HE awoke to stretch cheerfully as he listened to the sparrows, then to remember that everything was wrong; that he was determined to go astray, and not in the least enjoying the process. Why, he wondered, should he be in rebellion? What was it all about? "Why not be sensible; stop all this idiotic running around, and enjoy himself with his family, his business, the fellows at the club?" What was he getting out of rebellion? Misery and shame--the shame of being treated as an offensive small boy by a ragamuffin like Ida Putiak! And yet--Always he came back to "And yet." Whatever the misery, he could not regain contentment with a world which, once doubted, became absurd.
Only, he assured himself, he was "through with this chasing after girls."
By noontime he was not so sure even of that. If in Miss McGoun, Louetta Swanson, and Ida he had failed to find the lady kind and lovely, it did not prove that she did not exist. He was hunted by the ancient thought that somewhere must exist the not impossible she who would understand him, value him, and make him happy.
Mrs. Babbitt returned in August.
On her previous absences he had missed her reassuring buzz and of her arrival he had made a fete. Now, though he dared not hurt her by letting a hint of it appear in his letters, he was sorry that she was coming before he had found himself, and he was embarrassed by the need of meeting her and looking joyful.
He loitered down to the station; he studied the summer-resort posters, lest he have to speak to acquaintances and expose his uneasiness. But he was well trained. When the train clanked in he was out on the cement platform, peering into the chair-cars, and as he saw her in the line of passengers moving toward the vestibule he waved his hat. At the door he embraced her, and announced, "Well, well, well, well, by golly, you look fine, you look fine." Then he was aware of Tinka. Here was something, this child with her absurd little nose and lively eyes, that loved him, believed him great, and as he clasped her, lifted and held her till she squealed, he was for the moment come back to his old steady self.
Tinka sat beside him in the car, with one hand on the steering-wheel, pretending to help him drive, and he shouted back to his wife, "I'll bet the kid will be the best chuffer in the family! She holds the wheel like an old professional!"
All the while he was dreading the moment when he would be alone with his wife and she would patiently expect him to be ardent.
There was about the house an unofficial theory that he was to take his vacation alone, to spend a week or ten days in Catawba, but he was nagged by the memory that a year ago he had been with Paul in Maine. He saw himself returning; finding peace there, and the presence of Paul, in a life primitive and heroic. Like a shock came the thought that he actually could go. Only, he couldn't, really; he couldn't leave his business, and "Myra would think it sort of funny, his going way off there alone. Course he'd decided to do whatever he darned pleased, from now on, but still--to go way off to Maine!"
He went, after lengthy meditations.
With his wife, since it was inconceivable to explain that he was going to seek Paul's spirit in the wilderness, he frugally employed the lie prepared over a year ago and scarcely used at all. He said that he had to see a man in New York on business. He could not have explained even to himself why he drew from the bank several hundred dollars more than he needed, nor why he kissed Tinka so tenderly, and cried, "God bless you, baby!" From the train he waved to her till she was but a scarlet spot beside the brown bulkier presence of Mrs. Babbitt, at the end of a steel and cement aisle ending in vast barred gates. With melancholy he looked back at the last suburb of Zenith.
All the way north he pictured the Maine guides: simple and strong and daring, jolly as they played stud-poker in their unceiled shack, wise in woodcraft as they tramped the forest and shot the rapids. He particularly remembered Joe Paradise, half Yankee, half Indian. If he could but take up a backwoods claim with a man like Joe, work hard with his hands, be free and noisy in a flannel shirt, and never come back to this dull decency!
Or, like a trapper in a Northern Canada movie, plunge through the forest, make camp in the Rockies, a grim and wordless caveman! Why not? He COULD do it! There'd be enough money at home for the family to live on till Verona was married and Ted self-supporting. Old Henry T. would look out for them. Honestly! Why NOT? Really LIVE--
He longed for it, admitted that he longed for it, then almost believed that he was going lo do it. Whenever common sense snorted, "Nonsense! Folks don't run away from decent families and partners; just simply don't do it, that's all!" then Babbitt answered pleadingly, "Well, it wouldn't take any more nerve than for Paul to go to jail and--Lord, how I'd' like to do it! Moccasins-six-gun-frontier town-gamblers--sleep under the stars--be a regular man, with he-men like Joe Paradise--gosh!"
