The Old Love
THE OLD LOVE
HENRY AUGUSTUS BRADLEY had reached his seventeenth year without having felt the darts of the little god of Love. His deepest feelings so far had been centred in his motor-cycle—a noisy and somewhat erratic affair of the cheaper variety—whose defective silencer caused his near neighbours the expenditure of much breath and ingenuity in the effort to convey adequately their opinion of it. But Henry Augustus Bradley cared for none of these things. She—motor-cycles are of the feminine gender—was the object of his dreams and his one and only love. Her frequent breakdowns, for no apparent reason, her sudden skids and backstarts and little leaps, were only part of her beloved caprice. Henry Augustus Bradley toiled many weary miles, pushing her along country lanes to the nearest garage, his back bent double, his brow bedewed with honest sweat, and felt no grudge against her in his heart. His love was proof against all her failings. He maintained a proud and haughty silence when his father's next-door neighbour—a man with no conception of romance—gave his frank and opinion of her over the fence. Henry himself was at heart a romantic of the deepest dye. He had even given her a name, though it never passed his lips except in a furtive whisper when he was examining her inner parts to see if he could account for her unaccountable actions, or in some other intimate relationship with her. He would rather have died in torture than have breathed her name in the presence of his uncomprehending fellow-mortals. Her name was Rosamund.
But in his seventeenth year he came up against the greatest force of destiny. It happened one day when he was walking Rosamund up a hill. Rosamund had an incurable objection to hills. At the foot of a hill she generally made certain curious rumblings in her inside, and then all power of movement seemed to die away, and Rosamund was content to form a stationary object of the landscape.
Henry was toiling up the hill with her in a state of moist heat when he saw a girlish figure in white descending it. It looked like Gladys Philips in the distance. A familiar panic overcame him. Few tortures were more painful to him than meeting girls he knew on a long and solitary road. At what point exactly should he smile and raise his hat? His expression on such occasions could not be mastered. It became more and more self-conscious as the moment came nearer, and he looked round furtively at anything but the approaching figure. If he made the mistake of letting his eyes rest upon it too soon, he was fixed with a ghastly smile and a raised hat for an agonising length of time until the figure had made its self-possessed salutation (all girls are self-possessed) and passed on. If he waited till he was just abreast of it, the few moments before he came abreast were so unutterably painful. … He often thought how easy life must be in a place where no one knew anyone.
Moreover, he was sorry that he was wheeling Rosamund. He seemed always to be wheeling Rosamund when he met anyone he knew. It gave them a wrong idea of her. And that hurt him because he loved her so. He passed through all the familiar stages of misery and embarrassment, keeping his eyes fixed upon the sky or the hedge at the extreme left of him till the figure was almost abreast. Then he affected to see it for the first time, raised his hand to his hat, and smiled his mirthless smile of restrained pleasure at the meeting. At this point his face, already pink, became suffused with purple. His smile faded away abruptly, and, nervously clearing his throat, he looked hastily at the surrounding landscape, the picture of misery. For it was no one he knew. Horrors! It was no one he knew! Oh, Heavens! He had smiled and nearly taken off his hat, and it was no one he knew. What must she think of him? His spirits wallowed in the lowest depths of shame. What must she think of him? He had caught a glimpse of a white dress and above it a dimpled face with dark eyes and wavy hair under a broad-brimmed hat. Oh, ye gods, what must she think of him? He turned round, then quickly turned back again. She also had turned round. Again he had seen that adorable face. He experienced a quivering sensation at the back of his knees.
"By Jove!" he said out loud.
It seemed but a feeble expression of his feelings. He sought a deeper.
"Good Heavens!" he ejaculated, then coughed as if to unsay it. He must not be profane. He was sure she wouldn't like profanity. He must be all that was upright and good and noble for the rest of his life—even if he never met her again. He would never marry, of course, in that case. People would wonder why, but he wouldn't tell them. It would be his secret. He looked down at Rosamund and saw her suddenly as a mere mechanical motor-cycle without a soul.
He was in love.
