The Diamond as Big as the Ritz - VI
John stood facing Mr. Braddock Washington in the full sunlight. The elder man was about forty, with a proud, vacuous face, intelligent eyes, and a robust figure. In the mornings he smelt of horses—the best horses. He carried a plain walking-stick of gray birch with a single large opal for a grip. He and Percy were showing John around.
"The slaves' quarters are there." His walking-stick indicated a cloister of marble on their left that ran in graceful Gothic along the side of the mountain. "In my youth I was distracted for a while from the business of life by a period of absurd idealism. During that time they lived in luxury. For instance, I equipped every one of their rooms with a tile bath."
"I suppose," ventured John, with an ingratiating laugh, "that they used the bathtubs to keep coal in. Mr. Schnlitzer-Murphy told me that once he—"
"The opinions of Mr. Schnlitzer-Murphy are of little importance, I should imagine," interrupted Braddock Washington coldly. "My slaves did not keep coal in their bathtubs. They had orders to bathe every day, and they did. If they hadn't I might have ordered a sulphuric acid shampoo. I discontinued the baths for quite another reason. Several of them caught cold and died. Water is not good for certain races—except as a beverage."
John laughed, and then decided to nod his head in sober agreement.
Braddock Washington made him uncomfortable.
"All these negroes are descendants of the ones my father brought North with him. There are about two hundred and fifty now. You notice that they've lived so long apart from the world that their original dialect has become an almost indistinguishable patois. We bring a few of them up to speak English—my secretary and two or three of the house servants.
"This is the golf course," he continued, as they strolled along the velvet winter grass. "It's all a green, you see—no fairway, no rough, no hazards."
He smiled pleasantly at John.
"Many men in the cage, father?" asked Percy suddenly.
Braddock Washington stumbled, and let forth an involuntary curse.
"One less than there should be," he ejaculated darkly—and then added after a moment, "We've had difficulties."
"Mother was telling me," exclaimed Percy, "that Italian teacher—"
"A ghastly error," said Braddock Washington angrily. "But of course there's a good chance that we may have got him. Perhaps he fell somewhere in the woods or stumbled over a cliff. And then there's always the probability that if he did get away his story wouldn't be believed. Nevertheless, I've had two dozen men looking for him in different towns around here."
"And no luck?"
"Some. Fourteen of them reported to my agent they'd each killed a man answering to that description, but of course it was probably only the reward they were after—"
He broke off. They had come to a large cavity in the earth about the circumference of a merry-go-round, and covered by a strong iron grating. Braddock Washington beckoned to John, and pointed his cane down through the grating. John stepped to the edge and gazed. Immediately his ears were assailed by a wild clamor from below.
"Come on down to Hell!"
"Hallo, kiddo, how's the air up there?"
"Hey! Throw us a rope!"
"Got an old doughnut, Buddy, or a couple of second-hand sandwiches?"
"Say, fella, if you'll push down that guy you're with, we'll show you a quick disappearance scene."
"Paste him one for me, will you?"
It was too dark to see clearly into the pit below, but John could tell from the coarse optimism and rugged vitality of the remarks and voices that they proceeded from middle-class Americans of the more spirited type. Then Mr. Washington put out his cane and touched a button in the grass, and the scene below sprang into light.
"These are some adventurous mariners who had the misfortune to discover El Dorado," he remarked.
Below them there had appeared a large hollow in the earth shaped like the interior of a bowl. The sides were steep and apparently of polished glass, and on its slightly concave surface stood about two dozen men clad in the half costume, half uniform, of aviators. Their upturned faces, lit with wrath, with malice, with despair, with cynical humour, were covered by long growths of beard, but with the exception of a few who had pined perceptibly away, they seemed to be a well-fed, healthy lot.
Braddock Washington drew a garden chair to the edge of the pit and sat down.
"Well, how are you, boys?" he inquired genially.
A chorus of execration, in which all joined except a few too dispirited to cry out, rose up into the sunny air, but Braddock Washington heard it with unruffled composure. When its last echo had died away he spoke again.
"Have you thought up a way out of your difficulty?"
From here and there among them a remark floated up.
"We decided to stay here for love!"
"Bring us up there and we'll find us a way!"
Braddock Washington waited until they were again quiet. Then he said:
"I've told you the situation. I don't want you here, I wish to heaven I'd never seen you. Your own curiosity got you here, and any time that you can think of a way out which protects me and my interests I'll be glad to consider it. But so long as you confine your efforts to digging tunnels—yes, I know about the new one you've started—you won't get very far. This isn't as hard on you as you make it out, with all your howling for the loved ones at home. If you were the type who worried much about the loved ones at home, you'd never have taken up aviation."
A tall man moved apart from the others, and held up his hand to call his captor's attention to what he was about to say.
"Let me ask you a few questions!" he cried. "You pretend to be a fair-minded man."
"How absurd. How could a man of my position be fair-minded toward you? You might as well speak of a Spaniard being fair-minded toward a piece of steak."
At this harsh observation the faces of the two dozen fell, but the tall man continued:
"All right!" he cried. "We've argued this out before. You're not a humanitarian and you're not fair-minded, but you're human—at least you say you are—and you ought to be able to put yourself in our place for long enough to think how—how—how—"
"How what?" demanded Washington, coldly.
"Not to me."
"We've covered that. Cruelty doesn't exist where self-preservation is involved. You've been soldiers; you know that. Try another."
"Well, then, how stupid."
"There," admitted Washington, "I grant you that. But try to think of an alternative. I've offered to have all or any of you painlessly executed if you wish. I've offered to have your wives, sweethearts, children, and mothers kidnapped and brought out here. I'll enlarge your place down there and feed and clothe you the rest of your lives. If there was some method of producing permanent amnesia I'd have all of you operated on and released immediately, somewhere outside of my preserves. But that's as far as my ideas go."
"How about trusting us not to peach on you?" cried some one.
"You don't proffer that suggestion seriously," said Washington, with an expression of scorn. "I did take out one man to teach my daughter Italian. Last week he got away."
A wild yell of jubilation went up suddenly from two dozen throats and a pandemonium of joy ensued. The prisoners clog-danced and cheered and yodled and wrestled with one another in a sudden uprush of animal spirits. They even ran up the glass sides of the bowl as far as they could, and slid back to the bottom upon the natural cushions of their bodies. The tall man started a song in which they all joined—
"Oh, we'll hang the kaiser
On a sour apple-tree—"
Braddock Washington sat in inscrutable silence until the song was over.
"You see," he remarked, when he could gain a modicum of attention. "I bear you no ill-will. I like to see you enjoying yourselves. That's why I didn't tell you the whole story at once. The man—what was his name? Critchtichiello?—was shot by some of my agents in fourteen different places."
Not guessing that the places referred to were cities, the tumult of rejoicing subsided immediately.
"Nevertheless," cried Washington with a touch of anger, "he tried to run away. Do you expect me to take chances with any of you after an experience like that?"
Again a series of ejaculations went up.
"Would your daughter like to learn Chinese?"
"Hey, I can speak Italian! My mother was a wop."
"Maybe she'd like t'learna speak N'Yawk!"
"If she's the little one with the big blue eyes I can teach her a lot of things better than Italian."
"I know some Irish songs—and I could hammer brass once't."
Mr. Washington reached forward suddenly with his cane and pushed the button in the grass so that the picture below went out instantly, and there remained only that great dark mouth covered dismally with the black teeth of the grating.
"Hey!" called a single voice from below, "you ain't goin' away without givin' us your blessing?"
But Mr. Washington, followed by the two boys, was already strolling on toward the ninth hole of the golf course, as though the pit and its contents were no more than a hazard over which his facile iron had triumphed with ease.