That morning he meant to keep away from his friend. He stayed at home longer than usual on purpose. Finally he grew afraid of being late and tumbled pell-mell downstairs, intent on turning to his old route by way of East Long Street. But no sooner had he reached the lane than his legs seemed to be moving regardless of his will, and they took the familiar turn toward the Quay. At that moment he caught sight of Murray crossing the mouth of the lane without looking either right or left. Something like a shiver passed through Keith's body, but his legs were still in command, and they began to run. A minute later he was walking beside Murray as he had done day after day for the better part of three terms.
At first they did not speak. Then Murray began to tell about the party of the night before as if it had been the most natural thing in the world to do so. He told what they had eaten and what they had played and what impression the boys had made on his mother. Keith listened without a word.
The worst fight he had ever fought with himself was raging within him, and while he heard every word that Murray uttered, they seemed to pass him by as if spoken to some other person. His heart was beating very hard, and he breathed uneasily. An unfamiliar, impersonal voice within himself was telling him that he must either give Murray a good licking then and there or run away. Nasty, ugly, hateful words seemed to crowd to his lips with an all but irresistible demand for utterance.
Yet he walked on as before, listening to Murray without a word of comment. At last, when they were near the school entrance, he stopped suddenly and said:
"Did you ever speak to your mother of me?"
"I did," replied Murray calmly. "And she said that while she had no objection to our keeping company, she did not think your father's position was such that we could ask you home."
A strange thing happened to Keith at that moment. It seemed to him that everything had been satisfactorily explained, and that there was no reason why he should be angry with Murray or offended at his friend's parents. He had simply been made to suffer for something that had nothing to do with his own person.
"Hey, twins," a classmate yelled at them just then.
"I suppose you couldn't help it," Keith said weakly to Murray.
"I really should have liked to have you," Murray answered, and it made Keith feel as if he had been more than compensated for his previous sufferings.
After that their friendship continued outwardly as before, but there was a difference. A tendency to nag and find fault appeared on both sides, and on several occasions they broke into actual quarrels. These always ended in reconcilations, but the old serenity had gone from their companionship, and each new misunderstanding left Keith a little more unhappy.
As a result of the changed relationship between himself and the friend he idealized, Keith began once more to look up Johan. He did it rather furtively, as if he had known that he was engaged in something unworthy of himself. There was an additional reason for this return to an association long spurned, and it had something to do with his manner of going about it.
What his mother had told him during the summer was still fermenting in his mind, but no amount of brooding over it would produce any results. It was like trying to raise oneself by pulling at one's own bootstraps. He must turn to some one else for the information that alone could solve the mystery. Murray was out of the question. Keith had never exchanged a word with him about the subject that was taking more and more of his attention. He knew what Murray would say if such a matter were broached:
"I don't think my papa would like me to talk of it, and it's rather nasty anyhow."
No, Johan was the person to seek for knowledge of this kind. He was now smoking all the time when not under the eye of his mother. While Keith almost had stood still physically, Johan had forged ahead. There was no denying that he was coarse and dull and awkward, but there was a shrewd gleam in his somewhat bleary eyes, and from time to time he threw out dark hints about enjoyments and experiences that little boys clinging to their mother's skirts could never master.
It became a sort of game between them—a game that pleased Johan and drove Keith to exasperation. It was a game of hide-and-seek. And the most remarkable feature of it was that, although Keith was dying to know, he found it impossible to ask any direct questions. His pose was that he didn't care, and Johan's counter-pose was that he didn't know what Keith was driving at.
Little by little, however, Keith extracted various stories about those new friends of Johan's, who lived in one of the neighbouring lanes and who had a big vacant attic at their disposal. There quite a number of boys gathered daily, and Johan did his best to impress Keith with the desperate character of their doings. Girls came to that meeting-place, too. It was the principal thing, according to Johan—the fact that made those exploits so deliriously reprehensible. One day Johan was in an unusually communicative mood.
"Yesterday," he related with great gusto, "Nils got hold of Ellen and kissed her. And then they crawled into a big empty box when they thought we didn't see them. And there they stayed ever so long. But Gustaf crawled up behind the box and peeped. And he saw what they did, and then he told us."
"What did they do," asked Keith tensely, forgetting his usual reserve.
"Oh, you know," replied Johan teasingly.
"I don't," said Keith stoutly, realizing that it was a dreadful admission of inferiority. "And I want you to tell me."
For a moment Johan hesitated. Then he shot at Keith a single word—a verb—that Keith had heard in the lane and among the longshoremen on the Quay. He knew that it was bad—the worst one of its kind. He knew also in a vague sort of way that it touched the very heart of the mystery he was trying to solve. And yet it left him just as ignorant as before.
The bald use of that word by Johan stunned him for a moment. Then his hot thirst for light brushed all other considerations aside, and he said almost pleadingly: "Can't you tell me all about it?"
"Oh, everybody knows," said Johan, and his eyes began to wander shiftily as they always did when he found himself cornered.
"You don't know yourself," Keith taunted him, suddenly grown wise beyond his ordinary measure.
"Yes, I do," insisted Johan.
"Then tell—or I won't believe you."
"They did what your papa and mamma do nights," Johan shot back.
There was a long pause.
"They don't do anything," Keith said at last almost in a whisper, "except talk."
"You bet they do," asserted Johan, sure now of having triumphed.
And Keith went home without asking any more questions.
A queer restlessness seized him and left him no peace. He swung abruptly from one extreme mood to another—from mad elation to paralyzing depression. He had a baffling sense of things happening within himself that were equally beyond control and explanation. He grew tired of sitting on those plain benches at school, with no support for the back, and still more tired of the Rector's incessant "sit up straight, boy." Sometimes when he read at home, he could not keep his eyes fixed on the book because his thoughts insisted on straying into all sorts of irrelevant fields. But no matter in what direction they started, circuitously they always found their way into the field of main preoccupation.
Although shocked at the time by what Johan had told him, it did not remain actively in his memory. On a few occasions he woke up during the night with an impression of having heard his mother call his father's name. When he raised his head from the pillow to listen, a breathless stillness prevailed in the room. Soon he went back to sleep, and afterwards he thought no more about it. Yet the very act of listening seemed to inflame his mind in some way.
The game learned back of the big rock had never become quite forgotten. Yet it had never meant very much to him, and during his association with Murray he had thought less and less of it. Now it took new hold of him, in a much more imperative way, as if it had got a new meaning and a new lure. And it seemed to have some elusive but highly significant connection with the mystery that always puzzled and fretted his curiosity.
Once more he pressed Johan for an explanation of that reference to Keith's parents.
