This etext was typed by Theresa Armao of Albany, New York.
WHEN A MAN MARRIES
by Mary Roberts Rinehart
I At Least I Meant Well
II The Way It Began
III I Might Have Known It
IV The Door Was Closed
V From The Tree Of Love
VI A Mighty Poor Joke
VII We Make An Omelet
VIII Correspondents’ Department
IX Flannigan’s Find
X On The Stairs
XI I Make A Discovery
XII The Roof Garden
XIII He Does Not Deny It
XIV Almost, But Not Quite
XV Suspicion and Discord
XVI I Face Flannigan
XVII A Clash and A Kiss
XVIII It’s All My Fault
XIX The Harbison Man
XX Breaking Out In A New Place
XXI A Bar of Soap
XXII It Was A Delirium
Needles and pins
Needles and pins,
When a man marries
His trouble begins.
Chapter I. AT LEAST I MEANT WELL
When the dreadful thing occurred that night, every one turned on me. The injustice of it hurt me most. They said I got up the dinner, that I asked them to give up other engagements and come, that I promised all kinds of jollification, if they would come; and then when they did come and got in the papers and every one–but ourselves–laughed himself black in the face, they turned on ME! I, who suffered ten times to their one! I shall never forget what Dallas Brown said to me, standing with a coal shovel in one hand and a–well, perhaps it would be better to tell it all in the order it happened.
It began with Jimmy Wilson and a conspiracy, was helped on by a foot-square piece of yellow paper and a Japanese butler, and it enmeshed and mixed up generally ten respectable members of society and a policeman. Incidentally, it involved a pearl collar and a box of soap, which sounds incongruous, doesn’t it?
It is a great misfortune to be stout, especially for a man. Jim was rotund and looked shorter than he really was, and as all the lines of his face, or what should have been lines, were really dimples, his face was about as flexible and full of expression as a pillow in a tight cover. The angrier he got the funnier he looked, and when he was raging, and his neck swelled up over his collar and got red, he was entrancing. And everybody liked him, and borrowed money from him, and laughed at his pictures (he has one in the Hargrave gallery in London now, so people buy them instead), and smoked his cigarettes, and tried to steal his Jap. The whole story hinges on the Jap.
The trouble was, I think, that no one took Jim seriously. His ambition in life was to be taken seriously, but people steadily refused to. His art was a huge joke–except to himself. If he asked people to dinner, every one expected a frolic. When he married Bella Knowles, people chuckled at the wedding, and considered it the wildest prank of Jimmy’s career, although Jim himself seemed to take it awfully hard.
We had all known them both for years. I went to Farmington with Bella, and Anne Brown was her matron of honor when she married Jim. My first winter out, Jimmy had paid me a lot of attention. He painted my portrait in oils and had a studio tea to exhibit it. It was a very nice picture, but it did not look like me, so I stayed away from the exhibition. Jim asked me to. He said he was not a photographer, and that anyhow the rest of my features called for the nose he had given me, and that all the Greuze women have long necks. I have not.
After I had refused Jim twice he met Bella at a camp in the Adirondacks and when he came back he came at once to see me. He seemed to think I would be sorry to lose him, and he blundered over the telling for twenty minutes. Of course, no woman likes to lose a lover, no matter what she may say about it, but Jim had been getting on my nerves for some time, and I was much calmer than he expected me to be.
“If you mean,” I said finally in desperation, “that you and Bella are–are in love, why don’t you say so, Jim? I think you will find that I stand it wonderfully.”
He brightened perceptibly.
“I didn’t know how you would take it, Kit,” he said, “and I hope we will always be bully friends. You are absolutely sure you don’t care a whoop for me?”
“Absolutely,” I replied, and we shook hands on it. Then he began about Bella; it was very tiresome.
Bella is a nice girl, but I had roomed with her at school, and I was under no illusions. When Jim raved about Bella and her banjo, and Bella and her guitar, I had painful moments when I recalled Bella, learning her two songs on each instrument, and the old English ballad she had learned to play on the harp. When he said she was too good for him, I never batted an eye. And I shook hands solemnly across the tea-table again, and wished him happiness–which was sincere enough, but hopeless–and said we had only been playing a game, but that it was time to stop playing. Jim kissed my hand, and it was really very touching.
We had been the best of friends ever since. Two days before the wedding he came around from his tailor’s, and we burned all his letters to me. He would read one and say: “Here’s a crackerjack, Kit,” and pass it to me. And after I had read it we would lay it on the firelog, and Jim would say, “I am not worthy of her, Kit. I wonder if I can make her happy?” Or–“Did you know that the Duke of Belford proposed to her in London last winter?”
Of course, one has to take the woman’s word about a thing like that, but the Duke of Belford had been mad about Maude Richard all that winter.
You can see that the burning of the letters, which was meant to be reminiscently sentimental, a sort of
how-silly-we-were-but-it-is-all-over-now occasion, became actually a two hours’ eulogy of Bella. And just when I was bored to death, the Mercer girls dropped in and heard Jim begin to read one commencing “dearest Kit.” And the next day after the rehearsal dinner, they told Bella!
There was very nearly no wedding at all. Bella came to see me in a frenzy the next morning and threw Jim and his two-hundred odd pounds in my face, and although I explained it all over and over, she never quite forgave me. That was what made it so hard later–the situation would have been bad enough without that complication.
They went abroad on their wedding journey, and stayed several months. And when Jim came back he was fatter than ever. Everybody noticed it. Bella had a gymnasium fitted up in a corner of the studio, but he would not use it. He smoked a pipe and painted all day, and drank beer and WOULD eat starches or whatever it is that is fattening. But he adored Bella, and he was madly jealous of her. At dinners he used to glare at the man who took her in, although it did not make him thin. Bella was flirting, too, and by the time they had been married a year, people hitched their chairs together and dropped their voices when they were mentioned.
Well, on the anniversary of the day Bella left him–oh yes, she left him finally. She was intense enough about some things, and she said it got on her nerves to have everybody chuckle when they asked for her husband. They would say, “Hello, Bella! How’s Bubbles? Still banting?” And Bella would try to laugh and say, “He swears his tailor says his waist is smaller, but if it is he must be growing hollow in the back.”
But she got tired of it at last. Well, on the second anniversary of Bella’s departure, Jimmy was feeling pretty glum, and as I say, I am very fond of Jim. The divorce had just gone through and Bella had taken her maiden name again and had had an operation for appendicitis. We heard afterward that they didn’t find an appendix, and that the one they showed her in a glass jar WAS NOT HERS! But if Bella ever suspected, she didn’t say. Whether the appendix was anonymous or not, she got box after box of flowers that were, and of course every one knew that it was Jim who sent them.
To go back to the anniversary, I went to Rothberg’s to see the collection of antique furniture–mother was looking for a sideboard for father’s birthday in March–and I met Jimmy there, boring into a worm-hole in a seventeenth-century bedpost with the end of a match, and looking his nearest to sad. When he saw me he came over.
“I’m blue today, Kit,” he said, after we had shaken hands. “Come and help me dig bait, and then let’s go fishing. If there’s a worm in every hole in that bedpost, we could go into the fish business. It’s a good business.”
“Better than painting?” I asked. But he ignored my gibe and swelled up alarmingly in order to sigh.
“This is the worst day of the year for me,” he affirmed, staring straight ahead, “and the longest. Look at that crazy clock over there. If you want to see your life passing away, if you want to see the steps by which you are marching to eternity, watch that clock marking the time. Look at that infernal hand staying quiet for sixty seconds and then jumping forward to catch up with the procession. Ugh!”
“See here, Jim,” I said, leaning forward, “you’re not well. You can’t go through the rest of the day like this. I know what you’ll do; you’ll go home to play Grieg on the pianola, and you won’t eat any dinner.” He looked guilty.
“Not Grieg,” he protested feebly. “Beethoven.”
“You’re not going to do either,” I said with firmness. “You are going right home to unpack those new draperies that Harry Bayles sent you from Shanghai, and you are going to order dinner for eight–that will be two tables of bridge. And you are not going to touch the pianola.”
He did not seem enthusiastic, but he rose and picked up his hat, and stood looking down at me where I sat on an old horse-hair covered sofa.
“I wish to thunder I had married you!” he said savagely. “You’re the finest girl I know, Kit, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, and you are going to throw yourself away on Jack Manning, or Max, or some other–“
“Nothing of the sort,” I said coldly, “and the fact that you didn’t marry me does not give you the privilege of abusing my friends. Anyhow, I don’t like you when you speak like that.”
Jim took me to the door and stopped there to sigh.
“I haven’t been well,” he said heavily. “Don’t eat, don’t sleep. Wouldn’t you think I’d lose flesh? Kit”–he lowered his voice solemnly–“I have gained two pounds!”
I said he didn’t look it, which appeared to comfort him somewhat, and, because we were old friends, I asked him where Bella was. He said he thought she was in Europe, and that he had heard she was going to marry Reggie Wolfe. Then he signed again, muttered something about ordering the funeral baked meats to be prepared and left me.
That was my entire share in the affair. I was the victim, both of circumstances and of their plot, which was mad on the face of it.
During the entire time they never once let me forget that I got up the dinner, that I telephoned around for them. They asked me why I couldn’t cook–when not one of them knew one side of a range from the other. And for Anne Brown to talk the way she did–saying I had always been crazy about Jim, and that she believed I had known all along that his aunt was coming–for Anne to talk like that was sheer idiocy. Yes, there was an aunt. The Japanese butler started the trouble, and Aunt Selina carried it along.
