Good Sports/Broken Ribs
ELSIE and Burr had been engaged nearly four years when Burr asked me, one Saturday noon, whether I could give him half an hour after luncheon up-stairs in his room. I wondered, with a slight stir of disturbance in my heart, what he wanted to speak to me about. There was the same forced cheerfulness in his manner as on the day he broke the news to me about his college degree. When he had me well established on the couch in the corner, with all his old college pillows banked up behind me, had produced his college pipe and lit it, I was sure something important was on his mind.
"I want to ask you a question, Nan," he said. "Supposing you were engaged to a man" (Burr was always supposing sweet impossibilities about me. I loved him for it. I might have been a girl of twenty), "and had been engaged quite a while," he went on slowly; "supposing that man discovered that he didn't care for you in quite the way he ought to, that slowly and gradually he had come to believe that you and he were not suited for marriage—what I want to know is, Nan, would you want him to come to you and make a clean breast of it—tell you all about it, just as he felt?"
I saw where Burr was coming out; I saw it with a sickening certainty that made the color come to my face. I didn't raise my eyes from the magazine I had picked up, and I tried, in the half-minute that I hesitated, to consider his question fairly. Finally I replied very calmly, "Why, yes, I think I should want him to tell me, Burr."
"Thanks, Nan. I knew I could count on you. For I guess you know what I'm driving at. You see, I'm not going to ask your advice—I've already decided—but I wanted you to know about it, and that I feel as bad about the whole affair as a man can. I thought perhaps you could make it easier for her, somehow,—she's so fond of you, Nan,—if you knew how I felt. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do in all my life!"
I turned a page of the magazine. "I suppose you've felt this way about it for quite a while, Burr," I remarked casually.
"Yes, Nan, I have. For over a year. I've fought against it—hard, too. At first it seemed impossible to doubt my feelings for Elsie. I thought I must be tired or run down, and I waited. Even when I came to the conclusion that my feelings had changed a little, I had no thought of breaking off in any way. It seemed too impossible. For a while, after that, when I came home, the first two or three hours with her were all right. They reassured me. And then, each time, by Sunday night, when I took my train back to New York, I was as depressed and discouraged about it all as ever. It was relief, freedom, to get on the train—to get away from the girl I meant to marry some day, Nan! It hasn't been the extra work at the office that has kept me in New York so much this spring; it has simply been that I couldn't play my part if I came home. It hasn't been an easy year, I can tell you that, Nan." Burr got up and walked over to the window.
"I believe, Burr," I said to his back, "that a great many long engagements that work out disastrously would have made very happy marriages."
"I can believe that, too, Nan, readily," said Burr, not turning around. "If I had married Elsie in the beginning I'd have accepted my change of feelings as part of the fortunes of marriage. Besides, I wouldn't have seen any one else."
I glanced up quickly. "Is there somebody else, Burr?" I asked lightly, while my heart pounded.
"Oh, no—no one in particular," Burr replied, turning and facing me, his hands in his pockets. "It's only that I have been thrown with a lot of various people down there—older married men and women mostly. I've got a different point of view, broadened out, I suppose you'd call it. Elsie is so young, I don't think she'll ever grow up—so young and unsophisticated. Oh, I've thought it all out, Nan, hashed it over in my mind night after night, discussed it impersonally with people whose opinions I respect; weighed the consequences of both courses; tried honestly all along to consider Elsie's happiness first of all. I'm not forgetting Elsie. Believe me there, at least. I shall make it as easy as I know how for her. I shan't come around here any more than I can help. Be sure of that. I am going to clear out entirely, Nan."
"Clear out?" I questioned.
"Yes. Just that. I've never said so, but law is not to my taste. Never was. I've stuck to it only because of Elsie, and the necessity of making a living of some kind. I've always wanted to see a little of the world, you know that. I never cared about business and the everlasting grind for money. I can manage very well alone on what I've got, and satisfy my tastes too. I plan to start for the South Sea Islands in about six weeks."
