“Baby Talk” by Rupert Hughes

A staunch classics professor ditches his academic rigidity for a budding romance.

An office

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


The wisest thing Professor Stuart Litton was ever caught at was the thing he was most ashamed of. He had begun to accumulate knowledge at an age when most boys are learning to fight and to explain at home how they got their clothes torn. He wore out spectacles almost as fast as his brothers wore out copper-toed boots; but he did not begin to acquire wisdom until he was just making forty. Up to that time, if the serpent is the standard, Professor Litton was about as wise as an angleworm.

He submerged himself in books for nearly 40 years; and then — in the words of Leonard Teed — then he “came up for air.” This man Teed was the complete opposite of Litton. For one thing he was the liveliest young student in the university where Litton was the solemnest old professor. Teed had scientific ambitions and hated Greek and Latin, which Litton felt almost necessary to salvation. Teed regarded Litton and his Latin as the sole obstacles to his success in college; and, though Litton was too much of a gentleheart to hate anybody, if he could have hated anybody it would have been Teed. A girl was concerned in one of their earliest encounters, though Litton’s share in it was as unromantic as possible.

Teed, it seems, had violated one of the rules at Webster University. He had chatted with Miss Fannie Newman — a pretty student in the Woman’s College — after nine o’clock; nay, more, he had sat on a campus bench bidding her good night for half an hour, and, with that brilliant mathematical mind of his, had selected the bench at the greatest possible distance from the smallest cluster of lamp-posts.

On this account he was haled before the disciplinary committee of the faculty. Litton happened to be on that committee. Teed made the best fight he could. He showed himself a Greek — in argument at least — and, like an old sophist, he tried to prove: first, that he was not on the campus with the girl; second, that if he had been it was too dark for them to be seen; and third, that he was engaged to the girl anyway and had a right to spoon with her.

The accusing witness was a janitor whom Teed had played various jokes on and had neglected to appease with tips. Teed submitted him to a fierce cross-examination; forced him to admit that he could not see the loving couple and had identified them solely by their voices. Teed insisted on the exact words overheard; and, as often happens to the too-ardent cross-examiner, he got what he asked for and wished he had not. The janitor, blushing at what he remembered, pleaded:

“You don’t vant I should say it exectly vat I heered?”

“Exactly!” Teed answered in his iciest tone.

“Veil,” the janitor mumbled, “it vas such a foolish talk as — but — veil, ven I come by I hear voman’s voice says: ‘Me loafs oo besser as oo loafs me!” Teed flushed and the Faculty sat forward. “Den I hear man’s voice says: `Nozie-vozie, mezie-vezie — ’ Must I got to tell it all?”

“Go on!” said Teed grimly; and the old German mopped his brow with anguish and snorted with rage:

“‘Mezie-vezie loafs oozie-voozie bestest!’”

The purple-faced members of the faculty were hanging on to their own safety valves to keep from exploding — all save Professor Litton, who felt that his hearing must be defective. Teed, fighting in the last ditch, said:

“But such language does not prove the identity of the — er — participants. You said you knew positively.”

The janitor, writhing with disgust and indignation, went on:

“Ven I hear such nonsunse I stop and listen if it is two people escapet from de loonatic house. And den young voman says: ‘It doesn’t loaf its Fannie-vannie one teeny-veeny mite!’ And young man says: ‘So sure my name iss Lennie Teedie-veedie, little Fannie Newman iss de onliest gerl I ever loafed!’”

The cross-examiner crumpled up in a chair, while the members of the faculty behaved like children bursting with giggles in church — all save Litton, who had listened with increasing amazement and now leaned forward to demand of the janitor:

“Mr. Kraus, you don’t mean to say that two of our students actually disgraced this institution with conversation that would be appropriate only to a nursery?”

Mr. Kraus thundered:

“De talk of dose stoodents vould disgrace de nursery! It vas so sickenink I can’t forget ut. I try to, but I keep rememberink Oozie-voozie! Mezie-vezie!”

Mr. Kraus was excused in a state of hydrophobic rage and Teed withdrew in all meekness.

Litton had fallen into a stupor of despair at the futility of learning. He remained in a state of coma while the rest of the committee laughed over the familiar idiocies and debated a verdict. Two of the professors, touched by some reminiscence of romance, voted to ignore the incident as a trivial commonplace of youth. Two others, though full of sympathy for Teed — Miss Fannie was very pretty — voted for his suspension as a necessary example, lest the campus be overrun by duets in lovers’ Latin. The result was a tie and Litton was roused from his trance to cast the deciding vote.

Now Professor Litton had read a vast amount about love. The classics are full of its every imaginable version or perversion; but Litton had seen it expressed only in the polished phrases of Anacreon, Bion, Propertius and the others. He had not guessed that, however these men polished their verses, they doubtless addressed their sweethearts with all the imbecility of sincerity.

