Simmy winced. "Strike out for yourself, George. Be somebody. Buck up, and—"
George sagged back into the chair as he gloomily interrupted the speaker. "That's all very fine, Simmy, that sort of talk, but I'm not in the mood to listen to it now. I wasn't through telling you about the wedding. Where was I when I stopped? Oh, yes, the scarf-pin. Hey, waiter! Come here a second."
A waiter approached. With great solemnity George arose and grasped him by the shoulder, and a moment later had removed the nickel-plated badge from the man's lapel. The waiter was tolerant. He grinned. It was what he was expected to do under the circumstances. But he was astonished by the next act of the tall young man in evening clothes. George proceeded to jam the scarf-pin into the fellow's coat where the badge of service had rested the instant before. Then, with Simmy looking on in disgust, he pinned the waiter's badge upon his own coat. "There!" he said, with a sneer. "That is supposed to make a gentleman of you, and this makes a man of me. On your way, gentleman! I—"
"For heaven's sake, George," cried Simmy, arising. "Don't be an ass." He took the tag from Tresslyn's coat and handed it back to the waiter. "Give him the scarf-pin if you like, old man, but don't rob him of his badge of honour. He earns an honest living with that thing, you know."
George sat down. He was suddenly abashed. "What an awful bounder you must think I am, Simmy."
"Nonsense. You're a bit tight, that's all." He slipped the waiter a bank- note and motioned him away. "Now, let's go home, George."
"Yes, sir; he turned and walked out of the room, leaving all of us standing there," muttered George, with a mental leap backward. "I'll never forget it, long as I live. He simply scorned the whole lot of us. I went away as quickly as I could, but the others beat me to it. I left mother and Anne there all alone, just wandering around the room as if they were half-stunned. Never, never will I forget Anne's white, scared face, and I've never seen mother so helpless, either. Anne gripped, that big envelope so tight that it crumpled up into almost nothing. Mother took it away from her and opened it. Nobody was there but us three. I shan't tell you what was in the envelope. I'm not drunk enough for that."
"Never mind. It's immaterial, in any event." Simmy had called for his check.
George's mind took a new twist. Suddenly he sprang to his feet. "By the way, before I forget it, do you know where I can find Braden Thorpe?"
A black scowl disfigured his face. There was an ugly, ominous glare in his fast clearing eyes. Simmy, coming no higher than his shoulder, linked his arm through one of George's and started toward the door with him. He was headed for the porters' entrance.
"He's out of town, George. Don't bother about Braden."
"I'm going to kill Brady Thorpe, Simmy," said George hoarsely. Simmy felt the big right arm swell and become as rigid as steel.
"Don't talk like a fool," he whispered.
"He didn't act right by Anne," said George. "He's got to account to me. He's—"
They were in the narrow hallway by this time. Simmy called to a porter.
"Get me a taxi, will you?"
"I say he didn't act right by Anne. It's his fault that she—Let go my arm, Simmy!" He gave it a mighty wrench.
"All right," said Simmy, maintaining his equilibrium with some difficulty after the jerk he had received. "Don't you want me to be your friend, George?"
George glared at him, and then broke into a shamed, foolish laugh. "Forgive me, Simmy. Of course, I want you as my friend. I depend upon you."
"Then stop this talk about going after Braden. In heaven's name, you kid, what has he done to you or Anne? He's the one who deserves sympathy and—"
"I've got it in for him because he's a coward and a skunk," explained George, lowering his voice with praiseworthy consideration. "You see, it's just this way, Simmy. He didn't do the right thing by Anne. He ought to have come back here and made her marry him. That's where he's to blame. He ought to have gone right up to the house and grabbed her by the throat and choked her till she gave in and went with him to a justice-of-the- peace or something. He owed it to her, Simmy,—he was in duty bound to save her. If he hadn't been a sneakin' coward, he'd have choked her till she was half-dead and then she would have gone with him gladly. Women like a brave man. They like to be choked and beaten and—"
Simmy laughed. "Do you call it bravery to choke a woman into submission, and drag her off to—"
"I call it cowardice to give up the woman you love if she loves you," said George. "I know what I'm talking about, too, because I'm one of the sneakingest cowards on earth. What do you think of me, Simmy? What does everybody think of me? Wouldn't call me a brave man, would you?"
"The cases are not parallel. Braden's case is different. He couldn't force Anne to—"
"See here, Simmy," broke in George, wonderingly, "I hadn't noticed it before, but, by giminy, I believe you're tipsy. You've been drinking, Simmy. No sober man would talk as you do. When you sober up, you'll think just as I do,—and that is that Brady Thorpe ought to have been a man when he had the chance. He ought to have stuck his fist under Anne's nose and said 'Come on, or I'll smash you,' and she'd have gone with him like a little lamb, and she'd have loved him a hundred times more than she ever loved him before. He didn't do the right thing by her, Simmy. He didn't, curse him, and I'll never forgive him. I'm going to wring his neck, so help me Moses. I've been a coward just as long as I intend to be. Take a good look at me, Simmy. If you watch closely you may see me turning into a man."
"Get in," said Simmy, pushing him toward the door of the taxi-cab. "A little sleep is what you need."
"And say, there's another thing I've got to square up with Brady Thorpe," protested George, holding back. "He took Lutie up there to that beastly hospital and slashed her open, curse him. A poor, helpless little girl like that! Call that brave? Sticking a knife into Lutie? He's got to settle with me for that, too."
And then Simmy understood.
Much may happen in a year's time. The history of the few people involved in the making of this narrative presents but few new aspects, and yet there is now to be disclosed an unerring indication of great and perhaps enduring changes in the lives of every one concerned.
To begin with, Templeton Thorpe, at the age of seventy-eight, is lying at the edge of his grave. On the day of his marriage with Anne Tresslyn, he put down his arms in the long and hopeless conflict with an enemy that knows no pity, a foe so supremely confident that man has been powerless to do more than devise a means to temporarily check its relentless fury. The thing in Mr. Thorpe's side was demanding the tolls of victory. There was no curbing its wrath: neither the soft nor the harsh answer of science had served to turn it away. The hand with the gleaming, keen-edged knife had been offered against it again and again, but the stroke had never fallen, for always there stood between it and the surgeon who would slay the ravager, the resolute fear of Templeton Thorpe. Time there was when the keen-edged knife might have vanquished or at least deprived it of its early venom, but the body of a physical coward housed it and denied admittance to all-comers. Templeton Thorpe did not fear death. He wanted to die, he implored his Maker to become his Destroyer. The torture of a slow, inevitable death, however, was as nothing to the horror of the knife that is sharp and cold.
When he went upstairs with Wade on that memorable twenty-third of March, he said to his enemy: "Be quick, that's all I ask of you," and then prepared to wait as patiently as he could for the friendly end.
From that day on, he was to the eyes of the world what he had long been to himself in secret: a sick man without hope. Weeks passed before his bride recognised the revolting truth, and when she came to know that he was doomed her pity was so vast that she sickened under its weight. She had come prepared to see him die, as all men do when they have lived out their time, but she had not counted on seeing him die like this, with suffering in his bleak old eyes and a smile of derision on his pallid lips.
Old Templeton Thorpe's sufferings were for himself, and he guarded them jealously with all the fortitude he could command. His irascibility increased with his determination to fight it out alone. He disdained every move on her part to extend sympathy and help to him. To her credit, be it said, she would have become his nurse and consoler if he had let down the bars,—not willingly, of course, but because there was in Anne Thorpe, after all, the heart of a woman, and of such it must be said there is rarely an instance where its warmth has failed to respond to the call of human suffering. She would have tried to help him, she would have tried to do her part. But he was grim, he was resolute. She could not bridge the gulf that lay between them. His profound tolerance did not deceive her; it was scorn of the most poignant character.
Braden was in Europe. He was expected in New York by the middle of March. His grandfather would not consent to his being sent for, although it was plain to be seen that he lived only for the young man's return.
Anne had once suggested, timorously, that Braden's place was at the sufferer's bedside, but the smile that the old man bestowed upon her was so significant, so full of understanding, that she shrank within herself and said no more. She knew, however, that he longed for the sustaining hand of his only blood relation, that he looked upon himself as utterly alone in these last few weeks of life; and yet he would not send out the appeal that lay uppermost in his thoughts. In his own good time Braden would come back and there would be perhaps' one long, farewell grip of the hand.
After that, ironic peace.
He could not be cured himself, but he wanted to be sure that Braden was cured before he passed away. He knew that his grandson would not come home until the last vestige of love and respect for Anne Tresslyn was gone; not until he was sure that his wound had healed beyond all danger of bleeding again. Mr. Thorpe was satisfied that he had served his grandson well. He was confident that the young man would thank him on his death-bed for turning the hand of fate in the right direction, so that it pointed to contentment and safety. Therefore, he felt himself justified in forbidding any one to acquaint Braden of the desperate condition into which he had fallen. He insisted that no word be sent to him, and, as in all things, the singular power of old Templeton Thorpe prevailed over the forces that were opposed. Letters came to him infrequently from the young man,—considerate, formal letters in which he never failed to find the touch of repressed gratitude that inspired the distant writer. Soon he would be coming home to "set up for himself." Soon he would be fighting the battle of life on the field that no man knew and yet was traversed by all.
