He felt like the bird writhing on the tree unable to free itself from the hypnotic stare of the serpent coiled near the trunk. Those sarcastic, mischievous eyes had upset all his train of thought. He tried to finish in some way or other, to end his speech as soon as possible. Every minute was an added torment to him; he imagined he could hear the mute gibes that mouth must be uttering at his expense.
Again he looked at the clock; in fifteen minutes more he would be through. And he spurted on at a mad pace, with a hurried voice, forgetting the devices he had thought of to prolong the peroration, dumping them out all in a heap—anything to get through! “The Concordate... sacred obligations toward the clergy ... their services of old ... promises of close friendship with the Pope ... the generous father of Spain ... in short, we cannot reduce the budget by a centimo and the committee stands, by its proposals without accepting a single amendment.”
As he sat down, perspiring, excited, wiping his congested face energetically, his bench companions gathered around him congratulating him, shaking his hands. He was every inch an orator! He should have gone deeper into the matter and taken even more time! He shouldn’t have been so modest!
And from the bench below came the grunt of the minister:
“Very good, very good. You said exactly what I would have said.”
The old revolutionist arose to make a short rebuttal, repeating the contentions of his original speech, of which no denial had been attempted.
“I’m quite tired,” sighed Rafael, in reply to the felicitations.
“You can go out if you wish,” said the minister. “I think I’ll answer the rebuttal myself. It’s a courtesy due to so old a deputy.”
Rafael raised his eyes toward the diplomatic gallery. It was empty. But he imagined he could still make out the plumes of a woman’s hat in the dark background.
He left his bench hastily and hurried to the corridor, where a number of deputies were waiting with their congratulations.
Not one of them had heard him, but they were all profuse in their flattering remarks. They shook his hand and detained him maddeningly. Once more he thought he could descry at the end of the corridor, at the foot of the gallery staircase, standing out against the glass exit-door, those black, waving plumes.
He elbowed his way through the crowds, deaf to all congratulations, brushing aside the hands that were proferred to him.
Near the door he stumbled into two of his associates, who were looking out with eyes radiant with admiration.
“What a woman? Eh?”
“She looks like a foreigner. Some diplomat’s wife, I guess!”
As he came out of the building he saw her on the sidewalk, about to step into a vehicle. An usher of the Congress was holding the carriage door open, with the demonstrative respect inspired by the goldbraid shining on the driver’s hat. It was an embassy coach!