Chapter VII. We Make an Omelet
 

It was Betty Mercer who said she was hungry, and got us switched from the delicate subject of which was the thief to the quite as pressing subject of which was to be cook. Aunt Selina had slept quietly through the whole thing--we learned afterward that she customarily slept on her left side, which was on her good ear. We gathered in the Dallas Browns' room, and Jimmy proposed a plan.

"We can have anything sent in that we want," he suggested speciously, "and if Dal doesn't make good with the city fathers, you girls can get some clothes anyhow. Then, we can have dinner sent from one of the hotels."

"Why not all the meals?" Max suggested. "I hope you're not going to be small about things, Jimmy."

"It ought to be easy," Jim persisted, ignoring the remark, "for nine reasonably intelligent people to boil eggs and make coffee, which is all we need for breakfast, with some fruit."

"Nine of us!" Dallas said wickedly, looking at Tom Harbison, who was out of earshot, "Why nine of us? I thought Kit here, otherwise known as Bella, was going to show off her housewifely skill."

It ended, however, with Mr. Harbison writing out a lot of slips, cook, scullery-maid, chamber-maid, parlor-maid, furnace-man, and butler, and as that left two people over--we didn't count Aunt Selina--he added another furnace-man and a trained nurse. Betty Mercer drew the trained nurse slip, and, of course, she was delighted. It seems funny now to look back and think what a dreadful time she really had, for Aunt Selina took the grippe, you know, that very day.

It was fate that I should go back to that awful kitchen, for of course my slip said "cook." Mr. Harbison was butler, and Max and Dal got the furnace, although neither of them had ever been nearer to a bucket of coal than the coupons on mining stock. Anne got the bedrooms, and Leila was parlor-maid. It was Jimmy who got the scullery work, but he was quite crushed by this time, and did not protest at all.

Max was in a very bad temper; I suppose he had not had enough sleep--no one had. But he came over while the lottery was going on and stood over me and demanded unpleasantly, in a whisper, that I stop masquerading as another man's wife and generally making a fool of myself--which is the way he put it. And I knew in my heart that he was right, and I hated him for it.

"Why don't you go and tell him--them?" I asked nastily. No one was paying any attention to us. "Tell them that, to be obliging, I have nearly drowned in a sea of lies; tell them that I am not only not married, but that I never intend to marry; tell them that we are a lot of idiots with nothing better to do than to trifle with strangers within our gates, people who build--I mean, people that are worth two to our one! Run and tell them."

He looked at me for a minute, then he turned on his heel and left me. It looked as though Max might be going to be difficult.

While I was improvising an apron out of a towel, and Anne was pinning a sheet into a kimono, so she could take off her dinner gown and still be proper, Dallas harked back to the robbery.

"Ann put the collar on the table there," he said. "There's no mistake about that. I watched her do it, for I remember thinking it was the sole reminder I had that Consolidated Traction ever went above thirty-nine."

Max was looking around the room, examining the window locks and whistling between his teeth. He was in disgrace with every one, for by that time it was light enough to see three reporters with cameras across the street waiting for enough sun to snap the house, and everybody knew that it was Max and his idiotic wager that had done it. He had made two or three conciliatory remarks, but no one would speak to him. His antics were so queer, however, that we were all watching him, and when he had felt over the rug with his hands, and raised the edges, and tried to lift out the chair seats, and had shaken out Dal's shoes (he said people often hid things and then forgot about it), he made a proposition.

"If you will take that infernal furnace from around my neck, I'll undertake either to find the jewels or to show up the thief," he said quietly. And of course, with all the people in the house under suspicion, every one had to hail the suggestion with joy, and to offer his assistance, and Jimmy had to take Max's share of the furnace. So they took the scullery slip downstairs to the policeman, and gave Jim Max's share of the furnace. (Yes, I had broken the policeman to them gently. Of course, Anne said at once that he was the thief, but they found him tucked in and sound asleep with his back against the furnace.)

"In the first place," Max said, standing importantly in the middle of the room, "we retired between two and three--nearer three. So the theft occurred between three and five, when Anne woke up. Was your door locked, Dal?"

"No. The door into the hall was, but the door into the dressing room was open, and we found the door from there into the hall open this morning."

"From three until five," Max repeated. "Was any one out of his room during that time?"

"I was," said Tom Harbison promptly, from the foot of the bed. "I was prowling all around somewhere about four, searching"--he glanced at me--"for a drink of water. But as I don't know a pearl from a glass bead, I hope you exonerate me."

Everybody laughed and said, "Of course," and "Sure, old man," and changed the subject quickly.

While that excitement was on, I got Jim to one side and told him about Bella. His good-natured face was radiant at first.

