Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

The Hills of Refuge: A Novel online

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to you than it really is. I feel down deep in me that Tobe will get
well. We are sure to get good news before long. Now eat something."

"I was hungry this morning, but it is gone," Martin said. "The sight of
the stuff almost sickens me."

Mary put both her arms around his neck and kissed him. "You are making
yourself sick," she said. "Eat, won't you, for my sake?"

His brother was eating now, and Martin went to his side and took a piece
of chicken and a biscuit. Mary watched them for a moment with wide-open
glittering eyes - the sort of stare that sometimes seems to float on a
rising tide of tears invisible. Then her head sank again.

"Look here," Kenneth said, suddenly, as he glanced toward the western
sky. "You and Mr. Brown have a long walk before you to get back before
night. You are doing no good here now. Hadn't you better start?"

Mary stood up. "Yes, we must be going. Are you comfortable in the cave?"

"Yes," Kenneth returned. "It is good enough. We have a big bed of dry
leaves and grass, and if Martin would only sleep we'd be all right."

"I try, but I can't," the blue-eyed boy said, in an uncertain,
half-abashed tone. "There was a night-owl near us last night, and it was
hooting, and, my God! sis, the thing seemed to talk. I never had
anything against Tobe Keith in my life. In fact, he and I used to fish
and swim together when we'd run away from school, and to think that I
actually - Turn around, and I'll show exactly how I clamped his arms and
how he was bent down when Ken fired."

"No, not now," Charles protested. "Your sister is very nervous. She
almost fainted just now."

"No, don't go into it," Kenneth mumbled, his mouth full. "I haven't
anything against Tobe, either. We were both drinking, but they tell me
the law doesn't excuse a fellow on that account. I didn't know what I
was doing, but I couldn't prove it to a jury. I reckon they would call
it deliberate. You see, Tobe and I had had words the day before over
another matter, and I remember I made some threats about what I'd do to
him. Oh, if he dies they will have a case against us. I know that well
enough, and we must stay under cover till we can get West."

"I thought Tobe had a knife," Martin said, piteously. "I was sure I saw
him draw it, and I held him to keep him from stabbing Ken. You know Tobe
did rip a fellow open once in a fight. They say I was mistaken and that
it was just a spoon he had been eating oysters with, and that he dropped
it as soon as I grabbed him. Sis, will you let us know how he is as
often as you can?"

"Yes, yes," the girl promised, "and if you don't hear it will be a sign
of good news. Remember that, and, brother, do try to sleep to-night. You
look sick."

She glanced at the sky again. She kissed them both and walked away. They
had gone only a few paces when Charles suddenly turned back and joined

"Your sister may not be able to come every time," he said. "But I know
the way now, for I took note of the landmarks, and I'll come by myself."

"That will be bully of you," Kenneth said. "By the way, we must have a
signal, so that I'll know who it is. Suppose you whistle twice slowly
and three times fast, and I'll answer and come out."

Mary was looking at Charles from sadly inquiring eyes when he caught her
up a moment later. "What did you say to them?" she asked.

He told her and she forced a wan smile, while a warm glow of gratitude
rose in her eyes.

"How sweet and kind of you!" she said. "You have proved yourself to be a
friend, and we have known you such a short time."

"I'd give my life to help you out of this," he suddenly said, surprised
at his boldness of speech and the raging storm of sympathy which had
fairly forced the words from him.

"Your life?" She was close at his side, for he was holding the dripping
bough of a mountain cedar aside for her to pass. "That is a strong
expression. Your life? That is all one has, you know."

"My life is worthless to me and to every one else," he said, frankly,
and as he uttered the words he was viewing his career in a flash-light
of memory from its beginning to the present. "Yes, Miss Rowland, it is
no good - absolutely no good. That's why I feel as I do for your
brothers, and - I mean it - I'd give my life to-day to lift you out of
this trouble and see you as I did that day in the store when you hired

"_Hired_ you? Don't use that word," she suddenly cried out, and she put
her hand on his arm in a gentle stroke of protest. "Mr. Brown, it seems
to me - I don't know how to explain it, but it seems to me that I've
known you for ages and ages. I can see that you are sad at times, and I
know that you have suffered somehow, somewhere. That picture of the
pretty child in your room - she is linked with your trouble, is she not?"

