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CHAPTER XXIV

LIKE DUCKS TO WATER

They took to it like ducks take to water. Not, of course, that
they didn't kick about making their own beds and having military
discipline generally. They complained a lot, but when after
three days went by with the railroad running as much on schedule
as it ever does, they were all still there, and Mr. Jennings had
limped out and spent a half-hour at the wood-pile with his gouty
foot on a cushion, I saw it was a success.

I ought to have been glad. I was, although when Mrs. Dicky found
they were all staying, and that she might have to live in the
shelter-house the rest of the winter, there was an awful scene.
I was glad, too, every time I could see Mr. Thoburn's gloomy
face, or hear the things he said when his name went up for the
military walk.

(Oh yes, we had a blackboard in the hall, and every morning each
guest looked to see if it was wood-pile day or
military-walk day. At first, instead of wood-pile, it was walk-
clearing day, but they soon had the snow off all the paths.)

As I say, I was glad. It looked as if the new idea was a
success, although as Doctor Barnes said, nobody could really tell
until new people began to come. That was the real test. They
had turned the baths into a gymnasium and they had beginners'
classes and advanced classes, and a prize offered on the
blackboard of a cigar for the man who made the most muscular
improvement in a week. The bishop won it the first week, being
the only one who could lie on his back and raise himself to a
sitting position without helping himself with his hands. As Mrs.
Moody said, it would be easy enough if somebody only sat on one's
feet to hold them down.

But I must say I never got over the shock of seeing the spring-
house drifted with snow, all the windows wide open, the spring
frozen hard, and people sitting there during the rest hour, in
furs and steamer rugs, trying to play cards with mittens on--
their hands, not the cards, of course--and not wrangling. I was
lonesome for it!

I hadn't much to do, except from two to four to be at the
spring-house, and to count for the deep-breathing exercise. Oh,
yes, we had that, too! I rang a bell every half-hour and
everybody got up, and I counted slowly "one" and they breathed in
through their noses, and "two" and they exhaled quickly through
their mouths. I guess most of them used more of their lungs than
they ever knew they had.

Well, everybody looked better and felt better, although they
wouldn't all acknowledge it. Miss Cobb suffered most, not having
the fire log to curl her hair with. But as she said herself,
between gymnasium and military walks, and the silence hour, and
eating, which took a long time, everybody being hungry--and going
to bed at nine, she didn't see how she could have worried with
it, anyhow. The fat ones, of course, objected to an apple and a
cup of hot water for breakfast, but except Mr. Thoburn, they all
realized it was for the best. He wasn't there for his health, he
said, having never had a sick day in his life, but when he saw it
was apple and hot water or leave, he did like Adam--he took the
apple.

The strange thing of all was the way they began to look up
to Mr. Pierce. He was very strict; if he made a rule, it was
obey or leave. (As they knew after Mr. Moody refused to take the
military walk, and was presented with his bill and a railroad
schedule within an hour. He had to take the military walk with
Doctor Barnes that afternoon alone.) They had to respect a man
who could do all the things in the gymnasium that they couldn't,
and come in from a ten or fifteen-mile tramp through the snow and
take a cold plunge and a swim to rest himself.

It was on Monday that we really got things started, and on Monday
afternoon Miss Summers came out to the shelter-house in a
towering rage.

"Where's Mr. Pierce?" she demanded.

"I guess you can see he isn't here," I said.

"Just wait until I see him!" she announced. "Do you know that I
am down on the blackboard for the military walk to-day?

"Why not?"

She turned and glared at me. "Why not?" she repeated. "Why, the
audacity of the wretch! He brings me out into the country in
winter to play in his atrocious play, strands me, and then tells
me to walk twenty miles a day and smile over it!" She came
over to me and shook my arm. "Not only that," she said, "but he
has cut out my cigarettes and put Arabella on dog biscuit--
Arabella, who can hardly eat a chicken wing."

"Well, there's something to be thankful for," I said. "He didn't
put you on dog biscuit."

She laughed then, with one of her quick changes of humor.

"The worst of it is," she said, in a confidential whisper, "I'll
do it. I feel it. I guess if the truth were known I'm some
older than he is, but--I'm afraid of him, Minnie. Little Judy is
ready to crawl around and speak for a cracker or a kind word.
Oh, I'm not in love with him, but he's got the courage to say
what he means and do what he says."

She went to the door and looked back smiling.

"I'm off for the wood-pile," she called back. "And I've promised
to chop two inches off my heels."

As I say, they took to it like ducks to water--except two of
them, von Inwald and Thoburn. Mr. von Inwald stayed on, I hardly
know why, but I guess it was because Mr. Jennings still
hadn't done anything final about settlements, and with the
newspapers marrying him every day it wasn't very comfortable.
Next to him, Mr. Thoburn was the unhappiest mortal I have ever
seen. He wouldn't leave, and with Doctor Barnes carrying out his
threat to take six inches off his waist, he stopped measuring
window-frames with a tape line and took to measuring himself.

