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   Chapter 16 No.16

It Pays to Smile By Nina Wilcox Putnam Characters: 23514

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


My dear father used to say that the test of good breeding lay in the ability to maintain the social amenities toward some one who had wronged you. Kipling, I think it is, cites the instance of an Englishman who continued to dress for dinner alone in the jungle, as a perfect example of breeding. But then, Kipling had only the Englishman's word for it, because if he were alone when he dressed, which seems probable-indeed is so stated-how could any one have seen him? Whereas I have watched my dear father turn the other cheek to the barber who used to visit our establishment weekly, when one cheek had been badly scraped, and not utter anything stronger than an inquiry about the man's health!

And the art of behaving naturally, yet not too naturally, if you understand me, through the routine of living under trying domestic conditions, certainly appears to come more easily to persons whose traditional training has been in the line of self-restraint rather than that of self-expression; in other words, to those of aristocratic forbears. Perhaps that is why the purest aristocracy so seldom attains anything except good manners. But I digress. My intent was merely to make a passing philosophic comment upon the dinner party of three-Mr. Markheim, Mr. Pegg and myself-which was held that evening at the villa.

For though no one could deny Mr. Pegg's sterling worth there were times when his, as it were, silver needed repolishing. And this was such a time. As for Sebastian Markheim, for all his wealth, the veneer of culture, which had never been much more than tailor-deep, now showed the common clay beneath all too plainly; and the bandage which his New York physician had arranged over one eye did nothing to make his behavior more becoming. Whereas on the other hand I was my own cheery, chatty self, only more so, if possible, entertaining both gentlemen with a pleasant account of a railroad accident of which I had read that day, and an explanation of the main differences between knitting and crochet work.

However, they were not very responsive, proving conclusively my dear father's theory. In point of fact they were both so uncommunicative that it was necessary for me to exercise considerable tact and ingenuity before I could get out of them the fact that Sandro di Monteventi was still at large, though he had been traced as far as New York City.

Indeed I cannot imagine why these two gentlemen should have been suspicious of my trustworthiness, yet their reticence could have no other implication. However, when I made quite sure that no further information was to be had out of them I continued to be quite as delightful as before, even insisting upon serving their after-dinner coffee with my own hands as soon as the footman had carried it into the library for us.

I confess that my solicitation about the serving of this was not wholly disinterested, inasmuch as I administered a small dose of veronal in each cup-a mere five grains to insure their sleeping-and sleeping early. And in truth my dear father never approved the taking of coffee in the evening, and I knew that neither of these men had had sufficient sleep during the past forty-eight hours. Also, I did not wish my project to fail through any oversight on my part. Moreover, neither being a good judge of coffee, they made no comment on the flavor.

Thus it was that when, shortly after nine o'clock, first one and then the other excused himself and went off to bed, I did not seek to detain either, but remained myself in the library for half an hour, ostensibly engaged in the perusal of a volume of Carlyle's French Revolution but in reality with one eye fixed upon the clock, and my attention absorbed with waiting for the moment when I might retire to my chamber without apparent undue haste.

At length the clock struck ten, having been considerably longer than its usual time in getting round to it, or so I fancied, and I rose in a leisurely fashion, putting away my book and ringing for the footman. When he appeared I bade him a cheerful good night and told him to put out the lights. Then I made my way upstairs to Peaches, my heart beating with excitement but my head quite cool and collected as I admitted myself to our, as it were, joint prison.

I found the dear girl already dressed in a dark suit and small hat, her face still pale, though her sleep had greatly refreshed her and her eyes were once more the great fiery cat eyes of amber that I loved to watch.

"Free," she began at once, "is there any news of him? Have they caught him?"

"Not yet," I replied, "but he's in New York somewhere-at least that's what they think. Don't forget to take your toothbrush."

"And you are sure that Dicky understands what to do?"

"Of course!" I replied, going to my top bureau drawer and regarding the contents critically. "Now let me see what I shall take."

"I guess father will never forgive us," remarked Peaches dolefully. "But it seems a person never can do what they think right without getting in wrong with some one."

"I shall take my father's chronometer," I mused half aloud, "smelling salts and a pack of cards, for solitaire. Also my small folding check book. These, together with my toothbrush and clean handkerchief, will just about fill my reticule."

I was putting these articles into their receptacle as I talked, but my attention was fixed upon Alicia's face. She looked as if she were seeing a vision; never have I beheld such an expression of anxious beatitude, if one may say so, on any human countenance either before or since. It was hardly wholesome.

"Did you put on low-heeled shoes?" I asked practically. Peaches came to with a start.

"Yes," she replied. "Free, do they let you get married in jail?"

"They send you there for getting married too often," I replied. "Now keep your mind on the excitement of the moment and hook up my shirt waist for me, there's a good girl."

