The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter II. Mervo and Its Owner
"By heck!" cried Mr. Benjamin Scobell.
He wheeled round from the window, and transferred his gaze from the view to his sister Marion; losing by the action, for the view was a joy to the eye, which his sister Marion was not.
Mervo was looking its best under the hot morning sun. Mr. Scobell's villa stood near the summit of the only hill the island possessed, and from the window of the morning-room, where he had just finished breakfast, he had an uninterrupted view of valley, town, and harbor--a two-mile riot of green, gold and white, and beyond the white the blue satin of the Mediterranean. Mr. Scobell did not read poetry except that which advertised certain breakfast foods in which he was interested, or he might have been reminded of the Island of Flowers in Tennyson's "Voyage of Maeldive." Violets, pinks, crocuses, yellow and purple mesembryanthemum, lavender, myrtle, and rosemary ... his two-mile view contained them all. The hillside below him was all aglow with the yellow fire of the mimosa. But his was not one of those emotional natures to which the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. A primrose by the river's brim a simple primrose was to him--or not so much a simple primrose, perhaps, as a basis for a possible Primrosina, the Soap that Really Cleans You.
He was a nasty little man to hold despotic sway over such a Paradise: a goblin in Fairyland. Somewhat below the middle height, he was lean of body and vulturine of face. He had a greedy mouth, a hooked nose, liquid green eyes and a sallow complexion. He was rarely seen without a half-smoked cigar between his lips. This at intervals he would relight, only to allow it to go out again; and when, after numerous fresh starts, it had dwindled beyond the limits of convenience, he would substitute another from the reserve supply that protruded from his vest-pocket.
* * * * *
How Benjamin Scobell had discovered the existence of Mervo is not known. It lay well outside the sphere of the ordinary financier. But Mr. Scobell took a pride in the versatility of his finance. It distinguished him from the uninspired who were content to concentrate themselves on steel, wheat and such-like things. It was Mr. Scobell's way to consider nothing as lying outside his sphere. In a financial sense he might have taken Terence's Nihil humanum alienum as his motto. He was interested in innumerable enterprises, great and small. He was the power behind a company which was endeavoring, without much success, to extract gold from the mountains of North Wales, and another which was trying, without any success at all, to do the same by sea water. He owned a model farm in Indiana, and a weekly paper in New York. He had financed patent medicines, patent foods, patent corks, patent corkscrews, patent devices of all kinds, some profitable, some the reverse.
Also--outside the ordinary gains of finance--he had expectations. He was the only male relative of his aunt, the celebrated Mrs. Jane Oakley, who lived in a cottage on Staten Island, and was reputed to spend five hundred dollars a year--some said less--out of her snug income of eighteen million. She was an unusual old lady in many ways, and, unfortunately, unusually full of deep-rooted prejudices. The fear lest he might inadvertently fall foul of these rarely ceased to haunt Mr. Scobell.
This man of many projects had descended upon Mervo like a stone on the surface of some quiet pool, bubbling over with modern enterprise in general and, in particular, with a scheme. Before his arrival, Mervo had been an island of dreams and slow movement and putting things off till to-morrow. The only really energetic thing it had ever done in its whole history had been to expel his late highness, Prince Charles, and change itself into a republic. And even that had been done with the minimum of fuss. The Prince was away at the time. Indeed, he had been away for nearly three years, the pleasures of Paris, London and Vienna appealing to him more keenly than life among his subjects. Mervo, having thought the matter over during these years, decided that it had no further use for Prince Charles. Quite quietly, with none of that vulgar brawling which its neighbor, France, had found necessary in similar circumstances, it had struck his name off the pay-roll, and declared itself a republic. The royalist party, headed by General Poineau, had been distracted but impotent. The army, one hundred and fifteen strong, had gone solid for the new regime, and that had settled it. Mervo had then gone to sleep again. It was asleep when Mr. Scobell found it.
The financier's scheme was first revealed to M. d'Orby, the President of the Republic, a large, stout statesman with even more than the average Mervian instinct for slumber. He was asleep in a chair on the porch of his villa when Mr. Scobell paid his call, and it was not until the financier's secretary, who attended the seance in the capacity of interpreter, had rocked him vigorously from side to side for quite a minute that he displayed any signs of animation beyond a snore like the growling of distant thunder. When at length he opened his eyes, he perceived the nightmare-like form of Mr. Scobell standing before him, talking. The financier, impatient of delay, had begun to talk some moments before the great awakening.
"Sir," Mr. Scobell was saying, "I gotta proposition to which I'd like you to give your complete attention. Shake him some more, Crump. Sir, there's big money in it for all of us, if you and your crowd'll sit in. Money. Lar' monnay. No, that means change. What's money, Crump? Arjong? There's arjong in it, Squire. Get that? Oh, shucks! Hand it to him in French, Crump."
Mr. Secretary Crump translated. The President blinked, and intimated that he would hear more. Mr. Scobell relighted his cigar-stump, and proceeded.
"Say, you've heard of Moosieer Blonk? Ask the old skeesicks if he's ever heard of Mersyaw Blonk, Crump, the feller who started the gaming-tables at Monte Carlo."
Filtered through Mr. Crump, the question became intelligible to the President. He said he had heard of M. Blanc. Mr. Crump caught the reply and sent it on to Mr. Scobell, as the man on first base catches the ball and throws it to second.
Mr. Scobell relighted his cigar.
"Well, I'm in that line. I'm going to put this island on the map just like old Doctor Blonk put Monte Carlo. I've been studying up all about the old man, and I know just what he did and how he did it. Monte Carlo was just such another jerkwater little place as this is before he hit it. The government was down to its last bean and wondering where the Heck its next meal-ticket was coming from, when in blows Mr. Man, tucks up his shirt-sleeves, and starts the tables. And after that the place never looked back. You and your crowd gotta get together and pass a vote to give me a gambling concession here, same as they did him. Scobell's my name. Hand him that, Crump."
Mr. Crump obliged once more. A gleam of intelligence came into the President's dull eye. He nodded once or twice. He talked volubly in French to Mr. Crump, who responded in the same tongue.
"The idea seems to strike him, sir," said Mr. Crump.
"It ought to, if he isn't a clam," replied Mr. Scobell. He started to relight his cigar, but after scorching the tip of his nose, bowed to the inevitable and threw the relic away.
"See here," he said, having bitten the end off the next in order; "I've thought this thing out from soup to nuts. There's heaps of room for another Monte Carlo. Monte's a dandy place, but it's not perfect by a long way. To start with, it's hilly. You have to take the elevator to get to the Casino, and when you've gotten to the end of your roll and want to soak your pearl pin, where's the hock-shop? Half a mile away up the side of a mountain. It ain't right. In my Casino there's going to be a resident pawnbroker inside the building, just off the main entrance. That's only one of a heap of improvements. Another is that my Casino's scheduled to be a home from home, a place you can be real cosy in. You'll look around you, and the only thing you'll miss will be mother's face. Yes, sir, there's no need for a gambling Casino to look and feel and smell like the reading-room at the British Museum. Comfort, coziness and convenience. That's the ticket I'm running on. Slip that to the old gink, Crump."
A further outburst of the French language from Mr. Crump, supplemented on the part of the "old gink" by gesticulations, interrupted the proceedings.
"What's he saying now?" asked Mr. Scobell.
"He wants to know--"
"Don't tell. Let me guess. He wants to know what sort of a rake-off he and the other somnambulists will get--the darned old pirate! Is that it?"
Mr. Crump said that that was just it.
"That'll be all right," said Mr. Scobell. "Old man Blong's offer to the Prince of Monaco was five hundred thousand francs a year--that's somewhere around a hundred thousand dollars in real money--and half the profits made by the Casino. That's my offer, too. See how that hits him, Crump."
Mr. Crump investigated.
"He says he accepts gladly, on behalf of the Republic, sir," he announced.
M. d'Orby confirmed the statement by rising, dodging the cigar, and kissing Mr. Scobell on both cheeks.
"Cut it out," said the financier austerely, breaking out of the clinch. "We'll take the Apache Dance as read. Good-by, Squire. Glad it's settled. Now I can get busy."
He did. Workmen poured into Mervo, and in a very short time, dominating the town and reducing to insignificance the palace of the late Prince, once a passably imposing mansion, there rose beside the harbor a mammoth Casino of shining stone.
Imposing as was the exterior, it was on the interior that Mr. Scobell more particularly prided himself, and not without reason. Certainly, a man with money to lose could lose it here under the most charming conditions. It had been Mr. Scobell's object to avoid the cheerless grandeur of the rival institution down the coast. Instead of one large hall sprinkled with tables, each table had a room to itself, separated from its neighbor by sound-proof folding-doors. And as the building progressed, Mr. Scobell's active mind had soared above the original idea of domestic coziness to far greater heights of ingenuity. Each of the rooms was furnished and arranged in a different style. The note of individuality extended even to the croupiers. Thus, a man with money at his command could wander from the Dutch room, where, in the picturesque surroundings of a Dutch kitchen, croupiers in the costume of Holland ministered to his needs, to the Japanese room, where his coin would be raked in by quite passable imitations of the Samurai. If he had any left at this point, he was free to dispose of it under the auspices of near-Hindoos in the Indian room, of merry Swiss peasants in the Swiss room, or in other appropriately furnished apartments of red-shirted, Bret Harte miners, fur-clad Esquimaux, or languorous Spaniards. He could then, if a man of spirit, who did not know when he was beaten, collect the family jewels, and proceed down the main hall, accompanied by the strains of an excellent band, to the office of a gentlemanly pawnbroker, who spoke seven languages like a native and was prepared to advance money on reasonable security in all of them.
