This was a way of looking at it which had never occurred to Keith. He was pretty contented, on the whole, and like all the rest, he placed the most implicit trust in the teacher's justice. From the very start, he had a feeling that Dally kept a special eye on him, and yet he was rarely spoken to except when questions were passed around. Even then the teacher was rather apt to leave Keith alone to such an extent that the boy now and then began to think himself disliked. Always, however, when he got to this point, some little incident would occur that restored his faith both in himself and in the teacher.
There could be no doubt that he knew his lessons as well as any one in the class, if not better, and he shone still more when Dally appealed to the natural intelligence of the boys by straying far away from the beaten and dusty path of the text books. Whenever he had stirred them by some excursion of this kind and began to ask questions in order to find out how far they had followed him, Keith's right hand was sure to shoot excitedly upwards in order to get him the coveted chance of answering. And it seemed as if he could answer almost every question asked except a few that went so far beyond the bounds laid down for the class that the teacher deemed it fair to warn them that inability to answer would be no shame. That was the kind of questions Dally generally reserved for Keith, and when Keith couldn't answer, it didn't console him very much that no one else could. Once, when his hand went up as usual and, to his astonishment, he obtained the permission to answer, Keith, to his still greater astonishment, suddenly discovered that he had no answer to give.
"I thought so," said Dally with a broad grin on his good-humoured face. "Do you know what a fuzzy-wuzz is, Wellander?"
Keith shook his head, his face crimson with chagrin and humiliation as the whole class burst into anticipatory laughter.
"That's a chap who wants to do all of it all the time," explained Dally.
Keith did not quite see the point, but he kept his right arm a little more in check for a while after that, until one day the lesson was forgotten and history repeated itself.
"Now Keith is fuzzy-wuzzying again," said Dally, and Keith thought he would sink through the floor. His mind was quite made up never to ask permission to answer another question again, but that same afternoon, during the lesson in Swedish history, Dally dropped all questioning and asked Keith to explain to the class the main factors leading up to the Wars of Reformation—which Keith spent twenty minutes in doing while all the rest of the class had to sit still listening to him.
Keith could not remain isolated to the same extent as in the earlier schools. Inevitable community sprang from similarity of sex and age alone. In the same direction worked the system of teaching which called for the united attention of the entire class during every moment of the lesson. It was impossible to form a part of the class without being in contact with all its other members. The boy who read aloud or answered a question became subjected to the criticism or admiration of all the rest. Rivalry in any field of study was just as likely to arise between two boys at different ends of the room as between those sitting side by side. The spirit of Dally tended to assist this fusion of personalities in every way, and the boy who kept apart was sure sooner or later to run foul of his good-humoured but well-aimed sallies. His attitude implied no tyranny, and he strove for no deadening conformity. On the contrary, he always spoke of a strongly marked individuality as the object of all education, but he tried to develop it by fearless contact with others rather than by jealous withdrawal.
Keith for the first time found himself part of a society, and he liked it because the teacher's insistence on scholarly achievement as the only standard of comparison gave him a chance to hold his own among a group of boys, most of whom counted themselves his superiors in every other respect. He was small and poor, of humble origin, without influential connections, without worldly advantages of any kind, but when mind was pitched against mind, he felt second to none—except in mathematics, where he could compete neither with Davidson, the Jewish banker's son who was primus, or with that gawky, cumbersome Anderson whose dullness in every other respect always kept him near the bottom of the class. For this reason Keith differed from most of the others by liking school better during the lessons than at any other time.
There were games in the schoolyard during the pauses, and some of these were played in large groups or by teams. This occurred particularly when echoes from some war abroad caused the whole school to divide into rival armies for the staging of regular battles, as during his second year, when all had to be Turks or Russians. But Keith didn't like battles except in books, and mostly the pauses broke up the class communities into small coteries or pairs. And the moment this happened, Keith found himself outside. He belonged to no special group. His appearance in the yard raised no delighted hails. He had no chum of his very own with whom to exchange secrets or lay plans for common adventures. And but for Dally, he would probably have spent most of his free time in the classroom.
It was worse when the big pause came at eleven and every one went home for lunch, or when three o'clock brought school to a close for the day. Going to school alone was an experience shared by all, but on leaving it, the hurrying horde of youngsters, exuberant with freedom as so many colts, broke into little groups of two or three that had homes in the same neighbourhood. Now and then Keith would join a couple of other boys headed for the old City like himself, and they would not refuse his company, but there always was something between him and them that precluded real fellowship, and so he trudged his way homeward, alone most of the time. Then he was also sure of reaching home in the shortest possible time, so that his mother had no chance to become worried over him.
It happen now and then that a larger group was formed for some unusual exploit and that Keith became part of it by chance rather than choice. Once he accompanied such a group to that part of the harbour where tall-masted fullriggers with foreign flags lay nose by stern in unbroken line along the quay. Strange odours, fragrant or repulsive, filled the air. Jolly, loud-voiced men toiled mightily or lounged like monarchs among piles of casks and bags and boxes. For once Keith lost his usual timidity under such circumstances and threw himself whole-heartedly into anything the gang suggested. He even ventured to climb the mast of a ship as far as the foretop. When at last reluctantly he turned homeward, he felt like a hero, but when he caught sight of the tear-stained, fretted face of his mother, he knew at once that even such exaltation was not worth the price to be paid for it.
Unfortunately he had made himself popular that afternoon, and the next time a gang formed for a similar purpose, he was asked to join. But he shook his head, and being foolishly truthful by nature, he blurted out an embarrassed:
"My mother won't let me."
The answer was passed along. It was repeated in school the next day. Keith heard echoes of it for weeks. And it added a good deal to the invisible wall that seemed to rise about him wherever he went.
Yet he was not unhappy. There was in his nature a wonderful resiliency that never let his spirits drop beyond a certain point, and that always brought them back to highwater mark at the slightest encouragement.
He had discovered the school library. It was to him a marvellous treasure trove. Any book could be taken home, one at a time, after being registered with the teacher acting as librarian for the day. Nor were the books handed out to you arbitrarily. You browsed all by yourself, and picked and picked, and calculated, and went back on your choice a dozen times, until at last you struck a book so fascinating in its promises that all hesitation disappeared.
The father started to object, but was silenced by the explanation that the school authorities wanted the boys to borrow books from the library. That settled it, for discipline came first and even pleasure must be allowed if required by discipline. Had Keith been less honest or more imaginative in what may be called practical matters, his father's regard for authority might have offered more than one chance at liberties now denied, but this possibility never occurred to him, and so the library remained his one avenue of escape.
The books he chose puzzled and almost shocked the rotatory guardians of his sanctum. Once he picked an enormous volume on Greek mythology, full of pictures and translated passages from Homer and the dramatists.
"You don't want that, Wellander," the teacher said, eying him curiously, when Keith presented the book for registration.
"Yes, I do," replied Keith stoutly, but his heart began to quake at the thought that the cherished volume was going to be denied him.
"Do you mean to say that you intend to read it through?" the teacher persisted.
"Yes, I will," said Keith.
There was a long pause during which the teacher seemed to weigh the book in his hand as if wondering whether its very weight would be too much for the undersized little chap in front of him.
"All right," he said at last, "but I suppose that means you will have reading for the rest of this season."
Keith looked at the book more hopefully, and with hope came courage.
"I'll read it in three weeks," he said.
So he did, too, and when he turned in the book, the same teacher happened to be on duty, recognized him, and began to ask questions. When Keith had proved that the whole Olympian hierarchy was duly installed in his acquisitive brain, the teacher said with an amused but friendly smile:
"I think we shall let you have anything you want hereafter. What is it to be this time—philosophy?"
"No, I want another book of exploration," answered Keith, thawing under the smile. "And I want a real good one."
That was his favourite subject, and the book he chose was Speke's "Discovery of the Source of the Nile." Once launched on that memorable journey, he had no thought left for any explorations of his own.
During the fall and spring terms of that first year Keith had no sense of time. Days and weeks and months rolled by so smoothly that their passing was unnoticed. It is a question whether at any other period of his life—with one possible exception—he was more completely interested and, for that reason, satisfied.
One day he observed casually that the old trees in the churchyard sported tiny green leaves under a deliciously blue but still rather cold sky. A few days more, and he heard that commencement was at hand.
It was a time of great excitement in school. Who would pass and who would not? Falling through might mean another year in the same class, but beyond all doubt it meant a summer spent at work instead of playing. It was worse than a disgrace. It was a menace to liberty at the time of the year when liberty meant most.
Being second in the class, it never occurred to Keith that he might fail of promotion to a higher grade, but at that end there were possible prizes to consider. The class was full of gossip and speculation. Boys who had hardly spoken to each other before broke into heated discussions or formed belated friendships. In one way and another the fever infected Keith and spread from him to his parents, though his father as usual feigned complete indifference. From his mother he learned long before the startling fact was meant to reach his ears, that his father had actually asked a day off at the bank in order to attend the exercises. This news increased Keith's fear by several degrees. He had no idea what might happen, and it would be unthinkably dreadful to have the father present if anything went wrong. But on the other hand, if ... well, what was there to happen anyhow?
