Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

The Hills of Refuge: A Novel online

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little I have to recommend me to strangers. I am worse than nothing in
the eyes of the world, and it is beyond my power now ever to change
their view."

A pained look crossed Mary's face. She sat down again and put her feet
out toward the fire. She folded her arms. "I wish," she said,
compressing her lips, "that you would stop abusing yourself. The rest of
the world may condemn you, as you say they do, but I shall not. I have
known a good many gentlemen in my life, but I've never met one in whom I
had more confidence. I could swear by you. You may think that strange,
but I could. I feel the truth streaming from your whole personality,
your voice, your eyes, your very silence at times. I don't know how it
was, but in some way you have not been fairly treated. You have not! You
have not! I thought it might be perhaps an unfortunate marriage, but
since it is not that it is something else. You seem to me to be the
loneliest man in all the world, with a great aching heart; but
notwithstanding that you are thinking and acting only for me. Do you
think I can overlook that sort of thing? Mr. Brown, you are helping me,
and if I am not able to help you some day I shall never be content."

He shrugged his broad shoulders. "Don't think of me at all," he sighed.
"I am responsible for my position in life, but I am not unhappy - I
really am not. There is such a thing, Miss Rowland, as throwing off an
old shackled life for a new, freer one; and the new one will be normal,
if the old one is crushed out completely. It is simply a psychological
fact. The most wonderful thing in the world is autosuggestion. If one
holds before himself constantly the thought that things are beautiful
they will be so. If he thinks otherwise, he thereby damns himself. When
it became necessary for me to adopt my - my present way of living, I
determined always to look upon it as a sort of rare adventure, and it
has been one full of something like hope. Since I came to work for you
and found you in trouble I have thought of nothing but the prospect of
seeing you happy again."

The girl was strangely moved. She had lowered her head, and he looked
down now only on the mass of wonderful, firelit hair that hid her face
from view.

"Sit down, please," she suddenly said, huskily, and he obeyed. She was
silent. The rain still beat heavily on the boards overhead; the mountain
streams still gurgled and sang. The wind had died down. The darkness was
heavy and thick.

Presently Mary seemed to find her voice. She raised her head and smiled
sweetly as she remarked: "How strange we two are! Life is beating,
pounding, crushing us - you in one way and me in another; and yet here we
are like two ants huddled together on a floating chip, drifting we know
not where. I cling to you for support, and I wish it were so that you
could cling to me. The only difference is - well, you know why I'm on the
chip, but I may only surmise why you are on it. I'll bet I know, though;
I'll bet I know," was her afterthought.

"You know what?" he asked, startled slightly, and he sat wondering what
she would say as she locked her hands and seemed to hesitate.

"Well, I'll bet there is one true explanation. The thing you are - are
involved in - the thing that caused you to leave home, has to do with the
welfare of others."

"Why do you think that?" he asked, half fearfully.

"Because you are that rare type of man," she returned.

"I have nothing in the way of self-defense to offer," he answered. "My
early life was a mistake. I may be atoning for it a little. I sometimes
hope so. You are right in one guess - some others are the better and
happier for my absence. It is so that I can never return; that is
settled for all time. The new life is all that I have, but I assure you
it isn't bad. It is heaven compared to the one I renounced."

* * * * *

So the night passed. The rain ceased toward dawn, but there was little
light till the sun was up. Then they fared forth over the wet,
rain-washed ground for home. The sun was breaking through a cloud when
they reached the old house.

Rowland was on the back porch when they appeared before him, wet to the
waist from contact with the dripping weeds and bushes through which they
had made their way. He seemed not much surprised.

"I thought you'd find shelter somewhere," he said, casually. "I sat up
most of the night on my book. I was trying to tie the main branch of the
Westleighs to our line through the Barbadoes record, and I noticed how
hard it rained."

"How is Tobe Keith?" the girl broke in to ask.

"He is just the same - no better and no worse," Rowland answered. "That
is a late report, too. I got it from Tom Gibbs, who passed along just
now and stopped to let me know."

"Oh, I'm glad, I'm glad he is not worse!" Mary's face beamed faintly. "I
was afraid we'd get bad news. Poor Martin! He may think the worst has
happened." She turned to Charles. "Will you get your breakfast now, or
wait till you change your clothing?"

"I don't mind the dampness," he smiled. "Is it ready?"

