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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFrom The Housetops - Chapter 27
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From The Housetops - Chapter 27 Post by :Slic47 Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :2849

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From The Housetops - Chapter 27

CHAPTER XXVII

Thorpe returned to New York about the middle of May, in the tenth month of the war. The true facts concerning the abrupt severance of his connections with the hospital corps in France were never divulged. His confrères and his superiors maintained a discreet and loyal silence. It was to Simmy that he explained the cause of his retirement. Word had gone out among the troops that he was the American doctor whose practices were infinitely more to be feared than the bullets from an enemy's guns.... It was announced from headquarters that he was returning to the United States on account of ill-health. He had worked hard and unceasingly and had exposed himself to grave physical hardships. He came home with a medal for conspicuous and unexampled valour while actually under fire. One report had it that on more than one occasion he appeared not only to scorn death but to invite it, so reckless were his deeds.

* * * * *

Meanwhile James Marraville died in great agony. Those nearest to him said, in so many words, that it was a great pity he did not die at the time of the operation.

* * * * *

"But," began one of the reporters at the dock, "you are said to have risked your own life, Dr. Thorpe, on at least half a dozen occasions when you exposed yourself to the fire of the enemy by going out in front after men who had fallen and were as good as dead when you got to them. In every case, we are told the men died on the stretchers while they were being carried to the rear. Do you mind telling us why you brought those men back when you knew that they were bound to die—"

"You have been misinformed," interrupted Thorpe. "One of those men did not die. I did all that was possible to save the lives as well as the bodies of those wretched fellows. Not one of them appeared to have a chance. The one who survived was in the most hopeless condition of them all. He is alive to-day, but without legs or arms. He is only twenty-two. He may live to be seventy. The others died. Will you say that they are not better off than he? And yet we tried to save them all. That is what we were there for. I saw a man run a bayonet through the heart of his own brother one day. We were working over him at the time and we knew that our efforts would be useless. The brother knew it also. He merely did the thing we refused to do. You want to know why I deliberately picked out of all the wounded the men who seemed to have the least chance for recovery, and brought them back to a place of safety. Well, I will tell you quite frankly, why I chose those men from among all the others. They were being left behind. They were as good as dead, as you say. I wanted to treat the most hopeless cases that could be found. I wanted to satisfy myself. I went about it quite cold-bloodedly,—not bravely, as the papers would have it,—and I confess that I passed by men lying out there who might have had a chance, looking for those who apparently had none. Seven of them died, as you say,—seven of the 'hopelessly afflicted.' One of them lived. You will now say that having proved to my own satisfaction that no man can be 'hopelessly afflicted,' I should be ready to admit the fallacy of my preachings. But you are wrong. I am more firmly intrenched in my position than ever before. That man's life should not have been saved. We did him a cruel wrong in saving it for him. He wanted to die, he still wants to die. He will curse God to the end of his days because he was allowed to live. Some day his relatives will exhibit him in public, as one of the greatest of freaks, and people will pay to enter the side shows to see him. They will carry him about in shawl straps. He will never be able to protest, for he has lost the power of speech. He can only _see and _hear_. Will you be able to look into the agonised eyes of that man as he lies propped up in a chair, a mere trunk, and believe that he is glad to be alive? Will you then rejoice over the fact that we saved him from a much nobler grave than the one he occupies in the side-show, where all the world may stare at him at so much per head? An inglorious reward, gentlemen, for a brave soldier of the Republic."

"We may quote you as saying, Dr. Thorpe, that you have not abandoned your theories?"

"Certainly. I shall go on preaching, as you are pleased to call my advocacy. A great many years from to-day—centuries, no doubt,—the world will think as I do now. Thank you, gentlemen, for your courtesy in—"

"Have you heard that James Marraville died last week, Dr. Thorpe?" broke in one of the reporters.

"No," said he, quite unmoved. "I am not surprised, however. I gave him five or six months."

"Didn't you expect him to get entirely well?" demanded the man, surprised.