Chapter II. THE WAY IT BEGAN
It makes me angry every time I think how I tried to make that dinner a success. I canceled a theater engagement, and I took the Mercer girls in the electric brougham father had given me for Christmas. Their chauffeur had been gone for hours with their machine, and they had telephoned all the police stations without success. They were afraid that there had been an awful smash; they could easily have replaced Bartlett, as Lollie said, but it takes so long to get new parts for those foreign cars.
Jim had a house well up-town, and it stood just enough apart from the other houses to be entirely maddening later. It was a three-story affair, with a basement kitchen and servants’ dining room. Then, of course, there were cellars, as we found out afterward. On the first floor there was a large square hall, a formal reception room, behind it a big living room that was also a library, then a den, and back of all a Georgian dining room, with windows high above the ground. On the top floor Jim had a studio, like every other one I ever saw–perhaps a little mussier. Jim was really a grind at his painting, and there were cigarette ashes and palette knives and buffalo rugs and shields everywhere. It is strange, but when I think of that terrible house, I always see the halls, enormous, covered with heavy rugs, and stairs that would have taken six housemaids to keep in proper condition. I dream about those stairs, stretching above me in a Jacob’s ladder of shining wood and Persian carpets, going up, up, clear to the roof.
The Dallas Browns walked; they lived in the next block. And they brought with them a man named Harbison, that no one knew. Anne said he would be great sport, because he was terribly serious, and had the most exaggerated ideas of society, and loathed extravagance, and built bridges or something. She had put away her cigarettes since he had been with them–he and Dallas had been college friends–and the only chance she had to smoke was when she was getting her hair done. And she had singed off quite a lot–a burnt offering, she called it.
“My dear,” she said over the telephone, when I invited her, “I want you to know him. He’ll be crazy about you. That type of man, big and deadly earnest, always falls in love with your type of girl, the appealing sort, you know. And he has been too busy, up to now, to know what love is. But mind, don’t hurt him; he’s a dear boy. I’m half in love with him myself, and Dallas trots around at his heels like a poodle.”
But all Anne’s geese are swans, so I thought little of the Harbison man except to hope that he played respectable bridge, and wouldn’t mark the cards with a steel spring under his finger nail, as one of her “finds” had done.
We all arrived about the same time, and Anne and I went upstairs together to take off our wraps in what had been Bella’s dressing room. It was Anne who noticed the violets.
“Look at that!” she nudged me, when the maid was examining her wrap before she laid it down. “What did I tell you, Kit? He’s still quite mad about her.”
Jim had painted Bella’s portrait while they were going up the Nile on their wedding trip. It looked quite like her, if you stood well off in the middle of the room and if the light came from the right. And just beneath it, in a silver vase, was a bunch of violets. It was really touching, and violets were fabulous. It made me want to cry, and to shake Bella soundly, and to go down and pat Jim on his generous shoulder, and tell him what a good fellow I thought him, and that Bella wasn’t worth the dust under his feet. I don’t know much about psychology, but it would be interesting to know just what effect those violets and my sympathy for Jim had in influencing my decision a half hour later. It is not surprising, under the circumstances, that for some time after the odor of violets made me ill.
We all met downstairs in the living room, quite informally, and Dallas was banging away at the pianola, tramping the pedals with the delicacy and feeling of a football center rush kicking a goal. Mr. Harbison was standing near the fire, a little away from the others, and he was all that Anne had said and more in appearance. He was tall–not too tall, and very straight. And after one got past the oddity of his face being bronze-colored above his white collar, and of his brown hair being sun-bleached on top until it was almost yellow, one realized that he was very handsome. He had what one might call a resolute nose and chin, and a pleasant, rather humorous, mouth. And he had blue eyes that were, at that moment, wandering with interest over the lot of us. Somebody shouted his name to me above the Tristan and Isolde music, and I held out my hand.
Instantly I had the feeling one sometimes has, of having done just that same thing, with the same surroundings, in the same place, years before, I was looking up at him, and he was staring down at me and holding my hand. And then the music stopped and he was saying:
“Where was it?”
“Where was what?” I asked. The feeling was stronger than ever with his voice.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, and let my hand drop. “Just for a second I had an idea that we had met before somewhere, a long time ago. I suppose–no, it couldn’t have happened, or I should remember.” He was smiling, half at himself.
“No,” I smiled back at him. “It didn’t happen, I’m afraid–unless we dreamed it.”
“I felt that way, too, for a moment.”
“The Brushwood Boy!” he said with conviction. “Perhaps we will find a common dream life, where we knew each other. You remember the Brushwood Boy loved the girl for years before they really met.” But this was a little too rapid, even for me.
“Nothing so sentimental, I’m afraid,” I retorted. “I have had exactly the same sensation sometimes when I have sneezed.”
Betty Mercer captured him then and took him off to see Jim’s newest picture. Anne pounced on me at once.
“Isn’t he delicious?” she demanded. “Did you ever see such shoulders? And such a nose? And he thinks we are parasites, cumberers of the earth, Heaven knows what. He says every woman ought to know how to earn her living, in case of necessity! I said I could make enough at bridge, and he thought I was joking! He’s a dear!” Anne was enthusiastic.
I looked after him. Oddly enough the feeling that we had met before stuck to me. Which was ridiculous, of course, for we learned afterward that the nearest we ever came to meeting was that our mothers had been school friends! Just then I saw Jim beckoning to me crazily from the den. He looked quite yellow, and he had been running his fingers through his hair.
“For Heaven’s sake, come in, Kit!” he said. “I need a cool head. Didn’t I tell you this is my calamity day?”
“Cook gone?” I asked with interest. I was starving.
He closed the door and took up a tragic attitude in front of the fire. “Did you ever hear of Aunt Selina?” he demanded.
“I knew there WAS one,” I ventured, mindful of certain gossip as to whence Jimmy derived the Wilson income.
Jim himself was too worried to be cautious. He waved a brazen hand at the snug room, at the Japanese prints on the walls, at the rugs, at the teakwood cabinets and the screen inlaid with pearl and ivory.
“All this,” he said comprehensively, “every bite I eat, clothes I wear, drinks I drink–you needn’t look like that; I don’t drink so darned much–everything comes from Aunt Selina–buttons,” he finished with a groan.
“Selina Buttons,” I said reflectively. “I don’t remember ever having known any one named Buttons, although I had a cat once–“
“Damn the cat!” he said rudely. “Her name isn’t Buttons. Her name is Caruthers, my Aunt Selina Caruthers, and the money comes from buttons.”
“It’s an old business,” he went on, with something of proprietary pride. “My grandfather founded it in 1775. Made buttons for the Continental Army.”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “They melted the buttons to make bullets, didn’t they? Or they melted bullets to make buttons? Which was it?”
But again he interrupted.
“It’s like this,” he went on hurriedly. “Aunt Selina believes in me. She likes pictures, and she wanted me to paint, if I could. I’d have given up long ago–oh, I know what you think of my work–but for Aunt Selina. She has encouraged me, and she’s done more than that; she’s paid the bills.”
“Dear Aunt Selina,” I breathed.
“When I got married,” Jim persisted, “Aunt Selina doubled my allowance. I always expected to sell something, and begin to make money, and in the meantime what she advanced I considered as a loan.” He was eyeing me defiantly, but I was growing serious. It was evident from the preamble that something was coming.
“To understand, Kit,” he went on dubiously, “you would have to know her. She won’t stand for divorce. She thinks it is a crime.”
“What!” I sat up. I have always regarded divorce as essentially disagreeable, like castor oil, but necessary.
“Oh, you know well enough what I’m driving at,” he burst out savagely. “She doesn’t know Bella has gone. She thinks I am living in a little domestic heaven, and–she is coming tonight to hear me flap my wings.”
I don’t think Jimmy had known that Dallas Brown had come in and was listening. I am sure I had not. Hearing his chuckle at the doorway brought us up with a jerk.
“Where has Aunt Selina been for the last two or three years?” he asked easily.
Jim turned, and his face brightened.
“Europe. Look here, Dal, you’re a smart chap. She’ll only be here about four hours. Can’t you think of some way to get me out of this? I want to let her down easy, too. I’m mighty fond of Aunt Selina. Can’t we–can’t I say Bella has a headache?”
“Gone out of town?” Jim was desperate.
“And you with a houseful of dinner guests! Try again, Jim.”
“I have it,” Jim said suddenly. “Dallas, ask Anne if she won’t play hostess for tonight. Be Mrs. Wilson pro tem. Anne would love it. Aunt Selina never saw Bella. Then, afterward, next year, when I’m hung in the Academy and can stand on my feet”–(“Not if you’re hung,” Dallas interjected.)–I’ll break the truth to her.”
But Dallas was not enthusiastic.
“Anne wouldn’t do at all,” he declared. “She’d be talking about the kids before she knew it, and patting me on the head.” He said it complacently; Anne flirts, but they are really devoted.
“One of the Mercer girls?” I suggested, but Jimmy raised a horrified hand.
“You don’t know Aunt Selina,” he protested. “I couldn’t offer Leila in the gown she’s got on, unless she wore a shawl, and Betty is too fair.”
Anne came in just then, and the whole story had to be told again to her. She was ecstatic. She said it was good enough for a play, and that of course she would be Mrs. Jimmy for that length of time.
“You know,” she finished, “if it were not for Dal, I would be Mrs. Jimmy for ANY length of time. I have been devoted to you for years, Billiken.”
