THE STUMBLING BLOCK
HENRY H. HARPER
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BY HENRY H. HARPER
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CHAPTER I THE WEDDING
II SOCIAL AMBITIONS
III "My FATHER A MURDERER!"
IV KITTY BELLINGER
V THE PANIC
VI AN INTOLERABLE SITUATION
VII THE GOOD-BY NOTE
VIII THE MAN-HUNT
IX TOM MAKES A DISCOVERY
X THE TRAIL OF THE SUICIDE
XI THE VEILED WOMAN IN THE SHADOWS
XII THE TURNING POINT
XIII A COZY BREAKFAST FOR Two
XIV KITTY S VERSATILITY
XV THE HAUNTED CAVES
XVI THE MYSTERIOUS LETTER
XVII WHAT THE DEVIL HATH JOINED TO
XVIII THE FRUITS OF INFELICITY
XIX MRS. FARNSWORTH S HUMILIATION
XX THINGS LOOK SUSPICIOUS TO TOM
XXI THE NEWCOMERS
XXII THE PRICE OF A FRENCH COUNT
XXIII BLIGHTED HOPES OF SOCIAL EMINENCE
XXIV THE CONSOLIDATION
Margaret Benson s early childhood was spent in a
small town in the western part of New York State.
Her expressive dark eyes and rare beauty were her
sole heritage from her mother, who was the daughter
of a distinguished Kentucky family. From her
father, of whom less could be said, she inherited the
traits that were ultimately to dominate her character
Shortly after the death of her mother, when Mar
garet was fourteen years old, she was taken to New
York City and placed in charge of a woman who con
ducted a lodging house on the East Side, where she
attended public school. She saw but little of her
father, who came to see her at uncertain intervals,
and she knew nothing of his business or financial
resources, except that her spending money was very
meagre, and the amount allowed for her board and
clothes only covered the barest necessaries. Though
only fourteen years of age her slender, prematurely
developed stature and the matureness of her features
gave her the appearance of seventeen.
There being no other children at her boarding place
she found the atmosphere ill suited to her age and
temperament. She felt keenly the loss of her mother s
tender care, at an age when a mother s influence and
advice are such important needs in a girl s life, and
many of her evenings were spent in tearful retrospec
tion in her little room up three flights of uncarpeted
stairs. After a few months of this lonely existence
she returned home from school one afternoon to find a
well dressed, distinguished looking woman waiting for
her in the sitting room.
"You are Margaret Benson?" asked the woman, as
she advanced smilingly with outstretched hand.
"Yes," she said timidly.
"And I am Mrs. Grayson-Howells. I was a girl
hood friend of your mother, and my sister married her
brother; so you see I am your aunt by marriage.
Both my sister and her husband have been dead for
many years. On returning from abroad a few days
ago I found a letter from your father telling me about
"Oh, then you know my father?"
"No, I never met him, but I knew your mother s
"Yes, I ve heard my mother speak of you; she said
how rich you were, while she poor mother!" she
said, as the tears welled in her eyes, "she was so un
happy." And she burst into sobs.
"Yes, poor dear, it was an unkind Fate that cut her
off from all her girlhood associates. I never saw her
after she married. But what a dear, charming child
you are ! The perfect image of your mother as I first
"Oh, thank you," she said modestly. "Please
excuse me for crying but I m so lonesome and un
happy here, with no children around. The Saturdays
and Sundays and evenings seem so long."
"Yes, poor child, I know you must be unhappy" -
as she glanced about the room "but you shall not
remain so for long. I am just opening my town house
for the holidays, and should like you to come and take
luncheon with me next Saturday. My nephew will be
home from college and spend his holiday season with
me. A little later I shall close my town house and go
south for the remainder of the winter; but in the
meantime I hope to comply with your father s request
and find you a home with some friend.
"Now, goodby, dear; I will arrange with the land
lady to let you come, and will send my carriage for
you Saturday morning at ten."
When she had gone Margaret hurried up to her
room, wondering what kind of a home her new friend
had, and how she could afford to keep a home that
she didn t live in except at short intervals. She was
radiant with happiness at the thought of dining with
her mother s aristocratic girlhood friend, and she waited
with impatience for Saturday.
