Chapter III. I Might Have Known It
 

The minute I had consented I regretted it. After all, what were Jimmy's troubles to me? Why should I help him impose on an unsuspecting elderly woman? And it was only putting off discovery anyhow. Sooner or later, she would learn of the divorce, and--Just at that instant my eyes fell on Mr. Harbison--Tom Harbison, as Anne called him. He was looking on with an amused, half-puzzled smile, while people were rushing around hiding the roulette wheel and things of which Miss Caruthers might disapprove, and Betty Mercer was on her knees winding up a toy bear that Max had brought her. What would he think? It was evident that he thought badly of us already--that he was contemptuously amused, and then to have to ask him to lend himself to the deception!

With a gasp I hurled myself after Jimmy, only to hear a strange voice in the hall and to know that I was too late. I was in for it, whatever was coming. It was Aunt Selina who was coming--along the hall, followed by Jim, who was mopping his face and trying not to notice the paralyzed silence in the library.

Aunt Selina met me in the doorway. To my frantic eyes she seemed to tower above us by at least a foot, and beside her Jimmy was a red, perspiring cherub.

"Here she is," Jimmy said, from behind a temporary eclipse of black cloak and traveling bag. He was on top of the situation now, and he was mendaciously cheerful. He had not said, "Here is my wife." That would have been a lie. No, Jimmy merely said, "Here she is." If Aunt Selina chose to think me Bella, was it not her responsibility? And if I chose to accept the situation, was it not mine? Dallas Brown came forward gravely as Aunt Selina folded over and kissed me, and surreptitiously patted me with one hand while he held out the other to Miss Caruthers. I loathed him!

"We always expect something unusual from James, Miss Caruthers," he said, with his best manner, "but this--this is beyond our wildest dreams."

Well, it's too awful to linger over. Anne took her upstairs and into Bella's bedroom. It was a fancy of Jim's to leave that room just as Bella had left it, dusty dance cards and favors hanging around and a pair of discarded slippers under the bed. I don't think it had been swept since Bella left it. I believe in sentiment, but I like it brushed and dusted and the cobwebs off of it, and when Aunt Selina put down her bonnet, it stirred up a gray-white cloud that made her cough. She did not say anything, but she looked around the room grimly, and I saw her run her finger over the back of a chair before she let Hannah, the maid, put her cloak on it.

Anne looked frightened. She ran into Bella's bath and wet the end of a towel and when Hannah was changing Aunt Selina's collar--her concession to evening dress--Anne wiped off the obvious places on the furniture. She did it stealthily, but Aunt Selina saw her in the glass.

"What's that young woman's name?" she asked me sharply, when Anne had taken the towel out to hide it.

"Anne Brown, Mrs. Dallas Brown," I replied meekly. Every one replied meekly to Aunt Selina.

"Does she live here?"

"Oh, no," I said airily. "They are here to dinner, she and her husband. They are old friends of Jim's--and mine."

"Seems to have a good eye for dirt," said Aunt Selina and went on fastening her brooch. When she was finally ready, she took a bead purse from somewhere about her waist and took out a half dollar. She held it up before Hannah's eyes.

"Tomorrow morning," she said sternly, "You take off that white cap and that fol-de-rol apron and that black henrietta cloth, and put on a calico wrapper. And when you've got this room aired and swept, Mrs. Wilson will give you this."

Hannah took two steps back and caught hold of a chair; she stared helplessly from Aunt Selina to the half dollar, and then at me. Anne was trying not to catch my eye.

"And another thing," Aunt Selina said, from the head of the stairs, "I sent those towels over from Ireland. Tell her to wash and bleach the one Mrs. What's-her-name Brown used as a duster."

Anne was quite crushed as we went down the stairs. I turned once, half-way down, and her face was a curious mixture of guilt and hopeless wrath. Over her shoulder, I could see Hannah, wide-eyed and puzzled, staring after us.

Jim presented everybody, and then he went into the den and closed the door and we heard him unlock the cellarette. Aunt Selina looked at Leila's bare shoulders and said she guessed she didn't take cold easily, and conversation rather languished. Max Reed was looking like a thundercloud, and he came over to me with a lowering expression that I had learned to dread in him.

"What fool nonsense is this?" he demanded. "What in the world possessed you, Kit, to put yourself in such an equivocal position? Unless"--he stopped and turned a little white--"unless you are going to marry Jim."

I am sorry for Max. He is such a nice boy, and good looking, too, if only he were not so fierce, and did not want to make love to me. No matter what I do, Max always disapproves of it. I have always had a deeply rooted conviction that if I should ever in a weak moment marry Max, he would disapprove of that, too, before I had done it very long.

"Are you?" he demanded, narrowing his eyes--a sign of unusually bad humor.

"Am I what?"

"Going to marry him?"

"If you mean Jim," I said with dignity, "I haven't made up my mind yet. Besides, he hasn't asked me."

Aunt Selina had been talking Woman's Suffrage in front of the fireplace, but now she turned to me.

