Read CROSSROADS of Stanford Stories Tales of a Young University , free online book, by Charles K. Field Will H. Irwin, on ReadCentral.com.

Crossroads.

“Oh see ye not yon narrow road
So thick beset wi’ thorns and briers?
That is the Path of Righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires.

“And see ye not yon braid, braid road,
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the Path of Wickedness,
Though some call that the road to Heaven.”

THOMAS THE RHYMER.

I

The regular after-dinner crowd was smoking in Frank Lyman’s Encina boudoir, lolling over his sofa, their feet on his table, their legs tangled on his iron bedstead. The steam heat was coming “Clank! clank!” into the radiators, for it was a cold, clear evening in the time between rains. Outside the fog was thick upon the hills, sending gray ghost-fingers over toward the valley. You could lean from the window and smell its clean moisture, mingling with the scent of young plants in the fresh-turned earth. Frank himself sat close to the window and looked out toward the gymnasium, because he had discovered a new amusement. There was a section of the board walk between Encina and the gym which was flooded just to its top by a pool from the late rain, so that if you stepped heavily thereon the plank gave a bit and dropped you into the water. The diversion consisted in betting with “Pegasus” Langdon on the style of crossing adopted by chance wayfarers. The stakes were five cents a corner. Frank backed the class who took the thing at one bound; “Peg” laid his coin on those who went over on their tiptoes, trying not to spring the plank into the water. For every one who did neither, but walked around the puddle, five cents a corner went into the tobacco fund. It was just as good as matching nickels and involved less exertion.

There is a theory in the Hall that you can tell a man’s habits by the rooms he occupies there. The nearer he gets to the corner fronting on the baseball field, the more sociable is his nature. Those who hold the rooms at that corner or on the second or third floors, so as to be in easy hail of anyone coming in at the back entrance, are Public Characters. Their apartments are reception rooms in very truth. It has never been explained why Encina does not sag at that end, like an excursion steamer on the side toward a boat race. If, on the other hand, you believe you have a Mission, or if you are a Dig, rooming in the Hall because it is convenient to the Quad, then you dwell in “Faculty Row,” away off to the east, where the early sun pulls you out in time to put the finishing touches to your Latin, and where there is no trafficking to and from the Quad to disturb your evening study.

It was said that Frank Lyman was the only man at the Quadrangle end of the Hall who ever made much pretense of studying. By the same token the keepers of the college tradition alleged that he alone of all the gang stood high in the opinion of the Faculty. It was a way he had. He stood well with everybody.

If they had taken the trouble to investigate, those who wondered at his ability both to loaf much and to study much, at his scholarship dwelling alongside of his popularity, they might have found that he kept the two things in harmony by a marvelous system. The gang dwelt in his room, made it their hang-out, but only just so long; when the hour arrived for Lyman’s study-time, they vanished away mysteriously, took the hint conveyed in some fashion, no one ever knew how, and were gone.

To the under-classmen, Lyman was an object of healthy awe. Older than the average senior, he had been already in the larger world. His opinion of things had especial value even in his Junior year. After the football season, when he had been acknowledged the keenest manager the college had ever found, the under-classmen had a blind faith in his infallibility. The older students relied on him in much the same way, though there were some who said that self lay at the bottom of Lyman’s system of morals, that the watchword of his philosophy was “Does it pay?” These men were sentimentalists who had ideals. Langdon, the Sequoia editor, would have told you that he thought more of Lyman than of any two men in the class; it is a question, though, whether he would have recommended Lyman’s advice in everything. Frank was a good man to keep a Freshman’s money for him, to listen to his class-room troubles or to stand between the luckless youngster and Faculty wrath; but when it was a case into which something deeper entered, perhaps the Senior’s worldly philosophy was not of the best sort. This was the idea of dreamers like “Pegasus” Langdon, who said things about “sentiment” and to whom Freshmen seldom came for advice. But Lyman continued to hold his after-dinner receptions, and his admirers piled themselves comfortably on his bed and believed in him implicitly.