Braden shook his head, smiling. "No one expected that, gentlemen,—not even Mr. Marraville."

"But every one thought that the operation was a success, and—"

"And so it was, gentlemen," said Thorpe unsmilingly; "a very terrible success."

"Gee, if we print that as coming from you, Dr. Thorpe, it will create the biggest sensation in years."

"Then I haven't the least doubt that you will print it," said Thorpe.

There was a short silence. Then the spokesman said: "I think I speak for every man here when I say that we will not print it, Dr. Thorpe. We understand, but the people wouldn't." He deliberately altered the character of the interview and inquired if German submarines had been sighted after the steamship left Liverpool. The whole world was still shuddering over the disaster to the _Lusitania_, torpedoed the week before, with the loss of over a thousand souls.

Thorpe drove uptown with Simmy Dodge, who would not hear of his going to an hotel, but conducted him to his own apartment where he was to remain as long as he pleased.

"Get yourself pulled together, old chap, before you take up any work," advised Simmy. "You look pretty seedy. We're going to have a hot summer, they say. Don't try to do too much until you pick up a bit. Too bad they're fighting all over the continent of Europe. If they weren't, hang me if I wouldn't pack you onto a boat and take you over there for a good long rest, in spite of what happened to the _Lusitania_. We'll go up into the mountains in June, Brady,—or what do you say to skipping out to the San Francisco fair for a few—"

"You're looking thin and sort of pegged out, old boy," began Simmy soothingly.

"I'm all right, Simmy. Sound as anything. I don't mind telling you that it wasn't my health that drove me out of the service,—and that's what hurts. They—they didn't want me. They thought it was best for me to get out."

"Good Lord!" gasped Simmy, struggling between amazement and indignation. "What kind of blithering fools have they got over—"

"They are not blithering fools," said Thorpe soberly. "The staff would not have turned me out, I'm sure of that. I was doing good work, Simmy," he went on rapidly, eagerly, "even though I do say it myself. Everybody was satisfied, I'm sure. Night and day,—all the time,—mind you, and I was standing up under it better than any of them. But, you see, it wasn't the staff that did it. It was the poor devil of a soldier out there in the trenches. They found out who I was. Newspapers, of course. Well, that tells the story. They were afraid of me. But I am not complaining. I do not blame them. God knows it was hard enough for them to face death out there at the front without having to think of—well, getting it anyhow if they fell into my hands. I—But there's no use speaking of it, Simmy. I wanted you to know why I got out, and I want Anne to know. As for the rest, let them think I was sick or—cowardly if they like."

Simmy was silent for a long time. He said afterwards that it was all he could do to keep from crying as he looked at the pale, gaunt face of his friend and listened to the verdict of the French soldiers.

"I don't see the necessity for telling Anne," he said, at last, pulling rather roughly at his little moustache. They were seated at one of the broad windows in Simmy's living-room, drinking in the cool air that came up from the west in advance of an impending thunderstorm. The day had been hot and stifling. "No sense in letting her know, old man. Secret between you and me, if you don't—"

"I'd rather she knew," said Thorpe briefly. "In fact, she will have to know."

"What do you mean?"

Thorpe was staring out over the Park, and did not answer. Simmy found another cigarette and lighted it, scorching his fingers while furtively watching his companion's face.

"How is Anne, Simmy?" demanded Thorpe abruptly. There was a fierce, eager light in his eyes, but his manner was strangely repressed. "Where is she?"

Simmy took a deep breath. "She's well and she's at home."

"You mean,—down there in the old—"

"The old Thorpe house. I don't know what's got into the girl, Brady. First she swears she won't live in the house, and then she turns around,—just like that,—and moves in. Workmen all over the place, working overtime and all that sort of thing,—with Anne standing around punchin' 'em with a sharp stick if they don't keep right on the job. Top to bottom,—renovated, redecorated, brightened up,—wouldn't recognise the place as—"

"Is she living there—alone?"

