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BABBITT (22)

2006-09-08 13:55

    CHAPTER XXII

    I

    HE drove to the City Prison, not blindly, but with unusual fussy care at corners, the fussiness of an old woman potting plants. It kept him from facing the obscenity of fate.

    The attendant said, "Naw, you can't see any of the prisoners till three-thirty——visiting-hour."

    It was three. For half an hour Babbitt sat looking at a calendar and a clock on a whitewashed wall. The chair was hard and mean and creaky. People went through the office and, he thought, stared at him. He felt a belligerent defiance which broke into a wincing fear of this machine which was grinding Paul——Paul Exactly at half-past three he sent in his name.

    The attendant returned with "Riesling says he don't want to see you."

    "You're crazy! You didn't give him my name! Tell him it's George wants to see him, George Babbitt."

    "Yuh, I told him, all right, all right! He said he didn't want to see you."

    "Then take me in anyway."

    "Nothing doing. If you ain't his lawyer, if he don't want to see you, that's all there is to it."

    "But, my GOD——Say, let me see the warden."

    "He's busy. Come on, now, you——" Babbitt reared over him. The attendant hastily changed to a coaxing "You can come back and try to-morrow. Probably the poor guy is off his nut."

    Babbitt drove, not at all carefully or fussily, sliding viciously past trucks, ignoring the truckmen's curses, to the City Hall; he stopped with a grind of wheels against the curb, and ran up the marble steps to the office of the Hon. Mr. Lucas Prout, the mayor. He bribed the mayor's doorman with a dollar; he was instantly inside, demanding, "You remember me, Mr. Prout? Babbitt——vice-president of the Boosters——campaigned for you? Say, have you heard about poor Riesling? Well, I want an order on the warden or whatever you call um of the City Prison to take me back and see him. Good. Thanks."

    In fifteen minutes he was pounding down the prison corridor to a cage where Paul Riesling sat on a cot, twisted like an old beggar, legs crossed, arms in a knot, biting at his clenched fist.

    Paul looked up blankly as the keeper unlocked the cell, admitted Babbitt, and left them together. He spoke slowly: "Go on! Be moral!"

    Babbitt plumped on the couch beside him. "I'm not going to be moral! I don't care what happened! I just want to do anything I can. I'm glad Zilla got what was coming to her."

    Paul said argumentatively, "Now, don't go jumping on Zilla. I've been thinking; maybe she hasn't had any too easy a time. Just after I shot her——I didn't hardly mean to, but she got to deviling me so I went crazy, just for a second, and pulled out that old revolver you and I used to shoot rabbits with, and took a crack at her. Didn't hardly mean to——After that, when I was trying to stop the blood——It was terrible what it did to her shoulder, and she had beautiful skin——Maybe she won't die. I hope it won't leave her skin all scarred. But just afterward, when I was hunting through the bathroom for some cotton to stop the blood, I ran onto a little fuzzy yellow duck we hung on the tree one Christmas, and I remembered she and I'd been awfully happy then——Hell. I can't hardly believe it's me here." As Babbitt's arm tightened about his shoulder, Paul sighed, "I'm glad you came. But I thought maybe you'd lecture me, and when you've committed a murder, and been brought here and everything——there was a big crowd outside the apartment house, all staring, and the cops took me through it——Oh, I'm not going to talk about it any more."

    But he went on, in a monotonous, terrified insane mumble. To divert him Babbitt said, "Why, you got a scar on your cheek."

    "Yes. That's where the cop hit me. I suppose cops get a lot of fun out of lecturing murderers, too. He was a big fellow. And they wouldn't let me help carry Zilla down to the ambulance."

    "Paul! Quit it! Listen: she won't die, and when it's all over you and I'll go off to Maine again. And maybe we can get that May Arnold to go along. I'll go up to Chicago and ask her. Good woman, by golly. And afterwards I'll see that you get started in business out West somewhere, maybe Seattle——they say that's a lovely city."

    Paul was half smiling. It was Babbitt who rambled now. He could not tell whether Paul was heeding, but he droned on till the coming of Paul's lawyer, P. J. Maxwell, a thin, busy, unfriendly man who nodded at Babbitt and hinted, "If Riesling and I could be alone for a moment——"

    Babbitt wrung Paul's hands, and waited in the office till Maxwell came pattering out. "Look, old man, what can I do?" he begged.

