Chapter VI. A Mighty Poor Joke
 

Of course, one knows that there are people who in a different grade of society would be shoplifters and pickpockets. When they are restrained by obligation or environment they become a little overkeen at bridge, or take the wrong sables, or stuff a gold-backed brush into a muff at a reception. You remember the ivory dressing set that Theodora Bucknell had, fastened with fine gold chains? And the sensation it caused at the Bucknell cotillion when Mrs. Van Zire went sweeping to her carriage with two feet of gold chain hanging from the front of her wrap?

But Anne's pearl collar was different. In the first place, instead of three or four hundred people, the suspicion had to be divided among ten. And of those ten, at least eight of us were friends, and the other two had been vouched for by the Browns and Jimmy. It was a horrible mix-up. For the necklace was gone--there couldn't be any doubt of that--and although, as Dallas said, it couldn't get out of the house, still, there were plenty of places to hide the thing.

The worst of our trouble really originated with Max Reed, after all. For it was Max who made the silly wager over the telephone, with Dick Bagley. He bet five hundred even that one of us, at least, would break quarantine within the next twenty-four hours, and, of course, that settled it. Dick told it around the club as a joke, and a man who owns a newspaper heard him and called up the paper. Then the paper called up the health office, after setting up a flaming scare-head, "Will Money Free Them? Board of Health versus Millionaire."

It was almost three when the house settled down--nobody had any night clothes, although finally, through Dallas, who gave them to Anne, who gave them to the rest, we got some things of Jimmy's--and I was still dressed. The house was perfectly quiet, and, after listening carefully, I went slowly down the stairs. There was a light in the hall, and another back in the dining room, and I got along without any trouble. But the pantry, where the stairs led down, was dark, and the wretched swinging door would not stay open.

I caught my skirt in the door as I went through, and I had to stop to loosen it. And in that awful minute I heard some one breathing just beside me. I had stooped to my gown, and I turned my head without straightening--I couldn't have raised myself to an erect posture, for my knees were giving way under me--and just at my feet lay the still glowing end of a match!

I had to swallow twice before I could speak. Then I said sharply:

"Who's there?"

The man was so close it is a wonder I had not walked into him; his voice was right at my ear.

"I am sorry I startled you," he said quietly. "I was afraid to speak suddenly, or move, for fear I would do--what I have done."

It was Mr. Harbison.

"I--I thought you were--it is very late," I managed to say, with dry lips. "Do you know where the electric switch is?"

"Mrs. Wilson!" It was clear he had not known me before. "Why, no; don't you?"

"I am all confused," I muttered, and beat a retreat into the dining room. There, in the friendly light, we could at least see each other, and I think he was as much impressed by the fact that I had not undressed as I was by the fact that he had, partly. He wore a hideous dressing gown of Jimmy's, much too small, and his hair, parted and plastered down in the early evening, stood up in a sort of brown brush all over his head. He was trying to flatten it with his hands.

"It must be three o'clock," he said, with polite surprise, "and the house is like a barn. You ought not to be running around with your arms uncovered, Mrs. Wilson. Surely you could have called some of us."

"I didn't wish to disturb any one," I said, with distinct truth.

"I suppose you are like me," he said. "The novelty of the situation--and everything. I got to thinking things over, and then I realized the studio was getting cold, so I thought I would come down and take a look at the furnace. I didn't suppose any one else would think of it. But I lost myself in that pantry, stumbled against a half-open drawer, and nearly went down the dumb-waiter." And, as if in judgment on me, at that instant came two rather terrific thumps from somewhere below, and inarticulate words, shouted rather than spoken. It was uncanny, of course, coming as it did through the register at our feet. Mr. Harbison looked startled.

"Oh, by the way," I said, as carelessly as I could. "In the excitement, I forgot to mention it. There is a policeman asleep in the furnace room. I--I suppose we will have to keep him now," I finished as airily as possible.

"Oh, a policeman--in the cellar," he repeated, staring at me, and he moved toward the pantry door.

"You needn't go down," I said feverishly, with visions of Bella Knowles sitting on the kitchen table, surrounded by soiled dishes and all the cheerless aftermath of a dinner party. "Please don't go down. I--it's one of my rules--never to let a stranger go down to the kitchen. I--I'm peculiar--that way--and besides, it's--it's mussy."

