"Do go," I said, very politely. "They are charming people." And he accepted at once!
It was a transparent plot on Bella's part: Two elderly maiden ladies, house miles from anywhere, long evenings in the music room with an open fire and Bella at the harp playing the two songs she knows.
When we were ready and gathered in the kitchen, in the darkness, of course, Dal went up on the roof and signaled with a lantern to the cars on the drive. Then he went downstairs, took a last look at the drawing room, fired the papers, shook on the powder, opened the windows and yelled "fire!"
Of course, huddled in the kitchen we had heard little or nothing. But we plainly heard Dal on the first floor and Flannigan on the second yelling "fire," and the patter of feet as the guards ran to the front of the house. And at that instant we remembered Aunt Selina!
That was the cause of the whole trouble. I don't know why they turned on me; she wasn't my aunt. But by the time we had got her out of bed, and had wrapped her in an eiderdown comfort, and stuck slippers on her feet and a motor veil on her head, the glare at the front of the house was beginning to die away. She didn't understand at all and we had no time to explain. I remember that she wanted to go back and get her "plate," whatever that may be, but Jim took her by the arm and hurried her along, and the rest, who had waited, and were in awful tempers, stood aside and let them out first.
The door to the area steps was open, and by the street lights we could see a fence and a gate, which opened on a side street. Jim and Aunt Selina ran straight for the gate; the wind blowing Aunt Selina's comfort like a sail. Then, with our feet, so to speak, on the first rungs of the ladder of Liberty, it slipped. A half-dozen guards and reporters came around the house and drove us back like sheep into a slaughter pen. It was the most humiliating moment of my life.
Dal had been for fighting a way through, and just for a minute I think I went Berserk myself. But Max spied one of the reporters setting up a flash light as we stood, undecided, at the top of the steps, and after that there was nothing to do but retreat. We backed down slowly, to show them we were not afraid. And when we were all in the kitchen again, and had turned on the lights and Bella was crying with her head against Mr. Harbison's arm, Dal said cheerfully,
"Well, it has done some good, anyhow. We have lost Aunt Selina."
And we all shook hands on it, although we were sorry about Jim. And Dal said we would have some champagne and drink to Aunt Selina's comfort, and we could have her teeth fumigated and send them to her. Somebody said "Poor old Jim," and at that Bella looked up.
She stared around the group, and then she went quite pale.
"Jim!" she gasped. "Do you mean—that Jim is—out there too?"
"Jim and Aunt Selina!" I said as calmly as I could for joy. You can see how it simplified the situation for me. "By this time they are a mile away, and going!"
Everybody shook hands again except Bella. She had dropped into a chair, and sat biting her lip and breathing hard, and she would not join in any of the hilarity at getting rid of Aunt Selina. Finally she got up and knocked over her chair.
"You are a lot of cowards," she stormed. "You deserted them out there, left them. Heaven knows where they are—a defenseless old woman, and—and a man who did not even have an overcoat. And it is snowing!"
"Never mind," Dal said reassuringly. "He can borrow Aunt Selina's comfort. Make the old lady discard from weakness. Anyhow, Bella, if I know anything of human nature, the old lady will make it hot enough for him. Poor old Jim!"
Then they shook hands again, and with that there came a terrible banging at the door, which we had locked.
"Open the door!" some one commanded. It was one of the guards.
"Open it yourself!" Dallas called, moving a kitchen table to reenforce the lock.
"Open that door or we will break it in!"
Dallas put his hands in his pockets, seated himself on the table, and whistled cheerfully. We could hear them conferring outside, and they made another appeal which was refused. Suddenly Bella came over and confronted Dallas.
"They have brought them back!" she said dramatically. "They are out there now; I distinctly heard Jim's voice. Open that door, Dallas!"
"Oh, DON'T let them in!" I wailed. It was quite involuntary, but the disappointment was too awful. "Dallas, DON'T open that door!"
Dal swung his feet and smiled from Bella to me.
"Think what a solution it is to all our difficulties," he said easily. "Without Aunt Selina I could be happy here indefinitely."
There was more knocking, and somebody—Max, I think—said to let them in, that it was a fool thing anyhow, and that he wanted to go to bed and forget it; his feet were cold. And just then there was a crash, and part of one of the windows fell in. The next blow from outside brought the rest of the glass, and—somebody was coming through, feet first. It was Jim.
He did not speak to any of us, but turned and helped in a bundle of red and yellow silk comfort that proved to be Aunt Selina, also feet first. I had a glimpse of a half-dozen heads outside, guards and reporters. Then Jim jerked the shade down and unswathed Aunt Selina's legs so that she could walk, offered his arm, and stalked past us and upstairs, without a word!
None of us spoke. We turned out the lights and went upstairs and took off our wraps and went to bed. It had been almost a fiasco.
Chapter XV. SUSPICION AND DISCORD
Every one was nasty the next morning. Aunt Selina declared that her feet were frost-bitten and kept Bella rubbing them with ice water all morning. And Jim was impossible. He refused to speak to any of us and he watched Bella furtively, as if he suspected her of trying to get him out of the house.
When luncheon time came around and he had shown no indication of going to the telephone and ordering it, we had a conclave, and Max was chosen to remind him of the hour. Jim was shut in the studio, and we waited together in the hall while Max went up. When he came down he was somewhat ruffled.
"He wouldn't open the door," he reported, "and when I told him it was meal time, he said he wasn't hungry, and he didn't give a whoop about the rest of us. He had asked us here to dinner; he hadn't proposed to adopt us."
So we finally ordered luncheon ourselves, and about two o'clock Jim came downstairs sheepishly, and ate what was left. Anne declared that Bella had been scolding him in the upper hall, but I doubted it. She was never seen to speak to him unnecessarily.
The excitement of the escape over, Mr. Harbison and I remained on terms of armed neutrality. And Max still hunted for Anne's pearls, using them, the men declared, as a good excuse to avoid tinkering with the furnace or repairing the dumb waiter, which took the queerest notions, and stopped once, half-way up from the kitchen, for an hour, with the dinner on it. Anyhow, Max was searching the house systematically, armed with a copy of Poe's Purloined Letter and Gaboriau's Monsieur LeCoq. He went through the seats of the chairs with hatpins, tore up the beds, and lifted rugs, until the house was in a state of confusion. And the next day, the fourth, he found something—not much, but it was curious. He had been in the studio, poking around behind the dusty pictures, with Jimmy expostulating every time he moved anything and the rest standing around watching him.
Max was strutting.
"We get it by elimination," he said importantly. "The pearls being nowhere else in the house, they must be here in the studio. Three parts of the studio having yielded nothing, they must be in the fourth. Ladies and gentlemen, let me have your attention for one moment. I tap this canvas with my wand—there is nothing up my sleeve. Then I prepare to move the canvas—so. And I put my hand in the pocket of this disreputable velvet coat, so. Behold!"
Then he gave a low exclamation and looked at something he held in his hand. Every one stepped forward, and on his palm was the small diamond clasp from Anne's collar!
Jimmy was apoplectic. He tried to smile, but no one else did.
"Well, I'll be flabbergasted!" he said. "I say, you people, you don't think for a minute that I put that thing there? Why, I haven't worn that coat for a month. It's—it's a trick of yours, Max."
But Max shook his head; he looked stupefied, and stood gazing from the clasp to the pocket of the old painting coat. Betty dropped on a folding stool, that promptly collapsed with her and created a welcome diversion, while Anne pounced on the clasp greedily, with a little cry.
"We will find it all now," she said excitedly. "Did you look in the other pockets, Max?"
Then, for the first time, I was conscious of an air of constraint among the men. Dallas was whistling softly, and Mr. Harbison, having rescued Betty, was standing silent and aloof, watching the scene with non-committal eyes. It was Max who spoke first, after a hurried inventory of the other pockets.
"Nothing else," he said constrainedly. "I'll move the rest of the canvases."
But Jim interfered, to every one's surprise.
"I wouldn't, if I were you, Max. There's nothing back there. I had 'em out yesterday." He was quite pale.
"Nonsense!" Max said gruffly. "If it's a practical joke, Jim, why don't you fess up? Anne has worried enough."
"The pearls are not there, I tell you," Jim began. Although the studio was cold, there were little fine beads of moisture on his face. "I must ask you not to move those pictures." And then Aunt Selina came to the rescue; she stalked over and stood with her back against the stack of canvases.
"As far as I can understand this," she declaimed, "you gentlemen are trying to intimate that James knows something of that young woman's jewelry, because you found part of it in his pocket. Certainly you will not move the pictures. How do you know that the young gentleman who said he found it there didn't have it up his sleeve?"
She looked around triumphantly, and Max glowered. Dallas soothed her, however.
"Exactly so," he said. "How do we know that Max didn't have the clasp up his sleeve? My dear lady, neither my wife nor I care anything for the pearls, as compared with the priceless pearl of peace. I suggest tea on the roof; those in favor—? My arm, Miss Caruthers."
It was all well enough for Jim to say later that he didn't dare to have the canvases moved, for he had stuck behind them all sorts of chorus girl photographs and life-class crayons that were not for Aunt Selina's eye, besides four empty siphons, two full ones, and three bottles of whisky. Not a soul believed him; there was a a new element of suspicion and discord in the house.
Every one went up on the roof and left him to his mystery. Anne drank her tea in a preoccupied silence, with half-closed eyes, an attitude that boded ill to somebody. The rest were feverishly gay, and Aunt Selina, with a pair of arctics on her feet and a hot-water bottle at her back, sat in the middle of the tent and told me familiar anecdotes of Jimmy's early youth (had he known, he would have slain her). Betty and Mr. Harbison had found a medicine ball, and were running around like a pair of children. It was quite certain that neither his escape from death nor my accusation weighed heavily on him.
While Aunt Selina was busy with the time Jim had swallowed an open safety pin, and just as the pin had been coughed up, or taken out of his nose—I forget which—Jim himself appeared and sulkily demanded the privacy of the roof for his training hour.
Yes, he was training. Flannigan claimed to know the system that had reduced the president to what he is, and he and Jim had a seance every day which left Jim feeling himself for bruises all evening. He claimed to be losing flesh; he said he could actually feel it going, and he and Flannigan had spent an entire afternoon in the cellar three days before with a potato barrel, a cane-seated chair and a lamp.