Something bitter rose up in my heart against Burr. I tossed the magazine aside. "Well," I replied briefly, "if you've finished I think I'll go along now."
Burr smiled down at me on the couch, and shook his head slowly. "You don't see my side, do you, Nan?" he asked gently.
"All I can see just now, Burr, I'm afraid," I replied, "is poor Elsie's chest of linen that she's been working on for four whole years, locked up in the attic, and your desk down there in New York occupied by some other young man who will make a success."
Burr shrugged his shoulders. "I see. I am just a good-for-nothing fellow in your estimation, and a sort of brute besides. Well—well, that's all right, Nan," he said, as if, somehow, I was the one who offended and he forgave me largely. "That's all right. Perhaps sometime you'll think differently. All I ask you to do now is to stand by Elsie after I've gone. I plan to take her out this afternoon in Father's car, and explain it all to her. She doesn't suspect. I haven't, at any rate, had the brutality to torture her slowly by neglect. I shall go back to New York at eight o'clock to-night. Will you go over and see Elsie to-morrow morning for me, Nan?"
I got up and walked toward the door. "I don't know that you care for my opinion, Burr," I replied, "but you might as well know that I think you're making a big mistake about Elsie—and a big failure of your life, too, so far!" I added, and opened the door quickly and went out.
Poor little unsuspecting Elsie! All the afternoon, as I turned and looked at my clock I wondered if she knew yet, or yet, or yet. Elsie had never had any bitter experiences of any sort, out of which most of us build our fortresses, in which we hide in times of sorrow or distress. Pride, dignity, reserve had never disturbed her in the expressions of her love for Burr. She wouldn't know how to meet such a catastrophe as this. I knew Elsie. She would receive Burr's announcement, surprised at first, uncomprehending, like a child who expects a caress and receives a blow, and then, suddenly conscious of the stinging hurt, abandon herself utterly to her pain.
The afternoon seemed interminable. Would Burr never come back? The sound of every automobile that I heard turn the corner went through me with a sharp sensation of pain. And yet, as anxiously as I waited, every automobile that proved not to be ours after all brought momentary relief. When Burr hadn't returned in time to catch the eight o'clock train to New York, I was sure that the blow that my brother had dealt Elsie DeForrest had been more than she could bear. When Burr was a boy he used to hate to hurt anything that was helpless. Oh, I ought to have warned him that his decision would break Elsie!
Burr was one of the famous football men of his day at college. Anybody whose football enthusiasm dates back to the early nineties has heard of Burr Guthrie. I was present when his class was graduated in 1895. I was a short, stodgy, gray-looking person even then, but I'll never forget how adorably, and with what apparent pride, Burr introduced me to all his fine friends, as "my sister, Nan." That was like Burr. He always treats me as if I was some one to honor.
Father and Mother, Cousin Susan and Uncle Ned, wouldn't go to Burr's graduation because of that unpleasant affair about his degree. Of course the president and the faculty were perfectly justified in their decision (I told Burr so himself), but it was unfortunate for such a catastrophe to occur to a senior of such prominence as Burr Guthrie. There was a lot of talk and disagreeable publicity about it, but Burr himself took the affair in his usual bland, nonchalant sort of manner.
I've always been the member of our family to stand up for Burr. I've understood him as the others couldn't, because only in my veins runs the same mixture of blood. I'm his only sister, ten years older, and with none of his winning ways and magnetic charm; but for all my outward appearance of calm, dull, everydayness, there is just enough of the unharnessed element in me to hear of Burr's wanderings from the straight and narrow path with more sympathy than blame. I had my fears, just as Mother and Father had, and Uncle Ned, and Susan, and the rest of our morocco-bound, gilt-edged family. Burr knew exactly how disappointed I was to be cheated of the pleasure of reading his name in Latin, inked in big black letters on a roll of sheepskin, for all I made so light of the importance of a framed college diploma. I was very anxious for him to buckle down as soon as possible after commencement, and prove to the family that a mere college degree wasn't a necessity to a successful career.
