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Title: Love In Aether
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1201081h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: February 2012
Date most recently updated: February 2012

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Love In Aether


Fred M White


Published in The Windsor Magazine, Vol. XLIV, Jun 1916, pp 15-20

ANGELA of the sea-grey eyes lay in her little white bed, dreaming in elusive golden and purple patches. That is to say, she was not asleep; she could see the moon shining in through the parted dimity blinds of the cottage window, and she was not in the least afraid, though she was quite alone in the house. She was used to that now, accustomed to do most of the housework for herself, with the aid of an occasional help from the village down there at the foot of the moorland. She ought to have been desperately unhappy, but she was not, because she was young, and it was the spring of the year, with the daffodils blooming down there in the garden, and the wallflowers filling the air with their fragrance. And, besides, she had just sold her last lot of drawings, and she had commissions enough to last her well into the autumn. And therefore—

She was swaying gently backwards now; she was getting the dreams into focus. There was the old home, the crazy, tumble-down old vicarage with its walled-in garden, and then the lych-gate of the church, and a grave under the shadow of the big yew tree: "Sacred to the memory of James Dysart, twenty-seven years vicar of this parish." Then a solicitor, dry of manner, keen of face, who had suggested things. Ronald must go on at Cambridge, of course. It would be rather a pinch, but, if Angela thought she could live on her art work, it might be managed. And then the tiny cottage amongst the heather that she had learnt to love so well. After that, again, Ronald, self-reliant, brilliantly successful, and boyish and innocent as ever, was back again. He had carried everything before him. Everybody said that his scientific research showed marked originality; that wireless telephone of his was going to mark an epoch. It would bring him not only fame, but wealth as well. And all this at the end of only two years at Cambridge.

And, after that, the advent of Philip Service, and, behold, a new and dazzling world opened itself up at Angela's feet. For the Greek god had come, the prince had touched her on the lips, and a woman stood where, the day before, a child had walked delicately. It seemed too good to be true, too good to believe, that this Olympian should have stooped to take her by the hand.

He was so handsome, so marvellously, brilliantly clever. Already he was spoken of as the coming surgeon; already he had mastered the secret of Ronald's wireless telephone. But he was poor; he wanted a thousand pounds. With that, then all the world would lie in the hollow of his hand.

How had it all come about? Dreaming there, Angela was striving to place the threads together. By some hypnotic process her little capital had found its way into his hands; indeed, it seemed to her that she had forced it on him. And then there had been some terrible scandal in connection with a series of vivisection experiments, researches so cold-blooded that even Service's fellow-surgeons had been aghast. The man was diabolically clever, they said, but absolutely inhuman. There was a scandal, of course, followed by a prosecution, which Service did not wait for, but took himself off disdainfully to America. He would come back, he said, when the British public returned to their senses. He had merely written this to Angela; he had gone without seeing her, saying that he would be back in the autumn.

It hurt Angela, pained and outraged as she was, to hear people say that Service was a brilliant blackguard. But she found it out later, when Ronald foamed into the cottage one night and cursed Service homerically. The marvellous new wireless telephone had never been properly protected, and that scoundrel had actually taken out a provisional patent in his own name.

Angela could see the white, wet face of her brother as he stormed up and down the stone-flagged floor of the little sitting-room. He would follow that rascal to the ends of the earth; he would not be content until he had taken the thief by the throat and wrested the spoil from him. He did not care what happened to himself—he was reckless of the future. And so he went on the hot adventure, and Angela was alone.

In the little room next to hers, where Ronald had worked, the delicate little instrument still stood. It was little more than an ordinary receiver hedged about with concentric rings and a multitude of little steel points, a kind of miniature generating-station of aether and eon and other strange forces of which Angela knew nothing. But she did know that many a time she had conversed with Ronald from that little room to a point on the moor some ten miles away. She had listened in some confusion to his learned dissertation on air waves and dynamic forces which, when properly tuned one to the other, would make this service a practical proposition all over the world. There was one other man who knew something about it, but Angela never learnt his name.

She was getting over it now; the light had come back into her eyes, and the elasticity into her step, and there was only one terror that haunted the purple and gold flashes of these moonlit dreams—Service was coming back again in the autumn. She feared and disliked him now, but, if he did come back, then assuredly he would exercise the old hypnotic power over her again. He had loved her in his own peculiar way—loved her as if she had been a specimen in some collector's case possessed by no other student of entomology. It was hateful to be loved like that.

