A Telescopic Wooing
A TELESCOPIC WOOING
" IT'S the most awful position I was ever in," said Tommy mournfully.
As he was recently back, with a bullet in his right arm, from the Front, where it seemed he had lived in constant proximity to exploding mines, quarter-ton shells dropping round like rain, and flying rifle-bullets so numerous they ceased to attract attention—I gathered one flicked them off with a handkerchief when they became too troublesome—I must confess that this statement seemed to me extreme.
"There she is," he said again, after a pause, "and here I am, and so there you are, you see."
"Well, what are you going to do about it?" I asked.
"Hang it all," he answered quite snappily, "that's what I want you to tell me!"
I hadn't the very least idea in the world what to tell him, but I tried to look sympathetic and as wise and competent and important as I have felt ever since I learned that, as managing director of the So-and-So Company, which used to turn out things like baby carriages, and now manufactures, instead, things like howitzers, I am of too great value to my country to enlist. And this time last year I didn't know the difference between a howitzer and a Browning repeating pistol!
"You see, it's this way," Tommy began once more, and then subsided into silence.
I tried to point out that his conversation lacked the clearness and coherence so necessary in this time of national emergency, and he told me not to be an ass—an observation which I naturally resented.
"Well," I said, "let me look through the telescope—that will be a beginning."
He pointed to where it was lying, and I adjusted it and took it to the window, and looked through it very carefully and for a long time.
"You can't see the hill from here," remarked Tommy presently; "you can only see it from my bedroom window."
"Then we will go there," I said, with patient dignity. I added coldly: "I think you might have told me that before."
"How did I know what you thought you were playing at?" growled Tommy. And he led me upstairs to his room, whence I had another long look through the telescope, after I had insisted on Tommy pointing out the right hill.
"You only see her," I asked, "in the early morning?"
"Somewhere about six, generally," he answered, "earlier sometimes, never much later."
"Why not," I asked, struck by a brilliant idea, "be on the hill yourself at six?"
"Then she doesn't come," said Tommy sadly. "I've tried that."
"How did you happen to see her first?" I asked.
"Providence," he answered. "I don't always sleep very well, if my fool of an arm starts giving me gyp, as it does sometimes. That night it was throbbing like old boots, and I got out of bed and walked about a bit, and then I took up the glass just to have a squint round. I say, Blazer, old man"—they called me Blazer at school; my real name is Arthur Kay—"you can't guess—you can't imagine! I could see her as plainly as possible dancing to herself on the hill-top in the sunshine and the dew. There wasn't a soul near—she can't have dreamed a soul could see her. It was lovely, it was enchanting—I could have watched her for years! She was wonderful, like a fairy or a nymph or—or that sort of thing, you know. The next morning I was on the watch. I saw her again. She was more wonderful than ever, dancing there alone on the hill-top in the morning. The third morning I was there. She never came. The fourth morning I watched from here. She came. She was wonderful and beautiful. The fifth morning I was on the hill-top. I saw nothing, but I—I heard her laugh. Or perhaps it was a fairy. The next morning I stayed and watched from here, and she came. It's always like that. If I stay here, she comes and dances, and I can watch. If I try to get near, she vanishes. If I hide there, she never comes. Now, what's a chap to do?"
"That depends," I said, "on what a chap wants to do?"
He eyed me with ineffable scorn.
"I'll tell you what I want," he said, with impressive slowness. "I want to make her acquaintance, and then I want to marry her."
"My dear chap," I protested, "aren't you being a little rapid?"
"Rapid?" he gasped, and went nearly purple with suppressed emotion. "Rapid? I've known her for weeks, months, years, ever since last Tuesday morning, and I've never spoken to her yet!"
"And still he knows her," I murmured. "Well, what do you want me to do?"
I could almost see and hear the effort to be patient that he made. "I want," he said, " to find out who she is, and where she lives, and then I want an introduction, and then I want——"
"No, Tommy," I interrupted, raising my hand, "no more, please. That is enough of wants for a beginning. And how do you propose to satisfy them?"
