The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter VI. Young Adam Cupid
On a red sandstone rock at the edge of the water, where the island curved sharply out into the sea, Prince John of Mervo sat and brooded on first causes. For nearly an hour and a half he had been engaged in an earnest attempt to trace to its source the acute fit of depression which had come--apparently from nowhere--to poison his existence that morning.
It was his seventh day on the island, and he could remember every incident of his brief reign. The only thing that eluded him was the recollection of the exact point when the shadow of discontent had begun to spread itself over his mind. Looking back, it seemed to him that he had done nothing during that week but enjoy each new aspect of his position as it was introduced to his notice. Yet here he was, sitting on a lonely rock, consumed with an unquenchable restlessness, a kind of trapped sensation. Exactly when and exactly how Fate, that king of gold-brick men, had cheated him he could not say; but he knew, with a certainty that defied argument, that there had been sharp practise, and that in an unguarded moment he had been induced to part with something of infinite value in exchange for a gilded fraud.
The mystery baffled him. He sent his mind back to the first definite entry of Mervo into the foreground of his life. He had come up from his stateroom on to the deck of the little steamer, and there in the pearl-gray of the morning was the island, gradually taking definite shape as the pink mists shredded away before the rays of the rising sun. As the ship rounded the point where the lighthouse still flashed a needless warning from its cluster of jagged rocks, he had had his first view of the town, nestling at the foot of the hill, gleaming white against the green, with the gold-domed Casino towering in its midst. In all Southern Europe there was no view to match it for quiet beauty. For all his thews and sinews there was poetry in John, and the sight had stirred him like wine.
It was not then that depression had begun, nor was it during the reception at the quay.
The days that had followed had been peaceful and amusing. He could not detect in any one of them a sign of the approaching shadow. They had been lazy days. His duties had been much more simple than he had anticipated. He had not known, before he tried it, that it was possible to be a prince with so small an expenditure of mental energy. As Mr. Scobell had hinted, to all intents and purposes he was a mere ornament. His work began at eleven in the morning, and finished as a rule at about a quarter after. At the hour named a report of the happenings of the previous day was brought to him. When he had read it the state asked no more of him until the next morning.
The report was made up of such items as "A fisherman named Lesieur called Carbineer Ferrier a fool in the market-place at eleven minutes after two this afternoon; he has not been arrested, but is being watched," and generally gave John a few minutes of mild enjoyment. Certainly he could not recollect that it had ever depressed him.
No, it had been something else that had worked the mischief and in another moment the thing stood revealed, beyond all question of doubt. What had unsettled him was that unexpected meeting with Betty Silver last night at the Casino.
He had been sitting at the Dutch table. He generally visited the Casino after dinner. The light and movement of the place interested him. As a rule, he merely strolled through the rooms, watching the play; but last night he had slipped into a vacant seat. He had only just settled himself when he was aware of a girl standing beside him. He got up.
"Would you care--?" he had begun, and then he saw her face.
It had all happened in an instant. Some chord in him, numbed till then, had begun to throb. It was as if he had awakened from a dream, or returned to consciousness after being stunned. There was something in the sight of her, standing there so cool and neat and composed, so typically American, a sort of goddess of America, in the heat and stir of the Casino, that struck him like a blow.
How long was it since he had seen her last? Not more than a couple of years. It seemed centuries. It all came back to him. It was during his last winter at Harvard that they had met. A college friend of hers had been the sister of a college friend of his. They had met several times, but he could not recollect having taken any particular notice of her then, beyond recognizing that she was certainly pretty. The world had been full of pretty American girls then. But now--
He looked at her. And, as he looked, he heard America calling to him. Mervo, by the appeal of its novelty, had caused him to forget. But now, quite suddenly, he knew that he was homesick--and it astonished him, the readiness with which he had permitted Mr. Crump to lead him away into bondage. It seemed incredible that he had not foreseen what must happen.
Love comes to some gently, imperceptibly, creeping in as the tide, through unsuspected creeks and inlets, creeps on a sleeping man, until he wakes to find himself surrounded. But to others it comes as a wave, breaking on them, beating them down, whirling them away.
