"Ouch! Let me go!"
He dropped his arms to his sides.
"What's the matter?"
"Your shirt stud—it hurt me—look!" She was looking down at her neck, where a little blue spot about the size of a pea marred its pallor.
"Oh, Isabelle," he reproached himself, "I'm a goopher. Really, I'm sorry—I shouldn't have held you so close."
She looked up impatiently.
"Oh, Amory, of course you couldn't help it, and it didn't hurt much; but what are we going to do about it?"
"Do about it?" he asked. "Oh—that spot; it'll disappear in a second."
"It isn't," she said, after a moment of concentrated gazing, "it's still there—and it looks like Old Nick—oh, Amory, what'll we do! It's just the height of your shoulder."
"Massage it," he suggested, repressing the faintest inclination to laugh.
She rubbed it delicately with the tips of her fingers, and then a tear gathered in the corner of her eye, and slid down her cheek.
"Oh, Amory," she said despairingly, lifting up a most pathetic face, "I'll just make my whole neck flame if I rub it. What'll I do?"
A quotation sailed into his head and he couldn't resist repeating it aloud.
"All the perfumes of Arabia will not whiten this little hand."
She looked up and the sparkle of the tear in her eye was like ice.
"You're not very sympathetic."
Amory mistook her meaning.
"Isabelle, darling, I think it'll—"
"Don't touch me!" she cried. "Haven't I enough on my mind and you stand there and laugh!"
Then he slipped again.
"Well, it is funny, Isabelle, and we were talking the other day about a sense of humor being—"
She was looking at him with something that was not a smile, rather the faint, mirthless echo of a smile, in the corners of her mouth.
"Oh, shut up!" she cried suddenly, and fled down the hallway toward her room. Amory stood there, covered with remorseful confusion.
When Isabelle reappeared she had thrown a light wrap about her shoulders, and they descended the stairs in a silence that endured through dinner.
"Isabelle," he began rather testily, as they arranged themselves in the car, bound for a dance at the Greenwich Country Club, "you're angry, and I'll be, too, in a minute. Let's kiss and make up."
Isabelle considered glumly.
"I hate to be laughed at," she said finally.
"I won't laugh any more. I'm not laughing now, am I?"
"Oh, don't be so darned feminine."
Her lips curled slightly.
"I'll be anything I want."
Amory kept his temper with difficulty. He became aware that he had not an ounce of real affection for Isabelle, but her coldness piqued him. He wanted to kiss her, kiss her a lot, because then he knew he could leave in the morning and not care. On the contrary, if he didn't kiss her, it would worry him.... It would interfere vaguely with his idea of himself as a conqueror. It wasn't dignified to come off second best, pleading, with a doughty warrior like Isabelle.
Perhaps she suspected this. At any rate, Amory watched the night that should have been the consummation of romance glide by with great moths overhead and the heavy fragrance of roadside gardens, but without those broken words, those little sighs....
Afterward they suppered on ginger ale and devil's food in the pantry, and Amory announced a decision.
"I'm leaving early in the morning."
"Why not?" he countered.
"There's no need."
"However, I'm going."
"Well, if you insist on being ridiculous—"
"Oh, don't put it that way," he objected.
"—just because I won't let you kiss me. Do you think—"
"Now, Isabelle," he interrupted, "you know it's not that—even suppose it is. We've reached the stage where we either ought to kiss—or—or—nothing. It isn't as if you were refusing on moral grounds."
"I really don't know what to think about you," she began, in a feeble, perverse attempt at conciliation. "You're so funny."
"Well, I thought you had a lot of self-confidence and all that; remember you told me the other day that you could do anything you wanted, or get anything you wanted?"
Amory flushed. He had told her a lot of things.
"Well, you didn't seem to feel so self-confident to-night. Maybe you're just plain conceited."
"No, I'm not," he hesitated. "At Princeton—"
"Oh, you and Princeton! You'd think that was the world, the way you talk! Perhaps you can write better than anybody else on your old Princetonian; maybe the freshmen do think you're important—"
"You don't understand—"
"Yes, I do," she interrupted. "I do, because you're always talking about yourself and I used to like it; now I don't."
"Have I to-night?"
"That's just the point," insisted Isabelle. "You got all upset to-night. You just sat and watched my eyes. Besides, I have to think all the time I'm talking to you—you're so critical."
