A FOOL AND HIS MONEY
GEORGE BARR McCUTCHEON
I. I MAKE NO EFFORT TO DEFEND MYSELF
II. I DEFEND MY PROPERTY
III. I CONVERSE WITH A MYSTERY
IV. I BECOME AN ANCESTOR
V. I MEET THE FOE AND FALL
VI. I DISCUSS MATRIMONY
VII. I RECEIVE VISITORS
VIII. I RESORT TO DIPLOMACY
IX. I AM INVITED OUT TO DINNER
X. I AGREE TO MEET THE ENEMY
XI. I AM INVITED TO LEND MONEY
XII. I AM INFORMED THAT I AM IN LOVE
XIII. I VISIT AND AM VISITED
XIV. I AM FORCED INTO BEING A HERO
XV. I TRAVERSE THE NIGHT
XVI. I INDULGE IN PLAIN LANGUAGE
XVII. I SEE TO THE BOTTOM OF THINGS
XVIII. I SPEED THE PARTING GUEST
XIX. I BURN A FEW BRIDGES
XX. I CHANGE GARDEN SPOTS
XXI. SHE PROPOSES
In the aperture stood my amazing neighbour ... Frontispiece
I found myself staring as if stupefied at the white figure of a woman who stood in the topmost balcony.
I sat bolt upright and yelled: "Get out!"
We faced each other across the bowl of roses
Up to that moment I had wondered whether I could do it with my left hand
I MAKE NO EFFORT TO DEFEND MYSELF
I am quite sure it was my Uncle Rilas who said that I was a fool. If memory serves me well he relieved himself of that conviction in the presence of my mother—whose brother he was—at a time when I was least competent to acknowledge his wisdom and most arrogant in asserting my own. I was a freshman in college: a fact—or condition, perhaps,—which should serve as an excuse for both of us. I possessed another uncle, incidentally, and while I am now convinced that he must have felt as Uncle Rilas did about it, he was one of those who suffer in silence. The nearest he ever got to openly resenting me as a freshman was when he admitted, as if it were a crime, that he too had been in college and knew less when he came out than when he entered. Which was a mild way of putting it, I am sure, considering the fact that he remained there for twenty-three years as a distinguished member of the faculty.
I assume, therefore, that it was Uncle Rilas who orally convicted me, an assumption justified to some extent by putting two and two together after the poor old gentleman was laid away for his long sleep. He had been very emphatic in his belief that a fool and his money are soon parted. Up to the time of his death I had been in no way qualified to dispute this ancient theory. In theory, no doubt, I was the kind of fool he referred to, but in practice I was quite an untried novice. It is very hard for even a fool to part with something he hasn't got. True, I parted with the little I had at college with noteworthy promptness about the middle of each term, but that could hardly have been called a fair test for the adage. Not until Uncle Rilas died and left me all of his money was I able to demonstrate that only dead men and fools part with it. The distinction lies in the capacity for enjoyment while the sensation lasts. Dead men part with it because they have to, fools because they want to.
In any event, Uncle Rilas did not leave me his money until my freshman days were far behind me, wherein lies the solace that he may have outgrown an opinion while I was going through the same process. At twenty-three I confessed that all freshmen were insufferable, and immediately afterward took my degree and went out into the world to convince it that seniors are by no means adolescent. Having successfully passed the age of reason, I too felt myself admirably qualified to look with scorn upon all creatures employed in the business of getting an education. There were times when I wondered how on earth I could have stooped so low as to be a freshman. I still have the disquieting fear that my uncle did not modify his opinion of me until I was thoroughly over being a senior. You will note that I do not say he changed his opinion. Modify is the word.
His original estimate of me, as a freshman, of course,—was uttered when I, at the age of eighteen, picked out my walk in life, so to speak. After considering everything, I decided to be a literary man. A novelist or a playwright, I hadn't much of a choice between the two, or perhaps a journalist. Being a journalist, of course, was preliminary; a sort of makeshift. At any rate, I was going to be a writer. My Uncle Rilas, a hard-headed customer who had read Scott as a boy and the Wall Street news as a man,—without being misled by either,—was scornful. He said that I would outgrow it, there was some consolation in that. He even admitted that when he was seventeen he wanted to be an actor. There you are, said he! I declared there was a great difference between being an actor and being a writer. Only handsome men can be actors, while I—well, by nature I was doomed to be nothing more engaging than a novelist, who doesn't have to spoil an illusion by showing himself in public.
Besides, I argued, novelists make a great deal of money, and playwrights too, for that matter. He said in reply that an ordinarily vigorous washerwoman could make more money than the average novelist, and she always had a stocking without a hole to keep it in, which was more to the point.
Now that I come to think of it, it was Uncle Rilas who oracularly prejudged me, and not Uncle John, who was by way of being a sort of literary chap himself and therefore lamentably unqualified to guide me in any course whatsoever, especially as he had all he could do to keep his own wolf at bay without encouraging mine, and who, besides teaching good English, loved it wisely and too well. I think Uncle Rilas would have held Uncle John up to me as an example,—a scarecrow, you might say,—if it hadn't been for the fact that he loved him in spite of his English. He must have loved me in spite of mine.
My mother felt in her heart that I ought to be a doctor or a preacher, but she wasn't mean: she was positive I could succeed as a writer if I set my mind to it. She was also sure that I could be President of the United States or perhaps even a Bishop. We were Episcopalian.
When I was twenty-seven my first short story appeared in a magazine of considerable weight, due to its advertising pages, but my Uncle Rilas didn't read it until I had convinced him that the honorarium amounted to three hundred dollars. Even then I was obliged to promise him a glimpse of the check when I got it. Somewhat belated, it came in the course of three or four months with a rather tart letter in which I was given to understand that it wasn't quite the thing to pester a great publishing house with queries of the kind I had been so persistent in propounding. But at last Uncle Rilas saw the check and was properly impressed. He took back what he said about the washerwoman, but gave me a little further advice concerning the stocking.
In course of time my first novel appeared. It was a love story. Uncle Rilas read the first five chapters and then skipped over to the last page. Then he began it all over again and sat up nearly all night to finish it. The next day he called it "trash" but invited me to have luncheon with him at the Metropolitan Club, and rather noisily introduced me to a few old cronies of his, who were not sufficiently interested in me to enquire what my name was—a trifling detail he had overlooked in presenting me as his nephew—but who did ask me to have a drink.
A month later, he died. He left me a fortune, which was all the more staggering in view of the circumstance that had seen me named for my Uncle John and not for him.
It was not long afterward that I made a perfect fool of myself by falling in love. It turned out very badly. I can't imagine what got into me to want to commit bigamy after I had already proclaimed myself to be irrevocably wedded to my profession. Nevertheless, I deliberately coveted the experience, and would have attained to it no doubt had it not been for the young woman in the case. She would have none of me, but with considerable independence of spirit and, I must say, noteworthy acumen, elected to wed a splendid looking young fellow who clerked in a jeweller's shop in Fifth Avenue. They had been engaged for several years, it seems, and my swollen fortune failed to disturb her sense of fidelity. Perhaps you will be interested enough in a girl who could refuse to share a fortune of something like three hundred thousand dollars—(not counting me, of course)—to let me tell you briefly who and what she was. She was my typist. That is to say, she did piece-work for me as I happened to provide substance for her active fingers to work upon when she wasn't typing law briefs in the regular sort of grind. Not only was she an able typist, but she was an exceedingly wholesome, handsome and worthy young woman. I think I came to like her with genuine resolution when I discovered that she could spell correctly and had the additional knack of uniting my stray infinitives with stubborn purposefulness, as well as the ability to administer my grammar with tact and discretion.
Unfortunately she loved the jeweller's clerk. She tried to convince me, with a sweetness I shall never forget, that she was infinitely better suited to be a jeweller's wife than to be a weight upon the neck of a genius. Moreover, when I foolishly mentioned my snug fortune as an extra inducement, she put me smartly in my place by remarking that fortunes like wine are made in a day while really excellent jeweller's clerks are something like thirty years in the making. Which, I take it, was as much as to say that there is always room for improvement in a man. I confess I was somewhat disturbed by one of her gentlest remarks. She seemed to be repeating my Uncle Rilas, although I am quite sure she had never heard of him. She argued that the fortune might take wings and fly away, and then what would be to pay! Of course, it was perfectly clear to me, stupid as I must have been, that she preferred the jeweller's clerk to a fortune.
I was loth to lose her as a typist. The exact point where I appear to have made a fool of myself was when I first took it into my head that I could make something else of her. I not only lost a competent typist, but I lost a great deal of sleep, and had to go abroad for awhile, as men do when they find out unpleasant things about themselves in just that way.
I gave her as a wedding present a very costly and magnificent dining-room set, fondly hoping that the jeweller's clerk would experience a great deal of trouble in living up to it. At first I had thought of a Marie Antoinette bedroom set, but gave it up when I contemplated the cost.
If you will pardon me, I shall not go any further into this lamentable love affair. I submit, in extenuation, that people do not care to be regaled with the heartaches of past affairs; they are only interested in those which appear to be in the process of active development or retrogression. Suffice to say, I was terribly cut up over the way my first serious affair of the heart turned out, and tried my best to hate myself for letting it worry me. Somehow I was able to attribute the fiasco to an inborn sense of shyness that has always made me faint-hearted, dilatory and unaggressive. No doubt if I had gone about it roughshod and fiery I could have played hob with the excellent jeweller's peace of mind, to say the least, but alas! I succeeded only in approaching at a time when there was nothing left for me to do but to start him off in life with a mild handicap in the shape of a dining-room set that would not go with anything else he had in the apartment.
