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   Chapter 9 No.9

It Pays to Smile By Nina Wilcox Putnam Characters: 22867

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


My dear father used to maintain that true love seldom dies chiefly because it is so seldom born, which I take to be an aspersion upon the average love affair.

This would scarcely be fair to widows, or maidens who have been bereaved before betrothal, would it? For, of course, it is conceivable that such a one might in time recover from the shock of her loss and form a second genuine attachment. But whether I was justified in putting Peaches into the latter class or not I could not judge at the time. Because, of course, we should have been extremely lonely on the northern ranch without Mr. Markheim, especially after Richard, the chauffeur, enlisted, and dear Mr. Pegg began his increasingly frequent trips to Washington, where he had something to do with supplying the Army with fruit. The way that man constantly ran over to Washington from California was simply too-too-well, too Californian for words. For the natives of this region save time in every conceivable fashion, yet regard distance as nothing. He spent almost all of his time either there or in the southern part of the State, where his principal groves of citrus fruit were located.

At any rate we should have been tremendously lonely on the home ranch without Mr. Markheim. Really I should not have supposed that a millionaire could be so human or a nouveau riche so condescending, or rather, so tolerable. But I suppose his being in love with Alicia had something to do with it, for before we had been twenty-four hours at the King-Pin ranch I saw how things were.

On account of his name poor Mr. Markheim took no active part in the war, though I understand that he lent somebody a great deal of money-the Belgians or Irish or some one, I forget just who.

But at any rate he used to ride over to our place frequently every day when it wasn't twice a day, and at first Peaches would have nothing to do with him beyond mere politeness.

I settled myself to watch the progress of the affair, because I do love a lover even when I don't like him, and I felt sorry for Mr. Markheim and interested in his attentions to Peaches, though, of course, he was of an age which would have rendered his devotion to an older woman far more suitable, and I was confident that nothing could shake her fidelity to the dear duke, that handsome and romantic rascal-that is, if he was a rascal, which now seemed plain enough. But every woman loves a rascal at some time or another, and though friends and family may succeed in persuading her to give him up she goes on nursing her fondness in secret just as long as the flavor lasts.

At any rate Peaches thought only of Sandro; that was plain to any woman, and though she seldom spoke of him I could see that we never went to the little dust bin of a town for the mail but she looked for a letter in his handwriting. But she did not discuss him, even with me. And when Mr. Sebastian came over from his toy ranch she would ride with him, talk with him, swim in our pool with him or accept the little things he bought her with a sweet, gentle acceptance which brought me to the verge of tears, it was so unlike her old fiery self.

And thus we dragged through a long, long period which has nothing to do with my account of our particular affairs-the period of the war, in point of fact. I feel it is not incumbent upon me to make a record of the war though it occurred at this time, inasmuch as several quite competent persons, including Mr. Wilson and the Associated Press, have covered the matter pretty carefully and quite as accurately as I should, the more especially as I spent the entire span of the war in California, and the Golden State was curiously removed from any sense of actual warfare.

Not that I mean to say that we Californians were in any way lacking in patriotism or that we failed to do our part, for goodness knows we just about fed the entire nation, and prices didn't go up, either, the way they did in the East. You could still buy at pre-war prices in 1918, and we were so rich as a community that we could do without the scandalous increases of which we read in our week-late New York Sunday newspapers. But what I mean is that somehow war seemed to belong to the East rather than to us. And I think we worried more over Mexico than over Flanders, and who can blame us when we were so near to Mexico that we could actually see what went on there? Or the result of what went on, at least? And the European war was just like some horrid rather unconvincing nightmare which the East had got itself into and that we had in consequence to help her out of.

Peaches and I ran the home ranch, and hardly left it, after Richard's enlistment. When I reflect upon our life there it seems punctuated by two great events and nothing else, though at the time of living through it I seemed to be in a continuous crisis, my upbringing crashing against my environment.

The first momentous occurrence to which I have referred was news of the duke. It came in a letter from Abby, who mentioned him casually in passing. The Chinese cook had brought the mail up from Oroville and Peaches and I had carried it outside to the edge of the swimming pool which Mr. Pegg had built into an angle of the ranch house, a gaunt white-painted frame building, very like a big New England farm-house, as are many of the homesteads of northern California. It was a heavenly mild late September day, with the barren hills turning faintly green already, though the rains had been tardy and scarce, and the roses in the garden had still to be irrigated regularly. The roads, hub deep with dust in summer, were bad now, honeycombed with mud holes, and the mail was late.

