Basil Duke Lee and Riply Buckner, Jr., sat on the Lees’ front steps in the regretful gold of a late summer afternoon. Inside the house the telephone sang out with mysterious promise.
“I thought you were going home,” Basil said.
“I thought you were.”
“So am I.”
“Well, why don’t you go, then?”
“Why don’t you, then?”
They laughed, ending with yawning gurgles that were not laughed out but sucked in. As the telephone rang again, Basil got to his feet.
“I’ve got to study trig before dinner.”
“Are you honestly going to Yale this fall?” demanded Riply skeptically.
“Everybody says you’re foolish to go at sixteen.”
“I’ll be seventeen in September. So long. I’ll call you up tonight.”
Basil heard his mother at the upstairs telephone and he was immediately aware of distress in her voice.
“Yes… Isn’t that awful, Everett!… Yes… Oh-h my!” After a minute he gathered that it was only the usual worry about business and went on into the kitchen for refreshments. Returning, he met his mother hurrying downstairs. She was blinking rapidly and her hat was on backward—characteristic testimony to her excitement.
“I’ve got to go over to your grandfather’s.”
“What’s the matter, mother?”
“Uncle Everett thinks we’ve lost a lot of money.”
“How much?” he asked, startled.
“Twenty-two thousand dollars apiece. But we’re not sure.”
She went out.
“Twenty-two thousand dollars!” he repeated in an awed whisper.
His ideas of money were vague and somewhat debonair, but he had noticed that at family dinners the immemorial discussion as to whether the Third Street block would be sold to the railroads had given place to anxious talk of Western Public Utilities. At half-past six his mother telephoned for him to have his dinner, and with growing uneasiness he sat alone at the table, undistracted by The Mississippi Bubble, open beside his plate. She came in at seven, distraught and miserable, and dropping down at the table, gave him his first exact information about finance—she and her father and her brother Everett had lost something more than eighty thousand dollars. She was in a panic and she looked wildly around the dining room as if money were slipping away even here, and she wanted to retrench at once.
“I’ve got to stop selling securities or we won’t have anything,” she declared. “This leaves us only three thousand a year—do you realize that, Basil? I don’t see how I can possibly afford to send you to Yale.”
His heart tumbled into his stomach; the future, always glowing like a comfortable beacon ahead of him, flared up in glory and went out. His mother shivered, and then emphatically shook her head.
“You’ll just have to make up your mind to go to the State University.”
“Gosh!” Basil said.
Sorry for his shocked, rigid face, she yet spoke somewhat sharply, as people will with a bitter refusal to convey.
“I feel terribly about it—your father wanted you to go to Yale. But everyone says that, with clothes and railroad fare, I can count on it costing two thousand a year. Your grandfather helped me to send you to St. Regis School, but he always thought you ought to finish at the State University.”
After she went distractedly upstairs with a cup of tea, Basil sat thinking in the dark parlor. For the present the loss meant only one thing to him—he wasn’t going to Yale after all. The sentence itself, divorced from its meaning, overwhelmed him, so many times had he announced casually, “I’m going to Yale,” but gradually he realized how many friendly and familiar dreams had been swept away. Yale was the faraway East, that he had loved with a vast nostalgia since he had first read books about great cities. Beyond the dreary railroad stations of Chicago and the night fires of Pittsburgh, back in the old states, something went on that made his heart beat fast with excitement. He was attuned to the vast, breathless bustle of New York, to the metropolitan days and nights that were tense as singing wires. Nothing needed to be imagined there, for it was all the very stuff of romance—life was as vivid and satisfactory as in books and dreams.
But first, as a sort of gateway to that deeper, richer life, there was Yale. The name evoked the memory of a heroic team backed up against its own impassable goal in the crisp November twilight, and later, of half a dozen immaculate noblemen with opera hats and canes standing at the Manhattan Hotel bar. And tangled up with its triumphs and rewards, its struggles and glories, the vision of the inevitable, incomparable girl.
