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Big Shot

Look what Hollywood did to ‘Big Shot’

You’ve seen the movie on Cinema del popolo @ The Great Flamarion. Now read the story on which it is based. Illustrations are from the movie

Big Shot
By Vicki Baum
BRANDT, THE SHARPSHOOTER, sat in his van, playing a game of checkers with himself. That was how he always spent the half-hour preceding his appearance. The game soothed him and steadied his hands. He raised his head irritably as the door was pulled open, and the stable smell and circus noises came surging in. “What’s wrong?” he asked, unfriendly. “An accident,” stammered the stable master. “They want you.” Brandt jumped up. “Rodini—” the stable master said. “A fall—?” asked Brandt. “Broke his neck. Killed on the spot. Please come—” “He drank too much,” said Brandt.

Slowly he put on his green dress coat. “The old man knows I shouldn’t be disturbed before I go on,” he said. The stable master stood waiting at the open door. “It’s Sultan,” he said in a low voice. “Broke his foreleg.” There were tears in his eyes. Now Brandt’s face turned white. “It’s a shame!” he murmured. He reached for his glittering pistol case, which was decorated in the loud, circus fashion. On second thought, he turned from the case to his shabby, travel-worn valise, from which he drew an old forty-five. “Let’s go,” he said. Brandt hurried through the long tent that housed the cages. Half of it had been partitioned off with canvas to accommodate the horses’ stalls. Sultan stood in his box, which was roped off from the vacant one adjoining. A small silent group had gathered about the injured animal. No sound came from him — only his head drooped low. Lenz, the director, turned and came over to Brandt. “Will you do Sultan the honor, “I beg you—” he murmured. The group made way for Brandt. From a distant stall a colt neighed loudly and anxiously. Still shining with the sweat of his performance, Sultan stood on three legs. His eyes were sad as though filmed with dust. It was deadly quiet. Brandt put his arms about the horse’s neck and whispered a few words into his ear. He felt for the spot behind the ear, and while his left hand caressed the animal, he pulled the trigger. There was a smothered report, a shudder ran over Sultan’s skin and he collapsed. The stable hands put a blanket over the dead horse. Brandt stood there a moment longer, pensive, then he turned to go. “You’ve got fifteen minutes yet,” said the old man. In the big tent they were playing the waltz, accompanying the trapeze feats of the queen of the air. The revolver still hung from Brandt’s right hand as he approached the living quarters. Seeing shadowy forms moving on the steps of Rodini’s van, he hesitated a moment, then walked toward them. As he pushed his way through the murmuring crowd, a small figure that had been cowering on the steps rose up before him. It was Ria, Rodini’s young daughter. “I don’t want you to go in,” she said softly but with vehemence. Brandt looked at her in surprise. Her eyes were hot, dry, tearless. “You didn’t like Papa, and he didn’t like you,” she said, barring the way with her arm. She looked about at the people surrounding the van—the canvasmen, the stableboys, the menagerie men. “It’s not true — Papa wasn’t drunk,” she cried. Brandt retreated two steps and bowed. “I’m sorry,” he murmured and moved from the glare of the arc lights into the dense shadow between the vans.

