Chapter XXIX. A Big Night To-night
 

I carried out the supper to the shelter-house as usual that night, but I might have saved myself the trouble. Mrs. Dicky was sitting on a box, with her hair in puffs and the folding card- table before her, and Mr. Dick was uncorking a bottle of champagne with a nail. There were two or three queer-smelling cans open on the table.

Mrs. Dick looked at my basket and turned up her nose.

"Put it anywhere, Minnie," she said loftily, "I dare say it doesn't contain anything reckless."

"Cold ham and egg salad," I said, setting it down with a slam. "Stewed prunes and boiled rice for dessert. If those cans taste as they smell, you'd better keep the basket to fall back on. Where'd you get that?" Mr. Dick looked at me over the bottle and winked. "In the next room," he said, "iced to the proper temperature, paid for by somebody else, and coming after a two-weeks' drought! Minnie, there isn't a shadow on my joy!"

"He'll miss it," I said. But Mr. Dick was pouring out three large tumblersful of the stuff, and he held one out to me.

"Miss it!" he exclaimed. "Hasn't he been out three times to-day, tapping his little cache? And didn't he bring out Moody and the senator and von Inwald this afternoon, and didn't they sit in the next room there from two to four, roaring songs and cracking bottles and jokes."

"Beasts!" Mrs. Dicky said savagely. "Two hours, and we daren't move!"

"Drink, pretty creature!" Mr. Dick said, motioning to my glass. "Don't be afraid of it, Minnie; it's food and drink."

"I don't like it," I said, sipping at it. "I'd rather have the spring water."

"You'll have to cultivate a taste for it," he explained. "You'll like the second half better."

I got it down somehow and started for the door. Mr. Dick came after me with something that smelled fishy on the end of a fork.

"Better eat something," he suggested. "That was considerable champagne, Minnie."

"Stuff and nonsense," I said. "I was tired and it has rested me.

That's all, Mr. Dick."

"Sure?"

"Certainly," I said with dignity, "I'm really rested, Mr. Dick. And happy--I'm very happy, Mr. Dick."

"Perhaps I'd better close the door," he said. "The light may be seen--"

"You needn't close it until I've finished talking," I said. "I've done my best for you and yours, Mr. Dick. I hope you appreciate it. Night after night I've tramped out here through the snow, and lost sleep, and lied myself black in the face-- you've no idea how I've had to lie, Mr. Dick."

"Come in and shut the door, Dick," Mrs. Dick called, "I'm freezing."

That made me mad.

"Exactly," I said, glaring at her through the doorway. "Exactly--I can wade through the snow, bringing you meals that you scorn--oh, yes, you scorn them. What did you do to the basket tonight? Look at it, lying there, neglected in a corner, with p--perfectly good ham and stewed fruit in it."

All of a sudden I felt terrible about the way they had treated the basket, and I sat down on the steps and began to cry. I remember that, and Mr. Dick sitting down beside me and putting his arm around me and calling me "good old Minnie," and for heaven's sake not to cry so loud. But I was past caring. I had a sort of recollection of his getting me to stand up, and our walking through about twenty-one miles of snow to the spring- house. When we got there he stood off in the twilight and looked at me.

"I'm sorry, Minnie," he said, "I never dreamed it would do that."

"Do what?"

"Nothing. You're sure you won't forget?"

"I never forget," I said. I had got up the steps by this time and was trying to figure why the spring-house door had two knobs.

I hadn't any idea what he meant.

"Remember," he said, very slowly, "Thoburn is going to have his party to-night instead of to-morrow. Tell Pierce that. To- night, not to-morrow." I was pretty well ashamed when I got in the spring-house and sat down in the dark. I kept saying over and over to myself, so I'd not forget, "tonight, not to-morrow," but I couldn't remember what was to be to-night. I was sleepy, too, and my legs were cold and numb. I remember going into the pantry for a steamer rug, and sitting down there for a minute, with the rug around my knees before I started to the house. And that is all I do remember.