At supper that evening he sat silent, consuming beef with his usual appetite, it must be owned, but with his mind far above such things. His thoughts were wandering in a rosy land of dreams. Formerly in his most rapt moments they had wandered with Rosamund as their comrade, and Rosamund flew with him like a winged bird over mountain and valley and along straight, delightful roads. In real life, it must be confessed, Rosamund's method of locomotion did not resemble those of winged birds. But to-night Rosamund had no place in his thoughts. He was rescuing a graceful, dark-eyed, beautiful girl from incredible dangers—from robber chieftains, from surging floods, from savage cannibals, from onrushng trains and motor-cars. In his dreams the whole forces of Nature seemed bent upon the extermination of the graceful, dark-eyed, beautiful girl, and he alone prevented it. The conclusion of all the scenes was curiously similar. After the hairbreadth escape, the graceful, dark-eyed, beautiful girl flung herself into his arms and murmured "My rescuer!" His arms closed about her, and he pressed his lips against her hair. That was as far as he got. Further conversation or action was beyond him. When he got there he always stopped and began the next adventure. His heart was so full that he swallowed half a potato by mistake and nearly choked. After a gulp of water, with tears of emotion still in his eyes, he began to listen idly to the futile conversation of the rest of his family. How sordid they were! What did they know of romance and adventure, and rescuing graceful, dark-eyed, beautiful girls? He laughed scornfully to himself. Nothing. His sister Florence was talking.
"Gladys Phillips has got a cousin staying with her," she said. "Such a pretty girl! She came down to the Swanleys' when I was there this evening,"
The Swanleys lived at the bottom of the hill. Good Heavens! Was it? Could it be? His face flamed crimson at the thought.
"Hello," said his father jocularly, "what's the matter with Augustus?"
Henry shivered slightly. His father, with the coarse and distorted sense of humour common to male parents generally, considered his second name a joke. Henry himself blushed for shame at the very thought of it. Horrors! Suppose she ever got to know that he was called Augustus!
"I've asked her to tea to-morrow with Gladys," went on his sister.
His heart began to beat unevenly. She was coming! He would see her. He might yet win her. He saw himself again, in imagination, rescuing her from the horns of the cow in the field through which she would have to reach his house. It had been a pretty peaceful cow so far, but one never knew with cows. It might go mad suddenly. Cows did sometimes. He'd keep a look-out, anyway. He saw himself vaulting lightly over the fence, picking up her unconscious form—she'd probably faint—in the nick of time, leaping aside from the rush of the infuriated cow, and running back like a flash with her unconscious form in his arms. Once over the fence she would revive and fling her arms round his neck. "My rescuer!" she would murmur. He was roused by his father's voice.
"How did the bike go this afternoon? Or, rather, did she go at all?"
His love for Rosamund was a thing of the past, yet he could not have her publicly scorned.
"Splendidly," he said coldly.
He spent two hours and a half dressing for the visitor. His struggle with his suit was Homeric, and, considering that he possessed only three, of almost incredible duration. He began by putting on the brown suit, then, after a long and painful survey of himself in the glass, he decided—horrible thought!—that he looked vulgar. With frenzied fingers he tore it off and put on his white flannels. Again he surveyed himself with tense, frowning face in the glass. He looked too young—not manly enough, not the sort of figure to confront a raging robber chief or cow with stern dignity. With set face he tore off the flannel suit and put on his blue serge. That, he decided, looked better. Then a terrible thought struck him. Suppose that the girl he'd seen wasn't Gladys's cousin! Good Heavens! His whole future life blighted! Drops of perspiration stood out on his brow at the thought. But Fate could not be so cruel as that. He wrenched his thoughts from the dreadful prospect and forced them to face the problem of his tie. He tried a brown tie and a green tie, and a mauve tie and a blue tie, and finally decided on the blue one because it matched his suit and his eyes. Then once more he considered himself. Yes, on the whole, he thought he would do. He was not handsome, of course,—reluctantly he admitted that—but his general appearance in the blue suit and the blue tie was, he considered, quiet and tasteful and gentlemanly. He looked out of his window. A white-clad form was coming across the field to the garden gate. It was the girl. His beating heart sang pæans of praise. It was the girl. He watched her walk past the cow. The cow raised limpid eyes and munched peacefully as she passed. Henry gave a short ironic laugh. Always trust a cow to let you down! He waited with a frown of fierce determination till the sound of the greetings in the hall had died away and the drawing-room door had shut. Then he went down the stairs. Outside the drawing-room he stopped to pull up his socks, straighten his tie, and smooth back his hair. As a matter of fact, his hair was too much cowed by grease and brushing to have any spirit for resistance left. It lay inert and beaten beneath Henry's hand. Then he composed his features and entered the drawing-room.
