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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFrom The Housetops - Chapter 5
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From The Housetops - Chapter 5 Post by :Slic47 Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :1283

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From The Housetops - Chapter 5

CHAPTER V

A conspicuous but somewhat unimportant member of the Tresslyn family was a young man of twenty-four. He was Anne's brother, and he had preceded her into the world by the small matter of a year and two months. Mrs. Tresslyn had set great store by him. Being a male child he did not present the grave difficulties that attend the successful launching and disposal of the female of the species to which the Tresslyn family belonged. He was born with the divine right to pick and choose, and that is something that at present appears to be denied the sisters of men. But the amiable George, at the age of one and twenty and while still a freshman in college, picked a girl without consulting his parent and in a jiffy put an end to the theory that man's right is divine.

It took more than half of Mrs. Tresslyn's income for the next two years, the ingenuity of a firm of expensive lawyers, the skill of nearly a dozen private detectives, and no end of sleepless nights to untie the loathsome knot, and even then George's wife had a shade the better of them in that she reserved the right to call herself Mrs. Tresslyn, quite permanently disgracing his family although she was no longer a part of it.

The young woman was employed as a demonstrator for a new brand of mustard when George came into her life. The courtship was brief, for she was a pretty girl and virtuous. She couldn't see why there should be anything wrong in getting married, and therefore was very much surprised, and not a little chagrined, to find out almost immediately after the ceremony that she had committed a heinous and unpardonable sin. She shrank for a while under the lashings, and then, like a beast driven to cover, showed her teeth.

If marriage was not sanctuary, she would know the reason why. With a single unimposing lawyer and not the remotest suggestion of a detective to reinforce her position, she took her stand against the unhappy George and his mother, and so successful were her efforts to make divorce difficult that she came out of chambers with thirty thousand dollars in cash, an aristocratic name, and a valuable claim to theatrical distinction.

All this transpired less than two years prior to the events which were to culminate in the marriage of George's only sister to the Honourable Templeton Thorpe of Washington Square. Needless to say, George was now looked upon in the small family as a liability. He was a never-present help in time of trouble. The worst thing about him was his obstinate regard for the young woman who still bore his name but was no longer his wife. At twenty-four he looked upon himself as a man who had nothing to live for. He spent most of his time gnashing his teeth because the pretty little divorcee was receiving the attentions of young gentlemen in his own set, without the slightest hint of opposition on the part of their parents, while he was obliged to look on from afar off.

It appears that parents do not object to young women of insufficient lineage provided the said young women keep at a safe distance from the marriage altar.

It is interesting to note in this connection, however, that little Mrs. George Tresslyn was a model of propriety despite her sprightly explorations of a world that had been strange to her up to the time she was cast into it by a disgusted mother-in-law, and it is still more interesting to find that she nourished a sly hope that some day George would kick over the traces in a very manly fashion and marry her all over again!

Be that as it may, the bereft and humiliated George favoured his mother and sister with innumerable half-hours in which they had to contend with scornful and exceedingly bitter opinions on the iniquity of marriage as it is practised among the elect. He fairly bawled his disapproval of the sale of Anne to the decrepit Mr. Thorpe, and there was not a day in the week that did not contain at least one unhappy hour for the women in his home, for just so often he held forth on the sanctity of the marriage vows.

He was connected with a down-town brokerage firm and he was as near to being a failure in the business as an intimate and lifelong friend of the family would permit him to be and still allow him to remain in the office. His business was the selling of bonds. The friend of the family was the head of the firm, so no importance should be attached to the fact that George did not earn his salt as a salesman. It is only necessary to report that the young man made frequent and determined efforts to sell his wares, but with so little success that he would have been discouraged had it not been for the fact that he was intimately acquainted with himself. He knew himself too well to expect people to take much stock in the public endeavours of one whose private affairs were so far beneath notice. Men were not likely to overlook the disgraceful treatment of the little "mustard girl," for even the men who have mistreated women in their time overlook their own chicanery in preaching decency over the heads of others who have not played the game fairly. George looked upon himself as a marked man, against whom the scorn of the world was justly directed.

