The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
Orde's evening was a disappointment to him. Mrs. Bishop had, by Carroll's report, worked feverishly at the altar cloth all the afternoon. As a consequence, she had gone to bed with a bad headache. This state of affairs seemed to throw the entire family into a state of indecision. It was divided in mind as to what to do, the absolute inutility of any effort balancing strongly against a sense of what the invalid expected.
"I wonder if mother wouldn't like just a taste of this beef," speculated the general, moving fussily in his chair. "I believe somebody ought to take some up. She might want it."
The man departed with the plate, but returned a few moments later, impassive--but still with the plate.
"Has she got her hot-water bag?" asked the boy unexpectedly.
"Yes, Master Kendrick," replied the butler.
After a preoccupied silence the general again broke out:
"Seems to me somebody ought to be up there with her."
"You know, father, that she can't stand any one in the room," said Carroll equably.
Toward the close of the meal, however, a distant bell tinkled faintly. Every one jumped as though guilty. Carroll said a hasty excuse and ran out. After ringing the bell, the invalid had evidently anticipated its answer by emerging from her room to the head of the stairs, for Orde caught the sharp tones of complaint, and overheard something about "take all night to eat a simple meal, when I'm lying here suffering."
At the end of an interval a maid appeared in the doorway to say that Miss Carroll sent word she would not be down again for a time, and did not care for any more dinner. This seemed to relieve the general's mind of responsibility. He assumed his little fussy air of cheerfulness, told several stories of the war, and finally, after Kendrick had left, brought out some whisky and water. He winked slyly at Orde.
"Can't do this before the youngsters, you know," he chirruped craftily.
Throughout the meal Gerald had sat back silent, a faint amusement in his eye. After dinner he arose, yawned, consulted his watch, and departed, pleading an engagement. Orde lingered some time, listening to the general, in the hope that Carroll would reappear. She did not, so finally he took his leave.
He trudged back to his hotel gloomily. The day had passed in a most unsatisfactory manner, according to his way of looking at it. Yet he had come more clearly to an understanding of the girl; her cheerfulness, her unselfishness, and, above all, the sweet, beautiful philosophy of life that must lie back, to render her so uncomplainingly the slave of the self-willed woman, yet without the indifferent cynicism of Gerald, the sullen, yet real, partisanship of Kendrick, or the general's week-kneed acquiescence.
The next morning he succeeded in making an arrangement by letter for an excursion to the newly projected Central Park. Promptly at two o'clock he was at the Bishops' house. To his inquiry the butler said that Mrs. Bishop had recovered from her indisposition, and that Miss Bishop would be down immediately. Orde had not long to wait for her. The swish, pat-pat of her joyous descent of the stairs brought him to his feet. She swept aside the portieres, and stood between their folds, bidding him welcome.
"I'm so sorry about last night," said she, "but poor mother does depend on me so at such times. Isn't it a gorgeous day to walk? It won't be much like our woods, will it? But it will be something. OH, I'm so glad to get out!"
She was in one of her elfish moods, the languid grace of her sleepy- eyed moments forgotten. With a little cry of rapture she ran to the piano, and dashed into a gay, tinkling air with brilliancy and abandon. Her head, surmounted by a perky, high-peaked, narrow- brimmed hat, with a flaming red bird in front, glorified by the braid and "waterfall" of that day, bent forward and turned to flash an appeal for sympathy toward Orde.
"There, I feel more able to stay on earth!" she cried, springing to her feet. "Now I'll get on my gloves and we'll start."
She turned slowly before the mirror, examining quite frankly the hang of her skirt, the fit of her close-cut waist, the turn of the adorable round, low-cut collars that were then the mode.
"It pays to be particular; we are in New York," she answered, or parried, Orde's glance of admiration.
The gloves finally drawn on and buttoned, Orde held aside the portieres, and she passed fairly under his uplifted hand. He wanted to drop his arm about her, this slender girl with her quaint dignity, her bird-like ways, her gentle, graceful, mysterious, feminine soul. The flame-red bird lent its colour to her cheeks; her eyes, black and fathomless, the pupils wide in this dim light, shone with two stars of delight.
But, as they moved toward the massive front doors, Mrs. Bishop came down the stairs behind them. She, too, was dressed for the street. She received Orde's greeting and congratulation over her improved health in rather an absent manner. Indeed, as soon as she could hurry this preliminary over, she plunged into what evidently she considered a more important matter.
"You aren't thinking of going out, are you?" she asked Carroll.
"I told you, mother; don't you remember? Mr. Orde and I are going to get a little air in the park."
"I'm sorry," said Mrs. Bishop, with great brevity and decision, "but I'm going to the rectory to help Mr. Merritt, and I shall want you to go too, to see about the silver."