The whole thing had been shrouded in mystery. They sandpapered the inside of the barrel and took out all the nails, and when they had finished they carried it to the roof and put it in a corner behind the tent. Everybody was curious, but Flannigan refused any information about it, and merely said it was part of his system. Dal said that if HE had anything like that in his system he certainly would be glad to get rid of it.
At a quarter to six Jim appeared, still sullen from the events of the afternoon and wearing a dressing gown and a pair of slippers, Flannigan following him with a sponge, a bucket of water and an armful of bath towels. Everybody protested at having to move, but he was firm, and they all filed down the stairs. I was the last, with Aunt Selina just ahead of me. At the top of the stairs, she turned around suddenly to me.
"That policeman looks cruel," she said. "What's more, he's been in a bad humor all day. More than likely he'll put James flat on the roof and tramp on him, under pretense of training him. All policemen are inhuman."
"He only rolls him over a barrel or something like that," I protested.
"James had a bump like an egg over his ear last night," Aunt Selina insisted, glaring at Flannigan's unconscious back. "I don't think it's safe to leave him. It is my time to relax for thirty minutes, or I would watch him. You will have to stay," she said, fixing me with her imperious eyes.
So I stayed. Jim didn't want me, and Flannigan muttered mutiny. But it was easier to obey Aunt Selina than to clash with her, and anyhow I wanted to see the barrel in use.
I never saw any one train before. It is not a joyful spectacle. First, Flannigan made Jim run, around and around the roof. He said it stirred up his food and brought it in contact with his liver, to be digested.
Flannigan, from meekness and submission, of a sort, in the kitchen, became an autocrat on the roof.
"Once more," he would say. "Pick up your feet, sir! Pick up your feet!"
And Jim would stagger doggedly past me, where I sat on the parapet, his poor cheeks shaking and the tail of his bath robe wrapping itself around his legs. Yes, he ran in the bath robe in deference to me. It seems there isn't much to a running suit.
"Head up," Flannigan would say. "Lift your knees, sir. Didn't you ever see a horse with string halt?"
He let him stop finally, and gave him a moment to get his breath. Then he set him to turning somersaults. They spread the cushions from the couch in the tent on the roof, and Jim would poke his head down and say a prayer, and then curve over as gracefully as a sausage and come up gasping, as if he had been pushed off a boat.
"Five pounds a day; not less, sir," Flannigan said encouragingly. "You'll drop it in chunks."
Jim looked at the tin as if he expected to see the chunks lying at his feet.
"Yes," he said, wiping the back of his neck. "If we're in here thirty days that will be one hundred and fifty pounds. Don't forget to stop in time, Flannigan. I don't want to melt away like a candle."
He was cheered, however, by the promise of reduction.
"What do you think of that, Kit?" he called to me. "Your uncle is going to look as angular as a problem in geometry. I'll—I'll be the original reductio ad absurdum. Do you want me to stand on my head, Flannigan? Wouldn't that reduce something?"
"Your brains, sir," Flannigan retorted gravely, and presented a pair of boxing gloves. Jim visibly quailed, but he put them on.
"Do you know, Flannigan," he remarked, as he fastened them, "I'm thinking of wearing these all the time. They hide my character."
Flannigan looked puzzled, but he did not ask an explanation. He demanded that Jim shed the bath robe, which he finally did, on my promise to watch the sunset. Then for fully a minute there was no sound save of feet running rapidly around the roof, and an occasional soft thud. Each thud was accompanied by a grunt or two from Jim. Flannigan was grimly silent. Once there was a smart rap, an oath from the policeman, and a mirthless chuckle from Jim. The chuckle ended in a crash, however, and I turned. Jim was lying on his back on the roof, and Flannigan was wiping his ear with a towel. Jim sat up and ran his hand down his ribs.
"They're all here," he observed after a minute. "I thought I missed one."
"The only way to take a man's weight down," Flannigan said dryly.
Jim got up dizzily.
"Down on the roof, I suppose you mean," he said.
The next proceedings were mysterious. Flannigan rolled the barrel into the tent, and carried in a small glass lamp. With the material at hand he seemed to be effecting a combination, no new one, to judge by his facility. Then he called Jim.
At the door of the tent Jim turned to me, his bathrobe toga fashion around his shoulders.
"This is a very essential part of the treatment," he said solemnly. "The exercise, according to Flannigan, loosens up the adipose tissue. The next step is to boil it out. I hope, unless your instructions compel you, that you will at least have the decency to stay out of the tent."
"I am going at once," I said, outraged. "I'm not here because I'm mad about it, and you know it. And don't pose with that bath robe. If you think you're a character out of Roman history, look at your legs."
"I didn't mean to offend you," he said sulkily. "Only I'm tired of having you choked down my throat every time I open my mouth, Kit. And don't go just yet. Flannigan is going for my clothes as soon as he lights the—the lamp, and—somebody ought to watch the stairs."
That was all there was to it. I said I would guard the steps, and Flannigan, having ignited the combination, whatever it was, went downstairs. How was I to know that Bella would come up when she did? Was it my fault that the lamp got too high, and that Flannigan couldn't hear Jim calling? Or that just as Bella reached the top of the steps Jim should come to the door of the tent, wearing the barrel part of his hot-air cabinet, and yelling for a doctor?
Bella came to a dead stop on the upper step, with her mouth open. She looked at Jim, at the inadequate barrel, and from them she looked at me. Then she began to laugh, one of her hysterical giggles, and she turned and went down again. As Jim and I stared at each other we could hear her gurgling down the hall below.
She had violent hysterics for an hour, with Anne rubbing her forehead and Aunt Selina burning a feather out of the feather duster under her nose. Only Jim and I understood, and we did not tell. Luckily, the next thing that occurred drove Bella and her nerves from everybody's mind.
At seven o'clock, when Bella had dropped asleep and everybody else was dressed for dinner, Aunt Selina discovered that the house was cold, and ordered Dal to the furnace.
It was Dal's day at the furnace; Flannigan had been relieved of that part of the work after twice setting fire to a chimney.
In five minutes Dal came back and spoke a few words to Max, who followed him to the basement, and in ten minutes more Flannigan puffed up the steps and called Mr. Harbison.
I am not curious, but I knew that something had happened. While Aunt Selina was talking suffrage to Anne—who said she had always been tremendously interested in the subject, and if women got the suffrage would they be allowed to vote?—I slipped back to the dining room.
The table was laid for dinner, but Flannigan was not in sight. I could hear voices from somewhere, faint voices that talked rapidly, and after a while I located the sounds under my feet. The men were all in the basement, and something must have happened. I flew back to the basement stairs, to meet Mr. Harbison at the foot. He was grimy and dusty, with streaks of coal dust over his face, and he had been examining his revolver. I was just in time to see him slip it into his pocket.
"What is the matter?" I demanded. "Is any one hurt?"
"No one," he said coolly. "We've been cleaning out the furnace."
"With a revolver! How interesting—and unusual!" I said dryly, and slipped past him as he barred the way. He was not pleased; I heard him mutter something and come rapidly after me, but I had the voices as a guide, and I was not going to be turned back like a child. The men had gathered around a low stone arch in the furnace room, and were looking down a short flight of steps, into a sort of vault, evidently under the pavement. A faint light came from a small grating above, and there was a close, musty smell in the air.
"I tell you it must have been last night," Dallas was saying. "Wilson and I were here before we went to bed, and I'll swear that hole was not there then."
"It was not there this morning, sir," Flannigan insisted. "It has been made during the day."
"And it could not have been done this afternoon," Mr. Harbison said quietly. "I was fussing with the telephone wire down here. I would have heard the noise."
Something in his voice made me look at him, and certainly his expression was unusual. He was watching us all intently while Dallas pointed out to me the cause of the excitement. From the main floor of the furnace room, a flight of stone steps surmounted by an arch led into the coal cellar, beneath the street. The coal cellar was of brick, with a cement floor, and in the left wall there gaped an opening about three feet by three, leading into a cavernous void, perfectly black—evidently a similar vault belonging to the next house.
The whole place was ghostly, full of shadows, shivery with possibilities. It was Mr. Harbison finally who took Jim's candle and crawled through the aperture. We waited in dead silence, listening to his feet crunching over the coal beyond, watching the faint yellow light that came through the ragged opening in the wall. Then he came back and called through to us.
"Place is locked, over here," he said. "Heavy oak door at the head of the steps. Whoever made that opening has done a prodigious amount of labor for nothing."
The weapon, a crowbar, lay on the ground beside the bricks, and he picked it up and balanced it on his hand. Dallas' florid face was almost comical in his bewilderment; as for Jimmy—he slammed a piece of slag at the furnace and walked away. At the door he turned around.
"Why don't you accuse me of it?" he asked bitterly. "Maybe you could find a lump of coal in my pockets if you searched me."
He stalked up the stairs then and left us. Dallas and I went up together, but we did not talk. There seemed to be nothing to say. Not until I had closed and locked the door of my room did I venture to look at something that I carried in the palm of my hand. It was a watch, not running—a gentleman's flat gold watch, and it had been hanging by its fob to a nail in the bricks beside the aperture.
In the back of the watch were the initials, T.H.H. and the picture of a girl, cut from a newspaper.
It was my picture.
Chapter XVI. I FACE FLANNIGAN
Dinner waited that night while everybody went to the coal cellar and stared at the hole in the wall, and watched while Max took a tracing of it and of some footprints in the coal dust on the other side.
I did not go. I went into the library with the guilty watch in the fold of my gown, and found Mr. Harbison there, staring through the February gloom at the blank wall of the next house, and quite unconscious of the reporter with a drawing pad just below him in the area-way. I went over and closed the shutters before his very eyes, but even then he did not move.
"Will you be good enough to turn around?" I demanded at last.
"Oh!" he said wheeling. "Are YOU here?"
There wasn't any reply to that, so I took the watch and placed it on the library table between us. The effect was all that I had hoped. He stared at it for an instant, then at me, and with his hand outstretched for it, stopped.
"Where did you find it?" he asked. I couldn't understand his expression. He looked embarrassed, but not at all afraid.
