The Plastic Age by Percy Marks - HTML preview
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About a week after the opening of college, Hugh returned to Surrey Hall one night feeling unusually virtuous and happy. He had worked religiously at the library until it had closed at ten, and he had been in the mood to study. His lessons for the next day were all prepared, and prepared well. He had strolled across the moon-lit campus, buoyant and happy. Some one was playing the organ in the dark chapel; he paused to listen. Two students passed him, humming softly,
"Sanford, Sanford, mother of men,
Love us, guard us, hold us true...."
The dormitories were dim masses broken by rectangles of soft yellow light. Somewhere a banjo twanged. Another student passed.
"Hello, Carver," he said pleasantly. "Nice night."
"Oh, hello, Jones. It sure is."
The simple greeting completed his happiness. He felt that he belonged, that Sanford, the "mother of men," had taken him to her heart. The music in the chapel swelled, lyric, passionate—up! up! almost a cry. The moonlight was golden between the heavy shadows of the elms. Tears came into the boy's eyes; he was melancholy with joy.
He climbed the stairs of Surrey slowly, reluctant to reach his room and Carl's flippancy. He passed an open door and glanced at the men inside the room. "Hi, Hugh. Come in and bull a while."
"Not to-night, thanks." He moved on down the hall, feeling a vague resentment; his mood had been broken, shattered.
The door opposite his own room was slightly open. A freshman lived there, Herbert Morse, a queer chap with whom Carl and Hugh had succeeded in scraping up only the slightest acquaintance. He was a big fellow, fully six feet, husky and quick. The football coach said that he had the makings of a great halfback, but he had already been fired off the squad because of his irregularity in reporting for practice. Except for what the boys called his stand-offishness— some of them said that he was too damned high-hat—he was extremely attractive. He had red, almost copper-colored, hair, and an exquisite skin, as delicate as a child's. His features were well carved, his nose slightly aquiline—a magnificent looking fellow, almost imperious; or as Hugh once said to Carl, "Morse looks kinda noble."
As Hugh placed his hand on the door-knob of No 19, he heard something that sounded suspiciously like a sob from across the hall. He paused and listened. He was sure that he could hear some one crying.
"Wonder what's wrong," he thought, instantly disturbed and sympathetic. He crossed the hall and tapped lightly on Morse's door. There was no answer; nor was there any when he tapped a second time. For a moment he was abashed, and then he pushed open the door and entered Morse's room. In the far corner Morse was sitting at his, desk, his head buried in his arms, his shoulders shaking. He was crying fiercely, terribly; at times his whole body jerked in the violence of his sobbing.
Hugh stood by the door embarrassed and rather frightened. Morse's grief brought a lump to his throat. He had never seen any one cry like that before. Something had to be done. But what could he do? He had no right to intrude on Morse, but he couldn't let the poor fellow go on suffering like that. As he stood there hesitant, shaken, Morse buried his head deeper in his arms, moaned convulsively, twisting and trembling after a series of sobs that seemed to tear themselves from him. That was too much for Hugh. He couldn't stand it. Some force outside of him sent him across the room to Morse. He put his hand on a quivering shoulder and said gently:
"What is it, Morse? What's the matter?"
Morse ran his hand despairingly through his red hair, shook his head, and made no answer.
"Come on, old man; buck up." Hugh's voice trembled; it was husky with sympathy. "Tell me about it. Maybe I can help."
Then Morse looked up, his face stained with tears, his eyes inflamed, almost desperate. He stared at Hugh wonderingly. For an instant he was angry at the intrusion, but his anger passed at once. He could not miss the tenderness and sympathy in Hugh's face; and the boy's hand was still pressing with friendly insistence on his shoulder. There was something so boyishly frank, so clean and honest about Hugh that his irritation melted into confidence; and he craved a confidant passionately.
