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   Chapter 6 No.6

It Pays to Smile By Nina Wilcox Putnam Characters: 25068

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Even amidst the excitement incident to my personal predicament I could not but be surprised at that young man's being there-and with Peaches! He had the most extraordinary way of turning up unexpectedly. And even more remarkable was the way in which he appeared equal to whatever situation he dropped into the midst of, for now it was he who maneuvered my extrication from the embarrassing attentions of the bank-breaking person, and it was on his arm that I departed from that iniquitous spot to which I had so inadvertently wandered. It was not until we returned to the hotel that I learned what had happened, and then dear knows it was nothing to his credit.

It appears that they had met him at the gaming table. But, of course, that could not be counted as wholly against him, inasmuch as Peaches herself had been there, and even I had been near by, though, of course, without intention. Obviously I was not in a position to reprove either of them, though I took the greatest pains to explain in minute detail just how the situation in which they found me had arisen, omitting only the exact nature of the work upon which I had been engaged.

"Never mind, Free!" said Peaches soothingly. "Don't bother to alibi. Both father and I have played hunches ourselves, haven't we, dad? Only it's generally been in person."

This was perfectly unintelligible to me, but the duke apparently understood, for he smiled that wonderful golden smile, which made me feel as if I would do simply anything for him. Then he counted what they persisted in calling my winnings for me. It amounted to nearly two hundred francs.

"Are you really going to send it to the missions?" he asked. "You might double it at the tables, you know, Miss Talbot!"

"My dear duke," I informed him promptly, "I wouldn't gamble for the world! I intend turning this money in at once to charitable uses!"

"What a lack of philosophy!" he cried, throwing out his hand in a despairing gesture. "How much is furnished to charity from sources as blind, isn't it? But for that poor gambler where would your donation be? Don't you believe the end often justifies the means?"

Peaches took this up.

"You mean a person has to fight the world with its own weapons lots of times," she said quickly.

"I do," he said.

"Well, my dear father always held that fair means made clean profits," I said, rising. "And I believe that no matter what the end, the process to it should be honest."

And then I left them to make out a money order to Doctor Andrews, as I did not like having all that cash upon my person; and anyway the receptacle in which I carried such things would not contain so much.

In the corridor I ran into Mr. Pegg. I would have passed on my way, but he detained me.

"I wanted to ask you, Miss Talbot," he began, "what was the dope you gave that feller that he won on?" His voice was low and eager.

"I didn't tell him a thing!" I responded indignantly. "I know nothing whatever of gambling, Mr. Pegg, as you are perfectly well aware!"

"I'm not so dead sure about what you know and what you don't," said Mr. Pegg slowly. "But I am disappointed you won't tell me what you told that feller to do."

"I assure you I imparted to him no information of any sort whatsoever!" I repeated with dignity. "I am beginning to think every one has gone a little mad in this climate!"

"Well, of course the climate ain't like California," murmured my employer automatically. "But I'd like to know what you told him."

Well, I wasn't going to discuss that crazy man or my conversation regarding the socks I was making, and so I fled to the seclusion of my chamber and the completion of my errand.

But when I had written my letter and addressed my envelope I fell into a reverie in which my thoughts were occupied by the Duke di Monteventi. It was perfectly apparent that he was going to see something of Peaches-in all likelihood as much as she would permit-and unless my premonition and intuition were wholly at fault that would mean a good deal.

And why not? That was the question. Was there any reason why not? Of course Alicia had her parent, who was naturally the prime factor in any restraint that might be put upon her. But then, Mr. Pegg did not know of the incident of the motion-picture house. Not that there was anything in it to the young man's discredit. But suitable bachelors did not generally have a mystery attached to them anywhere. Of course we did not as yet even know that he was a bachelor, though from the way he looked at Peaches I earnestly hoped he was.

