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   Chapter 17 No.17

It Pays to Smile By Nina Wilcox Putnam Characters: 21299

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


I made this remark with a pleasant smile to give the appearance of passing a joke, in case Pedro's partner should prove to be on board and watching us. Dicky smiled back, but nevertheless acted upon my hint without delay; and as a combined result of our smiling faces the gateman grinned as well and permitted our car to debark first.

The delay on the pier, where we were obliged to proceed at a snail's pace, was a dreadful strain. Suppose that Pedro's cries were to be heard, and, rescued, he bore down upon us? I shuddered at the thought. But at length we were past officialdom and speeding up the hill and into the city's silent and deserted ways. Dicky turned his head to question me, almost colliding with a lamp-post by so doing, but his usual nonchalant skill saving us by a hair-or so it appeared to me.

"Now what the devil did you say you did?" he wanted to know.

"Pedro-the detective," I said-"I locked him up on the boat!" I repeated.

"Good heavens, Freedom! How?" cried Peaches.

I told them briefly. Richard, the chauffeur, gave a long whistle.

"Then it's more than likely we are headed right!" said he. "Gosh Almighty, Aunt Mary, I hope I never get in wrong with you!"

"Why?" I demanded. "I simply do the obvious thing as occasion arises."

"Well, give us a little advance notice when you are going to pull something out of the usual," he replied cryptically, and turned his attention back to the car-for which I felt profoundly grateful-and to scanning the corner lamps for the name of the avenue for which we were seeking.

Fortunately the streets were literally deserted and so we escaped notice. If any one had followed us from the ferry he would have been visible many blocks away. The only living creature we passed in fifty squares was a maraudering cat which shot across our path like a black arrow.

"Good luck!" commented Peaches.

But the remark failed to reassure me, for by now we had discovered and turned into our avenue, and its aspect was most decidedly not residential. In point of fact it could hardly be said to contain houses, much less anything worthy of being dignified by the name of residence. It was quite unlike any part of Boston with which I was acquainted, and I did not fancy its atmosphere, which was redolent of gas, to say the least. Moreover, it was not at all a suitable place for a duke to live, even when in retirement from the police. I should have felt something on upper Fifth Avenue much more fitting-say, in a secret chamber in the neighborhood of the Plaza. Or in the half-ruinous mansion of some aristocrat out at, let us say at Hempstead, which I understand contains many fine old estates.

The quarter through which we were proceeding was impossible-simply impossible! I trust that there is very little of the snob in me, at least of that species of snob which cannot distinguish between genteel poverty and common poverty. Mere shabbiness is no cause for losing caste, as I myself know full well. And so I would have said nothing to a shabby neighborhood. But this was not even, properly speaking, a neighborhood, being as it was, chiefly composed of gas tanks which towered heavenward in shadowy menace, of warehouses with blank faces, and unpleasant odors.

Between these at rare intervals were sandwiched little groups of houses-part of what might originally have been rather a fine terrace. Three-story brick affairs, they were, that once might have looked out upon the river before their giant neighbors had risen to obstruct the view. They stood in little groups of three or four, huddled together and squeezed on either hand by elbowing dirty lofts or other commercial tramps of buildings. Most of them appeared to be used for the storing of hides, to judge from the refuse in the street before them; some had been ruined by fire without being demolished, others gaped with broken windows behind their "For Sale" signs-drearily awaiting purchasers who never came.

But here and there among them were a few which gave indication that human beings still used them as habitations-a dirty window curtain, a set of battered shades, a stoop less cluttered than those of the neighbors. And occasionally a dingy notice that there were furnished rooms to be had. But nowhere any light. It was like a city of the dead,-or like a town long abandoned. It was difficult indeed to realize that on the morrow-nay, later on in this very morning-the place would be a busy waterfront.

It was before one of these poor houses that Richard, the chauffeur, at length came to a halt; and exceptionally moldy and uninviting specimen it was, with the storage terminal of some exporting company on the one hand of it and a string of unsavory-looking lodgings upon the other. The number for which we were looking was discernible, though scarcely legible above its closed storm doors-Number 1162. There could be no mistake. It was our destination. But it certainly did not look inviting, from cellar to attic the shutters, though sagging precariously on their hinges, were closed, and the areaway was obstructed by empty crates, evidently refuse from its business neighbor.

"It doesn't look as if a soul were home," I observed. "How very disappointing!"