The psychological moment came for the regular withdrawal. Frank opened his windows with care, donned the old bath-robe which was his armor for the battle intellectual, put on his eye-shade over his straight brown hair, and opened his Pollock. At this hint the others slipped out; only Jimmie Mason lingered, his gaze on the shadowy hills with their faint fringe of dark green, the dregs of his pipe purring in the stillness. Lyman’s room-mate was somewhere queening. Lyman himself, pretending to study, looked up from time to time, waiting for the Sophomore to unbosom himself. Frank knew the symptoms.

“Well, Jimmie?” he said at length one couldn’t study with that going on and Frank had his stint to finish.

“It’s about my father.”

“Drinking again?”

Jimmie only nodded. The smoke went out in his pipe; he knocked the ashes from it and put it away mechanically in the common pipe-rack over the radiator.

“Tell me about it.” Frank had closed his book, and was leaning back in his tilted chair, his feet braced in the shelf beneath, his hands clasped over his knees.

“Not much to tell, I guess, no more than you know already. I got a letter from the old lady.”

“Your grandmother, eh?”

“Yes. She says something must be done. ‘In low saloons,’ she says, and I’ve been sizing it up and Frank, don’t you think I ought to go home?”

A silence again, with Lyman’s alarm clock ticking placidly on the table between them.

It had come, the moment to bring the boy around; Frank had waited for it in the weeks since he had known the story. In this silence he mapped out his argument, as he would have prepared a brief.

“How much has your father ever helped you, Jimmie?”

“Not much. We’ve always been poor, you know.”

“Because he drank?”

“Yes, he never could keep a job but so long.”

“Not even when you were small?”

“I wasn’t with him then. When my mother got when she left him, she took me with her. Then she died, and I was with my grandmother awhile, then I lived with him until I came here.”

“Are you very fond of him?”

“No, Frank, I’m not; not a bit. He never did anything for my mother or for me, to make me.”

“I don’t see why you lived with him then.”

“He’d behave himself better. I had a sort of influence over him. He was afraid of me, or ashamed, or something, and I stuck to him to keep him straight. But, oh! I hated it, and when he got going all right, I cut loose and came here.”

“What sort is the old lady? W. C. T. U. and all that kind of thing, I suppose?”

“Something on that order.”

The Oracle leaned forward until his chest came almost between his bent knees, as was his wont when he clinched his arguments.

“I suppose you’ve never figured it out that people of her way of thinking would call what little drinking you do at Mayfield ’drinking in low saloons?’”

By his silence Jimmie admitted that there was something in the position. Frank followed up his lead.

“So it may be nothing very bad after all. But let’s suppose it is; suppose he has slid back into the worst of his old ways, is it going to pay to go on and break things all up for yourself, for the purpose of trying to bolster him up? It seems to me you would let your enthusiasm get away with your common sense. But it’s your business, Jimmie. Only the thing that gets me is the blooming uselessness of it all. What can you do?”

“I can work.”

“You could do that before you came here. You see, it was all right before, when your plans weren’t formed. Now it means not only his sliding back, but yours too. You know as well as I do that a half-baked man isn’t worth a whoop, not a solitary whoop. You’ve got to drop down into mediocrity just when you are on the way up to something. And after sacrificing yourself, perhaps, it will have been for nothing. You can’t cure that thing in a month, nor a year, nor two years. If he is drinking, regular and hard, you’ve got to catch him and stay with him just about as long as he lives. You can’t leave him after you get him on his feet, or he’ll go right back. You know that from experience, don’t you?”

“Yes,” said Jimmie. The Senior’s words came to him as a relief. He had begun the conversation with the feeling that the thing for him to do was to go home, and dreading lest Lyman should think so, too. Now Frank showed him the folly of such a step, and Frank knew about things.

“It means a knockout to your ambition,” went on Lyman, “the spoiling of yourself, and you propose to do this for a man you don’t care for? I don’t understand.”

“He is my father,” said the Sophomore. This reason had seemed ample, when he was thinking it over alone; it did not sound so convincing now.

