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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!





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

Mystery and detective stories
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