When a Man Marries by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XII. The Roof Garden
I was quite ill the next morning--from excitement, I suppose. Anyhow, I did not get up, and there wasn't any breakfast. Jim said he roused Flannigan at eight o'clock, to go down and get the fire started, and then went back to bed. But Flannigan did not get up. He appeared, sheepishly, at half-past ten, and by that time Bella was down, in a towering rage, and had burned her hand and got the fire started, and had taken up a tray for Aunt Selina and herself.
As the others straggled down they boiled themselves eggs or ate fruit, and nobody put anything away. Lollie Mercer made me some tea and scorched toast, and brought it, about eleven o'clock.
"I never saw such a house," she declared. "A dozen housemaids couldn't put it in order. Why should every man that smokes drop ashes wherever he happens to be?"
"That's the question of the ages," I replied languidly. "What was Max talking so horribly about a little while ago?" Lollie looked up aggrieved.
"About nothing at all," she declared. "Anne told me to clean the bath tubs with oil, and I did it, that's all. Now Max says he couldn't get it off, and his clothes stick to him, and if he should forget and strike a match in the--in the usual way, he would explode. He can clean his own tub tomorrow," she finished vindictively.
At noon Jim came in to see me, bringing Anne as a concession to Bella. He was in a rage, and he carried the morning paper like a club in his hand.
"What sort of a newspaper lie would you call this?" he demanded irritably. "It makes me crazy; everybody with a mental image of me leaning over the parapet of the roof, waving a board, with the rest of you sitting on my legs to keep me from overbalancing!"
"Maybe there's a picture!" Anne said hopefully.
"No picture," he announced. "I wonder why they restrained themselves! I wish Bella would keep off the roof," he added, with fresh access of rage, "or wear a mask or veil. One of those fellows is going to recognize her, and there'll be the deuce to pay."
"When you are all through discussing this thing, perhaps you will tell me what is the matter," I remarked from my couch. "Why did you lean over the parapet, Jim, and who sat on your legs?"
"I didn't; nobody did," he retorted, waving the newspaper. "It's a lie out of the whole cloth, that's what it is. I asked you girls to be decent to those reporters; it never pays to offend a newspaper man. Listen to this, Kit."
He read the article rapidly, furiously, pausing every now and then to make an exasperated comment.
ATTEMPT AT ESCAPE FRUSTRATED MEMBERS OF THE FOUR HUNDRED DEFY THE LAW
"Special Officer McCloud, on duty at the quarantined house of James Wilson, artist and clubman, on Ninety-fifth Street, reported this morning a daring attempt at escape, made at 3 A.M. It is in this house that some eight or nine members of the smart set were imprisoned during the course of a dinner party, when the Japanese butler developed smallpox. The party shut in the house includes Miss Katherine McNair, the daughter of Theodore McNair, of the Inter-Ocean system; Mr. and Mrs. Dallas Brown; the Misses Mercer; Maxwell Reed, the well-known clubman and whip; and a Mr. Thomas Harbison, guest of the Dallas Browns and a South American.
"Officer McCloud's story, told to a Chronicle reporter this morning, is as follows: The occupants of the house had been uneasy all day. From the air of subdued bustle, and from a careful inspection of the roof, made by the entire party during the afternoon, his suspicion had been aroused. Nothing unusual, however, occurred during the early part of the night. From eight o'clock to twelve, McCloud was relieved from duty, his place being taken by Michael Shane, of the Eighty-sixth Street Station.
"When McCloud came on duty at midnight, Shane reported that about eleven o'clock the searchlight of a steamer on the river, flashing over the house, had shown a man crouching on the parapet, evidently surveying the roof across, which at this point is only twelve feet distant, with a view of making his escape. One seeing Shane below, however, he had beat a retreat, but not before the officer had seen him distinctly. He was dressed in evening clothes and wore a light tan overcoat.
"Officer McCloud relieved Shane at midnight, and sent for a plain-clothes man from the station house. This man was stationed on the roof of the Bevington residence next door, with strict injunctions to prevent an escape from the quarantined mansion. Nothing suspicious having occurred, the man on the roof left about 3 A.M., reporting to McCloud below that everything was quiet. At that moment, glancing skyward, one of the officers was astounded to see a long narrow board project itself from the coping of the Wildon house, waver uncertainly for a moment, and then advance stealthily toward the parapet across. When it was within a foot or two of a resting place, McCloud called sharply to the invisible refugee above, at the same time firing his revolver in the ground.
