A Play to the Gallery
A Play to the Gallery
BY MARY RAYMOND SHIPMAN ANDREWS
THE girl sat back in the saddle lazily and held the reins loose in her right hand, while the nervous brown beast under her fidgeted and walked about beneath the trees, and stopped to paw at the sod with a delicate hoof. The rest were having lemonades and other things over by the Country Club piazza, but she had refused. She wanted to get on, to ride hard, to jump a fence or two, and have a sensation of excitement, of danger, that would dull, if only for a second, the restlessness and choked feeling that held her. Besides, lemonades made one ride badly. It was foolish to drink them on a ride—still more the other things. She looked across, a touch scornfully, at the gay group by the wide piazza, the figures shifting in and out as the horses moved here and there. Very picturesque they looked, as horse back people always do,—the men mostly standing by their mounts, in their high russet or black boots and baggy, sporty-looking trousers; the women, more or less uniform in dark habits and white stocks, bending from their saddles to take the frosty glasses, and making cheerful little jokes as the quick-moving animals spilled a drop on skirt or cavalier. A very pretty picture indeed—but that was all. Twelve of them there were, and not one whom she cared a turn of her hand ever to see again. There was so little in the world that made any real difference. Except Annie, of course, her little sister, —she looked at the slim figure on the gray mare,—Annie was more her property than anything on earth. But the girl herself counted too much to be left to her reflections many minutes. Two tan-colored figures dashed across the bit of lawn, tinkling glasses in their hands.
"If you will be so exclusive—" began the foremost, and stumbled as he said it, splashing yellow waves of light out of the glass. "Jove!" he finished, and stared sadly at his spattered trousers.
"That's what you get for being intemperate," said the other, triumphantly, as he brought up with an unspilled goblet by the side of the brown horse. "Here, my Lady Disdain,—here's your nice, wholesome, plain lemonade, good for man and beast," and he held it up.
"I'm neither." The girl on the horse shook her head. "Give it to Crackerjack."
She patted the brown neck.
"There, then—who's turned down now?" demanded the spilled-drink hero. "You must know, my lady, that Jimmie and I had a bet as to what you'd take, and he went in for non-intoxicants; but I, on the theory that you were not like other girls, and full of spirit by nature, made so bold as to bring you something with a touch of spirits in it. Take it—there, do! It 'll do you good. There's a long ride before us."
The girl, with a pleading cavalier on either side, looked from one to the other, and patted her horse again. "Don't want either, thank you. Mr. Lyndon, you're very saucy to bring it. You must have had one before you dared. Take it back.—No,"—she put out her hand impulsively,—"give it to me."
The group by the piazza were watching to see what she would do as she lifted the glass, and with a smile and a quick outward curve of pale gold the doomed drink scattered over the grass. There were clapping of hands and laughter from the step, and the girl laughed back, and Crackerjack turned uneasily. Then, under cover of the hilarity, she bent to Lyndon, standing a bit stiff and dignified.
"It was horrid of me," she said. "I knew they would laugh, and I wanted them to, but it was nasty to you. You deserved it, for you knew I wasn't that kind—but it was just as horrid of me. It was a play to the gallery, and I'm ashamed. Come and ride with me, and I'll make up."
Two minutes more and a dozen riders and horses were streaming down the road, the prettiest sight in the world. Crackerjack led with his fast, effortless walk, and Lyndon by his side trotted his lean bay hunter to keep abreast of the alert, spirited brown head. Alert and spirited too, in the saddle, the girl tried hard to keep her word and "make up." With quick response and earnest questioning and ready sympathy she kept the man in play on the subject that interests every man—himself; and meantime prodded her spirit, that would not care, however hard she tried, for a single word he said. "He is so thoughtful and kind—yes, and bright and clever too," she told her flagging spirit, reproachfully. And the spirit answered, unimpressed, "Yes, and self-centred and uninteresting!" So the argument was not of much use. And like a pang of physical sickness came over her the quick, strong memory of another man who had ridden this road by her side. Lyndon talked incessantly, and talked well, and the other had been silent sometimes for miles. Yet to-day the big landscape ached with emptiness, while the last time—she remembered they walked the horses through this lane then too, and the brown earth rose up and sang beneath their feet. And through the memory Lyndon's satisfied voice rolled smoothly.