It was so with John. In that instant when their eyes met the miracle must have happened. It seemed to him, as he recalled the scene now, that he had loved her before he had had time to frame his first remark. It amazed him that he could ever have been blind to the fact that he loved her, she was so obviously the only girl in the world.
"You--you don't remember me," he stammered.
She was flushing a little under his stare, but her eyes were shining.
"I remember you very well, Mr. Maude," she said with a smile. "I thought I knew your shoulders before you turned round. What are you doing here?"
There was a hush. The croupier had set the ball rolling. A wizened little man and two ladies of determined aspect were looking up disapprovingly. John realized that he was the only person in the room not silent. It was impossible to tell her the story of the change in his fortunes in the middle of this crowd. He stopped, and the moment passed.
The ball dropped with a rattle. The tension relaxed.
"Won't you take this seat?" said John.
"No, thank you. I'm not playing. I only just stopped to look on. My aunt is in one of the rooms, and I want to make her come home. I'm tired."
He caught the eye of the wizened man, and stopped again.
"Have you been in Mervo long?" he said, as the ball fell.
"I only arrived this morning. It seems lovely. I must explore to-morrow."
She was beginning to move off.
"Er--" John coughed to remove what seemed to him a deposit of sawdust and unshelled nuts in his throat. "Er--may I--will you let me show you--" prolonged struggle with the nuts and sawdust; then rapidly--"some of the places to-morrow?"
He had hardly spoken the words when it was borne in upon him that he was a vulgar, pushing bounder, presuming on a dead and buried acquaintanceship to force his company on a girl who naturally did not want it, and who would now proceed to snub him as he deserved. He quailed. Though he had not had time to collect and examine and label his feelings, he was sufficiently in touch with them to know that a snub from her would be the most terrible thing that could possibly happen to him.
She did not snub him. Indeed, if he had been in a state of mind coherent enough to allow him to observe, he might have detected in her eyes and her voice signs of pleasure.
"I should like it very much," she said.
John made his big effort. He attacked the nuts and sawdust which had come back and settled down again in company with a large lump of some unidentified material, as if he were bucking center. They broke before him as, long ago, the Yale line had done, and his voice rang out as if through a megaphone, to the unconcealed disgust of the neighboring gamesters.
"If you go along the path at the foot of the hill," he bellowed rapidly, "and follow it down to the sea, you get a little bay full of red sandstone rocks--you can't miss it--and there's a fine view of the island from there. I'd like awfully well to show that to you. It's great."
"Then shall we meet there?" she said. "When?"
John was in no mood to postpone the event.
"As early as ever you like," he roared.
"At about ten, then. Good-night, Mr. Maude."
* * * * *
John had reached the bay at half-past eight, and had been on guard there ever since. It was now past ten, but still there were no signs of Betty. His depression increased. He told himself that she had forgotten. Then, that she had remembered, but had changed her mind. Then, that she had never meant to come at all. He could not decide which of the three theories was the most distressing.
His mood became morbidly introspective. He was weighed down by a sense of his own unworthiness. He submitted himself to a thorough examination, and the conclusion to which he came was that, as an aspirant to the regard, of a girl like Betty, he did not score a single point. No wonder she had ignored the appointment.
A cold sweat broke out on him. This was the snub! She had not administered it in the Casino simply in order that, by being delayed, its force might be the more overwhelming.
He looked at his watch again, and the world grew black. It was twelve minutes after ten.
John, in his time, had thought and read a good deal about love. Ever since he had grown up, he had wanted to fall in love. He had imagined love as a perpetual exhilaration, something that flooded life with a golden glow as if by the pressing of a button or the pulling of a switch, and automatically removed from it everything mean and hard and uncomfortable; a something that made a man feel grand and god-like, looking down (benevolently, of course) on his fellow men as from some lofty mountain.
That it should make him feel a worm-like humility had not entered his calculations. He was beginning to see something of the possibilities of love. His tentative excursions into the unknown emotion, while at college, had never really deceived him; even at the time a sort of second self had looked on and sneered at the poor imitation.
This was different. This had nothing to do with moonlight and soft music. It was raw and hard. It hurt. It was a thing sharp and jagged, tearing at the roots of his soul.
He turned his head, and looked up the path for the hundredth time, and this time he sprang to his feet. Between the pines on the hillside his eye had caught the flutter of a white dress.