The Camel's Back by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Howard Tates are, as every one who lives in Toledo knows, the most formidable people in town. Mrs. Howard Tate was a Chicago Todd before she became a Toledo Tate, and the family generally affect that conscious simplicity which has begun to be the earmark of American aristocracy. The Tates have reached the stage where they talk about pigs and farms and look at you icy-eyed if you are not amused. They have begun to prefer retainers rather than friends as dinner guests, spend a lot of money in a quiet way, and, having lost all sense of competition, are in process of growing quite dull.
The dance this evening was for little Millicent Tate, and though all ages were represented, the dancers were mostly from school and college--the younger married crowd was at the Townsends' circus ball up at the Tallyho Club. Mrs. Tate was standing just inside tie ballroom, following Millicent round with her eyes, and beaming whenever she caught her bye. Beside her were two middle-aged sycophants, who were saying what a perfectly exquisite child Millicent was. It was at this moment that Mrs. Tate was grasped firmly by the skirt and her youngest daughter, Emily, aged eleven, hurled herself with an "Oof!" into her mother's arms.
"Why, Emily, what's the trouble?"
"Mamma," said Emily, wild-eyed but voluble, "there's something out on the stairs."
"There's a thing out on the stairs, mamma. I think it's a big dog, mamma, but it doesn't look like a dog."
"What do you mean, Emily?"
The sycophants waved their heads sympathetically.
"Mamma, it looks like a--like a camel."
Mrs. Tate laughed.
"You saw a mean old shadow, dear, that's all."
"No, I didn't. No, it was some kind of thing, mamma--big. I was going down-stairs to see if there were any more people, and this dog or something, he was coming up-stairs. Kinda funny, mamma, like he was lame. And then he saw me and gave a sort of growl, and then he slipped at the top of the landing, and I ran."
Mrs. Tate's laugh faded.
"The child must have seen something," she said.
The sycophants agreed that the child must have seen something--and suddenly all three women took an instinctive step away from the door as the sounds of muffled steps were audible just outside.
And then three startled gasps rang out as a dark brown form rounded the corner, and they saw what was apparently a huge beast looking down at them hungrily.
"Oof!" cried Mrs. Tate.
"O-o-oh!" cried the ladies in a chorus.
The camel suddenly humped his back, and the gasps turned to shrieks.
"What is it?"
The dancing stopped, bat the dancers hurrying over got quite a different impression of the invader; in fact, the young people immediately suspected that it was a stunt, a hired entertainer come to amuse the party. The boys in long trousers looked at it rather disdainfully, and sauntered over with their hands in their pockets, feeling that their intelligence was being insulted. But the girls uttered little shouts of glee.
"It's a camel!"
"Well, if he isn't the funniest!"
The camel stood there uncertainly, swaying slightly from side to aide, and seeming to take in the room in a careful, appraising glance; then as if he had come to an abrupt decision, he turned and ambled swiftly out the door.
Mr. Howard Tate had just come out of the library on the lower floor, and was standing chatting with a young man in the hall. Suddenly they heard the noise of shouting up-stairs, and almost immediately a succession of bumping sounds, followed by the precipitous appearance at the foot of the stairway of a large brown beast that seemed to be going somewhere in a great hurry.
"Now what the devil!" said Mr. Tate, starting.
The beast picked itself up not without dignity and, affecting an air of extreme nonchalance, as if he had just remembered an important engagement, started at a mixed gait toward the front door. In fact, his front legs began casually to run.
"See here now," said Mr. Tate sternly. "Here! Grab it, Butterfield! Grab it!"
The young man enveloped the rear of the camel in a pair of compelling arms, and, realizing that further locomotion was impossible, the front end submitted to capture and stood resignedly in a state of some agitation. By this time a flood of young people was pouring down-stairs, and Mr. Tate, suspecting everything from an ingenious burglar to an escaped lunatic, gave crisp directions to the young man:
"Hold him! Lead him in here; we'll soon see."
The camel consented to be led into the library, and Mr. Tate, after locking the door, took a revolver from a table drawer and instructed the young man to take the thing's head off. Then he gasped and returned the revolver to its hiding-place.
"Well, Perry Parkhurst!" he exclaimed in amazement.
"Got the wrong party, Mr. Tate," said Perry sheepishly. "Hope I didn't scare you."
"Well--you gave us a thrill, Perry." Realization dawned on him. "You're bound for the Townsends' circus ball."
"That's the general idea."
"Let me introduce Mr. Butterfield, Mr. Parkhurst." Then turning to Perry; "Butterfield is staying with us for a few days."
"I got a little mixed up," mumbled Perry. "I'm very sorry."
"Perfectly all right; most natural mistake in the world. I've got a clown rig and I'm going down there myself after a while." He turned to Butterfield. "Better change your mind and come down with us."
The young man demurred. He was going to bed.
"Have a drink, Perry?" suggested Mr. Tate.
"Thanks, I will."
"And, say," continued Tate quickly, "I'd forgotten all about your--friend here." He indicated the rear part of the camel. "I didn't mean to seem discourteous. Is it any one I know? Bring him out."
"It's not a friend," explained Perry hurriedly. "I just rented him."
"Does he drink?"
"Do you?" demanded Perry, twisting himself tortuously round.
There was a faint sound of assent.
"Sure he does!" said Mr. Tate heartily. "A really efficient camel ought to be able to drink enough so it'd last him three days."
"Tell you," said Perry anxiously, "he isn't exactly dressed up enough to come out. If you give me the bottle I can hand it back to him and he can take his inside."
From under the cloth was audible the enthusiastic smacking sound inspired by this suggestion. When a butler had appeared with bottles, glasses, and siphon one of the bottles was handed back; thereafter the silent partner could be heard imbibing long potations at frequent intervals.
