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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFrom The Housetops - Chapter 11
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From The Housetops - Chapter 11 Post by :Slic47 Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :753

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From The Housetops - Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI

When Dr. Braden Thorpe arrived in New York City on the fourteenth of March he was met at the pier by a horde of newspaper men. For the first time, he was made to appreciate "the importance of being earnest." These men, through a frequently prompted spokesman, put questions to him that were so startling in their boldness that he was staggered by the misconception that had preceded him into his home land.

He was asked such questions as these: "But, doctor, would you do that sort of thing to a person who was dear to you,—say a wife, a mother or an only child?" "How could you be sure that a person was hopelessly afflicted?" "Have you ever put this theory of yours into practice on the other side?" "How many lives have you taken in this way, doctor,—if it is a fair question?" "Do you expect to practise openly in New York?" "And if you do practise, how many patients do you imagine would come to you, knowing your views?" "How would you kill 'em,—with poison or what?" And so on, almost without end.

He was to find that a man can become famous and infamous in a single newspaper headline, and as for the accuracy of the interviews there was but one thing to be said: the questions were invariably theirs and the answers also. He did his best to make them understand that he was merely advancing a principle and not practising a crime, that his hand had never been brought down to kill, that his heart was quite as tender as any other man's, and that he certainly was not advocating murder in any degree. Nor was he at present attempting to proselyte.

When he finally escaped the reporters, his brow was wet with the sweat of one who finds himself confronted by a superior force and with no means of defence. He knew that he was to be assailed by every paper in New York. They would tear him to shreds.

Wade was at the pier. He waited patiently in the background while the returned voyager dealt with the reporters, appearing abruptly at Braden's elbow as he was giving his keys to the inspector.

"Good morning, sir," said Wade, in what must be recorded as a confidential tone. He might have been repeating the salutation of yesterday morning for all that his manner betrayed.

"Hello, Wade! Glad to see you." Braden shook hands with the man. "How is my grandfather?"

"Better, sir," said the other, meaning that his master was more comfortable than he had been during the night.

Wade was not as much of an optimist as his reply would seem to indicate. It was his habit to hold bad news in reserve as long as possible, doubtless for the satisfaction it gave him to dribble it out sparingly. He had found it to his advantage to break all sorts of news hesitatingly to his master, for he was never by way of knowing what Mr. Thorpe would regard as bad news. For example, early in his career as valet, he had rushed into Mr. Thorpe's presence with what he had every reason to believe would be good news. He had been sent over to the home of Mr. Thorpe's son for an important bit of information, and he supplied it by almost shouting as he burst into the library: "It's a fine boy, sir,—a splendid ten- pounder, sir." But Mr. Thorpe, instead of accepting the good news gladly, spoiled everything by anxiously inquiring, "And how is the poor little mother getting along?"—a question which caused Wade grave annoyance, for he had to reply: "I'm sorry, sir, but she's not expected to live the hour out."

All of which goes to show that Mr. Thorpe never regarded any news as good without first satisfying himself that it wasn't bad.

"I have the automobile outside, sir," went on Wade, "and I am to look after your luggage."

"Thank you, Wade. If you'll just grab these bags and help the porter out to the car with them, I'll be greatly obliged. And then you may drop me at the Wolcott. I shall stop there for a few days, until I get my bearings."

Wade coughed insinuatingly. "Beg pardon, sir, but I was to fetch you straight home."

"Do you mean to my grandfather's?" demanded the young man sharply.

"Yes, sir. Those were the orders."

"Orders to be disobeyed, I fear, Wade," said Braden darkly. "I am not going to Mr. Thorpe's house."

"I understand, sir," said Wade patiently. "I quite understand. Still it is my duty to report to you that Mr. Thorpe is expecting you."

"Nevertheless, I shall not—"

"Perhaps I should inform you that your grandfather is—er—confined to his bed. As a matter of fact, Mr. Braden, he is confined to his death-bed."

