Chapter XXIII. Back to Nature
 

We gave them a good supper and Mr. Pierce ordered claret served without extra charge. By eight o'clock they were all in better humor, and when they'd gathered in the lobby Miss Summers gave an imitation of Marie Dressler doing the Salome dance. Every now and then somebody would look out and say it was still snowing, and with the memory of the drifts and the cold stove in the railroad station behind them, they'd gather closer around the fire and insist that they would go as soon as the road was cleared.

But with the exception of Mr. von Inwald, not one of them really wanted to go. As Doctor Barnes said over the news stand, each side was bluffing and wouldn't call the other, and the fellow with the most nerve would win.

"And, oh, my aunt!" he said, "what a sweet disposition the von Inwald has! Watch him going up and banging his head against the wall!"

Everybody was charmed with the Salome dance, especially when Miss Summers drew the cover off a meat platter she'd been dancing around, and there was Arabella sitting on her hind legs, with a card tied to her neck, and the card said that at eleven there would be a clambake in the kitchen for all the guests.

(The clambake was my idea, but the dog, of course, was Miss Julia's. I never saw a woman so full of ideas, although it seems that what should have been on the platter was the head of somebody or other.)

Just after the dance I saw Mr. von Inwald talking to Miss Patty. He had been ugly all evening, and now he looked like a devil. She stood facing him with her head thrown back and her fingers twisting her ruby ring. I guessed that she was about as much surprised as anything else, people having a habit of being pleasant to her most of the time. He left her in a rage, and as he went he collided with Arabella and kicked her. Miss Patty went white but Miss Summers was not a bit put out. She simply picked up the howling dog and confronted Mr. von Inwald.

"Perhaps you didn't notice," she said sweetly, "but you kicked my dog."

"Why don't you keep her out of the way?" he snarled, and they stood glaring at each other.

"Under the circumstances, Arabella," Miss Julia said--and everybody was listening--"we can only withdraw Mr. von Inwald's invitation to the kitchen."

"Thank you, I had not intended to go," he said furiously, and went out into the veranda, slamming the door behind him. Mr. Jennings looked up from where he was playing chess by the fire and nodded at Miss Summers.

"Serves him right for his temper!" he said.

"Checkmate!" said the bishop.

Mr. Jennings turned and glared at the board. Then with one sweep he threw all the chessmen on the floor. As Tillie said later, it would be a pity to spoil two houses with Mr. von Inwald and Mr. Jennings If they were in the same family, they could work it off on each other.

Miss Patty came down to the news stand and pretended to hunt for a magazine. I reached over and stroked her hand. "Don't take it too hard, dearie," I said. "He's put out to-night, and maybe he isn't well. Men are like babies. If their stomachs are all right and have plenty in them, they're pleasant enough. It's been my experience that your cranky man's a sick man."

"I don't think he is sick, Minnie," she said, with a catch in her voice. "I--I think he is just dev--devilish!"

Well, I thought that too, so I just stroked her hand, and after a minute she got her color again. "It is hard for him," she said. "He thinks this is all vulgar and American, and--oh, Minnie, I want to get away, and yet what shall I do without you to keep me sensible."

"You'll be a long ways off soon," I said, touching the ring under my hand.

"I wish you could come with me," she said, but I shook my head.

"Here is one dog that isn't going to sit under any rich man's table and howl for crumbs," I answered. "If he kicked me, I'd bite him."

At eleven o'clock we had the clambake with beer in the kitchen, and Mr. von Inwald came, after all. They were really very cheerful, all of them. Doctor Barnes insisted that Senator Biggs must not fast any longer, and he ate by my count three dozen clams. At the end, when everybody was happy and everything forgiven, Mr. Pierce got up and made a speech.

He said he was sorry for what had happened that day, but that much he had said he still maintained: that to pretend to make people well in the way most sanatoriums did it was sheer folly, and he felt his responsibility too keenly to countenance a system that was clearly wrong and that the best modern thought considered obsolete.

Miss Cobb sat up at that; she is always talking about the best modern thought.

He said that perfect health, clear skins, bright eyes--he looked at the women, and except for Miss Patty, there wasn't an honest complexion or a bright eye in the lot--keen appetites and joy of living all depended on rational and simple living.

"Hear, hear!" said the men.

"The nearer we live to nature, the better," said Senator Biggs oracularly.

"Back to nature," shouted Mr. Moody through a clam.

"Exactly," Mr. Pierce said, smiling.

Mrs. Moody looked alarmed. "You don't mean doing without clothes--and all that!" she protested.

"Surely!" Miss Summers said, holding up her beer glass. "A toast, everybody! Back to nature, sans rats, sans rouge, sans stays, sans everything. I'll need to wear a tag with my name on it. Nobody will recognize me!"

Mr. Pierce got up again at the head of the long kitchen table and said he merely meant rational living--more air, more exercise, simpler food and better hours. It was being done now in a thousand fresh-air farms, and succeeding. Men went back to their business clearer-headed and women grew more beautiful.

At that, what with the reaction from sitting in the cold station, and the beer and everything, they all grew enthusiastic. Doctor Barnes made a speech, telling that he used to be puny and weak, and how he went into training and became a pugilist, and how he'd fought the Tennessee something or other--the men nodded as if they knew--and licked him in forty seconds or forty rounds, I'm not sure which. The men were standing on their chairs cheering for him, and even Mr. Jennings, who'd been sitting and not saying much, said he thought probably there was something in it.

They ended by agreeing to try it out for a week, beginning with the morning, when everybody was to be down for breakfast by seven-thirty. Mr. Thoburn got up and made a speech, protesting that they didn't know what they were letting themselves in for, and ended up by demanding to know if he was expected to breakfast at seven-thirty.

"Yes, or earlier," Mr. Pierce said pleasantly. "I suppose you could have something at seven."

"And suppose I refuse?" he retorted disagreeably.

But everybody turned on him, and said if they could do it, he could, and he sat down again. Then somebody suggested that if they were to get up they'd have to go to bed, and the party broke up.

Doctor Barnes helped me gather up the clam shells and the plates.

"It's a risky business," he said. "To-night doesn't mean anything; they're carried away by the reaction and the desire for something new. The next week will tell the tale."

"If we could only get rid of Mr. Thoburn!" I exclaimed. Doctor Barnes chuckled.

"We may not get rid of him," he said, "but I can promise him the most interesting week of his life. He'll be too busy for mischief. I'm going to take six inches off his waist line."

Well, in a half-hour or so I had cleared away, and I went out to the lobby to lock up the news stand. Just as I opened the door from the back hall, however, I heard two people talking.

It was Miss Pat and Mr. Pierce. She was on the stairs and he in the hall below, looking up.

"I don't want to stay!" she was saying.

"But don't you see?" he argued. "If you go, the others will. Can't you try it for a week?"

"I quite understand your motive," she said, looking down at him more pleasantly than she'd ever done, "and it's very good of you and all that. But if you'd only left things as they were, and let us all go, and other people come--"

"That's just it," he said. "I'm told it's the bad season and nobody else would come until Lent. And, anyhow, it's not business to let a lot of people go away mad. It gives the place a black eye."

"Dear me," she said, "how businesslike you are growing!"

He went over close to the stairs and dropped his voice.

"If you want the bitter truth," he went on, trying to smile, "I've put myself on trial and been convicted of being a fool and a failure. I've failed regularly and with precision at everything I have tried. I've been going around so long trying to find a place that I fit into, that I'm scarred as with many battles. And now I'm on probation--for the last time. If this doesn't go, I--I--"

"What?" she asked, leaning down to him. "You'll not--"

"Oh, no," he said, "nothing dramatic, of course. I could go around the country in a buggy selling lightning-rods--"

She drew herself back as if she resented his refusal of her sympathy.

"Or open a saloon in the Philippines!" he finished mockingly. "There's a living in that."

"You are impossible," she said, and turned away.

Oh, I haven't any excuse to make for him! I think he was just hungry for her sympathy and her respect, knowing nothing else was coming to him. But the minute they grew a bit friendly he seemed to remember the prince, and that, according to his idea of it, she was selling herself, and he would draw off and look at her in a mocking unhappy way that made me want to slap him.

He watched her up the stairs and then turned and walked to the fire, with his hands in his pockets and his head down.

I closed the news stand and he came over just as I was hanging up the cigar-case key for Amanda King in the morning. He reached up and took the key off its nail.

"I'll keep that," he said. "It's no tobacco after this, Minnie."

"You can't keep them here, then," I retorted. "They've got to smoke; it's the only work they do."

"We'll see," he said quietly. "And--oh, yes, Minnie, now that we shall not be using the mineral spring--"

"Not use the mineral spring!" I repeated, stupefied.

"Certainly not!" he said. "This is a drugless sanatorium, Minnie, from now on. That's part of the theory--no drugs."

"Well, I'll tell you one thing," I snapped, "theory or no theory, you've got to have drugs. No theory that I ever heard of is going to cure Mr. Moody's indigestion and Miss Cobb's neuralgia."

"They won't have indigestion and neuralgia."

"Or Amanda King's toothache."

"We won't have Amanda King."

He put his elbow on the stand and smiled at me.

"Listen, Minnie," he said. "If you hadn't been wasting your abilities in the mineral spring, I'd be sorry to close it. But there will be plenty for you to do. Don't you know that the day of the medicine-closet in the bath-room and the department-store patent-remedy counter is over? We've got sanatoriums now instead of family doctors. In other words, we put in good sanitation systems and don't need the plumber and his repair kit."

"The pharmacy?" I said between my teeth.

"Closed also. No medicine, Minnie. That's our slogan. This is the day of prophylaxis. The doctors have taken a step in the right direction and are giving fewer drugs. Christian Science has abolished drugs and established the healer. We simply abolish the healer."

"If we're not going to use the spring-house, we might have saved the expense of the new roof in the fall," I said bitterly.

"Not at all. For two hours or so a day the spring-house will be a rest-house--windows wide open and God's good air penetrating to fastnesses it never knew before."

"The spring will freeze!"

"Exactly. My only regret is that it is too small to skate on. But they'll have the ice pond."

"When I see Mr. Moody skating on the ice pond," I said sarcastically, "I'll see Mrs. Moody dead with the shock on the bank."

"Not at all," he replied calmly. "You'll see her skating, too." And with that he went to bed.