So he came to Maine, again stood on the wharf before the camp-hotel, again spat heroically into the delicate and shivering water, while the pines rustled, the mountains glowed, and a trout leaped and fell in a sliding circle. He hurried to the guides' shack as to his real home, his real friends, long missed. They would be glad to see him. They would stand up and shout? "Why, here's Mr. Babbitt! He ain't one of these ordinary sports! He's a real guy!"
In their boarded and rather littered cabin the guides sat about the greasy table playing stud-poker with greasy cards: half a dozen wrinkled men in old trousers and easy old felt hats. They glanced up and nodded. Joe Paradise, the swart aging man with the big mustache, grunted, "How do. Back again?"
Silence, except for the clatter of chips.
Babbitt stood beside them, very lonely. He hinted, after a period of highly concentrated playing, "Guess I might take a hand, Joe."
"Sure. Sit in. How many chips you want? Let's see; you were here with your wife, last year, wa'n't you?" said Joe Paradise.
That was all of Babbitt's welcome to the old home.
He played for half an hour before he spoke again. His head was reeking with the smoke of pipes and cheap cigars, and he was weary of pairs and four-flushes, resentful of the way in which they ignored him. He flung at Joe:
"Like to guide me for a few days?"
"Well, jus' soon. I ain't engaged till next week."
Only thus did Joe recognize the friendship Babbitt was offering him. Babbitt paid up his losses and left the shack rather childishly. Joe raised his head from the coils of smoke like a seal rising from surf, grunted, "I'll come 'round t'morrow," and dived down to his three aces.
Neither in his voiceless cabin, fragrant with planks of new-cut pine, nor along the lake, nor in the sunset clouds which presently eddied behind the lavender-misted mountains, could Babbitt find the spirit of Paul as a reassuring presence. He was so lonely that after supper he stopped to talk with an ancient old lady, a gasping and steadily discoursing old lady, by the stove in the hotel-office. He told her of Ted's presumable future triumphs in the State University and of Tinka's remarkable vocabulary till he was homesick for the home he had left forever.
Through the darkness, through that Northern pine-walled silence, he blundered down to the lake-front and found a canoe. There were no paddles in it but with a board, sitting awkwardly amidships and poking at the water rather than paddling, he made his way far out on the lake. The lights of the hotel and the cottages became yellow dots, a cluster of glow-worms at the base of Sachem Mountain. Larger and ever more imperturbable was the mountain in the star-filtered darkness, and the lake a limitless pavement of black marble. He was dwarfed and dumb and a little awed, but that insignificance freed him from the pomposities of being Mr. George F. Babbitt of Zenith; saddened and freed his heart. Now he was conscious of the presence of Paul, fancied him (rescued from prison, from Zilla and the brisk exactitudes of the tar-roofing business) playing his violin at the end of the canoe. He vowed, "I will go on! I'll never go back! Now that Paul's out of it, I don't want to see any of those damn people again! I was a fool to get sore because Joe Paradise didn't jump up and hug me. He's one of these woodsmen; too wise to go yelping and talking your arm off like a cityman. But get him back in the mountains, out on the trail--! That's real living!"
Joe reported at Babbitt's cabin at nine the next morning. Babbitt greeted him as a fellow caveman:
"Well, Joe, how d' you feel about hitting the trail, and getting away from these darn soft summerites and these women and all?"
"All right, Mr. Babbitt."
"What do you say we go over to Box Car Pond--they tell me the shack there isn't being used--and camp out?"
"Well, all right, Mr. Babbitt, but it's nearer to Skowtuit Pond, and you can get just about as good fishing there."
"No, I want to get into the real wilds."
"Well, all right."
"We'll put the old packs on our backs and get into the woods and really hike."
"I think maybe it would be easier to go by water, through Lake Chogue. We can go all the way by motor boat--flat-bottom boat with an Evinrude."