Braden was shocked. Later on, as he was being rushed across town in the car, he drew from Wade all of the distressing details. He had never suspected the truth. Indeed, his grandfather had kept the truth from him so successfully that he had come to look upon him as one of the fortunate few who arrive at death in the full possession of health, those who die because the machinery stops of its own accord. And now the worst possible death was stalking his benefactor, driving,—always driving without pity. Braden's heart was cold, his face pallid with dread as he hurried up the steps to the front door of the familiar old house.

He had forgotten Anne and his vow never to enter the house so long as she was mistress of it. He forgot that her freedom was about to become an accomplished fact, that the thing she had anticipated was now at hand. He had often wondered how long it would be in coming to her, and how she would stand up under the strain of the half score of years or more that conceivably might be left to the man she had married. There had been times when he laughed in secret anticipation of the probabilities that attended her unwholesome adventure. Years of it! Years of bondage before she could lay hands upon the hard-earned fruits of freedom!

As he entered the hall Anne came out of the library to greet him. There was no hesitation on her part, no pretending. She came directly to him, her hand extended. He had stopped stock-still on seeing her.

"I am glad you have come, Braden," she said, letting her hand fall to her side. Either he had ignored it or was too dismayed to notice it at all. "Mr. Thorpe has waited long and patiently for you. I am glad you have come."

He was staring at her, transfixed. There was no change in her appearance. She was just as he had seen her on that last, never-to-be-forgotten day,—the same tall, slender, beautiful Anne. And yet, as he stared, he saw something in her eyes that had not been there before: the shadow of fear.

"I must see him immediately," said he, and was at once conscious of a regret that he had not first said something kind to her. She had the stricken look in her eyes.

"You will find him in his old room," she said quietly. "The nurse is a friend of yours, a Miss McKane."

"Thank you." He turned away, but at the foot of the staircase paused. "Is there no hope?" he inquired. "Is it as bad as Wade—"

"There is only one hope, Braden," she said, "and that is that he may die soon." Curiously, he was not shocked by this remark. He appreciated the depth of feeling behind it. She was thinking of Templeton Thorpe, not of herself.

"I—I can't tell you how shocked, how grieved I am," he said. "It is—terrible."

She drew a few steps nearer. "I want you to feel, Braden, that you are free to come and go—and to stay—in this house. I know that you have said you would not come here while I am its mistress. I am in no sense its mistress. I have no place here. If you prefer not to see me, I shall make it possible by remaining in my room. It is only fair that I should speak to you at once about—about this. That is why I waited here to see you. I may as well tell you that Mr. Thorpe does not expect me to visit his room,—in fact, he undoubtedly prefers that I should not do so. I have tried to help him. I have done my best, Braden. I want you to know that. It is possible that he may tell you as much. Your place is here. You must not regard me an obstacle. It will not be necessary for you to communicate with me. I shall understand. Dr. Bates keeps me fully informed." She spoke without the slightest trace of bitterness.

He heard her to the end without lifting his gaze from the floor. When she was through, he looked at her.

"You _are the mistress of the house, Anne. I shall not overlook the fact, even though you may. If my grandfather wishes me to do so, I shall remain here in the house with him—to the end, not simply as his relative, but to do what little I can in a professional way. Why was I not informed of his condition?" His manner was stern.

"You must ask that question of Mr. Thorpe himself," said she. "As I have told you, he is the master of the house. The rules are his, not mine; and, by the same token, the commands are his."

He hesitated for a moment. "You might have sent word to me. Why didn't you?"

"Because I was under orders," she said steadily. "Mr. Thorpe would not allow us to send for you. There was an excellent purpose back of his decision to keep you on the other side of the Atlantic until you were ready to return of your own accord. I daresay, if you reflect for a moment, you will see through his motives."

His eyes narrowed. "There was no cause for apprehension," he said coldly.

"It was something I could not discuss with him, however," she returned, "and so I was hardly in a position to advise him. You must believe me, Braden, when I say that I am glad for his sake that you are here. He will die happily now."

"He has suffered—so terribly?"

"It has been too horrible,—too horrible," she cried, suddenly covering her eyes and shivering as with a great chill.

The tears rushed to Braden's eyes. "Poor old granddaddy," he murmured. Then, after a second's hesitation, he turned and swiftly mounted the stairs.

