Gretna Greenhorns by Richard Connell
The brown eyes of Chester Arthur Jessup, Jr., were fixed on the maroon banner of the Clintonia High School which adorned his bedroom wall, but they did not see that vivid emblem of the institution in whose academic halls he was a senior. Rather, they appeared to look through it, beyond it, into some far-away land. Bright but unseeing, they proclaimed that their owner was in that state of mild hypnosis known as “turkey-dreaming.” His lips were parted in a slight smile, and the shoe which he had been in the act of removing as he sat on his bed was poised in mid-air above the floor, for reverie had overcome him in the very midst of preparations for an evening call.
The object of his pensive musings was at that moment eating her evening meal some blocks away in the home of her parents. Fondly, with that inward eye which is alleged to be the bliss of solitude, Chester followed the process. It had only been lately that he could bring himself to admit that she ate at all. She was so dainty, so ethereal. And yet reason, and the course he was taking in physiology, told him that she, even she, must sometimes give way to the unworthy promptings of necessity, and eat. But that she should eat as ordinary mortals do, was unthinkable. It was not the first time that Chester, in reverie, had permitted her a slight refection. The menu of her meals never varied. To-night, as on other occasions, it consisted of watercress salad, a mere nibble of it; a delicate dab of ice-cream, no bigger than a thimble; a small cup of tea, and, perhaps, a lady-finger. The lady-finger was a concession. On the occasion of his last call, Mildred had confessed that she could die eating lady-fingers. Of course, later in the evening she might have a candy or two, but then candy can hardly be considered food.
A mundane clatter of dishes in the kitchen below caused Chester to start from his dream, and drop the shoe. He leaped up and began to make elaborate and excited preparations for dressing.
From an ancient, battered chest of drawers he carefully took a tissue-paper package containing a Union Forever Suit, whose label proclaimed that “From Factory to You, No Human Hand Touches It.” With brow puckered in abstract thought, Chester broke the seal and laid the crisp, immaculate garment on the bed. With intense seriousness, he regarded it for a moment; apparently it passed his searching examination, for he turned again to the chest of drawers and drew forth a smaller package, from which he extracted new socks of lustrous blue. These he placed on the bed. From beneath the bed he drew a pair of low shoes, which gleamed in the gaslight from arduous polishing. On their toes, fanciful artisans had pricked curves and loops and butterfly designs. Chester gave them a few final rubs with the shirt he had just discarded and placed them on the bed. At this point there was a hiatus in the wardrobe. He went out into the hall and shouted down the back stairs.
“Oh, Ma. Oh, Ma!”
“Well?” came his mother’s voice from the regions below.
“Are my trousers pressed yet?”
“My goodness, Chester,” she called, “I haven’t had time yet. It’s only a little after six. Do come down and eat some supper.”
“But I don’t want any supper,” protested Chester.
“There’s apple pudding with cream,” she announced.
“Oh, well,” said Chester, reluctantly, “I suppose I’d better. Can I have a dish of it on the back stairs? I’m not dressed.”
“Yes. But you have plenty of time. You know you shouldn’t make an evening call before eight-fifteen at the very earliest,” said Mrs. Jessup.
After he had disposed of two helpings of apple pudding, Chester returned to his room and spent some moments analyzing the comparative merits of a dozen neckties hanging in an imitation brass stirrup. He had eliminated all but two, a black one and a red one, when his mother’s voice floated up the back stairs.
“For goodness’ sake, Chester, do be careful of that bathtub. It’s running over again. How many times do I have to tell you to watch it?”
Chester bounded to the bathroom and shut off the water. It had, indeed, started to overflow the tub, and Chester, accepting the Archimedian principle without ever having heard of it, perceived that he must let some of the water out before he could put himself in. Accordingly he pulled out the plug and returned to his own room to wait for a little of the water to run off.
