FICTION

THE CHAMPION

Bernard J. Farmer September 15 1934
FICTION

THE CHAMPION

Bernard J. Farmer September 15 1934

THE CHAMPION

Bernard J. Farmer

AT THE age of ten, Elizabeth Downing started playing tennis; she played with her father and brothers in a portion of the meadow which looked the smoothest. The net was made of string and the balls were grimy with age. Her brothers soon tired of the game, but Elizabeth did not. She cast about for somewhere more promising, and bribed the gardener to scythe a plot of grass behind the house. A kitchen window broken cost her six weeks’ pocket money, but it was worth it, She did not break the window again. She had gained control over the ball.

At fourteen she entered the local tournament and, pigtails flying, dashed about with such energy and hit with such devastating accuracy that the doctor, star player of the village, was hoix'lessly beaten.

’’Too good for me, young lady,” he puffed.

Elizalx'th smiled rather vaguely. Her eyes curious, far-seeing, lapis lazuli eyes seemed to look through and Ix-yond him even as she shook his hand over the net. She put her nicket carefully in a press Ix-fore taking it away.

An hour later she was quietly practising backhand shots against the wall, and she scandalized her mother by wanting to sell her prize, quite a nice silver vase, to buy a new racket. Her father intervened just in time and bought the racket. Elizabeth fondled it in secret and practised more shots.

Al' MISS SMITHER’S Academy, where she went reluctantly to lx' “finished,” she made hay of the other tennis players and a lasting enemy of the head girl who fancied herself as a player. The head girl had a fast service; when it went in, it was customary to stand aside with a deprecating smile and murmur “Service!” Elizalx'th sent it back even faster, and the head girl was so surprised that she failed to run at all, and Elizalx'th won the point. She seemed to think it nothing out of the ordinary.

“She might have said ‘Fluke,’ ” thought the onlookers; and registered the point that Elizabeth was getting a swelled head. Which proved inconvenient for Elizabeth in many fx'tty ways, but did not affect her tennis.

She left Miss Smither’s Academy lord of all she surveyed as far as tennis went, and when it was discussed what she was to do, she said:

“Father, 1 want to be a tennis player.”

“Too expensive, young lady,” said her father, rather amused.

“Why?”

“Oh, tournament fees and so on. It costs young Darrell a fortune, so his father told me.”

Young Darrell was practising for the Bar; he lived in town, and paid very infrequent visits to his native village.

But it so happened that he brought a friend down for a breath of country air the following week-end; and, without saying a word to anyone, Elizabeth calmly called to see him, was shown into the morning room and, completely selfpossessed, faced the puzzled young Mr. Darrell.

“How much does it cost to enter the big tournaments, Mr. Darrell?”

“A small fortune, young lady.” Darrell felt facetious. “More than I can afford.”

“In actual figures?” said Elizabeth patiently.

“Well, say a guinea entrance fee, then travelling expenses and hotel bills. They usually amount to the most. But why do you ask?”

“Because I intend to play, and since father can’t afford to let me I must make the money myself.”

“I see.” Darrell gazed at Elizabeth’s queerly intent eyes and no longer felt facetious.

“What’s your game like?” he demanded brusquely.

“If you have time I can show you.”

The Darrells had a court.

“Go back for your racket,” he commanded.

ELIZABETH showed him. To beat her he had to produce something near his best form. She timed her base-line shots within an inch of the line, and smashed with complete accuracy and aplomb. She did not waste her strength, as do many beginners, in slamming home the obvious. Once, she outmanoeuvred him altogether and he was left gazing foolishly at a passing shot. But he beat her. Suprior strength and experience count for much.

“You’re gtxxl,” he said at the end of the set.

“I think so,” said Elizabeth without false modesty.

“I tell you what: I need a partner for the Shenstone tournament next week. Enter with me, and I’ll stand the expense.”

“I can’t let you do that; but perhaps you could see father.

Later I must make my own money.” She said it as if the making of money were a detail.

Darrell gazed at her. Something inhuman about her, he thought.

“I’ll see your father,” he promised.

And he did so; but it was only by driving home that Elizabeth would certainly find other means to play if he didn’t agree that he persuaded Mr. Downing to give way.

