Chapter XVII. A Bunch of Letters
 

When people went down to breakfast the next morning they found a card hanging on the office door with a half dozen new rules on it, and when I went out to the spring-house the guests were having an indignation meeting in the sun parlor, with the bishop in the chair, and Senator Biggs, so wobbly he could hardly stand, making a speech.

I tried to see Mr. Pierce, but early as it was he had gone for a walk, taking Arabella with him. So I called a conference at the shelter-house--Miss Patty, Mr. and Mrs. Van Alstyne, Mr. and Mrs. Dick, and myself. Mrs. Dick wasn't dressed, but she sat up on the edge of her cot in her dressing-gown, with her feet on the soap box, and yawned. As we didn't have enough chairs, Miss Patty jerked the soap box away and made me sit down. Mr. Dick was getting breakfast.

We were in a tight place and we knew it.

"He is making it as hard for us as he can," Mrs. Sam declared. "The idea of having the card-room lights put out at midnight, and the breakfast room closed at ten! Nobody gets up at that hour."

"He was to come here every evening for orders," said Mr. Dick, measuring ground coffee with a tablespoon, as I had showed him. "He came just once, and as for orders--well, he gave 'em to me!"

But Miss Patty was always fair.

"I loathe him," she asserted. "I want to quarrel with him the minute I see him. He--he is presumptuous to the point of impertinence--but he's honest: he thinks we're all hypocrites-- those that are well and those that are sick or think they are-- and he hates hypocrisy."

Everybody talked at once, then, and she listened.

"Very well," she said. "I'll amend it. We're not all hypocrites. My motives in all this are perfectly clear--and selfish."

"You and old Pierce would make a fine team, Pat," Mrs. Dick remarked with a yawn. "I like hypocrites myself. They're so comfy. But if you're not above advice, Pat, you'll have Aunt Honoria break her neck or something--anything to get father back to town. Something is going to explode, and Oskar doesn't like to be agitated."

She curled up on the cot with that and went sound asleep. The rest of us had coffee and talked, but there wasn't anything to do. As Mr. Sam said, Mr. Pierce didn't want to stay, anyhow, and as likely as not if we went to him in a body and told him he must come to the shelter-house for instructions, and be suave and gentle when he was called down by the guests about the steam- pipes making a racket, he'd probably prefer to go down to the village and take Doctor Barnes' place washing dishes at the station. That wouldn't call for any particular mildness.

But he settled it by appearing himself. He came across the snow from the direction of Mount Hope, and he had a pair of skees over his shoulder. (At that time I didn't even know the name of the things, but I learned enough about them later.) I must say he looked very well beside Mr. Dick, who wasn't very large, anyhow, and who hadn't had time to put on his collar, and Mr. Sam, who's always thin and sallow and never takes a step he doesn't have to.

I let him in, and when he saw us all there he started and hesitated.

"Come in, Pierce," Mr. Sam said. "We've just been talking about you."

He came in, but he didn't look very comfortable.

"What have you decided to do with me?" he asked. "Put me under restraint?"

He was unbuttoning his sweater, and now he took out two of the smallest rabbits I ever saw and held them up by the ears. Miss Patty gave a little cry and took them, cuddling them in her lap.

"They're starving and almost frozen, poor little devils," he said. "I found them near where I shot the mother last night, Minnie, and by way of atonement I'm going to adopt them."

Well, although the minute before they'd all been wishing they'd never seen him, they pretty nearly ate him up. Miss Patty held the rabbits, so we all had turns at feeding them warm milk with a teaspoon and patting their pink noses. When it came Mr. Pierce's turn they were about full up, so he curled his big body on the floor at Miss Patty's feet and talked to the rabbits and looked at her. He had one of those faces that's got every emotion marked on it as clear as a barometer--when he was mad his face was mad all over, and when he was pleased he glowed to the tips of his ears. And he was pleased that morning.

But, of course, he had to be set right about the sanatorium, and Mr. Sam began it. Mr. Pierce listened, sitting on the floor and looking puzzled and more and more unhappy. Finally he got up and drew a long breath.

"Exactly," he agreed. "I know you are all right and I'm wrong-- according to your way of thinking. But if these people want to be well, why should I encourage them to do the wrong thing? They eat too much, they don't exercise"--he turned to Mr. Van Alstyne.

"Why, do you know, I asked a half dozen of the men--one after the other--to go skeeing with me this morning and not one of them accepted!"

"Really!" Mr. Sam exclaimed mockingly.

"What can you do with people like that?" Mr. Pierce went on. "They don't want to be well; they're all hypocrites. Look at that man Biggs! I'll lay you ten to one that after fasting five days and then stealing a whole chicken, a dozen oysters and Lord knows what else, now that he's sick, he'll hold it against me."

"He's not holding anything," I objected.

"Because he is a hypocrite--" Mr. Sam began.

"That's not the point, Pierce," Mr. Dick broke in importantly. "You were to come here for orders and you haven't done it. You're running this place for me, not for yourself."

