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Just a noise, that is all.
But a very significant noise to Miss Nathalie Rogers, or Nattie, as she was usually abbreviated; a noise that caused her to lay aside her book, and jump up hastily, exclaiming, with a gesture of impatience:—
"Somebody always 'calls' me in the middle of every entertaining chapter!"
For that noise, that little clatter, like, and yet too irregular to be the ticking of a clock, expressed to Nattie these four mystic letters:—
"B m—X n;"
which same four mystic letters, interpreted, meant that the name, or, to use the technical word, "call," of the telegraph office over which she was present sole presiding genius, was "B m," and that "B m" was wanted by another office on the wire, designated as "X n."
A little, out-of-the-way, country office, some fifty miles down the line, was "X n," and, as Nattie signaled in reply to the "call" her readiness to receive any communications therefrom, she was conscious of holding in some slight contempt the possible abilities of the human portion of its machinery.
For who but an operator very green in the profession would stay there?
Consequently, she was quite unprepared for the velocity with which the telegraph alphabet of sounds in dots and dashes rattled over the instrument, appropriately termed a "sounder," upon which messages are received, and found herself wholly unable to write down the words as fast as they came.
"Dear me!" she thought, rather nervously, "the country is certainly ahead of the city this time! I wonder if this smart operator is a lady or gentleman!"
And, notwithstanding all her efforts, she was compelled to "break"—that is, open her "key," thereby breaking the circuit, and interrupting "X n" with the request,
"X n" took the interruption very good-naturedly—it was after dinner—and obeyed without expressing any impatience.
But, alas! Nattie was even now unable to keep up with this too expert individual of uncertain sex, and was obliged again to "break," with the humiliating petition,
"Please send slower!"
"Oh!" responded "X n."
For a small one, "Oh!" is a very expressive word. But whether this particular one signified impatience, or, as Nattie sensitively feared, contempt for her abilities, she could not tell. But certain it was that "X n" sent along the letters now, in such a slow, funereal procession that she was driven half frantic with nervousness in the attempt to piece them together into words. They had not proceeded far, however, before a small, thin voice fell upon the ears of the agitated Nattie.
"Are you taking a message now?" it asked.
Nattie glanced over her shoulder, and saw a sharp, inquisitive nose, a green veil, a pair of eyeglasses, and a strained smile, sticking through her little window.
Nodding a hasty answer to the question, she wrote down another word of the message, that she had been able to catch, notwithstanding the interruption. As she did so the voice again queried,
"Do you take them entirely by sound?"
With a determined endeavor not to "break," Nattie replied only with a frown. But fate was evidently against her establishing a reputation for being a good operator with "X n."
"Here, please attend to this quick!" exclaimed a new voice, and a tall gentleman pounded impatiently on the shelf outside the little window with one hand, and with the other held forth a message.
With despair in her heart, once more Nattie interrupted "X n," took the impatient gentleman's message, studied out its illegible characters, and changed a bill, the owner of the nose looking on attentively meanwhile; this done, she bade the really much-abused "X n" to proceed, or in telegraphic terms, to
"G. A." being the telegraphic abbreviation for "go ahead," and "the" the last word she had received of the message.
And this time not even the fact of its being after dinner restrained "X n's" feelings, and "X n" made the sarcastic inquiry,
"Had you not better go home and send down someone who is capable of receiving this message?"
Now it would seem as if two persons sixty or seventy miles apart might severally fly into a rage and nurse their wrath comfortably without particularly annoying each other at the moment. But not under present conditions; and Nattie turned red and bit her nails excitedly under the displeasure of the distant person of unknown sex, at "X n." But no instrument had yet been invented by which she could see the expression on the face of this operator at "X n," as she retorted, and her fingers formed the letters very sharply;
"Do you think it will help the matter at all for you to make a display of your charming disposition? G. A.—the—."
"I am happy to be able to return the compliment implied!" was "X n's" preface to the continuation of the message.
And now indeed Nattie might have recovered some of her fallen glories, being angry enough to be fiercely determined, had not the owner of the nose again made her presence manifest by the sudden question:
"Do you have a different sound for every word, or syllable, or what?"
And, turning quickly around to scowl this persevering questioner into silence, Nattie's elbow hit and knocked over the inkstand, its contents pouring over her hands, dress, the desk and floor, and proving beyond a doubt, as it descended, the truth of its label—
"Superior Black Ink!"
And then, save for the clatter of the "sounder," there was silence.
For a moment Nattie gazed blankly at her besmeared hands and ruined dress, at the "sounder," and at the owner of the nose, who returned her look with that expression of serene amusement often noticeable in those who contemplate from afar the mishaps of their fellow beings; then with the courage of despair, she for the fourth time "broke" "X n," saying, with inky impression on the instrument,
"Excuse me, but you will have to wait! I am all ink, and I am being cross-examined!"
