All the Sad Young Men, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“The Sensible Thing”

Liberty, 15 July 1924
I

At the Great American Lunch Hour young George O’Kelly straightened his desk deliberately and with an assumed air of interest. No one in the office must know that he was in a hurry, for success is a matter of atmosphere, and it is not well to advertise the fact that your mind is separated from your work by a distance of seven hundred miles.

But once out of the building he set his teeth and began to run, glancing now and then at the gay noon of early spring which filled Times Square and loitered less than twenty feet over the heads of the crowd. The crowd all looked slightly upward and took deep March breaths, and the sun dazzled their eyes so that scarcely any one saw any one else but only their own reflection on the sky.

George O’Kelly, whose mind was over seven hundred miles away, thought that all outdoors was horrible. He rushed into the subway, and for ninety-five blocks bent a frenzied glance on a car-card which showed vividly how he had only one chance in five of keeping his teeth for ten years. At 137th Street he broke off his study of commercial art, left the subway, and began to run again, a tireless, anxious run that brought him this time to his home — one room in a high, horrible apartment-house in the middle of nowhere.

There it was on the bureau, the letter — in sacred ink, on blessed paper — all over the city, people, if they listened, could hear the beating of George O’Kelly’s heart. He read the commas, the blots, and the thumb-smudge on the margin — then he threw himself hopelessly upon his bed.

He was in a mess, one of those terrific messes which are ordinary incidents in the life of the poor, which follow poverty like birds of prey. The poor go under or go up or go wrong or even go on, somehow, in a way the poor have — but George O’Kelly was so new to poverty that had any one denied the uniqueness of his case he would have been astounded.

Less than two years ago he had been graduated with honors from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had taken a position with a firm of construction engineers in southern Tennessee. All his life he had thought in terms of tunnels and skyscrapers and great squat dams and tall, three-towered bridges, that were like dancers holding hands in a row, with heads as tall as cities and skirts of cable strand. It had seemed romantic to George O’Kelly to change the sweep of rivers and the shape of mountains so that life could flourish in the old bad lands of the world where it had never taken root before. He loved steel, and there was always steel near him in his dreams, liquid steel, steel in bars, and blocks and beams and formless plastic masses, waiting for him, as paint and canvas to his hand. Steel inexhaustible, to be made lovely and austere in his imaginative fire . . .

At present he was an insurance clerk at forty dollars a week with his dream slipping fast behind him. The dark little girl who had made this mess, this terrible and intolerable mess, was waiting to be sent for in a town in Tennessee.

In fifteen minutes the woman from whom he sublet his room knocked and asked him with maddening kindness if, since he was home, he would have some lunch. He shook his head, but the interruption aroused him, and getting up from the bed he wrote a telegram.

“Letter depressed me have you lost your nerve you are foolish and just upset to think of breaking off why not marry me immediately sure we can make it all right —”

He hesitated for a wild minute, and then added in a hand that could scarcely be recognized as his own: “In any case I will arrive to-morrow at six o’clock.”

When he finished he ran out of the apartment and down to the telegraph office near the subway stop. He possessed in this world not quite one hundred dollars, but the letter showed that she was “nervous” and this left him no choice. He knew what “nervous” meant — that she was emotionally depressed, that the prospect of marrying into a life of poverty and struggle was putting too much strain upon her love.

George O’Kelly reached the insurance company at his usual run, the run that had become almost second nature to him, that seemed best to express the tension under which he lived. He went straight to the manager’s office.

“I want to see you, Mr. Chambers,” he announced breathlessly.

“Well?” Two eyes, eyes like winter windows, glared at him with ruthless impersonality.

“I want to get four days’ vacation.”

“Why, you had a vacation just two weeks ago!” said Mr. Chambers in surprise.

“That’s true,” admitted the distraught young man, “but now I’ve got to have another.”

“Where’d you go last time? To your home?”

“No, I went to — a place in Tennessee.”

“Well, where do you want to go this time?”

“Well, this time I want to go to — a place in Tennessee.”