It was on the table and he went in alone, while Mary ran up to her room.
Returning half an hour later, she found that he was gone.

"He was in de kitchen des now, young miss," explained Zilla, "en' he
seed de basket er stuff I had fixed raidy fer de boys t' eat, en' picked
it up en' said he was gwine tek it ter um."

"What?" Mary asked. "You don't mean that he has gone back?"

"Yassum. Mr. Brown say Martin is worried, en' he wants ter tell 'im dat
Tobe Keith ain't no wuss dan he was yistiddy. I tol' Mr. Brown ter wait
till you come down, but he said dar wasn't no time to lose. He said
Martin looked sorter puny-like en' needed 'couragement. Yo' pa seed 'im
start out, en' didn't say nothin' erginst it."

It was as if Mary had something further to say, but she restrained
herself. She went back to her room, ascending the stairs rapidly. Her
window looked out toward the hiding-place of her brothers, and crossing
a little glade beyond the barn she saw Charles, the basket on his arm.
He was striding vigorously toward the forest. In a moment he was out of
sight and Mary turned from the window. By her bureau she stood
motionless, full of thought. Presently she heard Zilla calling to her,
and, answering, she went slowly down the stairs.


About noon Charles returned. Mary, at the window of the kitchen, saw him
emerge from the wood back of the barn and come toward the house. There
was a vague droop of weariness on him of which he seemed unaware. She
met him in the front hall; his eyes fell under her stare and he flushed.

"Why did you go?" she asked, reproachfully.

He gave one of his characteristic shrugs and began to fumble in his coat
pocket for a note which he finally handed her.

"It is from Martin," he said. "They managed to keep dry last night, I
understand. They were glad to get the basket. The water spoiled most of
the other things and they were hungry."

She read the note.

It ran: "DEAR SIS, - How sweet and good of you to send Mr. Brown
back so quickly! I couldn't have stood the suspense any longer.
I was afraid Tobe was dead - I thought it all night during that
awful rain. I couldn't sleep, but maybe I can now. Don't let
Mr. Brown leave us. He sat and talked to us this morning for an
hour, and I've never heard from human lips the sort of things
he said. He helped me a lot; he was so kind and gentle and kept
putting himself up as a man who had made mistakes and suffered.
Oh, he is wonderful, wonderful! Even Ken listened close and
seemed affected. He is our friend. He shows that. He wants to
help us, and he will if he can. He used to drink, but gave it
up; he says it is easy. He has made me decide to act
differently in the future - that is, if Tobe lives."

Mary read the rest of the note, folded the paper, and thrust it into the
bosom of her dress. Charles stood at the foot of the stairs, his hat in
his hand, his boots covered with mud.

"I didn't want you to tire yourself out like that," she said,
gratefully, "but I'm glad you went. From this note I see how much good
you have done my poor brothers. Now listen to me - I will have my way
about this. Go up to your room, take off those damp things and go to
bed. I am going to be your nurse for to-day, anyway. I'll bring you your
lunch and you may take it in bed, and then go to sleep."

He laughed lightly and shrugged his shoulders. "Really, you must not
make a baby of a great hulk like me, Miss Rowland. I've been through
things ten times as bad as that little walk. I simply couldn't eat in
bed. I'll be down in a few minutes."

She was about to protest, but he left her and ascended the stairs.

Coming down a few minutes afterward, he saw a saddled horse at the gate
and heard voices in the parlor.

His spirits sank, for he recognized the horse as the one Albert Frazier
had ridden when he had first seen him. He caught a few words the visitor
was saying in his gruff, unpolished way.

"You are too high-strung and nervous, little girl. All is well so far.
Leave my brother to me. I'm pulling the wool over his eyes, all right.
I've made 'im think the boys are on their way to Texas, and if Tobe
lives - "

Unwilling to listen, Charles passed on into the sitting-room. Glancing
through the open doorway into the dining-room, he saw that the cloth was
not yet spread on the table for luncheon, and he sat down to wait. The
voices still came from the parlor, but he did not catch any part of what
was being said. Zilla entered the dining-room and spread the cloth on
the table. Presently Frazier was heard leaving. His heavy boots
clattered on the steps, and the gate-latch clicked as he went out. Then
Mary came in. She did not know that he was there and he surprised an
unreadable, almost hunted expression on her face.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, on seeing him, "so dinner is not ready? Mr. Frazier
could not stop. He is working hard to keep the sheriff off my brothers'
track. He says when he left town Tobe Keith was just the same. The
doctors at Carlin are afraid to probe for the - the ball. They have held
a consultation, and agreed that the great specialist, Doctor Elliot of
Atlanta, might operate and save him. They refuse to undertake it

"Then this Doctor Elliot ought to come and see him," Charles said.