THEY left Budapest for Vienna, where they pitched their tent on a meadow of the Prater. Young Lenz, the director’s son, took over the dead equestrian’s act. Brandt didn’t see Ria again until one morning several weeks later when he entered the ring for some practice. A sunbeam, darting through a chink in the canvas, struck the edge of the ring.  Ria sat crouched, one leg tucked under her; Brandt remembered that this was how he had always seen her—crouching on the edge of the ring, her eyes following her father at his bareback practice. The place was empty except for a few women—wives of the performers, who sat chatting, knitting and watching the artists at their morning workout. Brandt remembered that Ria had no mother. She looked very small and lonely, squatting there at the ring, belonging to no one. She didn’t once stir as he went about his shooting, but he could feel her eyes following his every movement. When he had finished, arranged his pistols in their case and was about to leave, he stopped for a moment beside her. “How are you?” he asked. She didn’t answer but merely looked at him. He was startled to see that, though her lips were set tight, she was weeping. “Why are you crying?” he asked her. Her only answer was a shake of the head. “Are you crying about your father?” “No, about myself,” she answered now. Brandt was at a loss for words. “The old man doesn’t want to take me along anymore,” she added. Brandt considered this for a moment before he asked: “Can’t you ride?” She shook her head again, more vehemently this time. “I’m afraid,” she said at last. He couldn’t suppress a smile. “Well, you’re not a liar, at any rate,” he said and passed his hand over her hair. It was the same caress with which he sometimes gripped the mane of a horse or caressed a young lion. She ducked under the touch of his steady hand. “I can’t do anything,” she said, looking him straight in the face for the first time. “Where will you go?” he inquired absent-mindedly. “Nowhere. I have no one,” she answered. It sounded hopeless, yet she smiled as she said it. Brandt walked on a step or two, then turned back to her. “If you like it,” he said, “I could break you in for my act.” This time he walked off quickly. She gazed wide-eyed after his retreating figure. Brandt, the sharpshooter, was a Swiss. He came of a well-known family, and had joined the circus via his rifle club, because they had offered him more money than he had ever dreamed of earning. He was a lone wolf. The others thought him snooty; they laughed about him and respected him at the same time. He loved children and animals, and he was a good chess player. He was forty-one when he began training Ria for his act. At first he gave her only the simplest of tasks. She followed him into the ring; he threw her his hat and cloak and she had to learn to catch them in mid-air. She handed him his pistol case, and the rifle he used to shoot the ace of hearts from the card. She had to act a little pantomime of surprise, when he shot doublettes. The trouble was that she was afraid of shooting and flinched at every report. It took him three months to get her to the point where she could keep her eyelids from twitching when he fired. The only thing that really seemed important to her was the costume she got for the act—silk tights and a close-fitting blue dress coat. She lingered in front of the mirror, admiring herself, till Brandt shouted at her. In the circus, children and young animals are sacred. They are never beaten. But Brandt did beat Ria. He beat her three times; afterward he sat in his van and was ashamed of himself. Discipline, control, self-command—these were the most important things in his life. Ria was the one person who had ever made him lose control of himself. He had befriended her through a kind of reluctant compassion. At the end of two months, he couldn’t be without her any more. Her slender figure, her flying hair, her lizard-like suppleness in the green dress suit—even her faults—he needed them all if his hands were to be steady. Steady hands—the be-all and end-all of his art. He never drank; he slept eight hours by the clock; he walked seven miles every day; his food was measured out by scale; his breathing exercises were a ceremonial rite. When Ria made her first appearance with him, he missed a doublette fired through a mirror. Pale, teeth clenched, he repeated the shot—this time successfully. Ria stood rigid beside the mirror; her face was like wood with the effort to keep from twitching. He was furious with her, yet he felt sorry for her. “We’ll wait two weeks before going ahead,” he told her. She sighed, in relief.

EVERY MORNING they worked in the ring. She had to practice holding a candle, whose flame he shot away. This time she didn’t scream, but held her breath. She was so terror-stricken that she dared not even tremble. “Good work,” said Brandt. He seemed abstracted, but was in reality more agitated than she. He took her to town, and bought her a hat with a cluster of artificial cherries about which she had been babbling for days. The old man’s mouth twisted into a crooked smile as she came tripping along in her finery, with the sharpshooter in tow. “Look out for yourself, Brandt,” he remarked a few days later. “In what way?” inquired Brandt stiffly. “In every way,” answered the director mysteriously. Brandt went to his van and played a game of checkers with himself. The act was built up. Ria had to hold the card from which he shot the ace of hearts. She had to stand against a wall and he shot red and green bulbs to the left and right of her; they broke into smithereens, with a bang. He bought her a second costume—a glittering evening gown with a long train. That was in Dresden. A year later he married her just before the circus left for South America. Their picture appeared in the newspapers, and the old man gave them a wonderful Saint Bernard puppy.  Ria, who had been sleeping with the other children, moved into Brandt’s van. Otherwise, things were much as they had been before. On the boat, they all practiced on the upper deck. The other passengers crowded around and admired them. Ria felt something like pride in her husband. He was better class than the others. He didn’t really belong in a circus. “You don’t belong in a circus,” she told him that night, as she sat at the mirror in their hot little stateroom, combing her unruly hair. “Where else?” Brandt asked, smiling. She shrugged. He always watched her when she dressed and undressed and he never let her out of his sight on deck. She sometimes had the feeling that he even watched her while she slept. “You shouldn’t look at me like that all the time,” she said impatiently. Brandt turned away and busied himself with his old valise. “It’s been even worse since we are married,” he said without looking at her. “What’s been worse?” she asked his reflection in the mirror. “Nothing—” he ended the conversation. At night he lay awake, heard the waves lapping against the ship’s side and listened to Ria’s breathing. His nightly eight hours had long been a thing of the past, and no breathing exercises could still the tumultuous beating of his heart. His love for Ria was reluctant, as his compassion had been. He had married her to calm himself. Now his passion had grown beyond his control. He switched on the light and thrust his hands out before him, fingers outspread. They didn’t even look like his own hands anymore. He watched them threateningly, daring them to shake. They seemed steady enough. Sighing, he turned the lights off again.