"Shut the door," he said dully, and reached into his trousers pocket for his handkerchief. He mopped his face and eyes vigorously while Hugh was closing the door, and then blew his nose as if he hated it. But the tears continued to come, and all during his talk with Hugh he had to pause occasionally to dry his eyes.
Hugh stood awkwardly in the middle of the rug, not knowing whether to sit down or not. Morse was clutching his handkerchief in his hand and staring at the floor. Finally he spoke up.
"Sit down," he said in a dead voice, "there."
Hugh sank into the chair Morse indicated and then gripped his hands together. He felt weak and frightened, and absolutely unable to say anything. But Morse saved him the trouble.
"I suppose you think I am an awful baby," he began, his voice thick with tears, "but I just can't help it. I—I just can't help it. I don't want to cry, but I do." And then he added defiantly, "Go ahead and think I'm a baby if you want to." "I don't think you're a baby," Hugh said softly; "I'm just sorry; that's all.... I hope I can help." He smiled shyly, hopefully.
His smile conquered Morse. "You're a good kid, Carver," he cried impulsively. "A darn good kid. I like you, and I'm going to tell you all about it. And I—I—I won't care if you laugh."
"I won't laugh," Hugh promised, relieved to think that there was a possibility of laughing. The trouble couldn't be so awfully bad.
Morse blew his nose, stuck his handkerchief into his pocket, pulled it out again and dabbed his eyes, returned it to his pocket, and suddenly stood up. "I'm homesick!" he blurred out. "I'm—I'm homesick, damned homesick. I've been homesick ever since I arrived. I—I just can't stand it."
For an instant Hugh did have a wild desire to laugh. Part of the desire was caused by nervous relief, but part of it was caused by what seemed to him the absurdity of the situation: a big fellow like Morse blubbering, bawling for home and mother!
"You can't know," Morse went on, "how awful it is—awful! I want to cry all the time. I can't listen in classes. A prof asked me a question to-day, and I didn't know what he had been talking about. He asked me what he had said. I had to say I didn't know. The whole class laughed, and the prof asked me why I had come to college. God! I nearly died."
Hugh's sympathy was all captured again. He knew that he would die if he ever made a fool of himself in the class-room.
"Gosh!" he exclaimed. "What did you say?"
"Nothing. I couldn't think of anything. For a minute I thought that my head was going to bust. He quit razzing me and I tried to pay attention, but I couldn't; all I could do was think of home. Lord! I wish I was there!" He mopped at his eyes and paced up and down the room nervously.
"Oh, you'll get over that," Hugh said comfortingly. "Pretty soon you'll get to know lots of fellows, and then you won't mind about home."
"That's what I keep telling myself, but it don't work. I can't eat or sleep. I can't study. I can't do anything. I tell you I've got to go home. I've got to!" This last with desperate emphasis.
Hugh smiled. "You're all wrong," he asserted positively. "You're just lonely; that's all. I bet that you'll be crazy about college in a month—same as the rest of us. When you feel blue, come in and see Peters and me. We'll make you grin; Peters will, anyway. You can't be blue around him."
Morse sat down. "You don't understand. I'm not lonely. It isn't that. I could talk to fellows all day long if I wanted to. I don't want to talk to 'em. I can't. There's just one person that I want to talk to, and that's my mother." He shot the word "mother" out defiantly and glared at Hugh, silently daring him to laugh, which Hugh had sense enough not to do, although he wanted to strongly. The great big baby, wanting his mother! Why, he wanted his mother, too, but he didn't cry about it.
"That's all right," he said reassuringly; "you'll see her Christmas vacation, and that isn't very long off."
"I want to see her now!" Morse jumped to his feet and raised his clenched hands above his head. "Now!" he roared. "Now! I've got to. I'm going home on the midnight." He whirled about to his desk and began to pull open the drawers, piling their contents on the top.
"Here!" Hugh rushed to him and clutched his arms. "Don't do that." Morse struggled, angry at the restraining hands, ready to strike them off. Hugh had a flash of inspiration. "Think how disappointed your mother will be," he cried, hanging on to Morse's arms; "think of her."
