Chapter XIV. Almost, But Not Quite
 

Dal had been acting strangely all day. Once, early in the evening, when I had doubled no trump, he led me a club without apology, and later on, during his dummy, I saw him writing our names on the back of an envelope, and putting numbers after them. At my earliest opportunity I went to Max.

"There is something the matter with Dal, Max," I volunteered. "He has been acting strangely all day, and just now he was making out a list--names and numbers."

"You're to blame for that, Kit," Max said seriously. "You put washing soda instead of baking soda in those biscuits today, and he thinks he is a steam laundry. Those are laundry lists he's making out. He asked me a little while ago if I wanted a domestic finish."

Yes, I had put washing soda in the biscuits. The book said soda, and how is one to know which is meant?

"I do not think you are calculated for a domestic finish," I said coldly as I turned away. "In any case I disclaim any such responsibility. But--there is something on Dal's mind."

Max came after me. "Don't be cross, Kit. You haven't said a nice word to me today, and you go around bristling with your chin up and two red spots on your cheeks--like whatever-her-name-was with the snakes instead of hair. I don't know why I'm so crazy about you; I always meant to love a girl with a nice disposition."

I left him then. Dal had gone into the reception room and closed the doors. And because he had been acting so strangely, and partly to escape from Max, whose eyes looked threatening, I followed him. Just as I opened the door quietly and looked in, Dallas switched off the lights, and I could hear him groping his way across the room. Then somebody--not Dal--spoke from the corner, cautiously.

"Is that you, Mr. Brown, sir?" It was Flannigan.

"Yes. Is everything here?"

"All but the powder, sir. Don't step too close. They're spread all over the place."

"Have you taken the curtains down?"

"Yes, sir."

"Matches?"

"Here, sir."

"Light one, will you, Flannigan? I want to see the time."

The flare showed Dallas and Flannigan bent over the timepiece. And it showed something else. The rug had been turned back from the windows which opened on the street, and the curtains had been removed. On the bare hardwood floor just beneath the windows was an array of pans of various sizes, dish pans, cake tins, and a metal foot tub. The pans were raised from the floor on bricks, and seemed to be full of paper. All the chairs and tables were pushed back against the wall, and the bric-a-brac was stacked on the mantel.

"Half an hour yet," Dal said, closing his watch. "Plenty of time, and remember the signal, four short and two long."

"Four short and two long--all right, sir."

"And--Flannigan, here's something for you, on account."

"Thank you, sir."

Dal turned to go out, tripped over the rug, said something, and passed me without an idea of my presence. A moment later Flannigan went out, and I was left, huddled against the wall, and alone.

It was puzzling enough. "Four long and two short!" "All but the powder!" Not that I believed for a moment what Max had said, and anyhow Flannigan was the sanest person I ever saw in my life. But it all seemed a part of the mystery that had been hanging over us for several days. I felt my way across the room and knelt by the pans. Yes, they were there, full of paper and mounted on bricks. It had not been a delusion.

And then I straightened on my knees suddenly, for an automobile passing under the windows had sounded four short honks and two long ones. The signal was followed instantly by a crash. The foot bath had fallen from its supports, and lay, quivering and vibrating with horrid noises at my feet. The next moment Mr. Harbison had thrown open the door and leaped into the room.

"Who's there?" he demanded. Against the light I could see him reaching for his hip pocket, and the rest crowding up around him.

"It's only me," I quavered, "that is, I. The--the dish pan upset."

"Dish pan!" Bella said from back in the crowd. "Kit, of course!"

Jim forced his way through then and turned on the lights. I have no doubt I looked very strange, kneeling there on the bare floor, with a row of pans mounted on bricks behind me, and the furniture all piled on itself in a back corner.

"Kit! What in the world--!" Jim began, and stopped. He stared from me to the pans, to the windows, to the bric-a-brac on the mantel, and back to me.