I've never heard that any of our ancestors were sea captains or explorers, or possessed of that roving spirit which is so dominant in Burr and which disturbs even me when I see a picture of a big steamship, hear the distant fog horns on the river, or chance to wander in among some crowded docks piled high with bunches of bananas and pineapples, peopled with dark Portuguese or Spaniards lolling in the sun.
Burr had just enough income of his own from Grandmother's legacy to follow the call to his soul of strange people and strange countries. He traveled for twelve entire months after commencement, while I stayed at home listening to Mother's and Father's sneers, Uncle Ned's smiles, Susan's disparaging remarks, gazing with hungry eyes at the bright-colored postal cards that Burr sent to me, and glowing at his occasional descriptions of long, warm, star-lighted nights, low red moons, rippling water, guitars, dark-eyed girls. I understood just what an idyllic existence Burr was living. I could feel the lure of it, bound up here at home with the family, between our morocco covers. But in spite of that, I wanted above everything else that that brother of mine should come home and put an end to the smiles and sneers.
There wasn't a happier member in our family than I when Burr announced, one day in September, two months after he returned, that he had concluded to take up law. On top of that news, a month later, he told me that he was engaged to be married to Elsie DeForrest.
Elsie DeForrest was the kind of girl that any sister would rejoice to have her brother marry—just a naturally adorable creature, all woman, every inch of her, with a sunny, lovely disposition mirrored in the laughing expression of her eyes. Whenever Burr was able to come home from New York for a Sunday, I never begrudged a moment of the long hours he spent with Elsie. I knew she was the gentle incentive to his sudden industry, and I knew, too, he needed a steady one to keep him to the grindstone. At the end of three years Burr was a member of the New York bar. At the end of three and a half he was doing all the dirty and disagreeable work (as he described it) in a firm of three energetic young fellows about ten years older than himself.
Burr didn't get back from his ride with Elsie that Saturday afternoon until after midnight. I hadn't gone to bed. I was sitting by my window in the dark, fully dressed, still waiting. The sound of a distant motor sent me down-stairs to turn on the light on the veranda. This surely must be Burr; in our little quiet street motors are seldom heard at midnight. When I opened the door there was, indeed, an automobile drawn up to the curbing, but not ours. I waited and, startled, watched two men help a third carefully to the sidewalk. One of the two men at sight of me in the doorway hurried ahead. It was old Doctor Fanning.
"Don't be alarmed, Miss Guthrie," he said. "There has been an accident, but Burr isn't much hurt. Just a collar bone, I think. We simply want to get him inside and laid out on a couch somewhere, and then some one will be back in half an hour or so and fix him up. We didn't know anything was the trouble with him until he keeled over; then I made up my mind we'd better get him home. Get some brandy into him if you can, and I'll have some one here as soon as possible."
Doctor Fanning seemed to be in a great hurry. I didn't suggest that Burr should be carried upstairs, but swept the pillows off the library couch and let them lay him there.
"I'm all right," Burr kept saying. "For heaven's sake, get back to Elsie! I'm all right! Nan will look out for me."
By the time I had come in from the dining-room with some brandy, Doctor Fanning and the other man had gone, and I knelt down by Burr and took his hand.
He pushed the glass aside and sat up. "Don't need it," he said. Then, "It was all my fault. Elsie cautioned me. The road had been freshly oiled on the right-hand side, so I crossed over to the left. There was another car coming at the rate of forty miles an hour around a curve. I turned, but too late. It happened in a second. It was all my fault, Nan! Every bit of it."
"Is Elsie much hurt?" I asked.
"Nan, I'm afraid I've killed her," gasped Burr. "I must get to the telephone. I just had New York on the wire when they dragged me over here. I want all the best specialists in the country to come up here, and do all they can. Let me get up, Nan."
I grasped Burr's hand very tight in mine. "Had you told her, Burr, about—"
"Thank God, no, Nan," he interrupted, and fell back in a faint on the couch.
