By Holworthy Hall
Author of "Alibi," "The Luck of the Devil," etc.
WITHOUT prejudice, it was the gown which first attracted Meredith's attention. It was the simplest of all possible gowns, a black-velvet reminiscence of an old daguerreotype, drooping delicately from the shoulders in short, puffed sleeves; it had a trim, pointed little bodice, and a gently flaring little skirt, and not one woman in a thousand would have remembered to wear it without jewelry and to avoid any artificial contrast of color. The girl who was dancing in it, however, was an artist; she had n't even stooped to the banality of a red rose for her corsage, and she had done her hair to suit the period of her costume. She was so pretty that Meredith, after enjoying the sheer luxury of staring at her, refused to rest until he had unearthed a friend who could present him; she was so ineffably sweet and lovable that after he had met her and talked with her and danced with her to the swing of "Butterfly," which was the prime obsession of that Pinehurst season, he could hardly credit the obvious reality that they were both alive and abiding. This was in December, and by the middle of the following month he was head over heels in love with her. The delay was chiefly due to the fact that, unless it rained, he saw Miss Winsted only during the evenings and on Sundays.
In the meantime he had gone resolutely about his serious business in Pinehurst, which was to compensate himself for a four-years' hiatus in his golfing career and to renew his quondam skill at the game to which he was passionately devoted. He had two objectives, the St. Valentine's and the spring tournaments, and he went about his self-schooling for them as though his life depended on the outcome. For three hours every morning he had practised diligently, beginning with two-foot putts, and working methodically backward to jigger, iron, clerk, spoon, and driver. Thirty minutes of each forenoon he had spent doggedly in sand traps, seeking now for distance, now for accuracy on short chips to a neighboring green, now for simple outs from difficult lies. After lunch he had played a painstaking round alone, preferably over the No. 2 course, with its hundred and ninety ambushed hazards, and had struggled religiously to erase from his mind any record of his medal score. He did n't want to be elated or distressed by his performances; he wanted to bring about a logical development of his game until it approximated his undergraduate standard. He was interested in the present only as a stepping-stone to the future. Not oftener than twice a week he had played against a flesh-and-blood opponent, and on the next day he had revisited the same course, and practised faithfully all those shots on which he had made mistakes. The result of this sound preparation was that Meredith, without achieving any notoriety, was habitually under eighty on his solitary rounds; but partly because he had so relentlessly effaced himself, and partly because his collegiate reputation had n't preceded him to the Carolinas, he was still registered at the club-house in Class B, which, being interpreted according to the equable Pinehurst system, required him to qualify not lower than the second flight in any tournament or be disfranchised. Not having a national rating, and not having played in previous events at Pinehurst, he was n't eligible to Class A, which would have compelled him to make the first division or to withdraw; and this pleased him inordinately, because he knew that when he came to match-play his partners would expect Class B golf from him, and would n't get it.
He was bitterly disappointed to discover that Miss Winsted, although she rode and swam and played tennis, and spent the majority of her waking hours out of doors, did n't comprehend even the terminology of golf. Furthermore, she displayed some slight antipathy to it. Golf, she said, might be a very nice game,—indeed, it probably was,—but she herself liked the more active sports. She had observed that whenever you scratch a golfer, you find a chatterbox, and she could n't understand why people should talk all night to explain why they had played badly all day. When an afternoon of tennis was over, it was over; when the hounds had caught the fox, every one but the fox was satisfied, and in the evening there was either dancing or bridge. Meredith, of course, was an exception, and she admired him for his versatility of conversation; but even in his case she could n't promote a thrill at his report of a miraculous recovery from the Bermuda grass, and his story of a three on the tenth hole left her as unmoved as though he had merely purled two and knitted two. Still, despite the vital defect, he fell in love with her. And this proves that she was superlative.
On the day before the qualifying round for the St. Valentine's he had gone out at, half-past seven in the morning for his final grooming, and when next his spikes bit the floor of the locker-room he was inwardly radiant. On this, his last trial, he had achieved a sterling seventy-three; his long game had been adequate, his approaching and putting almost professional. There was nothing left for him to do; he must stand or fall on the quality of his game as he had established it. Buoyantly he put away his clubs; then, because he was mindful of the principles of training, he determined to remove himself as far as possible from the links. He would refresh himself spiritually as well as physically. He would rest for the afternoon, and tee off to-morrow with no handicap of nerves or staleness. So he quitted the club-house without lingering to analyze his score, and walked back toward the hotel; and when on the way he encountered Miss Winsted feeding loaf-sugar to the fawns in the tiny deer-inclosure, he realized at once that the meeting was providential.
"Good morning," he said cheerfully. "Well, it's on the knees of the gods."
"What is?" she inquired with equal cheer. She was probably the only girl in all Pinehurst who did n't know who were the favorites in the pool on the first sixteen, and she hardly knew there was a competition!
"The St. Valentine's Tournament," explained Meredith. "Starts to-morrow—two hundred and fifty entries."
"Oh." Miss Winsted had apparently expected something more important. "Are you playing in it?"
Meredith could n't check an involuntary smile.
