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   Chapter 13 SYBILLA

The Green Mouse By Robert W. Chambers Characters: 18593

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Showing What Comes of Disobedience, Rosium, and Flour-Paste

About noon Bushwyck Carr bounced into the gymnasium, where the triplets had just finished their fencing lesson.

"Did any of you three go into the laboratory this morning?" he demanded, his voice terminating in a sort of musical bellow, like the blast of a mellow French horn on a touring car.

The triplets--Flavilla, Drusilla, and Sybilla--all clothed precisely alike in knee kilts, plastrons, gauntlets and masks, came to attention, saluting their parent with their foils. The Boznovian fencing mistress, Madame Tzinglala, gracefully withdrew to the dressing room and departed.

"Which of you three girls went into the laboratory this morning?" repeated their father impatiently.

The triplets continued to stand in a neat row, the buttons of their foils aligned and resting on the hardwood floor. In graceful unison they removed their masks; three flushed and unusually pretty faces regarded the author of their being attentively--more attentively still when that round and ruddy gentleman, executing a facial contortion, screwed his monocle into an angry left eye and glared.

"Didn't I warn you to keep out of that laboratory?" he asked wrathfully; "didn't I explain to you that it was none of your business? I believe I informed you that whatever is locked up in that room is no concern of yours. Didn't I?"

"Yes, Pa-pah."

"Well, confound it, what did you go in for, then?"

An anxious silence was his answer. "You didn't all go in, did you?" he demanded in a melodious bellow.

"Oh, no, Pa-pah!"

"Did two of you go?"

"Oh-h, n-o, Pa-pah!"

"Well, which one did?"

The line of beauty wavered for a moment; then Sybilla stepped slowly to the front, three paces, and halted with downcast eyes.

"I told you not to, didn't I?" said her father, scowling the monocle out of his eye and reinserting it.

"Y-yes, Pa-pah."

"But you did?"

"Y-yes----"

"That will do! Flavilla! Drusilla! You are excused," dismissing the two guiltless triplets with a wave of the terrible eyeglass; and when they had faced to the rear and retired in good order, closing the door behind them, he regarded his delinquent daughter in wrathy and rubicund dismay.

"What did you see in that laboratory?" he demanded.

Sybilla began to count on her fingers. "As I walked around the room I noticed jars, bottles, tubes, lamps, retorts, blowpipes, batteries----"

"Did you notice a small, shiny machine that somewhat resembles the interior economy of a watch?"

"Yes, Pa-pah, but I haven't come to that yet----"

"Did you go near it?"

"Quite near----"

"You didn't touch it, did you?"

"I was going to tell you----"

"Did you?" he bellowed musically. "Answer me, Sybilla!"

"Y-yes--I did."

"What did you suppose it to be?"

"I thought--we all thought--that you kept a wireless telephone instrument in there----"

"Why? Just because I happen to be president of the Amalgamated Wireless Trust Company?"

"Yes. And we were dying to see a wireless telephone work.... I thought I'd like to call up Central--just to be sure I could make the thing go-- What is the matter, Pa-pah?"

He dropped into a wadded armchair and motioned Sybilla to a seat opposite. Then with another frightful facial contortion he reimbedded the monocle.

"So you deliberately opened that door and went in to rummage?"

"No," said the girl; "we were--skylarking a little, on our way to the gymnasium; and I gave Brasilia a little shove toward the laboratory door, and then Flavilla pushed me--very gently--and somehow I--the door flew open and my mask fell off and rolled inside; and I went in after it. That is how it happened--partly."

She lifted her dark and very beautiful eyes to her stony parent, then they dropped, and she began tracing figures and arabesques on the polished floor with the point of her foil. "That is partly how," she repeated.

"What is the other part?"

"The other part was that, having unfortunately disobeyed you, and being already in the room, I thought I might as well stay and take a little peep around----"

Her father fairly bounced in his padded chair. The velvet-eyed descendant of Eve shot a fearful glance at him and continued, still casually tracing invisible arabesques with her foil's point.

