The Girl in His House
Published by Good Press, 2020
ARMITAGE had come thirteen thousand miles—across deserts, through jungles, over snow-clad peaks—as fast as camels and trains and ships could carry him, driven by an all-compelling desire. Sixty-odd days ago he had been in the amber-mines in the Hukawng Valley, where Upper Burma ends and western China begins; and here he was, riding up old Broadway—a Broadway that twinkled and glittered and glared with the same old colored clock lights. Men were queer animals. He had sworn never to set foot inside of New York again.
A paragraph in a New York newspaper, a sheet more than a year old and fallen to the base usage of wrapping-paper and protecting temporarily a roll of pudgy Burmese cheroots from the eternal mold of the middle Orient, had started him upon this tremendous, swinging journey. A thousand times he had perused that paragraph. Frayed and tattered to the point of disintegration, the clipping now reposed in his wallet. He no longer disturbed it; it wasn't necessary; he knew it by heart and could recite it word for word:
JOHN SANDERSON, the multimillionaire packer, died yesterday at his summer home on Lake Michigan. He was sixty-nine years old.
The woman who had jilted Armitage was a widow.
Curious thing! He had come down from the top of the world, as it were, shamelessly, a flame in his heart that resembled a torch in the wind. So long as he pressed down through the jungles and deserts the flame burned with unabated ardor; but at Mandalay—the outer rim of civilization—it began to waver a little. At Rangoon it was like a candle in a breathless room. But on the way over to Calcutta it burst forth anew, and never wavered again until he came out on the tea veranda of the Bertolini and stared across Naples at Vesuvius in the moonlight. Even then he had not realized what was happening—that his torch, having nothing celestial in its substance, was burning out.
Two hours ago, as the great ship slipped into her berth, the last spark had flickered and vanished, leaving him with his heart full of bitter ashes. To have come thirteen thousand miles, like a whirlwind, only to learn that for six years he had been the victim of a delusion! He laughed aloud in savage irony. The old habits of civilization were clamoring for recognition; and first among these was the sense of shame, not because he had come all this distance, but because his love had been a poor thing and had not been strong enough to survive the ordeal. What an incomprehensible thing was the human heart!
Six long years in the far wildernesses, hugging a cold shadow for a substance, imagining himself to be a martyr when in truth he was only a simple fool! Shamelessly he had come to throw himself at her feet again; and behold! he was without desire.
The taxicab stopped. As Armitage stared over the shutter his mouth opened and his brows became Gothic arches of amazed inquiry. The obsequies over a dead passion came to an abrupt, unfinished ending; the whole dismal affair went out of his thoughts as a wisp of smoke leaves a chimney-pot and disappears.
What in the name of the seven wonders could this mean? Lights—lights in the windows and lights in the hall. The silhouette of a woman appeared at one of the drawing-room windows. She was evidently looking out. Almost immediately she drew back. Armitage felt that frozen immobility peculiar to nightmares. Was he truly awake?
The front door of the brownstone opened and a bareheaded man ran down the steps to the vehicle. The smooth brass buttons on his coat marked him down as a butler. "Mr. Athelstone?" he asked, with subdued excitement.
"No. My mistake. I say, driver, we'll go to the hotel, after all."
"All right, sir."
"Sorry to trouble you. Wrong number," said Armitage to the astonished butler.
The taxicab grumbled and sputtered and started off jerkily; but until it wheeled around into Fifth Avenue the butler remained at the curb, while the world-wide traveler never took his bewildered gaze off the house with the lighted windows. Something inconceivable had happened, something so incredible and unexpected that Armitage was at that moment powerless to readjust himself to the event.
"Am I in the middle of a nightmare, or what?" he murmured, fumbling in his pockets for his pipe. "Lights, a butler, and a woman at the window!" All at once he felt inspired.
"I say, driver, what street was that?"
"The street and number you gave me, Sir.
"Did you see the lights in the windows? Did you see the woman behind the curtains? Did a butler come down the steps?"
"Yes, sir. I heard him ask you if you were Mr. Athelstone."
"Then, by George, I'm awake!"
The driver escaped the heavy forewheels of an omnibus only by the narrowest margin. By the time he was in a mental condition to tell the omnibus-driver all about his family history it was too late; the rear wheels of the lumbering colossus of the asphalt were passing.
"Bug, pure bug!" he grumbled. This observation was not directed at the vanishing omnibus-driver; it was the final round of a series of cogitations relative to this "fare" of his. "Nothing to it; I ought to go straight to Bellevue. Lights? Of course there were lights!" He reached for the clutch and swore softly as the steamer trunk nicked his elbow.
Of all the queer dubs he had ever driven off Pier 53, this chap inside took the palm, ribbon and all. Off to the Racket Club as fast as the law allowed, only to hear his ludship say that he had forgotten he was no longer a member. Then, bang! for the hotel in Forty-second Street, where there was more doddering; and, whoof! a mile a minute up to the brownstone in Seventy-second. Lost in little old New York. And now the dub was smoking a pipe strong enough to knock over a fire-horse. Luggage? Well, say! Three suit-cases that had come out of the Ark, and a battered English kitbag that had been Cain's on the big hike, and a gun-case that weighed a ton and must have scared the customs inspectors stiff.
When he stopped at the hotel entrance he looked