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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFrom The Housetops - Chapter 15
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From The Housetops - Chapter 15 Post by :Slic47 Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :3331

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From The Housetops - Chapter 15

CHAPTER XV

The day after the funeral, George Tresslyn called to see his sister. He found that it required a new sort of courage on his part to enter the house, even after his hesitation about pressing the door-bell. He was not afraid of any living man, and yet he was oppressed by the uncanny fear that Templeton Thorpe was still alive and waiting somewhere in the dark old house, ready to impose further demands upon his cupidity. The young man was none too steady beforehand, and now he was actually shaking. When Murray opened the door, he was confronted by an extremely pallid visitor who shot a furtive look over his head and down the hall before inquiring whether Mrs. Thorpe was at home.

"She is, Mr. George," said Murray. "You telephoned half an hour ago, sir."

"So I did," said George nervously. He was not offended by Murray's obvious comment upon his unstable condition, for he knew—even though Murray did not—that no drop of liquor had passed his lips in four days.

"Mrs. Thorpe is expecting you."

"Is she alone, Murray?"

"Yes, sir. Would you mind stepping inside, sir? It's a raw wind that is blowing. I think I must have taken a bit of a cold yesterday during—ahem! Thank you, sir. I will tell Mrs. Thorpe that you are here." Murray was rather testy. He had been imbibing.

George shivered. "I say, Murray, would you mind giving me a drop of something to warm me up? I—"

The butler regarded him fixedly, even severely. "You have had quite enough already, sir," he said firmly, but politely.

"Oh, come now! I haven't had a drink in God knows how long. I—but never mind! If that's the way you feel about it, I withdraw my request. Keep your darned old brandy. But let me tell you one thing, Murray; I don't like your impertinence. Just remember that, will you?"

"I beg your pardon, sir," said Murray, unoffended. He was seeing with a clearer vision. "You are ill. I mistook it for—"

"No, I'm not ill. And I'll forgive you, too, Murray," he added impulsively. "I daresay you were justified. My fame has preceded me. Tell Mrs. Thorpe I'm here, will you? Run along; the decanter is quite safe."

A few minutes later he was ushered into Anne's sitting-room upstairs. He stopped short just inside the door, struck by the pallor, the haggardness of his sister's face.

"Oh, I say, Anne!" he exclaimed. "You're not taking it so hard as all this, I hope. My Lord, girlie, you look—you look—why, you can't possibly feel like this about him. What the deuce are—"

"Close the door, George," she commanded. Her voice sounded hollow, lifeless to him. She was sitting bolt upright on the huge, comfortable couch in front of the grate fire. He had dreaded seeing her in black. She had worn it the day before. He remembered that she had worn more of it than seemed necessary to him. It had made her appear clumsy and over-fed. He was immensely relieved to find that she now wore a rose-coloured pignoir, and that it was wrapped very closely about her slim, long figure, as if she were afflicted by the cold and was futilely trying to protect her shivering flesh. He shuffled across the room and sat down beside her. "I'm glad you came. It is—oh, it is horribly lonely here in this dreadful house. You—"

"Hasn't mother been down to see you?" he demanded. "She ought to be here. You need her. Confound it, Anne, what sort of a woman is—"

"Hush! She telephoned. I said that I preferred to be alone. But I'm glad you came, George." She laid her hand on his. "You are able to feel sorry for me. Mother isn't."

"You're looking awfully seedy, Anne. I still say she ought to be here to look after you. It's her place."

"I'm all right. Of course, I look like the dickens, but who wouldn't? It has been terrible. Weeks and weeks of it. You'll never know what—" She shuddered so violently that he threw his arm about her and drew her close.

"Well, it's all over now, girlie. Brace up. Sunshine from now on. It was a bad day's work when you let yourself in for it, but that's all over now."

"Yes, it's all over," she said slowly. "Everything's all over." Her wide, sombre eyes fixed their gaze upon the rippling blue flames in the grate.

"Well, smile a little. It's time some one of us Tresslyns had a chance to grin a little without bearing it."

She raised her eyes and slowly inspected this big brother of hers. Seemingly she had not taken him in as a whole up to that moment of consideration. A slight frown appeared on her brow.

"I've been hearing rather bad things about you, George," she said, after a moment. "Now that I look at you, you do look pretty shaky,—and pretty well threshed out. Is it true? Have you been as bad as they say?"

