For a gentleman professor in Kinnikinick College to look upon a maiden student as a human being was poorly thought of, and to meet her over a dish of marshmallow, ground nuts, caramel and two kinds of ice cream was as dangerous morally as it was dietetically. Now that he had once run that danger, he did not dare try to see her except across the footlights in his Rhetoric class.
She was, by alphabetical arrangement, half-way back in the room now, and when he started his second lecture, he looked about for her flutteringly, and was reassured by her smile that said, “Yes, here I am!” Through his discourse, her attention told him that he was good — but afterward she treacherously slipped away with the rest of the class, and he was in a terror of uncertain love.
He knew that for the first time he was really in love. In all his life he would have only four or five people who would completely know him and accept him. Certainly Teckla Schaum did not. For all his warnings that he would be stepping out into glory, she thought that he was really a born progenitor and mower of lawns, who would settle blissfully into domesticity if she was but loving and patient. Of these four or five connoisseurs of Gideon Planish, Peony would be the only seducible girl, and he no more intended to lose her than to lose his life.
His chance to talk with her came at the Freshman Reception, held in the gymnasium, which was decorated with red and green paper streamers and an enormous sign “Welcome Class o’ 1925.”
The male costumes at the reception ranged from President Bull’s white tie and tails to old Professor Eakins’s eccentric white flannel suit and red bow, with Professor Planish soundly middle-road in a dinner jacket. The hundred freshmen, in the ancient religious ceremony of the Reception Line, filed before the president, the dean of men and the dean of women, and all the full professors, complete with wives, fetishistically shaking hands as though they really enjoyed the rite and from the magic touch gained heroic strength. The preceptorial priests themselves were hypnotized and stood mystically flapping their arms and croaking “Spleasure.” The only one who kept awake was Professor Planish, and he only till after he had felt the firm warmth of Peony’s young paw.
Yet during the reception he was apparently devoted to Mrs. Bull, the wife of the new president. She was ten years older than Professor Planish, but she looked sparkling; she wore a Chicago dinner-gown and a Cedar Rapids hair-wave, and she liked young professors.
Professor Planish felt that he might need influence at court very soon, and he danced with Mrs. Bull twice, stepping high and wiggling his plump behind and thrusting out his beard in an ecstasy of social elegance, and telling her that on the entire Atlantic Seaboard he had not found a lady with so light a foot and such vital ideas about teaching domestic science. In return, she gave out everything about her son Eddie, aged eleven.
Just once he danced with Peony, and that far more sedately than with Mrs. Bull. But he had been watching her, in her cheery yellow silk frock with a golden girdle, kicking up hoydenish heels with unspeakable brutes of young freshmen.
Now he was talking to Peony; he was talking to a woman, not to a social obligation:
“Why didn’t you come up after class, last time?”
“I didn’t want people talking about me.”
“You mean about US!”
“Why, Professor Planish!”
“I’m not Professor Planish, and you know it. I’m Gid.”
“I’ve got to see you.”
“It’s so hard. I’d like to, but people watch you. You’re too popular, Gid!”
“Nonsense. I’m just unmarried. Listen! You know that little park across the tracks from the station? Nobody from the college ever goes there.”
Mocking again: “I suppose that’s where you always have your dates with co-eds!”
“I’ve never had a date with a girl there and you know it.”
“How would I know it?”
“Because I just told you so, and I never lie — to you. Can’t you feel that’s true? Don’t you know it?”
“Maybe — yes!”
“Then be there in the park at ten tomorrow evening.”
“Do you like me, Miss Jackson?”
“I can’t tell yet, Professor Planish. I don’t know how sound you are on the gold standard.”
They laughed. That laugh was the only possible betrayal in a tabby-looking conversation, and Professor Planish looked hastily to see if Teckla and President and Mrs. Bull were observing. No, he was still safe.
With Teckla he danced only once. She had been frozen in with the chaperones, the faculty wives, who all had a fixed and smiling look of intense distaste.
“Having a good time, Teckla?” he glowed.
“All right, but it’s not much fun for me to sit back like a Mother in Zion.”
“I’ll dance with you again, and I’ll see you home, and now I’ll bring you a bottle of strawberry pop. I know how you like strawberry pop.”
He did not dance with her again, but he did bring her a bottle of that horrible drink, and he did “see her home.” He had always been afraid of scandal for himself — he had sometimes gone so far as to fear it for Teckla — and he rarely was to be seen entering her house later than supper-time. When she said, “Come on in for a while,” he gurgled, “I don’t really think I’d better. Got to think of your reputation, you know!”
