“OUCH! Let me go!”
He dropped his arms to his sides.
“What’s the matter?”
“Your shirt stud—it hurt me—look!” She was looking down at her neck, where a little blue spot about the size of a pea marred its pallor.
“Oh, Isabelle,” he reproached himself, “I’m a goopher. Really, I’m sorry—I shouldn’t have held you so close.”
She looked up impatiently.
“Oh, Amory, of course you couldn’t help it, and it didn’t hurt much; but what are we going to do about it?”
“Do about it?” he asked. “Oh—that spot; it’ll disappear in a second.”
“It isn’t,” she said, after a moment of concentrated gazing, “it’s still there—and it looks like Old Nick—oh, Amory, what’ll we do! It’s just the height of your shoulder.”
“Massage it,” he suggested, repressing the faintest inclination to laugh.
She rubbed it delicately with the tips of her fingers, and then a tear gathered in the corner of her eye, and slid down her cheek.
“Oh, Amory,” she said despairingly, lifting up a most pathetic face, “I’ll just make my whole neck flame if I rub it. What’ll I do?”
A quotation sailed into his head and he couldn’t resist repeating it aloud.
“All the perfumes of Arabia will not whiten this little hand.”
She looked up and the sparkle of the tear in her eye was like ice.
“You’re not very sympathetic.”
Amory mistook her meaning.
“Isabelle, darling, I think it’ll——”
“Don’t touch me!” she cried. “Haven’t I enough on my mind and you stand there and laugh!”
Then he slipped again.
“Well, it is funny, Isabelle, and we were talking the other day about a sense of humor being——”
She was looking at him with something that was not a smile, rather the faint, mirthless echo of a smile, in the corners of her mouth.
“Oh, shut up!” she cried suddenly, and fled down the hallway toward her room. Amory stood there, covered with remorseful confusion.
When Isabelle reappeared she had thrown a light wrap about her shoulders, and they descended the stairs in a silence that endured through dinner.
“Isabelle,” he began rather testily, as they arranged themselves in the car, bound for a dance at the Greenwich Country Club, “you’re angry, and I’ll be, too, in a minute. Let’s kiss and make up.”
Isabelle considered glumly.
“I hate to be laughed at,” she said finally.
“I won’t laugh any more. I’m not laughing now, am I?”
“Oh, don’t be so darned feminine.”
Her lips curled slightly.
“I’ll be anything I want.”
Amory kept his temper with difficulty. He became aware that he had not an ounce of real affection for Isabelle, but her coldness piqued him. He wanted to kiss her, kiss her a lot, because then he knew he could leave in the morning and not care. On the contrary, if he didn’t kiss her, it would worry him…. It would interfere vaguely with his idea of himself as a conqueror. It wasn’t dignified to come off second best, pleading, with a doughty warrior like Isabelle.
Perhaps she suspected this. At any rate, Amory watched the night that should have been the consummation of romance glide by with great moths overhead and the heavy fragrance of roadside gardens, but without those broken words, those little sighs….
Afterward they suppered on ginger ale and devil’s food in the pantry, and Amory announced a decision.
“I’m leaving early in the morning.”
“Why not?” he countered.
“There’s no need.”
“However, I’m going.”
“Well, if you insist on being ridiculous——”
“Oh, don’t put it that way,” he objected.
“—just because I won’t let you kiss me. Do you think——”
“Now, Isabelle,” he interrupted, “you know it’s not that—even suppose it is. We’ve reached the stage where we either ought to kiss—or—or—nothing. It isn’t as if you were refusing on moral grounds.”
“I really don’t know what to think about you,” she began, in a feeble, perverse attempt at conciliation. “You’re so funny.”
“Well, I thought you had a lot of self-confidence and all that; remember you told me the other day that you could do anything you wanted, or get anything you wanted?”
Amory flushed. He had told her a lot of things.
“Well, you didn’t seem to feel so self-confident to-night. Maybe you’re just plain conceited.”
“No, I’m not,” he hesitated. “At Princeton——”
“Oh, you and Princeton! You’d think that was the world, the way you talk! Perhaps you can write better than anybody else on your old Princetonian; maybe the freshmen do think you’re important——”
“You don’t understand——”
“Yes, I do,” she interrupted. “I do, because you’re always talking about yourself and I used to like it; now I don’t.”
“Have I to-night?”
“That’s just the point,” insisted Isabelle. “You got all upset to-night. You just sat and watched my eyes. Besides, I have to think all the time I’m talking to you—you’re so critical.”
“I make you think, do I?” Amory repeated with a touch of vanity.
“You’re a nervous strain”—this emphatically—“and when you analyze every little emotion and instinct I just don’t have ’em.”
“I know.” Amory admitted her point and shook his head helplessly.
“Let’s go.” She stood up.
He rose abstractedly and they walked to the foot of the stairs.
“What train can I get?”
“There’s one about 9:11 if you really must go.”
“Yes, I’ve got to go, really. Good night.”
They were at the head of the stairs, and as Amory turned into his room he thought he caught just the faintest cloud of discontent in her face. He lay awake in the darkness and wondered how much he cared—how much of his sudden unhappiness was hurt vanity—whether he was, after all, temperamentally unfitted for romance.
