires, and sending that eighty a month to Mother--And all these
stenographers and salesmen gouging me for every cent they can get--"
The effect of his scientific budget-planning was that he felt at once
triumphantly wealthy and perilously poor, and in the midst of these
dissertations he stopped his car, rushed into a small news-and-miscellany
shop, and bought the electric cigar-lighter which he had coveted for a week.
He dodged his conscience by being jerky and noisy, and by shouting at the
clerk, "Guess this will prett' near pay for itself in matches, eh?"
It was a pretty thing, a nickeled cylinder with an almost silvery socket, to
be attached to the dashboard of his car. It was not only, as the placard on
the counter observed, "a dandy little refinement, lending the last touch of
class to a gentleman's auto," but a priceless time-saver. By freeing him from
halting the car to light a match, it would in a month or two easily save ten
As he drove on he glanced at it. "Pretty nice. Always wanted one," he said
wistfully. "The one thing a smoker needs, too."
Then he remembered that he had given up smoking.
"Darn it!" he mourned. "Oh well, I suppose I'll hit a cigar once in a while.
And--Be a great convenience for other folks. Might make just the difference in
getting chummy with some fellow that would put over a sale. And--Certainly
looks nice there. Certainly is a mighty clever little jigger. Gives the last
touch of refinement and class. I--By golly, I guess I can afford it if I want
to! Not going to be the only member of this family that never has a single
Thus, laden with treasure, after three and a half blocks of romantic
adventure, he drove up to the club.
The Zenith Athletic Club is not athletic and it isn't exactly a club, but it
is Zenith in perfection. It has an active and smoke-misted billiard room, it
is represented by baseball and football teams, and in the pool and the
gymnasium a tenth of the members sporadically try to reduce. But most of its
three thousand members use it as a cafe in which to lunch, play cards, tell
stories, meet customers, and entertain out-of town uncles at dinner. It is
the largest club in the city, and its chief hatred is the conservative Union
Club, which all sound members of the Athletic call "a rotten, snobbish, dull,
expensive old hole--not one Good Mixer in the place--you couldn't hire me to
join." Statistics show that no member of the Athletic has ever refused
election to the Union, and of those who are elected, sixty-seven per cent.
resign from the Athletic and are thereafter heard to say, in the drowsy
sanctity of the Union lounge, "The Athletic would be a pretty good hotel, if
it were more exclusive."
The Athletic Club building is nine stories high, yellow brick with glassy
roof-garden above and portico of huge limestone columns below. The lobby, with
its thick pillars of porous Caen stone, its pointed vaulting, and a brown
glazed-tile floor like well-baked bread-crust, is a combination of
cathedral-crypt and rathskellar. The members rush into the lobby as though
they were shopping and hadn't much time for it. Thus did Babbitt enter, and
to the group standing by the cigar-counter he whooped, "How's the boys? How's
the boys? Well, well, fine day!"
Jovially they whooped back--Vergil Gunch, the coal-dealer, Sidney Finkelstein,
the ladies'-ready-to-wear buyer for Parcher & Stein's department-store, and
Professor Joseph K. Pumphrey, owner of the Riteway Business College and
instructor in Public Speaking, Business English, Scenario Writing, and
Commercial Law. Though Babbitt admired this savant, and appreciated Sidney
Finkelstein as "a mighty smart buyer and a good liberal spender," it was to
Vergil Gunch that he turned with enthusiasm. Mr. Gunch was president of the
Boosters' Club, a weekly lunch-club, local chapter of a national organization
which promoted sound business and friendliness among Regular Fellows. He was
also no less an official than Esteemed Leading Knight in the Benevolent and
Protective Order of Elks, and it was rumored that at the next election he
would be a candidate for Exalted Ruler. He was a jolly man, given to oratory
and to chumminess with the arts. He called on the famous actors and
vaudeville artists when they came to town, gave them cigars, addressed them by
their first names, and--sometimes--succeeded in bringing them to the Boosters'
lunches to give The Boys a Free Entertainment. He was a large man with hair
en brosse, and he knew the latest jokes, but he played poker close to the
chest. It was at his party that Babbitt had sucked in the virus of to-day's
Gunch shouted, "How's the old Bolsheviki? How do you feel, the morning after
the night before?"
"Oh, boy! Some head! That was a regular party you threw, Verg! Hope you
haven't forgotten I took that last cute little jack-pot!" Babbitt bellowed.
(He was three feet from Gunch.)
"That's all right now! What I'll hand you next time, Georgie! Say, juh
notice in the paper the way the New York Assembly stood up to the Reds?"
"You bet I did. That was fine, eh? Nice day to-day."
"Yes, it's one mighty fine spring day, but nights still cold."