    "Nothing. Not a thing. Not just now," said Maxwell. "Sorry. Got to hurry. And don't try to see him. I've had the doctor give him a shot of morphine, so he'll sleep."

    It seemed somehow wicked to return to the office. Babbitt felt as though he had just come from a funeral. He drifted out to the City Hospital to inquire about Zilla. She was not likely to die, he learned. The bullet from Paul's huge old .44 army revolver had smashed her shoulder and torn upward and out.

    He wandered home and found his wife radiant with the hor-ified interest we have in the tragedies of our friends. "Of course Paul isn't altogether to blame, but this is what comes of his chasing after other women instead of bearing his cross in a Christian way," she exulted.

    He was too languid to respond as he desired. He said what was to be said about the Christian bearing of crosses, and went out to clean the car. Dully, patiently, he scraped linty grease from the drip-pan, gouged at the mud caked on the wheels. He used up many minutes in washing his hands; scoured them with gritty kitchen soap; rejoiced in hurting his plump knuckles. "Damn soft hands——like a woman's. Aah!"

    At dinner, when his wife began the inevitable, he bellowed, "I forbid any of you to say a word about Paul! I'll 'tend to all the talking about this that's necessary, hear me? There's going to be one house in this scandal-mongering town to-night that isn't going to spring the holier-than-thou. And throw those filthy evening papers out of the house!"

    But he himself read the papers, after dinner.

    Before nine he set out for the house of Lawyer Maxwell. He was received without cordiality. "Well?" said Maxwell.

    "I want to offer my services in the trial. I've got an idea. Why couldn't I go on the stand and swear I was there, and she pulled the gun first and he wrestled with her and the gun went off accidentally?"

    "And perjure yourself?"

    "Huh? Yes, I suppose it would be perjury. Oh——Would it help?"

    "But, my dear fellow! Perjury!"

    "Oh, don't be a fool! Excuse me, Maxwell; I didn't mean to get your goat. I just mean: I've known and you've known many and many a case of perjury, just to annex some rotten little piece of real estate, and here where it's a case of saving Paul from going to prison, I'd perjure myself black in the face."

    "No. Aside from the ethics of the matter, I'm afraid it isn't practicable. The prosecutor would tear your testimony to pieces. It's known that only Riesling and his wife were there at the time."

    "Then, look here! Let me go on the stand and swear——and this would be the God's truth——that she pestered him till he kind of went crazy."

    "No. Sorry. Riesling absolutely refuses to have any testimony reflecting on his wife. He insists on pleading guilty."

    "Then let me get up and testify something——whatever you say. Let me do SOMETHING!"

    "I'm sorry, Babbitt, but the best thing you can do——I hate to say it, but you could help us most by keeping strictly out of it."

    Babbitt, revolving his hat like a defaulting poor tenant, winced so visibly that Maxwell condescended:

    "I don't like to hurt your feelings, but you see we both want to do our best for Riesling, and we mustn't consider any other factor. The trouble with you, Babbitt, is that you're one of these fellows who talk too readily. You like to hear your own voice. If there were anything for which I could put you in the witness-box, you'd get going and give the whole show away. Sorry. Now I must look over some papers——So sorry."

    II

    He spent most of the next morning nerving himself to face the garrulous world of the Athletic Club. They would talk about Paul; they would be lip-licking and rotten. But at the Roughnecks' Table they did not mention Paul. They spoke with zeal of the coming baseball season. He loved them as he never had before.

    III

    He had, doubtless from some story-book, pictured Paul's trial as a long struggle, with bitter arguments, a taut crowd, and sudden and overwhelming new testimony. Actually, the trial occupied less than fifteen minutes, largely filled with the evidence of doctors that Zilla would recover and that Paul must have been temporarily insane. Next day Paul was sentenced to three years in the State Penitentiary and taken off——quite undramatically, not handcuffed, merely plodding in a tired way beside a cheerful deputy sheriff——and after saying good-by to him at the station Babbitt returned to his office to realize that he faced a world which, without Paul, was meaningless.

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