by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 19

Additional Information
  • Year Published: 1922
  • Language: English
  • Country of Origin: United States of America
  • Source: Lewis, S. (1922) Babbitt New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
  • Readability:
    • Flesch–Kincaid Level: 7.4
  • Word Count: 5,405
  • Genre: Satire
  • Keywords: 20th century literature, american literature, sinclair lewis
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The Zenith Street Traction Company planned to build car–repair shops in the suburb of Dorchester, but when they came to buy the land they found it held, on options, by the Babbitt–Thompson Realty Company. The purchasing–agent, the first vice–president, and even the president of the Traction Company protested against the Babbitt price. They mentioned their duty toward stockholders, they threatened an appeal to the courts, though somehow the appeal to the courts was never carried out and the officials found it wiser to compromise with Babbitt. Carbon copies of the correspondence are in the company's files, where they may be viewed by any public commission.

Just after this Babbitt deposited three thousand dollars in the bank, the purchasing–agent of the Street Traction Company bought a five thousand dollar car, he first vice–president built a home in Devon Woods, and the president was appointed minister to a foreign country.

To obtain the options, to tie up one man's land without letting his neighbor know, had been an unusual strain on Babbitt. It was necessary to introduce rumors about planning garages and stores, to pretend that he wasn't taking any more options, to wait and look as bored as a poker–player at a time when the failure to secure a key–lot threatened his whole plan. To all this was added a nerve–jabbing quarrel with his secret associates in the deal. They did not wish Babbitt and Thompson to have any share in the deal except as brokers. Babbitt rather agreed. "Ethics of the business–broker ought to strictly represent his principles and not get in on the buying," he said to Thompson.

"Ethics, rats! Think I'm going to see that bunch of holy grafters get away with the swag and us not climb in?" snorted old Henry.

"Well, I don't like to do it. Kind of double–crossing."

"It ain't. It's triple–crossing. It's the public that gets double–crossed. Well, now we've been ethical and got it out of our systems, the question is where we can raise a loan to handle some of the property for ourselves, on the Q. T. We can't go to our bank for it. Might come out."

"I could see old Eathorne. He's close as the tomb."

"That's the stuff."

Eathorne was glad, he said, to "invest in character," to make Babbitt the loan and see to it that the loan did not appear on the books of the bank. Thus certain of the options which Babbitt and Thompson obtained were on parcels of real estate which they themselves owned, though the property did not appear in their names.

In the midst of closing this splendid deal, which stimulated business and public confidence by giving an example of increased real–estate activity, Babbitt was overwhelmed to find that he had a dishonest person working for him.

The dishonest one was Stanley Graff, the outside salesman.

For some time Babbitt had been worried about Graff. He did not keep his word to tenants. In order to rent a house he would promise repairs which the owner had not authorized. It was suspected that he juggled inventories of furnished houses so that when the tenant left he had to pay for articles which had never been in the house and the price of which Graff put into his pocket. Babbitt had not been able to prove these suspicions, and though he had rather planned to discharge Graff he had never quite found time for it.

Now into Babbitt's private room charged a red–faced man, panting, "Look here! I've come to raise particular merry hell, and unless you have that fellow pinched, I will!" "What's—Calm down, o' man. What's trouble?"

"Trouble! Huh! Here's the trouble—"

"Sit down and take it easy! They can hear you all over the building!"

"This fellow Graff you got working for you, he leases me a house. I was in yesterday and signs the lease, all O.K., and he was to get the owner's signature and mail me the lease last night. Well, and he did. This morning I comes down to breakfast and the girl says a fellow had come to the house right after the early delivery and told her he wanted an envelope that had been mailed by mistake, big long envelope with 'Babbitt–Thompson' in the corner of it. Sure enough, there it was, so she lets him have it. And she describes the fellow to me, and it was this Graff. So I 'phones to him and he, the poor fool, he admits it! He says after my lease was all signed he got a better offer from another fellow and he wanted my lease back. Now what you going to do about it?"

"Your name is—?"

"William Varney—W. K. Varney."

