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   Chapter 4 No.4

From the Housetops By George Barr McCutcheon Characters: 18843

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was Templeton Thorpe's contention that Braden was a family investment, and that a good investment will take care of itself if properly handled. He considered himself quite capable of making a man of Braden, but he did not allow the boy to think that the job was a one-sided undertaking. Braden worked for all that he received. There was no silver platter, no golden spoon in Mr. Thorpe's cupboard. They understood each other perfectly and Templeton Thorpe was satisfied with his investment.

That is why his eyes twinkled when Braden burst into the library after his fruitless appeal to Mrs. Tresslyn. He smiled as one smiles with relief when a craft he is watching glides safely but narrowly past a projecting abutment.

"Calm yourself," he remarked after Braden's somewhat wild and incoherent beginning. "And sit down. You will not get anywhere pacing this twenty by thirty room, and you are liable to run into something immovable if you don't stop glaring at me and watch out where you are going instead."

"Sit down?" shouted Braden, stopping before the old man in the chair, his hands clinched and his teeth showing. "I'll never sit down in your house again! What do you think I am? A snivelling, cringing dog that has to lick your hand for-"

"Now, now!" admonished the old man, without anger. "If you will not sit down, at least be kind enough to stand still. I can't understand half you say while you are stamping around like that. This isn't a china shop. Control yourself. Now, let's have it in so many words and not so many gesticulations. So Anne declined to see you, eh?"

"I don't believe Anne had a voice in the matter. Mrs. Tresslyn is at the back of all this. She is the one who has roped you in,-duped you, or whatever you choose to call it without resorting to profanity. She's forcing Anne into this damnable marriage, and she is making a perfect fool of you. Can't you see it? Can't you see-but, my God, how can I ask that question of you? When a man gets to be as old as you, he-" He broke off abruptly, on the point of uttering the unforgivable.

"Go on, my boy," said Templeton Thorpe quietly. "Say it. I shan't mind."

"Oh, what's the use?" groaned the miserable lover. "I cannot say anything more to you, sir, than I said early this afternoon. I told you then just what I think of your treachery. There isn't anything more for me to say, but I'd like you to know that Anne despises you. Her mother acknowledges that much at least,-and, curse her, without shame!"

"I am quite well aware of the fact, Braden," said the old man. "You couldn't expect her to love me, could you?"

"Then, why in God's name are you marrying her? Why are you spoiling my life? Why are you-"

"Is it spoiling your life to have the girl you love turn to and marry an old wreck such as I am, just because I happen to be willing to pay her two million dollars,-in advance, you might say? Is that spoiling your life or saving it?"

Mr. Thorpe had dropped the cynical, half-amused air, and was now speaking with great intensity. Braden, struck by the change, turned suddenly to regard the old man with a new and puzzled light in his lowering eyes.

"See here, my lad, you've had your chance. I knew what I was about when I sent you to see her. I knew precisely what would happen. She wants to marry you, but she prefers to marry me. That isn't as ambiguous as it sounds. Just think it over,-later on, not now, for I have something else to say to you. Do me the honour to be seated. Thank you. Now, you've got quite a good-sized, respectable nose upon your face. I submit that the situation is quite as plain as that nose, if you look at it in the broad light of understanding. If you think that I am marrying Anne because I love her, or because I am in my dotage and afflicted with senility, you are very much mistaken. If you think I am giving her two million dollars as a wedding gift because I expect it to purchase her love and esteem, you do my intelligence an injustice. If you think that I relish the prospect of having that girl in my house from now till the day I die, worrying the soul out of me, you are too simple for words. I am marrying her, not because I love her, my lad, but-but because I love you. God forbid that I should ever sink so low as to steal from my own flesh and blood. Stealing is one thing, bartering another. I expect to convince you that I have not taken anything from you that is of value, hence I am not a malefactor."

