Jim broke the news at once, gathering everybody but Harbison and Aunt Selina in the upper hall. He was palpitatingly nervous, but he tried to carry it off with a high hand.
"It's unfortunate," he said, looking around the circle of faces, each one frozen with amazement, and just a suspicion, perhaps of incredulity. "It's particularly unfortunate for her. You all know how high-strung she is, and if the papers should get hold of it—well, we'll all have to make it as easy as we can for her."
With Jim's eyes on them, they all swallowed the butler story without a gulp. But Anne was indignant.
"It's like Bella," she snapped. "Well, she has made her bed and she can lie on it. I'm sure I shan't make it for her. But if you want to know my opinion, Mr. Harbison may be a fool, but you can't ram two Bellas, both NEE Knowles, down Miss Caruthers' throat with a stick."
We had not thought of that before and every one looked blank. Finally, however, Jim said Bella's middle name was Constantia, and we decided to call her that. But it turned out afterward that nobody could remember it in a hurry, and generally when we wanted to attract her attention, we walked across the room and touched her on the shoulder. It was quicker and safer.
The name decided, we went downstairs in a line to welcome Bella, to try to make her feel at home, and to forget her deplorable situation. Leila had worked herself into a really sympathetic frame of mind.
"Poor dear," she said, on the way down. "Now don't grin, anybody, just be cordial and glad to see her. I hope she doesn't cry; you know the spells she takes."
We stopped outside the door, and everybody tried to look cheerful and sympathetic, and not grinny—which was as hard as looking as if we had had a cup of tea—and then Jim threw the door open and we filed in.
Bella was comfortably reading by the fire. She had her feet up on a stool and a pillow behind her head. She did not even look at us for a minute; then she merely glanced up as she turned a page.
"Dear me," she said mockingly, "what a lot of frumps you all are! I had hoped it was some one with my breakfast."
Then she went on reading. As Leila said afterward, that kind of person OUGHT to be divorced.
Aunt Selina came down just then and I left everybody trying to explain Bella's presence to her, and fled to the kitchen. The Harbison man appeared while I was sitting hopelessly in front of the gas range, and showed me about it.
"I don't know that I ever saw one," he said cheerfully, "but I know the theory. Likewise, by the same token, this tea kettle, set on the flame, will boil. That is not theory, however, that is early knowledge. 'Polly, put the kettle on; we'll all take tea.' Look at that, Mrs. Wilson. I didn't fight bacilli with boiled water at Chickamauga for nothing."
And then he let out the policeman and brought him into the kitchen. He was a large man, and his face was a curious mixture of amazement, alarm and dignity. No doubt we did look queer, still in parts of our evening clothes and I in the white silk and lace petticoat that belonged under my gown, with a yellow and black pajama coat of Jimmy's as a sort of breakfast jacket.
"This is Officer Flannigan," Mr. Harbison said. "I explained our unfortunate position earlier in the morning, and he is prepared to accept our hospitality. Flannigan, every person in this house has got to work, as I also explained to you. You are appointed dishwasher and scullery maid."
The policeman looked dazed. Then, slowly, like dawn over a sleeping lake, a light of comprehension grew in his face.
"Sure," he said, laying his helmet on the table. "I'll be glad to be doing anything I can to help. Me and Mrs. Wilson—we used to be friends. It's many the time I've opened the carriage door for her, and she with her head in the air, and for all that, the pleasant smile. When any one around her was having a party and wanted a special officer, it was Mrs. Wilson that always said, Get Flannigan, Officer Timothy Flannigan. He's your man.'"
My heart had been going lower and lower. So he knew Bella, and he knew I was not Bella, although he had not grasped the fact that I was usurping her place. The odious Harbison man sat on the table and swung his feet.
"I wonder if you know," he said, looking around him, "how good it is to see a white woman so perfectly at home in a civilized kitchen again, after two years of food cooked by a filthy Indian squaw over a portable sheet-iron stove!"
SO PERFECTLY AT HOME? I stood in the middle of the room and stared around at the copper things hanging up and the rows of blue and white crockery, and the dozens and hundreds of complicated-looking utensils, whose names I had never even heard, and I was dazed. I tried with some show of authority to instruct Flannigan about gathering up the soiled things, and, after listening in puzzled silence for a minute, he stripped off his blue coat with a tolerant smile.
"Lave em to me, miss," he said. The "miss" passed unnoticed. "I mayn't give em a Turkish bath, which is what you are describin', but I'll get the grease off all right. I always clean up while the missus is in bed with a young un."
He rolled up his sleeves, found a brown checked gingham apron behind the door, and tied it around his neck with the ease of practice. Then he cleared off the plates, eating what appealed to him as he did so, and stopping now and again for a deep-throated chuckle.
"I'm thinkin'," he said once, stopping with a dish in the air, "what a deuce of a noise there will be when the vaccination doctor comes around this mornin'. In a week every one of us will be nursin' a sore arm or walkin' on one leg, beggin' your pardon, miss. The last time the force was vaccinated, I asked to be done behind me ear; I needed me legs and I needed me arms, but didn't need me head much!"
He threw his head back and laughed. Mr. Harbison laughed. Oh, we were very cheerful! And that awful stove stared at me, and the kettle began to hum, and Aunt Selina sent down word that she was not well, and would like some omelet on her tray. Omelet!
I knew that it was made of eggs, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I muttered an excuse and ran upstairs to Anne, but she was still sniffling over her necklace, and said she didn't know anything about omelets and didn't care. Food would choke her. Neither of the Mercer girls knew either, and Bella, who was still reading in the den, absolutely declined to help.
"I don't know, and I wouldn't tell you if I did. You can get yourself out, as you got yourself in," she said nastily. "The simplest thing, if you don't mind my suggesting it, is to poison the coffee and kill the lot of us. Only, if you decide to do it, let me know; I want to live just long enough to see Jimmy Wilson WRITHE!"
Bella is the kind of person who gets on one's nerves. She finds a grievance and hugs it; she does ridiculous things and blames other people. And she flirts.
I went downstairs despondently, and found that Mr. Harbison had discovered some eggs and was standing helplessly staring at them.
"Omelet—eggs. Eggs—omelet. That's the extent of my knowledge," he said, when I entered. "You'll have to come to my assistance."
It was then that I saw the cook book. It was lying on a shelf beside the clock, and while Mr. Harbison had his back turned I got it down. It was quite clear that the domestic type of woman was his ideal, and I did not care to outrage his belief in me. So I took the cook book into the pantry and read the recipe over three times. When I came back I knew it by heart, although I did not understand it.
"I will tell you how," I said with a great deal of dignity, "and since you want to help, you may make it yourself."
He was delighted.
"Fine!" he said. "Suppose you give me the idea first. Then we'll go over it slowly, bit by bit. We'll make a big fluffy omelet, and if the others aren't around, we'll eat it ourselves."
"Well," I said, trying to remember exactly, "you take two eggs—"
"Two!" he repeated. "Two eggs for ten people!"
"Don't interrupt me," I said irritably. "If—if two isn't enough we can make several omelets, one after the other."
He looked at me with admiration.
"Who else but you would have thought of that!" he remarked. "Well, here are two eggs. What next?"
"Separate them," I said easily. No, I didn't know what it meant. I hoped he would; I said it as casually as I could, and I did not look at him. I knew he was staring at me, puzzled.
"Separate them!" he said. "Why, they aren't fastened together!" Then he laughed. "Oh, yes, of course!" When I looked he had put one at each end of the table. "Afraid they'll quarrel, I suppose," he said. "Well, now they're separated."
"First separate, then beat!" he repeated. "The author of that cook book must have had a mean disposition. What's next? Hang them?" He looked up at me with his boyish smile.
"Separate and beat," I repeated. If I lost a word of that recipe I was gone. It was like saying the alphabet; I had to go to the beginning every time mentally.
"Well," he reflected, "you can't beat an egg, no matter how cruel you may be, unless you break it first." He picked up an egg and looked at it. "Separate!" he reflected. "Ah—the white from the—whatever you cooking experts call it—the yellow part."
"Exactly!" I exclaimed, light breaking on me. "Of course. I KNEW you would find it out." Then back to the recipe—"beat until well mixed; then fold in the whites."
"Fold?" he questioned. "It looks pretty thin to fold, doesn't it? I—upon my word, I never heard of folding an egg. Are you—but of course you know. Please come and show me how."
"Just fold them in," I said desperately. "It isn't difficult." And because I was so transparent a fraud and knew he must find me out then, I said something about butter, and went into the pantry. That's the trouble with a lie; somebody asks you to tell one as a favor to somebody else, and the first thing you know, you are having to tell a thousand, and trying to remember the ones you have told so you won't contradict yourself, and the very person you have tried to help turns on you and reproaches you for being untruthful! I leaned my elbows despondently on the shelf of the kitchen pantry, with the feet of a guard visible through the high window over my head, and waited for Mr. Harbison to come in and demand that I fold a raw egg, and discover that I didn't know anything about cooking, and was just as useless as all the others.
He came. He held the bowl out to me and waved a fork in triumph.
"I have solved it," he said. "Or, rather, Flannigan and I have solved it. The mixture awaits the magic touch of the cook."
I honestly thought I could do the rest. It was only to be put in a pan and browned, and then in the oven three minutes. And I did it properly, but for two things: I should have greased the pan (but this was the book's fault; it didn't say) and I should have lighted the oven. The latter, however, was Mr. Harbison's fault as much as mine, and I had wit enough to lay it to absent-mindedness on the part of both of us.
After that, Aunt Selina or no Aunt Selina, we decided to have boiled eggs, and Mr. Harbison knew how to cook them. He put them in the tea kettle and then went to look at the furnace. And Officer Timothy Flannigan ground the coffee and gave his opinion of the board of health in no stinted terms. As for me, I burned my fingers and the toast, and felt myself growing hot and cold, for I was going to be found out as soon as Flannigan grasped the situation.
Then, of course, I did the thing that caused me so much trouble later. I put down the toaster—at least the Harbison man said it was a toaster—and went over and stood in front of the policeman.
"I don't suppose you will understand—exactly," I said, "but—but if anything occurs to—to make you think I am not—that things are not what they seem to be—I mean, what I say they are—you will understand that it is a joke, won't you? A joke, you know."
Yes, that was what I said. I know it sounds like a raving delirium, but when Max came down and squizzled some bacon, as he said, and told Flannigan about the robbery, and how, whether it was a joke or deadly earnest, somebody in the house had taken Anne's pearls, that wretched policeman winked at me solemnly over Max's shoulder. Oh, it was awful!
