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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFrom The Housetops - Chapter 24
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From The Housetops - Chapter 24 Post by :Slic47 Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :3029

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From The Housetops - Chapter 24

CHAPTER XXIV

James Marraville called Thorpe a coward and a poltroon. This was a week after the operation. They were alone in the room. For days his wondering, questioning eyes had sought those of the man on whom he had depended for everlasting peace, and always there had been a look of reproach in them. Not in words, but still plainly, he was asking why he still lived, why this man had not done the thing that was expected of him. Every one about him was talking of the marvellous, incredible result of the operation; every one was looking cheerful and saying that he would "soon be as good as new." And all the while he was lying there, weak and beaten, wondering why they lied to him, and why Man as well as God had been so cruel to him. He was not deceived. He knew that he had it all to live over again. He knew what they meant when they said that it had been very successful! And so, one day, in all the bitterness of his soul, he cursed the man who had given him a few more months to live.

But there were other men and women who did not want to die. They wanted very dearly to live, and they had been afraid to risk an operation. Now that the world was tumbling over itself to proclaim the greatness of the surgeon who had saved James Marraville's life, the faint-hearted of all degrees flowed in a stream up to his doors and implored him to name his own price.... So goes the world....

The other doctors knew, and Braden knew, and most thoroughly of all James Marraville knew, that while the operation was a wonderful feat in surgery, it might just as well have remained undone. The young doctor simply had done all that was in the power of man to do for a fellow creature. He had cheated Death out of an easy victory, but Death would come again and sit down beside James Marraville to wait for another day.

Down near Washington Square, Wade blinked his eyes and shook his head, and always re-read the reports from the sick-room. He was puzzled and sometimes there was a faraway look in his eyes.

* * * * *

Lutie's baby came. He came long after midnight, and if he had been given the power at birth to take intelligent notice of things, he would have been vastly astonished to hear that his grandmother had been sitting up in an adjoining room with her son and daughter, anxiously, even fearfully, awaiting his advent into the world. And he would have been further astonished and perhaps distressed if any one had told him that his granny cried a little over him, and refused to go to her own home until she was quite sure that his little mother was all right. Moreover, he would have been gravely impressed by the presence of the celebrated Dr. Thorpe, and the extraordinary agony of that great big tall man who cowered and shivered and who wouldn't even look at him because he had eyes and thought for no one but the little mother. Older and wiser persons would have revealed considerable interest in the certificate of deposit that his grandmother laid on the bed beside him. He was quite a rich little boy without knowing it. Thirty thousand dollars is not to be sneezed at, and it would be highly unjust to say that it was a sneeze that sent his grandmother, his aunt and his father into hysterics of alarm.

They called him Carnahan Tresslyn. He represented a distinct phase in the regeneration of a proud and haughty family.

A few weeks later Anne took a house up among the hills of Westchester County, and moved Lutie and the baby out into the country. It did not occur to her to think that she was making a personal sacrifice in going up there to spend the hot months.

Percy Wintermill informed her one day that he was going to ask her to marry him when the proper time arrived. It would be the third time, he reminded her. He was being forehanded, that was all,—declaring himself in advance of all others and thereby securing, as he put it, the privilege of priority. She was not very much moved by the preparation of Percy. In fact, she treated the matter with considerable impatience.

"Really, you know, Percy," she said, "I'm getting rather fed up with refusing you. I'm sure I've done it more than three times. Why don't you ask some girl who will have you?"

"That's just the point," said he frankly. "If I asked some girl who would have me, she'd take me, and then where would you come in? I don't want any one but you, Anne, and—"

"Sorry, Perce, but it's no use," said she briefly.

"Well, I haven't asked you yet," he reminded her. After some minutes, spent by him in rumination and by her in wondering why she didn't send him away, he inquired, quite casually: "Anybody else in mind, old girl?" She merely stared at him. "Hope it isn't Brady Thorpe," he went on. "He's one of my best friends. I'd hate to think that I'd have to—"

"Go home, Percy," she said. "I'm going out,—and I'm late already. Thanks for the orchids. Don't bother to send any more. It's just a waste of money, old fellow. I sha'n't marry you. I sha'n't marry any one except the man with whom I fall desperately, horribly in love,—and I'm not going to fall in love with you, so run away."

"You weren't in love with old man Thorpe, were you?" he demanded, flushing angrily.

"I haven't the right to be offended by that beastly remark, Percy," she said quietly; "and yet I don't think you ought to have said it to me."

