FORD BABBITT, freshman of one month, strode into his room in Stoughton full of pride and great thoughts. He was going to a dinner on Newbury St. this very evening, was going to wear his full-dress war-paint for the first time and be somebody. After he had banged his door shut, he turned up the gas; and in the yellow light admired the unfamiliar vesture on the bed—fresh-made, pressed, glossy,—then he turned them approvingly in his hand. Here was glory indeed! He pictured to himself the splash his entrance into the fine world would make; his heart swelled with pride, and he stood sweetly dreaming. . . .
Seven metallic notes from the clock roused him with a start. The invitation read for quarter after eight. Three quarters of an hour to dress? Perhaps he might as well begin; the togs were unfamiliar and, after all, if he had any time left he could read Emerton. So he peeled off his everyday suit, put a saucepan of water on the coals to heat, and started in. The trousers went all right; so much, at least, was done. Ford took a turn before his glass to admire their cut. They were perfect! Yet his red flannel slippers hurt the effect, so he undid the box containing his new patent-leathers. As their wrappings flared up the chimney, bits of feathery ash dropped into the saucepan. Fishing them out Ford spilled half the water, which villainously damaged the fire. No matter, enough was left, he thought. He doubled up on the rug with the shoes. Strange how tight they were! They nearly amputated his heel, yet would not go on. No shoe-horn of course in the whole place! Ford pondered, tried strange substitutes, and finally raked out a metal shoe-brush that appeared to have possibilities. By much heating in the fire and many hammerings he reduced it to a decent shape, with which he worked on the shoes agonizingly. When they had been laced up they looked so well that he repented having cursed them. Not such a bad business after all, getting dressed; and it would soon be over.
Ford inspected himself again in the glass, then turned to the big white shirt awaiting him. Stiff, it was, very stiff. He used five minutes getting it under control and after all could find no two studs alike. Bad words. Yet would any one ever know the difference? Probably not; it was better than having to use undershirt buttons anyhow, he thought, like Jack Rattleton. So he donned the shirt and tortured the murderous collar into place.
The virgin tie took ten good minutes; even then it was unstable and looked wrong, yet Ford consoled himself with the idea that careless ties were artistic. Cuffs,—where were his cuffs? At the laundry, confound ’em! Well, his absent roommate’s would do. But that missing link? Oh, of course, under the Morris chair. Best to keep cool, Ford said, as he fiddled with it in slippery fingers. In spite of his philosophy he was undeniably very warm. That warmth suddenly turned to all-overish chills when the clock tinkled out the third quarter. Ford’s mother had warned him never to be late at dinners. Quarter past eight was pretty near, still,—he thought he could do it all right. One must be a man and make close connections. . . . Tomorrow he would be proud of having dressed so quickly and so well!
Someone banged on the door.
“Come in!” cried Ford, and the lock rattled exasperatingly till he opened, comb in hand, to Arthur Mills.
“Hello, Art! Say, I’m busy, going out, you know, but come in anyway.”
“Oh, no matter, only wanted to talk up Thursday afternoon. Guess I won’t bother you.... But say, now that I’m here, can’t you fix it so I needn’t come? I hate teas anyhow. Get some one else. Here is what you can do——”
“No, not that—” Long exposition. Ford moaned to himself. “All right. Well, so long. You’re busy; yes of course, but just one more thing—” And Mills lingered in the doorway.
At last he was gone, and Ford turned choking to his glass. As he combed his hair and gave one more hasty glance, the evil collar came off in the back; that meant retying the now damaged string and Ford blessed everything. The waist-coat, too—how little there was of it!—pulled away ridiculously at the sides! But then the coat itself covered that—yes. he could start directly. He had been foolish to worry so; five minutes late - - or perhaps ten—was that catastrophe. He hunched on his overcoat. Those gloves! Darn such carelessness! Oh, of course, on the desk. One of them had a torn thumb, but he could carry that in his hand and nobody would know. He took another last look and started for the door. Off at last!
He came back, nevertheless—just for a minute—; he must have a handkerchief. Not a rag in his drawer! And his roommate had only a new stiff one that bunched hideously in his pocket; it looked big enough for a sail. Ford fished his everyday pockets in hope to find another more available. What he did find was his capital, seven cents. Ah, seven cents indeed! Fine! It was now five minutes of eight, and Ford was sweating beautifully in his heavy coat. In a dozen jumps he had lunged downstairs and was kicking Ned’s door. Ned was out. So was Ried. So was Pike. Ford felt queer.
He tried Hills in Holworthy. then Tower in Hollis. All gone! He choked imprecations and returned. Eight o’clock,—no handkerchief, no money, one cuff dislocated, and a big sweat on. Ford was dazed—yet he must keep cool and think, he knew he must keep cool. He muttered “Not quite, not quite enough;” what it meant he couldn’t have told, but it seemed appropriate. Calm, yes he would be calm: he would have a handkerchief, a good one, he would look again, in the closet on the shelf, perhaps.
With his candle in hand he climbed a chair and explored. Hot falling tallow made three fat tears on his bosom and hardened. He saw them; he also felt the collar giving away again. The clock pointed to 8.05. It stopped there—just where the brass candle-stick laid it low. The collar and tie blazed warmly in the grate, the evening gear lay ruffled and damaged on the floor, and the shoes——
G. A. E.