When he awoke, it was with a glad flood of consciousness. The early wind stirred the chintz curtains at the windows and he was idly puzzled not to be in his room at Princeton with his school football picture over the bureau and the Triangle Club on the wall opposite. Then the grandfather’s clock in the hall outside struck eight, and the memory of the night before came to him. He was out of bed, dressing, like the wind; he must get out of the house before he saw Isabelle. What had seemed a melancholy happening, now seemed a tiresome anticlimax. He was dressed at half past, so he sat down by the window; felt that the sinews of his heart were twisted somewhat more than he had thought. What an ironic mockery the morning seemed!—bright and sunny, and full of the smell of the garden; hearing Mrs. Borgé’s voice in the sun-parlor below, he wondered where was Isabelle.
There was a knock at the door.
“The car will be around at ten minutes of nine, sir.”
He returned to his contemplation of the outdoors, and began repeating over and over, mechanically, a verse from Browning, which he had once quoted to Isabelle in a letter:
“Each life unfulfilled, you see,
It hangs still, patchy and scrappy;
We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
Starved, feasted, despaired—been happy.”
But his life would not be unfulfilled. He took a sombre satisfaction in thinking that perhaps all along she had been nothing except what he had read into her; that this was her high point, that no one else would ever make her think. Yet that was what she had objected to in him; and Amory was suddenly tired of thinking, thinking!
“Damn her!” he said bitterly, “she’s spoiled my year!”
On a dusty day in September Amory arrived in Princeton and joined the sweltering crowd of conditioned men who thronged the streets. It seemed a stupid way to commence his upper-class years, to spend four hours a morning in the stuffy room of a tutoring school, imbibing the infinite boredom of conic sections. Mr. Rooney, pander to the dull, conducted the class and smoked innumerable Pall Malls as he drew diagrams and worked equations from six in the morning until midnight.
“Now, Langueduc, if I used that formula, where would my A point be?”
Langueduc lazily shifts his six-foot-three of football material and tries to concentrate.
“Oh—ah—I’m damned if I know, Mr. Rooney.”
“Oh, why of course, of course you can’t use that formula. That’s what I wanted you to say.”
“Why, sure, of course.”
“Do you see why?”
“You bet—I suppose so.”
“If you don’t see, tell me. I’m here to show you.”
“Well, Mr. Rooney, if you don’t mind, I wish you’d go over that again.”
“Gladly. Now here’s ’A’…”
The room was a study in stupidity—two huge stands for paper, Mr. Rooney in his shirt-sleeves in front of them, and slouched around on chairs, a dozen men: Fred Sloane, the pitcher, who absolutely had to get eligible; “Slim” Langueduc, who would beat Yale this fall, if only he could master a poor fifty per cent; McDowell, gay young sophomore, who thought it was quite a sporting thing to be tutoring here with all these prominent athletes.
“Those poor birds who haven’t a cent to tutor, and have to study during the term are the ones I pity,” he announced to Amory one day, with a flaccid camaraderie in the droop of the cigarette from his pale lips. “I should think it would be such a bore, there’s so much else to do in New York during the term. I suppose they don’t know what they miss, anyhow.” There was such an air of “you and I” about Mr. McDowell that Amory very nearly pushed him out of the open window when he said this…. Next February his mother would wonder why he didn’t make a club and increase his allowance … simple little nut….
Through the smoke and the air of solemn, dense earnestness that filled the room would come the inevitable helpless cry:
“I don’t get it! Repeat that, Mr. Rooney!” Most of them were so stupid or careless that they wouldn’t admit when they didn’t understand, and Amory was of the latter. He found it impossible to study conic sections; something in their calm and tantalizing respectability breathing defiantly through Mr. Rooney’s fetid parlors distorted their equations into insoluble anagrams. He made a last night’s effort with the proverbial wet towel, and then blissfully took the exam, wondering unhappily why all the color and ambition of the spring before had faded out. Somehow, with the defection of Isabelle the idea of undergraduate success had loosed its grasp on his imagination, and he contemplated a possible failure to pass off his condition with equanimity, even though it would arbitrarily mean his removal from the Princetonian board and the slaughter of his chances for the Senior Council.
There was always his luck.
He yawned, scribbled his honor pledge on the cover, and sauntered from the room.
“If you don’t pass it,” said the newly arrived Alec as they sat on the window-seat of Amory’s room and mused upon a scheme of wall decoration, “you’re the world’s worst goopher. Your stock will go down like an elevator at the club and on the campus.”
“Oh, hell, I know it. Why rub it in?”
“’Cause you deserve it. Anybody that’d risk what you were in line for ought to be ineligible for Princetonian chairman.”
“Oh, drop the subject,” Amory protested. “Watch and wait and shut up. I don’t want every one at the club asking me about it, as if I were a prize potato being fattened for a vegetable show.”
One evening a week later Amory stopped below his own window on the way to Renwick’s, and, seeing a light, called up:
“Oh, Tom, any mail?”
Alec’s head appeared against the yellow square of light.
“Yes, your result’s here.”
His heart clamored violently.
“What is it, blue or pink?”
“Don’t know. Better come up.”
He walked into the room and straight over to the table, and then suddenly noticed that there were other people in the room.
“’Lo, Kerry.” He was most polite. “Ah, men of Princeton.” They seemed to be mostly friends, so he picked up the envelope marked “Registrar’s Office,” and weighed it nervously.
“We have here quite a slip of paper.”
“Open it, Amory.”
“Just to be dramatic, I’ll let you know that if it’s blue, my name is withdrawn from the editorial board of the Prince, and my short career is over.”
He paused, and then saw for the first time Ferrenby’s eyes, wearing a hungry look and watching him eagerly. Amory returned the gaze pointedly.
“Watch my face, gentlemen, for the primitive emotions.”
He tore it open and held the slip up to the light.
