After the college-board examinations in June, Basil Duke Lee and five other boys from St. Regis School boarded the train for the West. Two got out at Pittsburgh, one slanted south toward St. Louis and two stayed in Chicago; from then on Basil was alone. It was the first time in his life that he had ever felt the need of tranquillity, but now he took long breaths of it; for, though things had gone better toward the end, he had had an unhappy year at school.
He wore one of those extremely flat derbies in vogue during the twelfth year of the century, and a blue business suit become a little too short for his constantly lengthening body. Within he was by turns a disembodied spirit, almost unconscious of his person and moving in a mist of impressions and emotions, and a fiercely competitive individual trying desperately to control the rush of events that were the steps in his own evolution from child to man. He believed that everything was a matter of effort — the current principle of American education — and his fantastic ambition was continually leading him to expect too much. He wanted to be a great athlete, popular, brilliant and always happy. During this year at school, where he had been punished for his “freshness,” for fifteen years of thorough spoiling at home, he had grown uselessly introspective, and this interfered with that observation of others which is the beginning of wisdom. It was apparent that before he obtained much success in dealing with the world he would know that he’d been in a fight.
He spent the afternoon in Chicago, walking the streets and avoiding members of the underworld. He bought a detective story called “In the Dead of the Night,” and at five o’clock recovered his suitcase from the station check room and boarded the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul. Immediately he encountered a contemporary, also bound home from school.
Margaret Torrence was fourteen; a serious girl, considered beautiful by a sort of tradition, for she had been beautiful as a little girl. A year and a half before, after a breathless struggle, Basil had succeeded in kissing her on the forehead. They met now with extraordinary joy; for a moment each of them to the other represented home, the blue skies of the past, the summer afternoons ahead.
He sat with Margaret and her mother in the dining car that night. Margaret saw that he was no longer the ultraconfident boy of a year before; his brightness was subdued, and the air of consideration in his face — a mark of his recent discovery that others had wills as strong as his, and more power — appeared to Margaret as a charming sadness. The spell of peace after a struggle was still upon him. Margaret had always liked him — she was of the grave, conscientious type who sometimes loved him and whose love he could never return — and now she could scarcely wait to tell people how attractive he had grown.
After dinner they went back to the observation car and sat on the deserted rear platform while the train pulled them visibly westward between the dark wide farms. They talked of people they knew, of where they had gone for Easter vacation, of the plays they had seen in New York.
“Basil, we’re going to get an automobile,” she said, “and I’m going to learn to drive.”
“That’s fine.” He wondered if his grandfather would let him drive the electric sometimes this summer.
The light from inside the car fell on her young face, and he spoke impetuously, borne on by the rush of happiness that he was going home: “You know something? You know you’re the prettiest girl in the city?”
At the moment when the remark blurred with the thrilling night in Margaret’s heart, Mrs. Torrence appeared to fetch her to bed.
Basil sat alone on the platform for a while, scarcely realizing that she was gone, at peace with himself for another hour and content that everything should remain patternless and shapeless until tomorrow.
Fifteen is of all ages the most difficult to locate — to put one’s fingers on and say, “That’s the way I was.” The melancholy Jacques does not select it for mention, and all one can know is that somewhere between thirteen, boyhood’s majority, and seventeen, when one is a sort of counterfeit young man, there is a time when youth fluctuates hourly between one world and another — pushed ceaselessly forward into unprecedented experiences and vainly trying to struggle back to the days when nothing had to be paid for. Fortunately none of our contemporaries remember much more than we do of how we behaved in those days; nevertheless the curtain is about to be drawn aside for an inspection of Basil’s madness that summer.
To begin with, Margaret Torrence, in one of those moods of idealism which overcome the most matter-of-fact girls, gave it as her rapt opinion that Basil was wonderful. Having practised believing things all year at school, and having nothing much to believe at that moment, her friends accepted the fact. Basil suddenly became a legend. There were outbreaks of giggling when girls encountered him on the street, but he suspected nothing at all.
One night, when he had been home a week, he and Riply Buckner went on to an after-dinner gathering on Imogene Bissel’s veranda. As they came up the walk Margaret and two other girls suddenly clung together, whispered convulsively and pursued one another around the yard, uttering strange cries — an inexplicable business that ended only when Gladys Van Schellinger, tenderly and impressively accompanied by her mother’s maid, arrived in a limousine.
