And so another two weeks passed. Then, one day, a comet of amazing brilliancy shot suddenly into our social orbit, and things happened. That this interesting stellar phenomenon was a Russian grand duke, a nephew of the Czar, but added to the piquancy of the situation.
The hotel was all in a flutter; the manager was beside himself with joy; bell-boys danced jig steps in the corridors; chambermaids went about with a distracted air—and all because the grand duke, Alexander Melovich, was to arrive on the morrow. It was an epoch- making event. It was better than a circus, for it was free. Copies of the Almanach de Gotha appeared, as if by magic. Everybody was interested. Everybody was charmed, until—
The rumor flew rapidly along the verandas. It was denied by the head waiter, it was confirmed by the chief clerk; it was referred to the manager himself and again confirmed. Alas, it was true! The Grand Duke Alexander was coming, not to honor the hotel, but to honor Mrs. Carmichael Porter; she would receive him as her guest, she would pay the royal hotel bill, she would pay the bills of the royal suite. Yes, Blakely’s mother had captured the grand duke.
A wave of indignation swept the columns of the rank and file. They didn’t want the grand duke themselves, but they didn’t want Blakely’s mother to have him; Blakely’s mother and Mrs. Sanderson- Spear, and Mrs. Tudor Carstairs. In a way, it was better than a comic opera; it was fearfully amusing.
The grand duke, accompanied, according to the newspapers, “by the Royal Suite and the Choicest Flower of San Francisco Society,” arrived on a special train direct from Del Monte. Having captured a grand duke, these “Choicest Flowers” (ten in number) were loath to lose him, so they accompanied him. They did more; they paid for the special train. Blakely’s mother greeted them, one and all, in a most friendly manner. There was an aristocratic air about the whole proceeding that was distinctly uplifting.
And now began a round of gaieties, the first being a tea were real Russian samovars were in evidence, and sandwiches of real Russian caviar were served. Real Russian cigarettes were smoked, real Russian vodka was sipped; the Czar’s health was drunk; no bombs were thrown, no bonds were offered for sale, the Russian loan was not discussed; the Japanese servants were not present, having been given a half holiday. Oh, it was a little triumph, that tea! Blakely’s mother was showered with congratulations. The “Choicest Flowers” vied with one another in assurances of their distinguished approval.
Indeed, they were all crazy about it—except the grand duke. Blakely said the grand duke was bored to death, and that he had led him off to the bar and given him a whisky-and-soda out of sheer pity. From that time on the duke stuck to him like a postage stamp, so that Blakely had an awful time escaping that night to dine with Dad and me. He told us all about the tea at dinner, and I was surprised to learn (I hadn’t seen him yet) that the duke was just Blakely’s age, and, as Blakely put it, “a very decent sort.” Not that there is any reason why a grand duke shouldn’t be a decent sort, but Rumor was busy just then proclaiming that this particular grand duke was a perfect pig.
The next day I had a chance to judge for myself. It seems the duke noticed me as I got into my automobile for my morning ride, and after finding out who I was, sent for Blakely and demanded that I be presented to him.
Blakely was awfully angry. He said: “Look here, I don’t know what you’ve been used to, but in this country, where a man wishes to meet a young lady, he asks to be presented to her. Not only that, but he doesn’t take it for granted that she’ll be honored by the request. Miss Middleton is my fiancee. I don’t know whether she cares to meet you or not. If she does, I’ll let you know.” The duke was terribly mortified. He apologized beautifully.
Then Blakely apologized for getting angry, and they became better friends than ever, with the result that the duke was presented to me that very afternoon.
The Grand Duke Alexander was short and fat and fair, with a yellow mustache of the Kaiser Wilhelm variety. It was rather a shock to me, for I had expected a dashing black-haired person with flashing eyes and a commanding presence. No, he wasn’t at all my idea of what a grand duke should look like; he looked much more like a little brother to the ox (a well-bred, well-dressed, bath-loving little brother, of course) than a member of an imperial family. Not that he didn’t have his points: he had nice hands and nice feet, and his smile was charming.