"You see, don't you," she said, "that being actually in, I thought I might as well do something before I came out again, which would make my disobedience worth the punishment. So I first picked up my mask, then I took a scared peep around. There were only jars and bottles and things.... I was dreadfully disappointed. The certainty of being punished and then, after all, seeing nothing but bottles, did seem rather unfair.... So I--walked around to--to see if I could find something to look at which would repay me for the punishment.... There is a proverb, isn't there Pa-pah?--something about being executed for a lamb----"

"Go on!" he said sharply.

"Well, all I could find that looked as though I had no business to touch it was a little jeweled machine----"

"That was it! Did you touch it?"

"Yes, several times. Was it a wireless?"

"Never mind! Yes, it's one kind of a wireless instrument. Go on!"

Sybilla shook her head:

"I'm sure I don't see why you are so disturbingly emphatic; because I haven't an idea how to send or receive a wireless message, and I hadn't the vaguest notion how that machine might work. I tried very hard to make it go; I turned several screws and pushed all the push-buttons----"

Mr. Carr emitted a hollow, despairing sound--a sort of musical groan--and feebly plucked at space.

"I tried every lever, screw, and spring," she went on calmly, "but the machine must have been out of order, for I only got one miserable little spark----"

"You got a spark?"

"Yes--just a tiny, noiseless atom of white fire----"

Her father bounced to his feet and waved both hands at her distractedly.

"Do you know what you've done?" he bellowed.

"N-no----"

"Well, you've prepared yourself to fall in love! And you've probably induced some indescribable pup to fall in love with you! And that's what you've done!"

"In--love!"

"Yes, you have!"

"But how can a common wireless telephone----"

"It's another kind of a wireless. Your brother-in-law, William Destyn, invented it; I'm backing it and experimenting with it. I told you to keep out of that room. I hung up a sign on the door: 'Danger! Keep out!'"

"W-was that thing loaded?"

"Yes, it was loaded!"

"W-what with?"

"Waves!" shouted her father, furiously. "Psychic waves! You little ninny, we've just discovered that the world and everything in it is enveloped in psychic waves, as well as invisible electric currents. The minute you got near that machine and opened the receiver, waves from your subconscious personality flowed into it. And the minute you touched that spring and got a spark, your psychic waves had signaled, by wireless, the subconscious personality of some young man--some insufferable pup--who'll come from wherever he is at present--from the world's end if need be--and fall in love with you."

Mr. Carr jumped ponderously up and down in pure fury; his daughter regarded him in calm consternation.

"I am so very, very sorry," she said; "but I am quite certain that I am not going to fall in love----"

"You can't help it," roared her father, "if that instrument worked."

"Is--is that what it's f-for?"

"That's what it's invented for; that's why I'm putting a million into it. Anybody on earth desiring to meet the person with whom they're destined, some time or other, to fall in love, can come to us, in confidence, buy a ticket, and be hitched on to the proper psychic connection which insures speedy courtship and marriage--Damnation!"

"Pa-pah!"

"I can't help it! Any self-respecting, God-fearing father would swear! Do you think I ever expected to have my daughters mixed up with this machine? My daughters wooed, engaged and married by machinery! And you're only eighteen; do you hear me? I won't have it! I'll certainly not have it!"

"But, dear, I don't in the least intend to fall in love and marry at eighteen. And if--he--really--comes, I'll tell him very frankly that I could not think of falling in love. I'll quietly explain that the machine went off by mistake and that I am only eighteen; and that Flavilla and Drusilla and I are not to come out until next winter. That," she added innocently, "ought to hold him."

"The thing to do," said her father, gazing fixedly at her, "is to keep you in your room until you're twenty!"

"Oh, Pa-pah!"

Mr. Carr smote his florid brow.

"You'll stay in for a week, anyway!" he thundered mellifluously. "No motoring party for you! That's your punishment. You'll be safe for today, anyhow; and by evening William Destyn will be back from Boston and I'll consult him as to the safest way to keep you out of the path of this whippersnapper you have managed to wake up--evoke--stir out of space-- wherever he may be--whoever he may be--whatever he chances to call himself----"

"George," she murmured involuntarily.