“Pink or blue?”
“Say what it is.”
“We’re all ears, Amory.”
“Smile or swear—or something.”
There was a pause … a small crowd of seconds swept by … then he looked again and another crowd went on into time.
“Blue as the sky, gentlemen….”
What Amory did that year from early September to late in the spring was so purposeless and inconsecutive that it seems scarcely worth recording. He was, of course, immediately sorry for what he had lost. His philosophy of success had tumbled down upon him, and he looked for the reasons.
“Your own laziness,” said Alec later.
“No—something deeper than that. I’ve begun to feel that I was meant to lose this chance.”
“They’re rather off you at the club, you know; every man that doesn’t come through makes our crowd just so much weaker.”
“I hate that point of view.”
“Of course, with a little effort you could still stage a comeback.”
“No—I’m through—as far as ever being a power in college is concerned.”
“But, Amory, honestly, what makes me the angriest isn’t the fact that you won’t be chairman of the Prince and on the Senior Council, but just that you didn’t get down and pass that exam.”
“Not me,” said Amory slowly; “I’m mad at the concrete thing. My own idleness was quite in accord with my system, but the luck broke.”
“Your system broke, you mean.”
“Well, what are you going to do? Get a better one quick, or just bum around for two more years as a has-been?”
“I don’t know yet…”
“Oh, Amory, buck up!”
Amory’s point of view, though dangerous, was not far from the true one. If his reactions to his environment could be tabulated, the chart would have appeared like this, beginning with his earliest years:
1. The fundamental Amory.
2. Amory plus Beatrice.
3. Amory plus Beatrice plus Minneapolis.
Then St. Regis’ had pulled him to pieces and started him over again:
4. Amory plus St. Regis’.
5. Amory plus St. Regis’ plus Princeton.
That had been his nearest approach to success through conformity. The fundamental Amory, idle, imaginative, rebellious, had been nearly snowed under. He had conformed, he had succeeded, but as his imagination was neither satisfied nor grasped by his own success, he had listlessly, half-accidentally chucked the whole thing and become again:
6. The fundamental Amory.
His father died quietly and inconspicuously at Thanksgiving. The incongruity of death with either the beauties of Lake Geneva or with his mother’s dignified, reticent attitude diverted him, and he looked at the funeral with an amused tolerance. He decided that burial was after all preferable to cremation, and he smiled at his old boyhood choice, slow oxidation in the top of a tree. The day after the ceremony he was amusing himself in the great library by sinking back on a couch in graceful mortuary attitudes, trying to determine whether he would, when his day came, be found with his arms crossed piously over his chest (Monsignor Darcy had once advocated this posture as being the most distinguished), or with his hands clasped behind his head, a more pagan and Byronic attitude.
What interested him much more than the final departure of his father from things mundane was a tri-cornered conversation between Beatrice, Mr. Barton, of Barton and Krogman, their lawyers, and himself, that took place several days after the funeral. For the first time he came into actual cognizance of the family finances, and realized what a tidy fortune had once been under his father’s management. He took a ledger labelled “1906” and ran through it rather carefully. The total expenditure that year had come to something over one hundred and ten thousand dollars. Forty thousand of this had been Beatrice’s own income, and there had been no attempt to account for it: it was all under the heading, “Drafts, checks, and letters of credit forwarded to Beatrice Blaine.” The dispersal of the rest was rather minutely itemized: the taxes and improvements on the Lake Geneva estate had come to almost nine thousand dollars; the general up-keep, including Beatrice’s electric and a French car, bought that year, was over thirty-five thousand dollars. The rest was fully taken care of, and there were invariably items which failed to balance on the right side of the ledger.
In the volume for 1912 Amory was shocked to discover the decrease in the number of bond holdings and the great drop in the income. In the case of Beatrice’s money this was not so pronounced, but it was obvious that his father had devoted the previous year to several unfortunate gambles in oil. Very little of the oil had been burned, but Stephen Blaine had been rather badly singed. The next year and the next and the next showed similar decreases, and Beatrice had for the first time begun using her own money for keeping up the house. Yet her doctor’s bill for 1913 had been over nine thousand dollars.
About the exact state of things Mr. Barton was quite vague and confused. There had been recent investments, the outcome of which was for the present problematical, and he had an idea there were further speculations and exchanges concerning which he had not been consulted.
It was not for several months that Beatrice wrote Amory the full situation. The entire residue of the Blaine and O’Hara fortunes consisted of the place at Lake Geneva and approximately a half million dollars, invested now in fairly conservative six-per-cent holdings. In fact, Beatrice wrote that she was putting the money into railroad and street-car bonds as fast as she could conveniently transfer it.
“I am quite sure,” she wrote to Amory, “that if there is one thing we can be positive of, it is that people will not stay in one place. This Ford person has certainly made the most of that idea. So I am instructing Mr. Barton to specialize on such things as Northern Pacific and these Rapid Transit Companies, as they call the street-cars. I shall never forgive myself for not buying Bethlehem Steel. I’ve heard the most fascinating stories. You must go into finance, Amory. I’m sure you would revel in it. You start as a messenger or a teller, I believe, and from that you go up—almost indefinitely. I’m sure if I were a man I’d love the handling of money; it has become quite a senile passion with me. Before I get any farther I want to discuss something. A Mrs. Bispam, an overcordial little lady whom I met at a tea the other day, told me that her son, he is at Yale, wrote her that all the boys there wore their summer underwear all during the winter, and also went about with their heads wet and in low shoes on the coldest days. Now, Amory, I don’t know whether that is a fad at Princeton too, but I don’t want you to be so foolish. It not only inclines a young man to pneumonia and infantile paralysis, but to all forms of lung trouble, to which you are particularly inclined. You cannot experiment with your health. I have found that out. I will not make myself ridiculous as some mothers no doubt do, by insisting that you wear overshoes, though I remember one Christmas you wore them around constantly without a single buckle latched, making such a curious swishing sound, and you refused to buckle them because it was not the thing to do. The very next Christmas you would not wear even rubbers, though I begged you. You are nearly twenty years old now, dear, and I can’t be with you constantly to find whether you are doing the sensible thing.
