Luck's Play





A young man who had just landed in New York from one of the big,

adventurous transatlantic liners hailed a taxicab and was quickly

drawn away into the glitter and gayety of a bright winter morning. He

sat forward eagerly, looking at everything with the air of a lad on a

holiday. He was a young man, but he was not in his first youth, and

under a heavy sunburn he was pale and a trifle worn, but there was

about him a look of being hard and very much alive. Under a broad brow

there were hawk eyes of greenish gray, a delicate beak, a mouth and

chin of cleverness. It was an interesting face and looked as though it

had seen interesting things. In fact, Prosper Gael had just returned

from his three months of ambulance service in France, and it was the

extraordinary success of his play, "The Leopardess," that had chiefly

brought him back.



"Dear Luck," his manager had written, using the college title which

Prosper's name and unvarying good fortune suggested, "you'd better

come back and gather up some of these laurels that are smothering us

all. The time is very favorable for the disappearance of your

anonymity. I, for one, find it more and more difficult to keep the

secret. So far, not even your star knows it. She calls you 'Mr. Luck'

... to that extent I have been indiscreet...."



Prosper had another letter in his pocket, a letter that he had re-read

many times, always with an uneasy conflict of emotions. He was in a

sort of hot-cold humor over it, in a fever-fit that had a way of

turning into lassitude. He postponed analysis indefinitely. Meanwhile

his eyes searched the bright, cold city, its crowds, its traffics, its

windows--most of all, its placards, and, not far to seek, there were

the posters of "The Leopardess." He leaned out to study one of them; a

tall, wild-eyed woman crouched to spring upon a man who stared at her

in fear. Prosper dropped back with a gleaming smile of amused

excitement. "They've made it look like cheap melodrama," he said to

himself; "and yet it's a good thing, the best thing I've ever done.

Yet they will vulgarize the whole idea with their infernal notions of

'what the public wants.' Morena is as bad as the rest of them!" He

expressed disgust, but underneath he was aglow with pride and

interest. "There's a performance to-night. I'll dine with Jasper. I'll

have to see Betty first...." His thoughts trailed off and he fell into

that hot-cold confusion, that uncomfortable scorching fog of mood. The

cab turned into Fifth Avenue and became a scale in the creeping

serpent of vehicles that glided, paused, and glided again past the

thronged pavements. Prosper contrasted everything with the grim

courage and high-pitched tragedy of France. He could not but wonder at

the detached frivolity of these money-spenders, these spinners in the

sun. How soon would the shadow fall upon them too and with what change

of countenance would they look up! To him the joyousness seemed almost

childish and yet he bathed his fagged spirit in it. How high the white

clouds sailed, how blue was the midwinter sky! How the buildings

towered, how quickly the people stepped! Here were the pretty painted

faces, the absurd silk stockings, the tripping, exquisitely booted

feet, the swinging walk, the tall, up-springing bodies of the women he

remembered. He regarded them with impersonal delight, untinged by any

of his usual cynicism.



It was late afternoon when Prosper, obedient to a telephone call from

Betty, presented himself at the door of Morena's house, just east of

the Park, off Fifth Avenue; a very beautiful house where the wealthy

Jew had indulged his passion for exquisite things. Prosper entered its

rich dimness with a feeling of oppression--that unanalyzed mood of hot

and cold feeling intensified to an almost unbearable degree. In the

large carved and curtained drawing-room he waited for Betty. The

tea-things were prepared; there would be no further need of service

until Betty should ring. Everything was arranged for an uninterrupted

tete-a-tete. Prosper stood near an ebony table, his shoulder

brushed by tall, red roses, and felt his nerves tighten and his pulses

hasten in their beat. "The tall child ... the tall child ..." he had

called her by that name so often and never without a swift and

stabbing memory of Joan, and of Joan's laughter which he had silenced.



He took out the letter he had lately received from Betty and re-read

it and, as he read, a deep line cut between his eyes. "You say you

will not come back unless I can give you more than I have ever given

you in the past. You say you intend to cut yourself free, that I have

failed you too often, that you are starved on hope. I'm not going to

ask much more patience of you. I failed you that first time because I

lost courage; the second time, fate failed us. How could I think that

Jasper would get well when the doctors told me that I mustn't allow

myself even a shadow of hope! Now, I think that Jasper, himself, is

preparing my release. This all sounds like something in a book. That's

because you've hurt me. I feel frozen up. I couldn't bear it if now,

just when the door is opening, you failed me. Prosper, you are my

lover for always, aren't you? I have to believe that to go on living.

You are the one thing in my wretched life that hasn't lost its value.

