Seventeen (novel)/Chapter 22
NOW the last rose had blown; the dandelion globes were long since on the wind; gladioli and golden-glow and salvia were here; the season moved toward asters and the goldenrod. This haloed summer still idled on its way, yet all the while sped quickly; like some languid lady in an elevator.
There came a Sunday—very hot.
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, having walked a scorched half-mile from church, drooped thankfully into wicker chairs upon their front porch, though Jane, who had accompanied them, immediately darted away, swinging her hat by its ribbon and skipping as lithesomely as if she had just come forth upon a cool morning.
"I don't know how she does it!" her father moaned, glancing after her and drying his forehead temporarily upon a handkerchief. "That would merely kill me dead, after walking in this heat."
Then, for a time, the two were content to sit in silence, nodding to occasional acquaintances who passed in the desultory after-church procession. Mr. Baxter fanned himself with sporadic little bursts of energy which made his straw hat creak, and Mrs. Baxter sighed with the heat, and gently rocked her chair.
But as a group of five young people passed along the other side of the street Mr. Baxter abruptly stopped fanning himself, and, following the direction of his gaze, Mrs. Baxter ceased to rock. In half-completed attitudes they leaned slightly forward, sharing one of those pauses of parents who unexpectedly behold their offspring.
"My soul!" said William's father. "Hasn't that girl gone home yet?"
"He looks pale to me," Mrs. Baxter murmured, absently. "I don't think he seems at all well, lately."
During seventeen years Mr. Baxter had gradually learned not to protest anxieties of this kind, unless he desired to argue with no prospect of ever getting a decision. "Hasn't she got any home?" he demanded, testily. "Isn't she ever going to quit visiting the Parchers and let people have a little peace?"
Mrs. Baxter disregarded this outburst as he had disregarded her remark about William's pallor. "You mean Miss Pratt?" she inquired, dreamily, her eyes following the progress of her son. "No, he really doesn't look well at all."
"Is she going to visit the Parchers all summer?" Mr. Baxter insisted.
"She already has, about," said Mrs. Baxter.
"Look at that boy!" the father grumbled. "Mooning along with those other moon-calves—can't even let her go to church alone! I wonder how many weeks of time, counting it out in hours, he's wasted that way this summer?"
"Oh, I don't know! You see, he never goes there in the evening."
"What of that? He's there all day, isn't he? What do they find to talk about? That's the mystery to me! Day after day; hours and hours—My soul! What do they say?"
Mrs. Baxter laughed indulgently. "People are always wondering that about the other ages. Poor Willie! I think that a great deal of the time their conversation would be probably about as inconsequent as it is now. You see Willie and Joe Bullitt are walking one on each side of Miss Pratt, and Johnnie Watson has to walk behind with May Parcher. Joe and Johnnie are there about as much as Willie is, and, of course, it's often his turn to be nice to May Parcher. He hasn't many chances to be tête-à-tête with Miss Pratt."
"Well, she ought to go home. I want that boy to get back into his senses. He's in an awful state."
"I think she is going soon," said Mrs. Baxter. "The Parchers are to have a dance for her Friday night, and I understand there's to be a floor laid in the yard and great things. It's a farewell party."
"That's one mercy, anyhow!"
"And if you wonder what they say," she resumed, "why, probably they're all talking about the party. And when Willie is alone with her—well, what does anybody say?" Mrs. Baxter interrupted herself to laugh. "Jane, for instance—she's always fascinated by that darky, Genesis, when he's at work here in the yard, and they have long, long talks; I've seen them from the window. What on earth do you suppose they talk about? That's where Jane is now. She knew I told Genesis I'd give him something if he'd come and freeze the ice-cream for us to-day, and when we got here she heard the freezer and hopped right around there. If you went out to the back porch you'd find them talking steadily—but what on earth about I couldn't guess to save my life!"
And yet nothing could have been simpler: as a matter of fact, Jane and Genesis (attended by Clematis) were talking about society. That is to say, their discourse was not sociologic; rather it was of the frivolous and elegant. Watteau prevailed with them over John Stuart Mill—in a word, they spoke of the beau monde.
