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   Chapter 11 No.11

It Pays to Smile By Nina Wilcox Putnam Characters: 27237

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


After one horrible endless moment the figure moved slightly and the corridor was flooded with the soft mellow light from half a dozen electric sconces.

With a half-choked cry of "Sandy!" upon her lips Peaches moved toward him, only to stop short, her face going completely blank. The man was a servant, a valet presumably, carrying a folded suit of clothing carefully over one arm and wearing soft felt shoes, which had been the secret of his noiseless approach. His hair was thickly gray and his face was lined and scarred. He looked perhaps ten years older than Sandro-and yet the likeness was there-unmistakable, though in the full light not by any means so perfect.

"I beg pardon, ladies," he said in a measured voice, withdrawing another step. "The lights should have been on."

Then with a little bow he passed noiselessly down the corridor and entered one of the bedrooms, presumably that occupied by Markheim himself.

Peaches made a little involuntary gesture as if to follow him, stretching out her hands toward his unconscious back, and then, as the door closed upon him, turned to me, her amber eyes afire. She seized me by the wrist in a manner positively painful and dragged me into her room, where she caused me to sit down abruptly and without personal selection upon a sort of hassock, the while she towered over me, fairly glowing with animation-far, far, more like her old self than she had been for almost six years.

"Free!" she said. "Was it? Was it? Oh, Free-say something!"

"It couldn't have been!" I replied shakily. "And yet the resemblance-it was extraordinary!"

"It was a miracle!" said Peaches. "No two people could look so much alike."

"He had a brother," I began doubtfully, "who was merely supposed to be dead. Sandro would have known you at once."

"But didn't he?" she questioned, striding up and down the room with her long, clean gesture of body. "Why didn't he speak at once? He was too much amazed!"

"Nonsense!" I exclaimed. "How could he be amazed, when as a servant in this house-in all probability Sebastian's valet-he must have known in advance all about your coming here!"

"That's so," said Peaches. "And, of course there are differences-the grayness, the lines in his face. But something may have happened to him."

"Very likely!" I replied dryly. "Considering we have heard from Cousin Abby that he was killed in action."

"But it may have been a mistake," she whispered. "Stranger things have happened. And a servant! No-even if he had gone quite mad and forgotten everything that would hardly be possible."

"Servant or not, if it is he, why on earth shouldn't he recognize you?" I demanded. "That's the sort of encounter which is supposed to bring people to their senses, you know."

"But didn't he recognize me?" she replied with a doubt willfully sustained. "Just for an instant, I was so sure! Well!"

"What are we going to do about it?" I said. "If by chance it really is Sandro it's a nice situation, I'm sure! With your wedding only a few weeks off and, and-why, good gracious! It's simply terrible!"

But Peaches didn't look as if she thought it was simply terrible-not in the least. She was terrifically excited, but more beautiful than ever.

"Free!" she cried. "I know it is he! Do you suppose I could feel as I did-as I do, at the encounter unless it is Sandy? Lots of times people know things without evidence. And this is one of those times. I feel it is he. I don't care how differently he looked when the lights went up."

"But how on earth are you going to find out?" I urged. "Surely, Peaches, he cannot have forgotten you!"

"Forgotten!" she exclaimed, stopping short in her pacing of the floor. "Forgotten! Good heavens, Free, you don't suppose that is it, do you?"

"Of course I don't!" I snapped, even though I was not entirely sure but that a young man who was capable of taking French leave in the way that Sandro had six years previously, was not capable of anything, including having an affaire de c?ur with Peaches and then failing to recollect the incident. Some men are that way; I have it on the authority of The Duchess.

"This man is older!" I went on. "And we don't know for certain what his position in the household is. The best thing for you to do is to question Sebastian about him."

"Won't he think it strange if I let him on to the fact that I'm stuck on his valet?" Peaches considered in her disconcertingly frank way.

"Good gracious, you must do nothing of the kind!" I interposed. "Besides, you don't know that you are, as you vulgarly put it, stuck on him. You only think it may be Sandy. Kindly keep that in mind, my dear!"

"I think there is something damn funny about the whole shooting match!" said Peaches vigorously. "And I'm going to the bottom of it mighty pronto!"

With which she flung from the room to don one of her majestic evening gowns, leaving me in great distress of mind for fear of what she would do next. To array myself for the evening's festivities and to descend to them in a becomingly dignified manner was no easy task, but by the greatest effort at self-control I accomplished both the arrangement of my toilet and the adjustment of my manner sufficiently to reappear in polite society in the state of composure due to my name and heritage and the responsible position which I occupied toward the Pegg family. It is one of the penalties of a great name that one must ever maintain the aspect of a painted ancestor, no matter what tumult may be going on within one. And though I admit that I was in a profoundly disturbed state of mind, and indeed I may say, shaken to the very depths of my romantic soul by what had occurred and still more by what might occur, I believe that my conduct and appearance as I stood smiling beside the unconscious Mr. Markheim, aiding him in the reception of his guests, would have been wholly approved by my dear father. And I rather relished the sense of standing upon a species of social volcano.

When Peaches appeared on the, as I may call it, haunted stairway, a gasp of delighted astonishment went up from the assemblage. She was arrayed in a sheathlike gown of golden sequins that rivaled but did not surpass the glory of her hair, and though she was without jewels except for her ring, she shone with a radiance such as can scarcely be imagined. Her wonderful hair lay close and glistening upon her head like a helmet of burnished metal, and this taken with her-er-martial though décolleté costume gave her somewhat the appearance of a young Pallas Athene with a redeeming touch of-er-jazz, if you know what I mean. At any rate she was magnificent. And if a trifle pale, it was from the intense wave of new life which had flooded her during the past few hours, and her eyes were like those of that terribly incoherent tiger of Blake's.

Well, I will not digress by describing the feast which Sebastian gave as a housewarming for his lady love. The field of such description has been widely covered by every chronicler from Balzac to W. D. Griffiths. Suffice to say that it was a very sumptuous affair, attended by a more or less cosmopolitan crowd, comprising friends and neighbors alike, and affording, I dare say, a reasonable amount of enjoyment to those present.

Under different circumstances I should have enjoyed it myself, being, as I am, possessed of a very profound sense of the solemnity of social functions and their proper conducting. But upon this occasion I was so taken up with being on the outlook for a glimpse of that mysterious valet among the other servants that I only succeeded in performing the mechanics of a pleasant evening. But nevertheless I was aware that the affair, considering that it was more or less impromptu due to our unexpected arrival, went off very well, and without my once seeing the person for whom I was automatically seeking.

Well, at about half after eleven that night, when the last guest had departed and we four-Mr. Pegg, Alicia, Sebastian and myself-were assembled in the library for a good-night discussion, Peaches laid her trap, if so I may call it, for the information she desired. She became suddenly domestic and affectionate over a glass of milk and vichy and I watched keenly as she led up to her subject with a deceitful air of innocence of which I would not have believed her capable. Markheim was in the seventh heaven at her interest, and dear Mr. Pegg stood under the Madonna chewing on a big cigar and nodding his approval.

"It was a wonderful dinner, Sebastian!" said Peaches, her big eyes limpid pools of approval. "What a peach of a chef you have!"

"I am glad you approve!" said the banker. "We will keep him on."

"There are an awful bunch of servants here," Peaches commented. "It will seem funny, keeping house with them after one Chinaman, and sometimes none, out on the ranch. I suppose I'll have a maid. But if I do I'm going to teach her pinochle! Have you a valet, Mark?"

"In a way," replied Markheim. "In a way I have-and then again I haven't!"

At this astonishing announcement you may well believe that a painful sensation occurred in my breast. I positively started out of my seat, though controlling myself instanter, and even Peaches gave a funny little gasp, which she, however, contrived to turn into a species of inane giggle, spluttering over her milk.

"What-what do you mean by that?" she said.

"Only that he's given notice," Markheim replied. "Nothing unusual about that nowadays, I assure you, my dear. And I'm sorry he's going," he added. "The best chap I've had-came to me six months ago, and been absolute perfection ever since!"

"Why do you let him go?" asked Peaches, her eyes fixed upon her fiancé as if she would like to hypnotize him into telling her more than she asked. "Why not give him more wages or something?"

"It's not a question of money," Sebastian explained. "It seems he dislikes women-regular misanthrope. It's all your fault, my dear. He gave notice as soon as I told him I was going to get married!"

"Oh!" said Peaches. "Then it was some time ago that he-he quit? Not just to-day?"

"About a month ago," replied her lover. "He expected to leave before you appeared upon the scene, only you are ahead of time. Great Scott, Alicia, you seem fearfully interested in the fellow? Have you seen him, or what is the idea anyhow?"