IN MEXICO CITY, where they gave their first performance, he had an attack of stage fright. With Ria standing between the red and green bulbs, smiling at him, his pistol hand dropped to his side. She turned white under the rouge. He took aim three times before he fired. He had missed one of the six bulbs. The act didn’t go over very well. Business was bad. Heavy showers had mired the grounds and kept people away. The Mexicans didn’t care much for Brandt’s cold formality of style. “This rain’s driving me mad,” he told the old man. Lenz had worries of his own and was in no amiable mood. He barely listened. “It comes drumming down on the roof all night,” complained Brandt. “I can’t sleep.” At this, the old man looked him over. “You don’t seem well,” he said. “Anything wrong?” “I want to move to the hotel—” “At your own expense,” the director answered. They went to the hotel and Ria discovered to her amazement that he had taken two separate rooms. It was a third-rate hotel and the rooms were tiny, but she was delighted. She spent hours flirting with the mirror, trying on shawls and Mexican combs. It was the first time in her life that she had a room to herself. When she awakened at six next morning, Brandt was standing at the foot of her bed. Pretending to be still asleep, she peered at him from under her lashes. She didn’t know what to make of the expression on his face. He looked like a different man. She smiled mockingly. She was still rather afraid of him and his guns and rifles, but by this time she knew her power over him. She knew what she wanted. To leave the circus. To play in the music halls, in the big cities where men wore dress clothes and women evening wraps, and the program was changed every month. “You’ve got to have a different type of act for the music halls,” her husband informed her. “You’ve got to give them more, else you’ll just be a filler and never earn any money. You’ve got to take risks in the music halls—and you’re afraid.” “I’m not afraid,” said Ria. “I want to get away from this. I can’t stand the sight of sawdust any longer, or the smell of wild beasts. You don’t belong in a circus. You’re a big shot.” “A big shot can’t afford to be in love with his wife,” he answered gravely. “It’s bad for his work.” She shrugged and gave him a kiss.