Well, then, why not work his way through Yale? In a moment the idea had become a reality. He began walking rapidly up and down the room, declaring half aloud, “Of course, that’s the thing to do.” Rushing upstairs, he knocked at his mother’s door and announced in the inspired voice of a prophet: “Mother, I know what I’m going to do! I’m going to work my way through Yale.”
He sat down on her bed and she considered uncertainly. The men in her family had not been resourceful for several generations, and the idea startled her.
“It doesn’t seem to me you’re a boy who likes to work,” she said. “Besides, boys who work their way through college have scholarships and prizes, and you’ve never been much of a student.”
He was annoyed. He was ready for Yale a year ahead of his age and her reproach seemed unfair.
“What would you work at?” she said.
“Take care of furnaces,” said Basil promptly. “And shovel snow off sidewalks. I think they mostly do that—and tutor people. You could let me have as much money as it would take to go to the State University?”
“We’ll have to think it over.”
“Well, don’t you worry about anything,” he said emphatically, “because my earning my way through Yale will really make up for the money you’ve lost, almost.”
“Why don’t you start by finding something to do this summer?”
“I’ll get a job tomorrow. Maybe I can pile up enough so you won’t have to help me. Good night, Mother.”
Up in his room he paused only to thunder grimly to the mirror that he was going to work his way through Yale, and going to his bookcase, took down half a dozen dusty volumes of Horatio Alger, unopened for years. Then, much as a postwar young man might consult the George Washington Condensed Business Course, he sat at his desk and slowly began to turn the pages of Bound to Rise.
Two days later, after being insulted by the doorkeepers, office boys and telephone girls of the Press, the Evening News, the Socialist Gazette and a green scandal sheet called the Courier, and assured that no one wanted a reporter practically seventeen, after enduring every ignominy prepared for a young man in a free country trying to work his way through Yale, Basil Duke Lee, too “stuck-up” to apply to the parents of his friends, got a position with the railroad, through Eddie Parmelee, who lived across the way.
At 6.30 the following morning, carrying his lunch, and a new suit of overalls that had cost four dollars, he strode self-consciously into the Great Northern car shops. It was like entering a new school, except that no one showed any interest in him or asked him if he was going out for the team. He punched a time clock, which affected him strangely, and without even an admonition from the foreman to “go in and win,” was put to carrying boards for the top of a car.
Twelve o’clock arrived; nothing had happened. The sun was blazing hot and his hands and back were sore, but no real events had ruffled the dull surface of the morning. The president’s little daughter had not come by, dragged by a runaway horse; not even a superintendent had walked through the yard and singled him out with an approving eye. Undismayed, he toiled on—you couldn’t expect much the first morning.
He and Eddie Parmelee ate their lunches together. For several years Eddie had worked here in vacations; he was sending himself to the State University this fall. He shook his head doubtfully over the idea of Basil’s earning his way through Yale.
“Here’s what you ought to do,” he said. “You borrow two thousand dollars from your mother and buy twenty shares in Ware Plow and Tractor. Then go to a bank and borrow two thousand more with those shares for collateral, and with that two thousand buy twenty more shares. Then you sit on your back for a year, and after that you won’t have to think about earning your way through Yale.”
“I don’t think mother would give me two thousand dollars.”
“Well, anyhow, that’s what I’d do.”
If the morning had been uneventful, the afternoon was distinguished by an incident of some unpleasantness. Basil had risen a little, having been requested to mount to the top of a freight car and help nail the boards he had carried in the morning. He found that nailing nails into a board was more highly technical than nailing tacks into a wall, but he considered that he was progressing satisfactorily when an angry voice hailed him from below:
“Hey, you! Get up!”
He looked down. A foreman stood there, unpleasantly red in the face.
“Yes, you in the new suit. Get up!”
Basil looked about to see if someone was lying down, but the two sullen hunyaks seemed to be hard at work and it grew on him that he was indeed being addressed.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” he said.
“Get up on your knees or get out! What the h— do you think this is?”