You should have seen his face light up when he found I spoke French. The poor fellow wasn’t a bit at home in the English language and the eagerness with which he plunged into French was really pathetic. Luckily, Blakely spoke French, too—not very well, but he understood it lots better than he spoke it—so we three spent a pleasant hour together on the veranda. Of course, in a way, it was a little triumph for me; the women whom Blakely’s mother had snubbed enjoyed the sight immensely, and when she appeared, accompanied by Mrs. Sanderson-Spear and some of the “Choicest Flowers,” and saw what was happening to her duke, she was too angry for words. Heavens, how that woman did hate me that afternoon!
The next morning six more “Choicest Flowers” arrived from San Francisco (rare orchids whose grandfathers had come over from Ireland in the steerage). The third son of an English baronet who owned a chicken-ranch near Los Angeles and a German count who sold Rhine wines to the best families also appeared; for that night Blakely’s mother was to give such a dinner as had never before been given in Santa Barbara.
Under the heading:
SANTA BARBARA NOW THE MOST COSMOPOLITAN CITY IN AMERICA
an enterprising Los Angeles newspaper devoted a whole page to the coming event. Adjective was piled on adjective, split infinitive on split infinitive. The dinner was to be given in the ballroom of the hotel…. The bank accounts of the assembled guests would total $4oo,ooo,ooo…. The terrapin had been specially imported from Baltimore…. The decorations were to be magnificent beyond the wildest dream…. The duke was to sit on the right of his hostess…. Mr. Sanderson-Spear, the Pierpont Morgan of Pennsylvania, who would arrive that morning from Pittsburg in his private car, would sit on her left…. Count Boris Beljaski, intimate friend and traveling companion of the grand duke, would appear in the uniform of the imperial guard…. The Baroness Reinstadt was hurrying from San Diego, in her automobile…. As a winter resort, Santa Barbara was, as usual, eclipsing Florida, etc.,… Blakely and I read the paper together; we laughed over it till we cried.
“It would be lots funnier if it wasn’t my mother who was making such a holy show of herself,” Blakely said. “Do you know, my dear—”
He was silent for a moment. When he did speak, there was a wicked gleam in his eyes. “By Jove,” he cried, “I’ll do it!”
“Do what?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing much. I’ll tell you all about it later—if there’s anything to tell. Now I must run away. Good-by, dear.”
At a quarter to four I received a note from Blakely saying it would be impossible for him to come in to tea as he had planned. It was the first time he had ever broken an engagement with me, and I was a wee bit unhappy over it, though I knew, of course, there must be some good reason why he couldn’t come. Still, his absence rather put me out of humor with tea, so I sent Valentine for a box of chocolates. When she returned I sat down with them and a novel, prepared to spend the rest of the afternoon alone.
The novel wasn’t half as silly as some I’ve read—the hero reminded me of Blakely—and the chocolates were unusually good; I was having a much better time than I had expected. Then some one knocked at the door.
“Bother!” I thought. “It can’t be anybody I wish to see; I’ll not let them in.”
The knock, was repeated. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe Blakely had changed his plans and had come for tea after all.
“Come in,” I called.
The door opened slowly, and there, standing on the threshold, was— Had I gone quite mad? I rose from my chair and stared unbelievingly- -at Blakely’s mother.
“May I come in?” she asked in her even, well-bred voice.
“Why—yes,” I faltered.
Closing the door behind her, she walked over to the fireplace.
“Won’t you sit down?” I asked. “No, I thank you. This is not an afternoon call, Miss Middleton, it is—But of course you understand.”
I didn’t understand at all, and her manner of saying I did made me furious.
“Perhaps I am very stupid,” I said, “but I cannot imagine why you are here.”
“Do you know where my son is?”
“I do not.”
“You have no idea?”
“I have no idea where your son is, nor why you are here.”
She eyed me intently. How cold and determined she looked and how handsome she was.
“If I thought you were telling the truth—”
She handed me a letter. “Please read that,” she said.
“I will not read it,” I replied. “I must beg that you leave me.”
“There, there, child, I did not mean to be rude.”
“You are more than rude, you are insolent.”
“I am distracted, child. Please read the letter.”
“Very well,” I said, “I’ll read it.”
This was the letter:
“MY DEAR MOTHER: This will be handed to you at four o’clock. At that hour I shall be in Ventura, accompanied by the Grand Duke Alexander, and, as we are making the trip by automobile, it may be that we shall neither of us return in time for your dinner this evening.”
