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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Man On The Box - Chapter 4. A Family Reunion
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The Man On The Box - Chapter 4. A Family Reunion Post by :larryh Category :Long Stories Author :Harold Macgrath Date :May 2012 Read :1742

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The Man On The Box - Chapter 4. A Family Reunion

CHAPTER 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."

"It's de way dey goes, suh. We go eroun' Lafayette, er do yuh want t' see de Wa' Depa'tment, suh?"

"Never mind now, uncle; Scott Circle."

"Scott Circle she am, suh."

The old ark wheeled round Lafayette Square and finally rolled into Sixteenth Street. When at length it came to a stand in front of a beautiful house, Warburton evinced his surprise openly. He knew that his brother's wife had plenty of money, but not such a plenty as to afford a house like this.

"Are you sure, uncle, that this is the place?"

"Dere's de Circle, suh, an' yuh can see de numbuh fo' y'se'f, suh."

"How much do I owe you?"

"I reckon 'bout fifty cents 'll make it, suh."

Warburton gave him a dollar, marveling at the difference between the cab hire here and in New York. He grasped his case and leaped up the steps two at a bound, and pressed the bell A prim little maid answered the call.

"Does Mr. John Warburton live here?" he asked breathlessly.

"Yes, sir."

"Fortunate John!" he cried, pushing past the maid and standing in the hall of his brother's household, unheralded and unannounced. "Jack!" he bawled.

The maid eyed the handsome intruder, her face expressing the utmost astonishment. She touched his arm.

"Sir!--" she began.

"It's all right, my dear," he interrupted.

She stepped back, wondering whether to scream or run.

"Hi, Jack! I say, you old henpecked, where are you?"

The dining-room door slid back and a tall, studious-looking gentleman, rather plain than otherwise, stood on the threshold.

"Jane, what is all this--Why, Bob, you scalawag!"--and in a moment they were pumping hands at a great rate. The little maid leaned weakly against the balustrade.

"Kit, Kit! I say, Kit, come and see who's here!" cried John.

An extraordinarily pretty little woman, whose pallor any woman would have understood, but no man on earth, and who was dressed in a charming pink negligee morning-gown, hurried into the hall.

"Why, it's Bob!" She flung her arms around the prodigal and kissed him heartily, held him away at arm's length, and hugged and kissed him again. I'm not sure that Mr. Robert didn't like it.

Suddenly there was a swish of starched skirts on the stairs, and the most beautiful woman in all the world (and I am always ready to back this statement with abundant proofs!) rushed down and literally threw herself into Mr. Robert's eager, outstretched arms.

"Nancy!"

"Bob! Bob! you wicked boy! You almost break our hearts. Not a line in two months!--How could you!--You might have been dead and we not know it!"--and she cried on his shoulder.

"Come now, Nancy; nonsense! You'll start the color running out of this tie of mine!" But for all his jesting tone, Mr. Robert felt an embarrassing lump wriggle up and down in his throat.

"Had your breakfast?" asked the humane and practical brother.

"Yep. But I shouldn't mind another cup of coffee."

And thereupon he was hustled into the dining-room and pushed into the best chair. How the clear women fussed over him, pressed this upon him and that; fondled and caressed him, just as if the beggar was worth all this trouble and love and affection!

"Hang it, girls, it's worth being an outlaw to come to this," he cried. He reached over and patted Nancy on the cheek, and pressed the young wife's hand, and smiled pleasantly at his brother. "Jack, you lucky pup, you!"

"Two years," murmured Nancy; "and we haven't had a glimpse of you in two long years."

"Only in photograph," said the homeless one, putting three lumps of sugar into his coffee because he was so happy he didn't know what he was about.

"And you have turned twenty-eight," said Kit, counting on her fingers.

"That makes you twenty-four, Nan," Jack laughed.

"And much I care!" replied Nancy, shaking her head defiantly. I've a sneaking idea that she was thinking of me when she made this declaration. For if _I didn't care, why should she?

"A handsome, stunning girl like you, Nan, ought to be getting married," observed the prodigal. "What's the matter with all these dukes and lords and princes, anyhow?"

