It was a hidden Broadway restaurant in the dead of the night, and a brilliant and mysterious group of society people, diplomats and members of the underworld were there. A few minutes ago the sparkling wine had been flowing and a girl had been dancing gaily upon a table, but now the whole crowd were hushed and breathless. All eyes were fixed upon the masked but well-groomed man in the dress suit and opera hat who stood nonchalantly in the door.
‘Don’t move, please,’ he said, in a well-bred, cultivated voice that had, nevertheless, a ring of steel in it. ‘This thing in my hand might — go off.’
His glance roved from table to table — fell upon the malignant man higher up with his pale saturnine face, upon Heatherly, the suave secret agent from a foreign power, then rested a little longer, a little more softly perhaps, upon the table where the girl with dark hair and dark tragic eyes sat alone.
‘Now that my purpose is accomplished, it might interest you to know who I am.’ There was a gleam of expectation in every eye. The breast of the dark-eyed girl heaved faintly and a tiny burst of subtle French perfume rose into the air. ‘I am none other than that elusive gentleman, Basil Lee, better known as the Shadow.’
Taking off his well-fitting opera hat, he bowed ironically from the waist. Then, like a flash, he turned and was gone into the night.
‘You get up to New York only once a month,’ Lewis Crum was saying, ‘and then you have to take a master along.’
Slowly, Basil Lee’s glazed eyes turned from the barns and billboards of the Indiana countryside to the interior of the Broadway Limited. The hypnosis of the swift telegraph poles faded and Lewis Crum’s stolid face took shape against the white slipcover of the opposite bench.
‘I’d just duck the master when I got to New York,’ said Basil.
‘Yes, you would!’
‘I bet I would.’
‘You try it and you’ll see.’
‘What do you mean saying I’ll see, all the time, Lewis? What’ll I see?’
His very bright dark-blue eyes were at this moment fixed upon his companion with boredom and impatience. The two had nothing in common except their age, which was fifteen, and the lifelong friendship of their fathers — which is less than nothing. Also they were bound from the same Middle-Western city for Basil’s first and Lewis’s second year at the same Eastern school.
But, contrary to all the best traditions, Lewis the veteran was miserable and Basil the neophyte was happy. Lewis hated school. He had grown entirely dependent on the stimulus of a hearty vital mother, and as he felt her slipping farther and farther away from him, he plunged deeper into misery and homesickness. Basil, on the other hand, had lived with such intensity on so many stories of boarding-school life that, far from being homesick, he had a glad feeling of recognition and familiarity. Indeed, it was with some sense of doing the appropriate thing, having the traditional rough-house, that he had thrown Lewis’s comb off the train at Milwaukee last night for no reason at all.
To Lewis, Basil’s ignorant enthusiasm was distasteful — his instinctive attempt to dampen it had contributed to the mutual irritation.
‘I’ll tell you what you’ll see,’ he said ominously. ‘They’ll catch you smoking and put you on bounds.’
‘No, they won’t, because I won’t be smoking. I’ll be in training for football.’
‘Football! Yeah! Football!’
‘Honestly, Lewis, you don’t like anything, do you?’
‘I don’t like football. I don’t like to go out and get a crack in the eye.’ Lewis spoke aggressively, for his mother had canonized all his timidities as common sense. Basil’s answer, made with what he considered kindly intent, was the sort of remark that creates lifelong enmities.
‘You’d probably be a lot more popular in school if you played football,’ — he suggested patronizingly.
Lewis did not consider himself unpopular. He did not think of it in that way at all. He was astounded.
‘You wait!’ he cried furiously. ‘They’ll take all that freshness out of you.’
‘Clam yourself,’ said Basil, coolly plucking at the creases of his first long trousers. ‘Just clam yourself.’
‘I guess everybody knows you were the freshest boy at the Country Day!’
‘Clam yourself,’ repeated Basil, but with less assurance. ‘Kindly clam yourself.’
‘I guess I know what they had in the school paper about you — ’
Basil’s own coolness was no longer perceptible.
‘If you don’t clam yourself,’ he said darkly, ‘I’m going to throw your brushes off the train too.’
The enormity of this threat was effective. Lewis sank back in his seat, snorting and muttering, but undoubtedly calmer. His reference had been to one of the most shameful passages in his companion’s life. In a periodical issued by the boys of Basil’s late school there had appeared under the heading Personals:
If someone will please poison young Basil, or find some other means to stop his mouth, the school at large and myself will be much obliged.
The two boys sat there fuming wordlessly at each other. Then, resolutely, Basil tried to re-inter this unfortunate souvenir of the past. All that was behind him now. Perhaps he had been a little fresh, but he was making a new start. After a moment, the memory passed and with it the train and Lewis’s dismal presence — the breath of the East came sweeping over him again with a vast nostalgia. A voice called him out of the fabled world; a man stood beside him with a hand on his sweater-clad shoulder.
‘It all depends on you now. Understand?’
‘All right,’ the coach said, ‘go in and win.’