And, to add to my discomfort, the most unpleasant ideas WOULD obtrude themselves. WHAT was Mr. Harbison doing on the first floor of the house that night? Ice water, he had said. But there had been plenty of water in the studio! And he had told me it was the furnace.
Mr. Harbison came back in a half hour, and I remembered the eggs. We fished them out of the tea kettle, and they were perfectly hard, but we ate them.
The doctor from the board of health came that morning and vaccinated us. There was a great deal of excitement, and Aunt Selina was done on the arm. As she did not affect evening clothes this was entirely natural, but later on in the week, when the wretched things began to take, nobody dared to limp, and Leila made a terrible break by wearing a bandage on her left arm, after telling Aunt Selina that she had been vaccinated on the right.
Chapter VIII. CORRESPONDENTS' DEPARTMENT
The following letters were found in the house post box after the lifting of the quarantine, and later were presented to me by their writers, bound in white kid (the letters, not the authors, of course).
FROM THOMAS HARBISON, LATE ENGINEER OF BRIDGES, PERUVIAN TRUNK LINES, SOUTH AMERICA, TO HENRY LLEWELLYN, CARE OF UNION NITRATE COMPANY, IQUIQUE, CHILI.
Dear Old Man:
I think I was fully a week trying to drive out of my mind my last glimpse of you with your sickly grin, pretending to be tickled to pieces that the only white man within two hundred miles of your shack was going on a holiday. You old bluffer! I used to hang over the rail of the steamer, on the way up, and see you standing as I left you beside the car with its mule and the Indian driver, and behind you a million miles of soul-destroying pampa. Never mind, Jack; I sent yesterday by mail steamer the cigarettes, pipes and tobacco, canned goods and poker chips. Put in some magazines, too, and the collars. Don't know about the ties—guess it won't matter down there.
Nothing happened on the trip. One of the engines broke down three days out, and I spent all my time below decks for forty-eight hours. Chief engineer raving with D.T.'s. Got the engine fixed in record time, and haven't got my hands clean yet. It was bully.
With this I send the papers, which will tell you how I happen to be here, and why I have leisure to write you three days after landing. If the situation were not so ridiculous, it would be maddening. Here I am, off for a holiday and congratulating myself that I am foot free and heart free—yes, my friend, heart free—here I am, shut in the house of a man I never saw until last night, and wouldn't care if I never saw again, with a lot of people who never heard of me, who are almost equally vague about South America, who play as hard at bridge as I ever worked at building one (forgive this, won't you? The novelty has gone to my head), and who belong to the very class of extravagant, luxury-loving, non-producing parasites (isn't that what we called them?) that you and I used to revile from our lofty Andean pinnacle.
To come down to earth: here we are, six women and five men, including a policeman, not a servant in the house, and no one who knows how to do anything. They are really immensely interesting, these people; they all know each other very well, and it is "Jimmy" here, and "Dal" there—Dallas Brown, who went to India with me, you remember my speaking of him—and they are good natured, too, except at meal times. The little hostess, Mrs. Wilson, took over the cooking, and although luncheon was better than breakfast, the food still leaves much to the imagination.
I wish you could see this Mrs. Wilson, Hal. You would change a whole lot of your ideas. She is a thoroughbred, sure enough, and of course some of her beauty is the result of the exquisite care about which you and I—still from our Andean pinnacle—used to rant. But the fact is, she is more than that. She has fire, and pluck, no end. If you could have seen her this morning, standing in front of a cold kitchen range, determined to conquer it, and had seen the tilt of her chin when I offered to take over the cooking—you needn't grin; I can cook, and you know it—you would understand what I mean. It was so clear that she was paralyzed with fright at the idea of getting breakfast, and equally clear that she meant to do it. By the way, I have learned that her name was McNair before she married this would-be artist, Wilson, and that she is a daughter of the McNair who financed the Callao branch!
I have not met the others so intimately. There are two sisters named Mercer, inclined to be noisy—they are playing roulette in the next room now. One is small and dark, almost Hebraic in type, named Leila and called Lollie. The other, larger, very blonde and languishing, and with a decided preference for masculine society, even, saving the mark, mine! Dallas Brown's wife, good looking, smokes cigarettes when I am not around—they all do, except Mrs. Wilson.
Then there is a maiden aunt, who is ill today with grippe and excitement, and a Miss Knowles, who came for a moment last night to see Mrs. Wilson, was caught in the quarantine (see papers), and, after hiding all night in the basement, is sulking all day in her room. Her presence created an excitement out of all proportion to the apparent cause.
From the fact that I have reason to know that my artist host and his beautiful wife are on bad terms, and from the significant glances with which the announcement of Miss Knowles' presence was met, the state of affairs seems rather clear. Wilson impresses me as a spineless sort, anyhow, and when the lady of the basement shut herself away from the rest today and I happened on "Jimmy," as they call him, pleading with her through the door, I very nearly kicked him down the stairs. Oh, yes, I'll keep out, right enough; it isn't my affair.
By the way, after the quarantine and with the policeman locked in the furnace room, a pearl necklace and a diamond bracelet were stolen! Just ten of us to divide the suspicion! Upon my word, Hal, it's the queerest situation I ever heard of. Which of us did it? I make a guess that not a few of us are fools, but which is the knave? The worst of it is, I am the only unaccredited member of the household!
This is more scandal than I ever wrote in my life. Lay it to circumscribed environment, and the lack of twenty miles over the pampa before breakfast. We have all been vaccinated, and the officious gentlemen from the board of health have taken their grins and their formaldehyde and gone. Ye gods, how we cough!
The Carlton order will go through all right, I think. Phoned him this morning. If it does, old man, we will take a month in September and explore the Mercator property.
Do you know, Hal, I have been thinking lately that you and I stick too close to the grind. Business is right enough, but what's the use of spending one's best years succeeding in everything except the things that are worth while? I'll be thirty sooner than I care to say, and—oh, well, you won't understand. You'll sit down there, with the Southern Cross and the rest of the infernal astronomical galaxy looking down on you, and the Indians chanting in the village, and you will think I have grown sentimental. I have not. You and I down there have been looking at the world through the reverse end of the glass. It's a bully old world, Hal, and this is God's part of it.
Burn this letter after you read it; I suspect it is covered with germs. Well, happy days, old man.
P.S. By the way, can't you spare some of the Indian pottery you picked up at Callao? I told Mrs. Wilson about it, and she was immensely interested. Send it to this address. Can you get it to the next steamer?—T.
FROM MAXWELL REED TO RICHARD BURTON BAGLEY, UNIVERSITY CLUB, NEW YORK.
Enclosed find my check for five hundred, as per wager. Possibly you were within your rights in protecting your bet in the manner you chose, but while I do not wish to be offensive, your reporters are damnably so.
Yours, Maxwell Reed
FROM OFFICER FLANNIGAN TO MRS. MAGGIE FLANNIGAN, ERIN STREET.
As soon as you receive this, go down to Mac and tell him the story as I tell you hear. Tell him I was walkin my beat, and I'd been afther seein Jimmy Alverini about doin the right thing for Mac on Monday, at the poles, when I seen a man hangin suspicious around this house, which is Mr. Wilson's, on Ninety-fifth. And, of coorse, afther chasin the man a mile or more, I lose him, which was not my fault. So I go back to the Wilson house, and tell them to be careful about closin up fer the night, and while I'm standin in the hall, with all the swells around me, sparklin with jewels, the board of health sends a man to lock us all in, because the Jap thats been waiter has took the smallpox and gone to the hospitle. I stood me ground. I sez, sez I, you cant shtop an officer in pursute of his duty. I rafuse to be shut in. Be shure to tell Mac that.
So here I am, and like to be for a month. Tell Mac theres four votes shut up here, and I can get them for him, if he can stop this monkey business.
Then go over to the Dago Church on Webster Avenue and put a dollar in Saint Anthony's box. He'll see me out of this scrape, right enough. Do it at once. Now remember, go to Mac first; maybe you can get the dollar from him, and mind what you tell him.
Your husband, Tim Flannigan
FROM ME TO MOTHER—MRS. THEODORE McNAIR, HOTEL HAMILTON, BERMUDA.
I hope you will get this before you read the papers, and when you DO read them, you are not to get excited and worried. I am as well as can be, and a great deal safer than I ever remember to have been in my life. We are quarantined, a lot of us, in Jim Wilson's house, because his irreproachable Jap did a very reproachable thing—took smallpox. Now read on before you get excited. HIS ROOM HAS BEEN FUMIGATED, and we have been vaccinated. I am well and happy. I can't be killed in a railway wreck or smashed when the car skids. Unless I drown myself in my bath, or jump through a window, positively nothing can happen to me. So gather up all your maternal anxieties and cast them to the Bermuda sharks.
Anne Brown is here—see the papers for list—and if she can not play propriety, Jimmy's Aunt Selina can. In fact, she doesn't play at it; she works. I have telephoned Lizette for some clothes—enough for a couple of weeks, although Dallas promises to get us out sooner. Now, dear, do go ahead and have a nice time, and on no account come home. You could only have the carriage to stop in front of the house, and wave to me through a window.
Mother, I want you to do something for me. You know who is down there, and—this is awfully delicate, Mumsy—but he's a nice boy, and I thought I liked him. I guess you know he has been rather attentive. Now, I DO like him, Mumsy, but not the way I thought I did, and I want you to—very gently, of course—to discourage him a little. You know how I mean. He's a dear boy, but I am so tired of people who don't know anything but horses and motors.
And, oh, yes,—do you remember a girl named Lucille Mellon who was at school with you in Rome? And that she married a man named Harbison? Well, her son is here! He builds railroads and bridges and things, and he even built himself an automobile down in South America, because he couldn't afford to buy one, and burned wood in it! Wood! Think of it!
I wired father in Chicago for fear he would come rushing home. The picture in the paper of the face at the basement window is supposed to be Mr. Harbison, but of course it isn't any more like him than mine is like me.
Anne Brown mislaid her pearl collar when she took it off last night, and has fussed herself into a sick headache. She declares it was stolen! Some of the people are playing bridge, Betty Mercer is doing a cake walk to the RHAPSODIE HONGROISE—Jim has no every-day music—and the telephone is ringing. We have received enough flowers for a funeral—somebody sent Lollie a Gates Ajar, only with the gates shut.
