The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter VIII. An Ultimatum from the Throne
At half-past twelve that morning business took Mr. Benjamin Scobell to the royal Palace. He was not a man who believed in letting the grass grow under his feet. He prided himself on his briskness of attack. Every now and then Mr. Crump, searching the newspapers, would discover and hand to him a paragraph alluding to his "hustling methods." When this happened, he would preserve the clipping and carry it about in his vest-pocket with his cigars till time and friction wore it away. He liked to think of himself as swift and sudden--the Human Thunderbolt.
In this matter of the royal alliance, it was his intention to have at it and clear it up at once. Having put his views clearly before Betty, he now proposed to lay them with equal clarity before the Prince. There was no sense in putting the thing off. The sooner all parties concerned understood the position of affairs, the sooner the business would be settled.
That Betty had not received his information with joy did not distress him. He had a poor opinion of the feminine intelligence. Girls got their minds full of nonsense from reading novels and seeing plays--like Betty. Betty objected to those who were wiser than herself providing a perfectly good prince for her to marry. Some fool notion of romance, of course. Not that he was angry. He did not blame her any more than the surgeon blames a patient for the possession of an unsuitable appendix. There was no animus in the matter. Her mind was suffering from foolish ideas, and he was the surgeon whose task it was to operate upon it. That was all. One had to expect foolishness in women. It was their nature. The only thing to do was to tie a rope to them and let them run around till they were tired of it, then pull them in. He saw his way to managing Betty.
Nor did he anticipate trouble with John. He had taken an estimate of John's character, and it did not seem to him likely that it contained unsuspected depths. He set John down, as he had told Betty, as a young man acute enough to know when he had a good job and sufficiently sensible to make concessions in order to retain it. Betty, after the manner of woman, might make a fuss before yielding to the inevitable, but from level-headed John he looked for placid acquiescence.
His mood, as the automobile whirred its way down the hill toward the town, was sunny. He looked on life benevolently and found it good. The view appealed to him more than it had managed to do on other days. As a rule, he was the man of blood and iron who had no time for admiring scenery, but to-day he vouchsafed it a not unkindly glance. It was certainly a dandy little place, this island of his. A vineyard on the right caught his eye. He made a mental note to uproot it and run up a hotel in its place. Further down the hill, he selected a site for a villa, where the mimosa blazed, and another where at present there were a number of utterly useless violets. A certain practical element was apt, perhaps, to color Mr. Scobell's half-hours with nature.
The sight of the steamboat leaving the harbor on its journey to Marseilles gave him another idea. Now that Mervo was a going concern, a real live proposition, it was high time that it should have an adequate service of boats. The present system of one a day was absurd. He made a note to look into the matter. These people wanted waking up.
Arriving at the Palace, he was informed that His Highness had gone out shortly after breakfast, and had not returned. The majordomo gave the information with a tinkle of disapproval in his voice. Before taking up his duties at Mervo, he had held a similar position in the household of a German prince, where rigid ceremonial obtained, and John's cheerful disregard of the formalities frankly shocked him. To take the present case for instance: When His Highness of Swartzheim had felt inclined to enjoy the air of a morning, it had been a domestic event full of stir and pomp. He had not merely crammed a soft hat over his eyes and strolled out with his hands in his pockets, but without a word to his household staff as to where he was going or when he might be expected to return.
Mr. Scobell received the news equably, and directed his chauffeur to return to the villa. He could not have done better, for, on his arrival, he was met with the information that His Highness had called to see him shortly after he had left, and was now waiting in the morning-room.
The sound of footsteps came to Mr. Scobell's ears as he approached the room. His Highness appeared to be pacing the floor like a caged animal at the luncheon hour. The resemblance was heightened by the expression in the royal eye as His Highness swung round at the opening of the door and faced the financier.
"Why, say, Prince," said Mr. Scobell, "this is lucky. I been looking for you. I just been to the Palace, and the main guy there told me you had gone out."
"I did. And I met your stepdaughter."
Mr. Scobell was astonished. Fate was certainly smoothing his way if it arranged meetings between Betty and the Prince before he had time to do it himself. There might be no need for the iron hand after all.
"You did?" he said. "Say, how the Heck did you come to do that? What did you know about Betty?"
"Miss Silver and I had met before, in America, when I was in college."
Mr. Scobell slapped his thigh joyously.
"Gee, it's all working out like a fiction story in the magazines!"
"Is it?" said John. "How? And, for the matter of that, what?"
Mr. Scobell answered question with question. "Say, Prince, you and Betty were pretty good friends in the old days, I guess?"
John looked at him coldly.
"We won't discuss that, if you don't mind," he said.
His tone annoyed Mr. Scobell. Off came the velvet glove, and the iron hand displayed itself. His green eyes glowed dully and the tip of his nose wriggled, as was its habit in times of emotion.
"Is that so?" he cried, regarding John with disfavor. "Well, I guess! Won't discuss it! You gotta discuss it, Your Royal Texas League Highness! You want making a head shorter, my bucko. You--"
John's demeanor had become so dangerous that he broke off abruptly, and with an unostentatious movement, as of a man strolling carelessly about his private sanctum, put himself within easy reach of the door handle.
He then became satirical.
"Maybe Your Serene, Imperial Two-by-Fourness would care to suggest a subject we can discuss?"
John took a step forward.
"Yes, I will," he said between his teeth. "You were talking to Miss Silver about me this morning. She told me one or two of the things you said, and they opened my eyes. Until I heard them, I had not quite understood my position. I do now. You said, among other things, that I was your hired man."
"It wasn't intended for you to hear," said Mr. Scobell, slightly mollified, "and Betty shouldn't oughter have handed it to you. I don't wonder you feel raw. I wouldn't say that sort of thing to a guy's face. Sure, no. Tact's my middle name. But, since you have heard it, well--!"
