PROFESSOR LORING G. HIBBART, of Purewater University, Clio, N. Y., settled himself in the corner of his compartment in the Marseilles–Ventimiglia express, drew his velvet ear-pads from his pocket, slipped them over his ears, and began to think.
It was nearly three weeks since he had been able to indulge undisturbed in this enchanting operation. On the steamer which had brought him from Boston to Marseilles considerable opportunity had in truth been afforded him, for though he had instantly discovered his fellow-passengers to be insinuating and pervasive, an extremely rough passage had soon reduced them to inoffensiveness. Unluckily the same cause had in like manner affected the Professor; and when the ship approached calmer waters, and he began to revive, the others revived also, and proceeded to pervade, to insinuate and even to multiply — since a lady gave birth to twins as they entered the Mediterranean.
As for the tumultuous twenty-four hours since his landing, the Professor preferred not to include them in his retrospect. It was enough that they were over. “All I want is quiet,” he had said to the doctors who, after his alarming attack of influenza, followed by bronchial pneumonia, had ordered an immediate departure for warmer climes; and they had thrust him onto an excursion-steamer jammed with noisy sight-seers, and shipped him to a port whither all the rest of the world appeared to be bound at the same moment! His own fault, perhaps? Well — he never could plan or decide in a hurry, and when, still shaken by illness, he had suddenly been told that he must spend six months in a mild climate, and been faced with the alternatives of southern California or southern France, he had chosen the latter because it meant a more complete escape from professional associations and the terror of meeting people one knew. As far as climate went, he understood the chances to be equal; and all he wanted was to recover from his pulmonary trouble and employ his enforced leisure in writing a refutation of Einstein’s newly published book on Relativity.
Once the Professor had decided on the south of France, there remained the difficulty of finding, in that populous region, a spot quiet enough to suit him; but after much anxious consultation with colleagues who shared his dread of noise and of promiscuous human intercourse, he had decided on a secluded pension high up in the hills, between Monte Carlo and Mentone. In this favoured spot, he was told, no dogs barked, cocks crew or cats courted. There were no waterfalls, or other sonorous natural phenomena, and it was utterly impossible for a motor (even with its muffler knocked off) to ascend the precipitous lane which led to the pension. If, in short, it were possible to refute Einstein’s theory, it was in just such a place, and there only, that the feat might be accomplished.
Once settled in the train, the Professor breathed more freely. Most of his fellow-passengers had stayed on the ship, which was carrying them on to swarm over a succession of other places as he had just left them swarming over Marseilles. The train he got into was not very crowded, and should other travellers enter the compartment, his ear-pads would secure him from interruption. At last he could revert to the absorbing thought of the book he was planning; could plunge into it like a diver into the ocean. He drew a deep breath and plunged . . .
Certainly the compartment had been empty when the train left Marseilles — he was sure of that; but he seemed to remember now that a man had got in at a later station, though he couldn’t have said where or when; for once he began to think, time vanished from him as utterly as space.
He became conscious of the intruding presence only from the smell of tobacco gradually insinuating itself into his nostrils. Very gradually; for when the Professor had withdrawn into his inner stronghold of Pure Reason, and pulled up the ladder, it was not easy for any appeal to reach him through the channel of the senses. Not that these were defective in him. Far from it: he could smell and see, taste and hear, with any man alive; but for many years past he had refrained from exercising these faculties except in so far as they conduced to the maintenance of life and security. He would have preferred that the world should contain nothing to see, nothing to smell, nothing to hear; and by negativing persistently every superfluous hint of his visual, auditive or olfactory organs he had sheathed himself in a general impenetrability of which the ear-pads were merely a restricted symbol.
His noticing the whiff of tobacco was an accident, a symptom of his still disorganized state; he put the smell resolutely from him, registered “A Man Opposite,” and plunged again into the Abstract.
Once — about an hour later, he fancied — the train stopped with a jerk which flung him abruptly out of his corner. His mental balance was disturbed, and for one irritating instant his gaze unwillingly rested on silver groves, purple promontories and a blue sea. “Ugh — scenery!” he muttered; and with a renewed effort of the will he dropped his mental curtain between that inconsequent jumble of phenomena and the absolutely featureless area in which the pure intellect thrones. The incident had brought back the smell of his neighbour’s cigarette; but the Professor sternly excluded that also, and the train moved on . . .
Professor Hibbart was in truth a man of passionately excitable nature: no one was ever, by temperament, less adapted to the lofty intellectual labours in which his mind delighted. He asked only to live in the empyrean; but he was perpetually being dragged back to earth by the pity, wrath or contempt excited in him by the slipshod course of human affairs. There were only two objects on which he flattered himself he could always look with a perfectly unseeing eye; and these were a romantic landscape and a pretty woman. And he was not absolutely sure about the landscape.
Suddenly a touch, soft yet peremptory, was laid on his arm. Looking down, he beheld a gloved hand; looking up he saw that the man opposite him was a woman.
To this awkward discovery he was still prepared to oppose the blank wall of the most complete imperception. But a sharp pinch proved that the lady who had taken hold of his arm had done so with the fixed determination to attract his attention, at the cost of whatever pain or inconvenience to himself. As she appeared also to be saying something — probably asking if the next station were the one at which she ought to get out — he formed with soundless lips the word “Deaf,” and pointed to his ears. The lady’s reply was to release his wrist, and with her free hand flick off an ear-pad.
“Deaf? Oh, no,” she said briskly, in fluent but exotic English. “You wouldn’t need ear-pads if you were. You don’t want to be bothered — that’s all. I know the trick; you got it out of Herbert Spencer!”
The assault had nearly disabled the Professor for farther resistance; but he rallied his wits and answered stonily: “I have no time-table. You’d better consult the guard.”
The lady threw her spent cigarette out of the window. As the smoke drifted away from her features he became uneasily aware that they were youthful, and that the muscles about her lips and eyes were contracted into what is currently known as a smile. In another moment, he realized with dismay, he was going to know what she looked like. He averted his eyes.
“I don’t want to consult the guard — I want to consult you,” said the lady.
His ears took reluctant note of an intonation at once gay and appealing, which caressed the “You” as if it were a new pronoun rich in vowels, and the only one of its kind in the world.
“Eeee-you,” she repeated.
He shook his averted head. “I don’t know the name of a single station on this line.”
“Dear me, don’t you?” The idea seemed to shock her, to make a peculiar appeal to her sympathy. “But I do — every one of them! With my eyes shut. Listen: I’ll begin at the beginning. Paris — ”
“But I don’t want to know them!” he almost screamed.
“Well, neither do I. What I want is to ask you a favour — just one tiny little enormous favour.”
The Professor still looked away. “I have been in very bad health until recently,” he volunteered.
“Oh, I’m so glad — glad, I mean,” she corrected herself hastily, “that you’re all right again now! And glad too that you’ve been ill, since that just confirms it — ”
Here the Professor fell. “Confirms what?” he snapped, and saw too late the trap into which he had plunged.
“My belief that you are predestined to help me,” replied his neighbour with joyful conviction.
“Oh, but that’s quite a mistake — a complete mistake. I never in my life helped anybody, in any way. I’ve always made it a rule not to.”
“Not even a Russian refugee?”
“Oh, yes, you have. You’ve helped me!”
The Professor turned an ireful glance upon her, and she nodded. “I am a Russian refugee.”
“You?” he exclaimed. His eyes, by this time, had definitely escaped from his control, and were recording with an irrepressible activity and an exasperating precision the details of her appearance and her dress. Both were harmonious and opulent. He laughed incredulously.
