The Most Adorable Poem
A rippling comedy of a youthful Romeo who expressed his soul in verse and lived to regret it
“Rah, rah, rah, ziss boom bah.
We’ve come to see our College Star!”
THE bedroom door flew open. In the entrance three untidy little girls met the startled and disgusted eyes of Leonard R. Ritchie, Junior. He wheeled about from the dressing table, comb in hand, one thick black lock hanging awry over his forehead.
“Good gosh!” he exclaimed.
Three thin and lanky little girls they were; in blouses and gym breeches and twisted stockings, with rutiled brown heads, bold dark eyes, white flashing teeth. Leonard stared, and braced himself with an exasperated sigh. He would rather face the toughest athletic opponent than the eyes of his three sisters.
‘‘Look here, you!” He advanced threateningly. ‘‘I thought I’d locked that door. It’s a pity a fellow can’t get dressed in peace.”
‘‘Or in pieces.” Pansy, who was eleven and the baby of the family, giggled inanely.
Leonard loathed that giggle. He often marvelled how' any girl so wild and lacking in the finer graces could ever have been given the name of Pansy.
‘‘Tee hee; he’s perfuming his raven locks.” Evelyn,
slightly older than Pansy, made a dive for the dressing table and seized a bottle of green, scented toilet water. “He’s making himself sweet and cute, just so his precious little Susikins —”
“I bet he takes her dainty hand in his.” Connie, at sixteen, was an avid reader of love stories whenever she could smuggle copies beneath her mattress. “He looks into her starlit eyes, just like the limpid waters of a mountain lake at sunset, and he murmers in a low and trembling voice, ‘Susie, my own true love; wilt thou look down on me, thy dauntless swain, for ever and a day anon?”’
A loud burst of merriment ensued. Leonard scowled heavily and, a little white beneath the deep tan of his face, made a wild grab, trapping a madly kicking Evelyn beneath his arm.
“You leave the perfume alone. Stop squirting it about will you? I’ll teach you to get fresh, you little wrretch !”
“Oooh, Lennie!” Pansy raised her shrill voice. “Mother, Lennie’s teasing us and calling us names!”
Leonard caught her swiftly under the other arm. There were shrieks of protest, and the three rolled on the floor. Out of the chaos, Connie’s cool voice rose undisturbed.
“We’ve been cleaning out the basement, charming brother, and we encountered most interesting things. Among them being, hid afar in an old box—”
“A poem! A poem!” Pansy twisted away, shouting gleefully. “An awfully funny poem!”
“Written by one Leonard Ritchie, famous poet.” Evelyn twisted wiry arms about her brother’s neck and squealed defiantly. “Let go, or I’ll start saying it:
“I know a lovely, lovely maid My heart just wafts around her 0 Laura, I’ll ne’er be old or staid W’hile—”
“Wrhy you . . you!” Lennie shook her roughly, his face a dull red. “You can’t have that! You had no business—why, I thought all that rubbish was destroyed ages -Oh! So you’ve got it!” Hastily he turned to Connie, as he saw her slip a crumpled piece of paper down her stocking.
Connie took one leap for the door and grinned.
“Oh, no, you don’t, sweetness.” She balanced on one foot and wrinkled her saucy nose. “WTho wouldn’t take his darling sister to a picture show because she was ‘so dreadfully common and untidy.’ Just tell me that?”
“And who wouldn’t teach his darling sister to play tennis when he’s a near champion, just because she hasn’t got a good eye?”
“And who wouldn’t even help his darlingest sister to bandage up her sick pup’s leg?”
“Oh, for the love of Pete!” Leonard stared in complete exasperation. “If that’s not just like girls—
haboring asinine, inconsequent grudges.” He refused to listen to Connie’s gentle, “And do they teach you pretty words like that at college, Mister?” “As if you didn’t know I’m practising for a serious tournament this summer and can’t waste time on foolish, yipping— hey, don’t go away.” He bounded into the hall. “Listen Con, hand that over, there’s a good kid. Honestly I’ll do something nice.”
“Not on your life. This is something special for Susikins. She doesn’t know about your wicked past, and all the lure of fair, fair Laura.” There was a wild whoop, a scamper down the stairs, and gay young voices rose from the garden beneath his window.
LEONARD gritted his teeth impotently. From past 4 experience he knew how impossible and inglorious pursuit was, where those three were concerned.
“Oh lord !” His brow was furrowed with worry as he re-combed his thick black hair. To have the name of the sweetest girl on earth desecrated by those impossible children; worse, not to know whether the purest flower that ever bloomed reciprocated even mildly his affection. To think that proof of his one-time folly—his seventeenyear-old infatuation for Laura Sharp, two years senior to, and bosom chum of Connie—was in his sister’s dangerous possession! Connie was too wily to be a welcome factor of his existence.
All that, combined with the. worry of knowing the finals of the impending tennis tournament would almost certainly lie between Cliff Parker and himself. Cliff, who once had been his friend and whom now he hated with all the stubborn hatred of nineteen years which
sees a deadly rival in every handsome man. He knew thaï Sue looked on Cliff admiringly, and he felt that he had to walk all over Cliff this year, especially after Sue’s little laugh on the club grounds the previous night and her remark, “I love men who can do things.” Cliff Parker was a star swimmer; he went yachting and surf riding, and once had climbed a formidable peak in the Rockies. Things to excite a young girl’s heart; whereas he, Leonard Ritchie, had only a freshman’s reputation for tennis.
But still . He smoothed the last unruly wave and smiled. He wasn’t a bad specimen, he decided, as he carefully scrutinized his brown young face. He could hold his own. Tonight dad had come through and lent him the car. That meant that he could call Sue up and perhaps take her to the courts, after which . . Cliff’s
car was in for repairs, he knew. He whistled softly as he marched downstairs.
Connie was on the telephone in the hall, and a furrow crossed Leonard’s brown again.
“Oh, yes, and listen, Laura.” Suspicion filled his eyes. Connie, talking to her chum, might take a good half hour—and what she might impart in all that time . . Out of the corner of her eye, Connie caught sight of a vicious scowl; heard an urgent, “Get off that line, you little idiot.”
And Laura,” very mysteriously. “Do you know what? I read the most adorable poem today. I want to show it to you. It’s terribly romantic and path .
Oh, Laura darling, do you want to hear me yell blue murder down the receiver, because my dearest brother ...”
“Oh, hurry up!” Much as he wished to, Leonard dared not touch Connie. Five minutes later he returned to the
telephone to find that sister Evelyn was in possession.
“But listen, May - what color skirt will you put on if I put on my green? If l put on the red tie, then you put on yours, will you? And May, will you wear your Angora tammy because I can’t find my other ...” Desperate, Leonard sought the kitchen.
“Do tell that kid to get off the line. I’ve got something terribly important.”
His mother looked up from the oven.
“Now Len, it’s useless to complain to me. I’m busy, and besides you’re old enough . . . Just take those cruets to the dining room when you go, will you?”
Of course it was useless. He knew that. He set the cruets on the dining room table with a bang. Connie, now gathering knives and forks from the sideboard, turned slowly.
“Mother says,” she said impressively, “that you’ve got to take Laura and me to play tennis at the club tonight.”
“Take you and Laura?” For a moment Leonafd stared in frank surprise. “Say, what an idea! Ha-ha.” “And dad says, too,” Connie was outwardly calm, but inwardly was seething with delight, “that you’ve got to. It’s awful the way you neglect your sisters when you come on a holiday. Just when you could be a pleasure and a comfort.”
Lennie was supremely scornful.
“Excuse me while I laugh, please. Ye gods, who’s on the phone now?” He wheeled swiftly.
“And Jackie, listen.” Pansy, to the open amusement and secret envy of her sisters, had a real boy friend. “You let me come fishing with you and Jim tomorrow, and I’ll get mums to pack the swellest lunch. Sure, I’ll wear my oldest khaki pants, and slick my hair. I can talk tough. Sure, Jimmie’ll like me . . .”
“You little heathen, get off that line !” This time Lennie picked his sister up bodily and set her down across the room.
“What’s wrong, precious?” Connie faced her brother across the supper table ten minutes later. “Couldn’t Susie go out tonight?”
“It’s your fault, you little fiends! Deliberately made me wait. Now the line just keeps on being-busy. You make me sick!”
“Well, go outside then.”
Father unexpectedly thumped the table. Father was in no mood for petty quarreling.
“Silence! And what’s more,” he said after a pronounced hush, “you’ll take your sister to the courts tonight, Leonard. That’s final.”
“But, dad!” Leonard protested. “I must practise. Besides, we don’t want beginners down at night.”
“Haven’t I paid your sister’s entrance fee, young man? She has a perfect right. A perfect right—and yet, what good does she derive? Nothing. Nothing at all.” Leonard Ritchie, Senior, under the warming influence of soup, began to liven to his subject. “Selfish, irresponsible younger generation ! Never stop to consider those who may not have the same degree of unspeakable audacity. You’ll spend the evening coaching her, young man!”
THE entrance to the courts, Lennie stopped the car.
"Get out,” he commanded his sister and the unspeakable Laura who was with her. “I’ll be back soon.”
“He wants to go for Sue, I bet.”
Laura’s whisper was audible, and Leonard’s glare suggested a desire to inflict sudden death. Laura was plump, and pink and white, and golden. She giggled incessantly. Leonard wondered how his youthful madness had ever led him into writing verse—and regarded Connie glumly, with an unpleasant sinking feeling in his heart.
"You two go along,” he said. "I’ll soon be there.”
"We won’t go in by ourselves.” Connie was emphatic. "They look at us.”
"Who looks at you?” with sudden desperate quiet. “Just tell me who?”
"Gee, he’s going to fight for you!” Laura clasped her hands ecstatically.
“All those men.” Connie lowered her gaze to the ground. "You know dad wouldn’t care to have me enter a place where I felt embarrassed because people stared.”
"For crying out sideways!” It was Lennie’s turn to stare, in complete stupefaction. "As if any man with sense would want to look at you! My holy hat! Come on then.” He thrust her forward ungraciously. Sisters, despite their numbers, were entirely beyond his comprehension.
With a sinking sense of shame, he led the two girls toward the lowest, most obscure court, which, being grass, was not much used. From the distance he could see a familiar red blazer—Sue was already there. Cliff was in close attendance, his face a wide and fatuous grin.
"Oh, listen, Sue,” he began impulsively as they passed the laughing pair. But Laura slipped her hand through his arm.
“Lennie, do tell me what all those notice boards are for. Are they for tournament entries? Wouldn’t it be fun if you and I . ?” He was horribly aware of Laura’s clinging touch.
Cliff’s big laugh rang out. "Hello there, Len and Con.” Connie immediately showed embarrassment. Cliff’s grey eyes were amused. There were obvious chuckles as they moved on.
"Take your arm away," Leonard whispered to Laura, and she gazed up surprised.
He Knew that Sue overheard Laura’s loving inflection and he longed to put her in her place but a vague fear of her held him.
HE PUT Connie and Laura through an hour of curt instructions that left them hot and breathless.
“Oh, for the love of Pete, don’t poke like that.” He spared them nothing. "Think you’re stabbing someone, perhaps? Why not get a bayonet and have a good jab.” A murmur from the next court, “How horribly smart and grown-up that Ritchie boy thinks he’s getting,” did little to soothe his affronted spirit.
As soon as he decently could he left for his nightly singles with Cliff; that hard, exciting hour that was watched and cheered by half the younger members. Tonight he was very grim about it all, aware of Sue’s indifferent little face beneath the crisp brown curls, remembering her equally cool, “Have a nice game with the girls, Lennie?” He had stood beside her a moment.
"Look here, Sue.” His tone was lowered. “Honestly it just happened that way. I tried to call you on the ’phone.”
“Oh, yes? Well, Cliff succeeded in getting me. He called for me at the house, thanks.” A brief silence to let that sink in; then, very casually: "He’s been telling me that you used to go around quite a bit with that Laura one.” Inwardly Leonard resolved that in a few minutes he would make Cliff look silly. “I think she’s such a sweet, pretty thing, don’t you?”
Despite three sisters, Leonard was still unversed in the subtleties oí womannood.
Sue seemed to freeze into something utterly unapproachable.
“Well, run along. Cliff’s waiting.”
“But, Sue!” Desperately he struggled to right the thing that he sensed was wrong. "I want to see you. Let me drive you home afterward, will you?”
"Along with your sister and your girl friend, I suppose?”
"Good heavens, no! I'll ditch them.”
“Dear me.” Sue shrugged her shoulders. "You are fickle minded. So sorry, Len, but I’ve already made arrangements.”
Lennie stared; and then looked out at Cliff, who was idly twirling his racquet on the court.
"Oh, very well. Have it your own way.” But there was deadly fury in his heart as he approached his foe.
"Come on. Make it snappy,” he growled. "Think it’s going to stay light all night?”
Cliff raised dark eyebrows enquiringly.
"Come, come.” His voice was soothing. "You’ll have to cultivate that cheerful feeling. Of course I’m ready.”
Upset as he was, Leonard’s shots went wild; he made innumerable double faults; there was no vestige of that swift, clean precision of which the entire club was really so proud. The murmurs from all sides did not appease him. "Why Len, old chap, what’s struck you? Can’t you see straight tonight?” And Cliff’s patronizing: “Oh, let up, you people. We all get those turns. I’ll probably be as bad myself tomorrow.”
Lennie could stand a lot—anything but Cliff’s obvious patronage. Despite the black rage choking his heart, despite his dreadful play, he had, as far as sportsmanship was concerned, acquitted himself well. He had laughed back at the spectators. “I’ll say I’m fierce tonight. Good shot, Cliff. That’s the stuff.”
But now, Cliff’s smiling, superior face was too much. He drove savagely at his opponent and Cliff, stumbling as he dashed to the net, received the ball full in the face.
"Good lord !” Leonard was over the net with a bound. “My gosh, your nose’s bleeding. Of all the rotten shots! Here, I’ve got a handkerchief. Come on over to the tap.” He felt a sense of shame and yet a fierce elation too.
“Cliff! Did it hurt you terribly?” Sue rushed up ahead of the others. "Oh, Cliff! I just know he did it deliberately !”
"Aw aw Sue now, that’s no way to talk.” There was a surrounding buzz of protest, and Cliff, more than a little ashamed of his suddenly unlovely appearance, raised a flushed face from the tap. “Don’t be silly,” emphatically. "As if he’d do it on purpose! Be yourself, Sue. Why, those sort of things aren’t done, are they, Len?” Their eyes met and Cliff smiled but in that moment both knew there was a war declared between them.
Leonard did not sleep well that night. After all, it was rather terrible to be nineteen, in love, to have made an enemy of your best friend, and to be in the clutches of several unscrupulous females.
"^TEXT morning Leonard stealthily advanced on Connie in the woodshed as she tinkered with a battered bicycle.
"Not a yell!” His voice was deadly as he clutched the back of her brown neck. "Or I'll have no compunction in knocking you cold. Hand me that poetry this instant !”
Connie gurgled. Worse, she giggled. Her greasy hands flew out and caught his thick black hair.
"Cave man stuff!” She threw herself into the fight with zest. “Lennie, if you knew how adorable you look when you’re boiling mad.”
"Aw, Con—please!” Abruptly he changed his tactics. After all, he could never hope to conquer Connie by bullying. "Now listen. You know I’m in bad all round. After the way your pie-faced Laura clung to me like a leech, and I gave Cliff a crack, and Sue says I’m fickle minded ”
Connie stared interestedly. “How awfully explicit. You mean you got all nasty and jealous and you deliberately smote your erstwhile friend a foul blow. We watched you, and we were so terribly ashamed— that’s why we decided we had to walk home instead of ride.” Connie moved back to her bicycle serenely, inwardly smiling at the memory of “Sands of Passion,” the current attraction at the theatre at which the two terribly ashamed young ladies had spent the previous evening. “Something tears my heart when I see the beautiful friendship of two noble youths severed,” she continued blandly. “All by the wiles of fascinating females. It turns men into low, deceitful . . ”
“My lord, I’d like to tear your hair out by the roots! Con—you won’t do anything with that verse, will you? You just don’t understand. Look here, I’ll do anything . . .”
"For your dreadfully untidy and common sister.” Connie tossed her brown head. "Oh, run away and play, big boy. Laura will love to read—”
“Con, please! If you knew how like the devil I feel!” But Connie could remember too many insults.
"Do you, darling? Well, run along and ask mother to give you something for it.”
Lennie flung himself away, wondering why women had ever been created.
■RVENINGS at the tennis club became agony. He could not shake off the adhesive attentions of Connie and Laura; and Connie’s wails of protest when he tried to explain at home maddened him beyond expression.
“But dad, dearest, we never disturb him. We only ask for the teeniest practice with him, because he’s so awfully clever, you know, and then we rest content with other infants. And we’re so keen on improving ourselves. You wouldn’t deny us that delight, dear daddy?”
“Certainly not,” Leonard Ritchie, Senior, grunted. Connie twisted him as she pleased, even though a certain degree of sympathy may have gone out to his son. "It’s Lennie’s privilege.”
Leonard failed to appreciate his privilege. His encounters with Cliff were becoming more and more deadly. Despite their casual unconcern, there was something almost like hatred underneath their calmness. Should they reach the finals in the imminent tournament there would be hard and desperate battle.
Meanwhile Connie and Laura hung around Sue; not talking to her, but engaged in conversation which could always be overheard by Sue and often by Leonard as well.
“I think he’s just the sweetest thing, Con. My mother says I’m perfectly safe when he’s around.”
“So deliciously romantic, really. He can write the most inspiring verse. You’d be interested if I showed you some of it.”
“Connie!” Leonard wheeled about after smashing a furious return out of court.
“Having a nice time?” simpered Laura.
Sue’s round chin lifted, and a sideways glance at the apparently love-stricken Laura spoke volumes. Leonard’s heart was as lead. She had been scornful enough as it was. Now she must be thinking he was the lowest type of flirt, after telling her a week before she was the only girl who ever claimed his serious attention.
“Oh, come on!” Cliff apparently misinterpreted his glance. "Laura’ll still be there when you’re through.” That was one of the nights when Lennie lost again, and lost badly. He was silent and unapproachable a3 he came off the court.
"Lennie, take a tip from me.” Connie slipped a hand through his arm as they moved up the garden pathway. "You’ll never get anywhere if you show people such a gloomy face. They’ll think you’re just the poorest sort of sport ...”
Lennie shook himself away furiously.
“Don’t you dare pull that on me. Here you go ruining my life, blighting every chance of happiness, making my world a barren waste, and yet you have the nerve . . ” Rage choked him, and he could only stand
speechless. And Connie’s real, if somewhat misguided kindliness, faded.
"Why Len, I believe we could write a book together. That’s exactly how I’d want my handsome hero to talk. Shall we? We can call it ‘Youth’s Supreme Sorrow.”’ This time Connie got her ears boxed with a far from gentle hand, and, surprisingly enough, at the end of it, she turned and flung her arms about his neck. "Len, I’m a beast!” Her cool cheek touched his a moment. “You know I wouldn’t really hurt you for the world.” Lennie certainly did not know. He also had not known how surprisingly close to tears nineteen could quite unexpectedly feel. "Don’t, Con.” He pulled himself away, and raced ahead of her upstairs without another word. And rather wisely, Connie made no attempt to follow.
Next morning Leonard beat Cliff, but it only caused Sue to tell Cliff in his hearing that he was a good loser. Leonard sat late in his room that night and wrinkled his brow unhappily over a sheet of paper before him.
"Oh, life has embittered me in this bleak hour I would I could hasten to some lonely tower.
And lead there a life of quiet distress ...”
And then, after much thought, with a grim little smile that showed after all, that he was Connie’s brother, he muttered, “I’m a blithering fool to get into this mess,” and threw the whole thing into the waste paper basket.
rT'HE tournament began, and Leonard and Cliff smashed through to the final.
And then, the night before it was to be played, all the rambling jealousy flared into open flame.
“Sue, may I take you home in the car?” For once
Lennie was alone, and Sue looked up at him—hot, flushed, black hair unruly from his exertions, and blue eyes worried. Something seemed to catch her heart, and
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she smiled a trifle uncertainly. “Why Lennie . . I . . . ” And then Cliff swung in from somewhere in the background, laying a possessive hand on Sue’s slim shoulder.
“Ready to go, Sue?” His dark eyebrows drew together. “Surely our conqueror is not trying to steal you from me. Perhaps he’s lonely without his little Laura to soothe—”
At the sudden change in Sue’s face, at the way she turned to Cliff, Lennie saw red.
“Look here!” He advanced threateningly, oblivious cf the interested group about the clubhouse verandah. “You know that’s not right.”
“Indeed!” The dark eyebrows were raised again. “I remember rather well one certain high school picnic, when you ...”
Leonard never learned just how' it happened. In his sudden blaze of anger, he must have made some threatening move, and Cliff must have parried. They were at the top of the flight of steps that led down to the courts. Cliff lost his balance, clutched at Lennie, and the two in a desperate effort to regain their footing, rolled incongruously down the steps.
“Well, that’s fine.” Cliff scrambled to his feet, brushed the dirt from his trousers, and drew his arm up with a grimace. “That’s probably twisted my arm out of shape. You’ll probably be able to win now—by default.”
“Oh, yes?” Leonard remained in a sitting position and stared at the faces gathered about. “Taken to playing with your left arm all at once?”
Cliff had the grace to grin at the laugh that followed, and Leonard, rising slow'ly to his feet, without another word, moved tow'ard the entrance gateway.
“Len, don’t you want your racquet?” Oddly enough, it was Sue who ran up to his side. “Lennie, are you hurt or something?”
He shook his head briefly.
Connie met him in the hallway and his white face startled her.
“Why, Lennie— ”
But he pushed her away ungraciously.
"Don’t talk to me, please.”
“Dear me, I suppose you’ve lost again.” Connie could be very biting. “What a dear, sw'eet boy you’re growing into. Such a pleasant gentleman.”
Lennie turned fiercely.
“You little pest!” He seized her thick brown hair with both hands and shook until she yelled for mercy, then pushed her away. “I wouldn’t be sorry if 1 tore it all out.”
“Oh, wouldn’t you!” Connie stood with her hands clenched, stiff with defiance. “You just wait.” Her voice had a soft steeliness.
“Do what you like.” Lennie was halfway up the stairs. “I don’t care. Your threats don’t fizz on me.”
And at the moment, they didn’t. Lennie was too worried about something else to dw'ell on things like that. His eyes were wide and his lips were drawn tight as he sank down on the bed, and examined his ankle.
BLAZING mid-July day; a line of faces all around the court. Lennie stood erect, and, with a curious swing of his w'hole body, served the ball.
“Three, love; Mr. Parker leads.”
People looked enquiringly at one another. What w'as wrong with Leonard Ritchie?
“Looks sick,” someone remarked.
Leonard was trying not to let them see how hard it w'as to walk or run. His ankle had seemed better that morning so he had said nothing about it.
If only he could get through the match without letting people know. Every
sporting instinct cried out against a j display of weakness on the court. He felt, too, that it would not be fair to Cliff to back out now. Detest him as he did, Cliff once had been his friend.
“Five, love; Mr. Parker leads.”
Len set his teeth. The pain of his leg was not alone responsible for his appalling play. Concentrate on the game; for heaven’s sake concentrate—the words rang dully within him. He remembered j how Pansy had rushed up to him before he had begun the set, her saucy face alight with eagerness. “Connie’s just given Sue a piece of paper with some writing on it,” she had said. “I bet it’s yours. I bet that’s what you get for being smart.” Connie had snatched her away. “You little ass; you needn’t sneak on things I do.” Also he recollected Connie’s softly spoken, “You just wait!” the night before.
“Mr. Parker wins the first set.”
As they changed sides, Cliff said: “What’s wrong, Len? If it’s anything serious ...”
“Nothing.” Leonard scowled and moved on.
Suddenly he realized that a set was gone. He forgot his ankle, forgot everything but the knowledge that he could not fail so terribly in front of all his tennis world. Despite the wreckage of all things in his heart, he had to pull himself together. It wasn’t fair to Cliff, to anyone.
“Three all. Four, three. Five, three. Game and set to Mr. Ritchie. One set all!”
Leonard was hot and fiery now. his hair damp against his head. Everything was forgotten in the excitement of trying to win; even the sight of Sue leaning forward, lips apart, a slip of paper in her ! hand.
He hardly knew what happened in the third set. He drove and slammed and volleyed; never was still an instant. Only half consciously was he aware of something that ached and throbbed, something he could not afford to heed.
“Two sets to one. Mr. Ritchie leads.” Cliff’s eyes were more worried as they passed again. But beyond a muttered, “Good work, Len,” he made no remark, j The fourth set was agony. Len could see nothing save that white round ball which kept coming and coming—when he was so horribly sick and tired—when j pain swept through him fiercely.
“Two sets all.”
He heard protesting voices, saw the umpire bending down from his high seat.
“Ritchie, if you’re really ill there’s not the slightest use . . ”
He heard Cliff’s low voice in his ear. “Honestly, Len, there’s no sense. It’s terrible to watch you.”
“Watch the ball!” snapped Leonard.
A tremendous struggle that last set, with the audience sensing the battle that Leonard was waging against a physical handicap.
“Three all—four three. Four—all! Five-four . . Five all !”
Everyone was leaning forward, watching the courageous boy who for some reason—it differed greatly in the minds of his friends -would not give in, who so magnificently was fighting to win. Leonard was white and weak with pain.
Forty-thirty; deuce; advantage; deuce. That dreary, dreary repetition. Lennie set his teeth. Advantage—deuce; deuce — advantage; those were the only two words left in all the world. Just two placement shots—just one—if only he could smash it now—he raised his arm, swung desperately—and then quite suddenly a terrible blackness rose and closed about him.
YES, he’s coming around. Look at that ankle. Take him to the hospital right away.”
Leonard realized that he was lying in the car with Connie at his side. He tried to remember whether he really had heard Sue’s frightened voice out of the blackness. “You’re sure he only fainted . . . he’ll really come round?’’ And another rougher, savage voice that might have been Cliff’s. “Good heavens—of course!” Then he noticed Cliff standing beside the open window of the car; his face queer and white—suddenly Lennie had an uncomfortable sensation of inexplicable
guilt. He essayed a rather sickly smile. “Hello there. Stupid of me to go under like that.”
“Hope it’s nothing serious.” Cliff’s voice was low and a trifle jerky. He hesitated and his eyes met Len’s with something approaching sullen misery in their depths. “I guess you’d like to know—if it was meant as revenge—you couldn’t have chosen a way on earth to make me feel more of an utter cad.”