I sat stonily silent. Why should I explain? Whenever I got into a foolish position, and tried to explain, and tell how it happened, and who was really to blame, they always brought it back to me somehow. So I sat there on the floor and let them stare. And finally Lollie Mercer got her breath and said, "How perfectly lovely; it's a charade!"

And Anne guessed "kitchen" at once. "Kit, you know, and the pans and--all that," she said vaguely. At that they all took to guessing! And I sat still, until Mr. Harbison saw the storm in my eyes and came over to me.

"Have you hurt your ankle?" he said in an undertone. "Let me help you up."

"I am not hurt," I said coldly, "and even if I were, it would be unnecessary to trouble you."

"I can not help being troubled," he returned, just as evenly. "'You see, it makes me ill for days if my car runs over a dog.'"

Luckily, at that moment Dal came in. He pushed his way through the crowd without a word, shut off the lights, crashed through the pans and slammed the shutters closed. Then he turned and addressed the rest.

"Of all the lunatics--!" he began, only there was more to it than that. "A fellow goes to all kinds of trouble to put an end to this miserable situation, and the entire household turns out and sets to work to frustrate the whole scheme. You like to stay here, don't you, like chickens in a coop? Where's Flannigan?"

Nobody understood Dal's wrath then, but it seems he meant to arrange the plot himself, and when it was ripe, and the hour nearly come, he intended to wager that he could break the quarantine, and to take any odds he could get that he would free the entire party in half an hour. As for the plan itself, it was idiotically simple; we were perfectly delighted when we heard it. It was so simple and yet so comprehensive. We didn't see how it could fail. Both the Mercer girls kissed Dal on the strength of it, and Anne was furious. Jim was not so much pleased, for some reason or other, and Mr. Harbison looked thoughtful rather than merry. Aunt Selina had gone to bed.

The idea, of course, was to start an embryo fire just inside the windows, in the pans, to feed it with the orange-fire powder that is used on the Fourth of July, and when we had thrown open the windows and yelled "fire" and all the guards and reporters had rushed to the front of the house, to escape quietly by a rear door from the basement kitchen, get into machines Dal had in waiting, and lose ourselves as quickly as we could.

You can see how simple it was.

We were terribly excited, of course. Every one rushed madly for motor coats and veils, and Dal shuffled the numbers so the people going the same direction would have the same machine. We called to each other as we dressed about Mamaroneck or Lakewood or wherever we happened to have relatives. Everybody knew everybody else, and his friends. The Mercer girls were going to cruise until the trouble blew over, the Browns were going to Pinehurst, and Jim was going to Africa to hunt, if he could get out of the harbor.

Only the Harbison man seemed to have no plans; quite suddenly with the world so near again, the world of country houses and steam yachts and all the rest of it, he ceased to be one of us. It was not his world at all. He stood back and watched the kaleidoscope of our coats and veils, half-quizzically, but with something in his face that I had not seen there before. If he had not been so self-reliant and big, I would have said he was lonely. Not that he was pathetic in any sense of the word. Of course, he avoided me, which was natural and exactly what I wished. Bella never was far from him and at the last she loaded him with her jewel case and a muff and traveling bag and asked him to her cousins' on Long Island. I felt sure he was going to decline, when he glanced across at me.

"Do go," I said, very politely. "They are charming people." And he accepted at once!

It was a transparent plot on Bella's part: Two elderly maiden ladies, house miles from anywhere, long evenings in the music room with an open fire and Bella at the harp playing the two songs she knows.

When we were ready and gathered in the kitchen, in the darkness, of course, Dal went up on the roof and signaled with a lantern to the cars on the drive. Then he went downstairs, took a last look at the drawing room, fired the papers, shook on the powder, opened the windows and yelled "fire!"

Of course, huddled in the kitchen we had heard little or nothing. But we plainly heard Dal on the first floor and Flannigan on the second yelling "fire," and the patter of feet as the guards ran to the front of the house. And at that instant we remembered Aunt Selina!

