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- The Rose in the Ring - 70/73 -
trying to say. So, you see, I can't afford to be ashamed of myself. Do you get what I mean?"
"You would be ashamed of yourself if you accepted money or help from me? Is that it?"
"Yes. I can work, Mary. I can support you, if you'll come with me. I know where to go. But you'd better think it over carefully. I can go alone, Mary dear,--I can go alone, if you feel you can't stand being with me."
She hesitated, weighing her words. "I have a plan, Tom, that I want to talk over with you. I'll tell you about it when we get home. I want to know what you think of it. Perhaps you will consider it a good one. It occurred to me this afternoon while I was making preparations to leave the city with you to-morrow."
"You--you had it all thought out before you--"
"I had it all thought out. In fact, Tom, I have the railroad tickets at home in my desk,--two tickets, one way."
"You are the most wonderful woman in all this world, Mary, I'd die for you a thousand times," he cried. It was almost a sob.
She smiled. "I wouldn't allow you to do it even once for me. Come! We will go back the way we came, only we will go in by the front door."
As they turned onto the sidewalk he cast a swift, involuntary glance, as of terror, in the direction of North River. She distinctly heard the quick intake of his breath and the involuntary chatter of his teeth.
"You will sleep in a good, clean bed to-night," she said, reading his thoughts.
He reached forth and touched her arm, timidly at first, as if he were afraid that ever so slight a sign of affection would be repulsed. Finding that she did not shrink or draw away, he ventured to draw her arm through his. His figure was still bent, but the slouching, furtive movement was gone. Mechanically she fell into his stride and they moved swiftly up the street. A clock in a house across the way banged out the hour. Far away, in the neighborhood of Broadway, a raucous- voiced newsboy was crying his "extra." They knew that he was shouting:
"All about the murder!" in that unintelligible jargon of the night.
"We will get it all in the morning papers," she said.
"I hope they don't try to connect me with it--Mary, I'm afraid of that! You'd better let me get out of town to-night."
She shook her head.
He walked with his eyes set straight ahead, trying to understand, trying to get control of his new emotions. Always there was the sharp, ugly little notion that she still despised him, that she was sacrificing herself that he might be drawn as far away as possible from the child she was so anxious to shield.
"I'm going to try my best to make you care for me again," he said, a vast hunger for sympathy and love taking possession of him.
"I hope you may, Tom," she said drearily.
"You're doing this for Christine," he said resentfully. "Just to get me away, so's I can't trouble her. That's it, isn't it? Tell the truth, Mary."
"I would not expect you to do anything for her sake if I were not willing to do a great deal myself," was her enigmatic rejoinder.
"Don't hate me, Mary," he burst out.
She pressed his arm. "I am giving you a chance," she reminded him. There was still a dreariness in her voice, but he did not detect it. He returned the pressure, half hopeful that the beginning already had been made.
Brooks let them in. He had been waiting up for them.
"Mr. Braddock will be here over the night, Brooks."
"Yes, Mrs. Braddock." He opened the door into the library for them, and then silently hastened upstairs.
"You must have been pretty sure of yourself," commented Braddock, in no little wonder. She threw off the shaker cloak.
"There is a cold supper for you in the dining-room, Tom--and a piece of a last-minute wedding cake. You must be hungry. While you are eating we will talk over my plan."
He went about it as if in a dream. For an hour they discussed her plan for the future. In the end he fell in with it.
"I'd be a dog if I didn't give in to you in a matter like this," he said. "You're doing everything for me."
"Our room is at the head of the stairs, the first door to the left, Tom," she said, rising. Her face was very pale; she looked old. "The bath adjoins it. If you don't mind I'll stay downstairs awhile. I have many papers to look over and some letters to write."
He went upstairs to the wide, high bed-chamber with its azure walls. For a long time he stood in the middle of the room, looking around in dull amazement and doubt. Was it really true that he was there, in the midst of all this elegance and comfort? He glanced at his big hands and started with shame. They were not very clean. The soiled cuffs of an ill-fitting "hickory" shirt came down over his wrists. Involuntarily he pushed them up. The greenish-gray of the coarse jeans garments he wore, clumsy and crumpled, was sadly out of harmony with the delicate, refined colors that surrounded him. It seemed to him all at once that he _jarred on himself_.
Suddenly his gaze fell upon a neatly folded suit of clothes lying across the foot of the bed. The garments were dark blue, with a thin stripe running through the cloth, and they were new. On the center table there was a straw hat. Shoes stood beside the chair at the head of the bed. An immaculate white shirt hung over the back of the chair, while on the seat were undergarments. He rubbed his eyes. Then he sat down on the chaise longue and stared, with growing comprehension. The coverlet on the bed was neatly turned down; a night-gown was there, clean and white. Beside it was another, soft and filmy.
Braddock put his hands to his face and sobbed dry, choking sobs that were not of anguish, but of bewilderment.
At last he pulled himself together and arose to make a tour of the room. On the dressing-table there were collars and neckties and cuffs. His own old-fashioned silver watch lay there before him, with its heavy gold chain attached. He remembered with a pang that he had given it to her for preservation long ago, because it had once belonged to his grandfather and he was sentimental about it.
He looked again at the clothes he wore, the clothes the state had placed on him when he left the penitentiary; he looked at his soiled hands; in the glass he caught a glimpse of his haggard, unshaven face and the dirt streaks that the tears had made. With a cry of disgust he began tearing off the hated garments.
She had done all this for him! She had known all along that he was to come home with her.
Half an hour later he came from the bath, scrubbed until his skin was red. He was clean! He was shaved! His hands were amazingly white.
Like a boy, he tried on the fresh, new, clean-smelling clothes. Even to the shoes the fit in all cases was perfect. She remembered everything--the size of his collars, the size of his shoes, the length of his sleeves: the measurements of Tom Braddock as she had known him when they were young together. He picked up the filmy night-dress and kissed it a dozen times. Then he looked at the other one. A grim smile touched his lips. How long had it been since he had slept in a thing like that? It seemed like centuries.
He sat down on the side of the bed and dropped his chin to his hands, suddenly a prey to widely varying thoughts, desires and emotions. For many minutes he drooped there, thinking, wondering, doubting.
Over in a corner stood a small new leather-bound trunk. He did not get up to look at it, or into it. He knew without looking.
"It's like a fairy story," he murmured over and over again. "I'll do anything in the world for her, as long as I live!"
Suddenly he started up. He would go down to her. He would renew his pledges, his promises. As he opened the door to pass out to the stairs he heard her moving in the hall below. She tried the front door. Then the lower light went out. He heard her mounting the stairs slowly. She was coming up to him!
When she got to a point where she could see the streak of light from the partially open door she came to a stop. A slight shudder went over her body. Her steps were slower after that, dragging, dejected, with one or two complete pauses. Braddock understood. He had been listening to that pitiful approach of the woman who was his wife. He could almost see the expression in her face.
A sudden wave of pity swept over him. He gently closed the door and locked it on the inside.
She came on and turned the knob, feebly, timorously.
"Good-night," he called out from the most distant corner of the room.
Fully ten seconds passed before she responded. He felt somehow that she held her breath during that time.
"Good-night," she cried, a vibrant note in her voice. He heard her as she went down the hall. She was running.
THE BLACK HEADLINES
Christine had been mistress of Jenison Hall for three days when the expected and anxiously looked-for letter came from her mother.
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