He flushed. "Has Simmy Dodge been talking?"

"Simmy is your friend, George," she said sharply.

"It's always a fellow's friends who do the most talking," said he, "and that's what hurts. You don't mind what your enemies say."

"Simmy has not mentioned your name to me in weeks."

"Well, I don't call that being friendly. He knows everything. He ought to have told you just how rotten I've been, because you could believe Simmy. You can't believe every one, Anne, but I know Simmy would give it to you straight. Yes, I've been all that could be expected. The only thing I haven't been is a liar."

"Can't you brace up, George? You are really the best of the lot, if you only knew it. You—"

"I don't drink because I like it, you know, Anne," he said earnestly.

"I see," she said, nodding her head slowly. "You drink because it's the surest way to prove to Lutie that you are still in love with her. Isn't that it?" She spoke ironically.

"When I think how much you would have liked Lutie if she'd had a chance to—"

"Don't tell it to me, George," she interrupted. "I didn't in the least care whom you married. As a matter of fact, I think you married the right girl."

"You do?" he cried eagerly.

"Yes. But she didn't marry the right man. If you had been the right man and had been taken away from her as you were, she would have died of a broken heart long before this. Logic for you, isn't it?"

"She's got too much sense to die of a broken heart. And that isn't saying she wasn't in love with me, either."

"Oh, well," she sighed, "it doesn't matter. She didn't die, she didn't go to the bad, she didn't put on a long face and weep her eyes out,—as I recall them they were exceedingly pretty eyes, which may account for her determination to spare them,—and she didn't do anything that a sensible woman would have done under the circumstances. A sensible woman would have set herself up as a martyr and bawled her eyes out. But Lutie, being an ignoramus, overlooked her opportunities, and now see where she is! I am told that she is exasperatingly virtuous, abstemious and exceedingly well- dressed, and all on an income derived from thirty thousand dollars that came out of the Tresslyn treasure chest. Almost incomprehensible, isn't it? Nothing sensible about Lutie, is there?"

"Are you trying to be sarcastic, Anne?" demanded George, contriving to sit up a little straighter on the sofa. He was not in the habit of exerting himself in these days of unregeneration. Anne was always smarter than he; he never knew just how much smarter she was but he knew when to feel apprehensive.

"You wanted to see me, George," she said abruptly. "What is it you want? Money?"

He scowled. "I might have known you would ask that question. No, I don't want money. I could have had some of old man Thorpe's money a couple of weeks ago if I'd been mean enough to take it, and I'm not mean enough to take it now—from you. I want to talk to you about Braden Thorpe."

For a moment or two Anne looked into his frowning eyes, and then she drew back into the corner of the couch, a queer shudder running through her body.

"About Braden?" she asked, striving to make her voice sound firm and unstrained.

"Where is he? Staying here in the house?"

"Of course not. I don't know where he is. He has not been near me since—since the day before—" She spoke rapidly, jerkily, and did not deem it necessary to complete the sentence.

George had the delicacy to hesitate. He even weighed, in that brief instant, the advisability of saying what he had come to say to her. Then a queer sense of duty, of brother to sister, took the place of doubt. She was his sister and she needed him now as never before, needed him now despite his self-admitted worthlessness.

"See here, Anne, I'm going to speak plainly," he blurted out, leaning forward. "You must not see Brady Thorpe again. If he comes here, you must refuse to receive him."

Her eyes were very dark and lustreless against the increased pallor of her cheeks. "He will not come here, George," she said, scarcely above a whisper. She moistened her lips. "It isn't necessary to—to warn me."

"Mind you, I don't say a word against him," he made haste to explain. "It's what people will say that troubles me. Perhaps you don't know what they are going to say, Anne, but I do."

"Oh, I know what they will say," she muttered. She looked straight into his eyes. "They will say that he killed his grandfather—purposely."

"It doesn't matter that they say he killed his grandfather, Anne," said he slowly, "so much as that he killed your husband. That's the point."

"What have you heard, George?" she asked, in dread of his reply.