Still, some men, no matter how shy and procrastinating they may be—or reluctant, for that matter—are doomed to have love affairs thrust upon them, as you will perceive if you follow the course of this narrative to the bitter end.
In order that you may know me when you see me struggling through these pages, as one might struggle through a morass on a dark night, I shall take the liberty of describing myself in the best light possible under the circumstances.
I am a tallish sort of person, moderately homely, and not quite thirty-five. I am strong but not athletic. Whatever physical development I possess was acquired through the ancient and honourable game of golf and in swimming. In both of these sports I am quite proficient. My nose is rather long and inquisitive, and my chin is considered to be singularly firm for one who has no ambition to become a hero. My thatch is abundant and quite black. I understand that my eyes are green when I affect a green tie, light blue when I put on one of that delicate hue, and curiously yellow when I wear brown about my neck. Not that I really need them, but I wear nose glasses when reading: to save my eyes, of course. I sometimes wear them in public, with a very fetching and imposing black band draping across my expanse of shirt front. I find this to be most effective when sitting in a box at the theatre. My tailor is a good one. I shave myself clean with an old-fashioned razor and find it to be quite safe and tractable. My habits are considered rather good, and I sang bass in the glee club. So there you are. Not quite what yon would call a lady killer, or even a lady's man, I fancy you'll say.
You will be surprised to learn, however, that secretly I am of a rather romantic, imaginative turn of mind. Since earliest childhood I have consorted with princesses and ladies of high degree,—mentally, of course,—and my bosom companions have been knights of valour and longevity. Nothing could have suited me better than to have been born in a feudal castle a few centuries ago, from which I should have sallied forth in full armour on the slightest provocation and returned in glory when there was no one left in the neighbourhood to provoke me.
Even now, as I make this astounding statement, I can't help thinking of that confounded jeweller's clerk. At thirty-five I am still unattached and, so far as I can tell, unloved. What more could a sensible, experienced bachelor expect than that? Unless, of course, he aspired to be a monk or a hermit, in which case he reasonably could be sure of himself if not of others.
Last winter in London my mother went to a good bit of trouble to set my cap for a lady who seemed in every way qualified to look after an only son as he should be looked after from a mother's point of view, and I declare to you I had a wretchedly close call of it. My poor mother, thinking it was quite settled, sailed for America, leaving me entirely unprotected, whereupon I succeeded in making my escape. Heaven knows I had no desperate longing to visit Palestine at that particular time, but I journeyed thither without a qualm of regret, and thereby avoided the surrender without love or honour.
For the past year I have done little or no work. My books are few and far between, so few in fact that more than once I have felt the sting of dilettantism inflicting my labours with more or less increasing sharpness. It is not for me to say that I despise a fortune, but I am constrained to remark that I believe poverty would have been a fairer friend to me. At any rate I now pamper myself to an unreasonable extent. For one thing, I feel that I cannot work,—much less think,—when opposed by distracting conditions such as women, tea, disputes over luggage, and things of that sort. They subdue all the romantic tendencies I am so parsimonious about wasting. My best work is done when the madding crowd is far from me. Hence I seek out remote, obscure places when I feel the plot boiling, and grind away for dear life with nothing to distract me save an unconquerable habit acquired very early in life which urges me to eat three meals a day and to sleep nine hours out of twenty-four.
A month ago, in Vienna, I felt the plot breaking out on me, very much as the measles do, at a most inopportune time for everybody concerned, and my secretary, more wide-awake than you'd imagine by looking at him, urged me to coddle the muse while she was willing and not to put her off till an evil day, as frequently I am in the habit of doing.
It was especially annoying, coming as it did, just as I was about to set off for a fortnight's motor-boat trip up the Danube with Elsie Hazzard and her stupid husband, the doctor. I compromised with myself by deciding to give them a week of my dreamy company, and then dash off to England where I could work off the story in a sequestered village I had had in mind for some time past.
The fourth day of our delectable excursion brought us to an ancient town whose name you would recall in an instant if I were fool enough to mention it, and where we were to put up for the night. On the crest of a stupendous crag overhanging the river, almost opposite the town, which isn't far from Krems, stood the venerable but unvenerated castle of that highhanded old robber baron, the first of the Rothhoefens. He has been in his sarcophagus these six centuries, I am advised, but you wouldn't think so to look at the stronghold. At a glance you can almost convince yourself that he is still there, with battle-axe and broad-sword, and an inflamed eye at every window in the grim facade.
We picked up a little of its history while in the town, and the next morning crossed over to visit the place. Its antiquity was considerably enhanced by the presence of a caretaker who would never see eighty again, and whose wife was even older. Their two sons lived with them in the capacity of loafers and, as things go in these rapid times of ours, appeared to be even older and more sere than their parents.
It is a winding and tortuous road that leads up to the portals of this huge old pile, and I couldn't help thinking how stupid I have always been in execrating the spirit of progress that conceives the funicular and rack-and-pinion railroads which serve to commercialise grandeur instead of protecting it. Half way up the hill, we paused to rest, and I quite clearly remember growling that if the confounded thing belonged to me I'd build a funicular or install an elevator without delay. Poor Elsie was too fatigued to say what she ought to have said to me for suggesting and even insisting on the visit.
The next day, instead of continuing our delightful trip down the river, we three were scurrying to Saalsburg, urged by a sudden and stupendous whim on my part, and filled with a new interest in life.
I had made up my mind to buy the castle!
The Hazzards sat up with me nearly the whole of the night, trying to talk me out of the mad design, but all to no purpose. I was determined to be the sort of fool that Uncle Rilas referred to when he so frequently quoted the old adage. My only argument in reply to their entreaties was that I had to have a quiet, inspirational place in which to work and besides I was quite sure we could beat the impoverished owner down considerably in the price, whatever it might turn out to be. While the ancient caretaker admitted that it was for sale, he couldn't give me the faintest notion what it was expected to bring, except that it ought to bring more from an American than from any one else, and that he would be proud and happy to remain in my service, he and his wife and his prodigiously capable sons, either of whom if put to the test could break all the bones in a bullock without half trying, Moreover, for such strong men, they ate very little and seldom slept, they were so eager to slave in the interests of the master. We all agreed that they looked strong enough, but as they were sleeping with some intensity all the time we were there, and making dreadful noises in the courtyard, we could only infer that they were making up for at least a week of insomnia.
I had no difficulty whatever in striking a bargain with the abandoned wretch who owned the Schloss. He seemed very eager to submit to my demand that he knock off a thousand pounds sterling, and we hunted up a notary and all the other officials necessary to the transfer of property. At the end of three days, I was the sole owner and proprietor of a feudal stronghold on the Danube, and the joyous Austrian was a little farther on his way to the dogs, a journey he had been negotiating with great ardour ever since coming into possession of an estate once valued at several millions. I am quite sure I have never seen a spendthrift with more energy than this fellow seems to have displayed in going through with his patrimony. He was on his uppers, so to speak, when I came to his rescue, solely because he couldn't find a purchaser or a tenant for the castle, try as he would. Afterwards I heard that he had offered the place to a syndicate of Jews for one-third the price I paid, but luckily for me the Hebraic instinct was not so keen as mine. They let a very good bargain get away from them. I have not told my most intimate friends what I paid for the castle, but they are all generous enough to admit that I could afford it, no matter what it cost me. Their generosity stops there, however. I have never had so many unkind things said to me in all my life as have been said about this purely personal matter.
Well, to make the story short, the Hazzards and I returned to Schloss Rothhoefen in some haste, primarily for the purpose of inspecting it from dungeon to battlement. I forgot to mention that, being very tired after the climb up the steep, we got no further on our first visit than the great baronial hall, the dining-room and certain other impressive apartments customarily kept open for the inspection of visitors. An interesting concession on the part of the late owner (the gentleman hurrying to catch up with the dogs that had got a bit of a start on him),—may here be mentioned. He included all of the contents of the castle for the price paid, and the deed, or whatever you call it, specifically set forth that I, John Bellamy Smart, was the sole and undisputed owner of everything the castle held. This made the bargain all the more desirable, for I have never seen a more beautiful assortment of antique furniture and tapestry in Fourth Avenue than was to be found in Schloss Rothhoefen.
Our second and more critical survey of the lower floors of the castle revealed rather urgent necessity for extensive repairs and refurbishing, but I was not dismayed. With a blithesome disregard for expenses, I despatched Rudolph, the elder of the two sons to Linz with instructions to procure artisans who could be depended upon to undo the ravages of time to a certain extent and who might even suggest a remedy for leaks.
My friends, abhorring rheumatism and like complaints, refused to sleep over night in the drafty, almost paneless structure. They came over to see me on the ensuing day and begged me to return to Vienna with them. But, full of the project in hand, I would not be moved. With the house full of carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, locksmiths, tinsmiths, plumbers, plasterers, glaziers, joiners, scrub-women and chimneysweeps, I felt that I couldn't go away and leave it without a controlling influence.
