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The Snob

By Agnes Boulton

I-III     IV-VI

I

I never understood him—not at first, when he came to the office aloof and bored to occupy with dignity the position of bookkeeper; nor during the period of our painful, vague intimacy; and even now, with all the facts arranged in my mind, his death seems incredible to me—that splendid death in the early light of the sun. . . .

 

The Smart Set, June, 1921

He was pale and thin, with a slight stoop; hardly more than twenty-eight years old. His eyes conveyed a remote gaze; they looked over and around people, as though, unable to reach the real meaning of things, he despised the persistent and obvious surfaces. His lean, taut face with a fine forehead showed (there was no doubt of it) breeding—English breeding of a sort, a trifle rigid and incapable of enthusiasm. So that he had a background, as it were, for his haughty and detached air. And then his name—Clive Auchincloss.

But he had so little else for a background that the clerks in the office called him a silly snob. They resented him. His conscious, silent superiority over them was so much the real thing that they were forced in self-defense to dig out the small mean details of his daily life. They needed weapons to bring him down; he must be punished for being different from themselves—for having such a silly name!

His cheap boarding house pleased our clerks immensely. What a place for a swell like him to stay! They soon rooted out that he could have no pretensions over them. With the true intuition of small minds they declared that he had no friends. Judge a man by his friends. You didn't see him hobnobbing with any of the classy guys he imitated, did you? Who'd bother with him, for all his airs and his grand name, they'd like to know? The stuck-up snob!

Perhaps he was. What, exactly, does the term mean? "Snob: one who makes birth or wealth the sole criterion of worth . . . cringing to superiors; overbearing to inferiors."

Hardly, then, in our dictionary sense. He was neither cringing nor overbearing. He just couldn't bear the idea of contact with people—people, at least, like those in the office. Office boy and manager—he scorned us all, I am sure, though he tried not to show it too obviously. He scorned his work, though he did it well; he scorned the city, the streets at five o'clock, the workers . . . But he was never overbearing—just detached. He didn't want to have anything at all to do with us.

In one sense the word may have applied. "One who makes birth . . . the sole criterion of worth." He never spoke of it, so how did we, every one of us there in the office, know that to him birth, a sense of race one might say, was the supreme thing? Afterward when we became friends, he did refer to his family—to his ancestors, I should say—but always in a curious, inverted way.

For six months he had ignored me as completely as the rest of them. His tardy friendship was based, I was ashamed to admit, on his discovery, to his surprise, no doubt, that I was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin—and something about a relative of mine who happened to be of importance in India.

I felt at the time that it was snobbish—rottenly so! He was very obvious about it—even mentioned it, I think. I remember that when he startled me by the blunt removal of his haughty reserve I felt a sudden chilliness toward him; for the first time I agreed with the office force that he was—well, just too much!

Then, as he stood there by my desk, I saw the truth of it, and I was able to slide my coolness into merely the manner of being very much surprised and turn it all into a pleasant friendliness. I saw that behind his imperturbable façade of superiority there was something pathetically uncertain.

It was nothing tangible. His words were as they should be. His manner was perfect, in keeping with the façade. Yet I spent the next ten minutes with the painful feeling that I must put him at his ease. Perhaps I had already discovered that I was going to like him immensely. I have spoken of our friendship as being vague and painful. It struck that note then—at its very inception.

It is hard to describe our friendship; and looking back on it now, I wonder if it should be called a friendship. A few times at the theater together, an occasional dropping in at my rooms—he always withdrew at any idea of my going to see him—that was all it amounted to. But perhaps my being his only acquaintance made it worthy of that name. I soon discovered that he knew no one else. So far as he ever went with anyone, he went with me. Lonely and misunderstood, he existed in the stupid way of the life he hated, aware of neither love nor pleasure, without a confidant, without hope. If I could go back now—or could have known then, and let him talk to me! It seems to me it would have meant so much to him to have someone who knew, and understood. At the same time—strange paradox!—he could not have borne it to have anyone know. He would have gone away.

He liked to hear me talk. He would watch me silently, with an odd stillness; sometimes, for no reason that I could see, he would abruptly change the subject, speak nervously of something else, or even—he did it twice!—get up and go. He seemed perpetually on his defense against something. I could never discover what.

There was some mystery. It hung about him unsolved, in his weary and cynical expression, his odd manners, his surprising silences.