He had been sitting down as he nailed, and apparently the foreman thought that he was loafing. After another look at the foreman, he suppressed the explanation that he felt steadier sitting down and decided to just let it go. There were probably no railroad shops at Yale; yet, he remembered with a pang the ominous name “New York, New Haven and Hartford…”
The third morning, just as he had become aware that his overalls were not where he had hung them in the shop, it was announced that all men of less than six months’ service were to be laid off. Basil received four dollars and lost his overalls. Learning that nails are driven from a kneeling position had cost him only carfare.
In a large old-fashioned house in the old section of the city lived Basil’s great-uncle, Benjamin Reilly, and there Basil presented himself that evening. It was a last resort—Benjamin Reilly and Basil’s grandfather were brothers and they had not spoken for twenty years.
He was received in the living room by the small, dumpy old man whose inscrutable face was hidden behind a white poodle beard. Behind him stood a woman of forty, his wife of six months, and her daughter, a girl of fifteen. Basil’s branch of the family had not been invited to the wedding, and he had never seen these two additions before.
“I thought I’d come down and see you, Uncle Ben,” he said with some embarrassment.
There was a certain amount of silence.
“Your mother well?” asked the old man.
“Oh, yes, thank you.”
Mr. Reilly waited. Mrs. Reilly spoke to her daughter, who threw a curious glance at Basil and reluctantly left the room. Her mother made the old man sit down.
Out of sheer embarrassment Basil came to the point. He wanted a summer job in the Reilly Wholesale Drug Company.
His uncle fidgeted for a minute and then replied that there were no positions open.
“It might be different if you wanted a permanent place, but you say you want to go to Yale.” He said this with some irony of his own, and glanced at his wife.
“Why, yes,” said Basil. “That’s really why I want the job.”
“Your mother can’t afford to send you, eh?” The note of pleasure in his voice was unmistakable. “Spent all her money?”
“Oh, no,” answered Basil quickly. “She’s going to help me.”
To his surprise, aid came from an unpromising quarter. Mrs. Reilly suddenly bent and whispered in her husband’s ear, whereupon the old man nodded and said aloud:
“I’ll think about it, Basil. You go in there.”
And his wife repeated: “We’ll think about it. You go in the library with Rhoda while Mr. Reilly looks up and sees.”
The door of the library closed behind him and he was alone with Rhoda, a square-chinned, decided girl with fleshy white arms and a white dress that reminded Basil domestically of the lacy pants that blew among the laundry in the yard. Puzzled by his uncle’s change of front, he eyed her abstractedly for a moment.
“I guess you’re my cousin,” said Rhoda, closing her book, which he saw was The Little Colonel, Maid of Honor.
“Yes,” he admitted.
“I heard about you from somebody.” The implication was that her information was not flattering.
“A girl named Elaine Washmer.”
“Elaine Washmer!” His tone dismissed the name scornfully. “That girl!”
“She’s my best friend.” He made no reply. “She said you thought you were wonderful.”
Young people do not perceive at once that the giver of wounds is the enemy and the quoted tattle merely the arrow. His heart smoldered with wrath at Elaine Washmer.
“I don’t know many kids here,” said the girl, in a less aggressive key. “We’ve only been here six months. I never saw such a stuck-up bunch.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” he protested. “Where did you live before?”
“Sioux City. All the kids have much more fun in Sioux City.”
Mrs. Reilly opened the door and called Basil back into the living room. The old man was again on his feet.
“Come down tomorrow morning and I’ll find you something,” he said.
“And why don’t you have dinner with us tomorrow night?” added Mrs. Reilly, with a cordiality wherein an adult might have detected disingenuous purpose.
“Why, thank you very much.”
His heart, buoyant with gratitude, had scarcely carried him out the door before Mrs. Reilly laughed shortly and called in her daughter.
“Now we’ll see if you don’t get around a little more,” she announced. “When was it you said they had those dances?”
“Thursdays at the College Club and Saturdays at the Lake Club,” said Rhoda promptly.
“Well, if this young man wants to hold the position your father has given him, you’ll go to them all the rest of the summer.”