But Dallas refused peremptorily.
“I’m not jealous,” he explained, straightening and throwing out his chest, “but–well, you don’t look the part Anne. You’re–you are growing matronly, not but what you suit ME all right. And then I’d forget and call you ‘mammy,’ which would require explanation. I think it’s up to you, Kit.”
“I shall do nothing of the sort!” I snapped. “It’s ridiculous!”
“I dare you!” said Dallas.
I refused. I stood like a rock while the storm surged around me and beat over me. I must say for Jim that he was merely pathetic. He said that my happiness was first; that he would not give me an uncomfortable minute for anything on earth; and that Bella had been perfectly right to leave him, because he was a sinking ship, and deserved to be turned out penniless into the world. After which mixed figure, he poured himself something to drink, and his hands were shaking.
Dal and Anne stood on each side of him and patted him on the shoulders and glared across at me. I felt that if I was a rock, Jim’s ship had struck on me and was sinking, as he said, because of me. I began to crumble.
“What–what time does she leave?” I asked, wavering.
“Ten: nine; KIT, are you going to do it?”
“No!” I gave a last clutch at my resolution. “People who do that kind of thing always get into trouble. She might miss her train. She’s almost certain to miss her train.”
“You’re temporizing,” Dallas said sternly. “We won’t let her miss her train; you can be sure of that.”
“Jim,” Anne broke in suddenly, “hasn’t she a picture of Bella? There’s not the faintest resemblance between Bella and Kit.”
Jim became downcast again. “I sent her a miniature of Bella a couple of years ago,” he said despondently. “Did it myself.”
But Dal said he remembered the miniature, and it looked more like me than Bella, anyhow. So we were just where we started. And down inside of me I had a premonition that I was going to do just what they wanted me to do, and get into all sorts of trouble, and not be thanked for it after all. Which was entirely correct. And then Leila Mercer came and banged at the door and said that dinner had been announced ages ago and that everybody was famishing. With the hurry and stress, and poor Jim’s distracted face, I weakened.
“I feel like a cross between an idiot and a criminal,” I said shortly, “and I don’t know particularly why every one thinks I should be the victim for the sacrifice. But if you will promise to get her off early to her train, and if you will stand by me and not leave me alone with her, I–I might try it.”
“Of course, we’ll stand by you!” they said in chorus. “We won’t let you stick!” And Dal said, “You’re the right sort of girl, Kit. And after it’s all over, you’ll realize that it’s the biggest kind of lark. Think how you are saving the old lady’s feeling! When you are an elderly person yourself, Kit, you will appreciate what you are doing tonight.”
Yes, they said they would stand by me, and that I was a heroine and the only person there clever enough to act the part, and that they wouldn’t let me stick! I am not bitter now, but that is what they promised. Oh, I am not defending myself; I suppose I deserved everything that happened. But they told me that she would be there only between trains, and that she was deaf, and that I had an opportunity to save a fellow-being from ruin. So in the end I capitulated.
When they opened the door into the living room, Max Reed had arrived and was helping to hide a decanter and glasses, and somebody said a cab was at the door.
And that was the way it began.
Chapter III. I MIGHT HAVE KNOWN IT
The minute I had consented I regretted it. After all, what were Jimmy’s troubles to me? Why should I help him impose on an unsuspecting elderly woman? And it was only putting off discovery anyhow. Sooner or later, she would learn of the divorce, and–Just at that instant my eyes fell on Mr. Harbison–Tom Harbison, as Anne called him. He was looking on with an amused, half-puzzled smile, while people were rushing around hiding the roulette wheel and things of which Miss Caruthers might disapprove, and Betty Mercer was on her knees winding up a toy bear that Max had brought her. What would he think? It was evident that he thought badly of us already–that he was contemptuously amused, and then to have to ask him to lend himself to the deception!
With a gasp I hurled myself after Jimmy, only to hear a strange voice in the hall and to know that I was too late. I was in for it, whatever was coming. It was Aunt Selina who was coming–along the hall, followed by Jim, who was mopping his face and trying not to notice the paralyzed silence in the library.
Aunt Selina met me in the doorway. To my frantic eyes she seemed to tower above us by at least a foot, and beside her Jimmy was a red, perspiring cherub.
“Here she is,” Jimmy said, from behind a temporary eclipse of black cloak and traveling bag. He was on top of the situation now, and he was mendaciously cheerful. He had NOT said, “Here is my wife.” That would have been a lie. No, Jimmy merely said, “Here she is.” If Aunt Selina chose to think me Bella, was it not her responsibility? And if I chose to accept the situation, was it not mine? Dallas Brown came forward gravely as Aunt Selina folded over and kissed me, and surreptitiously patted me with one hand while he held out the other to Miss Caruthers. I loathed him!
“We always expect something unusual from James, Miss Caruthers,” he said, with his best manner, “but THIS–this is beyond our wildest dreams.”
Well, it’s too awful to linger over. Anne took her upstairs and into Bella’s bedroom. It was a fancy of Jim’s to leave that room just as Bella had left it, dusty dance cards and favors hanging around and a pair of discarded slippers under the bed. I don’t think it had been swept since Bella left it. I believe in sentiment, but I like it brushed and dusted and the cobwebs off of it, and when Aunt Selina put down her bonnet, it stirred up a gray-white cloud that made her cough. She did not say anything, but she looked around the room grimly, and I saw her run her finger over the back of a chair before she let Hannah, the maid, put her cloak on it.
Anne looked frightened. She ran into Bella’s bath and wet the end of a towel and when Hannah was changing Aunt Selina’s collar–her concession to evening dress–Anne wiped off the obvious places on the furniture. She did it stealthily, but Aunt Selina saw her in the glass.
“What’s that young woman’s name?” she asked me sharply, when Anne had taken the towel out to hide it.
“Anne Brown, Mrs. Dallas Brown,” I replied meekly. Every one replied meekly to Aunt Selina.
“Does she live here?”
“Oh, no,” I said airily. “They are here to dinner, she and her husband. They are old friends of Jim’s–and mine.”
“Seems to have a good eye for dirt,” said Aunt Selina and went on fastening her brooch. When she was finally ready, she took a bead purse from somewhere about her waist and took out a half dollar. She held it up before Hannah’s eyes.
“Tomorrow morning,” she said sternly, “You take off that white cap and that fol-de-rol apron and that black henrietta cloth, and put on a calico wrapper. And when you’ve got this room aired and swept, Mrs. Wilson will give you this.”
Hannah took two steps back and caught hold of a chair; she stared helplessly from Aunt Selina to the half dollar, and then at me. Anne was trying not to catch my eye.
“And another thing,” Aunt Selina said, from the head of the stairs, “I sent those towels over from Ireland. Tell her to wash and bleach the one Mrs. What’s-her-name Brown used as a duster.”
Anne was quite crushed as we went down the stairs. I turned once, half-way down, and her face was a curious mixture of guilt and hopeless wrath. Over her shoulder, I could see Hannah, wide-eyed and puzzled, staring after us.
Jim presented everybody, and then he went into the den and closed the door and we heard him unlock the cellarette. Aunt Selina looked at Leila’s bare shoulders and said she guessed she didn’t take cold easily, and conversation rather languished. Max Reed was looking like a thundercloud, and he came over to me with a lowering expression that I had learned to dread in him.
“What fool nonsense is this?” he demanded. “What in the world possessed you, Kit, to put yourself in such an equivocal position? Unless”–he stopped and turned a little white–“unless you are going to marry Jim.”
I am sorry for Max. He is such a nice boy, and good looking, too, if only he were not so fierce, and did not want to make love to me. No matter what I do, Max always disapproves of it. I have always had a deeply rooted conviction that if I should ever in a weak moment marry Max, he would disapprove of that, too, before I had done it very long.
“Are you?” he demanded, narrowing his eyes–a sign of unusually bad humor.
“Am I what?”
“Going to marry him?”
“If you mean Jim,” I said with dignity, “I haven’t made up my mind yet. Besides, he hasn’t asked me.”
Aunt Selina had been talking Woman’s Suffrage in front of the fireplace, but now she turned to me.
“Is this the vase Cousin Jane Whitcomb sent you as a wedding present?” she demanded, indicating a hideous urn-shaped affair on the mantel. It came to me as an inspiration that Jim had once said it was an ancestral urn, so I said without hesitation that it was. And because there was a pause and every one was looking at us, I added that it was a beautiful thing.
Aunt Selina sniffed.
“Hideous!” she said. “It looks like Cousin Jane, shape and coloring.”
Then she looked at it more closely, pounced on it, turned it upside down and shook it. A card fell out, which Dallas picked up and gave her with a bow. Jim had come out of the den and was dancing wildly around and beckoning to me. By the time I had made out that that was NOT the vase Cousin Jane had sent us as a wedding present, Aunt Selina had examined the card. Then she glared across at me and, stooping, put the card in the fire. I did not understand at all, but I knew I had in some way done the unforgivable thing. Later, Dal told me it was HER card, and that she had sent the vase to Jim at Christmas, with a generous check inside. When she straightened from the fireplace, it was to a new theme, which she attacked with her usual vigor. The vase incident was over, but she never forgot it. She proved that she never did when she sent me two urn-shaped vases with Paul and Virginia on them, when I–that is, later on.
“The Cause in England has made great strides,” she announced from the fireplace. “Soon the hand that rocks the cradle will be the hand that actually rules the world.” Here she looked at me.
“I’m not up on such things,” Max said blandly, having recovered some of his good humor, “but–isn’t it usually a foot that rocks the cradle?”
