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This was the last of Mr. Twist's worries before the opening day.
Remorseful that he should have shirked helping the Annas to bear Mrs. Bilton, besides having had a severe fright on perceiving how near his shirking had brought the party to disaster, he now had his meals with the others and spent the evenings with them as well. He was immensely grateful to Mrs. Bilton. Her grit had saved them. He esteemed and respected her. Indeed, he shook hands with her then and there at the end of her speech, and told her he did, and the least he could do after that was to come to dinner. But this very genuine appreciation didn't prevent his finding her at close quarters what Anna-Rose, greatly chastened, now only called temperately "a little much," and the result was a really frantic hurrying on of the work. He had rather taken, those first four days of being relieved of responsibility in regard to the twins, to finnicking with details, to dwelling lovingly on them with a sense of having a margin to his time, and things accordingly had considerably slowed down; but after twenty-four hours of Mrs. Bilton they hurried up again, and after forty-eight of her the speed was headlong. At the end of forty-eight hours it seemed to Mr. Twist more urgent than anything he had ever known that he should get out of the shanty, get into somewhere with space in it, and sound-proof walls--lots of walls--and long passages between people's doors; and before the rooms in the inn were anything like finished he insisted on moving in.
"You must turn to on this last lap and help fix them up," he said to the twins. "It'll be a bit uncomfortable at first, but you must just take off your coats to it and not mind."
Mind? Turn to? It was what they were languishing for. It was what, in the arid hours under the ilex tree, collected so ignominiously round Mrs. Bilton's knee they had been panting for, like thirsty dogs with their tongues out. And such is the peculiar blessedness of work that instantly, the moment there was any to be done, everything that was tangled and irritating fell quite naturally into its proper place. Magically life straightened itself out smooth, and left off being difficult. Arbeit und Liebe, as their mother used to say, dropping into German whenever a sentence seemed to her to sound better that way--Arbeit und Liebe: these were the two great things of life; the two great angels, as she assured them, under whose spread-out wings lay happiness.
With a hungry zeal, with the violent energy of reaction, the Annas fell upon work. They started unpacking. All the things they had bought in Acapulco, the linen, the china, the teaspoons, the feminine touches that had been piled up waiting in the barn, were pulled out and undone and carried indoors. They sorted, and they counted, and they arranged on shelves. Anna-Rose flew in and out with her arms full. Anna-Felicitas slouched zealously after her, her arms full too when she started, but not nearly so full when she got there owing to the way things had of slipping through them and dropping on to the floor. They were in a blissful, busy confusion. Their faces shone with heat and happiness. Here was liberty; here was freedom; here was true dignity--Arbeit und Liebe....
When Mr. Twist, as he did whenever he could, came and looked on for a moment in his shirt sleeves, with his hat on the back of his head and his big, benevolent spectacles so kind, Anna-Rose's cup seemed full. Her dimple never disappeared for a moment. It was there all day long now; and even when she was asleep it still lurked in the corner of her mouth. Arbeit und Liebe.
Immense was the reaction of self-respect that took hold of the twins. They couldn't believe they were the people who had been so crude and ill-conditioned as to hide Mrs. Bilton's belongings, and actually finally to hide themselves. How absurd. How like children. How unpardonably undignified. Anna-Rose held forth volubly to this effect while she arranged the china, and Anna-Felicitas listened assentingly, with a kind of grave, ashamed sheepishness.
The result of this reaction was that Mrs. Bilton, whose pressure on them was relieved by the necessity of her too being in several places at once, and who was displaying her customary grit, now became the definite object of their courtesy. They were the mistresses of a house, they began to realize, and as such owed her every consideration. This bland attitude was greatly helped by their not having to sleep with her any more, and they found that the mere coming fresh to her each morning made them feel polite and well-disposed. Besides, they were thoroughly and finally grown-up now, Anna-Rose declared--never, never to lapse again. They had had their lesson, she said, gone through a crisis, and done that which Aunt Alice used to say people did after severe trials, aged considerably.