"It was meant only to remind you that it won't be necessary for you to fall desperately, horribly in love with me," he explained, and was suddenly conscious of being very uncomfortable for the first time in his life. He did not like the expression in her eyes.

Her shoulders drooped a little. "It isn't very comforting to feel that any one of my would-be husbands could be satisfied to get along without being loved by me. No doubt I shall be asked by others besides you, Percy. I hope you do not voice the sentiments of all the rest of them."

"I'm sorry I said it," he said, and seemed a little bewildered immediately afterwards. He really couldn't make himself out. He went away a few minutes later, vaguely convinced that perhaps it wouldn't be worth while to ask her, after all. This was a new, strange Anne, and it would hurt to be refused by her. He had never thought of it in just that way—before.

"So that is the price they put upon me, is it?" Anne said to herself. She was regarding herself rather humbly in the mirror as she pinned on her hat. "I am still expected to marry without loving the man who takes me. It isn't to be exacted of me. Don't they credit me with a capacity for loving? What do they think I am? What do they think my blood is made of, and the flesh on my bones? Do they think that because I am beautiful I can love no one but myself? Don't they think I'm human? How can any one look at me without feeling that I'd rather love than be loved? The poor fools! Any woman can be loved. What we all want more than anything else is to _love_. And I love—I _do love! And I _am beloved. And all the rest of my life I shall love; I shall gloat over the fact that I love; I shall love, love, _love with all that there is in me, all that there is in my body and my soul. The poor fools."

And all that was in her body and her soul was prepared to give itself to the man who loved her. She wanted him to have her for his own. She pitied him even more than she pitied herself.

Anne had no illusions concerning herself. Mawkish sentimentality had no place in her character. She was straightforward and above board with herself, and she would not cheapen herself in her own eyes. Another woman might have gone down on her knees, whimpering a cry for forgiveness, but not Anne Tresslyn. She would ask him to forgive her but she would not lie to herself by prostrating her body at his feet. There was firm, noble stuff in Anne Tresslyn. It was born in her to know that the woman who goes down on her knees before her man never quite rises to her full height again. She will always be in the position of wondering whether she stayed on her knees long enough to please him. The thought had never entered Anne's head to look anywhere but straight into Braden's eyes. She was not afraid to have him see that she was honest! He could see that she had no lies to tell him. And she was as sorry for him as she was for herself....

She saw him often during the days of Lutie's convalescence, but never alone. There was considerable comfort for her in the thought that he made a distinct point of not being alone with her. One day she said to him:

"I have my car outside, Braden. Shall I run you over to St. Luke's?"

It was a test. She knew that he was going to the hospital, and intended to take the elevated down to 110th Street. His smile puzzled her.

"No, thank you." Then, after a moment, he added: "If people saw me driving about in a prosperous looking touring-car they'd be justified in thinking that my fees are exorbitant, and I should lose more than I'd gain."

She flushed slightly. "By the same argument they might think you were picking up germs in the elevated or the subway."

"I shun the subway," he said.

Anne looked straight into his eyes and said—to herself: "I love you." He must have sensed the unspoken words, for his eyes hardened.

"Moreover, Anne, I shouldn't think it would be necessary for me to remind you that—" he hesitated, for he suddenly realised that he was about to hurt her, and it was not what he wanted to do—"that there are other and better reasons why—"

He stopped there, and never completed the sentence. She was still looking into his eyes and was still saying to herself: "I love you." It was as if a gentle current of electricity played upon every nerve in his body. He quivered under the touch of something sweet and mysterious. Exaltation was his response to the magnetic wave that carried her unspoken words into his heart. She had not uttered a sound and yet he heard the words. How many times had she cried those delicious words into his ear while he held her close in his arms? How many times had she looked at him like this while actually speaking the words aloud in answer to his appeal?

They were standing but a few feet apart. He could take a step forward and she would be in his arms,—that glorious, adorable, ineffably feminine creation,—in his arms,—in his arms,—

It was she who broke the spell. Her voice sounded far off—and exhausted, as if it came from her lips without breath behind it.

"It will always be just the same, Braden," she said, and he knew that it was an acknowledgment of his unfinished reminder. She was promising him something.

He took a firm grip on himself. "I'm glad that you see things as they are, Anne. Now, I must be off. Thanks just the same for—"

"Oh, don't mention it," she said carelessly. "I'm glad that you see things too as they are, Braden." She held out her hand. There was no restraint in her manner. "I'm sorry, Braden. Things might have been so different. I'm sorry."

"Good God!" he burst out. "If you had only been—" He broke off, resolutely compressing his lips. His jaw was set again in the strong old way that she knew so well.