Arbitrary groups formed by the hazards of money or geography may be sufficiently quarrelsome and dull, but for sheer unpleasantness the condition of young people who have been thrust together by a common unpopularity can be compared only with that of prisoners herded in a cell. In Basil’s eyes the guests at the little dinner the following night were a collection of cripples. Lewis and Hector Crum, dullard cousins who were tolerable only to each other; Sidney Rosen, rich but awful; ugly Mary Haupt, Elaine Washmer, and Betty Geer, who reminded Basil of a cruel parody they had once sung to the tune of Jungle Town:
Down below the hill
There lives a pill
That makes me ill,
And her name is Betty Geer.
We had better stop right here…
She’s so fat,
She looks just like a cat,
And she’s the queen of pills.
Moreover, they resented Basil, who was presumed to be “stuck-up,” and walking home afterward, he felt dreary and vaguely exploited. Of course, he was grateful to Mrs. Reilly for her kindness, yet he couldn’t help wondering if a cleverer boy couldn’t have got out of taking Rhoda to the Lake Club next Saturday night. The proposal had caught him unaware; but when he was similarly trapped the following week, and the week after that, he began to realize the situation. It was a part of his job, and he accepted it grimly, unable, nevertheless, to understand how such a bad dancer and so unsociable a person should want to go where she was obviously a burden. “Why doesn’t she just sit at home and read a book,” he thought disgustedly, “or go away somewhere—or sew?”
It was one Saturday afternoon while he watched a tennis tournament and felt the unwelcome duty of the evening creep up on him, that he found himself suddenly fascinated by a girl’s face a few yards away. His heart leaped into his throat and the blood in his pulse beat with excitement; and then, when the crowd rose to go, he saw to his astonishment that he had been staring at a child ten years old. He looked away, oddly disappointed; after a moment he looked back again. The lovely, self-conscious face suggested a train of thought and sensation that he could not identify. As he passed on, forgoing a vague intention of discovering the child’s identity, there was beauty suddenly all around him in the afternoon; he could hear its unmistakable whisper, its never-inadequate, never-failing promise of happiness. “Tomorrow—one day soon now—this fall—maybe tonight.” Irresistibly compelled to express himself, he sat down and tried to write to a girl in New York. His words were stilted and the girl seemed cold and far away. The real image on his mind, the force that had propelled him into this state of yearning, was the face of the little girl seen that afternoon.
When he arrived with Rhoda Sinclair at the Lake Club that night, he immediately cast a quick look around to see what boys were present who were indebted to Rhoda or else within his own sphere of influence. This was just before cutting-in arrived, and ordinarily he was able to dispose of half a dozen dances in advance, but tonight an older crowd was in evidence and the situation was unpromising. However, as Rhoda emerged from the dressing room he saw Bill Kampf and thankfully bore down upon him.
“Hello, old boy,” he said, exuding personal good will. “How about dancing once with Rhoda tonight?”
“Can’t,” Bill answered briskly. “We’ve got people visiting us. Didn’t you know?”
“Well, why couldn’t we swap a dance anyhow?”
Bill looked at him in surprise.
“I thought you knew,” he exclaimed. “Erminie’s here. She’s been talking about you all afternoon.”
“Yes. And her father and mother and her kid sister. Got here this morning.”
Now, indeed, the emotion of two hours before bubbled up in Basil’s blood, but this time he knew why. It was the little sister of Erminie Gilbert Labouisse Bibble whose strangely familiar face had so attracted him. As his mind swung sharply back to a long afternoon on the Kampfs’ veranda at the lake, ages ago, a year ago, a real voice rang in his ear, “Basil!” and a sparkling little beauty of fifteen came up to him with a fine burst of hurry, taking his hand as though she was stepping into the circle of his arm.
“Basil, I’m so glad!” Her voice was husky with pleasure, though she was at the age when pleasure usually hides behind grins and mumbles. It was Basil who was awkward and embarrassed, despite the intention of his heart. He was a little relieved when Bill Kampf, more conscious of his lovely cousin than he had been a year ago, led her out on the floor.
“Who was that?” Rhoda demanded, as he returned in a daze. “I never saw her around.”
