Babbitt meant to be helpful and jolly about it. From his memory of high-school pleasures back in Catawba he suggested the nicest games: Going to Boston, and charades with stew-pans for helmets, and word-games in which you were an Adjective or a Quality. When he was most enthusiastic he discovered that they weren’t paying attention; they were only tolerating him. As for the party, it was as fixed and standardized as a Union Club Hop. There was to be dancing in the living-room, a noble collation in the dining-room, and in the hall two tables of bridge for what Ted called “the poor old dumb-bells that you can’t get to dance hardly more ’n half the time.”
Every breakfast was monopolized by conferences on the affair. No one listened to Babbitt’s bulletins about the February weather or to his throat-clearing comments on the headlines. He said furiously, “If I may be permitted to interrupt your engrossing private conversation—Juh hear what I said?”
“Oh, don’t be a spoiled baby! Ted and I have just as much right to talk as you have!” flared Mrs. Babbitt.
On the night of the party he was permitted to look on, when he was not helping Matilda with the Vecchia ice cream and the petits fours. He was deeply disquieted. Eight years ago, when Verona had given a high-school party, the children had been featureless gabies. Now they were men and women of the world, very supercilious men and women; the boys condescended to Babbitt, they wore evening-clothes, and with hauteur they accepted cigarettes from silver cases. Babbitt had heard stories of what the Athletic Club called “goings on” at young parties; of girls “parking” their corsets in the dressing-room, of “cuddling” and “petting,” and a presumable increase in what was known as Immorality. To-night he believed the stories. These children seemed bold to him, and cold. The girls wore misty chiffon, coral velvet, or cloth of gold, and around their dipping bobbed hair were shining wreaths. He had it, upon urgent and secret inquiry, that no corsets were known to be parked upstairs; but certainly these eager bodies were not stiff with steel. Their stockings were of lustrous silk, their slippers costly and unnatural, their lips carmined and their eyebrows penciled. They danced cheek to cheek with the boys, and Babbitt sickened with apprehension and unconscious envy.
Worst of them all was Eunice Littlefield, and maddest of all the boys was Ted. Eunice was a flying demon. She slid the length of the room; her tender shoulders swayed; her feet were deft as a weaver’s shuttle; she laughed, and enticed Babbitt to dance with her.
Then he discovered the annex to the party.
The boys and girls disappeared occasionally, and he remembered rumors of their drinking together from hip-pocket flasks. He tiptoed round the house, and in each of the dozen cars waiting in the street he saw the points of light from cigarettes, from each of them heard high giggles. He wanted to denounce them but (standing in the snow, peering round the dark corner) he did not dare. He tried to be tactful. When he had returned to the front hall he coaxed the boys, “Say, if any of you fellows are thirsty, there’s some dandy ginger ale.”