Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
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 Chapter 11


Dr. Stowe sometimes drove by the Old Corner Bookstore on his way to the golf course. It was hardly out of his way, and, on this day, he noticed the Eliot's Packard parked nearby with the chauffeur leaning against it and smoking. Surmising that Mary would be inside, choosing books for her family, he went in himself.

Dr. Stowe had struck up a rapport with Mary when she was still his patient as a teenager. There was something rather intimate about dentistry, with heads close together and fingers sometimes touching gums. Not romantic, perhaps, but tenderness could be expressed by a finger gently massaging a sore tooth or gum. Whatever the cause, Mary always did seem pleased to see him. In fact, having just finished with the books, she accepted his offer of a soda at the nearby drugstore.

As they passed by the chauffeur, Jimmy, Mary told him that she would be back shortly. Having left him behind, Mary said,

"I hope he doesn't tell the family."

"That you're going for a soda with me? Is that so compromising?"

Mary laughed and replied,

"It's just that he's a sort of spy. It's ridiculous that I can't drive myself. I drive better than he does anyway."

"I know he can be difficult, and, since you all know how to drive, I have wondered ..."

"It's payback. Jimmy was my grandfather's driver, and he did the family the great service of keeping a romantically inclined old widower clear of designing women. The money could have disappeared very quickly."

"I hadn't known. That is a great service!"

"Yes. My father's form of honor requires the payment of debts, even when they're a little too edgy to be openly acknowledged. So we're stuck with Jimmy."

Since it was a socially exclusive drug store, the several shining glass tables were surrounded by curvy little wire chairs of advanced design. They would have been excruciatingly uncomfortable had they not been equipped with plump round red cushions. As it was, the basically unstable chairs might have dumped an overweight person on to the handsome and immaculate marble floor.

Mary, looking as if she might be a model advertizing the chairs, sat prettily on one with her ankles crossed and her back arched. Dr. Stowe, with a conspicuous show of gallantry, went to the counter to get a chocolate velvet for her and a strawberry phosphate for himself.

When he complimented Mary on her new job, she replied,

"I like it. But there's a little more to it than my parents realize. These are, after all, holidays for the conventioneers. Many of them want to play."

"I know. I used to go to dental conventions."

"They might have been higher toned."

"Probably not."

Mary then told him about the trip to Scollay Square, it not being necessary to ask him not to tell anyone. He replied,

"I've been to the Old Howard myself in younger days."

Mary seemed a little shocked, but he explained,

"I went out of curiosity, like your friends. But it was much then as it seems to be now. There were much better places to go."

"I'm sure. But an odd thing happened. I struck up a bit of a friendship with one lady. She's bright, amusing, and fun. She's also married to an optomotrist, and I didn't sense anything unusual."

"An optomotrist is rather like a dentist. We're both necessary, we both make quite a lot of money, and we're both vaguely medical. But the important thing about both of us is that we're not doctors."

"I'd never thought about that."

"Our status is lower, and we're not really obligated to set a high moral standard for the community. We're just chaps who see to eyes and teeth."

"It turns out that this lady and her husband play little games with third parties."

"I bet they begin with a game of strip poker."

"Something like that. They also seem to give gifts, not money exactly, but ..."

"Of course, Mary, that's way out of your pattern, upbringing, everything else."

"Sure. The person who was asked knew that and declined for me. But she did tell me afterwards."

"And that was Lee?"

"Well, yes."

"That's no difficulty. People sometimes think that I'm out of touch because of my age, but I am aware of a good deal. As far as it goes with Sink and Lee, I approve."

"So you do know?"

"Yes. But they don't know that I know."

"Well, I'm glad about that. I know Lee well, and I don't think she'd ever try to take advantage of him or you in any way."

"Certainly not. On the other hand, it can't go on forever. I don't think it's a permanent solution for Sink."

"My mother has a permanent solution in mind."

"Your sister is a vibrant and charming young lady, and Sink likes playing golf with someone who can give him stiff competition. But, of course ..."

"I'm afraid Mother will never give up. Other men don't stack up very well when compared to Sink, and she knows it. She just doesn't know Lucy. Or Ruth. Or Lucy and Ruth."

"It is rather puzzling that she doesn't seem to recognize the situation. It isn't as if they were still teen-agers."

"I know. They hardly try to hide their feelings. It must be the talk of the town."

"Well, I have heard mention of it. Dr. Sam...."

"Oh! I always hated going to him, and having to undress in front of him."

"I can imagine. So far as I know, he's never done anything improper with a patient. But they probably get a heavy dose of political thinking."

"I know. That was mostly before Hitler, but he hated Jews even then. Now, it's much worse."

"I have certain techniques for getting him off that subject. He's a fount of gossip on all things, and I must admit that I have a weakness in that area."

"Intelligent people are naturally curious. We can't help it. My mother also likes gossip, and he comes around to see her at times that my father is unlikely to be home."

"Really? I had no idea."

"He gets her to contribute money to certain organizations. I'm sure that they're very nasty ones."