Having thus delivered herself, she turned a deliberately deaf ear to "X n's" response, which, judging from the way the movable portion of the "sounder" danced, was emphatic.
"A little new milk will take that out!" complacently said the owner of the nose, watching Nattie's efforts to remove the ink from her dress with blotting-paper.
"Unfortunately I do not keep a cow here!" Nattie replied, tartly.
Not quite polite in Nattie, this. But do not the circumstances plead strongly in her excuse? For, remember, she was not one of those impossible, angelic young ladies of whom we read, but one of the ordinary human beings we meet every day.
The owner of the nose, however, was not charitable, and drew herself up loftily, as she said in imperative accents,
"You did not answer my question! Do you have to learn the sound of each letter so as to distinguish them from each other?"
Nattie constrained herself to reply, very shortly,
"Can you take a message and talk to me at the same time?" pursued the investigator.
"No!" was Nattie's emphatic answer, as she looked ruefully at her dress.
"But your instrument there is going it now. Ain't they sending you a message?" went on the relentless owner of the nose.
At this Nattie turned her attention a moment to what was being done "on the wire," and breathed a sigh of relief. For "X n" had given place to another office and she replied,
"No! Some office on the wire is sending to some other office."
The nose elevated itself in surprise.
"Can you hear everything that is sent from every other office?"
"Yes," was the weary reply, as Nattie rubbed her dress.
"What!" exclaimed the owner of the nose, in accents of incredulous wonder. "All over the world?"
"Certainly not! only the offices on this wire; there are about twenty," was the impatient reply.
"Ah!" evidently relieved. "But," considering, "supposing you do not catch all the sounds, what do you do then?"
"Break! Break what? The instruments?" queried the owner of the nose, perplexedly, and looking as if that must be a very expensive habit.
"Break the circuit—the connection—open the key and ask the sending office to repeat from the last word I have been able to catch!"
Then seeing unmistakable evidence of more questions in the nose, Nattie threw the ink-soaked blotting-paper and her last remnant of patience into the waste basket, and added,
"But you must excuse me, I am too busy to be annoy—interrupted longer, and there are books that will give you all the information that you require!"
So saying, Nattie turned her back, and the owner of the nose withdrew it, its tip glistening with indignation as she walked away. As it vanished, Nattie gave a sigh of relief, and sat down to mourn her ruined dress. Whatever may have been her previous opinion, she was positive now that this was the prettiest, the most becoming dress she had ever possessed, or might ever possess! Only the old, old story! We prize most what is gone forever!
"And all that dreadful man's—or woman's—fault at X n!" cried Nattie, savagely. Unjustly too, for if anyone was responsible for the accident, it was the owner of the nose.
But not long did Nattie dare give way to her misery. That fatal message was not yet received.
Glancing over the few words she had of it, she read; "Send the hearse," and then she began anxiously "calling" "X n."
"Hearse," looked too serious for trifling. But either "X n's" attention was now occupied in some other direction, or else he—or she—was too much out of humor to reply, for it was full twenty minutes before came the answering,
At which Nattie said as fiercely as fingers could, "I have been after you nearly half an hour!"
"Have you?" came coolly back from "X n." "Well, you're not alone, many are after me—my landlord among others—not to mention a washerwoman or two!"
Then followed the figure "4," which means, "When shall I go ahead?"
"Waxing jocose, are you?" Nattie murmured to herself, as she replied:
"G. A.— what? "
"Hearse," repeated Nattie, in firm, clear characters.
To her surprise and displeasure "X n" laughed—the circumstance being conveyed to her understanding in the usual way, by the two letters "H a!"
"What are you laughing at?" she asked.
"At your grave mistake!" was "X n's" answer, accompanied by another "Ha! To convert a horse into a hearse is really an idea that merits a smile!"
As the consciousness of her blunder dawned upon her, Nattie would gladly have sank into oblivion. But as that was impossible, she took a fresh blank, and very meekly said,
With another laugh, "X n" complied, and Nattie now succeeded in receiving the message without further mishap.
"What did you sign?" she asked, as she thankfully wrote the last word. Every operator is obliged to sign his own private "call," as well as the office "call," and "O. K." at the close of each message.
"C." was replied to Nattie's question.
"O. K. N. B m," she then said, and added, perhaps trying to drown the memory of her ludicrous error in politeness, "I hope another time I shall not cause you so much trouble."
C at "X n" was evidently not to be exceeded in little speeches of this kind, for he—or she—responded immediately,
"On the contrary, it was I who gave you trouble. I know I must certainly have done so, or you never could have effected such a transformation as you did. Imagine the feelings of the sender of that message, had he found a hearse awaiting his arrival instead of a horse!"
Biting her lip with secret mortification, but determined to make the best of the matter outwardly, Nattie replied,
"I suppose I never shall hear the last of that hearse! But at all events it took the surliness out of you."