Genesis turned the handle of the freezer with his left hand, allowing his right the freedom of gesture which was an intermittent necessity when he talked. In the matter of dress, Genesis had always been among the most informal of his race, but to-day there was a change almost unnerving to the Caucasian eye. He wore a balloonish suit of purple, strangely scalloped at pocket and cuff, and more strangely decorated with lines of small parasite buttons, in color blue, obviously buttons of leisure. His bulbous new shoes flashed back yellow fire at the embarrassed sun, and his collar (for he had gone so far) sent forth other sparkles, playing upon a polished surface over an inner graining of soot. Beneath it hung a simple, white, soiled evening tie, draped in a manner unintended by its manufacturer, and heavily overburdened by a green glass medallion of the Emperor Tiberius, set in brass.
"Yesm," said Genesis. "Now I'm in 'at Swim—flyin' roun' ev'y night wif all lem blue-vein people—I say, 'Mus' go buy me some blue-vein clo'es! Ef I'm go'n' a start, might's well start high! So firs', I buy me thishere gol' necktie pin wi' thishere lady's face carved out o' green di'mon', sittin' in the middle all 'at gol'. 'Nen I buy me pair Royal King shoes. I got a frien' o' mine, thishere Blooie Bowers; he say Royal King shoes same kine o' shoes he wear, an' I walk straight in 'at sto' where they keep 'em at. 'Don' was'e my time showin' me no ole-time shoes,' I say. 'Run out some them big, yella, lump-toed Royal Kings befo' my eyes, an' firs' pair fit me I pay price, an' wear 'em right off on me!' 'Nen I got me thishere suit o' clo'es—oh, oh! Sign on 'em in window: 'Ef you wish to be bes'-dress' man in town take me home fer six dolluhs ninety-sevum cents.' ''At's kine o' suit Genesis need,' I say. 'Ef Genesis go'n' a start dressin' high, might's well start top!'"
Jane nodded gravely, comprehending the reasonableness of this view. "What made you decide to start, Genesis?" she asked, earnestly. "I mean, how did it happen you began to get this way?"
"Well, suh, 'tall come 'bout right like kine o' slidin' into it 'stid o' hoppin' an' jumpin'. I'z spen' the even' at 'at lady's house, Fanny, what cook nex' do', las' year. Well, suh, 'at lady Fanny, she quit privut cookin', she kaytliss—"
"She's what?" Jane asked. "What's that mean, Genesis—kaytliss?"
"She kaytuhs," he explained. "Ef it's a man you call him kaytuh; ef it's a lady, she's a kaytliss. She does kaytun fer all lem blue-vein fam'lies in town. She make ref'eshmuns, bring waituhs—'at's kaytun. You' maw give big dinnuh, she have Fanny kaytuh, an' don't take no trouble 'tall herself. Fanny take all 'at trouble."
"I see," said Jane. "But I don't see how her bein' a kaytliss started you to dressin' so high, Genesis."
"Thishere way. Fanny say, 'Look here, Genesis, I got big job t'morra night an' I'm man short, 'count o' havin' to have a 'nouncer.'"
"Fanny talk jes' that way. Goin' be big dinnuh-potty, an' thishere blue-vein fam'ly tell Fanny they want whole lot extry sploogin'; tell her put fine-lookin' cullud man stan' by drawin'-room do'—ask ev'ybody name an' holler out whatever name they say, jes' as they walk in. Thishere fam'ly say they goin' show what's what, 'nis town, an' they boun' Fanny go git 'em a 'nouncer. 'Well, what's mattuh you doin' 'at 'nouncin'?' Fanny say. 'Who—me?' I tell her. 'Yes, you kin, too!' she say, an' she say she len' me 'at waituh suit yoosta b'long ole Henry Gimlet what die' when he owin' Fanny sixteen dolluhs—an' Fanny tuck an' keep 'at waituh suit. She use 'at suit on extry waituhs when she got some on her hands what 'ain't got no waituh suit. 'You wear 'at suit,' Fanny say, 'an' you be good 'nouncer, 'cause you' a fine, big man, an' got a big, gran' voice; 'nen you learn befo' long be a waituh, Genesis, an' git dolluh an' half ev'y even' you waitin ', 'sides all 'at money you make cuttin' grass daytime.' Well, suh, I'z stan' up doin' 'at 'nouncin' ve'y nex' night. White lady an' ge'lmun walk todes my do', I step up to 'em—I step up to 'em thisaway."
