When a Man Marries by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter V. From the Tree of Love
There is hardly any use trying to describe what followed. Anne Brown began to cry, and talk about the children. (She went to Europe once and stayed until they all got over the whooping cough.) And Dallas said he had a pull, because his mill controlled I forget how many votes, and the thing to do was to be quiet and comfortable and we would get out in the morning. Max took it as a huge joke, and somebody found him at the telephone, calling up his club. The Mercer girls were hysterically giggling, and Aunt Selina sat on a stiff-backed chair and took aromatic spirits of ammonia. As for Jim, he had collapsed on the lowest step of the stairs, and sat there with his head in his hands. When he did look up, he didn't dare to look at me.
The Harbison man was arguing with the impassive individual on the top step outside, and I saw him get out his pocketbook and offer a crisp bundle of bills. But the man from the board of health only smiled and tacked at his offensive sign. After a while Mr. Harbison came in and closed the door, and we stared at one another.
"I know what I'm going to do," I said, swallowing a lump in my throat. "I'm going to get out through a basement window at the back. I'm going home."
"Home!" Aunt Selina gasped, jumping up and almost dropping her ammonia bottle. "My dear Bella! Home?"
Jimmy groaned at the foot of the stairs, but Anne Brown was getting over her tears and now she turned on me in a temper.
"It's all your fault," she said. "I was going to stay at home and get a little sleep--"
"Well, you can sleep now," Dallas broke in. "There'll be nothing to do but sleep."
"I think you haven't grasped the situation, Dal," I said icily. "There will be plenty to do. There isn't a servant in the house!"
"No servants!" everybody cried at once. The Mercer girls stopped giggling.
"Holy cats!" Max stopped in the act of hanging up his overcoat. "Do you mean--why, I can't shave myself! I'll cut my head off."
"You'll do more than that," I retorted grimly. "You will carry coal and tend fires and empty ash pans, and when you are not doing any of those things there will be pots and pans to wash and beds to make."
Then there was a row. We had worked back to the den now, and I stood in front of the fireplace and let the storm beat around me, and tried to look perfectly cold and indifferent, and not to see Mr. Harbison's shocked face. No wonder he thought them a lot of savages, browbeating their hostess the way they did.
"It's a fool thing anyhow," Max Reed wound up, "to celebrate the anniversary of a divorce--especially " Here he caught Jim's eye and stopped. But I had suddenly remembered. Bella down in the basement!
Could anything have been worse? And of course she would have hysteria and then turn on me and blame me for it all. It all came over me at once and overwhelmed me, while Anne was crying and saying she wouldn't cook if she starved for it, and Aunt Selina was taking off her wraps. I felt queer all over, and I sat down suddenly. Mr. Harbison was looking at me, and he brought me a glass of wine.
"It won't be so bad as you fear," he said comfortingly. "There will be no danger once we are vaccinated, and many hands make light work. They are pretty raw now, because the thing is new to them, but by morning they will be reconciled."
"It isn't the work; it is something entirely different," I said. And it was. Bella and work could hardly be spoken in the same breath.
If I had only turned her out as she deserved to be, when she first came, instead of allowing her to carry through the wretched farce about seeing Takahiro! Or if I had only run to the basement the moment the house was quarantined, and got her out the areaway or the coal hole! And now time was flying, and Aunt Selina had me by the arm, and any moment I expected Bella to pounce on us through the doorway and the whole situation to explode with a bang.
It was after eleven before they were rational enough to discuss ways and means, and, of course, the first thing suggested was that we all adjourn below stairs and clean up after dinner. I could have slain Max Reed for the notion, and the Mercer girls for taking him up.
"Of course we will," they said in a duet. "What a lark!" And they actually began to pin up their dinner gowns. It was Jim who stopped that.
"Oh, look here, you people," he objected, "I'm not going to let you do that. We'll get some servants in tomorrow. I'll go down and put out the lights. There will be enough clean dishes for breakfast."
It was lucky for me that they started a new discussion then and there about who would get the breakfast. In the midst of the excitement I slipped away to carry the news to Bella. She was where I had left her, and she had made herself a cup of tea, and was very much at home, which was natural.
"Do you know," she said ominously, "that you have been away for two hours; and that I have gone through agonies of nervousness for fear Jim Wilson would come down and think I came here to see him?"
"No one would think that, Bella," I soothed her. "Everybody knows you loathe him--Jim, too." She looked at me over the edge of her cup.