"Barely enough to let me understand that where one man is talking now, a hundred will be talking next week. There was a young doctor up there in the operating room. He doesn't say it in so many words, but he suspects that it wasn't an accidental slip of the—don't look like that, Anne! Gee, you looked awfully scary just then." He wiped his brow. "I—I thought you were about to faint. I say, we'll drop the matter this instant if—"

"I'm not going to faint," she exclaimed. "You need not be afraid. What is it that this young doctor says? And how do you happen to have heard—"

"It's what he said to Simmy," interrupted George, quickly. "Simmy let it slip last night. I was in his apartment. Then I made him tell me the whole thing. He says it is certain that if this young fellow saw anything wrong, the others also did. And you know there were three pretty big surgeons there looking on. Bates and those other fellows, you remember. It—it looks bad, Anne. That's why I tell you that you must not see Brady again."

"And what has all this to do with my not seeing Braden again?" she demanded steadily.

He stared. "Why,—why, you just mustn't, that's all. Can't you understand?"

"You mean that I ought not to be put in the position of sharing the blame with him. Is that it?"

"Well, if there should be a—er—criminal investigation, you'd be a blamed sight better off if you kept out of it, my girl. And what's more to the point, you can't afford to have people say that you are determined to do the thing they believe you set out to do in the beginning,—and that is to marry Braden as soon as—"

"Stop right there, George!" she cried hotly. "Other people may say what they please, but the same privilege is not extended to you. Don't forget that you are my brother."

"I'm sorry, Anne. I didn't mean it in that way. Of course, I know that it's all over between you and Brady. Just the same, I mean what I say when I advise you to see nothing of him. I've given you the hint, that's all."

"And I am sorry I spoke as I did just now," she said listlessly. "Thanks, George. You are looking out for me, aren't you? I didn't expect it. Somehow, I've always felt that nobody cared whether I—"

"I'll look out for you as long as I'm able to stand," said he, setting his jaw. "I wish you could love me, Anne. I think we'd be pretty good pals, after all, if we got to thinking more about each other and less about ourselves. Of course, I'm a down-and-outer and don't deserve much in the way of—"

"You don't deserve sympathy," she interrupted, laying a firm hand upon his, "and I know you are not asking for it. Encouragement is what you need." Her voice shook slightly. "You want some one to love you. I understand. It's what we all want, I suppose. I'll try to be a real, true sister from now on, George. It—it will not be very hard for me to love you, I'm sure," she concluded, with a whimsical little smile that went straight to his sore, disfigured heart. A lump came into his throat and his eyes began to smart so suddenly that a mist came over them before he could blink his lids. He was very young, was George Tresslyn, despite the things that go to make men old.

"Gee!" he said, astonished by his own emotions. Then he gripped her slender, ringless hand in his huge palm,—and was further surprised to discover that she did not wince. "We're not acting like Tresslyns at all, Anne. We're acting just like regular people."

"Do you know that you are a very lucky person, George?" she said abruptly. He blinked. "You don't know it, but you are. I wish I had the same chance that you have."

"What are you talking about?" he demanded.

"I wish I had the same chance to be happy that you have."

"Happy? Good Lord, I'll never be happy without Lutie, and you know it," he groaned.

"That is just the chance you still have, Buddy. It isn't inconceivable that you may get Lutie back, while I—well, you know how it is with me. I'm done for, to put it plainly."

"Lutie wouldn't wipe her feet on me," he said, struggling between hope and conviction. "I'd let her do it like a flash if she wanted to, but—Oh, what's the use! You and I have queered ourselves forever, you with Brady and I with Lutie. It's an infernal shame you didn't take Brady when you—"

"Yes, we've queered ourselves," said she, struck by the phrase that fell from his lips. It was not Anne's habit to use slang, but somehow George's way of putting the situation into words was so aggravatingly complete that she almost resented his prior use of an expression that she had never used before in her life. It _did sum up the business, neatly and compactly. Strange that she had never thought of that admirable word before! "And of the two of us, George, I am the worst offender. I went about my mistake deliberately. I suppose it is only right that I should pay the heavier price."

"If I thought there was a chance to get Lutie back, I'd—" But there he stopped as he always stopped. He had never been able to end that sentence, and he had got just that far with it a million times or more.

"Have you tried to get her back?" she demanded suddenly, a flash of interest in her eyes. It was to grow into genuine enthusiasm. The impulse at the back of her mind was to develop into an idea, later into a strong, definite purpose. It had for its foundation a hitherto unsuspected desire to do good.

"Great Scot, no!"

"Then _try_, George," she cried, a new thrill in her voice.

He was bewildered. "Try what?"

"I would stake my life on it, George, if you set about it in the right way you can win Lutie all over again. All you have to do is to let her see that you are a man, a real man. There's no reason in the world why she shouldn't remember what love really is, and that she once had it through you. There's a lot in love that doesn't come out in a couple of months and she has the sense to know that she was cheated out of it. If I am not greatly mistaken she is just like all other women. We don't stop loving before we get our fill of it, or until we've at least found out that it bores us to be loved by the man who starts the fire going. Now, Lutie must realise that she never got her full share. She wasn't through loving you. She had barely begun. It doesn't matter how badly a woman is treated, she goes on loving her man until some other man proves that she is wrong, and he cannot prove it to her until she has had all of the love that she can get out of the first man. That's why women stick to the men who beat them. Of course, this doesn't apply to unmoral women. You know the kind I mean. But it is true of all honest women, and Lutie appears to be more honest than we suspected. She had two or three months of you, George, and then came the crash. You can't tell me that she stopped wanting to be loved by you just as she was loving you the hardest. She may some day marry another man, but she will never forget that she had you for three months and that they were not enough."

"Great Scot!" said George once more, staring open-mouthed at his incomprehensible sister. "Are you in earnest?"

"Certainly."

"Why, she ought to despise me."

"Quite true, she should," said Anne coolly. "The only thing that keeps her from despising you is that uncompleted honeymoon. It's like giving a starving man just half enough to eat. He is still hungry."

"Do you mean to say that you'd like to see me make it up again with Lutie? You'd like to have me marry her again?"

"Why not? I'd find some happiness in seeing you happy, I suppose. I dare say it is self interest on my part, after all. In a way, it makes for my happiness, so therein I am selfish."

"Bosh! You'll be happy, Anne, but not through me. You are the prettiest girl in New York, one of the richest, one of the smartest—"

"See here, George," she said, a hard note stealing into her voice, "you and I are pretty much alike in one respect. Surprising as it may seem, we have been able to love some one besides ourselves. And still more surprising, we appear to be constant. You are no more constant in your love for Lutie than I am in my love for the man I shall never have. My man despises me. Your woman merely pities you. You can retake what you have lost. I cannot. But why shouldn't I go on loving my man, just as you are loving your woman? Why shouldn't I?" she cried out fiercely.

He gulped. "Oh, I say, Anne, I—I didn't dream that it meant so much to you. I have always thought of you as—as—er—sort of indifferent to—But, that just shows how little a fellow knows about his sister. A sister never seems to be given the same flesh and blood feelings that other women have. I'm sorry I said what I did a little while ago. I take it back, Anne. If you've got a chance to get Brady back—"

"Stop! I spoke of your affairs, George, because they are not altogether hopeless. We cannot discuss mine."

"And as for that story, who is going to prove that Braden intentionally—" He checked the words, and switched off along another line. "Even though he did put a merciful end to Mr. Thorpe's suffering, what selfish motive can be charged to him? Not one. He doesn't get a dollar of the estate, Simmy says. He alone loved that old man. No one else in the world loved him. He did the best he could for him, and he doesn't care what any one thinks about it. I came here to warn you, to tell you to be careful, but now that I know what it means to you, I—"

She arose. Facing him, she said slowly, deliberately: "I believe that Braden tried to save his grandfather's life. He asked my consent to the operation. I gave it. When I gave it, I was morally certain that Mr. Thorpe was to die on the operating table. I wanted him to die. I wanted an end put to his suffering. But I did not want Braden to be the one. Some day I may have the courage to tell you something, George, that will shock you as nothing on earth has ever shocked you. I will tell you the real reason why Templeton Thorpe married me. I—but not now. I wish that the whole world could know that if Braden did take his own way to end the suffering of that unhappy old man, I have no word of condemnation for him. He did the humane thing."

George remained seated, watching her with perplexed, dubious eyes. It was a matter that deserved mental concentration. He could best achieve this by abstaining from physical indulgence. Here was his sister, the wife of the dead man, actually condoning an act that was almost certain to be professionally excoriated,—behind the hand, so to say,—even though there was no one to contend that a criminal responsibility should be put upon Braden Thorpe. He was, for the moment, capable of forgetting his own troubles in considering the peril that attended Anne.