Bang! Crash! through the register pipe, and some language quite articulate. Then silence.

"Look here, Mrs. Wilson," he said resolutely. "What do I care about the kitchen? I'm going down and arrest that policeman for disturbing the peace. He will have the pipes down."

"You must not go," I said with desperate firmness. "He--he is probably in a very dangerous state just now. We--I--locked him in."

The Harbison man grinned and then became serious.

"Why don't you tell me the whole thing?" he demanded. "You've been in trouble all evening, and--you can trust me, you know, because I am a stranger; because the minute this crazy quarantine is raised I am off to the Argentine Republic," (perhaps he said Chili) "and because I don't know anything at all about you. You see, I have to believe what you tell me, having no personal knowledge of any of you to go on. Now tell me--whom have you hidden in the cellar, besides the policeman?"

There was no use trying to deceive him; he was looking straight into my eyes. So I decided to make the best of a bad thing. Anyhow, it was going to require strength to get Bella through the coal hole with one arm and restrain the policeman with the other.

"Come," I said, making a sudden resolution, and led the way down the stairs.

He said nothing when he saw Bella, for which I was grateful. She was sitting at the table, with her arms in front of her, and her head buried in them. And then I saw she was asleep. Her hat and veil laid beside her, and she had taken off her coat and draped it around her. She had rummaged out a cold pheasant and some salad, and had evidently had a little supper. Supper and a nap, while I worried myself gray-headed about her!

"She--she came in unexpectedly--something about the butler," I explained under my breath. "And--she doesn't want to stay. She is on bad terms with--with some of the people upstairs. You can see how impossible the situation is."

"I doubt if we can get her out," he said, as if the situation were quite ordinary. "However, we can try. She seems very comfortable. It's a pity to rouse her."

Here the prisoner in the furnace room broke out afresh. It sounded as though he had taken a lump of coal and was attacking the lock. Mr. Harbison followed the noise, and I could hear him arguing, not gently.

"Another sound,: he finished, "and you won't get out of here at all, unless you crawl up the furnace pipe!"

When he came back, Bella was rousing. She lifted her head with her eyes shut and then opened them one at a time, blinked, and sat up. She didn't see him at first.

"You wretch!" she said ungratefully, after she had yawned. "Do you know what time it is? And that--" Then she saw Mr. Harbison and sat staring at him.

"This is Mr. Harbison," I said to her hastily. "He--he came with Anne and Dal and--he is shut in, too."

By that time Bella had seen how handsome he was, and she took a hair pin out of her mouth, and arched her eyebrows, which was always Bella's best pose.

"I am Miss Knowles," she said sweetly (of course, the court had given her back her name),"and I stopped in tonight, thinking the house was empty, to see about a--a butler. Unfortunately, the house was quarantined just at that time, and--here I am. Surely there can not be any harm in helping me to get out?" (Pleading tone.) "I have not been exposed to any contagion, and in the exhausted state of my health the confinement would be positively dangerous."

She rolled her eyes at him, and I could see she was making an impression. Of course she was free. She had a perfect right to marry again, but I will say this: Bella is a lot better looking by electric light than she is the next morning.

The upshot of it was that the gentleman who built bridges and looked down on society from a lofty, lonely pinnacle agreed to help one of the most gleaming members of the aforesaid society to outwit the law.

It took about fifteen minutes to quiet the policeman. Nobody ever knew what Mr. Harbison did to him, but for twenty-four hours he was quite tractable. He changed after that, but that comes later in the story. Anyhow, the Harbison man went upstairs and came down with a Bagdad curtain and a cushion to match, and took them into the furnace room, and came out and locked the door behind him, and then we were ready for Bella's escape.

But there were four special officers and three reporters watching the house, as a result of Max Reed's idiocy. Once, after trying all the other windows and finding them guarded, we discovered a little bit of a hole in an out-of-the-way corner that looked like a ventilator and was covered with a heavy wire screen. No prisoners ever dug their way out of a dungeon with more energy than that with which we attached that screen, hacking at it with kitchen knives, whispering like conspirators, being scratched with the ragged edges of the wire, frozen with the cold air one minute and boiling with excitement the next. And when the wire was cut, and Bella had rolled her coat up and thrust it through and was standing on a chair ready to follow, something outside that had looked like a barrel moved, and said, "Oh, I wouldn't do that if I were you. It would be certain to be undignified, and probably it would be unpleasant--later."

We coaxed and pleaded and tried to bribe, and that happened, as it turned out, to be one of the worst things we had to endure. For the whole conversation came out the next afternoon in the paper, with the most awful drawings, and the reporter said it was the flashing of the jewels we wore that first attracted his attention. And that brings me back to the robbery.

For when we had crept back to the kitchen, and Bella was fumbling for her handkerchief to cry into and the Harbison man was trying to apologize for the language he had used to the reporter, and I was on the verge of a nervous chill--well, it was then that Bella forgot all about crying and jumped and held out her arm.

"My diamond bracelet!" she screeched. "Look, I've lost it."

Well, we went over every inch of that basement, until I knew every crack in the flooring, every spot on the cement. And Bella was nasty, and said that she had never seen that part of the house in such condition, and that if I had acted like a sane person and put her out, when she had no business there at all, she would have had her freedom and her bracelet, and that if we were playing a joke on her (as if we felt like joking!) we would please give her the bracelet and let her go and die in a corner; she felt very queer.

At half-past four o'clock we gave up.

"It's gone," I said. "I don't believe you wore it here. No one could have taken it. There wasn't a soul in this part of the house, except the policeman and he's locked in."

At five o'clock we put her to sleep in the den. She was in a fearful temper, and I was glad enough to be able to shut the door on her. Tom Harbison--that was his name--helped me to creep upstairs, and wanted to get me a glass of ale to make me sleep. But I said it would be of no use, as I had to get up and get the breakfast. The last thing he said was that the policeman seemed above the average in intelligence, and perhaps we could train him to do plain cooking and dishwashing.

I did not go to sleep at once. I lay on the chintz-covered divan in Bella's dressing room and stared at the picture of her with the violets underneath. I couldn't see what there was about Bella to inspire such undying devotion, but I had to admit that she had looked handsome that night, and that the Harbison man had certainly been impressed.

At seven o'clock Jimmy Wilson pounded at my door, and I could have choked him joyfully. I dragged myself to the door and opened it, and then I heard excited voices. Everybody seemed to be up but Aunt Selina, and they were all talking at once.

Anne Brown was in the corner of the group, waving her hands, while Dallas was trying to hook the back of her gown with one hand and hold a blanket around himself with the other. No one was dressed except Anne, and she had been up for an hour, looking in shoes and under the corners of rugs and around the bed clothing for her jeweled collar. When she saw me she began all over again.

"I had it on when I went into my room," she declared, "and I put it on the dressing table when I undressed. I meant to put it under my pillow, but I forgot. And I didn't sleep well; I was awake half the night. Wasn't I, Dal? Then, when the clock downstairs in the hall was chiming five, something roused me, and I sat up in bed. It was still dark, but I pinched Dal and said there was somebody in the room. You remember that, don't you, Dal?"

"I thought you had nightmare,:" he said sheepishly.

"I lay still for ages, it seemed to me, and then--the door into the hall closed. I heard the catch click. I turned on the light over the bed then, and the room was empty. I thought of my collar, and although it seemed ridiculous, with the house sealed as it is, and all of us friends for years--well, I got up and looked, and it was gone!"

No one spoke for an instant. It was a queer situation, for the collar was gone; Anne's red eyes showed it was true. And there we stood, every one of us a miserable picture of guilt, and tried to look innocent and debonair and unsuspicious. Finally Jim held up his hand and signified that he wanted to say something.

"It's like this," he said, "until this thing is cleared up, for Heaven's sake, let's try to be sane! If every fellow thinks the other fellow did it, this house will be a nice little hell to live in. And if anybody"--here he glared around--"if anybody has got funny and is hiding those jewels, I want to say that he'd better speak up now. Later, it won't be so easy for him. It's a mighty poor joke."

But nobody spoke.