Then the dreams became more personal and tender. It was a glorious moonlight night, with the scent of the daffodils faintly sweet through the open window, and the knowledge that the world was very far away. And then—then the wireless telephone began to ring.

Angela was not in the least frightened. In her fancy, it was as if the fairies were calling. Someone in a world far away was speaking to her; and, so far as she knew, the secret working of that telephone was known only to Ronald and the man who was now thrashing his way to San Francisco in a tramp steamer round Cape Horn. She rose from her bed and took a dressing-gown from her wardrobe. For here was something like an adventure, and curiosity gripped her firmly by the arm. She unhooked the receiver and placed it to her ear. Then she spoke.

"Hello!" she said. "Hello! Who is speaking?"

"One moment," a voice said at the other end. "This—this is rather unexpected. Then it is true. Really, I beg your pardon. Would you mind telling me where you are?"

"This is Minehead, in Surrey," Angela said. "And you?"

"Does it really matter?" the voice asked. "Oh, well, I am somewhere on the West Coast. Wireless. You see, I have been making experiments with telephones. I did hear a legend, a few months ago, that a bright particular star up at Cambridge had got in front of me. I have not the least idea what his name is, but it occurred to me that you might be able to tell me."

"I can tell you nothing," Angela said coolly.

"Oh, quite right, quite right. I ought not to have asked. Still, you can see what a thrilling episode it is. Between you and me, we ought to shake the world. It is high time, too, that woman came into her own."

"You are sure you are talking to a woman?"

"Of course. A young woman with a voice like silver."

"Do you want me to end the conversation?"

"Oh, don't go—please, don't go! It was abominably rude of me, but I feel so tremendously—well, bucked! There is no other word for it. And you must be young and beautiful—you could not be anything else with a voice like that. There, I can't help it. I have fused all the elements of science in a crucible to-night, and out of it I have evolved a shining pearl. I suppose you did not know that scientists could talk like that. Ah, if you'd only tell me your name!"

"I should much prefer to have yours."

"Oh, don't let's spoil it. This is the original romance—this is science harnessed to fiction. And between the two of them they have produced the tenderest story in the world. No, I don't usually talk like this. Perhaps to-morrow night—"

"Oh!" Angela exclaimed. "Really, sir!"

"But don't you see we must," the other voice urged—"in the cause of humanity, progress, civilisation. I cast my bread upon the aether, and it comes back to me like this. We are like two children wandering in a verdant forest—we are on the eve of great discoveries. Oh, I must go on! And I know you will help me. You see, there is no one else in the world that knows what you and I do. It is our secret—yours and mine. I won't ever ask who you are; I won't try and find out where you live—that is, until you give me permission. Now, do forgive me and say that I can speak to you again."

Then the voice trailed away into nothingness. For some time Angela waited in vain. She was just a little excited, a little amused, and not in the least displeased. And it was a pleasant, manly voice that had been ringing in her ears. Perhaps to-morrow night, perhaps And then she fell asleep.

* * * * *

"Are you there, Electra? Are you there?"

"Even so, Ariel." Angela smiled. "Even so."

"Ah, we are getting on," the voice at the other end said. "Let me see, now. Correct me if I am wrong. This is the fourteenth night since the spirits of the air first brought us together. Is that not so, Electra?"

"I suppose I ought to feel flattered," Angela said.

"No, don't. I am in deadly earnest. Every day that goes by brings with it some fresh and startling discovery. I know now that the wireless telephone is a practical proposition. My dear Electra, we shall be rich beyond the dreams of avarice."

"We! " Angela cried. "We! Well—"

She regretted the impulse a moment later. It would have been far better to have ignored that word.

"Well, why not?" the other voice said coolly. "There will be money enough in it for all of us. To your brother the larger share, of course, as the original inventor. And yet here am I, five hundred miles away from you, without even knowing your name, or exactly where you live, or even what you look like. But stop. I do know what you look like. You are young and slender, and you have the true artistic mind. You have the most glorious red-brown hair and a pair of eyes blue or grey, as your mood changes. You have a heavenly smile and a little tiny dimple in your left cheek."

"You have dared to come and spy here!" Angela cried.

