Part 5 out of 5
After that he read no other book for days.
He read as he had never read before in his brief span of life--as,
perhaps, he would never read again, no matter how wide a stretch of life
that span might ultimately encompass.
He read of the anatomical differences between men and women. He read
about the mechanism of love. He read about the mysteries of procreation.
All of it was startlingly new to him, and yet he read with a sense of
always having known it. He read with absolute acceptance, without a
possibility of doubt.
It seemed a genuine revelation that must render all future questioning
futile. And yet he seemed to know no more when he had finished than he
knew before he started. It remained outside of himself, a structure of
air, a series of shadowgraphs, and the craving within him burned as
passionately as ever.
From now on he could grasp the points of the stories told by the boys at
school, and he would know what Johan was hinting at in his boast about
the secret doings of that attic. But of the reality of the thing he knew
as little as before. In fact, the principal lesson brought home by his
reading was that here he found himself in the presence of something that
could not be learned out of books.
To begin with he did not go beyond the first part of the book. This he
read over and over again. When at last he was sated with what that part
had to give, a subtle chemical change had taken place in his mental
make-up, one might say. It was not caused by any facts conveyed by the
book. These seemed quite natural to him, and in themselves they would
have had no more power over him than the information about flowers of
various kinds imparted by the teacher of botany. It was the tone used
that affected him in a manner reminding him of the Swedish Punch of
which he had tested a few drops now and then. In every line there was a
mixture of shamefaced apology and veiled desire that sent all the blood
in his body rushing toward his head until the walls of the room about
him reeled. Every inch of him was on fire, and in that flame body and
soul were consumed together.
The sum and substance of it was that he had become conscious of that
multitudinous impulse we call sex, and that from a vague, restless
yearning this impulse suddenly had developed into an appetite as
imperative as any hunger for food.
Finally he went on to the remaining chapters of the book, always with
that double sense of knowing it all before and of not quite grasping
what he read.
Pages were consumed before he realized with a shock more intense than
any one previously experienced, that the book was speaking of the game
he learned to play back of the big rock.
Again it was not what the book told that seemed to matter, but the tone
in which it spoke. And while before that tone had sent the blood to his
head, it now drew every drop of it back to his heart until he shivered
and shook with a misery so acute that another moment's endurance of it
At that instant fear was born within him. Until then it had been no more
real to him than were now the experiences described in the first part of
the book. He had instinctively shrunk from things that he knew or
believed to be painful, from the shock of a blow to the sting of a harsh
word. He had suffered discomforting anticipation of rebukes and
restrictions. But he had never before stood face to face with that stark
unreasoning terror which gathers its chief power from the intangible
character of the danger it heralds.
He learned that physically and spiritually he had courted death, and
what is worse than death. And suddenly the thought of that gentle-faced,
sweet-tempered young man in the parlour leaped into his memory. But the
image it brought him was not that of a human form stretched stiffly
within the black boards of a coffin. What he saw and what froze him with
horror was the hollow temples and sallow cheeks and drooping jaws and
bent back and trembling limbs of the human wreck that was still counted
a living man.
Worse than that image, however, and worse than any thought of punishment
by powers not within his actual ken, was the book's damning imputation
of shame incurred, of unworthiness proved, of inferiority so deep that
no words could adequately picture it.
All that was most himself wanted to rise in wild rebellion against
conclusions that found no support in anything he had actually
experienced so far. He wanted to refuse belief. He sought for escapes as
if the fulfilment of the doom pronounced by the book had been a matter
of minutes. But there was the book, and to back it suddenly appeared a
line of experiences out of his own life.
Perhaps those who would not let him visit their homes had only too good
cause for refusal. Perhaps, after all, it was not his father's position
but something about himself that had caused the parents of Harald, of
Loth, and now of Murray, to act in exactly the same way. Perhaps Dally
had reasons for not letting him become _primus_ which, out of his soul's
kindness, he never told even to Keith himself. Perhaps the reason he
always felt isolated and out of touch with his schoolmates lay in their
instinctive recognition of his nature....
In the end he replaced the book with a firm determination never to look
at it again. But the poison was in his mind, and the book no
The game learned behind the big rock must never be played again--that
much was certain!
But all resolves proved vain. Fight as he may, the end was inevitably
Previously he had been the player, and had thought no more of it. Now
he was being played with, and this new form of the game kept him
see-sawing incessantly between ecstasy and agony, between the relief of
yielding and the remorse at having yielded.
His life was an unending conflict, and in the presence of that ever
renewed struggle within, by forces that seemed alien to his own self,
all else lost significance.
And there was not a thing or a person within reach that could offer an
antidote to the self-contempt corroding his soul's integrity.