Aunt Selina turned on him and Mr. Harbison, who were standing together, with a snort.
“What have you, or YOU, ever done for the independence of woman?” she demanded.
Mr. Harbison smiled. He had been looking rather grave until then. “We have at least remained unmarried,” he retorted. And then dinner was again announced.
He was to take me out, and he came across the room to where I sat collapsed in a chair, and bent over me.
“Do you know,” he said, looking down at me with his clear, disconcerting gaze, “do you know that I have just grasped the situation? There was such a noise that I did not hear your name, and I am only realizing now that you are my hostess! I don’t know why I got the impression that this was a bachelor establishment, but I did. Odd, wasn’t it?”
I positively couldn’t look away from him. My features seemed frozen, and my eyes were glued to his. As for telling him the truth–well, my tongue refused to move. I intended to tell him during dinner if I had an opportunity; I honestly did. But the more I looked at him and saw how candid his eyes were, and how stern his mouth might be, the more I shivered at the plunge. And, of course, as everybody knows now, I didn’t tell him at all. And every moment I expected that awful old woman to ask me what I paid my cook, and when I had changed the color of my hair–Bella’s being black.
Dinner was a half hour late when we finally went out, Jimmy leading off with Aunt Selina, and I, as hostess, trailing behind the procession with Mr. Harbison. Dallas took in the two Mercer girls, for we were one man short, and Max took Anne. Leila Mercer was so excited that she wriggled, and as for me, the candles and the orchids–everything–danced around in a circle, and I just seemed to catch the back of my chair as it flew past. Jim had ordered away the wines and brought out some weak and cheap Chianti. Dallas looked gloomy at the change, but Jim explained in an undertone that Aunt Selina didn’t approve of expensive vintages. Naturally, the meal was glum enough.
Aunt Selina had had her dinner on the train, so she spent her time in asking me questions the length of the table, and in getting acquainted with me. She had brought a bottle of some sort of medicine downstairs with her, and she took a claret-glassful, while she talked. The stuff was called Pomona; shall I ever forget it?
It was Mr. Harbison who first noticed Takahiro. Jimmy’s Jap had been the only thing in the menage that Bella declared she had hated to leave. But he was doing the strangest things: his little black eyes shifted nervously, and he looked queer.
“What’s wrong with him?” Mr. Harbison asked me finally, when he saw that I noticed. “Is he ill?”
Then Aunt Selina’s voice from the other end of the table:
“Bella,” she called, in a high shrill tone, “do you let James eat cucumbers?”
“I think he must be,” I said hurriedly aside to Mr. Harbison. “See how his hands shake!” But Selina would not be ignored.
“Cucumbers and strawberries,” she repeated impressively. “I was saying, Bella, that cucumbers have always given James the most fearful indigestion. And yet I see you serve them at your table. Do you remember what I wrote you to give him when he has his dreadful spells?”
I was quite speechless; every one was looking, and no one could help. It was clear Jim was racking his brain, and we sat staring desperately at each other across the candles. Everything I had ever known faded from me, eight pairs of eyes bored into me, Mr. Harbison’s politely amused.
“I don’t remember,” I said at last. “Really, I don’t believe–” Aunt Selina smiled in a superior way.
“Now, don’t you recall it?” she insisted. “I said:’Baking soda in water taken internally for cucumbers; baking soda and water externally, rubbed on, when he gets that dreadful, itching strawberry rash.'”
I believe the dinner went on. Somebody asked Aunt Selina how much over-charge she had paid in foreign hotels, and after that she was as harmless as a dove.
Then half way through the dinner we heard a crash in Takahiro’s pantry, and when he did not appear again, Jim got up and went out to investigate. He was gone quite a little while, and when he came back he looked worried.
“Sick,” he replied to our inquiring glances. “One of the maids will come in. They have sent for a doctor.”
Aunt Selina was for going out at once and “fixing him up,” as she put it, but Dallas gently interfered.
“I wouldn’t, Miss Caruthers,” he said, in the deferential manner he had adopted toward her. “You don’t know what it may be. He’s been looking spotty all evening.”
“It might be scarlet fever,” Max broke in cheerfully. “I say, scarlet fever on a Mongolian–what color would he be, Jimmy? What do yellow and red make? Green?”
“Orange,” Jim said shortly. “I wish you people would remember that we are trying to eat.”
The fact was, however, that no one was really eating, except Mr. Harbison who had given up trying to understand us, considering, no doubt, our subdued excitement as our normal condition. Ages afterward I learned that he thought my face almost tragic that night, and that he supposed from the way I glared across the table, that I had quarreled with my husband!
“I am afraid you are not well,” he said at last, noticing my food untouched on my plate. “We should not have come, any of us.”
“I am perfectly well,:” I replied feverishly. “I am never ill. I–I ate a late luncheon.”
He glanced at me keenly. “Don’t let them stay and play bridge tonight,” he urged. “Miss Caruthers can be an excuse, can she not? And you are really fagged. You look it.”
“I think it is only ill humor,” I said, looking directly at him. “I am angry at myself. I have done something silly, and I hate to be silly.”
Max would have said “Impossible,” or something else trite. The Harbison man looked at me with interested, serious eyes.
“Is it too late to undo it?” he asked.
And then and there I determined that he should never know the truth. He could go back to South America and build bridges and make love to the Spanish girls (or are they Spanish down there?) and think of me always as a married woman, married to a dilettante artist, inclined to be stout–the artist, not I–and with an Aunt Selina Caruthers who made buttons and believed in the Cause. But never, NEVER should he think of me as a silly little fool who pretended that she was the other man’s wife and had a lump in her throat because when a really nice man came along, a man who knew something more than polo and motors, she had to carry on the deception to keep his respect, and be sedate and matronly, and see him change from perfect open admiration at first to a hands-off-she-is-my-host’s-wife attitude at last.
“It can never be undone,” I said soberly.
Well, that’s the picture as nearly as I can draw it: a round table with a low centerpiece of orchids in lavenders and pink, old silver candlesticks with filigree shades against the somber wainscoting; nine people, two of them unhappy–Jim and I; one of them complacent–Aunt Selina; one puzzled–Mr. Harbison; and the rest hysterically mirthful. Add one sick Japanese butler and grind in the mills of the gods.
Every one promptly forgot Takahiro in the excitement of the game we were all playing. Finally, however, Aunt Selina, who seemed to have Takahiro on her mind, looked up from her plate.
“That Jap was speckled,” she asserted. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s measles. Has he been sniffling, James?”
“Has he been sniffling?” Jim threw across at me.
“I hadn’t noticed it,” I said meekly, while the others choked.
Max came to the rescue. “She refused to eat it,” he explained, distinctly and to everybody, apropos absolutely of nothing. “It said on the box,’ready cooked and predigested.’ She declared she didn’t care who cooked it, but she wanted to know who predigested it.”
As every one wanted to laugh, every one did it then, and under cover of the noise I caught Anne’s eye, and we left the dining room. The men stayed, and by the very firmness with which the door closed behind us, I knew that Dallas and Max were bringing out the bottles that Takahiro had hidden. I was seething. When Aunt Selina indicated a desire to go over the house (it was natural that she should want to; it was her house, in a way) I excused myself for a minute and flew back to the dining room.
It was as I had expected. Jim hadn’t cheered perceptibly, and the rest were patting him on the back, and pouring things out for him, and saying, “Poor old Jim” in the most maddening way. And the Harbison man was looking more and more puzzled, and not at all hilarious.
I descended on them like a thunderbolt.
“That’s it,:” I cried shrewishly, with my back against the door. “Leave her to me, all of you, and pat each other on the back, and say it’s gone splendidly! Oh, I know you, every one!” Mr. Harbison got up and pulled out a chair, but I couldn’t sit; I folded my arms on the back. “After a while, I suppose, you’ll slip upstairs, the four of you, and have your game.” They looked guilty. “But I will block that right now. I am going to stay–here. If Aunt Selina wants me, she can find me–here!”
The first indication those men had that Mr. Harbison didn’t know the state of affairs was when he turned and faced them.
“Mrs. Wilson is quite right,” he said gravely. “We’re a selfish lot. If Miss Caruthers is a responsibility, let us share her.”
“To arms!” Jim said, with an affectation of lightness, as they put their glasses down, and threw open the door. Dal’s retort, “Whose?” was lost in the confusion, and we went into the library. On the way Dallas managed to speak to me.
“If Harbison doesn’t know, don’t tell him,” he said in an undertone. “He’s a queer duck, in some ways; he mightn’t think it funny.”
“Funny,” I choked. “It’s the least funny thing I ever experienced. Deceiving that Harbison man isn’t so bad–he thinks me crazy, anyhow. He’s been staring his eyes out at me–“
“I don’t wonder. You’re really lovely tonight, Kit, and you look like a vixen.”
“But to deceive that harmless old lady–well, thank goodness, it’s nine, and she leaves in an hour or so.”
But she didn’t and that’s the story.
Chapter IV. THE DOOR WAS CLOSED
It was infuriating to see how much enjoyment every one but Jim and myself got out of the situation. They howled with mirth over the feeblest jokes, and when Max told a story without any point whatever, they all had hysteria. Immediately after dinner Aunt Selina had begun on the family connection again, and after two bad breaks on my part, Jim offered to show her the house. The Mercer girls trailed along, unwilling to lose any of the possibilities. They said afterward that it was terrible: she went into all the closets, and ran her hand over the tops of doors and kept getting grimmer and grimmer. In the studio they came across a life study Jim was doing and she shut her eyes and made the girls go out while he covered it with a drapery. Lollie! Who did the Bacchante dance at three benefits last winter and was learning a new one called “Eve”!