"Indirectly," he admitted, not seeing her drift. "Yes, it was partly on
her account - for her own future - that I left home."

"I see, I see; and her mother?" Mary's voice had sunken almost to
inaudibility; the cracking of the twigs under their feet all but drowned
its sound. "Did you leave her with the child?"

"Oh yes! They are inseparable," he answered. He felt that he was
admitting too much, and he turned the subject to that of the lessening
sunlight on a cliff to their left. He thought the dense clouds massing
behind them indicated a high wind and a heavy downpour of rain.

But his companion was not thinking of the state of the weather. "You
will go back to them some day, of course," she persisted.

Charles shuddered; she was probing a subject that he felt honor bound
not to touch upon. She repeated her words, steadily fixing his eyes with
her own.

"No," he repeated, firmly, "I shall never go back, Miss Rowland - never
in the world. My future home is here, anywhere, but never there again."

"And you do not like to speak of your family? Is that it?" Mary went on,
softly, sympathetically.

"I can't - I haven't the moral right to speak of them now. That is all I
can say. I'm dead to my past, Miss Rowland. I am blotting it out.
Serving you in any capacity helps kill memories that ought to be dead.
There are memories that reproach and torture one. I have my share of


For perhaps a mile they trudged along in silence. Presently Mary stopped
and turned on him.

"A drop of rain fell in my face," she said, looking up at the sky.

His eyes followed hers. Along the brow of a mountain to the west clouds
as black and thick as the smoke of pitch were massing. The tops of the
trees in the near distance were swaying violently and the breeze had
become cooler and was full of swift and contending currents. Little
whirlwinds lifted the leaves at their feet and sent them sky-ward in
shafts and spiral columns. More drops of rain fell. The brighter spot in
the west was becoming cloud-veiled, and it was growing dark on all

"We are sure to get caught," Mary said, in alarm. "It is an awful storm,
both wind and rain. They are terrible here in the mountains when they
rise suddenly like that. See, it is coming fast. What shall we do?"

He could offer no helpful suggestion. There was no sort of shelter in
sight. Still they hurried on breathlessly, Mary leading the way. At
times, in her haste, she plunged as aimlessly into tangled undergrowth
as a pursued animal, and had to be extricated by his calm, firm hands.

"Running like this won't do any good," he advised her, gravely. "I'm
afraid of one thing, very much afraid, and that is that we may lose our
way. You see, up to now we had the light in the west to guide us, but it
is all gone now. Those shifting clouds are very misleading."

"Oh, I'm sure we are right as to the direction," Mary said, "but I am
afraid of the storm. See the lightning over there, and hear the thunder.
The storm is getting nearer, and it is dangerous among trees like these
at such times. They are shattered and torn up by the roots very often."

It was raining sharply now, and the darkness had thickened so much that
it was impossible to discern the landmarks which Charles had made note
of as they passed the spot before.

"Ah, we are right!" the girl suddenly cried. "I know that flat-faced
boulder there, but it is miles and miles from home. I know the way now,
but we can't possibly make it in time to escape the storm."

In a veritable sheet the rain beat down now. The thunder roared and the
lightning flashed about them. The black clouds hurtled along the
mountainside and drooped down from the threatening sky. The water was
running in streams from Mary's bonnet. Charles jerked off his coat and
was putting it about her when she protested.

"No, don't!" she cried. "You'll need it." She tried to resist, but, as
if she had been an unruly child, he drew the garment about her forcibly
and buttoned it at the neck.

"You must," he said, simply; "you must!"

"Must!" she repeated, sharply. "How dare you speak to me like that?"

"Pardon me, Miss Rowland," he said. "I don't want to offend you, but you
must keep it on. You are not well. I have noticed your tendency to
faintness. Your trouble, loss of sleep, and worry have weakened you.
Your feet are wet, and - "

"Thank you; I was wrong," she answered, as the wind bore his words away
and the rain dashed into her face.

For a little while they forged their way through the wet bushes, wild
vines, and mountain heather. Suddenly she paused again.

"We are in for it," she sighed. "There used to be an old hut of logs
near the flat boulder. It is somewhere here. If we could find it we
would be sheltered for a while."

"A hut?" he echoed. "Then we must find it if possible. The storm is just
beginning. To be exposed to it might cost you your life."