They promised to come and make me a nice short visit, however, after I'd got the castle primped up a bit: the mould off the walls of the bedrooms and the great fireplaces thoroughly cleared of obstructive swallows' nests, the beds aired and the larder stocked. Just as they were leaving, my secretary and my valet put in an appearance, having been summoned from Vienna the day before. I confess I was glad to see them. The thought of spending a second night in that limitless bed-chamber, with all manner of night-birds trying to get in at the windows, was rather disturbing, and I welcomed my retainers with open arms.
My first night had been spent in a huge old bed, carefully prepared for occupancy by Herr Schmick's frau; and the hours, which never were so dark, in trying to fathom the infinite space that reached above me to the vaulted ceiling. I knew there was a ceiling, for I had seen its beams during the daylight hours, but to save my soul I couldn't imagine anything so far away as it seemed to be after the candles had been taken away by the caretaker's wife, who had tucked me away in the bed with ample propriety and thoroughness combined.
Twice during that interminable night I thought I heard a baby crying. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that I was more than glad to see Poopendyke clambering up the path with his typewriter in one hand and his green baise bag in the other, followed close behind by Britton and the Gargantuan brothers bearing trunks, bags, boxes and my golf clubs.
"Whew!" said Poopendyke, dropping wearily upon my doorstep—which, by the way, happens to be a rough hewn slab some ten feet square surmounted by a portcullis that has every intention of falling down unexpectedly one of these days and creating an earthquake. "Whew!" he repeated.
My secretary is a youngish man with thin, stooping shoulders and a habit of perpetually rubbing his knees together when he walks. I shudder to think of what would happen to them if he undertook to run. I could not resist a glance at them now.
"It is something of a climb, isn't it?" said I beamingly.
"In the name of heaven, Mr. Smart, what could have induced you to—" He got no farther than this, and to my certain knowledge this unfinished reproof was the nearest he ever came to openly convicting me of asininity.
"Make yourself at home, old fellow," said I in some haste. I felt sorry for him. "We are going to be very cosy here."
"Cosy?" murmured he, blinking as he looked up, not at me but at the frowning walls that seemed to penetrate the sky.
"I haven't explored those upper regions," I explained nervously, divining his thoughts. "We shall do it together, in a day or two."
"It looks as though it might fall down if we jostled it carelessly," he remarked, having recovered his breath.
"I am expecting masons at any minute," said I, contemplating the unstable stone crest of the northeast turret with some uneasiness. My face brightened suddenly. "That particular section of the castle is uninhabitable, I am told. It really doesn't matter if it collapses. Ah, Britton! Here you are, I see. Good morning."
Britton, a very exacting servant, looked me over critically.
"Your coat and trousers need pressing, sir," said he. "And where am I to get the hot water for shaving, sir?"
"Frau Schmick will supply anything you need, Britton," said I, happy on being able to give the information.
"It is not I as needs it, sir," said he, feeling of his smoothly shaven chin.
"Come in and have a look about the place," said I, with a magnificent sweep of my arm to counteract the feeling of utter insignificance I was experiencing at the moment. I could see that my faithful retinue held me in secret but polite disdain.
A day or two later the castle was swarming with workmen; the banging of hammers, the rasp of saws, the spattering of mortar, the crashing of stone and the fumes of charcoal crucibles extended to the remotest recesses; the tower of Babel was being reconstructed in the language of six or eight nations, and everybody was happy. I had no idea there were so many tinsmiths in the world. Every artisan in the town across the river seems to have felt it his duty to come over and help the men from Linz in the enterprise. There were so many of them that they were constantly getting in each other's way and quarrelling over matters of jurisdiction with even more spirit than we might expect to encounter among the labour unions at home.
Poopendyke, in great distress of mind, notified me on the fourth day of rehabilitation that the cost of labour as well as living had gone up appreciably since our installation. In fact it had doubled. He paid all of my bills, so I suppose he knew what he was talking about.
"You will be surprised to know, Mr. Smart," he said, consulting his sheets, "that scrub-women are getting more here than they do in New York City, and I am convinced that there are more scrub-women. Today we had thirty new ones scrubbing the loggia on the gun-room floor, and they all seem to have apprentices working under them. The carpenters and plasterers were not so numerous to-day. I paid them off last night, you see. It may interest you to hear that their wages for three days amounted to nearly seven hundred dollars in our money, to say nothing of materials—and breakage."
"Breakage?" I exclaimed in surprise.
"Yes, sir, breakage. They break nearly as much as they mend. We'll—we'll go bankrupt, sir, if we're not careful."
I liked his pronoun. "Never mind," I said, "we'll soon be rid of them."
"They've got it in their heads, sir, that it will take at least a year to finish the—"
"You tell the foremen that if this job isn't finished to our satisfaction by the end of the month, I'll fire all of them," said I, wrathfully.
"That's less than three weeks off, Mr. Smart. They don't seem to be making much headway."
"Well, you tell 'em, just the same." And that is how I dismissed it. "Tell 'em we've got to go to work ourselves."
"By the way, old man Schmick and his family haven't been paid for nearly two years. They have put in a claim. The late owner assured them they'd get their money from the next—"
"Discharge them at once," said I.
"We can't get on without them," protested he. "They know the ropes, so to speak, and, what's more to the point, they know all the keys. Yesterday I was nearly two hours in getting to the kitchen for a conference with Mrs. Schmick about the market-men. In the first place, I couldn't find the way, and in the second place all the doors are locked."
"Please send Herr Schmick to me in the—in the—" I couldn't recall the name of the administration chamber at the head of the grand staircase, so I was compelled to say: "I'll see him here."
"If we lose them we also are lost," was his sententious declaration. I believed him.
On the fifth day of our occupancy, Britton reported to me that he had devised a plan by which we could utilise the tremendous horse-power represented by the muscles of those lazy giants, Rudolph and Max. He suggested that we rig up a huge windlass at the top of the incline, with stout steel cables attached to a small car which could be hauled up the cliff by a hitherto wasted human energy, and as readily lowered. It sounded feasible and I instructed him to have the extraordinary railway built, but to be sure that the safety device clutches in the cog wheels were sound and trusty. It would prove to be an infinitely more graceful mode of ascending the peak than riding up on the donkeys I had been persuaded to buy, especially for Poopendyke and me, whose legs were so long that when we sat in the saddles our knees either touched our chins or were spread out so far that we resembled the Prussian coat-of-arms.
That evening, after the workmen had filed down the steep looking for all the world like an evacuating army, I sought a few moments of peace and quiet in the small balcony outside my bedroom windows. My room was in the western wing of the castle, facing the river. The eastern wing mounted even higher than the one in which we were living, and was topped by the loftiest watch tower of them all. We had not attempted to do any work over in that section as yet, for the simple reason that Herr Schmick couldn't find the keys to the doors.
The sun was disappearing beyond the highlands and a cool, soft breeze swept up through the valley. I leaned back in a comfortable chair that Britton had selected for me, and puffed at my pipe, not quite sure that my serenity was real or assumed. This was all costing me a pretty penny. Was I, after all, parting with my money in the way prescribed for fools? Was all this splendid antiquity worth the—
My reflections terminated sharply at that critical instant and I don't believe I ever felt called upon after that to complete the inquiry.
I found myself staring as if stupefied at the white figure of a woman who stood in the topmost balcony of the eastern wing, fully revealed by the last glow of the sun and apparently as deep in dreams as I had been the instant before.
I DEFEND MY PROPERTY
For ten minutes I stood there staring up at her, completely bewildered and not a little shaken. My first thought had been of ghosts, but it was almost instantly dispelled by a significant action on the part of the suspected wraith. She turned to whistle over her shoulder, and to snap her fingers peremptorily, and then she stooped and picked up a rather lusty chow dog which promptly barked at me across the intervening space, having discovered me almost at once although I was many rods away and quite snugly ensconced among the shadows. The lady in white muzzled him with her hand and I could almost imagine I heard her reproving whispers. After a few minutes, she apparently forgot the dog and lifted her hand to adjust something in her hair. He again barked at me, quite ferociously for a chow. This time it was quite plain to her that he was not barking at the now shadowy moon. She peered over the stone balustrade and an instant later disappeared from view through the high, narrow window.
Vastly exercised, I set out in quest of Herr Schmick, martialing Poopendyke as I went along, realising that I would have to depend on his German, which was less halting than mine and therefore, more likely to dovetail with that of the Schmicks, neither of whom spoke German because they loved it but because they had to,—being Austrians. We found the four Schmicks in the vast kitchen, watching Britton while he pressed my trousers on an oak table so large that the castle must have been built around it.
Herr Schmick was weighted down with the keys of the castle, which never left his possession day or night.
"Herr Schmick," said I, "will you be so good as to inform me who the dickens that woman is over in the east wing of the castle?"
"Woman, mein herr?" He almost dropped his keys. His big sons said something to each other that I couldn't quite catch, but it sounded very much like "der duyvil."
"A woman in a white dress,—with a dog."
"A dog?" he cried. "But, mein herr, dogs are not permitted to be in the castle."
"Who is she? How did she get there?"
"Heaven defend us, sir! It must have been the ghost of—"
"Ghost, your granny!" I cried, relapsing into English. "Please don't beat about the bush, Mr. Schmick. She's over there in the unused wing, which I haven't been allowed to penetrate in spite of the fact that it belongs to me. You say you can't find the keys to that side of the castle. Will you explain how it is that it is open to strange women and—and dogs?"
