Chapter XIX. The Harbison Man
 

She talked for an hour, having got between me and the door, and she scolded Jim and Bella thoroughly. But they did not hear it, being occupied with each other, sitting side by side meekly on the divan with Jim holding Bella's hand under a cushion. She said they would have to be very good to make up for all the deception, but it was perfectly clear that it was a relief to her to find that I didn't belong to her permanently, and as I have said before, she was crazy about Bella.

I sat back in a chair and grew comfortably drowsy in the monotony of her voice. It was a name that brought me to myself with a jerk.

"Mr. Harbison!" Aunt Selina was saying. "Then bring him down at once, James. I want no more deception. There is no use cleaning a house and leaving a dirty corner."

"It will not be necessary for me to stay and see it swept," I said, mustering the rags she had left of my self-respect, and trying to pass her. But she planted herself squarely before me.

"You can not stir up a dust like this, young woman, and leave other people to sneeze in it," she said grimly. And I stayed.

I sat, very small, on a chair in a corner. I felt like Jezebel, or whatever her name was, and now the Harbison man was coming, and he was going to see me stripped of my pretensions to domesticity and of a husband who neglected me. He was going to see me branded a living lie, and he would hate me because I had put him in a ridiculous position. He was just the sort to resent being ridiculous.

Jim brought him down in a dressing gown and a state of bewilderment. It was plain that the memory of the afternoon still rankled, for he was very short with Jim and inclined to resent the whole thing. The clock in the hall chimed half after three as they came down the stairs, and I heard Mr. Harbison stumble over something in the darkness and say that if it was a joke, he wasn't in the humor for it. To which Jim retorted that it wasn't anything resembling a joke, and for heaven's sake not to walk on his feet; he couldn't get around the furniture any faster.

At the door of the den Mr. Harbison stopped, blinking in the light. Then, when he saw us, he tried to back himself and his dishabille out into the obscurity of the library. But Aunt Selina was too quick for him.

"Come in," she called, "I want you, young man. It seems that there are only two fools in the house, and you are one."

He straightened at that and looked bewildered, but he tried to smile.

"I thought I was the only one," he said. "Is it possible that there is another?"

"I am the other," she announced. I think she expected him to say "Impossible," but, whatever he was, he was never banal.

"Is that so?" he asked politely, trying to be interested and to understand at the same time. He had not seen me. He was gazing fixedly at Bella, languishing on the divan and watching him with lowered lids, and he had given Jim a side glance of contempt. But now he saw me and he colored under his tan. His neck blushed furiously, being much whiter than his face. He kept his eyes on mine, and I knew that he was mutely asking forgiveness. But the thought of what was coming paralyzed me. My eyes were glued to his as they had been that first evening when he had called me "Mrs. Wilson," and after an instant he looked away, and his face was set and hard.

"It seems that we have all been playing a little comedy, Mr. Harbison," Aunt Selina began, nasally sarcastic. "Or rather, you and I have been the audience. The rest have played."

"I--I don't think I understand," he said slowly. "I have seen very little comedy."

"It was not well planned," Aunt Selina retorted tartly. "The idea was good, but the young person who was playing the part of Mrs. Wilson--overacted."

"Oh, come, Aunt Selina, Jim protested, "Kit was coaxed and cajoled into this thing. Give me fits if you like; I deserve all I get. But let Kit alone--she did it for me."

Bella looked over at me and smiled nastily.

"I would stop doing things for Jim, Kit," she said. "It is so unprofitable."

But Mr. Harbison harked back to Aunt Selina's speech.

"Playing the part of Mrs. Wilson!" he repeated. "Do you mean--?

"Exactly. Playing the part. She is not Mrs. Wilson. It seems that that honor belonged at one time to Miss Knowles. I believe such things are not unknown in New York, only why in the name of sense does a man want to divorce a woman and then meet her at two o'clock in the morning to kiss the place where his own wedding ring used to rest?"

Jim fidgeted. Bella was having spasms of mirth to herself, but the Harbison man did not smile. He stood for a moment looking at the fire; then he thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his dressing gown, and stalked over to me. He did not care that the others were watching and listening.

"Is it true?" he demanded, staring down at me. "You are not Mrs. Wilson? You are not married at all? All that about being neglected--and loathing him, and all that on the roof--there was no foundation of truth?"

I could only shake my head without looking up. There was no defense to be made. Oh, I deserved the scorn in his voice.

"They--they persuaded you, I suppose, and it was to help somebody? It was not a practical joke?"

"No," I rallied a little spirit at that. It had been anything but a joke.

He drew a long breath.

"I think I understand," he said slowly, "but--you could have saved me something. I must have given you all a great deal of amusement."

"Oh, no," I protested. "I--I want to tell you--"

But he deliberately left me and went over to the door. There he turned and looked down at Aunt Selina. He was a little white, but there was no passion in his face.

"Thank you for telling me all this, Miss Caruthers," he said easily. "Now that you and I know, I'm afraid the others will miss their little diversion. Good night."

Oh, it was all right for Jim to laugh and say that he was only huffed a little and would be over it by morning. I knew better. There was something queer in his face as he went out. He did not even glance in my direction. He had said very little, but he had put me as effectually in the wrong as if he had not kissed me--deliberately kissed me--that very evening, on the roof.

I did not go to sleep again. I lay wretchedly thinking things over and trying to remember who Jezebel was, and toward morning I distinctly heard the knob of the door turn. I mistrusted my ears, however, and so I got up quietly and went over in the darkness. There was no sound outside, but when I put my hand on the knob I felt it move under my fingers. The counter pressure evidently alarmed whoever it was, for the knob was released and nothing more happened. But by this time anything so uncomplicated as the fumbling of a knob at night had no power to disturb me. I went back to bed.