Here Genesis found it pleasant to present the scene with some elaboration. He dropped the handle of the freezer, rose, assumed a stately, but ingratiating, expression, and "stepped up" to the imagined couple, using a pacing and rhythmic gait—a conservative prance, which plainly indicated the simultaneous operation of an orchestra. Then bending graciously, as though the persons addressed were of dwarfish stature, "'Scuse me," he said, "but kin I please be so p'lite as to 'quiah you' name?" For a moment he listened attentively, then nodded, and, returning with the same aristocratic undulations to an imaginary doorway near the freezer, "Misto an' Missuz Orlosko Rinktum!" he proclaimed, sonorously.
"Who?" cried Jane, fascinated. "Genesis, 'nounce that again, right away!"
Genesis heartily complied.
"Misto an' Missuz Orlosko Rinktum!" he bawled.
"Was that really their names?" she asked, eagerly.
"Well, I kine o' fergit," Genesis admitted, resuming his work with the freezer. "Seem like I rickalect somebody got name good deal like what I say, 'cause some mighty blue-vein names at 'at dinnuh-potty, yessuh! But I on'y git to be 'nouncer one time, 'cause Fanny tellin' me nex' fam'ly have dinnuh-potty make heap o' fun. Say I done my 'nouncin' good, but say what's use holler'n' names jes' fer some the neighbors or they own aunts an' uncles to walk in, when ev'ybody awready knows 'em? So Fanny pummote me to waituh, an' I roun' right in amongs' big doin's mos' ev'y night. Pass ice-cream, lemonade, lemon-ice, cake, samwitches. 'Lemme han' you li'l' mo' chicken salad, ma'am'—' 'Low me be so kine as to git you f'esh cup coffee, suh'—'S way ole Genesis talkin' ev'y even' 'ese days!"
Jane looked at him thoughtfully. "Do you like it better than cuttin' grass, Genesis?" she asked.
He paused to consider. "Yes'm—when ban' play all lem tunes! My goo'ness, do soun' gran'!"
"You can't do it to-night, though, Genesis," said Jane. "You haf to be quiet on Sunday nights, don't you?"
"Yes'm. 'Ain' got no mo' kaytun till nex' Friday even'."
"Oh, I bet that's the party for Miss Pratt at Mr. Parcher's!" Jane cried. "Didn't I guess right?"
"Yes'm. I reckon I'm a-go'n' a see one you' fam'ly 'at night; see him dancin'—wait on him at ref'eshmuns."
Jane's expression became even more serious than usual. "Willie? I don't know whether he's goin', Genesis."
"Lan' name!" Genesis exclaimed. "He die ef he don' git invite to 'at ball!"
"Oh, he's invited," said Jane. "Only I think maybe he won't go."
"My goo'ness! Why ain' he goin'?"
Jane looked at her friend studiously before replying. "Well, it's a secret," she said, finally, "but it's a very inter'sting one, an' I'll tell you if you never tell."
"Yes'm, I ain' tellin' nobody."
Jane glanced round, then stepped a little closer and told the secret with the solemnity it deserved. "Well, when Miss Pratt first came to visit Miss May Parcher, Willie used to keep papa's evening clo'es in his window-seat, an' mamma wondered what had become of 'em. Then, after dinner, he'd slip up there an' put 'em on him, an' go out through the kitchen an' call on Miss Pratt. Then mamma found 'em, an' she thought he oughtn't to do that, so she didn't tell him or anything, an' she didn't even tell papa, but she had the tailor make 'em ever an' ever so much bigger, 'cause they were gettin' too tight for papa. An' well, so after that, even if Willie could get 'em out o' mamma's clo'es-closet where she keeps 'em now, he'd look so funny in 'em he couldn't wear 'em. Well, an' then he couldn't go to pay calls on Miss Pratt in the evening since then, because mamma says after he started to go there in that suit he couldn't go without it, or maybe Miss Pratt or the other ones that's in love of her would think it was pretty queer, an' maybe kind of expeck it was papa's all the time. Mamma says she thinks Willie must have worried a good deal over reasons to say why he'd always go in the daytime after that, an' never came in the evening, an' now they're goin' to have this party, an' she says he's been gettin' paler and paler every day since he heard about it. Mamma says he's pale some because Miss Pratt's goin' away, but she thinks it's a good deal more because, well, if he would wear those evening clo'es just to go callin', how would it be to go to that party an' not have any! That's what mamma thinks—an', Genesis, you promised you'd never tell as long as you live!"