I did not know where he had been born, his native land, where he had lived, or why he was now keeping books at forty dollars a week. If our conversation turned to anything personal, he would shut up like a clam, and that uneasy and paralyzing silence would fall between us. Our conversation was limited—very! He read a great deal—he told me he spent his evenings reading— but he refused to talk even about the books he had read. It was as if he were afraid of making some mistake. And if England was mentioned, or indeed, Europe, or European institutions—then he was at his worst. His hard silence would become almost rude.

What did it all mean? I could never guess. A life that he had left behind him, of which he would not be reminded? That meant what? Had he disgraced himself? A love affair? The latter seemed to me curiously improbable. Woman—the sex—seemed to enter not at all into his life. The fact was, I couldn't imagine him preoccupied with any human relationship. He I seemed lost in something beyond that, an idea, a belief, a ghost that haunted him—what?
 

Something at least, that made him hate humanity. I couldn't, even then, believe that it was "pride of race" only that made him so fixed about it. The one subject on which he was really articulate was his hatred of the crowd.  He loathed it, and his whole manner was the result of a grim determination on his part not to notice it, not to allow it, if possible, to enter his consciousness. It amounted to an obsession with him—I almost said a religion. He used expressions from Nietzsche, whom I discovered he read a great deal—"the herd," "slave-morality," etc.

Once, I remember, I asked him pointblank if he was one of the Sunderland Auchinclosses whose Sir Clive, some hundred years back, had distinguished himself in India. (His strange voice had always perplexed me—not American, and decidedly not English.) That was the only time I ever got a direct answer from him. It was almost too direct and emphatic an affirmative. He was. And when, in that short, heavy manner he had got his answer out, he turned away from me, and actually grew pale with some violent and suppressed agitation.

II

It was characteristic of him that he should mention nothing about it beforehand, and then appear at my desk and say: "I'll be up at your place tonight, if you're not going out"; and after a slight pause, "I'm leaving here tomorrow for good. In fact, I'm sailing."

He went back to his tall seat with the same abruptness.

Sailing! I stared across at him perplexed. The light reflected on his smooth head, bent over long rows of figures. His back, narrow and a little bent, was exactly as it had been day after day, when my absent gaze had fallen upon it. Sailing. I knew now that for all his strangeness I had never expected him to do anything more exciting than to sit forever with his back toward me in that tall chair.

Sailing for England, of course. Back to his ancestors. And for the first time, under the surprise of the news that he was going back, I got a clue to my own feeling about him; that, definitely, I knew he didn't belong back there. Something was different. Something kept him apart. It would never do for t him to go. It was the only place it had ever occurred to me he might go to, and at the same time the one place he mustn't. And a peculiarly helpless feeling came over me at the very idea of his attempting it. By the time he arrived that evening I had got to the point of wanting to tell him that he mustn't go—that it was all foolishness.

He came in at nine. It had been storming outside; he had left his wet hat and coat down in the hall; but his face was still freshened and wet from the rain. He appeared different. Was it the storm or had the taut sallowness gone? He was younger; he almost glowed. I felt a certain excitement, caught from his manner.

"You have the look of one going adventuring!" I said, and nodded to a chair. "Sit down."

He moved across the room. "Well, of course—it will be new—different," he said nonchalantly. "D'you know the place—Vereguay?"

"Oh—not England?" In my amazement I wondered why I had been so sure that it would be England. "I'd imagined—"

He had flushed a sluggish red.

"You thought—?" he said, and broke off.

Then he added—and I got the impression that it made him very nervous to say it, that it increased his pulse, and that he needed self-control to bring it out naturally:

"No. I'm quite through with all that."

There was a silence in which I felt keenly that he suffered. "Vereguay? Spanish, eh? South America? My dear boy, what a corking idea!"

He had pulled himself together. I noticed that his old calm, bored face had returned. So it was only the freshness of the rain! I looked at him attentively, for information.

"It's a very small and obscure republic—industry, silver mining," he said. "West of the Andes. One important city—Porto Magdalena. The rest—mines, and native villages—some few ranches."

"And you are going there?" I couldn't imagine it. "You think you'll—"

"I'm going there because I can't stand this any longer." He made a gesture that meant the city, all its people and all its ways. "This sordid, grubbing existence! The frightful mediocrity of it! I must get away or perish."

He was silent.

I felt that he was about to say, "I can never .come back." But he went on:

"Vereguay is farther than any place I know of because it is so difficult to reach. It has little trade. . . . "

I asked him what he would do there.

"Look around—there'll be something," he said.

I felt that he was purposely vague. Would there be bookkeeping—or what else could he do?

"I haven't much idea of the place, in fact," he continued. "But at least I can—I will not be—"

He looked at me as though, without saying any more, he wished me to understand. I didn't. He saw that. But his eyes remained on my face as if he were going to speak.

