Read CHAPTER V of Tutors' Lane , free online book, by Wilmarth Lewis, on

The night following Nancy’s return was the night of the Norris party, the party which is to Woodbridge what the Mardi Gras is to New Orleans, the Carnival to Rome, and what the Feast of the Ygquato Bloom was to the ancient Aztecs. It is always held on the twenty-first of March, Sunday of course excepted, and it is known as the Vernal. Not to be seen at it is too bad. Not to be invited unlike the lupercals before mentioned it requires invitations is a blight mercifully spared all but the most painfully outre. Of these the Coogans, who live in Center and whose connubial infelicities are proverbial, are an example. Tradespeople frequently bear witness to the marks of a man’s fingers on Mrs. Coogan’s fair and by no means insignificant arm, and it is common property that she drinks paregoric. It is quite clear, of course, that such people can not expect to be invited.

The Vernal has always been “different.” In the old days Mrs. Norris set her face against dancing, not upon any moral grounds, certainly, but because of its alleged dullness. Why couldn’t people enjoy one another without flying into a perspiration? she asked; but, unfortunately for her plans for the establishment of an animated conversazione, the substitutes she had advocated were felt to be even duller. So, one by one, all her nice games were abandoned and only the charade is left. This however has gained in popularity, if anything, and certainly it has gained paraphernalia. Mrs. Norris’s costume box has overflowed into a trunk, and from the trunk has spread into a closet, and the closet is now nearly filled. From this treasure the two captains select their colleagues’ wardrobes, a duty discharged in advance of the performance by way of ensuring enough professionalism to prevent the party’s collapsing at the start. In other words, Mrs. Norris, although luckless in the matter of “adverbs,” memory contests, and backgammon tourneys, has established charades.

It used to be a masquerade party, but because of certain unhappy circumstances which have recently befallen, it was decided this year to do without the masks and “Fancy dress.” For the last few years people have been complaining a little of the necessity of getting something new each year. Mrs. Bates, for example, has exhausted the possibilities of her husband’s summer bath robe. It served excellently at first as a Roman toga, and the next year it did well enough for Méphistophélès. By cutting away the parts ravaged by moths it passed as a pirate, but she despairs of any further alteration. Then, too, it would always be remembered that a stranger at the last Vernal had in all seriousness reproved old Professor Narbo, the Chemist, for not taking off his funny old mask when he already had done so, a mishap none the less enjoyed because the bringing of a similar charge to one’s friends has been an inevitable jest among the wags for generations. Professor Narbo had been offended, and great is the offendedness of a Full Professor, particularly when he is a Heidelberg Ph.D. and parts his hair all the way down the back. The stranger had been crushed; and, all in all, it was as mortifying an affair as one could well imagine, and one which in itself would have been enough to do away with the masks a long-discussed possibility had not worse followed. Edgar Stebbins, Assistant Professor of History, was unfortunately a little too warmly devoted to the memory of the grape, or, more specifically, of the corn. Being mildly mellowed by something more than the memory of it, he found occasion to embrace a lady who was dressed in his period, the Late Roman, and to whom he was naturally drawn. The lady promptly screamed and unmasked; and the situation was not at all improved by its being discovered that she was the wife of Professor Robbins of the Latin Department, with which gentleman Mr. Stebbins was not on speaking terms. Mrs. Robbins, it seemed, had employed the squeaky voice so familiar at masquerade parties and had thus rendered her disguise complete. Upon her testimony it was learned that Mr. Stebbins’s voice had been so roughened by drink that his own mother wouldn’t have recognized it. Mr. Stebbins had withdrawn from the party and, at the end of the academic year, from the college as well, and his name is now only an appalling memory.

In the morning Nancy hurried up to the Norrises’ as soon as she could. She found Mary and her mother in the drawing-room. Mary was playing the piano while her mother sat in a distant chair, amiably shredding codfish, a pleasure which she would on no account yield to the kitchen.

As soon as the rush of sisterly greeting was passed, all four for the cod could not be left behind repaired to the sofa in the library; and after the gaps in their correspondence had been filled, they came to the party. Mary was to be one of the charade captains and Tom Reynolds the other. Nancy, who was an inevitable member of the charade, was to be on Tom’s side.