"I think you know, Mr. Harbison," I retorted.
"I wish I did. You opened it?"
We stood looking at each other across the table. It was his glance that wavered.
"About the picture—of you," he said at last. "You see, down there in South America, a fellow hasn't much to do in the evenings, and a—a chum of mine and I—we were awfully down on what we called the plutocrats, the—the leisure classes. And when that picture of yours came in the paper, we had—we had an argument. He said—" He stopped.
"What did he say?"
"Well, he said it was the picture of an empty-faced society girl."
"Oh!" I exclaimed.
"I—I maintained there were possibilities in the face." He put both hands on the table, and, bending forward, looked down at me. "Well, I was a fool, I admit. I said your eyes were kind and candid, in spite of that haughty mouth. You see, I said I was a fool."
"I think you are exceedingly rude," I managed finally. "If you want to know where I found your watch, it was down in the coal cellar. And if you admit you are an idiot, I am not. I—I know all about Bella's bracelet—and the board on the roof, and—oh, if you would only leave—Anne's necklace—on the coal, or somewhere—and get away—"
My voice got beyond me then, and I dropped into a chair and covered my face. I could feel him staring at the back of my head.
"Well, I'll be—" something or other, he said finally, and then he turned on his heel and went out. By the time I got my eyes dry (yes, I was crying; I always do when I am angry) I heard Jim coming downstairs, and I tucked the watch out of sight. Would anyone have foreseen the trouble that watch would make!
Jim was sulky. He dropped into a chair and stretched out his legs, looking gloomily at nothing. Then he got up and ambled into his den, closing the door behind him without having spoken a word. It was more than human nature could stand.
When I went into the den he was stretched on the davenport with his face buried in the cushions. He looked absolutely wilted, and every line of him was drooping.
"Go on out, Kit," he said, in a smothered voice. "Be a good girl and don't follow me around."
"You are shameless!" I gasped. "Follow you! When you are hung around my neck like a—like a—" Millstone was what I wanted to say, but I couldn't think of it.
He turned over and looked up from his cushions like an ill-treated and suffering cherub.
"I'm done for, Kit," he groaned. "Bella went up to the studio after we left, and investigated that corner."
"What did she find? The necklace?" I asked eagerly. He was too wretched to notice this.
"No, that picture of you that I did last winter. She is crazy—she says she is going upstairs and sit in Takahiro's room and take smallpox and die."
"Fiddlesticks!" I said rudely, and somebody hammered on the door and opened it.
"Pardon me for disturbing you," Bella said, in her best dear-me-I'm-glad-I-knocked manner. "But—Flannigan says the dinner has not come."
"Good Lord!" Jim exclaimed. "I forgot to order the confounded dinner!"
It was eight o'clock by that time, and as it took an hour at least after telephoning the order, everybody looked blank when they heard. The entire family, except Mr. Harbison, who had not appeared again, escorted Jim to the telephone and hung around hungrily, suggesting new dishes every minute. And then—he couldn't raise Central. It was fifteen minutes before we gave up, and stood staring at one another despairingly.
"Call out of a window, and get one of those infernal reporters to do something useful for once," Max suggested. But he was indignantly hushed. We would have starved first. Jim was peering into the transmitter and knocking the receiver against his hand, like a watch that had stopped. But nothing happened. Flannigan reported a box of breakfast food, two lemons, and a pineapple cheese, a combination that didn't seem to lend itself to anything.
We went back to the dining room from sheer force of habit and sat around the table and looked at the lemonade Flannigan had made. Anne WOULD talk about the salad her last cook had concocted, and Max told about a little town in Connecticut where the restaurant keeper smokes a corn-cob pipe while he cooks the most luscious fried clams in America. And Aunt Selina related that in her family they had a recipe for chicken smothered in cream. And then we sipped the weak lemonade and nibbled at the cheese.
"To change this gridiron martyrdom," Dallas said finally, "where's Harbison? Still looking for his watch?"
"Watch!" Everybody said it in a different tone.
"Sure," he responded. "Says his watch was taken last night from the studio. Better get him down to take a squint at the telephone. Likely he can fix it."
Flannigan was beside me with the cheese. And at that moment I felt Mr. Harbison's stolen watch slip out of my girdle, slide greasily across my lap, and clatter to the floor. Flannigan stooped, but luckily it had gone under the table. To have had it picked up, to have had to explain how I got it, to see them try to ignore my picture pasted in it—oh, it was impossible! I put my foot over it.
"Drop something?" Dallas asked perfunctorily, rising. Flannigan was still half kneeling.
"A fork," I said, as easily as I could, and the conversation went on. But Flannigan knew, and I knew he knew. He watched my every movement like a hawk after that, standing just behind my chair. I dropped my useless napkin, to have it whirled up before it reached the floor. I said to Betty that my shoe buckle was loose, and actually got the watch in my hand, only to let it slip at the critical moment. Then they all got up and went sadly back to the library, and Flannigan and I faced each other.
Flannigan was not a handsome man at any time, though up to then he had at least looked amiable. But now as I stood with my hand on the back of my chair, his face grew suddenly menacing. The silence was absolute. I was the guiltiest wretch alive, and opposite me the law towered and glowered, and held the yellow remnant of a pineapple cheese! And in the silence that wretched watch lay and ticked and ticked and ticked. Then Flannigan creaked over and closed the door into the hall, came back, picked up the watch, and looked at it.
"You're unlucky, I'm thinkin'," he said finally. "You've got the nerve all right, but you ain't cute enough."
"I don't know what you mean," I quavered. "Give me that watch to return to Mr. Harbison."
"Not on your life," he retorted easily. "I give it back myself, like I did the bracelet, and—like I'm going to give back the necklace, if you'll act like a sensible little girl."
I could only choke.
"It's foolish, any way you look at it," he persisted. "Here you are, lots of friends, folks that think you're all right. Why, I reckon there isn't one of them that wouldn't lend you money if you needed it so bad."
"Will you be still?" I said furiously. "Mr. Harbison left that watch—with me—an hour ago. Get him, and he will tell you so himself!"
"Of course he would," Flannigan conceded, looking at me with grudging approval. "He wouldn't be what I think he is, if he didn't lie up and down for you." There were voices in the hall. Flannigan came closer. "An hour ago, you say. And he told me it was gone this morning! It's a losing game, miss. I'll give you twenty-four hours and then—the necklace, if you please, miss."
Chapter XVII. A CLASH AND A KISS
The clash that came that evening had been threatening for some time. Take an immovable body, represented by Mr. Harbison and his square jaw, and an irresistible force, Jimmy and his weight, and there is bound to be trouble.
The real fault was Jim's. He had gone entirely mad again over Bella, and thrown prudence to the winds. He mooned at her across the dinner table, and waylaid her on the stairs or in the back halls, just to hear her voice when she ordered him out of her way. He telephoned for flowers and candy for her quite shamelessly, and he got out a book of photographs that they had taken on their wedding journey, and kept it on the library table. The sole concession he made to our presumptive relationship was to bring me the responsibility for everything that went wrong, and his shirts for buttons.
The first I heard of the trouble was from Dal. He waylaid me in the hall after dinner that night, and his face was serious.
"I'm afraid we can't keep it up very long, Kit," he said. "With Jim trailing Bella all over the house, and the old lady keener every day, it's bound to come out somehow. And that isn't all. Jim and Harbison had a set-to today—about you."
"About me!" I repeated. "Oh, I dare say I have been falling short again. What was Jim doing? Abusing me?"
Dal looked cautiously over his shoulder, but no one was near.
"It seems that the gentle Bella has been unusually beastly today to Jim, and—I believe she's jealous of you, Kit. Jim followed her up to the roof before dinner with a box of flowers, and she tossed them over the parapet. She said, I believe, that she didn't want his flowers; he could buy them for you, and be damned to him, or some lady-like equivalent."
"Jim is a jellyfish," I said contemptuously. "What did he say?"
"He said he only cared for one woman, and that was Bella; that he never had really cared for you and never would, and that divorce courts were not unmitigated evils if they showed people the way to real happiness. Which wouldn't amount to anything if Harbison had not been in the tent, trying to sleep!"
Dal did not know all the particulars, but it seems that relations between Jim and Mr. Harbison were rather strained. Bella had left the roof and Jim and the Harbison man came face to face in the door of the tent. According to Dal, little had been said, but Jim, bound by his promise to me, could not explain, and could only stammer something about being an old friend of Miss Knowles. And Tom had replied shortly that it was none of his business, but that there were some things friendship hardly justified, and tried to pass Jim. Jim was instantly enraged; he blocked the door to the roof and demanded to know what the other man meant. There were two or three versions of the answer he got. The general purport was that Mr. Harbison had no desire to explain further, and that the situation was forced on him. But if he insisted—when a man systematically ignored and neglected his wife for some one else, there were communities where he would be tarred and feathered.
"Meaning me?" Jim demanded, apoplectic.
"The remark was a general one," Mr. Harbison retorted, "but if you wish to make a concrete application—!"
Dal had gone up just then, and found them glaring at each other, Jim with his hands clenched at his sides, and Mr. Harbison with his arms folded and very erect. Dal took Jim by the elbow and led him downstairs, muttering, and the situation was saved for the time. But Dal was not optimistic.
"You can do a bit yourself, Kit," he finished. "Look more cheerful, flirt a little. You can do that without trying. Take Max on for a day or so; it would be charity anyhow. But don't let Tom Harbison take into his head that you are grieving over Jim's neglect, or he's likely to toss him off the roof."
"I have no reason to think that Mr. Harbison cares one way or the other about me," I said primly. "You don't think he's—he's in love with me, do you, Dal?" I watched him out of the corner of my eye, but he only looked amused.
"In love with you!" he repeated. "Why bless your wicked little heart, no! He thinks you're a married woman! It's the principle of the thing he's fighting for. If I had as much principle as he has, I'd—I'd put it out at interest."
Max interrupted us just then, and asked if we knew where Mr. Harbison was.
"Can't find him," he said. "I've got the telephone together and have enough left over to make another. Where do you suppose Harbison hides the tools? I'm working with a corkscrew and two palette knives."
