Young men with open faces, red cheeks, and brown hair all behave in the same way, and nothing in the world could be more reasonable. They fall into a job or in love with the utmost readiness and enthusiasm. If oil and Lucille let them down, they pretty soon console themselves with steel and Estelle.
Other young men seem born for one passion only, or maybe two, one job and one woman. If both passions are there they run together, like railway lines; they are strong as steel, and as devoid of romantic colouring. They go on forever, and if one or other fails the results are apt to be serious. Young men of this sort are sometimes very tall, lean to emaciation, with skull-like faces, deep-set and rather burning eyes, and mouths either terribly sensitive or terribly cruel, it is hard to say which. If they are poor they look like nothing on earth; if they are rich they look like Lincoln in the rail-splitting period.
Such young men frequently devote themselves to science; sometimes to medicine. The research side appeals to them. If they are brilliant enough, and have money enough, they study under the world’s greatest authorities. If they are interested in certain functions of the glands, this takes them to Lilley’s or the Ford Foundation, but in the old days, in the days of our youth, it took them to Vienna.
Before going to Vienna, Humphrey Baxter went to dine with a married couple of his acquaintance. These, not having a word to say about glands, had provided themselves and him with tickets for the theatre. The play turned out to be a light romantic comedy which was also only very indirectly concerned with the glands. Humphrey sat regarding it with forbearance until, at a well-chosen moment early in the first act, Caroline Coates walked on to the stage. Humphrey leaned forward in his seat. The movement passed unnoticed because everyone else in the theatre also leaned forward.
It may well be asked why this considerable expenditure of human energy was exerted on account of a girl who only escaped being the worst actress in the world by being so very obviously not an actress at all. The fact is, Caroline Coates was a goddess. I think it was Alexander Woollcott who wrote: “To enquire as to her capacity as a mummer would be like asking, of a real actress, what is her prowess in trapeze work. Talent in this young woman would be a mere dilution, like soda in a highball; the less of it the better. When the divine Aphrodite walks on the stage, we do not wish her to perform like the divine Sarah.”
Caroline had been put into a play by some fantastic mistake in the very year she left Bennington. It was at once apparent that she was one of those girls—there is only one in each generation—whose fortune it is to stand for something greater than talent and greater than beauty, and hence to be universally adored. The essential quality in Caroline was her youth. It aroused in the beholder the keenest, liveliest, and most exquisite sensation of pure joy, which is the rarest and finest of all sensations. Besides this, as I happen to know from private sources, this Caroline was a good-natured, well-bred, truthful, simple, kind, merry, and unaffected girl, and she smelled like a florist’s shop, which is not always the case with goddesses.
Humphrey observed this phenomenon with a concentration he had hitherto reserved for sections of the obscurer glands mounted on microscope slides. As they left the theatre he turned to his host and hostess. “Do you by any chance happen to know that girl?” He saw the question surprised them, so he continued without waiting for an answer. “Or do you know anyone who knows her?”
“No, Humphrey. She lives in the great world. She’s altogether beyond our class. She lives with people with the names of buildings and breakfast foods. And when she’s not on the stage she’s on yachts and polo fields and such like, and we wouldn’t know even this if we didn’t read the Sunday papers.”
Humphrey was in no way dismayed by this answer. He knew very well it needs only two or three introductions to bridge the gap between oneself and anyone anywhere in the world. He therefore asked everyone he knew, stating his purpose very clearly, and before many weeks had passed he found himself on a certain terrace, looking over Long Island Sound, being curiously regarded by the namesakes of buildings and breakfast foods, and talking to Caroline Coates. He found her amazingly ignorant of the immense importance of recent researches into the functions of the ductless glands, and it was a keen pleasure to him to tell her of the great strides in human health and happiness and longevity that were promised by the new knowledge. You may imagine the effect of this gaunt, gauche, hollow-cheeked young man, in altogether the wrong sort of jacket, sitting among the well-groomed crowd, lecturing a popular idol of twenty-three on the effects of certain unsavoury juices upon horrible insane little girls, who wallowed in their own dung. Of course, she fell wildly, madly, head-over-heels in love with him, and before the month was out it was announced they were engaged to be married.
Certain buildings rocked a little; certain breakfast foods popped and crackled even more snappishly than usual. But in the main people felt that it showed what a fine girl Caroline was, and yet it was in no way a threat, because it couldn’t possibly last. For example, what would happen when Humphrey went to Vienna, to work under the celebrated Vingleberg?
“I shall be there,” said Humphrey, “for three years straight. And if I get out of that lab for forty-eight consecutive hours any time in those three years, it’ll be because the place has burned down. I can’t get back here to see you.”
“Maybe I’ll come over between shows.”
“I wish you’d change your mind.”