Strange as it may appear, George Tresslyn was a tall, manly looking fellow, and quite handsome. At a glance you would have said that he had a great deal of character in his make-up and would get on in the world. Then you would hear about his matrimonial delinquency and instantly you would take a second glance. The second and more searching look would have revealed him as a herculean light-weight,—a man of strength and beauty and stature spoiled in the making. And you would be sorry that you had made the discovery, for it would take you back to his school days, and then you would encounter the causes.

He had gone to a preparatory school when he was twelve. It was eight years before he got into the freshman class of the college that had been selected as the one best qualified to give him a degree, and there is no telling how long he might have remained there, faculty willing, had it not been for the interfering "mustard girl." He could throw a hammer farther and run the hundred faster than any youth in the freshman class, and he could handle an oar with the best of them, but as he had spent nearly eight years in acquiring this proficiency to the exclusion of anything else it is not surprising that he excelled in these pursuits, nor is it surprising that he possessed a decided aversion for the things that are commonly taught in college by studious-looking gentlemen who do not even belong to the athletic association and have forgotten their college yell.

George boasted, in his freshman year, that if the faculty would let him alone he could easily get through the four years without flunking a single thing in athletics. It was during the hockey season, just after the Christmas holidays, that he married the pretty "mustard girl" and put an abrupt end to what must now be regarded as a superficial education.

He carried his athletic vigour into the brokerage offices, however. No one could accuse him of being lazy, and no one could say that he did not make an effort. He possessed purpose and determination after a fashion, for he was proud and resentful; but he lacked perspective, no matter which way he looked for it. Behind him was a foggy recollection of the things he should have learned, and ahead was the dark realisation that the world is made up principally of men who cannot do the mile under thirty minutes but who possess amazing powers of endurance when it comes to running circles around the man who is trained to do the hundred yard dash in ten seconds flat.

A few minutes after Braden Thorpe's departure from the Tresslyn drawing- room, young George entered the house and stamped upstairs to his combination bed-chamber and sitting-room on the top floor. He always went upstairs three steps at a time, as if in a hurry to have it over with. He had a room at the top of the house because he couldn't afford one lower down. A delayed sense of compunction had ordered Mrs. Tresslyn to insist upon George's paying his own way through life, now that he was of age and working for himself.

When George found it impossible to pay his week's reckoning out of his earnings, he blithely borrowed the requisite amount—and a little over—from friends down-town, and thereby enjoyed the distinction of being uncommonly prompt in paying his landlady on the dot. So much for character-building.

And now one of these "muckers" down-town was annoying him with persistent demands for the return of numerous small loans extending over a period of nineteen months. That sort of thing isn't done among gentlemen, according to George Tresslyn's code. For a month or more he had been in the humiliating position of being obliged to dodge the fellow, and he was getting tired of it. The whole amount was well under six hundred dollars, and as he had made it perfectly plain to the beggar that he was drawing ten per cent. on the loans, he couldn't see what sense there was in being in such a hurry to collect. On the other hand, as the beggar wasn't receiving the interest, it is quite possible that he could not look at the situation from George's point of view.

Young Mr. Tresslyn finally had reached the conclusion that he would have to ask his mother for the money. He knew that the undertaking would prove a trying one, so he dashed up to his room for the purpose of fortifying himself with a stiff drink of benedictine.

Having taken the drink, he sat down for a few minutes to give it a chance to become inspirational. Then he skipped blithely down to his mother's boudoir and rapped on the door,—not timidly or imploringly but with considerable authority. Receiving no response, he moved on to Anne's sitting-room, whence came the subdued sound of voices in conversation. He did not knock at Anne's door, but boldly opened it and advanced into the room.

"Hello! Here you are," said George amiably.

He was met by a cold, disapproving stare from his mother and a little gasp of dismay from Anne. It was quite apparent that he was an intruder.

"I wish you would be good enough to knock before entering, George," said Mrs. Tresslyn severely.

"I did," said George, "but you were not in. I always knock at your door, mother. You can't say that I've ever forgotten to do it." He looked aggrieved. "You surely don't mean that I ought to knock at Anne's door?"

"Certainly. What do you want?"

