Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait, except the stray inexpressible few, that made him worth while. His father, an ineffectual, inarticulate man with a taste for Byron and a habit of drowsing over the Encyclopædia Britannica, grew wealthy at thirty through the death of two elder brothers, successful Chicago brokers, and in the first flush of feeling that the world was his, went to Bar Harbor and met Beatrice O’Hara. In consequence, Stephen Blaine handed down to posterity his height of just under six feet and his tendency to waver at crucial moments, these two abstractions appearing in his son Amory. For many years he hovered in the background of his family’s life, an unassertive figure with a face half-obliterated by lifeless, silky hair, continually occupied in “taking care” of his wife, continually harassed by the idea that he didn’t and couldn’t understand her.
But Beatrice Blaine! There was a woman! Early pictures taken on her father’s estate at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, or in Rome at the Sacred Heart Convent—an educational extravagance that in her youth was only for the daughters of the exceptionally wealthy—showed the exquisite delicacy of her features, the consummate art and simplicity of her clothes. A brilliant education she had—her youth passed in renaissance glory, she was versed in the latest gossip of the Older Roman Families; known by name as a fabulously wealthy American girl to Cardinal Vitori and Queen Margherita and more subtle celebrities that one must have had some culture even to have heard of. She learned in England to prefer whiskey and soda to wine, and her small talk was broadened in two senses during a winter in Vienna. All in all Beatrice O’Hara absorbed the sort of education that will be quite impossible ever again; a tutelage measured by the number of things and people one could be contemptuous of and charming about; a culture rich in all arts and traditions, barren of all ideas, in the last of those days when the great gardener clipped the inferior roses to produce one perfect bud.
In her less important moments she returned to America, met Stephen Blaine and married him—this almost entirely because she was a little bit weary, a little bit sad. Her only child was carried through a tiresome season and brought into the world on a spring day in ninety-six.
When Amory was five he was already a delightful companion for her. He was an auburn-haired boy, with great, handsome eyes which he would grow up to in time, a facile imaginative mind and a taste for fancy dress. From his fourth to his tenth year he did the country with his mother in her father’s private car, from Coronado, where his mother became so bored that she had a nervous breakdown in a fashionable hotel, down to Mexico City, where she took a mild, almost epidemic consumption. This trouble pleased her, and later she made use of it as an intrinsic part of her atmosphere—especially after several astounding bracers.
So, while more or less fortunate little rich boys were defying governesses on the beach at Newport, or being spanked or tutored or read to from “Do and Dare,” or “Frank on the Mississippi,” Amory was biting acquiescent bell-boys in the Waldorf, outgrowing a natural repugnance to chamber music and symphonies, and deriving a highly specialized education from his mother.
“Yes, Beatrice.” (Such a quaint name for his mother; she encouraged it.)
“Dear, don’t think of getting out of bed yet. I’ve always suspected that early rising in early life makes one nervous. Clothilde is having your breakfast brought up.”
“I am feeling very old to-day, Amory,” she would sigh, her face a rare cameo of pathos, her voice exquisitely modulated, her hands as facile as Bernhardt’s. “My nerves are on edge—on edge. We must leave this terrifying place to-morrow and go searching for sunshine.”
Amory’s penetrating green eyes would look out through tangled hair at his mother. Even at this age he had no illusions about her.
“I want you to take a red-hot bath—as hot as you can bear it, and just relax your nerves. You can read in the tub if you wish.”
She fed him sections of the “Fêtes Galantes” before he was ten; at eleven he could talk glibly, if rather reminiscently, of Brahms and Mozart and Beethoven. One afternoon, when left alone in the hotel at Hot Springs, he sampled his mother’s apricot cordial, and as the taste pleased him, he became quite tipsy. This was fun for a while, but he essayed a cigarette in his exaltation, and succumbed to a vulgar, plebeian reaction. Though this incident horrified Beatrice, it also secretly amused her and became part of what in a later generation would have been termed her “line.”
“This son of mine,” he heard her tell a room full of awestruck, admiring women one day, “is entirely sophisticated and quite charming—but delicate—we’re all delicate; here, you know.” Her hand was radiantly outlined against her beautiful bosom; then sinking her voice to a whisper, she told them of the apricot cordial. They rejoiced, for she was a brave raconteuse, but many were the keys turned in sideboard locks that night against the possible defection of little Bobby or Barbara….
These domestic pilgrimages were invariably in state; two maids, the private car, or Mr. Blaine when available, and very often a physician. When Amory had the whooping-cough four disgusted specialists glared at each other hunched around his bed; when he took scarlet fever the number of attendants, including physicians and nurses, totalled fourteen. However, blood being thicker than broth, he was pulled through.
The Blaines were attached to no city. They were the Blaines of Lake Geneva; they had quite enough relatives to serve in place of friends, and an enviable standing from Pasadena to Cape Cod. But Beatrice grew more and more prone to like only new acquaintances, as there were certain stories, such as the history of her constitution and its many amendments, memories of her years abroad, that it was necessary for her to repeat at regular intervals. Like Freudian dreams, they must be thrown off, else they would sweep in and lay siege to her nerves. But Beatrice was critical about American women, especially the floating population of ex-Westerners.
“They have accents, my dear,” she told Amory, “not Southern accents or Boston accents, not an accent attached to any locality, just an accent”—she became dreamy. “They pick up old, moth-eaten London accents that are down on their luck and have to be used by some one. They talk as an English butler might after several years in a Chicago grand-opera company.” She became almost incoherent— “Suppose—time in every Western woman’s life—she feels her husband is prosperous enough for her to have—accent—they try to impress me, my dear——”
Though she thought of her body as a mass of frailties, she considered her soul quite as ill, and therefore important in her life. She had once been a Catholic, but discovering that priests were infinitely more attentive when she was in process of losing or regaining faith in Mother Church, she maintained an enchantingly wavering attitude. Often she deplored the bourgeois quality of the American Catholic clergy, and was quite sure that had she lived in the shadow of the great Continental cathedrals her soul would still be a thin flame on the mighty altar of Rome. Still, next to doctors, priests were her favorite sport.
“Ah, Bishop Wiston,” she would declare, “I do not want to talk of myself. I can imagine the stream of hysterical women fluttering at your doors, beseeching you to be simpatico”—then after an interlude filled by the clergyman—“but my mood—is—oddly dissimilar.”
