Chapter XI. Miss Patty's Prince
 

I dragged myself back to the spring-house and dropped in front of the fire. What with worry and no sleep and now this new complication I was dead as yesterday's newspaper. I sat there on the floor with my hands around my knees, thinking what to do next, and as I sat there, the crayon enlargement of father on the spring-house wall began to shake its head from side to side, and then I saw it hold out its hand and point a finger at me.

"Cut and run, Minnie," it said. "Get out from under! Go and buy Timmon's candy store before the smash--the smash--!"

When I opened my eyes Mr. Pierce was sitting on the other side of the chimney and staring at the fire. He had a pipe between his teeth, but he wasn't smoking, and he had something of the same look about his mouth he'd had the first day I saw him.

"Well?" he said, when he saw I was awake.

"I guess I was sleeping." I sat up and pushed in my hairpins and yawned. I was tireder than ever. "I'm clean worn out."

"Of course you're tired," he declared angrily. "You're not a horse, and you haven't been to bed for two nights."

"Care killed the cat," I said. "I don't mind losing sleep, but it's like walking in a swamp, Mr. Pierce. First I put a toe in-- that was when I asked you to stay over night. Then I went a step farther, lured on, as you may say, by Miss Patty waving a crown or whatever it is she wants, just beyond my nose. And to-night I've got a--well, to-night I'm in to the neck and yelling for a quick death."

He leaned over to where I sat before the fire and twisted my head toward him.

"To-night--what?" he demanded.

But that minute I made up my mind not to tell him. He might think the situation was too much for him and leave, or he might decide he ought to tell Miss Summers where Dick was. There was no love lost between him and Mr. Carter.

"To-night--I'm just tired and cranky," I said, "so--is Miss Summers settled yet?"

He nodded, as if he wasn't thinking of Miss Summers.

"What did you tell her?"

"Haven't seen her," he said. "Sent her a note that I was understudying a man named Carter and to mind to pick up her cues."

"It's a common enough name," I said, but he had lighted his pipe again and had dropped forward, one elbow on his knee, his hand holding the bowl of his pipe, and staring into the fire. He looked up when I closed and locked the pantry door.

"I've just been thinking," he remarked, "here we are--a group of people--all struggling like mad for one thing, but with different motives. Mine are plain enough and mercenary enough, although a certain red-haired girl with a fine loyalty to an old doctor and a sanatorium is carrying me along with her enthusiasm. And Van Alstyne's motives are clear enough--and selfish. Carter is merely trying to save his own skin--but a girl like Miss Pat-- Miss Jennings!"

"There's nothing uncertain about what she wants, or wrong either," I retorted. "She's right enough. The family can't stand a scandal just now with her wedding so close."

He smiled and got up, emptying his pipe.

"Nevertheless, oh, Minnie, of the glowing hair and heart," he said, "Miss Jennings has disappointed me. You see, I believe in marrying for love."

"Love!" I was disgusted. "Don't talk to me about love! Love is the sort of thing that makes two silly idiots run away and get married and live in a shelter-house, upsetting everybody's plans, while their betters have to worry themselves sick and carry them victuals."

He got up and began to walk up and down the spring-house, scowling at the floor.

"Of course," he agreed, "he may be a decent sort, and she may really want him."

"Of course she does!" I said. He stopped short. "I've been wanting a set of red puffs for three years, and I can hardly walk past Mrs. Yost's window down in the village. They've got some that match my hair and I fairly yearn for them. But if I got 'em I dare say I'd put them in a box and go after wanting something else. It's the same way with Miss Patty. She'll get her prince, and because it isn't real love, but only the same as me with the puffs, she'll go after wanting something else. Only she can't put him away in a box. She'll have to put him on and wear him for better, for worse."

"Lord help her!" he said solemnly, and went over to the window and stood there looking out.

I went over beside him. From the window we could see the three rows of yellow lights that marked the house, and somebody with a lantern was going down the path toward the stables. Mr. Pierce leaned forward, his hands at the top of the window-sash, and put his forehead against the glass.

"Why is it that a lighted window in a snow-storm always makes a fellow homesick?" he said in his half-mocking way. "If he hasn't got a home it makes him want one."