“Darling, I’d like to get married now, just as much as you would. But I simply cannot walk out on a new show and leave everyone flat. Besides …”
“You want just one more.”
“Yes, I do. Maybe I could come when it’s over.”
“They say the damned thing’ll run for years.”
“It may fold up in six months. Humphrey, I know you think I’m just greedy to have a fuss made over me …” “I’ve never suggested such a thing.”
“But you think so. And if you didn’t you’d be crazy. Because I am, just a bit. But if ever I feel it getting a real hold on me…”
“And what do you think a real hold feels like? Like this?”
This terminated the conversation just as they were on an important point, which was rather a pity. Humphrey’s boat sailed; Caroline’s play opened; she was more idolized than ever, and everyone expected her to fall in love with someone else. But the first year passed, and the second year passed, and the third year wore on, and Caroline was still faithful. There were two excellent reasons for this. She was so extremely fond of Humphrey, and she was so extremely fond of herself.
When the three years were over, Humphrey Baxter was on the boat, and the boat was docking. For some weeks he had had a picture in his mind of how Caroline would look when she greeted him, and this picture was so much with him that when he was reading the right-hand page of his book, it hovered like an illustration on the left. Because this was the 1920’s, he had costumed her in silver fox and violets. He looked down on the landing stage, and saw plenty of fur and flowers, but he saw no sign of Caroline.
He went down the gangway and through the barrier. Two people came up and grasped his either hand. They were Dick and Stella Archer, the very people who had introduced him to Caroline in the first place, and thus established squatter’s rights in the relationship. They held his hands and looked at him, and uttered the pleasantest and friendliest of greetings. Humphrey looked this way and that. “Where’s Caroline?” said he.
The greetings were gone like a burst bubble. Three altogether greyer people stood, in an east wind, in the giant cheerlessness of the landing shed.
“Carrie couldn’t come,” said Stella.
There was no doubt at all that Humphrey’s mouth was sensitive, extremely sensitive. “Is she ill?” he asked.
“Well…” said Dick.
“She’s not ill,” said Stella. “But she couldn’t come.
Humphrey, get your things through, and we’ll go to lunch at the Revestel, and we’ll tell you about it.”
“Very well,” said Humphrey.
They went to the Revestel, where they had eaten so often in the old days. They ordered lunch, “I think it’s about time you told me what it is,” said Humphrey.
“Humphrey,” said Stella, “you’ve got to understand.”
It was perhaps, after all, rather difficult to decide whether Humphrey’s mouth was very sensitive or a little cruel. “Go on,” he said.
“We’re old friends,” said Dick, “we’ve known you and Carrie the hell of a long time, you know.” Humphrey looked at Stella.
“Carrie’s fallen in love, ” said Stella.
Humphrey closed his eyes. He might have been asleep, or dead. These skull-faced men can look astonishingly dead at times.
However, after a few long seconds he opened them again. Dick was saying something.
“When?” asked Humphrey of Stella.
“Last month, Humphrey. And almost at once it was too late to write.”
“He’s quite a decent sort,’’ said Dick. “In fact, it’s Brodie. ”
“Alan Brodie the tennis champion, ” said Stella.
“National Singles eight times,” said Dick. “The last six years in succession.”
“He talks like that because he is scared and miserable,” said Stella.
“Alan Brodie toured Europe the first year I was there,” said Humphrey. “He came to Vienna. There was some kind of fuss at his hotel. A mob of women scuffling. It doesn’t often happen over there.”
“He’s a popular idol,” said Stella.
“Do you mean like Carrie?”
“He’s a beautiful creature, Humphrey. He gives people the same sort of thrill that Carrie does. And the two of them together. . .!”
“She must have changed a great deal. ”
“Not really, Humphrey. I think she’s realized what she’s meant for.”
“She’s not meant for that sort of thing at all,” said Humphrey, not loudly or emphatically, but with complete finality.
“Humphrey, you’ll just have to wait till you see them together.”
“I can wait,’’ said Humphrey.
In New York it is seldom necessary to wait very long. Humphrey had a book to publish, and therefore a publisher, and therefore an invitation to lunch, and at a certain restaurant frequented by the people who are known to each other and to the gossip columnists. A woman for whose glands he would have paid a small fortune was sitting at the next table. Suddenly she uttered a sort of squeal. Then Humphrey, with a sensation that made of him a life-long opponent of electrocution, heard her utter the following words: “Oh, look! The lovers! ”
Humphrey had no reason to turn his head. He saw other people looking in the direction of the door. He had time enough to observe, on faces horribly besmeared with success, a look of simple pleasure such as made even those faces seem quite attractive. Humphrey not only observed this, but reflected on it. “It must be a good thing,” he thought, “that can so transfigure faces like these.”