Only to bishops and above did she divulge her clerical romance. When she had first returned to her country there had been a pagan, Swinburnian young man in Asheville, for whose passionate kisses and unsentimental conversations she had taken a decided penchant—they had discussed the matter pro and con with an intellectual romancing quite devoid of soppiness. Eventually she had decided to marry for background, and the young pagan from Asheville had gone through a spiritual crisis, joined the Catholic Church, and was now—Monsignor Darcy.
“Indeed, Mrs. Blaine, he is still delightful company—quite the cardinal’s right-hand man.”
“Amory will go to him one day, I know,” breathed the beautiful lady, “and Monsignor Darcy will understand him as he understood me.”
Amory became thirteen, rather tall and slender, and more than ever on to his Celtic mother. He had tutored occasionally—the idea being that he was to “keep up,” at each place “taking up the work where he left off,” yet as no tutor ever found the place he left off, his mind was still in very good shape. What a few more years of this life would have made of him is problematical. However, four hours out from land, Italy bound, with Beatrice, his appendix burst, probably from too many meals in bed, and after a series of frantic telegrams to Europe and America, to the amazement of the passengers the great ship slowly wheeled around and returned to New York to deposit Amory at the pier. You will admit that if it was not life it was magnificent.
After the operation Beatrice had a nervous breakdown that bore a suspicious resemblance to delirium tremens, and Amory was left in Minneapolis, destined to spend the ensuing two years with his aunt and uncle. There the crude, vulgar air of Western civilization first catches him—in his underwear, so to speak.
His lip curled when he read it.
“I am going to have a bobbing party,” it said, “on Thursday, December the seventeenth, at five o’clock, and I would like it very much if you could come.
R.S.V.P. Myra St. Claire.
He had been two months in Minneapolis, and his chief struggle had been the concealing from “the other guys at school” how particularly superior he felt himself to be, yet this conviction was built upon shifting sands. He had shown off one day in French class (he was in senior French class) to the utter confusion of Mr. Reardon, whose accent Amory damned contemptuously, and to the delight of the class. Mr. Reardon, who had spent several weeks in Paris ten years before, took his revenge on the verbs, whenever he had his book open. But another time Amory showed off in history class, with quite disastrous results, for the boys there were his own age, and they shrilled innuendoes at each other all the following week:
“Aw—I b’lieve, doncherknow, the Umuricun revolution was lawgely an affair of the middul clawses,” or
“Washington came of very good blood—aw, quite good—I b’lieve.”
Amory ingeniously tried to retrieve himself by blundering on purpose. Two years before he had commenced a history of the United States which, though it only got as far as the Colonial Wars, had been pronounced by his mother completely enchanting.
His chief disadvantage lay in athletics, but as soon as he discovered that it was the touchstone of power and popularity at school, he began to make furious, persistent efforts to excel in the winter sports, and with his ankles aching and bending in spite of his efforts, he skated valiantly around the Lorelie rink every afternoon, wondering how soon he would be able to carry a hockey-stick without getting it inexplicably tangled in his skates.
The invitation to Miss Myra St. Claire’s bobbing party spent the morning in his coat pocket, where it had an intense physical affair with a dusty piece of peanut brittle. During the afternoon he brought it to light with a sigh, and after some consideration and a preliminary draft in the back of Collar and Daniel’s “First-Year Latin,” composed an answer:
My dear Miss St. Claire:
Your truly charming envitation for the evening of next Thursday evening was truly delightful to recieve this morning. I will be charm and inchanted indeed to present my compliments on next Thursday evening.
On Thursday, therefore, he walked pensively along the slippery, shovel-scraped sidewalks, and came in sight of Myra’s house, on the half-hour after five, a lateness which he fancied his mother would have favored. He waited on the door-step with his eyes nonchalantly half-closed, and planned his entrance with precision. He would cross the floor, not too hastily, to Mrs. St. Claire, and say with exactly the correct modulation:
“My dear Mrs. St. Claire, I’m frightfully sorry to be late, but my maid”—he paused there and realized he would be quoting—“but my uncle and I had to see a fella— Yes, I’ve met your enchanting daughter at dancing-school.”
Then he would shake hands, using that slight, half-foreign bow, with all the starchy little females, and nod to the fellas who would be standing ’round, paralyzed into rigid groups for mutual protection.
A butler (one of the three in Minneapolis) swung open the door. Amory stepped inside and divested himself of cap and coat. He was mildly surprised not to hear the shrill squawk of conversation from the next room, and he decided it must be quite formal. He approved of that—as he approved of the butler.
“Miss Myra,” he said.
To his surprise the butler grinned horribly.
“Oh, yeah,” he declared, “she’s here.” He was unaware that his failure to be cockney was ruining his standing. Amory considered him coldly.
“But,” continued the butler, his voice rising unnecessarily, “she’s the only one what is here. The party’s gone.”
Amory gasped in sudden horror.
“She’s been waitin’ for Amory Blaine. That’s you, ain’t it? Her mother says that if you showed up by five-thirty you two was to go after ’em in the Packard.”
Amory’s despair was crystallized by the appearance of Myra herself, bundled to the ears in a polo coat, her face plainly sulky, her voice pleasant only with difficulty.
“’Lo, Myra.” He had described the state of his vitality.
“Well—you got here, anyways.”
“Well—I’ll tell you. I guess you don’t know about the auto accident,” he romanced.
Myra’s eyes opened wide.
“Who was it to?”
“Well,” he continued desperately, “uncle ’n aunt ’n I.”
“Was any one killed?”
Amory paused and then nodded.
“Oh, no—just a horse—a sorta gray horse.”
At this point the Erse butler snickered.
“Probably killed the engine,” he suggested. Amory would have put him on the rack without a scruple.
“We’ll go now,” said Myra coolly. “You see, Amory, the bobs were ordered for five and everybody was here, so we couldn’t wait——”
“Well, I couldn’t help it, could I?”
“So mama said for me to wait till ha’past five. We’ll catch the bob before it gets to the Minnehaha Club, Amory.”
Amory’s shredded poise dropped from him. He pictured the happy party jingling along snowy streets, the appearance of the limousine, the horrible public descent of him and Myra before sixty reproachful eyes, his apology—a real one this time. He sighed aloud.
“What?” inquired Myra.