All of them were a little strange to one another. Those who had been East at school felt a certain superiority, which, however, was more than counterbalanced by the fact that romantic pairings and quarrels and jealousies and adventures, of which they were lamentably ignorant, had gone on while they had been away.
After the ice cream at nine they sat together on the warm stone steps in a quiet confusion that was halfway between childish teasing and adolescent coquetry. Last year the boys would have ridden their bicycles around the yard; now they had all begun to wait for something to happen.
They knew it was going to happen, the plainest girls, the shyest boys; they had begun to associate with others the romantic world of summer night that pressed deeply and sweetly on their senses. Their voices drifted in a sort of broken harmony in to Mrs. Bissel, who sat reading beside an open window.
“No, look out. You’ll break it. Bay-zil!”
“Sure I did!”
“— on Moonlight Bay
We could hear their voices call —”
“Did you see —”
“Connie, don’t — don’t! You tickle. Look out!”
“Going to the lake tomorrow?”
“Is Elwood home?”
“— you have broken my heart —”
“Look out now!”
Basil sat beside Riply on the balustrade, listening to Joe Gorman singing. It was one of the griefs of his life that he could not sing “so people could stand it,” and he conceived a sudden admiration for Joe Gorman, reading into his personality the thrilling clearness of those sounds that moved so confidently through the dark air.
They evoked for Basil a more dazzling night than this, and other more remote and enchanted girls. He was sorry when the voice died away, and there was a rearranging of seats and a businesslike quiet — the ancient game of Truth had begun.
“What’s your favorite color, Bill?”
“Green,” supplies a friend.
“Sh-h-h! Let him alone.”
Bill says, “Blue.”
“What’s your favorite girl’s name?”
“Mary,” says Bill.
“Mary Haupt! Bill’s got a crush on Mary Haupt!”
She was a cross-eyed girl, a familiar personification of repulsiveness.
“Who would you rather kiss than anybody?”
Across the pause a snicker stabbed the darkness.
“No, but what girl?”
“That’s not fair. Forfeit! Come on, Margaret.”
“Tell the truth, Margaret.”
She told the truth and a moment later Basil looked down in surprise from his perch; he had just learned that he was her favorite boy.
“Oh, yes-s!” he exclaimed sceptically. “Oh, yes-s! How about Hubert Blair?”
He renewed a casual struggle with Riply Buckner and presently they both fell off the balustrade. The game became an inquisition into Gladys Van Schellinger’s carefully chaperoned heart.
“What’s your favorite sport?”
The admission was greeted by a mild titter.
A murmur of disappointment.
“A boy in the East.”
This was manifestly an evasion.
“Who’s your favorite boy here?”
Gladys hesitated. “Basil,” she said at length.
The faces turned up to the balustrade this time were less teasing, less jocular. Basil depreciated the matter with “Oh, yes-s! Sure! Oh, yes-s!” But he had a pleasant feeling of recognition, a familiar delight.
Imogene Bissel, a dark little beauty and the most popular girl in their crowd, took Gladys’ place. The interlocutors were tired of gastronomic preferences — the first question went straight to the point.
“Imogene, have you ever kissed a boy?”
“No.” A cry of wild unbelief. “I have not!” she declared indignantly.
“Well, have you ever been kissed?”
Pink but tranquil, she nodded, adding, “I couldn’t help it.”
“I won’t tell.”
“Oh-h-h! How about Hubert Blair?”
“What’s your favorite book, Imogene?”
“Beverly of Graustark.”
“Oh, just a girl at school.”
Mrs. Bissel had fortunately left the window.
“Who’s your favorite boy?”
Imogene answered steadily, “Basil Lee.”
This time an impressed silence fell. Basil was not surprised — we are never surprised at our own popularity — but he knew that these were not those ineffable girls, made up out of books and faces momentarily encountered, whose voices he had heard for a moment in Joe Gorman’s song. And when, presently, the first telephone rang inside, calling a daughter home, and the girls, chattering like birds, piled all together into Gladys Van Schellinger’s limousine, he lingered back in the shadow so as not to seem to be showing off. Then, perhaps because he nourished a vague idea that if he got to know Joe Gorman very well he would get to sing like him, he approached him and asked him to go to Lambert’s for a soda.