"Yes, when people come to a hearse they are not apt to have any more kinks in their disposition! I confess, though," C went on frankly, "I was unpardonably cross; not surly, that is out of my line, but cross. In truth, I was all out of sorts. Will you forgive me if I will never do so again?"
"Certainly," Nattie replied readily. "I am sure we are far enough apart to get on without quarreling, if, as they say, distance lends enchantment!"
"Particularly when I pride myself upon my sweet disposition!" said C.
At which Nattie smiled to herself, to the surprise of a passing gentleman, on whom her unconscious gaze rested, and who thought, of course, that she was smiling at him.
Appearances are deceitful!
"I fear you will have to prove your sweetness before I shall believe in it," Nattie responded to C, all unaware of what she had done, or that the strange young gentleman went on his way with the firm resolve to pass by that office again and obtain another smile!
"It shall be my sole aim hereafter," C replied; and then asked, "Have you a pleasant office there?"
"I regret to say no." Then looking around, and describing what she saw—"a long, dark little room, into which the sun never shines, a crazy and a wooden chair, a high stool, desk, instruments—that is all—Oh! And me!"
"Last but not least," said C; "but what a contrast to my office! Mine is all windows, and in cold days like this the wind whistles in until my very bones rattle! The outward view is fine. As I sit I see a stable, a carpenter's shop, the roof of the new Town Hall that has ruined the town, and—"
"Excuse me,"—someone at another office on the line here broke in—and with more politeness than is sometimes shown in interrupting conversations on the wire—"I have a message to send," and forthwith began calling.
At this Nattie resumed her interrupted occupation of bewailing her spoiled dress, but at the same time she had a feeling of pleased surprise at the affability of C at "X n."
"I wonder," she thought, as she took up her book again, and tried to bury the remembrance of her accident therein, "I do wonder if this C is he or she! "
Soon, however, she heard "X n" "call" once more, and this time she laid her book aside very readily.
"You did not describe the principal part of your office—yourself!" C said, when she answered the "call."
"How can I describe myself?" replied Nattie. "How can anyone—properly? One sees that same old face in the glass day after day, and becomes so used to it that it is almost impossible to notice even the changes in it; so I am sure I do not see how one can tell how it really does look—unless one's nose is broken—or one's eyes crossed—and mine are not—or one should not see a looking-glass for a year! I can only say I am very inky just now!"
"Oh! that is too bad!" C said; then, with a laugh, "It has always been a source of great wonder to me how certain very plain people of my acquaintance could possibly think themselves handsome. But I see it all now! Can you not, however, leave the beauty out, and give me some sort of an idea-about yourself for my imagination to work upon?"
"Certainly!" replied Nattie, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye that C knew not of. "Imagine, if you please, a tall young man, with—"
C "broke" quickly, saying,
"Oh, no! You cannot deceive me in that way! Under protest I accept the height, but spurn the sex!"
"Why, you do not suppose I am a lady, do you?" queried Nattie.
"I am quite positive you are. There is a certain difference in the 'sending,' of a lady and gentleman, that I have learned to distinguish. Can you truly say I am wrong?"
Nattie evaded a direct reply, by saying,
"People who think they know so much are often deceived; now I make no surmises about you, but ask, fairly and squarely, shall I call you Mr., Miss, or Mrs. C?"
"Call me neither. Call me plain C, or picture, if you like, in place of your sounder, a blonde, fairy-like girl talking to you, with pensive cheeks and sunny—"
"Don't you believe a word of it!"—someone on the wire here broke in, wishing, probably, to have a finger in the pie; "picture a hippopotamus, an elephant, but picture no fairy!"
"Judge not others by yourself, and learn to speak when spoken to!" C replied to the unknown; then "To N.—You know the more mystery there is about anything, the more interesting it becomes. Therefore, if I envelop myself in all the mystery possible, I will cherish hopes that you may dream of me!"
"But I am quite sure you can, with propriety be called Mr. C—plain, as you say, I doubt not," replied Nattie. "Now, as it is time for me to go home, I shall have to say good night."
"To be continued in our next?" queried C.
"If you are not in a cross mood," replied Nattie.
"Now that is a very unkind suggestion, after my abject apology. But, although our acquaintance had a grave re- hearse -al, I trust it will have a happy ending!"
"If you will promise never to say ' grave ,' ' hearse, ' or anything in the undertaking line, I will agree never to say 'cross!' " she said.
"The undertaking will not be difficult; with all my heart!" C answered, and with this mutual understanding they bade each other "good night."
"There certainly is something romantic in talking to a mysterious person, unseen, and miles away!" thought Nattie, as she put on her hat. "But I would really like to know whether my new friend employs a tailor or a dressmaker!".
Was Nattie conscious of a feeling that it would add to the zest of the romantic acquaintance should the distant C be entitled to the use of the masculine pronoun?
Perhaps so! For Nattie was human, and was only nineteen!