“I know someone on the committee Darrell added, “a lady who will be pleased to chaperon her. It will be quite all right.”

“Just this once then,” growled Mr. Downing,

“then she will have to forget this foolishness. Perhaps if she’s beaten—as she must be without any disrespect to you, Darrell—she will come to her senses. I can’t have her running about the country playing in tournaments.”

"pLIZABETH was not beaten; and, curiously enough, it was not due to Darrell, who was consistently off his game. Perhaps something in her manner irritated. She was so calm and collected, saying not a word when shots

went in and not a word when they went out. Her pigtails annoyed her by flying in her face; for the next day’s play, she appeared with her hair ruthlessly bobbed.

“What will your mother say?” asked Darrell.

Elizabeth shrugged slightly. The point had not occurred to her.

On the third day they fought their way into the semifinals, and that evening Darrell suggested a walk along the promenade. He had no intention of flirting with her, of course—a mere schoolgirl—but his vanity felt that something was due him, a little adoration. He, an eminently gtxxl-looking and desirable young man, taking all this trouble to enter with her. It was not expressed gratitude that he wanted, but the feeling that it was there.

“We ought to be in bed,” said Elizabeth firmly.

Darrell was really annoyed. She was inhuman.

“Oh, come along,” he said with ill-feigned jollity, “a short stroll won’t hurt us.”

“You must do as you please,” said Elizabeth, “but I’m going to bed.”

And she did.

Darrell took out a girl he did not care tuppence about, went to bed late, got up with a headache, and played extremely erratically. But they won. It was due to Elizabeth.

In the train home, Elizabeth solemnly hugged the cup they had presented her with. Her eyes gazed steadfastly out of the window.

Darrell tried to reduce the thing to proper proportions.

“You played very well,” he said. “We must enter again some time.”

Elizabeth said nothing; and it dawned on him, it dawned with overwhelming force, that she did not want to play with him again. He recalled the time he had argued with the umpire,—an argument which ended as an argument with a good umpire always does—in the umpire’s favor. She had stood aloof and detached, making not the slightest attempt to back him up. When it was over she recommenced without a word.

She despised him !

Darrell sulked for the rest of the journey, and was briefly polite to her father, who was inclined to be enthusiastic over the cup.

“You’ve offended young Darrell,” he said later.

“Have I?” said Elizabeth.

SHE TOOK a post in town, breaking it abruptly one morning at breakfast that she would be going up to London the next day to be a mannequin.

Mannequin! Her mother nearly fainted. The shamelessness of it. Walking about with nothing on, or what was worse, next to nothing on.

Elizabeth was steel. She was inflexible. She took the post and after a week or so took a flat in town, too, because travelling wasted so much time. In the evenings and at week-ends she played tennis. She saved her money rigorously and entered for the best tournaments. She began to be noticed

“A coming star,” the newspapers called her, and she was much photographed because she really was good-looking. “Graceful as a dancer,” “a born player,” were some of the encomiums lavished on her; and, finding that her progress seemed to be inevitable, her father offered to pay her expenses, which he could well afford to do.

Elizabeth accepted. Being a mannequin was such a waste of time, and she loathed the scented rooms and artificial atmosphere. But she had proved her independence. Her father knew this, and when she did not display the affection and gratitude he felt she ought to, he did not withdraw his offer. He was almost afraid of her. “How did we come to have such a daughter?” he asked his

wife, and wondered what member of her family had curious, hard, unfemimne characteristics.

His wife could not enlighten him.

Elizabeth now played tennis almost continuously. The day finally dawned when she played at Wimbledon. The public first adored her; she was so young, so graceful. Then they did not adore her quite so much. They liked charming little incidents—shaking hands with her opponent as if she really meant it; and even an exhibition of feminine weakness might have endeared her to people’s hearts. But Elizabeth showed none of this. She placed like a machine. One newspaper man with a gift for simile called her the tennis robot, and the name stuck. At the end of the game she did not bother to smile and look charming. She simply collected her rackets and marched oil. Once she corrected a ballboy for running needlessly about. The boy stopped and stared as if she had struck him.

