O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1924/One Uses the Handkerchief

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APASSIONATE sneeze rent the studious calm of the Third Grade room. Before its echoes had died away, the Third Grade, Mexican, as one man, had focused a shocked, incredulous gaze upon the author of the disturbance—a pale, shrinking boy with eager eyes peering nearsightedly from beneath an unkempt shock of dull black hair.

“Ticher,” shrilled several scandalized voices, as the startled Miss Lipscomb looked up, “Ticher, eet iss that Raphael who sneezes—that Raphael Arcienega.”

“Right into the air he sneezes, Ticher,” vociferated Anita Perez, “indignantly, “that air that we mus’ breathe—nosotros.”

“And sooch wet sneezes,” objected Emilia Villa.

“He doss not even cover weeth the hand the face,” cut in Concha Florida. “I think he iss veree bad boys. Now shall we all mebbie be seek.”

Quien sabe? Perhaps even we shall die,” supplemented Hortensia Valdes, her voice rising in a hysterical quaver.

It was as if the Third Grade already felt itself in the throes of a deadly epidemic. Anita Perez shivered and sneezed virtuously into a dainty lace-edged fragment of muslin. Since handkerchiefs had become á la moda in the Third Grade, Anita’s had always been of the daintiest and, naturally, the most often on display. Manuelo Habanera and Pedro Gonzalos hastily drew from their pockets generous squares of cotton of dubious cleanliness, into which they coughed sepulchrally and long, turning reproachful eyes upon the author of the contaminating sneeze.

With head deprecatingly on one side the object of this general disapproval peered dubiously about the room. What was it all about? He had but sneezed, as everyone must do in the course of nature. Why, then, this public inquisition? Appealingly he looked at the kind lady at the desk.

“Children, stop it!’? commanded Miss Lipscomb, briskly. ‘Raphael has just started to school. Perhaps no one has ever told him that one uses the handkerchief when he coughs or sneezes. I am sure that if we explain kindly to him why it is necessary to do so, he will try to remember after this. Who would like to tell him about it?”

“Ramon, Ticher,” chorused the Third Grade. “Let heem tell. She can espick so good the English.”

“Well, Ramon,” acquiesced Miss Lipscomb, smiling. “Would you like to tell Raphael something about what we are all trying to do here as good Americans?”

Thus gratifyingly entreated, the chosen spokesman arose, adjusted his dashing red neckerchief, and faced his audience, graciously, yet with authority, as one born to dispense information.

Raphael had never heard of inferiority complexes and the perils of yielding to them; therefore he watched the debonair Ramon with all his wistful, self-deprecatory soul in his eyes. To be like this—so elegant, so careless, so sure of one’s self!

“Here we try be the good American, Ticher,” began Ramon, easily. “To be the good American,” he explained, “one doss not fight weeth the knife or throw the stone or shoot the crap in the yard off the school.”

Ticher made a mental note that it might be well to find out where a good American—like Ramon, for instance—did “shoot the crap.”

“To be the good American, one doss not tell the lie. Ramon thoughtfully cocked a brig ht black eye at the top of the blackboard. “Eet iss not to be the good American,” he offered innocently in enlargement of his text, “when Conchita poot into hees desk my new pencil and tells that she doss not see it.”

“Ticher, no, ma’am! Eet iss not the pencil of Ramon,” shrieked Concha Florida. “In my desk iss onlee—”

No importa (it is no matter),” shrugged Ramon with lordly tolerance. “That Concha, she eats hees pencils. I do not lig eaten pencils. I can buy awthers.”

What magnificence! thought Raphael, One would do well to watch this dashing person and learn from him, when one obviously had so much to learn to be like the others and to please the pretty lady at the desk, who smiled at one so gently.

Now the lady spoke rather shortly.

“Go on, Ramon,” she commanded. “What has all this to do with sneezing?”