The carriage was waiting at the appointed time,
and on arriving at the Fifth Avenue home of Mrs.
Grayson-Howells, Margaret was introduced to Jeffer
son Dalney Farnsworth, a young man of nineteen,
just home from Cambridge, and spending the Christmas
vacation season with his widowed aunt. He was an
orphan, and the sole heir to a large estate left in trust
by his father, to be turned over to him on reaching
maturity. Jeff had a keen eye for the beautiful in
femininity, and he was at once captivated by the
simple manners and remarkable beauty of "Miss
Benson," as he called her when speaking to his aunt
about her after she had gone.
"By George! Aunt Lucy, if she doesn t break some
body s heart it won t be the fault of that pair of eyes
of hers," he said.
"Why, Jeff, she s only a child, scarcely in her teens
"Oh, come now, auntie, don t tell me that
scarcely out of her teens, you mean."
"I ought to know; her mother was an intimate
friend of mine. We went to boarding school together
sixteen years ago, before she was married to that
scamp of a Benson. After enduring him for fifteen
years she died broken-hearted. He imposed on her
relatives and friends, and cheated your uncle and
everybody else out of every dollar he could borrow
"Just the same, he has a mighty pretty daughter,"
remarked Jeff, coming gallantly to Margaret s defence.
"Yes, she s as much like her mother was at her age
as two people could be alike. It s a pity she s handi
capped by such a father. He had the boldness to
write to me and ask if I would do something for
Margaret for the sake of my friendship for her dead
mother. I ll gladly help Margaret, but only on con
dition that he keeps entirely away from her, and out
of my sight."
"Why not send her to Miss Hilton s boarding
school?" inquired Jeff, who was manifesting a growing
interest in the affair. "Then tell her father he mustn t
show his face around there, or he ll get it broken."
"But Miss Hilton s is a very expensive school; and
then I don t know that there s a vacancy."
"Oh, pshaw! with your pull you could get her in
any school in New York City."
Callers being announced, the discussion ended ab
ruptly. During the evening Jeff seemed lost in his
own meditations, and took but little interest in the
conversation. Later, when their friends had gone he
re-opened the matter by asking abruptly
"Say Aunt Lucy will you do me a favor?"
"Yes, Jeff, what is it?" as she looked up in
"You get Miss Benson into that school, and have
the bills sent to Mr. Barton; and I ll direct him to
pay them on my account. This is the first chance I
ever had to do a decent act, and I d like to take
advantage of it. But don t let her know that I m
"Why, Jeff! what would your frugal father say of
such munificence if he were living?"
"Well, he was always mighty good to me, even if he
was sometimes accused of being close-fisted, and if
there s such a thing as a hereafter, I d like to make his
lot a little easier by making good use of part of the
money he left. And then how do you know but I
have some selfish motive? I don t want to rob you of
the chance of doing a kind act, but I remember a
story I once read in a book, and I just want to see
how the idea will work out in real life."
"Very well, Jeff, I ll do as you wish," she said after
some further discussion, "and even if it should work
out badly, you will at least have done a generous deed."
Five years passed. Margaret, who was known as
one of the most beautiful and best dressed girls in
Miss Hilton s exclusive boarding school, was under the
sponsorship and chaperonage of Mrs. Grayson-Howells.
Young Farnsworth, after receiving his degree at Har
vard, spent a year traveling abroad, where he was joined
by his aunt and Margaret ; and before returning home
the engagement of the young couple was cabled by Mrs.
Grayson-Howells and announced in the New York
papers. The wedding, which took place shortly ?.fter
Margaret s graduation early the following June, was
heralded far and wide as one of the society events of the
season. The happy pair then went abroad for a year.
Jeff succeeded in demonstrating to his own satis
faction that the story he read in earlier years could
have been borrowed from life ; for the hero and heroine
therein, after many misunderstandings and hair
breadth escapes from separation, got married and
"lived happily ever after." So would he and Margaret
do likewise, but minus the numerous trials and vicissi
tudes, which he declared to his aunt were merely
"lugged in to lengthen out the story," and were no
part of real life.