As I sat there with a corduroy jacket about my shoulders, my muddy boots heavy on my tired feet, and held the letter with the Italian postmark unopened for a moment in my hands it seemed as if the past four years were a dream, and the scene before me an utter unreality. At the gate to the road stood a pair of orange trees upon which the fruit was being left to ripen for home consumption. The orchards were stripped weeks earlier, for we picked green and sweated our oranges. Beyond the sentinel trees with their yellow fruit glowing like lanterns in the dark foliage, a flock of runner ducks squawked noisily in the head ditch, which had flowed by the house since the early days when Peaches' mother lived there and used to get the water for her household from it. Distantly a file of turbaned Hindu pickers, bound for a neighbor's walnut grove, passed, silhouetted against the sky, and vanished into the more overbearing outlines of a row of eucalyptus trees upon the ridge, and a pair of smartly overalled, immaculate Japanese laborers equipped like aviators, and gloved against the orange thorns, passed along the road, chattering unintelligibly, their picking equipment strapped to their shoulders like knapsacks, their sturdy boots swinging rhythmically to their chatter.

I could see all this, and the environment, which had once been as strange as a prism seen through a kaleidoscope, yet which was the only reality I had known for four years, now took on its pristine strangeness once more, and the letter in my hands brought a wave of homesickness upon me-not for Italy, but for Boston, I scarcely know why. For several moments I sat so, and then at length I opened the envelope where the censor had closed it, and read.

It sounded tired, that letter did, though, of course, it told very little, being censored.

"We are frightfully busy," Abby wrote, "but hopeful of an end to it all before long. I hope it may be true that peace is near, for we have suffered enough. We are not so gay as once we were, my dear, but just as brave. Things have changed so, and people are gone. I hear among others that our gay, mysterious and gallant Sandro was killed at -- Sir Anthony told me, and he got it from Captain Silvano, whom you may remember at Mentone. Killed in a very brave bit of action, I believe, too. Ah, well! So many people are making reparation for sins known and unknown by heroic sacrifice in the war. It is the great confessional."

I did not read further just then. Something impelled me to look up. Alicia was standing in front of me with grave golden eyes, her body actually seeming to give off a magnetic force which compelled me against my will to an immediate confession of what I would have preferred to break to her in a proper fashion.

"Free!" she said too quietly. "Is he-dead?"

It was the first mention which had been made of the duke in almost a year. I had begun to think she had forgotten-or at least determined to forget. I should have known better. I handed her the letter. It was the only thing I could do. She took it and read it silently, still looking off at the purple cloud bank of the coast range with its snow patches melting into the fleece of the little clouds which seemed to rest upon them-the barren gold-and-violet mountains, so infinite, eternal, restful and inspiring. Her face was like marble and I thought of the old psalmist: "I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my strength," and knew she would get strength from the coast range, from the infinite expanse of Nature, even as I had got it before now.

"In a very brave action," she said automatically. Then she threw her head back in a proud gesture, as though somebody had tried to strike her and failed; and without another word she turned and went into the house. I allowed her to go alone. Somehow I had gradually come to recognize a difference between Alicia and other young women of my acquaintance-and I knew that there was nothing I could say to her just then. She had the strength of those hills, or rather mountains-she was made of their very substance. I felt helpless. Besides, it was time to go through the lower orchards, where the Hindus were stripping olives in fear of a possible touch of frost, and somebody had to attend to things. So I rose, much depressed but urged by the duty before me. That was women's salvation during the war-the pressure of work to be done. And Pinto was again in Washington.

But that night Peaches became humanized. I suppose the darkness was too much for her. I was unable to endure her sobbing unless I could participate in it. And so I went into her room toward morning, and we were wretched in company. It was then that she showed me the wallet.

"Oh, my dear!" I said. "If only you had a souvenir or something of his!"

"I have!" replied poor Peaches unexpected. "I'll show it to you."

She turned on the light and reached under her tear-stained pillow-an incongruously gay figure in her striped pyjamas-and produced an envelope from which she drew a worn case of black morocco leather. It was thin and flat and no bigger than the palm of your hand.

"I have this, and two letters, and the rose he picked with the little gold knife I gave him," she said.

"What is it?" I made inquiry.

"I don't know," she said. "There's something written in Italian inside. He left it by accident on the day before he disappeared."

"By accident?" I said. "How?"

"Well, I found it on the sofa," said Peaches. "And it has his name in it. I was going to return it next day at luncheon-the luncheon to which he never came."

Then she broke down again.