An embarrassed smile ran around the table, but Mr. Robert missed it by some several inches.

Jack threw a cigar across the table. "Now," said he, "where the deuce did you come from?"

"Indirectly from Arizona, which is a synonym, once removed, for war."

Jack looked at his plate and laughed; but Mrs. Jack wanted to know what Bob meant by that.

"It's a word used instead of war, as applied by the late General Sherman," Jack replied. "And I am surprised that a brother-in-law of yours should so far forget himself as to hint it, even."

Knowing that she could put him through the inquisition later, she asked my hero how his leg was.

"It aches a little when it rains; that's about all."

"And you never let us know anything about it till the thing was all over," was Nancy's reproach.

"What's the use of scaring you women?" Robert demanded. "You would have had hysterics and all that."

"We heard of it quick enough through the newspapers," said Jack. "Come, give us your own version of the rumpus."

"Well, the truth is,"--and the prodigal told them his tale.

"Why, you are a hero!" cried Mrs. Jack, clasping her hands.

"Hero nothing," sniffed the elder brother. "He was probably star- gazing or he wouldn't have poked his nose into an ambush."

"Right you are, brother John," Robert acknowledged, laughing.

"And how handsome he has grown, Nancy," Mrs. Jack added, with an oblique glance at her husband.

"He does look 'distangy'," that individual admitted. A handsome face always went through John's cuirass. It was all nonsense, for his wife could not have adored him more openly had he been the twin to Adonis. But, there you are; a man always wants something he can not have. John wasn't satisfied to be one of the most brilliant young men in Washington; he also wanted to be classed among the handsomest.

"By the way, Jack," said my hero, lighting the cigar and blowing the first puff toward the ceiling, his face admirably set with nonchalance, "do you know of a family named Annesley--Colonel Annesley?" I knew it would take only a certain length of time for this question to arrive.

"Colonel Annesley? Why, yes. He was in the War Department until a year or so ago. A fine strategist; knows every in and out of the coast defenses, and is something of an inventor; lots of money, too. Tall, handsome old fellow?"

"That's the man. A war volunteer?"

"No, a regular. Crippled his gun-fingers in some petty Indian war, and was transferred to the Department. He was a widower, if my recollection of him is correct; and had a lovely daughter."

"Ah!" There was great satisfaction evident in this syllable. "Do you know where the colonel is now?"

"Not the faintest idea. He lived somewhere in Virginia. But he's been on the travel for several years."

Robert stirred his coffee and took a spoonful--and dropped the spoon. "Pah! I must have put in a quart of sugar. Can you spare me another cup?"

"Annesley?" Nancy's face brightened. "Colonel Annesley? Why, I know Betty Annesley. She was my room-mate at Smith one year. She was in my graduating class. I'll show you her picture later. She was the dearest girl! How she loved horses! But why are you so interested?"-- slyly.

"I ran across them coming home."

"Then you met Betty! Isn't she just the loveliest girl you ever saw?"

"I'm for her, one and indivisible. But hang my luck, I never came within a mile of an introduction."

"What? You, and on shipboard where she couldn't get away?" John threw up his hands as a sign that this information had overcome him.

"Even the captain shied when I approached him," said Robert, gloomily.

"I begin to see," said the brother.

"See what?"

"Have a match; your cigar has gone out."

Robert relighted his cigar and puffed like a threshing-machine engine.

John leaned toward Nancy. "Shall I tell him, Nan?"

Nancy blushed. "I suppose he'll have to know sooner or later."

"Know what?" asked the third person singular

"Your charming sister is about to bring you a brother-in-law."

"What?" You could have heard this across the street.

"Yes, Bobby dear. And don't look so hurt. You don't want me to become an old maid, do you?"

"When did it happen?"--helplessly. How the thought of his sister's marrying horrifies a brother! I believe I can tell you why. Every brother knows that no man is good enough for a good woman. "When did it happen?" Mr. Robert repeated, with a look at his brother, which said that _he should be held responsible.

"Last week."

Robert took in a long breath, as one does who expects to receive a blow of some sort which can not be warded off, and asked: "Who is it?" Nancy married? What was the world coming to, anyhow?

"Charlie Henderson,"--timidly.