Dr. Bates and the eminent surgeons who came to see the important invalid, discussed among themselves, but never in the presence of Mr. Thorpe, the remarkable and revolutionary articles that had been appearing of late in one of the medical journals over the signature of Braden Thorpe. There were two articles, one in answer to a savage, denunciatory communication that had been drawn out by the initial contribution from the pen of young Thorpe.
In his first article, Braden had deliberately taken a stand in favour of the merciful destruction of human life in cases where suffering is unendurable and the last chance for recovery or even relief is lost. He had the courage, the foolhardiness to sign his name to the article, thereby irrevocably committing himself to the propaganda. A storm of sarcasm ensued. The great surgeons of the land ignored the article, amiably attributing it to a "young fool who would come to his senses one day." Young and striving men in the profession rushed into print,—or at least tried to do so,—with the result that Braden was excoriated by a thousand pens. Only one of these efforts was worthy of notice, and it inspired a calm, dispassionate rejoinder from young Thorpe, who merely called attention to the fact that he was not trying to "make murderers out of God's commissioners," but was on the other hand advocating a plan by which they might one day,—a far-off day, no doubt,—extend by Man's law, the same mercy to the human being that is given to the injured beast.
Anne was shocked one day by a callous observation on the lips of old Dr. Bates, a sound practitioner and ordinarily as gentle as the average family doctor one hears so much about. Mr. Thorpe was in greater pain than usual that day. Opiates were of little use in these cruel hours. It was now impossible to give him an amount sufficient to produce relief without endangering the life that hung by so thin a thread.
"I suppose this excellent grandson of his would say that Mr. Thorpe ought to be killed forthwith, and put out of his misery," said the doctor, discussing his patient's condition with the young wife in the library after a long visit upstairs.
Anne started violently. "What do you mean by that, Dr. Bates?" she inquired, after a moment in which she managed to subdue her agitation.
"Perhaps I shouldn't have said it," apologised the old physician, really distressed. "I did it quite thoughtlessly, my dear Mrs. Thorpe. I forgot that you do not read the medical journals."
"Oh, I know what Braden has always preached," she said hurriedly. "But it never—it never occurred to me that—" She did not complete the sentence. A ghastly pallor had settled over her face.
"That his theory might find application to the case upstairs?" supplied the doctor. "Of course it would be unthinkable. Very stupid of me to have spoken of it."
Anne leaned forward in her chair. "Then you regard Mr. Thorpe's case as one that might be included in Braden's—" Again she failed to complete a sentence.
"Yes, Mrs. Thorpe," said Dr. Bates gravely. "If young Braden's pet theory were in practice now, your husband would be entitled to the mercy he prescribes."
"He has no chance?"
"Absolutely no chance."
"All there is left for him is to just go on suffering until—until life wears out?"
"We are doing everything in our power to alleviate the suffering,—everything that is known to science," he vouchsafed. "We can do no more."
"How long will he live, Dr. Bates?" she asked, and instantly shrank from the fear that he would misinterpret her interest.
"No man can answer that question, Mrs. Thorpe. He may live a week, he may live six months. I give him no more than two."
"And if he were to consent to the operation that you once advised, what then?"
"That was a year ago. I would not advise an operation now. It is too late. In fact, I would be opposed to it. There are men in my profession who would take the chance, I've no doubt,—men who would risk all on the millionth part of a chance."
"You think he would die on the operating table?"
"Perhaps,—and perhaps not. That isn't the point. It would be useless, that's all."
"Then why isn't Braden's theory sound and humane?" she demanded sharply.
He frowned. "It is humane, Mrs. Thorpe," said he gravely, "but it isn't sound. I grant you that there is not one of us who would not rejoice in the death of a man in Mr. Thorpe's condition, but there is not one who would deliberately take his life."
"It is all so cruel, so horribly cruel," she said. "The savages in the heart of the jungle can give us lessons in humanity."
"I daresay," said he. "By the same reasoning, is it wise for us to receive lessons in savagery from them?"
Anne was silent for a time. She felt called upon to utter a defence for Braden but hesitated because she could not choose her words. At last she spoke. "I have known Braden Thorpe all my life, Dr. Bates. He is sincere on this question. I think you might grant him that distinction."
"Lord love you, madam, I haven't the faintest doubt as to his sincerity," cried the old doctor. "He is voicing the sentiment of every honest man in my profession, but he overlooks the fact that sentiment has a very small place among the people we serve,—in other words, the people who love life and employ us to preserve it for them, even against the will of God."
"They say that soldiers on the field of battle sometimes mercifully put an end to the lives of their mutilated comrades," she mused aloud.
"And they make it their business to put an end to the lives of the perfectly sound and healthy men who confront them on that same field of battle," he was quick to return. "There is a wide distinction between a weapon and an instrument, Mrs. Thorpe, and there is just as much difference between the inspired soldier and the uninspired doctor, or between impulse and decision."
"I believe that Mr. Thorpe would welcome death," said she.
Dr. Bates shook his head. "My dear, if that were true he could obtain relief from his suffering to-day,—this very hour."
"What do you mean?" she cried, with a swift shudder, as one suddenly assailed by foreboding.
"There is a very sharp razor blade on his dressing-table," said Dr. Bates with curious deliberation. "Besides that, there is sufficient poison in four of those little—But there, I must say no more. You are alarmed,—and needlessly. He will not take his own life, you may be sure of that. By reaching out his hand he can grasp death, and he knows it. A month ago I said this to him: 'Mr. Thorpe, I must ask you to be very careful. If you do not sleep well to-night, take one of these tablets. If one does not give you relief, you may take another, but no more. Four of them would mean certain, almost instant death.' For more than a month that little box of tablets has lain at his elbow, so to speak. Death has been within reach all this time. Those tablets are still there, Mrs. Thorpe, so now you understand."
"Yes," she said, staring at him as if fascinated; "they are still there. I understand."
The thick envelope that Mr. Hollenback handed to Anne on the day of her wedding contained a properly executed assignment of securities amounting to two million dollars, together with an order to the executors under his will to pay in gold to her immediately after his death an amount sufficient to cover any shrinkage that may have occurred in the value of the bonds by reason of market fluctuations. In plain words, she was to have her full two millions. There was also an instrument authorising a certain Trust Company to act as depository for these securities, all of which were carefully enumerated and classified, with instructions to collect and pay to her during his lifetime the interest on said bonds. At his death the securities were to be delivered to her without recourse to the courts, and were to be free of the death tax, which was to be paid from the residue of the estate. There was a provision, however, that she was to pay the state, city and county taxes on the full assessed value of these bonds during his lifetime, and doubtless by premeditation on his part all of them were subject to taxation. This unsuspected "joker" in the arrangements was frequently alluded to by Anne's mother as a "direct slap in the face," for, said she, it was evidently intended as a reflection upon the Tresslyns who, as a family, it appears, were very skilful in avoiding the payment of taxes of any description. (It was a notorious fact that the richest of the Tresslyns was little more than a mendicant when the time came to take his solemn oath concerning taxable possessions.)
Anne took a most amazing stand in respect to the interest on these bonds. Her income from them amounted to something over ninety thousand dollars a year, for Mr. Thorpe's investments were invariably sound and sure. He preferred a safe four or four and a half per cent, bond to an "attractive six." With the coming of each month in the year, Anne was notified by the Trust Company that anywhere from seven to eight thousand dollars had been credited to her account in the bank. She kept her own private account in another bank, and it was against this that she drew her checks. She did not withdraw a dollar of the interest arising from her matrimonial investment!
Mrs. Tresslyn, supremely confident and self-assured, sustained the greatest shock of her life when she found that Anne was behaving in this quixotic manner about the profits of the enterprise. At first she could not believe her ears. But Anne was obdurate, She maintained that her contract called for two million dollars and no more, and she refused to consider this extraneous accumulation as rightfully her own. Her mother berated her without effect. She subjected her to countless attacks from as many angles, but Anne was as "hard as nails."
"I'm not earning this ninety thousand a year, mother," she declared hotly, "and I shall not accept it as a gift. If I were Mr. Thorpe's wife in every sense of the term, it might be different, but as you happen to know I am nothing more than a figure of speech in his household. I am not even his nurse, nor his housekeeper, nor his friend. He despises me. I despise myself, for that matter, so he's not quite alone in his opinion. I've sold myself for a price, mother, but you must at least grant me the privilege of refusing to draw interest on my infamy."
"Infamy!" gasped Mrs. Tresslyn. "Infamy? What rot,—what utter rot!"
"Just the same, I shall confine myself to the original bargain. It is bad enough. I shan't make it any worse by taking money that doesn't belong to me."
"Those bonds are yours," snapped Mrs. Tresslyn. "You are certainly entitled to the interest. You—"
"They are not mine," returned Anne decisively. "Not until Mr. Thorpe is dead, if you please. I am to have my pay after he has passed away, no sooner. That was the bargain."