"Yes'm. I ain' tellin'," Genesis chuckled. "I'm a-go'n' agit me one nem waituh suits befo' long, myse'f, so's I kin quit wearin' 'at ole Henry Gimlet suit what b'long to Fanny, an' have me a privut suit o' my own. They's a secon'-han' sto' ovuh on the avynoo, where they got swallertail suits all way f'um sevum dolluhs to nineteem dolluhs an' ninety-eight cents. I'm a—"
Jane started, interrupting him. "'Sh!" she whispered, laying a finger warningly upon her lips.
William had entered the yard at the back gate, and, approaching over the lawn, had arrived at the steps of the porch before Jane perceived him. She gave him an apprehensive look, but he passed into the house absent-mindedly, not even flinching at sight of Clematis—and Mrs. Baxter was right, William did look pale.
"I guess he didn't hear us," said Jane, when he had disappeared into the interior. "He acks awful funny!" she added, thoughtfully. "First when he was in love of Miss Pratt, he'd be mad about somep'm almost every minute he was home. Couldn't anybody say anything to him but he'd just behave as if it was frightful, an' then if you'd see him out walkin' with Miss Pratt, well, he'd look like—like—" Jane paused; her eye fell upon Clematis and by a happy inspiration she was able to complete her simile with remarkable accuracy. "He'd look like the way Clematis looks at people! That's just exactly the way he'd look, Genesis, when he was walkin' with Miss Pratt; an' then when he was home he got so quiet he couldn't answer questions an' wouldn't hear what anybody said to him at table or anywhere, an' papa 'd nearly almost bust. Mamma 'n' papa 'd talk an' talk about it, an'"—she lowered her voice—"an' I knew what they were talkin' about. Well, an' then he'd hardly ever get mad any more; he'd just sit in his room, an' sometimes he'd sit in there without any light, or he'd sit out in the yard all by himself all evening, maybe; an' th'other evening after I was in bed I heard 'em, an' papa said—well, this is what papa told mamma." And again lowering her voice, she proffered the quotation from her father in atone somewhat awe-struck: "Papa said, by Gosh! if he ever 'a' thought a son of his could make such a Word idiot of himself he almost wished we'd both been girls!"
Having completed this report in a violent whisper, Jane nodded repeatedly, for emphasis, and Genesis shook his head to show that he was as deeply impressed as she wished him to be. "I guess," she added, after a pause "I guess Willie didn't hear anything you an' I talked about him, or clo'es, or anything."
She was mistaken in part. William had caught no reference to himself, but he had overheard something and he was now alone in his room, thinking about it almost feverishly. "A secon'-han' sto' ovuh on the avynoo, where they got swaller-tail suits all way f'um sevum dolluhs to nineteem dolluhs an' ninety-eight cents."
... Civilization is responsible for certain longings in the breast of man—artificial longings, but sometimes as poignant as hunger and thirst. Of these the strongest are those of the maid for the bridal veil, of the lad for long trousers, and of the youth for a tailed coat of state. To the gratification of this last, only a few of the early joys in life are comparable. Indulged youths, too rich, can know, to the unctuous full, neither the longing nor the gratification; but one such as William, in "moderate circumstances," is privileged to pant for his first evening clothes as the hart panteth after the water-brook—and sometimes, to pant in vain. Also, this was a crisis in William's life: in addition to his yearning for such apparel, he was racked by a passionate urgency.
As Jane had so precociously understood, unless he should somehow manage to obtain the proper draperies he could not go to the farewell dance for Miss Pratt. Other unequipped boys could go in their ordinary "best clothes," but William could not; for, alack! he had dressed too well too soon!
He was in desperate case.
The sorrow of the approaching great departure was but the heavier because it had been so long deferred. To William it had seemed that this flower-strewn summer could actually end no more than he could actually die, but Time had begun its awful lecture, and even Seventeen was listening.
Miss Pratt, that magic girl, was going home.