"You must be mistaken, mein herr," he whined abjectly. "She cannot be there. She—Ah, I have it! It may have been my wife. Gretel! Have you been in the east—"
"Nonsense!" I cried sharply. "This won't do, Mr. Schmick. Give me that bunch of keys. We'll investigate. I can't have strange women gallivanting about the place as if they owned it. This is no trysting place for Juliets, Herr Schmick. We'll get to the bottom of this at once. Here, you Rudolph, fetch a couple of lanterns. Max, get a sledge or two from the forge. There is a forge. I saw it yesterday out there back of the stables. So don't try to tell me there isn't one. If we can't unlock the doors, we'll smash 'em in. They're mine, and I'll knock 'em to smithereens if I feel like it."
The four Schmicks wrung their hands and shook their heads and, then, repairing to the scullery, growled and grumbled for fully ten minutes before deciding to obey my commands. In the meantime, I related my experience to Poopendyke and Britton.
"That reminds me, sir," said Britton, "that I found a rag-doll in the courtyard yesterday, on that side of the building, sir—I should say castle, sir."
"I am quite sure I heard a baby crying the second night we were here, Mr. Smart," said my secretary nervously.
"And there was smoke coming from one of the back chimney pots this morning," added Britton.
I was thoughtful for a moment. "What became of the rag-doll, Britton?" I enquired shrewdly.
"I turned it over to old Schmick, sir," said he. He grinned. "I thought as maybe it belonged to one of his boys."
On the aged caretaker's reappearance, I bluntly inquired what had become of the doll-baby. He was terribly confused.
"I know nothing, I know nothing," he mumbled, and I could see that he was miserably upset. His sons towered and glowered and his wife wrapped and unwrapped her hands in her apron, all the time supplicating heaven to be good to the true and the faithful.
From what I could gather, they all seemed to be more disturbed over the fact that my hallucination included a dog than by the claim that I had seen a woman.
"But, confound you, Schmick," I cried in some heat, "it barked at me."
"Gott in himmel!" they all cried, and, to my surprise, the old woman burst into tears.
"It is bad to dream of a dog," she wailed. "It means evil to all of us. Evil to—"
"Come!" said I, grabbing the keys from the old man's unresisting hand. "And, Schmick, if that dog bites me, I'll hold you personally responsible. Do you understand?"
Two abreast we filed through the long, vaulted halls, Rudolph carrying a gigantic lantern and Max a sledge. We traversed extensive corridors, mounted tortuous stairs and came at length to the sturdy oak door that separated the east wing from the west: a huge, formidable thing strengthened by many cross-pieces and studded with rusty bolt-heads. Padlocks as large as horse-shoes, corroded by rust and rendered absolutely impracticable by age, confronted us.
"I have not the keys," said old Conrad Schmick sourly. "This door has not been opened in my time. It is no use."
"It is no use," repeated his grizzly sons, leaning against the mouldy walls with weary tolerance.
"Then how did the woman and her dog get into that part of the castle?" I demanded. "Tell me that!"
They shook their heads, almost compassionately, as much as to say, "It is always best to humour a mad man."
"And the baby," added Poopendyke, turning up his coat collar to protect his thin neck from the draft that smote us from the halls.
"Smash those padlocks, Max," I commanded resolutely.
Max looked stupidly at his father and the old man looked at his wife, and then all four of them looked at me, almost imploringly.
"Why destroy a perfectly good padlock, mein herr?" began Max, twirling the sledge in his hand as if it were a bamboo cane.
"Hi! Look out there!" gasped Britton, in some alarm. "Don't let that thing slip!"
"Doesn't this castle belong to me?" I demanded, considerably impressed by the ease with which he swung the sledge. A very dangerous person, I began to perceive.
"It does, mein herr," shouted all of them gladly, and touched their forelocks.
"Everything is yours," added old Conrad, with a comprehensive sweep of his hand that might have put the whole universe in my name.
"Smash that padlock, Max," I said after a second's hesitation.
"I'll bet he can't do it," said Britton, ingeniously.
Very reluctantly Max bared his great arms, spit upon his hands, and, with a pitiful look at his parents, prepared to deal the first blow upon the ancient padlock. The old couple turned their heads away, and put their fingers to their ears, cringing like things about to be whipped.
"Now, one—two—three!" cried I, affecting an enthusiasm I didn't feel.
The sledge fell upon the padlock and rebounded with almost equal force. The sound of the crash must have disturbed every bird and bat in the towers of the grim old pile. But the padlock merely shed a few scabs of rust and rattled back into its customary repose.
"See!" cried Max, triumphantly. "It cannot be broken." Rudolph, his broad face beaming, held the lantern close to the padlock and showed me that it hadn't been dented by the blow.
"It is a very fine lock," cried old Conrad, with a note of pride in his voice.
I began to feel some pride in the thing myself. "It is, indeed," I said. "Try once more, Max."
It seemed to me that he struck with a great deal more confidence than before, and again they all uttered ejaculations of pleasure. I caught Dame Schmick in the act of thanking God with her fingers.
"See here," I exclaimed, facing them angrily, "what does all this mean? You are deceiving me, all of you. Now, let's have the truth—every word of it—or out you go to-morrow, the whole lot of you. I insist on knowing who that woman is, why she is here in my hou—my castle, and—everything, do you understand?"
Apparently they didn't understand, for they looked at me with all the stupidity they could command.
"You try, Mr. Poopendyke," I said, giving it up in despair. He sought to improve on my German, but I think he made it worse. They positively refused to be intelligent.
"Give me the hammer," I said at last in desperation. Max surrendered the clumsy, old-fashioned instrument with a grin and I motioned for them all to stand back. Three successive blows with all the might I had in my body failed to shatter the lock, whereupon my choler rose to heights hitherto unknown, I being a very mild-mannered, placid person and averse to anything savouring of the tempestuous. I delivered a savage and resounding thwack upon the broad oak panel of the door, regardless of the destructiveness that might attend the effort. If any one had told me that I couldn't splinter an oak board with a sledge-hammer at a single blow I should have laughed in his face. But as it turned out in this case I not only failed to split the panel but broke off the sledge handle near the head, putting it wholly out of commission for the time being as well as stinging my hands so severely that I doubled up with pain and shouted words that Dame Schmick could not put into her prayers.
The Schmicks fairly glowed with joy! Afterwards Max informed me that the door was nearly six inches thick and often had withstood the assaults of huge battering rams, back in the dim past when occasion induced the primal baron to seek safety in the east wing, which, after all, appears to have been the real, simon pure fortress. The west wing was merely a setting for festal amenities and was by no means feudal in its aspect or appeal. Here, as I came to know, the old barons received their friends and feasted them and made merry with the flagon and the horn of plenty; here the humble tithe payer came to settle his dues with gold and silver instead of with blood; here the little barons and baronesses romped and rioted with childish glee; and here the barons grew fat and gross and soggy with laziness and prosperity, and here they died in stupid quiescence. On the other side of that grim, staunch old door they simply went to the other extreme in every particular. There they killed their captives, butchered their enemies, and sometimes died with the daggers of traitors in their shivering backs.
As we trudged back to the lower halls, defeated but none the less impressed by our failure to devastate our stronghold, I was struck by the awful barrenness of the surroundings. There suddenly came over me the shocking realisation: the "contents" of the castle, as set forth rather vaguely in the bill of sale, were not what I had been led to consider them. It had not occurred to me at the time of the transaction to insist upon an inventory, and I had been too busy since the beginning of my tenancy to take more than a passing account of my belongings. In excusing myself for this rather careless oversight, I can only say that during daylight hours the castle was so completely stuffed with workmen and their queer utensils that I couldn't do much in the way of elimination, and by night it was so horribly black and lonesome about the place and the halls were so littered with tools and mops and timber that it was extremely hazardous to go prowling about, so I preferred to remain in my own quarters, which were quite comfortable and cosy in spite of the distance between points of convenience.
Still I was vaguely certain that many articles I had seen about the halls on my first and second visits were no longer in evidence. Two or three antique rugs, for instance, were missing from the main hall, and there was a lamentable suggestion of emptiness at the lower end where we had stacked a quantity of rare old furniture in order to make room for the workmen.
"Herr Schmick," said I, abruptly halting my party in the centre of the hall, "what has become of the rugs that were here last week, and where is that pile of furniture we had back yonder?"
Rudolph allowed the lantern to swing behind his huge legs, intentionally I believe, and I was compelled to relieve him of it in order that we might extract ourselves from his shadow. I have never seen such a colossal shadow as the one he cast.
Old Conrad was not slow in answering.
"The gentlemen called day before yesterday, mein herr, and took much away. They will return to-morrow for the remainder."
"Gentlemen?" I gasped. "Remainder?"
"The gentlemen to whom the Herr Count sold the rugs and chairs and chests and—"
"What!" I roared. Even Poopendyke jumped at this sudden exhibition of wrath. "Do you mean to tell me that these things have been sold and carried away without my knowledge or consent? I'll have the law—"
Herr Poopendyke intervened. "They had bills of sale and orders for removal of property dated several weeks prior to your purchase, Mr. Smart. We had to let the articles go. You surely remember my speaking to you about it."
"I don't remember anything," I snapped, which was the truth. "Why—why, I bought everything that the castle contained. This is robbery! What the dickens do you mean by—"
Old Conrad held up his hands as if expecting to pacify me. I sputtered out the rest of the sentence, which really amounted to nothing.