"Well, why don't you get one?" I asked.

"On nothing a year?" he said. "Not even prospects! And set up housekeeping in the shelter-house with my good friend Minnie carrying us food and wearing herself to a shadow, not to mention bringing trashy books to my bride"

"She isn't that kind," I broke in, and got red. I'd been thinking of Miss Patty. But he went over to the table and picked up his glass of spring water, only to set it down untasted.

"No, she's not that kind!" he agreed, and never noticed the slip.

"You know, Minnie, women aren't all alike, but they're not all different. An English writer has them classified to a T--there's the mother woman--that's you. You're always mothering somebody with that maternal spirit of yours. It's a pity it's vicarious."

I didn't say anything, not knowing just what he meant. But I've looked it up since and I guess he was about right.

"And there's the mistress woman--Mrs. Dicky, for example, or--" he saw Miss Cobb's curler on the mantel and picked it up--"or even Miss Cobb," he said. "Coquetry and selfishness without maternal instinct. How much of Miss Cobb's virtue is training and environment, Minnie, not to mention lack of temptation, and how much was born in her?"

"She's a preacher's daughter," I remarked. I could understand about Mrs. Dicky, but I thought he was wrong about Miss Cobb.

"Exactly," he said. "And the third kind of woman is the mistress-mother kind, and they're the salt of the earth, Minnie." He began to walk up and down by the spring with his hands in his pockets and a far-away look in his eyes. "The man who marries that kind of woman is headed straight for paradise."

"That's the way!" I snapped. "You men have women divided into classes and catalogued like horses on sale."

"Aren't they on sale?" he demanded, stopping. "Isn't it money, or liberty, or--or a title, usually?" I knew he was thinking of Miss Patty again.

"As for the men," I continued, "I guess you can class the married ones in two classes, providers and non-providers. They're all selfish and they haven't enough virtue to make a fuss about."

"I'd be a shining light in the non-provider class," he said, and picking up his old cap he opened the door. Miss Patty herself was coming up the path.

She was flushed from the cold air and from hurrying, and I don't know that I ever saw her look prettier. When she came into the light we could both see that she was dressed for dinner. Her fur coat was open at the neck, and she had only a lace <133>scarf over her head. (She was a disbeliever in colds, anyhow, and all winter long she slept with the windows open and the steam-heat off!)

"I'm so glad you're still here, Minnie!" she exclaimed, breathing fast. "You haven't taken the dinner out to the shelter-house yet, have you?"

"Not yet," I replied. "Tillie hasn't brought the basket. The chef's been fussing about the stuff we're using in the diet kitchen the last few days, and I wouldn't be surprised if he's shut off all extras."

But I guess her sister and Mr. Dick could have starved to death just then without her noticing. She was all excitement, for all she's mostly so cool.

"I have a note here for my sister," she said, getting it out of her pocket. "I know we all impose on you, Minnie, but--will you take it for me? I'd go, but I'm in slippers, and, anyhow, I'd need a lantern, and that would be reckless, wouldn't it?"

"In slippers!" Mr. Pierce interrupted. "It's only five degrees above zero! Of all the foolhardy--!"

Miss Patty did not seem to hear him. She gave the letter to me and followed me out on the step.

"You're a saint, Minnie," she said, leaning over and squeezing my arm, "and because you're going back and forth in the cold so much, I want you to have this--to keep."

She stooped and picked up from the snow beside the steps something soft and furry and threw it around my neck, and the next instant I knew she was giving me her chinchilla set, muff and all. I was so pleased I cried, and all the way over to the shelter-house I sniveled and danced with joy at the same time. There's nothing like chinchilla to tone down red hair.

Well, I took the note out to the shelter-house, and rapped. Mr. Dick let me in, and it struck me he wasn't as cheerful as usual. He reached out and took the muff.

"Oh," he said, "I thought that was the supper."

"It's coming," I said, looking past him for Mrs. Dicky. Usually when I went there she was drawing Mr. Dick's profile on a bit of paper or teaching him how to manicure his nails, but that night she was lying on the cot and she didn't look up.

