Chapter X. On the Stairs
 

I was roused by someone walking across the roof, the cracking of tin under feet, and a comfortable and companionable odor of tobacco. I moved a very little, and then I saw that it was a man--the height and erectness told me which man. And just at that instant he saw me.

"Good Lord!" he ejaculated, and throwing his cigar away he came across quickly. "Why, Mrs. Wilson, what in the world are you doing here? I thought--they said--"

"That I was sulking again?" I finished disagreeably. "Perhaps I am. In fact, I'm quite sure of it."

"You are not," he said severely. "You have been asleep in a February night, in the open air, with less clothing on than I wear in the tropics."

I had got up by this time, refusing his help, and because my feet were numb, I sat down on the parapet for a moment. Oh, I knew what I looked like--one of those "Valley-of-the-Nile-After-a-Flood" pictures.

"There is one thing about you that is comforting," I sniffed. "You said precisely the same thing to me at three o'clock this morning. You never startle me by saying anything unexpected."

He took a step toward me, and even in the dusk I could see that he was looking down at me oddly. All my bravado faded away and there was a queerish ringing in my ears.

"I would like to!" he said tensely. "I would like, this minute--I'm a fool, Mrs. Wilson," he finished miserably. "I ought to be drawn and quartered, but when I see you like this I--I get crazy. If you say the word, I'll--I'll go down and--" He clenched his fist.

It was reprehensible, of course; he saw that in an instant, for he shut his teeth over something that sounded very fierce, and strode away from me, to stand looking out over the river, with his hands thrust in his pockets. Of course the thing I should have done was to ignore what he had said altogether, but he was so uncomfortable, so chastened, that, feline, feminine, whatever the instinct is, I could not let him go. I had been so wretched myself.

"What is it you would like to say?" I called over to him. He did not speak. "Would you tell me that I am a silly child for pouting?" No reply; he struck a match. "Or would you preach a nice little sermon about people--about women--loving their husbands?"

He grunted savagely under his breath.

"Be quite honest," I pursued relentlessly. "Say that we are a lot of barbarians, say that because my--because Jimmy treats me outrageously--oh, he does; any one can see that--and because I loathe him--and any one can tell that--why don't you say you are shocked to the depths?" I was a little shocked myself by that time, but I couldn't stop, having started.

He came over to me, white-faced and towering, and he had the audacity to grip my arm and stand me on my feet, like a bad child--which I was, I dare say.

"Don't!" he said in a husky, very pained voice. "You are only talking; you don't mean it. It isn't you. You know you care, or else why are you crying up here? And don't do it again, don't do it again--or I will--"

"You will--what?"

"Make a fool of myself, as I have now," he finished grimly. And then he stalked away and left me there alone, completely bewildered, to find my way down in the dark.

I groped along, holding to the rail, for the staircase to the roof was very steep, and I went slowly. Half-way down the stairs there was a tiny landing, and I stopped. I could have sworn I heard Mr. Harbison's footsteps far below, growing fainter. I even smiled a little, there in the dark, although I had been rather profoundly shaken. The next instant I knew I had been wrong; some one was on the landing with me. I could hear short, sharp breathing, and then--

I am not sure that I struggled; in fact, I don't believe I did--I was too limp with amazement. The creature, to have lain in wait for me like that! And he was brutally strong; he caught me to him fiercely, and held me there, close, and he kissed me--not once or twice, but half a dozen times, long kisses that filled me with hot shame for him, for myself, that I had--liked him. The roughness of his coat bruised my cheek; I loathed him. And then someone came whistling along the hall below, and he pushed me from him and stood listening, breathing in long, gasping breaths.

I ran; when my shaky knees would hold me, I ran. I wanted to hide my hot face, my disgust, my disillusion; I wanted to put my head in mother's lap and cry; I wanted to die, or be ill, so I need never see him again. Perversely enough, I did none of those things. With my face still flaming, with burning eyes and hands that shook, I made a belated evening toilet and went slowly, haughtily, down the stairs. My hands were like ice, but I was consumed with rage. Oh, I would show him--that this was New York, not Iquique; that the roof was not his Andean tableland.

Every one elaborately ignored my absence from dinner. The Dallas Browns, Max and Lollie were at bridge; Jim was alone in the den, walking the floor and biting at an unlighted cigar; Betty had returned to Aunt Selina and was hysterical, they said, and Flannigan was in deep dejection because I had missed my dinner.

"Betty is making no end of a row," Max said, looking up from his game, "because the old lady upstairs insists on chloroform liniment. Betty says the smell makes her ill."

"And she can inhale Russian cigarettes," Anne said enviously, "and gasolene fumes, without turning a hair. I call a revoke, Dal; you trumped spades on the second round."

Dal flung over three tricks with very bad grace, and Anne counted them with maddening deliberation.

"Game and rubber," she said. "Watch Dal, Max; he will cheat in the score if he can. Kit, don't have another clam while I am in this house. I have eaten so many lately my waist rises and falls with the tide."

"You have a stunning color, Kit," Lollie said. "You are really quite superb. Who made that gown?"

"Where have you been hiding, du kleine?" Max whispered, under cover of showing me the evening paper, with a photograph of the house and a cross at the cellar window where we had tried to escape. "If one day in the house with you, Kit, puts me in this condition, what will a month do?"