Litton’s own experience gave him little help. In his late youth he had thought himself in love twice and had expressed his fiery emotions in a Latin epistle, an elegy, and a number of very correct Alcaics. They pleased his teacher, but frightened the spectacles off one bookish young woman, and drove the other to the arms of a prescription clerk, who knew no Latin except what was on his drug bottles.

Litton had thenceforward been wedded to knowledge. He read nearly everything ancient, but he must have forgotten the sentence of Publilius Syrus: “Even a god could hardly love and be wise.” He felt no mercy in his soft heart for the soft-headed Teed. He was a worshiper of language for its own sake and cast a vote accordingly.

“I do not question the propriety of the conduct of these young people,” he said. “Mr. Teed claims to be engaged to the estimable young woman.”

“Ah!” said Professor Mackail delightedly. Teed was the brightest pupil in his laboratory and he had voted for acquittal. His joy vanished as Professor Litton went on:

“But” — he spoke the word with emphasis — “but, waiving all questions of propriety, I do feel that we should administer a stinging rebuke to the use of such appallingly infantile language by one of our students. Surely a man’s culture should show itself, above all, in the addresses he pays to the young lady of his choice. What vanity to build and conduct a great institution of learning, such as this aims to be, and then permit one of its pupils to express his regard for a student in the Annex in such language as even Mr. Kraus was reluctant to quote: ‘Mezie-wezie loves oozie-woozie bestest!’ — if I remember rightly. Really, gentlemen, if this is permitted we might as well change the university to a kindergarten. For his own sake I vote that Mr. Teed be given six months of meditation at home; and I trust that the Faculty of the Woman’s College will have a similar regard for its ideals and the welfare of the misguided young woman.”

Professor Mackail protested furiously, but his advocacy only embittered Litton — for Mackail was the leader of the faction that had tried for years to place Webster University in line with others by removing Latin and Greek from the position of required studies.

Mackail and his crew pretended that French and German, or science, were appropriate substitutes for the classic languages in the case of those whose tastes were not scholastic; but to Litton it was a religion that no man should be allowed to spend four years in college without at least rubbing up against Homer, Æschylus, Vergil and Horace.

As Litton put it: “No man has a right to an Alma Mater who doesn’t know what the words mean; and nobody has a right to graduate without knowing at least enough Latin to read his own diploma.”

This old war had been fought with all the bitterness and professional jealousy of scholarship, which rival those of religion and exceed those of the stage. For yet a while Litton and his followers had vanquished opposition. He little dreamed what he was preparing for himself in punishing Teed.

Teed accepted his banishment with poor grace but a magnificent determination to come back and graduate. The effect of his punishment was shown when, after six months of rustic meditation, he set out for the university, leaving behind him his Fannie, who had been too timid to return to the scene of her discomfiture. Teed’s goodbye words ran something like this:

“Bess its ickle heartums! Don’t se care! Soonie as Teedle-weedle gets graduated he’ll get fine job and marry his Fansy-Pansy very first sing.” Then he kissed her “Goo’byjums” — and went back with the face of a Regulus returning to be tortured by the enemy.



Man and womanTeed had a splendid mind for everything material and modern, but he could not and would not master the languages he called dead. His mistranslations of the classics were themselves classics. They sent the other students into uproars; but Litton saw nothing funny in them. When he received Teed’s examination papers he marked them with a pitiless exactitude.

Teed reached the end of his Junior year with a heap of conditions in the classics. Litton insisted that he should not be allowed to graduate until he cleaned them up. This meant that Teed must tutor all through his last vacation or carry double work throughout his Senior year — when he expected to play some patriotic or Alma-Matriotic football.

Teed had no intention of enduring either of these inconveniences; he trusted to fate to inspire him somehow with some scheme for attaining his diploma without delay. His future job depended on his diploma — and his girl depended on his job.

He did not intend to be kept from either by any ancient authors. He had not the faintest idea how he was going to bridge that chasm — but, as he wrote to his Fansy-Pansy, “Love will find the way.”

While Teed was taking thought for the beginning of his lifework Litton was completing his — or at least he thought he was. With the splendid devotion of the scholar he had selected for his contribution to human welfare the best possible edition of the work least likely to be read by anybody. A firm of publishers had kindly consented to print it — at Litton’s expense.

Litton would donate a copy to his own university; two or three college libraries would purchase copies out of respect to the learned professor; and Litton would give away a few more. The rest would stand in an undisturbed stack of increasing dust, there to remain unread as long perhaps as the myriads of Babylonian classics that Assurbani-pal had copied in brick volumes for his great library at Nineveh.

