MoboReader > Literature > It Pays to Smile

   Chapter 5 No.5

It Pays to Smile By Nina Wilcox Putnam Characters: 30090

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


My dear father used justly to observe that clothes made the man, but that woman made the clothes. A witticism of which he was most fond, inasmuch as he clung to the custom of employing a tailoress, which was the almost universal method of procuring outer garments in his early youth. But it is possible that he intended to imply that the beauty of some females was insurmountable by bad taste in dress. I hardly know which interpretation may be correct; but I am sure that either Cousin Abby was tremendously affected by her clothes or that they were tremendously affected by her. At any rate they were as amazing as she was, or she as they, if you comprehend me. And the reaction which I experienced upon first beholding the Eiffel Tower was as nothing beside that incident to my first meeting in twenty-five years with my relative.

It took place almost immediately after our arrival at Monte Carlo. Indeed we were scarcely settled in the royal suite of the hotel before she paid her visit. Mr. Pegg and his daughter had stepped out to undergo the preliminaries of obtaining a card to the public gambling hell, and I, unwilling to countenance their project, had remained behind ostensibly to supervise Richard, the chauffeur, in the disposal of our things, and so was alone when the countess was announced.

The Richard person admitted her and came in whistling under his breath as he gave me her card.

"Oh, you beautiful doll!" he sang sotto voce as he did so.

I flew to the mirror, gave my hair a pat, and assuming a dignified deportment entered the drawing-room. It was empty save for a young girl, very much overdressed, who was standing with her back toward me, looking out of the window. At sound of my entrance she turned and pounced upon me with a shriek of delight.

"Freedom Talbot, old thing!" she exclaimed. "How glad I am to see you!"

And sure enough, that young girl was Cousin Abby! How true it is that the troubles we experience are seldom those we expect! I had been living in dread lest my titled relative should not prove hospitably inclined, and here she was already, upon the very first day of our arrival, greeting me literally with open arms. So much for the trouble I anticipated-it was gone like a wreath of smoke! But as I took a good look at her an entirely unforeseen difficulty began to force itself upon me. That Cousin Abby was willing to receive us was apparent, but were we going to return the compliment? For Abby had changed far more than I had.

When she left Boston twenty-five years ago Abby Talbot had been considerably older than I. But upon renewing her acquaintance as described I found her to be at least twenty years my junior. Not literally, you will understand, by some miracle of arrested growth or phenomenon in the actual defeat of time, but by sundry artificial aids such as were never countenanced by my dear father and mother, or indeed by Euphemia or myself, all such so-called aids to beauty being unknown to the gentlewomen of our acquaintance and recognized only upon the persons of outcast females and constituting the outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual disgrace. Of course it must be admitted that some of even Boston's very best people, particularly in the younger generation, where it was palpably unnecessary, resorted to these artifices, and I had several times been shocked at large receptions by observing this fact. But that a member of our family should stoop to such a course was incredible; or would have been except that I was at that moment beholding it with my own eyes.

Abby's hair was golden, and her cheeks were pink as Peaches' own. Her lips! Gracious goodness! I trembled for her immortal soul as I beheld them! And sinful-looking diamonds dangled from her ears almost to her shoulders. The hat she wore might better have been fashioned for a maid of sixteen, and her short gown swung above a pair of slim silken ankles and slippers with glittering buckles and outrageous heels.

But though I struggled to experience the disapproval which I knew to be the proper reaction to these bedizenments I could not but admire the brave spirit they also undoubtedly represented. There was that about Abby which gave one the belief that one need not grow old except through lack of the desire for youth. She seemed to stand there before me with the spirit of her unconquerable youth radiating, as it were, through the painted shell she had put upon her body. I at once, and for the first time in my life, seriously contemplated abandoning my curled fringe. All this which I have recorded passed through my mind in a flash-while she was embracing me, to be exact. Then she withdrew her perfumed person a few inches and laughed like a girl!

"Free, you duckie!" she cried. "You haven't changed a bit. It's fearfully amusing, your coming over. And to this iniquitous spot! How is poor dear Boston? I feel a million ?ons away from it! And how is Cousin Euphemia? And the dog-what was his name; Rex?-that she used to fuss over so when he got his feet wet, do you remember?"