That was the cause of the whole trouble. I don't know why they turned on me; she wasn't my aunt. But by the time we had got her out of bed, and had wrapped her in an eiderdown comfort, and stuck slippers on her feet and a motor veil on her head, the glare at the front of the house was beginning to die away. She didn't understand at all and we had no time to explain. I remember that she wanted to go back and get her "plate," whatever that may be, but Jim took her by the arm and hurried her along, and the rest, who had waited, and were in awful tempers, stood aside and let them out first.

The door to the area steps was open, and by the street lights we could see a fence and a gate, which opened on a side street. Jim and Aunt Selina ran straight for the gate; the wind blowing Aunt Selina's comfort like a sail. Then, with our feet, so to speak, on the first rungs of the ladder of Liberty, it slipped. A half-dozen guards and reporters came around the house and drove us back like sheep into a slaughter pen. It was the most humiliating moment of my life.

Dal had been for fighting a way through, and just for a minute I think I went Berserk myself. But Max spied one of the reporters setting up a flash light as we stood, undecided, at the top of the steps, and after that there was nothing to do but retreat. We backed down slowly, to show them we were not afraid. And when we were all in the kitchen again, and had turned on the lights and Bella was crying with her head against Mr. Harbison's arm, Dal said cheerfully,

"Well, it has done some good, anyhow. We have lost Aunt Selina."

And we all shook hands on it, although we were sorry about Jim. And Dal said we would have some champagne and drink to Aunt Selina's comfort, and we could have her teeth fumigated and send them to her. Somebody said "Poor old Jim," and at that Bella looked up.

She stared around the group, and then she went quite pale.

"Jim!" she gasped. "Do you mean--that Jim is--out there too?"

"Jim and Aunt Selina!" I said as calmly as I could for joy. You can see how it simplified the situation for me. "By this time they are a mile away, and going!"

Everybody shook hands again except Bella. She had dropped into a chair, and sat biting her lip and breathing hard, and she would not join in any of the hilarity at getting rid of Aunt Selina. Finally she got up and knocked over her chair.

"You are a lot of cowards," she stormed. "You deserted them out there, left them. Heaven knows where they are--a defenseless old woman, and--and a man who did not even have an overcoat. And it is snowing!"

"Never mind," Dal said reassuringly. "He can borrow Aunt Selina's comfort. Make the old lady discard from weakness. Anyhow, Bella, if I know anything of human nature, the old lady will make it hot enough for him. Poor old Jim!"

Then they shook hands again, and with that there came a terrible banging at the door, which we had locked.

"Open the door!" some one commanded. It was one of the guards.

"Open it yourself!" Dallas called, moving a kitchen table to reenforce the lock.

"Open that door or we will break it in!"

Dallas put his hands in his pockets, seated himself on the table, and whistled cheerfully. We could hear them conferring outside, and they made another appeal which was refused. Suddenly Bella came over and confronted Dallas.

"They have brought them back!" she said dramatically. "They are out there now; I distinctly heard Jim's voice. Open that door, Dallas!"

"Oh, don't let them in!" I wailed. It was quite involuntary, but the disappointment was too awful. "Dallas, don't open that door!"

Dal swung his feet and smiled from Bella to me.

"Think what a solution it is to all our difficulties," he said easily. "Without Aunt Selina I could be happy here indefinitely."

There was more knocking, and somebody--Max, I think--said to let them in, that it was a fool thing anyhow, and that he wanted to go to bed and forget it; his feet were cold. And just then there was a crash, and part of one of the windows fell in. The next blow from outside brought the rest of the glass, and--somebody was coming through, feet first. It was Jim.

He did not speak to any of us, but turned and helped in a bundle of red and yellow silk comfort that proved to be Aunt Selina, also feet first. I had a glimpse of a half-dozen heads outside, guards and reporters. Then Jim jerked the shade down and unswathed Aunt Selina's legs so that she could walk, offered his arm, and stalked past us and upstairs, without a word!

None of us spoke. We turned out the lights and went upstairs and took off our wraps and went to bed. It had been almost a fiasco.