"Oh, I say, Anne, you'll have to be careful what you say. It's all right to say it to me, but for heaven's sake don't go telling these things to other people." He was serious, desperately serious. "No one will understand. No one will see it as you do. There has been a lot of talk about Brady's views and all that. People are not very charitable toward him. They stick to the idea that God ought to do such jobs as Brady advocates, and I don't know but they are right. So now you just keep your mouth closed about all this. It is Braden's affair, it's his lookout, not yours. The least said, the better, take it from me. You—"

"We will talk of something else, George, if you don't mind," she said, relaxing suddenly. She sat down beside him once more, rather limply and with a deep, long-drawn sigh, as if she had spent herself in this single exposition of feeling. "Now what do you intend to do in regard to Lutie? Are you ready to straighten up and make the effort to—to be something creditable to yourself and to her?"

"Oh, I've tried to hold down a good many respectable jobs," he scoffed. "It's no good trying. I'm too busy thinking of her to be able to devote much of my remarkable intelligence to ordinary work."

"Well, you've never had me behind you till now," she said. "I am perfectly able to think for you, if you'll let me. Simmy Dodge is interested in you. He can get you a berth somewhere. It may be a humble one, but it will lead to something better. You are not a drunkard, you are not a loafer. Now, I will tell you what I intend to do. If, at the end of a year, you can show me that you—"

"Hold on! You are not thinking of offering me money, are you?" he demanded, flushing angrily.

Her eyes brightened. "You would not accept it?"

"No," he said flatly.

"You must remember one thing, George," she said, after a moment. "You cannot take Lutie back until you have paid mother in full for all that your freedom cost her. It wouldn't be fair to take both the girl and the money she received for giving you up that time. She was paid in full for returning you to the family circle. If she takes you back again, she should refund the money, even though she is accepting damaged and well- worn goods. Now, Lutie should not be called upon to make restitution. That is for you to do. I fancy it will be a long time before you can amass thirty or forty thousand dollars, so I make you this offer: the day you are _good enough for Lutie to marry all over again, I will pay to mother for you the full amount that Lutie would owe her in violating the contract. You will not receive a cent of it, you see. But you understand how rotten it would be for you and Lutie to—"

"I see, I see," cried he, striking his knee with his clenched hand. "We couldn't do it, that's all. It's awfully good of you, Anne, to do this for me. I'll—I'll never forget it. And I'll pay you back somehow before we're through, see if I don't." He was already assuming that the task of winning back Lutie was joyously on the way to certain consummation.

"I am a rich woman," said Anne, compressing her lips. "I sha'n't miss a few dollars, you know. To-morrow I am to go with Mr. Hollenback to the safety vaults. A fortune will be placed in my hands. The deal will be closed."

"It's a lot of money," said George, shaking his head gloomily. It was as if he had said that it was money she shouldn't speak of with pride. "I say, Anne, do you know just how mother is fixed for money? Last winter she told me she might have to sell the house and—"

"I know," said Anne shortly. "I intend to share the spoils with her, in a way, even though she can't share the shame with me. She brought us up, George, and she made us the noble creatures that we are. We owe her something for that, eh? Oh, I am not as bitter as I appear to be, so don't look shocked. Mother has her ideals, and she is honest about them. She is a wonderful woman, a wonderful mother. She did her best for us in every way possible. I don't blame her for what has happened to me. I blame myself. She is not half as mean as I am, George, and she isn't one-tenth as weak-kneed as you. She stood by both of us, and I for one shall stand by her. So don't you worry about mother, old boy. Worry about the honest job you are expected to get—and hold."

Later on she said to him: "Some day I shall make it a point to see Lutie. I will shake hands with her. You see, George dear," she went on whimsically, "I don't in the least object to divorcees. They are not half as common as divorces. And as for your contention that if you and Lutie had a child to draw you together, I can only call your attention to the fact that there are fewer divorces among people who have no children than among those who have. The records—or at least the newspapers—prove that to be a fact. In nine-tenths of the divorce cases you read about, the custody of children is mentioned. That should prove something, eh? It ought to put at rest forever the claim that children bind mismated people together. They don't, and that is all there is about it."

George grinned in his embarrassment. "Well, I'll be off now, Anne. I'll see Simmy this afternoon, as you suggest, and—" he hesitated, the worried look coming into his eyes once more—"Oh, I say, Anne, I can't help repeating what I said about your seeing Braden. Don't—"

"Good-bye, George," she broke in abruptly, a queer smile on her lips.

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