“Just a girl.” He scarcely knew what he was saying.
“Well, I know that. What’s her name?”
“Minnie Bibble, from New Orleans.”
“She certainly looks conceited. I never saw anybody so affected in my life.”
“Hush!” Basil protested involuntarily. “Let’s dance.”
It was a long hour before Basil was relieved by Hector Crum, and then several dances passed before he could get possession of Minnie, who was now the center of a moving whirl. But she made it up to him by pressing his hand and drawing him out to a veranda which overhung the dark lake.
“It’s about time,” she whispered. With a sort of instinct she found the darkest corner. “I might have known you’d have another crush.”
“I haven’t,” he insisted in horror. “That’s a sort of a cousin of mine.”
“I always knew you were fickle. But I didn’t think you’d forget me so soon.”
She had wriggled up until she was touching him. Her eyes, floating into his, said, What does it matter? We’re alone.
In a curious panic he jumped to his feet. He couldn’t possibly kiss her like this—right at once. It was all so different and older than a year ago. He was too excited to do more than walk up and down and say, “Gosh, I certainly am glad to see you,” supplementing this unoriginal statement with an artificial laugh.
Already mature in poise, she tried to soothe him: “Basil, come and sit down!”
“I’ll be all right,” he gasped, as if he had just fainted. “I’m a little fussed, that’s all.”
Again he contributed what, even to his pounding ears, sounded like a silly laugh.
“I’ll be here three weeks. Won’t it be fun?” And she added, with warm emphasis: “Do you remember on Bill’s veranda that afternoon?”
All he could find to answer was: “I work now in the afternoon.”
“You can come out in the evenings, Basil. It’s only half an hour in a car.”
“I haven’t got a car.”
“I mean you can get your family’s car.”
“It’s an electric.”
She waited patiently. He was still romantic to her—handsome, incalculable, a little sad.
“I saw your sister,” he blurted out. Beginning with that, he might bridge this perverse and intolerable reverence she inspired. “She certainly looks like you.”
“It was wonderful,” he said. “Wonderful! Let me tell you—”
“Yes, do.” She folded her hands expectantly in her lap.
“Well, this afternoon—”
The music had stopped and started several times. Now, in an intermission, there was the sound of determined footsteps on the veranda, and Basil looked up to find Rhoda and Hector Crum.
“I got to go home, Basil,” squeaked Hector in his changing voice. “Here’s Rhoda.”
Take Rhoda out to the dock and push her in the lake. But only Basil’s mind said this; his body stood up politely.
“I didn’t know where you were, Basil,” said Rhoda in an aggrieved tone. “Why didn’t you come back?”
“I was just coming.” His voice trembled a little as he turned to Minnie. “Shall I find your partner for you?”
“Oh, don’t bother,” said Minnie. She was not angry, but she was somewhat astonished. She could not be expected to guess that the young man walking away from her so submissively was at the moment employed in working his way through Yale.
From the first, Basil’s grandfather, who had once been a regent at the State University, wanted him to give up the idea of Yale, and now his mother, picturing him hungry and ragged in a garret, adjoined her persuasions. The sum on which he could count from her was far below the necessary minimum, and although he stubbornly refused to consider defeat, he consented, “just in case anything happened,” to register at the university for the coming year.
In the administration building he ran into Eddie Parmelee, who introduced his companion, a small, enthusiastic Japanese.
“Well, well,” said Eddie. “So you’ve given up Yale!”
“I given up Yale,” put in Mr. Utsonomia, surprisingly. “Oh, yes, long time I given up Yale.” He broke into enthusiastic laughter. “Oh, sure. Oh, yes.”
“Mr. Utsonomia’s a Japanese,” explained Eddie, winking. “He’s a sub-freshman too.”
“Yes, I given up Harvard, Princeton too,” continued Mr. Utsonomia. “They give me choice back in my country. I choose here.”
“You did?” said Basil, almost indignantly.
“Sure, more strong here. More peasants come, with strength and odor of ground.”
Basil stared at him. “You like that?” he asked incredulously.