Anna-Felicitas wasn't quite so sure. Her own recent behaviour had shaken and shocked her too much. Who would have thought she would have gone like that? Gone all to pieces, back to sheer naughtiness, on the first provocation? It was quite easy, she reflected while she worked, and cups kept on detaching themselves mysteriously from her fingers, and tables tumbling over at her approach, to be polite and considerate to somebody you saw very little of, and even, as she found herself doing, to get fond of the person; but suppose circumstances threw one again into the person's continual society, made one again have to sleep in the same room? Anna-Felicitas doubted whether it would be possible for her to stand such a test, in spite of her earnest desire to behave; she doubted, indeed, whether anybody ever did stand that test successfully. Look at husbands.
Meanwhile there seemed no likelihood of its being applied again. Each of them had now a separate bedroom, and Mrs. Bilton had, in the lavish American fashion, her own bathroom, so that even at that point there was no collision. The twins' rooms were connected by a bathroom all to themselves, with no other door into it except the doors from their bedrooms, and Mr. Twist, who dwelt discreetly at the other end of the house, also had a bathroom of his own. It seemed as natural for American architects to drop bathrooms about, thought Anna-Rose, as for the little clouds in the psalms to drop fatness. They shed them just as easily, and the results were just as refreshing. To persons hailing from Pomerania, a place arid of bathrooms, it was the last word of luxury and comfort to have one's own. Their pride in theirs amused Mr. Twist, used from childhood to these civilized arrangements; but then, as they pointed out to him, he hadn't lived in Pomerania, where nothing stood between you and being dirty except the pump.
But it wasn't only the bathrooms that made the inn as planned by Mr. Twist and the architect seem to the twins the most perfect, the most wonderful magic little house in the world: the intelligent American spirit was in every corner, and it was full of clever, simple devices for saving labour--so full that it almost seemed to the Annas as if it would get up quite unaided at six every morning and do itself; and they were sure that if the smallest encouragement were given to the kitchen-stove it would cook and dish up a dinner all alone. Everything in the house was on these lines. The arrangements for serving innumerable teas with ease were admirable. They were marvels of economy and clever thinking-out. The architect was surprised at the attention and thought Mr. Twist concentrated on this particular part of the future housekeeping. "You seem sheer crazy on teas," he remarked; to which Mr. Twist merely replied that he was.
The last few days before the opening were as full of present joy and promise of yet greater joys to come as the last few days of a happy betrothal. They reminded Anna-Felicitas of those days in April, those enchanting days she had always loved the best, when the bees get busy for the first time, and suddenly there are wallflowers and a flowering currant bush and the sound of the lawn being mown and the smell of cut grass. How one's heart leaps up to greet them, she thought. What a thrill of delight rushes through one's body, of new hope, of delicious expectation.
Even Li Koo, the wooden-faced, the brief and rare of speech seemed to feel the prevailing satisfaction and harmony and could be heard in the evenings singing strange songs among his pots. And what he was singing, only nobody knew it, were soft Chinese hymns of praise of the two white-lily girls, whose hair was woven sunlight, and whose eyes were deep and blue even as the waters that washed about the shores of his father's dwelling-place. For Li Koo, the impassive and inarticulate, in secret seethed with passion. Which was why his cakes were so wonderful. He had to express himself somehow.
But while up on their sun-lit, eucalyptus-crowned slopes Mr. Twist and his party--he always thought of them as his party--were innocently and happily busy full of hopefulness and mutual goodwill, down in the town and in the houses scattered over the lovely country round the town, people were talking. Everybody knew about the house Teapot Twist was doing up, for the daily paper had told them that Mr. Edward A. Twist had bought the long uninhabited farmhouse in Pepper Lane known as Batt's, and was converting it into a little ventre-à-terre for his widowed mother--launching once more into French, as though there were something about Mr. Twist magnetic to that language. Everybody knew this, and it was perfectly natural for a well-off Easterner to have a little place out West, even if the choice of the little place was whimsical. But what about the Miss Twinklers? Who and what were they? And also, Why?
There were three weeks between the departure of the Twist party from the Cosmopolitan and the opening of the inn, and in that time much had been done in the way of conjecture. The first waves of it flowed out from the Cosmopolitan, and were met almost at once by waves flowing in from the town. Good-natured curiosity gave place to excited curiosity when the rumour got about that the Cosmopolitan had been obliged to ask Mr. Twist to take his entourage somewhere else. Was it possible the cute little girls, so well known by sight on Main Street going from shop to shop, were secretly scandalous? It seemed almost unbelievable, but luckily nothing was really unbelievable.
