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   Chapter 13 No.13

It Pays to Smile By Nina Wilcox Putnam Characters: 22385

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


At first I could scarcely believe my eyes-but there was the space where once the beautiful picture had hung, the gape showing the paneling behind all too plainly. Aghast I turned to Peaches, who continued to stare.

"What has happened to it?" I asked in an awed tone. "Has it been stolen?"

"You bet your life it has!" she replied, recovering herself. "People don't lock oil paintings up for the night with the silver spoons, you know. Gosh! What a shame! Such a pretty picture, too, and worth a young fortune. Won't Mark be wild though! Do you suppose it was gone when we came through in the dark?"

"Dear me, how should I know?" I demanded. "Though, of course, they will ask us that."

"Yes-sort of awkward, our not having made any light on the way out," she replied. "I suppose we ought to wake Sebastian up right away though, don't you?"

"Certainly!" I responded. "Those men I saw last night the missing watchman-it's all too suspicious to be allowed to wait another moment."

"I'll say it is!" replied Peaches vigorously. "You wait here while I run up and pound on the door!"

"Oh, Peaches! Send a servant!" I implored. "The burglars might be out there in the hall!"

But before the words were fairly out of my mouth she was gone, lighting the house as she went, and in an incredibly short time I could hear her pounding and shouting in the upper hall with a noise that was fit to wake the dead. Shivering with fatigue, but enlivened by the amazing turn which events had taken I occupied myself with switching on all the lights and making sure that the picture had not simply been lifted down for some reason and left in the room. But this was not the case-indeed I acted merely automatically and not because I really expected to find it. In a very few moments Peaches was back, a trifle flushed and breathless.

"They will be right down!" she announced. "I stirred up pa as well. Now, Free, old thing, what's our story when they do appear? We've got to stick to the same lie, you know, and we've got to say something plausible, because here it is two-thirty in the morning and it's quite obvious that we haven't been to bed, though we went up long before they did."

"Well," I responded hurriedly, for already the two men could be heard on the stairway, "though I deplore the use of untruth I fear we shall have to resort to it in this case. We will say-what on earth shall we say?"

"I had a headache and couldn't sleep," suggested Peaches. "So we came down!"

"Rotten!" I whispered fiercely. "In these clothes? Bah! We sat up late talking and came down intending to get something to eat, and you remembered a book you wanted. Here it is! Sh! They are here!"

Hastily I seized at random a volume from one of the shelves and laid it beside her on the sofa, and an instant later Markheim came bouncing into the room, a purple satin dressing gown flapping about his heels, his scant hair disordered. Closely following was Mr. Pegg, a lean but majestic figure with nightshirt tucked into his dress trousers and a raincoat thrown jauntily over one shoulder-presumably the first garments at hand-his magnificent shock of gray curls giving him somewhat the appearance of a lion roused from slumber.

"What's all this, what's all this?" cried Sebastian, running up to the mantelpiece. Then he clasped his hands over his bald spot in a gesture of despair. "Oh!" he moaned. "How perfectly terrible! How perfectly terrible!"

"Great Snakes, ain't that too bad!" observed Mr. Pegg. "Lucky thing you got them picture post cards of it, Mark! Where d'you s'pose the sons of guns got in anyways? And how comes it that you girls are burglar-hunting in your party clothes when you ought to be tearing off a little beauty sleep?"

"We talked so late!" explained Peaches, gazing into her father's eyes with a wonderful, direct, innocent look. "And we got so hungry that we came down to forage-and on the way I dropped in for this book"-she held it up toward him-"and, of course, we noticed right off the bat that the Madonna was gone."

"She ran right up and got you," I added. "And now you know as much as we do."

"Humph!" said Mr. Pegg, still looking at the book his daughter had offered him. "Couldn't sleep without it, eh?"

"This is terrible, this is terrible!" exclaimed our host, paying no attention to anything except his loss. "Ring the bell! Summon everybody! Where is Wilkes? I told him to come down at once."

"You told him?" asked Peaches swiftly. "Where was he?"

"In his room, of course!" snapped Markheim. "Spoke to him on the house telephone! What did you suppose? Oh, my precious painting! This is outrageous-outrageous! Did they take anything else?"

Peaches and I exchanged a glance of relief. Wilkes had been in the house. Whatever his mysterious mode of egress, the step we had heard in the garden was no evidence that he had used it to-night.

This thought passed between us in a flash as she replied: "Haven't the faintest idea, old boy. Let's have a look!"

"I want to make sure!" he said. "But first let's see how they did it."

Climbing upon a footstool which he dragged forward for the purpose, Markheim then proceeded to an examination of the picture frame, while we gathered about curiously.

"Can't understand it!" he puffed after a moment of silence. He shook his head like a Japanese doll.