Morse ceased struggling. "She will be disappointed," he admitted miserably. "What can I do?" There was a world of despair in his question.
Hugh pushed him into the desk-chair and seated himself on the edge of the desk. "I'll tell you," he said. He talked for half an hour, cheering Morse, assuring him that his homesickness would pass away, offering to study with him. At first Morse paid little attention, but finally he quit sniffing and looked up, real interest in his face. When Hugh got a weak smile out of him, he felt that his work had been done. He jumped off the desk, leaned over to slap Morse on the back, and told him that he was a good egg but a damn fool.
Morse grinned. "You're a good egg yourself," he said gratefully. "You've saved my life."
Hugh was pleased and blushed. "You're full of bull.... Remember, we do Latin at ten to-morrow." He opened the door. "Good night."
"Good night." And Hugh heard as he closed the door. "Thanks a lot." When he opened his own door, he found Carl sitting before a blazing log fire. There was no other light in the room. Carl had written his nightly letter to the "old lady," and he was a little homesick himself—softened into a tender and pensive mood. He did not move as Hugh sat down in a big chair on the other side of the hearth and said softly, "Thinking?"
"Un-huh. Where you been?"
"Across the hall in Morse's room." Then as Carl looked up in surprise, he told him of his experience with their red-headed neighbor. "He'll get over it," he concluded confidently. "He's just been lonely."
Carl puffed contemplatively at his pipe for a few minutes before replying. Hugh waited, watching the slender boy stretched out in a big chair before the fire, his ankles crossed, his face gentle and boyish in the ruddy, flickering light. The shadows, heavy and wavering, played magic with the room; it was vast, mysterious.
"No," said Carl, pausing again to puff his pipe; "no, he won't get over it. He'll go home."
"Aw, shucks. A big guy like that isn't going to stay a baby all his life." Hugh was frankly derisive. "Soon as he gets to know a lot of fellows, he'll forget home and mother."
Carl smiled vaguely, his eyes dreamy as he gazed into the hypnotizing flames. The mask of sophistication had slipped off his face; he was pleasantly in the control of a gentle mood, a mood that erased the last vestige of protective coloring.
He shook his head slowly. "You don't understand, Hugh. Morse is sick, sick—not lonesome. He's got something worse than flu. Nobody can stand what he's got." Hugh looked at him in bewilderment. This was a new Carl, some one he hadn't met before. Gone was the slang flippancy, the hard roughness. Even his voice was softened.
Carl knocked his pipe empty on the knob of an andiron, sank deeper into his chair, and began to speak slowly.
"I think I'm going to tell you a thing or two about myself. We've got to room together, and I—well, I like you. You're a good egg, but you don't get me at all. I guess you've never run up against anybody like me before." He paused. Hugh said nothing, afraid to break into Carl's mood. He was intensely curious. He leaned forward and watched Carl, who was staring dreamily into the fire. "I told you once, I think," he continued, "that my old man had left us a lot of jack. That's true. We're rich, awfully rich. I have my own account and can spend as much as I like. The sky's the limit. What I didn't tell you is that we're nouveau riche—no class at all. My old man made all his money the first year of the war. He was a commission-merchant, a middleman. Money just rolled in, I guess. He bought stocks with it, and they boomed; and he had sense enough to sell them when they were at the top. Six years ago we didn't have hardly anything. Now we're rich."
"My old man was a good scout, but he didn't have much education; neither has the old lady. Both of 'em went through grammar-school; that's all." "Well, they knew they weren't real folks, not regular people, and they wanted me to be. See? That's why they sent me to Kane. Well, Kane isn't strong for nouveau riche kids, not by a damn sight. At first old Simmonds—he's the head master— wouldn't take me, said that he didn't have room; but my old man begged and begged, so finally Simmonds said all right."