Utsonomia nodded. “Here I get to know real American peoples. Girls too. Yale got only boys.”
“But they haven’t got college spirit here,” explained Basil patiently.
Utsonomia looked blankly at Eddie.
“Rah-rah!” elucidated Eddie, waving his arms. “Rah-rah-rah! You know.”
“Besides, the girls here—” began Basil, and stopped.
“You know girls here?” grinned Utsonomia.
“No, I don’t know them,” said Basil firmly. “But I know they’re not like the girls that you’d meet down at the Yale proms. I don’t think they even have proms here. I don’t mean the girls aren’t all right, but they’re just not like the ones at Yale. They’re just coeds.”
“I hear you got a crush on Rhoda Sinclair,” said Eddie.
“Yes, I have!” said Basil ironically.
“They used to invite me to dinner sometimes last spring, but since you take her around to all the club dances—”
“Good-bye,” said Basil hastily. He exchanged a jerky bow for Mr. Utsonomia’s more formal dip, and departed.
From the moment of Minnie’s arrival the question of Rhoda had begun to assume enormous proportions. At first he had been merely indifferent to her person and a little ashamed of her lacy, oddly reminiscent clothes, but now, as he saw how relentlessly his services were commandeered, he began to hate her. When she complained of a headache, his imagination would eagerly convert it into a long, lingering illness from which she would recover only after college opened in the fall. But the eight dollars a week which he received from his great-uncle would pay his fare to New Haven, and he knew that if he failed to hold this position his mother would refuse to let him go.
Not suspecting the truth, Minnie Bibble found the fact that he only danced with her once or twice at each hop, and was then strangely moody and silent, somehow intriguing. Temporarily, at least, she was fascinated by his indifference, and even a little unhappy. But her precociously emotional temperament would not long stand neglect, and it was agony for Basil to watch several rivals beginning to emerge. There were moments when it seemed too big a price to pay even for Yale.
All his hopes centered upon one event. That was a farewell party in her honor for which the Kampfs had engaged the College Club and to which Rhoda was not invited. Given the mood and the moment, he might speed her departure knowing that he had stamped himself indelibly on her heart.
Three days before the party he came home from work at six to find the Kampfs’ car before his door and Minnie sitting alone on the front porch.
“Basil, I had to see you,” she said. “You’ve been so funny and distant to me.”
Intoxicated by her presence on his familiar porch, he found no words to answer.
“I’m meeting the family in town for dinner and I’ve got an hour. Can’t we go somewhere? I’ve been frightened to death your mother would come home and think it was fresh for me to call on you.” She spoke in a whisper, though there was no one close enough to hear. “I wish we didn’t have the old chauffeur. He listens.”
“Listens to what?” Basil asked, with a flash of jealousy.
“He just listens.”
“I’ll tell you,” he proposed. “We’ll have him drop us by grampa’s house and I’ll borrow the electric.”
The hot wind blew the brown curls around her forehead as they glided along Crest Avenue.
That he contributed the car made him feel more triumphantly astride the moment. There was a place he had saved for such a time as this—a little pigtail of a road left from the excavations of Prospect Park, where Crest Avenue ran obliviously above them and the late sun glinted on the Mississippi flats a mile away.
The end of summer was in the afternoon; it had turned a corner, and what was left must be used while there was yet time.
Suddenly she was whispering in his arms, “You’re first, Basil—nobody but you.”
“You just admitted you were a flirt.”
“I know, but that was years ago. I used to like to be called fast when I was thirteen or fourteen, because I didn’t care what people said; but about a year ago I began to see there was something better in life—honestly, Basil—and I’ve tried to act properly. But I’m afraid I’ll never be an angel.”
The river flowed in a thin scarlet gleam between the public baths and the massed tracks upon the other side. Booming, whistling, faraway railroad sounds reached them from down there; the voices of children playing tennis in Prospect Park sailed frailly overhead.
“I really haven’t got such a line as everybody thinks, Basil, for I mean a lot of what I say way down deep, and nobody believes me. You know how much alike we are, and in a boy it doesn’t matter, but a girl has to control her feelings, and that’s hard for me, because I’m emotional.”
