HE tried to explain to his wife, as they prepared for bed, how objectionable was Sheldon Smeeth, but all her answer was, "He has such a beautiful voice—so spiritual. I don't think you ought to speak of him like that just because you can't appreciate music!" He saw her then as a stranger; he stared bleakly at this plump and fussy woman with the broad bare arms, and wondered how she had ever come here.
In his chilly cot, turning from aching side to side, he pondered of Tanis. "He'd been a fool to lose her. He had to have somebody he could really talk to. He'd—oh, he'd BUST if he went on stewing about things by himself. And Myra, useless to expect her to understand. Well, rats, no use dodging the issue. Darn shame for two married people to drift apart after all these years; darn rotten shame; but nothing could bring them together now, as long as he refused to let Zenith bully him into taking orders—and he was by golly not going to let anybody bully him into anything, or wheedle him or coax him either!"
He woke at three, roused by a passing motor, and struggled out of bed for a drink of water. As he passed through the bedroom he heard his wife groan. His resentment was night-blurred; he was solicitous in inquiring, "What's the trouble, hon?"
"I've got—such a pain down here in my side—oh, it's just—it tears at me."
"Bad indigestion? Shall I get you some bicarb?"
"Don't think—that would help. I felt funny last evening and yesterday, and then—oh!—it passed away and I got to sleep and—That auto woke me up."
Her voice was laboring like a ship in a storm. He was alarmed.
"I better call the doctor."
"No, no! It'll go away. But maybe you might get me an ice-bag."
He stalked to the bathroom for the ice-bag, down to the kitchen for ice. He felt dramatic in this late-night expedition, but as he gouged the chunk of ice with the dagger-like pick he was cool, steady, mature; and the old friendliness was in his voice as he patted the ice-bag into place on her groin, rumbling, "There, there, that'll be better now." He retired to bed, but he did not sleep. He heard her groan again. Instantly he was up, soothing her, "Still pretty bad, honey?"
"Yes, it just gripes me, and I can't get to sleep."
Her voice was faint. He knew her dread of doctors' verdicts and he did not inform her, but he creaked down-stairs, telephoned to Dr. Earl Patten, and waited, shivering, trying with fuzzy eyes to read a magazine, till he heard the doctor's car.
The doctor was youngish and professionally breezy. He came in as though it were sunny noontime. "Well, George, little trouble, eh? How is she now?" he said busily as, with tremendous and rather irritating cheerfulness, he tossed his coat on a chair and warmed his hands at a radiator. He took charge of the house. Babbitt felt ousted and unimportant as he followed the doctor up to the bedroom, and it was the doctor who chuckled, "Oh, just little stomach-ache" when Verona peeped through her door, begging, "What is it, Dad, what is it?"
To Mrs. Babbitt the doctor said with amiable belligerence, after his examination, "Kind of a bad old pain, eh? I'll give you something to make you sleep, and I think you'll feel better in the morning. I'll come in right after breakfast." But to Babbitt, lying in wait in the lower hall, the doctor sighed, "I don't like the feeling there in her belly. There's some rigidity and some inflammation. She's never had her appendix out has she? Um. Well, no use worrying. I'll be here first thing in the morning, and meantime she'll get some rest. I've given her a hypo. Good night."
Then was Babbitt caught up in the black tempest.
Instantly all the indignations which had been dominating him and the spiritual dramas through which he had struggled became pallid and absurd before the ancient and overwhelming realities, the standard and traditional realities, of sickness and menacing death, the long night, and the thousand steadfast implications of married life. He crept back to her. As she drowsed away in the tropic languor of morphia, he sat on the edge of her bed, holding her hand, and for the first time in many weeks her hand abode trustfully in his.
He draped himself grotesquely in his toweling bathrobe and a pink and white couch-cover, and sat lumpishly in a wing-chair. The bedroom was uncanny in its half-light, which turned the curtains to lurking robbers, the dressing-table to a turreted castle. It smelled of cosmetics, of linen, of sleep. He napped and woke, napped and woke, a hundred times. He heard her move and sigh in slumber; he wondered if there wasn't some officious brisk thing he could do for her, and before he could quite form the thought he was asleep, racked and aching. The night was infinite. When dawn came and the waiting seemed at an end, he fell asleep, and was vexed to have been caught off his guard, to have been aroused by Verona's entrance and her agitated "Oh, what is it, Dad?"
His wife was awake, her face sallow and lifeless in the morning light, but now he did not compare her with Tanis; she was not merely A Woman, to be contrasted with other women, but his own self, and though he might criticize her and nag her, it was only as he might criticize and nag himself, interestedly, unpatronizingly, without the expectation of changing—or any real desire to change—the eternal essence.
With Verona he sounded fatherly again, and firm. He consoled Tinka, who satisfactorily pointed the excitement of the hour by wailing. He ordered early breakfast, and wanted to look at the newspaper, and felt somehow heroic and useful in not looking at it. But there were still crawling and totally unheroic hours of waiting before Dr. Patten returned.