"I make you think, do I?" Amory repeated with a touch of vanity.
"You're a nervous strain"—this emphatically—"and when you analyze every little emotion and instinct I just don't have 'em."
"I know." Amory admitted her point and shook his head helplessly.
"Let's go." She stood up.
He rose abstractedly and they walked to the foot of the stairs.
"What train can I get?"
"There's one about 9:11 if you really must go."
"Yes, I've got to go, really. Good night."
They were at the head of the stairs, and as Amory turned into his room he thought he caught just the faintest cloud of discontent in her face. He lay awake in the darkness and wondered how much he cared—how much of his sudden unhappiness was hurt vanity—whether he was, after all, temperamentally unfitted for romance.
When he awoke, it was with a glad flood of consciousness. The early wind stirred the chintz curtains at the windows and he was idly puzzled not to be in his room at Princeton with his school football picture over the bureau and the Triangle Club on the wall opposite. Then the grandfather's clock in the hall outside struck eight, and the memory of the night before came to him. He was out of bed, dressing, like the wind; he must get out of the house before he saw Isabelle. What had seemed a melancholy happening, now seemed a tiresome anticlimax. He was dressed at half past, so he sat down by the window; felt that the sinews of his heart were twisted somewhat more than he had thought. What an ironic mockery the morning seemed!—bright and sunny, and full of the smell of the garden; hearing Mrs. Borge's voice in the sun-parlor below, he wondered where was Isabelle.
There was a knock at the door.
"The car will be around at ten minutes of nine, sir."
He returned to his contemplation of the outdoors, and began repeating over and over, mechanically, a verse from Browning, which he had once quoted to Isabelle in a letter:
"Each life unfulfilled, you see,
It hangs still, patchy and scrappy;
We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
Starved, feasted, despaired—been happy."
But his life would not be unfulfilled. He took a sombre satisfaction in thinking that perhaps all along she had been nothing except what he had read into her; that this was her high point, that no one else would ever make her think. Yet that was what she had objected to in him; and Amory was suddenly tired of thinking, thinking!
"Damn her!" he said bitterly, "she's spoiled my year!"
THE SUPERMAN GROWS CARELESS
On a dusty day in September Amory arrived in Princeton and joined the sweltering crowd of conditioned men who thronged the streets. It seemed a stupid way to commence his upper-class years, to spend four hours a morning in the stuffy room of a tutoring school, imbibing the infinite boredom of conic sections. Mr. Rooney, pander to the dull, conducted the class and smoked innumerable Pall Malls as he drew diagrams and worked equations from six in the morning until midnight.
"Now, Langueduc, if I used that formula, where would my A point be?"
Langueduc lazily shifts his six-foot-three of football material and tries to concentrate.
"Oh—ah—I'm damned if I know, Mr. Rooney."
"Oh, why of course, of course you can't use that formula. That's what I wanted you to say."
"Why, sure, of course."
"Do you see why?"
"You bet—I suppose so."
"If you don't see, tell me. I'm here to show you."
"Well, Mr. Rooney, if you don't mind, I wish you'd go over that again."
"Gladly. Now here's 'A'..."
The room was a study in stupidity—two huge stands for paper, Mr. Rooney in his shirt-sleeves in front of them, and slouched around on chairs, a dozen men: Fred Sloane, the pitcher, who absolutely had to get eligible; "Slim" Langueduc, who would beat Yale this fall, if only he could master a poor fifty per cent; McDowell, gay young sophomore, who thought it was quite a sporting thing to be tutoring here with all these prominent athletes.
"Those poor birds who haven't a cent to tutor, and have to study during the term are the ones I pity," he announced to Amory one day, with a flaccid camaraderie in the droop of the cigarette from his pale lips. "I should think it would be such a bore, there's so much else to do in New York during the term. I suppose they don't know what they miss, anyhow." There was such an air of "you and I" about Mr. McDowell that Amory very nearly pushed him out of the open window when he said this. ... Next February his mother would wonder why he didn't make a club and increase his allowance... simple little nut....
