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   Chapter 5 LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT

A Maker of History By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 9619

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"I am asking a great deal of you, George! I know it. But you see how helpless I am-and read the letter-read it for yourself."

He passed Phyllis's letter across the small round dining-table. His guest took it and read it carefully through.

"How old is the young lady?" he asked.

"Twenty-three!"

"And the boy?"

"Twenty-one."

"Orphans, I think you said?"

"Orphans and relationless."

"Well off?"

"Moderately."

Duncombe leaned back in his chair and sipped his port thoughtfully.

"It is an extraordinary situation!" he remarked.

"Extraordinary indeed," his friend assented. "But so far as I am concerned you can see how I am fixed. I am older than either of them, but I have always been their nearest neighbor and their most intimate friend. If ever they have needed advice they have come to me for it. If ever I have needed a day's shooting for myself or a friend I have gone to them. This Continental tour of theirs we discussed and planned out, months beforehand. If my misfortune had not come on just when it did I should have gone with them, and even up to the last we hoped that I might be able to go to Paris with Phyllis."

Duncombe nodded.

"Tell me about the boy," he said.

His host shrugged his shoulders.

"You know what they're like at that age," he remarked. "He was at Harrow, but he shied at college, and there was no one to insist upon his going. The pair of them had only a firm of lawyers for guardians. He's just a good-looking, clean-minded, high-spirited young fellow, full of beans, and needing the bit every now and then. But, of course, he's no different from the run of young fellows of his age, and if an adventure came his way I suppose he'd see it through."

"And the girl?"

Andrew Pelham rose from his seat.

"I will show you her photograph," he said.

He passed into an inner room divided from the dining-room by curtains. In a moment or two he reappeared.

"Here it is!" he said, and laid a picture upon the table.

Now Duncombe was a young man who prided himself a little on being unimpressionable. He took up the picture with a certain tolerant interest and examined it, at first without any special feeling. Yet in a moment or two he felt himself grateful for those great disfiguring glasses from behind which his host was temporarily, at least, blind to all that passed. A curious disturbance seemed to have passed into his blood. He felt his eyes brighten, and his breath come a little quicker, as he unconsciously created in his imagination the living presentment of the girl whose picture he was still holding. Tall she was, and slim, with a soft, white throat, and long, graceful neck; eyes rather darker than her complexion warranted, a little narrow, but bright as stars-a mouth with the divine lines of humor and understanding. It was only a picture, but a realization of the living image seemed to be creeping in upon him. He made the excuse of seeking a better light, and moved across to a distant lamp. He bent over the picture, but it was not the picture which he saw. He saw the girl herself, and even with the half-formed thought he saw her expression change. He saw her eyes lit with sorrow and appeal-he saw her arms outstretched towards him-he seemed even to hear her soft cry. He knew then what his answer would be to his friend's prayer. He thought no more of the excuses which he had been building in his mind; of all the practical suggestions which he had been prepared to make. Common-sense died away within him. The matter-of-fact man of thirty was ready to tread in the footsteps of this great predecessor, and play the modern knight-errant with the whole-heartedness of Don Quixote himself. He fancied himself by her side, and his heart leaped with joy of it. He thought no more of abandoned cricket matches and neglected house parties. A finger of fire had been laid upon his somewhat torpid flesh and blood.

"Well?" Andrew asked.

Duncombe returned to the table, and laid the picture down with a reluctance which he could scarcely conceal.

"Very nice photograph," he remarked. "Taken locally?"

"I took it myself," Andrew answered. "I used to be rather great at that sort of thing before-before my eyes went dicky."

Duncombe resumed his seat. He helped himself to another glass of wine.

"I presume," he said, "from the fact that you call yourself their nearest friend, that the young lady is not engaged?"

"No," Andrew answered slowly. "She is not engaged."

Something a little different in his voice caught his friend's attention. Duncombe eyed him keenly. He was conscious of a sense of apprehension. He leaned over the table.

"Do you mean, Andrew--?" he asked hoarsely. "Do you mean--?"

