Chapter XXVI. Over the Fence is Out
 

"Well!" she said, and stood staring. Then she smiled--I guess our faces were funny.

"May I come in?" she asked, and without waiting she came in and closed the door. "You do look cozy!" she said, and shook herself free of snow.

Mr. Dick had turned white. He got up with his eyes on her, and twice he opened his mouth and couldn't speak. He backed, still watching her, to his wife, and stood in front of her, as if to protect her.

Mr. Sam got his voice first.

"B--bad night for a walk," he said.

"Frightful!" she said. "I've been buried to my knees. May I sit down?" To those of us who knew, her easy manner had something horrible in it.

"Sorry there are no chairs, Julia," Mr. Pierce said. "Sit on the cot, won't you?"

"Who is it?" Mrs. Dick asked from, as you may say, her eclipse. She and Miss Summers were the only calm ones in the room.

"I--I don't know," Mr. Dick stammered, but the next moment Miss Julia, from the cot, looked across at him and grinned.

"Well, Dicky!" she said. "Who'd have thought it!"

"You said you didn't know her!" his wife said from behind him.

"Who'd have thought wha--what?" he asked with bravado.

"All this!" Miss Julia waved her hand around the room, with its bare walls, and blankets over the windows to keep the light in and the cold out, and the circle of us sitting around on sand boxes from the links and lawn rollers. "To find you here, all snug in your own home, with your household gods and a wife." Nobody could think of anything to say. "That is," she went on, "I believe there is a wife. Good heavens, Dicky, it isn't Minnie?"

He stepped aside at that, disclosing Mrs. Dick on her box, with her childish eyes wide open.

"There--there is a wife, Julia," he said. "This is her--she."

Well, she'd come out to make mischief--it was written all over her when she came in the door, but when Mr. Dick presented his wife, frightened as he was and still proud of her, and Mrs. Dick smiled in her pretty way, Miss Summers just walked across and looked down at her with a queer look on her face. I shut my eyes and waited for the crash, but nothing came, and when I opened them again there were the two women holding hands and Miss Summers smiling a sort of crooked grin at Mr. Dick.

"I ought to be very angry with your husband," she said. "I-- well, I never expected him to marry without my being among those present. But since he has done it--! Dick, you wretched boy, you took advantage of my being laid up with the mumps!"

"Mumps!" Mrs. Dick said. "Why, he has just had them himself!" She looked around the circle suspiciously, and every one of us looked as guilty as if he had been caught with the mumps concealed around him somewhere.

"I didn't have real mumps," Mr. Dick explained. "It was only-- er--a swelling."

"You said it was mumps, and even now you hate pickles!"

Mr. Pierce had edged over to Miss Summers and patted her shoulder.

"Be a good sport, Julia," he whispered.

She threw off his hand.

"I'm being an idiot!" she said angrily. "Dick's an ass, and he's treated me like a villain, but look at that baby! It will be twenty years before she has to worry about her weight."

"I never cared for pickles," Mr. Dick was saying with dignity. "The doctor said--"

"I think we'd better be going." Miss Patty got up and gathered up her cloak. But if she meant to break up the party Miss Summers was not ready.

"If you don't mind," she said, "I'll stay. I'm frozen, and I've got to go home and sleep with my window up. You're lucky," she went on to the Dickys. "I dare say the air in here would scare us under a microscope, but at least it is warm."

The Van Alstynes made a move to go, but Mr. Dicky frantically gestured to them not to leave him alone, and Mrs. Sam sat down again sulkily. Mr. Pierce picked up his cap.

"I'll take you back," he said to Miss Patty, and his face was fairly glowing. But Miss Patty slipped her arm through mine.

"Come, Minnie, Mr. Pierce is going to take us," she said.

"I'd--I'd rather go alone," I said.

"Nonsense."

"I'm not ready. I've got to gather up these dishes," I objected.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see the glow dying out of Mr. Pierce's face. But Miss Patty took my arm and led me to the door.

