His predominant fear—not from any especial fondness for her but from the habit of propriety—was that his wife would learn of the affair. He was certain that she knew nothing specific about Tanis, but he was also certain that she suspected something indefinite. For years she had been bored by anything more affectionate than a farewell kiss, yet she was hurt by any slackening in his irritable periodic interest, and now he had no interest; rather, a revulsion. He was completely faithful—to Tanis. He was distressed by the sight of his wife’s slack plumpness, by her puffs and billows of flesh, by the tattered petticoat which she was always meaning and always forgetting to throw away. But he was aware that she, so long attuned to him, caught all his repulsions. He elaborately, heavily, jocularly tried to check them. He couldn’t.
They had a tolerable Christmas. Kenneth Escott was there, admittedly engaged to Verona. Mrs. Babbitt was tearful and called Kenneth her new son. Babbitt was worried about Ted, because he had ceased complaining of the State University and become suspiciously acquiescent. He wondered what the boy was planning, and was too shy to ask. Himself, Babbitt slipped away on Christmas afternoon to take his present, a silver cigarette-box, to Tanis. When he returned Mrs. Babbitt asked, much too innocently, “Did you go out for a little fresh air?”
“Yes, just lil drive,” he mumbled.
After New Year’s his wife proposed, “I heard from my sister to-day, George. She isn’t well. I think perhaps I ought to go stay with her for a few weeks.”
Now, Mrs. Babbitt was not accustomed to leave home during the winter except on violently demanding occasions, and only the summer before, she had been gone for weeks. Nor was Babbitt one of the detachable husbands who take separations casually He liked to have her there; she looked after his clothes; she knew how his steak ought to be cooked; and her clucking made him feel secure. But he could not drum up even a dutiful “Oh, she doesn’t really need you, does she?” While he tried to look regretful, while he felt that his wife was watching him, he was filled with exultant visions of Tanis.
“Do you think I’d better go?” she said sharply.
“You’ve got to decide, honey; I can’t.”
She turned away, sighing, and his forehead was damp.
Till she went, four days later, she was curiously still, he cumbrously affectionate. Her train left at noon. As he saw it grow small beyond the train-shed he longed to hurry to Tanis.
“No, by golly, I won’t do that!” he vowed. “I won’t go near her for a week!”
But he was at her flat at four.