A little, sharp excitement touched me. He was about to tell me his secret.

I had never noticed before how sensitive, how quivering almost, his face was beneath his nonchalant mask. I got, in that moment, the impression of a person haunted by something . . . visions, memories, what?

"I have never known," he cried in a strangely passionate voice, "never, never—" And that was all.

He looked at me dumbly, pleading for understanding.

"Never what?" I said gently.

His eyes were quite dreadful for a moment—pitiful. I knew. He wanted me to understand. He wanted someone to understand, to feel with him all his torture over that secret that he could not betray. I knew then that he would never tell me. But his attempt to let me share his struggle without telling me was really violent.

"You read . . . ," he said, "and in the theater. . . . But life itself is more . . . more. . . . And no one suspects. No one."

"More . . . tragic?"

He looked at me, and I saw that for the moment he had been lost.

"Tragic?" he repeated.

The meaning of the word, coming to him, seemed to put him on his guard. I have said that he was very proud.

"No," he said hurriedly.

He got up and went to the window, looking down into the street below, and I, having seen that lighted street so often, knew that he saw the dingy, lighted elevated station on the corner, the drab people hurrying along, the cheap restaurant opposite, an expanse of illumined glass and white paint.

"I do not belong here," he said.

I felt that he followed with his eyes some small couple below.

"They go along, empty, envious, sordid . . . to have enough money to live better than your neighbor—with that for their ideal! Human beings who judge one another by how much their clothes cost!”

He had no pity for them, only contempt.

"And to have to live, always, in contact with these people, as I do, until you begin to doubt that there are any others. . . .”

He stopped, as if his own words had frightened him, and turning from the window moved to the far end of the room.

When he turned back I saw that his face had flushed.

"Of course, living as I do, it is my fault. I am amongst them, I don't go anywhere. . . ." It seemed as if with his incoherent words he was answering some accusation.

"But will you find people different anywhere?" I asked.

He stared at me.

"Why—of course!" he stammered. He meant—his sort of people! At that moment his mystery for me deepened.

He went on, nervously lighting a cigarette:

"That's why I am going away. Things seem worse to me all the time. You pick up a newspaper—strikes, more strikes. It is the age of the proletariat, the mob! And after all"—he threw away his cigarette and grasped in both long, aristocratic hands the back of a chair; and when he continued I got the impression that he was quoting:

"It cannot be effaced from a man's soul what his ancestors have preferably and most constantly done!"

His face glowed; I thought of his look as he had entered; an absurd idea almost brought a smile to my lips; was he marching along through the rain, head up, to that refrain?

It was the only time that I ever saw him show anything like fire.

"I can do nothing," he went on rather sadly. "Not here . . . not now. I used to dream that—" He broke off abruptly. "To keep one's head up against the overwhelming tide of the mob—that is all that is left. To ignore, always, what one disdains . . ."

He sat down, with an air of wishing to put from us all that he had said.

"By the way, may I give you my books?" he asked rather awkwardly. "I've no one else to . . . and I can't take them. The express will bring them in the morning. You don't mind?"

He added, "I leave tomorrow."

I never saw him again. The books came the next day; to my surprise, some hundred and fifty or so, all with his name, Clive Vavaseur Auchincloss, written neatly on the front page. They were a well worn lot, and looked as though they had been picked up at second-hand shops. Old classics, mostly: several biographies of great men, and a number of books on law, with notes in his same neat hand; plainly he had been going to study law. What else? Chesterfield's letters to his son, Jane Austen, some James, and a complete set of Nietzsche. I had to have shelves put up for them; somehow I felt that he would be back some day, and I wanted him to see them there.

Some two months after he had gone I received a letter. He liked Vereguay; had found nothing to do yet, but was looking around. He spoke of the country, mountainous and wild and very beautiful—of tropic beauty. The old Spanish architecture and the tinted houses pleased him.

"I have met an old Spaniard," he finished, "a descendant of one of the old conquering grandees. I like him, and he wants me to go inland with him next fall with the idea of my taking charge of a rancho he owns. But that is long in the future. Meanwhile—?"

Meanwhile?

Three months later the name of the little Republic caught my eye in a newspaper. I turned back to read: "American is Hero of Vereguay Revolution."

I smiled, thinking of Clive leaving our civilization, only to find himself in the worst phase of the very thing he despised. He'd probably left the country at the first rumour of mob-rising! Then I stiffened:

"The final overthrow of the government was accomplished last week, when the mine-workers and peons, in a battle lasting three days, took the city of Porto Magdalena. Clive Auchincloss, an American, is hailed as a national hero by the people, who have long been oppressed under the old regime. He is believed to have been killed."

