The Strand Magazine, August 1914
HE Caout-Chouc was drawing all London. Slightly more indecent than the Salome dance, a shade less reticent than Ragtime, it had driven the Tango out of existence. Nobody tangoed now. Nor, indeed, did anybody actually caout-chouc, for the national dance of Paranoya contained three hundred and fifteen recognized steps; but everybody tried to. Caout-Chouc teas were all the rage. At the night-clubs fair women and brave men reeled about the floor under the impression that they were caout-choucing. A new revue, “Hullo, Caout-Chouc,” had been produced with success. And the pioneer of the dance, the peerless Maraquita, a native Paranoyan, still performed it nightly at the music-hall where she had first broken loose.
The Caout-Chouc fascinated Roland Bleke. Maraquita fascinated him more. Of all the women to whom he had lost his heart at first sight, Maraquita had made the firmest impression upon him. She was what is sometimes called a fine woman. She had large, flashing eyes, the physique of a Rugby International forward, and the agility of a cat on hot bricks. There is a period of about fifty steps somewhere in the middle of the three hundred and fifteen where the patient, abandoning the comparative decorum of the earlier movements, whizzes about till she looks like a salmon-coloured whirlwind. That was the bit that hit Roland. Night after night he sat in his stage-box, goggling at Maraquita and applauding wildly.
That she was aware of his existence, that he should ever have the unspeakable happiness of getting to know her, never occurred to him. But one night an attendant came up to his box.
“Excuse me, sir, but are you Mr. Roland Bleke? The Señorita Maraquita wishes to speak to you.”
He held open the door of the box. The possibility of refusal did not appear to occur to him. Behind the scenes at that theatre it was generally recognized that when the Peerless One wanted a thing, she got it—quick.
They were alone.
With no protective footlights between himself and her, Roland came to the conclusion that he had made a mistake. It was not that she was any less beautiful at the very close quarters imposed by the limits of the dressing-room, but her personality at this close range had a quality which Roland could only define to himself as formidable.
For perhaps a minute and a half Maraquita fixed her compelling eyes on his without uttering a word. Then she broke a painful silence with this leading question:—
“You love me, hein?”
Roland nodded feebly.
“All men love me,” said the Peerless One, blowing cigarette smoke. “But I do not mind.”
This attitude struck Roland as distinctly magnanimous.
“When men make love to me, I send them away—so.”
She waved her hand towards the door, and Roland began to feel almost cheerful again. He was to be dismissed with a caution, after all. The woman had a fine, forgiving nature.
“But not you.”
“No, not you. You are the man I have been waiting for. I read about you in the paper, Señor Bleke. I see your picture in the paper, too! I say to myself, ‘What a man!’ ”
“Those picture-paper photographs always make one look rather weird,” mumbled Roland.
“I see you night after night in your box. Poof! I love you.”
“Thanks awfully,” bleated Roland.
“You would do anything for my sake, hein?”
Roland felt that he would like to know just what she meant by “anything,” but Maraquita was one of those orators who do not pause for a reply.
“Ah! I knew it!” she cried. “I knew you were that kind of man directly I see you. No,” she added, as Roland writhed uneasily in his chair, “do not embrace me. Later, yes; but now, no. Not till the Great Day.”
What the Great Day might be Roland could not even faintly conjecture. He could only hope that it would also be a remote one.
“And now,” said the señorita, throwing a cloak about her shoulders, “you come away with me to my house. My friends are there awaiting us. They will be glad and proud to meet you.”
After his first inspection of the house and the friends, Roland came to the conclusion that he preferred Maraquita’s room to her company. The former was large and airy. The latter, with one exception, small and hairy. The exception Maraquita addressed as Bombito. He was a conspicuous figure. He was, as the railway-station posters say of Slopton-on-Sea—different. He was one of those out-size, hasty-looking men. One suspected him of carrying lethal weapons.
Maraquita presented Roland to the company. The native speech of Paranoya sounded like shorthand with a blend of Spanish. An expert could evidently squeeze a good deal of it into a minute. Its effect on the company was good. They were manifestly soothed. Even Bombito.
