The love story starts here. It had been a long, hard day at the library a typical beginning of term day, with a continuous flow of new students, clutching their lists of required reading and wander ing between the shelves in search of Gibbon, Macaulay, Chaucer, and Dostoevski. Since all the books were carefully categorized and alphabetically arranged, I never ceased to be surprised by the difficulty experienced by so many of these presumably literate young people in locating desired volumes.
“Either they’re terribly nervous or terribly nearsighted, “I told my roommate, wearily kicking off my shoes, ” but I’ve been up and down those ladders so often today I feel like a window cleaner! ”
” There’s nothing wrong with their nerves, ” said Pam, closing one eye and applying mascara to the other, ” or their vision. They just like looking at your legs.
” Pamela! ”
“Well, why wouldn’t they? You have very nice legs. Catching sight of my reflection in her mirror, she groaned. ” Honestly, Liz sometimes I think you were born into the wrong century. You belong to the Victorian era, when ladies were swaddled in bonnets and bustles and high buttoned boots, with fluttering fans to hide their maidenly blushes. And, of course, blissfully ignorant of the facts of life. ”
” Hey! ” I stopped massaging my toes and looked up indignantly. ” I know the facts of life! ”
” Okay. Let’s just say you prefer to ignore them. It’s true, Liz. Look how you reacted just now. Instead of being gratified that you’re blessed with a pair of pins guaranteed to put a sparkle in the eye of the average male undergraduate, you turn pink as a prawn and bury your head like the proverbial ostrich. ”
” Well, make up your mind, ” I said tolerantly. ” Which am 1 fish or fowl? ”
” Oh, very droll. Brian’s right, ” said Pam, returning to her mirror. ” He says you have a very sharp wit.”
“ Does he? How nice of him. ” Honesty precluded my returning the compliment, Brian’s own conversation being so totally mundane that I failed to see how anyone as bright as Pam could even contemplate marrying him. He was, admittedly, extremely handsome, his perfect profile and fair hair reminiscent of the poet, Rupert Brooke; but there, I feared, the resemblance ended. Brian’s deepest emotions could be stirred only, I was sure, by the fluctuations of the stock market. If I ever married (a contingency that, at the age of twenty-seven, seemed increasingly improbable), I wouldn’t want a spouse who talked about unit trusts over the breakfast toast. No fear! ” I want poetry with my porridge, ” I said firmly. Mind you, I didn’t know I’d spoken aloud until Pam gave me a solicitous pat on the head and suggested I have an early night.
” I won’t be home late myself, ” she said. ” We’re only dining with Brian’s boss, and I suspect the evening will be one long yawn. Still, it’s another hurdle in the promotion stakes, and if all goes well we could be calling the banns by Easter. I’d risk it regardless, but well, we must be one hundred percent secure finances, Brian says. ”
” Mm. ” Hastily I changed a grimace into a grin. ” Good luck and try to suppress the yawns.
As soon as she had left, however, I found it quite impossible to suppress my own and decided to take her advice about an early night, which was how I came to be wearing my nightie and dressing gown and holding a mug of steaming cocoa when the doorbell rang.
She’s done it again, I thought resignedly, turning down the television volume. And tonight of all nights! Brian will not be pleased.
” Don’t tell me, ” I said as I opened the door, my eyes closed in exaggerated exasperation. ” You’ve left your keys in your other handbag. “
” No, ” said a pleasant, courteous, slightly surprised, and unmistakably masculine voice. ” I haven’t. ”
My eyes flew open, and my right hand gave an involuntary upward jerk, whereupon the contents of my cocoa mug surged forward like a small tidal wave, instantly transform ing the front of the young man’s pullover from pale blue to muddy brown. Together, in fascinated silence, we surveyed the phenomenon until, at last, I raised my reluctant gaze to his face, wondering bemusedly if he always looked like that or whether his striking pallor was attributable to the anguish of a scalded midriff.
” I’m so sorry! ” I muttered hoarsely. ” Terribly sorry! I thought you were Pam. ”
” No. ” Gingerly he took a fold of soggy sweater between his fingers and eased it away from what must have been an equally soggy shirt. ” Browning, ” he said simply.
