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- A Fool and His Money - 10/63 -
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.
"I didn't know that little window was there," I cried, puzzled.
"It isn't," she said. "It is a secret loop-hole, and it isn't here except in times of great duress. See! I can close it." The oblong blotch abruptly disappeared, only to reappear an instant later. I was beginning to understand. Of course it was in the beleaguered east wing! "I hope I didn't startle you a moment ago."
I resolved to be very stiff and formal about it. "May I enquire, madam, what you are doing in my hou--my castle?"
"Well," said I, seeing the point, "what are you doing here?"
"I am living here," she answered distinctly.
"So I perceive," said I, rather too distinctly.
"And I have come down to ask a simple, tiny little favour of you, Mr. Smart," she resumed.
"You know my name?" I cried, surprised.
"I am reading your last book--Are you going?"
"Just a moment, please," I called out, struck by a splendid idea. Reaching inside the window I grasped the lanthorn and brought its rays to bear upon the--perfectly blank wall! I stared open-mouthed and unbelieving. "Good heaven! Have I been dreaming all this?" I cried aloud.
My gaze fell upon two tiny holes in the wall, exposed to view by the bright light of my lamp. They appeared to be precisely in the centre of the spot so recently marked by the elusive oblong. Even as I stared at the holes, a slim object that I at once recognised as a finger protruded from one of them and wiggled at me in a merry but exceedingly irritating manner.
Sensibly I restored the lanthorn to its place inside the window and waited for the mysterious voice to resume.
"Are you so homely as all that?" I demanded when the shadowy face looked out once more. Very clever of me, I thought.
"I am considered rather good-looking," she replied, serenely. "Please don't do that again. It was very rude of you, Mr. Smart." "Oh, I've seen something of you before this," I said. "You have long, beautiful brown hair--and a dog."
She was silent.
"I am sure you will pardon me if I very politely ask who you are?" I went on.
"That question takes me back to the favour. Will you be so very, very kind as to cease bothering me, Mr. Smart? It is dreadfully upsetting, don't you feeling that at any moment you may rush in and--"
"I like that. In my own castle, too!"
"There is ample room for both of us," she said sharply. "I shan't be here for more than a month or six weeks, and I am sure we can get along very amiably under the same roof for that length of time if you'll only forget that I am here."
"I can't very well do that, madam. You see, we are making extensive repairs about the place and you are proving to be a serious obstacle. I cannot grant your request. It will grieve me enormously if I am compelled to smoke you out but I fear--"
"Smoke me out!"
"Perhaps with sulphur," I went on resolutely. "It is said to be very effective."
"Surely you will not do anything so horrid."
"Only as a last resort. First, we shall storm the east wing. Failing in that we shall rely on smoke. You will admit that you have no right to poach on my preserves."
"None whatever," she said, rather plaintively.
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