On the morning of the great day, a host of parents and relatives and other interested spectators crowded into the big assembly hall where places were reserved for them in the rear and along the walls. In the meantime the pupils gathered in their respective class-rooms, and from there they marched by twos to the hall, the lowest grade leading. Every boy was in his best clothes, and every one showed his nervousness in his own peculiar way. Keith laughed hysterically a few times before they started, and then he turned into an automaton that breathed and moved and heard and saw only as part of a gigantic machine. His own individuality seemed to melt and become a mere drop in the all-exclusive individuality of the school.
This mood lasted through the early part of the exercises, the prayer read by the primus of the senior class, the hymn singing, the Rector's speech, and so on. Everything came to him as out of a mist, and he was not even sufficiently conscious of himself to look around for a glimpse of his parents. When the distribution of exercises began, the whole atmosphere changed. Until then it had been collective and impersonal. Now it became intensely personal. Every one wanted to hear. Necks were craned, whispered questions asked. It was as if a sudden breeze had stirred waters which until then had been still as the mirroring surface of a forest pool. Keith's mood changed with the rest, and he grew painfully conscious of himself and his surroundings.
Starting with the lowest grade, the Rector read out the names of the prize winners, the character of the prizes, and sometimes the reasons why they were bestowed. At the mention of each name, a boy rose from his seat, squirmed past his closely packed comrades, marched up the centre aisle to the platform, bowed awkwardly to the Rector, grabbed the prize, bowed still more awkwardly if possible, and marched back to his seat with a face that burned or blanched, grinned or glowed, according to temperament.
The second grade was soon reached. Most of the prizes consisted of books. Davidson, primus, got two gilt-edged volumes of poetry. Keith caught a glimpse of them and experienced a twinge of envy. His heart was beating so that he thought he could hear it. His eyes clung to the Rector's mouth, and when the next name was read, he half rose. Then he sank back, and around him an ominous stillness seemed to reign.
The name was that of Runge, tertius, who got some historical work. Then quartus, Blomberg, who was a passionate botanist, received a valuable text book on his favourite subject. Still the rector went on, and Keith felt sure that his name had been passed over by some mistake, and that now it would come.
"A German lexicon for special attention to the student of that language," the Rector droned on.
Again Keith started to rise from his seat, but even as he did so, it flashed through his mind that he was given no more attention to German than to other studies.
"... to Otto Krass of the Second Grade," the Rector completed his sentence, holding out a book.
As Keith sank back on the bench, Krass, quintus, rose with an expression on his face as if he had become personally involved in a particularly incredible miracle.
A whisper ran through the rest of the class. Glances were cast at Keith, who felt them like so many lashes on bare skin although in every other respect he had once more become utterly unconscious of what happened about him.
By slow degrees he recovered so far that he could try to think, but the process was unendurable. There could be no accident. It was a deliberate slight aimed at him for some specific reason. He tried to think of the past year and its happenings in and out of school, but this effort produced no solution to the riddle.
Suddenly he bethought himself of his speculations concerning his place in the class. It seemed that he had been deeply envious of Davidson all that year. With a quick turn of the head he surveyed for a moment the haughty expression and narrowly drawn postures of the boy beside him. There was a trace of a sneer on that face, and again Keith's heart was flooded with resentment. But this mood changed abruptly into contriteness. Perhaps he was being punished by some one, by God—he hesitated at that thought—for grudging his schoolmate the place and the honours that he probably had deserved. Keith was the meanest of the mean....
Krass was back in his seat showing his book. He showed it to Keith also, but with a palpable embarrassment that touched the latter as an additional blow. Keith tried to say that it was nice, but his lips were too dry and stiff to produce a sound.
The Rector was still reading off names. To save himself from his own thoughts, Keith tried to listen. Soon he noticed that, without fail, the prizes went in unbroken sequence to the first four or five pupils in every grade. And suddenly he wondered whether his father and mother had noticed. What would they say? What could he say?
Then he remembered his mother's remark on hearing about his place in the class, and he wondered if it could be possible.... But the parents of Krass had neither wealth nor position. That much he knew.
The Rector's voice and manner became more and more impressive, and the prizes more and more valuable, as he passed higher and higher, until at last the senior class was reached—the boys who were now graduating into the gymnasium. They were his own pupils, and for each of the prize winners from the two branches of that class he had a word of special praise and good-will.
A restless stirring passed through the assembly as the boy expected to be the last recipient of special honours made his way to the platform and everybody prepared to rise for the singing of a closing hymn.
Still the old Rector, with his smooth-shaven and deeply furrowed Roman face, remained standing, and once more an expectant hush fell upon pupils and spectators. Apparently he intended, contrary to custom, to follow up the main ceremony of the day with some important announcement.
"One more prize remains to be distributed," he resumed with more than usual deliberation. "We do not have the pleasure of bestowing it regularly, because its conditions are unusual. It was the will of the donor that it should be given to that pupil who, regardless of grade and age, during the previous year had shown the relatively greatest aptitude, industry, and actual advance in knowledge. This year the prize, which consists of one hundred crowns in gold and is the largest at the disposal of our school, is to be distributed, and the pupil found worthy of this exceptional honour is...."
Every eye was on the Rector as he paused dramatically. Every one in the hall listened breathlessly to catch the favoured name. Keith listened like the rest, a little enviously perhaps, but without serious attention, for it had just occurred to him for the tenth time that the situation would have been so much less unbearable if only his father had stayed away.
"... this pupil is Keith Wellander of the Second Grade," the Rector concluded.
A murmur swept the hall, and Keith felt himself the centre of many eyes. The murmur grew as the winner failed to appear, but Keith could not move a limb. Dumbly and unbelievingly he stared at the Rector and the group of teachers seated around him on the platform.
"Come forward, Wellander," the Rector said in a friendly voice as if he could well understand the overwhelming effect of such distinction. At the same time Keith noticed Lector Dahlstroem rising partly from his seat on the platform as if to see whether anything might be the matter.
Had the ceiling opened and an angel appeared in a fiery chariot to call him heavenward, the boy could not have been more startled. It was as if a terrific blow had paralyzed all his senses. His classmates had to push him forward. He never knew how he reached the platform, where the Rector was waiting for him with a small package ready for delivery. Keith felt the weight of that package in his own hand and the gentle touch of the Rector's hand on his head. Words were uttered that he did not catch, and the room became filled with the noise of boisterous applause.
He bowed mechanically and turned to walk back to his seat, and as he did so, he noticed a white handkerchief waving at him from the rear of the hall. Behind the handkerchief he caught a glimpse of his mother's face, and a thought shot through his head:
"Papa is here and has heard all this!"
Then he relapsed into a state of utter oblivion of the surrounding world. The thing was too tremendous to be felt even. Automatically he moved out of the hall and back to the classroom with the rest. Dally was saying things to him, but he could not grasp a word. Now and then he became vaguely conscious of awed glances cast at him by the other boys. Some of them spoke to him, and in some strange way he managed to realize that Davidson was not among these.
At last he woke into full consciousness on the street, where he found himself walking homeward by his father's hand. The pressure of that hand seemed unusually soft and pleasant. The mother was talking eagerly and wiping her eyes between little happy bursts of laughter. The father listened for a long while in silence.
"Yes," he said at last, "it is not a bad beginning—if he can keep it up."
Keith felt for a moment as if he were walking on air, and he knew that he would keep it up—that after such a day nothing could prevent him from keeping it up. Then a bewildering thought appeared out of nowhere and began to buzz in his tired and over-excited brain.
"If I have done all that the Rector said," this thought demanded of him, "why in the world has Dally kept me sitting below Davidson who got nothing but books?"
Keith next day was permitted to have a good look at the five twenty-crown pieces found in the package handed to him by the Rector. Their weight and brightness made them delightful to handle, but they were not "toys for children" his father remarked, and with that remark they passed out of sight for ever. Once or twice he put timid questions to his mother, who never answered directly, but reminded him of all the money his father had spent and was spending on him for food and clothes and schooling and all sorts of things. Keith almost wished that he had received some nice books instead, or anything that could make him feel that he really had got a big glorious reward for something he really had done. Now the achievement seemed as illusive as the reward.
He tried to reason the case out with himself, and the conclusion at which he arrived was that his father probably was entitled and certainly welcome to the money, but that as he, Keith, had earned it and owned it, something should be said to him about the use of it. And as so often was the case, it became a question of abstract justice. The value and possibilities of the money lay beyond his grasp, but the ethics of its disposal, from his simple childish point of view, seemed too clear for serious discussion. Once or twice he stole a look at his savings bank book, which his mother kept among her own papers, but no new entry appeared on its meagre credit side. By and by he almost lost sight of the whole incident, engrossed as he was with the experiences of the current hour, but the memory of it recurred fitfully, and in moments of dissatisfaction it tended to assume the shape of a grievance, if not a charge, against the father. From this tendency he fled instinctively to an idea of money as not worth bothering about. And that idea also helped when the atmosphere of worry about money matters surrounding his mother became too intense and depressive.
There was comparatively little of it that summer. His mother was in better health and spirits than he had seen her for a long time, and she was as happy as Keith when the father announced that they would have a summer place of their own on one of the islands in Lake Maelaren, somewhat farther out than the one where Uncle Laube lived. It was too far away to have become absorbed by the rapidly growing city, and yet too close at hand to be quite desirable as a summer location for the more prosperous. The island was of sufficient size to hold a couple of real farms in the centre, while the shore line was occupied by occasional villas. Halfway between these two mutually foreign regions, on a sharp slope that still remained largely uncleared, stood a little red house with just two rooms in it. One of these was occupied by the old couple that owned the house. The other one had been rented to the Wellanders for the summer, and in that one room the mother, the grandmother and Keith established themselves, with the father appearing as a regular week-end guest.
