When a Man Marries by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XVIII. It's All My Fault
I didn't go to the drawing room again. I went into my own room and sat in the dark, and tried to be furiously angry, and only succeeded in feeling queer and tingly. One thing was absolutely certain: not the same man, but two different men had kissed me on the stairs to the roof. It sounds rather horrid and discriminating, but there was all the difference in the world.
But then--who had? And for whom had Mr. Harbison been waiting on the roof? "Did you know that I nearly choked you to death a few minutes ago?" Then he rather expected to finish somebody in that way! Who? Jim, probably. It was strange, too, but suddenly I realized that no matter how many suspicious things I mustered up against him--and there were plenty--down in my heart I didn't believe him guilty of anything, except this last and unforgivable offense. Whoever was trying to leave the house had taken the necklace, that seemed clear, unless Max was still foolishly trying to break quarantine and create one of the sensations he so dearly loves. This was a new idea, and some things upheld it, but Max had been playing bridge when I was kissed on the stairs, and there was still left that ridiculous incident of the comfort.
Bella came up after I had gone to bed, and turned on the light to brush her hair.
"If I don't leave this mausoleum soon, I'll be carried out," she declared. "You in bed, Lollie Mercer and Dal flirting, Anne hysterical, and Jim making his will in the den! You will have to take Aunt Selina tonight, Kit; I'm all in."
"If you'll put her to bed, I'll keep her there," I conceded, after some parley.
"You're a dear." Bella came back from the door. "Look here, Kit, you know Jim pretty well. Don't you think he looks ill? Thinner?"
"He's a wreck," I said soberly. "You have a lot to answer for, Bella."
Bella went over to the cheval glass and looked in it. "I avoid him all I can," she said, posing. "He's awfully funny; he's so afraid I'll think he's serious about you. He can't realize that for me he simply doesn't exist."
Well, I took Aunt Selina, and about two o'clock, while I was in my first sleep, I woke to find her standing beside me, tugging at my arm.
"There's somebody in the house," she whispered. "Thieves!"
"If they're in they'll not get out tonight," I said.
"I tell you, I saw a man skulking on the stairs," she insisted.
I got up ungraciously enough, and put on my dressing gown. Aunt Selina, who had her hair in crimps, tied a veil over her head, and together we went to the head of the stairs. Aunt Selina leaned far over and peered down.
"He's in the library," she whispered. "I can see a light."
The lust of battle was in Aunt Selina's eye. She girded her robe about her and began to descend the stairs cautiously. We went through the hall and stopped at the library door. It was empty, but from the den beyond came a hum of voices and the cheerful glow of fire light. I realized the situation then, but it was too late.
"Then why did you kiss her in the dining room?" Bella was saying in her clear, high tones. "You did, didn't you?"
"It was only her hand," Jim, desperately explaining. "I've got to pay her some attention, under the circumstances. And I give you my word, I was thinking of you when I did it." The wretch!
Aunt Selina drew her breath in suddenly.
"I am thinking of marrying Reggie Wolfe." This was Bella, of course. "He wants me to. He's a dear boy."
"If you do, I will kill him."
"I am so very lonely," Bella sighed. We could hear the creak of Jim's shirt bosom that showed that he had sighed also. Aunt Selina had gripped me by the arm, and I could hear her breathing hard beside me.
"It's only Jim," I whispered. "I--I don't want to hear any more."
But she clutched me firmly, and the next thing we heard was another creak, louder and--
"Get up! Get up off your knees this instant!" Bella was saying frantically. "Some one might come in."
"Don't send me away," Jim said in a smothered voice. "Every one in the house is asleep, and I love you, dear."
Aunt Selina swallowed hard in the darkness.
"You have no right to make love to me," Bella. "It's--it's highly improper, under the circumstances."
And then Jim: "You swallow a camel and stick at a gnat. Why did you meet me here, if you didn't expect me to make love to you? I've stood for a lot, Bella, but this foolishness will have to end. Either you love me--or you don't. I'm desperate." He drew a long, forlorn breath.
"Poor old Jim!" This was Bella. A pause. Then--"Let my hand alone!" Also Bella.
"It is my hand!"--Jim;'s most fatuous tone. "There is where you wore my ring. There's the mark still." Sounds of Jim kissing Bella's ring finger. "What did you do with it? Throw it away?" More sounds.
Aunt Selina crossed the library swiftly, and again I followed. Bella was sitting in a low chair by the fire, looking at the logs, in the most exquisite negligee of pink chiffon and ribbon. Jim was on his knees, staring at her adoringly, and holding both her hands.
"I'll tell you a secret," Bella was saying, looking as coy as she knew how--which was considerable. "I--I still wear it, on a chain around my neck."
