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   Chapter 14 No.14

It Pays to Smile By Nina Wilcox Putnam Characters: 22111

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


In one of his discourses upon the art of narrative, whether of fiction or fact, my dear father remarks on the difficulties pertaining to narration in the first person. "For it invariably happens," he says, "that some portion of those events to which the narrator is party, or which directly affects his subsequent actions, will be enacted while he is absent, but which must nevertheless be described by him in order that the sequence of the tale be fully comprehended by the reader. Nevertheless the events so recorded must perforce be obtained at secondhand, and suffer to a certain degree in their quality of convincingness by reason of their losing direct contact with the author; and however credible the witness from whom the facts are obtained, they must naturally take a certain color from his own personality, and hence a deplorable lack of continuity occurs, which greatly weakens the credibility of the tale."

Very interesting, too, and eminently correct, though I confess that the paragraph, while perfectly familiar to me because of my diligent study of my dear father's writings, was never so clear to me as when I came upon a practical application of it in my own experience; a thought which has very likely occurred to more than one person who has had some sudden occasion to perceive the fundamental truth of a familiar copy-book axiom, such as "Honesty is the best policy," if you understand me. But I digress-or rather, what I mean is this: That while I undertook the writing of this chronicle in order to refute a false impression which the newspapers had created regarding the name of Talbot, and also to retrieve the fair and unsullied name of the Peggs, I find to my dismay that as I reach the crux of the whole matter, I was not actually present at some of the most important events with which my narrative has to deal, and that I must therefore rely on Peaches' account of it. That she was fairly accurate in her statement I feel reasonably certain; but I must confess to some chagrin at missing the best part of the story. It seems to have been my fortune through life to take an active part merely through inadvertence.

And yet I scarcely perceive how I could very well have been there when it happened. Two elements intervened to prevent it-an overwhelming desire for the sleep of which I had been deprived for the best part of two nights, and the natural desire on Peaches' part that she have privacy for what she was about to do. Which, of course, did not develop until after the departure of the police inspector and his henchmen.

In the first place, of course, we were simply dumfounded at finding the Madonna of the Lamp in her proper place. How it had got there and by whom it was returned was an overwhelming mystery. No less astonishing was the question as to where it had been during its absence. I am quite sure that the policemen felt that a hoax of some kind had been perpetrated and they were not to blame for experiencing a very considerable annoyance at being pulled out of bed or out of office or some such thing and motoring all that long way for nothing. They were distinctly annoyed. That is, all except the little one without a uniform, who it later developed was not a detective at all. Indeed at the time we should have realized that he was altogether too clever for a detective. He was, in point of fact, a newspaper reporter. And it was through his efforts that we were subjected to all the mortification of so much publicity.

Well, at any rate, he was the only person who did not seem to think he had been disturbed for nothing. On the contrary, he made a number of notes about the picture, the painter of it, the name and status of every person present, with a fiendish correctness; no detail of possible interest to the public eluded him. And no wonder his printed version was so completely correct, as, under the impression that he was an officer of the law, I myself supplied the information.

It was almost another hour before the excitement died down, the three men took their departure, and the servants were packed off to bed.

I regret that it is here necessary to chronicle the fact that Mr. Markheim had taken rather too many cocktails; but such is the painful truth. His wealth having made a large cellar possible, he was inclined to prodigality in this direction, and each of the series of nervous shocks which he experienced served as an excuse for another drink. And when the last servant, including Wilkes, had gone upstairs, he was, I must admit it, quite elevated by the alcoholic stimulants in which he had indulged upon his own prescription. In rather simpler language, Mr. Pegg crudely referred to his prospective son-in-law as having "a considerable snoot full." An unscientific but descriptive statement.

"Well-I am going to hit the old alfalfa!" Pinto announced. "Time for everybody to turn in!"

"I'm going to sit on this sofa all night!" announced Sebastian with alcoholic determination. "Can't tell, can't tell, they might come back!"

"Oh, might they!" said Mr. Pegg. "Well, I don't care to see the beauties. I have an idea that they will let that oil painting alone for quite a season now. Good night."

"Come, Peaches," I said stiffly, for Sebastian was not a sight to inspire much liking or approval. "Come on to bed, that's a good girl."

There was a curious gleam in that young woman's golden eyes, however, and her mouth had a set look about it which I had never seen there before except upon one occasion; and that was on the ranch when one of the Japanese foremen was insolent to her. He went away like a whipped dog, I recall, and afterward proved himself the best man we had. And to do this with a Jap is an achievement, I assure you. And all she had done was to speak to him. She was no shrew, but she had a sharp way of presenting an unpleasant truth. I glanced at the recumbent Markheim in pity, even before she answered me.