Going to school grew very hard for a while. He could barely look his
schoolmates in the face for fear that they might read in his eyes what
sort of a chap he was. At times, on his walks to or from school with
Murray, a faintness would seize him at the mere thought that his friend
somehow might have guessed the truth. And he sent timidly envious
side-glances at one lucky enough to be raised above all temptation. For
neither his recollections of the gang gathered about the big rock nor
the more recent light shed on such things by Johan had the slightest
influence on his conception of himself as the sole black sheep in a
flock of perhaps soiled but nevertheless washable white ones.
After a while the poignancy of his emotions became blunted by
familiarity, and mere weariness forced him to accept himself on a
reduced level. A sort of new equilibrium was established within him, but
it was primarily based on indifference. Nothing really mattered. Effort
was useless. Things merely happened. No one could help what happened.
And in this fatalism, so utterly foreign to his ardent, supersensitive
nature, he found a certain momentary sense of peace.
He went about his daily classroom tasks as in a dream, doing
mechanically what he was asked, and dropping his effort as soon as the
demand for it ceased. Nothing happened during the lessons to indicate
that the teachers noticed any change in him or were in any manner
dissatisfied with him. Perhaps he was saved by an occasional flaring up
of interest that drew from him flashes of that brightness of mind that
had won Dally and given him the reputation of an exceptional pupil.
But as the spring term drew nearer its close, he found it more and more
difficult to keep up a pretence at attention. More and more he sank into
mere drifting, and he whose pride had been really to know, now trusted
to luck like any dullard with a head unfit for studying. Worse still and
more significant, he began to find excuses for staying home from school.
He who had never known what it was to be sick, now developed disturbing
symptom after another--headaches and colds and digestive troubles in
endless succession. Most of the time these symptoms yielded quickly at
the mere sight of the castor oil which was his mother's favourite remedy
and the taste of which Keith hated more than anything else in the world.
It was the one thing that stood inexorably between his growing indolence
and the luxury of being ill.
With commencement almost in sight, all sorts of written examinations
were demanded. These he disliked additionally because his handwriting
never had developed in proportion to his mental capacity. No matter how
he strove, the letters remained childishly awkward. No two of them
seemed to point in the same direction. Not even his futile efforts at
singing could fill him with a more humiliating sense of inferiority.
All his various resistances were brought into concerted action when at
last the teacher in Swedish ordered him to prepare two brief original
compositions on quite simple themes. In the days of Dally he would have
revelled in such a task. Now it appalled him. His head was empty. The
mere idea of trying to write about such things as the discovery of
America and the beauties of nature seemed silly. There was any number of
books, besides, that said anything you could ever hope to say on
The end of it was that he produced an indisposition real enough not only
to convince his mother but to make himself willing to face the ordeal of
castor oil. Thanks to the oil he was able to stay in bed the better part
of two days. Those were the last two days before his Swedish
compositions were to be delivered. He knew that if they were not
delivered, he would get no mark in that subject, and this would prevent
his graduation to a higher grade.
In that dilemma he conceived the brilliant idea of making his mother
write the compositions for him, and he actually succeeded in persuading
her to do so. He prompted her a little, but she did the main part of the
work, and the handwriting was hers. Finally he got her to bring them up
to school with the explanation that he was too sick to sit up and write,
but that she had taken down what he dictated. He did not even look at
what she wrote, and it never occurred to him to doubt her ability of
doing it far better than he could. When it was all over, he experienced
a tremendous sense of relief, and this was much enhanced by his mother's
willingness to let the father remain in complete ignorance of what
Nothing was said to him when he showed up at school again. His first
inkling of trouble came with the return of his copy book. It was full of
marks and corrections in red ink. As he looked at these in a stunned
fashion, he realized for the first time that his mother's spelling and
punctuation would have been deemed unsatisfactory in a second grade
pupil. At first he did not even consider the bearing of this discovery
on his own fate. He could think of only one thing, namely that another
blow had been dealt to his conception of his mother as a superior being.
He actually felt ashamed on her behalf. Then came the thought of what
the teacher must have thought....
Commencement Day brought the answer. He got only C in Swedish, which
meant that he had failed to pass. It gave him the choice between
spending another year in the same grade or facing special examinations
in the fall.
At first he was too dazed to think. Then his former indifference changed
into blazing indignation and resentment. He felt himself a victim of
unpardonable injustice. In that mood he returned home and reported to
"You talk nonsense, my boy," said his father in a tone that was new to
Keith. "From some things I have heard, I gather that your escape from
the same kind of mark in every subject was little short of miraculous."
Keith stared open-eyed at his father, puzzled by his manner of speaking
and stung to the quick by what he said.
"What are you going to do now," his father demanded after a while.
A long pause followed during which Keith's brain worked at lightning
speed. It was as if he had never known until then what really had
happened during the weeks preceding commencement.