“Nothing. I was just yawning. Are we going to surely catch up with ’em before they get there?” He was encouraging a faint hope that they might slip into the Minnehaha Club and meet the others there, be found in blasé seclusion before the fire and quite regain his lost attitude.
“Oh, sure Mike, we’ll catch ’em all right—let’s hurry.”
He became conscious of his stomach. As they stepped into the machine he hurriedly slapped the paint of diplomacy over a rather box-like plan he had conceived. It was based upon some “trade-lasts” gleaned at dancing-school, to the effect that he was “awful good-looking and English, sort of.”
“Myra,” he said, lowering his voice and choosing his words carefully, “I beg a thousand pardons. Can you ever forgive me?”
She regarded him gravely, his intent green eyes, his mouth, that to her thirteen-year-old, arrow-collar taste was the quintessence of romance. Yes, Myra could forgive him very easily.
He looked at her again, and then dropped his eyes. He had lashes.
“I’m awful,” he said sadly. “I’m diff’runt. I don’t know why I make faux pas. ’Cause I don’t care, I s’pose.” Then, recklessly: “I been smoking too much. I’ve got t’bacca heart.”
Myra pictured an all-night tobacco debauch, with Amory pale and reeling from the effect of nicotined lungs. She gave a little gasp.
“Oh, Amory, don’t smoke. You’ll stunt your growth!”
“I don’t care,” he persisted gloomily. “I gotta. I got the habit. I’ve done a lot of things that if my fambly knew”—he hesitated, giving her imagination time to picture dark horrors—“I went to the burlesque show last week.”
Myra was quite overcome. He turned the green eyes on her again.
“You’re the only girl in town I like much,” he exclaimed in a rush of sentiment. “You’re simpatico.”
Myra was not sure that she was, but it sounded stylish though vaguely improper.
Thick dusk had descended outside, and as the limousine made a sudden turn she was jolted against him; their hands touched.
“You shouldn’t smoke, Amory,” she whispered. “Don’t you know that?”
He shook his head.
Something stirred within Amory.
“Oh, yes, you do! You got a crush on Froggy Parker. I guess everybody knows that.”
“No, I haven’t,” very slowly.
A silence, while Amory thrilled. There was something fascinating about Myra, shut away here cosily from the dim, chill air. Myra, a little bundle of clothes, with strands of yellow hair curling out from under her skating cap.
“Because I’ve got a crush, too—” He paused, for he heard in the distance the sound of young laughter, and, peering through the frosted glass along the lamp-lit street, he made out the dark outline of the bobbing party. He must act quickly. He reached over with a violent, jerky effort, and clutched Myra’s hand—her thumb, to be exact.
“Tell him to go to the Minnehaha straight,” he whispered. “I wanta talk to you—I got to talk to you.”
Myra made out the party ahead, had an instant vision of her mother, and then—alas for convention—glanced into the eyes beside.
“Turn down this side street, Richard, and drive straight to the Minnehaha Club!” she cried through the speaking tube. Amory sank back against the cushions with a sigh of relief.
“I can kiss her,” he thought. “I’ll bet I can. I’ll bet I can!”
Overhead the sky was half crystalline, half misty, and the night around was chill and vibrant with rich tension. From the Country Club steps the roads stretched away, dark creases on the white blanket; huge heaps of snow lining the sides like the tracks of giant moles. They lingered for a moment on the steps, and watched the white holiday moon.
“Pale moons like that one”—Amory made a vague gesture—“make people mysterieuse. You look like a young witch with her cap off and her hair sorta mussed”—her hands clutched at her hair—“Oh, leave it, it looks good.”
They drifted up the stairs and Myra led the way into the little den of his dreams, where a cosy fire was burning before a big sink-down couch. A few years later this was to be a great stage for Amory, a cradle for many an emotional crisis. Now they talked for a moment about bobbing parties.
“There’s always a bunch of shy fellas,” he commented, “sitting at the tail of the bob, sorta lurkin’ an’ whisperin’ an’ pushin’ each other off. Then there’s always some crazy cross-eyed girl”—he gave a terrifying imitation—“she’s always talkin’ hard, sorta, to the chaperon.”
“You’re such a funny boy,” puzzled Myra.
“How d’y’ mean?” Amory gave immediate attention, on his own ground at last.
“Oh—always talking about crazy things. Why don’t you come ski-ing with Marylyn and I to-morrow?”
“I don’t like girls in the daytime,” he said shortly, and then, thinking this a bit abrupt, he added: “But I like you.” He cleared his throat. “I like you first and second and third.”
Myra’s eyes became dreamy. What a story this would make to tell Marylyn! Here on the couch with this wonderful-looking boy—the little fire—the sense that they were alone in the great building——
Myra capitulated. The atmosphere was too appropriate.
“I like you the first twenty-five,” she confessed, her voice trembling, “and Froggy Parker twenty-sixth.”
Froggy had fallen twenty-five places in one hour. As yet he had not even noticed it.
But Amory, being on the spot, leaned over quickly and kissed Myra’s cheek. He had never kissed a girl before, and he tasted his lips curiously, as if he had munched some new fruit. Then their lips brushed like young wild flowers in the wind.
“We’re awful,” rejoiced Myra gently. She slipped her hand into his, her head drooped against his shoulder. Sudden revulsion seized Amory, disgust, loathing for the whole incident. He desired frantically to be away, never to see Myra again, never to kiss any one; he became conscious of his face and hers, of their clinging hands, and he wanted to creep out of his body and hide somewhere safe out of sight, up in the corner of his mind.
“Kiss me again.” Her voice came out of a great void.
“I don’t want to,” he heard himself saying. There was another pause.
“I don’t want to!” he repeated passionately.
Myra sprang up, her cheeks pink with bruised vanity, the great bow on the back of her head trembling sympathetically.
“I hate you!” she cried. “Don’t you ever dare to speak to me again!”
“What?” stammered Amory.
“I’ll tell mama you kissed me! I will too! I will too! I’ll tell mama, and she won’t let me play with you!”
Amory rose and stared at her helplessly, as though she were a new animal of whose presence on the earth he had not heretofore been aware.
The door opened suddenly, and Myra’s mother appeared on the threshold, fumbling with her lorgnette.
“Well,” she began, adjusting it benignantly, “the man at the desk told me you two children were up here— How do you do, Amory.”
Amory watched Myra and waited for the crash—but none came. The pout faded, the high pink subsided, and Myra’s voice was placid as a summer lake when she answered her mother.