Then Robert, who had been expecting nothing less than an English duke, let loose the flaming ions of his righteous wrath.

"Chuck Henderson?--that duffer?" (Oh, Mr. Robert, Mr. Robert; and after all I've done for you!)

"He's not a duffer!" remonstrated Nancy, with a flare in her mild eyes. (How I wish I might have seen her as she defended me!) "He's the dearest fellow in the world, and I love him with all my heart!" (How do you like that, Mr. Robert? Bravo, Nancy! I may be a duffer, true enough, but I rather object to its being called out from the housetops.) And Nancy added: "I want you to understand distinctly, Robert, that in my selection of a husband you are not to be consulted."

This was moving him around some.

"Hold on, Nan! Drat it, don't look like that! I meant nothing, dearie; only I'm a heap surprised. Chuck _is a good fellow, I'll admit; but I've been dreaming of your marrying a prince or an ambassador, and Henderson comes like a jolt. Besides, Chuck will never be anything but a first-rate politician. You'll have to get used to cheap cigars and four-ply whisky. When is it going to happen?"

"In June. I have always loved him, Bob. And he wants you to be his best man."

Robert appeared a bit mollified at this knowledge. "But what shall I do after that?" he wailed. "You're the only person I can order about, and now you're going the other side of the range."

"Bob, why don't you get married yourself?" asked Mrs. Warburton. "With your looks you won't have to go far nor begging for a wife."

"There's the rub, sister mine by law and the admirable foresight of my only brother. What am I good for but ordering rookies about? I've no business head. And it's my belief that an Army man ought never to wed."

"Marry, my boy, and I'll see what can be done for you in the diplomatic way. The new administration will doubtless be Republican, and my influence will have some weight,"--and John smiled affectionately across the table. He loved this gay lad opposite, loved him for his own self and because he could always see the mother's eyes and lips. "You have reached the age of discretion. You are now traveled and a fairly good linguist. You've an income of forty-five hundred, and to this I may be able to add a berth worth two or three thousand. Find the girl, lad; find the girl."

"Honestly, I'll think it over, Jack."

"Oh!"

Three of the quartet turned wonderingly toward Mrs. Jack.

"What's the matter?" asked Jack.

"We have forgotten to show Bob the baby!"

"Merciful heavens!" bawled Robert. "A baby? This is the first time I've heard anything about a baby,"--looking with renewed interest at the young mother.

"Do you mean to tell me, John Warburton, that you failed to mention the fact in any of your letters?" indignantly demanded Mrs. John.

"Why--er--didn't I mention it?" asked the perturbed father.

"Nary a word, nary a word!" Robert got up. "Now, where is this wonderful he?--or is it a she?"

"Boy, Bob; greatest kid ever."

And they all trooped up the stairs to the nursery, where Mr. Robert was forced to admit that, as regarded a three-months-old, this was the handsomest little colt he had ever laid eyes on! Mr. Robert even ventured to take the boy up in his arms.

"How d'ye hold him?" he asked.

Mrs. John took the smiling cherub, and the manner in which she folded that infant across her young breast was a true revelation to the prodigal, who felt his loneliness more than ever. He was a rank outsider.

"Jack, you get me that diplomatic post, and I'll see to it that the only bachelor in the Warburton family shall sleep in yonder cradle."

"Done!"

"How long is your furlough?" asked Nancy.

"Whom do you think the baby resembles?" asked the mother.

"One at a time, one at a time! The baby at present doesn't resemble any one."

"There's your diplomat!" cried John, with a laugh.

"And my furlough is for several years, if not longer."

"What?" This query was general and simultaneous.

"Yes, I've disbanded. The Army will now go to rack and ruin. I am a plain citizen of the United States. I expect to spend the winter in Washington."

"The winter!" echoed Jack, mockingly dejected.

"John!" said his wife. John assumed a meek expression; and Mrs. John, putting the baby in the cradle, turned to her brother-in-law. "I thought the Army was a hobby with you."

"It was. I've saved up quite a sum, and I'm going to see a lot of fine scenery if my leg doesn't give out."

"Or your bank account," supplemented John.

"Well, or my bank account."