Basil tore the sweater from his stripling form and dashed out on the field. There were two minutes to play and the score was 3 to 0 for the enemy, but at the sight of young Lee, kept out of the game all year by a malicious plan of Dan Haskins, the school bully, and Weasel Weems, his toady, a thrill of hope went over the St Regis stand.
‘33-12-16-22!’ barked Midget Brown, the diminutive little quarterback.
It was his signal —
‘Oh, gosh!’ Basil spoke aloud, forgetting the late unpleasantness. ‘I wish we’d get there before tomorrow.’
St Regis School, Eastchester,
November 18, 19--
There is not much to say today, but I thought I would write you about my allowance. All the boys have a bigger allowance than me, because there are a lot of little things I have to get, such as shoe laces, etc. School is still very nice and am having a fine time, but football is over and there is not much to do. I am going to New York this week to see a show. I do not know yet what it will be, but probably the Quacker Girl or little boy Blue as they are both very good. Dr Bacon is very nice and there’s a good phycission in the village. No more now as I have to study Algebra.
Your affectionate Son,
Basil D. Lee.
As he put the letter in its envelope, a wizened little boy came into the deserted study hall where he sat and stood staring at him.
‘Hello,’ said Basil, frowning.
‘I been looking for you,’ said the little boy, slowly and judicially. ‘I looked all over — up in your room and out in the gym, and they said you probably might of sneaked off in here.’
‘What do you want?’ Basil demanded.
‘Hold your horses, Bossy.’
Basil jumped to his feet. The little boy retreated a step.
‘Go on, hit me!’ he chirped nervously. ‘Go on, hit me, cause I’m just half your size — Bossy.’
Basil winced. ‘You call me that again and I’ll spank you.’
‘No, you won’t spank me. Brick Wales said if you ever touched any of us — ’
‘But I never did touch any of you.’
‘Didn’t you chase a lot of us one day and didn’t Brick Wales — ’
‘Oh, what do you want?’ Basil cried in desperation.
‘Doctor Bacon wants you. They sent me after you and somebody said maybe you sneaked in here.’
Basil dropped his letter in his pocket and walked out — the little boy and his invective following him through the door. He traversed a long corridor, muggy with that odour best described as the smell of stale caramels that is so peculiar to boys’ schools, ascended a stairs and knocked at an unexceptional but formidable door.
Doctor Bacon was at his desk. He was a handsome, redheaded Episcopal clergyman of fifty whose original real interest in boys was now tempered by the flustered cynicism which is the fate of all headmasters and settles on them like green mould. There were certain preliminaries before Basil was asked to sit down — gold-rimmed glasses had to be hoisted up from nowhere by a black cord and fixed on Basil to be sure that he was not an impostor; great masses of paper on the desk had to be shuffled through, not in search of anything but as a man nervously shuffles a pack of cards.
‘I had a letter from your mother this morning — ah — Basil.’ The use of his first name had come to startle Basil. No one else in school had yet called him anything but Bossy or Lee. ‘She feels that your marks have been poor. I believe you have been sent here at a certain amount of — ah — sacrifice and she expects — ’
Basil’s spirit writhed with shame, not at his poor marks but that his financial inadequacy should be so bluntly stated. He knew that he was one of the poorest boys in a rich boys’ school.
Perhaps some dormant sensibility in Doctor Bacon became aware of his discomfort; he shuffled through the papers once more and began on a new note.
‘However, that was not what I sent for you about this afternoon. You applied last week for permission to go to New York on Saturday, to a matinée. Mr Davis tells me that for almost the first time since school opened you will be off bounds tomorrow.’
‘That is not a good record. However, I would allow you to go to New York if it could be arranged. Unfortunately, no masters are available this Saturday.’
Basil’s mouth dropped ajar. ‘Why, I— why, Doctor Bacon, I know two parties that are going. Couldn’t I go with one of them?’
Doctor Bacon ran through all his papers very quickly. ‘Unfortunately, one is composed of slightly older boys and the other group made arrangements some weeks ago.’
‘How about the party that’s going to the Quaker Girl with Mr Dunn?’
‘It’s that party I speak of. They feel that the arrangements are complete and they have purchased seats together.’
Suddenly Basil understood. At the look in his eye Doctor Bacon went on hurriedly.
‘There’s perhaps one thing I can do. Of course there must be several boys in the party so that the expenses of the master can be divided up among all. If you can find two other boys who would like to make up a party, and let me have their names by five o’clock, I’ll send Mr Rooney with you.’
‘Thank you,’ Basil said.
Doctor Bacon hesitated. Beneath the cynical incrustations of many years an instinct stirred to look into the unusual case of this boy and find out what made him the most detested boy in school. Among boys and masters there seemed to exist an extraordinary hostility towards him, and though Doctor Bacon had dealt with many sorts of schoolboy crimes, he had neither by himself nor with the aid of trusted sixth-formers been able to lay his hands on its underlying cause. It was probably no single thing, but a combination of things; it was most probably one of those intangible questions of personality. Yet he remembered that when he first saw Basil he had considered him unusually prepossessing.