"You did not hesitate to accept some rather expensive pearls if I remember correctly," said Mrs. Tresslyn bitingly.
"That was his affair, not mine," said Anne coolly. "He despises me so thoroughly that he thought he could go beyond his contract and tempt me with this interest we are quarrelling about, mother. He was sure that I would jump at it as a greedy fish snaps at the bait. But I disappointed him. I shall never forget the look of surprise,—no, it was wonder,—that came into his eyes when I flatly refused to take this interest. That was nearly a year ago. He began to treat me with a little respect after that. There is scarcely a month goes by that he does not bring up the subject. I think he has never abandoned the hope that I may give in, after all. Lately he has taken to chuckling when I make my monthly protest against accepting this money. He can't believe it of me. He thinks there is something amusing about what I have been foolish enough to call my sense of honour. Still, I believe he has a little better opinion of me than he had at first. And now, mother, once and for all, let us consider the matter closed. I will not take the interest until the principal is indisputably mine."
"You are a fool, Anne," said her mother, in her desperation; "a simple, ridiculous fool. Why shouldn't you take it? It is yours. You can't afford to throw away ninety thousand dollars. The bank has orders to pay it over to you, and it is deposited to your account. That ought to settle the matter. If it isn't yours, may I enquire to whom does it belong?"
"Time enough to decide that, mother," said Anne, so composedly that Mrs. Tresslyn writhed with exasperation. "I haven't quite decided who is to have it in the end. You may be sure, however, that I shall give it to some worthy cause. It shan't be wasted."
"Do you mean to say that you will give it away—give it to charity?" groaned her mother.
Words failed Mrs. Tresslyn. She could only stare in utter astonishment at this incomprehensible creature.
"I may have to ask your advice when the time comes," went on Anne, complacently. "You must assist me in selecting the most worthy charity, mother dear."
"I suppose it has never occurred to you that there is some justice in the much abused axiom that charity begins at home," said Mrs. Tresslyn frigidly.
"Not in our home, however," said Anne. "That's where it ends, if it ends anywhere."
"I have hesitated to speak to you about it, Anne, but I am afraid I shall now have to confess that I am sorely pressed for money," said Mrs. Tresslyn deliberately, and from that moment on she never ceased to employ this argument in her crusade against Anne's ingratitude.
There was no estrangement. Neither of them could afford to go to such lengths. They saw a great deal of each other, and, despite the constant bickerings over the idle money, there was little to indicate that they were at loggerheads. Mrs. Tresslyn was forced at last to recognise the futility of her appeals to Anne's sense of duty, and contented herself with occasional bitter references to her own financial distress. She couldn't understand the girl, and she gave up trying. As a matter of fact, she began to fear that she would never be able to understand either one of her children. She could not even imagine how they could have come by the extraordinary stubbornness with which they appeared to be afflicted.
As for George Tresslyn, he was going to the dogs as rapidly and as accurately as possible. He took to drink, and drink took him to cards. The efforts of Simmy Dodge and other friends, including the despised Percy Wintermill, were of no avail. He developed a pugnacious capacity for resenting advice. It was easy to see what was behind the big boy's behaviour: simple despair. He counted himself among the failures. In due time he lost his position in Wall Street and became a complaining dependent upon his mother's generosity. He met her arguments with the furious and constantly reiterated charge that she had ruined his life. That was another thing that Mrs. Tresslyn could not understand. How, in heaven's name, had she ruined his life?
He took especial delight in directing her attention to the upward progress of the discredited Lutie.
That attractive young person, much to Mrs. Tresslyn's disgust, actually had insinuated her vulgar presence into comparatively good society, and was coming on apace. Blithe, and gay, and discriminating, the former "mustard girl" was making a place for herself among the moderately smart people. Now and then her name appeared in the society columns of the newspapers, where, much to Mrs. Tresslyn's annoyance, she was always spoken of as "Mrs. George Dexter Tresslyn." Moreover, in several instances, George's mother had found her own name printed next to Lutie's in the alphabetical list of guests at rather large entertainments, and once,—heaven forfend that it should happen again!—the former "mustard girl's" picture was published on the same page of a supplement with that of the exclusive Mrs. Tresslyn and her daughter, Mrs. Templeton Thorpe, over the caption: "The Tresslyn Triumvirate," supplied by a subsequently disengaged art editor.
George came near to being turned out into the street one day when he so far forgot himself as to declare that Lutie was worth the whole Tresslyn lot put together, and she ought to be thankful she had had "the can tied to her" in time. His mother was livid with fury.
"If you ever mention that person's name in this house again, you will have to leave it forever. If she's worth anything at all it is because she has appropriated the Tresslyn name that you appear to belittle. You—"
"She didn't appropriate it," flared George. "I remember distinctly of having given it to her. I don't care what you say or do, mother, she deserves a lot of credit. She's made a place for herself, she's decent, she's clever—"
"She hasn't earned a place for herself, let me remind you, sir. She made it out of the proceeds of a sale, the sale of a husband. Don't forget, George, that she sold you for so much cash."
"A darned good bargain," said he, "seeing that she got me at my own value,—which was nothing at all."
Lutie went on her way serenely, securely. If she had a thought for George Tresslyn she succeeded very well in keeping it to herself. Men would have made love to her, but she denied them that exquisite distraction. Back in her mind lurked something that guaranteed immunity.
The year had dealt its changes to Lutie as well as to the others, but they were not important. Discussing herself frankly with Simmy Dodge one evening, she said:
"I'm getting on, am I not, Simmy? But, after all, why shouldn't I? I'm a rather decent sort, and I'm not a real vulgarian, am I? Like those people over there at the next table, I mean. The more I go about, the more I realise that class is a matter of acquaintance. If you know the right sort of people, and have known them long enough, you unconsciously form habits that the other sort of people haven't got, so you're said to have 'class.' Of course, you've got to be imitative, you've got to be able to mimic the real ones, but that isn't difficult if you're half way bright, don't you know."
"Lord love you, Lutie, you don't have to imitate any one," said Simmy. "You're in a class by yourself."
"Thanks, Simmy. Don't let any one else at the table hear you say such things to me, though. They would think that I'd just come in from the country. Why shouldn't I get on? How many of the girls that you meet in your day's walk have graduated from a high-school? How many of the great ladies who rule New York society possess more than a common school education, outside of the tricks they've learned after they put on long frocks? Not many, let me tell you, Simmy. Four-fifths of them can't spell Connecticut, and they don't know how many e's there are in 'separate.' I graduated from a high school in Philadelphia, and my mother did the same thing before me. I also played on the basket-ball team, if that means anything to you. My parents were poor but respectable, God-fearing people, as they say in the novels, and they were quite healthy as parents go in these days, when times are hard and children so cheap that nobody's without a good sized pack of them. I was born with a brain that was meant to be used."
"What are you two talking about so secretively?" demanded Mrs. Rumsey Fenn, across the table from them.
"Ourselves, of course," said Lutie. "Bright people always have something in reserve, my dear. We save the very best for an extremity. Simmy delights in talking about me, and I love to talk about him. It's the simplest kind of small talk and doesn't disturb us in the least if we should happen to be thinking of something else at the time."
"Have you heard when Braden Thorpe is expected home, Simmy?"
"Had a letter from him yesterday. He sails next week. Is there any tinkering to be done for your family this season, Madge? Any little old repairs to be made?"
"I'm afraid not," said Mrs. Fenn desolately, "Rumsey positively refuses to imagine he's got a pain anywhere, and the baby's tonsils are disgustingly healthy."
"Old Templeton Thorpe's in a critical condition, I hear," put in Rumsey Fenn. "There'll be a choice widow in the market before long, I pledge you."
"Can't they operate?" inquired his wife.
"Not for malignant widows," said Mr. Fenn.
"Oh, don't be silly. I should think old Mr. Thorpe would let Braden operate. Just think what a fine boost it would give Braden if the operation was a success."
"And also if it failed," said one of the men, sententiously. "He's the principal heir, isn't he?"
Simmy scowled. "Brady would be the last man in the world to tackle the job," he said, and the subject was dropped at once.
And so the end of the year finds Templeton Thorpe on his death bed, Anne a quixotic ingrate, George among the diligently unemployed, Lutie on the crest of popularity, Braden in contempt of court, and Mrs. Tresslyn sorely tried by the vagaries of each and every one of the aforesaid persons.
Simmy Dodge appears to be the only one among them all who stands just as he did at the beginning of the year. He has neither lost nor gained. He has merely stood still.
When Dr. Braden Thorpe arrived in New York City on the fourteenth of March he was met at the pier by a horde of newspaper men. For the first time, he was made to appreciate "the importance of being earnest." These men, through a frequently prompted spokesman, put questions to him that were so startling in their boldness that he was staggered by the misconception that had preceded him into his home land.