She nodded her head slowly. "If I had only been some one else instead of myself," she said, "it would not have happened."

He turned toward the door, stopped short and then turned to face her. There was a strange expression in his grey eyes, not unlike diffidence.

"Percy told me last night that you have refused to marry him. I'm glad that you did that, Anne. I want you to know that I am glad, that I felt—oh, I cannot tell you how I felt when he told me."

She eyed him closely for a moment. "You thought that I—I might have accepted him. Is that it?"

"I—I hadn't thought of it at all," he said, confusedly.

"Well," she said, and a slight pallor began to reveal itself in her face, "I tried marrying for money once, Braden. The next time I shall try marrying for love."

He stared. "You don't mince words, do you?" he said, frowning.

"No," she said. "Percy will tell you that, I fancy," she added, and smiled. "He can't understand my not marrying him. He will be worth fifteen or twenty millions, you know." The irony in her voice was directed inwardly, not outwardly. "Perhaps it would be safer for him to wait before taking too much for granted. You see, I haven't actually refused him. I merely refused to give him an option. He—"

"Oh, Anne, don't jest about—" he began, and then as her eyes fell suddenly under his gaze and her lip trembled ever so slightly,—"By Jove, I—I sha'n't misjudge you in that way again. Good-bye." This time he held out his hand to her.

She shook her head. "I've changed my mind. I'm never going to say good-bye to you again."

"Never say good-bye? Why, that's—"

"Why should I say good-bye to you when you are always with me?" she broke in. Noting the expression in his eyes she went on ruthlessly, breathlessly. "Do you think I ought to be ashamed to say such a thing to you? Well, I'm not. It doesn't hurt my pride to say it. Not in the least." She paused for an instant and then went on boldly. "I fancy I am more honest with myself than you are with yourself, Braden."

He looked steadily into her eyes. "You are wrong there," he said quietly. Then bluntly: "By God, Anne, if it were not for the one terrible thing that lies between us, I could—I could—"

"Go on," she said, her heart standing still. "You can at least _say it to me. I don't ask for anything more."

"But why say it?" he cried out bitterly. "Will it help matters in the least for me to confess that I am weak and—"

She laughed aloud, unable to resist the nervous excitement that thrilled her. "Weak? You weak? Look back and see if you can find a single thing to prove that you are weak. You needn't be afraid. You are strong enough to keep me in my place. You cannot put yourself in jeopardy by completing what you started out to say. 'If it were not for the one terrible thing that lies between us, I could—I could—' Well, what could you do? Overlook my treachery? Forget that I did an even more terrible thing than you did? Forgive me and take me back and trust me all over again? Is that what you would have said to me?"

"That is what I might have said," he admitted, almost savagely, "if I had not come to my senses in time."

Her eyes softened. The love-light glowed in their depths. "I am not as I was two years ago, Braden," she said. "I'd like you to know that, at least."

"I dare say that is quite true," he said harshly. "You got what you went after and now that you've got it you can very comfortably repent."

She winced. "I am not repenting."

"Would you be willing to give up all that you gained out of that transaction and go back to where my grandfather found you?" he demanded?

"Do you expect me to lie to you?" she asked with startling candour.

"No. I know you will not lie."

"Would it please you to have me say that I would willingly give up all that I gained?"

"I see what you mean. It would be a lie."

"Would it please you to have me give it all up?" she insisted.

He was thoughtful. "No," he said candidly. "You earned it, you are entitled to it. It is filthy, dirty money, but you earned it. You do not deny that it was your price. That's the long and the short of it."

"Will you let me confess something to you? Something that will make it all seem more despicable than before?"

"Good Lord, I don't see how that can be possible!"

"I did not expect to lose you, Braden, when I married Mr. Thorpe. I counted on you in the end. I was so sure of myself,—and of you. Wait! Let me finish. If I had dreamed that I was to lose you, I should not have married Mr. Thorpe. That makes it worse, doesn't it?" There was a note of appeal in her voice.

"Yes, yes,—it makes it worse," he groaned.

"I was young and—over-confident," she murmured. "I looked ahead to the day when I should be free again and you would be added to the—well, the gains. Now you know the whole truth about me. I was counting on you, looking forward to you, even as I stood beside him and took the vows. You were always uppermost in my calculations. I never left you out of them. Even to this day, to this very moment, I continue to count on you. I shall never be able to put the hope out of my mind. I have tried it and failed. You may despise me if you will, but nothing can kill this mean little thing that lurks in here. I don't know what you will call it, Braden, but I call it loyalty to you."

"Loyalty! My God!" he cried out hoarsely.

"Yes, loyalty," she cried. "Mean as I am, mean as I have been, I have never wavered an instant in my love for you. Oh, I'm not pleading for anything. I'm not begging. I don't ask for anything,—not even your good opinion. I am only telling you the truth. Mr. Thorpe knew it all. He knew that I loved you, and he knew that I counted on having you after he was out of the way. And here is something else that you never knew, or suspected. He believed that my love for you, my eagerness, my longing to be free to call you back again, would be the means of releasing him from the thing that was killing him. He counted on me to—I will put it as gently as I can—to free myself. I believe in my soul that he married me with that awful idea in his mind."

For a long time they were silent. Braden was staring at her, horror in his eyes. She remained standing before him, motionless. Lutie's nurse passed through the little hall outside, but they did not see or hear her. A door closed softly; the faint crying of the baby went unheard.

"You are wrong there," he said at last, thickly. "I happen to know what his motives were, Anne."

"Oh, I know," she said wearily. "To prove to you how utterly worthless I am,—or was. Well, it may have been that. I hope it was. I would like to think it of him instead of the other thing. I would like to think of him as sacrificing himself for your sake, instead of planning to sacrifice me for his sake. It is a terrible thought, Braden. He begged me to give him those tablets, time and again. I—I couldn't have done that, not even with you as the prize." She shuddered.

A queer, indescribable chill ran through his veins. "Do you—have you ever thought that he may have held you out as a prize—for me?"

"You mean?" She went very white. "God above us, no! If I thought _that_, Braden, then there would be something lying between us, something that even such as I could not overcome."

"Just the same," he went on grimly, "he went to his death with a word of praise on his lips for you, Anne. He told me you were deserving of something better than the fate he had provided for you. He was sorry. It—it may have been that he was pleading your cause, that—"

"I would like to think that of him," she cried eagerly, "even though his praise fell upon deaf ears."

She turned away from him and sank wearily into a chair. For a minute or two he stood there regarding her in silence. He was sorry for her. It had taken a good deal of courage to humble herself in his eyes, as she had done by her frank avowal.

"Is it any satisfaction to your pride, Anne," he said slowly, after deliberate thought, "to know that I love you and always will love you, in spite of everything?"

Her answer was a long time in coming, and it surprised him when it did come.

"If I had any pride left I should hate you for humbling it in that manner, Braden," she said, little red spots appearing on her cheeks. "I am not asking for your pity."

"I did not mean to—" he cried impulsively. For an instant he threw all restraint aside. The craving mastered him. He sprang forward.

She closed her eyes quickly, and held her breath.

He was almost at her side when he stopped short. Then she heard the rush of his feet and, the next instant, the banging of the hall door. He was gone! She opened her eyes slowly, and stared dully, hazily before her. For a long time she sat as one unconscious. The shock of realisation left her without the strength or the desire to move. Comprehension was slow in coming to her in the shock of disappointment. She could not realise that she was not in his arms. He had leaped forward to clasp her, she had felt his outstretched arms encircling her,—it was hard to believe that she sat there alone and that the ecstasy was not real.

Tears filled her eyes. She did not attempt to wipe them away. She could only stare, unblinking, at the closed door. Sobs were in her throat; she was first cold, then hot as with a fever.

Slowly her breath began to come again, and with it the sobs. Her body relaxed, she closed her eyes again and let her head fall back against the chair, and for many minutes she remained motionless, still with the weakness of one who has passed through a great crisis.... Long afterward,—she did not know how long it was,—she laid her arms upon the window-sill at her side and buried her face on them. The sobs died away and the tears ceased flowing. Then she raised her eyes and stared down into the hot, crowded street far below. She looked upon sordid, cheap, ugly things down there, and she had been looking at paradise such a little while ago.

Suddenly she sprang to her feet. Her tall, glorious figure was extended to its full height, and her face was transformed with the light of exaltation.

A key grated noisily in the hall door. The next instant it swung violently open and her brother George strode in upon her,—big, clear-eyed, happy- faced and eager.

"Hello!" he cried, stopping short. "I popped in early to-day. Matter of great importance to talk over with my heir. Wait a second, Anne. I'll be back—I say, what's the matter? You look posi-_tive_-ly as if you were on the point of bursting into grand opera. Going to sing?"

"I'm singing all over, Georgie,—all over, inside and out," she cried joyously.

"Gee whiz!" he gasped. "Has the baby begun to talk?"

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