"Houses that refugees are hiding in don't exactly open up like hotels," observed Dicky dryly. "The question now is, how do we get invited in without bringing a lot of attention on ourselves?"

"Well, there's no use sitting here discussing such things!" I snapped, taking out my dear father's chronometer and looking at it under the light of the nearest lamp. "It is now fifteen minutes of three o'clock. I suggest we take some action. We can't stay here, that's plain. Listen to that thunder, will you? I wish I had worn my other hat! I just knew it was going to rain!"

"We might go up and ring the bell," suggested Peaches, climbing to the sidewalk. "That hasn't failed yet, you know."

"Since we have been fools enough to come without any definite plan," agreed Dick Talbot, "I suppose we may as well act as if it were an ordinary call. But first I'm going to run the bus round the corner and park it out of sight. They'll be more apt to open up."

He left the motor running and assisted me to alight and then drove off to fulfil this plan, returning presently on foot, whereat we ascended the broken steps together, and Richard gave the old-fashioned bell knob a vigorous pull. Faintly from below came the sound of it in due time, a harsh jangle as when a bell clangs in an empty echoing room. Then he waited, but no other sound broke the stillness.

"Try again," said Peaches after several minutes had elapsed.

And there really being nothing else to do, Dicky obeyed, with no better result. Once the faint echoes of its ringing had died away within the building all was as silent as the tomb. A cat wailed suddenly from some hidden fence, causing us to start, but that was all.

"There may be some other way in," said Richard in a low voice. "Though this is certainly the right number."

"And it may be that nobody lives here too," said I dryly, "and that we have come upon a fool's errand!"

"You knew we were chancing that!" snapped Peaches. "But I won't be satisfied to go away now-let's try the lower door!"

Well, I could not see what sense there was in that, though our escort agreed. And so the two descended from the high stoop and vanished into the darkness of the areaway, amid the crates that were heaped within it, while I remained at the main entrance. The few drops of rain which had been falling when we arrived were rapidly increasing in number and force, and the thunder drew nearer and nearer with angry mutterings.

Bitterly regretting that I had ever risked my best hat upon an adventure which seemed doomed to so tame an ending I withdrew myself from the open stoop and sought what scant shelter the outer ledge of the storm door afforded, flattening myself as much as possible and hoping devoutly that my ostrich tips would recurl nicely.

From below came the sound of a bell, another bell this time, but ringing in just as desolate a way as that of the front door. Again silence except for that wretched feline. Then came the sound of approaching footsteps. Some one was coming down the street!

The steps were not very loud to be sure, the newcomer being soft shod, and after a moment I realized that Peaches and Dicky, being intent upon their immediate occupation, and furthermore, cut off from this approach by being on the far side of the solid masonry of the high stoop, did not hear him. It flashed across my mind that policemen did not usually wear sneakers or rubber soles to their shoes, and that therefore this was not the roundsman of the beat. In confirmation of this supposition was the fact that whoever was approaching was in a hurry-not running, but coming on with a quick light step, very unlike the heavy deliberate tread of a night watchman wearing away the hours at his post.

Therefore I very cautiously stuck my head round the corner, only to withdraw it instantly and remain motionless, soundless, against the door. It was a man who was approaching, his arms filled with bundles such as would indicate a visit to some all-night grocery or, more likely, delicatessen store; and his enormous height made him unmistakable. It was Sandro.

All unknowing what awaited him, he ran lightly up the steps, glancing up and down the street as he did so. And as he reached the top step I fell upon him from the shadow, throwing both my arms round his neck and causing him to spill a half dozen oranges, which bounded down into the street and areaway-one of them, I later learned, striking Richard upon the head and thus giving him notice that he was wanted.

"Sandro!" I cried. "Thank goodness you came home-my hat would have been ruined in another five minutes!"

"Good Lord! Miss Talbot!" he stammered, making a futile effort to free himself of me.

But I hung on like a leech. I feared that if I relaxed my embrace for an instant he would make a dash for liberty.

"Oh, but I'm glad to see you!" I said. "Fear not, we know all, but are still your friends."

By that time Peaches and Dicky were with us. Seeing this I let him go, and for a moment he stood there looking dazedly from one to the other, a side of bacon sticking grotesquely out from under one arm, a bottle of milk held firmly in the other hand.