Taking it all in all, it was the freest, and in many ways the happiest summer of Keith's childhood. He was permitted to roam around pretty much as he pleased, and there were several other small boys to play with, none of them enterprising enough to arouse the distrust of Keith's mother. They were all city boys however, as foreign to nature as Keith, and there was no older person on hand to give their excursions and games a constructive twist without turning them into lessons. There was plenty of wild life about, and it helped in many ways to give them a better time, but that was as near as they got to it. Exactly the same thing happened during subsequent summers, and so the boy always looked upon flowers and trees and birds and insects as delightful but puzzling representatives of a world of which he did not know the language.
It was good fun, however, and temporarily it took Keith farther away from himself and from his cherished books than he had been since his first discovery of the latter. The boys proved decent, wholesome company, more bent on discharging their surplus energy than on doing mischief. Much of their time was spent in or near the water, so that Keith developed into a pretty good swimmer for his age, though always of the cautious type. And between games they would discuss the world from a boy's point of view. There was particularly one boy of the same age as Keith with whom he had talks of a kind quite new to him. Oscar's parents were still very young, and he spoke of them more as chums than as masters. And he spoke of them with a sort of restrained enthusiasm that set Keith thinking very hard. He loved his parents, especially his mother, and admired them, especially his father at certain times, but he was not conscious of any feeling about them corresponding to the one displayed by Oscar, whose father, after all, was nothing but a captain on one of the small steam sloops running between the city and some of the surrounding islands.
Oscar was especially eloquent when he spoke of the love his parents had for each other. He gave examples that seemed exaggerated to Keith, but nevertheless impressed him. In return Keith boasted similarly of his own parents, and he meant every word he said, but always what he had to tell fell short of the pictures drawn by Oscar.
"You don't understand," cried Oscar one day when again they were debating this fascinating topic all by themselves. "It's all right for your mother to kiss your father when he leaves and when he returns, and to be looking for him all the time. But that's not enough. That's not the way my parents love each other. And I don't think your father cares so very much for your mother. But my father is so much in love with my mother that he would like to eat what she has chewed!"
"No—o!" protested Keith, rather appalled by the illustration used, and yet feeling as if he had beheld some undiscovered country. There was a pause during which he stared incredulously at Oscar.
"I mean just what I said," insisted Oscar a little more quietly after a while. "Anything that has to do with my mother is sweet to my father, I tell you. And that is love. If you don't know it, you don't know what love is either."
"But why," demanded Keith, his mind still so full of the disturbing image called forth by Oscar that his jaws moved uneasily as if he had taken into his mouth something unpalatable.
"Because," Oscar hesitated ... "because it is that way."
Keith left shortly afterwards to think it over in solitude. It was probably the first time the word love had been presented to him as anything but a commonplace term for laudable but commonplace feelings. He puzzled over it, but to little purpose, and for some reason he thought it useless or unwise to ask his mother for information.
The third grade proved merely a continuation of the second. Little had changed over summer. A few boys had been dropped behind and a few others overtaken. That affected the bottom of the class, but not the top. Dally remained their principal, and when he welcomed them back at the opening of the fall term, Keith waited excitedly for the distribution of places. Few changes were made however. Davidson remained primus as before, with Keith next. Then came Runge and Blomberg as before. For a day or two Keith swung violently between fits of rebellion and deep depression. It seemed almost incredible that he could have received the highest prize bestowed on any pupil in the school.
Then the routine of instruction and study seized him. New text-books were acquired, not without some grumbling on his father's part. New interests were stirring and, as usual, cleverly nursed by Dally. Above all, the magnetic power of the teacher asserted itself once more, until Keith felt that the only thing really worth while in life was to please him.
Algebra was one of the new subjects, and the use of letters instead of figures amused Keith for a while. But it took no serious hold on his mind. The whole field of mathematics left him strangely uninterested although he was good at arithmetic. He thought the problems of Euclid stupid. Once he had learned how to prove a theorem, it seemed so ridiculously self-evident that he wondered why anybody should bother his brain about it. There were other boys who could figure out the demonstrations in advance without looking at the book. Keith tried it once or twice, but failed miserably and gave it up as a worthless and thankless job. Apparently his brain did not work in that way. It had to touch real life to be at its best. History and geography were his favourite subjects, and in those he led the class. This was openly admitted by Dally himself.
Literature was another new subject. They read and analysed and criticized classical Swedish poetry—Tegner and Runeberg and Geijer. Most of the poems chosen for the purpose were historical and took their themes from the old viking days or from the glorious centuries of Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII, when Sweden so nearly rose to be a great power. Keith liked to take certain sonorous passages into his mouth. There was a satisfying fullness and richness about them that seemed somehow to enhance his own feeling of self-importance. Their rhythm also pleased him and became a sort of substitute for the singing of which he was incapable. Chiefly, however, it was the stories told by the poems that interested him, and on the whole he did not think much of poetry. But this opinion he never dared to put into words. To do so in the face of Dally's clearly manifested reverence would have been like openly confessing a particularly degrading form of inferiority.
Nor did it seem to matter so very much what he studied. The main thing always remained what Dally said and did in his efforts to bring out something within the self of each boy for which only he seemed to have an eye. Keith at times felt as if he would give anything to know what Dally expected of him in particular. He felt sure that it must be something wonderful, and he had odd moments of almost being on the verge of grasping it, but in the end it always eluded him, and no sooner was he out of Dally's presence than the whole thing seemed very unreal and foolish.
Young Davidson had a bent toward sarcasm that sometimes lured him out of his usual cold aloofness. In one of these rare communicative moments he said of little Loth that he crossed the equator at least once a week and didn't mind. He referred to the fact that Loth was more frequently moved than any other pupil but always managed to retain a place near the centre. And no matter what fate might bring him of ups or downs, Loth always retained a perfect composure. Yet he was small and nervous and highstrung like Keith and Bauer. One day Keith asked him how he could stand being shoved about like that.
"Because my father says I am going into business anyhow," answered Loth, "and I don't know whether I hate business or books most."
"What would you like to do," asked Keith looking puzzled.
"Draw," said Loth vaguely, "and play the piano, and go to the theatre, and—yes, and read poetry books that don't teach you anything."
This view of life was so new to Keith that he really tried to become acquainted with Loth in order to learn more about it. His own indifference to anything but books promised small success, but in the end a tie was found in their common love of tin soldiers. So he was admitted to Loth's particular circle and was even invited to Loth's home for a birthday party—the first and last of its kind that he attended during his five years at Old Mary. Before permitted to go, he was warned that the servant girl would come for him at nine. No amount of pleading helped to ameliorate that condition.
Loth's father was a prosperous storekeeper on West Long Street and lived in a spacious and richly furnished apartment above the store. It was a home like that revealed to Keith through his shortlived friendship with Harald. The impression on Keith, however, was quite different because of his own growth since that first year at school. And the actions of the eight or ten boys who were the other guests impressed him still more. They wore gloves when they arrived. They showed neither forwardness nor timidity, but greeted each other and their host with grown-up dignity and formality. They seemed to know what to do at every moment, and how to do it. Keith was accustomed to decent manners. Social intercourse in the parental circle was not without grace, but this was something different. At the time he was utterly incapable of telling where the difference lay, and years afterward he realized what subtle shadings it depended on. The main thing at the time was that something in himself responded instinctively to the higher degree of polish and self-assurance which he now for the first time was able to observe at close quarters.
The principal entertainment of the evening was a monster battle with tin soldiers on the cleared floor of the huge dining-room. The battle was at its height and supper was not yet in sight, when Keith learned that the girl was waiting for him. There was nothing to do but to obey, but the hostess could not think of letting him go without having eaten. A special service was prepared for him in the kindest way possible, and Keith enjoyed very much the many dainties offered him. Nevertheless he felt the situation as humiliating and was actually glad when he got away at last. But the gladness was only a surface gloss on a burning core of regrets and dissatisfaction.
In a way that evening, which was never repeated, proved a new starting point in his life. He had had his first close contact with life on a higher social level, and he could not forget it. New standards had been furnished him, and unconsciously he was applying them all the time to all sorts of things—his parents included. Until then he had blindly accepted them and their ways and their environment as representing the best this world had to offer. Now the basis had been laid for doubts that gradually developed into positive criticism.
The immediate result seemed quite irrelevant. He developed a sudden objection to running errands for his mother, and especially to doing anything that involved the carrying of bags or bottles or baskets through the streets. Packages looking as if they might contain books remained unobjectional. There was a time when being sent to the grocery store was a privilege and a distinction. Later it became an opportunity for clandestine meetings with Johan. Even during his first year at Old Mary he continued to perform such tasks without any thought of what others might think of them. He must have heard things, however, and inner resistances must have developed, which were now brought into sudden appearance by the inner echoes of Loth's birthday party.
