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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFrom The Housetops - Chapter 26
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From The Housetops - Chapter 26 Post by :Slic47 Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :776

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From The Housetops - Chapter 26

CHAPTER XXVI

Anne Thorpe had set her heart on an eventuality. She could see nothing else, think of nothing else. She prayed each night to God,—and devoutly,—not alone for the safe return of her lover, but that God would send him home soon! She was conscious of no fear that he might never return at all.

To the surprise of every one, with the approach of spring, she announced her determination to re-open the old Thorpe residence and take up her abode therein. George was the only one who opposed her. He was seriously upset by the news.

"Good heaven, Anne, you don't _have to live in the house, so why do it? It's like a tomb. I get the shivers every time I think about it. You can afford to live anywhere you like. It isn't as if you were obliged to think of expenses—"

"It seems rather silly _not to live in it," she countered. "I will admit that at first I couldn't endure the thought of it, but that was when all of the horrors were fresh in my mind. Besides, I resented his leaving it to me. It was not in the bargain, you know. There was something high- handed, too, in the way I was _ordered to live in the house. I had the uncanny feeling that he was trying to keep me where he could watch—but, of course, that was nonsense. There is no reason why I shouldn't live in the house, Georgie. It is—"

"There is a blamed good reason why you should never have lived in it," he blurted out. "There's no use digging it up, however, so we'll let it stay buried." He argued bitterly, even doggedly, but finally gave it up. "Well," he said in the end, "if you will, you will. All the King's horses and all the King's men can't stop you when you've once made up your mind."

A few days later she called for Lutie in the automobile and they went together to the grim old house near Washington Square. Her mind was made up, as George had put it. She was going to open the house and have it put in order for occupancy as soon as possible.

She had solved the meaning of Braden's postscript. She would have to prove to him, first of all, that she was not afraid of the shadow that lay inside the walls of that grim old house. "If you are not also a coward you will return to my grandfather's house, where you belong." It was, she honestly believed, his way of telling her that if she faced the shadow in her own house, and put it safely behind her, her fortitude would not go unrewarded!

It did not occur to her that she was beginning badly when she delayed going down to the house for two whole days because Lutie was unable to accompany her.

The windows and doors were boarded up. There was no sign of life about the place when they got down from the limousine and mounted the steps at the heels of the footman who had run on ahead to ring the bell. They waited for the opening of the inner door and the shooting of the bolts in the storm-doors, but no sound came to their ears. Again the bell jangled,—how well she remembered the old-fashioned bell at the end of the hall!—and still no response from within.

The two women looked at each other oddly. "Try the basement door," said Anne to the man. They stood at the top of the steps while the footman tried the iron gate that barred the way to the tradesmen's door. It was pad-locked.

"I asked Simmy to meet us here at eleven," said Anne nervously. "I expect it will cost a good deal to do the house over as I want—Doesn't any one answer, Peters?"

"No, ma'am. Maybe he's out."

Lutie's face blanched suddenly. "My goodness, Anne, what if—what if he's dead in—"

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Lutie," cried Anne impatiently, "don't go to imagining—Still it's very odd. Pound on the door, Peters,—hard."

She shivered a little and turned away so that Lutie could not see the expression in her eyes. "I have had no word from him in nearly two weeks. He calls up once every fortnight to inquire—You are not pounding hard enough, Peters."

"Let's go away," said Lutie, starting down the steps.

"No," said Anne resolutely, "we must get in somehow. He may be ill. He is an old man. He may be lying in there praying for help, dying for lack of—" Then she called out to the chauffeur. "See if you can find a policeman. We may have to break the door down. You see, Lutie, if he's in there I must get to him. We may not be too late."

Lutie rejoined her at the top of the steps. "You're right, Anne. I don't know what possessed me. But, goodness, I _hope it's nothing—" She shuddered. "He may have been dead for days."

"What a horrible thing it would be if—But it doesn't matter, Lutie; I am going in. If you are nervous or afraid of seeing something unpleasant, don't come with me. Wade must be nearly seventy. He may have fallen or—Look! Why,—can _that be him coming up the—" She was staring down the street toward Sixth Avenue. A great breath of relief escaped her lips as she clutched her companion's arm and pointed.