"Alicia!" he murmured, scarcely able to believe his eyes. "I don't understand. And Dick--"

"Neither do we quite get it," responded Dick cheerfully. "That's why we are here. Just hand over the eats, old man, and le

t us into this palace of yours, where we can chin a little less conspicuously! Hurry now, before some unwelcome party tries to join us!"

Spurred into a sort of hypnotic life the duke obeyed, finding a key and entering first. Peaches went next, slipping her hand through his arm as she went; and hastily picking up two of the oranges and a loaf of bread, which fortunately was nicely wrapped in glazed paper, I followed them, Dicky bringing up the rear and closing the door behind us.

Then the duke turned on a light, after a brief interval which can only be explained by-well, it was probably Peaches' fault. At any rate he turned on a light, which disclosed a shabby, threadbare hallway, and then opening the door at his right indicated that we should enter.

Now it was one of my dear father's iron-bound rules that no well-bred person ever evinces surprise at his surroundings; but it is my firm conviction that even he would have excused the exclamation which burst from my lips upon entering that apartment; in point of fact it is quite possible to conceive of his joining with me in expressing astonishment. For far from being the sordid den which I had been prepared to see, it was a room of such luxury as I have seldom beheld. The furniture was fit to grace a museum, the rugs were priceless, while on the wall hung several fine paintings, among which I was horrified to recognize the Florentine Madonna and Rubens' Venus and Mars. There were other art treasures too-carvings, candelabra and goodness only knows what not. At the moment my interest focused so sharply upon the central figures in the drama that I was unable to register more than a chaotic impression of immense wealth. The museums of Europe might well have envied that collection.

The duke turned quietly to Peaches.

"Alicia!" he said. "Now tell me-I don't understand why you have come. It cannot be to betray me."

"Sandro!" she cried. "It is I who don't understand. You can't be a common thief! And if you are, I don't care. You-you may get over it. And I came because I love you. Do I have to tell you that? I'm never going away from you again!"

The duke turned very white and backed away from her.

"Look here!" he said. "I can't let you do this, you know. I've run away from you once-don't make it impossible, Alicia!"

"But I have loved you right along," she persisted. "We heard that you were dead-and so I thought I might as well marry Mark, you know-because nothing seemed to matter. Oh, don't send me away! Look-I have carried your wallet all these years."

Well, of course, Peaches exaggerated a little when she said that, but it was no time for correcting her statement. And anyhow the duke didn't seem to care. With a swift gesture he took it from her.

"Do you know what this is?" he asked, looking into her eyes. "No? And still you believe in me!"

"I knew there was something in it!" exclaimed Richard, the chauffeur. And he was right. There was. To think that I could have overlooked such a fact!

Hurriedly the duke took out his penknife, ripped the edges apart, and from the interlining took out a thin packet wrapped in waterproof tissue. And I had felt that pad and thought it was mere stuffing! With skillful-too skillful-fingers he unfolded the covering, and opening up the paper it contained he spread it upon the table for us all to see.

"Look!" he said. "I want you to understand what this is before we go any further. This bit of paper is a carte blanche from-from a very important person in Italy. See, his signature."

We looked-and though I was the only one of the three that could read Italian the two others were scarcely less impressed than I was. For the duke had spoken truly.

"Carte blanche," said Peaches. "That means 'free hand', doesn't it? But how does that square you, Sandy dear?"

"It doesn't, really," said he. "But if you'll all sit down I'll tell you just where it comes in. It's rather a long story," he added. "And my boat sails at eight o'clock."

As if in a dream we did as he suggested. The duke himself stood before the open hearth, his hands clasped behind his back, his head bent in silence for a moment. Then he raised it as if shaking off some evil dream and began his extraordinary story.

"In the eyes of the world I am a thief," he pronounced. "In all probability the greatest thief of our day, and what is more, the most discriminating one. You see how my taste seems to run-world-renowned paintings of almost inestimable value, rare carvings, tapestries and statues. Clumsy to handle, are they not? Frightfully difficult to dispose of. But that is not the strangest part of my predications. You will notice that all of them are of the art of a single nation-Italy."

"Well," he went on, "strange as these two facts may appear, there is a stranger one still. Nothing that I take is ever missed. I make one exception to that-the Scarpia panels. I bungled that badly. And then last night-if it had not been for Markheim's brutality to you"-here Sandro's face grew livid at the recollection-"if it had not been for that interruption, when I remembered that I had left your little knife on the frame and returned to get it because I could not endure to leave behind the only souvenir I had of you-I would have got away clear. You people would have gone on living with that replica, boasting of it, perhaps, to the end of your lives, and then handing it down to posterity as a treasure of the highest order. I can assure you that there is more than one great collector in whose service I have been, or in whose house I have visited as a guest, who is doing that very thing."

