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   Chapter 15 No.15

It Pays to Smile By Nina Wilcox Putnam Characters: 25262

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

With a violent movement Peaches rang the bell. And almost at once the house was again in confusion. The two newcomers, backed by the cursing Markheim and aided by Mr. Pegg, made straight for the room occupied by Sandro. Peaches followed in their wake, and saw them batter down the door-to find an empty room and a gaping window.

Of course! The idiots! Now if they had only had sense enough to wake me up I could have told them better! But no, they let me sleep-sleep, mind you, when all this, as it were, human motion picture was proceeding right under my very nose! I feel outraged, indignant, as I consider the lack of forethought and consideration which this lack of attention evidenced. Of course the duke escaped-the ninnies should have left some one outside in the garden-and their excuse that they did not believe that he could escape so rapidly from the third story of the house would have been made quite unnecessary if I had been there to inform them of his nocturnal wanderings as known to me.

Really, as I listened to Peaches' recital I became quite distinctly vexed. The fate by which I seemed doomed to remain a bystander looking on at life from a safe distance or merely to be told about it at secondhand or to read of it in printed form was really too annoying. Despite my utmost endeavor I was apparently to be cheated of active participation in the great drama of existence.

But no one could look at Peaches' pale and suffering beauty for long and remain unindulgent. And as I lay in the great bed enjoying the tea and toast which she had so thoughtfully brought me I restrained the comments which sprang to my lips and merely asked, "What happened then?"

"We came downstairs," said Peaches slowly, twisting the amber beads about her throat, "Mark, pa and myself along with these two cowbird detectives. I tell you, Free, I just could hardly believe the story they told. But I had to, in the end. You see, for one thing, as I sat there I began to realize I had seen the Pedro once before."


"In a London movie house-and in a hotel bedroom at Monte Carlo," said she significantly.

"There!" I cried. "I foiled him twice, you see! Now it's a lucky thing I wasn't there last night, isn't it? Humph! I'd probably have defeated justice again! But what did he say?"

"He's been after Sandro for years," she narrated. "I am afraid there isn't the shadow of a doubt, Free, but that Sandy is the cleverest picture thief in the world. They have almost got him half a dozen times, but never with conclusive evidence. And thank God, they didn't get him this time, either-not yet at least! Why, do you know, they are certain that he took the Scarpia panels? It seems, if you remember, that they thought that they had been found in the cellar. But it wasn't the originals that they found. They were reproductions-synthetic pictures, like a near-ruby-do you get me?"

"But the recovery was reported in the papers," I objected.

"The French Government hushed the matter up in order to try and catch him off his guard," she went on. "And, Free, that's just what he has done in this very house."

"How do you mean-explain yourself grammatically if possible," said I.

"I mean that the Madonna of the Lamp which is hanging in the library at this moment is the bunk," replied Peaches earnestly. "It's a fake-painted on new canvas and nicely antiqued. The cops took it down and showed it to us."

"And what did he want to steal a fake for?" I demanded.

"He didn't want to steal a fake, you dear old prune!" said Peaches, half laughing. "He wanted to steal the original, and that's exactly what he did."

"And got away with it!" I gasped, astonished into a colloquialism. "But when and how on earth?"

"Very simple, but clever," she told me, quite as if it were to the young man's credit. "He had this fake all ready on a stretcher in his room. He took the original, stretcher and all, out of the frame and upstairs, where he unmounted it and hid it-it isn't large, you know. And then, before he could slip the substitute into place, you and I came in from the garden-from the garden where we had been waiting for him to-to--"

Here she broke off and began to laugh hysterically.

"Come, come, my dear!" I cried. "Don't do that-just remember what a lucky escape you have had. So we interrupted him before he could put the substitute in place! Well, land of goodness! I do recall that he was all dressed when he came down stairs at Mr. Markheim's command! Go on, do, my dear!"

"Well," said Peaches, complying with renewed composure, "this Pedro-bird claims that Sandy slipped it in while we were all out in the hall with the servants and he was in and out apparently taking care of Markheim's orders. If the secret-service men hadn't been on the job Sandy would in all probability have simply stayed his two weeks out as a quiet well-behaved servant, and then gone away with a first-class reference and the original Madonna, and the substitution might never have been found out, or it might have been years-until some feast was held by a lot of experts at Mark's invitation-who knows! And he's been doing this sort of thing for years and years!"