All this time the faces in question were turning, like searchlights converging on an unseen objective, as they followed Caroline and her Alan Brodie. Suddenly Humphrey found himself caught as it were in the full blaze, which meant she was close behind him. He turned, and they met.
Everything was very pleasant, good-humoured and gay. Caroline and Brodie sat down with Humphrey and his publisher; other people came to greet them and were induced to sit down also. Everyone talked a great deal except Humphrey, who was not expected to talk a great deal.
The truth is, Humphrey had a decision to make. He was prepared to believe this new impression of his, that Caroline’s approaching marriage was a good thing. He wanted to believe it, as far at least as a man nearly insane with jealousy could be expected to. Indeed, as far as is consistent with that very human weakness, and with knowing deep down that the whole business was nothing but an imbecile, narcissistic delusion, it may be said he did believe it was a good thing, and that his impulse to kick it to pieces and drag Caroline out of it was barbarous, atavistic, and on no account to be indulged in.
Caroline helped him in this noble endeavour. Her every word and every look was exactly right for the occasion. She made no bones about asking the publisher to move so that she could sit next to Humphrey. She spoke to him with the utmost tenderness and concern. Her look appealed to him to understand. Her smile, and the glow about her, proclaimed that, even if he didn’t understand, there are values and glories in life that must be held paramount. And when she looked at her lover it was perfectly plain what those glories were. “So be it!” thought Humphrey. “It’s a good thing.’’ And he joined with the rest of the circle in watching the happy pair, and the light that was reflected on the faces of the others was reflected on his own, though no doubt in a broken sort of way.
There then ensued a divertissement such as often happens in restaurants frequented by celebrities. Sallow young men arrived with cameras and flash bulbs; Caroline and Alan were required to get together and to take first this pose and then that. The process was more elaborate than the usual snapping of pictures in a restaurant, partly because an important magazine was involved, partly because there was a great deal of by-play with the manager and with people at other tables. It was the sort of thing that would be an awful pain in the neck unless you like that sort of thing, in which case of course it could be very gratifying.
Caroline was flushed, smiling, and immensely gratified when she sat down again beside Humphrey. It is in such states of happy excitement that words pop out that are utterly different from what one really means, words that anyone but a cold-blooded scientist would have the decency to ignore. “Well?” said Caroline. “What do you think of us ?” She stopped herself suddenly, and looked at Humphrey in blushing embarrassment, for such words are not fit to be heard by a psychoanalyst, much less by a forsaken lover.
“I think,” said Humphrey, “You’re both charming, and I hope we’ll be friends. Why not bring your young man around to see me?”
“We go off on Friday, you know,” said Caroline, still confused. “There’s not a chance in the world before then. ”
“But you will when you get back?”
“Of course. We’d love to. But it won’t be for two months at least.”
“I can wait,” said Humphrey.
About a week before Alan and Caroline were due back from their honeymoon, Humphrey, who had been thinking a great deal while he waited, called up a man named Morgan. This was Albert Morgan, whose vocation it is to take the ambiguous and uncertain mutterings of scientists and transform them into clear, downright, and extremely thrilling articles for the weekly magazines. “Morgan,” said Humphrey, “It’s now three months since you last pestered me to give you some private information about Vingleberg’s experiments.”
Morgan explained why he had abandoned the attempt to get Humphrey to talk.
“If you think clams do that sort of thing,” said Humphrey, “I can understand why your articles are so extremely inaccurate. But, anyway, I’m not a clam, and to prove it I’m calling you to say I’ve just had a letter from Vingleberg. It concerns some tests we started just before I left. Now, listen; I shall tell you nothing that’s in the least confidential, because I know damned well I’ll see it in all the headlines tomorrow morning. But if you want to hear about twenty very carefully chosen words …”
“Hold it! ” said Morgan. “I’ll be right over.”
It was really remarkable what Morgan could do with twenty carefully chosen words. Or possibly Humphrey, being a guileless scientist, had been cozened into uttering twenty-five or even thirty. At all events the news broke, not in the headlines, it’s true, but in very impressive articles on important pages, to the effect that stocky, balding, Viennese endocrinologist Vingleberg and Johns Hopkins’ Humphrey Baxter had succeeded in isolating V.B. 282. And V.B. 282, it appeared, was neither more nor less than the glandular secretion that controls the aging of the tissues. And since we all have tissues, all aging, the promise in these paragraphs was seized on with avidity by all who read.
Meanwhile Caroline and Alan returned, and soon— very soon—they came round to Humphrey’s apartment for a drink. He received them with the utmost cordiality, and asked them a thousand questions about themselves, all of which they answered fully and frankly, like people who had nothing to conceal. They were so anxious to give him all the information that might be of interest to him that neither of them observed his reactions very closely. Had they done so, they might have noticed that at certain answers, particularly from Caroline, his cruel and sensitive mouth tightened itself with that painful satisfaction with which a pathologist might regard the slide which tells him that his difficult diagnosis was right in every particular, and his best friend needs immediate surgery.