"Let them gather up their own dishes," she said. "Dolly, you ought to be ashamed to let Minnie slave for you the way she does.

Good night, everybody."

I did my best to leave them alone on the way back, but Miss Patty stuck close to my heels. It was snowing, and the going was slow.

For the first five minutes she only spoke once.

"And so Miss Summers and Dicky Carter are old friends!"

"It appears so," Mr. Pierce said.

"She's rather magnanimous, under the circumstances," Miss Patty remarked demurely.

"Under what circumstances?"

I heard her laugh a little, behind me.

"Never mind," she said. "You needn't tell me anything you don't care to. But what a stew you must all have been in!"

There was a minute's silence behind me, and then Mr. Pierce laughed too.

"Stew!" he said. "For the last few days I've been either paralyzed with fright or electrified into wild bursts of mendacity. And I'm not naturally a liar."

"Really!" she retorted. "What an actor you are!"

They laughed together at that, and I gained a little on them. At the corner where the path skirted the deer park and turned toward the house I lost them altogether and I floundered on alone. But I had not gone twenty feet when I stopped suddenly. About fifty yards ahead a lantern was coming toward me through the snow, and I could hear a man's voice, breathless and gasping.

"Set it down," it said. "The damned thing must be filled with lead." It sounded like Thoburn.

"It's the snow," another voice replied, Mr. von Inwald's. "I told you it would take two trips."

"Yes," Thoburn retorted, breathing in groans. "Stay up all night to get the blamed stuff here, and then get up at dawn for a cold bath and a twenty-mile walk and an apple for breakfast. Ugh, my shoulder is dislocated."

I turned and flew back to Miss Patty and Pierce. They had stopped in the shelter of the fence corner and Mr. Pierce was on his knees in front of her! I was so astounded that I forgot for the moment what had brought me.

"Just a second," he was saying. "It's ice on the heel."

"Please get up off your knees, you'll take cold."

"Never had a cold. I'll scrape it off with my knife. Why don't you wear overshoes?"

"I never have a cold!" she retorted. "Why, Minnie, is that you?"

"Quick," I panted. "Thoburn and Mr. von Inwald coming--basket-- lantern--warn the shelter-house!"

"Great Scott I" Mr. Pierce said. "Here, you girls crawl over the fence: you'll be hidden there. I'll run back and warn them."

The lantern was swinging again. Mr. Thoburn's grumbling came to us through the snow, monotonous and steady.

"I can't climb the fence!" Miss Patty said pitifully. But Mr. Pierce had gone.

I reached my basket through the bars and climbed the fence in a hurry. Miss Patty had got almost to the top and was standing there on one snow-covered rail, staring across at me through the darkness.

"I can't, Minnie," she whispered hopelessly. "I never could climb a fence, and in this skirt--!"

"Quick!" I said in a low tone. The lantern was very close. "Put your leg over."

She did, and sat there looking down at me like a scared baby.

"Now the other."

"I--I can't!" she whispered. "If I put them both over I'll fall."

"Hurry!"

With a little grunt she put the other foot over, sat a minute with agony in her face and her arms out, then she slid off with a squeal and brought up in a sitting position inside the fence corner. I dropped beside her.

"What was that noise?" said Mr. Thoburn, almost upon us. "Something's moving inside that fence corner."

"It's them deers," Mike's voice this time. We could make out the three figures. "Darned nuisance, them deers is. They'd have been shot long ago if the spring-house girl hadn't objected. She thinks she's the whole cheese around here."

"Set it down again," Mr. von Inwald panted. We heard the rattle of bottles as they put down the basket, and the next instant Thoburn's fat hand was resting on the rail of the fence over our heads. I could feel Miss Patty trembling beside me.

But he didn't look over. He stood there resting, breathing hard, and swearing at the weather, while Mike waited, in surly silence, and the von Inwald cursed in German.