On a swift wave of impatience came the decision that she would not work over this man any longer. She had been rude to him for a minute—well, she had been civil for fifteen. It was enough. A quick pull at Crackerjack's light mouth brought him, snorting, to a standstill, and off she slipped. Lyndon, reining in more slowly, looked back in astonishment.
"What's wrong? Let me—" his leg slid over to dismount, but she stopped him. "No, stay on—don't get down. I don't want you—truly I don't. It's just—" she laughed. "I don't know how to explain and be polite."
Lyndon was standing by his horse now, facing her, perplexity all over his fresh, good-looking face. The others were coming up.
"What is it? Any accident?" they called, and the girl turned and addressed the bunch, half laughing, half irritated.
"Can't I be unreasonable without stirring up everybody? I want to stop and camp out—and I'm going to. You all go on."
"I'll camp too, with pleasure," said Lyndon, with the kindly indulgence of a man determined to be a gentleman always, no matter what vagaries of woman may try him.
"And I will too!" "Send off those chaps and let me!" broke in other voices from the saddles above her.
"Oh no!" The girl grew impatient. "I won't have you—I don't want you. I don't want to break up the ride. I'm just going to stop here and think over my sins, and plan some more. I know it's foolish, but I wish to be foolish. I won't have any one wait with me—I simply won't."
Of course there was nothing for it but, with many protests, to give the girl her way. She had stopped on top of a high hill that sloped down to a rushing little river. Somebody spoke of the bridge—its safety had been questioned.
"Is the bridge all right?" Lyndon asked Jimmie Saintsbury. This part of the world all belonged to the Saintsburys.
"Father said this morning at breakfast that it was probably good for six months unless they begin to mend it. They start in by taking out the stringers or something underneath, so it will be out of commission at once then till it's all made over. They were to begin to-day, but there's nobody there, you see, so we're safe enough."
The girl leaned against the fence, with her arm through Crackerjack's bridle.
"Please everybody get killed before Annie," she said, and tickled the horse's head with the handle of her crop. "And please go on—you disturb my thinking."
"We'll go down over the bridge out to Everett, and back by the Blue Island road, and stop here for you. if you're still thinking," said Lyndon. "Seems to me you're mighty foolish not to let me think with you," he added, tentatively.
She stood with a hand on the horse's bent neck—Crackerjack was browsing busily—and watched them dash off across the bit of level road and then slow up as they started down the long, steep hill: the bay and black and gray and brown horses, their sensitive ears twitching backward and forward, their clean-cut legs moving carefully, daintily, along the stony road.
Is there anything so good as to be on a good horse, with good roads and an afternoon before one? That there is "something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man" applies mentally as well as physically. There is no room in the saddle for Black Care, and if he indeed mounts behind the horseman, he is likely to fall off within the first mile. There is no better way to loosen his grip. Riders say that the animal feels his master's mood and personality through the touch of the reins and pressure of the body. As often, surely, the free, large nature of a horse flows back into the rider, and the world is for a human being in the saddle a kindlier, simpler, less complex affair than it is anywhere else. Yet the girl gave a sigh of relief as the chorus of hoofs clattered in distant thunder across the bridge and the last galloping figure disappeared over the top of the hill beyond.
"We couldn't stand them to-day, could we, Crackerjack? We're too lonely to have people about to-day, aren't we, beast?"
She twitched at the rein, and the horse raised a gentle, friendly face, gazed at her a moment from wondering, calm eyes, and lowering his head, set about munching grass industriously again.
"Crackerjaek, you're such a help. Nobody but you knows enough not to talk," she said, aloud, and then moodily fell to thinking.
