The Joke on Winnie

The Joke on Winnie  (1905) 
by Ralph Henry Barbour

Extracted from Everybody's magazine, March 1905 ("Little Stories of Real Life") pp. 416-419. Accompanying illustrations may be omitted.

The Joke on Winnie

By Ralph Henry Barbour

MR. WINIFRED LEONARD GREGG, ’03, better known as “Winnie,” sat, scowling fiercely, on the curbstone in front of the Porcellian Gate and whetted a Malay creese on the granite. He wore voluminous red trousers, a blue Zouave jacket embroidered with tarnished gilt braid, yellow stockings, crimson slippers turning up rakishly at the toes, a monstrous turban fashioned of a green curtain, a wide sash of purple, and a heavy, blue-black mustache. In the sash were thrust a Japanese sword, a Moorish pistol, and an Arab dagger. To passers he was an object of much interest; there was something wonderfully natural in the way in which he whetted the knife, ran his thumb along the edge, emitted a shrill whistle, and peered speculatively about him. But personally he was not happy.

He had been here since four o’clock; it was now almost six. There had been unseasonable ardor in the October sunshine, and his head ached. And he was getting very hungry without being at all certain whether dinner was to follow. In short, the baleful gleam in his usually calm brown eyes was not altogether assumed; he was beginning to feel his part—although he wasn’t sure whether his part was that of a Greek bandit, a Malay pirate, or a Turkish bashaw.

There were moments—brief, to be sure—when he doubted whether the honor of being one of the “first ten” taken out for the—but I mustn’t divulge the name of the society. Suffice it to state that it was designated by three Greek letters, and was one the selection for which raises a chap, metaphorically, from earth to Olympus.

As I was about to say, there were moments when Winnie doubted whether Olympus was worth the price of admission, whether the present and subsequent honor and benefit made up for the days of dumb servitude. The society had the reputation of conducting the hardest initiations of any in college; and after two days of it Winnie was not in a mood to question the society’s right to the reputation. He had secured only about nine hours of sleep in that period, had been forced to neglect studies, and now, watching the fellows pass grinning on their way to dinner, he was in a condition of mind closely bordering on mutiny. And, had not authority put in an appearance at that moment, there is no knowing to what lengths hunger and disgust would have led him. Authority appeared in the persons of Dick Wells and Halford Givens.

“Salute your superior officer!” commanded Dick.

Winnie scrambled to his benumbed feet and flourished his weapon. As he was all of six feet tall, he was rather more terrifying standing than sitting, and the near-by group of small boys melted instantly.

“Who put you here, Gregg?”

“Mr. Brown, sir.”

Being addressed as “Gregg” and calling Dick “sir” would have struck him as being distinctly funny at any other time. He had known Dick for years, had pummelled him often, had visited him, and played host to him, and, if that did not establish intimate relations, he was frantically, hopelessly in love with Dick’s sister Mildred. And here he was saying “sir” to him! Perhaps the incongruity of it struck Dick, too, for he grinned broadly. Then,

“What are your orders?” he asked.

“I was told to stay here looking fierce and sharpening this da—this knife until I got further orders.”

Dick turned to his companion:

“What do you say? Shall we take him along?”

“Better let him have his dinner first,” said Halford.

“Would you? Well, all right. Say, Gregg, you get your dinner; put your dress-suit and whatever you want for a day’s visit in a bag; and meet us at Leavitt’s at seven-thirty. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Winnie saluted with alacrity.

“All right. Hurry up.”

A gayly hued form flashed across the avenue, badly frightening an elderly lady in the act of boarding a Waverly car, and disappeared down Holyoke Street. The others watched the meteoric flight amusedly and then continued their way dinnerward.

“What are you going to do with him?” asked Halford.

“Oh, I don’t know; we can have some fun out of him somehow. There’s Mildred, too. I fancy Winnie’s a bit sweet on her, and it will fuss him horribly to have to cut up before her.”

“Kind of tough on him, isn’t it?” asked Halford doubtfully. “Couldn’t we cut out that part of it?”

“Cut it out? Nonsense! Mildred will think it’s great fun; she’s always making sport of him as it is; he’s so darned bashful, you know. And—” He stopped and viewed Halford ecstatically. “I’ve got the very thing! Say, we’ll have more sport than a barrel of monkeys!”

“How?” asked Halford.

But Dick had gone into a spasm of laughter.

The big, broad-shouldered youth who accompanied Dick and Halford down to Beverly that evening didn’t look much like the fellow who had adorned the curb of Massachusetts Avenue in the afternoon. He had temporarily at least regained his self-respect; he was no longer a bashaw or pirate, but Winifred Leonard Gregg, junior at Harvard, tackle on the football eleven, cover-point on the hockey team, and member of The Society. He was rehabilitated and in his right mind. And to add to his content, he was going to stay for a day with Dick’s people and see Dick’s sister Mildred, who, despite the very evident fact that she was not for him, was still the Only Girl in the World. And it was good, oh, mighty good! of Dick to take pity on him and give him a day away from initiation. It wasn’t a bit like Dick, to be sure, but that didn’t make it any less welcome. For a long while he had honestly tried to like Dick for the sake of his sister; to-night he began to think that perhaps he might in time learn to like him for himself.

