Chapter XXVII. A Cupboard Full of Rye
 

Doctor Barnes came to me at the news stand the next morning before gymnasium.

"Well," he said, "you look as busy as a dog with fleas. Have you heard the glad tidings?"

"What?" I asked without much spirit. "I've heard considerable tidings lately, and not much of it has cheered me up any."

He leaned over and ran his fingers up through his hair.

"You know, Miss Minnie," he said, "somebody ought kindly to kill our friend Thoburn, or he'll come to a bad end."

"Shall I do it, or will you?" I said, filling up the chewing-gum jar. (Mr. Pierce had taken away the candy case.)

Doctor Barnes glanced around to see if there was any one near, and leaned farther over.

"The cupboard isn't empty now!" he said. "Not for nothing did I spend part of the night in the Dicky-bird's nest! By the way, did you ever hear that touching story about little Sally walking up and laying an egg?--I see you have. What do you think is in the cupboard?"

"I know about it," I said shortly. "Liquor--in a case labeled `Books--breakable.'"

"`Sing a song of sixpence, a cupboard full of rye!'" he said. "Almost a goal! But not only liquors, my little friend. Champagne--cases of it--caviar, canned grouse with truffles, lobster, cheeses, fine cigars, everything you could think of, erotic, exotic and narcotic. An orgy in cans and bottles, a bacchanalian revel: a cupboard full of indigestion, joy, forgetfulness and katzenjammer. Oh, my suffering palate, to have to leave it all without one sniff, one sip, one nibble!"

"He's wasting his money," I said. "They're all crazy about the simple life."

He looked around and, seeing no one in the lobby, reached over and took one of my hands.

"Strange," he said, looking at it. "No webs, and yet it's been an amphibious little creature most of its life. My dear girl, our friend Thoburn is a rascal, but he is also a student of mankind and a philosopher. Gee," he said, "think of a woman fighting her way alone through the world with a bit of a fist like that!"

I jerked my hand away.

"It's like this, my dear," he said. "Human nature's a curious thing. It's human nature, for instance, for me to be crazy about you, when you're as hands-offish as a curly porcupine. And it is human nature, by the same token, to like to be bullied, especially about health, and to respect and admire the fellow who does the bullying. That's why we were crazy about Roosevelt, and that's why Pierce is trailing his kingly robes over them while they lie on their faces and eat dirt--and stewed fruit."

He reached for my hand again, but I put it behind me.

"But alas," he said, "there is another side to human nature, and our friend Thoburn has not kept a summer hotel for nothing. It is notoriously weak, especially as to stomach. You may feed 'em prunes and whole-wheat bread and apple sauce, and after a while they'll forget the fat days, and remember only the lean and hungry ones. But let some student of human nature at the proper moment introduce just one fat day, one feast, one revel--"

"Talk English," I said sharply.

"Don't break in on my flights of fancy," he objected. "If you want the truth, Thoburn is going to have a party--a forbidden feast. He's going to rouse again the sleeping dogs of appetite, and send them ravening back to the Plaza, to Sherry's and Del's and the little Italian restaurants on Sixth Avenue. He's going to take them up on a high mountain and show them the wines and delicatessen of the earth, and then ask them if they're going to be bullied into eating boiled beef and cabbage."

"Then I don't care how soon he does it," I said despondently. "I'd rather die quickly than by inches."

"Die!" he said. "Not a bit of it. Remember, our friend Pierce is also a student of human nature. He's thinking it out now in the cold plunge, and I miss my guess if Thoburn's sky-rocket hasn't got a stick that'll come back and hit him on the head."

He had been playing with one of the chewing-gum jars, and when he had gone I shoved it back into its place. It was by the merest chance that I glanced at it, and I saw that he had slipped a small white box inside. I knew I was being a silly old fool, but my heart beat fast when I took it out and looked at it. On the lid was written "For a good girl," and inside lay the red puffs from Mrs. Yost's window down in Finleyville. Just under them was an envelope. I could scarcely see to open it.

"Dearest Minnie," the note inside said, "I had them matched to my own thatch, and I think they'll match yours. And since, in the words of the great Herbert Spencer, things that match the same thing match each other--! What do you say?--Barnes."

"P. S.--I love you. I feel like a damn fool saying it, but heaven knows it's true."

"P. P. S.--Still love you. It's easier the second time."

"N. B.--I love you--got the habit now and can't stop writing it.--B."

Well, I had to keep calm and attend to business, but I was seething inside like a Seidlitz powder. Every few minutes I'd reread the letter under the edge of the stand, and the more I read it the more excited I got. When a woman's gone past thirty before she gets her first love-letter, she isn't sure whether to thank providence or the man, but she's pretty sure to make a fool of herself.

Thoburn came to the news stand on his way out with the ice- cutting gang to the pond.

