AT a time when bicycles were termed ‘penny farthings’ — by reason of the disparity in the size of their wheels — my friend Bayard and I had toothache very badly. Oh yes, I know there does n’t seem much connection between the two scourges, but that was how I got connected with the affair anyway.
Now Bayard owned one of those machines — complete with all the attachments peculiar to its date: an oil lamp that would burn until the first jog, when the flame shook out; the step at the base of the curved spine which often excoriated shins; the rat-trap pedals; and the spoon brake for the front wheel, an ever-present temptation to a high diver.
Not content with this marvelous piece of property, Bayard aspired to a further acquisition — for he fell desperately in love, at first sight, with Someone who, for Bayard, was quite as ‘unapproachable’ as the twentyfour a shilling eggs so ticketed by a proud London grocer. How to establish contact with Her was a problem; and here is the stage setting.
A big school of near eight hundred boys. In one of its nine houses Bayard and I were stable companions — even to occupying adjacent ‘buncles’ in a dormitory. Bayard was seventeen and a half, and I about a year younger. We were not in the ‘Prefect’ class, but Someone’s big brother was a full-blown one — but in another house. Someone had, also, a younger brother, — just ‘one of us,’ — whose hobby was his stomach. He was wont to wager about his pet’s flexibility — adaptability — what you will. Bayard and I discussed this medium, as looking like providing a line of least resistance, but finally it was decided that it was absolutely impossible to advance toward a Lady via the ‘tuckshop’ and another performer’s capacity in it. We were very serious and high-toned about this. Besides, as Bayard said, a boy who, to win a petty half-crown bet, would eat three hot sausages and three strawberry ices together would do anything. He might even give the show away. And indeed this younger brother was, in our Romeo’s bitter terms, ‘pretty average awful.’
No word, of course, had ever passed between Someone and Bayard, and he, dear soul, was not a Valentino, so would not catch an eye. No legitimate excuse for introduction existed, or could exist, and the odds looked like a hiding to nothing should Bayard attempt to force a meeting complete with talk.
Heart trouble was not my friend’s only worry, for he, with me, was suffering intermittently from severe facial neuralgia and toothache. We were both under the dentist every day, for renovations and fillings; and he — well, he was a country practitioner of the same period as the bicycle. So why hurry? Every night our sufferings kept us awake long after the rest of the dormitory were recharging their bodily and mental batteries for use next day, and, like other pieces of machinery, making a noise about it.
And every night — when all the others were in dreamland — I, being his confidant, heard the daily bulletin of Bayard’s heart. I was interested, at first, for Someone was certainly very charming and delectable, and always looked as if she had just stepped out of a bandbox. And quite up to date, for she wore a dress improver! Yes — that was the time. And the protuberances for ladies of sixteen or seventeen were not too extreme; and it seemed to us to add to the graceful stream-line effect of this particular lady’s figure. So as an artist, in the beginning, I much appreciated what I heard. But Bayard was no poet, and his vocabulary was limited. He soon ran out of adjectives. His epithets were rich, and rare enough to make me wish he knew others. Too much of a good thing palled after a time; I fear I began to get bored. This arose from ignorance — not from lack of sympathy. Being as yet unwounded, I knew nothing of the delicious pain that is caused by the darts of the tiny godling.
Always, always the topic was The Lady — how she looked on the touch line when she came to see our football. It worried me almost as much as the neuralgia. I even ‘dragged my bar,’ which at that date was the fashionable way for us boys to ‘draw the line,’ at the foaming but inarticulate spate of adulation. I was afraid I had hurt him, so tried my brightest when he turned to me for counsel — asking could n’t I suggest something. But whatever I might suggest I was to remember that Donald, the younger brother with the proud stomach, was to be barred.
A little self-communing, and I got hold of a really bright idea. What about a little mild arson at the lady’s house, when he, having secretly done the Guy Fawkes work, could dash in and apply the douche? To my surprise and indignation Bayard treated this plan of campaign with quite unnecessary scorn. Indeed I cannot tell you what he said — it was so very pithy.
I tried again. This time I really did get hold of a thriller. A sort of minor Edgar Wallace.
A disreputable acquaintance of ours, a traveling purveyor who supplied us, from his basket, with just those articles we were forbidden to buy, owned a most ferocious dog. I suggested that we might annex, or hire (the former for choice), that dog; starve him for two days; then, choosing the moment, drop a piece of liver in the lady’s path. Then Ferocity could be released. She, mistaking the intention of the ravenous beast, would scream, and Bayard would charge to the rescue.
