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HOW RICHARD BEGAN TO WOO
On this far-away November morning, it being ten by every steeple clock and an hour utterly chaste, there could have existed no impropriety in one's having had a look into the rooms of Mr. Richard Storms, said rooms being second-floor front of the superfashionable house of Mr. Lorimer Gwynn, Washington, North West. Richard, wrapped to the chin in a bathrobe, was sitting much at his ease, having just tumbled from the tub. There was ever a recess in Richard's morning programme at this point during which his breakfast arrived. Pending that repast, he had thrown himself into an easy-chair before the blaze which crackled in the deep fireplace. The sudden sharp weather made the fire pleasant enough.
The apartment in which Richard lounged, and the rooms to the rear belonging with it, were richly appointed. A fortune had been spilled to produce those effects in velvets and plushes and pictures and bronzes and crystals and chinas and lamps and Russia leathers and laces and brocades and silks, and as you walked the thick rugs you made no more noise than a ghost. It was Richard's caprice to have his environment the very lap of splendor, being as given to luxury as a woman.
Against the pane beat a swirl and white flurry of snow, for winter broke early that year. Richard turned an eye of gray indolence on the window. The down-come of snow in no sort disquieted him; there abode a bent for winter in his blood, throughout the centuries Norse, that would have liked a Laplander. Even his love for pictures ran away to scenes of snow and wind-whipped wolds with drifts piled high. These, if well drawn, he would look at; while he turned his back on palms and jungles and things tropical in paint, the sight of which made him perspire like a harvest hand. As Richard's idle glance came back from the window, it caught the brown eyes of Mr. Pickwick considering him through a silvery, fringy thicket of hair. Mr. Pickwick was said to be royally descended; however that might have been, indubitably his pedigree harbored somewhere both a door-mat and a mop.
"Rats!" observed Richard to Mr. Pickwick.
Richard did not say this because it was true, but to show Mr. Pickwick that the ties which bound them were friendly. On his side, Mr. Pickwick, albeit he stood well aware how there was never a rat in the room, arose vivaciously and went snuffling and scuffling behind curtains and beneath sofas, and all in a mood prodigiously dire.
The room being exhaustively searched, Mr. Pickwick came and sat by Richard, and with yelp and howl, and at intervals a little epileptic bark, proceeded to disparage all manners and septs of rats, and spake slightingly of all such vermin deer. Having freed his mind on the important subject of rats, Mr. Pickwick returned to silence and his cushion and curled up.
Matzai, the Japanese valet, brought in the breakfast—steak, potatoes, eggs, toast, marmalade, and coffee. The deft Matzai placed the tray on the mahogany at Richard's elbow. Richard did not like a multiplicity of personal attendants. Of the score of souls within the walls of that house, Richard would meet only Mr. Gwynn and Matzai. This was as the wisdom of Solomon, since neglect is born of numbers.
Mr. Lorimer Gwynn was a personage—clean and tall and slim and solemn and sixty years of age. He was as wholly English as Mr. Pickwick was wholly Skye, and exuded an indomitable respectability from his formal, shaven face. Rumor had it that Mr. Gwynn was fabulously rich.
It was in June when Mr. Gwynn came to town and leased the house just vacated by Baron Trenk, late head of the Austrian diplomatic corps. This leasing of itself half established Mr. Gwynn in a highest local esteem; his being English did the rest, since in the Capital of America it is better, socially, to come from anywhere rather than from home. In addition to those advantages of Baron Trenk's house and an English emanation, Mr. Gwynn made his advent indorsed to the Washington banks by the Bank of England; also he was received by the British Ambassador, on whom he made a call of respect the moment he set foot in town.
It became known that Mr. Gwynn was either widower or bachelor; and at that, coupled with his having taken a large house, the hope crept about that in the season he would entertain. The latter thought addressed itself tenderly to the local appetite, which was ready to be received wherever there abode good cooks and sound wines. Mr. Gwynn, it should be mentioned, was duly elected a member of the Metropolitan Club—where he never went; as was likewise Richard—who was seen there a great deal.
Richard had not come to town until both Mr. Gwynn and his house were established. When he did appear, it was difficult for the public to fix him in his proper place. He was reserved and icily taciturn, and that did not blandly set his moderate years; with no friends and few acquaintances, he seemed to prefer his own society to that of whomsoever came about him.