Mental battles need no very wide scene for their field of action. Here in this narrow lane, her back against the silvery old wood of a farm fence, and the sappy June grass deep about her, the girl was drawing out her lines for the greatest fight that had come into her life. For two months, while the outer flow of her days had been even and usual, her inner life had grown daily more unbearable.
"So now, if l have any self-respect and any will, I shall straighten this thing out, and make up my mind what to think, and think it, and live my own life—hard. And not whine."
Her face set into a look that promised a bad quarter-hour for the half of her self that wanted to whine. With a firm hand on the emotional side, she began to review the course of true love that had not run smooth. It was much like other love-affairs, with two great points of difference. It was her own—that puts a love-affair into a class by itself. And it had stopped as if a stream in flood had run dry. And the girl did not know why—there lay the sting and the humiliation. A year ago he had come, in June, and on a day like this they had taken their first ride. Horseback had made them comrades at once, but it was a long time before the girl had felt anything more than friendship in the delight of being with him. Then by imperceptible, rapid slips it had moved on and on, till the pleasant, irresponsible, light-hearted good-fellowship hung swaying, unbroken, yet with a thrill of danger in its poise, on the edge of a precipice at whose foot rushed the deep water, the happiness and misery of love.
One night, when they were left alone in the cool darkness and quiet of the Country Club piazza, had come the landslide. A dozen empty chairs stood about them as she leaned her arms on the railing in the far dark corner. A track of yellow light streaming out from the open door a hundred feet away blackened the shadows, and, inside, the ping-pong rackets tick-tacked delicately. Every one had gone back to town but these four, and the two players were absorbed; the girl and her lover were as much alone as in the heart of a wood. She went over and over the words he had said—very much what other men have said to other girls always, yet with no danger of monotony. And at the end she had felt his hands on each side of her face, holding it, and his mouth had touched her hair.
"That isn't so very wicked," he had said, and afterwards she wondered what he meant. Why was it wicked at all? A great rectangle of light had swept clanging up the dark road, and they had all rushed to catch the last car, and she remembered stumbling on it, dazed and quiet, knowing only that he sat next to her through the short four miles to town, but with hardly a word to say, as silent, as stirred as herself. There could be no mistake about that; no one could pretend feeling so strong; no one could be an actor so perfectly. And as she thought of it she rejected such a doubt with scorn. However things were after wards, he had been sincere, he had cared for her that night. Three days had gone after that, with no sign from him, and though puzzled she had not a gleam of distrust, and the memory of his voice and touch in the dark seemed almost enough. When she woke in the morning the flooding happiness of it met her, and when she went to sleep at night it floated her out on a shining sea of dreams. She could wait. And she waited for three days, saying to herself that his ways were not like other men's, that she would understand in a minute when he came, and that the king not only could but would do no wrong. And on the fourth day came a formal note of good-by. He was going away to live. He had hoped to be able to see her and tell her about it before he changed cities, a month from now, but most unexpectedly he was leaving for the West in the evening on a hunting-trip that would fill all the time between. He hoped that their paths might cross again some day, and in the mean time he could not thank her in words for the months past, but he would thank her always in thought, and would never forget them. That was all.
"Oh!" moaned the girl, aloud, and threw her arms sideways in the grass and her face on them as she felt again the dull ache and the sharp stab of reading his letter. Yet—she could not tell if she fancied it, but somewhere in those correct words she thought she could catch a note of the heartache and the pain they had brought to her. What did it mean? That was what she had set herself to day to decide. With a clear brain she separated the pros and cons like a lawyer, and found three possible theories as the result. First there was the chance that he had been amusing himself at her expense —she put that in its pigeonhole. Then there was the chance that he had been carried away for the moment, and, touched perhaps by feeling that she might have shown for him, had said more than he meant and regretted it after wards. She shivered as she pigeonholed that theory. Then—and this she liked best to think—there might be some obstacle, some reason why he could not go farther, should not perhaps have gone so far. It might be any of a dozen possibilities; it might be another girl whom he had been bound to before he knew her. He had come from so far away that no one here knew his people or his friends, and though he had told her more than any one, he was reticent, and it was evidently hard for him to talk about himself.