"Sleeping?" I asked in a whisper.

"Grumping!" Mr. Dick answered. He went over and stood looking down at her with his hands in his pockets and his hair ruffled as if he'd been running his fingers through it. She never moved a shoulder.

"Dorothy," he said. "Here's Minnie."

She pretended not to hear.

"Dorothy!" he repeated. "I wish you wouldn't be such a g-- Confound it, Dolly, be reasonable. Do you want to make me look like a fool?"

She turned her face enough to uncover one eye.

"It wouldn't be difficult," she answered, staring at him with the one eye. It was red from crying.

"Now listen, Dolly." He got down on one knee beside the cot and tried to take her hand, but she jerked it away. "I've tried wearing my hair that way, and it--it isn't becoming, to say the least. I don't mind having it wet and brushed back in a pompadour, if you insist, but I certainly do balk at the ribbon."

"You've only got to wear the ribbon an hour or so, until it dries." She brought her hand forward an inch or so and he took it and kissed it. It should have been slapped.

"I'll tell you what I'll do," he said. "You can fix it any way you please, when it's too late for old Sam or Pierce to drop in, and I'll wear the confounded ribbon all night. Won't that do?"

But she had seen the note and sat up and held out her hand for it. She was wearing one of Miss Patty's dresses and it hung on her--not that Miss Patty was large, but she had a beautiful figure, and Mrs. Dicky, of course, was still growing and not properly filled out.

"Dick!" she said suddenly, "what do you think? Oskar is here! Pat's in the wildest excitement. He's in town, and Aunt Honoria has telephoned to know what to do! Listen: he is incog., of course, and registered as Oskar von Inwald. He did an awfully clever thing--came in through Canada while the papers thought he was in St. Moritz."

"For heaven's sake," replied Mr. Dick, "tell her not to ask him here. I shouldn't know how to talk to him."

"He speaks lovely English," declared Mrs. Dick, still reading.

"I know all that," he said, walking around nervously, "but if he's going to be my brother-in-law, I suppose I don't get down on my knees and knock my head on the floor. What do I say to him? Four Highness? Oh, I've known a lord or two, but that's different. You call them anything you like and lend them money."

"I dare say you can with Oskar, too." Mrs. Dicky put the note down and sighed. "Well, he's coming. Pat says dad won't go back to town until he's had twenty-one baths, and he's only had eleven and she's got to stay with him. And you needn't worry about what to call Oskar. He's not to know we're here."

I was worried on my way back to the spring-house--not that the prince would make much difference, as far as I could see things being about as bad as they could be. But some of the people were talking of leaving, and since we had to have a prince it seemed a pity he wasn't coming with all his retinue and titles. It would have been a good ten thousand dollars' worth of advertising for the place, and goodness knows we needed it.

When I got back to the spring-house Miss Patty and Mr. Pierce were still there. He was in front of the fire, with his back to it, and she was near the door.

"Of course it isn't my affair," he was saying. "You are perfectly--" Then I opened the door and he stopped. I went on into the pantry to take off my overshoes, and as I closed the door he continued. "I didn't mean to say what I have. I meant to explain about the other night--I had a right to do that. But you forced the issue."

"I was compelled to tell you he was coming," she said angrily. "I felt I should. You have been good enough to take Mr. Carter's place here and save me from an embarrassing situation--"

"I had no philanthropic motives," he insisted stubbornly. "I did it, as you must know, for three meals a day and a roof over my head. If you wish me to be entirely frank, I disapprove of the whole thing."

I heard the swish of her dress as she left the door and went toward him.

"What would you have had me do?" she asked.

"Take those two children to your father. What if there was a row? Why should there be such a lot made of it, anyhow? They're young, but they'll get older. It isn't a crime for two people to--er--love each other, is it? And if you think a scandal or two in your family--granting your father would make a scandal--is going to put another patch on the ragged reputations of the royal family of--"

"How dare you!" she cried furiously. "How dare you!"

I heard her cross the room and fling the door open and a second later it slammed. When I came out of the pantry Mr. Pierce was sitting in his old position, elbow on knee, holding his pipe and staring at the bowl.