Chapter XXV. The First Fruits
 

By Friday of that week you would hardly have known any of them. The fat ones were thinner and the thin ones fatter, and Miss Julia Summers could put her whole hand inside her belt.

And they were pleasant. They'd sit down to a supper of ham and eggs and apple sauce, and yell for more apple sauce, and every evening in the billiard room they got up two weighing pools, one for the ones who wanted to reduce, and one for the people who wanted to gain. Everybody put in a dollar, and at gymnasium hour the next morning the ones who'd gained or lost the most won the pool. Mr. Thoburn won the losing pool on Thursday and Friday--he didn't want to lose weight, but he was compelled to under the circumstances. And I think worry helped him to it.

They fussed some still about sleeping with the windows open, especially the bald-headed men. However, the bishop, who had been bald for thirty years, was getting a fine down all over the top of his head, and this encouraged the rest. The bishop says it is nature's instinct to protect itself from cold--all animals have fur, and heavier fur in winter--and he believed that it was the ultimate cure for baldness. Men lose their hair on top, he said, because they wear hats, and so don't need it. But let the top of the head need protection, and lo, hair comes there. Although, as Mr. Thoburn said, his nose was always cold in winter, and nature never did anything for it.

Mr. von Inwald was still there, and not troubling himself to be agreeable to any but the Jennings family. He and Mr. Pierce carefully avoided each other, but I knew well enough that only policy kept them apart. Both of them, you see, were working for something.

Miss Cobb came to the spring-house early Friday morning, and from the way she came in and shut the door I knew she had something on her mind. She walked over to where I was polishing the brass railing around the spring--it had been the habit of years, and not easy to break--and stood looking at me and breathing hard.

"Minnie," she exclaimed, "I have found the thief!"

"Lord have mercy!" I said, and dropped the brass polish.

"I have found the thief!" she repeated firmly. "Minnie, our sins always find us out."

"I guess they do," I said shakily, and sat down on the steps to the spring. "Oh, Miss Cobb, if only he would use a little bit of sense!"

"He?" she said. "HE nothing! It's that Summers woman I'm talking about, Minnie. I knew that woman wasn't what she ought to be the minute I set eyes on her."

"The Summers woman!" I repeated.

Miss Cobb leaned over the railing and shook a finger in my face.

"The Summers woman," she said. "One of the chambermaids found my--my protectors hanging in the creature's closet!"

I couldn't speak. There had been so much happening that I'd clean forgotten Miss Cobb and her woolen tights. And now to have them come back like this and hang themselves around my neck, so to speak--it was too much.

"Per--perhaps they're hers," I said weakly after a minute.

"Stuff and nonsense!" declared Miss Cobb. "Don't you think I know my own, with L. C. in white cotton on the band, and my own darning in the knee where I slipped on the ice? And more than that, Minnie, where those tights are, my letters are!"

I glanced at the pantry, where her letters were hidden on the upper shelf. The door was closed.

"But--but what would she want with the letters?" I asked, with my teeth fairly hitting together. Miss Cobb pushed her forefinger into my shoulder.

"To blackmail me," she said, in a tragic voice, "or perhaps to publish. I've often thought of that myself--they're so beautiful. Letters from a life insurance agent to his lady- love--interesting, you know, and alliterative. As for that woman--!"

"What woman!" said Miss Summers' voice from behind us. We jumped and turned. "I always save myself trouble, so if by any chance you are discussing me--"

"As it happens," Miss Cobb said, glaring at her, "I was discussing you."

"Fine!" said Miss Julia. "I love to talk about myself."

"I doubt if it's an edifying subject," Miss Cobb snapped.

Miss Julia looked at her and smiled.

"Perhaps not," she said, "but interesting. Don't put yourself out to be friendly to me, Miss Cobb, if you don't feel like it."

"Are you going to return my letters?" Miss Cobb demanded.

"Your letters?"

"My letters--that you took out of my room!"

"Look here," Miss Julia said, still in a good humor, "don't you suppose I've got letters of my own, without bothering with another woman's?"

"Perhaps," Miss Cobb replied in triumph, "perhaps you will say that you don't know anything of my--of my black woolen protectors?"

"Never heard of them!" said Miss Summers. "What are they?" And then she caught my eye, and I guess I looked stricken. "Oh!" she said.

"Miss Cobb was robbed the other night," I explained, as quietly as I could. "Somebody went into her room and took a bundle of letters."

"Letters!" Miss Summers straightened and looked at me.