I heard nothing more of the trouble that night. Max went to Jim about it, and Jim said angrily that only a fool would interfere between a man and his wife—wives. Whereupon Max retorted that a fool and his wives were soon parted, and left him. The two principals were coldly civil to each other, and smaller issues were lost as the famine grew more and more insistent. For famine it was.
They worked the rest of the evening, but the telephone refused to revive and every one was starving. Individually our pride was at low ebb, but collectively it was still formidable. So we sat around and Jim played Grieg with the soft stops on, and Aunt Selina went to bed. The weather had changed, and it was sleeting, but anything was better than the drawing room. I was in a mood to battle with the elements or to cry—or both—so I slipped out, while Dal was reciting "Give me three grains of corn, mother," threw somebody's overcoat over my shoulders, put on a man's soft hat—Jim's I think—and went up to the roof.
It was dark in the third floor hall, and I had to feel my way to the foot of the stairs. I went up quietly, and turned the knob of the door to the roof. At first it would not open, and I could hear the wind howling outside. Finally, however, I got the door open a little and wormed my way through. It was not entirely dark out there, in spite of the storm. A faint reflection of the street lights made it possible to distinguish the outlines of the boxwood plants, swaying in the wind, and the chimneys and the tent. And then—a dark figure disentangled itself from the nearest chimney and seemed to hurl itself at me. I remember putting out my hands and trying to say something, but the figure caught me roughly by the shoulders and knocked me back against the door frame. From miles away a heavy voice was saying, "So I've got you!" and then the roof gave from under me, and I was floating out on the storm, and sleet was beating in my face, and the wind was whispering over and over, "Open your eyes, for God's sake!"
I did open them after a while, and finally I made out that I was laying on the floor in the tent. The lights were on, and I had a cold and damp feeling, and something wet was trickling down my neck.
I seemed to be alone, but in a second somebody came into the tent, and I saw it was Mr. Harbison, and that he had a double handful of half-melted snow. He looked frantic and determined, and only my sitting up quickly prevented my getting another snow bath. My neck felt queer and stiff, and I was very dizzy. When he saw that I was conscious he dropped the snow and stood looking down at me.
"Do you know," he said grimly, "that I very nearly choked you to death a little while ago?"
"It wouldn't surprise me to be told so," I said. "Do I know too much, or what is it, Mr. Harbison?" I felt terribly ill, but I would not let him see it. "It is queer, isn't it—how we always select the roof for our little—differences?" He seemed to relax somewhat at my gibe.
"I didn't know it was you," he explained shortly. "I was waiting for—some one, and in the hat you wore and the coat, I mistook you. That's all. Can you stand?"
"No," I retorted. I could, but his summary manner displeased me. The sequel, however, was rather amazing, for he stooped suddenly and picked me up, and the next instant we were out in the storm together. At the door he stooped and felt for the knob.
"Turn it," he commanded. "I can't reach it."
"I'll do nothing of the kind," I said shrewishly. "Let me down; I can walk perfectly well."
He hesitated. Then he slid me slowly to my feet, but he did not open the door at once. "Are you afraid to let me carry you down those stairs, after—Tuesday night?" he asked, very low. "You still think I did that?"
I had never been less sure of it than at that moment, but an imp of perversity made me retort, "Yes."
He hardly seemed to hear me. He stood looking down at me as I leaned against the door frame.
"Good Lord!" he groaned. "To think that I might have killed you!" And then—he stooped and suddenly kissed me.
The next moment the door was open, and he was leading me down into the house. At the foot of the staircase he paused, still holding my hand, and faced me in the darkness.
"I'm not sorry," he said steadily. "I suppose I ought to be, but I'm not. Only—I want you to know that I was not guilty—before. I didn't intend to now. I am—almost as much surprised as you are."
I was quite unable to speak, but I wrenched my hand loose. He stepped back to let me pass, and I went down the hall alone.
Chapter XVIII. IT'S ALL MY FAULT
I didn't go to the drawing room again. I went into my own room and sat in the dark, and tried to be furiously angry, and only succeeded in feeling queer and tingly. One thing was absolutely certain: not the same man, but two different men had kissed me on the stairs to the roof. It sounds rather horrid and discriminating, but there was all the difference in the world.
But then—who had? And for whom had Mr. Harbison been waiting on the roof? "Did you know that I nearly choked you to death a few minutes ago?" Then he rather expected to finish somebody in that way! Who? Jim, probably. It was strange, too, but suddenly I realized that no matter how many suspicious things I mustered up against him—and there were plenty—down in my heart I didn't believe him guilty of anything, except this last and unforgivable offense. Whoever was trying to leave the house had taken the necklace, that seemed clear, unless Max was still foolishly trying to break quarantine and create one of the sensations he so dearly loves. This was a new idea, and some things upheld it, but Max had been playing bridge when I was kissed on the stairs, and there was still left that ridiculous incident of the comfort.
Bella came up after I had gone to bed, and turned on the light to brush her hair.
"If I don't leave this mausoleum soon, I'll be carried out," she declared. "You in bed, Lollie Mercer and Dal flirting, Anne hysterical, and Jim making his will in the den! You will have to take Aunt Selina tonight, Kit; I'm all in."
"If you'll put her to bed, I'll keep her there," I conceded, after some parley.
"You're a dear." Bella came back from the door. "Look here, Kit, you know Jim pretty well. Don't you think he looks ill? Thinner?"
"He's a wreck," I said soberly. "You have a lot to answer for, Bella."
Bella went over to the cheval glass and looked in it. "I avoid him all I can," she said, posing. "He's awfully funny; he's so afraid I'll think he's serious about you. He can't realize that for me he simply doesn't exist."
Well, I took Aunt Selina, and about two o'clock, while I was in my first sleep, I woke to find her standing beside me, tugging at my arm.
"There's somebody in the house," she whispered. "Thieves!"
"If they're in they'll not get out tonight," I said.
"I tell you, I saw a man skulking on the stairs," she insisted.
I got up ungraciously enough, and put on my dressing gown. Aunt Selina, who had her hair in crimps, tied a veil over her head, and together we went to the head of the stairs. Aunt Selina leaned far over and peered down.
"He's in the library," she whispered. "I can see a light."
The lust of battle was in Aunt Selina's eye. She girded her robe about her and began to descend the stairs cautiously. We went through the hall and stopped at the library door. It was empty, but from the den beyond came a hum of voices and the cheerful glow of fire light. I realized the situation then, but it was too late.
"Then why did you kiss her in the dining room?" Bella was saying in her clear, high tones. "You did, didn't you?"
"It was only her hand," Jim, desperately explaining. "I've got to pay her some attention, under the circumstances. And I give you my word, I was thinking of you when I did it." THE WRETCH!
Aunt Selina drew her breath in suddenly.
"I am thinking of marrying Reggie Wolfe." This was Bella, of course. "He wants me to. He's a dear boy."
"If you do, I will kill him."
"I am so very lonely," Bella sighed. We could hear the creak of Jim's shirt bosom that showed that he had sighed also. Aunt Selina had gripped me by the arm, and I could hear her breathing hard beside me.
"It's only Jim," I whispered. "I—I don't want to hear any more."
But she clutched me firmly, and the next thing we heard was another creak, louder and—
"Get up! Get up off your knees this instant!" Bella was saying frantically. "Some one might come in."
"Don't send me away," Jim said in a smothered voice. "Every one in the house is asleep, and I love you, dear."
Aunt Selina swallowed hard in the darkness.
"You have no right to make love to me," Bella. "It's—it's highly improper, under the circumstances."
And then Jim: "You swallow a camel and stick at a gnat. Why did you meet me here, if you didn't expect me to make love to you? I've stood for a lot, Bella, but this foolishness will have to end. Either you love me—or you don't. I'm desperate." He drew a long, forlorn breath.
"Poor old Jim!" This was Bella. A pause. Then—"Let my hand alone!" Also Bella.
"It is MY hand!"—Jim;'s most fatuous tone. "THERE is where you wore my ring. There's the mark still." Sounds of Jim kissing Bella's ring finger. "What did you do with it? Throw it away?" More sounds.
Aunt Selina crossed the library swiftly, and again I followed. Bella was sitting in a low chair by the fire, looking at the logs, in the most exquisite negligee of pink chiffon and ribbon. Jim was on his knees, staring at her adoringly, and holding both her hands.
"I'll tell you a secret," Bella was saying, looking as coy as she knew how—which was considerable. "I—I still wear it, on a chain around my neck."
On a chain around her neck! Bella, who is decollete whenever it is allowable, and more than is proper!
That was the limit of Aunt Selina's endurance. Still holding me, she stepped through the doorway and into the firelight, a fearful figure.
Jim saw her first. He went quite white and struggled to get up, smiling a sickly smile. Bella, after her first surprise, was superbly indifferent. She glanced at us, raised her eyebrows, and then looked at the clock.
"More victims of insomnia!" she said. "Won't you come in? Jim, pull up a chair by the fire for your aunt."
Aunt Selina opened her mouth twice, like a fish, before she could speak. Then—
"James, I demand that that woman leave the house!" she said hoarsely.
Bella leaned back and yawned.
"James, shall I go?" she asked amiably.
"Nonsense," Jim said, pulling himself together as best he could. "Look here, Aunt Selina, you know she can't go out, and what's more, I—don't want her to go."
"You—what?" Aunt Selina screeched, taking a step forward. "You have the audacity to say such a thing to me!"
Bella leaned over and gave the fire log a punch.
"I was just saying that he shouldn't say such things to me, either," she remarked pleasantly. "I'm afraid you'll take cold, Miss Caruthers. Wouldn't you like a hot sherry flip?"
Aunt Selina gasped. Then she sat down heavily on one of the carved teakwood chairs.
"He said he loved you; I heard him," she said weakly. "He—he was going to put his arm around you!"
"Habit!" Jim put in, trying to smile. "You see, Aunt Selina, it's—well, it's a habit I got into some time ago, and I—my arm does it without my thinking about it."
"Habit!" Aunt Selina repeated, her voice thick with passion. Then she turned to me. "Go to your room at once!" she said in her most awful tone. "Go to your room and leave this—this shocking affair to me."