"What!!"

She looked at her father, abashed, confused.

"How absurd of me," she said. "I don't know why I should have

thought of that name, George; or why I should have said it out loud--that way--I really don't----"

"Who do you know named George?"

"N-nobody in particular that I can think of----"

"Sybilla! Be honest!"

"Really, I don't; I am always honest."

He knew she was truthful, always; but he said:

"Then why the devil did you look--er--so, so moonily at me and call me George?"

"I can't imagine--I can't understand----"

"Well, I can! You don't realize it, but that cub's name must be George! I'll look out for the Georges. I'm glad I've been warned. I'll see that no two-legged object named George enters this house! You'll never go anywhere where there's anybody named George if I can prevent it."

"I--I don't want to," she returned, almost ready to cry. "You are very cruel to me----"

"I wish to be. I desire to be a monster!" he retorted fiercely. "You're an exceedingly bad, ungrateful, undutiful, disobedient and foolish child. Your sisters and I are going to motor to Westchester and lunch there with your sister and your latest brother-in-law. And if they ask why you didn't come I'll tell them that it's because you're undutiful, and that you are not to stir outdoors for a week, or see anybody who comes into this house!"

"I--I suppose I d-deserve it," she acquiesced tearfully. "I'm quite ready to be disciplined, and quite willing not to see anybody named George-- ever! Besides, you have scared me d-dreadfully! I--I don't want to go out of the house."

And when her father had retired with a bounce she remained alone in the gymnasium, eyes downcast, lips quivering. Later still, sitting in precisely the same position, she heard the soft whir of the touring car outside; then the click of the closing door.

"There they go," she said to herself, "and they'll have such a jolly time, and all those very agreeable Westchester young men will be there-- particularly Mr. Montmorency.... I did like him awfully; besides, his name is Julian, so it is p-perfectly safe to like him--and I did want to see how Sacharissa looks after her bridal trip."

Her lower lip trembled; she steadied it between her teeth, gazed miserably at the floor, and beat a desolate tattoo on it with the tip of her foil.

"I am being well paid for my disobedience," she whimpered. "Now I can't go out for a week; and it's April; and when I do go out I'll be so anxious all the while, peeping furtively at every man who passes and wondering whether his name might be George.... And it is going to be horridly awkward, too.... Fancy their bringing up some harmless dancing man named George to present to me next winter, and I, terrified, picking up my débutante skirts and running.... I'll actually be obliged to flee from every man until I know his name isn't George. Oh, dear! Oh, dear! What an awful outlook for this summer when we open the house at Oyster Bay! What a terrible vista for next winter!"

She na?vely dabbed a tear from her long lashes with the back of her gauntlet.

Her maid came, announcing luncheon, but she would have none of it, nor any other offered office, including a bath and a house gown.

"You go away somewhere, Bowles," she said, "and please, don't come near me, and don't let anybody come anywhere in my distant vicinity, because I am v-very unhappy, Bowles, and deserve to be--and I--I desire to be alone with c-conscience."

"But, Miss Sybilla----"

"No, no, no! I don't even wish to hear your voice--or anybody's. I don't wish to hear a single human sound of any description. I--what is that scraping noise in the library?"

"A man, Miss Sybilla----"

"A man! W-what's his name?"

"I don't know, miss. He's a workman--a paper hanger."

"Oh!"

"Did you wish me to ask him to stop scraping, miss?"

Sybilla laughed: "No, thank you." And she continued, amused at herself after her maid had withdrawn, strolling about the gymnasium, making passes with her foil at ring, bar, and punching bag. Her anxiety, too, was subsiding. The young have no very great capacity for continued anxiety. Besides, the first healthy hint of incredulity was already creeping in. And as she strolled about, swishing her foil, she mused aloud at her ease:

"What an extraordinary and horrid machine!... How can it do such exceedingly common things? And what a perfectly unpleasant way to fall in love--by machinery!... I had rather not know who I am some day to--to like--very much.... It is far more interesting to meet a man by accident, and never suspect you may ever come to care for him, than to buy a ticket, walk over to a machine full of psychic waves and ring up some strange man somewhere on earth."