“Why do you laugh? Can’t you see that I’m a refugee; by my clothes, I mean? Who has such pearls but Russian refugees? Or such sables? We have to have them — to sell, of course You don’t care to buy my sables, do you? For you they would be only six thousand pounds cash. No, I thought not. It’s my duty to ask — but I didn’t suppose they would interest you. The Paris and London jewellers farm out the pearls to us; the big dressmakers supply the furs. For of course we’ve all sold the originals long ago. And really I’ve been rather successful. I placed two sets of silver fox and a rope of pearls last week at Monte Carlo. Ah, that fatal place! I gambled away the whole of my commission the same night . . . But I’m forgetting to tell you how you’ve already helped me . . . ”
She paused to draw breath, and in the pause the Professor, who had kept his hand on his loosened ear-pad, slipped it back over his ear.
“I wear these,” he said coldly, “to avoid argument.”
With a flick she had it off again. “I wasn’t going to argue — I was only going to thank you.”
“I can’t conceive for what. In any case, I don’t want to be thanked.”
Her brows gathered resentfully. “Why did you ask to be, then?” she snapped; and opening a bejewelled wrist-bag she drew forth from a smother of cigarette-papers and pawn-tickets a slip of paper on which her astonished companion read a phrase written in a pointed feminine hand, but signed with his own name.
The Professor took the paper and scanned it indignantly. “This copy of ‘The Elimination of Phenomena’ was presented by Professor Loring G. Hibbart of Purewater University, Clio, N. Y., to the library of the American Y. M. C. A. Refugee Centre at Odessa.
“A word of appreciation, sent by any reader to the above address, would greatly gratify Loring G. Hibbart.”
“There!” she repeated. “Why did you ask to be thanked if you didn’t want to be? What else does ‘greatly gratify’ mean? I couldn’t write to you from Odessa because I hadn’t the money to buy a stamp; but I’ve longed ever since to tell you what your book did for me. It simply changed my whole life — books do sometimes, you know. I saw everything differently — even our Refugee Centre! I decided at once to give up my lover and divorce my husband. Those were my two first Eliminations.” She smiled retrospectively. “But you mustn’t think I’m a frivolous person. I have my degree as a Doctor of Philosophy — I took it at sixteen, at the University of Moscow. I gave up philosophy the year after for sculpture; the next year I gave up sculpture for mathematics and love. For a year I loved. After that I married Prince Balalatinsky. He was my cousin, and enormously wealthy. I need not have divorced him, as it turned out, for he was soon afterward buried alive by the Bolsheviks. But how could I have foreseen it? And your book had made me feel — ”
“Good gracious!” the author of the book interrupted desperately. “You don’t suppose I wrote that rubbish about wanting to be thanked, do you?”
“Didn’t you? How could I tell? Almost all the things sent from America to the refugee camp came with little labels like that. You all seemed to think we were sitting before perfectly appointed desks, with fountain pens and stamp-cases from Bond Street in our pockets. I remember once getting a lip-stick and a Bernard Shaw calendar labelled: ‘If the refugee who receives these would write a line of thanks to little Sadie Burt of Meropee Junction, Ga., who bought them out of her own savings by giving up chewing-gum for a whole month, it would make a little American girl very happy.’ Of course I was sorry not to be able to write to little Sadie.” She broke off, and then added: “Do you know, I was sure you were my Professor as soon as I saw your name on your suit-case?”
“Good Lord!” groaned the Professor.
He had forgotten to remove the obligatory steamer-labels! Instinctively he reached out a hand to tear off the offending member; but again a gesture of the Princess’s arrested him. “It’s too late now. And you can’t surely grudge me the pleasure of thanking you for your book?”
“But I didn’t ask — ”
“No; but I wanted to. You see, at that time I had quite discarded philosophy. I was living in the Actual — with a young officer of Preobrajensky — when the war broke out. And of course in our camp at Odessa the Actual was the very thing one wanted to get away from. And your book took me straight back into that other world where I had known my only pure happiness. Purity — what a wonderful thing it is! What a pity it is so hard to keep; like money, and everything else really valuable! But I’m thankful for any little morsel of it that I’ve had. When I was only ten years old — ”
But suddenly she drew back and nestled down into her lustrous furs. “You thought I was going to tell you the story of my life? No. Put your ear-pads on again. I know now why you wear them — because you’re planning a new book. Is it not so? You see I can read your thoughts. Go on — do! I would rather assist at the birth of a masterpiece than chatter about my own insignificant affairs.”
The Professor smiled. If she thought masterpieces were born in that way — between railway stations, and in a whirl of prattle I Yet he was not wholly angry. Either because it had been unexpectedly agreeable to hear his book praised, or because of that harmonious impression which, now that he actually saw her, a protracted scrutiny confirmed, he began to feel more tolerantly toward his neighbour. Deliberately, his eyes still on hers, he pushed the other ear-pad away.
“Oh — ” she said with a little gasp. “Does that mean I may go on talking?” But before he could answer, her face clouded. “I know — it only means that I might as well, now that I’ve broken in on your meditations. I’m dreadfully penitent; but luckily you won’t have me for long, for I’m getting out at Cannes, and Cannes is the next station. And that reminds me of the enormous little favour I have to ask.”
The Professor’s face clouded also: he had a nervous apprehension of being asked favours. “My fountain pen,” he said, regaining firmness of tone, “is broken.”
“Ah — you thought I meant to ask for your autograph? Or perhaps for a cheque?” (Lord, how quick she was!) She shook her head. “No, I don’t care for compulsory autographs. And I’m not going to ask for money — I’m going to give you some.”
He faced her with renewed dismay. Could it be —? After all, he was not more than fifty-seven; and the blameless life he had led had perhaps helped to preserve a certain . . . at least that was one theory . . . In these corrupt European societies what might a man not find himself exposed to? With some difficulty he executed a pinched smile.
She nodded again. “Oh, don’t laugh! Don’t think I’m joking. It’s your ear-pads,” she disconcertingly added.
“Yes. If you hadn’t put them on I should never have spoken to you; for it wasn’t till afterward that I saw your name on the suitcase. And after that I should have been too shy to break in on the meditations of a Great Philosopher. But you see I have been watching — oh, for years! — for your ear-pads.”
He stared at her helplessly. “You want to buy them from me?” he asked in terror, wondering how on earth he would be able to get others in a country of which he did not speak the language.
She burst into a laugh that ran up and down the whole scale of friendly derision and tender mockery.
“Buy them? Gracious, no! I could make myself a better pair in five minutes.” She smiled at his visible relief. “But you see I’m ruined — stony broke; isn’t that what they call it? I have a young American friend who is always saying that about himself. And once in the Caucasus, years ago, a gipsy told me that if ever I had gambled away my last penny (and I nearly have) it would all be won back by a pale intellectual looking man in velvet ear-pads, if only I could induce him to put a stake on the tables for me.” She leaned forward and scrutinized him. “You are very pale, you know,” she said, “and very intellectual looking. I was sure it was you when you told me you’d been ill.”
Professor Loring D. Hibbart looked about him desperately. He knew now that he was shut up with a madwoman. A harmless one, probably; but what if, in the depths of that jewelled bag, a toy revolver lurked under the pawn-tickets and the cigarette papers? The Professor’s life had been so guarded from what are known as “exciting situations” that he was not sure of his ability to meet one with becoming tact and energy.