She meant that she was trying to remember.

"Rex has departed this life," I replied, "on the initiative of a very rude and heartless dog catcher with a barred wagon. Euphemia is well except for her rheumatism and asthma and indigestion; or was when I left home."

"Doesn't she write?" asked Abby quickly.

"She was exceedingly disapproving of my enterprise and has not written," said I. "But I had somewhat anticipated the circumstance and am not unduly worried. The maid, Galadia, is to inform me should anything go wrong."

Abby laughed again. It certainly was a pleasant thing to hear.

"Tell me everything!" she exclaimed, drawing two chairs close together. "What on earth made you do it, you rebel? And who are these Peggs you are with?"

It was delightfully gossipy. I sat down beside her and soon explained my action, in reply to her first question. But when I came to enlarging upon the second, I found myself, most unexpectedly, at a loss. What was my relationship to them anyhow? It was like trying to analyze one's relationship to the sunlight. And yet, had I merely seen them without knowing them, I should have unquestionably characterized them as impossibly vulgar; that was the plain truth of the matter. To Abby they must inevitably seem so at first glance. And knowing this I instinctively rose to their defense. I discovered within myself a sudden warm glow of affection and appreciation which was so normal and comfortable in its character that I had positively been unaware of its existence until criticism threatened them. I spoke slowly and deliberately, choosing my words with care.

"The Peggs are Americans," said I, "from California. And their hearts are as big as their-er-oranges."

"From which I gather they are millionaires and vulgar," said Abby shrewdly-"but that you like them."

"I do indeed!" said I, though how she deduced so much from my remark I cannot imagine.

"And it is equally evident," Abby went on, "that I, your titled cousin, am to be induced by hook or crook to introduce them to an assortment of foreign titles. That's so, isn't it? And you are in an agony of embarrassed bewilderment about how to broach the subject?"

"Abby!" I gasped. "How can you!"

"My dear, I have to!" she cut in, laughing again, though not so pleasantly this time. "My wits are about all I have with which to make good my bridge losses! I suppose you know Constantine left me nothing but the villa?"

"What!" I exclaimed, really aghast. "I was not even aware of your husband's demise!"

"Polo accident," she said briefly. "Five years ago."

"I'm sorry," I said softly.

"Well," said Abby, "never mind that! So you see you need have no reticence about offering me money. I can earn it, I assure you."

Of course this was astonishing, but at the same time it really was an immense relief. For I knew dear Mr. Pegg never hesitated to pay a proper price for the genuine article, as he himself was wont to put it. And I had in truth been most anxious as to how I should approach my distinguished relative upon so delicate a matter as remuneration for the peculiar services which we required. And so, though in a sense I was shocked by her frankness, it made my path far easier, particularly since her own lack of delicacy in the matter warranted a larger degree of out-spokenness upon my part. And I had something important to say. Her opening gave me an opportunity not likely of renewal, and so I at once rushed into the breach.

"My dear, I grieve for your loss," said I; "and for the unfortunate condition of your widowhood. And it is a most happy circumstance that we can be of benefit to each other at this time. Mr. Pegg intends to offer you a thousand dollars each for introductions to titles. And a bonus, I think he called it, of ten thousand dollars for-er-I believe he termed it 'working capital.'"

"Splendid!" exclaimed Abby. "Now go ahead and tell me the buts."

"The buts?" I queried. "Do you infer that there are restrictions to Mr. Pegg's offer?"

"By the gleam in your eye I know there are!" Abby affirmed.

"Well," I admitted, "Mr. Pegg has not expressed his desire that there be any; but I have one of my own."

Abby gave me a most peculiar look at this, her eyes narrowing and her lips curling in a distinctly unpleasant smile. It filled me with an acute, though undefined, sense of discomfort.

"Very well," she said quietly. "How much do you want?"

"What?" I asked.

"What commission do you want?" said she, speaking very distinctly. I felt as though someone had struck me with a whip. Instinctively I got to my feet.

"Abby!" I exclaimed in horror. "A bribe! How could you? A Talbot!"

