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- The Man on the Box - 6/44 -


"Till we meet again, then, Monsieur."

The count lifted his hat, a courtesy which was gracefully acknowledged by the American; while the clerks at the desk eyed with tolerant amusement these polite but rather unfamiliar ceremonies of departure. These foreigners were odd duffers.

"A very decent chap," mused Warburton, "and a mighty shrewd hand at poker--for a foreigner. He is going to Washington: we shall meet again. I wonder if she's in the restaurant now."

Meet again? Decidedly; and had clairvoyance shown my hero that night how he and the count were to meet again, certainly he would have laughed.

If I dared, I should like to say a good deal more about this Russian. But I have no desire to lose my head, politically or physically. Even the newsboys are familiar with this great young man's name; and if I should disclose it, you would learn a great many things which I have no desire that you should. One day he is in Paris, another in Berlin, then off to Vienna, to Belgrade, or St. Petersburg, or Washington, or London, or Rome. A few months ago, previous to this writing, he was in Manchuria; and to this very day England and Japan are wondering how it happened; not his being there, mind you, but the result. Rich, that is to say independent; unmarried, that is to say unattached; free to come and go, he stood high up in that great army of the czar's, which I call the uncredited diplomatic corps, because the phrase "secret service" always puts into my mind a picture of the wild-eyed, bearded anarchist, whom I most heartily detest.

What this remarkable diplomatic free-lance did in Washington was honestly done in the interests of his country. A Russ understands honor in the rough, but he lacks all those delicate shadings which make the word honor the highest of all words in the vocabularies of the Gaul and the Saxon. And while I do not uphold him in what he did, I can not place much blame at the count's door. Doubtless, in his place, and given his cast of mind, I might have done exactly as he did. Russia never asks how a thing is done, but why it is _not_ done. Ah, these Aspasias, these Circes, these Calypsos, these Cleopatras, with their blue, their gray, their amber eyes! I have my doubts concerning Jonah, but, being a man, I am fully convinced as to the history of Eve. And yet, the woman in this case was absolutely innocent of any guile, unless, a pair of eyes as heavenly blue as a rajah's sapphire may be called guile.

Pardon me this long parenthesis. By this time, no doubt, Mr. Robert has entered the restaurant We shall follow him rather than this aimless train of thought.

Mr. Robert's appetite, for a healthy young man, was strangely incurious. He searched the menu from top to bottom, and then from bottom to top; nothing excited his palate. Whenever persons entered, he would glance up eagerly, only to feel his heart sink lower and lower. I don't know how many times he was disappointed. The waiter ahemmed politely. Warburton, in order to have an excuse to remain, at length hit upon a partridge and a pint of Chablis.

Nine o'clock. Was it possible that the colonel and his daughter were dining in their rooms? Perish the possibility! And he looked in vain for the count. A quarter-past nine. Mr. Robert's anxiety was becoming almost unendurable. Nine-thirty. He was about to surrender in despair. His partridge lay smoking on his plate, and he was on the point of demolishing it, when, behold! they came. The colonel entered first, then his daughter, her hand--on--the--arm--of--the--count! Warburton never fully described to me his feelings at that moment; but, knowing him as I do, I can put together a very, respectable picture of the chagrin and consternation that sat on his countenance.

"To think of being nearly six days aboard," Mr. Robert once bawled at me, wrathfully, "and not to know that that Russian chap knew her!" It _was_ almost incredible that such a thing should happen.

The three sat down at a table seven times removed from Warburton's. He could see only an adorable profile and the colonel's handsome but care-worn face. The count sat with his back turned. In that black evening gown she was simply beyond the power of adjectives. What shoulders, what an incomparable throat! Mr. Robert's bird grew cold; the bouquet from his glass fainted and died away. How her face lighted when she laughed, and she laughed frequently! What a delicious curve ran from her lips to her young bosom! But never once did she look in his direction. Who invented mirrors, the Egyptians? I can not say. There were mirrors in the room, but Mr. Robert did not realize it. He has since confessed to me that he hadn't the slightest idea how much his bird and bottle cost. Of such is love's young dream! (Do I worry you with all these repetitious details? I am sorry.)

At ten o'clock Miss Annesley rose, and the count escorted her to the elevator, returning almost immediately. He and the colonel drew their heads together. From time to time the count shrugged, or the colonel shook his head. Again and again the Russian dipped the end of his cigar into his coffee-cup, which he frequently replenished.

But for Mr. Robert the gold had turned to gilt, the gorgeous to the gaudy. She was gone. The imagination moves as swiftly as light, leaping from one castle in air to another, and still another. Mr. Robert was the architect of some fine ones, I may safely assure you. And he didn't mind in the least that they tumbled down as rapidly as they builded: only, the incentive was gone. What the colonel had to say to the count, or the count to the colonel, was of no interest to him; so he made an orderly retreat.

I am not so old as not to appreciate his sleeplessness that night. Some beds are hard, even when made of the softest down.

In the morning he telephoned to the Holland House. The Annesleys, he was informed, had departed for parts unknown. The count had left directions to forward any possible mail to the Russian Embassy, Washington. Sighs in the _doloroso_; the morning papers and numerous cigars; a whisky and soda; a game of indifferent billiards with an affable stranger; another whisky and soda; and a gradual reclamation of Mr. Robert's interest in worldly affairs.

She was gone.

IV

A FAMILY REUNION

Warburton had not been in the city of Washington within twelve years. In the past his furloughs had been spent at his brother's country home in Larchmont, out of New York City. Thus, when he left the train at the Baltimore and Potomac station, he hadn't the slightest idea where Scott Circle was. He looked around in vain for the smart cab of the northern metropolis. All he saw was a line of omnibuses and a few ramshackle vehicles that twenty years back might very well have passed for victorias. A grizzled old negro, in command of one of these sea-going conveyances, caught Warburton's eye and hailed jovially. Our hero (as the good novelists of the past generation would say, taking their readers into their innermost confidences) handed him his traveling case and stepped in.

"Whar to, suh?" asked the commodore.

"Scott Circle, and don't pommel that old nag's bones in trying to get there. I've plenty of time."

"I reckon I won't pommel him, suh. Skt! skt!" And the vehicle rattled out into broad Pennsylvania Avenue, but for the confusion and absurdity of its architectural structures, the handsomest thoroughfare in America. (Some day I am going to carry a bill into Congress and read it, and become famous as having been the means of making Pennsylvania Avenue the handsomest highway in the world.)

Warburton leaned back luxuriously against the faded horse-hair cushion and lighted a cigar, which he smoked with relish, having had a hearty breakfast on the train. It was not quite nine o'clock, and a warm October haze lay on the peaceful city. Here were people who did not rush madly about in the pursuit of riches. Rather they proceeded along soberly, even leisurely, as if they knew what the day's work was and the rewards attendant, and were content. Trucks, those formidable engines of commerce, neither rumbled nor thundered along the pavements, nor congested the thoroughfares. Nobody hurried into the shops, nobody hurried out. There were no scampering, yelling newsboys. Instead, along the curbs of the market, sat barelegged negro boys, some of them selling papers to those who wanted them, and some sandwiched in between baskets of popcorn and peanuts. There was a marked scarcity of the progressive, intrusive white boy. Old negro mammies passed to and fro with the day's provisions.

Glancing over his shoulder, Warburton saw the Capitol, shining in the sun like some enchanted palace out of Wonderland. He touched his cap, conscious of a thrill in his spine. And there, far to his left, loomed the Washington monument, glittering like a shaft of opals. Some orderlies dashed by on handsome bays. How splendid they looked, with their blue trousers and broad yellow stripes! This was before the Army adopted the comfortable but shabby brown duck. How he longed to throw a leg over the back of a good horse and gallop away into the great green country beyond!

In every extraordinary looking gentleman he saw some famed senator or congressman or diplomat. He was almost positive that he saw the secretary of war drive by in a neat brougham. The only things which moved with the hustling spirit of the times were the cables, and doubtless these would have gone slower but for the invisible and immutable power which propelled them. On arriving in New York, one's first thought is of riches; in Washington, of glory. What a difference between this capital and those he had seen abroad! There was no militarism here, no conscription, no governmental oppression, no signs of discontent, no officers treading on the rights and the toes of civilians.

But now he was passing the huge and dingy magic Treasury Building, round past the Executive Mansion with its spotless white stone, its stately portico and its plush lawns.

"Go slow, uncle; I haven't seen this place since I was a boy."

"Yes, suh. How d' y' like it? Wouldn' y' like t' live in dat house, suh?"--the commodore grinned.

"One can't stay there long enough to please me, uncle. It takes four years to get used to it; and then, when you begin to like it, you have to pack up and clear out."


The Man on the Box - 6/44

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