"Yeh, you're right they are! Had to have coupla blankets last night, out on
the sleeping-porch. Say, Sid," Babbitt turned to Finkelstein, the buyer, "got
something wanta ask you about. I went out and bought me an electric
cigar-lighter for the car, this noon, and--"
"Good hunch!" said Finkelstein, while even the learned Professor Pumphrey, a
bulbous man with a pepper-and-salt cutaway and a pipe-organ voice, commented,
"That makes a dandy accessory. Cigar-lighter gives tone to the dashboard."
"Yep, finally decided I'd buy me one. Got the best on the market, the clerk
said it was. Paid five bucks for it. Just wondering if I got stuck. What do
they charge for 'em at the store, Sid?"
Finkelstein asserted that five dollars was not too great a sum, not for a
really high-class lighter which was suitably nickeled and provided with
connections of the very best quality. "I always say--and believe me, I base it
on a pretty fairly extensive mercantile experience--the best is the cheapest
in the long run. Of course if a fellow wants to be a Jew about it, he can get
cheap junk, but in the long RUN, the cheapest thing is--the best you can get!
Now you take here just th' other day: I got a new top for my old boat and some
upholstery, and I paid out a hundred and twenty-six fifty, and of course a lot
of fellows would say that was too much--Lord, if the Old Folks--they live in
one of these hick towns up-state and they simply can't get onto the way a city
fellow's mind works, and then, of course, they're Jews, and they'd lie right
down and die if they knew Sid had anted up a hundred and twenty-six bones. But
I don't figure I was stuck, George, not a bit. Machine looks brand new
now--not that it's so darned old, of course; had it less 'n three years, but I
give it hard service; never drive less 'n a hundred miles on Sunday and,
uh--Oh, I don't really think you got stuck, George. In the LONG run, the best
is, you might say, it's unquestionably the cheapest."
"That's right," said Vergil Gunch. "That's the way I look at it. If a fellow
is keyed up to what you might call intensive living, the way you get it here
in Zenith--all the hustle and mental activity that's going on with a bunch of
live-wires like the Boosters and here in the Z.A.C., why, he's got to save his
nerves by having the best."
Babbitt nodded his head at every fifth word in the roaring rhythm; and by the
conclusion, in Gunch's renowned humorous vein, he was enchanted:
"Still, at that, George, don't know's you can afford it. I've heard your
business has been kind of under the eye of the gov'ment since you stole the
tail of Eathorne Park and sold it!"
"Oh, you're a great little josher, Verg. But when it comes to kidding, how
about this report that you stole the black marble steps off the post-office
and sold 'em for high-grade coal!" In delight Babbitt patted Gunch's back,
stroked his arm.
"That's all right, but what I want to know is: who's the real-estate shark
that bought that coal for his apartment-houses?"
"I guess that'll hold you for a while, George!" said Finkelstein. "I'll tell
you, though, boys, what I did hear: George's missus went into the gents' wear
department at Parcher's to buy him some collars, and before she could give his
neck-size the clerk slips her some thirteens. 'How juh know the size?' says
Mrs. Babbitt, and the clerk says, 'Men that let their wives buy collars for
'em always wear thirteen, madam.' How's that! That's pretty good, eh? How's
that, eh? I guess that'll about fix you, George!"
"I--I--" Babbitt sought for amiable insults in answer. He stopped, stared at
the door. Paul Riesling was coming in. Babbitt cried, "See you later, boys,"
and hastened across the lobby. He was, just then, neither the sulky child of
the sleeping-porch, the domestic tyrant of the breakfast table, the crafty
money-changer of the Lyte-Purdy conference, nor the blaring Good Fellow, the
Josher and Regular Guy, of the Athletic Club. He was an older brother to Paul
Riesling, swift to defend him, admiring him with a proud and credulous love
passing the love of women. Paul and he shook hands solemnly; they smiled as
shyly as though they had been parted three years, not three days--and they
"How's the old horse-thief?"
"All right, I guess. How're you, you poor shrimp?"
"I'm first-rate, you second-hand hunk o' cheese."
Reassured thus of their high fondness, Babbitt grunted, "You're a fine guy,
you are! Ten minutes late!" Riesling snapped, "Well, you're lucky to have a
chance to lunch with a gentleman!" They grinned and went into the Neronian
washroom, where a line of men bent over the bowls inset along a prodigious
slab of marble as in religious prostration before their own images in the
massy mirror. Voices thick, satisfied, authoritative, hurtled along the marble
walls, bounded from the ceiling of lavender-bordered milky tiles, while the
lords of the city, the barons of insurance and law and fertilizers and motor
tires, laid down the law for Zenith; announced that the day was warm-indeed,
indisputably of spring; that wages were too high and the interest on mortgages
too low; that Babe Ruth, the eminent player of baseball, was a noble man; and
that "those two nuts at the Climax Vaudeville Theater this week certainly are
a slick pair of actors." Babbitt, though ordinarily his voice was the surest
and most episcopal of all, was silent. In the presence of the slight dark
reticence of Paul Riesling, he was awkward, he desired to be quiet and firm
The entrance lobby of the Athletic Club was Gothic, the washroom Roman
Imperial, the lounge Spanish Mission, and the reading-room in Chinese
Chippendale, but the gem of the club was the dining-room, the masterpiece of
Ferdinand Reitman, Zenith's busiest architect. It was lofty and half-timbered,
with Tudor leaded casements, an oriel, a somewhat musicianless
musicians'-gallery, and tapestries believed to illustrate the granting of
Magna Charta. The open beams had been hand-adzed at Jake Offutt's car-body
works, the hinge; were of hand-wrought iron, the wainscot studded with
handmade wooden pegs, and at one end of the room was a heraldic and hooded
stone fireplace which the club's advertising-pamphlet asserted to be not only
larger than any of the fireplaces in European castles but of a draught
incomparably more scientific. It was also much cleaner, as no fire had ever
been built in it.