The other occupants saw a plain youth, with a curious expression of settled melancholy and a very awkward manner, shake hands with the visitors, and bare his teeth in what was evidently meant to be a smile of welcome. Henry saw the young hero, pale and composed, advance to meet the lady of his dreams, ready to leap at any moment to do mortal combat with her enemies. He was sure, from her face, that she saw that, too.
He took her round the garden after tea.
"It was you I saw on the road yesterday, wasn't it?" she said.
His heart gave a leap. She had noticed him. Oh, Heavens, she had noticed him! She had seen in him her fated hero as he had seen in her his—well, it was rather involved when put into words, but, anyway, she had noticed him.
"It was," he said in low tones.
"Pushing up that old bike."
He felt no sting of anger at that allusion to his Rosamund. Oh, the fickleness of human nature!
"Yes," he said, with a meaning look. "I—er—I could"—he blushed at his daring—"that is to say, if you care for that sort of thing—that is—I could take you for a spin—if you like, that is——" He ended in embarrassment.
"It didn't look as if it span much," she said scornfully.
"Rotten thing," he agreed hastily.
A painful silence fell between them. It was more difficult talking to one's heart's beloved than he could have thought. He stole a look at her. Heavens, how beautiful she was! He wished he could think of something to say to her. He couldn't propose yet. He didn't know her well enough. Probably she thought him just an ordinary young man. She didn't know about the hairbreadth escapes. He was desperately anxious to impress her. All he could find to say was: "These are the roses."
"I thought so," she answered.
Heavens! His brow felt moist. How did one get on to talking deep and serious and earnest things, such as one must talk with one's heart's beloved?
"Those are tomatoes in the greenhouse," he said desperately.
"They look like tomatoes," she agreed.
It was awful! And suppose he never got the chance of rescuing her! Suppose he lost his chance, and some other man won her, and all his life was blighted! It was a ghastly thought—almost unbearable. His hair, disturbed doubtless by the agonised turmoil taking place beneath it, recovered from the effects of the grease and began to rise. His expression was distraught. He had a brilliant idea. "Miss Phillips," he said, "may I—er—offer you—that is—a very small expression—that is to say"—he tried painfully to extricate the sentence—"well, of the—er—deepness of my feelings for you?" He coughed nervously as he finished.
She gaped at him.
"My word!" she said.
Dramatically he tore a red rose from a rose tree near, emitting a sharp exclamation of pain as a thorn pierced his finger.
"Have you hurt yourself?" she said sympathetically.
He assumed an expression of patient suffering. "Nothing to speak of," he murmured, enveloping his finger in a voluminous handkerchief. "That is to say, it will probably heal soon, though it pierced very deep."
"I'm so sorry!"
Oh, her womanly sympathy! He wished the thorn had completely severed his thumb from the rest of his hand, or maimed him for life in some terrible way, that he might have had more of it.
"It's still painful," he admitted with seeming reluctance.
"I am sorry."
"Often these thorn pricks are poisonous," he said, but she was tired of the thorn.
"I prefer white roses really," she said.
He looked round the garden. Not a white rose in sight. He ran his fingers distractedly through his hair.
"Good Heavens!" he said. "I'll get you some! I'll find you some—that is to say, I'll always get the white ones in future!"