There are no servants—think of it, Mumsy. I wish you had made me learn to cook. Mr. Harbison has shown me a little—he was a soldier in the Spanish War—but we girls are a terribly ignorant lot, Mumsy, about the real things of life.
Now, don't worry. It is more sport than camping in the Adirondacks, and not nearly so damp.
Your loving daughter, Katherine.
P.S.—South America must be wonderful. Why can't we put the Gadfly in commission, and take a coasting trip this summer? It is a shame to own a yacht and never use it. K.
THIS NOTE, EVIDENTLY DELIVERED BY MESSENGER, WAS FOUND AMONG OTHER LITTER IN THE VESTIBULE AFTER THE LIFTING OF THE QUARANTINE.
Mr. Alex Dodds, City Editor, Mail and Star:
Dear D.—Can't get a picture. Have waited seven hours. They have closed the shutters.
WRITTEN ON THE BACK OF THE ABOVE NOTE.
Watch the roof.
Chapter IX. FLANNIGAN'S FIND
The most charitable thing would be to say nothing about the first day. We were baldly brutal—that's the only word for it. And Mr. Harbison, with his beautiful courtesy—the really sincere kind—tried to patch up one quarrel after another and failed. He rose superbly to the occasion, and made something that he called a South American goulash for luncheon, although it was too salty, and every one was thirsty the rest of the day.
Bella was horrid, of course. She froze Jim until he said he was going to sit in the refrigerator and cool the butter. She locked herself in the dressing room—it had been assigned to me, but that made no difference to Bella—and did her nails, and took three different baths, and refused to come to the table. And of course Jimmy was wild, and said she would starve. But I said, "Very well, let her starve. Not a tray shall leave my kitchen." It was a comfort to have her shut up there anyhow; it postponed the time when she would come face to face with Flannigan.
Aunt Selina got sick that day, as I have said. I was not so bitter as the others; I did not say that I wished she would die. The worst I ever wished her was that she might be quite ill for some time, and yet, when she began to recover, she was dreadful to me. She said for one thing, that it was the hard-boiled eggs and the state of the house that did it, and when I said that the grippe was a germ, she retorted that I had probably brought it to her on my clothing.
You remember that Betty had drawn the nurse's slip, and how pleased she had been about it. She got up early the morning of the first day and made herself a lawn cap and telephoned out for a white nurse's uniform—that is, of course, for a white uniform for a nurse. She really looked very fetching, and she went around all the morning with a red cross on her sleeve and a Saint Cecilia expression, gathering up bottles of medicine—most of it flesh reducer, which was pathetic, and closing windows for fear of drafts. She refused to help with the house work, and looked quite exalted, but by afternoon it had palled on her somewhat, and she and Max shook dice.
Betty was really pleased when Aunt Selina sent for her. She took in a bottle of cologne to bathe her brow, and we all stood outside the door and listened. Betty tiptoed in in her pretty cap and apron, and we heard her cautiously draw down the shades.
"What are you doing that for?" Aunt Selina demanded. "I like the light."
"It's bad for your poor eyes," Betty's tone was exactly the proper bedside pitch, low and sugary.
"Sweet and low, sweet and low, wind of the western sea!" Dal hummed outside.
"Put up those window shades!" Aunt Selina's voice was strong enough. "What's in that bottle?"
Betty was still mild. She swished to the window and raised the shade.
"I'm SO sorry you are ill," she said sympathetically. "This is for your poor aching head. Now close your eyes and lie perfectly still, and I will cool your forehead."
"There's nothing the matter with my head," Aunt Selina retorted. "And I have not lost my faculties; I am not a child or a sick cow. If that's perfumery, take it out."
We heard Betty coming to the door, but there was no time to get away. She had dropped her mask for a minute and was biting her lip, but when she saw us she forced a smile.
"She's ill, poor dear," she said. "If you people will go away, I can bring her around all right. In two hours she will eat out of my hand."
"Eat a piece out of your hand," Max scoffed in a whisper.
We waited a little longer, but it was too painful. Aunt Selina demanded a mustard foot bath and a hot lemonade and her back rubbed with liniment and some strong black tea. And in the intervals she wanted to be read to out of the prayer book. And when we had all gone away, there came the most terrible noise from Aunt Selina's room, and every one ran. We found Betty in the hall outside the door, crying, with her fingers in her ears and her cap over her eye. She said she had been putting the hot water bottle to Aunt Selina's back, and it had been too hot. Just then something hit against the door with a soft thud, fell to the floor and burst, for a trickle of hot water came over the sill.
"She won't let me hold her hand," Betty wailed, "or bathe her brow, or smooth her pillow. She thinks of nothing but her stomach or her back! And when I try to make her bed look decent, she spits at me like a cat. Everything I do is wrong. She spilled the foot bath into her shoes, and blamed me for it."
It took the united efforts of all of us—except Bella, who stood back and smiled nastily—to get Betty back into the sick room again. I was supremely thankful by that time that I had not drawn the nurse's slip. With dinner ordered in from one of the clubs, and the omelet ten hours behind me, my position did not seem so unbearable. But a new development was coming.
While Betty was fussing with Aunt Selina, Max led a search of the house. He said the necklace and the bracelet must be hidden somewhere, and that no crevice was too small to neglect.
We made a formal search all together, except Betty and Aunt Selina, and we found a lot of things in different places that Jim said had been missing since the year one. But no jewels—nothing even suggesting a jewel was found. We had explored the entire house, every cupboard, every chest, even the insides of the couches and the pockets of Jim's clothes—which he resented bitterly—and found nothing, and I must say the situation was growing rather strained. Some one had taken the jewels; they hadn't walked away.
It was Flannigan who suggested the roof, and as we had tried every place else, we climbed there. Of course we didn't find anything, but after all day in the house with the shutters closed on account of reporters, the air was glorious. It was February, but quite mild and sunny, and we could look down over Riverside Drive and the Hudson, and even recognize people we knew on horseback and in cars. It was a pathetic joy, and we lined up along the parapet and watched the motor boats racing on the river, and tried to feel that we were in the world as well as of it, but it was very hard.
Betty had been making tea for Aunt Selina, and of course when she heard us up there, she followed, tray and all, and we drank Aunt Selina's tea and had the first really nice time of the day. Bella had come up, too, but she was still standoffish and queer, and she stood leaning against a chimney and staring out over the river. After a little Mr. Harbison put down his cup and went over to her, and they talked quite confidentially for a long time. I thought it bad taste in Bella, under the circumstances, after snubbing Dallas and Max, and of course treating Jim like the dirt under her feet, to turn right around and be lovely to Mr. Harbison. It was hard for Jim.
Max came and sat beside me, and Flannigan, who had been sent down for more cups, passed tea, putting the tray on top of the chimney. Jim was sitting grumpily on the roof, with his feet folded under him, playing Canfield in the shadow of the parapet, buying the deck out of one pocket and putting his winnings in the other. He was watching Bella, too, and she knew it, and she strained a point to captivate Mr. Harbison. Any one could see that.
And that was the picture that came out in the next morning's papers, tea cups, cards and all. For when some one looked up, there were four newspaper photographers on the roof of the next house, and they had the impertinence to thank us!
Flannigan had seen Bella by that time, but as he still didn't understand the situation, things were just the same. But his manner to me puzzled me; whenever he came near me he winked prodigiously, and during all the search he kept one eye on me, and seemed to be amused about something.
When the rest had gone down to dress for dinner, which was being sent in, thank goodness, I still sat on the parapet and watched the darkening river. I felt terribly lonely, all at once, and sad. There wasn't any one any nearer than father, in the West, or mother in Bermuda, who really cared a rap whether I sat on that parapet all night or not, or who would be sorry if I leaped to the dirty bricks of the next door-yard—not that I meant to, of course.
The lights came out across the river, and made purple and yellow streaks on the water, and one of the motor boats came panting back to the yacht club, coughing and gasping as if it had overdone. Down on the street automobiles were starting and stopping, cabs rolling, doors slamming, all the maddening, delightful bustle of people who are foot-free to dine out, to dance, to go to the theater, to do any of the thousand possibilities of a long February evening. And above them I sat on the roof and cried. Yes, cried.
I was roused by some one coughing just behind me, and I tried to straighten my face before I turned. It was Flannigan, his double row of brass buttons gleaming in the twilight.
"Excuse me, miss," he said affably, "but the boy from the hotel has left the dinner on the doorstep and run, the cowardly little divil! What'll I do with it? I went to Mrs. Wilson, but she says it's no concern of hers." Flannigan was evidently bewildered.
"You'd better keep it warm, Flannigan," I replied. "You needn't wait; I'm coming." But he did not go.
"If—if you'll excuse me, miss," he said, "don't you think ye'd betther tell them?"
"Tell them what?"
"The whole thing—the joke," he said confidentially, coming closer. "It's been great sport, now, hasn't it? But I'm afraid they will get on to it soon, and—some of them might not be agreeable. A pearl necklace is a pearl necklace, miss, and the lady's wild."
"What do you mean?" I gasped. "You don't think—why, Flannigan—"
He merely grinned at me and thrust his hand down in his pocket. When he brought it up he had Bella's bracelet on his palm, glittering in the faint light.
"Where did you get it?" Between relief and the absurdity of the thing, I was almost hysterical. But Flannigan did not give me the bracelet; instead, it struck me his tone was suddenly severe.
"Now look here, miss," he said; "you've played your trick, and you've had your fun. The Lord knows it's only folks like you would play April fool jokes with a fortune! If you're the sinsible little woman you look to be, you'll put that pearl collar on the coal in the basement tonight, and let me find it."
"I haven't got the pearl collar," I protested. "I think you are crazy. Where did you get that bracelet?"
He edged away from me, as if he expected me to snatch it from him and run, but he was still trying in an elephantine way to treat the matter as a joke.
"I found it in a drawer in the pantry," he said, "among the dirty linen. And if you're as smart as I think you are, I'll find the pearl collar there in the morning—and nothing said, miss."
So there I was, suspected of being responsible for Anne's pearl collar, as if I had not enough to worry me before. Of course I could have called them all together and told them, and made them explain to Flannigan what I had really meant by my delirious speech in the kitchen. But that would have meant telling the whole ridiculous story to Mr. Harbison, and having him think us all mad, and me a fool.