But if she had reached her limit, so had I. If Jim chose to ruin himself, it was not my fault. Any one with common sense would have known at least to close the door before he went down on his knees, no matter to whom. So when Aunt Selina turned on me and pointed in the direction of the staircase, I did not move.
"I am perfectly wide awake," I said coldly. "I shall go to bed when I am entirely ready, and not before. And as for Jim's conduct, I do not know much about the conventions in such cases, but if he wishes to embrace Miss Knowles, and she wants him to, the situation is interesting, but hardly novel."
Aunt Selina rose slowly and drew the folds of her dressing gown around her, away from the contamination of my touch.
"Do you know what you are saying?" she demanded hoarsely.
"I do." I was quite white and stiff from my knees up, but below I was wavery. I glanced at Jim for moral support, but he was looking idolatrously at Bella. As for her, quite suddenly she had dropped her mask of indifference; her face was strained and anxious, and there were deep circles I had not seen before, under her eyes. And it was Bella who finally threw herself into the breach—the family breach.
"It is all my fault, Miss Caruthers," she said, stepping between Aunt Selina and myself. "I have been a blind and wicked woman, and I have almost wrecked two lives."
Two! What of mine?
"You see," she struggled on, against the glint in Aunt Selina's eyes. "I—I did not realize how much I cared, until it was too late. I did so many things that were cruel and wrong—oh, Jim, Jim!"
She turned and buried her head on his shoulder and cried; real tears. I could hardly believe that it was Bella. And Jim put both his arms around her and almost cried, too, and looked nauseatingly happy with the eye he turned to Bella, and scared to death out of the one he kept on Aunt Selina.
She turned on me, as of course I knew she would.
"That," she said, pointing at Jim and Bella, "that shameful picture is due to your own indifference. I am not blind; I have seen how you rejected all his loving advances." Bella drew away from Jim, but he jerked her back. "If anything in the world would reconcile me to divorce, it is this unbelievable situation. James, are you shameless?"
But James was and didn't care who knew it. And as there was nothing else to do, and no one else to do it, I stood very straight against the door frame, and told the whole miserable story from the very beginning. I told how Dal and Jim had persuaded me, and how I had weakened and found it was too late, and how Bella had come in that night, when she had no business to come, and had sat down in the basement kitchen on my hands and almost turned me into a raving maniac. As I went on I became fluent; my sense of injury grew on me. I made it perfectly clear that I hated them all, and that when people got divorces they ought to know their own minds and stay divorced. And at that a great light broke on Aunt Selina, who hadn't understood until that minute.
In view of her principles, she might have been expected to turn on Jim and Bella, and disinherit them, and cast them out, figuratively, with the flaming sword of her tongue. BUT SHE DID NOT!
She turned on me in the most terrible way, and asked me how I dared to come between husband and wife, because divorce or no divorce, whom God hath joined together, and so on. And when Jim picked up his courage in both hands and tried to interfere, she pushed him back with one hand while she pointed the other at me and called me a Jezebel.
Chapter XIX. THE HARBISON MAN
She talked for an hour, having got between me and the door, and she scolded Jim and Bella thoroughly. But they did not hear it, being occupied with each other, sitting side by side meekly on the divan with Jim holding Bella's hand under a cushion. She said they would have to be very good to make up for all the deception, but it was perfectly clear that it was a relief to her to find that I didn't belong to her permanently, and as I have said before, she was crazy about Bella.
I sat back in a chair and grew comfortably drowsy in the monotony of her voice. It was a name that brought me to myself with a jerk.
"Mr. Harbison!" Aunt Selina was saying. "Then bring him down at once, James. I want no more deception. There is no use cleaning a house and leaving a dirty corner."
"It will not be necessary for me to stay and see it swept," I said, mustering the rags she had left of my self-respect, and trying to pass her. But she planted herself squarely before me.
"You can not stir up a dust like this, young woman, and leave other people to sneeze in it," she said grimly. And I stayed.
I sat, very small, on a chair in a corner. I felt like Jezebel, or whatever her name was, and now the Harbison man was coming, and he was going to see me stripped of my pretensions to domesticity and of a husband who neglected me. He was going to see me branded a living lie, and he would hate me because I had put him in a ridiculous position. He was just the sort to resent being ridiculous.
Jim brought him down in a dressing gown and a state of bewilderment. It was plain that the memory of the afternoon still rankled, for he was very short with Jim and inclined to resent the whole thing. The clock in the hall chimed half after three as they came down the stairs, and I heard Mr. Harbison stumble over something in the darkness and say that if it was a joke, he wasn't in the humor for it. To which Jim retorted that it wasn't anything resembling a joke, and for heaven's sake not to walk on his feet; he couldn't get around the furniture any faster.
At the door of the den Mr. Harbison stopped, blinking in the light. Then, when he saw us, he tried to back himself and his dishabille out into the obscurity of the library. But Aunt Selina was too quick for him.
"Come in," she called, "I want you, young man. It seems that there are only two fools in the house, and you are one."
He straightened at that and looked bewildered, but he tried to smile.
"I thought I was the only one," he said. "Is it possible that there is another?"
"I am the other," she announced. I think she expected him to say "Impossible," but, whatever he was, he was never banal.
"Is that so?" he asked politely, trying to be interested and to understand at the same time. He had not seen me. He was gazing fixedly at Bella, languishing on the divan and watching him with lowered lids, and he had given Jim a side glance of contempt. But now he saw me and he colored under his tan. His neck blushed furiously, being much whiter than his face. He kept his eyes on mine, and I knew that he was mutely asking forgiveness. But the thought of what was coming paralyzed me. My eyes were glued to his as they had been that first evening when he had called me "Mrs. Wilson," and after an instant he looked away, and his face was set and hard.
"It seems that we have all been playing a little comedy, Mr. Harbison," Aunt Selina began, nasally sarcastic. "Or rather, you and I have been the audience. The rest have played."
"I—I don't think I understand," he said slowly. "I have seen very little comedy."
"It was not well planned," Aunt Selina retorted tartly. "The idea was good, but the young person who was playing the part of Mrs. Wilson—overacted."
"Oh, come, Aunt Selina," Jim protested, "Kit was coaxed and cajoled into this thing. Give me fits if you like; I deserve all I get. But let Kit alone—she did it for me."
Bella looked over at me and smiled nastily.
"I would stop doing things for Jim, Kit," she said. "It is SO unprofitable."
But Mr. Harbison harked back to Aunt Selina's speech.
"PLAYING the part of Mrs. Wilson!" he repeated. "Do you mean—?"
"Exactly. Playing the part. She is not Mrs. Wilson. It seems that that honor belonged at one time to Miss Knowles. I believe such things are not unknown in New York, only why in the name of sense does a man want to divorce a woman and then meet her at two o'clock in the morning to kiss the place where his own wedding ring used to rest?"
Jim fidgeted. Bella was having spasms of mirth to herself, but the Harbison man did not smile. He stood for a moment looking at the fire; then he thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his dressing gown, and stalked over to me. He did not care that the others were watching and listening.
"Is it true?" he demanded, staring down at me. "You are NOT Mrs. Wilson? You are not married at all? All that about being neglected—and loathing HIM, and all that on the roof—there was no foundation of truth?"
I could only shake my head without looking up. There was no defense to be made. Oh, I deserved the scorn in his voice.
"They—they persuaded you, I suppose, and it was to help somebody? It was not a practical joke?"
"No," I rallied a little spirit at that. It had been anything but a joke.
He drew a long breath.
"I think I understand," he said slowly, "but—you could have saved me something. I must have given you all a great deal of amusement."
"Oh, no," I protested. "I—I want to tell you—"
But he deliberately left me and went over to the door. There he turned and looked down at Aunt Selina. He was a little white, but there was no passion in his face.
"Thank you for telling me all this, Miss Caruthers," he said easily. "Now that you and I know, I'm afraid the others will miss their little diversion. Good night."
Oh, it was all right for Jim to laugh and say that he was only huffed a little and would be over it by morning. I knew better. There was something queer in his face as he went out. He did not even glance in my direction. He had said very little, but he had put me as effectually in the wrong as if he had not kissed me—deliberately kissed me—that very evening, on the roof.
I did not go to sleep again. I lay wretchedly thinking things over and trying to remember who Jezebel was, and toward morning I distinctly heard the knob of the door turn. I mistrusted my ears, however, and so I got up quietly and went over in the darkness. There was no sound outside, but when I put my hand on the knob I felt it move under my fingers. The counter pressure evidently alarmed whoever it was, for the knob was released and nothing more happened. But by this time anything so uncomplicated as the fumbling of a knob at night had no power to disturb me. I went back to bed.
Chapter XX. BREAKING OUT IN A NEW PLACE
Hunger roused everybody early the next morning, Friday. Leila Mercer had discovered a box of bonbons that she had forgotten, and we divided them around. Aunt Selina asked for the candied fruit and got it—quite a third of the box. We gathered in the lower hall and on the stairs and nibbled nauseating sweets while Mr. Harbison examined the telephone.
He did not glance in my direction. Betty and Dal were helping him, and he seemed very cheerful. Max sat with me on the stairs. Mr. Harbison had just unscrewed the telephone box from the wall and was squinting into it, when Bella came downstairs. It was her first appearance, but as she was always late, nobody noticed. When she stopped, just above us on the stairs, however, we looked up, and she was holding to the rail and trembling perceptibly.
"Mr. Harbison, will you—can you come upstairs?" she asked. Her voice was strained, almost reedy, and her lips were white.
Mr. Harbison stared up at her, with the telephone box in his hands.
"Why—er—certainly," he said, "but, unless it's very important, I'd like to fix this talking machine. We want to make a food record."
"I'd like to break a food record," Max put in, but Bella created a diversion by sitting down suddenly on the stair just above us, and burying her face in her handkerchief.
"Jim is sick," she said, with a sob. "He—he doesn't want anything to eat, and his head aches. He—said for me—to go away and let him die!"
Dal dropped the hammer immediately, and Lollie Mercer sat petrified, with a bonbon halfway to her mouth. For, of course, it was unexpected, finding sentiment of any kind in Bella, and none of them knew about the scene in the den in the small hours of the morning.