"Rather!" he said. "It's what you might call epochal for me. I 've been looking forward to it for two solid years. Think of it, until last month I had n't had a club in my hands since the inter-collegiates in 1912! And all that time, when I was too busy to play, I planned for this and dreamed of it and saved up my vacation for it; and now I'm here! It's almost too good to be true."
Miss Winsted dispensed the few remaining cubes of sugar, and dusted her palms neatly.
"You do seem awfully happy about it," she commented.
"It's a curious game," said Meredith. "It's the most curious game there is. My idea of a pure vacation is to play golf, and yet I'm doubly joyful to-day because I'm not going around again this afternoon: it's a respite within a respite. Why can't we do something together this morning?"
She regarded him half humorously, and her intonation was bantering.
"You don't mean," she said, "that you'd sacrifice golf for a girl—on a day like this!"
"No sacrifice at all," denied Meredith. "I'm at liberty for nearly twenty-four hours. So if there's anything you'd especially like to do, and if you are n't tied up to a party, and if there are n't too many other ifs, why, I do wish we could fix it up somehow."
"I 'll tell you," said Miss Winsted. "I 've an appointment at eleven, but you come and lunch at our table, and we 'll talk it over. Will you?"
The upshot of it was that they went riding, and that Meredith presently found himself expounding his ideals, a danger-signal which Miss Winsted chose to disregard. Vastly heartened by her manner, Meredith ventured to touch upon his age and his income. And somewhat later, when the geography of the ride was favorable, he abruptly told her that he wanted her and needed her. He admitted that he did n't deserve her, and yet, by the usual boyish implication, he invited her to dispute him. When he had quite finished, he reined close to her and put his arm around her and kissed her awkwardly; and, to his amazed beatitude, she looked at him with soft and shining eyes and confessed that she was glad. When they eventually reappeared at the hotel they were engaged, and Meredith had conceived an idyl which, to any woman who played golf, would have appealed.
He did n't endow her with the romance until after dinner. Then, when they had shyly separated themselves from the merry circle in the lobby, and assured each other that they had kept their vows of secrecy except for letters to their immediate families, he escorted her to the corner where stood a huge table loaded with heavy silverware.
"Dearest," said Meredith under his breath, "if you played golf yourself, you'd know what this means to me. For four years I 've suffered—and now I 've got it back again, and got you, too! And there are a lot of men in Pinehurst to play for this trophy; but I'm going better and better, and next Saturday I'm going to give it to you—for an engagement present!" He indicated a massive platter built on the lines of a terrace. "That's for the championship!" His expression was seraphic; he could translate now the motives underlying the ancient courts of chivalry, and although the killing of Saracens has gone out of fashion as a pledge of affection, her first pride in him should nevertheless be for a famous conquest.
Miss Winsted glanced apprehensively at him and at the platter. The magnificence of it, and its extravagance of etching, frankly appalled her. She strongly approved his zeal to win a memento for her, but her tastes in decorative silverware were highly conservative. She hesitated, and finally put her forefinger upon a small card-tray, plain and unadorned save for the Pinehurst crest and a line or two of script engraving.
"I'd much rather have that one," she told him, flushing.
Meredith was startled, but he respected her ingenuousness, and spoke with great courtesy.
"But, my dear, the big one is the President's trophy!"
Miss Winsted was utterly unimpressed.
"You could n't very well give me a steak-platter for an engagement present," she said, with a ripple of laughter. "Why, Dicky! But I'd love to have you win that little tray for me. It's so nice and repressed. And everything else there is here is just—blatant."
"That little tray," said Meredith, examining it indulgently, "is for the runner-up of the second flight."
"You win it for me," she begged him, "I'd be so proud to have you—in a game you like so much."
Although he had n't by any means lost his sense of humor, Meredith was beginning to be vaguely troubled. Miss Winsted was so positive, so unyielding in her innocence. There was something almost pathetic in her deprecation of glory and her predilection for the chaste little tray, and he adored her for it; but he had been a golfer long before he became a fiancé.
"I'm sorry, dear." he said kindly, "but I have to play for the other one, you know. It is n't exactly ethical to go out for anything but the best."
Miss Winsted, whose ignorance of golf was colossal, lifted her face to his. Her whole bearing was that of a pleader not subject to overruling.
"You 'll let me pick out my own engagement present, won t you, Dicky?" Her voice was subtly freighted with astonishment that she had been compelled to ask twice.
Meredith was increasingly thoughtful.
"Eleanor," he said, with reassuring tenderness, "You don't understand. Why, I'd rather not play in the tournament at all than to win the runner-up prize in the second flight. You see—" He stopped short at the reaction which showed in her eyes. For a matter of hours they had been engaged, and already he had hurt her. She was n't cognizant of golfing morals; she did n't fully grasp Meredith's overwhelming infatuation for golf; all she knew was that here were prizes, and that specifically she wanted one of them and no other. Palpably, she thought that he was unreasonable and perhaps a trifle stubborn.
"But I want you to play," she insisted. "I just want you to win me something for a remembrance. Can't you play for whatever prize you like?"
"Not exactly," said Meredith. "Of course it's humanly possible to try to win any definite trophy, but—"
"Then I want the card-tray," said Miss Winsted, firmly. "I'm crazy about it. and I 'll be so proud of you—"
"My dear girl, I'm afraid I can't—"
"Can't?" she puzzled. "I thought you were a good player."
"I know; but the point is that I 've been working for this tournament for weeks. I 've looked forward to it for years. I'm going pretty well, and—"
"But don't you see? I want you to play, Dicky; of course I do! But would n't you rather give me a prize I like than a horrible platter all over rosebuds? Please, Dicky! Please! You promise me you 'll win this one. I want it."
Meredith's gesture was negative, but not impatient.
"But, Eleanor, I'm not joking; I'm serious. You don't know the first thing about tournaments, do you? So you 'll have to take my word for it; golf is n't that sort of game. Everybody does his best, and takes what comes to him. I—"
"But it's only a game, is n't it?" Her emphasis was pregnant.
"Then I should think," said Miss Winsted, judgmatically, "that if you have all the fun of playing, and if you 're so anxious to call this an engagement present, you'd want to let me have my card-tray."
"But—you see, it's like this: you qualify, and then—"
"If you won't do that much for me," she grieved, "I don't see how you can pretend to love me so very well. And I 've set my heart on that tray!"
Meredith gasped. He perceived now that a casual explanation would n't do; Miss Winsted required elementary education. An endeavor to convince her at this juncture, while their relationship was so new, must inevitably lead to misfortune. She was so incredibly naïve, so wholly unfamiliar with the facts, they might even quarrel. Meredith shivered at the mere imagining of it. Besides, what was the St. Valentine's in comparison with matrimony? He had been longing to demonstrate his love for her; could there be a greater renunciation than this? Could there be loftier heroism than to slay his ambitions for her sake? And later, when she had come to understand what he had done for her, would she ever forget it? Meredith swallowed hard. Then a flood of pity and of altruistic ardor swept over him, and he had his initial taste of the bitter-sweet of solemn sacrifice. Golf! Faugh! She loved him. He smiled bravely at her, and she clutched his arm and pressed it excitedly.
"You will, won't you, Dickv?"
"Anything you want," said Meredith, deliberately, "I 'll get for you, or die trying. Let's go in and dance."
As they moved from the table he could console himself only by the recollection that if he had n't come to Pinehurst, he would n't have met Miss Winsted. Simultaneously with his oblique promise, he regretted that he had given it; but as he contemplated her joy, he did n't dare to retract. Sorrowfully, as they passed down the long corridor to the ball-room, he wondered what sort of prizes had been purchased for the spring tournament. As far as the St. Valentine's was concerned, he was a renegade, and he had sold his birthright.
On the first tee of the championship course Meredith and his qualifying partner, a Sleepy Hollow crack named Scott, waited for the pair in front to advance beyond the white stake which marked the safety zone. Meredith had n't slept well: he was depressed and enervated, and, to his further discomfiture, he was acutely aware of the gallery; he felt that he was being eyed suspiciously, and that people would detect his ruse and misconstrue it, and call him a mug-hunter. But Eleanor wanted that tray; she could n't see why she should n't have it, and Meredith was Penthesilean. He had essayed feebly to convert her to his point of view, and failing, he had sworn her never to mention the incident to a soul, and in perplexed loyalty she had consented. He was a conspirator, but he was safe from indictment. He prodded the ground with the driving-iron he had elected to use for the get-away, and rolled his wrists to ascertain their suppleness.
"How's your game?" he inquired of Scott. "What'd you do yesterday?"
"A sloppy eighty."
"Eighty does n't sound hopelessly sloppy to me."
"It was, though. I had all the breaks. You 've been doing very well, have n't you?"
"I'm erratic," lied Meredith. "Best I expect is the second flight."
"Piffle!" said Scott. "You 'll have to be close to eighty-five. Don't talk nonsense!"
"Very in-and-out golf. They 're clear now. Your honor."
He had decided to shoot expressly for an eighty-seven, which should land him comfortably in the lower half of the second division; and to furnish the public with a visible reason for this figure, he had plotted out a campaign based on the peculiarities of the course itself. All he needed was a little wildness from the tees, and the sympathy of many friends would be spontaneous. So, after Scott had driven a low ball straight down the course, he began his meretricious policy by intentionally hooking into the first of many traps, and by playing from the hazard to the green with all the cunning at his command. Through this procedure, which should enable him to secure a consistent average of one over par, he acquired a six, which was his desire, on the first hole.
"Tough luck!" said Scott. "Lots more holes, though."
"I 'll straighten 'em out," predicted Meredith, hooking carefully from the second tee. "I'm working to counter act a slice."
He played faultlessly from the rough to the cup, and took his five, one over par; but as he stepped back, to remove his shadow from Scott's line of vision, he was suddenly overcome by a revulsion of feeling which sickened him. He was purposely failing to play his best; he was meticulously designing to place himself in a division where he did n't belong; after winning three easy matches he was to stultify himself by throwing away the finals in order that Miss Winsted might have her card-tray! It was unbelievable. It was n't within the bounds of sanity. It was n't golf, and not for all the women in the world could he become a traitor to his sportsmanship. He would n't go on with the farce; he would n't!
"Your shot, Dick. Down the alley this time, now!"
Meredith, with his mind in the club-house, topped dismally among the wiry grasses. He attempted a recovery, but the ball, slewing to the left, sought lodgment in a deep heel-print. His third ran swiftly to a cavernous trap, and bobbed against the embankment.
"You looked up," his partner accused him.
"That," said Meredith, wide-eyed, "is what Grant Rice calls the 'Tragedy of the Hoisted Bean.' Well, I deserved it."
Niblick in hand, he descended to the depths of the pit. The ball was virtually unplayable; it had dropped into a crevice formed by the face of the trap, and by a bushel or two of sand which had poured down from it in a miniature avalanche. Meredith studied the lie and sighed prodigiously.
"I 'll have to waste enough shots to cut away the back of this cañon before I can reach the ball at all," he announced dolefully. "Well, it's got to be done."
The sand was obdurate. Meredith, flailing vigorously, played four and five and six. His seventh shot was a masterpiece of destructive engineering; his eighth extricated him nicely; he was on in ten and down in an exact dozen, and his score for the first three holes was twenty-three. Yesterday he had placed them for a total of thirteen.
"Too bad! Darned tough luck!" said Scott. "I never saw a worse lie than that in my life. It was impossible."
Meredith, who in his absorption had forgotten all about the hypocrisy to which he had consecrated this round, grinned broadly. His ill fate operated as a release from his hated penance; he was free!
"Got 'em all out of my cosmos now," he declared. "Here goes for that eighty-five."
"Hope you make it; but you 'll have to shoot close to even fours, old top."
"Bet you a box of balls I'm eighty-seven or better," offered Meredith, rashly.
"Take you!" said Scott. "And I don't care if I lose. Double it?"
"Right!" said Meredith. He whaled out a terrific drive, pitched an approach to a green on which an inept pitch is fatal, and took a four when one more oscillation of the sphere would have given him a birdie three. "I expect to turn," said Meredith, brightly, "in a snappy forty-six."
"With a twelve in it? I 've got another box of balls that says you 're an incorrigible optimist."
"You 're on," agreed Meredith. "Do these balls break if you hit 'em too hard?"
His heart was singing now, and his mood was exalted. Two strokes, no more, he had tossed away. His drive from the third tee had gone wrong through no intent of his own; his troubles in the pit had been fortuitous. He had discounted his intelligence only by the first two tee-shots; he had been honestly penalized; he would have to play flawless golf to qualify even in the second flight. All his depression had vanished; he felt no longer enervated; he was alert, and keen, and daring, and he could play the best that was in him.
"Beau-tiful drive!" said Scott.
"I 'll begin to land on 'em in a minute," promised Meredith, stoutly. "There's another twenty yards to those if I can ever connect."
He did n't turn in forty-six,—he was forty-seven,—but it was a gross indentation of the sand of the ninth green which robbed him of his par three. For six successive holes he had played to the card; he was indubitably certain that he could come in under forty; he would have both the satisfaction of good golf and of Miss Winsted's praise; the Furies were kind to him. Then for the first seven of the in-holes he took only thirty strokes, and as he drove with a jigger on the short seventeenth, he told himself that his eighty-five was assured. Whereupon the ball veered inconsiderately to the left, and burrowed into the finely granulated floor of the farther trap.
It took him five for that hole, and four for the eighteenth, and he was gratified not only by the mathematics of the medal round, but also because he had netted a box of balls from Scott. He hurried to the second floor of the club-house and scanned the score-boards; noted that already a respectable number of high seventies and low eighties had been recorded, and dashed back to the hotel to join Miss Winsted. They lunched together in the utmost harmony, they sat together on the veranda afterward, they were amicably agreeing that Westchester cottages possess inherent advantages over Riverside Drive apartments, when a boy summoned Meredith to the telephone. When he emerged he was apologetic.
"What is it?" she queried.
"More golf," said Meredith, sheepishly.
Miss Winsted was mildly offended.
"But you told me you did n't have to go out again until to-morrow—"
"Unfortunately," said Meredith, "everybody shot the same sort of game to-day. The low score in the second flight was an eighty-four, and the highest was an eighty-six. Five of us tied for three places. I 've got to go over for the play-off."
"I 'll come with you," said Miss Winsted, rising promptly. "It counts for my tray, does n't it?"
So when the five tense golfers gathered for the combat which would eliminate two of their number, Meredith had the personal backing of the prettiest girl of Pinehurst, and he liked the consciousness of it, even although he knew that she was indifferent to all but the tangible token of his success.
He was the last to drive, and all of his predecessors had bungled. Meredith smiled as he swung his weighted iron. The hole was a par five, but barely over the 425-yard limit. On innumerable occasions he had made it in four, but in a play-off in which two men out of five were slated for defeat, he realized that the higher figure would unquestionably be good enough to insure him his place. He therefore spared the iron, and, to his horror, sliced execrably into the woods.
During his younger days he had often known the exquisite agony of playing the decisive hole against grave odds. He had accomplished his share of victories under these conditions, he had met with his share of downfalls. Yesterday he had dreamed of triumph after triumph; now, as he located his ball nestling at the trunk of a small tree, he was hot with anger and resentment. He, a man with a seventy-three over the No. 2 course on Monday, was playing on Tuesday to break a tie for last place in an inferior division, and his was the worst of five inglorious drives! And what a fool he'd look if he went down to the third flight!
He could get no easy stance, and the tree prevented him from even a quarter swing. He had to chop the ball, and although he sent it skipping clear from the pine-grove, he was still in the rough and in the most irritating of strategic positions. He played three, and he played four; he was ten good yards from the green, and the other four balls were well on.
"How many?" he inquired of the field in general.
"I'm four, too."
"I lie four."
Meredith scowled. If he played safely, he had a sure six; but two of the other men were dead to the hole, one had a six-foot putt, and the most distant ball belonged to the player who was on in three. There was a certainty, then, that Meredith could hope for nothing better than a miscue by one of those who lay dead. The six-foot putt, if missed, would result in at least a six, and two sixes would thereby be scored against three potential fives. There was n't one chance in a million, however, that either of the men who lay dead would miscue. Neither would they be attacked by vertigo.
"In a play-of¥ for the second sixteen," said Meredith, cynically, to himself, "I 'll shoot for the hole!"
With a few other spectators, Miss Winsted was standing a few feet behind him. He knew that she was watching him attentively, but he did n't dare to turn his head. Three things must occupy his mind, the club, the ball, the hole. There was no room here for Miss Winsted. He sighted with his putter across the sandy soil and across the level surface of the green.
"Caddy," snapped Meredith, "take away the flag!"
He putted, and the ball never deviated from the line; it ran pleasantly to the zinc, and tinkled home.
"Down in five," said Meredith, rigidly controlling his facial muscles. The man with the six-foot putt straightway missed it, both the men who were dead missed theirs, the man who had been on in three was down in five, and seized Meredith's arm and beckoned to Miss Winsted.
"We 're both in it," he proclaimed. "The other fellows have got to keep on playing. Was n't that some shot of Dicky's from off the green. Miss Winsted?"
"I did n't see it," she conceded, squeezing Meredith's hand. "Did it count for my—ouch!" Meredith had squeezed back.
"How could you help seeing it?" he demanded.
"Why, I was looking at that piccaninny with the flag," she said artlessly. "What was he doing?"
"Zowie!" choked their companion, and, being a gentleman, proceeded to enlighten her in detail.
But Meredith was thinking that he could probably teach her a great deal before the spring tournament. He'd have to.
According to his reckoning, there were three days of bliss in store for him, three days in which he could extend himself as he liked without regard for the awful anticlimax to come. He cherished, to be sure, the hope that by Saturday he would succeed in coaching Miss Winsted so that she would be willing to let him win the ornate inkstand which was the secretary's trophy; but prior to that he could swamp three antagonists in a row, and right vengefully he sallied forth to swamp them. And Wednesday evening found him thankful to be a victor at the twentieth hole.
"Why, it was uncanny!" he related to the group in the locker-room. "I went out in thirty-six, and that ought to be good for something in Class B any day! This man Hendricks took forty-six, and I was one down!"
"It can't be done," said Scott. "Who's got an adding-machine?"
"Well, it was. He had two par holes, three birdies, and Heaven knows how many shots on the other holes! About eleven apiece. You never saw such a match-play round in your life. Then I went all to pieces, and took forty-five to come home; he got a forty, and we were all square. It was the same thing, only reversed. I had all threes, fours, and sevens. We halved the first extra hole in three—two eagles! I was on in two, and took one putt, and he holed out a full mashy! Then he went up in the air a mile. The twentieth I won in four to eight. We were both on in three, and I took one putt to his five. Some golf!"
"You 'll have your hands full to-morrow," prophesied Scott. "Wilson's an old war-horse. Look out for him!"
"With both eyes wide open," said Meredith, departing.
He departed to search for Miss Winsted, and found her on a bench overlooking the trio of practice-greens. She was leaning slightly forward, so that her attitude was suggestive of rather studious contemplation; and as she made room for Meredith, she motioned in the direction of two ancient devotees who were squabbling over half-stymies.
"I think I could do that," she remarked. "As well as they can, anyhow."
"Let's see," exclaimed Meredith, his heart pounding. "You wait here a second!"
He was back in a jiffy, equipped with a hitherto unused putter and a pocketful of brand-new balls. He was n't going to detract from Miss Winsted's timid enthusiasm by furnishing second-hand implements.
"There," he said, "try a couple. Oh, not so far away! Stand about here. Now hold it the way I do."
Miss Winsted putted clear across the sand, across the adjoining green into the roadway.
"Let me try another, Dicky," she demanded, coloring.
"Not so hard," he admonished. "Remember, it's only about ten feet. Swing like this. I want you to feel the club."
Miss Winsted putted eight inches.
"We 'll go a little nearer, dear. That's fine. Now putt!"
Miss Winsted obediently shoved the ball, and pushed it into the hole. The blade of the putter descended with it and jammed. Miss Winsted was outspokenly delighted.
"But you must n't push it," expostulated Meredith. "See, like this."
"Like this?" Miss Winsted smote the ball sixty feet toward the club-house, and was suffused with shame.
"Once more, dear."
She grasped the club firmly, and focused upon the hole with great ferocity.
"This time," she said, "I 'll put it in."
She did. From four feet she holed out in four shots. And then because people were calling to her from the veranda, and rallying her, she defaulted.
"I'm embarrassed now," she said confidentially to Meredith; "but you come out with me when there's nobody looking— Really, Dicky, it is n't so awfully simple, is it? I thought it was so easy it was childish!"
"You follow us part way round to-morrow," he proposed, animated by an unholy joy, "and see what golf really looks like. Will you?"
"Well, if you "ll promise to win my tray for me."
Meredith coughed. For the moment he had n't been thinking of the disgrace scheduled for Saturday.
"You watch me," he said with meaning ambiguity.
On Thursday Meredith met the type of golfer who never plajs under eighty or over ninety, the hardest possible opponent for a nervous man to beat. And Meredith was nervous, largely because he felt that Miss Winsted, who was following the match, would judge him and judge the game by her first impressions. He was two down at the ninth, and there she announced that she was tired and thought she'd go back; whereupon, Meredith, freed from his inhibitions, proceeded to win his match four up and three to go. The old war-horse stated in the locker-room that Meredith had played the second half of the course in one under fours, but this was naturally taken as a slight exaggeration devised to show that the old war-horse himself had been playing respectable golf.
On Friday Meredith awoke to find that a typical Pinehurst cold wave had crept upon them in the night and that the thermometer was perilously low. Moreover, a ghastly wind was cutting across the plateau, offering no solace and threatening dire punishment to those who had to face it. He went out in the expectation of being chilled to the bone, and although he wore two sweaters in addition to his Norfolk jacket, he was duly confirmed in his opinion. He went after his man brutally, piled up a lead of five holes, with seven to go, and suddenly succumbed to the knife-edged wind. He had lost a bit of his lead, but he was n't worrying about it until it occurred to him that this was really the crucial match; he must necessarily win it in order to lose to-morrow. Distraught by this requirement, perturbed by the regularity with which his knees were knocking together, and tormented with doubt because his hands were rapidly growing too numb to hold the clubs, he plowed along to the seventeenth without once getting the ball off the ground. By that time the match was all square, and his antagonist was colder than Meredith. Consequently, the last hole was a classic.
Sears, a gaunt slasher from Dunwoodie, began by hitting a good foot behind the ball in his haste to get the shot over with and his hands back in his pockets. Subsequently he batted a lumbering grounder into the rough, and retired behind his caddy to warm his face. Meredith's driver twisted in his grip so that he caught the ball squarely with the toe of it, and achieved a rod and a half. On his second endeavor, when frosty tears were running down his cheeks, and all his fingers were stiff and wooden, he missed the ball completely; but Sears was clawing his road to the fairway, and polluting the atmosphere with fervid expletives. Side by side they pushed on past the yawning trap; Meredith reached the green in six to Sears's seven; both took two putts and broke for the club-house without lingering in the open air for any hand-shaking formalities that could be fully as well performed in front of an open fire. But Meredith had gained the finals, and the card-tray was Miss Winsted's if he chose to take it for her.
That night he told her explicitly just what she had asked of him and what he had done.
"Maybe," he said, "you could n't understand it before, because you could n't visualize the situation, dear. But now I'm in the finals. I can get your tray for you without going out of the hotel. All I need to do is to default, and that would be what men call 'yellow.' Or I can go out and lose deliberately. Well, suppose I do. I 'll simply have deprived somebody else of a privilege that I don't want. I 'll have acted like a dog in a manger. And more than that, it is n't really fair. I do hope you 'll understand. It is n't the material trophies we 're playing for—"
"I do understand now," she granted quickly. "I 've been awfully silly, Dicky. It did n't mean anything at all to me; I thought it was quite all right. I do see now, though, because I'm getting interested. Here you ought to have been in a higher class—"
Meredith shook his head.
"I 've been mighty glad," he said, "that after I blew those two strokes in the qualifying round I did get into a mess. Even if I'd started out well, I could n't have beaten eighty-four, and that would have put me in the second flight, anyway. Those two strokes were all I blew. The only thing to consider is about to-morrow."
Miss Winsted rose, and led him to the table where the prizes were displayed.
"If you win from Mr. Osborne," she inquired, "you 'll get that inkstand?"
"I'm afraid I will," said Meredith. "It certainly is a he inkstand, is n't it?"
Miss Winsted bestowed a final look of farewell upon the plain little tray she had coveted. As for the inkstand, she could n't remotely imagine it in her own room or anywhere in her house; it properly belonged on a huge desk in a club library. But, after all, it had a significance which formerly had escaped her. In any event. Meredith would merely be complying with the usual custom if he bought her an engagement gift instead of winning one.
