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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Tin Soldier - BOOK ONE _ ON THE SHELF - Chapter XVII. THE WHITE CAT
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The Tin Soldier - BOOK ONE _ ON THE SHELF - Chapter XVII. THE WHITE CAT Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :Temple Bailey Date :April 2012 Read :1881

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The Tin Soldier - BOOK ONE _ ON THE SHELF - Chapter XVII. THE WHITE CAT

BOOK ONE ON THE SHELF - CHAPTER XVII. THE WHITE CAT

Derry, going quietly to his room that night, did not stop at the General's door. He did not want to speak to Hilda, he did not want to speak to anyone, he wanted to be alone with his thoughts of Jean and that perfect ride with her through the snow.

He was, therefore, a little impatient to find Bronson waiting up for him.

"I thought I told you to go to bed, Bronson."

"You did, sir, but--but I have something to tell you."

"Can't it wait until morning?"

"I should like to say it now, Mr. Derry." The old man's eyes were anxious. "It's about your father--"

"Father?"

"Yes. I told you I didn't like the nurse."

"Miss Merritt? Well?"

"Perhaps I'd better get you to bed, sir. It's a rather long story, and you'd be more comfortable."

"You'd be more comfortable, you mean, Bronson." The impatient note had gone out of Derry's voice. Temporarily he pigeon-holed his thoughts of Jean, and gave his attention to this servant who was more than a servant, more even than a friend. To Derry, Bronson wore a sort of halo, like a good old saint in an ancient woodcut.

Propped up at last among his pillows, pink from his bath and in pale blue pajamas, Derry listened to what the old man had to say to him.

Bronson sat on the edge of a straight-backed chair with Muffin at his knees. "From the first day I had a feeling that she wasn't just--straight. I don't know why, but I felt it. She had one way with the General and another with us servants. But I didn't mind that, not much, until she went into your mother's room."

"My mother's room?" sharply. "What was she doing there, Bronson?"

"That's what I am going to tell you, sir. You know that place on the third floor landing, where I sits and looks through at your father when he ain't quite himself, and won't let me come in his room? Well, there was one night that I was there and watched her--"

Derry's quick frown rebuked him. "You shouldn't have done that, Bronson."

"I had a feeling, sir, that things were going wrong, and that the General wasn't always himself. I shouldn't ever have said a thing to you, Mr. Derry," earnestly, "if I hadn't seen what I did."

He cleared his throat. "That first night I saw her open the door between your father's room and the sitting room, and she did it careful and quiet like a person does when they don't want anybody to know. The sitting room was dark, but I went down and stood behind the curtain in the General's door, and I could see through, and there was a light in your mother's room and a screen set before it."

"I took a big chance, but I slid into the sitting room, and I could see her on the other side of the screen, and she had opened the safe behind the Chinese scroll, and she was trying on your mother's diamonds."

"What!"

Bronson nodded solemnly. "Yes, sir, she had 'em on her head and her neck and her fingers--."

"You don't mean--that she took anything."

"Oh, no, sir, she's no common thief. But she looked at herself in the glass and strutted up and down, up and down, up and down, bowing and smiling like a--fool."

"Then the telephone rang, and I had to get out pretty quick, before she came to answer it. I went to bed, but I didn't sleep much, and the next night I watched her again. I watch every night."

Derry considered the situation. "I don't like it at all, Bronson. But perhaps it was just a woman's vanity. She wanted to see how she looked."

"Well, she's seen--and she ain't going to be satisfied with that. She'll want to wear them all the time--"

"Of course, she can't, Bronson. She isn't as silly as to think she can."

"Perhaps not, sir." Bronson opened his lips and shut them again.

"There's something else, sir," he said, after a pause. "I've found out that she's giving the General things to drink."

"Hilda?" Derry said, incredulously. "Oh, surely not, Bronson, The Doctor has given her strict orders--."

"She's got a bottle behind the books, and she pours him a glass right after dinner, and another before he goes to sleep, and--and--you know he'd sell his soul for the stuff, Mr. Derry."

Derry did know. It had been the shame of all his youthful years that his father should stoop to subterfuge, to falsehood, to everything that was foreign to his native sense of honor and honesty, for a taste of that which his abnormal appetite demanded.

"If anyone had told me but you, Bronson, I wouldn't have believed it."