"That's the way children are made," Johan finally announced with a mien of having transmitted the ultimate wisdom of the ages.
Keith merely stared at him. That answer did not interest him at all. Of course, he had long guessed that the arrival of children was a part of the mystery, but it was a part that had ceased to concern him. What he wished to know, must know, related to himself exclusively. But in this respect there was nothing more to be had out of Johan.
At school he began to join a group of boys who always gathered in a corner of the assembly hall during the pauses instead of mixing with the mob in the schoolyard. The centre of that group was Swensson, a handsome young chap of more advanced age than the others who had spent two years in most of the grades. He was always behind in his studies, but he seemed to know more of life than all the rest put together. A large part of the time he was telling stories—always about girls—or relating adventures—always with girls. Keith found the stories amusing, but as a rule he failed to grasp their point. And yet they added fuel to the flame that was burning more and more hotly within him.
His mother had been watching him intently for some time, and after a while she began to ask questions. These were guarded almost to unintelligibility, and yet Keith guessed that they referred to his own secret—the game learned back of the big rock. And so that game grew still more enticing. Even then, however, it did not seem to matter very much except in so far as it was the one thing that brought him a slight relief from the consuming restlessness of body and mind.
His mother's questions were followed by long talks, sometimes taking the form of warnings, but more often turning into passionate pleas. And gradually he gathered that the game he had been playing so innocently must be both sinful and dangerous. He tried as hard as he could to get to the root of his mother's hints, and he wanted to ask all sorts of questions. But in the end the meaning of her words seemed to dissolve into mist, and when he tried to question her directly, it was as if a solid wall had suddenly risen between them, so that neither one could hear what the other one said.
His father, too, began to ask questions, evidently urged on by the mother. He spoke sternly, but not unkindly, when he asked if Keith had been doing anything he ought not to do. And naturally enough Keith answered emphatically no.
In this way the mystery came closer and closer to him, and became more and more urgent. His mother's futile efforts at communicating what apparently rested heavily on her heart made him ill at ease, but he remained unconscious of any guilt or fear. A conflict of serious aspect and proportions was undoubtedly taking shape within him, but so far it was mainly concerned with the school and his friendship for Murray and a general sense of dissatisfaction with the life he was leading. It was above all a sense of things missed.
Then he happened one afternoon, when his mother was out, to be delving with more than customary audacity among the books in his father's book case, which become more accessible through the death of their gentle-looking tenant a short while before.
The cough of Herr Stangenberg had been growing worse and worse all through the winter. He had to take to the bed more and more frequently. There had been a terrible change in his appearance. Only the eyes and his temper remained the same. He was always cheerful and hopeful. So he remained when he had to stay in bed entirely and a doctor began to pay him daily visits. Keith's mother did everything in her power to be of help, and it seemed to put her own troubles and worries more in the background.
"Consumption" was a word the parents often used in discussing the case of poor Herr Stangenberg, and Keith gathered that it was something dreadful and merciless, from which escape was impossible. His attitude toward the whole matter was peculiar. He listened to what his parents talked, but always in a spirit of utter indifference, as if what they said could have no possible bearing on his own life.
One evening the servant girl—her name was Hilda at the time—brought word that Herr Stangenberg wanted very badly to see Fru Wellander for a few minutes.
"I think he knows at last that the end is near," Keith's mother said as she rose to go into the parlour. "What am I going to say if he asks me?"
"Nothing," replied the father quietly. "Leave that to the doctor."
On her return, the mother sank down in her chair and began to grope for a handkerchief. Keith saw that her eyes were lustrous with tears.
"What did he want?" asked the father with unusual anxiety.
"Well, if you tried for a month, you couldn't guess it," the mother said, and as she spoke, a smile broke through her tears. "It is so sad and so funny that.... He wants me to send for his tailor to measure him for a new spring suit."
"Has he no idea ...?" The father checked himself with a glance at Keith.
"I know what you mean," said Keith calmly. Both parents looked at him in surprise, but neither comment nor rebuke ensued.
"No," the mother went on after a while, "he says that he knows he will be well and back at his office in two weeks. He actually laughed when I tried to say something about his being very ill. It brought on his cough again, and for a moment I thought he would die then and there. But when the attack was over, he asked me if I couldn't hear that the cough was much better. What do you think I ought to do?"
"Nothing," the father replied once more.
Keith was ready to start for school next morning when he heard Hilda utter a startled cry in the parlour.
"Fru Wellander! Fru Wellander!" she called.
Before the mother had a chance to move, the frightened face of the girl appeared in the parlour door, and she whispered as if afraid of waking some one out of sleep:
"He is dead."
Both women hurried into the parlour. Keith stood irresolute for a moment. Then he made for the kitchen door and ran downstairs at top speed. He was afraid of missing Murray.
All during that day a thought would bother his brain like a buzzing fly: how peculiar that a man could want to order a new suit of clothes a few hours before he died. There was something irrational about it that stumped him. For a moment he thought of speaking to Murray about it, but it was as if some one had put a hand firmly over his mouth every time he tried to do so.
The funeral took place in a couple of days. A distant relative had turned up, very apologetic and eager to explain that his dead cousin had failed to let any one know that he was sick even. This young man, the minister, and Keith's parents were the only mourners. A single carriage sufficed.
Keith never went into the parlour during those days. When everything was nearly ready, the mother asked him if he cared to go in and have a last look at poor Herr Stangenberg before the lid was put on the coffin. Keith merely shook his head.
"You had better go," Granny called from the kitchen. "I never saw him better-looking while he was alive."
"I won't," Keith yelled back with an amount of irritation that seemed quite out of proportion to its cause. The mother gave him an uneasy glance but left the room without saying anything at the time.
As far as the boy was concerned, the incident was closed. He had never permitted it to take a real hold of his mind, and he resented anybody's attempt to bring it closer to him. Death had stopped within his own threshold, and he simply looked in the opposite direction. This attitude sprang mainly from some inner resistance so stubborn that it would not even permit itself to be discussed. In addition, his mind was engrossed with other things, and the principal significance it attached to the passing of a human life at such close quarters was the hope it held out that the parlour might remain vacant.
"Were you afraid to look," the mother asked Keith on her return with the father from the cemetery.
"No, I just didn't want to," the boy replied emphatically.
"Why," the mother asked, studying his face with the peculiar searching glance that sometimes provoked him and sometimes filled him with a desire to bury his head in her lap and weep.
"Why should I," Keith rejoined. "He was dead!"
