Chapter V. Wanted--An Owner
 

I have never reproached Miss Patty, but if she had only given me the letter to read or had told me the whole truth instead of a part of it, I would have understood, and things would all have been different. It is all very well for her to say that I looked worried enough already, and that anyhow it was a family affair. I should have been told.

All she did was to come up to me as I stood in the spring, with her face perfectly white, and ask me if my Dicky Carter was the Richard Carter who stayed at the Grosvenor in town.

"He doesn't stay anywhere," I said, with my feet getting cold, "but that's where he has apartments. What has he been doing now?"

"You're expecting him on the evening train, aren't you?" she asked. "Don't stare like that: my father's watching."

"He ought to be on the evening train," I said. I wasn't going to say I expected him. I didn't.

"Listen, Minnie," she said, "you'll have to send him away again the moment he comes. He must not go into the house."

I stood looking at her, with my mouth open.

"Not go into the house," I repeated, "with everybody waiting for him for the last six days, and Mr. Stitt here to turn things over to him!"

She stood tapping her foot, with her pretty brows knitted.

"The wretch!" she cried, "the hateful creature as if things weren't bad enough! I suppose he'll have to come, Minnie, but I must see him before he sees any one else."

Just then the bishop brought his glass over to the spring.

"Hot this time, Minnie," he said. "Do you know, I'm getting the mineral-water habit, Patty! I'm afraid plain water will have no attraction for me after this."

He put his hand over hers on the rail. They were old friends, the bishop and the Jenningses.

"Well, how goes it to-day with the father?" he said in a low tone, and smiling.

Miss Patty shrugged her shoulders. "Worse, if possible."

"I thought so," he said cheerfully. "If state of mind is any criterion I should think he has had a relapse. A little salt, Minnie." Miss Patty stood watching him while he tasted it.

"Bishop," she said suddenly, "will you do something for me?"

"I always have, Patty." He was very fond of Miss Patty, was the bishop.

"Then--to-night, not later than eight o'clock, get father to play cribbage, will you? And keep him in the card-room until nine."

"Another escapade!" he said, pretending to be very serious. "Patty, Patty, you'll be the death of me yet. Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?"

"Certainly not," said Miss Patty. "Just a dear, slightly bald, but still very distinguished slave!"

The bishop picked up her left hand and looked at the ring and from that to her face.

"There will be plenty of slaves to kiss this little hand, where you are going, my child," he said. "Sometimes I wish that some nice red-blooded boy here at home--but I dare say it will turn out surprisingly well as it is."

"Bishop, Bishop!" Mrs. Moody called. "How naughty of you, and with your bridge hand waiting to be held!"

He carried his glass back to the table, stopping for a moment beside Mr. Jennings.

"If Patty becomes any more beautiful," he said, "I shall be in favor of having her wear a mask. How are we young men to protect ourselves?"

"Pretty is as pretty does!" declared Mr. Jennings from behind his newspaper, and Miss Patty went out with her chin up.

Well, I knew Mr. Dick had been up to some mischief; I had suspected it all along. But Miss Patty went to bed, and old Mrs. Hutchins, who's a sort of lady's-maid-companion of hers, said she mustn't be disturbed. I was pretty nearly sick myself. And when Mr. Sam came out at five o'clock and said he'd been in the long- distance telephone booth for an hour and had called everybody who had ever known Mr. Dick, and that he had dropped right off the earth, I just about gave up. He had got some detectives, he said, and there was some sort of a story about his having kept right on the train to Salem, Ohio, but if he had they'd lost the trail there, and anyhow, with the railroad service tied up by the storm there wasn't much chance of his getting to Finleyville in time.

Luckily Mr. Stitt was in bed with a mustard leaf over his stomach and ice on his head, and didn't know whether it was night or morning. But Thoburn was going around with a watch in his hand, and Mr. Sam was for killing him and burying the body in the snow.

At half past five I just about gave up. I was sitting in front of the fire wondering why I'd taken influenza the spring before from getting my feet wet in a shower, when I had been standing in a mineral spring for so many years that it's a wonder I'm not web-footed. It was when I had influenza that the old doctor made the will, you remember. Maybe I was crying, I don't recall.

It was dark outside, and nothing inside but firelight. Suddenly I seemed to feel somebody looking at the back of my neck and I turned around. There was a man standing outside one of the windows, staring in.

My first thought, of course, was that it was Mr. Dick, but just as the face vanished I saw that it wasn't. It was older by three or four years than Mr. Dick's and a bit fuller.