III

It was true. He had been killed. For a long time, pondering over that short notice, it seemed, all of it, incredible, an absurd mistake, one of the irritating errors of the press. He dead, a hero of some obscure revolution? The mystery that hung about him deepened. It was no longer the mystery of his past; of some deed done or undone. Going beyond that it became the mystery of a human soul. I discovered, to my surprise, and somewhat to my discomfort, that I was hoping it was true. That I would have felt life again commonplace if it hadn't been true. But if true, why? I went up to the Library and looked up Vereguay.

But there was nothing very interesting about Vereguay. A long list of revolutions terminating in new governments, and quarrels over the silver mines. A hot, stupid country, no doubt. Why had he gone there? And what had happened that he, he, had died for the people? Some mistake, I kept telling myself. I would get a letter from him some day explaining it all.

Then one morning a letter did come, bearing that country's stamp. It was not in his handwriting. I tore it open.

Seeing the carefully penciled and dirty lines, a sense, as it were, of adventure and excitement seized me; and sitting there before my desk, our busy room, noisy with typewriters, faded, and I was for a moment in some strange world. He had gone into that world, and it had killed him.

The letter said:

"Your name and address was the only one we could find in Mr. Auchincloss' things. There was a note said to inform you in case of accident. We are sending you his trunk trust you will info. relatives. Will send notices later. y'rs truly Jas. Small."

There was a smudgy postscript :

"Statue going up to Auchincloss in Plaza, will send photos if relatives want."

If relatives want—! I sat down and wrote the distant Mr. Small to send me clippings and photographs.

So they had put up a statue to him! I waited daily for the details. A month passed. They did not come—they never came, in fact.

Early in October I returned to my room to find a dilapidated trunk occupying the center of the room. It had come all the way from Vereguay. Of course there was no key.

That trunk became a problem. What could I do with it? Even in an obscure corner its presence seemed to fill my room with the mystery of the man who had given up his life. Even while I read, the book would blur, my eyes go almost against my will to that dingy, imperturbable old relic. What would he have wanted me to do with it? Open it—read, perhaps, the secret of his past?

And then in my curious mind would rise up pictures of relatives, perhaps unhappy, waiting relatives, who after all had rights, though he had denied them. I might find a clue in that trunk, and let them know. He had died a hero. They were going to put up a statue to him. It seemed to me that that statue would be a fine consolation to them for all he had done—or left undone. He would want them to know about that!

The next day I left orders with a locksmith. When I returned the trunk lid lifted to my touch. I delayed opening it until after dinner. The whole evening should be devoted to this.

What did I find? Everything just tossed in. It was an awful mess. The disorder of it suggested chaos and terror. There was no tray. Shirts, soiled and clean, bundled together; old shoes; muddied gaiters. I dropped them into a pile on the floor, shaking them as though something revealing might drop out. Then a pair of binoculars—an old-fashioned, expensive pair, inlaid with mother-of-pearl—and a flask of the same period.

Near the bottom of the trunk were six or eight books thrown in carelessly. I turned over the brittle, faded pages. Aristotle—in the original. And on the title page, written in a fine hand, Clive Cecil Auchincloss, Merton, Oxford, 1869. His father? Then a well-worn copy of Suetonius—also in the original. Evidently the old gentleman had been a scholar. But why had Clive carried these books with him, even to Vereguay? Turning the last-named book over in my hand, I happened to glance inside the back cover; in a childish hand was written carefully Clive Auchincloss, September 9th, Hokeville, New Jersey. In all the others—Plato, Xenophon—was this same inscription. Hokeville, New Jersey? I turned over, with uneasy wonder, the remaining things in the trunk.

Among some papers—which seemed to be an attempt at a story—I found the photograph of a Major in the British army. On the back was written the same name that was in the classics. There was no doubt of this being his father; the high nose, the same eyes; but a totally different expression, a look that puzzled me, that seemed to spread out from his sensual mouth and become a secretive mask. He would enjoy Suetonius, this old boy!

That was all. For a long time I pondered in my chair, the photograph on my knees, the trunk open beside me. And I began wondering about Hokeville—why his name, and the name of an obscure New Jersey town, should be inscribed, with a date of twenty years back, in his father's books. He must have been eight or nine years old then. Could he have people there? What sort of place was it? . . . What happened was that I went down there the next week, having obtained a leave of a few days from the office. And all the way down on the train I had that inner nervous tremour that comes before some expected event.
 
 
 

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