From beyond the curtain of a sort of alcove, lighted with a red-shaded lamp, came a hum of conversation, Bella's cool, even tones, and a heavy masculine voice. They were laughing; I could feel my chin go up. He was not even hiding his shame.

"Max," I asked, while the others clamored for him and the game, "has any one been up through the house since dinner? Any of the men?"

He looked at me curiously.

"Only Harbison," he replied promptly. "Jim has been eating his heart out in the den every since dinner; Dal played the Sonata Appasionata backward on the pianola--he wanted to put through one of Anne's lingerie waists, on a wager that it would play a tune; I played craps with Lollie, and Flannigan has been washing dishes. Why?"

Well, that was conclusive, anyhow. I had had a faint hope that it might have been a joke, although it had borne all the evidences of sincerity, certainly. But it was past doubting now; he had lain in wait for me at the landing, and had kissed me, me, when he thought I was Jimmy's wife. Oh, I must have been very light, very contemptible, if that was what he thought of me!

I went into the library and got a book, but it was impossible to read, with Jimmy lying on the couch giving vent to something between a sigh and a groan every few minutes. About eleven the cards stopped, and Bella said she would read palms. She began with Mr. Harbison, because she declared he had a wonderful hand, full of possibilities; she said he should have been a great inventor or a playwright, and that his attitude to women was one of homage, respect, almost reverence. He had the courage to look at me, and if a glance could have killed he would have withered away.

When Jimmy proffered his hand, she looked at it icily. Of course she could not refuse, with Mr. Harbison looking on.

"Rather negative," she said coldly. "The lines are obscured by cushions of flesh; no heart line at all, mentality small, self-indulgence and irritability very marked."

Jim held his palm up to the light and stared at it.

"Gad!" he said. "Hardly safe for me to go around without gloves, is it?"

It was all well enough for Jim to laugh, but he was horribly hurt. He stood around for a few minutes, talking to Anne, but as soon as he could he slid away and went to bed. He looked very badly the next morning, as though he had not slept, and his clothes quite hung on him. He was actually thinner. But that is ahead of the story.

Max came to me while the others were sitting around drinking nightcaps, and asked me in a low tone if he could see me in the den; he wanted to ask me something. Dal overheard.

"Ask her here," he said. "We all know what it is, Max. Go ahead and we'll coach you."

"Will you coach me?" I asked, for Mr. Harbison was listening.

"The woman does not need it," Dal retorted. And then, because Max looked angry enough really to propose to me right there, I got up hastily and went into the den. Max followed, and closing the door, stood with his back against it.

"Contrary to the general belief, Kit," he began, "I did not intend to ask you to marry me."

I breathed easier. He took a couple of steps toward me and stood with his arms folded, looking down at me. "I'm not at all sure, in fact, that I shall ever propose to you," he went on unpleasantly.

"You have already done it twice. You are not going to take those back, are you, Max?" I asked, looking up at him.

But Max was not to be cajoled. He came close and stood with his hand on the back of my chair. "What happened on the roof tonight?" He demanded hoarsely.

"I do not think it would interest you," I retorted, coloring in spite of myself.

"Not interest me! I am shut in this blasted house; I have to see the only woman I ever loved--really loved," he supplemented, as he caught my eye, "pretend she is another man's wife. Then I sit back and watch her using every art--all her beauty--to make still another man love her, a man who thinks she is a married woman. If Harbison were worth the trouble, I would tell him the whole story, Aunt Selina be--obliterated!"

I sat up suddenly.

"If Harbison were worth the trouble!" I repeated. What did he mean? Had he seen--

"I mean just this," Max said slowly. "There is only one unaccredited member of this household; only one person, save Flannigan, who was locked in the furnace room, one person who was awake and around the house when Anne's jewels went, only one person in the house, also, who would have any motive for the theft."

"Motive?" I asked dully.

"Poverty," Max threw at me. "Oh, I mean comparative poverty, of course. Who is this fellow, anyhow? Dal knew him at school, traveled with him through India. On the strength of that he brings him here, quarters him with decent people, and wonders when they are systematically robbed!"

"You are unjust!" I said, rising and facing him. "I do not like Mr. Harbison--I--I hate him, if you want to know. But as to his being a thief, I--think it is quite as likely that you took the necklace."

Max threw his cigarette into the fire angrily.

"So that is how it is!" he mocked. "If either of us is the thief, it is I! You do hate him, don't you?"

I left him there, flushed with irritation, and joined the others. Just as I entered the room, Betty burst through the hall door like a cyclone, and collapsed into a chair. "She's a mean, cantankerous old woman!" she declared, feeling for her handkerchief. "You can take care of your own Aunt Selina, Jim Wilson. I will never go near her again."

"What did you do? Poison her?" Dallas asked with interest.

"G--got camphor in her eyes," snuffed Betty. "You never--heard such a noise. I wouldn't be a trained nurse for anything in the world. She--she called me a hussy!"

"You're not going to give her up, are you, Betty?" Jim asked imploringly. But Betty was, and said so plainly.

"Anyhow, she won't have me back," she finished, "and she has sent for--guess!"

"Have mercy!" Dal cried, dropping to his knees. "Oh, fair ministering angel, she has not sent for me!"

"No," Betty said maliciously. "She wants Bella--she's crazy about her."