"Yes. New lot of servants and—By the way, old Wade has—what do you think he has done?"

"How long has she been living down there?" demanded the other, impatiently. His eyes were gleaming.

"Well, old Wade has gone and got married," went on Simmy, deliberately ignoring the eager question. "Married a girl of twenty or something like that. Chucked his job, bloomed out as a dandy,—spats and chamois gloves and silk hats,—cleared out three weeks ago for a honeymoon,—rather pretty girl, by the way,—"

Braden's attention had been caught at last and held. "Wade married? Good Lord! Oh, I say, Simmy, you _can't expect me to believe—"

"You'll see. He has shaken the dust of Thorpe house from his person and is gallivanting around in lavender perfumes and purple linen."

"My God! That old hulk and—twenty years, did you say? Why, the damned old scoundrel! After all he has seen and—" His jaws closed suddenly with a snap, and his eyes narrowed into ugly slits.

"Be careful, Brady, old top," said Simmy, shaking his head. "It won't do to call Wade names, you know. Just stop and think for a second or two."

Thorpe relaxed with a gesture of despair. "You are right, Simmy. Why should I blame Wade?"

He got up and began pacing the floor, his hands clenched behind his back. Simmy smoked in silence, apparently absorbed in watching the angry clouds that blackened the western sky.

Presently Thorpe resumed his seat in the window. His eyes did not meet Simmy's as the latter turned toward him. He look straight out over the tops of the great apartment houses on the far side of the Park.

"How long has she been living down there alone?" he asked again.

"Five or six weeks."

"When did you last see her?"

"Yesterday. She's been dreadfully nervous ever since the blowing up of the _Lusitania_. I asked her to go to the pier with me. She refused. See here, Brady," said Simmy, rising suddenly and laying his hand on the other's shoulder, "what are you going to do about Anne?"

"Nothing. Anne can never be anything to me, nor I to her," said Thorpe, white-faced and stern. His face was rigid.

"Nonsense! You love her, don't you?"

"Yes. That has nothing to do with it, however."

"And she loves you. I suppose that hasn't anything to do with it, either. I suppose it is right and proper and natural that you both should go on loving each other to the end of time without realising the joys of—"

"Don't try to argue the—"

"It's right that you should let that glorious, perfect young creature wither and droop with time, grow old without—oh, Lordy, what a damn fool you are, Brady! There isn't the slightest reason in this world why you shouldn't get married and—"

"Stop that, Simmy!"

"Here you are, two absolutely sound, strong, enduring specimens of humanity,—male and female,—loving each other, wanting each other,—and yet you say you can never be anything to each other! Hasn't nature anything to do with it? Are you going to sit there and tell me that for some obstinate, mawkish reason you think you ought to deprive her of the one man in all this world that she wants and must have? It doesn't matter what she did a couple of years ago. It doesn't matter that she was,—and still may be designing,—the fact remains that she is the woman you love and that you are her man. She married old Mr. Thorpe deliberately, I grant you. She doesn't deny it. She loved you when she did it. And you can't, to save your soul, hate her for it. You ought to do so, I admit. But you don't, and that solves the problem. You want her now even more than you did two years ago. You can't defy nature, old chap. You may defy convention, and honour, and even common decency, but you can't beat nature out of its due. Now, look me in the eye! Why can't you marry Anne and—be everything to her, instead of nothing, as you put it? Answer me!"

"It is impossible," groaned Thorpe. "You cannot understand, Simmy."