"I'll pass the examinations in the fall," he said at last.
"Will you give me your word of honour to read hard during the summer,"
his father asked, and his voice set the boy's heart throbbing like
"I will," replied Keith. "But I could pass those examinations without
looking at the book."
"The more shame for you, then, to let yourself be plucked," was his
father's concluding remark, but even that was uttered without a
suggestion of bitterness.
The summer was spent on the mainland opposite the island where they used
to live. He had practically no companionship except that of his mother.
It was very dull, but for the first time he seemed to need solitude. He
had brought out all his schoolbooks, and he really did a good deal of
studying, especially of Latin, which he knew was his weakest point.
At first he felt a slight grudge against the mother. She had
disappointed him for one thing, and there was an inclination besides to
hold her responsible for his misfortune. By degrees, however, he began
to see his own part in its true light, and he wondered how he could have
been such a blind fool. It was this understanding that brought him
comparative peace and enabled him to work. He had been so harassed by
the question of guilt in regard to actions which his own mind would
never have classed as wrong that the sense of facing punishment clearly
deserved came as a genuine relief.
The monotony of the season was only broken by a visit to the summer home
of Aunt Agda at Laurel Grove, where he stayed a whole week and made a
lot of friends. She had served with the Wellanders as a nurse girl when
Keith was only a baby. Then she was plain Agda, and Keith's mother often
spoke of how crazy she had been about him. Then she disappeared, and
when the Wellanders next heard of her, she was the wife of a well-to-do
retired merchant, to whom she had borne three children while she was
merely a servant and his first wife still lived. Keith had often
overheard his parents speak of Agda's phenomenal rise with ironic
smiles, but he didn't care for anything except her continued inclination
to spoil him.
There was a lot of children at Laurel Grove, boys and girls, and most
of them matched Keith in age. They took him in, and in that one week he
had a glimpse of the kind of life he would have liked to live. There was
in particular one boy, Arnold Kruse, for whom Keith formed a warm
attachment. This feeling was additionally cemented by Arnold's choice of
Keith as a confidant. Arnold was in love with the prettiest girl in the
place, Gurlie Norlin, and so was every other boy within reach of Laurel
Grove. But Arnold was the favourite, and he told Keith that he and
Gurlie had agreed to wait for each other and to marry as soon as they
were of age.
It was like a fairy tale to Keith--a wonderful tale like no one he had
ever read. And the most wonderful thing about it was that it was real,
and that he was permitted to play a sort of part in it. His thoughts
went back to Oscar and what he had told Keith about the love between
Oscar's father and mother. Here was love again, mystically beautiful, so
that it brought a new light into the faces of those it touched. And
Keith's heart grew lonely and wistful within him. But strangely enough,
he never thought of connecting Arnold's love for Gurlie with what he had
read in the book found in his father's book case. That was quite a
different thing, he felt.
The presiding genius of the examinations was Lector Booklund, teacher of
Latin in Lower and Upper Sixth. He was short and stocky and gnarled by
gout. Instead of speaking, he emitted a series of verbal explosives, and
the boy whose answers didn't come quick enough became the object of
withering scorn. Most of his life seemed concentrated in his eyes where
twinkling merriment and blazing anger alternated with bewildering
rapidity. He posed as a tyrant, but the boys who knew him well said that
at heart he was as kind as he was just, and that his nervous impatience
and bursts of rage were merely the results of severe physical
The moment he caught sight of Keith among the boys up for examination,
most of whom hailed from other schools, he became interested and began
to draw him out. And Keith was able to respond with some of his old-time
quickwittedness. His ambition had been stirred into a semblance of life
through the shock of his failure, while the summer's rest and peace had
brought back some of his natural vivacity. The inner conflict was still
a source of trouble, but it did not seem quite so much a matter of life
and death. He had not yet passed the crisis, but he had reached a point
where a little tactful nursing might put him on the right path again
for good. What he needed above all was encouragement, and that was what
he got for a while from the new class principal.
He passed the examinations with ease. Then the sense of being a favoured
pupil once more made him throw himself into the studies with
considerable zest. Little by little, however, his zest slacked off. More
and more frequently he became the object of blame or ridicule instead of
praise. By and by Lector Booklund found it hard to ask him a question or
give him a direction without open display of irritation. It was evident
that he felt disappointed in Keith, and he did not hesitate to show it.
