CHAPTER XX


I

HE sat smoking with the piano-salesman, clinging to the warm refuge of gossip, afraid to venture into thoughts of Paul. He was the more affable on the surface as secretly he became more apprehensive, felt more hollow. He was certain that Paul was in Chicago without Zilla's knowledge, and that he was doing things not at all moral and secure. When the salesman yawned that he had to write up his orders, Babbitt left him, left the hotel, in leisurely calm. But savagely he said "Campbell Inn!" to the taxi-driver. He sat agitated on the slippery leather seat, in that chill dimness which smelled of dust and perfume and Turkish cigarettes. He did not heed the snowy lake-front, the dark spaces and sudden bright corners in the unknown land south of the Loop.

The office of the Campbell Inn was hard, bright, new; the night clerk harder and brighter. "Yep?" he said to Babbitt.

"Mr. Paul Riesling registered here?"

"Yep."

"Is he in now?"

"Nope."

"Then if you'll give me his key, I'll wait for him."

"Can't do that, brother. Wait down here if you wanna."

Babbitt had spoken with the deference which all the Clan of Good Fellows give to hotel clerks. Now he said with snarling abruptness:

"I may have to wait some time. I'm Riesling's brother-in-law. I'll go up to his room. D' I look like a sneak-thief?"

His voice was low and not pleasant. With considerable haste the clerk took down the key, protesting, "I never said you looked like a sneak-thief. Just rules of the hotel. But if you want to--"

On his way up in the elevator Babbitt wondered why he was here. Why shouldn't Paul be dining with a respectable married woman? Why had he lied to the clerk about being Paul's brother-in-law? He had acted like a child. He must be careful not to say foolish dramatic things to Paul. As he settled down he tried to look pompous and placid. Then the thought--Suicide. He'd been dreading that, without knowing it. Paul would be just the person to do something like that. He must be out of his head or he wouldn't be confiding in that--that dried-up hag.

Zilla (oh, damn Zilla! how gladly he'd throttle that nagging fiend of a woman!)--she'd probably succeeded at last, and driven Paul crazy.

Suicide. Out there in the lake, way out, beyond the piled ice along the shore. It would be ghastly cold to drop into the water to-night.

Or--throat cut--in the bathroom--

Babbitt flung into Paul's bathroom. It was empty. He smiled, feebly.

He pulled at his choking collar, looked at his watch, opened the window to stare down at the street, looked at his watch, tried to read the evening paper lying on the glass-topped bureau, looked again at his watch. Three minutes had gone by since he had first looked at it.

And he waited for three hours.

He was sitting fixed, chilled, when the doorknob turned. Paul came in glowering.

"Hello," Paul said. "Been waiting?"

"Yuh, little while."

"Well?"

"Well what? Just thought I'd drop in to see how you made out in Akron."

"I did all right. What difference does it make?"

"Why, gosh, Paul, what are you sore about?"

"What are you butting into my affairs for?"

"Why, Paul, that's no way to talk! I'm not butting into nothing. I was so glad to see your ugly old phiz that I just dropped in to say howdy."

"Well, I'm not going to have anybody following me around and trying to boss me. I've had all of that I'm going to stand!"

"Well, gosh, I'm not--"

"I didn't like the way you looked at May Arnold, or the snooty way you talked."

"Well, all right then! If you think I'm a buttinsky, then I'll just butt in! I don't know who your May Arnold is, but I know doggone good and well that you and her weren't talking about tar-roofing, no, nor about playing the violin, neither! If you haven't got any moral consideration for yourself, you ought to have some for your position in the community. The idea of your going around places gawping into a female's eyes like a love-sick pup! I can understand a fellow slipping once, but I don't propose to see a fellow that's been as chummy with me as you have getting started on the downward path and sneaking off from his wife, even as cranky a one as Zilla, to go woman-chasing--"

"Oh, you're a perfectly moral little husband!"

"I am, by God! I've never looked at any woman except Myra since I've been married--practically--and I never will! I tell you there's nothing to immorality. It don't pay. Can't you see, old man, it just makes Zilla still crankier?"

Slight of resolution as he was of body, Paul threw his snow-beaded overcoat on the floor and crouched on a flimsy cane chair. "Oh, you're an old blowhard, and you know less about morality than Tinka, but you're all right, Georgie. But you can't understand that--I'm through. I can't go Zilla's hammering any longer. She's made up her mind that I'm a devil, and--Reg'lar Inquisition. Torture. She enjoys it. It's a game to see how sore she can make me. And me, either it's find a little comfort, any comfort, anywhere, or else do something a lot worse. Now this Mrs. Arnold, she's not so young, but she's a fine woman and she understands a fellow, and she's had her own troubles."

"Yea! I suppose she's one of these hens whose husband 'doesn't understand her'!"

"I don't know. Maybe. He was killed in the war."

Babbitt lumbered up, stood beside Paul patting his shoulder, making soft apologetic noises.

"Honest, George, she's a fine woman, and she's had one hell of a time. We manage to jolly each other up a lot. We tell each other we're the dandiest pair on earth. Maybe we don't believe it, but it helps a lot to have somebody with whom you can be perfectly simple, and not all this discussing--explaining--"

"And that's as far as you go?"

"It is not! Go on! Say it!"