Braden, seated opposite him, his elbows on the arms of the chair, leaned forward and watched the old man curiously. A new light had come into his eyes when Mr. Thorpe uttered those amazing words-"but because I love you." He was beginning to see, he was beginning to analyse the old man's motives, he was groping his way out of the fog.

"You will have hard work to convince me that I have not been treated most unfairly, most vilely," said he, his lips still compressed.

"Many years ago," said Mr. Thorpe, fixing his gaze on the lazy fire, "I asked Anne's grandmother to marry me. I suppose I thought that I was unalterably in love with her. I was the very rich son of a very rich man, and-pardon my conceit-what you would call an exceedingly good catch. Well, in those days things were not as they are now. The young lady, a great beauty and amazingly popular, happened to be in love with Roger Blair, a good-looking chap with no fortune and no prospects. She took the advice of her mother and married the man she loved, disdaining my riches and me as well. Roger wasn't much of a success as a husband, but he was a source of enlightenment and education to his wife. Not in the way you would suspect, however. He managed in very short order to convince her that it is a very ignorant mother who permits her daughter to marry a man without means. They hadn't been married three years when his wife had learned her lesson. It was too late to get rid of Roger, and by that time I was happily married to a girl who was quite as rich as I, and could afford to do as she pleased. So, you see, Anne's grandmother had to leave me out of the case, even though Roger would have been perfectly delighted to have given her sufficient grounds for divorce. I think you knew Anne's grandmother, Braden?" He paused for an answer, a sly, appraising look in his eyes. Receiving no response except a slight nod of the head, he chuckled softly and went on with the history.

"Poor soul, she's gone to her reward. Now we come to Anne's mother. She was an only child,-and one was quite enough, I assure you. No mother ever had greater difficulty in satisfactorily placing a daughter than had Mrs. Blair. There was an army of young but not very dependable gentlemen who would have married her like a flash, notwithstanding her own poverty, had it not been for the fact that Mrs. Blair was so thoroughly educated by this time that she couldn't even contemplate a mistake in her calculations. She had had ample proof that love doesn't keep the wolf from the door, nor does it draw five per cent, as some other bonds do. She brought Constance up in what is now considered to be the most approved fashion in high society. The chap who had nothing but health and ambition and honour and brains to offer, in addition to that unprofitable thing called love, was a viper in Mrs. Blair's estimation. He was very properly and promptly stamped upon by the fond mother and doubtless was very glad to crawl off into the high grass, out of danger. He-"

"What has all this got to do with your present behaviour?" demanded Braden harshly. "Speaking of vipers," he added, by way of comment.

"I am coming to that," said Mr. Thorpe, resenting the interruption but not its sting. "After a careful campaign, Arthur Tresslyn was elected. He had a great deal of money, a kind heart and scarcely any brains. He was an ideal choice, everybody was agreed upon that. The fellow that Constance was really in love with at the time, Jimmy Gordon, was a friend of your father's. Well, the gentle Arthur went to pieces financially a good many years ago. He played hob with all the calculations, and so we find Constance, his wife, lamenting in the graveyard of her hopes and cursing Jimmy Gordon for his unfaithfulness in marrying before he was in a position to do so. If Jimmy had remained single for twelve years longer than he did, I daresay Arthur's widow would have succeeded in nabbing him whether or no. Arthur managed to die very happily, they say, quite well pleased with himself for having squandered the fortune which brought him so much misery. Now we come to Anne, Arthur's daughter. She became deeply enamoured of a splendid, earnest young chap named Braden Thorpe, grandson of the wealthy and doddering Templeton Thorpe, and recognised as his sole heir. Keep your seat, Braden; I am coming to the point. This young Thorpe trusted the fair and beautiful Anne. He set out to make a name and fortune for himself and for her. He sought knowledge and experience in distant lands, leaving his poor old grandfather at home with nothing to amuse himself with except nine millions of dollars and his dread of death. While Braden was experimenting in London, this doddering, senile old gentleman of Washington Square began to experiment a little on his own account. He set out to discover just what sort of stuff this Anne Tresslyn was made of and to prove to himself that she