"Extraordinary! Most extraordinary!" I exclaimed, pulling off my nightcap and starting to rise. "I must really dress and descend to take a look at that picture and the scene of the crime!"

"You can't!" said Peaches, suddenly listless. "You can't-we are both locked in!"

I could scarcely believe my ears. But Peaches was in earnest, there was no doubt about that.

"Locked in!" I repeated incredulously. "What on earth are you saying, Alicia Pegg?"

"I was saying a mouthful!" she responded. "Pa has locked us in."

"But what for?" I demanded with proper indignation.

"I told him I was going to follow Sandro," said Peaches, as if the explanation was the most obvious thing possible and she were just a trifle impatient of my stupidity.

"Are you crazy?" I cried. "Follow him-follow that thief-that-that scoundrel? Aren't the police following him? Isn't that following enough?"

"That's just why," she announced. "Wherever he is-wherever he goes, I am going too. After last night I can't do anything else. And if it's to jail-all right, I'll go to jail. But I won't stay away from him, and I will find him if the secret-service can't, and I hope most heartily they will make a flivver of it. And I'll never leave him again-believe me!"

I was obliged to believe her. I had, indeed, only to look at her in order to do so. And as I looked, a gleam of human intelligence broke into my brain.

"Peaches," I said solemnly, "did you tell on Markheim?"

"Of course not!" she said, flushing hotly. "He-wasn't himself; I realize that now."

"So you just told your father that you are through with Markheim and are in love with the duke?"

She nodded dumbly.

"No wonder he locked you up!" I gasped, falling back on the pillows.

"Locked me up and said the marriage would go ahead as per schedule," she announced grimly. "Which is bunk of course. The point is-what shall we do about it?"

"Have they caught the duke?" I inquired.

"I don't believe so," said she. "There is nothing to that effect in the early afternoon newspapers from New York, though there's plenty about the robbery. Take a look!"

"Let me see!" I exclaimed, stretching out my hand for the paper.

And forthwith she spread the lurid sheets before my distressed eyes. The headlines were of the variety known as "scare." Not the German ex-Kaiser himself, or even a Bolshevist labor leader was ever presented in larger type than was the lurid announcement of the attempted robbery. And all our names were mentioned-even that of Talbot-the sacred family name, which we had kept inviolate for generations against all newspaper publicity excepting only mention in the society and political columns. For, of course, the difference between one's appearing as a social or political item and as a piece of mere vulgar news must at once be apparent to any reader of refined upbringing. And never before had the Talbots been news. I dreaded to think how my sister Euphemia would take it should the article chance to meet her eye. She might eventually forgive me much; but I seriously doubted whether her charity would ever extend over newspaper headlines. Alas! This was but a foretaste of what was to come!

But much as the reporters had to say of the splendor of Sebastian Markheim's mansion and the beauty of Sebastian Markheim's fiancée, whose coming marriage would be of the greatest social consequence, uniting the greatest fortune of the East with the greatest fortune of the Western Coast, and so on, and though it was further replete with details of the method by which the robbery had been committed, together with a florid account of the robber's high station in life, his heroic action in battle, where he was supposed to have been killed while defending a position single-handed in a rocky pass during the Austrian invasion, thereby enabling the rest of his brigade to escape-nothing indicated that his capture was at this time considered very likely. The authorities were full of assurances but rather short on facts, to all appearances.

"Well, now, Alicia, my dear," I remarked when I had satisfied myself that no detail of importance had escaped me in my perusal of the printed account of our affair-"now, Alicia, my dear," said I. "I feel it incumbent to be quite sure that you know what you are saying when you announce your intention of linking your life with that of this wild young Italian-always provided that the gallows does not get him before you do. Can't you reconcile yourself to the idea that he is a thief, no matter how titled, and that therefore he is no match for an honest American girl?"

"Oh, cut the moralizing, Free!" interrupted Peaches. "I am in love with him, I tell you. And I have sufficient faith in my own integrity to believe that this wouldn't be true if he really was the yellow dog everybody seems bent on trying to make him out. Now I've got a hunch-a mighty straight hunch that he is O. K. There's more to this than we know. Maybe the old picture belonged to his great-grandmother or something, and he's only taking it back. How do you know he isn't doing just that very thing?"