"I'll run along now," she said, "since Takahiro isn't here. And if Jim has any sense at all, he will clear out every maid in the house. I never saw such a kitchen in all my life. Well, lead the way, Kit. I suppose they are deep in bridge, or roulette, or something."
She was fixing her veil, and I saw I would have to tell her. Personally, I would much rather have told her the house was on fire.
"Wait a minute, Bella," I said. "You see, something queer has happened. You know this is the anniversary--well, you know what it is--and Jim was awfully glum. So we thought we would come--"
"What are you driving at?" she demanded. "You are sea-green, Kit. What's the matter? You needn't think I mind because Jim has a jollification to celebrate his divorce."
"It--it was Takahiro--in the ambulance," I blurted. "Smallpox. We--Bella, we are shut in, quarantined."
She didn't faint. She just sat down and stared at me, and I stared back at her. Then a miserable alarm clock on the table suddenly went off like an explosion, and Bella began to laugh. I knew what that was--hysteria. She always had attacks like that when things went wrong. I was quite despairing by that time; I hoped they would all hear her and come downstairs and take her up and put her to bed like a Christian, so she could giggle her soul out. But after a bit she quieted down and began to cry softly, and I knew the worst was over. I gave her a shake, and she was so angry that she got over it altogether.
"Kit, you are horrid," she choked. "Don't you see what a position I am in? I am not going upstairs to face Anne and the rest of them. You can just put me in the coal cellar."
"Isn't there a window you could get through?" I asked desperately. "Locking the door doesn't shut up a whole house."
Bella's courage revived at that, and she said yes, there were windows, plenty of them, only she didn't see how she could get out. And I said she would have to get out, because I was playing Bella in the performance, and I didn't care to have an understudy. Then the situation dawned on her, and she sat down and laughed herself weak in the knees. Of course she wanted to stay, then, and see the fun out. But I was firm; she would have to go, and I told her so. Things were complicated enough without her.
Well, we looked funny, no doubt, Bella in a Russian pony automobile coat over the black satin she had worn at the Clevelands' dinner, and I in cream lace, the skirt gathered up from the kitchen floor, with Bella's ermine pelerine around my bare shoulders, and dishes and overturned chairs everywhere.
Bella knew more about the lower regions of her ex-home than I would have thought. She opened a door in a corner and led the way through a narrow hall past the refrigerating room, to a huge, cemented cellar, with a furnace in the center, and a half-dozen electric lights making it really brilliant.
"Get a chair," Bella said over her shoulder, excitedly. "I can get out easily here, through the coal hole. Imagine my--"
But it was my turn to grip Bella. From behind the furnace were coming the most terrible sounds, rasping noises that fairly frayed the silk of my nerves. We stood petrified for an instant. Then Bella laughed. "They are not all gone,:" she said carefully. "Some one is asleep there."
We tiptoed to where we could see around the furnace, and, sure enough, some one was asleep there. Only, it was not one of the servants; it was a portly policeman, with a newspaper and an empty plate on the floor on one side, and a champagne bottle on the other. He had slid down in his chair, with his chin on his brass buttons, and his helmet had rolled a dozen feet away. Bella had to clap her hand over her mouth.
"Fairly caught!" she whispered. "Sartor Resartus, the arrester arrested. Oh, Jim and his flawless service!"
But after we got over our surprise, we saw the situation was serious. The policeman was threatening to awaken. Once he stopped snoring to yawn noisily, and we beat a hasty retreat. Bella switched off the lights in a hurry and locked the door behind us. We hardly breathed until we were back in the kitchen again, and everything quiet. And then Jimmy called my name from up above somewheres.
"I am going to call him down, Bella," I said firmly. "Let him help you out. I'm sure I don't see why I should have all this when the two of you--"
"Oh, no, no! Surely, Kit, you wouldn't be so cruel!" she whispered pleadingly. "You know what he would think. He--oh, Kit, let them all get settled for the night, and then come down, like a dear, and help me out. I know loads of ways--honestly I do."
"If I leave you here," I debated, "what about the policeman?"
"Never mind him"--frantically. "Listen! There's Jim up in the pantry. Run, for the sake of Heaven!"
So--I ran. At the top of the stairs I met Jimmy, very crumpled as to shirt-front and dejected as to face.
"I've been hunting everywhere for you," he said dismally. "I thought you had added to the general merriment by falling downstairs and breaking your neck."
I went past him with my chin up. Now that I had time to think about it, I was furiously angry with him.