Brightly. Like a professor.
She snapped at him, “Oh, come IN!”
In the house, she held him with her hands on his shoulders. “Is there something wrong tonight, Gideon?”
“Because if there is — Gideon, you never once looked at me. When I was dancing with you, I was dancing with a stranger — a stranger that didn’t like me very much. Darling, it’s awfully hard to see a man that you know so well suddenly turn into a stranger right in your arms, with the muscles and the way he moves all different. I knew something was distracting you — I really felt frightened.”
“Oh, you just imagined —”
“Why do you ever lie to me? I always catch you, you know. Even college professors or preachers oughtn’t to lie unless they can get away with it — So you fell pretty hard for her! Didn’t you!”
He was aghast.
“Oh, I could see it. Gideon, she must be ten years older than you are. At least.”
“I know she’s handsome, but after all, Gideon, Mrs. Bull IS the president’s wife —”
He hooted with noisy joy; he kissed her with fond brotherliness. But his relief was not merely in being safe; it was equally in being free from Teckla’s understanding. “She doesn’t really know me then. She’s never got through to me. There’s only one girl that can, that ever will,” he rejoiced to himself, as he palavered aloud, “Mrs. Bull? I don’t even know she exists. You don’t know how funny your jealousy is, Teck! Matter of fact, my crime is much worse than being after a married woman — my crime is that I was making up to her in order to stand in with the president, and that IS pretty low!”
“Yes, it is, you bad thing!” She was delighted; she believed him. “Do sit down, and I’ll make you a cup of coffee.”
“No, I got to be moving.”
“Why? It’s not late. And you won’t do any more work this evening.”
“No, I just —”
“Gideon, I do love you so. God knows why, but I do. But you don’t have to make love to me, if you stay. If you’ll just go on being a friend — You’ll never have any idea what it can mean to a widow, a young widow, who was so happily married, not to have a man around the house to turn to and have him close the shutters and open the bottles and be bossy. It’s terrible not to have anybody care enough for you to boss you and — Oh, sorry I’m sentimental. But don’t neglect me again the way you have at the reception all evening.”
(He was thinking, “Oh, all women are annoying — except one. They poison the very instincts that ought to lead a man on and up to a clearer light. Why don’t I be honest with this female? Go on, Dr. Planish — can you ever be honest? By God, I will!”)
“Teck! You’ve saved my life, out here in Kinnikinick,” he flowered.
“And I do give you coffee.”
“Very fine coffee! But now I’m going to be very serious, and this may sound like a funny question, but do you think I’ll have a chance to be a leader of the United States Senate some day and maybe even go higher — say a post in the Cabinet?”
“How can I—”
“No! Frankly, I don’t. I think you are a good teacher — you have a sort of zest that makes up for what you lack in scholarship —”
“So I lack in scholarship!”
“— but I don’t think you’d ever have the patience or the ideas to become a political leader.”
“Darling Teckla! Oh, I don’t mind. But you don’t really believe in me.”
“I think I love you — some!”
“That’s sorta beside the point. You’re tired. You lack the enthusiasm of youth. I shall certainly try to keep from it, but I’m afraid that, as you yourself hinted recently, some day I’ll fall in love with some girl that’s — oh, call it credulous, if you want to.”
“Have you fallen for one yet?”
“No, of course not!” (He congratulated himself, “That’s the only lie I’ve had to tell her!”) “But I might. And if I ever did, I know that she and I would both turn to you as the wisest and kindest woman living, as a woman —”
“Hey now, wait! I’m only thirty-three, you know, not seventy-three. Oh, yes, I suppose I’d be kind and sensible — damn it!”
He had, then, to get through not over six minutes of farewells.
He felt, on his way home, that he had won a triumph, though he was not quite sure what it was. But it must have something to do with keeping him free to advance the welfare of mankind. He put on his own halo, and it stuck there till he was asleep — a child in Vulcan, hearing a distant train.
On that evening of early October there was neither harvest moon nor the wine stains of afterglow, but only dusty air and an uneasy brilliance from the arc light on the station platform. Professor Planish was wriggling on a bench in the sick little park, feeling vaguely foolish yet trembling with the coming glory. He tried to look at a line of flat-looking flatcars, at a bumptious little caboose, but he could really see nothing till, miraculously, Peony was crossing the tracks, carefully stepping over the rails. He knew that it was she, but he couldn’t believe it, for she was grown-up and rich and courtly in a white-flannel cape with a gold-braided military collar.