Thus passed a benign hour. At ten o'clock Mr. Tate decided that they'd better be starting. He donned his clown's costume; Perry replaced the camel's head, arid side by side they traversed on foot the single block between the Tate house and the Tallyho Club.
The circus ball was in full swing. A great tent fly had been put up inside the ballroom and round the walls had been built rows of booths representing the various attractions of a circus side show, but these were now vacated and over the floor swarmed a shouting, laughing medley of youth and color--downs, bearded ladies, acrobats, bareback riders, ringmasters, tattooed men, and charioteers. The Townsends had determined to assure their party of success, so a great quantity of liquor had been surreptitiously brought over from their house and was now flowing freely. A green ribbon ran along the wall completely round the ballroom, with pointing arrows alongside and signs which instructed the uninitiated to "Follow the green line!" The green line led down to the bar, where waited pure punch and wicked punch and plain dark-green bottles.
On the wall above the bar was another arrow, red and very wavy, and under it the slogan: "Now follow this!"
But even amid the luxury of costume and high spirits represented, there, the entrance of the camel created something of a stir, and Perry was immediately surrounded by a curious, laughing crowd attempting to penetrate the identity of this beast that stood by the wide doorway eying the dancers with his hungry, melancholy gaze.
And then Perry saw Betty standing in front of a booth, talking to a comic policeman. She was dressed in the costume of an Egyptian snake-charmer: her tawny hair was braided and drawn through brass rings, the effect crowned with a glittering Oriental tiara. Her fair face was stained to a warm olive glow and on her arms and the half moon of her back writhed painted serpents with single eyes of venomous green. Her feet were in sandals and her skirt was slit to the knees, so that when she walked one caught a glimpse of other slim serpents painted just above her bare ankles. Wound about her neck was a glittering cobra. Altogether a charming costume--one that caused the more nervous among the older women to shrink away from her when she passed, and the more troublesome ones to make great talk about "shouldn't be allowed" and "perfectly disgraceful."
But Perry, peering through the uncertain eyes of the camel, saw only her face, radiant, animated, and glowing with excitement, and her arms and shoulders, whose mobile, expressive gestures made her always the outstanding figure in any group. He was fascinated and his fascination exercised a sobering effect on him. With a growing clarity the events of the day came back--rage rose within him, and with a half-formed intention of taking her away from the crowd he started toward her--or rather he elongated slightly, for he had neglected to issue the preparatory command necessary to locomotion.
But at this point fickle Kismet, who for a day had played with him bitterly and sardonically, decided to reward him in full for the amusement he had afforded her. Kismet turned the tawny eyes of the snake-charmer to the camel. Kismet led her to lean toward the man beside her and say, "Who's that? That camel?"
"Darned if I know."
But a little man named Warburton, who knew it all, found it necessary to hazard an opinion:
"It came in with Mr. Tate. I think part of it's probably Warren Butterfield, the architect from New York, who's visiting the Tates."
Something stirred in Betty Medill--that age-old interest of the provincial girl in the visiting man.
"Oh," she said casually after a slight pause.
At the end of the next dance Betty and her partner finished up within a few feet of the camel. With the informal audacity that was the key-note of the evening she reached out and gently rubbed the camel's nose.
"Hello, old camel."
The camel stirred uneasily.
"You 'fraid of me?" said Betty, lifting her eyebrows in reproof. "Don't be. You see I'm a snake-charmer, but I'm pretty good at camels too."
The camel bowed very low and some one made the obvious remark about beauty and the beast.
Mrs. Townsend approached the group.
"Well, Mr. Butterfield," she said helpfully, "I wouldn't have recognised you."
Perry bowed again and smiled gleefully behind his mask.
"And who is this with you?" she inquired.
"Oh," said Perry, his voice muffled by the thick cloth and quite unrecognizable, "he isn't a fellow, Mrs. Townsend. He's just part of my costume."
Mrs. Townsend laughed and moved away. Perry turned again to Betty,
"So," he thought, "this is how much she cares! On the very day of our final rupture she starts a flirtation with another man--an absolute stranger."
On an impulse he gave her a soft nudge with his shoulder and waved his head suggestively toward the hall, making it clear that he desired her to leave her partner and accompany him.
"By-by, Rus," she called to her partner. "This old camel's got me. Where we going, Prince of Beasts?"
The noble animal made no rejoinder, but stalked gravely along in the direction of a secluded nook on the side stairs.
There she seated herself, and the camel, after some seconds of confusion which included gruff orders and sounds of a heated dispute going on in his interior, placed himself beside her--his hind legs stretching out uncomfortably across two steps.
"Well, old egg," said Betty cheerfully, "how do you like our happy party?"
The old egg indicated that he liked it by rolling his head ecstatically and executing a gleeful kick with his hoofs.
"This is the first time that I ever had a tête-à-tête with a man's valet 'round"--she pointed to the hind legs--"or whatever that is."
"Oh," mumbled Perry, "he's deaf and blind."
"I should think you'd feel rather handicapped--you can't very well toddle, even if you want to."
The camel hang his head lugubriously.
"I wish you'd say something," continued Betty sweetly. "Say you like me, camel. Say you think I'm beautiful. Say you'd like to belong to a pretty snake-charmer."
The camel would.
"Will you dance with me, camel?"
The camel would try.
Betty devoted half an hour to the camel. She devoted at least half an hour to all visiting men. It was usually sufficient. When she approached a new man the current débutantes were accustomed to scatter right and left like a close column deploying before a machine-gun. And so to Perry Parkhurst was awarded the unique privilege of seeing his love as others saw her. He was flirted with violently!