"Oh, yes. That was the Garrison house." Babbitt sounded the buzzer. When Miss McGoun came in, he demanded, "Graff gone out?"

"Yes, sir."

"Will you look through his desk and see if there is a lease made out to Mr. Varney on the Garrison house?" To Varney: "Can't tell you how sorry I am this happened. Needless to say, I'll fire Graff the minute he comes in. And of course your lease stands. But there's one other thing I'd like to do. I'll tell the owner not to pay us the commission but apply it to your rent. No! Straight! I want to. To be frank, this thing shakes me up bad. I suppose I've always been a Practical Business Man. Probably I've told one or two fairy stories in my time, when the occasion called for it—you know: sometimes you have to lay things on thick, to impress boneheads. But this is the first time I've ever had to accuse one of my own employees of anything more dishonest than pinching a few stamps. Honest, it would hurt me if we profited by it. So you'll let me hand you the commission? Good!"

He walked through the February city, where trucks flung up a spattering of slush and the sky was dark above dark brick cornices. He came back miserable. He, who respected the law, had broken it by concealing the Federal crime of interception of the mails. But he could not see Graff go to jail and his wife suffer. Worse, he had to discharge Graff and this was a part of office routine which he feared. He liked people so much, he so much wanted them to like him that he could not bear insulting them.

Miss McGoun dashed in to whisper, with the excitement of an approaching scene, "He's here!"

"Mr. Graff? Ask him to come in."

He tried to make himself heavy and calm in his chair, and to keep his eyes expressionless. Graff stalked in—a man of thirty–five, dapper, eye–glassed, with a foppish mustache.

"Want me?" said Graff.

"Yes. Sit down."

Graff continued to stand, grunting, "I suppose that old nut Varney has been in to see you. Let me explain about him. He's a regular tightwad, and he sticks out for every cent, and he practically lied to me about his ability to pay the rent—I found that out just after we signed up. And then another fellow comes along with a better offer for the house, and I felt it was my duty to the firm to get rid of Varney, and I was so worried about it I skun up there and got back the lease. Honest, Mr. Babbitt, I didn't intend to pull anything crooked. I just wanted the firm to have all the commis—"

"Wait now, Stan. This may all be true, but I've been having a lot of complaints about you. Now I don't s'pose you ever mean to do wrong, and I think if you just get a good lesson that'll jog you up a little, you'll turn out a first–class realtor yet. But I don't see how I can keep you on."

Graff leaned against the filing–cabinet, his hands in his pockets, and laughed. "So I'm fired! Well, old Vision and Ethics, I'm tickled to death! But I don't want you to think you can get away with any holier–than–thou stuff. Sure I've pulled some raw stuff—a little of it—but how could I help it, in this office?"

"Now, by God, young man—"

"Tut, tut! Keep the naughty temper down, and don't holler, because everybody in the outside office will hear you. They're probably listening right now. Babbitt, old dear, you're crooked in the first place and a damn skinflint in the second. If you paid me a decent salary I wouldn't have to steal pennies off a blind man to keep my wife from starving. Us married just five months, and her the nicest girl living, and you keeping us flat broke all the time, you damned old thief, so you can put money away for your saphead of a son and your wishywashy fool of a daughter! Wait, now! You'll by God take it, or I'll bellow so the whole office will hear it! And crooked—Say, if I told the prosecuting attorney what I know about this last Street Traction option steal, both you and me would go to jail, along with some nice, clean, pious, high–up traction guns!"

"Well, Stan, looks like we were coming down to cases. That deal—There was nothing crooked about it. The only way you can get progress is for the broad–gauged men to get things done; and they got to be rewarded—"

"Oh, for Pete's sake, don't get virtuous on me! As I gather it, I'm fired. All right. It's a good thing for me. And if I catch you knocking me to any other firm, I'll squeal all I know about you and Henry T. and the dirty little lickspittle deals that you corporals of industry pull off for the bigger and brainier crooks, and you'll get chased out of town. And me—you're right, Babbitt, I've been going crooked, but now I'm going straight, and the first step will be to get a job in some office where the boss doesn't talk about Ideals. Bad luck, old dear, and you can stick your job up the sewer!"

