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London that historic summer was almost unbearably hot. It seems, looking back, as though the big baking city in those days was meant to serve as an anteroom of torture--an inadequate bit of preparation for the hell that was soon to break in the guise of the Great War.
About the soda-water bar in the drug store near the Hotel Cecil many American tourists found solace in the sirups and creams of home. Through the open windows of the Piccadilly tea shops you might catch glimpses of the English consuming quarts of hot tea in order to become cool. It is a paradox they swear by.
About nine o'clock on the morning of Friday, July 24th, in that memorable year 1914, Geoffrey West left his apartments in Adelphi Terrace and set out for breakfast at the Carlton. He had found the breakfast room of that dignified hotel the coolest in London, and through some miracle, for the season had passed, strawberries might still be had there.
As he took his way through the crowded Strand, surrounded on all sides by honest British faces wet with honest British perspiration he thought longingly of his rooms in Washington Square, New York. For West, despite the English sound of that Geoffrey, was as American as Kansas, his native state, and only pressing business was at that moment holding him in England, far from the country that glowed unusually rosy because of its remoteness.
At the Carlton news stand West bought two morning papers--the Times for study and the Mail for entertainment and then passed on into the restaurant. His waiter--a tall soldierly Prussian, more blond than West himself--saw him coming and, with a nod and a mechanical German smile, set out forthe plate of strawberries which he knew would be the first thing desired by the American.
West seated himself at his usual table and, spreading out the Daily Mail, sought his favorite column. The first item in that column brought a delighted smile to his face:
"The one who calls me Dearest is not genuine or they would write to me."
Any one at all familiar with English journalism will recognize at once what department it was that appealed most to West. During his three weeks in London he had been following, with the keenest joy, the daily grist of Personal Notices in the Mail. This string of intimate messages, popularly known as the Agony Column, has long been an honored institution in the English press.
In the days of Sherlock Holmes it was in the Times that it flourished, and many a criminal was tracked to earth after he had inserted some alluring mysterious message in it. Later the Telegraph gave it room; but, with the advent of halfpenny journalism, the simple souls moved en masse to the Mail.
Tragedy and comedy mingle in the Agony Column. Erring ones are urged to return for forgiveness; unwelcome suitors are warned that:
"Father has warrant prepared; fly, Dearest One!"
Loves that would shame by their ardor Abelard and Heloise are frankly published--at ten cents a word--for all the town to smile at. The gentleman in the brown derby states with fervor that the blonde governess who got off the tram at Shepherd's Bush has quite won his heart. Will she permit his addresses? Answer; this department.
For three weeks West had found this sort of thing delicious reading. Best of all, he could detect in these messages nothing that was not open and innocent. At their worst they were merely an effort to sidestep old Lady Convention; this inclination was so rare in the British, he felt it should be encouraged.
Besides, he was inordinately fond of mystery and romance, and these engaging twins hovered always about that column.
So, while waiting for his strawberries, he smiled over the ungrammatical outburst of the young lady who had come to doubt the genuineness of him who called her Dearest. He passed on to the second item of the morning. Spoke one whose heart had been completely conquered:
MY LADY sleeps. She of raven tresses. Corner seat from Victoria, Wednesday night. Carried program. Gentleman answering inquiry desires acquaintance. Reply here.--Le Roi
West made a mental note to watch for the reply of raven tresses. The next message proved to be one of Aye's lyrics--now almost a daily feature of the column:
Dearest Tender loving wishes to my dear one. Only to be with you now and always. None "fairer in my eyes." Your name is music to me. I love you more than life itself, my own beautiful darling, my proud sweetheart, my joy, my all! Jealous of everybody. Kiss your dear hands for me. Love you only. Thine ever.--AYE.
Which, reflected West, was generous of Aye--at ten cents a word--and in striking contrast to the penurious lover who wrote, farther along in the column:
--loveu dearly; wantocu; longing; missu--
But those extremely personal notices ran not alone to love. Mystery, too, was present, especially in the aquatic utterance:
DEFIANT MERMAID: Not mine. Alligators bitingu now. 'Tis well; delighted.--FIRST FISH.
And the rather sanguinary suggestion:
DE Box: First round; tooth gone. Finale. You will FORGET ME NOT.