Introductions in detail then took place. This time, for Roland’s benefit, Maraquita spoke in English, and he learned that most of those present were marquesses. One or two outsiders were only counts, but marquesses predominated. Before him, so he gathered from Maraquita, stood the very flower of Paranoya’s aristocracy, driven from their native land by the Infamy of ’05. Roland was too polite to inquire what on earth the Infamy of ’05 might be, but its mention had a marked effect on the company.
Paranoya had, it appeared, existed fairly peacefully for centuries under the rule of the Alejandro dynasty. Then, in the reign of Alejandro XIII., disaffection had begun to spread, culminating in the Infamy of ’05, which, Roland had at last discovered, was nothing less than the abolition of the monarchy and the installation of a republic.
These events had been received by the world at large with an equanimity bordering on contempt, but not by the old noblesse of Paranoya. Not for them the Republican yoke. Since 1905 the one thing for which they had lived, besides the Caout-Chouc, was to see the monarchy restored and their beloved Alejandro XIII. back on his throne. Their efforts towards this end had been untiring, and were at last showing signs of bearing fruit. Paranoya, Maraquita assured Roland, was honeycombed with intrigue. The army was disaffected, the people anxious for a return to the old order of things. A more propitious moment for striking the decisive blow was never likely to arrive. The question was purely one of funds.
At the mention of the word “funds,” Roland, who had become thoroughly bored with the lecture on Paranoyan history, sat up and took notice. He had an instinctive feeling that he was about to be called upon for a subscription to the cause of the distressful country’s freedom. Especially by Bombito.
He was right. A moment later Maraquita had begun to make a speech. She spoke in Paranoyan, and Roland could not follow her, but he gathered that it somehow had reference to himself. As, at the end of it, the entire company rose to their feet and extended their glasses towards him with a mighty shout, he assumed that Maraquita had been proposing his health.
“They say ‘To the Liberator of Paranoya,’ ” kindly translated the Peerless One. “Ah!” Her fine eyes blazed, as a lugubrious chant succeeded the cheering. “Now they sing our beloved anthem, the Royal anthem of Paranoya; it has not been heard on Paranoyan soil since the Infamy of ’05.”
To Roland it seemed an ample justification for the Infamy of ’05.
“You must excuse,” said Maraquita, tolerantly, as a bevy of patriots surrounded Roland and kissed him on the cheek. “They are so grateful to the saviour of our country. I myself would kiss you, were it not that I have sworn that no man’s lips shall touch mine till the Royal Standard floats once more above the palace of Paranoya. But that will be soon. With you on our side we cannot fail.”
What did the woman mean? Roland asked himself wildly. Did she labour under the distressing delusion that he proposed to shed his blood on behalf of a deposed monarch to whom he had never been introduced?
Maraquita’s next remarks made the matter clear.
“I have told them,” she said, “that you love me, that you are willing to risk everything for my sake. I have promised them that you, the rich Señor Bleke, will supply the funds for the revolution. Once more, comrades: ‘To the Saviour of Paranoya!’ ”
Roland tried his hardest to catch the infection of this patriotic enthusiasm, but somehow he could not do it. Base, sordid, mercenary speculations would intrude themselves. About how much was a good, well-furnished revolution likely to cost? As delicately as he could, he put the question to Maraquita.
She said, “Poof! The cost? La, la!”
Which was all very well, but hardly satisfactory as a business chat.
“We will talk of that later,” she went on. “Now we will enjoy ourselves, isn’t it?”
And that was all Roland could get out of her.
The next few days passed for Roland in a sort of dream. It was the kind of dream which it is not easy to distinguish from a nightmare. It amazed him that he had ever wanted to know Maraquita. It is not easy to achieve happiness in this world, but Roland felt that a very fair basis for it could be had simply by not knowing Maraquita. How people who did not know Maraquita could go about the world grumbling was more than he could understand. They did not know their luck.
Her reticence at the supper-party on the subject of details connected with the financial side of revolutions entirely disappeared. She now talked nothing but figures, and from the confused mass which she presented to him Roland was able to gather that, in financing the restoration of Royalty in Paranoya, he would indeed be risking everything for her sake.
In the matter of revolutions Maraquita was no niggard. She knew how the thing should be done—well, or not at all. There would be so much for rifles, machine-guns, and what-not; and there would be so much for the expense of smuggling them into the country. Then there would be so much to be laid out in corrupting the Republican army. Roland brightened a little when they came to this item. As the standing army of Paranoya amounted to twenty thousand men, and as it seemed possible to corrupt it thoroughly at a cost of about thirty shillings a head, the obvious course, to Roland’s way of thinking, was to concentrate on this side of the question, and thus avoid unnecessary bloodshed.