Joe Gorman was a tall boy with white eyebrows and a stolid face who had only recently become one of their “crowd.” He did not like Basil, who, he considered, had been “stuck up” with him last year, but he was acquisitive of useful knowledge and he was momentarily overwhelmed by Basil’s success with girls.
It was cheerful in Lambert’s, with great moths batting against the screen door and languid couples in white dresses and light suits spread about the little tables. Over their sodas, Joe proposed that Basil come home with him to spend the night; Basil’s permission was obtained over the telephone.
Passing from the gleaming store into the darkness, Basil was submerged in an unreality in which he seemed to see himself from the outside, and the pleasant events of the evening began to take on fresh importance.
Disarmed by Joe’s hospitality, he began to discuss the matter.
“That was a funny thing that happened tonight,” he said, with a disparaging little laugh.
“Why, all those girls saying I was their favorite boy.” The remark jarred on Joe. “It’s a funny thing,” went on Basil. “I was sort of unpopular at school for a while, because I was fresh, I guess. But the thing must be that some boys are popular with boys and some are popular with girls.”
He had put himself in Joe’s hands, but he was unconscious of it; even Joe was only aware of a certain desire to change the subject.
“When I get my car,” suggested Joe, up in his room, “we could take Imogene and Margaret and go for rides.”
“You could have Imogene and I’d take Margaret, or anybody I wanted. Of course I know they don’t like me as well as they do you.”
“Sure they do. It’s just because you haven’t been in our crowd very long yet.”
Joe was sensitive on that point and the remark did not please him. But Basil continued: “You ought to be more polite to the older people if you want to be popular. You didn’t say how do you do to Mrs. Bissel tonight.”
“I’m hungry,” said Joe quickly. “Let’s go down to the pantry and get something to eat.”
Clad only in their pajamas, they went downstairs. Principally to dissuade Basil from pursuing the subject, Joe began to sing in a low voice:
“Oh, you beautiful doll,
You great — big —”
But the evening, coming after the month of enforced humility at school, had been too much for Basil. He got a little awful. In the kitchen, under the impression that his advice had been asked, he broke out again:
“For instance, you oughtn’t to wear those white ties. Nobody does that that goes East to school.” Joe, a little red, turned around from the ice box and Basil felt a slight misgiving. But he pursued with: “For instance, you ought to get your family to send you East to school. It’d be a great thing for you. Especially if you want to go East to college, you ought to first go East to school. They take it out of you.”
Feeling that he had nothing special to be taken out of him, Joe found the implication distasteful. Nor did Basil appear to him at that moment to have been perfected by the process.
“Do you want cold chicken or cold ham?” They drew up chairs to the kitchen table. “Have some milk?”
Intoxicated by the three full meals he had had since supper, Basil warmed to his subject. He built up Joe’s life for him little by little, transformed him radiantly from what was little more than a Midwestern bumpkin to an Easterner bursting with savoir-faire and irresistible to girls. Going into the pantry to put away the milk, Joe paused by the open window for a breath of quiet air; Basil followed. “The thing is if a boy doesn’t get it taken out of him at school, he gets it taken out of him at college,” he was saying.
Moved by some desperate instinct, Joe opened the door and stepped out onto the back porch. Basil followed. The house abutted on the edge of the bluff occupied by the residential section, and the two boys stood silent for a moment, gazing at the scattered lights of the lower city. Before the mystery of the unknown human life coursing through the streets below, Basil felt the purport of his words grow thin and pale.
He wondered suddenly what he had said and why it had seemed important to him, and when Joe began to sing again softly, the quiet mood of the early evening, the side of him that was best, wisest and most enduring, stole over him once more. The flattery, the vanity, the fatuousness of the last hour moved off, and when he spoke it was almost in a whisper:
“Let’s walk around the block.”
The sidewalk was warm to their bare feet. It was only midnight, but the square was deserted save for their whitish figures, inconspicuous against the starry darkness. They snorted with glee at their daring. Once a shadow, with loud human shoes, crossed the street far ahead, but the sound served only to increase their own unsubstantiality. Slipping quickly through the clearings made by gas lamps among the trees, they rounded the block, hurrying when they neared the Gorman house as though they had been really lost in a midsummer night’s dream.
Up in Joe’s room, they lay awake in the darkness.