"Well," he began, depositing his long body on the couch and preparing to stretch out, "I'd like to kiss both of you if you'll let me."

"Don't be silly," said Anne, "and don't put your feet on that clean chintz."

"All right," said he cheerfully. "My, how lovely the bride is looking to- day! I wish old Tempy could see you now. He'd—"

"If you are going to be disagreeable, George, you may get out at once," said Mrs. Tresslyn.

"I never felt less like being objectionable in my life," said he, "so if you don't mind I'll stay awhile. By the way, Anne, speaking of disagreeable things, I am sure I saw Brady Thorpe on the avenue a bit ago. Has your discarded skeleton come back with a key to your closet?"

"Braden is in New York," said his mother acidly. "Is it necessary for you to be vulgar, George?"

"Not at all," said he. "When did he arrive? I hope you don't see anything vulgar in that, mother," he made haste to add.

"He reached New York to-day, I think. He has been here to see me. He has gone away. There is nothing more to be said, so please be good enough to consider the subject—"

"Gee! but I'd like to have heard what he had to say to you!"

"I am glad that you didn't," said Anne, "for if you had you might have been under the painful necessity of calling him to account for it, and I don't believe you'd like that."

"Facetious, eh? Well, my mind is relieved at any rate. He spoke up like a little man, didn't he, mother? I thought he would. And I'll bet you gave him as good as he sent, so he's got his tail between his legs now and yelping for mercy. How does he look, Anne? Handsome as ever?"

"Anne did not see him."

"Of course she didn't. How stupid of me. Where is he stopping?"

"With his grandfather, I suppose," said Mrs. Tresslyn, as tolerant as possible.

"Naturally. I should have known that without asking. Getting the old boy braced up for the wedding, I suppose. Pumping oxygen into him, and all that sort of thing. And that reminds me of something else. I may give myself the pleasure of a personal call upon my prospective brother-in-law to-morrow."

"What?" cried his mother sharply.

"Yep," said George blithely. "I may have to do it. It's purely a business matter, so don't worry. I shan't say a word about the wedding. Far be it from me to distress an old gentleman about—"

"What business can you have with Mr. Thorpe?" demanded his mother.

"Well, as I don't believe in keeping secrets from you, mother, I'll explain. You see, I want to see if I can't negotiate the sale of a thousand dollar note. Mr. Thorpe may be in the market to buy a good, safe, gilt-edge note—"

"Come to the point. Whose note are you trying to sell?"

"My own," said George promptly.

Anne laughed. "You would spell gilt with a letter u inserted before the i, in that case, wouldn't you?"

"I give you my word," said George, "I don't know how to spell it. The two words sound exactly alike and I'm always confusing them."

His mother came and stood over him. "George, you are not to go to Mr. Thorpe with your pecuniary difficulties. I forbid it, do you understand?"

"Forbid it, mother? Great Scot, what's wrong in an honest little business transaction? I shall give him the best of security. If he doesn't care to let me have the money on the note, that's his affair. It's business, not friendship, I assure you. Old Tempy knows a good thing when he sees it. I shall also promise to pay twenty per cent. interest for two years from date. Two years, do you understand? If anything should happen to him before the two years are up, I'd still owe the money to his estate, wouldn't I? You can't deny that—"

"Stop! Not another word, sir! Am I to believe that I have a son who is entirely devoid of principle? Are you so lacking in pride that—"

"It depends entirely on how you spell the word, princi_pal or with a _ple_. I am entirely devoid of the one ending in pal, and I don't see what pride has to do with it anyway. Ask Anne. She can tell you all that is necessary to know about the Tresslyn pride."

"Shut up!" said Anne languidly.

"It's just this way, mother," said George, sitting up, with a frown. "I've got to have five or six hundred dollars. I'll be honest with you, too. I owe nearly that much to Percy Wintermill, and he is making himself infernally obnoxious about it."

"Percy Wintermill? Have you been borrowing money from him?"