"Sick!" Aunt Selina said, from a hall chair. "Sick! Where?"
"All over," Bella quavered. "His poor head is hot, and he's thirsty, but he doesn't want anything but water."
"Great Scott!" Dal said suddenly. "Suppose he should—Bella, are you telling us ALL his symptoms?"
Bella put down her handkerchief and got up. From her position on the stairs she looked down on us with something of her old haughty manner.
"If he is ill, you may blame yourselves, all of you," she said cruelly. "You taunted him with being—fat, and laughed at him, until he stopped eating the things he should eat. And he has been exercising—on the roof, until he has worn himself out. And now—he is ill. He—he has a rash."
Everybody jumped at that, and we instinctively moved away from Bella. She was quite cold and scornful by that time.
"A rash!" Max exclaimed. "What sort of rash?"
"I did not see it," Bella said with dignity, and turning, she went up the stairs.
There was a great deal of excitement, and nobody except Mr. Harbison was willing to go near Jim. He went up at once with Bella, while Max and Dal sat cravenly downstairs and wondered if we would all take it, and Anne told about a man she knew who had it, and was deaf and dumb and blind when he recovered.
Mr. Harbison came down after a while, and said that the rash was there, right enough, and that Jim absolutely refused to be quarantined; that he insisted that he always got a rash from early strawberries and that if he DID have anything, since they were so touchy he hoped they would all get it. If they locked him in he would kick the door down.
We had a long conference in the hall, with Bella sitting red-eyed and objecting to every suggestion we made. And finally we arranged to shut Jim up in one of the servants' bedrooms with a sheet wrung out of disinfectant hung over the door. Bella said she would sit outside in the hall and read to him through the closed door, so finally he gave a grudging consent. But he was in an awful humor. Max and Dal put on rubber gloves and helped him over, and they said afterward that the way he talked was fearful. And there was a telephone in the maid's room, and he kept asking for things every five minutes.
When the doctor came he said it was too early to tell positively, and he ordered him liquid diet and said he would be back that evening.
Which—the diet—takes me back to the famine. After they had moved Jim, Mr. Harbison went back to the telephone, and found everything as it should be. So he followed the telephone wire, and the rest followed him. I did not; he had systematically ignored me all morning, after having dared to kiss me the night before. And any other man I know, after looking at me the way he had looked a dozen times, would have been at least reasonably glad to find me free and unmarried. But it was clear that he was not; I wondered if he was the kind of man who always makes love to the other man's wife and runs like mad when she is left a widow, or gets a divorce.
And just when I had decided that I hated him, and that there was one man I knew who would never make love to a woman whom he thought married and then be very dignified and aloof when he found she wasn't, I heard what was wrong with the telephone wire.
It had been cut! Cut through with a pair of silver manicure scissors from the dressing table in Bella's room, where Aunt Selina slept! The wire had been clipped where it came into the house, just under a window, and the scissors still lay on the sill.
It was mysterious enough, but no one was interested in the mystery just then. We wanted food, and wanted it at once. Mr. Harbison fixed the wire, and the first thing we did, of course, was to order something to eat. Aunt Selina went to bed just after luncheon with indigestion, to the relief of every one in the house. She had been most unpleasant all morning.
When she found herself ill, however, she insisted on having Bella, and that made trouble at once. We found Bella with her cheek against the door into Jim's room, looking maudlin while he shouted love messages to her from the other side. At first she refused to stir, but after Anne and Max had tried and failed, the rest of us went to her in a body and implored her. We said Aunt Selina was in awful shape—which she was, as to temper—and that she had thrown a mustard plaster at Anne, which was true.
So Bella went, grumbling, and Jim was a maniac. We had not thought it would be so bad for Bella, but Aunt Selina fell asleep soon after she took charge, holding Bella's hand, and slept for three hours and never let go!
About two that afternoon the sun came out, and the rest of us went to the roof. The sleet had melted and the air was fairly warm. Two housemaids dusting rugs on the top of the next house came over and stared at us, and somebody in an automobile down on Riverside Drive stood up and waved at us. It was very cheerful and hopelessly lonely.
I stayed on the roof after the others had gone, and for some time I thought I was alone. After a while, I got a whiff of smoke, and then I saw Mr. Harbison far over in the corner, one foot on the parapet, moodily smoking a pipe. He was gazing out over the river, and paying no attention to me. This was natural, considering that I had hardly spoken to him all day.
I would not let him drive me away, so I sat still, and it grew darker and colder. He filled his pipe now and then, but he never looked in my direction. Finally, however, as it grew very dusk, he knocked the ashes out and came toward me.
"I am going to make a request, Miss McNair," he said evenly. "Please keep off the roof after sunset. There are—reasons." I had risen and was preparing to go downstairs.
"Unless I know the reasons, I refuse to do anything of the kind," I retorted. He bowed.
"Then the door will be kept locked," he rejoined, and opened it for me. He did not follow me, but stood watching until I was down, and I heard him close the roof door firmly behind me.
Chapter XXI. A BAR OF SOAP
Late that evening Betty Mercer and Dallas were writing verses of condolence to be signed by all of us and put under the door into Jim's room when Bella came running down the stairs.
Dal was reading the first verse when she came. "Listen to this, Bella," he said triumphantly:
"There was a fat artist named Jas, Who cruelly called his friends nas. When, altho' shut up tight, He broke out over night With a rash that is maddening, he clas."
Then he caught sight of Bella's face as she stood in the doorway, and stopped.
"Jim is delirious!" she announced tragically. "You shut him in there all alone and now he's delirious. I'll never forgive any of you."
"Delirious!" everybody exclaimed.
"He was sane enough when I took him his chicken broth," Mr. Harbison said. "He was almost fluent."
"He is stark, staring crazy," Bella insisted hysterically. "I—I locked the door carefully when I went down to my dinner, and when I came up it—it was unlocked, and Jim was babbling on the bed, with a sheet over his face. He—he says the house is haunted and he wants all the men to come up and sit in the room with him."
"Not on your life," Max said. "I am young, and my career has only begun. I don't intend to be cut off in the flower of my youth. But I'll tell you what I will do; I'll take him a drink. I can tie it to a pole or something."
But Mr. Harbison did not smile. He was thoughtful for a minute. Then:
"I don't believe he is delirious," he said quietly, "and I wouldn't be surprised if he has happened on something that—will be of general interest. I think I will stay with him tonight."
After that, of course, none of the others would confess that he was afraid, so with the South American leading, they all went upstairs. The women of the party sat on the lower steps and listened, but everything was quiet. Now and then we could hear the sound of voices, and after a while there was a rapid slamming of doors and the sound of some one running down to the second floor. Then quiet again.
None of us felt talkative. Bella had followed the men up and had been put out, and sat sniffling by herself in the den. Aunt Selina was working over a jig-saw puzzle in the library, and declaring that some of it must be lost. Anne and Leila Mercer were embroidering, and Betty and I sat idle, our hands in our laps. The whole atmosphere of the house was mysterious. Anne told over again of the strange noises the night her necklace was stolen. Betty asked me about the time when the comfort slipped from under my fingers. And when, in the midst of the story, the telephone rang, we all jumped and shrieked.
In an hour or so they sent for Flannigan, and he went upstairs. He came down again soon, however, and returned with something over his arm that looked like a rope. It seemed to be made of all kinds of things tied together, trunk straps, clothesline, bed sheets, and something that Flannigan pointed to with rage and said he hadn't been able to keep his clothes on all day. He refused to explain further, however, and trailed the nondescript article up the stairs. We could only gaze after him and wonder what it all meant.
The conclave lasted far into the night. The feminine contingent went to bed, but not to sleep. Some time after midnight, Mr. Harbison and Max went downstairs and I could hear them rattling around testing windows and burglar alarms. But finally every one settled down and the rest of the night was quiet.
Betty Mercer came into my room the next morning, Sunday, and said Anne Brown wanted me. I went over at once, and Anne was sitting up in bed, crying. Dal had slipped out of the room at daylight, she said, and hadn't come back. He had thought she was asleep, but she wasn't, and she knew he was dead, for nothing ever made Dal get up on Sunday before noon.
There was no one moving in the house, and I hardly knew what to do. It was Betty who said she would go up and rouse Mr. Harbison and Max, who had taken Jim's place in the studio. She started out bravely enough, but in a minute we heard her flying back. Anne grew perfectly white.
"He's lying on the upper stairs!" Betty cried, and we all ran out. It was quite true. Dal was lying on the stairs in a bathrobe, with one of Jim's Indian war clubs in his hand. And he was sound asleep.
He looked somewhat embarrassed when he roused and saw us standing around. He said he was going to play a practical joke on somebody and fell asleep in the middle of it. And Anne said he wasn't even an intelligent liar, and went back to bed in a temper. But Betty came in with me, and we sat and looked at each other and didn't say much. The situation was beyond us.
The doctor let Jim out the next day, there having been nothing the matter with him but a stomach rash. But Jim was changed; he mooned around Bella, of course, as before, but he was abstracted at times, and all that day—Sunday—he wandered off by himself, and one would come across him unexpectedly in the basement or along some of the unused back halls.
Aunt Selina held service that morning. Jim said that he always had a prayer book, but that he couldn't find anything with so many people in the house. So Aunt Selina read some religious poetry out of the newspapers, and gave us a valuable talk on Deception versus Honesty, with me as the illustration.
Almost everybody took a nap after luncheon. I stayed in the den and read Ibsen, and felt very mournful. And after Hedda had shot herself, I lay down on the divan and cried a little—over Hedda; she was young and it was such a tragic ending—and then I fell asleep.
When I wakened Mr. Harbison was standing by the table, and he held my book in his hands. In view of the armed neutrality between us, I expected to see him bow to me curtly, turn on his heel and leave the room. Indeed, considering his state of mind the night before, I should hardly have been surprised if he had thrown Hedda at my head. (This is not a pun. I detest them.) But instead, when he heard me move he glanced over at me and even smiled a little.
"She wasn't worth it," he said, indicating the book.
"Your tears. You were crying over it, weren't you?"
"She was very unhappy," I asserted indifferently. "She was married and she loved some one else."
"Do you really think she did?" he asked. "And even so, was that a reason?"