“I talked too much,” Basil thought. “I probably sounded pretty bossy and maybe I made him sort of mad. But probably when we walked around the block he forgot everything I said.”
Alas, Joe had forgotten nothing — except the advice by which Basil had intended him to profit.
“I never saw anybody as stuck up,” he said to himself wrathfully. “He thinks he’s wonderful. He thinks he’s so darn popular with girls.”
An element of vast importance had made its appearance with the summer; suddenly the great thing in Basil’s crowd was to own an automobile. Fun no longer seemed available save at great distances, at suburban lakes or remote country clubs. Walking downtown ceased to be a legitimate pastime. On the contrary, a single block from one youth’s house to another’s must be navigated in a car. Dependent groups formed around owners and they began to wield what was, to Basil at least, a disconcerting power.
On the morning of a dance at the lake he called up Riply Buckner.
“Hey, Rip, how you going out to Connie’s tonight?”
“With Elwood Leaming.”
“Has he got a lot of room?”
Riply seemed somewhat embarrassed. “Why, I don’t think he has. You see, he’s taking Margaret Torrence and I’m taking Imogene Bissel.”
Basil frowned. He should have arranged all this a week ago. After a moment he called up Joe Gorman.
“Going to the Davies’ tonight, Joe?”
“Have you got room in your car — I mean, could I go with you?”
“Why, yes, I suppose so.”
There was a perceptible lack of warmth in his voice.
“Sure you got plenty of room?”
“Sure. We’ll call for you quarter to eight.”
Basil began preparations at five. For the second time in his life he shaved, completing the operation by cutting a short straight line under his nose. It bled profusely, but on the advice of Hilda, the maid, he finally stanched the flow with little pieces of toilet paper. Quite a number of pieces were necessary; so, in order to facilitate breathing, he trimmed it down with a scissors, and with this somewhat awkward mustache of paper and gore clinging to his upper lip, wandered impatiently around the house.
At six he began working on it again, soaking off the tissue paper and dabbing at the persistently freshening crimson line. It dried at length, but when he rashly hailed his mother it opened once more and the tissue paper was called back into play.
At quarter to eight, dressed in blue coat and white flannels, he drew one last bar of powder across the blemish, dusted it carefully with his handkerchief and hurried out to Joe Gorman’s car. Joe was driving in person, and in front with him were Lewis Crum and Hubert Blair. Basil got in the big rear seat alone and they drove without stopping out of the city onto the Black Bear Road, keeping their backs to him and talking in low voices together. He thought at first that they were going to pick up other boys; now he was shocked, and for a moment he considered getting out of the car, but this would imply that he was hurt. His spirit, and with it his face, hardened a little and he sat without speaking or being spoken to for the rest of the ride.
After half an hour the Davies’ house, a huge rambling bungalow occupying a small peninsula in the lake, floated into sight. Lanterns outlined its shape and wavered in gleaming lines on the gold-and-rose colored water, and as they came near, the low notes of bass horns and drums were blown toward them from the lawn.
Inside Basil looked about for Imogene. There was a crowd around her seeking dances, but she saw Basil; his heart bounded at her quick intimate smile.
“You can have the fourth, Basil, and the eleventh and the second extra.... How did you hurt your lip?”
“Cut it shaving,” he said hurriedly. “How about supper?”
“Well, I have to have supper with Riply because he brought me.”
“No, you don’t,” Basil assured her.
“Yes, she does,” insisted Riply, standing close at hand. “Why don’t you get your own girl for supper?”
— but Basil had no girl, though he was as yet unaware of the fact.
After the fourth dance, Basil led Imogene down to the end of the pier, where they found seats in a motorboat.
“Now what?” she said.
He did not know. If he had really cared for her he would have known. When her hand rested on his knee for a moment he did not notice it. Instead, he talked. He told her how he had pitched on the second baseball team at school and had once beaten the first in a five-inning game. He told her that the thing was that some boys were popular with boys and some boys were popular with girls — he, for instance, was popular with girls. In short, he unloaded himself.
At length, feeling that he had perhaps dwelt disproportionately on himself, he told her suddenly that she was his favorite girl.
Imogene sat there, sighing a little in the moonlight. In another boat, lost in the darkness beyond the pier, sat a party of four. Joe Gorman was singing:
“My little love —
— in honey man,
He sure has won my —”
“I thought you might want to know,” said Basil to Imogene. “I thought maybe you thought I liked somebody else. The truth game didn’t get around to me the other night.”
