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French had made a portrait of the new American ambassador to the Court of St. James and it was shown at the spring exhibition of the Royal Academy. The ambassador and his wife wished to see how it had been hung, but they did not wish to be seen. So they chose an early hour of a chill, rainy May morning to drive in a hansom from their place in Park Lane to Burlington House.
They found the portrait in Room VI, on the line, in a corner, but where it had the benefit of such light as there was. When they entered no one was there; but, as they were standing close to the picture, admiring the energy and simplicity of the strokes of the master's brush, a crowd swept in and enclosed them.
"Let us go," Howard said in a low tone.
Just then a man, almost at his shoulder because of the pressure of those behind, said: "Wonderful, isn't it? I've never seen a better example of his work. He had a subject that suited him perfectly."
"No, let us stay," Marian whispered in reply to her husband. "They can't see our faces and I'd like to hear."
"Yes, it is superb," came the answer to the man behind them in a voice unmistakably American. "Now, tell me, Saverhill, what sort of a person would you say the ambassador is from that picture? You don't know him?"
"Never heard of him until I read of his appointment," replied the first voice.
"I've heard of him often enough," came in the American voice. "But I've never seen him."
"You know him now," resumed the Englishman, "inside as well as out. French always paints what he sees and always sees what he's painting."
"Well, what is it?"
"Let us go," whispered Marian. But Howard did not heed her.
"I see--a fallen man. He was evidently a real man once; but he sold himself."
"Yes? Where does it show?"
"He's got a good mind, this fellow-countryman of yours. There are the eyes of a thinker and a doer. Nothing could have kept him down. His face is almost as relentless as Kitchener's and fully as aggressive, except that it shows intellect, and Kitchener's doesn't. Now note the corners of his eyes, Marshall, and his mouth and nostrils and chin, and you'll see why he sold himself, and the--the consequences."
Howard and Marian, fascinated, compelled, looked where the unknown requested.
"I think I see what you mean," came in Marshall's voice, laughingly. "But go on."
"Ah, there it all is--hypocrisy, vanity, lack of principle, and, plainest of all, weakness. It's a common enough type among your successful men. The man himself is the fixed market price for a certain kind of success. But, according to French, this ambassador of yours seems to know what he has paid; and the knowledge doesn't make him more content with his bargain. He has more brains than vanity; therefore he's an unhappy hypocrite instead of a happy self-deceiver."
Howard and Marian shrunk together with their heads close in the effort to make sure of concealing their faces. She was suffering for herself, but more acutely for him. She knew, as if she were looking into his mind, his frightful humiliation. "Hereafter," she thought, "whenever any one looks at him he will feel the thought behind the look."
"How nearly did I come to him?" asked Saverhill.
Howard started and Marian caught the rail for support.
"A centre-shot," replied Marshall, "if the people who know him and have talked to me about him tell the truth."
"Oh, they're 'on to' him, as you say, over there, are they?"
"No, not everybody. Only his friends and the few who are on the inside. There's an ugly story going about privately as to how he got the ambassadorship. They say he was bought with it. But--he's admired and envied even by a good many who know or suspect that he's only an article of commerce. He's got the cash and he's got position; and his paper gives him tremendous power. Then too, as you say, all about him there are men like himself. The only punishment he's likely to get is the penalty of having to live with himself."
"A good, round price if French is not mistaken," replied Saverhill.
The two men passed on. Howard and Marian looked guiltily about, then slipped away in the opposite direction. He helped her into the waiting hansom. As they were driven homeward she cast a stealthy side-glance at him.
"Yes," she thought, "the portrait is a portrait of his face; and his face is a portrait of himself."
He caught her glance in the little mirror in the side of the hansom--caught it and read it. And he began to hate her, this instrument to his punishment, this constant remembrancer of his downfall.
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