I do not wish to convey that the conversation of the newly married pair was entirely egotistical. Before a single hour had passed Caroline herself broached a new subject. “Humphrey, dear,” she said, “we hear you’ve become famous. Is it true?”
“It’s true if you’ve heard it,” he replied. “That’s what fame is.”
“But is it true about eternal youth and all that?” “My dear girl, ” said he, “I think you’ve got all the scientists beaten as far as eternal youth is concerned. You looked eighteen when I met you, and you were twenty- three. Now you’re twenty-six. . .”
“Twenty-seven last week, Humphrey. ”
“And you still look eighteen. ”
“But I shan’t always.”
“I can’t say I’ve noticed myself slowing up any,” said Brodie. “But some of these youngsters from the West Coast . . .” He shook his head with the melancholy always induced in tennis players by a mention of the West Coast.
Humphrey ignored this interjection. His eyes were fixed on Caroline. “Of course you won’t be young always,” said he. “I imagine you’d hardly want to. Those people you see around, who never seem to mature, they belong to a particular frigid, inhibited, narcissistic type—they’re in love with themselves; they can’t love anyone else; therefore they don’t really live; therefore they don’t get any older.”
“Yes, yes. But this stuff you’ve discovered … ?”
“Oh! ” said Humphrey. And smiling, he shook his head.
“It’s not true then?” cried Caroline. Her disappointment would have moved a heart of stone.
“I told you it was all a lot of hooey,” said Brodie.
“These journalists always omit to mention the snags,” said Humphrey.
“And they wrote as if you’d really truly discovered it,” lamented Caroline.
“It’s completely untrue,” said Humphrey. “It was Vingleberg, almost entirely. ”
“You mean it has been found,” said Caroline, her face lighting up again.
“I didn’t say so, to the newspaper men,” said Humphrey. “However, they chose to take it that way. ” His tone suddenly became very cold and hard. “Now I want both of you to understand this. This is something no one in the world must know about.”
“Oh, yes! Yes!”
“Do you understand that, Brodie?”
“You can rely on me. ”
“Very well,” said Humphrey. He sat very still for a moment, as if conquering some final reluctance. Then he rose abruptly and went out of the room.
Caroline and Alan didn’t even glance at each other. They sat there looking at the door through which Humphrey had disappeared, expecting him to return with a crucible or an alembic at the very least. Instead, he came back almost immediately, dangling a piece of very ordinary string.
He smiled at his guests. He gave the string a jerk or two, and in through the door, leaping, frisking, clapping its paws in hot pursuit, came a kitten. Humphrey enticed it right over to where Caroline was sitting, made it jump once or twice. Then he picked it up and handed it to her.
“It’s sweet,’’ said Caroline. “But…”
“It had a birthday last week,” said Humphrey. “Five years old.”
Caroline dropped the kitten as if it were hot. “I hope people will be able to overcome that sort of instinctive prejudice,” said Humphrey, picking it up again and handing it back to her. “Before very long the world will have to get used to this sort of thing. ”
“But, Humphrey,” said Caroline, quite agitated, “it’s a dwarf or a midget or something. ”
“I assure you,” said Humphrey, “that kitten is as normal as any kitten you’ve ever seen in your life. ”
“But what will happen to it? Will it go on forever?” And, as Humphrey shook his head: “Will it go off bang, or crumble into dust or something?”
“Almost surely heart failure,” said Humphrey. “But only after forty years of glorious youth. That’s two hundred for a human being. But remember this, both of you …” He paused impressively.
“I went to Vienna,” said Humphrey very slowly and clearly, “exactly three years and four months ago. This kitten is five years old. So you see it’s Vingleberg’s discovery.”
“Oh, yes. Yes, of course. But they said in the papers it was human beings, ” said Caroline.
“I was helping Vingleberg adapt it to human beings.”
“And you succeeded?”
“Remember you have promised not to mention this to a living soul. Yes, we succeeded. To a limited extent, that is.”
Alan spoke in a voice at once impatient and businesslike. “Mr. Baxter, you said before very long the world . .
“Humphrey, ” said Humphrey with a friendly smile.
“Yes—Humphrey. But… but when?”
“It’s a question of finding a new source for the extract,” said Humphrey. “Or possibly making it synthetically, though I doubt we’ll ever do that. I should say thirty years. With luck—twenty.”
“Ah! ’’said Caroline. “I thought you meant now.”
“To get this stuff,” cried Humphrey, “we have to perform an extremely delicate operation, which unfortunately is fatal to the animal we get it from. So it’s terribly difficult.”