“Oh, we started so late, mama, that I thought we might as well——”
He heard from below the shrieks of laughter, and smelled the vapid odor of hot chocolate and tea-cakes as he silently followed mother and daughter down-stairs. The sound of the graphophone mingled with the voices of many girls humming the air, and a faint glow was born and spread over him:
“Casey-Jones—mounted to the cab-un
Casey-Jones—’th his orders in his hand.
Casey-Jones—mounted to the cab-un
Took his farewell journey to the prom-ised land.”
Amory spent nearly two years in Minneapolis. The first winter he wore moccasins that were born yellow, but after many applications of oil and dirt assumed their mature color, a dirty, greenish brown; he wore a gray plaid mackinaw coat, and a red toboggan cap. His dog, Count Del Monte, ate the red cap, so his uncle gave him a gray one that pulled down over his face. The trouble with this one was that you breathed into it and your breath froze; one day the darn thing froze his cheek. He rubbed snow on his cheek, but it turned bluish-black just the same.
The Count Del Monte ate a box of bluing once, but it didn’t hurt him. Later, however, he lost his mind and ran madly up the street, bumping into fences, rolling in gutters, and pursuing his eccentric course out of Amory’s life. Amory cried on his bed.
“Poor little Count,” he cried. “Oh, poor little Count!”
After several months he suspected Count of a fine piece of emotional acting.
Amory and Frog Parker considered that the greatest line in literature occurred in Act III of “Arsene Lupin.”
They sat in the first row at the Wednesday and Saturday matinées. The line was:
“If one can’t be a great artist or a great soldier, the next best thing is to be a great criminal.”
Amory fell in love again, and wrote a poem. This was it:
“Marylyn and Sallee,
Those are the girls for me.
Marylyn stands above
Sallee in that sweet, deep love.”
He was interested in whether McGovern of Minnesota would make the first or second All-American, how to do the card-pass, how to do the coin-pass, chameleon ties, how babies were born, and whether Three-fingered Brown was really a better pitcher than Christie Mathewson.
Among other things he read: “For the Honor of the School,” “Little Women” (twice), “The Common Law,” “Sapho,” “Dangerous Dan McGrew,” “The Broad Highway” (three times), “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Three Weeks,” “Mary Ware, the Little Colonel’s Chum,” “Gunga Din,” The Police Gazette, and Jim-Jam Jems.
He had all the Henty biasses in history, and was particularly fond of the cheerful murder stories of Mary Roberts Rinehart.
School ruined his French and gave him a distaste for standard authors. His masters considered him idle, unreliable and superficially clever.
He collected locks of hair from many girls. He wore the rings of several. Finally he could borrow no more rings, owing to his nervous habit of chewing them out of shape. This, it seemed, usually aroused the jealous suspicions of the next borrower.
All through the summer months Amory and Frog Parker went each week to the Stock Company. Afterward they would stroll home in the balmy air of August night, dreaming along Hennepin and Nicollet Avenues, through the gay crowd. Amory wondered how people could fail to notice that he was a boy marked for glory, and when faces of the throng turned toward him and ambiguous eyes stared into his, he assumed the most romantic of expressions and walked on the air cushions that lie on the asphalts of fourteen.
Always, after he was in bed, there were voices—indefinite, fading, enchanting—just outside his window, and before he fell asleep he would dream one of his favorite waking dreams, the one about becoming a great half-back, or the one about the Japanese invasion, when he was rewarded by being made the youngest general in the world. It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being. This, too, was quite characteristic of Amory.
Before he was summoned back to Lake Geneva, he had appeared, shy but inwardly glowing, in his first long trousers, set off by a purple accordion tie and a “Belmont” collar with the edges unassailably meeting, purple socks, and handkerchief with a purple border peeping from his breast pocket. But more than that, he had formulated his first philosophy, a code to live by, which, as near as it can be named, was a sort of aristocratic egotism.
He had realized that his best interests were bound up with those of a certain variant, changing person, whose label, in order that his past might always be identified with him, was Amory Blaine. Amory marked himself a fortunate youth, capable of infinite expansion for good or evil. He did not consider himself a “strong char’c’ter,” but relied on his facility (learn things sorta quick) and his superior mentality (read a lotta deep books). He was proud of the fact that he could never become a mechanical or scientific genius. From no other heights was he debarred.
Physically.—Amory thought that he was exceedingly handsome. He was. He fancied himself an athlete of possibilities and a supple dancer.
Socially.—Here his condition was, perhaps, most dangerous. He granted himself personality, charm, magnetism, poise, the power of dominating all contemporary males, the gift of fascinating all women.
Mentally.—Complete, unquestioned superiority.
Now a confession will have to be made. Amory had rather a Puritan conscience. Not that he yielded to it—later in life he almost completely slew it—but at fifteen it made him consider himself a great deal worse than other boys … unscrupulousness … the desire to influence people in almost every way, even for evil … a certain coldness and lack of affection, amounting sometimes to cruelty … a shifting sense of honor … an unholy selfishness … a puzzled, furtive interest in everything concerning sex.
There was, also, a curious strain of weakness running crosswise through his make-up … a harsh phrase from the lips of an older boy (older boys usually detested him) was liable to sweep him off his poise into surly sensitiveness, or timid stupidity … he was a slave to his own moods and he felt that though he was capable of recklessness and audacity, he possessed neither courage, perseverance, nor self-respect.
Vanity, tempered with self-suspicion if not self-knowledge, a sense of people as automatons to his will, a desire to “pass” as many boys as possible and get to a vague top of the world … with this background did Amory drift into adolescence.
The train slowed up with midsummer languor at Lake Geneva, and Amory caught sight of his mother waiting in her electric on the gravelled station drive. It was an ancient electric, one of the early types, and painted gray. The sight of her sitting there, slenderly erect, and of her face, where beauty and dignity combined, melting to a dreamy recollected smile, filled him with a sudden great pride of her. As they kissed coolly and he stepped into the electric, he felt a quick fear lest he had lost the requisite charm to measure up to her.
“Dear boy—you’re so tall … look behind and see if there’s anything coming…”
She looked left and right, she slipped cautiously into a speed of two miles an hour, beseeching Amory to act as sentinel; and at one busy crossing she made him get out and run ahead to signal her forward like a traffic policeman. Beatrice was what might be termed a careful driver.
