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The Plastic Age

The Plastic Age

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10/16/2011

Hugh found real happiness in Norry Parker's companionship, and such men
as Burbank and Winsor were giving him a more robust but no less pleasant
friendship. They were earnest youths, eager and alive, curious about the
world, reading, discussing all sorts of topics vigorously, and yet far
more of the earth earthy than Parker, who was so mystical and dreamy
that constant association with him would have been something of a
strain.

For a time life seemed to settle down into a pleasant groove of studies
that took not too much time, movies, concerts, an occasional play by the
Dramatic Society, perhaps a slumming party to a dance in Hastings
Saturday nights, bull sessions, long talks with Henley in his office or
at his home, running on the track, and some reading.

For a week or two life was lifted out of the groove by a professor's
daughter. Burbank introduced Hugh to her, and at first he was attracted
by her calm dignity. He called three times and then gave her up in
despair. Her dignity hid an utterly blank mind. She was as uninteresting
as her father, and he had the reputation, well deserved, of being the
dullest lecturer on the campus.

Only one event disturbed the pleasant calm of Hugh's life after his
argument with Tucker. He did not attend Prom because he knew no girl
whom he cared to ask; he failed again to make his letter and took his
failure philosophically; and he received a note from Janet Harton
telling him that she was engaged to "the most wonderful man in the
world"--and he didn't give a hoot if she was.

Just after Easter vacation the Nu Deltas gave their annual house dance.
Hugh looked forward to it with considerable pleasure. True, he was not
"dragging a woman," but several of the brothers were going "stag"; so he
felt completely at ease.

The freshmen were put to work cleaning the house, the curtains were sent
to the laundry, bedroom closets and dresser drawers were emptied of
anything the girls might find too interesting, and an enormously
expensive orchestra was imported from New York. Finally a number of
young alumni, the four patronesses, and the girls appeared.

Getting dressed for the dance was a real event in Hugh's life. He had
worn evening clothes only a few times before, but those occasions,
fraternity banquets and glee club concerts, were, he felt, relatively
unimportant. The dance, however, was different, and he felt that he must
look his best, his very "smoothest." He was a rare undergraduate; he
owned everything necessary to wear to an evening function--at least,
everything an undergraduate considered necessary. He did not own a
dress-suit, and he would have had no use for it if he had; only Tuxedos
were worn.

He dressed with great care, tying and retying his tie until it was
knotted perfectly. When at last he drew on his jacket, he looked himself
over in the mirror with considerable satisfaction. He knew that he was
dressed right.

It hardly entered his mind that he was an exceedingly good-looking young
man. Vanity was not one of his faults. But he had good reason to be
pleased with the image he was examining for any sartorial defects. He
had brushed his sandy brown hair until it shone; his shave had left his
slender cheeks almost as smooth as a girl's; his blue eyes were very
bright and clear; and the black suit emphasized his blond cleanness: it
was a wholesome-looking, attractive youth who finally pulled on his
top-coat and started happily across the campus for the Nu Delta house.

The dance was just starting when he arrived. The patronesses were in the
library, a small room off the living-room. Hugh learned later that six
men had been delegated to keep the patronesses in the library and
adequately entertained. The men worked in shifts, and although the dance
lasted until three the next morning, not a patroness got a chance to
wander unchaperoned around the house.

The living-room of the Nu Delta house was so large that it was
unnecessary to use the dining-room for a dance. Therefore, most of the
big chairs and divans had been moved into the dining-room--and the
dining-room was dark.

Hugh permitted himself to be presented to the patronesses, mumbled a few
polite words, and then joined the stag line, waiting for a chance to cut
in. Presently a couple moved slowly by, so slowly that they did not seem
to move at all. The girl was Hester Sheville, and Hugh had been
introduced to her in the afternoon. Despite rather uneven features and
red hair, she was almost pretty; and in her green evening gown, which
was cut daringly low, she was flashing and attractive.

Hugh stepped forward and tapped her partner on the shoulder. The brother
released her with a grimace at Hugh, and Hester, without a word, put her
right hand in Hugh's left and slipped her left arm around his neck. They
danced in silence for a time, bodies pressed close together, swaying in
place, hardly advancing. Presently, however, Hester drew her head back
and spoke.

"Hot stuff, isn't it?" she asked lazily.

Hugh was startled. Her breath was redolent of whisky.

"Sure is," he replied and executed a difficult step, the girl following
him without the slightest difficulty. She danced remarkably, but he was

glad when he was tapped on the shoulder and another brother claimed
Hester. The whisky breath had repelled him.

As the evening wore on he danced with a good many girls who had whisky
breaths. One girl clung to him as they danced and whispered, "Hold me
up, kid; I'm ginned." He had to rush a third, a dainty blond child, to
the porch railing. She wasn't a pretty sight as she vomited into the
garden; nor did Hugh find her gasped comment, "The seas are rough
to-night," amusing. Another girl went sound asleep in a chair and had to
be carried up-stairs and put to bed.

A number of the brothers were hilarious; a few had drunk too much and
were sick; one had a "crying jag." There were men there, however, who
were not drinking at all, and they were making gallant efforts to keep
the sober girls away from the less sober girls and the inebriated
brothers.