Babbitt sat for a long time, alternately raging, "I'll have him arrested," and yearning "I wonder—No, I've never done anything that wasn't necessary to keep the Wheels of Progress moving."

Next day he hired in Graff's place Fritz Weilinger, the salesman of his most injurious rival, the East Side Homes and Development Company, and thus at once annoyed his competitor and acquired an excellent man. Young Fritz was a curly–headed, merry, tennis–playing youngster. He made customers welcome to the office. Babbitt thought of him as a son, and in him had much comfort.

An abandoned race–track on the outskirts of Chicago, a plot excellent for factory sites, was to be sold, and Jake Offut asked Babbitt to bid on it for him. The strain of the Street Traction deal and his disappointment in Stanley Graff had so shaken Babbitt that he found it hard to sit at his desk and concentrate. He proposed to his family, "Look here, folks! Do you know who's going to trot up to Chicago for a couple of days—just week–end; won't lose but one day of school—know who's going with that celebrated business–ambassador, George F. Babbitt? Why, Mr. Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt!"

"Hurray!" Ted shouted, and "Oh, maybe the Babbitt men won't paint that lil ole town red!"

And, once away from the familiar implications of home, they were two men together. Ted was young only in his assumption of oldness, and the only realms, apparently, in which Babbitt had a larger and more grown–up knowledge than Ted's were the details of real estate and the phrases of politics. When the other sages of the Pullman smoking–compartment had left them to themselves, Babbitt's voice did not drop into the playful and otherwise offensive tone in which one addresses children but continued its overwhelming and monotonous rumble, and Ted tried to imitate it in his strident tenor:

"Gee, dad, you certainly did show up that poor boot when he got flip about the League of Nations!"

"Well, the trouble with a lot of these fellows is, they simply don't know what they're talking about. They don't get down to facts.... What do you think of Ken Escott?"

"I'll tell you, dad: it strikes me Ken is a nice lad; no special faults except he smokes too much; but slow, Lord! Why, if we don't give him a shove the poor dumb–bell never will propose! And Rone just as bad. Slow."

"Yes, I guess you're right. They're slow. They haven't either one of 'em got our pep."

"That's right. They're slow. I swear, dad, I don't know how Rone got into our family! I'll bet, if the truth were known, you were a bad old egg when you were a kid!"

"Well, I wasn't so slow!"

"I'll bet you weren't! I'll bet you didn't miss many tricks!"

"Well, when I was out with the girls I didn't spend all the time telling 'em about the strike in the knitting industry!"

They roared together, and together lighted cigars.

"What are we going to do with 'em?" Babbitt consulted.

"Gosh, I don't know. I swear, sometimes I feel like taking Ken aside and putting him over the jumps and saying to him, 'Young fella me lad, are you going to marry young Rone, or are you going to talk her to death? Here you are getting on toward thirty, and you're only making twenty or twenty–five a week. When you going to develop a sense of responsibility and get a raise? If there's anything that George F. or I can do to help you, call on us, but show a little speed, anyway!'"

"Well, at that, it might not be so bad if you or I talked to him, except he might not understand. He's one of these high brows. He can't come down to cases and lay his cards on the table and talk straight out from the shoulder, like you or I can."

"That's right, he's like all these highbrows."

"That's so, like all of 'em."

"That's a fact."

They sighed, and were silent and thoughtful and happy.

The conductor came in. He had once called at Babbitt's office, to ask about houses. "H' are you, Mr. Babbitt! We going to have you with us to Chicago? This your boy?"

"Yes, this is my son Ted."

"Well now, what do you know about that! Here I been thinking you were a youngster yourself, not a day over forty, hardly, and you with this great big fellow!"

"Forty? Why, brother, I'll never see forty–five again!"

"Is that a fact! Wouldn't hardly 'a' thought it!"

"Yes, sir, it's a bad give–away for the old man when he has to travel with a young whale like Ted here!"

"You're right, it is." To Ted: "I suppose you're in college now?"