"The Count has been selling off the lovely old pieces for the past six months, sir. Ach, what a sin! They have come here day after day, these furniture buyers, to take away the most priceless of our treasures, to sell them to the poor rich at twenty prices. I could weep over the sacrifices. I have wept, haven't I, Gretel? Eh, Rudolph? Buckets of tears have I shed, mein herr. Oceans of them. Time after time have I implored him to deny these rascally curio hunters, these blood-sucking—"
"But listen to me," I broke in. "Do you mean to say that articles have been taken away from the castle since I came into possession?"
"Many of them, sir. Always with proper credentials, believe me. Ach, what a spendthrift he is! And his poor wife! Ach, Gott, how she must suffer. Nearly all of the grand paintings, the tapestries that came from France and Italy hundreds of years ago, the wonderful old bedsteads and tables that were here when the castle was new—all gone! And for mere songs, mein herr,—the cheapest of songs! I—I—"
"Please don't weep now, Herr Schmick," I made haste to exclaim, seeing lachrymose symptoms in his blear old eyes. Then I became firm once more. This knavery must cease, or I'd know the reason why. "The next man who comes here to cart away so much as a single piece is to be kicked out. Do you understand? These things belong to me. Kick him into the river. Or, better still, notify me and I'll do it. Why, if this goes on we'll soon be deprived of anything to sit on or sleep in or eat from! Lock the doors, Conrad, and don't admit any one without first consulting me. By Jove, I'd like to wring that rascal's neck. A Count! Umph!"
"Ach, he is of the noblest family in all the land," sighed old Gretel. "His grandfather was a fine man." I contrived to subdue my rage and disappointment and somewhat loudly returned to the topic from which we were drifting.
"As for those beastly padlocks, I shall have them filed off to-morrow. I give you warning, Conrad, if the keys are not forthcoming before noon to-morrow, I'll file 'em off, so help me."
"They are yours to destroy, mein herr, God knows," said he dismally. "It is a pity to destroy fine old padlocks—"
"Well, you wait and see," said I, grimly.
His face beamed once more. "Ach, I forgot to say that there are padlocks on the other side of the door, just as on this side. It will be of no use to destroy these. The door still could not be forced. Mein Gott! How thankful I am to have remembered it in time."
"Confound you, Schmick, I believe you actually want to keep me out of that part of the castle," I exploded.
The four of them protested manfully, even Gretel.
"I have a plan, sir," said Britton. "Why not place a tall ladder in the courtyard and crawl in through one of the windows?"
"Splendid! That's what we'll do!" I cried enthusiastically. "And now let's go to bed! We will breakfast at eight, Mrs. Schmick. The early bird catches the worm, you know."
"Will you see the American ladies and gentlemen who are coming to-morrow to pick out the—"
"Yes, I'll see them," said I, compressing my lips. "Don't let me over-sleep, Britton."
"I shan't, sir," said he.
Sleep evaded me for hours. What with the possible proximity of an undesirable feminine neighbour, mysterious and elusive though she may prove to be, and the additional dread of dogs and babies, to say nothing of the amazing delinquencies to be laid to the late owner of the place, and the prospect of a visit from coarse and unfeeling bargain-hunters on the morrow, it is really not surprising that I tossed about in my baronial bed, counting sheep backwards and forwards over hedges and fences until the vociferous cocks in the stable yard began to send up their clarion howdy-dos to the sun. Strangely enough, with the first peep of day through the decrepit window shutters I fell into a sound sleep. Britton got nothing but grunts from me until half-past nine. At that hour he came into my room and delivered news that aroused me more effectually than all the alarm clocks or alarm cocks in the world could have done.
"Get up, sir, if you please," he repeated the third time. "The party of Americans is below, sir, rummaging about the place. They have ordered the workmen to stop work, sir, complaining of the beastly noise they make, and the dust and all that, sir. They have already selected half a dozen pieces and they have brought enough porters and carriers over in the boats to take the stuff away in—"
"Where is Poopendyke?" I cried, leaping out of bed. "I don't want to be shaved, Britton, and don't bother about the tub." He had filled my twentieth century portable tub, recently acquired, and was nervously creating a lather in my shaving mug,
"You look very rough, sir."
"So much the better."
"Mr. Poopendyke is in despair, sir. He has tried to explain that nothing is for sale, but the gentlemen say they are onto his game. They go right on yanking things about and putting their own prices on them and reserving them. They are perfectly delighted, sir, to have found so many old things they really want for their new houses."
"I'll—I'll put a stop to all this," I grated, seeing red for an instant.
"And the ladies, sir! There are three of them, all from New York City, and they keep on saying they are completely ravished, sir,—with joy, I take it. Your great sideboard in the dining-room is to go to Mrs. Riley-Werkheimer, and the hall-seat that the first Baron used to throw his armour on when he came in from—"
"Great snakes!" I roared. "They haven't moved it, have they? It will fall to pieces!"
"No, sir. They are piling sconces and candelabra and andirons on it, regardless of what Mr. Poopendyke says. You'd better hurry, sir. Here is your collar and necktie—"
"I don't want 'em. Where the dickens are my trousers?"
His face fell. "Being pressed, sir, God forgive me!"
"Get out another pair, confound you, Britton. What are we coming to?"
He began rummaging in the huge clothespress, all the while regaling me with news from the regions below.
"Mr. Poopendyke has gone up to his room, sir, with his typewriter. The young lady insisted on having it. She squealed with joy at seeing an antique typewriter and he—he had to run away with it, 'pon my soul he did, sir."
I couldn't help laughing.
"And your golf clubs, Mr. Smart. The young gentleman of the party is perfectly carried away with them. He says they're the real thing, the genuine sixteenth century article. They are a bit rusted, you'll remember. I left him out in the courtyard trying your brassie and mid-iron, sir, endeavouring to loft potatoes over the south wall. I succeeded in hiding the balls, sir. Just as I started upstairs I heard one of the new window panes in the banquet hall smash, sir, so I take it he must have sliced his drive a bit."
"Who let these people in?" I demanded in smothered tones from the depths of a sweater I was getting into in order to gain time by omitting a collar.
"They came in with the plumbers, sir, at half-past eight. Old man Schmick tried to keep them out, but they said they didn't understand German and walked right by, leaving their donkeys in the roadway outside."
"Couldn't Rudolph and Max stop them?" I cried, as my head emerged.
"They were still in bed, sir. I think they're at breakfast now."
"Good lord!" I groaned, looking at my watch. "Nine-thirty! What sort of a rest cure am I conducting here?"
We hurried downstairs so fast that I lost one of my bedroom slippers. It went clattering on ahead of us, making a shameful racket on the bare stones, but Britton caught it up in time to save it from the clutches of the curio-vandals. My workmen were lolling about the place, smoking vile pipes and talking in guttural whispers. All operations appeared to have ceased in my establishment at the command of the far from idle rich. Two portly gentlemen in fedoras were standing in the middle of the great hall, discussing the merits of a dingy old spinet that had been carried out of the music room by two lusty porters from the hotel. From somewhere in the direction of the room where the porcelains and earthenware were stored came the shrill, excited voices of women. The aged Schmicks were sitting side by side on a window ledge, with the rigid reticence of wax figures.
As I came up, I heard one of the strangers say to the other:
"Well, if you don't want it, I'll take it. My wife says it can be made into a writing desk with a little—"
"I beg your pardon, gentlemen," said I confronting them. "Will you be good enough to explain this intrusion?"
They stared at me as if I were a servant asking for higher wages. The speaker, a fat man with a bristly moustache and a red necktie, drew himself up haughtily.
"Who the devil are you?" he demanded, fixing me with a glare.
I knew at once that he was the kind of an American I have come to hate with a zest that knows no moderation; the kind that makes one ashamed of the national melting pot. I glared back at him.
"I happen to be the owner of this place, and you'll oblige me by clearing out."
"What's that? Here, here, none of that sort of talk, my friend. We're here to look over your stuff, and we mean business, but you won't get anywhere by talking like—"
"There is nothing for sale here," I said shortly. "And you've got a lot of nerve to come bolting into a private house—"
"Say," said the second man, advancing with a most insulting scowl, "we'll understand each other right off the reel, my friend. All you've got to do is to answer us when we ask for prices. Now, bear that in mind, and don't try any of your high-and-mighty tactics on us."
"Just remember that you're a junk-dealer and we'll get along splendidly," said the other, in a tone meant to crush me. "What do you ask for this thing?" tapping the dusty spinet with his walking-stick.
It suddenly occurred to me that the situation was humorous.
"You will have to produce your references, gentlemen, before I can discuss anything with you," I said, after swallowing very hard. (It must have been my pride.)
They stared. "Good Lord!" gasped the bristly one, blinking his eyes. "Don't you know who this gentleman is? You—you appear to be an American. You must know Mr. Riley-Werkheimer of New York."
"I regret to say that I have never heard of Mr. Riley-Werkheimer. I did not know that Mrs. Riley-Werkheimer's husband was living. And may I ask who you are?"
"Oh, I am also a nobody," said he, with a wink at his purple-jowled companion. "I am only poor old Rocksworth, the president of the—"
"Oh, don't say anything more, Mr. Rocksworth," I cried. "I have heard of you. This fine old spinet? Well, it has been reduced in price. Ten thousand dollars, Mr. Rocksworth."