"Can't understand what?" I asked.

"Why, the whole canvas has been removed-stretcher and all!" he cried. "Extraordinary! Extraordinary!"

"Why?" Peaches wanted to know.

"Shows they took their time!" Markheim explained. "Able to unmount the canvas-and it takes skill to roll an old painting! By jove, yes! Usually simply cut it out of the frame, like the Mona Lisa, you know. Only way, really, if you are in a hurry. Yes, they took their time!"

"Then the frame-I mean the stretcher-ought to be somewhere!" suggested Mr. Pegg brightly.

"Nonsense-utter nonsense!" exclaimed Markheim, climbing down. "And now let's give a look round. Heaven only knows what else may be gone!"

He preceded us into the corridor, an absurd figure in his gorgeous negligee, and I could not help but note how much better Mr. Pegg appeared by comparison. It is not only women whose appearance is governed by clothes, and, as my dear father used to say, clothes may not make the man but, thank the Lord, they hide him.

Well, at any rate we two timid females followed the stronger members of the exploring party out into the main hall, where we encountered Wilkes. He was fully dressed, perfectly composed, and the very picture of quiet correctness.

"You wished me, sir?" he said.

"Yes. Why the devil were you so long?" snapped Markheim, wishing to vent his annoyance on someone.

"Sorry, sir, I was dressing!" replied the man.

"Well," snarled the master, "there's been a burglary. Most valuable picture in the house's been taken. Call police headquarters at Tarrytown and tell them to send someone out at once. Then get every servant in the house down into the front hall and see that no one leaves the premises! Meanwhile, we'll take a look about."

"Yes, sir," replied the man, after a little gasp of surprise. "Nobody hurt, I trust, sir?"

"No," said Markheim briefly. "I expect it's the same gang you thought you heard last night. Anything heard from Pedro?"

"Nothing, sir," said Wilkes. "I'll telephone at once."

He retreated through the servants' hall entrance, where I assume a telephone was placed, and the door swung silently to behind him. I stared after him hard, feeling that I would like to watch him through the thick oaken paneling if only I might. To be sure, the man's demeanor had been perfect; and yet somehow I was not satisfied. My mind kept straining at something half forgotten, as if I were subconsciously endeavoring to hitch him up in my memory. To all appearances this was no concern of his. He had been in his room when Markheim called him on the service phone. He had been just about long enough in making his appearance to tab up with the completeness of his toilet. To have at once answered the ringing of his bell he must have been in his room before Peaches and I returned to the house, and our position in the garden, coupled with our alertness while there, seemed to warrant the supposition that we must have observed any unusual activity either in the service wing or in the library, through which we had passed an hour and a half earlier.

It was plain that sooner or later questions would be put to us, and to others, which would give rise to the problem of confession or of withholding of the facts concerning our exact movements between the time of our returning and of the announcement of our discovery.

For example, if the police were allowed to work on the supposition that the theft had been committed between twelve and two-fifteen, some clew of inestimable value might easily be discounted by them, for it seemed more than likely that the time was really that between our entrance into the garden and our return to the house. Moreover, there was certainly someone moving about on the garden path while we were concealed by the fountain. Of that there was now no reasonable doubt. Both Peaches and I had distinctly heard a footstep which we thought to be that of Wilkes, while we still expected him to join us; we had even commented on it. And now it was going to be extremely difficult to convey this information without involving ourselves in a very delicate but entangling mesh of complications. As I was turning these facts over in my mind and wondering what course a Talbot ought to pursue under the circumstances Mr. Markheim was taking charge of affairs in a masterly manner, and giving orders with the assurance of a Napoleon in negligee.

"You stay here with Miss Freedom, Peaches," he commanded, "while your father and I make the rounds of the place. Sit right there on the big sofa and tell the servants to wait, as they come down. Don't let any of them go out of the hall."

"We better take a couple of shooting irons along," remarked Mr. Pegg, producing a revolver from each pocket of his raincoat in a nonchalant manner. "Never can tell but what there may be an ambush some place."

"All right!" agreed Sebastian, accepting one. "No harm, no harm to have it. Where's that man Wilkes?"

Again as though in answer, Wilkes appeared from under the stairs.

"The police will come at once, sir," he reported. Then, seeing the revolvers: "Shall I go along with you?"

"No," said Markheim. "Get the other servants down, and count noses, damn quick. Then tell Jorkins to make a double shaker of cocktails and some sandwiches and bring them here. We will be back as soon as we can."

The three men then departed upon their several errands, leaving us alone for the moment.

"What'll we do-'fess up?" asked Peaches. "I have a feeling that there's going to be hell to pay."

"Alicia!" I remarked. "No lady uses such language, as I have reminded you at least a hundred thousand times! No, I don't think we will say a word about our futile adventure-or, to be accurate, our attempted adventure. At least not unless something brought out by the p

olice seems to demand that we do."

