When they found him missing, his bed untouched, his hat and coat on the rack, his inseparable walking-stick in the umbrella-stand, they were mightil_orried. They questioned Jane, but she knew nothing. Jack went out to th_tables; no news there. William, having driven the girls home himself, dare_ay nothing. Then Jack wisely telephoned for me, and I hurried over to th_ouse.
"Maybe he hunted up some friends last night," I suggested.
"But here's his hat!" cried Nancy.
"Oh, he's all right; don't worry. I'll take a tour around the city. I'll fin_im. He may be at one of the clubs."
Fortunately for Mr. James Osborne I returned home first, and there found hi_ote awaiting me. I was at the court by noon, armed with thirty-five and _uit of clothes of my own. I found the clerk.
"A young man, dressed as a groom, and locked up overnight," I said cautiously.
"I wish to pay his fine."
"Yes, that's the name; James Osborne,"—reaching down into my pocket.
"Fine's just been paid. We were about to release him. Here, officer, show thi_entleman to James Osborne's cell, and tell him to pack up and get out."
So his fine was paid! Found the money in his clothes, doubtless. On the way t_he cells I wondered what the deuce the rascal had been doing to get locked u_vernight. I was vastly angry, but at the sight of him all my anger melte_nto a prolonged shout of laughter.
"That's right; laugh, you old pirate! I wish you had been in my boots a fe_ours ago. Lord!"
I laughed again.
"Have you got that thirty-five?" he asked.
"Why, your fine has been paid," I replied, rather surprised.
"And didn't you pay it?"
"Not I! The clerk told me that it had just been paid."
Warburton's jaw sank limply. "Just been paid?—Who the deuce could have pai_t, or known?"
"First, tell me what you've been up to."
He told me snatches of the exploit as he changed his clothes, and it was _uestion which of us laughed the more. But he didn't say a word about th_tolen kiss, for which I think none the less of him.
"Who were the women?" I asked.
He looked at me for a space, as if deciding. Finally he made a negative sign.
"Don't know who they were, eh?"—incredulously.
He shrugged, laughed, and drew on his shoes.
"I always knew that I was the jackass of the family, Chuck, but I neve_xpected to do it so well. Let's get out of this hole. I wonder who can hav_aid that fine?… No, that would not be possible!"
"What would not be?"
But I could see that his spirits had gone up several degrees.
"The whole thing is likely to be in the evening papers," I said. He needed _ittle worrying. And I knew his horror of publicity.
"The newspapers? In the newspapers? Oh, I say, Chuck, can't you use you_nfluence to suppress the thing? Think of the girls."
"I'll do the best I can. And there's only one thing for you to do, and that i_o cut out of town till your beard has grown. It would serve you right, however, if the reporters got the true facts."
"I'm for getting out of town, Chuck; and on the next train but one."
Here our conversation was interrupted by the entrance of a policeman.
"A note for _Mister_ Osborne,"—ironically. He tossed the letter to Warburto_nd withdrew.
_Mister_ Osborne eagerly tore open an end of the envelope—a very aristocrati_nvelope, as I could readily discern—and extracted the letter. I closel_atched his facial expressions. First, there was interest, then surprise, t_e succeeded by amusement and a certain exultation. He slapped his thigh.
"By George, Chuck. I'll do it!"
"Do it? Now what?"
"Listen to this." He cleared his throat, sniffed of the faintly scented pape_nd cleared his throat again. He looked up at me drolly.
"Well?" said I, impatiently. I was as eager to hear it as he had been to rea_t. I believed that the mystery was about to be solved.
"'James Osborne, Sir: I have been thinking the matter over seriously, and hav_ome to the conclusion that there may have been a mistake. Undoubtedly m_room was primarily to blame. I have discharged him for neglecting his post o_uty. I distinctly recall the manner in which you handled the horses las_ight. It may be possible that they ran away with you. However that may be, _ind myself in need of a groom. Your horsemanship saved us from a seriou_ccident. If you will promise to let whisky alone, besides bringing me _ecommendation, and are without engagement, call at the inclosed address thi_fternoon at three o'clock. I should be willing to pay as much as fort_ollars a month. You would be expected to accompany me on my morning rides.'"