Anne, watching him from below, was saying to herself, over and over again: "He will never forgive me, he will never forgive me." Later on, alone in the gloomy library, she sat staring at the curtained window through which the daylight came darkly, and passed final judgment upon herself after months of indecision: "I have been too sure of myself, too sure of him. What a fool I've been to count on a thing that is so easily killed. What a fool I've been to go on believing that his love would survive in spite of the blow I've given it. I've lost him. I may as well say farewell to the silly hope I've been coddling all these months." She frowned as she allowed her thoughts to run into another channel. "But they shall not laugh at me. I'll play the game out. No whimpering, old girl. Stand up to it."

Wade was waiting outside his master's door, his ear cocked as of old. The same patient, obsequious smile greeted Braden as he came up.

"He knows you are here, Mr. Braden. I sent in word by the nurse."

"He is conscious?"

"Yes, sir. That's the worst of it. Always conscious, sir."

"Then he can't be as near to death as you think, Wade. He—"

"That's a pity, sir," said Wade frankly. "I was in hopes that it would soon be all over for him."

"Am I to go in at once?"

"May I have a word or two with you first, sir?" said Wade, lowering his voice to a whisper and sending an uneasy glance over his shoulder. "Come this way, sir. It's safer over here. Uncommonly sharp ears he has, sir."

"Well, what is it? I must not be delayed—"

"I shan't keep you a minute, Mr. Braden. It's something I feel I ought to tell you. Mr. Thorpe is quite in his right mind, sir, so you'll appreciate more fully what a shock his proposition was to me. In a word, Mr. Braden, he has offered me a great sum of money if I'll put four of those little pills into a glass of water to-night and give it to him to drink. There's enough poison in them to kill three men in a flash, sir. My God, Mr. Braden, it was—it was terrible!" The man's face was livid.

"A great sum of money—" began Braden dumbly. Then the truth struck him like a blow in the face. "Good God, Wade,—he—he wanted you to _kill him!"

"That's it, sir, that's it," whispered Wade jerkily. "He has an envelope up there with fifty thousand dollars in it. He had me count them a week ago, right before his eyes, and hide the envelope in a drawer. You see how he trusts me, sir? He knows that I could rob him to-night if I wanted to do so. Or what's to prevent my making off with the money after he's gone? Nobody would ever know. But he knows me too well. He trusts me. I was to give him the poison the night after you got home, and I would never be suspected of doing it because the pills have been lying on his table for weeks, ready for him to take at any time. Every one might say that he took them himself, don't you see?"

"Then, in God's name, why doesn't he take them,—why does he ask you to give them to him?" cried Braden, an icy perspiration on his brow.

"That's the very point, sir," explained Wade. "He says he has tried to do it, but—well, he just can't, sir. Mr. Thorpe is a God-fearing man. He will not take his own life. He—he says he believes there is a hell, Mr. Braden. I just wanted to tell you that I—I can't do what he asks me to do. Not for all the money in the world. He seems to think that I don't believe there is a hell. Anyhow, sir, he appears to think it would be quite all right for me to kill a fellow man. Beg pardon, sir; I forgot that you have been writing all these articles about—"

"It's all right, Wade," interrupted Braden. "Tell me, has he made this proposition to any one else? To the nurses, to Murray—any one?"

Wade hesitated. "I'm quite sure he hasn't appealed to any one but me, sir, except—that is to say—"

"Who else?"

"He told me plainly that he couldn't ask any of the nurses to do it, because he thought it ought to be done by a friend or a—member of the family. The doctors, of course, might do it unbeknownst to him, but they won't, sir."

"Whom else did he speak to about it?" insisted Braden.

