“Have you anything to declare?” he added in Italian.
“Half a dozen very bad cigarettes,” replied the other, laughing. “They’re French! And also I’ve got a very bad cold! No duty on that, I suppose?”
The officer laughed, and then turned his attention to the petrol tank, into which he put his measuring iron to see how much it contained, while the facetious chauffeur stood by.
During this operation two other men came out of the building, one an Italian carabineer in epaulettes and cocked hat, while the other, tall and shrewd-faced, was in mufti. The latter was the agent of French police who inspects all travellers leaving France by road.
The chauffeur realized that the moment was a critical one.
He was rolling a cigarette unconcernedly, but bending to the Customs officer, he said in a low voice:
“My padrone is an Americano. An invalid, and a bit eccentric. Lots of money. A long time ago he injured his spine and can hardly move. He fell down a few days ago, and now I’ve got to take him to Professor Landrini, in Turin. He’s pretty bad. We’ve come from Hyeres. His doctor ordered me to take him to Turin at once. We don’t want any delay. He told me to give you this,” and he slipped a note for a hundred lire into the man’s hand.
The officer expressed surprise, but the merry chauffeur of the rich American exclaimed:
“Don’t worry. The Americano is very rich; I only wish there were more of his sort about. He’s the great Headon, the meat-canner of Chicago. You see his name on the tins.”
The man recognized the name, and at once desisted in his examination.
Then to the two police officers who came to his side, he explained:
“The American gentleman inside is an invalid, going to Turin to Professor Landrini. He wants to get off at once, for he has a long journey over the Alps.”
The French agent of police grunted suspiciously. Both the French and Italian police are very astute, but money always talks. It is the same at a far-remote frontier station as in any circle of society.
Here was a well-known American—the Customs officer had mentioned the name of Headon, which both police officers recognized—an invalid sent with all haste to the famous surgeon in Turin. It was not likely that he would be carrying contraband, or be an escaping criminal.
Besides, the chauffeur, in full view of the two police agents, slipped a second note into the hand of the Customs officer, and said:
“So all is well, isn’t it, signori? Just visa my papers, and we’ll get along. It looks as though we’re to have a bad thunderstorm, and, if so, we shall catch it up on the Col di Tenda!”
Thus impelled, the quartette went back to the well-lit little building, where the beetle-browed driver again chaffed the police-agents, while the Customs officer placed his rubber stamp upon the paper, scribbled his initials and charged three-lire-twenty as fee.