Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/268

This page has been validated.



Glad of Pedro’s important clatter, Raphael moved hurriedly about the room, and did not take this seat until the bundle of rags that he carried was exhausted.

Immediately, it seemed, the programme was under way. Ramon, all bland smiles and eloquent gestures, explained to the guests how the Third Grade “learn to be the good American,” and sat down, dimpling under a thunderous applause. People whispered about him and smiled.

Meantime, Raphael, in his corner near the big register, had begun to grow uncomfortably warm. Pedro had been liberal in his construction of what Ticher meant by “some heat.” The perspiration was running out from under Raphael’s heavy hair and trickling down his face. He felt unpleasantly sticky under his coat—but he did not take it off.

When the fateful moment came at which he must rise and make his way to the front of the room, he was so utterly palsied with fear that all his conscious effort was directed to guiding his stumbling feet up the aisle. At one side of the open space used as a stage he took his place near the gayly coloured letters that it was his present duty to display.

The eleven speakers also took their places along the front of the stage with much crowding and surging of the line. Raphael gripped the letter “H” and waited. Anita touched the ruffles of her skirt, coughed delicately behind a lace-edged handkerchief, and opened her mouth to speak. But suddenly Miss Lipscomb, who had been looking strangely at Raphael, rose and stepped over to him.

“You must take off your coat, Raphael,” she said.

Raphael desperately cleared his: throat. The eyes he turned upon her were piteous as he murmured in his thin, high voice, “No, no! Cold, Ticher. Too cold.”

“Nonsense, Raphael,” she whispered. “You’re dripping with perspiration; you’ll be sick.”

And, disregarding the frantic appeal in his upturned face, she firmly drew off his coat and threw it over her arm.

A gasp that was almost a shriek went up from the shocked Third Grade. For under that coat, above the belt line, was nothing but Raphael. Ticher hastily shrouded his shrinking nudity again in: the coat and signalled peremptorily for the performance to go on.

What followed was to Raphael a waking nightmare. Sweat-