Margaret s father was supposed by her to have
become a wealthy mine operator in the West, and to
have paid, through Stephen Barton, Trustee, all her
lavish expenses during her four years at school. As a
matter of fact, he had been sent away out West and
provided with expense money, while prospecting in
the mining regions. Shortly after Margaret s engage
ment was announced of which fact he had been
advised by her he borrowed a large sum of money
from young Farnsworth to buy some promising mining
claims he had rounded up in Colorado. Several times
he had been in New York and seen his prospective son-
in-law, but had always gone away without calling on
his daughter, though in her letters, sent to him at his
western address, she often asked why he never came to
After an absence of nearly a year in Europe young
Farnsworth and his bride returned to New York and
proceeded at once to establish themselves in a home,
and to make preparations for a coming event of great
domestic importance. It was a boy, christened
Thomas, after its paternal grandfather ; and if it could
be said that it were possible to discover any one con
sideration or condition that would add to the happiness
of this ideal pair of lovers, that one desideratum was
found in the birth of a son and heir, cementing their
matrimonial bonds into a perfect unit. Health,
wealth, happiness, and social position all smiled in
benign unison upon the family trio. As the proud
husband and father stood by the bedside of the con
valescing young mother and gazed into her lustrous
dark eyes, fringed by their long lashes, contrasting
sharply with the slight pallor of her cheeks, and thought
of ihe complete happiness she had brought him, his
cup seemed full to overflowing.
To his aunt he had remarked :"I tell you, Aunt Lucy,
the thing to do is to pick out a wife when she s in her
early teens, and have her educated and brought up
according to your own ideas. Then when you get
married you know just what you ve got. These hasty
marriages among persons who neither know nor under
stand each other too often result in disagreements
and divorces. Margaret s a good, sensible girl not
one of those flippant society debutantes with their
minds filled with nothing but society chatter."
But in reasoning thus the young philosopher failed
to consider two important facts: that his wife was of
the flesh and blood of William Benson; and that she
was soon to be cast into the maelstrom of a social
stratum for which her ambition and physical charms
were her only inherent qualifications. For those who
are born and brought up in this social atmosphere,
love, marriage and maternal cares are often hailed as
a welcome diversion ; but a beautiful, unsophisticated
young woman of Margaret s temperament who marries
into the social whirl must have a better balanced mind
than hers in order to withstand the influences of such
environments and not be led astray by flatteries and
vanities. The moment the breezes of the new social
realms inflated her sails, even with her indulgent hus
band as helmsman, she was like a yacht cast adrift
without a rudder.
She found that many of her newly made acquaint
ances, though older than she in years, were much
younger in actions, and still enjoying their girlhood
freedom. Very few even of those who were married
were encumbered with maternal cares. At the after
noon affairs the matrons discussed their "lines" and
figure measurements, and remarked how damaging to
these was the bearing of children early in life. She
surveyed her own still girlish figure in the large mirror,
and resolutely decided to take no more chances on
The baby was turned over to the exclusive care of
those in charge of the nursery, and every time she
looked at it she thought how its advent into the world
might have ruined her figure! At first the baby had
furnished almost the sole topic of conversation with
her acquaintances, but later it was seldom inquired
after by them, and never referred to by her. If the
nursery door happened to be ajar and she heard it cry,
it irritated her. Shortly after she began going out in
society she remarked one evening to her husband, -
"Dalney, do you know, I think it s a shame, I never
even had a coming-out party."
"Never mind, dear," as he pulled her down into his
lap, "you are none the worse for it. You re out now.
If a coming-out party had made you any more popular
than you are I d scarcely get a chance to see you at
all. You see we were married so soon after you
graduated that we didn t have time for such formali
ties. I was so crazy in love with you that I couldn t
have thought of waiting over another season."
"Yes, that s it;" she said as she freed herself from
his embrace and got up, "you should have considered
those matters. Look at Edna Hertz; she made a
grand debut, and now she s abroad being courted by a
nobleman. And her father hasn t any more money
than mine has. She didn t have half the spending
money at school that I had. Then she s homely, too
compared with me," she pouted. "If I had only "
"Why, Midge! what has come over you? Do you
know what you re saying?" as he sprang to his feet
with an agonized look in his face.
