Seventeen (novel)/Chapter 13

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XIII

AT HOME TO HIS FRIENDS

AFTER ablutions, he found his wet hair plastic, and easily obtained the long, even sweep backward from the brow, lacking which no male person, unless bald, fulfilled his definition of a man of the world. But there ensued a period of vehemence and activity caused by a bent collar-button, which went on strike with a desperation that was downright savage. The day was warm and William was warmer; moisture bedewed him afresh. Belated victory no sooner arrived than he perceived a fatal dimpling of the new collar, and was forced to begin the operation of exchanging it for a successor. Another exchange, however, he unfortunately forgot to make: the handkerchief with which he had wiped the wall remained in his pocket.

Voices from below, making polite laughter, warned him that already some of the bidden party had arrived, and, as he completed the fastening of his third consecutive collar, an ecstasy of sound reached him through the open window—and then, Oh then! his breath behaved in an abnormal manner and he began to tremble. It was the voice of Miss Pratt, no less!

He stopped for one heart-struck look from his casement. All in fluffy white and heliotrope she was—a blonde rapture floating over the sidewalk toward William's front gate. Her little white cottony dog, with a heliotrope ribbon round his neck, bobbed his head over her cuddling arm; a heliotrope parasol shielded her infinitesimally from the amorous sun. Poor William!

Two youths entirely in William's condition of heart accompanied the glamorous girl and hung upon her rose-leaf lips, while Miss Parcher appeared dimly upon the outskirts of the group, the well-known penalty for hostesses who entertain such radiance. Probably it serves them right.

To William's reddening ear Miss Pratt's voice came clearly as the chiming of tiny bells, for she spoke whimsically to her little dog in that tinkling childlike fashion which was part of the spell she cast.

"Darlin' Flopit," she said, "wake up! Oo tummin' to tea-potty wiz all de drowed-ups. P'eshus Flopit, wake up!"

Dizzy with enchantment, half suffocated, his heart melting within him, William turned from the angelic sounds and fairy vision of the window. He ran out of the room, and plunged down the front stairs. And the next moment the crash of breaking glass and the loud thump-bump of a heavily falling human body resounded through the house.

Mrs. Baxter, alarmed, quickly excused herself from the tea-table, round which were gathered four or five young people, and hastened to the front hall, followed by Jane. Through the open door were seen Miss Pratt, Miss Parcher, Mr. Johnnie Watson and Mr. Joe Bullitt coming leisurely up the sunny front walk, laughing and unaware of the catastrophe which had just occurred within the shadows of the portal. And at a little distance from the foot of the stairs William was seated upon the prostrate "Battle of Gettysburg."

"It slid," he said, hoarsely. "I carried it upstairs with me"—he believed this—"and somebody brought it down and left it lying flat on the floor by the bottom step on purpose to trip me! I stepped on it and it slid." He was in a state of shock: it seemed important to impress upon his mother the fact that the picture had not remained firmly in place when he stepped upon it. "It slid, I tell you!"

"Get up, Willie!" she urged, under her breath, and as he summoned enough presence of mind to obey, she beheld ruins other than the wrecked engraving. She stifled a cry. "Willie! Did the glass cut you?"

He felt himself. "No'm."

"It did your trousers! You'll have to change them. Hurry!"

Some of William's normal faculties were restored to him by one hasty glance at the back of his left leg, which had a dismantled appearance. A long blue strip of cloth hung there, with white showing underneath.

"Hurry!" said Mrs. Baxter. And hastily gathering some fragments of glass, she dropped them upon the engraving, pushed it out of the way, and went forward to greet Miss Pratt and her attendants.

As for William, he did not even pause to close his mouth, but fled with it open. Upward he sped, unseen, and came to a breathless halt upon the landing at the top of the stairs.

As it were in a dream he heard his mother's hospitable greetings at the door, and then the little party lingered in the hall, detained by Miss Pratt's discovery of Jane.

"Oh, tweetums tootums ickle dirl!" he heard the ravishing voice exclaim. "Oh, tootums ickle blue sash!"

"It cost a dollar and eighty-nine cents," said Jane. "Willie sat on the cakes."

"Oh no, he didn't," Mrs. Baxter laughed. "He didn't quite!"

"He had to go up-stairs," said Jane. And as the stricken listener above smote his forehead, she added placidly, "He tore a hole in his clo'es."

She seemed about to furnish details, her mood being communicative, but Mrs. Baxter led the way into the "living-room"; the hall was vacated, and only the murmur of voices and laughter reached William. What descriptive information Jane may have added was spared his hearing, which was a mercy.