He sighed. Sometimes these things worked themselves out. He wasn’t one to rush in clumsily. ‘Let us have a better report to send home next month, Basil.’
Basil ran quickly downstairs to the recreation room. It was Wednesday and most of the boys had already gone into the village of Eastchester, whither Basil, who was still on bounds, was forbidden to follow. When he looked at those still scattered about the pool tables and piano, he saw that it was going to be difficult to get anyone to go with him at all. For Basil was quite conscious that he was the most unpopular boy at school.
It had begun almost immediately. One day, less than a fortnight after he came, a crowd of the smaller boys, perhaps urged on to it, gathered suddenly around him and began calling him Bossy. Within the next week he had two fights, and both times the crowd was vehemently and eloquently with the other boy. Soon after, when he was merely shoving indiscriminately, like everyone else, to get into the dining-room, Carver, the captain of the football team, turned about and, seizing him by the back of the neck, held him and dressed him down savagely. He joined a group innocently at the piano and was told, ‘Go on away. We don’t want you around.’
After a month he began to realize the full extent of his unpopularity. It shocked him. One day after a particularly bitter humiliation he went up to his room and cried. He tried to keep out of the way for a while, but it didn’t help. He was accused of sneaking off here and there, as if bent on a series of nefarious errands. Puzzled and wretched, he looked at his face in the glass, trying to discover there the secret of their dislike — in the expression of his eyes, his smile.
He saw now that in certain ways he had erred at the outset — he had boasted, he had been considered yellow at football, he had pointed out people’s mistakes to them, he had showed off his rather extraordinary fund of general information in class. But he had tried to do better and couldn’t understand his failure to atone. It must be too late. He was queered forever.
He had, indeed, become the scapegoat, the immediate villain, the sponge which absorbed all malice and irritability abroad — just as the most frightened person in a party seems to absorb all the others’ fear, seems to be afraid for them all. His situation was not helped by the fact, obvious to all, that the supreme self-confidence with which he had come to St Regis in September was thoroughly broken. Boys taunted him with impunity who would not have dared raise their voices to him several months before.
This trip to New York had come to mean everything to him — surcease from the misery of his daily life as well as a glimpse into the long-waited heaven of romance. Its postponement for week after week due to his sins — he was constantly caught reading after lights, for example, driven by his wretchedness into such vicarious escapes from reality — had deepened his longing until it was a burning hunger. It was unbearable that he should not go, and he told over the short list of those whom he might get to accompany him. The possibilities were Fat Gaspar, Treadway, and Bugs Brown. A quick journey to their rooms showed that they had all availed themselves of the Wednesday permission to go into Eastchester for the afternoon.
Basil did not hesitate. He had until five o’clock and his only chance was to go after them. It was not the first time he had broken bounds, though the last attempt had ended in disaster and an extension of his confinement. In his room, he put on a heavy sweater — an overcoat was a betrayal of intent — replaced his jacket over it and hid a cap in his back pocket. Then he went downstairs and with an elaborate careless whistle struck out across the lawn for the gymnasium. Once there, he stood for a while as if looking in the windows, first the one close to the walk, then one near the corner of the building. From here he moved quickly, but not too quickly, into a grove of lilacs. Then he dashed around the corner, down a long stretch of lawn that was blind from all windows and, parting the strands of a wire fence, crawled through and stood upon the grounds of a neighbouring estate. For the moment he was free. He put on his cap against the chilly November wind, and set out along the half-mile road to town.
Eastchester was a suburban farming community, with a small shoe factory. The institutions which pandered to the factory workers were the ones patronized by the boys — a movie house, a quick-lunch wagon on wheels known as the Dog and the Bostonian Candy Kitchen. Basil tried the Dog first and happened immediately upon a prospect.
This was Bugs Brown, a hysterical boy, subject to fits and strenuously avoided. Years later he became a brilliant lawyer, but at that time he was considered by the boys of St Regis to be a typical lunatic because of the peculiar series of sounds with which he assuaged his nervousness all day long.
He consorted with boys younger than himself, who were without the prejudices of their elders, and was in the company of several when Basil came in.
‘Who-ee!’ he cried. ‘Ee-ee-ee!’ He put his hand over his mouth and bounced it quickly, making a wah-wah-wah sound. ‘It’s Bossy Lee! It’s Bossy Lee! It’s Boss-Boss-Boss-Boss-Bossy Lee!’
‘Wait a minute, Bugs,’ said Basil anxiously, half afraid that Bugs would go finally crazy before he could persuade him to come to town. ‘Say, Bugs, listen. Don’t, Bugs — wait a minute. Can you come up to New York Saturday afternoon?’
‘Whe-ee-ee!’ cried Bugs to Basil’s distress.’ Wee-ee-ee!’
‘Honestly, Bugs, tell me, can you? We could go up together if you could go.’