Proudly, "No, not till next fall. I'm just kind of giving the diff'rent colleges the once–over now."

As the conductor went on his affable way, huge watch–chain jingling against his blue chest, Babbitt and Ted gravely considered colleges. They arrived at Chicago late at night; they lay abed in the morning, rejoicing, "Pretty nice not to have to get up and get down to breakfast, heh?" They were staying at the modest Eden Hotel, because Zenith business men always stayed at the Eden, but they had dinner in the brocade and crystal Versailles Room of the Regency Hotel. Babbitt ordered Blue Point oysters with cocktail sauce, a tremendous steak with a tremendous platter of French fried potatoes, two pots of coffee, apple pie with ice cream for both of them and, for Ted, an extra piece of mince pie.

"Hot stuff! Some feed, young fella!" Ted admired.

"Huh! You stick around with me, old man, and I'll show you a good time!"

They went to a musical comedy and nudged each other at the matrimonial jokes and the prohibition jokes; they paraded the lobby, arm in arm, between acts, and in the glee of his first release from the shame which dissevers fathers and sons Ted chuckled, "Dad, did you ever hear the one about the three milliners and the judge?"

When Ted had returned to Zenith, Babbitt was lonely. As he was trying to make alliance between Offutt and certain Milwaukee interests which wanted the race–track plot, most of his time was taken up in waiting for telephone calls.... Sitting on the edge of his bed, holding the portable telephone, asking wearily, "Mr. Sagen not in yet? Didn' he leave any message for me? All right, I'll hold the wire." Staring at a stain on the wall, reflecting that it resembled a shoe, and being bored by this twentieth discovery that it resembled a shoe. Lighting a cigarette; then, bound to the telephone with no ashtray in reach, wondering what to do with this burning menace and anxiously trying to toss it into the tiled bathroom. At last, on the telephone, "No message, eh? All right, I'll call up again."

One afternoon he wandered through snow–rutted streets of which he had never heard, streets of small tenements and two–family houses and marooned cottages. It came to him that he had nothing to do, that there was nothing he wanted to do. He was bleakly lonely in the evening, when he dined by himself at the Regency Hotel. He sat in the lobby afterward, in a plush chair bedecked with the Saxe–Coburg arms, lighting a cigar and looking for some one who would come and play with him and save him from thinking. In the chair next to him (showing the arms of Lithuania) was a half–familiar man, a large red–faced man with pop eyes and a deficient yellow mustache. He seemed kind and insignificant, and as lonely as Babbitt himself. He wore a tweed suit and a reluctant orange tie.

It came to Babbitt with a pyrotechnic crash. The melancholy stranger was Sir Gerald Doak.

Instinctively Babbitt rose, bumbling, "How 're you, Sir Gerald? 'Member we met in Zenith, at Charley McKelvey's? Babbitt's my name—real estate."

"Oh! How d' you do." Sir Gerald shook hands flabbily.

Embarrassed, standing, wondering how he could retreat, Babbitt maundered, "Well, I suppose you been having a great trip since we saw you in Zenith."

"Quite. British Columbia and California and all over the place," he said doubtfully, looking at Babbitt lifelessly.

"How did you find business conditions in British Columbia? Or I suppose maybe you didn't look into 'em. Scenery and sport and so on?"

"Scenery? Oh, capital. But business conditions—You know, Mr. Babbitt, they're having almost as much unemployment as we are." Sir Gerald was speaking warmly now.

"So? Business conditions not so doggone good, eh?"

"No, business conditions weren't at all what I'd hoped to find them."

"Not good, eh?"

"No, not—not really good."

"That's a darn shame. Well—I suppose you're waiting for somebody to take you out to some big shindig, Sir Gerald."

"Shindig? Oh. Shindig. No, to tell you the truth, I was wondering what the deuce I could do this evening. Don't know a soul in Tchicahgo. I wonder if you happen to know whether there's a good theater in this city?"

"Good? Why say, they're running grand opera right now! I guess maybe you'd like that."

"Eh? Eh? Went to the opera once in London. Covent Garden sort of thing. Shocking! No, I was wondering if there was a good cinema–movie."

