"I'm sitting pretty," Allen remarked casually, picking up the five cards that he had laid down before he dealt.
The betting began, Hugh nervous, openly excited, Mandel stonily calm, Allen completely at ease. At first the bets were for a dollar, but they gradually rose to five. Mandel threw down his cards.
"Fight it out," he said morosely. "I've thrown away twenty-five bucks, and I'll be damned if I'm going to throw away any more to see your four-flushes."
Allen lifted a pile of chips and let them fall lightly, clicking a rapid staccato. "It'll cost you ten dollars to see my hand, Hugh," he said quietly.
"It'll cost you twenty if you want to see mine," Hugh responded, tossing the equivalent to thirty dollars into the pot. He watched Allen eagerly, but Allen's face remained quite impassive as he raised Hugh another ten.
The four boys who weren't playing leaned forward, pipes or cigarettes in their mouths, their stomachs pressed against the table, their eyes narrowed and excited. The air was a stench of stale smoke; the silence between bets was electric.
The betting continued, Hugh sure that Allen was bluffing, but Allen never failed to raise him ten dollars on every bet. Finally Hugh had a hundred dollars in the pot and dared not risk more on his hand.
"I think you're bluffing, goddamn it," he said, his voice shrill and nervous. "I'll call you. Show your stinkin' hand."
"Oh, not so stinkin'," Allen replied lightly. "I've got four of a kind, all of 'em kings. Let's see your three deuces."
He tossed down his hand, and Hugh slumped in his chair at the sight of the four kings. He shoved the pile of chips toward Allen. "Take the pot, damn you. Of all the bastard luck. Look!" He slapped down his cards angrily. "A full house, queens up. Christ!" He burst into a flood of obscenity, the other boys listening sympathetically, all except Allen who was carefully stacking the chips.
In a few minutes Hugh's anger died. He remembered that he was only about twenty-five dollars behind and that he had an hour in which to recover them. His face became set and hard; his hands lost their jerky eagerness. He played carefully, never daring to enter a big pot, never betting for more than his hands were worth.
As the bets grew larger, the room grew quieter. Every one was smoking constantly; the air was heavy with smoke, and the stench grew more and more foul. Outside of a soft, "I raise you twenty," or, even, "Fifty bucks if you want to see my hand," a muttered oath or a request to buy chips, there was hardly a word said. The excitement was so intense that it hurt; the expletives smelled of the docks.
At times there was more than five hundred dollars in a pot, and five times out of seven when the pot was big, Allen won it. Win or lose, he continued cool and calm, at times smoking a pipe, other times puffing nonchalantly at a cigarette.
The acrid smoke cut Hugh's eyes; they smarted and pained, but he continued to light cigarette after cigarette, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs, hardly aware of the fact that they hurt.
He won and lost, won and lost, but gradually he won back the twenty-five dollars and a little more. The college clock struck eleven. He knew that he ought to go, but he wondered if he could quit with honor when he was ahead.
"I ought to go," he said hesitatingly. "I told George when I said that I'd sit in that I'd have to leave at eleven. I've got an eccy quiz to-morrow that I've got to study for."
"Oh, don't leave now," one of the men said excitedly. "Why, hell, man, the game's just getting warm."
"I know," Hugh agreed, "and I hate like hell to quit, but I've really got to beat it. Besides, the stakes are too big for me. I can't afford a game like this."
"You can afford it as well as I can," Mandel said irritably. "I'm over two hundred berries in the hole right now, and you can goddamn well bet that I'm not going to leave until I get them back."
"Well, I'm a hundred and fifty to the bad," Winsor announced miserably, "but I've got to go. If I don't hit that eccy, I'm going to be out of luck." He shoved back his chair. "I hate like hell to leave; but I promised Hugh that I'd leave with him at eleven, and I've got to do it."
Allen had been quite indifferent when Hugh said that he was leaving. Hugh was obviously small money, and Allen had no time to waste on chicken-feed, but Winsor was a different matter.
"You don't want to go, George, when you're in the hole. Better stick around. Maybe you'll win it back. Your luck can't be bad all night."
"You're right," said Winsor, stretching mightily. "It can't be bad all night, but I can't hang around all night to watch it change. You're welcome to the hundred and fifty, Ted, but some night soon I'm coming over and take it away from you."
Allen laughed. "Any time you say, George."
Hugh and Winsor settled their accounts, then stood up, aching and weary, their muscles cramped from three hours of sitting and nervous tension. They said brief good nights, unlocked the door—they heard Allen lock it behind them—and left their disgruntled friends, glad to be out of the noisome odor of the room.
"God, what luck!" Winsor exclaimed as they started down the hall. "I'm off Allen for good. That boy wins big pots too regularly and always loses the little ones. I bet he's a cold-deck artist or something."
"He's something all right," Hugh agreed. "Cripes, I feel dirty and stinko. I feel as if I'd been in a den."
"You have been. Say, what's that?" They had almost traversed the length of the long hall when Winsor stopped suddenly, taking Hugh by the arm. A door was open, and they could hear somebody reading.
"What's what?" Hugh asked, a little startled by the suddenness of Winsor's question.
"Listen. That poem, I've heard it somewhere before. What is it?"
Hugh listened a moment and then said: "Oh, that's the poem Prof Blake read us the other day—you know, 'marpessa.' It's about the shepherd, Apollo, and Marpessa. It's great stuff. Listen."
They remained standing in the deserted hall, the voice coming clearly to them through the open doorway. "It's Freddy Fowler," Winsor whispered. "He can sure read."
The reading stopped, and they heard Fowler say to some one, presumably his room-mate: "This is the part that I like best. Get it," Then he read Idas's plea to Marpessa:
"'After such argument what can I plead? Or what pale promise make? Yet since it is In women to pity rather than to aspire, A little I will speak. I love thee then Not only for thy body packed with sweet Of all this world, that cup of brimming June, That jar of violet wine set in the air, That palest rose sweet in the night of life; Nor for that stirring bosom, all besieged By drowsing lovers, or thy perilous hair; Nor for that face that might indeed provoke Invasion of old cities; no, nor all Thy freshness stealing on me like strange sleep.'"
Winsor's hand tightened on Hugh's arm, and the two boys stood almost rigid listening to the young voice, which was trembling with emotion, rich with passion:
"'Not only for this do I love thee, but Because Infinity upon thee broods; And thou are full of whispers and of shadows. Thou meanest what the sea has striven to say So long, and yearned up the cliffs to tell; Thou art what all the winds have uttered not, What the still night suggesteth to the heart. Thy voice is like to music heard ere birth, Some spirit lute touched on a spirit sea; Thy face remembered is from other worlds, It has been died for, though I know not when, It has been sung of, though I know not where.'"
"God," Winsor whispered, "that's beautiful."
"Hush. This is the best part."
"'It has the strangeness of the luring West, And of sad sea-horizons; beside thee I am aware of other times and lands, Of birth far back, of lives in many stars. O beauty lone and like a candle clear In this dark country of the world! Thou art My woe, my early light, my music dying.'"
Hugh and Winsor remained silent while the young voice went on reading Maressa's reply, her gentle refusal of the god and her proud acceptance, of the mortal. Finally they heard the last words:
"When she had spoken, Idas with one cry Held her, and there was silence; while the god In anger disappeared. Then slowly they, He looking downward, and she gazing up, Into the evening green wandered away."
When the voice paused, the poem done, the two boys walked slowly down the hall, down the steps, and out into the cool night air. Neither said a Word until they were half-way across the campus. Then Winsor spoke softly:
"God! Wasn't that beautiful?"
"Yes—beautiful." Hugh's voice was hardly more than a whisper. "Beautiful.... It—it—oh, it makes me—kinda ashamed."
"Me, too. Poker when we can have that! We're awful fools, Hugh."
Prom came early in May, and Hugh looked forward to it joyously, partly because it would be his first Prom and partly because Cynthia was coming. Cynthia! He thought of her constantly, dreamed of her, wrote poems about her and to her. At times his longing for her swelled into an ecstasy of desire that racked and tore him. He was lost in love, his moods sweeping him from lyric happiness to black despair. He wrote to her several times a week, and between letters he took long walks composing dithyrambic epistles that fortunately were never written.
When he received her letter saying that she would come to Prom, he yelled like a lunatic, pounded the astonished Vinton on the back, and raced down-stairs to the living-room.
"She's coming!" he shouted.
There were several men in the room, and they all turned and looked at him, some of them grinning broadly.
"What th' hell, Hugh?" Leonard Gates asked amiably. "Who's coming? Who's she?"
Hugh blushed and shuffled his feet. He knew that he had laid himself open to a "royal razzing," but he proceeded to bluff himself out of the dilemma.
"She? Oh, yes, she. Well, she is she. Altogether divine, Len." He was trying hard to be casual and flippant, but his eyes were dancing and his lips trembled with smiles.
Gates grinned at him. "A poor bluff, old man—a darn poor bluff. You're in love, pauvre enfant, and I'm afraid that you're in a very bad way. Come on, tell us the lady's name, her pedigree, and list of charms."
Hugh grinned back at Gates. "Chase yourself," he said gaily. "I won't tell you a blamed thing about her."
"You'd better," said Jim Saunders from the depths of a leather chair. "Is she the jane whose picture adorns your desk?"
