Chapter XXI. A Bar of Soap
 

Late that evening Betty Mercer and Dallas were writing verses of condolence to be signed by all of us and put under the door into Jim's room when Bella came running down the stairs.

Dal was reading the first verse when she came. "Listen to this, Bella," he said triumphantly:

"There was a fat artist named Jas,
Who cruelly called his friends nas.
When, altho' shut up tight,
He broke out over night
With a rash that is maddening, he clas."

Then he caught sight of Bella's face as she stood in the doorway, and stopped.

"Jim is delirious!" she announced tragically. "You shut him in there all alone and now he's delirious. I'll never forgive any of you."

"Delirious!" everybody exclaimed.

"He was sane enough when I took him his chicken broth," Mr. Harbison said. "He was almost fluent."

"He is stark, staring crazy," Bella insisted hysterically. "I--I locked the door carefully when I went down to my dinner, and when I came up it--it was unlocked, and Jim was babbling on the bed, with a sheet over his face. He--he says the house is haunted and he wants all the men to come up and sit in the room with him."

"Not on your life," Max said. "I am young, and my career has only begun. I don't intend to be cut off in the flower of my youth. But I'll tell you what I will do; I'll take him a drink. I can tie it to a pole or something."

But Mr. Harbison did not smile. He was thoughtful for a minute. Then:

"I don't believe he is delirious," he said quietly, "and I wouldn't be surprised if he has happened on something that--will be of general interest. I think I will stay with him tonight."

After that, of course, none of the others would confess that he was afraid, so with the South American leading, they all went upstairs. The women of the party sat on the lower steps and listened, but everything was quiet. Now and then we could hear the sound of voices, and after a while there was a rapid slamming of doors and the sound of some one running down to the second floor. Then quiet again.

None of us felt talkative. Bella had followed the men up and had been put out, and sat sniffling by herself in the den. Aunt Selina was working over a jig-saw puzzle in the library, and declaring that some of it must be lost. Anne and Leila Mercer were embroidering, and Betty and I sat idle, our hands in our laps. The whole atmosphere of the house was mysterious. Anne told over again of the strange noises the night her necklace was stolen. Betty asked me about the time when the comfort slipped from under my fingers. And when, in the midst of the story, the telephone rang, we all jumped and shrieked.

In an hour or so they sent for Flannigan, and he went upstairs. He came down again soon, however, and returned with something over his arm that looked like a rope. It seemed to be made of all kinds of things tied together, trunk straps, clothesline, bed sheets, and something that Flannigan pointed to with rage and said he hadn't been able to keep his clothes on all day. He refused to explain further, however, and trailed the nondescript article up the stairs. We could only gaze after him and wonder what it all meant.

The conclave lasted far into the night. The feminine contingent went to bed, but not to sleep. Some time after midnight, Mr. Harbison and Max went downstairs and I could hear them rattling around testing windows and burglar alarms. But finally every one settled down and the rest of the night was quiet.

Betty Mercer came into my room the next morning, Sunday, and said Anne Brown wanted me. I went over at once, and Anne was sitting up in bed, crying. Dal had slipped out of the room at daylight, she said, and hadn't come back. He had thought she was asleep, but she wasn't, and she knew he was dead, for nothing ever made Dal get up on Sunday before noon.

There was no one moving in the house, and I hardly knew what to do. It was Betty who said she would go up and rouse Mr. Harbison and Max, who had taken Jim's place in the studio. She started out bravely enough, but in a minute we heard her flying back. Anne grew perfectly white.

"He's lying on the upper stairs!" Betty cried, and we all ran out. It was quite true. Dal was lying on the stairs in a bathrobe, with one of Jim's Indian war clubs in his hand. And he was sound asleep.

He looked somewhat embarrassed when he roused and saw us standing around. He said he was going to play a practical joke on somebody and fell asleep in the middle of it. And Anne said he wasn't even an intelligent liar, and went back to bed in a temper. But Betty came in with me, and we sat and looked at each other and didn't say much. The situation was beyond us.

The doctor let Jim out the next day, there having been nothing the matter with him but a stomach rash. But Jim was changed; he mooned around Bella, of course, as before, but he was abstracted at times, and all that day--Sunday--he wandered off by himself, and one would come across him unexpectedly in the basement or along some of the unused back halls.

Aunt Selina held service that morning. Jim said that he always had a prayer book, but that he couldn't find anything with so many people in the house. So Aunt Selina read some religious poetry out of the newspapers, and gave us a valuable talk on Deception versus Honesty, with me as the illustration.

Almost everybody took a nap after luncheon. I stayed in the den and read Ibsen, and felt very mournful. And after Hedda had shot herself, I lay down on the divan and cried a little--over Hedda; she was young and it was such a tragic ending--and then I fell asleep.

When I wakened Mr. Harbison was standing by the table, and he held my book in his hands. In view of the armed neutrality between us, I expected to see him bow to me curtly, turn on his heel and leave the room. Indeed, considering his state of mind the night before, I should hardly have been surprised if he had thrown Hedda at my head. (This is not a pun. I detest them.) But instead, when he heard me move he glanced over at me and even smiled a little.