Professor Litton had chosen for his lifework a recension of the ponderous epic in 48 books that old Nonnus wrote in Egypt, the labyrinthine Dionysiaka describing the voyage of Bacchus to India and back.

A pretty theme for an old water-drinker who had never tasted wine! But Litton toiled over the Greek text, added copious notes as to minute variants, appallingly learned prolegomena, an index, and finally an English version in prose. He had begun to translate it into hexameters, but he feared that he would never live to finish it. It was hard enough for a man like Litton to express at all the florid spirit of an author whose theme was “the voluptuous phalanxes” of Bacchus’ army — “the heroic race of such unusual warriors; the shaggy satyrs; the breed of centaurs; the tribes of Sileni, whose legs bristle with hair; and the battalions of Bassarids.”

He had kept at it all these years, however, and it was ready now for the eyes of a world that would never see it. He had watched it through the compositors’ hands, keeping a tireless eye on the infinite nuisance of Greek accents.

He had read the galley proofs, the page proofs, and now at last the black-bordered foundry proofs.

He scorned to write the bastard “O. K.” of approval and wrote, instead, a stately “Imprimatur.” He placed the proofs in their envelope and sealed it with lips that trembled like a priest’s when giving an illuminated Gospel a ritual kiss.

The hour was late when Professor Litton finished. He stamped the brown-paper envelope and went down the steps of the boarding house that had been for years his nearest approach to a home. He left the precious envelope on the halltree, whence it would be taken to the post office for the first mail.

Feeling the need of a breath of air he stepped out on the porch. It was a spring midnight and the college roofs were wonderful under the quivering moon — or tremolo sub himine, as he remembered it. And he remembered how Quintus Smyrnæus had said that the Amazon queen walked among her outshone handmaidens “as when, on the wide heavens, among the stars, the divine Selene moves preeminent among them all.”

He thought of everything in terms of the past; yet, when he heard, mingled with the vague rumor of the night, a distant song of befuddled collegians, among whose voices Teed’s soared preeminent above the key, he was not pleasantly reminded of the tipsy army of Dionysus. He was revolted and, returning to his solitude, closed an indignant door on the disgrace.

Poor old Litton! His learning had so frail a connection with the life about him! Steeped in the classics and acquainted with the minutest details of their texts, he never caught their spirit; never seemed to realize that they are classics because their authors were so close to life and imbued them with such vitality that time has not yet rendered them obsolete.

He had hardly suspected the mischief that is in them. A more innocent man could hardly be imagined or one more versed in the lore of evil. Persons who believe that what is called immoral literature has a debasing effect must overlook such men as Litton. He dwelt among those Greek and Roman authors who excelled in exploiting the basest emotions and made poems out of putridity.

He read in the original those terrifying pages that nobody has ever dared to put into English without paraphrase — the polished infamies of Martial; the exquisite atrocities of Theocritus and Catullus. Yet these books left him as unsullied as water leaves a duck’s back. They infected him no more than a medical work gives the doctor that studies it the diseases it describes. The appallingly learned Professor Litton was a babe in arms compared with many of his pupils, who read little — or with the janitor, who read nothing at all.

And now, arrived at a scant forty and looking a neglected fifty, short-sighted, stoop-shouldered and absent-minded to a proverb, he cast a last fond look at the parcel containing his translation of the Bacchic epic and climbed the stairs to his bachelor bedroom, took off his shabby garments and stretched himself out in the illiterate sleep of a tired farmhand.

Just one dream he had — a nightmare in which he read a printed copy of his work, and a wrongly accented enclitic stuck out from one of the pages like a sore thumb. He woke in a cold sweat, ran to his duplicate proofs, found that his text was correct — and went back to bed contented.

Of such things his terrors and his joys had consisted all his years.



Man reading note

The next morning, he felt like a laborer whose factory has closed. Every day would be Sunday hereafter until he got another job. In this unwonted sloth he dawdled over his porridge, his weak tea and his morning paper.

Headlines caught his eyes shouting the familiar name of Joel Brown — familiar to the world at large because of the man’s tremendous success and relentless severity in business. Brown fell in love with one of those shy, sly young women who make a business of millionaires. He fell out with a thud and his Flossie entered a suit for breach of promise, submitting selected letters of Brown’s as proofs of his guile and of her weak, womanly trust.

The newspapers pounced on them with joy, as cats pounce and purr on catnip. The whole country studied Brown’s letters with the rapture of eavesdropping. Such letters! Such oozing molasses of sentiment! Such elephantine coquetry! Joel weighed 218 pounds and called himself Little Brownie and Pet Chickie!