It appeared, however, that Maraquita did not want to avoid bloodshed—that she rather liked bloodshed, that the leaders of the revolution would be disappointed if there were no bloodshed. Especially Bombito. Unless, she pointed out, there was a certain amount of carnage, looting, and so on, the revolution would not achieve a popular success. True, the beloved Alejandro might be restored, but he would sit upon a throne that was insecure unless the coronation festivities took a bloodthirsty turn. By all means, said Maraquita, corrupt the army, but not at the risk of making the affair tame and unpopular. Paranoya was an emotional country, and liked its revolutions with a bit of zip to them.
It was about ten days after he had definitely cast in his lot with the revolutionary party that Roland was made aware that these things were a little more complex than he had imagined. He had reconciled himself to the financial outlay. It had been difficult, but he had done it. That his person as well as his purse would be placed in peril he had not foreseen.
The fact was borne in upon him at the end of the second week by the arrival of the deputation.
It blew in from the street just as he was enjoying his after-dinner cigar.
It consisted of three men, one long and suave, the other two short, stout, and silent. They all had the sallow complexion and undue hairiness which he had come by this time to associate with the native of Paranoya.
For a moment he mistook them for a drove of exiled noblemen whom he had not had the pleasure of meeting at the supper-party; and he waited resignedly for them to make night hideous with the Royal anthem. He poised himself on his toes, the more readily to spring aside if they should try to kiss him on the cheek.
“Mr. Bleke?” said the long man.
His companions drifted towards the cigar-box which stood open on the table, and looked at it wistfully.
“Long live the monarchy,” said Roland, wearily. He had gathered in the course of his dealings with the exiled ones that this remark generally went well.
On the present occasion it elicited no outburst of cheering. On the contrary, the long man frowned, and his two companions helped themselves to a handful of cigars apiece with a marked moodiness.
“Death to the monarchy,” corrected the long man, coldly. “And,” he added, with a wealth of meaning in his voice, “to all who meddle in the affairs of our beloved country and seek to do it harm.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Roland.
“Yes, Señor Bleke, you do know what I mean. I mean that you will be well advised to abandon the schemes which you are hatching with the malcontents who would do my beloved land an injury.”
The conversation was growing awkward. Roland had got so into the habit of taking it for granted that every Paranoyan he met must of necessity be a devotee of the beloved Alejandro that it came as a shock to him to realize that there were those who objected to his restoration to the throne. Till now he had looked on the enemy as something in the abstract. It had not struck him that the people for whose correction he was buying all these rifles and machine-guns were individuals with a lively distaste for having their blood shed.
“Señor Bleke,” resumed the speaker, frowning at one of his companions whose hand was hovering above the bottle of liqueur brandy, “you are a man of sense. You know what is safe and what is not safe. Believe me, this scheme of yours is not safe. You have been led away, but there is still time to withdraw. Do so, and all is well. Do not so, and your blood be upon your own head.”
“My blood!” gasped Roland.
The speaker bowed.
“That is all,” he said. “We merely came to give the warning. Ah, Señor Bleke, do not be rash. You think that here, in this great London of yours, you are safe. You look at the policeman upon the corner of the road, and you say to yourself, ‘I am safe.’ Believe me, not at all so is it, but much the opposite. We have ways by which it is of no account the policeman on the corner of the road. That is all, Señor Bleke. We wish you a good night.”
The deputation withdrew.
Maraquita, informed of the incident, snapped her fingers and said “Poof!” It sometimes struck Roland that she would be more real help in a difficult situation if she could get out of the habit of saying “Poof!”
“It is nothing,” she said.
“No?” said Roland.
“We easily out-trick them, isn’t it? You make a will leaving your money to the Cause, and then where are they, hein?”
It was one way of looking at it, but it brought little balm to Roland. He said so. Maraquita scanned his face keenly.
“You are not weakening, Roland?” she said. “You would not betray us now?”
“Well, of course, I don’t know about betraying, you know, but still—— What I mean is——”
Maraquita’s eyes seemed to shoot forth two flames.
