The Baltimore Station was hot and crowded, so Lois was forced to stand by the telegraph desk for interminable, sticky seconds while a clerk with big front teeth counted and recounted a large lady’s day message, to determine whether it contained the innocuous forty-nine words or the fatal fifty-one.
Lois, waiting, decided she wasn’t quite sure of the address, so she took the letter out of her bag and ran over it again.
“Darling”: it began—“I understand and I’m happier than life ever meant me to be. If I could give you the things you’ve always been in tune with—but I can’t, Lois; we can’t marry and we can’t lose each other and let all this glorious love end in nothing.
“Until your letter came, dear, I’d been sitting here in the half dark thinking and thinking where I could go and ever forget you; abroad, perhaps, to drift through Italy or Spain and dream away the pain of having lost you where the crumbling ruins of older, mellower civilizations would mirror only the desolation of my heart—and then your letter came.
“Sweetest, bravest girl, if you’ll wire me I’ll meet you in Wilmington—till then I’ll be here just waiting and hoping for every long dream of you to come true.
She had read the letter so many times that she knew it word by word, yet it still startled her. In it she found many faint reflections of the man who wrote it—the mingled sweetness and sadness in his dark eyes, the furtive, restless excitement she felt sometimes when he talked to her, his dreamy sensuousness that lulled her mind to sleep. Lois was nineteen and very romantic and curious and courageous.
The large lady and the clerk having compromised on fifty words, Lois took a blank and wrote her telegram. And there were no overtones to the finality of her decision.
It’s just destiny—she thought—it’s just the way things work out in this damn world. If cowardice is all that’s been holding me back there won’t be any more holding back. So we’ll just let things take their course, and never be sorry.
The clerk scanned her telegram:
“Arrived Baltimore today spend day with my brother meet me Wilmington three P.M. Wednesday Love
“Fifty-four cents,” said the clerk admiringly.
And never be sorry—thought Lois—and never be sorry——
Trees filtering light onto dappled grass. Trees like tall, languid ladies with feather fans coquetting airily with the ugly roof of the monastery. Trees like butlers, bending courteously over placid walks and paths. Trees, trees over the hills on either side and scattering out in clumps and lines and woods all through eastern Maryland, delicate lace on the hems of many yellow fields, dark opaque backgrounds for flowered bushes or wild climbing gardens.
Some of the trees were very gay and young, but the monastery trees were older than the monastery which, by true monastic standards, wasn’t very old at all. And, as a matter of fact, it wasn’t technically called a monastery, but only a seminary; nevertheless it shall be a monastery here despite its Victorian architecture or its Edward VII additions, or even its Woodrow Wilsonian, patented, last-a-century roofing.
Out behind was the farm where half a dozen lay brothers were sweating lustily as they moved with deadly efficiency around the vegetable-gardens. To the left, behind a row of elms, was an informal baseball diamond where three novices were being batted out by a fourth, amid great chasings and puffings and blowings. And in front as a great mellow bell boomed the half-hour a swarm of black, human leaves were blown over the checker-board of paths under the courteous trees.
Some of these black leaves were very old with cheeks furrowed like the first ripples of a splashed pool. Then there was a scattering of middle-aged leaves whose forms when viewed in profile in their revealing gowns were beginning to be faintly unsymmetrical. These carried thick volumes of Thomas Aquinas and Henry James and Cardinal Mercier and Immanuel Kant1 and many bulging note-books filled with lecture data.
But most numerous were the young leaves; blond boys of nineteen with very stern, conscientious expressions; men in the late twenties with a keen self-assurance from having taught out in the world for five years—several hundreds of them, from city and town and country
in Maryland and Pennsylvania and Virginia and West Virginia and Delaware.
There were many Americans and some Irish and some tough Irish and a few French, and several Italians and Poles, and they walked informally arm in arm with each other in twos and threes or in long rows, almost universally distinguished by the straight mouth and the considerable chin—for this was the Society of Jesus, founded in Spain five hundred years before by a tough-minded soldier2 who trained men to hold a breach or a salon, preach a sermon or write a treaty, and do it and not argue . . .
