The Case of Frederick
The Case of Frederick
BY MARY HEATON VORSE
I MUST mention in the beginning that Frederick lived in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in one of the middle-sized cities with which this happy state abounds. The well-known firm for whom he worked had recently put up an office building of conspicuously subdued elegance that proclaimed their prosperity. Their business brought them in contact with the "best people" of their community. In Hartfield when a parent uttered the words, "John is with Peabody & Emerson," it was as though he had handed the listener a certificate of John's morals, brains, and the position of his family in the community. Frederick was the flower of the young manhood in the employ of this illustrious firm.
Six years out of Harvard, twenty-eight years old, clean-cut, well-dressed, looking as much as possible like every other young business man of education, Frederick sat before his desk in his office. He was of the pure blond Saxon type, even to his glinting hair and his humorous but choleric blue eyes; and because of his powerful build and short, heavy neck, he did not look his height. If ever there was a man set in his cast with cement it was Frederick. If ever a man proclaimed his cast by his bearing and appearance, Frederick accomplished this. There was no man in the world whom Mr. Peabody or Mr. Emerson would have suspected less of possessing the possibilities of breaking that most important commandment, "Thou shalt not diverge." Frederick would have been the last person to imagine such a thing about himself. In fact, he would have been quite incapable of imagining anything about himself, for in common with his kind any exercise of the imagination was excessively painful to him.
But Thought and the food for Thought lie about us everywhere, and with every thought the possibility of divergence in individuality; no one can count himself perfectly safe. The Thought that led to the events that made this story possible was a simple one. Frederick was bending over to sign his letters, and the Thought went:
"How this confounded collar cuts my chin!"
Every time Frederick bent over his desk his neck bore the mark of his labors in a bright red line. Like most well-to-do Americans, Frederick had been almost entirely sheltered from any physical discomfort; therefore the inexorable and unbending collar ate into his disposition. Then there wandered through his brain an irresponsible reflection, of the kind he had no business to have:
"Why the deuce shouldn't I wear a soft collar?"
Now the answer to this is obvious to any well-regulated mind. Young business men of the epoch of which I am writing do not wear soft collars in the winter time. It makes no difference if they have short necks and their chins therefore suffer in contact with high turn-over collars. Every young business man in America, wears a collar of the stamp I have described. They do not deviate. The great steam-roller which we call civilization has smoothed out all vagaries in masculine dress.
Frederick had been steam-rollered, Heaven knows. Public school, Exeter, Harvard, and home had worked harmoniously to produce a young American as much like all other young Americans as his unyielding collar was like theirs, and yet each day, as the collar sawed into Frederick's clean-shaven, pink chin, the Thought grew and throve, until it bore the preposterous resolve:
"By Jove, I will!"
When Frederick went home that night it was as if this resolve had made his eyes to see. He swung briskly down the brightly lighted streets, and all at once it seemed to him that the world was mad—stark, staring mad. In this cold winter weather he saw girls and women with glimpses of white, low-cut blouses showing beneath their furs. Scarcely a grown man or woman in the crowd walked erect, for the sharp wind blowing around the corner clawed at their hats and they bent almost double to meet the blast, clutching their head-wear with one cold hand. Scarcely a human being had shoes or stockings appropriate for the season. Only the girls young enough to wear knitted caps, and some of the workmen, were dressed with any relation to the weather. During that brief moment of insight Frederick reflected upon other details of women's attire and men's.
"Why do they do it?" grumbled Frederick.
Why, why, be uncomfortable, he wondered, open-eyed as a dweller from Mars beholding a vast human folly for the first time. Then the utter irrationality of a whole city full of people paying money to buy things with which to make themselves uncomfortable struck his sense of humor, and he laughed aloud.
