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- The Man on the Box - 20/44 -
what had happened, had she hired him? If she could pass over that episode at the carriage-door and forget it, _he_ couldn't. He knew that each time he saw her the memory of that embrace and brotherly salute would rise before his eyes and rob him of some of his assurance--an attribute which was rather well developed in Mr. Robert, though he was loath to admit it. If his actions were a mystery to her, hers were none the less so to him. He made up his mind to move guardedly in whatever he did, to practise control over his mobile features so as to avert any shock or thoughtless sign of interest. He knew that sooner or later the day would come when he would be found out; but this made him not the less eager to court that day.
He shaved himself, and was wiping his face on the towel when Celeste appeared in the doorway. She eyed him, her head inclined roguishly to one side, the exact attitude of a bird that has suddenly met a curious and disturbing specimen of insect life.
"M'sieu Zhames, Mees Annesley rides thees morning. You will pre_pairre_ yourself according,"--and she rattled on in her absurd native tongue (every other native tongue _is_ absurd to us, you know!)--
"He is charming and handsome, With his uniform and saber; And his fine black eyes Look love as he rides by!"
while the chef in the kitchen glared furiously at his omelette souffle, and vowed terrible things to M'sieu Zhames if he looked at Celeste more than twice a day.
"Good morning," said M'sieu Zhames, hanging up his towel. His face glowed as the result of the vigorous rubbing it had received.
"Don't give me any of your _bong joors,_ Miss,"--stolidly. "There's only one language for me, and that's English."
"_Merci!_ You Anglaises are _so_ conceit'! How you like _me_ to teach you French, eh, M'sieu Zhames?"
"Not for me,"--shaking his head. She was very pretty, and under ordinary circumstances . . . He did not finish the thought, but I will for him. Under ordinary circumstances, M'sieu Zhames would have kissed her.
"No teach you French? _Non?_ Extra_orrd_inaire!" She tripped away, laughing, while the chef tugged at his royal and M'sieu Zhames whistled.
"Hang the witch!" the new groom murmured. "Her mistress must be very generous, or very positive of her own charms, to keep a sprite like this maid about her. I wonder if I'll run into Karloff?" Karloff! The name chilled him, somehow. What was Karloff to her? Had he known that she was to be in Washington for the winter? What irony, if fate should make him the groom and Karloff the bridegroom! If Karloff loved her, he could press his suit frankly and openly. And, as matters stood, what chance on earth had he, Warburton? "Chuck was right; I've made a mistake, and I am beginning to regret it the very first morning." He snapped his fingers and proceeded to the right wing, where the horses were.
At nine o'clock he led Jane and Dick out to the porte-cochere and waited. He had not long to loiter, for she came out at once, drawing on her gauntlets and taking in long breaths of the morning air. She nodded briefly, but pleasantly, and came down the steps. Her riding- habit was of the conventional black, and her small, shapely boots were of patent-leather. She wore no hat on her glorious head, which showed her good sense and her scorn for freckles and sunburn. But nature had given her one of those rare complexions upon which the sun and the wind have but trifling effect.
"We shall ride north, James; the roads are better and freer. Jane has a horror of cars."
"Yes, Miss Annesley,"--deferentially. "You will have to teach me the lay of the land hereabouts, as I am rather green."
"I'll see to it that you are made perfectly familiar with the roads. You do not know Washington very well, then?"
"No, Miss. Shall I give you a--er--boot up?" He blushed. He had almost said "leg up".
She assented, and raised her boot, under which he placed his palm, and sprang into the saddle. He mounted in his turn and waited.
"When we ride alone, James, I shall not object to your riding at my side; but when I have guests, always remember to keep five yards to the rear."
"Yes, Miss." If he could have got rid of the idea of Karloff and the possibilities which his name suggested, all this would have appealed to him as exceedingly funny.
"Forward, then!"--and she touched Jane's flank with her crop.
The weather was perfect for riding: no sun, a keen breeze from the northwest, and a dust-settled road. Warburton confessed to me afterward that this first ride with her was one of the most splendid he had ever ridden. Both animals were perfect saddle-horses, such as are to be found only in the South. They started up the road at a brisk trot, and later broke into a canter which lasted fully a mile. How beautiful she was, when at length they slowed down into a walk! Her cheeks were flaming, her eyes dancing and full of luster, her hair was tumbled about and tendrils fluttered down her cheeks. She was Diana: only he hoped that she was not inclined to celibacy.
What a mistake he had made! He could never get over this gulf which he himself had thrust between them. This was no guise in which to meet a woman of her high breeding. Under his breath he cursed the impulse that had urged him to decline to attend the ball at the British embassy. There he would have met her as his own true self, a soldier, a polished gentleman of the world, of learning and breeding. Nancy would have brought them together, calls would have been exchanged, and he would have defied Karloff. Then he chid himself for the feeling he had against the Russian. Karloff had a right to love this girl, a right which far eclipsed his own. Karloff was Karloff; a handsome fellow, wealthy, agreeable; while James was not James, neither was he wealthy nor at present agreeable. A man can not sigh very well on horseback, and the long breath which left Warburton's lips made a jerking, hissing sound.
"Have you ever ridden with women before. James?"
"Several times with my major's daughter,"--thoughtlessly.
"Your major's daughter? Who was your regimental colonel?"
James bit his lips, and under his breath disregarded William's warning about "cussing."
"Permit me, Miss Annesley, to decline to answer."
"Did you ride as an attendant?"
"Yes; I was a trooper."
"You speak very good English for a stable-man."
"I have not always been a stable-man."
"I dare say. I should give a good deal to know what you _have_ been. Come, James, tell me what the trouble was. I have influence; I might help you."
"I am past help;"--which was true enough, only the real significance of his words passed over her head. "I thank you for your kindness."
If she was piqued, she made no sign. "James, were you once a gentleman, in the sense of being well-born?"
"Miss Annesley, you would not believe me if I told you who I am and what I have been."
"Are you a deserter?"--looking him squarely in the eye. She saw the color as it crept under his tan.
"I have my honorable discharge,"--briefly.
"I shall ask you to let me see it. Have you ever committed a dishonorable act? I have a right to know."
"I have committed one dishonorable act, Miss Annesley. I shall always regret it."
She gave him a penetrating glance. "Very well; keep your secret."
And there was no more questioning on that ride; there was not even casual talk, such as a mistress might make to her servant. There was only the clock-clock of hoofs and the chink of bit metal. Warburton did not know whether he was glad or sorry.
She dismounted without her groom's assistance, which somewhat disappointed that worthy gentleman. If she was angry, to his eye there was no visible evidence of it. As he took the bridles in hand, she addressed him; though in doing so, she did not look at him, but gave her attention to her gauntlets, which she pulled slowly from her aching fingers.
"This afternoon I shall put you in the care of Pierre, the cook. I am giving a small dinner on Monday evening, and I shall have to call on you to serve the courses. Later I shall seek a butler, but for the present you will have to act in that capacity."
He wasn't sure; it might have been a flash of sunlight from behind a cloud. If it was a smile, he would have given much to know what had caused it.
He tramped off to the stables. A butler! Well, so be it. He could only reasonably object when she called upon him to act in the capacity of a chambermaid. He wondered why he had no desire to laugh.
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