Chapter IV. The Door was Closed
 

It was infuriating to see how much enjoyment every one but Jim and myself got out of the situation. They howled with mirth over the feeblest jokes, and when Max told a story without any point whatever, they all had hysteria. Immediately after dinner Aunt Selina had begun on the family connection again, and after two bad breaks on my part, Jim offered to show her the house. The Mercer girls trailed along, unwilling to lose any of the possibilities. They said afterward that it was terrible: she went into all the closets, and ran her hand over the tops of doors and kept getting grimmer and grimmer. In the studio they came across a life study Jim was doing and she shut her eyes and made the girls go out while he covered it with a drapery. Lollie! Who did the Bacchante dance at three benefits last winter and was learning a new one called "Eve"!

When they heard Aunt Selina on the second floor, Anne, Dal and Max sneaked up to the studio for cigarettes, which left Mr. Harbison to me. I was in the den, sitting in a low chair by the wood fire when he came in. He hesitated in the doorway.

"Would you prefer being alone, or may I come in?" he asked. "Don't mind being frank. I know you are tired."

"I have a headache, and I am sulking," I said unpleasantly, "but at least I am not actively venomous. Come in."

So he came in and sat down across the hearth from me, and neither of us said anything. The firelight flickered over the room, bringing out the faded hues of the old Japanese prints on the walls, gleaming in the mother-of-pearl eyes of the dragon on the screen, setting a grotesque god on a cabinet to nodding. And it threw into relief the strong profile of the man across from me, as he stared at the fire.

"I am afraid I am not very interesting," I said at last, when he showed no sign of breaking the silence. "The--the illness of the butler and--Miss Caruthers' arrival, have been upsetting."

He suddenly roused with a start from a brown reverie.

"I beg your pardon," he said, "I--oh, of course not! I was wondering if I--if you were offended at what I said earlier in the evening; the--Brushwood Boy, you know, and all that."

"Offended?" I repeated, puzzled.

"You see, I have been living out of the world so long, and never seeing any women but Indian squaws"--so there were no Spanish girls!--"that I'm afraid I say what comes into my mind without circumlocution. And then--I did not know you were married."

"No, oh, no," I said hastily. "But, of course, the more a woman is married--I mean, you can not say too many nice things to married women. They--need them, you know."

I had floundered miserably, with his eyes on me, and I half expected him to be shocked, or to say that married women should be satisfied with the nice things their husbands say to them. But he merely remarked apropos of nothing, or following a line of thought he had not voiced, that it was trite but true that a good many men owed their success in life to their wives.

"And a good many owe their wives to their success in life," I retorted cynically. At which he stared at me again.

It was then that the real complexity of the situation began to develop. Some one had rung the bell and been admitted to the library and a maid came to the door of the den. When she saw us she stopped uncertainly. Even then it struck me that she looked odd, and she was not in uniform. However, I was not informed at that time about bachelor establishments, and the first thing she said, when she had asked to speak to me in the hall, knocked her and her clothes clear out of my head. Evidently she knew me.

"Miss McNair," she said in a low tone. "There is a lady in the drawing room, a veiled person, and she is asking for Mr. Wilson."

"Can you not find him?" I asked. "He is in the house, probably in the studio."

The girl hesitated.

"Excuse me, miss, but Miss Caruthers--"

Then I saw the situation.

"Never mind," I said. "Close the door into the drawing room, and I will tell Mr. Wilson."

But as the girl turned toward the doorway, the person in question appeared in it, and raised her veil. I was perfectly paralyzed. It was Bella! Bella in a fur coat and a veil, with the most tragic eyes I ever saw and entirely white except for a dab of rouge in the middle of each cheek. We stared at each other without speech. The maid turned and went down the hall, and with that Bella came over to me and clutched me by the arm.

"Who was being carried out into that ambulance?" she demanded, glaring at me with the most awful intensity.

"I'm sure I don't know, Bella," I said, wriggling away from her fingers. "What in the world are you doing here? I thought you were in Europe."

"You are hiding something from me!" she accused. "It is Jim! I see it in your face."

"Well, it isn't," I snapped. "It seems to me, really, Bella, that you and Jim ought to be able to manage your own affairs, without dragging me in." It was not pleasant, but if she was suffering, so was I. "Jim is as well as he ever was. He's upstairs somewhere. I'll send for him."

She gripped me again, and held on while her color came back.

"You'll do nothing of the kind," she said, and she had quite got hold of herself again. "I do not want to see him: I hope you don't think, Kit, that I came here to see James Wilson. Why, I have forgotten that there is such a person, and you know it."

Somebody upstairs laughed, and I was growing nervous. What if Aunt Selina should come down, or Mr. Harbison come out of the den?

"Why did you come, then, Bella?" I inquired. "He may come in."

"I was passing in the motor," she said, and I honestly think she hoped I would believe her, "and I saw that am--" She stopped and began again. "I thought Jim was out of town, and I came to see Takahiro," she said brazenly. "He was devoted to me, and Evans is going to leave. I'll tell you what to do, Kit. I'll go back to the dining room, and you send Taka there. If any one comes, I can slip into the pantry."