With a shudder of disdain she dropped on to a lounge and took her face between both hands.

She was like her sisters, tall, prettily built, and articulated, with the same narrow feet and hands--always graceful when lounging, no matter what position her slim limbs fell into.

And now, in her fencing skirts of black and her black stockings, she was exceedingly ornamental, with the severe lines of the plastron accenting the white throat and chin, and the scarlet heart blazing over her own little heart--unvexed by such details as love and lovers. Yes, unvexed; for she had about come to the conclusion that her father had frightened her more than was necessary; that the instrument had not really done its worst; in fact, that, although she had been very disobedient, she had had a rather narrow escape; and nothing more serious than paternal displeasure was likely to be visited upon her.

Which comforted her to an extent that brought a return of appetite; and she rang for luncheon, and ate it with the healthy nonchalance usually so characteristic of her and her sisters.

"Now," she reflected, "I'll have to wait an hour for my bath"--one of the inculcated principles of domestic hygiene. So, rising, she strolled across the gymnasium, casting about for something interesting to do.

She looked out of the back windows. In New York the view from back windows is not imposing.

Tiring of the inartistic prospect she sauntered out and downstairs to see what her maid might be about. Bowles was sewing; Sybilla looked on for a while with languid interest, then, realizing that a long day of punishment was before her, that she deserved it, and that she ought to perform some act of penance, started contritely for the library with resolute intentions toward Henry James.

As she entered she noticed that the bookshelves, reaching part way to the ceiling, were shrouded in sheets. Also she encountered a pair of sawhorses overlaid with boards, upon which were rolls of green flock paper, several pairs of shears, a bucket of paste, a large, flat brush, a knife and a T-square.

"The paper hanger man," she said. "He's gone to lunch. I'll have time to seize on Henry James and flee."

Now Henry James, like some other sacred conventions, was, in that library, a movable feast. Sometimes he stood neatly arranged on one shelf, sometimes on another. There was no counting on Henry.

Sybilla lifted the sheets from the face of one case and peered closer. Henry was not visible. She lifted the sheets from another case; no Henry; only G.P.R., in six dozen rakish volumes.

Sybilla peeped into a third case. Then a very unedifying thing occurred. Surely, surely, this was Sybilla's disobedient day. She saw a forbidden book glimmering in old, gilded leather--she saw its classic back turned mockingly toward her--the whole allure of the volume was impudent, dog-eared, devil-may-care-who-reads-me.

She took it out, replaced it, looked hard, hard for Henry, found him not, glanced sideways at the dog-eared one, took a step sideways.

"I'll just see where it was printed," she said to herself, drawing out the book and backing off hastily--so hastily that she came into collision with the sawhorse table, and the paste splashed out of the bucket.

But Sybilla paid no heed; she was examining the title page of old Dog-ear: a rather wonderful title page, printed in fascinating red and black with flourishes.

"I'll just see whether--" And the smooth, white fingers hesitated; but she had caught a glimpse of an ancient engraving on the next page--a very quaint one, that held her fascinated.

"I wonder----"

She turned the next page. The first paragraph of the famous classic began deliciously. After a few moments she laughed, adding to herself: "I can't see what harm----"

There was no harm. Her father had meant another book; but Sybilla did not know that.

"I'll just glance through it to--to--be sure that I mustn't read it."

She laid one hand on the paper hanger's table, vaulted up sideways, and, seated on the top, legs swinging, buried herself in the book, unconscious that the overturned paste was slowly fastening her to the spattered table top.

An hour later, hearing steps on the landing, she sprang--that is, she went through all the graceful motions of springing lightly to the floor. But she had not budged an inch. No Gorgon's head could have consigned her to immovability more hopeless.

Restrained from freedom by she knew not what, she made one frantic and demoralized effort--and sank back in terror at the ominous tearing sound.

She was glued irrevocably to the table.

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