“Haven’t you kissed anybody since you’ve been in St. Paul?”
He saw she was lying, but it was a brave lie. They talked from their hearts—with the half truths and evasions peculiar to that organ, which has never been famed as an instrument of precision. They pieced together all the shreds of romance they knew and made garments for each other no less warm than their childish passion, no less wonderful than their sense of wonder.
He held her away suddenly, looked at her, made a strained sound of delight. There it was, in her face touched by sun—that promise—in the curve of her mouth, the tilted shadow of her nose on her cheek, the point of dull fire in her eyes—the promise that she could lead him into a world in which he would always be happy.
“Say I love you,” he whispered.
“I’m in love with you.”
“Oh, no; that’s not the same.”
She hesitated. “I’ve never said the other to anybody.”
“Please say it.”
She blushed the color of the sunset.
“At my party,” she whispered. “It’d be easier at night.”
When she dropped him in front of his house she spoke from the window of the car:
“This is my excuse for coming to see you. My uncle couldn’t get the club Thursday, so we’re having the party at the regular dance Saturday night.”
Basil walked thoughtfully into the house; Rhoda Sinclair was also giving a dinner at the College Club dance Saturday night.
It was put up to him frankly. Mrs. Reilly listened to his tentative excuses in silence and then said:
“Rhoda invited you first for Saturday night, and she already has one girl too many. Of course, if you choose to simply turn your back on your engagement and go to another party, I don’t know how Rhoda will feel, but I know how I should feel.”
And the next day his great-uncle, passing through the stock room, stopped and said: “What’s all this trouble about parties?”
Basil started to explain, but Mr. Reilly cut him short. “I don’t see the use of hurting a young girl’s feelings. You better think it over.”
Basil had thought it over; on Saturday afternoon he was still expected at both dinners and he had hit upon no solution at all.
Yale was only a month away now, but in four days Erminie Bibble would be gone, uncommitted, unsecured, grievously offended, lost forever. Not yet delivered from adolescence, Basil’s moments of foresight alternated with those when the future was measured by a day. The glory that was Yale faded beside the promise of that incomparable hour.
On the other side loomed up the gaunt specter of the university, with phantoms flitting in and out its portals that presently disclosed themselves as peasants and girls. At five o’clock, in a burst of contempt for his weakness, he went to the phone and left word with a maid at the Kampfs’ house that he was sick and couldn’t come tonight. Nor would he sit with the dull left-overs of his generation—too sick for one party, he was too sick for the other. The Reillys could have no complaint as to that.
Rhoda answered the phone and Basil tried to reduce his voice to a weak murmur:
“Rhoda, I’ve been taken sick. I’m in bed now,” he murmured feebly, and then added: “The phone’s right next to the bed, you see; so I thought I’d call you up myself.”
“You mean to say you can’t come?” Dismay and anger were in her voice.
“I’m sick in bed,” he repeated doggedly. “I’ve got chills and a pain and a cold.”
“Well, can’t you come anyhow?” she asked, with what to the invalid seemed a remarkable lack of consideration. “You’ve just got to. Otherwise there’ll be two extra girls.”
“I’ll send someone to take my place,” he said desperately. His glance, roving wildly out the window, fell on a house over the way. “I’ll send Eddie Parmelee.”
Rhoda considered. Then she asked with quick suspicion: “You’re not going to that other party?”
“Oh, no; I told them I was sick too.”
Again Rhoda considered. Eddie Parmelee was mad at her.
“I’ll fix it up,” Basil promised. “I know he’ll come. He hasn’t got anything to do tonight.”
A few minutes later he dashed across the street. Eddie himself, tying a bow on his collar, came to the door. With certain reservations, Basil hastily outlined the situation. Would Eddie go in his place?
“Can’t do it, old boy, even if I wanted to. Got a date with my real girl tonight.”
“Eddie, I’d make it worth your while,” he said recklessly. “I’d pay you for your time—say, five dollars.”