“This has been a very practical letter. I warned you in my last that the lack of money to do the things one wants to makes one quite prosy and domestic, but there is still plenty for everything if we are not too extravagant. Take care of yourself, my dear boy, and do try to write at least once a week, because I imagine all sorts of horrible things if I don’t hear from you.
Monsignor Darcy invited Amory up to the Stuart palace on the Hudson for a week at Christmas, and they had enormous conversations around the open fire. Monsignor was growing a trifle stouter and his personality had expanded even with that, and Amory felt both rest and security in sinking into a squat, cushioned chair and joining him in the middle-aged sanity of a cigar.
“I’ve felt like leaving college, Monsignor.”
“All my career’s gone up in smoke; you think it’s petty and all that, but——”
“Not at all petty. I think it’s most important. I want to hear the whole thing. Everything you’ve been doing since I saw you last.”
Amory talked; he went thoroughly into the destruction of his egotistic highways, and in a half-hour the listless quality had left his voice.
“What would you do if you left college?” asked Monsignor.
“Don’t know. I’d like to travel, but of course this tiresome war prevents that. Anyways, mother would hate not having me graduate. I’m just at sea. Kerry Holiday wants me to go over with him and join the Lafayette Esquadrille.”
“You know you wouldn’t like to go.”
“Sometimes I would—to-night I’d go in a second.”
“Well, you’d have to be very much more tired of life than I think you are. I know you.”
“I’m afraid you do,” agreed Amory reluctantly. “It just seemed an easy way out of everything—when I think of another useless, draggy year.”
“Yes, I know; but to tell you the truth, I’m not worried about you; you seem to me to be progressing perfectly naturally.”
“No,” Amory objected. “I’ve lost half my personality in a year.”
“Not a bit of it!” scoffed Monsignor. “You’ve lost a great amount of vanity and that’s all.”
“Lordy! I feel, anyway, as if I’d gone through another fifth form at St. Regis’s.”
“No.” Monsignor shook his head. “That was a misfortune; this has been a good thing. Whatever worth while comes to you, won’t be through the channels you were searching last year.”
“What could be more unprofitable than my present lack of pep?”
“Perhaps in itself … but you’re developing. This has given you time to think and you’re casting off a lot of your old luggage about success and the superman and all. People like us can’t adopt whole theories, as you did. If we can do the next thing, and have an hour a day to think in, we can accomplish marvels, but as far as any high-handed scheme of blind dominance is concerned—we’d just make asses of ourselves.”
“But, Monsignor, I can’t do the next thing.”
“Amory, between you and me, I have only just learned to do it myself. I can do the one hundred things beyond the next thing, but I stub my toe on that, just as you stubbed your toe on mathematics this fall.”
“Why do we have to do the next thing? It never seems the sort of thing I should do.”
“We have to do it because we’re not personalities, but personages.”
“That’s a good line—what do you mean?”
“A personality is what you thought you were, what this Kerry and Sloane you tell me of evidently are. Personality is a physical matter almost entirely; it lowers the people it acts on—I’ve seen it vanish in a long sickness. But while a personality is active, it overrides ’the next thing.’ Now a personage, on the other hand, gathers. He is never thought of apart from what he’s done. He’s a bar on which a thousand things have been hung—glittering things sometimes, as ours are; but he uses those things with a cold mentality back of them.”
“And several of my most glittering possessions had fallen off when I needed them.” Amory continued the simile eagerly.
“Yes, that’s it; when you feel that your garnered prestige and talents and all that are hung out, you need never bother about anybody; you can cope with them without difficulty.”
“But, on the other hand, if I haven’t my possessions, I’m helpless!”
“That’s certainly an idea.”
“Now you’ve a clean start—a start Kerry or Sloane can constitutionally never have. You brushed three or four ornaments down, and, in a fit of pique, knocked off the rest of them. The thing now is to collect some new ones, and the farther you look ahead in the collecting the better. But remember, do the next thing!”
“How clear you can make things!”
So they talked, often about themselves, sometimes of philosophy and religion, and life as respectively a game or a mystery. The priest seemed to guess Amory’s thoughts before they were clear in his own head, so closely related were their minds in form and groove.
“Why do I make lists?” Amory asked him one night. “Lists of all sorts of things?”
“Because you’re a mediævalist,” Monsignor answered. “We both are. It’s the passion for classifying and finding a type.”
“It’s a desire to get something definite.”
“It’s the nucleus of scholastic philosophy.”
“I was beginning to think I was growing eccentric till I came up here. It was a pose, I guess.”
“Don’t worry about that; for you not posing may be the biggest pose of all. Pose——”
“But do the next thing.”
After Amory returned to college he received several letters from Monsignor which gave him more egotistic food for consumption.
I am afraid that I gave you too much assurance of your inevitable safety, and you must remember that I did that through faith in your springs of effort; not in the silly conviction that you will arrive without struggle. Some nuances of character you will have to take for granted in yourself, though you must be careful in confessing them to others. You are unsentimental, almost incapable of affection, astute without being cunning and vain without being proud.