Wade was approaching. He was still half way down the long block, and only an eye that knew him well could have identified him. Even at closer range one might have mistaken him for some one else.

He was walking rather briskly,—in fact, he was strutting. It was not his gait, however, that called for remark. While he was rigidly upright and steady as to progress, his sartorial condition was positively staggering. He wore a high, shiny silk hat. It was set at just the wee bit of an angle and quite well back on his head. Descending his frame, the eye took in a costly fur-lined overcoat with a sable collar, properly creased trousers with a perceptible stripe, grey spats and unusually glistening shoes that could not by any chance have been of anything but patent leather. Light tan gloves, a limber walking stick, a white carnation and a bright red necktie—there you have all that was visible of him. Even at a great distance you would have observed that he was freshly shaved.

Suddenly his eye fell upon the automobile and then took in the smart looking visitors above. His pace slackened abruptly. After a moment of what appeared to be indecision, he came on, rather hurriedly. There had been a second or two of suspense in which Anne had the notion that the extraordinary creature was on the point of darting into a basement door, as if, unlike the peacock, he was ashamed of his plumage.

He came up to them, removing his high hat with an awkwardness that betrayed him. His employer was staring at him with undisguised amazement. "I just stepped out for a moment, Mrs. Thorpe, to post a letter," said Wade, trying his best not to sink back into servility, and quite miserably failing. He was fumbling for his keys. The tops of the houses across the street appeared to interest him greatly. His gaze was fixed rather intently upon them. "Very sorry, Mrs. Thorpe,—dreadfully sorry. Ahem! Good morning. I hope you have not been waiting long. I—ah, here we are!" He found the key in the pocket of his fancy waistcoat, and bolted down the steps to unlock the gate. "Excuse me, please. I will run in this way and open the door from the—"

"Wade," cried out Mrs. Thorpe, "is it really you?"

He looked astonished—and a trifle hurt. "Who else could I be, Mrs. Thorpe?" Then he darted through the gate and a moment later the servants' door opened and closed behind him.

"I must be dreaming," said Anne. "What in the world has come over the man?"

Lutie closed one eye slowly. "There is only one thing under heaven that could make a man rig himself out like that,—and that thing is a woman."

"A woman? Don't be foolish, Lutie. Wade couldn't even _think of a woman. He's nearly seventy."

"They think of 'em until they drop, my dear," said Lutie sagely. "That's one thing we've got to give them credit for. They keep on thinking about us even while they're trying to keep the other foot out of the grave. You are going to lose the amiable Wade, Anne dear. He's not wearing spats for nothing."

Some time passed before the key turned in the inner door, and there was still a long wait before the bolts in the storm doors shot back and Wade's face appeared. He had not had the time to remove the necktie and spats, but the rest of his finery had been replaced by the humble togs of service—long service, you would say at a glance.

"Sorry to keep you waiting, ma'am, but—" He held the doors open and the two ladies entered the stuffy, unlighted hall.

"Turn on the lights, please," said Anne quickly. Wade pushed a button and the lights were on. She surveyed him curiously. "Why did you take them off, Wade? You looked rather well in them."

He cleared his throat gently, and the shy, set smile reappeared as if by magic. "It isn't necessary for me to say that I was not expecting you this morning."

"Quite obviously you were not," said Anne drily. She continued to regard him somewhat fixedly. Something in his expression puzzled her. "Mr. Dodge will be here presently. I am making arrangements to open the house."

He started. "Er—not to—er—live in it yourself, of course. I was sure Mr. Dodge would find a way to get around the will so that you could let the house—"

"I expect to live here myself, Wade," said she. After a moment, she went on: "Will you care to stay on?"

He was suddenly confused. "I—I can't give you an answer just at this moment, Mrs. Thorpe. It may be a few days before I—" He paused.

"Take all the time you like, Wade," she interrupted.

"I fancy I'd better give notice now, ma'am," he said after a moment. "To- day will do as well as any day for that." He seemed to straighten out his figure as he spoke, resuming a little of the unsuspected dignity that had accompanied the silk hat and the fur-lined coat.