was worthy of his grandson's love. He began with the girl's mother. As soon as possible, he explained to her that money is a curse. She agreed that money is a curse if you haven't got it. In time, he confessed to her that he did not mean to curse his grandson with an unearned fortune, and that he intended to leave him in his will the trifling sum of fifty thousand dollars, thereby endowing him with the ambition and perhaps the energy to earn more and at the same time be of great benefit to the world in which he would have to struggle. Also, he let it be known that he was philanthropically inclined, that he purposed giving a great many millions to science and that his death would be of untold value to the human race. Are you attending, Braden? If you are not, I shall stop talking at once. It is very exhausting and I haven't much breath or time to waste."

"I am listening. Go on," said Braden, suddenly sitting up in his chair and taking a long, deep breath. The angry, antagonistic light was gone from his eyes.

"Well, the clever Mrs. Tresslyn was interested-deeply interested in my disclosures. She did not hesitate to inform me that Anne couldn't begin to live on the income from a miserable fifty thousand, and actually laughed in my face when I reminded her of the young lady's exalted preference for love in a cottage and joy at any price. Biding my time, I permitted the distressing truth to sink in. You will remember that Anne's letters began to come less frequently about four months ago, and-"

"How do you happen to know about that?" broke in the young man, in surprise.

"Where she had been in the habit of writing twice and even three times a week," went on Mr. Thorpe, "she was content to set herself to the task of dropping you a perfunctory letter once in a fortnight. You will also recall that her letters were not so full of intensity-or enthusiasm: they lacked fervour, they fell off considerably in many ways. I happen to know about all this, Braden, because putting two and two together has always been exceedingly simple for me. You see, it was about three months ago that Anne began to reveal more than casual interest in Percy Wintermill. She-"

"Percy Wintermill!" gasped Braden, clutching the arms of his chair. "Why, she has always looked upon him as the stupidest, ugliest man in town. His attentions have been a standing joke between us. He is crazy about her, I know, but-oh, well, go on with the story."

"To be sure he is crazy about her, as you say. That isn't strange. Half the young men in town think they are in love with her, and most of them believe she could make them happy. Now, no one concedes physical beauty or allurement to Percy. He is as ugly as they grow, but he isn't stupid. He is just a nice, amiable, senseless nincompoop with a great deal of money and a tremendous amount of health. He-"

"I like Wintermill. He is one of my best friends. He is as square as any man I know and he would be the last person to try to come between Anne and me. He is too fond of me for that, sir. You-"

"Unfortunately he was not aware of the fact that you and Anne were engaged. You forget that the engagement was to be kept under cover for the time being. But all this is beside the question. Mrs. Tresslyn had looked the field over pretty carefully. No one appeared to be so well qualified to take your place as Percy Wintermill. He had everything that is desirable in a husband except good looks and perhaps good manners. So she began fishing for Percy. Anne was a delightful bait. Of course, Percy's robust health was objectionable, but it wasn't insurmountable. I could see that Anne loathed the thought of having him for a husband for thirty or forty years. Anybody could see that,-even Percy must have possessed intelligence enough to see it for himself. Finally, about six weeks ago, Anne rose above her environment. She allowed Percy to propose, asked for a few days in which to make up her mind, and then came out with a point-blank refusal. She defied her mother, openly declaring that she would marry you in spite of everything."

