The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter I. The Cable Prom Mervo
A pretty girl in a blue dress came out of the house, and began to walk slowly across the terrace to where Elsa Keith sat with Marvin Rossiter in the shade of the big sycamore. Elsa and Marvin had become engaged some few days before, and were generally to be found at this time sitting together in some shaded spot in the grounds of the Keith's Long Island home.
"What's troubling Betty, I wonder," said Elsa. "She looks worried."
Marvin turned his head.
"Is that your friend, Miss Silver?"
"That's Betty. We were at college together. I want you to like Betty."
"Then I will. When did she arrive?"
"Last night. She's here for a month. What's the matter, Betty? This is Marvin. I want you to like Marvin."
Betty Silver smiled. Her face, in repose, was rather wistful, but it lighted up when she smiled, and an unsuspected dimple came into being on her chin.
"Of course I shall," she said.
Her big gray eyes seemed to search Marvin's for an instant and Marvin had, almost subconsciously, a comfortable feeling that he had been tested and found worthy.
"What were you scowling at so ferociously, Betty?" asked Elsa.
"Was I scowling? I hope you didn't think it was at you. Oh, Elsa, I'm miserable! I shall have to leave this heavenly place."
"At once. And I was meaning to have the most lovely time. See what has come!"
She held out some flimsy sheets of paper.
"A cable!" said Elsa.
"Great Scott! it looks like the scenario of a four-act play," said Marvin. "That's not all one cable, surely? Whoever sent it must be a millionaire."
"He is. It's from my stepfather. Read it out, Elsa. I want Mr. Rossiter to hear it. He may be able to tell me where Mervo is. Did you ever hear of Mervo, Mr. Rossiter?"
"Never. What is it?"
"It's a place where my stepfather is, and where I've got to go. I do call it hard. Go on, Elsa."
Elsa, who had been skimming the document with raised eyebrows, now read it out in its spacious entirety.
"Well!" said Elsa, breathless.
"By George!" said Marvin. "He certainly seems to want you badly enough. He hasn't spared expense. He has put in about everything you could put into a cable."
"Except why he wants me," said Betty.
"Yes," said Elsa. "Why does he want you? And in such a desperate hurry, too!"
Marvin was re-reading the message.
"It isn't a mere invitation," he said. "There's no come-right-along-you'll-like-this-place-it's-fine about it. He seems to look on your company more as a necessity than a luxury. It's a sort of imperious C.Q.D."
"That's what makes it so strange. We have hardly met for years. Why, he didn't even know where I was. The cable was sent to the bank and forwarded on. And I don't know where he is!"
"Which brings us back," said Marvin, "to mysterious Mervo. Let us reason inductively. If you get to the place by taking a boat from Marseilles, it can't be far from the French coast. I should say at a venture that Mervo is an island in the Mediterranean. And a small island for if it had been a big one we should have heard of it."
"Marvin!" cried Elsa, her face beaming with proud affection. "How clever you are!"
"A mere gift," he said modestly. "I have been like that from a boy." He got up from his chair. "Isn't there an encyclopaedia in the library, Elsa?"
"Yes, but it's an old edition."
"It will probably touch on Mervo. I'll go and fetch it."
As he crossed the terrace, Elsa turned quickly to Betty.
"Well?" she said.
Betty smiled at her.
"He's a dear. Are you very happy, Elsa?"
Elsa's eyes danced. She drew in her breath softly. Betty looked at her in silence for a moment. The wistful expression was back on her face.
"Elsa," she said, suddenly. "What is it like? How does it feel, knowing that there's someone who is fonder of you than anything--?"
Elsa closed her eyes.
"It's like eating berries and cream in a new dress by moonlight on a summer night while somebody plays the violin far away in the distance so that you can just hear it," she said.
Her eyes opened again.
"And it's like coming along on a winter evening and seeing the windows lit up and knowing you've reached home."
Betty was clenching her hands, and breathing quickly.
"And it's like--"
"Elsa, don't! I can't bear it!"
"Betty! What's the matter?"
Betty smiled again, but painfully.
"It's stupid of me. I'm just jealous, that's all. I haven't got a Marvin, you see. You have."
"Well, there are plenty who would like to be your Marvin."
Betty's face grew cold.
"There are plenty who would like to be Benjamin Scobell's son-in-law," she said.
"Betty!" Elsa's voice was serious. "We've been friends for a good long time, so you'll let me say something, won't you? I think you're getting just the least bit hard. Now turn and rend me," she added good-humoredly.
"I'm not going to rend you," said Betty. "You're perfectly right. I am getting hard. How can I help it? Do you know how many men have asked me to marry them since I saw you last? Five."
"And not one of them cared the slightest bit about me."
"But, Betty, dear, that's just what I mean. Why should you say that? How can you know?"
"How do I know? Well, I do know. Instinct, I suppose. The instinct of self-preservation which nature gives hunted animals. I can't think of a single man in the world--except your Marvin, of course--who wouldn't do anything for money." She stopped. "Well, yes, one."
Elsa leaned forward eagerly.
"You don't know him."
"But what's his name?"
"Well, if I am on the witness-stand--Maude."
"Maude? I thought you said a man?"
"It's his name. John Maude."
"But, Betty! Why didn't you tell me before? This is tremendously interesting."
Betty laughed shortly.
"Not so very, really. I only met him two or three times, and I haven't seen him for years, and I don't suppose I shall ever see him again. He was a friend of Alice Beecher's brother, who was at Harvard. Alice took me over to meet her brother, and Mr. Maude was there. That's all."
Elsa was plainly disappointed.
"But how do you know, then--? What makes you think that he--?"
"Instinct, again, I suppose. I do know."
"And you've never met him since?"
Betty shook her head. Elsa relapsed into silence. She had a sense of pathos.
At the further end of the terrace Marvin Rossiter appeared, carrying a large volume.
"Here we are," he said. "Scared it up at the first attempt. Now then."
He sat down, and opened the book.
"You don't want to hear all about how Jason went there in search of the Golden Fleece, and how Ulysses is supposed to have taken it in on his round-trip? You want something more modern. Well, it's an island in the Mediterranean, as I said, and I'm surprised that you've never heard of it, Elsa, because it's celebrated in its way. It's the smallest independent state in the world. Smaller than Monaco, even. Here are some facts. Its population when this encyclopaedia was printed--there may be more now--was eleven thousand and sixteen. It was ruled over up to 1886 by a prince. But in that year the populace appear to have said to themselves, 'When in the course of human events....' Anyway, they fired the prince, and the place is now a republic. So that's where you're going, Miss Silver. I don't know if it's any consolation to you, but the island, according to this gentleman, is celebrated for the unspoilt beauty of its scenery. He also gives a list of the fish that can be caught there. It takes up about three lines."
"But what can my stepfather be doing there? I last heard of him in London. Well, I suppose I shall have to go."
"I suppose you will," said Elsa mournfully. "But, oh, Betty, what a shame!"