"So there are three theories," the girl said, aloud. "Now I'll decide which one I'll believe," and she turned at the sound of hammering and stared over the hill. There were four men, down below, at work on the bridge. She started as she thought of what Jimmie Saintsbury had said, and then remembered that the riders were to come by the other road, crossing the stream miles away at a new and safe bridge.
Crackerjack had eaten all the grass within his tether, and was pulling toward pastures new, so she threw the bridle over her arm and walked to the brow of the hill. She pushed down the daisies that gleamed white against the shaded grays of the old fence, and sitting down, threw her gloves and her sailor hat beside her, and the breeze blew her blond hair about her face. Three theories, and the first was that he had been playing with her all the time—it took her half a minute to discard that idea. He was a gentleman, to begin with. The straight, sincere look of his eyes, the thousand and one acts of simple friendship that had filled those months, rose up to reproach her. No; that theory was impossible. Then could it be that she had mistaken mere friendship for love, and that he had seen the mistake and been touched to a warmer feeling from pure sympathy? Had he pitied her? The thought was unendurable. Yet there were such depths of gentleness and kindness in him, and they had been such friends—it might be that he could not bear to see her care for him without response. He might have tried to care for her in return, and have failed, and so left her as he did as the kindest way out of it. The girl's hair, yellow as corn, blew softly about her eyes in the light June breeze, and she pushed it aside quickly, as if she must see clearly. There was the third theory. It seemed to-day that it would be utter happiness if she might believe that he cared as she did, and had gone away only because he must. If she only knew! She balanced the two possibilities in her mind over and over, this way and that. Surely the look in his eyes, the tone in his voice, the touch of his hands on her face, never came from an effort of duty; surely there was a quality in them not to be mistaken, that meant the greatest and the simplest feeling—love.
A peasant woman would not have hesitated; but as the keenness of sense, the exquisite sight and hearing, that belong to a savage are lost somewhere in the refining process of the ages between him and his twentieth-century descendant, so this woman, who was the high-water mark of civilization, had dulled in training the woman's sure instinct. The bias of a practised mind to refuse mere feeling as a reason, and a certain Spartan vein of courage that impelled her to choose the harder of two roads—these decided her. With a wrench at her soul she cast away the happier possibility, and was adjusting her life sternly, with trembling, determined hands, to the bitter belief of the other. He had pitied her; he had loved her only for a moment, only because he was good and strong, and was sorry. But to the generous, torn soul there was a word of comfort in that. He was strong and good—it would always be sacred to him, this unasked love of hers; she might always remember him as she wished, as the truest of gentlemen; she need never be ashamed that she had put him first in her world. He had done the one right and brave thing, and done it, with the quick resolution she had learned to expect of him, instantly. It was hard and cruel, but it was best, and there was a pleasure, knowing it was his way, in the pain of it.
From the far-away city, whose steeples and towers rose like clouds against the sunset, beyond the distant silver river, chimed out, softened by the miles between, the bells and whistles of six o'clock. Up the hill in the low sunlight, dark against the brightening sky, toiled two work-worn figures; and Crackerjack, raising his gentle, high-bred head from his long feast, gazed at them mildly. The girl nodded brightly.
"How do you do, Peter? I didn't know it was you hammering down there at the bridge. How do you do, Thomas?" Half the farmers in the country were her friends.
The men grinned with pleased faces, and asked if anything was wrong,—if they could help her on her horse. But she shook her head. No; Crackerjack would let her mount without trouble; they were old friends, she and Crackerjack. And the men, with a pat on the horse's shining neck, trudged along. But fifty feet away they stopped and turned.
"You ben't a-goin' to ride back over that bridge, be ye?" called the elder. "Because we've took out one of the stringers, that was rotted, and a dog couldn't go over it safe. Land! I 'most forgot to tell ye."