When they heard Aunt Selina on the second floor, Anne, Dal and Max sneaked up to the studio for cigarettes, which left Mr. Harbison to me. I was in the den, sitting in a low chair by the wood fire when he came in. He hesitated in the doorway.
“Would you prefer being alone, or may I come in?” he asked. “Don’t mind being frank. I know you are tired.”
“I have a headache, and I am sulking,” I said unpleasantly, “but at least I am not actively venomous. Come in.”
So he came in and sat down across the hearth from me, and neither of us said anything. The firelight flickered over the room, bringing out the faded hues of the old Japanese prints on the walls, gleaming in the mother-of-pearl eyes of the dragon on the screen, setting a grotesque god on a cabinet to nodding. And it threw into relief the strong profile of the man across from me, as he stared at the fire.
“I am afraid I am not very interesting,” I said at last, when he showed no sign of breaking the silence. “The–the illness of the butler and–Miss Caruthers’ arrival, have been upsetting.”
He suddenly roused with a start from a brown reverie.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, “I–oh, of course not! I was wondering if I–if you were offended at what I said earlier in the evening; the–Brushwood Boy, you know, and all that.”
“Offended?” I repeated, puzzled.
“You see, I have been living out of the world so long, and never seeing any women but Indian squaws”–so there were no Spanish girls!–“that I’m afraid I say what comes into my mind without circumlocution. And then–I did not know you were married.”
“No, oh, no,” I said hastily. “But, of course, the more a woman is married–I mean, you can not say too many nice things to married women. They–need them, you know.”
I had floundered miserably, with his eyes on me, and I half expected him to be shocked, or to say that married women should be satisfied with the nice things their husbands say to them. But he merely remarked apropos of nothing, or following a line of thought he had not voiced, that it was trite but true that a good many men owed their success in life to their wives.
“And a good many owe their wives to their success in life,” I retorted cynically. At which he stared at me again.
It was then that the real complexity of the situation began to develop. Some one had rung the bell and been admitted to the library and a maid came to the door of the den. When she saw us she stopped uncertainly. Even then it struck me that she looked odd, and she was not in uniform. However, I was not informed at that time about bachelor establishments, and the first thing she said, when she had asked to speak to me in the hall, knocked her and her clothes clear out of my head. Evidently she knew me.
“Miss McNair,” she said in a low tone. “There is a lady in the drawing room, a veiled person, and she is asking for Mr. Wilson.”
“Can you not find him?” I asked. “He is in the house, probably in the studio.”
The girl hesitated.
“Excuse me, miss, but Miss Caruthers–“
Then I saw the situation.
“Never mind,” I said. “Close the door into the drawing room, and I will tell Mr. Wilson.”
But as the girl turned toward the doorway, the person in question appeared in it, and raised her veil. I was perfectly paralyzed. It was Bella! Bella in a fur coat and a veil, with the most tragic eyes I ever saw and entirely white except for a dab of rouge in the middle of each cheek. We stared at each other without speech. The maid turned and went down the hall, and with that Bella came over to me and clutched me by the arm.
“Who was being carried out into that ambulance?” she demanded, glaring at me with the most awful intensity.
“I’m sure I don’t know, Bella,” I said, wriggling away from her fingers. “What in the world are you doing here? I thought you were in Europe.”
“You are hiding something from me!” she accused. “It is Jim! I see it in your face.”
“Well, it isn’t,” I snapped. “It seems to me, really, Bella, that you and Jim ought to be able to manage your own affairs, without dragging me in.” It was not pleasant, but if she was suffering, so was I. “Jim is as well as he ever was. He’s upstairs somewhere. I’ll send for him.”
She gripped me again, and held on while her color came back.
“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” she said, and she had quite got hold of herself again. “I do not want to see him: I hope you don’t think, Kit, that I came here to see James Wilson. Why, I have forgotten that there IS such a person, and you know it.”
Somebody upstairs laughed, and I was growing nervous. What if Aunt Selina should come down, or Mr. Harbison come out of the den?
“Why DID you come, then, Bella?” I inquired. “He may come in.”
“I was passing in the motor,” she said, and I honestly think she hoped I would believe her, “and I saw that am–” She stopped and began again. “I thought Jim was out of town, and I came to see Takahiro,” she said brazenly. “He was devoted to me, and Evans is going to leave. I’ll tell you what to do, Kit. I’ll go back to the dining room, and you send Taka there. If any one comes, I can slip into the pantry.”
“It’s immoral,” I protested. “It’s immoral to steal your–“
“My own butler!” she broke in impatiently. “You’re not usually so scrupulous, Kit. Hurry! I hear that hateful Anne Brown.”
So we slid back along the hall, and I rang for Takahiro. But no one came.
“I think I ought to tell you, Bella,” I said as we waited, and Bella was staring around the room–“I think you ought to know that Miss Caruthers is here.”
Bella shrugged her shoulders.
“Well, thank goodness,” she said, “I don’t have to see her. The only pleasant thing I remember about my year of married life is that I did NOT meet Aunt Selina.”
I rang again, but still there was no answer. And then it occurred to me that the stillness below stairs was almost oppressive. Bella was noticing things, too, for she began to fasten her veil again with a malicious little smile.
“One of the things I remember my late husband saying,” she observed, “was that HE could manage this house, and had done it for years, with flawless service. Stand on the bell, Kit.”
I did. We stood there, with the table, just as it had been left, between us, and waited for a response. Bella was growing impatient. She raised her eyebrows (she is very handsome, Bella is) and flung out her chin as if she had begun to enjoy the horrible situation.
I thought I heard a rattle of silver from the pantry just then, and I hurried to the door in a rage. But the pantry was empty of servants and full of dishes, and all the lights were out but one, which was burning dimly. I could have sworn that I saw one of the servants duck into the stairway to the basement, but when I got there the stairs were empty, and something was burning in the kitchen below.
Bella had followed me and was peering over my shoulder curiously.
“There isn’t a servant in the house,” she said triumphantly. And when we went down to the kitchen, she seemed to be right. It was in disgraceful order, and one of the bottles of wine that had ben banished from the dining room sat half empty on the floor.
“Drunk!” Bella said with conviction. But I didn’t think so. There had not been time enough, for one thing. Suddenly I remembered the ambulance that had been the cause of Bella’s appearance–for no one could believe her silly story about Takahiro. I didn’t wait to voice my suspicion to her; I simply left her there, staring helplessly at the confusion, and ran upstairs again: through the dining room, past Jimmy and Aunt Selina, past Leila Mercer and Max, who were flirting on the stairs, up, up to the servants’ bedrooms, and there my suspicions were verified. There was every evidence of a hasty flight; in three bedrooms five trunks stood locked and ominous, and the closets yawned with open doors, empty. Bella had been right; there was not a servant in the house.
As I emerged from the untidy emptiness of the servants’ wing, I met Mr. Harbison coming out of the studio.
“I wish you would let me do some of this running about for you, Mrs. Wilson,” he said gravely. “You are not well, and I can’t think of anything worse for a headache. Has the butler’s illness clogged the household machinery?”
“Worse,” I replied, trying not to breathe in gasps. “I wouldn’t be running around–like this–but there is not a servant in the house! They have gone, the entire lot.”
“That’s odd,” he said slowly. “Gone! Are you sure?”
In reply I pointed to the servants’ wing. “Trunks packed,” I said tragically, “rooms empty, kitchen and pantries, full of dishes. Did you ever hear of anything like it?”
“Never,” he asserted. “It makes me suspect–” What he suspected he did not say; instead he turned on his heel, without a word of explanation, and ran down the stairs. I stood staring after him, wondering if every one in the place had gone crazy. Then I heard Betty Mercer scream and the rest talking loud and laughing, and Mr. Harbison came up the stairs again two at a time.
“How long has that Jap been ailing, Mrs. Wilson?” he asked.
“I–I don’t know,” I replied helplessly. “What is the trouble, anyhow?”
“I think he probably has something contagious,” he said, “and it has scared the servants away. As Mr. Brown said, he looked spotty. I suggested to your husband that it might be as well to get the house emptied–in case we are correct.”
“Oh, yes, by all means,” I said eagerly. I couldn’t get away too soon. “I’ll go and get my–” Then I stopped. Why, the man wouldn’t expect me to leave; I would have to play out the wretched farce to the end!
“I’ll go down and see them off,” I finished lamely, and we went together down the stairs.
Just for the moment I forgot Bella altogether. I found Aunt Selina bonneted and cloaked, taking a stirrup cup of Pomona for her nerves, and the rest throwing on their wraps in a hurry. Downstairs Max was telephoning for his car, which wasn’t due for an hour, and Jim was walking up and down, swearing under his breath. With the prospect of getting rid of them all, and, of going home comfortably to try to forget the whole wretched affair, I cheered up quite a lot. I even played up my part of hostess, and Dallas told me, aside, that I was a brick.
Just then Jim threw open the front door.
There was a man on the top step, with his mouth full of tacks, and he was nailing something to the door, just below Jim’s Florentine bronze knocker, and standing back with his head on one side to see if it was straight.
“What are you doing?” Jim demanded fiercely, but the man only drove another tack. It was Mr. Harbison who stepped outside and read the card.
It said “Smallpox.”