"I have something to say to Mark," she replied quietly. "I will come up later. Don't wait for me."

Well, what could a chaperon do under these conditions except comply? Besides, I have not the vitality of extreme youth, and sleep was on the very verge of overwhelming me. Besides, which, Mr. Pegg exchanged a glance with me, which re?nforced his daughter's request; and so saying good night to the engaged pair we left them and climbed the stairs in company. In another hour it would be dawn and the house was very ghostly. It was immensely comforting to have dear Mr. Pegg accompany me to my door, though once there he sprang a rather disconcerting surprise.

"Say-do you know what book that was Peaches came down to get?" he asked with twinkling eyes as he opened my door for me. "Rather curious reading for a young girl. I don't want her tastes to get perverted."

"What-what book was it?" I inquired, disturbed.

"You ought to look after what she reads more carefully," said her father with some severity. "It was Kimball's Commercial Arithmetic. Good-night, Miss Free!"

And with that he was gone, leaving me to digest his statement as best I could. However, the significance of the remark was soon obliterated by a heavy slumber which lasted until I was roused by Peaches, who brought me an eleven-o'clock breakfast and the astonishing story of what occurred after I had retired. I will not attempt to tell it in her own language, for she was incurably given to the use of slang, but will endeavor to present in their proper sequence the events as they occurred.

As soon as Peaches was left alone with her fiancé the disgust and repulsion which had been rapidly mounting in her breast all evening reached its apex in expression. True, Sebastian Markheim was no different from what he had been right along-a little less attractive, rather more grotesquely disordered and a little more drunken, perhaps, but Markheim just the same-slightly accented, that was all. But the small exaggerations were enough to drive her wild. Coming to light as they did at a moment when she was at the highest possible tension, when for forty-eight hours she had been living with the animate ghost of her old and far deeper love, the spectacle of this disorganized little millionaire with his ungroomed head, his preposterous purple satin wrapper, his stupid drunkenness and his ineffective querulousness about his picture was too much for her. The very thought of marrying him became more than the mere impossibility which it had been from the moment when her memories of Sandro had been quickened into new life. This marriage, now only a few weeks distant, became an actual horror. She felt unable to face the thought of it another hour. And so, despite his condition, she set about making a clean break.

"Mark," said she in a low strained voice, towering over him as he sat in a crumpled heap upon the big sofa before the fire place, "Mark-I am not going to marry you."

"Eh? What's that, what's that?" said he.

"I said that it's all off!" Peaches affirmed. "I couldn't marry you-not on a bet. I'm awfully sorry of course. Will you forgive me?"

"Forgive you!" he said, getting to his feet and seizing her by the hand. "Here-sit down a minute-you can't do that, you know-sit down and let's talk this over!"

She did not want to do so, but his grip upon her arm was strong, and rather than cross him she complied.

"You don't understand-I'm breaking it off," she said firmly.

"But what have I done?" Sebastian asked. "Come on now-don't be mad at me! Didn't I pet you enough to-night? Come-give us a kiss and forget it!"

"I don't want to kiss you!" said Peaches, drawing away from his advance. "Please, Mark! I'm trying to tell you that I had the wrong dope-I never loved you enough to marry you, and to-night I got a gleam of light I can't go through with it."

"Not go through with it!" he replied sullenly. As the fact that she really meant what she said slowly penetrated to his befuddled brain a look of anger took the place of the maudlin affection which had been in his face a moment before. "Not go through with it-but you-you promised. Why, the wedding invitations go out to-morrow-impossible not to go through with it!"

"I'm sorry-but you heard me," said she. "I don't love you."

"But I love you!" he burst out. "And as for love-you don't know anything about it. What can a great big kid like you know about love? You'll love me when we are married! Stop your nonsense and give us a kiss!"

He made a lunge at her, which she managed to evade, moving over to the opposite end of the sofa. But quick as a cat Markheim was after her. He was just drunk enough to have lost his head, but not drunk enough to be clumsy. It was at this moment that Peaches began to be afraid of him.

"No, no!" she cried, trying to get away from his pudgy hands. "I tell you I don't love you-please! Let me alone. Mark, don't make me afraid!"

"Why should you be afraid?" he asked thickly. "You are going to marry me-do you hear? I've stood your offishness long enough. I've kept away from

you whenever you said. I've been a fool! But you are mine, understand? Mine! You've promised. Everyone knows it, and by heaven I'll take you when I see fit. Come here!"