THE WINTER GARDEN IN BERLIN. First appearance of Brandt, the sharpshooter. Full-dressed society in the boxes. Cheerfully expectant bourgeois in the orchestra. Cigarette smoke rising to the skylights, to the ceiling and its thousand stars made of electrical bulbs. The band playing L’Heure Bleue. Across the stage a girl carries a sign, bearing the number 8. Curtain. The stage is dark, but for the tiny glowing tips of two lighted cigarettes. Brandt turns the switch of a lamp—or rather he pretends to do so, while the electrician high up works the spotlights. Now the audience is able to see the stage. A smartly furnished room. Brandt is a gentleman in dress clothes and evening cloak, slightly gray at the temples. He seems to be returning from a party with his wife, and he is a little tipsy. He goes to his liquor case and pours himself a glass of cognac. His wife—a beautiful young woman in an iridescent evening gown—warns him smilingly. He has had enough. He drinks, and pours himself a second glass. She takes it from him and goes to the other side of the stage. He draws a revolver from his pocket and shoots the glass from her hand. Bang! Still smiling, the woman goes back to the table and nonchalantly lights a cigarette. He shoots the cigarette from her hand. She takes another—he shoots it from her mouth. She rises with a little show of impatience, picks up her silver handbag from the table and produces out of it lipstick and mirror. A single bullet shoots lipstick and mirror from before her face. He turns to the wall mirror, smooths his grizzled hair and, as she stoops to adjust her stocking, he shoots the rosette from her garter. The audience holds its breath. It looks very dangerous, even more so as the man is drunk. He reels as he shoots, leaning against table edges for support. The woman doesn’t stand still for a second; she seems to be on the move constantly. It is a mystery how she emerges unhurt from the hail of bullets. There’s something uncanny about it—as if the rifles and revolvers and pistols were going off by themselves—as if those two on the stage were invulnerable and infallible as automatons. Finally there is no object within sight left unshattered. The audience is in an uproar, women cover their eyes, men rise from their seats as the music comes to an abrupt halt, leaving only the big drum rolling. The woman pauses for a second at the door and throws the man a mocking good-night kiss. A wreath of nine lilies binds her hair—artificial flowers, glittering under the spotlight. Deliberately the sharpshooter takes aim, deliberately shoots away one flower after another. The woman smiles at him in innocent surprise or amusement. As the last flower drops away, the orchestra breaks once more into the tango and the audience into applause. Curtain. They had to take ten curtain calls, hand in hand. Phenomenal success. “I wonder if she’s really his wife,” said a gentleman in one of the boxes. “Nonsense!” replied his lady. “You can see she’s his daughter.” They had their big success and began traveling from one music hall to another, earning lots of money and from that time on a curious change took place in Brandt. Formerly it was Ria who had been terrified at the prospect of the evening. Now it was he who suffered an attack of nearly unbearable nervousness before each performance. The secret of their act lay in its timing. Although Ria seemed to be moving carelessly, incessantly, about the stage, the intervals when she stood still to give him time for the shot had been gauged to the hundredth part of a second. But he never felt sure that he could depend on her. He didn’t trust her. She walked about as though she didn’t realize how dangerous their act was. She reminded him of her father—Rodini, the dead equestrian. He too had moved about in this heedless fashion, had drunk too much, had finished with a broken neck. More and more Brandt came to feel that all the responsibility lay on his shoulders. He knew that the faintest lapse of vigilance on his part might result in his wife’s injury or even death. And he loved her. He loved her.
IT WAS IN LONDON on the last day of their engagement that Ria and Guy met for the first time. While Brandt went to the office for their final week’s check, she was to supervise the loading of their props. Hatless, coat collar turned up, Guy came from the street toward the wide doorway where she stood, her arms laden with bundles. Seeing that she was about to drop the pistol case, he hurried forward to relieve her of it. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m Guy,” said he. “I’m the fellow everyone despises, because I can’t do anything but sing.” “I know your name from the billboards,” she replied. “You’re very famous.” He laughed, obviously flattered. “Don’t you believe it,” he said. “It’s just publicity.” He thrust his hand into his pocket and brought it out empty. “Can you let me have a cigarette?” “I’m sorry—I don’t smoke,” she said. He looked at her; she added an explanation: “My husband says it’s bad for the nerves.” “Of course it is. Has your husband no vices?” “He’s a sharpshooter,” said Ria, as though this fact accounted for the absence of all vices. “Too bad—I mean, that he has none. Or—who knows?—maybe it’s so much the better.” He spoke rapidly; she had difficulty in understanding him.  “You are French?” she asked. With the pistol case clutched under his arm, he took two more bundles from her and moved as though to enter the theater. “No,” she protested hastily. He paused and eyed her reproachfully. “Do you mean to imply that you’re not coming, but going?” She nodded, smiling. His hair was a gleaming black helmet and his mouth was insolent. “We’re off to Dublin,” she said. “The same old story. You meet, you part. It might have been a glorious month.” “Here’s my husband,” said Ria. “Brandt, this is Monsieur Guy.” “Delighted,” said Brandt and made his stiff bow. “I’m heartbroken that we’re not on the same bill,” Guy replied politely. “I heard marvels about your act in Milan.” “We’re booked for Monte Carlo in February,” said Ria. It sounded as though she were giving him a secret rendezvous, and he smiled at her with an impudent little twinkle. “Maybe we’ll have better luck another time.” He bowed to Brandt, held Ria’s hand in his for a second before kissing it, and vanished through the doorway. “Playboy—” said Brandt, looking after him.