"Yes, I mean that," his friend answered quietly. "Nice sort of old fool, am I n

ot? I'm twelve years older than she is, I'm only moderately well off and less than moderately good-looking. But after all I'm only human, and I've seen her grow up from a fresh, charming child into one of God's wonderful women. Even a gardener, you know, George, loves the roses he has planted and watched over. I've taught her a little and helped her a little, and I've watched her cross the borderland."

"Does she know?"

Andrew shook his head doubtfully.

"I think," he said, "that she was beginning to guess. Three months ago I should have spoken-but my trouble came. I didn't mean to tell you this, but perhaps it is as well that you should know. You can understand now what I am suffering. To think of her there alone almost maddens me."

Duncombe rose suddenly from his seat.

"Come out into the garden, Andrew," he said. "I feel stifled here."

His host rose and took Duncombe's arm. They passed out through the French window on to the gravel path which circled the cedar-shaded lawn. A shower had fallen barely an hour since, and the air was full of fresh delicate fragrance. Birds were singing in the dripping trees, blackbirds were busy in the grass. The perfume from the wet lilac shrubs was a very dream of sweetness. Andrew pointed across a park which sloped down to the garden boundary.

"Up there, amongst the elm trees, George," he said, "can you see a gleam of white? That is the Hall, just to the left of the rookery."

Duncombe nodded.

"Yes," he said, "I can see it."

"Guy and she walked down so often after dinner," he said quietly. "I have stood here and watched them. Sometimes she came alone. What a long time ago that seems!"

Duncombe's grip upon his arm tightened.

"Andrew," he said, "I can't go!"

There was a short silence. Andrew stood quite still. All around them was the soft weeping of dripping shrubs. An odorous whiff from the walled rose-garden floated down the air.

"I'm sorry, George! It's a lot to ask you, I know."

"It isn't that!"

Andrew turned his head toward his friend. The tone puzzled him.

"I don't understand."

"No wonder, old fellow! I don't understand myself."

There was another short silence. Andrew stood with his almost sightless eyes turned upon his friend, and Duncombe was looking up through the elm trees to the Hall. He was trying to fancy her as she must have appeared to this man who dwelt alone, walking down the meadow in the evening.

"No," he repeated softly, "I don't understand myself. You've known me for a long time, Andrew. You wouldn't write me down as altogether a sentimental ass, would you?"

"I should not, George. I should never even use the word 'sentimental' in connection with you."

Duncombe turned and faced him squarely. He laid his hands upon his friend's shoulders.

"Old man," he said, "here's the truth. So far as a man can be said to have lost his heart without rhyme or reason, I've lost mine to the girl of that picture."

Andrew drew a quick breath.

"Rubbish, George!" he exclaimed. "Why, you never saw her. You don't know her!"

"It is quite true," Duncombe answered. "And yet-I have seen her picture."

His friend laughed queerly.

"You, George Duncombe, in love with a picture. Stony-hearted George, we used to call you. I can't believe it! I can't take you seriously. It's all rot, you know, isn't it! It must be rot!"

"It sounds like it," Duncombe answered quietly. "Put it this way, if you like. I have seen a picture of the woman whom, if ever I meet, I most surely shall love. What there is that speaks to me from that picture I do not know. You say that only love can beget love. Then there is that in the picture which points beyond. You see, I have talked like this in an attempt to be honest. You have told me that you care for her. Therefore I have told you these strange things. Now do you wish me to go to Paris, for if you say yes I shall surely go!"

Again Andrew laughed, and this time his mirth sounded more natural.

"Let me see," he said. "We drank Pontet Canet for dinner. You refused liqueurs, but I think you drank two glasses of port. George, what has come over you? What has stirred your slow-moving blood to fancies like these? Bah! We are playing with one another. Listen! For the sake of our friendship, George, I beg you to grant me this great favor. Go to Paris to-morrow and help Phyllis!"

"You mean it?"

"God knows I do. If ever I took you seriously, George-if ever I feared to lose the woman I love-well, I should be a coward for my own sake to rob her of help when she needs it so greatly. Be her friend, George, and mine. For the rest the fates must provide!"

"The fates!" Duncombe answered. "Ay, it seems to me that they have been busy about my head to-night. It is settled, then. I will go!"

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