THE ICING ON THE CAKE
Are girls good sports—when two girls want the same man? or, is it a case of “I saw him first”?
IN ANY other season he might never have been halt so conspicuous, for at the Seaward Inn, under usual conditions, there is a wholesale quantity of attractive young men and therefore no need to pluck a stranger out of his retirement. But conditions had not been as usual: with business depressions and income-taxes, there simply had not been enough men to go ’round. In place of the customary herd of stags, standing at bay in the ballroom door, there had been a cluster of drooping wallflowers and, instead of a regiment of veteran star-gazers, there had been only a squad of untrained volunteers, plus a few conscientious objectors, over the draft age. So that Osborne, who was planning a long vacation just, when other young men were losing theirs, was slightly astonished by the warmth of his reception.
He owed a large part of it to his personal appearance.
If you take a hundred and seventy-five pounds of latent energy, endow it with charm of manner, clothe it in imported suitings and top it with strong features, sunburn, deep black eyes and a chronic smile, the effect is immediately striking. Seaward drew one spontaneous, fluttering breath and waited for all this battery of promise to unlimber itself and get into action.
He arrived in the rain, early one morning in June: by the lunch hour, three provident matrons, with one daughter apiece, had hinted to three more or less overfed papas that they might commit a much worse indiscretion than to approach the newcomer and inquire if it had also been raining in New York. From this point forward, Osborne’s acquaintanceship multiplied like yeast; until, by evening, he felt like a prominent light-comedian, surrounded by an uncommonly lovely chorus.
'HE leader of this chorus was a tall, spirited, auburnhaired girl from Denver; and, although she was by no means a man-tracker, and even less a dabbler in holiday romance, she had spied Osborne from afar and promptly resolved to appropriate him. On sight, he appealed to her as a blithe companion who,without nonsense, would keep a vigorous pace with her, yet would also treat her as a humân-being, with a brain and a vote—and men like this are scarce enough, even when times are booming. So that regardless of the surveillance of many rivals, who had likewise appraised him as Life Saving Station Number One, she proceeded to question him.
“Do you ride a good deal, Mr. Osborne?”
“Why—I rode a camel at a fair, once,” he answered, cheerfully, “but once was rather too often. I had to give it up—for my health.”
“Oh! Do you shoot?”
“Yes,” he said. “Sometimes I shoot a little billiards.” She inspected him more closely. “How about golf? What do you go ’round in?”
“Acute wrath,” said Osborne, “and muttered curses.” And everybody laughed.
“No, but honestly—what’s your handicap?” “Advanced age, principally,” he said, and everybody laughed again. But Joyce Martin, who had the auburn hair, was vaguely annoyed. She thought that he was overdoing it, somewhat.
“Well—you swim, anyway?”
“Sorry,” said Osborne, “but I can swallow as well as anybody.”
He denied it with a smile. “No, if I had a dollar for every tennis match I’ve—perpetrated, I wouldn’t have quite ninety cents.”
“You’d be surprised,” she said, “how much I don’t believe you.” And since, at that moment, the orchestra began to gain its livelihood in the ballroom, she added: “But you dance, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t. The last time I tried it was when they were doing—what did they call it: the grizzly-hop?” He turned to the chorus, which was enveloping him in a thick atmosphere of anticipation. “No, it’s the awful truth,” he persisted, affably. “I warn you, I don’t. I’m a member of the Old Brigade—and we never surrender.” They didn’t believe him, then, any more than Joyce Martin believed him; but when, at midnight, the orchestra ceased syncopating, he hadn’t so much as stepped out on the floors Even so, they were generous with alibis, for many a patent-leather pump conceals a corn, and besides, he said that he had been traveling continuously for two days and two nights. Miss Martin alone was sceptical: she determined to back him into a corner at the earliest opportunity and to discover if all he had in his system was a supply of snappy responses, as per sample.
C|HE had plenty of latitude, for during the next three ^ days it rained as it can rain only at Seaward, in shaking blankets of water. She trapped him, presently, in the lobby, and said: “Now, all joking aside—just be yourself. You must be a shark at something—what is it? Don’t die on the vine: I’m asking for information. Go
on and fill out the coupon.” Osborne smiled, indulgently. “My dear child, this is the first vacation I’ve had in centuries. For a solid month, I’m not going to do one blessed thing but bask in the sunshine—when, as, and if issued—and listen to the sad sea waves.”