No sooner had the apologetic young man removed the effects of his departed relative than Keith wanted to take full possession of the parlour. His mother checked his eagerness with the explanation that they might still want to rent it. In the meantime he could use it freely, but he must remove all his playthings when he was through for the day.
"Why can't I sleep on the big sofa in there," he asked in a tone that he vainly tried to make ingratiating.
"Not yet," said his mother evasively. "You had better stay in here, I think."
Once more the sense of being watched took hold of him unpleasantly, filling him with a mixture of fear and resentment. And his wonder why they seemed to suspect him added to the mystery with which his mind was wrestling so hopelessly.
The constant access to the parlour was a great change for the better, however, and one of the first uses he made of it was to investigate his father's little library with a thoroughness that until then had been out of the question. It was a queer collection, embracing every form of literature from philosophy to fiction. This catholicity did not mirror the father's taste but resulted from his manner of acquiring the books. Before obtaining the position he now held in the bank, he worked for a while in the office of one of the principal book printing establishments at Stockholm. There he formed acquaintances which later enabled him to get one unbound set of sheets of every book issued from that press. These he sent to a binder who put them into simple paper covers for a few oere per volume. They always arrived in a large package just before Christmas, and one of the thorns in Keith's flesh was the care with which his father kept all those new treasures hidden until the holiday season was past. Then the books that had not been handed on to friends or relations as Christmas presents were given a permanent place on the shelves of the book case. All of them, however, lacked printed covers and illustrations.
The young man whom every one spoke of as "poor dear Herr Stangenberg" had not been dead a week, when Keith one afternoon on his return from school found himself alone in the house with Granny. His mother had gone to call on some friends, and the father would not come home from the bank for several hours. Even the servant girl was away, which was a fact that not immaterially contributed to Keith's sense of security. Granny need not be taken into account.
A long cherished opportunity had arrived at last, and he made straight for the book case. It was locked, but he knew where to find the key. Its hiding-place had constituted one of those little domestic problems that add zest to an uneventful existence. There was also an injunction of long standing against any meddling with the case without permission, but that had been a dead letter for some time. When books were concerned, Keith's customary respect for authority ceased to be an obstacle to his desires.
He explored with no special object in mind. He wanted new reading matter, and his curiosity was piqued by a number of books with blank backs that gave no clue to their contents. Two huge, fat volumes on the bottom shelf had already attracted his attention, and they were the first he pulled out. Their title brought instantaneous disappointment—"The Philosophy of the Unconscious," by Edouard von Hartmann. He prepared scornfully to put them back, when, through the big gap left by their withdrawal, he became aware that the space back of the front row was packed with smaller books and pamphlets. This discovery surprised him for a moment, but what he saw in there looked rather uninteresting. Nevertheless he reached in and pulled out a small green pamphlet that happened to be nearest at hand. Idly he glanced at the legend printed on the front cover:
"Amor and Hymen. A guide for married and unmarried persons of both sexes."
The words carried no special meaning to his mind, and in the same indifferent manner he turned a few pages until his eyes fell on a full-page illustration.
After that he read no other book for days.
He read as he had never read before in his brief span of life—as, perhaps, he would never read again, no matter how wide a stretch of life that span might ultimately encompass.
He read of the anatomical differences between men and women. He read about the mechanism of love. He read about the mysteries of procreation. All of it was startlingly new to him, and yet he read with a sense of always having known it. He read with absolute acceptance, without a possibility of doubt.
It seemed a genuine revelation that must render all future questioning futile. And yet he seemed to know no more when he had finished than he knew before he started. It remained outside of himself, a structure of air, a series of shadowgraphs, and the craving within him burned as passionately as ever.
From now on he could grasp the points of the stories told by the boys at school, and he would know what Johan was hinting at in his boast about the secret doings of that attic. But of the reality of the thing he knew as little as before. In fact, the principal lesson brought home by his reading was that here he found himself in the presence of something that could not be learned out of books.
To begin with he did not go beyond the first part of the book. This he read over and over again. When at last he was sated with what that part had to give, a subtle chemical change had taken place in his mental make-up, one might say. It was not caused by any facts conveyed by the book. These seemed quite natural to him, and in themselves they would have had no more power over him than the information about flowers of various kinds imparted by the teacher of botany. It was the tone used that affected him in a manner reminding him of the Swedish Punch of which he had tested a few drops now and then. In every line there was a mixture of shamefaced apology and veiled desire that sent all the blood in his body rushing toward his head until the walls of the room about him reeled. Every inch of him was on fire, and in that flame body and soul were consumed together.
The sum and substance of it was that he had become conscious of that multitudinous impulse we call sex, and that from a vague, restless yearning this impulse suddenly had developed into an appetite as imperative as any hunger for food.
Finally he went on to the remaining chapters of the book, always with that double sense of knowing it all before and of not quite grasping what he read.
Pages were consumed before he realized with a shock more intense than any one previously experienced, that the book was speaking of the game he learned to play back of the big rock.
Again it was not what the book told that seemed to matter, but the tone in which it spoke. And while before that tone had sent the blood to his head, it now drew every drop of it back to his heart until he shivered and shook with a misery so acute that another moment's endurance of it seemed unthinkable.
At that instant fear was born within him. Until then it had been no more real to him than were now the experiences described in the first part of the book. He had instinctively shrunk from things that he knew or believed to be painful, from the shock of a blow to the sting of a harsh word. He had suffered discomforting anticipation of rebukes and restrictions. But he had never before stood face to face with that stark unreasoning terror which gathers its chief power from the intangible character of the danger it heralds.
He learned that physically and spiritually he had courted death, and what is worse than death. And suddenly the thought of that gentle-faced, sweet-tempered young man in the parlour leaped into his memory. But the image it brought him was not that of a human form stretched stiffly within the black boards of a coffin. What he saw and what froze him with horror was the hollow temples and sallow cheeks and drooping jaws and bent back and trembling limbs of the human wreck that was still counted a living man.
Worse than that image, however, and worse than any thought of punishment by powers not within his actual ken, was the book's damning imputation of shame incurred, of unworthiness proved, of inferiority so deep that no words could adequately picture it.
All that was most himself wanted to rise in wild rebellion against conclusions that found no support in anything he had actually experienced so far. He wanted to refuse belief. He sought for escapes as if the fulfilment of the doom pronounced by the book had been a matter of minutes. But there was the book, and to back it suddenly appeared a line of experiences out of his own life.
Perhaps those who would not let him visit their homes had only too good cause for refusal. Perhaps, after all, it was not his father's position but something about himself that had caused the parents of Harald, of Loth, and now of Murray, to act in exactly the same way. Perhaps Dally had reasons for not letting him become primus which, out of his soul's kindness, he never told even to Keith himself. Perhaps the reason he always felt isolated and out of touch with his schoolmates lay in their instinctive recognition of his nature....