Peaches felt as if she were caught in the meshes of some horrid dream. With a sudden wrench she broke loose from him, darting round the end of the sofa. But with an amazing agility Markheim vaulted the back and was after her, hot in a pursuit made silent by the thickness of the heavy carpet, their panting breath the only noise in the big room. A single lamp was the only light, but it was enough to show her his face, purple, bestial-suggesting a chasm of horror.

Swift as she was she could not escape him. He was at the door behind her, barring her way, smiling terribly. Then at the French windows as quickly as she reached them, his hot moist hands upon hers, even as she seized the knob. Then back across the room again in fierce pursuit. He seemed to have gone quite mad and become possessed with an uncanny swiftness and strength. Then Peaches stumbled across a great chair, and in another instant his arms were about her, his hot breath upon her face.

"Help!" she cried, struggling to release her hands, which he held behind her back. "Help! Sebastian-you beast-let me go, let me go!"

And then the whirlwind happened. Some terrific force like a giant cloud of vengeance tore the satyr from her; and there was Sandro, his face white and fierce. With a single gesture he had thrown Markheim half across the room, and stood with squared fists waiting for the assault which came almost at once.

"You rotter!" sang out the newcomer. "Take your dirty hide out of here!"

With a howl of rage and surprise Markheim picked himself up and came at his manservant with purple face and popping eyes.

"What the hell are you doing here?" he shouted. "Leave the room!"

"Not until I've given you the thrashing of your life!" replied the valet. "Come and get your punishment if you won't clear out!"

And Markheim came. With a roar he flew at the man, striking blindly, wildly, and uttering a volley of language which was in itself a shower of blows. How long they fought Peaches hardly knows. Crouched against the mantelshelf as if seeking the protection of the calmly smiling Virgin above, she watched the two men struggle to a finish. She was fascinated, terrified, and at the same time fiercely exalted. The end came abruptly, with Markheim sprawling on the floor, and Sandro slowly raising himself to a towering figure of contemptuous victory above his employer.

"Get up!" he said, panting, as he administered a kick to the prostrate body of the other man. "That will do, I expect. Get up!"

Moaning, Sebastian obeyed, his face streaked with blood from a cut upon his forehead, his left eye swollen and rapidly turning as purple as the tattered remains of his dressing gown.

"I'll have the law on you for this!" he warned, fumbling for his handkerchief.

"Come here!" commanded the servant in a voice of authority.

"Help!" squeaked Markheim. But before he could utter another sound Wilkes had him by the collar, and was dragging him to where Peaches still cowered against the wall.

"None of that nonsense!" commanded Sandro. "If you yell I'll have to give you another drubbing. Now get down on your knees and ask her pardon!"

For an instant Markheim attempted to disobey. But his captor raised his hand and as though at a signal Sebastian fell groveling on the floor before Peaches, bubbling repentance-a loathsomely servile thing from which she shrank.

"Oh, take him away!" she begged. "I hate him so! Take him away!"

"You hear what she says!" said her rescuer grimly. "Go now! Make haste or I will throw you out!"

With some difficulty Markheim got upon his feet and made for the door.

"The police!" he said. "I will have the police! Oh, my face-my face!"

He had found his handkerchief now, and staggered out of the room, holding it to his wound and mumbling imprecations.

Slowly Peaches emerged from her torpor of fright and looked at the man who an hour earlier had been a servant. He was transformed. His shoulders were squared, his eyes alive, his face flushed-he was her boy-lover again. There was no mistake. Now she knew him beyond the shadow of a doubt. If she had ever really questioned his identity, from this moment there was no room for questioning left. All the tightening of her heartstrings, long drawn taut by repression, relaxed. It was as if her whole being had suddenly been flooded with warm sunlight.

"Sandro!" she said, going toward him with outstretched arms. "Sandro, my love, my love!"

For one second she saw the unwitting, involuntary response in his eyes. Then he looked down, that she might not behold it, and drawing himself up he clicked his heels together and bowed. Though he trembled as he did so, his voice was controlled.

"Miss Pegg," he said, "I-I am happy to have served you! Good night."

"Sandro!" cried Peaches. "Why do you pretend? I know you-I know. You couldn't fool me now! My dear, I thought that you were dead. But even on the day we got here I knew you-I knew you in the hall, that first moment. Oh, why do you keep away from me like that? Don't you love me-don't you want me? Why do you pretend?"

"Don't! Please!" he entreated. "Miss Pegg, I-am just a servant in this house!"

"I don't care what you are!" she cried recklessly. "You are Sandy. I know you and I love you."

"My God!" he said, the familiar pet name striking home at last. "Don't! You cannot understand my position. I tell you I am a servant. It is some chance resemblance."