” Yes, well ” Helplessly I bit my lip. ” If it’s washed at once the stain should come out, but”
“No, ” he said again, peering over the rims of his glasses. ” I mean, Browning is my name. Robert Browning. ”
“Oh really? ” Oh, really, my whirling mind echoed desparingly. It certainly has been one of those days! “ Look drop it in a bowl of water and let it soak a bit, ” I burbled, leaning heavily on the door. ” If that doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll gladly replace it. ”
” Thanks. I may also require a replacement for my right foot, ” he remarked constrainedly, ” unless you stop jamming it against the wall. Please – I appreciate your skepticism, it’s something I’m well used to, but my name actually is Robert Browning. You haven’t noticed the new card beside the bell for apartment seven on the front porch? ”
” I moved in a week ago. And we have passed each other on the stairs a few times. ”
“Have we? I don’t remember. ”
” No, well mine isn’t a particularly memorable face. Also ” he removed his glasses and brandished them vaguely “ I’m not usually wearing these. I only need them for reading, but I forgot to take them off before I came out. ”
“Apartment seven, ” I said slowly. ” That’s the one just across the landing? ”
” Yes. I’ve already tried the chap next door, but he’s not in, so I thought perhaps you could help. ”
” Help? In what way? ”
” Change. ” He waved a pound note and smiled hopefully through the intervening six-inch space between us. The smile and the absence of the glasses made him look very young and strangely vulnerable. ” I haven’t any chance for the electricity meter. ”
“Oh ! I see. ” Finally convinced and overwhelmed with relief that I was not, after all, dealing with a potentially dangerous eccentric, I flung caution to the winds and opened the door again. ” I don’t think I have either, but I’ll check.”
” Thanks so much. ” As he carefully eased off his carpet slipper and winced, I hesitated, assailed by a twinge of mingled guilt and concern.
” Does that really hurt? ”
” It’s nothing. ” He made a nonchalant gesture and nearly fell over. ” Nothing a good orthopedic surgeon couldn’t remedy, anyway. ”
“Oh, dear, I do apologize. First hurling cocoa at you and then crushing your foot ”
” Don’t worry about it. Please. ” He had floppy black hair and one of his front teeth was very slightly chipped, giving an engagingly little boy look to his smile.
” Yes, well ” My father’s clerical collar would undoubtedly have spun around his neck like a hula hoop, but he was miles away at home in Nottingham, and this young man was clearly in considerable pain. The pain inflicted, moreover, by my own unreasonably excessive action. “ You’d better come in, ” I said very quickly before I had time to change my mind, ” and sit down. ”
“That’s awfully kind. ” He limped awkwardly into the sitting room and sank obediently into the nearest chair, looking around with undisguised interest. ” This is very pleasant. Not fussy but typically feminine. ”
” Thank you. That was our intention. ”
” Decor by Harris and Jackson, yes? ” His smile broadened. ” I noticed your names, you see. Which one are you, by the way? ”
” Pam’s Harris. I’m Jackson. ”
” Miss? ”
” Of course. “
” Why of course ? ” he asked lightly. ” Don’t you approve of marriage? ”
” I most certainly do. ”
” Ah. Then your single status must surely be from choice, not from lack of opportunity.”
” Mr. Browning ” I bestowed upon him the look that had never yet failed to quell the freshest of undergraduates ” I would suggest that you reserve the pretty patter for your contemporaries on the campus. You are, I take it, at the university? ”
” Yes. But ”
” Reading let’s see English literature? ”
” That’s my subject, yes. But, ”
Under the full force of my Medusa-like scrutiny, he continued, predictably, to wilt. “ It’s my first year here, yes. Miss Jackson, has anyone ever told you that you are astonishing ”
” What? ”
” Intuitive? ”
” Frequently. And has anyone told you, ” I asked, momentarily diverted, ” that you have an astonishingly large hole in your sock? ”
” I know. ” Sheepishly he wiggled several pathetically de nude toes. ” I was going to mend it while the Elgar concert was on television, only the electricity ran out, and ”
” Well, I’m afraid I haven’t any change either, so wait! ” I said abruptly. “ Elgar concert? What time? ”
” Now. ” He pointed eloquently at the silent screen and there, sure enough, was a close up of a celebrated conductor mounting the rostrum.
” Good heavens! ” I leaped toward the volume control knob.
” You, er, you like Elgar, too? ”
” Like him? I” When I was small, I had a spaniel puppy who used to sit at my feet and watch me open a pack of potato chips. He had large brown eyes, his name was Chips, and next to my parents he was dearer to me than anything in the world. Needless to say, he invariably wound up eating most of my potato chips. I looked into Mr. Browning’s large, beseeching eyes and sighed. ” All right. You can watch it here. “
His face lighted up with incredulous delight. ” What can I say? ”
” Nothing, ” I retorted tersely. ” In fact, if you utter a single word I shall probably ask you to leave. But as long as you are here, I went on, reaching for my workbox, you might as well let me darn that sock. ”
“Is there no limit, ” he asked humbly, ” to your generosity? ”
” Yes, ” I said succinctly. ” The concert and the sock. That, most decidedly, is the limit. Do you understand? ”
” Absolutely. ” He nodded vigorously, arranged his lanky form in a position whereby his bare foot was modestly concealed, and fixed his unblinking gaze on the television screen. I began to mend his sock, the orchestra began to play, and for the next hour or so not a word was spoken. Frankly, with eyes as expressive as his, words were superfluous, his occasional glances toward me conveying quite clearly his appreciation of the music. Henceforth, decided, I would think of him as Mr. Chips!