“I suppose I’m a physical coward,” he reflected bitterly, an uncomfortable dampness breaking out all over him. “And I know,” he added in self-extenuation, “that I’m in no condition yet for any sort of a struggle . . . ”
But what did one do with lunatics? If only he could remember! And suddenly he did: one humoured them!
Fortified by the thought, he made shift to glance more kindly toward the Princess Balalatinsky. “So you want me to gamble for you?” he said, in the playful tone he might have adopted in addressing little Sadie Burt of Meropee.
“Oh, how glorious of you! You will? I knew you would! But first,” she broke off, “you must let me explain — ”
“Oh, do explain, of course,” he agreed, rapidly calculating that her volubility might make the explanation last until they reached the next station, where, as she had declared, she was to leave the train.
Already her eye was less wild; and he drew an inward breath of relief.
“You angel, you! I do,” she confessed, “simply love to talk about myself. And I’m sure you’ll be interested when I tell you that, if you’ll only do as I ask, I shall be able to marry one of your own compatriots — such a beautiful heroic youth! It is for him, for him only, that I long to be wealthy again. If you loved, could you bear to see your beloved threatened with starvation?”
“But I thought,” he gently reminded her, “that it was you who were threatened with starvation?”
“We both are. Isn’t it terrible? You see, when we met and loved, we each had the same thought — to make the other wealthy! It was not possible, at the moment, for either of us to attain our end by the natural expedient of a rich marriage with reasonable prospect of a quick divorce — so we staked our all at those accursed tables, and we both lost! My poor betrothed has only a few hundred francs left, and as for me, I have had to take a miserably paid job as a dressmaker’s mannequin at Cannes. But I see you are going on to Monte Carlo (yes, that’s on your luggage too); and as I don’t suppose you will spend a night there without visiting the rooms, I— ” She was pulling forth the hundred francs from her inexhaustible bag when the Professor checked her with dismay. Mad though she might be, he could not even make believe to take her money.
“I’m not spending a night at Monte Carlo,” he protested. “I’m only getting out there to take a motorbus for a quiet place up in the hills; I’ve the name written down somewhere; my room is engaged, so I couldn’t possibly wait over,” he argued gently.
She looked at him with what seemed to his inflamed imagination the craftiness of a maniac. “Don’t you know that our train is nearly two hours late? I don’t suppose you noticed that we ran over a crowded excursion charabanc near Toulon? Didn’t you even hear the ambulances rushing up? Your motorbus will certainly have left Monte Carlo when you arrive, so you’ll have to spend the night there! And even if you don’t,” she added persuasively, “the station’s only two steps from the Casino, and you surely can’t refuse just to nip in for half an hour.” She clasped her hands in entreaty. “You wouldn’t refuse if you knew my betrothed — your young compatriot! If only we had a few thousands all would go smoothly. We should be married at once and go to live on his ancestral estate of Kansas. It appears the climate is that of Africa in summer and of the Government of Omsk in winter; so our plan is to grow oranges and breed sables. You see, we can hardly fail to succeed with two such crops. All we ask is enough money to make a start. And that you will get for me tonight. You have only to stake this hundred franc note; you’ll win on the first turn, and you’ll go on winning. You’ll see!”
With one of her sudden plunges she pried open his contracted fist and pressed into it a banknote wrapped in a torn envelope. “Now listen; this is my address at Cannes. Princess Balala — oh, here’s the station. Goodbye, guardian angel. No, “au revoir”; I shall see you soon. They call me Betsy at the dressmaker’s . . . ”
Before he could open his convulsed fingers, or dash out after her, she had vanished, bag and baggage, in the crowd and confusion of the platform; other people, pushing and chattering and tearing themselves from the embrace of friends, had piled into her place, and were waving from the window, and blocking the way out; and now the train was moving on, and there he sat in his corner, aghast, clutching the banknote . . .
At Monte Carlo the Professor captured a porter and rescued his luggage. Exhausted by this effort, and by the attempt to communicate with the porter, first in Latin and then in French as practised at Purewater, he withdrew to a corner of the waiting-room and fished in his pockets for the address of the quiet pension in the hills. He found it at last, and handed it wearily to the porter. The latter threw up his hands. “Parti! Parti! Autobus gone.” That devil of a woman had been right!
When would there be another, the Professor asked.
Not till tomorrow morning at 8:30. To confirm his statement the porter pointed to a large time-table on the wall of the waiting-room. The Professor scanned it and sat down again with a groan. He was about to consult his companion as to the possibility of finding a night’s lodging in a respectable pension (fantastic as the idea seemed in such a place); but hardly had he begun: “Can you tell me where — ” when, with a nod of comprehension and a wink of complicity, the porter returned in fluent English: “Pretty ladies? Turkish bath? Fottographs?”
The Professor repudiated these suggestions with a shudder, and leaving his bags in the cloak-room set forth on his quest. He had hardly taken two steps when another stranger of obviously doubtful morality offered him a pamphlet which he was indignantly rejecting when he noticed its title: “The Theory of Chance in Roulette.” The theory of chance was deeply interesting to the Professor, and the idea of its application to roulette not without an abstract attraction. He bought the pamphlet and sat down on the nearest bench.
His study was so absorbing that he was roused only by the fall of twilight, and the scattered twinkle of many lamps all radiating up to the central focus of the Casino. The Professor started to his feet, remembering that he had still to find a lodging. “And I must be up early to catch the bus,” he reminded himself. He took his way down a wide empty street apparently leading to a quieter and less illuminated quarter. This street he followed for some distance, vainly scrutinizing the houses, which seemed all to be private dwellings, till at length he ran against a slim well-set-up young fellow in tennis flannels, with a bright conversational eye, who was strolling along from the opposite direction.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the Professor.
“What for?” rejoined the other, in a pleasant tone made doubly pleasant by the familiar burr of the last word, which he pronounced like fur.
“Why, you’re an American!” exclaimed the Professor.
“Sherlock!” exulted the young man, extending his hand. “I diagnose the same complaint in yourself.”
The Professor sighed pleasurably. “Oh, yes. What I want,” he added, “is to find a plain quiet boarding-house or family hotel.”
“Same as mother used to make ’em?” The young man reflected. “Well, it’s a queer place in which to prosecute your search; but there is one at Monte, and I’m about the only person that knows it. My name’s Taber Tring. Come along.”
For a second the Professor’s eye rested doubtfully on Mr. Tring. He knew, of course — even at Purewater it was known — that in the corrupt capitals of Europe one could not always rely implicitly on the information given by strangers casually encountered; no, not even when it was offered with affability, and in the reassuring twang of the Western States. But after all Monte Carlo was not a capital; it was just an absurd little joke of a town crammed on a ledge between sea and mountain; and a second glance at the young man convinced the Professor that he was as harmless as the town.
Mr. Tring, who seemed quick at thought-reading, returned his look with an amused glance.
“Not much like our big and breezy land, is it? These Riviera resorts always remind me of the subway at rush hours; everybody strap-hanging. But my landlady is an old friend, and I know one of her boarders left this morning, because I heard her trying to seize his luggage. He got away; so I don’t see why you shouldn’t have his room. See?”
The Professor saw. But he became immediately apprehensive of having his own luggage seized, an experience unprecedented in his history.
“Are such things liable to occur in this place?” he enquired.
“What? A scrap with your landlady? Not if you pay up regularly; or if she likes you. I guess she didn’t like that other fellow; and I know he was always on the wrong side of the tables.”