"By asking the most utter blithering idiot of my acquaintance to help me," he answered bitterly.
"Have you made any inquiries in the neighbourhood?" I asked, ignoring this.
"There's the village at the side of the hill," Tommy answered, "and there's Rovermouth a mile further on. Of course, Rovermouth is full of visitors. And there are several houses, farms, and cottages round about. I've been to Rovermouth, and I've been to the village, but I can't get a hint. It's jolly difficult. A chap can't very well go about saying: 'Do you know the young lady who gets up very early and dances on the hill-top over there?' I can't even hear of anyone else who has seen her."
"It is a bit difficult," I admitted. "Should you know her if you met her?"
He insisted that he would, but in his heart I think he was a bit doubtful. After all, he had only seen her through the telescope at a pretty considerable distance. I gathered he was not very sure of her features, because he talked such a lot about the grace and poetry of her movements and the wonderful beauty of her dancing.
I confess at first the problem seemed to me pretty well insoluble. How can one effect an introduction between a wounded subaltern with a telescope and a girl dancing on a hill-top in the dawn a mile or two away? What is, so to speak, the term of relation that can connect them?
I thought about it a lot, and asked Tommy a few questions, not that there was much need to do that—he was only too willing to tell me everything several times over. I gathered that he lived only to make the acquaintance of the dancing lady, and that, if he failed, he would save the Germans further trouble by putting a bullet through what he called his brains.
Well, it seemed jolly serious. I wondered if friendship demanded that I should sleep out on the hill-top, cunningly concealed under a blade of grass or something, ready to leap out on the unknown the moment she arrived. But I thought of rheumatism, and I decided that friendship advanced no such claim.
"I've tried everything," said Tommy mournfully. "I even tried signalling with a looking-glass in the sun."
"Two special constables and a police inspector came, guided by a bloodthirsty young ruffian of a Boy Scout, who was awfully cut up because they didn't shoot me on the spot. But it cost me the best part of a bottle of whisky to convince them I wasn't a German spy."
"How would it be," I said, "to have a motor-car in readiness, and rush off full speed the moment she appears? "
"She would see us coming."
"Suppose," I said, "we lie in ambush. You hide on the other side of the hill, I appear on this side. She sees me and bolts—straight into your arms. Eh?"
We decided to try that strategical plan. We got up at some ghastly hour—half-past four or five, I believe, or something equally discreditable—and remember I'm a man who needs a lot of sleep. Anyhow, she never appeared at all. And it came on to rain. We hardly spoke at breakfast. My temper was quite unruffled, but I cannot truthfully say the same about Tommy. After the meal was over, he went to sit and sulk in his own room, and I went for a walk by myself. It had stopped raining, and my blood was up. I felt my reputation was at stake, so I just simply set to, and I called at every house and cottage in the neighbourhood of that thrice miserable hill, and at every house and cottage I called at I asked for a glass of water, and, what's more, I drank it, while I chatted amiably and asked idle questions about the district and generally fished for information.
Reader, have you ever drunk nine glasses of water in fairly swift succession?
If you have, you will sympathise; if you haven't, take my advice and don't.
And, mind you, here was I suffering all this for the sake of a wounded infantry subaltern sulking in his bedroom.
At the ninth—or ninetieth—I suppose it was the former, but it seemed like the latter—glass of water I struck oil, however—metaphorically, I mean, of course; the water was quite good, I dare say, so far as I was by now in a condition to judge.
It was handed me by a tall, slim, pretty girl in a torn overall, who was picking currants in what was, I understood, her mother's garden. She was a nice girl, and very pretty, with lovely eyes and a face whose expression changed every second of every minute of every hour—at least, it seemed to. My first discreet feeler—my ordinary opening, like king's pawn to king's fourth at chess—about early rising drew a blank. She detested early rising, she said, and my heart warmed to her. In fact, she and I got quite friendly, and at last I blurted out the object of my search, and she said quite calmly—
"Oh, that's Sis. She loves to do that."
