A Real Sport
A REAL SPORT
BY HAPSBURG LIEBE
THOMAS WILDMAN, one of the nurses in the hospital of a home for old and disabled volunteer soldiers, looked around quickly. Someone had called to him.
"It's me," said a thin voice—"over 'ere: Old Billy Light."
Nurse Wildman hastened across the ward. "What is it, Billy?"
"You see him?" Light jerked a withered thumb toward a huge and gaunt gray-haired giant who lay in a narrow white bed that stood to the left of his own narrow white bed. "Well, I want you to move me closer to him. We was boyhood friends up in New York State, me and Jonathan Langstree was, and we want to talk to each other about old times. You don't mind, do you, nursey?"
"It'll be all right, Billy, so long as you don't talk too much—nor too loud," smiled Nurse Wildman.
He moved Old Billy's bed until its rail touched the rail of Langstree's bed, and went away. Old Billy turned slightly under the white coverlet, and his wizened, good-natured mouth spread in a good-natured grin. He was a little man, smooth-faced, with kindly blue eyes; his hair was perfectly white, and not so thin as that of most old men.
"You're glad to see me again, aren't you, Jonathan?" he said, in a voice that was weak in spite of himself.
Langstree stared, and his cold gray eyes expressed no pleasure. Langstree believed that he had a great reason for hating Billy Light, in whose company a capricious Fate had thrown him for more than half of his life's journey.
"Better let me do most of the talking" Light went on, "because you're worse off than I am, I guess. Do you remember, Jonathan, when we was boys together up in New York State—"
"I'm no worse off than you!" snapped Langstree, childishly. He knew that his was a serious illness, and that the chances were many against his surviving it, and he had grown very bitter about it. Light had unconsciously touched a sore spot. Langstree had always been a narrow, mean man; and yet, there had always been something of the high-class dare-devil in him. He continued hotly:
"How much sporting blood is there in you, Billy Light?"
"I don't know, Jonathan," smilingly. "Not very much, I guess. But why do you ask me that, Jonathan, old friend?"
"You say I'm worse off than you," growled Langstree. "I'll lay you a wager of all the money I've got against all the money you've got that I will live longer than you!"
Old Billy laughed weakly. "Ah, that was always you, Jonathan! You was always the sport, the dead game sport, wasn't you? And now you're wanting to bet all the money you've got against all the money I've got that you'll live longer than me; eh, Jonathan? I remember very well, we're both the same age—sixty-nine. It seems a little foolish, Jonathan, but—if it will please you, we'll lay the wager."
He turned his white head and called to Nurse Wildman. Wildmnn put down a glass of water and came at once.
"In my clothes you'll find a little money, and in Jonathan's clothes you'll find a little money," Old Billy said to the nursee. "Me and Jonathan is bettin' on who'll live the longest. We want you to get the money, and act as stakeholder, nursey; will you?"
Wildman laughed queerly. It was altogether a new experience for him. But he agreed to hold the stakes.
Billy Light faced back to the man who had been the companion of his boyhood and the comrade of his four years in the Union army. Langstree lay tugging nervously at his full beard; only his upper lip was shaven, and it was broad and thin and hard.
"You always was the dead game sport, wasn't you, Jonathan?" Old Billy ran on garrulously. "At the old swimmin' hole you used to dive out of a tree and beat us all, didn't you? And you could ride the fieriest colt! My, my, but to me you was a real hero, Jonathan! Do you remember the time we blacked our faces and went beggin' and ate only the pies and tarts?"
Langstree said nothing.. He kept tugging nervously at his full gray beard. Old Billy continued pleasantly: "And do you remember the time—that Hallowe'en—when we filled the schoolhouse full of pigs and chickens and farmin' machinery, and tied a big brass bell to Farmer Henderson's stallions tail? My, my! He! He! He! How that horse did run from the big brass bell! He'd have been running yet, I guess, if something hadn't stopped him. It was the same Hallowe'en that Micky Sanderson fell and broke an arm while tryin' to get a four-horse loggin' wagon on top of the Methodist church—don't you remember, Jonathan?"
