Slowly they filed up the narrow dark stairs. Mother went first. As she had led them into this sickening dilemma, so would she be the first to face the music.
“May we have some lights?” she asked frigidly.
LIGHTS were turned on. Three men stood there: A fat one with tortoise-shell glasses; a little, wrinkled, dapper one, and a tall one with a Van Dyke beard–all fiery red from silent convulsions brought on by ingrowing laughter. As the women filed in, the pent-up laughter rolled forth from the men in shrieks and howls. Then the shouting and the tumult died, for Nettie and Julie were smothering the fat one with someone’s sofa pillows, Myra and Em were taking care of the bearded one, and Mother was shaking the little one, while he motioned feebly with his hands that he was ready for peace.
“Kamarad!” gasped the fat judge when he could get his breath. “Anyway, you’ll admit we were speaking the truth when we said we could have found you.”
“Now, let’s dig out,” said the doctor, whose respiratory organs were again working, “before the folks that own this house come home from the concert and send us all up.”
Breaking out into hilarious laughter at intervals, they walked down to the store at the foot of the hill, and there the girls bought a lunch to make angels weep. It consisted of buns, bananas, wienies, chocolate candy, and dill pickles.
Across pastures, crawling under barb-wire fences, went the cavalcade, to build a bonfire down by old Salt Creek. Gone were the years and the family ties. Forgotten were the hours of failure and the hours of triumph. They were the old crowd, singing “Solomon Levi.” Youth was in their midst. And the moon, bored to the point of ennui, at the countless hordes of students it had seen roasting wienies in that identical spot, brightened at the novel sight of the old duffers taking hold of hands to dance around the huge fire.
As chimes from the campanile striking twelve came faintly through the night, Youth suddenly dropped her festive garments and fled, a Cinderella that could not stay.
The little straggling procession started soberly back across the meadow. Julie’s rheumatism was beginning to manifest itself. The head of the English Department was painfully aware that in the place where she had stowed that awful collection of indigestibles there was chaos where there should have been cosmos. Far, far behind the others came the judge and Mother; not from any sentimental memory of their past friendship, but because, being the possessors of too, too solid flesh, they were frankly puffed-out.
FATHER swung off the steps of the train at Oxford and took Mother’s grips.
“Well, did you get your thrill, Mother?”
“I most certainly did.” Mother was smiling to herself.
They walked down the Pullman to Father’s section, which he had chosen with careful regard to Mother’s comfort.
“And you–did you have a good time?” Mother questioned when they were seating themselves.
“Fine–just fine!” Father was enthusiasm personified.
A quick little tug at Mother’s heart reminded her that The Thing was still alive.
“Were there many of your old class-mates back?” she parried, giving herself time to bring out the real question.
“Two, just two.” Father was glowing at the happy memory of some unuttered thing. “Just old Jim Baker and I. Jim’s kind of down and out–works around the University Cafeteria.”
“Was–?” It was coming. Mother braced herself. “Was Laura Drew there?”
“Yes.” Father’s face shone with the light of unspoken pleasure. “Yes, she was there.”
The Thing seemed to bite at Mother’s throat and wrap a strangling tail around her heart. With the pleasure with which we turn the knife in our wounds, she asked in a tense little voice:
“Is she–does she seem the same?”
Father drew his rapt gaze from some far-away vision to look at Mother.
“The same?” he repeated, a trifle dazed. Then he said cheerfully, “Why–maybe–I don’t know. I didn’t see her.”
“Didn’t see her?”
“No. I didn’t see much of anybody.” Father grew confidential. “The fact is, old Jim Baker and I played checkers ‘most all the time for the three days. He got off every morning at eleven and we’d go around to his room. By George! It was nip and tuck for two days. But the last day–I beat him.”