The worst thing with thought is its tendency to materialize into action. The morning after his revelation Frederick appeared in the dining-room of his home clad in a soft shirt. There was no more prosperous sight in the world than the Lodge's dining-room, especially on a bright winter morning. The sun shone through the large double bay-window. Outside, the snow sparkled, and inside the table-cloth shone white as the snow; silver glittered, glass and mahogany shone. Everything was immaculate, from the shining coffee-urn to Frederick's delicately beautiful mother, the nails of whose delicately faded hands shone also, and on whose fingers glittered one or two rings of severe beauty. Frederick's two sisters, his brother of school-boy age, and his widowed aunt made up the rest of the company. He bade them all a cheerful good morning, and with an unusual sense of well-being took his seat when his mother peered around the coffee-urn at him and remarked: "Why, Frederick, dear, have you no shirts?"
"This is a shirt I'm wearing, isn't it?" he inquired, briskly.
"Keep it on, then," his brother William advised him. Ignoring this, his mother explained, "Stiff shirts, Frederick dear, I mean, and collars."
"Those high collars hurt my chin," Frederick explained.
"I know, dear," his mother answered, patiently. "I've often heard you say so.
"So," Frederick went on, "I'm going to wear a soft shirt."
"But Frederick, my dear boy," his mother remonstrated, "you look so unkempt."
"Unkempt" was the word of Frederick's boyhood. He had been brought up on it. Even now it made a flush come to his face. His sister Louise joined in: "You're not going down to the office in that shirt, are you?" while Phyllis remarked, "Why, what will Mr. Peabody say?"
"He'll say 'naughty, naughty!'" William suggested. Frederick, turning to Louise, replied:
"No, Louise, certainly not to the office. I merely put this on as a species of peignoir, as it were."
"But you look so queer, and nobody does it," the two girls cried.
"Really, if I were in your place, Frederick," his mother rapped out in calm, even tones, accustomed to command—"if I were you I really would run up-stairs and change it."
His aunt, a relic of the mid-Victorian period, who made one think of billowy corsets and of bustles, leaned forward and peered near-sightedly at Frederick through her thick-rimmed glasses.
"I remember," said she, "when it was fashionable for young men to wear rolling collars and bow ties, with loose, flowing ends—at the esthetic period, you know, after the Oscar Wilde lectures. Then it was quite the thing. Those loose, flowing ties always were so pretty and more appropriate, I think, too, with the rolling collar."
"That sounds good to me," Frederick answered, belligerently. "I should like to have lived in a time when people were not afraid to dress as they chose."
"I'm glad, Frederick," his mother interposed, swan-like and superior, "that you live at a moment when young men are afraid to make asses of themselves."
Frederick looked at his watch, perceived that it was late, and dashed to his office. By the time he arrived he had forgotten the collar, but the brief and surprised glance of his stenographer, a statuesque and handsome though lean young woman of thirty, told more things to him than his combined family. She never glanced at his collar again, and looked anywhere but at Frederick, over his head and all about him, until he almost shouted at her, "Stare at it; stare at it, if you want to."
The glance of his employer was surprised and interrogatory. The men in the office chaffed him. Frederick could have turned the conversation, but at lunch he found himself again enlarging on the uselessness of modern raiment.
By evening he was sore and self-conscious, and it was with a feeling of refuge that he turned toward the house of his beloved at tea-time. The only reason that Frederick was not already engaged had been the ardor of his approach. Frederick had thrown himself into the business of love-making with such abandon that with deep instinct Ruth had realized that it would have been unkind to have been won too easily and that it was perfectly safe to play at the charming game of reluctance. Ruth played this part with a finished exquisiteness. And while all her impulse was to throw herself into Frederick's outstretched arms, instinct taught her not to; her dark and ardent eyes, therefore, proclaimed the things that her mouth denied.
Irrationally, young men expect young girls whom they love to hand out to them the mood they want. It is wholly a matter of chance if the unconquered maiden gives them this or something entirely different. The dusky wood-nymph, Ruth Brinton, only had for poor Frederick:
"Why, Frederick! For Heaven's sake, what's that you've got on your neck?"
