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   Chapter 6 No.6

From the Housetops By George Barr McCutcheon Characters: 29890

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Mr. Thorpe was as good as his word. He arranged for the meeting between Braden and Anne, but with characteristic astuteness laid his plans so that they were to come upon each other unexpectedly. It happened on the second day after his talk with Braden.

Mr. Thorpe's plan involved other people as well as the two most vitally interested. There was to be a meeting at his house late in the afternoon for the purpose of signing the ante-nuptial contract already agreed upon. Five o'clock was the hour set for the gathering. Lawyers representing both parties were to be there, with Mrs. Tresslyn, George and Anne, and Mr. Thorpe's private secretary, who, with Dr. Bates, was to serve as a witness to the instrument.

At noon Wade delivered a letter to Miss Tresslyn in which Mr. Thorpe said that he would be pleased if she would accompany him to Tiffany's for the purpose of selecting a string of pearls. He made it quite clear that she was to go alone with him, playfully mentioning his desire to be the only witness to her confusion when confronted by the "obsequious salesman and his baubles from the sea." If quite agreeable to her he would make an appointment with the jeweller for 3.30 and would call for her in person. After that, he continued, the signing of a contract for life would not seem such a portentous undertaking, and they could go to the meeting with hearts as light as air. It was a cheerful, even gay little missive, but she was not for an instant blind to the irony that lay between the lines.

Anne selected the pearls that he had chosen in advance of their visit to Tiffany's. He did not tell her that he had instructed the jeweller to make up a string of pearls for her inspection, with the understanding that she was to choose for herself from an assortment of half-a-dozen beautiful offerings, no price to be mentioned. He was quite sure that she would not even consider the cost. He credited her with an honest scorn for sentimentality; she would make no effort to glorify him for an act that was so obviously a part of their unsentimental compact. There would be no gushing over this sardonic tribute to her avarice. She would have herself too well in hand for that.

They were about her neck when she entered the house near Washington Square almost an hour before the time appointed for the conference. In her secret but subdued pleasure over acquiring the costly present, she had lost all count of time. That was a part of Mr. Thorpe's expensive programme.

All the way down in the automobile she had been estimating the value of her new possession. On one point she was satisfied: there were few handsomer strings in New York than hers. She would have to keep them in a safe place,-a vault, no doubt. Nearly every matron of her acquaintance made a great deal of the fact that she had to buy a safe in which to store her treasures. There was something agreeable-subtly agreeable-in owning jewels that would have to be kept in one of those staunch, opulent looking safes. She experienced a thrill of satisfaction by describing herself in advance, as one of the women with pearls. And there was additional gratification in the knowledge that she could hardly be called a matron in the strict sense of the word. She was glad that she was too young for that. She tried to recall the names of all the women who possessed pearls like these, and the apparent though undeclared age of each. There was not one among them who was under forty. Most of them had endured many years of married life before acquiring what she was to have at the outset. Mrs. Wintermill, for instance: she was sixty-two or three, and had but recently come into a string of pearls not a whit more valuable than the one that now adorned her neck and lay hidden beneath the warm fur collar of her coat.

Her calculations suddenly hit upon something that could be used as a basis. Mrs. Wintermill's pearls had cost sixty-five thousand dollars. Sixty-five thousand dollars! She could not resist the impulse to shoot a swift, startled look out of the corners of her eyes at the silent old man beside her. That was a lot of money! And it was money that he was under no obligation to expend upon her. It was quite outside the contract. She was puzzled. Why this uncalled for generosity? A queer, sickening doubt assailed her.

"Are-are these pearls really and truly to be mine?" she asked. "Mine to keep forever?"

"Certainly, my dear," he said, looking at her so oddly that she flushed. He had read the thought that was in her mind. "I give and bequeath them to you this day, to have and to hold forever," he added, with a smile that she could not fail to understand.

"I wanted to be sure," she said, resorting to frankness.

When they entered the Thorpe home, Wade was waiting in the hall with the butler. His patient, set smile did not depart so much as the fraction of an inch from its habitual condition. His head was cocked a little to one side.

"Are we late, Wade?" inquired Mr. Thorpe.