"Ten thousand nothing! I'll take it at seventy-five dollars. And now let's talk about this here hall-seat. My wife thinks it's a fake. What is its history, and what sort of guarantee can you—"
"A fake!" I cried in dismay. "My dear Mr. Rocksworth, that is the very hall-seat that Pontius Pilate sat in when waiting for an audience with the first of the great Teutonic barons. The treaty between the Romans and the Teutons was signed on that table over there,—the one you have so judiciously selected, I perceive. Of course, you know that this was the Saxon seat of government. Charlemagne lived here with all his court."
They tried not to look impressed, but rather overdid it.
"That's the sort of a story you fellows always put up, you skinflints from Boston. I'll bet my head you are from Boston," said Mr. Rocksworth shrewdly.
"I couldn't afford to have you lose your head, Mr. Rocksworth, so I shan't take you on," said I merrily.
"Don't get fresh now," said he stiffly.
Mr. Riley-Werkheimer walked past me to take a closer look at the seat, almost treading on my toes rather than to give an inch to me.
"How can you prove that it's the genuine article?" he demanded curtly.
"You have my word for it, sir," I said quietly.
"Pish tush!" said he.
Mr. Rocksworth turned in the direction of the banquet hall.
"Carrie!" he shouted. "Come here a minute, will you?"
"Don't shout like that, Orson," came back from the porcelain closet. "You almost made me drop this thing."
"Well, drop it, and come on. This is important."
I wiped the moisture from my brow and respectfully put my clenched fists into my pockets.
A minute later, three females appeared on the scene, all of them dusting their hands and curling their noses in disgust.
"I never saw such a dirty place," said the foremost, a large lady who couldn't, by any circumstance of fate, have been anybody's wife but Rocksworth's. "It's filthy! What do you want?"
"I've bought this thing here for seventy-five. You said I couldn't get it for a nickle under a thousand. And say, this man tells me the hall seat here belonged to Pontius Pilate in—"
"Pardon me," I interrupted, "I merely said that he sat in it. I am not trying to deceive you, sir."
"And the treaty was signed on this table," said Mr. Riley-Werkheimer. He addressed himself to a plump young lady with a distorted bust and a twenty-two inch waist. "Maude, what do you know about the Roman-Teutonic treaty? We'll catch you now, my friend," he went on, turning to me. "My daughter is up in ancient history. She's an authority."
Miss Maude appeared to be racking her brain. I undertook to assist her.
"I mean the second treaty, after the fall of Nuremburg," I explained.
"Oh," she said, instantly relieved. "Was it really signed here, right here in this hall? Oh, Father! We must have that table."
"You are sure there was a treaty, Maude?" demanded her parent accusingly.
"Certainly," she cried. "The Teutons ceded Alsace-Lorraine to—"
"Pardon me once more," I cried, and this time I plead guilty to a blush, "you are thinking of the other treaty—the one at Metz, Miss Riley-Werkheimer. This, as you will recall, ante-dates that one by—oh, several years."
"Thank you," she said, quite condescendingly. "I was confused for a moment. Of course, Father, I can't say that it was signed here or on this table as the young man says. I only know that there was a treaty. I do wish you'd come and see the fire-screen I've found—"
"Let's get this out of our system first," said her father. "If you can show me statistics and the proper proof that this is the genuine table, young man, I'll—"
"Pray rest easy, sir," I said. "We can take it up later on. The facts are—"
"And this Pontius Pilate seat," interrupted Rocksworth, biting off the end of a fresh cigar. "What about it? Got a match?"
"Get the gentleman a match, Britton," I said, thereby giving my valet an opportunity to do his exploding in the pantry. "I can only affirm, sir, that it is common history that Pontius Pilate spent a portion of his exile here in the sixth century. It is reasonable to assume that he sat in this seat, being an old man unused to difficult stairways. He—"
"Buy it, Orson," said his wife, with authority. "We'll take a chance on it. If it isn't the right thing, we can sell it to the second-hand dealers. What's the price?"
"A thousand dollars to you, madam," said I.
They were at once suspicious. While they were busily engaged in looking the seat over as the porters shifted it about at all angles, I stepped over and ordered my workmen to resume their operations. I was beginning to get sour and angry again, having missed my coffee. From the culinary regions there ascended a most horrific odour of fried onions. If there is one thing I really resent it is a fried onion. I do not know why I should have felt the way I did about it on this occasion, but I am mean enough now to confess that I hailed the triumphal entry of that pernicious odour with a meanness of spirit that leaves nothing to be explained.
"Good gracious!" gasped the aristocratic Mrs. Riley-Werkheimer, holding her nose. "Do you smell that"?
"Onions! My Gawd!" sniffed Maude. "How I hate 'em!"
Mr. Rocksworth forgot his dignity. "Hate 'em?" he cried, his eyes rolling. "I just love 'em!"
"Orson!" said his wife, transfixing him with a glare. "What will people think of you?"
"I like 'em too," admitted Mr. Riley-Werkheimer, perceiving at once whom she meant by "people." He puffed out his chest.
At that instant the carpenters, plumbers and stone masons resumed their infernal racket, while scrubwomen, polishers and painters began to move intimately among us.
"Here!" roared Mr. Rocksworth. "Stop this beastly noise! What the deuce do you mean, sir, permitting these scoundrels to raise the dead like this? Confound 'em, I stopped them once. Here! You! Let up on that, will you?"
I moved forward apologetically. "I am afraid it is not onions you smell, ladies and gentlemen." I had taken my cue with surprising quickness. "They are raising the dead. The place is fairly alive with dead rats and—"
"Good Lord!" gasped Riley-Werkheimer. "We'll get the bubonic plague here."
"Oh, I know onions," said Rocksworth calmly. "Can't fool me on onions. They are onions, ain't they, Carrie?"
"They are!" said she. "What a pity to have this wonderful old castle actually devastated by workmen! It is an outrage—a crime. I should think the owner would turn over in his grave."
"Unhappily, I am the owner, madam," said I, slyly working my foot back into an elusive slipper.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself," she said, eyeing me coldly with a hitherto unexposed lorgnon.
"I am," said I. "You quite took me by surprise. I should have made myself more presentable if I had known—"
"Well, let's move on upstairs," said Rocksworth. Addressing the porters he said: "You fellows get this lot of stuff together and I'll take an option on it. I'll be over to-morrow to close the deal, Mr.—Mr.—Now, where is the old Florentine mirror the Count was telling us about?"
"The Count?" said I, frowning.
"Yes, the real owner. You can't stuff me with your talk about being the proprietor here, my friend. You see, we happen to know the Count."
They all condescended to laugh at me. I don't know what I should have said or done if Britton had not returned with a box of matches at that instant—sulphur matches which added subtly to the growing illusion.
Almost simultaneously there appeared in the lower hall a lanky youth of eighteen. He was a loud-voiced, imperious sort of chap with at least three rolls to his trousers and a plum-coloured cap.
"Say, these clubs are the real stuff, all right, all right. They're as brittle as glass. See what I did to 'em. We can hae 'em spliced and rewound and I'll hang 'em on my wall. All I want is the heads anyhow."
He held up to view a headless mid-iron and brassie, and triumphantly waved a splendid cleek. My favourite clubs! I could play better from a hanging lie with that beautiful brassie than with any club I ever owned and as for the iron, I was deadly with it.
He lit a cigarette and threw the match into a pile of shavings. Old Conrad returned to life at that instant and stamped out the incipient blaze.
"I shouldn't consider them very good clubs, Harold, if they break off like that," said his mother.
"What do you know about clubs?" he snapped, and I at once knew what class he was in at the preparatory school.
If I was ever like one of these, said I to myself, God rest the sage soul of my Uncle Rilas!
The situation was no longer humorous. I could put up with anything but the mishandling of my devoted golf clubs.
Striding up to him, I snatched the remnants from his hands.
"You infernal cub!" I roared. "Haven't you any more sense than to smash a golf club like that? For two cents I'd break this putter over your head."
"Father!" he yelled indignantly. "Who is this mucker?"
Mr. Rocksworth bounced toward me, his cane raised. I whirled upon him.
"How dare you!" he shouted. The ladies squealed.
If he expected me to cringe, he was mightily mistaken. My blood was up. I advanced.
"Paste him, Dad!" roared Harold.
But Mr. Rocksworth suddenly altered his course and put the historic treaty table between him and me. He didn't like the appearance of my rather brawny fist.
"You big stiff!" shouted Harold. Afterwards it occurred to me that this inelegant appellation may have been meant for his father, but at the time I took it to be aimed at me.
Before Harold quite knew what was happening to him, he was prancing down the long hall with my bony fingers grasping his collar. Coming to the door opening into the outer vestibule, I drew back my foot for a final aid to locomotion. Acutely recalling the fact that slippers are not designed for kicking purposes, I raised my foot, removed the slipper and laid it upon a taut section of his trousers with all of the melancholy force that I usually exert in slicing my drive off the tee. I shall never forget the exquisite spasm of pleasure his plaintive "Ouch!" gave me.
Then Harold passed swiftly out of my life.
Mr. Rocksworth, reinforced by four reluctant mercenaries in the shape of porters, was advancing upon me. Somehow I had a vague, but unerring instinct that some one had fainted, but I didn't stop to inquire. Without much ado, I wrested the cane from him and sent it scuttling after Harold.
"Now, get out!" I roared.
"You shall pay for this!" he sputtered, quite black in the face. "Grab him, you infernal cowards!"