"A shirt waist that hooks up the back is a blouse, Free," she replied, smiling wanly. "How am I ever going to make your sense of luxury as strong as your pocket-book?"

"This blouse by any other name was just as dear," I replied.

And so with light chaffing we made the interval of our preparation and waiting durable to each other; and at length I sat down by the opened, darkened window for the third night in succession, to listen for Richard, the chauffeur, to signal. One by one the other lights in the house were extinguished and gradually complete silence reigned over the massive pile of what had but a brief three days ago been Peaches' future home, and which we were about to forswear forever in the cause of love and spiritual freedom, not to mention actual physical freedom. At five minutes of the hour Peaches broke the silence with an impatient whisper.

"All this stage stuff is the greatest bunk!" she exclaimed under her breath. "I wish to goodness you'd open the door and let us walk downstairs like rational human beings!"

"And break a Talbot's word?" I retorted. "Never! What I promise your dear father I keep my word about."

"Freedom Talbot, I sometimes think you are stuck on pa," commented Peaches reflectively.

And then, before I was obliged to reply to this most inconsiderate comment and indefensible charge, a low whistle sounded from the garden, the old familiar whistle with which I had heard Peaches signal to Richard, the chauffeur, a thousand times. At once she was upon her feet, her body tense, her foolish remark mercifully forgotten as she responded. Three liquid notes, soft yet clear. Then silence.

"Now for it!" I whispered. "You follow me-I know the way!" And carrying my shoes in my hand I stepped forth across that window sill, which must, so I believe, bear about it the odor of romance forevermore.

I am pained to relate that the first thing Peaches did upon reaching the ground was to embrace Dick Talbot and kiss him upon both cheeks. But such is the distressing truth, inappropriate as the action was in view of the fact that she was escaping from one fiancé in order to go in search of another, and that Dick was neither of them. But he did not seem to object in the least, though the moment she freed him he very properly turned his attention to helping me on with my shoes.

"All set, Aunt Mary!" he whispered then. "This way, please, and watch your step in case the enemy sets up a barrage!"

In silence we followed him through the garden and out across the meadow, keeping in the shadow of the trees and hedges whenever possible, and trampling the brave little white crocuses underfoot. At length we reached the fence which separated the grounds from the highroad, and as it was fortunately not very high he helped us over without difficulty, the main gates at the lodge being, as he informed us, locked for the night.

Drawn close to the fence was a powerful car with the engine running softly. Richard assisted me into the rear seat and Peaches sprang up beside him in front; there was a grinding sound from the creature's innards and we slid smoothly out into the open road.

The river road from Ossining to New York is one of surpassing beauty, even at night, when the smooth winding ribbon of it is practically without traffic. But I was not much concerned with its loveliness, as the night was too dark, for one thing, to permit more than a speculation as to what lay behind the hedges and rows of trees with which it is lined, and the Hudson lay hidden in the black depth of its own valley save when a moving light or two from a nocturnal vessel betrayed its whereabouts. Overhanging clouds now threatened rain, and a mist crept up from the broad stream, obscuring the lamps and blurring the occasional lighted window by our way. At any moment I expected that, as The Duchess would say, the heaven would open to emit a torrential storm; and I wished heartily that I had worn my other hat.

Furthermore, if I had been able to see anything of the landscape as we passed I could not have focussed much attention upon it because of the terrific rate of speed at which Richard, the chauffeur, had determined to drive. At each and every curve I anticipated an accident of some sort-a collision with some unfortunate night traveler, a possibly fatal encounter with a train or trolley car. But miraculously nothing of the kind happened. I made one or two futile attempts to dissuade him from his reckless course, inasmuch as the discovery of our flight was extremely unlikely to occur for many hours to come. My words were merely blown back into my face, and solicitude for my hat and feathers at length caused me to relinquish my efforts and sit dumbly clinging to the seat with one hand and to my headgear with the other. I assume that he was driving as much from the stress of his emotions as by reason of Peaches' urging him to haste, but I could not help reflecting, sorry as I was for the young man's hopeless passion, that love is a selfish thing-a remark which has doubtless been made by earlier writers.

I could not hear a word of what conversation was going on in the front seat, but there seemed to be little enough of it, and all of Dick's energies were obviously bent on driving-a fact for which I dumbly thanked the Almighty, and it was not until almost an hour later, when the outskirts of the city had been reached and our driver drew up at the curb before a species of nocturnal dairy, or all-night lunch, as I believe such places are called, that we had any real conversation regarding further plans.

Richard insisted that we get down from the machine and enter the humble eating establishment, whose window displayed nothing more inviting than a few dozen oranges, which my practiced eye recognized as

inferior sweated Southern fruit, and a black cat, the latter sound asleep.