“What?” asked Imogene vaguely. She had forgotten the other night, all nights except this, and she was thinking of the magic in Joe Gorman’s voice. She had the next dance with him; he was going to teach her the words of a new song. Basil was sort of peculiar, telling her all this stuff. He was good-looking and attractive and all that, but — she wanted the dance to be over. She wasn’t having any fun.
The music began inside —“Everybody’s Doing It,” played with many little nervous jerks on the violins.
“Oh, listen!” she cried, sitting up and snapping her fingers. “Do you know how to rag?”
“Listen, Imogene”— He half realized that something had slipped away —“let’s sit out this dance — you can tell Joe you forgot.”
She rose quickly. “Oh, no, I can’t!”
Unwillingly Basil followed her inside. It had not gone well — he had talked too much again. He waited moodily for the eleventh dance so that he could behave differently. He believed now that he was in love with Imogene. His self-deception created a tightness in his throat, a counterfeit of longing and desire.
Before the eleventh dance he was aware that some party was being organized from which he was purposely excluded. There were whisperings and arguings among some of the boys, and unnatural silences when he came near. He heard Joe Gorman say to Riply Buckner, “We’ll just be gone three days. If Gladys can’t go, why don’t you ask Connie? The chaperons’ll —” he changed his sentence as he saw Basil —“and we’ll all go to Smith’s for ice-cream soda.”
Later, Basil took Riply Buckner aside but failed to elicit any information: Riply had not forgotten Basil’s attempt to rob him of Imogene tonight.
“It wasn’t about anything,” he insisted. “We’re going to Smith’s, honest.... How’d you cut your lip?”
“Cut it shaving.”
When his dance with Imogene came she was even vaguer than before, exchanging mysterious communications with various girls as they moved around the room, locked in the convulsive grip of the Grizzly Bear. He led her out to the boat again, but it was occupied, and they walked up and down the pier while he tried to talk to her and she hummed:
“My little lov-in honey man —”
“Imogene, listen. What I wanted to ask you when we were on the boat before was about the night we played Truth. Did you really mean what you said?”
“Oh, what do you want to talk about that silly game for?”
It had reached her ears, not once but several times, that Basil thought he was wonderful — news that was flying about with as much volatility as the rumor of his graces two weeks before. Imogene liked to agree with everyone — and she had agreed with several impassioned boys that Basil was terrible. And it was difficult not to dislike him for her own disloyalty.
But Basil thought that only ill luck ended the intermission before he could accomplish his purpose; though what he had wanted he had not known.
Finally, during the intermission, Margaret Torrence, whom he had neglected, told him the truth.
“Are you going on the touring party up to the St. Croix River?” she asked. She knew he was not.
“Joe Gorman got it up. I’m going with Elwood Leaming.”
“No, I’m not going,” he said gruffly. “I couldn’t go.”
“I don’t like Joe Gorman.”
“I guess he doesn’t like you much either.”
“Why? What did he say?”
“But what? Tell me what he said.”
After a minute she told him, as if reluctantly: “Well, he and Hubert Blair said you thought — you thought you were wonderful.” Her heart misgave her.
But she remembered he had asked her for only one dance. “Joe said you told him that all the girls thought you were wonderful.”
“I never said anything like that,” said Basil indignantly, “never!”
He understood — Joe Gorman had done it all, taken advantage of Basil’s talking too much — an affliction which his real friends had always allowed for — in order to ruin him. The world was suddenly compact of villainy. He decided to go home.
In the coat room he was accosted by Bill Kampf: “Hello, Basil, how did you hurt your lip?”
“Cut it shaving.”
“Say, are you going to this party they’re getting up next week?”
“Well, look, I’ve got a cousin from Chicago coming to stay with us and mother said I could have a boy out for the week-end. Her name is Minnie Bibble.”
“Minnie Bibble?” repeated Basil, vaguely revolted.
“I thought maybe you were going to that party, too, but Riply Buckner said to ask you and I thought —”
“I’ve got to stay home,” said Basil quickly.
“Oh, come on, Basil,” he pursued. “It’s only for two days, and she’s a nice girl. You’d like her.”
“I don’t know,” Basil considered. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Bill. I’ve got to get the street car home. I’ll come out for the week-end if you’ll take me over to Wildwood now in your car.”
“Sure I will.”
Basil walked out on the veranda and approached Connie Davies.
“Good-by,” he said. Try as he might, his voice was stiff and proud. “I had an awfully good time.”
“I’m sorry you’re leaving so early, Basil.” But she said to herself: “He’s too stuck up to have a good time. He thinks he’s wonderful.”
From the veranda he could hear Imogene’s laughter down at the end of the pier. Silently he went down the steps and along the walk to meet Bill Kampf, giving strollers a wide berth as though he felt the sight of him would diminish their pleasure.
It had been an awful night.
Ten minutes later Bill dropped him beside the waiting trolley. A few last picnickers sauntered aboard and the car bobbed and clanged through the night toward St. Paul.
Presently two young girls sitting opposite Basil began looking over at him and nudging each other, but he took no notice — he was thinking how sorry they would all be — Imogene and Margaret, Joe and Hubert and Riply.
“Look at him now!” they would say to themselves sorrowfully. “President of the United States at twenty-five! Oh, if we only hadn’t been so bad to him that night!”
He thought he was wonderful!
Ermine Gilberte Labouisse Bibble was in exile. Her parents had brought her from New Orleans to Southampton in May, hoping that the active outdoor life proper to a girl of fifteen would take her thoughts from love. But North or South, a storm of sappling arrows flew about her. She was “engaged” before the first of June.
Let it not be gathered from the foregoing that the somewhat hard outlines of Miss Bibble at twenty had already begun to appear. She was of a radiant freshness; her head had reminded otherwise not illiterate young men of damp blue violets, pierced with blue windows that looked into a bright soul, with today’s new roses showing through.
She was in exile. She was going to Glacier National Park to forget. It was written that in passage she would come to Basil as a sort of initiation, turning his eyes out from himself and giving him a first dazzling glimpse into the world of love.
She saw him first as a quiet handsome boy with an air of consideration in his face, which was the mark of his recent re-discovery that others had wills as strong as his, and more power. It appeared to Minnie — as a few months back it had appeared to Margaret Torrence, like a charming sadness. At dinner he was polite to Mrs. Kampf in a courteous way that he had from his father, and he listened to Mr. Bibble’s discussion of the word “Creole” with such evident interest and appreciation that Mr. Bibble thought, “Now here’s a young boy with something to him.”
After dinner, Minnie, Basil and Bill rode into Black Bear village to the movies, and the slow diffusion of Minnie’s charm and personality presently became the charm and personality of the affair itself.
It was thus that all Minnie’s affairs for many years had a family likeness. She looked at Basil, a childish open look; then opened her eyes wider as if she had some sort of comic misgivings, and smiled — she smiled —
For all the candor of this smile, the effect — because of the special contours of Minnie’s face and independent of her mood — was sparkling invitation. Whenever it appeared Basil seemed to be suddenly inflated and borne upward, a little farther each time, only to be set down when the smile had reached a point where it must become a grin, and chose instead to melt away. It was like a drug. In a little while he wanted nothing except to watch it with a vast buoyant delight.
Then he wanted to see how close he could get to it.
There is a certain stage of an affair between young people when the presence of a third party is a stimulant. Before the second day had well begun, before Minnie and Basil had progressed beyond the point of great gross compliments about each other’s surpassing beauty and charm, both of them had begun to think about the time when they could get rid of their host, Bill Kampf.
In the late afternoon, when the first cool of the evening had come down and they were fresh and thin-feeling from swimming, they sat in a cushioned swing, piled high with pillows and shaded by the thick veranda vines; Basil put his arm around her and leaned toward her cheek and Minnie managed it that he touched her fresh lips instead. And he had always learned things quickly.
They sat there for an hour, while Bill’s voice reached them, now from the pier, now from the hall above, now from the pagoda at the end of the garden, and three saddled horses chafed their bits in the stable and all around them the bees worked faithfully among the flowers. Then Minnie reached up to reality, and they allowed themselves to be found —
“Why, we were looking for you too.”
And Basil, by simply waving his arms and wishing, floated miraculously upstairs to brush his hair for dinner.
“She certainly is a wonderful girl. Oh, gosh, she certainly is a wonderful girl!”