‘I’ve got to see a doctor,’ said Bugs, suddenly calm. ‘He wants to see how crazy I am.’
‘Can’t you have him see about it some other day?’ said Basil without humour.
‘Whee-ee-ee!’ cried Bugs.
‘All right then,’ said Basil hastily. ‘Have you seen Fat Gaspar in town?’
Bugs was lost in shrill noise, but someone had seen Fat: Basil was directed to the Bostonian Candy Kitchen.
This was a gaudy paradise of cheap sugar. Its odour, heavy and sickly and calculated to bring out a sticky sweat upon an adult’s palms, hung suffocatingly over the whole vicinity and met one like a strong moral dissuasion at the door. Inside, beneath a pattern of flies, material as black point lace, a line of boys sat eating heavy dinners of banana splits, maple nut, and chocolate marshmallow nut sundaes. Basil found Fat Gaspar at a table on the side.
Fat Gaspar was at once Basil’s most unlikely and most ambitious quest. He was considered a nice fellow — in fact he was so pleasant that he had been courteous to Basil and had spoken to him politely all fall. Basil realized that he was like that to everyone, yet it was just possible that Fat liked him, as people used to in the past, and he was driven desperately to take a chance. But it was undoubtedly a presumption, and as he approached the table and saw the stiffened faces which the other two boys turned towards him, Basil’s hope diminished.
‘Say, Fat — ’ he said, and hesitated. Then he burst forth suddenly. ‘I’m on bounds, but I ran off because I had to see you. Doctor Bacon told me I could go to New York Saturday if I could get two other boys to go. I asked Bugs Brown and he couldn’t go, and I thought I’d ask you.’
He broke off, furiously embarrassed, and waited. Suddenly the two boys with Fat burst into a shout of laughter.
‘Bugs wasn’t crazy enough!’
Fat Gaspar hesitated. He couldn’t go to New York Saturday and ordinarily he would have refused without offending. He had nothing against Basil; nor, indeed, against anybody; but boys have only a certain resistance to public opinion and he was influenced by the contemptuous laughter of the others.
‘I don’t want to go,’ he said indifferently. ‘Why do you want to ask me?’
Then, half in shame, he gave a deprecatory little laugh and bent over his ice cream.
‘I just thought I’d ask you,’ said Basil.
Turning quickly away, he went to the counter and in a hollow and unfamiliar voice ordered a strawberry sundae. He ate it mechanically, hearing occasional whispers and snickers from the table behind. Still in a daze, he started to walk out without paying his check, but the clerk called him back and he was conscious of more derisive laughter.
For a moment he hesitated whether to go back to the table and hit one of those boys in the face, but he saw nothing to be gained. They would say the truth — that he had done it because he couldn’t get anybody to go to New York. Clenching his fists with impotent rage, he walked from the store.
He came immediately upon his third prospect, Treadway. Treadway had entered St Regis late in the year and had been put in to room with Basil the week before. The fact that Treadway hadn’t witnessed his humiliations of the autumn encouraged Basil to behave naturally towards him, and their relations had been, if not intimate, at least tranquil.
‘Hey, Treadway,’ he called, still excited from the affair in the Bostonian, ‘can you come up to New York to a show Saturday afternoon?’
He stopped, realizing that Treadway was in the company of Brick Wales, a boy he had had a fight with and one of his bitterest enemies. Looking from one to the other, Basil saw a look of impatience in Treadway’s face and a faraway expression in Brick Wales’s, and he realized what must have been happening. Treadway, making his way into the life of the school, had just been enlightened as to the status of his room-mate. Like Fat Gaspar, rather than acknowledge himself eligible to such an intimate request, he preferred to cut their friendly relations short.
‘Not on your life,’ he said briefly. ‘So long.’ The two walked past him into the Candy Kitchen.
Had these slights, so much the bitterer for their lack of passion, been visited upon Basil in September, they would have been unbearable. But since then he had developed a shell of hardness which, while it did not add to his attractiveness, spared him certain delicacies of torture. In misery enough, and despair and self-pity, he went the other way along the street for a little distance until he could control the violent contortions of his face. Then, taking a roundabout route, he started back to school.
He reached the adjoining estate, intending to go back the way he had come. Half-way through a hedge, he heard footsteps approaching along the sidewalk and stood motionless, fearing the proximity of masters. Their voices grew nearer and louder; before he knew it he was listening with horrified fascination:
‘ — so, after he tried Bugs Brown, the poor nut asked Fat Gaspar to go with him and Fat said, “What do you ask me for?” It serves him right if he couldn’t get anybody at all.’
It was the dismal but triumphant voice of Lewis Crum.
Up in his room, Basil found a package lying on his bed. He knew its contents and for a long time he had been eagerly expecting it, but such was his depression that he opened it listlessly. It was a series of eight colour reproductions of Harrison Fisher girls ‘on glossy paper, without printing or advertising matter and suitable for framing’.