"No, sir," said Wade. "No one has come." He glanced up at the tall clock on the landing. "It is a quarter past four, sir. Mrs. Tresslyn telephoned a few minutes ago, sir."

"Ah! That she would be late?"

"No, sir. To inquire if-ahem!-if Mr. Braden was likely to be here this afternoon."

Anne started violently. A quick, hunted expression leaped into her eyes as she looked about her. Something rushed up into her throat, something that smothered.

"You informed her, of course, that Mr. Braden declines to honour us with his presence," said Mr. Thorpe suavely.

"Yes, sir, in a way."

"Ahem! Well, my dear, make yourself quite at home. Go into the library, do. You'll find a roaring fire there. Murray, take Miss Tresslyn's coat. Make her comfortable. Come, Wade, your arm. Forgive me, Anne, if I leave you to yourself for a few minutes. My joy at having you here is shorn of its keenness by a long-established age that demands house-boots, an eider-down coat and-Murray, what the devil do you mean by letting the house get so cold as all this? It's like a barn. Are the furnaces out. What am I paying that rascally O'Toole for? Tell him to-"

"It is quite comfortable, Mr. Thorpe," said Anne, with a slight shiver that was not to be charged to the defective O'Toole.

The long, wide hall was dark and grim. Wade was dark and grim, and Murray too, despite his rotundity. There were lank shadows at the bottom of the hall, grim projections of objects that stood for ornamentation: a suit of armour, a gloomy candlestick of prodigious stature, and a thin Italian cabinet surmounted by an urn whose unexposed contents might readily have suggested something more sinister than the dust of antiquity. The door to the library was open. Fitful red shadows flashed dully from the fireplace across the room, creeping out into the hall and then darting back again as if afraid to venture. The waning sunlight struggled through a curtained window at the top of the stairs. There was dusk in the house. Evening had fallen there.

Anne stood in the middle of the library, divested of her warm fur coat. Murray was poking the fire, and cheerful flames were leaping upward in response to the call to wake. She had removed one of her gloves. With the slim, bared fingers she fondled the pearls about her neck, but her thoughts were not of baubles. She was thinking of this huge room full of shadows, shadows through which she would have to walk for many a day, where night would always be welcome because of the light it demanded.

It was a man's room. Everything in it was massive, substantial. Big chairs, wide lounges, and a thick soft carpet of dull red that deprived the footfall of its sound. Books mounted high,-almost to the ceiling,-filling all the spaces left unused by the doors and windows. Heavy damask curtains shut out the light of day. She wondered why they had been drawn so early, and whether they were always drawn like this. Near the big fireplace, with its long mantelpiece over which hung suspended the portrait of an early Knickerbocker gentleman with ruddy, even convivial countenance, stood a long table, a reading lamp at the farther end. Books, magazines, papers lay in disorder upon this table.

She recalled something that Braden once had told her: his grandfather always "raised Cain" with any one who happened to be guilty of what he called criminal orderliness in putting the table to rights. He wanted the papers and magazines left just as they were, so that he could put his hand upon them without demanding too much of a servant's powers of divination. More than one parlour-maid had been dismissed for offensive neatness.

She closed her eyes for a second. A faint line, as of pain, appeared between them. In this room Braden Thorpe had been coddled and scolded, in this room he had romped and studied-She opened her eyes quickly.

"Murray," she said, in a low voice; "you are quite sure that Mr. Braden is-is out?"

The old butler straightened up from his task, his hand going to his back as if to keep it from creaking. "Yes, Miss Tresslyn, quite sure." He hesitated for a moment. "I think he said that he intended to give himself the pleasure of a call-ahem! I beg pardon. Yes, he is quite out-I should say, I'm quite sure he is out." He was confused, a most unheard of thing in Murray.

"But he will return-soon?" She took a step or two nearer the door, possessed of a sudden impulse to run,-to run swiftly away.

"I think not, miss," said he. "He is not expected to be here during the-er-you might say, the-ahem!"