I saw that this went better, but Bayard still looked gloomy.
‘Suppose he bit her leg?’ queried her lover.
‘You must chance something,’ said I.
’I’m not going to chance her leg,’ retorted Bayard sturdily, and correctly, as I now see.
‘And liver!’ He positively snorted. I recognized that what is known in the meat trade as ‘offal’ was certainly a debasing medium.
‘Pretty average awful,’ was his crushing comment.
‘Well,’ said I, ‘you’ve got to do something with ginger to it if you mean to speak to her before the holidays — only three weeks now.’
Bayard — for the first time in his life — groaned at the idea of approaching holidays. But he kindly said he would trouble me for no more ideas. It seems that those I put forward had too little romance about them.
But next morning, when he was ‘toshing’ before breakfast, I noticed on his, latterly, serious face one of those permanent smiles. And it was still there in class. Not, however, at his success there, for he narrowly escaped an impot,’ having to drag in neuralgia as the cause of imperfect preparation. But still he looked sunny.
About dinner time he told me that at last he had got hold of the idea, and that to-morrow he was going to give it a pretty average try. I gave thanks for my nightly deliverance and he said I was too fervent.
So that night, except for neuralgia, I was undisturbed. Next morning I noticed that Bayard, a very keen footballer, did not turn out for the House game, but scratched, and rode away on his bicycle after twelve o’clock. And he was n’t in at dinner. I heard our house master asking about him — where was he? No one he asked seemed to know, and I was n’t asked. Besides, I did n’t know.
At 2.45, having been excused from afternoon work, I was going along the ‘High,’ on my way to the dentist, when I saw an odd-looking figure coming toward me, with an arm in a sling. The battered but distinctive headgear proclaimed our affinity; and the twisted smile — what I could see of it — caused me to believe that I was gazing on the remains of my friend. But I was surprised all right.
‘Who did it, old man?’
‘My dear chap, I’ve met her!’
‘But she did n’t do this?’
‘And I’ve spoken to her.’
‘You don’t mean to say the bicy — ’
“And I’ve had lunch with her.’
“Great Cæsar, come out of the murk!’ I cried, for it was exasperating to be put off with a lunch I had n’t eaten.
‘And her mother’s given me a note for old “Four Eyes" when he asks where I was at dinner time.’
I was so annoyed by this peripatetic heading-off that I said, icily, I was glad her mother was there. And then I got the story.
It transpired that, as befitted his career-to-be as a soldier, he had carefully reconnoitred his ground, and by so doing had discovered the time his Lady returned to her lunch after her daily visits to our playing fields to watch her elder brother playing in the ’big game.’ This very morning Bayard had cruised round and about upon his bike until the MOMENT, the zero hour, for making his frontal attack. He had then ridden in at one end of the Square, as she had entered from the other. Timing his run for the winning post — her front door — with the astuteness of a champion jockey, he had skillfully misapplied his spoon brake and taken a perfectly thorough toss, not twenty yards from the charming quarry.
Seeing that he wore a ‘colleger,’ she had run forward, — Bayard was ‘pretty average chipped,’ — only too anxious to succor one of her brother’s schoolmates. She inquired deliciously, was he hurt?
‘Oh no — nothing really, thank you.’
‘But you are! Look at your poor hand!’
Bayard did his best with the eye that still functioned, and instantly had that nasty rough-sea, mid-channel feeling. Oh, but he must come in with her at once and be mended. A menial was summoned to remove and attend to the gallant steed, and Bayard was led through The Portals, leaning on Her arm. And a crowning mercy was that She bossed — quite nicely, of course — her mother. Therefore She manipulated the feather and the oil that coaxed the grit from his nasty wounds. She bound up the horrid cuts. She said he must stay to lunch, and that ‘darling’ mother would write the necessary note for his housemaster. I gathered, further, that the mere touch of her hands, as she washed his wounds, had filled him with all the electricity it is safe to carry on the person.
So it began. She knew nothing of her husband’s artful, daring strategy until years later, when, telling me one day after dinner how he would persist in lumbering up an outhouse with a most disreputable old bike, utterly refusing to part with it, I in reply took it upon myself to translate his affection for the old wreck, so that she might understand. And when I had told my tale, he pooh-poohing and actually rather red and looking a bit shy, she glanced across at him a look for the like of which men will — and rightly — sell their souls for a woman.
You will note that I am still the very good friend of Bayard and his wife — in spite of the fact that, after supporting him at the altar, I have been called upon to support three of their relatives at the font.
‘Pretty average — ’ What?