"She must have paid the fine," said I. "Well, it beats anything I ever hear_f. Had you arrested, and now wants to employ you! What name did you say?" _sked carelessly.
"I didn't say any name, Chuck,"—smiling. "And I'm not going to give any, yo_ld duffer."
"And why not?"
"For the one and simple reason that I am going to accept the position,"—with _oolness that staggered me.
"What?" I bawled.
"Sure as life, as the policeman said last night."
"You silly ass, you! Do you want to make the family a laughing-stock all ove_own?" I was really angry.
"Neither the family nor the town will know anything about it,"— imperturbably.
"But you will be recognized!" I remonstrated. "It's a clear case of insanity, after what has just happened to you."
"I promise not to drink any whisky,"—soberly.
"Bob, you are fooling me."
"Not the littlest bit, Chuck. I've worn a beard for two years. No one woul_ecognize me. Besides, being a groom, no one would pay any particula_ttention to me. Get the point?"
"But what under the sun is your object?" I demanded. "There's something bac_f all this. It's not a simple lark like last night's."
"Perspicacious man!"—railingly. "Possibly you may be right. Chuck, you kno_hat I've just got to be doing something. I've been inactive too long. I a_shamed to say that I should tire of the house in a week or less. Change, change, of air, of place, of occupation; change—I must have it. It's food an_rink."
"You've met this woman before, somewhere."
"I neither acknowledge nor deny. It will be very novel. I shall be busy fro_orning till night. Think of the fun of meeting persons whom you know, but wh_o not know you. I wouldn't give up this chance for any amount of money."
"Forty Dollars a month," said I, wrathfully.
"Look here, Bob; be reasonable. You can't go about as a groom in Washington.
If the newspapers ever get hold of it, you would be disgraced. They wouldn'_ake you as a clerk in a third-rate consulate. Supposing you should run int_ack or his wife or Nancy; do you think they wouldn't know you at once?"
"I'll take the risk. I'd deny that I knew them; they'd tumble and leave m_lone. Chuck, I've got to do this. Some day you'll understand."
"But the woman's name, Bob; only her name."
"Oh, yes! And have you slide around and show me up within twenty-four hours.
No, I thank you. I am determined on this. You ought to know me by this time. _ever back down; it isn't in the blood. And when all is said, where's the har_n this escapade? I can see none. It may not last the day through."
"I trust not,"—savagely.
"I am determined upon answering this letter in person and finding out, i_ossible, what induced her to pay my fine. Jackass or not, I'm going to se_he thing through." Then he stretched an appealing hand out toward me, an_aid wheedlingly: "Chuck, give me your word to keep perfectly quiet. I'll dro_ou a line once in a while, just to let you know how I stand. I shall be a_he house to-night. I'll find an excuse. I'm to go up North on a huntin_xpedition; a hurry call. Do you catch on?"
"I shall never be able to look Nancy in the face," I declared. "Come, Bob; forget it. It sounds merry enough, but my word for it, you'll regret it insid_f twenty-four hours. You are a graduate of the proudest military school i_he world, and you are going to make a groom of yourself!"
"I've already done that and been locked up overnight. You are wasting you_reath, Chuck."
"Well, hang you for a jackass, sure enough! I promise; but if you get into an_uch scrape as this, you needn't send for me. I refuse to help you again."
"I can't exactly see that you did. Let's get out. Got a cigar in your pocket?
I am positively dying for a smoke."
Suddenly a brilliant idea came to me.
"Did you know that Miss Annesley, the girl you saw on shipboard, is i_ashington and was at the embassy last night?"
"No! You don't say!" He was too clever for me. "When I get through with thi_xploit, Nancy'll have to introduce me. Did you see her?"
"Yes, and talked to her. You see what you missed by not going last night."
"Yes, I missed a good night's rest and a cold bath in the morning."
"Where shall I say you were last night?" I asked presently.
Mister James scratched his chin disconcertedly. "I hadn't thought of that. Sa_hat I met some of the boys and got mixed up in a little game of poker."
"You left your hat on the rack and your cane in the stand. You are supposed t_ave left the house without any hat."
"Hat!" He jumped up from the cot on which he had been sitting and picked u_he groom's tile. "Didn't you bring me a hat?"—dismayed.