Many causes combined to produce the slump in Keith's aspirations that in
its turn produced the changed attitude of the teacher. The latter's
impatience had probably as much to do with it as anything else, while
his splenetic manners and speech intimidated the boy's already
overwrought sensitiveness. The subjects taught and the form of the
teachings did their share, too. Grammar and rules and dry data seemed to
play a greater part than ever. In Latin, for instance, they were reading
Ovid's "_Metamorphoses_" and the colourful old legends might easily have
been used to arouse the boy's interest, if attention had merely been
concentrated on the stories told and the life revealed by them. But the
teacher was first and last a grammarian, and he would wax frantically
enthusiastic over some subtle syntactic distinction which left Keith
peevishly indifferent. And Lector Booklund was positively jealous on
behalf of his own subject, so that once he flung a bitingly sarcastic
remark at the boy because his attention had flared up at the quoting of
a phrase in English.
Keith's progress in English showed that he was still capable of both
interest and effort. This language was quite new to him, and the class
had it only one hour a week. But the man who taught it had advanced
ideas for his day, and instead of boring the boys with a lot of abstract
rules relating to a wholly unknown tongue, he let them start right in on
one of the English prose classics. They were told to pick out the
meaning of the principal words in advance, and the pronunciation was
explained as they took turns at reading aloud. All the time the teacher
kept the principal part of their attention focused on the story
gradually revealed. During that one hour a week Keith's mind never
wandered. But it was the only rift in the scholastic fog that kept him
in a state of constant boredom.
In the meantime things were happening at home that did not help the
He had moved into the parlour at last. It was almost his own room. An
old piece of furniture, half wardrobe and half dresser, standing in the
vestibule outside the parlour, had been turned over to him for good. His
library and his playthings were installed on the shelves in the upper
part. His personal things occupied a whole drawer below. At night he
slept on the big sofa, and the door to his parents' room was closed.
One night he lay awake unusually long. The old struggle was going on
within him, and there was no peace in sight. His parents had gone to bed
a good while ago, and as far as he was concerned just then, they had
practically ceased to exist.
Then his attention was attracted by a slight noise from their room. The
stillness of the night made it audible to him in spite of the closed
door. At first he listened out of idle curiosity, and to get away from
his own feverish thoughts. Finally he got up without any clear idea of
what he was doing, or why he did it. He began to tremble even as he
moved on tip-toe across the room. At the door he had to kneel down to
He could not tell whether an hour or a minute had passed when he crawled
into bed again. His whole body was on fire. He could feel the pulses at
his temples hammering. At that moment he knew what passion was. The man
in him had been let loose, and he wanted to cry aloud with the
bitter-sweet agony of it.
There was no thought of father or mother in his mind. The people back of
the door were just a man and a woman. The feelings that surged through
his heart, shaking his body volcanically, would have been the same if
those two had been perfect strangers.
No jealousy stirred him. No sense of shame shocked him. His dominant
emotion was envy.
The visit of death had left him unmoved. Now he had been as close to
life in its most intense form, and the effect of it was maddening--a
call that seemed to make further waiting worse than death.
He fell asleep at last with a part of the pillow stuffed into his mouth
to keep his sobs from being heard in the next room....
The thing had him by the throat. It was stronger than any power he could
bring to bear against it. Fighting it was useless. Resistance meant
merely prolonged torture. Surrender meant sleep--and torture of a
different kind the next day.
Once more he managed to get hold of the book that had wrought such
disastrous change in his entire existence. He read again the chapters
bearing directly on his own case. They seemed more convincing than ever.
There could be no doubt of his degradation or his doom.
He came running home from some errand one evening not long before
Christmas. His mind was more at ease than it had been for a long time.
That season of the year rarely failed to bring him a little happiness.
The moment he flung open the kitchen door, he knew that something was
wrong, and his heart sank within him.
The mother stood in the middle of the floor wringing her hands. Granny
sat on the sofa, stolid-faced as usual, and rolled one of her endless
bandages. On the chair by the window sat the father, his shoulder
against the wall, his left elbow on the table, and his head resting in
his left hand.
Keith could hardly believe what he saw.
His father's face was contorted with pain or grief. Big tears rolled
down his cheeks and dropped on the table before him. Every little while
he was shaken by a sob that almost choked him.
"Is he sick," the boy gasped.
"Something dreadful has happened," the mother stammered, unable to take
her eyes off her husband.
"You had better go into the parlour, Keith," whispered Granny as she
started on a new roll.
Keith turned his glance once more to the father. He had never seen a man
cry before, and until that moment such a lack of control on the part of
his father had seemed quite unimaginable. The strangeness of it
"I fear it will kill him," he heard his mother mutter.
"I wish it would," the father broke out, raising his head for a moment.
"But it won't, Anna.... I'll be over it in a minute."
His words were forced out between sobs. Keith saw that he was struggling
terribly to get himself in hand.
Then he caught sight of Keith, whose entrance he evidently had not
noticed, and as usual the presence of the boy brought back the
self-restraint for which he had been striving vainly until then.