Don’t let yourself feel worthless; often through life you will really be at your worst when you seem to think best of yourself; and don’t worry about losing your “personality,” as you persist in calling it; at fifteen you had the radiance of early morning, at twenty you will begin to have the melancholy brilliance of the moon, and when you are my age you will give out, as I do, the genial golden warmth of 4 P.M.
If you write me letters, please let them be natural ones. Your last, that dissertation on architecture, was perfectly awful—so “highbrow” that I picture you living in an intellectual and emotional vacuum; and beware of trying to classify people too definitely into types; you will find that all through their youth they will persist annoyingly in jumping from class to class, and by pasting a supercilious label on every one you meet you are merely packing a Jack-in-the-box that will spring up and leer at you when you begin to come into really antagonistic contact with the world. An idealization of some such a man as Leonardo da Vinci would be a more valuable beacon to you at present.
You are bound to go up and down, just as I did in my youth, but do keep your clarity of mind, and if fools or sages dare to criticise don’t blame yourself too much.
You say that convention is all that really keeps you straight in this “woman proposition”; but it’s more than that, Amory; it’s the fear that what you begin you can’t stop; you would run amuck, and I know whereof I speak; it’s that half-miraculous sixth sense by which you detect evil, it’s the half-realized fear of God in your heart.
Whatever your metier proves to be—religion, architecture, literature—I’m sure you would be much safer anchored to the Church, but I won’t risk my influence by arguing with you even though I am secretly sure that the “black chasm of Romanism” yawns beneath you. Do write me soon.
With affectionate regards,
Even Amory’s reading paled during this period; he delved further into the misty side streets of literature: Huysmans, Walter Pater, Theophile Gautier, and the racier sections of Rabelais, Boccaccio, Petronius, and Suetonius. One week, through general curiosity, he inspected the private libraries of his classmates and found Sloane’s as typical as any: sets of Kipling, O. Henry, John Fox, Jr., and Richard Harding Davis; “What Every Middle-Aged Woman Ought to Know,” “The Spell of the Yukon”; a “gift” copy of James Whitcomb Riley, an assortment of battered, annotated schoolbooks, and, finally, to his surprise, one of his own late discoveries, the collected poems of Rupert Brooke.
Together with Tom D’Invilliers, he sought among the lights of Princeton for some one who might found the Great American Poetic Tradition.
The undergraduate body itself was rather more interesting that year than had been the entirely Philistine Princeton of two years before. Things had livened surprisingly, though at the sacrifice of much of the spontaneous charm of freshman year. In the old Princeton they would never have discovered Tanaduke Wylie. Tanaduke was a sophomore, with tremendous ears and a way of saying, “The earth swirls down through the ominous moons of preconsidered generations!” that made them vaguely wonder why it did not sound quite clear, but never question that it was the utterance of a supersoul. At least so Tom and Amory took him. They told him in all earnestness that he had a mind like Shelley’s, and featured his ultrafree free verse and prose poetry in the Nassau Literary Magazine. But Tanaduke’s genius absorbed the many colors of the age, and he took to the Bohemian life, to their great disappointment. He talked of Greenwich Village now instead of “noon-swirled moons,” and met winter muses, unacademic, and cloistered by Forty-second Street and Broadway, instead of the Shelleyan dream-children with whom he had regaled their expectant appreciation. So they surrendered Tanaduke to the futurists, deciding that he and his flaming ties would do better there. Tom gave him the final advice that he should stop writing for two years and read the complete works of Alexander Pope four times, but on Amory’s suggestion that Pope for Tanaduke was like foot-ease for stomach trouble, they withdrew in laughter, and called it a coin’s toss whether this genius was too big or too petty for them.
Amory rather scornfully avoided the popular professors who dispensed easy epigrams and thimblefuls of Chartreuse to groups of admirers every night. He was disappointed, too, at the air of general uncertainty on every subject that seemed linked with the pedantic temperament; his opinions took shape in a miniature satire called “In a Lecture-Room,” which he persuaded Tom to print in the Nassau Lit.
Three times a week
You hold us helpless while you speak,
Teasing our thirsty souls with the
Sleek ’yeas’ of your philosophy…
Well, here we are, your hundred sheep,
Tune up, play on, pour forth … we sleep…
You are a student, so they say;
You hammered out the other day
A syllabus, from what we know
Of some forgotten folio;
You’d sniffled through an era’s must,
Filling your nostrils up with dust,
And then, arising from your knees,
Published, in one gigantic sneeze…
But here’s a neighbor on my right,
An Eager Ass, considered bright;
Asker of questions…. How he’ll stand,
With earnest air and fidgy hand,
After this hour, telling you
He sat all night and burrowed through
Your book…. Oh, you’ll be coy and he
Will simulate precosity,
And pedants both, you’ll smile and smirk,
And leer, and hasten back to work….
’Twas this day week, sir, you returned
A theme of mine, from which I learned
(Through various comment on the side
Which you had scrawled) that I defied
The highest rules of criticism
For cheap and careless witticism….
’Are you quite sure that this could be?’
’Shaw is no authority!’
But Eager Ass, with what he’s sent,
Plays havoc with your best per cent.
Still—still I meet you here and there…
When Shakespeare’s played you hold a chair,
And some defunct, moth-eaten star
Enchants the mental prig you are…
A radical comes down and shocks
The atheistic orthodox?—
You’re representing Common Sense,
Mouth open, in the audience.
And, sometimes, even chapel lures
That conscious tolerance of yours,
That broad and beaming view of truth
(Including Kant and General Booth…)
And so from shock to shock you live,
A hollow, pale affirmative…
The hour’s up … and roused from rest
One hundred children of the blest
Cheat you a word or two with feet
That down the noisy aisle-ways beat…
Forget on narrow-minded earth
The Mighty Yawn that gave you birth.”
In April, Kerry Holiday left college and sailed for France to enroll in the Lafayette Esquadrille. Amory’s envy and admiration of this step was drowned in an experience of his own to which he never succeeded in giving an appropriate value, but which, nevertheless, haunted him for three years afterward.
Healy’s they left at twelve and taxied to Bistolary’s. There were Axia Marlowe and Phoeœbe Column, from the Summer Garden show, Fred Sloane and Amory. The evening was so very young that they felt ridiculous with surplus energy, and burst into the café like Dionysian revellers.
“Table for four in the middle of the floor,” yelled Phoeœbe. “Hurry, old dear, tell ’em we’re here!”
“Tell ’em to play ’Admiration’!” shouted Sloane. “You two order; Phoeœbe and I are going to shake a wicked calf,” and they sailed off in the muddled crowd. Axia and Amory, acquaintances of an hour, jostled behind a waiter to a table at a point of vantage; there they took seats and watched.
“There’s Findle Margotson, from New Haven!” she cried above the uproar. “’Lo, Findle! Whoo-ee!”
“Oh, Axia!” he shouted in salutation. “C’mon over to our table.”
“No!” Amory whispered.
“Can’t do it, Findle; I’m with somebody else! Call me up tomorrow about one o’clock!”
Findle, a nondescript man-about-Bisty’s, answered incoherently and turned back to the brilliant blonde whom he was endeavoring to steer around the room.
“There’s a natural damn fool,” commented Amory.
“Oh, he’s all right. Here’s the old jitney waiter. If you ask me, I want a double Daiquiri.”
“Make it four.”
The crowd whirled and changed and shifted. They were mostly from the colleges, with a scattering of the male refuse of Broadway, and women of two types, the higher of which was the chorus girl. On the whole it was a typical crowd, and their party as typical as any. About three-fourths of the whole business was for effect and therefore harmless, ended at the door of the café, soon enough for the five-o’clock train back to Yale or Princeton; about one-fourth continued on into the dimmer hours and gathered strange dust from strange places. Their party was scheduled to be one of the harmless kind. Fred Sloane and Phoeœbe Column were old friends; Axia and Amory new ones. But strange things are prepared even in the dead of night, and the unusual, which lurks least in the café, home of the prosaic and inevitable, was preparing to spoil for him the waning romance of Broadway. The way it took was so inexpressibly terrible, so unbelievable, that afterward he never thought of it as experience; but it was a scene from a misty tragedy, played far behind the veil, and that it meant something definite he knew.
About one o’clock they moved to Maxim’s, and two found them in Devinière’s. Sloane had been drinking consecutively and was in a state of unsteady exhilaration, but Amory was quite tiresomely sober; they had run across none of those ancient, corrupt buyers of champagne who usually assisted their New York parties.
They were just through dancing and were making their way back to their chairs when Amory became aware that some one at a near-by table was looking at him. He turned and glanced casually … a middle-aged man dressed in a brown sack suit, it was, sitting a little apart at a table by himself and watching their party intently. At Amory’s glance he smiled faintly. Amory turned to Fred, who was just sitting down.
“Who’s that pale fool watching us?” he complained indignantly.
“Where?” cried Sloane. “We’ll have him thrown out!” He rose to his feet and swayed back and forth, clinging to his chair. “Where is he?”
Axia and Phoeœbe suddenly leaned and whispered to each other across the table, and before Amory realized it they found themselves on their way to the door.
“Up to the flat,” suggested Phoeœbe. “We’ve got brandy and fizz—and everything’s slow down here to-night.”
Amory considered quickly. He hadn’t been drinking, and decided that if he took no more, it would be reasonably discreet for him to trot along in the party. In fact, it would be, perhaps, the thing to do in order to keep an eye on Sloane, who was not in a state to do his own thinking. So he took Axia’s arm and, piling intimately into a taxicab, they drove out over the hundreds and drew up at a tall, white-stone apartment-house…. Never would he forget that street…. It was a broad street, lined on both sides with just such tall, white-stone buildings, dotted with dark windows; they stretched along as far as the eye could see, flooded with a bright moonlight that gave them a calcium pallor. He imagined each one to have an elevator and a colored hall-boy and a key-rack; each one to be eight stories high and full of three and four room suites. He was rather glad to walk into the cheeriness of Phoeœbe’s living-room and sink onto a sofa, while the girls went rummaging for food.
“Phoeœbe’s great stuff,” confided Sloane, sotto voce.
“I’m only going to stay half an hour,” Amory said sternly. He wondered if it sounded priggish.
“Hell y’ say,” protested Sloane. “We’re here now—don’t le’s rush.”
“I don’t like this place,” Amory said sulkily, “and I don’t want any food.”
Phoeœbe reappeared with sandwiches, brandy bottle, siphon, and four glasses.
“Amory, pour ’em out,” she said, “and we’ll drink to Fred Sloane, who has a rare, distinguished edge.”
“Yes,” said Axia, coming in, “and Amory. I like Amory.” She sat down beside him and laid her yellow head on his shoulder.
“I’ll pour,” said Sloane; “you use siphon, Phoeœbe.”
They filled the tray with glasses.
“Ready, here she goes!”
Amory hesitated, glass in hand.
There was a minute while temptation crept over him like a warm wind, and his imagination turned to fire, and he took the glass from Phoeœbe’s hand. That was all; for at the second that his decision came, he looked up and saw, ten yards from him, the man who had been in the café, and with his jump of astonishment the glass fell from his uplifted hand. There the man half sat, half leaned against a pile of pillows on the corner divan. His face was cast in the same yellow wax as in the café, neither the dull, pasty color of a dead man—rather a sort of virile pallor—nor unhealthy, you’d have called it; but like a strong man who’d worked in a mine or done night shifts in a damp climate. Amory looked him over carefully and later he could have drawn him after a fashion, down to the merest details. His mouth was the kind that is called frank, and he had steady gray eyes that moved slowly from one to the other of their group, with just the shade of a questioning expression. Amory noticed his hands; they weren’t fine at all, but they had versatility and a tenuous strength … they were nervous hands that sat lightly along the cushions and moved constantly with little jerky openings and closings. Then, suddenly, Amory perceived the feet, and with a rush of blood to the head he realized he was afraid. The feet were all wrong … with a sort of wrongness that he felt rather than knew…. It was like weakness in a good woman, or blood on satin; one of those terrible incongruities that shake little things in the back of the brain. He wore no shoes, but, instead, a sort of half moccasin, pointed, though, like the shoes they wore in the fourteenth century, and with the little ends curling up. They were a darkish brown and his toes seemed to fill them to the end…. They were unutterably terrible….
He must have said something, or looked something, for Axia’s voice came out of the void with a strange goodness.
“Well, look at Amory! Poor old Amory’s sick—old head going ’round?”
“Look at that man!” cried Amory, pointing toward the corner divan.
“You mean that purple zebra!” shrieked Axia facetiously. “Ooo-ee! Amory’s got a purple zebra watching him!”
Sloane laughed vacantly.
“Ole zebra gotcha, Amory?”
There was a silence…. The man regarded Amory quizzically…. Then the human voices fell faintly on his ear:
“Thought you weren’t drinking,” remarked Axia sardonically, but her voice was good to hear; the whole divan that held the man was alive; alive like heat waves over asphalt, like wriggling worms….
“Come back! Come back!” Axia’s arm fell on his. “Amory, dear, you aren’t going, Amory!” He was half-way to the door.
“Come on, Amory, stick ’th us!”
“Sick, are you?”
“Sit down a second!”
“Take some water.”
“Take a little brandy….”
The elevator was close, and the colored boy was half asleep, paled to a livid bronze … Axia’s beseeching voice floated down the shaft. Those feet … those feet…
As they settled to the lower floor the feet came into view in the sickly electric light of the paved hall.
Down the long street came the moon, and Amory turned his back on it and walked. Ten, fifteen steps away sounded the footsteps. They were like a slow dripping, with just the slightest insistence in their fall. Amory’s shadow lay, perhaps, ten feet ahead of him, and soft shoes was presumably that far behind. With the instinct of a child Amory edged in under the blue darkness of the white buildings, cleaving the moonlight for haggard seconds, once bursting into a slow run with clumsy stumblings. After that he stopped suddenly; he must keep hold, he thought. His lips were dry and he licked them.
If he met any one good—were there any good people left in the world or did they all live in white apartment-houses now? Was every one followed in the moonlight? But if he met some one good who’d know what he meant and hear this damned scuffle … then the scuffling grew suddenly nearer, and a black cloud settled over the moon. When again the pale sheen skimmed the cornices, it was almost beside him, and Amory thought he heard a quiet breathing. Suddenly he realized that the footsteps were not behind, had never been behind, they were ahead and he was not eluding but following … following. He began to run, blindly, his heart knocking heavily, his hands clinched. Far ahead a black dot showed itself, resolved slowly into a human shape. But Amory was beyond that now; he turned off the street and darted into an alley, narrow and dark and smelling of old rottenness. He twisted down a long, sinuous blackness, where the moonlight was shut away except for tiny glints and patches … then suddenly sank panting into a corner by a fence, exhausted. The steps ahead stopped, and he could hear them shift slightly with a continuous motion, like waves around a dock.
He put his face in his hands and covered eyes and ears as well as he could. During all this time it never occurred to him that he was delirious or drunk. He had a sense of reality such as material things could never give him. His intellectual content seemed to submit passively to it, and it fitted like a glove everything that had ever preceded it in his life. It did not muddle him. It was like a problem whose answer he knew on paper, yet whose solution he was unable to grasp. He was far beyond horror. He had sunk through the thin surface of that, now moved in a region where the feet and the fear of white walls were real, living things, things he must accept. Only far inside his soul a little fire leaped and cried that something was pulling him down, trying to get him inside a door and slam it behind him. After that door was slammed there would be only footfalls and white buildings in the moonlight, and perhaps he would be one of the footfalls.
During the five or ten minutes he waited in the shadow of the fence, there was somehow this fire … that was as near as he could name it afterward. He remembered calling aloud:
“I want some one stupid. Oh, send some one stupid!” This to the black fence opposite him, in whose shadows the footsteps shuffled … shuffled. He supposed “stupid” and “good” had become somehow intermingled through previous association. When he called thus it was not an act of will at all—will had turned him away from the moving figure in the street; it was almost instinct that called, just the pile on pile of inherent tradition or some wild prayer from way over the night. Then something clanged like a low gong struck at a distance, and before his eyes a face flashed over the two feet, a face pale and distorted with a sort of infinite evil that twisted it like flame in the wind; but he knew, for the half instant that the gong tanged and hummed, that it was the face of Dick Humbird.
Minutes later he sprang to his feet, realizing dimly that there was no more sound, and that he was alone in the graying alley. It was cold, and he started on a steady run for the light that showed the street at the other end.
It was late morning when he woke and found the telephone beside his bed in the hotel tolling frantically, and remembered that he had left word to be called at eleven. Sloane was snoring heavily, his clothes in a pile by his bed. They dressed and ate breakfast in silence, and then sauntered out to get some air. Amory’s mind was working slowly, trying to assimilate what had happened and separate from the chaotic imagery that stacked his memory the bare shreds of truth. If the morning had been cold and gray he could have grasped the reins of the past in an instant, but it was one of those days that New York gets sometimes in May, when the air on Fifth Avenue is a soft, light wine. How much or how little Sloane remembered Amory did not care to know; he apparently had none of the nervous tension that was gripping Amory and forcing his mind back and forth like a shrieking saw.
Then Broadway broke upon them, and with the babel of noise and the painted faces a sudden sickness rushed over Amory.
“For God’s sake, let’s go back! Let’s get off of this—this place!”
Sloane looked at him in amazement.
“What do you mean?”
“This street, it’s ghastly! Come on! let’s get back to the Avenue!”
“Do you mean to say,” said Sloane stolidly, “that ’cause you had some sort of indigestion that made you act like a maniac last night, you’re never coming on Broadway again?”
Simultaneously Amory classed him with the crowd, and he seemed no longer Sloane of the debonair humor and the happy personality, but only one of the evil faces that whirled along the turbid stream.
“Man!” he shouted so loud that the people on the corner turned and followed them with their eyes, “it’s filthy, and if you can’t see it, you’re filthy, too!”
“I can’t help it,” said Sloane doggedly. “What’s the matter with you? Old remorse getting you? You’d be in a fine state if you’d gone through with our little party.”
“I’m going, Fred,” said Amory slowly. His knees were shaking under him, and he knew that if he stayed another minute on this street he would keel over where he stood. “I’ll be at the Vanderbilt for lunch.” And he strode rapidly off and turned over to Fifth Avenue. Back at the hotel he felt better, but as he walked into the barber-shop, intending to get a head massage, the smell of the powders and tonics brought back Axia’s sidelong, suggestive smile, and he left hurriedly. In the doorway of his room a sudden blackness flowed around him like a divided river.
When he came to himself he knew that several hours had passed. He pitched onto the bed and rolled over on his face with a deadly fear that he was going mad. He wanted people, people, some one sane and stupid and good. He lay for he knew not how long without moving. He could feel the little hot veins on his forehead standing out, and his terror had hardened on him like plaster. He felt he was passing up again through the thin crust of horror, and now only could he distinguish the shadowy twilight he was leaving. He must have fallen asleep again, for when he next recollected himself he had paid the hotel bill and was stepping into a taxi at the door. It was raining torrents.
On the train for Princeton he saw no one he knew, only a crowd of fagged-looking Philadelphians. The presence of a painted woman across the aisle filled him with a fresh burst of sickness and he changed to another car, tried to concentrate on an article in a popular magazine. He found himself reading the same paragraphs over and over, so he abandoned this attempt and leaning over wearily pressed his hot forehead against the damp window-pane. The car, a smoker, was hot and stuffy with most of the smells of the state’s alien population; he opened a window and shivered against the cloud of fog that drifted in over him. The two hours’ ride were like days, and he nearly cried aloud with joy when the towers of Princeton loomed up beside him and the yellow squares of light filtered through the blue rain.
Tom was standing in the centre of the room, pensively relighting a cigar-stub. Amory fancied he looked rather relieved on seeing him.
“Had a hell of a dream about you last night,” came in the cracked voice through the cigar smoke. “I had an idea you were in some trouble.”
“Don’t tell me about it!” Amory almost shrieked. “Don’t say a word; I’m tired and pepped out.”
Tom looked at him queerly and then sank into a chair and opened his Italian note-book. Amory threw his coat and hat on the floor, loosened his collar, and took a Wells novel at random from the shelf. “Wells is sane,” he thought, “and if he won’t do I’ll read Rupert Brooke.”
Half an hour passed. Outside the wind came up, and Amory started as the wet branches moved and clawed with their finger-nails at the window-pane. Tom was deep in his work, and inside the room only the occasional scratch of a match or the rustle of leather as they shifted in their chairs broke the stillness. Then like a zigzag of lightning came the change. Amory sat bolt upright, frozen cold in his chair. Tom was looking at him with his mouth drooping, eyes fixed.
“God help us!” Amory cried.
“Oh, my heavens!” shouted Tom, “look behind!” Quick as a flash Amory whirled around. He saw nothing but the dark window-pane.
“It’s gone now,” came Tom’s voice after a second in a still terror. “Something was looking at you.”
Trembling violently, Amory dropped into his chair again.
“I’ve got to tell you,” he said. “I’ve had one hell of an experience. I think I’ve—I’ve seen the devil or—something like him. What face did you just see?—or no,” he added quickly, “don’t tell me!”
And he gave Tom the story. It was midnight when he finished, and after that, with all lights burning, two sleepy, shivering boys read to each other from “The New Machiavelli,” until dawn came up out of Witherspoon Hall, and the Princetonian fell against the door, and the May birds hailed the sun on last night’s rain.