"And that is just what she shall do, poor girl," cried Braden joyously. "She shall not be driven into-"

"Just a moment, please. When I discovered that young Wintermill couldn't be depended upon to rescue his best friend, I stepped into the arena, so to speak," said Mr. Thorpe with fine irony. "I sensed the situation perfectly. Percy was young and strong and enduring. He would be a long time dying in the natural order of things. What Anne was looking for-now, keep your seat, my boy!-what she wanted was a husband who could be depended upon to leave her a widow before it was too late. Now, I am seventy-seven, and failing pretty rapidly. It occurred to me that I would be just the thing for her. To make the story short, I began to dilate upon my great loneliness, and also hinted that if I could find the right sort of companion I would jump at the chance to get married. That's putting it rather coarsely, my boy, but the whole business is so ugly that it doesn't seem worth while to affect delicacy. Inside of two weeks, we had come to an understanding,-that is, an arrangement had been perfected. I think that everything was agreed upon except the actual day of my demise. As you know, I am to set aside for Anne as an ante-nuptial substitute for all dower rights in my estate, the sum of two million dollars. I may add that the securities guaranteeing this amount have been submitted to Mrs. Tresslyn and she has found them to be gilt-edged. These securities are to be held in trust for her until the day I die, when they go to her at once, according to our contract. She agrees to-"

"By gad, sir, it is infamous! Absolutely infamous!" exclaimed young Thorpe, springing to his feet. "I cannot-I will not believe it of her."

"She agrees to relinquish all claims to my estate," concluded the old man, with a chuckle. "Inasmuch as I have made it quite clear that all of my money is to go to charity,-scientific charity,-I imagine that the Tresslyns feel that they have made a pretty good bargain."

"I still maintain that she will renounce the whole detestable-"

"She would go back on her contract like a shot if she thought that I intended to include you among my scientific charities," interrupted the old man.

"Oh, if I could only have an hour-half an hour with her," groaned Braden. "I could overcome the vile teaching of her mother and bring her to a realisation of what is ahead of her. I-"

"Do you honestly,-in your heart, Braden,-believe that you could do that?" demanded Mr. Thorpe, arising from his chair and laying his hand upon the young man's shoulder. He forced the other's eyes to meet his. "Do you believe that she would be worthy of your love and respect even though she did back out of this arrangement? I want an honest answer."

"God help me, I-I don't know what to think," cried Braden miserably. "I am shocked, bewildered. I can't say what I believe, grandfather. I only know that I have loved her better than my own soul. I don't know what to think now."

"You might also say that she loves herself better than she loves her own soul," said the old man grimly. "She will go on loving you, I've no doubt, in a strictly physical way, but I wouldn't put much dependence in her soulfulness. One of these fine days, she will come to you and say that she has earned two million dollars, and she will ask you if it is too late to start all over again. What will you say to that?"

"Good Lord, sir, what would you expect me to say?" exploded Braden. "I should tell her to-to go to hell!" he grated between his teeth.

"Meanwhile, I want you to understand that I have acted for your best interests, Braden. God knows I am not in love with this girl. I know her kind, I know her breed. I want to save you from-well, I want to give you a fighting chance to be a great, good man. You need the love of a fine, unselfish woman to help you to the heights you aspire to reach. Anne Tresslyn would not have helped you. She cannot see above her own level. There are no heights for her. She belongs to the class that never looks up from the ground. They are always following the easiest path. I am doing you a good turn. Somewhere in this world there is a noble, self-sacrificing woman who will make you happy, who will give strength to you, who will love you for yourself and not for herself. Go out and find her, my boy. You will recognise her the instant you see her."

"But you-what of you?" asked Braden, deeply impressed by the old man's unsuspected sentiment. "Will you go ahead and-and marry her, knowing that she will make your last few years of life unhappy, un-"

"I am under contract," said Templeton Thorpe grimly. "I never go back on a contract."

"I shall see her, nevertheless," said Braden doggedly.

"It is my desire that you should. In fact, I shall make it my business to see that you do. After that, I fancy you will not care to remain here for the wedding. I should advise you to return to London as soon as you have had it out with her."

"I shall remain here until the very hour of the wedding if it is to take place, and up to that very hour I shall do my best to prevent it, grandfather."

"Your failure to do so will make me the happiest man in New York," said Mr. Thorpe, emotion in his voice, "for I love you dearly, Braden."

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