This was the literature that the bewildered Litton found in the first paper he had read carefully since he came up for air. One of the letters ran something like this:

Angel of the skies! My own Flossie-dovelet! Your Little Brownie has not seenest thee for a whole half a day, and he is pining, starving, famishing, perishing for a word from your blushing liplets. Oh, my Peaches and Cream! Oh, my Sugar Plum! How can your Pet Chickie live the eternity until he claspeths thee again this evening? When can your Brownie-wownie call you all his ownest only one? Ten billion kisses I send you from

Your own, owner, ownest,



The X’s, Flossie explained, indicated kisses — a dozen to an X.

The jury laughed Little Brownie out of court after pinning a twenty-five-thousand-dollar verdict to his coattail. The nation elected him the Pantaloon of the hour and pounded him with bladders and slapsticks.

Professor Litton had heard nothing of the preliminary fanfare of the suit. As he read of it now he was too much puzzled to be amused. He read with the same incredulity he had felt when he heard the janitor quote Teed’s remarks to his fiancée. Litton called his landlady’s attention to the remarkable case. She had been reading it, with greedyglee, every morning. She had had such letters herself in her better days. She felt sorry for poor Mr. Brown and sorrier for the poor professor when he said:

“Poor Mr. Brown must have gone quite insane. Nobody could have built up such wealth without brains; yet nobody with brains could have written such letters. Ergo, he has lost his brains.”

“You’ll be late to prayers,” was all the landlady said. She treated Litton as if he were a half-witted son. And he obeyed her, forsook his unfinished tea and hurried away to the chapel. Thence he went to his classroom, where Teed achieved some further miracles of mistranslation. Litton thought how curious it was that this young man, of whom his scientific professor spoke so highly, should have fallen into the same delirium of amorous idiocy as the famous plutocrat, Joel Brown.

When the class was dismissed he sank back in his chair by the classroom window. It was wide ajar today for the first time since winter. April, like an early morning housemaid, was throwing open all the windows of the world. Litton felt a delicious lassitude; he was bewildered with leisure. A kind of sweet loneliness fell on him. He had made no provision for times like these.

He sat back and twiddled his thumbs. His eyes roved lazily about the campus. The wind that fluttered the sparse forelock on his overweening forehead hummed in his ears. It had a distance in it. It brought soft cadences of faint voices from the athletic field. They seemed to come from no place nearer than the Athenian Academe.

Along the paths of the campus a few women were sauntering, for the students and teachers in the Women’s Annex had the privilege of the libraries, the laboratories and lecture rooms. Across Litton’s field of view passed a figure that caught his eye. Absently he followed it as it enlarged with approach. He realized that it was Professor Martha Binley, Ph. D., who taught Greek over there in the Annex.

“How well she is looking!” he mused.

The very thought startled him, as if someone had spoken unexpectedly. He wondered that he had noticed her appearance. After the windowsill blotted her from view he still wondered, dallying comfortably with the reverie.



Man with cane outside. Woman nearby

There was a knock at his door and in response to his call the door opened — and she stood there.

“May I come in?” she said.


Before he knew it some impulse of gallantry hoisted him to his feet. He lifted a bundle of archeological reviews from a chair close to his desk and waited until she sat down. The chair was nearer his than he realized, and as Professor Binley dropped into it she was so close that Professor Litton pushed his spectacles up to his forehead.

It was the first time she had seen his eyes except through glasses darkly. She noted their color instantly, womanlike. They were not dull, either, as she had imagined. A cloying fragrance saluted his nostrils.

“What are the flowers you are wearing; may I ask?” he said — he hardly knew a harebell from a peony.

“These are hyacinths,” she said. “One of the girls gave them to me. I just pinned them on.”

“Ah, hyacinths!” he murmured. “Ah, yes; I’ve read so much about them. So these are hyacinths! Such a pretty story the Greeks had. You remember it, no doubt?”

She said she did; but, schoolmaster that he was, he went right on:

“Apollo loved young Hyacinthus — or Huakinthos as the Greeks called it — and was teaching him to throw the discus, when a jealous breeze blew the discus aside. It struck the boy in the forehead. He fell dead, and from his blood this flower sprang. The petals, they said, were marked with the letters Ai, Ai! — Alas! Alas! And the poet Moschus, you remember, in his Lament for Bion, says:

Nun huakinthe lalei to sa grammata kai pleon aiai! 

“Or, as I once Englished it — let me see, I put it into hexameters — it was a long while ago. Ah, I have it!”

And with the orotund notes a poet assumes when reciting his own words, he intoned:

Now, little hyacinth, babble thy syllables — louder yet — Aiai ! Whimper with all of thy petals; a beautiful singer has perished.

Professor Binley stared at him in amazement and cried:

“Charming! Beautiful! Your own translation, you say?”