"Always? But I'm going next week."
"Ah!" he said. He fixed his eyes upon her meaningly, then, meeting her gaze, blushed and looked away. "Ah!" She must know now—know that he had made up his mind to win her. But it had been a bit tame so far. Dangers seemed so few and far between. It was difficult to get on really familiar terms with someone you'd never saved. He sighed.
"I suppose," she said suddenly, "you don't happen to have a Chinese stamp?"
"Er—no. Do you want one?"
"I'll get one for you," he said in grim determination. Here at last was something he could do for her. One might be able to risk one's life getting a Chinese stamp. One could try, anyway.
She turned her clear gaze upon him gratefully. "Thanks so much," she said.
The rapture almost intoxicated him. He burst into a confused speech.
"I'd not mind doing anything—going into any sort of awful danger—that is to say—even this afternoon—if that cow—ever since the first moment I saw you—if you'd known—I knew at once—stamps are nothing—nothing—I don't mind what I do—that is to say—the more danger the better—I'll never forget white ones—if it was a case of wild animals or Indians or anything—I haven't enough money yet, I know, and"—he saw his sister coming down the path, and went on desperately—"my allowance is hardly enough for me as it is—but in time—and no danger is too great——" He broke off, partly for want of breath, partly because Florence had come up. He glared at her wildly, ran his fingers once more through his hair, then turned on his heel and strode down the path.
The visitor gazed after him. "Is your brother—peculiar at all?" she said.
"No more than boys usually are," said Florence carelessly. "Why? "
"He's just been going on at me like anything."
"I don't know."
"Perhaps you'd been running down his motor-bike."
"Do you," said Henry to his father, "know anything about Chinese stamps?"
"I do not, Augustus," replied his father from behind a newspaper.
Henry chose to ignore the insult. "Well, have you any Chinese stamps?"
"I have not—that is, not here. I suppose there may be some at the office. Why? Starting a collection?"
"I'll go and look for some at the office."
"That you will not, Augustus. I know the chaos that means. Ring up old Freeman, if you like—he'll be there."
Henry went out without answering. A few minutes later he returned pale and distraught.
"Hundreds of Japanese, he says, but no Chinese."
"Well, try Japanese."
"They must be Chinese. She said Chinese!"
"Who's 'she'? The bike?"
Henry emitted a short scornful laugh.
"I must find a Chinese stamp," he said simply, "if it costs me my life."
"Really? " said his father politely. "Well, try old Crayshaw up the road. He's got a brother in China, and presumably he hears from him, and presumably the letters are stamped."
"I don't know him."
"Neither do I, but I know he's got a brother in China. He lives with his sister in that white house on the hill. I hope it won't cost you your life, but I suppose one never knows. Good-bye, Augustus. Shut the door after you. It's rather draughty."
Henry went out grimly. He was on the track. Adventure lay before him. He passed the shed where Rosamund lay, patient and despised. He had not cleaned her, he had not looked at her, since he met his goddess. Now he merely threw her a scornful glance as he passed.
He reached the white house on the hill. It seemed not only embarrassing, but rather dull to ring the front door bell and demand a Chinese stamp. No risk—no danger—no adventure. It could hardly be called doing anything for her. Compared with the struggle with overpowering numbers of robbers and savages, it seemed almost ludicrous to go up to a front door and demand a Chinese stamp. It was too simple. Moreover, it could not be denied that it was somewhat embarrassing. He walked up the garden path to a side-door. The side-door was open. An idea struck him. To steal a Chinese stamp would be risk and danger all right. His expression became set and stern and sinister. He crept into the passage. No one seemed to be about. He entered cautiously a room on his right. It seemed to be a kind of study. There was a desk littered with envelopes and letters. He went up to it furtively and began to turn them over. Nothing Chinese. He went out again into the passage. At the foot of the stairs he heard a door opening in what must be the kitchen regions. In sudden panic he ran quickly up the stairs. He began to feel rather apprehensive, but what a deed of daring to lay at the feet of the beloved! Hearing steps coming along the hall, he took refuge hastily in the first room he could see. It was a bedroom. There was a letter on the dressing-table—a Chinese stamp. With trembling hands he tore off the front part of the envelope. Footsteps were coming up the stairs towards the room. Precipitately he plunged beneath the bed, holding the stamp in his hand. His heart was beating wildly. Whatever happened now, he had done it—a deed of glorious risk and daring. He'd have to confess to her that one of his names was Augustus, of course, but she might not mind, and after that his road lay clear…
Someone—he could not see whom—entered the room and shut the door. Heavens! It was rather awkward. Then he heard a little gasp and a little rush to the door. Then a shrill feminine voice: "John, come quickly! There's a man under the bed! I can see his bootlaces."