“The tables — do you refer to the gambling tables?” The Professor stopped short to put the question.
“That’s it,” said the other.
“And do you yourself sometimes visit the gambling-rooms?” the Professor next enquired.
“Oh, hell,” said Taber Tring expressively.
The Professor scrutinized him with growing interest. “And have you a theory of chance?”
The young man met his gaze squarely. “I have; but it can’t be put into language that would pass the censor.”
“Ah — you refer, no doubt, to your personal experience. But, as regards the theory — ”
“Well, the theory has let me down to bedrock; and I came down on it devilish hard.” His expression turned from apathy to animation. “I’m stony broke; but if you’d like to lend me a hundred francs to have another try — ”
“Oh, no,” said the Professor hastily; “I don’t possess it.” And his doubts began to stir again.
Taber Tring laughed. “Of course you don’t; not for lending purposes. I was only joking; everybody makes that joke here. Well, here’s the house; I’ll go ahead and rout out our hostess.”
They stopped before a pleasant-looking little house at the end of the street. A palm-tree, a couple of rose-bushes and a gateway surmounted by the word Arcadie divided it from the pavement; the Professor drew a breath of relief as a stout lady in an orange wig bustled out to receive him.
In spite of the orange wig her face was so full of a shrewd benevolence that the Professor felt sure he had reached a haven of rest. She welcomed him affably, informed him that she had a room, and offered to lead him up to it. “Only for tonight, though? For it is promised to a Siamese nobleman for tomorrow.”
This, the Professor assured her, made no difference, as he would be leaving at daylight. But on the lowest step of the stair he turned and addressed himself to Mr. Tring.
“Perhaps the lady would be good enough to have my bags brought up from the station? If you would kindly explain that I’m going out now to take a little stroll. As I’m leaving so early tomorrow it’s my only chance to have a look around.”
“That’s so; I’ll tell her,” the young man rejoined sympathetically; and as the Professor’s hand was on the gate, he heard Mr. Tring call out, mimicking the stentorian tones of a megaphone man on a sight-seeing motorbus: “Third street to the left, then first right to the tables”; after which he added, in his natural tone: “Say, Arcadia locks up at midnight.”
The Professor smiled at the superfluous hint.
Having satisfied a polyglot door-keeper as to his nationality, and the fact that he was not a minor, the Professor found himself in the gambling-rooms. They were not particularly crowded for people were beginning to go out for dinner, and he was able to draw fairly near to the first roulette table he encountered.
As he stood looking over the shoulders of the players he understood that no study of abstract theories could be worth the experience acquired by thus observing the humours of the goddess in her very temple. Her caprices, so ably seconded by the inconceivable stupidity, timidity or rashness of her votaries, first amused and finally exasperated the Professor; he began to feel toward her something of the annoyance excited in him by the sight of a pretty woman, or any other vain superfluity, combined with the secret sense that if he chose he could make her dance to his tune, and that it might be mildly amusing to do so. He had felt the same once or twice — but only for a fugitive instant — about pretty women.
None, however, had ever attracted him as strongly as this veiled divinity. The longing to twitch the veil from her cryptic features became violent, irresistible. “Not one of these fools has any idea of the theory of chance,” he muttered to himself, elbowing his way to a seat near one of the croupiers. As he did so, he put his hand into his pocket, and found to his disgust that it contained only a single five franc piece and a few sous. All the rest of his money — a matter of four or five hundred francs — lay locked up in his suit-case at Arcadie. He anathematized his luck in expurgated language, and was about to rise from the table when the croupier called out: “Faites vos jeux, Messieurs.”
The Professor, with a murmured expletive which was to a real oath what Postum is to coffee, dropped back into his place and flung his five franc piece on the last three numbers. He lost.
Of course — in his excitement he had gone exactly contrary to his own theory! It was on the first three that he had meant to stake his paltry bet. Well; now it was too late. But stay —
Diving into another pocket, he came with surprise on a hundred franc note. Could it really be his? But no; he had an exact memorandum of his funds, and he knew this banknote was not to be thus accounted for. He made a violent effort to shake off his abstraction, and finally recalled that the note in question had been pressed into his hand that very afternoon as he left the train. But by whom —?
“Messieurs, faites vos jeux! Faites vos jeux! Le jeu est fait. Rien ne va plus.”
The hundred francs, escaping from his hand, had fluttered of themselves to a number in the middle of the table. That number came up. Across the green board thirty-six other hundred franc notes flew swiftly back in the direction of the Professor. Should he put them all back on the same number? “Yes,” he nodded calmly to the croupier’s question; and the three-thousand seven hundred francs were guided to their place by the croupier’s rake.
The number came up again, and another argosy of notes sailed into the haven of the happy gambler’s pocket. This time he knew he ought to settle down quietly to his theory; and he did so. He staked a thousand and tripled it, then let the three thousand lie, and won again. He doubled that stake, and began to feel his neighbours watching him with mingled interest and envy as the winnings once more flowed his way. But to whom did this mounting pile really belong?
No time to think of that now; he was fast in the clutches of his theory. It seemed to guide him like some superior being seated at the helm of his intelligence: his private daemon pitted against the veiled goddess! It was exciting, undoubtedly; considerably more so, for example, than taking tea with the President’s wife at Purewater. He was beginning to feel like Napoleon, disposing his battalions to right and left, advancing, retreating, reinforcing or redistributing his troops. Ah, the veiled goddess was getting what she deserved for once!
At a late hour of the evening, when the Professor had become the centre of an ever-thickening crowd of fascinated observers, it suddenly came back to him that a woman had given him that original hundred franc note. A woman in the train that afternoon . . . But what did he care for that? He was playing the limit at every stake; and his mind had never worked more clearly and with a more exquisite sense of complete detachment. He was in his own particular seventh heaven of lucidity. He even recalled, at the precise moment when cognizance of the fact became useful, that the doors of Arcadie closed at midnight, and that he had only just time to get back if he wished to sleep with a roof over his head.
As he did wish to, he pocketed his gains quietly and composedly, rose from the table and walked out of the rooms. He felt hungry, cheerful and alert. Perhaps, after all, excitement had been what he needed — pleasurable excitement, that is, not the kind occasioned by the small daily irritations of life, such as the presence of that woman in the train whose name he was still unable to remember. What he would have liked best of all would have been to sit down in one of the brightly lit cafés he was passing, before a bottle of beer and a ham sandwich; or perhaps what he had heard spoken of as a Welsh rabbit. But he did not want to sleep on a bench, for the night air was sharp; so he continued self-denyingly on his way to Arcadie.
A sleepy boy in a dirty apron let him in, locked up after him, and led him to a small bare room on the second floor. The stairs creaked and rattled as they mounted, and the rumblings of sleep sounded through the doors of the rooms they passed. Arcadie was a cramped and ramshackle construction, and the Professor hoped to heaven that his pension in the hills would be more solidly built and less densely inhabited. However, for one night it didn’t matter — or so he imagined.
His guide left him, and he turned on the electric light, threw down on the table the notes with which all his pockets were bulging, and began to unstrap his portmanteaux.
Though he had so little luggage he always found the process of unpacking a long and laborious one; for he never could remember where he had put anything, and invariably passed through all the successive phases of apprehension and despair before he finally discovered his bedroom slippers in his spongebag, and the sponge itself (still dripping) rolled up inside his pyjamas.
But tonight he sought for neither sponge not pyjamas, for as he opened his first suitcase his hand lit on a ream of spotless foolscap — the kind he always used for his literary work. The table on which he had tossed his winnings held a crusty hotel inkstand, and was directly overhung by a vacillating electric bulb. Before it was a chair; through the open window flowed the silence of the night, interwoven with the murmurs of a sleeping sea and hardly disturbed by the occasional far-off hoot of a motor horn. In his own brain was the same nocturnal quiet and serenity. A curious thing had happened to him. His bout with the veiled goddess had sharpened his wits and dragged him suddenly and completely out of the intellectual apathy into which he had been gradually immersed by his illness and the harassing discomforts of the last few weeks. He was no longer thinking now about the gambling tables or the theory of chance; but with all the strength of his freshly stimulated faculties was grappling the mighty monster with whom he meant to try a fall.
“Einstein!” he cried, as a Crusader might have shouted his battle-cry. He sat down at the table, shoved aside the banknotes, plunged his pen into the blue mud of the inkstand, and began.
The silence was delicious, mysterious. Link by link the chain of his argument unrolled itself, travelling across his pages with the unending flow of a trail of migratory caterpillars. Not a break; not a hesitation. It was years since his mental machinery had worked with that smooth consecutiveness. He began to wonder whether, after all, it might not be better to give up the idea of a remote and doubtful pension in the hills, and settle himself for the winter in a place apparently so propitious to his intellectual activities.
It was then that the noises in the next room suddenly began. First there was the brutal slam of the door, followed by a silly bad-tempered struggle with a reluctant lock. Then a pair of shoes were flung down on the tiled floor. Water was next poured into an unsteady basin, and a water-jug set down with a hideous clatter on a rickety washstand which seemed to be placed against the communicating door between the two rooms. Turbulent ablutions ensued. These over, there succeeded a moment of deceptive calm, almost immediately succeeded by a series of whistled scales, emitted just above the whistler’s breath, and merging into the exact though subdued reproduction of various barn-yard gutturals, ending up with the raucous yelp of a parrot proclaiming again and again: “I’m stony broke, I am!”
All the while Professor Hibbart’s brain continued to marshal its arguments, and try to press them into the hard mould of words. But the struggle became more and more unequal as the repressed cacophony next door increased. At last he jumped up, rummaged in every pocket for his ear-pads and snapped them furiously over his ears. But this measure, instead of silencing the tenuous insistent noises from the next room, only made him strain for them more attentively through the protecting pads, giving them the supernatural shrillness of sounds heard at midnight in a sleeping house, the secret crackings and creakings against which heaped-up pillows and drawn-up bedclothes are a vain defence.
Finally the Professor noticed that there was a wide crack under the communicating door. Not till that crack was filled would work be possible. He jumped up again and dived at the washstand for towels. But he found that in the hasty preparation of the room the towels had been forgotten. A newspaper, then — but no; he cast about him in vain for a newspaper . . .
The noises had now sunk to a whisper, broken by irritating intervals of silence; but in the exasperated state of the Professor’s nerves these irregular lulls, and the tension of watching for the sounds that broke them, were more trying than what had gone before. He sent a despairing glance about him, and his eye lit on the pile of banknotes on the table. He sprang up again, seized the notes, and crammed them into the crack.
After that the silence became suddenly and almost miraculously complete, and he went on with his writing.
After his first twenty-four hours in the hills the Professor was ready to swear that this final refuge was all he had hoped for. The situation (though he had hardly looked out on it) seemed high yet sheltered; he had a vague impression of sunshine in his room; and when he went down on the first morning, after a deep and curative sleep, he at once found himself in a congenial atmosphere. No effusive compatriots; no bowing and scraping French; only four or five English people, as much in dread of being spoken to as he was of their speaking to him. He consumed the necessary number of square inches of proteins and carbohydrates and withdrew to his room, as stubbornly ignored as if the other guests had all thought he was trying to catch their eyes. An hour later he was lost in his work.
If only life could ever remain on an even keel! But something had made him suspect it from the first: there was a baby in the house. Of course everybody denied it: the cook said the bowl of pap left by accident on the stairs was for the cat; the landlady said she had been a widow twenty years, and did he suppose —? And the bonne denied that there was a smell of paregoric on the landing, and said that was the way the scent of mimosa sometimes affected people.
That night, after a constitutional in the garden (ear-pads on), the Professor went up to his room to resume his writing. For two hours he wrote uninterruptedly; then he was disturbed by a faint wail. He clapped on the pads, and continued; but the wail, low as it was, pierced them like a corkscrew. Finally he laid down his pen and listened, furiously. Every five minutes the sound came again. “I suppose they’ll say it’s a kitten!” he growled. No such pretence could deceive him for a moment; he remembered now that at the moment of entering the house he had noticed a smell of nursery. If only he had turned straight around and gone elsewhere! But where?
The idea of a fresh plunge into the unknown made him feel as weak as in the first stages of convalescence. And then his book had already sunk such talons into him; he could feel it sucking at his brain like some hungry animal. And all those people downstairs had been as cold and stony at dinner as they had at lunch. After two such encounters he was sure they would never bother him. A Paradise indeed, but for that serpent!
The wail continued, and he turned in his chair and looked slowly and desperately about him. The room was small and bare, and had only one door, the one leading into the passage. He vaguely recalled that, two nights before, at Monte Carlo, he had been disturbed in much the same way, and had found means to end the disturbance. What had he done? If only he could remember!
His eye went back to the door. There was a light under it now; no doubt someone was up with the child. Slowly his mind dropped from the empyrean to the level of the crack under the door.
“A couple of towels . . . Ah, but, there are no towels!” Almost as the words formed themselves, his glance lit on a well-garnished rack. What had made him think there were no towels? Why, he had been reliving the night at Monte Carlo, where in fact, he now remembered, he could find none, and to protect himself from the noise next door had had to . . .
“Oh, my God!” shouted the Professor. His pen clattered to the floor. He jumped up, and his chair crashed after it. The baby, terror-struck, ceased to cry. There was an awful silence.
“Oh, my God!” shouted the Professor.
Slowly the vision of that other room came back: he saw himself jumping up just as wildly, dashing for towels and finding none, and then seizing a pile of papers and cramming them into the crack under the door. Papers, indeed! “Oh, my God . . . ”
It was money that he had seized that other night: hundreds of hundred franc bills; or hundreds of thousands, were they? How furiously he had crushed and crumpled them in his haste to cram enough stuffing into the crack! Money — an unbelievable amount of it. But how in the world had it got there, to whom on earth did it belong?
The Professor sat down on the edge of the bed and took his bursting head between his hands.
Daylight found him still labouring to reconstitute the succession of incredible episodes leading up to his mad act. Of all the piles of notes he had stuffed under the door not one franc had belonged to him. Of that he was now sure. He recalled also, but less clearly, that some one had given him a banknote — a hundred francs, he thought; was it on the steamer at Marseilles, or in the train? — given it with some mysterious injunction about gambling . . . that was as far as he could go at present . . . His mind had come down from the empyrean with a crash, and was still dazed from its abrupt contact with reality. At any rate, not a penny of the money was his, and he had left it all under the door in his hotel bedroom at Monte Carlo. And that was two days ago . . .
The baby was again crying, but the rest of the house still slept when, unkempt, unshorn, and with as many loose ends to his raiment as Hamlet, Professor Hibbart dashed out past an affrighted bonne, who cried after him that he might still catch the autobus if he took the short cut to the village.