"I can't be sure, but I think he has spoken to Mrs. Thorpe a good many times about it. Every time she is alone with him, in fact, sir. I've heard him pleading with her,—yes, and cursing her, too,—and her voice is always full of horror when she says 'No, no! I will not do it! I cannot!' You see, sir, I always stand here by the door, waiting to be called, so I catch snatches of conversation when their voices are raised. Besides, she's always as white as a sheet when she comes out, and two or three times she has actually run to her room as if she was afraid he was pursuing her. I can't help feeling, Mr. Braden, that he considers her a member of the family, and so long as I won't do it, he—"

"Good God, Wade! Don't say anything more! I—" His knees suddenly seemed about to give way under him. He went on in a hoarse whisper: "Why, I—I am a member of the family. You don't suppose he'll—you don't suppose—"

"I just thought I'd tell you, sir," broke in Wade, "so's you might be prepared. Will you go in now, sir? He is most eager to see you."

Braden entered the room, sick with horror. A member of the family! A member of the family to do the killing!

He was shocked by the appearance of the sick old man. Templeton Thorpe had wasted to a thin, greyish shadow. His lips were as white as his cheek, and that was the colour of chalk. Only his eyes were bright and gleaming with the life that remained to him. The grip of his hand was strong and firm, and his voice, too, was steady.

"I've been waiting for you, Braden, my boy," said Mr. Thorpe, some time after the greetings. He turned himself weakly in the bed and, drawing a little nearer to the edge, lowered his voice to a more confidential tone. His eyes were burning, his lips drawn tightly across his teeth,—for even at his age Templeton Thorpe was not a toothless thing. They were alone in the room. The nurse had seized upon the prospect of a short respite.

"I wish I had known, granddaddy," lamented Braden. "You should have sent for me long ago."

"That is the fifth or sixth time you've made that remark in the last ten minutes," said Mr. Thorpe, a querulous note stealing into his voice. "Don't say it again. By the way, suppose that I had sent for you: what could you have done? What good could you have done? Answer me that."

"There is no telling, sir. At least, I could have done my share of the—that is to say, I might have been useful in a great many ways. You may be sure, sir, that I should have been in constant attendance. I should have been on hand night and day."

"You would have assisted Anne in the death watch, eh?" said Mr. Thorpe, with a ghastly smile.

"Don't say that, sir," cried Braden, flinching.

"I may not have the opportunity to speak with you again, Braden,—privately, I mean,—and, as my time is short, I want to confess to you that I have been agreeably surprised in Anne. She has tried to do her best. She has not neglected me. She regards me as a human being in great pain, and I am beginning to think that she has a heart. There is the bare possibility, my boy, that she might have made you a good wife if I had not put temptation in her way. In any event, she would not have dishonoured you. It goes without saying that she has been wife to me in name only. You may find some comfort in that. In the past few weeks I have laid even greater temptations before her and she has not fallen. I cannot explain further to you, but—" here he smiled wanly—"some day she may tell you in the inevitable attempt to justify herself and win back what she has lost. Don't interrupt me, please. She _will try, never fear, and you will have to be strong to resist her. I know what you would say to me, so don't say it. You are horrified by the thought of it, but the day will come when you must again raise your hand against the woman who loves you. Make no mistake, Braden; she loves you."

"I believe I would strike her dead if she made the slightest appeal to—"

"Never mind," snapped the old man. "I know you well enough to credit you with self-respect, if not self-abnegation. What I am trying to get at is this: do you hold a grudge against me for revealing this girl's true character to you?"

"I must ask you to excuse me from answering that question, grandfather," said Braden, compressing his lips.

The old man eyed him closely. "Is that an admission that you think I have wronged you in saving you from the vampires?" he persisted ironically.

"I cannot discuss your wife with you, sir," said the other.

Mr. Thorpe continued to regard his grandson narrowly for a moment or two longer, and then a look of relief came into his eyes. "I see. I shouldn't have asked it of you. Nevertheless, I am satisfied. My experiment is a success. You are qualified to distinguish between the Tresslyn greed and the Tresslyn love, so I have not failed. They put the one above the other and so far they have trusted to luck. If Anne had spurned my money I haven't the slightest doubt that she would have married you and made you a good wife. The fact that she did not spurn my money would seem to prove that she wouldn't make anybody a good wife. I know all this is painful to you, my boy, but I must say it to you before I die. You see I am dying. That's quite apparent, even to the idiots who are trying to keep me alive. They do not fool me with their: 'Aha, Mr. Thorpe, how are we to-day? Better, eh?' I am dying by inches,—fractions of inches, to be precise." He stopped short, out of breath after this long speech.

