Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership




BASIL: THE FRESHEST BOY


by


F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)


The Saturday Evening Post (28 July 1928)



I


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.

'Lee!'

'Yes, sir.'

'It all depends on you now.  Understand?'

'Yes, sir.'

'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.'


II


                                      St Regis School, Eastchester,
                                                  November 18, 19--

Dear Mother:

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.'

'Yes, sir.'

'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.'

'Yes, sir.'

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.


III


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.

'Oh!'

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.

'Good-bye.'

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.


IV


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.'

'Yes, sir.'

'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.'

'No, sir.'

'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:


Dear Basil:

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,

                                                            Mother.


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.

Night


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--'


V


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.

'Here yar!'

'Bill!  Bill!'

Basil had dribbled the ball down the court and Brick Wales, free,
was crying for it.

'Here yar!  Lee!  Hey!  Lee-y!'

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.




This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia