Initiation by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

Allured by the published transactions of the club, our friend Lawton presented himself at the headquarters toward lunch time and announced himself as a candidate for membership. An executive session was hastily convened. Endymion broke the news to the candidate that initiates in this select organization are expected to entertain the club at luncheon. To the surprise of the club, our genial visitor neither shrank nor quailed. His face was bland and his bearing ambitious in the extreme. Very well, he said; as long as it isn’t the Beaux Arts cafe.

The itinerary of the club for this day had already been arranged by the secretary. The two charter members, plus the high-spirited acolyte, made their way along West Street toward the Cortlandt Street ferry. It was plain from the outset that fortune had favoured the organization with a new member of the most sparkling quality. Every few yards a gallant witticism fell from him. Some of these the two others were able to juggle and return, but many were too flashing for them to cope with. In front of the ferry house lay a deep and quaggish puddle of slime, crossable only by ginger-footed work upon sheets of tin. Endymion rafted his tenuous form across with a delicate straddle of spidery limbs. The secretary followed, with a more solid squashing technique. “Ha,” cried the new member; “grace before meat!” Endymion and the secretary exchanged secret glances. Lawton, although he knew it not, was elected from that moment.

The ritual of the club, while stern toward initiates, is not brutal. Since you are bursar for the lunch, said the secretary, I will buy the ferry tickets, and he did so. On the boat these carefree men gazed blithely upon the shipping. “Little did I think,” said Lawton, “that I was going for a sea voyage.” “That,” said the club, “is the kind of fellows we are. Whimsical. As soon as we think of a thing, we don’t do it.”

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“Is that the Leviathan up there?” said one of the members, pointing toward a gray hull on the Hoboken horizon. No one knew, but the secretary was reminded of an adventure during the war. “One time I was crossing on this ferry,” he said, “and the Leviathan passed right by us. It was just at dusk and her camouflage was wonderful. Her blotches and stripes were so arranged that from a little distance, in the twilight, she gave the impression of a much smaller vessel, going the other way. All her upper works seemed to fade out in the haze and she became a much smaller ship.” “That would be a wonderful plan for some of these copious dowagers one sees,” said the irreverent Lawton. “Yes,” we said; “instead of a stout lady going in to dinner, you would see a slim flapper coming out.”

Something was then said about a good friend of the club who had at one time worked for the Y.M.C.A. “What is he doing now?” asked one. “He’s with Grace and Company,” said the secretary. The candidate was unabashed. “Think,” he said, “of a Y.M.C.A. man getting grace at last.”

The club found the Jersey City terminal much as usual, and to our surprise the candidate kept up his courage nobly as he was steered toward the place of penance, being the station lunch counter. The club remembered this as a place of excellent food in days gone by, when trains from Philadelphia stopped here instead of at the Penn. Station. Placing the host carefully in the middle, the three sat down at the curving marble slab. The waiters immediately sensed that something unusual was toward. Two dashed up with courteous attentions. It was surmised by the club that the trio had happened to sit at a spot where the jurisdictions of two waiters met. Both the wings of the trio waved the waiters toward the blushing novice, making it plain that upon him lay all responsibility. “It is obvious,” remarked the secretary, “that you, Lawton, are right on the boundary line where two waiters meet. You will have to tip them both.”

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The new member was game. “Well,” he said, without a trace of nervousness; “what’ll you have?” The choice fell upon breast of lamb. The secretary asked for iced tea. Endymion, more ruthless, ordered ginger ale. When the ginger ale came, Lawton, still waggish, observed the label, which was one of the many imitations of a well-known brand. “The man who invented the diamond-shaped label,” said Lawton, “was certainly a pathfinder in the wilderness of the ginger ale business. This ginger ale,” said Lawton, tasting it, “is carefully warmed, like old claret.”

The club sought to keep their host’s mind off the painful topic of viands. “Sitting here makes one feel as though he ought to be going to take a train somewhere,” said one. “Yes, the express for Weehawken,” said the vivacious host. From this it was only a step to speaking of Brooklyn. The secretary explained that the club had outlined a careful itinerary in that borough for proximate pursuit. Lawton told that he had at one time written an essay on the effect of Brooklyn on the dialogue of the American drama. “It is the butt end of Long Island,” he cried, with cruel mirth. Lovers of Brooklyn in the club nearly blackballed him for this.

With ice cream and cottage pudding, the admirable menu proceeded. The waiters conferred secretly together. They carefully noted the cheerful carving of the host’s brow. They will know him again. A man who bursts in suddenly upon a railroad lunch counter and pays for three such meals, here is an event in the grim routine! But perhaps the two charter members were feeling pangs of conscience. “Come,” they said, “at least let us split the ginger ale checks.” But Lawton was seeing it through. Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note, as our host to the cashier we hurried. The secretary bought a penny box of matches and lit the great man’s cigarette for him. Endymion, equally stirred, ran to buy the ferry tickets for the return voyage. “This time,” he said, “I will be the ferry godmother.”

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On the homeward passage a little drowse fell upon the two charter members. They had lunched more richly than was their wont. “Oh, these distressing, heavy lunches!” as Aldous Huxley cries in one of his poems. But Lawton was still of bright vivacity. At that time the club was perturbed by the coming Harding-Cox election. “Which of the vice-presidents are you going to vote for?” he cried, and then said: “It looks to me like Debs or dubs.”

Endymion and the secretary looked at each other solemnly. The time had come. “I, Endymion,” said the chairman, “take thee, Lawton, to have and to hold, as a member of the club.”

And the secretary tenderly pronounced the society’s formula for such occasions: “There is no inanition in an initiation.”

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