He was asked such questions as these: "But, doctor, would you do that sort of thing to a person who was dear to you,—say a wife, a mother or an only child?" "How could you be sure that a person was hopelessly afflicted?" "Have you ever put this theory of yours into practice on the other side?" "How many lives have you taken in this way, doctor,—if it is a fair question?" "Do you expect to practise openly in New York?" "And if you do practise, how many patients do you imagine would come to you, knowing your views?" "How would you kill 'em,—with poison or what?" And so on, almost without end.
He was to find that a man can become famous and infamous in a single newspaper headline, and as for the accuracy of the interviews there was but one thing to be said: the questions were invariably theirs and the answers also. He did his best to make them understand that he was merely advancing a principle and not practising a crime, that his hand had never been brought down to kill, that his heart was quite as tender as any other man's, and that he certainly was not advocating murder in any degree. Nor was he at present attempting to proselyte.
When he finally escaped the reporters, his brow was wet with the sweat of one who finds himself confronted by a superior force and with no means of defence. He knew that he was to be assailed by every paper in New York. They would tear him to shreds.
Wade was at the pier. He waited patiently in the background while the returned voyager dealt with the reporters, appearing abruptly at Braden's elbow as he was giving his keys to the inspector.
"Good morning, sir," said Wade, in what must be recorded as a confidential tone. He might have been repeating the salutation of yesterday morning for all that his manner betrayed.
"Hello, Wade! Glad to see you." Braden shook hands with the man. "How is my grandfather?"
"Better, sir," said the other, meaning that his master was more comfortable than he had been during the night.
Wade was not as much of an optimist as his reply would seem to indicate. It was his habit to hold bad news in reserve as long as possible, doubtless for the satisfaction it gave him to dribble it out sparingly. He had found it to his advantage to break all sorts of news hesitatingly to his master, for he was never by way of knowing what Mr. Thorpe would regard as bad news. For example, early in his career as valet, he had rushed into Mr. Thorpe's presence with what he had every reason to believe would be good news. He had been sent over to the home of Mr. Thorpe's son for an important bit of information, and he supplied it by almost shouting as he burst into the library: "It's a fine boy, sir,—a splendid ten- pounder, sir." But Mr. Thorpe, instead of accepting the good news gladly, spoiled everything by anxiously inquiring, "And how is the poor little mother getting along?"—a question which caused Wade grave annoyance, for he had to reply: "I'm sorry, sir, but she's not expected to live the hour out."
All of which goes to show that Mr. Thorpe never regarded any news as good without first satisfying himself that it wasn't bad.
"I have the automobile outside, sir," went on Wade, "and I am to look after your luggage."
"Thank you, Wade. If you'll just grab these bags and help the porter out to the car with them, I'll be greatly obliged. And then you may drop me at the Wolcott. I shall stop there for a few days, until I get my bearings."
Wade coughed insinuatingly. "Beg pardon, sir, but I was to fetch you straight home."
"Do you mean to my grandfather's?" demanded the young man sharply.
"Yes, sir. Those were the orders."
"Orders to be disobeyed, I fear, Wade," said Braden darkly. "I am not going to Mr. Thorpe's house."
"I understand, sir," said Wade patiently. "I quite understand. Still it is my duty to report to you that Mr. Thorpe is expecting you."
"Nevertheless, I shall not—"
"Perhaps I should inform you that your grandfather is—er—confined to his bed. As a matter of fact, Mr. Braden, he is confined to his death-bed."
Braden was shocked. Later on, as he was being rushed across town in the car, he drew from Wade all of the distressing details. He had never suspected the truth. Indeed, his grandfather had kept the truth from him so successfully that he had come to look upon him as one of the fortunate few who arrive at death in the full possession of health, those who die because the machinery stops of its own accord. And now the worst possible death was stalking his benefactor, driving,—always driving without pity. Braden's heart was cold, his face pallid with dread as he hurried up the steps to the front door of the familiar old house.
He had forgotten Anne and his vow never to enter the house so long as she was mistress of it. He forgot that her freedom was about to become an accomplished fact, that the thing she had anticipated was now at hand. He had often wondered how long it would be in coming to her, and how she would stand up under the strain of the half score of years or more that conceivably might be left to the man she had married. There had been times when he laughed in secret anticipation of the probabilities that attended her unwholesome adventure. Years of it! Years of bondage before she could lay hands upon the hard-earned fruits of freedom!
As he entered the hall Anne came out of the library to greet him. There was no hesitation on her part, no pretending. She came directly to him, her hand extended. He had stopped stock-still on seeing her.
"I am glad you have come, Braden," she said, letting her hand fall to her side. Either he had ignored it or was too dismayed to notice it at all. "Mr. Thorpe has waited long and patiently for you. I am glad you have come."
He was staring at her, transfixed. There was no change in her appearance. She was just as he had seen her on that last, never-to-be-forgotten day,—the same tall, slender, beautiful Anne. And yet, as he stared, he saw something in her eyes that had not been there before: the shadow of fear.
"I must see him immediately," said he, and was at once conscious of a regret that he had not first said something kind to her. She had the stricken look in her eyes.
"You will find him in his old room," she said quietly. "The nurse is a friend of yours, a Miss McKane."
"Thank you." He turned away, but at the foot of the staircase paused. "Is there no hope?" he inquired. "Is it as bad as Wade—"
"There is only one hope, Braden," she said, "and that is that he may die soon." Curiously, he was not shocked by this remark. He appreciated the depth of feeling behind it. She was thinking of Templeton Thorpe, not of herself.
"I—I can't tell you how shocked, how grieved I am," he said. "It is—terrible."
She drew a few steps nearer. "I want you to feel, Braden, that you are free to come and go—and to stay—in this house. I know that you have said you would not come here while I am its mistress. I am in no sense its mistress. I have no place here. If you prefer not to see me, I shall make it possible by remaining in my room. It is only fair that I should speak to you at once about—about this. That is why I waited here to see you. I may as well tell you that Mr. Thorpe does not expect me to visit his room,—in fact, he undoubtedly prefers that I should not do so. I have tried to help him. I have done my best, Braden. I want you to know that. It is possible that he may tell you as much. Your place is here. You must not regard me an obstacle. It will not be necessary for you to communicate with me. I shall understand. Dr. Bates keeps me fully informed." She spoke without the slightest trace of bitterness.
He heard her to the end without lifting his gaze from the floor. When she was through, he looked at her.
"You are the mistress of the house, Anne. I shall not overlook the fact, even though you may. If my grandfather wishes me to do so, I shall remain here in the house with him—to the end, not simply as his relative, but to do what little I can in a professional way. Why was I not informed of his condition?" His manner was stern.
"You must ask that question of Mr. Thorpe himself," said she. "As I have told you, he is the master of the house. The rules are his, not mine; and, by the same token, the commands are his."
He hesitated for a moment. "You might have sent word to me. Why didn't you?"
"Because I was under orders," she said steadily. "Mr. Thorpe would not allow us to send for you. There was an excellent purpose back of his decision to keep you on the other side of the Atlantic until you were ready to return of your own accord. I daresay, if you reflect for a moment, you will see through his motives."
His eyes narrowed. "There was no cause for apprehension," he said coldly.
"It was something I could not discuss with him, however," she returned, "and so I was hardly in a position to advise him. You must believe me, Braden, when I say that I am glad for his sake that you are here. He will die happily now."
"He has suffered—so terribly?"
"It has been too horrible,—too horrible," she cried, suddenly covering her eyes and shivering as with a great chill.
The tears rushed to Braden's eyes. "Poor old granddaddy," he murmured. Then, after a second's hesitation, he turned and swiftly mounted the stairs.
Anne, watching him from below, was saying to herself, over and over again: "He will never forgive me, he will never forgive me." Later on, alone in the gloomy library, she sat staring at the curtained window through which the daylight came darkly, and passed final judgment upon herself after months of indecision: "I have been too sure of myself, too sure of him. What a fool I've been to count on a thing that is so easily killed. What a fool I've been to go on believing that his love would survive in spite of the blow I've given it. I've lost him. I may as well say farewell to the silly hope I've been coddling all these months." She frowned as she allowed her thoughts to run into another channel. "But they shall not laugh at me. I'll play the game out. No whimpering, old girl. Stand up to it."
Wade was waiting outside his master's door, his ear cocked as of old. The same patient, obsequious smile greeted Braden as he came up.
"He knows you are here, Mr. Braden. I sent in word by the nurse."
"He is conscious?"
"Yes, sir. That's the worst of it. Always conscious, sir."
"Then he can't be as near to death as you think, Wade. He—"
"That's a pity, sir," said Wade frankly. "I was in hopes that it would soon be all over for him."
"Am I to go in at once?"
"May I have a word or two with you first, sir?" said Wade, lowering his voice to a whisper and sending an uneasy glance over his shoulder. "Come this way, sir. It's safer over here. Uncommonly sharp ears he has, sir."
"Well, what is it? I must not be delayed—"
"I shan't keep you a minute, Mr. Braden. It's something I feel I ought to tell you. Mr. Thorpe is quite in his right mind, sir, so you'll appreciate more fully what a shock his proposition was to me. In a word, Mr. Braden, he has offered me a great sum of money if I'll put four of those little pills into a glass of water to-night and give it to him to drink. There's enough poison in them to kill three men in a flash, sir. My God, Mr. Braden, it was—it was terrible!" The man's face was livid.