"Keith," he said, speaking much more quietly, "your Uncle Wilhelm has
been arrested for using money that didn't belong to him. I can't believe
it, but I am sure they will send him to jail.... You must always
remember what I have told you about money...."
His own words seemed to bring back to him the full horror of the
situation, and he threw himself face downward over the table in another
convulsive outburst of grief.
Granny on the sofa was signalling frantically to Keith to leave the
room. Mechanically he obeyed her. Anything was better than to watch his
Little by little he learned the whole sad story. At the same time he
realized that Christmas would probably be spoiled--the one thing he had
banked on for momentary relief.
Once upon a time Uncle Wilhelm had been the most prosperous member of
the family, owning a big, fine grocery store in the fashionable North
End district. He made a lot of money, but his wife was vain and foolish
and pleasure-loving. She always managed to spend more than he could ever
earn, and he was idiotically in love with her. It ended in bankruptcy.
Uncle Wilhelm got a position as superintendent of a small factory in
the South End. There he might have done very well in a more modest way,
had not his wife proceeded to turn his life into a perfect hell. This
was her way of punishing him for his failure to support her in the style
she demanded. He was weak in more ways than one, and soon he drank not
merely for the sake of a good time, as everybody else did, but to find
consolation and forgetfulness. His private affairs went from bad to
worse. Gradually he lost the habit of distinguishing between his own
meagre funds and those entrusted to him. It was a clear case, and his
employer proved merciless when it was found out.
What Keith's father had feared came true. And that Christmas was more
sad than any other part of any other year had ever been.
It would have been hard on Keith at any time. Coming as it did, the
family disgrace, which he guessed rather than grasped, and the
disappointment, which was a depressingly tangible thing, brought his
natural sensitiveness to a morbid pitch.
There was one idea that haunted him day and night--the idea that he
belonged to a race doomed in advance to decay and destruction.
Uncle Wilhelm's case was not an isolated one. There was Uncle Henrik,
the youngest brother of Keith's father, who had gone to the dogs while
still a youth, and in a more ignominious fashion, if possible. What was
he now but a besotted tramp, begging shamelessly of friend or stranger
for a few _oere_ with which to buy a brief moment of coarse happiness?
There was Uncle Marcus, the husband of Keith's paternal aunt, who had
hurt his leg in a storm and lost his splendid position as chief engineer
of the swiftest steamer plying on the Northern route. Now he was
disabled for ever, and proud Aunt Brita was at her wit's end to keep the
home and the family together.
There were the two half-brothers of Uncle Wilhelm's silly wife--popular
and dashing young fellows reading blithely the purple path to
destruction. Even Keith's naive mind had discovered which way they were
headed, although his thoughts of them were not free from admiration.
And there were still others. Wherever he turned within the narrowing
family circle, he met similar instances of progress in the wrong
direction. Some were sinners and some were victims of fate--or seemed
so--but it came to the same thing in the end.
"The Wellanders are going," Keith's mother said one day to Aunt Brita
when she was too depressed and worried to mind the boy's presence.
"Yes," replied Aunt Brita grimly, "and so is everybody else who ever had
anything to do with them. Keith will have to start it all over again
from the beginning."
That seemed to settle it for the moment. Of what avail could his own
feeble struggles be in the face of an adverse destiny?
He brooded over it, and out of his brooding came resentment, and more
and more this resentment turned against his relatives in a fury of
disgust. He had a feeling of their having betrayed him....
Now and then, however, one of the expressions used by Aunt Brita would
recur to him with a suggestion of quite different possibilities.
"Keith will have to start it all over again from the beginning," she had
If he only had some one to talk to.... But he was more lonely than ever.
Murray had moved to another part of the city, more in keeping with his
father's increasing prosperity, and was now attending a North End
school. They had parted with no more ado than if they had expected to
meet the next day again. Now and then Keith thought of Murray with a
touch of sentimental regret, but it was wearing off.
Johan was still found at the foot of the lane, smoking and bragging and
leering as before. To Keith he had become positively loathsome.
There was no one else in sight--not one boy in the class out of whom
Keith might hope to make a friend. Leaving other factors aside, his lack
of pocket money was sufficient to keep him apart from the rest. They all
had some sort of allowance, however scant, and they took turns treating
each other to pastry or candy bought from a couple of old women who
brought basketfuls, to the school doors during every pause. He had to
beg especially for every _oere_, he couldn't get much at that.
He wore a suit made over by his mother from clothes given to her by a
woman of some means with whom she had a slight acquaintance. They had
been outgrown by that woman's son, and they had been offered to Keith's
mother because they were too good to be thrown away. There was nothing
about it to be ashamed of, and the made-over suit was neat enough,
though a little awkwardly cut. A couple of years earlier, Keith would
have hailed it with delight. Now the wearing of it seemed worse than
going about naked. He thought that every one noticed the suit and knew
that it was not really meant for him.