“You’re consistent, anyhow,” said the manager dryly. “But I didn’t realize you were employed here as a travelling salesman.”

“I’m not,” cried George desperately, “but I’ve got to go.”

“All right,” agreed Mr. Chambers, “but you don’t have to come back. So don’t!”

“I won’t.” And to his own astonishment as well as Mr. Chambers’ George’s face grew pink with pleasure. He felt happy, exultant — for the first time in six months he was absolutely free. Tears of gratitude stood in his eyes, and he seized Mr. Chambers warmly by the hand.

“I want to thank you,” he said with a rush of emotion. “I don’t want to come back. I think I’d have gone crazy if you’d said that I could come back. Only I couldn’t quit myself, you see, and I want to thank you for — for quitting for me.”

He waved his hand magnanimously, shouted aloud, “You owe me three days’ salary but you can keep it!” and rushed from the office. Mr. Chambers rang for his stenographer to ask if O’Kelly had seemed queer lately. He had fired many men in the course of his career, and they had taken it in many different ways, but none of them had thanked him — ever before.

II

Jonquil Cary was her name, and to George O’Kelly nothing had ever looked so fresh and pale as her face when she saw him and fled to him eagerly along the station platform. Her arms were raised to him, her mouth was half parted for his kiss, when she held him off suddenly and lightly and, with a touch of embarrassment, looked around. Two boys, somewhat younger than George, were standing in the background.

“This is Mr. Craddock and Mr. Holt,” she announced cheerfully. “You met them when you were here before.”

Disturbed by the transition of a kiss into an introduction and suspecting some hidden significance, George was more confused when he found that the automobile which was to carry them to Jonquil’s house belonged to one of the two young men. It seemed to put him at a disadvantage. On the way Jonquil chattered between the front and back seats, and when he tried to slip his arm around her under cover of the twilight she compelled him with a quick movement to take her hand instead.

“Is this street on the way to your house?” he whispered. “I don’t recognize it.”

“It’s the new boulevard. Jerry just got this car to-day, and he wants to show it to me before he takes us home.”

When, after twenty minutes, they were deposited at Jonquil’s house, George felt that the first happiness of the meeting, the joy he had recognized so surely in her eyes back in the station, had been dissipated by the intrusion of the ride. Something that he had looked forward to had been rather casually lost, and he was brooding on this as he said good night stiffly to the two young men. Then his ill-humor faded as Jonquil drew him into a familiar embrace under the dim light of the front hall and told him in a dozen ways, of which the best was without words, how she had missed him. Her emotion reassured him, promised his anxious heart that everything would be all right.

They sat together on the sofa, overcome by each other’s presence, beyond all except fragmentary endearments. At the supper hour Jonquil’s father and mother appeared and were glad to see George. They liked him, and had been interested in his engineering career when he had first come to Tennessee over a year before. They had been sorry when he had given it up and gone to New York to look for something more immediately profitable, but while they deplored the curtailment of his career they sympathized with him and were ready to recognize the engagement. During dinner they asked about his progress in New York.

“Everything’s going fine,” he told them with enthusiasm. “I’ve been promoted — better salary.”

He was miserable as he said this — but they were all so glad.

“They must like you,” said Mrs. Cary, “that’s certain — or they wouldn’t let you off twice in three weeks to come down here.”

“I told them they had to,” explained George hastily; “I told them if they didn’t I wouldn’t work for them any more.”

“But you ought to save your money,” Mrs. Cary reproached him gently. “Not spend it all on this expensive trip.”

Dinner was over — he and Jonquil were alone and she came back into his arms.

“So glad you’re here,” she sighed. “Wish you never were going away again, darling.”

“Do you miss me?”

“Oh, so much, so much.”

“Do you — do other men come to see you often? Like those two kids?”

The question surprised her. The dark velvet eyes stared at him.

“Why, of course they do. All the time. Why — I’ve told you in letters that they did, dearest.”

This was true — when he had first come to the city there had been already a dozen boys around her, responding to her picturesque fragility with adolescent worship, and a few of them perceiving that her beautiful eyes were also sane and kind.