"I'll have a look about the room," said Anne softly. She felt that she was going to like Murray. She wanted him to like her. The butler may have caught the queer little note in her voice, or he may have seen the hunted look in her eyes before she turned them away. At any rate, he poked the fire vigorously once more. It was his way of saying that she might depend upon him. Then he went out of the room, closing the door behind him.

She started violently, and put her hand to her heart. She had the queer, uncanny feeling that she was locked in this sombre room, that she would never be free again.

In a room upstairs, Mr. Templeton Thorpe was saying to Wade:

"Is my grandson in his room?"

"Yes, sir. He came in at four and has been waiting for you, as you directed, sir."

"Tell him that I would like to see him at once in the library," said Mr. Thorpe.

"Yes, sir," said Wade, and for the first time in years his patient smile assumed the proportions of a grin. He did not have to be told that Anne's presence in the house was not to be made known to Braden. All that he was expected to do was to inform the young man that his grandfather wanted to see him in the library,-at once.

And so it came to pass that three minutes later, Braden and Anne were face to face with each other, and old Mr. Thorpe had redeemed his promise.

Of the two, Braden was the more surprised. The girl's misgivings had prepared her for just such a crisis as this. Something told her the instant she set foot inside the house that she was to be tricked. In a flash she realised that Mr. Thorpe himself was responsible for the encounter she had dreaded. It was impossible to suspect Braden of being a party to the scheme. He was petrified. There could be no doubt that he had been tricked quite as cleverly as she.

But what could have been in the old man's design? Was it a trap? Did he expect her to rush into Braden's arms? Was he lurking behind some near-by curtain to witness her surrender? Was he putting her to the test, or was it his grandson who was on trial?

Here was the supreme crisis in the life of Anne Tresslyn: the turning point. Her whole being cried out against this crafty trick. One word now from Braden would have altered the whole course of her life. In eager silence she stood on the thin edge of circumstance, ready to fall as the wind blew strongest. She was in revolt. If this stupefied, white-faced young man had but called out to her: "Anne! Anne, my darling! Come!" she would have laughed in triumph over the outcome of the old man's test, and all the years of her life would have been filled with sweetness. She would have gone to him.

But, alas, those were not the words that fell from his lips, and the fate of Anne Tresslyn was sealed as she stood there watching him with wide-spread eyes.

"I prefer to see you in your own home," he said, a flush of anger spreading over his face; "not here in my grandfather's house."

There was no mistaking his meaning. He thought she had come there to see him,-ay, conceivably had planned this very situation! She started. It was like a slap in the face. Then she breathed once more, and realised that she had not drawn a breath since he entered the room. Her life had been standing still, waiting till these few stupendous seconds were over. Now they were gone and she could take up life where it had left off. The tightness in her throat relaxed. The crisis was over, the turning point was behind her. He had failed her, and he would have to pay. He would have to pay with months, even years of waiting. For it had never occurred to Anne Tresslyn to doubt that he would come to her in good and proper time!

She could not speak at once. Her response was not ready. She was collecting herself. Given the time, she would rise above the mischief that confounded her. To have uttered the words that hung unuttered on her lips would have glorified him and brought shame to her pride forever more. Five words trembled there awaiting deliverance and they were good and honest words-"Take me back, Braden darling!" They were never spoken. They were formed to answer a different call from him. She checked them in time.

"I did not come here to see you," she said at last, standing very straight beside the table. He was just inside the door leading to the hall. "Whose trick is this,-yours or Mr. Thorpe's?"

Enlightenment flashed into his eyes. "By Jove!" he exclaimed. "He said he would do it, and he has made good. This is his way of-" He broke off in the middle of the sentence. In an instant he had whirled about and the door was closed with a bang.

She started forward, her hand pressed to her quick-beating heart, real fear in her eyes. What was in his mind? Was this insanity? She had read of men driven mad by disappointment who brutally set upon and killed-But he was facing her now, and she stopped short. His jaw was set but there was no insane light in the eyes that regarded her so steadily. Somehow-and suddenly-her composure was restored. She was not afraid of him. She was not afraid of the hands and arms that had caressed her so tenderly, nor was she afraid of the words that were to fall from the lips that had kissed hers so many times. He was merely going to plead with her, and she was well prepared for that.

