The Plastic Age by Percy Marks - HTML preview
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Hugh spent the summer at home, working on the farm, reading a little, and occasionally visiting a lake summer resort a few miles away. Helen had left Merrytown to attend a secretarial school in a neighboring city, and Hugh was genuinely glad to find her gone when he returned from college. Helen was becoming not only a bore but a problem. Besides, he met a girl at Corley Lake, the summer resort, whom he found much more fascinating. For a month or two he thought that he was in love with Janet Harton. Night after night he drove to Corley Lake in his father's car, sometimes dancing with Janet in the pavilion, sometimes canoeing with her on the lake, sometimes taking her for long rides in the car, but often merely wandering through the pines with her or sitting on the shore of the lake and staring at the rippling water.
Janet was small and delicate; she seemed almost fragile. She did everything daintily—like a little girl playing tea-party. Her hands and feet were exquisitely small, her features childlike and indefinite, except her little coral mouth, which was as clearly outlined with color as a doll's and as mobile as a fluttering leaf. She had wide blue eyes and hair that was truly golden. Strangely, she had not bobbed it but wore it bound into a shining coil around her head.
Hugh wrote a poem to her. It began thus:
Maiden with the clear blue eyes,
Lady with the golden hair,
Exquisite child, serenely wise,
Sweetly tender, morning fair.
He wasn't sure that it was a very good poem; there was something reminiscent about the first line, and he was dubious about "morning fair." He had, however, studied German for a year in high school, and he guessed that if morgenschön was all right in German it was all right in English, too.
They rarely talked. Hugh was content to sit for hours with the delicate child nestling in his arm, her hand lying passive and cool in his. She made him feel very strong and protective. Nights, he dreamed of doing brave deeds for her, of saving her from terrible dangers. At first her vague, fleeting kisses thrilled him, but as the weeks went by and his passion grew, he found them strangely unsatisfying.
When she cuddled her lovely head in the hollow of his shoulder, he would lean forward and whisper: "Kiss me, Janet. Kiss me." Obediently she would turn her face upward, her little mouth pursed into a coral bud, but if he held her too tightly or prolonged the kiss, she pushed him away or turned her face. Then he felt repelled, chilled. She kissed him much as she kissed her mother every night, and he wanted—well he didn't quite know what he did want except that he didn't want to be kissed that way.
Finally he protested. "What's the matter, Janet?" he asked gently. "Don't you love me?"
"Of course," she answered calmly in her small flute-like voice; "of course I love you, but you are so rough. You mustn't kiss me hard like that; it isn't nice." Nice! Hugh felt as if she had slapped his face. Then he knew that she didn't understand at all. He tried to excuse her by telling himself that she was just a child—she was within a year of his own age—and that she would love him the way he did her when she grew older; but down in his heart he sensed the fact that she wasn't capable of love, that she merely wanted to be petted and caressed as a child did. The shadows and the moonlight did not move her as they did him, and she thought that he was silly when he said that he could hear a song in the night breeze. She had said that his poem was very pretty. That was all. Well, maybe it wasn't a very good poem, but it had—well, it had—it had something in it that wasn't just pretty.
He began to visit the lake less often and to wish that September and the opening of college would arrive. When the day finally came to return, he was almost as much excited as he had been the year before. Gosh! it would be good to see Carl again. The bum had written only once. Yeah, and Pudge Jamieson, too, and Larry Stillwell, and Bill Freeman, and—yes, by golly! Merton Billings. He'd be glad to see old Fat Billings. He wondered if Merton was as fat as ever and as pure. And all the brothers at the Nu Delta house. He'd been too busy to get really acquainted with them last year; but this year, by gosh, he'd get to know all of them. It certainly would be great to be back and be a sophomore and make the little frosh stand around.
He didn't carry his suit-case up the hill this time; he checked it and sent a freshman for it later. When he arrived at Surrey 19 Carl was already there—and he was kneeling before a trunk when Hugh walked into the room. Both of them instantly remembered the identical scene of the year before.
Carl jumped to his feet. "Hullo—who are you?" he demanded, his face beaming. Hugh pretended to be frightened and shy. "I'm Hugh Carver. I—I guess I'm going to room with you."
"You sure are!" yelled Carl, jumping over the trunk and landing on Hugh. "God! I'm glad to see you. Put it there." They shook hands and stared at each other with shining eyes.