Braden laid his hand upon the bony fore-arm. "How long have you known, granddaddy, that you had this—this—"

"Cancer? Say it, my boy. I'm not afraid of the word. Most people are. It's a dreadful word. How can I answer your question? Years, no doubt. It became active a year and a half ago. I knew what it was, even then."

"In heaven's name, sir, why did you let it go on? An operation at that time might have—"

"You forget that I could afford to wait. When a man gets to be as old as I am he can philosophise even in the matter of death. What is a year or two, one way or the other, to me? An operation is either an experiment or a last resort, isn't it? Well, my boy, I preferred to look upon it as a last resort, and as such I concluded to put it off until the last minute, when it wouldn't make any difference which way it resulted. If it had resulted fatally a year and a half ago, what would I have gained? If it should take place to-morrow, with the same result, haven't I cheated Time out of eighteen months?"

"But the pain, the suffering," cried Braden. "You might at least have spared yourself the whole lifetime of pain that you have lived in these last few months. You haven't cheated pain out of its year and a half."

"True," said Mr. Thorpe, his lips twitching with the pain he was trying to defy; "I have not been able to laugh at the futility of pain. Ah!" It was almost a scream that issued from between his stretched lips. He began to writhe....

"Come in again to-night," he said half an hour later, whispering the words with difficulty. The two nurses and the doctor's assistant, who had been staying in the house for more than a week, now stood back from the bedside, dripping with perspiration. The paroxysm had been one of the worst he had experienced. They had believed for a time that it was also to be the last. Braden Thorpe, shaking like a leaf because of the very inactivity that was forced upon him by the activity of others, wiped the sweat from his brow, and nodded his head in speechless despair. "Come in to-night, after you've talked with Anne and Dr. Bates. I'm easier now. It can't go on much longer, you see. Bates gives me a couple of weeks. That means a couple of centuries of pain, however. Go now and talk it over with Anne."

With this singular admonition pounding away at his senses, Braden went out of the room. Wade,—the ever-present Wade,—was outside the door. His expression was as calmly attentive as it would have been were his master yawning after a healthy nap instead of screaming with all the tortures of the damned. As Braden hurried by, hardly knowing whither he went, the servant did something he had never done before in his life. He ventured to lay a detaining hand upon the arm of a superior.

"Did he ask you to—to do it, Master Braden?" he whispered hoarsely. The man's eyes were glazed with dread.

Braden stopped. At first he did not comprehend. Then Wade's meaning was suddenly revealed to him. He drew back, aghast.

"Good Lord, no! No, no!" he cried out.

"Well," said Wade deliberately, "he will, mark my words, sir. I don't mind saying to you, Mr. Braden, that he _depends upon you."

"Are you crazy, Wade?" gasped Braden, searching the man's face with an intentness that betrayed his own fear that the prophecy would come true. Something had already told him that his grandfather would depend upon him for complete relief,—and it was that something that had gripped his heart when he entered the sick-room, and still gripped it with all the infernal tenacity of inevitableness.

He hurried on, like one hunted and in search of a place in which to hide until the chase had passed. At the foot of the stairs he came upon Murray, the butler.

"Mrs. Thorpe says that you are to go to your old room, Mr. Braden," said the butler. "Will you care for tea, sir, or would you prefer something a little stronger?"

"Nothing, Murray, thank you," replied Braden, cold with a strange new terror. He could not put aside the impression that Murray, the bibulous Murray, was also regarding him in the light of an executioner. Somewhere back in his memory there was aroused an old story about the citizens who sat up all night to watch for the coming of the hangman who was to do a grewsome thing at dawn. He tried to shake off the feeling, he tried to laugh at the fantastic notion that had so swiftly assailed him. "I think I shall go to my room. Call me, if I am needed."

