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   Chapter 10 No.10

It Pays to Smile By Nina Wilcox Putnam Characters: 26826

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


I recall upon one occasion my dear father having said that love in a cottage was better than politeness in a mansion, and this came at once to mind upon the occasion of our visit to Sebastian Markheim's palace on the banks of the upper section of the Hudson River.

This took place just six months after that wonderful night when my dear nephew, as I was now convinced he was, returned, so to speak, with the armistice in his pocket. Sebastian, as I was now instructed to call Mr. Markheim, had desired us to come sooner, in order that Peaches might herself assist in selecting the plans and furnishings incident to the remodeling of what was to be her home.

But Peaches was reluctant to go. Of course there was a good deal of readjustment to be done on all her father's ranches, and while he was in the south, where the big orchards were, we set in order the home ranch, which had been practically in our charge for a year and a half, and she gave as excuse for the delay the necessity for making these readjustments herself. Richard was to be left in complete charge and she busied herself quite unnecessarily in showing him a thousand details. Every week she would promise to be ready, and when the time came she would have discovered something that nobody else could take care of, which was all nonsense, because a citrus ranch practically takes care of itself during the winter months. But by hook and crook she held us off until April, and then at last we were ready to go.

I will state that I for one was unreservedly eager to go home-to go East. I was, in point of fact, so excited at the prospect that on the night before our departure I found myself unable to compose myself to slumber, and rising from my uneasy couch I donned a robe and ventured forth from my bedchamber, which was upon the ground floor.

The moonlight, which flooded the garden, gave it an uncanny distorted aspect, and all at once as I sat there, huddled upon a bench close to the wall of the house, I seemed to see the ranch and its surroundings with the same eyes which envisioned it upon my arrival so long ago. This sudden clarity of vision was doubtless due to the subconscious influence of my impending departure. At any rate the place, which I had grown so accustomed to that I beheld it only with the blindness of familiarity, seemed once more the impossibly crude wilderness that it appeared to be upon my arrival.

For in the northern part of California there is little of the induced luxuriance of the South. There is something of the Eastern farmer's fight with the elements and a Nature that is not always overly kind or utterly dependable, and our garden was not a thing of lovely lawns, dense shrubs and misty glades. Far from it. Our flower beds were as practically irrigated as our orchards, standing deep in mud and lifting their wonderful blossoms from the mire we so religiously provided for them. There was none of the trimness of an Eastern estate about our more than practical, enterprising organization. Rather it bore the general aspect of Boston Common after an August holiday. It was, in plain truth, shockingly untidy, and I was horrified to realize that even I, who had been so carefully reared by the immaculate Euphemia, had made only the most feeble sort of effort to tidy up. I had been unable to see the molehills for the mountains, as one might say. But now, with the thought of the concentrated, condensed East before me, I perceived the unevenness of our paths, the forgotten bundle of old papers outside the storehouse, the broken gate which everyone cursed at but forgot to mend; and the olive and orange clad hills beyond grew dim in my mind's eye even as they formed but indistinguishable black patches in the cloud-changing moonlight. A deep longing for my own kind of living swept over me, and I even went so far as to experience a desire for Euphemia's breakfast room on Chestnut Street, and the mended table linen-the careful little things of life grown dear through years of painstakingly careful usage.

Moved by this overwhelming impulse I was on the verge of rising and gathering up that disgracefully untidy bundle of papers and carrying it to the trash bin where it belonged, thus at once satisfying a normal impulse and proving to myself that my upbringing had not been in vain, when I became aware that the window above my head had been opened softly and that someone-Peaches, without a doubt, since that was her chamber-was standing there, crying softly.

My first impulse was to speak-to go to her with what comfort I was capable of offering, but having for an instant refrained I could not do so. Since the announcement of her betrothal to Markheim a wall had sprung up between us as far as her intimate life was concerned. Indeed she seemed to have withdrawn into herself curiously, though I doubt that anyone realized it as keenly as did I.

And then having failed to speak immediately I found myself in an awkward predicament. Should I move or not? I had no desire to eavesdrop for the confidence she withheld, and yet I felt it my bounden duty as her chaperon and guardian and older woman generally to know all about her by one means or another, for her own good, and not out of mere female curiosity. And so allowing my sense of responsibility to conquer my delicacy I kept very still, and before long my diligence was rewarded.