For days we didn't know whether Elsie would live or not. For weeks the first question that dozens of people in the town asked each morning at breakfast was, "What's the news about Elsie DeForrest this morning?" And each night, "Have you heard from Elsie DeForrest to-day?" The milkman, and the iceman carried reports from back door to back door. Everybody—cooks, clerks and car conductors, wanted Elsie DeForrest to live. That was the kind of popular girl she was. The mail man sent her flowers, so did the woman who sold her gloves. Our Bridget asked the priest to pray for her.
When finally it was reported that she had regained consciousness, had recognized her family, had smiled at Burr, was going to live, you could feel the spirit of thanksgiving in everybody's glad good morning. Only a few of us feared that Elsie DeForrest might never walk again; only the DeForrests and Burr and I knew that poor little Elsie's side from the hip down had been paralyzed for days, and that even the most hopeful specialists shook their heads and looked very grave.
Burr came home every Sunday now. He made his headquarters at the DeForrests', managing to eat one meal with us, Sunday breakfast usually, and hurrying away soon after to sit with Elsie. I watched the lines that Burr's anxiety furrowed in his face, pityingly.
"If Elsie never walks, I'm the one to blame, Nan," he would say to me, and, "If Elsie is lame it will be all my fault, sister." And yet, I wondered silently to myself, Burr would have broken the poor girl's heart and run off to the South Sea Islands with hardly a pang.
I didn't see Elsie for at least six months after her accident. It was in November. The doctors were trying a new treatment then, fastening heavy weights to the injured leg for certain periods each day, gradually increasing the volume of the weight and the length of the periods as time went on, in hope of finally stretching it out as straight and sound as it once had been. I learned that Elsie's suffering was severe at this time. The trained nurse confided to me that Miss DeForrest didn't know how to bear pain very well. She possessed patience, dear child, but very little determination, or power of endurance. It took two nurses to carry Elsie DeForrest through the dark hours of the day when the heavy weights were applied. I don't know how Burr managed to get a month's vacation at this time, but he did, and he spent it at the DeForrests'. The nurses told me if it wasn't for Mr. Guthrie the doctors would have abandoned the experiment of the weights long ago.
My first sight of Elsie was a shock. I had expected to see her thin and wasted, but I had not prepared myself for such a complete change. All the pretty curves of her face had disappeared—the dimples, the childish roundness of her chin, the fullness of her throat. Her hair that used to grow in a sort of caressing fashion, low about her brow, was thin and scraggly now, and revealed the harsh outline of unprotected forehead and temples. Her cheeks had lost their bright flush; her eyes their laughing expression. Elsie wasn't pretty any more. She was like a little sailboat after the ravages of a storm, ripped bare of its shining white sails and pretty rigging—a sorry little hulk, tossed up on the rocks.
I do not wish to describe that first visit of mine to Elsie. They had allowed me to go into the room during one of the difficult hours of her day. The doctor thought that it might help her to forget her pain if her attention was diverted a little. I don't believe the child knew that I was there, even though, as I approached the bed and took her little claw of a hand in mine, her lips did form my name. I am sure she had no idea of what I talked. At intervals of about two minutes a querulous little voice, unlike Elsie's, inquired, "What time is it, Nurse?" and at each answer I saw her bite her under lip and a quiver run through her body. When she began to whimper like a hurt animal and then to beg like a little child for the nurse to take off the weights, it was more than I could endure. I went into an adjoining room; but even there I could hear her continuous little moan, her pitiful, almost continuous, pleadings.
The nurse who was off duty was with me. "She always gets like this toward the last of the hour. It seems just as if those weights were hung on her nerves. Once we took them off five minutes early and the next day she begged and teased worse than ever; so now we don't give in at all. Mr. Guthrie will be here in five minutes, and then it won't be so bad. Without him Miss Elsie would go straight into hysterics, and the doctors say we mustn't allow that. If your brother should be two minutes late, we'd have to take those weights right off. With him here, though, the poor little creature seems to get new strength, somehow. It's queer."
At exactly on a quarter of the hour I heard a step on the stairs, a moment later Burr's big, reassuring voice calling through the hall, "Coming, Elsie!" And I saw him pass quickly into Elsie's room.
"Listen to him," said the nurse to me. "It's wonderful. He just goes up to her, takes her two hands in both his. That's all; and she stares up at him out of those eyes of hers, and he talks to her—off and on. Each time just about the same, for fifteen minutes solid; about how much nerve and grit he thinks she's got; and how he admires her control and courage; and how he himself, until he played a game in football once with a broken rib, never knew what a real fight meant—and until she had those weights on she probably never guessed what qualities she had hidden away in her. You know she really isn't brave at all; but Mr. Guthrie tells her she is, and when he's around she really does show control. He comes and helps us three times a day, at one and five and ten, at the end of each of the three periods when she has the weights put on. It tuckers him all out, though. He's all perspiration sometimes, after Miss DeForrest has hung on to his hands instead of crying out. It's just wonderful the effect he has on her."
It was wonderful. I had always thought of Burr in a sort of elder-sisterly way. He had seemed like a little boy to me, ever since he actually was one—a little boy who needed a good deal of encouraging and urging forward himself. But after that afternoon when I listened to him with Elsie, I felt apologetic for my Pharisaism. He went down into the valley with Elsie. As he urged forward the poor little stumbling, half-winded creature, his soul entered into hers; her suffering became his. I never let my brother know that I was present during one of those ordeals of his. I never went to the DeForrests' at that time again. In fact, there was little opportunity for another visit. Elsie left our town a fortnight later.
About a week before Burr's vacation was over, he came to the house for dinner. "I'm going to be married to-morrow," he announced briefly to Father and Mother, and Susan and me. "The doctors say that they'll have to abandon their present treatment if I am not around to help and encourage Elsie a little. So I am going to take her back with me. We'd like you four to come to our wedding, and Mr. and Mrs. DeForrest—that's all—in Elsie's room to-morrow morning. We're going to live in an apartment down there in New York, where I can go home at noon, and get back by six from the office. It may strike you, Father, as rather preposterous for me to undertake such an expense just now; but I've reckoned it out, and I am sure I can swing it."
"You know best," grunted Father.
We finished our meal in subdued conversation on other topics.
There has never been the least bit of sympathy between Burr and Father; I've always lamented it. But after dinner, while I sat reading and while Burr was finishing a cigar in the library, Father shuffled in uneasily. He came up to Burr. "I'll stand the expense of the rent of that apartment," he mumbled.
Burr stood up and gave Father his hand. "Thanks, Father," he said simply. "That'll help a lot."
Whenever I think of the first three or four years of Burr's married life, the same surging pride rushes through my veins as when I watched him, from the grand-stand of cheering people that November day long ago, scramble out from beneath the pile of some dozen human beings and start out on that record run of his. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty yards (would he slip by them all?) twenty-five . . . thirty . . . almost half way across that field, and fall with a thud finally, tackled squarely around his waist, five yards from the goal posts! With a broken rib, too, we learned later! The tears streamed shamelessly down my cheeks that day as the band swelled and the grand-stand roared with my brother's name. It seemed to me, during Burr's struggle for Elsie's health and happiness, that he was putting up as grim and invincible a fight as in that game of his years ago on the gridiron. He hung on tight to his place in the law firm. Doctors' and nurses' bills were as constant an item in his early married life as food and rent. The DeForrests were not financially fortunate, and Father, in spite of my pleadings, would help only with rent. Burr worked nights and Sundays to make good in that law firm, and denied himself all sorts of customary luxuries—new suits of clothes, socks, ties even.
My brother seldom talked to me intimately after his marriage. I do remember one evening, there in his little apartment about a year after his wedding in Elsie's room—that queer, rainy morning when we all stood about Elsie's bed and smiled metallicly—I do remember one talk. It was when I was down there in New York acting as sort of trained nurse for Elsie. Elsie's progress was hopelessly slow just then, and Burr's financial prospects anything but bright.
