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A Lanny Budd Novel
By Upton Sinclair
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 Upton Sinclair
All rights reserved.
The Old Beginning
Lanny Budd was the only occupant of a small-sized reception-room. He was seated in a well-padded armchair, and had every reason to be comfortable, but did not appear so. He fidgeted a good deal, and found occasions for looking at his watch; then he would examine his fingernails, which needed no attention; he would look for specks of lint on his tropical worsted trousers, from which he had removed the last speck some time ago. He would look out of the window, which gave on one of the fashionable avenues of the city of Cannes; but he had already become familiar with the view, and it did not change. He had a popular novel on his knee, and every now and then would find that he could not interest himself in the conversation of a set of smart society people.
Now and then one of several white-clad nurses would pass through the room. Lanny had asked them so many questions that he was ashamed to speak again. He knew that all husbands behave irrationally at this time; he had seen a group of them in a stage play, slightly risqué but harmless. They all fidgeted and consulted their watches; they all got up and walked about needlessly; they all bored the nurses with futile questions. The nurses had stereotyped replies, which, except for the language, were the same all over the world. "Oui, oui, monsieur. ... Tout va bien. ... Il faut laisser faire. ... Il faut du temps. ... C'est la nature."
Many times Lanny had heard that last statement in the Midi; it was a formula which excused many things. He had heard it more than once that afternoon, but it failed to satisfy him. He was in rebellion against nature and her ways. He hadn't had much suffering in his own life, and didn't want other people to suffer; he thought that if he had been consulted he could have suggested many improvements in the ways of this fantastic universe. The business of having people grow old and pass off the scene, and new ones having to be supplied! He knew persons who had carefully trained and perfected themselves; they were beautiful to look at, or possessed knowledge and skills, yet they had to die before long — and, knowing that fact, must provide a new lot to take their places.
Lanny Budd belonged to the leisure classes. You could tell it by a single glance at his smiling unlined face, his tanned skin with signs of well-nourished blood in it, his precise little mustache, his brown hair neatly trimmed and brushed, his suit properly tailored and freshly pressed, his shirt and tie, shoes and socks, harmonizing in color and of costly materials. It had been some time since he had seen any bloodshed or experienced personal discomfort. His life had been arranged to that end, and the same was true of his wife. But now this damnable messy business, this long-drawn-out strain and suffering — good God, what were doctors and scientists for if they couldn't devise something to take the place of this! It was like a volcanic eruption in a well-ordered and peaceful community; not much better because you could foresee the event, going in advance to an immaculate hospice de la maternité and engaging a room at so much per week, an accoucheur at so much for the job.
A surgeon! A fellow with a lot of shiny steel instruments, prepared to assist nature in opening a woman up and getting a live and kicking infant out of her! It had seemed incredible to Lanny the first time he had heard about it, a youngster playing with the fisherboys of this Mediterranean coast, helping them pull strange creatures out of the sea and hearing them talk about the "facts of life." It seemed exactly as incredible to him at this moment, when he knew that it was going on in a room not far away, the victim his beautiful young playmate whom he had come to love so deeply. His too vivid imagination was occupied with the bloody details, and he would clench his hands until the knuckles were white. His protest against nature mounted to a clamor. He thought: "Any way but this! Anything that's decent and sensible!" He addressed his ancient mother, asking why she hadn't stuck to the method of the egg, which seemed to work so well with birds and snakes and lizards and fishes? But these so-called "warm-blooded creatures," that had so much blood and spilled it so easily!
Lanny knew that Irma didn't share these feelings. Irma was a "sensible woman," not troubled with excess of imagination. She had said many times: "Don't worry. I'll be all right. It doesn't last forever." Everybody agreed that this young Juno was made for motherhood; she had ridden horseback, swum, played tennis, and had a vigorous body. She hadn't turned pale when she crossed the threshold of this hospital, or even when she heard the cries of another woman. Things always went all right with Irma Barnes, and she had told Lanny to go home and play the piano and forget her; but here he sat, and thought about the details which he had read in an encyclopedia article entitled "Obstetrics." From boyhood he had had the habit of looking up things in that dependable work; but, damn it all, the article gave an undue proportion of space to "breech presentations" and other variations from the normal, and Lanny might just as well have been in the delivery-room. He would have liked to go there, but that would have been considered an extreme variation from the normal in this land of rigid conventions.
