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In the marble-floored vestibule of the Metropolitan Grand Hotel in Buffalo, Professor Stillson Renmark stood and looked about him with the anxious manner of a person unused to the gaudy splendor of the modern American house of entertainment. The professor had paused halfway between the door and the marble counter, because he began to fear that he had arrived at an inopportune time, that something unusual was going on. The hurry and bustle bewildered him.
An omnibus, partly filled with passengers, was standing at the door, its steps backed over the curbstone, and beside it was a broad, flat van, on which stalwart porters were heaving great square, iron-bound trunks belonging to commercial travelers, and the more fragile, but not less bulky, saratogas, doubtless the property of the ladies who sat patiently in the omnibus. Another vehicle which had just arrived was backing up to the curb, and the irate driver used language suitable to the occasion; for the two restive horses were not behaving exactly in the way he liked.
A man with a stentorian, but monotonous and mournful, voice was filling the air with the information that a train was about to depart for Albany, Saratoga, Troy, Boston, New York, and the East. When he came to the words "the East," his voice dropped to a sad minor key, as if the man despaired of the fate of those who took their departure in that direction. Every now and then a brazen gong sounded sharply; and one of the negroes who sat in a row on a bench along the marble-paneled wall sprang forward to the counter, took somebody's handbag, and disappeared in the direction of the elevator with the newly arrived guest following him. Groups of men stood here and there conversing, heedless of the rush of arrival and departure around them.
Before the broad and lofty plate-glass windows sat a row of men, some talking, some reading, and some gazing outside, but all with their feet on the brass rail which had been apparently put there for that purpose. Nearly everybody was smoking a cigar. A lady of dignified mien came down the hall to the front of the counter, and spoke quietly to the clerk, who bent his well-groomed head deferentially on one side as he listened to what she had to say. The men instantly made way for her. She passed along among them as composedly as if she were in her own drawing room, inclining her head slightly to one or other of her acquaintances, which salutation was gravely acknowledged by the raising of the hat and the temporary removal of the cigar from the lips.
All this was very strange to the professor, and he felt himself in a new world, with whose customs he was not familiar. Nobody paid the slightest attention to him as he stood there among it all with his satchel in his hand. As he timidly edged up to the counter, and tried to accumulate courage enough to address the clerk, a young man came forward, flung his handbag on the polished top of the counter, metaphorically brushed the professor aside, pulled the bulky register toward him, and inscribed his name on the page with a rapidity equaled only by the illegibility of the result.
"Hello, Sam!" he said to the clerk. "How's things? Get my telegram?"
"Yes," answered the clerk; "but I can't give you 27. It's been taken for a week. I reserved 85 for you, and had to hold on with my teeth to do that."
The reply of the young man was merely a brief mention of the place of torment.
"It is hot," said the clerk blandly. "In from Cleveland?"
"Yes. Any letters for me?"
"Couple of telegrams. You'll find them up in 85."
"Oh, you were cocksure I'd take that room?"
"I was cocksure you'd have to. It is that or the fifth floor. We're full. Couldn't give a better room to the President if he came."
"Oh, well, what's good enough for the President I can put up with for a couple of days."
The hand of the clerk descended on the bell. The negro sprang forward and took the "grip."
"Eighty-five," said the clerk; and the drummer and the Negro disappeared.
"Is there any place where I could leave my bag for a while?" the professor at last said timidly to the clerk.
The professor held it up in view.
"Oh, your grip. Certainly. Have a room, sir?" And the clerk's hand hovered over the bell.
"No. At least, not just yet. You see, I'm----"
"All right. The baggage man there to the left will check it for you."
"Any letters for Bond?" said a man, pushing himself in front of the professor. The clerk pulled out a fat bunch of letters from the compartment marked "B," and handed the whole lot to the inquirer, who went rapidly over them, selected two that appeared to be addressed to him, and gave the letters a push toward the clerk, who placed them where they were before.
The professor paused a moment, then, realizing that the clerk had forgotten him, sought the baggage man, whom he found in a room filled with trunks and valises. The room communicated with the great hall by means of a square opening whose lower ledge was breast high. The professor stood before it, and handed the valise to the man behind this opening, who rapidly attached one brass check to the handle with a leather thong, and flung the other piece of brass to the professor. The latter was not sure but there was something to pay, still he quite correctly assumed that if there had been the somewhat brusque man would have had no hesitation in mentioning the fact; in which surmise his natural common sense proved a sure guide among strange surroundings. There was no false delicacy about the baggage man.
Although the professor was to a certain extent bewildered by the condition of things, there was still in his nature a certain dogged persistence that had before now stood him in good stead, and which had enabled him to distance, in the long run, much more brilliant men. He was not at all satisfied with his brief interview with the clerk. He resolved to approach that busy individual again, if he could arrest his attention. It was some time before he caught the speaker's eye, as it were, but when he did so, he said:
"I was about to say to you that I am waiting for a friend from New York who may not yet have arrived. His name is Mr. Richard Yates of the----"
"Oh, Dick Yates! Certainly. He's here." Turning to the negro, he said: "Go down to the billiard room and see if Mr. Yates is there. If he is not, look for him at the bar."
The clerk evidently knew Mr. Dick Yates. Apparently not noticing the look of amazement that had stolen over the professor's face, the clerk said:
"If you wait in the reading room, I'll send Yates to you when he comes. The boy will find him if he's in the house; but he may be uptown."