"In a way, yes. That is, I've been asking him for it and he's been lending it to me. I don't think I've ever used the word borrow in a single instance. I hate the word. I simply say: 'Percy, let me take twenty-five for a week or two, will you?' and Percy says, 'All right, old boy,' and that's all there is to it. Percy's been all right up to a few weeks ago. In fact, I don't believe he would have mentioned the matter at all if Anne hadn't turned him down on New Year's Eve. Why the deuce did you refuse him, Anne? He'd always been decent till you did that. Now he's perfectly impossible."

"You know perfectly well why I refused him," said Anne, lifting her eyebrows slightly.

"Right-o! It was because you were engaged to Brady Thorpe. I quite forgot. I apologise. You were quite right in refusing him. Be that as it may, however, Percy is as sore as a crab. I can't go around owing money to a chap who has been refused by my sister, can I? One of the Wintermills, too. By Jove, it's awful!" He looked extremely distressed.

"You are not to go to Mr. Thorpe," said his mother from the chair into which she had sunk in order to preserve a look of steadiness. A fine moisture had come out upon her upper lip. "You must find an honourable way in which to discharge your debts."

"Isn't my note as good as anybody's?" he demanded.

"No. It isn't worth a dollar."

"Ah, but it _will be if Mr. Thorpe buys it," said he in triumph. "He could discount it for full value, if he wanted to. That's precisely what makes it good. I'm afraid you don't know very much about high finance, mother dear."

"Please go away, George," complained Anne. "Mother and I have a great deal to talk about, and you are a dreadful nuisance when you discover a reason for coming home so long before dinner-time. Can't you pawn something?"

"Don't be ridiculous," said George.

"Why did you borrow money from Percy Wintermill?" demanded Mrs. Tresslyn.

"There you go, mother, using that word 'borrow' again. I wish you wouldn't. It's a vulgar word. You might as well say, 'Why did you _swipe money from Percy Wintermill?' He lent it to me because he realised how darned hard-up we are and felt sorry for me, I suppose."

"For heaven's sake, George, don't tell me that you—"

"Don't look so horrified, mother," he interrupted. "I didn't tell him we were hard-up. I merely said, from time to time, 'Let me take fifty, Percy.' I can't help it if he _suspects_, can I? And say, Anne, he was so terribly in love with you that he would have let me take a thousand any time I wanted it, if I'd had occasion to ask him for it. You ought to be thankful that I didn't."

"Don't drag me into it," said Anne sharply.

"I admit I was fooled all along," said he, with a rueful sigh. "I had an idea that you'd be tickled to death to marry into the Wintermill family. Position, money, family jewels, and all that sort of thing. Everything desirable except Percy. And then, just when I thought something might come of it, you up and get engaged to Brady Thorpe, keeping it secret from the public into the bargain. Confound it, you didn't even tell me till last fall. Your stupid secretiveness allowed me to go on getting into Percy's debt, when a word from you might have saved me a lot of trouble."

"Will you kindly leave the room, George?" said his mother, arising.

"Percy is making himself fearfully obnoxious," went on George ominously. "For nearly three weeks I've been dodging him, and it can't go on much longer. One of these fine days, mother, a prominent member of the Wintermill family is going to receive a far from exclusive thrashing. That's the only way I can think of to stop him, if I can't raise the money to pay him up. Some day I'm going to refrain from dodging and he is going to run right square into this." He held up a brawny fist. "I'm going to hold it just so, and it won't be too high for his nose, either. Then I'm going to pick him up and turn him around, with his face toward the Battery, and kick just as hard as I know how. I'll bet my head he'll not bother me about money after that—unless, of course, he's cad enough to sue me. I don't think he'll do that, however, being a proud and haughty Wintermill. I suppose we'll all be eliminated from the Wintermill invitation list after that, and it may be that we'll go without a fashionable dinner once in awhile, but what's all that to the preservation of the family dignity?"

Mrs. Tresslyn leaned suddenly against a chair, and even Anne turned to regard her tall brother with a look of real dismay.

"How much do you owe him?" asked the former, controlling her voice with an effort.

"Five hundred and sixty-five dollars, including interest. A pitiful sum to get thrashed for, isn't it?"

"And you were planning to get the money from Mr. Thorpe to pay Percy?"

"To keep Percy from getting licked, would be the better way to put it. I think it's uncommonly decent of me."

