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Compartment Number Four–Cologne To Paris
by [?]

He was looking through a hole–a square hole, framed about with mahogany and ground glass. His face was red, his eyes were black, his mustache–waxed to two needle-points–was a yellowish brown; his necktie blue and his uniform dark chocolate seamed with little threads of vermilion and incrusted with silver poker-chip buttons emblazoned with the initials of the corporation which he served.

I knew I was all right when I read the initials. I had found the place and the man. The place was the ticket-office of the International Sleeping-Car Company. The man was its agent.

So I said, very politely and in my best French–it is a little frayed and worn at the edges, but it arrives–sometimes—-

“A lower for Paris.”

The man in chocolate, with touches of the three primary colors distributed over his person, half-closed his eyes, lifted his shoulders in a tired way, loosened his fingers, and, without changing the lay-figure expression of his face, replied:

“There is nothing.”

“Not a berth?”

“Not a berth.”

“Are they all paid for?” and I accented the word paid. I spend countless nights on Pullmans in my own country and am familiar with many uncanny devices.

“All but one.”

“Why can’t I have it? It is within an hour of train-time. Who ordered it?”

“The Director of the great circus. He is here now waiting for his troupe, which arrives from Berlin in a special car belonging to our company. The other car–the one that starts from here–is full. We have only two cars on this train–Monsieur the Director has the last berth.”

He said this, of course, in his native language. I am merely translating it. I would give it to you in the original, but it might embarrass you; it certainly would me.

“What’s the matter with putting the Circus Director in the special car? Your regulations say berths must be paid for one hour before train-time. It is now fifty-five minutes of eight. Your train goes at eight, doesn’t it? Here is a twenty-franc gold piece–never mind the change”–and I flung a napoleon on the desk before him.

The bunch of fingers disentangled themselves, the shoulders sank an inch, the waxed ends of the taffy-colored mustache vibrated slightly, and a smile widened in circles across the flat dulness of his face until it engulfed his eyebrows, ears, and chin. The effect of the dropping of the coin had been like the dropping of a stone into the still smoothness of a pool–the wrinkling wavelets had reached the uttermost shore-line.

The smile over, he opened a book about the size of an atlas, dipped a pen in an inkstand, recorded my point of departure–Cologne, and my point of arrival–Paris; dried the inscription with a pinch of black sand filched from a saucer–same old black sand used in the last century–cut a section of the page with a pair of shears, tossed the coin in the air, listened to its ring on the desk with a satisfied look, slipped the whole twenty-franc piece into his pocket–regular fare, fifteen francs, irregular swindle, five francs–and handed me the billet. Then he added, with a trace of humor in his voice:

“If Monsieur the Director of the Circus comes now he will go in the special car.”

I examined the billet. I had Compartment Number Four, upper berth, Car 312.

I lighted a cigarette, gave my small luggage-checks to a porter with directions to deposit my traps in my berth when the train was ready–the company’s office was in the depot–and strolled out to look at the station.

You know the Cologne station, of course. It is as big as the Coliseum, shaped like an old-fashioned hoop-skirt with a petticoat of glass, and connects with one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. It has two immense waiting-rooms, with historical frescos on the walls and two huge fireplaces supported on nudities shivering with the cold, for no stick of wood ever blazes on the well-swept hearths. It has also a gorgeous restaurant, with panelled ceiling, across which skip bunches of butterfly Cupids in shameless costumes, and an inviting cafe with never-dying palms in the windows, a portrait of the Kaiser over the counter holding the coffee-urn, and a portrait of the Kaiserin over the counter holding the little sticky cakes, the baby bottles of champagne, and the long lady-finger sandwiches with bits of red ham hanging from their open ends like poodle-dogs’ tongues.