He mustn’t lose his head. At dinner and afterward he listened with unwavering deferential attention while Mr. Bibble talked of the boll weevil.
“But I’m boring you. You children want to go off by yourselves.”
“Not at all, Mr. Bibble. I was very interested — honestly.”
“Well, you all go on and amuse yourselves. I didn’t realize time was getting on. Nowadays it’s so seldom you meet a young man with good manners and good common sense in his head, that an old man like me is likely to go along forever.”
Bill walked down with Basil and Minnie to the end of the pier. “Hope we’ll have a good sailing tomorrow. Say, I’ve got to drive over to the village and get somebody for my crew. Do you want to come along?”
“I reckon I’ll sit here for a while and then go to bed,” said Minnie.
“All right. You want to come, Basil?”
“Why — why, sure, if you want me, Bill.”
“You’ll have to sit on a sail I’m taking over to be mended.”
“I don’t want to crowd you.”
“You won’t crowd me. I’ll go get the car.”
When he had gone they looked at each other in despair. But he did not come back for an hour — something happened about the sail or the car that took a long time. There was only the threat, making everything more poignant and breathless, that at any minute he would be coming.
By and by they got into the motorboat and sat close together murmuring: “This fall —” “When you come to New Orleans —” “When I go to Yale year after next —” “When I come North to school —” “When I get back from Glacier Park —” “Kiss me once more.”... “You’re terrible. Do you know you’re terrible?... You’re absolutely terrible —”
The water lapped against the posts; sometimes the boat bumped gently on the pier; Basil undid one rope and pushed, so that they swung off and way from the pier, and became a little island in the night...
... next morning, while he packed his bag, she opened the door of his room and stood beside him. Her face shone with excitement; her dress was starched and white.
“Basil, listen! I have to tell you: Father was talking after breakfast and he told Uncle George that he’d never met such a nice, quiet, level-headed boy as you, and Cousin Bill’s got to tutor this month, so father asked Uncle George if he thought your family would let you go to Glacier Park with us for two weeks so I’d have some company.” They took hands and danced excitedly around the room. “Don’t say anything about it, because I reckon he’ll have to write your mother and everything. Basil, isn’t it wonderful?”
So when Basil left at eleven, there was no misery in their parting. Mr. Bibble, going into the village for a paper, was going to escort Basil to his train, and till the motor-car moved away the eyes of the two young people shone and there was a secret in their waving hands.
Basil sank back in the seat, replete with happiness. He relaxed — to have made a success of the visit was so nice. He loved her — he loved even her father sitting beside him, her father who was privileged to be so close to her, to fuddle himself at that smile.
Mr. Bibble lit a cigar. “Nice weather,” he said. “Nice climate up to the end of October.”
“Wonderful,” agreed Basil. “I miss October now that I go East to school.”
“Getting ready for college?”
“Yes, sir; getting ready for Yale.” A new pleasurable thought occurred to him. He hesitated, but he knew that Mr. Bibble, who liked him, would share his joy. “I took my preliminaries this spring and I just heard from them — I passed six out of seven.”
“Good for you!”
Again Basil hesitated, then he continued: “I got A in ancient history and B in English history and English A. And I got C in algebra A and Latin A and B. I failed French A.”
“Good!” said Mr. Bibble.
“I should have passed them all,” went on Basil, “but I didn’t study hard at first. I was the youngest boy in my class and I had a sort of swelled head about it.”
It was well that Mr. Bibble should know he was taking no dullard to Glacier National Park. Mr. Bibble took a long puff of his cigar.
On second thought, Basil decided that his last remark didn’t have the right ring and he amended it a little.
“It wasn’t exactly a swelled head, but I never had to study very much, because in English I’d usually read most of the books before, and in history I’d read a lot too.” He broke off and tried again: “I mean, when you say swelled head you think of a boy just going around with his head swelled, sort of, saying, ‘Oh, look how much I know!’ Well, I wasn’t like that. I mean, I didn’t think I knew everything, but I was sort of —”
As he searched for the elusive word, Mr. Bibble said, “H’m!” and pointed with his cigar at a spot in the lake.
“There’s a boat,” he said.
“Yes,” agreed Basil. “I don’t know much about sailing. I never cared for it. Of course I’ve been out a lot, just tending boards and all that, but most of the time you have to sit with nothing to do. I like football.”
