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Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

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"You are barking up the wrong tree," Mason said, crisply. "I know
nothing more than I have told you."

"But I have caught you in a contradiction - about the cattle-ship for
England, you see," and the man actually grasped Mason's lapel and clung
to it desperately. "I don't want to go back to Boston without some
favorable news. He has one true friend there who would do anything to
get news of him - a good kind lady and a relation of his. I haven't much
money, sir. I am only a poor servant with a sick mother to support out
of my earnings, but if you will give me some helpful information I am
willing to pay you."

"Pay me? Come off. What do you take me for?" Mason drew back and
detached his lapel from the man's clutch. "Do you think I don't know
your game? Well, I do, and let that end it. Good day."

Turning suddenly, Mason strode off toward Broadway. "That will settle
him, I guess," he muttered, "unless he calls a cop to take me in. That
was mushy sob-talk he was giving me. I guess he thought it would go
down, but it didn't. Good Lord! a man that can act like that ought to be
playing Hamlet. He is after that ten thousand dollars and he is willing
to work for it. Good gracious! he no doubt knows where I hang out.
Perhaps he dogged my steps here to-day and that startled look of
recognition was all part of his game. He and several others may now have
Mrs. Reilly's house under watch. Gee! that mountain town is the place
for poor Brown, after all!" He had reached the edge of the square when,
happening to glance back, he saw the stranger following him. "My Lord!
what is he up to now?" Mason said, under his breath. The man was
signaling to him with his handkerchief.

"Wait, sir!" he called out. "I must see you a moment."

Mason turned back into the walk he had just left, and advanced to meet
the man. "I'll have it out with him and be done with it," he decided. "I
can't stand this. I'd as soon be in jail myself. If he wants to take me
to the police I'll go. I'll stick to the cattle-ship yarn, and let them
disprove it."




CHAPTER XIV


One evening, several days after Charles's trip with Mary to the
hiding-place of the two boys, he and Rowland sat on the front veranda.
It was dusk and supper was almost ready.

"We may have to wait a little while," the old gentleman explained, in
his languid way. "Mary is looking for company, I understand, and he may
be slow getting here. He is sometimes, for he is a little careless about
such things - more careless, I know, than I used to be in my
courting-days."

With a sudden depression of spirits Charles surmised that the expected
visitor was Albert Frazier, and he made no comment. Presently Mary came
down the stairs. She had changed her dress, rearranged her hair, and
looked very pretty as she stood in the doorway and glanced down the road
toward Carlin.

"You and Mr. Brown need not wait, father," she said. "You know how slow
Albert is. I'm sure Mr. Brown is both hungry and tired. He has finished
the cotton and started on the corn. Albert and I can eat later. I want
to get news from Tobe Keith. Albert promised to go by his house before
starting out."

"I am not at all hungry," Charles declared, as Mary disappeared in the
parlor.

"Well, I am," Rowland said, "and I shall not wait longer for Frazier, or
any one else. I have some notes to make after supper, and this delay is
upsetting me. Come, let's go in and leave the two sweethearts to eat and
coo together. They won't eat much, I reckon. By the way, in my
genealogical research I find that there are many family names of French
origin in our mountains. This Frazier - 'Frazyea' would be the French
pronunciation - may have had fine old Huguenot ancestors away back in the
early settlement of South Carolina. He has his good points. He is not
exactly the stamp of man I would have wanted my daughter to marry in the
old days, you know, but things are frightfully changed. The financial
shoe is on the other foot, you see, and it is money that founds
families."

Their supper was soon ended, and on their return to the veranda they
found Mary still watching the road. "I see him, I think," she announced,
wearily. "It looks like a man with a broad-brimmed hat on. Yes, that is
Albert."

The rider drew in at the gate and dismounted, leading his horse into the
yard and up to the steps. "You must excuse me, little girl," he said. "I
couldn't make it earlier and get the news you wanted. The doctor was
making an examination and was delayed. Tobe fainted several times. He is
weak, the doctor says tell you, but there is still hope." Here catching
sight of Charles, he continued, gruffly: "Say, fellow, put up my horse.
And, say, give him a pail of water from the well and some shelled corn
and a bundle of fodder."

