Philosophy 4 by Owen Wister

Part III

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p35dropb.jpgSCAR MAIRONI was very poor. His thin gray suit in summer resembled his thick gray suit in winter. It does not seem that he had more than two; but he had a black coat and waistcoat, and a narrow-brimmed, shiny hat to go with these, and one pair of patent-leather shoes that laced, and whose long soles curved upward at the toe like the rockers of a summer-hotel chair. These holiday garments served him in all seasons; and when you saw him dressed in them, and seated in a car bound for Park Square, you knew he was going into Boston, where he would read manuscript essays on Botticelli or Pico della Mirandola, or manuscript translations of Armenian folksongs; read these to ecstatic, dim-eyed ladies in Newbury Street, who would pour him cups of tea when it was over, and speak of his earnestness after he was gone. It did not do the ladies any harm; but I am not sure that it was the best thing for Oscar. It helped him feel every day, as he stepped along to recitations with his elbow clamping his books against his ribs and his heavy black curls bulging down from his gray slouch hat to his collar, how meritorious he was compared with Bertie and Billy--with all Berties and Billies. He may have been. Who shall say? But I will say at once that chewing the cud of one's own virtue gives a sour stomach.

Bertie's and Billy's parents owned town and country houses in New York. The parents of Oscar had come over in the steerage. Money filled the pockets of Bertie and Billy; therefore were their heads empty of money and full of less cramping thoughts. Oscar had fallen upon the reverse of this fate. Calculation was his second nature. He had given his education to himself; he had for its sake toiled, traded, outwitted, and saved. He had sent himself to college, where most of the hours not given to education and more education, went to toiling and more toiling, that he might pay his meagre way through the college world. He had a cheaper room and ate cheaper meals than was necessary. He tutored, and he wrote college specials for several newspapers. His chief relaxation was the praise of the ladies in Newbury Street. These told him of the future which awaited him, and when they gazed upon his features were put in mind of the dying Keats. Not that Oscar was going to die in the least. Life burned strong in him. There were sly times when he took what he had saved by his cheap meals and room and went to Boston with it, and for a few hours thoroughly ceased being ascetic. Yet Oscar felt meritorious when he considered Bertie and Billy; for, like the socialists, merit with him meant not being able to live as well as your neighbor. You will think that I have given to Oscar what is familiarly termed a black eye. But I was once inclined to applaud his struggle for knowledge, until I studied him close and perceived that his love was not for the education he was getting. Bertie and Billy loved play for play's own sake, and in play forgot themselves, like the wholesome young creatures that they were. Oscar had one love only: through all his days whatever he might forget, he would remember himself; through all his days he would make knowledge show that self off. Thank heaven, all the poor students in Harvard College were not Oscars! I loved some of them as much as I loved Bertie and Billy. So there is no black eye about it. Pity Oscar, if you like; but don't be so mushy as to admire him as he stepped along in the night, holding his notes, full of his knowledge, thinking of Bertie and Billy, conscious of virtue, and smiling his smile. They were not conscious of any virtue, were Bertie and Billy, nor were they smiling. They were solemnly eating up together a box of handsome strawberries and sucking the juice from their reddened thumbs.

"Rather mean not to make him wait and have some of these after his hard work on us," said Bertie. "I'd forgotten about them--"

"He ran out before you could remember, anyway," said Billy.

"Wasn't he absurd about his old notes? "Bertie went on, a new strawberry in his mouth. "We don't need them, though. With to-morrow we'll get this course down cold."

"Yes, to-morrow," sighed Billy. "It's awful to think of another day of this kind."

"Horrible," assented Bertie.

"He knows a lot. He's extraordinary," said Billy.

"Yes, he is. He can talk the actual words of the notes. Probably he could teach the course himself. I don't suppose he buys any strawberries, even when they get ripe and cheap here. What's the matter with you?"

Billy had broken suddenly into merriment. "I don't believe Oscar owns a bath," he explained.

"By Jove! so his notes will burn in spite of everything!" And both of the tennis boys shrieked foolishly.

Then Billy began taking his clothes off, strewing them in the window-seat, or anywhere that they happened to drop; and Bertie, after hitting another cork or two out of the window with the tennis racket, departed to his own room on another floor and left Billy to immediate and deep slumber. This was broken for a few moments when Billy's room-mate returned happy from an excursion which had begun in the morning.

The room-mate sat on Billy's feet until that gentleman showed consciousness.

"I've done it, said the room-mate, then.

"The hell you have!"

"You couldn't do it."

"The hell I couldn't!"

"Great dinner."

"The hell it was!"

"Soft-shell crabs, broiled live lobster, salmon, grass-plover, dough-birds, rum omelette. Bet you five dollars you can't find it."

"Take you. Got to bed." And Billy fell again into deep, immediate slumber.

The room-mate went out into the sitting room, and noting the signs there of the hard work which had gone on during his absence, was glad that he did not take Philosophy 4. He was soon asleep also.


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Date created: 3/6/97
Last modified: 3/7/97
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