In 1915 Horace Tarbox was thirteen years old. In that year he took the examinations for entrance to Princeton University and received the Grade A—excellent—in Caesar, Cicero, Vergil, Xenophon, Homer, Algebra, Plane Geometry, Solid Geometry, and Chemistry.
Two years later, while George M. Cohan was composing “Over There,” Horace was leading the sophomore class by several lengths and digging out theses on “The Syllogism as an Obsolete Scholastic Form,” and during the battle of Chateau-Thierry he was sitting at his desk deciding whether or not to wait until his seventeenth birthday before beginning his series of essays on “The Pragmatic Bias of the New Realists.”
After a while some newsboy told him that the war was over, and he was glad, because it meant that Peat Brothers, publishers, would get out their new edition of “Spinoza’s Improvement of the Understanding.” Wars were all very well in their way, made young men self-reliant or something, but Horace felt that he could never forgive the President for allowing a brass band to play under his window on the night of the false armistice, causing him to leave three important sentences out of his thesis on “German Idealism.”
The next year he went up to Yale to take his degree as Master of Arts.
He was seventeen then, tall and slender, with near-sighted gray eyes and an air of keeping himself utterly detached from the mere words he let drop.
“I never feel as though I’m talking to him,” expostulated Professor Dillinger to a sympathetic colleague. “He makes me feel as though I were talking to his representative. I always expect him to say: ‘Well, I’ll ask myself and find out.’”
And then, just as nonchalantly as though Horace Tarbox had been Mr. Beef the butcher or Mr. Hat the haberdasher, life reached in, seized him, handled him, stretched him, and unrolled him like a piece of Irish lace on a Saturday-afternoon bargain-counter.
To move in the literary fashion I should say that this was all because when way back in colonial days the hardy pioneers had come to a bald place in Connecticut and asked of each other, “Now, what shall we build here?” the hardiest one among ’em had answered: “Let’s build a town where theatrical managers can try out musical comedies!” How afterward they founded Yale College there, to try the musical comedies on, is a story every one knows. At any rate one December, “Home James” opened at the Shubert, and all the students encored Marcia Meadow, who sang a song about the Blundering Blimp in the first act and did a shaky, shivery, celebrated dance in the last.
Marcia was nineteen. She didn’t have wings, but audiences agreed generally that she didn’t need them. She was a blonde by natural pigment, and she wore no paint on the streets at high noon. Outside of that she was no better than most women.
It was Charlie Moon who promised her five thousand Pall Malls if she would pay a call on Horace Tarbox, prodigy extraordinary. Charlie was a senior in Sheffield, and he and Horace were first cousins. They liked and pitied each other.
Horace had been particularly busy that night. The failure of the Frenchman Laurier to appreciate the significance of the new realists was preying on his mind. In fact, his only reaction to a low, clear-cut rap at his study was to make him speculate as to whether any rap would have actual existence without an ear there to hear it. He fancied he was verging more and more toward pragmatism. But at that moment, though he did not know it, he was verging with astounding rapidity toward something quite different.
The rap sounded—three seconds leaked by—the rap sounded.
“Come in,” muttered Horace automatically.
He heard the door open and then close, but, bent over his book in the big armchair before the fire, he did not look up.
“Leave it on the bed in the other room,” he said absently.
“Leave what on the bed in the other room?”
Marcia Meadow had to talk her songs, but her speaking voice was like byplay on a harp.
Horace stirred impatiently in his chair.
“Why can’t you?”
“Why, because I haven’t got it.”
“Hm!” he replied testily. “Suppose you go back and get it.”
Across the fire from Horace was another easy-chair. He was accustomed to change to it in the course of an evening by way of exercise and variety. One chair he called Berkeley, the other he called Hume. He suddenly heard a sound as of a rustling, diaphanous form sinking into Hume. He glanced up.
“Well,” said Marcia with the sweet smile she used in Act Two (“Oh, so the Duke liked my dancing!”), “Well, Omar Khayyam, here I am beside you singing in the wilderness.”
Horace stared at her dazedly. The momentary suspicion came to him that she existed there only as a phantom of his imagination. Women didn’t come into men’s rooms and sink into men’s Humes. Women brought laundry and took your seat in the street-car and married you later on when you were old enough to know fetters.
This woman had clearly materialized out of Hume. The very froth of her brown gauzy dress was an emanation from Hume’s leather arm there! If he looked long enough he would see Hume right through her and then he would be alone again in the room. He passed his fist across his eyes. He really must take up those trapeze exercises again.
“For Pete’s sake, don’t look so critical!” objected the emanation pleasantly. “I feel as if you were going to wish me away with that patent dome of yours. And then there wouldn’t be anything left of me except my shadow in your eyes.”
Horace coughed. Coughing was one of his two gestures. When he talked you forgot he had a body at all. It was like hearing a phonograph record by a singer who had been dead a long time.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“I want them letters,” whined Marcia melodramatically—“them letters of mine you bought from my grandsire in 1881.”
“I haven’t got your letters,” he said evenly. “I am only seventeen years old. My father was not born until March 3, 1879. You evidently have me confused with some one else.”
“You’re only seventeen?” repeated Marcia suspiciously.
