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   Chapter 1 ALTHEA

A Court of Inquiry By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 11971

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Nothing impaired

but all disordered.

-Midsummer Night's Dream.

There are four guest-rooms in my house. It is not a large house, and how there came to be so many rooms to spare for the entertaining of friends is not a story to be told here. It is only a few years since they were all full-and not with guests. But they are nearly always full now. And when I assign each room it is after taking thought.

There are two men's rooms and two for women. The men's rooms have belonged to men, and therefore they suit other men, who drop into them and use their belongings, and tell me they were never more comfortable. The third room is for one after another of the girls and women who visit me. The fourth room--

"Is anybody really good enough to sleep in this place?"

It was the Skeptic, looking over my shoulder. He had chanced to be passing, saw me standing in the doorway in an attitude of adoration, and glanced in over my head. He had continued to look from sheer astonishment.

"I should expect to have to take off my shoes, and put on a white cassock over my tennis flannels before I could enter here," he observed.

"You would not be allowed to enter, even in that inappropriate costume," I replied. "I keep this room only for the very nicest of my girl friends. The trouble is--"

"The trouble is-you're full up with our bunch, and have got to put Miss Althea here, whether she turns out to be the sort or not."

I had not expected the Skeptic to be so shrewd-shrewd though he often is. Being also skeptical, his skepticism sometimes overcolours his imagination.

"Suppose she should leave her slippers kicking around over those white rugs, drop her kimono in the middle of that pond-lily bed, and-er-attach a mound of chewing-gum to the corner of the mirror," he propounded.

"I should send her home."

"No-you could do better than that. Make her change rooms with the Philosopher. He wouldn't leave a speck the size of a molecule on all that whiteness."

"I don't believe he would," I agreed. As the Skeptic went laughing away downstairs I turned again into the room, in order that I might tie back the little inner muslin curtains, to let the green branches outside show between.

* * *

Althea arrived at five. The Skeptic, in tennis flannels, was lounging on the porch as she came up the steps, and scanned her critically over the racquet he still held, after a brisk set-to with the Gay Lady, who is one of my other guests. (We call her the Gay Lady because of her flower-bright face, her trick of smiling when other people frown, and because of a certain soft sparkle and glow about her whole personality, as indescribable as it is captivating). The Gay Lady had gone indoors to dress for the evening, and the Philosopher had not returned from the long daily tramp by which he keeps himself in trim. The Lad was on the porch mending some fishing-tackle-my Lad, with the clear young eyes which see things.

Althea gave the Skeptic a glance, the Lad a smile, and me a hearty embrace. I had never seen her before, and her visit had been brought about by a request from her mother, an old friend, who was anxious to have her daughter spend a pleasant vacation in the absence of most of the girl's family.

It was impossible not to like my new guest at once. She was a healthy, hearty, blooming sort of girl, good to look at, pleasant company to have about, and, as I soon learned, sweet-tempered to a degree which it seemed nothing could upset. She followed me upstairs, talking brightly all the way, and made her entrance into the white room as a pink hollyhock might drop unconcernedly into a pan of milk.

"What a lovely, cool-looking room!" she cried, and dropped her coat and umbrella upon the bed.

The Lad, following with her handbag, stopped to look at his tennis shoes before he set foot upon the white rug, and dusted off the bag with a somewhat grimy handkerchief before he stood it on the white-tiled hearth. The Lad knows how I feel about the room, and though he races into his own with muddy feet, stands in awe of the place where only girls are made at home.

* * *

I have but two maid-servants, both of whom must be busy in kitchen and dining-room when the house is full of guests. So I always make the rounds of the bedrooms in the evening, to see to lights and water, and to turn down the coverings on the beds. The Skeptic's room needed only a touch here and there to put it in order for the night. The Philosopher's needed none. The Gay Lady had left her pretty, rose-hung quarters looking as if a lady lived in them, and had but dropped a dainty reminder of herself here and there to give them character-an embroidered dressing-case on the bureau, an attractive travelling work-box on the table by her bed, a photograph, a lace-bordered handkerchief, a gossamer scarf on a chair-back ready for use if she should need it for a stroll in the moonlight with the Skeptic. The closet door, ajar, gave a glimpse of summer frocks, hanging in order on padded hangers brought in a trunk; beneath, a row of incredibly small, smart shoes stood awaiting their turn. Even the Gay Lady's trunk was clad in a trim, beflowered cover of linen, and looked a part of the place. I smiled to myself as I turned down the white sheets over my best down-filled quilt of pale pink, and thought of the Gay Lady's delightful custom of keeping her room swept and dusted without letting anybody know when she did it.

* * *

I felt my way across Althea's room to light the lamp-there are no electrics in my old country home. As I went in I stumbled over a rug whose corner had been drawn into a bunch by the edge of a trunk which had been pulled too far toward the middle of the room. I encountered a chair hung full with clothing; I pushed what felt like a shoe out of my path.