To my amazement and further distress she stared at me for a long moment and then burst into tears.

"Forgive me, Cousin Free!" she sobbed. "Forgive me, if you can-please! One gets so hard, so used to things like that out here! I ought to have known better! Please say you understand!"

She was not like a little girl any longer. There was something behind the tone in which she spoke which frightened me; something terrible and sinister and cruel-something which could break even a Talbot! I perceived its nature though its substance was beyond my experience, and at once the instinct to rescue and help her was uppermost in my mind. I fussed over her much as I used to fuss over Rex, our pet, when anything ailed him, for he had been my dog, not Euphemia's, as Abby had supposed. And presently she grew quieter, though she still held on to my hand. But though I felt sorry for Abby and was determined to be of assistance to her I did not let the most unfortunate incident divert me from what had originally been in my mind to say when she made her terrible mistake.

"Now, my dear, I will forgive you," said I. "But please brace up and allow me to state my condition, which is simply this: The young lady, Miss Alicia Pegg, must be most carefully guarded from fortune hunters and all questionable company. You must guarantee to me that you will introduce her to no one who can harm her. Her father has a faith in her ability to take care of herself which is founded in his knowledge of her singularly beautiful nature, but he is almost as unworldly in our sense as she is. I simply won't have any scallawags hanging round her. Her father trusts me to look out for her welfare, and I mean to see that his trust is justified."

"You seem pretty deep in his confidence," Abby remarked. "He is a widower, you said?"

"He is," I replied, though I did not see what that had to do with the subject. "And Alicia's motherless condition places a great responsibility upon me. So you must promise what I have asked, Abby, and keep the promise faithfully."

"All right, old dear!" she answered, her self-possession rapidly returning. "And it won't be hard, for I know an awfully decent set, really. I'll have you all out to dine this very week. I'm at San Remo, you know. Just a short motor drive from here; a duck of a house opposite the old German Emperor's place. How about Saturday? That ought to give me time to collect the proper people."

"That will be lovely, Abby!" said I. "Mr. Pegg will be delighted, I am sure." Then a sudden wonderment struck me.

"Don't you ever wish you were back in the security of your life in Boston?" I asked curiously.

"Not when I'm sane!" she replied lightly. "Do you?"

This was both unexpected and disconcerting. But I strove to be honest in my reply.

"No," I said; "I cannot truthfully say that I do."

And long after she had taken her departure, buoyant and apparently light-hearted once more, I pondered my reply. But I found no explanation for my change of heart. Never, no, never, did I expect to utter such a sentiment, much less to have felt it! But the harsh fact was that I had somehow become estranged from my native city and the human element which represented it, and did in truth already prefer the Riviera.

In point of fact it appeared to me to be the most beautiful place of which the mind could conceive, despite that I was rather surprised to find the chief foliage to be cedar and other evergreens, and that the whole effect was less tropical than I had imagined. Also I had expected that the natives would be rather more like those in a production of Cavalleria Rusticana, to which my dear father had once escorted Euphemia and myself upon the occasion of her birthday; and even after several weeks of continuous residence in Monte Carlo I was unable to be rid of a feeling that the management, or rather government, was somehow to blame for not making the reality more like the opera.

But oh, how beautiful it was! I was unstinting in my praise. Not so Mr. Pegg and Alicia, however.

"Pretty good!" was Alicia's comment. "But you ought to see California. They'd better bring over some of our poppies to liven up the hills."

"It's real pretty," her father admitted, "but awful small. It's something like a pocket edition, as you might say, Miss Free."

"I scarcely believe that anything could be more lovely," I declared.

"Well, of course you haven't been West yet," said Peaches cheerfully. "Then you'll see the real thing!"

"I shall never become a Californian, my dear," I put in mildly. "Do you know, sometimes I fear you tend to exaggerate in describing your native State?"

"Well, we produce the biggest crops in the world," she declared. "So why not the biggest liars, as well? Wait until you've been out on the coast yourself!"

And never to this day have I clearly understood what she meant by that. A great deal that Alicia said was difficult to understand. And nothing was more so than this insistence on her part that anything Californian was superior to everything European. After our visit to the Villa d'Este I gave up. She looked it over pleasantly and gave her verdict.