“And suppose he is, do you have to pay for that? No, Jimmie, that’s a fine sentimental view of it that won’t help either of you. Let him wait. You have the right to do it. He can wait two years, till you’ve had your chance. If it has been going on all this time, two years won’t be long, and then when you’re through and ready to do something, there’ll be sense in it; there isn’t now.

Just then Freshman Halleck, who had a genius for poking in where he was not wanted, knocked and entered with Encina abruptness, for Frank had not locked the door. He made his stay so long that Lyman, with his thoughts on his unfinished work, said:

“Well, good-night, you fellows,” as a gentle hint, and Jimmie withdrew.

The fog had not yet come into the valley when the Sophomore opened the window, down in his own room; it was reaching out, still driven before a lazy wind. Indistinctly the singing of the Glee Club, rolling home from practice in the Quad, came through the damp twilight. Jimmie had been with them on the Christmas trip, tasting a social life he had known nothing of till then. Now they were going to run him for leader next year. He sat on his window ledge listening. The side of the Hall stretched away from him, four tiers of light where the fellows were at work or were bumming away the week-night. Through the opened windows came the low tone of many conversations, stirred now and then by a “rough-house” note. A coyote barked somewhere among the hills, a reminder of the nearness of our higher life to the life universal. Jimmie took a long, deep breath of the moist air, as though he would draw it all, all unto himself. This was his life, he had made it for himself, and he loved it, he loved it! He had no part any longer with what had come before it. All these were in shadow, the people and things of his bitter childhood. The fellows up there in the lighted rooms had homes somewhere; there was a feed-box being opened even then, perhaps, at some study table; they were thinking of vacation, most of them, and of other places. But this was home to Mason, this wide, soft campus, with the sandstone arching over it and bounded by shaggy hills, the only place he could call his own. Most of the laughing people who lived here with him were in a dream from which some Commencement Day would wake them. To Mason it was reality. Yes, Frank Lyman was right. Jimmie was glad he had asked him. The idea of going away had been a thoughtless impulse, an immature judgment. He would stay for the two years.

He took off his coat and opened a book under the lamp; but a face came and settled between him and the page, a bloated face with irresolute lips that would not move from the black and white before him, but flickered there and mocked him, until finally he closed the book, and, without looking out again on the campus, turned into bed.

II

It was a quiet night outside. The last spring rain was over; the dry, deadening California summer had begun its advance on the land. Already, the green of the hills had faded into a lighter hue, a forerunner of a yellow June and a brown July. The campus was astir with the movement of a Friday night. Shadowy figures, in couples, came and passed down the fairy-land vistas of the Quadrangle; the ’busses deposited the elite of Palo Alto at the door of the Alpha Nus who had said that they would be at home; noises of all kinds, from not unmusical singing to plainly unmusical whoops, exhaled from every pore of the Hall. The piano on the lobby was groaning out a waltz from its few attuned keys and the little space between the big rug and the rail overlooking the dining-room was packed with forms in various conditions of negligee, dancing earnestly and painfully.

Only one room, and that generally the center of disturbance, “sported the oak.” Jimmie Mason sat in the knockery, with a book cocked up in front of him, and made a pretense of studying, but his thoughts wandered. Finally he threw his work aside altogether, and looked at the little patches of starlight visible between the branches of the tree outside. It was so plain, the thing he ought to do, in justice to himself, that he had thought the dream of the other thing a fancy that had passed and had been put away with the notions of his prep-days. And yet he had found no peace in his new decision. His plans for next year, his work in class, his new success with certain ventures which after two years of the hardest, closest pinching, had put within his reach the means to gratify a few little whims, to indulge in a few things his poverty had hitherto forbidden him a few common things the men around him enjoyed, and the lack of which he had ever concealed even from himself all these were made footless by the ache in the bottom of his soul. And, as he sat and pondered on it, a hard, dull resentment which he had hitherto kept down by sheer will power rose above his other thoughts and claimed admission as a reality. His father had no right to do this thing to him. He was an old man; his chance was past, given up for a few barrels, more or less, of distilled spirits. It was for this that the something inside was asking him to forfeit the chance he had made for himself. The University was his home. His father had done nothing toward this. The laundry agency had provided a living, and the broad democracy of the college had done the rest for him. He was one of the “prominent men” now, a somebody, as he had never been and never could be in the travesty of home that had been his father’s giving. Upon his life here rested the possibilities of the future toward which he looked dreamingly sometimes when his notes were written up, and the laundry accounts checked. Assuredly, his father had no claim on this; to admit it would be an injustice to himself, to his ambition, and to his work. And yet this face which had come between him and his book the first night the fight had been on must haunt him always in the hour when his tide was turning.