"They certainly must be. I think your father would hate that more than a morally improper approach."

"He doesn't know, of course. If I told him, and Mother found out, she'd practically turn me out of the house."

Dr. Stowe nodded with understanding.

The next time Drs. Stowe and Woodger met, it happened to be next to the croquet lawn in front of the clubhouse. Both looked with some contempt at an old gent tapping his ball gently and shakily with a mallet seemingly too heavy for him. Dr. Stowe ventured,

"These folks are all pure Aryans. Do you actually prefer them to, say, Jewish doctors?"

"The people here may be hopeless and useless, but they harm no one."

"Surely the average Jewish doctor helps more people than he harms."

"I've known lots of them, many highly skilled. But they're also more likely to perform unnecessary operations, except on other Jews. That's the common thread from the pedlars on up. Look out for each other and exploit the larger society. That's why Hitler is acting."

"I don't think Einstein is in it for profit."

"He and people like him are the brilliant exceptions. They're ornaments to a society, but their work doesn't usually have much practical application. I'm all for bringing them to American universities and leaving them there in the isolation that they prefer."

It was just when Dr. Stowe was wondering whether his friend might be more reasonable than he had supposed that Dr. Woodger burst out,

"It's people like Sol Cohen that we've got to drive out of town."

Sol Cohen owned and ran a harberdashery on upper Main St. His clothes were utilitarian, fairly cheap, and not noticeably ugly. Sink, indeed, went there for most of what he wore. Even though Eloise Eliot was forever criticizing his wardrobe, he only smiled and continued to patronize the store. Dr. Stowe mentioned this, and added,

"He doesn't ever seem to think he's being cheated."

"Sink might not notice Cohen's adding on an extra fifty cents when he totals up his bill."

Dr. Stowe had to laugh as he allowed,

"Sink probably wouldn't notice that."

"The point is that we should never have the sort of person doing business on Main Street that we wouldn't want in the Rotary Club."

Dr. Stowe was himself an almost completely inactive member of the club, but offered no comment. The other continued,

"Much worse than Cohen is that Jew, Howsam, who's just set up a new store in Boston. With his methods he may drive the stores that've been there a hundred years out of business."

Dr. Stowe had heard of the Howsam stores and wondered idly whether Lee Howsam could be related. It was certainly an unusual name, and she did look wealthy. But, surely, the daughter of such a man wouldn't have to prostitute herself. As he mused, his companion announced,

"The trouble with Jews, large and small, is that they don't play by the rules."

Just then, there was an angry cry from the croquet lawn.

Against all probability, one of the gentlemen, Stanley Field, was accused of moving his ball when he thought no one was looking. To his extreme discomfiture, a sharp-eyed old lady had caught him in the act.

Mr. Field, in his sixties, had been a member for many years. He was also a member of one of the oldest New England families, one with two Mayflower ancestors. A vaguely ineffectual man who had never really worked, his stooped posture and slow movements suggested that he had never been a ball of fire. Mostly because of his family, now mostly dead, he was welcomed in a good many homes. But it was never with any unnecessary degree of enthusiasm.

It was unlikely that anyone had ever hated Stanley, or, until now, condemned him in any serious way. But it did look as if the relatively minor re-positioning of a brightly colored wooden ball might eclipse, in terms of consequences, anything else that had ever happened to him.

Stanley was a former patient of Dr. Woodger, and now, in his hour of need, he lurched toward him. The latter put out his arm to the staggering croquet enthusiast and led him off with the words,

"Just ignore these idiots, Stan. Come have a drink with me."

After their departure, the croquet players came up to Dr. Stowe, as if he were somehow responsible for Stanley Field and his transgression. The woman who had accused him most vividly said,

"He did cheat, you know."

Dr. Stowe replied,

"I'm not familiar with the rules of croquet. Did he hit someone with his mallet?"

The woman turned away in disgust, but an elderly southern gentleman with a big white moustache approached aggressively. The lone conspicuous southerner in the club, he was known as "Squire Warfield", and was thought to have a certain wisdom in wordly affairs. Almost jabbing Dr. Stowe with his forefinger, he put the case that civilized society required correct behavior in all circumstances. After hearing him out, Dr. Stowe asked,

"Were you playing for high stakes?"

The answer came in the excited tones of deepest Georgia,

"We don't play for money, sir! But there are some things a white man doesn't do!"

It was somewhat later that Dr. Stowe found Dr. Woodger, now alone. The latter said,

"Stan was pretty shaken up. I got him calmed down a bit, and then sent him home in a taxi."

"Did he really cheat, do you think?"

"Probably. He won't be able to play croquet any more, and there goes a good half of his social life."

"All over moving his ball a few inches."

"I know I was complaining about Jews breaking the rules, and here comes Stan, a true-blue Yankee, breaking the rules."

"I did notice that."

"I bet you did, you old fox! But you have to admit that society doesn't rest on the rules for croquet."

"No. Even the rules for golf can be violated with impunity."

Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
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