“What animal?” asked Alan.
“It’s quite a common one,” said Humphrey. “Man.” “Oh!”
“I think we’ve discovered another source, but it’ll take years to test, and more years to manufacture an adequate supply. That’s the point. That’s why I swore you to secrecy. All merry hell would break loose on this planet if people knew there was just some in existence, being kept for the privileged few.”
“There is some then?” said Caroline.
“The extract has been made,” said Humphrey, “in very odd circumstances, about which I’ll tell you exactly nothing—it has been made three times. ”
“Three!” exclaimed Alan, as if impressed by the coincidence, because there were three people right there in the room.
“I took one,” said Humphrey with a smile.
“And the others?” cried Caroline.
“Fortunately one dose is enough, ” continued Humphrey. “I don’t want to bore you with technicalities, but this is extremely interesting. This secretion actually changes the functions of two distinct glands, neither of them the gland from which we originally extracted it. Now …”
“But, Humphrey dear, what happened to the other two doses?”
“Vingleberg took one of them. He’s sixty-eight and as ugly as a monkey. He’ll stay sixty-eight, and stay ugly, for the next two hundred years. ”
“For God’s sake! ” said Alan bitterly.
“And the third?” asked Caroline.
“Caroline, my dear,” said Humphrey, “I brought that back with me. I needn’t tell you why.” As he spoke he unlocked a little drawer in his desk. “Here it is,” he said, holding an ordinary phial full of a colourless liquid. “Life, youth, love, for nearly two hundred years! Probably more, because in that time we’ll have found out all sorts of things. I nearly poured this away, the day I landed. ”
“Oh, Humphrey, I… what can I say?”
“I don’t feel that way any longer,” said Humphrey. “In fact, I didn’t from the very first moment I met you both. So I’d like you to have this, if you’d care for it. Call it a sort of belated wedding present. Here you are. To both of you.”
He held out the phial and, finding two hands extended to receive it, he brought them together. “But you do solemnly swear never to say a word?” he asked.
“I do,’’ said Caroline.
“I do,’’ said Alan.
“It sounds quite like the wedding service,” said Humphrey with a smile. He laid the phial in their joined hands. “But, of course, it isn’t. Well, there it is, for both of you.”
“We shall take half each, ” said Caroline.
“A hundred years apiece! ” said Alan.
“Here! Wait a minute! Hold on!’’ said Humphrey. “I’m afraid I’ve misled you. I suppose one works on a subject for years, and gets so close to it, one forgets other people don’t know the first thing. There was an interesting example of that…”
“Why can’t we take half each?” said Caroline rather loudly.
“Because, my dear, glands don’t understand arithmetic.
A half-changed gland won’t give you half two hundred years of youth and beauty. Oh, no! Caroline, 1 remember the very first time I met you I told you what people were like when certain glands were deranged. ”
“You mean those awful idiots?”
“Exactly. This is one dose here, and one dose only. It can be drunk in one gulp; it’s got a little flavour, but hardly unpleasant. It’s simple, but it’s dangerous if you fool with it—like dynamite. Keep it as a curiosity. It’s no use; it isn’t pretty; it’s a wedding present. At least it’s unique.’’
“Well, thank you, Humphrey. Thank you very, very much.’’
Thereupon Caroline and Alan went home, where they set this interesting little bottle on the mantelpiece. They then took a long look at it, and a long look at each other. Had it been possible they might have taken a long look in that enormous mirror, the public eye, before which— almost in which—their lives were lived, and in which they were the perfect lovers.
“You must take it right away,” said Alan. “I’ll get you a glass of water to drink afterwards. ”
“I shall do no such thing. Alan, I want you to drink it.”
“Darling, come here and look in the glass. Do you see? I’m being perfectly selfish. I want you to be like that forever. ”
“1 can see you, too, Alan. And that’s how you’ve got to be.”
Some compliments were exchanged. They were sincere and enthusiastic, and became more so. In the end the little bottle was entirely forgotten. But the next morning it was still there.
Alan and Caroline were as determined as ever, each that the other should drink the precious potion. It is impossible to say exactly what it was in their protestations that suggested that each of them may have thought a little about it during the night.
“We can’t spend the rest of our lives doing a sort of ‘After you, Alphonse,’” said Caroline. “I swear to you; I cross my heart and hope to die—I want you to take it. Now please do.”
“Get this straight once and for all,” said Alan. “You’re going to take it, and I’m not. I’m going to be like that fellow what’s his name who fell in love with—you know— the goddess.”
“But darling, think of your overhead smash! ”
“What’s wrong with it? Are you trying to tell me it’s not holding up?”
“Of course not. It’s wonderful how it holds up. Everyone says so. But you’ll be up against that awful boy from California in August, you know.”