He did not want to see Anne. He shrank from the revelations that were certain to come from the harassed wife of the old man who wanted to die. As he remounted the stairs, he was subtly aware that some one opened a door below and watched him as he fled. He did not look behind, but he knew that the watcher was white-faced and pleading, and that she too was counting on him for support.

An hour later, a servant knocked at his door. The afternoon was far gone and the sky was overcast with sinister streaks of clouds that did not move, but hung like vast Zeppelins over the harbour beyond: long, blue- black clouds with white bellies. Mournful clouds that waited for the time to come when they could burst into tears! He had been watching them as they crept up over the Jersey shores, great stealthy birds of ill-omen, giving out no sound yet ponderous in their flight. He started at the gentle tapping on his door; a strange hope possessed his soul. Was this a friendly hand that knocked? Was its owner bringing him the word that the end had come and that he would not be called upon to deny the great request? He sprang to the door.

"Dr. Bates is below, sir," said the maid. "He would like to see you before he goes."

Braden's heart sank. "I'll come at once, Katie."

There were three doctors in the library. Dr. Bates went straight to the point.

"Your grandfather, Braden, has a very short time to live. He has just dismissed us. Our services are no longer required in this case, if I—"

"Dismissed you?" cried Braden, unbelievingly.

Dr. Bates smiled. "We can do nothing more for him, my boy. It is just as well that we should go. He—"

"But, my God, sir, you cannot leave him to die in—"

"Have patience, my lad. We are not leaving him to die alone. By his express command, we are turning the case over to you. You are to be his sole—"

"I refuse!" shouted Braden.

"You cannot refuse,—you will not, I am sure. For your benefit I may say that the case is absolutely hopeless. Not even a miracle can save him. If you will give me your closest attention, I will, with Dr. Bray's support, describe his condition and all that has led up to this unhappy crisis. Sit down, my boy. I am your good friend. I am not your critic, nor your traducer. Sit down and listen calmly, if you can. You should know just what is before you, and you must also know that every surgeon who has been called in consultation expresses but one opinion. In truth, it is not an opinion that they venture, but an unqualified decision."

For a long time Braden sat as if paralysed and listened to the words of the fine old doctor. At last the three arose and stood over him.

"You understand everything now, Braden," said Dr. Bates, a tremor in his voice. "May God direct your course. We shall not come here again. You are not to feel that we are deserting you, however, for that is not true. We go because you have come, because you have been put in sole charge. And now, my boy, I have something else to say to you as an old friend. I know your views. Not I alone, but Dr. Bray and thousands of others, have felt as you feel about such things. There have been countless instances, like the one at hand, when we have wished that we might be faithless to the tenets of a noble profession. But we have never faltered. It is not our province to be merciful, if I may put it in that way, but to be conscientious. It is our duty to save, not to destroy. That is what binds every doctor to his patient. Take the advice of an old man, Braden, and don't allow your pity to run away with your soul. Take my advice, lad. Let God do the deliberate killing. He will do it in his own good time, for all of us. I speak frankly, for I know you consider me your friend and well- wisher."

"Thank you, Dr. Bates," said Braden, hoarsely. "The advice is not needed, however. I am not a murderer. I could not kill that poor old man upstairs, no matter how dreadfully he suffers. I fear that you have overlooked the fact that I am an advocate, not a performer, of merciful deeds. You should not confuse my views with my practice. I advocate legalising the destruction of the hopelessly afflicted. Inasmuch as it is not a legal thing to do at present, I shall continue to practise my profession as all the rest of you do: conscientiously." He was standing before them. His face was white and his hands were clenched.

"I am glad to hear you say that, Braden," said Dr. Bates gently. "Forgive me. One last word, however. If you need me at any time, I stand ready to come to you. If you conclude to operate, I—I shall advise against it, of course,—you may depend upon me to be with you when you—"

"But you have said, Dr. Bates, that you do not believe an operation would be of—"

"In my opinion it would be fatal. But you must not forget that God rules, not we mortals. We do not know everything. I am frank to confess that there is not one among us who is willing to take the chance, if that is a guide to you. That's all, my boy. Good-bye. God be with you!"

They passed out of and away from the house.

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