Should I inform Mr. Pegg of what I knew? But what, after all, did I know? Nothing except that two quite unattractive foreigners seemed to have designs upon him. And those friends of his, Lord and Lady Gordon, were presumably highly desirable. Well, Abby might know something about him. I felt my responsibility toward Peaches heavily. And yet I longed for a romance. Or at any rate, at least for the spectacle of one. Such a time and such a place demanded it. Through the window of my unhomelike hotel bedroom crept the scent of exotic blossoms on the wings of a gentle breeze which stirred my letter to the minister to a faint fluttering. I looked at it hard for a long moment, a trifle saddened that so much sweetness should be wasted on anything less than a love epistle. Then I collected my emotions, put them, metaphorically speaking, away in dried lavender, where they belonged, sealed my letter and made myself ready for dinner.

When I rejoined my little family the duke had gone, but Peaches could talk of nothing else.

"Isn't he a regular guy?" she challenged the world from her seat upon the end of a high table. "He's two inches taller than I am! We measured. And he's the goods-absolutely! Got an old ranch that was staked out during the pioneer Christian days, back in the mountains. But it's been let run down."

"Orchards?" inquired her father, his interest quickening.

"Some," said his daughter. "But mostly human livestock, I guess. A tenantry, they call it."

"Italian for rent hog," commented her father.

And we went down to dinner.

One of our more popular, less erudite poets, has remarked that "There's nothing half so sweet in life as love's young dream." Or perhaps it was a classic poet. I am not certain which, and must for once confess to ignorance as to the origin of a quotation. But it is one-the sentence, I mean-for which I have long cherished a liking. It is ill-expressed perhaps, but profoundly true. Love's dream is always young: that is one of the finest things about it. The tenderer emotions have a curious faculty of restoring youth, or at least temporarily renewing it. Even love at secondhand, by observation or by inference as it were, is capable of producing a reformation of the spirit which in its new-found vitality at once questions the body as to its actual age and state of decrepitude. Is one ever really old? Does one pass the period when romantic love can obsess one without one's justifying ridicule? Is there, indeed, any such period? Does not true love always dignify its victim? These are the questions which such a contact must invariably engender. And I confess to being no exception to the rule as I watched Alicia and the duke.

What a romance! How pleasing in every way! Two such handsome young people might have been, as it were, taken bodily from the drawings in Godey's Ladies' Book, so incredibly beautiful were they; or from the decorative cover of a more modern magazine, so athletic was their appearance.

One of the very first items to catch and hold my admiring attention in the progress of their affair was the bouquet which he sent her the morning after his arrival. Here in a land where flowers were cheap and plentiful, instead of sending a bushel of blossoms, as the average admirer would have done, a small box appeared containing an exquisite corsage bouquet. She was almost bound to wear it. And she did. So far so good, but what was in even better taste and a further sign of breeding, there was a handful of roses for me!

"My dear," said I as Peaches gave them to me, "that young man is a thoroughbred, take my word for it, even if he is a foreigner!"

"Well, he's only half Italian, you see!" replied my lovely giantess in cheerful explanation. "His mother was a Miss Winton, from Cambridge, the daughter of the American consul at Nice. She married a title, that's all."

"A Winton of Cambridge!" I exclaimed, a great light dawning upon me. "That explains it, of course. The Wintons were very decent people, my dear; very decent, though not very old. I am sure I remember that correctly. I will write and ask some one at home for further particulars. Meanwhile I know no reason why you should not see something of him if you wish."

"Thanks!" said Peaches. "I believe I might. In fact we had thought of taking a ride this afternoon. He's got a friend here in the Besseleri and can borrow two horses. Would that be quite all right, as the English say?"

"Certainly, if you take a groom along," said I, recalling what little I knew on this particular point of etiquette.

I had never indulged in equestrian sports in my own youth, nor had Euphemia, and so my authoritative tone was derived from surmises I had made from pictures I had seen on the subject-pictures, it must be confessed, in an English magazine, where a groom in pen and ink always figured in the sketches of Rotten Row.

Yet when Peaches had departed sniffing at her bouquet, to write him a note, because, as she averred, the telephone service was so bad-much worse than the Los Angeles system-I wondered vaguely if she had not been making game of me in asking my permission and advice. Ordinarily I should have been certain that she was, but this time there was a genuine anxiety on her part to do the correct thing-a faint doubting of her own omnipotence which was new and wholly delightful.

I yearned over her with an unuttered blessing, and returned to work upon my, or that is to say, Mr. Pegg's sock. How delightful the world seemed! And, of course, his being a Winton made such a difference!