“Take care!” she cried. “With me it is nothing, for I know that your heart is with Paranoya. But if the others once had cause to suspect that your resolve was failing—ah! If Bombito——”
Roland took her point. He had forgotten Bombito for the moment.
“For goodness’ sake,” he said, hastily, “don’t go saying anything to Bombito to give him the idea that I’m trying to back out. Of course you can rely on me, and all that. That’s all right.”
Maraquita’s gaze softened. She raised her glass—they were lunching at the time—and put it to her lips.
“To the Saviour of Paranoya!” she said.
“Beware!” whispered a voice in Roland’s ear.
He turned with a start. A waiter was standing behind him, a small, dark, hairy man. He was looking into the middle distance with the abstracted air which waiters cultivate. Roland stared at him, but he did not move.
That evening, returning to his flat, Roland was paralyzed by the sight of the word “Beware!” scrawled across the mirror in his bedroom. It had apparently been done with a diamond. He rang the bell.
“Sir?” said the competent valet. (“Competent valets are in attendance at each of these flats.”—Advt.)
“Has anyone been in here since I left?”
“Yes, sir. A foreign-looking gentleman called. He said he knew you, sir. I showed him in, as he said he would wait.”
The same night, well on in the small hours, the telephone-bell rang. Roland dragged himself out of bed.
“Is that Señor Bleke?”
“Yes. What is it?”
Things were becoming intolerable. Roland had a certain amount of nerve, but not enough to enable him to bear up against this sinister persecution. Yet what could he do? Suppose he did beware, to the extent of withdrawing his support from the Royalist movement, what then? Bombito! If ever there was a toad under the harrow, he was that toad. And all because a perfectly respectful admiration for the Caout-Chouc had led him to occupy a stage-box several nights in succession at the theatre where the peerless Maraquita tied herself into knots at a salary of two hundred pounds a week. It was hard.
A few days later somebody shot a bullet through the window of his sitting-room. He was out at the time, but the incident had the effect of putting the final touch to his gloom.
There was an air of unusual excitement in Maraquita’s manner at their next meeting.
“We have been in communication with Him,” she whispered. “He will receive you. He will give an audience to the Saviour of Paranoya.”
“Eh? Who will?”
“Our beloved Alejandro. He wishes to see his faithful servant. We are to go to him at once.”
“At his own house. He will receive you in person.”
Such was the quality of the emotions through which he had been passing of late that Roland felt but a faint interest at the prospect of meeting face to face a genuine—if exiled—monarch.
The cab drew up at a gloomy-looking house in a fashionable square. Roland rang the door-bell. There seemed a certain element of the prosaic in the action. He wondered what he should say to the butler. “Is the King at home?” was banal.
There was, however, no need for words. The door opened, and they were ushered in without parley. A butler and two footmen showed them into a luxuriously-furnished ante-room. Roland entered with two thoughts running in his mind. The first was that the beloved Alejandro had got an uncommonly snug crib; the second that this was exactly like going to see the dentist.
Presently the squad of retainers returned, the butler leading.
“His Majesty will receive Mr. Bleke.”
Roland followed him with tottering knees.
His Majesty King Alejandro XIII. on the retired list was a genial-looking man of middle age, comfortably stout about the middle and a little bald as to the forehead. He might have been a prosperous stockbroker. Roland felt more at his ease at the very sight of him.
“Sit down, Mr. Bleke,” said His Majesty, as the door closed. “I have been wanting to see you for some time.”
Roland had nothing to say. He was regaining his composure, but he had a long way to go yet before he could feel thoroughly at home.
King Alejandro produced a cigarette-case and offered it to Roland, who shook his head speechlessly. The King lit a cigarette, and smoked thoughtfully for a while.
“You know, Mr. Bleke,” he said at last, “this must stop. It really must. I mean, your devoted efforts on my behalf.”
Roland gaped at him.
“You are a very young man. I had expected to see someone much older. Your youth gives me the impression that you have gone into this affair from a spirit of adventure. I can assure you that you have nothing to gain commercially by interfering with my late kingdom. I hope, before we part, that I can persuade you to abandon your idea of financing this movement to restore me to the throne.”
“I don’t understand—er—your Majesty.”