The professor, disliking to trouble the obliging clerk further, did not ask him where the reading room was. He inquired, instead, of a hurrying porter, and received the curt but comprehensive answer:
"Dining room next floor. Reading, smoking, and writing rooms up the hall. Billiard room, bar, and lavatory downstairs."
The professor, after getting into the barber shop and the cigar store, finally found his way into the reading room. Numerous daily papers were scattered around on the table, each attached to a long, clumsy cleft holder made of wood; while other journals, similarly encumbered, hung from racks against the wall. The professor sat down in one of the easy leather-covered chairs, but, instead of taking up a paper, drew a thin book from his pocket, in which he was soon so absorbed that he became entirely unconscious of his strange surroundings. A light touch on the shoulder brought him up from his book into the world again, and he saw, looking down on him, the stern face of a heavily mustached stranger.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but may I ask if you are a guest of this house?"
A shade of apprehension crossed the professor's face as he slipped the book into his pocket. He had vaguely felt that he was trespassing when he first entered the hotel, and now his doubts were confirmed.
"I--I am not exactly a guest," he stammered.
"What do you mean by not exactly a guest?" continued the other, regarding the professor with a cold and scrutinizing gaze. "A man is either a guest or he is not, I take it. Which is it in your case?"
"I presume, technically speaking, I am not."
"Technically speaking! More evasions. Let me ask you, sir, as an ostensibly honest man, if you imagine that all this luxury--this--this elegance--is maintained for nothing? Do you think, sir, that it is provided for any man who has cheek enough to step out of the street and enjoy it? Is it kept up, I ask, for people who are, technically speaking, not guests?"
The expression of conscious guilt deepened on the face of the unfortunate professor. He had nothing to say. He realized that his conduct was too flagrant to admit of defense, so he attempted none. Suddenly the countenance of his questioner lit up with a smile, and he smote the professor on the shoulder.
"Well, old stick-in-the-mud, you haven't changed a particle in fifteen years! You don't mean to pretend you don't know me?"
"You can't--you can't be Richard Yates?"
"I not only can, but I can't be anybody else. I know, because I have often tried. Well, well, well, well! Stilly we used to call you; don't you remember? I'll never forget that time we sang 'Oft in the stilly night' in front of your window when you were studying for the exams. You always were a quiet fellow, Stilly. I've been waiting for you nearly a whole day. I was up just now with a party of friends when the boy brought me your card--a little philanthropic gathering--sort of mutual benefit arrangement, you know: each of us contributed what we could spare to a general fund, which was given to some deserving person in the crowd."
"Yes," said the professor dryly. "I heard the clerk telling the boy where he would be most likely to find you."
"Oh, you did, eh?" cried Yates, with a laugh. "Yes, Sam generally knows where to send for me; but he needn't have been so darned public about it. Being a newspaper man, I know what ought to go in print and what should have the blue pencil run through it. Sam is very discreet, as a general thing; but then he knew, of course, the moment he set eyes on you, that you were an old pal of mine."
Again Yates laughed, a very bright and cheery laugh for so evidently wicked a man.
"Come along," he said, taking the professor by the arm. "We must get you located."
They passed out into the hall, and drew up at the clerk's counter.
"I say, Sam," cried Yates, "can't you do something better for us than the fifth floor? I didn't come to Buffalo to engage in ballooning. No sky parlors for me, if I can help it."
"I'm sorry, Dick," said the clerk; "but I expect the fifth floor will be gone when the Chicago express gets in."
"Well, what can you do for us, anyhow?"
"I can let you have 518. That's the next room to yours. Really, they're the most comfortable rooms in the house this weather. Fine lookout over the lake. I wouldn't mind having a sight of the lake myself, if I could leave the desk."
"All right. But I didn't come to look at the lake, nor yet at the railroad tracks this side, nor at Buffalo Creek either, beautiful and romantic as it is, nor to listen to the clanging of the ten thousand locomotives that pass within hearing distance for the delight of your guests. The fact is that, always excepting Chicago, Buffalo is more like--for the professor's sake I'll say Hades, than any other place in America."
"Oh, Buffalo's all right," said the clerk, with that feeling of local loyalty which all Americans possess. "Say, are you here on this Fenian snap?"
"What Fenian snap?" asked the newspaper man.
"Oh! don't you know about it? I thought, the moment I saw you, that you were here for this affair. Well, don't say I told you, but I can put you on to one of the big guns if you want the particulars. They say they're going to take Canada. I told 'em that I wouldn't take Canada as a gift, let alone fight for it. I've been there."
Yates' newspaper instinct thrilled him as he thought of the possible sensation. Then the light slowly died out of his eyes when he looked at the professor, who had flushed somewhat and compressed his lips as he listened to the slighting remarks on his country.
"Well, Sam," said the newspaper man at last, "it isn't more than once in a lifetime that you'll find me give the go-by to a piece of news, but the fact is I'm on my vacation just now. About the first I've had for fifteen years; so, you see, I must take care of it. No, let the Argus get scooped, if it wants to. They'll value my services all the more when I get back. No. 518, I think you said?"
The clerk handed over the key, and the professor gave the boy the check for his valise at Yates' suggestion.
"Now, get a move on you," said Yates to the elevator boy. "We're going right through with you."
And so the two friends were shot up together to the fifth floor.
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