"I didn't want to tell you, but I had to. You can see that, can't you, sir?"

"Yes. But how in the world did she know where the diamonds were?"

"He gave her his key one day when I was there--made me get it off his ring. He sent her for your picture--the one that your mother used to wear. I thought then that he wasn't quite right in his head, with the fever and all, or he would have sent me. But a woman like that--"

"Dr. McKenzie has the greatest confidence in her."

"I know, sir, and she's probably played square with him--but she ain't playing square here."

"It can't go on, of course. I shall have to tell McKenzie."

Bronson protested nervously. "If she puts her word against mine, who but you will believe me? I'd rather you saw it yourself, Mr. Derry, and left my name out of it."

"But I can't sit on the steps and watch."

"No, sir, but you can come in unexpected from the outside--when I flash on the third floor light for you."

Derry slept little that night. Ahead of him stretched twenty-four hours of suspense--twenty-four hours in which he would have to think of this thing which was hidden in the big house in which his mother had reigned.

In the weeks since he had met Jean, he had managed to thrust it into the back of his mind--he had, indeed, in the midst of his happiness, forgotten his bitterness, his sense of injustice--he wondered if he had not in a sense forgotten his patriotism. Life had seemed so good, his moments with Jean so transcendent--there had been no room for anything else.

But now he was to take up again the burden which he had dropped. He was to consider his problem from a new angle. How could he bring Jean here? How could he let her clear young eyes rest on that which he and his mother had seen? How could he set, as it were, all of this sordidness against her sweetness? Money could, of course, do much. But his promise held him to watchfulness, to brooding care, to residence beneath this roof. His bride would be the General's daughter, she would live in the General's house, she would live, too, beneath the shadow of the General's tragic fault.

Yet--she was a brave little thing. He comforted himself with that. And she loved him. He slept at last with a desperate prayer on his lips that some new vision might be granted him on the morrow.

But the first news that came over the telephone was of Jean's flitting. "Daddy wants me to go with him to our old place in Maryland. He has some business which takes him there, and we shall be gone two days."

"Two days?"

"Yes. We are to motor up."

"Can't I go with you?"

"I think--Daddy wants me to himself. You won't mind, Derry--some day you'll have me all the time."

"But I need you now, dearest."

"Do you really," delightedly. "It doesn't seem as if you could--"

"If you knew how much."

She could not know. He hung up the receiver. The day stretched out before him, blank.

But it passed, of course. And Hilda, having slept her allotted number of hours, was up in time to superintend the serving of the General's dinner. Later, Derry stopped at the door to say that he was going to the theater and might be called there. The General, propped against his pillows and clothed in a gorgeous mandarin coat, looked wrinkled and old. The ruddiness had faded from his cheeks, and he was much thinner.

Hilda, sitting by the little table, showed all the contrast of youth and bloom. Her long hands lay flat on the table. Derry had a fantastic feeling, as if a white cat watched him under the lamp.

"Are you going alone, son?" the General asked.

"Yes."

"Why don't you take a girl?" craftily.

Derry smiled.

"The only girl I should care to take is out of town."

The white cat purred. "Lucky girl to be the only one."

Derry's manner stiffened. "You are good to think so."

After Derry had gone, Hilda said, "You see, it is Jean McKenzie. The Doctor said that he and Jean would be up in Maryland for a day or two. She has a good time. She doesn't know what it means to be poor, not as I know it. She doesn't know what it means to go without the pretty things that women long for. You wouldn't believe it, General, but when I was a little girl, I used to stand in front of shop windows and wonder if other girls really wore the slippers and fans and parasols. And when I went to Dr. McKenzie's, and saw Jean in her silk dressing gowns, and her pink slippers and her lace caps, she seemed to me like a lady in a play. I've worn my uniforms since I took my nurse's training, and before that I wore the uniform of an Orphans' Home. I--I don't know why I am telling you all this--only it doesn't seem quite fair, does it?"

He had all of an old man's sympathy for a lovely woman in distress. He had all of any man's desire to play Cophetua.

"Look here," he said. "You get yourself a pink parasol and a fan and a silk dress. I'd like to see you wear them."

She shook her head. "What should I do with things like that?" Her voice had a note of wistfulness. "A woman in my position must be careful."