But the four porters slunk away, and Mr. Rocksworth faced me alone. Rudolph and Max, thoroughly fed and most prodigious, were bearing down upon us, accounting for the flight of the mercenaries.
"Get out!" I repeated. "I am the owner of this place, Mr. Rocksworth, and I am mad through and through. Skip!"
"I'll have the law—"
"Law be hanged!"
"If it costs me a million, I'll get—"
"It will cost you a million if you don't get!" I advised him, seeing that he paused for want of breath.
I left him standing there, but had the presence of mind to wave my huge henchmen away. Mr. Riley-Werkheimer approached, but very pacifically. He was paler than he will ever be again in his life, I fear.
"This is most distressing, most distressing, Mr.— Mr.— ahem! I've never been so outraged in my life. I—but, wait!" He had caught the snap in my atavistic eye. "I am not seeking trouble. We will go, sir. I—I—I think my wife has quite recovered. Are—are you all right, my dear?"
I stood aside and let them file past me. Mrs. Riley-Werkheimer moved very nimbly for one who had just been revived by smelling-salts. As her husband went by, he half halted in front of me. A curious glitter leaped into his fishy eyes.
"I'd give a thousand dollars to be free to do what you did to that insufferable puppy, Mr.—Mr.—ahem. A cool thousand, damn him!"
I had my coffee upstairs, far removed from the onions. A racking headache set in. Never again will I go without my coffee so long. It always gives me a headache.
I CONVERSE WITH A MYSTERY
Late in the afternoon, I opened my door, hoping that the banging of hammers and the buzz of industry would have ceased, but alas! the noise was even more deafening than before. I was still in a state of nerves over the events of the morning. There had been a most distressing lack of poise on my part, and I couldn't help feeling after it was all over that my sense of humour had received a shock from which it was not likely to recover in a long time. There was but little consolation in the reflection that my irritating visitors deserved something in the shape of a rebuff; I could not separate myself from the conviction that my integrity as a gentleman had suffered in a mistaken conflict with humour. My headache, I think, was due in a large measure to the sickening fear that I had made a fool of myself, notwithstanding my efforts to make fools of them. My day was spoilt. My plans were upset and awry.
Espying Britton in the gloomy corridor, I shouted to him, and he came at once.
"Britton," said I, as he closed the door, "do you think they will carry out their threat to have the law on me? Mr. Rocksworth was very angry—and put out. He is a power, as you know."
"I think you are quite safe, sir," said he. "I've been waiting outside since two o'clock to tell you something, sir, but hated to disturb you. I—"
"Thank you, Britton, my head was aching dreadfully."
"Yes, sir. Quite so. Shortly before two, sir, one of the porters from the hotel came over to recover a gold purse Mrs. Riley-Werkheimer had dropped in the excitement, and he informed Mr. Poopendyke that the whole party was leaving at four for Dresden. I asked particular about the young man, sir, and he said they had the doctor in to treat his stomach, sir, immediately after they got back to the hotel."
"His stomach? But I distinctly struck him on the verso."
"I know, sir; but it seems that he swallowed his cigarette."
To my shame, I joined Britton in a roar of laughter. Afterwards I recalled, with something of a shock, that it was the first time I had ever heard my valet laugh aloud. He appeared to be in some distress over it himself, for he tried to turn it off into a violent fit of coughing. He is such a faithful, exemplary servant that I made haste to pound him on the back, fearing the worst. I could not get on at all without Britton. He promptly recovered.
"I beg pardon, sir," said he. "Will you have your shave and tub now, sir?"
Later on, somewhat refreshed and relieved, I made my way to the little balcony, first having issued numerous orders and directions to the still stupefied Schmicks, chief among which was an inflexible command to keep the gates locked against all comers. The sun was shining brightly over the western hills, and the sky was clear and blue. The hour was five I found on consulting my watch. Naturally my first impulse was to glance up at the still loftier balcony in the east wing. It was empty. There was nothing in the grim, formidable prospect to warrant the impression that any one dwelt behind those dismantled windows, and I experienced the vague feeling that perhaps it had been a dream after all.
Far below at the foot of the shaggy cliff ran the historic Donau, serene and muddy, all rhythmic testimonials to the contrary. With something of a shudder I computed the distance from my eerie perch to the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. Five hundred feet, at least; an impregnable wall of nature surmounted by a now rank and obsolete obstruction built by the hand of man: a fortress that defied the legions of old but to-day would afford no more than brief and even desultory target practice for a smart battery. To scale the cliff, however, would be an impossibility for the most resourceful general in the world. All about me were turrets and minarets, defeated by the ancient and implacable foe—Time. Shattered crests of towers hung above me, grey and forbidding, yet without menace save in their senile prerogative to collapse without warning. Tiny windows marked the face of my still sturdy walls, like so many pits left by the pox, and from these in the good old feudal days a hundred marksmen had thrust their thunderous blunderbusses to clear the river of vain-glorious foes. From the scalloped bastions cross-bowmen of even darker ages had shot their random bolts; while in the niches of lower walls futile pikemen waited for the impossible to happen: the scaling of the cliff!
Friend and foe alike came to the back door of Schloss Rothhoefen, and there found welcome or stubborn obstacles that laughed at time and locksmiths: monstrous gates that still were strong enough to defy a mighty force. There was my great stone-paved courtyard, flanked on all sides by disintegrating buildings once occupied by serfs and fighting men; the stables in which chargers and beasts of burden had slept side by side until called by the night's work or the day's work, as war or peace prescribed, ranged close by the gates that opened upon the steep, winding roadway that now dismayed all modern steeds save the conquering ass. Here too were the remains of a once noble garden, and here were the granaries and the storehouses.
Far below me were the dungeons, with dead men's bones on their dripping floors; and somewhere in the heart of the peak were secret, unknown passages, long since closed by tumbling rocks and earth, as darkly mysterious as the streets in the buried cities of Egypt.
Across the river and below me stood the walled-in town that paid tribute to the good and bad Rothhoefens in those olden days: a red-tiled, gloomy city that stood as a monument to long-dead ambitions. A peaceful, quiet town that had survived its parlous centuries of lust and greed, and would go on living to the end of time.
So here I sat me down, almost at the top of my fancy, to wonder if it were not folly as well!
Above me soared huge white-bellied birds, cousins germain to my dreams, but alas! infinitely more sensible in that they roamed for a more sustaining nourishment than the so-called food for thought.
I looked backward to the tender years when my valiant young heart kept pace with a fertile brain in its swiftest flights, and pinched myself to make sure that this was not all imagination. Was I really living in a feudal castle with romance shadowing me at every step? Was this I, the dreamer of twenty years ago? Or was I the last of the Rothhoefens and not John Bellamy Smart, of Madison Avenue, New York?
The sun shone full upon me as I sat there in my little balcony, but I liked the dry, warm glare of it. To be perfectly frank, the castle was a bit damp. I had had a pain in the back of my neck for two whole days. The sooner I got at my novel and finished it up the better, I reflected. Then I could go off to the baths somewhere. But would I ever settle down to work? Would the plumbers ever get off the place? (They were the ones I seemed to suspect the most.)
Suddenly, as I sat there ruminating, I became acutely aware of something white on the ledge of the topmost window in the eastern tower. Even as I fixed my gaze upon it, something else transpired. A cloud of soft, wavy, luxurious brown hair eclipsed the narrow white strip and hung with spreading splendour over the casement ledge, plainly, indubitably to dry in the sun!
My neighbour had washed her hair!
And it was really a most wonderful head of hair. I can't remember ever having seen anything like it, except in the advertisements.
For a long time I sat there trying to pierce the blackness of the room beyond the window with my straining eyes, deeply sensitive to a curiosity that had as its basic force the very natural anxiety to know what disposition she had made of the rest of her person in order to obtain this rather startling effect.
Of course, I concluded, she was lying on a couch of some description, with her head in the window. That was quite clear, even to a dreamer. And perhaps she was reading a novel while the sun shone. My fancy went to the remotest ends of probability: she might even be reading one of mine!
What a glorious, appealing, sensuous thing a crown of hair—but just then Mr. Poopendyke came to my window.
"May I interrupt you for a moment, Mr. Smart?" he inquired, as he squinted at me through his ugly bone-rimmed glasses.
"Come here, Poopendyke," I commanded in low, excited tones. He hesitated. "You won't fall off," I said sharply.
Although the window is at least nine feet high, Poopendyke stooped as he came through. He always does it, no matter how tall the door. It is a life-long habit with him. Have I mentioned that my worthy secretary is six feet four, and as thin as a reed? I remember speaking of his knees. He is also a bachelor.
"It is a dreadful distance down there," he murmured, flattening himself against the wall and closing his eyes.
A pair of slim white hands at that instant indolently readjusted the thick mass of hair and quite as casually disappeared. I failed to hear Mr. Poopendyke's remark.
"I think, sir," he proceeded, "it would be a very good idea to get some of our correspondence off our hands. A great deal of it has accumulated in the past few weeks. I wish to say that I am quite ready to attend to it whenever—"
"Time enough for letters," said I, still staring.
"We ought to clean them all up before we begin on the romance, sir. That's my suggestion. We shan't feel like stopping for a lot of silly letters—By the way, sir, when do you expect to start on the romance?" He usually spoke of them as romances. They were not novels to Poopendyke.
I came to my feet, the light of adventure in my eye.
"This very instant, Poopendyke," I exclaimed.
His face brightened. He loves work.
