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The glass-domed "palm-room" of the Grand Continental Hotel Magnifique in Rome is of vasty heights and distances, filled with a mellow green light which filters down languidly through the upper foliage of tall palms, so that the two hundred people who may be refreshing or displaying themselves there at the tea-hour have something the look of under-water creatures playing upon the sea-bed. They appear, however, to be unaware of their condition; even the ladies, most like anemones of that gay assembly, do not seem to know it; and when the Hungarian band (crustacean-like in costume, and therefore well within the picture) has sheathed its flying tentacles and withdrawn by dim processes, the tea-drinkers all float out through the doors, instead of bubbling up and away through the filmy roof. In truth, some such exit as that was imagined for them by a young man who remained in the aquarium after they had all gone, late one afternoon of last winter. They had been marvelous enough, and to him could have seemed little more so had they made such a departure. He could almost have gone that way himself, so charged was he with the uplift of his belief that, in spite of the brilliant strangeness of the hour just past, he had been no fish out of water.
While the waiters were clearing the little tables, he leaned back in his chair in a content so rich it was nearer ecstasy. He could not bear to disturb the possession joy had taken of him, and, like a half-awake boy clinging to a dream that his hitherto unkind sweetheart has kissed him, lingered on in the enchanted atmosphere, his eyes still full of all they had beheld with such delight, detaining and smiling upon each revelation of this fresh memory--the flashingly lovely faces, the dreamily lovely faces, the pearls and laces of the anemone ladies, the color and romantic fashion of the uniforms, and the old princes who had been pointed out to him: splendid old men wearing white mustaches and single eye-glasses, as he had so long hoped and dreamed they did.
"Mine own people!" he whispered. "I have come unto mine own at last. Mine own people!" After long waiting (he told himself), he had seen them--the people he had wanted to see, wanted to know, wanted to be of! Ever since he had begun to read of the "beau monde" in his schooldays, he had yearned to know some such sumptuous reality as that which had come true to-day, when, at last, in Rome he had seen --as he wrote home that night--"the finest essence of Old-World society mingling in Cosmopolis."
Artificial odors (too heavy to keep up with the crowd that had worn them) still hung about him; he breathed them deeply, his eyes half- closed and his lips noiselessly formed themselves to a quotation from one of his own poems:
While trails of scent, like cobweb's films Slender and faint and rare, Of roses, and rich, fair fabrics, Cling on the stirless air, The sibilance of voices, At a wave of Milady's glove, Is stilled--
He stopped short, interrupting himself with a half-cough of laughter as he remembered the inspiration of these verses. He had written them three months ago, at home in Cranston, Ohio, the evening after Anna McCord's "coming-out tea." "Milady" meant Mrs. McCord; she had "stilled" the conversation of her guests when Mary Kramer (whom the poem called a "sweet, pale singer") rose to sing Mavourneen; and the stanza closed with the right word to rhyme with "glove." He felt a contemptuous pity for his little, untraveled, provincial self of three months ago, if, indeed, it could have been himself who wrote verses about Anna McCord's "coming-out tea" and referred to poor, good old Mrs. McCord as "Milady"!
The second stanza had intimated a conviction of a kind which only poets may reveal:
She sang to that great assembly, They thought, as they praised her tone; But she and my heart knew better: Her song was for me alone.
He had told the truth when he wrote of Mary Kramer as pale and sweet, and she was paler, but no less sweet, when he came to say good-by to her before he sailed. Her face, as it was at the final moment of the protracted farewell, shone before him very clearly now for a moment: young, plaintive, white, too lamentably honest to conceal how much her "God-speed" to him cost her. He came very near telling her how fond of her he had always been; came near giving up his great trip to remain with her always.
"Ah!" He shivered as one shivers at the thought of disaster narrowly averted. "The fates were good that I only came near it!"
He took from his breast-pocket an engraved card, without having to search for it, because during the few days the card had been in his possession the action had become a habit.
"Comtesse de Vaurigard," was the name engraved, and below was written in pencil: "To remember Monsieur Robert Russ Mellin he promise to come to tea Hotel Magnifique, Roma, at five o'clock Thursday."
There had been disappointment in the first stages of his journey, and that had gone hard with Mellin. Europe had been his goal so long, and his hopes of pleasure grew so high when (after his years of saving and putting by, bit by bit, out of his salary in a real- estate office) he drew actually near the shining horizon. But London, his first stopping-place, had given him some dreadful days. He knew nobody, and had not understood how heavily sheer loneliness --which was something he had never felt until then--would weigh upon his spirits. In Cranston, where the young people "grew up together," and where he met a dozen friends on the street in a half-hour's walk, he often said that he "liked to be alone with himself." London, after his first excitement in merely being there, taught him his mistake, chilled him with weeks of forbidding weather, puzzled and troubled him.
He was on his way to Paris when (as he recorded in his journal) a light came into his life. This illumination first shone for him by means of one Cooley, son and inheritor of all that had belonged to the late great Cooley, of Cooley Mills, Connecticut. Young Cooley, a person of cheery manners and bright waistcoats, was one of Mellin's few sea-acquaintances; they had played shuffleboard together on the steamer during odd half-hours when Mr. Cooley found it possible to absent himself from poker in the smoking-room; and they encountered each other again on the channel boat crossing to Calais.
"Hey!" was Mr. Cooley's lively greeting. "I'm meetin' lots of people I know to-day. You runnin' over to Paris, too? Come up to the boat-deck and meet the Countess de Vaurigard."
"Who?" said Mellin, red with pleasure, yet fearing that he did not hear aright.
"The Countess de Vaurigard. Queen! met her in London. Sneyd introduced me to her. You remember Sneyd on the steamer? Baldish Englishman--red nose--doesn't talk much--younger brother of Lord Rugden, so he says. Played poker some. Well, yes!"
"I saw him. I didn't meet him."
"You didn't miss a whole lot. Fact is, before we landed I almost had him sized up for queer, but when he introduced me to the Countess I saw my mistake. He must be the real thing. She certainly is! You come along up and see."
So Mellin followed, to make his bow before a thin, dark, charmingly pretty young woman, who smiled up at him from her deck-chair through an enhancing mystery of veils; and presently he found himself sitting beside her. He could not help trembling slightly at first, but he would have giving a great deal if, by some miraculous vision, Mary Kramer and other friends of his in Cranston could have seen him engaged in what he thought of as "conversational badinage" with the Comtesse de Vaurigard.
Both the lady and her name thrilled him. He thought he remembered the latter in Froissart: it conjured up "baronial halls" and "donjon keeps," rang resonantly in his mind like "Let the portcullis fall!" At home he had been wont to speak of the "oldest families in Cranston," complaining of the invasions of "new people" into the social territory of the McCords and Mellins and Kramers--a pleasant conception which the presence of a De Vaurigard revealed to him as a petty and shameful fiction; and yet his humility, like his little fit of trembling, was of short duration, for gay geniality of Madame de Vaurigard put him amazingly at ease.
At Calais young Cooley (with a matter-of-course air, and not seeming to feel the need of asking permission) accompanied her to a compartment, and Mellin walked with them to the steps of the coach, where he paused, murmuring some words of farewell.
Madame de Vaurigard turned to him with a prettily assumed dismay.
"What! You stay at Calais?" she cried, pausing with one foot on the step to ascend. "Oh! I am sorry for you. Calais is ter-rible!"
"No. I am going on to Paris."
"So? You have frien's in another coach which you wish to be wiz?"
"No, no, indeed," he stammered hastily.
"Well, my frien'," she laughed gayly, "w'y don' you come wiz us?"
Blushing, he followed Cooley into the coach, to spend five happy hours, utterly oblivious of the bright French landscape whirling by outside the window.
There ensued a month of conscientious sightseeing in Paris, and that unfriendly city afforded him only one glimpse of the Countess. She whizzed by him in a big touring-car one afternoon as he stood on an "isle of safety" at the foot of the Champs Elysees. Cooley was driving the car. The raffish, elderly Englishman (whose name, Mellin knew, was Sneyd) sat with him, and beside Madame de Vaurigard in the tonneau lolled a gross-looking man--unmistakably an American--with a jovial, red, smooth-shaven face and several chins. Brief as the glimpse was, Mellin had time to receive a distinctly disagreeable impression of this person, and to wonder how Heaven could vouchsafe the society of Madame de Vaurigard to so coarse a creature.