"But I want you to have the things," he persisted.

"I shouldn't have a place to wear them," sadly. "No, you are very good to offer them. But I mustn't."

The General slept after that. Hilda read under the lamp--a white cat watched by a little old terrier on the stairs!

And now the big house was very still. There were lights in the halls of the first and second floors. Bronson crouching in the darkness of the third landing was glad of the company of the painted lady on the stairs. He knew she would approve of what he was doing. For years he had served her in such matters as this, saving her husband from himself. When Derry was too small, too ignorant of evil, too innocent, to be told things, it was to the old servant that she had come.

He remembered a certain night. She was young then and new to her task. She and the General had been dining at one of the Legations. She was in pale blue and very appealing. When Bronson had opened the door, she had come in alone.

"Oh, the General, the General, Bronson," she had said. "We've got to go after him."

She was shaking with the dread of it, and Bronson had said, "Hadn't you better wait, ma'am?"

"I mustn't. We stopped at the hotel as we came by, and he said he would run in and get a New York paper. And we waited, and we waited, and he didn't come out again, and at last I sent McChesney in, and he couldn't find him. And then I went and sat in the corridor, thinking he might pass through. It isn't pleasant to sit alone in the corridor with the men--staring at you--at night. And then I asked the man at the door if he had seen him, and he said, 'yes,' that he had called a cab, and then I came home."

They had gone out again together, with Bronson, who was young and strong, taking the place of the coachman, McChesney, because Mrs. Drake did not care to have the other servants see her husband at times like these. "You know how good he is," had been her timid claim on him from the first, "and you know how hard he tries." And because Bronson knew, and because he had helped her like the faithful squire that he was, she had trusted him more and more with this important but secret business.

She had changed her dress for something dark, and she had worn a plain dark hat and coat. She had not cried a tear and she would not cry. She had been very brave as they travelled a beaten path, visiting the places which the General frequented, going on and on until they came to the country, and to a farm-house where they found him turning night into day, having roused the amazed inmates to ask for breakfast.

He had paid them well for it, and was ready to set forth again with the dawn when his wife drove in.

"My dear," he had said, courteously, as his little wife's face peered out at him from the carriage, "you shouldn't have come."

Sobered for the moment, he had made a handsome figure, as he stood with uncovered head, his dark hair in a thick curl between his eyes. The morning was warm and he carried his overcoat on his arm. His patent leather shoes and the broadcloth of his evening clothes showed the dust and soil of his walk through the fields. He had evidently dismissed his cab at the edge of the city and had come crosscountry.

His wife had reached out her little hand to him. "I came because I was lonely. The house seems so big when you are--away--"

It had wrung Bronson's heart to see her smiling. Yet she had always met the General with a smile and with the reminder of her need of him. There had been never a complaint, never a rebuke--at these moments. When he was himself, she strove with him against his devils. But to strive when he was not himself, would be to send him away from her.

Her hands were clasped tightly, and her voice shook as she talked on the way back to the husband who seemed so unworthy of the love she gave.

Yet she had not thought him unworthy. "If I can only save him," she had said so many times. "Oh, Bronson, I mustn't let him go down and down, with no one who loves him to hold him back."

In the years that had followed, Bronson had seen her grow worn and weary, but never hopeless. He had seen her hair grow gray, he had seen the light go out of her face so that she no longer smiled as she had smiled in the picture.

But she had never given up the fight. Not even at the last moment. "You will stay with him, Bronson, and help Derry."

And now this other woman had come to undo all the work that his beloved mistress had done. And there in the shadowed room she was weaving her spells.

Outside, snug against the deadly cold in his warm closed car, Derry waited alone for Bronson's signal.

There was movement at last in the shadowed room. The General spoke from the bed. Hilda answered him, and rose. She arranged a little tray with two glasses and a plate of biscuits. Then she crossed the room towards the bookcase.

Bronson reached up his hand and touched the button which controlled the lights on the third floor. He saw Hilda raise a startled head as the faint click reached her. She listened for a moment, and he withdrew himself stealthily up and out of sight. If she came into the hall she might see him on the stairs. He had done what he could. He would leave the rest to Derry.

"What's the matter?" the General asked.

"I thought I heard a sound--but there's no one up. This is our hour, isn't it?"

She brought the bottle out from behind the books. Then she came and stood by the side of the bed.

"Will you drink to my happiness, General?"

She was very handsome. "To our happiness," he said, eagerly, and unexpectedly, as he took the glass.

Hilda, pouring out more wine for herself, stood suddenly transfixed. Derry spoke from the threshold. "Dr. McKenzie has asked you repeatedly not to give my father wine, Miss Merritt."

He was breathing quickly. His hat was in his hand and he wore his fur coat. "Why are you giving it to him against the Doctor's orders?"

The General interposed. "Don't take that tone with Miss Merritt, Derry. I asked her to get it for me, and she obeyed my orders. What's the matter with that?"

"Dr. McKenzie said, explicitly, that you were not to have it."

"Dr. McKenzie has nothing to do with it. You may tell him that for me, I am not his patient any longer."

"Father--"

"Certainly not. Do you think I am going to take orders from McKenzie--or from you?"

"But, Miss Merritt is his nurse, under his orders."

"She is not going to be his nurse hereafter. I have other plans for her."

Derry stood staring, uncomprehending. "Other plans--"

"I have asked her to be my wife."

Oh, lovely painted lady on the stairs, has it come to this? Have your prayers availed no more than this? Have the years in which you sacrificed yourself, in which you sacrificed your son, counted no more than this?

Derry felt faint and sick. "You can't mean it, Dad."

"I do mean it. I--am a lonely man, Derry. A disappointed man. My wife is dead. My son is a slacker--"

It was only the maudlin drivel of a man not responsible for what he was saying. But Derry had had enough. He took a step forward and stood at the foot of the bed. "I wouldn't go any farther if I were you, Dad. I've not been a slacker. I have never been a slacker. I am not a coward. I have never been a coward. I am going to tell you right now why I am not in France. Do you think I should have stayed out of it for a moment if it hadn't been for you? Has it ever crossed your mind that if you had been half a man I might have acted like a whole one? Have you ever looked back at the years and seen me going out into the night to follow you and bring you back? I am not whining. I loved you, and I wanted to do it; but it wasn't easy. And I should still be doing it; but of late you've said things that I can't forgive. I've stood by you because I gave a promise to my mother--that I wouldn't leave you. And I've stayed. But now I shan't try any more. I am going to France. I am going to fight. I am not your son, sir. I am the son of my mother."

Then the General said what he would never have said if he had been himself.

"If you are not my son, then, by God, you shan't have any of my money."

"I don't want it. Do you think that I do? I shall get out of here tonight, and I shan't come back. There is only one thing that I want besides my own personal traps--and that is my mother's picture on the stairs."

The General was drawing labored breaths. "Your mother's picture--?"

"Yes, it has no place here. Do you think for as instant that you can meet her eyes?"

There was a look of fright on the drawn old face. "I am not well, give me the wine."

Derry reached for the bottle. "He shall not have it."

Hilda came up to him swiftly. "Can't you see? He must. Look at him."

Derry looked and surrendered. Then covered his face with his hands.

* * * * * *

All that night, Derry, trying to pack, with Bronson in agitated attendance, was conscious of the sinister presence of Hilda in the house. There was the opening and shutting of doors, her low orders in the halls, her careful voice at the telephone, and once the sound of her padded steps as she passed Derry's room on her way to her own. The new doctor came and went. Hilda sent, at Derry's request, a bulletin of the patient's condition. The General must be kept from excitement; otherwise there was not reason for alarm.

But Derry was conscious, as the night wore on, and Bronson left him, and he sat alone, of more than the physical evidences of Hilda's presence; he was aware of the spiritual effect of her sojourn among them. She had stolen from them all something that was fine and beautiful. From Derry his faith in his father. From the General his constancy to his lovely wife. The structure of ideals which Derry's mother had so carefully reared for the old house had been wrecked by one who had first climbed the stairs in the garb of a sister of mercy.

He saw his father's future. Hilda, cold as ice, setting his authority aside. He saw the big house, the painted lady smiling no more on the stairs. Hilda's strange friends filling the rooms, the General's men friends looking at them askance, his mother's friends staying away.

Poor old Dad, poor old Dad. All personal feeling was swept away in the thought of what might come to his father. Yet none the less his own path lay straight and clear before him. The time had come for him to go.

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