Bother his bootlaces! They were always coming untied. But—man! That was balm to a soul continually tortured, even in its seventeenth year, by being referred to as "boy." She could see he was a man just by his bootlaces. Anyway, he'd done it. Even if they hung him or put him in prison for life, he'd done it! He'd got the Chinese stamp for her. He held it firmly in his grasp. Heavy footsteps were coming up the stairs. He felt both his feet held firmly and his person drawn ungently from under the bed. In order to assist his progress with his hands, he transferred his stamp to his mouth. He emerged into the light of day. Looking round, he saw that an old gentleman was firmly holding one leg and the old lady the other. They seemed to have no intention of letting go. Supporting himself on his hands, he looked round at them desperately. It would be pretty awful for his family if he was imprisoned.
"I can explain everything," he began dramatically but inaudibly through his teeth and the stamp.
"You young villain!" roared the old gentleman.
"It's that boy who goes about on that dreadful machine," said the old lady.
Henry glared at her. Boy! The insult to Rosamund he hardly noticed. Then he freed his feet with a desperate movement and stood up, smoothing back his hair.
"I can explain everything. I'm not a thief—not an ordinary thief." The old gentleman was feeling in all his pockets. "I only wanted a Chinese stamp. It was a question of all my life being involved—that is to say—you wouldn't understand——"
"He's mad," said the old gentleman, having satisfied himself that Henry's pockets were empty, and escorting him from the room by his collar.
"I'm not mad," said Henry. "I'm trying to explain. She said it had to be Chinese. I don't know why any more than you. Would you mind taking your fingers out of my neck? They're tickling me. Say, would you mind taking your fingers out of my——"
There was a slight scuffle on the landing, at the end of which Henry rolled ignominiously downstairs. He picked himself up at the bottom. He was dusty and dishevelled, his tie was half-way round his neck, but his captor was not pursuing him.
"Stark mad!" he heard from the landing.
Still holding the Chinese stamp in a vice-like grip, Henry ran down the path, out of the gate and down the road. He was at curious object. He had left his hat under the bed. His hair looked startled by the whole proceeding. But he had done it—he had got it—he had won her!
He went towards the Phillips' house. He must find her at once. He must lay his heart at her feet. To think that two days ago he had not known her, had thought of nothing but that wretched motor-cycle! He gave a superior smile at the thought. What a boy he had been! How much older and more manly he felt now! Heavens! There she was coming out of the gate, all in white!
He approached her and held out the stamp.
"I say," she said, looking at him in horror, "what have you been doing?"
"I've got it for you," he said simply.
"The Chinese stamp."
She took it. She still looked bewildered.
"Did I ask you for a Chinese stamp?" she asked.
His voice seemed to die away. He nodded dumbly.
"How silly! I meant a Japanese one. My fiancé wants it. He collects them."
He stared at her in silence. She had a fiancé! He'd risked his life for her fiancé! She was another's. She wasn't as pretty as he'd thought she was, after all. She was a bit fat. He preferred fair girls, on the whole, too, though all girls were rather silly.
He put up a hand to his hat, found it was not there, bowed distantly and set off down the road without a word.
He went in by the side-gate of the house and round to the shed. There he took a duster from a peg on the wall and began to rub the handle-bars of his motor-cycle.
"Rosamund!" he murmured tenderly.