“I can take care of that pip-squeak without any monkey gland,” said Alan. “I must say I’m rather suprised you think I can’t.”
“I don’t think you can’t,” said Caroline. “But …”
“Oh, there’s a ‘but’ to it!”
“But you are six years older than I am.”
“Oh, listen! A man’s got ten years at least on a woman. ” “Not every woman. It’s true some women like going around with men old enough to be their fathers.” She studied him thoughtfully. “I think you’ll look awfully distinguished with grey hair. ”
Alan looked unhappily into the mirror. Then he looked at Caroline. “I can’t imagine you with grey hair. So, you see, if I did drink it, just to please you …”
“I wish you would,” cried Caroline, whose basic goodness and kindness are a matter of record. “Alan, I won’t see you get old, and ugly, and ill . . . and die. I’d rather it was me. Truly I would. Rather than have you die and be left without you. ”
“And that goes for me,” said Alan, with just as much emphasis, but yet in a way that caused her to look at him searchingly.
“But you’d love me?” she asked, “even if I did get old? Wouldn’t you?” Then, giving him no time at all: “Or would you?”
“Carrie, you know I would.”
“No, you wouldn’t. But I would you.”
“If that’s what you think,” said Alan, “you’d better take it yourself. It’s obvious. Go on—take it. And let me get old.”
“I wish Humphrey had never given us the wretched stuff! ” cried Caroline. “Let’s pour it down the sink. Come on! Right now! ”
“Are you crazy?” cried Alan, snatching the phial from her hand. “The only bottle in the whole world! From what Baxter said, a man died for the sake of what’s in that bottle.”
“And he’d be awfully hurt if we threw it away,” murmured Caroline.
“To hell with him,” said Alan. “But after all it’s a wedding present.”
So they left it right there on the mantelpiece, which is a good place for a wedding present, and their wonderful life went on.
The only trouble was, they were both becoming age conscious to a degree which gradually amounted to an obsession. Caroline became extremely exacting at the beauty parlour. It was pathetic to see Alan hovering in front of the mirror, trying to decide if that was only a sun-bleached hair on his temple, or a grey one. Caroline watched him, and in the mirror he saw her watching him. They looked at themselves, and they looked at each other, and whoever looks in that way can always find something. I shall not describe the afternoon when Alan’s birthday cake was brought in with the wrong number of candles on it.
However, they both tried desperately to be brave about it, and Caroline might have succeeded.
“It won’t be so bad,” she said. “After all, we can grow old together.”
“A nice old couple!” said Alan. “Silver hair, plastic dentures . . .!”
“Even so, if we still love each other,” maintained Caroline.
“Sure! On a porch! With roses! ”
It was that very night, in the middle of the night, Alan was suddenly awakened. Caroline had turned the light on, and was bending over him, looking at him.
“What is it? What’s the matter? What are you looking at me for?”
“Oh, I was just looking at you.”
Most men, if they woke up in the middle of the night and found Caroline bending over them, would think they must have died and gone to Heaven, but Alan took it very peevishly. He seemed to think that she was examining him for enlarged pores, deepening wrinkles, sagging tissues, blurring lines, and other signs of incipient decay, and she found it hard to make a convincing denial, because she had been doing exactly that.
“I’ve a good mind to take that stuff and swallow it down right now,” said Alan in a rage.
“Yes, it’s just the sort of thing you would do,” retorted Caroline.
It will be seen that a situation had developed in which almost anything that either of them did would be certain to offend the other.
Things went on like this until the last day of the tournament at Forest Hills. It was on this day that Alan encountered the boy-wonder from California. He saw, as he had seen before, that the stripling had a game very noticeably lacking in finesse. He had tremendous force and a great deal of speed, but no finesse at all. His reflexes were uncanny; it was impossible to fool him by a change of pace. But reflexes are one thing; finesse is quite another. “Why the hell do I keep thinking about finesse?” said Alan to himself before the first set was over. When the last set was done, the answer was there as big as the scoreboard. The stringy boy from California put his hand on Alan’s shoulder as they walked off the court together. To a man who has been played to a stand-still, the hand of the victor is a heavy load to carry.
Nevertheless Alan took his defeat very well. All through the evening he firmly discounted the alibis that his friends invented for him. “The son of a bitch just plain battered me off the court,” said he with a rueful grin. Even when Caroline explained to everyone how tense and nervous he’d been lately, he showed no slightest sign of the rage and desolation which howled within him.
That night, in spite of his aching weariness, he lay awake long after Caroline was sound asleep. At last he got up and crept with infinite caution into the living-room. He took up the little phial, unscrewed the top, and drained the contents at a single gulp. He went to the little faucet behind the bar, and refilled the phial with water. He was about to replace the cap when a thought struck him, and he looked about among the bottles until he settled on some bitters. He added several drops to the water in the phial, and then put it back on the mantelpiece. Over the mantle- piece was a mirror; Alan took a long look in this mirror, and he smiled.