"No," lied Peaches calmly. "I just got to thinking about servants in general and about the personal-servant idea in particular. I don't know that the plan has my O. K. It's an embarrassing idea-makes me feel like a boob to have anybody dress me, unless to hook a fool dress up the back perhaps. And a Chinaman could do that, you know. What do you call the bird-by his front or hind name?"

"I call him Wilkes," said Markheim, laughing. "And you are too amusing, my dear. You are not obliged to have a maid, you know. It's quite conceivable that I can learn to hook a gown!"

"Or unhook it!" laughed Mr. Pegg.

This was too much for me. I bade them all good night and departed in high dudgeon.

The enormous main hall was but dimly lighted and I crossed it, not without hesitancy, and when at the foot of the staircase a hand was laid upon my arm I nearly screamed aloud. In fact I attempted to scream but was so frightened that I only accomplished a squeak. However, it was no supernatural apparition, but Peaches, who had overtaken me, and who dragged me to my room, where she slammed the door behind us in breathless triumph.

"There!" she cried. "Did you hear him?"

"I did!" I replied. "And I think your father ought to be ashamed of himself, at his age, too!"

"Oh, forget dad!" she cried impatiently. "I know he's a roughneck, but that's not a weakness. I mean about Sandy?"

"Oh!" said I. "Well, what about him-if it is he?"

"If it is?" said Peaches. "Have you any doubts now? Leaving as soon as he heard about me, and then being caught by my unexpected arrival. Didn't you listen?"

"It may be just a coincidence," I demurred, though in truth I was deeply interested. "And he's been here six months. He must have heard of your engagement before-or at least been aware that Sebastian knew you."

"Perhaps," admitted Alicia, pacing up and down like a substantial sunbeam. "But that doesn't satisfy me. There's only one way to settle the question. I've got to have a private talk with that man."

"But how?" I gasped.

"You've got to arrange it," replied Peaches firmly.

"Impossible!" I squeaked. "What an idea! Though, of course, you could meet him secretly in the garden!"

"The very thing!" exclaimed my charge with enthusiasm. "Here-I will write a note and date him up, and you will see that it gets to him. I'll meet him in the rose garden at midnight to-morrow."

She sat herself down at the exquisite old Moorish escritoire and taking pen and paper wrote in her labored, painstaking fashion, her head on one side, her tongue firmly between her teeth, the hair curling at the nape of her neck like that of an innocent child rather than a desperate maiden in a most thrilling situation.

"There!" she said at length, slipping the missive into an envelope and handing it to me. "There you are, Free. Now be sure he gets it, and let me know how he acts. It doesn't need any answer!"

With which she actually had the impudence to kiss me gayly on the cheek and run away to bed, leaving me standing as if paralyzed, the note in one hand, and the problem of handling the preposterous situation staring me in the face.

My dear father used to say that only those who must be ashamed

need be afraid, and as this matter of the note was really none of my personal affair I need not, I suppose, have feared for the consequences; and yet I confess that I was filled with fear. The day had been interminable, and now it seemed that it was not yet over, though the clock pointed to a quarter after twelve. At such a circumstantial hour I had no mind to venture out into a corridor in which I had recently encountered a very fair imitation of a ghost. Indeed, there had been from the start of our acquaintance something very mysterious about the Duke di Monteventi, and death, it seemed, did not offer any solution, but rather extended the obscurity which surrounded him.

It was my personal opinion that he was dead, and that this valet creature who had startled us in such a fashion merely bore an accidental resemblance to Sandro. Yet then again it was so much more romantic to consider his being resurrected as a possibility. But if it were Sandro, why on earth should he, who had the entrée to every fashionable house in Europe, reappear in the capacity of a servant?

Perchance it was not Sandro, but his supposedly murdered elder brother. That would, of course, account for the resemblance. This idea struck me as being remarkably intelligent, and I at once began to search my mind for its literary beginnings. My dear father used to say that all ideas had literary beginnings and all beginnings contained a literary idea. But neither Deadwood Dick, Edwin Arnold, Walter Pater or The Duchess seemed to have supplied me with the thought, strive as I would to place it among them. I was forced to claim it as original, and perhaps merely the theme for a story's beginning. And despite my dear father's precept, I do verily believe that I am at times productive of ideas quite my own, as, for example, in the realm of love, wherein my manifold ideas must have no other origin than my own brain, inasmuch as the only books on the subject which we possessed at home were written by a Frenchman named Balzac, and though ostensibly in English translation they were mostly set forth in asterisks, dots and dashes.