“You are tall—but you’re still very handsome—you’ve skipped the awkward age, or is that sixteen; perhaps it’s fourteen or fifteen; I can never remember; but you’ve skipped it.”
“Don’t embarrass me,” murmured Amory.
“But, my dear boy, what odd clothes! They look as if they were a set—don’t they? Is your underwear purple, too?”
Amory grunted impolitely.
“You must go to Brooks’ and get some really nice suits. Oh, we’ll have a talk to-night or perhaps to-morrow night. I want to tell you about your heart—you’ve probably been neglecting your heart—and you don’t know.”
Amory thought how superficial was the recent overlay of his own generation. Aside from a minute shyness, he felt that the old cynical kinship with his mother had not been one bit broken. Yet for the first few days he wandered about the gardens and along the shore in a state of superloneliness, finding a lethargic content in smoking “Bull” at the garage with one of the chauffeurs.
The sixty acres of the estate were dotted with old and new summer houses and many fountains and white benches that came suddenly into sight from foliage-hung hiding-places; there was a great and constantly increasing family of white cats that prowled the many flower-beds and were silhouetted suddenly at night against the darkening trees. It was on one of the shadowy paths that Beatrice at last captured Amory, after Mr. Blaine had, as usual, retired for the evening to his private library. After reproving him for avoiding her, she took him for a long tˆte-à-tête in the moonlight. He could not reconcile himself to her beauty, that was mother to his own, the exquisite neck and shoulders, the grace of a fortunate woman of thirty.
“Amory, dear,” she crooned softly, “I had such a strange, weird time after I left you.”
“Did you, Beatrice?”
“When I had my last breakdown”—she spoke of it as a sturdy, gallant feat.
“The doctors told me”—her voice sang on a confidential note—“that if any man alive had done the consistent drinking that I have, he would have been physically shattered, my dear, and in his grave—long in his grave.”
Amory winced, and wondered how this would have sounded to Froggy Parker.
“Yes,” continued Beatrice tragically, “I had dreams—wonderful visions.” She pressed the palms of her hands into her eyes. “I saw bronze rivers lapping marble shores, and great birds that soared through the air, parti-colored birds with iridescent plumage. I heard strange music and the flare of barbaric trumpets—what?”
Amory had snickered.
“I said go on, Beatrice.”
“That was all—it merely recurred and recurred—gardens that flaunted coloring against which this would be quite dull, moons that whirled and swayed, paler than winter moons, more golden than harvest moons——”
“Are you quite well now, Beatrice?”
“Quite well—as well as I will ever be. I am not understood, Amory. I know that can’t express it to you, Amory, but—I am not understood.”
Amory was quite moved. He put his arm around his mother, rubbing his head gently against her shoulder.
“Poor Beatrice—poor Beatrice.”
“Tell me about you, Amory. Did you have two horrible years?”
Amory considered lying, and then decided against it.
“No, Beatrice. I enjoyed them. I adapted myself to the bourgeoisie. I became conventional.” He surprised himself by saying that, and he pictured how Froggy would have gaped.
“Beatrice,” he said suddenly, “I want to go away to school. Everybody in Minneapolis is going to go away to school.”
Beatrice showed some alarm.
“But you’re only fifteen.”
“Yes, but everybody goes away to school at fifteen, and I want to, Beatrice.”
On Beatrice’s suggestion the subject was dropped for the rest of the walk, but a week later she delighted him by saying:
“Amory, I have decided to let you have your way. If you still want to, you can go to school.”
“To St. Regis’s in Connecticut.”
Amory felt a quick excitement.
“It’s being arranged,” continued Beatrice. “It’s better that you should go away. I’d have preferred you to have gone to Eton, and then to Christ Church, Oxford, but it seems impracticable now—and for the present we’ll let the university question take care of itself.”
“What are you going to do, Beatrice?”
“Heaven knows. It seems my fate to fret away my years in this country. Not for a second do I regret being American—indeed, I think that a regret typical of very vulgar people, and I feel sure we are the great coming nation—yet”—and she sighed—“I feel my life should have drowsed away close to an older, mellower civilization, a land of greens and autumnal browns——”
Amory did not answer, so his mother continued:
“My regret is that you haven’t been abroad, but still, as you are a man, it’s better that you should grow up here under the snarling eagle—is that the right term?”
Amory agreed that it was. She would not have appreciated the Japanese invasion.
“When do I go to school?”
“Next month. You’ll have to start East a little early to take your examinations. After that you’ll have a free week, so I want you to go up the Hudson and pay a visit.”
“To Monsignor Darcy, Amory. He wants to see you. He went to Harrow and then to Yale—became a Catholic. I want him to talk to you—I feel he can be such a help—” She stroked his auburn hair gently. “Dear Amory, dear Amory——”
So early in September Amory, provided with “six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or T shirt, one jersey, one overcoat, winter, etc.,” set out for New England, the land of schools.
There were Andover and Exeter with their memories of New England dead—large, college-like democracies; St. Mark’s, Groton, St. Regis’—recruited from Boston and the Knickerbocker families of New York; St. Paul’s, with its great rinks; Pomfret and St. George’s, prosperous and well-dressed; Taft and Hotchkiss, which prepared the wealth of the Middle West for social success at Yale; Pawling, Westminster, Choate, Kent, and a hundred others; all milling out their well-set-up, conventional, impressive type, year after year; their mental stimulus the college entrance exams; their vague purpose set forth in a hundred circulars as “To impart a Thorough Mental, Moral, and Physical Training as a Christian Gentleman, to fit the boy for meeting the problems of his day and generation, and to give a solid foundation in the Arts and Sciences.”
At St. Regis’ Amory stayed three days and took his exams with a scoffing confidence, then doubling back to New York to pay his tutelary visit. The metropolis, barely glimpsed, made little impression on him, except for the sense of cleanliness he drew from the tall white buildings seen from a Hudson River steamboat in the early morning. Indeed, his mind was so crowded with dreams of athletic prowess at school that he considered this visit only as a rather tiresome prelude to the great adventure. This, however, it did not prove to be.
