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- A Fool and His Money - 30/63 -
I write my books, and how I keep from losing my mind.
"Would you be entertained by a real mystery?" she asked, leaning toward me with a gleam of excitement in her eyes. Very promptly I said I should be. We were having our coffee. Hawkes and Blatchford had left the room. "Well, tradition says that one of the old barons buried a vast treasure in the cellar of this--"
"Stop!" I commanded, shaking my head. "Haven't I just said that I don't want to talk about literature? Buried treasure is the very worst form of literature."
"Very well," she said indignantly. "You will be sorry when you hear I've dug it up and made off with it."
I pricked up my ears. This made a difference. "Are you going to hunt for it yourself?"
"I am," she said resolutely.
"In those dark, dank, grewsome cellars?"
"If necessary," she said, looking at me over the edge of the coffee cup.
"Tell me all about it," said I.
"Oh, we sha'n't find it, of course," said she calmly. I made note of the pronoun. "They've been searching for it for two centuries without success. My--that is, Mr. Pless has spent days down there. He is very hard-up, you know. It would come in very handy for him."
I glowered. "I'm glad he's gone. I don't like the idea of his looking for treasures in my castle."
She gave me a smile for that.
I AGEEE TO MEET THE ENEMY
That night I dreamed of going down, down, down into the bowels of the earth after buried treasure, and finding at the end of my hours of travel the countess's mother sitting in bleak splendour on a chest of gold with her feet drawn up and surrounded by an audience of spiders.
For an hour or more after leaving the enchanted rooms near the roof, I lounged in my study, persistently attentive to the portrait of Ludwig the Red, with my ears straining for sounds from the other side of the secret panels. Alas! those panels were many cubits thick and as staunch as the sides of a battleship. But there was a vast satisfaction in knowing that she was there, asleep perhaps, with her brown head pillowed close to the wall but little more than an arm's length from the crimson waistcoat of Ludwig the Red,--for he sat rather low like a Chinese god and supported his waistcoat with his knees. A gross, forbidding chap was he! The story was told of him that he could quaff a flagon of ale at a single gulp. Looking at his portrait, one could not help thinking what a pitifully infinitesimal thing a flagon of ale is after all.
Morning came and with it a sullen determination to get down to work on my long neglected novel. I went down to breakfast. Everything about the place looked bleak and dreary and as grey as a granite tombstone. Hawkes, who but twelve hours before had seemed the embodiment of life in its most resilient form, now appeared as a drab nemesis with wooden legs and a frozen leer. My coffee was bitter, the peaches were like sponges, the bacon and rolls of uniform sogginess and the eggs of a strange liverish hue. I sat there alone, gloomy and depressed, contrasting the hateful sunshine with the soft, witching refulgence of twenty-four candles and the light that lies in a woman's eyes.
"A fine morning, sir," said Hawkes in a voice that seemed to come from the grave. It was the first time I had ever heard him speak so dolorously of the morning. Ordinarily he was a pleasant voiced fellow.
"Is it?" said I, and my voice sounded gloomier than his. I was not sure of it, but it seemed to me that he made a movement with his hand as if about to put it to his lips. Seeing that I was regarding him rather fixedly, he allowed it to remain suspended a little above his hip, quite on a line with the other one. His elbows were crooked at the proper angle I noticed, so I must have been doing him an injustice. He couldn't have had anything disrespectful in mind.
"Send Mr. Poopendyke to me, Hawkes, immediately after I've finished my breakfast."
"Very good, sir. Oh, I beg pardon, sir. I am forgetting, Mr. Poopendyke is out. He asked me to tell you he wouldn't return before eleven."
"Out? What business has he to be out?"
"Well, sir, I mean to say, he's not precisely out, and he isn't just what one would call in. He is up in the--ahem!--the east wing, sir, taking down some correspondence for the--for the lady, sir."
I arose to the occasion. "Quite so, quite so. I had forgotten the appointment."
"Yes, sir, I thought you had."
"Ahem! I daresay Britton will do quite as well. Tell him to--"
"Britton, sir, has gone over to the city for the newspapers. You forget that he goes every morning as soon as he has had his--"
"Yes, yes! Certainly," I said hastily. "The papers. Ha, ha! Quite right."
It was news to me, but it wouldn't do to let him know it. The countess read the papers, I did not. I steadfastly persisted in ignoring the Paris edition of the _New York Herald_ for fear that the delightful mystery might disintegrate, so to speak, before my eyes, or become the commonplace scandal that all the world was enjoying. As it stood now, I had it all to myself--that is to say, the mystery. Mr. Poopendyke reads aloud the baseball scores to me, and nothing else.
It was nearly twelve when my secretary reported to me on this particular morning, and he seemed a trifle hazy as to the results of the games. After he had mumbled something about rain or wet grounds, I coldly enquired:
"Mr. Poopendyke, are you employed by me or by that woman upstairs?" I would never have spoken of her as "that woman," believe me, if I had not been in a state of irritation.
He looked positively stunned. "Sir?" he gasped.
I did not repeat the question, but managed to demand rather fiercely: "Are you?"
"The countess had got dreadfully behind with her work, sir, and I thought you wouldn't mind if I helped her out a bit," he explained nervously.
"Work? What work?"
"Her diary, sir. She is keeping a diary."
"It is very interesting, Mr. Smart. Rather beats any novel I've read lately. We--we've brought it. quite up to date. I wrote at least three pages about the dinner last night. If I am to believe what she puts into her diary, it must have been a delightful occasion, as the newspapers would say."
I was somewhat mollified. "What did she have to say about it, Fred?" I asked. It always pleased him to be called Fred.
"That would be betraying a confidence," said he. "I will say this much, however: I think I wrote your name fifty times or more in connection with it."
"Rubbish!" said I.
"Not at all!" said he, with agreeable spirit.
A sudden chill came over me. "She isn't figuring on having it published, is she?"
"I can't say as to that," was his disquieting reply. "It wasn't any of my business, so I didn't ask."
"Oh," said I, "I see."
"I think it is safe to assume, however, that it is not meant for publication," said he. "It strikes me as being a bit too personal. There are parts of it that I don't believe she'd dare to put into print, although she reeled them off to me without so much as a blush. 'Pon my soul, Mr. Smart, I never was so embarrassed in my life. She--"
"Never mind," I interrupted hastily. "Don't tell tales out of school."
He was silent for a moment, fingering his big eyeglasses nervously. "It may please you to know that she thinks you are an exceedingly nice man."
"No, it doesn't!" I roared irascibly. "I'm damned if I like being called an exceedingly nice man."
"They were my words, sir, not hers," he explained desperately. "I was merely putting two and two together--forming an opinion from her manner not from her words. She is very particular to mention everything you do for her, and thanks me if I call her attention to anything she may have forgotten. She certainly appreciates your kindness to the baby."
"That is extremely gratifying," said I acidly.
He hesitated once more. "Of course, you understand that the divorce itself is absolute. It's only the matter of the child that remains unsettled. The--"
I fairly barked at him. "What the devil do you mean by that, sir? What has the divorce got to do with it?"
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