But I digress. Let us return to the privacy of my chamber at the villa, and the note to Wilkes, which somehow must be disposed of.

My first inclination was to procure a two-cent stamp and mail it-an obvious solution. And yet I hesitated, because if by chance it should miscarry and fall into the wrong hands, what dreadful consequences might not ensue? What a, as one might say, roughhouse might it not-er-precipitate! No, mailing would not do, because at best I might be unable to find a mail box or post office before late the next day, and I would certainly be unwilling to offer a note so addressed to one of the other household servants.

Furthermore, I was hampered by a lack of familiarity with the house. Doubtless there was a servants' mail box somewhere about the service stairs, if only I knew where. But to wander round looking for it would be both nerve-racking and indiscreet, particularly at such an hour. Finally in desperation I was half tempted to burn the wretched thing, and forbore only because of my promise to Alicia. My brain felt as if it were on fire. I did not know what to do.

All at once the great room with its wide spaciousness and light hangings seemed suffocatingly hot. I crossed to the window, and first extinguishing the light in order not to attract the night insects, opened it and sat down beside it, the better to meditate upon my course of action. I was half determined to take the whole matter to Pinto Pegg in the morning and allow him to settle our minds for us, even against Alicia's will.

But as I reclined upon the window-sill the vision of my own somewhat barren girlhood rose before me like a reproachful ghost, and I had no heart to stifle the sequel to that romance which I had seen bud, unfold and blossom in the tropic air at San Remo. Holding the letter in my lap it seemed to burn through the heavy silk of my gown, such was the fire which had inspired its writing. No matter what might come-what disillusionment, what disappointment-it should be delivered. I vowed that through no fault of mine should Peaches be cheated of her love; and I felt myself to be an excellent judge of love. I had looked on at a good deal of it. Indeed as I sat there it occurred to me that I had accomplished a great lot of looking on in the course of my life. And scarcely had this commentary crossed my mind when, quite in line with my usual fortune, I found myself once more an observer, though unobserved.

I have remarked that Mr. Markheim's villa was built upon several levels, thus permitting the windows on one wing to overlook those on a different story in another portion of the building, and that there were several wings or sections to the place, so arranged that the main portions were well isolated from each other in accordance with the modern ideas of comfort and quiet. Thus the living rooms were in the main body of the house, the library was at the extreme end, the bedrooms in one wing, and the kitchen with the servants' quarters over them in another wing at the extreme opposite end of the house but facing the guest rooms across a wide garden space. For the most part the service quarters opened upon a hidden court of their own but the wide row of windows must be, I decided, the rooms of the upper servants.

Once possessed of this thought I began to visualize the interior plan of the house, particularly that of the corridor which would lead to those rooms. By a little figuring I came to the realization that they were in reality on the same level as my own chamber, though actually on the story above-that is to say, the third story while I was on the second. To reach them from within the house meant the ascent of one flight of stairs, whereas if one were to get out onto the little balcony below me and cross the roof of the porte-cochère, one would bring up on a ledge running level with the third story of the opposite wing; a by no means perilous journey unless one were to be observed from the garden below, which was not likely at night, modesty being the only thing subjected to any serious danger.

While I was meditating upon this architectural curiosity a light appeared in one of those third-story windows, and against it stood the figure of a man. It was Wilkes-or Sandro, as Peaches insisted upon calling him. I could see him very plainly, as indeed the whole of the rather small simple room was perfectly visible and he stood directly under the electric light. At this distance his resemblance to the lost duke was certainly remarkable. He was alone in the room, which was evidently his bedroom, and had plainly just finished with Markheim, for he carried the light gray suit which Sebastian had worn that afternoon, and several pairs of boots.

Fired by a thought which offered to solve my problem I counted the windows between me and that before which he stood. There were fifteen; his was the sixteenth along the ledge. To walk the distance along the balcony, over the intervening roof of the porte-cochère was no task at all to one who had been living a life in the open for six years, and there was very little danger of my being observed since none of the windows which I should be obliged to pass were those of bedrooms-except in the servants' wing. I would wait until the light was extinguished and then play my part.

The interval between my resolution and the moment for its execution was but brief. In a surprisingly short time the light in the man's room was extinguished, and then I had only to wait until I might reasonably suppose him to be asleep-a half hour, for surely, I thought, a tired servant would take no longer. At the termination of this period I removed my shoes and put on a pair of knitted bedroom slippers with felt soles-a welcome Christmas offering from Galadia and Boston-and gathering my dress about me with little regard for the dictates of modesty, I stepped forth from my window and began my circumlocution.