For weeks and weeks she had been prepar

ing herself for this unhappy moment. She knew that the time would come when she would have to face him and defend herself. She would have to deny the man she loved. She would have to tell him that she was going for a higher price than he could pay. The time had come and she was ready. The weakness of the minute before had passed-passed with his failure to strike when, with all her heart and soul, she wanted him to strike.

"You need not be frightened," he said, subduing his voice with an effort. "Let us take time to steady ourselves. We have a good deal to say to each other. Let's be careful not to waste words, now that we're face to face at last."

"I am quite calm," she said, stock-still beside the table. "Why should I be frightened? I am the last person in the world that you would strike, Braden." She was that sure of him!

"Strike? Good God, why should that have entered your head?"

"One never knows," she said. "I was startled. I was afraid-at first. You implied a moment ago that I had arranged for this meeting. Surely you understand that I-"

"My grandfather arranged it," he interrupted. "There's no use beating about the bush. I told him that I would not believe this thing of you unless I had it from your own lips. You would not see me. You were not permitted to see me. I told him that you were being forced into this horrible marriage, that your mother was afraid to let me have a single word with you. He laughed at me. He said that you were going into it with your eyes open, that you were obeying your mother willingly, that you-"

"Pardon me," she interrupted coldly. "Is your grandfather secreted somewhere near so that he may be able to enjoy the-"

"I don't know, and I don't care. Let him hear if he wants to. Why should either of us care? He knows all there is to know about you and he certainly appreciates my position. We may as well speak freely. It will not make the slightest difference, one way or the other, so far as he is concerned. He knows perfectly well that you are not marrying him for love, or respect, or even position. So let's speak plainly. I say that he arranged this meeting between us. He brought you here, and he sent upstairs for me to join him in this room. Well, you see he isn't here. We are quite alone. He is fair to both of us. He is giving me my chance and he is giving you yours. It only remains for us to settle the matter here and now. I know all of the details of this disgusting compact. I know that you are to have two million dollars settled upon you the day you are married-oh, I know the whole of it! Now, there's just one thing to be settled between you and me: are you going ahead with it or are you going to be an honest woman and marry the man you love?"

He did not leave her much to stand upon. She had expected him to go about it in an entirely different way. She had counted upon an impassioned plea for himself, not this terse, cold-blooded, almost unemotional summing up of the situation. For an instant she was at a loss. It was hard to look into his honest eyes. A queer, unformed doubt began to torment her, a doubt that grew into a question later on: was he still in love with her?

"And what if I do not care to discuss my private affairs with you?" she said, playing for time.

"Don't fence, Anne," he said sternly. "Answer the question. Wait. I'll put it in another form, and I want the truth. If you say to me that your mother is deliberately forcing you into this marriage I'll believe you, and I'll-I'll fight for you till I get you. I will not stand by and see you sacrificed, even though you may appear to-"

"Stop, please. If you mean to ask that question, I'll answer it in advance. It is I, not my mother, who expects to marry Mr. Thorpe, and I am quite old enough and wise enough to know my own mind. So you need not put the question."

He drew nearer. The table separated them as they looked squarely into each other's eyes through the fire-lit space that lay between.

"Anne, Anne!" he cried hoarsely. "You must not, you shall not do this unspeakable thing! For God's sake, girl, if you have an atom of self-respect, the slightest-"

"Don't begin that, Braden!" she cut in, ominously. "I cannot permit you or any man to say such things to me, no matter what you may think. Bear that in mind."

"Don't you mind what I think about it, Anne?" he cried, his voice breaking.