The pictures were named Dora, Marguerite, Babette, Lucille, Gretchen, Rose, Katherine, and Mina. Two of them — Marguerite and Rose — Basil looked at, slowly tore up, and dropped in the waste-basket, as one who disposes of the inferior pups from a litter. The other six he pinned at intervals around the room. Then he lay down on his bed and regarded them.
Dora, Lucille, and Katherine were blonde; Gretchen was medium; Babette and Mina were dark. After a few minutes, he found that he was looking oftenest at Dora and Babette and, to a lesser extent, at Gretchen, though the latter’s Dutch cap seemed unromantic and precluded the element of mystery. Babette, a dark little violet-eyed beauty in a tight-fitting hat, attracted him most; his eyes came to rest on her at last.
‘Babette,’ he whispered to himself — ‘beautiful Babette.’
The sound of the word, so melancholy and suggestive, like ‘Vilia’ or ‘I’m happy at Maxim’s’ on the phonograph, softened him and, turning over on his face, he sobbed into the pillow. He took hold of the bed rails over his head and, sobbing and straining, began to talk to himself brokenly — how he hated them and whom he hated — he listed a dozen — and what he would do to them when he was great and powerful. In previous moments like these he had always rewarded Fat Gaspar for his kindness, but now he was like the rest. Basil set upon him, pummelling him unmercifully, or laughed sneeringly when he passed him blind and begging on the street.
He controlled himself as he heard Treadway come in, but did not move or speak. He listened as the other moved about the room, and after a while became conscious that there was an unusual opening of closets and bureau drawers. Basil turned over, his arm concealing his tear-stained face. Treadway had an armful of shirts in his hand.
‘What are you doing?’ Basil demanded.
His room-mate looked at him stonily. ‘I’m moving in with Wales,’ he said.
Treadway went on with his packing. He carried out a suitcase full, then another, took down some pennants and dragged his trunk into the hall. Basil watched him bundle his toilet things into a towel and take one last survey about the room’s new barrenness to see if there was anything forgotten.
‘Good-bye,’ he said to Basil, without a ripple of expression on his face.
Treadway went out. Basil turned over once more and choked into the pillow.
‘Oh, poor Babette!’ he cried huskily. ‘Poor little Babette! Poor little Babette!’ Babette, svelte and piquante, looked down at him coquettishly from the wall.
Doctor Bacon, sensing Basil’s predicament and perhaps the extremity of his misery, arranged it that he should go into New York, after all. He went in the company of Mr Rooney, the football coach and history teacher. At twenty Mr Rooney had hesitated for some time between joining the police force and having his way paid through a small New England college; in fact he was a hard specimen and Doctor Bacon was planning to get rid of him at Christmas. Mr Rooney’s contempt for Basil was founded on the latter’s ambiguous and unreliable conduct on the football field during the past season — he had consented to take him to New York for reasons of his own.
Basil sat meekly beside him on the train, glancing past Mr Rooney’s bulky body at the Sound and the fallow fields of Westchester County. Mr Rooney finished his newspaper, folded it up and sank into a moody silence. He had eaten a large breakfast and the exigencies of time had not allowed him to work it off with exercise. He remembered that Basil was a fresh boy, and it was time he did something fresh and could be called to account. This reproachless silence annoyed him.
‘Lee,’ he said suddenly, with a thinly assumed air of friendly interest, ‘why don’t you get wise to yourself?’
‘What, sir?’ Basil was startled from his excited trance of this morning.
‘I said why don’t you get wise to yourself?’ said Mr Rooney in a somewhat violent tone. ‘Do you want to be the butt of the school all your time here?’
‘No, I don’t.’ Basil was chilled. Couldn’t all this be left behind for just one day?
‘You oughtn’t to get so fresh all the time. A couple of times in history class I could just about have broken your neck.’ Basil could think of no appropriate answer. ‘Then out playing football,’ continued Mr Rooney, ‘ — you didn’t have any nerve. You could play better than a lot of ’em when you wanted, like that day against the Pomfret seconds, but you lost your nerve.’
‘I shouldn’t have tried for the second team,’ said Basil. ‘I was too light. I should have stayed on the third.’
‘You were yellow, that was all the trouble. You ought to get wise to yourself. In class, you’re always thinking of something else. If you don’t study, you’ll never get to college.’
‘I’m the youngest boy in the fifth form,’ Basil said rashly.
‘You think you’re pretty bright, don’t you?’ He eyed Basil ferociously. Then something seemed to occur to him that changed his attitude and they rode for a while in silence. When the train began to run through the thickly clustered communities near New York, he spoke again in a milder voice and with an air of having considered the matter for a long time:
‘Lee, I’m going to trust you.’
‘You go and get some lunch and then go on to your show. I’ve got some business of my own I got to attend to, and when I’ve finished I’ll try to get to the show. If I can’t, I’ll anyhow meet you outside.’ Basil’s heart leaped up. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘I don’t want you to open your mouth about this at school — I mean, about me doing some business of my own.’
‘We’ll see if you can keep your mouth shut for once,’ he said, making it fun. Then he added, on a note of moral sternness, ‘And no drinks, you understand that?’