“Do you expect me never to go anywhere”— Jonquil demanded, leaning back against the sofa-pillows until she seemed to look at him from many miles away —“and just fold my hands and sit still — forever?”

“What do you mean?” he blurted out in a panic. “Do you mean you think I’ll never have enough money to marry you?”

“Oh, don’t jump at conclusions so, George.”

“I’m not jumping at conclusions. That’s what you said.”

George decided suddenly that he was on dangerous grounds. He had not intended to let anything spoil this night. He tried to take her again in his arms, but she resisted unexpectedly, saying:

“It’s hot. I’m going to get the electric fan.”

When the fan was adjusted they sat down again, but he was in a super-sensitive mood and involuntarily he plunged into the specific world he had intended to avoid.

“When will you marry me?”

“Are you ready for me to marry you?”

All at once his nerves gave way, and he sprang to his feet.

“Let’s shut off that damned fan,” he cried, “it drives me wild. It’s like a clock ticking away all the time I’ll be with you. I came here to be happy and forget everything about New York and time —”

He sank down on the sofa as suddenly as he had risen. Jonquil turned off the fan, and drawing his head down into her lap began stroking his hair.

“Let’s sit like this,” she said softly, “just sit quiet like this, and I’ll put you to sleep. You’re all tired and nervous and your sweetheart’ll take care of you.”

“But I don’t want to sit like this,” he complained, jerking up suddenly, “I don’t want to sit like this at all. I want you to kiss me. That’s the only thing that makes me rest. And anyways I’m not nervous — it’s you that’s nervous. I’m not nervous at all.”

To prove that he wasn’t nervous he left the couch and plumped himself into a rocking-chair across the room.

“Just when I’m ready to marry you you write me the most nervous letters, as if you’re going to back out, and I have to come rushing down here —”

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”

“But I do want to!” insisted George.

It seemed to him that he was being very cool and logical and that she was putting him deliberately in the wrong. With every word they were drawing farther and farther apart — and he was unable to stop himself or to keep worry and pain out of his voice.

But in a minute Jonquil began to cry sorrowfully and he came back to the sofa and put his arm around her. He was the comforter now, drawing her head close to his shoulder, murmuring old familiar things until she grew calmer and only trembled a little, spasmodically, in his arms. For over an hour they sat there, while the evening pianos thumped their last cadences into the street outside. George did not move, or think, or hope, lulled into numbness by the premonition of disaster. The clock would tick on, past eleven, past twelve, and then Mrs. Cary would call down gently over the banister — beyond that he saw only to-morrow and despair.

III

In the heat of the next day the breaking-point came. They had each guessed the truth about the other, but of the two she was the more ready to admit the situation.

“There’s no use going on,” she said miserably, “you know you hate the insurance business, and you’ll never do well in it.”

“That’s not it,” he insisted stubbornly; “I hate going on alone. If you’ll marry me and come with me and take a chance with me, I can make good at anything, but not while I’m worrying about you down here.”

She was silent a long time before she answered, not thinking — for she had seen the end — but only waiting, because she knew that every word would seem more cruel than the last. Finally she spoke:

“George, I love you with all my heart, and I don’t see how I can ever love any one else but you. If you’d been ready for me two months ago I’d have married you — now I can’t because it doesn’t seem to be the sensible thing.”

He made wild accusations — there was some one else — she was keeping something from him!

“No, there’s no one else.”

This was true. But reacting from the strain of this affair she had found relief in the company of young boys like Jerry Holt, who had the merit of meaning absolutely nothing in her life.

George didn’t take the situation well, at all. He seized her in his arms and tried literally to kiss her into marrying him at once. When this failed, he broke into a long monologue of self-pity, and ceased only when he saw that he was making himself despicable in her sight. He threatened to leave when he had no intention of leaving, and refused to go when she told him that, after all, it was best that he should.

For a while she was sorry, then for another while she was merely kind.

“You’d better go now,” she cried at last, so loud that Mrs. Cary came down-stairs in alarm.

“Is something the matter?”

