The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter VII. Mr. Scobell is Frank
Much may happen in these rapid times in the course of an hour and a half. While John was keeping his vigil on the sandstone rock, Betty was having an interview with Mr. Scobell which was to produce far-reaching results, and which, incidentally, was to leave her angrier and more at war with the whole of her world than she could remember to have been in the entire course of her life.
The interview began, shortly after breakfast, in a gentle and tactful manner, with Aunt Marion at the helm. But Mr. Scobell was not the man to stand by silently while persons were being tactful. At the end of the second minute he had plunged through his sister's mild monologue like a rhinoceros through a cobweb, and had stated definitely, with an economy of words, the exact part which Betty was to play in Mervian affairs.
"You say you want to know why you were cabled for. I'll tell you. There's no use talking for half a day before you get to the point. I guess you've heard that there's a prince here instead of a republic now? Well, that's where you come in."
"Do you mean--?" she hesitated.
"Yes, I do," said Mr. Scobell. There was a touch of doggedness in his voice. He was not going to stand any nonsense, by Heck, but there was no doubt that Betty's wide-open eyes were not very easy to meet. He went on rapidly. "Cut out any fool notions about romance." Miss Scobell, who was knitting a sock, checked her needles for a moment in order to sigh. Her brother eyed her morosely, then resumed his remarks. "This is a matter of state. That's it. You gotta cut out fool notions and act for good of state. You gotta look at it in the proper spirit. Great honor--see what I mean? Princess and all that. Chance of a lifetime--dynasty--you gotta look at it that way."
Miss Scobell heaved another sigh, and dropped a stitch.
"For the love of Mike," said her brother, irritably, "don't snort like that, Marion."
"Very well, dear."
Betty had not taken her eyes off him from his first word. An unbiased observer would have said that she made a pretty picture, standing there, in her white dress, but in the matter of pictures, still life was evidently what Mr. Scobell preferred for his gaze never wandered from the cigar stump which he had removed from his mouth in order to knock off the ash.
Betty continued to regard him steadfastly. The shock of his words had to some extent numbed her. At this moment she was merely thinking, quite dispassionately, what a singularly nasty little man he looked, and wondering--not for the first time--what strange quality, invisible to everybody else, it had been in him that had made her mother his adoring slave during the whole of their married life.
Then her mind began to work actively once more. She was a Western girl, and an insistence on freedom was the first article in her creed. A great rush of anger filled her, that this man should set himself up to dictate to her.
"Do you mean that you want me to marry this Prince?" she said.
"I won't do anything of the sort."
"Pshaw! Don't be foolish. You make me tired."
Betty's eye shone mutinously. Her cheeks were flushed, and her slim, boyish figure quivered. Her chin, always determined, became a silent Declaration of Independence.
"I won't," she said.
Aunt Marion, suspending operations on the sock, went on with tact at the point where her brother's interruption had forced her to leave off.
"I'm sure he's a very nice young man. I have not seen him, but everybody says so. You like him, Bennie, don't you?"
"Sure, I like him. He's a corker. Wait till you see him, Betty. Nobody's asking you to marry him before lunch. You'll have plenty of time to get acquainted. It beats me what you're kicking at. You give me a pain in the neck. Be reasonable."
Betty sought for arguments to clinch her refusal.
"It's ridiculous," she said. "You talk as if you had just to wave your hand. Why should your prince want to marry a girl he has never seen?"
"He will," said Mr. Scobell confidently.
"How do you know?"
"Because I know he's a sensible young skeesicks. That's how. See here, Betty, you've gotten hold of wrong ideas about this place. You don't understand the position of affairs. Your aunt didn't till I put her wise."
"He bit my head off, my dear," murmured Miss Scobell, knitting placidly.
"You're thinking that Mervo is an ordinary state, and that the Prince is one of those independent, all-wool, off-with-his-darned-head rulers like you read about in the best sellers. Well, you've got another guess coming. If you want to know who's the big noise here, it's me--me! This Prince guy is my hired man. See? Who sent for him? I did. Who put him on the throne? I did. Who pays him his salary? I do, from the profits of the Casino. Now do you understand? He knows his job. He knows which side his bread's buttered. When I tell him about this marriage, do you know what he'll say? He'll say 'Thank you, sir!' That's how things are in this island."
Betty shuddered. Her face was white with humiliation. She half-raised her hands with an impulsive movement to hide it.
"I won't. I won't. I won't!" she gasped.
Mr. Scobell was pacing the room in an ecstasy of triumphant rhetoric.
"There's another thing," he said, swinging round suddenly and causing his sister to drop another stitch. "Maybe you think he's some kind of a Dago, this guy? Maybe that's what's biting you. Let me tell you that he's an American--pretty near as much an American as you are yourself."
Betty stared at him.
"Don't believe it, eh? Well, let me tell you that his mother was born and raised in Jersey, and that he has lived all his life in the States. He's no little runt of a Dago. No, sir. He's a Harvard man, six-foot high and weighs two hundred pounds. That's the sort of man he is. I guess that's not American enough for you, maybe? No?"
"You do shout so, Bennie!" murmured Miss Scobell. "I'm sure there's no need."