"I guess they copied it from the Gillespie place at Santa Barbara," she said; "only, of course

, these hills are nothing as compared to the Coast Range for height."

It was just after this that I abandoned all effort to force a course in architecture, or indeed in any of the arts, upon Peaches. I began dimly to perceive that it was not only useless but that her education was not really impaired by the secession of my efforts along these lines. She possessed a faculty for picking out what she wanted to learn and learning it thoroughly. And after all that is the truest education, as my dear father used to say.

But I digress. Let us take up our sequence where Abby left me on that first afternoon.

Scarcely had she departed, driving off in a smart little red automobile of the type which I had learned to distinguish as a roadster, as I observed from the window, and which gave no clew to the newly disclosed fact of her poverty-scarcely had she departed and I had partially mastered the emotions which her extraordinary visit had engendered in my bosom when Alicia and her father returned.

They had been out, as I believe I have mentioned, for the purpose of procuring cards of admission to the public gambling hell. They had also got cards for a place called the casino, one of which was offered to me. I accepted it with gratitude, for at home there was a casino out at Duxbury where we spent our summers; a very charming place it was, too, with a fine view of the ocean from the veranda, and a dance for the young people every Saturday night, and I had greatly enjoyed taking my knitting there. I was at present secretly at work upon a pair of socks for Mr. Pegg, intended as a small appreciation of all he had done for me, and I felt sure that this casino would be an excellent place in which to complete them, particularly when Mr. Pegg and his daughter were away gambling. I had, needless to say, protested against their avowed intentions in this matter, but to no avail.

"Why, Miss Talbot, of course you object!" Mr. Pegg had said, kindly but firmly. "Objecting to this sort of thing is part of your job. If you didn't object you wouldn't be the woman I hired you for. But this is one time you're not wise-you don't get it at all. This gambling joint is strictly high class. The layouts at Dogtown have nothing on it-absolutely! To lose a little something at Monte is like losing a little at monte with a small 'm' over to Dogtown; and allow me to inform you that no California native son's education is completely polished off without that experience. Only over here is where the crowned heads get trimmed-I mean polished. And I propose to have my daughter visit that historic spot so's she can talk intelligently about it at big dinner parties."

Well, when Mr. Pegg assumed that tone I knew that further argument was useless. Besides, Peaches herself was very much set on going, and all that was left me was the manifestation of my unalterable disapproval by steadfastly refusing to accompany them or to discuss their experiences in that den of iniquity. Even Richard, the chauffeur, was infected with the dreadful spirit of the place, though I ascertained that the vicious resort which he attended was of a less pretentious order.

There was considerable coolness between us that evening because of my attitude, and when Peaches and her father had departed upon their nefarious errand I read my Bible and went to bed greatly fortified. This coolness lasted into the next day, despite the arrival during breakfast of Abby's invitation to dinner, at which Mr. Pegg and Alicia both evinced great satisfaction. I hoped to divert them into a visit to the churches, but all in vain. Mr. Pegg had lost several hundred dollars, it seemed, and both he and his daughter evinced a strong wish, as they expressed it, "to show these wop gamblers where they got off."

The result was that after luncheon they again left me to my own devices after a second fruitless attempt at persuading me to accompany them, and when they had been gone for half an hour I decided to take my knitting to that casino for which they had given me a card.

The afternoon was exceptionally mild and fine, even for that part of the world, and I anticipated spending it out of doors. I therefore put on a shade hat and a light wrap, packed my fancywork into my knitting bag and making sure that my working specs were in my reticule I set forth into the mildly sunlit avenue.

I had no difficulty at all in locating my destination. Indeed the very first native boy of whom I made inquiry directed me volubly. I thanked him and passed on in the direction which he indicated. But when I reached the spot I confess I was astounded and felt obliged to confirm the building's identity by a second inquiry.

It was far, far larger than the casino at Duxbury. Indeed it looked rather more like one or rather several of the houses which the nouveau riche have erected at Newport. But this was not altogether surprising when one realized that the number of tourists was undoubtedly far greater than on the Massachusetts coast. And as I approached I noted that a large number of cars were waiting outside. It seemed probable that this indicated a hostess day, or possibly even a private euchre party; so I decided against going in, and entered the gardens instead.