Mr. Pierce looked at Mr. Dick and from there to Mr. Sam and smiled.

"I did come," he explained. "I came twice, and each time we played roulette. I lost all the money I'd had in advance. Honestly," he confessed, "I felt I couldn't afford to come every day."

Miss Patty got up and put the baby rabbits into her sister's big fur muff.

"We are all talking around the question," she said. "Mr. Pierce undertook to manage the sanatorium, and to try to manage it successfully. He can not do that without making some attempt at conciliating the people. It's--it's absurd to antagonize them."

"Exactly," he said coldly. "I was to manage it, and to try to do it successfully. I'm sorry my methods don't meet with the approval of this--er--executive committee. But it might as well be clear that I intend to use my own methods--or none."

Well, what could we do? Miss Patty went out with her head up, and the rest of us stayed and ate humble pie, and after a while he agreed to stay if he wasn't interfered with. He said he and Doctor Barnes had a plan that he thought was a winner--that it would either make or break the place, and he thought it would make it. And by that time we were so meek that we didn't even ask what it was.

Doctor Barnes and Miss Summers were the first to come to the mineral spring that morning. She stopped just inside the door and sniffed.

"Something's dead under the floor," she said.

"If there's anything dead," Doctor Barnes replied, "it's in the center of the earth. That's the sulphur water."

She came in at that, but unwillingly, and sat down with her handkerchief to her nose. Then she saw me

"Good gracious!" she exclaimed. "What have you done that they put you here?"

"If you mean the bouquet from the spring, you get to like it after a while," I said grimly. "Ordinary air hasn't got any snap for me now."

"Humph!" She looked at me suspiciously, but I was busy wiping off the tables. "Well," she said, holding up the glass Doctor Barnes had brought her, "it doesn't cost me anything, so here goes. But think of paying money for it!"

She drank it down in a gulp and settled herself in her chair.

"What'll it do to me?" she asked. "Mixed drinks always play the deuce with me, Barnes, and you know it."

"If you'll cut down your diet and take some exercise it will make you thin," I began. "`The process is painless and certain: kindly nature in her benevolent plan--'"

"Give me another!" she interrupted, and Doctor Barnes filled her glass again. "Some women spell fate f-a-t-e," she said, looking at the water, "but I spell it without the e."

She took half of it and then put down the glass. "Honestly," she declared, "I'd rather be fat."

Mr. Pierce met them there a few minutes later and they had a three-cornered chat. But Miss Summers evidently didn't know just how much I knew and was careful of what she said. Once, however, when I was in the pantry she thought I was beyond ear- shot.

"Good heavens, Pierce," she said, "if they could put that in a play!"

"Cut it out, Julia," Doctor Barnes snapped, and it wasn't until they had gone that I knew she'd meant me. I looked through the crack of the door and she was leaning over taking a puff at Doctor Barnes' cigarette.

"Curious old world, isn't it?" she said between puffs. "Here we are the three of us--snug and nice, having seven kinds of hell- fire water and not having to pay for it; three meals a day and afternoon tea ditto, good beds and steam-heat ditto--and four days ago where were we? Pierce, you were hocking your clothes! Doc, you--"

"Washing dishes!" he said. "I never knew before how extravagant it is to have a saucer under a cup!"

"And I!" she went on, "I, Julia Summers, was staring at a ceiling in the Finleyville hotel, with a face that looked like a toy balloon."

"And now," said Doctor Barnes, "you are more beautiful than ever.

I am a successful physician--oh, lord, Julia, if you'd hear me faking lines in my part! And my young friend here--Pierce-- Julia, Pierce has now become a young reprobate named Dicky Carter, and may the Lord have mercy on his soul!"

I tried to get out in time, but I was too late. I saw her rise, saw the glass of water at her elbow roll over and smash on the floor, and saw her clutch wildly at Mr. Pierce's shoulder.

"Not--not Dicky Carter!" she cried.

"Richard--they call him Dick," Mr. Pierce said uneasily, and loosened her fingers from his coat.

Oh, well, everybody knows it now--how she called Mr. Dick everything in the calendar, and then began to cry and said nobody would ever know what she'd been through with, and the very dress she had on was a part of the trousseau she'd had made, and what with the dressmaker's bills-- Suddenly she stopped crying.

"Where is he, anyhow?" she demanded.

"All we are sure of," Mr. Pierce replied quietly, "is that he is not in the sanatorium."

She looked at us all closely, but she got nothing from my face.

"Oh, very well," she said, shrugging her shoulders, "I'll wait until he shows up. It doesn't cost anything."

Then, with one of her easy changes, she laughed and picked up her muff to go.

"Minnie and I," she said, "will tend bar here, and in our leisure moments we will pour sulphur water on a bunch of Dicky's letters that I have, to cool 'em." She walked to the door and turned around, smiling.

"Carry fire insurance on 'em all the time," she finished and went out, leaving us staring at one another!