Still Langstree said nothing. But he frowned and rubbed his broad, thin, hard upper lip reflectively. Old Billy went on:
"And then there was Mary, that we both loved nigh to madness. I gave up like a man, when she married you, though it fairly cut the heart of me in pieces—didn't I? I'll never forget that night when I first got the news of the weddin'. If anybody but my own mother had told me, I'd not have believed it. I just slumped down in the closest chair and sat there until the sun rose, and somehow I didn't know anything much about the passin' of the night. I never married because I never loved anybody else, Jonathan. I'd never thought you'd come to a home for old and disabled soldiers as long as you had an angel like Mary in your house. Jonathan, man, it—it can't be that she's dead!"
At this, Langstree raised himself upon an elbow, and it required an effort. His old face worked, and his old eyes blazed with his insane hatred for Billy Light.
"I haven't seen her for twenty years!" he growled. "She left me. There never was any children. She loved you al! the time. I lied about you before we was married, and that's how it happened that she married me and not you! I don't mind telling you. I think I'd like to kill you, Billy Light! I've hated you for so long that—that I—"
His voice failed him and he sank back to his pillow.
"Why—why, Jonathan!" Old Billy cried smotheredly.
He was not quick to realize that the woman he had loved for almost a whole lifetime had loved him for almost a whole lifetime. But when the realization came it made him supremely happy. All the longing of his lonely years had not been for nothing, for Mary had loved him during all those years. He was not angry at Jonathan Langstree. Rather, he pitied Langstree because Mary had never loved him. He wished that he knew just where to find Mary.
Suddenly he looked toward Langstree. "It's all right, Jonathan, old friend," he said with great gentleness. "For the lies I can forgive you. Mary still loves me, and there is nothin' else that matters very much. Twenty years apart from you makes her no longer your wife. Will you tell me where I'd be most apt to find her?"
The huge and gaunt gray-haired giant rose again on his elbow. Unreasoning rage flashed like powderfire in his eyes.
"I don't want your forgiveness!" he cried hoarsely. "I don't—want—your—forgiveness!"
He fell back, straightened in bed, gasped, and lay still.
"Nursey!" cried Old Billy, alarmed. "Nursey! Over 'ere—quick with you—over 'ere!"
But Wildman could do nothing. Langstree had lost the wager that he himself had proposed.
When they carried Langstree out, Old Billy hardly knew it. When, a little later, Nurse Wildman dropped the wager money to the coverlet beside him, Old Billy was hardly aware of it. Mary had been loving him all the time, and nothing else mattered. If only he knew where to find Mary! He would go to her as soon as he got well. Sixty-nine—that wasn't so old, was it? Mary was only sixty-seven. He told himself that she must be up in New York State with her relatives.
Somehow, he felt better the next morning than he had felt for a long time. Nurse Wildman gave him his blue clothing and escorted him to a chair on the hospital's broad verandah. An hour afterward, when nobody was looking, he stole away and went to a little store that stood close to the north entrance to the grounds.
"See here, Freeling," he said weakly, to the storekeeper. "I've got a boyhood friend bein' buried today, and I want some flowers for him—and I want you to send to a florist over in town and get them for me. I want to pay eight dollars and eighty-four cents for them;—it's all the money I've got, and I won three dollars and two cents of it on a foolish bet. Have the flowers come a little before sundown, will you? I want to take them over to the Circle myself, and it'll be too hot for me if I go before sundown. Here's the money, right here. Say, Freeling, what kind o' shape ought those flowers be in, anyway?"
"An anchor, or a star," suggested the storekeeper, "or a cross."
"That's the best—a cross," decided Old Billy. "Get a cross for me, will you? And the flowers ought to be red and white and blue—for a soldier, you know. But you can't get any blue flowers, maybe;—red and white, then. I'm sure much' obliged to you, Freeling."
