Fiction

WILD GESTURE

There are no sure things in horse racing or in love, when a girl holds the stakes

ELEANOR COATES September 1 1947
Fiction

WILD GESTURE

There are no sure things in horse racing or in love, when a girl holds the stakes

ELEANOR COATES September 1 1947

WILD GESTURE

ELEANOR COATES

PROFESSOR Paul Duckett Kirkman, in horn-rimmed glasses and a loose summer suit, walked briskly if somewhat absent-mindedly down Broadway. He had been walking for over an hour, and had gone many blocks. He had been impugned by three taxi drivers and bumped by numerous pedestrians, like himself in defenseless stages of preoccupation.

Professor Kirkman stopped at a newsstand and picked up a paper. He saw a familiar restaurant sign, and went down a flight of stairs into the

impersonal anonymity of the automat. Here he would see nobody he knew. Nobody would wonder why he, of all people, should have the furrowed brow and the bemused stare. He didn’t want sympathy, or even curiosity. He just wanted to think things out quietly.

For years, in fact for most of his life, he had studier! hard, teaching in boys’ schools, at other periods studying. At 31 he was slightly stoopshouldered, somewhat nearsighted. But his doctorate and a job»in a good university were in sight. He had arrived, he reasoned, while still young enough to enjoy the fruits, and he had picked out a girl with whom to enjoy them. She was Mary Elizabeth Thatcher.

She would fit beautifully into a college campus. She was a professor’s daughter. She was fair and sweet and earnest, and until two weeks ago he had

thought she loved him. That was before Bartley Carruthers came along. Now Paul was not so sure. He was not sure of anything.

He put a mug under a spigot and a nickel in a slot and turned a handle and watched the coffee gush oíd. and magically stop before the cup ran over. He hesitated in front of a tiny window where a piece of pie reposed, decided against it and moved on. There was an empty table by the wall and Paul sat down, sipped his coffee and opened his paper.

OUT he kept thinking of Bartley Carruthers— 13 big, good-looking, dark and sleek, with a convertible and money. Plenty of money. It was not clear what he worked at, but he was a promoter, one understood. A successful promoter. Sporting events and things like that. Just now he was between promotions, which gave him time to

There are no sure things in horse racing or in love, when a girl holds the stakes

devote his attention exclusivelv to Mary Elizabeth.

To be perfectly fair to Mary Elizabeth, Paul had not been entirely excluded from her society because of Bart. Often he had been the third occupant of the convertible when Bart took Mary Elizabeth to ride. Mostly he sat back and just listened: Bart

explaining the organization of big league baseball, or why the law of averages continued to work for Joe Louis. This morning Paul had watched Bart play tennis, flashing up to the net and back, piling up points. When Bart and his opponent paused briefly, changed sides and started again, Paul had decided on the long walk downtown.

He idly scanned the headlines of the newspaper, opened it at random.

He was startled by the voice of a man who had just sat down at his table. “Yuh innerested in the nags?”

For a moment Paul gazed uncomprehendingly at the small man in the rumpled sports jacket, who repeated, “Yuh innerested in the nags? The bangtails?” He rapped the newspaper Paul was reading with the back of his knuckles.

Paul realized then he was reading the race page. “Indeed, yes. Horses. I certainly am interested in horses. Well—well—Equus caballus—”

“Huh?”

“The horse—domesticated.” He looked at the little man with amusement. “Horses are something of a passion of mine.” It was as though he had come upon an old friend in a wilderness.

“Yuh got any favorites?”

“A good many.” His eyes sought inspiration on the ceiling. He gave a chuckle. “One comes to mind named P-o-t-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o. Eight o’s. He was always called Pot-8-os. Very fine animal—”

“You don’t say,” ejaculated the little man. “An’ I can’t even remember him. What track’s he at? Who’s his sire and dam?”

“Ummm—Now there you have me.” Paul was annoyed with himself. “Although I can tell you he was sire of Waxy out of Maria.”

“Waxy? Maria?” The little man repeated the names slowly. He was nonplussed. “This Waxy a two-year-old? Even so it’s funny I don’t know about Potatoes.”

“Sorry, I can’t tell you his sire and dam. Come to think of it there may not be a record of Pot-8-os’ pedigree. You see the first studbook was started by Weatherby in 1808—,” said Paul.