"No," said the girl, "I'm not going that way. But surely you've left it guard ed in some way, haven't you?"
The men looked at each other guiltily, and were silent for a moment. The elder said, sheepishly: "We shouldn't orter leave it even for a spell—I know that. But I done forgot the red lantern I had all fixed at my house, and we was both in a hurry to get home to-night, and nobody don't never come by here after six o'clock—never. So we let it go till after supper, and I cal'lated to send down little Pete with the lantern soon's he'd et his supper. I'll send him prompt, miss, I promise ye."
They were gone; and the girl, with a momentary thought that she was glad the party had planned to come by the other road, went back to the rearrangement of her life. Love was gone out of it, and. for the present, joy. But the girl knew that she could not be unhappy always, that it was of the essential part of herself to fight her way through clouds to sunshine as a diver pushes down the water to get back to the air that he must breathe or die. Life was full of good things, and only a coward would give up the battle because he might not win the best thing. She had still her work—the girl painted so well that people who knew foretold a future for her; she had still the brightness of other lives, close to her own, to consider; she had still the out-of-doors that she had loved always—horseback and golf, the wide, free horizons, the dew-fresh mornings, the long, sunny afternoons, the streaming sunsets and the purple twilights that such things mean. Life was very full. While it might be made large and unselfish and brave and bright, it would be a pity, it would be a shame to her birthright of courage, if she should fail to live it with her might. The music might be silent in the march, but she could still walk with a swing, her feet timed to the memory of gay notes. And she would. The girl was not a coward, and as she faced, there by the roadside, years to come that seemed to her all colorless and up-hill, with a resolution not merely of endurance, but of heart and action, it was a good courage and a strong will that brought so glowing a promise from such burning ashes.
"But if I only knew!" she whispered. With a long, trembling breath she rose and stood leaning against Crackerjack. and stared, as if at a new, hard, yet beautiful world, across the fields, where the long shadows lay in cool, uneven masses; back up the brown country road, where the grass grew thick in the middle—thick over the prints of his horse's feet, made two months ago; and then down the hill to the rippling river and the treacherous bridge, lying shadowy in the hollow, and up the slope beyond, across whose crest the red and yellow sun set lay gorgeously dying into amethyst and rose.
"If I only knew!" she said again, aloud.
There was a dark blotch against the melted gold of the sky. The girl stood upright suddenly and gazed, her eyes wide. It moved; another had joined it; and another—half a dozen more. With quick, steady hands she caught the trailing bridle and threw it over Crackerjack's neck, and drew him to a little rise of the ground by the roadside. But the horse, fresh with his long rest, jumped mischievously aside as she put out her foot to the stirrup.
"Crackerjack. let me mount!" she pleaded aloud. "Oh, dear Crackerjack, don't you see they are coming back by the bridge, the broken bridge? Be still, horse. We have to save them."
The dark, dashing figures were well down the opposite slope, putting yards behind them with dreadful steadiness, before the skittish beast, unconscious of the desperate peril his skittishness meant, let her get near enough to spring to the saddle. It was only a minute and a half, but it seemed an hour. Then off she went recklessly down the rough road, and as she raced she called and waved her crop.
"Back! Back!" she called. "The bridge! The bridge!"
But the clatter of the many hoofs together, the noise and laughter as the riders shouted one to another, drowned her soft voice. They saw her now, and waved their crops at her, flying madly toward them, and more than one wondered a bit at her careless riding, but they did not catch any of the eager words on which death and life were hanging. Suddenly, as she rode, it came to her with a sick shock that she could not save them. They would not listen, would not be warned—it was useless. They would dash on the broken bridge, all together, and be drowned—it was too horrible! And then, in a quick, heroic flash, she saw the way. If she got there first and rode on the bridge, they would see her fall, they would have time to stop. The bravest cannot face death at a turn of the hand without a great heart-throb. This girl was of the bravest, and she felt her pulses bound and stop for a second of time, then she looked deliberately across the valley at the bunch of riders, as Crackerjack's long, sweeping stride carried her every second nearer them. Annie was the only one she cared an atom for, and Annie was back on top of the hill—she could see the gray horse and the slim figure. Annie was safe in any case. It was her life for lives that meant nothing to her—and she suddenly laughed aloud.