"Don't see much change," said Patten. "I'll be back about eleven, and if you don't mind, I think I'll bring in some other world-famous pill-pedler for consultation, just to be on the safe side. Now George, there's nothing you can do. I'll have Verona keep the ice-bag filled—might as well leave that on, I guess—and you, you better beat it to the office instead of standing around her looking as if you were the patient. The nerve of husbands! Lot more neurotic than the women! They always have to horn in and get all the credit for feeling bad when their wives are ailing. Now have another nice cup of coffee and git!"
Under this derision Babbitt became more matter-of-fact. He drove to the office, tried to dictate letters, tried to telephone and, before the call was answered, forgot to whom he was telephoning. At a quarter after ten he returned home. As he left the down-town traffic and sped up the car, his face was as grimly creased as the mask of tragedy.
His wife greeted him with surprise. "Why did you come back, dear? I think I feel a little better. I told Verona to skip off to her office. Was it wicked of me to go and get sick?"
He knew that she wanted petting, and she got it, joyously. They were curiously happy when he heard Dr. Patten's car in front. He looked out of the window. He was frightened. With Patten was an impatient man with turbulent black hair and a hussar mustache—Dr. A. I. Dilling, the surgeon. Babbitt sputtered with anxiety, tried to conceal it, and hurried down to the door.
Dr. Patten was profusely casual: "Don't want to worry you, old man, but I thought it might be a good stunt to have Dr. Dilling examine her." He gestured toward Dilling as toward a master.
Dilling nodded in his curtest manner and strode up-stairs Babbitt tramped the living-room in agony. Except for his wife's confinements there had never been a major operation in the family, and to him surgery was at once a miracle and an abomination of fear. But when Dilling and Patten came down again he knew that everything was all right, and he wanted to laugh, for the two doctors were exactly like the bearded physicians in a musical comedy, both of them rubbing their hands and looking foolishly sagacious.
Dr. Dilling spoke:
"I'm sorry, old man, but it's acute appendicitis. We ought to operate. Of course you must decide, but there's no question as to what has to be done."
Babbitt did not get all the force of it. He mumbled, "Well I suppose we could get her ready in a couple o' days. Probably Ted ought to come down from the university, just in case anything happened."
Dr. Dilling growled, "Nope. If you don't want peritonitis to set in, we'll have to operate right away. I must advise it strongly. If you say go ahead, I'll 'phone for the St. Mary's ambulance at once, and we'll have her on the table in three-quarters of an hour."
"I—I Of course, I suppose you know what—But great God, man, I can't get her clothes ready and everything in two seconds, you know! And in her state, so wrought-up and weak—"
"Just throw her hair-brush and comb and tooth-brush in a bag; that's all she'll need for a day or two," said Dr. Dilling, and went to the telephone.
Babbitt galloped desperately up-stairs. He sent the frightened Tinka out of the room. He said gaily to his wife, "Well, old thing, the doc thinks maybe we better have a little operation and get it over. Just take a few minutes—not half as serious as a confinement—and you'll be all right in a jiffy."
She gripped his hand till the fingers ached. She said patiently, like a cowed child, "I'm afraid—to go into the dark, all alone!" Maturity was wiped from her eyes; they were pleading and terrified. "Will you stay with me? Darling, you don't have to go to the office now, do you? Could you just go down to the hospital with me? Could you come see me this evening—if everything's all right? You won't have to go out this evening, will you?"
He was on his knees by the bed. While she feebly ruffled his hair, he sobbed, he kissed the lawn of her sleeve, and swore, "Old honey, I love you more than anything in the world! I've kind of been worried by business and everything, but that's all over now, and I'm back again."
"Are you really? George, I was thinking, lying here, maybe it would be a good thing if I just WENT. I was wondering if anybody really needed me. Or wanted me. I was wondering what was the use of my living. I've been getting so stupid and ugly—"
"Why, you old humbug! Fishing for compliments when I ought to be packing your bag! Me, sure, I'm young and handsome and a regular village cut-up and—" He could not go on. He sobbed again; and in muttered incoherencies they found each other.
As he packed, his brain was curiously clear and swift. He'd have no more wild evenings, he realized. He admitted that he would regret them. A little grimly he perceived that this had been his last despairing fling before the paralyzed contentment of middle-age. Well, and he grinned impishly, "it was one doggone good party while it lasted!" And—how much was the operation going to cost? "I ought to have fought that out with Dilling. But no, damn it, I don't care how much it costs!"
The motor ambulance was at the door. Even in his grief the Babbitt who admired all technical excellences was interested in the kindly skill with which the attendants slid Mrs. Babbitt upon a stretcher and carried her down-stairs. The ambulance was a huge, suave, varnished, white thing. Mrs. Babbitt moaned, "It frightens me. It's just like a hearse, just like being put in a hearse. I want you to stay with me."
"I'll be right up front with the driver," Babbitt promised.
"No, I want you to stay inside with me." To the attendants: "Can't he be inside?"
"Sure, ma'am, you bet. There's a fine little camp-stool in there," the older attendant said, with professional pride.