“Poor little darling,” said her opponent, who did not like Elizabeth, when they changed ends. The boy made a face. W omen players were a nuisance anyway. Give him men.^

Elizabeth received an otter of marriage. She turned it down. She received other offers of marriage. She turned them down. Marriage would waste her time.

She played for England in the Wightman Cup matches, and won against all comers. She held the women’s singles championship at Wimbledon. She was victorious in France and the United States. She had reached the tennis pinnacle. But she did not hold, jointly, the doubles, not playing so well in combination.

One of her partners in a “mixed”—John Dillon, a Canadian—was heard to blaze out in the dressing room: “She’s good—she’s

brilliant. But I can’t play with her!”

“Why not marry her?” said a friend.

“That’s an idea.” John Dillon sixike slowly. “I want to do something to her. I guess I will marry her.”

And lie pursued Elizabeth with the same breezy conquering methods that he played tennis. But in vain. She was cold. She was ice. She wanted to play tennis, and in the winter went to Florida and played—victoriously.

“I’d like to spank her,” said John Dillon.

WHEN ELIZABETH returned to England, her father met her at Southampton. He was awed. It might have been a princess walking down the gangway with all the fuss of cameramen and reporters. Her rackets, which she carried herself, seemed to place her in another world. He congratulated her awkwardly.

“Thanks, father. How’s everything?”

“Oh, fairly well. Your mother’s been feeling poorly lately.”

“I'm sorry,” said Elizabeth.

But he did not feel she was.

She bought her mother an enormous bouquet of flowers, and, seeing her trying awkwardly to arrange them, did it for her.

“Thank you,” said her mother. “They are nice.”

A pause followed. Her mother asked what

it was like to play tennis in Florida, and Elizabeth said she had enjoyed it.

“We’ve kept all the papers,” said her mother. "The pieces about you, and your photo. There’s nearly a trunkful oí them.”

“You must come and see me play,” said Elizabeth.

They had not done so yet. It presented an entirely new idea. “By George, we must,” said her father. Her brothers said “Good old lk-t.” She was defending her tit le at Wimbledon. They would all come up then; they were to have seats overlooking the Centre Court.

When the first day arrived they met as arranged, and had lunch; but it was not a success. Elizabeth in her white tennis frock seemed inhuman and apart. She overwhelmed them. Reporters came up and received a few brief words. Elizabeth ate hardly anything. While they were having coffee she glanced at her watch.

“I must leave you now; I have several things to see to. But Mr. Dillon will see you to your seats.”

John Dillon, who had calmly invited himself to lunch with them, had been very friendly.

“Sure I will,” he said easily. “But you won’t lxlong. You’ll lick Miss Thompson in two straight sets, eh, ’Lisbeth?”

Elizabeth loathed being called ’Lisbeth. Also there was a twinkle in John Dillon’s eye she did not like, lie did not seem to have a proper respect for her.

“I hope so,” she said coldly.

As she got up, her younger brother Ted burst out:

“Ted !” said his mother.

“Well, she is.”

Elizabeth gave no sign that she had heard.

TN THEIR seats, in the midst of a vast crowd, they saw A her come on the court armed with rackets. Her father, blown up with proper pride at the continuous roar of applause, yet scratched his head and was unconscious of his reason for doing so. It seemed ini|)08sibk* that the calm, selfqxissessed girl taking her place at the far end to receive service, was a daughter of his. Her op|X>nent, a tall, fairhaired girl, younger than Elizabeth was now, prepared to serve the first ball. There was a deep silence.

Ping! Ping! Ping! the ball went from end to end. The ballboys st;xxl like statues; the linesmen, and the umpire on his elevated st;x>l, were guardians of a deep and serious purpose. Elizabeth won the first point with a SUJXTI) drive down the side lines, and there was clapping of hands. Mr. Downing clapped, t;x>, vigorously.

The next ix>int Elizabeth lost. Her opjxment, a coming star, was pushing her way into the firmament with all the ruthlessness of youth and disdain for the old. (She considered Elizabeth old.) She hit hard, harder than Elizabeth did, though not with her style and accuracy.