"But, mother," expostulated Carroll, "wouldn't Marie do just as well?"
"You know very well she can't be trusted without direction."
"I do so want to go to the park," said Carroll wistfully. Mrs. Bishop's thin, nervous figure jerked spasmodically. "There is very little asked of you from morning until night," she said, with some asperity, "and I should think you'd have some slight consideration for the fact that I'm just up from a sick bed to spare me all you could. Besides which, you do very little for the church. I won't insist. Do exactly as you think best."
Carroll threw a pathetic glance at Orde.
"How soon are you going?" she asked her mother.
"In about ten minutes," replied Mrs. Bishop; "as soon as I've seen Honorine about the dinner." She seemed abruptly to realise that the amenities demanded something of her. "I'm sorry we must go so soon," she said briefly to Orde, "but of course church business--We shall hope to see you often."
Once more Orde held aside the curtains. The flame-bird drooped from the twilight of the hall into the dimness of the parlour. All the brightness seemed to have drained from the day, and all the joy of life seemed to have faded from the girl's soul. She sank into a chair, and tried pathetically to smile across at Orde.
"I'm such a baby about disappointments," said she.
"I know," he replied, very gently.
"And it's such a blue and gold day."
"I know," he repeated.
She twisted her glove in her lap, a bright spot of colour burning in each cheek.
"Mother is not well, and she has a great deal to try her. Poor mother!" she said softly, her head cast down.
"I know," said Orde in his gentle tones.
After a moment he arose to go. She remained seated, her head down.
"I'm sorry about this afternoon," said he cheerfully, "but it couldn't be helped, could it? Jane used to tell me about your harp playing. I'm going to come in to hear you this evening. May I?"
"Yes," she said, in a stifled voice, and held out her hand. She sat quite still until she heard the front door close after him; then she ran to the curtains and looked after his sturdy, square figure, as it swung up the street.
"Well done; oh, well done, gentle heart!" she breathed after him. Then she went back to the piano.
But Orde's mouth, could she have seen it, was set in grim lines, and his feet, could she have heard them, rang on the pavement with quite superfluous vigour. He turned to the left, and, without pause, walked some ten or twelve miles.
The evening turned out very well, fortunately; Orde could not have stood much more. They had the parlour quite to themselves. Carroll took the cover from the tall harp, and, leaning her cheek against it, she played dreamily for a half hour. Her arms were bare, and as her fingers reached out lingeringly and caressingly to draw the pure, golden chords from the golden instrument, her soft bosom pressed against the broad sounding board. There is about the tones of a harp well played something luminous, like rich, warm sunlight. When the girl muted the strings at last, it seemed to Orde as though all at once the room had perceptibly darkened. He took his leave finally, his spirit soothed and restored.
Tranquillity was not for long, however. Orde's visits were, naturally, as frequent as possible. To them almost instantly Mrs. Bishop opposed the strong and intuitive jealousy of egotism. She had as yet no fears as to the young man's intentions, but instinctively she felt an influence that opposed her own supreme dominance. In consequence, Orde had much time to himself. Carroll and the rest of the family, with the possible exception of Gerald, shared the belief that the slightest real opposition to Mrs. Bishop would suffice to throw her into one of her "spells," a condition of alarming and possibly genuine collapse. "To drive mother into a spell" was an expression of the worst possible domestic crime. It accused the perpetrator--through Mrs. Bishop--of forgetting the state of affairs, of ingratitude for care and affection, of common inhumanity, and of impiety in rendering impossible of performance the multifarious church duties Mrs. Bishop had invented and assumed as so many particularly shining virtues. Orde soon discovered that Carroll went out in society very little for the simple reason that she could never give an unqualified acceptance to an invitation. At the last moment, when she had donned her street wraps and the carriage was at the door, she was liable to be called back, either to assist at some religious function, which, by its sacred character, was supposed to have precedence over everything, or to attend a nervous crisis, brought on by some member of the household, or by mere untoward circumstances. The girl always acquiesced most sweetly in these recurrent disappointments. And the very fact that she accepted few invitations gave Orde many more chances to see her, in spite of Mrs. Bishop's increasing exactions. He did not realise this fact, however, but ground his teeth and clung blind-eyed to his temper whenever the mother cut short his visits or annulled his engagements on some petty excuse of her own. He could almost believe these interruptions malicious, were it not that he soon discovered Mrs. Bishop well disposed toward him personally whenever he showed himself ready to meet her even quarter way on the topics that interested her--the church and her health.