Mildred met them at the station with the cart. She was a beauty; all the North Shore agreed on that. She was wholesome-looking, too, with a good supply of animal spirits and a well-developed sense of humor. Winnie sometimes regretted the latter; he was too often the subject of her jokes and banter to appreciate that attribute. To-night she greeted him as usual, with a firm hand-clasp, an even look from her blue eyes, and a half-mocking, half-kindly smile on her red lips. That evening he entirely forgot that he was in the toils. And Mildred was positively kind; had he been less modest he would have translated the flattering manner in which she listened to his very occasional remarks into encouragement. But being Winnie he merely grew red with pleasure and stammered in his excitement. Afterward he dreamed wonderful, exquisite dreams in which he actually made love to Dick’s sister and won her.

He rose in the morning with his sense of gratitude to Dick enhanced. The world was bright, the sea glittered, and the air was heavy with the sparkle of October. Then came the awakening.

“Hal and I are going over to the links,” announced Dick after breakfast, “and Mildred’s going to take you out to drive. Before you get back you are to propose to her, Gregg. Understand? Formally and as though you meant it. Don’t try to cut any of the agony, now, because she’ll tell me when you get back.”

“I’m—I’m damned if I do!” exploded Winnie, his eyes large with horror.

“You’ll have to,” answered Dick calmly. “How are you going to get out of it?”

“I’ll—I’ll throw up the Society!”

“You couldn’t!”

“You’ve no right to ask me to do such a thing!” stammered Winnie.

“I don’t ask it; I tell you to. And you’ll do it. You’re under—well, remember what you undertook when you were called out. You can’t go back on that. No one but a cad would squeal. Besides, it’s never been done.”

Perhaps the last argument bore more weight than the others. Winnie had all the dislike of his set for the thing that wasn’t done. He swallowed hard a few times, glared at Dick, and finally found his tongue.

“All right,” he said, in a voice like the tender purring of a tiger about to begin a meal. “All right; I’ll do it. But afterward, when this thing’s over with. I’ll give you the biggest licking you ever had, Dick.”

Dick laughed derisively.

“When you propose,” he said, “you’re to take her hand.”

Winnie bolted for the veranda and fresh air.

At ten o’clock the trap was brought around, Mildred took her seat, and Winnie followed with the blithe countenance of a French aristocrat entering the tumbril for a short jaunt to the guillotine. He was very silent, very pale, very unhappy. Mildred, on the other hand, seemed in the highest spirits. She rattled away on a dozen subjects and Winnie said “Yes” and “No” and “Really!” in one key while the brown cob covered four miles of macadam. Now and then Mildred glanced at him from the corners of her eyes in a way that might have told Winnie a good deal had he seen it. And there was a disk of red in each of her cheeks which might have told him still more. But his gaze was on the horse’s ears.

“I think we had better turn now,” said Mildred.

He gasped.

“No, no, please, not yet! The—the scenery, you know, is so——

“I didn’t think you cared for scenery,” she said.

“I don’t—that is. I’m very fond of scenery like this, Miss Wells.”

“Oh!” she said. They drove another mile. Winnie struggled with his fear. At last the girl turned homeward, and he made no protest; he was too desperate, too miserable. On the way back he counted the miles. At the beginning of the fifth he would do it! Never were four miles laid behind as those were. Beyond was the brown house that marked the commencement of the last mile. He would wait until—he closed his eyes, gripped his hands fiercely, choked twice, and then turned and faced her in the calmness of utter desperation.

“Miss Wells!”

She started and then laughed a trifle nervously.

“Mr. Gregg?”

He cast a despairing look about him as though meditating flight, gulped, and——

“I love you,” he said in even, emotionless tones like one talking in his sleep, and he reached over and seized her hand as though it were a foot-ball which the opponents had fumbled. The girl’s face was suddenly averted and her shoulders trembled.

“Will you marry me?” continued Winnie, pale, determined. Then he dropped her hand, emitted a monstrous sigh of relief and awaited the storm. Mildred turned. Her cheeks were crimson and her lips were trembling, but her eyes never faltered.

“Yes,” she said calmly.

If a bomb had exploded in the bottom of the cart, his countenance could not have expressed more amazement. His mouth dropped open and he stared at her for a moment with round eyes.

“I—I beg your pardon?” he ejaculated finally.

“I said yes,” was the answer.

“But—but you mustn’t!” he exclaimed in dismay. “You don’t understand——!”

“Mustn’t?” she asked. “What do you mean?”

“Why—why—you see—it was a sort of joke that Dick——

“Yes, he told me.”

“Then you—you were only in fun?”

“Were you?” she asked.

He gasped, wondered, saw the color coming and going in her cheek, and suddenly had an illumination of mind. He took a deep breath.

“Good Lord, no!” he shouted. The cob, frightened, plunged wildly.

“You’ll—you’ll have to let me have my hands, I guess,” she murmured.

“Thought you two were lost,” said Dick, who was awaiting them on the veranda when they drove up an hour later. He viewed Winnie’s radiant expression suspiciously and turned to his sister.

“Did he do it?” he asked, with a grin at Winnie.

“Yes,” said Mildred demurely.

“Oh! I thought—what are you giggling about?”

“Was I giggling?” she asked sweetly. Winnie came over and held out his hand.

“I’ll take back what I said, Dick. That licking is called off.” He shook the hand, which Dick wonderingly yielded, enthusiastically. “It’s all right, old man. We—she—that is, she consented!”

“Consented! Do you mean—?” He turned to his sister. She nodded demurely.

“But—but—didn’t you understand it was just a joke on Winnie?” cried her brother.

“I knew it was a joke, Dick,” she answered sweetly, “but—are you sure it was on Winnie?”

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1944, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.