In all that overcrowded house there was only one place where I could be miserable with comfort. So I stayed on the roof, and cried a little and then became angry and walked up and down, and clenched my hands and babbled helplessly. The boats on the river were yellow, horizontal streaks through my tears, and an early searchlight sent its shaft like a tangible thing in the darkness, just over my head. Then, finally, I curled down in a corner with my arms on the parapet, and the lights became more and more prismatic and finally formed themselves into a circle that was Bella's bracelet, and that kept whirling around and around on something flat and not over-clean, that was Flannigan's palm.
Chapter X. ON THE STAIRS
I was roused by someone walking across the roof, the cracking of tin under feet, and a comfortable and companionable odor of tobacco. I moved a very little, and then I saw that it was a man—the height and erectness told me which man. And just at that instant he saw me.
"Good Lord!" he ejaculated, and throwing his cigar away he came across quickly. "Why, Mrs. Wilson, what in the world are you doing here? I thought—they said—"
"That I was sulking again?" I finished disagreeably. "Perhaps I am. In fact, I'm quite sure of it."
"You are not," he said severely. "You have been asleep in a February night, in the open air, with less clothing on than I wear in the tropics."
I had got up by this time, refusing his help, and because my feet were numb, I sat down on the parapet for a moment. Oh, I knew what I looked like—one of those "Valley-of-the-Nile-After-a-Flood" pictures.
"There is one thing about you that is comforting," I sniffed. "You said precisely the same thing to me at three o'clock this morning. You never startle me by saying anything unexpected."
He took a step toward me, and even in the dusk I could see that he was looking down at me oddly. All my bravado faded away and there was a queerish ringing in my ears.
"I would like to!" he said tensely. "I would like, this minute—I'm a fool, Mrs. Wilson," he finished miserably. "I ought to be drawn and quartered, but when I see you like this I—I get crazy. If you say the word, I'll—I'll go down and—" He clenched his fist.
It was reprehensible, of course; he saw that in an instant, for he shut his teeth over something that sounded very fierce, and strode away from me, to stand looking out over the river, with his hands thrust in his pockets. Of course the thing I should have done was to ignore what he had said altogether, but he was so uncomfortable, so chastened, that, feline, feminine, whatever the instinct is, I could not let him go. I had been so wretched myself.
"What is it you would like to say?" I called over to him. He did not speak. "Would you tell me that I am a silly child for pouting?" No reply; he struck a match. "Or would you preach a nice little sermon about people—about women—loving their husbands?"
He grunted savagely under his breath.
"Be quite honest," I pursued relentlessly. "Say that we are a lot of barbarians, say that because my—because Jimmy treats me outrageously—oh, he does; any one can see that—and because I loathe him—and any one can tell that—why don't you say you are shocked to the depths?" I was a little shocked myself by that time, but I couldn't stop, having started.
He came over to me, white-faced and towering, and he had the audacity to grip my arm and stand me on my feet, like a bad child—which I was, I dare say.
"Don't!" he said in a husky, very pained voice. "You are only talking; you don't mean it. It isn't YOU. You know you care, or else why are you crying up here? And don't do it again, DON'T DO IT AGAIN—or I will—"
"Make a fool of myself, as I have now," he finished grimly. And then he stalked away and left me there alone, completely bewildered, to find my way down in the dark.
I groped along, holding to the rail, for the staircase to the roof was very steep, and I went slowly. Half-way down the stairs there was a tiny landing, and I stopped. I could have sworn I heard Mr. Harbison's footsteps far below, growing fainter. I even smiled a little, there in the dark, although I had been rather profoundly shaken. The next instant I knew I had been wrong; some one was on the landing with me. I could hear short, sharp breathing, and then—
I am not sure that I struggled; in fact, I don't believe I did—I was too limp with amazement. The creature, to have lain in wait for me like that! And he was brutally strong; he caught me to him fiercely, and held me there, close, and he kissed me—not once or twice, but half a dozen times, long kisses that filled me with hot shame for him, for myself, that I had—liked him. The roughness of his coat bruised my cheek; I loathed him. And then someone came whistling along the hall below, and he pushed me from him and stood listening, breathing in long, gasping breaths.
I ran; when my shaky knees would hold me, I ran. I wanted to hide my hot face, my disgust, my disillusion; I wanted to put my head in mother's lap and cry; I wanted to die, or be ill, so I need never see him again. Perversely enough, I did none of those things. With my face still flaming, with burning eyes and hands that shook, I made a belated evening toilet and went slowly, haughtily, down the stairs. My hands were like ice, but I was consumed with rage. Oh, I would show him—that this was New York, not Iquique; that the roof was not his Andean tableland.
Every one elaborately ignored my absence from dinner. The Dallas Browns, Max and Lollie were at bridge; Jim was alone in the den, walking the floor and biting at an unlighted cigar; Betty had returned to Aunt Selina and was hysterical, they said, and Flannigan was in deep dejection because I had missed my dinner.
"Betty is making no end of a row," Max said, looking up from his game, "because the old lady upstairs insists on chloroform liniment. Betty says the smell makes her ill."
"And she can inhale Russian cigarettes," Anne said enviously, "and gasolene fumes, without turning a hair. I call a revoke, Dal; you trumped spades on the second round."
Dal flung over three tricks with very bad grace, and Anne counted them with maddening deliberation.
"Game and rubber," she said. "Watch Dal, Max; he will cheat in the score if he can. Kit, don't have another clam while I am in this house. I have eaten so many lately my waist rises and falls with the tide."
"You have a stunning color, Kit," Lollie said. "You are really quite superb. Who made that gown?"
"Where have you been hiding, du kleine?" Max whispered, under cover of showing me the evening paper, with a photograph of the house and a cross at the cellar window where we had tried to escape. "If one day in the house with you, Kit, puts me in this condition, what will a month do?"
From beyond the curtain of a sort of alcove, lighted with a red-shaded lamp, came a hum of conversation, Bella's cool, even tones, and a heavy masculine voice. They were laughing; I could feel my chin go up. He was not even hiding his shame.
"Max," I asked, while the others clamored for him and the game, "has any one been up through the house since dinner? Any of the men?"
He looked at me curiously.
"Only Harbison," he replied promptly. "Jim has been eating his heart out in the den every since dinner; Dal played the Sonata Appasionata backward on the pianola—he wanted to put through one of Anne's lingerie waists, on a wager that it would play a tune; I played craps with Lollie, and Flannigan has been washing dishes. Why?"
Well, that was conclusive, anyhow. I had had a faint hope that it might have been a joke, although it had borne all the evidences of sincerity, certainly. But it was past doubting now; he had lain in wait for me at the landing, and had kissed me, ME, when he thought I was Jimmy's wife. Oh, I must have been very light, very contemptible, if that was what he thought of me!
I went into the library and got a book, but it was impossible to read, with Jimmy lying on the couch giving vent to something between a sigh and a groan every few minutes. About eleven the cards stopped, and Bella said she would read palms. She began with Mr. Harbison, because she declared he had a wonderful hand, full of possibilities; she said he should have been a great inventor or a playwright, and that his attitude to women was one of homage, respect, almost reverence. He had the courage to look at me, and if a glance could have killed he would have withered away.
When Jimmy proffered his hand, she looked at it icily. Of course she could not refuse, with Mr. Harbison looking on.
"Rather negative," she said coldly. "The lines are obscured by cushions of flesh; no heart line at all, mentality small, self-indulgence and irritability very marked."
Jim held his palm up to the light and stared at it.
"Gad!" he said. "Hardly safe for me to go around without gloves, is it?"
It was all well enough for Jim to laugh, but he was horribly hurt. He stood around for a few minutes, talking to Anne, but as soon as he could he slid away and went to bed. He looked very badly the next morning, as though he had not slept, and his clothes quite hung on him. He was actually thinner. But that is ahead of the story.
Max came to me while the others were sitting around drinking nightcaps, and asked me in a low tone if he could see me in the den; he wanted to ask me something. Dal overheard.
"Ask her here," he said. "We all know what it is, Max. Go ahead and we'll coach you."
"Will you coach ME?" I asked, for Mr. Harbison was listening.
"The woman does not need it," Dal retorted. And then, because Max looked angry enough really to propose to me right there, I got up hastily and went into the den. Max followed, and closing the door, stood with his back against it.
"Contrary to the general belief, Kit," he began, "I did NOT intend to ask you to marry me."
I breathed easier. He took a couple of steps toward me and stood with his arms folded, looking down at me. "I'm not at all sure, in fact, that I shall ever propose to you," he went on unpleasantly.
"You have already done it twice. You are not going to take those back, are you, Max?" I asked, looking up at him.
But Max was not to be cajoled. He came close and stood with his hand on the back of my chair. "What happened on the roof tonight?" He demanded hoarsely.
"I do not think it would interest you," I retorted, coloring in spite of myself.
"Not interest me! I am shut in this blasted house; I have to see the only woman I ever loved—REALLY loved," he supplemented, as he caught my eye, "pretend she is another man's wife. Then I sit back and watch her using every art—all her beauty—to make still another man love her, a man who thinks she is a married woman. If Harbison were worth the trouble, I would tell him the whole story, Aunt Selina be—obliterated!"
I sat up suddenly.
"If Harbison were worth the trouble!" I repeated. What did he mean? Had he seen—
"I mean just this," Max said slowly. "There is only one unaccredited member of this household; only one person, save Flannigan, who was locked in the furnace room, one person who was awake and around the house when Anne's jewels went, only one person in the house, also, who would have any motive for the theft."
"Motive?" I asked dully.
"Poverty," Max threw at me. "Oh, I mean comparative poverty, of course. Who is this fellow, anyhow? Dal knew him at school, traveled with him through India. On the strength of that he brings him here, quarters him with decent people, and wonders when they are systematically robbed!"
"You are unjust!" I said, rising and facing him. "I do not like Mr. Harbison—I—I hate him, if you want to know. But as to his being a thief, I—think it is quite as likely that you took the necklace."
Max threw his cigarette into the fire angrily.
"So that is how it is!" he mocked. "If either of us is the thief, it is I! You DO hate him, don't you?"
I left him there, flushed with irritation, and joined the others. Just as I entered the room, Betty burst through the hall door like a cyclone, and collapsed into a chair. "She's a mean, cantankerous old woman!" she declared, feeling for her handkerchief. "You can take care of your own Aunt Selina, Jim Wilson. I will never go near her again."
"What did you do? Poison her?" Dallas asked with interest.
"G—got camphor in her eyes," snuffed Betty. "You never—heard such a noise. I wouldn't be a trained nurse for anything in the world. She—she called me a hussy!"
"You're not going to give her up, are you, Betty?" Jim asked imploringly. But Betty was, and said so plainly.
