Chapter XXIV. Like Ducks to Water
 

They took to it like ducks take to water. Not, of course, that they didn't kick about making their own beds and having military discipline generally. They complained a lot, but when after three days went by with the railroad running as much on schedule as it ever does, they were all still there, and Mr. Jennings had limped out and spent a half-hour at the wood-pile with his gouty foot on a cushion, I saw it was a success.

I ought to have been glad. I was, although when Mrs. Dicky found they were all staying, and that she might have to live in the shelter-house the rest of the winter, there was an awful scene. I was glad, too, every time I could see Mr. Thoburn's gloomy face, or hear the things he said when his name went up for the military walk.

(Oh yes, we had a blackboard in the hall, and every morning each guest looked to see if it was wood-pile day or military-walk day. At first, instead of wood-pile, it was walk- clearing day, but they soon had the snow off all the paths.)

As I say, I was glad. It looked as if the new idea was a success, although as Doctor Barnes said, nobody could really tell until new people began to come. That was the real test. They had turned the baths into a gymnasium and they had beginners' classes and advanced classes, and a prize offered on the blackboard of a cigar for the man who made the most muscular improvement in a week. The bishop won it the first week, being the only one who could lie on his back and raise himself to a sitting position without helping himself with his hands. As Mrs. Moody said, it would be easy enough if somebody only sat on one's feet to hold them down.

But I must say I never got over the shock of seeing the spring- house drifted with snow, all the windows wide open, the spring frozen hard, and people sitting there during the rest hour, in furs and steamer rugs, trying to play cards with mittens on-- their hands, not the cards, of course--and not wrangling. I was lonesome for it!

I hadn't much to do, except from two to four to be at the spring-house, and to count for the deep-breathing exercise. Oh, yes, we had that, too! I rang a bell every half-hour and everybody got up, and I counted slowly "one" and they breathed in through their noses, and "two" and they exhaled quickly through their mouths. I guess most of them used more of their lungs than they ever knew they had.

Well, everybody looked better and felt better, although they wouldn't all acknowledge it. Miss Cobb suffered most, not having the fire log to curl her hair with. But as she said herself, between gymnasium and military walks, and the silence hour, and eating, which took a long time, everybody being hungry--and going to bed at nine, she didn't see how she could have worried with it, anyhow. The fat ones, of course, objected to an apple and a cup of hot water for breakfast, but except Mr. Thoburn, they all realized it was for the best. He wasn't there for his health, he said, having never had a sick day in his life, but when he saw it was apple and hot water or leave, he did like Adam--he took the apple.

The strange thing of all was the way they began to look up to Mr. Pierce. He was very strict; if he made a rule, it was obey or leave. (As they knew after Mr. Moody refused to take the military walk, and was presented with his bill and a railroad schedule within an hour. He had to take the military walk with Doctor Barnes that afternoon alone.) They had to respect a man who could do all the things in the gymnasium that they couldn't, and come in from a ten or fifteen-mile tramp through the snow and take a cold plunge and a swim to rest himself.

It was on Monday that we really got things started, and on Monday afternoon Miss Summers came out to the shelter-house in a towering rage.

"Where's Mr. Pierce?" she demanded.

"I guess you can see he isn't here," I said.

"Just wait until I see him!" she announced. "Do you know that I am down on the blackboard for the military walk to-day?

"Why not?"

She turned and glared at me. "Why not?" she repeated. "Why, the audacity of the wretch! He brings me out into the country in winter to play in his atrocious play, strands me, and then tells me to walk twenty miles a day and smile over it!" She came over to me and shook my arm. "Not only that," she said, "but he has cut out my cigarettes and put Arabella on dog biscuit-- Arabella, who can hardly eat a chicken wing."

"Well, there's something to be thankful for," I said. "He didn't put you on dog biscuit."

She laughed then, with one of her quick changes of humor.

"The worst of it is," she said, in a confidential whisper, "I'll do it. I feel it. I guess if the truth were known I'm some older than he is, but--I'm afraid of him, Minnie. Little Judy is ready to crawl around and speak for a cracker or a kind word. Oh, I'm not in love with him, but he's got the courage to say what he means and do what he says."

She went to the door and looked back smiling.

"I'm off for the wood-pile," she called back. "And I've promised to chop two inches off my heels."

As I say, they took to it like ducks to water--except two of them, von Inwald and Thoburn. Mr. von Inwald stayed on, I hardly know why, but I guess it was because Mr. Jennings still hadn't done anything final about settlements, and with the newspapers marrying him every day it wasn't very comfortable. Next to him, Mr. Thoburn was the unhappiest mortal I have ever seen. He wouldn't leave, and with Doctor Barnes carrying out his threat to take six inches off his waist, he stopped measuring window-frames with a tape line and took to measuring himself.