On a chain around her neck! Bella, who is decollete whenever it is allowable, and more than is proper!
That was the limit of Aunt Selina's endurance. Still holding me, she stepped through the doorway and into the firelight, a fearful figure.
Jim saw her first. He went quite white and struggled to get up, smiling a sickly smile. Bella, after her first surprise, was superbly indifferent. She glanced at us, raised her eyebrows, and then looked at the clock.
"More victims of insomnia!" she said. "Won't you come in? Jim, pull up a chair by the fire for your aunt."
Aunt Selina opened her mouth twice, like a fish, before she could speak. Then--
"James, I demand that that woman leave the house!" she said hoarsely.
Bella leaned back and yawned.
"James, shall I go?" she asked amiably.
"Nonsense," Jim said, pulling himself together as best he could. "Look here, Aunt Selina, you know she can't go out, and what's more, I--don't want her to go."
"You--what?" Aunt Selina screeched, taking a step forward. "You have the audacity to say such a thing to me!"
Bella leaned over and gave the fire log a punch.
"I was just saying that he shouldn't say such things to me, either," she remarked pleasantly. "I'm afraid you'll take cold, Miss Caruthers. Wouldn't you like a hot sherry flip?"
Aunt Selina gasped. Then she sat down heavily on one of the carved teakwood chairs.
"He said he loved you; I heard him," she said weakly. "He--he was going to put his arm around you!"
"Habit!" Jim put in, trying to smile. "You see, Aunt Selina, it's--well, it's a habit I got into some time ago, and I--my arm does it without my thinking about it."
"Habit!" Aunt Selina repeated, her voice thick with passion. Then she turned to me. "Go to your room at once!" she said in her most awful tone. "Go to your room and leave this--this shocking affair to me."
But if she had reached her limit, so had I. If Jim chose to ruin himself, it was not my fault. Any one with common sense would have known at least to close the door before he went down on his knees, no matter to whom. So when Aunt Selina turned on me and pointed in the direction of the staircase, I did not move.
"I am perfectly wide awake," I said coldly. "I shall go to bed when I am entirely ready, and not before. And as for Jim's conduct, I do not know much about the conventions in such cases, but if he wishes to embrace Miss Knowles, and she wants him to, the situation is interesting, but hardly novel."
Aunt Selina rose slowly and drew the folds of her dressing gown around her, away from the contamination of my touch.
"Do you know what you are saying?" she demanded hoarsely.
"I do." I was quite white and stiff from my knees up, but below I was wavery. I glanced at Jim for moral support, but he was looking idolatrously at Bella. As for her, quite suddenly she had dropped her mask of indifference; her face was strained and anxious, and there were deep circles I had not seen before, under her eyes. And it was Bella who finally threw herself into the breach--the family breach.
"It is all my fault, Miss Caruthers," she said, stepping between Aunt Selina and myself. "I have been a blind and wicked woman, and I have almost wrecked two lives."
Two! What of mine?
"You see," she struggled on, against the glint in Aunt Selina's eyes. "I--I did not realize how much I cared, until it was too late. I did so many things that were cruel and wrong--oh, Jim, Jim!"
She turned and buried her head on his shoulder and cried; real tears. I could hardly believe that it was Bella. And Jim put both his arms around her and almost cried, too, and looked nauseatingly happy with the eye he turned to Bella, and scared to death out of the one he kept on Aunt Selina.
She turned on me, as of course I knew she would.
"That," she said, pointing at Jim and Bella, "that shameful picture is due to your own indifference. I am not blind; I have seen how you rejected all his loving advances." Bella drew away from Jim, but he jerked her back. "If anything in the world would reconcile me to divorce, it is this unbelievable situation. James, are you shameless?"
But James was and didn't care who knew it. And as there was nothing else to do, and no one else to do it, I stood very straight against the door frame, and told the whole miserable story from the very beginning. I told how Dal and Jim had persuaded me, and how I had weakened and found it was too late, and how Bella had come in that night, when she had no business to come, and had sat down in the basement kitchen on my hands and almost turned me into a raving maniac. As I went on I became fluent; my sense of injury grew on me. I made it perfectly clear that I hated them all, and that when people got divorces they ought to know their own minds and stay divorced. And at that a great light broke on Aunt Selina, who hadn't understood until that minute.
In view of her principles, she might have been expected to turn on Jim and Bella, and disinherit them, and cast them out, figuratively, with the flaming sword of her tongue. But she did not!
She turned on me in the most terrible way, and asked me how I dared to come between husband and wife, because divorce or no divorce, whom God hath joined together, and so on. And when Jim picked up his courage in both hands and tried to interfere, she pushed him back with one hand while she pointed the other at me and called me a Jezebel.