Hugh was not drinking. The idea of drinking at a dance was offensive to
him; he thought it insulting to the girls. The fact that some of the
girls were drinking horrified him. He didn't mind their smoking--well,
not very much; but drinking? That was going altogether too far.

About midnight he danced again with Hester Sheville, not because he
wanted to but because she had insisted. He had been standing gloomily in
the doorway watching the bacchanalian scene, listening to the tom-tom
of the drums when she came up to him.

"I wanta dance," she said huskily. "I wanta dance with you--you--you
blond beast." Seeing no way to decline to dance with the half-drunk
girl, he put his arm around her and started off. Hester's tongue was no
longer in control, but her feet followed his unerringly. When the music
stopped, she whispered, "Take me--ta-take me to th' th' dining-room."
Wonderingly, Hugh led her across the hall. He had not been in the
dining-room since the dance started, and he was amazed and shocked to
find half a dozen couples in the big chairs or on the divans in close
embrace. He paused, but Hester led him to an empty chair, shoved him
clumsily down into it, and then flopped down on his lap.

"Le's--le's pet," she whispered. "I wanna pet."

Again Hugh smelled the whisky fumes as she put her hot mouth to his and
kissed him hungrily. He was angry, angry and humiliated. He tried to get
up, to force the girl off of his lap, but she clung tenaciously to him,
striving insistently to kiss him on the mouth. Finally Hugh's anger got
the better of his manners; he stood up, the girl hanging to his neck,
literally tore her arms off of him, took her by the waist and set her
down firmly in the chair.

"Sit there," he said softly, viciously; "sit there."

She began to cry, and he walked rapidly out of the dining-room, his
cheeks flaming and his eyes flashing; and the embracing couples paid no
attention to him at all. He had to pass the door of the library to get
his top-coat--he made up his mind to get out of the "goddamned
house"--and was walking quickly by the door when one of the patronesses
called to him.

"Oh, Mr. Carver. Will you come here a minute?"

"Surely, Mrs. Reynolds." He entered the library and waited before the
dowager.

"I left my wrap up-stairs--in Mr. Merrill's room, I think it is. I am
getting a little chilly. Won't you get it for me?"

"Of course. It's in Merrill's room?"

"I think it is. It's right at the head of the stairs. The wrap's blue
with white fur."

Hugh ran up the stairs, opened Merrill's door, switched on the lights,
and immediately spotted the wrap lying over the back of a chair. He
picked it up and was about to leave the room when a noise behind him
attracted his attention. He turned and saw a man and a girl lying on the
bed watching him.

Hugh stared blankly at them, his mouth half open.

"Get th' hell out of here," the man said roughly.

For an instant Hugh continued to stare; then he whirled about, walked
out of the room, slammed the door behind him, and hurried down the
stairs. He delivered the wrap to Mrs. Reynolds, and two minutes later he
was out of the house walking, almost running, across the campus to
Surrey Hall. Once there, he tore off his top-coat, his jacket, his
collar and tie, and threw himself down into a chair.

So this was college! This was the fraternity--that goddamned rat house!
That was what he had pledged allegiance to, was it? Those were his
brothers, were they? Brothers! Brothers!

He fairly leaped out of his chair and began to pace the floor. College!
Gentlemen! A lot of muckers chasing around with a bunch of rats; that's
what they were. Great thing--fraternities. No doubt about it, they were
a great institution.

He paused in his mental tirade, suddenly conscious of the fact that he
wasn't fair. Some of the fraternities, he knew, would never stand for
any such performance as he had witnessed that evening; most of them, he
was sure, wouldn't. It was just the Nu Deltas and one or two others;
well, maybe three or four. So that's what he had joined, was it?

He thought of Hester Sheville, of her whisky breath, her lascivious
pawing--and his hands clenched. "Filthy little rat," he said aloud, "the
stinkin', rotten rat."

Then he remembered that there had been girls there who hadn't drunk
anything, girls who somehow managed to move through the whole orgy calm
and sweet. His anger mounted. It was a hell of a way to treat a decent
girl, to ask her to a dance with a lot of drunkards and soused rats.

He was warm with anger. Reckless of the buttons, he tore off his
waistcoat and threw it on a chair. The jeweled fraternity pin by the
pocket caught his eye. He stared at it for a moment and then slowly

unpinned it. He let it lie in his hand and addressed it aloud, hardly
aware of the fact that he was speaking at all.

"So that's what you stand for, is it? For snobs and politicians and
muckers. Well, I don't want any more of you--not--one--damn--bit--
more--of--you."

He tossed the pin indifferently upon the center-table, making up his
mind that he would resign from the fraternity the next day.

When the next day came he found, however, that his anger had somewhat
abated. He was still indignant, but he didn't have the courage to go
through with his resignation. Such an action, he knew, would mean a
great deal of publicity, publicity impossible to avoid. The fraternity
would announce its acceptance of his resignation in "The Sanford Daily
News"; and then he would either have to lie or start a scandal.

As the days went by and he thought more and more about the dance, he
began to doubt his indignation. Wasn't he after all a prude to get so
hot? Wasn't he perhaps a prig, a sissy? At times he thought that he was;
at other times he was sure that he wasn't. He could be permanently sure
of only one thing, that he was a cynic.

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