"Not so, Electra. I really did deduce all this from that beautiful voice of yours. Anyway, you have answered my question. I wonder if you would send me a photograph? Stop—half a moment! I have to attend to my wireless... Are you there?... Oh, yes, that's all right. Now, if I were a mercenary man, I could make a good deal of money. There are times when I have priceless information hours before it reaches the markets of the world. For instance, I have just heard—No, perhaps I'd better not tell you that, because it is a Government secret. But nearly every night I have done my best to spoil to-morrow's paper for you. Don't go away yet. If ever I come down to Surrey—"

Angela put down the receiver and went to bed.

The golden days were drifting on, the daffodils were faded, and the roses in the cottage garden were in full bloom. From time to time Angela had certain fragments of information from her brother. From one port it was a letter, and from another a postcard. He was hot on the track of Service now; he hoped to catch him up at San Francisco within the next few weeks. Then he would take the rascal by the throat and drag those papers out of him. He would have a lawful assignment if he had to force it at the point of a revolver, and then he would come back home and take his proper place again. Service was on board the Danube, and Ronald was only a few days behind him.

This was interesting and exciting enough, but there were also brief letters from Service to the effect that he was coming back in the autumn—indeed, he mentioned the actual ship by which he intended to return. And as Angela read these messages, her heart sank lower and lower, and the blossoming of the roses in the garden ceased to interest her. She thought of the fall of the autumn leaves and the golden crimson of the bracken. She felt cold and miserable. Her eyes were open now; she wanted to be free and unfettered, and she knew only too well that, once Service was back in England, he would exercise all the old hypnotic influence over her. The man was utterly unscrupulous, but so long as he lived he would still keep that sway, and sooner or later the prison doors would close, unless—unless— She smiled as the thought occurred to her. It was all utterly illogical and absurd, no doubt, but a man with a voice and cheery optimism like that of the mysterious Ariel must be capable of big things. Now, supposing that Angela told him a little more—supposing that she told him the whole truth! And she would do it—she would do it that very night.

And that was why she never mentioned it. The roses were finished, and July was dead and gone, and the scarlet dahlias flamed in the garden, with the story yet untold. It was a little dank and cheerless outside, and a fine rain was falling on the red tiles of the cottage.

* * * * *

"Hello! Hello! Oh, yes. It's you? But why so sad? Is something troubling that dear mind of yours?"

"How do you know that I am sad?" Angela asked.

"I know it because every inflexion of your voice to me is a study in emotions. I know it because I love you, dear Electra, and the time has come when I cannot be happy without you. And you know it, too. It is three months now since I heard you speak out of the darkness, and if you do not care for me—"

"Well, sir, go on. Why this modesty?"

"Oh, I was going on all right. If you had not got to care, then we should never have had all these intimate conversations. I have told you everything, as I believe also that you have told me—well, as much as a woman ever tells."

"I ought to be angry," Angela said, "but—but I'm not. I ought to have told you long ago that there was somebody else."

"Oh, I guessed that," the other voice said cheerfully. "But you don't love him. If you do, I will put my transmitter down and not say another word."

"Please don't go away," Angela said faintly. "I—"

"Darling, I knew it! And we are going to be the happiest couple alive. Now tell me all about it."

"Oh, you really are!" Angela laughed unsteadily. "And I have never even seen you; but even if I had— Oh, it's impossible! I promised another man—"

"Yes, but you don't love him. I'll go further, and say that you very much dislike him. You are afraid of him, that's what it is. Sweetheart, a girl with a dimple like that in your left cheek must not be sacrificed in this cold-blooded fashion. Now, let me see. Let me send him about his business."

"But you can't—he is on the sea."

"But not a sailor. He could not be. No sailor would make love to a girl who disliked him. Now, let me come and see you. We'll talk it over, and then you shall write him a letter. If you like, I'll put another one in the same envelope. And I'm a dreadfully hefty chap, and I can box a bit, too. If you don't believe it, ask any old Oxford man if Cyri—But I very nearly gave myself away then. Do let me come and see you."

"No," Angela said firmly—"at least, not yet. Oh, you don't know what you are saying; you don't know what forces you are up against. And I can't talk to you any more to-night."

Angela dropped the receiver and crept miserably back to bed. There was a way out here, perhaps a desperately foolish one, but a way out, all the same. Was there ever anything in the shape of comedy more illogical and absurd than this? To give her heart and her confidence to a man she had never seen! And yet she must escape; she must follow the line of the least resistance. And with this she fell asleep.

