Chapter XVI. Stop, Thief!
 

I was pretty nervous when I took charge of the news stand that evening. Amanda King had an appointment with the dentist and had left everything topsyturvey. I was still straightening up when people began to come down to dinner.

Miss Cobb walked over to the news stand, and she'd cut the white yoke out of her purple silk. She looked very dressy, although somewhat thin.

"Everybody has dressed for dinner to-night, Minnie," she informed me. "We didn't want Mr. von Inwald to have a wrong idea of American society, especially after Mr. Carter's ridiculous conduct this afternoon, and I wonder if you'll be sweet enough to start the phonograph in the orchestra gallery as we go in-- something with dignity, you know--the wedding march, or the overture from Aida."

"Aida's cracked," I said shortly, "and as far as I'm concerned, Mr. von Inwald can walk in to his meals without music, or starve to death waiting for the band."

But she got the phonograph, anyhow, and put the elevator boy in the gallery with it. She picked out some things by Caruso and Tetrazzini and piled them on a chair, but James had things to himself up there, and played The Spring Chicken through three times during dinner, with Miss Cobb glaring at the gallery until the back of her neck ached, and the dining-room girls waltzing in with the dishes and polka-ing out.

Mr. Moody came out when dinner was over in a fearful rage and made for the news stand.

"One of your ideas, I suppose," he asserted. "What sort of a night am I going to have after chewing my food to rag-time, with my jaws doing a skirt-dance? Why in heaven's name couldn't you have had something slow, like Handel's Largo, if you've got to have music?"

But dinner was over fifteen minutes sooner than usual. James cake-walked everybody out to My Ann Elizer, and Miss Cobb was mortified to death.

Two or three things happened that night. For one, I got a good look at Miss Julia Summers. She was light-haired and well- fleshed, with an ugly face but a pleasant smile. She wore a low- necked dress that made Miss Cobb's with the yoke out look like a storm collar, and if she had a broken heart she didn't show it.

"Hello," she cried, looking at my hair, "are you selling tobacco here or are you the cigar-lighter?"

"Neither," I answered, looking over her head. "I am employed as the extinguisher of gay guests."

"Good," she said, smiling. "I'm something fine at that myself. Suppose I stay here and help. If I watch that line of knitting women I'll be crotcheting Arabella's wool in my sleep to-night."

Well, she was too cheerful to be angry with. So she stayed around for a while, and it was amazing how much tobacco I sold that evening. Men who usually bought tobies bought the best cigars, and when Mr. Jennings came up, scowling, and I handed him the brand he'd smoked for years, she took one, clipped the end of it as neat as a finger nail and gave it to him, holding up the lighter.

"I'm not going to smoke yet, young woman," he said, glaring at her. But she only smiled.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I've been waiting hungrily until some discriminating smoker would buy one of those and light it. I love the aroma."

And he stood there for thirty minutes, standing mostly on one foot on account of the gouty one, puffing like a locomotive, with her sniffing at the aroma and telling him how lonely she felt with no friends around and just recovering from a severe illness.

At eight o'clock he had Mrs. Hutchins bring him his fur-lined coat and he and Miss Julia took Arabella, the dog, for a walk on the veranda!

The rest of the evening was quiet, and I needed it. Miss Patty and Mr. von Inwald talked by the fire and I think he told her something--not all--of the scene in the spring-house. For she passed Mr. Pierce at the foot of the stairs on her way up for the night and she pretended not to see him. He stood there looking up after her with his mouth set, and at the turn she glanced down and caught his eye. I thought she flushed, but I wasn't sure, and at that minute Senator Biggs bought three twenty-five-cent cigars and told me to keep the change from a dollar. I was so surprised at the alteration in him that I forgot Miss Patty entirely.

About twelve o'clock, just after I went to my room, somebody knocked at the door. When I opened, the new doctor was standing in the hall.

"I'm sorry to disturb you," he said, "but nobody seems to know where the pharmacy clerk is and I'll have to get some medicine."

"If I'd had my way, we'd have had a bell on that pharmacy clerk long ago," I snapped, getting my keys. "Who's sick?"

"The big man," he replied. "Biggs is his name, I think, a senator or something."

I was leading the way to the stairs, but I stopped. "I might have known it," I said. "He hasn't been natural all evening. What's the matter with him? Too much fast?"