It took some time for me to find the match-box, which ordinarily stands on a corner of the dressing-table. My groping hand encountered all sorts of unf

amiliar objects in its quest, and it was not without a premonition of what I was about to see that I finally lit the lamp and looked around me.

Well-of course she had unpacked hurriedly, as hurriedly dressed for dinner, and she had been detained downstairs ever since. I should not judge in haste. Doubtless in the morning she would put things to rights. I removed a trunk-tray from the bed, hung up several frocks in the closet, cleared away the rest of the belongings from the counterpane, and arranged Althea's bed for the night. I did the rest of my work quickly, and returned to lower the light.

It couldn't be-really, no-it couldn't be! There must be some other way of accounting for those scratches on the hitherto spotless white wall, now marred by five long, brown marks, where a match had been drawn again and again before it struck into light!

It couldn't have been Althea. Yet-those marks were never there before. It was full daylight when my guest had arrived; she could have had no need for artificial light. Wait-there lay a long, black object on the white cover of the dressing-table-a curling iron!

In the hall I ran into the Skeptic.

"I beg your pardon," he cried under his breath. "I came up for her scarf. She said it was just inside her door, on her trunk. May I go in?"

"I'll get it for you," said I, and turned inside. The Skeptic stood outside the door, looking into the dimness. I could not find the scarf. I would not turn up the light. I searched and searched vainly.

"Let me give you something to see by," said the Skeptic, and before I could prevent him he had bolted into the room and turned up the lamp. "Here it is," said he, and caught up some article of apparel from the dressing-table. "Oh, no-this must be-a sash," said he, and dropped it. He stood looking about him.

"Go away," said I sternly. "I'll find it."

"I don't think you will," said he, "in this-er-this-pandemonium."

I walked over to the dressing-table and put out the lamp. "Now will you go away?" said I.

"You were expeditious," said he, making for the hall, and stumbling over something as he went, "but not quite expeditious enough. Never mind about the scarf. I think I'll let the Philosopher take the Girl Guest to walk-the Gay Lady's good enough for me. I say"-as he moved toward the staircase and I followed-"don't you think we'd better move the Philosopher in to-morrow?"

"To-morrow," said I with assumed conviction, "it will be different. Please reserve your judgment."

I tried to reserve my own. I did not go into Althea's room again until the next evening at the same hour. I found ten articles strewn where five had lain before. A bottle of something green had been tipped over upon the white embroidered cover of my dressing-table. A spot of ink adorned the edge of the sheet, and the condition of the bed showed plainly that an afternoon nap upon it had ended with some letter writing. I think Althea's shoes had been dusted with one of my best towels. I did not stay to see what else had been done, but I could not help noting three more brown scratches on my white wall.

* * *

At the end of the week Althea went away. When she had gone I went up to her room. I had been at work there for some time when a tap at the door interrupted me. The Skeptic stood outside with a hoe and a bushel-basket.

"Want some help?" offered he.

"It's not gentlemanly of you to notice," said I weakly.

"I know it," said he. He came in and inverted the bushel-basket on the hearth and sat down upon it. "But the door was always open, and I couldn't help seeing. If it wasn't shoes and a kimono in the middle of the floor it was a raincoat and rubber boots. Sometimes I stopped to count the things on that dressing--"

"It was very ungentlemanly of you!"

"Guilty," he admitted again-but not meekly. There was a sparkle in his eye. "But it isn't often, you see, that a man gets a chance to take notes like this. An open door-it's an invitation to look in. Now, the Gay Lady doesn't leave her door open, except by chance, but I know how it looks inside-by the Gay Lady herself."

"How?" I questioned, my curiosity getting the better of me. "I mean-how can you tell by the look of the Gay Lady that she keeps her room in order?-for she certainly does."

"I knew it," said he triumphantly.

"But how?"

"And I know that you keep yours in order."

"But how?"

"Oh, you think we are creatures of no discernment," said he. "But we can see a few things. When a woman, no matter how pretty, pins the back of her collar with a common brass pin--"

I felt of the back of my white stock. Of course I never use them, but his eyes are so keen and--

He laughed. "The Philosopher liked Miss Althea."

"She has many lovely qualities--" I began.

"Of course. That sort always have. It's their beautiful good-nature that makes them so easy on themselves. Er-by-the-way--Well, well--"

The Skeptic's gaze had fallen upon the brown marks on the white wall, above the lamp. There were now twenty-seven in all. He got up from his bushel-basket and walked over to them. He stood and studied them for a minute in silence. Finally he turned around, looked at me, made a dive for the bushel-basket and the hoe, and hurried out of the door.

"I'll bring up a pail of whitewash," he called.

* * *

I shall ask Althea again some time. She really has a great many lovely qualities, as I said to the Skeptic. But there is a little room I have, which I do not call a guest-room, into which I shall put Althea. It has a sort of chocolate paper on the walls, on which I do not think the marks of matches would much show, and it has a general suitableness to this particular guest. I have sometimes harboured small boys there, for the toilet appointments are done in red on brown linen, and curling irons could be laid on them without serious damage. And I've no doubt that she would like that room quite as well.

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