The manager of the hotel, dropped in upon casually by one guest after the other, and interviewed as well by determined gentlemen from the local press, was not to be drawn. His reserve was most interesting. Miss Heap knitted and knitted and was persistently enigmatic. Her silence was most exciting. On the other hand, Mrs. Ridding's attitude was merely one of contempt, dismissing the Twinklers with a heavy gesture. Why think or trouble about a pair of chits like that? They had gone; Albert was quiet again; and wasn't that the gong for dinner?
But doubts as to the private morals of the Twist entourage presently were superseded by much graver and more perturbing doubts. Nobody knew when exactly this development took place. Acapulco had been enjoying the first set of doubts. There was no denying that doubts about somebody else's morals were not unpleasant. They did give one, if one examined one's sensations carefully, a distinct agreeable tickle; they did add the kick to lives which, if they had been virtuous for a very long time like the lives of the Riddings, or virgin for a very long time like the life of Miss Heap, were apt to be flat. But from the doubts that presently appeared and overshadowed the earlier ones, one got nothing but genuine discomfort and uneasiness. Nobody knew how or when they started. Quite suddenly they were there.
This was in the November before America's coming into the war. The feeling in Acapulco was violently anti-German. The great majority of the inhabitants, permanent and temporary, were deeply concerned at the conduct of their country in not having, immediately after the torpedoing of the Lusitania, joined the Allies. They found it difficult to understand, and were puzzled and suspicious, as well as humiliated in their national pride. Germans who lived in the neighbourhood, or who came across from the East for the winter, were politely tolerated, but the attitude toward them was one of growing watchfulness and distrust; and week by week the whispered stories of spies and gun-emplacements and secret stores of arms in these people's cellars or back gardens, grew more insistent and detailed. There certainly had been at least one spy, a real authentic one, afterward shot in England, who had stayed near-by, and the nerves of the inhabitants had that jumpiness on this subject with which the inhabitants of other countries have long been familiar. All the customary inexplicable lights were seen; all the customary mysterious big motor cars rushed at forbidden and yet unhindered speeds along unusual roads at unaccountable hours; all the customary signalling out to sea was observed and passionately sworn to by otherwise calm people. It was possible, the inhabitants found, to believe with ease things about Germans--those who were having difficulty with religion wished it were equally easy to believe things about God. There was nothing Germans wouldn't think of in the way of plotting, and nothing they wouldn't, having thought of it, carry out with deadly thoroughness and patience.
And into this uneasy hotbed of readiness to believe the worst, arrived the Twinkler twins, rolling their r's about.
It needed but a few inquiries to discover that none of the young ladies' schools in the neighbourhood had been approached on their behalf; hardly inquiries,--mere casual talk was sufficient, ordinary chatting with the principals of these establishments when one met them at the lectures and instructive evenings the more serious members of the community organized and supported. Not many of the winter visitors went to these meetings, but Miss Heap did. Miss Heap had a restless soul. It was restless because it was worried by perpetual thirst,--she couldn't herself tell after what; it wasn't righteousness, for she knew she was still worldly, so perhaps it was culture. Anyhow she would give culture a chance, and accordingly she went to the instructive evenings. Here she met that other side of Acapulco which doesn't play bridge and is proud to know nothing of polo, which believes in education, and goes in for mind training and welfare work; which isn't, that is, well off.
Nobody here had been asked to educate the Twinklers. No classes had been joined by them.
Miss Heap was so enigmatic, she who was naturally of an unquiet and exercise-loving tongue, that this graver, more occupied section of the inhabitants was instantly as much pervaded by suspicions as the idlest of the visitors in the hotels and country houses. It waved aside the innocent appearance and obvious extreme youth of the suspects. Useless to look like cherubs if it were German cherubs you looked like. Useless being very nearly children if it were German children you very nearly were. Why, precisely these qualities would be selected by those terribly clever Germans for the furtherance of their nefarious schemes. It would be quite in keeping with the German national character, that character of bottomless artfulness, to pick out two such young girls with just that type of empty, baby face, and send them over to help weave the gigantic invisible web with which America was presently to be choked dead.