“Smallpox,” Mr. Harbison read, as if he couldn’t believe it. Then he turned to us, huddled in the hall.
“It seems it wasn’t measles, after all,” he said cheerfully. “I move we get into Mr. Reed’s automobile out there, and have a vaccination party. I suppose even you blase society folk have not exhausted that kind of diversion.”
But the man on the step spat his tacks in his hand and spoke for the first time.
“No, you don’t,” he said. “Not on your life. Just step back , please, and close the door. This house is quarantined.”
Chapter V. FROM THE TREE OF LOVE
There is hardly any use trying to describe what followed. Anne Brown began to cry, and talk about the children. (She went to Europe once and stayed until they all got over the whooping cough.) And Dallas said he had a pull, because his mill controlled I forget how many votes, and the thing to do was to be quiet and comfortable and we would get out in the morning. Max took it as a huge joke, and somebody found him at the telephone, calling up his club. The Mercer girls were hysterically giggling, and Aunt Selina sat on a stiff-backed chair and took aromatic spirits of ammonia. As for Jim, he had collapsed on the lowest step of the stairs, and sat there with his head in his hands. When he did look up, he didn’t dare to look at me.
The Harbison man was arguing with the impassive individual on the top step outside, and I saw him get out his pocketbook and offer a crisp bundle of bills. But the man from the board of health only smiled and tacked at his offensive sign. After a while Mr. Harbison came in and closed the door, and we stared at one another.
“I know what I’m going to do,” I said, swallowing a lump in my throat. “I’m going to get out through a basement window at the back. I’m going home.”
“Home!” Aunt Selina gasped, jumping up and almost dropping her ammonia bottle. “My dear Bella! Home?”
Jimmy groaned at the foot of the stairs, but Anne Brown was getting over her tears and now she turned on me in a temper.
“It’s all your fault,” she said. “I was going to stay at home and get a little sleep–“
“Well, you can sleep now,” Dallas broke in. “There’ll be nothing to do but sleep.”
“I think you haven’t grasped the situation, Dal,” I said icily. “There will be plenty to do. There isn’t a servant in the house!”
“No servants!” everybody cried at once. The Mercer girls stopped giggling.
“Holy cats!” Max stopped in the act of hanging up his overcoat. “Do you mean–why, I can’t shave myself! I’ll cut my head off.”
“You’ll do more than that,” I retorted grimly. “You will carry coal and tend fires and empty ash pans, and when you are not doing any of those things there will be pots and pans to wash and beds to make.”
Then there WAS a row. We had worked back to the den now, and I stood in front of the fireplace and let the storm beat around me, and tried to look perfectly cold and indifferent, and not to see Mr. Harbison’s shocked face. No wonder he thought them a lot of savages, browbeating their hostess the way they did.
“It’s a fool thing anyhow,” Max Reed wound up, “to celebrate the anniversary of a divorce–especially ” Here he caught Jim’s eye and stopped. But I had suddenly remembered. BELLA DOWN IN THE BASEMENT!
Could anything have been worse? And of course she would have hysteria and then turn on me and blame me for it all. It all came over me at once and overwhelmed me, while Anne was crying and saying she wouldn’t cook if she starved for it, and Aunt Selina was taking off her wraps. I felt queer all over, and I sat down suddenly. Mr. Harbison was looking at me, and he brought me a glass of wine.
“It won’t be so bad as you fear,” he said comfortingly. “There will be no danger once we are vaccinated, and many hands make light work. They are pretty raw now, because the thing is new to them, but by morning they will be reconciled.”
“It isn’t the work; it is something entirely different,” I said. And it was. Bella and work could hardly be spoken in the same breath.
If I had only turned her out as she deserved to be, when she first came, instead of allowing her to carry through the wretched farce about seeing Takahiro! Or if I had only run to the basement the moment the house was quarantined, and got her out the areaway or the coal hole! And now time was flying, and Aunt Selina had me by the arm, and any moment I expected Bella to pounce on us through the doorway and the whole situation to explode with a bang.
It was after eleven before they were rational enough to discuss ways and means, and, of course, the first thing suggested was that we all adjourn below stairs and clean up after dinner. I could have slain Max Reed for the notion, and the Mercer girls for taking him up.
“Of course we will,” they said in a duet. “What a lark!” And they actually began to pin up their dinner gowns. It was Jim who stopped that.
“Oh, look here, you people,” he objected, “I’m not going to let you do that. We’ll get some servants in tomorrow. I’ll go down and put out the lights. There will be enough clean dishes for breakfast.”
It was lucky for me that they started a new discussion then and there about who would get the breakfast. In the midst of the excitement I slipped away to carry the news to Bella. She was where I had left her, and she had made herself a cup of tea, and was very much at home, which was natural.
“Do you know,” she said ominously, “that you have been away for two hours; and that I have gone through agonies of nervousness for fear Jim Wilson would come down and think I came here to see him?”
“No one would think that, Bella,” I soothed her. “Everybody knows you loathe him–Jim, too.” She looked at me over the edge of her cup.
“I’ll run along now,” she said, “since Takahiro isn’t here. And if Jim has any sense at all, he will clear out every maid in the house. I never saw such a kitchen in all my life. Well, lead the way, Kit. I suppose they are deep in bridge, or roulette, or something.”
She was fixing her veil, and I saw I would have to tell her. Personally, I would much rather have told her the house was on fire.
“Wait a minute, Bella,” I said. “You see, something queer has happened. You know this is the anniversary–well, you know what it is–and Jim was awfully glum. So we thought we would come–“
“What are you driving at?” she demanded. “You are sea-green, Kit. What’s the matter? You needn’t think I mind because Jim has a jollification to celebrate his divorce.”
“It–it was Takahiro–in the ambulance,” I blurted. “Smallpox. We–Bella, we are shut in, quarantined.”
She didn’t faint. She just sat down and stared at me, and I stared back at her. Then a miserable alarm clock on the table suddenly went off like an explosion, and Bella began to laugh. I knew what that was–hysteria. She always had attacks like that when things went wrong. I was quite despairing by that time; I hoped they would all hear her and come downstairs and take her up and put her to bed like a Christian, so she could giggle her soul out. But after a bit she quieted down and began to cry softly, and I knew the worst was over. I gave her a shake, and she was so angry that she got over it altogether.
“Kit, you are horrid,” she choked. “Don’t you see what a position I am in? I am not going upstairs to face Anne and the rest of them. You can just put me in the coal cellar.”
“Isn’t there a window you could get through?” I asked desperately. “Locking the door doesn’t shut up a whole house.”
Bella’s courage revived at that, and she said yes, there were windows, plenty of them, only she didn’t see how she could get out. And I said she would HAVE to get out, because I was playing Bella in the performance, and I didn’t care to have an understudy. Then the situation dawned on her, and she sat down and laughed herself weak in the knees. Of course she wanted to stay, then, and see the fun out. But I was firm; she would have to go, and I told her so. Things were complicated enough without her.
Well, we looked funny, no doubt, Bella in a Russian pony automobile coat over the black satin she had worn at the Clevelands’ dinner, and I in cream lace, the skirt gathered up from the kitchen floor, with Bella’s ermine pelerine around my bare shoulders, and dishes and overturned chairs everywhere.
Bella knew more about the lower regions of her ex-home than I would have thought. She opened a door in a corner and led the way through a narrow hall past the refrigerating room, to a huge, cemented cellar, with a furnace in the center, and a half-dozen electric lights making it really brilliant.
“Get a chair,” Bella said over her shoulder, excitedly. “I can get out easily here, through the coal hole. Imagine my–“
But it was my turn to grip Bella. From behind the furnace were coming the most terrible sounds, rasping noises that fairly frayed the silk of my nerves. We stood petrified for an instant. Then Bella laughed. “They are not all gone,:” she said carefully. “Some one is asleep there.”
We tiptoed to where we could see around the furnace, and, sure enough, some one WAS asleep there. Only, it was not one of the servants; it was a portly policeman, with a newspaper and an empty plate on the floor on one side, and a champagne bottle on the other. He had slid down in his chair, with his chin on his brass buttons, and his helmet had rolled a dozen feet away. Bella had to clap her hand over her mouth.
“Fairly caught!” she whispered. “Sartor Resartus, the arrester arrested. Oh, Jim and his flawless service!”
But after we got over our surprise, we saw the situation was serious. The policeman was threatening to awaken. Once he stopped snoring to yawn noisily, and we beat a hasty retreat. Bella switched off the lights in a hurry and locked the door behind us. We hardly breathed until we were back in the kitchen again, and everything quiet. And then Jimmy called my name from up above somewheres.
“I am going to call him down, Bella,” I said firmly. “Let him help you out. I’m sure I don’t see why I should have all this when the two of you–“
“Oh, no, no! Surely, Kit, you wouldn’t be so cruel!” she whispered pleadingly. “You know what he would think. He–oh, Kit, let them all get settled for the night, and then come down, like a dear, and help me out. I know loads of ways–honestly I do.”
“If I leave you here,” I debated, “what about the policeman?”
“Never mind him”–frantically. “Listen! There’s Jim up in the pantry. Run, for the sake of Heaven!”
So–I ran. At the top of the stairs I met Jimmy, very crumpled as to shirt-front and dejected as to face.
“I’ve been hunting everywhere for you,” he said dismally. “I thought you had added to the general merriment by falling downstairs and breaking your neck.”
I went past him with my chin up. Now that I had time to think about it, I was furiously angry with him.