She surveyed him, critically. In appearance, he was superb: but she was bored by his comedy. “Oh, don’t be so silly! You’re not tottering on the verge of nervous prostration, you know!”
“Oh, but I am,” said Osborne, gently. “That’s why I’m here. I’m a poor, toilworn cripple.”
“Yes, you look it! Grinding overwork, and so on. A mere blacksmith could knock you over with a crowbar.”
“Didn’t I say it’s my first vacation in years? I’ve earned it and I’m going to bask.”
“Aha!” said Joyce, ironically, “I see it, now! Shackled to his desk, our hero fought to save the ancestral fortune from the vile grasp of the villain who held the mortgage. Then-—”
“But there were two mortgages,” he corrected, “and therefore two villains—and two vile grasps.”
“Then after countless generations of bitter hardship, he saw something glittering behind the ancestral chickencoop, and when he picked it up, it was a coal-mine. But—”
“Or a couple of oil-wells,” he suggested. “Behind the ancestral cow-pasture.” “Almost too late! Our hero, starved out of golf, tennis, riding, swimming, fox-trot ting—”
“And mah jongg,” he interpolated.
“—staggered on the brink of collapse. But the ancestral family doctor leaped to the fore. ‘My boy,’ he said, ‘Seaward is the spot for you. In Seaward, you’ll be guaranteed non-collapsible. The air of Seaward is nature’s remedy: antiseptic, anti-scorbutic, feeds the nerves, good for broken arches, dyspepsia, chilblains, shell-shock, baldness, astigmatism—!’” she broke off, sharply. “What’s your complex, anyhow? Aren’t you used to talking to intelligent people?”
“Just for that,” said Osborne, placidly, “I’ll ask you to do a tango with me, some night next August, and while you’re suffering I’ll recite you my favorite poem:
“Lives of dancing men remind us We can all do dips and whirls And, departing, leave behind us Heel-marks on the toes of girls.”
ISS MARTIN returned to her friends, who were at their habitual occupation of press-agenting Osborne to each other. “Rave on,” she said, with intense resignation, “but whenever you want a mild squirrel diet, I’ll show you the prize nut.” And she refused to join in the symposium.
The balance of the ensemble, however, still bounteous with alibis, continued to flock around him and admire him, until at last the sun pierced through the clouds, as grateful as the pinch of salt which completes the porridge. But alas! and similarly alackaday! with the coming of the sun, the beacon-light in Life Saving Station Number One flickered and went out, and Seaward faced shipwreck. For Osborne, standing on the veranda and flushing a trifle, met every invitation with a refusal and a regret. In the image of a champion he stood there and informed them he had won medals for truth-telling—and that he played no games whatsoever—and that his intention was to eat heartily of the lotus-plant, and beyond that, nothing. And when Seaward, grievously perplexed, but weary of teasing him, finally went about its own business
of pleasure, he strolled down to the beach where for the entire day he prevented a comfortable chair from blowing away, while he conversed with a quiet little girl named Sybil Chester.
That night, in groups which formed and dissolved as though engaged in bomb-plots, they dissected him. The following night, yet further baffled and outraged, they indicted him: and a select committee made it a point to take his concluding testimony.
“No, I wasn’t joshing,” he said. “You see, I was brought up in the jungles of Indiana. My dad was what the effete East calls a gentleman farmer—I suppose on the idea that a farmer with less than three thousand acres can't be a gentleman. I didn’t go to school. I had tutors. Then when I was sixteen, my father died, and I went to v ork, and I’ve worked mighty hard, ever since. So I never had the chance to learn any of your parlor tricks.”
“Come on and prove it,” they challenged.
He laughed and shook his head. “No, I’m going to drape myself peaceful with folded hands, like a he-Mona Lisa, and soak up the beautiful sunshine.”
“But it doesn’t matter how much of a dub you are, we'll teach you.”
“No,” said Osborne, firmly, “I’m ancient and decrepit, and what I does at Seaward is, I sits and I soaks. Now won’t you lay off the nice old gent, please, and let him rest?”
Unanimously and indignantly, they convicted him as a flat tire, a false alarm, a stuffed shirt and a cancelled stamp. With every visible attribute to make for greatness he did absolutely nothing but loll on the beach, in strict accordance with his proclamation, and chirp to Sybil Chester. And even in an era of serious masculine drought they could not go on singing hosannas to a citizen of Osborne’s bulk and presence who took no exercises except with his chin.