He made the most of this idle moment. Throwing off his multi-hued Navajo bathrobe, he surveyed the reflection of his torso in the mirror. He contracted his biceps and eyed the resulting egg-like bulges with some satisfaction. Suddenly, his ordinarily amiable face took on a fierce, dark scowl. He crouched until he was bent almost double. He lowered at the mirror. His left fist was extended and his right drawn back in the most approved scientific style of the prize-ring.
“You will, will you?” came from between his clenched teeth, and his left fist darted out rapidly, three, four, five times, and then he shot out his right fist with such violence that he all but shattered the mirror.
This last blow seemed to have a cataclysmic effect on Chester’s opponent, for the victorious Chester backed off and waited, still crouching and lowering, for his victim to rise.
The opponent apparently was a tough one, and not the man to succumb easily. Chester waited for him to regain his feet and then they were at it again. Chester let loose a shower of savage uppercuts. From the way he leaped six inches into the air to deliver his blows it was evident that his opponent was considerably bigger than he. At length, when all but breathless from his exertions, Chester with one prodigious punch, a coup de grâce that there was no withstanding, knocked all the fight out of his foe. But, seemingly, he was not satisfied with flooring his giant opponent; with stern, set face, Chester walked to the corner where the fellow was sprawling, seized him by his collar, and dragged him across the room. Then, shaking him fiercely, Chester hissed:
“Now, you cad, apologize to this lady for daring to offer her an affront by passing remarks about her.”
The apology would, no doubt, have been forthcoming had not Chester at that moment heard an unmistakable sound from the bathroom. He abandoned his prostrate foe and rushed in just in time to see the last of his bath-water go gargling and gurgling out of the tub.
Chester sat moodily on the edge of the tub until enough hot water had bubbled into it for him to perform ablutions of appalling thoroughness. He was red almost to rawness from his efforts with the bath brush, and was redolent of scented soap and talcum powder when he again returned to his bedroom.
He dressed with a sort of feverish calmness, now and again pausing to sigh gently and gaze for a moment into nothingness. By now she had finished her lady-finger–
His mother had laid his freshly pressed trousers on the bed, and he ran an appreciative eye along their razor-blade crease. From the chest of drawers he brought forth a snowy shirt, which, from the piece of cardboard shoved down its throat and the numerous pins which Chester extracted impatiently, one could surmise was fresh from the laundry. When he came to the collar-and-tie stage, he was halted for a time. Three collars of various shapes were tried and deemed unworthy, and then, at the last minute, yielding to a sudden wild impulse, he discarded the black tie in favor of the red one. He slipped on a blue serge coat, the cut of which endeavored to promote his waist-line to his shoulder blades, and was all dressed but for the crowning task–to comb his hair.
By dint of many dismal experiences, Chester knew that this would be trying, for his hair was abundant but untamed. He tried first to induce it to part while it was still dry, but the results of this operation, as he had feared, were negligible. He then attempted to achieve a part with his hair slightly moistened with witch hazel. For fully five seconds it looked like a success, but, as Chester started to leave, one parting look told him that little spikes and wisps were rearing rebellious heads and quite ruining the perfection of his handiwork. With a sigh he fell back upon his last resort, the liberal application of a sticky, jelly-like substance derived from petroleum, which imparted to his brown hair an unwonted shine. But the part held as if it had been carved in marble. Arranging his white silk handkerchief so that it protruded a modish eighth of an inch from his breast pocket, Chester Arthur Jessup, Jr., sallied forth to make his call.
On the front porch was his family, and Chester would have avoided their critical eyes if he could. However, the gantlet had to be run, so he emerged into the family group with a saunter that he hoped might be described as “nonchalant.” In the privacy of his room he often practiced that saunter; he had seen in the papers that a certain celebrated criminal had “sauntered nonchalantly into the court-room,” and the phrase had fascinated him.
“What in the name of thunder have you been doing to your hair?” demanded his father, looking up from his pipe and paper.
“Combing it,” replied Chester, coldly.
“With axle grease?” inquired Jessup senior, genially.
“And it does look so nice when it’s dry and wavy,” put in his mother.
Chester emitted a faint groan.
“Oh, Ma, you never seem to realize that I’m grown up,” he protested. “Wavy hair!” He groaned again.