"Kit!" he called after me appealingly, but I would not hear. Then he adopted different tactics. He took advantage of my catching my foot in the lace of my gown to pass me, and to stand with his back against the door.
"You're not going until you hear me, Kit," he declared miserably. "In the first place, for all you are down on me, is it my fault? Honestly, now is it my fault?"
I refused to speak.
"I was coming home to be miserable alone," he went on, "and--oh, I know you meant well, Kit; but you asked all these crazy people here."
"Perhaps you will give me credit for some things," I said wearily. "I did not give Takahiro smallpox, for instance, and--if you will permit me to mention the fact--Aunt Selina is not my Aunt Selina."
"That's what I wanted to speak to you about," Jimmy went on wretchedly, trying not to look at me. "You see, when they were rowing so about who would get the breakfast--I never saw such a lot of people; half of them never touch breakfast, but of course now they want all kinds of things--when they were talking, Aunt Selina said she knew you would get it, being the hostess, and responsible, besides knowing where things are kept." He had fixed his eyes on the orchids, and he looked shrunken, actually shrunken. "I thought," he finished, "you might give me a few pointers now, and I could come down in the morning, and--and fuss up something, coffee and so on. I would say you did it! Oh, hang it all, Kit, why don't you say something?"
"What do you want me to say?" I demanded. "That I love to cook, and of course I'll fix trays and carry them up in the morning to Anne Brown and Leila Mercer and the rest; and that I will have the shaving water ready--"
"I know what I'm going to do," Jimmy said, with a sudden resolution. "Aunt Selina and her money can go to blazes. I am going right upstairs and tell her the truth, tell her who you are, what I am, and all the rest of it." He opened the door.
"You'll do nothing of the kind," I gasped, catching him in time. "Don't you dare, Jimmy Wilson! Why, what would they think of me? After letting her call me Bella, and him--Jim, if Mr. Harbison ever learns the truth--I--I will take poison. If we are going to be shut up here together, we will have to carry it on. I couldn't stand the disgrace."
In spite of an heroic effort, Jim looked relieved. "They have been hunting for the linen closet," he said, more cheerfully, "and there will be room enough, I think. Harbison and I will hang out in the studio; there are two couches there. I'm afraid you'll have to take Aunt Selina, Kit."
"Certainly," I said coldly. That was the way it was all along. Whenever there was something to do that no one else would undertake--any unpleasant responsibility--that entire mongrel household turned with one gesture and pointed its finger at me! Well, it is over now, and I ought not to be bitter, considering everything.
It was quite characteristic of that memorable evening (that is quite novelesque, I think) that my interview with Jimmy should have a sensational ending. He was terribly down, of course, and as I was trying to pass him to get to the door, he caught my hand.
"You're a girl in a thousand, Kit," he said forlornly. "If I were not so damnably, hopelessly, idiotically in love with--somebody else, I should be crazy about you."
"Don't be maudlin," I retorted. "Would you mind letting my hand go?" I felt sure Bella could hear.
"Oh, come now, Kit," he implored, "we've always got along so well. It's a shame to let a thing like this make us bad friends. Aren't you ever going to forgive me?"
"Never," I said promptly. "When I once get away, I don't want ever to see you again. I was never so humiliated in my life. I loathe you!"
Then I turned around, and, of course, there was Aunt Selina with her eyes protruding until you could have knocked them off with a stick, and beside her, very red and uncomfortable, Mr. Harbison!
"Bella!" she said in a shocked voice, "is that the way you speak to your husband! It is high time I came here, I think, and took a hand in this affair."
"Oh, never mind, Aunt Selina," Jim said, with a sheepish grin. "Kit--Bella is tired and nervous. This is a h--deuce of a situation. No--er--servants, and all that."
But Aunt Selina did mind, and showed it. She pulled the unlucky Harbison man through the door and closed it, and then stood glaring at both of us.
"Every little quarrel is an apple knocked from the tree of love," she announced oratorically.
"This was a very little quarrel," Jim said, edging toward the door; "a--a green apple, Aunt Selina, a colicky little green apple." But she was not to be diverted.
"Bella," she said severely, "you said you loathed him. You didn't mean that."
"But I do!" I cried hysterically. "There isn't any word to tell how I--how I detest him."
Then I swept past them all and flew to Bella's dressing room and locked myself in. Aunt Selina knocked until she was tired, then gave up and went to bed.
That was the night Anne Brown's pearl collar was stolen!