I came across him on Wednesday--the third day--straggling home
from the military walk. He and Mr. von Inwald limped across the
tennis-court and collapsed on the steps of the spring-house while
the others went on to the sanatorium. I had been brushing the
porch, and I leaned on my broom and looked at them.

"You're both looking a lot better," I said. "Not so--well, not
so beer-y. How do you like it by this time?"

"Fine!" answered Mr. Thoburn. "Wouldn't stay if I didn't like
it."

"Wouldn't you?"

"But I'll tell you this, Minnie," he said, changing his position
with a groan to look up at me, "somebody ought to warn that
young man. Human nature can stand a lot but it can't stand
everything. He's overdoing it!"

"They like it," I said.

"They think they do," he retorted. "Mark my words, Minnie, if he
adds another mile to the walk to-morrow there will be a mutiny.
Kingdoms may be lost by an extra blister on a heel."

Mr. von Inwald had been sitting with his feet straight out,
scowling, but now he turned and looked at me coolly.

"All that keeps me here," he said, "is Minnie's lovely hair. It
takes me mentally back home, Minnie, to a lovely lady--may I have
a bit of it to keep by me?"

"You may not," I retorted angrily.

"Oh! The lovely lady--but never mind that. For the sake of my
love for you, Minnie, find me a cigarette, like a good girl! I
am desolate."

"There's no tobacco on the place," I said firmly, and went on
with my sweeping.

"When I was a boy," Mr. Thoburn remarked, looking out
thoughtfully over the snow, "we made a sort of cigarette out of
corn-silk. You don't happen to have any corn-silk about, do
you, Minnie?"

"No," I said shortly. "If you take my advice, Mr. Thoburn,
you'll go back to town. You can get all the tobacco you want
there--and you're wasting your time here." I leaned on my broom
and looked down at him, but he was stretching out his foot and
painfully working his ankle up and down.

"Am I?" he asked, looking at his foot. "Well, don't count on it
too much, Minnie. You always inspire me, and sitting here I've
just thought of something."

He got up and hobbled off the porch, followed by Mr. von Inwald.
I saw him say something to Mr. von Inwald, who threw back his
head and laughed. Then I saw them stop and shake hands and go on
again in deep conversation. I felt uneasy.


Doctor Barnes came out that afternoon and watched me while I
closed the windows. He had a package in his hand. He sat on the
railing of the spring and looked at me.

"You're not warmly enough dressed for this kind of thing,"
he remarked. "Where's that gray rabbits' fur, or whatever it
is?"

"If you mean my chinchillas," I said, "they're in their box.
Chinchillas are as delicate as babies and not near so plentiful.
I'm warm enough."

"You look it." He reached over and caught one of my hands. "Look
at that! Blue nails! It's about four degrees above zero here,
and while the rest are wrapped in furs and steamer rugs, with
hotwater bottles at their feet, you've got on a shawl. I'll bet
you two dollars you haven't got on any--er--winter flannels."

"I never bet," I retorted, and went on folding up the steamer
rugs.

"I'd like to help," he said, "but you're so darned capable, Miss
Minnie--"

"You might see if you can get the slot-machine empty," I said.
"It's full of water. It wouldn't work and Mr. Moody thought it
was frozen. He's been carrying out boiling water all afternoon.
If it stays in there and freezes the thing will explode."

He wasn't listening. He'd been fussing with his package and now
he opened it and handed it to me, in the paper.

"It's a sweater," he said, not looking at me. "I bought it for
myself and it was too small-- Confound it, Minnie, I wish I
could lie! I bought them for you! There's the whole business--
sweater, cap, leggings and mittens. Go on! Throw them at me!"

But I didn't. I looked at them, all white and soft, and it came
over me suddenly how kind people had been lately, and how much
I'd been getting--the old doctor's waistcoat buttons and Miss
Pat's furs, and now this! I just buried my face in them and
cried.

Doctor Barnes stood by and said nothing. Some men wouldn't have
understood, but he did. After a minute or so he came over and
pulled the sweater out from the bundle.

"I'm glad you like 'em," he said, "but as I bought them at
Hubbard's, in Finleyville, and as the old liar guaranteed they
wouldn't shrink, we'd better not cry on 'em."

Well, I put them on and I was warmer and happier than I had been
for some time. But that night when I went out to the shelter-
house with the supper basket I found both the honeymooners in a
wild state of excitement. They said that about five o'clock
Thoburn had gone out to the shelter-house and walked all around
it. Finally he had stopped at one of the windows of the other
room, had worked at it with his penknife and got it open, and
crawled through. They sat paralyzed with fright, and heard him
moving around the other room, and he even tried their door. But
it had been locked. They hadn't the slightest idea what he was
doing, but after perhaps ten minutes he went away, going out the
door this time and taking the key with him.

Mr. Dick had gone in when he was safely gone, but he could see
nothing unusual, except that the door of the cupboard in the
corner was standing open and there was a brand-new, folding, foot
rule in it.

