Chapter XVII. A Clash and a Kiss
 

The clash that came that evening had been threatening for some time. Take an immovable body, represented by Mr. Harbison and his square jaw, and an irresistible force, Jimmy and his weight, and there is bound to be trouble.

The real fault was Jim's. He had gone entirely mad again over Bella, and thrown prudence to the winds. He mooned at her across the dinner table, and waylaid her on the stairs or in the back halls, just to hear her voice when she ordered him out of her way. He telephoned for flowers and candy for her quite shamelessly, and he got out a book of photographs that they had taken on their wedding journey, and kept it on the library table. The sole concession he made to our presumptive relationship was to bring me the responsibility for everything that went wrong, and his shirts for buttons.

The first I heard of the trouble was from Dal. He waylaid me in the hall after dinner that night, and his face was serious.

"I'm afraid we can't keep it up very long, Kit," he said. "With Jim trailing Bella all over the house, and the old lady keener every day, it's bound to come out somehow. And that isn't all. Jim and Harbison had a set-to today--about you."

"About me!" I repeated. "Oh, I dare say I have been falling short again. What was Jim doing? Abusing me?"

Dal looked cautiously over his shoulder, but no one was near.

"It seems that the gentle Bella has been unusually beastly today to Jim, and--I believe she's jealous of you, Kit. Jim followed her up to the roof before dinner with a box of flowers, and she tossed them over the parapet. She said, I believe, that she didn't want his flowers; he could buy them for you, and be damned to him, or some lady-like equivalent."

"Jim is a jellyfish," I said contemptuously. "What did he say?"

"He said he only cared for one woman, and that was Bella; that he never had really cared for you and never would, and that divorce courts were not unmitigated evils if they showed people the way to real happiness. Which wouldn't amount to anything if Harbison had not been in the tent, trying to sleep!"

Dal did not know all the particulars, but it seems that relations between Jim and Mr. Harbison were rather strained. Bella had left the roof and Jim and the Harbison man came face to face in the door of the tent. According to Dal, little had been said, but Jim, bound by his promise to me, could not explain, and could only stammer something about being an old friend of Miss Knowles. And Tom had replied shortly that it was none of his business, but that there were some things friendship hardly justified, and tried to pass Jim. Jim was instantly enraged; he blocked the door to the roof and demanded to know what the other man meant. There were two or three versions of the answer he got. The general purport was that Mr. Harbison had no desire to explain further, and that the situation was forced on him. But if he insisted--when a man systematically ignored and neglected his wife for some one else, there were communities where he would be tarred and feathered.

"Meaning me?" Jim demanded, apoplectic.

"The remark was a general one," Mr. Harbison retorted, "but if you wish to make a concrete application--!"

Dal had gone up just then, and found them glaring at each other, Jim with his hands clenched at his sides, and Mr. Harbison with his arms folded and very erect. Dal took Jim by the elbow and led him downstairs, muttering, and the situation was saved for the time. But Dal was not optimistic.

"You can do a bit yourself, Kit," he finished. "Look more cheerful, flirt a little. You can do that without trying. Take Max on for a day or so; it would be charity anyhow. But don't let Tom Harbison take into his head that you are grieving over Jim's neglect, or he's likely to toss him off the roof."

"I have no reason to think that Mr. Harbison cares one way or the other about me," I said primly. "You don't think he's--he's in love with me, do you, Dal?" I watched him out of the corner of my eye, but he only looked amused.

"In love with you!" he repeated. "Why bless your wicked little heart, no! He thinks you're a married woman! It's the principle of the thing he's fighting for. If I had as much principle as he has, I'd--I'd put it out at interest."

Max interrupted us just then, and asked if we knew where Mr. Harbison was.

"Can't find him," he said. "I've got the telephone together and have enough left over to make another. Where do you suppose Harbison hides the tools? I'm working with a corkscrew and two palette knives."

I heard nothing more of the trouble that night. Max went to Jim about it, and Jim said angrily that only a fool would interfere between a man and his wife--wives. Whereupon Max retorted that a fool and his wives were soon parted, and left him. The two principals were coldly civil to each other, and smaller issues were lost as the famine grew more and more insistent. For famine it was.

They worked the rest of the evening, but the telephone refused to revive and every one was starving. Individually our pride was at low ebb, but collectively it was still formidable. So we sat around and Jim played Grieg with the soft stops on, and Aunt Selina went to bed. The weather had changed, and it was sleeting, but anything was better than the drawing room. I was in a mood to battle with the elements or to cry--or both--so I slipped out, while Dal was reciting "Give me three grains of corn, mother," threw somebody's overcoat over my shoulders, put on a man's soft hat--Jim's I think--and went up to the roof.

It was dark in the third floor hall, and I had to feel my way to the foot of the stairs. I went up quietly, and turned the knob of the door to the roof. At first it would not open, and I could hear the wind howling outside. Finally, however, I got the door open a little and wormed my way through. It was not entirely dark out there, in spite of the storm. A faint reflection of the street lights made it possible to distinguish the outlines of the boxwood plants, swaying in the wind, and the chimneys and the tent. And then--a dark figure disentangled itself from the nearest chimney and seemed to hurl itself at me. I remember putting out my hands and trying to say something, but the figure caught me roughly by the shoulders and knocked me back against the door frame. From miles away a heavy voice was saying, "So I've got you!" and then the roof gave from under me, and I was floating out on the storm, and sleet was beating in my face, and the wind was whispering over and over, "Open your eyes, for God's sake!"

I did open them after a while, and finally I made out that I was laying on the floor in the tent. The lights were on, and I had a cold and damp feeling, and something wet was trickling down my neck.

I seemed to be alone, but in a second somebody came into the tent, and I saw it was Mr. Harbison, and that he had a double handful of half-melted snow. He looked frantic and determined, and only my sitting up quickly prevented my getting another snow bath. My neck felt queer and stiff, and I was very dizzy. When he saw that I was conscious he dropped the snow and stood looking down at me.

"Do you know," he said grimly, "that I very nearly choked you to death a little while ago?"

"It wouldn't surprise me to be told so," I said. "Do I know too much, or what is it, Mr. Harbison?" I felt terribly ill, but I would not let him see it. "It is queer, isn't it--how we always select the roof for our little--differences?" He seemed to relax somewhat at my gibe.

"I didn't know it was you," he explained shortly. "I was waiting for--some one, and in the hat you wore and the coat, I mistook you. That's all. Can you stand?"

"No," I retorted. I could, but his summary manner displeased me. The sequel, however, was rather amazing, for he stooped suddenly and picked me up, and the next instant we were out in the storm together. At the door he stooped and felt for the knob.

"Turn it," he commanded. "I can't reach it."

"I'll do nothing of the kind," I said shrewishly. "Let me down; I can walk perfectly well."

He hesitated. Then he slid me slowly to my feet, but he did not open the door at once. "Are you afraid to let me carry you down those stairs, after--Tuesday night?" he asked, very low. "You still think I did that?"

I had never been less sure of it than at that moment, but an imp of perversity made me retort, "Yes."

He hardly seemed to hear me. He stood looking down at me as I leaned against the door frame.

"Good Lord!" he groaned. "To think that I might have killed you!" And then--he stooped and suddenly kissed me.

The next moment the door was open, and he was leading me down into the house. At the foot of the staircase he paused, still holding my hand, and faced me in the darkness.

"I'm not sorry," he said steadily. "I suppose I ought to be, but I'm not. Only--I want you to know that I was not guilty--before. I didn't intend to now. I am--almost as much surprised as you are."

I was quite unable to speak, but I wrenched my hand loose. He stepped back to let me pass, and I went down the hall alone.