These were amazingly beautiful and extensive, with winding paths and pleasant seats. Here at least I could not complain of any lack of luxuriance in the semi-tropical growth, and selecting a sheltered bench that was shielded from the light breeze by a mass of camellias in full bloom I settled myself for a pleasing period of rest and observation. Very few people were about, and a lovely peace reigned over all.

First I took out the finished sock and regarded it critically in the strong light. It was really well made if I do say so myself, and tasteful, too. The sock itself was black, but round the top the purling was in alternate stripes of black and red; an effort on my part at once to meet Mr. Pegg's taste for the exotic in dress and at the same time offer a conservative surface in that part which would be exposed to the general public. Having then satisfied myself that my work was as my mother would have desired, I counted the setting-up stitches anew to make certain of their number, and began the second sock, my heart content at thought of the pleasant surprise my gift would be. I had completed the top line of red and the first line of black and had just begun on the second line of red when I observed the most dreadful thing.

I think I have mentioned that my seat was sheltered by a semicircular bed of evergreen bordered by tall camellias, and was situated in a remote corner of the gardens. The band on the plaza was playing a gay tune and the atmosphere was pleasantly exhilarating. And so I was not paying very diligent attention to my work. Indeed my eyes were ever prone to rove from my knitting, a fact for which Euphemia has often chided me, though I do quite as well without watching my stitches, the occupation having become second nature with me. Therefore it was by no means unprecedented that I should be contemplating the beautiful shrubs at my right, while nodding my head to the music of the distant band, though my hands were busily engaged.

At first I thought my vision must be at fault, for something stirred just the other side of the bushes, and a hand containing a revolver was slowly lifted, the index finger upon the trigger.

For the first second I felt as if I were stricken by paralysis, and the next I had sprung to my feet and rounded the corner to where the hand was.

"Stop it at once!" I shouted instinctively, though it is a fact that I hardly knew what was to be stopped.

And my command was obeyed. The man who stood there actually did stop, though why in the moment of his surprise that dreadful pistol did not go off I cannot understand. But the hand containing it dropped to his side, and for several seconds we stood staring at each other, he with the pallid daze of one who has been halted on the brink of destruction, and I with the trembling indignation of a respectable female with a most unfeminine situation suddenly thrust upon her.

He was a tall thin man, no longer young, and dressed in the extreme of fashion save for a large rabbit's foot that dangled incongruously from his watch chain. His eyes were large and dark and overbrilliant, and his disheveled head was hatless.

"What were you doing?" I asked severely, though I knew perfectly well. "Don't you know that it's a sin?" I went on before he could answer.

"Who are you?" the man asked in English, his voice hoarse and remote. "Go away and allow me to kill myself!"

"Stuff and nonsense!" I replied tartly. "You put that-that weapon into your pocket this minute! Don't you know you are apt to cause us both to be arrested if a police officer should come this way?"

Mechanically he obeyed, slipping the dreadful thing into his coat pocket, and continuing to stare at me in that helpless, dazed fashion.

"Now come and sit down beside me on this bench!" I commanded, gathering my worsteds out of his way. He obeyed like a person in a trance. "There now!" said I. "You poor man, you are all upset! Wait a minute and I'll give you just what you need."

Fortunately it is my habit always to carry a dose of aromatic spirits of ammonia in my reticule in case of emergency, and at length an emergency had arisen. Hastily retrieving the little phial from its hiding place I uncorked it and offered it to my strange companion.

"Here-drink this quickly!" I commanded.

He took it and gave a hurried look about to see if anyone observed. There was nobody in sight.

"You are right, it is less noisy!" he whispered. And with a single gulp he drained the phial and returned it to me.

"How long does it take to work?" he whispered feebly, relaxing upon the bench.

"Just a moment," I said soothingly. "There! Don't you feel better already?"

"I do, strangely enough!" he replied, straightening up. "What kind of poison is it?"

"It's aromatic ammonia," I said briskly, "and it won't poison you in the least. Never have I met such a silly person as you are!"

