Chapter XX. Breaking Out in a New Place
 

Hunger roused everybody early the next morning, Friday. Leila Mercer had discovered a box of bonbons that she had forgotten, and we divided them around. Aunt Selina asked for the candied fruit and got it--quite a third of the box. We gathered in the lower hall and on the stairs and nibbled nauseating sweets while Mr. Harbison examined the telephone.

He did not glance in my direction. Betty and Dal were helping him, and he seemed very cheerful. Max sat with me on the stairs. Mr. Harbison had just unscrewed the telephone box from the wall and was squinting into it, when Bella came downstairs. It was her first appearance, but as she was always late, nobody noticed. When she stopped, just above us on the stairs, however, we looked up, and she was holding to the rail and trembling perceptibly.

"Mr. Harbison, will you--can you come upstairs?" she asked. Her voice was strained, almost reedy, and her lips were white.

Mr. Harbison stared up at her, with the telephone box in his hands.

"Why--er--certainly," he said, "but, unless it's very important, I'd like to fix this talking machine. We want to make a food record."

"I'd like to break a food record," Max put in, but Bella created a diversion by sitting down suddenly on the stair just above us, and burying her face in her handkerchief.

"Jim is sick," she said, with a sob. "He--he doesn't want anything to eat, and his head aches. He--said for me--to go away and let him die!"

Dal dropped the hammer immediately, and Lollie Mercer sat petrified, with a bonbon halfway to her mouth. For, of course, it was unexpected, finding sentiment of any kind in Bella, and none of them knew about the scene in the den in the small hours of the morning.

"Sick!" Aunt Selina said, from a hall chair. "Sick! Where?"

"All over," Bella quavered. "His poor head is hot, and he's thirsty, but he doesn't want anything but water."

"Great Scott!" Dal said suddenly. "Suppose he should--Bella, are you telling us all his symptoms?"

Bella put down her handkerchief and got up. From her position on the stairs she looked down on us with something of her old haughty manner.

"If he is ill, you may blame yourselves, all of you," she said cruelly. "You taunted him with being--fat, and laughed at him, until he stopped eating the things he should eat. And he has been exercising--on the roof, until he has worn himself out. And now--he is ill. He--he has a rash."

Everybody jumped at that, and we instinctively moved away from Bella. She was quite cold and scornful by that time.

"A rash!" Max exclaimed. "What sort of rash?"

"I did not see it," Bella said with dignity, and turning, she went up the stairs.

There was a great deal of excitement, and nobody except Mr. Harbison was willing to go near Jim. He went up at once with Bella, while Max and Dal sat cravenly downstairs and wondered if we would all take it, and Anne told about a man she knew who had it, and was deaf and dumb and blind when he recovered.

Mr. Harbison came down after a while, and said that the rash was there, right enough, and that Jim absolutely refused to be quarantined; that he insisted that he always got a rash from early strawberries and that if he did have anything, since they were so touchy he hoped they would all get it. If they locked him in he would kick the door down.

We had a long conference in the hall, with Bella sitting red-eyed and objecting to every suggestion we made. And finally we arranged to shut Jim up in one of the servants' bedrooms with a sheet wrung out of disinfectant hung over the door. Bella said she would sit outside in the hall and read to him through the closed door, so finally he gave a grudging consent. But he was in an awful humor. Max and Dal put on rubber gloves and helped him over, and they said afterward that the way he talked was fearful. And there was a telephone in the maid's room, and he kept asking for things every five minutes.

When the doctor came he said it was too early to tell positively, and he ordered him liquid diet and said he would be back that evening.

Which--the diet--takes me back to the famine. After they had moved Jim, Mr. Harbison went back to the telephone, and found everything as it should be. So he followed the telephone wire, and the rest followed him. I did not; he had systematically ignored me all morning, after having dared to kiss me the night before. And any other man I know, after looking at me the way he had looked a dozen times, would have been at least reasonably glad to find me free and unmarried. But it was clear that he was not; I wondered if he was the kind of man who always makes love to the other man's wife and runs like mad when she is left a widow, or gets a divorce.

And just when I had decided that I hated him, and that there was one man I knew who would never make love to a woman whom he thought married and then be very dignified and aloof when he found she wasn't, I heard what was wrong with the telephone wire.

It had been cut! Cut through with a pair of silver manicure scissors from the dressing table in Bella's room, where Aunt Selina slept! The wire had been clipped where it came into the house, just under a window, and the scissors still lay on the sill.

It was mysterious enough, but no one was interested in the mystery just then. We wanted food, and wanted it at once. Mr. Harbison fixed the wire, and the first thing we did, of course, was to order something to eat. Aunt Selina went to bed just after luncheon with indigestion, to the relief of every one in the house. She had been most unpleasant all morning.

When she found herself ill, however, she insisted on having Bella, and that made trouble at once. We found Bella with her cheek against the door into Jim's room, looking maudlin while he shouted love messages to her from the other side. At first she refused to stir, but after Anne and Max had tried and failed, the rest of us went to her in a body and implored her. We said Aunt Selina was in awful shape--which she was, as to temper--and that she had thrown a mustard plaster at Anne, which was true.

So Bella went, grumbling, and Jim was a maniac. We had not thought it would be so bad for Bella, but Aunt Selina fell asleep soon after she took charge, holding Bella's hand, and slept for three hours and never let go!

About two that afternoon the sun came out, and the rest of us went to the roof. The sleet had melted and the air was fairly warm. Two housemaids dusting rugs on the top of the next house came over and stared at us, and somebody in an automobile down on Riverside Drive stood up and waved at us. It was very cheerful and hopelessly lonely.

I stayed on the roof after the others had gone, and for some time I thought I was alone. After a while, I got a whiff of smoke, and then I saw Mr. Harbison far over in the corner, one foot on the parapet, moodily smoking a pipe. He was gazing out over the river, and paying no attention to me. This was natural, considering that I had hardly spoken to him all day.

I would not let him drive me away, so I sat still, and it grew darker and colder. He filled his pipe now and then, but he never looked in my direction. Finally, however, as it grew very dusk, he knocked the ashes out and came toward me.

"I am going to make a request, Miss McNair," he said evenly. "Please keep off the roof after sunset. There are--reasons." I had risen and was preparing to go downstairs.

"Unless I know the reasons, I refuse to do anything of the kind," I retorted. He bowed.

"Then the door will be kept locked," he rejoined, and opened it for me. He did not follow me, but stood watching until I was down, and I heard him close the roof door firmly behind me.