I am aware that this performance of mine would not have been looked upon with favor by Euphemia, nor yet by the members of our home-mission sewing circle, yet my conscience was clear, and I had ever been somewhat at a loss to confine my behavior strictly within the limits of the society in which I had been reared. And furthermore, there was but little chance that the sewing circle or indeed my sister would ever learn of the incident, and as my dear father used to say, there are more Lorelei in the social sea than ever come out of it. I infer that he intended some reference to social shipwrecks.

And had my circle of acquaintances ever become aware of my behavior upon this particular occasion without clearly understanding the motive which actuated me they would undoubtedly have wrecked my standing. In point of fact they might even have done so with the fullest understanding of my motive-the act being itself father to the ostracism, if you know what I mean, and motives are seldom if ever considered when the opportunity for passing judgment occurs.

But at the moment of emerging upon the narrow ornamental balcony I was concerned with none of these possibilities, which occurred to me only at a later date. I was too thoroughly occupied with making a noiseless, inconspicuous progress, and with wondering whether the valet was high class enough to sleep with his window open. I trusted that he did so, and expected it, for he was a clean, bronzed sort of man, and in truth it would prove utter frustration for me if he should be in the habit of sleeping with it closed.

It was with something of the emotion which I fancy that a participant in a motion-picture drama must experience that I, not without some difficulty in climbing the intervening railings, approached my goal, silently as the-er-wings of night, as one might say, feeling my way along the wall and taking careful count of the windows as I went, the garden a still pool of blackness below me, in which the few scattered stars of the overcast sky found no reflection. It was really very dark for such an enterprise, and though the fact was undoubtedly of advantage in one way it made my progress uncomfortably slow, the more so as I had now no lighted window to guide me, and was compelled to advance by the sense of touch alone.

I passed the roof of the porte-cochère with success, climbed on to the ledge leading outside of the servants' wing, the letter safe within my bosom. There I began again my feeling of the window sills, this time with the added wish for clinging to them for support as well as their enumeration, for this was the most perilous portion of my undertaking, there being only a gutter along the ledge, and no railing of any sort. And after an interminable period I reached my goal-the sixteenth window. It was open!

With infinite caution I slid past the shutter, holding my breath lest I be heard; and flattening myself against the wall I extracted the letter from its hiding place and peered round the side of the aperture, doubtful how best to dispose of it soundlessly.

The casement was not only open but open to its widest capacity. And while I was rapidly considering whether I should simply lay the letter on the sill, trusting that the wind would not blow it away, or if I should drop it inside, risking some sound that might waken the sleeper, the moon slid from under a cloud, and on the instant the whole interior became visible to me.

It was empty!

The bed had not even been disturbed, and the door was closed. As well as I could see in the dim light the only clothing lying about was that which the man had brought from his master's room, and this was neatly placed upon a chair, even as I had observed him to dispose of it nearly an hour since. It was a most perplexing matter. But without waiting to consider it further I reached within and laid the letter upon a chair beside the window where the occupant could not fail to observe it upon his return, and forthwith withdrew the upper portion of my body. As I did so I heard a sound which, in the language of my favorite authors, froze my blood. Someone was walking upon the gravel of the path directly beneath me.

I stood as if petrified, listening intently. For a moment, nothing, and my heart relaxed a little, as the supposition occurred to me that it might have been some animal bent upon nocturnal adventures. But hardly had this reassurance registered in my brain when it came again. Without doubt someone was making a stealthy progress along that side of the house upon which I stood in an unusual, not to say compromising, position. And in another moment my fears were justified, for out of the abyss below me darted a dark and noiseless figure, followed at close range by a second one. Both crossed the moon patch like wraiths, vanishing instantly into the shadows of the shrubbery beyond. Two men! What were they about? No good, that was certain. And what, in merciful heaven's name, was I to do about it?

To give the alarm from my present position was impossible. Moreover, if I were to remain where I was the two in the shrubbery might at any instant discover my presence upon the ledge, for the moon in illuminating the room behind me was, of course, also rendering me clearly visible. To retreat to my own quarters by the route by which I had come was now obviously impossible. There remained but one course, and I took it. Without further ado I picked up my skirts and climbed into the bedchamber of my host's bodyservant.

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