“I’m going away, Mrs. Cary,” said George brokenly. Jonquil had left the room.

“Don’t feel so badly, George.” Mrs. Cary blinked at him in helpless sympathy — sorry and, in the same breath, glad that the little tragedy was almost done. “If I were you I’d go home to your mother for a week or so. Perhaps after all this is the sensible thing —”

“Please don’t talk,” he cried. “Please don’t say anything to me now!”

Jonquil came into the room again, her sorrow and her nervousness alike tucked under powder and rouge and hat.

“I’ve ordered a taxicab,” she said impersonally. “We can drive around until your train leaves.”

She walked out on the front porch. George put on his coat and hat and stood for a minute exhausted in the hall — he had eaten scarcely a bite since he had left New York. Mrs. Cary came over, drew his head down and kissed him on the cheek, and he felt very ridiculous and weak in his knowledge that the scene had been ridiculous and weak at the end. If he had only gone the night before — left her for the last time with a decent pride.

The taxi had come, and for an hour these two that had been lovers rode along the less-frequented streets. He held her hand and grew calmer in the sunshine, seeing too late that there had been nothing all along to do or say.

“I’ll come back,” he told her.

“I know you will,” she answered, trying to put a cheery faith into her voice. “And we’ll write each other — sometimes.”

“No,” he said, “we won’t write. I couldn’t stand that. Some day I’ll come back.”

“I’ll never forget you, George.”

They reached the station, and she went with him while he bought his ticket. . . .

“Why, George O’Kelly and Jonquil Cary!”

It was a man and a girl whom George had known when he had worked in town, and Jonquil seemed to greet their presence with relief. For an interminable five minutes they all stood there talking; then the train roared into the station, and with ill-concealed agony in his face George held out his arms toward Jonquil. She took an uncertain step toward him, faltered, and then pressed his hand quickly as if she were taking leave of a chance friend.

“Good-by, George,” she was saying, “I hope you have a pleasant trip.

“Good-by, George. Come back and see us all again.”

Dumb, almost blind with pain, he seized his suitcase, and in some dazed way got himself aboard the train.

Past clanging street-crossings, gathering speed through wide suburban spaces toward the sunset. Perhaps she too would see the sunset and pause for a moment, turning, remembering, before he faded with her sleep into the past. This night’s dusk would cover up forever the sun and the trees and the flowers and laughter of his young world.

IV

On a damp afternoon in September of the following year a young man with his face burned to a deep copper glow got off a train at a city in Tennessee. He looked around anxiously, and seemed relieved when he found that there was no one in the station to meet him. He taxied to the best hotel in the city where he registered with some satisfaction as George O’Kelly, Cuzco, Peru.

Up in his room he sat for a few minutes at the window looking down into the familiar street below. Then with his hand trembling faintly he took off the telephone receiver and called a number.

“Is Miss Jonquil in?”

“This is she.”

“Oh —” His voice after overcoming a faint tendency to waver went on with friendly formality.

“This is George O’Kelly. Did you get my letter?”

“Yes. I thought you’d be in to-day.”

Her voice, cool and unmoved, disturbed him, but not as he had expected. This was the voice of a stranger, unexcited, pleasantly glad to see him — that was all. He wanted to put down the telephone and catch his breath.

“I haven’t seen you for — a long time.” He succeeded in making this sound offhand. “Over a year.”

He knew how long it had been — to the day.

“It’ll be awfully nice to talk to you again.”

“I’ll be there in about an hour.”

He hung up. For four long seasons every minute of his leisure had been crowded with anticipation of this hour, and now this hour was here. He had thought of finding her married, engaged, in love — he had not thought she would be unstirred at his return.

There would never again in his life, he felt, be another ten months like these he had just gone through. He had made an admittedly remarkable showing for a young engineer — stumbled into two unusual opportunities, one in Peru, whence he had just returned, and another, consequent upon it, in New York, whither he was bound. In this short time he had risen from poverty into a position of unlimited opportunity.