"But the Scarpia panels didn't belong to his grandmother," I answered smartly.

"But they haven't got the goods on him for those other deals," she retorted. "And if they had, I'd still be crazy about him. Freedom, this is a question of the rest of my life. You've got to take my side."

"But what are you-we going to do?" I pleaded, bewildered by her intensity. "And what is all this nonsense about our being locked in these rooms?"

"You just try to get out and see if it's nonsense," replied Peaches. "You were asleep when they locked me in, and as there is no lock on the doors between our rooms they locked you too. I wouldn't let them disturb you, not only because you were so tired but because I knew damn well that if I let you out I wouldn't get this chance to talk to you."

"Well, this is outrageous!" I exclaimed, rising in good earnest this time. "We shall see whether your father can imprison two adult women in a free country to suit his whim! I shall make my toilet at once and then we shall see what we shall see!"

"Better hurry up then!" replied Peaches. "Because they-he and Mark-are going to the city on the twelve-o'clock train. Don't you remember why we came home early last night?"

Last night seemed a thousand years ago. But she was quite right; I did recall the fact, and accordingly made all possible haste, Peaches assisting me.

"Now look here, you flighty young thing!" she warned. "Don't do anything rash! Remember, you are the only person I have to depend on for help. Don't go get yourself kept away from me now!"

"I must and shall interview your father," I protested. "But perhaps if you would be kind enough to give me an idea of what you intend doing I shall be in a better position to be of assistance."

"I'm going to leave this house before another twenty-four hours are over," she declared firmly. "If you can persuade pa to let me go like a human, and come along with me, so much the better. If not, I'll have to go some other way that may not be as agreeable to him in the long run."

"Why not let me tell him about that terrible performance of Mr. Markheim's?" I suggested. "That will be sufficient, or I mistake your father greatly."

"Sure it would be sufficient," said Peaches. "But then I'd have to give myself away pretty badly, wouldn

't I? And there might be a roughhouse. Pa is a dead shot and I'd rather get him out of shooting distance before I break the information to him. At present he just about thinks I'm crazy in the head."

"Well, I'll do what I can to persuade him that this is the twentieth century and not the middle ages!" I responded. "This indignity certainly cannot be allowed to continue. But suppose you-we do get away from here to-day, what then? How do you propose to find a thief that the police will have a hard time discovering?"

"I don't propose," said Peaches. "I intend. That's a whole lot stronger. How, I haven't the remotest idea. But it's plain enough I can't do anything while they've got me cooped up like a marketable yearling, can I? Let's get out of this, that's the first thing to accomplish."

"Very well," I agreed, gathering up my reticule and taking up the house-telephone receiver.

I asked to speak with Mr. Pegg. The request was at once attended to by the footman who responded, and in a tone which brooked no delay I commanded the Citrus King to come upstairs and release me. My tone must have foreshadowed the mood I was in, for he responded as if by magic. In less than five minutes I was face to face with him in the hall.

"Come on over and sit down in the conservatory, Miss Free," he entreated as soon as he saw my face. "We want to keep the servants out of this much as we can, you know!"

"All right, Mr. Pegg," I agreed, for this was my own thought. "All right. But if you allow the situation to continue you will have a hard time in doing that!"

Accordingly we repaired down the corridor to a little glass room full of plants, where we could talk in seclusion. Mr. Pegg, as usual, chewed upon an unlighted cigar and looked at me thoughtfully over the top of it, his shrewd eyes half closed.

"You've got awfully pretty hair, Miss Free," said he unexpectedly. "I'm glad you've took back to them curls again."

"Now see here, Mr. Pegg," I said severely, not to be diverted by any frivolous remarks. "Now see here, Mr. Pegg, what is the meaning of this outrageous performance?"

"When I was a cattleman," said Mr. Pegg, looking at the ornate ceiling, "we used to lock 'em in a corral until they cooled off a little."

"What-who?" I demanded.

"The ones we was breaking," he informed me. Then his manner changed and he brought his big fist down on his knee with a thump. "Now, my dear lady," he said firmly, "I know what I'm doing. Why, I had to keep her on the ranch, watched like a hawk-and simply because she kept thinking she was in love with some undesirable or other. I've seen her do this before. So I'm just going to detain her where she'll be safe until she comes to her senses."