“You mean a racing form?”

“Well, yes; And Pot-8-os would be—-maybe 1773 —you see—”

“Say,” exclaimed the little man. He gazed at Paul with wonder. “Say, brother, did you say 1773? You are innerested in the nags—”

Paul continued brightly. “Funny they got started on the studbook so late. The reign of Queen Anne 1702 to 1714 was such a great period for the thoroughbred race horse. You know, Darley’s Arabian, the forefather of all the modern race horses. Darley was running him in 1700. Although there’s some controversy about that. Prince George, Anne’s consort owned a good many—”

Paul lapsed into silence but the little man did not answer for some moments. “Brother!” he muttered: Clearly they were brothers, and his gaze was full of admiration and pity. Admiration for Paul’s obvious enthusiasm for the horse, and pity that he had been all these years in the wrong company. Instead of knowing about War Admiral, Mahout and Red Shoes, Paul was mixed up with Potatoes, Waxy and Maria.

Paul felt relaxed and almost happy. He was grateful to the little man. Talking about horses had taken his mind off Mary Elizabeth. Visions of sleek bodies and flowing manes had replaced images of tennis players in white sports clothes.

The little man leaned forward confidentially“You got any money?”

“Uh? Oh, yes -could 1 offer you a cup of coffee?”

Paul got up immediately and soon came hack to the table with two mugs. “I neglected to ask your preference about sugar. So 1 put in two ”

“ ’Sail right !” The litt le man was most agreeable.

He took up the conversation exactly where they had dropped it. “What I mean is, you got a bank roll? Enough to take a flier and make yourself some money?”

Paul did a swift calculation, adding tutoring fees due from several students and subtracting expenses for the next fortnight. “I have $408,” he announced.

The little man became most confidential, almost conspiratorial. “I gotta hot tip. See this race here?” He pointed to a chart in the paper. “Well, I got something very hot on that. Onney unfortunately I can’t use it myself due to a remittance l was expectin’ hasn’t shown up. You see those horses listed there?”

Paul read the names slowly : “Swing High, Beau Butch—”

“Yeah—Beau Butch. That’ll be the favorite. Keep on.”

“Demon Rum, Wild Gesture—”

“That’s her. Now you can stop. Wild Gesture— that’s your horse. See them probable odds? The crowd will never think of her. An’ the odds are going to be high.”

“The crowd is thinking about Beau Butch?” said Paul testing his acumen.

“A cheese favorite if there ever was one. Strictly from cheese.”

“Cheese?”

“Now you take the Gesture there, been in blankets for weeks. So nobody’ll catch on how good she is. Now

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take a look at those workouts. Looka that—a mile in one thirty-nine, and she can do better than that. I have it on good authority. This fella Jenkins, the trainer, he’s an old buddy of mine. We was friends since the days I was training horses. I use to be a trainer myself—”

“Tomorrow afternoon. I don’t know if I could get over there or not—”

“There’s always bookies. But you oughta go see the Gesture íun. I’ll see you aroun’ afterward, an’ maybe— Paul gathered that after the race he might be asked for a loan if the remittance had not yet arrived. “Oh, sure. Only fair—”

“Cheese favorite,” he murmured to himself after the little man had gone. He wanted to remember that because he had a fondness for unusual expressions. But he might have forgotten Wild Gesture and the fift h race the next afternoon if Bart ley Carruthers had not come up with the idea of going to a beach.

THE evening was warm, and although a slight breeze was stirring it never seemed quite to reach the Thatcher’s veranda. Paul did not particularly mind the heat, ar.d Mary Elizabeth looked cool and lovely in a yellow dress that rustled when she walked and seemed to caress her tanned skin. She was beautiful, Paul reflected, and she was getting more so. It was ecstatic delight to sit beside her, even when they didn’t talk, and he had been enjoying himself for half an hour when Barit ley arrived. Bart was handsome in light flannels, his waving hair still wet from his shower.

“Say baby—you’re looking beautiful,” Bart llegan. “And what a bea-eut¡ful dress. Stand up and let me see it.” That way Mary Elizabeth drifted away from Paul’s side in the porch swing.