"She wasn't worth it," he said, indicating the book.

"Worth what?"

"Your tears. You were crying over it, weren't you?"

"She was very unhappy," I asserted indifferently. "She was married and she loved some one else."

"Do you really think she did?" he asked. "And even so, was that a reason?"

"The other man cared for her; he may not have been able to help it."

"But he knew that she was married," he said virtuously, and then he caught my eye and he saw the analogy instantly, for he colored hotly and put down the book.

"Most men argue that way," I said. "They argue by the book, and--they do as they like."

He picked up a Japanese ivory paper weight from the table, and stood balancing it across his finger.

"You are perfectly right," he said at last. "I deserve it all. My grievance is at myself. Your--your beauty, and the fact that I thought you were unhappy, put me--beside myself. It is not an excuse; it is a weak explanation. I will not forget myself again."

He was as abject as any one could have wished. It was my minute of triumph, but I can not pretend that I was happy. Evidently it had been only a passing impulse. If he had really cared, now that he knew I was free, he would have forgotten himself again at once. Then a new explanation occurred to me. Suppose it had been Bella all the time, and the real shock had been to find that she had been married!

"The fault of the situation was really mine," I said magnanimously; "I quite blame myself. Only, you must believe one thing. You never furnished us any amusement." I looked at him sidewise. "The discovery that Bella and Jim were once married must have been a great shock."

"It was a surprise," he replied evenly. His voice and his eyes were inscrutable. He returned my glance steadily. It was infuriating to have gone half-way to meet him, as I had, and then to find him intrenched in his self-sufficiency again. I got up.

"It is unfortunate that our acquaintance has begun so unfavorably," I remarked, preparing to pass him. "Under other circumstances we might have been friends."

"There is only one solace," he said. "When we do not have friends, we can not lose them."

He opened the door to let me pass out, and as our eyes met, all the coldness died out of his. He held out his hand, but I was hurt. I refused to see it.

"Kit!" he said unsteadily. "I--I'm an obstinate, pig-headed brute. I am sorry. Can't we be friends, after all?"

"'When we do not have friends we can not lose them,'" I replied with cool malice. And the next instant the door closed behind me.

It was that night that the really serious event of the quarantine occurred.

We were gathered in the library, and everybody was deadly dull. Aunt Selina said she had been reared to a strict observance of the Sabbath, and she refused to go to bed early. The cards and card tables were put away and every one sat around and quarreled and was generally nasty, except Bella and Jim, who had gone into the den just after dinner and firmly closed the door.

I think it was just after Max proposed to me. Yes, he proposed to me again that night. He said that Jim's illness had decided him; that any of us might take sick and die, shut in that contaminated atmosphere, and that if he did he wanted it all settled. And whether I took him or not he wanted me to remember him kindly if anything happened. I really hated to refuse him--he was in such deadly earnest. But it was quite unnecessary for him to have blamed his refusal, as he did, on Mr. Harbison. I am sure I had refused him plenty of times before I had ever heard of the man. Yes, it was just after he proposed to me that Flannigan came to the door and called Mr. Harbison out into the hall.

Flannigan--like most of the people in the house--always went to Mr. Harbison when there was anything to be done. He openly adored him, and--what was more--he did what Mr. Harbison ordered without a word, while the rest of us had to get down on our knees and beg.

Mr. Harbison went out, muttering something about a storm coming up, and seeing that the tent was secure. Betty Mercer went with him. She had been at his heels all evening, and called him "Tom" on every possible occasion. Indeed, she made no secret of it; she said that she was mad about him, and that she would love to live in South America, and have an Indian squaw for a lady's maid, and sit out on the veranda in the evenings and watch the Southern Cross shooting across the sky, and eat tropical food from the quaint Indian pottery. She was not even daunted when Dal told her the Southern Cross did not shoot, and that the food was probably canned corn on tin dishes.

So Betty went with him. She wore a pale yellow dinner gown, with just a sophisticated touch of black here and there, and cut modestly square in the neck. Her shoulders are scrawny. And after they were gone--not her shoulders; Mr. Harbison and she--Aunt Selina announced that the next day was Monday, that she had only a week's supply of clothing with her, and that no policeman who ever swung a mace should wash her undergarments for her.

She paused a moment, but nobody offered to do it. Anne was reading De Maupassant under cover of a table, and the rest pretended not to hear. After a pause, Aunt Selina got up heavily and went upstairs, coming down soon after with a bundle covered with a green shawl, and with a white balbriggan stocking trailing from an opening in it. She paused at the library door, surveyed the inmates, caught my unlucky eye and beckoned to me with a relentless forefinger.

"We can put them to soak tonight," she confided to me, "and tomorrow they will be quite simple to do. There is no lace to speak of"--Dal raised his eyebrows--"and very little flouncing."

Aunt Selina and I went to the laundry. It never occurred to any one that Bella should have gone; she had stepped into all my privileges--such as they were--and assumed none of my obligations. Aunt Selina and I went to the laundry.