The serious section of Acapulco, the section that thought, hit on this explanation of the Twinklers with no difficulty whatever once its suspicions were roused because it was used to being able to explain everything instantly. It was proud of its explanation, and presented it to the town with much the same air of deprecating but conscious achievement with which one presents drinking-fountains.
Then there was the lawyer to whom Mr. Twist had gone about the guardianship. He said nothing, but he was clear in his mind that the girls were German and that Mr. Twist wanted to hide it. He had thought more highly of Mr. Twist's intelligence than this. Why hide it? America was a neutral country; technically she was neutral, and Germans could come and go as they pleased. Why unnecessarily set tongues wagging? He did not, being of a continuous shrewd alertness himself, a continuous wide-awakeness and minute consideration of consequences, realize, and if he had he wouldn't have believed, the affectionate simplicity and unworldliness of Mr. Twist. If it had been pointed out to him he would have dismissed it as a pose; for a man who makes money in any quantity worth handling isn't affectionately simple and unworldly--he is calculating and steely.
The lawyer was puzzled. How did Mr. Twist manage to have a forehead and a fortune like that, and yet be a fool? True, he had a funny sort of face on him once you got down to the nose part and what came after,--a family sort of face, thought the lawyer; a sort of rice pudding, wet-nurse face. The lawyer listened intently to all the talk and rumours, while himself saying nothing. In spite of being a married man, his scruples about honour hadn't been blunted by the urge to personal freedom and the necessity for daily self-defence that sometimes afflicts those who have wives. He remained honourably silent, as he had said he would, but he listened; and he came to the conclusion that either there was a quite incredible amount of stupidity about the Twist party, or that there was something queer.
What he didn't know, and what nobody knew, was that the house being got ready with such haste was to be an inn. He, like the rest of the world, took the newspapers ventre-à-terre theory of the house for granted, and it was only the expectation of the arrival of that respectable lady, the widowed Mrs. Twist, which kept the suspicions a little damped down. They smouldered, hesitating, beneath this expectation; for Teapot Twist's family life had been voluminously described in the entire American press when first his invention caught on, and it was known to be pure. There had been snapshots of the home at Clark where he had been born, of the home at Clark (west aspect) where he would die--Mr. Twist read with mild surprise that his liveliest wish was to die in the old home--of the corner in the Clark churchyard where he would probably be entombed, with an inset showing his father's gravestone on which would clearly be read the announcement that he was the Resurrection and the Life. And there was an inset of his mother, swathed in the black symbols of ungluttable grief,--a most creditable mother. And there were accounts of the activities of another near relative, that Uncle Charles who presided over the Church of Heavenly Refreshment in New York, and a snapshot of his macerated and unrefreshed body in a cassock,--a most creditable uncle.
These articles hadn't appeared so very long ago, and the impression survived and was general that Mr. Twist's antecedents were unimpeachable. If it were true that the house was for his mother and she was shortly arriving, then, although still very odd and unintelligible, it was probable that his being there now with the two Germans was after all capable of explanation. Not much of an explanation, though. Even the moderates who took this view felt this. One wasn't with Germans these days if one could help it. There was no getting away from that simple fact. The inevitable deduction was that Mr. Twist couldn't help it. Why couldn't he help it? Was he enslaved by a scandalous passion for them, a passion cold-bloodedly planned for him by the German Government, which was known to have lists of the notable citizens of the United States with photographs and details of their probable weaknesses, and was exactly informed of their movements? He had met the Twinklers, so it was reported, on a steamer coming over from England. Of course. All arranged by the German Government. That was the peculiar evil greatness of this dangerous people, announced the serious section of Acapulco, again with the drinking-fountain-presentation air, that nothing was too private or too petty to escape their attention, to be turned to their own wicked uses. They were as economical of the smallest scraps of possible usefulness as a French cook of the smallest scraps and leavings of food. Everything was turned to account. Nothing was wasted. Even the mosquitoes in Germany were not wasted. They contained juices, Germans had discovered, especially after having been in contact with human beings, and with these juices the talented but unscrupulous Germans made explosives. Could one sufficiently distrust a nation that did things like that? asked the serious section of Acapulco.
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