A thump on the window which opened on the front piazza recalled him from his reverie. A dozen feet were shuffling on the stones outside, and a ruddy face glowed over the sash.

“Go away, Pellams. Got to plug,” said Jimmie, hastily resuming his book.

“Relate your predicaments to a constable,” said Pellams. “There’s going to be a Thirsting Bee at the

“Can’t go. Got to work on my thesis.”

“Relate that to your Uncle Adderclaws. Tumble out, now.”

Jimmie only shook his head. There was a conference outside in whispers; then the gang withdrew with suspicious alacrity. Two minutes later, the lock grated with the cautious insertion of a key, and the mob rushed in; Jimmie had forgotten the passkey, for whose possession Pellams had held up the Jap.

“Ah, say, get out of here, you fellows. I’m digging.”

“I know it. And you’re going to stop. Gentlemen adventurers” here Pellams mounted a chair “James Mason, our small but thirsty friend, has sourball. Now, I ask you, gentlemen, what is the universal cure for his affliction?”

“Beer!” The unanimity of the response would have done credit to a Roman mob.

“Quite right ye are, my merry retainers. And will ye, in loving kindness to him, apply that remedy?”

“We will! We will!”

“Well said, me liegemen. Jimmie, move along!” and Pellams fell to strolling around the room and criticizing its collection of stolen signs with the air of one who has discharged his business and stands at ease. The rest threw themselves on the man with sourball and were for tearing off his outer garments and forcing on his sweater, but Lyman by some occult means of his own got the boy aside. One never knew how Frank managed the gang; it was always that way; his methods never obtruded themselves, all one saw was results.

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” said he; “they won’t understand it, and it doesn’t do you any good this sort of thing. Better jolly up.”

The Sophomore did not speak; he only shook his head.

“I know what you’re holding back for,” went on the other; “but going down there isn’t the same sort of thing; really, it isn’t.”

Jimmie started a little, inside, as he realized for the first time the base of his aversion to dragging himself out on the trip. He turned, half-mechanically, and began tugging at his collar. That Phantom should never come between him and one single thing he wanted to do. It might embitter it all, but it could never prevent him from the outward act. He threw his tie over a chair and took off his coat with unnecessary emphasis in the movement. Ten minutes later he was treading the primrose path of dalliance with an arm around “Nosey” Marion.

There was a cool breeze off the bay, bringing the scent of salt water along with the odor of spruce-trees. A voice from the upper regions of the Hall called out to the cavalcade, crawling through the half-darkness along the road:

“He-ea, you! Bring some back for me!”

A dozen windows slammed open at that, and twenty throats took up the noise. Pellams was for answering, but Lyman discreetly checked him.

Presently they swung out into the traveled road, until the noises of the Hall were only a composite buzz. The squad was lounging in twos and three, talking athletics or humming under the breath march-songs from the Orpheum. “Peg” Langdon stopped at the white gate, and took off his hat to the cool air.

“This road down is the best thing about Mayfield!”

“Drop the Sequoia!” cried Pellams. “Here, you fellows, hold him! We’ll have that in a rondeau or something, next week, if you don’t hobble the muse!”

The editor laughed. It is better to be joked about your own special forte than not to have it mentioned, so he was not displeased.

“That’s what the bard gets,” said he, “for secreting the noxious fluid known as the ‘Sequoia’ verse. But you can’t stop the secretion. Some day, I am going to write a Ballad of the Road to Mayfield just to be original.”

“And you’ll kill the traffic.”

“Chain the poet!”

“If you don’t choke him, he’ll get reminiscent.”