"I talk a lot of nonsense to Elsie, Nan," he said, "about courage, and nerve, and playing her game, and all that, but it's really to myself I'm preaching. It doesn't seem as if I were making progress toward success of any kind. The doctors are more and more doubtful about Elsie. I've not been able to put by anything this year. Not a cent. I try to remember what the coach used to tell us fellows. He used to make us feel that it was up to us to win, even with the score against us 20 to 0. Well, the score's against me, Nan, now. It's against Elsie. We need to use all the fight that is in us."
It has been fifteen years since Elsie's accident. Burr did not attain the goal he tried so hard to reach: I mean, Elsie will always be lame; she will always be frail and delicate; the fine lines traced on her forehead, left there by her months of pain, will never disappear, and there are no curves or soft corners in her thin face, for dimples to hide among. Burr seldom leaves Elsie. Since that one sweet stolen year of his after college, Burr has never stepped foot outside of the United States. It's queer how things work out.
It is I, now, who send home the bright-colored post cards and glowing descriptions of tropical nights and dark-skinned people; Burr, I suppose, who thrills at my words as he closes his dry old law books for a moment and rests his gaze on the picture of a laughing Samoan girl with big, black, merry eyes and shining white teeth. It is I who am free to wander the sweet world over, Burr whom the family have gloatingly bound up inside their morocco covers, proud of any career that adds honor to their volume.
I have just returned from an eighteen months' trip around the world. When I reached San Francisco two weeks ago, there was among my mail a package addressed to me in Father's old-fashioned hand. I discovered it to be an uninteresting-looking book on "Banking and Currency Problems," by Burr Guthrie. As once my eyes had glowed over Burr's foreign post cards, now they filled with tears over a dry old book on law, addressed to me in Father's proud hand.
I stopped off to see Burr and Elsie in New York before I went home. They're living in one of those hundreds of conventional, stone-fronted city houses up near the Park somewhere. It is quite exquisite inside—carpeted with soft rugs, lighted through pretty lamp shades at night, its walls lined with books and fine pictures. Burr is a member now of that firm where once he did all the dirty and disagreeable work. He has been what would be called successful. And I think, too, he has been happy with Elsie. I know, at any rate, that the only limp in Elsie's life is the one you can see. She looks upon Burr as a kind of god, I believe, and, "If you want to see something straight, in the way of legs," she laughingly said to me the first night I spent with them in New York upon my return from the Far East, "look at your little nephew's here, Aunt Nannie." For Elsie and Burr have two children. All Elsie's dimples and curves have come out in her daughter, as fresh and lovely as new violets in the spring from a trampled root.
When I came down-stairs from the nursery into the warm library about six o'clock that first night, Burr was stretched out comfortably before the fire in a big chair. I carried in my hands my copy of his book. Burr held in his the last publication of the Geographic Magazine. He glanced up from his page as I sat down on the couch opposite him.
"Well, Nannie!" he said.
"Well," I replied.
"It's fine to have you back home! Say!" he broke off boyishly, "does it really look like that?" And he held up the magazine, revealing a half-page picture of a tropical river—palm-shaded, vine-entangled, its banks a chaos of ferns, moss, and rotting tree trunks, and in the foreground a half-naked native, shining as if oiled.
"A good deal," I conceded. "But, you know, you have to see the coloring, and feel the heat, and smell the queer hot odor of pungent moss and decaying trees to get the real impression."
Burr sighed. "I know. I know. It's been so long I've nearly forgotten. I don't suppose I'll ever travel much now, Nan. I shall be forty-five next month."
"Are you very disappointed, Burr?" I asked gently.
He smiled vaguely and shook his head. "Well, to tell the truth, I've been so busy, all along, it is only occasionally I have had time to think about being disappointed."
"Like the game you played with the broken rib, I suppose," I took up. "You didn't have time to consider the pain in your chest. You were so intent on winning."
"Same old Nan!" Burr laughed.
I went right on, in spite of him. "It was that game with the broken rib which made you in football," I said. My brother smiled at me fondly. "It sometimes takes broken ribs of one kind or another to make men in life, Burr," I said.