I was wakened by a terrible hammering in the top of my head. I reached out for the glass of water that I always put beside my bed at night and I touched a door-knob instead. Then I realized that the knocking wasn't all in my head. There was a sort of steady movement of feet on the other side of the door, with people talking and laughing. And above it all rose the steady knock--knock of somebody beating on tin.

"Can't do it." It was the bishop's voice. "I am convinced that nothing but dynamite will open this tin of lobster."

"Just a moment, Bishop," Mr. Thoburn's voice and the clink of bottles, "I have a can opener somewhere. You'll find the sauce a la Newburg--"

"Here, somebody, a glass, quick! A bottle's broken!"

"Did anybody remember to bring salt and pepper?"

"Dear Mr. Thoburn!" It sounded like Miss Cobb. "Think of thinking of all this!"

"The credit is not mine, dear lady," Mr. Thoburn said. "Where the deuce is that corkscrew? No, dear lady, man makes his own destiny, but his birth date remains beyond his control."

"Ladies and gentlemen," somebody said, "to Mr. Thoburn's birthday being beyond his control!"

There was the clink of glasses, but I had remembered what it had been that I was to remember. And now it was too late. I was trapped in the pantry of my spring-house and Mr. Pierce was probably asleep. I clutched my aching head and tried to think. I was roused by hearing somebody say that Miss Jennings had no glass, and by steps nearing the pantry. I had just time to slip the bolt.

"Pantry's locked !" said a voice.

"Drat that Minnie!" somebody else said. "The girl's a nuisance."

"Hush!" Miss Summers said. "She's probably in there now--taking down what we say and what we eat. Convicting us out of our own mouths."

I held my breath and the knob rattled. Then they found a glass for Miss Patty and forgot the pantry.

Under cover of the next burst of noises I tried the pantry window, but it was frozen shut. Nothing but a hammer would have loosened it. I began to dig at it with a wire hairpin, but I hadn't much hope.

The fun in the spring-house was getting fast and furious. Miss Summers was leaning against the pantry door and I judged that most of the men in the room were around her, as usual. I put my ear to the panel of the door, and I could pretty nearly see what was going on. They were toasting Mr. Thoburn, and getting hungrier every minute as the supper was put out on the card- tables.

"To the bottle!" somebody said. "In infancy, the milk bottle; in our prime, the wine bottle; in our dotage, the pill bottle."

Mr. von Inwald came over and stood beside Miss Summers, and I could hear every whisper.

"I have good news for you," she said in an undertone.

"Oh! And what?"

"Sh! You may recall," she said, "the series of notes, letters, epistles, with which you have been honoring me lately?"

"How could I forget? They were written in my heart's blood!"

"Indeed!" Her voice lifted its eyebrows, so to speak. "Well, somebody got in my room last night and stole I dare say a pint of your heart's blood. They're gone."

He was pretty well upset, as he might be, and she stood by and listened to the things he said, which, if they were as bad in English as they sounded in German, I wouldn't like to write down.

And when he cooled down and condensed, as you may say, into English, he said Miss Jennings must have seen the letters, for she would hardly speak to him. And Miss Summers said she hoped Miss Jennings had--she was too nice a girl to treat shamefully.

And after he had left her there alone, I heard a sort of scratching on the door behind Miss Summers' back, and then something being shoved under the door. I stooped down and picked it up. It was a key!

I struck a match, and I saw by the tag that it was the one to the old doctor's rooms. I knew right off what it meant. Mr. Pierce had gone to bed, or pretended to throw them off the track and Thoburn had locked him in! Thoburn hadn't taken any chances. He knew the influence Mr. Pierce had over them all, and he and his champagne and tin cans had to get in their work before Mr. Pierce had another chance at them.

I had no time to wonder how Miss Summers knew I was in the pantry. I tried the window again, but it wouldn't work. Somebody in the spring-house was shouting, "`Hot butter blue beans, please come to supper!'" and I could hear them crowding around the tables. I worked frantically with the hairpin, and just then two shadowy figures outside slipped around the corner of the building. It was Mr. Pierce and Doctor Barnes!