In this manner the week passed. Orde saw as much as he could of Miss Bishop. The remainder of the time he spent walking the streets and reading in the club rooms to which Gerald's courtesy had given him access. Gerald himself seemed to be much occupied. Precisely at eleven every morning, however, he appeared at the gymnasium for his practice; and in this Orde dropped into the habit of joining him. When the young men first stripped in each other's presence, they eyed each other with a secret surprise. Gerald's slender and elegant body turned out to be smoothly and gracefully muscled on the long lines of the Flying Mercury. His bones were small, but his flesh was hard, and his skin healthy with the flow of blood beneath. Orde, on the other hand, had earned from the river the torso of an ancient athlete. The round, full arch of his chest was topped by a mass of clean-cut muscle; across his back, beneath the smooth skin, the muscles rippled and ridged and dimpled with every movement; the beautiful curve of the deltoids, from the point of the shoulder to the arm, met the other beautiful curve of the unflexed biceps and that fulness of the back arm so often lacking in a one-sided development; the surface of the abdomen showed the peculiar corrugation of the very strong man; the round, columnar neck arose massive.
"By Jove!" said Gerald, roused at last from his habitual apathy.
"What's the matter?" asked Orde, looking up from tying the rubber- soled shoes that Gerald had lent him.
"Murphy," called Gerald, "come here."
A very hairy, thick-set, bullet-headed man, the type of semi- professional "handlers," emerged from somewhere across the gymnasium.
"Do you think you could down this fellow?" asked Gerald.
Murphy looked Orde over critically.
"Who ye ringin' in on me?" he inquired.
"This is a friend of mine," said Gerald severely.
"Beg your pardon. The gentleman is well put up. How much experience has he had?"
"Ever box much?" Gerald asked Orde.
"Box?" Orde laughed. "Never had time for that sort of thing. Had the gloves on a few times."
"Where did you get your training, sir?" asked the handler.
"My training?" repeated Orde, puzzled. "Oh, I see! I was always pretty heavy, and I suppose the work on the river keeps a man in pretty good shape."
Gerald's languor had vanished, and a glint had appeared in his eye that would have reminded Orde of Miss Bishop's most mischievous mood could he have seen it.
"Put on the gloves with Murphy," he suggested, "will you? I'd like to see you two at it."
"Surely," agreed Orde good-naturedly. "I'm not much good at it, but I'd just as soon try." He was evidently not in the least afraid to meet the handler, though as evidently without much confidence in his own skill.
"All right; I'll be with you in a second," said Gerald, disappearing. In the anteroom he rung a bell, and to the boy who leisurely answered its summons he said rapidly:
"Run over to the club and find Mr. Winslow, Mr. Clark, and whoever else is in the smoking room, and tell them from me to cone over to the gymnasium. Tell them there's some fun on."
Then he returned to the gymnasium floor, where Murphy was answering Orde's questions as to the apparatus. While the two men were pulling on the gloves, Gerald managed a word apart with the trainer.
"Can you do him, Murph?" he whispered.
"Sure!" said the handler. "Them kind's always as slow as dray- horses. They gets muscle-bound."
"Give it to him," said Gerald, "but don't kill him. He's a friend of mine."
Then he stepped back, the same joy in his soul that inspires a riverman when he encounters a high-banker; a hunter when he takes out a greenhorn, or a cowboy as he watches the tenderfoot about to climb the bronco.
"Time!" said he.
The first round was sharp. When Gerald called the end, Orde grinned at him cheerfully.
"Don't look like I was much at this game, does it?" said he. "I wouldn't pull down many persimmons out of that tree. Your confounded man's too lively; I couldn't hit him with a shotgun."
Orde had stood like a rock, his feet planted to the floor, while Murphy had circled around him hitting at will. Orde hit back, but without landing. Nevertheless Murphy, when questioned apart, did not seem satisfied.
"The man's pig-iron," said he. "I punched him plenty hard enough, and it didn't seem to jar him."
The gallery at one end the running track had by flow half filled with interested spectators.
"Time!" called Gerald for round two.
This time Murphy went in more viciously, aiming and measuring his blows accurately. Orde stood as before, a humourous smile of self- depreciation on his face, hitting back at the elusive Murphy, but without much effect, his feet never stirring in their tracks. The handler used his best tactics and landed almost at will, but without apparent damage. He grew ugly--finally lost his head.
"Well, if ye will have it!" he muttered, and aimed what was intended as a knockout blow.
Gerald uttered a half cry of warning as his practised eye caught Murphy's intention. The blow landed. Orde's head snapped back, but to the surprise of every one the punch had no other effect, and a quick exchange of infighting sent Murphy staggering back from the encounter. The smile had disappeared from Orde's face, and his eye had calmed.
"Look here," he called to Gerald, "I don't understand this game very well. At school we used 'taps.' Is a man supposed to hit hard?"
Gerald hesitated, then looked beyond Orde to the gallery. To a man it made frantic and silent demonstration.
"Of course you hit," he replied. "You can't hurt any one with those big gloves."
