Chapter XIII. He Does Not Deny It
 

Aunt Selina got up the next morning and Jim told her all the strange things that had been happening. She fixed on Flannigan, of course, although she still suspected Betty of her watch and other valuables. The incident of the comfort she called nervous indigestion and bad hours.

She spent the entire day going through the storeroom and linen closets, and running her fingers over things for dust. Whenever she found any she looked at me, drew a long breath, and said, "Poor James!" It was maddening. And when she went through his clothes and found some buttons off (Jim didn't keep a man, and Takahiro had stopped at his boots) she looked at me quite awfully.

"His mother was a perfect housekeeper," she said. "James was brought up in clothes with the buttons on, put on clean shelves."

"Didn't they put them on him?" I asked, almost hysterically. It had been a bad morning, after a worse night. Every one had found fault with the breakfast, and they straggled down one at a time until I was frantic. Then Flannigan had talked to me about the pearls, and Mr. Harbison had said, "Good morning," very stiffly, and nearly rattled the inside of the furnace out.

Early in the morning, too, I overheard a scrap of conversation between the policeman and our gentleman adventurer from South America. Something had gone wrong with the telephone and Mr. Harbison was fussing over it with a screw driver and a pair of scissors--all the tools he could find. Flannigan was lifting rugs to shake them on the roof--Bella's order.

"Wash the table linen!" he was grumbling. "I'll do what I can that's necessary. Grub has to be cooked, and dishes has to be washed--I'll admit that. If you're particular, make up your bed every day; I don't object. But don't tell me we have to use thirty-three table napkins a day. What did folks do before napkins was invented? Tell me that!"--triumphantly.

"What's the answer?" Mr. Harbison inquired absently, evidently with the screw driver in his mouth.

"Used their pocket handkerchiefs! And if the worst comes to the worst, Mr. Harbison, these folks here can use their sleeves, for all I care--not that the women has any sleeves to speak of. Wash clothes I will not."

"Well, don't worry Mrs. Wilson about it," the other voice said. Flannigan straightened himself with a grunt.

"Mrs. Wilson!" he said. "A lot she would worry. She's been a disappointment to me, Mr. Harbison, me thinking that now she'd come back to him, after leavin' him the way she did, they'd be like two turtle doves. Lord! The cook next door--"

But what the cook had told about Bella and Jimmy was not divulged, for the Harbison man caught him up with a jerk and sent Flannigan, grumbling, with his rugs to the roof.

It did not seem possible to carry on the deception much longer, but if things were bad now, what would they be when Aunt Selina learned she had been lied to, made ridiculous, generally deceived? And how would I be able to live in the house with her when she did know? Luckily, every one was so puzzled over the mystery in the house that numbers of little things that would have been absolutely damning were never noticed at all. For instance, my asking Jimmy at luncheon that day if he took cream in his coffee! And Max coming to the rescue by dropping his watch in his glass of water, and creating a diversion and giving everybody an opportunity to laugh by saying not to mind, it had been in soak before.

Just after luncheon Aunt Selina brought me some undergarments of Jim's to be patched. She explained at length that he had always worn out his undergarments, because he always squirmed around so when he was sitting. And she showed me how to lay one of the garments over a pillow to get the patch in properly.

It was the most humiliating moment of my life, but there was no escape. I took my sewing to the roof, while she went away to find something else for me to do when that was finished, and I sat with the thing on my knee and stared at it, while rebellious tears rolled down my cheeks. The patch was not the shape of the hole at all, and every time I took a stitch I sewed it fast to the pillow beneath. It was terrible. Jim came up after a while and sat down across from me and watched, without saying anything. I suppose what he felt would not have been proper to say to me. We had both reached the point where adequate language failed us. Finally he said:

"I wish I were dead."

"So do I," I retorted, jerking the thread.

"Where is she now?"

"Looking for more of these." I indicated the garment over the pillow, and he wiggled. Please don't squirm," I said coldly. "You will wear out your--lingerie, and I will have to mend them."

He sat very still for five minutes, when I discovered that I had put the patch in crosswise instead of lengthwise and that it would not fit. As I jerked it out he sneezed.

"Or sneeze," I added venomously. "You will tear your buttons off, and I will have to sew them on."

Jim rose wrathfully. "Don't sit, don't sneeze'," he repeated. "Don't stand, I suppose, for fear I will wear out my socks. Here, give me that. If the fool thing has to be mended, I'll do it myself."