"Oh, please forgive me, Dalney," as she put her
arms about his neck, and snuggled close up to his
breast to avoid his astonished gaze. "I really don t
know what I was saying, or thinking about. I m not
at all well; I m feverish and my head is killing me
tonight," she complained, for the first time during the
"I don t believe my little wife has been quite herself
for some time," he said sympathetically, as he placed
his hand caressingly on her forehead, which was as
free from fever as a stone. "This society business has
unstrung your nerves. I think I ll take you South for
a few weeks where you can get a good rest, and we can
be more to ourselves."
"But how can you get away from your business?"
she asked, terror-stricken at the thought of cancelling
her social engagements.
"My business has not grown to be of so much im
portance to me that I m going to allow it to interfere
with your health and happiness. You and our home
come first, then business. My partner can take care
of that. He s furnished most of the brains anyway,
so far. Get your things ready and we ll go next
"Why, Dalney, you dear boy, it would take me a
month to get ready. The dressmakers are all busy
"Oh, nonsense, by that time it will be spring. Wear
the same dresses you did last winter. You ve kept
your figure admirably, and most of them you never
wore but once. If necessary we can go to a different
place. I d like a quieter place anyway, where we can
be more together."
He was so insistent that she saw it would be neces
sary to use her most artful powers of dissuasion, and
she resorted to them.
"Now, Dalney, dear," as she pushed him into a chair
and knelt before him, gazing up into his eyes, while
her hands toyed mechanically with his watch charm
"Dalney, dearest, I should just love to go South, and
it s awfully sweet of you to leave your business and
take me ; but really, we wouldn t see any more of each
other than right here in our cozy little home, without
a lot of hotel people around to annoy us. Having you
love me makes my head feel better already; and if
you ll just kiss me once behind each ear, I m sure it
won t ache a bit longer. And it s been two whole
days, you naughty boy, since you kissed my eyes,"
He clasped her in his arms and kissed her, not once,
twice, - but twenty times, on her lips, cheeks, chin,
throat, eyes and behind both ears, until she shook her
self free and gasped for breath.
"Now, just once right there on the tip for good
luck," she said, as she tilted her head back and touched
the point of her dainty little nose.
"Thank you. Now I feel all better; and I don t
have to go down South in those old dusty, smoky trains
and stay cooped up in an old hotel, do I, hubby dear?"
"No, you little witch, of course you don t."
That night while his wife lay sleeping serenely, Farns-
worth spent several wakeful hours in serious medita
tion. "What has come over her of late?" he mused.
She evidently knew his one great weakness his
idolatrous love for her, and ever since she began go
ing out in society, after their child was born, she had
played upon this vulnerable spot whenever she found
it necessary to gain his acquiescence in accomplishing
any purpose. This time she had forgotten her tactful-
ness and claimed her point so quickly following her
theatrical love demonstration that her motive was
"And yet, every time she stages that little farce,"
he mused, "I fall into line and do the heroic lover act
in dead earnest, forgetting for the moment that she s
only acting her part. But why does she object so to
Since one of her school friends had been smiled upon
by some impecunious off-shoot of royalty she had re
peatedly hinted that she thought it a mistake for a
girl with an independent income to allow herself to be
hurried into matrimony before having an opportunity
of enjoying the gaieties of life, and traveling abroad
where she could meet people of the "higher social
position." Early marriages, she said, were only for
poor girls who need protection and pecuniary support.
The frequency with which she flaunted her father s
wealth and prodigality was especially exasperating, -
the more so because, although his mining operations
had now made him rich, he had not only refused to
pay back any part of the last loan of fifty thousand
dollars, but he became highly indignant and even in
sulting when asked to do so. To spare Margaret s
feelings, Farnsworth had refrained from suing on her
father s note, for this would reveal the secret, of which
as yet she knew nothing.
Next morning Farnsworth breakfasted alone, as
usual of late, and went directly to the home of his
"Aunt Lucy, I ve just got to talk with someone or I
shall explode," he began; "and as you re the only one
who knows anything or rather, everything about
my affairs I came to you."
After describing Margaret s actions of the previous
night, she dispelled his apprehensions by saying that
Margaret was still young, and would outgrow her
"Why, Jeff, she s but a mere child; you must be
patient with her whims. She ll soon get over these
social follies. Every pretty girl brought out in society
becomes inoculated with this virus sooner or later ; but
it s easily cured, as a general thing."
An hour later he called Margaret up on the phone
from his office to inquire how she felt. Her maid
reported her still in bed, but she would call her. After
a long wait he heard her languid voice answer,
"Hello, what is it, Dalney?"
"Oh, nothing!" he said as he clapped the receiver on
the hook. A little later he called her again and
apologized for his abruptness.
Under his impending threat of taking her South,
and thus interrupting her social activities, Margaret
ceased her fault-finding and peevishness for a few
weeks, and at times appeared more like herself of old.
She had not yet arrived at the stage of open defiance
and disregard of his expressed wishes, for she still had
a lingering fondness for his love, his considerateness,
and his gifts of jewelry, all of which he was constantly
showering upon her. But in due time she again
lapsed into a state of inertia in the household, and re
fused to be enticed or driven out of it.
Fortunately, the banking firm of Farnsworth &
Company with an old time friend of his father as
managing partner was growing rapidly and as the
home life grew less congenial the office duties became
more engrossing. His wife took no interest what
ever in his business affairs, and he concerned himself
as little as possible with her social engagements, ex
cept as he was called upon evenings to act as her
Days, weeks and months dragged on, marked by
indifference on her part, and constant solicitude and
forbearance on his. They were spending the summer
at their new country home up the Hudson. She
declared that he had selfishly "buried" her in the
country, where he could have her all to himself, away
from her friends and associates ; that she would rather
live in an attic room in the city than amid all the luxury
of the ample grounds, flower gardens, groves and drives
on their country estate.
"I ll be glad when fall comes and I can get out of
this detestable hole," she said after he had spent a
fortune on the place.
One afternoon early in September, on reaching home
by an earlier train than usual, Farnsworth found his
wife in tears. On looking up with startled eyes and
quivering lips as he entered she hastily seized and
crumpled in her hand a letter that lay in her lap, then
left the room abruptly without even giving him the
perfunctory kiss. As he stood staring open-mouthed
at her departing figure a hundred conjectures flashed
across his mind. Turning about he saw a plain white
envelope lying on the floor beside her chair. On it he
saw his wife s name written in a bold, and apparently
disguised, masculine hand. It was addressed to a
private box at the New York post office.
"MY FATHER A MURDERER!"
When her husband arose and went into his dressing
room next morning Mrs. Farnsworth pretended to be
asleep ; but later when she heard him leave the house
she jumped up quickly, and as the carriage disappeared
down the driveway she went in quest of the letter she
had hidden on the previous afternoon. Falling into an
easy chair she reread it, carefully weighing the signifi
cance of every word. When she had concluded she
groaned, "God help me ! A murderer ! My own
father a murderer! Oh, oh ! I can t believe it and
yet there s his confession written by his own hand.
And so that s why he changed his name to Gordon
Dempsey! Why, in Heaven s name, is he coming to
me, I wonder ! Why doesn t he go and jump into
the ocean, or anywhere to avoid capture, identification
and disgrace ! The papers will be full of it ! If they
catch him I ll be publicly disgraced ruined forever.
I must explain to Dalney, and we ll hunt a secluded
spot in some remote corner of the earth where we ll
never see anyone we know. All my fond hopes
blasted God ! It will kill me !"
She walked over and threw the letter into the grate,
and watched it as the flames consumed it ; then as the
charred embers curled and cracked, and finally melted
"MY FATHER A MURDERER1"
into ashes, "And he ll be here this morning," she
murmured. "What a gloomy home-coming after a
seven years absence!"
She was startled out of her reveries by the ring of
her private telephone bell, which she now dreaded to
answer. She wondered if the servant receiving the
call down stairs would listen while she talked to him.
She answered the call, and the instant she hung up the
receiver she rang for the butler.
"Simpson, in a few minutes a gentleman will call.