"I suppose she did come to see Takahiro, eh, Kit?" he asked delicately. "She didn't say anything about me?"

"Nothing good. She said the house was in a disgraceful condition," I said heartlessly. "And her diamond bracelet was stolen while she took a nap on the kitchen table"--he groaned--"and--oh, Jim, you are such a goose! If I could only manage my own affairs the way I could my friends'! She's too sure of you, Jimmy. She knows you adore her, and--how brutal could you be, Jim?"

"Fair," he said. "I may have undiscovered depths of brutality that I have never had occasion to use. However, I might try. Why?"

"Listen, Jim," I urged. "It was always Bella who did things here; she managed the house, she tyrannized over her friends, and she bullied you. Yes, she did. Now she's here, without your invitation, and she has to stay. It's your turn to bully, to dictate terms, to be coldly civil or politely rude. Make her furious at you. If she is jealous, so much the better."

"How far would you sacrifice yourself on the altar of friendship?" he asked.

"You may pay me all the attention you like, in public," I replied, and after we shook hands we went together to Bella.

There was an ominous pause when we went into the den. Bella was sitting by the register, with her furs on, and after one glance over her shoulder at us, she looked away again without speaking.

"Bella," Jim said appealingly. And then I pinched his arm, and he drew himself up and looked properly outraged.

"Bella," he said, coldly this time, "I can't imagine why you have put yourself in this ridiculous position, but since you have--"

She turned on him in a fury.

"Put myself in this position!"

She was frantic. "It's a plot, a wretched trick of yours, this quarantine, to keep me here."

Jim gasped, but I gave him a warning glance, and he swallowed hard.

"On the contrary," he said, with maddening quiet, "I would be the last person in the world to wish to perpetuate an indiscretion of yours. For it was hardly discreet, was it, to visit a bachelor establishment alone at ten o'clock at night? As far as my plotting to keep you here is concerned, I assure you that nothing could be further from my mind. Our paths were to be two parallel lines that never touch." He looked at me for approval, and Bella was choking.

"You are worse that I ever thought you," she stormed. "I thought you were only a--a fool. Now I know you--for a brute!"

Well, it ended by Jim's graciously permitting Bella to remain--there being nothing else to do--and by his magnanimously agreeing to keep her real identity from Aunt Selina and Mr. Harbison, and to break the news of her presence to Anne and the rest. It created a sensation beside which Anne's pearls faded away, although they came to the front again soon enough.

Jim broke the news at once, gathering everybody but Harbison and Aunt Selina in the upper hall. He was palpitatingly nervous, but he tried to carry it off with a high hand.

"It's unfortunate," he said, looking around the circle of faces, each one frozen with amazement, and just a suspicion, perhaps of incredulity. "It's particularly unfortunate for her. You all know how high-strung she is, and if the papers should get hold of it--well, we'll all have to make it as easy as we can for her."

With Jim's eyes on them, they all swallowed the butler story without a gulp. But Anne was indignant.

"It's like Bella," she snapped. "Well, she has made her bed and she can lie on it. I'm sure I shan't make it for her. But if you want to know my opinion, Mr. Harbison may be a fool, but you can't ram two Bellas, both nee Knowles, down Miss Caruthers' throat with a stick."

We had not thought of that before and every one looked blank. Finally, however, Jim said Bella's middle name was Constantia, and we decided to call her that. But it turned out afterward that nobody could remember it in a hurry, and generally when we wanted to attract her attention, we walked across the room and touched her on the shoulder. It was quicker and safer.

The name decided, we went downstairs in a line to welcome Bella, to try to make her feel at home, and to forget her deplorable situation. Leila had worked herself into a really sympathetic frame of mind.

"Poor dear," she said, on the way down. "Now don't grin, anybody, just be cordial and glad to see her. I hope she doesn't cry; you know the spells she takes."

We stopped outside the door, and everybody tried to look cheerful and sympathetic, and not grinny--which was as hard as looking as if we had had a cup of tea--and then Jim threw the door open and we filed in.

Bella was comfortably reading by the fire. She had her feet up on a stool and a pillow behind her head. She did not even look at us for a minute; then she merely glanced up as she turned a page.

"Dear me," she said mockingly, "what a lot of frumps you all are! I had hoped it was some one with my breakfast."

Then she went on reading. As Leila said afterward, that kind of person ought to be divorced.

Aunt Selina came down just then and I left everybody trying to explain Bella's presence to her, and fled to the kitchen. The Harbison man appeared while I was sitting hopelessly in front of the gas range, and showed me about it.

"I don't know that I ever saw one," he said cheerfully, "but I know the theory. Likewise, by the same token, this tea kettle, set on the flame, will boil. That is not theory, however, that is early knowledge. 'Polly, put the kettle on; we'll all take tea.' Look at that, Mrs. Wilson. I didn't fight bacilli with boiled water at Chickamauga for nothing."

And then he let out the policeman and brought him into the kitchen. He was a large man, and his face was a curious mixture of amazement, alarm and dignity. No doubt we did look queer, still in parts of our evening clothes and I in the white silk and lace petticoat that belonged under my gown, with a yellow and black pajama coat of Jimmy's as a sort of breakfast jacket.

"This is Officer Flannigan," Mr. Harbison said. "I explained our unfortunate position earlier in the morning, and he is prepared to accept our hospitality. Flannigan, every person in this house has got to work, as I also explained to you. You are appointed dishwasher and scullery maid."

The policeman looked dazed. Then, slowly, like dawn over a sleeping lake, a light of comprehension grew in his face.

"Sure," he said, laying his helmet on the table. "I'll be glad to be doing anything I can to help. Me and Mrs. Wilson--we used to be friends. It's many the time I've opened the carriage door for her, and she with her head in the air, and for all that, the pleasant smile. When any one around her was having a party and wanted a special officer, it was Mrs. Wilson that always said, Get Flannigan, Officer Timothy Flannigan. He's your man.'"

My heart had been going lower and lower. So he knew Bella, and he knew I was not Bella, although he had not grasped the fact that I was usurping her place. The odious Harbison man sat on the table and swung his feet.

"I wonder if you know," he said, looking around him, "how good it is to see a white woman so perfectly at home in a civilized kitchen again, after two years of food cooked by a filthy Indian squaw over a portable sheet-iron stove!"

So perfectly at home? I stood in the middle of the room and stared around at the copper things hanging up and the rows of blue and white crockery, and the dozens and hundreds of complicated-looking utensils, whose names I had never even heard, and I was dazed. I tried with some show of authority to instruct Flannigan about gathering up the soiled things, and, after listening in puzzled silence for a minute, he stripped off his blue coat with a tolerant smile.

"Lave em to me, miss," he said. The "miss" passed unnoticed. "I mayn't give em a Turkish bath, which is what you are describin', but I'll get the grease off all right. I always clean up while the missus is in bed with a young un."

He rolled up his sleeves, found a brown checked gingham apron behind the door, and tied it around his neck with the ease of practice. Then he cleared off the plates, eating what appealed to him as he did so, and stopping now and again for a deep-throated chuckle.

"I'm thinkin'," he said once, stopping with a dish in the air, "what a deuce of a noise there will be when the vaccination doctor comes around this mornin'. In a week every one of us will be nursin' a sore arm or walkin' on one leg, beggin' your pardon, miss. The last time the force was vaccinated, I asked to be done behind me ear; I needed me legs and I needed me arms, but didn't need me head much!"

He threw his head back and laughed. Mr. Harbison laughed. Oh, we were very cheerful! And that awful stove stared at me, and the kettle began to hum, and Aunt Selina sent down word that she was not well, and would like some omelet on her tray. Omelet!

I knew that it was made of eggs, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I muttered an excuse and ran upstairs to Anne, but she was still sniffling over her necklace, and said she didn't know anything about omelets and didn't care. Food would choke her. Neither of the Mercer girls knew either, and Bella, who was still reading in the den, absolutely declined to help.

"I don't know, and I wouldn't tell you if I did. You can get yourself out, as you got yourself in," she said nastily. "The simplest thing, if you don't mind my suggesting it, is to poison the coffee and kill the lot of us. Only, if you decide to do it, let me know; I want to live just long enough to see Jimmy Wilson writhe!"

Bella is the kind of person who gets on one's nerves. She finds a grievance and hugs it; she does ridiculous things and blames other people. And she flirts.

I went downstairs despondently, and found that Mr. Harbison had discovered some eggs and was standing helplessly staring at them.

"Omelet--eggs. Eggs--omelet. That's the extent of my knowledge," he said, when I entered. "You'll have to come to my assistance."

It was then that I saw the cook book. It was lying on a shelf beside the clock, and while Mr. Harbison had his back turned I got it down. It was quite clear that the domestic type of woman was his ideal, and I did not care to outrage his belief in me. So I took the cook book into the pantry and read the recipe over three times. When I came back I knew it by heart, although I did not understand it.

"I will tell you how," I said with a great deal of dignity, "and since you want to help, you may make it yourself."

He was delighted.

"Fine!" he said. "Suppose you give me the idea first. Then we'll go over it slowly, bit by bit. We'll make a big fluffy omelet, and if the others aren't around, we'll eat it ourselves."

"Well," I said, trying to remember exactly, "you take two eggs--"

"Two!" he repeated. "Two eggs for ten people!"

"Don't interrupt me," I said irritably. "If--if two isn't enough we can make several omelets, one after the other."

He looked at me with admiration.

"Who else but you would have thought of that!" he remarked. "Well, here are two eggs. What next?"

"Separate them," I said easily. No, I didn't know what it meant. I hoped he would; I said it as casually as I could, and I did not look at him. I knew he was staring at me, puzzled.

"Separate them!" he said. "Why, they aren't fastened together!" Then he laughed. "Oh, yes, of course!" When I looked he had put one at each end of the table. "Afraid they'll quarrel, I suppose," he said. "Well, now they're separated."

"Then beat."

"First separate, then beat!" he repeated. "The author of that cook book must have had a mean disposition. What's next? Hang them?" He looked up at me with his boyish smile.

"Separate and beat," I repeated. If I lost a word of that recipe I was gone. It was like saying the alphabet; I had to go to the beginning every time mentally.

"Well," he reflected, "you can't beat an egg, no matter how cruel you may be, unless you break it first." He picked up an egg and looked at it. "Separate!" he reflected. "Ah--the white from the--whatever you cooking experts call it--the yellow part."

"Exactly!" I exclaimed, light breaking on me. "Of course. I knew you would find it out." Then back to the recipe--"beat until well mixed; then fold in the whites."

"Fold?" he questioned. "It looks pretty thin to fold, doesn't it? I--upon my word, I never heard of folding an egg. Are you--but of course you know. Please come and show me how."

"Just fold them in," I said desperately. "It isn't difficult." And because I was so transparent a fraud and knew he must find me out then, I said something about butter, and went into the pantry. That's the trouble with a lie; somebody asks you to tell one as a favor to somebody else, and the first thing you know, you are having to tell a thousand, and trying to remember the ones you have told so you won't contradict yourself, and the very person you have tried to help turns on you and reproaches you for being untruthful! I leaned my elbows despondently on the shelf of the kitchen pantry, with the feet of a guard visible through the high window over my head, and waited for Mr. Harbison to come in and demand that I fold a raw egg, and discover that I didn't know anything about cooking, and was just as useless as all the others.

He came. He held the bowl out to me and waved a fork in triumph.

"I have solved it," he said. "Or, rather, Flannigan and I have solved it. The mixture awaits the magic touch of the cook."

I honestly thought I could do the rest. It was only to be put in a pan and browned, and then in the oven three minutes. And I did it properly, but for two things: I should have greased the pan (but this was the book's fault; it didn't say) and I should have lighted the oven. The latter, however, was Mr. Harbison's fault as much as mine, and I had wit enough to lay it to absent- mindedness on the part of both of us.

After that, Aunt Selina or no Aunt Selina, we decided to have boiled eggs, and Mr. Harbison knew how to cook them. He put them in the tea kettle and then went to look at the furnace. And Officer Timothy Flannigan ground the coffee and gave his opinion of the board of health in no stinted terms. As for me, I burned my fingers and the toast, and felt myself growing hot and cold, for I was going to be found out as soon as Flannigan grasped the situation.

Then, of course, I did the thing that caused me so much trouble later. I put down the toaster--at least the Harbison man said it was a toaster--and went over and stood in front of the policeman.

"I don't suppose you will understand--exactly," I said, "but--but if anything occurs to--to make you think I am not--that things are not what they seem to be--I mean, what I say they are--you will understand that it is a joke, won't you? A joke, you know."

Yes, that was what I said. I know it sounds like a raving delirium, but when Max came down and squizzled some bacon, as he said, and told Flannigan about the robbery, and how, whether it was a joke or deadly earnest, somebody in the house had taken Anne's pearls, that wretched policeman winked at me solemnly over Max's shoulder. Oh, it was awful!

And, to add to my discomfort, the most unpleasant ideas would obtrude themselves. What was Mr. Harbison doing on the first floor of the house that night? Ice water, he had said. But there had been plenty of water in the studio! And he had told me it was the furnace.

Mr. Harbison came back in a half hour, and I remembered the eggs. We fished them out of the tea kettle, and they were perfectly hard, but we ate them.

The doctor from the board of health came that morning and vaccinated us. There was a great deal of excitement, and Aunt Selina was done on the arm. As she did not affect evening clothes this was entirely natural, but later on in the week, when the wretched things began to take, nobody dared to limp, and Leila made a terrible break by wearing a bandage on her left arm, after telling Aunt Selina that she had been vaccinated on the right.