Of Peaches on horseback I have little to say besides the fact that she and the duke required the two tallest horses in the regiment. Words fail me when I attempt to describe how she looked, for there she was in her element. By some mysterious process she had acquired a hat belonging to one of the officers-a strange hat indeed for a man to have worn at any time, for it was covered with cock's plumes. And Peaches wore it with an air of nonchalance difficult to describe. But it certainly did look very like the pictures to which I have referred as my authority on the subject of horseback riding. There was no groom with them, but Mr. Pegg had decided to go along, so that was all right. I saw them start and then decided to have the yellow brocade which I had purchased in Paris made up for the wedding.

As things were, I was not altogether surprised to find the Duke di Monteventi at Abby's house on the first occasion of our going there for dinner. I was glad it was so magnificent an entertainment with music, because when those two young people met in the beautiful hallway there should have been music and flowers, and there were! I have positively never seen anything so handsome as the duke in evening dress, except Peaches in that simple Nile-green satin gown! They came together like-like two branches of a stream-at once playfully antagonistic and blending! Yet their language was curiously unromantic.

"Cheero!" said the duke. "You look ripping!"

"You're not so dusty yourself," rejoined Peaches.

And then Abby bore down upon us; Abby in a perfectly outrageous black evening gown with diamonds as big as pigeons' eggs in her ears, and very little else. She sailed up like a small sloop, all trig and confident, and after pecking me on the cheek extended a flower-like hand to Mr. Pegg.

"It's awfully good of you to come!" she said. "Dear Freedom has talked of you so often!"

"Charmed!" murmured Mr. Pegg, his eyes riveted upon her smooth head. "Delighted!"

It was quite perfect, and I experienced a tremendous sense of relief. One would never have suspected that he was paying for this gorgeous entertainment. But I did not like the look he gave her, nor the way his eyes followed her all evening. Somehow it made me unpleasantly conscious of my own hair, in which I had always heretofore maintained a good deal of pride. And someho

w my gray corded silk with the collar of real lace and mamma's cameo pin did not seem quite so lovely as I had always thought them, either; though they were undoubtedly more modest and more suitable to our age than Abby's costume was. Fortunately my walkrite shoes did not show under my gown, and I managed to keep them pretty well concealed through the evening. But I digress.

Abby's villa was a delightful one, situated, as she had said, at the back of the pleasantly cosmopolitan little town of San Remo, and nestling high on the sheltering hills, the miniature garden being built on terraces and inclosed by a whitewashed wall against which the evergreens of the mountain crowded sharply, and over which the roses and geraniums and clematis flung abandoned sprays of sweetness, as if the little inclosure were an overflowing bowl of goodies. There were minute statuettes in the garden, veiled and softened by moss and the winter damps of a century, and a little fountain half choked with water flowers, but tinkling endlessly from a broken conch shell. There were hidden benches, too, set as though for lovers; and, incongruously, a smooth bit of turf near the veranda where Abby practiced putting, which is, I am informed, a section of the game of golf.

But though the garden was old and steeped in romance the interior of the villa was modernized and gay. And on the night of this, our first entertainment there, a sense of festivity was diffused by a clever profusion of half-hidden lights, quantities of flowers, sporting prints, magazines galore, for Abby read nothing else, and a general crowding together of old and new furnishings, even to pictures and hangings, until the little house seemed incapable of holding another thing. But it was brave and gay and being made the best of-very like Abby herself.

Of the guests besides ourselves there was not much to be said in the way of charm, but a great deal in the way of distinction and quality. For there was Sir Anthony and Lady Spier, who did nothing in the world except live in San Remo each winter and compare it unfavorably with Sussex, to which, however, they seldom returned. They looked a good deal alike and ate heartily. Sir Anthony had set views on California, where he had never been, and he positively refused to accept Mr. Pegg's statements about it, which circumstance gave rise to quite a lively discussion.

There were also present a Mr. and Mrs. H. DeVere-Poole, of New York; expensive-looking people who Abby afterward assured me were very fashionable. And no doubt they were-in New York. But in Boston I had never heard of them, though of course Mrs. Poole was familiar with my family and asked a few vague questions about some Boston people named Cabot, after which she lapsed into the cigarette-infested silence which appeared habitual with her.