“H’m!” said Mr. Bibble. “When I was your age I was out in the Gulf in a catboat every day.”
“I guess it’s fun if you like it,” conceded Basil.
“Happiest days of my life.”
The station was in sight. It occurred to Basil that he should make one final friendly gesture.
“Your daughter certainly is an attractive girl, Mr. Bibble,” he said. “I usually get along with girls all right, but I don’t usually like them very much. But I think your daughter is the most attractive girl I ever met.” Then, as the car stopped, a faint misgiving overtook him and he was impelled to add with a disparaging little laugh. “Good-by. I hope I didn’t talk too much.”
“Not at all,” said Mr. Bibble. “Good luck to you. Goo’-by.”
A few minutes later, when Basil’s train had pulled out, Mr. Bibble stood at the newsstand buying a paper and already drying his forehead against the hot July day.
“Yes, sir! That was a lesson not to do anything in a hurry,” he was saying to himself vehemently. “Imagine listening to that fresh kid gabbling about himself all through Glacier Park! Thank the good Lord for that little ride!”
On his arrival home, Basil literally sat down and waited. Under no pretext would he leave the house save for short trips to the drug store for refreshments, whence he returned on a full run. The sound of the telephone or the door-bell galvanized him into the rigidity of the electric chair.
That afternoon he composed a wondrous geographical poem, which he mailed to Minnie:
Of all the fair flowers of Paris,
Of all the red roses of Rome,
Of all the deep tears of Vienna
The sadness wherever you roam,
I think of that night by the lakeside,
The beam of the moon and stars,
And the smell of an aching like perfume,
The tune of the Spanish guitars.
But Monday passed and most of Tuesday and no word came. Then, late in the afternoon of the second day, as he moved vaguely from room to room looking out of different windows into a barren lifeless street, Minnie called him on the phone.
“Yes?” His heart was beating wildly.
“Basil, we’re going this afternoon.”
“Going!” he repeated blankly.
“Oh, Basil, I’m so sorry. Father changed his mind about taking anybody West with us.”
“I’m so sorry, Basil.”
“I probably couldn’t have gone.”
There was a moment’s silence. Feeling her presence over the wire, he could scarcely breathe, much less speak.
“Basil, can you hear me?”
“We may come back this way. Anyhow, remember we’re going to meet this winter in New York.”
“Yes,” he said, and he added suddenly: “Perhaps we won’t ever meet again.”
“Of course we will. They’re calling me, Basil. I’ve got to go. Good-by.”
He sat down beside the telephone, wild with grief. The maid found him half an hour later bowed over the kitchen table. He knew what had happened as well as if Minnie had told him. He had made the same old error, undone the behavior of three days in half an hour. It would have been no consolation if it had occurred to him that it was just as well. Somewhere on the trip he would have let go and things might have been worse — though perhaps not so sad. His only thought now was that she was gone.
He lay on his bed, baffled, mistaken, miserable but not beaten. Time after time, the same vitality that had led his spirit to a scourging made him able to shake off the blood like water not to forget, but to carry his wounds with him to new disasters and new atonements — toward his unknown destiny.
Two days later his mother told him that on condition of his keeping the batteries on charge, and washing it once a week, his grandfather had consented to let him use the electric whenever it was idle in the afternoon. Two hours later he was out in it, gliding along Crest Avenue at the maximum speed permitted by the gears and trying to lean back as if it were a Stutz Bearcat. Imogene Bissel waved at him from in front of her house and he came to an uncertain stop.
“You’ve got a car!”
“It’s grandfather’s,” he said modestly. “I thought you were up on that party at the St. Croix.”
She shook her head. “Mother wouldn’t let me go — only a few girls went. There was a big accident over in Minneapolis and mother won’t even let me ride in a car unless there’s someone over eighteen driving.”
“Listen, Imogene, do you suppose your mother meant electrics?”
“Why, I never thought — I don’t know. I could go and see.”
“Tell your mother it won’t go over twelve miles an hour,” he called after her.
A minute later she ran joyfully down the walk. “I can go, Basil,” she cried. “Mother never heard of any wrecks in an electric. What’ll we do?”
“Anything,” he said in a reckless voice. “I didn’t mean that about this bus making only twelve miles an hour — it’ll make fifteen. Listen, let’s go down to Smith’s and have a claret lemonade.”
“Why, Basil Lee!”