"You said nothing about it,"—and I roared with laughter.
"How shall I get out of here? I can't wear this thing through the streets."
"I've a mind to make you wear it. And, by Jove, you shall! You'll wear it t_he hatter's, or stay here. That's final. I never back down, either."
"I'll wear it; only, mark me, I'll get even with you. I always did."
" _I_ am not a boy any longer,"—with an inflection on the personal pronoun.
"Well, to continue about that excuse. You left the house without a hat, an_ou met the boys and played poker all night. That hitches wonderfully. Yo_idn't feel well enough to go to the embassy, but you could go and play poker.
That sounds as if you cared a lot for your sister. And you wanted to stay a_ome the first night, because you had almost forgotten how the inside of _rivate dwelling looked. Very good; very coherent."
"Cut it, Chuck. What the deuce excuse _can_ I give?"—worriedly lighting th_igar I had given him.
"My boy, I'm not making up your excuses; you'll have to invent those. I'll b_ilent, but I refuse to lie to Nancy on your account. Poker is the only excus_hat would carry any weight with it. You will have to let them believe you'r_ heartless wretch; which you are, if you persist in this idiotic exploit."
"You don't understand, Chuck. I wish I could tell you; honestly, I do. Th_irls will have to think mean things of me till the farce is over. I couldn'_scape if I wanted to."
"Is it Miss Annesley, Bob? Was it she whom you ran away with? Come, make _lean breast of it. If it's she, why, that altogether alters the face o_hings."
He walked the length of the cell and returned. "I give up. You've hit it. Yo_nderstand now. I simply can't back away; I couldn't if I tried."
"Are you in love with the girl?"
"That's just what I want to find out, Chuck. I'm not sure. I've been thinkin_f her night and day. I never had any affair; I don't know what love is. Bu_f it's shaking in your boots at the sound of her name, if it's getting red i_he face when you only just think of her, if it's having a wild desire to pic_er up and run away with her when you see her, then I've got it. When sh_tepped out of that confounded carriage last night, you could have knocked m_ver with a paper-wad. Come, let's go out. Hang the hat! Let them all laugh i_hey will. It's only a couple of blocks to the hatter's."
He bravely put the white hat on his head, and together we marched out of th_olice-office into the street. We entered the nearest hatter's together. H_ook what they call a drop-kick out of the hat, sending it far to the rear o_he establishment. I purchased a suitable derby for him, gave him ten dollar_or emergencies, and we parted.
He proceeded to a telegraph office and sent a despatch to a friend up North, asking him to telegraph him to come at once, taking his chances of getting _eply. After this he boarded a north-going car, and was rolled out to Chev_hase. He had no difficulty in finding the house of which he was in search. I_as a fine example of colonial architecture, well back from the road, an_ields beyond it. It was of red brick and white stone, with a wide verand_upported by great white pillars. There was a modern portico at one side. _ine lawn surrounded the whole, and white-pebble walks wound in and out. Al_round were thickly wooded hills, gashed here and there by the familiar ye_eculiar red clay of the country. Warburton walked up the driveway and knocke_eliberately at the servants' door, which was presently opened. (I learned al_hese things afterward, which accounts for my accurate knowledge of events.)
"Please inform Miss Annesley that Mr. Osborne has come in reply to he_etter," he said to the little black-eyed French maid.
"Ees Meestaire Osborrrrne zee new groom?"
"I go thees minute!" _Hein!_ what a fine-looking young man to make eyes at o_old nights in the kitchen!
Warburton sat down and twirled his hat. Several times he repressed the desir_o laugh. He gazed curiously about him. From where he sat he could see int_he kitchen. The French chef was hanging up his polished pans in a glistenin_ow back of the range, and he was humming a little _chanson_ which Warburto_ad often heard in the restaurants of the provincial cities of France. He eve_ound himself catching up the refrain where the chef left off. Presently h_eard footsteps sounding on the hardwood floor, which announced that the mai_as returning with her mistress.
He stood up, rested first on one foot, then on the other, and awkwardl_hifted his new hat from one hand to the other, then suddenly put the ha_nder his arm, recollecting that the label was not such as servants wor_nside their hats.
There was something disquieting in those magnetic sapphire eyes looking s_erenely into his.