"Yeah," Hugh admitted. "How do you like her?"
"Very fair, very fair." Saunders was magnificently lofty. "I've seen better, of course, but I've seen worse, too. Not bad—um, not very bad."
The "razzing" had started, and Hugh lost his nerve.
"Jim, you can go to hell," he said definitely, prepared to rush up-stairs before Saunders could reply. "You don't know a queen when you see one. Why, Cynthia—"
"Cynthia!" four of the boys shouted. "So her name's Cynthia. That's—"
But Hugh was half-way up-stairs, embarrassed and delighted.
The girls arrived on Thursday, the train which brought most of them reaching Haydensville early in the afternoon. Hugh paced up and down the station, trying to keep up a pretense of a conversation with two or three others. He gave the wrong reply twice and then decided to say nothing more. He listened with his whole body for the first whistle of the train, and so great was the chatter of the hundreds of waiting youths that he never heard it. Suddenly the engine rounded a curve, and a minute later the train stopped before the station. Immediately the boys began to mill around the platform like cattle about to stampede, standing on their toes to look over the heads of their comrades, shoving, shouting, dancing in their impatience.
Girls began to descend the steps of the cars. The stampede broke. A youth would see "his girl" and start through the crowd for her. Dozens spotted their girls at the same time and tried to run through the crowd. They bumped into one another, laughed joyously, bumped into somebody else, and finally reached the girl.
When Hugh eventually saw Cynthia standing on a car platform near him, he shouted to her and held his hand high in greeting. She saw him and waved back, at the same time starting down the steps.
She had a little scarlet hat pulled down over her curly brown hair, and she wore a simple blue traveling-suit that set off her slender figure perfectly. Her eyes seemed bigger and browner than ever, her nose more impudently tilted, her mouth more supremely irresistible. Her cheeks were daintily rouged, her eyebrows plucked into a thin arch. She was New York from her small pumps to the expensively simple scarlet hat.
Hugh dashed several people aside and grabbed her hand, squeezing it unmercifully.
"Oh, gee, Cynthia, I'm glad to see you. I thought the darn train was never going to get here. How are you? Gee, you're looking great, wonderful. Where's your suit-case?" He fairly stuttered in his excitement, his words toppling over each other.
"I'm full of pep. You look wonderful. There's my suit-case, the big black one. Give the porter two bits or something. I haven't any change." Hugh tipped the porter, picked up the suit-case with one hand, and took Cynthia by the arm with the other, carefully piloting her through the noisy, surging crowd of boys and girls, all of them talking at top speed and in high, excited voices.
Once Hugh and Cynthia were off the platform they could talk without shouting.
"We've got to walk up the hill," Hugh explained miserably. "I couldn't get a car for love nor money. I'm awfully sorry."
Cynthia did a dance-step and petted his arm happily. "What do I care? I'm so—so damn glad to see you, Hugh. You look nicer'n ever—just as clean and washed and sweet. Ooooh, look at him blush! Stop it or I'll have to kiss you right here. Stop it, I say."
But Hugh went right on blushing. "Go ahead," he said bravely. "I wish you would."
Cynthia laughed. "Like fun you do. You'd die of embarrassment. But your mouth is an awful temptation. You have the sweetest mouth, Hugh. It's so damn kissable."
She continued to banter him until they reached the fraternity house. "Where do I live?" she demanded. "In your room, I hope."
"Yep. I'm staying down in Keller Hall with Norry Parker. His room-mate's sick in the hospital; so he's got room for me. Norry's going to see you later."
"Right-o. What do we do when I get six pounds of dirt washed off and some powder on my nose?"
"Well, we're having a tea-dance here at the house at four-thirty; but we've got an hour till then, and I thought we'd take a walk. I want to show you the college."
After Cynthia had repaired the damages of travel and had been introduced to Hugh's fraternity brothers and their girls, she and Hugh departed for a tour of the campus. The lawns were so green that the grass seemed to be bursting with color; the elms waved tiny new leaves in a faint breeze; the walls of the buildings were speckled with green patches of ivy. Cynthia was properly awed by the chapel and enthusiastic over the other buildings. She assured Hugh that Sanford men looked awfully smooth in their knickers and white flannels; in fact, she said the whole college seemed jake to her.
They wandered past the lake and into the woods as if by common consent. Once they were out of sight of passers-by, Hugh paused and turned to Cynthia. Without a word she stepped into his arms and lifted her face to his, Hugh's heart seemed to stop; he was so hungry for that kiss, he had waited so long for it.
When he finally took his lips from hers, Cynthia whispered softly, "You're such a good egg, Hugh honey, such a damn good egg."
Hugh could say nothing; he just held her close, his mind swimming dizzily, his whole being atingle. For a long time he held her, kissing her, now tenderly, now almost brutally, lost in a thrill of passion.
Finally she whispered faintly: "No more, Hugh. Not now, dear."
Hugh released her reluctantly. "I love you so damned hard, Cynthia," he said huskily. "I—I can't keep my hands off of you."
"I know," she replied. "But we've got to go back. Wait a minute, though. I must look like the devil." She straightened her hat, powdered her nose, and then tucked her arm in his.
After the tea-dance and dinner, Hugh left her to dress for the Dramatic Society musical comedy that was to be performed that evening. He returned to Norry Parker's room and prepared to put on his Tuxedo.
"You look as if somebody had left you a million dollars," Norry said to Hugh. "I don't think I ever saw anybody look so happy. You—you shine."
Hugh laughed. "I am happy, Norry, happy as hell. I'm so happy I ache. Oh, God, Cynthia's wonderful. I'm crazy about her, Norry—plumb crazy."
Norry had known Cynthia for years, and despite his ingenuousness, he had noticed some of her characteristics.
"I never expected you to fall in love with Cynthia, Hugh," he said in his gentle way. "I'm awfully surprised."
Hugh was humming a strain from "Say it with Music" while he undressed. He pulled off his trousers and then turned to Norry, who was sitting on the bed. "What did you say? You said something, didn't you?"
Norry smiled. For some quite inexplicable reason, he suddenly felt older than Hugh.
"Yes, I said something. I said that I never expected you to fall in love with Cynthia."
Hugh paused in taking off his socks. "Why not?" he demanded. "She's wonderful."
"You're so different."
"How different? We understand each other perfectly. Of course, we only saw each other for a week when I was down at your place, but we understood each other from the first. I was crazy about her as soon as I saw her."
Norry was troubled. "I don't think I can explain exactly," he said slowly. "Cynthia runs with a fast crowd, and she smokes and drinks—and you're—well, you're idealistic."
Hugh pulled off his underclothes and laughed as he stuck his feet into slippers and drew on a bath-robe. "Of course, she does. All the girls do now. She's just as idealistic as I am."
He wrapped the bath-robe around him and departed for the showers, singing gaily:
"Say it with music, Beautiful music; Somehow they'd rather be kissed To the strains of Chopin or Liszt. A melody mellow played on a cello Helps Mister Cupid along— So say it with a beautiful song."
Shortly he returned, still singing the same song, his voice full and happy. He continued to sing as he dressed, paying no attention to Norry, completely lost in his own Elysian thoughts.
To Hugh and Cynthia the musical comedy was a complete success, although the music, written by an undergraduate, was strangely reminiscent of several recent Broadway song successes, and the plot of the comedy got lost after the first ten minutes and was never recovered until the last two. It was amusing to watch men try to act like women, and two of the "ladies" of the chorus were patently drunk. Cleopatra, the leading lady, was a wrestler and looked it, his biceps swelling magnificently every time he raised his arms to embrace the comic Antony. It was glorious nonsense badly enough done to be really funny. Hugh and Cynthia, along with the rest of the audience, laughed joyously—and held hands.
After the play was over, they returned to the Nu Delta house and danced until two in the morning. During one dance Cynthia whispered to him, "Hugh, get me a drink or I'll pass out."
Hugh, forgetting his indignation of the year before, went in search of Vinton and deprived that young man of a pint of gin without a scruple. He and Cynthia then sneaked behind the house and did away with the liquor. Other couples were drinking, all of them surreptitiously, Leonard Gates having laid down the law in no uncertain manner, and all of the brothers were a little afraid of Gates.
Cynthia slept until noon the next day, and Hugh went to his classes. In the afternoon they attended a baseball game, and then returned to the fraternity house for another tea-dance. The Prom was to be that night. Hugh assured Cynthia that it was going to be a "wet party," and that Vinton had sold him a good supply of Scotch.
The campus was rife with stories: this was the wettest Prom on record, the girls were drinking as much as the men, some of the fraternities had made the sky the limit, the dormitories were being invaded by couples in the small hours of the night, and so on. Hugh heard numerous stories but paid no attention to them. He was supremely happy, and that was all that mattered. True, several men had advised him to bring plenty of liquor along to the Prom if he wanted to have a good time, and he was careful to act on their advice, especially as Cynthia had assured him that she would dance until doomsday if he kept her "well oiled with hooch."
The gymnasium was gaily decorated for the Prom, the walls hidden with greenery, the rafters twined with the college colors and almost lost behind hundreds of small Japanese lanterns. The fraternity booths were made of fir boughs, and the orchestra platform in the middle of the floor looked like a small forest of saplings.
