Chapter VII. Mr. Pierce Acquires a Wife
 

Whoever has charge of the spring-house at Hope Springs takes the news stand in the evening. That's an old rule. The news stand includes tobacco and a circulating library, and is close to the office, and if I missed any human nature at the spring I got it there. If you can't tell all about a man by the way he asks for mineral water and drinks it, by the time you've supplied his literature and his tobacco and heard him grumbling over his bill at the office, you've got a line on him and a hook in it.

After I ate my supper I relieved Amanda King, who runs the news stand in the daytime, when she isn't laid off with the toothache.

Mr. Sam was right. All the women had on their puffs, and they were sitting in a half-circle on each side of the door. Mrs. Sam was there, looking frightened and anxious, and standing near the card-room door was Miss Patty. She was all in white, with two red spots on her cheeks, and I thought if her prince could have seen her then he would pretty nearly have eaten her up. Mr. Thoburn was there, of course, pretending to read the paper, but every now and then he looked at his watch, and once he got up and paced off the lobby, putting down the length in his note-book. I didn't need a mind-reader to tell me he was figuring the cost of a new hardwood floor and four new rugs.

Mr. Sam came to the news stand, and he was so nervous he could hardly light a cigarette.

"I've had a message from one of the detectives," he said. "They've traced him to Salem, Ohio, but they lost him there. If we can only hold on this evening--! Look at that first-night audience!"

"Mr. Pierce is due in three minutes," I told him. "I hope you told him to kiss his sister."

"Nothing of the sort," he objected. "Why should he kiss her? Mrs. Van Alstyne is afraid of the whole thing: she won't stand for that."

"I guess she could endure it," I remarked dryly.

"It's astonishing how much of that sort of thing a woman can bear."

He looked at me and grinned.

"By gad," he said, "I wouldn't be as sophisticated as you are for a good deal. Isn't that the sleigh?"

Everybody had heard it. The women sat up and craned forward to look at the door: Mrs. Sam was sitting forward clutching the arms of her chair. She was in white, having laid off her black for that evening, with a red rose pinned on her so Mr. Pierce would know her. Miss Patty heard the sleigh-bells also, and she turned and came toward the door. Her mouth was set hard, and she was twisting the ruby ring as she always did when she was nervous. And at the same moment Mr. Sam and I both saw it; she was in white, too, and she had a red rose tucked in her belt!

Mr. Sam muttered something and rushed at her, but he was too late. Just as he got to her the door opened and in came Mr. Pierce, with Mr. Sam's fur coat turned up around his ears and Mr. Sam's fur cap drawn well down on his head. He stood for an instant blinking in the light, and Mrs. Van Alstyne got up nervously. He never even saw her. His eyes lighted on Miss Patty's face and stayed there. Mr. Sam was there, but what could he do? Mr. Pierce walked over to Miss Patty, took her hand, said, "Hello there!" and kissed her. It was awful.

Most women will do anything to save a scene, and that helped us, for she never turned a hair. But when Mr. Sam got him by the arm and led him toward the stairs, she turned so that the old cats sitting around could not see her and her face was scarlet. She went over to the wood fire--our lobby is a sort of big room with chairs and tables and palms, and an open fire in winter--and sat down. I don't think she knew herself whether she was most astonished or angry.

Mrs. Biggs gave a nasty little laugh.

"Your brother didn't see you," she said to Mrs. Van Alstyne. "I dare say a sister doesn't count much when a future princess is around!"

Mrs. Van Alstyne was still staring up the staircase, but she came to herself at that. She had some grit in her, if she did look like a French doll.

"My brother and Miss Jennings are very old friends," she remarked quietly. I believe that was what she thought, too. I don't think she had seen the other red rose, and what was she to think but that Mr. Pierce had known Miss Jennings somewhere? She was dazed, Mrs. Sam was. But she carried off the situation anyhow, and gave us time to breathe. We needed it.

"If I were his highness," said Miss Cobb, spreading the Irish lace collar she was making over her knee and squinting at it, "I should wish my fiancee to be more er--dignified. Those old Austrian families are very haughty. They would not understand our American habit of osculation."

I was pretty mad at that, for anybody could have seen Miss Patty didn't kiss him.

"If by osculation you mean kissing, Miss Cobb," I said, going over to her, "I guess you don't remember the Austrian count who was a head waiter here. If there was anything in the way of osculation that that member of an old Austrian family didn't know, I've got to find it out. He could kiss all around any American I ever saw!"