“I knew a girl,” said Marcia reminiscently, “who went on the ten-twenty-thirty when she was sixteen. She was so stuck on herself that she could never say ‘sixteen’ without putting the ‘only’ before it. We got to calling her ‘Only Jessie.’ And she’s just where she was when she started—only worse. ‘Only’ is a bad habit, Omar—sounds like an alibi.”
“My name is not Omar.”
“I know,” agreed Marcia, nodding—“your name’s Horace. I just call you Omar because you remind me of a smoked cigarette.”
“And I haven’t your letters. I doubt if I’ve ever met your grandfather. In fact, I think it very improbable that you yourself were alive in 1881.”
Marcia stared at him in wonder.
“Me—1881? Why sure! I was second-line stuff when the Florodora Sextette was still in the convent. I was the original nurse to Mrs. Sol Smith’s Juliette. Why, Omar, I was a canteen singer during the War of 1812.”
Horace’s mind made a sudden successful leap, and he grinned.
“Did Charlie Moon put you up to this?”
Marcia regarded him inscrutably.
“Who’s Charlie Moon?”
“Small—wide nostrils—big ears.”
She grew several inches and sniffed.
“I’m not in the habit of noticing my friends’ nostrils.”
“Then it was Charlie?”
Marcia bit her lip—and then yawned.
“Oh, let’s change the subject, Omar. I’ll pull a snore in this chair in a minute.”
“Yes,” replied Horace gravely, “Hume has often been considered soporific.”
“Who’s your friend—and will he die?”
Then of a sudden Horace Tarbox rose slenderly and began to pace the room with his hands in his pockets. This was his other gesture.
“I don’t care for this,” he said as if he were talking to himself—“at all. Not that I mind your being here—I don’t. You’re quite a pretty little thing, but I don’t like Charlie Moon’s sending you up here. Am I a laboratory experiment on which the janitors as well as the chemists can make experiments? Is my intellectual development humorous in any way? Do I look like the pictures of the little Boston boy in the comic magazines? Has that callow ass, Moon, with his eternal tales about his week in Paris, any right to—— ”
“No,” interrupted Marcia emphatically. “And you’re a sweet boy. Come here and kiss me.”
Horace stopped quickly in front of her.
“Why do you want me to kiss you?” he asked intently. “Do you just go round kissing people?”
“Why, yes,” admitted Marcia, unruffled. “’At’s all life is. Just going round kissing people.”
“Well,” replied Horace emphatically, “I must say your ideas are horribly garbled! In the first place life isn’t just that, and in the second place I won’t kiss you. It might get to be a habit and I can’t get rid of habits. This year I’ve got in the habit of lolling in bed until seven-thirty.”
Marcia nodded understandingly.
“Do you ever have any fun?” she asked.
“What do you mean by fun?”
“See here,” said Marcia sternly, “I like you, Omar, but I wish you’d talk as if you had a line on what you were saying. You sound as if you were gargling a lot of words in your mouth and lost a bet every time you spilled a few. I asked you if you ever had any fun.”
Horace shook his head.
“Later, perhaps,” he answered. “You see I’m a plan. I’m an experiment. I don’t say that I don’t get tired of it sometimes—I do. Yet—oh, I can’t explain! But what you and Charlie Moon call fun wouldn’t be fun to me.”
Horace stared at her, started to speak and then, changing his mind, resumed his walk. After an unsuccessful attempt to determine whether or not he was looking at her Marcia smiled at him.
“If I do, will you promise to tell Charlie Moon that I wasn’t in?”
“Very well, then. Here’s my history: I was a ‘why’ child. I wanted to see the wheels go round. My father was a young economics professor at Princeton. He brought me up on the system of answering every question I asked him to the best of his ability. My response to that gave him the idea of making an experiment in precocity. To aid in the massacre I had ear trouble—seven operations between the ages of nine and twelve. Of course this kept me apart from other boys and made me ripe for forcing. Anyway, while my generation was laboring through Uncle Remus I was honestly enjoying Catullus in the original.
“I passed off my college examinations when I was thirteen because I couldn’t help it. My chief associates were professors, and I took a tremendous pride in knowing that I had a fine intelligence, for though I was unusually gifted I was not abnormal in other ways. When I was sixteen I got tired of being a freak; I decided that some one had made a bad mistake. Still as I’d gone that far I concluded to finish it up by taking my degree of Master of Arts. My chief interest in life is the study of modern philosophy. I am a realist of the School of Anton Laurier—with Bergsonian trimmings—and I’ll be eighteen years old in two months. That’s all.”
“Whew!” exclaimed Marcia. “That’s enough! You do a neat job with the parts of speech.”
“No, you haven’t kissed me.”
“It’s not in my programme,” demurred Horace. “Understand that I don’t pretend to be above physical things. They have their place, but——”
“Oh, don’t be so darned reasonable!”
“I can’t help it.”
“I hate these slot-machine people.”
“I assure you I—” began Horace.
“Oh, shut up!”
“My own rationality——”
“I didn’t say anything about your nationality. You’re an Amuricun, ar’n’t you?”
“Well, that’s O.K. with me. I got a notion I want to see you do something that isn’t in your highbrow programme. I want to see if a what-ch-call-em with Brazilian trimmings—that thing you said you were—can be a little human.”
Horace shook his head again.
“I won’t kiss you.”