Then there was a voluble captain of the Queen's Bodyguard, in uniform, an acquaintance of the duke's, and of a distinguished but broken family, I believe. However that may have been, I do not know. But I can vouch for the condition of his English, which was worse than broken; it was shattered. And that was the company.

As for the food-I never saw so much food so thoroughly disguised in my life. It resembled an edible patchwork quilt made out of whole cloth. But it was delicious. All in all the venture was a huge success and my protégés behaved splendidly.

It was only after dinner, under the influence of a cigar-Abby permitted smoking in any part of the house, it seemed-that Mr. Pegg relaxed into his natural manner, and I began to fear disaster. Peaches was smoking-every one was smoking, in fact, except myself. And Mr. Pegg, sticking his thumbs into the armholes of his black and white striped silk vest, refused to be seated, but strode about the crowded drawing-rooms, asking questions about all that they contained. I am mortified to confess that he appeared chiefly interested in the intrinsic value of the objects which attracted his attention, and showed no hesitancy about asking their price.

"Since I come over here abroad, countess," he remarked to Abby, who followed languidly in his trail, a cigarette in an immensely long holder between her artificially reddened lips-"since I come over I sure have had an eye opener about secondhand pictures and furniture and such stuff! That's why I'm interested in your things. I thought I knew something about commercial values, but I see I can learn."

"Why, I thought Sebastian Markheim was a great friend of yours!" commented Abby. "And he's a famous collector."

"He's a famous collector of culls and worn-out stock," chuckled the Citrus King. "Bought a ranch near one of mine, and the hoppers ate what trees he had, the first year. Then I got him a flock of turkeys to keep 'em down and he done better next year. But all the secondhand antiques he had over to his ranch house come from a fire sale in Oroville, and consisted principally of a slightly scorched set of real genuine varnished oak dating way back to 1910."

"Who is this that possessed such a treasure?" asked the duke, strolling up and joining our little tour of inspection-for I was with them, being anxious to hear what Mr. Pegg and Abby were talking about.

"Sebastian Markheim!" replied Abby quickly. "He is a friend of dear Mr. Pegg's."

Dear Mr. Pegg indeed! And she had never met him before that evening! I determined to do something about this at once; though just what, and about what, I did not quite know at the moment, but you will understand me. Mr. Pegg, however, beamed at Abby, and then turned to the duke.

"Neighbor of mine on the coast," he explained. "Nice feller, but knows nothing at all about citrus fruit."

"But he does know about antiques," laughed the duke. "His collection is world-famous. Are you interested along those lines?"

"More curious than anything," Mr. Pegg admitted. "You see, I don't intend to let any branch of knowledge go untouched if I can help it. That's one of the traits that makes us Americans so remarkable."

"I see," replied Monteventi. "Have you shown him the Mantegna?" he went on, turning to Abby.

"Mantegna!" I exclaimed; "A genuine Mantegna! How wonderful!"

"Let's have a look!" said my employer.

"It's in here!" assented our hostess, and led the way into a little alcove room, where upon the bare plaster wall the masterpiece hung-a strange, melancholy primitive of the ascension, the agony of the dark ages in its solemn coloring, and struggling for technic. I stood in silent awe,-it was such a precious thing to be in private ownership, and of all persons, in Abby's! I sighed and turned, to see a curious look upon the face of the young duke, who towered beside me. Never had I seen anything so amazing as the transformation which had taken place in him. There came into it a look of reverence mixed with a passionate fire which seemed almost for the moment to consume him. His face was that of a saint, a religious fanatic, a young crusader. His eyes burned and the color had receded from his cheeks. To say that I was shocked and fascinated at this transformation is to put it mildly. Then he caught my eyes and his color came back.

"You understand pictures, Miss Talbot," he said quietly. "I remember."

"Pretty homely, I call it," said Mr. Pegg's voice behind us. "But I suppose that makes it all the more valuable. How much do you calculate it is worth?"

In an instant the duke had turned to him, his expression normal once more.