In the end he replaced the book with a firm determination never to look at it again. But the poison was in his mind, and the book no longer mattered.
The game learned behind the big rock must never be played again—that much was certain!
But all resolves proved vain. Fight as he may, the end was inevitably the same.
Previously he had been the player, and had thought no more of it. Now he was being played with, and this new form of the game kept him see-sawing incessantly between ecstasy and agony, between the relief of yielding and the remorse at having yielded.
His life was an unending conflict, and in the presence of that ever renewed struggle within, by forces that seemed alien to his own self, all else lost significance.
And there was not a thing or a person within reach that could offer an antidote to the self-contempt corroding his soul's integrity.
Going to school grew very hard for a while. He could barely look his schoolmates in the face for fear that they might read in his eyes what sort of a chap he was. At times, on his walks to or from school with Murray, a faintness would seize him at the mere thought that his friend somehow might have guessed the truth. And he sent timidly envious side-glances at one lucky enough to be raised above all temptation. For neither his recollections of the gang gathered about the big rock nor the more recent light shed on such things by Johan had the slightest influence on his conception of himself as the sole black sheep in a flock of perhaps soiled but nevertheless washable white ones.
After a while the poignancy of his emotions became blunted by familiarity, and mere weariness forced him to accept himself on a reduced level. A sort of new equilibrium was established within him, but it was primarily based on indifference. Nothing really mattered. Effort was useless. Things merely happened. No one could help what happened. And in this fatalism, so utterly foreign to his ardent, supersensitive nature, he found a certain momentary sense of peace.
He went about his daily classroom tasks as in a dream, doing mechanically what he was asked, and dropping his effort as soon as the demand for it ceased. Nothing happened during the lessons to indicate that the teachers noticed any change in him or were in any manner dissatisfied with him. Perhaps he was saved by an occasional flaring up of interest that drew from him flashes of that brightness of mind that had won Dally and given him the reputation of an exceptional pupil.
But as the spring term drew nearer its close, he found it more and more difficult to keep up a pretence at attention. More and more he sank into mere drifting, and he whose pride had been really to know, now trusted to luck like any dullard with a head unfit for studying. Worse still and more significant, he began to find excuses for staying home from school. He who had never known what it was to be sick, now developed disturbing symptom after another—headaches and colds and digestive troubles in endless succession. Most of the time these symptoms yielded quickly at the mere sight of the castor oil which was his mother's favourite remedy and the taste of which Keith hated more than anything else in the world. It was the one thing that stood inexorably between his growing indolence and the luxury of being ill.
With commencement almost in sight, all sorts of written examinations were demanded. These he disliked additionally because his handwriting never had developed in proportion to his mental capacity. No matter how he strove, the letters remained childishly awkward. No two of them seemed to point in the same direction. Not even his futile efforts at singing could fill him with a more humiliating sense of inferiority.
All his various resistances were brought into concerted action when at last the teacher in Swedish ordered him to prepare two brief original compositions on quite simple themes. In the days of Dally he would have revelled in such a task. Now it appalled him. His head was empty. The mere idea of trying to write about such things as the discovery of America and the beauties of nature seemed silly. There was any number of books, besides, that said anything you could ever hope to say on either subject.
The end of it was that he produced an indisposition real enough not only to convince his mother but to make himself willing to face the ordeal of castor oil. Thanks to the oil he was able to stay in bed the better part of two days. Those were the last two days before his Swedish compositions were to be delivered. He knew that if they were not delivered, he would get no mark in that subject, and this would prevent his graduation to a higher grade.
In that dilemma he conceived the brilliant idea of making his mother write the compositions for him, and he actually succeeded in persuading her to do so. He prompted her a little, but she did the main part of the work, and the handwriting was hers. Finally he got her to bring them up to school with the explanation that he was too sick to sit up and write, but that she had taken down what he dictated. He did not even look at what she wrote, and it never occurred to him to doubt her ability of doing it far better than he could. When it was all over, he experienced a tremendous sense of relief, and this was much enhanced by his mother's willingness to let the father remain in complete ignorance of what had happened.
Nothing was said to him when he showed up at school again. His first inkling of trouble came with the return of his copy book. It was full of marks and corrections in red ink. As he looked at these in a stunned fashion, he realized for the first time that his mother's spelling and punctuation would have been deemed unsatisfactory in a second grade pupil. At first he did not even consider the bearing of this discovery on his own fate. He could think of only one thing, namely that another blow had been dealt to his conception of his mother as a superior being. He actually felt ashamed on her behalf. Then came the thought of what the teacher must have thought....
Commencement Day brought the answer. He got only C in Swedish, which meant that he had failed to pass. It gave him the choice between spending another year in the same grade or facing special examinations in the fall.
At first he was too dazed to think. Then his former indifference changed into blazing indignation and resentment. He felt himself a victim of unpardonable injustice. In that mood he returned home and reported to his father.
"You talk nonsense, my boy," said his father in a tone that was new to Keith. "From some things I have heard, I gather that your escape from the same kind of mark in every subject was little short of miraculous."
Keith stared open-eyed at his father, puzzled by his manner of speaking and stung to the quick by what he said.
"What are you going to do now," his father demanded after a while.
A long pause followed during which Keith's brain worked at lightning speed. It was as if he had never known until then what really had happened during the weeks preceding commencement.
"I'll pass the examinations in the fall," he said at last.
"Will you give me your word of honour to read hard during the summer," his father asked, and his voice set the boy's heart throbbing like an engine.
"I will," replied Keith. "But I could pass those examinations without looking at the book."
"The more shame for you, then, to let yourself be plucked," was his father's concluding remark, but even that was uttered without a suggestion of bitterness.
The summer was spent on the mainland opposite the island where they used to live. He had practically no companionship except that of his mother. It was very dull, but for the first time he seemed to need solitude. He had brought out all his schoolbooks, and he really did a good deal of studying, especially of Latin, which he knew was his weakest point.
At first he felt a slight grudge against the mother. She had disappointed him for one thing, and there was an inclination besides to hold her responsible for his misfortune. By degrees, however, he began to see his own part in its true light, and he wondered how he could have been such a blind fool. It was this understanding that brought him comparative peace and enabled him to work. He had been so harassed by the question of guilt in regard to actions which his own mind would never have classed as wrong that the sense of facing punishment clearly deserved came as a genuine relief.