Then they began to talk, interrupting each other, gesticulating, occasionally slapping each other violently on the back or knee, shouting with laughter as one of them told of a summer experience that struck them as funny. They were both so glad to get back to college, so glad to see each other, that they were almost hysterical. And when they left Surrey 19 arm in arm on their way to the Nu Delta house "to see the brothers," their cup of bliss was full to the brim and running over.
"Criminy, the ol' campus sure does look good," said Hugh ecstatically. "Watch the frosh work." He was suddenly reminded of something. "Hey, freshman!" he yelled at a big, red-faced youngster who was to be full-back on the football team a year hence.
The freshman came on a run. "Yes—yes, sir?"
"Here's a check. Take it down to the station and get my suit-case. Take it up to Surrey Nineteen and put it in the room. The door's open. Hurry up now; I'm going to want it pretty soon."
"Yes, sir. I'll hurry." And the freshman was off running.
Hugh and Carl grinned at each other, linked arms again, and continued their way across the campus. When they entered the Nu Delta house a shout went up. "Hi, Carl! Hi, Hugh! Glad to see you back. Didya have a good summer? Put it there, ol' kid"—and they shook hands, gripping each other's forearm at the same time.
Hugh tried hard to become a typical sophomore and failed rather badly. He retained much of the shyness and diffidence that gives the freshman his charm, and he did not succeed very well in acquiring the swagger, the cocky, patronizing manner, the raucous self-assurance that characterize the true sophomore. He found, too, that he couldn't lord it over the freshmen very well, and at times he was nothing less than a renegade to his class. He was constantly giving freshmen correct information about their problems, and during the dormitory initiations he more than once publicly objected to some "stunt" that seemed to him needlessly insulting to the initiates. Because he was an athlete, his opinion was respected, and quite unintentionally he won several good friends among the freshmen. His objections had all been spontaneous, and he was rather sorry about them afterward. He felt that he must be soft, that he ought to be able to stand anything that anybody else could. Further, he felt that there must be something wrong with his sense of humor; things that struck lots of his classmates as funny seemed merely disgusting to him.
He wanted very much to tell Carl about Janet, but for several weeks the opportunity did not present itself. There was too much excitement about the campus; the mood of the place was all wrong, and Hugh, although he didn't know it, was very sensitive to moods and atmosphere.
Finally one night in October he and Carl were seated in their big chairs before the fire. They had been walking that afternoon, and Hugh had been swept outside of himself by the brilliance of the autumn foliage. He was emotionally and physically tired, feeling that vague, melancholy happiness that comes after an intense but pleasant experience. Carl leaned back to the center-table and switched off the study light.
"Pleasanter with just the firelight," he said quietly. He, too, had something that he wanted to tell, and the less light the better.
Hugh sighed and relaxed comfortably into his chair. The shadows were thick and mysterious behind them; the flames leaped merrily in the fireplace. Both boys sat silent, staring into the fire.
Finally Hugh spoke.
"I met a girt this summer, Carl," he said softly.
"Yeah. Little peach. Awf'lly pretty. Dainty, you know. Awf'lly dainty—like a little kid. You know."
Carl had slumped down into his chair. He was smoking his pipe and staring pensively at the flames. "Un-huh. Go on."
"Well, I fell pretty hard. She was so—er, dainty. She always reminded me of a little girl playing lady. She had golden hair and blue eyes, the bluest eyes I've ever seen; oh, lots bluer than mine, lots bluer. And little bits of hands and feet." Carl continued to puff his pipe and stare at the fire. "Pet?" he asked dreamily. "Uh-huh. Yeah, she petted—but she was kinda funny—cold, you know, and kinda scared. Gee, Carl, I was crazy about her. I—I even wrote her a poem. I guess it wasn't very good, but I don't think she knew what it was about. I guess I'm off her now, though. She's too cold. I don't want a girl to fall over me—my last girl did that—but, golly, Carl, Janet didn't understand. I don't think she knows anything about love."
"Some of 'em don't," Carl remarked philosophically, slipping deeper into his chair. "They just pet."
"That's the way she was. She liked me to hold her and kiss her just as long as I acted like a big brother, but, criminy, when I felt that soft little thing in my arms, I didn't feel like a big brother; I loved her like hell.... She was awfully sweet," he added regretfully; "I wish she wasn't so cold."