She won the first game with a triumphant smash that put Finis like the dot on an “i”; and the weathercock of publicopinion roared approval. Mr. Downing, looking round, felt that they wanted to see his daughter Ixiaten. 'Hiere was in them a crowd of normally harmless, well-dressed ixople —something of the sadism that drew the crowd to Nero’s arena.

“Curse ’em,” he muttered.

But his inhuman daughter could not fail. She was |x-rfectlv calm and self-possessed. She won the next game by outmanoeuvring Miss I hompson, the fair-haired girl, and making her look like a callow beginner.

Miss Thompson’s face took on a slight appearance of viciousness. She was young; she was strong. She could hit, hit, hit, and keep on hitting.

She got the next game and the next. By persistent slamming against Elizabeth’s polished shield and slender rapierlike methods she annexed the first set, and smiled triumphantly. Applause rolled like continuous cannon fire. I he news flashed forth that the champion was in danger, and people flocked in, filling the Centre Court stands to overflowing.

THE PLAYERS changed ends. Elizabeth prepared to serve. With her beautiful, graceful action she sent down a hard straight ball, which was taken eagerly and skimmed back over the net with terrific force. In attempting to reach it, Elizabeth slipped. She was up again in a moment, but the point was lost, and she limped slightly as she returned to the base line.

The umpire spoke to her, and she shook her head. She served again, and had to withstand furious attacking, to be beaten finally by a fierce overhead smash. Calmly she prepared to serve again. Only her father noticed that on her face was a queer, strained expression which he had seen years ago when she had fallen down and hurt herself and was trying not to cry.

Conti mied on page 57

Continued from page 11—Starts on page 10

“They ought to let her rest after a fall,” he muttered.

But Elizabeth went on playing. She faced the tigerish eagerness of youth and was outplayed, outpointed. Three games she lost in the second set. She rallied and won the fourth. She contested fiercely the fifth and just lost it. As she went to the base line to serve again, she limped. The umpire called to her. Miss Thompson came forward to the net. Her voice sounded crisply: “Are you hurt, Miss Downing?” But there was no sympathy; only a veiled insinuation that she might be robbed of victory by a trick.

“No mercy from any of them,” thought Elizabeth’s father. He conceived a hatred for the bowl of faces.

“Thanks, I can play on,” said Elizabeth.

She did so. She served, and after a brief rallv lost the point.

Mr. Downing was fiddling with his hat. Suddenly he flung it aside and stood up. Heedless of who should hear him, he shouted :

“We’re for you, Elizabeth !”

His younger son, Ted, who had called his sister “swank” bawled too:

"Good old Bet !”

Elizabeth seemed to half tum and flash them a smile. Mr. Downing was conscious of a love for his daughter that he had never felt before. Curse that yellow-haired hussy ! His girl would beat her yet !

When Elizabeth won the next point he clapped furiously. When she won the next and the next, and then the game, he flung his hat in the air.

“Father!” said his wife.

“I don’t care. I won’t see her downed by that—that—”

"DUT IT WAS no use. Elizabeth fought -O gallantly. It was a crippled steel rapier against a relentless bludgeon. When Elizabeth rallied with a beautiful deep drive into the right-hand comer, it was retrieved by what seemed sheer good fortune and sent hurtling back. The game, set, and match was clinched with a culminating fierce smash.

Elizabeth walked to the net. She smiled and shook hands. Then she fainted, and the officials rushed forward.

"Theatrical. I call it,” said a voice behind. Mr. Downing, hastily scrambling from his seat, paused to turn:

“You’re a liar, madam !”

He saw his daughter in the dressing-room where they had carried her.

“There, there,” he said and, kneeling beside her, stroked her hair.

“It’s all right, father, I feel better now.” “We were for you every inch of the way.” “I know. You’re a dear.”

Mr. Downing had not been called a dear before. He smiled mistily.

“You’ll play her again and beat her,” he said.

Elizabeth gazed out of the window. “Perhaps.” Then surprisingly she said: “I’m going to marry John Dillon—if he still wants me.”

“He does,” said John Dillon, coming in. Elizabeth flushed deeply.

“I was thinking of you in the second set, John—and what you told me.”

“What? A champion can be human and still be a champ? Sure, we’ll have two babies—and beat that Thompson girl yet.” “John !” '

Mr. Downing chuckled.