To be sure, he was frequently asked to dine, to sail, and to picnic and, in these more insipid diversions, he was conceded to be both competent and congenial: but his general status was approximately that of a shrunken lion who purrs instead of roars— a freak to be tolerated only in the absence of a more perfect specimen, and to be poked at, instead of receiving homage. So that they poked at him, diligently, and hailed him as the Bean-Bag King, and not the youngest flapper among them hesitated to ask him whether he intended to participate in the trials for the international ring-toss team. But they had to give him credit for at least one cardinal virtue—he never lost his smile.
“Oh, well,” said Joyce Martin, philosophically, “you can’t strike sparks on mush, anyway. Sybil can have my share of him. He’s just about her speed.” From which remark it should be fairly evident that she and Sybil each considered the other as something the cat had brought in.
OSBORNE, nevertheless, was apparently content in Miss Chester’s society. She was a girl who never said much, nor did much, and consequently was not of the popular party; but she proved to be an efficient listener, and kept sympathy always on draft.
She said to him: “I like to know the reasons for things. Tell me.” Her voice was beautifully placid and encouraging.
“Tell you what?”
“About yourself. This isn’t your regular background. Why on earth did you ever come here, when there’s nothing you can do?”
Osborne frowned. “Maybe it was to see what other people do.”
“Well, what’s your opinion of it? Of Seaward as a whole?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “The frosting on the cake —pink frosting.”
She studied him, intently. “What sort of frosting was it you wanted on your own cake, then? Everybody wants one kind or another, don’t they? So if you don’t care for Ihix flavoring—”
“The curious part of it,” he said, meditatively, “is that the only thing I ever thought I really wanted, I’ve got. That’s money. But sometimes I wonder if money isn’t frosting, too.”
“Unless it actually makes you happy, you’d better use the other word for it, hadn’t you?”
“What other word’s that?”
And then they sat and gazed out at the sea and Osborne was cheered because she understood him.
In another week, he regarded her as positively clairvoyant. She said, unexpectedly: “There’s something
you’re hiding. There’s something about yourself you don’t want me to know. If there wasn’t, you wouldn’t be forever talking off the top of your mind, as if you were on the defensive. But I’ve found out what brought you to Seaward, anyway. It was jealousy. Jealousy of what you criticize most—youth. I don’t mean in birthdays: I mean in sensations.”
He turned to her. “What makes you think so?”
“I can see the wish in your eyes whenever you look at all these other people frivolling.”
He laughed. “If that were true, wouldn’t I be out there struggling to amuse myself, like everybody else?”
“Not necessarily. What is it, just that you hate to admit that all this gayety and glamor isnt worth while— only you wish you were still childish enough to let it dazzle you? Does Seaward make you feel old—when you imagined it would be exactly the contrary?”
TTIS reply was circuitous. “I don’t know whether it’s worth while or not. I don’t know if Seaward’s worth the powder to blow it up. But I know that they can all give me the raspberry, as long as you don’t.” He scowled at the sand. “In a way, you’re not too far wrong, though. I can’t play their silly games and I’m not going to try; but when these young squirts bat a golf-ball around, and bat a tennis-ball around, and splash in the water a couple of minutes, and fancy they’re athletes—Good Lord! They ought to tackle an Indiana farm! They wouldn’t last from breakfast till nine o’clock, and that’s only four hours. And then they give me the bird, because—oh, well, it’s plain ludicrous!”
“And yet,” she said, quietly, “you envy them, when your own common-sense tells you not to! Why, one of the reasons I liked you so much was because you’re so sane! But I’ve spent every summer at Seaward since I was twelve and I’ve seen loads and loads of men, almost as nice as you are, utterly spoiled by this same crowd, by being petted and flattered into a kind of professional partner—somebody who is always ready to make up a twosome or a foursome and get paid in compliments. Please don’t let yourself be spoiled. Just go on being you."
His look to her was that of a small boy detected in cupboard crime: but if he had any confession to make, he stubbornly withheld it.
For the ensuing fortnight he was her constant cavalier and therefore an increasingly wider target for Seaward’s markmanship. The public, viewing them together, opined that she was probably coaching him in cross-stitch. But at the fag-end of that interval, Joyce Martin, breezing down to the tennis courts, perceived Osborne, a moody spectator, occupying a bench in the shade, and on impulse she stopped abreast of him. “Lost your little playmate?” she inquired, cordially. “What a blight!”