Babbitt was sitting down, hitching his chair over, shouting, "Movie? Say, Sir Gerald, I supposed of course you had a raft of dames waiting to lead you out to some soiree—"

"God forbid!"

"—but if you haven't, what do you say you and me go to a movie? There's a peach of a film at the Grantham: Bill Hart in a bandit picture."

"Right–o! Just a moment while I get my coat."

Swollen with greatness, slightly afraid lest the noble blood of Nottingham change its mind and leave him at any street corner, Babbitt paraded with Sir Gerald Doak to the movie palace and in silent bliss sat beside him, trying not to be too enthusiastic, lest the knight despise his adoration of six–shooters and broncos. At the end Sir Gerald murmured, "Jolly good picture, this. So awfully decent of you to take me. Haven't enjoyed myself so much for weeks. All these Hostesses—they never let you go to the cinema!"

"The devil you say!" Babbitt's speech had lost the delicate refinement and all the broad A's with which he had adorned it, and become hearty and natural. "Well, I'm tickled to death you liked it, Sir Gerald."

They crawled past the knees of fat women into the aisle; they stood in the lobby waving their arms in the rite of putting on overcoats. Babbitt hinted, "Say, how about a little something to eat? I know a place where we could get a swell rarebit, and we might dig up a little drink—that is, if you ever touch the stuff."

"Rather! But why don't you come to my room? I've some Scotch—not half bad."

"Oh, I don't want to use up all your hootch. It's darn nice of you, but—You probably want to hit the hay."

Sir Gerald was transformed. He was beefily yearning. "Oh really, now; I haven't had a decent evening for so long! Having to go to all these dances. No chance to discuss business and that sort of thing. Do be a good chap and come along. Won't you?"

"Will I? You bet! I just thought maybe—Say, by golly, it does do a fellow good, don't it, to sit and visit about business conditions, after he's been to these balls and masquerades and banquets and all that society stuff. I often feel that way in Zenith. Sure, you bet I'll come."

"That's awfully nice of you." They beamed along the street. "Look here, old chap, can you tell me, do American cities always keep up this dreadful social pace? All these magnificent parties?"

"Go on now, quit your kidding! Gosh, you with court balls and functions and everything—"

"No, really, old chap! Mother and I—Lady Doak, I should say, we usually play a hand of bezique and go to bed at ten. Bless my soul, I couldn't keep up your beastly pace! And talking! All your American women, they know so much—culture and that sort of thing. This Mrs. McKelvey—your friend—"

"Yuh, old Lucile. Good kid."

"—she asked me which of the galleries I liked best in Florence. Or was it in Firenze? Never been in Italy in my life! And primitives. Did I like primitives. Do you know what the deuce a primitive is?"

"Me? I should say not! But I know what a discount for cash is."

"Rather! So do I, by George! But primitives!"

"Yuh! Primitives!"

They laughed with the sound of a Boosters' luncheon.

Sir Gerald's room was, except for his ponderous and durable English bags, very much like the room of George F. Babbitt; and quite in the manner of Babbitt he disclosed a huge whisky flask, looked proud and hospitable, and chuckled, "Say, when, old chap."

It was after the third drink that Sir Gerald proclaimed, "How do you Yankees get the notion that writing chaps like Bertrand Shaw and this Wells represent us? The real business England, we think those chaps are traitors. Both our countries have their comic Old Aristocracy—you know, old county families, hunting people and all that sort of thing—and we both have our wretched labor leaders, but we both have a backbone of sound business men who run the whole show."

"You bet. Here's to the real guys!"

"I'm with you! Here's to ourselves!"

It was after the fourth drink that Sir Gerald asked humbly, "What do you think of North Dakota mortgages?" but it was not till after the fifth that Babbitt began to call him "Jerry," and Sir Gerald confided, "I say, do you mind if I pull off my boots?" and ecstatically stretched his knightly feet, his poor, tired, hot, swollen feet out on the bed.

After the sixth, Babbitt irregularly arose. "Well, I better be hiking along. Jerry, you're a regular human being! I wish to thunder we'd been better acquainted in Zenith. Lookit. Can't you come back and stay with me a while?"

"So sorry—must go to New York to–morrow. Most awfully sorry, old boy. I haven't enjoyed an evening so much since I've been in the States. Real talk. Not all this social rot. I'd never have let them give me the beastly title—and I didn't get it for nothing, eh?—if I'd thought I'd have to talk to women about primitives and polo! Goodish thing to have in Nottingham, though; annoyed the mayor most frightfully when I got it; and of course the missus likes it. But nobody calls me 'Jerry' now—" He was almost weeping. "—and nobody in the States has treated me like a friend till to–night! Good–by, old chap, good–by! Thanks awfully!"

"Don't mention it, Jerry. And remember whenever you get to Zenith, the latch–string is always out."

"And don't forget, old boy, if you ever come to Nottingham, Mother and I will be frightfully glad to see you. I shall tell the fellows in Nottingham your ideas about Visions and Real Guys—at our next Rotary Club luncheon."

Babbitt lay abed at his hotel, imagining the Zenith Athletic Club asking him, "What kind of a time d'you have in Chicago?" and his answering, "Oh, fair; ran around with Sir Gerald Doak a lot;" picturing himself meeting Lucile McKelvey and admonishing her, "You're all right, Mrs. Mac, when you aren't trying to pull this highbrow pose. It's just as Gerald Doak says to me in Chicago—oh, yes, Jerry's an old friend of mine—the wife and I are thinking of running over to England to stay with Jerry in his castle, next year—and he said to me, 'Georgie, old bean, I like Lucile first–rate, but you and me, George, we got to make her get over this highty–tighty hooptediddle way she's got."

But that evening a thing happened which wrecked his pride.

At the Regency Hotel cigar–counter he fell to talking with a salesman of pianos, and they dined together. Babbitt was filled with friendliness and well–being. He enjoyed the gorgeousness of the dining–room: the chandeliers, the looped brocade curtains, the portraits of French kings against panels of gilded oak. He enjoyed the crowd: pretty women, good solid fellows who were "liberal spenders."

He gasped. He stared, and turned away, and stared again. Three tables off, with a doubtful sort of woman, a woman at once coy and withered, was Paul Riesling, and Paul was supposed to be in Akron, selling tar–roofing. The woman was tapping his hand, mooning at him and giggling. Babbitt felt that he had encountered something involved and harmful. Paul was talking with the rapt eagerness of a man who is telling his troubles. He was concentrated on the woman's faded eyes. Once he held her hand and once, blind to the other guests, he puckered his lips as though he was pretending to kiss her. Babbitt had so strong an impulse to go to Paul that he could feel his body uncoiling, his shoulders moving, but he felt, desperately, that he must be diplomatic, and not till he saw Paul paying the check did he bluster to the piano–salesman, "By golly–friend of mine over there—'scuse me second—just say hello to him."

He touched Paul's shoulder, and cried, "Well, when did you hit town?"

Paul glared up at him, face hardening. "Oh, hello, George. Thought you'd gone back to Zenith." He did not introduce his companion. Babbitt peeped at her. She was a flabbily pretty, weakly flirtatious woman of forty–two or three, in an atrocious flowery hat. Her rouging was thorough but unskilful.

"Where you staying, Paulibus?"

The woman turned, yawned, examined her nails. She seemed accustomed to not being introduced.

Paul grumbled, "Campbell Inn, on the South Side."

"Alone?" It sounded insinuating.

"Yes! Unfortunately!" Furiously Paul turned toward the woman, smiling with a fondness sickening to Babbitt. "May! Want to introduce you. Mrs. Arnold, this is my old–acquaintance, George Babbitt."

"Pleasmeech," growled Babbitt, while she gurgled, "Oh, I'm very pleased to meet any friend of Mr. Riesling's, I'm sure."

Babbitt demanded, "Be back there later this evening, Paul? I'll drop down and see you."

"No, better—We better lunch together to–morrow."

"All right, but I'll see you to–night, too, Paul. I'll go down to your hotel, and I'll wait for you!"