"Have you been taking a good look at him?" she then wanted to know.

"Who? That man Wilkes?" I said.

"No-my ex-fiancé," responded Peaches calmly.

"Which one do you mean?" I demanded.

"Mark," said she.

"Alicia Pegg, what did you say?" I asked severely.

"I said did you take a good look at Sebastian in that purple dressing gown?" she repeated patiently.

"How could I help doing so?" said I with indignation.

"That's just it," she remarked in a tone of finality. "That finishes it!"

"Finishes what?"

"Our engagement," she said firmly. "The combination of temper and dressing gown."

"But with all due modesty you must have expected to see him in a dressing gown after you were married," I protested as delicately as I could.

"And he not only looks like the devil in it but stands there and tells me to sit quiet until he comes back, just as though I wasn't a better shot than he is! Ugh-that dressing gown!"

"Well, what did you expect?" I asked helplessly.

"Sandro is dressed," she retorted with apparent irrelevance.

"Don't call him that!" I exclaimed, fairly exasperated with the girl. "You have absolutely no proof that it's Sandro."

"I'll get proof," she said. "You wait-I'll get proof."

"Nonsense!" I said. "Hush up! Here he comes."

But it wasn't the creature after all, but the cook-a distressed and excitable Frenchman in a pointed nightcap and an unconquerable belief that the house was on fire; and for several minutes we were fully occupied with dissuading him of the idea. And after him came the rest of the crew-a straggling, shivering, sleepy, indignant lot, in varying degrees of dishevelment, appearing in twos and threes and huddling in a little group at the foot of the stairway, ready to dart back through the swinging door to their own quarters at an instant's notice, and no doubt planning to give notice as soon as anybody appeared to whom it could be given.

One Irish girl, a kitchen maid, I think she was, had somehow got the idea that a murder had been committed, and called upon her patron saint, whose name seemed to be Ochsaveus, at irregular but emphatic intervals. I think I cannot convey a sense of the complete demoralization of these underlings more dearly than by stating that the chambermaid whose duty it was to take care of my room was wearing one of my own boudoir caps without the least particle of self-consciousness. The only one who had shown any poise at all was Wilkes, who had not reappeared. I was beginning to wish he would come back and set a good example, when at length Sebastian Markheim and dear Mr. Pegg returned unharmed, and announced that they had discovered nothing out of the way.

"And not a trace of the horse thieves, either!" said Mr. Pegg. "It's clouded over outside-rain before long, and no use going off without a trail of any kind before morning. Better wait for the sheriff."

"I'd say so, pa," said Peaches. "I wish you'd speak to the help, Mark! They act like a bunch of scared steers."

"Sit down!" commanded Mr. Markheim to his household generally, his hair wilder than ever, his eyes fairly popping out of his head with anger. "Nobody is to leave the hall until I give permission. Where the hell is that food I ordered?"

Somebody rang a bell for him, and after a very short wait Wilkes entered, accompanied by one of the footmen, who bore a tray containing some most welcome refreshment. Peaches and I declined the drink, but Sebastian took three in quick succession.

"Terribly upset, terribly upset!" he remarked as he set down his glass and refilled it. "Somebody is going to pay for this! Where the devil are the police?"

"They are coming a long way pretty late at night," remarked Peaches. "I don't know that I'd come at all in their place, Mark."

He simply glared at her and bit into a cheese sandwich. And then we settled down more or less restlessly to a quarter of an hour of waiting, dividing our attention between the sandwiches, repetition of the obvious facts of the situation, and glances at Markheim's wrist watch.

At length we heard the siren of an automobile at the gates below the hill, and in a few moments more, Wilkes, still the most self-possessed servant present, opened the door to admit the inspector from Tarrytown, who came accompanied by an officer and a third man in plain clothes-presumably a detective.

"Good evening-or rather good morning, inspector!" said Mr. Markheim, rising to greet him. "Sorry to have brought you out, but it's not a common burglary at all."

"It's usual to report such things," replied the inspector. "We came as quickly as possible. Nobody hurt, was there?"

"No," said Markheim. "But a picture has been stolen."

The faces of all three newcomers expressed a disgust that was so apparent as to bring a smile even to the face of our profoundly troubled host.

"Wait!" he said. "Did you ever hear of the Madonna of the Lamp, inspector?"

"Can't say that I did," the police official admitted. "And I'm a pretty good Catholic myself."

"Well-it's a painting," Markheim explained, concealing his impatience as best he could, which in point of fact is not saying a great deal for his power of self-control. "It is not only a painting but a very famous one."

"Kind of an antique, eh?" suggested the officer.

"Not only an antique but one of the most famous and valuable paintings in the world. I paid five hundred thousand dollars for it."