The monotony of the season was only broken by a visit to the summer home of Aunt Agda at Laurel Grove, where he stayed a whole week and made a lot of friends. She had served with the Wellanders as a nurse girl when Keith was only a baby. Then she was plain Agda, and Keith's mother often spoke of how crazy she had been about him. Then she disappeared, and when the Wellanders next heard of her, she was the wife of a well-to-do retired merchant, to whom she had borne three children while she was merely a servant and his first wife still lived. Keith had often overheard his parents speak of Agda's phenomenal rise with ironic smiles, but he didn't care for anything except her continued inclination to spoil him.
There was a lot of children at Laurel Grove, boys and girls, and most of them matched Keith in age. They took him in, and in that one week he had a glimpse of the kind of life he would have liked to live. There was in particular one boy, Arnold Kruse, for whom Keith formed a warm attachment. This feeling was additionally cemented by Arnold's choice of Keith as a confidant. Arnold was in love with the prettiest girl in the place, Gurlie Norlin, and so was every other boy within reach of Laurel Grove. But Arnold was the favourite, and he told Keith that he and Gurlie had agreed to wait for each other and to marry as soon as they were of age.
It was like a fairy tale to Keith—a wonderful tale like no one he had ever read. And the most wonderful thing about it was that it was real, and that he was permitted to play a sort of part in it. His thoughts went back to Oscar and what he had told Keith about the love between Oscar's father and mother. Here was love again, mystically beautiful, so that it brought a new light into the faces of those it touched. And Keith's heart grew lonely and wistful within him. But strangely enough, he never thought of connecting Arnold's love for Gurlie with what he had read in the book found in his father's book case. That was quite a different thing, he felt.
The presiding genius of the examinations was Lector Booklund, teacher of Latin in Lower and Upper Sixth. He was short and stocky and gnarled by gout. Instead of speaking, he emitted a series of verbal explosives, and the boy whose answers didn't come quick enough became the object of withering scorn. Most of his life seemed concentrated in his eyes where twinkling merriment and blazing anger alternated with bewildering rapidity. He posed as a tyrant, but the boys who knew him well said that at heart he was as kind as he was just, and that his nervous impatience and bursts of rage were merely the results of severe physical sufferings.
The moment he caught sight of Keith among the boys up for examination, most of whom hailed from other schools, he became interested and began to draw him out. And Keith was able to respond with some of his old-time quickwittedness. His ambition had been stirred into a semblance of life through the shock of his failure, while the summer's rest and peace had brought back some of his natural vivacity. The inner conflict was still a source of trouble, but it did not seem quite so much a matter of life and death. He had not yet passed the crisis, but he had reached a point where a little tactful nursing might put him on the right path again for good. What he needed above all was encouragement, and that was what he got for a while from the new class principal.
He passed the examinations with ease. Then the sense of being a favoured pupil once more made him throw himself into the studies with considerable zest. Little by little, however, his zest slacked off. More and more frequently he became the object of blame or ridicule instead of praise. By and by Lector Booklund found it hard to ask him a question or give him a direction without open display of irritation. It was evident that he felt disappointed in Keith, and he did not hesitate to show it.
Many causes combined to produce the slump in Keith's aspirations that in its turn produced the changed attitude of the teacher. The latter's impatience had probably as much to do with it as anything else, while his splenetic manners and speech intimidated the boy's already overwrought sensitiveness. The subjects taught and the form of the teachings did their share, too. Grammar and rules and dry data seemed to play a greater part than ever. In Latin, for instance, they were reading Ovid's "Metamorphoses" and the colourful old legends might easily have been used to arouse the boy's interest, if attention had merely been concentrated on the stories told and the life revealed by them. But the teacher was first and last a grammarian, and he would wax frantically enthusiastic over some subtle syntactic distinction which left Keith peevishly indifferent. And Lector Booklund was positively jealous on behalf of his own subject, so that once he flung a bitingly sarcastic remark at the boy because his attention had flared up at the quoting of a phrase in English.
Keith's progress in English showed that he was still capable of both interest and effort. This language was quite new to him, and the class had it only one hour a week. But the man who taught it had advanced ideas for his day, and instead of boring the boys with a lot of abstract rules relating to a wholly unknown tongue, he let them start right in on one of the English prose classics. They were told to pick out the meaning of the principal words in advance, and the pronunciation was explained as they took turns at reading aloud. All the time the teacher kept the principal part of their attention focused on the story gradually revealed. During that one hour a week Keith's mind never wandered. But it was the only rift in the scholastic fog that kept him in a state of constant boredom.
In the meantime things were happening at home that did not help the situation.
He had moved into the parlour at last. It was almost his own room. An old piece of furniture, half wardrobe and half dresser, standing in the vestibule outside the parlour, had been turned over to him for good. His library and his playthings were installed on the shelves in the upper part. His personal things occupied a whole drawer below. At night he slept on the big sofa, and the door to his parents' room was closed.
One night he lay awake unusually long. The old struggle was going on within him, and there was no peace in sight. His parents had gone to bed a good while ago, and as far as he was concerned just then, they had practically ceased to exist.
Then his attention was attracted by a slight noise from their room. The stillness of the night made it audible to him in spite of the closed door. At first he listened out of idle curiosity, and to get away from his own feverish thoughts. Finally he got up without any clear idea of what he was doing, or why he did it. He began to tremble even as he moved on tip-toe across the room. At the door he had to kneel down to steady himself.
He could not tell whether an hour or a minute had passed when he crawled into bed again. His whole body was on fire. He could feel the pulses at his temples hammering. At that moment he knew what passion was. The man in him had been let loose, and he wanted to cry aloud with the bitter-sweet agony of it.
There was no thought of father or mother in his mind. The people back of the door were just a man and a woman. The feelings that surged through his heart, shaking his body volcanically, would have been the same if those two had been perfect strangers.
No jealousy stirred him. No sense of shame shocked him. His dominant emotion was envy.
The visit of death had left him unmoved. Now he had been as close to life in its most intense form, and the effect of it was maddening—a call that seemed to make further waiting worse than death.
He fell asleep at last with a part of the pillow stuffed into his mouth to keep his sobs from being heard in the next room....
The thing had him by the throat. It was stronger than any power he could bring to bear against it. Fighting it was useless. Resistance meant merely prolonged torture. Surrender meant sleep—and torture of a different kind the next day.
Once more he managed to get hold of the book that had wrought such disastrous change in his entire existence. He read again the chapters bearing directly on his own case. They seemed more convincing than ever. There could be no doubt of his degradation or his doom.
He came running home from some errand one evening not long before Christmas. His mind was more at ease than it had been for a long time. That season of the year rarely failed to bring him a little happiness.