He did not dare to breathe a word about his new state of mind in his father's presence. And it was long before he gathered courage to voice it openly before his mother. But he used all the arguments and evasions and tricks he could muster to escape what had become a dreaded ordeal. It developed into a test of will and strength between Keith and his mother—the first of its kind, and the forerunner of numerous others still more deep-reaching. After a while the father discovered or learned what was going on, but, contrary to custom, that was not enough to settle the matter. In this case, neither argument nor threats had any effect on Keith. He avoided open conflict with his father for good and sufficient reason, and he did what could not be escaped, but he did it in a spirit of passionate rebellion that introduced a new element of division and strife the home. Both parents seemed instinctively to interpret the boy's changed attitude as a reflection on themselves, and they resented it keenly, but to no avail. While pretending to insist on full obedience as before, they gave way in reality by making the servant girl do the errands in place of Keith.
"One of these days I suppose we shall not be good enough for you any longer," said his mother bitterly one day while the contest was still on.
"Why, mamma," cried Keith, disturbed by the emotional appeal back of her words, "what has that to do with my not wanting to be laughed at by other boys?"
"I almost wish I hadn't persuaded your father to send you to the public school," the mother rejoined.
The school year was drawing to its close again Dally's tone grew less bantering. On several occasions he delivered little impromptu sermons on the seriousness of life and the difficulties of living. One afternoon about two weeks before commencement he told them to close their books.
"I want each one of you to tell me what you expect to become in life, or what kind of a career your parents have chosen for you."
A stir of excitement swept over the class.
Then Dally went on to explain why he wished to know. The first three grades were divided into A and B classes, but that had nothing to do with the teaching, which was the same in both classes. The fourth and fifth grades, on the other hand, were divided into a "Latin" and an "English" branch, with quite different curricula. Boys headed for the various professions ought to choose the former branch, while the second one led to more practical pursuits.
"You are going to be an officer, I understand." Dally said, turning to primus.
"Yes, sir," the young Jew answered with a self-importance that even Keith could not miss. "My father wants me to try for the General Staff, and so I have to specialize on mathematics."
"Humph," was Dally's only audible comment as he made a note, but he looked as if he had tasted something unpleasant.
"And you, Wellander," asked the teacher.
"I am going to be an explorer," replied Keith without moment's hesitation, and the whole class broke into a roar of laughter with Dally joining them.
Keith, as usual, blushed a deep crimson, but did not move.
"That's neither a trade nor a profession," said Dally after a while, still smiling. "I fear you are fuzzy-wuzzying again, Wellander. What do you mean by an explorer?"
"One who explores rivers and deserts and unknown countries and such things," said Keith brazenly.
"And you really mean that you are going in for that sort of thing?"
"I do," Keith insisted, while the whole class watched him in a hush that might easily turn either into derision or into approval.
"There isn't much exploring left to be done," Dally mused, looking intently at the small boy at the other end of the room. "Most of the globe is mapped already."
"There is a lot left in Africa," Keith retorted eagerly.
"And what does your father say about it," was Dally's next question.
There was a long pause broken only by some gigglings by the irrepressibles down at the bottom of the class.
"I have not asked him," Keith admitted at last. "But I am going to be an explorer just the same."
"In these days that means you have to become a scientist," Dally remarked in a changed tone. "It is your only chance, and so I advise you to choose Latin. It is what I think a boy with your head should take anyhow."
"All right, Sir," assented Keith, flattered by the last part of Dally's remark and utterly ignorant of what his choice implied.
That evening he told his father that he had been asked whether he wanted to enter the Latin or the English branch of the fourth grade, and that he had chosen the former.
"Why," asked his father.
"Because Dally says I ought to," replied Keith.
"Well, he ought to know," said the father.
But when Keith appeared in the schoolyard during one of the pauses next day, he was met from every side by the cry:
"There's the explorer! There's the explorer!"
The younger boys jeered openly at him. The older ones pretended to ask him serious questions about his plans. For days he was the laughing stock of the whole school, and even on his way to and from school he was pursued by jibes and taunts. Through it all Keith stuck quietly to his guns, without a sign of retraction or evasion. And in the end his seriousness conquered. But from that day he was known to the entire school as "the explorer," and he heard that term more often than his own name.
It was the afternoon of the last day before commencement. The atmosphere in the class was solemn and more than a little wistful.
"It is our last hour together," said Dally when all were back in their seats after the pause. "History is on the schedule, but—schedules are not made for moments like these. Let us just have a friendly talk."
He did practically all the talking, and he talked to them more as an older boy, a chum with somewhat wider experience, than as a teacher and class principal. It made them feel their own importance rather heavily, but still more it made them conscious of an irreparable loss. They knew that school would not be the same in the fall, when Dally no longer was with them. In accordance with established custom, he would go back to the first grade and start piloting a new generation up to the point where they had just arrived.
The class would break up, too. Some would have to stay behind. One or two had gone as far as they could and would make a premature transfer from school to life. Others were bound for other schools or other cities. The rest would split in two and join with the corresponding parts of the parallel section to form two entirely new classes. It gave them a foretaste of what it would mean to graduate into the gymnasium, and from there into the university. And it filled their hearts with wistful pride.
The last hour was drawing to a close and everybody was talking at once, when Dally unexpectedly asked them to give him their full attention once more for few minutes.
"An act of justice remains to be performed," he said. "There is a boy among you who has not received all that he had justly deserved. It was withheld from him by me for his own welfare. The time has now come when he and you should know all about it."
As he paused for a moment, the boys looked around at each other with something like consternation. Their curiosity was intense. He spoke with a tensity of feeling they had hardly ever noticed in him before, and not one of them had an inkling of what he was driving at.
"It means that some of you have received more than they deserved," he resumed. "That also should be known—for the good of all. It is a reflection on no one but myself, however, and I think you know me well enough by this time to be sure that I have been moved by no other consideration than the future good of the one most nearly concerned."
Again he stopped, the class waiting breathlessly for him to go on. At that moment Keith became aware that the teacher's gaze rested firmly on him with an expression that sent the blood in a hot stream to his face.
"Wellander," Dally began again, and in spite of the beating of his own heart, Keith noticed that the teacher's voice trembled a little as he spoke. "Will you do me the favour of rising a moment? You are the boy I have in mind."
Keith rose like an automaton. His eyes clung to the lips of the teacher, and he seemed to expect from those lips some utterance that must make his whole future life different. As often happened in moments of intensified emotion, he became strangely oblivious of all the little eddies and cross-currents of thoughts and feelings that made up his ordinary, every-day consciousness of himself.
"For two years I have kept you number two in the class," Dally said, speaking in an easier tone as if to lighten the strain on everybody. "You should have been number one. Davidson, whom I placed above you has at no time been your superior in anything but self-control. But it was just your—what I have sometimes called your fuzzy-wuzziness, that made me afraid of placing you where you rightly belonged, at the head of the class. It is my belief that you have in you greater gifts than any other boy in this class, but I am not yet sure of what you will do with them. It was my eagerness to see you make full use of them that made me poke fun at you and keep you out of the place that rightfully was yours. Perhaps I did wrong, but my meaning was right. I shall always watch you closely, and I hope you will try your best not to disappoint me. Will you promise that?"
"I will," gasped Keith.
The clock had already struck three. The moment Dally stopped, the class broke up, but only to gather about Keith—every one of them except Davidson, who slipped out of the room with a face white as chalk. Keith caught a glimpse of that face, and a sense of reckless elation shot through him.
He sped as never before on his way home. It was still impossible for him to think the matter through. First he must tell his parents and hear what they had to say about it.
On hearing what had happened, his mother hugged and kissed him, her face all smiles while big tears dripped down her cheeks. Then the father came home and was told everything. His mother looked serious by that time, and Keith noticed a wavering expression in her voice.
"Your teacher evidently knows you," was the father's first remark to Keith, but by his tone the boy knew that he was pleased. Then he hesitated, and after a while he said as if speaking to himself: "But if Keith really had earned the first place...."
"That's what I have been thinking," the mother broke in with blazing eyes. "Do you remember what I said about that boy Davidson? He was the richest boy in the class, and Lector Dahlstroem simply did not dare to put Keith above him. Now he is trying to make up for it when it's too late."
"Perhaps," said the father thoughtfully. "The sum of it is what I have always said: the coin that was made for a farthing will never be a dollar."
"But Keith was not made for a farthing," the mother retorted sharply and indignantly. "That is the main point of what his teacher confessed in school this very day."
"Well, if not," said the father wearily, "it is up to him to prove it."
And Keith, too, all of a sudden felt very, very tired.
Keith was one of the first to enter the class room on the morning of Commencement Day. He was still standing near the door when Davidson appeared and evidently meant to walk past him without a greeting.
"Say, Davidson," Keith cried impulsively, holding out his hand, "I don't mind!"
"Well, what do you think I care," the other boy asked icily as he turned on his heel and walked out of the room again without taking the proffered hand.
It was the first time that Keith felt the sting of real hatred. He could never have acted like that—not even toward one who had wronged him seriously. What galled him most was that he had been made to look as if he were apologizing. Then a sense of triumph returned little by little, but it was not very vivid, and what he missed utterly was the fact that no other situation could have been quite so hard on Davidson's pride as the one in which Dally had placed him. A realization of that fact came only years afterwards.
Then Dally himself arrived, and soon the commencement exercises were in full progress, Keith feeling quite superior to any curiosity or excitement. Again he received a prize, and again it was in the form of money, but a smaller sum not accompanied by any special encomiums. He walked home very quietly with his parents, and they had not much to say either.
Had Keith known what an anti-climax was, he would undoubtedly have used that word to describe the experiences of his second Commencement Day at Old Mary.