"A great sum of money—" began Braden dumbly. Then the truth struck him like a blow in the face. "Good God, Wade,—he—he wanted you to kill him!"
"That's it, sir, that's it," whispered Wade jerkily. "He has an envelope up there with fifty thousand dollars in it. He had me count them a week ago, right before his eyes, and hide the envelope in a drawer. You see how he trusts me, sir? He knows that I could rob him to-night if I wanted to do so. Or what's to prevent my making off with the money after he's gone? Nobody would ever know. But he knows me too well. He trusts me. I was to give him the poison the night after you got home, and I would never be suspected of doing it because the pills have been lying on his table for weeks, ready for him to take at any time. Every one might say that he took them himself, don't you see?"
"Then, in God's name, why doesn't he take them,—why does he ask you to give them to him?" cried Braden, an icy perspiration on his brow.
"That's the very point, sir," explained Wade. "He says he has tried to do it, but—well, he just can't, sir. Mr. Thorpe is a God-fearing man. He will not take his own life. He—he says he believes there is a hell, Mr. Braden. I just wanted to tell you that I—I can't do what he asks me to do. Not for all the money in the world. He seems to think that I don't believe there is a hell. Anyhow, sir, he appears to think it would be quite all right for me to kill a fellow man. Beg pardon, sir; I forgot that you have been writing all these articles about—"
"It's all right, Wade," interrupted Braden. "Tell me, has he made this proposition to any one else? To the nurses, to Murray—any one?"
Wade hesitated. "I'm quite sure he hasn't appealed to any one but me, sir, except—that is to say—"
"He told me plainly that he couldn't ask any of the nurses to do it, because he thought it ought to be done by a friend or a—member of the family. The doctors, of course, might do it unbeknownst to him, but they won't, sir."
"Whom else did he speak to about it?" insisted Braden.
"I can't be sure, but I think he has spoken to Mrs. Thorpe a good many times about it. Every time she is alone with him, in fact, sir. I've heard him pleading with her,—yes, and cursing her, too,—and her voice is always full of horror when she says 'No, no! I will not do it! I cannot!' You see, sir, I always stand here by the door, waiting to be called, so I catch snatches of conversation when their voices are raised. Besides, she's always as white as a sheet when she comes out, and two or three times she has actually run to her room as if she was afraid he was pursuing her. I can't help feeling, Mr. Braden, that he considers her a member of the family, and so long as I won't do it, he—"
"Good God, Wade! Don't say anything more! I—" His knees suddenly seemed about to give way under him. He went on in a hoarse whisper: "Why, I—I am a member of the family. You don't suppose he'll—you don't suppose—"
"I just thought I'd tell you, sir," broke in Wade, "so's you might be prepared. Will you go in now, sir? He is most eager to see you."
Braden entered the room, sick with horror. A member of the family! A member of the family to do the killing!
He was shocked by the appearance of the sick old man. Templeton Thorpe had wasted to a thin, greyish shadow. His lips were as white as his cheek, and that was the colour of chalk. Only his eyes were bright and gleaming with the life that remained to him. The grip of his hand was strong and firm, and his voice, too, was steady.
"I've been waiting for you, Braden, my boy," said Mr. Thorpe, some time after the greetings. He turned himself weakly in the bed and, drawing a little nearer to the edge, lowered his voice to a more confidential tone. His eyes were burning, his lips drawn tightly across his teeth,—for even at his age Templeton Thorpe was not a toothless thing. They were alone in the room. The nurse had seized upon the prospect of a short respite.
"I wish I had known, granddaddy," lamented Braden. "You should have sent for me long ago."
"That is the fifth or sixth time you've made that remark in the last ten minutes," said Mr. Thorpe, a querulous note stealing into his voice. "Don't say it again. By the way, suppose that I had sent for you: what could you have done? What good could you have done? Answer me that."
"There is no telling, sir. At least, I could have done my share of the—that is to say, I might have been useful in a great many ways. You may be sure, sir, that I should have been in constant attendance. I should have been on hand night and day."
"You would have assisted Anne in the death watch, eh?" said Mr. Thorpe, with a ghastly smile.
"Don't say that, sir," cried Braden, flinching.
"I may not have the opportunity to speak with you again, Braden,—privately, I mean,—and, as my time is short, I want to confess to you that I have been agreeably surprised in Anne. She has tried to do her best. She has not neglected me. She regards me as a human being in great pain, and I am beginning to think that she has a heart. There is the bare possibility, my boy, that she might have made you a good wife if I had not put temptation in her way. In any event, she would not have dishonoured you. It goes without saying that she has been wife to me in name only. You may find some comfort in that. In the past few weeks I have laid even greater temptations before her and she has not fallen. I cannot explain further to you, but—" here he smiled wanly—"some day she may tell you in the inevitable attempt to justify herself and win back what she has lost. Don't interrupt me, please. She will try, never fear, and you will have to be strong to resist her. I know what you would say to me, so don't say it. You are horrified by the thought of it, but the day will come when you must again raise your hand against the woman who loves you. Make no mistake, Braden; she loves you."
"I believe I would strike her dead if she made the slightest appeal to—"
"Never mind," snapped the old man. "I know you well enough to credit you with self-respect, if not self-abnegation. What I am trying to get at is this: do you hold a grudge against me for revealing this girl's true character to you?"
"I must ask you to excuse me from answering that question, grandfather," said Braden, compressing his lips.
The old man eyed him closely. "Is that an admission that you think I have wronged you in saving you from the vampires?" he persisted ironically.
"I cannot discuss your wife with you, sir," said the other.
Mr. Thorpe continued to regard his grandson narrowly for a moment or two longer, and then a look of relief came into his eyes. "I see. I shouldn't have asked it of you. Nevertheless, I am satisfied. My experiment is a success. You are qualified to distinguish between the Tresslyn greed and the Tresslyn love, so I have not failed. They put the one above the other and so far they have trusted to luck. If Anne had spurned my money I haven't the slightest doubt that she would have married you and made you a good wife. The fact that she did not spurn my money would seem to prove that she wouldn't make anybody a good wife. I know all this is painful to you, my boy, but I must say it to you before I die. You see I am dying. That's quite apparent, even to the idiots who are trying to keep me alive. They do not fool me with their: 'Aha, Mr. Thorpe, how are we to-day? Better, eh?' I am dying by inches,—fractions of inches, to be precise." He stopped short, out of breath after this long speech.
Braden laid his hand upon the bony fore-arm. "How long have you known, granddaddy, that you had this—this—"
"Cancer? Say it, my boy. I'm not afraid of the word. Most people are. It's a dreadful word. How can I answer your question? Years, no doubt. It became active a year and a half ago. I knew what it was, even then."
"In heaven's name, sir, why did you let it go on? An operation at that time might have—"
"You forget that I could afford to wait. When a man gets to be as old as I am he can philosophise even in the matter of death. What is a year or two, one way or the other, to me? An operation is either an experiment or a last resort, isn't it? Well, my boy, I preferred to look upon it as a last resort, and as such I concluded to put it off until the last minute, when it wouldn't make any difference which way it resulted. If it had resulted fatally a year and a half ago, what would I have gained? If it should take place to-morrow, with the same result, haven't I cheated Time out of eighteen months?"
"But the pain, the suffering," cried Braden. "You might at least have spared yourself the whole lifetime of pain that you have lived in these last few months. You haven't cheated pain out of its year and a half."
"True," said Mr. Thorpe, his lips twitching with the pain he was trying to defy; "I have not been able to laugh at the futility of pain. Ah!" It was almost a scream that issued from between his stretched lips. He began to writhe....
"Come in again to-night," he said half an hour later, whispering the words with difficulty. The two nurses and the doctor's assistant, who had been staying in the house for more than a week, now stood back from the bedside, dripping with perspiration. The paroxysm had been one of the worst he had experienced. They had believed for a time that it was also to be the last. Braden Thorpe, shaking like a leaf because of the very inactivity that was forced upon him by the activity of others, wiped the sweat from his brow, and nodded his head in speechless despair. "Come in to-night, after you've talked with Anne and Dr. Bates. I'm easier now. It can't go on much longer, you see. Bates gives me a couple of weeks. That means a couple of centuries of pain, however. Go now and talk it over with Anne."
With this singular admonition pounding away at his senses, Braden went out of the room. Wade,—the ever-present Wade,—was outside the door. His expression was as calmly attentive as it would have been were his master yawning after a healthy nap instead of screaming with all the tortures of the damned. As Braden hurried by, hardly knowing whither he went, the servant did something he had never done before in his life. He ventured to lay a detaining hand upon the arm of a superior.
"Did he ask you to—to do it, Master Braden?" he whispered hoarsely. The man's eyes were glazed with dread.
Braden stopped. At first he did not comprehend. Then Wade's meaning was suddenly revealed to him. He drew back, aghast.
"Good Lord, no! No, no!" he cried out.
