The Plastic Age by Percy Marks - HTML preview
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Hugh found real happiness in Norry Parker's companionship, and such men as Burbank and Winsor were giving him a more robust but no less pleasant friendship. They were earnest youths, eager and alive, curious about the world, reading, discussing all sorts of topics vigorously, and yet far more of the earth earthy than Parker, who was so mystical and dreamy that constant association with him would have been something of a strain.
For a time life seemed to settle down into a pleasant groove of studies that took not too much time, movies, concerts, an occasional play by the Dramatic Society, perhaps a slumming party to a dance in Hastings Saturday nights, bull sessions, long talks with Henley in his office or at his home, running on the track, and some reading.
For a week or two life was lifted out of the groove by a professor's daughter. Burbank introduced Hugh to her, and at first he was attracted by her calm dignity. He called three times and then gave her up in despair. Her dignity hid an utterly blank mind. She was as uninteresting as her father, and he had the reputation, well deserved, of being the dullest lecturer on the campus.
Only one event disturbed the pleasant calm of Hugh's life after his argument with Tucker. He did not attend Prom because he knew no girl whom he cared to ask; he failed again to make his letter and took his failure philosophically; and he received a note from Janet Harton telling him that she was engaged to "the most wonderful man in the world"—and he didn't give a hoot if she was. Just after Easter vacation the Nu Deltas gave their annual house dance. Hugh looked forward to it with considerable pleasure. True, he was not "dragging a woman," but several of the brothers were going "stag"; so he felt completely at ease.
The freshmen were put to work cleaning the house, the curtains were sent to the laundry, bedroom closets and dresser drawers were emptied of anything the girls might find too interesting, and an enormously expensive orchestra was imported from New York. Finally a number of young alumni, the four patronesses, and the girls appeared.
Getting dressed for the dance was a real event in Hugh's life. He had worn evening clothes only a few times before, but those occasions, fraternity banquets and glee club concerts, were, he felt, relatively unimportant. The dance, however, was different, and he felt that he must look his best, his very "smoothest." He was a rare undergraduate; he owned everything necessary to wear to an evening function—at least, everything an undergraduate considered necessary. He did not own a dress-suit, and he would have had no use for it if he had; only Tuxedos were worn.
He dressed with great care, tying and retying his tie until it was knotted perfectly. When at last he drew on his jacket, he looked himself over in the mirror with considerable satisfaction. He knew that he was dressed right.
It hardly entered his mind that he was an exceedingly good-looking young man. Vanity was not one of his faults. But he had good reason to be pleased with the image he was examining for any sartorial defects. He had brushed his sandy brown hair until it shone; his shave had left his slender cheeks almost as smooth as a girl's; his blue eyes were very bright and clear; and the black suit emphasized his blond cleanness: it was a wholesome-looking, attractive youth who finally pulled on his top-coat and started happily across the campus for the Nu Delta house.
The dance was just starting when he arrived. The patronesses were in the library, a small room off the living-room. Hugh learned later that six men had been delegated to keep the patronesses in the library and adequately entertained. The men worked in shifts, and although the dance lasted until three the next morning, not a patroness got a chance to wander unchaperoned around the house.
The living-room of the Nu Delta house was so large that it was unnecessary to use the dining-room for a dance. Therefore, most of the big chairs and divans had been moved into the dining-room—and the dining-room was dark. Hugh permitted himself to be presented to the patronesses, mumbled a few polite words, and then joined the stag line, waiting for a chance to cut in. Presently a couple moved slowly by, so slowly that they did not seem to move at all. The girl was Hester Sheville, and Hugh had been introduced to her in the afternoon. Despite rather uneven features and red hair, she was almost pretty; and in her green evening gown, which was cut daringly low, she was flashing and attractive.
Hugh stepped forward and tapped her partner on the shoulder. The brother released her with a grimace at Hugh, and Hester, without a word, put her right hand in Hugh's left and slipped her left arm around his neck. They danced in silence for a time, bodies pressed close together, swaying in place, hardly advancing. Presently, however, Hester drew her head back and spoke. "Hot stuff, isn't it?" she asked lazily.
Hugh was startled. Her breath was redolent of whisky.
"Sure is," he replied and executed a difficult step, the girl following him without the slightest difficulty. She danced remarkably, but he was glad when he was tapped on the shoulder and another brother claimed Hester. The whisky breath had repelled him.
As the evening wore on he danced with a good many girls who had whisky breaths. One girl clung to him as they danced and whispered, "Hold me up, kid; I'm ginned." He had to rush a third, a dainty blond child, to the porch railing. She wasn't a pretty sight as she vomited into the garden; nor did Hugh find her gasped comment, "The seas are rough to-night," amusing. Another girl went sound asleep in a chair and had to be carried up-stairs and put to bed. A number of the brothers were hilarious; a few had drunk too much and were sick; one had a "crying jag." There were men there, however, who were not drinking at all, and they were making gallant efforts to keep the sober girls away from the less sober girls and the inebriated brothers.
