The fifth heat in the free-for-all was just over. “Lu-Lu” had won, and the crowd on the grand stand and the hangers-on around the track were cheering themselves hoarse. Clear through the noisy clamour shrilled a woman’s cry.
“Ah—I have dropped my scorecard.”
A man in front of her turned.
“I have an extra one, madame. Will you accept it?”
Her small, modishly-gloved hand closed eagerly on it before she lifted her eyes to his face. Both started convulsively. The man turned very pale, but the woman’s ripe-tinted face coloured darkly.
“You?” she faltered.
His lips parted in the coldly-grave smile she remembered and hated.
“You are not glad to see me,” he said calmly, “but that, I suppose, was not to be expected. I did not come here to annoy you. This meeting is as unexpected to me as to you. I had no suspicion that for the last half-hour I had been standing next to my—”
She interrupted him by an imperious gesture. Still clutching the scorecard she half-turned from him. Again he smiled, this time with a tinge of scorn, and shifted his eyes to the track.
None of the people around them had noticed the little by-play. All eyes were on the track, which was being cleared for the first heat of another race. The free-for-all horses were being led away blanketed. The crowd cheered “Lu-Lu” as she went past, a shapeless oddity. The backers of “Mascot”, the rival favourite, looked gloomy.
The woman noticed nothing of all this. She was small, very pretty, still young, and gowned in a quite unmistakable way. She studied the man’s profile furtively. He looked older than when she had seen him last—there were some silver threads gleaming in his close-clipped dark hair and short, pointed beard. Otherwise there was little change in the quiet features and somewhat stern grey eyes. She wondered if he had cared at all.
They had not met for five years. She shut her eyes and looked in on her past. It all came back very vividly. She had been eighteen when they were married—a gay, high-spirited girl and the season’s beauty. He was much older and a quiet, serious student. Her friends had wondered why she married him—sometimes she wondered herself, but she had loved him, or thought so.
The marriage had been an unhappy one. She was fond of society and gaiety, he wanted quiet and seclusion. She Was impulsive and impatient, he deliberate and grave. The strong wills clashed. After two years of an unbearable sort of life they had separated—quietly, and without scandal of any sort. She had wanted a divorce, but he would not agree to that, so she had taken her own independent fortune and gone back to her own way of life. In the following five years she had succeeded in burying all remembrance well out of sight. No one knew if she were satisfied or not; her world was charitable to her and she lived a gay and quite irreproachable life. She wished that she had not come to the races. It was such an irritating encounter. She opened her eyes wearily; the dusty track, the flying horses, the gay dresses of the women on the grandstand, the cloudless blue sky, the brilliant September sunshine, the purple distances all commingled in a glare that made her head ache. Before it all she saw the tall figure by her side, his face turned from her, watching the track intently.
She wondered with a vague curiosity what induced him to come to the races. Such things were not greatly in his line. Evidently their chance meeting had not disturbed him. It was a sign that he did not care. She sighed a little wearily and closed her eyes. When the heat was over he turned to her.
“May I ask how you have been since—since we met last? You are looking extremely well. Has Vanity Fair palled in any degree?”
She was angry at herself and him. Where had her careless society manner and well-bred composure gone? She felt weak and hysterical. What if she should burst into tears before the whole crowd—before those coldly critical grey eyes? She almost hated him.
“No—why should it? I have found it very pleasant—and I have been well—very well. And you?”
He jotted down the score carefully before he replied.
“I? Oh, a book-worm and recluse always leads a placid life. I never cared for excitement, you know. I came down here to attend a sale of some rare editions, and a well-meaning friend dragged me out to see the races. I find it rather interesting, I must confess, much more so than I should have fancied. Sorry I can’t stay until the end. I must go as soon as the free-for-all is over, if not before. I have backed ‘Mascot’; you?”
“‘Lu-Lu'” she answered quickly—it almost seemed defiantly. How horribly unreal it was—this carrying on of small talk, as if they were the merest of chance-met acquaintances! “She belongs to a friend of mine, so I am naturally interested.”
“She and ‘Mascot’ are ties now—both have won two heats. One more for either will decide it. This is a good day for the races. Excuse me.”
He leaned over and brushed a scrap of paper from her grey cloak. She shivered slightly.
“You are cold! This stand is draughty.”
“I am not at all cold, thank you. What race is this?—oh! the three-minute one.”
She bent forward with assumed interest to watch the scoring. She was breathing heavily. There were tears in her eyes—she bit her lips savagely and glared at the track until they were gone.
Presently he spoke again, in the low, even tone demanded by circumstances.
“This is a curious meeting, is it not?—quite a flavor of romance! By-the-way, do you read as many novels as ever?”
She fancied there was mockery in his tone. She remembered how very frivolous he used to consider her novel-reading. Besides, she resented the personal tinge. What right had he?
“Almost as many,” she answered carelessly.
“I was very intolerant, wasn’t I?” he said after a pause. “You thought so—you were right. You have been happier since you—left me?”
“Yes,” she said defiantly, looking straight into his eyes.
“And you do not regret it?”
He bent down a little. His sleeve brushed against her shoulder. Something in his face arrested the answer she meant to make.
“I—I—did not say that,” she murmured faintly.
There was a burst of cheering. The free-for-all horses were being brought out for the sixth heat. She turned away to watch them. The scoring began, and seemed likely to have no end. She was tired of it all. It didn’t matter a pin to her whether “Lu-Lu” or “Mascot” won. What did matter! Had Vanity Fair after all been a satisfying exchange for love? He had loved her once, and they had been happy at first. She had never before said, even in her own heart: “I am sorry,” but—suddenly, she felt his hand on her shoulder, and looked up. Their eyes met. He stooped and said almost in a whisper:
“Will you come back to me?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered breathlessly, as one half-fascinated.
“We were both to blame—but I the most. I was too hard on you—I ought to have made more allowance. We are wiser now both of us. Come back to me—my wife.”
His tone was cold and his face expressionless. It was on her lips to cry out “No,” passionately.
But the slender, scholarly hand on her shoulder was trembling with the intensity of his repressed emotion. He did care, then. A wild caprice flashed into her brain. She sprang up.
“See,” she cried, “they’re off now. This heat will probably decide the race. If ‘Lu-Lu’ wins I will not go back to you, if ‘Mascot’ does I will. That is my decision.”
He turned paler, but bowed in assent. He knew by bitter experience how unchangeable her whims were, how obstinately she clung to even the most absurd.
She leaned forward breathlessly. The crowd hung silently on the track. “Lu-Lu” and “Mascot” were neck and neck, getting in splendid work. Half-way round the course “Lu-Lu” forged half a neck ahead, and her backers went mad. But one woman dropped her head in her hands and dared look no more. One man with white face and set lips watched the track unswervingly.
Again “Mascot” crawled up, inch by inch. They were on the home stretch, they were equal, the cheering broke out, then silence, then another terrific burst, shouts, yells and clappings—”Mascot” had won the free-for-all. In the front row a woman stood up, swayed and shaken as a leaf in the wind. She straightened her scarlet hat and readjusted her veil unsteadily. There was a smile on her lips and tears in her eyes. No one noticed her. A man beside her drew her hand through his arm in a quiet proprietary fashion. They left the grand stand together.
Source: The Literature Network
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