"Splendid! I will have your writing tablets ready in—"
"First of all, we must have a ladder. Have you seen to that?"
"A ladder?" he faltered, putting one foot back through the window in a most suggestive way.
"Oh," said I, remembering, "I haven't told you, have I? Look! Up there in that window. Do you see that?"
"What is it, sir? A rug?"
"Rug! Great Scott, man, don't you know a woman's hair when you see it?"
"I've never—er—never seen it—you might say—just like that. Is it hair?"
"It is. You do see it, don't you?"
"How did it get there?"
"Good! Now I know I'm not dreaming. Come! There's no time to be lost. We may be able to get up there before she hears us!"
I was through the window and half way across the room before his well-meant protest checked me.
"For heaven's sake, Mr. Smart, don't be too hasty. We can't rush in upon a woman unexpectedly like this. Who knows? She may be entirely—" He caught himself up sharply, blinked, and then rounded out his sentence in safety with the word "deshabille."
I was not to be turned aside by drivel of that sort; so, with a scornful laugh, I hurried on and was soon in the courtyard, surrounded by at least a score of persons who madly inquired where the fire was, and wanted to help me to put it out. At last we managed to get them back at their work, and I instructed old Conrad to have the tallest ladder brought to me at once.
"There is no such thing about the castle," he announced blandly, puffing away at his enormous pipe. His wife shook her head in perfect serenity. Somewhat dashed, I looked about me in quest of proof that they were lying to me. There was no sign of anything that even resembled a ladder.
"Where are your sons?" I demanded.
The old couple held up their hands in great distress.
"Herr Britton has them working their souls out, turning a windlass outside the gates—ach, that terrible invention of his!" groaned old Conrad. "My poor sons are faint with fatigue, mein herr. You should see them perspire,—and hear them pant for breath."
"It is like the blowing of the forge bellows," cried his wife. "My poor little boys!"
"Fetch them at once Conrad," said I, cudgelling my brain for a means to surmount a present difficulty, and but very slightly interested in Britton's noble contraption.
The brothers soon appeared and, as if to give the lie to their fond parents, puffed complacently at their pipes and yawned as if but recently aroused from a nap. Their sleeves were rolled up and I marvelled at the size of their arms.
"Is Britton dead?" I cried, suddenly cold with the fear that they had mutinied against this brusque English overlord.
They smiled. "He is waiting to be pulled up again, sir," said Max. "We left him at the bottom when you sent for us. It is for us to obey."
Of course, everything had to wait while my obedient vassals went forth and reeled the discomforted Britton to the top of the steep. He sputtered considerably until he saw me laughing at him. Instantly he was a valet once more, no longer a crabbed genius.
I had thought of a plan, only to discard it on measuring with my eye the distance from the ground to the lowest window in the east wing, second floor back. Even by standing on the shoulders of Rudolph, who was six feet five, I would still find myself at least ten feet short of the window ledge. Happily a new idea struck me almost at once.
In a jiffy, half a dozen carpenters were at work constructing a substantial ladder out of scantlings, while I stood over them in serene command of the situation.
The Schmicks segregated themselves and looked on, regarding the window with sly, furtive glances in which there was a distinct note of uneasiness.
At last the ladder was complete. Resolutely I mounted to the top and peered through the sashless window. It was quite black and repelling beyond. Instructing Britton and the two brothers to follow me in turn, I clambered over the wide stone sill and lowered myself gingerly to the floor.
I will not take up the time or the space to relate my experiences on this first fruitless visit to the east wing of my abiding place. Suffice to say, we got as far as the top of the stairs in the vast middle corridor after stumbling through a series of dim, damp rooms, and then found our way effectually blocked by a stout door which was not only locked and bolted, but bore a most startling admonition to would-be trespassers.
Pinned to one of the panels there was a dainty bit of white note-paper, with these satiric words written across its surface in a bold, feminine hand:
"Please keep out. This is private property."
Most property owners no doubt would have been incensed by this calm defiance on the part of a squatter, either male or female, but not I. The very impudence of the usurper appealed to me. What could be more delicious than her serene courage in dispossessing me, with the stroke of a pen, of at least two-thirds of my domicile, and what more exciting than the thought of waging war against her in the effort to regain possession of it? Really it was quite glorious! Here was a happy, enchanting bit of feudalism that stirred my romantic soul to its very depths. I was being defied by a woman—an amazon! Even my grasping imagination could not have asked for more substantial returns than this. To put her to rout! To storm the castle! To make her captive and chuck her into my dungeon! Splendid!
We returned to the courtyard and held a counsel of war. I put all of the Schmicks on the grill, but they stubbornly disclaimed all interest in or knowledge of the extraordinary occupant of the east wing.
"We can smoke her out, sir," said Britton.
I could scarcely believe my ears.
"Britton," said I severely, "you are a brute. I am surprised. You forget there is an innocent babe—maybe a collection of them—over there. And a dog. We shan't do anything heathenish, Britton. Please bear that in mind. There is but one way: we must storm the place. I will not be defied to my very nose."
I felt it to see if it was not a little out of joint. "It is a good nose."
"It is, sir," said Britton, and Poopendyke, in a perfect ecstasy of loyalty, shouted: "Long live your nose, sir!"
My German vassals waved their hats, perceiving that a demonstration was required without in the least knowing what it was about.
"To-night we'll plan our campaign," said I, and then returned in some haste to my balcony. The mists of the waning day were rising from the valley below. The smell of rain was in the air. I looked in vain for the lady's tresses. They were gone. The sun was also gone. His work for the day was done. I wondered whether she was putting up her hair with her own fair hands or was there a lady's maid in her menage.
Poopendyke and I dined in solemn grandeur in the great banquet hall, attended by the clumsy Max.
"Mr. Poopendyke," said I, after Max had passed me the fish for the second time on my right side—and both times across my shoulder,—"we must engage a butler and a footman to-morrow. Likewise a chef. This is too much."
"Might I suggest that we also engage a chambermaid? The beds are very poorly—"
I held up my hand, smiling confidently.
"We may capture a very competent chambermaid before the beds are made up again," I said, with meaning.
"She doesn't write like a chambermaid," he reminded me. Whereupon we fell to studying the very aristocratic chirography employed by my neighbour in barring me from my own possessions.
After the very worst meal that Frau Schmick had ever cooked, and the last one that Max under any circumstance would be permitted to serve, I took myself off once more to the enchanted balcony. I was full of the fever of romance. A perfect avalanche of situations had been tumbling through my brain for hours, and, being a provident sort of chap in my own way, I decided to jot them down on a pad of paper before they quite escaped me or were submerged by others.
The night was very black and tragic, swift storm clouds having raced up to cover the moon and stars. With a radiant lanthorn in the window behind me, I sat down with my pad and my pipe and my pencil. The storm was not far away. I saw that it would soon be booming about my stronghold, and realised that my fancy would have to work faster than it had ever worked before if half that I had in mind was to be accomplished. Why I should have courted a broken evening on the exposed balcony, instead of beginning my labours in my study, remains an unrevealed mystery unless we charge it to the account of a much-abused eccentricity attributed to genius and which usually turns out to be arrant stupidity.
I have no patience with the so-called eccentricity of genius. It is merely an excuse for unkempt hair, dirty finger-nails, unpolished boots, open placquets, bad manners and a tendency to forget pecuniary obligations, to say nothing of such trifles as besottednesss, vulgarity and the superior knack of knowing how to avoid making suitable provision for one's wife and children. All the shabby short-comings in the character of an author, artist or actor are blithely charged to genius, and we are content to let it go at that for fear that other people may think we don't know any better. As for myself, I may be foolish and inconsequential, but heaven will bear witness that I am not mean enough to call myself a genius.
So we will call it stupidity that put me where I might be rained upon at any moment, or permanently interrupted by a bolt of lightning. (There were low mutterings of thunder behind the hills, and faint flashes as if a monstrous giant had paused to light his pipe on the evil, wind-swept peaks of the Caucasus mountains.)
I was scribbling away in serene contempt for the physical world, when there came to my ears a sound that gave me a greater shock than any streak of lightning could have produced and yet left sufficient life in me to appreciate the sensation of being electrified.
A woman's voice, speaking to me out of the darkness and from some point quite near at hand! Indeed, I could have sworn it was almost at my elbow; she might have been peering over my shoulder to read my thoughts.
"I beg your pardon, but would you mind doing me a slight favour?"
Those were the words, uttered in a clear, sweet, perfectly confident voice, as of one who never asked for favours, but exacted them.
I looked about me, blinking, utterly bewildered. No one was to be seen. She laughed. Without really meaning to do so, I also laughed,—nervously, of course.
"Can't you see me?" she asked. I looked intently at the spot from which the sound seemed to come: a perfectly solid stone block less than three feet from my right shoulder. It must have been very amusing. She laughed again. I flushed resentfully.
"Where are you?" I cried out rather tartly.
"I can see you quite plainly, and you are very ugly when you scowl, sir. Are you scowling at me?"
"I don't know," I replied truthfully, still searching for her. "Does it seem so to you?"
"Then I must be looking in the right direction," I cried impolitely. "You must be—Ah!"
My straining eyes had located a small, oblong blotch in the curve of the tower not more than twenty feet from where I stood, and on a direct line with my balcony. True, I could not at first see a face, but as my eyes grew a little more accustomed to the darkness, I fancied I could distinguish a shadow that might pass for one.