“If it wasn’t so hot we could go dancing.” Paul was suddenly grateful for the heat. “You look like a dryad— or a nymph, or a naiad—”

“They live in the water,” said Mar; Elizabeth gently batting the remaní to one side. Obviously she liked Bart and his easy chatter.

“Look,” said Bart, “I have an idea. A friend who has a private beach is always telling me to come and bring my friends. When can we go? Tomorrow afternoon?”

Paul had visions of Bart doing a spectacular crawl and diving from great heights. He had visions of Mary Elizabeth and Bart sitting side by side on a float far out in the ocean.

“How about it?” Bart repeated. “What about you, Paul?” Mary Elizabeth must know that the invitaI ion to swim had been to her alone. The idea of including him was partly habit, and partly her genuine sweetness. Paul thought of his inadequate breast stroke, and pulled himself together.

“As a matter of fact I had a plan. I particularly wanted you to come along with me tomorrow afternoon.”

Bart was instantly suspicious. “Where? What’s this?”

“The races,” Paul replied with scarcely a moment’s hesitation. “I have a tip on the fifth race tomorrow afternoon. I particularly wanted —” “The fifth race, you say?” Bart’s scepticism was apparent. “What horses are running in the fifth?”

“I have all the data here.” The racing sheet was still in his pocket. “Swing High, Beau Butch, Demon Rum, Wild Gesture— that’s the one. Wild Gesture.”

“The best horse in that race is Beau Butch.” Bart spoke with authority.

“On the contrary, the only bet in the fifth is Wild Gesture. And good odds, too, you’ll find. She’s been under blankets. Moreover Beau Butch is a cheese favorite. Strictly cheese.”

Bart stared at him. “What tout has been talking to you?”

“A friend of mine,” Paul replied with dignity, “a former trainer—” he realized that he did not know the little man’s name. He turned to Mary Elizabeth. “I thought we might make a little excursion to the track and—”

“If you really want to go—” she began.

“Oh sure,” Bart said heartily. “We can go to the track if you like, Mary Elizabeth, and go swimming the next day.”

“We can invite Sid and Ethel. I think it would be fun.”

“Wouldn’t want to miss seeing Paul make some money,” drawled Bart. “But you’d better change your mind and put your two bucks on Beau Butch.”

Casually but with great dignity Paul replied. “I shall bet $408 on the Gesture. I shall bet that she will come in first.”

“Four hundred and eight dollars?” If Bart had said it. the effect would have been derisive, but in Mary Elizabeth’s voice Paul believed he heard genuine concern. “But Paul—is that all you have?”

There was a slight pause. “If you ask me it’s fortunate if that’s all he has,” said Bart.

“On the contrary. It is most unfortunate that I am unable to place a larger bet—on the nose,” said Paul.

The atmosphere on the porch was becoming tense. When Mary’s father, Professor Thatcher, came out on the porch he seemed to feel it, too. He spoke to Paul: “I have a new book

that will interest you, Paul. About horses in the reign of William the Conqueror. I’ll step inside and get it.”

“Let’s go down to the corner for a soda,” suggested Bart, taking Mary Elizabeth’s hand. She glanced at Paul, understanding of course that he would await her father’s return. Then she and Bart started down the path, and Paul watched them go, straining his eyes after them in the dark. Bart was still holding Mary Elizabeth’s hand.

Professor Thatcher returned to the porch carrying a heavy volume, but when he found Paul alone he put it down unopened on the table. “Ah—the others have flown.”

FOR a few minutes they smoked in silence, then the older professor cleared his throat. “Rather remarkable young man, this Carruthers.”

“Good athlete,” agreed Paul. “Ummh. Not just that either. Seems he inherited a rather comfortable income, and has made substantially more in a very short time. He’s a sort of modern buccaneer, you might say, and has that sort of appeal to women.” The Professor stirred uncomfortably. “I never really understood the type myself. But—er—very interesting.” Paul thought he knew what Professor Thatcher was trying to say. Bart had outlined his financial situation to him. He wanted to marry Mary Elizabeth. Her father was sorry, but it was up to Mary Elizabeth to decide. There was much in Bart’s favor. The older man was fond of Paul. He wanted to warn him about what was coming. To let him down easy.

