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.