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THE PROMISE OF THRIFT
"Monty, you are breaking my heart," was the first and only appeal Mrs. Gray ever made to him. It was two days before the twenty-third and it did not come until after the "secondhand store" men had driven away from her door with the bulk of his clothing in their wagon. She and Peggy had seen little of Brewster, and his nervous restlessness alarmed them His return was the talk of the town. Men tried to shun him, but he persistently wasted some portion of his fortune on his unwilling subjects. When he gave $5,000 in cash to a Home for Newsboys, even his friends jumped to the conclusion that he was mad. It was his only gift to charity and he excused his motive in giving at this time by recalling Sedgwick's injunction to "give sparingly to charity." Everything was gone from his thoughts but the overpowering eagerness to get rid of a few troublesome thousands. He felt like an outcast, a pariah, a hated object that infected everyone with whom he came in contact. Sleep was almost impossible, eating was a farce; he gave elaborate suppers which he did not touch. Already his best friends were discussing the advisability of putting him in a sanitarium where his mind might be preserved. His case was looked upon as peculiar in the history of mankind; no writer could find a parallel, no one could imagine a comparison.
Mrs. Gray met him in the hallway of her home as he was nervously pocketing the $60 he had received in payment for his clothes. Her face was like that of a ghost. He tried to answer her reproof, but the words would not come, and he fled to his room, locking the door after him. He was at work there on the transaction that was to record the total disappearance of Edwin Brewster's million — his final report to Swearengen Jones, executor of James Sedgwick's will. On the floor were bundles of packages, carefully wrapped and tied, and on the table was the long sheet of white paper on which the report was being drawn. The packages contained receipts — thousands upon thousands of them — for the dollars he had spent in less than a year. They were there for the inspection of Swearengen Jones, faithfully and honorably kept — as if the old westerner would go over in detail the countless documents.
He had the accounts balanced up to the hour. On the long sheet lay the record of his ruthlessness, the epitaph of a million. In his pocket was exactly $79.08. This was to last him for less than forty-eight hours and — then it would go to join the rest. It was his plan to visit Grant & Ripley on the afternoon of the twenty-second and to read the report to them, in anticipation of the meeting with Jones on the day following.
Just before noon, after his encounter with Mrs. Gray, he came down stairs and boldly, for the first time in days, sought out Peggy. There was the old smile in his eyes and the old heartiness in his voice when he came upon her in the library. She was not reading. Books, pleasures and all the joys of life had fled from her mind and she thought only of the disaster that was coming to the boy she had always loved. His heart smote him as he looked into the deep, somber, frightened eyes, running over with love and fear for him.
"Peggy, do you think I'm worth anything more from your mother? Do you think she will ask me to live here any longer?" he asked, steadily, taking her hand in his. Hers was cold, his as hot as fire. "You know what you said away off yonder somewhere, that she'd let me live here if I deserved it. I am a pauper, Peggy, and I'm afraid I'll — I may have to get down to drudgery again. Will she turn me out? You know I must have somewhere to live. Shall it be the poorhouse? Do you remember saying one day that I'd end in the poorhouse?"
She was looking into his eyes, dreading what might be seen in them. But there was no gleam of insanity there, there was no fever; instead there was the quiet smile of the man who is satisfied with himself and the world. His voice bore traces of emotion, but it was the voice of one who has perfect control of his wits.
"Is it all — gone, Monty?" she asked, almost in a whisper.
"Here is the residue of my estate," he said, opening his purse with steady fingers. "I'm back to where I left off a year ago. The million is gone and my wings are clipped." Her face was white, her heart was in the clutch of ice. How could he be so calm about it when for him she was suffering such agony? Twice she started to speak, but her voice failed her. She turned slowly and walked to the window, keeping her back to the man who smiled so sadly and yet so heartlessly.
"I didn't want the million, Peggy," he went on. "You think as the rest do, I know, that I was a fool to act as I did. It would be rank idiocy on my part to blame you any more than the others for thinking as you do. Appearances are against me, the proof is overwhelming. A year ago I was called a man, to-day they are stripping me of every claim to that distinction. The world says I am a fool, a dolt, almost a criminal — but no one believes I am a man. Peggy, will you feel better toward me if I tell you that I am going to begin life all over again? It will be a new Monty Brewster that starts out again in a few days, or, if you will, it shall be the old one — the Monty you once knew."
"The old Monty?" she murmured softly, dreamily. "It would be good to see him — so much better than to see the Monty of the last year."
"And, in spite of all I have done, Peggy, you will stand by me? You won't desert me like the rest? You'll be the same Peggy of the other days?" he cried, his calmness breaking down.
"How can you ask? Why should you doubt me?"
For a moment they stood silent, each looking into the heart of the other, each seeing the beginning of a new day.
"Child," his voice trembled dangerously, "I — I wonder if you care enough for me to — to — " but he could only look the question.
"To start all over again with you?" she whispered.
"Yes — to trust yourself to the prodigal who has returned. Without you, child, all the rest would be as the husks. Peggy, I want you — you! You do love me — I can see it in your eyes, I can feel it in your presence."
"How long you have been realizing it," she said pensively as she stretched out her arms to him. For many minutes he held her close, finding a beautiful peace in the world again.
"How long have you really cared?" he asked in a whisper.
"Always, Monty; all my life."
"And I too, child, all my life. I know it now; I've known it for months. Oh, what a fool I was to have wasted all this love of yours and all this love of mine. But I'll not be a profligate in love, Peggy. I'll not squander an atom of it, dear, not as long as I live."
"And we will build a greater love, Monty, as we build the new life together. We never can be poor while we have love as a treasure."
"You won't mind being poor with me?" he asked.
"I can't be poor with you," she said simply.
"And I might have let all this escape me," he cried fervently. "Listen, Peggy — we will start together, you as my wife and my fortune. You shall be all that is left to me of the past. Will you marry me the day after to-morrow? Don't say no, dearest. I want to begin on that day. At seven in the morning, dear? Don't you see how good the start will be?"
And he pleaded so ardently and so earnestly that he won his point even though it grew out of a whim that she could not then understand. She was not to learn until afterward his object in having the marriage take place on the morning of September 23d, two hours before the time set for the turning over of the Sedgwick millions. If all went well they would be Brewster's millions before twelve o'clock, and Peggy's life of poverty would cover no more than three hours of time. She believed him worth a lifetime of poverty. So they would start the new life with but one possession — love.
Peggy rebelled against his desire to spend the seventy dollars that still remained, but he was firm in his determination. They would dine and drive together and see all of the old life that was left — on seventy dollars. Then on the next day they would start all over again. There was one rude moment of dismay when it occurred to him that Peggy might be considered an "asset" if she became his wife before nine o'clock. But he realized at once that it was only demanded of him that he be penniless and that he possess no object that had been acquired through the medium of Edwin Peter Brewster's money. Surely this wife who was not to come to him until his last dollar was gone could not be the product of an old man's legacy. But so careful was he in regard to the transaction that he decided to borrow money of Joe Bragdon to buy the license and to pay the minister's fee. Not only would he be penniless on the day of settlement, but he would be in debt. So changed was the color of the world to him now that even the failure to win Sedgwick's millions could not crush out the new life and the new joy that had come to him with the winning of Peggy Gray.