"Why," said Frederick, frostily, "have I anything on my neck I shouldn't have?"
"Certainly not," Ruth answered, in a tone which matched Frederick's.
"If you object to a soft collar, Ruth, perhaps I'd better go."
She caught him up quickly. "It isn't your collar, it's your tone," she began.
"I'd certainly better go," said Frederick. "My tone was unconscious; I couldn't help it. I could have changed my collar to please you. Good-by."
"If this is all his love amounts to, if this is all the strain it can bear—" thought Ruth, bitterly, as she wept tears which were high temper and which she considered were the tears of love disappointed and disillusioned.
On his way home Frederick dropped off his car in front of a department store. Impetuously he was pressing his way past the crowd for the purpose of buying the flag which should proclaim his freedom. Frederick was going in to purchase a soft, loose tie. So do thoughts, once unloosed, sweep you out of your course. From unostentatiously wearing a shirt and collar which did not make him uncomfortable, Frederick intended to proclaim to the world that he was going to wear that shirt and its more appropriate loose tie just as long as he "jolly well felt like it." Frederick ran his flag to earth at last in an obscure corner of the ladies' furnishing department. He bought half a dozen.
When, next morning, Frederick knotted on his loose, flowing tie and surveyed himself in the glass, he had for a moment all the heady joy that the early Protestants must have felt. He felt as if he had cut through a thousand invisible strings of convention that had fettered him. He felt that he and freedom walked hand in hand at last. He braced himself for the stare which he knew awaited him. His two sisters exchanged a glance which meant, "Don't let's notice him at all." But his mother, dainty and crisp, correct in every detail as her shining breakfast-table, said in her delicately modulated voice:
"Really, Frederick, dear, a joke is a joke. William is of the age to run things into the ground, not you."
"Sure," said William. "I'd run it into the ground quick enough. I'd run it into the ground with a spade. I'll do it for Frederick any minute."
"Apparently you took my little joke about men fearing to make asses of themselves au grand sérieux, my dear boy," his mother went on soothingly. "You shouldn't have been vexed, Frederick. You can't mean really to go to the office with that bizarre neck arrangement."
Said Frederick, in a tone as bland as his mother's—"asses" in their vocabulary was a terrible simile—"If you wish to see a town full of asses, mother dear, go down and stand on the corner of Main Street."
"How so?" inquired his mother; she was easily drawn, poor lady.
Thus urged, Frederick mounted his hobby. Said he: "I call every one an ass who makes himself uncomfortable with clothes—every one. And as far as I can see, except for some working people, this means all of us. I say we're a nation of asses."
"I'm not uncomfortable," said Phyllis. "I gave up wearing corsets."
"You wear skirts," Frederick retorted, bitterly. "And when I think of skirts it makes me sick! Skirts, the most useless garments, the dirtiest, the most immodest, the most unsuited for their purpose—especially when I think of them trailing through snow and dirt, hoisted around ankles covered with noisome slush, and when I think that every single woman in this land wears skirts!—when I think about skirts—"
No one can attack the sanctity of womanhood and go unpunished in this country. William laughed loud and derisively. Frederick's aunt murmured: "But we have always worn skirts, my dear." The girls contributed: "What would you have us wear? I suppose you'd like to see us in harem skirts"; while his mother brought forth: "Are you quite calm this morning? Are you sure you feel well, my dear boy?" in a tone used to checking childish waywardness.
All this maddened Frederick further. Savagely he said to his brother, "Leave the table if you're going to laugh like a hyena," and to his sisters, "Harem skirts? Yes, I'd be proud to see a sister of mine in a decent, modest costume like that. The more I think about our customs in matters of dress, the less I can understand them," he went on. "I assure you the world seems to me mad—staring mad. And now because I make myself comfortable, because I refuse to let my neck be severed from my head by the sharp edge of a collar—"
He paused a moment. "Do you know, mother, if a man wanted in a single day to rise to the pinnacle of notoriety in this country—do you know all he need to do? Not to discover something wonderful or paint something wonderful. No. All he would need to do would be to wear a cut-away coat with the buttons sewn on in front instead of behind!"