The moment he flung open the kitchen door, he knew that something was wrong, and his heart sank within him.
The mother stood in the middle of the floor wringing her hands. Granny sat on the sofa, stolid-faced as usual, and rolled one of her endless bandages. On the chair by the window sat the father, his shoulder against the wall, his left elbow on the table, and his head resting in his left hand.
Keith could hardly believe what he saw.
His father's face was contorted with pain or grief. Big tears rolled down his cheeks and dropped on the table before him. Every little while he was shaken by a sob that almost choked him.
"Is he sick," the boy gasped.
"Something dreadful has happened," the mother stammered, unable to take her eyes off her husband.
"You had better go into the parlour, Keith," whispered Granny as she started on a new roll.
Keith turned his glance once more to the father. He had never seen a man cry before, and until that moment such a lack of control on the part of his father had seemed quite unimaginable. The strangeness of it frightened him.
"I fear it will kill him," he heard his mother mutter.
"I wish it would," the father broke out, raising his head for a moment. "But it won't, Anna.... I'll be over it in a minute."
His words were forced out between sobs. Keith saw that he was struggling terribly to get himself in hand.
Then he caught sight of Keith, whose entrance he evidently had not noticed, and as usual the presence of the boy brought back the self-restraint for which he had been striving vainly until then.
"Keith," he said, speaking much more quietly, "your Uncle Wilhelm has been arrested for using money that didn't belong to him. I can't believe it, but I am sure they will send him to jail.... You must always remember what I have told you about money...."
His own words seemed to bring back to him the full horror of the situation, and he threw himself face downward over the table in another convulsive outburst of grief.
Granny on the sofa was signalling frantically to Keith to leave the room. Mechanically he obeyed her. Anything was better than to watch his father....
Little by little he learned the whole sad story. At the same time he realized that Christmas would probably be spoiled—the one thing he had banked on for momentary relief.
Once upon a time Uncle Wilhelm had been the most prosperous member of the family, owning a big, fine grocery store in the fashionable North End district. He made a lot of money, but his wife was vain and foolish and pleasure-loving. She always managed to spend more than he could ever earn, and he was idiotically in love with her. It ended in bankruptcy. Uncle Wilhelm got a position as superintendent of a small factory in the South End. There he might have done very well in a more modest way, had not his wife proceeded to turn his life into a perfect hell. This was her way of punishing him for his failure to support her in the style she demanded. He was weak in more ways than one, and soon he drank not merely for the sake of a good time, as everybody else did, but to find consolation and forgetfulness. His private affairs went from bad to worse. Gradually he lost the habit of distinguishing between his own meagre funds and those entrusted to him. It was a clear case, and his employer proved merciless when it was found out.
What Keith's father had feared came true. And that Christmas was more sad than any other part of any other year had ever been.
It would have been hard on Keith at any time. Coming as it did, the family disgrace, which he guessed rather than grasped, and the disappointment, which was a depressingly tangible thing, brought his natural sensitiveness to a morbid pitch.
There was one idea that haunted him day and night—the idea that he belonged to a race doomed in advance to decay and destruction.
Uncle Wilhelm's case was not an isolated one. There was Uncle Henrik, the youngest brother of Keith's father, who had gone to the dogs while still a youth, and in a more ignominious fashion, if possible. What was he now but a besotted tramp, begging shamelessly of friend or stranger for a few oere with which to buy a brief moment of coarse happiness?
There was Uncle Marcus, the husband of Keith's paternal aunt, who had hurt his leg in a storm and lost his splendid position as chief engineer of the swiftest steamer plying on the Northern route. Now he was disabled for ever, and proud Aunt Brita was at her wit's end to keep the home and the family together.
There were the two half-brothers of Uncle Wilhelm's silly wife—popular and dashing young fellows reading blithely the purple path to destruction. Even Keith's naive mind had discovered which way they were headed, although his thoughts of them were not free from admiration.
And there were still others. Wherever he turned within the narrowing family circle, he met similar instances of progress in the wrong direction. Some were sinners and some were victims of fate—or seemed so—but it came to the same thing in the end.
"The Wellanders are going," Keith's mother said one day to Aunt Brita when she was too depressed and worried to mind the boy's presence.
"Yes," replied Aunt Brita grimly, "and so is everybody else who ever had anything to do with them. Keith will have to start it all over again from the beginning."
That seemed to settle it for the moment. Of what avail could his own feeble struggles be in the face of an adverse destiny?
He brooded over it, and out of his brooding came resentment, and more and more this resentment turned against his relatives in a fury of disgust. He had a feeling of their having betrayed him....
Now and then, however, one of the expressions used by Aunt Brita would recur to him with a suggestion of quite different possibilities.
"Keith will have to start it all over again from the beginning," she had said.
If he only had some one to talk to.... But he was more lonely than ever. Murray had moved to another part of the city, more in keeping with his father's increasing prosperity, and was now attending a North End school. They had parted with no more ado than if they had expected to meet the next day again. Now and then Keith thought of Murray with a touch of sentimental regret, but it was wearing off.
Johan was still found at the foot of the lane, smoking and bragging and leering as before. To Keith he had become positively loathsome.
There was no one else in sight—not one boy in the class out of whom Keith might hope to make a friend. Leaving other factors aside, his lack of pocket money was sufficient to keep him apart from the rest. They all had some sort of allowance, however scant, and they took turns treating each other to pastry or candy bought from a couple of old women who brought basketfuls, to the school doors during every pause. He had to beg especially for every oere, he couldn't get much at that.
He wore a suit made over by his mother from clothes given to her by a woman of some means with whom she had a slight acquaintance. They had been outgrown by that woman's son, and they had been offered to Keith's mother because they were too good to be thrown away. There was nothing about it to be ashamed of, and the made-over suit was neat enough, though a little awkwardly cut. A couple of years earlier, Keith would have hailed it with delight. Now the wearing of it seemed worse than going about naked. He thought that every one noticed the suit and knew that it was not really meant for him.
He read contempt in every glance, and by degrees he developed a temper that was checked only by the humiliating consciousness of his physical inferiority. After nearly five years in school, he was still one of the smallest boys in height and bodily development, and neither gymnastics nor the military drill that became compulsory in the sixth grade had the slightest effect on him. And, of course, he suffered the more from it because he ascribed his lack of stature and muscle to what he had now begun to think of as his own moral weakness.