“Well,” remarked the father, “I suppose it’s better that way than not combed at all. Seems to me that last summer you didn’t care much whether it was combed, or cut either, for that matter.”
“A woman has come into his life,” explained his twenty-two year-old sister, from behind her novel.
“You just be careful who you go callin’ a woman,” exclaimed Chester, turning on her, with some warmth.
“Don’t you consider Mildred Wrigley a woman?” asked Hilda, mildly.
“Not in the sense you mean it.”
“By the way,” said Hilda, “I saw her last night.”
Chester’s manner instantly became eager and conciliatory. “Did you? Where?”
“At the Mill Street Baptist Church supper,” said Hilda.
“At the supper?” Chester’s tone suggested incredulity.
“Yes. And goodness me, I never saw a girl eat so much in my life. She—-“
“Hilda Jessup, how dare you!”
Chester’s voice cracked with the emotion he felt at so damnable an imputation.
“There, there, Hilda, stop your teasing,” said Mrs. Jessup. “What if she did? A big, healthy girl like that—-“
“Mother—-” Chester’s tone was anguished.
“Come, Nell,” said Mr. Jessup, “leave him to his illusions. It’s a bad day for romance when a man discovers that his goddess likes a second helping of corned beef.”
“Father, how can you say such things! I will not stay here and listen to you say such things about one who I—-“
“One whom,” interrupted Hilda.
Chester flounced down the front steps and slammed the gate after him, in a manner that could not possibly be described as “nonchalant.”
The Wrigley home was four blocks away, and Chester, once out of sight of his own home, became meditative. He stopped, and after looking about to see that he was not observed, drew from his inside pocket an envelope, and for the twelfth time that day counted its contents. Ninety-four dollars! The savings of a lifetime! It had originally been saved for the purchase of a motor-cycle, but that was before Mildred Wrigley had smiled at him one day across the senior study-hall. That seemed but yesterday, and yet it must have been fully seven weeks before! He replaced the money and continued on his way.
Chester paused at the Greek Candy Kitchen on Main Street to buy a box of candy, richly bedight with purple silk, and by carefully gauging his saunter, contrived to arrive at the Wrigley residence at fourteen minutes after eight. He gave his tie a final adjustment, his hair a last frantic smoothing, licked his dry lips–and rang the bell.
“Oh, good evening, Chester.”
Mildred Wrigley had a small, birdlike voice. She was looking not so much at Chester as at the beribboned purple box he held. They went into the parlor.
“Oh, Chester,” cried Mildred, as she opened the purple box, “how sweet of you to bring me such heavenly candy. I just adore chocolate-covered cherries. I could just DIE eating them.”
She popped two of them into her mouth, and sighed ecstatically. They discussed, with great thoroughness, the weather of the day, the weather of the day before and the probable weather of the near future. Then Mildred moved her chair a quarter of an inch nearer Chester’s.
“There, now,” she said, with her dimpling smile, “let’s be real comfy.” A glow enveloped Chester.
“I had the most heavenly supper to-night,” confided Mildred.
“I hardly ate at all,” said Chester.
“Oh, you poor, poor boy,” said Mildred. “Do pass me another candy.”
They discussed school affairs, and the approaching examinations.
“I’m so worried,” confessed Mildred. “Horrid old geometry. Stupid physics. What do I care why apples fall off trees? I’m going to go on the stage. That miserable old wretch, Miss Shufelt, has been writing nasty notes to Dad, saying I don’t study enough.”
Her lip trembled; she looked so small, so weak. “Look here,” said Chester, hoarsely, “we’ve known each other for a long time now, haven’t we?”
“Yes, ever so long,” said Mildred, taking another chocolate-covered cherry. “Months and months.”
“Do you think one person ought to be frank with another person?”
“Of course I do, Chester, if they know each other well enough.”
“I mean very frank.”
“Well,” said Mildred, “if they know each other very, very well, I think they ought to be very frank.”
“How long do you think one person ought to know another person before he, or for that matter she, ought to be very frank with that person.”