"Mr. Pegg, you are taking the wrong track with Peaches this time!" I warned him. "You can't play the Roman father with your child and marry her out of hand-you cannot! You engaged me as a social mentor and I would be doing less than my duty if I didn't inform you that this sort of thing is no longer being done in the best families!"

"Say!" remarked Mr. Pegg, removing the cigar and staring at me. "Are you trying to be humorous, or what?"

"I assure you I am far from any such idea!" I replied with hauteur. "I merely affirm that you cannot, even legally, keep an adult female child imprisoned against her will and then marry her off to-to a swindler!"

"A swindler!" exclaimed Mr. Pegg. "Oh, come now, Miss Free-smuggling in that picture wasn't Mark's fault. You can't say he did it-because you don't know it. Why, you and he have always been good friends; you're not going back on him now? Peaches is just a kid. By the end of the week she will have changed her mind again. Good heavens, look at the fix it would put us in if she insisted on breaking her engagement now! The invitations out, the presents coming in-trousseau bought! We'd be the laughingstock of the country. Not that I'd give a-cuss-if it wasn't that I know Alicia. She'd up and go back to him when it was all thoroughly broken off. You see that what she needs is the high hand. I've had to use it before."

"Mr. Pegg," said I, "you are mistaken. What is worse, you are a cave man! I am convinced Peaches really is in love with Sandro di Monteventi and that you will break her heart if you persist in your heroic attitude. I beg you will desist."

"Nothing doing!" said Mr. Pegg, rising and lighting the cigar-a sign that the interview was closed. "I'm not in a desisting mood. I may as well add that I am wise to the fact that she's been mooning round after that fellow ever since she came into this house. Kimball's Commercial Arithmetic, indeed!"

"I don't know to what you refer, I assure you!" I said stiffly. "And I insist upon at least having a key to our rooms."

"Will you give me your word of honor not to use that key to let her out with?" asked my employer doubtfully.

"Certainly, if you wish," I replied promptly. "You may have my word for that!"

"Well, here you are, then," he answered, taking a key from a great cluster on his ring. "You'll keep the letter of your word, I know, no matter how uneasy the spirit gets. And now I must mosey along. Mark and I have to run up to town on business, and he wants to see the family-doctor about his eye-he ran into his bedpost in the dark last night, and maybe it's just as well to keep Peaches from seeing him wearing that beauty spot."

With which intelligent and discerning remark Mr. Pegg left me to my own devices, and of course I promptly returned to my apartment and the waiting Peaches, who greeted my entrance the more eagerly when she observed I let myself in with a key.

"You wonder!" cried she, embracing me with a look of rapture. "So he gave in to you-you enchantress!"

"He did not!" I said dryly. "He put me on my honor not to let you have this key, and my honor is sacred, and I'm going to keep it that way!"

"Free-you beast!" cried Peaches. "Give it to me. Don't be absurd!"

"Keeping one's freely given word is never absurd," I observed. "Besides, if I were to break it and let you walk out, do you think for one minute that the servants would let you get away without protest? Or without notifying your father by telephone? It is you who are absurd!"

"That's so!" said Peaches, suddenly weary. "Oh, Free-you think it out! Help me, I am so tired."

"Lack of sleep," I pronounced. "And I'll wager you have eaten nothing. The first thing to do is to have a nice hot luncheon sent upstairs-I presume your father's instructions permit the service of food. And then you must get a few hours of complete rest while I take a stroll in the fresh air and perfect some course of action."

"Then you will help me?" said Peaches eagerly.

It was really pathetic to see her so comparatively tired and helpless. She was never more than comparatively so, I may state. However, my compassion for her was not lessened by this fact.

"Of course I am going to help you," I declared. "That any mere man should attempt a performance of this kind outside of Bolshevik Russia is too outrageous to be endured. But first take some hot soup and a nap. I will have a plan when you wake up, I feel sure."

Meekly as a little girl she submitted to my ministrations, hot broth and all. And when at length she lay sleeping amidst the golden glory of her loosened hair, her face like a pale sage lily in its midst, I stole downstairs, first faithfully locking the door behind me and pocketing the key.