Now it happened that at this time Caroline was playing the part of a girl who was encumbered with an amiable fool of a younger sister. The girl who played this sister walked out in a fit of temper, and a new girl had to be found in a hurry. One of the producers, without even the excuse of a villainous motive, but out of sheer sottish good nature, nominated the niece of a friend of his. The girl had to be sent for and looked at, and at once everyone saw that she was the crazy kid sister in person, for she was nothing more or less than a long-limbed, wide-mouthed, dazzle-eyed version of Caroline in slang, so to speak, with a grin instead of a smile, and a stumble instead of Caroline’s wonderful walk; and instead of that look of spring morning joy that beamed from Caroline’s face the newcomer had an expression of slap-happy bewilderment, as if the world was playing a succession of highly diverting tricks on her.
Everyone thought she was charming, and everyone approved the choice, Caroline included. The first time she went on, Caroline stood in the wings to see how she took to it. She could see just by looking at her back that the girl lit up as she stepped into view of the audience. It hardly amounted to a premonition, but she stepped forward and watched attentively as the girl blundered through the agreeable little routine that the part called for. It was a scene that always drew a pleasant round of applause. This time, as the girl came off the stage: “My God!” thought Caroline, “that’s my applause. ”
She was perfectly right. The sound that was mounting out front was of a timbre discernibly more feverish, and with more of the humming undertone of the human voice in it, than the applause that rewards a good piece of acting. This was the sound made by an audience that has fallen in love. Caroline knew it well. She had heard it every night for a good many years, and she heard it that same night when, a few minutes later, she made her own entrance. But, rightly or wrongly, it now seemed to her that a certain amount was missing, and to Caroline’s ear that amount was exactly equal to what had been bestowed on the gangling youngster.
In the passage outside her dressing room a small group was listening with new respect to the producer who had found the girl. “What do you think of her, Carrie?” he asked amiably as Caroline approached.
“I think she’s a darling, ” replied Caroline.
“Carrie,’’ said he, “she’s the biggest discovery since you walked on that night in Newport.”
Caroline smiled and entered her dressing room. Through the half-open door she heard someone say, “But do you think she’ll make an actress?”
“Let me tell you, my boy,” returned the fortunate discoverer. “I was out front all through the second act. Now, when you’re talking to that kid the way I’m talking to you, what is she? Just a kid. But, my boy, when she walks on the stage—she’s YOUTH. The crazy, lovely, dizzy, unlucky, stumble-bum youth of this day and age, my boy! And she tears your goddam heart out. So I don’t give a hoot in hell if she ever learns to act. In fact I hope to God she never will. I’ve put on as many good shows as anyone else over the last fifteen years, and I remember what Wolcott Gibbs said about some dame quite a time ago. ‘When youth and beauty walk on the stage,’ he said, ‘to hell with Sarah Bernhardt.’ ”
Caroline closed her door.
That night she couldn’t get home fast enough. She felt she needed Alan. She felt like a wounded animal that instinctively seeks some bitter herb, the one thing that will cure it. She knew, as it were, the flavour of what she needed from him: harsh, astringent, healing to the bruised ego; the acrid emanation of . . . which of his qualities. “Anyway, it’s there,” she thought in the elevator. “It’s there in his ugly smile; in the way he . . .” Here she stopped short. “Alan’s smile? Ugly? I’m certainly good and mixed up. Never mind! At least I’m home.”
She went in, and the place was empty. The emptiness of one’s own home at midnight, when one has fled there for comfort, is an abomination and an injury’, and Caroline took it as such, though it was the most ordinary thing in the world for Alan to go out while she was at the theatre, and to get home after she did. Recently, he had done so almost every night, and she hadn’t given it a thought. But tonight she was injured and angry.
She walked from one room to another, looked at the largest photograph of Alan, and felt dissatisfied with his smile. “It’s not mature,’’ she said. She looked in the glass and tried, with considerable difficulty, a smile of her own. This she found even more unsatisfactory, but for the opposite reason. “I may as well face it,’’ said this valetudinarian of twenty-seven, “I’m old.’’ She stood there watching her reflection as she drew down the corners of her mouth, and in the stillness and silence of the apartment she could feel and almost hear the remorseless erosion of time. Moment after moment particles of skin wore away; hair follicles broke, splintered, and decayed like the roots of dead trees. All those little tubes and miles of thread-like channels in the inner organs were silting up like doomed rivers. And the glands, the all-important glands, were choking, clogging, abrading, falling apart. And she felt her marriage was falling apart, and Alan would be gone, and life would be gone.
