The Island Mystery/Chapter 17
CAPTAIN VON MOLL thought that a certain assertion of dignity was due to his position as a naval officer. He was to dine with two Americans, no doubt vulgar representatives of a nation which did not understand class distinctions and the value of a von before a surname. He had no idea of being friendly. The dinner was an official affair. He was for the moment the representative of the Emperor. He dressed himself with great care in a uniform resplendent with gold braid. He combed and brushed his beard into a state of glossiness. He twisted the ends of his moustache into fine points. He reflected that if the American girl were really enormously wealthy and if, which he doubted, her manners were tolerable, it might be worth while to marry her. He would, no doubt, lose caste to some extent if he did so; but her money would be very useful to him and it would be unnecessary afterwards to see much of the girl herself. He rubbed on his head a strongly scented preparation guaranteed to give a shine to the dullest hair. He went ashore in a boat rowed by six men. A flag drooped from the staff at the stern, just touching the water with its lowest corner.
Gorman received him in the large hall of the palace.
“Mr. Donovan, I presume,” said Captain von Moll. “It gives me pleasure to meet you.”
Gorman explained who he was and said that Donovan was unable to be present at dinner owing to the condition of his heart. Von Moll said that he derived equal pleasure from meeting Mr. Gorman. Then the Queen swept into the hall, followed by Kalliope. She was dressed in a pale-blue gown which glittered with sequins. She wore a diamond star in her hair. She walked slowly and held herself very erect. Kalliope, walking behind her, added to the dignity of her entrance.
Von Moll stepped forward, stood in the middle of the floor, clicked his heels together and bowed low. The Queen, ignoring him for the moment, shook hands warmly with Gorman and welcomed him to Salissa. Then she held out her hand to von Moll. He bent over it and touched it with his lips.
“I have to tender an apology,” he said. “This morning, much to my regret, some of my men stopped your boat. They have been placed under arrest.”
Gorman is of opinion that von Moll was genuinely anxious to make himself agreeable to the Queen. He probably could not help looking her over from head to foot as a man might look over a horse he thought of buying. That was simply his nature. He regarded women as useful and desirable cattle. It would not have occurred to him that any woman would think of herself as his equal.
The Queen flushed a little under his gaze; but she accepted the apology at its face value.
“Oh, it’s all right,” she said. “But I hope you have not punished the men. I wouldn’t like to think of their getting into trouble through me.”
“You are kind,” said von Moll, “but it is necessary to maintain discipline. The men exceeded their orders.”
Then Smith announced that dinner was served. The Queen led the way into the dining-room. She took her place at the head of the table. Gorman and von Moll sat one on each side of her. Von Moll’s eyes wandered over the appointments of the meal, the tall silver candlesticks, the exquisite linen, the fine glass. They rested with particular pleasure on the menu card which stood in front of him. It promised a luxurious dinner. He tucked his napkin under his chin with an air of satisfaction.
Kalliope stood behind the Queen’s chair and waited on her. Smith served the two men. At the vacant end of the table stood the three island girls whom Smith had in training. They were no particular use, but they were pretty girls and they added something to the dignity of the scene. They were elaborately dressed in a glorified form of the bright costume of the island women. Gorman noticed that von Moll eyed them with appreciation.
“I do wish you’d tell me,” said the Queen, “why you didn’t want me to go to the cave this morning.”
“My orders,” said von Moll, “were not meant to apply to you. I merely wished to prevent the islanders from interfering with my men at their work. That is all.”
“It sounds very interesting,” said Gorman, “but I don’t know what happened. Do tell me.”
“It was rather exciting,” said the Queen. “Two of Captain von Moll’s men stopped our boat and Kalliope hit one of them with an oar. Did he lose many teeth?”
Von Moll drew himself up stiffly. He would have been better pleased if the Queen had tendered some apology to him and promised that the over-daring Kalliope should be punished. It is a serious thing to strike a seaman of the Imperial navy, a man wearing the Emperor’s uniform. In von Moll’s opinion such conduct could not, without grave impropriety, be described as “rather fun.” He was not at all sure that the German navy would not suffer in prestige among the islanders.
“The man,” he said stiffly, “had three teeth broken.”
“Oh,” said the Queen, “I’m so sorry, and I’m afraid there’s no dentist on the island. Still it was his own fault, wasn’t it?”
“I am sure,” said von Moll, “that you will punish the girl suitably.”
The Queen looked at him with astonishment. She had not the slightest intention of punishing Kalliope. It seemed to her extraordinary that von Moll should suggest such a thing. She was a little inclined to be angry. Then she thought that von Moll must be making a joke. He looked rather grim and solemn; but perhaps that was the way all Germans looked when they made jokes. She laughed in polite appreciation of von Moll’s attempt at humour.
Gorman, watching with twinkling eyes, was greatly pleased. Von Moll was evidently another Steinwitz in seriousness and pompous dignity. It was a delightfully amusing trait in the German character.
“I’m still rather in the dark,” he said. “Who’s Kalliope?”
“My maid,” said the Queen. “There she is.”