I went back to my news stand. I was shaking so my knees would hardly hold me. All I could think of was that they had swallowed Mr. Pierce, bait and hook, and that for a time we were saved, although in the electric light Mr. Pierce was a good bit less like Dicky Carter than he had seemed to be in the spring-house by the fire.

Well, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

Everybody went to bed early. Mr. Thoburn came over and bought a cigar on his way up-stairs, and he was as gloomy as he had been cheerful before.

"Well," I said, "I guess you won't put a dancing floor in the dining-room just yet, Mr. Thoburn."

"I'm not in a hurry," he snapped. "It's only January, and I don't want the place until May. I'll get it when I'm ready for it. I had a good look at young Carter, and he's got too square a jaw to run a successful neurasthenics' home."

I went to the pantry myself at ten o'clock and fixed a tray of supper for Mr. Pierce. He would need all his strength the next day, and a man can't travel far on buttered pop-corn. I found some chicken and got a bottle of the old doctor's wine--I had kept the key of his wine-cellar since he died --and carried the tray up to Mr. Pierce's sitting-room. He had the old doctor's suite.

The door was open an inch or so, and as I was about to knock I heard a girl's voice. It was Miss Patty!

"How can you deny it?" she was saying angrily. "I dare say you will even deny that you ever saw this letter before!"

There was a minute's pause while I suppose he looked at the letter.

"I never did!" he said solemnly.

There had been a queer sound all along, but now I made it out. Some one else was in the room, sniveling and crying.

"My poor lamb!" it whimpered. And I knew it was Mrs. Hutchins, Miss Patty's old nurse.

"Perhaps," said Miss Patty, "you also deny that you were in Ohio the day before yesterday."

"I was in Ohio, but I positively assert--"

"I'll send for the police, that's what I'll do!" Mrs. Hutchins said, with a burst of rage, and her chair creaked. "How can I ever tell your father?"

"You'll do nothing of the sort," said Miss Patty. "Do you want the whole story in the papers? Isn't it awful enough as it is? Mr. Carter, I have asked my question twice now and I am waiting for an answer."

"But I don't know the answer!" he said miserably. "I--I assure you, I'm absolutely in the dark. I don't know what's in the letter. I--I haven't always done what I should, I dare say, but my conduct in the state of Ohio during the last few weeks has been without stain--unless I've forgotten--but if it had been anything very heinous, I'd remember, don't you think?"

Somebody crossed the room, and a paper rustled.

"Read that!" said Miss Patty's voice. And then silence for a minute.

"Good lord!" exclaimed Mr. Pierce.

"Do you deny that?"

"Absolutely!" he said firmly. "I--I have never even heard of the Reverend Dwight Johnstone--"

There was a scream from Mrs. Hutchins, and a creak as she fell into her chair again.

"Your father!" she said, over and over. "What can we say to your father?"

"And that is all you will say?" demanded Miss Patty scornfully. "`You don't know;' `there's a mistake;' `you never saw the letter before!' Oh, if I were only a man!"

"I'll tell you what we'll do," Mr. Pierce said, with something like hope in his voice. "We'll send for Mr. Van Alstyne! That's the thing, of course. I'll send for--er--Jim."

Mr. Van Alstyne's name is Sam, but nobody noticed.

"Mr. Van Alstyne!" repeated Miss Patty in a dazed way.

I guessed it was about time to make a diversion, so I knocked and walked in with the tray, and they all glared at me. Mrs. Hutchins was collapsed in a chair, holding a wet handkerchief to her eyes, and one side of her cap was loose and hanging down. Miss Patty was standing by a table, white and angry, and Mr. Pierce was about a yard from her, with the letter in his hands. But he was looking at her.

"I've brought your supper, Mr. Carter," I began. Then I stopped and stared at Miss Patty and Mrs. Hutchins. "Oh," I said.

"Thank you," said Mr. Pierce, very uncomfortable. "Just put it down anywhere."

I stalked across the room and put it on the table. Then I turned and looked at Mrs. Hutchins.

"I'm sorry," I said, "but it's one of the rules of this house that guests don't come to these rooms. They're strictly private. It isn't my rule, ladies, but if you will step down to the parlor--"

Mrs. Hutchins' face turned purple. She got up in a hurry.

"I'm here with Miss Jennings on a purely personal matter," she said furiously. "How dare you turn us out?"

"Nonsense, Minnie!" said Miss Patty. "I'll go when I'm ready."