"Anyhow, she won't have me back," she finished, "and she has sent for—guess!"
"Have mercy!" Dal cried, dropping to his knees. "Oh, fair ministering angel, she has not sent for me!"
"No," Betty said maliciously. "She wants Bella—she's crazy about her."
Chapter XI. I MAKE A DISCOVERY
Really, I have left Aunt Selina rather out of it, but she was important as a cause, not as a result; at least at first. She came out strong later. I believe she was a very nice old woman, with strong likes and prejudices, which she was perfectly willing to pay for. At least, I only presume she had likes; I know she had prejudices.
Nobody every understood why Bella consented to take Betty's place with Aunt Selina. As for me, I was too much engrossed with my own affairs to pay the invalid much attention. Once or twice during the day I had stopped in to see her, and had been received frigidly and with marked disapproval. I was in disgrace, of course, after the scene in the dining room the night before. I had stood like a naughty child, just inside the door, and replied meekly when she said the pillows were overstuffed, and why didn't I have the linen slips rinsed in starch water? She laid the blame of her illness on me, as I have said before, and she made Jim read to her in the afternoon from a book she carried with her, Coals of Fire on the DOMESTIC Hearth, marking places for me to read.
She sent for me that night, just as I had taken off my gown; so I threw on a dressing gown and went in. To my horror, Jim was already there. At a gesture from Aunt Selina, he closed the door into the hall and tiptoed back beside the bed, where he sat staring at the figures on the silk comfort.
Aunt Selina's first words were:
"Where's that flibberty-gibbet?"
Jim looked at me.
"She must mean Betty," I explained. "She has gone to bed, I think."
"Don't—let—her—in—this—room—again," she said, with awful emphasis. "She is an infamous creature."
"Oh, come now, Aunt Selina," Jim broke in; "she's foolish, perhaps, but she's a nice little thing."
Aunt Selina's face was a curious study. Then she raised herself on her elbow, and, taking a flat chamois-skin bag from under her pillow, held it out.
"My cameo breastpin," she said solemnly; "my cuff-buttons with gold rims and storks painted on china in the middle; my watch, that has put me to bed and got me up for forty years, and my money—five hundred and ten dollars and forty cents!—taken with the doors locked under my nose." Which was ambiguous, but forcible.
"But, good gracious, Miss Car—Aunt Selina!" I exclaimed, "you don't think Betty Mercer took those things?"
"No," she said grimly; "I think I probably got up in my sleep and lighted the fire with them, or sent em out for a walk." Then she stuffed the bag away and sat up resolutely in bed.
"Have you made up?" she demanded, looking from one to the other of us. "Bella, don't tell me you still persist in that nonsense."
"What nonsense?" I asked, getting ready to run.
"That you do not love him."
"James," she snapped irritably. "Do you suppose I mean the policeman?"
I looked over at Jimmy. She had got me by the hand, and Jimmy was making frantic gestures to tell her the whole thing and be done with it. But I had gone too far. The mill of the gods had crushed me already, and I didn't propose to be drawn out hideously mangled and held up as an example for the next two or three weeks, although it was clear enough that Aunt Selina disapproved of me thoroughly, and would have been glad enough to find that no tie save the board of health held us together. And then Bella came in, and you wouldn't have known her. She had put on a straight white woolen wrapper, and she had her hair in two long braids down her back. She looked like a nice, wide-eyed little girl in her teens, and she had some lobster salad and a glass of port on a tray. When she saw the situation, she put the things down and had the nastiness to stay and listen.
"I'm not blind," Aunt Selina said, with one eye on the tray. "You two silly children adore each other; I saw some things last night."
Bella took a step forward; then she stopped and shrugged her shoulders. Jim was purple.
"I saw you kiss her in the dining room, remember that!" Aunt Selina went on, giving the screw another turn.
It was Bella's turn to be excited. She gave me one awful stare, then she fixed her eyes on Jim.
"Besides," Aunt Selina went on, "you told me today that you loved her. Don't deny it, James."
Bella couldn't keep quiet another instant. She came over and stood at the foot of the bed.
"Please don't excite yourself, DEAR Miss Caruthers," she said in a voice like ice. "Every one knows that he loves her; he simply overflows with it. It—it is quite a by-word among their friends. They have been sitting together in a corner all evening."
Yes, that was what she said; when I had not spoken to Jimmy the whole time in the den. Bella was cattish, and she was jealous, too. I turned on my heel and went to the door; then I turned to her, with my hand on the knob.
"You have been misinformed," I said coldly. "You can not possibly know, having spent three hours in a corner yourself—with Mr. Harbison." I abhor jealousy in a woman.
Well, Aunt Selina ate all the lobster salad, and drank the port after Bella had told her it was beef, iron and wine, and she slept all night, and was able to sit up in a chair the next day, and was so infatuated with Bella that she would not let her out of her sight. But that is ahead of the story.
At midnight the house was fairly quiet, except for Jim, who kept walking around the halls because he couldn't sleep. I got up at last and ordered him to bed, and he had the audacity to have a grievance with me.
"Look at my situation now!" he said, sitting pensively on a steam radiator. "Aunt Selina is crazy. I only kissed your hand, anyhow, and I don't know why you sat in the den all evening; you might have known that Bella would notice it. Why couldn't you leave me alone to my misery?"
"Very well," I said, much offended. "After this I shall sit with Flannigan in the kitchen. He is the only gentleman in the house."
I left him babbling apologies and went to bed, but I had an uncomfortable feeling that Bella had been a witness to our conversation, for the door into Aunt Selina's room closed softly as I passed.
I knew beforehand that I was not going to sleep. The instant I turned out the light the nightmare events of the evening ranged themselves in a procession, or a series of tableaus, one after the other; Flannigan on the roof, with the bracelet on his palm, looking accusingly at me; Mr. Harbison and the scene on the roof, with my flippancy; and the result of that flippancy—the man on the stairs, the arms that held me, the terrible kisses that had scorched my lips—it was awful! And then the absurd situation across Aunt Selina's bed, and Bella's face! Oh, it was all so ridiculous—my having thought that the Harbison man was a gentleman, and finding him a cad, and worse. It was excruciatingly funny. I quite got a headache from laughing; indeed I laughed until I found I was crying, and then I knew I was going to have an attack of strangulated emotion, called hysteria. So I got up and turned on all the lights, and bathed my face with cologne, and felt better.
But I did not go to sleep. When the hall clock chimed two, I discovered I was hungry. I had had nothing since luncheon, and even the thirst following the South American goulash was gone. There was probably something to eat in the pantry, and if there was not, I was quite equal to going to the basement.
As it happened, however, I found a very orderly assortment of left-overs and a pitcher of milk, which had no business there in the pantry, and with plenty of light I was not at all frightened.
I ate bread and butter and drank milk, and was fast becoming a rational person again; I had pulled out one of the drawers part way, and with a tray across the corner I had improvised a comfortable seat. And then I noticed that the drawer was full of soiled napkins, and I remembered the bracelet. I hardly know why I decided to go through the drawer again, after Flannigan had already done it, but I did. I finished my milk and then, getting down on my knees, I proceeded systematically to empty the drawer. I took out perhaps a dozen napkins and as many doilies without finding anything. Then I took out a large tray cloth, and there was something on it that made me look farther. One corner of it had been scorched, the clear and well defined imprint of a lighted cigarette or cigar, a blackened streak that trailed off into a brown and yellow. I had a queer, trembly feeling, as if I were on the brink of a discovery—perhaps Anne's pearls, or the cuff buttons with storks painted on china in the center. But the only thing I found, down in the corner of the drawer, was a half-burned cigarette.
To me, it seemed quite enough. It was one of the South American cigarettes, with a tobacco wrapper instead of paper, that Mr. Harbison smoked.
Chapter XII. THE ROOF GARDEN
I was quite ill the next morning—from excitement, I suppose. Anyhow, I did not get up, and there wasn't any breakfast. Jim said he roused Flannigan at eight o'clock, to go down and get the fire started, and then went back to bed. But Flannigan did not get up. He appeared, sheepishly, at half-past ten, and by that time Bella was down, in a towering rage, and had burned her hand and got the fire started, and had taken up a tray for Aunt Selina and herself.
As the others straggled down they boiled themselves eggs or ate fruit, and nobody put anything away. Lollie Mercer made me some tea and scorched toast, and brought it, about eleven o'clock.
"I never saw such a house," she declared. "A dozen housemaids couldn't put it in order. Why should every man that smokes drop ashes wherever he happens to be?"
"That's the question of the ages," I replied languidly. "What was Max talking so horribly about a little while ago?" Lollie looked up aggrieved.
"About nothing at all," she declared. "Anne told me to clean the bath tubs with oil, and I did it, that's all. Now Max says he couldn't get it off, and his clothes stick to him, and if he should forget and strike a match in the—in the usual way, he would explode. He can clean his own tub tomorrow," she finished vindictively.
At noon Jim came in to see me, bringing Anne as a concession to Bella. He was in a rage, and he carried the morning paper like a club in his hand.
"What sort of a newspaper lie would you call this?" he demanded irritably. "It makes me crazy; everybody with a mental image of me leaning over the parapet of the roof, waving a board, with the rest of you sitting on my legs to keep me from overbalancing!"
"Maybe there's a picture!" Anne said hopefully.
"No picture," he announced. "I wonder why they restrained themselves! I wish Bella would keep off the roof," he added, with fresh access of rage, "or wear a mask or veil. One of those fellows is going to recognize her, and there'll be the deuce to pay."
"When you are all through discussing this thing, perhaps you will tell me what is the matter," I remarked from my couch. "Why did you lean over the parapet, Jim, and who sat on your legs?"
"I didn't; nobody did," he retorted, waving the newspaper. "It's a lie out of the whole cloth, that's what it is. I asked you girls to be decent to those reporters; it never pays to offend a newspaper man. Listen to this, Kit."
He read the article rapidly, furiously, pausing every now and then to make an exasperated comment.
ATTEMPT AT ESCAPE FRUSTRATED MEMBERS OF THE FOUR HUNDRED DEFY THE LAW
"Special Officer McCloud, on duty at the quarantined house of James Wilson, artist and clubman, on Ninety-fifth Street, reported this morning a daring attempt at escape, made at 3 A.M. It is in this house that some eight or nine members of the smart set were imprisoned during the course of a dinner party, when the Japanese butler developed smallpox. The party shut in the house includes Miss Katherine McNair, the daughter of Theodore McNair, of the Inter-Ocean system; Mr. and Mrs. Dallas Brown; the Misses Mercer; Maxwell Reed, the well-known clubman and whip; and a Mr. Thomas Harbison, guest of the Dallas Browns and a South American.