"Are you thinking of trying it?" his mother inquired, dryly.
"By Jove, I'd like to," said Frederick, and left the table.
The four ladies were left together. For a few moments that portentous family silence which precedes a counsel of its women folk brooded in the room. It was Louise who brought before them the thought that had lurked in the background of each mind and which each one of Frederick's female relatives had hated to look squarely in the face. She voiced it thus: "Do you think Frederick really is well, mother?" while Phyllis elaborated it further with: "I've never known any one to act so strangely."
"You know," his aunt contributed, with that irrelevancy which so irritated her nieces, "what he said about the buttons was perfectly true. It does seem odd that if a man wore his coat wrong side before it would create such a hubbub."
"Why should anybody want to wear his coat wrong side before?" demanded his mother. "Frederick's conversation has been unbalanced, to say the least."
Again silence brooded.
"What do you think is the matter with Frederick?" Louise asked.
With an attempt at lightness her mother replied, "Why, Louise, I don't suppose there is anything the matter with Frederick. But I think that all of us should refrain from irritating him. Let us not oppose anything he says. Treat him with consideration, and get him to go out with you as much as you can. Perhaps he has been overworking."
For a week's time they pursued this policy. If the conversation turned to clothes, and Frederick was riding his hobby with a certain degree of morbid intensity, they changed the subject with an irritating nimbleness. When he made himself comfortable by a cap which pulled over his ears, and water-proof shoes, and woolen socks, they said nothing. They even refrained from noting the challenge in his tone with which he announced the fact that he was having a new suit of clothes made. And when William asked, pertly, "Striped or polka-dotted?" his mother gave him a glance of significant warning. Except for the flowing tie, the cap and shoes, Frederick seemed normal enough.
Besides, at the house of a friend he had met a kindred soul in the person of a girl named Eleanor Paine. When he had first been introduced she had asked, "Are you an artist?"
"No," Frederick answered. "If you are referring to my tie, I am merely the martyr for a cause."
At which he unfolded the theory of clothes, which he had been elaborating, to the ears of his first sympathetic listener. Eleanor clapped her hands together and cried, "Oh, lovely!" and showed throughout an adorable mixture of good sense and of humor. Humor suited her especially. She had two very superior dimples. We know how sore Frederick was from his treatment at the hands of Ruth, who, since that fatal afternoon, had made no sign. That is, Frederick thought she hadn't. She had treated him with a conspicuous amount of distinguished coldness, which should have led him to understand how wounded she was. But feeling that he was the one offended, Frederick failed to read the omens aright. And upon seeing him talking with Eleanor Paine, Ruth threw herself into a flirtation with one of his former rivals, a man whom Frederick happened to dislike. This gave him the opportunity that he wanted for a final spiritual break with Ruth.
So his friendship with Eleanor grew until he confided the secret of his new suit. She laughed and said, "That will make some fuss in the office, won't it?" And she further asked, "Are you really going to wear that soft tie next time you have to go to Boston on business?"
For it was Frederick who, because of his social graces, was the favored young man who was sent to Boston from Hartfield, on various business matters, and whose duty it also was to pilot thither certain up-state customers, intent on amusement.
Peabody & Emerson, furthermore, had a long time been playing with an idea which they called, "Our Boston office," and when this dream came true it was understood that Frederick was to have charge of it. By this you may perceive that Eleanor Paine's question about the soft tie was one of more than casual interest. It was the only question in his present course that worried Frederick. He dreaded the advent of the out-of-town customer. In fact, Frederick, though he did not put it into words to himself, had embarked upon that battle which of all battles is most dear to the soul of man when once he has undertaken it. He was fighting against Error and Superstition. Had he not come of a race whose only mode of persuasion was the clenched fist, he might have founded a new band of freedom. He might have delivered men from the slavery of collars, have helped to clothe this whole shivering nation in proper winter clothing, to substitute warm caps for hats. But poor Frederick was only a young business man, whose only eloquence was that of business talk; whose only outward symbols of the great thought surging within him were his loose tie and soft shirt, his warm cap and big shoes, and who, moreover, was confronted by the approaching specter of the out-of-town customer.
