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CHAPTER XII
We had the good fortune to secure pleasant rooms in the large boarding-house of Mrs. Tully Wise, sister of Henry A. Wise of Virginia. Mrs. Wise had a number of agreeable people in her house: Professor and Mrs. Spenser Baird of the Smithsonian Institution; Professor Baird's assistants,—Mr. Turner, an Englishman, and a Swiss naturalist whom Professor Baird addressed as "George,"—Mr. James Heth, Commissioner of Pensions, and his family; Commodore Pennock and his wife, sister of Mrs. (Admiral) Farragut, and others. I must not forget Miss Dick, whose rooms were above mine, and who hovered around like the plump, busy little bird that she was. A long table in the dining-room was filled with "new" people—desirable possibly, but not known by us. There were the nouveau riche party from New York, the tall, angular, large-limbed, passée young woman and her fat mamma; there were the well-groomed government clerk and his stylish young wife; a French count, a German baron; a physician (Dr. McNalty), and a beautiful dark-eyed young lady who always wore a camellia in her dusky hair, Miss —well, let her be "Miss Vernon," with her father. Lesser lights plenty—a large number in all.

Then Mrs. Wise herself gathered pleasant men and women around her. In her little parlor we met 92Dr. Yelverton Garnett, our devoted friend in all his after life—Mrs. Garnett, daughter of Henry A. Wise, and a charming young sister, Annie Wise. Our hostess was a widow, well born and good, who was educating, alone and unaided, five splendid boys, who lived to reward her by their own worth and success.

We were made thoroughly comfortable, and I soon learned that the "man behind the gun," to whom it behooved me to be civil, was the head waiter, Patrick, tall, black, stern, and unyielding. No use in trying blandishments on Patrick! If one were starved, having overstayed appointed hours, she must fast until the next meal or find refreshment elsewhere. I once complained to Mrs. Wise,—that I lost the sweetest hour in the late afternoon for my stroll on Pennsylvania Avenue; and represented the perfect ease with which Patrick could keep my tea for me. She listened with sympathy to the oft-told tale.

"Well, you know, my dear," she said kindly, "Patrick—now you know Patrick is so good! There's nobody like Patrick! He has some trouble, with all those strangers to serve. I know you would like to help Patrick! Yes, to be sure, it would seem to be a simple thing to set aside a biscuit and bit of cold tongue for you, and keep the kettle hot on the hearth,—but you see Patrick,—well, he is so good, you'll not have the heart to trouble him! And dear! I think you will yourself choose to be indoors early here in Washington."

The one who was "dear" was Mrs. Wise—the noblest and best of women.

Very soon I found that with all these pieces upon 93the board, a lively game might be expected. Miss Dick, whose brother was employed by the government, soon enlightened me: the rich New York girl wanted a title. She was "trying to catch" the baron, and would succeed, "as nobody else wanted either of them." Miss Vernon was dying for love of Dr. McNalty. She was going into a decline. Probably the doctor was ignorant of the state of things. Such a beautiful girl—a perfect lady! Somebody ought to speak to the doctor. She, (Miss Dick) couldn't. Nobody would listen to an old maid—"perhaps you, Mrs. Pryor"—("Oh, mercy, no")—well, then, poor girl! The French count was flirting with the wife of the government clerk. Her husband would find her out, never fear! There was danger of a hostile meeting before the winter was over. Then that hateful old Dr. Todkin, with his straw-colored wig! To be sure, she and some others liked the parlors kept dark—but what business had he to say he hoped some lady would come who "liked the light and could bear the light!" Such Dutch impertinence!

I received these confidences of Miss Dick in my own rooms, for I soon learned, with Mrs. Baird and Mrs. Heth, that the public drawing-room was no place for me.

"Gossip!" said they. "It has gone beyond gossip! The air is thick with something worse. You might cut it with a knife."

But it was not long before we had a ripple in our own calm waters. On one side of me at our round table sat Mr. George, the eccentric, small, intense 94Swiss naturalist, who amused me much by affecting to be a woman-hater.

"Not that they concern me," he said, "but,—well, I find fishes more interesting. I understand them better."

Beside my husband was placed our special pet, Maria Heth, taken under our wing in the absence of her parents, neither of whom ever appeared. The circle was completed by Professor and Mrs. Baird, little Lucy Baird, and Mr. Turner. In course of time my right-hand man fell into silence, broken by long-drawn sighs. I supposed he had lost a "specimen," or failed to find enough bones in some fish he was to classify, or maybe heard bad news from home, or belike had a toothache; so, after a few essays on my part to encourage him, I let him alone. Presently his place at the board was vacant. Things went on in this way until one morning, early, Maria Heth knocked at my door.