Freeling went toward a telephone instrument, and Billy Light walked slowly back to the hospital to receive a chiding from Nurse Wildman. But what did Old Billy care for a chiding now?
Langstree was buried that afternoon, and Light, from one of the hospital windows, watched the little procession start. It was very tragic to Billy Light He was intensely sorry for Langstree. Poor old Jonathan! Mary hadn't loved him at all! Mary had loved only him, Billy Light What eyes she had had, and what hair, and-what red, sweet lips! That her eyes were no longer bright save when they swam in tears, that her hair was thin and gray, that her lips were drawn and withered now—what difference did it make? To him she would be Mary, Mary.
A little before sundown, Billy Light stole away and went to the store that stood not far from the north gate. The cross of flowers had come, and it was bigger and more beautiful even than he had imagined it would be. He took it up to see whether it was heavy; it was, but he meant to carry it to the Circle himself, for all of that. He thanked Freeling, and set out with his burden along the winding road that led through a broad green field and to the burying-ground, which the old soldiers called the Circle because the graves were laid in rings with the faces of the dead turned toward a common center.
Along the way, here and there, now on one side and now on the other, were iron plates set on low iron posts; and cast in the iron of those plates were parts of stanzas taken from a famous poem, of which the first four lines are these:
The muffled drum's sad roll has beat
The soldier's last tattoo;
No more on life's parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few—
Old Billy went on with a bare glance at the stirring lines. He knew that poem in iron by heart. The flowery cross grew heavier, and he caught it by a wire at its top and slung it carefully over his back. He met a flashily-dressed young man and a young woman. with a painted face, visitors. The young woman stopped and laughed quite hysterically when she saw him. A little farther on he met another young man and another young woman—and the face of this one was not yet painted. When she saw him she cried, and even the young man wiped at his eyes.
Old Billy couldn't help wondering at that. What the devil was there to cry about, anyway? Didn't Mary love him, and hadn't she always loved him? Why the devil couldn't the whole world he as happy as he was? What was the need of being a cry-baby over nothing? When he had asked of the thin air all those questions, he tried to smile because the thin air could not answer any of them.
The cross of flowers kept growing heavier. He shifted it to keep it from hurting his back so much, and went on, staggering a little—on past the last iron plate, which bore this from the iron poem:
Yon marble minstrel's voiceless stone
In deathless song shall tell
When many a vanished year hath flown
The story how ye fell—
When he stopped at the end of his journey, the golden sun was setting clear. Across a low green hill he saw Old Glory coming down, and to his ears there came faintly the strains of The Star-Spangled Banner. He laid down the flowery cross over the ashes of poor Jonathan Langstree, staggered erect and stood with his head bared until the band had ceased to play. Then he dropped to his knees and began to arrange the cross properly.
"We was boys together, wasn't we, Jonathan, old friend?" he murmured. "Boys together up in old New York State."
Somehow, it had grown dark quicker than usual after sundown. Old Billy struggled to rise. He was going back North to look for his Mary. That her hair was no longer brown, that her lips were withered, that her eyes were bright only when they swam in tears— all that made no difference; to him she would still be Mary, Mary.
Then there came a sweet voice from very near to him:
He rose easily. The voice called to him again:
He saw. In spite of the thick darkness that had come so suddenly, he saw. There before him stood Mary, bright-eyed, brown-haired, red-lipped, with her roundish young arms held out for him. She wasn't in New York State after all. He started toward her.
"I'm comin', little girl," he said softly, "I'm comin'—"
Ten minutes later Nurse Wildman knelt beside that which men had called Old Billy light. With a reverent hand Wildman swept back a lock of snow-white hair that had fallen over one of the half-closed blue eyes. The little old man had smiled all his life, while his heart broke year by year; was it any wonder that he was smiling now, with the broken heart healed and at rest—and with his spirit at Home with the spirit of his Mary, Mary?
"He was a real sport," said Thomas Wildman, brokenly,—"a real sport."