"You are—you are a bully, George,—a downright bully," flared Anne, confronting him with blazing eyes. "You have no right to frighten mother in this way. It's cowardly."

"He doesn't frighten me, dear," said Mrs. Tresslyn, but her lips quivered. Turning to her son, she continued: "George, if you will mail a check to Percy this minute, I will draw one for you. A Tresslyn cannot owe money to a Wintermill. We will say no more about it. The subject is closed. Sit down there and draw a check for the amount, and I will sign it. Rawson will post it."

George turned his head away, and lowered his chin. A huskiness came quickly into his voice.

"I'm—I'm ashamed of myself, mother,—I give you my word I am. I came here intending to ask you point-blank to advance me the money. Then the idea came into my head to work the bluff about old Mr. Thorpe. That grew into Percy's prospective thrashing. I'm sorry. It's the first time I've ever tried to put anything over on you."

"Fill in the check, please," she said coldly. "I've just been drawing a few for the dressmakers—a few that Anne has just remembered. I shan't in the least mind adding one for Percy. He isn't a dressmaker but if I were asked to select a suitable occupation for him I don't know of one he'd be better qualified to pursue. Fill it in, please."

Her son looked at her admiringly. "By Jove, mother, you are a wonder. You never miss fire. I'd give a thousand dollars, if I had it, to see old Mrs. Wintermill's face if that remark could be repeated to her."

A faint smile played about his mother's lips. After all, there was honest tribute in the speech of this son of hers.

"It would be worse than a bloody nose for Percy," said Anne, slipping an arm around her mother's waist. "But I don't like what you said about _me and the dressmakers. I must have gowns. It isn't quite the same as George's I.O.U. to Percy, you know."

"Don't be selfish, Anne," cried George, jerking a chair up to the escritoire and scrambling among the papers for a pen. "You won't have to worry long. You'll soon be so rich that the dressmakers won't dare to send you a bill."

"Wait a moment, George," said Mrs. Tresslyn abruptly. "If you do not promise to refrain from saying disagreeable things to Anne, I shall withdraw my offer to help you out of this scrape."

George faced her. "Does that mean that I am to put my O.K. upon this wedding of Anne's?" His look of good-nature disappeared.

"It means that you are not to comment upon it, that's all," said his mother. "You have said quite enough. There is nothing more that you can add to an already sufficiently distasteful argument."

George swallowed hard as he bent over the checkbook. "All right, mother, I'll try to keep my trap closed from now on. But I don't want you to think that I'm taking this thing pleasantly. I'll say for the last time,—I hope,—that it's a darned crime, and we'll let it go at that."

"Very well. We will let it go at that."

"Great Scot!" burst from his lips as he whirled in the fragile chair to face the women of the house. "I just can't help feeling as I do about it. I can't bear to think of Anne,—my pretty sister Anne,—married to that old rummy. Why, she's fit to be the wife of a god. She's the prettiest girl in New York and she'd be one of the best if she had half a chance. A fellow like Braden Thorpe would make a queen of her, and that's just what she ought to be. Oh, Lord! To think of her being married to that burnt-out, shrivelled-up—"

"George! That will do, sir!"

His sister was staring at him in utter perplexity. Something like wonder was growing in her lovely, velvety eyes. Never before had she heard such words as these from the lips of her big and hitherto far from considerate brother, the brother who had always begrudged her the slightest sign of favour from their mother, who had blamed her for securing by unfair means more than her share of the maternal peace-offerings.

Suddenly the big boy dug his knuckles into his eyes and turned away, muttering an oath of mortification. Anne sprang to his side. Her hands fell upon his shoulders.

"What are you doing, George? Are—are you crazy?"

"Crazy _nothing_," he choked out, biting his lip. "Go away, Anne. I'm just a damned fool, that's all. I—"

"Mother, he's—he's crying," whispered Anne, bewildered. "What is it, George?" For the first time in her life she slipped an affectionate arm about him and laid her cheek against his sleek, black hair. "Buck up, little boy; don't take it like this. I'll—I'll be all right. I'll—oh, I'll never forget you for feeling as you do, George. I didn't think you'd really care so much."

