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   Chapter 1 MISS ISABEL THORNE

Elusive Isabel By Jacques Futrelle Characters: 10491

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


All the world rubs elbows in Washington. Outwardly it is merely a city of evasion, of conventionalities, sated with the commonplace pleasures of life, listless, blasé even, and always exquisitely, albeit frigidly, courteous; but beneath the still, suave surface strange currents play at cross purposes, intrigue is endless, and the merciless war of diplomacy goes on unceasingly. Occasionally, only occasionally, a bubble comes to the surface, and when it bursts the echo goes crashing around the earth. Sometimes a dynasty is shaken, a nation trembles, a ministry topples over; but the ripple moves and all is placid again. No man may know all that happens there, for then he would be diplomatic master of the world.

"There is plenty of red blood in Washington," remarked a jesting legislative gray-beard, once upon a time, "but it's always frozen before they put it in circulation. Diplomatic negotiations are conducted in the drawing-room, but long before that the fight is fought down cellar. The diplomatists meet at table and there isn't any broken crockery, but you can always tell what the player thinks of the dealer by the way he draws three cards. Everybody is after results; and lots of monarchs of Europe sit up nights polishing their crowns waiting for word from Washington."

So, this is Washington! And here at dinner are the diplomatic representatives of all the nations. That is the British ambassador, that stolid-faced, distinguished-looking, elderly man; and this is the French ambassador, dapper, volatile, plus-correct; here Russia's highest representative wags a huge, blond beard; and yonder is the phlegmatic German ambassador. Scattered around the table, brilliant splotches of color, are the uniformed envoys of the Orient-the smaller the country the more brilliant the splotch. It is a state dinner, to be followed by a state ball, and they are all present.

The Italian ambassador, Count di Rosini, was trying to interpret a French bon mot into English for the benefit of the dainty, doll-like wife of the Chinese minister-who was educated at Radcliffe-when a servant leaned over him and laid a sealed envelope beside his plate. The count glanced around at the servant, excused himself to Mrs. Quong Li Wi, and opened the envelope. Inside was a single sheet of embassy note paper, and a terse line signed by his secretary:

"A lady is waiting for you here. She says she must see you immediately, on a matter of the greatest importance."

The count read the note twice, with wrinkled brow, then scribbled on it in pencil:

"Impossible to-night. Tell her to call at the embassy to-morrow morning at half-past ten o'clock."

He folded the note, handed it to the servant, and resumed his conversation with Mrs. Wi.

Half an hour later the same servant placed a second sealed envelope beside his plate. Recognizing the superscription, the ambassador impatiently shoved it aside, intending to disregard it. But irritated curiosity finally triumphed, and he opened it. A white card on which was written this command was his reward:

"It is necessary that you come to the embassy at once."

There was no signature. The handwriting was unmistakably that of a woman, and just as unmistakably strange to him. He frowned a little as he stared at it wonderingly, then idly turned the card over. There was no name on the reverse side-only a crest. Evidently the count recognized this, for his impassive face reflected surprise for an instant, and this was followed by a keen, bewildered interest. Finally he arose, made his apologies, and left the room. His automobile was at the door.

"The Handwriting Was Unmistakably That of a Woman."

"To the embassy," he directed the chauffeur.

And within five minutes he was there. His secretary met him in the hall.

"The lady is waiting in your office," he explained apologetically. "I gave her your message, but she said she must see you and would write you a line herself. I sent it."

"Quite correct," commented the ambassador. "What name did she give?"

"None," was the reply. "She said none was necessary."

The ambassador laid aside hat and coat and entered his office with a slightly puzzled expression on his face. Standing before a window, gazing idly out into the light-spangled night, was a young woman, rather tall and severely gowned in some rich, glistening stuff which fell away sheerly from her splendid bare shoulders. She turned and he found himself looking into a pair of clear, blue-gray eyes, frank enough and yet in their very frankness possessing an alluring, indefinable subtlety. He would not have called her pretty, yet her smile, slight as it was, was singularly charming, and there radiated from her a something-personality, perhaps-which held his glance. He bowed low, and closed the door.

"I am at your service, Madam," he said in a tone of deep respect. "Please pardon my delay in coming to you."

"It is unfortunate that I didn't write the first note," she apologized graciously. "It would at least have saved a little time. You have the card?"

He produced it silently, crest down, and handed it to her. She struck a match, lighted the card, and it crumbled up in her gloved hand. The last tiny scrap found refu

ge in a silver tray, where she watched it burn to ashes, then she turned to the ambassador with a brilliant smile. He was still standing.