And he, somewhat shaken by her enthusiasm, waved it aside.

“A little exercise of my Freshman year. But to get back to our — hyacinths: Theocritus, you remember, speaks of the ‘lettered hyacinth.’ May I see whether we can find the words there?”

He bent forward to take and she bent forward to give the flowers. Her hair brushed his forehead with a peculiar influence; and when their fingers touched he noted how soft and warm her hand was. He flushed strangely. She was flushed a little, too, possibly from embarrassment — possibly from the warmth of the day, with its insinuation of spring.

He pulled his spectacles over his eyes in a comfortable discomfiture and peered at the flowers closely. And she peered, too, breathing foolishly fast. When he could not find the living letters he shook his head and felt again the soft touch of her hair.

“I can’t find the words — can you? Your eyes are brighter than mine.”

She bent closer and both their hands held the flowers. He looked down into her hair. It struck him that it was a remarkably beautiful idea — a woman’s hair — especially hers, streaked as it was with white — silken silver. When she shook her head a snowy thread tickled his nose amusingly.

“I can’t find anything like it,” she confessed.

Then he said:

“I’ve just remembered. Theocritus calls the hyacinth black — melan — and so does Vergil. These cannot be hyacinths at all.”

He was bitterly disappointed. It would have been delightful to meet the flower in the flesh that he knew so well in literature. Doctor Martha answered with quiet strength:

“These are hyacinths.”

“But the Greeks — “

“Didn’t know everything,” she said; “or perhaps they referred to another flower. But then we have dark-purple hyacinths.”

“Ah!” he said. “Sappho speaks of the hyacinths as purple — porphuron.”

Thus the modern world was reconciled with the Greek and he felt easier; but there was a gentle forcefulness about her that surprised him. He wondered whether she would not be interested in hearing about his edition of Nonnus. He assumed that she would be, being evidently intelligent. So he told her. He told her and told her, and she listened with almost devout interest. He was still telling her when the students in other classes stampeded to lunch with a many-hoofed clatter. When they straggled back from lunch he was still telling her.

It was not until he was interrupted by an afternoon class of his own that he realized how long he had talked. He apologized to Professor Binley; but she said she was honored beyond words. She had come to ask him a technical question in prosody, as from one professor to another; but she had forgotten it altogether — at least she put it off to another visit. She hastened away in a flutter, feeling slightly as though she had been to a tryst.

Litton went without his lunch that day; but he was browsing on memories of his visitor. He had not talked so long to a woman since he could remember. This was the only woman who had let him talk uninterruptedly about himself — a very superior woman, everybody said.

When he went to his room that night he was still thinking of hyacinths and of her who had brought them to his eyes.

He knocked from his desk a book. It fell open at a page. As he picked it up he noted that it was a copy of the anonymous old spring rhapsody, the Pervigilium Veneris, with its ceaselessly reiterated refrain: “Tomorrow he shall love who never loved before.” As he fell asleep it was running through his head like a popular tune: Cras amet qui nunquam amavitquique amavit eras amet

It struck him as an omen; but it did not terrify him.



Professor Martha called again to ask her question in verse technic. The answer led to further talk and the consultation of books. She was a trifle nearsighted and too proud to wear glasses, so she had to bend close to the page; and her hair tickled his nose again foolishly.

Conference bred conference, and one day she asked him whether she would dare ask him to call. He rewarded her bravery by calling. She lived in a dormitory, with a parlor for the reception of guests. Male students were allowed to call on only two evenings a week. Litton did not call on those evenings; yet the fact that he called at all swept through the town like a silent thunderbolt. The students were mysteriously apprised of the fact that old Professor Litton and Professor Martha Binley were sitting up and taking notice. To the youngsters it looked like a flirtation in an Old Folks’ Home.

Litton’s very digestion was affected; his brain was in a whirl. He was the prey of the most childish alarms; gusts of petulant emotion swept through him if Martha were late when he called; he was mad with jealousy if she mentioned another professor.

She was growing more careful of her appearance. A new youth had come to her. She took fifteen years off her looks by simply fluffing her hair out of its professorial constriction. Professor Mackail noticed it and mentioned to Professor Litton that Professor Binley was looking ever so much better.

“She’s not half homely for such an old maid!” he said.

Professor Litton felt murder in his heart. He wanted to slay the reprobate twice — once for daring to observe Martha’s beauty and once for his parsimony of praise.

That evening when he called on Martha he was tortured with a sullen mood. She finally coaxed from him the astounding admission that he suspected her of flirting with Mackail. She was too new in love to recognize the ultimate compliment of his distress. She was horrified by his distrust, and so hurt that she broke forth in a storm of tears and denunciation. Their precious evening ended in a priceless quarrel of amazing violence. He stamped down the outer steps as she stamped up the inner.