"Well," said Wade deliberately, "he will, mark my words, sir. I don't mind saying to you, Mr. Braden, that he depends upon you."
"Are you crazy, Wade?" gasped Braden, searching the man's face with an intentness that betrayed his own fear that the prophecy would come true. Something had already told him that his grandfather would depend upon him for complete relief,—and it was that something that had gripped his heart when he entered the sick-room, and still gripped it with all the infernal tenacity of inevitableness.
He hurried on, like one hunted and in search of a place in which to hide until the chase had passed. At the foot of the stairs he came upon Murray, the butler.
"Mrs. Thorpe says that you are to go to your old room, Mr. Braden," said the butler. "Will you care for tea, sir, or would you prefer something a little stronger?"
"Nothing, Murray, thank you," replied Braden, cold with a strange new terror. He could not put aside the impression that Murray, the bibulous Murray, was also regarding him in the light of an executioner. Somewhere back in his memory there was aroused an old story about the citizens who sat up all night to watch for the coming of the hangman who was to do a grewsome thing at dawn. He tried to shake off the feeling, he tried to laugh at the fantastic notion that had so swiftly assailed him. "I think I shall go to my room. Call me, if I am needed."
He did not want to see Anne. He shrank from the revelations that were certain to come from the harassed wife of the old man who wanted to die. As he remounted the stairs, he was subtly aware that some one opened a door below and watched him as he fled. He did not look behind, but he knew that the watcher was white-faced and pleading, and that she too was counting on him for support.
An hour later, a servant knocked at his door. The afternoon was far gone and the sky was overcast with sinister streaks of clouds that did not move, but hung like vast Zeppelins over the harbour beyond: long, blue- black clouds with white bellies. Mournful clouds that waited for the time to come when they could burst into tears! He had been watching them as they crept up over the Jersey shores, great stealthy birds of ill-omen, giving out no sound yet ponderous in their flight. He started at the gentle tapping on his door; a strange hope possessed his soul. Was this a friendly hand that knocked? Was its owner bringing him the word that the end had come and that he would not be called upon to deny the great request? He sprang to the door.
"Dr. Bates is below, sir," said the maid. "He would like to see you before he goes."
Braden's heart sank. "I'll come at once, Katie."
There were three doctors in the library. Dr. Bates went straight to the point.
"Your grandfather, Braden, has a very short time to live. He has just dismissed us. Our services are no longer required in this case, if I—"
"Dismissed you?" cried Braden, unbelievingly.
Dr. Bates smiled. "We can do nothing more for him, my boy. It is just as well that we should go. He—"
"But, my God, sir, you cannot leave him to die in—"
"Have patience, my lad. We are not leaving him to die alone. By his express command, we are turning the case over to you. You are to be his sole—"
"I refuse!" shouted Braden.
"You cannot refuse,—you will not, I am sure. For your benefit I may say that the case is absolutely hopeless. Not even a miracle can save him. If you will give me your closest attention, I will, with Dr. Bray's support, describe his condition and all that has led up to this unhappy crisis. Sit down, my boy. I am your good friend. I am not your critic, nor your traducer. Sit down and listen calmly, if you can. You should know just what is before you, and you must also know that every surgeon who has been called in consultation expresses but one opinion. In truth, it is not an opinion that they venture, but an unqualified decision."
For a long time Braden sat as if paralysed and listened to the words of the fine old doctor. At last the three arose and stood over him.
"You understand everything now, Braden," said Dr. Bates, a tremor in his voice. "May God direct your course. We shall not come here again. You are not to feel that we are deserting you, however, for that is not true. We go because you have come, because you have been put in sole charge. And now, my boy, I have something else to say to you as an old friend. I know your views. Not I alone, but Dr. Bray and thousands of others, have felt as you feel about such things. There have been countless instances, like the one at hand, when we have wished that we might be faithless to the tenets of a noble profession. But we have never faltered. It is not our province to be merciful, if I may put it in that way, but to be conscientious. It is our duty to save, not to destroy. That is what binds every doctor to his patient. Take the advice of an old man, Braden, and don't allow your pity to run away with your soul. Take my advice, lad. Let God do the deliberate killing. He will do it in his own good time, for all of us. I speak frankly, for I know you consider me your friend and well- wisher."
"Thank you, Dr. Bates," said Braden, hoarsely. "The advice is not needed, however. I am not a murderer. I could not kill that poor old man upstairs, no matter how dreadfully he suffers. I fear that you have overlooked the fact that I am an advocate, not a performer, of merciful deeds. You should not confuse my views with my practice. I advocate legalising the destruction of the hopelessly afflicted. Inasmuch as it is not a legal thing to do at present, I shall continue to practise my profession as all the rest of you do: conscientiously." He was standing before them. His face was white and his hands were clenched.
"I am glad to hear you say that, Braden," said Dr. Bates gently. "Forgive me. One last word, however. If you need me at any time, I stand ready to come to you. If you conclude to operate, I—I shall advise against it, of course,—you may depend upon me to be with you when you—"
"But you have said, Dr. Bates, that you do not believe an operation would be of—"
"In my opinion it would be fatal. But you must not forget that God rules, not we mortals. We do not know everything. I am frank to confess that there is not one among us who is willing to take the chance, if that is a guide to you. That's all, my boy. Good-bye. God be with you!"
They passed out of and away from the house.
In the course of the evening, desolated by the ugly responsibility that had been thrust upon him, Braden put aside his scruples, his antipathy, and sent word to Anne that he would like to discuss the new situation with her. She had not appeared for dinner, which was a doleful affair; she did not even favour him with an apology for not coming down. Distasteful as the interview promised to be for him, he realised that it should not be postponed. His grandfather's wife would have to be consulted. It was her right to decide who should attend the sick man. While he was acutely confident that she would not oppose his solitary attendance, there still struggled in his soul the hope that she might, for the sake of appearances at least, insist on calling in other physicians. It was a hope that he dared not encourage, however. Fate had settled the matter. It was ordained that he should stand where he now stood in this unhappy hour.
He recalled his grandfather's declaration that she still loved him. The thought turned him sick with loathing, for he believed in his heart that it was true. He knew that Anne loved him, and always would love him. But he also knew that every vestige of love and respect for her had gone out of his heart long ago and that he now felt only the bitterness of disillusionment so far as she was concerned. He was not afraid of her. She had lost all power to move a single drop of blood in his veins. But he was afraid for her.
She came downstairs at nine o'clock. He had not gone near the sick-room since his initial visit, earlier in the day, literally obeying the command of the sick man: to talk matters over with Anne before coming again to see him.
"I am sorry to have kept you waiting," she said simply, as she advanced into the room. "I have been talking over the telephone with my mother. She does not come here any more. It has been nearly three weeks since she last came to see me. The dread of it all, don't you know. She is positive that she has all of the symptoms. I suppose it is a not uncommon fault of the imagination. Of course, I go to see her every afternoon. I see no one else, Braden, except good old Simmy Dodge. He stops in nearly every day to inquire, and to cheer me up if possible."
She was attired in a simple evening gown,—an old one, she hastily would have informed a woman visitor,—and it was hard for him to believe that this was not the lovely, riant Anne Tresslyn of a year ago instead of the hardened mistress of Templeton Thorpe's home. There was no sign of confusion or uncertainty in her manner, and not the remotest indication that her heart still owned love for him. If she retained a spark of the old flame in that beautiful body of hers, it was very carefully secreted behind a mask of indifference. She met his gaze frankly, unswervingly. Her poise was perfect,—marvellously so in the face of his ill-concealed antipathy.
"I suppose you know that I have been left in sole charge of the case," he said, without preface.
"Oh, yes," she replied calmly. "It was Mr. Thorpe's desire."
"Certainly. Were you hoping that I would interpose an objection?"
"Yes. I am not qualified to take charge of—"
"Pardon me, Braden, if I remind you, that so far as Mr. Thorpe's chances for recovery are concerned, he might safely be attended by the simplest novice. The result would be the same." She spoke without a trace of irony. "Dr. Bates and the others were willing to continue, but what was the use? They do not leave you a thing to stand on, Braden. There is nothing that you can do. I am sorry. It seems a pity for you to have come home to this."
He smiled faintly, whether at her use of the word "home" or the prospect she laid down for him it would be difficult to say.
"Shall we sit down, Anne, and discuss the situation?" he said. "It is one of my grandfather's orders, so I suppose we shall have to obey."
She sank gracefully into a deep chair at the foot of the library table, and motioned for him to take one near-by. The light from the chandelier fell upon her brown hair, and glinted.
"It is very strange, Braden, that we should come into each other's lives again, and in this manner. It seems so long ago—"
"Is it necessary to discuss ourselves, Anne?"
She regarded him steadily. "Yes, I think so," she said. "We must at least convince ourselves that the past has no right to interfere with or overshadow what we may choose to call the present,—or the future, for that matter, if I may look a little farther ahead. The fact remains that we are here together, Braden, in spite of all that has happened, and we must make the best of it. The world,—our own little world, I mean,—will be watching us. We must watch ourselves. Oh, don't misconstrue that remark, please. We must see to it that the world does not judge us entirely by our past." She was very cool about it, he thought,—and confident.