And yet it may be that he could not have felt worse than he did; for there is nothing worse than to be seventeen and to hear one of the Noblest girls in the world told by a little child that you sat on the cakes and tore a hole in your clo'es.

William leaned upon the banister railing and thought thoughts about Jane. For several long, seething moments he thought of her exclusively. Then, spurred by the loud laughter of rivals and the agony of knowing that even in his own house they were monopolizing the attention of one of the Noblest, he hastened into his own, room and took account of his reverses.

Standing with his back to the mirror, he obtained over his shoulder a view of his trousers which caused him to break out in a fresh perspiration. Again he wiped his forehead with the handkerchief, and the result was instantly visible in the mirror.

The air thickened with sounds of frenzy, followed by a torrential roar and great sputterings in a bath-room, which tumult subsiding, William returned at a tragic gallop to his room and, having removed his trousers, began a feverish examination of the garments hanging in a clothes-closet. There were two pairs of flannel trousers which would probably again be white and possible, when cleaned and pressed, but a glance showed that until then they were not to be considered as even the last resort of desperation. Beside them hung his "last year's summer suit" of light gray.

Feverishly he brought it forth, threw off his coat, and then—deflected by another glance at the mirror—began to change his collar again. This was obviously necessary, and to quicken the process he decided to straighten the bent collar-button. Using a shoe-horn as a lever, he succeeded in bringing the little cap or head of the button into its proper plane, but, unfortunately, his final effort dislodged the cap from the rod between it and the base, and it flew off malignantly into space. Here was a calamity; few things are more useless than a decapitated collar-button, and William had no other. He had made sure that it was his last before he put it on, that day; also he had ascertained that there was none in, on, or about his father's dressing-table. Finally, in the possession of neither William nor his father was there a shirt with an indigenous collar.

For decades, collar-buttons have been on the hand-me-down shelves of humor; it is a mistake in the catalogue. They belong to pathos. They have done harm in the world, and there have been collar-buttons that failed when the destinies of families hung upon them. There have been collar-buttons that thwarted proper matings. There have been collar-buttons that bore last hopes, and, falling to the floor, never were found! William's broken collar-button was really the only collar-button in the house, except such as were engaged in serving his male guests below.

At first he did not realize the extent of his misfortune. How could he? Fate is always expected to deal its great blows in the grand manner. But our expectations are fustian spangled with pinchbeck; we look for tragedy to be theatrical. Meanwhile, every day before our eyes, fate works on, employing for its instruments the infinitesimal, the ignoble and the petty—in a word, collar-buttons.

Of course William searched his dressing-table and his father's, although he had been thoroughly over both once before that day. Next he went through most of his mother's and Jane's accessories to the toilette; through trinket-boxes, glove-boxes, hairpin-boxes, handkerchief-cases—even through sewing-baskets. Utterly he convinced himself that ladies not only use no collar-buttons, but also never pick them up and put them away among their own belongings. How much time he consumed in this search is difficult to reckon;—it is almost impossible to believe that there is absolutely no collar-button in a house.

And what William's state of mind had become is matter for exorbitant conjecture. Jane, arriving at his locked door upon an errand, was bidden by a thick, unnatural voice to depart.

"Mamma says, 'What in mercy's name is the matter?'" Jane called. "She whispered to me, 'Go an' see what in mercy's name is the matter with Willie; an' if the glass cut him, after all; an' why don't he come down'; an' why don't you, Willie? We're all havin' the nicest time!"

"You g'way!" said the strange voice within the room. "G'way!"

"Well, did the glass cut you?"

"No! Keep quiet! G'way!"

"Well, are you ever comin' down to your party?"

"Yes, I am! G'way!"

Jane obeyed, and William somehow completed the task upon which he was engaged. Genius had burst forth from his despair; necessity had become a mother again, and William's collar was in place. It was tied there. Under his necktie was a piece of string.

He had lost count of time, but he was frantically aware of its passage; agony was in the thought of so many rich moments frittered away; up-stairs, while Joe Bullitt and Johnnie Watson made hay below. And there was another spur to haste in his fear that the behavior of Mrs. Baxter might not be all that the guest of honor would naturally expect of William's mother. As for Jane, his mind filled with dread; shivers passed over him at intervals.

It was a dismal thing to appear at a "party" (and that his own) in "last summer's suit," but when he had hastily put it on and faced the mirror, he felt a little better—for three or four seconds. Then he turned to see how the back of it looked.

And collapsed in a chair, moaning.