Again he paused, and Hugh waited. Carl was speaking so softly that he had trouble in hearing him, but somehow he didn't dare to ask him to speak louder. "I sha'n't forget the day," Carl went on, "that the old man left me at Kane. I was scared, and I didn't want to stay. But he made me; he said that Kane would make a gentleman out of me. I was homesick, homesick as hell. I know how Morse feels. I tried to run away three times, but they caught me and brought me back. Cry? I bawled all the time when I was alone. I couldn't sleep for weeks; I just laid in bed and bawled. God! it was awful. The worst of it was the meals. I didn't know how to eat right, you see, and the master who sat at the table with our form would correct me. I used to want to die, and sometimes I would say that I was sick and didn't want any food so that I wouldn't have to go to meals. The fellows razzed the life out of me; some of 'em called me Paddy. The reason I came here to Sanford was that no Kane fellows come here. They go mostly to Williams, but some of 'em go to Yale or Princeton.
"Well, I had four years of that, and I was homesick the whole four years. Oh, I don't mean that they kept after me all the time—that was just the first few months—but they never really accepted me. I never felt at home. Even when I was with a bunch of them, I felt lonesome.... And they never made a gentleman out of me, though my old lady thinks they did."
"You're crazy," Hugh interrupted indignantly. "You're as much a gentleman as anybody in college."
Carl smiled and shook his head. "No, you don't understand. You're a gentleman, but I'm not. Oh, I know all the tricks, the parlor stunts. Four years at Kane taught me those, but they're just tricks to me. I don't know just how to explain it—but I know that you're a gentleman and I'm not."
"You're just plain bug-house. You make me feel like a fish. Why, I'm just from a country high school. I'm not in your class." Hugh sat up and leaned eagerly toward Carl, gesticulating excitedly.
"As if that made any difference," Carl replied, his voice sharp with scorn. "You see, I'm a bad egg. I drink and gamble and pet. I haven't gone the limit yet on— on account of my old lady—but I will."
Hugh was relieved. He had wondered more than once during the past week "just how far Carl had gone." Several times Carl had suggested by sly innuendos that there wasn't anything that he hadn't done, and Hugh had felt a slight disapproval—and considerable envy. His own standards were very high, very strict, but he was ashamed to reveal them.
"I've never gone the limit either," he confessed shyly.
Carl threw back his head and laughed. "You poor fish; don't you suppose I know that?" he exclaimed.
"How did you know?" Hugh demanded indignantly. "I might've. Why, I was out with a girl just before I left home and—"
"You kissed her," Carl concluded for him. "I don't know how I knew, but I did. You're just kinda pure; that's all. I'm not pure at all; I'm just a little afraid—and I keep thinkin' of my old lady. I've started to several times, but I've always thought of her and quit."
He sat silent for a minute or two and then continued more gently. "My old lady never came to Kane. She never will come here, either. She wants to give me a real chance. See? She knows she isn't a lady—but—but, oh, God, Hugh, she's white, white as hell. I guess I think more of her than all the rest of the world put together. That's why I write to her every night. She writes to me every day, too. The letters have mistakes in them, but—but they keep me straight. That is, they have so far. I know, though, that some night I'll be out with a bag and get too much liquor in me—and then good-by, virginity."
"You're crazy, Carl. You know you won't." Carl rose from the chair and stretched hugely. "You're a good egg, Hugh," he said in the midst of a yawn, "but you're a damn fool."
Hugh started. That was just what he had said to Morse.
He never caught Carl in a confidential mood again. The next morning he was his old flippant self, swearing because he had to study his Latin, which wasn't "of any damned use to anybody."
In the following weeks Hugh religiously clung to Morse, helped him with his work, went to the movies with him, inveigled him into going on several long walks. Morse was more cheerful and almost pathetically grateful. One day, however, Hugh found an unstamped letter on the floor. He opened it wonderingly. Dear Hugh [he read]. You've been awfully good to me but I can't stand it. I'm going home to-day. Give my regards to Peters. Thanks for all you've done for me.