Then, sadly, it was all over, the last magnificent chords being succeeded by waves of thunderous applause and cheers to which I and my companion were moved to make our own spontaneous contribution. The resulting scene must, in retrospect, have come as something of a shock to Pam when, expecting to find me sound asleep, she quietly let herself into the apartment.
” Hello, ” I greeted her, switching off the set. ” You’re early.
” Yes. ” Pam’s eyebrows were climbing, slowly but surely, toward her hairline. ” If I’m interrupting ”
“No. The concert just finished. Fancy if Mr. Chips hadn’t run out of change, I’d have missed it. ”
” Mr. who? ”
“ Sorry! ” Suddenly overcome with confusion, I threw the renovated sock at its owner, who fielded it deftly enough, but continued to stand motionless on one leg like a petrified stork. ” Silly of me, ” I burbled blithely. ” His name is Rob ert Browning. ”
“Oh, yes? Well, well. ” Pam swung accusingly toward my visitor. ” What have you been giving her to drink? ”
“ But he hasn’t, ” I interrupted swiftly. ” Truly. I gave him some cocoa accidentally. And then shut his foot in the door. And him in.”
” She’s raving, ” murmured Pam, holding her head. ” Suppose you tell me what’s happening Mr. ”
” Browning. No, please ” he lifted a defensive hand. ” Don’t you remember passing me on the stairs? Or see the new card by the bell for apartment seven? ”
” Browning? Browning. ” Pam’s face began slowly to clear. ” Yes, that does sound familiar. But the fact remains that it’s an unorthodox situation by any standards, but for Liz well, I must say, Liz, I’m surprised at your entertaining a strange man in your nightie and dressing gown. ”
“Oh. Mr. Browning, ” I croaked feebly, covering my tingling cheeks, you aren’t going to believe this, but-but I’d forgotten that I wasn’t dressed. ”
” Please. ” His eyes were now transmitting, with indisputable sincerity, complete reassurance. ” I have three sisters at home in Cumbria. ”
“Cumbria, ” I murmured. ” That’s a very long way from here ”
“Yes. ” He looked at me, and it was just like Chips and the potato chips all over again, except that Chips didn’t have such long black eyelashes. ” I must admit I’ve been rather homesick. ”
Behind his back, Pam was soulfully rolling her eyes and rendering a hearts and flowers mime on the violin, which I stubbornly ignored. ” Now that term has started, ” I said, ” you’ll soon make new friends. But until you do, if ever you get unbearably lonely, you’re welcome to come here and listen to some records or talk about books or whatever. Isn’t he, Pam? ”
My friend tossed her imaginary fiddle over her left shoulder and smiled bleakly.
Mr. Browning beamed. ” You mean you’re interested in books? ”
” She’d better be, ” Pam said dryly. ” She works in the university library. ”
” But that’s marvelous! Miss Jackson ” he took my unsuspecting hand and held it fleetingly against his lips ” what can I say except thank you for being so extraordinarily kind. Miss Harris. ” It was Pam’s turn to have her hand kissed. ” Good night, ladies. And thanks again. ”
“Wait, ” I faltered. ” You still don’t have any change for the meter. “
“It doesn’t matter now, bless you. I have a candle to light me to bed. Also, ” he added on a less poetic note, ” an old bicycle lamp. Good night. ”
” And Good night, ” we chorused.