‘Oh, no, sir!’ The idea shocked Basil. He had never tasted a drink, nor even contemplated the possibility, save the intangible and nonalcoholic champagne of his café dreams.
On the advice of Mr Rooney he went for luncheon to the Manhattan Hotel, near the station, where he ordered a club sandwich, French fried potatoes, and a chocolate parfait. Out of the corner of his eye he watched the nonchalant, debonair, blasé New Yorkers at neighbouring tables, investing them with a romance by which these possible fellow citizens of his from the Middle West lost nothing. School had fallen from him like a burden; it was no more than an unheeded clamour, faint and far away. He even delayed opening the letter from the morning’s mail which he found in his pocket, because it was addressed to him at school.
He wanted another chocolate parfait, but being reluctant to bother the busy waiter any more, he opened the letter and spread it before him instead. It was from his mother:
This is written in great haste, as I didn’t want to frighten you by telegraphing. Grandfather is going abroad to take the waters and he wants you and me to come too. The idea is that you’ll go to school at Grenoble or Montreux for the rest of the year and learn the language and we’ll be close by. That is, if you want to. I know how you like St Regis and playing football and baseball, and of course there would be none of that; but on the other hand, it would be a nice change, even if it postponed your entering Yale by an extra year. So, as usual, I want you to do just as you like. We will be leaving home almost as soon as you get this and will come to the Waldorf in New York, where you can come in and see us for a few days, even if you decide to stay. Think it over, dear.
With love to my dearest boy,
Basil got up from his chair with a dim idea of walking over to the Waldorf and having himself locked up safely until his mother came. Then, impelled to some gesture, he raised his voice and in one of his first basso notes called boomingly and without reticence for the waiter. No more St Regis! No more St Regis! He was almost strangling with happiness.
‘Oh, gosh!’ he cried to himself. ‘Oh, golly! Oh, gosh! Oh, gosh!’ No more Doctor Bacon and Mr Rooney and Brick Wales and Fat Gaspar. No more Bugs Brown and on bounds and being called Bossy. He need no longer hate them, for they were impotent shadows in the stationary world that he was sliding away from, sliding past, waving his hand. ‘Good-bye!’ he pitied them. ‘Good-bye!’
It required the din of Forty-second Street to sober his maudlin joy. With his hand on his purse to guard against the omnipresent pickpocket, he moved cautiously towards Broadway. What a day! He would tell Mr Rooney — Why, he needn’t ever go back! Or perhaps it would be better to go back and let them know what he was going to do, while they went on and on in the dismal, dreary round of school.
He found the theatre and entered the lobby with its powdery feminine atmosphere of a matinée. As he took out his ticket, his gaze was caught and held by a sculptured profile a few feet away. It was that of a well-built blond young man of about twenty with a strong chin and direct grey eyes. Basil’s brain spun wildly for a moment and then came to rest upon a name — more than a name — upon a legend, a sign in the sky. What a day! He had never seen the young man before, but from a thousand pictures he knew beyond the possibility of a doubt that it was Ted Fay, the Yale football captain, who had almost single-handed beaten Harvard and Princeton last fall. Basil felt a sort of exquisite pain. The profile turned away; the crowd revolved; the hero disappeared. But Basil would know all through the next hours that Ted Fay was here too.
In the rustling, whispering, sweet-smelling darkness of the theatre he read the programme. It was the show of all shows that he wanted to see, and until the curtain actually rose the programme itself had a curious sacredness — a prototype of the thing itself. But when the curtain rose it became waste paper to be dropped carelessly to the floor.
Act I. The Village Green of a Small Town near New York
It was too bright and blinding to comprehend all at once, and it went so fast that from the very first Basil felt he had missed things; he would make his mother take him again when she came — next week — tomorrow.
An hour passed. It was very sad at this point — a sort of gay sadness, but sad. The girl — the man. What kept them apart even now? Oh, those tragic errors, and misconceptions. So sad. Couldn’t they look into each other’s eyes and see?
In a blaze of light and sound, of resolution, anticipation and imminent trouble, the act was over.
He went out. He looked for Ted Fay and thought he saw him leaning rather moodily on the plush wall at the rear of the theatre, but he could not be sure. He bought cigarettes and lit one, but fancying at the first puff he heard a blare of music he rushed back inside.
Act 2. The Foyer of the Hotel Astor
Yes, she was, indeed, like a song — a Beautiful Rose of the Night. The waltz buoyed her up, brought her with it to a point of aching beauty and then let her slide back to life across its last bars as a leaf slants to earth across the air. The high life of New York! Who could blame her if she was carried away by the glitter of it all, vanishing into the bright morning of the amber window borders or into distant and entrancing music as the door opened and closed that led to the ballroom? The toast of the shining town.