These from half-a-dozen voices at once.

“Certainly I shall!” declared Langdon. “A reminiscent mood is the proper one for the road to Mayfield just as you have to have an argumentative one on the road back.”

“Did you ever notice,” observed Dick, “that every Mayfield time has a sort of motif? You have a central idea, and you expand on it, like writing paragraphs for English Eight.”

“It’s up to you, Mr. Langdon. Give us a motif and we’ll do the expanding,” said Marion, shying a pebble at a gate where there was a dog he knew.

“How would Jimmie’s sore-head do?”

Pellams took it up at once. “Death to the sore-head! A bas Mason!” And then, being safely away from the Hall, he caught up the old nonsense air that has split student throats this century long,

“To drive dull care away!”

And Jimmie, a chum beating him on either side to exorcise the demon, was singing as lustily as the best of them when they swung through the town of buried ambitions and into the shrine of Bacchus.

“Gentlemen, remember the motif!” cried Pellams, when they had made their way through the barroom loafers, playing with dingy cards at the dingier tables. The expedition was safely stowed in the back room around the rough table with its carved patch-work of initials, Greek letters, and nicknames, significant or obsolete, according to a man’s perspective. Pellams assumed instant control.

We will now turn our attention to the serious business of the evening. Get your places. Hands on your bottles! Open corks! And away we go.” The party drank in silence.

“Do you begin to improve, James? There is a trace of a smile in the left-hand corner of the patient’s mouth. Ruffle up his hair and give him another while we have him going!”

Someone started a song, and they had another drink to punctuate the pause between verses. A ruddier shade was creeping towards the roots of Pellams’ hair; Lyman, who smiled but seldom, was grinning across the table at a Sophomore trying to flip cracker crumbs into his mouth.

“This is a tryout,” said Pellams. “The first man that balks at his beer will drink raspberry chasers for a month. Hey! look at ‘Nosey’ Marion trying to shirk!”

Sure enough, Marion, who tried to keep up a reputation for capacity with a naturally slim endowment, was slyly pouring his last potion into an empty beer-case behind him. They fell upon the offender forthwith, whipped him into the ranks again, and resumed their seats, laughing and panting.

“And now that our erring brother is punished and forgiven that’s as good a phrase as I ever saw punished and forgiven stick that in the Sequoia, Pegasus” Pellams rambled on, “we’ve got to have the motif. I move from the chair that the guest of the evening gives us ’My Old Kentucky Home!’ Punish your glass and tune up, Jimmie!”

The cry went on until Jimmie had to respond. He began with the intention of singing it quite carelessly, because there was much in his soul that night that he dared not show before them all; but Jimmie had the gift of song in his heart as in his voice, and he threw himself into the music before the first stanza was half done. Only once before had he sung the song as he did to-night; it was at last Commencement, when he sang it for the Seniors going out on their adventures, and when he was done they had all been still and quiet like men who have seen ghosts as perhaps they had, that night, the phantoms of men and times haunting certain low, arched buildings they were to see no more.

“Then my old Kentucky home, good-night!”

Jimmie’s tender baritone floated up from the table wistfully sweet, and shaken a little with feeling, for the trouble of the week just past was sweeping into it. Lyman, listening, knew of what place the boy was singing, and mentally noted that he had better be thoughtful of the youngster during the rest of the term.

The fellows were quiet for a moment after they had droned out the chorus, each one putting his own meaning into that sweet old song of farewell, and then, to break the charm, a small voice with a Spanish roll in it, piped “Tamales!” at the crack in the door.

“Hey! Lupe! make him sing!”

They raided the stock first, and rendered happy with the jingle of silver the quaint little remnant of the race who named their valley for the blessed Santa Clara. Then, when he had counted it and put it safely away with the officious assistance of Pellams Rex, they set him on the table in his blue overalls and over-sized hat and made him sing for them in his pathetic treble, “La Paloma,” and for encore, “Two Leetle Girl een Bloo.” Pellams removed him after that, claiming that Langdon was about to tell the story of his life, which could not be published in the Sequoia.