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Leonard stared. "Why ’’and then: “You ass!” His voice was harsh with stupefaction. Forgotten everything in that moment; pain, Sue’s obvious desertion, everything except that Cliff had grasped the one idea that had not guided his somewhat involved motives. “Look here!” His arm shot out fiercely. “I never meant it was only that I
didn’t want to back out. Cliff, listen Con!” He twisted about. “Con, you tell him. You know howr to say things. Please!”
Thus appealed to, Connie did tell him, with all her own inimitable reasoning. Somehow she dragged him, protesting, into the car. Somehow forgetting the embarrassment generally induced by the large and very grown up Cliff, she slipped her arm through his. “Now, Cliff, you know Lennie thinks the world of you.” Her voice was gentle. “It was only because he knew you wouldn’t want to win by default. Why he knew if you’d given yourself a trifling knock,” she ignored Len's sudden scowl, “you wouldn’t want to let him down. You wouldn’t thirst for petty revenge and you don’t really think things like that
now, because you’re altogether too broadminded and decent . . .” She tightened her grip almost unconsciously, and her cheek lightly touched his shoulder. “Cliff, don’t be silly, old dear . oh, gracious!” She straightened with a jerk. "Here comes mum—and Sue!” Connie looked embarrassed while Cliff’s face took on a hot, dark flush.
Sue, a glass of water in her hand, stepped on the running board and shamelessly slipped an arm about Len’s neck.
“You really feel better? It must hurt dreadfully. Your dad’s coming now. And and Lennie . . .’’The dark
curly head was bent close to his.
“Oh, sweet romance,” she murmured. Cliff turned hastily to look out of the other window.
“I want you to know, Len,” said she, “that I loved your poetry. I’ll always keep it and . . . ” her voice dropped to a whisper, “I’ll come and see you every day. I think you’re so utterly brave and noble.”
An impatient growl from Ritchie, Senior, now at the wheel, and the car was
off. Leonard, half dazed, looked at Connie.
“No, no,” she whispered quickly.
She leaned very close, and murmured softly: “Oh, life has embittered me . . I found it in the waste paper basket.”
“Good gosh!” he gasped. There was abrupt silence. “You little fiend !” There came a memory that left him breathless. “You idiotic kid!” But there was something gentler in his tone now.
Suddenly he looked across at Cliff. “Good lord, I’m sorry . .
Unexpectedly, in the midst of all that dazzling wonder, there was genuine pain that he should so completely have triumphed over Cliff. But Cliff seemed to be recovering from some sort of astonishment too, and his smile, though uncomfortable, held understanding. “Let’s forget it,” he said briefly. He held out his hand. Len’s grip tightened in silence.
“You know,” Connie broke in quickly, “I think it’s so intriguingly lovely that you ended up at deuce. It makes it seem so much easier all round.” Len grinned. “That last one must have been pretty wild.”
“Yes.” Cliff spoke quietly. “A full quarter inch beyond the line.”
Their eyes met—and then quite spontaneously both boys began to laugh. Just why, they could not quite have said — only that they were young, and something in the situation suddenly became ridiculously absurd.
But Leonard lay in his bed that evening, wide eyes staring toward the ceiling. If only he could feel that Cliff did not really care so much about Sue, the world could hold no greater happiness than his. And yet, remembering what Cliff had said: “I . . . never really cared for her, Len. It was only after that night—when you landed me that slam, and I got sore. I was an idiot—but look here.” Len thought that he could read some hidden depth behind that awkward smile. “I guess you know well enough I’ve just been waiting half my life it seems for Con to grow up . and when she does . . .”
Connie! Len’s brows drew together in a puzzled line. Queer of Cliff to put it like that. Oh, Connie was a decent enough kid at times, but as for anyone ever thinking of her, when there was a girl like Sue in the world. He shook his head.