Monsignor Darcy’s house was an ancient, rambling structure set on a hill overlooking the river, and there lived its owner, between his trips to all parts of the Roman-Catholic world, rather like an exiled Stuart king waiting to be called to the rule of his land. Monsignor was forty-four then, and bustling—a trifle too stout for symmetry, with hair the color of spun gold, and a brilliant, enveloping personality. When he came into a room clad in his full purple regalia from thatch to toe, he resembled a Turner sunset, and attracted both admiration and attention. He had written two novels: one of them violently anti-Catholic, just before his conversion, and five years later another, in which he had attempted to turn all his clever jibes against Catholics into even cleverer innuendoes against Episcopalians. He was intensely ritualistic, startlingly dramatic, loved the idea of God enough to be a celibate, and rather liked his neighbor.
Children adored him because he was like a child; youth revelled in his company because he was still a youth, and couldn’t be shocked. In the proper land and century he might have been a Richelieu—at present he was a very moral, very religious (if not particularly pious) clergyman, making a great mystery about pulling rusty wires, and appreciating life to the fullest, if not entirely enjoying it.
He and Amory took to each other at first sight—the jovial, impressive prelate who could dazzle an embassy ball, and the green-eyed, intent youth, in his first long trousers, accepted in their own minds a relation of father and son within a half-hour’s conversation.
“My dear boy, I’ve been waiting to see you for years. Take a big chair and we’ll have a chat.”
“I’ve just come from school—St. Regis’s, you know.”
“So your mother says—a remarkable woman; have a cigarette—I’m sure you smoke. Well, if you’re like me, you loathe all science and mathematics——”
Amory nodded vehemently.
“Hate ’em all. Like English and history.”
“Of course. You’ll hate school for a while, too, but I’m glad you’re going to St. Regis’s.”
“Because it’s a gentleman’s school, and democracy won’t hit you so early. You’ll find plenty of that in college.”
“I want to go to Princeton,” said Amory. “I don’t know why, but I think of all Harvard men as sissies, like I used to be, and all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes.”
“I’m one, you know.”
“Oh, you’re different—I think of Princeton as being lazy and good-looking and aristocratic—you know, like a spring day. Harvard seems sort of indoors——”
“And Yale is November, crisp and energetic,” finished Monsignor.
They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.
“I was for Bonnie Prince Charlie,” announced Amory.
“Of course you were—and for Hannibal——”
“Yes, and for the Southern Confederacy.” He was rather sceptical about being an Irish patriot—he suspected that being Irish was being somewhat common—but Monsignor assured him that Ireland was a romantic lost cause and Irish people quite charming, and that it should, by all means, be one of his principal biasses.
After a crowded hour which included several more cigarettes, and during which Monsignor learned, to his surprise but not to his horror, that Amory had not been brought up a Catholic, he announced that he had another guest. This turned out to be the Honorable Thornton Hancock, of Boston, ex-minister to The Hague, author of an erudite history of the Middle Ages and the last of a distinguished, patriotic, and brilliant family.
“He comes here for a rest,” said Monsignor confidentially, treating Amory as a contemporary. “I act as an escape from the weariness of agnosticism, and I think I’m the only man who knows how his staid old mind is really at sea and longs for a sturdy spar like the Church to cling to.”
Their first luncheon was one of the memorable events of Amory’s early life. He was quite radiant and gave off a peculiar brightness and charm. Monsignor called out the best that he had thought by question and suggestion, and Amory talked with an ingenious brilliance of a thousand impulses and desires and repulsions and faiths and fears. He and Monsignor held the floor, and the older man, with his less receptive, less accepting, yet certainly not colder mentality, seemed content to listen and bask in the mellow sunshine that played between these two. Monsignor gave the effect of sunlight to many people; Amory gave it in his youth and, to some extent, when he was very much older, but never again was it quite so mutually spontaneous.
“He’s a radiant boy,” thought Thornton Hancock, who had seen the splendor of two continents and talked with Parnell and Gladstone and Bismarck—and afterward he added to Monsignor: “But his education ought not to be intrusted to a school or college.”
But for the next four years the best of Amory’s intellect was concentrated on matters of popularity, the intricacies of a university social system and American Society as represented by Biltmore Teas and Hot Springs golf-links.
…In all, a wonderful week, that saw Amory’s mind turned inside out, a hundred of his theories confirmed, and his joy of life crystallized to a thousand ambitions. Not that the conversation was scholastic—heaven forbid! Amory had only the vaguest idea as to what Bernard Shaw was—but Monsignor made quite as much out of “The Beloved Vagabond” and “Sir Nigel,” taking good care that Amory never once felt out of his depth.
But the trumpets were sounding for Amory’s preliminary skirmish with his own generation.
“You’re not sorry to go, of course. With people like us our home is where we are not,” said Monsignor.
“I am sorry——”
“No, you’re not. No one person in the world is necessary to you or to me.”
Amory’s two years at St. Regis’, though in turn painful and triumphant, had as little real significance in his own life as the American “prep” school, crushed as it is under the heel of the universities, has to American life in general. We have no Eton to create the self-consciousness of a governing class; we have, instead, clean, flaccid and innocuous preparatory schools.
He went all wrong at the start, was generally considered both conceited and arrogant, and universally detested. He played football intensely, alternating a reckless brilliancy with a tendency to keep himself as safe from hazard as decency would permit. In a wild panic he backed out of a fight with a boy his own size, to a chorus of scorn, and a week later, in desperation, picked a battle with another boy very much bigger, from which he emerged badly beaten, but rather proud of himself.
He was resentful against all those in authority over him, and this, combined with a lazy indifference toward his work, exasperated every master in school. He grew discouraged and imagined himself a pariah; took to sulking in corners and reading after lights. With a dread of being alone he attached a few friends, but since they were not among the élite of the school, he used them simply as mirrors of himself, audiences before which he might do that posing absolutely essential to him. He was unbearably lonely, desperately unhappy.
There were some few grains of comfort. Whenever Amory was submerged, his vanity was the last part to go below the surface, so he could still enjoy a comfortable glow when “Wookey-wookey,” the deaf old housekeeper, told him that he was the best-looking boy she had ever seen. It had pleased him to be the lightest and youngest man on the first football squad; it pleased him when Doctor Dougall told him at the end of a heated conference that he could, if he wished, get the best marks in school. But Doctor Dougall was wrong. It was temperamentally impossible for Amory to get the best marks in school.
Miserable, confined to bounds, unpopular with both faculty and students—that was Amory’s first term. But at Christmas he had returned to Minneapolis, tight-lipped and strangely jubilant.