“I will explain. Please treat what I shall say as strictly confidential. You must know, Mr. Bleke, that these attempts to re-establish me as a reigning monarch in Paranoya are, frankly, the curse of an otherwise very pleasant existence. You look surprised! My dear sir, do you know Paranoya? Have you ever been there? Have you the remotest idea what sort of life a King of Paranoya leads? I have tried it, and I can assure you that a coal-heaver is happy by comparison. In the first place, the climate of the country is abominable. I always had a cold in the head. Secondly, there is a small but energetic section of the populace whose sole recreation it seems to be to use their monarch as a target for bombs. They are not very good bombs, it is true—the science of chemistry is in its infancy in Paranoya—but one in, say, ten explodes, and even an occasional bomb is unpleasant if you are the target. Finally, I am much too fond of your delightful country to wish to leave it. I was educated in England—I am a Magdalen man—and I have the greatest horror of ever being compelled to leave it. My present life suits me exactly. There is no pomp, no ridiculous ceremony, nothing but quiet enjoyment. Can you wonder that I do not rejoice when well-meaning but officious persons try to drive me from London to a very depressing and unhealthy existence in my native country? That is all I wished to say, Mr. Bleke. For both our sakes, for the sake of my comfort and your purse, abandon this scheme of yours.”
Roland walked home thoughtfully. Maraquita had left the Royal residence long before he had finished the whisky-and-soda which the genial monarch had pressed upon him. As he walked, the futility of his situation came home to him more and more. Whatever he did, he was bound to displease somebody; and these Paranoyans were so confoundedly impulsive when they were vexed.
For two days he avoided Maraquita. On the third, with something of the instinct which draws the murderer to the spot where he has buried the body, he called at her house.
She was not present, but otherwise there was a full gathering. There were the marquesses, the counts, and also Bombito.
He looked unhappily round the crowd.
Somebody gave him a glass of champagne. He raised it.
“To the revolution,” he said, mechanically.
There was a silence—it seemed to Roland an awkward silence. As if he had said something improper, the marquesses and counts began to drift from the room, till only Bombito was left. Roland regarded him with some apprehension. He was looking larger and more unusual than ever.
But to-night, apparently, Bombito was in genial mood. He came forward and slapped Roland on the shoulder. And then the remarkable fact came to light that Bombito spoke English, or a sort of English.
“My old chap,” he said. “I would have a speech with you.”
He slapped Roland again on the shoulder.
“The others they say, ‘Break it with Señor Bleke gently.’ Maraquita say, ‘Break it with Señor Bleke gently.’ So I break it with you gently.”
He dealt Roland a third stupendous punch. Whatever was to be broken gently, it was plain to Roland that it was not himself. And suddenly there came to him a sort of intuition that told him that Bombito was nervous.
“After all you have done for us, Señor Bleke, we shall seem to you ver’ ungrateful bounders, but what is it? Yes? No? I shouldn’t wonder, perhaps. The whole fact is that there has been political crisis in Paranoya. Upset. Apple-cart. Yes? You follow? No? The Ministry have been—what do you say?—put through it. Expelled. Broken up. No more Ministry. New Ministry wanted. To conciliate Royalist party, that is the cry. So deputation of leading persons, good chaps, prominent merchants and that sort of bounder, call upon us. They offer me to be President. See? No? Yes? That’s right. I am ambitious blighter, Señor Bleke. What about it, no? I accept. I am new President of Paranoya. So no need for your kind assistance. Royalist revolution up the spout. No more Royalist revolution.”
The wave of relief which swept over Roland ebbed sufficiently after an interval to enable him to think of someone but himself. He was not fond of Maraquita, but he had a tender heart, and this, he felt, would kill the poor girl.
“That’s all right, splendid old chap. No need to worry about Maraquita, stout old boy. Where the husband goes, so does the wife go. As you say, whither thou goes will I follow, no?”
“But I don’t understand. Maraquita is not your wife?”
“Why, certainly, old heart. What else?”
“Have you been married to her all the time?”
“Why, certainly, good dear boy.”
The room swam before Roland’s eyes. There was no place in his mind for meditations on the perfidy of woman. He groped forward and found Bombito’s hand.
“By Jove,” he said, thickly, as he wrung it again and again, “I knew you were a good sort the first time I saw you. Have a drink or something. Have a cigar or something. Have something, anyway, and sit down and tell me all about it.”
[Next month: “The Episode of the Hired Past.”]