For three days they did not meet and the university wore almost visible mourning for its pets. Poor Litton had not known that the human heart could suffer such agony. He was fairly burned alive with loneliness and resentment — like another Hercules blistering in the shirt of Nessus. And Martha was suffering likewise as Jason’s second wife was consumed in the terrible poisoned robe that Medea sent her.

One evening a hollow-eyed Litton crept up the dormitory steps and asked the overjoyed maid for Professor Binley. When she appeared he caught her in his arms as if she were a spar and he a drowning sailor. They made up like young lovers and swore oaths that they would never quarrel again — oaths which, fortunately for the variety of their future existence, they found capable of infinite breaking and mending.

Each denied that the other could possibly love each. He decried himself as a stupid, ugly old fogy; and she cried him up as the wisest and most beautiful and best of men. Since best sounded rather weak, she called him the bestest; and he did not charge the impossible word against her as he had against Teed. He did not remember that Teed had ever used such language. Nobody could ever have used such language, because nobody was ever like her!

And when she said that he could not possibly love a homely, scrawny old maid like her, he delivered a eulogy that would have struck Aphrodite, rising milkily from the sea, as a slight exaggeration. And as for old maid, he cried in a curious blending of puerility and scholasticism:

“Old maid, do you say? And has my little Margywargles forgotten what Sappho said of an old maid? We’d have lost it if some old scholiast on the stupid old sophist Hermogenes hadn’t happened to quote it to explain the word glukumalon — an apple grafted on a quince. Sappho said this old maid was like — let me see! — ‘like the sweet apple that blushes on the top of the bough — on the tip of the topmost; and the apple-gatherers forgot it — no, they did not forget it; they just could not get it!’ And that’s you, Moggles mine! You’re an old maid because you’ve been out of reach of everybody. I can’t climb to you; so you’re going to drop into my arms — aren’t you?”

She said she supposed she was. And she did.

Triumphantly he said: “Hadn’t we better announce our engagement?” This threw her into a turmoil of fear. “Oh, not yet! Not yet! I’m afraid to let the students all know it. A little later — on Commencement Day will be time enough.”

He bowed to her decision — not for the last time.

For a time Litton had taken pleasure in employing his learning in the service of Martha’s beauty. He called her classic names — Mew Delieix, or Glukutate, or Melema. A poem that he had always thought the last word in silliness became a modest expression of his own emotions — the poem in which Catullus begs Lesbia: “Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then a thousand more, then a second hundred; then, when we have made up thousands galore, we shall mix them up so that we shall not know — nor any enemy be able to cast a spell because he knows — how many kisses there are.”

His scholarship began to weary her, however, and it began to seem an affectation to him; so that he was soon mangling the English language in speech and in the frequent notes be found it necessary to send his idol on infinitely unimportant matters that could not wait from after lunch to after dinner.

She coined phrases for him, too, and his heart rejoiced when she achieved the epoch-making revision of Stuart into Stookie-tookie! He had thought that Toodie was wonderful, but it was a mere stepping-stone to Stookie-tookie.

Her babble ran through his head like music, and it softened his heart, so that almost nothing could bring him to earth except the recitations of Teed, who crashed through the classics like a bull in a china shop or, as Litton’s Greeks put it, like an ass among beehives.

During those black days when Litton had quarreled with Martha he had fiercely reminded Teed that only a month remained before his final examinations, and warned him that he would hold him strictly to account. No classics, no diploma!

Teed had sulked and moped while Litton sulked and moped; but when Litton was reconciled to Martha the sun seemed to come out on Teed’s clouded world too. He took a sudden extra interest in his electrical studies and obtained permission to work in the laboratory overtime. He obtained permission even to visit the big city: for certain apparatus. And he wrote the despondent, distant Fannie Newman that there would “shortly be something doing in the classics.”



One afternoon Professor Litton, having dismissed his class — in which he was obliged to rebuke Teed more severely than usual — fell to remembering his last communion with Martha, the things he had said — and heard! He wondered, as a philologist, at the strange prevalence of the “oo” sound in his lovemaking. It was plainly an onomatopoeic word representing the soul’s delight. Oo! was what Ah! is to the soul in exaltation and Oh! to the soul in surprise. If the hyacinths babbled Ai, Ai! the roses must murmur OoOo!

The more he thought it over, the more nonsense it became, as all words turn to drivel on repetition; but chiefly he was amazed that even love could have wrought this change in him. In his distress he happened to think of Dean Swift. Had not that fierce satirist created a dialect of his own for his everlastingly mysterious love affairs?