“Oh, months and months,” answered Mildred.
Chester passed his white silk handkerchief over his damp brow.
“When I say very frank, I mean very frank,” he said.
“That’s what I mean, too.” She took another chocolate-covered cherry.
Chester went on, speaking rapidly.
“For example, if one person should tell another person that he liked that person and he didn’t really mean like at all but another word like like, only meaning something much more than like–don’t you think he ought to tell that person what he really meant? I mean, of course, providing that he had known that person months and months and knew her very well and—-“
“I guess he should,” she said, taking a sudden keen interest in the toe of her slipper. Chester plunged on.
“But suppose you were the person that another person had said they liked, only they really didn’t mean like but another word that begins with ‘l,’ do you think that person ought to be very frank and tell you that the way he regarded you did not begin ‘li’ but began ‘lo’?”
“I guess so,” she said, without abandoning the minute scrutiny of her toe.
“Well,” said Chester, “that’s how I regard you, not with an ‘li’ but with an ‘lo.'”
Mildred did not look up.
“Oh, Chester,” she murmured. He hitched his chair an inch nearer hers, and with a quick, uncertain movement, took hold of her hand. A loud slam of the front door caused them both to start.
“It’s Dad,” whispered Mildred. “And he’s mad about something.”
Her father, large and red-faced, entered the room.
“Good evening,” he said, nodding briefly at Chester.
“Mildred, come into my study a minute, will you. There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
The folding doors closed on father and daughter, and Chester was left balancing himself on the edge of a chair.
Mildred’s father had a rumbling voice that now and then penetrated the folding doors and Chester caught the words “whippersnapper” and “callow.” He heard, too, Mildred’s small, high voice, protesting. She was in tears.
Presently Mildred reappeared, lacrimose. “Oh, that nasty, horrid Miss Shufelt,” she burst out.
“What has she done?” asked Chester.
“The nasty old cat asked Dad to stop in to see her to-night on his way home from the office, and she told him the awfulest things about me.”
“She did?” Chester’s voice was rich with loathing. “I just wish I had her here, that’s all I wish,” he added fiercely.
“She said,” went on Mildred, with fresh sobs, “she said–I–was–boy–c-c-crazy. And–I–never–studied–and—-“
“Darn that woman!” cried Chester.
“And Dad’s–going–to–send–me–to–S-Simpson Hall!”
The idea stunned Chester.
“Simpson Hall? Why, that’s a boarding school in Massachusetts, miles and miles from here,” he gasped.
“I know it,” said Mildred. “I know a girl who went there. It’s a nasty, horrid place.” A fresh attack of sobs seized her.
Nothing but beans! Mildred eat beans! It was an outrage, a sacrilege.
“He’s already written to Simpson Hall,” wailed Mildred. “And I have to go, Monday.”
“Monday? Not Monday? Why, to-day’s Friday!” Chester’s face became resolute; he felt in his inside pocket where his envelope was.
“You sha’n’t go,” he declared. “You and I will elope to-morrow morning.”
Chester met Mildred aboard the 8:48 train for New York City the next morning.
Mildred, clasping a small straw suit-case, had misgivings. But Chester reassured her.
“Don’t worry, Mildred, please don’t worry,” he pleaded. “My cousin, Phil Snyder, who is at Princeton and knows all about such things, says it’s a cinch to get married in New York. All you do is walk up to a window, pay a dollar, and you’re married. And if we can’t get married there, we can go to Hoboken. Anybody, anybody at all, can get married in Hoboken, Phil told me so.”
She smiled at him.
“Our wedding day,” she said, softly.
“Why are you so pensive?” he asked, after a while.
“I haven’t had my breakfast,” she said. “I always feel sort of weak and funny till I’ve had my breakfast.”
Chester bought several large slabs of nut-studded chocolate from the train boy. When they passed Harmon, at Mildred’s suggestion he bought a package of butter-scotch. Her flagging spirits were revived by these repasts. “I could just DIE eating butter-scotch,” she said, dimpling.