"But Doctor Elliot is so busy that he never leaves Atlanta, except in
instances where enormous fees are paid. The Carlin doctors say that Tobe
ought to be taken to him. They say it would be safe to move him that

"Then he must be moved," said Charles.

"Yes, he must go," Mary agreed. "The only thing is that it will cost
considerable. You see, Tobe and his mother (she is a widow) are awfully
poor. Yes, the money must be gotten up, and I must get it."

"You?" Charles cried. "Why should you?"

"Because no one else will do it. Even my father has the silly idea that
we ought not to have anything to do with it, because it would look as if
we admitted the boys' guilt. That is rubbish. A man's life - three
lives - are at stake. Yes, I must raise four hundred dollars. They say it
will cost that much, including transportation, nurses, and the like. I
may be able to borrow it from some one, but we are hard run. Father is
over his head in debt. I know where I can get the money - in fact, it has
been offered to me already - but I don't like to take it. I have my
reasons for - for not _wanting_ to take it."

"It was offered you this morning - not many minutes ago," Charles said,
fiercely and impulsively.

She looked up in mild surprise at his tone and the rebellious glare in
his eyes, and then said, slowly and wonderingly:

"Why do you think _that_?"

"I don't know, but I am sure of it," he blurted from the depths of his
restrained passion. "Something tells me that this Mr. Frazier wants to
furnish it, and also that you shrink from being in his debt."

Mary avoided his desperate gaze. "You are a great reader of minds," she
faltered. "Many men would make me angry by saying what you are saying,
but I can't be offended with you. It is strange, but nothing you could
do or say would annoy me. Well, you are right. As I told you once, Mr.
Frazier and I are not actually engaged. Somehow, I want to be free in
that way a little longer. I'm so young, you know, that marriage does not
appeal to me yet. Mr. Frazier has helped my father raise money in
several instances, but I have never felt that those transactions bound
me in any way; but I know, and he feels, that this particular offer of
his - " Her voice sank and trailed away into inaudibility.

"That if you accepted this offer it would be binding?" Charles threw
into the gap.

It seemed to him that she flushed slightly. She was very erect, very
stately. Somehow he thought of her as a captured young queen suffering
under the indignities of her enemies. She made no answer, and, leaning
toward her, he repeated his words even more earnestly and in greater

"Yes, as I look at it, the acceptance would bind me," she finally gave
out. "I could not take the money otherwise, for I simply have no way of
paying. He put it that way himself; that he was as much interested in my
brothers as I, because, in a sense, they would be _his_ brothers."

Charles was pale; he was trembling; he knew that his voice was unsteady,
for his whole being was surcharged with a passion which his reason could
not justify, and which his sheer helplessness only intensified.

"You must not accept his money; you must not bind yourself," he cried.

"Why?" she asked, with the half-eager look even a desperate woman may
wear when facing the evidence of a man's growing passion for her.

"Because you don't love him," was the reply which further fed her
curiosity as to his trend of thought. "You couldn't love such a man. He
is incapable of appreciating you. For two such persons to marry would be
a crime against the holiest laws of the universe."

"I can't quite agree with you," she replied, as she slowly shook her
proud head. "You see, Mr. Brown, there are things more important than
even marriage. It is important that I save my brothers, for their own
sakes. I don't count. If I should have to accept this money, it may save
Tobe Keith and my dear boys." She laughed half-bitterly. "What would I
care after that? Do you think I would begrudge the price? Never, and I'd
be as true a wife as ever was bought in a slave-mart in the Orient.
Always - always after that I'd know positively that I'd accomplished some
actual good in life."

"Never! never!" he cried. "It would be wrong unpardonably wrong!"

"How can you say that - you, of all men?" she suddenly demanded. "Didn't
you intimate last night that by giving up your home and becoming a
wanderer you had helped make others happy?"