I was simply delighted. And I knew I could make Tommy simply grovel, once he understood I was in possession of the secret. The girl was quite frank about it. It was just a fancy of her sister's, only she was shy about it, and didn't like people to know. We got on very well together as we chatted, and I found her very pleasant, though a little slow in understanding things, for , when I confided to her that hers was the ninth glass of water I had drunk, she seemed to think it was because I was so thirsty, and she went off at once and got another for me. However, in the end we arranged that nothing was to be said to her sister—who was really very shy—and if she went out to dance in the morning, then my new friend was to show a red handkerchief as a signal. We were to be in readiness, and to approach, as soon as we saw the signal, by a hidden path she would show us.
"You see," she said, "I. always keep watch for Sis, and if I know it's you coming, and it's all right, I won't say anything."
I thanked her very much, and, refusing the fresh glass of water she urged on me, I went off. I felt very satisfied, and I looked forward to an interview with Tommy in which I should simply use him as a doormat. I felt I had him in the hollow of my hand, so to speak, and I meant to take full advantage of my opportunity. Privately I thought, though, of course, I had not as yet seen the dancing girl, that if Tommy had seen my girl—I mean, you understand, the one I had been talking to—he would not have thought quite so much of his dancer. Even I, hardened old bachelor that I am, began to have thoughts, the vaguest, faintest, flimsiest thoughts, but still thoughts.
On my return, my interview with Tommy proceeded on thoroughly satisfactory lines. To say that he was abject conveys little; to speak of his gratitude is to employ a word absurdly inadequate. All that he had was mine, and I'm not sure, but I think there were tears in his eyes when he said that all his future happiness he owed to me. I had to point out that, in the first place, he didn't know if she would have him, and that, in the second place, he didn't know that it would be happiness if she did. The second objection failed to make any impression on him—he thought it a joke in somewhat doubtful taste. The first objection was very effective, however. He sat down at once and mooned in a corner, and thought it very likely she wouldn't. In fact, he didn't suppose that, when it came to the point, he would have the awful cheek and impudence to ask her. But I told him girls were a rum lot, and there was no telling. I said some girls showed no sense at all in choosing husbands, and this girl might be like that, and so he cheered up a little.
I give you my word of honour that the next morning he woke me at a quarter to four, so as to be sure not to be late, he said. He retired before the fury of my hate and scorn, but back he came at a quarter past. He said he daren't risk not being in time. I told him what I thought of him, and when I finished I was so thoroughly wakened I felt I might as well get up as not. He said he would never forget it if I did, and I said I wouldn't, either.
Of course, the result was that we were several hours too soon. The early dawn is a much overrated period of the day. It was a miserable time we spent there, and what annoyed me so much was that Tommy was as jolly as a sand-boy.
We were in ambush behind a bush. It was a bush that had a lot of prickles on it, and it was soaked in dew. However, all things end in due course, and, when a century or two had elapsed, we saw the red handkerchief displayed. We got up, and Tommy flew and I hobbled—I was stiff with cold, and cramp, and misery, and I had sworn to myself never to go near a wounded subaltern again—up the path to the hill-top I had been shown the night before. It took us to a vantage spot behind some trees, and from them we could see plainly the level glade where the unknown was used to dance in the dawn.
The morning sunshine was pouring down upon it now, and every bush and tree was hung with a fairy tracery of sparkling jewels. Right in the midst of that fairy scene stood a human form, slowly dancing, and in the shelter of the trees stood Tommy, and a sicker subaltern you never saw.
For the dancer was a boy, a butcher's boy in a long blue smock, a fat and chubby boy, a boy with freckles and a snub nose, about fourteen or fifteen years old, perhaps, and his dancing was like unto the gambolling of a merry calf or a two-months-old Newfoundland puppy.
No, I didn't laugh. I didn't even feel inclined to. The situation was too awful and Tommy's face too tragic.
The boy danced solemnly on—capered, I should say. I stole a glance at Tommy, and quickly looked away again. There are some sights not meant for human eyes to rest on.
And still that wretched boy solemnly capered up and down, to and fro, round about.