He looked at himself in the dressing-table mirror. He was almost black with tan, but it was a romantic black, and in the last week, since he had had time to think about it, it had given him considerable pleasure. The hardiness of his frame, too, he appraised with a sort of fascination. He had lost part of an eyebrow somewhere, and he still wore an elastic bandage on his knee, but he was too young not to realize that on the steamer many women had looked at him with unusual tributary interest.

His clothes, of course, were frightful. They had been made for him by a Greek tailor in Lima — in two days. He was young enough, too, to have explained this sartorial deficiency to Jonquil in his otherwise laconic note. The only further detail it contained was a request that he should not be met at the station.

George O’Kelly, of Cuzco, Peru, waited an hour and a half in the hotel, until, to be exact, the sun had reached a midway position in the sky. Then, freshly shaven and talcum-powdered toward a somewhat more Caucasian hue, for vanity at the last minute had overcome romance, he engaged a taxicab and set out for the house he knew so well.

He was breathing hard — he noticed this but he told himself that it was excitement, not emotion. He was here; she was not married — that was enough. He was not even sure what he had to say to her. But this was the moment of his life that he felt he could least easily have dispensed with. There was no triumph, after all, without a girl concerned, and if he did not lay his spoils at her feet he could at least hold them for a passing moment before her eyes.

The house loomed up suddenly beside him, and his first thought was that it had assumed a strange unreality. There was nothing changed — only everything was changed. It was smaller and it seemed shabbier than before — there was no cloud of magic hovering over its roof and issuing from the windows of the upper floor. He rang the door-bell and an unfamiliar colored maid appeared. Miss Jonquil would be down in a moment. He wet his lips nervously and walked into the sitting-room — and the feeling of unreality increased. After all, he saw, this was only a room, and not the enchanted chamber where he had passed those poignant hours. He sat in a chair, amazed to find it a chair, realizing that his imagination had distorted and colored all these simple familiar things.

Then the door opened and Jonquil came into the room — and it was as though everything in it suddenly blurred before his eyes. He had not remembered how beautiful she was, and he felt his face grow pale and his voice diminish to a poor sigh in his throat.

She was dressed in pale green, and a gold ribbon bound back her dark, straight hair like a crown. The familiar velvet eyes caught his as she came through the door, and a spasm of fright went through him at her beauty’s power of inflicting pain.

He said “Hello,” and they each took a few steps forward and shook hands. Then they sat in chairs quite far apart and gazed at each other across the room.

“You’ve come back,” she said, and he answered just as tritely: “I wanted to stop in and see you as I came through.”

He tried to neutralize the tremor in his voice by looking anywhere but at her face. The obligation to speak was on him, but, unless he immediately began to boast, it seemed that there was nothing to say. There had never been anything casual in their previous relations — it didn’t seem possible that people in this position would talk about the weather.

“This is ridiculous,” he broke out in sudden embarrassment. “I don’t know exactly what to do. Does my being here bother you?”

“No.” The answer was both reticent and impersonally sad. It depressed him.

“Are you engaged?” he demanded.

“No.”

“Are you in love with some one?”

She shook her head.

“Oh.” He leaned back in his chair. Another subject seemed exhausted — the interview was not taking the course he had intended.

“Jonquil,” he began, this time on a softer key, “after all that’s happened between us, I wanted to come back and see you. Whatever I do in the future I’ll never love another girl as I’ve loved you.”

This was one of the speeches he had rehearsed. On the steamer it had seemed to have just the right note — a reference to the tenderness he would always feel for her combined with a non-committal attitude toward his present state of mind. Here with the past around him, beside him, growing minute by minute more heavy on the air, it seemed theatrical and stale.

She made no comment, sat without moving, her eyes fixed on him with an expression that might have meant everything or nothing.

“You don’t love me any more, do you?” he asked her in a level voice.

“No.”

When Mrs. Cary came in a minute later, and spoke to him about his success — there had been a half-column about him in the local paper — he was a mixture of emotions. He knew now that he still wanted this girl, and he knew that the past sometimes comes back — that was all. For the rest he must be strong and watchful and he would see.