At length officialdom seemed impressed.

"And it's been stolen?" said the spokesman of the law.

"What else under God's heaven did you think I sent for you about?" Markheim exploded. "You don't seem to understand this at all!"

"Italian, eh?" said the man in plain clothing. "International complications are very possible if the thing gets too much publicity. That's about the idea, isn't it?"

Markheim turned on him in some surprise.

"You seem to know a lot about the Italian Government's theories of ownership!" he snarled.

"So it was brought into the country illegally!" commented the detective. "Captain," he went on, addressing the now frankly bewildered officer, "you see this picture is not only far more valuable than most great jewels but it has a past almost as complicated as the Hope diamond. It's not unusual that a world-famous work of art should find its way out of Italy in spite of the Italian law, which forbids the export of such things, but the theft is far more remarkable than that of any jewel could possibly be, inasmuch as the supreme difficulty of disposing of the painting once it was stolen is obvious-that's right, isn't it, Mr. Markheim?"

"You explain it very well, very well," replied Markheim, nervous and excited-and truth to tell not a little affected by the cocktails he had imbibed. It was most precarious, taking so many upon an empty stomach, as he should have known. "You have a very clear idea, young man-though allow me to make it plain that I was in no way involved in the original affair of bringing this canvas into the United States. I had nothing whatsoever to do with it-nothing."

"You merely paid five hundred thousand for it after it got here," remarked Peaches. "I see."

The remark, however, seemed to pass unnoticed by anyone save myself.

"Have you any suspicion as to who the thief might have been, Mr. Markheim?" asked the inspector, visibly impressed by the huge sum at which the picture was valued.

"Not a very clear suspicion," replied Sebastian.

"Then there is some one?" queried the officer, taking out his notebook and pencil in an important manner.

"We had some trouble last night," replied Mr. Markheim. "Miss Talbot here thought she saw two men in the garden, and came downstairs."

"Ah!" remarked the inspector, scribbling. "Did you get a good look at them, Miss Talbot?"

"Just a glimpse," I replied.

"And where were you when you saw them?" he went on.

For a moment I was nonplussed. Then I recollected that I was not under oath, and told as much of the truth as I deemed warrantable or indeed necessary.

"I was at an upper window," I returned with dignity. "I had gone upstairs for the night."

"Ah!" said the inspector, writing it down. "Could you identify them?"

"Well, one had a funny hat," I said. "I think I would know it again. It was straw-like this young man's." I pointed at the detective, to whom I had taken a dislike-he was altogether too clever to be satisfactory. At once everybody stared at him with suspicion, and the fact gave me considerable comfort. Even the inspector glanced at the young man unpleasantly as he wrote down "straw-hat."

"Did you see anything else?" the inspector went on.

Again I hesitated, for Peaches' eyes were upon me, forbidding me to speak. I could plainly discern that if I told of the circumstances under which I had come upon Wilkes in the library she intended to have what she would have called "an all-round showdown"-a card term, I believe. And so on second consideration I decided to hold my tongue. After all I was not a professional detective; let those who were go ahead and detect.

"I merely met one of the menservants who had also seen the intruders," I replied. "And together we roused, or rather found the watchman, and informed him of what we had seen."

"Where is this manservant?" asked the officer. And Wilkes stepped forward.

"Now what did you see?" asked the inquisitor.

"I was awake late, sir," replied Wilkes, "and fancied I heard an unusual noise. It might have been Miss Talbot, sir, but I rather think it was the men she speaks of, sir. The watchman, Pedro, and I went the rounds together but found nothing. He hadn't heard anything, it seems."

"That will do for now," said the officer. "Now, for Pedro-is he present?"

"He has been missing since this-I mean since early yesterday morning," put in Markheim. "Very good man, very good man-I can't understand it, really!"

"Well, perhaps you will understand when we locate him!" replied the law grimly. "And now, if you please, is there any other member of the household missing?"

"No-all here," replied Markheim. "Would you care to take a look now at the room from which the picture was stolen, Mister Inspector?"

"If you please," said that official. "If you will just show me."

Without more ado Sebastian Markheim led the way down the corridor to the library, followed closely by the police and that nasty smart little detective, while Mr. Pegg, Alicia and myself brought up the rear. I noticed that Peaches scrutinized Wilkes' face with a long, searching glance as she passed him, but the man remained motionless and expressionless as a wooden image. I could have slapped her for her behavior! But I was not fated to have the opportunity for any such chastisement, or even to think to rebuke her properly, for a cry from Sebastian Markheim's lips as he entered the library door sent us all hurrying after him pell-mell.

And no wonder he had called out in his amazement, for upon entering, lo, there was the Madonna of the Lamp smiling down from her frame as serenely as if she had never been disturbed from it at all!

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