THE LAST DAY of any music-hall engagement is a day of flurry and turmoil. People come, people go. Luggage must be loaded or unloaded. Props must be transported, and trains made. Everyone is hysterical, and many tricks go wrong. Ria and Guy met twice again amid the hurly-burly of such a final day. She and Brandt reached Naples as he was leaving. In Bucharest, it was the other way round. They exchanged a few words, they fell silent, they gazed at each other. She felt as though they had given each other some secret promise. She thought of him constantly. Often she would sit at her mirror, scrutinizing herself, wondering whether she were pretty enough for him. She imagined him always surrounded by women, a champagne glass in his hand. She might have seen some such billposter as a child. She was no longer bored. She sang now and then, in a small, untrained voice. Brandt watched his wife. Their act went smoothly in those months. He slept eight hours by the clock, measured his food on the scales, walked seven miles, did his breathing exercises and played checkers with himself. She was composed and timed her movements to the fraction of a second for his shots. In Budapest, Guy was finally billed on the same program with them. It was eleven months since she had first seen him. “I finally managed to shove things around so I could see you every day,” said Guy, when she arrived at the Orpheum that first morning to unpack. She looked into his handsome, insolent face. “You’re lying,” she said, defenceless against him. “Yes—but lies like that are so much prettier than the truth,” he replied imperturbably. Brandt approached, with the pistol case under his arm. “I’ve been telling madame how happy I am to be able to see your act at last.” “It was in this city that my father had his accident,” said Ria, with an absent smile. The program was booked for a month. Guy was going to Prague after that, and Brandt to Milan. The shortness of their time together lent their love affair an indescribable sweetness and intensity. For the first time, Brandt’s wife realized how dead her life had hitherto been. Her skin was hungry to be touched, her hands to caress, her Gypsy blood to know fulfillment. Guy rented a little room, and there they met. It was dangerous, but maybe they loved the danger without knowing it. Two weeks went by, and Brandt seemed to have no suspicion of what was going on. Guy’s act was in the first half of the program; then came the intermission; Brandt’s act was Number 8. There was half an hour between his appearance and hers—the half hour when Brandt played checkers with himself to steady his hands. Rial always stood in the wings while Guy sang. Dressed in a short-sleeved sweater and the peaked cap of the Parisian apache, he sang French couplets, entertained the audience in amusing broken Hungarian, played a tune on the piano, danced a few steps and made impudent remarks to the front rows. While the curtain came down and the applause crackled, he stood beside Ria for a moment, breathing heavily and perspiring like any other performer. “Was it all right?” he would ask breathlessly, dabbing powder over his face before running out to take his bow. Ria felt herself floating aloft like a small red balloon —she was so light, so taut with love. Before the intermission she slipped back to her dressing-room, where she found her husband waiting. Conscientiously she prepared for her own number. All the time she was on the stage, she could see from the corner of her eye the box where Guy sat in a frenzy of nervousness. It delighted her that he should be suffering torments of anxiety each evening on her account. She herself had grown so used to the act by now that everything went mechanically, and she had long since grown oblivious to her danger. New things had entered her life, things more important than the big number. Clandestine drives in Guy’s car, little meals in out-of-the-way restaurants, nocturnal excursions while Brandt slept. It was the veriest trifle which first betrayed her. They had all been summoned to a rehearsal for a new orchestra leader, his predecessor having abandoned the Orpheum in a sudden fit of temper. They stood around in attitudes of boredom, indicated the tempo of their acts, and wrangled a little when the new man didn’t seem to understand. Guy, leaning against the proscenium arch, was smoking a cigarette, with the sign that forbade it right next to him. “Stupid business,” he remarked to Brandt, who had just arrived to rehearse. Ria paused for a moment beside him—she couldn’t for the life of her help it. “Wouldn’t do to get the man nervous,” replied Brandt. Ria caught sight of a white thread on the dark blue cloth of Guy’s suit. Unconsciously she removed it. A mere nothing. A little white thread. A little unconscious movement. But it held everything—love, tenderness, possession, intimacy. Brandt’s face turned gray, two minutes later—after he had absorbed the significance of all this. It was the third week—the week before the last of their love. Their hearts were torn at the thought of parting, and they grew careless. Brandt entered his wife’s room one morning and kissed her hair. “How is it you smell of cigarettes?” he asked without looking at her. Her lips became stiff and white. “I smoked one on the sly,” she whispered. That evening she sent a note to Guy’s dressing-room: “Don’t come to the box tonight. Danger.” She herself didn’t dare stand in the wings as usual during his act. But Guy was on the stage as she passed on Brandt’s arm in her evening cloak, ready for the number. She knew he was suffering agony of dread for her the whole time she was on the stage, under the crackling volley of Brandt’s unerring shots. “I want to go to the cafe,” Brandt said when she had changed her clothes. This was as extraordinary as had been his kiss that morning. The artists were in the habit of meeting at the cafe after the performance and there, joined by a few music-hall enthusiasts, they, would sit around smoking, drinking strong coffee and playing cards. Brandt’s entrance, with his wife on his arm, caused a minor sensation. Ria had been hoping that Guy wouldn’t be there, but he was. Brandt seated himself at the singer’s table, ordered some coffee and joined monosyllabically in the shoptalk. “Can you let me have a cigarette?” he asked abruptly. Guy proffered his case. Ria flamed into white-hot terror. Brandt never smoked. “Perfumed?” he asked and inhaled the fumes carefully. “English brand,” answered Guy. “Aha—” said Brandt. Ten minutes later they took a taxi home. Brandt spoke no word. “Does he know everything or nothing?” Ria thought incessantly.


GUY WAITED FOR RIA in the rented room but she didn’t come. He paced restlessly back and forth, stared at the old-fashioned carpet, the tasteless furniture, drank cognac, and waited. She didn’t come. At five he left the house and went to a drugstore to telephone the hotel. “Madame Brandt cannot come to the phone,” the operator answered. He walked along the bank of the Danube, his fear growing and growing. He hadn’t known till that moment that he really loved Ria. “Only an idiot would start anything with a sharpshooter’s wife,” he thought furiously. But that didn’t help much. He dawdled about outside Ria’s hotel. It was an hour before curtain time when he saw her pass through the revolving door and enter a taxi with Brandt. He didn’t know whether she had seen him, but he was almost certain that Brandt had. He tooka taxi and followed them to the Orpheum. He couldn’t bear the suspense any longer. He must go to Ria’s dressing room. The first number was a trained dog-act, and the props for the trick animals were being set up. Guy hurried across the narrow stage toward the corridor, along which lay the women’s dressing-rooms. As he turned into the passage, he almost ran into Li, a member of the Chinese acrobatic troupe. Li stood looking after him as he made his way toward Ria’s dressing-room. “Better no go see lady,” he called softly. Guy turned quickly. The Chinese winked and made a brief negative movement of the head. Guy stood irresolute for a second, then thanked him and left the corridor. The band played the overture, Poet and Peasant, with all its might. He tried to get dressed, to concentrate on his number. “I’m boiling in hot oil,” he thought, making an unsuccessful attempt to laugh at himself. The hoarse voice of the loud-speaker in the corner announced that he should get ready for his entrance. There was a knock at the door, and Li slipped in, dressed in his Chinese costume. “Me postman,” he smiled, placed a note on the make-up table and vanished. “Brandt knows everything. He’s going to shoot me,” read Guy. “Monsieur Guy on the stage,” called the loud-speaker. Automatically he obeyed the summons. Ria wasn’t standing in the wings while he sang. How he got through the number he never knew. “I must notify the police,” he kept thinking. “I must see the manager. They’ll have to cancel the act.” He bowed to the applause, not knowing that he bowed. In his make-up and apache costume, he ran to Brandt’s dressing-room and entered without knocking. He and Brandt were headliners on the bill, and had dressing-rooms to themselves. Brandt was in his shirt sleeves, but otherwise ready to go on. He was playing checkers. “Oh—,” he said, as Guy appeared before him. Everything looked so peaceful, so commonplace, that Ria’s note suddenly seemed insane and impossible. “You wanted to say something?” asked Brandt. He got up and slipped into his coat. “I’m worried about Ria,” stammered Guy. “That’s nice of you,” answered Brandt with the trace of a smile. Despite all the make-up on his face, he looked old and gray. “I won’t let you go on—” said Guy, stepping close to him. “You won’t—won’t you?” Brandt replied. Suddenly there was an old revolver in his hand. It was this civilian weapon, lacking any hint of the splendour of the circus pistols, that turned Guy numb with fear. “Are you trying to inform me that you love my wife?” he heard Brandt asking. “No!” shouted Guy. “I’m not going to let you hurt Ria!” Brandt seemed to consider that for a moment before he answered: “I’m a good marksman as long as I’m not upset. Ria has always been safe with me. What will happen today, I don’t know.” He stretched out his hands, and Guy saw that they were trembling and quivering as if shaken by a storm. With a sudden startling clarity he remembered his first meeting with Ria. In the doorway of the Hippodrome in London. She had been wearing a mouse-gray coat. He had started an adventure like hundreds of others; he hadn’t known it would turn out to be a matter of life and death. “I didn’t know it would be a matter of life and death,” he said softly. Brandt stepped close to him. Guy could hear his labored breath. “If you had known, you’d have kept your hands off— would you?” he said menacingly. “I don’t know,” said Guy. “Maybe not, after all.” “Maybe—maybe not—that’s like you and your kind,” cried Brandt. “No backbone— no discipline. You destroy a marriage— you take another man’s wife whom you don’t even love—you don’t even know what it is: love. And then you squirm at a revolver.” Guy tried to hold himself steady. It was all a bad dream. He thought of Ria again, almost wonderingly. “It would be tasteless, don’t you think, for me to assure you that I do love your wife? But I won’t have any harm come to her. I’m going for the police,” he said and turned toward the door with a chilly feeling in his spine, as if he would get a bullet into it the moment he turned his back. “Wait—just a moment,” said Brandt behind him. Guy stopped short, as at a command. Facing about, he perceived a ghostly smile on Brandt’s painted face. “If you want to ensure Ria’s safety, there’s a better way than the police,” the sharpshooter said. Guy waited. “I ‘m an old-fashioned man,” said Brandt. “I want satisfaction. Give it to me, and I’ll do my best not to hit Ria.” “What kind of satisfaction?” murmured Guy, terrified. “The usual thing—duel,” answered Brandt. “Number 6 on the stage,” announced the loud-speaker in the corner of the room. “A duel with a sharpshooter! That’s a farce !”  murmured Guy. Brandt waited without saying anything. The silence grew more and more oppressive. “That’s a hangman’s joke!” said Guy hoarsely. Brandt shrugged his shoulders. “I’d at least like to know that my wife hasn’t betrayed me for a coward,” he said. “Very well,” Guy said. “When and where?” “After my act. In the court behind the theater. We won’t need any seconds. I’ll give you the first shot. Have you a gun?” “No,” said Guy. He felt as though he were coming out of a faint. “I’ll take care of that,” said Brandt. “And now—if you’ll leave me. I need quiet before I go on.” Guy left him standing at the dressing table, his tall lean figure reflected three times in the mirror. Guy wrote three hasty letters and put them on his dressing table before he went to the box. A note for Ria he sent to her dressing-room by Li: “Don’t worry—nothing’s going to happen to you.” The farewell note to his mother in Normandy and another to a friend. Outside, they were playing the tango. As he sped across the stage to reach the auditorium, Brandt and Ria were j u s t about to go on. The first shot rang out as he opened the door of the box. He sat down at the front and smiled at Ria. He was amazed at himself. He felt tranquil and untroubled, almost buoyant. He loved Ria, and he was going to pay for his love. “You don’t even feel a bullet through your heart,” he thought. “You’re dead before you know it. There are worse ways of taking your leave.” By the time the second shot rang out, he had forgotten himself and had eyes only for the stage. The Heure Bleue. Ria in her evening gown with the train. The second cigarette. The lipstick. Nothing had happened to her. She moved about like one in a dream, too slowly. Brandt hesitated