I came across him on Wednesday--the third day--straggling home from the military walk. He and Mr. von Inwald limped across the tennis-court and collapsed on the steps of the spring-house while the others went on to the sanatorium. I had been brushing the porch, and I leaned on my broom and looked at them.

"You're both looking a lot better," I said. "Not so--well, not so beer-y. How do you like it by this time?"

"Fine!" answered Mr. Thoburn. "Wouldn't stay if I didn't like it."

"Wouldn't you?"

"But I'll tell you this, Minnie," he said, changing his position with a groan to look up at me, "somebody ought to warn that young man. Human nature can stand a lot but it can't stand everything. He's overdoing it!"

"They like it," I said.

"They think they do," he retorted. "Mark my words, Minnie, if he adds another mile to the walk to-morrow there will be a mutiny. Kingdoms may be lost by an extra blister on a heel."

Mr. von Inwald had been sitting with his feet straight out, scowling, but now he turned and looked at me coolly.

"All that keeps me here," he said, "is Minnie's lovely hair. It takes me mentally back home, Minnie, to a lovely lady--may I have a bit of it to keep by me?"

"You may not," I retorted angrily.

"Oh! The lovely lady--but never mind that. For the sake of my love for you, Minnie, find me a cigarette, like a good girl! I am desolate."

"There's no tobacco on the place," I said firmly, and went on with my sweeping.

"When I was a boy," Mr. Thoburn remarked, looking out thoughtfully over the snow, "we made a sort of cigarette out of corn-silk. You don't happen to have any corn-silk about, do you, Minnie?"

"No," I said shortly. "If you take my advice, Mr. Thoburn, you'll go back to town. You can get all the tobacco you want there--and you're wasting your time here." I leaned on my broom and looked down at him, but he was stretching out his foot and painfully working his ankle up and down.

"Am I?" he asked, looking at his foot. "Well, don't count on it too much, Minnie. You always inspire me, and sitting here I've just thought of something."

He got up and hobbled off the porch, followed by Mr. von Inwald. I saw him say something to Mr. von Inwald, who threw back his head and laughed. Then I saw them stop and shake hands and go on again in deep conversation. I felt uneasy.

Doctor Barnes came out that afternoon and watched me while I closed the windows. He had a package in his hand. He sat on the railing of the spring and looked at me.

"You're not warmly enough dressed for this kind of thing," he remarked. "Where's that gray rabbits' fur, or whatever it is?"

"If you mean my chinchillas," I said, "they're in their box. Chinchillas are as delicate as babies and not near so plentiful. I'm warm enough."

"You look it." He reached over and caught one of my hands. "Look at that! Blue nails! It's about four degrees above zero here, and while the rest are wrapped in furs and steamer rugs, with hotwater bottles at their feet, you've got on a shawl. I'll bet you two dollars you haven't got on any--er--winter flannels."

"I never bet," I retorted, and went on folding up the steamer rugs.

"I'd like to help," he said, "but you're so darned capable, Miss Minnie--"

"You might see if you can get the slot-machine empty," I said. "It's full of water. It wouldn't work and Mr. Moody thought it was frozen. He's been carrying out boiling water all afternoon. If it stays in there and freezes the thing will explode."

He wasn't listening. He'd been fussing with his package and now he opened it and handed it to me, in the paper.

"It's a sweater," he said, not looking at me. "I bought it for myself and it was too small-- Confound it, Minnie, I wish I could lie! I bought them for you! There's the whole business-- sweater, cap, leggings and mittens. Go on! Throw them at me!"

But I didn't. I looked at them, all white and soft, and it came over me suddenly how kind people had been lately, and how much I'd been getting--the old doctor's waistcoat buttons and Miss Pat's furs, and now this! I just buried my face in them and cried.

Doctor Barnes stood by and said nothing. Some men wouldn't have understood, but he did. After a minute or so he came over and pulled the sweater out from the bundle.

"I'm glad you like 'em," he said, "but as I bought them at Hubbard's, in Finleyville, and as the old liar guaranteed they wouldn't shrink, we'd better not cry on 'em."

Well, I put them on and I was warmer and happier than I had been for some time. But that night when I went out to the shelter- house with the supper basket I found both the honeymooners in a wild state of excitement. They said that about five o'clock Thoburn had gone out to the shelter-house and walked all around it. Finally he had stopped at one of the windows of the other room, had worked at it with his penknife and got it open, and crawled through. They sat paralyzed with fright, and heard him moving around the other room, and he even tried their door. But it had been locked. They hadn't the slightest idea what he was doing, but after perhaps ten minutes he went away, going out the door this time and taking the key with him.

Mr. Dick had gone in when he was safely gone, but he could see nothing unusual, except that the door of the cupboard in the corner was standing open and there was a brand-new, folding, foot rule in it.

That day the bar was closed for good, and there was a good bit of fussing. To add to the trouble, that evening at dinner the pastries were cut off, and at eight o'clock a delegation headed by Senator Biggs visited Mr. Pierce in the office and demanded pastry put back on the menu and the stewed fruit taken off. But Mr. Pierce was firm and they came out pretty well subdued. It was that night, I think, that candles were put in the bedrooms, and all the electric lights were turned off at nine- thirty.

At ten o'clock I took my candle and went to Mr. Pierce's sitting- room door. I didn't think they'd stand much more and I wanted to tell him so. Nobody answered and I opened the door. He was asleep, face down on the hearth-rug in front of the fire. His candle was lighted on the floor beside him and near it lay a newspaper cutting crumpled in a ball. I picked it up. It was a list of the bridal party for Miss Patty's wedding.

I dropped it where I found it and went out and knocked again loudly. He wakened after a minute and came to the door with the candle in his hand.

"Oh, it's you, Minnie. Come in!"

I went in and put my candle on the table.

"I've got to talk to you," I said. "I don't mind admitting things have been going pretty well, but--they won't stand for the candles. You mark my words."

"If they'll stand for the bar being closed, why not the candles?" he demanded.

"Well," I said, "they can't have electric light sent up in boxes and labeled `books,' but they can get liquor that way."

He whistled, and then he laughed.

"Then we'll not have any books," he said. "I guess they can manage. `My only books were woman's looks--'" and then he saw the ball of paper on the floor and his expression changed. He walked over and picked it up, smoothing it out on the palm of his hand.

After a minute he looked up at me.

"I haven't been to the shelter-house to-day. They are all right?"

"They're nervous. With everybody walking these days they daren't venture a nose out of doors."

He was still holding the clipping.

"And--Miss Jennings!" he said. "She--I think she looks better."

"Her father's in a better humor for one thing--says Abraham Lincoln split logs, and that it beats massage."

I had been standing in the doorway, but he took me by the arm and drew me into the room.

"I wish you'd sit down for about ten minutes, Minnie," he said. "I guess every fellow has a time when he's got to tell his troubles to some good woman--not but that you know mine already. You're as shrewd as you are kind."

I sat down on the edge of a chair. For all I had had so much to do with the sanatorium, I never forgot that I was only the spring-house girl. He threw himself back in his easy chair, with the candle behind him on the table and his arms above his head.

"It's like this, Minnie," he said. "Mr. Jennings likes the new order of things and--he's going to stay."

I nodded.

"And I like it here. I want to stay. It's the one thing I've found that I think I can do. It isn't what I've dreamed of, but it's worth while. To anchor the derelicts of humanity in a sort of repair dock here, and scrape the barnacles off their dispositions, and send them out shipshape again, surely that's something. And I can do it."

I nodded again.

"But if the Jenningses stay--" he looked at me. "Minnie, in heaven's name, what am I going to do if she stays?"

"I don't know, Mr. Pierce," I said. "I couldn't sleep last night for thinking about it."

He smoothed out the paper and looked at it again, but I think he scarcely saw it.

"The situation is humorous," he said, "only my sense of humor seems to have died. She doesn't know I exist, except to invent new and troublesome regulations for her annoyance. She is very sweet when she meets me, but only because I am helping her to have her own way. And I--my God, Minnie, I sit in the office and listen for her step outside!"

He moved a little and held out the paper in the candle-light.

"`It will please Americans to know,'" he read, "`that with the exception of the Venetian lace robe sent by the bridegroom's mother, all of Miss Patricia Jennings' elaborate trousseau is being made in America.

"`Prince Oskar and his suite, according to present arrangements, will sail from Naples early in March, and the wedding date, although not yet definitely fixed, will probably be the first week in April. The wedding party will include--'"

He stopped there, and looked at me, trying to smile.

"I knew it all before," he said, "but there's something inevitable about print. I guess I hadn't realized it."

He had the same look of wretchedness he'd had the first night I saw him--a hungry look--and I couldn't help it; I went over to him and patted him on the head like a little boy. I was only the spring-house girl, but I was older than he was, and he needed somebody to comfort him.

"I can't think of anything to say that will help any," I said, "unless it's what you wrote yourself on the blackboard down in the hall, `Keep busy and you'll keep happy.'"

He reached up for my hand, and rough and red as it was--having been in the spring for so many years--he kissed it.

"Good for you, Minnie!" he said. "You're rational, and for a day or so I haven't been. That's right, keep busy. I'll do it." He got up and put his hands on my shoulders. "Good old pal, when you see me going around as if all the devils of hell were tormenting me, just come up and say that to me, will you?"

I promised, and he opened the door, candle in hand, and smiling.

"I'm a thousand per cent. better already," he said. "I just needed to tell somebody, I think. I dare say I've made a lot more fuss than it really deserves."

At the far end of the hall, a girl came out of one room, and carrying a candle, went across to another. It was Miss Patty, going to bid her father good night. When I left, he was still staring down the hall after her, his candle dripping wax on the floor, and his face white. I guess he hadn't overstated his case.