“To be the good American,” went on Ramon, “one keeps clean the body and the clothes. One breathes by hees nose weeth the window open, always the fresh air. To breathe the bad air iss lig to drink the dirty water. Eet iss full off thoss bug that call heemself ‘my-my-my-cubs.’ No, no, Ticher. Eet iss not so that they call heemself. Eet iss——

“Microbes,” suggested Miss ‘Lipscomb, and put her handkerchief to her face as if she, too, were about to sneeze.

“Ticher, yess, ma’am. Eet iss heem that mag us seek. And to cough and sneeze weethout to cover the mouth,” Ramon’s voice dropped impressively a minor third, “iss to fill weeth thoss my-my-weeth thoss dirty bug the clean air.” The lecturer’s tense face and dramatically waving hands suggested an atmosphere swarming with loathsome, slimy monsters.

At his suggestive pantomime the wide-eyed Raphael cringed in his corner, shuddering at thought of the unknown horrors he had unwittingly loosed upon his hapless schoolmates.

“They get inside off us,” went on Ramon with unmistakable gusto, “and eat on us, and they——

“That will do, Ramon.” Ticher cut the discourse short, startled by the shrinking horror in the eyes Raphael turned upon her. “Now give Raphael one of those pieces of clean cloth from the closet. I am sure that he will never sneeze without covering his face again.”

Indeed Raphael would not. As if in anticipation of some cataclysmic attack of hay fever, he thereafter hoarded in his bulging pockets clean rags of all sizes and shapes, and kept his nose chastely buried in one of them much of the time, coming up only when air was necessary for the efficient performance of his scholastic duties. It was not enough for Raphael that crimes against the public safety should be rebuked after their commission. He fervently believed in the traditional ounce of prevention.

“Ticher,” he would burst out in a frantic stage whisper, suddenly starting from his seat to point a rigid forefinger, “Ticher, I thing Jesus is going to sneeze. Pleass you espick heem queeck cover the nose.”

His enthusiasm eventually won for him his appointment as “monitor of the handkerchiefs,” in which capacity he dispensed from the store in the cupboard clean cloths to those members of the Third Grade who failed to equip themselves for emergencies. The performance of this duty was a holy rite to Raphael; for did it not mean that he, in his humble way, was, like the brilliant Ramon, learning to be “the good American”?

This appointment was Raphael’s one triumph, for he was not very versatile, hopelessly lacking, indeed, in those graceful accomplishments whereby Ramon held enslaved his little public. The only time Raphael had attempted to join his class in song, those directly about him had become immediately voiceless with wonder and delight. Emilia Villa, when questioned by Ticher as to why she did not sing, had explained all too frankly, “But, Ticher, how can I e-sink when that Raphael e-sinks? That noiss she mags—eet iss too awful!” And Raphael had seen Manuelo Habanera executing with his hands at his ears a peculiar fan-like movement whose suggestion was unmistakable.

About a month after Raphael entered school Ticher told the class about the proposed Americanization exercises, to be held here in their own schoolroom. There were to be songs and speeches, and there would be people there, she told the Third Grade, many people, to see and hear them. And—ultimate thrill—there would be a prize, offered by the Big Boss of the mining company that owned the town, for the pupil who had proved himself most truly American.

During the discussion of the programme, Ramon scored very neatly by a humorous suggestion that Raphael be allowed to sing.

But Miss Lipscomb had come to Raphael’s rescue with a lovely smile.

“No, indeed, Ramon,” she said. “I have something much nicer than singing for Raphael to do.”

The inference was that singing was something that any one could do, that Raphael’s talents were not to be wasted on mere singing.

When the “something nicer” was explained to Raphael, he was dazzled by the importance of the rôle for which he was cast.

The “piece” in which Raphael was to appear was to be the third number of the entertainment. Eleven children were to recite in chaste and lofty verse the merits of hygienic and wholesome living. Each individual verse was a separate unit with a theme of its own, and the initial of each theme was one of the letters that spell “Health First.” It was to be Raphael’s part to bring forth at their appointed times these letters, cut from cardboard and gayly coloured, and to assemble them on their elevated standards behind the group who recited. When he thought of the tremendous responsibility this involved, his hands and feet became cold and his breath short with apprehension.