"No, sir! Bust up the quiet with a chugging motor? Not on your life! You just throw a pair of socks in the old pack, and tell 'em what you want for eats. I'll be ready soon 's you are."
"Most of the sports go by boat, Mr. Babbitt. It's a long walk.
"Look here, Joe: are you objecting to walking?"
"Oh, no, I guess I can do it. But I haven't tramped that far for sixteen years. Most of the sports go by boat. But I can do it if you say so--I guess." Joe walked away in sadness.
Babbitt had recovered from his touchy wrath before Joe returned. He pictured him as warming up and telling the most entertaining stories. But Joe had not yet warmed up when they took the trail. He persistently kept behind Babbitt, and however much his shoulders ached from the pack, however sorely he panted, Babbitt could hear his guide panting equally. But the trail was satisfying: a path brown with pine-needles and rough with roots, among the balsams, the ferns, the sudden groves of white birch. He became credulous again, and rejoiced in sweating. When he stopped to rest he chuckled, "Guess we're hitting it up pretty good for a couple o' old birds, eh?"
"Uh-huh," admitted Joe.
"This is a mighty pretty place. Look, you can see the lake down through the trees. I tell you, Joe, you don't appreciate how lucky you are to live in woods like this, instead of a city with trolleys grinding and typewriters clacking and people bothering the life out of you all the time! I wish I knew the woods like you do. Say, what's the name of that little red flower?"
Rubbing his back, Joe regarded the flower resentfully "Well, some folks call it one thing and some calls it another I always just call it Pink Flower."
Babbitt blessedly ceased thinking as tramping turned into blind plodding. He was submerged in weariness. His plump legs seemed to go on by themselves, without guidance, and he mechanically wiped away the sweat which stung his eyes. He was too tired to be consciously glad as, after a sun-scourged mile of corduroy tote-road through a swamp where flies hovered over a hot waste of brush, they reached the cool shore of Box Car Pond. When he lifted the pack from his back he staggered from the change in balance, and for a moment could not stand erect. He lay beneath an ample-bosomed maple tree near the guest-shack, and joyously felt sleep running through his veins.
He awoke toward dusk, to find Joe efficiently cooking bacon and eggs and flapjacks for supper, and his admiration of the woodsman returned. He sat on a stump and felt virile.
"Joe, what would you do if you had a lot of money? Would you stick to guiding, or would you take a claim 'way back in the woods and be independent of people?"
For the first time Joe brightened. He chewed his cud a second, and bubbled, "I've often thought of that! If I had the money, I'd go down to Tinker's Falls and open a swell shoe store."
After supper Joe proposed a game of stud-poker but Babbitt refused with brevity, and Joe contentedly went to bed at eight. Babbitt sat on the stump, facing the dark pond, slapping mosquitos. Save the snoring guide, there was no other human being within ten miles. He was lonelier than he had ever been in his life. Then he was in Zenith.
He was worrying as to whether Miss McGoun wasn't paying too much for carbon paper. He was at once resenting and missing the persistent teasing at the Roughnecks' Table. He was wondering what Zilla Riesling was doing now. He was wondering whether, after the summer's maturity of being a garageman, Ted would "get busy" in the university. He was thinking of his wife. "If she would only--if she wouldn't be so darn satisfied with just settling down--No! I won't! I won't go back! I'll be fifty in three years. Sixty in thirteen years. I'm going to have some fun before it's too late. I don't care! I will!"
He thought of Ida Putiak, of Louetta Swanson, of that nice widow--what was her name?--Tanis Judique?--the one for whom he'd found the flat. He was enmeshed in imaginary conversations. Then:
"Gee, I can't seem to get away from thinking about folks!"
Thus it came to him merely to run away was folly, because he could never run away from himself.
That moment he started for Zenith. In his journey there was no appearance of flight, but he was fleeing, and four days afterward he was on the Zenith train. He knew that he was slinking back not because it was what he longed to do but because it was all he could do. He scanned again his discovery that he could never run away from Zenith and family and office, because in his own brain he bore the office and the family and every street and disquiet and illusion of Zenith.
"But I'm going to--oh, I'm going to start something!" he vowed, and he tried to make it valiant.