“My life is blighted,” muttered Marcia tragically. “I’m a beaten woman. I’ll go through life without ever having a kiss with Brazilian trimmings.” She sighed. “Anyways, Omar, will you come and see my show?”
“I’m a wicked actress from ‘Home James’!”
“Yes—at a stretch. One of the characters is a Brazilian rice-planter. That might interest you.”
“I saw ‘The Bohemian Girl’ once,” reflected Horace aloud. “I enjoyed it—to some extent.”
“Then you’ll come?”
“Oh, I know—you’ve got to run down to Brazil for the week-end.”
“Not at all. I’d be delighted to come.”
Marcia clapped her hands.
“Goodyforyou! I’ll mail you a ticket—Thursday night?”
“Good! Thursday night it is.”
She stood up and walking close to him laid both hands on his shoulders.
“I like you, Omar. I’m sorry I tried to kid you. I thought you’d be sort of frozen, but you’re a nice boy.”
He eyed her sardonically.
“I’m several thousand generations older than you are.”
“You carry your age well.”
They shook hands gravely.
“My name’s Marcia Meadow,” she said emphatically. “’Member it—Marcia Meadow. And I won’t tell Charlie Moon you were in.”
An instant later as she was skimming down the last flight of stairs three at a time she heard a voice call over the upper banister: “Oh, say——”
She stopped and looked up—made out a vague form leaning over.
“Oh, say!” called the prodigy again. “Can you hear me?”
“Here’s your connection, Omar.”
“I hope I haven’t given you the impression that I consider kissing intrinsically irrational.”
“Impression? Why, you didn’t even give me the kiss! Never fret—so long.”
Two doors near her opened curiously at the sound of a feminine voice. A tentative cough sounded from above. Gathering her skirts, Marcia dived wildly down the last flight, and was swallowed up in the murky Connecticut air outside.
Up-stairs Horace paced the floor of his study. From time to time he glanced toward Berkeley waiting there in suave dark-red respectability, an open book lying suggestively on his cushions. And then he found that his circuit of the floor was bringing him each time nearer to Hume. There was something about Hume that was strangely and inexpressibly different. The diaphanous form still seemed hovering near, and had Horace sat there he would have felt as if he were sitting on a lady’s lap. And though Horace couldn’t have named the quality of difference, there was such a quality—quite intangible to the speculative mind, but real, nevertheless. Hume was radiating something that in all the two hundred years of his influence he had never radiated before.
Hume was radiating attar of roses.
On Thursday night Horace Tarbox sat in an aisle seat in the fifth row and witnessed “Home James.” Oddly enough he found that he was enjoying himself. The cynical students near him were annoyed at his audible appreciation of time-honored jokes in the Hammerstein tradition. But Horace was waiting with anxiety for Marcia Meadow singing her song about a Jazz-bound Blundering Blimp. When she did appear, radiant under a floppity flower-faced hat, a warm glow settled over him, and when the song was over he did not join in the storm of applause. He felt somewhat numb.
In the intermission after the second act an usher materialized beside him, demanded to know if he were Mr. Tarbox, and then handed him a note written in a round adolescent hand. Horace read it in some confusion, while the usher lingered with withering patience in the aisle.
“DEAR OMAR: After the show I always grow an awful hunger. If you want to satisfy it for me in the Taft Grill just communicate your answer to the big-timber guide that brought this and oblige.
“Tell her”—he coughed—“tell her that it will be quite all right. I’ll meet her in front of the theatre.”
The big-timber guide smiled arrogantly.
“I giss she meant for you to come roun’ t’ the stage door.”
“Where—where is it?”
“Ou’side. Tunayulef. Down ee alley.”
“Ou’side. Turn to y’ left! Down ee alley!”
The arrogant person withdrew. A freshman behind Horace snickered.
Then half an hour later, sitting in the Taft Grill opposite the hair that was yellow by natural pigment, the prodigy was saying an odd thing.
“Do you have to do that dance in the last act?” he was saying earnestly—“I mean, would they dismiss you if you refused to do it?”
“It’s fun to do it. I like to do it.”
And then Horace came out with a faux pas.
“I should think you’d detest it,” he remarked succinctly. “The people behind me were making remarks about your bosom.”
Marcia blushed fiery red.
“I can’t help that,” she said quickly. “The dance to me is only a sort of acrobatic stunt. Lord, it’s hard enough to do! I rub liniment into my shoulders for an hour every night.”
“Do you have fun while you’re on the stage?”
“Uh-huh—sure! I got in the habit of having people look at me, Omar, and I like it.”
“Hm!” Horace sank into a brownish study.
“How’s the Brazilian trimmings?”
“Hm!” repeated Horace, and then after a pause: “Where does the play go from here?”
“For how long?”
“All depends. Winter—maybe.”
“Coming up to lay eyes on me, Omar, or aren’t you int’rested? Not as nice here, is it, as it was up in your room? I wish we was there now.”
“I feel idiotic in this place,” confessed Horace, looking round him nervously.
“Too bad! We got along pretty well.”
At this he looked suddenly so melancholy that she changed her tone, and reaching over patted his hand.
“Ever take an actress out to supper before?”
“No,” said Horace miserably, “and I never will again. I don’t know why I came to-night. Here under all these lights and with all these people laughing and chattering I feel completely out of my sphere. I don’t know what to talk to you about.”
