There were some ten others in the party, and Kennaston found it droll enough to be sitting at table with them. The lean pensive man--with hair falling over his forehead in a neatly-clipped "bang," such as custom restricts to children--had probably writte n that morning, in his official capacity, to innumerable potentates. That handsome bluff old navy-officer was a national hero: he would rank in history with Perry and John Paul Jones; yet here he sat, within arms'-reach, prosaically complaining of unsea sonable weather. That bearded man, rubicund and monstrous as to nose, was perhaps the most powerful, as he was certainly the most wealthy, person inhabiting flesh; and it was rumored, in those Arcadian days, that kingdoms nowhere might presume to go to w ar without securing the consent of this financier.
And that exquisitely neat fellow, looking like a lad unconvincingly made-up for an octogenarian in amateur theatricals, was the premier of the largest province in the world: his thin-featured neighbor was an aeronaut--at this period really a rara avis --and went above the clouds to get his livelihood, just as ordinary people went to banks and offices. And chief of all, their multifarious host--the personage, as one may discreetly call him--had left unattempted scarcely any role in the field of hum an activities: as ranchman, statesman, warrior, historian, editor, explorer, athlete, coiner of phrases, and re-discoverer of the Decalogue, impartially, he had labored to make the world a livelier place of residence; and already he was the pivot of as many legends as Charlemagne or Arthur.
The famous navy-officer, as has been said, was complaining of the weather. "The seasons have changed so, since I can remember. We seem to go straight from winter into summer nowadays."
"It has been rather unseasonable," assented the financier; "but then you always feel the heat so much more during the first few hot days."
"Becides," came the judicious comment, "it has not been the heat which was so oppressive his morning, I think, as the great amount of humidity in the air."
"Yes, it is most unpleasant--makes your clothes stick to you so."
"Ah, but don't you find now," asked the premier gaily, "that looking at the thermometer tends to make you feel, really, much more uncomfortable than if you stayed uninformed as to precisely how hot it was?"
"Well! where ignorance is bliss it is folly to be wise, as I remember to have seen stated somewhere."
"By George, though, it is wonderful how true are many of those old sayings!" observed the personage. "We assume we are much wiser than our fathers: but I doubt if we really are, in the big things that count."
"In fact, I have often wondered what George Washington, for example, would think of the republic he helped to found, if he could see it nowadays."
"He would probably find it very different from what he imagined it would be."
"Why, he would probably turn in his grave, at some of our newfangled notions--such as prohibition and equal suffrage."
"Oh, well, all sensible people know, of course, that the trouble with prohibition is that it does not prohibit, and that woman's place is the home, not in the mire of politics."
"That is admirably put, sir, if you will permit me to say so. Still, there is a great deal to be said on both sides."
"And after all, is there not a greater menace to the ideas of Washington and Jefferson in the way our present laws tend uniformly to favor rich people?"
"There you have it, sir--to-day we punish the poor man for doing what the rich man does with entire impunity, only on a larger scale."
"By George, there are many of our so-called captains on industry who, if the truth were told, and a shorter and uglier word were not unpermissible, are little better than malefactors of great wealth."
This epigram, however heartily admired, was felt by many of the company to be a bit daring in the presence of the magnate: and the lean secretary spoke hastily, or at any rate, in less leisurely tones than usual:
"After all, money is not everything. The richest people are not always he happiest, in spite of their luxury."
"You gentlemen can take it from me," asserted the aeronaut, "that many poor people get a lot of pleasure out of life."
"Now really though, that reminds me--children are very close observers, and, as you may have noticed, they ask the most remarkable questions. My little boy asked me, only last Tuesday, why poor people are always so polite and kind--"
"Well, little pitchers have big ears--"
"What you might call a chip of the old block, eh?--so that mighty little misses him?"
"I may be prejudiced, but I thought it pretty good, coming from a kid of six--"
"And perfectly true, gentlemen--the poor are kind to each other. Now, I believe just being kind makes you happier--"
"And I often think that is a better sort of religion than just dressing up in your best clothes and going to church regularly on Sundays--"
"That is a very true thought," another chimed in.
"And expressed, upon my word, with admirable clarity--"
"Oh, whatever pretended pessimists in search of notoriety may say, most people are naturally kind, at heart--"
"I would put it that Christianity, in spite of the carpinng sneers of science so-called, has led us once for all to recognize the vast brotherhood of man--"
"So that, really, the world gets better every day--"
"We have quite abolished war, for instance--"
"My dear sir, were there nothing else, and even putting aside the outraged sentiments of civilized humanity, another great or prolonged war between any two of the leading nations is unthinkable--"
"For the simple reason, gentlemen, that we have perfected our fighting machines to such an extent that the destruction involved would be too frightful--"
"Then, too, we are improving the automobile to such an extent--"
"Oh, in the end it will inevitably supplant the horse--"
"Oh, it seems impossible to realize how we ever got along without the automoblie--"
"Do you know, I would not be surpised if some day horses were exhibited in museums--"
"As rare and nearly extinct animals? Come, now, that is pretty good--"
"And electricity is, as one might say, just in its infancy--"
"The telephone, for instance--our ancestors would not have believed in the possibilities of such a thing--"
"And, by George, they talk of giving an entire play with those moving-picture machines--acting the whole thing out, you know."