"I guess it's only a Dago mileage book," she sobbed, "but it's all I've got of his! He must hav

e used it a lot!" She buried her head in the pillow, the wallet clasped tightly to her breast, and I stole out of the room without seeing the contents. If only I had looked-insisted on looking at it then, what a lot of trouble we would have been spared! But as my dear father used to say, it is easy to be wise in retrospect. At the time I thought merely of Peaches getting a little sleep and that somebody had to get up and start the Chinaman or the foremen wouldn't get their breakfast by five o'clock, and there was still one sheltered flat of oranges to be picked.

Though the lugs were already in the orchard I knew that if we were ever to get through in time to make a complete shipment we must begin work as soon as it was light enough to see the yellow glow under the green on the fruit, and work until it was so dark that the prime oranges were indistinguishable from the unripe ones, and the Mohammedans would come out of the orchard and pray, in their heathen manner, facing where they supposed Mecca to be. Somebody had to see to things, even in time of sorrow, and I was what Peaches cryptically termed the "goat."

Mr. Kipling may not have known it, but the dawn comes up like thunder in California, too, so it is really no effort to rise early, once you are accustomed to so doing. It is a common observation that when one does get up at sunrise one wonders why one does not do it always. And for almost three years such had been my continuous habit.

I set about my duties this morning, however, with a heavy heart, for I anticipated a long siege with Peaches and her grief. But by the time the foremen had gone to their sections and I myself had ridden the rounds of the various orchards to see that all was well, and given the Chinaman instructions about the meals, which instructions he would later pretend not to have heard, and had ridden over to the sluice at the top of the head ditch to see why the new feed to the seedling flat wasn't working properly, and taken a look at the flock of turkeys which I had imported to keep the grasshoppers down and which had lately been depleted by coyotes, I returned to my second breakfast; and there was Peaches already seated at table, well-groomed in her riding clothes, and prepared to accompany me to the packing sheds at the railroads.

She was a trifle pale perhaps, and rather quieter than ever, but perfectly composed, and even smiled a little as I sat down beside her and attacked my meal.

"I'm all set now, Free," she whispered. "I'll just do my bit, as he did his."

And then we got out the car and went to town. I drove, at her request, and between bumps and mud holes watched her out of one corner of my eye for any signs of a breakdown. But none came, either then or later in the long sheds where the sweated fruit roared down the channel of the separator, falling into the bins like golden hail, which the wives and daughters of the neighboring ranchers stood swiftly packing; a most competent lot of females, very swift and precise and earning a good bit of pin money thus every year.

Peaches stood outside all day, checking up the lugs as they arrived, arranging about freight rates, overseeing the allotment of box cars to the various growers, and generally doing a man's job. And never once during the twelve months which followed did I know her to fail in her work-her magnificent constitution helping, no doubt, to pull her through. But I could see that a permanent change had taken place in her from the day of Abby's letter. She was no longer the madcap, and though she was even more beautiful she was different-and through love, the great tamer-as Blake would have it.

This was the first incident to which I have referred as punctuating the monotony of the war for us. The second occurred more than a year later, in November, 1918, when we, like many another group of ranchers throughout the country, thought the town hall was on fire when all the time it was only the armistice.

Mr. Markheim, Pinto and Alicia and myself were indoors, an unusually cold snap having offered us the treat of an open fire, a not unmixed pleasure by reason of our being under some anxiety about the trees. But on the whole it was what some modern poet whose name I cannot at the moment recall has termed the end of a perfect day.

To begin with, I had dispatched three pounds of wool to Euphemia, whom Galadia, my only source of information about my sister, had written was doing great work for the Red Cross; her chief natural gift, that of knitting, had suddenly become of immense importance since the outbreak of the war, and she had to her credit and the honor of the family three hundred pair of socks. The achievement appeared almost foreign to me, inasmuch as I had not knitted any socks since that momentous pair at Monte Carlo, a surprising faculty for a more active existence having developed in me during my sojourn on the ranch. At any rate I had sent out the wool, finished my last jar of marmalade, of which I had made an experimental thousand for a market which Mr. Pegg intended the development of, and Mr. Markheim had returned from a visit East in company with Pinto. Peaches had that day succeeded in breaking a pony she had long desired as a saddle horse and had hitherto been unsuccessful with. Mr. Pegg had a special design for the marmalade jars-a crystal orange, of the natural size and shape, the preserved fruit to furnish the color, and he and I were most enthusiastic over it.

Mr. Markheim also credited himself with a successful trip, though from a wholly different cause. It appeared that he had at length contrived to install in his house a picture which he had long coveted, and this picture was none other than the Madonna of the Lamp, for which he had paid five hundred thousand dollars. Since his purchase of it the picture had been stored, and it seemed to me a strange time to trouble with getting it out. But Sebastian Markheim, with the fervor of the true collector and the madness which seems the hall-mark of his kind, was apparently oblivious of this circumstance and became wrapt in his description of it.