"I'm sorry," said Anne,—who was not in the slightest sense sorry. Wade sometimes gave her the creeps.

"I should like to explain about the—ah—the garments you saw me wearing—ah—I mean to say, I should have brought myself to the point of telling you a little later on, in any event, but now that you have caught me wearing of them, I dare say this is as good a time as any to get it over with. First of all, Mrs. Thorpe, I must preface my—er—confession by announcing that I am quite sure that you have always considered me to be an honest man and above deception and falsehood. Ahem! That _is right, isn't it?"

"What are you trying to get at, Wade?" she cried in surprise. "You cannot imagine that I suspect you of—anything wrong?"

"It may be wrong, and it may not be. I have never felt quite right about it. There have been times when I felt real squeamish—and a bit underhanded, you might say. On the other hand, I submit that it was not altogether reprehensible on my part to air them occasionally—and to see that the moths didn't—"

"Air them? For goodness' sake, Wade, speak plainly. Why shouldn't you air your own clothes? They are very nice looking and they must have cost you a pretty penny. Dear me, I have no right to say what you shall wear on the street or—"

Wade's eyes grew a little wider. "Is it possible, madam, that you failed to recognise the—er—garments?"

She laid her hand upon Lutie's arm, and gripped it convulsively. Her eyes were fixed in a fast-growing look of aversion.

"You do not mean that—that they were Mr. Thorpe's?" she said, in a low voice.

"I supposed, of course, you would have remembered them," said Wade, a trifle sharply. "The overcoat was one that he wore every day when you went out for your drive with him, just before he took to his bed. I—"

"Good heaven!" cried Anne, revolted. "You have been wearing his clothes?"

"They were not really what you would call cast-off garments, ma'am," he explained in some haste, evidently to save his dignity. "They were rather new, you may remember,—that is to say, the coat and vest and trousers. As I recall it, the overcoat was several seasons old, and the hat was the last one he ordered before taking to the comfortable lounge hat—he always had his hats made from his own block, you see,—and as I was about to explain, ma'am, it seemed rather a sin to let them hang in the closet, food for moths and to collect dust in spite of the many times I brushed them. Of course, I should never have presumed to wear them while he was still alive, not even after he had abandoned them for good—No, that is a thing I have never been guilty of doing. I could not have done it. That is just the difference between a man-servant and a woman-servant. Your maid frequently went out in your gowns without your knowledge. I am told it is quite a common practice. At least I may claim for myself the credit of waiting until my employer was dead before venturing to cover my back with his—Yes, honest confession is good for the soul, ma'am. These shoes are my own, and the necktie. He could not abide red neckties. Of course, I need not say that the carnation I wore was quite fresh. The remainder of my apparel was once worn by my beloved master. I am not ashamed to confess it."

"How _could you wear the clothes of a—a dead person?" cried Anne, cringing as if touched by some cold and slimy thing.

"It seemed such a waste, madam. Of late I have taken to toning myself up a bit, and there seemed no sensible reason why I shouldn't make use of Mr. Thorpe's clothes,—allow me to explain that I wore only those he had used the least,—provided they were of a satisfactory fit. We were of pretty much the same size,—you will remember that, I'm sure,—and, they fitted me quite nicely. Of course, I should not have taken them away with me when I left your employ, madam. That would have been unspeakable. I should have restored them to the clothes presses, and you would have found them there when I turned over the keys and—"

"Good heavens, man," she cried, "take them away with you when you go—all of them. Everything, do you hear? I give them all to you. Of what use could they be to me? They are yours. Take everything,—hats, boots, linen,—"

"Thank you, ma'am. That is very handsome of you. I wasn't quite sure that perhaps Mr. Braden wouldn't find some use for the overcoat. It is a very elegant coat. It cost—"

"Wade, you are either very stupid or very insolent," she interrupted coldly. "We need not discuss the matter any farther. How soon do you expect to leave?"

"I should say that a week would be sufficient notice, under the circumstances," said he, and chuckled, much to their amazement. "I may as well make a clean breast of it, ma'am. I am going to be married on the seventeenth of next month. That's just six weeks off and—"

"Married! You?"

