Elinor’s Senior Year
Setting an Example
It was very quiet in the senior alcove of the library. Lydia cool and serene in immaculate white duck sat back in her chair, her Hegel held well up at the proper distance and angle. Ruth was studying with her elbows on the long table of polished oak, her hands supporting cheeks that looked a bit paler than usual from contrast with the dark blue of her shirtwaist. Elinor in dainty linen brightened by a belt and sailor-collar of scarlet silk leaned one arm indolently on the cold radiator in front of the window.
It was pleasant there — almost drowsy. Out of doors she could see stretches of green lawn wonderful with the velvety shadows of trees. A gong struck somewhere, reverberating silvery in softened distances; and presently she caught glimpses of bareheaded girls, the October sunshine in their hair, flitting over the curving concrete paths from building to building. One student wrapped in a long cape, a braid tossing over her shoulder, shot out of a side door and ran toward the Circle, the soles of her gym shoes twinkling behind her. Elinor and Myra used to run like that when they were freshmen.
Elinor’s dreaming eyes fell again to the open page before her. “An artist or an artisan or a writer who does not ‘do his best’ is not only an inferior workman, but a bad man.” She glanced carelessly at the footnote which quoted Carlyle as saying of a certain shiftless carpenter that “he broke the whole decalogue with every stroke of his hammer.”
“And the student who does not ‘do her best,'” pondered Elinor idly, “I wonder just how bad I am.” Instinctively aware that she was being scrutinized she looked up to meet the serious gaze of Ruth’s brooding eyes. Elinor’s smile this year showed a light that was like a lingering caress. Now half in impulsive affection, grateful for the thought bestowed upon herself, half in the wish to distract attention from that same unworthy self, she held out the book with one finger on the disturbing sentence.
Ruth read it soberly. “Yes,” she said, “I think so too, don’t you? ‘To do good work, whether you live or die, — it is the entrance to all Princedoms; and if not done, the day will come, and that infallibly, when you must labor for evil instead of good.'”
“Oh, no, not that!” impetuously. The whisper was stifled at the sight of Lydia’s brows lifted reprovingly. Two freshmen, pen and pad in hand, tiptoed with a chastened air of importance into the alcove on their prescribed tour of inspection. The library was their arsenal of tools to be used during the coming four years. Ignorant of the sacredness of this particular precinct, they glided behind the senior chairs and reached up to scan the volumes of ethics and philosophy on the higher shelves. One of them complacently thorough requested the handsome young woman in white to move slightly in order that the row hidden by her flowing skirts might be investigated. Lydia acceded with an amused smile of benignant tolerance. Ruth was too deeply absorbed in her Pindar to squander notice. Elinor apparently oblivious of the intrusion was planning to relate most effectively this latest infraction of etiquette and tradition. Myra would be overjoyed; for had she not so terrified a dozen awed freshmen concerning the senior corridor that they avoided it as if it were plague-infected?
Here a breeze from the baize doors swinging recklessly inward blew through the library. There was a swift patter of footsteps, and Myra rushing into the alcove at the head of an exultant band of seniors swooped upon Elinor.
“You’re class president! She isn’t coming back after all. Doctor says she mustn’t. So the vice-president succeeds. You’re it! You’re it, you dear sweet thing!”
At last from the suffocating clutches about her neck Elinor’s voice issued gaspingly: “Oh, no, no, no! I don’t want to. I shall resign. I never expected it would happen. I’dd be ashamed to be seen. I can’t — I can’t, I tell you!”
The two freshmen as if graven in stone with their faces twisted toward the drama listened as freshmen often do. A group of industrious sophomores distracted from their books in the gallery peered over the railing. Lydia after an alert survey of the scene marshaled her noisy classmates out into the corridor.
“We must set a good example of quiet in the library, whatever happens.”
Myra seized the word. “Won’t it be fun! Elinor must set an example now more than any of us. Elinor setting an example! Whoop!”
“She’ll be obliged to sit at the head of the first senior table and do her hair so that it is becoming from every point of view,” teased Ruth, “Freshmen at right of her, freshmen at left of her, freshmen in front of her, gazed at and wondered.”
“Every Sunday you’ll be expected to escort a different preacher to the senior parlor and entertain him by playing a piece on the rented piano, while the other girls stand around mute and admiring.”
“You’ll need to shine up in your work, too, madam,” threatened model Myra, “and go to every meeting of all your societies and elevate the tone of the institution while Prexie is away. I behold you doing it Miss Offit loquitur : ‘Beg pardon, young ladies, but say, girls, don’t you think you ought to behave more like me?’ Oh, my!” she uttered a die-away groan of ecstasy.
“That reminds me,” spoke stable Lydia, “Prexie leaves to-morrow morning, and you mustn’t forget to be outside the hedge at eight sharp to cheer him off as a surprise.”
Consequently on the following morning there was an air of extraordinary haste in the dining-room. Myra hurried Elinor through her oatmeal and forbade her to wait for a second cup of chocolate.
“The president of the senior class must be there on time at the head of the line,” she insisted, “so do try to gobble a trifle faster. Almost all the freshmen have disappeared, and every one of them when passing this table contemplated you in amazement at such dilatory indifference. Madam, do you realize that Prexie departs for Europe in ten minutes, and we are to be in charge of the college honor during his absence?”
“So I seem to have heard once or twice before,” replied Elinor with an effect of rapt abstraction gathering in the half-dozen tiny cream pitchers at the deserted places within reach. “Not a drop remains! To think of these noble seniors still under the tyranny of breakfast-foods! By the way, where has the maid retired? I need cream for my chocolate. Have you ever heard of the new servant who asked if the family ‘did their own stretchin’ at the table?’ That seems to be my present agreeable fate.”