Half of the tables were mammoth slabs which seated twenty or thirty men.
Babbitt usually sat at the one near the door, with a group including Gunch,
Finkelstein, Professor Pumphrey, Howard Littlefield, his neighbor, T.
Cholmondeley Frink, the poet and advertising-agent, and Orville Jones, whose
laundry was in many ways the best in Zenith. They composed a club within the
club, and merrily called themselves "The Roughnecks." To-day as he passed
their table the Roughnecks greeted him, "Come on, sit in! You 'n' Paul too
proud to feed with poor folks? Afraid somebody might stick you for a bottle
of Bevo, George? Strikes me you swells are getting awful darn exclusive!"
He thundered, "You bet! We can't afford to have our reps ruined by being seen
with you tightwads!" and guided Paul to one of the small tables beneath the
musicians'-gallery. He felt guilty. At the Zenith Athletic Club, privacy was
very bad form. But he wanted Paul to himself.
That morning he had advocated lighter lunches and now he ordered nothing but
English mutton chop, radishes, peas, deep-dish apple pie, a bit of cheese, and
a pot of coffee with cream, adding, as he did invariably, "And uh--Oh, and you
might give me an order of French fried potatoes." When the chop came he
vigorously peppered it and salted it. He always peppered and salted his meat,
and vigorously, before tasting it.
Paul and he took up the spring-like quality of the spring, the virtues of the
electric cigar-lighter, and the action of the New York State Assembly. It was
not till Babbitt was thick and disconsolate with mutton grease that he flung
"I wound up a nice little deal with Conrad Lyte this morning that put five
hundred good round plunks in my pocket. Pretty nice--pretty nice! And yet--I
don't know what's the matter with me to-day. Maybe it's an attack of spring
fever, or staying up too late at Verg Gunch's, or maybe it's just the winter's
work piling up, but I've felt kind of down in the mouth all day long. Course
I wouldn't beef about it to the fellows at the Roughnecks' Table there, but
you--Ever feel that way, Paul? Kind of comes over me: here I've pretty much
done all the things I ought to; supported my family, and got a good house and
a six-cylinder car, and built up a nice little business, and I haven't any
vices 'specially, except smoking--and I'm practically cutting that out, by the
way. And I belong to the church, and play enough golf to keep in trim, and I
only associate with good decent fellows. And yet, even so, I don't know that
I'm entirely satisfied!"
It was drawled out, broken by shouts from the neighboring tables, by
mechanical love-making to the waitress, by stertorous grunts as the coffee
filled him with dizziness and indigestion. He was apologetic and doubtful, and
it was Paul, with his thin voice, who pierced the fog:
"Good Lord, George, you don't suppose it's any novelty to me to find that we
hustlers, that think we're so all-fired successful, aren't getting much out of
it? You look as if you expected me to report you as seditious! You know what
my own life's been."
"I know, old man."
"I ought to have been a fiddler, and I'm a pedler of tar-roofing! And
Zilla--Oh, I don't want to squeal, but you know as well as I do about how
inspiring a wife she is.... Typical instance last evening: We went to the
movies. There was a big crowd waiting in the lobby, us at the tail-end. She
began to push right through it with her 'Sir, how dare you?' manner--Honestly,
sometimes when I look at her and see how she's always so made up and stinking
of perfume and looking for trouble and kind of always yelping, 'I tell yuh I'm
a lady, damn yuh!'--why, I want to kill her! Well, she keeps elbowing through
the crowd, me after her, feeling good and ashamed, till she's almost up to the
velvet rope and ready to be the next let in. But there was a little squirt of
a man there--probably been waiting half an hour--I kind of admired the little
cuss--and he turns on Zilla and says, perfectly polite, 'Madam, why are you
trying to push past me?' And she simply--God, I was so ashamed!--she rips out
at him, 'You're no gentleman,' and she drags me into it and hollers, 'Paul,
this person insulted me!' and the poor skate he got ready to fight.
"I made out I hadn't heard them--sure! same as you wouldn't hear a
Back to Full Books