Orde turned back to his antagonist. The latter advanced once more, his bullet head sunk between his shoulders, his little eyes twinkling. Evidently Mr. Bishop's friend would now take the aggressive, and forward movement would deliver an extra force to the professional's blows.
Orde did not wait for Murphy, however. Like a tiger he sprang forward, hitting out fiercely, first with one hand then with the other. Murphy gave ground, blocked, ducked, exerted all a ring general's skill either to stop or avoid the rush. Orde followed him insistent. Several times he landed, but always when Murphy was on the retreat, so the blows had not much weight. Several times Murphy ducked in and planted a number of short-arm jabs at close range. The round ended almost immediately to a storm of applause from the galleries.
"What do you think of his being muscle-bound?" Gerald asked Murphy, as the latter flung himself panting on the wrestling mat for his rest.
"He's quick as chained lightning," acknowledged the other grudgingly. "But I'll get him. He can't keep that up; he'll be winded in half a minute."
Orde sat down on a roll of mat. His smile had quite vanished, and he seemed to be awaiting eagerly the beginning of the next round.
"Time!" called Gerald for the third.
Orde immediately sprang at his adversary, repeating the headlong rush with which the previous round had ended. Murphy blocked, ducked, and kept away, occasionally delivering a jolt as opportunity offered, awaiting the time when Orde's weariness would leave him at the other's mercy. That moment did not come. The young man hammered away tirelessly, insistently, delivering a hurricane of his two-handed blows, pressing relentlessly in as Murphy shifted and gave ground, his head up, his eyes steady, oblivious to the return hammering the now desperate handler opposed to him. Two minutes passed without perceptible slackening in this terrific pace. The gallery was in an uproar, and some of the members were piling down the stairs to the floor. Perspiration stood out all over Murphy's body. His blows failed of their effect, and some of Orde's were landing. At length, bewildered more by the continuance than the violence of the attack, he dropped his ring tactics and closed in to straight slugging, blow against blow, stand up, give and take.
As he saw his opponent stand, Orde uttered a sound of satisfaction. He dropped slightly his right shoulder behind his next blow. The glove crashed straight as a pile-driver through Murphy's upraised hands to his face, which it met with a smack. The trainer, lifted bodily from the ground, was hurled through the air, to land doubled up against the supports of a parallel bars. There he lay quite still, his palms up, his head sunk forward.
Orde stared at him a moment in astonishment, as though expecting him to arise. When, however, he perceived that Murphy was in reality unconscious, he tore off the gloves and ran forward to kneel by the professional's side.
"I didn't suppose one punch like that would hurt him," he muttered to the men crowding around. "Especially with the gloves. Do you suppose he's killed?"
But already Murphy's arms were making aimless motions, and a deep breath raised his chest.
"He's just knocked out," reassured one of the men, examining the prostrate handler with a professional attention. "He'll be as good as ever in five minutes. Here," he commanded one of the gymnasium rubbers who had appeared, "lend a hand here with some water."
The clubmen crowded about, all talking at once.
"You're a wonder, my friend," said one.
"By Jove, he's hardly breathing fast after all that rushing," said a second.
"So you didn't think one punch like that would hurt him," quoted another with good-natured sarcasm.
"No," said Orde, simply. "I've hit men that hard before with my bare fist."
"Did they survive?"
"What kind of armour-plates were they, in heaven's name?"
Orde had recovered his balance and humour.
"Just plain ordinary rivermen," said he with a laugh.
"Gentlemen," struck in Gerald, "I want to introduce you to my friend." He performed the introductions. It was necessary for him to explain apart that Orde was in reality his friend, an amateur, a chance visitor in the city. All in all, the affair made quite a little stir, and went far to give Orde a standing with these sport- loving youths.
Finally Gerald and Orde were permitted to finish their gymnasium practice. Murphy had recovered, and came forward.
"You have a strong punch, sir, and you're a born natural fighter, sir," said he. "If you had a few lessons in boxing, sir, I'd put you against the best."
But later, when the young men were resting, each under his sheet after a rub-down, the true significance of the affair for Orde came out. Since the fight, Gerald's customary lassitude of manner seemed quite to have left him. His eye was bright, a colour mounted beneath the pale olive of his skin, the almost effeminate beauty of his countenance had animated. He looked across at Orde several times, hesitated, and at last decided to speak.
"Look here, Orde," said he, "I want to confess something to you. When you first came here three days ago, I had lots of fun with myself about you. You know your clothes aren't quite the thing, and I thought your manner was queer, and all that. I was a cad. I want to apologise. You're a man, and I like you better than any fellow I've met for a long time. And if there's any trouble--in the future--that is--oh, hang it, I'm on your side--you know what I mean!"
Orde smiled slowly.
"Bishop," was his unexpected reply, "you're not near so much of a dandy as you think you are."