"Hard luck, old man," said Carl consolingly, "hard luck. Guess you picked an iceberg."
For a few minutes the room was quiet except for the crackling of the fire, which was beginning to burn low. The shadows were creeping up on the boys; the flames were less merry.
Carl took his pipe out of his mouth and drawled softly, "I had better luck." Hugh pricked up his ears. "You haven't really fallen in love, have you?" he demanded eagerly. Carl had often said that he would never fall in love, that he was "too wise" to women.
"No, I didn't fall in love; nothing like that. I met a bunch of janes down at Bar Harbor. Some of them I'd known before, but I met some new ones, too. Had a damn good time. Some of those janes certainly could neck, and they were ready for it any time. Gee, if the old lady hadn't been there, I'd a been potted about half the time. As it was, I drank enough gin and Scotch to float a battle-ship. Well, the old lady had to go to New York on account of some business; so I went down to Christmas Cove to visit some people I know there. Christmas Cove's a nice place; not so high-hat as Bar Harbor, but still it's a nice place."
Hugh felt that Carl was leaving the main track, and he hastened to shunt him back. "Sure," he said in cheerful agreement; "sure it is—but what happened?" "What happened? Oh—oh, yes!" Carl brought himself back to the present with an obvious effort. "Sure, I'll tell you what happened. Well, there was a girl there named Elaine Marston. She wasn't staying with the folks I was, but they knew her, so I saw a lot of her. See?"
"Sure." Hugh wished he would hurry up. Carl didn't usually wander all over when telling a story. This must be something special.
"Well, I saw lots of her. Lots. Pretty girl, nice family and everything, but she liked her booze and she liked to pet. Awful hot kid. Well, one night we went to a dance, and between dances we had a lot of gin I had brought with me. Good stuff, too. I bought it off a guy who brought it down from Canada himself. Where was I? Oh, yes, at the dance. We both got pie-eyed; I was all liquored up, and I guess she was, too. After the dance was over, I dared her to walk over to South Bristol— that's just across the island, you know—and then walk back again. Well, we hadn't gone far when we decided to sit down. We were both kinda dizzy from the gin. You have to go through the woods, you know, and it's dark as hell in there at night.... We sat down among some ferns and I began to pet her. Don't know why—just did.... Oh, hell! what's the use of going into details? You can guess what happened."
Hugh sat suddenly erect. "You didn't—"
Carl stood up and stretched. "Yeah," he yawned, "I did it. Lots of times afterwards."
Hugh was dazed. He didn't know what to think. For an instant he was shocked, and then he was envious. "Wonder if Janet would have gone the whole way," flitted across his mind. He instantly dismissed the question; he felt that it wasn't fair to Janet. But Carl? Gosh!
Carl yawned again. "Great stuff," he said nonchalantly. "Sleepy as hell. Guess I'll hit the hay." He eyed Hugh suspiciously. "You aren't shocked, are you? You don't think I'm a moral leper or anything like that?" He attempted to be light but wasn't altogether successful.
"Of course not." Hugh denied the suggestion vehemently, and yet down in his heart he felt a keen disappointment. He hardly knew why he was disappointed, but he was. "Going to bed?" he asked as casually as he could.
"Yeah. Good night."
"Good night, old man."
Each boy went to his own bedroom, Hugh to go to bed and think Carl's story over. It thrilled him, and he envied Carl, and yet—and yet he wished Carl hadn't done it. It made him and Carl different—sorta not the same; no that wasn't it. He didn't know just what the trouble was, but there was a sharp sting of disillusionment that hurt. He would have been more confused had he known what was happening in Carl's room.
Carl had walked into his own bedroom, lighted the light, and closed the door. Then he walked to the dresser and stared at himself in the mirror, stared a long time as if the face were somehow new to him.
There was a picture of the "old lady" on the dresser. It caught his eye, and he flinched. It seemed to look at him reproachfully. He thought of his mother, and he thought of how he had bluffed Hugh. He had cried after his first experience with the girl.
He looked again into the mirror. "You goddamn hypocrite," he said softly; "you goddamn hypocrite." His lip curled in contempt at his image.
He began to undress rapidly. The eyes of the "old lady" in the picture seemed to follow him around the room. The thought of her haunted him. Desperately, he switched out the light.
Once in bed, he rolled over on his stomach and buried his face in the pillow. "God!" he whispered. "God!"