"A clean sweep!" whispered Peaches at her window. "No use kidding myself. I'll make the break clean. It's the only thing to do!"

There was a short silence punctuated only by a few sniffs, and then an object flew through the air over my head and landed in the pool with a splash. The window above was closed with a snap. Whatever ritual she had been at was over. But not so the fulfillment of my duty as her protectress.

No sooner had I made sure that she was not going to change her mind and come down after it, than I crept stealthily to the water's edge, having carefully noted the very spot where the object fell, and kneeling on the concrete basin's brim, greatly to the detriment of that portion of my anatomy which bore the weight, being clad only for private life, I fished determinedly for the best part of half an hour, my sleeves rolled up but not escaping the effects of my earnest endeavor, and my curls getting thoroughly soaked.

Fortunately Peaches' aim, usually so accurate and far reaching in the pursuit of the national sport of baseball, or in any other emergency such as reaching a high-hung apple, had fallen a little short this time, her secret having hit the shallow end of the pond. And so it was that after a very considerable period of effort I did retrieve the object, and retreated with it to the seclusion of my room.

Once there I lit the lamp, drew the curtains, locked the door and proceeded with my duty still further. It was a terribly moist little bundle, done up in a silk handkerchief and weighted with the bronze paper-weight I had given Peaches for Christmas. But I was too much interested to mind this slight. For inside the bundle were two letters, already a mere pulpy mass from the soaking they had sustained, a brittle something which might once have been a rose, and the duke's wallet!

The latter was still intact, but before examining it I made a little fire on the hearth, and by diligent coaxing managed to consume the remnants of the other souvenirs. They were no one's affairs except that of the lovers and no other eyes should behold them unbidden. And when they were quite concealed in the ashes of the fireplace I returned to the light and examined the wallet carefully. It seemed to me that there simply must be more to the matter than appeared. In any of those books which had so deep an influence upon my early thinking the discoverer of such a wallet would have surprised a jewel of value, secret documents popularly referred to as 'the papers,' or a marriage certificate which cleared the honor of the hero's mother, or something equally vital. And I must confess that I, in opening my find, rather anticipated some such discovery, but my expectations were doomed to disappointment, for it was in very truth what Peaches had suggested-a mileage ticket of some sort made out in Sandro's name!

I will say that this end to my exciting evening was a trifle flat, but as my dear father used to say, our chief pleasure lies in anticipation and no disappointment in the event can cheat us of that. So I simply decided to put the thing carefully away in the bottom of my reticule in case it was ever needed. What with the war and all, one never can tell who is going to turn up a hero; and just think what souvenirs of Rupert Brooke, for example, are worth to-day, not to mention Napoleon and General Grant, and so forth, whose hero-value has, of course, been augmented with age.

Well, at any rate, that was all there was to it at the time. I slept the sleep of duty well done, because I was determined to take care of Peaches in spite of herself, and the next morning rose refreshed, to make the early train for San Francisco, where we were to join Mr. Pegg and turn our faces eastward.

The house which Sebastian Markheim had remodeled for his bride-to-be was already a sumptuous structure worthy of the famous collection of art treasures which it housed, and his efforts in altering it had been bent rather in the direction of improving its livableness and making it a cheerier spot to which to bring a young wife. The object of our visit was that Peaches be given the opportunity of making it completely to her liking in advance of her possession of it, and incidentally to make the acquaintance of her future neighbors, and of Mr. Markheim's set generally.

He had planned a large house party as the means of introducing his fiancée to his social world, and she intended to procure her trousseau in New York during the intervals of gayety. Mr. Pegg was enchanted at the prospect thus opened up before him, and I was myself much elated at the thought of experiencing some real social life once more, for Abby's hospitality in dear old Italy, so lavish and yet in such excellent good form, had given me a taste for the gaieties my restricted youth had lacked. Even Peaches was gay, though not as of yore, but rather with a mature, stately gayety, and her manner toward me had become positively motherly.

"There now, Free!" she soothed me one day when I had expressed a mild concern about her state of mind. "There now, Free, don't you worry about me! We all have to grow up sometime, don't we? Can't stay young plants forever-especially we women. Comes a time when we got to be grafted on to old stock and get ready for bearing-eh? Well, that's me, old thing!"

I was shocked at her indelicacy and did not hesitate to say so.