The summer was spent quietly on the same island where he had been so happy a year before. Oscar was not there. Other boys took his place, but no real intimacy sprang up between them and Keith. They certainly did not talk of love, and what they knew of sex took Keith back to the days spent around the big rock. He had a good time on the whole, but more and more a sense of missing something fretted him, and he could not tell what it was. For emotional outlet he was wholly dependent on his mother, and though he seemed as devoted to her as ever, he had queer spells of wishing to get away from her. The father was more in the background than ever during the summer. Once in a while he would show up on a weekday evening very tired, and leave again with the first morning boat. During the week-end he wanted above all to rest, and Keith was partly happy and partly unhappy at being left alone.
Once only during that summer did his father appear under circumstances that impressed themselves on the boy's memory. It was the day of the annual regatta of the Yacht Club. When the races were over, the yachts were towed back to the city by a large steamer, escorted by a whole flotilla of every kind of craft loaded with sightseers. It was the gala evening of the season. As the tender twilight of the August night descended on the smooth waters of the Lake Maelaren, every villa along the shores became brightly illuminated, while the progress of the fleet was marked by incessant bursts of fireworks.
The Wellanders had a splendid view from the little platform on which their cottage stood. Some friends had been invited for the day, and the father had brought with him from the city a package of fireworks. But instead of wasting money on sky-rockets or other expensive pieces, he had concentrated almost wholly on blue and red lights, which he placed among the trees and over the plateau and set off in batches, first one colour and then the other. Because the place was so high up, apart from the rest, and so heavily wooded, the effect was probably very pretty from the water. Anyhow a burst of applause was heard from the passing flotilla.
"That's for us," said Keith's father, "and not for those rich people down by the shore."
As usual when very much pleased, he laughed while speaking so that it was hard to hear what he said. But Keith heard, and a glow of pride swelled his chest. It was the crowning climax of a scene that touched the boy with a sense of joy bordering on pain. "Beautiful" was a word used repeatedly by the grown-up people about him. He knew now that beauty was something that turned ordinary life into a pleasure more keen than could be had out of eating, or playing, or reading, or getting presents at Christmas even. To this wonderful thing his father had added a personal triumph in which the whole family participated. It silenced incipient criticism for a long time.
Nevertheless there was another side to that self-satisfied remark of his father, and it also stuck in his memory. Back of the proud words lay envy and deference, and a suggestion of hopeless separation. In Keith's mind it became tied up with his memories from Loth's party, and all of it formed a complex of thought from which he tried his best to get away—and most of the time successfully.
For lack of sufficient accommodations in the over-crowded old building, one class had to use the assembly hall. To make the many disadvantages more palatable, this location was presented as an honour reserved for the class shepherded by the old Rector himself. Of this "honour" Keith became a participant when the fall term opened.
There were no desks—only benches without backs. The rest of the school left with a sense of relief after using them only during the fifteen minutes of morning prayer. To sit on them hours at a stretch turned the day into torture before it was half done. The only way of resting was to bend far forward with humped back, and no sooner did the Rector discover a boy in that position than he descended on the sinner:
"Straight in the back, boy! What do you think you are—an old hag sorting rags?"
No attempt was made to arrange the boys according to merit. On the first day every one chose a seat to suit himself, and so Keith found himself number five without knowing how it had happened. Number four was a boy of his own size and age named George Murray, who seemed to be as friendless as was Keith.
Instead of one teacher, they had a dozen at least, few of whom gave instruction in more than a single subject. It smacked of university and made the boys feel much advanced. The curriculum showed an imposing array of new subjects—Latin, French, universal history, physics, chemistry, and so on. Their novelty caught and carried Keith for a good while.
Latin was still the most important study of all. It was taught by the Rector himself, who worshipped everything classic with a religious devotion and who maintained in so many words that a man's culture was measured by his mastery of the Roman tongue. In the lower grades it had been spoken of with bated breath. Keith had looked forward to the first lesson with trembling impatience. He plunged into the declination of mensa with the fervour of a convert. He translated the text-book's colomba est timida with a sense of performing a sacred rite. Days went by before he dared to admit to himself that his interest was waning,
Even then he went on studying without a thought of rebellion. The habit of application had become deeply rooted. The pride born out of his first easy successes still had urged him to master any subject offered. But there was a change in his manner of studying as well as in his general attitude toward the school. Until then he had been an acolyte in sacred precincts. Now he turned gradually into a time-server doing his duty out of vanity and a desire to remain a public school pupil. Until then he had never felt that he had to study. Now fear of the old Rector and of his father entered more and more as conscious motives.
He missed the kind guidance of Dally. The Rector never became the soul and guardian of the class in the manner of Dally. The other teachers came and went without other interest than to insure a decent showing in their respective subjects. All had favourites chosen from those pupils who showed most aptitude for mathematics, natural history or whatever it happened to be. No one was interested in the class as a whole, and no one cared for its individual members as human beings in the make. Within a short time Keith was simply drifting, although neither he nor those appointed to guide him were aware of it at the time.
Keith took a liking to George Murray from the start. During the first couple of days he looked at him frequently as if to invite acquaintance, but the other boy always appeared deeply attentive to the subject of the hour. During the pauses he withdrew into a corner as if to forestall possible advances. At the end of the second day Keith and Murray reached the stairway simultaneously and started for the street side by side. Murray's pale, aristocratic and very narrow face with unduly prominent teeth still bore a look of indifference, but his attitude had lost a little of its previous stiffness.
"Where do you live," Keith ventured with for him rare forwardness.
"On the Quay," replied Murray in a voice that neither encouraged nor discouraged.
"Where," asked Keith eagerly.
"Corner of St. John's Lane."
"That's my corner," cried Keith. "I live in the lane, and we have the same way home."
"All right," was Murray's only answer, which Keith accepted in the affirmative.
Little more was said until they reached the top of the hill above Carl Johan Square, when Keith explained that he always kept to the left along the shore of Lake Maelaren.
"I always take the other way," rejoined Murray, suiting his actions to his words.
"All right," said Keith in his turn, going along toward the saltwater side of the harbour as if it had been the route of his own choice. They stopped for a moment to watch the sloops in the fish market loaded almost to the point of foundering with live fish. Further out a number of large sailing vessels rode at anchor. Still further away, where the southern shore drew close to the point of the island with the turreted red fort, a big black steamer was seen slowly creeping toward its landing place at the Quay. For a moment Murray studied it intently, shading his eyes in sailor fashion to see better.
"That's one of our steamers," he said at last.
"Do you mean you own it," gasped Keith incredulously.
"The company does," explained Murray.
"The one of which my father is managing director."
"Are there many of them," Keith asked to be polite. It sounded too much like a fairy tale.
"Seven," replied Murray casually. "They are all painted black and sail on foreign ports."
"Did you ever travel on one," inquired Keith with something like awe in his voice.
"Yes," said the slim youngster by his side as if it had been the most natural thing in the world. "Many times, as far as the pilot station, with papa. And last summer he took me along on a real journey to England. That's where our family comes from, and we were gone three whole weeks."
"Were you scared," Keith asked almost in a whisper.
"No." Murray shook his head with quick assurance. "That is, not much. We had a storm in the North Sea coming back, but papa said it was nothing to be afraid of, and for a while I was too sick to care."
"Sick!" Keith echoed. "And were you not awfully scared?"
"No," Murray insisted, looking rather pleased. "Not much."
Keith was too overwhelmed to ask more questions just then. The rest of the way home was traversed in silence. At the corner of the lane they parted with a mutual nod. Then Keith bolted up the lane and up the three nights of stairs. Entering the kitchen breathlessly, he yelled out with his cap still on his head: "I walked home with Murray who lives at the corner and whose papa owns seven ships and who sits next to me in the class."
"Little boys should be civil," suggested Granny with a glance at the cap. "And they should also remember that equals make the best playmates, and that all is not gold that glistens."
"Oh, he's my equal," Keith declared triumphantly.
"With plenty to spare," retorted Granny. "But are you his?"
It made Keith walk home alone the next day, and as he shuffled along listlessly, the almost obliterated memory of Harald came back to him.
The attraction had been established, however—on one side at least—and it would not let itself be smothered. Nor did Keith make any strong effort in that direction. It was not his way. He found it as hard to abstain from what gave him pleasure for the moment as to bear whatever seemed unpleasant or painful.
Murray made no approaches of any kind, but he did not resist. His acceptance of Keith's friendship was purely passive, and there was always a limit to it. At first they simply walked home together from school. Of course, they sat side by side during the lessons, but Murray gave his whole attention to the teacher or to his book. If Keith tried to whisper to him, Murray merely frowned at him. During the pauses they were often together, chatting or playing, but it could also happen that Murray chose to mix with some group of fellow pupils in such a manner that Keith could not get near to him. Sometimes Keith would then also join them. More often he would hover on the outskirts in a state of utter misery.
Even when the school closed for the day, it depended entirely on Keith if they were to have company home. Murray never waited. If Keith was not in sight when he reached the street, he went right on. Several times Keith had to run several blocks to overtake his friend.
"Why couldn't you wait a minute for me," he asked when he had recovered his breath after one of those pursuits.
"Oh, that's so silly," was Murray's only reply, and a repetition of the question on two or three subsequent occasions brought no more satisfactory response. Keith did not press the matter beyond that point and uttered no protest at Murray's real or assumed indifference.