It is strange what big things develop from little ones. In this case it was a bar of soap. And if Flannigan had used as much soap as he should have instead of washing up the kitchen floor with cold dish water, it would have developed sooner. The two most unexpected events of the whole quarantine occurred that night at the same time, one on the roof and one in the cellar. The cellar one, although curious, was not so serious as the other, so it comes first.

Aunt Selina put her clothes in a tub in the laundry and proceeded to dress them like a vegetable. She threw in a handful of salt, some kerosene oil and a little ammonia. The result was villainous, but after she tasted it--or snuffed it--she said it needed a bar of soap cut up to give it strength--or flavor--and I went into the store room for it.

The laundry soap was in a box. I took in a silver fork, for I hated to touch the stuff, and jabbed a bar successfully in the semi-darkness. Then I carried it back to the laundry and dropped it on the table. Aunt Selina looked at the fork with disgust; then we both looked at the soap. One side of it was covered with round holes that curved around on each other like a coiled snake.

I ran back to the store room, and there, a little bit sticky and smelling terribly of rosin, lay Anne's pearl necklace!

I was so excited that I seized Aunt Selina by the hands and danced her all over the place. Then I left her, trying to find her hair pins on the floor, and ran up to tell the others. I met Betty in the hall and waved the pearls at her. But she did not notice them.

"Is Mr. Harbison down there?" she asked breathlessly. "I left him on the roof and went down to my room for my scarf, and when I went back he had disappeared. He--he doesn't seem to be in the house." She tried to laugh, but her voice was shaky. "He couldn't have got down without passing me, anyhow," she supplemented. "I suppose I'm silly, but so many queer things have happened, Kit."

"I wouldn't worry, Betty," I soothed her. "He is big enough to take care of himself. And with the best intentions in the world, you can't have him all the time, you know."

She was too much startled to be indignant. She followed me into the library, where the sight of the pearls produced a tremendous excitement, and then every one had to go down to the store room, and see where the necklace had been hidden, and Max examined all the bars of soap for thumb prints.

Mr. Harbison did not appear. Max commented on the fact caustically, but Dal hushed him up. And so, Anne hugging her pearls, and Aunt Selina having put a final seasoning of washing powder on the clothes in the tub, we all went upstairs to bed. It had been a long day, and the morning would at least bring bridge.

I was almost ready for bed when Jim tapped at my door. I had been very cool to him since the night in the library when I was publicly staked and martyred, and he was almost cringing when I opened the door.

"What is it now?" I asked cruelly. "Has Bella tired of it already, or has somebody else a rash?"

"Don't be a shrew, Kit," he said. "I don't want you to do anything. I only--when did you see Harbison last?"

"If you mean 'last,'" I retorted, "I'm afraid I haven't seen the last of him yet." Then I saw that he was really worried. "Betty was leading him to the roof," I added. "Why? Is he missing?"

"He isn't anywhere in the house. Dal and I have been over every inch of it." Max had come up, in a dressing gown, and was watching me insolently.

"I think we have seen the last of him," he said. "I'm sorry, Kit, to nip the little romance in the bud. The fellow was crazy about you--there's no doubt of it. But I've been watching him from the beginning, and I think I'm upheld. Whether he went down the water spout, or across a board to the next house--"

"I--I dislike him intensely," I said angrily, "but you would not dare to say that to his face. He could strangle you with one hand."

Max laughed disagreeably.

"Well, I only hope he is gone," he threw at me over his shoulder, "I wouldn't want to be responsible to your father if he had stayed." I was speechless with wrath.

They went away then, and I could hear them going over the house. At one o'clock Jim went up to bed, the last, and Mr. Harbison had not been found. I did not see how they could go to bed at all. If he had escaped, then Max was right and the whole thing was heart-breaking. And if he had not, then he might be lying--

I got up and dressed.

The early part of the night had been cloudy, but when I got to the roof it was clear starlight. The wind blew through the electric wires strung across and set them singing. The occasional bleat of a belated automobile on the drive below came up to me raucously. The tent gleamed, a starlit ghost of itself, and the boxwoods bent in the breeze. I went over to the parapet and leaned my elbows on it. I had done the same thing so often before; I had carried all my times of stress so infallibly to that particular place, that instinctively my feet turned there.

And there in the starlight, I went over the whole serio-comedy, and I loathed my part in it. He had been perfectly right to be angry with me and with all of us. And I had been a hypocrite and a Pharisee, and had thanked God that I was not as other people, when the fact was that I was worse than the worst. And although it wasn't dignified to think of him going down the drain pipe, still--no one could blame him for wanting to get away from us, and he was quite muscular enough to do it.

I was in the depths of self-abasement when I heard a sound behind me. It was a long breath, quite audible, that ended in a groan. I gripped the parapet and listened, while my heart pounded, and in a minute it came again.

I was terribly frightened. Then--I don't know how I did it, but I was across the roof, kneeling beside the tent, where it stood against the chimney. And there, lying prone among the flower pots, and almost entirely hidden, lay the man we had been looking for.

His head was toward me, and I reached out shakingly and touched his face. It was cold, and my hand, when I drew it back, was covered with blood.