All the party were dressed as for the road, gray with dust, and to all appearances in a merry mood. Mellin's heart gave a leap when he saw that the Countess recognized him. Her eyes, shining under a white veil, met his for just the instant before she was quite by, and when the machine had passed a little handkerchief waved for a moment from the side of the tonneau where she sat.
With that he drew the full breath of Romance.
He had always liked to believe that "grandes dames" leaned back in the luxurious upholstery of their victorias, landaulettes, daumonts or automobiles with an air of inexpressible though languid hauteur. The Newport letter in the Cranston Telegraph often referred to it. But the gayety of that greeting from the Countess' little handkerchief was infinitely refreshing, and Mellin decided that animation was more becoming than hauteur--even to a "grande dame."
That night he wrote (almost without effort) the verses published in the Cranston Telegraph two weeks later. They began:
Marquise, ma belle, with your kerchief of lace Awave from your flying car, And your slender hand--
The hand to which he referred was the same which had arrested his gondola and his heart simultaneously, five days ago, in Venice. He was on his way to the station when Madame de Vaurigard's gondola shot out into the Grand Canal from a narrow channel, and at her signal both boats paused.
"Ah! but you fly away!" she cried, lifting her eyebrows mournfully, as she saw the steamer-trunk in his gondola. "You are goin' return to America?"
"No. I'm just leaving for Rome."
"Well, in three day' I am goin' to Rome!" She clapped her hands lightly and laughed. "You know this is three time' we meet jus' by chance, though that second time it was so quick--pff! like that-- we didn't talk much togezzer! Monsieur Mellin," she laughed again, "I think we mus' be frien's. Three time'--an' we are both goin' to Rome! Monsieur Mellin, you believe in Fate?"
With a beating heart he did.
Thence came the invitation to meet her at the Magnifique for tea, and the card she scribbled for him with a silver pencil. She gave it with the prettiest gesture, leaning from her gondola to his as they parted. She turned again, as the water between them widened, and with her "Au revoir" offered him a faintly wistful smile to remember.
All the way to Rome the noises of the train beat out the measure of his Parisian verses:
Marquise, ma belle, with your kerchief of lace Awave from your flying car--
He came out of his reverie with a start. A dozen men and women, dressed for dinner, with a gold-fish officer or two among them, swam leisurely through the aquarium on their way to the hotel restaurant. They were the same kind of people who had sat at the little tables for tea--people of the great world, thought Mellin: no vulgar tourists or "trippers" among them; and he shuddered at the remembrance of his pension (whither it was time to return) and its conscientious students of Baedeker, its dingy halls and permanent smell of cold food. Suddenly a high resolve lit his face: he got his coat and hat from the brass-and-blue custodian in the lobby, and without hesitation entered the "bureau."
"I 'm not quite satisfied where I am staying--where I'm stopping, that is," he said to the clerk. "I think I'll take a room here."
"Very well, sir. Where shall I send for your luggage?"
"I shall bring it myself," replied Mellin coldly, "in my cab."
He did not think it necessary to reveal the fact that he was staying at one of the cheaper pensions; and it may be mentioned that this reticence (as well as the somewhat chilling, yet careless, manner of a gentleman of the "great world" which he assumed when he returned with his trunk and bag) very substantially increased the rate put upon the room he selected at the Magnifique. However, it was with great satisfaction that he found himself installed in the hotel, and he was too recklessly exhilarated, by doing what he called the "right thing," to waste any time wondering what the "right thing" would do to the diminishing pad of express checks he carried in the inside pocket of his waistcoat.
"Better live a fortnight like a gentleman," he said, as he tossed his shoes into a buhl cabinet, "than vegetate like a tourist for a year."
He had made his entrance into the "great world" and he meant to hold his place in it as one "to the manor born." Its people should not find him lacking: he would wear their manner and speak their language--no gaucherie should betray him, no homely phrase escape his lips.
This was the chance he had always hoped for, and when he fell asleep in his gorgeous, canopied bed, his soul was uplifted with happy expectations.
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