After my heart had been beating in my ears for about three years the fat hand moved, and I heard the rattle of glass again and Thoburn's groan as he bent over his half of the load.

            "`Come on, my partners in distress,
              My comrades through this wilderness,'"

he said, and the others grunted and started on.

When they had disappeared in the snow we got out of our cramped position and prepared to scurry home. I climbed the fence and looked after them. "Humph!" I said, "I guess that basket isn't for the hungry poor. I'd give a good bit to know--" Then I turned and looked for Miss Patty. She was flat on the snow, crawling between the two lower rails of the fence.

"Have you no shame?" I demanded.

She looked up at me with her head and half her long sealskin coat through the fence.

"None," she said pitifully. "Minnie, I'm stuck perfectly tight!"

"You ought to be left as you are," I said, jerking at her, "for people to come"--jerk--"to-morrow to look at"--jerk. She came through at that, and we lay together in the snow and like to burst a rib laughing.

"You'll never be a princess, Miss Patty," I declared. "You're too lowly minded."

She sat up suddenly and straightened her sealskin cap on her head.

"I wish," she said unpleasantly, "I wish you wouldn't always drag in disagreeable things, Minnie!"

And she was sulky all the way to the house.

Miss Summers came to my room that night as I was putting my hot- water bottle to bed, in a baby-blue silk wrapper with a band of fur around the low neck--Miss Summers, of course, not the hot- water bottle.

"Well!" she said, sitting down on the foot of the bed and staring at me. "Well, young woman, for a person who has never been farther away than Finleyville you do pretty well!"

"Do what?" I asked, with the covers up to my chin.

"Do what, Miss Innocence!" she said mockingly. "You're the only red-haired woman I ever saw who didn't look as sophisticated as the devil. I'll tell you one thing, though." She reached down into the pocket of her dressing-gown and brought up a cigarette and a match. "You never had me fooled for a minute!" She looked at me over the match.

I lay and stared back.

"And another thing," she said. "I never had any real intention of marrying Dicky Carter and raising a baby sanatorium. I wouldn't have the face to ask Arabella to live here."

"I'm glad you feel that way, Miss Summers," I said. "I've gone through a lot; I'm an old woman in the last two weeks. My hair's falling from its having to stand up on end half the time."

She leaned over and put her cigarette on the back of my celluloid mirror, and then suddenly she threw back her head and laughed.

"Minnie!" she said, between fits, "Minnie! As long as I live I'll never forget that wretched boy's face! And the sand boxes! And the blankets over the windows! And the tarpaulin over the rafters! And Mr. Van Alstyne sitting on the lawnmower! I'd rather have had my minute in that doorway than fifty thousand dollars!"

"If you had had to carry out all those things--" I began, but she checked me.

"Listen!" she said. "Somebody with brains has got to take you young people in hand. You're not able to look after yourselves. I'm fond of Alan Pierce, for one thing, and I don't care to see a sanatorium that might have been the child of my solicitude kidnaped and reared as a summer hotel by Papa Thoburn. A good fat man is very, very good, Minnie, but when he is bad he is horrid."

"It's too late," I objected feebly. "He can't get it now."

"Can't he!" She got up and yawned, stretching. "Well, I'll lay you ten to one that if we don't get busy he'll have the house empty in thirty-six hours, and a bill of sale on it in as many days."

The celluloid mirror blazed up at that minute, and she poured the contents of my water-pitcher over the dresser. For the next hour, while I was emptying water out of the bureau drawers and hanging up my clothes to dry, she told me what she knew of Thoburn's scheme, and it turned me cold.

But I went to bed finally. Just as I was dozing off, somebody opened my door, and I heard a curious scraping along the floor. I turned on the light, and there was Arabella, half-dragging and half-carrying a solid silver hand-mirror with a card on it: "To Minnie, to replace the one that blew up. J. S."