"The result was surprising. The board stopped, trembled, swayed a little, and dropped, missing the vigilant officers by a hair's breadth, and crashing to the cement with a terrific force. An inspection of the roof from the Bevington house, later, revealed nothing unusual. It is evident, however, that the quarantine is proving irksome to the inhabitants of the sequestered residence, most of whom are typical society folk, without resources in themselves. Their condition, without valets and maids, is certainly pitiable. It has been rumored that the ladies are doing their own hair, and that the gentlemen have been reduced to putting their own buttons in their shirts. This deplorable situation, however, is unavoidable.
"The vigilance of the board of health has been most commendable in this case. Beginning with a wager over the telephone that they would break quarantine in twenty-four hours, and ending with the attempt to span a twelve-foot gulf with a board, over which to cross to freedom, these shut-in society folk have shown characteristic disregard of the laws of the state. It is quite time to extend to the millionaire the same strictness that keeps the commuter at home for three weeks with the measles; that makes him get the milk bottles and groceries from the gate post and smell like dog soap for a month afterward, as a result of disinfection.'"
We sat in dead silence for a minute. Then:
"Perhaps it is true," I said. "Not of you, Jim--but some one may have tried to get out that way. In fact, I think it extremely likely."
"Who? Flannigan? You couldn't drive him out. He's having the time of his life. Do you suspect me?"
"Come away and don't fight," Anne broke in pacifically. "You will have to have luncheon sent in, Jimmy; nobody has ordered anything from the shops, and I feel like old Mother Hubbard."
"I wish you would all go out," I said wearily. "If every man in the house says he didn't try to get over to the next roof last night, well and good. But you might look and see if the board is still lying where it fell."
There was an instantaneous rush for the window, and a second's pause. Then Jimmy's voice, incredulous, awed:
"Well, I'll be--blessed! There's the board!"
I stayed in my room all that day. My head really ached and then, too, I did not care to meet Mr. Harbison. It would have to come; I realized that a meeting was inevitable, but I wanted time to think how I would meet him. It would be impossible to cut him, without rousing the curiosity of the others to fever pitch; and it was equally impossible to ignore the disgraceful episode on the stairs. As it happened, however, I need not have worried. I went down to dinner, languidly, when every one was seated, and found Max at my right, and Mr. Harbison moved over beside Bella. Every one was talking at once, for Flannigan, ambling around the table as airily as he walked his beat, had presented Bella with her bracelet on a salad plate, garnished with romaine. He had found it in the furnace room, he said, where she must have dropped it. And he looked at me stealthily, to approve his mendacity!
Every one was famished, and as they ate they discussed the board in the area way, and pretended to deride it as a clever bit of press work, to revive a dying sensation. No one was deceived; Anne's pearls and the attempt to escape, coming just after, pointed only to one thing. I looked around the table, dazed. Flannigan, almost the only unknown quantity, might have tried to escape the night before, but he would not have been in dress clothes. Besides, he must be eliminated as far as the pearls were concerned, having been locked in the furnace room the night they were stolen. There was no one among the girls to suspect. The Mercer girls had stunning pearls, and could secure all they wanted legitimately; and Bella disliked them. Oh, there was no question about it, I decided; Dallas and Anne had taken a wolf to their bosom--or is it a viper?--and the Harbison man was the creature. Although I must say that, looking over the table, at Jimmy's breadth and not very imposing personality, at Max's lean length, sallow skin, and bold dark eyes, at Dallas, blond, growing bald and florid, and then at the Harbison boy, tall, muscular, clear-eyed and sunburned, one would have taken Max at first choice as the villain, with Dal next, Jim third, and the Harbison boy not in the running.
It was just after dinner that the surprise was sprung on me. Mr. Harbison came around to me gravely, and asked me if I felt able to go up on the roof. On the roof, after last night! I had to gather myself together; luckily, the others were pushing back their chairs, showing Flannigan the liqueur glasses to take up, and lighting cigars.
"I do not care to go," I said icily.
"The others are coming," he persisted, "and I--I could give you an arm up the stairs."
"I believe you are good at that," I said, looking at him steadily. "Max, will you help me to the roof?"
Mr. Harbison really turned rather white. Then he bowed ceremoniously and left me.
Max got me a wrap, and every one except Mr. Harbison and Bella, who was taking a mass of indigestables to Aunt Selina, went to the roof.
"Where is Tom?" Anne asked, as we reached the foot of the stairs. "Gone ahead to fix things," was the answer. But he was not there. At the top of the last flight I stopped, dumb with amazement; the roof had been transformed, enchanted. It was a fairy-land of lights and foliage and colors. I had to stop and rub my eyes. From the bleakness of a tin roof in February to the brightness and greenery of a July roof garden!
"You were the immediate inspiration, Kit," Dallas said. "Harbison thought your headache might come from lack of exercise and fresh air, and he has worked us like nailers all day. I've a blister on my right palm, and Harbison got shocked while he was wiring the place, and nearly fell over the parapet. We bought out two full-sized florists by telephone."
