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- The Man on the Box - 5/44 -
"Certainly." Warburton glanced at his watch again.
"Hang the price! A room, a room with a bath--that's what I want. Have you got it?" This was said with a deal of real impatience and a hauteur that overtopped the clerk's.
The film of ice melted into a gracious smile. Some new millionaire from Pittsburg, thought the clerk. He swung the book around.
"You have forgotten your place of residence, sir," he said.
"Place of residence!"
Warburton looked at the clerk in blank astonishment. Place of residence? Why, heaven help him, he had none, none! For the first time since he left the Army the knowledge came home to him, and it struck rather deep. He caught up the pen, poised it an indecisive moment, then hastily scribbled Paris: as well Paris as anywhere. Then he took out his wallet, comfortably packed with English and French bank-notes, and a second wave of astonishment rolled over him. Altogether, it was a rare good chance that he ever came to the surface again. No plan, no place of residence, no American money!
"Good Lord! I forgot all about exchanging it on shipboard!" he exclaimed.
"Don't let that trouble you, sir," said the clerk, with real affability. "Our own bank will exchange your money in the morning."
"But I haven't a penny of American money on my person!"
"How much will you need for the evening, sir?"
"Not more than fifty."
The clerk brought forth a slip of paper, wrote something on it, and handed it to Warburton.
"Sign here," he said, indicating a blank space.
And presently Mr. Robert, having deposited his foreign money in the safe, pocketed the receipt for its deposit along with five crisp American notes. There is nothing lacking in these modern hostelries, excepting it be a church.
Our homeless young gentleman lighted a cigar and went out under the portico. An early darkness had settled over the city, and a heavy steady rain was falling. The asphalt pavements glistened and twinkled as far as the eye's range could reach. A thousand lights gleamed down on him, and he seemed to be standing in a canon dappled with fireflies. Place of residence! Neither the fig-tree nor the vine! Did he lose his money to-morrow, the source of his small income, he would be without a roof over his head. True, his brother's roof would always welcome him: but a roof-tree of his own! And he could lay claim to no city, either, having had the good fortune to be born in a healthy country town. Place of residence! Truly he had none; a melancholy fact which he had not appreciated till now. And all this had slipped his mind because of a pair of eyes as heavenly blue as a rajah's sapphire!
Hang it, what should he do, now that he was no longer traveling, now that his time was no longer Uncle Sam's? He had never till now known idleness, and the thought of it did not run smoothly with the grain. He was essentially a man of action. There might be some good sport for a soldier in Venezuela, but that was far away and uncertain. It was quite possible Jack, his brother, might find him a post as military attache, perhaps in France, perhaps in Belgium, perhaps in Vienna. That was the goal of more than one subaltern. The English novelist is to be blamed for this ambition. But Warburton could speak French with a certain fluency, and his German was good enough to swear by; so it will be seen that he had some ground upon which to build this ambition.
Heigho! The old homestead was gone; his sister dwelt under the elder brother's roof; the prodigal was alone.
"But there's always a fatted calf waiting in Washington," he laughed aloud. "Once a soldier, always a soldier. I suppose I'll be begging the colonel to have a chat with the president. There doesn't seem to be any way of getting out of it. I'll have to don the old togs again. I ought to write a letter to Nancy, but it will be finer to drop in on 'em unexpectedly. Bless her heart! (So say I!) And Jack's, too, and his little wife's! And I haven't written a line in eight weeks. But I'll make it all up in ten minutes. And if I haven't a roof-tree, at least I've got the ready cash and can buy one any day." All of which proves that Mr. Robert possessed a buoyant spirit, and refused to be downcast for more than one minute at a time.
He threw away his cigar and reentered the hotel, and threaded his way through the appalling labyrinths of corridors till he found some one to guide him to the barber shop, where he could have his hair cut and his beard trimmed in the good old American way, money no object. For a plan had at last come to him; and it wasn't at all bad. He determined to dine at the Holland House at eight-thirty. It was quite possible that he would see Her.
My only wish is that, when I put on evening clothes (in my humble opinion, the homeliest and most uncomfortable garb that man ever invented!) I might look one-quarter as handsome and elegant as Mr. Robert looked, as he came down stairs at eight-ten that night. He wasn't to be blamed if the women glanced in his direction, and then whispered and whispered, and nodded and nodded. Ordinarily he would have observed these signs of feminine approval, for there was warm blood in his veins, and it is proverbial that the Army man is gallant. But to-night Diana and her white huntresses might have passed him by and not aroused even a flicker of interest or surprise on his face. There was only one pair of eyes, one face, and to see these he would have gladly gone to the ends of the earth, travel- weary though he was.
He smoked feverishly, and was somewhat troubled to find that he hadn't quite got his land legs, as they say. The floor swayed at intervals, and the throbbing of the engines came back. He left the hotel, hailed a cab, and was driven down Fifth Avenue. He stopped before the fortress of privileges. From the cab it looked very formidable. Worldly as he was, he was somewhat innocent. He did not know that New York hotels are formidable only when your money gives out. To get past all these brass-buttoned lackeys and to go on as though he really had business within took no small quantity of nerve. However, he slipped by the outpost without any challenge and boldly approached the desk. A quick glance at the register told him that they had indeed put up at this hotel. He could not explain why he felt so happy over his discovery. There are certain exultations which are inexplicable. As he turned away from the desk, he bumped into a gentleman almost as elegantly attired as himself.
"I beg your pardon!" he cried, stepping aside.
"What? Mr. _Warrr_burton?"
Mr. Robert, greatly surprised and confused, found himself shaking hands with his ship acquaintance, the Russian.
"I am very glad to see you again, Count," said Warburton, recovering.
"A great pleasure! It is wonderful how small a city is. I had never expect' to see you again. Are you stopping here?" I had intended to try to reproduce the Russian's dialect, but one dialect in a book is enough; and we haven't reached the period of its activity.
"No, I am at the Waldorf."
"Eh? I have heard all about you millionaires."
"Oh, we are not all of us millionaires who stop there," laughed Warburton. "There are some of us who try to make others believe that we are." Then, dropping into passable French, he added: "I came here to-night with the purpose of dining. Will you do me the honor of sharing my table?"
"You speak French?"--delighted. "It is wonderful. This English has so many words that mean so many things, that of all languages I speak it with the least fluency. But it is my deep regret, Monsieur, to refuse your kind invitation. I am dining with friends."
"Well, then, breakfast to-morrow at eleven," Warburton urged, for he had taken a fancy to this affable Russian.
"Alas! See how I am placed. I am forced to leave for Washington early in the morning. We poor diplomats, we earn our honors. But my business is purely personal in this case, neither political nor diplomatic." The count drew his gloves thoughtfully through his fingers. "I shall of course pay my respects to my ambassador. Do I recollect your saying that you belonged to the United States Army?"
"I recently resigned. My post was in a wild country, with little or nothing to do; monotony and routine."
"You limp slightly?"
"A trifling mishap,"--modestly.
"Eh, you do wrong. You may soon be at war with England, and having resigned your commission, you would lose all you had waited these years for."
Warburton smiled. "We shall not go to war with England."
"This Army of yours is small."
"Well, yes; but made of pretty good material--fighting machines with brains."
"Ha!" The count laughed softly. "Bah! how I detest all these cars and ships! Will you believe me, I had rather my little chateau, my vineyard, and my wheat fields, than all the orders.... Eh, well, _my country_: there must be some magic in that phrase. Of all loves, that of country is the most lasting. Is that Balzac? I do not recall. Only once in a century do we find a man who is willing to betray his country, and even then he may have for his purpose neither hate, revenge, nor love of power." A peculiar gravity sat on his mobile face, caused, perhaps, by some disagreeable inward thought.
"How long shall you be in Washington?" asked Warburton.
The count shrugged. "Who can say?"
"I go to Washington myself within a few days."
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