” Good grief ! ” breathed Pam, closing the door. ” Is he real? ”
I sat down, cupping my face between my hands. ” He is a rather unusual young man, isn’t he? ”
” Unusual? ” She was eyeing me thoughtfully. “ I was go ing to ask how you, of all people, could have got into such a situation, but it’s obvious now. That one could charm the birds from the trees especially a romantic, old-fashioned bird like you. ”
“For heaven’s sake, Pam, I’d ruined his sweater and practically squashed his foot. I had to ask him in. ”
” You were still taking a terrible chance. ”
” Nonsense. He was well-spoken, quiet, and unassuming- ”
” Sure. So was Dr. Crippen. ” She shook her head disbelievingly. ” I still can’t get used to the idea of your behaving so completely out of character. I mean, I’m broad-minded, but even I wouldn’t dream of entertaining a strange man here on my own let alone in a nightie! ”
” Don’t keep going on about my nightie, Pam. I’ve explained that. I was very tired, and after the cocoa incident, I was flustered. He had every reason to be annoyed, and instead, he was extremely civil. Besides ” I frowned ” one can’t seriously think of him as a man. He’s scarcely more than a boy. ”
” Oh, yes? He looks pretty mature to me. ”
“I’m judging by his face, not his physique. Anyway, he’s only a first-year student. ”
” Bringing out your latent maternal instincts, is he? ”
“ Don’t be absurd. ” Making a dignified exit to my room, I said, ” Incidentally, how was your evening? ”
” Oh – boring, but useful, Brian said. You might just get to be my bridesmaid even sooner than we’d hoped. ”
” That’s fine, Pam. Good night. ”
Always the blooming bridesmaid, I thought wistfully, climbing into bed. Never the blushing bride. Not that I envied Pam. Heavens, no. I’d rather stay single for the rest of my life than marry somebody as dull as Brian. It was only that there were odd times and tonight, for some unknown reason, was one of them when the thought occurred to me that it must really be rather nice to love and be loved.
” Guess what, ” Pam challenged as she came into my bedroom late one afternoon. “ That was the florist again.
“ Not again? Oh, ” I put down my hairbrush and reached for the dark red roses. ” Oh, Pam. Aren’t they beautiful? ”
” Beautiful. So were the ones he sent yesterday and the day before that. And the day before Liz, you do realize that the only possible container now available is the umbrella stand? ”
” Well, what can I do? ” I looked up appealingly. ” I’ve asked him to stop. I’ve told him it’s becoming embarrassing, that he’s being wildly extravagant and foolish “
” Foolish – he must be downright bonkers. Either that or ” Pam stared back at me, her expression suddenly and mysteriously intent. “ Liz, has he ever said anything to you? ”
” What an extraordinary question! Of course, he says things to me. ” I picked up one of the long-stemmed blooms and breathed in its sweet, heady fragrance. “ In fact, we never seem to run out of the conversation, that’s what’s so ” I peered over the rose at my friend. ” What did you imagine we do? Sit and stare at each other in stony silence? ”
” Liz, ” she said uncertainly, ” are you being naive? Or evasive ” ” That’s another odd question! Am I usually evasive? ”
” No. But then you don’t usually entertain young men in the apartment when I’m out. Nor go to concerts with them, nor dining and dancing. Nor do you literally let your hair down before bedtime. ”
“Oh that. ” Self consciously I brushed a stray lock away from my cheek. ” Well, you always said the old style was too severe. ”
” But you never changed it until this week. Does Rob ert prefer it this way? ”
” I believe he did once make a passing reference ”
” Ha! I thought so. It all fits. The roses, the daily dates, the way he looks at you when he thinks neither of us is looking at him. Liz, he’s in love with you. “
” What? ” With difficulty, I lowered my voice to its normal register. ” That’s quite ridiculous. Why he’s a boy! ”
” And you’re a girl, my dear Liz. Which makes it a very suitable arrangement. ”
“But it isn’t, Pam.” To my chagrin, I felt the treacherous prick of tears behind my eyes. ” That’s the trouble. It isn’t suitable. ”
” Oh? ” She sat down beside me and patted my back. ” Sorry, love. I just thought, considering how often you’ve been seeing him and how happy you’ve seemed lately I thought that possibly you cared about him, too. ”
” But I do! ” I wailed and buried my face in Robert’s roses. ” I care about him very much.”
” You do? Then- Oh, look, ” Pam said vehemently, ” I know I’m always kidding you about being old – fashioned, but you aren’t telling me you’d let a trivial thing like an age difference come between you? ”
” Eight or nine years isn’t trivial, Pam. ”
” Are you sure he’s that young? ” She frowned dubiously. ” He always strikes me as being far more mature than most first-year men. You don’t imagine he’s given a second thought to your age? ”
” No. But it’s high time he did, ” I said, mopping my brimming eyes. ” I will tell him tonight that I don’t intend to see him anymore. It won’t be easy- ”
” It’ll be impossible. He lives right across the landing, remember? ”
” I shall move. I was going to, anyway, after you are married– “
” Oh, Liz. ” She regarded me pensively. ” Are you sure you’re doing the right thing? ”
” I am. I never should have let myself get so involved in the first place. Perhaps if his eyes hadn’t reminded me of Chips, it wouldn’t have happened.”