“We’ll talk about me. We talked about you last time.”
“Well, my name really is Meadow, but my first name isn’t Marcia—it’s Veronica. I’m nineteen. Question—how did the girl make her leap to the footlights? Answer—she was born in Passaic, New Jersey, and up to a year ago she got the right to breathe by pushing Nabiscoes in Marcel’s tea-room in Trenton. She started going with a guy named Robbins, a singer in the Trent House cabaret, and he got her to try a song and dance with him one evening. In a month we were filling the supper-room every night. Then we went to New York with meet-my-friend letters thick as a pile of napkins.
“In two days we’d landed a job at Divinerries’, and I learned to shimmy from a kid at the Palais Royal. We stayed at Divinerries’ six months until one night Peter Boyce Wendell, the columnist, ate his milk-toast there. Next morning a poem about Marvellous Marcia came out in his newspaper, and within two days I had three vaudeville offers and a chance at the Midnight Frolic. I wrote Wendell a thank-you letter, and he printed it in his column said that the style was like Carlyle’s, only more rugged, and that I ought to quit dancing and do North American literature. This got me a coupla more vaudeville offers and a chance as an ingenu in a regular show. I took it—and here I am, Omar.”
When she finished they sat for a moment in silence, she draping the last skeins of a Welsh rabbit on her fork and waiting for him to speak.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said suddenly.
Marcia’s eyes hardened.
“What’s the idea? Am I making you sick?”
“No, but I don’t like it here. I don’t like to be sitting here with you.”
Without another word Marcia signalled for the waiter.
“What’s the check?” she demanded briskly. “My part—the rabbit and the ginger ale.”
Horace watched blankly as the waiter figured it.
“See here,” he began, “I intended to pay for yours too. You’re my guest.”
With a half-sigh Marcia rose from the table and walked from the room. Horace, his face a document in bewilderment, laid a bill down and followed her out, up the stairs and into the lobby. He overtook her in front of the elevator and they faced each other.
“See here,” he repeated, “you’re my guest. Have I said something to offend you?”
After an instant of wonder Marcia’s eyes softened.
“You’re a rude fella,” she said slowly. “Don’t you know you’re rude?”
“I can’t help it,” said Horace with a directness she found quite disarming. “You know I like you.”
“You said you didn’t like being with me.”
“I didn’t like it.”
Fire blazed suddenly from the gray forests of his eyes.
“Because I didn’t. I’ve formed the habit of liking you. I’ve been thinking of nothing much else for two days.”
“Well, if you——”
“Wait a minute,” he interrupted. “I’ve got something to say. It’s this: in six weeks I’ll be eighteen years old. When I’m eighteen years old I’m coming up to New York to see you. Is there some place in New York where we can go and not have a lot of people in the room?”
“Sure!” smiled Marcia. “You can come up to my ’partment. Sleep on the couch, if you want to.”
“I can’t sleep on couches,” he said shortly. “But I want to talk to you.”
“Why, sure,” repeated Marcia—“in my ’partment.”
In his excitement Horace put his hands in his pockets.
“All right—just so I can see you alone. I want to talk to you as we talked up in my room.”
“Honey boy,” cried Marcia, laughing, “is it that you want to kiss me?”
“Yes,” Horace almost shouted. “I’ll kiss you if you want me to.”
The elevator man was looking at them reproachfully. Marcia edged toward the grated door.
“I’ll drop you a post-card,” she said.
Horace’s eyes were quite wild.
“Send me a post-card! I’ll come up any time after January first. I’ll be eighteen then.”
And as she stepped into the elevator he coughed enigmatically, yet with a vague challenge, at the ceiling, and walked quickly away.
He was there again. She saw him when she took her first glance at the restless Manhattan audience—down in the front row with his head bent a bit forward and his gray eyes fixed on her. And she knew that to him they were alone together in a world where the high-rouged row of ballet faces and the massed whines of the violins were as imperceivable as powder on a marble Venus. An instinctive defiance rose within her.
“Silly boy!” she said to herself hurriedly, and she didn’t take her encore.
“What do they expect for a hundred a week—perpetual motion?” she grumbled to herself in the wings.
“What’s the trouble, Marcia?”
“Guy I don’t like down in front.”
During the last act as she waited for her specialty she had an odd attack of stage fright. She had never sent Horace the promised post-card. Last night she had pretended not to see him—had hurried from the theatre immediately after her dance to pass a sleepless night in her apartment, thinking—as she had so often in the last month—of his pale, rather intent face, his slim, boyish figure, the merciless, unworldly abstraction that made him charming to her.
And now that he had come she felt vaguely sorry—as though an unwonted responsibility was being forced on her.
“Infant prodigy!” she said aloud.
“What?” demanded the negro comedian standing beside her.
“Nothing—just talking about myself.”
On the stage she felt better. This was her dance—and she always felt that the way she did it wasn’t suggestive any more than to some men every pretty girl is suggestive. She made it a stunt.
“Uptown, downtown, jelly on a spoon,
After sundown shiver by the moon.”
He was not watching her now. She saw that clearly. He was looking very deliberately at a castle on the back drop, wearing that expression he had worn in the Taft Grill. A wave of exasperation swept over her—he was criticising her.
