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III. The car was hot and stuffy with most of the smells of the state’s alien population. The red plush seats radiated dust in layers and strata. The smoking car had been even more impossible with filthy floor and heavy air. So the man sat next to a partly open window in the coach and shivered against the cutting cloud of fog that streamed in over him. Lights sped by, vaguely blurred and spreading, marking towns and farmhouses with the democratic indiscrimination of the mist. As the conductor heralded each station the man felt a certain thrill at the familiarity of the names. The times and conditions under which he had heard them revolved in a medley of memories of his one year. One station particularly near the university had a peculiar significance for him because of the different ways it had affected him while he had been in college. He had noted it at the time. September of his entrance year, it had been the point where he grew acutely nervous and fidgety. Returning that November from a football defeat, it had stood for all that seemed gloomy in the gloomy college he was then going back to. In February it had meant the place to wake and pull oneself together, and as he had passed it for the last time that June, he had wondered with a sudden sinking of his heart if it was to be the last time. Now as the train shook and trembled there for a moment, he stared out the window and tried to get an impression. Oddly enough his first one came back to him; he felt rather nervous and uncertain. He had discovered a few minutes ago that the little preceptor sat ahead of him three seats, but the younger man had not joined him or even addressed him. He wanted to draw to himself every impression he could from this ride. They drew in. Grip in hand, he swung off the train, and from force of habit turned toward the broad steps that led to the campus. Then he stopped and, dropping his suitcase, looked before him. The night was typical of the place. It was very like the night on which he had taken his last examination, yet somehow less full and less poignant. Inevitability became a reality and assumed an atmosphere of compelling and wearing down. Where before the spirit of spires and towers had thrilled him and had made him dreamily content and acquiescent, it now overawed him. Where before he had realized only his own inconsequence, he now realized his own impotence and insufficiency. The towers in faint outlines and the battlemented walls of vague buildings fronted him. The engine from the train he had just left wheezed and clanged and backed; a hack drove off; a few pale self-effacing town boys strode away voicelessly, swallowed up in the night. And in front of him the college dreamed on—awake. He felt a nervous excitement that might have been the very throb of its slow heart. A figure brushed violently into him, almost knocking him off his feet. He turned and his eyes pierced the trembling darkness of the arc-light to find the little preceptor blinking apprehensively at him from his gargoyle’s eyes. “Good evening.” He was hesitatingly recognized. “Ah—how do you do? How do you do? Foggy evening, hope I didn’t jar you.” “Not at all. I was just admiring the serenity.” He paused and almost felt presumptuous. “Are you—ah—pretending to be a student again?” “I just ran out to see the place. Stay a night perhaps.” Somehow this sounded far-fetched to him. He wondered if it did to the other. “Yes?—I’m doing the same thing. My brother is an instructor here now you know. He’s putting me up for a space.” For an instant the other longed fiercely that he too might be invited to be “put up for a space.” “Are you walking up my way?” “No—not quite yet.” The gargoyle smiled awkwardly. “Well, good-night.” There was nothing more to say. Eyes staring, he watched the little figure walking off, propelled jerkily by his ridiculous legs. Minutes passed. The train was silent. The several blurs on the station platform became impersonal and melted into the background. He was alone face to face with the spirit that should have dominated his life, the mother that he had renounced. It was a stream where he had once thrown a stone, but the faint ripple had long since vanished. Here he had taken nothing, he had given nothing: nothing?—his eyes wandered slowly upward—up—up—until by straining them he could see where the spire began—and with his eyes went his soul. But the mist was upon both. He could not climb with the spire. A belated freshman, his slicker rasping loudly, slushed along the soft path. A voice from somewhere called the inevitable formula toward an unknown window. A hundred little sounds of the current drifting on under the fog pressed in finally on his consciousness. “Oh God!” he cried suddenly, and started at the sound of his own voice in the stillness. He had cried out from a complete overwhelming sense of failure. He realized how outside of it all he was. The gargoyle, poor tired little hack, was bound up in the fabric of the whole system much more than he was or ever could be. Hot tears of anger and helplessness rushed to his eyes. He felt no injustice, only a deep mute longing. The very words that would have purged his soul were waiting for him in the depths of the unknown before him—waiting for him where he could never come to claim them. About him the rain dripped on. A minute longer he stood without moving, his head bent dejectedly, his hands clenched. Then he turned and, picking up his suitcase, walked over to the train. The engine gave a tentative pant, and the conductor, dozing in a corner, nodded sleepily at him from the end of the deserted car. Wearily he sank onto a red plush seat and pressed his hot forehead against the damp window pane. Babes in the Woods. Nassau Literary Magazine (May 1917)
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