"If that is how you regard your forthcoming nuptials," I said stiffly, "you ought to dissolve your betrothal. One should marry only for love-for love alone!"

"Oh, should they?" said Peaches. "That's all you know about it. I'm very fond of Mr. Mark-of Sebastian, and he is the typical good husband."

"But you don't love him!" I protested firmly.

"I love him as much as I am likely to love anyone," responded Peaches-like a young Portia, so stately and serious. "And even if he is half a head shorter than I am he has a kind heart and he's a gentleman."

"And not over sixty years old!" I retorted. "Oh, Peaches, do you really want to do it?"

Suddenly she was serious. The defensively bantering light went out of her changeful eyes.

"Don't, Free!" she pleaded. "Yes, I do want to. I want to be a reasonable being-to make the best life I can for myself since I must go on living. I don't want to be a coward. I am still young and I haven't seen much of the world. Riches, art treasures, cultured people, and things-social position-there must be joy in these things or folks would not struggle for them so! And since they must be filling up the emptiness in a whole lot of lives I'm going to have a try at them too. Don't be afraid for me. I know just what I am doing. I know that I shall never care again. But I can like. And I can live, and I'm going to use my old beau to help me get the most out of life that I can when-when-well, you know, only don't say it, please!"

She was wonderful. So big and beautiful and full of health and common sense. I could not but admire her, though, of course, a few maidenly tears and vows of lifelong fidelity to the heroic dead would have been more suitable. But things had already gone too far for that. At the time the above-recorded conversation took place we were standing upon the steps of the Ritz in New York, waiting for the car which was to convey us up the river. Mr. Markheim had not expected us for another week and so hadn't been at the hotel to meet us, but was sending his chauffeur.

And in a way Peaches' words reassured me. After all one must eventually resign oneself to fate, and if one had the good sense to take fate by the horns and as Peaches would say "beat him to it"-why, so much the better. We could all settle down to watch her live happily enough ever after if her program worked out.

But would it? Despite her assurance I felt a faint misgiving. My dear father used always to say: "Never you girls marry until Mister Right comes along." And we were brought up to honor and obey our parents-with the result that at the re

spective ages of fifty and sixty we girls were still single. However, I digress.

In my youth, following the precepts of my father and seeking knowledge of the world through the medium of literature, I came upon the works of a lady of rank whose writings had for me the greatest fascination. As to what her actual name was I have to this day remained in ignorance, and her title, The Duchess, is all that I identify her by. But this estimable lady, while somewhat given to the recounting of scandalous episodes and the misfortunes peculiar to innocent maidens, had a wealth of descriptive power when she undertook the description of rich and aristocratic mansions or the interiors of castles of the less modest variety. But nothing ever recorded by her, not set forth for public inspection in the Boston Museum, could compare with the sumptuousness of Mr. Markheim's establishment.

I had been prepared for something very fine, but this gorgeous replica of a famous Italian villa built upon terraces, its lovely low white fa?ades rising in a symmetrical group one above the other, the whole nestling into the budding verdure of the hillside, its formal gardens descending step by step almost to the broad sweep of the Hudson below, was a veritable dream-palace.

And the interior! Words almost fail me when I seek to describe it. Perhaps the most fitting thing I can say of it is that it was a home good enough for Peaches. Her great height, her gold-and-marble beauty, here found at last a fitting habitat. And then when I saw that little, comparatively speaking, Markheim man trotting about in front of her and giving her the place with a gesture as he displayed each treasure in turn, I felt sick and faint in my mind. And yet he was most kind and had never given me the least cause to criticize him, and certainly the house was enough to tempt any girl. I sighed, however, to think of the day when she would be married and living there.

"Mr. Markheim-Sebastian, I mean," I said-Mr. Pegg and I followed in the wake of the happy couple as they made the tour of the house-"Sebastian, this place looks as if you had dug up the rich heart of Italy and transplanted it to America!"

Sebastian laughed.

"You have the right idea, Miss Freedom! The right idea-yes!" he exclaimed with pride. "More than half my collection is Italian-and if I do so say myself, it has taken a lot of patience and trouble to gather it-not to speak of the cost in money. They have a strict law against taking objects of art out of their country, you know, and it's been nip and tuck getting hold of a lot of this stuff-smuggled of course. Oh, don't look so shocked! If it's genuine it's smuggled-at the Italian end. But one doesn't call attention to the fact except in the privacy of one's own family!"