"It's immoral," I protested. "It's immoral to steal your--"

"My own butler!" she broke in impatiently. "You're not usually so scrupulous, Kit. Hurry! I hear that hateful Anne Brown."

So we slid back along the hall, and I rang for Takahiro. But no one came.

"I think I ought to tell you, Bella," I said as we waited, and Bella was staring around the room--"I think you ought to know that Miss Caruthers is here."

Bella shrugged her shoulders.

"Well, thank goodness," she said, "I don't have to see her. The only pleasant thing I remember about my year of married life is that I did not meet Aunt Selina."

I rang again, but still there was no answer. And then it occurred to me that the stillness below stairs was almost oppressive. Bella was noticing things, too, for she began to fasten her veil again with a malicious little smile.

"One of the things I remember my late husband saying," she observed, "was that he could manage this house, and had done it for years, with flawless service. Stand on the bell, Kit."

I did. We stood there, with the table, just as it had been left, between us, and waited for a response. Bella was growing impatient. She raised her eyebrows (she is very handsome, Bella is) and flung out her chin as if she had begun to enjoy the horrible situation.

I thought I heard a rattle of silver from the pantry just then, and I hurried to the door in a rage. But the pantry was empty of servants and full of dishes, and all the lights were out but one, which was burning dimly. I could have sworn that I saw one of the servants duck into the stairway to the basement, but when I got there the stairs were empty, and something was burning in the kitchen below.

Bella had followed me and was peering over my shoulder curiously.

"There isn't a servant in the house," she said triumphantly. And when we went down to the kitchen, she seemed to be right. It was in disgraceful order, and one of the bottles of wine that had ben banished from the dining room sat half empty on the floor.

"Drunk!" Bella said with conviction. But I didn't think so. There had not been time enough, for one thing. Suddenly I remembered the ambulance that had been the cause of Bella's appearance--for no one could believe her silly story about Takahiro. I didn't wait to voice my suspicion to her; I simply left her there, staring helplessly at the confusion, and ran upstairs again: through the dining room, past Jimmy and Aunt Selina, past Leila Mercer and Max, who were flirting on the stairs, up, up to the servants' bedrooms, and there my suspicions were verified. There was every evidence of a hasty flight; in three bedrooms five trunks stood locked and ominous, and the closets yawned with open doors, empty. Bella had been right; there was not a servant in the house.

As I emerged from the untidy emptiness of the servants' wing, I met Mr. Harbison coming out of the studio.

"I wish you would let me do some of this running about for you, Mrs. Wilson," he said gravely. "You are not well, and I can't think of anything worse for a headache. Has the butler's illness clogged the household machinery?"

"Worse," I replied, trying not to breathe in gasps. "I wouldn't be running around--like this--but there is not a servant in the house! They have gone, the entire lot."

"That's odd," he said slowly. "Gone! Are you sure?"

In reply I pointed to the servants' wing. "Trunks packed," I said tragically, "rooms empty, kitchen and pantries, full of dishes. Did you ever hear of anything like it?"

"Never," he asserted. "It makes me suspect--" What he suspected he did not say; instead he turned on his heel, without a word of explanation, and ran down the stairs. I stood staring after him, wondering if every one in the place had gone crazy. Then I heard Betty Mercer scream and the rest talking loud and laughing, and Mr. Harbison came up the stairs again two at a time.

"How long has that Jap been ailing, Mrs. Wilson?" he asked.

"I--I don't know," I replied helplessly. "What is the trouble, anyhow?"

"I think he probably has something contagious," he said, "and it has scared the servants away. As Mr. Brown said, he looked spotty. I suggested to your husband that it might be as well to get the house emptied--in case we are correct."

"Oh, yes, by all means," I said eagerly. I couldn't get away too soon. "I'll go and get my--" Then I stopped. Why, the man wouldn't expect me to leave; I would have to play out the wretched farce to the end!

"I'll go down and see them off," I finished lamely, and we went together down the stairs.

Just for the moment I forgot Bella altogether. I found Aunt Selina bonneted and cloaked, taking a stirrup cup of Pomona for her nerves, and the rest throwing on their wraps in a hurry. Downstairs Max was telephoning for his car, which wasn't due for an hour, and Jim was walking up and down, swearing under his breath. With the prospect of getting rid of them all, and, of going home comfortably to try to forget the whole wretched affair, I cheered up quite a lot. I even played up my part of hostess, and Dallas told me, aside, that I was a brick.

Just then Jim threw open the front door.

There was a man on the top step, with his mouth full of tacks, and he was nailing something to the door, just below Jim's Florentine bronze knocker, and standing back with his head on one side to see if it was straight.

"What are you doing?" Jim demanded fiercely, but the man only drove another tack. It was Mr. Harbison who stepped outside and read the card.

It said "Smallpox."

"Smallpox," Mr. Harbison read, as if he couldn't believe it. Then he turned to us, huddled in the hall.

"It seems it wasn't measles, after all," he said cheerfully. "I move we get into Mr. Reed's automobile out there, and have a vaccination party. I suppose even you blase society folk have not exhausted that kind of diversion."

But the man on the step spat his tacks in his hand and spoke for the first time.

"No, you don't," he said. "Not on your life. Just step back , please, and close the door. This house is quarantined."