Her eyes were already on the little phial. She took it up, she unscrewed the top, and she drank the contents. She was very calm and controlled as she went to the bathroom and refilled the phial with water, and added a little quinine to give it the bitter taste. She put the phial back in its place, eyed her reflection again as she did so, and called herself by a name so extremely coarse and offensive that it is almost unbelievable that so charming a girl as Caroline could have uttered the word.
When Alan returned that night, she did not ask him where he had been, but overwhelmed him with tenderness, feeling of course as if she had unspeakably betrayed him, and was going to desert him, and go away into an endless springtime, where he could never follow her.
This mood continued over the weeks that followed, and should, one would say, have been matched by an equal remorseful tenderness in Alan, but things are not always as they should be. The fact is, the only inconvenience he suffered from his little secret concerning the phial, was the thought of being married to an aging woman, which makes a man feel like a gigolo.
So time, which was the cause of all this trouble, went on, and both Caroline and Alan, secure in imperishable youth, saw in the other, as through a magnifying glass, more and more of the hastening signs of decay. Alan began to feel very much ill-used. He felt that Caroline at the very least should have provided herself with a younger sister. One night he dropped into the theatre and discovered that, in a manner of speaking, she had done so.
Soon after this Alan began to win his matches again, and by the same comfortable margin as before. The experts all noted that he had entirely regained his old fire and aggressiveness, and they confidently expected him to win back the championship the following year.
All this time, Humphrey, being trained to await patiently the outcome of his experiments, waited patiently. It may be asked how he knew that both of them would take the potion. The answer is, he was completely indifferent as to whether both of them took it, or one of them, or neither. It was his opinion that a good marriage would survive the phial, and a bad one would be wrecked by it, whichever way it happened.
Very late one evening his doorbell rang three or four times in rapid succession. He raised his eyebrows, and hurried to open it. There stood Caroline. Her hat, hair, dress, and all the rest of it looked just as usual; yet she gave the impression of having run all the way. Humphrey gave her his ugly smile, and, saying never a word, he led her through into the living-room, where she sat down, got up, walked about a little, and at last turned to him. “I’ve left Alan,” she said.
“These things happen, ” said Humphrey.
“It’s your fault,” she said. “Not really yours, perhaps, but it was that horrible stuff you gave us. Humphrey, I’m the lowest, the most despicable rat; I’m such a hypocrite and traitor as you can’t ever imagine.”
“I very much doubt it,” said Humphrey. “I suppose this means you drank the stuff.”
“Yes, behind his back,”
“And what did he say when you told him?”
“I haven’t told him, Humphrey. I wouldn’t dare. No. I filled the thing up with water and put some quinine in it, and…”
“Tell me why you put quinine in it. ”
“To give it that bitter taste. ”
“I see. Go on. ”
“Oh, I felt so horrible afterwards. I can’t tell you how awful I felt. I tried, I tried so hard to love him more than ever to make up for it. But you can’t make up for a thing like that. Besides…”
“Oh, it just ruined everything, in all sorts of ways. I suppose I’ve been watching him—you can’t help watching a person who’s aging in front of your eyes. And when you watch anyone like that you see all sorts of things wrong with them. And I know he’s felt it because he . . . well, he hasn’t been very nice lately. But it’s my fault, because 1 don’t love him any more. Maybe I never did. ” With that she began to weep, which showed a very proper feeling. “Don’t tell me,” said Humphrey, “that you don’t want to be young forever.”
“Not if I can’t ever love anyone again. ”
“There’s always yourself, you know. ”
“It’s cruel of you to say that. It’s cruel even if it’s true.” “It’s lonely being like this,” said Humphrey. “But that’s the price we pay for our little immortality. You, and me, and of course old Vingleberg. We’re animals of a new species. There’s us”—his hand swept a little circle around them—“and the rest of the world.” They sat for quite a long time in silence, alone together in this imaginary circle. The sensation was not at all unpleasant. “Of course,” added Humphrey, “I used to think we were like that for quite a different reason.”
“If it could . . . Oh, but I’m so worthless! I let you down. Now I’ve let him down.”
“The first was a mistake. It can be put right.”
“But not the second. That we can’t live with. ”
“Yes, I think so. You say the stuff tasted bitter? There’s no mistake about that, I suppose?”
“No, oh, no, it was very bitter.”
“You see, that has far-reaching implications. I used nothing but ordinary salt in the water.”
Source: John Collier, Fancies and Goodnights, 1965
♦ “Youth from Vienna” was adapted, directed, and hosted by Orson Welles as The Fountain of Youth, a 1956 TV pilot for a proposed anthology series.
♦ Also adapted by Ross Thomas for Tales of the Unexpected, July 2, 1983 (Season 6, Episode 13).