He read contempt in every glance, and by degrees he developed a temper
that was checked only by the humiliating consciousness of his physical
inferiority. After nearly five years in school, he was still one of the
smallest boys in height and bodily development, and neither gymnastics
nor the military drill that became compulsory in the sixth grade had the
slightest effect on him. And, of course, he suffered the more from it
because he ascribed his lack of stature and muscle to what he had now
begun to think of as his own moral weakness.
A petty quarrel one day brought on another fight with Bauer, and this
time right in the class room. They rolled around on the floor between
the desks and separated only when some one cried out that Booklund was
coming. Keith was thoroughly aware of the fact that his classmates
regarded their behaviour as inexcusably undignified in pupils of the
Lower Sixth, but contrary to custom, he didn't care very much. What
almost made him cry was that the thought that at the moment of
separation Bauer once more was on top of him--just as when their first
fight came to an end five years earlier. And then Keith was brought
still nearer to tears by his disgusted realization of that infantile
tendency to cry in every moment of unusual strain.
But, of course, how could he expect anything else?
His whole bearing changed gradually. The gay forwardness that had caused
Dally to make fun of him--and like him, perhaps--was quite gone, but
gone, too, was the shyness that always had run side by side with it. His
most frequent mood was one of irritable rebellion, and in between he
would have spells of sulkiness that estranged the teachers and surprised
himself in his more wholesome moods. He snarled to his mother, and he
would have done so to his father if he had only dared.
The school seemed sheer torture much of the time, and all its
objectionable features seemed to centre in the Latin. His hatred of that
subject approached an obsession. There was no doubt that Lector Booklund
could feel it, and every day he watched Keith with more undisguised
hostility. At last he could not speak to the boy without losing his
temper, and so for days at a time he would not speak to him at all. At
such times Keith's state of mind presented a riddle hard to solve. He
posed to himself and others as tremendously gratified at being left
alone and not having to answer any bothersome questions. Inwardly,
however, he was more hurt and offended by that neglect than by any other
rebuke the teacher could have devised.
Such a period of suspended communication had lasted more than a week,
when, at the wane of the term, the inevitable explosion
The class had just turned in their copybooks with a Latin exercise
prepared at home. Lector Booklund was standing at his desk with the
whole pile in front of him. Keith's book happened to be on top. The
teacher opened it. He sent a glance at Keith that made the boy squirm.
Then, as his eyes ran down the page, his face turned almost purple.
Suddenly he raised the book over his head and threw it on the floor with
such force that the cover was torn off.
A moment of ominous silence followed. Keith was red up to the roots of
"Wellander," the teacher roared.
Keith rose none too quickly from his seat without looking up.
"Pick up that thing," Lector Booklund shouted at him with the full force
of his powerful lungs. "I don't want to touch it again."
Keith remained like a statue, feeling now as if he didn't have a drop of
blood left in his whole body.
"Pick it up, I tell you!"
"No," Keith retorted in a strangely self-possessed voice, "you had
better pick it up yourself. I didn't throw it on the floor."
In another moment the teacher was beside Keith, burying his hand in the
boy's hair. Then he pulled and shook, shook and pulled, until the hand
came away with big tufts of hair showing between the fingers.
Again absolute silence reigned for a moment.
"Ugh," blew the teacher, his anger changed to a look of embarrassment.
"I am not going to speak another word to you, Wellander, during the rest
of the term. Sit down!"
Instead of sitting down, Keith walked over to the torn copy book, picked
it up and turned toward Lector Booklund.
"I am going home," he announced almost triumphantly. "You have no right
to hit me or pull my hair out by the roots."
Before the teacher had recovered from his surprise Keith was outside the
door and on his way home.
He didn't know afterwards how he got there, but he could remember saying
to himself over and over again:
"I didn't cry and I didn't want to cry!"
He told his mother truthfully what had happened and declared in
conclusion that he would never go back to school again.
She was furious with the teacher and thought that on the whole, it
would be safer for Keith to stay away during the few weeks remaining
of the term.
"That man should be punished," she cried repeatedly. "You did just
But the father spoke in another tone when he, in his turn, had heard the
tale of that eventful day.
"You will go to school tomorrow as usual," he said in his sternest
voice. "You had no right to refuse to pick up the book, and you had no
right to leave the school without permission."
"I can't go back after being treated like that, papa," Keith
remonstrated, trying vainly to make his tone sound firm.
"You will," the father reiterated, "or I'll...."
He stopped and thought for a minute.
"Or you'll begin to learn a trade tomorrow. Take your choice."
Father and son looked long at each other.
"Carl ..." the mother began pleadingly.