The girls were beautiful in the soft glow of the lanterns, their arms and shoulders smooth and white; the men were trim and neat in their Tuxedos, the dark suits emphasizing the brilliant colors of the girls' gowns.
It was soon apparent that some of the couples had got at least half "oiled" before the dance began, and before an hour had passed many more couples gave evidence of imbibing more freely than wisely. Occasionally a hysterical laugh burst shrilly above the pounding of the drums and the moaning of the saxophones. A couple would stagger awkwardly against another couple and then continue unevenly on an uncertain way.
The stags seemed to be the worst offenders. Many of them were joyously drunk, dashing dizzily across the floor to find a partner, and once having taken her from a friend, dragging her about, happily unconscious of anything but the girl and the insistent rhythm of the music.
The musicians played as if in a frenzy, the drums pound-pounding a terrible tom-tom, the saxophones moaning and wailing, the violins singing sensuously, shrilly as if in pain, an exquisite searing pain.
Boom, boom, boom, boom. "Stumbling all around, stumbling all around, stumbling all around so funny—" Close-packed the couples moved slowly about the gymnasium, body pressed tight to body, swaying in place—boom, boom, boom, boom—"Stumbling here and there, stumbling everywhere—" Six dowagers, the chaperons, sat in a corner, gossiped, and idly watched the young couples.... A man suddenly released his girl and raced clumsily for the door, one hand pressed to his mouth, the other stretched uncertainly in front of him.
Always the drums beating their terrible tom-tom, their primitive, blood-maddening tom-tom.... Boom, boom, boom, boom—"I like it just a little bit, just a little bit, quite a little bit." The music ceased, and some of the couples disentangled themselves; others waited in frank embrace for the orchestra to begin the encore.... A boy slumped in a chair, his head in his hands. His partner sought two friends. They helped the boy out of the gymnasium.
The orchestra leader lifted his bow. The stags waited in a broken line, looking for certain girls. The music began, turning a song with comic words into something weirdly sensuous—strange syncopations, uneven, startling drum-beats—a mad tom-tom. The couples pressed close together again, swaying, barely moving in place—boom, boom, boom, boom—"Second-hand hats, second-hand clothes—That's why they call me second-hand Rose...." The saxophones sang the melody with passionate despair; the violins played tricks with a broken heart; the clarinets rose shrill in pain; the drums beat on—boom, boom, boom, boom.... A boy and girl sought a dark corner. He shielded her with his body while she took a drink from a flask. Then he turned his face to the corner and drank. A moment later they were back on the floor, holding each other tight, drunkenly swaying... Finally the last strains, a wall of agony—"Ev-'ry one knows that I'm just Sec-ond-hand Rose—from Sec-ond Av-en-ue."
The couples moved slowly off the floor, the pounding of the drums still in their ears and in their blood; some of them sought the fraternity booths; some of the girls retired to their dressing-room, perhaps to have another drink; many of the men went outside for a smoke and to tip a flask upward. Through the noise, the sex-madness, the half-drunken dancers, moved men and women quite sober, the men vainly trying to shield the women from contact with any one who was drunk. There was an angry light in those men's eyes, but most of them said nothing, merely kept close to their partners, ready to defend them from any too assertive friend.
Again the music, again the tom-tom of the drums. On and on for hours. A man "passed out cold" and had to be carried from the gymnasium. A girl got a "laughing jag" and shrieked with idiotic laughter until her partner managed to lead her protesting off the floor. On and on, the constant rhythmic wailing of the fiddles, syncopated passion screaming with lust, the drums, horribly primitive; drunken embraces.... "Oh, those Wabash Blues—I know I got my dues—A lone-some soul am I—I feel that I could die..." Blues, sobbing, despairing blues.... Orgiastic music—beautiful, hideous! "Can-dle light that gleams—Haunts me in my dreams..." The drums boom, boom, boom, booming—"I'll pack my walking shoes, to lose—those Wa-bash Blues..."
Hour after hour—on and on. Flushed faces, breaths hot with passion and whisky.... Pretty girls, cool and sober, dancing with men who held them with drunken lasciviousness; sober men hating the whisky breaths of the girls.... On and on, the drunken carnival to maddening music—the passion, the lust.
Both Hugh and Cynthia were drinking, and by midnight both of them were drunk, too drunk any longer to think clearly. As they danced, Hugh was aware of nothing but Cynthia's body, her firm young body close to his. His blood beat with the pounding of the drums. He held her tighter and tighter—the gymnasium, the other couples, a swaying mist before his eyes.
When the dance ended, Cynthia whispered huskily, "Ta-take me somewhere, Hugh."
Strangely enough, he got the significance of her words at once. His blood raced, and he staggered so crazily that Cynthia had to hold him by the arm.
"Sure—sure; I'll—I'll ta-take you some-somewhere. I—I, too, Cyntheea."
They walked unevenly out of the gymnasium, down the steps, and through the crowd of smokers standing outside. Hardly aware of what he was doing, Hugh led Cynthia to Keller Hall, which was not more than fifty yards distant.
He took a flask out of his pocket. "Jush one more drink," he said thickly and emptied the bottle. Then, holding Cynthia desperately by the arm, he opened the door of Keller Hall and stumbled with her up the stairs to Norry Parker's room. Fortunately the hallways were deserted, and no one saw them. The door was unlocked, and Hugh, after searching blindly for the switch, finally clicked on the lights and mechanically closed the door behind him.
He was very dizzy. He wanted another drink—and he wanted Cynthia. He put his arms around her and pulled her drunkenly to him. The door of one of the bedrooms opened, and Norry Parker stood watching them. He had spent the evening at the home of a musical professor and had returned to his room only a few minutes before. His face went white when he saw the embracing couple.
"Hugh!" he said sharply.
Hugh and Cynthia, still clinging to each other, looked at him. Slowly Cynthia took her arms from around Hugh's neck and forced herself from his embrace. Norry disappeared into his room and came out a minute later with his coat on; he had just begun to undress when he had heard a noise in the study.
"I'll see you home, Cynthia," he said quietly. He took her arm and led her out of the room—and locked the door behind him. Hugh stared at them blankly, swaying slightly, completely befuddled. Cynthia went with Norry willingly enough, leaning heavily on his arm and occasionally sniffing.
When he returned to his room, Hugh was sitting on the floor staring at a photograph of Norry's mother. He had been staring at it for ten minutes, holding it first at arm's length and then drawing it closer and closer to him. No matter where he held it, he could not see what it was—and he was determined to see it.
Norry walked up to him and reached for the photograph.
"Give me that," he said curtly. "Take your hands on my mother's picture."
"It's not," Hugh exclaimed angrily; "it's not. It's my musher, my own mu-musher—my, my own dear musher. Oh, oh!"
He slumped down in a heap and began to sob bitterly, muttering, "Musher, musher, musher."
Norry was angry. The whole scene was revolting to him. His best friend was a disgusting sight, apparently not much better than a gibbering idiot. And Hugh had shamefully abused his hospitality. Norry was no longer gentle and boyish; he was bitterly disillusioned.
"Get up," he said briefly. "Get up and go to bed."
"Tha's my musher. You said it wasn't my—my musher." Hugh looked up, his face wet with maudlin tears.
Norry leaned over and snatched the picture from him. "Take your dirty hands off of that," he snapped. "Get up and go to bed."
"Tha's my musher." Hugh was gently persistent.
"It's not your mother. You make me sick. Go to bed." Norry tugged at Hugh's arm impotently; Hugh simply sat limp, a dead weight.
Norry's gray eyes narrowed. He took a glass, filled it with cold water in the bedroom, and then deliberately dashed the water into Hugh's face.
Then he repeated the performance.
Hugh shook his head and rubbed his hands wonderingly over his face. "I'm no good," he said almost clearly. "I'm no good."
"You certainly aren't. Come on; get up and go to bed." Again Norry tugged at his arm, and this time Hugh, clinging clumsily to the edge of the table by which he was sitting, staggered to his feet.
"I'm a blot," he declared mournfully; "I'm no good, Norry. I'm an—an excreeshence, an ex-cree-shence, tha's what I am."
"Something of the sort," Norry agreed in disgust. "Here, let me take off your coat."
"Leave my coat alone." He pulled himself away from Norry. "I'm no good. I'm an ex-cree-shence. I'm goin' t' commit suicide; tha's what I'm goin' t' do. Nobody'll care 'cept my musher, and she wouldn't either if she knew me. Oh, oh, I wish I didn't use a shafety-razor. I'll tell you what to do, Norry." He clung pleadingly to Norry's arm and begged with passionate intensity. "You go over to Harry King's room. He's got a re-re—a pistol. You get it for me and I'll put it right here—" he touched his temple awkwardly—"and I'll—I'll blow my damn brains out. I'm a blot, Norry; I'm an ex-cree-shence."
Norry shook him. "Shut up. You've got to go to bed. You're drunk."
"I'm sick. I'm an ex-cree-shence." The room was whizzing rapidly around Hugh, and he clung hysterically to Norry. Finally he permitted himself to be led into the bedroom and undressed, still moaning that he was an "ex-cree-shence."
The bed pitched. He lay on his right side, clutching the covers in terror. He turned over on his back. Still the bed swung up and down sickeningly. Then he twisted over to his left side, and the bed suddenly swung into rest, almost stable. In a few minutes he was sound asleep.