Gorman glanced at Kalliope who was at the moment placing a plate before her mistress. The girl grinned at him in a friendly way. She was quite aware that she was the subject of conversation.
“It strikes me, von Moll,” said Gorman, “that your navy hasn’t come very well out of its first regular sea battle.”
Von Moll’s face hardened disagreeably. It was an outrageous thing that an Irishman, a mere civilian, who apparently had no right to wear a uniform of any kind, should poke fun at the Imperial navy. He wished very much to make some reply which would crush Gorman and leave him writhing like a worm. Unfortunately it is very difficult to make that kind of reply to a man who insists on laughing when serious subjects are under discussion. Gorman, still watching von Moll closely, felt pleased.
“I hope the Press won’t get hold of the story,” he said. “Just imagine the headlines. ‘Grave International Crisis.’ ‘Naval Encounter in the Cyrenian Sea.’ ‘Imperial Gunboat’—they’d be sure to say gunboat, you know—‘attacked by a girl.’ If it had been a man! But a girl! However, I won’t mention the matter. If you fix that fellow up with a set of false teeth I daresay nobody will ever hear about the business.”
Von Moll was angry; but he was no more ready than he had been at first with a suitable answer for Gorman. He was dimly aware that if he gave way to his feelings, if he even allowed his anger to appear, this grey-haired, bantering Irishman would be gratified. He had just sense enough to realize that he must make some pretence at laughing. It was, of course, impossible for him to regard disrespectful remarks about the German navy as a joke, but he succeeded in giving a kind of hoarse cackle.
Smith was conscious of a want of harmony in the party. He became most vigilantly attentive to the two men on whom he waited. Von Moll drank sherry with his soup and two glasses of hock while he ate his fish. Smith poured him out a glass of champagne. For Gorman he opened a bottle of Irish whisky. Then he handed round an entrée, a fine example of his powers as a cook.
The Queen, too, was aware that von Moll’s temper had been ruffled. She turned to him with a smile and made a banal, but quite harmless remark.
“I think Salissa is a perfectly sweet island,” she said, “don’t you?”
Von Moll thought it an exceedingly dull hole and wished to say so plainly. Perhaps it was the sight of the champagne foaming pleasantly in his glass which made him restrain himself.
“No doubt it is pleasant as a holiday resort,” he said. “For a few weeks one might find life agreeable enough; but after that——”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Oh,” said the Queen, “I’ve been here for more than two months already and I like it better every day.”
“Really?” said von Moll. “What a pity that you are leaving so soon.”
“But I’m not leaving. What makes you think I am?”
“I understand,” said von Moll, “that Mr. Donovan has resold the island to King Konrad Karl.”
“Whatever put that into your head?” said the Queen.
“I am perhaps mistaken,” said von Moll, “in saying that the island has already been resold; but very soon it will be.”
“Oh no, it won’t,” said the Queen. “It’s my island, you know, my very own, and I wouldn’t part with it for anything you could offer me.”
“I understand,” said von Moll, “that it is the Emperor’s wish that the island should revert to the Crown of Megalia.”
He spoke with a certain ponderous assurance. There was evidently no doubt whatever in his mind that the Emperor’s wish settled the matter. The Queen’s next remark must have startled him.
“What on earth has the Emperor got to do with it?” she said. “Who is the Emperor, anyway?”
“Now that,” said Gorman, “is what I’m always asking. Where does the Emperor come in? I asked Steinwitz. I asked King Konrad Karl. I asked that footling ass Bland-Potterton. They don’t any of them seem to be able to do more than just gasp and say ‘The Emperor’ over and over again.”
“The Emperor’s wish——” said von Moll.
“There you go,” said Gorman. “That’s exactly what I’m complaining about. I ask what the Emperor has got to do with it and all the answer I get is ‘The Emperor.’”
“Anyway,” said the Queen decisively, “the Emperor has nothing to do with me and I’m not going to sell Salissa to him or any one else.”
Von Moll was master of himself this time. No doubt it appeared to him that this defiance of the Emperor’s wish was childish, unworthy of the attention of a serious man. The silly girl who sat at the end of the table playing at being a queen would pack up her boxes and leave the island on the day fixed by the Emperor. Meanwhile she looked quite pretty, prettier than he thought she could look, with her heightened colour, sparkling eyes, and slightly parted lips. He began to think that it might be worth his while to marry her in spite of her bourgeoise blood. He looked at her with cool, appraising eyes. The slight smile on his lips was the only evidence of the contempt he felt for a girl who thought she could resist the Emperor.
After that, conversation at the dinner table became rather difficult. Smith did the best he could with the champagne bottle, but the wine seemed only to increase von Moll’s conviction of his own superior wisdom. The Queen drank nothing but water, so her temper preserved its raw edge. It fell to Gorman to keep things going. He told a series of stories about Ireland, all of them good stories, some of them partly true. No one laughed, except Kalliope, who did not understand the stories but liked the twinkle in Gorman’s eyes. At the end of each story he asked von Moll how he thought the Emperor would deal with a country like Ireland. Von Moll twisted his moustaches fiercely and told Gorman that if Ireland had been a German dependency she would have ceased to trouble the world early in the eighteenth century. Gorman listened with every appearance of deference and docility, while von Moll explained the Prussian way of dealing with people like the Irish.