I darted back and put my ear to the door, but they did not come in at once. Mr, Thoburn made a speech, saying how happy he was that they were all well and able to go back to civilization again, where the broiled lobster flourished like a green bay tree and the prune and the cabbage were unknown.

There was loud applause, and then Senator Biggs cleared his throat.

"Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished fellow guests," he began, "I suggest a toast to the autocrat of Hope Springs. It is the only blot on the evening, that, owing to the exigencies of the occasion, he can not be with us. Securely fastened in his room, he is now sleeping the sleep that follows a stomach attuned to prunes, a mind attuned to rule."

"Eat, drink and be merry!" somebody said, "for to-morrow you diet!"

There was a swish and rustle, as if a woman got up in a hurry.

"Do you mean," said Miss Patty's clear voice, "that you have dared to lock Mr. Pier--Mr. Carter in his room?"

"My dear young lady," several of them began, but she didn't give them time.

"It is outrageous, infamous!" she stormed. I didn't need to see her to know how she looked.

"How dare you! Suppose the building should catch fire!"

"Fire!" somebody said in a bewildered voice. "My dear young lady--"

"Don't `my dear young lady' me," she said angrily. "Father, Bishop, will you stand for this? Why, he may jump out the window and hurt himself! Give me the key!"

Miss Julia's fingers were beating a tatoo behind her, as if she was afraid I might miss it.

"If he jumps out he probably will hurt himself. It is impossible to release him now, Miss Jennings, but if you insist we can have a mattress placed under the window."

"Thanks, Thoburn. It won't be necessary." The voice came from the door, and a hush fell on the party. I slipped my bolt and peeped out. Framed in the doorway was Mr. Pierce, with Doctor Barnes looking over his shoulder.

The people in the spring-house were abject. That's the only word for it. Craven, somebody suggested later, and they were that, too. They smiled sickly grins and tried to be defiant, and most of them tried to put down whatever they held in their hands and to look innocent. If you ever saw a boy when his school- teacher asks him what he has in his mouth, and multiply the boy thirty times in number and four times in size, you'll know how they looked.

Mr. Pierce never smiled. He wouldn't let them speak a word in defense or explanation. He simply lined them up as he did at gym, and sent them, one by one, to the corner with whatever they had in their hands. He made Mr. Jennings give up a bottle of anchovies that he'd stuffed in his pocket, and the bishop had to come over with a cheese.

And when it was all over, he held the door open and they went back to the house. They fairly ducked past him in the doorway, although he hadn't said a dozen words. It was a rout. The backbone of the rebellion was broken. I knew that never again would the military discipline of Hope Springs be threatened. Thoburn might as well pack and go. It was Mr. Pierce's day.

Mr. von Inwald was almost the last. He stood by, sneering, with an open bottle of olives in his hand, watching the others go out.

Mr. Pierce held the door open and eyed him.

"I'll trouble you to put that bottle with the others, in the corner," Mr. Pierce said sternly.

They stood glaring at each other angrily.

"And if I refuse?"

"You know the rules here. If you refuse, there is a hotel at Finleyville."

Mr. von Inwald glanced past Mr. Pierce to where Doctor Barnes stood behind him, with his cauliflower ear and his pugilist's shoulders. Then he looked at the bottle in his hand, and from it to Miss Patty, standing haughtily by.

"I have borne much for you, Patricia," he said, "but I refuse to be bullied any longer. I shall go to the hotel at Finleyville, and I shall take the little olives with me." He smiled unpleasantly at Mr. Pierce, whose face did not relax.

He walked jauntily to the door and turned, flourishing the bottle. "The land of the free and the home of the brave!" he sneered, raising the bottle in the air. Standing jeering in the doorway, he bowed to Miss Patty and Mr. Pierce, and put an olive into his mouth.

But instantly he made a terrible face, and clapped a hand just in front of his left ear. He stood there a moment, his face distorted--then he darted into the night, and I never saw him again.

"Mumps!" Doctor Barnes ejaculated, and stood staring after him from the steps.