"And my woolen tights," said Miss Cobb indignantly, "with all this cold weather and military walks, and having to sit two hours a day by an open window! And I'll tell you this, Miss Summers, your dog got in my room that night, and while I have no suspicions, the chambermaid found my--er--missing garment this morning in your closet!"

"I don't believe," Miss Julia said, looking hard at me, "that Arabella would steal anything so--er--grotesque! Do you mean to say," she added slowly, "that nothing was taken from that room but the--lingerie and a bundle of letters?"

"Exactly," said Miss Cobb, "and I'd thank you for the letters."

"The letters!" Miss Julia retorted. "I've never been in your room. I haven't got the letters. I've never seen them." Then a light dawned in her face. "I--oh, it's the funniest ever!"

And with that she threw her head back and laughed until the tears rolled down her cheeks and she held her side.

"Screaming!" she gasped. "It's screaming! But, oh, Minnie, to have seen your face!"

Miss Cobb swept to the door and turned in a fury.

"I do not think it is funny," she stormed, "and I shall report to Mr. Carter at once what I have discovered."

She banged out, and Miss Julia put her head on a card-table and writhed with joy. "To have seen your face, Minnie!" she panted, wiping her eyes. "To have thought you had Dick Carter's letters, that I keep rolled in asbestos, and then to have opened them and found they were to Miss Cobb!"

"Be as happy as you like," I snapped, "but you are barking up the wrong tree. I don't know anything about any letters and as far as that goes, do you think I've lived here fourteen years to get into the wrong room at night? If I'd wanted to get into your room, I'd have found your room, not Miss Cobb's."

She sat up and pulled her hat straight, looking me right in the eye.

"If you'll recall," she said, "I came into the spring-house, and Arabella pulled that--garment of Miss Cobb's off a table. It was early--nobody was out yet. You were alone, Minnie, or no," she said suddenly, "you were not alone. Minnie, who was in the pantry?"

"What has that to do with it?" I managed, with my feet as cold as stone.

She got up and buttoned her sweater.

"Don't trouble to lie," she said. "I can see through a stone wall as well as most people. Whoever got those letters thought they were stealing mine, and there are only two people who would try to steal my letters; one is Dick Carter, and the other is his brother-in-law. It wasn't Sam in the pantry--he came in just after with his little snip of a wife."

"Well?" I managed.

But she was smiling again, not so pleasantly.

"I might have known it!" she said. "What a fool I've been, Minnie, and how clever you are under that red thatch of yours! Dicky can not appear as long as I am here, and Pierce takes his place, and I help to keep the secret and to play the game! Well, I can appreciate a joke on myself as well as most people, but--Minnie, Minnie, think of that guilty wretch of a Dicky Carter shaking in the pantry!"

"I don't know what you are talking about," I said, but she only winked and went to the door.

"Don't take it too much to heart," she advised. "Too much loyalty is a vice, not a virtue. And another piece of advice, Minnie--when I find Dicky Carter, stand from under; something will fall."

They had charades during the rest hour that afternoon, the overweights headed by the bishop, against the underweights headed by Mr. Moody. They selected their words from one of Horace Fletcher's books, and as Mr. Pierce wasn't either over or underweight, they asked him to be referee.

Oh, they were crazy about him by that time. It was "Mr. Carter" here and "dear Mr. Carter" there, with the women knitting him neckties and the men coming up to be bullied and asking for more.

And he kept the upper hand, too, once he got it. It was that day, I think, that he sent Senator Biggs up to make his bed again, and nobody in the place will ever forget how he made old Mr. Jennings hang his gymnasium suit up three times before it was done properly. The old man was mad enough at the time, but inside of twenty minutes he was offering Mr. Pierce the cigar he'd won in the wood-chopping contest.

But if Mr. Pierce was making a hit with the guests, he wasn't so popular with the Van Alstynes or the Carters. The night the cigar stand was closed Mr. Sam came to me and leaned over the counter.

"Put the key in a drawer," he said. "I can slip down here after the lights are out and get a smoke."

"Can't do it, Mr. Van Alstyne," I said. "Got positive orders."

"That doesn't include me." He was still perfectly good-humored.

"Sorry," I said. "Have to have a written order from Mr. Pierce."

He put a silver dollar on the desk between us and looked at me over it.

"Will that open the case?" he asked. But I shook my head.

"Well, I'll be hanged! What the devil sort of order did he give you?"

"He said," I repeated, "that I'd be coaxed and probably bribed to open the cigar case, and that you'd probably be the first one to do it, but I was to stick firm; you've been smoking too much, and your nerves are going."

"Insolent young puppy!" he exclaimed angrily, and stamped away.

So that I was not surprised when on that night, Friday, I was told to be at the shelter-house at ten o'clock for a protest meeting. Mrs. Sam told me.

"Something has to be done," she said. "I don't intend to stand much more. Nobody has the right to say when I shall eat or what.

If I want to eat fried shoe leather, that's my affair."

We met at ten o'clock at the shelter-house, everybody having gone to bed--Miss Patty, the Van Alstynes and myself. The Dickys were on good terms again, for a wonder, and when we went in they were in front of the fire, she on a box and he at her feet, with his head buried in her lap. He didn't even look up when we entered.

"They're here, Dicky," she said.

"All right!" he answered in a smothered voice. "How many of 'em?"

"Four," she said, and kissed the tip of his ear.

"For goodness sake, Dick!" Mrs. Sam snapped in a disgusted tone, "stop that spooning and get us something to sit on."

"Help yourself," he replied, still from his wife's lap, "and don't be jealous, sis. If the sight of married happiness upsets you, go away. Go away, anyhow."

Mr. Sam came over and jerked him into a sitting position. "Either you'll sit up and take part in this discussion," he said angrily, "or you'll go out in the snow until it's over."

Mr. Dick leaned over and kissed his wife's hand.

"A cruel fate is separating us," he explained, "but try to endure it until I return. I'll be on the other side of the fireplace."

Miss Patty came to the fire and stood warming her hands. I saw her sister watching her.

"What's wrong with you, Pat?" she asked. "Oskar not behaving?"

"Don't be silly," Miss Patty said. "I'm all right."

"She's worked to death," Mrs. Sam put in. "Look at all of us. I'll tell you I'm so tired these nights that by nine o'clock I'm asleep on my feet."

"I'm tired to death, but I don't sleep," Miss Patty said. "I--I don't know why."

"I do," her sister said. "If you weren't so haughty, Pat, and would just own up that you're sick of your bargain--"

"Dolly!" Miss Patty got red and then white.

"Oh, all right," Mrs. Dicky said, and shrugged her shoulders. "Only, I hate to see you make an idiot of yourself, when I'm so happy."

Mr. Dick made a move at that to go across the fireplace to her, but Mr. Sam pushed him back where he was.

"You stay right there," he said. "Here's Pierce now."

He came in smiling, and as he stood inside the door, brushing the snow off, it was queer to see how his eyes went around the circle until he'd found Miss Patty and stopped at her.

Nobody answered his smile, and he came over to the fire beside Miss Patty.

"Great night!" he said, looking down at her. "There's something invigorating in just breathing that wind."

"Do you think so?" Mrs. Sam said disagreeably. "Of course, we haven't all got your shoulders."

"That's so," he answered, turning to her. "I said you women should not come so far. We could have met in my sitting-room."

"You forget one thing," Mr. Dick put in disagreeably, "and that is that this meeting concerns me, and I can not very well go to your sitting-room."

"Fact," said Mr. Pierce, "I'd forgotten about you for the moment."

"You generally do," Mr. Dick retorted. "If you want the truth, Pierce, I'm about tired of your high-handed methods."

Mr. Pierce set his jaw and looked down at him.

"Why? I've saved the place, haven't I? Why, look here," he said, and pulled out a couple of letters, "these are the first fruits of those that weep--in other words, per aspera ad astra!

Two new guests coming the last of the week--want to be put in training!"

Well, that was an argument nobody could find fault with, but their grievance was about themselves and they couldn't forgive him. They turned on him in the most heartless way--even Miss Patty--and demanded that he give them special privileges-- breakfast when they wanted it, and Mr. Sam the key to the bar. And he stood firm, as he had that day in the lobby, and let the storm beat around him, looking mostly at Miss Patty. It was more than I could bear.

"Shame on all of you!" I said. "He's done what he promised he'd do, and more. If he did what he ought, he'd leave this minute, and let you find out for yourself what it is to drive thirty-odd different stomachs and the same number of bad dispositions in one direction."

"You are perfectly right, Minnie," Miss Patty said. "We're beastly, all of us, and I'm sorry." She went over and held out her hand to him. "You've done the impossible," she told him. He beamed.

"Your approval means more than anything," he said, holding her hand. Mrs. Dick sat up and opened her eyes wide.

"Speaking of Oskar," she began, and then stopped, staring past her sister, toward the door.

We all turned, and there, blinking in the light, was Miss Summers.