She said in a small voice, “Hello.”
He slipped his arm under her coat, he whispered, “My girl — my girl!” and he kissed her lips. “Do you know that I’m in love with you?”
She said comfortably, “Oh, you couldn’t be.”
“Well, darn it, I am!”
“Are you in love with me at all?”
“Sure. I have been for almost a year. Oh, yes. I came down from Faribault with Daddy, to see about my entrance, and we sneaked into your Rhetoric class. Dad said you were a great spellbinder.”
“And what did YOU think?”
“I thought you were cute. Oh, all right, all right, don’t look so cross. I thought you were wonderful.”
“You know, all this is extraordinary. What are we going to do?”
“Do, Professor? Why, as I seem to have led you captive already — with practically no expense for lipstick — we might get married.”
“Oh, yes. Married.”
“You’ve heard of it?”
“I certainly have, and we’re going to be married, at the proper time, but I want you to finish at least two years of college.”
“Oh, to be prepared to take a great place in the world. I’m not going to stay in a dump like Kinnikinick all my life.”
“I should hope not! But why can’t I be married and still go to school?”
“Against the college rules here for an undergraduate to get married.”
“Why, the old meanies! Anyway, there’s no rule against being engaged. Will I do some ring-flaunting! (I know where we can borrow a dandy ring, if you’re busted.) Will I sit in class and stare at you and embarrass you! ‘Folks, meet Pee Jackson, the fiancee of that charming Professor Planish, the poor dope!’ Poor Professor! Darling Professor! Do I call you Gideon or Gid?”
“Gid, I guess. But darling, look here —”
It had come to him that if Teckla heard of his being engaged, she would be annoyed, and that her father was chairman of the Kinnikinick Board of Trustees, who could make the place itchy for a professor, contract or no. He picked up Peony’s hand and kissed it and put it carefully back, and told her the whole story of himself and Teckla — or enough of it for daily use. It had never been so nearly easy for him to be so nearly honest. He asserted that Teckla was a good and helpful soul, and Peony did nothing more than snarl, “I don’t trust ANY woman!” and, at the end, demand, “But now you’re not even going to have tea, call it tea, with that woman any more, are you!”
Certainly he wasn’t. How could she think of such a thing?
“Gideon! If her father and the trustees are likely to cut up — maybe get us scandalized — why do we need to stay here? Maybe it’s time for you to beat it, on and upward. Excelsior!”
“Maybe it is, at that. I’d like to have a job in Columbia University.”
“But I see you doing something more active than teaching, Gideon. You’re still so young —”
“Do I seem young to you?”
“A baby! What you could do! You’re the kind could buck the business world, say, like a banker or running a fifty-thousand-acre farm. And you’re so eloquent I just love it, but why didn’t you take up economics instead of rhetoric? Some day maybe you’ll be governor or a senator.”
“Now isn’t that strange, your speaking about that! I’ve always had a hunch I could do something big in politics — get to the top — and of course do a lot of good for people.”
“Yes — sure — do a lot for people.”
“You really think I could?”
“Sure you could! I know it! Oh, Gideon, isn’t it wonderful! And do you think I could help you? I bet at dinner at the Governor’s Mansion, I could get all the old bags talking and laughing like a son of a gun, don’t you think so?”
“Sure you could! I know it! And it would make all the difference, your believing in me, so I’d have self-confidence and be geared for success. That’s what wins — being geared for success, don’t you see?”
“Yes, I can see that now.”
“Not be willing to take anything but the best — in fame and financial rewards and power — and the ability to do good — and be friendly with all the big men, like the Rockefellers. Have your machine tooled for top-notch success and refuse to go on with poky little jobs in places like Kinnikinick. That’s the formula!”
“And with you, I’ll do it! Darling!”
She kissed him to exhaustion.
“We are engaged then,” he said. “But can you keep it secret?”
“I’m the best Mata Hari in college — but of course a good Mata Hari.”
He scarcely dared to, but it was a critical question, and he whispered, “How good?”
She whispered back, “That depends. Not too good.” Then, loudly and brashly, sounding like a freshman, she yelped, “Gracious! It’s late! I’ve got to skip.”
She was gone before he could grasp her flying white cape, and he didn’t know when he was to see her again.
For weeks he agitatedly never did know when he was going to see her again, except at Rhetoric class, where she looked up at him like an amiable monkey.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57