It was the most amazing transformation. At each corner a pole had been erected, and wires crossed the roof diagonally, hung with red and amber bulbs. Around the chimneys had been massed evergreen trees in tubs, hiding their brick-and-mortar ugliness, and among the trees tiny lights were strung. Along the parapet were rows of geometrical boxwood plants in bright red crocks, and the flaps of a crimson and white tent had been thrown open, showing lights within, and rugs, wicker chairs, and cushions.
Max raised a glass of benedictine and posed for a moment, melodramatically.
"To the Wilson roof garden!" he said. "To Kit, who inspired; to the creators, who perspired; and to Takahiro--may he not have expired."
Every one was very gay; I think the knowledge that tomorrow Aunt Selina might be with them urged them to make the most of this last night of freedom. I tried to be jolly, and succeeded in being feverish. Mr. Harbison did not come up to enjoy what he had wrought. Jim brought up his guitar and sang love songs in a beautiful tenor, looking at Bella all the time. And Bella sat in a steamer chair, with a rug over her and a spangled veil on her head, looking at the boats on the river--about as soft and as chastened as an an acetylene headlight.
And after Max had told the most improbable tale, which Leila advised him to sprinkle salt on, and Dallas had done a clog dance, Bella said it was time for her complexion sleep and went downstairs, and broke up the party.
"If she only give half as an much care to her immortal soul," Anne said when she had gone, "as she does to her skin, she would let that nice Harbison boy alone. She must have been brutal to him tonight, for he went to bed at nine o'clock. At least, I suppose he went to bed, for he shut himself in the studio, and when I knocked he advised me not to come in."
I had pleaded my headache as an as an excuse for avoiding Aunt Selina all day, and she had not sent for me. Bella was really quite extraordinary. She was never in the habit of putting herself out for any one, and she always declared that the very odor of a sick room drove her to Scotch and soda. But here she was, rubbing Aunt Selina's back with chloroform liniment--and you know how that smells--getting her up in a chair, dressed in one of Bella's wadded silk robes, with pillows under her feet, and then doing her hair in elaborate puffs--braiding her gray switch and bringing it, coronet-fashion, around the top of her head. She even put rice powder on Aunt Selina's nose, and dabbed violet water behind her ears, and said she couldn't understand why she (Aunt Selina) had never married, but, of course, she probably would some day!
The result was, naturally, that the old lady wouldn't let Bella out of her sight, except to go to the kitchen for something to eat for her. That very day Bella got the doctor to order ale for Aunt Selina (oh, yes; the doctor could come in; Dal said "it was all a-coming in, and nothing going out") and she had three pints of Bass, and learned to eat anchovies and caviare--all in one day.
Bella's conduct to Jim was disgraceful. She snubbed him, ignored him, tramped on him, and Jim was growing positively flabby. He spent most of his time writing letters to the board of health and playing solitaire. He was a pathetic figure.
Well, we went to bed fairly early. Bella had massaged Aunt Selina's face and rubbed in cold cream, Anne and Dallas had compromised on which window should be open in their bedroom, and the men had matched to see who should look at the furnace. I did not expect to sleep, but the cold night air had done its work, and I was asleep almost immediately.
Some time during the early part of the night I wakened, and, after turning and twisting uneasily, I realized that I was cold. The couch in Bella's dressing room was comfortable enough, but narrow and low. I remember distinctly (that was what was so maddening; everybody thought I dreamed it)--I remember getting an eiderdown comfort that was folded at my feet, and pulling it up around me. In the luxury of its warmth I snuggled down and went to sleep almost instantly. It seemed to me I had slept for hours, but it was probably an hour or less, when something roused me. The room was perfectly dark, and there was not a sound save the faint ticking of the clock, but I was wide awake.
And then came the incident that in its ghastly, horrible absurdity made the rest of the people shout with laughter the next day. It was not funny then. For suddenly the eiderdown comfort began to slip. I heard no footstep, not the slightest sound approaching me, but the comfort moved; from my chin, inch by inch, it slipped to my shoulders; awfully, inevitably, hair-raisingly it moved. I could feel my blood gather around my heart, leaving me cold and nerveless. As it passed my hands I gave an involuntary clutch for it, to feel it slip away from my fingers. Then the full horror of the situation took hold of me; as the comfort slid past my feet I sat up and screamed at the top of my voice.
Of course, people came running in all sorts of things. I was still sitting up, declaring I had seen a ghost and that the house was haunted. Dallas was struggling for the second armhole of his dressing gown and Bella had already turned on the lights. They said I had had a nightmare, and not to sleep on my back, and perhaps I was taking grippe.
And just then we heard Jimmy run down the stairs, and fall over something, almost breaking his wrist. It was the eiderdown comfort, half-way up the studio staircase!