He cut chapel and his two classes the next morning, one at nine and the other at ten o'clock; in fact, it was nearly eleven when he awoke. His head was splitting with pain, his tongue was furry, and his mouth tasted like bilge-water. He made wry faces, passed his thick tongue around his dry mouth—oh, so damnably dry!—and pressed the palms of his hands to his pounding temples. He craved a drink of cold water, but he was afraid to get out of bed. He felt pathetically weak and dizzy.
Norry walked into the room and stood quietly looking at him.
"Get me a drink, Norry, please," Hugh begged.
"I'm parched." He rolled over. "Ouch! God, how my head aches!"
Norry brought him the drink, but nothing less than three glasses even began to satisfy Hugh. Then, still saying nothing, Norry put a cold compress on Hugh's hot forehead.
"Thanks, Norry old man. That's awfully damn good of you."
Norry walked out of the room, and Hugh quickly fell into a light sleep. An hour later he woke up, quite unaware of the fact that Norry had changed the cold compress three times. The nap had refreshed him. He still felt weak and faint; but his head no longer throbbed, and his throat was less dry.
"Norry," he called feebly.
"Yes?" Norry stood in the doorway. "Feeling better?"
"Yes, some. Come sit down on the bed. I want to talk to you. But get me another drink first, please. My mouth tastes like burnt rubber."
Norry gave him the drink and then sat down on the edge of the bed, silently waiting.
"I'm awfully ashamed of myself, old man," Hugh began. "I—I don't know what to say. I can't remember much what happened. I remember bringing Cynthia up here and you coming in and then—well, I somehow can't remember anything after that. What did you do?"
"I took Cynthia home and then came back and put you to bed." Norry gazed at the floor and spoke softly.
"You took Cynthia home?"
Hugh stared at him in awe. "But if you'd been seen with her in the dorm, you'd have been fired from college."
"Nobody saw us. It's all right."
Hugh wanted to cry. "Oh, Lord, Norry, you're white," he exclaimed. "The whitest fellow that ever lived. You took that chance for me."
"That's all right." Norry was painfully embarrassed.
"And I'm such a rotter. You—you know what we came up here for?"
"I can guess." Norry's glance still rested on the floor. He spoke hardly above a whisper.
"Nothing happened. I swear it, Norry. I meant to—but—but you came—thank God! I was awfully soused. I guess you think I'm rotten, Norry. I suppose I am. I don't know how I could treat you this way. Are you awfully angry?"
"I was last night," Norry replied honestly, "but I'm not this morning. I'm just terribly disappointed. I understand, I guess; I'm human, too—but I'm disappointed. I can't forget the way you looked."
"Don't!" Hugh cried. "Please don't, Norry. I—I can't stand it if you talk that way. I'm so damned ashamed. Please forgive me."
Norry was very near to tears. "Of course, I forgive you," he whispered, "but I hope you won't do it again."
"I won't, Norry. I promise you. Oh, God, I'm no good. That's twice I've been stopped by an accident. I'll go straight now, though; I promise you."
Norry stood up. "It's nearly noon," he said more naturally. "Cynthia will be wondering where you are."
"Cynthia! Oh, Norry, how can I face her?"
"You've got to," said the young moralist firmly.
"I suppose so," the sinner agreed, his voice miserably lugubrious. "God!"
After three cups of coffee, however, the task did not seem so impossible. Hugh entered the Nu Delta house with a fairly jaunty air and greeted the men and women easily enough. His heart skipped a beat when he saw Cynthia standing in the far corner of the living-room. She was wearing her scarlet hat and blue suit.
She saved him the embarrassment of opening the conversation. "Come into the library," she said softly. "I want to speak to you."
Wondering and rather frightened, he followed her.
"I'm going home this afternoon," she began. "I've got everything packed, and I've told everybody that I don't feel very well."
"You aren't sick?" he asked, really worried.
"Of course not, but I had to say something. The train leaves in an hour or two, and I want to have a talk with you before I go."
"But hang it, Cynthia, think of what you're missing. There's a baseball game with Raleigh this afternoon, a tea-dance in the Union after that, the Musical Clubs concert this evening—I sing with the Glee club and Norry's going to play a solo, and I'm in the Banjo Club, too—and we are going to have a farewell dance at the house after the concert." Hugh pleaded earnestly; but somehow down in his heart he wished that she wouldn't stay.
"I know, but I've got to go. Let's go somewhere out in the woods where we can talk without being disturbed."
Still protesting, he led her out of the house, across the campus, past the lake, and into the woods. Finally they sat down on a smooth rock.
"I'm awfully sorry to bust up your party, Hugh," Cynthia began slowly, "but I've been doing some thinking, and I've just got to beat it." She paused a moment and then looked him square in the eyes. "Do you love me?"
For an instant Hugh's eyes dropped, and then he looked up and lied like a gentleman. "Yes," he said simply; "I love you, Cynthia."
She smiled almost wearily and shook her head. "You are a good egg, Hugh. It was white of you to say that, but I know that you don't love me. You did yesterday, but you don't now. Do you realize that you haven't asked to kiss me to-day?"
Hugh flushed and stammered: "I—I've got an awful hang-over, Cynthia. I feel rotten."
"Yes, I know, but that isn't why you didn't want to kiss me. I know all about it. Listen, Hugh." She faced him bravely. "I've been running with a fast crowd for three years, and I've learned a lot about fellows; and most of 'em that I've known weren't your kind. How old are you?"
"Twenty-one in a couple of months."
"I'm twenty and lots wiser about some things than you are. I've been crazy about you—I guess I am kinda yet—and I know that you thought you were in love with me. I wanted you to have hold of me all the time. That's all that mattered. It was—was your body, Hugh. You're sweet and fine, and I respect you, but I'm not the kid for you to run around with. I'm too fast. I woke up early this morning, and I've done a lot of thinking since. You know what we came near doing last night? Well, that's all we want each other for. We're not in love."
A phrase from the bull sessions rushed into Hugh's mind. "You mean—sex attraction?" he asked in some embarrassment. He felt weak and tired. He seemed to be listening to Cynthia in a dream. Nothing was real—and everything was a little sad.
"Yes, that's it—and, oh, Hugh, somehow I don't want that with you. We're not the same kind at all. I used to think that when I got your letters. Sometimes I hardly understood them, but I'd close my eyes and see you so strong and blond and clean, and I'd imagine you were holding me tight—and—and then I was happy. I guess I did kinda love you, but we've spoiled it." She wanted desperately to cry but bit her lip and held back her tears.
"I think I know what you mean, Cynthia," Hugh said softly. "I don't know much about love and sex attraction and that sort of thing, but I know that I was happier kissing you than I've ever been in my life. I—I wish that last night hadn't happened. I hate myself."
"You needn't. It was more my fault than yours. I'm a pretty bad egg, I guess; and the booze and you holding me was too much. I hate myself, too. I've spoiled the nicest thing that ever happened to me." She looked up at him, her eyes bright with tears. "I did love you, Hugh. I loved you as much as I could love any one."
Hugh put his arms around her and drew her to him. Then he bent his head and kissed her gently. There was no passion in his embrace, but there was infinite tenderness. He felt spiritually and physically weak, as if all his emotional resources had been quite spent.
"I think that I love you more than I ever did before," he whispered.
If he had shown any passion, if there had been any warmth in his kiss, Cynthia might have believed him, but she was aware only of his gentleness. She pushed him back and drew out of his arms.
"No," she said sharply; "you don't love me. You're just sorry for me.... You're just kind."
Hugh had read "Marpessa" many times, and a line from it came to make her attitude clear:
"thou wouldst grow kind; Most bitter to a woman that was loved."
"Oh, I don't know; I don't know," he said miserably. "Let's not call everything off now, Cynthia. Let's wait a while."
"No!" She stood up decisively. "No. I hate loose ends." She glanced at her tiny wrist-watch. "If I'm going to make that train, I've got to hurry. We've got barely half an hour. Come, Hugh. Be a sport."
He stood up, his face white and weary, his blue eyes dull and sad.
"Just as you say, Cynthia," he said slowly. "But I'm going to miss you like hell."
She did not reply but started silently for the path. He followed her, and they walked back to the fraternity house without saying a word, both busy with unhappy thoughts.
When they reached the fraternity, she got her suit-case, handed it to him, declined his offer of a taxi, and walked unhappily by his side down the hill that they had climbed so gaily two days before. Hugh had just time to get her ticket before the train started.
She paused a moment at the car steps and held out her hand. "Good-by, Hugh," she said softly, her lips trembling, her eyes full of tears.
"Good-by, Cynthia," he whispered. And then, foolishly, "Thanks for coming."
She did not smile but drew her hand from his and mounted the steps. An instant later she was inside the car and the train was moving.
Numbed and miserable, Hugh slowly climbed the hill and wandered back to Norry Parker's room. He was glad that Norry wasn't there. He paced up and down the room a few minutes trying to think. Then he threw himself despairingly on a couch, face down. He wanted to cry; he had never wanted so much to cry—and he couldn't. There were no tears—and he had lost something very precious. He thought it was love; it was only his dreams.