"That was different," he flashed out. "I was a worthless drunkard, a
disgrace to my home, relatives, and friends. I was compelled to leave,
anyway. I could not have held my head up another day. But it is
different with you. You have been nothing but a help and a blessing to
your family and friends. You deserve all that life can possibly give to
any one, and you must get your just dues."

She smiled and slowly shook her head. "You are a poor witness for your
argument," she said. "When the time came you forgot yourself, and that
really is the ideal course. You have intimated that the decision,
whatever it was, has not made you unhappy, and I think it will be the
same with me. Thousands of women have been contented after marriage with
men they did not love very deeply. Women have even married for sordid
reasons alone, and led normal lives afterward. Why should I not take the
risk with such a motive as mine would be? No, if Albert Frazier is the
means of saving Tobe Keith's life and restoring my brothers to me, I
shall withhold nothing from him that I can give. Already he is working
night and day to prevent their arrest. I couldn't bear to see them
behind the bars of a jail. Kensy could stand it, but not my poor,
sensitive, fanciful Martin. Let's not talk about it any more."

Tears were in her eyes, and her lips were twitching under a flood of
emotion about to burst from its confines. Here the bell was rung for

"You go on in," Mary said, huskily. "I am not a bit hungry. You will
excuse me, won't you?" She turned toward the stairs to go up to her
room, and, like a man walking in a dream, he went to his place at the
table. What a mockery the act of eating seemed when his soul was in such
turmoil! On his walk home he had felt very hungry, but his appetite had
left him. He ate perfunctorily, so much so that Aunt Zilla showed

"What ails yer, sir?" she asked. "Yer ain't gwine ter mek yo'se'f sick,
is yer? Dat strain, two trips in one, thoo all dat mud en' slush, was
onreasonable, 'long wid no sleep."

He smiled up at her. His contact on a level with the lowest of mankind
had broadened his sympathies for humble people, and he felt drawn to
her, for her tone was unmistakably kind.

"No, I'm all right, Aunt Zilla," he answered.

She went to the kitchen for some hot waffles, and when she put them
before him she said: "I'm gwine tell you some'n', Mr. Brown. I'm gwine
ter tell you, 'kase you is er stranger in dis place en' orter know. I
know nice white folks when I sees 'um, en' I know dey ain't nothin'
wrong 'bout you. I'm gwine tell you ter look out fer dis yer Frazier
man. He won't do. He ain't de right stripe, en' ef we-all wasn't po' now
he wouldn't be let in at de front do' er dis yer house. Bofe him en' his
brother come fum low stock. Deir daddy was a overseer dat couldn't write
his name. You kin tell what dis one is by de way he set at de table en'
handle his knife en' fork en' spout wid his loud mouf when Marse Andy is
talkin'. Yes, I'm gwine tell you what I heard 'im say ter Marse Andy
when dey was in de settin'-room des now. Marse Andy tol' 'im what you
went to de mountains fer, en' he fairly ripped en' snorted. He was mad
'kase dey-all let you know de boys' hidin'-place. He said you couldn't
be trusted; dat you had some secret reason fer helpin' out wid de boys.
He said de sheriff was on de lookout fer some house-breakers dat was wid
de circus, en' done lef' it ter 'scape fum de law. De low rapscallion
said he was bounden shore dat you was one of 'em. He said he was des
lyin' low, right now, but dat befo' long when dey got de papers ter
serve on you, dey was gwine arrest you."

Charles laughed softly. "Well, I am not a house-breaker, Aunt Zilla," he
said. "I am not boasting of what I am. I make no claims of any sort, but
I am not one of the men the Fraziers are looking for."

"Marse Andy tol' 'im dat," the woman went on, "but it des made 'im all
de madder, en' he went on tryin' ter 'suade Marse Andy ter send you off.
Marster has ter take er lot off'n 'im 'kase he owes 'im some money, I
hear 'um say. Dey was talkin' about you when young miss come in en' hear

"Oh, she heard!" Charles exclaimed. "I'm sorry she did."