He went over to a corner of the parapet and turned his back to me. He was very much offended. In about a minute he came back, triumphant, and held out the result of his labor. I could only gasp. He had puckered up the edges of the hole like the neck of a bag, and had tied the thread around it. "You--you won't be able to sit down," I ventured.

"Don't have any time to sit," he retorted promptly. "Anyhow, it will give some, won't it? It would if it was tied with elastic instead of thread. Have you any elastic?"

Lollie came up just then, and Jim took himself and his mending downstairs. Luckily, Aunt Selina found several letters in his room that afternoon while she was going over his clothes, and as it took Jim some time to explain them, she forgot the task she had given me altogether.

When Lollie came up to the roof, she closed the door to the stairs, and coming over, drew a chair close to mine.

"Have you seen much of Tom today?" she asked, as an introduction.

"I suppose you mean Mr. Harbison, Lollie," I said. "No--not any more than I could help. Don't whisper, he couldn't possibly hear you. And if it's scandal I don't want to know it."

"Look here, Kit," she retorted, "you needn't be so superior. If I like to talk scandal, I'm not so sure you aren't making it."

That was the way right along: I was making scandal; I brought them there to dinner; I let Bella in!

And, of course, Anne came up then, and began on me at once.

"You are a very bad girl," she began. "What do you mean by treating Tom Harbison the way you do? He is heart-broken."

"I think you exaggerate my influence over him," I retorted. "I haven't treated him badly, because I haven't paid any attention to him."

Anne threw up her hands.

"There you are!" she said. "He worked all day yesterday fixing this place for you--yes, for you, my dear. I am not blind--and last night you refused to let him bring you up."

"He told you!" I flamed.

"He wondered what he had done. And as you wouldn't let him come within speaking distance of you, he came to me."

"I am sorry, Anne, since you are fond of him," I said. "But to me he is impossible--intolerable. My reasons are quite sufficient."

"Kit is perfectly right, Anne," Leila broke in. "I tell you, there is something queer about him," she added in a portentous whisper.

Anne stiffened.

"He is perfect," she declared. "Of good family, warm-hearted, courageous, handsome, clever--what more do you ask?"

"Honesty," said Leila hotly. "That a man should be what he says he is."

Anne and I both stared.

"It is your Mr. Harbison," Leila went on, "who tried to escape from the house by putting a board across to the next roof!"

"I don't believe it," said Anne. "You might bring me a picture of him, board in hand, and I wouldn't believe it."

"Don't then," Lollie said cruelly. "Let him get away with your pearls; they are yours. Only, as sure as anything, the man who tried to escape from the house had a reason for escaping, and the papers said a man in evening dress and light overcoat. I found Mr. Harbison's overcoat today lying in a heap in one of the maids' rooms, and it was covered with brick dust all over the front. A button had even been torn off."

"Pooh!" Anne said, when she had recovered herself a little. "There isn't any reason, as far as that goes, why Flannigan shouldn't have worn Tom's overcoat, or--any of the others,"

"Flannigan!" Leila said loftily. "Why, his arms are like piano legs; he couldn't get into it. As for the others, there is only one person who would fit, or nearly fit, that overcoat, and that is Dallas, Anne."

While Anne was choking down her wrath, Leila got up and darted out of the tent. When she came back she was triumphant.

"Look," she said, holding out her hand. And on her palm lay a lightish brown button. "I found it just where the paper said the board was thrown out, and it is from Mr. Harbison's overcoat, without a doubt."

Of course I should not have been surprised. A man who would kiss a woman on a dark staircase--a woman he had known only two days--was capable of anything.

"Kit has only been a little keener than the rest of us," Lollie said. "She found him out yesterday."

"Upon my word," said Anne indignantly, preparing to go, "if I didn't know you girls so well, I would think you were crazy. And now, just to offset this, I can tell you something. Flannigan told me this morning not to worry; that he has my pearl collar spotted, and that young ladies will have their jokes!"

Yes, as I said before, it was a cheerful, joy-producing situation.

I sat and thought it over after Anne's parting shot, when Leila had flounced downstairs. Things were closing in; I gave the situation twenty-four hours to develop. At the end of that time Flannigan would accuse me openly of knowing where the pearls were; I would explain my silly remark to him and the mine would explode--under Aunt Selina.

I was sunk in dejected reverie when some one came on the roof. When he was opposite the opening in the tent, I saw Mr. Harbison, and at that moment he saw me. He paused uncertainly, then he made an evident effort and came over to me.

"You are--better today?"

"Quite well, thank you."