“Oh, I was sort of fresh at first,” he told Frog Parker patronizingly, “but I got along fine—lightest man on the squad. You ought to go away to school, Froggy. It’s great stuff.”
On the last night of his first term, Mr. Margotson, the senior master, sent word to study hall that Amory was to come to his room at nine. Amory suspected that advice was forthcoming, but he determined to be courteous, because this Mr. Margotson had been kindly disposed toward him.
His summoner received him gravely, and motioned him to a chair. He hemmed several times and looked consciously kind, as a man will when he knows he’s on delicate ground.
“Amory,” he began. “I’ve sent for you on a personal matter.”
“I’ve noticed you this year and I—I like you. I think you have in you the makings of a—a very good man.”
“Yes, sir,” Amory managed to articulate. He hated having people talk as if he were an admitted failure.
“But I’ve noticed,” continued the older man blindly, “that you’re not very popular with the boys.”
“No, sir.” Amory licked his lips.
“Ah—I thought you might not understand exactly what it was they—ah—objected to. I’m going to tell you, because I believe—ah—that when a boy knows his difficulties he’s better able to cope with them—to conform to what others expect of him.” He a-hemmed again with delicate reticence, and continued: “They seem to think that you’re—ah—rather too fresh——”
Amory could stand no more. He rose from his chair, scarcely controlling his voice when he spoke.
“I know—oh, don’t you s’pose I know.” His voice rose. “I know what they think; do you s’pose you have to tell me!” He paused. “I’m—I’ve got to go back now—hope I’m not rude——”
He left the room hurriedly. In the cool air outside, as he walked to his house, he exulted in his refusal to be helped.
“That damn old fool!” he cried wildly. “As if I didn’t know!”
He decided, however, that this was a good excuse not to go back to study hall that night, so, comfortably couched up in his room, he munched nabiscos and finished “The White Company.”
There was a bright star in February. New York burst upon him on Washington’s Birthday with the brilliance of a long-anticipated event. His glimpse of it as a vivid whiteness against a deep-blue sky had left a picture of splendor that rivalled the dream cities in the Arabian Nights; but this time he saw it by electric light, and romance gleamed from the chariot-race sign on Broadway and from the women’s eyes at the Astor, where he and young Paskert from St. Regis’ had dinner. When they walked down the aisle of the theatre, greeted by the nervous twanging and discord of untuned violins and the sensuous, heavy fragrance of paint and powder, he moved in a sphere of epicurean delight. Everything enchanted him. The play was “The Little Millionaire,” with George M. Cohan, and there was one stunning young brunette who made him sit with brimming eyes in the ecstasy of watching her dance.
What a wonderful girl you are—”
sang the tenor, and Amory agreed silently, but passionately.
Thrill me through——”
The violins swelled and quavered on the last notes, the girl sank to a crumpled butterfly on the stage, a great burst of clapping filled the house. Oh, to fall in love like that, to the languorous magic melody of such a tune!
The last scene was laid on a roof-garden, and the ’cellos sighed to the musical moon, while light adventure and facile froth-like comedy flitted back and forth in the calcium. Amory was on fire to be an habitué of roof-gardens, to meet a girl who should look like that—better, that very girl; whose hair would be drenched with golden moonlight, while at his elbow sparkling wine was poured by an unintelligible waiter. When the curtain fell for the last time he gave such a long sigh that the people in front of him twisted around and stared and said loud enough for him to hear:
“What a remarkable-looking boy!”
This took his mind off the play, and he wondered if he really did seem handsome to the population of New York.
Paskert and he walked in silence toward their hotel. The former was the first to speak. His uncertain fifteen-year-old voice broke in in a melancholy strain on Amory’s musings:
“I’d marry that girl to-night.”
There was no need to ask what girl he referred to.
“I’d be proud to take her home and introduce her to my people,” continued Paskert.
Amory was distinctly impressed. He wished he had said it instead of Paskert. It sounded so mature.
“I wonder about actresses; are they all pretty bad?”
“No, sir, not by a darn sight,” said the worldly youth with emphasis, “and I know that girl’s as good as gold. I can tell.”
They wandered on, mixing in the Broadway crowd, dreaming on the music that eddied out of the cafés. New faces flashed on and off like myriad lights, pale or rouged faces, tired, yet sustained by a weary excitement. Amory watched them in fascination. He was planning his life. He was going to live in New York, and be known at every restaurant and café, wearing a dress-suit from early evening to early morning, sleeping away the dull hours of the forenoon.
“Yes, sir, I’d marry that girl to-night!”
October of his second and last year at St. Regis’ was a high point in Amory’s memory. The game with Groton was played from three of a snappy, exhilarating afternoon far into the crisp autumnal twilight, and Amory at quarter-back, exhorting in wild despair, making impossible tackles, calling signals in a voice that had diminished to a hoarse, furious whisper, yet found time to revel in the blood-stained bandage around his head, and the straining, glorious heroism of plunging, crashing bodies and aching limbs. For those minutes courage flowed like wine out of the November dusk, and he was the eternal hero, one with the sea-rover on the prow of a Norse galley, one with Roland and Horatius, Sir Nigel and Ted Coy, scraped and stripped into trim and then flung by his own will into the breach, beating back the tide, hearing from afar the thunder of cheers … finally bruised and weary, but still elusive, circling an end, twisting, changing pace, straight-arming … falling behind the Groton goal with two men on his legs, in the only touchdown of the game.
From the scoffing superiority of sixth-form year and success Amory looked back with cynical wonder on his status of the year before. He was changed as completely as Amory Blaine could ever be changed. Amory plus Beatrice plus two years in Minneapolis—these had been his ingredients when he entered St. Regis’. But the Minneapolis years were not a thick enough overlay to conceal the “Amory plus Beatrice” from the ferreting eyes of a boarding-school, so St. Regis’ had very painfully drilled Beatrice out of him, and begun to lay down new and more conventional planking on the fundamental Amory. But both St. Regis’ and Amory were unconscious of the fact that this fundamental Amory had not in himself changed. Those qualities for which he had suffered, his moodiness, his tendency to pose, his laziness, and his love of playing the fool, were now taken as a matter of course, recognized eccentricities in a star quarter-back, a clever actor, and the editor of the St. Regis Tattler: it puzzled him to see impressionable small boys imitating the very vanities that had not long ago been contemptible weaknesses.