“Kit!” he called after me appealingly, but I would not hear. Then he adopted different tactics. He took advantage of my catching my foot in the lace of my gown to pass me, and to stand with his back against the door.
“You’re not going until you hear me, Kit,” he declared miserably. “In the first place, for all you are down on me, is it my fault? Honestly, now IS IT MY FAULT?”
I refused to speak.
“I was coming home to be miserable alone,” he went on, “and–oh, I know you meant well, Kit; but YOU asked all these crazy people here.”
“Perhaps you will give me credit for some things,” I said wearily. “I did NOT give Takahiro smallpox, for instance, and–if you will permit me to mention the fact–Aunt Selina is not MY Aunt Selina.”
“That’s what I wanted to speak to you about,” Jimmy went on wretchedly, trying not to look at me. “You see, when they were rowing so about who would get the breakfast–I never saw such a lot of people; half of them never touch breakfast, but of course now they want all kinds of things–when they were talking, Aunt Selina said she knew YOU would get it, being the hostess, and responsible, besides knowing where things are kept.” He had fixed his eyes on the orchids, and he looked shrunken, actually shrunken. “I thought,” he finished, “you might give me a few pointers now, and I could come down in the morning, and–and fuss up something, coffee and so on. I would say you did it! Oh, hang it all, Kit, why don’t you say something?”
“What do you want me to say?” I demanded. “That I love to cook, and of course I’ll fix trays and carry them up in the morning to Anne Brown and Leila Mercer and the rest; and that I will have the shaving water ready–“
“I know what I’m going to do,” Jimmy said, with a sudden resolution. “Aunt Selina and her money can go to blazes. I am going right upstairs and tell her the truth, tell her who you are, what I am, and all the rest of it.” He opened the door.
“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” I gasped, catching him in time. “Don’t you dare, Jimmy Wilson! Why, what would they think of me? After letting her call me Bella, and him–Jim, if Mr. Harbison ever learns the truth–I–I will take poison. If we are going to be shut up here together, we will have to carry it on. I couldn’t stand the disgrace.”
In spite of an heroic effort, Jim looked relieved. “They have been hunting for the linen closet,” he said, more cheerfully, “and there will be room enough, I think. Harbison and I will hang out in the studio; there are two couches there. I’m afraid you’ll have to take Aunt Selina, Kit.”
“Certainly,” I said coldly. That was the way it was all along. Whenever there was something to do that no one else would undertake–any unpleasant responsibility–that entire mongrel household turned with one gesture and pointed its finger at me! Well, it is over now, and I ought not to be bitter, considering everything.
It was quite characteristic of that memorable evening (that is quite novelesque, I think) that my interview with Jimmy should have a sensational ending. He was terribly down, of course, and as I was trying to pass him to get to the door, he caught my hand.
“You’re a girl in a thousand, Kit,” he said forlornly. “If I were not so damnably, hopelessly, idiotically in love with–somebody else, I should be crazy about you.”
“Don’t be maudlin,” I retorted. “Would you mind letting my hand go?” I felt sure Bella could hear.
“Oh, come now, Kit,” he implored, “we’ve always got along so well. It’s a shame to let a thing like this make us bad friends. Aren’t you ever going to forgive me?”
“Never,” I said promptly. “When I once get away, I don’t want ever to see you again. I was never so humiliated in my life. I loathe you!”
Then I turned around, and, of course, there was Aunt Selina with her eyes protruding until you could have knocked them off with a stick, and beside her, very red and uncomfortable, Mr. Harbison!
“Bella!” she said in a shocked voice, “is that the way you speak to your husband! It is high time I came here, I think, and took a hand in this affair.”
“Oh, never mind, Aunt Selina,” Jim said, with a sheepish grin. “Kit–Bella is tired and nervous. This is a h–deuce of a situation. No–er–servants, and all that.”
But Aunt Selina did mind, and showed it. She pulled the unlucky Harbison man through the door and closed it, and then stood glaring at both of us.
“Every little quarrel is an apple knocked from the tree of love,” she announced oratorically.
“This was a very little quarrel,” Jim said, edging toward the door; “a–a green apple, Aunt Selina, a colicky little green apple.” But she was not to be diverted.
“Bella,” she said severely, “you said you loathed him. You didn’t mean that.”
“But I do!” I cried hysterically. “There isn’t any word to tell how I–how I detest him.”
Then I swept past them all and flew to Bella’s dressing room and locked myself in. Aunt Selina knocked until she was tired, then gave up and went to bed.
That was the night Anne Brown’s pearl collar was stolen!
Chapter VI. A MIGHTY POOR JOKE
Of course, one knows that there are people who in a different grade of society would be shoplifters and pickpockets. When they are restrained by obligation or environment they become a little overkeen at bridge, or take the wrong sables, or stuff a gold-backed brush into a muff at a reception. You remember the ivory dressing set that Theodora Bucknell had, fastened with fine gold chains? And the sensation it caused at the Bucknell cotillion when Mrs. Van Zire went sweeping to her carriage with two feet of gold chain hanging from the front of her wrap?
But Anne’s pearl collar was different. In the first place, instead of three or four hundred people, the suspicion had to be divided among ten. And of those ten, at least eight of us were friends, and the other two had been vouched for by the Browns and Jimmy. It was a horrible mix-up. For the necklace was gone–there couldn’t be any doubt of that–and although, as Dallas said, it couldn’t get out of the house, still, there were plenty of places to hide the thing.
The worst of our trouble really originated with Max Reed, after all. For it was Max who made the silly wager over the telephone, with Dick Bagley. He bet five hundred even that one of us, at least, would break quarantine within the next twenty-four hours, and, of course, that settled it. Dick told it around the club as a joke, and a man who owns a newspaper heard him and called up the paper. Then the paper called up the health office, after setting up a flaming scare-head, “Will Money Free Them? Board of Health versus Millionaire.”
It was almost three when the house settled down–nobody had any night clothes, although finally, through Dallas, who gave them to Anne, who gave them to the rest, we got some things of Jimmy’s–and I was still dressed. The house was perfectly quiet, and, after listening carefully, I went slowly down the stairs. There was a light in the hall, and another back in the dining room, and I got along without any trouble. But the pantry, where the stairs led down, was dark, and the wretched swinging door would not stay open.
I caught my skirt in the door as I went through, and I had to stop to loosen it. And in that awful minute I heard some one breathing just beside me. I had stooped to my gown, and I turned my head without straightening–I couldn’t have raised myself to an erect posture, for my knees were giving way under me–and just at my feet lay the still glowing end of a match!
I had to swallow twice before I could speak. Then I said sharply:
The man was so close it is a wonder I had not walked into him; his voice was right at my ear.
“I am sorry I startled you,” he said quietly. “I was afraid to speak suddenly, or move, for fear I would do–what I have done.”
It was Mr. Harbison.
“I–I thought you were–it is very late,” I managed to say, with dry lips. “Do you know where the electric switch is?”
“Mrs. Wilson!” It was clear he had not known me before. “Why, no; don’t you?”
“I am all confused,” I muttered, and beat a retreat into the dining room. There, in the friendly light, we could at least see each other, and I think he was as much impressed by the fact that I had not undressed as I was by the fact that he HAD, partly. He wore a hideous dressing gown of Jimmy’s, much too small, and his hair, parted and plastered down in the early evening, stood up in a sort of brown brush all over his head. He was trying to flatten it with his hands.
“It must be three o’clock,” he said, with polite surprise, “and the house is like a barn. You ought not to be running around with your arms uncovered, Mrs. Wilson. Surely you could have called some of us.”
“I didn’t wish to disturb any one,” I said, with distinct truth.
“I suppose you are like me,” he said. “The novelty of the situation–and everything. I got to thinking things over, and then I realized the studio was getting cold, so I thought I would come down and take a look at the furnace. I didn’t suppose any one else would think of it. But I lost myself in that pantry, stumbled against a half-open drawer, and nearly went down the dumb-waiter.” And, as if in judgment on me, at that instant came two rather terrific thumps from somewhere below, and inarticulate words, shouted rather than spoken. It was uncanny, of course, coming as it did through the register at our feet. Mr. Harbison looked startled.
“Oh, by the way,” I said, as carelessly as I could. “In the excitement, I forgot to mention it. There is a policeman asleep in the furnace room. I–I suppose we will have to keep him now,” I finished as airily as possible.
“Oh, a policeman–in the cellar,” he repeated, staring at me, and he moved toward the pantry door.
“You needn’t go down,” I said feverishly, with visions of Bella Knowles sitting on the kitchen table, surrounded by soiled dishes and all the cheerless aftermath of a dinner party. “Please don’t go down. I–it’s one of my rules–never to let a stranger go down to the kitchen. I–I’m peculiar–that way–and besides, it’s–it’s mussy.”
Bang! Crash! through the register pipe, and some language quite articulate. Then silence.
“Look here, Mrs. Wilson,” he said resolutely. “What do I care about the kitchen? I’m going down and arrest that policeman for disturbing the peace. He will have the pipes down.”
“You must not go,” I said with desperate firmness. “He–he is probably in a very dangerous state just now. We–I–locked him in.”
The Harbison man grinned and then became serious.
“Why don’t you tell me the whole thing?” he demanded. “You’ve been in trouble all evening, and–you can trust me, you know, because I am a stranger; because the minute this crazy quarantine is raised I am off to the Argentine Republic,” (perhaps he said Chili) “and because I don’t know anything at all about you. You see, I have to believe what you tell me, having no personal knowledge of any of you to go on. Now tell me–whom have you hidden in the cellar, besides the policeman?”