Through the smoke and the air of solemn, dense earnestness that filled the room would come the inevitable helpless cry:
"I don't get it! Repeat that, Mr. Rooney!" Most of them were so stupid or careless that they wouldn't admit when they didn't understand, and Amory was of the latter. He found it impossible to study conic sections; something in their calm and tantalizing respectability breathing defiantly through Mr. Rooney's fetid parlors distorted their equations into insoluble anagrams. He made a last night's effort with the proverbial wet towel, and then blissfully took the exam, wondering unhappily why all the color and ambition of the spring before had faded out. Somehow, with the defection of Isabelle the idea of undergraduate success had loosed its grasp on his imagination, and he contemplated a possible failure to pass off his condition with equanimity, even though it would arbitrarily mean his removal from the Princetonian board and the slaughter of his chances for the Senior Council.
There was always his luck.
He yawned, scribbled his honor pledge on the cover, and sauntered from the room.
"If you don't pass it," said the newly arrived Alec as they sat on the window-seat of Amory's room and mused upon a scheme of wall decoration, "you're the world's worst goopher. Your stock will go down like an elevator at the club and on the campus."
"Oh, hell, I know it. Why rub it in?"
"'Cause you deserve it. Anybody that'd risk what you were in line for ought to be ineligible for Princetonian chairman."
"Oh, drop the subject," Amory protested. "Watch and wait and shut up. I don't want every one at the club asking me about it, as if I were a prize potato being fattened for a vegetable show." One evening a week later Amory stopped below his own window on the way to Renwick's, and, seeing a light, called up:
"Oh, Tom, any mail?"
Alec's head appeared against the yellow square of light.
"Yes, your result's here."
His heart clamored violently.
"What is it, blue or pink?"
"Don't know. Better come up."
He walked into the room and straight over to the table, and then suddenly noticed that there were other people in the room.
"'Lo, Kerry." He was most polite. "Ah, men of Princeton." They seemed to be mostly friends, so he picked up the envelope marked "Registrar's Office," and weighed it nervously.
"We have here quite a slip of paper."
"Open it, Amory."
"Just to be dramatic, I'll let you know that if it's blue, my name is withdrawn from the editorial board of the Prince, and my short career is over."
He paused, and then saw for the first time Ferrenby's eyes, wearing a hungry look and watching him eagerly. Amory returned the gaze pointedly.
"Watch my face, gentlemen, for the primitive emotions."
He tore it open and held the slip up to the light.
"Pink or blue?"
"Say what it is."
"We're all ears, Amory."
"Smile or swear—or something."
There was a pause... a small crowd of seconds swept by... then he looked again and another crowd went on into time.
"Blue as the sky, gentlemen...."
What Amory did that year from early September to late in the spring was so purposeless and inconsecutive that it seems scarcely worth recording. He was, of course, immediately sorry for what he had lost. His philosophy of success had tumbled down upon him, and he looked for the reasons.
"Your own laziness," said Alec later.
"No—something deeper than that. I've begun to feel that I was meant to lose this chance."
"They're rather off you at the club, you know; every man that doesn't come through makes our crowd just so much weaker."
"I hate that point of view."
"Of course, with a little effort you could still stage a comeback."
"No—I'm through—as far as ever being a power in college is concerned."
"But, Amory, honestly, what makes me the angriest isn't the fact that you won't be chairman of the Prince and on the Senior Council, but just that you didn't get down and pass that exam."
"Not me," said Amory slowly; "I'm mad at the concrete thing. My own idleness was quite in accord with my system, but the luck broke."
"Your system broke, you mean."
"Well, what are you going to do? Get a better one quick, or just bum around for two more years as a has-been?"
"I don't know yet..."
"Oh, Amory, buck up!"
Amory's point of view, though dangerous, was not far from the true one. If his reactions to his environment could be tabulated, the chart would have appeared like this, beginning with his earliest years:
1. The fundamental Amory.
2. Amory plus Beatrice.
3. Amory plus Beatrice plus Minneapolis.
Then St. Regis' had pulled him to pieces and started him over again:
4. Amory plus St. Regis'.
5. Amory plus St. Regis' plus Princeton.
That had been his nearest approach to success through conformity. The fundamental Amory, idle, imaginative, rebellious, had been nearly snowed under. He had conformed, he had succeeded, but as his imagination was neither satisfied nor grasped by his own success, he had listlessly, half-accidentally chucked the whole thing and become again:
6. The fundamental Amory.