For several days Hugh was tortured by doubt and indecision: there were times when he thought that he loved Cynthia, times when he was sure that he didn't; when he had just about made up his mind that he hated her, he found himself planning to follow her to New Rochelle; he tried to persuade himself that his conduct was no more reprehensible than that of his comrades, but shame invariably overwhelmed his arguments; there were hours when he ached for Cynthia, and hours when he loathed her for smashing something that had been beautiful. Most of all, he wanted comfort, advice, but he knew no one to whom he was willing to give his confidence. Somehow, he couldn't admit his drunkenness to any one whose advice he valued. He called on Professor Henley twice, intending to make a clean breast of his transgressions. Henley, he knew, would not lecture him, but when he found himself facing him, he could not bring himself to confession; he was afraid of losing Henley's respect.
Finally, in desperation, he talked to Norry, not because he thought Norry could help him but because he had to talk to somebody and Norry already knew the worst. They went walking far out into the country, idly discussing campus gossip or pausing to revel in the beauty of the night, the clear, clean sky, the pale moon, the fireflies sparkling suddenly over the meadows or even to the tree-tops. Weary from their long walk, they sat down on a stump, and Hugh let the dam of his emotion break.
"Norry," he began intensely, "I'm in hell—in hell. It's a week since Prom, and I haven't had a line from Cynthia. I haven't dared write to her."
"She—she—oh, damn it!—she told me before she left that everything was all off. That's why she left early. She said that we didn't love each other, that all we felt was sex attraction. I don't know whether she's right or not, but I miss her like the devil. I—I feel empty, sort of hollow inside, as if everything had suddenly been poured out of me—and there's nothing to take its place. I was full of Cynthia, you see, and now there's no Cynthia. There's nothing left but—oh, God, Norry, I'm ashamed of myself. I feel—dirty." The last word was hardly audible.
Norry touched his arm. "I know, Hugh, and I'm awfully sorry. I think, though, that Cynthia was right. I know her better than you do. She's an awfully good kid but not your kind at all; I think I feel as badly almost as you do about it." He paused a moment and then said simply, "I was so proud of you, Hugh."
"Don't!" Hugh exclaimed. "I want to kill myself when you say things like that."
"You don't understand. I know that you don't understand. I've been doing a lot of thinking since Prom, too. I've thought over a lot of things that you've said to me—about me, I mean. Why, Hugh, you think I'm not human. I don't believe you think I have passions like the rest of you. Well, I do, and sometimes it's—it's awful. I'm telling you that so you'll understand that I know how you feel. But love's beautiful to me, Hugh, the most wonderful thing in the world. I was in love with a girl once—and I know. She didn't give a hang for me; she thought I was a baby. I suffered awfully; but I know that my love was beautiful, as beautiful as—" He looked around for a simile—"as to-night. I think it's because of that that I hate mugging and petting and that sort of thing. I don't want beauty debased. I want to fight when orchestras jazz famous arias. Well, petting is jazzing love; and I hate it. Do you see what I mean?"
Hugh looked at him wonderingly. He didn't know this Norry at all. "Yes," he said slowly; "yes, I see what you mean; I think I do, anyway. But what has it to do with me?"
"Well, I know most of the fellows pet and all that sort of thing, and they don't think anything about it. But you're different; you love beautiful things as much as I do. You told me yourself that Jimmie Henley said last year that you were gifted. You can write and sing and run, but I've just realized that you aren't proud of those things at all; you just take them for granted. And you're ashamed that you write poetry. Some of your poems are good, but you haven't sent any of them to the poetry magazine. You don't want anybody to know that you write poetry. You're trying to make yourself like fellows that are inferior to you." Norry was piteously in earnest. His hero had crumbled into clay before his eyes, and he was trying to patch him together again preparatory to boosting him back upon his pedestal.
"Oh, cripes, Norry," Hugh said a little impatiently, "you exaggerate all my virtues; you always have. I'm not half the fellow you think I am. I do love beautiful things, but I don't believe my poetry is any good." He paused a moment and then confessed mournfully: "I'll admit, though, that I have been going downhill. I'm going to do better from now on. You watch me."
They talked for hours, Norry embarrassing Hugh with the frankness of his admiration. Norry's hero-worship had always embarrassed him, but he didn't like it when the worshiper began to criticize. He admitted the justness of the criticism, but it hurt him just the same. Perching on a pedestal had been uncomfortable but a little thrilling; sitting on the ground and gazing up at his perch was rather humiliating. The fall had bruised him; and Norry, with the best intentions in the world, was kicking the bruises.
Nevertheless, he felt better after the talk, determined to win back Norry's esteem and his own. He swore off smoking and drinking and stuck to his oath. He told Vinton that if he brought any more liquor to their room one of them was going to be carried out, and that he had a hunch that it would be Vinton. Vinton gazed at him with round eyes and believed him. After that he did his drinking elsewhere, confiding to his cronies that Carver was on the wagon and that he had got as religious as holy hell. "He won't let me drink in my own room," he wailed dolorously. And then with a sudden burst of clairvoyance, he added, "I guess his girl has given him the gate."
For weeks the campus buzzed with talk about the Prom. A dozen men who had been detected flagrante delicto were summarily expelled. Many others who had been equally guilty were in a constant state of mental goose-flesh. Would the next mail bring a summons from the dean? President Culver spoke sternly in chapel and hinted that there would be no Prom the coming year. Most of the men said that the Prom had been an "awful brawl," but there were some who insisted that it was no worse than the Proms held at other colleges, and recited startling tales in support of their argument.
Leonard Gates finally settled the whole matter for Hugh. There had been many discussions in the Nu Delta living-room about the Prom, and in one of them Gates ended the argument with a sane and thoughtful statement.
"The Prom was a brawl," he said seriously, "a drunken brawl. We all admit that. The fact that Proms at other colleges are brawls, too, doesn't make ours any more respectable. If a Yale man happens to commit murder and gets away with it, that is no reason that a Harvard man or a Sanford man should commit murder, too. Some of you are arguing like babies. But some of you are going to the other extreme.
"You talk as if everybody at the Prom was lit. Well, I wasn't lit, and as a matter of fact most of them weren't lit. Just use a little common sense. There were three hundred and fifty couples at the Prom. Now, not half of them even had a drink. Say that half did. That makes one hundred and seventy-five fellows. If fifty of those fellows were really soused, I'll eat my hat, but we'll say that there were fifty. Fifty were quite enough to make the whole Prom look like a longshoreman's ball. You've got to take the music into consideration, too. That orchestra could certainly play jazz; it could play it too damn well. Why, that music was enough to make a saint shed his halo and shake a shimmy.
"What I'm getting to is this: there are over a thousand fellows in college, and out of that thousand not more than fifty were really soused at the Prom, and not more than a hundred and seventy-five were even a little teed. To go around saying that Sanford men are a lot of muckers just because a small fraction of them acted like gutter-pups is sheer bunk. The Prom was a drunken brawl, but all Sanford men aren't drunkards—not by a damn sight."
Hugh had to admit the force of Gates's reasoning, and he found comfort in it. He had been just about ready to believe that all college men and Sanford men in particular were hardly better than common muckers. But in the end the comfort that he got was small: he realized bitterly that he was one of the minority that had disgraced his college; he was one of the gutter-pups. The recognition of that undeniable fact cut deep.
He was determined to redeem himself; he had to, somehow. Living a life of perfect rectitude was not enough; he had to do something that would win back his own respect and the respect of his fellows, which he thought, quite absurdly, that he had forfeited. So far as he could see, there was only one way that he could justify his existence at Sanford; that was to win one of the dashes in the Sanford-Raleigh meet. He clung to that idea with the tenacity of a fanatic.
He had nearly a month in which to train, and train he did as he never had before. His diet became a matter of the utmost importance; a rub-down was a holy rite, and the words of Jansen, the coach, divine gospel. He placed in both of the preliminary meets, but he knew that he could do better; he wasn't yet in condition.
When the day for the Raleigh-Sanford meet finally came, he did not feel any of the nervousness that had spelled defeat for him in his freshman year. He was stonily calm, silently determined. He was going to place in the hundred and win the two-twenty or die in the attempt. No golden dreams of breaking records excited him. Calvert of Raleigh was running the hundred consistently in ten seconds and had been credited with better time. Hugh had no hopes of defeating him in the hundred, but there was a chance in the two-twenty. Calvert was a short-distance man, the shorter the better. Two hundred and twenty yards was a little too far for him.
Calvert did not look like a runner. He was a good two inches shorter than Hugh, who lacked nearly that much of six feet. Calvert was heavily built—a dark, brawny chap, both quick and powerful. Hugh looked at him and for a moment hated him. Although he did not phrase it so—in fact, he did not phrase it at all—Calvert was his obstacle in his race for redemption.
Calvert won the hundred-yard dash in ten seconds flat, breaking the Sanford-Raleigh record. Hugh, running faster than he ever had in his life, barely managed to come in second ahead of his team-mate Murphy. The Sanford men cheered him lustily, but he hardly listened. He had to win the two-twenty.
At last the runners were called to the starting-line. They danced up and down the track flexing their muscles. Hugh was tense but more determined than nervous. Calvert pranced around easily; he seemed entirely recovered from his great effort in the hundred. Finally the starter called them to their marks. They tried their spikes in the starting-holes, scraped them out a bit more, made a few trial dashes, and finally knelt in line at the command of the starter.