“Here’s a gallon of milk, and skip the anecdotes, please.” Myra poured from a large pitcher so lavishly that Elinor shoved back her chair in hasty shrinking from the flood.
“You mean girl! You’ve spoiled it all. Lydia, you nod to the maid so that she will come more quickly. She acts as if I smile at her out of pure kindliness.”
“That’s the way of the world,” grumbled Myra swerving from the subject in hand, “the hard cruel selfish old world. It’s her smile that did it all. The rest of us must pay a heap in order to be prominent seniors — working over debates, agonizing in basketball, toiling at Hall Plays, sitting up nights with the Magazine. But Elinor merely smiles — and she turns into senior president.”
“It is now time to start,” announced Lydia rising at the word. Elinor meekly relinquishing the more delicious half of her hot roll followed the others into the corridor. The faculty were expressing their farewell wishes in the college parlors, while the students scattered and slipped away inconspicuously through the grounds to the hedge. However when Prexie and his wife passed through the Lodge Oates on his way to the electric car he was probably not altogether overwhelmed with astonishment at sight of the throng ranged in two long rows on either side of the track. He continued to bow and smile from the rear platform as the car slid slowly onward between the walls of waving handkerchiefs. The ranks closed in behind and sang spasmodically till the last flutter of white vanished around the bend.
“I flatter ourselves that we did that fairly well” remarked Myra complacently on her way down the evergreen-bordered avenue, “it was a splendid send-off. Chapel will be awfully lonesome without dear old Prex. No admonitions, no invitations to Sunday tea with Mrs. Prexie! Oh, well, it can’t be helped — and he is coming back before we graduate.”
“Hush!” said Ruth, “don’t talk about the end of it all. Quick! think of something else. Heigho, see those rollicking clouds! Peel the wind! Breathe the air!” She tossed her arms. “Around the garden and off for the hills — away and away!” They watched her flit to the edge of the pines where she suddenly stopped and turned toward them again. “I forgot my mail-route,” she explained when within hearing, “you know, I deliver on second main this fall.”
A glance into the restless eyes inspired Elinor to offer her services. “I’ll attend to that gladly,” she promised, “you run away now and go off for a spin on the family bicycle. You were up too late with that proof reading last night.”
After further urging reinforced by Myra’s rebukes of reprehensible independence, Ruth was persuaded and raced down the road on flying wheels, the maples strewing her path with scarlet and gold in the sunlight. Lydia and Myra proceeded to recitations while Elinor distributed the packet of letters obtained at the mail-window downstairs. At the last door on her list, her rapid tap-tap was answered by a teacher’s voice.
“Come in. Ah, Miss Offitt, the very person I wish to see. Will you sit down for one minute till I sign this note?” The postcarrier pro tem dropped into a convenient chair with as ready courtesy as if a chapter in social science were not waiting unread in the study above, with the class due in half-an-hour.
Presently her hostess addressed her with characteristic abruptness. “I have been following with keen interest your career so far, Miss Offitt, and I hope that you will not feel offended if I suggest that you are doing justice neither to yourself nor to the college. Am I right in assuming that you will not resent criticism which is offered in the spirit of sincere kindness?”
“Certainly, Miss Padan, I shall appreciate whatever you may be willing to say,” replied Elinor, her voice at its sweetest “society” pitch, her lips stiffened against a sensitive tremor of dismay.
“Very well. I am sure that I have not been mistaken in my estimate of your force of character, and — I may add — generosity. There are not many to whom I would venture to pay the tribute of straight-forward honesty on such a point.”
This drop of honey, faintly spicy at first taste, lingered with pervading fragrance throughout the pungent interview.
“You entered college under remarkably favorable conditions — far above the average in every respect. While you have kept a fair standard in class, you have by no means exerted your energies to do your best. What is far more serious you have assumed such a flippant tone with regard to an earnestly intellectual spirit among the girls that your influence has been ba — has not been good.”
The listener flushed suddenly, and her gaze fell to the carpet.
“The students admire and look up to you far more than you realize. As a college granddaughter you are considered to represent the best results of this method of education. Even more distinctively than upon the ordinary student a responsibility rests upon you. This is the responsibility for proving to the world that college training produces the highest type of womanhood. This purpose assuredly is not to be attained by being untrue to your best self. A set of girls here notice that you slight your opportunities and decry your advantages. They are growing more and more ashamed of conscientious study. They treat the faculty with patronizing indifference if not antagonism. They ignore courtesies which are owing to the institution as to a hostess entertaining them. They have no standards, no ideals, no perception of values, and in sheeplike imitation of a few strong personalities they overlook the finer qualities of —” she hesitated an instant, — “of these leaders, the very qualities in which consists their charm.”
Elinor was used to being called charming.
“In work. Miss Offitt,” there was restrained anxiety in the eyes that were studying the downcast marblelike face, “your distaste for the spectacular is caricatured in discourteous neglect of recitations, crude bluffing, a lazy waste of time, contempt for those students who place their work first. This attitude is similar to that of the most puerile tag-end of the freshman class in any large university. It is an attitude which if cherished in such a limited body as this college will inevitably tend to lower the institution and to ruin it in its intrinsic value as well as in the estimation of the world.”
A few minutes later in the sociology section Myra leaned across to whisper, ” Elinor, you look queer. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter,” answered Elinor.