"Nothing is impossible," said Simmy, the optimist. "If you are afraid of what people will say about it, then all I have to say is that you are worse than a coward: you are a stupid ass. People talked themselves black in the face when she married your grandfather, and what good did it do them? Not a particle of good. They roasted her to a fare-you-well, and they called her a mean, avaricious, soulless woman, and still she survives. Everybody expects her to marry you. When she does it, everybody will smile and say 'I told you so,'—and sneer a little, perhaps,—but, hang it all, what difference should that make? This is a big world. It is busier than you think. It will barely take the time to sniff twice or maybe three times at you and Anne and then it will hustle along on the scent of something new. It's always smelling out things, but that's all it amounts to. It overlooks divorces, liaisons, murders,—everything, in fact, except disappointments. It never forgives the man or woman who disappoints it. Now, I know something else that's on your mind. You think that because you operated—fatally, we'll say,—on your grandfather, that that is an obstacle in the way of your marriage with Anne. Tommy-rot! I've heard of a hundred doctors who have married the widows of their patients, and their friends usually congratulate 'em, which goes to prove something, doesn't it? You are expected by ninety per cent. of the inhabitants of greater New York to marry Anne Tresslyn. They may have forgotten everything else, but that one thing they _do expect. They said it would happen and it must. They said it when Anne married your grandfather, they said it when he died and they say it now, even though their minds are filled with other things."

Thorpe eyed him steadily throughout this earnest appeal. "Do you think that Anne expects it, Simmy?" he inquired, a harsh note in his voice.

Simmy had to think quickly. "I think she does," he replied, and always was to wonder whether he said the right thing. "She is in love with you. She wants you, and anything that Anne wants she expects to get. I don't mean that in a disparaging sense, either. If she doesn't marry you, she'll never marry any one. She'll wait for you till the end of her days. Even if you were to marry some one else, she'd—"

"I shall not marry any one else," said Thorpe, almost fiercely.

"—She'd go on waiting and wanting you just the same, and you would go on wanting her," concluded Simmy. "You will never consider your life complete until you have Anne Tresslyn as a part of it. She wants to make you happy. That's what most women want when they're in love with a man."

"I tell you, Simmy, I cannot marry Anne. I love her,—God knows how terribly I want her,—in spite of everything. It _is nature. You can't kill love, no matter how hard you try. Some one else has to do the killing. Anne is keeping it alive in me. She has tortured my love, beaten it, outraged it, but all the time she has been secretly feeding it, caressing it, never for an instant letting it out of her grasp. You cannot understand, Simmy. You've never been in love with a woman like Anne. She may have despaired at times, but she has never given up the fight, not even when she must have thought that I despised her. She knew that my love was mortally hurt, but do you think she would let it die? No! She will keep it alive forever,—and she will suffer, too, in doing so. But what's that to Anne? She—"

"Just a second, old chap," broke in Simmy. "You are forgetting that Anne wants you to be happy."

"God, how happy I could have been with her!"

"See here, will you go down there and see her?" demanded Simmy.

"I can't do that,—I can't do it. Simmy—" he lowered his voice to almost a whisper,—"I can't trust myself. I don't know what would happen if I were to see her again,—be near her, alone with her. This longing for her has become almost unbearable. I thought of her every minute of the time I was out there at the front—Yes, I had to put the heaviest restraint upon myself at times to keep from chucking the whole thing and dashing back here to get her, to take her, to keep her,—maybe to kill her, I don't know. Now I realise that I was wrong in coming back to America at all. I should have gone—oh, anywhere else in the world. But here I am, and, strangely enough, I feel stronger, more able to resist. It was the distance between us that made it so terrible. I can resist her here, but, by heaven, I couldn't over there. I could have come all the way back from France to see her, but I can't go from here down to Washington Square,—so that shows you how I stand in the matter."

"Now I know the real reason why you came back to little old New York," said Simmy sagely, and Thorpe was not offended.

"In the first place I cannot marry her while she still has in her possession the money for which she sold herself and me," said Thorpe, musing aloud. "You ought to at least be able to understand that, Simmy? No matter how much I love her, I can't make her my wife with that accursed money standing—But there's no use talking about _that_. There is an even graver reason why I ought not to marry her, an insurmountable reason. I cannot tell you what it is, but I fear that down in your heart you suspect."