So he sat in the little reception-room, and now and then the perspiration would start on his forehead, even though it was a cool spring day on the Riviera. He was glad that he had the room to himself; at times, when somebody came through, he would lower his eyes to his book and pretend to be absorbed. But if it was one of the nurses, he couldn't keep from stealing a glance, hoping that it was the nurse and the moment. The woman would smile; the conventions permitted her to smile at a handsome young gentleman, but did not permit her to go into obstetrical details. "Tout va bien, monsieur. Soyez tranquille." In such places the wheel of life revolves on schedule; those who tend the machinery acquire a professional attitude, their phrases become standardized, and you have mass production of politeness as well as of babies.
Lanny Budd was summoned to the telephone. It was Pietro Corsatti, Italian-born American who represented a New York newspaper in Rome and was having a vacation on the Riviera. He had once done Lanny a favor, and now had been promised one in return. "Pete" was to have the news the moment it happened; but it refused to happen, and maybe wasn't going to happen. "I know how you feel," said the correspondent, sympathetically. "I've been through it."
"It's been four hours!" exclaimed the outraged young husband.
"It may be four more, and it may be twenty-four. Don't take it too hard. It's happened a lot of times." The well-known cynicism of the journalist.
Lanny returned to his seat, thinking about an Italian-American with a strong Brooklyn accent who had pushed his way to an important newspaper position, and had so many funny stories to tell about the regime fascista and its leaders, whom, oddly enough, he called "wops." One of his best stories was about how he had become the guide, philosopher, and friend of a New York "glamour girl" who had got herself engaged to a fascinating aristocrat in Rome and had then made the discovery that he was living with the ballerina of the opera and had no idea of giving her up. The American girl had broken down and wept in Pete's presence, asking him what to do, and he had told her: "Take a plane and fly straight to Lanny Budd, and ask him to marry you in spite of the fact that you are too rich!"
It is tough luck when a journalist cannot publish his best story. Pete hadn't been asked not to, but, all the same, he hadn't, so now Lanny was his friend for life, and would go out of his way to give him a break whenever he could. They talked as pals, and Lanny didn't mind telling what only a few of his friends knew, that Irma had done exactly what Pete had said, and she and Lanny had been married on the day she had found him in London. As the Brooklyn dialect had it, they had "gone right to it," and here was the result nine months later: Lanny sitting in a reception-room of an hospice de la maternité, awaiting the arrival of Sir Stork, the blessed event, the little bundle from heaven — he knew the phrases, because he and Irma had been in New York and had read the "tabs" and listened to "radio reporters" shooting out gossip and slang with the rapid-fire effect of a Budd machine gun.
Lanny had promised Pete a scoop; something not so difficult, because French newspapermen were not particularly active in the pursuit of the knightly stork; the story might be cabled back to Paris for the English language papers there. Lanny had hobnobbed with the correspondents so much that he could guess what Pete would send in his "cablese" and how it would appear dressed up by the rewrite man in the sweet land of liberty. Doubtless Pete had already sent a "flash," and readers of that morning's newspapers were learning that Mrs. Lanny Budd, who was Irma Barnes, the glamour girl of last season, was in a private hospital in Cannes awaiting the blessed event.
The papers would supply the apposite details: that Irma was the only daughter of J. Paramount Barnes, recently deceased utilities magnate, who had left her the net sum of twenty-three million dollars; that her mother was one of the New York Vandringhams, and her uncle was Horace Vandringham, Wall Street manipulator cleaned out in the recent market collapse; that Irma's own fortune was said to have been cut in half, but she still owned a palatial estate on Long Island, to which she was expected to return. The papers would add that the expectant father was the son of Robert Budd of Budd Gunmakers Corporation of Newcastle, Connecticut; that his mother was the famous international beauty, widow of Marcel Detaze, the French painter whose work had created a sensation in New York last fall. Such details were eagerly read by a public which lived upon the doings of the rich, as the ancient Greeks had lived upon the affairs of the immortals who dwelt upon the snowy top of Mount Olympus.
Lanny would have preferred that his child should be born outside the limelight, but he knew it wasn't possible; this stream of electrons, or waves, or whatever it was, would follow Irma on her travels — so long as she had the other half of her fortune. As a matter of fact the fortune wasn't really diminished, for everybody else had lost half of his or hers, so the proportions remained the same. Irma Barnes still enjoyed the status of royalty, and so did the fortunate young man whom she had chosen for her prince consort. In the days of the ancien régime, when a child was born to the queen of France it had been the long-established right of noblemen and ladies to satisfy themselves that it was a real heir to the throne and no fraud; no stork stories were accepted, but they witnessed with their own eyes the physical emergence of the infant dauphin. Into the chamber of Marie Antoinette they crowded in such swarms that the queen cried out that she was suffocating, and the king opened a window with his own hands. It wasn't quite that bad now with the queen of the Barnes estate, but it was a fact that the newspaper-reading and radio-listening public would have welcomed hourly bulletins as to what was going on in this hospice de la maternité.