"Please, Anna," the father checked her. "This is too serious. The boy's
future is at stake."
Then he turned to Keith and said more kindly: "I ask you to go for my
"I will," the boy blurted out with a little catch in his voice.
His pride was broken, and once more those everlasting tears were dimming
He felt weak and helpless, but through his dejection broke now and then
a sense of pleasant warmth. His father had asked him to go "for
Such a thing had never happened before.
The class was discreetly preoccupied when Keith showed up as usual next
morning. Only Young Bauer evinced a slight inclination to taunt him, but
was curtly hushed up.
During one of the afternoon hours the door of the classroom opened
unexpectedly and Keith's father appeared on the threshold.
"Will you pardon me for just one moment, Sir," he said to the astonished
teacher. Then, without coming further into the room, he addressed
himself to Keith: "I have had a talk with the Rector and with Lector
Booklund. I have heard all about your behaviour in school, and I warn
you now that unless you do better, I shall give you the treatment you
deserve. Bear that in mind."
Then he vanished as abruptly as he had appeared.
A couple of the boys snickered. The teacher rapped sharply on the table
with the book he held in his hand.
Keith sat absolutely still with bowed head. He couldn't think. He didn't
dare to think of ever facing one of those other boys again. And suddenly
it occurred to him that his father had looked quite common, like a
workman almost, while he stood there at the door, talking across the
room to Keith.
But a tiny voice somewhere within himself denied it.
The term dragged to an end.
Commencement Day was no longer a cause of joyful anticipation. It had to
be borne like many other things. But it did mark the end.
Keith learned without much heartbreaking that he had got a "C" not
merely in Latin, which he expected, but in behaviour as well--he who all
through his school period had never had less than "A" on his
Well, it merely clinched the decision he already had formed. One could
not pass any examination in behaviour. And after what had happened, the
thought of going back to the same classroom in the fall gave him a
sensation of outright physical discomfort. Anything was better
Not even his mother had put in an attendance that day. He had to walk
home by himself, all the other boys being accompanied by pleased or
resigned parents. But it was in keeping with the rest of what he had to
Out of the midst of the shapeless throng of dark thoughts filling his
head, a quite irrelevant memory pushed to the front as if in answer to
an unspoken question. It consisted of the words spoken by Aunt Brita:
"Keith will have to start it all over again from the beginning."
The first few days after the closing of the school were wonderfully
restful. The parents proved remarkably forbearing. Neither one spoke a
word of reproach. Nothing was said about the future. It was as if some
sort of fear had checked them.
The home seemed unusually quiet and pleasant. There was any amount of
time for reading, and no suggestions were forthcoming as to what should
or should not be read. Yet Keith remained satisfied only a few days.
No one knows what might have happened if they had gone into the country
for the summer as they used to do. But again the whole family had to
stay in town for some reason not divulged to Keith. And with the heat
and the sunshine came the usual restlessness.
Keith had made up his mind not to go back to school. He was equally
determined not to let himself be forced into any sort of manual work.
Besides having no knack for it, he had come to look upon it as a social
disgrace. Some other work must be found, for well enough he knew that
his father would not let him stay home indefinitely doing nothing.
It was easy, however, to make up one's mind about what not to do, but
mighty hard to discover the right kind of thing to do. Keith had no clue
to start with at all, and to begin with all his efforts led him into the
blindest of blind alleys.
He plagued his mother with inquiries to which she had few or no answers
to give. He even deigned to consult Johan and found that he already had
found a place as errandboy in a store. A few questions convinced Keith
that such a life might be good enough for Johan but not for a boy who,
after all, had reached Lower Sixth in a public school.
The situation was becoming desperate and Keith was watching his father
with steadily increasing concern, when at last a helpful hint reached
him from the most unexpected quarter.
"Why don't you look in the paper," Granny asked him one day.
"What for," was Keith's surprised counter-question.
"For work, of course. Look at the advertisements on the back page."
"Do you think, Granny...." Keith hesitated.
"I don't think," retorted Granny. "I know."
Three weeks had gone. It was still early morning, and he was studying a
newspaper very carefully.
"What is it you find so interesting," his mother asked at last.
"The advertisements," he explained without taking his eyes off the
"Nonsense," she cried, putting down her sewing. "Are you still thinking
of leaving school?"
"Here is one about a volunteer wanted in a wholesale office," was his
indirect reply. "It is on West Long street--in the same house where Aunt
Gertrude has her jewelry store. Do volunteers get paid?"
"I don't know," his mother said absent-mindedly, her hands resting on
her lap in unwonted idleness. Then she woke up as from a dream: "You
should ask papa first."
"What's the use until I know whether I can get," Keith parried.