“We’ll always keep some in the house, little woman,” Chester promised her, mentally adding butter-scotch to the menu of watercress salad, tea, ice-cream and an occasional lady-finger.
The human torrent in the Grand Central station whirled the elopers with it along the ramp and out under the zodiac dome of the great, busy hall. They stood there, wide-eyed. “New York,” said Mildred.
“Our New York,” said Chester.
He steered a roundabout course for the subway, for he wanted to reach the Municipal Building as soon as possible. He had fears, the worldly Phil Snyder to the contrary notwithstanding, that he might encounter difficulties in getting a marriage license there. And he and Mildred would then have to go to Hoboken. He had only a sketchy idea of where Hoboken was. And it was then nearly eleven.
But Mildred was not to be hurried.
“Couldn’t we have just one little fudge sundae first?” she asked. “I haven’t had my regular breakfast, you know. And I do feel so sort of weak and funny when I haven’t had my regular breakfast.”
To Schuyler’s they went, and consumed precious minutes and two fudge sundaes. On the way out, Mildred stopped short.
“Oh, look,” she exclaimed, “real New Orleans pralines. I just adore them. And you can’t get them in Clintonia.”
Chester looked at her a little nervously.
“It’s getting sort of late,” he suggested.
“All right, Mr. Hurry,” Mildred pouted, “just you go on to the horrid old City Hall by your lonesome. I’m going to stop and have a praline.”
Chester capitulated, contritely, so Mildred had two.
They started for the subway which was to take them far down-town to the Municipal Building. On Forty-second Street they passed a shiny, white edifice in the window of which an artist in immaculate white duck was deftly tossing griddle cakes into the air so that they described a graceful parabola and flopped on a soapstone griddle where they sizzled brownly and crisply. A faint but provoking aroma floated through the open door. Mildred’s footsteps slackened, then she paused, then she came to a dead stop.
“Ummm-mmm! What a heavenly smell!” she said. “Don’t you just adore griddle cakes?”
“Yes, yes,” said Chester, a little desperately. “Let’s have some for lunch. It’s twenty-five minutes to twelve. Let’s hurry.”
“Why, Chester Jessup, you know I haven’t had my regular breakfast yet. I just couldn’t go away down to that old City Hall and get married and everything without having had some nourishment. It won’t take a minute to have a little breakfast.”
“Oh, all right,” said Chester.
The griddle cakes tasted like rubber to Chester. Mildred ate hers with great relish and insisted on having them decorated with country sausage.
“It’s so nourishing,” she explained. “I could just die eating sausage.”
Chester paid the check and forgot to take the change from a two-dollar bill.
“I could just die eating sausage. I could just die eating sausage.” The wheels of the subway train seemed to click to this refrain as it sped down-town.
It was nearly one o’clock when the elopers at last reached the Municipal Building. They found a sign which read, “MARRIAGE LICENSES. KEEP TO THE RIGHT.”
With his heart just under his collar button and his dollar grasped tightly in his hand, Chester knocked timidly. The door was opened by a stout minor politician with a cap on the back of his head.
“I want a marriage license, please,” said Chester. He dropped his voice a full octave below his normal speaking-tone.
The minor politician blinked at Chester and Mildred. Then he guffawed, hoarsely.
“Say,” he said, “in the foist place, you’ll have to get a little more age on yuh, and in the second place, this is Satiddy and this joint closes at noon. Come back Thoisday between ten and four about eight years from now.” He closed the door.
Chester turned miserably to Mildred.
“That means Hoboken,” he said.
“I don’t care,” she said, “as long as I’m with you.”
They went out into the canyons of lower Manhattan, in search of the way to Hoboken. Their wanderings took them past a restaurant whose windows were adorned with vicious-looking, green, live lobsters, scrambling about pugnaciously on cakes of ice.
“Oh, LOBSTERS,” cried Mildred, her eye brightening. “I’ve only had lobster once in my life. Couldn’t you just DIE eating lobster?”
“I suppose so,” said Chester, gloomily.