"See here, Braden," she said, in an abrupt, matter-of-fact manner, "it isn't going to do the least bit of good to argue the point. I am pledged to marry Mr. Thorpe and I shall do so if I live till the twenty-third of next month. Provided, of course, that he lives till that day himself. I have gone into it with my eyes open, as he says, and I am satisfied with my bargain. I suppose you will hate me to the end of your days. But if you think that I expect to hate myself, you are very much mistaken. Look! Do you see these pearls? They were not included in the bargain, and I could have gone on very well without them to the end of my term as the mistress of this house, but I accepted them from my fiancé to-day in precisely the same spirit in which they were given: as alms to the undeserving. Your grandfather did not want me to marry you. He is merely paying me to keep my hands off. That's the long and the short of it. I am not in the least deceived. You will say that I could-and should have told him to go to the devil. Well, I'm sorry to have to tell you that I couldn't see my way clear to doing that. I hope he is listening behind the curtains. We drove a hard bargain. He thought he could get off with a million. You must remember that he had deliberately disinherited you,-that much I know. His will is made. It will not be altered. You will be a poor man as wealth is reckoned in these days. But you will be a great man. You will be famous, distinguished, honoured. That is what he intends. He set out to sacrifice me in order that you might be spared. You were not to have a millstone about your neck in the shape of a selfish, unsacrificing wife. What rot! From the bottom of my heart, Braden,-if you will grant me a heart,-I hope and pray that you may go to the head of your profession, that you may be a great and good man. I do not ask you to believe me when I say that I love you, and always-"

"For God's sake, don't ask me to believe it! Don't add to the degradation you are piling up for yourself. Spare yourself that miserable confession. It is quite unnecessary to lie to me, Anne."

"Lie? I am telling you the truth, Braden. I do love you. I can't help that, can I? You do not for an instant suspect that I love this doddering old man, do you? Well, I must love some one. That's natural, isn't it? Then, why shouldn't it be you? Oh, laugh if you will! It doesn't hurt me in the least. Curse me, if you like. I've made up my mind to go on with this business of marrying. We've had one unsuccessful marriage in our family of late. Love was at the bottom of it. You know how it has turned out, Braden. It-"

"I believe I know how it might have turned out if they had been left to themselves," said he bluntly.

"She would have been a millstone, nevertheless," she argued.

"I don't agree with you. George found his level in that little nobody, as you all have called her. Poor little thing, she was not so lucky as I. She did not have her eyes opened in time. She had no chance to escape. But we're not here to talk about Lutie Carnahan. I have told my grandfather that I intend to break this thing off if it is in my power to do so. I shall not give up until I know that you are actually married. It is a crime that must not-"

"How do you purpose breaking it off?" she inquired shrilly. Visions of a strong figure rising in the middle of the ceremony to cry out against the final words flashed into her mind. Would she have that to look forward to and dread?

"I shall go on appealing to your honour, your decency, your self-respect, if not to the love you say you bear for me."

She breathed easier. "And will you confine your appeals to me?"

"What do you mean?"

"I thought you might take it into your head to appeal to Mr. Thorpe's honour, decency, self-respect and love for you," she said, sullenly. "He is quite as guilty as I, remember."

"He has quite a different object in view. He seems to feel that he is doing me a good turn, not an evil one."

"Bosh!" She was angry. "And what will be your attitude toward me if you do succeed in preventing the marriage? Will you take me back as I was before this thing came up? Will you make me your wife, just as if nothing had happened? In view of my deliberate intention to deny you, will you forget everything and take me back?"

He put his hand to his throat, and for a moment appeared to be struggling against himself. "I will take you back, Anne, as if nothing had happened, if you will say to me here and now that you will marry me to-morrow."

She stared at him, incredulous. Her heart began to beat rapidly once more and the anger died away. "You would do that, knowing me to be what I am?"

"Knowing you to be what you were," he amended eagerly. "Oh, Anne, you are worth loving, you are pure of heart and-"

"If I will marry you to-morrow?" she went on, watching his face closely.

"Yes. But you must say it now-this instant. I will not grant you a moment's respite. If you do not say the word now, your chance is gone forever. It has to be now, Anne."

"And if I refuse-what then?"

"I would not marry you if you were the only woman on earth," he said flatly.

She smiled. "Are you sure that you love me, Braden?"

"I will love you when you become what you were,-a month ago," he said simply. "A girl worth the honour of being loved," he added.

"Men sometimes love those who are not worth the honour," she said, feeling her way. "They cannot help themselves."

"Will you say the word now?" he demanded hoarsely.

She sighed. It was a sigh of relief,-perhaps of triumph. He was safe for all time. He would come to her in the end. She was on solid ground once more.