"Officer McCloud's story, told to a Chronicle reporter this morning, is as follows: The occupants of the house had been uneasy all day. From the air of subdued bustle, and from a careful inspection of the roof, made by the entire party during the afternoon, his suspicion had been aroused. Nothing unusual, however, occurred during the early part of the night. From eight o'clock to twelve, McCloud was relieved from duty, his place being taken by Michael Shane, of the Eighty-sixth Street Station.
"When McCloud came on duty at midnight, Shane reported that about eleven o'clock the searchlight of a steamer on the river, flashing over the house, had shown a man crouching on the parapet, evidently surveying the roof across, which at this point is only twelve feet distant, with a view of making his escape. One seeing Shane below, however, he had beat a retreat, but not before the officer had seen him distinctly. He was dressed in evening clothes and wore a light tan overcoat.
"Officer McCloud relieved Shane at midnight, and sent for a plain-clothes man from the station house. This man was stationed on the roof of the Bevington residence next door, with strict injunctions to prevent an escape from the quarantined mansion. Nothing suspicious having occurred, the man on the roof left about 3 A.M., reporting to McCloud below that everything was quiet. At that moment, glancing skyward, one of the officers was astounded to see a long narrow board project itself from the coping of the Wildon house, waver uncertainly for a moment, and then advance stealthily toward the parapet across. When it was within a foot or two of a resting place, McCloud called sharply to the invisible refugee above, at the same time firing his revolver in the ground.
"The result was surprising. The board stopped, trembled, swayed a little, and dropped, missing the vigilant officers by a hair's breadth, and crashing to the cement with a terrific force. An inspection of the roof from the Bevington house, later, revealed nothing unusual. It is evident, however, that the quarantine is proving irksome to the inhabitants of the sequestered residence, most of whom are typical society folk, without resources in themselves. Their condition, without valets and maids, is certainly pitiable. It has been rumored that the ladies are doing their own hair, and that the gentlemen have been reduced to putting their own buttons in their shirts. This deplorable situation, however, is unavoidable.
"The vigilance of the board of health has been most commendable in this case. Beginning with a wager over the telephone that they would break quarantine in twenty-four hours, and ending with the attempt to span a twelve-foot gulf with a board, over which to cross to freedom, these shut-in society folk have shown characteristic disregard of the laws of the state. It is quite time to extend to the millionaire the same strictness that keeps the commuter at home for three weeks with the measles; that makes him get the milk bottles and groceries from the gate post and smell like dog soap for a month afterward, as a result of disinfection.'"
We sat in dead silence for a minute. Then:
"Perhaps it is true," I said. "Not of you, Jim—but some one may have tried to get out that way. In fact, I think it extremely likely."
"Who? Flannigan? You couldn't drive him out. He's having the time of his life. Do you suspect me?"
"Come away and don't fight," Anne broke in pacifically. "You will have to have luncheon sent in, Jimmy; nobody has ordered anything from the shops, and I feel like old Mother Hubbard."
"I wish you would all go out," I said wearily. "If every man in the house says he didn't try to get over to the next roof last night, well and good. But you might look and see if the board is still lying where it fell."
There was an instantaneous rush for the window, and a second's pause. Then Jimmy's voice, incredulous, awed:
"Well, I'll be—blessed! There's the board!"
I stayed in my room all that day. My head really ached and then, too, I did not care to meet Mr. Harbison. It would have to come; I realized that a meeting was inevitable, but I wanted time to think how I would meet him. It would be impossible to cut him, without rousing the curiosity of the others to fever pitch; and it was equally impossible to ignore the disgraceful episode on the stairs. As it happened, however, I need not have worried. I went down to dinner, languidly, when every one was seated, and found Max at my right, and Mr. Harbison moved over beside Bella. Every one was talking at once, for Flannigan, ambling around the table as airily as he walked his beat, had presented Bella with her bracelet on a salad plate, garnished with romaine. He had found it in the furnace room, he said, where she must have dropped it. And he looked at me stealthily, to approve his mendacity!
Every one was famished, and as they ate they discussed the board in the area way, and pretended to deride it as a clever bit of press work, to revive a dying sensation. No one was deceived; Anne's pearls and the attempt to escape, coming just after, pointed only to one thing. I looked around the table, dazed. Flannigan, almost the only unknown quantity, might have tried to escape the night before, but he would not have been in dress clothes. Besides, he must be eliminated as far as the pearls were concerned, having been locked in the furnace room the night they were stolen. There was no one among the girls to suspect. The Mercer girls had stunning pearls, and could secure all they wanted legitimately; and Bella disliked them. Oh, there was no question about it, I decided; Dallas and Anne had taken a wolf to their bosom—or is it a viper?—and the Harbison man was the creature. Although I must say that, looking over the table, at Jimmy's breadth and not very imposing personality, at Max's lean length, sallow skin, and bold dark eyes, at Dallas, blond, growing bald and florid, and then at the Harbison boy, tall, muscular, clear-eyed and sunburned, one would have taken Max at first choice as the villain, with Dal next, Jim third, and the Harbison boy not in the running.
It was just after dinner that the surprise was sprung on me. Mr. Harbison came around to me gravely, and asked me if I felt able to go up on the roof. On the roof, after last night! I had to gather myself together; luckily, the others were pushing back their chairs, showing Flannigan the liqueur glasses to take up, and lighting cigars.
"I do not care to go," I said icily.
"The others are coming," he persisted, "and I—I could give you an arm up the stairs."
"I believe you are good at that," I said, looking at him steadily. "Max, will you help me to the roof?"
Mr. Harbison really turned rather white. Then he bowed ceremoniously and left me.
Max got me a wrap, and every one except Mr. Harbison and Bella, who was taking a mass of indigestables to Aunt Selina, went to the roof.
"Where is Tom?" Anne asked, as we reached the foot of the stairs. "Gone ahead to fix things," was the answer. But he was not there. At the top of the last flight I stopped, dumb with amazement; the roof had been transformed, enchanted. It was a fairy-land of lights and foliage and colors. I had to stop and rub my eyes. From the bleakness of a tin roof in February to the brightness and greenery of a July roof garden!
"You were the immediate inspiration, Kit," Dallas said. "Harbison thought your headache might come from lack of exercise and fresh air, and he has worked us like nailers all day. I've a blister on my right palm, and Harbison got shocked while he was wiring the place, and nearly fell over the parapet. We bought out two full-sized florists by telephone."
It was the most amazing transformation. At each corner a pole had been erected, and wires crossed the roof diagonally, hung with red and amber bulbs. Around the chimneys had been massed evergreen trees in tubs, hiding their brick-and-mortar ugliness, and among the trees tiny lights were strung. Along the parapet were rows of geometrical boxwood plants in bright red crocks, and the flaps of a crimson and white tent had been thrown open, showing lights within, and rugs, wicker chairs, and cushions.
Max raised a glass of benedictine and posed for a moment, melodramatically.
"To the Wilson roof garden!" he said. "To Kit, who inspired; to the creators, who perspired; and to Takahiro—may he not have expired."
Every one was very gay; I think the knowledge that tomorrow Aunt Selina might be with them urged them to make the most of this last night of freedom. I tried to be jolly, and succeeded in being feverish. Mr. Harbison did not come up to enjoy what he had wrought. Jim brought up his guitar and sang love songs in a beautiful tenor, looking at Bella all the time. And Bella sat in a steamer chair, with a rug over her and a spangled veil on her head, looking at the boats on the river—about as soft and as chastened as an an acetylene headlight.
And after Max had told the most improbable tale, which Leila advised him to sprinkle salt on, and Dallas had done a clog dance, Bella said it was time for her complexion sleep and went downstairs, and broke up the party.
"If she only give half as an much care to her immortal soul," Anne said when she had gone, "as she does to her skin, she would let that nice Harbison boy alone. She must have been brutal to him tonight, for he went to bed at nine o'clock. At least, I suppose he went to bed, for he shut himself in the studio, and when I knocked he advised me not to come in."
I had pleaded my headache as an excuse for avoiding Aunt Selina all day, and she had not sent for me. Bella was really quite extraordinary. She was never in the habit of putting herself out for any one, and she always declared that the very odor of a sick room drove her to Scotch and soda. But here she was, rubbing Aunt Selina's back with chloroform liniment—and you know how that smells—getting her up in a chair, dressed in one of Bella's wadded silk robes, with pillows under her feet, and then doing her hair in elaborate puffs—braiding her gray switch and bringing it, coronet-fashion, around the top of her head. She even put rice powder on Aunt Selina's nose, and dabbed violet water behind her ears, and said she couldn't understand why she (Aunt Selina) had never married, but, of course, she probably would some day!
The result was, naturally, that the old lady wouldn't let Bella out of her sight, except to go to the kitchen for something to eat for her. That very day Bella got the doctor to order ale for Aunt Selina (oh, yes; the doctor could come in; Dal said "it was all a-coming in, and nothing going out") and she had three pints of Bass, and learned to eat anchovies and caviare—all in one day.
Bella's conduct to Jim was disgraceful. She snubbed him, ignored him, tramped on him, and Jim was growing positively flabby. He spent most of his time writing letters to the board of health and playing solitaire. He was a pathetic figure.
Well, we went to bed fairly early. Bella had massaged Aunt Selina's face and rubbed in cold cream, Anne and Dallas had compromised on which window should be open in their bedroom, and the men had matched to see who should look at the furnace. I did not expect to sleep, but the cold night air had done its work, and I was asleep almost immediately.
Some time during the early part of the night I wakened, and, after turning and twisting uneasily, I realized that I was cold. The couch in Bella's dressing room was comfortable enough, but narrow and low. I remember distinctly (that was what was so maddening; everybody thought I dreamed it)—I remember getting an eiderdown comfort that was folded at my feet, and pulling it up around me. In the luxury of its warmth I snuggled down and went to sleep almost instantly. It seemed to me I had slept for hours, but it was probably an hour or less, when something roused me. The room was perfectly dark, and there was not a sound save the faint ticking of the clock, but I was wide awake.