* * * * *

"Well, I'm waiting for you to speak."

"How dreadfully hard your voice seems! Anyone would think that you were angry with me. If you only knew how lonely I am, and how unhappy, I am sure—"

"Dearest, forgive me. I am getting so beastly restless. I have been working very hard, too. In a few days I am going to take my holiday, and I can't return here until that letter is written. It must be done, and the sooner the better. Now, do tell me where I can find you. I feel like a restless bird that has migrated in the spring in search of his mate. You can imagine the condition I'm in when I am reduced to poetical similes like these. Now, I'll give you just one week to make up your mind. At the end of that time I shall come down and decide, and bring my wireless telephone with me. Then I shall call like a bird from every hill until the voice of my mate responds to me. If you don't respond, then I shall know you don't care. My dearest girl, was ever science yet mortgaged for so sweet a purpose?"

"Have you ceased to be quite practical?" Angela asked.

"My own Electra, why mock me? But you're quite right. One must be practical sometimes—which reminds me. I am afraid I have got some bad news for you. Did not you tell me that your brother had sailed in the Danube?"

"Oh, no!" Angela cried. "His boat was the Dniester—"

"That's all right, then, because I heard half an hour ago that the Danube had gone down off the coast of Chile in a storm, and that only one man had been saved—one of the crew. Here, hello, hello! Where have you got to?"

But the receiver had fallen from Angela's hands, and the tears were wet upon her cheeks. It had come, then—the freedom that she had longed for—and come, too, in a way that made her more than half ashamed of her gratitude. Strange, indeed, that this information had reached her from such a source. It seemed to her as if she were in two moods—a queer blending of misery and unhappiness. But be that as it might, she could not speak to the man at the other end any more to-night. She could not speak to him at all. She tried to more than once on the following evening, but her courage failed her; and for three nights those mysterious, long-reaching, ariel fingers set the sound waves in motion, but the bell in the little room spoke in vain. Then, as the days went on, Angela's balance and common-sense came back to her. It was absurd to go on in this way; she must speak to Ariel again, and tell him exactly what had happened. But how much easier it would be for her to do this when they sat side by side in the shadow of the pine forest, and he could hear the story of her life from her own lips.

And yet she could not do it. Another day or two passed by, beautiful August days, with the heather in bloom like a purple sheet upon the moorland, and down below the cornlands turning gold and mellow in the sunshine. It seemed to Angela that she could only sit at the door of the cottage and dream. For the last week she had done no work. She was hardly conscious of the fact that she had just lunched, and—

And then the telephone bell began to ring.

She flew up the stairs, eager, anxious, and trembling. Something strange must have happened—something dreadful and unexpected. Her lips shook as she spoke.

"What is it?" she whispered. "What is it?"

"The bird looking for his mate," the other voice said. "Did I not tell you what would happen? For three days I have been seeking, seeking; but something was wrong with one of the concentrics, and I could not call you."

"Where—where are you now?" Angela stammered,

"Well, to keep up the bird simile, I am fluttering over Surrey. Darling, I must be within a few miles of you. At the present moment I am seated on the top of a high piece of moorland that seems to be far away from the rest of the world. I can see the Channel on one side, or what looks like it, and the glorious woods on the other, and apparently there is no human being within miles. Ah, if you were only with me now!"

"Do you know the name of that place?" Angela asked, in a small voice. "Is—is it far from here?"

"Dearest, how should I know? But, as a matter of fact, the place where I am seated is known by name to me. I got it from an honest shepherd who passed just now with a flock of sheep. He says the place is called Ledge Point."

A queer little laugh broke from Angela's lips. Her heart was beating wildly, the grey eyes gleamed like stars.

"There is no evading you," she whispered. "Now, if you will turn your eyes towards the west, down at the foot of a great clump of pines you will see a tiny red-roofed cottage. And if you could see like the bird can, then you would also make out a figure in a cotton dress and a cotton sun-bonnet, and that figure is me. You are not more than half a mile away, Ariel, and I can't quite realise it yet."

"Sweetheart, don't waste another moment of this glorious day. Shall I come to you, or will you come to me? I can see the path lying plain across the moor."

"I think," Angela said demurely, with a suspicion of a lilt in her voice, "I think that, in the circumstances, it will be far better for us to meet half-way."


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