Hugh was not drinking. The idea of drinking at a dance was offensive to him; he thought it insulting to the girls. The fact that some of the girls were drinking horrified him. He didn't mind their smoking—well, not very much; but drinking? That was going altogether too far.
About midnight he danced again with Hester Sheville, not because he wanted to but because she had insisted. He had been standing gloomily in the doorway watching the bacchanalian scene, listening to the tom-tom of the drums when she came up to him.
"I wanta dance," she said huskily. "I wanta dance with you—you—you blond beast." Seeing no way to decline to dance with the half-drunk girl, he put his arm around her and started off. Hester's tongue was no longer in control, but her feet followed his unerringly. When the music stopped, she whispered, "Take me—tatake me to th' th' dining-room." Wonderingly, Hugh led her across the hall. He had not been in the dining-room since the dance started, and he was amazed and shocked to find half a dozen couples in the big chairs or on the divans in close embrace. He paused, but Hester led him to an empty chair, shoved him clumsily down into it, and then flopped down on his lap.
"Le's—le's pet," she whispered. "I wanna pet."
Again Hugh smelled the whisky fumes as she put her hot mouth to his and kissed him hungrily. He was angry, angry and humiliated. He tried to get up, to force the girl off of his lap, but she clung tenaciously to him, striving insistently to kiss him on the mouth. Finally Hugh's anger got the better of his manners; he stood up, the girl hanging to his neck, literally tore her arms off of him, took her by the waist and set her down firmly in the chair.
"Sit there," he said softly, viciously; "sit there."
She began to cry, and he walked rapidly out of the dining-room, his cheeks flaming and his eyes flashing; and the embracing couples paid no attention to him at all. He had to pass the door of the library to get his top-coat—he made up his mind to get out of the "goddamned house"—and was walking quickly by the door when one of the patronesses called to him.
"Oh, Mr. Carver. Will you come here a minute?"
"Surely, Mrs. Reynolds." He entered the library and waited before the dowager. "I left my wrap up-stairs—in Mr. Merrill's room, I think it is. I am getting a little chilly. Won't you get it for me?"
"Of course. It's in Merrill's room?"
"I think it is. It's right at the head of the stairs. The wrap's blue with white fur." Hugh ran up the stairs, opened Merrill's door, switched on the lights, and immediately spotted the wrap lying over the back of a chair. He picked it up and was about to leave the room when a noise behind him attracted his attention. He turned and saw a man and a girl lying on the bed watching him.
Hugh stared blankly at them, his mouth half open.
"Get th' hell out of here," the man said roughly.
For an instant Hugh continued to stare; then he whirled about, walked out of the room, slammed the door behind him, and hurried down the stairs. He delivered the wrap to Mrs. Reynolds, and two minutes later he was out of the house walking, almost running, across the campus to Surrey Hall. Once there, he tore off his top-coat, his jacket, his collar and tie, and threw himself down into a chair. So this was college! This was the fraternity—that goddamned rat house! That was what he had pledged allegiance to, was it? Those were his brothers, were they? Brothers! Brothers!
He fairly leaped out of his chair and began to pace the floor. College! Gentlemen! A lot of muckers chasing around with a bunch of rats; that's what they were. Great thing—fraternities. No doubt about it, they were a great institution. He paused in his mental tirade, suddenly conscious of the fact that he wasn't fair. Some of the fraternities, he knew, would never stand for any such performance as he had witnessed that evening; most of them, he was sure, wouldn't. It was just the Nu Deltas and one or two others; well, maybe three or four. So that's what he had joined, was it?
He thought of Hester Sheville, of her whisky breath, her lascivious pawing—and his hands clenched. "Filthy little rat," he said aloud, "the stinkin', rotten rat." Then he remembered that there had been girls there who hadn't drunk anything, girls who somehow managed to move through the whole orgy calm and sweet. His anger mounted. It was a hell of a way to treat a decent girl, to ask her to a dance with a lot of drunkards and soused rats.
He was warm with anger. Reckless of the buttons, he tore off his waistcoat and threw it on a chair. The jeweled fraternity pin by the pocket caught his eye. He stared at it for a moment and then slowly unpinned it. He let it lie in his hand and addressed it aloud, hardly aware of the fact that he was speaking at all. "So that's what you stand for, is it? For snobs and politicians and muckers. Well, I don't want any more of you—not—one—damn—bit—more—of—you." He tossed the pin indifferently upon the center-table, making up his mind that he would resign from the fraternity the next day.
When the next day came he found, however, that his anger had somewhat abated. He was still indignant, but he didn't have the courage to go through with his resignation. Such an action, he knew, would mean a great deal of publicity, publicity impossible to avoid. The fraternity would announce its acceptance of his resignation in "The Sanford Daily News"; and then he would either have to lie or start a scandal.
As the days went by and he thought more and more about the dance, he began to doubt his indignation. Wasn't he after all a prude to get so hot? Wasn't he perhaps a prig, a sissy? At times he thought that he was; at other times he was sure that he wasn't. He could be permanently sure of only one thing, that he was a cynic.