Eddie considered, there was hesitation in his eyes, but he shook his head.
“It isn’t worth it, Basil. You ought to see what I’m going out with tonight.”
“You could see her afterward. They only want you—I mean me—because they’ve got more girls than men for dinner—and listen, Eddie, I’ll make it ten dollars.”
Eddie clapped him on the shoulder.
“All right, old boy, I’ll do it for an old friend. Where’s the pay?”
More than a week’s salary melted into Eddie’s palm, but another sort of emptiness accompanied Basil back across the street—the emptiness of the coming night. In an hour or so the Kampfs’ limousine would draw up at the College Club and—time and time again his imagination halted miserably before that single picture, unable to endure any more.
In despair he wandered about the dark house. His mother had let the maid go out and was at his grandfather’s for dinner, and momentarily Basil considered finding some rake like Elwood Leaming and going down to Carling’s Restaurant to drink whiskey, wines and beer. Perhaps on her way back to the lake after the dance, Minnie, passing by, would see his face among the wildest of the revelers and understand.
“I’m going to Maxim’s,” he hummed to himself desperately; then he added impatiently: “Oh, to heck with Maxim’s!”
He sat in the parlor and watched a pale moon come up over the Lindsays’ fence at McKubben Street. Some young people came by, heading for the trolley that went to Como Park. He pitied their horrible dreariness—they were not going to dance with Minnie at the College Club tonight.
Eight-thirty—she was there now. Nine—they were dancing between courses to Peg of My Heart or doing the Castle Walk that Andy Lockheart brought home from Yale.
At ten o’clock he heard his mother come in, and almost immediately the phone rang. For a moment he listened without interest to her voice; then abruptly he sat up in his chair.
“Why, yes; how do you do, Mrs. Reilly… Oh, I see… Oh… Are you sure it isn’t Basil you want to speak to? … Well, frankly, Mrs. Reilly, I don’t see that it’s my affair.”
Basil got up and took a step toward the door; his mother’s voice was growing thin and annoyed: “I wasn’t here at the time and I don’t know who he promised to send.”
Eddie Parmelee hadn’t gone after all—well, that was the end.
“…Of course not. It must be a mistake. I don’t think Basil would possibly do that; I don’t think he even knows any Japanese.”
Basil’s brain reeled. For a moment he was about to dash across the street after Eddie Parmelee. Then he heard a definitely angry note come into his mother’s voice:
“Very well, Mrs. Reilly. I’ll tell my son. But his going to Yale is scarcely a matter I care to discuss with you. In any case, he no longer needs anyone’s assistance.”
He had lost his position and his mother was trying to put a proud face on it. But her voice continued, soaring a little:
“Uncle Ben might be interested to know that this afternoon we sold the Third Street block to the Union Depot Company for four hundred thousand dollars.”
Mr. Utsonomia was enjoying himself. In the whole six months in America he had never felt so caught up in its inner life before. At first it had been a little hard to make plain to the lady just whose place it was he was taking, but Eddie Parmelee had assured him that such substitutions were an American custom, and he was spending the evening collecting as much data upon American customs as possible.
He did not dance, so he sat with the elderly lady until both the ladies went home, early and apparently a little agitated, shortly after dinner. But Mr. Utsonomia stayed on. He watched and he wandered. He was not lonesome; he had grown accustomed to being alone.
About eleven he sat on the veranda pretending to be blowing the smoke of a cigarette—which he hated—out over the city, but really listening to a conversation which was taking place just behind. It had been going on for half an hour, and it puzzled him, for apparently it was a proposal, and it was not refused. Yet, if his eyes did not deceive him, the contracting parties were of an age that Americans did not associate with such serious affairs. Another thing puzzled him even more: obviously, if one substituted for an absent guest, the absent guest should not be among those present, and he was almost sure that the young man who had just engaged himself for marriage was Mr. Basil Lee. It would be bad manners to intrude now, but he would urbanely ask him about a solution of this puzzle when the State University opened in the fall.
Published in The Saturday Evening Post (30 March 1929).
Illustrations by Henrietta McCaig Starrett.