"I am glad you find the tent useful. Does it keep off the wind?"

"It is quite a shelter"--frigidly.

He still stood, struggling for something to say. Evidently nothing came to his mind, for he lifted the cap he was wearing, and turning away, began to work with the wiring of the roof. He was clever with tools; one could see that. If he was a professional gentleman-burglar, no doubt he needed to be. After a bit, finding it necessary to climb to the parapet, he took off his coat, without even a glance in my direction, and fell to work vigorously.

One does not need to like a man to admire him physically, any more than one needs to like a race horse or any other splendid animal. No one could deny that the man on the parapet was a splendid animal; he looked quite big enough and strong enough to have tossed his slender bridge across the gulf to the next roof, without any difficulty, and coordinate enough to have crossed on it with a flourish to safety.

Just then there was a rending, tearing sound from the corner and a muttered ejaculation. I looked up in time to see Mr. Harbison throw up his arms, make a futile attempt to regain his balance, and disappear over the edge of the roof. One instant he was standing there, splendid, superb; the next, the corner of the parapet was empty, all that stood there was a broken, splintered post and a tangle of wires.

I could not have moved at first; at least, it seemed hours before the full significance of the thing penetrated my dazed brain. When I got up I seemed to walk, to crawl, with leaden weights holding back my feet.

When I got to the corner I had to catch the post for support. I knew somebody was saying, "Oh, how terrible!" over and over. It was only afterward that I knew it had been myself. And then some other voice was saying, "Don't be alarmed. Please don't be frightened. I'm all right."

I dared to look over the parapet, finally, and instead of a crushed and unspeakable body, there was Mr. Harbison, sitting about eight feet below me, with his feet swinging into space and a long red scratch from the corner of his eye across his cheek. There was a sort of mansard there, with windows, and just enough coping to keep him from rolling off.

"I thought you had fallen--all the way," I gasped, trying to keep my lips from trembling. "I--oh, don't dangle your feet like that!"

He did not seem at all glad of his escape. He sat there gloomily, peering into the gulf beneath.

"If it wasn't so--er--messy and generally unpleasant," he replied without looking up, "I would slide off and go the rest of the way."

"You are childish," I said severely. "See if you can get through the window behind you. If you can not, I'll come down and unfasten it." But the window was open, and I had a chance to sit down and gather up the scattered ends of my nerves. To my surprise, however, when he came back he made no effort to renew our conversation. He ignored me completely, and went to work at once to repair the damage to his wires, with his back to me.

"I think you are very rude," I said at last. "You fell over there and I thought you were killed. The nervous shock I experienced is just as bad as if you had gone--all the way."

He put down the hammer and came over to me without speaking. Then, when he was quite close, he said:

"I am very sorry if I startled you. I did not flatter myself that you would be profoundly affected, in any event."

"Oh, as to that," I said lightly, "it makes me ill for days if my car runs over a dog." He looked at me in silence. "You are not going to get up on that parapet again?"

"Mrs. Wilson," he said, without paying the slightest attention to my question, "will you tell me what I have done?"

"Done?"

"Or have not done? I have racked my brains--stayed awake all of last night. At first I hoped it was impersonal, that, womanlike you were merely venting general disfavor on one particular individual. But--your hostility is to me, personally."

I raised my eyebrows, coldly interrogative.

"Perhaps," he went on calmly--"perhaps I was a fool here on the roof--the night before last. If I said anything that I should not, I ask your pardon. If it is not that, I think you ought to ask mine!"

I was angry enough then.

"There can be only one opinion about your conduct," I retorted warmly. "It was worse than brutal. It--it was unspeakable. I have no words for it--except that I loathe it--and you."

He was very grim by this time. "I have heard you say something like that before--only I was not the unfortunate in that case."

"Oh!" I was choking.

"Under different circumstances I should be the last person to recall anything so--personal. But the circumstances are unusual." He took an angry step toward me. "Will you tell me what I have done? Or shall I go down and ask the others?"

"You wouldn't dare," I cried, "or I will tell them what you did! How you waylaid me on those stairs there, and forced your caresses, your kisses, on me! Oh, I could die with shame!"

The silence that followed was as unexpected as it was ominous. I knew he was staring at me, and I was furious to find myself so emotional, so much more the excited of the two. Finally, I looked up.

"You can not deny it," I said, a sort of anti-climax.

"No." He was very quiet, very grim, quite composed. "No," he repeated judicially. "I do not deny it."

He did not? Or he would not? Which?