“That’s the vibration that thr-ills me,
Funny how affection fi-lls me,
Unconquerable revulsion seized her. She was suddenly and horribly conscious of her audience as she had never been since her first appearance. Was that a leer on a pallid face in the front row, a droop of disgust on one young girl’s mouth? These shoulders of hers—these shoulders shaking—were they hers? Were they real? Surely shoulders weren’t made for this!
“Then you’ll see at a glance
I’ll need some funeral ushers with St. Vitus dance
At the end of the world I’ll——”
The bassoon and two cellos crashed into a final chord. She paused and poised a moment on her toes with every muscle tense, her young face looking out dully at the audience in what one young girl afterward called “such a curious, puzzled look,” and then without bowing rushed from the stage. Into the dressing-room she sped, kicked out of one dress and into another, and caught a taxi outside.
Her apartment was very warm—small, it was, with a row of professional pictures and sets of Kipling and O. Henry which she had bought once from a blue-eyed agent and read occasionally. And there were several chairs which matched, but were none of them comfortable, and a pink-shaded lamp with blackbirds painted on it and an atmosphere of rather stifled pink throughout. There were nice things in it—nice things unrelentingly hostile to each other, offsprings of a vicarious, impatient taste acting in stray moments. The worst was typified by a great picture framed in oak bark of Passaic as seen from the Erie Railroad—altogether a frantic, oddly extravagant, oddly penurious attempt to make a cheerful room. Marcia knew it was a failure.
Into this room came the prodigy and took her two hands awkwardly.
“I followed you this time,” he said.
“I want you to marry me,” he said.
Her arms went out to him. She kissed his mouth with a sort of passionate wholesomeness.
“I love you,” he said.
She kissed him again and then with a little sigh flung herself into an armchair and half lay there, shaken with absurd laughter.
“Why, you infant prodigy!” she cried.
“Very well, call me that if you want to. I once told you that I was ten thousand years older than you—I am.”
She laughed again.
“I don’t like to be disapproved of.”
“No one’s ever going to disapprove of you again.”
“Omar,” she asked, “why do you want to marry me?”
The prodigy rose and put his hands in his pockets.
“Because I love you, Marcia Meadow.”
And then she stopped calling him Omar.
“Dear boy,” she said, “you know I sort of love you. There’s something about you—I can’t tell what—that just puts my heart through the wringer every time I’m round you. But, honey—” She paused.
“But lots of things. But you’re only just eighteen, and I’m nearly twenty.”
“Nonsense!” he interrupted. “Put it this way—that I’m in my nineteenth year and you’re nineteen. That makes us pretty close—without counting that other ten thousand years I mentioned.”
“But there are some more ‘buts.’ Your people——”
“My people!” exclaimed the prodigy ferociously. “My people tried to make a monstrosity out of me.” His face grew quite crimson at the enormity of what he was going to say. “My people can go way back and sit down!”
“My heavens!” cried Marcia in alarm. “All that? On tacks, I suppose.”
“Tacks—yes,” he agreed wildly—“on anything. The more I think of how they allowed me to become a little dried-up mummy—”
“What makes you think you’re that?” asked Marcia quietly—“me?”
“Yes. Every person I’ve met on the streets since I met you has made me jealous because they knew what love was before I did. I used to call it the ’sex impulse.’ Heavens!”
“There’s more ‘buts,’” said Marcia.
“What are they?”
“How could we live?”
“I’ll make a living.”
“You’re in college.”
“Do you think I care anything about taking a Master of Arts degree?”
“You want to be Master of Me, hey?”
“Yes! What? I mean, no!”
Marcia laughed, and crossing swiftly over sat in his lap. He put his arm round her wildly and implanted the vestige of a kiss somewhere near her neck.
“There’s something white about you,” mused Marcia, “but it doesn’t sound very logical.”
“Oh, don’t be so darned reasonable!”
“I can’t help it,” said Marcia.
“I hate these slot-machine people!”
“Oh, shut up!”
And as Marcia couldn’t talk through her ears she had to.
Horace and Marcia were married early in February. The sensation in academic circles both at Yale and Princeton was tremendous. Horace Tarbox, who at fourteen had been played up in the Sunday magazine sections of metropolitan newspapers, was throwing over his career, his chance of being a world authority on American philosophy, by marrying a chorus girl—they made Marcia a chorus girl. But like all modern stories it was a four-and-a-half-day wonder.
They took a flat in Harlem. After two weeks’ search, during which his idea of the value of academic knowledge faded unmercifully, Horace took a position as clerk with a South American export company—some one had told him that exporting was the coming thing. Marcia was to stay in her show for a few months—anyway until he got on his feet. He was getting a hundred and twenty-five to start with, and though of course they told him it was only a question of months until he would be earning double that, Marcia refused even to consider giving up the hundred and fifty a week that she was getting at the time.
“We’ll call ourselves Head and Shoulders, dear,” she said softly, “and the shoulders’ll have to keep shaking a little longer until the old head gets started.”
“I hate it,” he objected gloomily.
“Well,” she replied emphatically, “your salary wouldn’t keep us in a tenement. Don’t think I want to be public—I don’t. I want to be yours. But I’d be a half-wit to sit in one room and count the sunflowers on the wall-paper while I waited for you. When you pull down three hundred a month I’ll quit.”