He sat beside her in that traveling cabin with its cot, its stool, its active little electric radiator, and its quite unexplained calendar, displaying a girl eating cherries, and the name of an enterprising grocer. But as he flung out his hand in hopeless cheerfulness it touched the radiator, and he squealed:
"Why, George Babbitt, I won't have you cursing and swearing and blaspheming!"
"I know, awful sorry but—Gosh all fish-hooks, look how I burned my hand! Gee whiz, it hurts! It hurts like the mischief! Why, that damn radiator is hot as—it's hot as—it's hotter 'n the hinges of Hades! Look! You can see the mark!"
So, as they drove up to St. Mary's Hospital, with the nurses already laying out the instruments for an operation to save her life, it was she who consoled him and kissed the place to make it well, and though he tried to be gruff and mature, he yielded to her and was glad to be babied.
The ambulance whirled under the hooded carriage-entrance of the hospital, and instantly he was reduced to a zero in the nightmare succession of cork-floored halls, endless doors open on old women sitting up in bed, an elevator, the anesthetizing room, a young interne contemptuous of husbands. He was permitted to kiss his wife; he saw a thin dark nurse fit the cone over her mouth and nose; he stiffened at a sweet and treacherous odor; then he was driven out, and on a high stool in a laboratory he sat dazed, longing to see her once again, to insist that he had always loved her, had never for a second loved anybody else or looked at anybody else. In the laboratory he was conscious only of a decayed object preserved in a bottle of yellowing alcohol. It made him very sick, but he could not take his eyes from it. He was more aware of it than of waiting. His mind floated in abeyance, coming back always to that horrible bottle. To escape it he opened the door to the right, hoping to find a sane and business-like office. He realized that he was looking into the operating-room; in one glance he took in Dr. Dilling, strange in white gown and bandaged head, bending over the steel table with its screws and wheels, then nurses holding basins and cotton sponges, and a swathed thing, just a lifeless chin and a mound of white in the midst of which was a square of sallow flesh with a gash a little bloody at the edges, protruding from the gash a cluster of forceps like clinging parasites.
He shut the door with haste. It may be that his frightened repentance of the night and morning had not eaten in, but this dehumanizing interment of her who had been so pathetically human shook him utterly, and as he crouched again on the high stool in the laboratory he swore faith to his wife . . . to Zenith . . . to business efficiency . . . to the Boosters' Club . . . to every faith of the Clan of Good Fellows.
Then a nurse was soothing, "All over! Perfect success! She'll come out fine! She'll be out from under the anesthetic soon, and you can see her."
He found her on a curious tilted bed, her face an unwholesome yellow but her purple lips moving slightly. Then only did he really believe that she was alive. She was muttering. He bent, and heard her sighing, "Hard get real maple syrup for pancakes." He laughed inexhaustibly; he beamed on the nurse and proudly confided, "Think of her talking about maple syrup! By golly, I'm going to go and order a hundred gallons of it, right from Vermont!"
She was out of the hospital in seventeen days. He went to see her each afternoon, and in their long talks they drifted back to intimacy. Once he hinted something of his relations to Tanis and the Bunch, and she was inflated by the view that a Wicked Woman had captivated her poor George.
If once he had doubted his neighbors and the supreme charm of the Good Fellows, he was convinced now. You didn't, he noted, "see Seneca Doane coming around with any flowers or dropping in to chat with the Missus," but Mrs. Howard Littlefield brought to the hospital her priceless wine jelly (flavored with real wine); Orville Jones spent hours in picking out the kind of novels Mrs. Babbitt liked—nice love stories about New York millionaries and Wyoming cowpunchers; Louetta Swanson knitted a pink bed-jacket; Sidney Finkelstein and his merry brown-eyed flapper of a wife selected the prettiest nightgown in all the stock of Parcher and Stein.
All his friends ceased whispering about him, suspecting him. At the Athletic Club they asked after her daily. Club members whose names he did not know stopped him to inquire, "How's your good lady getting on?" Babbitt felt that he was swinging from bleak uplands down into the rich warm air of a valley pleasant with cottages.
One noon Vergil Gunch suggested, "You planning to be at the hospital about six? The wife and I thought we'd drop in." They did drop in. Gunch was so humorous that Mrs. Babbitt said he must "stop making her laugh because honestly it was hurting her incision." As they passed down the hall Gunch demanded amiably, "George, old scout, you were soreheaded about something, here a while back. I don't know why, and it's none of my business. But you seem to be feeling all hunky-dory again, and why don't you come join us in the Good Citizens' League, old man? We have some corking times together, and we need your advice."
Then did Babbitt, almost tearful with joy at being coaxed instead of bullied, at being permitted to stop fighting, at being able to desert without injuring his opinion of himself, cease utterly to be a domestic revolutionist. He patted Gunch's shoulder, and next day he became a member of the Good Citizens' League.
Within two weeks no one in the League was more violent regarding the wickedness of Seneca Doane, the crimes of labor unions, the perils of immigration, and the delights of golf, morality, and bank-accounts than was George F. Babbitt.