I'm not nervous. I've had to hold my own against chronic grouches too long to have nerves, so I went to the door and looked out. The man came around the corner just then and I could see him plainly in the firelight. He was covered with snow, and he wore a sweater and no overcoat, but he looked like a gentleman.

"I beg your pardon for spying," he said, "but the fire looked so snug! I've been trying to get to the hotel over there, but in the dark I've lost the path."

"That's not a hotel," I snapped, for that touched me on the raw. "That's Hope Springs Sanatorium, and this is one of the Springs."

"Oh, Hope Springs, internal instead of eternal!" he said. "That's awfully bad, isn't it? To tell you the truth, I think I'd better come in and get some; I'm short on hope just now."

I thought that was likely enough, for although his voice was cheerful and his eyes smiled, there was a drawn look around his mouth, and he hadn't shaved that day. I wish I had had as much experience in learning what's right with folks as I have had in learning what's wrong with them.

"You'd better come in and get warm, anyhow," I told him, "only don't spring any more gags. I've been `Hebe' for fourteen years and I've served all the fancy drinks you can name over the brass railing of that spring. Nowadays, when a fellow gets smart and asks for a Mamie Taylor, I charge him a Mamie Taylor price."

He shut the door behind him and came over to the fire.

"I'm pretty well frozen," he said. "Don't be astonished if I melt before your eyes; I've been walking for hours."

Now that I had a better chance to see him I'd sized up that drawn look around his mouth.

"Missed your luncheon, I suppose," I said, poking the fire log. He grinned rather sheepishly.

"Well, I haven't had any, and I've certainly missed it," he said.

"Fasting's healthy, you know."

I thought of Senator Biggs, who carried enough fat to nourish him for months, and then I looked at my visitor, who hadn't an ounce of extra flesh on him.

"Nothing's healthy that isn't natural," I declared. "If you'd care for a dish of buttered and salted pop-corn, there's some on the mantel. It's pretty salty; the idea is to make folks thirsty so they'll enjoy the mineral water."

"Think of raising a real thirst only to drown it with spring water!" he said. But he got the pop corn and he ate it all. If he hadn't had any luncheon he hadn't had much breakfast. The queer part was--he was a gentleman; his clothes were the right sort, but he had on patent leather shoes in all that snow and an automobile cap.

I put away the glasses while he ate. Pretty soon he looked up and the drawn lines were gone. He wasn't like Mr. Dick, but he was the same type, only taller and heavier built.

"And so it isn't a hotel," he remarked. "Well, I'm sorry. The caravansary in the village is not to my liking, and I had thought of engaging a suite up here. My secretary usually attends to these things, but--don't take away all the glasses, Heb--I beg your pardon--but the thirst is coming."

He filled the glass himself and then he came up and stood in front of me, with the glass held up in the air.

"To the best woman I have met in many days," he said, not mocking but serious. "I was about to lie down and let the little birds cover me with leaves." Then he glanced at the empty dish and smiled. "To buttered pop-corn! Long may it wave!" he said, and emptied the glass.

Well, I found a couple of apples in my pantry and brought them out, and after he ate them he told me what had happened to him. He had been a little of everything since he left college he was about twenty-five had crossed the Atlantic in a catboat and gone with somebody or other into some part of Africa--they got lost and had to eat each other or lizards, or something like that--and then he went to the Philippines, and got stuck there and had to sell books to get home. He had a little money, "enough for a grub-stake," he said, and all his folks were dead. Then a college friend of his wrote a rural play called Sweet Peas-- "Great title, don't you think?" he asked--and he put up all the money. It would have been a hit, he said, but the kid in the play--the one that unites its parents in the last act just before he dies of tuberculosis--the kid took the mumps and looked as if, instead of fading away, he was going to blow up. Everybody was so afraid of him that they let him die alone for three nights in the middle of the stage. Then the leading woman took the mumps, and the sheriff took everything else.

"You city folks seem to know so much," I said, "and yet you bring a country play to the country! Why don't you bring out a play with women in low-necked gowns, and champagne suppers, and a scandal or two? They packed Pike's Opera-House three years ago with a play called Why Women Sin."

Well, of course, the thing failed, and he lost every dollar he'd put into it, which was all he had, including what he had in his pockets.

"They seized my trunks," he explained, "and I sold my fur-lined overcoat for eight dollars, which took one of the girls back home. It's hard for the women. A fellow can always get some sort of a job--I was coming up here to see if they needed an extra clerk or a waiter, or chauffeur, or anything that meant a roof and something to eat--but I suppose they don't need a jack-of-all-trades."

"No," I answered, "but I'll tell you what I think they're going to need. And that's an owner!"