"Is this the vase Cousin Jane Whitcomb sent you as a wedding present?" she demanded, indicating a hideous urn-shaped affair on the mantel. It came to me as an inspiration that Jim had once said it was an ancestral urn, so I said without hesitation that it was. And because there was a pause and every one was looking at us, I added that it was a beautiful thing.

Aunt Selina sniffed.

"Hideous!" she said. "It looks like Cousin Jane, shape and coloring."

Then she looked at it more closely, pounced on it, turned it upside down and shook it. A card fell out, which Dallas picked up and gave her with a bow. Jim had come out of the den and was dancing wildly around and beckoning to me. By the time I had made out that that was not the vase Cousin Jane had sent us as a wedding present, Aunt Selina had examined the card. Then she glared across at me and, stooping, put the card in the fire. I did not understand at all, but I knew I had in some way done the unforgivable thing. Later, Dal told me it was her card, and that she had sent the vase to Jim at Christmas, with a generous check inside. When she straightened from the fireplace, it was to a new theme, which she attacked with her usual vigor. The vase incident was over, but she never forgot it. She proved that she never did when she sent me two urn-shaped vases with Paul and Virginia on them, when I--that is, later on.

"The Cause in England has made great strides," she announced from the fireplace. "Soon the hand that rocks the cradle will be the hand that actually rules the world." Here she looked at me.

"I'm not up on such things," Max said blandly, having recovered some of his good humor, "but--isn't it usually a foot that rocks the cradle?"

Aunt Selina turned on him and Mr. Harbison, who were standing together, with a snort.

"What have you, or you, ever done for the independence of woman?" she demanded.

Mr. Harbison smiled. He had been looking rather grave until then. "We have at least remained unmarried," he retorted. And then dinner was again announced.

He was to take me out, and he came across the room to where I sat collapsed in a chair, and bent over me.

"Do you know," he said, looking down at me with his clear, disconcerting gaze, "do you know that I have just grasped the situation? There was such a noise that I did not hear your name, and I am only realizing now that you are my hostess! I don't know why I got the impression that this was a bachelor establishment, but I did. Odd, wasn't it?"

I positively couldn't look away from him. My features seemed frozen, and my eyes were glued to his. As for telling him the truth--well, my tongue refused to move. I intended to tell him during dinner if I had an opportunity; I honestly did. But the more I looked at him and saw how candid his eyes were, and how stern his mouth might be, the more I shivered at the plunge. And, of course, as everybody knows now, I didn't tell him at all. And every moment I expected that awful old woman to ask me what I paid my cook, and when I had changed the color of my hair--Bella's being black.

Dinner was a half hour late when we finally went out, Jimmy leading off with Aunt Selina, and I, as hostess, trailing behind the procession with Mr. Harbison. Dallas took in the two Mercer girls, for we were one man short, and Max took Anne. Leila Mercer was so excited that she wriggled, and as for me, the candles and the orchids--everything--danced around in a circle, and I just seemed to catch the back of my chair as it flew past. Jim had ordered away the wines and brought out some weak and cheap Chianti. Dallas looked gloomy at the change, but Jim explained in an undertone that Aunt Selina didn't approve of expensive vintages. Naturally, the meal was glum enough.

Aunt Selina had had her dinner on the train, so she spent her time in asking me questions the length of the table, and in getting acquainted with me. She had brought a bottle of some sort of medicine downstairs with her, and she took a claret-glassful, while she talked. The stuff was called Pomona; shall I ever forget it?

It was Mr. Harbison who first noticed Takahiro. Jimmy's Jap had been the only thing in the menage that Bella declared she had hated to leave. But he was doing the strangest things: his little black eyes shifted nervously, and he looked queer.

"What's wrong with him?" Mr. Harbison asked me finally, when he saw that I noticed. "Is he ill?"

Then Aunt Selina's voice from the other end of the table:

"Bella," she called, in a high shrill tone, "do you let James eat cucumbers?"

"I think he must be," I said hurriedly aside to Mr. Harbison. "See how his hands shake!" But Selina would not be ignored.

"Cucumbers and strawberries," she repeated impressively. "I was saying, Bella, that cucumbers have always given James the most fearful indigestion. And yet I see you serve them at your table. Do you remember what I wrote you to give him when he has his dreadful spells?"

I was quite speechless; every one was looking, and no one could help. It was clear Jim was racking his brain, and we sat staring desperately at each other across the candles. Everything I had ever known faded from me, eight pairs of eyes bored into me, Mr. Harbison's politely amused.

"I don't remember," I said at last. "Really, I don't believe--" Aunt Selina smiled in a superior way.

"Now, don't you recall it?" she insisted. "I said:'Baking soda in water taken internally for cucumbers; baking soda and water externally, rubbed on, when he gets that dreadful, itching strawberry rash.'"

I believe the dinner went on. Somebody asked Aunt Selina how much over-charge she had paid in foreign hotels, and after that she was as harmless as a dove.

Then half way through the dinner we heard a crash in Takahiro's pantry, and when he did not appear again, Jim got up and went out to investigate. He was gone quite a little while, and when he came back he looked worried.

"Sick," he replied to our inquiring glances. "One of the maids will come in. They have sent for a doctor."

Aunt Selina was for going out at once and "fixing him up," as she put it, but Dallas gently interfered.

"I wouldn't, Miss Caruthers," he said, in the deferential manner he had adopted toward her. "You don't know what it may be. He's been looking spotty all evening."

"It might be scarlet fever," Max broke in cheerfully. "I say, scarlet fever on a Mongolian--what color would he be, Jimmy? What do yellow and red make? Green?"

"Orange," Jim said shortly. "I wish you people would remember that we are trying to eat."

The fact was, however, that no one was really eating, except Mr. Harbison who had given up trying to understand us, considering, no doubt, our subdued excitement as our normal condition. Ages afterward I learned that he thought my face almost tragic that night, and that he supposed from the way I glared across the table, that I had quarreled with my husband!

"I am afraid you are not well," he said at last, noticing my food untouched on my plate. "We should not have come, any of us."

"I am perfectly well,:" I replied feverishly. "I am never ill. I--I ate a late luncheon."

He glanced at me keenly. "Don't let them stay and play bridge tonight," he urged. "Miss Caruthers can be an excuse, can she not? And you are really fagged. You look it."

"I think it is only ill humor," I said, looking directly at him. "I am angry at myself. I have done something silly, and I hate to be silly."

Max would have said "Impossible," or something else trite. The Harbison man looked at me with interested, serious eyes.

"Is it too late to undo it?" he asked.

And then and there I determined that he should never know the truth. He could go back to South America and build bridges and make love to the Spanish girls (or are they Spanish down there?) and think of me always as a married woman, married to a dilettante artist, inclined to be stout--the artist, not I--and with an Aunt Selina Caruthers who made buttons and believed in the Cause. But never, never should he think of me as a silly little fool who pretended that she was the other man's wife and had a lump in her throat because when a really nice man came along, a man who knew something more than polo and motors, she had to carry on the deception to keep his respect, and be sedate and matronly, and see him change from perfect open admiration at first to a hands-off-she-is-my-host's-wife attitude at last.

"It can never be undone," I said soberly.

Well, that's the picture as nearly as I can draw it: a round table with a low centerpiece of orchids in lavenders and pink, old silver candlesticks with filigree shades against the somber wainscoting; nine people, two of them unhappy--Jim and I; one of them complacent--Aunt Selina; one puzzled--Mr. Harbison; and the rest hysterically mirthful. Add one sick Japanese butler and grind in the mills of the gods.

Every one promptly forgot Takahiro in the excitement of the game we were all playing. Finally, however, Aunt Selina, who seemed to have Takahiro on her mind, looked up from her plate.

"That Jap was speckled," she asserted. "I wouldn't be surprised if it's measles. Has he been sniffling, James?"

"Has he been sniffling?" Jim threw across at me.

"I hadn't noticed it," I said meekly, while the others choked.

Max came to the rescue. "She refused to eat it," he explained, distinctly and to everybody, apropos absolutely of nothing. "It said on the box,'ready cooked and predigested.' She declared she didn't care who cooked it, but she wanted to know who predigested it."

As every one wanted to laugh, every one did it then, and under cover of the noise I caught Anne's eye, and we left the dining room. The men stayed, and by the very firmness with which the door closed behind us, I knew that Dallas and Max were bringing out the bottles that Takahiro had hidden. I was seething. When Aunt Selina indicated a desire to go over the house (it was natural that she should want to; it was her house, in a way) I excused myself for a minute and flew back to the dining room.

It was as I had expected. Jim hadn't cheered perceptibly, and the rest were patting him on the back, and pouring things out for him, and saying, "Poor old Jim" in the most maddening way. And the Harbison man was looking more and more puzzled, and not at all hilarious.

I descended on them like a thunderbolt.

"That's it,:" I cried shrewishly, with my back against the door. "Leave her to me, all of you, and pat each other on the back, and say it's gone splendidly! Oh, I know you, every one!" Mr. Harbison got up and pulled out a chair, but I couldn't sit; I folded my arms on the back. "After a while, I suppose, you'll slip upstairs, the four of you, and have your game." They looked guilty. "But I will block that right now. I am going to stay--here. If Aunt Selina wants me, she can find me--here!"

The first indication those men had that Mr. Harbison didn't know the state of affairs was when he turned and faced them.

"Mrs. Wilson is quite right," he said gravely. "We're a selfish lot. If Miss Caruthers is a responsibility, let us share her."

"To arms!" Jim said, with an affectation of lightness, as they put their glasses down, and threw open the door. Dal's retort, "Whose?" was lost in the confusion, and we went into the library. On the way Dallas managed to speak to me.

"If Harbison doesn't know, don't tell him," he said in an undertone. "He's a queer duck, in some ways; he mightn't think it funny."

"Funny," I choked. "It's the least funny thing I ever experienced. Deceiving that Harbison man isn't so bad--he thinks me crazy, anyhow. He's been staring his eyes out at me--"

"I don't wonder. You're really lovely tonight, Kit, and you look like a vixen."

"But to deceive that harmless old lady--well, thank goodness, it's nine, and she leaves in an hour or so."

But she didn't and that's the story.