And much as it hurt his pride, Horace had to admit that hers was the wiser course.
March mellowed into April. May read a gorgeous riot act to the parks and waters of Manhattan, and they were very happy. Horace, who had no habits whatsoever—he had never had time to form any—proved the most adaptable of husbands, and as Marcia entirely lacked opinions on the subjects that engrossed him there were very few jottings and bumpings. Their minds moved in different spheres. Marcia acted as practical factotum, and Horace lived either in his old world of abstract ideas or in a sort of triumphantly earthy worship and adoration of his wife. She was a continual source of astonishment to him—the freshness and originality of her mind, her dynamic, clear-headed energy, and her unfailing good humor.
And Marcia’s co-workers in the nine-o’clock show, whither she had transferred her talents, were impressed with her tremendous pride in her husband’s mental powers. Horace they knew only as a very slim, tight-lipped, and immature-looking young man, who waited every night to take her home.
“Horace,” said Marcia one evening when she met him as usual at eleven, “you looked like a ghost standing there against the street lights. You losing weight?”
He shook his head vaguely.
“I don’t know. They raised me to a hundred and thirty-five dollars to-day, and——”
“I don’t care,” said Marcia severely. “You’re killing yourself working at night. You read those big books on economy——”
“Economics,” corrected Horace.
“Well, you read ’em every night long after I’m asleep. And you’re getting all stooped over like you were before we were married.”
“But, Marcia, I’ve got to——”
“No, you haven’t, dear. I guess I’m running this shop for the present, and I won’t let my fella ruin his health and eyes. You got to get some exercise.”
“I do. Every morning I——”
“Oh, I know! But those dumb-bells of yours wouldn’t give a consumptive two degrees of fever. I mean real exercise. You’ve got to join a gymnasium. ’Member you told me you were such a trick gymnast once that they tried to get you out for the team in college and they couldn’t because you had a standing date with Herb Spencer?”
“I used to enjoy it,” mused Horace, “but it would take up too much time now.”
“All right,” said Marcia. “I’ll make a bargain with you. You join a gym and I’ll read one of those books from the brown row of ’em.”
“‘Pepys’ Diary’? Why, that ought to be enjoyable. He’s very light.”
“Not for me—he isn’t. It’ll be like digesting plate glass. But you been telling me how much it’d broaden my lookout. Well, you go to a gym three nights a week and I’ll take one big dose of Sammy.”
“Come on, now! You do some giant swings for me and I’ll chase some culture for you.”
So Horace finally consented, and all through a baking summer he spent three and sometimes four evenings a week experimenting on the trapeze in Skipper’s Gymnasium. And in August he admitted to Marcia that it made him capable of more mental work during the day.
“Mens sano in corpore sano,” he said.
“Don’t believe in it,” replied Marcia. “I tried one of those patent medicines once and they’re all bunk. You stick to gymnastics.”
One night in early September while he was going through one of his contortions on the rings in the nearly deserted room he was addressed by a meditative fat man whom he had noticed watching him for several nights.
“Say, lad, do that stunt you were doin’ last night.”
Horace grinned at him from his perch.
“I invented it,” he said. “I got the idea from the fourth proposition of Euclid.”
“What circus he with?”
“Well, he must of broke his neck doin’ that stunt. I set here last night thinkin’ sure you was goin’ to break yours.”
“Like this!” said Horace, and swinging onto the trapeze he did his stunt.
“Don’t it kill your neck an’ shoulder muscles?”
“It did at first, but inside of a week I wrote the quod erat demonstrandum on it.”
Horace swung idly on the trapeze.
“Ever think of takin’ it up professionally?” asked the fat man.
“Good money in it if you’re willin’ to do stunts like ’at an’ can get away with it.”
“Here’s another,” chirped Horace eagerly, and the fat man’s mouth dropped suddenly agape as he watched this pink-jerseyed Prometheus again defy the gods and Isaac Newton.
The night following this encounter Horace got home from work to find a rather pale Marcia stretched out on the sofa waiting for him.
“I fainted twice to-day,” she began without preliminaries.
“Yep. You see baby’s due in four months now. Doctor says I ought to have quit dancing two weeks ago.”
Horace sat down and thought it over.
“I’m glad, of course,” he said pensively—“I mean glad that we’re going to have a baby. But this means a lot of expense.”
“I’ve got two hundred and fifty in the bank,” said Marcia hopefully, “and two weeks’ pay coming.”
Horace computed quickly.
“Including my salary, that’ll give us nearly fourteen hundred for the next six months.”
Marcia looked blue.
“That all? Course I can get a job singing somewhere this month. And I can go to work again in March.”
“Of course nothing!” said Horace gruffly. “You’ll stay right here. Let’s see now—there’ll be doctor’s bills and a nurse, besides the maid. We’ve got to have some more money.”
“Well,” said Marcia wearily, “I don’t know where it’s coming from. It’s up to the old head now. Shoulders is out of business.”
Horace rose and pulled on his coat.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve got an idea,” he answered. “I’ll be right back.”
Ten minutes later as he headed down the street toward Skipper’s Gymnasium he felt a placid wonder, quite unmixed with humor, at what he was going to do. How he would have gaped at himself a year before! How every one would have gaped! But when you opened your door at the rap of life you let in many things.