But once entering its tiled interior, which made me oddly uncomfortable, conveying as it did a sense of being in a most dreadfully public bathroom, the refreshing odor of coffee and hot cakes revived our more material senses, and over a generous supply of both we told Dick the whole story, beginning with the moment of our arrival in the East up to the point of the aforementioned pancakes and coffee.

While Peaches was telling him about the duke and how she loved him, young Talbot could not endure to look at her-a fact of which she appeared oblivious, so wrapped was she in her recital. And it was only when she had quite finished and was waiting for him to speak that he mastered his emotions sufficiently to look at her with his honest, suffering eyes.

"So he is alive?" he said simply. "And, of course, you have to go to him, old girl. There is something wrong with this crook idea. That man is not a crook."

"Thanks, Dicky!" said Peaches, her eyes filling as she covered his hand with hers for an instant. "I know there isn't any reason to believe in him-but I do, just the same."

"But there is a reason," said Dick unexpectedly. "Look here, Peaches, I suppose I ought to have told you this when I first came back. But I didn't first off, because I found you engaged to another man and apparently happy. I didn't want to go raking over old wounds. So I didn't even speak of him except to say that I'd heard he was killed in a gallant action-and I never even said that much until you mentioned it first-do you remember?"

"Yes," she nodded. "Go on, Dicky!"

"But I'd seen him while I was over there," he said. "I-well, it was rather by accident but I happened to save his life. Oh, not the last time! Up to to-night I thought he was dead, the same as you did. But before that. It was the time I got the Italian medal--"

"So that was why you wouldn't talk about it!" I ejaculated. But neither paid any attention to me.

"He asked a lot about you," Dicky went on. "And I told him all I could. About the ranch, and what you and Miss Freedom were doing. He was just crazy to hear. But he didn't want me to tell you about him. 'I'm not fit for her, Dick,' he says to me. We was both getting over scalp wounds then and used to sit out in front of the hut and talk a lot. 'I got out of her life for her own good,' he says. 'And if it ever comes natural tell her I didn't intend to kill the chap at the railway station-it was in self-defense.' That's what he told me. And then he tried to give me a ring he had, because of me having the luck to save him, see? But I wouldn't take it. So he give me his address in case I ever needed anything."

"His address?" said Peaches chokingly. "Why, Monteventi is his address, surely?"

"Yeh-but he give me another one besides," said Dick. "Though, of course, I heard after that he had gone West, and so I kind of forgot about it."

"If he had another address it must have been where he could be reached in an emergency!" cried Peaches. "Can't you remember it, Dicky? Oh, think! Please try to remember it!"

"I guess maybe I got it on me," said he with a curious shyness. "I-wrote it on the back of your picture. I-I carried it along through the war. I might have it now, at that."

From the inside of his coat he took a thin wallet, through which he pretended to search while we watched breathlessly. And there, as I had anticipated, was the portrait of Alicia-Alicia at sixteen with her heavy hair in braids over either shoulder and a Mexican sombrero shading her laughing eyes. He turned it over and she gave a little cry as she recognized her lover's name-followed by an address in Hoboken!

We exchanged a look of wonder.

"By gosh, I'll bet a dollar that's where he is to-night!" exclaimed Talbot. "Not a very tasty neighborhood, but just the kind of a place a bird like him would fly to for cover. And see the way I was to address him. S. M., care of Smith! He said they forwarded his mail for him. Peaches, I'll go there for you the minute I get you two girls safe at a hotel!"

"You will not!" said Peaches. "Because we are going with you."

"Oh, come-that's not right!" protested Dick. But nothing would dissuade Peaches.

"Well-we may need some money," said he, at length consenting to the mad scheme. "I've a few dollars, but eventually we'll have to get some more. Did you bring any, Peaches?"

Her face dropped in dismay.

"I never thought of it!" she gasped "And my purse was on the dressing table too!"

"Never mind!" said I, plunging my hand into my reticule. "I have brought a check book and I have a lot of money in the bank."

With which I drew out-not my check book at all, but the black leather wallet which Peaches had thrown into the pond out at the ranch, and which I had subsequently rescued.

For a moment we all gazed at it stupidly. Then Peaches recognized it and snatched it from the table.

"Sandy's wallet!" she cried. "Freedom Talbot, where did you get this thing?"

"I-I found it in the garden out at home," I stammered, blushing violently, "and I kept it in case-that is, I thought that perhaps sometime--"

"I see!" said she in a tone which led me greatly to fear that she did.

"What is it?" our escort now wanted, not unnaturally, to know.

"It's something of his-the duke's," I said. "Peaches has had it for years."

"Give us a look-see!" asked Dick, stretching out his hand for it. Rather reluctantly she allowed him to take it.

"I bet there's something sewed inside that lining!" he commented after a moment's examination. "Let's open her up!"

"No!" cried Peaches, snatching it back. "If there is it's none of our business. I'll just take care of it, thanks! And now about money-our not having any lets us out of the hotel plan, Dick; and anyhow if we cash a check we can't do it before to-morrow. In order to get into a decent hotel without any bags we'd have to prove who we are, and then pa would spot us first thing in the morning."