After the football season he slumped into dreamy content. The night of the pre-holiday dance he slipped away and went early to bed for the pleasure of hearing the violin music cross the grass and come surging in at his window. Many nights he lay there dreaming awake of secret cafés in Mont Martre, where ivory women delved in romantic mysteries with diplomats and soldiers of fortune, while orchestras played Hungarian waltzes and the air was thick and exotic with intrigue and moonlight and adventure. In the spring he read “L’Allegro,” by request, and was inspired to lyrical outpourings on the subject of Arcady and the pipes of Pan. He moved his bed so that the sun would wake him at dawn that he might dress and go out to the archaic swing that hung from an apple-tree near the sixth-form house. Seating himself in this he would pump higher and higher until he got the effect of swinging into the wide air, into a fairy-land of piping satyrs and nymphs with the faces of fair-haired girls he passed in the streets of Eastchester. As the swing reached its highest point, Arcady really lay just over the brow of a certain hill, where the brown road dwindled out of sight in a golden dot.
He read voluminously all spring, the beginning of his eighteenth year: “The Gentleman from Indiana,” “The New Arabian Nights,” “The Morals of Marcus Ordeyne,” “The Man Who Was Thursday,” which he liked without understanding; “Stover at Yale,” that became somewhat of a text-book; “Dombey and Son,” because he thought he really should read better stuff; Robert Chambers, David Graham Phillips, and E. Phillips Oppenheim complete, and a scattering of Tennyson and Kipling. Of all his class work only “L’Allegro” and some quality of rigid clarity in solid geometry stirred his languid interest.
As June drew near, he felt the need of conversation to formulate his own ideas, and, to his surprise, found a co-philosopher in Rahill, the president of the sixth form. In many a talk, on the highroad or lying belly-down along the edge of the baseball diamond, or late at night with their cigarettes glowing in the dark, they threshed out the questions of school, and there was developed the term “slicker.”
“Got tobacco?” whispered Rahill one night, putting his head inside the door five minutes after lights.
“I’m coming in.”
“Take a couple of pillows and lie in the window-seat, why don’t you.”
Amory sat up in bed and lit a cigarette while Rahill settled for a conversation. Rahill’s favorite subject was the respective futures of the sixth form, and Amory never tired of outlining them for his benefit.
“Ted Converse? ’At’s easy. He’ll fail his exams, tutor all summer at Harstrum’s, get into Sheff with about four conditions, and flunk out in the middle of the freshman year. Then he’ll go back West and raise hell for a year or so; finally his father will make him go into the paint business. He’ll marry and have four sons, all bone heads. He’ll always think St. Regis’s spoiled him, so he’ll send his sons to day school in Portland. He’ll die of locomotor ataxia when he’s forty-one, and his wife will give a baptizing stand or whatever you call it to the Presbyterian Church, with his name on it——”
“Hold up, Amory. That’s too darned gloomy. How about yourself?”
“I’m in a superior class. You are, too. We’re philosophers.”
“Sure you are. You’ve got a darn good head on you.” But Amory knew that nothing in the abstract, no theory or generality, ever moved Rahill until he stubbed his toe upon the concrete minutiæ of it.
“Haven’t,” insisted Rahill. “I let people impose on me here and don’t get anything out of it. I’m the prey of my friends, damn it—do their lessons, get ’em out of trouble, pay ’em stupid summer visits, and always entertain their kid sisters; keep my temper when they get selfish and then they think they pay me back by voting for me and telling me I’m the ’big man’ of St. Regis’s. I want to get where everybody does their own work and I can tell people where to go. I’m tired of being nice to every poor fish in school.”
“You’re not a slicker,” said Amory suddenly.
“What the devil’s that?”
“Well, it’s something that—that—there’s a lot of them. You’re not one, and neither am I, though I am more than you are.”
“Who is one? What makes you one?”
“Why—why, I suppose that the sign of it is when a fellow slicks his hair back with water.”
“Yes—sure. He’s a slicker.”
They spent two evenings getting an exact definition. The slicker was good-looking or clean-looking; he had brains, social brains, that is, and he used all means on the broad path of honesty to get ahead, be popular, admired, and never in trouble. He dressed well, was particularly neat in appearance, and derived his name from the fact that his hair was inevitably worn short, soaked in water or tonic, parted in the middle, and slicked back as the current of fashion dictated. The slickers of that year had adopted tortoise-shell spectacles as badges of their slickerhood, and this made them so easy to recognize that Amory and Rahill never missed one. The slicker seemed distributed through school, always a little wiser and shrewder than his contemporaries, managing some team or other, and keeping his cleverness carefully concealed.
Amory found the slicker a most valuable classification until his junior year in college, when the outline became so blurred and indeterminate that it had to be subdivided many times, and became only a quality. Amory’s secret ideal had all the slicker qualifications, but, in addition, courage and tremendous brains and talents—also Amory conceded him a bizarre streak that was quite irreconcilable to the slicker proper.
This was a first real break from the hypocrisy of school tradition. The slicker was a definite element of success, differing intrinsically from the prep school “big man.”
|“THE SLICKER”||“THE BIG MAN”|
|1. Clever sense of social values.||1. Inclined to stupidity and unconscious of social values.|
|2. Dresses well. Pretends that dress is superficial—but knows that it isn’t.||2. Thinks dress is superficial, and is inclined to be careless about it.|
|3. Goes into such activities as he can shine in.||3. Goes out for everything from a sense of duty.|
|4. Gets to college and is, in a worldly way, successful.||4. Gets to college and has a problematical future. Feels lost without his circle, and always says that school days were happiest, after all. Goes back to school and makes speeches about what St. Regis’s boys are doing.|
|5. Hair slicked.||5. Hair not slicked.|
Amory had decided definitely on Princeton, even though he would be the only boy entering that year from St. Regis’. Yale had a romance and glamour from the tales of Minneapolis, and St. Regis’ men who had been “tapped for Skull and Bones,” but Princeton drew him most, with its atmosphere of bright colors and its alluring reputation as the pleasantest country club in America. Dwarfed by the menacing college exams, Amory’s school days drifted into the past. Years afterward, when he went back to St. Regis’, he seemed to have forgotten the successes of sixth-form year, and to be able to picture himself only as the unadjustable boy who had hurried down corridors, jeered at by his rabid contemporaries mad with common sense.
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