Osborne jumped to his feet. “Why—yes,” he said. “Considering the average run of shad in this region, it sure is.”
Miss Martin stared at him. “Well! What book of etiquette have you been reading?”
“Oh, but remember,” he said, “you can’t strike sparks on mush. That was clever, that quip of yours. It didn’t get back to me until yesterday. So the lid is off and from now on we can all be as rude as we please.”
' I 'HEY confronted each other, two splendid creatures in war-like disposition. But, at this instant, she appreciated him more than she had ever done before. He had shown signs of life.
“What’s the matter with you, anyway?” she demanded. “Why don’t you stop stewing in your own juice and come on in and belong? You’ve got all the makings: every -body’d give you a lift; why do you act like a sick dormouse, if you don’t want to be treated like one?”
Osborne stiffened. “Matter? What’s the matter with your father, for instance?”
“You heard me. What was he?”
“What was he?” she repeated. “He isn’t a was—he’s an is. He’s president of a bank.”
“Yes, and was he born president of a bank?”
“My hat, no! He started in as an office boy. But what’s that got to do with—”
Osborne was thoroughly aroused. His face showed it; his inflection showed it. His manner was so tense that it was virtually threatening. “Fine! Well, how old was he before he could afford to hang around resorts like Seaward? Is he a scratch golfer? Does he ride to hounds? Does he play in the Longwood singles? I’ll take a don’t. . . But he fixed it for you, didn’t he? Well, I’ve fixed it for my children, if I ever have any. I’ve paid in advace, the way he did, and the way the fathers of this whole featherbrained gang did! I—”
“Now, calm down! What are you getting so excited about?”
Calmness was not in him. He was wetting his lips incessantly; gesturing in wild motions. “Just because I never had time enough to learn how to waste time—just because I came up here too crocked to do anything but twiddle my thumbs—just because one person in this silver-plated outfit had the decency to—”
“Now, wait a second! Calm down. You—”
IIis vehemence redoubled. “Do you suppose for one holy minute / want to be parked on the sidelines like a piece of rusted junk? Don’t you suppose / want to slam around, too? But when they told me I can’t move a finger until August ” Here, his demeanor underwent a remarkable change. The passion faded out of his eyes, and was replaced by an expression of profound bewilderment. lie took a step backwards and almost stumbled. Then, with a glance of the utmost chagrin, he sank down
on the bench. His shoulders quivered, his hands were twitching and his head was bowed low. “Oh, this is the limit!” he said, uncertainly, under his breath. “This is the absolute brass-bound limit! . And I used to be as hard as nails!”
She was watching him, incredulously, and apprehensively. “You are on edge, for a fact. What’s it all about?” Then revelation seized her. “My hat! All that fairy-story of yours wasn’t true, was it? That time I got you in the lobby—and you said—”
He didn’t raise his head, but she could see that his face was crimson. “Why not?”
“You mean—about overworking, and a breakdown, and—and ererî/thing?”
He nodded; still avoiding her. Miss Martin sat down beside him: and her next remark was very much subdued,, and pitying. “But you poor simp, why didn’t you say so— so anybody could understand it?”
Osborne partly controlled himself. “It’s nothing to brag of, is it?” he asked, savagely. “For a man built like a cart-horse to get as limp as a dish-rag—and full of scenes like this—and have to take his choice between Seaward and a sanitarium? What did you expect me to do: keep blatting about it every five minutes?”
She put her hand on his arm. “Now, just take it easy,” she said. “We aren’t going to scrap any more. But naturally, I thought you were just being funny. The whole crowd did. You looked like a whale and you talked like a tadpole. No one had the least Idea you meant it. Of course I can see now what was behind it—I mean, for a husky like you it must feel as if you’d been thrown out of the club. But why hasn’t Sybil passed it on to us: that’s what I want to know.”
“I didn’t tell her.”
TTE LAUGHED mirthlessly. “I haven’t exactly been posting bulletins all over the place, you know. I handed you the truth on a platter, with a little cress on it, and you didn’t choose to accept it, so I let it go at that. They told me it would only be a month or six weeks, but Good Lord! If you had the faintest idea how—how cheap it makes you feel! And this is about the cheapest I’ve felt yet. I—I apologize. The darned thing ran away with me.” Still, he didn’t look at her.