Eager for the comfort of fellowship in disgrace he hurried to the library and sought out the works of the Dean of St. Patrick’s. But in the Journal to Stella he found what he sought — and more. Expressions of the most appalling coarseness alternated with the most insipid tendernesses.

The old dean had a code of abbreviations: M.D. for “My dear”; Ppt. for “Poppet”; Pdfr. for “Poor dear foolish rogue”; Oo or zoo or loo stood for “you”; Deelest for “Dearest”; and Rettle for “Letter “; and Dollars for “Girl”; Vely for “Very,” and Hele and Lele for “Here and there.” Litton copied out for his own comfort and Martha’s this passage:

Do you know what? When I am writing in my own language I make up my mouth just as if I was speaking it: “Zoo must cly Lele and Hele, and Hele aden. Must loo mimitate Pdfr., pay? Iss, and so la shall! And so leles fol ee rettle. Dood mollow.”

And Dean Swift had written this while he was in London two hundred years before, a great man among great men. With such authority back of him Litton went back to his empty classroom feeling as proud as Gulliver in Lilliput. A little later he was Gulliver in Brobdingnag.

Alone at his desk, with none of his students in the seats before him, he took from his pocket — his left pocket — a photograph of Professor Martha Binley. It had been taken one day on a picnic far from the spying eyes of pupils. Her hair was all windblown, her eyes frowned gleamingly into the sun, and her mouth was curled with laughter.

He sat there alone — the learned professor — and talked to this snapshot in a dialogue he would have recently accepted as a perfect examination paper for matriculation in an insane asylum.

“Well, Margy-wargy, zoo and Stookietookie is dust like old Dean Swiffkins, isn’t we?”

There was a rap on the door and the knob turned as he shot the photograph into his pocket and pretended to be reading a volume of Bacchylides — upside down. The intruder was Teed. Litton was too much startled and too throbbing with guilt to express his indignation. He stammered:

“We-well, Teed?” He almost called him Teedleums, his tongue had so caught the rhythm of love.

Teed came forward with an ominous self-confidence bordering on insolence. There was a glow in his eye that made his former tyrant quail.

“Professor, I’d like a word with you about those conditions. I wish you’d let me off on ‘em.”

“Let you off, Te-Teed?”

“Yes, sir. I can’t get ready for the exams. I’ve boned until my skull’s cracked and it lets the blamed stuff run out faster than I can cram it in. The minute I leave college I expect to forget everything I’ve learned here anyway; so I’d be ever so much obliged if you’d just pass me along.”

“I don’t think I quite comprehend,” said Litton, who was beginning to regain his pedagogical dignity.

“All you’ve gotta do,” said Teed, “is to put a high enough mark on my papers. You gimme a special examination and I’ll make the best stab I can at answering the questions; then you just shut one eye and mark it just over the failure line. That’ll save you a lot o’ time and fix me hunkydory.”

Litton was glaring at him, hearing the illiterate “gimme” and “gotta,” and wondering that a man should spend four years in college and scrape off so little paint. Then he began to realize the meaning of Teed’s proposal. His own honor was in traffic. He groaned in suffocation:

“Do you dare to ask me to put false marks on examination papers, sir?”

“Aw, professor, what’s the dif? You couldn’t grind Latin and Greek into me with a steel-rolling machine. Gimme a chance! There’s a little girl waiting for me outside and a big job. I can’t get one without the other — and I don’t get either unless you folks slip me the sheepskin.”

“Impossible, sir! Astounding! Insulting! Impossible!”

“Have a heart, can’t you?”

“Leave the room, sir, at once!”

“All right!” Teed sighed, and turned away. At the door he paused to murmur: “All right for you, Stookie-tookie!”

Litton’s spectacles almost exploded from his nose.

“What’s that?” he shrieked.

Teed turned and came back, with an intolerable smirk, straight to the desk. He leaned on it with odious familiarity and grinned.

“Say, prof, did you ever hear of the dictagraph?”

“No! And I don’t care to now.”

“You ought to read some of the modern languages, prof! Dictagraph comes from two perfectly good Latin words: dictum and graft — well, you’ll know ‘em. But the Greeks weren’t wise to this little device. I got part of it here.”

He took from his pocket the earpiece of the familiar engine of latter-day detective romance. He explained it to the horribly fascinated Litton, whose hair stood on end and whose voice stuck in his throat in the best Vergilian manner. Before he quite understood its black magic Litton suspected the infernal purpose it had been put to. His wrath had melted to a sickening fear when Teed reached the conclusion of his uninterrupted discourse:

“The other night I was calling on a pair of girls over at the dormitory where your — where Professor Binley lives. They pointed out the sofa near the fireplace where you and the professoress sit and hold hands and make googoo eyes.”