"Oh, yes, we live in the biggest, brainest age the world has ever known--"
"And America is going to be the greatest nation in it, before very long, commercially and in every way....
So the talk flowed on, with Felix Kennaston contributting very little thereto. Indeed, Felix Kennaston, the dreamer, was rather ill-at-ease among these men of action, and listened to their observations with perturbed attention. He sat among the great on es of earth--not all of them the very greatest, of course, but each a person of quite respectable importance. It was the sort of gathering that in boyhood--and in later life also, for that matter--he had foreplanned to thrill and dazzle, as he perfectly recollected. But now, with the opportunity, he somehow could not think of anything quite suitable to say--of anything which would at once do him justice and be admiringly received.
Therefore he attempted to even matters by assuring himself that the talk of these efficient people was lacking in brilliance and real depth, and expressed sentiments which, microscopocally viewed, did not appear to be astoundingly original. If these had been less remarkablee persons he would have thought their conversation almost platitudinous. And not one of them, however distinguished, or whatever else he might have done, could have written Men Who Loved Alison! Kennaston cherished that reflect ion as he sedately partook of a dish he resollectted to have seen described, on menu cards, as "Hungarian goulash" and sipped sherry of no very extraordinary flavor....
He was to remember how plain the fare was, and more than once, was to refer to this meal--quite casually--through a "That reminds me of what Such-an-one said once, when I was lunching with him," or perhaps, "The last time I lunched with So-and-so, I remem ber--" With such gambits he was to begin, later, to introduce to us of Lichfield divers anecdotes which, if rather pointless, were at least garnished with widely-known names.
There was a Cabinet meeting that afternoon, and luncheon ended, the personage wasted scant time dismissing his guests.
"It has been a very great pleasure to meet you Mr. Kennaston;" quoth the personage, wringing Kennaston's hand.
Kennaston suitably gave him to understand that they shared ecstasy in common. But all the while Kennaston was, really thinking that here before him, half-revealed, shone the world-famous teeth portrayed by cartoonists in the morning-paper every day, ever ywhere. Yes, they were remarkable teeth--immaculate, marmoreal and massive,--and they were so close-set that Kennaston was now smitten with an idiotic desire to ask their owner if the personage could get dental floss between them....
"Those portions of your book relating to the sigil of Scoteia struck me as being too explicit," the personage continued, bluffly, but in lowered tones. The two stood now, beneath a great stuffed elk's head, a little apart from the others. "Do you think it was quite wise? I seem to recall a phrase--about birds--"
Kennaston's thoughts remained, as yet, dental. But there is no denying Kennaston was perturbed. Nor was he less puzzled when, as if in answer to Kennaston's bewildered look, the personage produced from his waistcoat pocket a small square mirror, which h e half-exhibited, but retained secretively in the palm of his hand. "Yes, the hurt may be two-fold--I am pre-supposing that, as a country-gentleman, you have raised white pigeons, Mr. Kennaston?" he said meaningly.
"Why, no, they keep up such a maddening cooing and purring on warm days, and drum so on tin roofs"--Kennaston stammered--"that I long ago lost patience with the birds of Venus, whatever the tincture of their plumage. There used to be any number of them o n our place, though--"
"Ah, well," the personage said, with a wise nod, and with more teeth than ever, "you exercise a privilege common to all of us--and my intended analogy falls through. In any event, it has been a great pleasure to meet you. Come and see me again, Mr. Kenn aston--and meanwhile, think over what I have said."
And that was all. Kennaston returned to Alcluid in a whirl of formless speculations. The mirror and the insane query as to white pigions could not, he concidered, but constitute some password to which Kennaston had failed to give the proper response.
The mystery had some connection with what he had written in his book as to the sigil of Scoteia.
... And he could not find he had written anything very definite. The broken disk was spoken of as a talisman in the vague terms best suited to a discussion of talismans by a person who knew nothing much a about them. True, the book told what the talisma n looked like; it looked like that bit of metal he had picked up in the garden.... He wondered if he had thrown away that bit of metal; and, searching, discovered it in the desk drawer, where it had lain for several months.
Laid by the lamp, it shone agreeably as Kennaston puckered his protruding heavy brows over the characters with which it was inscribed. That was what the sigil looked like--or rather, what half the sigil looked like, because Ettarre still had the other ha lf. How could the personage have known anything about it? unless there were, indeed, really some secret and some password through which men won to place and the world's prized?... Blurred memories of Eugene Sue's nefarious Jesuits and of Balzac's redou btable Thirteen arose in the back-ground of his mental picturings....
No, the personage had probably been tasting beverages more potent than sherry; there were wild legends, since disproved, such as seemed then to excuse that supposition: or perhaps he was insane, and nobody but Filix Kennaston knew it.... What could a little mirror, much less pigions, have to do with this bit of metal?--except that this bit of metal, too, reflected light so that the strain ti red your eyes, thus steadily to look down upon this time-worn glittering object....