That day the bar was closed for good, and there was a good bit of
fussing. To add to the trouble, that evening at dinner the
pastries were cut off, and at eight o'clock a delegation headed
by Senator Biggs visited Mr. Pierce in the office and demanded
pastry put back on the menu and the stewed fruit taken off. But
Mr. Pierce was firm and they came out pretty well subdued.
It was that night, I think, that candles were put in the
bedrooms, and all the electric lights were turned off at nine-
thirty.

At ten o'clock I took my candle and went to Mr. Pierce's sitting-
room door. I didn't think they'd stand much more and I wanted to
tell him so. Nobody answered and I opened the door. He was
asleep, face down on the hearth-rug in front of the fire. His
candle was lighted on the floor beside him and near it lay a
newspaper cutting crumpled in a ball. I picked it up. It was a
list of the bridal party for Miss Patty's wedding.

I dropped it where I found it and went out and knocked again
loudly. He wakened after a minute and came to the door with the
candle in his hand.

"Oh, it's you, Minnie. Come in!"

I went in and put my candle on the table.

"I've got to talk to you," I said. "I don't mind admitting
things have been going pretty well, but--they won't stand for the
candles. You mark my words."

"If they'll stand for the bar being closed, why not the candles?"
he demanded.

"Well," I said, "they can't have electric light sent up in
boxes and labeled `books,' but they can get liquor that way."

He whistled, and then he laughed.

"Then we'll not have any books," he said. "I guess they can
manage. `My only books were woman's looks--'" and then he saw
the ball of paper on the floor and his expression changed. He
walked over and picked it up, smoothing it out on the palm of his
hand.

After a minute he looked up at me.

"I haven't been to the shelter-house to-day. They are all
right?"

"They're nervous. With everybody walking these days they daren't
venture a nose out of doors."

He was still holding the clipping.

"And--Miss Jennings!" he said. "She--I think she looks better."

"Her father's in a better humor for one thing--says Abraham
Lincoln split logs, and that it beats massage."

I had been standing in the doorway, but he took me by the arm and
drew me into the room.

"I wish you'd sit down for about ten minutes, Minnie," he
said. "I guess every fellow has a time when he's got to tell his
troubles to some good woman--not but that you know mine already.
You're as shrewd as you are kind."

I sat down on the edge of a chair. For all I had had so much to
do with the sanatorium, I never forgot that I was only the
spring-house girl. He threw himself back in his easy chair, with
the candle behind him on the table and his arms above his head.

"It's like this, Minnie," he said. "Mr. Jennings likes the new
order of things and--he's going to stay."

I nodded.

"And I like it here. I want to stay. It's the one thing I've
found that I think I can do. It isn't what I've dreamed of, but
it's worth while. To anchor the derelicts of humanity in a sort
of repair dock here, and scrape the barnacles off their
dispositions, and send them out shipshape again, surely that's
something. And I can do it."

I nodded again.

"But if the Jenningses stay--" he looked at me. "Minnie, in
heaven's name, what am I going to do if SHE stays?"

"I don't know, Mr. Pierce," I said. "I couldn't sleep last night
for thinking about it."

He smoothed out the paper and looked at it again, but I think he
scarcely saw it.

"The situation is humorous," he said, "only my sense of humor
seems to have died. She doesn't know I exist, except to invent
new and troublesome regulations for her annoyance. She is very
sweet when she meets me, but only because I am helping her to
have her own way. And I--my God, Minnie, I sit in the office and
listen for her step outside!"

He moved a little and held out the paper in the candle-light.

"`It will please Americans to know,'" he read, "`that with the
exception of the Venetian lace robe sent by the bridegroom's
mother, all of Miss Patricia Jennings' elaborate trousseau is
being made in America.

"`Prince Oskar and his suite, according to present arrangements,
will sail from Naples early in March, and the wedding date,
although not yet definitely fixed, will probably be the first
week in April. The wedding party will include--'"

He stopped there, and looked at me, trying to smile.

"I knew it all before," he said, "but there's something
inevitable about print. I guess I hadn't realized it."

He had the same look of wretchedness he'd had the first night I
saw him--a hungry look--and I couldn't help it; I went over to
him and patted him on the head like a little boy. I was only the
spring-house girl, but I was older than he was, and he needed
somebody to comfort him.

"I can't think of anything to say that will help any," I said,
"unless it's what you wrote yourself on the blackboard down in
the hall, `Keep busy and you'll keep happy.'"

He reached up for my hand, and rough and red as it was--having
been in the spring for so many years--he kissed it.

"Good for you, Minnie!" he said. "You're rational, and for a day
or so I haven't been. That's right, KEEP BUSY. I'll do it."
He got up and put his hands on my shoulders. "Good old pal, when
you see me going around as if all the devils of hell were
tormenting me, just come up and say that to me, will you?"

I promised, and he opened the door, candle in hand, and smiling.

"I'm a thousand per cent. better already," he said. "I just
needed to tell somebody, I think. I dare say I've made a lot
more fuss than it really deserves."

At the far end of the hall, a girl came out of one room, and
carrying a candle, went across to another. It was Miss Patty,
going to bid her father good night. When I left, he was still
staring down the hall after her, his candle dripping wax on the
floor, and his face white. I guess he hadn't overstated his
case.





Where There's A Will by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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