The Camel's Back by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Mrs. Nolak was short and ineffectual looking, and on the cessation of the world war had belonged for a while to one of the new nationalities. Owing to unsettled European conditions she had never since been quite sure what she was. The shop in which she and her husband performed their daily stint was dim and ghostly, and peopled with suits of armor and Chinese mandarins, and enormous papier-mâché birds suspended from the ceiling. In a vague background many rows of masks glared eyelessly at the visitor, and there were glass cases full of crowns and scepters, and jewels and enormous stomachers, and paints, and crape hair, and wigs of all colors.
When Perry ambled into the shop Mrs. Nolak was folding up the last troubles of a strenuous day, so she thought, in a drawer full of pink silk stockings.
"Something for you?" she queried pessimistically. "Want costume of Julius Hur, the charioteer."
Mrs. Nolak was sorry, but every stitch of charioteer had been rented long ago. Was it for the Townsends' circus ball?
"Sorry," she said, "but I don't think there's anything left that's really circus."
This was an obstacle.
"Hm," said Perry. An idea struck him suddenly. "If you've got a piece of canvas I could go's a tent."
"Sorry, but we haven't anything like that. A hardware store is where you'd have to go to. We have some very nice Confederate soldiers."
"No. No soldiers."
"And I have a very handsome king."
He shook his head.
"Several of the gentlemen" she continued hopefully, "are wearing stovepipe hats and swallow-tail coats and going as ringmasters--but we're all out of tall hats. I can let you have some crape hair for a mustache."
"Want somep'n 'stinctive."
"Something--let's see. Well, we have a lion's head, and a goose, and a camel--"
"Camel?" The idea seized Perry's imagination, gripped it fiercely.
"Yes, but It needs two people."
"Camel, That's the idea. Lemme see it."
The camel was produced from his resting place on a top shelf. At first glance he appeared to consist entirely of a very gaunt, cadaverous head and a sizable hump, but on being spread out he was found to possess a dark brown, unwholesome-looking body made of thick, cottony cloth.
"You see it takes two people," explained Mrs. Nolak, holding the camel in frank admiration. "If you have a friend he could be part of it. You see there's sorta pants for two people. One pair is for the fella in front, and the other pair for the fella in back. The fella in front does the lookin' out through these here eyes, an' the fella in back he's just gotta stoop over an' folla the front fella round."
"Put it on," commanded Perry.
Obediently Mrs. Nolak put her tabby-cat face inside the camel's head and turned it from side to side ferociously.
Perry was fascinated.
"What noise does a camel make?"
"What?" asked Mrs. Nolak as her face emerged, somewhat smudgy. "Oh, what noise? Why, he sorta brays."
"Lemme see it in a mirror."
Before a wide mirror Perry tried on the head and turned from side to side appraisingly. In the dim light the effect was distinctly pleasing. The camel's face was a study in pessimism, decorated with numerous abrasions, and it must be admitted that his coat was in that state of general negligence peculiar to camels--in fact, he needed to be cleaned and pressed--but distinctive he certainly was. He was majestic. He would have attracted attention in any gathering, if only by his melancholy cast of feature and the look of hunger lurking round his shadowy eyes.
"You see you have to have two people," said Mrs. Nolak again.
Perry tentatively gathered up the body and legs and wrapped them about him, tying the hind legs as a girdle round his waist. The effect on the whole was bad. It was even irreverent--like one of those mediaeval pictures of a monk changed into a beast by the ministrations of Satan. At the very best the ensemble resembled a humpbacked cow sitting on her haunches among blankets.
"Don't look like anything at all," objected Perry gloomily.
"No," said Mrs. Nolak; "you see you got to have two people."
A solution flashed upon Perry.
"You got a date to-night?"
"Oh, I couldn't possibly----"
"Oh, come on," said Perry encouragingly. "Sure you can! Here! Be good sport, and climb into these hind legs."
With difficulty he located them, and extended their yawning depths ingratiatingly. But Mrs. Nolak seemed loath. She backed perversely away.
"C'mon! You can be the front if you want to. Or we'll flip a coin."
"Make it worth your while."
Mrs. Nolak set her lips firmly together.
"Now you just stop!" she said with no coyness implied. "None of the gentlemen ever acted up this way before. My husband----"
"You got a husband?" demanded Perry. "Where is he?"
"Wha's telephone number?"
After considerable parley he obtained the telephone number pertaining to the Nolak penates and got into communication with that small, weary voice he had heard once before that day. But Mr. Nolak, though taken off his guard and somewhat confused by Perry's brilliant flow of logic, stuck staunchly to his point. He refused firmly, but with dignity, to help out Mr. Parkhurst in the capacity of back part of a camel.