It was an appalling moment. I felt rather ill myself, I confess that. Just imagine the two of us going through all we had gone through, and getting up at the time we had got up, all in order to watch a little freckled brat with a snub nose capering about like a lunatic. I can't tell you how I felt—a little, I suppose, as though I had accidentally stepped under a hydraulic hammer of a thousand tons or so. I just sat down and got out my pipe. Smoking before breakfast always makes me ill, but I didn't care. And the grass was damp, and I am subject to rheumatism, and I didn't care about that, not I. And if that was how I felt, in what sort of condition was Tommy?
I stole a look at him, and found he had vanished. I supposed that very likely he had gone to seek a convenient and eligible hole wherein to die, and that seemed to me the best thing he could do.
There was a chunk of wood handy, and after a time I mustered up spirit enough to take it and throw it at that miserable youth. It hit him, and he howled and fled, but that hardly cheered me at all. Presently I began to think of breakfast, as life once more stirred in me, and I got up and looked round for Tommy or for his lifeless body swinging from a tree—I wasn't quite sure which to expect.
Well, I searched and I searched, but never a Tommy could I find, and I began to get quite a bit nervous. It seemed he had fled. I hoped despair had not turned his brain. After a time I gave it up and went home. Tommy dead or Tommy alive, I wanted my breakfast, or else I felt I should soon be dead myself.
I got in at last, very tired and stiff and cold. No Tommy. I was really seriously uneasy by this time. You see, it must have been a frightful shock to Tommy—frightful. I could hardly eat any breakfast, and, after a couple of boiled eggs and a dish of kidney and bacon, I was trifling with some cold ham I had scarcely any heart for, and wondering what I ought to do, and if I should communicate with the police, when the door opened and Tommy himself walked in.
Walked in? No, swaggered in, pranced in, gallivanted in, floated in on air because his feet no longer touched the ground.
And I, who had been prepared to mingle my tears with his, and do my best to heal his wounded heart, and had intended to propose a solemn league and covenant whereby the tragic event of this unhappy morn should be forgotten for ever—all I could do was to sit and stare.
"Hullo, old man!" he cried, and he hit me hard between the shoulder blades. "I believe, perhaps, she'll have me. Isn't it splendid? I'm to call this afternoon. Blazer, I'm the happiest man alive!"
"I—I——" I stammered, with a dazed memory of that snub-nosed urchin we had seen jumping up and down like a Newfoundland puppy. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, you don't know, do you?" he said, smiling. "By Jove, have you eaten all the breakfast? Where's the toast? Oh, never mind; it doesn't matter. Who cares for breakfast, anyway? Blazer, old boy, isn't it splendid?"
"I'm glad," I said, "that the youthful gentleman we saw——"
He sat down and laughed, and helped himself to some cold ham.
"That was jolly clever of her, wasn't it?" he said, with his mouth full. "Of course, it took me in for a minute, at first. Then I suspected, and I listened, and I heard someone move at a little distance, and laugh ever so softly. So off I went, and, Blazer, I found her. You see, it was just her little trick to put us off. The boy was a butcher's boy from Rovermouth, and she gave him a shilling to go and jump about there. She was hiding behind a tree on the right, to watch how we looked. That's where she was when I spotted her. Blazer, she is ten times more beautiful and ten thousand times more wonderful than I ever dreamed!"
"But how," I said faintly, for already I was beginning to suspect the truth, "how—and her sister?"
"She hasn't a sister," he said simply. "It was her herself you talked to yesterday, and who fixed it all up with you. She thought she would get rid of us. Perhaps," said Tommy, as he looked rather fixedly at the ham bone and then at the empty plate where the bacon and kidneys had been, "perhaps she wasn't very favourably impressed yesterday. Anyhow, it's all fixed up now, and I'm to call this afternoon. She's staying with her mother, at a cottage near, for a holiday."
"I see," I said. It was a blow, but I tried not to show it. "Tommy," I said, "I'm glad I've done what I could for you, and now I congratulate you."
"Thanks," he answered a trifle coldly, as he got up to ring for something to eat.
Copyright, 1916, by E. R. Punshon, in the United States of America.