It was a colossal venture, but it suffered from the defect from which most big things suffer; it moved slowly. That it also moved steadily was to some extent a consolation to Mr. Scobell. Undoubtedly it would progress quicker and quicker, as time went on, until at length the Casino became a permanent gold mine. But at present it was being conducted at a loss. It was inevitable, but it irked Mr. Scobell. He paced the island and brooded. His mind dwelt incessantly on the problem. Ideas for promoting the prosperity of his nursling came to him at all hours--at meals, in the night watches, when he was shaving, walking, washing, reading, brushing his hair.
And now one had come to him as he stood looking at the view from the window of his morning-room, listening absently to his sister Marion as she read stray items of interest from the columns of the New York Herald, and had caused him to utter the exclamation recorded at the beginning of the chapter.
* * * * *
"By Heck!" he said. "Read that again, Marion. I gottan idea."
Miss Scobell, deep in her paper, paid no attention. Few people would have taken her for the sister of the financier. She was his exact opposite in almost every way. He was small, jerky and aggressive; she, tall, deliberate and negative. She was one of those women whom nature seems to have produced with the object of attaching them to some man in a peculiar position of independent dependence, and who defy the imagination to picture them in any other condition whatsoever. One could not see Miss Scobell doing anything but pour out her brother's coffee, darn his socks, and sit placidly by while he talked. Yet it would have been untrue to describe her as dependent upon him. She had a detached mind. Though her whole life had been devoted to his comfort and though she admired him intensely, she never appeared to give his conversation any real attention. She listened to him much as she would have listened to a barking Pomeranian.
"Marion!" cried Mr. Scobell.
"A five-legged rabbit has been born in Carbondale, Southern Illinois," she announced.
Mr. Scobell cursed the five-legged rabbit.
"Never mind about your rabbits. I want to hear that piece you read before. The one about the Prince of Monaco. Will--you--listen, Marion!"
"The Prince of Monaco, dear? Yes. He has caught another fish or something of that sort, I think. Yes. A fish with 'telescope eyes,' the paper says. And very convenient too, I should imagine."
Mr. Scobell thumped the table.
"I've got it. I've found out what's the matter with this darned place. I see why the Casino hasn't struck its gait."
"I think it must be the croupiers, dear. I'm sure I never heard of croupiers in fancy costume before. It doesn't seem right. I'm sure people don't like those nasty Hindoos. I am quite nervous myself when I go into the Indian room. They look at me so oddly."
"Nonsense! That's the whole idea of the place, that it should be different. People are sick and tired of having their money gathered in by seedy-looking Dagoes in second-hand morning coats. We give 'em variety. It's not the Casino that's wrong: it's the darned island. What's the use of a republic to a place like this? I'm not saying that you don't want a republic for a live country that's got its way to make in the world; but for a little runt of a sawn-off, hobo, one-night stand like this you gotta have something picturesque, something that'll advertise the place, something that'll give a jolt to folks' curiosity, and make 'em talk! There's this Monaco gook. He snoops around in his yacht, digging up telescope-eyed fish, and people talk about it. 'Another darned fish,' they say. 'That's the 'steenth bite the Prince of Monaco has had this year.' It's like a soap advertisement. It works by suggestion. They get to thinking about the Prince and his pop-eyed fishes, and, first thing they know, they've packed their grips and come along to Monaco to have a peek at him. And when they're there, it's a safe bet they aren't going back again without trying to get a mess of easy money from the Bank. That's what this place wants. Whoever heard of this blamed Republic doing anything except eat and sleep? They used to have a prince here 'way back in eighty-something. Well, I'm going to have him working at the old stand again, right away."
Miss Scobell looked up from her paper, which she had been reading with absorbed interest throughout tins harangue.
"Dear?" she said enquiringly.
"I say I'm going to have him back again," said Mr. Scobell, a little damped. "I wish you would listen."
"I think you're quite right, dear. Who?"
"The Prince. Do listen, Marion. The Prince of this island, His Highness, the Prince of Mervo. I'm going to send for him and put him on the throne again."
"You can't, dear. He's dead."
"I know he's dead. You can't faze me on the history of this place. He died in ninety-one. But before he died he married an American girl, and there's a son, who's in America now, living with his uncle. It's the son I'm going to send for. I got it all from General Poineau. He's a royalist. He'll be tickled to pieces when Johnny comes marching home again. Old man Poineau told me all about it. The Prince married a girl called Westley, and then he was killed in an automobile accident, and his widow went back to America with the kid, to live with her brother. Poineau says he could lay his hand on him any time he pleased."
"I hope you won't do anything rash, dear," said his sister comfortably. "I'm sure we don't want any horrid revolution here, with people shooting and stabbing each other."
"Revolution?" cried Mr. Scobell. "Revolution! Well, I should say nix! Revolution nothing. I'm the man with the big stick in Mervo. Pretty near every adult on this island is dependent on my Casino for his weekly envelope, and what I say goes--without argument. I want a prince, so I gotta have a prince, and if any gazook makes a noise like a man with a grouch, he'll find himself fired."
Miss Scobell turned to her paper again.
"Very well, dear," she said. "Just as you please. I'm sure you know best."
"Sure!" said her brother. "You're a good guesser. I'll go and beat up old man Poineau right away."