"I think it is over that way," she replied, and they turned sharply in
the direction she indicated. It was now so dark that they could scarcely
see where they were walking. Streams newly made from the accumulating
water on the heights above flooded their feet to the depths of their
shoes, and the rain fell upon them as if by the pailful. Once Mary
slipped and fell, and he lifted her as tenderly as if she had been a
sick child.

"Too bad! too bad!" she heard him saying, and then: "Excuse me, but I
must hold you." With that he put his arm around her waist. She shrank
back for a moment, but she made no protest, and side to side, like a
pair of lovers, they struggled along. Sometimes she stumbled, sometimes
he, but the footing of one or the other always held.

"The hut must be here somewhere," Mary said. There was a vivid flash of
lightning, and in it Mary saw a giant oak which she remembered. "We are
right," she exulted, aloud. "It is just beyond that oak."

But other difficulties were to be met. A torrent of water coming down
from the mountain ran between them and the goal. Again he lifted her in
his arms, this time without protest on her part, and bore her across.
The rain, broken into a mist by the wind, filled their mouths, nostrils,
and eyes. They could scarcely breathe, or see. Once he took a clean
handkerchief from his pocket, unfolded it, and without apology wiped her

"You treat me as if I was a baby," she said, but the act had not
displeased her. It was significant that he called her "Miss Rowland" the
next moment, and that he wore the same air of humility as when she had
"hired" him in the village store.

Another flash of lightning revealed the dark, low roof of the hut, and
with his arm around her waist they hastened to it. Its door was closed,
but not locked, and he easily pushed it open. Drawing her inside, he
stood facing her. Neither spoke; both were panting from the loss of

"This will never do," he said. "You will take cold in those wet things.
I must make a fire."

"A fire?" she said. "How could you?"

"I have matches in a water-proof box," he explained. "But I'll have to
be careful in opening it. My hands are dripping wet."

"Shake them out on the floor," Mary suggested, "and you can then pick
them out separately."

"Good! I shouldn't have thought of it," he laughed. He took the box from
the pocket of his coat and carefully emptied the matches on the floor a
little away from where they were standing. "Now," he said, picking one
up. "Here goes."

It failed, owing to the water dripping from his hands. He tried again.
This time he was successful and he raised the burning match above his
head. The tiny flame lit up the room. Bare walls of logs from which the
dry bark was falling, a floor of planks, a roof of split-oak boards, a
chimney of logs plastered over with clay, and a broad stone hearth were
all they saw, save a heap of fire-wood and small pieces of pitch-pine in
one corner.

"Fine!" he cried. "That wood will burn like tinder. It looks to be very
old." A gust of damp wind from the door blew the light out. Again they
were in the dark. "Wait," he advised. "I'll gather up some of that dry
bark, and then we'll set it on fire."

"Yes; it will burn easily," she agreed.

He noted that she spoke as if she were shivering with cold, and he made
haste to get the bark. With his hands full, he groped to the chimney and
bent down over the ashes in the fireplace. She picked up a match and
succeeded in striking it. She held it against the heap of bark. The bark
ignited. He hastened for more, and then, as the flame was now
sufficient, he added small pieces of wood, and then larger sticks. Soon
a fine fire was crackling and blazing in the crude stone fireplace.

"You must get dry," he said, taking his coat from her shoulders.
"Everything depends on it."

She laughed almost merrily, as they stood side by side in the rising
steam from their drying clothing.

"You must sit down, and put out your feet to the fire," he declared.
"I'll make a seat for you." He brought some logs from the corner and
made two heaps of them about five feet apart, and then raised one of the
loose floor boards, and laid it across, thus forming a sort of bench.
She smiled gratefully; sat down and put out her feet to the flames.

"You must take off your shoes and stockings and dry them," he said, with
the firm confidence of a family doctor.

"Must!" She repeated the word to herself, and bit her lip; she made no
motion to obey his wishes.

"Surely you are not offended at what I said," he went on, after a little
silence. "It is a serious thing, you know. Dry feet at such a time as
this are more important than a dry body."

"Oh, I don't mind!" she answered, and she bent down and began to fumble
the strings of her shoes; but the water had drawn the knot tight and her
fingers were benumbed with cold.

"You must permit me, Miss Rowland," Charles said, calmly. He sank on his
knees before her and, without waiting for her consent, he skilfully
loosened the knotted string and drew her shoe off. "Now the other,

She thrust it out, but rather reluctantly. "You have such a strange way
about you!" she said, coldly. "That is, I mean - sometimes."

The string he was now working on seemed to be more tightly tied, and she
heard him mutter something impatiently: "I don't want to cut it."
(Surely he had not heard her last remark, she thought.)

But he evidently had heard, for when he had removed the other shoe he
said, "So you think I have a strange way about me at times, do you?"

He had seated himself on the bench beside her. Her head, neck, and
shoulders in the red glow of the fire formed an exquisite picture. She
had removed her hat, and her damp hair shone like a mass of bronze
cobwebs. She was so dainty, so frail, so appealing! Not only had her
young soul been torn to shreds, but the very elements had pounced upon
her defenseless body. In her he saw the richest embodiment of a long
line of patrician ancestors. How strange the whole situation! There she
was storm-bound with a man whom the law held as no better than a felon,
a nameless wanderer with no possibility of a respectable future ahead of
him. She was silent, and he repeated what he had said.

"I don't mean anything wrong," she replied, smiling on him sweetly. "Now
I suppose you will order me to take off my stockings. I don't have to,
for they are drying as they are. See!"

She had put her small feet out to the fire. Her whole form was veiled in
the rising vapor. It seemed to him to be a mist of enchantment out of
which her eyes shone and her voice came like inexplicable music. An
exquisite fancy held him in its grasp. His life and hers were but of a
night's duration. They were besieged in an impenetrable forest by wild
beasts, the prey of elemental forces. For the moment she was his, all
his own. Frazier, her family, conventions, his own misfortune, would
ultimately part them, but now in his ecstatic vision she was his, and
the world might end with the dawn, for aught he cared. But one thing he
suddenly began to fear, and that was that thoughts of her brothers'
trouble might again depress her. So he bent all his energies toward her
entertainment. He told her of a trip to Europe he had made just after
leaving college, filling his account with amusing anecdotes. Her eyes
were bent on him with a stare of profound interest.

"How wonderful," she exclaimed, "to meet one who has been there so
recently! It has always been like a dream of heaven to me. My mother
went when she was a girl, and she used to tell us about it when we were
children. There were some far-off cousins of hers living in London. The
head of the house had a title. I don't remember what it was - my father
knows. Strange to say, he is proud of it, as if it would help us now. I
suppose - I suppose" - her voice shook and mellowed as it fell deeper into
her throat - "that those people over there would not care to keep up with
us, now that we are so poor and my brothers are - like they are. I have
an idea that old English families are very particular when it comes to
the violation of the law."

"Don't think of your brothers' trouble," he pleaded. "Let us try to have
cheerful, hopeful thoughts."

"I am trying," she responded, but even while she was speaking her face
and tone showed the futility of her effort. "Poor Martin!" she went on.
"Do you know, somehow, I feel more for him than for Kensy. Kensy is
rougher, harder, less sensitive, less imaginative. Martin has always
been my baby of the two. He was sick once several years ago, and I
waited on him, nursed him, and petted him nearly to death. This is
terrible on him. He may be awake now in that cold, damp cave, and with
those ghastly thoughts to keep him company. Oh, life is a tragedy, Mr.
Brown! As a child, I thought it was an endless dream of beauty and joy,
and I have waked to this - to this!"

He tried again to cheer her with his stories, but her sweet face held
shadows which he could not banish. Now and then she would smile faintly,
but he saw that she was forcing herself to do so.

Something he said about his school-days evoked a sudden question for
which he was not prepared.

"You speak of your home, but you have not yet told me where it was," she

He looked down at the pool of water which had dripped from his clothing,
and hesitated. His pause brought a quick remark from her.

"Pardon me, I have no right to ask," she sighed.

"But you _have_ the right," he floundered, conscious of the flush on his
face and the agitation in his manner. "It is only that - that I have put
it behind me forever. It is mine no longer, you see."

"Never mind. I'm sorry I touched upon it." She sighed again and looked
through the open door out into the raging wind and rain. "I'm always
prying into your personal affairs, as when I spoke of the photograph of
the pretty little girl in your room."

