LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT: “I am asking a great deal of you, George! I know it. But you see howhelpless 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 amconcerned 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 intimatefriend. If ever they have needed advice they have come to me for it. Ifever I have needed a day’s shooting for myself or a friend I have goneto them. This Continental tour of theirs we discussed and planned out,months beforehand. If my misfortune had not come on just when it did Ishould have gone with them, and even up to the last we hoped that Imight 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 atHarrow, but he shied at college, and there was no one to insist upon hisgoing. The pair of them had only a firm of lawyers for guardians. He’sjust a good-looking, clean-minded, high-spirited young fellow, full ofbeans, and needing the bit every now and then. But, of course, he’s nodifferent from the run of young fellows of his age, and if an adventurecame 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 beingunimpressionable. He took up the picture with a certain tolerantinterest and examined it, at first without any special feeling. Yet in amoment or two he felt himself grateful for those great disfiguringglasses from behind which his host was temporarily, at least, blind toall that passed. A curious disturbance seemed to have passed into hisblood. He felt his eyes brighten, and his breath come a little quicker,as he unconsciously created in his imagination the living presentmentof the girl whose picture he was still holding. Tall she was, and slim,with a soft, white throat, and long, graceful neck; eyes rather darkerthan her complexion warranted, a little narrow, but bright as stars–amouth with the divine lines of humor and understanding. It was only apicture, but a realization of the living image seemed to be creeping inupon him. He made the excuse of seeking a better light, and moved acrossto a distant lamp. He bent over the picture, but it was not the picturewhich he saw. He saw the girl herself, and even with the half-formedthought he saw her expression change. He saw her eyes lit with sorrowand appeal–he saw her arms outstretched towards him–he seemed even tohear her soft cry. He knew then what his answer would be to his friend’sprayer. He thought no more of the excuses which he had been building inhis mind; of all the practical suggestions which he had been prepared tomake. Common-sense died away within him. The matter-of-fact man ofthirty was ready to tread in the footsteps of this great predecessor,and play the modern knight-errant with the whole-heartedness of DonQuixote himself. He fancied himself by her side, and his heart leapedwith joy of it. He thought no more of abandoned cricket matches andneglected house parties. A finger of fire had been laid upon hissomewhat torpid flesh and blood.”Well?” Andrew asked.Duncombe returned to the table, and laid the picture down with areluctance 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 thatsort 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 theirnearest 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 not? I’m twelve years older than she is, I’m only moderately welloff 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’swonderful women. Even a gardener, you know, George, loves the roses hehas planted and watched over. I’ve taught her a little and helped her alittle, 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 Ishould 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 nowwhat 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 theFrench 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 freshdelicate fragrance. Birds were singing in the dripping trees, blackbirdswere busy in the grass. The perfume from the wet lilac shrubs was a verydream of sweetness. Andrew pointed across a park which sloped down tothe garden boundary.”Up there, amongst the elm trees, George,” he said, “can you see a gleamof 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. “Ihave stood here and watched them. Sometimes she came alone. What a longtime 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 wasthe soft weeping of dripping shrubs. An odorous whiff from the walledrose-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 sightlesseyes turned upon his friend, and Duncombe was looking up through the elmtrees to the Hall. He was trying to fancy her as she must have appearedto this man who dwelt alone, walking down the meadow in the evening.”No,” he repeated softly, “I don’t understand myself. You’ve known mefor a long time, Andrew. You wouldn’t write me down as altogether asentimental ass, would you?””I should not, George. I should never even use the word ‘sentimental’ inconnection with you.”Duncombe turned and faced him squarely. He laid his hands upon hisfriend’s shoulders.”Old man,” he said, “here’s the truth. So far as a man can be said tohave lost his heart without rhyme or reason, I’ve lost mine to the girlof that picture.”Andrew drew a quick breath.”Rubbish, George!” he exclaimed. “Why, you never saw her. You don’t knowher!””It is quite true,” Duncombe answered. “And yet–I have seen herpicture.”His friend laughed queerly.”You, George Duncombe, in love with a picture. Stony-hearted George, weused to call you. I can’t believe it! I can’t take you seriously. It’sall rot, you know, isn’t it! It must be rot!””It sounds like it,” Duncombe answered quietly. “Put it this way, if youlike. I have seen a picture of the woman whom, if ever I meet, I mostsurely shall love. What there is that speaks to me from that picture Ido not know. You say that only love can beget love. Then there is thatin the picture which points beyond. You see, I have talked like this inan 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 goto 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 refusedliqueurs, but I think you drank two glasses of port. George, what hascome over you? What has stirred your slow-moving blood to fancies likethese? Bah! We are playing with one another. Listen! For the sake of ourfriendship, George, I beg you to grant me this great favor. Go to Paristo-morrow and help Phyllis!””You mean it?””God knows I do. If ever I took you seriously, George–if ever I fearedto lose the woman I love–well, I should be a coward for my own sake torob her of help when she needs it so greatly. Be her friend, George, andmine. For the rest the fates must provide!””The fates!” Duncombe answered. “Ay, it seems to me that they have beenbusy about my head to-night. It is settled, then. I will go!.