Half an hour passed. Her true love brought her roses like herself and she threw them scornfully at his feet. She laughed and turned to the other, and danced — danced madly, wildly. Wait! That delicate treble among the thin horns, the low curving note from the great strings. There it was again, poignant and aching, sweeping like a great gust of emotion across the stage, catching her again like a leaf helpless in the wind:
‘Rose — Rose — Rose of the night
When the spring moon is bright you’ll be fair — ’
A few minutes later, feeling oddly shaken and exalted, Basil drifted outside with the crowd. The first thing upon which his eyes fell was the almost forgotten and now curiously metamorphosed spectre of Mr Rooney.
Mr Rooney had, in fact, gone a little to pieces. He was, to begin with, wearing a different and much smaller hat than when he left Basil at noon. Secondly, his face had lost its somewhat gross aspect and turned a pure and even delicate white, and he was wearing his necktie and even portions of his shirt on the outside of his unaccountably wringing-wet overcoat. How, in the short space of four hours, Mr Rooney had got himself in such shape is explicable only by the pressure of confinement in a boys’ school upon a fiery outdoor spirit. Mr Rooney was born to toil under the clear light of heaven and, perhaps half-consciously, he was headed towards his inevitable destiny.
‘Lee,’ he said dimly, ‘you ought to get wise to y’self. I’m going to put you wise y’self.’
To avoid the ominous possibility of being put wise to himself in the lobby, Basil uneasily changed the subject.
‘Aren’t you coming to the show?’ he asked, flattering Mr Rooney by implying that he was in any condition to come to the show. ‘It’s a wonderful show.’
Mr Rooney took off his hat, displaying wringing-wet matted hair. A picture of reality momentarily struggled for development in the back of his brain.
‘We got to get back to school,’ he said in a sombre and unconvinced voice.
‘But there’s another act,’ protested Basil in horror. ‘I’ve got to stay for the last act.’
Swaying, Mr Rooney looked at Basil dimly realizing that he had put himself in the hollow of this boy’s hand.
‘All righ’,’ he admitted. ‘I’m going to get somethin’ to eat. I’ll wait for you next door.’
He turned abruptly, reeled a dozen steps, and curved dizzily into a bar adjoining the theatre. Considerably shaken, Basil went back inside.
Act 3. The Roof Garden of Mr Van Astor’s House.
Half an hour passed. Everything was going to be all right, after all. The comedian was at his best now, with the glad appropriateness of laughter after tears, and there was a promise of felicity in the bright tropical sky. One lovely plaintive duet, and then abruptly the long moment of incomparable beauty was over.
Basil went into the lobby and stood in thought while the crowd passed out. His mother’s letter and the show had cleared his mind of bitterness and vindictiveness — he was his old self and he wanted to do the right thing. He wondered if it was the right thing to get Mr Rooney back to school. He walked towards the saloon, slowed up as he came to it and, gingerly opening the swinging door, took a quick peer inside. He saw only that Mr Rooney was not one of those drinking at the bar. He walked down the street a little way, came back and tried again. It was as if he thought the doors were teeth to bite him, for he had the old-fashioned Middle-Western boy’s horror of the saloon. The third time he was successful. Mr Rooney was sound asleep at a table in the back of the room.
Outside again Basil walked up and down, considering. He would give Mr Rooney half an hour. If, at the end of that time, he had not come out, he would go back to school. After all, Mr Rooney had laid for him ever since football season — Basil was simply washing his hands of the whole affair, as in a day or so he would wash his hands of school.
He had made several turns up and down, when glancing up an alley that ran beside the theatre his eye was caught by the sign, Stage Entrance. He could watch the actors come forth.
He waited. Women streamed by him, but those were the days before Glorification and he took these drab people for wardrobe women or something. Then suddenly a girl came out and with her a man, and Basil turned and ran a few steps up the street as if afraid they would recognize him — and ran back, breathing as if with a heart attack — for the girl, a radiant little beauty of nineteen, was Her and the young man by her side was Ted Fay.
Arm in arm, they walked past him, and irresistibly Basil followed. As they walked, she leaned towards Ted Fay in a way that gave them a fascinating air of intimacy. They crossed Broadway and turned into the Knickerbocker Hotel, and twenty feet behind them Basil followed, in time to see them go into a long room set for afternoon tea. They sat at a table for two, spoke vaguely to a waiter, and then, alone at last, bent eagerly towards each other. Basil saw that Ted Fay was holding her gloved hand.
The tea room was separated only by a hedge of potted firs from the main corridor. Basil went along this to a lounge which was almost up against their table and sat down.
Her voice was low and faltering, less certain than it had been in the play, and very sad: ‘Of course I do, Ted.’ For a long time, as their conversation continued, she repeated, ‘Of course I do,’ or ‘But I do, Ted.’ Ted Fay’s remarks were too low for Basil to hear.
‘ — says next month, and he won’t be put off any more . . . I do in a way, Ted. It’s hard to explain, but he’s done everything for mother and me . . . There’s no use kidding myself. It was a foolproof part and any girl he gave it to was made right then and there . . . He’s been awfully thoughtful. He’s done everything for me.’