When Professor Thatcher went back into the house Paul sat alone, gloomily smoking. Doubtless Bart and Mary Elizabeth Jiad gone dancing after all. He might as well go home. But then he saw Bart ’s car coming down the street. He didn’t want them to see him. He

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stepped back into the shadows. WLen they came up the front path he would go down to the side gate.

But Mary Elizabeth got out of the car and came up the path alone. Paul stood very still. When Mary Elizabeth reached for the doorknob she turned and saw him standing by the vines.

“Oh—you’re still here, Paul.”

“Just going. Pve been talking to your father.”

She walked toward him. He could smell the fragrance of her hair.

“Paul—there’s something I want to say to you—”

“Not tonight,” he said hastily. “You’re tired and it’s late. Tomorrow—” He could not bring himself to hear what she had to say.

“Tomorrow—I’m playing golf with Bart in the morning. In the afternoon —Paul wouldn’t you—just as soon go swimming in the afternoon?”

“Swimming? Not for me. You and Bart—”

“Oh Paul,” she put her hands on his shoulders and looked up at him. There was something sisterly in the gesture. “About this crazy bet, Paul. It’s all your money, and Bart is right. You see—you’re a college professor, and Bart—he knows so much. He’s a man of the world—”

Paul put his arms around her. “He’s a man of the world, but I’m a man, Mary Elizabeth—”

“Oh—oh—” she was out of his arms before he could more than brush her lips. The front door closed behind her.

IT RAINED during the morning and cleared around noon, and there was freshness in the air when they set out for the track in Bart’s car. Somehow the seating arrangements had been maneuvered so that Bart and Mary Elizabeth sat in the front while Paul found himself in the back seat with Sid Elkins and Ethel Ross, friends of Mary Elizabeth. They studied the racing form and asked Bart questions about the horses, the track and the parimutuel system. They argued humorously, but Paul listened to the conversation in the front seat.

“We’ll miss the first race,” observed Bart. “The traffic is heavier than I thought. But the first race isn’t important.”

“Perhaps we’ll be too late to bet,” said Mary Elizabeth.

“Don’t worry,” replied Bart grimly. “We’ll get there for the important, betting. We’ll be in time for that fifth race if that’s what’s worrying you.” “I’m not worrying,” she disclaimed brightly. “Daddy gave me some monento make some bets. He told me to make show bets on any horse I liked.”

Bart turned his head and shouted. “Say, Kirkman—what about your bet? I hope you brought the cash. The track isn’t going to accept your cheque, you know.”

“I brought the cash. I went to the bank this morning.” Paul reached into his pocket and withdrew the money, four crisp $100 bills and eight limp singles. “If you’re betting for yourself, Mary Elizabeth, maybe you wouldn’t mind placing my bet for me?”

If she placed the bet she would be more interested in the success or failure of the horse. And if he gave her the money there was no chance of any lastminute weakening, as Bart plainly expected. Or, if by any chance he was unable to reach a wicket to place the bet, he could not be held responsible if Mary Elizabeth held the cash. Placing $408 on Wild Gesture had become a point of honor between himself and Bart.

The track was crowded. They arrived just as the second race finished.

Bart showed them around. He

explained the changes in the odds, the colors worn by the different stables, the system of assessing weights to the horses, and gave a review of the reputation of the jockeys and the owners themselves. With his help everyone bet on the fourth race, and then, following Bart, they crowded the rail. The horse Bart had chosen came in. It paid 20 cents on the dollar.

It was time now to place the bets on the fifth race.

“Paul,” said Mary Elizabeth. “Paul, are you sure you want to put the whole thing — the whole $408 on Wild Gesture?”

Paul nodded.

“Better save out the eight,” advised Bart, “or better, save the $400 and bet the eight.”

Paul looked at Mary Elizabeth and said firmly, “Four hundred and eight on the nose.”

The horses were led out. Wild Gesture was a little mare. Her colors depressed Paul, bright yellow and brown. They were the colors of Bart’s necktie.