"I am troubled about Mr. George," she said. "I am sorry to worry you, but I'm afraid there's no help for it. Mamma is too nervous to hear unpleasant things, and I'm afraid of exciting papa."

"Come to the point, Maria! Mr. George, you say! Well, then, what about Mr. George?"

"Well, you know he's been missing nearly a week. It was no business of mine. I had no dream I had anything to do with it. But see what he has written me! 'This comes to you from a broken-hearted man. Forget him! You will meet him no more on earth. Perhaps—yonder! George.'"

Questioning Maria further, she confessed that on 95the day Mr. George disappeared, she received from him a passionate love-letter. She had answered him curtly. Yes,—she certainly had told him what she thought of his impertinence. "Of course, I am distressed, but what could I do," said the poor child. "You know my brother! Richard would have been enraged. I had to settle him once for all to save trouble."

I went immediately to Mrs. Baird with my information. She, too, had become anxious at the sudden disappearance of the young naturalist. He had not been seen at the Institution, and investigation revealed the fact that he had not occupied his rooms. Professor Baird was deeply concerned, and a vigorous search was made for the missing man.

Upon returning from my walk that evening, I found a note on my table from Mrs. Baird. The runaway had been found. It would be unnecessary to drag the river or notify the police. He was discovered in the upper chamber of an humble lodging-house, very limp and penitent, but "clothed and in his right mind." He had not been drinking, he had not been in the river. I never knew what Professor Baird did to him—pulled him out of bed, very likely, and shook him into his senses. So we lost Mr. George (whose surname I dare not reveal), and he was doubtless mightily strengthened in his opinion of women—not to be understood by him and not, by any means, comparable to fishes.

Perhaps I should not leave the dramatis person? of our boarding-house "in the air." Before I left Mrs. Wise, the baron was safely moored into harbor 96by the tall young lady from New York. The government clerk had openly insulted the French count, and it was supposed a challenge had passed between them. Evidently nothing had come of it. If they fought, it was a bloodless battle. The exquisite Miss Vernon had reappeared, thinner, paler, but radiant and beautiful exceedingly. Miss Dick was puzzled. Perhaps the girl had "gotten over it," like a sensible woman. Perhaps she had not been ill at all—only hysterical. It was not impossible she might have feigned illness "to bring him around." These were some of the solutions of the problem that occurred to Miss Dick.

I could have enlightened her. One evening, Dr. McNalty, whom I knew but slightly, spoke to me in the hall. He had a soft white parcel in his hand and seemed embarrassed and agitated. He begged me to do him a great kindness—would I see Miss Vernon—not send a messenger, see her myself and give her some camellias from him. Possibly there might be some message from her. He would await my return.

Would I? I flew on the wings of hope and keen interest. I comprehended the situation. Of course there had been a misunderstanding. Possibly his letters had been returned and unopened. Only a desperate necessity could have nerved him to appeal to me—almost a stranger. I rose to the occasion, and when I was admitted to Miss Vernon's room, I was prepared to be an eloquent advocate, should circumstances encourage and justify me.

When I returned to Dr. McNalty, I bore a message. 97She had laid the camellias against her lovely cheek and said, "Tell him his flowers are whispering to me."

I hope my reader will appreciate my reticence in ending this little story just here. If, as Talleyrand declared, "a man who suppresses a bon mot deserves canonization," is there no nimbus for the woman who, for truth's sake, suppresses the dénouement of a love story? The temptation is great to amplify a little, embroider a little—but then I should have to reckon with my conscience, with the certainty of being worsted.

As a matter of fact, I know only this of the young woman I am constrained to call Miss Vernon. Her true name was one well and honorably known in history. She was the most beautiful of all dark-eyed women I have ever known—of course the blue-eyed angels are exceptional—and her manners and attire were as elegant as her person. She wore rich velvet, then much in vogue, and only one jewel:—

"On her fair breast a sparkling cross she wore

Which Jews might kiss and infidels adore."

I never knew the end of the romance in which I bore a small part. I never even knew of what whisperings camellias are capable. Had they been violets—or roses, or lilies of the valley—but big white camellias! I only know she recovered and that Dr. McNalty thanked me warmly for my small service. That is all.


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