"It sure is swell!" said Mr. Pegg.

Sebastian laughed again-a sound which never got him favor with me-and opened the door into the newest addition to the house-the library wing, which he had remodeled for the especial purpose of housing the Madonna of the Lamp.

When I entered I could not refrain from an exclamation of delight, nor can I forbear to describe the place in some detail. To begin with it was almost round and very large, the ceiling being domed and the books being carried in long narrow stacks sunk into the paneling between the French windows as high as the carved molding. Above this an exquisite tone of blue with a few cleverly distributed stars gave a sense of infinite space, and despite the cumbersome old Florentine furniture the room was neither heavy nor dull. There was just enough gold to furnish flashes of light, and the warm old amber brocade on the chairs seemed to catch and hold the sunlight which poured through the long narrow windows at the west, all of which opened directly upon the first terrace of the rose garden. But the real triumph in lighting was the rose window of plain leaded glass on the north side of the room-the wall of which had been reconstructed to accommodate it in order that the Madonna might be properly illuminated by day. We gasped our admiration of its perfect lacery, and then turned about and faced the picture itself in reverent silence.

Of course it is ridiculous to suppose there is anyone to whom the Madonna of the Lamp is not perfectly familiar, being, as she is, one of those paintings which are impressed upon the popular mind in spite of itself through endless repetition upon postal and Christmas cards, engravers' windows, magazine covers and Sunday-school prizes, to say nothing of Little Collections of Great Masters, gift photographs, furnishings for college rooms and appeals for public charities.

Nevertheless, I will describe it, because as my dear father used to say, the collective mind of the public is not the public mind of the collector. It has to be told, in other words, when it can't be shown; whereas, of course, you can tell a collector nothing-and get him to admit it.

Well, at any rate, in case you do not recall it, the Madonna of the Lamp is a round canvas, not more than two and a half feet in diameter, and represents the Virgin with the Child curled up in a robe of sapphire blue which falls from her head in thick sweeping folds and crosses her knee in such a way as to give the appearance of being blown from behind by a wind and aiding in the circular effect. She is seated and bending over the Infant, protecting both him and the flickering lamp from the wind. Above her head is a single star visible through a patch of leaded window.

Now you recall it, I am sure. It was painted in Florence by Raphael about the year 1506 and is one of the most famous monuments to his genius.

And Markheim had provided a most wonderful setting for this jewel. The great window was of a design made from that behind the Virgin's head, and the carved panel upon which the painting hung was a skillful variation of the beautiful old carved frame about the canvas-the original frame, it was believed to be, and the motif of the design was carried out in a molding which diminished into a faint bas-relief at the outer edges of the large wall space above the mantel where it hung. Nor was the picture hung too high. Even I could have touched the bottom of the carvings; and the mantelpiece had no other ornament except two gigantic polychrome candlesticks of the same period. Truly it was a wonderfully successful arrangement and reflected great credit on the owner who had conceived it.

"Do you like it?" was all he said, looking not at the Madonna but at Alicia. "Do you like it, eh?"

Mr. Pegg took the question to himself.

"And you paid five hundred thousand dollars for that little picture?" he asked incredulously. "Why, from the price I expected something as big as a barn door!"

"Pa-don't be a boob-it's a diamond without a flaw," said Peaches, going closer, her face alight with pleasure. "It's a real mother and child," she added. "How big would you want them to be? They are immortal-isn't that big enough?"

Through the crudity of her rebuke I got one of those rare glimpses of her golden heart.

Her crude parent, however, was unimpressed.

"Of course it's real pretty," he said. "Which is more than can be said for most antiques. But five hundred thousand! My Lord, look at the profit? There can't be over ten dollars' worth of paint in it! Where is this feller, Raphael?"

"Where the profit is doing him precious little good," chuckled Sebastian.

"Must be hell!" commented Pinto.

"Very possibly, in spite of his choice of subjects!" replied Markheim.

Whereat he and I exchanged our first glance of thoroughly sympathetic understanding. I, of course, at once lowered my eyes, a burning sense of shame at my implied disloyalty struggling with my desire to spare Mr. Pegg the mortification of instruction. I had not forgotten and shall never forget how gently he led me to see the error of my ways when I first hit the ranch-as, for example, when I unknowingly made culls of his best tree of home fruit and he urged me to make marmalade of them and never told me until afterward that the way I had picked them by pulling them off the tree instead of clipping the stem made it impossible to use them for anything else. So now in my own realm I wished to lead him gradually into the paths of erudition and allow him to learn by inference whenever possible.