Ten minutes later he bustled into Aunt Gertrude's store, where she sat
in a corner near the big show-window working at a strip of embroidery
that never got finished. She was a spinster with large black hungry eyes
in a very white face. She and Keith's mother had been girl friends. Now
she was running one of the two jewelry stores owned by her brother.
She had heard of the position. It was in the office of Herr Brockhaus on
the second floor--a dealer in tailor's supplies. And she had heard that
he was a very nice man.
"Do you think I can get it," Keith demanded eagerly.
"Why don't you run up this minute and ask," she suggested.
Keith looked as if he had been to jump off a church steeple. But in
another minute he was climbing the stairs. His legs seemed rather shaky
and his tongue felt like a piece of wood. The moment he opened the door,
however, all his fears and hesitations were gone. Once more he was the
old Keith who had made a play of studies and examinations.
Herr Brockhaus was a tall, youngish, good-looking man, a little haughty
of mien, but with a tendency to smile in quite friendly fashion.
"I have as good as hired another boy who got here earlier than you," he
said in reply to Keith's inquiry. On seeing Keith's dejected look, he
"There are plenty of other jobs," he suggested.
"But you look as if you would be kind to me and give to a chance to
learn," Keith heard himself saying to his own intense astonishment.
"I can see that when you want a thing you want it real hard," Herr
Brockhaus rejoined with another peasant laugh. "Well, I like that. What
kind of a hand do you write?"
"Awful," Keith confessed, "but I am going to learn better."
For a good long while Keith felt himself studied from top to toe, and
under that searching scrutiny he blushed as usual.
"I am willing to do anything that is required," he ventured to ease the
"All right--what did you say your name was? Keith--I'll take you, and
tell the other boy that I changed my mind. When can you begin?"
"Tod ... tomorrow," Keith corrected himself with a sudden remembrance
of his father.
"Good," said Herr Brockhaus. "Show up at eight. And I'll pay you ten
crowns a month the first year, although as a rule volunteers don't get
Keith walked home on air. The sun never shone more brightly than that
day. The tall old stone houses along West Long street looked imposing
and mysterious, as if they had been magic mansions full of golden
opportunities for bright little boys. School seemed years away already.
Lector Booklund was a dream.
His mother listened in silence to his wonderful tale. Then she kissed
"When you have made a lot of money, will you present me with a new black
silk dress," she asked with a suspicious lustre in her eyes.
"Anything you want, mamma," he promised solemnly. "When I begin to make
money, you'll never have to worry any more about anything."
Again she had to kiss him.
He was then a little more than halfway through his fifteenth year.
When his father came home that night, Keith hurried across the room to
meet him. "Papa," he cried full of subdued excitement and a swelling of
self-importance such as he had not experienced for ever so long. "I have
got a job."
"What kind of a job," asked the father quietly.
"In an office." And Keith sputtered out the details.
When the whole story was told, the father stood looking at him
enigmatically for a long while.
"Perhaps it is just as well," he said at last. "It certainly will make
things easier for me. But bear in mind what I now tell you, boy: you
will live to regret the chance you are throwing away--a chance for which
I would have given one of my hands when I was of your age."
"Did you want me to go on," Keith asked uncertainly.
"I did--I always hoped that you should pass your university examinations
and wear the white cap."
"And what did you want me to become?"
"A civil engineer--that's the only real profession today."
The idea was too novel to be grasped quickly by the boy. His own
thoughts had never strayed in that direction, and his conception of an
engineer's duties and position was extremely vague.
"An engineer," he repeated. "But then I should not have studied Latin."
"Of course not, but you chose it without asking my opinion first."
Keith's surprise increased.
"Why didn't you tell me," he insisted.
"Because I wanted you to begin to shape your own life," the father
replied, "and I thought you knew what you wanted."
Keith could hardly believe his own ears.
"What do you want me to do now," he pleaded at last.
"What you feel you must," rejoined the father. "This concerns your
life, and not mine. And you must make up your own mind. Whatever you
decided, you have my good wishes, boy, and I shall try to help you as
far as I can."
For a moment Keith had a sense of never having known his father before.
Then a thought flashed through his head: why did he not speak before?
He went into the parlour and stood at the window staring at the gloomy
facade of the distillers across the lane. A motley throng of thoughts
chased each other through his brain.
It was not yet too late. Nothing was settled. He could still drop the
job and go back to school if he wanted. But did he want it?
The thought of school sent a slight shiver down his spine.
No, he was sick of it, of the teachers, of the tedious books, of the
boys who looked down upon him and kept him at arm's length all the time,
of everything that had made up his life for the last few years.
He wanted change. He must have it.
Above all else, he wanted to be free, he wanted to do as he pleased, and
now he had found a way to it, he believed.
At that moment it seemed to him that his childhood suddenly had come to
an end, that his manhood had begun, and that all life lay open