Hugh expected Calvert to lead for the first hundred yards; but the last hundred, that was where Calvert would weaken. Calvert was sure to be ahead at the beginning—but after that!
"On your marks.
The pistol cracked. The start was perfect; the five men leaped forward almost exactly together. For once Calvert had not beaten the others off the mark, but he immediately drew ahead. He was running powerfully, his legs rising and falling in exact rhythm, his spikes tearing into the cinder path. But Hugh and Murphy were pressing him close. At the end of the first hundred Calvert led by a yard. Hugh pounded on, Murphy falling behind him. The others were hopelessly outclassed. Hugh did not think; he did not hear a thousand men shouting hysterically, "Carver! Carver!" He saw nothing but Calvert a yard ahead of him. He knew nothing but that he had to make up that yard. Down the track they sped, their breath bursting from them, their hands clenched, their faces grotesquely distorted, their legs driving them splendidly on.
Hugh was gaining; that yard was closing. He sensed it rather than saw it. He saw nothing now, not even Calvert. Blinded with effort, his lungs aching, his heart pounding terribly, he fought on, mechanically keeping between the two white lines. Ten yards from the tape he was almost abreast of Calvert. He saw the tape through a red haze; he made a final valiant leap for it—but he never touched it: Calvert's chest had broken it a tiny fraction of a second before.
Hugh almost collapsed after the race. Two men caught him and carried him, despite his protests, to the dressing-room. At first he was aware only of his overwhelming weariness. Something very important had happened. It was over, and he was tired, infinitely tired. A rub-down refreshed his muscles, but his spirit remained weary. For a month he had thought of nothing but that race—even Cynthia had become strangely insignificant in comparison with it—and now that the race had been run and lost, his whole spirit sagged and drooped.
He was pounded on the back; his hand was grasped and shaken until it ached; he was cheered to an echo by the thrilled Sanford men; but still his depression remained. He had won his letter, he had run a magnificent race, all Sanford sang his praise—Norry Parker had actually cried with excitement and delight—but he felt that he had failed; he had not justified himself.
A few days later he entered Henley's office, intending to make only a brief visit. Henley congratulated him. "You were wonderful, Hugh," he said enthusiastically. "The way that you crawled up on him the last hundred yards was thrilling. I shouted until I was hoarse. I never saw any one fight more gamely. He's a faster man than you are, but you almost beat him. I congratulate you—excuse the word, please—on your guts."
Somehow Hugh couldn't stand Henley's enthusiasm. Suddenly he blurted out the whole story, his drunkenness at the Prom, his split with Cynthia—he did not mention the visit to Norry's room—his determination to redeem himself, his feeling that if he had won that race he would at least have justified his existence at the college, and, finally, his sense of failure.
Henley listened sympathetically, amused and touched by the boy's naive philosophy. He did not tell him that the race was relatively unimportant—he was sure that Hugh would find that out for himself—but he did bring him comfort.
"You did not fail, Hugh," he said gently; "you succeeded magnificently. As for serving your college, you can always serve it best by being yourself, being true to yourself, I mean, and that means being the very fine gentleman that you are." He paused a minute, aware that he must be less personal; Hugh was red to the hair and gazing unhappily at the floor.
"You must read Browning," he went on, "and learn about his success-in-failure philosophy. He maintains that it is better to strive for a million and miss it than to strive for a hundred and get it. 'A man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?' He says it in a dozen different ways. It's the man who tries bravely for something beyond his power that gets somewhere, the man who really succeeds. Well, you tried for something beyond your power—to beat Calvert, a really great runner. You tried to your utmost; therefore, you succeeded. I admire your sense of failure; it means that you recognize an ideal. But I think that you succeeded. You may not have quite justified yourself to yourself, but you have proved capable of enduring a hard test bravely. You have no reason to be depressed, no reason to be ashamed."
They talked for a long time, and finally Henley confessed that he thought Cynthia had been wise in taking herself out of Hugh's life.
"I can see," he said, "that you aren't telling me quite all the story. I don't want you to, either. I judge, however, from what you have said that you went somewhere with her and that only complete drunkenness saved you from disgracing both yourself and her. You need no lecture, I am sure; you are sufficiently contrite. I have a feeling that she was right about sexual attraction being paramount; and I think that she is a very brave girl. I like the way she went home, and I like the way she has kept silent. Not many girls could or would do that. It takes courage. From what you have said, however, I imagine that she is not your kind; at least, that she isn't the kind that is good for you. You have suffered and are suffering, I know, but I am sure that some day you are going to be very grateful to that girl—for a good many reasons."
Hugh felt better after that talk, and the end of the term brought him a surprise that wiped out his depression and his sense of failure. He found, too, that his pain was growing less; the wound was healing. Perversely, he hated it for healing, and he poked it viciously to feel it throb. Agony had become sweet. It made life more intense, less beautiful, perhaps, but more wonderful, more real. Romantically, too, he felt that he must be true both to his love and to his sorrow, and his love was fading into a memory that was plaintively gray but shot with scarlet thrills—and his sorrow was bowing before the relentless excitement of his daily life.
The surprise that rehabilitated him in his own respect was his election to the Boule, the senior council and governing board of the student body. It was the greatest honor that an undergraduate could receive, and Hugh had in no way expected it. When Nu Delta had first suggested to him that he be a candidate, he had demurred, saying that there were other men in his delegation better fitted to serve and with better chances of election. Leonard Gates, however, felt otherwise; and before Hugh knew what had happened he was a candidate along with thirty other juniors, only twelve of whom could be elected.
He took no part in the campaigning, attended none of the caucuses, was hardly interested in the fraternity "combine" that promised to elect him. He did not believe that he could be elected; he saw no reason why he should be. As a matter of fact, as Gates and others well knew, his chances were more than good. Hugh was popular in his own right, and his great race in the Sanford-Raleigh meet had made him something of a hero for the time being. Furthermore, he was a member of both the Glee and Banjo Clubs, he had led his class in the spring sings for three years, and he had a respectable record in his studies.
The tapping took place in chapel the last week of classes. After the first hymn, the retiring members of the Boule rose and marched down the aisle to where the juniors were sitting. The new members were tapped in the order of the number of votes that they had received, and the first man tapped, having received the largest number of votes, automatically became president of the Boule for the coming year.
Hugh's interest naturally picked up the day of the election, and he began to have faint hopes that he would be the tenth or eleventh man. To his enormous surprise he was tapped third, and he marched down the aisle to the front seat reserved for the new members with the applause of his fellows sweet in his ears. It didn't seem possible; he was one of the most popular and most respected men in his class. He could not understand it, but he didn't particularly care to understand it; the honor was enough.
Nu Delta tried to heap further honors on him, but he declined them. As a member of Boule he was naturally nominated for the presidency of the chapter. Quite properly, he felt that he was not fitted for such a position; and he retired in favor of John Lawrence, the only man in his delegation really capable of controlling the brothers. Lawrence was a man like Gates. He would, Hugh knew, carry on the constructive work that Gates had so splendidly started. Nu Delta was in the throes of one of those changes so characteristic of fraternities.
Hugh spent his last college vacation at home, working on the farm, reading, occasionally dancing at Corley Lake, and thinking a great deal. He saw Janet Harton, now Janet Moffitt, several times at the lake and wondered how he could ever have adored her. She was still childlike, still dainty and pretty, but to Hugh she was merely a talking doll, and he felt a little sorry for her burly, rather stupid husband who lumbered about after her like a protecting watch-dog.
He met plenty of pretty girls at the lake, but, as he said, he was "off women for good." He was afraid of them; he had been severely burnt, and while the fire still fascinated him, it frightened him, too. Women, he was sure, were shallow creatures, dangerous to a man's peace of mind and self-respect. They were all right to dance with and pet a bit; but that was all, absolutely all.
He thought a lot about girls that summer and even more about his life after graduation from college. What was he going to do? Life stretched ahead of him for one year like a smooth, flowered plain—and then the abyss. He felt prepared to do nothing at all, and he was not swept by an overpowering desire to do anything in particular. Writing had the greatest appeal for him, but he doubted his ability. Teach? Perhaps. But teaching meant graduate work. Well, he would see what the next year at college would show. He was going to take a course in composition with Professor Henley, and if Henley thought his gifts warranted it, he would ask his father for a year or two of graduate work at Harvard.
College was pleasant that last year. It was pleasant to wear a blue sweater with an orange S on it; it was pleasant, too, to wear a small white hat that had a blue B on the crown, the insignia of the Boule and a sign that he was a person to be respected and obeyed; it was pleasant to be spoken to by the professors as one who had reached something approaching manhood; life generally was pleasant, not so exciting as the three preceding years but fuller and richer. Early in the first term he was elected to Helmer, an honor society that possessed a granite "tomb," a small windowless building in which the members were supposed to discuss questions of great importance and practice secret rites of awe-inspiring wonder. As a matter of fact, the monthly meetings were nothing but "bull fests," or as one cynical member put it, "We wear a gold helmet on our sweaters and chew the fat once a month." True enough, but that gold helmet glittered enticingly in the eyes of every student who did not possess one.
For the first time Hugh's studies meant more to him than the undergraduate life. He had chosen his instructors carefully, having learned from three years of experience that the instructor was far more important than the title of the course. He had three classes in literature, one in music—partly because it was a "snap" and partly because he really wanted to know more about music—and his composition course with Henley, to him the most important of the lot.
He really studied, and at the end of the first term received three A's and two B's, a very creditable record. What was more important than his record, however, was the fact that he was really enjoying his work; he was intellectually awakened and hungry for learning.
Also, for the first time he really enjoyed the fraternity. Jack Lawrence was proving an able president, and Nu Delta pledged a freshman delegation of which Hugh was genuinely proud. There were plenty of men in the chapter whom he did not like or toward whom he was indifferent, but he had learned to ignore them and center his interest in those men whom he found congenial.
The first term was ideal, but the second became a maelstrom of doubt and trouble in which he whirled madly around trying to find some philosophy that would solve his difficulties.
When Norry returned to college after the Christmas vacation, he told Hugh that he had seen Cynthia. Naturally, Hugh was interested, and the mere mention of Cynthia's name was still enough to quicken his pulse.
"How did she look?" he asked eagerly.
"What! What's the matter? Is she sick?"
Norry shook his head. "No, I don't think she is exactly sick," he said gravely, "but something is the matter with her. You know, she has been going an awful pace, tearing around like crazy. I told you that, I know, when I came back in the fall. Well, she's kept it up, and I guess she's about all in. I couldn't understand it. Cynthia's always run with a fast bunch, but she's never had a bad name. She's beginning to get one now."
"No!" Hugh was honestly troubled. "What's the matter, anyway? Didn't you try to stop her?"
Norry smiled. "Of course not. Can you imagine me stopping Cynthia from doing anything she wanted to do? But I did have a talk with her. She got hold of me one night at the country club and pulled me off in a corner. She wanted to talk about you."
"Me?" Hugh's heart was beginning to pound. "What did she say?"
"She asked questions. She wanted to know everything about you. I guess she asked me a thousand questions. She wanted to know how you looked, how you were doing in your courses, where you were during vacation, if you had a girl—oh, everything; and finally she asked if you ever talked about her?"
"What did you say?" Hugh demanded breathlessly.
"I told her yes, of course. Gee, Hugh, I thought she was going to cry. We talked some more, all about you. She's crazy about you, Hugh; I'm sure of it. And I think that's why she's been hitting the high spots. I felt sorry as the devil for her. Poor kid...."
"Gee, that's tough; that's damn tough. Did she send me any message?"
"No. I asked her if she wanted to send her love or anything, and she said she guessed not. I think she's having an awful time, Hugh."
That talk tore Hugh's peace of mind into quivering shreds. Cynthia was with him every waking minute, and with her a sense of guilt that would not down. He knew that if he wrote to her he might involve himself in a very difficult situation, but the temptation was stronger than his discretion. He wanted to know if Norry was right, and he knew that he would never have an hour's real comfort until he found out. Cynthia had told him that she was not in love with him; she had said definitely that their attraction for each other was merely sexual. Had she lied to him? Had she gone home in the middle of Prom, week because she thought she ought to save him from herself? He couldn't decide, and he felt that he had to know. If Cynthia was unhappy and he was the cause of her unhappiness, he wanted, he assured himself, to "do the right thing," and he had very vague notions indeed of what the right thing might be.
Finally he wrote to her. The letter took him hours to write, but he flattered himself that it was very discreet; it implied nothing and demanded nothing.
I had a talk with Norry Parker recently that has troubled me a great deal. He said that you seemed both unwell and unhappy, and he felt that I was in some way responsible for your depression. Of course, we both know how ingenuous and romantic Norry is; he can find tragedy in a cut finger. I recognize that fact, but what he told me has given me no end of worry just the same.
Won't you please write to me just what is wrong—if anything really is and if I have anything to do with it. I shall continue to worry until I get your letter.
Most sincerely, HUGH.
Weeks went by and no answer came. Hugh's confusion increased. He thought of writing her another letter, but pride and common sense forbade. Then her letter came, and all of his props were kicked suddenly from under him.
Oh my dear, my dear [she wrote], I swore that I wouldn't answer your letter—and here I am doing it. I've fought and fought, and fought until I can't fight any longer; I've held out as long as I can. Oh, Hugh my dearest, I love you. I can't help it—I do, I do. I've tried so hard not to—and when I found that I couldn't help it I swore that I would never let you know—because I knew that you didn't love me and that I am bad for you. I thought I loved you enough to give you up—and I might have succeeded if you hadn't written to me.
Oh, Hugh dearest, I nearly fainted when I saw your letter. I hardly dared open it—I just looked and looked at your beloved handwriting. I cried when I did read it. I thought of the letters you used to write to me—and this one was so different—so cold and impersonal. It hurt me dreadfully.
I said that I wouldn't answer it—I swore that I wouldn't. And then I read your old letters—I've kept every one of them—and looked at your picture—and to-night you just seemed to be here—I could see your sweet smile and feel your dear arms around me—and Hugh, my darling, I had to write—I had to.
My pride is all gone. I can't think any more. You are all that matters. Oh, Hugh dearest, I love you so damned hard.
Two hours after the letter arrived it was followed by a telegram:
Don't pay any attention to my letter. I was crazy when I wrote it.
Hugh had sense enough to pay no attention to the telegram; he tossed it into the fireplace and reread the letter. What could he do? What should he do? He was torn by doubt and confusion. He looked at her picture, and all his old longing for her returned. But he had learned to distrust that longing. He had got along for a year without her; he had almost ceased thinking of her when Norry brought her back to his mind. He had to answer her letter. What could he say? He paced the floor of his room, ran his hands through his hair, pounded his forehead; but no solution came. He took a long walk into the country and came back more confused than ever. He was flattered by her letter, moved by it; he tried to persuade himself that he loved her as she loved him—and he could not do it. His passion for her was no longer overpowering, and no amount of thinking could make it so. In the end he temporized. His letter was brief.
There is no need, I guess, to tell you that your letter swept me clean off my feet. I am still dizzy with confusion. I don't know what to say, and I have decided that it is best for me not to say anything until I know my own mind. I couldn't be fair either to you or myself otherwise. And I want to be fair; I must be.
Give me time, please. It is because I care so much for you that I ask it. Don't worry if you don't hear from me for weeks. My silence won't mean that I have forgotten you; it will mean that I am thinking of you.
Her answer came promptly:
Hugh, my dear—
I was a fish to write that letter—and I know that I'll never forgive myself. But I couldn't help it—I just couldn't help it. I am glad that you are keeping your head because I've lost mine entirely. Take all the time you like. Do you hate me for losing my pride? I do.
Your stupid CYNTHIA.
Weeks went by, and Hugh found no solution. He damned college with all his heart and soul. What good had it done him anyway? Here he was with a serious problem on his hands and he couldn't solve it any better than he could have when he was a freshman. Four years of studying and lectures and examinations, and the first time he bucked up against a bit of life he was licked.
Eventually he wrote to her and told her that he was fonder of her than he was of any girl that he had ever known but that he didn't know whether he was in love with her or not. "I have learned to distrust my own emotions," he wrote, "and my own decisions. The more I think the more bewildered I become. I am afraid to ask you to marry me for fear that I'll wreck both our lives, and I'm afraid not to ask you for the same reason. Do you think that time will solve our problem? I don't know. I don't know anything."
She replied that she was willing to wait just so long as they continued to correspond; she said that she could no longer bear not to hear from him. So they wrote to each other, and the tangle of their relations became more hopelessly knotted. Cynthia never sent another letter so unguarded as her first, but she made no pretense of hiding her love.
As Hugh sank deeper and deeper into the bog of confusion and distress, his contempt for his college "education" increased. One night in May he expressed that contempt to a small group of seniors.
"College is bunk," said Hugh sternly, "pure bunk. They tell us that we learn to think. Rot! I haven't learned to think; a child can solve a simple human problem as well as I can. College has played hell with me. I came here four years ago a darned nice kid, if I do say so myself. I was chock-full of ideals and illusions. Well, college has smashed most of those ideals and knocked the illusions plumb to hell. I thought, for example, that all college men were gentlemen; well, most of them aren't. I thought that all of them were intelligent and hard students."
The group broke into loud laughter. "Me, too," said George Winsor when the noise had abated. "I thought that I was coming to a regular educational heaven, halls of learning and all that sort of thing. Why, it's a farce. Here I am sporting a Phi Bete key, an honor student if you please, and all that I really know as a result of my college 'education' is the fine points of football and how to play poker. I don't really know one damn thing about anything."
The other men were Jack Lawrence and Pudge Jamieson. Jack was an earnest chap, serious and hard working but without a trace of brilliance. He, too, wore a Phi Beta Kappa key, and so did Pudge. Hugh was the only one of the group who had not won that honor; the fact that he was the only one who had won a letter was hardly, he felt, complete justification. His legs no longer seemed more important than his brains; in fact, when he had sprained a tendon and been forced to drop track, he had been genuinely pleased.
Pudge was quite as plump as he had been as a freshman and quite as jovial, but he did not tell so many smutty stories. He still persisted in crossing his knees in spite of the difficulties involved. When Winsor finished speaking, Pudge forced his legs into his favorite position for them and then twinkled at Winsor through his glasses.
"Right you are, George," he said in his quick way. "I wear a Phi Bete key, too. We both belong to the world's greatest intellectual fraternity, but what in hell do we know? We've all majored in English except Jack, and I'll bet any one of us can give the others an exam offhand that they can't pass. I'm going to law school. I hope to God that I learn something there. I certainly don't feel that I know anything now as a result of my four years of 'higher education.'"
"Well, if you fellows feel that way," said Hugh mournfully, "how do you suppose I feel? I made my first really good record last term, and that wasn't any world beater. I've learned how to gamble and smoke and drink and pet in college, but that's about all that I have learned. I'm not as fine as I was when I came here. I've been coarsened and cheapened; all of us have. I take things for granted that shocked me horribly once. I know that they ought to shock me now, but they don't. I've made some friends and I've had a wonderful time, but I certainly don't feel that I have got any other value out of college."
Winsor could not sit still and talk. He filled his pipe viciously, lighted it, and then jumped up and leaned against the mantel. "I admit everything that's been said, but I don't believe that it is altogether our fault." He was intensely in earnest, and so were his listeners. "Look at the faculty. When I came here I thought that they were all wise men because they were On the faculty. Well, I've found out otherwise. Some of them know a lot and can't teach, a few of them know a lot and can teach, some of them know a little and can't teach, and some of them don't know anything and can't explain c-a-t. Why, look at Kempton. That freshman, Larson, showed me a theme the other day that Kempton had corrected. It was full of errors that weren't marked, and it was nothing in the world but drip. Even Larson knew that, but he's the foxy kid; he wrote the theme about Kempton. All right—Kempton gives him a B and tells him that it is very amusing. Hell of a lot Larson's learning. Look at Kane in math. I had him when I was a freshman."
"Me, too," Hugh chimed in.
"'Nough said, then. Math's dry enough, God knows, but Kane makes it dryer. He's a born desiccator. He could make 'Hamlet' as dry as calculus."
"Right-o," said Pudge. "But Mitchell could make calculus as exciting as 'Hamlet.' It's fifty-fifty."
"And they fired Mitchell." Jack Lawrence spoke for the first time. "I have that straight. The administration seems afraid of a man that can teach. They've made Buchanan a full professor, and there isn't a man in college who can tell what he's talking about. He's written a couple of books that nobody reads, and that makes him a scholar. I was forced to take three courses with him. They were agony, and he never taught me a damn thing."
"Most of them don't teach you a damn thing," Winsor exclaimed, tapping his pipe on the mantel. "They either tell you something that you can find more easily in a book, or just confuse you with a lot of ponderous lectures that put you to sleep or drive you crazy if you try to understand them."
"There are just about a dozen men in this college worth listening to," Hugh put in, "and I've got three of them this term. I'm learning more than I did in my whole three first years. Let's be fair, though. We're blaming it all on the profs, and you know damn well that we don't study. All we try to do is to get by—I don't mean you Phi Betes; I mean all the rest of us—and if we can put anything over on the profs we are tickled pink. We're like a lot of little kids in grammar-school. Just look at the cheating that goes on, the copying of themes, and the cribbing. It's rotten!"
Winsor started to protest, but Hugh rushed on. "Oh, I know that the majority of the fellows don't consciously cheat; I'm talking about the copying of math problems and the using of trots and the paraphrasing of 'Literary Digest' articles for themes and all that sort of thing. If more than half of the fellows don't do that sort of thing some time or other in college, I'll eat my hat. And we all know darned well that we aren't supposed to do it, but the majority of fellows cheat in some way or other before they graduate!
"We aren't so much. Do you remember, George, what Jimmie Henley said to us when we were sophomores in English Thirty-six? He laid us out cold, said that we were as standardized as Fords and that we were ashamed of anything intellectual. Well, he was right. Do you remember how he ended by saying that if we were the cream of the earth, he felt sorry for the skimmed milk—or something like that?"
"Sure, I remember," Winsor replied, running his fingers through his rusty hair. "He certainly pulled a heavy line that day. He was right, too."
"I'll tell you what," exclaimed Pudge suddenly, so suddenly that his crossed legs parted company and his foot fell heavily to the floor. "Let's put it up to Henley in class to-morrow. Let's ask him straight out if he thinks college is worth while."
"He'll hedge," objected Lawrence. "All the profs do if you ask them anything like that." Winsor laughed. "You don't know Jimmie Henley. He won't hedge. You've never had a class with him, but Hugh and Pudge and I are all in English Fifty-three, and we'll put it up to him. He'll tell us what he thinks all right, and I hope to God that he says it is worth while. I'd like to have somebody convince me that I've got something out of these four years beside lower ideals. Hell, sometimes I think that we're all damn fools. We worship athletics—no offense, Hugh—above everything else; we gamble and drink and talk like bums; and about every so often some fellow has to go home because a lovely lady has left him with bitter, bitter memories. I'm with Henley. If we're the cream of the earth—well, thank the Lord, we're not."
"Who is," Lawrence asked earnestly.
English 53 had only a dozen men in it; so Henley conducted the course in a very informal fashion. The men felt free to bring up for discussion any topic that interested them.
Nobody was surprised, therefore, when George Winsor asked Henley to express his opinion of the value of a college education. He reminded Henley of what he had said two years before, and rapidly gave a resume of the discussion that resulted in the question he was asking. "We'd like to know, too," he concluded, grinning wickedly, "just whom you consider the cream of the earth. You remember you said that if we were you felt sorry for the skimmed milk."
Henley leaned back in his chair and laughed. "Yes," he said, "I remember saying that. I didn't think, though, that you would remember it for two years. You seem to remember most of what I said. I am truly astonished." He grinned back at Winsor. "The swine seem to have eaten the pearls."
The class laughed, but Winsor was not one to refuse the gambit. "They were very indigestible," he said quickly.
"Good!" Henley exclaimed. "I wanted them to give you a belly-ache, and I am delighted that you still suffer."
"We do," Pudge Jamieson admitted, "but we'd like to have a little mercy shown to us now. We've spent four years here, and while we've enjoyed them, we've just about made up our minds that they have been all in all wasted years."
"No." Henley was decisive. His playful manner entirely disappeared. "No, not wasted. You have enjoyed them, you say. Splendid justification. You will continue to enjoy them as the years grow between you and your college days. All men are sentimental about college, and in that sentimentality there is continuous pleasure."
"Your doubt delights me. Your feeling that you haven't learned anything delights me, too. It proves that you have learned a great deal. It is only the ignoramus who thinks he is wise; the wise man knows that he is an ignoramus. That's a platitude, but it is none the less true. I have cold comfort for you: the more you learn, the less confident you will be of your own learning, the more utterly ignorant you will feel. I have never known so much as, the day I graduated from high school. I held my diploma and the knowledge of the ages in my hand. I had never heard of Socrates, but I would have challenged him to a debate without the slightest fear."
"Since then I have grown more humble, so humble that there are times when I am ashamed to come into the class-room. What right have I to teach anybody anything? I mean that quite sincerely. Then I remember that, ignorant as I am, the undergraduates are more ignorant. I take heart and mount the rostrum ready to speak with the authority of a pundit."
He realized that he was sliding off on a tangent and paused to find a new attack. Pudge Jamieson helped him.
"I suppose that's all true," he said, "but it doesn't explain why college is really worth while. The fact remains that most of us don't learn anything, that we are coarsened by college, and that we—well, we worship false gods."
Henley nodded in agreement. "It would be hard to deny your assertions," he acknowledged, "and I don't think that I am going to try to deny them. Of course, men grow coarser while they are in college, but that doesn't mean that they wouldn't grow coarser if they weren't in college. It isn't college that coarsens a man and destroys his illusions; it is life. Don't think that you can grow to manhood and retain your pretty dreams. You have become disillusioned about college. In the next few years you will suffer further disillusionment. That is the price of living."
"Every intelligent man with ideals eventually becomes a cynic. It is inevitable. He has standards, and, granted that he is intelligent, he cannot fail to see how far mankind falls below those standards. The result is cynicism, and if he is truly intelligent, the cynicism is kindly. Having learned that man is frail, he expects little of him; therefore, if he judges at all, his judgment is tempered either with humor or with mercy."
The dozen boys were sprawled lazily in their chairs, their feet resting on the rungs of the chairs before them, but their eyes were fastened keenly on Henley. All that he was saying was of the greatest importance to them. They found comfort in his words, but the comfort raised new doubts, new problems.
"How does that affect college?" Winsor asked.
"It affects it very decidedly," Henley replied. "You haven't become true cynics yet; you expect too much of college. You forget that the men who run the college and the men who attend it are at best human beings, and that means that very much cannot be expected of them. You do worship false gods. I find hope in the fact that you recognize the stuff of which your gods are made. I have great hopes for the American colleges, not because I have any reason to believe that the faculties will become wiser or that the administrations will lead the students to true gods; not at all, but I do think that the students themselves will find a way. They have already abandoned Mammon; at least, the most intelligent have, and I begin to see signs of less adoration for athletics. Athletics, of course, have their place, and some of the students are beginning to find that place. Certainly the alumni haven't, and I don't believe that the administrative officers have, either. Just so long as athletes advertise the college, the administrations will coddle them. The undergraduates, however, show signs of frowning on professionalism, and the stupid athlete is rapidly losing his prestige. An athlete has to show something more than brawn to be a hero among his fellows nowadays."