The Queen could not cut the dinner short. Smith had provided many courses and it was impossible to skip any of them. But at the earliest possible moment she got up and left the room. Gorman closed the door behind her and then drew his chair close to that on which von Moll was sitting. Smith brought in coffee and liqueurs. Gorman took the brandy bottle off the tray and set it on the table at von Moll’s elbow. Smith made an effort to recover the bottle and carry it away. He seemed to think that von Moll had had enough to drink. Gorman was of the same opinion, but he did not allow Smith to carry off the brandy bottle. He thought that von Moll might be very interesting if he took rather more than enough to drink. When Smith, after hovering about for some time, left the room, Gorman refilled von Moll’s glass.
“Silly little thing, Miss Donovan,” he said, in a confidential tone.
“That is so,” said von Moll.
“In Germany,” said Gorman, “you put that sort of young person into her place at once, I suppose.”
“In Germany,” said von Moll, “she would not exist.”
He spoke with ponderous gravity. Gorman was pleased to see that he was becoming more ponderous as he drank glass after glass of brandy.
“That cave incident, for instance,” said Gorman. “I call it cheek her trying to get into the cave when you had sentries posted outside to stop her. By the way, what had you in the cave that you didn’t want her to see? A girl?”
Von Moll leered in a most disgusting manner. Gorman poured him out another glass of brandy.
“You naval men,” he said, “you’re always the same. No girl can resist you. But, I say, you’d really better keep it dark about that man of yours getting his teeth knocked out. If there were any kind of inquiry and it came out about your being in the cave with one of the island girls——”
“There was no girl in the cave,” said von Moll.
“Come now! I won’t give you away. Between ourselves. We are both men of the world.”
“I have said. There was no girl.”
“Oh well,” said Gorman, “I suppose you were writing poetry and didn’t want to be disturbed. What was it? An ode to the Fatherland, ‘Oh, Deutschland, Deutschland!’—that kind of thing.”
Von Moll strongly suspected that Gorman was laughing at him again. It seemed almost incredible that any one would dare to do such a thing, but Gorman was plainly an irresponsible person.
“I was,” said von Moll, “carrying out the orders of the Emperor.”
“The Emperor again,” said Gorman. “But this time it won’t do. It really won’t. You can’t expect me to believe that the Emperor sent you all the way to Salissa to write poetry in a cave.”
“There was no poetry. The Emperor’s orders were not about poetry. They were about——”
Von Moll stopped abruptly and winked at Gorman with drunken solemnity.
“I don’t give your Emperor credit for much intelligence,” said Gorman, “but he must surely have more sense than to give orders of any kind about a cave in an out-of-the-way potty little island like this. Why can’t you tell the truth, von Moll?”
Von Moll straightened himself in his chair and glared at Gorman. His eyes were wide open, so wide that a rim of white showed all round the pupils. His forehead was deeply wrinkled. His nostrils were distended.
“Gott in Himmel!” he said, “you doubt my word.”
Gorman chuckled. Von Moll was decidedly amusing when partially drunk. His glare—he continued to glare in the most ferocious manner—was a most exciting thing to see.
“There is no use looking at me like that,” said Gorman. “I shan’t fight. I never do. I’m not that kind of man. The fact is I don’t like fighting.”
“I believe it,” said von Moll.
He spoke with a sneer, a heavily accentuated sneer. It was more like the sneer of the villain of old-fashioned melodrama than anything Gorman had ever seen.
“If you want a scrap,” said Gorman, “really want it, you know, you ought to knock up Phillips on your way back to your boat. He’s the first officer of the Ida. He’ll take you on. He’s six foot one and weighs about fourteen stone. He’ll simply wipe the floor with you; so unless you’re really keen on fighting some one you’d perhaps better leave him alone.”
“I stay here no longer,” said von Moll.
He rose and crossed the room quite steadily, but putting his feet down with extreme care. He reached the door and bowed to Gorman.
Gorman leaned back in his chair and lit a cigar. He had enjoyed the evening. He had also found out something that he wanted to know. The Emperor really did intend to make use of the island of Salissa in some way. He wondered whether the cave which the Queen had been forbidden to enter was the same cave which contained the iron cisterns.
The Queen, sitting at her window, heard von Moll leave the house and go down the steps towards the landing place. Smith was with him, seeing him safely to the boat which waited for him.
“So,” said von Moll, “I telegraph to Berlin and I forward your letters.”
He spoke in German, but he spoke very deliberately, pronouncing each word carefully. The Queen had no difficulty in understanding what he said. Smith replied in a much lower tone. She could not hear him.
“Ach,” said von Moll, “the old man is a fool, good. And the girl—do you know, Fritz, I think I shall marry the girl!”
The Queen shut her window. She had no wish to hear more of von Moll’s plans. She was insulted and very angry. It was not until she thought the matter over coolly next day that it occurred to her as strange that von Moll should have addressed Smith as Fritz. The man’s Christian name was Edward.