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Pat Ball by A. A. Milne

 

"You'll play tennis?" said my hostess absently. "That's right. Let me introduce you to Miss—er—urn."

"Oh, we've met before," smiled Miss—I've forgotten the name again now.

"Thank you," I said gratefully. I thought it was extremely nice of her to remember me. Probably I had spilt lemonade over her at a dance, and in some way the incident had fixed itself in her mind. We do these little things, you know, and think nothing of them at the moment, but all the time—

"Smooth," said a voice.

I looked up and found that a pair of opponents had mysteriously appeared, and that my partner was leading the way on to the court.

"I'll take the right-hand side, if you don't mind," she announced. "Oh, and what about apologizing?" she went on. "Shall we do it after every stroke, or at the end of each game, or when we say good-bye, or never? I get so tired of saying 'sorry.'"

"Oh, but we shan't want to apologize; I'm sure we're going to get on beautifully together."

"I suppose you've played a lot this summer?"

"No, not at all yet, but I'm feeling rather strong, and I've got a new racket. One way and another, I expect to play a very powerful game."

Our male opponent served. He had what I should call a nasty swift service. The first ball rose very suddenly and took my partner on the side of the head. ("Sorry," she apologized. "It's all right," I said magnanimously.) I returned the next into the net; the third clean bowled my partner; and off the last I was caught in the slips. (ONE, LOVE.)

"Will you serve?" said Miss—I wish I could remember her surname. Her Christian name was Hope or Charity or something like that; I know, when I heard it, I thought it was just as well. If I might call her Miss Hope for this once? Thank you.

"Will you serve?" said Miss Hope.

In the right-hand court I use the American service, which means that I never know till the last moment which side of the racket is going to hit the ball. On this occasion it was a dead heat—that is to say, I got it in between with the wood; and the ball sailed away over beds and beds of the most beautiful flowers.

"Oh, is THAT the American service?" said Miss Hope, much interested.

"South American," I explained. "Down in Peru they never use anything else."

In the left-hand court I employ the ordinary Hampstead Smash into the bottom of the net. After four Hampstead Smashes and four Peruvian Teasers (LOVE, TWO) I felt that another explanation was called for.

"I've got a new racket I've never used before," I said. "My old one is being pressed; it went to the shop yesterday to have the creases taken out. Don't you find that with a new racket you—er—exactly."

In the third game we not only got the ball over but kept it between the white lines on several occasions—though not so often as our opponents (THREE, LOVE); and in the fourth game Miss Hope served gentle lobs, while I, at her request, stood close up to the net and defended myself with my racket. I warded off the first two shots amidst applause (THIRTY, LOVE), and dodged the next three (THIRTY, FORTY), but the last one was too quick for me and won the coco-nut with some ease. (GAME. LOVE, FOUR.)

"It's all right, thanks," I said to my partner; "it really doesn't hurt a bit. Now then, let's buck up and play a simply dashing game."

Miss Hope excelled herself in that fifth game, but I was still unable to find a length. To be more accurate, I was unable to find a shortness—my long game was admirably strong and lofty.

"Are you musical?" said my partner at the end of it. (FIVE, LOVE.) She had been very talkative all through.

"Come, come," I said impatiently, "you don't want a song at this very moment. Surely you can wait till the end of the set?"

"Oh, I was only just wondering."

"I quite see your point. You feel that Nature always compensates us in some way, and that as—"

"Oh, no!" said Miss Hope in great confusion. "I didn't mean that at all."

She must have meant it. You don't talk to people about singing in the middle of a game of tennis; certainly not to comparative strangers who have only spilt lemonade over your frock once before. No, no. It was an insult, and it nerved me to a great effort. I discarded—for it was my serve—the Hampstead Smash; I discarded the Peruvian Teaser. Instead, I served two Piccadilly Benders from the right-hand court and two Westminster Welts from the left-hand. The Piccadilly Bender is my own invention. It can only be served from the one court, and it must have a wind against it. You deliver it with your back to the net, which makes the striker think that you have either forgotten all about the game, or else are apologizing to the spectators for your previous exhibition. Then with a violent contortion you slue your body round and serve, whereupon your opponent perceives that you ARE playing, and that it is just one more ordinary fault into the wrong court. So she calls "Fault!" in a contemptuous tone and drops her racket... and then adds hurriedly, "Oh, no, sorry, it wasn't a fault, after all." That being where the wind comes in.

The Westminster Welt is in theory the same as the Hampstead Smash, but goes over the net. One must be in very good form (or have been recently insulted) to bring this off.

Well, we won that game, a breeze having just sprung up; and, carried away by enthusiasm and mutual admiration, we collected another. (FIVE, TWO.) Then it was Miss Hope's serve again.

"Good-bye," I said; "I suppose you want me in the fore-front again?"

"Please."

"I don't mind HER shots—the bottle of scent is absolutely safe; but I'm afraid he'll win another packet of woodbines."

Miss Hope started off with a double, which was rather a pity, and then gave our masculine adversary what is technically called "one to kill." I saw instinctively that I was the one, and I held my racket ready with both hands. Our opponent, who had been wanting his tea for the last two games, was in no mood of dalliance; he fairly let himself go over this shot. In a moment I was down on my knees behind the net ... and the next moment I saw through the meshes a very strange thing. The other man, with his racket on the ground, was holding his eye with both hands!

"Don't you think," said Miss Hope (TWO, FIVE—ABANDONED), "that your overhead volleying is just a little severe?"

 
 
 

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