"Rule of the house," I remarked, and going over to the door I stood holding it open. There wasn't any such rule, but I had to get them out; they had Mr. Pierce driven into a corner and yelling for help.

"There is no such rule and you know it, Minnie!" Miss Patty said angrily. "Come, Nana! We're not learning anything, and there's nothing to be done until morning, anyhow. My head's whirling."

Mrs. Hutchins went out first.

"The first thing I'D do if I owned this place, I'd get rid of that red-haired girl," she snapped to Mr. Pierce. "If you want to know why there are fewer guests here every year, I'll tell you. She's the reason!" Then she flounced out with her head up.

(That was pure piffle. The real reason, as every thinking person knows, is Christian Science. It's cheaper and more handy. And now that it isn't heresy to say it, the spring being floored over, I reckon that most mineral springs cure by suggestion. Also, of course, if a man's drinking four gallons of lithia water a day, he's so saturated that if he does throw in anything alcoholic or indigestible, it's too busy swimming for its life to do any harm.)

Mr. Pierce took a quick step toward Miss Patty and looked down at her.

"About--what happened down-stairs to-night," he stammered, with the unhappiest face I ever saw on a man, "I--I've been ready to knock my fool head off ever since. It was a mistake--a--"

"My letter, please," said Miss Patty coolly, looking back at him without a blink.

"Please don't look like that!" he begged. "I came in suddenly out of the darkness, and you--"

"My letter, please!" she said again, raising her eyebrows.

He gave up trying then. He held out the letter and she took it and went out with her head up and scorn in the very way she trailed her skirt over the door-sill. But I'm no fool; it didn't need the way he touched the door-knob where she had been holding it, when he closed the door after her, to tell me what ailed him.

He was crazy about her from the minute he saw her, and he hadn't a change of linen or a cent to his name. And she, as you might say, on the ragged edge of royalty, with queens and princes sending her stomachers and tiaras until she'd hardly need clothes! Well, a cat may look at a king.

He went over to the fireplace, where I was putting his coffee to keep it hot, and looked down at me.

"I've a suspicion, Minnie," he said, "that, to use a vulgar expression, I've bitten off more than I can chew in this little undertaking, and that I'm in imminent danger of choking to death.

Do you know anybody, a friend of Miss er--Jennings, named Dorothy?"

"She's got a younger sister of that name," I said, with a sort of chill going over me. "She's in boarding-school now."

"Oh, no, she's not!" he remarked, picking up the coffee-pot. "It seems that I met her on the train somewhere or other the day before yesterday, and ran off with her and married her!"

I sat back on the rug speechless.

"You should have warned me, Minnie," he went on, growing more cheerful over his chicken and coffee. "I came up here to-night, the proud possessor of a bunch of keys, a patent folding cork- screw and a pocket, automobile road map. Inside two hours I have a sanatorium and a wife. At this rate, Minnie, before morning I may reasonably hope to have a family."

I sat where I was on the floor and stared into the fire. Don't tell me the way of the wicked is hard; the wicked get all the fun there is out of life, and as far as I can see, it's the respectable "in at ten o'clock and up at seven" part of the wicked's family that has all the trouble and does the worrying.

"If we could only keep it hidden for a few days!" I said. "But, of course, the papers will get it, and just now, with columns every day about Miss Patty's clothes--"

"Her what?"

"And all the princes of the blood sending presents, and the king not favoring it very much--"

"What are you talking about?"

"About Miss Jennings' wedding. Don't you read the newspaper?"

He hadn't really known who she was up to that minute. He put down the tray and got up.

"I--I hadn't connected her with the--the newspaper Miss Jennings," he said, and lighted a cigarette over the lamp. Something in his face startled me, I must say.

"You're not going to give up now?" I asked. I got up and put my hand on his arm, and I think he was shaking. "If you do, I'll-- I'll go out and drown myself, head down, in the spring."

He had been going to run away--I saw it then--but he put a hand over mine. Then he looked at the door where Miss Patty had gone out and gave himself a shake.

"I'll stay," he said. "We'll fight it out on this line if it takes all summer, Minnie." He stood looking into the fire, and although I'm not fond of men, knowing, as I have explained, a great deal about their stomachs and livers and very little about their hearts, there was something about Mr. Pierce that made me want to go up and pat him on the head like a little boy. "After all," he said, "what's blue blood to good red blood?"

Which was almost what the bishop had said!