"Last call to the dining-car, Minnie," he said. "`Will you-- won't you--will you--won't you--will you join the dance?'"

"I haven't any reason for changing my plans," I retorted. "I promised the old doctor to stick by the place, and I'm sticking."

"As the man said when he sat down on the flypaper. You're going by your heart, Minnie, and not by your head, and in this toss, heads win."

But with my new puffs on the back of my head, and my letter in my pocket, I wasn't easy to discourage. Thoburn shouldered his pick and, headed by Doctor Barnes, the ice-cutters started out in single file. As they passed the news stand Doctor Barnes glanced at me, and my heart almost stopped.

"Do they--is it a match?" he asked, with his eyes on mine.

I couldn't speak, but I nodded "yes," and all that afternoon I could see the wonderful smile that lit up his face as he went out. It made him almost good-looking. Oh, there's nothing like love, especially if you've waited long enough to be hungry for it, and not spoiled your taste for it by a bite here and a piece of a heart there, beforehand, so to speak.

Miss Cobb stopped at the news stand on her way to the gymnasium. She was a homely woman at any time, and in her bloomers she looked like a soup-bone. Under ordinary circumstances she'd have seen the puffs from the staircase and have asked what they cost and told me they didn't match, in one breath. But she had something else on her mind. She padded over to the counter in her gym shoes, and for once she'd forgotten her legs.

"May I speak to you, Minnie?" she asked.

"You mostly do," I said. "There isn't a new rule about speaking, is there?"

"This is important, Minnie," she said, rolling her eyes around as she always did when she was excited. "I'm in such a state of ex--I see you bought the puffs! Perhaps you will lend them to me if we arrange for a country dance."

"They don't match," I objected. "They--they wouldn't look natural, Miss Cobb."

"They don't look natural on you, either. Do you suppose anybody believes that the Lord sent you hair in seventeen rows of pipes, so that, red as it is, it looks like an instantaneous water- heater?"

"I'm not lending them," I said firmly. It would have been like lending an engagement ring, to my mind. Miss Cobb was not offended. She went at once to what had brought her, and bent over the counter.

"Where's the Summers woman?" she asked.

"In the gym. She's made herself a new gym suit out of her polka dotted silk, and she looks lovely."

"Humph!" retorted Miss Cobb. "Minnie, you love Miss Jennings almost like a daughter, don't you?"

"Like a sister, Miss Cobb," I said. "I'm not feeble yet."

"Well, you wouldn't want to see her deceived."

"I wouldn't have it," I answered.

"Then what do you call this?" She put a small package on the counter, and stared at me over it. "There's treachery here, black treachery." She pointed one long thin forefinger at the bundle.

"What is it? A bomb?" I asked, stepping back. More than once it had occurred to me that having royalty around sometimes meant dynamite. Miss Cobb showed her teeth.

"Yes, a bomb," she said. "Minnie, since that creature took my letters and my er--protectors, I have suspected her. Now listen.

Yesterday I went over the letters and I missed one that beautiful one in verse, beginning, `Oh, creature of the slender form and face!' Minnie, it had disappeared--melted away."

"I'm not surprised," I said.

"And so, last night, when the Summers woman was out, goodness knows where, Blanche Moody and I went through her room. We did not find my precious missive from Mr. Jones, but we did find these, Minnie, tied around with a pink silk stocking."

"Heavens!" I said, mockingly. "Not a pink silk!"

"Pink," she repeated solemnly. "Minnie, I have felt it all along. Mr. Oskar von Inwald is the prince himself."

"No!"

"Yes. And more than that, he is making desperate love to Miss Summers. Three of those letters were written in one day! Why, even Mr. Jones--"

"The wretch!" I cried. I was suddenly savage. I wanted to take Mr. von Inwald by the throat and choke him until his lying tongue was black, to put the letters where Miss Patty could never see them. I wanted--I had to stop to sell Senator Biggs some chewing-gum, and when he had gone, Miss Cobb was reaching out for the bundle. I snatched it from her.

"Give me those letters instantly," she cried shrilly. But I marched from behind the counter and over to the fireplace.

"Never," I said, and put the package on the log. When they were safely blazing, I turned and looked at Miss Cobb.

"I'd put my hand right beside those letters to save Miss Patty a heartache," I said, "and you know it."

"You're a fool." She was raging. "You'll let her marry him and have the heartaches afterward."

"She won't marry him," I snapped, and walked away with my chin up, leaving her staring.

But I wasn't so sure as I pretended to be. Mr. von Inwald and Mr. Jennings had been closeted together most of the morning, and Mr. von Inwald was whistling as he started out for the military walk. It seemed as if the very thing that had given Mr. Pierce his chance to make good had improved Mr. Jennings' disposition enough to remove the last barrier to Miss Jennings' wedding with somebody else.

Well, what's one man's meat is another man's poison.