“If, however, on reading this you will wire me at Ventura your full consent to my marriage with Miss Middleton, I think I can guarantee that your dinner party will be a success.”
“I shall be in Ventura till half past four. Should I fail to hear from you by that time, we shall continue our journey toward Los Angeles as fast as our six-cylinders will take us.”
“It grieves me more than I can tell you to employ this cavalier method against you, but my softer appeals have been in vain.”
“While not a party to the plot, the duke, I find is something of a philosopher; I do not look for any resistance on his part. If he does resist, so much the worse for him.”
“Your affectionate son, BLAKELY PORTER.”
“P. S. Please do not think that Miss Middleton has any knowledge of this plan. She has not.”
“P. S. Remember! We leave Ventura for Los Angeles at 4:50 p.m. sharp.”
“Mrs. Porter,” I said when I had finished reading the letter, “I am deeply humiliated that Blakely should have done this.”
“Still, I suppose you would marry him if I gave my consent.”
“I would not,” I replied hotly. “I might marry him without your consent, for I love him dearly; but I would never consider you had given your consent if it were forced from you by trickery.”
“I would not.”
“But if he doesn’t bring the duke back my dinner will be ruined.”
“I will telegraph him myself,” I said.
“Supposing he won’t come?”
“Blakely will come if I ask him to.”
“And you will do this for me?”
“No; I am not doing it for you.”
“Because I cannot bear to have Blakely act so ungenerously toward his mother.”
“He has but used my own weapons against me,” she remarked thoughtfully.
“Your weapons are quite unworthy of him, Mrs. Porter.” “The telegram must be dispatched at once,” she announced, glancing impatiently at her watch.
“If you will call the office and ask them to send up a boy with some forms, I will think over what I wish to say,” I said.
When the boy arrived I had decided upon my message. It was:
“BLAKELY PORTER, Ventura.”
“If you do not return at once with your captive I shall consider that we have never met.”
I wrote it out on a form and handed it to Mrs. Porter. “Will that do?” I asked.
She read it at a glance. “Yes,” she said, “it will do. Here, boy, see that this is rushed.”
“I’m glad it was satisfactory,” I said. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Porter.”
“My dear girl . . .”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Porter.”
Still she did not go. I realized her predicament, and was childish enough to enjoy it, for Blakely’s mother could not bear to accept a favor from a social inferior. Had I been a child, she would have patted me on the head and presented me with a sugar plum. As matters stood she was quite at sea; she wished to do something gracious—she didn’t know how.
To make her position more impossible, who should come stalking into the room but Dad,—dear, unsuspecting Dad. When he saw Mrs. Porter he immediately jumped at a whole row of conclusions.
“Well, well well!” he said. “This is a sight that does me good. I’m very glad indeed to see you, Mrs. Porter. Your son has had an idea that you were opposed to meeting Elizabeth; but I knew he couldn’t be right. And here you are; calling on her? Well, well, well! Elizabeth, haven’t you any tea to offer Blakely’s mother!”
“Mrs. Porter was just leaving” I managed to say. “She has been here some time.”
Dad beamed on us both.
“I told Blakely, Elizabeth couldn’t marry him until you consented,” he blundered on, “but now I suppose it is all arranged. These children of ours are wonderfully impatient. I’m as fond of Blakely as if he were my own son, and you’ll feel the same about Elizabeth when you’ve known her longer.”
“Don’t let Dad keep you, Mrs. Porter,” I said. “I’m sure you have many things to attend to.”
Blakely’s mother who had been standing like one in a dream, now woke up.
“Yes,” she said, “I must be going. I called informally on Elizabeth to beg you both to come to my dinner to-night.”
“I told her we couldn’t possibly come,” I began. “Nonsense! Of course we can come,” Dad declared. “It will quite upset Blakely if you don’t come, and I shall be so disappointed.”
“There, there,” said Dad, “you’re not going to disappoint Blakely’s mother by refusing.”
“No,” I replied. “If Mrs. Porter really wants us we shall be delighted to come.”
“If either of you fails me it will make me most unhappy” she said, and there was a note of sincerity, in her voice that was unmistakable.
“Thank you,” I murmured. “We shall not fail you.”