Well, the rest of the house was beautiful as could be, and after we had finished inspecting it we had tea in a wonderful glass room filled with gay cretonnes and flowering plants, wicker chairs and caged canaries. Two menservants served the refection. Mr. Sebastian Markheim had a considerable household, that was plain, and I began to regret that I had steadfastly stood with Peaches on refusing her father's suggestion of a personal maid.

"There's something too public about it," had been her objection, which I had sustained.

But here amid all these servitors I felt differently. Not that I felt any indignity attached to our maidless condition, being, as I was, a self-supporting female well able to afford one if I desired such a thing. I could now live as I chose instead of as I aught, if you understand me. But I knew that Peaches would have to get a female attendant after she was married. Markheim was not the man to allow his wife to live in comfort when he could provide her with luxury. And at this juncture of my thought I stopped halfway through the sugared tea biscuit, a terrible realization overwhelming me for the first time.

When Peaches was married she would no longer need me. Who then would need me? Nobody? Not Euphemia, who never answered my letters, though she always mutely cashed the inclosed checks. And would there be any checks to send her? Where would they come from? It was a chilling thought, as will readily be admitted. Why I had not thought of it sooner I cannot say. It must have been evident from the moment of Peaches' engagement that when the affair reached its consummation I would be, to put it vulgarly, out of a job.

Of course I did not so greatly care for myself, but there was Euphemia, the dependent, to consider, whose tradition of useless gentility must not be disturbed in her declining years. True, I had saved a very considerable portion of my salary and had almost twenty thousand dollars distributed among six savings banks. That might conceivably tide us over for the remainder of our lives. But I had acquired the habit of remunerative occupation and close companionship with dear friends; also a taste for French heels and facial massage whenever practical. And the thought of the Chestnut Street house was, the more shame upon me for saying it of my father's home, almost intolerable. And Mr. Pegg-dear Pinto, how I should miss him! in a purely friendly way of course.

Fully realizing for the first time the bitterness of my situation I refused a second sugared bun and rising remarked that as Sebastian expected dinner guests we had best retire and obtain a little rest before it was time to dress.

Of course my intention was in part to leave the lovers together for a properly brief interval, but somewhat to my surprise Peaches rose also and said she would accompany me. My heart was heavy, and for once I would have preferred to be alone. But she slipped her arm about my neck, and we started for our rooms, chatting amiably while the men settled down for a cigar.

Now one of the peculiarities of the Markheim palace was that it gave no appearance of modernity. Though it was in point of fact less than ten years built, it was so cunningly designed, so convincingly arranged, with such perfection of detail that it possessed an air of old mystery difficult to define, and under ordinary circumstances most fascinating-a real achievement on the part of architect and decorator alike. The ancient furniture stood so easily in the background provided for it that one could have sworn the walls had been made before it; the modern lighting was so well handled as to be absolutely unobtrusive.

Slowly, affectionately, we crossed the main hall, pausing to look at the chased armor on the two silent figures at the foot of the beautiful winding stairs. A Gobelin tapestry fluttered faintly on the wall above us, stirred by the gentle sunset wind from the spring-scented river below, and the lingering twilight filled the great hall with mysterious shadows. There was not another soul in sight and not a sound to be heard except the distant murmur of the men's talk and the voice of a pleasure boat distantly upon the water. I accompanied Alicia up the stairs, feeling as if I were in some enchanted palace of medieval days, and above, the long dim corridor in which the lamps had not yet been lit was ghostly in the pale glimmer from its high mullioned windows.

"Isn't it spooky?" said Peaches in a low tone.

"Yes!" I replied, whispering involuntarily. "One might almost expect to see a ghost!"

And scarcely had I spoken the words when Peaches, the supernormal, who was a trifle ahead of me by now, uttered a shriek and leaned trembling against the stone wall of the passageway. But for a moment I could not come to her aid. My limbs seemed frozen, paralyzed. For there suddenly and soundlessly a form was towering vaguely before us, its white face luminous in a shaft of uncanny light.

It was the Duke di Monteventi!

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