To the Professor any abrupt emergence from his work was like coming to after a severe operation. He floated in a world as empty of ideas as of facts, and hemmed with slippery perpendicular walls. All the way to Monte Carlo those walls were made of the faces in the motorbus, blank inscrutable faces, smooth secret surfaces up which his mind struggled to clamber back to the actual. Only one definite emotion survived: hatred of the being — a woman, was it? — who had given him that fatal hundred franc note. He clung to that feeling as to a life-belt, waiting doggedly till it should lift him back to reality. If only he could have recalled his enemy’s name!
Arrived at Monte Carlo he hailed a taxi and pronounced the one name he did recall: Arcadie! But what chance was there that the first chauffeur he met would know the title, or remember the site, of that undistinguished family hotel?
“Arcadie? But, of course! It’s the place they’re all asking for!” cried the chauffeur, turning without a moment’s hesitation in what seemed to his fare to be the right direction. Yet how could that obscure pension be the place “they” were all asking for, and who in the name of madness were “they”?
“Are you sure —?” the Professor faltered.
“Of finding the way? Allons donc; we have only to follow the crowd!”
This was a slight exaggeration, for at that early hour the residential quarter of Monte Carlo was hardly more populous than when the Professor had last seen it; but if he had doubted being on the right road his doubt was presently dispelled by the sight of a well-set-up young man in tennis flannels, with a bright conversational eye, who came swinging along from the opposite direction.
“Taber Tring!” cried a voice from the depths of the Professor’s sub-consciousness; and the Professor nearly flung himself over the side of the taxi in the effort to attract his friend’s notice.
Apparently he had been mistaken; for the young man, arrested by his signals, gave back a blank stare from eyes grown suddenly speechless, and then, turning on his heels, disappeared double-quick down a side-street. The Professor, thrown back into his habitual uncertainty, wavered over the question of pursuit; but the taxi was still moving forward, and before he could decide what to do it had worked its way through a throng of gaping people and drawn up before a gate surmounted by the well-remembered Arcadie.
“There you are!” the chauffeur gestured, with the air of a parent humouring a spoilt child.
There he was! The Professor started to jump out, and pushing through the crowd was confronted with a smoking ruin. The garden gate, under its lying inscription, led straight into chaos; and behind where Arcadie had stood, other houses, blank unknown houses, were also shouldering up to gape at the disaster.
“But this is not the place!” remonstrated the Professor. “This is a house that has burnt down!”
“Parbleu,” replied the chauffeur, still humouring him.
The Professor’s temples were bursting.
“But was it — was it — was this the Hotel Arcadie?”
The chauffeur shrugged again and pointed to the name.
“When — did it burn?”
“And the landlady — the person who kept it?”
“Ah, ça . . . ”
“But how, in the name of pity, can I find out?”
The chauffeur seemed moved by his distress. “Let Monsieur reassure himself. There was no loss of life. If Monsieur had friends or relations . . . ”
The Professor waved away the suggestion.
“We could, of course, address ourselves to the police,” the chauffeur continued.
The police! The mere sound of the word filled his hearer with dismay. Explain to the police about that money? How could he — and in his French? He turned cold at the idea, and in his dread of seeing himself transported to the commissariat by the too-sympathetic driver, he hurriedly paid the latter off, and remained alone gazing through the gate at the drenched and smoking monument of his folly.
The money — try to get back the money? It had seemed almost hopeless before; now the attempt could only expose him to all the mysterious perils of an alien law. He saw himself interrogated, investigated, his passport seized, his manuscript confiscated, and every hope of rational repose and work annihilated for months to come. He felt himself curiously eyed by the policeman who was guarding the ruins, and turned from the scene of the disaster almost as hurriedly as the young man whom he had taken — no doubt erroneously — for Taber Tring.
Having reached another quarter of the town, he sat down on a bench to take stock of his situation.
It was exactly what he had done two days before when, on arriving at Monte Carlo, he had found that he had missed the motorbus; and the associations of ideas once more came to his rescue.
Gradually there arose in his mind a faint wavering vision of a young woman, pearled and furred and scented, precipitately descending from his compartment, and, as she did so, cramming a banknote into his hand.
“The Princess . . . the Princess . . . they call me Betsy at the dressmaker’s . . . ” That was as far as the clue went; but presently the Professor remembered that his companion had got out of the train at Cannes, and it became certain to him that his only hope of clearing his overburdened conscience would be to take the train to that place, and there prosecute his almost hopeless search.
Not until he found himself seated in the train, and on the point of starting for Cannes, did the full horror of his situation break on the Professor. Then, for an hour, he contemplated it in all its intricate enormity, saw himself as a man dishonoured, ruined (for he now remembered the full amount of the sum he had to account for), and, worse still, severed from his best-loved work for a period incalculably long. For after he had struggled through the preliminary difficulties he would have to settle down to the slow task of reimbursement, and he knew that, to earn enough money to repay what he had lost, he must abandon serious scientific work such as he was now engaged in, and probably stoop — abominable thought! — to writing popular “science” articles in one of the illustrated magazines. Such a job had once been offered him on very handsome terms, and contemptuously rejected; and the best he could now hope was that there was still an opening for him somewhere between the Etiquette Column and the notes on Rachel powder and bathing tights.
Arrived at Cannes, he found his way to what appeared to be the fashionable shopping-street, and exteriorising his attention by an extreme effort of the will he began to go the rounds of the dressmaking establishments.
At every one he was received with distinguished politeness, and every one, by some curious coincidence, had a Betsy to offer him. As the Betsies were all young, fluffy and rosy, considerable offence was caused by his rapid rejection of them, and it was in vain that he tried to close his ears to the crude and disobliging comments which on each occasion attended his retreat. But he had by this time regained a sufficiently clear vision of the Princess to be sure that she was not concealed behind any of the youthful substitutes proposed to him. In despair he issued from the last shop, and again sat himself down to consider.
As he did so, his mind gave a queer click, and the doors of his inner consciousness again swung open. But this time it was only to draw him back into the creative world from which he had been so violently ejected. He had suddenly seen a point to be made in the Einstein controversy, and he began to fumble for a paper on which to jot it down. He found only one, the closely-scribbled flap of a torn envelope on which, during the journey to Cannes, he had calculated and re-calculated the extent of the sum he would have to raise to reimburse the Princess; but possibly there might be a clear space on the other side. He turned it over, and there read, in a tall slanting hand:
Princesse Balalatinsky, Villa Mon Caprice, Route de Californie.
He started to his feet, and glanced about him frantically for a taxi. He had no idea where the Route de Californie was, but in his desperate circumstances, it seemed as easy to hire a taxi for a five minutes’ transit as for a long expedition. Besides, it was the only way he knew of being sure of reaching his destination; and to do so as soon as possible was now a fixed idea.
The taxi carried him a long way; back through the whole length of the town, out on a flat white dusty road, and then up and up between walls overhung with luxuriant verdure till, at a turn, it stood still with a violent jerk.
The Professor looked out, and saw himself confronted by the expressive countenance of Mr. Taber Tring.
“Oh, my God — you again!” shrieked the young man, turning suddenly white with fury — or was it rather with fear?
“Why do you say again?” questioned the Professor; but his interlocutor, taking to his heels with unaccountable velocity, had already disappeared down a verdant by-way.
The Professor leaned back in the taxi in speechless amazement. He was sure now that the “again” referred to their previous encounter that morning at Monte Carlo, and he could only conclude that it had become a fixed habit of Taber Tring’s to run away whenever they met, and that he ran a great deal too fast for the Professor ever to hope to overtake him.