So disturbed was he about this and as to what course to take, that the advent of his new suit of clothes failed to give him the sardonic pleasure it should have given.
It chanced as he gained the office that day that he met Mr. Peabody going in.
"Good morning, Frederick," said that gentleman, in a hearty, matter-of-fact tone which strove to deny that the firm's favorite had anything out of the ordinary in his appearance. "There are two important men coming in to see us to-day. Halloway, from New Hampshire, you know. Step into my office. I'd like to have a little talk with you before they come."
Moodily, Frederick divested himself of his comfortable overcoat. He was wondering now if a spiritual comfort was not worth all the physical comfort in the world. As he walked toward Mr. Peabody's office his boots seemed to clump noisily; his soft tie hurt him more than ever had his high collar. In fact, Frederick felt sore. It is not an easy thing to realize that for three weeks all your friends have thought you were a fool.
"Frederick," began Mr. Peabody, "about Halloway. You'd better lunch with him. I would myself, but it will make me late for a directors' meeting. And—er—Frederick, if you wish to go home and—er—make any alterations—" the old man blushed furiously—"in your—er—toilet, you know, Frederick, why—"
These words, said so hesitatingly, meant so kindly, set afire all of Frederick's smoldering resentment against mankind.
"Mr. Peabody," he said, swiftly, "when I entered your firm I did not realize that it meant I should be dictated to in—personal matters. I think it would be better under the circumstances for me to tender my resignation at once."
His spirits rose as he said these words. Now he was fighting something real at last; not the mere shadow of public opinion, but public opinion in its vested rights. Just here Mr. Peabody's eyes traveled over Frederick's new suit, and from embarrassment his expression gave way to one of wonder and then of deep concern.
"Why, Frederick," he said, in soothing tones, "of course I'm not dictating to you." He spoke as one trying to calm a fractious child. "Let's leave the Halloway matter over. If we lunch early, I dare say I can see him myself."
"I still tender my resignation," said Frederick, moodily. It didn't suit him to be humored.
"We'll talk about it later," said Mr. Peabody, still soothingly.
He sought the office of Mr. Emerson, where the two remained in solemn consultation, and as Mr. Peabody came out of his partner's door he was heard to say, "Though I'd rather give my right hand than believe it true."
Frederick, however, left the office and went to find Eleanor Paine, and went with her on an all-day walk in the country. It was a glittering, soul-uplifting day, such as one finds in New England in midwinter. For the moment Frederick felt as if he had been released from human bondage, and, having now his way to make in the world, he looked upon this moment as an auspicious one to offer himself in marriage to Eleanor. Being in that high mood in which the gods deny man nothing, he naturally was accepted.
Late that afternoon Mr. Peabody presented himself at Mrs. Lodge's. They were friends from childhood, which made the matter he had come to discuss no easier.
"Have you seen Frederick since morning?" he inquired of his hostess after they had finished their preliminary greetings. "Well, then I must tell you myself that Frederick insisted upon resigning because I suggested that he should—well, perhaps make his toilet more conventional before lunching with an important customer.
"Oh, Mr. Peabody—the unfortunate boy!" cried Frederick's mother. She sat in her usual attitude of elegant correctness and only her voice betrayed her emotion.
"May I ask you, Mrs. Lodge," went on Mr. Peabody, "have you observed anything—odd—in Frederick's conduct lately—has he been irritable at home?"
"He's been inclined to be, if the talk came upon clothes."