"As I said before, Anne, I see no occasion to—"
"Very well," she interrupted. "I beg your pardon. You asked me to see you to-night. What is it that you wish to say to me?"
He leaned forward in the chair, his elbows on the arms of it, and regarded her fixedly. "Has my grandfather ever appealed to you to—to—" He stopped, for she had turned deathly pale; she closed her eyes tightly as if to shut out some visible horror; a perceptible shudder ran through her slender body. As Braden started to rise, she raised her eye-lids, and in her lovely eyes he saw horror, dread, appeal, all in one. "I'm sorry," he murmured, in distress "I should have been more—"
"It's all right," she said, recovering herself with an effort. "I thought I had prepared myself for the question you were so sure to ask. I have been through hell in the past two weeks, Braden. I have had to listen to the most infamous proposals—but perhaps it would be better for me to repeat them to you just as they were made to me, and let you judge for yourself."
She leaned back in the chair, as if suddenly tired. Her voice was low and tense, and at no time during her recital did she raise it above the level at which she started. Plainly, she was under a severe strain and was afraid that she might lose control of herself.
It appeared that Mr. Thorpe had put her to the supreme test. In brief, he had called upon his young wife to put him out of his misery! Cunningly, he had beset her with the most amazing temptations. Her story was one of those incredible things that one cannot believe because the mind refuses to entertain the utterly revolting. In the beginning the old man, consumed by pain, implored her to perform a simple act of mercy. He told her of the four little pellets and the glass of water. At that time she treated the matter lightly. The next day he began his sly, persistent campaign against what he was pleased to call her inhumanity; he did not credit her with scruples. There was something Machiavellian in the sufferer's scheming. He declared that there could be no criminal intent on her part, therefore her conscience would never be afflicted. The fact that he consented to the act was enough to clear her conscience, if that was all that restrained her. She realised that he was in earnest now, and fled the room in horror.
Then he tried to anger her with abuse and calumny to such an extent that she would be driven to the deed by sheer rage. Failing in this, he resumed his wheedling tactics. It would be impossible, he argued, for any one to know that she had given him the soothing poison. The doctors would always believe that he had overcome his prejudice against self-destruction and had taken the tablets, just as they intended and evidently desired him to do. But he would not take his own life. He would go on suffering for years before he would send his soul to purgatory by such an act. He believed in damnation. He had lived an honourable, upright life and he maintained that his soul was entitled to the salvation his body had earned for it by its resistance to the evils of the flesh. What, said he, could be more incompatible with a lifelong observance of God's laws than the commission of an act for which there could be no forgiveness, what more terrible than going into the presence of his maker with sin as his guide and advocate? His last breath of life drawn in sin!
Day after day he whispered his wily arguments, and always she fled in horror. Her every hour was a nightmare, sleeping or waking. Her strength was shattered, yet she was compelled to withstand his daily attacks. He never failed to send for her to sit with him while the nurse took her exercise. He would have no one else. Ultimately he sought to tempt her with offers of gold! He agreed to add a codicil to his will, giving her an additional million dollars if she would perform a "simple service" for him. That was the way he styled it: a simple service! Merely the dropping of four little tablets into a tumbler of water and holding it to his lips to drain! Suicide with a distinction, murder by obligation! One of his arguments was that she would be free to marry the man she loved if he was out of the way. He did not utter the name of the man, however.
Anne spoke to no one of these shocking encounters in the darkened sick- room. She would not have spoken to Braden but for her husband's command given no later than the hour before that she should do so.
"Twice, Braden, I was tempted to do what he asked of me," she said in conclusion, almost in a whisper. "He was in such fearful agony. You will never know how he has suffered. My heart ached for him. I cannot understand how a good and gentle God can inflict such pain upon one of his creatures. Why should this Christian be crucified? But I must not say such things. Twice I came near to putting those tablets in the glass and giving it to him to drink, but both times I shrank even as I took them up from the table. I shall never forget the look of joy that came into his eyes when he saw me pick them up, nor shall I ever forget the look he gave me when I threw them down and put my fingers to my ears to shut out the sound of his moans. It would have been so easy to end it all for him. No one could have known, and he would have died thanking me for one good deed at least. Yesterday when I failed him for the second time, he made the most horrible confession to me. He said that when he married me a year ago he knew that this very crisis would come and that he had counted on me then as his deliverer! He actually said to me, Braden, that all this was in his mind when he married me. Can't you understand? If the time ever came when he wanted to die, who would be more likely to serve his purpose than the young, avaricious wife who loved another man? Oh, he was not thinking of your good, my friend,—at least, not entirely. He did not want you to throw yourself away on me, that's true, but your preservation was not his sole object, let me assure you. He planned deeper than we knew. He looked ahead for one year and saw what was coming, and he counted on me,—he counted on the wife he had bought. Once he asked me if I had the faintest idea how many wives have killed strong and healthy husbands in order that they might wed the men they loved better. If murderesses can do that, said he, why should I hesitate, when there could be no such thing as murder in my—oh, it was too terrible! Thank God, he thinks better of me now than he did on the day he married me. Even though he is your grandfather, Braden, I can say to you frankly that if taking his own life means going to hell for him, I would see him in hell before I would—"
"Anne, Anne!" cried he, shaken. "Don't say it! It is too horrible. Think of what you were about to say and—"
"Oh, I've thought, my friend," she broke in fiercely. "It is time for you to think of what he would have done for me. He would have sent me to hell in his place. Do you understand? Do you suppose that if I had killed him, even with mercy and kindness in my heart, I could ever have escaped from a hell on earth, no matter what God's judgment may have been hereafter? Would heaven after death affect the hell that came before?"
"Do you believe that there is life beyond the grave?" he demanded. "Do you still believe that there is a heaven and a hell?"
"Yes," she said firmly, "and down in your soul, Braden, you believe it too. We all believe it, even the scientists who scoff. We can't help believing it. It is that which makes good men and women of us, which keeps us as children to the end. It isn't honour or nobility of character that makes us righteous, but the fear of God. It isn't death that we dread. We shrink from the answer to the question we've asked all through life. Can you answer that question now?"
"Of course not," he said, "nor can I solve the riddle of life. That is the great mystery. Death is simple. We know why we die but we don't know why we live."
"The same mystery that precedes life also follows it," she said stubbornly. "The greatest scientist in the world was once a lifeless atom. He acknowledges that, doesn't he? So, my friend, there is something even vaster than the greatest of all intelligences, and that is ignorance. But we are wasting time. I have told you everything. You know just what I've been through. I don't ask for your sympathy, for you would be quite right in refusing to give it me. I made my bed, so there's the end of it. I am glad that you are here. The situation is in your hands, not mine."
"What is there for me to do except to sit down, like you, and wait?" he groaned, in desperation.
She was silent for a long time, evidently weighing her next remark. "What have you to say for your pet theory now, Braden?" she inquired, haltingly.
"You may rest assured, Anne, that even were it legally possible, I should not put it into practice in this instance," he said coldly.
Her face brightened. "Do you really mean it?"
"I wish you and all the rest of them would understand that I am not setting myself up as a butcher—" he began hotly.
"That is all I want to know," she cried, tremulously. "I have been dreading the—I have found myself wondering if you would give him those tablets. Look me straight in the eye, Braden. You will not do that, will you?"
"Never!" he exclaimed.
"You don't know what that means to me," she said in a low voice. Again there was a long silence. He was studying her face, and queer notions were entering his brain. "Another question, please, and that is all. Can his life be prolonged by an operation?"
"I am assured that he could not survive an operation."
"He may ask you to—to perform one," she said, watching him closely.
He hesitated. "You mean that he is willing to take the chance?"
"I mean that he realises it will make no difference, one way or the other. The other doctors have refused to operate."
"He will not ask me to operate," said Braden, but his soul shook within him as he spoke.
"We shall see," said she strangely, and then arose. She came quite close to him. "I do not want you to operate, Braden. Any one but you. You must not take the—the chance. Now you would better go up to him. Tell him you have talked with me. He will understand. He may even speak a good word for me. Good night. Thank you for—for letting me speak with you to-night."
She left the room. He stood quite still for a full minute, staring at the closed door. Then he passed his hand over his eyes as if to shut out the vision that remained. He knew now that his grandfather was right.
In the hall upstairs he found Wade.
"Time you were in bed," said Braden shortly. "Get a little rest, man. I am here now. You needn't worry."
"He's been asking for you, sir. The nurse has been out here twice within the last ten minutes. Excuse me, Mr. Braden; may I have another word with you?" He did not lower his voice. Wade's voice was of a peculiarly unpenetrating character. Unless one observed his speech it was scarcely audible, and yet one had a queer impression, at a glance, that he was speaking a little above the ordinary tone of voice. "Did Mrs. Thorpe tell you that her brother has been here to see Mr. Thorpe three times within a week?"
Braden started. "She did not, Wade."