“Couldn’t we stop in and have a teeny, weeny bit of lunch?” she asked, eyeing the lobsters wistfully. “It makes me feel sort of queer to go on long trips without food.”
“I’m not hungry,” said Chester.
“But I am,” said Mildred. They went in.
A superior waiter handed Mildred a large menu card. “May I order just anything I want?” she asked eagerly.
“Wouldn’t you like some nice watercress salad and some tea and lady-fingers?” Chester asked, hopefully.
“Pooh! Why, there’s no nourishment in that at all!” Mildred was studying the menu card. “I want a great big lobster, and some asparagus. And then I want some nice chicken salad with mayonnaise. And then some pistache ice-cream. And, oh, yes, a piece of huckleberry pie.”
To Chester that lunch seemed the longest experience of his life. It seemed to him that no lobster ever looked redder, no mayonnaise yellower, no pistache ice-cream greener and no huckleberry pie purpler. Mildred ate steadily. Now and then she made little joyful noises of approbation.
When lunch was over at last, they started for Hoboken.
“It’s a nice pleasant trip by ferry-boat,” a policeman told them.
“I don’t think I’d care for a boat trip,” said Mildred.
“But we have to go to Hoboken,” Chester expostulated.
“Couldn’t we walk?” she asked.
“No, no, of course we couldn’t. It’s across the river.”
“I feel sort of queer, somehow,” said Mildred, faintly.
The North River was choppy from darting tugs and gliding barges as the ferry-boat bore the elopers toward the Jersey side. Leaning on the rail, Chester gazed morosely at the retreating metropolitan sky-line. Mildred plucked at his coat sleeve. He turned and looked at her. Her face was pale. “Oh, Chester, I want to go back. I want to go home,” she said, tearfully.
“Why, Mildred,” exclaimed Chester, and for the first time there was impatience in his voice, “what’s the matter?”
“I’m going to be sick,” she said.
“I hate you, Chester Jessup. I hate, hate, HATE you. And I’m going to go back,” she said, tearfully.
The elopers had never reached Hoboken. Mildred refused to leave the ferry-boat and Chester did not urge her. It bore them back to the New York side. Their flight to Gretna Green was a failure.
“You take me right home, do you hear?” cried Mildred.
“We can get the 3:59 from the Grand Central,” said Chester in an icy voice. “That will get you home in time for supper.”
“Chester Jessup, you’re a nasty, heartless boy to mention supper to me when I’m in this condition,” said Mildred.
They made the trip from New York back to Clintonia in silence. Chester, watching the scenery flow by, was thinking deeply. He was wondering at what age young men are admitted to monasteries. He left Mildred at her house.
“Good night, Mr. Jessup,” she said, coolly.
“Good night, Miss Wrigley,” said Chester, and stalked home.
“Where have you been all day?” demanded his mother.
“Oh, just around,” said Chester.
“Why weren’t you home for lunch?”
“I wasn’t hungry,” said Chester.
“And we had the best things, too. Just what you like–chicken salad with mayonnaise, and deep-dish huckleberry pie.”
Chester shivered. “I don’t think I’ll take any supper to-night,” he said.
“Why, what ails you, anyhow?” asked his mother, solicitously. “We’re going to have such a nice supper. Your father brought home a couple of lobsters. And afterward we’re going to have pistache ice-cream, and lady-fingers.”
“Good Heavens, Mother, I guess I know when I’m not hungry. There are other things in life besides food, aren’t there?”
“Like being in love, for example?” suggested his sister Hilda.
“I’m not in love,” declared Chester, vehemently.
“How would you like to have me tell Mildred Wrigley you said that?” asked Hilda.
“I just wish you would,” said Chester, “I just wish you would.”
“By the way,” remarked Mr. Jessup, “I met Tom Wrigley to-day and he said he was sending that girl of his off to boarding school at Simpson Hall.”
“Oh, is he?” said Mrs. Jessup. “Chester, did you hear what your father said?”
“Yes, I did,” said Chester, “and all I can say is that I hope she gets enough to eat.”