"But, Sandro!" cried Peaches. "What did you do it for? You couldn't sell such things? Where are they? Or are these some of them?"

She indicated the contents of the room with a sweeping gesture.

"These are my weapons," he said, smiling. "Replicas, all of them, to be used as the occasion rises; as I locate some treasure and plan to acquire it."

"But do you sell them?" she persisted.

"No," said he.

"Then you keep them? You take them for yourself?" she cried incredulously.

"I haven't got one of them!" he declared, "except the Madonna of the Lamp. And I'll not have her long."

"But do you mean to say you use a fence?" Dicky broke in.

"I do not," replied Sandro. "Every one of these paintings that I have recovered is in the hands of the Italian Government-where they all both morally and legally belong!"

His voice had taken on a new tone and we looked at each other in astonishment.

"Then this paper--" began Peaches.

"Was for an extreme emergency only," replied Sandro. "I have never had occasion to use it before. But to-night I may need to, because I'm going to give up my job. If the police come I shall let them in. I can't go on any longer because of-you!"

She went to him then, and we turned our heads away. It was later, when, still uninterrupted by the police, we were enjoying a breakfast of the groceries which the duke had brought in, that we learned the rest of the tale.

It seems that both Sandro and his brother, Leonardo, had a passion for art, a natural inheritance from their father. And indignant at the spoliation of Italy by wealthy foreigners they had determined to recover for Italy every object of art upon which they could lay their hands that had been illegally smuggled out of the country, by unscrupulous foreign capitalists.

"I was the more adept," said Sandro, "and so my brother has for years acted merely as a sort of curator for the originals until means could be found to place them on public view again. He has them at Monteventi, where he has lived a very retired life by preference. He is a sort of hermit at best, and it was at his desire that I assumed the title.

"At first the whole scheme seemed nothing but a lark. I was wonderfully successful and I cannot, I do not now believe that I have done anything but right in recovering these treasures from those thieves! I was deeply involved in a mesh of appearances when I met you, Alicia. It was too late to clear my heels without taking the International Secret Service into my confidence. That I felt I could not do; I had dedicated my life to the job, you see, and so I ran away from you. Then the war came. When I met Dick and heard of you I thought you had forgotten-as you ought! Peaches, I am a miserable adventurer-I haven't a penny in the world beyond a tiny income which my brother shares and which we have existed on all these years. You see, my robberies have never netted me a shilling."

"I should worry!" Peaches remarked.

"You ought to!" he admonished her. "Good Lord, when I found you were going to be married--"

"And so I am going to be!" declared Peaches. "Sandro, you are a Dago nut, but I get you perfectly. And I'm going to keep you this time. If you will promise to get a more usual job I don't care how poor we are, only if it's all the same to you I would like to get married right after we wash these dishes. Pa may be closing in on us, and I'd like to have matters cinched before he arrives on the scene."

"Great Scott!" said Sandro. "Do you mean it?"

"I said it!" replied Peaches. "Please, Sandy, don't make me ask you twice!"

"But your poor father will be furious!" I protested. "And you'll have no bridesmaids or anything else!"

"Well, I don't know just how the law will act about your other affairs when the truth comes out," commented Dicky, "but I will say that Pa Pegg will have a hard time prying the wife of an Italian subject away from him."

"Will I stop being an American when I marry you, Sandy?" cried Peaches, showing the first extreme symptoms of excitement which she had evidenced as yet.

"Yes. But not for long!" he replied. "I want to come back to this, my mother's country-and stay. And when I am a citizen you'll be one again, you know!"

And so it was that it turned out to be a good thing that I had worn my best hat, after all. Because I had never been a bridesmaid before, and the feathers hadn't come out of curl after all. In point of fact the curl stayed in remarkably. I even noticed it after the steamer bearing the bride and groom had sailed and I went to the newspapers to insert the official notice of the wedding. There was a little mirror over the window and I noticed particularly.

And when this social duty was done I made Dicky Talbot drive me right to a hotel and sent for Mr. Pegg. I was fearfully afraid, and so was Dicky, bless the dear boy's heart. But he went, as was his duty; and I waited, as was mine. No one can ever say a Talbot was a coward!

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