But, damn it, even Lanny himself didn't know what was going on! What was the use of planning what to say to newspaper reporters about the heir or heiress apparent to the Barnes fortune, when it refused so persistently to make itself apparent, and for all the prince consort knew the surgeon might be engaged in a desperate struggle with a "cross-birth," or perhaps having to cut the infant to pieces, or perform a Caesarean section to save its life! Lanny dug his fingernails into the palms of his hands, and got up and began to pace the floor. Every time he turned toward the bell-button in the reception-room he had an impulse to press it. He was paying for service, and wasn't receiving it, and he was getting up steam to demand it. But just at that juncture a nurse came through the room, cast one of her conventional smiles upon him, and remarked: "Soyez tranquille, monsieur. Tout va bien."
Lanny called his mother on the telephone. Beauty Budd had been through this adventure two and a half times — so she said — and spoke as one having authority. There wasn't a thing he could do, so why not come home and have something to eat, instead of worrying himself and getting in other people's way? This was the woman's job, and nobody in all creation was so superfluous as the husband. Lanny answered that he wasn't hungry, and he wasn't being allowed to bother anybody.
He went back to his seat in the reception-room, and thought about ladies. They were, as a rule, a highly individualistic lot; each on her own, and sharply aware of the faults of the others. He thought of those who made up his mother's set, and therefore had played a large part in his own life; he recalled the sly little digs he had heard them give one another, the lack of solidarity he had seen them display. They had been polite to Irma, but he was certain that behind her back, and behind his, they found it difficult to forgive her for being so favored of fortune. However, as her pregnancy had moved to its climax they had seemed to gather about her and become tender and considerate; they would have come and helped to fetch and carry, to hold her hands and pull against them in her spasms of pain, had it not been for the fact that there were professional women trained for these services.
Lanny thought about his mother, and her role in this drama, the stage entrance of another soul. Beauty had been an ideal mother-in-law so far. She had worked hard to make this marriage, for she believed in money; there was in her mind no smallest doubt of money's rightness, or of money's right to have its way. Had not her judgment been vindicated by the events of a dreadful Wall Street panic? Where would they all have been, what would have become of them, if it hadn't been for Irma's fortune? Who was there among Irma's friends who hadn't wanted help? Go ahead and pretend to be contemptuous of money if you pleased; indulge yourself in Pink talk, as Lanny did — but sooner or later it was proved that it is money which makes the mare go, and which feeds the mare, takes care of her shiny coat, and provides her with a warm and well-bedded stall.
Beauty Budd was going to become a grandmother. She pretended to be distressed at the idea; she made a moue, exclaiming that it would set the seal of doom upon her social career. Other handicaps you might evade by one device or another. You might fib about the number of your years, and have your face lifted, and fill your crow's-feet with skin enamel; but when you were a grandmother, when anyone could bring that charge publicly and you had to keep silent, that was the end of you as a charmer, a butterfly, a professional beauty.
But that was all mere spoofing. In reality Beauty was delighted at the idea of there being a little one to inherit the Barnes fortune and to be trained to make proper use of the prestige and power it conferred. That meant to be dignified and splendid, to be admired and courted, to be the prince or princess of that new kind of empire which the strong men of these days had created. Beauty's head was buzzing with romantic notions derived from the fairytales she had read as a child. She had brought these imaginings with her to Paris and merged them with the realities of splendid equipages, costly furs and jewels, titles and honors — and then the figure of a young Prince Charming, the son of a munitions manufacturer from her homeland. Beauty Budd's had been a Cinderella story, and it was now being carried further than the fairytales usually go. Grandma Cinderella!
Lanny couldn't stand any more of this suspense, this premonition of impending calamity. He rang the bell and demanded to see the head nurse; yes, even he, the superfluous husband, had some rights in a crisis like this! The functionary made her appearance; grave, stiff with starch and authority, forbidding behind pincenez. In response to Lanny's demand she consented to depart from the established formula, that all was going well and that he should be tranquil. With professional exactitude she explained that in the female organism there are tissues which have to be stretched, passages which have to be widened — the head nurse made a gesture of the hands — and there is no way for this to be accomplished save the way of nature, the efforts of the woman in labor. The accoucheur would pay a visit in the course of the next hour or so, and he perhaps would be able to put monsieur's mind at rest.
Excerpted from Dragon's Teeth by Upton Sinclair. Copyright © 1969 Upton Sinclair. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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