Her hand remained on his arm. “But when you must have realized what people were thinking about you—” “Oh, yes,” he said, dejectedly. “But I’d rather be taken for a loafer than an invalid, any day. A loafer might reform—but, in most cases, an invalid’s a has-been. And I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay, anyway.”
After a pronounced pause, she said: “Whatever made you spill over to me to-day, then?”
He grinned, ruefully. “You made me so mad—just referring to Sybil like that—I went clear off the handle. I’m sorry. I’m not that way—usually.”
“Are you all right now?”
“Yes, I’m all right.”
Miss Martin stood up. “I’ve got to get into this next set. They’re waiting for me. But I do understand, and I want to talk to you some more, and I apologize, too.” She looked down at him, with contracted brows. “You’re the world’s all around imbecile,” she said, gruffly, “and you’ve been too sensitive. You haven’t given us a chance and, if you’ve had a rotten time, it’s your own fault— but if I’d been in your place I wouldn’t have wanted to squawk, either—and let’s begin over again.”
He looked up, quickly. “Miss Martin! Do me a favor. Don’t say anything about it.”
She smiled straight into his eyes. “Don’t you worry about that. This was my affair when it started and I’m jolly well going to finish it!”
Ordinarily, ill news is swallow-winged, while good news walks on crutches: but this was at Seaward, on the downgrade of a bad season. By dinner-time, the astounding rumor was universal property: by bedtime, the pendulum of judgment had begun to swing in Osborne’s direction. Sybil Chester, however, took it with distinct coolness: she held that Osborne had been equivocal with her, and she was offended that he had saved the full measure of the truth for Joyce Martin, whom he hardly knew—and who had released so much humorous propaganda. It rather implied, she said, that she herself hadn’t deserved^his confidence.
“And when you remember,” she said, “how I was the one who saw you were hiding something—how I guessed what was what, and you wouldn’t admit it—and how you sat and told me what you thought about .Joyce and her crowd—well, it strikes me as ungracious of you, Merritt.” “But it just happened," he explained. “I never meant to beef about it to you or to anybody else. But I got so sore at her it just popped out. And about the main issue,
Í still claim this is principally all frosting. I still don’t see how anybody can make a whole meal of it. But I can wish I could have a nibble, just to see what it tastes like, can’t I?”
“Yes, but 1 assumed you were being friends with me because you preferred to. If I’d known it was only the doctor’s orders not to stir yourself, why— ”
BUT Osborne was so contrite, and he was so acutely embarrassed by the consideration which Seaward now shovelled at him, that she swiftly forgave him. Also, her forgiveness was perhaps a few degrees quickened by the circumstance that Joyce Martin had revived her original interest in him.
Now Joyce’s nature required action, while Osborne was temporarily bound by inertia. If she had maintained her previous schedule, they would hardly have laid eyes on each other, save at extreme long range. But as the calendar sped towards August, it was common gossip that he was seeing more of her than Sybil Chester liked, and that he was seeing more of Sybil than Joyce liked. Seaward brightened amazingly: it was the solitary tournament of a parched summer, and it gained in importance because of the quality of the entries.
To Joyce, his recovery had become a personal ambition; for that reason—and because her conscience was as lively as rubber—she constituted herself his occasional bodyguard, to protect him against too much public compassion, which irked him. She suspected that Sybil was on the opposite tack, but that was Sybil’s affair, not hers. For herself, she never once mentioned his breakdown again. She led him away from it. She made him talk of his boyhood, of his life on the big farm, of his hopes and dreams—topics of the past andthefuture,never of the present, in which he was so chagrined. Day by day, as his buoyancy improved, she promised herself that, in time, she would teach him to enjoy the trivialities, which are the spice of existence—and that she would do this not only in penitence, but also because it would be the happiest labor she had ever known.
There came a day when Osborne went walking on the cliffs with her: it was an eagle’s day, with a sky of cobalt blue, and a keen, fresh wind whipping the bay into echelons of white-caps.
“Ever since I met you,” he said, brusquely, “I figured you’d make a great pal. And I was dead right. I figured
I could talk just as straight to you as I could to a man. Can I?”
“You know you can.”
He cleared his throat. “I need some help—badly. I had a row with Sybil—last night.”
Her heart accelerated by several beats. It was not the first time that he had spoken to her of Sybil but, heretofore, his remarks had been less intimate. “Yes? What about?”
“Oh, myself in general. I’m feeling full of beans, these days, so I said that beginning next week I thought I could cut loose and tumble around a bit: and the trouble started.”
“You see, earlier in the summer, I’d sort of gone on record about these typical resorts, and the people that—” He didn’t finish the sentence but Miss Martin, by virtue of long acquaintance with Sybil, saw clearly to the terminal of it—and appreciably beyond.
“When I landed here,” he said reminiscently, “I haled people who could do what I couldn’t. I hated everybody— when I had to sit tight and pretend I was a perfect lady. So I blew off some steam. But I’ve taken care of myself, and I feel bully, and I’m itching to have some fun. I’d like to have it with your crowd. She says if I do, I’m a hypocrite. So—what I want to know is, what I do next.”
IT COST her an effort to compose herself. The role of Osborne’s adviser, for Sybil’s benefit, wasn’t one for which she would have made a voluntary application. “Why—it depends on how far you want to go.’.’
“I sure do need to get out and frisk awhile,” he said, soberly, “but I can’t have Sybil think I’m a hypocrite. That’s impossible. It’s got to be —fixed.”
Of a sudden, she was sandbagged by intuition. “Did you ever—propose to her?”
He reddened. “Not in so many words, no. But—” “But you do care a lot, really? Enough to keep from
doing the one thing you ought to do—and find a little recreation?”
“It’s like this: she was mighty nice to me, right off the bat, when—” Again, he hung fire, and didn’t finish the phrase. Miss Martin’s cheeks, however, glowed at recollection of the past. She drew a long breath and focussed on the horizon. “I’ve had men ask me some questions that were stickers, but this is a cinch. This isn’t Sybil: it’s women. What a woman wants from a man is companionship. Sybil’s had you all to herself and she’s scared to death you’ll get away from her. She doesn’t give a whoop whether you play games, or whether you don’t; what she’s afraid of is that as soon as you start doing anything she doesn’t, she’ll lose you. She doesn’t do anything at all, so that makes it harder. Well, it’s no use arguing about it ahead of time: you’ve got to show her. You can perfectly well step out with the rest of us, as long as you show her that doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten her name and address. It depends on how you go about it. You’ve got to get her to come and be part of the gallery and feel she’s got a share in whatever you’re doing. If you do that she won’t kick a bit. But you can’t do it ahead of time. You’ve got to wait and demonstrate it. And, if you’re diplomatic enough, she’ll never peep. She isn’t worried about your being a hypocrite: she’s afraid you’ll leave her marooned.”
Osborne inclined his head, gravely. “That’s one item. And another—well, if I’m going to fall in behind the band-wagon, and follow the parade, how do I begin?”
“What? Why, how do you begin to jump off a dock? Just jump. Sign up for lessons and get under way.”
He digested this counsel, and approved it. “Now— it’s pretty nervy of me, when I’ll be such a horrible mess at everything, and you’re an expert, but if you wouldn’t mind sort of putting me over the hurdles once in a while, you’d be a peach.”
She continued to gaze at the white-specked bay. “Yes,” she said, “you do need a stage-manager. . . .
Continued on page 42
Continued from page 19
I’ll be glad to take it on.” For, a crust seemed more nutritious to her than no bread at all, even when the remainder of the loaf was destined for Sybil Chester.
IN THE succeeding days, Osborne’s fundamental boyishness began to effervesce; but, in discount of his enthusiasms, he was cautious enough to make haste slowly. Indeed, for the initial week, he was wrell pleased to have swum ten yards, without gargling the entire harbor, and to have shown the dancing-instructor that, although some idols have feet of clay, his were cast-iron. At the conclusion oï this period, Joyce introduced him to a tennis-racket and, although in his greenness, he left his opponents plenty of room to pass him, if they failed in the attempt, the wisest thing to do next was to duck.
Daily he reported to Joyce what he had said to Sybil, and what Sybil had said in return; Sybil, it appeared, was not too displeased with him. He had not neglected her; on the contrary, he was devoted to her. She had watched him play tennis and applauded him; the harshest thing she had said was that it seemed a maximum of effort for a minimum of result.
Then, overnight, he ceased reporting; and she was unable to decide which was worse—to be his close confidante, or to realize that he was in possession of secrets too dear to be disclosed to her. At the same time that he stopped confiding in her, his attitude towards her became significantly shy.
She believed in her heart she was infinitely more suitable for Osborne than Sybil Chester and that she could be more valuable to him. She could give him true companionship; she could work with him as gaily as she could play; she was as happy in the isolation of fields and mountains as she was in the clamor of the Inn; their minds ran parallel, except for minor divergencies which made for pleasant variety. But he was not in love -with her. She believed that this could be arranged. But could she bring herself to arrange it? Pride, pique and prejudice said, No; desire and despair said, Yes.
She had been educated in sports, and disciplined by sports, until she interpreted life by a simple formula. Some actions are sporting, some are not. She wasn’t too tightly corseted by conventions and she was fearless. So that she did what not another woman in ten thousand would have done; she went directly to Sybil Chester.
“Come on outdoors a sec., Sybil. I want to say something to you.”
THE night was warm and caressing.
Below them the sea was murmuring to the rocks. From the Inn, a slow waltz floated down as lightly and as tenuously as the murmur of the sea.
“Sybil, we’ve known each other a pretty long time. We aren’t friends, and I guess it can’t be done. But we can be good sports, anyhow. I want you to promise you’ll never tell Merritt Osborne one single word of what I’m going to say.”
The smaller girl—and older—looked blank. “Why, how extrordinary!” “Well, is it a bargain?”
“Well—'well, yes. Go ahead.”
Miss Martin’s voice was throaty. “I just want to tell you that you’re a perfect goat, that’s all. You don’t know a good thing when it’s right in front of your nose. I’ve seen a lot of him, lately—and he’s a prince. But you want too much. You want him to be a prince and a lounge-lizard at the same time. You—” Miss Chester bristled. “Well, how does that concern you?”
“Sybil—I like to come out in the open. He’s been—well, I’ve been training him. He’s come to me for advice—about you —and I’ve given it to him. I’ve played it perfectly straight. I—well, if he
hasn’t been able to see me for dust, up to now, it’s because I—” It was a few seconds before she went on. “It’s
because I’ve played so darned straight. Sybil, I could take him away from you in forty-eight hours. I know. So far, I haven’t batted an eye. But if you don’t wake up and get human—if you don’t stop trying to make a tame cat out of him—if you don’t stop crabbing the only
fun he ever had in his whole life—and if you don’t tell me right here and right now exactly where you fit in—I will.” The waltz drifted down to them; the waves lapped at the rocks. The other girl’s voice was brittle. “You think you’re a lot, Joyce. What if I said I want him, and I’ve got him, and I’m going to keep him? Then what do you think you’d do?”
“If you meant it, I’d—pack up my trunks, Sybil.”
Miss Chester gasped. “What!” “Certainly.”
“You would? How soon?”
“Now. To-night. For the 12.09.” The other girl peered at her. “Why?” Miss Martin’s head was erect. “I’m no poacher! He was yours, first. He only came to me to find out how to get along with you. If you’re—sincere about it—I mean, if you care heaps and heaps —if he’s yours—the only thing for me to do is to get out of the road. And I’d do it. If you aren’t—well, either way, you’ve got to tell me.”
A long pause. “Would you really leave Seaward, Joyce?”
“You bet I would. It would be the only square thing to do. For all of us. Because if I stayed—and without any bunk, either—well, never mind. I’ve answered your question.”
“Do you really care that much?”
“Oh, shut up!”
AT LENGTH, the older girl—and the . smaller—smiled queerly. “You’re a bit dramatic, Joyce. But I suppose this is a dramatic situation. Nobody but you would ever have brought it up. Most girls would have had more tact. More delicacy. I’ll grant you it’s—sporting of you, as you say, but—but if I give you the high-sign, you’ll leave Seaward?” “How often have I got to repeat it?” “You’d trust me that much?”
“I never liked you, Sybil—but this is a pretty big proposition for both of us, and I don’t believe you’d lie about it, any more than I would.”
“Will you wait until to-morrow?”
Miss Martin flinched. It was on the tip of her tongue to blurt out: “You’ve got an appointment with him to-night, then!” but she restrained herself._
“Yes,” she said, tersely, “I’ll wait until to-morrow.”
Then they walked up to the Inn, together; for once, Joyce fled to her room, and sat at the open window, in the dark, wrestling with her imagination. For she could visualize, with all the detail of a fine engraving, the picture of Osborne and Sybil, side by side in the starshine.