“Well,” said the driver, “there’s a gentleman who isn’t pleased. He thought I had no fare, and expected to get a lift up to the top of this mountain.”
“I should have been happy to give him a lift,” said the Professor rather wistfully; to which the driver replied: “He must be a mile off by this time. He didn’t seem to fancy your looks.”
There was no controverting this statement, mortifying as it was, and they continued their ascent till a gateway impressively crowned by heraldic lions admitted them to terraced gardens above which a villa of ample proportions looked forth upon the landscape.
The Professor was by this time so steeled to the unexpected that he hardly paused to consider the strange incongruity between the Princess’s account of her fortunes and the setting in which she lived. He had read Mon Caprice on the gate, and that was the name on the envelope he had found in his pocket. With a resolute hand he rang the bell and asked a resplendent footman if the Princess Balalatinsky were at home.
He was shown through a long succession of drawing-rooms, in the last of which the Princess rose from the depths of a broad divan. She was dressed in black draperies, half-transparent — no, half-translucent; and she stood before the Professor in all the formidable completeness of her beauty.
Instantly his mind clicked again, and a voice shrilled up at him from the depths: “You always knew you could still recognize a beautiful woman when you saw one”; but he closed his ears to the suggestion and advanced toward the lady.
Before he could take more than three steps she was at his side, almost at his feet; her burning clasp was on his wrists, and her eyes were consuming him like coals of fire.
“Master! Maestro! Disguise is useless! You choose to come to me unannounced; but I was sure you would answer my appeal, and I should have recognized you anywhere, and among any number of people.” She lifted his astonished hand to her lips. “It is the penalty of genius,” she breathed.
“But — ” gasped the Professor.
A scented finger was laid across his lips. “Hush: not yet. Let me tell you first why I ventured to write to you.” She drew him gently down to an arm-chair beside the divan, and herself sank orientally into its pillows. “I thought I had exhausted all the emotions of life. At my age — is it not a tragedy? But I was mistaken. It is true that I had tried philosophy, marriage, mathematics, divorce, sculpture and love; but I had never attempted the stage. How long it sometimes takes to discover one’s real vocation! No doubt you may have gone through the same uncertainties yourself. At any rate, my gift for the drama did not reveal itself till three months ago, and I have only just completed my play, The Scarlet Cataract,’ a picture of my life, as the title suggests — and which, my friends tell me, is not without dramatic merit. In fact, if I were to listen to them . . . ”
The Professor struggled from his seat. His old fear of her madness had returned. He began very mildly: “It is quite natural that you should mistake me for some one else — ”
With an inimitable gesture she waved the interruption aside. “But what I want to explain is that, of course, the leading role can have but one interpreter — Myself. The things happened to Me: who else could possibly know how to act them? Therefore, if I appeal to you — on my knees, Illustrious Impresario! — it is in my double character as dramatist and tragédienne; for in spite of appearances my life has been a tragedy, as you will acknowledge if you will let me outline its principal events in a few words . . . ”
But here she had to pause a second for breath, and the Professor, on his feet, actually shouted his protest. “Madam, I cannot let you go on another moment, first because I’ve heard the story of your life already, and secondly because I’m not the man you suppose.”
The Princess turned deadly pale. “Impostor!” she hissed, and reached for an embroidered bell-rope.
Her agitation had the curious effect of calming the Professor. “You had better not send me away,” he said, “till you learn why I am here. I am the unhappy man to whom, the day before yesterday, you entrusted a hundred franc note which you asked him to stake for you at Monte Carlo. Unfortunately I could not recall your name or address, and I have been hunting for you through all the dressmakers’ establishments in Cannes.”
The instant lighting-up of her face was a sight so lovely that he almost forgot his apprehensions and his shame.
“The dressmakers’ shops? Ah — in search of ‘Betsy’! It is true, I was obliged to act as a mannequin for one day; but since then my fortunes have miraculously changed — changed thanks to you; for now,” the Princess continued with enthusiasm, “I do at last recognise my good angel, my benefactor of the other day, and ask myself how I could have failed to know you again, how I could have taken you for a vulgar theatrical manager, you, a man of genius and a Philosopher. Can you ever forgive me? For I owe you everything — everything — everything!” she sobbed out, again almost at his knees.
His self-possession continued to increase in proportion to her agitation. He actually risked laying a hand on her arm and pressing her mildly back among her cushions.
“Only a change of pronouns,” he said sighing, “is necessary to the complete accuracy of your last statement.”
But she was off again on a new tack. “That blessed hundred franc note! From the moment when you took it from me, as I got out of the train, my luck miraculously and completely changed. I knew you were going to win some money for me; but how could I have imagined the extent of the fortune you were to heap at my feet?”
A cold sweat broke out over the Professor. She knew, then — once again her infernal intuition had pierced his secret! In the train had she not discovered his name, identified him as the author of “The Elimination of Phenomena,” and guessed that he was actually engaged in the composition of another work? At the moment he had fancied that there was a plausible explanation for each of these discoveries; but he now felt that her powers of divination were in need of no outward aid. She had risen from her seat and was once more in possession of his hands.
“You have come to be thanked — and I do thank you!” Her heavy lashes glittered with tears which threatened to merge with the drops of moisture rolling down the Professor’s agonized brow.
“Don’t — don’t, I beg!” He freed himself and shrank back. “If you’ll only let me speak . . . let me explain . . . ”
She raised a reproachful finger. “Let you belittle yourself? Let you reject my gratitude? No — no! Nothing that you can say can make any difference. The gipsy in the Caucasus told me long ago what you were going to do for me. And now that you have done it you want to stifle the thanks on my lips!”
“But you have nothing to thank me for. I have made no money for you — on the contrary, I— ”
“Hush, hush! Such words are blasphemy. Look about you at all this luxury, this beauty. I expected to have to leave it tomorrow. And thanks to you, wealth has poured in on me at the moment when I thought I was face to face with ruin.”
“Madam, you must let me undeceive you. I don’t know who can have brought you such an erroneous report.” The Professor glanced about him in acute distress, seeking to escape from her devouring scrutiny. “It is true that I did make a considerable sum for you, but I— I afterward lost it. To my shame be it said.”
The Princess hardly appeared to hear him. Tears of gratitude still rained down her face. “Lost it? A little more, a little less — what does it matter? In my present pecuniary situation nothing of that sort counts. I am rich — rich for life! I should, in fact,” she continued with a gush of candour, “be an absolutely happy woman if I could only find an impresario who would stage my play.” She lifted her enchanting eyes to his. “I wonder, by the way, dear friend,” she proposed, “if you would let me read it to you now?”
“Oh, no, no,” the Professor protested; and then, becoming aware of the offence his words were likely to give, he added precipitately: “Before we turn to any other subject you must really let me tell you just how much money I owe you, and what were the unfortunate circumstances in which . . . ”
But he was conscious that the Princess was no longer listening to him. A new light had dawned in her face, and the glow of it was already drying her tears. Slim, palpitating and girlish, she turned toward one of the tall French windows opening upon the terrace.
“My fiance — your young compatriot! Here he is! Oh, how happy I am to bring you together!” she exclaimed.
The Professor followed her glance with a stare of fresh amazement. Through the half-open window a young man in tennis flannels had strolled into the room.
“My Taber,” the Princess breathed, “this is my benefactor — our benefactor — this is . . . ”
Taber Tring gently removed the perfect arms which were already tightening about his neck. “I know who he is,” he said in a hard high tone. “That’s why I’ve been running away from him ever since early this morning.”