Lois got out of a bus into the sunshine down by the outer gate. She was nineteen with yellow hair and eyes that people were tactful enough not to call green. When men of talent saw her in a street-car they often furtively produced little stub-pencils and backs of envelopes and tried to sum up that profile or the thing that the eyebrows did to her eyes. Later they looked at their results and usually tore them up with wondering sighs.
Though Lois was very jauntily attired in an expensively appropriate travelling affair, she did not linger to pat out the dust which covered her clothes, but started up the central walk with curious glances at either side. Her face was very eager and expectant, yet she hadn’t at all that glorified expression that girls wear when they arrive for a Senior Prom at Princeton or New Haven; still, as there were no senior proms here, perhaps it didn’t matter.
She was wondering what he would look like, whether she’d possibly know him from his picture. In the picture, which hung over her mother’s bureau at home, he seemed very young and hollow-cheeked and rather pitiful, with only a well-developed mouth and an ill-fitting probationer’s gown to show that he had already made a momentous decision about his life. Of course he had been only nineteen then and now he was thirty-six—didn’t look like that at all; in recent snap-shots he was much broader and his hair had grown a little thin—but the impression of her brother she had always retained was that of the big picture. And so she had always been a little sorry for him. What a life for a man! Seventeen years of preparation and he wasn’t even a priest yet—wouldn’t be for another year.
Lois had an idea that this was all going to be rather solemn if she let it be. But she was going to give her very best imitation of undiluted sunshine, the imitation she could give even when her head was splitting or when her mother had a nervous breakdown or when she was particularly romantic and curious and courageous. This brother of hers undoubtedly needed cheering up, and he was going to be cheered up, whether he liked it or not.
As she drew near the great, homely front door she saw a man break suddenly away from a group and, pulling up the skirts of his gown, run toward her. He was smiling, she noticed, and he looked very big and—and reliable. She stopped and waited, knew that her heart was beating unusually fast.
“Lois!” he cried, and in a second she was in his arms. She was suddenly trembling.
“Lois!” he cried again, “why, this is wonderful! I can’t tell you, Lois, how much I’ve looked forward to this. Why, Lois, you’re beautiful!”
His voice, though restrained, was vibrant with energy and that odd sort of enveloping personality she had thought that she only of the family possessed.
“I’m mighty glad, too—Kieth.”
She flushed, but not unhappily, at this first use of his name.
“Lois—Lois—Lois,” he repeated in wonder. “Child, we’ll go in here a minute, because I want you to meet the rector, and then we’ll walk around. I have a thousand things to talk to you about.”
His voice became graver. “How’s mother?”
She looked at him for a moment and then said something that she had not intended to say at all, the very sort of thing she had resolved to avoid.
“Oh, Kieth—she’s—she’s getting worse all the time, every way.”
He nodded slowly as if he understood.
“Nervous, well—you can tell me about that later. Now——”
She was in a small study with a large desk, saying something to a little, jovial, white-haired priest who retained her hand for some seconds.
“So this is Lois!”
He said it as if he had heard of her for years.
He entreated her to sit down.
Two other priests arrived enthusiastically and shook hands with her and addressed her as “Kieth’s little sister,” which she found she didn’t mind a bit.
How assured they seemed; she had expected a certain shyness, reserve at least. There were several jokes unintelligible to her, which seemed to delight every one, and the little Father Rector referred to the trio of them as “dim old monks,” which she appreciated, because of course they weren’t monks at all. She had a lightning impression that they were especially fond of Kieth—the Father Rector had called him “Kieth” and one of the others had kept a hand on his shoulder all through the conversation. Then she was shaking hands again and promising to come back a little later for some ice-cream, and smiling and smiling and being rather absurdly happy . . . she told herself that it was because Kieth was so delighted in showing her off.