"The dinner isn't over yet?" she inquired.

"No, Madam, not for another hour, perhaps."

"Then there's no harm done," she went on lightly. "The dinner isn't of any consequence, but I should like very much to attend the ball afterward. Can you arrange it for me?"

"I don't know just how I would proceed, Madam," the ambassador objected diffidently. "It would be rather unusual, difficult, I may say, and-"

"But surely you can arrange it some way?" she interrupted demurely. "The highest diplomatic representative of a great nation should not find it difficult to arrange so simple a matter as-as this?" She was smiling.

"Pardon me for suggesting it, Madam," the ambassador persisted courteously, "but anything out of the usual attracts attention in Washington. I dare say, from the manner of your appearance to-night, that you would not care to attract attention to yourself."

She regarded him with an enigmatic smile.

"I'm afraid you don't know women, Count," she said slowly, at last. "There's nothing dearer to a woman's heart than to attract attention to herself." She laughed-a throaty, silvery note that was charming. "And if you hesitate now, then to-morrow-why, to-morrow I am going to ask that you open to me all this Washington world-this brilliant world of diplomatic society. You see what I ask now is simple."

The ambassador was respectfully silent and deeply thoughtful for a time. There was, perhaps, something of resentment struggling within him, and certainly there was an uneasy feeling of rebellion at this attempt to thrust him forward against all precedent.

"Your requests are of so extraordinary a nature that-" he began in courteous protestation.

There was no trace of impatience in the woman's manner; she was still smiling.

"It is necessary that I attend the ball to-night," she explained, "you may imagine how necessary when I say I sailed from Liverpool six days ago, reaching New York at half-past three o'clock this afternoon; and at half-past four I was on my way here. I have been here less than one hour. I came from Liverpool especially that I might be present; and I even dressed on the train so there would be no delay. Now do you see the necessity of it?"

Diplomatic procedure is along well-oiled grooves, and the diplomatist who steps out of the rut for an instant happens upon strange and unexpected obstacles. Knowing this, the ambassador still hesitated. The woman apparently understood.

"I had hoped that this would not be necessary," she remarked, and she produced a small, sealed envelope. "Please read it."

The ambassador received the envelope with uplifted brows, opened it and read what was written on a folded sheet of paper. Some subtle working of his brain brought a sudden change in the expression of his face. There was wonder in it, and amazement, and more than these. Again he bowed low.

"I am at your service, Madam," he repeated. "I shall take pleasure in making any arrangements that are necessary. Again, I beg your pardon."

"And it will not be so very difficult, after all, will it?" she inquired, and she smiled tauntingly.

"It will not be at all difficult, Madam," the ambassador assured her gravely. "I shall take steps at once to have an invitation issued to you for to-night; and to-morrow I shall be pleased to proceed as you may suggest."

She nodded. He folded the note, replaced it in the envelope and returned it to her with another deep bow. She drew her skirts about her and sat down; he stood.

"It will be necessary for your name to appear on the invitation," the ambassador went on to explain. "If you will give me your name I'll have my secretary-"

"Oh, yes, my name," she interrupted gaily. "Why, Count, you embarrass me. You know, really, I have no name. Isn't it awkward?"

"I understand perfectly, Madam," responded the count. "I should have said a name."

She meditated a moment.

"Well, say-Miss Thorne-Miss Isabel Thorne," she suggested at last. "That will do very nicely, don't you think?"

"Very nicely, Miss Thorne," and the ambassador bowed again. "Please excuse me a moment, and I'll give my secretary instructions how to proceed. There will be a delay of a few minutes."

He opened the door and went out. For a minute or more Miss Thorne sat perfectly still, gazing at the blank wooden panels, then she rose and went to the window again. In the distance, hazy in the soft night, the dome of the capitol rose mistily; over to the right was the congressional library, and out there where the lights sparkled lay Pennsylvania Avenue, a thread of commerce. Miss Thorne saw it all, and suddenly stretched out her arms with an all-enveloping gesture. She stood so for a minute, then they fell beside her, and she was motionless.

Count di Rosini entered.

"Everything is arranged, Miss Thorne," he announced. "Will you go with me in my automobile, or do you prefer to go alone?"

"I'll go alone, please," she answered after a moment. "I shall be there about eleven."

The ambassador bowed himself out.

And so Miss Isabel Thorne came to Washington!

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