"You must have seen it in Vienna," he said. "Good heavens, don't say you have seen photographs of it! You cannot imagine the beauty of the thing itself. I have given directions for the remodeling of the south wall of my library in the Ossining house for its occupancy. It will hang all alone on that wall-it's only a small picture, you know, so I have had Hasbrock, the architect, design some panels to encircle it I hope it is going to please you, Alicia."

"What?" said Mr. Pegg twirling round suddenly from the bowl of ripe olives with which he was occupied. "What's that? Why should Alicia be pleased?"

"She's going to live there with it!" said Markheim. "She promised this afternoon!"

"Oh, no!" I said getting to my feet. But nobody seemed to hear me.

"Yes, father," said Alicia. Then Pinto's face broke into a sort of crooked smile and he held out his hands to both of them.

"Well, I'll be damned!" he said. "Think of my Peaches picking out a friend of her father's! Why, Markheim, you must be somewhere near my own age!"

"Why, pa, how rude!" said Alicia. "Aren't you going to kiss me? And you too, Free! Stop standing there like a dummy! People get married all the time-there's nothing unusual about it, you poor nuts! Come on, congratulate us!"

Well, of course, I recovered myself as best I could, and pecked her on the cheek. But I didn't feel my congratulations-I simply couldn't feel them. To marry that old man. And a foreigner! And a German Swiss! And everything! It was too dreadful! Nothing could make me feel that she was doing it for any reason except pity and because he had nagged her into it with his ceaseless attentions. Of course we had nothing against him, absolutely nothing, because after all being a millionaire art collector is not in itself strictly criminal. But with the memory of that beautiful romance in Italy still fresh in my own mind I could not understand it-I simply could not; and every fiber of my being resented it. Youth and age! It was all wrong. She had a silly notion that her heart was dead, and that it didn't matter what she did. That if it gave Sebastian happiness to marry her-why, he was good and kind and rich and cultured and famous, and why not give joy since one could no longer experience it?

I could see in a flash what had gone on in her simple, honest, generous mind, and it nearly drove me wild, while all the time I had to stand there grinning and patting her on the shoulder, and saying how wonderful it all was, when in reality I wanted to drag her out of the room and shake her for being such a great silly fool, and force her to stop it before anyone else heard of her folly and she found herself in the complications of public knowledge of her engagement.

Instead of which I stood round and admired the wonderful five-carat diamond ring which Markheim produced, and behaved like an idiot generally.

"Well, well, when is it to be?" Mr. Pegg wanted to know.

Alicia turned her big eyes slowly from her marvelous jewel to her father's puzzled face.

"I have promised Sebastian," she said slowly, "to marry him as soon as the war is over!"

Her tone had, to my ears, the expectancy of a long reprieve.

And it was at that minute that the fire bells began to ring.

You can be sure we all rushed out at that, crying, "Where is it? What is the matter?" and many other similar exclamations natural to the situation. But at first nobody seemed to know. The Chinese cook came out, frying pan in hand, and began running round in circles. The hands were soon straggling in from their camp in the gulch by the river. Somebody, Mr. Pegg, I think, tried the telephone, but could get no answer. By this time almost everybody on the ranch had assembled before the house, shivering with the frost and searching the sky for signs of the incendiary glare, but in vain. An automobile dashed by down the Letterbox road with two prospectors in it. One was firing a gun like mad and he yelled something unintelligible at us in passing but ignored our invitation to stop.

Then from the direction of the town a flivver emerged out of the swiftly falling dusk, and as it stopped in front of our gate a man in the uniform of an American captain jumped down with the aid of his uninjured arm, the other being supported by a sling, and came running toward us, flinging his cap into the air, the lights from our porch gleaming upon his excited face and upon the decorations on his breast.

"Victory!" he shouted. "Victory! Schoolhouse fire? Hell! The armistice was signed at two o'clock to-day!"

It was Richard, the chauffeur, and I assure you that it was at that moment that I recognized the strong family resemblance and decided that he might after all be a Talbot-one of our Talbots.

You can imagine the wild riot into which the news and the bearer of it threw us. I cannot describe it. Everyone went crazy and I have a blurred recollection of kissing several persons, the Chinaman among them. But only one thing remains clearly in my mind-Alicia standing like a stone in a corner of the veranda, her white face lifted to the rising moon, and Markheim running toward her with burning words which seemed to fall upon deaf ears.

"Alicia, Alicia, it's the end of the war!" he was shouting.

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