The gymnasium was brightly lit, and when his eyes became accustomed to the glare he found the meditative fat man seated on a pile of canvas mats smoking a big cigar.
“Say,” began Horace directly, “were you in earnest last night when you said I could make money on my trapeze stunts?”
“Why, yes,” said the fat man in surprise.
“Well, I’ve been thinking it over, and I believe I’d like to try it. I could work at night and on Saturday afternoons—and regularly if the pay is high enough.”
The fat man looked at his watch.
“Well,” he said, “Charlie Paulson’s the man to see. He’ll book you inside of four days, once he sees you work out. He won’t be in now, but I’ll get hold of him for to-morrow night.”
The fat man was as good as his word. Charlie Paulson arrived next night and put in a wondrous hour watching the prodigy swoop through the air in amazing parabolas, and on the night following he brought two large men with him who looked as though they had been born smoking black cigars and talking about money in low, passionate voices. Then on the succeeding Saturday Horace Tarbox’s torso made its first professional appearance in a gymnastic exhibition at the Coleman Street Gardens. But though the audience numbered nearly five thousand people, Horace felt no nervousness. From his childhood he had read papers to audiences—learned that trick of detaching himself.
“Marcia,” he said cheerfully later that same night, “I think we’re out of the woods. Paulson thinks he can get me an opening at the Hippodrome, and that means an all-winter engagement. The Hippodrome, you know, is a big—”
“Yes, I believe I’ve heard of it,” interrupted Marcia, “but I want to know about this stunt you’re doing. It isn’t any spectacular suicide, is it?”
“It’s nothing,” said Horace quietly. “But if you can think of any nicer way of a man killing himself than taking a risk for you, why that’s the way I want to die.”
Marcia reached up and wound both arms tightly round his neck.
“Kiss me,” she whispered, “and call me ‘dear heart.’ I love to hear you say ‘dear heart.’ And bring me a book to read to-morrow. No more Sam Pepys, but something trick and trashy. I’ve been wild for something to do all day. I felt like writing letters, but I didn’t have anybody to write to.”
“Write to me,” said Horace. “I’ll read them.”
“I wish I could,” breathed Marcia. “If I knew words enough I could write you the longest love-letter in the world—and never get tired.”
But after two more months Marcia grew very tired indeed, and for a row of nights it was a very anxious, weary-looking young athlete who walked out before the Hippodrome crowd. Then there were two days when his place was taken by a young man who wore pale blue instead of white, and got very little applause. But after the two days Horace appeared again, and those who sat close to the stage remarked an expression of beatific happiness on that young acrobat’s face, even when he was twisting breathlessly in the air in the middle of his amazing and original shoulder swing. After that performance he laughed at the elevator man and dashed up the stairs to the flat five steps at a time—and then tiptoed very carefully into a quiet room.
“Marcia,” he whispered.
“Hello!” She smiled up at him wanly. “Horace, there’s something I want you to do. Look in my top bureau drawer and you’ll find a big stack of paper. It’s a book—sort of—Horace. I wrote it down in these last three months while I’ve been laid up. I wish you’d take it to that Peter Boyce Wendell who put my letter in his paper. He could tell you whether it’d be a good book. I wrote it just the way I talk, just the way I wrote that letter to him. It’s just a story about a lot of things that happened to me. Will you take it to him, Horace?”
He leaned over the bed until his head was beside her on the pillow, and began stroking back her yellow hair.
“Dearest Marcia,” he said softly.
“No,” she murmured, “call me what I told you to call me.”
“Dear heart,” he whispered passionately—“dearest, dearest heart.”
“What’ll we call her?”
They rested a minute in happy, drowsy content, while Horace considered.
“We’ll call her Marcia Hume Tarbox,” he said at length.
“Why the Hume?”
“Because he’s the fellow who first introduced us.”
“That so?” she murmured, sleepily surprised. “I thought his name was Moon.”
Her eyes closed, and after a moment the slow, lengthening surge of the bedclothes over her breast showed that she was asleep.
Horace tiptoed over to the bureau and opening the top drawer found a heap of closely scrawled, lead-smeared pages. He looked at the first sheet:
SANDRA PEPYS, SYNCOPATED
BY MARCIA TARBOX
He smiled. So Samuel Pepys had made an impression on her after all. He turned a page and began to read. His smile deepened—he read on. Half an hour passed and he became aware that Marcia had waked and was watching him from the bed.
“Honey,” came in a whisper.
“Do you like it?”
“I seem to be reading on. It’s bright.”
“Take it to Peter Boyce Wendell. Tell him you got the highest marks in Princeton once and that you ought to know when a book’s good. Tell him this one’s a world beater.”
“All right, Marcia,” said Horace gently.
Her eyes closed again and Horace crossing over kissed her forehead—stood there for a moment with a look of tender pity. Then he left the room.
All that night the scrawly writing on the pages, the constant mistakes in spelling and grammar, and the weird punctuation danced before his eyes. He woke several times in the night, each time full of a welling chaotic sympathy for this desire of Marcia’s soul to express itself in words. To him there was something infinitely pathetic about it, and for the first time in months he began to turn over in his mind his own half-forgotten dreams.
He had meant to write a series of books, to popularize the new realism as Schopenhauer had popularized pessimism and William James pragmatism.
But life hadn’t come that way. Life took hold of people and forced them into flying rings. He laughed to think of that rap at his door, the diaphanous shadow in Hume, Marcia’s threatened kiss.
“And it’s still me,” he said aloud in wonder as he lay awake in the darkness. “I’m the man who sat in Berkeley with temerity to wonder if that rap would have had actual existence had my ear not been there to hear it. I’m still that man. I could be electrocuted for the crimes he committed.
“Poor gauzy souls trying to express ourselves in something tangible. Marcia with her written book; I with my unwritten ones. Trying to choose our mediums and then taking what we get—and being glad.”
“Sandra Pepys, Syncopated,” with an introduction by Peter Boyce Wendell, the columnist, appeared serially in Jordan’s Magazine, and came out in book form in March. From its first published instalment it attracted attention far and wide. A trite enough subject—a girl from a small New Jersey town coming to New York to go on the stage—treated simply, with a peculiar vividness of phrasing and a haunting undertone of sadness in the very inadequacy of its vocabulary, it made an irresistible appeal.
Peter Boyce Wendell, who happened at that time to be advocating the enrichment of the American language by the immediate adoption of expressive vernacular words, stood as its sponsor and thundered his indorsement over the placid bromides of the conventional reviewers.
Marcia received three hundred dollars an instalment for the serial publication, which came at an opportune time, for though Horace’s monthly salary at the Hippodrome was now more than Marcia’s had ever been, young Marcia was emitting shrill cries which they interpreted as a demand for country air. So early April found them installed in a bungalow in Westchester County, with a place for a lawn, a place for a garage, and a place for everything, including a sound-proof impregnable study, in which Marcia faithfully promised Mr. Jordan she would shut herself up when her daughter’s demands began to be abated, and compose immortally illiterate literature.
“It’s not half bad,” thought Horace one night as he was on his way from the station to his house. He was considering several prospects that had opened up, a four months’ vaudeville offer in five figures, a chance to go back to Princeton in charge of all gymnasium work. Odd! He had once intended to go back there in charge of all philosophic work, and now he had not even been stirred by the arrival in New York of Anton Laurier, his old idol.
The gravel crunched raucously under his heel. He saw the lights of his sitting-room gleaming and noticed a big car standing in the drive. Probably Mr. Jordan again, come to persuade Marcia to settle down to work.
She had heard the sound of his approach and her form was silhouetted against the lighted door as she came out to meet him.
“There’s some Frenchman here,” she whispered nervously. “I can’t pronounce his name, but he sounds awful deep. You’ll have to jaw with him.”
“You can’t prove it by me. He drove up an hour ago with Mr. Jordan, and said he wanted to meet Sandra Pepys, and all that sort of thing.”
Two men rose from chairs as they went inside.
“Hello, Tarbox,” said Jordan. “I’ve just been bringing together two celebrities. I’ve brought M’sieur Laurier out with me. M’sieur Laurier, let me present Mr. Tarbox, Mrs. Tarbox’s husband.”
“Not Anton Laurier!” exclaimed Horace.
“But, yes. I must come. I have to come. I have read the book of Madame, and I have been charmed”—he fumbled in his pocket—“ah, I have read of you too. In this newspaper which I read to-day it has your name.”
He finally produced a clipping from a magazine.
“Read it!” he said eagerly. “It has about you too.”
Horace’s eye skipped down the page.
“A distinct contribution to American dialect literature,” it said. “No attempt at literary tone; the book derives its very quality from this fact, as did ‘Huckleberry Finn.’”
Horace’s eyes caught a passage lower down; he became suddenly aghast—read on hurriedly:
“Marcia Tarbox’s connection with the stage is not only as a spectator but as the wife of a performer. She was married last year to Horace Tarbox, who every evening delights the children at the Hippodrome with his wondrous flying-ring performance. It is said that the young couple have dubbed themselves Head and Shoulders, referring doubtless to the fact that Mrs. Tarbox supplies the literary and mental qualities, while the supple and agile shoulders of her husband contribute their share to the family fortunes.
“Mrs. Tarbox seems to merit that much-abused title—‘prodigy.’ Only twenty——”
Horace stopped reading, and with a very odd expression in his eyes gazed intently at Anton Laurier.
“I want to advise you—” he began hoarsely.
“About raps. Don’t answer them! Let them alone—have a padded door.”
Note by M.J. Bruccoli: Fitzgerald wrote his literary agent, Harold Ober: “I was twenty-two [actually twenty-three] when I came to New York and found that you’d sold Head and Shoulders to the Post. I’d like to get a thrill like that again but I suppose its only once in a lifetime.” Originally titled “Nest Feathers”, this story was one of a group Fitzgerald wrote in the fall of 1919 after Scribner’s accepted his first novel, “This Side of Paradise”. Fitzgerald’s fiction has a curious way of anticipating his life: just as Horace is deflected by marriage from scholarship to entertainment, so would the author of “Head and Shoulders” soon be under pressure to provide literary entertainment after his own marriage to Zelda Sayre in April 1920.
Published in The Saturday Evening Post magazine (21 February 1920).
Illustrations by Charles D. Mitchell.