Jimmie Mason had sat there all this time, taking it in and drinking with the others, but there was never a cloud on his brain nor a waver in his movements. The rest of them wandered from the motif; each was composing a fugue of his own, according to the mould of his nature. Scraps of their conversation floated in on him between songs “Got him just below the knees now!” “and the difference between me and a tank is in the inferior receptivity ain’t that a peach? of the receptacle” “Now, the fallacy of the original proposition, as Herbert Spencer hath it, lies in the expression of the component particulars” this was Langdon “that proves that if I had a board Pellams would be summarily chastised” “Put it down and order up another, here’s good drink going stale” “Whoa, Pegasus, old hoss, that’s my tamale you have designs on” “and cut his name there” “sing it down! This is to break training for the third time” “What’s the matter with  ty-eight?” All this came in on him, as he watched them grow from geniality to hilarity and then on toward enthusiasm. They had forgotten him; only now and then someone shied a cracker at his head and told him to “jolly up.”

Another drink, and the patriotic stage was upon them. The King ordered a glass, standing, to the Team, and one with a foot on the table to the Captain, and one with both feet on the table and glasses to the ceiling to the Victory next fall. Someone started the yell; it went round the table. Then they joined in on “Here’s to Stanford College,” with a verse for every class and its yell at the end, and before they were done there were three howling factions, each trying to cry the others down.

Frank Lyman, he of the steady head, who was quiet or hilarious as he willed, but was never beyond the point where he willed to be, sat watching good-humoredly from his corner, and noted that Jimmie Mason’s voice had risen the loudest, and that he, too, had forgotten the motif.

Pellams had wandered into the outer room “to bust the proprietor’s blamed old nickel-machine and get even,” leaving the disturbance to subside of its own weight. Coming back suddenly to the door, he cried: “Hey, I’ve got ’em! The raw material and the finished product! Let’s have a temperance lecture from Lyman.”

It was a queer group at the door. The half-gone Pellams, with his face flushed and his hair dishevelled, in one of his hands little Lupe, hanging to an empty pail and between laughter and tears; the other hand tight on the collar of as dirty, as unkempt, and as drunken an old loafer as ever hung over a Mayfield bar. Pellams swung the ruin in.

“Now, tell us how you got that fine, large tee!” said the tormentor. “Orate to us, General Jackson!”

The old man braced himself, with drunken dignity, against the door.

“You young fellows c’n make fools o’ yourselves,” he said, “but you can’t make fool o’ me.”

“That’s all right, pardner Nature saved us the trouble in your case,” said Pellams, the thoughtless.

The clear head in the room Lymans always took it all in; Frank made a step to come between the Junior and his victim. Then he turned, half-unconsciously, toward Mason. Jimmie was standing with his hands on the table, looking straight before him, and in that look Frank read the certainty that the case was out of his control. For the Face was rising before Jimmie Mason once more; it had twisted itself in with the relaxed, foolish features before him, until he saw his father there, a mock and a shame. It was not his father, of course he passed his hand before his eyes as though to clear them but suppose that somewhere else a crowd had his father and he not there to

The Angel of Pity, or the Universal Conscience, or whatever it is that you and I have learned from our books and our teachers to put as our symbol of the belief in the higher things, wrote upon his records that night that a prayer had gone up, for the first time, from the dingy back room of the Hotel Mayfield.

Pellams had the old man singing now, in a cracked, maudlin voice, and his keeper was beating time with a billiard cue. Then the amateur conductor had one of his inspirations.

“Hey, a trio! The event of the evening! General Hardshell Jackson, Senor Lupe de Tamale, and the renowned lyric barytone, James Russell Lowell Mason, will combine in a grand farewell concert. Ascend the platform, Senor!” he cried to the Mexican lad, who stood, wide-eyed, in a corner. Then he gestured wildly toward the door.

“Hey, Jimmie, come back here,” he called; “don’t let him out, boys!”

Jimmie had reached the door when Lyman caught his sleeve.

“Where are you going?”

“Home.”

“You mean the Hall?”

Jimmie pulled free of the Senior’s hand.

“No!” he said. “Home.”