“And now,” Mrs. Cary was saying, “I want you two to go and see the lady who has the chrysanthemums. She particularly told me she wanted to see you because she’d read about you in the paper.”

They went to see the lady with the chrysanthemums. They walked along the street, and he recognized with a sort of excitement just how her shorter footsteps always fell in between his own. The lady turned out to be nice, and the chrysanthemums were enormous and extraordinarily beautiful. The lady’s gardens were full of them, white and pink and yellow, so that to be among them was a trip back into the heart of summer. There were two gardens full, and a gate between them; when they strolled toward the second garden the lady went first through the gate.

And then a curious thing happened. George stepped aside to let Jonquil pass, but instead of going through she stood still and stared at him for a minute. It was not so much the look, which was not a smile, as it was the moment of silence. They saw each other’s eyes, and both took a short, faintly accelerated breath, and then they went on into the second garden. That was all.

The afternoon waned. They thanked the lady and walked home slowly, thoughtfully, side by side. Through dinner too they were silent. George told Mr. Cary something of what had happened in South America, and managed to let it be known that everything would be plain sailing for him in the future.

Then dinner was over, and he and Jonquil were alone in the room which had seen the beginning of their love affair and the end. It seemed to him long ago and inexpressibly sad. On that sofa he had felt agony and grief such as he would never feel again. He would never be so weak or so tired and miserable and poor. Yet he knew that that boy of fifteen months before had had something, a trust, a warmth that was gone forever. The sensible thing — they had done the sensible thing. He had traded his first youth for strength and carved success out of despair. But with his youth, life had carried away the freshness of his love.

“You won’t marry me, will you?” he said quietly.

Jonquil shook her dark head.

“I’m never going to marry,” she answered.

He nodded.

“I’m going on to Washington in the morning,” he said.

“Oh —”

“I have to go. I’ve got to be in New York by the first, and meanwhile I want to stop off in Washington.”

“Business!”

“No-o,” he said as if reluctantly. “There’s some one there I must see who was very kind to me when I was so — down and out.”

This was invented. There was no one in Washington for him to see — but he was watching Jonquil narrowly, and he was sure that she winced a little, that her eyes closed and then opened wide again.

“But before I go I want to tell you the things that happened to me since I saw you, and, as maybe we won’t meet again, I wonder if — if just this once you’d sit in my lap like you used to. I wouldn’t ask except since there’s no one else — yet — perhaps it doesn’t matter.”

She nodded, and in a moment was sitting in his lap as she had sat so often in that vanished spring. The feel of her head against his shoulder, of her familiar body, sent a shock of emotion over him. His arms holding her had a tendency to tighten around her, so he leaned back and began to talk thoughtfully into the air.

He told her of a despairing two weeks in New York which had terminated with an attractive if not very profitable job in a construction plant in Jersey City. When the Peru business had first presented itself it had not seemed an extraordinary opportunity. He was to be third assistant engineer on the expedition, but only ten of the American party, including eight rodmen and surveyors, had ever reached Cuzco. Ten days later the chief of the expedition was dead of yellow fever. That had been his chance, a chance for anybody but a fool, a marvellous chance —

“A chance for anybody but a fool?” she interrupted innocently.

“Even for a fool,” he continued. “It was wonderful. Well, I wired New York —”

“And so,” she interrupted again, “they wired that you ought to take a chance?”

“Ought to!” he exclaimed, still leaning back. “That I had to. There was no time to lose —”

“Not a minute?”

“Not a minute.”

“Not even time for —” she paused.

“For what?”

“Look.”

He bent his head forward suddenly, and she drew herself to him in the same moment, her lips half open like a flower.

“Yes,” he whispered into her lips. “There’s all the time in the world. . . . ”

All the time in the world — his life and hers. But for an instant as he kissed her he knew that though he search through eternity he could never recapture those lost April hours. He might press her close now till the muscles knotted on his arms — she was something desirable and rare that he had fought for and made his own — but never again an intangible whisper in the dusk, or on the breeze of night. . . .

Well, let it pass, he thought; April is over, April is over. There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:06