” Chips? Who on earth – ” But before I had time to explain, the doorbell rang again and we gaped at each other in consternation. ” That’ll be him. Liz, you aren’t going to cancel your date, are you? ”
” No. Not when he’s taken the trouble to book a table. I’ll tell him after dinner. ”
” Mmm. Better do something about your eyes, ” she advised helpfully, ” and powder your poor little red nose. ”
Meanwhile, I’ll try to keep him amused somehow. I don’t know anything about proper poetry, but do you think he’d like my limericks? ”
“Oh, yes. ” I managed a wan but grateful smile. ” That’s one of the most endearing things about Robert. He does so love to laugh. ”
“I like Pam very much, ” he confided later, smiling at me across the candlelit table as the wine waiter departed. ” You’ll miss her terribly, I daresay, when she gets married? ”
“Terribly. Robert- ”
“Elizabeth? ” ( He had declared from the outset that he could never bring himself to debase so noble a name by abbreviating it to Liz a sentiment with which, I could have told him, my father wholeheartedly concurred . )
“Look, ” I began waveringly, ” I’m awful sorry. It’s been lovely, but well it’s got to stop. ”
“Ah. The flowers. ” He linked his fingers together and leaned his chin on them. ” I know it seems ridiculous to have them sent, but I’d feel ridiculous carrying them along High Street. It is a fairly common masculine phobia, you know. ”
“I didn’t mean the flowers. I meant”
“Good evening, Miss Jackson. ”
I looked up reluctantly and recognized, with some dismay, a second-year student whose frequent visits to the college library had led gradually to our pleasantly casual acquaintanceship. “Hello, Malcolm, ” I muttered. He was a likable youth with charming manners, but I wished most heartily that he would go away. He continued, however, to hover, his earnest gaze now directed toward my companion. That does it, I thought gloomily. Even Malcolm is only human. I’ll be all over the campus by noon tomorrow. Stonewall Jackson finally surrenders to Babyface Browning!
Robert, by this time, was returning Malcolm’s smile. Of course! As both were reading English lit. , they would know each other.
“Good evening, Mr. Browning, ” Malcolm was saying, and I was still wondering whether he was being formal or facetious when he added with enthusiasm, ” That was a really great lecture this afternoon, sir. I was never very keen on any of the Lake Poets before thought they were a bit wet if you’ll pardon the pun. But you’ve made me see them in a completely new light, and that’s the general feeling of the whole class. Sorry to have interrupted, but I just thought you might like to know. ”
“Well, thank you,” Robert said warmly. “I appreciate that very much.” He watched Malcolm’s retreating form before turning back to me. ” Nice lad, that. Now, where were we? ”
“Yes, Elizabeth? ”
“Why, ” I asked him with the utmost care, ” did you tell me that you were a student? ”
“But I didn’t. ” He spread one large and steady hand over both my unsteady ones. ” No, wait. That, if you recall, was an assumption you made the first night we met. I did try to enlighten you! ”
“I asked you if you were reading English literature, and you said quite definitely that”
“That it was my subject. Which it is. ” ” Oh. Yes. ” I blinked. ” Only not as a student. ” ” That’s right. I did mean to tell you eventually, of course, but to be perfectly honest I forgot all about it. You never mentioned it again, and I had no idea it was a misunderstanding of any importance until tonight, when Pam pointed out, most tactfully, that you were slightly worried by the difference in our ages. ”
“Oh, no! She didn’t! Robert, look”
“I am looking, darling. It’s incredible, but you are even lovelier than usual when you blush. And really, you know, you mustn’t worry anymore. I don’t in the least mind your being four years younger than I am. ”
“My fingers closed convulsively over his. ”
“But you aren’t – How could you be that old and look so young?”
“I don’t know. Good clean living ? ” he suggested piously and began to laugh. ” And I sincerely hope you aren’t now going to tell me that you don’t fancy the idea of marrying a doddering old don of thirty-one? ”
“Marrying? Robert, are you proposing? ”
“Trying to. Bear with me, won’t you? It is my first attempt. I was wondering, ” he said, holding my hand against his cheek, ” do you by any chance know Florence? “
“Florence who? ” I asked dreamily.
“Florence, Italy, sweetheart. Where my illustrious namesake took his Elizabeth. ”
“Oh, yes. Elizabeth Barrett. How very odd, ” I murmured. ” Only last night I was reading one of her sonnets. “
“Which one? No – don’t tell me, ” Robert said quietly. ” The first line is, ‘ How do I love thee? ”
I nodded and shyly continued the quotation, “Let me count the ways. ”
“Could we, do you think, count them together ? ” he asked. ” In Florence? On our honeymoon? ”
“Oh, Robert. Please, darling,” I agreed with shameless, unmaidenly alacrity. “Let’s do that.”
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