And then came the incident that in its ghastly, horrible absurdity made the rest of the people shout with laughter the next day. It was not funny then. For suddenly the eiderdown comfort began to slip. I heard no footstep, not the slightest sound approaching me, but the comfort moved; from my chin, inch by inch, it slipped to my shoulders; awfully, inevitably, hair-raisingly it moved. I could feel my blood gather around my heart, leaving me cold and nerveless. As it passed my hands I gave an involuntary clutch for it, to feel it slip away from my fingers. Then the full horror of the situation took hold of me; as the comfort slid past my feet I sat up and screamed at the top of my voice.
Of course, people came running in all sorts of things. I was still sitting up, declaring I had seen a ghost and that the house was haunted. Dallas was struggling for the second armhole of his dressing gown and Bella had already turned on the lights. They said I had had a nightmare, and not to sleep on my back, and perhaps I was taking grippe.
And just then we heard Jimmy run down the stairs, and fall over something, almost breaking his wrist. It was the eiderdown comfort, half-way up the studio staircase!
Chapter XIII. HE DOES NOT DENY IT
Aunt Selina got up the next morning and Jim told her all the strange things that had been happening. She fixed on Flannigan, of course, although she still suspected Betty of her watch and other valuables. The incident of the comfort she called nervous indigestion and bad hours.
She spent the entire day going through the storeroom and linen closets, and running her fingers over things for dust. Whenever she found any she looked at me, drew a long breath, and said, "Poor James!" It was maddening. And when she went through his clothes and found some buttons off (Jim didn't keep a man, and Takahiro had stopped at his boots) she looked at me quite awfully.
"His mother was a perfect housekeeper," she said. "James was brought up in clothes with the buttons on, put on clean shelves."
"Didn't they put them on him?" I asked, almost hysterically. It had been a bad morning, after a worse night. Every one had found fault with the breakfast, and they straggled down one at a time until I was frantic. Then Flannigan had talked to me about the pearls, and Mr. Harbison had said, "Good morning," very stiffly, and nearly rattled the inside of the furnace out.
Early in the morning, too, I overheard a scrap of conversation between the policeman and our gentleman adventurer from South America. Something had gone wrong with the telephone and Mr. Harbison was fussing over it with a screw driver and a pair of scissors—all the tools he could find. Flannigan was lifting rugs to shake them on the roof—Bella's order.
"Wash the table linen!" he was grumbling. "I'll do what I can that's necessary. Grub has to be cooked, and dishes has to be washed—I'll admit that. If you're particular, make up your bed every day; I don't object. But don't tell me we have to use thirty-three table napkins a day. What did folks do before napkins was invented? Tell me that!"—triumphantly.
"What's the answer?" Mr. Harbison inquired absently, evidently with the screw driver in his mouth.
"Used their pocket handkerchiefs! And if the worst comes to the worst, Mr. Harbison, these folks here can use their sleeves, for all I care—not that the women has any sleeves to speak of. Wash clothes I will not."
"Well, don't worry Mrs. Wilson about it," the other voice said. Flannigan straightened himself with a grunt.
"Mrs. Wilson!" he said. "A lot she would worry. She's been a disappointment to me, Mr. Harbison, me thinking that now she'd come back to him, after leavin' him the way she did, they'd be like two turtle doves. Lord! The cook next door—"
But what the cook had told about Bella and Jimmy was not divulged, for the Harbison man caught him up with a jerk and sent Flannigan, grumbling, with his rugs to the roof.
It did not seem possible to carry on the deception much longer, but if things were bad now, what would they be when Aunt Selina learned she had been lied to, made ridiculous, generally deceived? And how would I be able to live in the house with her when she did know? Luckily, every one was so puzzled over the mystery in the house that numbers of little things that would have been absolutely damning were never noticed at all. For instance, my asking Jimmy at luncheon that day if he took cream in his coffee! And Max coming to the rescue by dropping his watch in his glass of water, and creating a diversion and giving everybody an opportunity to laugh by saying not to mind, it had been in soak before.
Just after luncheon Aunt Selina brought me some undergarments of Jim's to be patched. She explained at length that he had always worn out his undergarments, because he always squirmed around so when he was sitting. And she showed me how to lay one of the garments over a pillow to get the patch in properly.
It was the most humiliating moment of my life, but there was no escape. I took my sewing to the roof, while she went away to find something else for me to do when that was finished, and I sat with the thing on my knee and stared at it, while rebellious tears rolled down my cheeks. The patch was not the shape of the hole at all, and every time I took a stitch I sewed it fast to the pillow beneath. It was terrible. Jim came up after a while and sat down across from me and watched, without saying anything. I suppose what he felt would not have been proper to say to me. We had both reached the point where adequate language failed us. Finally he said:
"I wish I were dead."
"So do I," I retorted, jerking the thread.
"Where is she now?"
"Looking for more of these." I indicated the garment over the pillow, and he wiggled. "Please don't squirm," I said coldly. "You will wear out your—lingerie, and I will have to mend them."
He sat very still for five minutes, when I discovered that I had put the patch in crosswise instead of lengthwise and that it would not fit. As I jerked it out he sneezed.
"Or sneeze," I added venomously. "You will tear your buttons off, and I will have to sew them on."
Jim rose wrathfully. "Don't sit, don't sneeze," he repeated. "Don't stand, I suppose, for fear I will wear out my socks. Here, give me that. If the fool thing has to be mended, I'll do it myself."
He went over to a corner of the parapet and turned his back to me. He was very much offended. In about a minute he came back, triumphant, and held out the result of his labor. I could only gasp. He had puckered up the edges of the hole like the neck of a bag, and had tied the thread around it. "You—you won't be able to sit down," I ventured.
"Don't have any time to sit," he retorted promptly. "Anyhow, it will give some, won't it? It would if it was tied with elastic instead of thread. Have you any elastic?"
Lollie came up just then, and Jim took himself and his mending downstairs. Luckily, Aunt Selina found several letters in his room that afternoon while she was going over his clothes, and as it took Jim some time to explain them, she forgot the task she had given me altogether.
When Lollie came up to the roof, she closed the door to the stairs, and coming over, drew a chair close to mine.
"Have you seen much of Tom today?" she asked, as an introduction.
"I suppose you mean Mr. Harbison, Lollie," I said. "No—not any more than I could help. Don't whisper, he couldn't possibly hear you. And if it's scandal I don't want to know it."
"Look here, Kit," she retorted, "you needn't be so superior. If I like to talk scandal, I'm not so sure you aren't making it."
That was the way right along: I was making scandal; I brought them there to dinner; I let Bella in!
And, of course, Anne came up then, and began on me at once.
"You are a very bad girl," she began. "What do you mean by treating Tom Harbison the way you do? He is heart-broken."
"I think you exaggerate my influence over him," I retorted. "I haven't treated him badly, because I haven't paid any attention to him."
Anne threw up her hands.
"There you are!" she said. "He worked all day yesterday fixing this place for you—yes, for you, my dear. I am not blind—and last night you refused to let him bring you up."
"He told you!" I flamed.
"He wondered what he had done. And as you wouldn't let him come within speaking distance of you, he came to me."
"I am sorry, Anne, since you are fond of him," I said. "But to me he is impossible—intolerable. My reasons are quite sufficient."
"Kit is perfectly right, Anne," Leila broke in. "I tell you, there is something queer about him," she added in a portentous whisper.
"He is perfect," she declared. "Of good family, warm-hearted, courageous, handsome, clever—what more do you ask?"
"Honesty," said Leila hotly. "That a man should be what he says he is."
Anne and I both stared.
"It is your Mr. Harbison," Leila went on, "who tried to escape from the house by putting a board across to the next roof!"
"I don't believe it," said Anne. "You might bring me a picture of him, board in hand, and I wouldn't believe it."
"Don't then," Lollie said cruelly. "Let him get away with your pearls; they are yours. Only, as sure as anything, the man who tried to escape from the house had a reason for escaping, and the papers said a man in evening dress and light overcoat. I found Mr. Harbison's overcoat today lying in a heap in one of the maids' rooms, and it was covered with brick dust all over the front. A button had even been torn off."
"Pooh!" Anne said, when she had recovered herself a little. "There isn't any reason, as far as that goes, why Flannigan shouldn't have worn Tom's overcoat, or—any of the others."
"Flannigan!" Leila said loftily. "Why, his arms are like piano legs; he couldn't get into it. As for the others, there is only one person who would fit, or nearly fit, that overcoat, and that is Dallas, Anne."
While Anne was choking down her wrath, Leila got up and darted out of the tent. When she came back she was triumphant.
"Look," she said, holding out her hand. And on her palm lay a lightish brown button. "I found it just where the paper said the board was thrown out, and it is from Mr. Harbison's overcoat, without a doubt."
Of course I should not have been surprised. A man who would kiss a woman on a dark staircase—a woman he had known only two days—was capable of anything.
"Kit has only been a little keener than the rest of us," Lollie said. "She found him out yesterday."
"Upon my word," said Anne indignantly, preparing to go, "if I didn't know you girls so well, I would think you were crazy. And now, just to offset this, I can tell you something. Flannigan told me this morning not to worry; that he has my pearl collar spotted, and that YOUNG LADIES WILL HAVE THEIR JOKES!"
Yes, as I said before, it was a cheerful, joy-producing situation.
I sat and thought it over after Anne's parting shot, when Leila had flounced downstairs. Things were closing in; I gave the situation twenty-four hours to develop. At the end of that time Flannigan would accuse me openly of knowing where the pearls were; I would explain my silly remark to him and the mine would explode—under Aunt Selina.
I was sunk in dejected reverie when some one came on the roof. When he was opposite the opening in the tent, I saw Mr. Harbison, and at that moment he saw me. He paused uncertainly, then he made an evident effort and came over to me.
"You are—better today?"
"Quite well, thank you."
"I am glad you find the tent useful. Does it keep off the wind?"
"It is quite a shelter"—frigidly.
He still stood, struggling for something to say. Evidently nothing came to his mind, for he lifted the cap he was wearing, and turning away, began to work with the wiring of the roof. He was clever with tools; one could see that. If he was a professional gentleman-burglar, no doubt he needed to be. After a bit, finding it necessary to climb to the parapet, he took off his coat, without even a glance in my direction, and fell to work vigorously.
One does not need to like a man to admire him physically, any more than one needs to like a race horse or any other splendid animal. No one could deny that the man on the parapet was a splendid animal; he looked quite big enough and strong enough to have tossed his slender bridge across the gulf to the next roof, without any difficulty, and coordinate enough to have crossed on it with a flourish to safety.