Having rung off, or rather having been rung off on, Perry sat down on a three-legged stool to think it over. He named over to himself those friends on whom he might call, and then his mind paused as Betty Medill's name hazily and sorrowfully occurred to him. He had a sentimental thought. He would ask her. Their love affair was over, but she could not refuse this last request. Surely it was not much to ask--to help him keep up his end of social obligation for one short night. And if she insisted, she could be the front part of the camel and he would go as the back. His magnanimity pleased him. His mind even turned to rosy-colored dreams of a tender reconciliation inside the camel--there hidden away from all the world....
"Now you'd better decide right off."
The bourgeois voice of Mrs. Nolak broke in upon his mellow fancies and roused him to action. He went to the phone and called up the Medill house. Miss Betty was out; had gone out to dinner.
Then, when all seemed lost, the camel's back wandered curiously into the store. He was a dilapidated individual with a cold in his head and a general trend about him of downwardness. His cap was pulled down low on his head, and his chin was pulled down low on his chest, his coat hung down to his shoes, he looked run-down, down at the heels, and--Salvation Army to the contrary--down and out. He said that he was the taxicab-driver that the gentleman had hired at the Clarendon Hotel. He had been instructed to wait outside, but he had waited some time, and a suspicion had grown upon him that the gentleman had gone out the back way with purpose to defraud him--gentlemen sometimes did--so he had come in. He sank down onto the three-legged stool.
"Wanta go to a party?" demanded Perry sternly.
"I gotta work," answered the taxi-driver lugubriously. "I gotta keep my job."
"It's a very good party."
"'S a very good job."
"Come on!" urged Perry. "Be a good fella. See--it's pretty!" He held the camel up and the taxi-driver looked at it cynically.
Perry searched feverishly among the folds of the cloth.
"See!" he cried enthusiastically, holding up a selection of folds. "This is your part. You don't even have to talk. All you have to do is to walk--and sit down occasionally. You do all the sitting down. Think of it. I'm on my feet all the time and you can sit down some of the time. The only time I can sit down is when we're lying down, and you can sit down when--oh, any time. See?"
"What's 'at thing?" demanded the individual dubiously. "A shroud?"
"Not at all," said Perry indignantly. "It's a camel."
Then Perry mentioned a sum of money, and the conversation left the land of grunts and assumed a practical tinge. Perry and the taxi-driver tried on the camel in front of the mirror.
"You can't see it," explained Perry, peering anxiously out through the eyeholes, "but honestly, ole man, you look sim'ly great! Honestly!"
A grunt from the hump acknowledged this somewhat dubious compliment.
"Honestly, you look great!" repeated Perry enthusiastically. "Move round a little."
The hind legs moved forward, giving the effect of a huge cat-camel hunching his back preparatory to a spring.
"No; move sideways."
The camel's hips went neatly out of joint; a hula dancer would have writhed in envy.
"Good, isn't it?" demanded Perry, turning to Mrs. Nolak for approval.
"It looks lovely," agreed Mrs. Nolak.
"We'll take it," said Perry.
The bundle was stowed under Perry's arm and they left the shop.
"Go to the party!" he commanded as he took his seat in the back.
"Where'bouts is it?"
This presented a new problem. Perry tried to remember, but the names of all those who had given parties during the holidays danced confusedly before his eyes. He could ask Mrs. Nolak, but on looking out the window he saw that the shop was dark. Mrs. Nolak had already faded out, a little black smudge far down the snowy street.
"Drive uptown," directed Perry with fine confidence. "If you see a party, stop. Otherwise I'll tell you when we get there."
He fell into a hazy daydream and his thoughts wandered again to Betty--he imagined vaguely that they had had a disagreement because she refused to go to the party as the back part of the camel. He was just slipping off into a chilly doze when he was wakened by the taxi-driver opening the door and shaking him by the arm.
"Here we are, maybe."
Perry looked out sleepily. A striped awning led from the curb up to a spreading gray stone house, from which issued the low drummy whine of expensive jazz. He recognized the Howard Tate house.
"Sure," he said emphatically; "'at's it! Tate's party to-night. Sure, everybody's goin'."
"Say," said the individual anxiously after another look at the awning, "you sure these people ain't gonna romp on me for comin' here?"
Perry drew himself up with dignity.
"'F anybody says anything to you, just tell 'em you're part of my costume."
The visualization of himself as a thing rather than a person seemed to reassure the individual.
"All right," he said reluctantly.
Perry stepped out under the shelter of the awning and began unrolling the camel.
"Let's go," he commanded.
Several minutes later a melancholy, hungry-looking camel, emitting clouds of smoke from his mouth and from the tip of his noble hump, might have been seen crossing the threshold of the Howard Tate residence, passing a startled footman without so much as a snort, and heading directly for the main stairs that led up to the ballroom. The beast walked with a peculiar gait which varied between an uncertain lockstep and a stampede--but can best be described by the word "halting." The camel had a halting gait--and as he walked he alternately elongated and contracted like a gigantic concertina.