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- The Man on the Box - 30/44 -
day of the month. Payday comes especially happy this time. It will put good feeling into all, and make the service vastly more expeditious."
She counted out four ten-dollar notes from a roll in her hand and signified him to approach. He took the money, coolly counted it, and put it in his vest-pocket.
"Thank you, Miss."
I do not say that she looked disappointed, but I assert that she was slightly disconcerted. She never knew the effort he had put forth to subdue the desire to tear the money into shreds, throw it at her feet and leave the house.
"When the gentlemen wish for cigars or cigarettes, you will find them in the usual place, the tower drawer in the sideboard." With a swish she was gone.
He took the money out and studied it. No, he wouldn't tear it up; rather he would put it among his keepsakes.
I shall leave Mr. Robert, or M'sieu Zhames, to recover his tranquillity, and describe to you the character and quality of the guests. There was the affable military attache of the British embassy, there was a celebrated American countess, a famous dramatist and his musical wife, Warburton's late commanding colonel, Mrs. Chadwick, Count Karloff, one of the notable grand opera prima-donnas, who would not sing in opera till February, a cabinet officer and his wife, Colonel Annesley and his daughter. You will note the cosmopolitan character of these distinguished persons. Perhaps in no other city in America could they be brought together at an informal dinner such as this one was. There was no question of precedence or any such nonsense. Everybody knew everybody else, with one exception. Colonel Raleigh was a comparative stranger. But he was a likable old fellow, full of stories of the wild, free West, an excellent listener besides, who always stopped a goodly distance on the right side of what is known in polite circles as the bore's dead-line. Warburton held for him a deep affection, martinet though he was, for he was singularly just and merciful.
They had either drunk the cocktail or had set it aside untouched, and had emptied the oyster shells, when the ordeal of the soup began. Very few of those seated gave any attention to my butler. The first thing he did was to drop the silver ladle. Only the girl saw this mishap. She laughed; and Raleigh believed that he had told his story in an exceptionally taking manner. My butler quietly procured another ladle, and proceeded coolly enough. I must confess, however, that his coolness was the result of a physical effort. The soup quivered and trembled outrageously, and more than once he felt the heat of the liquid on his thumb. This moment his face was pale, that moment it was red. But, as I remarked, few observed him. Why should they? Everybody had something to say to everybody else; and a butler was only a machine anyway. Yet, three persons occasionally looked in his direction: his late colonel, Mrs. Chadwick, and the girl; each from a different angle of vision. There was a scowl on the colonel's face, puzzlement on Mrs. Chadwick's, and I don't know what the girl's represented, not having been there with my discerning eyes.
Once the American countess raised her lorgnette and murmured: "What a handsome butler!"
Karloff, who sat next to her, twisted his mustache and shrugged. He had seen handsome peasants before. They did not interest him. He glanced across the table at the girl, and was much annoyed that she, too, was gazing at the butler, who had successfully completed the distribution of the soup and who now stood with folded arms by the sideboard. (How I should have liked to see him!)
When the butler took away the soup-plates, Colonel Raleigh turned to his host.
"George, where the deuce did you pick up that butler?"
Annesley looked vaguely across the table at his old comrade. He had been far away in thought. He had eaten nothing.
"What?" he asked.
"I asked you where the deuce you got that butler of yours."
"Oh, Betty found him somewhere. Our own butler is away on a vacation. I had not noticed him. Why?"
"Well, if he doesn't look like a cub lieutenant of mine, I was born without recollection of faces."
"An orderly of yours, a lieutenant, did you say?" asked Betty, with smoldering fires in her eyes.
"That is strange," she mused.
"Yes; very strange. He was a daredevil, if there ever was one."
"Yes; best bump of location in the regiment, and the steadiest nerve,"--dropping his voice.
The girl leaned on her lovely arms and observed him interestedly.
"A whole company got lost in a snowstorm one winter. You know that on the prairie a snowstorm means that only a compass can tell you where you are; and there wasn't one in the troop,--a bad piece of carelessness on the captain's part. Well, this cub said _he'd_ find the way back, and the captain wisely let him take the boys in hand."
"Go on," said the girl.
"I am a soldier's daughter, and I love the recital of brave deeds."
"Well, he did it. Four hours later they were being thawed out in the barracks kitchens. Another hour and not one of them would have lived to tell the tale. The whisky they poured into my cub--"
"Did he drink?" she interrupted.
"Drink? Why, the next day he was going to lick the men who had poured the stuff down his throat. A toddy once in a while; that was all he ever took. And how he loved a fight! He had the tenacity of a bulldog; once he set his mind on getting something, he never let up till he got it."
The girl trifled thoughtfully with a rose.
"Was he ever in any Indian fights?" she asked, casually.
"Only scraps and the like. He went into the reservation alone one day and arrested a chief who had murdered a sheep-herder. It was a volunteer job, and nine men out of ten would never have left the reservation alive. He was certainly a cool hand."
"I dare say,"--smiling. She wanted to ask him if he had ever been hurt, this daredevil of a lieutenant, but she could not bring the question to her lips. "What did you say his name was?"--innocently.
"Warburton, Robert Warburton."
Here the butler came in with the birds. The girl's eyes followed him, hither and thither, her lips hidden behind the rose.
Karloff came around to music. The dramatist's wife should play Tosti's _Ave Maria_, Miss Annesley should play the obligato on the violin and the prima-donna should sing; but just at present the dramatist should tell them all about his new military play which was to be produced in December.
"Count, I beg to decline," laughed the dramatist. "I should hardly dare to tell my plot before two such military experts as we have here. I should be told to write the play all over again, and now it is too late."
Whenever Betty's glance fell on her father's face, the gladness in her own was somewhat dimmed. What was making that loved face so care- worn, the mind so listless, the attitude so weary? But she was young; the spirits of youth never flow long in one direction. The repartee, brilliant and at the same time with every sting withdrawn, flashed up and down the table like so many fireflies on a wet lawn in July, and drew her irresistibly.
As the courses came and passed, so the conversation became less and less general; and by the time the ices were served the colonel had engaged his host, and the others divided into twos. Then coffee, liqueurs and cigars, when the ladies rose and trailed into the little Turkish room, where the "distinguished-looking butler" supplied them with the amber juice.
A dinner is a function where everybody talks and nobody eats. Some have eaten before they come, some wish they had, and others dare not eat for fear of losing some of the gossip. I may be wrong, but I believe that half of these listless appetites are due to the natural confusion of forks.
After the liqueurs my butler concluded that his labor was done, and he offered up a short prayer of thankfulness and relief. Heavens, what mad, fantastic impulses had seized him while he was passing the soup! Supposing he _had_ spilled the hot liquid down Karloff's back, or poured out a glass of burgundy for himself and drained it before them all, or slapped his late colonel on the back and asked him the state of his liver? It was maddening, and he marveled at his escape. There hadn't been a real mishap. The colonel had only scowled at him; he was safe. He passed secretly from the house and hung around the bow-window which let out on the low balcony. The window was open, and occasionally he could hear a voice from beyond the room, which was dark.
It was one of those nights, those mild November nights, to which the
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