Just then there was a rending, tearing sound from the corner and a muttered ejaculation. I looked up in time to see Mr. Harbison throw up his arms, make a futile attempt to regain his balance, and disappear over the edge of the roof. One instant he was standing there, splendid, superb; the next, the corner of the parapet was empty, all that stood there was a broken, splintered post and a tangle of wires.
I could not have moved at first; at least, it seemed hours before the full significance of the thing penetrated my dazed brain. When I got up I seemed to walk, to crawl, with leaden weights holding back my feet.
When I got to the corner I had to catch the post for support. I knew somebody was saying, "Oh, how terrible!" over and over. It was only afterward that I knew it had been myself. And then some other voice was saying, "Don't be alarmed. Please don't be frightened. I'm all right."
I dared to look over the parapet, finally, and instead of a crushed and unspeakable body, there was Mr. Harbison, sitting about eight feet below me, with his feet swinging into space and a long red scratch from the corner of his eye across his cheek. There was a sort of mansard there, with windows, and just enough coping to keep him from rolling off.
"I thought you had fallen—all the way," I gasped, trying to keep my lips from trembling. "I—oh, don't dangle your feet like that!"
He did not seem at all glad of his escape. He sat there gloomily, peering into the gulf beneath.
"If it wasn't so—er—messy and generally unpleasant," he replied without looking up, "I would slide off and go the rest of the way."
"You are childish," I said severely. "See if you can get through the window behind you. If you can not, I'll come down and unfasten it." But the window was open, and I had a chance to sit down and gather up the scattered ends of my nerves. To my surprise, however, when he came back he made no effort to renew our conversation. He ignored me completely, and went to work at once to repair the damage to his wires, with his back to me.
"I think you are very rude," I said at last. "You fell over there and I thought you were killed. The nervous shock I experienced is just as bad as if you had gone—all the way."
He put down the hammer and came over to me without speaking. Then, when he was quite close, he said:
"I am very sorry if I startled you. I did not flatter myself that you would be profoundly affected, in any event."
"Oh, as to that," I said lightly, "it makes me ill for days if my car runs over a dog." He looked at me in silence. "You are not going to get up on that parapet again?"
"Mrs. Wilson," he said, without paying the slightest attention to my question, "will you tell me what I have done?"
"Or have not done? I have racked my brains—stayed awake all of last night. At first I hoped it was impersonal, that, womanlike you were merely venting general disfavor on one particular individual. But—your hostility is to me, personally."
I raised my eyebrows, coldly interrogative.
"Perhaps," he went on calmly—"perhaps I was a fool here on the roof—the night before last. If I said anything that I should not, I ask your pardon. If it is not that, I think you ought to ask mine!"
I was angry enough then.
"There can be only one opinion about your conduct," I retorted warmly. "It was worse than brutal. It—it was unspeakable. I have no words for it—except that I loathe it—and you."
He was very grim by this time. "I have heard you say something like that before—only I was not the unfortunate in that case."
"Oh!" I was choking.
"Under different circumstances I should be the last person to recall anything so—personal. But the circumstances are unusual." He took an angry step toward me. "Will you tell me what I have done? Or shall I go down and ask the others?"
"You wouldn't dare," I cried, "or I will tell them what you did! How you waylaid me on those stairs there, and forced your caresses, your kisses, on me! Oh, I could die with shame!"
The silence that followed was as unexpected as it was ominous. I knew he was staring at me, and I was furious to find myself so emotional, so much more the excited of the two. Finally, I looked up.
"You can not deny it," I said, a sort of anti-climax.
"No." He was very quiet, very grim, quite composed. "No," he repeated judicially. "I do not deny it."
He did not? Or he would not? Which?
Chapter XIV. ALMOST, BUT NOT QUITE
Dal had been acting strangely all day. Once, early in the evening, when I had doubled no trump, he led me a club without apology, and later on, during his dummy, I saw him writing our names on the back of an envelope, and putting numbers after them. At my earliest opportunity I went to Max.
"There is something the matter with Dal, Max," I volunteered. "He has been acting strangely all day, and just now he was making out a list—names and numbers."
"You're to blame for that, Kit," Max said seriously. "You put washing soda instead of baking soda in those biscuits today, and he thinks he is a steam laundry. Those are laundry lists he's making out. He asked me a little while ago if I wanted a domestic finish."
Yes, I had put washing soda in the biscuits. The book said soda, and how is one to know which is meant?
"I do not think you are calculated for a domestic finish," I said coldly as I turned away. "In any case I disclaim any such responsibility. But—there is SOMETHING on Dal's mind."
Max came after me. "Don't be cross, Kit. You haven't said a nice word to me today, and you go around bristling with your chin up and two red spots on your cheeks—like whatever-her-name-was with the snakes instead of hair. I don't know why I'm so crazy about you; I always meant to love a girl with a nice disposition."
I left him then. Dal had gone into the reception room and closed the doors. And because he had been acting so strangely, and partly to escape from Max, whose eyes looked threatening, I followed him. Just as I opened the door quietly and looked in, Dallas switched off the lights, and I could hear him groping his way across the room. Then somebody—not Dal—spoke from the corner, cautiously.
"Is that you, Mr. Brown, sir?" It was Flannigan.
"Yes. Is everything here?"
"All but the powder, sir. Don't step too close. They're spread all over the place."
"Have you taken the curtains down?"
"Light one, will you, Flannigan? I want to see the time."
The flare showed Dallas and Flannigan bent over the timepiece. And it showed something else. The rug had been turned back from the windows which opened on the street, and the curtains had been removed. On the bare hardwood floor just beneath the windows was an array of pans of various sizes, dish pans, cake tins, and a metal foot tub. The pans were raised from the floor on bricks, and seemed to be full of paper. All the chairs and tables were pushed back against the wall, and the bric-a-brac was stacked on the mantel.
"Half an hour yet," Dal said, closing his watch. "Plenty of time, and remember the signal, four short and two long."
"Four short and two long—all right, sir."
"And—Flannigan, here's something for you, on account."
"Thank you, sir."
Dal turned to go out, tripped over the rug, said something, and passed me without an idea of my presence. A moment later Flannigan went out, and I was left, huddled against the wall, and alone.
It was puzzling enough. "Four long and two short!" "All but the powder!" Not that I believed for a moment what Max had said, and anyhow Flannigan was the sanest person I ever saw in my life. But it all seemed a part of the mystery that had been hanging over us for several days. I felt my way across the room and knelt by the pans. Yes, they were there, full of paper and mounted on bricks. It had not been a delusion.
And then I straightened on my knees suddenly, for an automobile passing under the windows had sounded four short honks and two long ones. The signal was followed instantly by a crash. The foot bath had fallen from its supports, and lay, quivering and vibrating with horrid noises at my feet. The next moment Mr. Harbison had thrown open the door and leaped into the room.
"Who's there?" he demanded. Against the light I could see him reaching for his hip pocket, and the rest crowding up around him.
"It's only me," I quavered, "that is, I. The—the dish pan upset."
"Dish pan!" Bella said from back in the crowd. "Kit, of course!"
Jim forced his way through then and turned on the lights. I have no doubt I looked very strange, kneeling there on the bare floor, with a row of pans mounted on bricks behind me, and the furniture all piled on itself in a back corner.
"Kit! What in the world—!" Jim began, and stopped. He stared from me to the pans, to the windows, to the bric-a-brac on the mantel, and back to me.
I sat stonily silent. Why should I explain? Whenever I got into a foolish position, and tried to explain, and tell how it happened, and who was really to blame, they always brought it back to ME somehow. So I sat there on the floor and let them stare. And finally Lollie Mercer got her breath and said, "How perfectly lovely; it's a charade!"
And Anne guessed "kitchen" at once. "Kit, you know, and the pans and—all that," she said vaguely. At that they all took to guessing! And I sat still, until Mr. Harbison saw the storm in my eyes and came over to me.
"Have you hurt your ankle?" he said in an undertone. "Let me help you up."
"I am not hurt," I said coldly, "and even if I were, it would be unnecessary to trouble you."
"I can not help being troubled," he returned, just as evenly. "'You see, it makes me ill for days if my car runs over a dog.'"
Luckily, at that moment Dal came in. He pushed his way through the crowd without a word, shut off the lights, crashed through the pans and slammed the shutters closed. Then he turned and addressed the rest.
"Of all the lunatics—!" he began, only there was more to it than that. "A fellow goes to all kinds of trouble to put an end to this miserable situation, and the entire household turns out and sets to work to frustrate the whole scheme. You LIKE to stay here, don't you, like chickens in a coop? Where's Flannigan?"
Nobody understood Dal's wrath then, but it seems he meant to arrange the plot himself, and when it was ripe, and the hour nearly come, he intended to wager that he could break the quarantine, and to take any odds he could get that he would free the entire party in half an hour. As for the plan itself, it was idiotically simple; we were perfectly delighted when we heard it. It was so simple and yet so comprehensive. We didn't see how it COULD fail. Both the Mercer girls kissed Dal on the strength of it, and Anne was furious. Jim was not so much pleased, for some reason or other, and Mr. Harbison looked thoughtful rather than merry. Aunt Selina had gone to bed.
The idea, of course, was to start an embryo fire just inside the windows, in the pans, to feed it with the orange-fire powder that is used on the Fourth of July, and when we had thrown open the windows and yelled "fire" and all the guards and reporters had rushed to the front of the house, to escape quietly by a rear door from the basement kitchen, get into machines Dal had in waiting, and lose ourselves as quickly as we could.
You can see how simple it was.
We were terribly excited, of course. Every one rushed madly for motor coats and veils, and Dal shuffled the numbers so the people going the same direction would have the same machine. We called to each other as we dressed about Mamaroneck or Lakewood or wherever we happened to have relatives. Everybody knew everybody else, and his friends. The Mercer girls were going to cruise until the trouble blew over, the Browns were going to Pinehurst, and Jim was going to Africa to hunt, if he could get out of the harbor.
Only the Harbison man seemed to have no plans; quite suddenly with the world so near again, the world of country houses and steam yachts and all the rest of it, he ceased to be one of us. It was not his world at all. He stood back and watched the kaleidoscope of our coats and veils, half-quizzically, but with something in his face that I had not seen there before. If he had not been so self-reliant and big, I would have said he was lonely. Not that he was pathetic in any sense of the word. Of course, he avoided me, which was natural and exactly what I wished. Bella never was far from him and at the last she loaded him with her jewel case and a muff and traveling bag and asked him to her cousins' on Long Island. I felt sure he was going to decline, when he glanced across at me.