Basil’s ears were sharpened by the intensity of his emotion; now he could hear Ted Fay’s voice too:
‘And you say you love me.’
‘But don’t you see I promised to marry him more than a year ago.’
‘Tell him the truth — that you love me. Ask him to let you off.’
‘This isn’t musical comedy, Ted.’
‘That was a mean one,’ he said bitterly.
‘I’m sorry, dear, Ted darling, but you’re driving me crazy going on this way. You’re making it so hard for me.’
‘I’m going to leave New Haven, anyhow.’
‘No, you’re not. You’re going to stay and play baseball this spring. Why, you’re an ideal to all those boys! Why, if you — ’
He laughed shortly. ‘You’re a fine one to talk about ideals.’
‘Why not? I’m living up to my responsibility to Beltzman; you’ve got to make up your mind just like I have — that we can’t have each other.’
‘Jerry! Think what you’re doing! All my life, whenever I hear that waltz — ’
Basil got to his feet and hurried down the corridor, through the lobby and out of the hotel. He was in a state of wild emotional confusion. He did not understand all he had heard, but from his clandestine glimpse into the privacy of these two, with all the world that his short experience could conceive of at their feet, he had gathered that life for everybody was a struggle, sometimes magnificent from a distance, but always difficult and surprisingly simple and a little sad.
They would go on. Ted Fay would go back to Yale, put her picture in his bureau drawer and knock out home runs with the bases full this spring — at 8.30 the curtain would go up and She would miss something warm and young out of her life, something she had had this afternoon.
It was dark outside and Broadway was a blazing forest fire as Basil walked slowly along towards the point of brightest light. He looked up at the great intersecting planes of radiance with a vague sense of approval and possession. He would see it a lot now, lay his restless heart upon this greater restlessness of a nation — he would come whenever he could get off from school.
But that was all changed — he was going to Europe. Suddenly Basil realized that he wasn’t going to Europe. He could not forgo the moulding of his own destiny just to alleviate a few months of pain. The conquest of the successive worlds of school, college and New York — why, that was his true dream that he had carried from boyhood into adolescence, and because of the jeers of a few boys he had been about to abandon it and run ignominiously up a back alley! He shivered violently, like a dog coming out of the water, and simultaneously he was reminded of Mr Rooney.
A few minutes later he walked into the bar, past the quizzical eyes of the bartender and up to the table where Mr Rooney still sat asleep. Basil shook him gently, then firmly. Mr Rooney stirred and perceived Basil.
‘G’wise to yourself,’ he muttered drowsily. ‘G’wise to yourself an’ let me alone.’
‘I am wise to myself,’ said Basil. ‘Honest, I am wise to myself, Mr Rooney. You got to come with me into the washroom and get cleaned up, and then you can sleep on the train again, Mr Rooney. Come on, Mr Rooney, please — ’
It was a long hard time. Basil got on bounds again in December and wasn’t free again until March. An indulgent mother had given him no habits of work and this was almost beyond the power of anything but life itself to remedy, but he made numberless new starts and failed and tried again.
He made friends with a new boy named Maplewood after Christmas, but they had a silly quarrel; and through the winter term, when a boys’ school is shut in with itself and only partly assuaged from its natural savagery by indoor sports, Basil was snubbed and slighted a good deal for his real and imaginary sins, and he was much alone. But on the other hand, there was Ted Fay, and Rose of the Night on the phonograph — ‘All my life whenever I hear that waltz’ — and the remembered lights of New York, and the thought of what he was going to do in football next autumn and the glamorous image of Yale and the hope of spring in the air.
Fat Gaspar and a few others were nice to him now. Once when he and Fat walked home together by accident from down-town they had a long talk about actresses — a talk that Basil was wise enough not to presume upon afterwards. The smaller boys suddenly decided that they approved of him, and a master who had hitherto disliked him put his hand on his shoulder walking to a class one day. They would all forget eventually — maybe during the summer. There would be new fresh boys in September; he would have a clean start next year.
One afternoon in February, playing basketball, a great thing happened. He and Brick Wales were at forward on the second team and in the fury of the scrimmage the gymnasium echoed with sharp slapping contacts and shrill cries.
Basil had dribbled the ball down the court and Brick Wales, free, was crying for it.
‘Here yar! Lee! Hey! Lee-y!’
Basil flushed and made a poor pass. He had been called by a nickname. It was a poor makeshift, but it was something more than the stark bareness of his surname or a term of derision. Brick Wales went on playing, unconscious that he had done anything in particular or that he had contributed to the events by which another boy was saved from the army of the bitter, the selfish, the neurasthenic and the unhappy. It isn’t given to us to know those rare moments when people are wide open and the lightest touch can wither or heal. A moment too late and we can never reach them any more in this world. They will not be cured by our most efficacious drugs or slain with our sharpest swords.
Lee-y! it could scarcely be pronounced. But Basil took it to bed with him that night, and thinking of it, holding it to him happily to the last, fell easily to sleep.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54