"Well, I don't--I can't say I like it, but--" With a burst which left him feeling large and shining with generosity, "it's none of my darn business! I'll do anything I can for you, if there's anything I can do."

"There might be. I judge from Zilla's letters that 've been forwarded from Akron that she's getting suspicious about my staying away so long. She'd be perfectly capable of having me shadowed, and of coming to Chicago and busting into a hotel dining-room and bawling me out before everybody."

"I'll take care of Zilla. I'll hand her a good fairy-story when I get back to Zenith."

"I don't know--I don't think you better try it. You're a good fellow. but I don't know that diplomacy is your strong point." Babbitt looked hurt, then irritated. "I mean with women! With women, I mean. Course they got to go some to beat you in business diplomacy, but I just mean with women. Zilla may do a lot of rough talking, but she's pretty shrewd. She'd have the story out of you in no time."

"Well, all right, but--" Babbitt was still pathetic at not being allowed to play Secret Agent. Paul soothed:

"Course maybe you might tell her you'd been in Akron and seen me there."

"Why, sure, you bet! Don't I have to go look at that candy-store property in Akron? Don't I? Ain't it a shame I have to stop off there when I'm so anxious to get home? Ain't it a regular shame? I'll say it is! I'll say it's a doggone shame!"

"Fine. But for glory hallelujah's sake don't go putting any fancy fixings on the story. When men lie they always try to make it too artistic, and that's why women get suspicious. And--Let's have a drink, Georgie. I've got some gin and a little vermouth."

The Paul who normally refused a second cocktail took a second now, and a third. He became red-eyed and thick-tongued. He was embarrassingly jocular and salacious.

In the taxicab Babbitt incredulously found tears crowding into his eyes.

II

He had not told Paul of his plan but he did stop at Akron, between trains, for the one purpose of sending to Zilla a postcard with "Had to come here for the day, ran into Paul." In Zenith he called on her. If for public appearances Zilla was over-coiffed, over-painted, and resolutely corseted, for private misery she wore a filthy blue dressing-gown and torn stockings thrust into streaky pink satin mules. Her face was sunken. She seemed to have but half as much hair as Babbitt remembered, and that half was stringy. She sat in a rocker amid a debris of candy-boxes and cheap magazines, and she sounded dolorous when she did not sound derisive. But Babbitt was exceedingly breezy:

"Well, well, Zil, old dear, having a good loaf while hubby's away? That's the ideal I'll bet a hat Myra never got up till ten, while I was in Chicago. Say, could I borrow your thermos--just dropped in to see if I could borrow your thermos bottle. We're going to have a toboggan party--want to take some coffee mit. Oh, did you get my card from Akron, saying I'd run into Paul?"

"Yes. What was he doing?"

"How do you mean?" He unbuttoned his overcoat, sat tentatively on the arm of a chair.

"You know how I mean!" She slapped the pages of a magazine with an irritable clatter. "I suppose he was trying to make love to some hotel waitress or manicure girl or somebody."

"Hang it, you're always letting on that Paul goes round chasing skirts. He doesn't, in the first place, and if he did, it would prob'ly be because you keep hinting at him and dinging at him so much. I hadn't meant to, Zilla, but since Paul is away, in Akron--"

"He really is in Akron? I know he has some horrible woman that he writes to in Chicago."

"Didn't I tell you I saw him in Akron? What 're you trying to do? Make me out a liar?"

"No, but I just--I get so worried."

"Now, there you are! That's what gets me! Here you love Paul, and yet you plague him and cuss him out as if you hated him. I simply can't understand why it is that the more some folks love people, the harder they try to make 'em miserable."

"You love Ted and Rone--I suppose--and yet you nag them."

"Oh. Well. That. That's different. Besides, I don't nag 'em. Not what you'd call nagging. But zize saying: Now, here's Paul, the nicest, most sensitive critter on God's green earth. You ought to be ashamed of yourself the way you pan him. Why, you talk to him like a washerwoman. I'm surprised you can act so doggone common, Zilla!"

She brooded over her linked fingers. "Oh, I know. I do go and get mean sometimes, and I'm sorry afterwards. But, oh, Georgie, Paul is so aggravating! Honestly, I've tried awfully hard, these last few years, to be nice to him, but just because I used to be spiteful--or I seemed so; I wasn't, really, but I used to speak up and say anything that came into my head--and so he made up his mind that everything was my fault. Everything can't always be my fault, can it? And now if I get to fussing, he just turns silent, oh, so dreadfully silent, and he won't look at me--he just ignores me. He simply isn't human! And he deliberately keeps it up till I bust out and say a lot of things I don't mean. So silent--Oh, you righteous men! How wicked you are! How rotten wicked!"

They thrashed things over and over for half an hour. At the end, weeping drably, Zilla promised to restrain herself.

Paul returned four days later, and the Babbitts and Rieslings went festively to the movies and had chop suey at a Chinese restaurant. As they walked to the restaurant through a street of tailor shops and barber shops, the two wives in front, chattering about cooks, Babbitt murmured to Paul, "Zil seems a lot nicer now."

"Yes, she has been, except once or twice. But it's too late now. I just--I'm not going to discuss it, but I'm afraid of her. There's nothing left. I don't ever want to see her. Some day I'm going to break away from her. Somehow."

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