The day of the exercises dawned inauspiciously with a raw desert wind racing across the mesa, bearing before it a screen of sand, which it hurled at the rattling schoolroom windows. Such a wind portended inevitably, as Raphael—monitor of the handkerchiefs—had come to know, a day of much coughing and sneezing, for your Mexican child is a delicate plant shivering pitifully from the least draft. Raphael thought that he must ask Ticher if there were plenty of nice clean rags in stock.

He forgot to do this, however, in the excitement of the first few minutes in the delightful holiday atmosphere that had invaded the schoolroom.

Even Ticher seemed different as she distributed small flags that the children were to wear. She had on a dress of blue silk, the colour of her eyes, with a soft lace collar; her cheeks were flushed and her eyes large and brilliant.

Raphael wanted very much to make her proud of him to-day, to show that he was “the good American.” He wanted to tell her so.

But all the other good Americans had things to tell her, too. Hysterically they demanded her attention. About her bobbed many ribbon bows of extravagant size and brightness, poised like magic butterflies upon dark locks ordinarily restrained only by wrapping cord or good sensible shoestring.

On the outskirts of the group hovered the boys, whose concessions to the occasion took the less exotic form of astoningly clean shirts and of neckties borrowed from fathers or elder brothers—all except the exquisite Ramon. Ramon out-carmined in his splendour the proverbial little red wagon elegant from head to foot with newly barbered locks, white shirt, gay striped tie of orange and red, and new shoes—shiny new shoes, of a soul-satisfying squeakiness which necessitated many bustling trips to and fro across the room.

Raphael ruefully compared them with his own unpretentious footwear, a somewhat worn pair of buttoned boots which yawned obtrusively where several buttons were missing. The tips turned up about two inches from the ends where his toes stopped. It was impossible to bustle importantly in boots like these; indeed, they were only too likely even at a moderate pace to trip one whose movements were uncertain at best.

Raphael looked often for assurance down at his shirt. It was not new, not new enough to make him feel vulgarly over-dressed, and it was much too large for him; but the pattern still showed in a pleasing red polka dot, and it was refreshingly clean. He rubbed his hand fondly over its smooth, starched surface.

Suddenly the monitor of the handkerchiefs was recalled to his duties by the sound of a stentorian sneeze. Peering anxiously about for the offender, he saw Jesus Estradilla just throwing back her head, eyes closed, mouth open, for another ecstatic outburst. He was saved from the necessity for official interference by the fact that Jesus had already unpinned the safety pin that fastened her handkerchief to her waist and now held the bit of muslin dramatically poised for action. Raphael was relieved, for Jesus was always unpleasantly on the defensive against interferences with her personal liberties.

“You, Raphael Arcienega,” she had once told him severely, “you wipe your own nose—and I wipe mine. Eh? Bueno!

However, the incident reminded him of something. He really must confer with Ticher to learn whether the stock of clean rags in the closet would be adequate to any emergency. The closet was still locked and Ticher had the key. Timidly he elbowed his way through the group of clamouring classmates about Miss *Lipscomb’s desk and plucked gently at her elbow.

“Ticher,” he murmured, “iss in the closet lots off the rag for the nose? I thing thees day mooch sneezing and——

“Ticher, when I espick “There hanks the flag,’ do I point weeth wheech hand? Pedro Gonzalos had rudely pushed Raphael aside.

But Hortensia Valdes had also elbowed herself into the foreground.

“Please, Ticher,” she complained, importantly, “please you tell Gilberto Villa not to mag wink the eye to me when T e-sink my song. Eet mag me e feel veree fonny, and een my song iss nawthing fonny.” Hortensia’s plain ace was tense with the anxiety of the true interpretive artist; her bony fingers were twisting and pulling at her lawn skirt. “Don’t do that, Hortensia; you’ll spoil your pretty dress. No. Surely you must not wink at Hortensia, Gilberto,” confirmed Miss Lipscomb. “Her song is not funny.”