"Draw on me whenever you want passage out West," went on the statesman in chrysalis.

Whereupon they all laughed; not because John had said anything particularly funny, but because there was a good and generous measure of happiness in each heart.

"Bob, there's a ball at the British embassy tonight. You must go with us."

"Impossible!" said Robert. "Remember my leg."

"That will not matter," said Mrs. John; "you need not dance."

"What, not dance? I should die of intermittent fever. And if I did dance, my leg might give out."

"You can ride a horse all right," said John, in the way of argument.

"I can do that easily with my knees. But I can't dance with my knees. No, I shall stay at home. I couldn't stand it to see all those famous beauties, and with me posing as a wall-flower."

"But what will you do here all alone?"

"Play with the kid, smoke and read; make myself at home. You still smoke that Louisiana, Jack?"

"Yes,"--dubiously.

"So. Now, don't let me interfere with your plans for tonight. I haven't been in a home in so long that it will take more than one night for the novelty to wear off. Besides, that nurse of yours, Kit, is good to look at,"--a bit of the rogue in his eye.

"Bob!"--from both women.

"I promise not to look at her; I promise."

"Well, I must be off," said John. "I'm late now. I've a dozen plans for coast defenses to go over with an inventor of a new carriage-gun. Will you go with me, while I put you up at the Metropolitan, or will you take a shopping trip with the women?"

"I'll take the shopping trip. It will be a sensation. Have you any horses?"

"Six."

"Six! You _are a lucky pup: a handsome wife, a bouncing boy, and six horses! Where's the stable?"

"In the rear. I keep only two stablemen; one to take care of the horses and one to act as groom. I'm off. I've a cracking good hunter, if you'd like a leg up. We'll all ride out to Chevy Chase Sunday. By- by, till lunch."

Mr. Robert immediately betook himself to the stables, where he soon became intimately acquainted with the English groom. He fussed about the harness-room, deplored the lack of a McClelland saddle, admired the English curbs, and complimented the men on the cleanliness of the stables. The men exchanged sly smiles at first, but these smiles soon turned into grins of admiration. Here was a man who knew a horse from his oiled hoofs to his curried forelock.

"This fellow ought to jump well," he said, patting the sleek neck of the hunter.

"He does that, sir," replied the groom. "He has never taken less than a red ribbon. Only one horse beat him at the bars last winter in New York. It was Mr. Warburton's fault that he did not take first prize. He rode him in the park the day before the contest, and the animal caught a bad cold, sir."

And then it was that this hero of mine conceived his great (not to say young and salad) idea. It appealed to him as being so rich an idea that the stables rang with his laughter.

"Sir?" politely inquired the groom.

"I'm not laughing at your statement, my good fellow; rather at an idea which just occurred to me. In fact, I believe that I shall need your assistance."

"In what way, sir?"

"Come with me."

The groom followed Warburton into the yard, A conversation began in low tones.

"It's as much as my place is worth, sir. I couldn't do it, sir," declared the groom, shaking his head negatively.

"I'll guarantee that you will not suffer in the least. My brother will not discharge you. He likes a joke as well as I do. You are not handed twenty dollars every day for a simple thing like this."

"Very well, sir. I dare say that no harm will come of it. But I am an inch or two shorter than you."

"We'll tide that over."

"I am at your orders, sir." But the groom returned to the stables, shaking his head dubiously. He was not thoroughly convinced.

During the morning ride down-town the two women were vastly puzzled over their brother's frequent and inexplicable peals of laughter.

"For mercy's sake, what do you see that is so funny?" asked Nancy.

"I'm thinking, my dears; only thinking."

"Tell us, that we may laugh, too. I'll wager that you are up to some mischief, Master Robert. Please tell," Nancy urged.

"Later, later; at present you would fail to appreciate the joke. In fact, you might make it miscarry; and that wouldn't do at all. Have a little patience. It's a good joke, and you'll be in it when the time comes."

And nothing more could they worm out of him.

I shall be pleased to recount to you the quality of this joke, this madcap idea. You will find it lacking neither amusement nor denouement. Already I have put forth the casual observation that from Paris to the third-precinct police-station in Washington is several thousand miles.

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