Sid came back. He had put $10 on Swing High, now almost even with the favorite. Bart had 20 on Beau Butch. Mary Elizabeth came back and took her place between Ethel and Sid. Everyone watched tensely. Everyone except Paul. He found the sun hurt his eyes, and seemed to glare on the shining flanks and the satin colors. Out of the starting gate Swing High went into the lead quickly, and Wild Gesture was lost immediately in the pack. Paul turned away. Bart looked through opera glasses at the horses rounding the end of the track. He gave no hint of their positions.

Someone in the crowd yelled, “Come on, Wild Gesture.” Paul turned and yelled too, “Come on, Wild Gesture.” Apparently at least one other person had bet on the little mare.

The horses came down the stretch to the wire in a crowded finish—all except two which trailed the others by several lengths behind. At those two Paul stared myopically but he could not. be sure of the colors.

Bart lowered his glasses. “My horse got a lousy ride,” he said loudly. “Should have won.”

“Too much weight,” said Sid. He turned suddenly to Paul, “Say, pal, maybe you knew what you were up to after all. Where do you get your tips? Good Lord—” he looked at the odds being posted. “Eighteen to one.” “You mean Wild Gesture won? I get $18?”

“Sure he won. Seven thousand you get—and a little more—”

“Just think of that,” said Paul calmly. He saw Bart’s unsmiling face, and Sid’s good-humored grin, and Ethel’s excited admiration. Then he saw Mary Elizabeth.

In the bright sunshine she looked pale and ill. She touched his elbow. “Paul—may I speak to you? May 1 speak to you—alone?”

“Why, of course, Mary Elizabeth.” It was coming now as he had thought it would. She had l>een getting ready to tell him something, and now because he had won $7,000 she was delaying no longer.

She said, “Paul—Paul—I don’t know how to tell you. I’m—I’m just not worthy of you, Paul. I’m a worm— and a viper, and you are going to hate me.”

“Why no,” he replied quietly. “I’ve been expecting it, Mary Elizabeth. I could see that you and Bart—”

“I know how you’ve worked to get somewhere in the world. I’ve seen you work harder than anyone I know. I know you’ve always been the kindest, most sensible, wisest—and I know how

j poor you’ve been and how you needed i $7,000—”

“Why no,” said Paul, “Why no, I I don’t need it, Mary Elizabeth. I never needed it really. What would I use it for? I don’t need a thing. Of course 1 thought that sometime, if you and I were married—”

“Oh, Paul,” she cried, “We never will be married. You’ll never trust me again.”

“What is this, Mary Elizabeth? I trust you. Of course I trust you. I love you, and I always will.”

“Don’t say that,” she pleaded. “Don’t ever say it again. Paul—when I went up there to put the bet on Wild Gesture—I got fainthearted. I remembered what Bart said. Paul, I couldn’t—”

His heart stopped momentarily. “You mean—you thought of Bart and put it on Beau Butch?”

“No—not that. Paul—I didn’t put it on anything.” There was anguish in her quick words. “Paul, you aren’t going to get $7,000. I have your $408 here in my hag. Oh, Paul—”

Now she was sobbing and the people were looking at her. Paul took her in his arms so that she could hide her face on his shoulder. The tears rolled off her cheeks and blotted themselves on his shirt front. He was suddenly happier than he had been for weeks.

“You see you can’t trust me. You’ll

never believe in me again. And I should have known you would be right,” she sobbed.

A tremendous weight had rolled off him. “I don’t care about the money,” Paul said earnestly. “I love you, Mary Elizabeth. Don’t you know what that means? The important thing is, do you love me?”

“But of course. I always have,” she said looking up.

“If you like, we won’t mention it to the others—-about you not placing the bet—”

She dried her eyes slowly. “I wouldn’t ever want them to know. You see, I feel as though I’d been unfaithful to you.”

Going home in the car Sid and Ethel sat in the front seat with Bart and Paul and Mary Elizabeth sat in the back. Paul was full of good spirits. He talked about Equus caballus, he held Mary Elizabcth’shand andshebeamed.

Bart drove fast but with skill. He didn’t have much to say. In fact he made only one remark that seemed to have any bearing on what had happened. It was to the effect that to some women $7,000 looked like a great deal.

“On the other hand,” said Paul. “To some people money doesn’t mean a thing. The important things in life just can’t be bought.”

And the pressure of Mary Elizabeth’s hand proved he was right. it