“But, Ticher, yess, ma’am,” objected Gilberto, rakishly, ‘eet iss Hortensia that iss fonny. When she roll up the eye, so—and wave the arm, so—I thing she weel say next, ‘Cock- a-doodle-doo.

In the laughter that drowned Hortensia’s indignant outburst, Raphael again took heart to pluck Miss Lipscomb’s elbow and murmur, “Ticher, ticher, iss in the cupboard lots off the rag for the nose? I thing thees day——

“Ticher, pleass,” Gilberto Villa had wriggled into the foreground, “pleass you tell Felipe not to heet so mooch the drum. I cannot hear myself e-sink when she do so. Can I e-sink eef I do not hear heemself?”

“Ticher,” Raphael began patiently for the third time, thrusting himself daringly in front of the indignant Gilberto, ‘iss in the desk lots off the rag for the nose? Many already sneeze. I thing——

“Say, you Raphael,” threatened Gilberto, “eet iss I that espick now.”

“Raphael iss afraid that she weel forget hees speech,” tittered Concha Florida, “He has so veree mooch to say.”

Before this unkind taunt Raphael shrank back, utterly abashed.

“Me, also, I am afraid,” confessed Emilia Villa, breathlessly. “I am so mooch afraid that my estomach aches me.”

Raphael was again stretching forth a timid hand when a sudden squawk of anguish from the corner of the room riveted Ticher’s attention.

Anita Perez stood at bay, frantically protecting her gorgeous new white dress against the teasing, dirty paws of Felipe. Near by Manuelo clownishly repulsed an imaginary attack upon his own coveralls with mincing falsetto shrieks. As Miss Lipscomb rushed to Anita’s rescue, there was a general cry of, “Ticher, ticher, the bell rinks. The bell rinks! Now weel they come—all thoss people. Oh, my!”

Miss Lipscomb gently loosened Raphael’s clinging fingers and pushed him toward his seat.

“Go and sit down, Raphael,” she said. “And don’t worry about your part. You do it perfectly.”

Fluttering with excitement the Third Grade sat down and viewed itself with fatuous approval.

While Miss Lipscomb was calling the roll, two strident sneezes sounded through the room. They came from Emilia Villa and Angela Robles. Raphael, watching with apprehensive eyes, saw that they produced no handkerchiefs. And Gilberto Villa was coughing openly, shamelessly, right into the atmosphere which must be breathed by the Third Grade and its guests. It was just what Raphael had dreaded. But that it should happen on this day of all others, to shame Miss Lipscomb and the Third Grade before an enlightened public who would know, of course, that the good American does not sneeze or cough without using the handkerchief! Well, he must do what he could to avert the scandal.

Brazenly he flourished his hand when the roll call was over.

“Ticher,” he reported, firmly, “Angela, Emilia, and Gilberto—he cough and sneeze, and he have nawthing to cover the face. I must have rags.”

“Oh, surely,” said Ticher, and unlocked the cupboard door. Apprehensively Raphael stepped inside and raised his hand to the accustomed shelf. Then he knew the worst. Only one clean rag remained. With despair settling upon his spirit, he saw the first guests enter the room. He saw, too, that as they did so, Gilberto coughed raucously and, as if by signal, the Third Grade burst into a medley of excited coughs. Frantically he tried to think—to plan. Ticher was too busy receiving the new arrivals to be bothered. And, after all, it was Raphael, monitor of the handkerchiefs, who had been criminally remiss in his vigilance. Well, he must think what to do.

Covetously he eyed the filmy white of Anita Perez’s new frock. What beautiful handkerchiefs that would make! But Anita sat in the far corner of the room. Sober reflection convinced Raphael that, in any event, Anita was not the person to sacrifice her elegance—even to save the day for the Third Grade. But girls did wear white things—underneath, where they could never be missed.

In front of Raphael sat Emilia Villa. Raphael leaned forward and prodded Emilia’s plump back with a determined forefinger. Emilia turned upon him coldly questioning eyes.

“You take off the clothes—the onderneath clothes,” directed Raphael, ruthlessly.

Emilia stared at him in open-mouthed horror.