"The other man cared for her; he may not have been able to help it."
"But he knew that she was married," he said virtuously, and then he caught my eye and he saw the analogy instantly, for he colored hotly and put down the book.
"Most men argue that way," I said. "They argue by the book, and—they do as they like."
He picked up a Japanese ivory paper weight from the table, and stood balancing it across his finger.
"You are perfectly right," he said at last. "I deserve it all. My grievance is at myself. Your—your beauty, and the fact that I thought you were unhappy, put me—beside myself. It is not an excuse; it is a weak explanation. I will not forget myself again."
He was as abject as any one could have wished. It was my minute of triumph, but I can not pretend that I was happy. Evidently it had been only a passing impulse. If he had really cared, now that he knew I was free, he would have forgotten himself again at once. Then a new explanation occurred to me. Suppose it had been Bella all the time, and the real shock had been to find that she had been married!
"The fault of the situation was really mine," I said magnanimously; "I quite blame myself. Only, you must believe one thing. You never furnished us any amusement." I looked at him sidewise. "The discovery that Bella and Jim were once married must have been a great shock."
"It was a surprise," he replied evenly. His voice and his eyes were inscrutable. He returned my glance steadily. It was infuriating to have gone half-way to meet him, as I had, and then to find him intrenched in his self-sufficiency again. I got up.
"It is unfortunate that our acquaintance has begun so unfavorably," I remarked, preparing to pass him. "Under other circumstances we might have been friends."
"There is only one solace," he said. "When we do not have friends, we can not lose them."
He opened the door to let me pass out, and as our eyes met, all the coldness died out of his. He held out his hand, but I was hurt. I refused to see it.
"Kit!" he said unsteadily. "I—I'm an obstinate, pig-headed brute. I am sorry. Can't we be friends, after all?"
"'When we do not have friends we can not lose them,'" I replied with cool malice. And the next instant the door closed behind me.
It was that night that the really serious event of the quarantine occurred.
We were gathered in the library, and everybody was deadly dull. Aunt Selina said she had been reared to a strict observance of the Sabbath, and she refused to go to bed early. The cards and card tables were put away and every one sat around and quarreled and was generally nasty, except Bella and Jim, who had gone into the den just after dinner and firmly closed the door.
I think it was just after Max proposed to me. Yes, he proposed to me again that night. He said that Jim's illness had decided him; that any of us might take sick and die, shut in that contaminated atmosphere, and that if he did he wanted it all settled. And whether I took him or not he wanted me to remember him kindly if anything happened. I really hated to refuse him—he was in such deadly earnest. But it was quite unnecessary for him to have blamed his refusal, as he did, on Mr. Harbison. I am sure I had refused him plenty of times before I had ever heard of the man. Yes, it was just after he proposed to me that Flannigan came to the door and called Mr. Harbison out into the hall.
Flannigan—like most of the people in the house—always went to Mr. Harbison when there was anything to be done. He openly adored him, and—what was more—he did what Mr. Harbison ordered without a word, while the rest of us had to get down on our knees and beg.
Mr. Harbison went out, muttering something about a storm coming up, and seeing that the tent was secure. Betty Mercer went with him. She had been at his heels all evening, and called him "Tom" on every possible occasion. Indeed, she made no secret of it; she said that she was mad about him, and that she would love to live in South America, and have an Indian squaw for a lady's maid, and sit out on the veranda in the evenings and watch the Southern Cross shooting across the sky, and eat tropical food from the quaint Indian pottery. She was not even daunted when Dal told her the Southern Cross did not shoot, and that the food was probably canned corn on tin dishes.
So Betty went with him. She wore a pale yellow dinner gown, with just a sophisticated touch of black here and there, and cut modestly square in the neck. Her shoulders are scrawny. And after they were gone—not her shoulders; Mr. Harbison and she—Aunt Selina announced that the next day was Monday, that she had only a week's supply of clothing with her, and that no policeman who ever swung a mace should wash her undergarments for her.
She paused a moment, but nobody offered to do it. Anne was reading De Maupassant under cover of a table, and the rest pretended not to hear. After a pause, Aunt Selina got up heavily and went upstairs, coming down soon after with a bundle covered with a green shawl, and with a white balbriggan stocking trailing from an opening in it. She paused at the library door, surveyed the inmates, caught my unlucky eye and beckoned to me with a relentless forefinger.
"We can put them to soak tonight," she confided to me, "and tomorrow they will be quite simple to do. There is no lace to speak of"—Dal raised his eyebrows—"and very little flouncing."
Aunt Selina and I went to the laundry. It never occurred to any one that Bella should have gone; she had stepped into all my privileges—such as they were—and assumed none of my obligations. Aunt Selina and I went to the laundry.
It is strange what big things develop from little ones. In this case it was a bar of soap. And if Flannigan had used as much soap as he should have instead of washing up the kitchen floor with cold dish water, it would have developed sooner. The two most unexpected events of the whole quarantine occurred that night at the same time, one on the roof and one in the cellar. The cellar one, although curious, was not so serious as the other, so it comes first.
Aunt Selina put her clothes in a tub in the laundry and proceeded to dress them like a vegetable. She threw in a handful of salt, some kerosene oil and a little ammonia. The result was villainous, but after she tasted it—or snuffed it—she said it needed a bar of soap cut up to give it strength—or flavor—and I went into the store room for it.
The laundry soap was in a box. I took in a silver fork, for I hated to touch the stuff, and jabbed a bar successfully in the semi-darkness. Then I carried it back to the laundry and dropped it on the table. Aunt Selina looked at the fork with disgust; then we both looked at the soap. ONE SIDE OF IT WAS COVERED WITH ROUND HOLES THAT CURVED AROUND ON EACH OTHER LIKE A COILED SNAKE.
I ran back to the store room, and there, a little bit sticky and smelling terribly of rosin, lay Anne's pearl necklace!
I was so excited that I seized Aunt Selina by the hands and danced her all over the place. Then I left her, trying to find her hair pins on the floor, and ran up to tell the others. I met Betty in the hall and waved the pearls at her. But she did not notice them.
"Is Mr. Harbison down there?" she asked breathlessly. "I left him on the roof and went down to my room for my scarf, and when I went back he had disappeared. He—he doesn't seem to be in the house." She tried to laugh, but her voice was shaky. "He couldn't have got down without passing me, anyhow," she supplemented. "I suppose I'm silly, but so many queer things have happened, Kit."
"I wouldn't worry, Betty," I soothed her. "He is big enough to take care of himself. And with the best intentions in the world, you can't have him all the time, you know."
She was too much startled to be indignant. She followed me into the library, where the sight of the pearls produced a tremendous excitement, and then every one had to go down to the store room, and see where the necklace had been hidden, and Max examined all the bars of soap for thumb prints.
Mr. Harbison did not appear. Max commented on the fact caustically, but Dal hushed him up. And so, Anne hugging her pearls, and Aunt Selina having put a final seasoning of washing powder on the clothes in the tub, we all went upstairs to bed. It had been a long day, and the morning would at least bring bridge.
I was almost ready for bed when Jim tapped at my door. I had been very cool to him since the night in the library when I was publicly staked and martyred, and he was almost cringing when I opened the door.
"What is it now?" I asked cruelly. "Has Bella tired of it already, or has somebody else a rash?"
"Don't be a shrew, Kit," he said. "I don't want you to do anything. I only—when did you see Harbison last?"
"If you mean 'last,'" I retorted, "I'm afraid I haven't seen the last of him yet." Then I saw that he was really worried. "Betty was leading him to the roof," I added. "Why? Is he missing?"
"He isn't anywhere in the house. Dal and I have been over every inch of it." Max had come up, in a dressing gown, and was watching me insolently.
"I think we have seen the last of him," he said. "I'm sorry, Kit, to nip the little romance in the bud. The fellow was crazy about you—there's no doubt of it. But I've been watching him from the beginning, and I think I'm upheld. Whether he went down the water spout, or across a board to the next house—"
"I—I dislike him intensely," I said angrily, "but you would not dare to say that to his face. He could strangle you with one hand."
Max laughed disagreeably.
"Well, I only hope he is gone," he threw at me over his shoulder, "I wouldn't want to be responsible to your father if he had stayed." I was speechless with wrath.
They went away then, and I could hear them going over the house. At one o'clock Jim went up to bed, the last, and Mr. Harbison had not been found. I did not see how they could go to bed at all. If he had escaped, then Max was right and the whole thing was heart-breaking. And if he had not, then he might be lying—
I got up and dressed.
The early part of the night had been cloudy, but when I got to the roof it was clear starlight. The wind blew through the electric wires strung across and set them singing. The occasional bleat of a belated automobile on the drive below came up to me raucously. The tent gleamed, a starlit ghost of itself, and the boxwoods bent in the breeze. I went over to the parapet and leaned my elbows on it. I had done the same thing so often before; I had carried all my times of stress so infallibly to that particular place, that instinctively my feet turned there.
And there in the starlight, I went over the whole serio-comedy, and I loathed my part in it. He had been perfectly right to be angry with me and with all of us. And I had been a hypocrite and a Pharisee, and had thanked God that I was not as other people, when the fact was that I was worse than the worst. And although it wasn't dignified to think of him going down the drain pipe, still—no one could blame him for wanting to get away from us, and he was quite muscular enough to do it.
I was in the depths of self-abasement when I heard a sound behind me. It was a long breath, quite audible, that ended in a groan. I gripped the parapet and listened, while my heart pounded, and in a minute it came again.
I was terribly frightened. Then—I don't know how I did it, but I was across the roof, kneeling beside the tent, where it stood against the chimney. And there, lying prone among the flower pots, and almost entirely hidden, lay the man we had been looking for.
His head was toward me, and I reached out shakingly and touched his face. It was cold, and my hand, when I drew it back, was covered with blood.
Chapter XXII. IT WAS DELIRIUM
I was sure he was dead. He did not move, and when I caught his hands and called him frantically, he did not hear me. And so, with the horror over me, I half fell down the stairs and roused Jim in the studio.
They all came with lights and blankets, and they carried him into the tent and put him on the couch and tried to put whisky in his mouth. But he could not swallow. And the silence became more and more ominous until finally Anne got hysterical and cried, "He is dead! Dead!" and collapsed on the roof.