"Baffled again!" he groaned, burying his face in his hands. "Oh, how much better I feel! What a shame! Why could you not let me die?"

"Because it is the business of sensible women to take care of foolish men!" I returned. "Sit up now and tell me all about it. Was it love?"

He obeyed and stared at me in that silly blank way of his.

"Love?" he said. "Worse than that. Money. I have one hundred napoleons left in the world. I decided there were only two courses open to me. Either I must get a sign, an infallible sign how to play, or shoot myself. I decided to wait until two o'clock and if the sign had not manifested itself I would end my life. It was exactly three seconds to two o'clock when you spoke!"

He groaned and dropped his head again.

"Well," said I as placidly as I could, "perhaps I am the sign you were looking for. Who knows? See here now, I am going on knitting, and suppose you watch the stitches for a few moments. It's excellent for the nerves. That's it. You'll have yourself well in hand presently."

And indeed even as his eyes fell upon my fancywork he seemed to take a new lease of life. Gradually he became animated. Color returned to his pallid cheeks and a new, though I cannot say a saner light, came into his eyes.

"The sign!" he muttered. "Perhaps it is the sign!" This cryptic remark seemed to be addressed to himself. Then suddenly-he did everything suddenly-he spoke directly to me. "Red and black!" he said, fingering the wool on which I was at work. "Red and black. How many stitches do you take of the red, strange woman?"

"Ten," I said, "and then ten of black and then ten on the red!"

He sprang to his feet with a sudden strange conviction in his manner.

"Twenty on the red! Ten on the black!" said he. "It's a sign. It may be, it must be a sign! I'm off!"

He tossed the sock back to me with a gay gesture and started away. But I was too quick for him. I caught him by the coat tails before he had gone twelve inches.

"Hey, my good man!" said I. "I'll just thank you to hand over that pistol before you go!"

"All right, you can have it!" he exclaimed lightly. "There you are. Don't do anything rash with it. I may need it later!"

He slipped the weapon into my reticule with an amazingly swift gesture, and before I could say "jiffy" he was gone in the direction of the casino.

Nervous excitement has always exhausted me more than physical exertion, and I have acquired the practice of taking a short nap wherever I may be when the occasion necessitates it. And so when the poor crazy man had gone and seemed little likely to return I settled myself for a cat nap, determined to compose my nerves and not allow my afternoon to be ruined by the disturbing incident. But though I roused myself at intervals and did a few stitches I must have drowsed much longer than I had thought to, for when I awoke thoroughly it was sunset.

I got out dear father's chronometer and was horrified to find the hour past six. Here I had been a public spectacle for goodness knows how long! I at once began to gather my things together, preparatory to leaving for the hotel when I perceived that there was a great to-do at the casino. People began pouring forth and cheering, headed by a wild figure in a black coat.

And then things began to happen fast. Before I could realize that the procession was headed for me it was upon me, lead by my suicidal acquaintance, his pockets bursting with money, his hat, mysteriously retrieved, also brimming with lucre, his vest bulging with it, and his hand full of bank notes. Straight toward me he came, and dropping upon his knees he flung both hands full of money into my lap, the crowd closing in about us despite the police officers, who ran about wildly shouting, "Ladies and gentlemen, order, please!"

"My benefactress! My good angel!" shouted the kneeling man. "My sign from heaven, accept a few miserable hundreds as your inadequate reward!"

"You have been gambling!" I said severely, while gathering up the money from my lap.

"Yes, I broke the bank on your advice!" he shouted. "Twenty on the red, ten on the black. Take, oh, take your reward, my angel!"

"I will take this shameful money for the foreign missions at home!" I said severely. "It ought to be turned to holy uses, and you will only lose it again! And please get up. You are making us both ridiculous!"

But before he could comply, to my unspeakable horror Alicia and her father pushed their way through the crowd, accompanied by a young man. At sight of me Peaches gave a whoop of joy.

"What price a chaperon!" she yelled. "Free, you little hellion!"

She turned from me to the young man in attendance.

"Good Lord, what'll I have to get her out of next?" she asked him whimsically. And then I recognized him.

It was the Duke di Monteventi!

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares