Chapter I. I Have a Warning
 

When it was all over Mr. Sam came out to the spring-house to say good-by to me before he and Mrs. Sam left. I hated to see him go, after all we had been through together, and I suppose he saw it in my face, for he came over close and stood looking down at me, and smiling. "You saved us, Minnie," he said, "and I needn't tell you we're grateful; but do you know what I think?" he asked, pointing his long forefinger at me. "I think you've enjoyed it even when you were suffering most. Red-haired women are born to intrigue, as the sparks fly upward."

"Enjoyed it!" I snapped. "I'm an old woman before my time, Mr. Sam. What with trailing back and forward through the snow to the shelter-house, and not getting to bed at all some nights, and my heart going by fits and starts, as you may say, and half the time my spinal marrow fairly chilled--not to mention putting on my overshoes every morning from force of habit and having to take them off again, I'm about all in."

"It's been the making of you, Minnie," he said, eying me, with his hands in his pockets. "Look at your cheeks! Look at your disposition! I don't believe you'd stab anybody in the back now!"

(Which was a joke, of course; I never stabbed anybody in the back.)

He sauntered over and dropped a quarter into the slot-machine by the door, but the thing was frozen up and refused to work. I've seen the time when Mr. Sam would have kicked it, but he merely looked at it and then at me.

"Turned virtuous, like everything else around the place. Not that I don't approve of virtue, Minnie, but I haven't got used to putting my foot on the brass rail of the bar and ordering a nut sundae. Hook the money out with a hairpin, Minnie, and buy some shredded wheat in remembrance of me."

He opened the door and a blast of February wind rattled the window-frames. Mr. Sam threw out his chest under his sweater and waved me another good-by.

"Well, I'm off, Minnie," he said. "Take care of yourself and don't sit too tight on the job; learn to rise a bit in the saddle."

"Good-by, Mr. Sam!" I called, putting down Miss Patty's doily and following him to the door; "good-by; better have something before you start to keep you warm."

He turned at the corner of the path and grinned back at me.

"All right," he called. "I'll go down to the bar and get a lettuce sandwich!"

Then he was gone, and happy as I was, I knew I would miss him terribly. I got a wire hairpin and went over to the slot- machine, but when I had finally dug out the money I could hardly see it for tears.

It began when the old doctor died. I suppose you have heard of Hope Sanatorium and the mineral spring that made it famous. Perhaps you have seen the blotter we got out, with a flash-light interior of the spring-house on it, and me handing the old doctor a glass of mineral water, and wearing the embroidered linen waist that Miss Patty Jennings gave me that winter. The blotters were a great success. Below the picture it said, "Yours for health," and in the body of the blotter, in red lettering, "Your system absorbs the health-giving drugs in Hope Springs water as this blotter soaks up ink."

The "Yours for health" was my idea.

I have been spring-house girl at Hope Springs Sanatorium for fourteen years. My father had the position before me, but he took rheumatism, and as the old doctor said, it was bad business policy to spend thousands of dollars in advertising that Hope Springs water cured rheumatism, and then have father creaking like a rusty hinge every time he bent over to fill a glass with it.

Father gave me one piece of advice the day he turned the spring- house over to me.

"It's a difficult situation, my girl," he said. "Lots of people think it's simply a matter of filling a glass with water and handing it over the railing. Why, I tell you a barkeeper's a high-priced man mostly, and his job's a snap to this. I'd like to know how a barkeeper would make out if his customers came back only once a year and he had to remember whether they wanted their drinks cold or hot or `chill off'. And another thing: if a chap comes in with a tale of woe, does the barkeeper have to ask him what he's doing for it, and listen while he tells how much weight he lost in a blanket sweat? No, sir; he pushes him a bottle and lets it go at that."

Father passed away the following winter. He'd been a little bit delirious, and his last words were: "Yes, sir; hot, with a pinch of salt, sir?" Poor father! The spring had been his career, you may say, and I like to think that perhaps even now he is sitting by some everlasting spring measuring out water with a golden goblet instead of the old tin dipper. I said that to Mr. Sam once, and he said he felt quite sure that I was right, and that where father was the water would be appreciated. He had heard of father.

Well, for the first year or so I nearly went crazy. Then I found things were coming my way. I've got the kind of mind that never forgets a name or face and can combine them properly, which isn't common. And when folks came back I could call them at once. It would do your heart good to see some politician, coming up to rest his stomach from the free bar in the state house at the capital, enter the spring-house where everybody is playing cards and drinking water and not caring a rap whether he's the man that cleans the windows or the secretary of the navy. If he's been there before, in sixty seconds I have his name on my tongue and a glass of water in his hand, and have asked him about the rheumatism in his right knee and how the children are. And in ten minutes he's sitting in a bridge game and trotting to the spring to have his glass refilled during his dummy hand, as if he'd grown up in the place. The old doctor used to say my memory was an asset to the sanatorium.

He depended on me a good bit--the old doctor did--and that winter he was pretty feeble. (He was only seventy, but he'd got in the habit of making it eighty to show that the mineral water kept him young. Finally he got to being eighty, from thinking it, and he died of senility in the end.)

He was in the habit of coming to the spring-house every day to get his morning glass of water and read the papers. For a good many years it had been his custom to sit there, in the winter by the wood fire and in the summer just inside the open door, and to read off the headings aloud while I cleaned around the spring and polished glasses.

"I see the president is going fishing, Minnie," he'd say, or "Airbrake is up to 133; I wish I'd bought it that time I dreamed about it. It was you who persuaded me not to, Minnie."

And all that winter, with the papers full of rumors that Miss Patty Jennings was going to marry a prince, we'd followed it by the spring-house fire, the old doctor and I, getting angry at the Austrian emperor for opposing it when we knew how much too good Miss Patty was for any foreigner, and then getting nervous and fussed when we read that the prince's mother was in favor of the match and it might go through. Miss Patty and her father came every winter to Hope Springs and I couldn't have been more anxious about it if she had been my own sister.

Well, as I say, it all began the very day the old doctor died. He stamped out to the spring-house with the morning paper about nine o'clock, and the wedding seemed to be all off. The paper said the emperor had definitely refused his consent and had sent the prince, who was his cousin, for a Japanese cruise, while the Jennings family was going to Mexico in their private car. The old doctor was indignant, and I remember how he tramped up and down the spring-house, muttering that the girl had had a lucky escape, and what did the emperor expect if beauty and youth and wealth weren't enough. But he calmed down, and soon he was reading that the papers were predicting an early spring, and he said we'd better begin to increase our sulphur percentage in the water.

I hadn't noticed anything strange in his manner, although we'd all noticed how feeble he was growing, but when he got up to go back to the sanatorium and I reached him his cane, it seemed to me he avoided looking at me. He went to the door and then turned and spoke to me over his shoulder.

"By the way," he remarked, "Mr. Richard will be along in a day or so, Minnie. You'd better break it to Mrs. Wiggins."

Since the summer before we'd had to break Mr. Dick's coming to Mrs. Wiggins the housekeeper, owing to his finding her false front where it had blown out of a window, having been hung up to dry, and his wearing it to luncheon as whiskers. Mr. Dick was the old doctor's grandson.

"Humph!" I said, and he turned around and looked square at me.

"He's a good boy at heart, Minnie," he said. "We've had our troubles with him, you and I, but everything has been quiet lately."

When I didn't say anything he looked discouraged, but he had a fine way of keeping on until he gained his point, had the old doctor.

"It has been quiet, hasn't it?" he demanded.

"I don't know," I said; "I have been deaf since the last explosion!" And I went down the steps to the spring. I heard the tap of his cane as he came across the floor, and I knew he was angry.

"Confound you, Minnie," he exclaimed, "if I could get along without you I'd discharge you this minute."

"And if I paid any attention to your discharging me I'd have been gone a dozen times in the last year," I retorted. "I'm not objecting to Mr. Dick coming here, am I? Only don't expect me to burst into song about it. Shut the door behind you when you go out."

But he didn't go at once. He stood watching me polish glasses and get the card-tables ready, and I knew he still had something on his mind.

"Minnie," he said at last, "you're a shrewd young woman--maybe more head than heart, but that's well enough. And with your temper under control, you're a capable young woman."

"What has Mr. Dick been up to now?" I asked, growing suspicious.

"Nothing. But I'm an old man, Minnie, a very old man."

"Stuff and nonsense," I exclaimed, alarmed. "You're only seventy. That's what comes of saying in the advertising that you are eighty--to show what the springs have done for you. It's enough to make a man die of senility to have ten years tacked to his age."

"And if," he went on, "if anything happens to me, Minnie, I'm counting on you to do what you can for the old place. You've been here a good many years, Minnie."

"Fourteen years I have been ladling out water at this spring," I said, trying to keep my lips from trembling. "I wouldn't be at home any place else, unless it would be in an aquarium. But don't ask me to stay here and help Mr. Dick sell the old place for a summer hotel. For that's what he'll do."

"He won't sell it," declared the old doctor grimly. "All I want is for you to promise to stay."

"Oh, I'll stay," I said. "I won't promise to be agreeable, but I'll stay. Somebody'll have to look after the spring; I reckon Mr. Dick thinks it comes out of the earth just as we sell it, with the whole pharmacopoeia in it."

Well, it made the old doctor happier, and I'm not sorry I promised, but I've got a joint on my right foot that throbs when it is going to rain or I am going to have bad luck, and it gave a jump then. I might have known there was trouble ahead.