It was half past twelve when she knew that she couldn’t sit still another instant. She was tortured as much by solitude and inaction as by fear. The night summoned her; the friendly, protecting night which alone could release her spirit, assuage her qualms. She knew precisely where she could go; a long, panting climb to the top of the highest cliff, where the wind could get at her, and perhaps it wouldn’t be so difficult to cry. She hurried out of her evening frock, and into tweed and tricot.
The lobby was deserted. She had almost crossed it when the night-clerk called out to her: “Oh, Miss Martin. There’s some mail for you.”
He raised his voice. “It’s marked ‘Urgent’.”
She halted. Urgent. That might be from Denver. Her father . . .
She came back to the desk and took the envelope; at sight of the superscription, she turned pale. There was no cliff for her just yet; this was important business.
“When did this come in, please?” “Isn’t the time-stamp on it? Sure— 11:50.”
She went to the furthest corner, where a table-lamp was still burning.
It was an awfully fat temptation to take you up, to-night, and get you out of the way. If I’d thought you were bluffing, I’d have done it.
Merritt certainly did have an emotion for me, once, but it was only when he was ill and tired, and the rest of you didn’t have sense enough to see it. But, as soon as he began to feel
better, he changed. But he thought he had a duty towards me. He thought I cared.
Well, I did. I do. I like him around. I’m terribly fond of him. But I liked him so much better when he was ill than I do when he’s well, that I’m wise enough not to marry him. It wouldn’t work. We’ve got nothing in common. And cave-men are out of style. And he doesn’t really want me, anyhow.
That’s another thing. For the last three weeks he’s gabbled about you every minute. He’s dippy over you. It started when you began to play tennis together; he’s rather sickening about it, sometimes. Slushy. But that’s the way men are.
I could have told you this to-night, on the beach, but I knew he was going to perform his duty and propose to me, before he’d feel free to go after you, and I wanted to tell you just what I’m writing you now. He was absurdly grateful, by the way. I never saw a man so thankful to get turned down. And then I didn’t mind having you wriggle a little, because even if I don’t want to marry him, I’m going to miss him a lot. And then I wanted him to take me over to the station for the 12:09.
If it was the only fair thing for you, then it’s the only fair thing for me—to get out of the road—even if I only take two bags and a traveling-case, and trust the maid to send everything else along to-morrow.
So when you wake up in the morning, I’ll be gone; because I’m every bit as good a sport as you are, Joyce Martin, and every time either of you saw me, you’d be too embarrassed for words, remembering that he proposed to me first. And I’d be very peevish, because he’s a million times too good for you, and I’m very fond of him. So good-bye.
P.S.—To save your nagging him, he never kissed me. But at the station, I’m going to kiss him. Probably twice. I’m very fond of him.
P.S.—As woman to woman, he doesn’t like that new perfume you’ve got, nor your green dance frock, nor any kind of ear-rings.
P.S.—And besides, I had a bid for a house-party at Newport, anyway.
OUTSIDE, the sound of a motor.
Voices. Steps on the veranda. A door, opening. Osborne.
Instinctively, she shrank back in her corner; but in the deserted lobby, the creaking of a wicker chair was loud.
He had recognized her! He was coming to her with eager strides!
“You—why, you’ve changed your clothes! Have you been out?”
“Were you going?”
“I—I thought I might. B-but it’s pretty late, now—isn’t it?”
“Just down to the breakwater? Ten minutes?”
Her heart was racing, suffocating her. “But what would—people say?”
“Just ten minutes! Please!”
Sybil’s letter was crumpled in her fingers. She could scarcely see, scarcely think, scarcely feel, but she knew that she must preserve that letter, to show him, sometime. • She owed it to Sybil.
“Come on!” said Osborne, imperatively —and she went. None too steady, she was—but she went. Down the steps to the sweeping lawn; and above them, an immense coverlet of black velvet sky, picked out with low-hung yellow stars.
“I used to say that Seaward was just the frosting on the cake,” said Osborne, hushed, “and, compared with other things, I guess that’s all it really is, but—” Then he forgot all about Seaward, for he had touched her, and she had trembled, and every trembling was contagious, and he wanted very much to kiss her, and he had essayed it and found it not altogether impossible.
So that when long afterwards, she whispered: “But even if it is—isn’t it sweet?” he didn’t know what she was talking about.
But what possible difference did it make, anyway? For that matter, he didn’t know what he was talking about, himself.
And this was as it should be, or else youth is an exploded theory.