She switched on the main light then and came nearer, scanning his face closely. His hands clenched at his sides, but otherwise he remained immovable.

"You cannot make me doubt," she said at length. "You are Sandro di Monteventi, who was reported killed at--"

"Miss Pegg-don't make it too hard!" he said humbly. "Will you not accept my statement and let me go?

"No!" she said fiercely. "Because I know who you are-and because I know that you love me. There! I have told the truth!"

"It is true that I love you," he admitted. "One need not have seen you for longer than a day for that. But why do you persist I am this stranger?"

"Because I know it!" she declared.

"You could not prove it!" he said simply.

"I don't have to!" she said, going closer. "Oh, Sandy, Sandy, I love you so! I have been hungry for you such a long, long time!"

She slipped her arms round his neck. And then for a long while she was not conscious of anything except his lips upon hers, and the blessed iron strength of his arms about her. At length he drew away, just far enough to look into her eyes.

"Merciful Madonna!" he breathed. "You are too much for my poor strength. I have no right to touch you-but how I love you!"

"I knew it! I knew it!" cried Peaches, wild with triumphant happiness, "you'll never get away from me again, Sandro mio!"

But he pushed her from him roughly.

"No, no!" he said. "I-you are wrong! You have got to believe you are wrong, even though you hate yourself and me as well for the glimpse of heaven you have given me."

But she could not let him go.

"Have I got to have any other proof?" she laughed. "Oh, my dear, my dear! Good heavens-what is it?" she added in a changed tone, for he was looking over her shoulder toward the end of the room with an expression as if he had seen a ghost.

Automatically she turned to follow the direction of his gaze, and almost instantly encountered another pair of eyes set deep in a white face that stared in at the window. In another instant it was gone, and like a flash her companion had seized her by the elbows and was holding her with a gaze that riveted her attention.

"See here!" he said rapidly. "I've got to leave you. They've got me this time, I'm afraid. But I'll make a dash for it. Say nothing if I get away. Silence will help me most. And no matter who I am, I love you. It will not hurt you to know that. Good-by!"

Abruptly he was gone, slipping from the great room as noiselessly as he had entered it, his going swift as a shadow, and leaving Peaches temporarily paralyzed and at a loss. With a tremendous effort she pulled her wits together and started for the doorway through which he had vanished. To reach it she had to pass the mantelpiece, and as she did so she automatically raised her eyes to the painting whose calm beauty had been the cause of so much turmoil, and a curious glitter on the lower edge of the frame caught her eye. The flash was such a brilliant one that despite her pre-occupation she stopped to examine its source. And then with a little cry of triumph she stretched out her hand toward it.

On the lower carvings of the ornate Florentine frame lay a little gold penknife studded with diamonds-her own jeweled penknife, the one with which Sandro di Monteventi had cut that long-faded rose in the garden at San Remo-the precious trinket which she had given him for a keepsake. The proof! It was the proof positive! In a single flash a great deal became clear. He had left it there earlier in the evening-at the time the picture was missed-perhaps at the time it was put back!-and missing it he had later returned to retrieve it when he fancied that every one was asleep, and so had stumbled upon her scene with Markheim, and come to her rescue. Seizing the tell-tale toy she kissed it wildly and started for the door.

"Sandro! I have proof!" she cried, though she knew he could not hear her.

"Proof of what, signorina?" said a voice in the doorway. And there, blocking the entrance to the corridor, was the figure of a bearded man. With a cry Peaches shrank back, instinctively hiding the knife in the palm of her hand. The intruder had a sinister look. His hat was pulled well down over his eyes and his coat collar was pulled up about his ears.

"What do you want?" demanded Peaches huskily. "What are you doing here?"

She was retreating toward the bell as she spoke, the man's gaze following her action without protest. Coming well into the room he removed his hat, shaking a few drops from it as he did so. The shoulders of the coat were also wet. Evidently it was raining heavily outside. His face as revealed in the stronger light was less alarming, and he spoke in an even tone.

"Ring by all means!" said he. "Bring help as soon as possible! As for who I am," he went on, throwing back his wet coat and revealing a silver badge, "I am Pedro, the missing night watchman, and I have a warrant of extradition for the arrest of Sandro di Monteventi, alias The Eel-wanted by the International Secret Service for the theft of the Scarpia panels and sundry charges."

"Go on, ring, miss," said a second man, following in on the heels of the first; a man whom Peaches instantly recognized as the face at the window. "Ring, please-we know he is in the house-and incidentally don't you try to get away. We want to talk to you-you seemed to know him rather well."

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