"Besides which, if Sandro is really at this Hoboken address, he will very likely be gone by morning," I added; "if indeed he has not already left."

"You said it!" cried Peaches. "Come on, let's go! The Lord only knows when that ex-sheriff of a parent of mine will have a posse on my trail!"

We acted upon this, the combined wisdom of all three of us, and paying our modest indebtedness to the midnight-luncheon establishment, betook ourselves back to the automobile and the pursuit of our quest.

How silent are the busy marts of Manhattan in the small hours of the night! With her pearl-like lamps the only sentinels along our way, we sped into Broadway and thence across the park and down Fifth Avenue almost as rapidly as we had proceeded along the Albany highway from Ossining, turning west at some side street evidently familiar to Richard, the chauffeur, since the days of his debarkation, and sped toward a westbound ferryboat.

It was a great comfort to me to realize that the city of Hoboken itself would not be wholly unfamiliar to him either, inasmuch as he had left for Europe from that port as a soldier, and had again visited it in the same capacity two years later upon his return. Therefore, he could, of course, be relied upon to know something about the place, and just how undesirable he considered the section for which we were headed might be. It did not, however, occur to me to question him on this point until the lights of the opposite shore were drawing near. We had remained seated in the auto, which was driven bodily upon the lower section of the ferryboat.

"Richard," I said, "do you consider the section for which we are bound a residential one?"

"I do not!" he responded promptly. "I'll say the inhabitants usually make about a week-end of it before they are invited to Sing Sing. I wish I had thought to bring a gun along!"

"If a revolver will do as well," said I, "I have one upon my person. It is that which I obtained from that gambling creature in Monte Carlo."

"Good girl, Aunt Mary!" he exclaimed. "Slip it to me, will you?"

"In order to do so I must retire to the ladies' cabin," I replied with dignity, "inasmuch as it is attached to my-my garter."

"Well, if you aren't a caution to rattlesnakes!" exclaimed he. "All right, sport, only hurry up, for we'll be landing in a few minutes now."

I alighted from the rear of the machine with all possible celerity and made my way upstairs to the higher deck and the retreat which I sought. Putting the firearm into my reticule I was about to descend when the sight of a familiar figure standing on the front deck of the vessel, his face sharply outlined against the light, arrested my action and my attention.

It was the detective named Pedro-he who had posed as night watchman at the villa-and he was standing right where he could not fail to see our car and recognize its occupants the moment we drove out to land.

It was an emergency and I steeled myself to meet it intelligently. If I were to go below at once all I could accomplish would be the warning of my companions. Still, what better course offered? None that I could see at first. Pedro had not seen me as yet, but continued to stand looking out toward the Jersey shore. And while I hesitated as to what I should do the Divine Providence which looks after lovers put a means of eluding him into my very hands, as it were.

From a door close beside me and which was marked "Private" in large letters, there at this moment emerged a man in overalls. The door swung to behind him, locking with a snap, and an instant later he discovered that he had left something in the cabin and being in a great hurry swore shockingly as he fumbled with his keys, for he was obliged to unlock the door, which fastened with a spring lock, before he could get back into the place. The dock was very close now, and the bell was clanging loudly. In another moment we would have touched. The mechanic's haste was frantic, which, of course, caused him some further delay, but at length he succeeded in opening the door again. On the instant finding myself unobserved I slid about a quarter of my little pack of playing cards into the jamb of the door. They were just of a sufficient thickness to allow the door to shut without permitting it to lock. The mechanic having found what he wanted came out, swung the door, as he supposed, closed, and went on his way.

Hardly had he vanished down the stairs when Pedro saw me and at once approached, raising his hat with a sarcastic politeness that thinly veiled a sneer. And as he came I knew for certain that he was the man whom it had twice already been my pleasure to foil. Nevertheless, I greeted him pleasantly enough.

"Ah-good evening!" said I. "You are looking for Mr. Markheim, I suppose?"

Well, the fellow looked a good deal surprised at that, but he wouldn't admit it-not he.

"Yes, of course," said he, to draw me out.

"This is splendid!" I said heartily. "We were afraid our telegram hadn't reached you. He's just inside in this cabin. Won't you go in?"

The room lighted automatically as the door was pushed inward. He entered, I pulled out the cards and slammed the door behind him just as the clamor of our arrival at the hospitable Hoboken shores drowned out all immediate danger of his cries being heard.

But I ran down the stairs to the car like-like the very deuce, as my dear father used to say. And climbing into my place I leaned over and slipped the revolver into Dick's pocket.

"Drive like Sam Hill!" I commanded in a fierce undertone. "I've just locked Pedro into the fireman's washroom and he's not going to like it very much!"

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