before firing. The electrician couldn’t time his spotlights properly—the white circles of light were always someplace where Ria wasn’t. A kind of humming, breathless hush hung over the house, as if they all sensed the danger. The marksman and his target were both so strangely rigid. Brandt suddenly remembered that he was supposed to be drunk. He staggered immoderately, but no one laughed. He fired at the flowers she was taking from her bosom—and missed. A woman in the audience screamed. He flung the pistol away and took another; he fired and missed. His hands were trembling as he picked up another pistol. Ria dropped the flowers, and the third shot missed. He fired at the flowers as they fell to the floor, and hit them. Applause. The audience decided it was a trick. The act went on amid its hail-fire of bullets. Abruptly the tango stopped. Only the big drum was rolling. The woman stood in the doorway, tossing her husband her ironical good-night kiss. He went to the table, laid his pistol in the case and took out an old worn revolver. Ria’s little cry went unnoticed by the audience, but Guy heard it. She stood motionless in the doorway, and the artificial lilies in her hair quivered beyond control. Guy rose, his hands clenched convulsively over the rail. Ria lifted her eyes to his, and thus she stood, waiting for the shots. One. Two. Three. After the third shot, Brandt returned to the table and leaned against it for a moment, as though his knees were giving way under him. “If they’d only drop the curtain now, everything would be all right,” thought Guy. “No, it wouldn’t,” he thought simultaneously. “The man’s mad. He’d shoot in any case.” Brandt raised the revolver again, supported it by his outstretched left arm. A man in the gallery shouted something —an amateur marksman, perhaps, teasing him. Five shots followed in rapid succession. One lily was left trembling in the woman’s hair. She stood in the white spotlight, the lily trembling as though it were alive. But the woman seemed lifeless, carved in wood with the music-hall smile on her lips. Suddenly Brandt threw the revolver onto the table, made a little gesture of resignation and walked off. Two seconds later the curtain came down and a bewildered, uneasy applause began to patter. The orchestra broke into the tango. Guy ran backstage. “My turn now,” he thought, and was almost amused,

THE COURT of the Orpheum is surrounded by high party walls. A few forlorn ivy vines, straggling up one wall, bear witness to someone’s attempt at decoration. Ashcans and litter occupy the corners—the fantastic litter spewed forth by the stage of a music hall. The wide door leading backstage, through which the huge cages and other props are moved in and out, is locked. “Positively No Admittance,” reads the sign under the glare of two arc lights. “It’s bright enough,” said Brandt, and made a chalk mark at the place where Guy was to stand. Away up, the sky was like the lid over a box. “You give me your word of honor that you’ll be good to Ria?” said Guy, as Brandt handed him the loaded revolver. Brandt looked into his face scrutinizingly. “You’re a couple of fools,” he said brusquely, turned away and walked to his ownchalk mark. Guy examined the revolver. “I once shot a horse with it,” Brandt called over. This was not at all like a duel; it was more like a rehearsal. “You have to aim a little higher,” Brandt called when he saw how awkwardly Guy handled the revolver. Guy aimed higher. He was surprised that he felt no fear. “Now,” he said. He got a little kickback as he shot; the smell of powder tickled his nostrils; and Brandt stood opposite, laughing. The light from the lamps was white, yet dreary. Brandt raised his arm and fired into the air. Guy stood there, waiting for something that didn’t come. Brandt left his place and approached him.” “Is Ria worth dying for?” he asked when they were standing face to face. Guy’s breath was coming in huge, vehement gulps. “Yes!” he cried. “Yes!” He was alive. Ria was alive too. “Go and comfort her,” said Brandt. Guy motioned Brandt to precede him as they reached the little side door, but Brandt pushed him in. On the stage, the musical clowns were doing their turn now, and monstrous noises blared from a huge trombone. Guy walked faster and faster till he reached the door of Ria’s dressing-room. No one heard the shot which Brandt fired from the old revolver against himself. They didn’t find him until after the performance when they were taking the trained seals out into the court. He was lying near the vines, and he looked contented.

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