"Don't apologize. You were quite right. I was a fool not to see it before. No description could have been fairer. You might have said much more. You might have added that I was nothing more than a steerer for a gambling hell."
"Oh, come, Prince!"
There was a knock at the door. A footman entered, bearing, with a detached air, as if he disclaimed all responsibility, a letter on a silver tray.
Mr. Scobell slit the envelope, and began to read. As he did so his eyes grew round, and his mouth slowly opened till his cigar stump, after hanging for a moment from his lower lip, dropped off like an exhausted bivalve and rolled along the carpet.
"Prince," he gasped, "she's gone. Betty!"
"Gone! What do you mean?"
"She's beaten it. She's half-way to Marseilles by now. Gee, and I saw the darned boat going out!"
"This is from her. Listen what she says:
John started violently.
"What!" he cried.
Mr. Scobell nodded sympathy.
"That's what she says. She sure has it in bad for you. What does she mean? Seeing you and she are old friends--"
"I don't understand. Why does she say that to you? Why should she think that you knew that I had asked her to marry me?"
"Eh?" cried Mr. Scobell. "You asked her to marry you? And she turned you down! Prince, this beats the band. Say, you and I must get together and do something. The girl's mad. See here, you aren't wise to what's been happening. I been fixing this thing up. I fetched you over here, and then I fetched Betty, and I was going to have you two marry. I told Betty all about it this morning."
John cut through his explanations with a sudden sharp cry. A blinding blaze of understanding had flashed upon him. It was as if he had been groping his way in a dark cavern and had stumbled unexpectedly into brilliant sunlight. He understood everything now. Every word that Betty had spoken, every gesture that she had made, had become amazingly clear. He saw now why she had shrunk back from him, why her eyes had worn that look. He dared not face the picture of himself as he must have appeared in those eyes, the man whom Mr. Benjamin Scobell's Casino was paying to marry her, the hired man earning his wages by speaking words of love.
A feeling of physical sickness came over him. He held to the table for support as he had held to the sandstone rock. And then came rage, rage such as he had never felt before, rage that he had not thought himself capable of feeling. It swept over him in a wave, pouring through his veins and blinding him, and he clung to the table till his knuckles whitened under the strain, for he knew that he was very near to murder.
A minute passed. He walked to the window, and stood there, looking out. Vaguely he heard Mr. Scobell's voice at his back, talking on, but the words had no meaning for him.
He had begun to think with a curious coolness. His detachment surprised him. It was one of those rare moments in a man's life when, from the outside, through a breach in that wall of excuses and self-deception which he has been at such pains to build, he looks at himself impartially.
The sight that John saw through the wall was not comforting. It was not a heroic soul that, stripped of its defenses, shivered beneath the scrutiny. In another mood he would have mended the breach, excusing and extenuating, but not now. He looked at himself without pity, and saw himself weak, slothful, devoid of all that was clean and fine, and a bitter contempt filled him.
Outside the window, a blaze of color, Mervo smiled up at him, and suddenly he found himself loathing its exotic beauty. He felt stifled. This was no place for a man. A vision of clean winds and wide spaces came to him.
And just then, at the foot of the hill, the dome of the Casino caught the sun, and flashed out in a blaze of gold.
He swung round and faced Mr. Scobell. He had made up his mind.
The financier was still talking.
"So that's how it stands, Prince," he was saying, "and it's up to us to get busy."
John looked at him.
"I intend to," he said.
"Good boy!" said the financier.
"To begin with, I shall run you out of this place, Mr. Scobell."
The other gasped.
"There is going to be a cleaning-up," John went on. "I've thought it out. There will be no more gambling in Mervo."
"You're crazy with the heat!" gasped Mr. Scobell. "Abolish gambling? You can't."
"I can. That concession of yours isn't worth the paper it's written on. The Republic gave it to you. The Republic's finished. If you want to conduct a Casino in Mervo, there's only one man who can give you permission, and that's myself. The acts of the Republic are not binding on me. For a week you have been gambling on this island without a concession and now it's going to stop. Do you understand?"
"But, Prince, talk sense." Mr. Scobell's voice was almost tearful. "It's you who don't understand. Do, for the love of Mike, come down off the roof and talk sense. Do you suppose that these guys here will stand for this? Not on your life. Not for a minute. See here. I'm not blaming you. I know you don't know what you're saying. But listen here. You must cut out this kind of thing. You mustn't get these ideas in your head. You stick to your job, and don't butt in on other folks'. Do you know how long you'd stay Prince of this joint if you started in to monkey with my Casino? Just about long enough to let you pack a collar-stud and a toothbrush into your grip. And after that there wouldn't be any more Prince, sonnie. You stick to your job and I'll stick to mine. You're a mighty good Prince for all that's required of you. You're ornamental, and you've got get-up in you. You just keep right on being a good boy, and don't start trying stunts off your own beat, and you'll do fine. Don't forget that I'm the big noise here. I'm old Grayback from 'way back in Mervo. See! I've only to twiddle my fingers and there'll be a revolution and you for the Down-and-Out Club. Don't you forget it, sonnie."
John shrugged his shoulders.
"I've said all I have to say. You've had your notice to quit. After to-night the Casino is closed."
"But don't I tell you the people won't stand for it?"
"That's for them to decide. They may have some self-respect."
"They'll fire you!"
"Very well. That will prove that they have not."
"Prince, talk sense! You can't mean that you'll throw away a hundred thousand dollars a year as if it was dirt!"
"It is dirt when it's made that way. We needn't discuss it any more."
John had left the room.
He had been gone several minutes before the financier recovered full possession of his faculties.
When he did, his remarks were brief and to the point.
"Bug-house!" he gasped. "Abso-lutely bug-house!"