There was no use trying to deceive him; he was looking straight into my eyes. So I decided to make the best of a bad thing. Anyhow, it was going to require strength to get Bella through the coal hole with one arm and restrain the policeman with the other.
“Come,” I said, making a sudden resolution, and led the way down the stairs.
He said nothing when he saw Bella, for which I was grateful. She was sitting at the table, with her arms in front of her, and her head buried in them. And then I saw she was asleep. Her hat and veil laid beside her, and she had taken off her coat and draped it around her. She had rummaged out a cold pheasant and some salad, and had evidently had a little supper. Supper and a nap, while I worried myself gray-headed about her!
“She–she came in unexpectedly–something about the butler,” I explained under my breath. “And–she doesn’t want to stay. She is on bad terms with–with some of the people upstairs. You can see how impossible the situation is.”
“I doubt if we can get her out,” he said, as if the situation were quite ordinary. “However, we can try. She seems very comfortable. It’s a pity to rouse her.”
Here the prisoner in the furnace room broke out afresh. It sounded as though he had taken a lump of coal and was attacking the lock. Mr. Harbison followed the noise, and I could hear him arguing, not gently.
“Another sound,: he finished, “and you won’t get out of here at all, unless you crawl up the furnace pipe!”
When he came back, Bella was rousing. She lifted her head with her eyes shut and then opened them one at a time, blinked, and sat up. She didn’t see him at first.
“You wretch!” she said ungratefully, after she had yawned. “Do you know what time it is? And that–” Then she saw Mr. Harbison and sat staring at him.
“This is Mr. Harbison,” I said to her hastily. “He–he came with Anne and Dal and–he is shut in, too.”
By that time Bella had seen how handsome he was, and she took a hair pin out of her mouth, and arched her eyebrows, which was always Bella’s best pose.
“I am Miss Knowles,” she said sweetly (of course, the court had given her back her name),”and I stopped in tonight, thinking the house was empty, to see about a–a butler. Unfortunately, the house was quarantined just at that time, and–here I am. Surely there can not be any harm in helping me to get out?” (Pleading tone.) “I have not been exposed to any contagion, and in the exhausted state of my health the confinement would be positively dangerous.”
She rolled her eyes at him, and I could see she was making an impression. Of course she was free. She had a perfect right to marry again, but I will say this: Bella is a lot better looking by electric light than she is the next morning.
The upshot of it was that the gentleman who built bridges and looked down on society from a lofty, lonely pinnacle agreed to help one of the most gleaming members of the aforesaid society to outwit the law.
It took about fifteen minutes to quiet the policeman. Nobody ever knew what Mr. Harbison did to him, but for twenty-four hours he was quite tractable. He changed after that, but that comes later in the story. Anyhow, the Harbison man went upstairs and came down with a Bagdad curtain and a cushion to match, and took them into the furnace room, and came out and locked the door behind him, and then we were ready for Bella’s escape.
But there were four special officers and three reporters watching the house, as a result of Max Reed’s idiocy. Once, after trying all the other windows and finding them guarded, we discovered a little bit of a hole in an out-of-the-way corner that looked like a ventilator and was covered with a heavy wire screen. No prisoners ever dug their way out of a dungeon with more energy than that with which we attached that screen, hacking at it with kitchen knives, whispering like conspirators, being scratched with the ragged edges of the wire, frozen with the cold air one minute and boiling with excitement the next. And when the wire was cut, and Bella had rolled her coat up and thrust it through and was standing on a chair ready to follow, something outside that had looked like a barrel moved, and said, “Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you. It would be certain to be undignified, and probably it would be unpleasant–later.”
We coaxed and pleaded and tried to bribe, and that happened, as it turned out, to be one of the worst things we had to endure. For the whole conversation came out the next afternoon in the paper, with the most awful drawings, and the reporter said it was the flashing of the jewels we wore that first attracted his attention. And that brings me back to the robbery.
For when we had crept back to the kitchen, and Bella was fumbling for her handkerchief to cry into and the Harbison man was trying to apologize for the language he had used to the reporter, and I was on the verge of a nervous chill–well, it was then that Bella forgot all about crying and jumped and held out her arm.
“My diamond bracelet!” she screeched. “Look, I’ve lost it.”
Well, we went over every inch of that basement, until I knew every crack in the flooring, every spot on the cement. And Bella was nasty, and said that she had never seen that part of the house in such condition, and that if I had acted like a sane person and put her out, when she had no business there at all, she would have had her freedom and her bracelet, and that if we were playing a joke on her (as if we felt like joking!) we would please give her the bracelet and let her go and die in a corner; she felt very queer.
At half-past four o’clock we gave up.
“It’s gone,” I said. “I don’t believe you wore it here. No one could have taken it. There wasn’t a soul in this part of the house, except the policeman and he’s locked in.”
At five o’clock we put her to sleep in the den. She was in a fearful temper, and I was glad enough to be able to shut the door on her. Tom Harbison–that was his name–helped me to creep upstairs, and wanted to get me a glass of ale to make me sleep. But I said it would be of no use, as I had to get up and get the breakfast. The last thing he said was that the policeman seemed above the average in intelligence, and perhaps we could train him to do plain cooking and dishwashing.
I did not go to sleep at once. I lay on the chintz-covered divan in Bella’s dressing room and stared at the picture of her with the violets underneath. I couldn’t see what there was about Bella to inspire such undying devotion, but I had to admit that she had looked handsome that night, and that the Harbison man had certainly been impressed.
At seven o’clock Jimmy Wilson pounded at my door, and I could have choked him joyfully. I dragged myself to the door and opened it, and then I heard excited voices. Everybody seemed to be up but Aunt Selina, and they were all talking at once.
Anne Brown was in the corner of the group, waving her hands, while Dallas was trying to hook the back of her gown with one hand and hold a blanket around himself with the other. No one was dressed except Anne, and she had been up for an hour, looking in shoes and under the corners of rugs and around the bed clothing for her jeweled collar. When she saw me she began all over again.
“I had it on when I went into my room,” she declared, “and I put it on the dressing table when I undressed. I meant to put it under my pillow, but I forgot. And I didn’t sleep well; I was awake half the night. Wasn’t I, Dal? Then, when the clock downstairs in the hall was chiming five, something roused me, and I sat up in bed. It was still dark, but I pinched Dal and said there was somebody in the room. You remember that, don’t you, Dal?”
“I thought you had nightmare,:” he said sheepishly.
“I lay still for ages, it seemed to me, and then–the door into the hall closed. I heard the catch click. I turned on the light over the bed then, and the room was empty. I thought of my collar, and although it seemed ridiculous, with the house sealed as it is, and all of us friends for years–well, I got up and looked, and it was gone!”
No one spoke for an instant. It WAS a queer situation, for the collar was gone; Anne’s red eyes showed it was true. And there we stood, every one of us a miserable picture of guilt, and tried to look innocent and debonair and unsuspicious. Finally Jim held up his hand and signified that he wanted to say something.
“It’s like this,” he said, “until this thing is cleared up, for Heaven’s sake, let’s try to be sane! If every fellow thinks the other fellow did it, this house will be a nice little hell to live in. And if anybody”–here he glared around–“if anybody has got funny and is hiding those jewels, I want to say that he’d better speak up now. Later, it won’t be so easy for him. It’s a mighty poor joke.”
But nobody spoke.
Chapter VII. WE MAKE AN OMELET
It was Betty Mercer who said she was hungry, and got us switched from the delicate subject of which was the thief to the quite as pressing subject of which was to be cook. Aunt Selina had slept quietly through the whole thing–we learned afterward that she customarily slept on her left side, which was on her good ear. We gathered in the Dallas Browns’ room, and Jimmy proposed a plan.
“We can have anything sent in that we want,” he suggested speciously, “and if Dal doesn’t make good with the city fathers, you girls can get some clothes anyhow. Then, we can have dinner sent from one of the hotels.”
“Why not all the meals?” Max suggested. “I hope you’re not going to be small about things, Jimmy.”
“It ought to be easy,” Jim persisted, ignoring the remark, “for nine reasonably intelligent people to boil eggs and make coffee, which is all we need for breakfast, with some fruit.”
“Nine of us!” Dallas said wickedly, looking at Tom Harbison, who was out of earshot, “Why nine of us? I thought Kit here, otherwise known as Bella, was going to show off her housewifely skill.”
It ended, however, with Mr. Harbison writing out a lot of slips, cook, scullery-maid, chamber-maid, parlor-maid, furnace-man, and butler, and as that left two people over–we didn’t count Aunt Selina–he added another furnace-man and a trained nurse. Betty Mercer drew the trained nurse slip, and, of course, she was delighted. It seems funny now to look back and think what a dreadful time she really had, for Aunt Selina took the grippe, you know, that very day.
It was fate that I should go back to that awful kitchen, for of course my slip said “cook.” Mr. Harbison was butler, and Max and Dal got the furnace, although neither of them had ever been nearer to a bucket of coal than the coupons on mining stock. Anne got the bedrooms, and Leila was parlor-maid. It was Jimmy who got the scullery work, but he was quite crushed by this time, and did not protest at all.
Max was in a very bad temper; I suppose he had not had enough sleep–no one had. But he came over while the lottery was going on and stood over me and demanded unpleasantly, in a whisper, that I stop masquerading as another man’s wife and generally making a fool of myself–which is the way he put it. And I knew in my heart that he was right, and I hated him for it.
“Why don’t you go and tell him–them?” I asked nastily. No one