"Fast!" He laughed. "Too much feast! He's got as pretty a case of indigestion as I've seen for some time. He's giving a demonstration that's almost theatrical."

Well, he insisted it was indigestion, although I argued that it wasn't possible, and he wanted ipecac.

"I haven't seen a pharmacopoeia for so long that I wouldn't know one if I met it," he declared, "but I've got a system of mnemonics that never fails. Ipecac and colic both end with `c'--I'll never forget that conjunction. It was pounded in and poured in in my early youth."

Well, the pharmacy was locked, and we couldn't find a key to fit it. And when I suggested mustard and warm water he jumped at the idea.

"Fine!" he said. "Better let me dish out the spring-water and you take my job! Lead on, MacDuff, to the kitchen."

Although it was only midnight there was not a soul about. A hall leads back of the office to the kitchen and pantries, and there was a low light there, but the rest was dark. We bumped through the diet kitchen and into the scullery, when we found we had no matches. I went back for some, and when I got as far as the diet kitchen again Doctor Barnes was there, just inside the door.

"Sh!" he whispered. "Come into the scullery. The kitchen is dark, but there is somebody in there, fumbling around, striking matches. I suppose you don't have such things as burglars in this neck of the woods?"

Well, somebody had broken into Timmons' candy store a week before and stolen a box of chewing-gum and a hundred post-cards, and I told him so in a whisper.

"Anyhow, it isn't the chef," I said. "He's had a row with the bath man and is in bed with a cut hand and a black eye, and nobody else has any business here."

We tiptoed into the scullery in the dark: just then somebody knocked a kettle down in the kitchen and it hit the stove below with a crash. Whoever was there swore, and it was not Francois, who expresses his feelings mostly in French. This was English.

There's a little window from the kitchen into the scullery as well as a door. The window had a wooden slide and it was open an inch or so. We couldn't see anything, but we could hear a man moving around. Once he struck a match, but it went out and he said "Damn!" again, and began to feel his way toward the scullery.

Doctor Barnes happened to touch my hand and he patted it as if to tell me not to be frightened. Then he crept toward the scullery door and waited there.

It swung open slowly, but he waited until it closed again and the man was in the room. Then he yelled and jumped and there was the sound of a fall. I could hardly strike the match--I was trembling so--but when I did there was Mr. Dick lying flat on the floor and the doctor sitting on him.

"Mister Dick!" I gasped, and dropped the match.

"Something hit me!" Mr. Dick said feebly, and when I had got a candle lighted and had explained to Doctor Barnes that it was a mistake, he got off him and let him up. He was as bewildered as Mr. Dick and pretty nearly as mad.

We put him--Mr. Dick--in a chair and gave him a glass of water, and after he had got his breath--the doctor being a heavy man--he said he was trying to find something to eat.

"Confound it, Minnie," he exclaimed, "we're starving! It seems to me there are enough of you here at least to see that we are fed. Not a bite since lunch!"

"But I thought you had the basket," I explained. "I left it at the spring-house, and when I went back it was gone."

"So that was it!" he answered. And then he explained that just about the time they expected their supper they saw a man carry a basket stealthily through the snow to the deer park. It was twilight, but they watched him from the window, and he put the basket through the barbed-wire fence and then crawled after it. Just inside he sat down on a log and, opening the basket, began to eat. He was still there when it got too dark to see him.

"If that was our dinner," he finished savagely, "I hope he choked to death over it."

Doctor Barnes chuckled. "He didn't," he said, "but he's got the worst case of indigestion in seven counties."

Well, I got the mustard and water ready with Mr. Dick standing by hoping Mr. Biggs would die before he got it, and then I filled a basket for the shelter-house. I put out the light and he took the basket and started out, but he came back in a hurry.

"There's somebody outside talking," he said. I went to the door with him and listened.

"The sooner the better," Mike was saying. "I'm no good while I've got it on my mind."

And Mr. Thoburn: "To-morrow is too soon: they're not in the mood yet. Perhaps the day after. I'll let you know."

I didn't get to sleep until almost morning, and then it was to dream that Mr. Pierce was shouting "Hypocrites" to all the people in the sanatorium and threatening to throw glasses of mustard and warm water at them.