"Oh, I'm glad you noticed the picture of Ruth," he said, still
embarrassed, "for I love her very dearly."

"You miss her, I know you do," Mary said, softly. "The picture looks as
if you had carried it in your pocket for a long time."

"I used to do that," he confessed, "but I found that it kept the past
too close to me. Now I see it only just before going to bed."

Suddenly Mary leaned toward him; a portion of her wonderful hair fell
against her cheek; her eyes gleamed as if with coming tears. "Mr.
Brown," she said, "you are so good and kind and noble that I am going to
pray for one thing in particular to happen to you. God may have wise
reasons for withholding it from you just at present, but I am going to
pray that He will some day give you back your child."

"_My_ child!" He groped for her meaning. "She is not my own child. She
is only my niece."

"Oh, then you are not married!"

"No, and I never have been. In fact, I never can be. My conduct in the
past has made that impossible. Other men may marry and have children,
but I am not like them."

"How strangely you talk - how very strangely!" Mary said, her eyes still
tensely strained toward his. "You talk as if - as if there were certain
dishonorable things against you. Why" - here she actually laughed in
derision - "if you were to lay your hand on an open Bible and say that
you were dishonorable, or ever had been, I'd not believe it! It isn't in
you; it never was. My intuition tells me so, and I know I am right."

"I am what I am," he said, sighing. "I won't go into it all; it would do
no good. I have no right to a decent place in any society. I want you to
know me for what I am, Miss Rowland. God knows I'll not make false
pretenses while I am under your father's roof. I am here to work for you
both. What I was when you picked me up in my filth and squalor I still
am and shall continue to be."

Mary stood up and turned her back to the fire, to dry her clothing. He
rose as she did and stood beside her. He looked at his watch. It was
near midnight. He showed the dial to her in the firelight. She nodded
thoughtfully, but was silent. The rain was steadily beating on the roof,
a newly made brook was gurgling and swashing past the door. The wind had
died down. Drops of water fell through the low chimney into the hot
coals, but not in sufficient quantity to depress the fire. He put on
some more wood. His vision of the short-lived possession of her
companionship still swirled about him like ineffable, soul-feeding
light. He could have touched her with his hands; he almost felt that she
would not have been deeply offended; the yearning to do so rose from
depths that could not be fathomed. She was looking at him steadily from
beneath her long lashes, the lashes which gave to her features the
evasive expression he could not describe.

"How strange you are!" she said, softly, sincerely. "I don't know why it
is, Mr. Brown, but when I'm here with you like this my troubles seem to
stand aside. I almost hope. I do - I really do."

"I was wondering if your father will worry, knowing that we are out in
the storm," he said.

"No, he won't, but it would have driven my mother crazy with anxiety.
Even if she knew we were sheltered here she would worry. She belonged to
the old school. The fact" - Mary laughed softly - "that we have no
chaperon would be a terrible misfortune. But don't think I care about
such things. This is a new age and I'm simply a hang-over from an older
one. Even if the rain were to let up we couldn't make our way back in
the dark. There is nothing to do but wait till daylight."

"Your clothing is quite dry," he said, touching her sleeve, "and so is
my coat. Would you like to recline here by the fire and take a nap? I
can put the coat down. It would be a hard couch, but - "

"I'm not sleepy - not a bit!" she assured him; "but you must be, and
tired, too, after all you've been through. Suppose you lie down by the
fire, and I'll keep watch over you."

He smiled and flushed as he declined, and then his face became grave.

"You touched upon something just now," he faltered, "that perhaps I
ought to think about. Since your mother would not have quite approved of
your being here like this with a stranger, there may be others in the
neighborhood who might gossip about it. If you would not be afraid to
remain alone, I could go on home and send some conveyance. I can find
the way, and as for the rain, it's nothing. I have often worked all day
and part of the night up to my knees in water."

"How silly of me to have said what I did!" she exclaimed, and caught his
arm. He felt the warmth of her pulsing fingers through the thin sleeve
of his shirt as she turned him toward her. "Why do you hold that against
me? I wasn't thinking how it sounded. Why did you speak of it?"

"Because I'd rather die than be the cause of the slightest whisper
against you," he said, reverently. "I know how narrow-minded small
communities are, Miss Rowland, and I know better than any one else how

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