At this point West's strawberries arrived and even the Agony Column could not hold his interest. When the last red berry was eaten he turned back to read:
WATERLOO: Wed. 11:53 train. Lady who left in taxi and waved, care to know gent, gray coat?--SINCERE.
Also the more dignified request put forward in:
GREAT CENTRAL: Gentleman who saw lady in bonnet 9 Monday morning in Great Central Hotel lift would greatly value opportunity of obtaining introduction.
This exhausted the joys of the Agony Column for the day, and West, like the solid citizen he really was, took up the Times to discover what might be the morning's news. A great deal of space was given to the appointment of a new principal for Dulwich College. The affairs of the heart, in which that charming creature, Gabrielle Ray, was at the moment involved, likewise claimed attention. And in a quite unimportant corner, in a most unimportant manner, it was related that Austria had sent an ultimatum to Serbia. West had read part way through this stupid little piece of news, when suddenly the Thunderer and all its works became an uninteresting blur.
A girl stood just inside the door of the Carlton breakfast room.
Yes; he should have pondered that despatch from Vienna. But such a girl! It adds nothing at all to say that her hair was a dull sort of gold; her eyes violet. Many girls have been similarly blessed.
It was her manner; the sweet way she looked with those violet eyes through a battalion of head waiters and resplendent managers; her air of being at home here in the Carlton or anywhere else that fate might drop her down. Unquestionably she came from oversea--from the States.
She stepped forward into the restaurant. And now slipped also into view, as part of the background for her, a middle-aged man, who wore the conventional black of the statesman. He, too, bore the American label unmistakably. Nearer and nearer to West she drew, and he saw that in her hand she carried a copy of the Daily Mail.
West's waiter was a master of the art of suggesting that no table in the room was worth sitting at save that at which he held ready a chair. Thus he lured the girl and her companion to repose not five feet from where West sat. This accomplished, he whipped out his order book, and stood with pencil poised, like a reporter in an American play.
"The strawberries are delicious," he said in honeyed tones.
The man looked at the girl, a question in his eyes.
"Not for me, dad," she said. "I hate them! Grapefruit, please."
As the waiter hurried past, West hailed him. He spoke in loud defiant tones.
"Another plate of the strawberries!" he commanded. "They are better than ever today."
For a second, as though he were part of the scenery, those violet eyes met his with a casual impersonal glance. Then their owner slowly spread out her own copy of the Mail.
"What's the news?" asked the statesman, drinking deep from his glass of water.
"Don't ask me," the girl answered, without looking up. "I've found something more entertaining than news. Do you know--the English papers run humorous columns! Only they aren't called that. They're called Personal Notices. And such notices!" She leaned across the table. "Listen to this: 'Dearest: Tender loving wishes to my dear one. Only to be with you now and always. None fairer in my eyes--'"
The man locked uncomfortably about him. "Hush!" he pleaded. "It doesn't sound very nice to me."
"Nice!" cried the girl. "Oh, but it is--quite nice. And so deliciously open and aboveboard. 'Your name is music to me. I love you more--'"
"What do we see today?" put in her father hastily.
"We're going down to the City and have a look at the Temple. Thackeray lived there once--and Oliver Goldsmith--"
"All right--the Temple it is."
"Then the Tower of London. It's full of the most romantic associations. Especially the Bloody Tower, where those poor little princes were murdered. Aren't you thrilled?"
"I am if you say so."
"You're a dear! I promise not to tell the people back in Texas that you showed any interest in kings and such--if you will show just a little. Otherwise I'll spread the awful news that you took off your hat when King George went by."
The statesman smiled. West felt that he, who had no business to, was smiling with him.
The waiter returned, bringing grapefruit, and the strawberries West had ordered. Without another look toward West, the girl put down her paper and began her breakfasting. As often as he dared, however, West looked at her.
With patriotic pride he told himself: "Six months in Europe, and the most beautiful thing I've seen comes from back home!"
When he rose reluctantly twenty minutes later his two compatriots were still at table, discussing their plans for the day. As is usual in such cases, the girl arranged, the man agreed.
With one last glance in her direction, West went out on the parched pavement of Haymarket.
Slowly he walked back to his rooms. Work was waiting there for him; but instead of getting down to it, he sat on the balcony of his study, gazing out on the courtyard that had been his chief reason for selecting those apartments.