"Huh! young miss don't believe it!" Zilla cried. "She tol' 'im so ter
his face, en' was purty sharp erbout it, too. She woulder say mo' on de
same line ef she wasn't afeard he'd turn erginst de boys. I seed she was
good mad en' tryin' powerful hard ter hold in. She come in de kitchen
while 'er pa en' Mr. Frazier was talkin' en' tol' me, she did, dat I
mus' not listen ter anything he say erginst you. She say you is had
trouble en' is all erlone in de world widout kin en' er home, but dat
you was er honorable gen'man. Shucks! I already knowed dat. I knows
white folks of de right stripe es soon as I see how dey handle black

Charles thanked her warmly and left the table. The soil was too wet for
working in the field, and he was about to sit down on the veranda when
Mary suddenly came from the parlor and faced him.

She was smiling sweetly. "Do you know what you are going to do?" she
demanded, playfully and yet firmly. "You are going right up to your room
and take off those damp clothes. Then you are going to cover up in bed
and take a good nap."

"Am I?" he retorted, and yet he was deeply touched. He was reminded of
the days in his boyhood when his mother kept watch over his well-being,
and of a later period when Celeste had nursed him after his unpardonable
debauches. He had been a homeless wanderer for a long time, and here in
this out-of-the-way place he was being treated kindly, almost lovably.
He told himself that he was unworthy of it, and yet it was sweet, so
comforting that he hoped he would never lose it. He had made friends of
the two boys, of the old, preoccupied gentleman, of the black
serving-woman, and, above all, he had the friendship and gratitude of
the marvelous young creature before him.

"Yes," she persisted, "you must go; and don't wait, either. While you
were walking your wet things were not so bad, but you are inactive now,
and may take cold."

With a smile he obeyed her. In his room, as he undressed, he caught
sight of the picture of Ruth on his bureau, and for a moment his eyes
lingered on it. It was the only visible link between him and a life that
was never to be his again, but he didn't care. How wonderful the new
life was! How good to feel that he was helping that particular family to
bear its troubles! What did his own amount to? Nothing at all. They had
become non-existent.

He was about to lie down when he heard the sound of a horse's hoofs in
the yard below, and, going to a window, he looked out. Mary was mounting
the horse Zilla had led from the stables to the block at the gate. The
girl had donned a black riding-skirt and she wore an attractive little
cap; she took her place in the saddle very gracefully. In a moment she
was galloping away toward the village. He surmised what it meant. She
was going to get news of the wounded man's condition.

Charles knew there was no sleep for him. How could he sleep when his
mind was in its present turmoil? It was impossible. He gave up the
effort, and, dressing, went down-stairs.


It was well for Charles's state of mind that he was unaware of what had
happened at his home at the time of his disappearance and shortly

Two weeks from the day of the exposure of the affair at the bank, a
personage of great importance in the estimation of the Brownes arrived
from Europe. It was an uncle of William and Charles, an elderly man of
considerable wealth, a childless widower, who, having long since retired
from business, lived on a private income and traveled extensively, that
he might pass the remainder of his days with less monotony than the
quiet life of Boston afforded; he was a lonely old man who cared little
for club life and had no tastes in art, music, or literature.

James Browne reached the home of his nephew one Sunday morning just as
the little family were leaving the table. They were expecting him, but
not quite so soon, for they had thought that he would stop as usual for
a few days in New York, where he had landed.

He was tall and slender, with a pink complexion and rather long
snow-white hair and beard. It was plain that he was angry, and it was
evident in a moment that he had been so since he sailed from Southampton
a week before. He shook hands with William perfunctorily and kissed
Celeste and Ruth as if it were a mere matter of form which the
relationship demanded. He was about to speak, when Celeste interrupted
him by rising and leading the child to the door, where she was turned
over to a maid.

"We think it best for her not to hear anything about her uncle," Celeste
said. "She simply thinks he has gone away for a while. She was devoted
to him."

"She may as well know," the old man retorted, gruffly. "She will hear it
quickly enough. I heard it even in London. You see, my name was
mentioned along with all the rest of you. The papers, even over there,
had accounts of it. It was thought the scoundrel had sailed for England
under an assumed name. My bankers asked for particulars. They are more
blunt about such things over there than we are. Well, well! has he been
caught yet?"

"No, not yet," William answered, and both Celeste and his uncle stared
at him. His face was very rigid and had the bloodless look of a man who
was in a low nervous condition.

"Where do they think he is?" the old man demanded.

"No one knows," William managed to say, "He has not been heard of since
he left."

The elder Browne sniffed in disgust and stroked his beard with his
carefully manicured fingers. William noticed that their nails glistened

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