"Ah, madam, I trust you will not forget that I have lived a very lonely and you might say profitless life," he said, rubbing his hands together, and allowing his smile to broaden into a pleased grin. "As you may know in the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,—and so on. A man is as old as he feels. I can't say that I ever felt younger in my life than I have felt during the past month."

"I wish you joy and happiness, Wade," said Anne dumbly. She was staring at his smirking, seamed old face as if fascinated. "I hope she is a good woman and that you will find—"

"She is little more than a girl," said he, straightening his figure still a little more, remembering that he had just spoken of his own youthful feelings. There may have been something of the pride of conquest as well. "Just twenty-one last December."

Lutie laughed out loud. He bent his head quickly and they saw that his lips were compressed.

"I beg your pardon, Wade," cried George's wife. "It—it really isn't anything to laugh at, and I'm sorry."

"That's all right, Mrs. George," he muttered.

"Only twenty-one," murmured Anne, her gaze running over the shabby old figure in front of her. "My God, Wade, is she—what can she be thinking of?"

He looked straight into her eyes, and spoke. "Is it so horrible for a young girl to marry an old man, ma'am?" he asked sorrowfully, and so respectfully that she was deceived into believing that he intended no affront to her.

"They usually know what they are doing when they marry very old men," she replied deliberately. "You must not overlook that fact, Wade. But perhaps it isn't necessary for me to remind you that young girls do not marry old men for love. There may be pity, or sentiment, or duty—but never love. More often than not it is avarice, Wade."

"Quite true," said he. "I am glad to have you speak so frankly to me, ma'am. It proves that you are interested in my welfare."

"Who is she, Wade?" she inquired.

Lutie had passed into the library, leaving them together in the hall. She had experienced a sudden sensation of nausea. It was impossible for her to remain in the presence of this shattered old hulk and still be able to keep the disgust from showing itself in her eyes. She was the wife of a real man, and the wife of a man whom she could love and caress and yield herself to with a thrill of ecstasy in her blood.

"The young lady I was speaking to you about some weeks ago, madam,—the daughter of my friend who conducts the _delicatessen just below us in Sixth Avenue. You remember I spoke to you of the Southern lady reduced to a commercial career by—"

"I remember. I remember thinking at the time that it might be the mother who would prevail—I am sorry, Wade. I shouldn't have said that—"

"It's quite all right," said he amiably. "It is barely possible—ay, even probable,—that it was the mother who prevailed. They sometimes do, you know. But Marian appears to have a mind of her own. She loves me, Mrs. Thorpe. I am quite sure of that. It would be pretty hard to deceive me."

Through all of this Anne was far from oblivious to the sinister comparisons the man was drawing. She had always been a little afraid of him. Now an uneasy horror was laying its hold upon her. He had used her as an example in persuading a silly, unsophisticated girl to give herself to him. He had gone about his courtship in the finery his dead master had left behind him.

"I thank you for your good wishes, Mrs. Thorpe," he went on, smoothly. "If it is not too much to ask, I should like to have you say a few good words for me to Marian some day soon. She would be very greatly influenced by the opinion of so great a lady as—"

"But I thought you said it was settled," she broke in sharply.

"It is settled," he said. "But if you would only do me the favour of—er—advising her to name an earlier day than the seventeenth, I—"

"I cannot advise her, Wade," said she firmly. "It is out of the question."

"I am sorry," he said, lowering his gaze. "Mr. Thorpe was my best friend as well as my master. I thought, for his sake, you might consent to—"

"You must do your own pleading, Wade," she interrupted, a red spot appearing in each cheek. Then rashly: "You may continue to court her in Mr. Thorpe's clothes but you need not expect his wife to lend her assistance also."

His eyes glittered. "I am sorry if I have offended you, ma'am. And I thank you for being honest and straightforward with me. It is always best."

"I did not mean to hurt your feelings, Wade," she began, half-sorry for her remark.

"Not in the least, ma'am. Nothing can hurt my feelings. You see, I lived with Mr. Thorpe a great deal longer than you did. I got quite beyond being hurt."