A petty quarrel one day brought on another fight with Bauer, and this time right in the class room. They rolled around on the floor between the desks and separated only when some one cried out that Booklund was coming. Keith was thoroughly aware of the fact that his classmates regarded their behaviour as inexcusably undignified in pupils of the Lower Sixth, but contrary to custom, he didn't care very much. What almost made him cry was that the thought that at the moment of separation Bauer once more was on top of him—just as when their first fight came to an end five years earlier. And then Keith was brought still nearer to tears by his disgusted realization of that infantile tendency to cry in every moment of unusual strain.
But, of course, how could he expect anything else?
His whole bearing changed gradually. The gay forwardness that had caused Dally to make fun of him—and like him, perhaps—was quite gone, but gone, too, was the shyness that always had run side by side with it. His most frequent mood was one of irritable rebellion, and in between he would have spells of sulkiness that estranged the teachers and surprised himself in his more wholesome moods. He snarled to his mother, and he would have done so to his father if he had only dared.
The school seemed sheer torture much of the time, and all its objectionable features seemed to centre in the Latin. His hatred of that subject approached an obsession. There was no doubt that Lector Booklund could feel it, and every day he watched Keith with more undisguised hostility. At last he could not speak to the boy without losing his temper, and so for days at a time he would not speak to him at all. At such times Keith's state of mind presented a riddle hard to solve. He posed to himself and others as tremendously gratified at being left alone and not having to answer any bothersome questions. Inwardly, however, he was more hurt and offended by that neglect than by any other rebuke the teacher could have devised.
Such a period of suspended communication had lasted more than a week, when, at the wane of the term, the inevitable explosion finally occurred.
The class had just turned in their copybooks with a Latin exercise prepared at home. Lector Booklund was standing at his desk with the whole pile in front of him. Keith's book happened to be on top. The teacher opened it. He sent a glance at Keith that made the boy squirm. Then, as his eyes ran down the page, his face turned almost purple. Suddenly he raised the book over his head and threw it on the floor with such force that the cover was torn off.
A moment of ominous silence followed. Keith was red up to the roots of his hair.
"Wellander," the teacher roared.
Keith rose none too quickly from his seat without looking up.
"Pick up that thing," Lector Booklund shouted at him with the full force of his powerful lungs. "I don't want to touch it again."
Keith remained like a statue, feeling now as if he didn't have a drop of blood left in his whole body.
"Pick it up, I tell you!"
"No," Keith retorted in a strangely self-possessed voice, "you had better pick it up yourself. I didn't throw it on the floor."
In another moment the teacher was beside Keith, burying his hand in the boy's hair. Then he pulled and shook, shook and pulled, until the hand came away with big tufts of hair showing between the fingers.
Again absolute silence reigned for a moment.
"Ugh," blew the teacher, his anger changed to a look of embarrassment. "I am not going to speak another word to you, Wellander, during the rest of the term. Sit down!"
Instead of sitting down, Keith walked over to the torn copy book, picked it up and turned toward Lector Booklund.
"I am going home," he announced almost triumphantly. "You have no right to hit me or pull my hair out by the roots."
Before the teacher had recovered from his surprise Keith was outside the door and on his way home.
He didn't know afterwards how he got there, but he could remember saying to himself over and over again:
"I didn't cry and I didn't want to cry!"
He told his mother truthfully what had happened and declared in conclusion that he would never go back to school again.
She was furious with the teacher and thought that on the whole, it would be safer for Keith to stay away during the few weeks remaining of the term.
"That man should be punished," she cried repeatedly. "You did just right."
But the father spoke in another tone when he, in his turn, had heard the tale of that eventful day.
"You will go to school tomorrow as usual," he said in his sternest voice. "You had no right to refuse to pick up the book, and you had no right to leave the school without permission."
"I can't go back after being treated like that, papa," Keith remonstrated, trying vainly to make his tone sound firm.
"You will," the father reiterated, "or I'll...."
He stopped and thought for a minute.
"Or you'll begin to learn a trade tomorrow. Take your choice."
Father and son looked long at each other.
"Carl ..." the mother began pleadingly.
"Please, Anna," the father checked her. "This is too serious. The boy's future is at stake."
Then he turned to Keith and said more kindly: "I ask you to go for my sake."
"I will," the boy blurted out with a little catch in his voice.
His pride was broken, and once more those everlasting tears were dimming his eyes.
He felt weak and helpless, but through his dejection broke now and then a sense of pleasant warmth. His father had asked him to go "for his sake."
Such a thing had never happened before.
The class was discreetly preoccupied when Keith showed up as usual next morning. Only Young Bauer evinced a slight inclination to taunt him, but was curtly hushed up.
During one of the afternoon hours the door of the classroom opened unexpectedly and Keith's father appeared on the threshold.
"Will you pardon me for just one moment, Sir," he said to the astonished teacher. Then, without coming further into the room, he addressed himself to Keith: "I have had a talk with the Rector and with Lector Booklund. I have heard all about your behaviour in school, and I warn you now that unless you do better, I shall give you the treatment you deserve. Bear that in mind."
Then he vanished as abruptly as he had appeared.
A couple of the boys snickered. The teacher rapped sharply on the table with the book he held in his hand.
Keith sat absolutely still with bowed head. He couldn't think. He didn't dare to think of ever facing one of those other boys again. And suddenly it occurred to him that his father had looked quite common, like a workman almost, while he stood there at the door, talking across the room to Keith.
But a tiny voice somewhere within himself denied it.
The term dragged to an end.
Commencement Day was no longer a cause of joyful anticipation. It had to be borne like many other things. But it did mark the end.
Keith learned without much heartbreaking that he had got a "C" not merely in Latin, which he expected, but in behaviour as well—he who all through his school period had never had less than "A" on his personal conduct.
Well, it merely clinched the decision he already had formed. One could not pass any examination in behaviour. And after what had happened, the thought of going back to the same classroom in the fall gave him a sensation of outright physical discomfort. Anything was better than school.
Not even his mother had put in an attendance that day. He had to walk home by himself, all the other boys being accompanied by pleased or resigned parents. But it was in keeping with the rest of what he had to go through.
Out of the midst of the shapeless throng of dark thoughts filling his head, a quite irrelevant memory pushed to the front as if in answer to an unspoken question. It consisted of the words spoken by Aunt Brita:
"Keith will have to start it all over again from the beginning."
The first few days after the closing of the school were wonderfully restful. The parents proved remarkably forbearing. Neither one spoke a word of reproach. Nothing was said about the future. It was as if some sort of fear had checked them.
The home seemed unusually quiet and pleasant. There was any amount of time for reading, and no suggestions were forthcoming as to what should or should not be read. Yet Keith remained satisfied only a few days.