There was that awful “oo” sound again! Litton was in an icy perspiration; but he was even more afraid for his beloved, precious sweetheart than for himself — and that was being about as much afraid as there is. Teed went on relentlessly, gloating like a satyric mask:”

“Well, I had an idea, and the girls fell for it with a yip of joy. The next evening I called I carried a wire from my room across to that dormitory and nobody paid any attention while I brought it through a window and under the carpet to the back of the sofa. And there it waited, laying for you. And over at my digs I had it attached to a phonograph by a little invention of my own.

“Gosh! It was wonderful! It even repeated the creak of those old, rusty springs while you waited for her. And when she came — well, anyway, I got every word you said, engraved in wax, like one of those old poets of yours used to write.”

Litton was afraid to ask evidence in verification. Teed supplied the unspoken demand:

“For instance: the first thing she says to you is: ‘Oh, there you are, my little lover! I thought you’d never come!’ And you says: ‘Did it miss its stupid old Stookie?’ And she says: Hideously! Sit down, honeyheart.’ And splung went the spring — and splung again! Then she says: ‘Did it have a mis’ble day in hateful old classroom? Put its boo’ful head on Margy-wargy’s shojer.’ Then you says — ”

“Stop!” Litton cried, raising the only missile he could find, an inkstand. “Who knows of this infamy besides you?”

“Nobody yet — on my word of honor.”

“Honor!”, sneered Litton, so savagely that Teed’s shameless leer vanished in a glare of anger.

“Nobody yet! The girls are dying to hear and some of the fellows knew what I was up to; but I was thinking that I’d tell ‘em that the blamed thing didn’t work, provided — provided”

“Provided?” Litton wailed miserably. “Provided you could see your way clear to being a little careless with your marks on my exam papers.”

Litton sat with his head whirling and roaring like a coffee grinder. A multitude of considerations ran through and were crushed into powder — his honor; her honor; the standards of the university; the standards of a lover; the unimportance of Teed; the all-importance of Martha; the secret disloyalty to the Faculty; the open disloyalty to his best-beloved. He heard Teed’s voice as from far off:

“Of course, if you can’t see your way to sparing my sweetheart’s feelings I don’t see why I’m expected to spare yours — or to lie to the fellows and girls who are perishing to hear how two professors talk when they’re in love.”

Another long pause. Then the artful Teed moved to the door and turned the knob. Litton could not speak; but he threw a look that was like a grappling-iron and Teed came back.

“How do I know,” Litton moaned, “How do I know that you will keep your word?”

“How do I know that you’ll keep yours?” Teed replied with the insolence of a conqueror.

“Sir!” Litton flared — but weakly, like a sick candle.

“Well,” Teed drawled, “I’ll bring you the cylinders. I’ll have to trust you, as one gentleman to another.”

“Gentleman!” Litton snarled in hydrophobic frenzy.

“Well, as one lover to another, then,” Teed laughed. “Do I get my diploma?” Litton’s head was so heavy he could not nod it. “It’s my diploma in exchange for your records. Come on, professor — be a sport! And take it from me, it’s no fun having the words you whisper in a girl’s ear in the dark shouted out loud in the open court. And mine were repeated in a Dutch dialect! I got yours just as they came from your lips — and hers.”

That ended it. Litton surrendered; passed himself under the yoke; pledged himself to the loathsome compact; and Teed went to fetch the price of his degree of Bachelor of Arts.

Litton hung dejected beyond feeling for a long while. His heart was whimpering Ai, Ai! He felt himself crushed under a hundred different crimes. He felt that he could never look up again. Then he heard a soft tap at the door. He could not raise his eyes or his voice. He heard the door open and supposed it was Teed bringing him the wages of his shame; but he heard another voice — an unimaginably beautiful, tragically tender voice — crooning:

“Oo-oo! Stookie-tookie!” He looked up. How radiant she was! He could only sigh. She came across to him as gracefully and lightly as Iris running down a rainbow. She was murmuring: “I just had to slip over and tell you something.”

“Well, Martha!” he sighed.

She stopped short, as if he had struck her.

“‘Martha’? What’s the matter? You aren’t mad at me, are you, Stookie?”

“How could I be angry with you, Marg — er—- Martha?”

“Then why don’t you call me Margywargleums? “

He stared at her. Her whimsical smile, trembling to a piteously pretty hint of terror, overwhelmed him. He hesitated, then shoved back his chair and, rising, caught her to him so tightly that she gasped out: “Oo!” There it was again! He laughed like an overgrown cub as he cried:

“Why don’t I call you Margy-wargleums? Well, what a darned fool I’d be not to! Margy-wargleums!”

To such ruin does love — the blind, the lawless, the illiterate child — bring the noblest intelligence and the loftiest principles.

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *