In Which a Young Man Arrives at His Last Ditch and a Young
Girl Jumps Over It
Utterly unequipped for anything except to ornament his
environment, the crash in Steel stunned him. Dazed but polite, he
remained a passive observer of the sale which followed and which
apparently realized sufficient to satisfy every creditor, but not
enough for an income to continue a harmlessly idle career which he
had supposed was to continue indefinitely.
He had never earned a penny; he had not the vaguest idea of how
people made money. To do something, however, was absolutely
He wasted some time in finding out just how much aid he might
expect from his late father's friends, but when he understood the
attitude of society toward a knocked-out gentleman he wisely ceased
to annoy society, and turned to the business world.
Here he wasted some more time. Perhaps the time was not
absolutely wasted, for during that period he learned that he could
use nobody who could not use him; and as he appeared to be
perfectly useless, except for ornament, and as a business house is
not a kindergarten, and furthermore, as he had neither time nor
money to attend any school where anybody could teach him anything,
it occurred to him to take a day off for minute and thorough
self-examination concerning his qualifications and even his right
to occupy a few feet of space upon the earth's surface.
Four years at Harvard, two more in postgraduate courses, two
more in Europe to perfect himself in electrical engineering, and a
year at home attempting to invent a wireless apparatus for
intercepting and transmitting psychical waves had left him
pitifully unfit for wage earning.
There remained his accomplishments; but the market was
overstocked with assorted time-killers.
His last asset was a trivial though unusual talent—a natural
manual dexterity cultivated since childhood to amuse
himself—something he never took seriously. This, and a curious
control over animals, had, as the pleasant years flowed by, become
an astonishing skill which was much more than sleight of hand; and
he, always as good-humored as well-bred, had never refused to amuse
the frivolous, of which he was also one, by picking silver dollars
out of space and causing the proper card to fall fluttering from
Day by day, as the little money left him melted away, he
continued his vigorous mental examination, until the alarming
shrinkage in his funds left him staring fixedly at his last asset.
Could he use it? Was it an asset, after all? How clever was he?
Could he face an audience and perform the usual magician tricks
without bungling? A slip by a careless, laughing, fashionable young
amateur amusing his social equals at a house party is excusable; a
bungle by a hired professional meant an end to hope in that
So he rented a suite of two rooms on Central Park West,
furnished them with what remained from better days, bought the
necessary paraphernalia of his profession, and immured himself for
practice before entering upon his contemplated invasion of Newport,
Lenox, and Bar Harbor. And one very lovely afternoon in May, when
the Park from his windows looked like a green forest, and puff on
puff of perfumed air fluttered the curtains at his opened windows,
he picked up his gloves and stick, put on his hat, and went out to
walk in the Park; and when he had walked sufficiently he sat down
on a bench in a flowery, bushy nook on the edge of a bridle
Few people disturbed the leafy privacy; a policeman sauntering
southward noted him, perhaps for future identification. The
spectacle of a well- built, well-groomed, and fashionable young man
sitting moodily upon a park bench was certainly to be noted. It is
not the fashion for fashionable people to sit on park benches
unless they contemplate self, as well as social, destruction.
So the policeman lingered for a while in the vicinity, but not
hearing any revolver shot, presently sauntered on, buck-skinned
fist clasped behind his broad back, squinting at a distant social
gathering composed entirely of the most exclusive nursemaids.
The young man looked up into the pleasant blue above, then his
preoccupied gaze wandered from woodland to thicket, where the
scarlet glow of Japanese quince mocked the colors of the fluttering
scarlet tanagers; where orange-tinted orioles flashed amid tangles
of golden Forsythia; and past the shrubbery to an azure corner of
water, shimmering under the wooded slope below.
That sense of languor and unrest, of despondency threaded by
hope which fair skies and sunshine and new leaves bring with the
young year to the young, he felt. Yet there was no bitterness in
his brooding, for he was a singularly generous young man, and there
was no vindictiveness mixed with the memories of his failures among
those whose cordial respect for his father had been balanced
between that blameless gentleman's wealth and position.
A gray squirrel came crawling and nosing through the fresh
grass; he caught its eyes, and, though the little animal was
plainly bound elsewhere on important business, the young man soon
had it curled up on his knee, asleep.
For a while he amused himself by using his curious power,
alternately waking the squirrel and allowing it to bound off, tail
twitching, and then calling it back, slowly but inexorably to climb
his trousers and curl up on his knee and sleep an uncanny and deep
sleep which might end only at the young man's pleasure.
He, too, began to feel the subtle stillness of the drowsing
woodland; musing there, caressing his short, crisp mustache, he
watched the purple grackle walking about in iridescent solitude,
the sun spots waning and glowing on the grass; he heard the soft,
garrulous whimper of waterfowl along the water's edge, the stir of
He thought of various personal matters: his poverty, the low ebb
of his balance at the bank, his present profession, his approaching
début as an entertainer, the chances of his failure. He thought,
too, of the astounding change in his life, the future, vacant of
promise, devoid of meaning, a future so utterly new and blank that
he could find in it nothing to speculate upon. He thought also, and
perfectly impersonally, of a girl whom he had met now and then upon
the stairs of the apartment house which he now inhabited.
Evidently there had been an ebb in her prosperity; the tumble of
a New Yorker's fortune leads from the Avenue to the Eighties, from
thence through Morristown, Staten Island, to the West Side.
Besides, she painted pictures; he knew the aroma of fixitive,
siccative, and burnt sienna; and her studio adjoined his sky
He thought of this girl quite impersonally; she resembled a
youthful beauty he had known—might still know if he chose; for a
man who can pay for his evening clothes need never deny himself the
society he was bred to.
She certainly did resemble that girl—she had the same bluish
violet eyes, the same white and deeply fringed lids, the same free
grace of carriage, a trifle too boyish at times—the same firmly
rounded, yet slender, figure.
"Now, as a matter of fact," he mused aloud, stroking the
sleeping squirrel on his knee, "I could have fallen in love with
either of those girls—before Copper blew up."
Pursuing his innocuous meditation he nodded to himself: "I
rather like the poor one better than any girl I ever saw. Doubtless
she paints portraits over solar prints. That's all right; she's
doing more than I have done yet… . I approve of those eyes of hers;
they're like the eyes of that waking Aphrodite in the Luxembourg.
If she would only just look at me once instead of looking through
me when we pass one another in the hall——"
The deadened gallop of a horse on the bridle path caught his
ear. The horse was coming fast—almost too fast. He laid the
sleeping squirrel on the bench, listened, then instinctively stood
up and walked to the thicket's edge.
What happened was too quick for him to comprehend; he had a
vision of a big black horse, mane and tail in the wind, tearing
madly, straight at him—a glimpse of a white face, desperate and
set, a flutter of loosened hair; then a storm of wind and sand
roared in his ears; he was hurled, jerked, and flung forward,
dragged, shaken, and left half senseless, hanging to nose and bit
of a horse whose rider was picking herself out of a bush covered
with white flowers.
Half senseless still, he tightened his grip on the bit, released
the grasp on the creature's nose, and, laying his hand full on the
forelock, brought it down twice and twice across the eyes, talking
to the horse in halting, broken whispers.
When he had the trembling animal under control he looked around;
the girl stood on the grass, dusty, dirty, disheveled, bleeding
from a cut on the cheek bone; the most bewildered and astonished
creature he had ever looked upon.
"It will be all right in a few minutes," he said, motioning her
to the bench on the asphalt walk. She nodded, turned, picked up his
hat, and, seating herself, began to smooth the furred nap with her
sleeve, watching him intently all the while. That he already had
the confidence of a horse that he had never before seen was
perfectly apparent. Little by little the sweating, quivering limbs
were stilled, the tense muscles in the neck relaxed, the head sank,
dusty velvet lips nibbled at his hand, his shoulder; the heaving,
sunken flanks filled and grew quiet.
Bareheaded, his attire in disorder and covered with slaver and
sand, the young man laid the bridle on the horse's neck, held out
his hand, and, saying "Come," turned his back and walked down the
bridle path. The horse stretched a sweating neck, sniffed, pricked
forward both small ears, and slowly followed, turning as the man
turned, up and down, crowding at heel like a trained dog, finally
stopping on the edge of the walk.
The young man looped the bridle over a low maple limb, and
leaving the horse standing sauntered over to the bench.
"That horse," he said pleasantly, "is all right now; but the
question is, are you all right?"
She rose, handing him his hat, and began to twist up her bright
hair. For a few moments' silence they were frankly occupied in
restoring order to raiment, dusting off gravel and examining
"I'm tremendously grateful," she said abruptly.
"I am, too," he said in that attractive manner which sets people
of similar caste at ease with one another.
"Thank you; it's a generous compliment, considering your hat and
He looked up; she stood twisting her hair and doing her best
with the few remaining hair pegs.
"I'm a sight for little fishes," she said, coloring. "Did that
wretched beast bruise you?"
"Did I?" he said vaguely. "How do you feel?"
"There is," she said, "a curious, breathless flutter all over
me; if that is fright, I suppose I'm frightened, but I don't mind
mounting at once— if you would put me up——"
"Better wait a bit," he said; "it would not do to have that
horse feel a fluttering pulse, telegraphing along the snaffle. Tell
me, are you spurred?"
She lifted the hem of her habit; two small spurs glittered on
her polished boot heels.
"That's it, you see," he observed; "you probably have not ridden
cross saddle very long. When your mount swerved you spurred, and he
bolted, bit in teeth."
"That's exactly it," she admitted, looking ruefully at her
spurs. Then she dropped her skirt, glanced interrogatively at him,
and, obeying his grave gesture, seated herself again upon the
"Don't stand," she said civilly. He took the other end of the
seat, lifting the still slumbering squirrel to his knee.
"I—I haven't said very much," she began; "I'm impulsive enough
to be overgrateful and say too much. I hope you understand me; do
"Of course; you're very good. It was nothing; you could have
stopped your horse yourself. People do that sort of thing for one
another as a matter of course."
"But not at the risk you took——"
"No risk at all," he said hastily.
She thought otherwise, and thought it so fervently that, afraid
of emotion, she turned her cold, white profile to him and studied
her horse, haughty lids adroop. The same insolent sweetness was in
her eyes when they again reverted to him. He knew the look; he had
encountered it often enough in the hallway and on the stairs. He
knew, too, that she must recognize him; yet, under the
circumstances, it was for her to speak first; and she did not, for
she was at that age when horror of overdoing anything chokes back
the scarcely extinguished childish instinct to say too much. In
other words, she was eighteen and had had her first season the
winter past—the winter when he had not been visible among the
gatherings of his own kind.
"Those squirrels are very tame," she observed calmly.
"Not always," he said. "Try to hold this one, for example."
She raised her pretty eyebrows, then accepted the lump of fluffy
fur from his hands. Instantly an electric shock seemed to set the
squirrel frantic, there was a struggle, a streak of gray and white,
and the squirrel leaped from her lap and fairly flew down the
"Gracious!" she exclaimed faintly; "what was the matter?"
"Some squirrels are very wild," he said innocently.
"I know—but you held him—he was asleep on your knee. Why didn't
he stay with me?"
"Oh, perhaps because I have a way with animals."
"With horses, too," she added gayly. And the smile breaking from
her violet eyes silenced him in the magic of a beauty he had never
dreamed of. At first she mistook his silence for modesty;
then—because even as young a maid as she is quick to divine and
fine of instinct—she too fell silent and serious, the while the
shuttles of her reason flew like lightning, weaving the picture of
him she had conceived—a gentleman, a man of her own sort, rather
splendid and wise and bewildering. The portrait completed, there
was no room for the hint of presumption she had half sensed in the
brown eyes' glance that had set her alert; and she looked up at him
again, frankly, a trifle curiously.
"I am going to thank you once more," she said, "and ask you to
put me up. There is not a flutter of fear in my pulse now."
"Are you quite sure?"
They arose; he untied the horse and beckoned it to the walk's
"I forgot," she said, laughing, "that I am riding cross saddle.
I can mount without troubling you—" She set her toe to the stirrup
which he held, and swung herself up into the saddle with a breezy
"Thanks, awfully," and sat there gathering her bridle.
Had she said enough? How coldly her own thanks rang in her
ears—for perhaps he had saved her neck—and perhaps not. Busy with
curb and snaffle reins, head bent, into her oval face a tint of
color crept. Did he think she treated lightly, flippantly, the
courage which became him so? Or was he already bored by her
acknowledgment of it? Sensitive, dreading to expose youth and
inexperience to the amused smile of this attractive young man of
the world, she sat fumbling with her bridle, conscious that he
stood beside her, hat in hand, looking up at her. She could delay
no longer; the bridle had been shifted and reshifted to the last
second of procrastination. She must say something or go.
Meeting his eyes, she smiled and leaned a little forward in her
saddle as though to speak, but his brown eyes troubled her, and all
she could say was "Thank you—good-by," and galloped off down the
vista through dim, leafy depths heavy with the incense of lilac and