“The white clothes,” insisted Raphael in a hoarse whisper.

“Take heem off. To mag the rag for the nose. Many sneeze———”

Before his desperate look Emilia shrank to the edge of her seat in a panic. Her eyes and mouth opened to their widest extent. Obviously she was about to shriek for help. Terrified at the consequences of his rashness, Raphael cowered back into his corner. Eventually Emilia thought better of it; she did not scream. But it was evident that he could expect no coöperation from her. He must think of something else. If only he wore skirts. Then, suddenly, Raphael’s eyes kindled. Raphael knew now what to do.

No one noticed the frightened little boy who stole quietly from his seat near the door and vanished into the hallway. No one saw him return five minutes later, except Miss Lipscomb, who looked slightly startled at first; then smiled comprehendingly as she noted that he was wearing his heavy coat.

“I think, Pedro,” she smiled to the monitor of the register, “that you had better close a window and give us some more heat.”

Glad of Pedro’s important clatter, Raphael moved hurriedly about the room, and did not take this seat until the bundle of rags that he carried was exhausted.

Immediately, it seemed, the programme was under way. Ramon, all bland smiles and eloquent gestures, explained to the guests how the Third Grade “learn to be the good American,” and sat down, dimpling under a thunderous applause. People whispered about him and smiled.

Meantime, Raphael, in his corner near the big register, had begun to grow uncomfortably warm. Pedro had been liberal in his construction of what Ticher meant by “some heat.” The perspiration was running out from under Raphael’s heavy hair and trickling down his face. He felt unpleasantly sticky under his coat—but he did not take it off.

When the fateful moment came at which he must rise and make his way to the front of the room, he was so utterly palsied with fear that all his conscious effort was directed to guiding his stumbling feet up the aisle. At one side of the open space used as a stage he took his place near the gayly coloured letters that it was his present duty to display.

The eleven speakers also took their places along the front of the stage with much crowding and surging of the line. Raphael gripped the letter “H” and waited. Anita touched the ruffles of her skirt, coughed delicately behind a lace-edged handkerchief, and opened her mouth to speak. But suddenly Miss Lipscomb, who had been looking strangely at Raphael, rose and stepped over to him.

“You must take off your coat, Raphael,” she said.

Raphael desperately cleared his: throat. The eyes he turned upon her were piteous as he murmured in his thin, high voice, “No, no! Cold, Ticher. Too cold.”

“Nonsense, Raphael,” she whispered. “You’re dripping with perspiration; you’ll be sick.”

And, disregarding the frantic appeal in his upturned face, she firmly drew off his coat and threw it over her arm.

A gasp that was almost a shriek went up from the shocked Third Grade. For under that coat, above the belt line, was nothing but Raphael. Ticher hastily shrouded his shrinking nudity again in: the coat and signalled peremptorily for the performance to go on.

What followed was to Raphael a waking nightmare. Sweating copiously at every pore, with eyes downcast and limbs trembling with mortification, he staggered back and forth, dragging into their places the gay letters that illuminated the text which the good Americans at the front of the stage were bravely expounding to a persistent accompaniment of titters and whispers.

Finally, amid riotous applause they took their seats. There was a special salvo for Raphael, and all eyes followed him. But he was not deceived. This was not the honest tribute paid to the true artist like Ramon. Raphael had spoiled the show and he knew it. He had shocked, with his nakedness, the delicate sensibilities of the Third Grade’s gentle public. What was almost as bad, the carefully constructed legend at the back of the stage spelled not Health First but Healf Thirst.

Back in his warm corner by the register, Raphael shed perspiration and tears, his heart sick with shame, his face buried in his arms.

Miss Lipscomb watched him pitifully as the exercises went on. She longed to comfort him; and, still more, she longed for a solution to the mystery. For she knew that Raphael had worn a shirt when he came to school that morning. In the midst of the ringing final chorus one of the ladies turned to her.

“I wish you would tell me—I have been wondering all afternoon,” she whispered, “why so many of your children have handkerchiefs exactly alike. Do they buy them by the piece?”

Ticher sat up very straight and stared. For the first time she realized that this was true, and that there was something hauntingly familiar about the colour scheme of those handkerchiefs—a dull cream background, faintly flecked with red. Suddenly her face rippled into an understanding smile, so radiant that the Third Grade involuntarily beamed in response. Even Raphael, who had raised his shamed eyes for the first time, saw, and was so infinitely cheered that he straightened up and prepared to give his attention to the rest of the programme.

Even now the Big Boss from the mill was rising, an expression of mingled amusement and doubt on his smooth, fair face. But as he stepped forward, Ticher suddenly did a strange thing. Half-rising from her chair, she plucked him by the sleeve, and, drawing him back into his seat, began to talk to him rapidly and eagerly.

Finally he stepped to the flag-draped table. From his vest pocket he took a small velvet case, which he opened and placed upon the desk at his side. The Third Grade drew a deep breath. Over the edge of the little box they caught the flash of gold. There were excited whispers among which Ramon’s name was audible. Ramon, in the front row, tried to look unconscious and succeeded only in making his eyes blank and Indian-like, while his little chin quivered and his teeth chattered.

The Big Boss told them what an impressive occasion this had been, at which they beamed complacently; and what a remarkable teacher they had, at which they applauded uproariously; and how gratified he was to know that they were striving for such lofty ideals. And now it was his pleasant duty to bestow the medal which had been awarded to the pupil who had, throughout the year, shown himself most truly American. Would Ramon Sedillo step forward?

Ramon Sedillo did. Perhaps it would be more truthful to say that Ramon Sedillo swaggered forward, but we must remember that it is not every day that a small Mexican boy receives from the Big Boss a medal for true Americanism. When Ramon retired after the ceremony, rosy and smiling, he was followed by the happy applause of his proud classmates.

Then something not provided for in the programme happened. The Big Boss unfastened from his pocket a heavy gold watchfob on a rich black ribbon. As he placed this, also, on the table beside him, he winked solemnly at Ticher. For a moment he did not seem to know what to say. His face worked and became very red. The Third Grade watched in polite concern; Miss Lipscomb, in open alarm. Finally he began to talk.

Because of something unforeseen that had happened that afternoon, he told them, it had been decided to bestow another prize for—for—well, in short, for distinguished service in the cause of Americanism. All year, he reminded them, Miss Lipscomb had held before them the idea that true Americans, to avoid spreading disease germs among their innocent companions, always, in coughing or sneezing, hold handkerchiefs before their faces. Now, doubtless they had observed that one member of the class had, throughout the performance that afternoon, worn a heavy coat, in spite of the fact that he must have been uncomfortably warm. Could they guess why?

Audible snickers indicated that this question was unfortunate. The Third Grade was quite sure that it knew why.

The speaker hurried on, a queer break in his voice. It was because, he said, that member of the class had noticed that on this great day, this day so important to the cause of Americanization, some members of the class had forgotten to bring their handkerchiefs, and had actually been coughing and sneezing without restraint.

The Third Grade squirmed guiltily. And what, the speaker wanted to know, had this good American done? In order that his classmates might cough, sneeze, and blow their noses with clear consciences, he had actually, to make handkerchiefs for them, sacrificed his own shirt. Here the Big Boss abruptly had recourse to his own handkerchief. Miss Lipscomb watched him nervously, until, still choking a little, he went on to the grand climax of his remarks.

It had been decided, therefore, to reward this good American for his conspicuous presence of mind and bravery. Would Raphael Arcienega please step forward?

But Raphael Arcienega was quite beyond that effort. It was only with Ticher’s encouraging hand under his elbow that he managed to stumble to the front of the room amidst a dumfounded silence.

Not until the Big Boss was actually pinning the splendid jewel upon Raphael’s coat did the full significance of the ceremony burst upon the Third Grade.

Then, as Raphael faced them, flushed and smiling unsteadily from the greatest happiness he had ever known, the dazzling truth was forced upon him.

Ramon Sedillo, the good American, was generously leading the applause.