"An Italian work of art of such a character as this is beyond price," he declared, a deep note in his voice; "though that little painting would easily fetch a hundred thousand dollars in the market-which it will never reach, thank God!"

"You seem to think a lot of it," replied Mr. Pegg. "I wouldn't give five dollars for it, but I suppose some people would."

"Markheim, for instance!" remarked the duke. "But he couldn't get it. One of our charming hostess' chief claims to distinction is that though an American by birth she has the Italian loyalty about such matters."

He bowed charmingly.

"Sandro means that no matter how hard up I was I wouldn't break the law by selling an Italian work of art for export," she explained lightly. "And this one, least of all. It came from my late husband's home," she went on, "and is one of the few things I managed to save."

"Is there a law about taking such things out of Italy?" asked Mr. Pegg.

"I should say there was!" exclaimed the duke. "The country was being stripped by moneyed foreigners until it was enforced. We natives feel strongly on the subject, Mr. Pegg. But it is a dangerous thing to smuggle a masterpiece out of Italy now, I am happy to say."

"Then how do you suppose Mr. Markheim succeeded in getting the Madonna of the Lamp," I put in, "which he bought last month?"

"Markheim has Raphael's masterpiece!" he cried sharply. "Since when?"

"Well, young man, you needn't look at me like that," I said. "I didn't smuggle it for him, I'm sure! He bought it in New York; why, on the very day that you discovered that robbery at the Gordons'!"

"Curious that I didn't see the notice," he murmured, still staring at me. "I beg pardon, Miss Talbot. I didn't mean to be rude, I'm sure. But this was the first I had heard of it, and such things interest me greatly."

"They would interest any Italian," declared Abby. "You see, things are occasionally smuggled out in spite of an eternal vigilance on the part of the secret service. Though as I remember, it's a good long while since the Madonna of the Lamp disappeared. It was reported to be in Berlin years ago, but this is the first time it has actually come to light. Very interesting, I'm sure. And if we really should go to war with Austria I expect we would have the opportunity of bringing back a great many things across the mountains yonder. Let's go out, by the way, and have a look at them in the moonlight."

She tucked her arm into that of Mr. Pegg in the most exasperatingly familiar way, which he did not seem to resent in the least, and together they went out through the window into the moon-filled garden. And even as they went Peaches appeared in the doorway, her hair wind-blown and her magnificent dress a trifle disordered, but if possible even more lovely than ever.

"Oh, there you are, Sandro!" she said, catching sight of the duke. "Come outside, quick! There's an a?roplane flying right into the moon. They say it's Caproni himself!"

And forthwith they vanished, leaving me to absorb a detailed description of Sir Anthony's indigestion, delivered by himself, which description lasted for the remainder of the evening. But my thoughts were on other things, though I said "Yes?" and "Indeed!" automatically whenever Sir Anthony came to a full stop.

So it was "Sandro" already, was it? And that same Sandro, who loved famous paintings so, and knew such a lot about them, had been somewhere that newspapers did not reach from the time the panels were stolen from the chateau in which he was visiting, until he reappeared at Monte Carlo. But where had he been during that period, and what doing? I puzzled the matter over all the while as we said good night and climbed into our high-powered motor, at the wheel of which Richard, the chauffeur, sat like a sullen schoolboy, while Peaches, abandoning her usual place beside him, climbed into the back with the duke, whom we were dropping at his hotel.

And the puzzle stayed in my mind after Peaches was asleep that night, she having first talked herself tired about her Sandro, she describing him in turn as a king, a sport, a Greek statue and a bearcat. And I was still puzzling over him for an hour after Morpheus had claimed her, which hour I occupied in trying on various pairs of her high-heeled French shoes, and finding them less uncomfortable than I had anticipated and certainly more becoming to the foot than my hygiene walkrite footwear. Of course Peaches' shoes were too big for me, as my foot was smaller than Abby's, considerably smaller, in fact; whereas Peaches' footgear was-well, Californian. But it did well enough to practice in, and I took advantage of this solitary hour to do so.

But all the while that I walked up and down my chamber, the heels occasionally almost betraying me, my mind was on the duke. I determined to ask Abby all about him, for I deemed it my duty. And besides that, I wanted to see Abby soon again; I wanted to find out where she got her corsets.

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