Who was he?
What was he?
What were his relations with Mr. Gwynn?
Surely, Richard could be neither son nor nephew of that English gentleman. Richard was too obviously the American of full blood; his high cheekbones, square jaw, and lean, curved nose told of two centuries of Western lineage. Could it be that Richard was Mr. Gwynn's secretary? This looked in no wise probable; he went about too much at lordly ease for that. In the end, the notion obtained that Richard must be a needy dependent of Mr. Gwynn, and his perfect clothes and the thoroughbred horse he rode were pointed to as evidences of that gentleman's generosity. Indeed, Mr. Gwynn was much profited in reputation thereby.
Richard, while not known, was not liked. He wore the air of one self-centered, and cold to all judgments except his own. This last makes no friends, but only enemies for him whose position is problematical. Richard's pose of insolent indifference would have been beautiful in a gentleman who counted his fortune by millions; in a dollarless beggar who lived off alms it was detestable. Wherefore, the town, so far as Richard encountered it, left our silent, supercilious one to himself, which neglect dove-tailed with his humor and was the precise lonely thing he sought. This gave still further edge to the public's disregard; no one likes you to accept with grace what is intended for punishment.
Matzai carried away the breakfast tray, and Richard lighted a cigar. Matzai returned and stood mute inside the door, awaiting new commands. Richard pointed through the cigar-smoke to the clock—one of those soundless, curious creatures of brass and glass and ivory which is wound but once in four hundred days, and of which the hair-hung pendulum twists and turns and does not swing.
"In an hour! Eleven o'clock!" said Richard.
At the risk of shaking him in general standing it should be called to your notice that Richard preceded breakfast with no strong waters. Richard would drink nothing more generous than coffee, and, speaking in the sense limited, tobacco was his only vice. Perhaps he stuck to cigars to retain his hold on earth, and avoid translation before his hour was ripe.
It was no pale morality that got between Richard and the wine cup. In another day at college he had emptied many. But early in his twenties, Richard discovered that he carried his drink uneasily; it gave a Gothic cant to his spirit, which, under its warm spell, turned warlike. Once, having sat late at dinner—this was in that seminary town in France where he attended school—he bestrode a certain iron lion, the same strange to him and guarding the portals of a public building. Being thus happily placed, he drew two huge American six-shooters, whereof his possession was wrapped in mystery even to himself, and blazed vacuously, yet ferociously, at the moon. Spoken to by the constabulary who came flying to the spot, Richard replied with acrimony.
"If you interfere with me," remarked Richard on that explosive occasion, addressing the French constables, "I'll buy your town and burn it." The last with a splendid disdain of limitations that was congenital.
Exploits similar to the above taught Richard the futility of alcoholic things, and thereupon he cultivated a Puritan sobriety upon coffee and tobacco.
Richard cast the half-burned cigar into the fire. Stepping to the mantel, he took from it a small metal casket, builded to hold jewels. What should be those gems of price which the metal box protected? Richard did not strike one as the man to nurse a weakness for barbaric adornment. A bathrobe is not a costume calculated to teach one the wearer's fineness. To say best, a bathrobe is but a savage thing. It is the garb most likely to obscure and set backward even a Walpole or a Chesterfield in any impression of gentility. In spite of this primitive regalia, however, Richard gave forth an idea of elevation, and as though his ancestors in their civilization had long ago climbed above a level where men put on gold to embellish their worth. What, then, did that casket of carved bronze contain?
Richard took from its velvet interior the heel of a woman's shoe and kissed it. It was a little kissable heel, elegant in fashion; one could tell how it belonged aforetime to the footwear of a beautiful girl. Perhaps this thought was aided by the reverent preoccupation of Richard as he regarded it, for he set the boot-heel on the table and hung over it in a rapt way that had the outward features of idolatry. It was right that he should; the little heel spoke of Richard's first strong passion.
You will retrace the year to the 10th of June. Richard, after roving the Eastern earth for a decade, had just returned to his own land, which he hardly knew. Throughout those ten years of long idling from one European city to another, had Richard met the woman he might love, he would have laid siege to her, conquered her, and brought her home as his wife. But his instinct was too tribal, too American. Whether it were Naples or Paris or Vienna or St. Petersburg or Berlin, those women whom he met might have pleased him in everything save wedlock. In London, and for a moment, Richard saw a girl he looked at twice. But she straightway drank beer with the gusto of a barge-man, and the vision passed.
It was the evening after his return, and Richard at the Waldorf sat amusing himself with those tides of vulgar humanity that ebb and flow in a stretch of garish corridor known as Peacock Lane. Surely it was a hopeless place wherein to seek a wife, and Richard had no such thought. But who shall tell how and when and where his fate will overtake him? Who is to know when Satan—or a more benevolent spirit—will be hiding behind the hedge to play good folk a marriage trick? And Richard had been warned. Once, in Calcutta, price one rupee, a necromancer after fullest reading of the signs informed him that when he met the woman who should make a wife to him, she would come upon him suddenly. Wherefore, he should have kept a brighter watch, expecting the unexpected.
Richard's gaze went following two rustical people—clearly bride and groom. In a cloudy way he loathed the groom, and was foggily wondering why. His second thought would have told him that the male of his species—such is his sublime egotism—feels cheated with every wedding not his own, and, for an earliest impulse on beholding a woman with another man, would tear her from that other one by force. Thus did his skinclad ancestors when time was.
However, Richard had but scanty space wherein either to enjoy his blunt hatred of that bridegroom or theorize as to its roots. His ear caught a muffled scream, and then down the wide staircase in front of him a winsome girl came tumbling.
With a dexterity born of a youth more or less replete of football, Richard sprang forward and caught the girl in his arms. He caught and held her as though she were feather-light; and that feat of a brutal strength, even through her fright, worked upon the saved one, who, remembering her one hundred and thirty pounds, did not think herself down of thistles.
"Are you hurt?" asked Richard, still holding her lightly close.
Richard looked at the girl; black hair, white skin, lashes of ink, eyes of blue, rose-leaf lips, teeth white as rice, a spot of red in her cheeks—the last the fruit of fright, no doubt. He had never seen aught so beautiful! Even while she was in his arms, the face fitted into his heart like a picture into its frame, and Richard thought on that prophet of Calicut.
"Are you injured?" he asked again.
"Thanks to you—no," said the girl.
With a kind of modest energy, she took herself out of his arms, for Richard had held to her stoutly, and might have been holding her until now had she not come to her own rescue. For all that, she had leisure to admire the steel-like grasp and the deep, even voice. Her own words as she replied came in gasps.
"No," she repeated, "I'm not injured. Help me to a seat."
The beautiful rescued one limped, and Richard turned white.
"Your ankle!" he exclaimed.
"No; my heel," she retorted with a little flutter of a laugh. "My French heel caught on the stair; it was torn away. No wonder I limp!"
Then came the girl's mother and called her "Dorothy."
Richard, who was not without presence of mind, climbed six steps and secretly made prize of the baby boot-heel. Perhaps you will think he did this on the argument by which an Indian takes a scalp. Whatever the argument, he placed the sweet trophy over that heart which held the picture of the girl; once there, the boot-heel showed bulgingly foolish through his coat.
Richard returned to the mother and daughter; the latter had regained her poise. He introduced himself: "Mr. Richard Storms." The mother gave him her card: "Mrs. John Harley." She added:
"My name is Hanway-Harley, and this is my daughter, Dorothy Harley. Hanway is my own family name; I always use it." Then she thanked Richard for his saving interference in her child's destinies. "Just to think!" she concluded, and a curdling horror gathered in her tones. "Dorothy, you might have broken your nose!"
Richard ran a glance over Mrs. Hanway-Harley. She was not coarse, but was superficial—a woman of inferior ideals. He marveled how a being so fine as the daughter could have had a no more silken source, and hugged the boot-heel. The daughter was a flower, the mother a weed. He decided that the superiority of Dorothy was due to the father, and gave that absent gentleman a world of credit without waiting to make his acquaintance.
Mrs. Hanway-Harley said that she lived in Washington. Where did Mr. Storms live?
"My home has been nowhere for ten years," returned Richard. Then, as he looked at Dorothy, while his heart took a firmer grip on the picture: "But I shall live in Washington in a few months."
Dorothy, the saved, beneath whose boot-heel beat Richard's heart, looked up, and in the blue depths—so Richard thought—shone pleasure at the news. He could not be certain, for when the blue eyes met the gray ones, they fell to a furtive consideration of the floor.
"You are to take a house in Washington," said Richard to Mr. Gwynn an hour later.
Mr. Gwynn bowed.
You who read will now come back to that snow-filled day in November. Richard relocked his dear boot-heel in the casket; eleven and Matzai had entered the room together. Matzai laid out Richard's clothes, down to pin and puff tie. Richard shook off his bathrobe skin and shone forth in a sleeveless undershirt and a pair of those cotton trousers, cut short above the knee, which dramatic usage ascribes to fishermen and buccaneers.
As Richard stood erect, shoulders wide as a viking's, chest arched like the deck of a whale-back, he might have been a model for the Farnese Hercules, if that demigod were slimmed down by training and ten years off his age. He of Farnese should be about forty, if one may go by looks, while Richard was but thirty. Also, Richard's arms, muscled to the wrists and as long as a Pict's, would have been out of drawing from standpoints of ancient art. One must rescue Richard's head; it was not that nubbin of a head which goes with the Farnese one. Moreover, it showed wisest balance from base to brow; with the face free of beard and mustache, while the yellow hair owned no taint of curl—altogether an American head on Farnese shoulders refined.
Richard made no speed with his dressing. What with refusing several waistcoats—a fastidiousness which opened the slant eyes of Matzai, being unusual—and what with pausing to smoke a brooding cigar, it stood roundly twelve before he was ready for the street. One need not call Richard lazy. He was no one to retire or to rise with the birds; why should he? "Early to bed and early to rise" is a tradition of the copybooks. It did well when candlelight was cheap at a dollar the dozen, but should not belong to a day of electricity no dearer than the sun.
Before going out, Richard crossed to a writing cabinet and pressed a button, the white disk whereof showed in its mahogany side. It was not the bell he used for the wheat-hued Matzai, and owned a note peculiar to itself. As though in response came Mr. Gwynn, irreproachable, austere.
Upon the advent of Mr. Gwynn, one might have observed sundry amazing phenomena, innocent at that. Mr. Gwynn did not sit down, but stood in the middle of the room. On the careless other hand, Richard did not arise from the chair into which he had flung himself, but sat with his hat on, puffing blue wreaths and tapping his foot with a rattan.
"Mr. Gwynn," quoth Richard, "you will catch the four-o'clock limited to New York. Talon & Trehawke, Attorneys, Temple Court, have on sale a majority of the stock of the Daily Tory. Buy it; notify those in present charge of the editorial and business departments of the new proprietorship. There will be no changes in the personnel of the paper so far as refers to New York. You are to say, however, that you will give me charge in Washington. Talon & Trehawke can put you in control, and forty-eight hours should be enough to carry out my plans. The balance of the stock you will buy up at your leisure. This is Tuesday; have the bureau here ready for me by Thursday evening."
Mr. Gwynn inclined his head.
"Can you give me, sir, some notion of what Talon & Trehawke are to have?" asked Mr. Gwynn.
"Their letter addressed to you—here it is—says that sixty per cent. of the stock can be had for two millions eight hundred thousand."
"Very good, sir," and Mr. Gwynn bowed deeply.
Richard pulled on his gloves to depart, whereat Mr. Pickwick yelped frantically from his cushion. Richard tapped Mr. Pickwick with the lacquered rattan.
"Old man," said Richard, "I am going to take a look at the lady I love." Mr. Pickwick moaned querulously, while Richard sought the street.
Richard, the day before, dispatched a note and a card to Mrs. Hanway-Harley and had been told in reply that he might call to-day at three. Richard decided to repair to the club, and wait for three o'clock.
Richard, during his week in Washington, had found a deserted corner in the club and pre-empted it. At those times when he honored the club with his presence, he occupied this vantage point. From it he was given both a view of the street and a fair survey of the apartment itself. No one approached him; his atmosphere was repellant; beyond civil nods, curtailed to the last limit of civility, his intercourse with his fellows had not advanced.
On this afternoon as Richard smoked a solitary cigar and reviewed the thin procession of foot passengers trudging through the snow beneath his window, he was attracted by the loud talk of a coterie about a table. The center of the group was Count Storri—a giant Russ. This Storri did not belong to the Russian legation, did not indeed reside in town, and had been vouched into the club by one of his countrymen. He had onyx eyes, with blue-black beard and mustaches which half covered his face, and hair as raven as his beard. Also he valued himself for that a favorite dish with him was raw meat chopped fine with peppers and oil.
Storri's education—which was wide—did not suffice to cover up in him the barbarian, videlicet, the Tartar—which was wider; and when a trifle uplifted of drink, it was his habit to brag profoundly in purring, snarling, half-challenging tones. Storri boasted most of his thews, which would not have disgraced Goliath. He was at the moment telling a knot of gaping youngsters of monstrous deeds of strength. Storri had crushed horseshoes in his hand; he had rolled silver pieces into bullets between thumb and finger.
"See, you children, I will show what a Russian can do!" cried Storri.
Storri came over to the fireplace, the rest at his heels. Taking up the poker—a round half-inch rod of wrought iron—he seized it firmly by one end with his left hand and with the right wound it twice about his left arm. The black spiral reached from hand to elbow; when he withdrew his arm the club poker was a Brobdingnagian corkscrew.
The youngsters stared wonder-bitten. Then a mighty chatter of compliments broke forth, and Storri swelled with the savage glory of his achievement.
Richard, the somber, who did not like noise, shrugged his shoulders. Storri, by the fireplace, caught the shrug and found it offensive. He made towards Richard, and offered the right hand, his white teeth gleaming in a sinister way through the fastnesses of his beard.
"Will you try grips with me?" cried Storri loudly. "Will you shake hands Russian fashion?"
"No," retorted Richard, all ice and unconcern. "I will not shake your hand Russian fashion."
Storri broke into an evil grin that made him look like a black panther.
"Some day you must put your fingers into that trap," said he, opening and closing his broad hand.
Richard making no return, Storri and the others went back to their decanters.
Richard might have said, and would have believed, that he did not like Storri because of a Siberian rudeness and want of breeding. It is to be thought, however, that his antipathy arose rather from having heard the day before Storri's name coupled with that of Dorothy Harley. The Russ was a caller at the Harley house, it seemed, and rumor gave it that he and Mr. Harley were together in speculations. At that Richard hated Storri with the dull integrity of a healthy, normal animal, just as he would have hated any man who raised his eyes to Dorothy Harley; for you are to know that Richard was in a last analysis even more savage than was Storri himself, and withal as jealously hot as a coal of fire. Presently Storri departed, and Richard forgot him in a reverie of smoke.
It stood the quarter of three, and Richard took up his walk to the Harleys'. It was no mighty journey, being but two blocks.
In the Harley drawing room whom should Richard meet but Storri. The Russ was on the brink of departure. At that meeting Richard's face clouded. Dorothy was alone with Storri; her mother had been called temporarily from the room. At sight of Dorothy's flower-like hand in Storri's hairy paw, Richard's eyes turned jade.
"Mr. Storms," said Dorothy, as Richard paused in the door, "permit me to present Count Storri."
"Ah!" whispered Storri, beneath his breath, "see now how my word comes true!"
With that he put out his hand like a threat.
Storri's exultation fell frost-nipped in greenest bud. It was as though some implacable destiny had seized his hand. In vain did Storri put forth his last resource of strength—he who crushed horseshoes and twisted pokers! Like things of steel Richard's fingers closed grimly and invincibly upon those of Storri. The Russian strove to recover his hand; against the awful force that held him his boasted strength was as the strength of children.
Storri looked into Richard's eyes; they were less ferocious, but infinitely more relentless than his own. There was that, too, in the other's look which appalled the Tartar soul of Storri—something in the drawn brow, the eye like agate, the jaw as iron as the hand! And ever more and a little more that fearful grip came grinding. The onyx eyes glared in terror; the tortured forehead, white as paper, became spangled with drops of sweat.
There arose a smothered feline screech as from a tiger whose back is broken in a deadfall. Richard gave his wrist the shadow of a twist, and Storri fell on one knee. Then, as though it were some foul thing, Richard tossed aside Storri's hand, from the nails of which blood came oozing in black drops as large as grapes.
"What was it?" gasped Dorothy, who had stood throughout the duel like one planet-struck; "what was it you did?"
"Storri on his knee?" asked Richard with a kind of vicious sweetness. There was something arctic, something remorselessly glacial, in the man. It caught and held Dorothy, entrancing while it froze. "Storri on his knee?" repeated Richard, looking where his adversary was staining a handkerchief with Tartar blood. "It was nothing. It is a way in which Russians honor me—that is, Russians whom I do not like!"