Now, read this carefully; I am going to be brutal. Jasper has been

unfaithful to me. I know it. I have sufficient evidence to prove it in

a law court and I shall not hesitate to get a divorce. Tear this up,

please. Now, of all times, we must be extraordinarily careful. There

has never been a whisper against us and there mustn't be. Jasper must

not suspect. A counter-suit would ruin my life. I must talk it over

with you. I'll see you once alone--just once--before I leave Jasper

and begin the suit. We must have patience for just this last bit. It

will seem very long...."



Prosper folded the letter. He was conscious of a faint feeling of

sickness, of fear. Then he heard Betty's step across the marble

pavement of the hall. She parted the heavy curtains, drew them

together behind her, and stood, pale with joy, opening and shutting

her big eyes. Then she came to meet him, held him back, listening for

any sound that might predict interruption, and gave herself to his

arms. She was no longer pale when he let her go. She went a few steps

away and stood with her hands before her face, then she went to sit by

the tea-table. They were both flushed. Betty's eyes were shining under

their fluttering lids. Prosper rejoiced in his own emotion. The mental

fog had lifted and the feeling of faintness was gone.



"You've decided not to break away altogether, then?" she asked, giving

him a quick glance.



He shook his head. "Not if what you have written me is true. I've had

such letters from you before and I've grown very suspicious. Are you

sure this time?" He laid stress upon his bitterness. It was his one

weapon against her and he had been sharpening it with a vague purpose.



"Oh," said Betty, speaking low and furtively, "Jasper is fairly

caught. I have a reliable witness in the girl's maid. There is no

doubt of his guilt, Prosper, none. Everyone is talking of it. He has

been perfectly open in his attentions."



Every minute Betty looked younger and prettier, more provoking. Her

child-mouth with its clever smile was bright as though his kiss had

painted it.



"Who is the girl?" asked Prosper. He was deeply flushed. Being capable

of simultaneous points of view, he had been stung by that cool phrase

of Betty's concerning "Jasper's guilt."



"I'll tell you in a moment. Did you destroy my letter?"



He shook his head.



"Oh, Prosper, please!"



He took it out, tore it up, and walking over to the open fire, burned

the papers. He came back to his tea. "Well, Betty?"



"The girl," said Betty, "is the star in your play, 'The Leopardess,'

the girl that Jasper picked up two Septembers ago out West. He has

written to you about her. She was a cook, if you please, a hideous

creature, but Jasper saw at once what there was in her. She has made

the play. You'll have to acknowledge that yourself when you see her.

She is wonderful. And, partly owing to the trouble I've taken with

her, the girl is beautiful. One wouldn't have thought it possible. She

is not charming to me, she's not in the least subtle. It's odd that

she should have had such an effect upon Jasper, of all men...."



Prosper sipped his tea and listened. He looked at her and was bitterly

conscious that the excitement which had pleased and surprised him was

dying out. That faintness again assailed his spirit. He was feeling

stifled, ashamed, bored. Yes, that was it, bored. That life of service

and battle-danger in France had changed him more than he had realized

till now. He was more simple, more serious, more moral, in a certain

sense. He was like a man who, having denied the existence of Apollyon,

has come upon him face to face and has been burnt by his breath. Such

a man is inevitably moral. All this long, intricate intrigue with the

wife of a man who called him friend, seemed to him horribly unworthy.

If Betty had been a great lover, if she had not lost courage at the

eleventh hour and left him to face that terrible winter in Wyoming,

then their passion might have justified itself: but now there was a

staleness in their relationship. He hated the thought of the long

divorce proceedings, of the decent interval, of the wedding, of the

married life. He had never really wanted that. And now, in the ebb of

his passion, how could he force himself to take her when he had

learned to live more keenly, more completely without her! He would

have to take her, to spend his days and nights with her, to travel

with her. She would want to visit that gay, little forsaken house in a

Wyoming canyon. With vividness he saw a girl lying prone on a black

rug before a dancing fire, her hair all fallen about her face, her

secret eyes lifted impatiently from the book--"You had ought to be

writin', Mr. Gael...."



"What are you smiling for, Prosper?" Betty asked sharply.



He looked up, startled and confused. "Sorry. I've got into beastly

absent-minded habits. Is that Morena?"



Jasper opened the curtains and came in, greeting Prosper in his

stately, charming fashion. "To-night," he said, "we'll show you a

leopardess worth looking at, won't we, Betty? But first you must tell

us about your own experience. You look wonderfully fit, doesn't he,

Betty? And changed. They say the life out there stamps a man, and

they're right. It's taken some of that winged-demon look out of your

face, Prosper, put some soul into it."



He talked and Betty laughed, showing not the slightest evidence of

effort, though the soul Jasper had seen in Prosper's face felt shriveled

for her treachery. Prosper wondered if she could be right in her surmise

about Jasper. The Jew was infinitely capable of dissimulation, but there

was a clarity of look and smile that filled Prosper with doubts. And the

eyes he turned upon his wife were quite as apparently as ever the eyes

of a disappointed man.



So absorbed was he in such observations that he found it intolerably

difficult to fix his attention on the talk. Jasper's fluency seemed to

ripple senselessly about his brain.



"You must consent to one thing, Luck: you must allow me to choose my

own time for announcing the authorship." This found its way partially

to his intelligence and he gave careless assent.



"Oh, whenever you like, as soon as I've had my fun."



"Of course--" Morena was thoughtful for an instant. "How would it do

for me to leave it with Melton, the business manager? Eh? Suppose I

phone him and talk it over a little. He'll want to wait till toward

the end of the run. He's keen; has just the commercial sense of the

born advertiser. Let him choose the moment. Then we can feel sure of

getting the right one. Will you, Luck?"



"If you advise it. You ought to know."



"You see, I'm so confoundedly busy, so many irons in the fire, I might

just miss the psychic moment. I think Melton's the man--I'll call him

up to-night before we leave. Then I won't forget it and I'll be sure

to catch him too."



Again Prosper vaguely agreed and promptly forgot that he had given his

permission. Later, there came an agonizing moment when he would have

given the world to recall his absent, careless words.



With an effort Prosper kept his poise, with an effort, always

increasing, he talked to Jasper while Betty dressed, and kept up his

end at dinner. The muscles round his mouth felt tight and drawn, his

throat was dry. He was glad when they got into the limousine and

started theaterwards. It had been a long time since he had been put

through this particular ordeal and he was out of practice.



They reached the house just as the lights went out. Prosper was amused

at his own intense excitement. "I didn't know I was still such a kid,"

he said, flashing a smile, the first spontaneous one he had given her,

upon Betty who sat beside him in the proscenium box.



The success of his novel had had no such effect upon him as this. It

was entrancing to think that in a few moments the words he had written

would come to him clothed in various voices, the people his brain had

pictured would move before him in flesh and blood, doing what he had

ordained that they should do. When the curtain rose, he had forgotten

his personal problem, had forgotten Betty. He leaned forward, his

elbows on his knees, his chin in his hand.



The scene was of a tropical island, palms, a strip of turquoise sea. A

girl pushed aside the great fronds of ferns and stepped down to the

beach. At her appearance the audience broke into applause. She was a

tall girl, her stained legs and arms bare below her ragged dress, her

black hair hung wild and free about her face and neck. As the daughter

of a native mother and an English father, her beauty had been made to

seem both Saxon and savage. Stained and painted, darkened below the

great gray eyes, Joan with her brows and her classic chin and throat,

Joan with her secret, dangerous eyes and lithe, long body, made an

arresting picture enough against the setting of vivid green and blue.

She moved slowly, deliberately, naturally, and stood, hands on hips,

to watch a ship sail into the turquoise harbor. It was not like

acting, she seemed really to look. She threw back her head and gave a

call. It was the name of her stage brother, but it came from her deep

chest and through her long column of a throat like music. Prosper

brought down his hands on the railing before him, half pushed himself

up, turned a blind look upon Betty, who laid a restraining hand upon

his arm.



He whispered a name, which Betty could not make out, then he sat down,

moistened his lips with his tongue, and sat through the entire first

act and neither moved nor spoke. As the curtain went down he stood up.



"I must go out," he said, and hesitated in the back of the box till

Jasper came over to him with an anxious question. Then he began to

stammer nervously. "Don't tell her, Jasper, don't tell her."



"Tell her what, man? Tell whom?" Jasper gave him a shake. "Don't you

like Jane? Isn't she wonderful?"



"Yes, yes, extraordinary!"



"Made for the part?"



"No." Prosper's face twisted into a smile. "No. The part came second,

she was there first. Morena, promise me you won't tell her who wrote

the play."



"Look here, Prosper, suppose you tell me what's wrong. Have you seen a

ghost?"



Prosper laughed; then, seeing Betty, her face a rigid question, he

struggled to lay hands upon his self-control.



"Something very astonishing has happened, Morena,--one of those

'things not dreamt of in a man's philosophy.' I can't tell you. Have

you arranged for me to meet Jane West?"



"After the show, yes, at supper."



"But not as the author?"



"No. I was waiting for you to tell her that."



"She mustn't know. And--and I can't meet her that way, at supper."

Again he made visible efforts at self-control. "Don't tell Betty what

a fool I am. I'll go out a minute. I'll be all right."



Betty was coming toward them. He gave a painful smile and fled.





Luck Meets An Old Acquaintance Luis Longorio facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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