Then she and Kieth were strolling along a path, arm in arm, and he was informing her what an absolute jewel the Father Rector was.
“Lois,” he broke off suddenly, “I want to tell you before we go any farther how much it means to me to have you come up here. I think it was—mighty sweet of you. I know what a gay time you’ve been having.”
Lois gasped. She was not prepared for this. At first when she had conceived the plan of taking the hot journey down to Baltimore, staying the night with a friend and then coming out to see her brother, she had felt rather consciously virtuous, hoped he wouldn’t be priggish or resentful about her not having come before—but walking here with him under the trees seemed such a little thing, and surprisingly a happy thing.
“Why, Kieth,” she said quickly, “you know I couldn’t have waited a day longer. I saw you when I was five, but of course I didn’t remember, and how could I have gone on without practically ever having seen my only brother?”
“It was mighty sweet of you, Lois,” he repeated.
Lois blushed—he did have personality.
“I want you to tell me all about yourself,” he said after a pause. “Of course I have a general idea what you and mother did in Europe those fourteen years, and then we were all so worried, Lois, when you had pneumonia and couldn’t come down with mother—let’s see, that was two years ago—and then, well, I’ve seen your name in the papers, but it’s all been so unsatisfactory. I haven’t known you, Lois.”
She found herself analyzing his personality as she analyzed the personality of every man she met. She wondered if the effect of—of intimacy that he gave was bred by his constant repetition of her name. He said it as if he loved the word, as if it had an inherent meaning to him.
“Then you were at school,” he continued.
“Yes, at Farmington.3 Mother wanted me to go to a convent—but I didn’t want to.”
She cast a side glance at him to see if he would resent this.
But he only nodded slowly.
“Had enough convents abroad, eh?”
“Yes—and Kieth, convents are different there anyway. Here even in the nicest ones there are so many common girls.”
He nodded again.
“Yes,” he agreed, “I suppose there are, and I know how you feel about it. It grated on me here, at first, Lois, though I wouldn’t say that to any one but you; we’re rather sensitive, you and I, to things like this.”
“You mean the men here?”
“Yes, some of them of course were fine, the sort of men I’d always been thrown with, but there were others; a man named Regan, for
instance—I hated the fellow, and now he’s about the best friend I have. A wonderful character, Lois; you’ll meet him later. Sort of man you’d like to have with you in a fight.”
Lois was thinking that Kieth was the sort of man she’d like to have with her in a fight.“How did you—how did you first happen to do it?” she asked, rather shyly, “to come here, I mean. Of course mother told me the story about the Pullman car.”
“Oh, that—” He looked rather annoyed.
“Tell me that. I’d like to hear you tell it.”
“Oh, it’s nothing, except what you probably know. It was evening and I’d been riding all day and thinking about—about a hundred things, Lois, and then suddenly I had a sense that some one was sitting across from me, felt that he’d been there for some time, and had a vague idea that he was another traveller. All at once he leaned over toward me and I heard a voice say: ‘I want you to be a priest, that’s what I want.’ Well, I jumped up and cried out, ‘Oh, my God, not that!’—made an idiot of myself before about twenty people; you see there wasn’t any one sitting there at all. A week after that I went to the Jesuit College in Philadelphia4 and crawled up the last flight of stairs to the rector’s office on my hands and knees.”
There was another silence and Lois saw that her brother’s eyes wore a far-away look, that he was staring unseeingly out over the sunny fields. She was stirred by the modulations of his voice and the sudden silence that seemed to flow about him when he finished speaking.
She noticed now that his eyes were of the same fibre as hers, with the green left out, and that his mouth was much gentler, really, than in the picture—or was it that the face had grown up to it lately? He was getting a little bald just on top of his head. She wondered if that was from wearing a hat so much. It seemed awful for a man to grow bald and no one to care about it.
Excerpted from The Best Early Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Copyright © 2005 by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.