"You play the best you can," she said impulsively. "I don't care if it's for a platter or an inkstand or an egg-cup, you do your best, Dicky!" And it was with that resolve, and in the loftiest of moods, that he approached his ultimate match on Saturday morning.
The weather had moderated, and the day was clear and balmy. A brief rain at midnight had put the greens in superb condition; a warm sun had added the precise degree of crispness that Pinehurst turf demands; there could n't have been a finer morning on which to live or to play a round of golf. Meredith was in ecstasy; he cared less for golf to-day than he did for living; he was so thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the fraternity of man that he hoped for Osborne almost as much as he hoped for himself. On a day like this, what difference did it make who won or lost? They could play golf.
But after Osborne had drawn first blood, Meredith's temper changed, and he was very ready to dispose of his excess of vivacity. By another hole or two he recognized the fact that he was playing against a man who also was worthy of the championship division. Instead of resorting to strange expedients in order to lose, he must force himself to the extreme in order to win. His eyes brightened, and he set courageously about his task.
In the competition of two men like these there is, as Henry Leach has said, at least one element in common with the prize-ring. Each stroke is a direct attack upon the opponent's poise. Each shot has not only a purpose in itself; it also aims to produce a definite effect upon the adversary. It is a species of moral assault and battery, a duel of nerves and reflexes. And Osborne and Meredith, both students of the game and craftsmen of it, fought to the ninth on even terms.
It was at the tenth hole that Meredith's luck deluded him. He had driven far over the pond hazard and up the hill, and his second shot was a scant yard from the cup. Osborne, playing logically, went for the hole, and overran, got down in four, and stood apart, communing with the gods. Meredith had privately set down his three; he played mechanically, and for an instant he thought, so concentrated had he been upon the stroke, that he had holed. Osborne exclaimed sharply. The ball was hanging over the cavity so near the edge that it seemed continuously in the act of falling. A three-foot putt, and Meredith had n't given it a chance! He had squandered a hole, he had thrown away a golden opportunity!
"A half," he said, affecting a smile.
"You deserve to win it," claimed Osborne, generously.
"I 'll go after you on the next one," laughed Meredith, scourging himself.
The eleventh hole was a lusty four hundred yards and over; Osborne was short on his second, and Meredith was hole high. Both ran up well, Osborne was away, and negotiated a par four without a tremor.
"This for a half," said Meredith, gaging the distance.
He was warning himself not to repeat the error of putting too softly; and as he made the injunction permanent, he recalled Miss Winsted's grotesque attempt on the practice green, when she had sent her ball traveling out to the roadway. It may have been this image which misled him, for his shot was too powerful by the slightest of margins; the ball struck the back of the cup and bounded over by an inch or two, and Meredith groaned inwardly with astonishment and chagrin.
"Your hole," he granted, crushing down his wrath.
"Too bad!" sympathized Osborne. "You 're beating yourself; I'm not."
They halved the twelfth, but on the next hole Meredith had another terrible putt of a yard, and went into a fit of the fidgets. Once he had overplayed from this distance, once he had underplayed; this time he would be trebly sure. He surveyed the line, and swung the putter with great care. If the line had been straight, Meredith would have had his half; as it was, the ball paused opposite the center of the hole, a bare inch to the right.
"Two down," he said, stooping, "and six to go. Still your honor."
On the fourteenth he missed a seven-footer for a four, and got a half in five. Utter demoralization on the greens had seized him; he was two down, with four to play, and if he could have had what any golfer would be pleased to call his just deserts, he would have been dormy. But Osborne was in trouble on the 212-yard fifteenth, and Meredith had no mercy.
"Now for the inkstand," he told himself on the tee.
He had chosen a spoon, and he played it impeccably. He was reflecting that the match would be decided not by what Osborne did, but what Meredith did; and after he had construed the wild gesticulations of the caddy ahead, he was aware that he had made the green, and held it. He was wholly callous to Osborne's splendid pitch from the rough; he was rather contemptuous of it. After all, what was the profit in winning or losing the second flight? In one case, a transient pleasure and a desultory series of congratulations; in the other, a silver card-tray for a pretty girl who did n't know a brassy from a maul-stick.
"Oh, rubbish!" said Meredith to himself as he nonchalantly holed a prodigious putt for a two. Aloud he stated, "You 're one up and three to play, Mr. Osborne."
They halved the sixteenth after a heart-breaking struggle; at the 165-yard seventeenth Meredith saw that Miss Winsted had wandered over from the club-house, and was watching them from the shade of the trees near the green. He gazed at her for a moment, and turned to Osborne.
"Now, as man to man," said Meredith, bluntly, "I want to know what you think of that ink-pot we 're shooting for? Honestly."
Osborne, somewhat taken aback, grinned widely.
"Hideous thing, is n't it?"
"Suppose you win it," said Meredith, teeing his ball, "what 'll you do with it?"
"Hide it, I suppose. Funny game, is n't it? Two of us breaking our necks for something neither of us wants. But my wife would give her soul for that dinky little tray they 've put up for the second prize."
"She would, would she?"
"Absolutely. She's mad about it."
Meredith glanced at the green.
"Well, you 'll have to hole out to beat me, Mr. Osborne."
"I usually do from here." Both laughed.
Meredith drove, and was on; and Osborne, after deep cogitation, played a careful shot to the very boundary of the green. Abreast they marched through the intervening rough.
"I almost hope you win," said Meredith, absently. "I don't want that inkstand."
"Neither do I; but I'm doing my darndest to take it away from you, don't you think?"
"You 've got me working. But it looks as though I 've got the edge on you here," said Meredith.
"Hardly," said Osborne, with charming friendliness. "I 'll halve this with you and win the last, two up!"
"Shoot from there!" commanded Meredith.
Osborne shot, and went dead. Meredith bent over his putter, and then stood erect.
"It's a funny game," he repeated, "the funniest game in the world. Vardon was right; he says it's an awful game. I think I must believe in foreordination. I'd bet a hundred to one this goes down! And we 're playing for a piece of junk neither of us would have in the house if it did n't represent this match, and we 're both set on winning it! A hundred to one!" He putted, and never a ball rolled straighter to its goal. "A two to your three." he remarked to the stupefied Osborne. "All square, and one to go. Just a second."
He walked over to Miss Winsted and patted her arm affectionately.
"Are you ahead of him?" she asked, with anxiety.
"We 're all even so far."
"You 'll win, won't you?"
"Is that what you want? I came over to find out."
"I do, dear; I do! And—I thought you'd like to know—I—I took a lesson from Peacock this morning!"
"You did!" cried Meredith, astounded. "You did! Well, you just wait until I win this hole, and see what you get!"
Transported, he drove magnificently, and Osborne was alongside. With inexpressible rapture, he played perfectly between the twin traps guarding the green, and Osborne was with him. He ran an approach within a precious yard of the hole, and Osborne was a foot farther away. And Osborne, too deliberate to be accurate, missed the hole by a hand's-breadth.
"I 'll give you that for a five," proffered Meredith. "And I'm playing four—for the hole and match."
"It looks like your inkstand," admitted Osborne, whitening, although his lips were curving. "You ought to fill it with champagne."
Meredith nodded appreciatively, and took his putter. Miss Winsted was again behind him, and he felt her presence, and welcomed it. She'd taken a lesson, had she? She was adopting the game because he loved it, was she? He owed her something for that—something more than ordinary gratitude. And now that she had come to share his laurels with him, she should see at least that golf is more than a simple game played for prizes; she should see that it is a cross-section of life, played for whatever reward is decreed. The rule is to play hard, and take the consequences. His jaw tightened, and he shook off a fantasy which had crept upon him, a fleeting notion to shut his eyes as he played, and to make Miss Winsted a gift of his pride and of her card-tray. He frowned, and dismissed the sordid conception. Love is love, but golf is golf, and Meredith had a simple putt for the win. He was sorry for Miss Winsted and he was sorry for Osborne, but the match and the inkstand belonged to him. Osborne's wife would be jubilant, and Miss Winsted would some day fathom the mystery of the game, and be hedonic, too. He addressed the ball; and whimsically a picture of the unsuitable prize rose before him, and a chuckle died in his throat. And then, paralyzed, staggered by the egregious fault he had committed, he straightened himself, and looked at Osborne.
"I touched it!" said Meredith, thickly.
"Go on! This is a gentleman's game."
"This is golf," corrected Meredith. "I touched it, and it moved."
"I waive the penalty. Shoot!"
"You can't waive it. That's mighty decent of you, but it's against the rules. I'm playing five, for a half."
"Oh, look here—"
"It's all right," said Meredith, gnawing his lip. "You did n't make the rules. I ought to have had more sense."
"Here, you forget it—"
"Playing five," said Meredith, sternly. "I may halve it yet."
"Well, I hope you do. Take time—"
"Drop!" breathed Meredith to the ball, and missed the half by an eyelash. Osborne had beaten him one up.
Late that afternoon he went with Miss Winsted to the table loaded with silverware, removed the card-tray, and presented it to her with unction.
"It's yours, dear," he said; "but if I'd kept my wits about me—"
"Mr. Osborne's told everybody about it," she said quietly. "He says he would n't have known about your touching your ball if you had n't told him yourself; and even if you did n't win, it's a consolation to know you lost like that, is n't it? By penalizing yourself when you need n't have—"
"Also," said Meredith not too truthfully, "to give you the present you picked out. And to have you take up golf as a result of this tournament. I 'll remember it always." He remained staring into vacancy until Miss Winsted pinched his elbow and brought him back to earth.
"What are you thinking about?" she demanded.
"Oh—nothing," said Meredith, averting his face. "I was just wondering whether you'd better take lessons of Peacock or Alec Ross." Once more he had spoken falsely; he had been thinking about the spring tournament and his bad short game during the finals to-day. And then the real consolation came over him, and he was placidly content. "Let's go out while it's light enough," he said, and his smile was again seraphic, for at least Miss Winsted could accompany him. "We 'll putt awhile together. Is n't it funny how you can miss the short ones?"
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1936, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 86 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.