"Why,—why, Anne, of course I care," he gulped. "Why shouldn't I care? Aren't you my sister, and I your brother? I'd be a fine mess of a thing if I didn't care. I tell you, mother, it's awful! You know it is! It is a queer thing for a brother to say, I suppose, but—but I _do love Anne. All my life I've looked upon her as the finest thing in the world. I've been mean and nasty and all that sort of thing and I'm always saying rotten things to her, but, darn it, I—I do love my pretty sister. I ought to hate you, Anne, for this infernal thing you are determined to do—I ought to, do you understand, but I can't, I just can't. It's the rottenest thing a girl can do, and you're doing it, I—oh, say, what's the matter with me? Sniffling idiot! I say, where the devil _do you keep your pen?" Wrathfully he jerked a pile of note paper and blotters off the desk, scattering them on the floor. "I'll write the check, mother, and I'll promise to do my best hereafter about Anne and old Tempy. And what's more, I'll not punch Percy's nose, so you needn't be afraid he'll turn it up at us."

The pen scratched vigorously across the check. His mother was regarding him with a queer expression in her eyes. She had not moved while he was expressing himself so feelingly about Anne. Was it possible that after all there was something fine in this boy of hers? His simple, genuine outburst was a revelation to her.

"I trust this may be the last time that you will come to me for money in this way, George," she said levelly. "You must be made to realise that I cannot afford such luxuries as these. You have made it impossible for me to refuse you this time. I cannot allow a son of mine to be in debt to a Wintermill. You must not borrow money. You—"

He looked up, grinning. "There you go again with that middle-class word, mother. But I'll forgive you this once on condition that you never use it again. People in our walk of life never _borrow anything but trouble, you know. We don't borrow money. We arrange for it occasionally, but God forbid that we should ever become so common as to borrow it. There you are, filled in and ready for your autograph—payable to Percy Reginald Van Alstone Wintermill. I put his whole name in so that he'd have to go to the exertion of signing it all on the back. He hates work worse than poison. I'm glad you didn't accept him, Anne. It would be awful to have to look up to a man who is so insignificant that you'd have to look down upon him at the same time."

Mrs. Tresslyn signed the check. "I will have Rawson post it to him at once," she said. "There goes one of your gowns, Anne,—five hundred and sixty-five dollars."

"I shan't miss it, mother dear," said Anne cheerfully. She had linked an arm through one of George's, much to the surprise and embarrassment of the tall young man.

"Bully girl," said he awkwardly. "Just for that I'll kiss the bride next month, and wish her the best of luck. I—I certainly hope you'll have better luck than I had."

"There's still loads of luck ahead for you, George," said she, a little wistfully. "All you've got to do is to keep a sharp lookout and you'll find it some day—sooner than I, I'm sure. You'll find the right girl and—zip! Everything will be rosy, old boy!"

He smiled wryly. "I've lost the right girl, Anne."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Mrs. Tresslyn sharply. Her eyes narrowed as she looked into his. "You ought to get down on your knees and thank God that you are not married to that—"

"Wait a second, mother," he broke in. "I'm afraid I shall have to ask you to let her alone, now that you're rid of her, just as I'm expected to let old Tempy slide by without noticing him."

"Nonsense," again said Mrs. Tresslyn, but this time with less confidence in her voice. She looked intently into her son's set face and fear was revived in her soul, an ever-present fear that slept and roused itself with sickening persistency.

"We'll hang her up in the family closet, if you don't mind, alongside of Brady Thorpe, and we'll never mention her again if I can help it. I must say, though, that our skeletons are uncommonly attractive, aren't they, Anne? No dry, rattling bones in our closets, are there?" He squeezed her arm playfully, and was amazed when she jerked it away.

"I was nice to you, George, and this is the way you—"

"Forgive me, please. I didn't mean it in an offensive way. I just took it for granted that we'd understand each other. At any rate, we've got one thing to be thankful for. There are no Wintermill skeletons hanging in our closets. We've both succeeded in dodging them, praise the Lord."

It so happened that Percy's excessively homely sister had been considered at one time as a most desirable helpmate for the rapidly developing George, and it is barely possible that the little mustard girl upset a social dynasty.

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