Chapter XI. I Make a Discovery
 

Really, I have left Aunt Selina rather out of it, but she was important as a cause, not as a result; at least at first. She came out strong later. I believe she was a very nice old woman, with strong likes and prejudices, which she was perfectly willing to pay for. At least, I only presume she had likes; I know she had prejudices.

Nobody every understood why Bella consented to take Betty's place with Aunt Selina. As for me, I was too much engrossed with my own affairs to pay the invalid much attention. Once or twice during the day I had stopped in to see her, and had been received frigidly and with marked disapproval. I was in disgrace, of course, after the scene in the dining room the night before. I had stood like a naughty child, just inside the door, and replied meekly when she said the pillows were overstuffed, and why didn't I have the linen slips rinsed in starch water? She laid the blame of her illness on me, as I have said before, and she made Jim read to her in the afternoon from a book she carried with her, Coals of Fire on the Domestic Hearth, marking places for me to read.

She sent for me that night, just as I had taken off my gown; so I threw on a dressing gown and went in. To my horror, Jim was already there. At a gesture from Aunt Selina, he closed the door into the hall and tiptoed back beside the bed, where he sat staring at the figures on the silk comfort.

Aunt Selina's first words were:

"Where's that flibberty-gibbet?"

Jim looked at me.

"She must mean Betty," I explained. "She has gone to bed, I think."

"Don't--let--her--in--this--room--again," she said, with awful emphasis. "She is an infamous creature."

"Oh, come now, Aunt Selina," Jim broke in; "she's foolish, perhaps, but she's a nice little thing."

Aunt Selina's face was a curious study. Then she raised herself on her elbow, and, taking a flat chamois-skin bag from under her pillow, held it out.

"My cameo breastpin," she said solemnly; "my cuff-buttons with gold rims and storks painted on china in the middle; my watch, that has put me to bed and got me up for forty years, and my money--five hundred and ten dollars and forty cents!--taken with the doors locked under my nose." Which was ambiguous, but forcible.

"But, good gracious, Miss Car--Aunt Selina!" I exclaimed, "you don't think Betty Mercer took those things?"

"No," she said grimly; "I think I probably got up in my sleep and lighted the fire with them, or sent em out for a walk." Then she stuffed the bag away and sat up resolutely in bed.

"Have you made up?" she demanded, looking from one to the other of us. "Bella, don't tell me you still persist in that nonsense."

"What nonsense?" I asked, getting ready to run.

"That you do not love him."

"Him?"

"James," she snapped irritably. "Do you suppose I mean the policeman?"

I looked over at Jimmy. She had got me by the hand, and Jimmy was making frantic gestures to tell her the whole thing and be done with it. But I had gone too far. The mill of the gods had crushed me already, and I didn't propose to be drawn out hideously mangled and held up as an example for the next two or three weeks, although it was clear enough that Aunt Selina disapproved of me thoroughly, and would have been glad enough to find that no tie save the board of health held us together. And then Bella came in, and you wouldn't have known her. She had put on a straight white woolen wrapper, and she had her hair in two long braids down her back. She looked like a nice, wide-eyed little girl in her teens, and she had some lobster salad and a glass of port on a tray. When she saw the situation, she put the things down and had the nastiness to stay and listen.

"I'm not blind," Aunt Selina said, with one eye on the tray. "You two silly children adore each other; I saw some things last night."

Bella took a step forward; then she stopped and shrugged her shoulders. Jim was purple.

"I saw you kiss her in the dining room, remember that!" Aunt Selina went on, giving the screw another turn.

It was Bella's turn to be excited. She gave me one awful stare, then she fixed her eyes on Jim.

"Besides," Aunt Selina went on, "you told me today that you loved her. Don't deny it, James."

Bella couldn't keep quiet another instant. She came over and stood at the foot of the bed.

"Please don't excite yourself, dear Miss Caruthers," she said in a voice like ice. "Every one knows that he loves her; he simply overflows with it. It--it is quite a by-word among their friends. They have been sitting together in a corner all evening."

Yes, that was what she said; when I had not spoken to Jimmy the whole time in the den. Bella was cattish, and she was jealous, too. I turned on my heel and went to the door; then I turned to her, with my hand on the knob.

"You have been misinformed," I said coldly. "You can not possibly know, having spent three hours in a corner yourself--with Mr. Harbison." I abhor jealousy in a woman.

Well, Aunt Selina ate all the lobster salad, and drank the port after Bella had told her it was beef, iron and wine, and she slept all night, and was able to sit up in a chair the next day, and was so infatuated with Bella that she would not let her out of her sight. But that is ahead of the story.

At midnight the house was fairly quiet, except for Jim, who kept walking around the halls because he couldn't sleep. I got up at last and ordered him to bed, and he had the audacity to have a grievance with me.

"Look at my situation now!" he said, sitting pensively on a steam radiator. "Aunt Selina is crazy. I only kissed your hand, anyhow, and I don't know why you sat in the den all evening; you might have known that Bella would notice it. Why couldn't you leave me alone to my misery?"

"Very well," I said, much offended. "After this I shall sit with Flannigan in the kitchen. He is the only gentleman in the house."

I left him babbling apologies and went to bed, but I had an uncomfortable feeling that Bella had been a witness to our conversation, for the door into Aunt Selina's room closed softly as I passed.

I knew beforehand that I was not going to sleep. The instant I turned out the light the nightmare events of the evening ranged themselves in a procession, or a series of tableaus, one after the other; Flannigan on the roof, with the bracelet on his palm, looking accusingly at me; Mr. Harbison and the scene on the roof, with my flippancy; and the result of that flippancy--the man on the stairs, the arms that held me, the terrible kisses that had scorched my lips--it was awful! And then the absurd situation across Aunt Selina's bed, and Bella's face! Oh, it was all so ridiculous--my having thought that the Harbison man was a gentleman, and finding him a cad, and worse. It was excruciatingly funny. I quite got a headache from laughing; indeed I laughed until I found I was crying, and then I knew I was going to have an attack of strangulated emotion, called hysteria. So I got up and turned on all the lights, and bathed my face with cologne, and felt better.

But I did not go to sleep. When the hall clock chimed two, I discovered I was hungry. I had had nothing since luncheon, and even the thirst following the South American goulash was gone. There was probably something to eat in the pantry, and if there was not, I was quite equal to going to the basement.

As it happened, however, I found a very orderly assortment of left-overs and a pitcher of milk, which had no business there in the pantry, and with plenty of light I was not at all frightened.

I ate bread and butter and drank milk, and was fast becoming a rational person again; I had pulled out one of the drawers part way, and with a tray across the corner I had improvised a comfortable seat. And then I noticed that the drawer was full of soiled napkins, and I remembered the bracelet. I hardly know why I decided to go through the drawer again, after Flannigan had already done it, but I did. I finished my milk and then, getting down on my knees, I proceeded systematically to empty the drawer. I took out perhaps a dozen napkins and as many doilies without finding anything. Then I took out a large tray cloth, and there was something on it that made me look farther. One corner of it had been scorched, the clear and well defined imprint of a lighted cigarette or cigar, a blackened streak that trailed off into a brown and yellow. I had a queer, trembly feeling, as if I were on the brink of a discovery--perhaps Anne's pearls, or the cuff buttons with storks painted on china in the center. But the only thing I found, down in the corner of the drawer, was a half-burned cigarette.

To me, it seemed quite enough. It was one of the South American cigarettes, with a tobacco wrapper instead of paper, that Mr. Harbison smoked.