"Why didn't she tell you, sir?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, sir, it is just this way: Mr. Thorpe sent for young Mr. Tresslyn last Friday afternoon. Considerable difficulty was had in finding him. He was just a wee bit tipsy when he got here at eight o'clock. Mrs. Thorpe did not see him, although Murray went to her room to tell her of his arrival. Young Mr. Tresslyn was in Mr. Thorpe's room for ten or fifteen minutes, and then left the house in a great hurry, sir. He came again on Saturday evening, and acted very queerly. Both times he was alone with Mr. Thorpe. Again he fairly rushed out of the house as if he was pursued by devils. Then he came on Sunday night, and the same thing happened. As he was going out, I spoke to him, and this is what he said to me,—scared-like and shaking all over, sir,—'I'm not coming here again, Wade. No more of it for me. Damn him! You tell my sister that I'm not coming again!' Then he went out, mumbling to himself. Right after that I went up to Mr. Thorpe. He was very angry. He gave orders that Mr. Tresslyn was not to be admitted again. It was then, sir, that he spoke to me about the money in the envelope. I have had a notion, sir, that the money was first intended for Mr. George Tresslyn, but he didn't like that way of earning it any more than I did. Rather strange, too, when you stop to think how badly he needs money and how low he's been getting these past few months. Poor chap, he—"
"Now, Wade, you are guessing," interrupted Braden, with a sinking heart. "You have no right to surmise—"
"Beg pardon, sir; I was only putting two and two together. I'm sorry. I dare say I am entirely wrong, perhaps a little bit out of my head because of the—Please, sir, do not misunderstand me. I would not for the world have you think that I connect Mrs. Thorpe with the business. I am sure that she had nothing whatever to do with her brother's visits here,—nothing at all, sir."
Braden's blood was like ice water as he turned away from the man and entered his grandfather's room. The nurse was reading to the old man. With the young man's entrance, Mr. Thorpe cut her off brusquely and told her to leave the room.
"Come here, Braden," he said, after the door had closed behind the woman. "Have you talked with Anne?"
"She told you everything?"
"I suppose so. It is terrible. You should not have made such demands—"
"We won't go into that," said the other harshly, gripping his side with his claw-like hand. His face was contorted by pain. After a moment, he went on: "She's better than I thought, and so is that good-for-nothing brother of hers. I shall never forgive this scoundrel Wade though. He has been my servant, my slave for more than thirty years, and I know that he hasn't a shred of a conscience. While I think of it, I wish you would take this key and unlock the top drawer in my dressing table. See if there is an envelope there, will you? There is, eh? Open it. Count the bills, Braden."
He lay back, with tightly closed eyes, while Braden counted the package of five hundred dollar bank-notes.
"There are fifty thousand dollars here, grandfather," said the young man huskily.
"'Pon my soul, they are more honest than I imagined. Well, well, the world is getting better."
"What shall I do with this money, sir? You shouldn't have it lying around loose with all these—"
"You may deposit it to my account in the Fifth Avenue Bank to-morrow. It is of absolutely no use to me now. Put it in your pocket. It will be quite safe with you, I dare say. You are all so inexcusably honest, confound you. Sit down. I want to tell you what I've finally decided to do. These surgeons say there is about one chance in a million for me, my boy. I've decided to take it."
"Take it?" muttered Braden, knowing full well what was to come.
"I have given you the finest education, the finest training that any young man ever had, Braden. You owe a great deal to me, I think you will admit. Never mind now. Don't thank me. I would not trust my one chance to any of these disinterested butchers. They would not care a rap whether I pulled through or not. With you, it is different. I believe you would—"
"My God, grandfather, you are not going to ask me to—"
"Sit still! Yes, I am going to ask you to give me that one chance in a million. If you fail, I shall not be here to complain. If you succeed,—well, you will have performed a miracle. You—"
"But there is no possible chance,—not the slightest chance of success," cried Braden, the cold sweat running down his face. "I can tell you in advance that it means death to—"
"Nevertheless, it is worth trying, isn't it, my boy?" said Templeton Thorpe softly. "I demand it of you. You are my flesh and blood. You will not let me lie here and suffer like this for weeks and months. It is your duty to do what you can. It is your time to be merciful, my lad."
Braden's face was in his hands. His body was shaking as if in convulsions. He could not look into the old man's eyes.
"Send for Bates and Bray to-morrow. Tell them that you have decided to operate,—with my consent. They will understand. It must be done at once. You will not fail me. You will do this for your poor old granddaddy who has loved you well and who suffers to-day as no man in all this world has ever suffered before. I am in agony. Nothing stops the pain. Everything has failed. You will do this for me, Braden?"
The young man raised his haggard face. Infinite pity had succeeded horror in his eyes.
Simmy Dodge emerged from Sherry's at nine-thirty. He was leaving Mrs. Fenwick's dinner-dance in response to an appeal from Anne Thorpe, who had sent for him by messenger earlier in the evening. Simmy was reluctant about going down to the house off Washington Square; he was constituted as one of those who shrink from the unwholesomeness of death rather than from its terrors. He was fond of Anne, but in his soul he was abusing her for summoning him to bear witness to the final translation of old Templeton Thorpe from a warm, sensitive body, into a cold, unpleasant hulk. He had no doubt that he had been sent for to see the old man die. While he would not, for the world, have denied Anne in her hour of distress, he could not help wishing that she had put the thing off till to-morrow. Death doesn't appear so ugly in the daytime. One is spared the feeling that it is stealing up through the darkness of night to lay claim to its prey.
Simmy shivered a little as he stood in front of Sherry's waiting for his car to come up. He made up his mind then and there that when it came time for him to die he would see to it that he did not do it in the night. For, despite the gay lights of the city, there were always sombre shadows for one to be jerked into by the relentless hand of death; there was something appalling about being dragged off into a darkness that was to be dissipated at sunrise, instead of lasting forever.
He left behind him in one of the big private diningrooms a brilliant, high-spirited company of revellers. One of Mrs. Fenwick's guests was Lutie Tresslyn. He sat opposite her at one of the big round tables, and for an hour he had watched with moody eyes her charming, vivacious face as she conversed with the men on either side of her. She was as cool, as self- contained as any woman at the table. There was nothing to indicate that she had not been born to this estate of velvet, unless the freshness of her cheek and the brightness of her eye betrayed her by contrast with the unmistakable haggardness of "the real thing."
She was unafraid. All at once Simmy was proud of her. He felt the thrill of something he could not on the moment define, but which he afterwards put down as patriotism! It was just the sort of thrill, he argued, that you have when the band plays at West Point and you see the cadets come marching toward you with their heads up and their chests out,—the thrill that leaves a smothering, unuttered cheer in your throat.
He thought of Anne Tresslyn too, and smiled to himself. This was Anne Tresslyn's set, not Lutie's, and yet here she was, a trim little warrior, inside the walls of a fortified place, hobnobbing with the formidable army of occupation and staring holes through the uniforms of the General Staff! She sat in the Tresslyn camp, and there were no other Tresslyns there. She sat with the Wintermills, and—yes, he had to admit it,—she had winked at him slyly when she caught his eye early in the evening. It was a very small wink to be sure and was not repeated.
The night was cold. His chauffeur was not to be found by the door-men who ran up and down the line from Fifth to Sixth Avenue for ten minutes before Simmy remembered that he had told the man not to come for him until three in the morning, an hour at which one might reasonably expect a dance to show signs of abating.
He was on the point of ordering a taxi-cab when his attention was drawn to a figure that lurked well back in the shadows of the Berkeley Theatre down the street—a tall figure in a long ulster. Despite the darkness, Simmy's intense stare convinced him that it was George Tresslyn who stood over there and gazed from beneath lowered brows at the bright doorway. He experienced a chill that was not due to the raw west wind. There was something sinister about that big, motionless figure, something portentous of disaster. He knew that George had been going down the hill with startling rapidity. On more than one occasion he had tried to stay this downward rush, but without avail. Young Tresslyn was drinking, but he was not carousing. He drank as unhappy men drink, not as the happy ones do. He drank alone.
For a few minutes Simmy watched this dark sentinel, and reflected. What was he doing over there? What was he up to? Was he waiting for Lutie to come forth from the fortified place? Was there murder and self-murder in the heart of this unhappy boy? Simmy was a little man but he was no coward. He did not hesitate long. He would have to act, and act promptly. He did not dare go away while that menacing figure remained on guard. The police, no doubt, would drive him away in time, but he would come back again. So Simmy Dodge squared his shoulders and marched across the street, to face what might turn out to be a ruthless lunatic—the kind one reads about, who kill their best friends, "and all that sort of thing."
It was quite apparent that the watcher had been observing him. As Simmy came briskly across the street, Tresslyn moved out of his position near the awning and started westward, his shoulders hunched upward and his chin lowered with the evident desire to prevent recognition. Simmy called out to him. The other quickened his steps. He slouched but did not stagger, a circumstance which caused Simmy a sharp twinge of uneasiness. He was not intoxicated. Simmy's good sense told him that he would be more dangerous sober than drunk, but he did not falter. At the second shout, young Tresslyn stopped. His hands were thrust deep into his overcoat pockets.