Betty uttered a cry. Something had told her who he was, this Harvard man who had sold himself. That species of sixth sense which lies undeveloped at the back of our minds during the ordinary happenings of life wakes sometimes in moments of keen emotion. At its highest, it is prophecy; at its lowest, a vague presentiment. It woke in Betty now. There was no particular reason why she should have connected her stepfather's words with John. The term he had used was an elastic one. Among the visitors to the island there were probably several Harvard men. But somehow she knew.
"Who is he?" she cried. "What was his name before he--when he--?"
"His name?" said Mr. Scobell. "John Maude. Maude was his mother's name. She was a Miss Westley. Here, where are you going?"
Betty was walking slowly toward the door. Something in her face checked Mr. Scobell.
"I want to think," she said quietly. "I'm going out."
* * * * *
In days of old, in the age of legend, omens warned heroes of impending doom. But to-day the gods have grown weary, and we rush unsuspecting on our fate. No owl hooted, no thunder rolled from the blue sky as John went up the path to meet the white dress that gleamed between the trees.
His heart was singing within him. She had come. She had not forgotten, or changed her mind, or willfully abandoned him. His mood lightened swiftly. Humility vanished. He was not such an outcast, after all. He was someone. He was the man Betty Silver had come to meet.
But with the sight of her face came reaction.
Her face was pale and cold and hard. She did not speak or smile. As she drew near she looked at him, and there was that in her look which set a chill wind blowing through the world and cast a veil across the sun.
And in this bleak world they stood silent and motionless while eons rolled by.
Betty was the first to speak.
"I'm late," she said.
John searched in his brain for words, and came empty away. He shook his head dumbly.
"Shall we sit down?" said Betty.
John indicated silently the sandstone rock on which he had been communing with himself.
They sat down. A sense of being preposterously and indecently big obsessed John. There seemed no end to him. Wherever he looked, there were hands and feet and legs. He was a vast blot on the face of the earth. He glanced out of the corner of his eye at Betty. She was gazing out to sea.
He dived into his brain again. It was absurd! There must be something to say.
And then he realized that a worse thing had befallen. He had no voice. It had gone. He knew that, try he never so hard to speak, he would not be able to utter a word. A nightmare feeling of unreality came upon him. Had he ever spoken? Had he ever done anything but sit dumbly on that rock, looking at those sea gulls out in the water?
He shot another swift glance at Betty, and a thrill went through him. There were tears in her eyes.
The next moment--the action was almost automatic--his left hand was clasping her right, and he was moving along the rock to her side.
She snatched her hand away.
His brain, ransacked for the third time, yielded a single word.
She got up quickly.
In the confused state of his mind, John found it necessary if he were to speak at all, to say the essential thing in the shortest possible way. Polished periods are not for the man who is feeling deeply.
He blurted out, huskily, "I love you!" and finding that this was all that he could say, was silent.
Even to himself the words, as he spoke them, sounded bald and meaningless. To Betty, shaken by her encounter with Mr. Scobell, they sounded artificial, as if he were forcing himself to repeat a lesson. They jarred upon her.
"Don't!" she said sharply. "Oh, don't!"
Her voice stabbed him. It could not have stirred him more if she had uttered a cry of physical pain.
"Don't! I know. I've been told."
She went on quickly.
"I know all about it. My stepfather has just told me. He said--he said you were his--" she choked--"his hired man; that he paid you to stay here and advertise the Casino. Oh, it's too horrible! That it should be you! You, who have been--you can't understand what you--have been to me--ever since we met; you couldn't understand. I can't tell you--a sort of help--something--something that--I can't put it into words. Only it used to help me just to think of you. It was almost impersonal. I didn't mind if I never saw you again. I didn't expect ever to see you again. It was just being able to think of you. It helped--you were something I could trust. Something strong--solid." She laughed bitterly. "I suppose I made a hero of you. Girls are fools. But it helped me to feel that there was one man alive who--who put his honor above money--"
She broke off. John stood motionless, staring at the ground. For the first time in his easy-going life he knew shame. Even now he had not grasped to the full the purport of her words. The scales were falling from his eyes, but as yet he saw but dimly.
She began to speak again, in a low, monotonous voice, almost as if she were talking to herself. She was looking past him, at the gulls that swooped and skimmed above the glittering water.
"I'm so tired of money--money--money. Everything's money. Isn't there a man in the world who won't sell himself? I thought that you--I suppose I'm stupid. It's business, I suppose. One expects too much."
She looked at him wearily.
"Good-by," she said. "I'm going."
He did not move.
She turned, and went slowly up the path. Still he made no movement. A spell seemed to be on him. His eyes never left her as she passed into the shadow of the trees. For a moment her white dress stood out clearly. She had stopped. With his whole soul he prayed that she would look back. But she moved on once more, and was gone. And suddenly a strange weakness came upon John. He trembled. The hillside flickered before his eyes for an instant, and he clutched at the sandstone rock to steady himself.
Then his brain cleared, and he found himself thinking swiftly. He could not let her go like this. He must overtake her. He must stop her. He must speak to her. He must say--he did not know what it was that he would say--anything, so that he spoke to her again.
He raced up the path, calling her name. No answer came to his cries. Above him lay the hillside, dozing in the noonday sun; below, the Mediterranean, sleek and blue, without a ripple. He stood alone in a land of silence and sleep.