Simmy leaned forward in his chair. "I think I know, old man," he said simply. "But even that shouldn't stand in the way. I don't see why you should have been kind and gentle and merciful to Mr. Thorpe, and refuse to be the same, in a different way, to her." His face broke into a whimsical smile. "Anne is what you might call hopelessly afflicted. Dammit all, put her out of her misery!"

Thorpe stared at him aghast. The utter banality of the remark left him speechless. For the first time in their acquaintance, he misjudged Simmy Dodge. He drew back from him, scowling.

"That's a pretty rotten thing to say, Simmy," he said, after a moment. "Pretty poor sort of wit."

"It wasn't meant for wit, my friend," said Simmy seriously. "I meant every word of it, no matter how rotten it may have sounded. If you are going to preach mercy and all that sort of silly rot, practise it whenever it is possible. There's no law against your being kind to Anne Tresslyn. You don't have to be governed by a commission or anything like that. She's just as deserving as any one, you know."

"Which is another way of saying that she _deserves my love?" cried Thorpe angrily.

"She's got it, so it really doesn't matter whether she deserves it or not. You can't take it away from her. You've tried it and—well, she's still got it, so there's no use arguing."

"Do you think it gives me any happiness to love her as I do?" cried the other. "Do you think I am finding joy in the prospect of never having her for my own—all for my own? Do you—"

"Well, my boy, do you think she is finding much happiness living down there in that old house all alone? Do you think she is getting much real joy out of her little old two millions? By the way, why is she living down there at all? I can tell you. She's doing it because she's got nerve enough to play the game out as she began it. She's doing it because she believes it will cause you to think better of her. This is a guess on my part, but I know darned well she wouldn't be doing it if there wasn't some good and sufficient reason."

Thorpe nodded his head slowly, an ironic smile on his lips. "Yes, she _is playing the game, but not as she began it. I am not so sure that I think better of her for doing it."

"Brady, I hope you'll forgive me for saying something harsh and disrespectful about your grandfather, but here goes. He played you a shabby trick in taking Anne away from you in the first place. No matter how shabbily Anne behaved toward you, he was worse than she. Then he virtually compelled you to perform an operation that—well, I'll not say it. We can forgive him for that. He was suffering. And then he went out of his way to leave that old house down there to Anne, knowing full well that if she continued to live in it, it would be a sort of prison to her. She can't sell it, she can't rent it. She's got to live in it, or abandon it altogether. I call it a pretty mean sort of trick to play on her, if you'll forgive my—"

"She doesn't have to live in it," said Thorpe doggedly.

"She is going to live there until you take her out of it, bodily if you please, and you are going to become so all-fired sorry for her that you'll—"

"Good Lord, Simmy," shouted Thorpe, springing to his feet with a bitter imprecation, "don't go on like this. I can't stand it. I know how she hates it. I know how frightened, how miserable she is down there. It _is a prison,—no, worse than that, it is haunted by something that you cannot possibly—My God, it must be awful for her, all alone,—shivering, listening,—something crawly—something sinister and accusing—Why, she—"

"Here, here, old fellow!" cried Simmy in alarm. "Don't go off your nut. You're talking like a crazy man,—and, hang it all, I don't like the look in your eye. Gosh, if it gives you the creeps—who don't have to be down there of nights,—what must it be for that shrinking, sensitive—Hey! Where are you going?"

"I'm going down there to see her. I'm going to tell her that I was a cur to write what I did to her the day I sailed. I—" He stopped short near the door, and faced his friend. His hands were clenched.

"I shall see her just this once,—never again if I can avoid it," he said. "Just to tell her that I don't want her to live in that house. She's got to get out. I'll not know a moment's peace until she is out of that house."

Simmy heard the door slam and a few minutes later the opening and closing of the elevator cage. He sat quite still, looking out over the trees. He was a rather pathetic figure.

"I wonder if I'd be so loyal to him if I had a chance myself," he mused. "Oh, Lordy, Lordy!" He closed his eyes as if in pain.

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