"Am I a coward? Is there a question?" she asked, in proud self-scorn. And then words that she had read flashed across her brain: "There is no better thing to do with a life than to give it away." And then: "It is easier to die than to live. They will think me a heroine, when I don't mind—I hardly mind at all. It's just another play to the gallery." And then again, for the last time, the sob wrung from her heart—"If I only knew!"
Across the river the horses clattered merrily on, and they were still talking and laughing.
"Wait a minute!" shouted Lyndon. "Wait! There's something wrong; she's calling to us."
But the others did not hear, and he dashed along with them, and the race for death was begun in earnest. On the other side of the bridge the girl rode harder, pell-mell, down-hill. She struck the astonished Crackerjack with her crop,—Crackerjack, who never needed more than her voice.
"I must get there at least thirty feet ahead, or they can't pull up," she said, and the pure excitement of the race caught her.
On she came, a flashing vision of intense life, and as Lyndon's hunter forged ahead to meet her, Crackerjack gathered himself for the spring on the bridge, the girl waved her crop triumphantly, and the bright picture—the splendid horse with his kindly, eager face, the girl with her fair hair blowing, her cheeks glowing, her eyes shining with victory, and the crop still lifted high in air—crashed through the bridge.
That night at twelve o'clock three men sat about a table in a corner of the big red room, luxurious with its deep warmth of crimson color, its heavy gilded rafters, of their club in New York. Two of them were commonplace enough; well bred, well dressed, low voiced, the outer edges of their personalities smoothed into the pleasant if monotonous uniformity that results from the steady friction of great cities. The third would have been conspicuous anywhere for the beauty of his graceful head and strong and well-knit body, and for a quality of charm that shone from him the moment he spoke. He spoke little, as it happened, but it was as if fire smouldered behind the dark impassiveness of his eyes, and he was visibly the centre of the group. A high, thin glass stood before him. frosted, pale gold, light -shot, bubbleflecked. He shook it gently and tinkled the bits of ice within, then kept his hand about it as if the coolness were grateful.
To this table, down the length of the room, came winding rapidly through the tangle of other tables a fourth man, with an excited, earnest face. The man watched him as he came, and when he met his eye a smile of such childlike radiance broke over his face that it seemed that the boy-angel who had shipped on the bark of his life some thirty-odd years before must be yet a passenger. It was easy to see, as he smiled up at his friend, why men and women loved him. The newcomer put a hand on his shoulder, but spoke to them all.
"I've just heard the most dreadful thing," he said. "Most horrible accident. I was dining at the Leavitts', and they had a telegram—cousins, you know. And immediately after, Lyndon, who was in the riding party, came in, pale as a ghost. He had run down on the train for the family. Jove! I didn't know there was such heroism to be found." He turned suddenly to the man on whose shoulder his hand still rested. "Jack, you must know them all," he said. "You knew the girl—I've heard you speak of her."
"What are you talking about?" asked the man, bluntly, his sombre eyes facing his friend with a bewildered, startled look. And the others stared, silent.
A few words told it; they must needs be swift, dramatic; it had all been so quick that there was little to tell. And nothing to do now for the girl, who lay quiet, with the hard decisions of life lifted from her. It was very simple—one minute had settled everything. Perhaps had even answered that cry—"If I only knew!"
The men listened breathlessly, and when the story was finished, spoke with quick exclamations or questions, after their characters. But the man with the glass did not take his eyes from his friend's face for a long half-minute after the story was told. It was as if they had been petrified, glazed. Then his hand that held the glass tightened about it, he lifted the untouched shimmer of crystal and gold and drained it to the last drop; he rose slowly and pushed his chair aside, and unhurriedly, but without a word or a look, walked down the long room and out through the doorway.