She drew a step nearer. "Wade," she said quietly, "I am going to advise you, not this wretched girl who is planning to marry you. How old are you?"

"Two score and a half and five," he answered promptly. Evidently he had uttered the glib lie before, and as on another occasion he waited for his listener to reduce the words to figures.

"Fifty-five," said Anne, after some time. She was not good at mathematics. "I thought you were older than that. It doesn't matter, however. You are fairly well-off, I believe. Upwards of fifty thousand dollars, no doubt. Now, I shall be quite frank with you. This girl is taking you for your money. Just a moment, if you please. I do not know her, and I may be doing her an injustice. You have compared her to me in reaching your conclusions. You do not deceive yourself any more than Mr. Thorpe deceived himself. He knew I did not love him, and you must know that the same condition exists in this affair of yours. You have thanked me for being honest. Well, I was honest with Mr. Thorpe. I would have been as true as steel to him, even if he had lived to be an hundred. The question you must ask of yourself is this, Wade: Will this girl be as true as steel to you? Is there no other man to be afraid of?"

He listened intently. A certain greyness crept into his hollow cheeks.

"Was there no other man when you married Mr. Thorpe?" he asked levelly.

"Yes, there was," she surprised him by replying. "An honest man, however. I think you know—"

She scarcely heard Wade as he went on, now in a most conciliatory way. "It may interest you to know that I have arranged to buy out the delicatessen. We expect to enlarge and tidy the place up just as soon as we can get around to it. I believe I shall be very happy, once I get into active business. Mrs. Gadscomb,—that's the present mother,—I mean to say, the present owner, Marian's mother, has agreed to conduct the place as heretofore, at a very excellent salary, and I have no fear as to—But excuse me for going on like this, ma'am. No doubt you would like to talk about your own affairs instead of listening to mine. You said something about opening the house and coming back here to live. Of course, I shall consider it my duty to remain here just as long as I can be of service to you. There will be a little plumbing needed on the third floor, and I fancy a general cleaning—"

"Thank heaven, there is Mr. Dodge at last," cried Anne, as the bell jangled almost over her head, startling her into a little cry of alarm.

As Wade shuffled toward the front door, once more the simple slave of circumstance, she fled quickly into the library.

"Oh, Lutie," she cried, sinking into a chair beside the long, familiar table, and beating with her clenched hands upon the surface of it, "I know at last just how I look to other people. My God in heaven, what a _thing I must seem to you."

Lutie came swiftly out of the shadows and laid her hands upon the shoulders of her sister-in-law.

"You ought to thank the Lord, dear old girl, for the revelation," she said gently. "I guess it's just what you've needed." Then she leaned over and pressed her warm, soft cheek to Anne's cold one. "If I owned this house," she said almost in a whisper, "I'd renovate it from top to bottom. I'd get rid of more than old Wade and the old clothes. The best and cheapest way to renovate it would be to set fire to a barrel of kerosene in the basement."

"Oh, how horrible for that girl to marry a dreadful, shrivelled old man like Wade. The skin on his hands is all wrinkled and loose—I couldn't help noticing it as I—"

"Hello!" called out Simmy from the doorway, peering into the darkened room. "Where the deuce are you? Ah, that's better, Wade." The caretaker had switched on the lights in the big chandelier. "Sorry to be late, Anne. Morning, Lutie. How's my god-son? Couldn't get here a minute sooner. You see, Anne, I've got other clients besides you. Braden, for instance. I've been carrying out his instructions in regard to that confounded trusteeship. The whole matter is to be looked after by a Trust Company from now on. Simplifies matters enormously."

Anne started up. "Isn't—isn't he coming back to America?" she cried.

"Sure,—unless they pink him some day. My goodness, you don't suppose for an instant that he could manage the whole of that blooming foundation and have any time to spare for _hopeful humanity,—do you? Why, it will take a force of half a dozen men to keep the books straight and look after the ever-increasing capital. By the time old Brady is ready to start the ball rolling there will be so much money stored up for the job that Rockefeller will be ashamed to mention the pitiful fortune he controls. In the meantime he can go on saving people's lives while the trust company saves the Foundation."

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