"The men in the office," Mr. Peabody pursued, "say he is what they call 'batty' on the subject. I thought it just a young man's fad, until his extraordinary conduct this morning—and then, Mrs. Lodge, my eyes traveled over his clothes. Frederick has had a new suit made and he has had all the buttons put upon the left side and the button-holes on the right, while the sleeve vents are upon the upper instead of the under side of the cuff." There are some things a man may not do in this world. Frederick wantonly and with malice aforethought had done one of them.
The old friends looked the specter in the face again. Mrs. Lodge sat in her same polite pose, correct for a lady entertaining a visitor, but she shivered.
"It may be nothing, nothing at all," said kind Mr. Peabody, "but a young man's freak—a practical joke, so to speak. On the other hand, Frederick may be on the verge of a—a nervous breakdown. Mr. Emerson tells me that a son of a friend of his saw Frederick standing on the corner of Main Street about three weeks ago laughing aloud at nothing. That in itself has no significance, but in consulting a physician I feel you ought to be in possession of all the facts."
"But how make him see a physician?" wailed Mrs. Lodge.
"I knew of a similar case where a young man needed to be—under observation, where a young physician impersonated a distant relative visiting from the West. Have you no distant relatives in the West, dear Mrs. Lodge, or the son of an old friend, perhaps? There's a young fellow of my acquaintance—a nerve specialist and—er—alienist, named Tarvis, for whom I could telegraph at once."
For Frederick the week that followed was one of high rapture. Eleanor and he planned how they should go West and begin life anew in a free environment, away from a convention-ridden community. But with an ever-insistent clarity there came to Frederick's mind the vision of how easy marriage would have been for him had he only remained with Peabody & Emerson. The wild, free West, indeed, was not what he longed for. All he had wanted was to have his neck comfortable in the little old East. And now see where this yearning had led him!
"Dash it all," he would think to himself, "I wish Eleanor wasn't quite so idealistic," meaning by this that her idealism closed the door for him on any retreat to his former position. When it came to a choice between marrying Eleanor at once and collars, there was no room in his mind for any doubt; but she had first admired him for his free and haughty spirit, so there he was.
He welcomed the arrival of an unknown cousin with enthusiasm. He hoped he'd prove a good fellow that he could perhaps talk things over with—not out and out, but in that decorous roundabout way in which youth communicates with youth. Tarvis and Frederick took to each other at once. Tarvis had a frank address, a merry eye and open face, and he accepted Frederick's invitation to go to the theater in Boston with enthusiasm.
By the time they were settled at table after the theater Tarvis knew him well enough to ask, "What made you get your clothes built with the buttons on the wrong side?"
"Because I was a fool," Frederick replied, with gloom. "My collar hurt my neck, so I wore a soft one. The family raised such a row, I got a loose tie. The fellows joshed me till I thought I'd give them something to josh me about." Thus lucidly did Frederick explain his case, and he looked with small satisfaction at Tarvis, who leaned back and laughed and laughed. But as he spoke these words Frederick saw his conduct as the world—his world—would have seen it.
During their talk the next morning Eleanor said, looking at Frederick shyly: "Do you know, there's one thing I've always wondered, Fred, and that is how you'd look in a regular collar. You look so awfully sweet in evening clothes."
"You're coming to lunch at the house to-day, aren't you?" said Frederick. "I'll put one on to show you."
"Oh, will you, Fred?" cried Eleanor. "I've always wanted to ask you, but I was afraid you'd think I was disloyal."
"Pooh!" Frederick protested. "If it pleased you at all I'd wear one all the time—every day in the week."
"Oh, Fred!" cried Eleanor, showing both her dimples at once.
Thus it was that that talented young alienist, Dr. Tarvis, entered the drawing-room just in time to hear Eleanor saying: "Oh, Fred, I think you're perfectly grand in collars like this. Don't ever wear those old soft things again, will you?"
To which Frederick replied fervently: "Indeed I won't."