"I am afraid, Braden, that I cannot play fast and loose with a man as old as Mr. Thorpe," she said lightly.

He muttered an oath. "Don't be a fool! What do you call your treatment of me? Fast and loose! Good Lord, haven't you played fast and loose with me?"

"Ah, but you are young and enduring," she said. "You will get over it. He wouldn't have the time or strength to recover from the shock of-"

"Oh, for God's sake, don't talk like that! What do you call yourself? What-" He checked the angry words and after a moment went on, more quietly: "Now, see here, Anne, I'm through parleying with you. I shall go on trying to prevent this marriage, but succeed or fail, I don't want to see your face again as long as I live. I'm through with you. You are like your mother. You are a damned vampire. God, how I have loved and trusted you, how I have believed in you. I did not believe that the woman lived who could degrade herself as you are about to degrade yourself. I have had my eyes opened. All my life I have loved you without even knowing you. All my life I-"

"All my life I have loved you," she broke in cringingly.

He laughed aloud. "The hell you have!" he cried out. "You have allowed me to hold you in my arms, to kiss you, to fondle you, and you have trembled with joy and passion,-and now you call it love! Love! You have never loved in your life and you never will. You call self-gratification by the name of love. Thank God, I know you at last. I ought to pity you. In all humanity I ought to pity a fellow creature so devoid of-"

"Stop!" she cried, her face flaming red. "Go! Go away! You have said enough. I will hate you if you utter another word, and I don't want to hate you, Braden. I want to go on loving you all my life. I must go on loving you."

"You have my consent," he said, ironically, bowing low before her. "Humanity compels me to grant you all the consolation you can find in deceiving yourself."

"Wait!" she cried out, as he turned toward the door. "I-I am hurt, Braden. Can't you see how you have hurt me? Won't you-"

"Of course, you are hurt!" he shouted. "You squeal when you are hurt. You think only of yourself when you cry 'I am hurt'! Don't you ever think of any one else?" His hand grasped the big silver door-knob.

"I want you to understand, if you can, why I am doing this thing you revile me for."

"I understand," he said curtly.

She hurried her words, fearful that he might rush from the room before she could utter the belated explanation.

"I don't want to be poor. I don't want to go through life as my mother has gone, always fighting for the things she most desired, always being behind the game she was forced to play. You can't understand,-you are too big and fine,-you cannot understand the little things, Braden. I want love and happiness, but I want the other, too. Don't you see that with all this money at my command I can be independent, I can be safe for all time, I can give more than myself in return for the love that I must have? Don't you understand why-"

She was quite close to him when he interrupted the impassioned appeal. His hand shook as he held it up to check her approach.

"It's all over, Anne. There is nothing more to be said. I understand everything now. May God forgive you," he said huskily.

She stopped short. Her head went up and defiance shone in her face.

"I'd rather have your forgiveness than God's," she said distinctly, "and since I may not ask for it now, I will wait for it, my friend. We love each other. Time mends a good many breaks. Good-bye! Some day I hope you'll come to see your poor old granny, and bring-"

"Oh, for the love of heaven, have a little decency, Anne," he cried, his lip curling.

But her pride was roused, it was in revolt against all of the finer instincts that struggled for expression.

"You'd better go now. Run upstairs and tell your grandfather that his scheme worked perfectly. Tell him everything I have said. He will not mind. I am sorry you will not remain to see the contract signed. I should like to have you for a witness. If you-"

"Contract? What contract?"

"Oh," she said lightly, "just a little agreement on his part to make life endurable for me while he continues to live. We are to sign the paper at five o'clock. Yes, you'd better run along, Braden, or you'll find yourself the centre of a perplexed crowd. Before you go, please take a last look at me in my sepulchre. Here I stand! Am I not fair to look upon?"

"God, I'd sooner see you in your grave than here," he grated out. "You'd be better off, a thousand times."

"This is my grave," she said, "or will be soon. I suppose I am not to count you among the mourners?"

He slammed the door behind him, and she was alone.

"How I hate people who slam doors," she said to herself.

* * *

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