But he was not. Just as the lights in the tent began to have red rings around them and Jim's voice came from away across the river, somebody said, "There, he swallowed that," and soon after, he opened his eyes. He muttered something that sounded like "Andean pinnacle" and lapsed into unconsciousness again. But he was not dead! He was not dead!
When the doctor came they made a stretcher out of one of Jim's six-foot canvases—it had a picture on it, and Jim was angry enough the next day—and took him down to the studio. We made it as much like a sick-room as we could, and we tried to make him comfortable. But he lay without opening his eyes, and at dawn the doctor brought a consultant and a trained nurse.
The nurse was an offensively capable person. She put us all out, and scolded Anne for lighting Japanese incense in the room—although Anne explained that it is very reviving. And she said that it was unnecessary to have a dozen people breathing up all the oxygen and asphyxiating the patient. She was good-looking, too. I disliked her at once. Any one could see by the way she took his pulse—just letting his poor hand hang, without any support—that she was a purely mechanical creature, without heart.
Well, as I said before, she put us all out, and shut the door, and asked us not to whisper outside. Then, too, she refused to allow any flowers in the room, although Betty had got a florist out of bed to order some.
The consultant came, stayed an hour, and left. Aunt Selina, who proved herself a trump in that trying time, waylaid him in the hall, and he said it might be a fractured skull, although it was possibly only concussion.
The men spent most of the morning together in the den, with the door shut. Now and then one of them would tiptoe upstairs, ask the nurse how her patient was doing, and creak down again. Just before noon they all went to the roof and examined again the place where he had been found. I know, for I was in the upper hall outside the studio. I stayed there almost all day, and after a while the nurse let me bring her things as she needed them. I don't know why mother didn't let me study nursing—I always wanted to do it. And I felt helpless and childish now, when there were things to be done.
Max came down from the roof alone, and I cornered him in the upper hall.
"I'm going crazy, Max," I said. "Nobody will tell me anything, and I can't stand it. How was he hurt? Who hurt him?"
Max looked at me quite a long time.
"I'm darned if I understand you, Kit," he said gravely. "You said you disliked Harbison."
"So I do—I did," I supplemented. "But whether I like him or not has nothing to do with it. He has been injured—perhaps murdered"—I choked a little. "Which—which of you did it?"
Max took my hand and held it, looking down at me.
"I wish you could have cared for me like that," he said gently. "Dear little girl, we don't know who hurt him. I didn't, if that's what you mean. Perhaps a flower pot—"
I began to cry then, and he drew me to him and let me cry on his arm. He stood very quietly, patting my head in a brotherly way and behaving very well, save that once he said:
"Don't cry too long, Kit; I can stand only a certain amount."
And just then the nurse opened the door to the studio, and with Max's arm still around me, I raised my head and looked in.
Mr. Harbison was conscious. His eyes were open, and he was staring at us both as we stood framed by the doorway.
He lay back at once and closed his eyes, and the nurse shut the door. There was no use, even if I had been allowed in, in trying to explain to him. To attempt such a thing would have been to presume that he was interested in an explanation. I thought bitterly to myself as I brought the nurse cracked ice and struggled to make beef tea in the kitchen, that lives had been wrecked on less.
Dal was allowed ten minutes in the sick room during the afternoon, and he came out looking puzzled and excited. He refused to tell us what he had learned, however, and the rest of the afternoon he and Jim spent in the cellar.
The day dragged on. Downstairs people ate and read and wrote letters, and outside newspaper men talked together and gazed over at the house and photographed the doctors coming in and the doctors going out. As for me, in the intervals of bringing things, I sat in Bella's chair in the upper hall, and listened to the crackle of the nurse's starched skirts.
At midnight that night the doctors made a thorough examination. When they came out they were smiling.
"He is doing very well," the younger one said—he was hairy and dark, but he was beautiful to me. "He is entirely conscious now, and in about an hour you can send the nurse off for a little sleep. Don't let him talk."
And so at last I went through the familiar door into an unfamiliar room, with basins and towels and bottles around, and a screen made of Jim's largest canvases. And someone on the improvised bed turned and looked at me. He did not speak, and I sat down beside him. After a while he put his hand over mine as it lay on the bed.
"You are much better to me than I deserve," he said softly. And because his eyes were disconcerting, I put an ice cloth over them.
"Much better than you deserve," I said, and patted the ice cloth to place gently. He fumbled around until he found my hand again, and we were quiet for a long time. I think he dozed, for he roused suddenly and pulled the cloth from his eyes.
"The—the day is all confused," he said, turning to look at me, "but—one thing seems to stand out from everything else. Perhaps it was delirium, but I seemed to see that door over there open, and you, outside, with—with Max. His arms were around you."
"It was delirium," I said softly. It was my final lie in that house of mendacity.
He drew a satisfied breath, and lifting my hand, held it to his lips and kissed it.
"I can hardly believe it is you," he said. "I have to hold firmly to your hand or you will disappear. Can't you move your chair closer? You are miles away." So I did it, for he was not to be excited.
After a little—
"It's awfully good of you to do this. I have been desperately sorry, Kit, about the other night. It was a ruffianly thing to do—to kiss you, when I thought—"
"You are to keep very still," I reminded him. He kissed my hand again, but he persisted.
"I was mad—crazy." I tried to give him some medicine, but he pushed the spoon aside. "You will have to listen," he said. "I am in the depths of self-disgust. I—I can't think of anything else. You see, you seemed so convinced that I was the blackguard that somehow nothing seemed to matter."
"I have forgotten it all," I declared generously, "and I would be quite willing to be friends, only, you remember you said—"
"Friends!" his voice was suddenly reckless, and he raised on his elbow. "Friends! Who wants to be friends? Kit, I was almost delirious that night. The instant I held you in my arms—It was all over. I loved you the first time I saw you. I—I suppose I'm a fool to talk like this."
And, of course, just then Dallas had to open the door and step into the room. He was covered with dirt and he had a hatchet in his hand.
"A rope!" he demanded, without paying any attention to us and diving into corners of the room. "Good heavens, isn't there a rope in this confounded house!"
He turned and rushed out, without any explanation, and left us staring at the door.
"Bother the rope!" I found myself forced to look into two earnest eyes. "Kit, were you VERY angry when I kissed you that night on the roof?"
"Very," I maintained stoutly.
"Then prepare yourself for another attack of rage!" he said. And Betty opened the door.
She had on a fetching pale blue dressing gown, and one braid of her yellow hair was pulled carelessly over her shoulder. When she saw me on my knees beside the bed (oh, yes, I forgot to say that, quite unconsciously, I had slid into that position) she stopped short, just inside the door, and put her hand to her throat. She stood for quite a perceptible time looking at us, and I tried to rise. But Tom shamelessly put his arm around my shoulders and held me beside him. Then Betty took a step back and steadied herself by the door frame. She had really cared, I knew then, but I was too excited to be sorry for her.
"I—I beg your pardon for coming in," she said nervously. "But—they want you downstairs, Kit. At least, I thought you would want to go, but—perhaps—"
Just then from the lower part of the house came a pandemonium of noises; women screaming, men shouting, and the sound of hatchet strokes and splintering wood. I seized Betty by the arm, and together we rushed down the stairs.
Chapter XXIII. COMING
The second floor was empty. A table lay overturned at the top of the stairs, and a broken flower vase was weltering in its own ooze. Part way down Betty stepped on something sharp, that proved to be the Japanese paper knife from the den. I left her on the stairs examining her foot and hurried to the lower floor.
Here everything was in the utmost confusion. Aunt Selina had fainted, and was sitting in a hall chair with her head rolled over sidewise and the poker from the library fireplace across her knees. No one was paying any attention to her. And Jim was holding the front door open, while three of the guards hesitated in the vestibule. The noises continued from the back of the house, and as I stood on the lowest stair Bella came out from the dining room, with her face streaked with soot, and carrying a kettle of hot water.
"Jim," she called wildly. "While Max and Dal are below, you can pour this down from the top. It's boiling."
Jim glanced back over his shoulder. "Carry out your own murderous designs," he said. And then, as she started back with it, "Bella, for Heaven's sake," he called, "have you gone stark mad? Put that kettle down."
She did it sulkily and Jim turned to the policeman.
"Yes, I know it was a false alarm before," he explained patiently, "but this is genuine. It is just as I tell you. Yes, Flannigan is in the house somewhere, but he's hiding, I guess. We could manage the thing very well ourselves, but we have no cartridges for our revolvers." Then as the noise from the rear redoubled, "If you don't come in and help, I will telephone for the fire department," he concluded emphatically.
I ran to Aunt Selina and tried to straighten her head. In a moment she opened her eyes, sat up and stared around her. She saw the kettle at once.
"What are you doing with boiling water on the floor?" she said to me, with her returning voice. "Don't you know you will spoil the floor?" The ruling passion was strong with Aunt Selina, as usual.
I could not find out the trouble from any one; people appeared and disappeared, carrying strange articles. Anne with a rope, Dal with his hatchet, Bella and the kettle, but I could get a coherent explanation from no one. When the guards finally decided that Jim was in earnest, and that the rest of us were not crawling out a rear window while he held them at the door, they came in, three of them and two reporters, and Jim led them to the butler's pantry.
Here we found Anne, very white and shaky, with the pantry table and two chairs piled against the door of the kitchen slide, and clutching the chamois-skin bag that held her jewels. She had a bottle of burgundy open beside her, and was pouring herself a glass with shaking hands when we appeared. She was furious at Jim.
"I very nearly fainted," she said hysterically. "I might have been murdered, and no one would have cared. I wish they would stop that chopping, I'm so nervous I could scream."
Jim took the Burgundy from her with one hand and pointed the police to the barricaded door with the other.
"That is the door to the dumb-waiter shaft," he said. "The lower one is fastened on the inside, in some manner. The noises commenced about eleven o'clock, while Mr. Brown was on guard. There were scraping sounds first, and later the sound of a falling body. He roused Mr. Reed and myself, but when we examined the shaft everything was quiet, and dark. We tried lowering a candle on a string, but—it was extinguished from below."