“Tell me,” she asked, “is he really as nice as you people make out?”

“Oh yes,” replied Mary, “he’s one of us.”

“He used to scare me. He never would dance with me any more than he had to, and I always was afraid he would get that terribly bored look I’ve seen him get. I think probably he’s conceited.”

“Oh dear, to hear you girls talk you’d think that a little honest boredom was the most dreadful thing on earth. Why, your fathers used to get so bored with us that ”

“Now, Gumgum, you know that isn’t sensible,” broke in Mary severely a regrettable habit which seems increasingly prevalent among our modern daughters “unless you people were ninnies.”

“That was in Garfield’s administration,” replied Mrs. Norris absently, “or possibly a little before, in Hayes’s Rutherford B. Hayes. He did away with the carpetbaggers and all those dreadful people in the South.” Then, more dreamily still, “His middle name was Birchard.”

“I know why you think he’s conceited,” Mary went on, warming up to the never-ending pleasure of analysis, “but it’s because he’s really diffident. Lots of people I know who people think are snobby are only just diffident.”

“What on earth do you mean by saying that Rutherford Hayes was diffident? He wasn’t a bit. He was a very great philanthropist.”

“She’s too awful today,” exclaimed Mary, “with that smelly old fish and Rutherford Garfield. Gracious, I’d like to bury the old thing.”

“You horrid, ungrateful child, when I’m doing this for your lunch. We’re just old Its, we mothers. I’m going to start an Emancipation Club for Mothers. The poor old things, they might just as well crawl away into the bushes like rabbits.”

There then followed a tender passage between mother and daughter, which ended in Mary’s blowing down her mother’s neck. A convulsive scream and a frantic clawing gesture in the direction of her daughter was the immediate reaction, much to the confusion of the codfish, which was only just saved by Nancy from a premature end upon the hearth.

Following the rescue, the heroine, who had some shopping to do, began making motions of departure. “You must come as soon as you can after dinner to have Tom explain what you are to do. Gumgum thinks we ought to have a rehearsal, but Tom has a five o’clock, and I don’t think it’s necessary anyway. He’s really awfully funny and clever, Nancy, and you must like him.”

“I hate clever people. I have nothing to say to them. I’m a perfect gawk when they’re around, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to stand him.”

As she walked on down to Center, however, it occurred to her that he might come in useful with the children of the parents in her Whitmanville school. He could teach them basketball and of course he could coach their baseball team. He would also be useful in taking them off on hikes and But she hadn’t seen him in ever so long, and he might not do at all. In fact, it was highly probable that he wouldn’t do, for boys are suspicious of clever people, and he almost certainly wouldn’t think of doing it. Or possibly he might, out of politeness, and then when he got bored with it he would decide to be funny with the boys, and they would get to hate him and tell their parents, who would come to her with sullen looks and threatening gestures and

When Nancy arrived in the evening, she found Tom distributing costumes. He was heavier, she noticed, and his forehead was higher. Some day she might get a chance to tell him how she saved Henry’s hair simply by brushing it carefully. It was ridiculous to put a lot of smelly greasy stuff on it

She had shaken hands with him and received her costume which was an aigrette and a peacock-feather fan. “The word is ‘draper,’” explained Tom, “and you are to be the Lady Angela. In the first syllable you have lost your pet Persian and, after explaining your loss to the little house-maid who is dusting around, you call in Merriam the detective. I am Merriam the detective and I arrive immediately after you are through calling me up on the telephone. The little maid goes over to the window and says, ‘Goody, here comes Mr. Merriam the detective in a dray,’ and then you go out to meet me, and that’s the first act. Then I come on alone in the second act and investigate the room heavily, looking for a clue, you see. I have a theory that the little maid is the thief, and when you come in, as you do when I have said ‘Ha, it is a match box,’ I explain to you that ”

“Oh, dear, I haven’t any idea what I’m to do.”

“Well, you just go in and wave your fan disconsolately, and I’ll do the rest. It will be dreadful, of course, but then, no one ever expects them to be otherwise. Now I think the best way is for us to run over it, and then little things will come to you.”