No one knows what might have happened if they had gone into the country for the summer as they used to do. But again the whole family had to stay in town for some reason not divulged to Keith. And with the heat and the sunshine came the usual restlessness.
Keith had made up his mind not to go back to school. He was equally determined not to let himself be forced into any sort of manual work. Besides having no knack for it, he had come to look upon it as a social disgrace. Some other work must be found, for well enough he knew that his father would not let him stay home indefinitely doing nothing.
It was easy, however, to make up one's mind about what not to do, but mighty hard to discover the right kind of thing to do. Keith had no clue to start with at all, and to begin with all his efforts led him into the blindest of blind alleys.
He plagued his mother with inquiries to which she had few or no answers to give. He even deigned to consult Johan and found that he already had found a place as errandboy in a store. A few questions convinced Keith that such a life might be good enough for Johan but not for a boy who, after all, had reached Lower Sixth in a public school.
The situation was becoming desperate and Keith was watching his father with steadily increasing concern, when at last a helpful hint reached him from the most unexpected quarter.
"Why don't you look in the paper," Granny asked him one day.
"What for," was Keith's surprised counter-question.
"For work, of course. Look at the advertisements on the back page."
"Do you think, Granny...." Keith hesitated.
"I don't think," retorted Granny. "I know."
Three weeks had gone. It was still early morning, and he was studying a newspaper very carefully.
"What is it you find so interesting," his mother asked at last.
"The advertisements," he explained without taking his eyes off the paper.
"Nonsense," she cried, putting down her sewing. "Are you still thinking of leaving school?"
"Here is one about a volunteer wanted in a wholesale office," was his indirect reply. "It is on West Long street—in the same house where Aunt Gertrude has her jewelry store. Do volunteers get paid?"
"I don't know," his mother said absent-mindedly, her hands resting on her lap in unwonted idleness. Then she woke up as from a dream: "You should ask papa first."
"What's the use until I know whether I can get," Keith parried.
Ten minutes later he bustled into Aunt Gertrude's store, where she sat in a corner near the big show-window working at a strip of embroidery that never got finished. She was a spinster with large black hungry eyes in a very white face. She and Keith's mother had been girl friends. Now she was running one of the two jewelry stores owned by her brother.
She had heard of the position. It was in the office of Herr Brockhaus on the second floor—a dealer in tailor's supplies. And she had heard that he was a very nice man.
"Do you think I can get it," Keith demanded eagerly.
"Why don't you run up this minute and ask," she suggested.
Keith looked as if he had been to jump off a church steeple. But in another minute he was climbing the stairs. His legs seemed rather shaky and his tongue felt like a piece of wood. The moment he opened the door, however, all his fears and hesitations were gone. Once more he was the old Keith who had made a play of studies and examinations.
Herr Brockhaus was a tall, youngish, good-looking man, a little haughty of mien, but with a tendency to smile in quite friendly fashion.
"I have as good as hired another boy who got here earlier than you," he said in reply to Keith's inquiry. On seeing Keith's dejected look, he laughed good-humouredly.
"There are plenty of other jobs," he suggested.
"But you look as if you would be kind to me and give to a chance to learn," Keith heard himself saying to his own intense astonishment.
"I can see that when you want a thing you want it real hard," Herr Brockhaus rejoined with another peasant laugh. "Well, I like that. What kind of a hand do you write?"
"Awful," Keith confessed, "but I am going to learn better."
For a good long while Keith felt himself studied from top to toe, and under that searching scrutiny he blushed as usual.
"I am willing to do anything that is required," he ventured to ease the suspense.
"All right—what did you say your name was? Keith—I'll take you, and tell the other boy that I changed my mind. When can you begin?"
"Tod ... tomorrow," Keith corrected himself with a sudden remembrance of his father.
"Good," said Herr Brockhaus. "Show up at eight. And I'll pay you ten crowns a month the first year, although as a rule volunteers don't get anything."
Keith walked home on air. The sun never shone more brightly than that day. The tall old stone houses along West Long street looked imposing and mysterious, as if they had been magic mansions full of golden opportunities for bright little boys. School seemed years away already. Lector Booklund was a dream.
His mother listened in silence to his wonderful tale. Then she kissed him.
"When you have made a lot of money, will you present me with a new black silk dress," she asked with a suspicious lustre in her eyes.
"Anything you want, mamma," he promised solemnly. "When I begin to make money, you'll never have to worry any more about anything."
Again she had to kiss him.
He was then a little more than halfway through his fifteenth year.
When his father came home that night, Keith hurried across the room to meet him. "Papa," he cried full of subdued excitement and a swelling of self-importance such as he had not experienced for ever so long. "I have got a job."
"What kind of a job," asked the father quietly.
"In an office." And Keith sputtered out the details.
When the whole story was told, the father stood looking at him enigmatically for a long while.
"Perhaps it is just as well," he said at last. "It certainly will make things easier for me. But bear in mind what I now tell you, boy: you will live to regret the chance you are throwing away—a chance for which I would have given one of my hands when I was of your age."
"Did you want me to go on," Keith asked uncertainly.
"I did—I always hoped that you should pass your university examinations and wear the white cap."
"And what did you want me to become?"
"A civil engineer—that's the only real profession today."
The idea was too novel to be grasped quickly by the boy. His own thoughts had never strayed in that direction, and his conception of an engineer's duties and position was extremely vague.
"An engineer," he repeated. "But then I should not have studied Latin."
"Of course not, but you chose it without asking my opinion first."
Keith's surprise increased.
"Why didn't you tell me," he insisted.
"Because I wanted you to begin to shape your own life," the father replied, "and I thought you knew what you wanted."
Keith could hardly believe his own ears.
"What do you want me to do now," he pleaded at last.
"What you feel you must," rejoined the father. "This concerns your life, and not mine. And you must make up your own mind. Whatever you decided, you have my good wishes, boy, and I shall try to help you as far as I can."
For a moment Keith had a sense of never having known his father before. Then a thought flashed through his head: why did he not speak before?
He went into the parlour and stood at the window staring at the gloomy facade of the distillers across the lane. A motley throng of thoughts chased each other through his brain.
It was not yet too late. Nothing was settled. He could still drop the job and go back to school if he wanted. But did he want it?
The thought of school sent a slight shiver down his spine.
No, he was sick of it, of the teachers, of the tedious books, of the boys who looked down upon him and kept him at arm's length all the time, of everything that had made up his life for the last few years.
He wanted change. He must have it.
Above all else, he wanted to be free, he wanted to do as he pleased, and now he had found a way to it, he believed.
At that moment it seemed to him that his childhood suddenly had come to an end, that his manhood had begun, and that all life lay open before him.