His good-humoured boyish face was absolutely decomposed by distress. Without vouchsafing the least attention to the Princess he stood pallidly but resolutely facing her visitor.
“I’ve been running for all I was worth; at least till a quarter of an hour ago. Then I suddenly pulled up short and said to myself: ‘Taber Tring, this won’t do. You were born in the Middle West, but your parents came from New England, and now’s the time to prove it if you’re ever going to. Stern and rockbound coast, and Mayflower and all the rest of it. If there’s anything in it, it ought to come out now.’ And, by George it did; and here I am, ready to make a clean breast of it.”
He drew a silk handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his brow, which was as damp with agony as the Professor’s. But the Professor’s patience had reached its final limit, and he was determined, whatever happened, to hold all interrupters at bay till he had made a clean breast of his own.
“I don’t know, sir,” he said, “why you avoided my presence this morning nor why you now seek it; but since you are connected with this lady by so close a tie, there is no reason why I should not continue in your presence what I had begun to tell her. I repeat then, Madam, that with your hundred franc note in my hand, I approached a table and staked the sum with results so unexpectedly and incredibly favourable that I left the gaming-rooms just before midnight in possession of — ”
“Ninety-nine thousand seven hundred francs and no centimes,” Taber Tring interposed.
The Professor received this with a gasp of astonishment; but everything which was happening was so foreign to all the laws of probability as experienced at Purewater that it did not long arrest his attention.
“You have stated the sum accurately,” he said; “but you do not know that I am no longer in possession of a penny of it.”
“Oh, don’t I?” groaned Taber Tring, wiping a fresh outbreak of moisture from his forehead.
The Professor stopped short. “You do know? Ah, but to be sure. You were yourself a fellow-boarder at Arcadie. You were perhaps under its roof when that disastrous fire broke out and destroyed the whole of the large sum of money I had so negligently left — ”
“Under the door!” shrieked Taber Tring. “Under the door of your room, which happened to be the one next to mine.”
A light began to dawn on the Professor. “Is it possible that you were the neighbour whose unseasonable agitation during the small hours of the night caused me, in the total absence of towels or other available material, to stuff the money in question under the crack of the door in order to continue my intellectual labours undisturbed?”
“That’s me,” said Taber Tring sullenly.
But the Princess, who had been listening to the Professor’s disquisition with a look of lovely bewilderment gradually verging on boredom, here intervened with a sudden flash of attention.
“What sort of noises proceeded from my Taber’s room at that advanced hour of the night?” she inquisitorially demanded of the Professor.
“Oh, shucks,” said her betrothed in a weary tone. “Aren’t they all alike, every one of ’em?” He turned to the Professor. “I daresay I was making a noise. I was about desperate. Stony broke, and didn’t know which way to turn next. I guess you’d have made a noise in my place.”
The Professor felt a stirring of sympathy for the stricken youth. “I’m sorry for you — very sorry,” he said. “If I had known your situation I should have tried to master my impatience, and should probably not have crammed the money under the door; in which case it would not have been destroyed in the fire . . . ”
(“How like the reflexions of a Chinese sage!” the Princess admiringly murmured.)
“Destroyed in the fire? It wasn’t,” said Taber Tring.
The Professor reeled back and was obliged to support himself upon the nearest chair. “It wasn’t?”
“Trust me,” said the young man. “I was there, and I stole it.”
“You stole it — his money?” The Princess instantly flung herself on his bosom. “To save your beloved from ruin? Oh, how Christlike — how Dostoyevskian!” She addressed herself with streaming eyes to the Professor. “Oh, spare him, sir, for heaven’s sake spare him! What shall I do to avert your vengeance? Shall I prostitute myself in the streets of Cannes? I will do anything to atone to you for his heroic gesture in stealing your money — ”
Taber Tring again put her gently aside. “Do drop it, Betsy. This is not a woman’s job. I stole that money in order to gamble with it, and I’ve got to pay it back, and all that I won with it too.” He paused and faced about on the Professor. “Isn’t that so, sir?” he questioned. “I’ve been puzzling over it day and night for the last two days, and I can’t figure it out any other way. Hard on you, Betsy, just as we thought our fortune was made; but my firm conviction, Professor Hibbart, as a man of New England stock, is that at this moment I owe you the sum of one million seven hundred and fifty thousand francs.”
“My God,” screamed the Professor, “what system did you play?”
Mr. Tring’s open countenance snapped shut like a steel trap. “That’s my secret,” he said politely; and the Professor had to acknowledge that it was.
“I must ask you,” the young man pursued, “to be good enough either to disprove or to confirm my estimate of my indebtedness to you. How much should you consider that you owed if you had stolen anybody’s money and made a lot more with it? Only the sum stolen or the whole amount? There’s my point.”
“But I did! I have!” cried the Professor. “Did what?”
“Exactly what you have done. Stole — that is, gambled with a sum of money entrusted to me for the purpose, and won the large amount you have correctly stated. It is true,” the Professor continued, “that I had no intention of appropriating a penny of it; but, believing that my culpable negligence had caused the whole sum to be destroyed by fire, I considered myself — ”
“Well?” panted Taber Tring.
“As indebted for the entire amount to this lady here — ”
Taber Tring’s face became illuminated with sudden comprehension.
“Holy Moses I You don’t mean to say all that money under the door belonged to Betsy?”
“Every cent of it, in my opinion,” said the Professor firmly; and the two men stood and stared at each other.
“But, good gracious,” the Princess intervened, “then nobody has stolen anything!”
The load which had crushed the Professor to earth rolled from his shoulders, and he lifted the head of a free man. “So it would seem.”
But Taber Tring could only ejaculate once again: “Holy Moses!”
“Then we are rich once more — is it not so, my Taber?” The Princess leaned a thoughtful head upon her hand. “Do you know, I could almost regret it? Yes, I regret, dear friends, that you are both blameless, and that no sacrifice will be demanded of me. It would have been so beautiful if you had both sinned, and I had also had to sin to save you. But, on the other hand,” she reflected, with lifted eyes and a smile like heaven, “I shall now be able to have my play brought out at my own expense. And for that,” she cried, again possessing herself of Professor Hibbart’s hands, “for that too I have to thank you! And this is the only way I know of doing it.”
She flung her arms around his neck and lifted her lips to his; and the exonerated and emancipated Professor took what she offered like a man.
“And now,” she cried, “for my other hero!” and caught her betrothed to her heart. These effusions were interrupted by the entrance of the resplendent footman, who surveyed them without surprise or disapproval.
“There is at the door,” he announced, “a young lady of the name of Betsy who is asking for Monsieur.” He indicated the Professor. “She would give no other name; she said that was enough. She knows Monsieur has been seeking her everywhere in Cannes, and she is in despair at having missed him; but at the time she was engaged with another client.”
The Professor turned pale, and Taber Tring’s left lid sketched a tentative wink.
But the Princess intervened in her most princely manner. “Of course! My name is Betsy, and you were seeking for me at all the dressmakers’!” She turned to the footman with her smile of benediction. “Tell the young lady,” she said, “that Monsieur in his turn is engaged with another client, who begs her to accept this slight compensation for her trouble.” She slipped from her wrist a hoop of jade and brilliants, and the footman withdrew with the token.
“And now,” said the Princess, “as it is past three o’clock, we ought really to be thinking of zakouska.”
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15