The garden between walls was filled with the roseate glow of sunset as I stepped forth into it, and the night promised fair. The earth was damp and fragrant from the April storm of the night before, and the new buds seemed to have doubled their endeavor to make the world green overnight. On the edges of the paths the frail hothouse-born tulips lay beaten into the earth. But in the meadow toward the river the wild crocuses marched bravely. Robins were warbling their mellow sunset note, and the world seemed sweetly peaceful and greatly at variance with my mood.

With my mind continually revolving the problem at hand I walked about the bordered barren beds with a step that was listless enough in good sooth, pausing now and again to glance up at the walls of the fine dwelling, which was now to all intents and purposes a prison. And after a few turns I began to realize that my attention was turning more and more frequently to the window that had been Sandro's and to the problem of his escape.

That he had come out by the window upon the first occasion of my discovering him in the library, and simply let himself in at the casement door, was plain enough, leaving his door locked from the inside to avoid invasion by the other servants; indeed it had developed that it had been his habit to keep his door locked during the entire period of his employment in the house. But how had he got there? That was the question. So far as one could see there was absolutely no means of reaching the ground from that third story, unless one excepted a frail and narrow wooden lattice intended for the encouragement of vines, which extended upward to the level of the higher windows.

Obeying an impulse I went over and made examination of this lattice, and the riddle was a riddle no longer.

"I wonder, I wonder!" I said aloud.

"I often have, myself!" agreed a cheerful voice behind me.

With a guilty start I turned about, and there, of all people on earth, was Richard, the chauffeur, big nose and all, smiling at me in his familiar, friendly manner.

"Richard!" I cried warmly. "What brought you here?"

"I-say, Aunt Mary, I had to come, that was all," he said with troubled eyes. "It's Peaches. You know how I feel about her-how I have felt all along. I had to see her. It was as if she needed me. Just a fool hunch. But I came. I couldn't help it-you understand?"

"Understand?" I cried. "Bless the boy, I do!" Then a way out of our situation began to make itself clear in my brain and I seized him by the arm, dragging him to a bench out of general sight from the house and making him sit beside me, greatly to his bewilderment.

"Richard," I said solemnly, "have you been at the house yet?"

"Why, no!" said he. "I came right into the garden when I saw you from the drive."

"Does anybody know you are coming?"

"Not a soul!" declared Dicky. "Why all this mystery?"

"Listen!" I said rapidly. "Something awful has happened. Peaches is a prisoner. Your intuition was right. She-we need your help, and need it badly."

"Is she hurt?" he asked. "A prisoner? What in the name--"

"I want you to get a big powerful automobile and have it at the entrance of the park at twelve o'clock to-night. As soon as you arrive, park your car, and come to the foot of that trellis over there. When you get there give the whistle you used to call Peaches with. If you get an answer, wait for us. If after half an hour you don't hear anything, call me on the telephone first thing in the morning. Is that clear?"

"Yes-but Great Scott! What's wrong?"

"Never you mind, except that something is very wrong here. Markheim is an unspeakable beast, and Mr. Pegg is trying to force Peaches into going through with the marriage in spite of what she has found out. He has locked her in her room, which opens into mine."

"Well, why not unlock her, then?" he asked with stupid masculine simplicity. "Haven't you got a key?"

"I have," I said. "But I have given him my word not to unlock it to let her out!"

"But you'll break your word!" he said with a satisfied grin.

"Not at all!" I disclaimed the suggestion. "Not at all. However, I made no promise in regard to the window. And with your assistance--"

"I get you!" cried Dicky, springing to his feet. "Twelve sharp to-night it is. And I'd better be off now before the old boys get back from town and spot me-eh, what?"

"Yes," I agreed.

Then I hesitated. Should I tell him of the duke? Was it possible that he had not seen the afternoon papers? Evidently so, since he had not commented upon the robbery. Assuredly they had escaped his notice. And why tell the poor lovesick boy about Alicia's part in it? I had a feeling that he would be even more effective in assisting us if he did not know until we were well on our way that night. So I merely repeated my instructions and hurried from him to impart the glad tidings to my charge and then to secure my knitting, in order that I might be flaunting that badge of womanly innocence in the drawing-room when those wretched cave men, Markheim and Mr. Pegg, came down dressed for dinner.

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