Until then Keith had always taken East Long Street on his way to school in the morning. Now he turned invariably down the lane to the Quay. On reaching the corner, he took a long look at the corner house where Murray lived. Two mornings he saw no one and walked on. The third morning Murray happened to appear just as Keith reached the corner. After that Keith waited for his friend, and they walked together to as well as from school. Having waited very long one morning and fearing that his friend had passed already, Keith ventured into the house, when he caught sight of Murray coming out of a door reached by a little spur of the main stairway.
"Is that where you live," asked Keith.
"That's the kitchen door," said Murray. "Our main entrance is in front on the landing above. It's quicker for me to get out this way in the morning, and I don't have to disturb anybody."
A few mornings later, Murray was late again, and Keith after long hesitation walked up to the kitchen door and knocked. A pleasant-faced serving girl opened.
"Oh, you are the little fellow who waits for George every morning," she said with a smile. "Come in and wait here. He'll be ready in a moment."
After that Keith went straight up to the kitchen every morning. It was a room as large as a hall, shiningly clean, and well furnished as a dining and living-room for the three women serving there. Keith became quite familiar with it, but he always remained by the door, and he always felt that he ought not to be there. Yet he could no more resist going there than he could stop breathing, it seemed.
That kitchen was the only part of Murray's home he ever saw. He never caught a glimpse even of his friend's mother, who evidently was a very exclusive lady. Two or three times he saw Murray on the street after school hours in company with a tall, portly and handsome gentleman, whom he took to be the father. Later his guess was confirmed, but Murray never showed any inclination to let his parents become aware of Keith's existence.
For a long while this did not matter to Keith. In fact, he was not aware of anything but his own devotion. Murray's willingness to accept it only when nothing else was in sight did not bother him. He had found some one to worship at last, and he gave himself to that feeling with an abandon that knew of no reserves and that asked no questions. He looked up to the other boy as, in ages long gone by, a faithful vassal used to look up to his liege lord. And it seemed only meet that such a superior being as Murray should bestow or withhold his favour in accordance with his own sweet pleasure.
Keith had just parted from his chum at the corner of the lane one afternoon, when he caught sight of Johan near the big back door of the house opposite the one where Murray lived.
"What are you doing," he said without much enthusiasm.
Johan beckoned mysteriously and would not say a word until he had got Keith into the shadow of the huge gateway leading to the paved yard in the rear of the house.
"Can't you come on," he cried impatiently at last "I don't want mumsey to see me."
When both were hidden from the kitchen window through which Fru Gustafsson used to keep a religiously preoccupied eye on the doings of her son, Johan pulled a cigarette from within his coat sleeve and a match from his pocket. Then he scratched the match on the seat of his pants and lit the cigarette with the air of a man who knows what is bliss. Keith watched him with feelings too confused for expression.
"What would your mamma say if she saw you," he asked at last, instinctively dropping his voice to a whisper.
"She'd tell popsey," Johan rejoined promptly, "and I'd get another licking. But it's worth it."
There was a long pause during which Keith watched his old playmate's unmistakable enjoyment with a mixture of consternation and admiration, of envy and resentment.
"I have got another," said Johan after a while. "Try it."
Keith shook his head. He was on the verge of saying that "mamma won't let me," but checked himself in time as he recalled the results of an earlier use of that too truthful explanation.
"Murray wouldn't smoke," he ventured after another pause.
"Him up there, you mean," inquired Johan with a gesture of his thumb toward the house across the lane, Of course, he wouldn't. He's a miss."
"He is not," Keith cried passionately.
"And he's a stiff, too," Johan went on without any particular display of feeling. "And you're a fool, that's all."
There was a coolness between them.
"I think mamma is waiting for me," remarked Keith as he started to walk off.
"Of course she is waiting for her baby," Johan retorted with a leer.
Keith stopped and thought. Murray would fight for a thing like that, he said to himself. Or would he? Without having reached a decision Keith made for his own house, trying to look as if Johan didn't exist.
"He has no real use for you, and you'll find it out," was Johan's parting shot.
Keith was suddenly struck with the coarseness of Johan's manners and speech. He was making comparisons in his mind, and as a result the image of Murray seemed more resplendent than ever.
"Did you ever try to smoke," he asked Murray next morning.
"No," was the disdainful reply. "I know papa wouldn't like it, and it's nasty anyhow."
"How do you know," wondered Keith.
"Because I know," rejoined Murray. It was a way he had, and it always settled the matter. A cold, tired look would appear on his face if Keith tried to press a subject after such an answer, and before that look Keith quailed.
His state was hopeless. He accepted as law whatever his friend said or did. And although their friendship, such as it was, lasted only two years, Keith did not take up smoking until he was in camp as a conscript at the age of twenty.
In school it was the same. And the fact that Murray attended to his studies with scrupulous exactness was probably one of the factors that helped Keith through the grade without any loss of standing as a scholar.
Like Loth, Murray had mildly artistic leanings, and because he liked to draw and to sing, Keith, too, had to join in those studies, although both were elective, and although the singing classes twice a week consumed one of the two precious lunch hours that otherwise could be used so profitably for play or study. Keith had neither aptitude nor interest for draftsmanship, being curiously set toward the written word. He would have liked to sing well, as he had noticed that boys having a good voice were always popular and received a lot of flattering attention. But his ear was so poor that for a while it looked as if he would not even be admitted to the singing practices. His persistence prevailed in the end, and when he and Murray stood side by side, using the same song-book while practicing some brave old student song, he felt as much happiness as ever fell to his share in those days.
They had common hours in gymnastics, too, but they were compulsory three times a week, and Murray took them as a duty rather than a pleasure. Keith them on the whole, and unlike most of the other boys, he preferred the slow routine of the setting-up exercises to the more athletic features. While he never consciously realized the cause of that preference at the time, it would not have been difficult for a fairly intelligent observer to discover it.
Keith was still one of the smallest boys in the school utterly lacking any physical superiority, although he was in excellent health and never had experienced a single one of the ailments that commonly dodge the steps of childhood. He could not shine in jumping or leaping or climbing, but in the drill his painstaking attention placed him on a par with everybody else. It was his one chance of feeling himself the physical equal of his schoolmates, and it was the only field of common endeavour outside the lessons where he was not made to feel his own inferiority.
The insufficiency of one room as a living place for three persons had long been evident. Keith was in his twelfth year, and he still slept on the chaiselongue opposite his father's and mother's bed. He had ceased to pretend that the corner between the window and his mother's bureau could possibly be considered a satisfactory "play-room." Then a tenant who had lived with them quite a while left, and the parlour became unexpectedly vacant. Keith revelled in the free use of it, and his mother talked seriously of not renting it again, but the father insisted that they could not afford to keep it for themselves.
Then Keith's mother had a bright idea. She inserted an advertisement offering a home and "as good as parental care" to a boy from the country for the school season. An answer was received, negotiations progressed favourably, and soon Albert Mendelius, the son of a minister, was installed in the parlour with understanding that his use of it was exclusive only at night. In the daytime it was common ground for both boys, and Keith did his studying in there, but he continued to sleep on the chaiselongue.
The boys got on very well together, and yet no real friendship sprang up between them. Albert, who attended a different school, had his own associates, and Keith could not take much of his mind off Murray. It made a great improvement in Keith's living conditions, however, and he hoped it would last.
When Albert went home to celebrate Christmas, Keith was asked to pay him a visit after the holidays. This invitation became still more attractive when Keith received a fine pair of skates for a Christmas present. He had never seen the country in winter, and the impression it made on him was a little startling. The sight of the dark pines against the white carpet of the snow filled him with a mystic longing so strong that it almost frightened him. When he and Albert put on their skates and stretched out at full speed across the lake that spread its floor of dark glass within a stone's throw of the vicarage, he had a sense of never having lived before. The spaciousness of the house and the pleasant evenings spent cracking nuts and eating apples in front of the blazing fire-place were also revelations that filled his mind with many new thoughts. Why was his own home not like this?
The boys went back to Stockholm together, but before they started, Keith learned that Albert was going elsewhere to live. An aunt of his had offered to take him in for the rest of the season.
"And, of course," said Albert's mother apologetically, "when you can be with your own kin, it is better you know."
Keith wondered a little. On his return home, his mother said indignantly that she supposed their humble home had not been found good enough. A few weeks later the parlour was rented in the old way to a gentle-looking young man with very pink cheeks who coughed a good deal.
And Keith once more found himself restricted to the living-room for all the time spent at home.
Keith had been home for lunch and was on the way back to the school. He was alone. Murray was in bed with some slight ailment.
It was in January, a cold but brilliant day. The streets were covered with deep snow. Everything that usually moved on wheels was now on runners. As runners make no noise and the sound of the hoofs was deadened by the snow, every horse carried a bell, and some of them had a whole little chime. The bright sunlight on the white snow and the tinkling of all those bells made a stimulating combination, and people hurried along with smiling faces, although they had to rub their noses and cheeks frequently to keep them from freezing.
Keith was never sensitive about his face, but his hands were buried deeply in his coat pockets. His schoolbooks were tied up in a leather thong and slung over his shoulder like a knapsack.
At the Sluice he stopped and looked long at the people skating merrily on the rinks down on the ice of the lake between the Corn Harbour and the railway bridge. A number of boys near his own age were among the rest having a good time. Many of the boys brought their skates to school and never went home for lunch, but just ate a couple of sandwiches in order to spend as much as possible of the noonday pause on the ice. Keith had asked permission to do the same, but the refusal had been peremptory. The fact was that he was granted little or no chance to use his new skates. Once in a while he got leave, after begging long and hard, to run over to the rinks at the New Bridge Harbour, in the North End, for a brief while in the late afternoon. Most of the time even that scant leave was denied him. To his mother's general disinclination to let him out of sight was added her dread that he might fall into the water and get drowned. He promised by everything sacred that he would not leave the rink, which she ought to know was perfectly safe, but her morbid fears would not listen to reason. More and more he was beginning to give up asking even. The disappointment of a refusal was too bitter to be borne often.
As he stood leaning against the bridge railings, his eyes strayed farther and farther along the surface of the lake, which lay frozen as far out as he could see. There were rinks on the other side of the railway bridge, too, and here and there he noticed isolated black figures gliding along the unswept spaces outside the rinks. Suddenly he caught sight of a large gathering of people very far out. They were moving slowly toward the shore, and evidently they were held together by some common purpose. He wondered what they could be doing out there, far beyond the last rink, but the distance was too great to give him any basis for speculation.
After a while he had to leave in order not to be late. He had almost reached the school when he was overtaken by a boy from the English section of his own grade, about whom he knew nothing but that his name was Bergman.
"Have you heard," cried Bergman when he was still several steps behind, although he and Keith had never exchanged a word before. Keith turned in surprise.
"Three boys were drowned skating during the lunch hours," continued Bergman breathlessly. "Two were in my class—Hill and Samson, you know. The third, Dahlin, was in your own class."
"Is Dahlin dead?" asked Keith blankly. The thing seemed impossible to him. He had been talking to Dahlin that very morning—a tall boy, slow, self-possessed, older than most of the other pupils, and advanced for his age in everything but studies.
"He is," said Bergman with emphasis. "And so are the other two. They are dragging for the bodies now."
So that was what I saw those people doing out there, Keith thought.
"Little Moses was with them," Bergman ran on. "The Jew, you know. We've always thought him a coward. And he nearly went down, too, trying to save them."
By that time they were separating at the door to Bergman's classroom. On entering his own class, Keith found it in a state of unexampled though subdued excitement. The boys were gathered in groups which constantly shifted membership. Every one spoke in a whisper. Reports and rumours of the most fantastic kind passed from group to group, giving rise to fierce discussions. Six boys had been drowned instead of three, some one asserted. In another minute they heard that no one had been lost. Most credence was given to a circumstantial report of the miraculous recovery of Dahlin after he had been fully fifteen minutes under water. His big sealskin cap, they said, had become stuck over his face as he went under, so that the water could not choke him.
Keith was among the most excited for a while, running eagerly from group to group and telling what he had heard from Bergman, who evidently had the very latest news. Soon, however, his mood changed, and he retired quickly to his own seat. There he sat by himself, his elbows on his knees and his face resting in his hands. A stupor had descended on his mind. The whole thing seemed so incredible. He could not grasp it. Those boys, who had been right among them only a few hours ago, would never appear again. There would be a funeral, and then they would never be heard of again. Tears broke into his eyes. He choked with a vague sense of pity. Samson, he knew, was the only son of a poor widow. Hill's mother was very sick, some one had said. And Dahlin....
Keith instinctively raised his head to look at the place which Dahlin had occupied that very morning. What did it mean ...?
At that moment the Rector entered, long overdue to give them an hour in Latin—an hour of which a goodly part already was gone. The boys dropped into their seats. A murmur of expectation passed through the class. Every eye was on the Rector's face which seemed to twitch in a peculiar fashion.
"The school has suffered a terrible loss," he said at last, his voice sounding very hoarse. "There is only one thing we can do—work! Will primus please begin translating from the top of the twenty-second page, where we left off yesterday."
The boys stared at him, but no one dared to speak. They knew there was no escape, and they tried to fix their attention on the books. Keith saw before him a blurred page full of dancing letters. Primus stumbled and blundered. He was followed by secundus and tertius. Keith had recovered a little by that time, and he knew they were making mistakes that ordinarily would have called forth a storm of reproof from the Rector. Now he paid no attention, but merely repeated:
"Go on—go on!"
At last the lesson came to an end, and then they were dismissed for the day.
On his way home Keith's thoughts ran in a futile circle around the day's event. If they had never left the rink ... if they had been saved ... if the story about Dahlin could have been true....
Always his thoughts returned to the same point: the strangeness of the fact that those boys would never appear again. At no moment, however, did it occur to him that the same thing might have happened to himself—or might happen some time in the future. He was Keith Wellander, to whom such things never happened.
He was nearly home when he suddenly stopped in the middle of East Long Street and said to himself:
"Now I suppose I'll never get leave to go skating again."
Among other new duties that accompanied Keith's entrance into the fourth grade was church-going. Until then he had known little about public worship beyond what he observed during two or three attendances of Yule Matins, that was almost like going to a party. The rule of the school was that all pupils in the higher grades who not going to church with their parents elsewhere must attend services with their respective classes every other Sunday at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene.
Judging by the number of boys who turned up, the percentage of church-goers among the parents must have been very small. Keith's father went to communion once a year. That was all. The mother went a little oftener, but as a rule something else turned up about the time she ought to start, and so she stayed home and read a chapter in some Lutheran postil instead. Keith thought little of that kind of books. He had tried them and found them dull beyond endurance.
"Do you really like reading that stuff," he said to his mother one Sunday.
"Keith!" she protested sternly. Then she continued more mildly: "It is not a question of like or dislike, my boy, but of saving your soul by humbling it before the Lord."
"Can you do that by reading," asked Keith innocently.
"N-no ... not exactly," his mother hesitated. But you can.... Oh, I know I ought to be in church instead of sitting here, but I am such a weak vessel, and I am sure that the Lord will understand and forgive me."
"Well, then you don't need to worry, mamma," said Keith consolingly, stirred as always by the appearance of an emotional note in her voice.
"We should always worry," she rejoined very gently, "because we are all sinners and we have a chance only by His mercy. But I don't believe in a hell, whatever they say, and I don't want you, Keith, to pay any attention to anything of that kind they may teach you."
"But why do they teach it then," asked Keith, his logic alert.
"Because ... it's a long story, and you will understand it some day. Now I want to finish my chapter, or I won't be able to do so before dinner is ready."
Keith would have liked to ask more, but what concerned him was the apparent contradiction in his mother's words rather than the subject of religion itself. His main impression of religion so far was that it was something very tedious to which grown-up people submitted for some mysterious reason never really revealed to children. And this impression was abundantly confirmed by his subsequent experiences in the prudishly ugly precincts of St. Mary Magdalene.
Seats were reserved in one of the side galleries for the pupils from Old Mary. Two teachers sat in one of the front pews, so that they could look down into the church. Aspiring youngsters who wanted to make sure of good marks were apt to look upon the same pews with special favour. The rest of the boys wanted to sit as far back as possible, where they could whisper, and show each other pictures, and eat candy without too much danger of being discovered. These pursuits brought no relief to Keith, partly because he possessed neither pictures nor candy, being always very shy of pocket money, and partly because either fear or some sort of pride made him draw back from engaging in any sort of mischief behind the teacher's back.
The hymn singing was not without a certain enjoyment. The slowness of the tempo made it possible for Keith to keep in tune by leaning very close to the boy sitting next to him. Even the reading of the gospels and other recurring features of the service could be borne. But when the sermon began, Keith fell into sheer agony. The other boys seemed capable of letting the words of the preacher drop off them as water drops off the oily feathers of a water-fowl. But one of Keith's characteristics was that he had to listen to anything said loudly enough in his presence. For him there was no escape. Through an endless hour, that sometimes would verge on the five quarters, he had to sit there and take in every word of a long-winded, moralistic discourse dealing in forbidding terms with things that left his brain as untouched as if they had been uttered in a strange tongue. He had a sense of warnings and threats that seemed to connect with what his mother had asked him not to heed. He was told to believe, but he could not make out what it was he should believe—unless it was the Small Catechism, and that had always left his mind a perfect blank although he knew it by heart from the first page to the last.
When at last the ordeal was over, he rushed away with a sense of relief that was marred by the thought of the same thing happening two weeks later. It was the only feature of his schooling that left behind an actual sense of grievance which the passing years could not mollify.
A little before commencement the whole school was stirred by important news. A reorganization of the entire school system was in progress, and one result of it was the merger of the old gymnasium or high school on Knight's Island with Old Mary and the expansion of the latter to nine grades under the new name of St. Mary's Higher Latin School. A building across the street had already been acquired for the four new grades, and a new rector of higher rank was to take charge in the fall.
"It means that we'll stay right here until we go to the university," one of Keith's classmates explained in a tone implying that it must make quite a difference to their lives. Then he asked suddenly: "You'll go on to the university, Wellander, won't you—you with your brilliant mind?"
Keith looked at him in dumb astonishment. In spite of his two prizes, it was so strange to be called brilliant. And then the question of going to the university had been raised. Until then he had really never given a thought to it. And the question of cost leaped into his mind. He was beginning to learn at last that money was needed for a number of things you liked to do. Would it cost much, and could his father afford to pay that much, and, most important of all, would his father consent to pay it? Those were novel questions—and as he did so often when faced by something unpleasant or disturbing, so, now again, he pushed them aside, fled from them, refused to have anything to do with them. There were still five grades between him and that threateningly attractive possibility, the student's white cap.
"I don't know," he said at last, being a truthful fool in most matters, "I have not asked papa yet."
And there was a smile on the other boy's face which Keith disliked without guessing the significance of it.
Commencement brought him a prize again—a German dictionary just like the one Krass got when Keith carried off the highest prize in school after thinking himself ignominiously passed by. Of course, a prize was a prize, but—and he thought his father looked rather disappointed when he heard of it.
However, George Murray also received a book, and It was no better than Keith's, although Murray professed to see a great difference between a German Dictionary and a Latin Classic.
Murray was going off with his family to their private summer residence in the archipelago outside of Stockholm and Keith gathered that it must be a very magnificent place. The Wellanders didn't go to the country at all. Keith's mother had a very bad period again, full of worry and depression. The summer dragged along joylessly, and Keith had to fall back on Johan's company in so far as he could obtain it. But Johan was getting very independent. He had plenty of other acquaintances, and what Keith saw of them made him deem it wiser not to mention them at all to his mother. He was gradually learning discretion of a kind.
He read a good deal, and he was beginning to make unauthorized visits to his father's bookcase in the parlour. There he had discovered certain volumes by one Jules Verne, and if he could only have plunged freely into these, the summer might have proved quite bearable. One day when he could not get at the books, and his mood was more than usually fretful, and his mother seemed at her lowest, she suddenly turned on him and said in a strangely bitter tone:
"All I have to go through now is your fault, Keith."
"Why," he asked dumbly, staring at her.
"Because when you came into the world you hurt me so much that I have never been well since."
"How," he demanded, and as he spoke an idea flashed through his mind that his mother might not be knowing what she said. Just how such a thing could happen was still a mystery to him, but what she said sounded so absurdly impossible.
At that moment her mood suddenly changed.
"There is one thing I have never told you. But for my being made so sick when you were born, you would have had a little brother, and you would not have been so lonesome, and perhaps everything would have been better. But he was born dead. And now I have no one but you, and I shall have no one else, and you are everything to me, and you must love me very much and never leave me."
Her arms were about him, and she was crying. And soon both felt better. But Keith had heard things he could not forget. And there was food in them for a summer's thought.
Form the very start the fifth grade was a disappointment. Once Keith, like all the rest of the smaller boys, had looked up to it with awe-stricken yearnings as to a peak that only a few fortunate few could hope to climb. It was then the top of the school. Its pupils were revered seniors—olympians tarrying momentarily among ordinary mortals before they took flight for the exalted regions where they really belonged. All this had been changed by the reorganization. The fifth grade now was merely a continuation of the fourth and a stepping stone to the sixth. And Keith's class was the first one to miss the honours of which successive generations had dreamed as far back as the school had existed. It was a thing no one had considered when the great news was passed around in the spring. Now it was brought home to those most nearly concerned with that poignancy of realization of which only youth is capable. It gave to the whole class a peculiar atmosphere as if it had been marked in advance for defeat. The teachers seemed to feel it, too, and especially the old Rector, who, after so many years of supreme command, suddenly found himself reduced to a subordinate position.
Keith felt robbed like the rest. And like them, he felt that the instruction had become a mere humdrum routine enabling a certain number of boys to get the proper marks at the end of a certain number of months. What had lured him on as an adventure had turned into a tedious grind. And more and more he drifted back into a dream world of his own out of which he had been dragged by Dally's good-humoured jibes. And yet, what could he expect? Had not Dally even, his best friend in the whole school, cheated him of the honour he had rightfully earned—an honour that, once lost, could never be recovered?
The subjects, on the whole, were the same as in the previous grade. You simply went further into them—that was all. The teachers were the same, and the relationships once established between them and the boys remained the same, for good or bad. Every one knew what to expect, on both sides, and no one quite escaped from the resulting sense of staleness.
The old Rector went on cramming the class with Latin grammar. He had a way of making some poor stumbler conjugate the same verb fifteen to twenty times in succession, so that the correct sequence might never again escape his memory. And as the red-faced sinner stammered out the tenses, the Rector would make a tube of his left hand into which he poked his right thumb. This gesture was always accompanied by the same mocking remark:
"That's the way to stuff sausages!"
His language grew more picturesque and unrestrained every day. He belonged distinctly to an older and less circumspect generation, and he was a good deal of an eccentric besides. His heart was of gold, and no one ever took the pedagogue's mission more seriously, but whatever he possessed of refinement went into his appreciation of the language that was his life's passion. When he spoke Swedish, he called a spade a spade in a manner that gave Keith shock after shock. Always rather given to a certain aristocratic exclusiveness in his speech, Keith had through his association with Murray become something of a prude in this respect. He could still descend to obscenities when his "manliness" had to be proved, but vulgarity repelled him irresistibly.
Until then he had never dreamt of questioning any authority. Even at this juncture he obeyed directions explicity and maintained on the whole his reputation as a good pupil. But a tendency to criticism was growing within him, and from the men who taught him it began gradually to pass to the subjects taught. There came a day when the truth could no longer be evaded: he was bored most of the time. And the result was that he grew more and more listless.
If asked, Keith could not have told what was wrong. In fact, it is not at all certain that he would have admitted that anything was wrong. No rebellious stirrings had yet found tangible form within him.
He had to learn long lists of foreign kings that had been dead for ages. He was even expected to know when each king ascended his throne and left it. He had to learn mathematic formulas and grammatic rules. And on the heels of each rule hung at least a dozen exceptions. It was impossible to tell which were of greater importance, the rules or the exceptions. He had also to learn the exact number of pistils and stamens possessed by every flower likely to be found in the vicinity of the Swedish capital. The same thing happened in every subject embraced by the curriculum. There was no end to it. Yet he did not rebel. Every one knew that there was no other way of teaching things, so what was the use of rebelling?
His memory was good, although tricky. In a case of aroused interest he could absorb an astonishing number of dates, or figures, or lines of poetry, at first glance or hearing. But he could also drop them as if he had never heard of them the moment his interest was gone. And they always seemed to drop out of sight when he left school and returned home. That word interest seemed to give the key to the situation. And all sorts of vague and queer and inexplicable things within himself determined whether he was to be interested or not. It was not a question of choice or will. He was or was not.
Facts as facts did not interest him at all. Even things as things did not necessarily, though they might. The class made excursions into the fields and woods framing the capital, and under the guidance of their teacher of botany they observed and analysed all sorts of living flowers. Keith was delighted to get out and charmed with the flowers, but the facts about them pointed out by the teacher left him profoundly unmoved. They had exciting little experiments in chemistry, and Keith effervesced with the rest, but nothing of what he saw brought him more than a momentary diversion.
All those things left his own real life untouched. And yet he was not merely looking for fairy tales and adventures. His mind already was hungry for something else. He found it often in the books he read at home, many of which had been borrowed from the school library. Not facts—but how different sorts of facts hung together, so to speak. The school ought to tell him, and sometimes he had an uneasy feeling that the teachers were trying to tell him this very thing. But they failed somehow, and the farther he advanced, the more exasperating that failure became.
He was in his thirteenth year, and he was no longer certain that he cared to study. But reading was still his dominant passion—reading and George Murray.
Relations with Murray had been resumed on the old basis. Day after day they walked to and from school together, and hardly ever was their friendship disturbed by a misunderstanding. In school, too, they spent a good deal of time in each other's company, and they continued to sit side by side. Being so much seen together, they gradually came to be known as "the twins," which pleased Keith tremendously. But once they had parted for the day at the corner of the Quay and the lane, there was no more communication between them. And no matter what Keith said or did, he could never persuade his friend to break that rule.
Then Murray's birthday came along, and he told Keith quite casually that his mother had promised to let him have a party and invite five of his schoolmates.
"Will you ask me," Keith blurted out, his eyes shining with eagerness.
"I don't know," said Murray guardedly.
"But I am your best friend in school," Keith protested.
"It depends on mamma," Murray explained, and his voice lacked a little of its customary complacency.
"Of course, I should like to have you," he added after a pause, but his words carried no conviction.
Keith was too hard hit to say a word.
A couple of days later, on their way home from school, Murray said unexpectedly that he and his mother had looked over the school catalogue the night before, and that his mother had picked the five boys whom he was to invite. And he started to name them. The first name was that of Brockert, a boy in their own class.
"But I have never seen you speak to him," Keith interrupted him.
"He is a very fine boy and comes of excellent family," Murray retorted. Then he enumerated the other four. Only one of them besides Brockert belonged to their own class.
Little as Keith knew about most of the boys in school, he realized that all the prospective guests had three things in common: they were good scholars, poor, and yet of good families. One had a von in front of his name. Brockert, too, had some sort of claim to nobility, although it was said that his mother earned a living for herself and him by working as a seamstress and the boy was known to pay for his own tuition by tutoring backward sons of rich families in the lower grades.
Keith tried to look unconcerned. Fortunately they were near home, and soon he could get away by himself. It has to be admitted that he cried. And in the end he told his mother, who tried to make him promise never to speak to Murray again.
"But we're side partners in the class," said Keith, still sobbing.
There was a certain stiffness between him and Murray during the next few days, but they kept company to and from school as usual. Not until the morning after the party did it occur to Keith that his pride demanded some kind of demonstration.