Starting in surprise, Charles was about to thunder out a furious reply;
to save himself from such a display of temper in the presence of a lady
he simply turned back into the sitting-room.

"Did he hear me?" he heard Frazier asking his host, in a rising tone of
anger.

"He was not hired for that sort of work, Albert," the old man said,
pacifically. "He has been in the field ever since sunup. Zilla takes
care of our own stock. Come, I'll go with you and show you the stall and
the feed."

Frazier swore aloud and muttered something about "tramp farm-hands"
which Charles could not catch; then he and Rowland led the horse to the
stable. Charles was standing in the center of the room when Mary came
in. She walked straight up to him and laid her hand on his arm.

"Don't let that bother you; please don't!" she urged, excitedly. "I
don't want you to have trouble with him. He is a dangerous sort of man.
If he takes a dislike to you he will do his best to injure you, and he
has it in his power to do all sorts of things, along with his brother as
an officer of the law."

"I understand. I have already heard a few things he has said about me,"
Charles replied, still furious, and yet trying to calm himself. "I know
the kind of man he is exactly. But you are in trouble, and I shall not
worry you in the matter. If he insults me again I'll try to overlook
it - I _will_ overlook it."

"Thank you," Mary said, gently and sweetly, in a voice which quivered
with curbed emotion, "but he mustn't do it again. I must talk to him. He
has no right to come here giving orders like that to people who have
been as kind and unselfish as you have been. Oh, I don't know what I am
to do, Mr. Brown! When he was telling about how weak Tobe Keith was my
very soul seemed to die in my body."

The room was dimly lighted by an oil-lamp on a table in the center of
the room. She stood facing him, her wondrous eyes filling with tears of
anxiety, her lips twitching, her brows knitted, her hands clasped over
her snowy apron.

"I don't know what to say to comfort you," said Charles. His voice shook
and he tried to steady it. "I am ashamed of myself for sinking so low as
to be angry with that man at such a time as this. You are stretched on
the rack, Miss Rowland, and you are being tortured. I wish I could take
your place - as God is my judge, I do! I can't bear the sight of it. It
is unfair, hellish, satanic! It must not go on like this."

"I want you to - to think well of me," Mary said, haltingly, "and I
believe you will. You must not think me shallow if I appear to be
light-hearted to-night with Mr. Frazier. You see, everything depends on
him now. He knows where the boys are, and if I were to anger him or
rouse his suspicions in any way he would turn against us. I am sorry he
is like that, but he is. I see now that I made a mistake in allowing him
to pay such constant attention to me, but I am only a weak girl and
couldn't help it. You see, at first he offered to take me to places,
parties, picnics, and I wanted to go, as any girl would in my place, and
that is the way it began. Then he became dictatorial and jealous, and so
it went on till - well, you see how it now is. My father is indebted to
him and so am I now."

"Surely you haven't obligated yourself - " stammered Charles.

"Not in so many words," Mary broke in, "but it amounts to the same
thing. He wants me to let him furnish the money to pay Tobe Keith's
expenses to Atlanta, and I see no other way than to accept his offer. If
it goes that far, I shall consent to be his wife. If he saves my
brothers from the scaffold I'll be his slave for life. Love? I don't
expect love. What he feels for me is not love, and what I would be
giving would not be, either. Love is a dreamlike thing, more of the soul
than the body."

"I know what love is now," Charles thought. "I never knew before, but I
do now."

The steps of the two men were heard coming from the barn, and Mary went
hastily out of the lamplight and into the gloom of the hall.

"Our supper is ready, Albert," Charles heard her say. "Come on before it
is cold."

Passing through the dining-room, Charles managed to reach the yard by
means of a side door without having to meet Frazier. He found himself
standing among some fig-trees and grape-vines in the dewy grass,
surrounded by what had been beds of flowers in the day when the place
had been well kept. An unshaded window of the dining-room was before
him, and through it Charles saw Frazier and Mary approaching the table.
The man's arm was actually about the girl's waist, his coarse lips were
close to her pale cheek. He was smiling broadly, and laughing as if over
some jest of his own making. Charles would have withdrawn his eyes, but
he was held as if spellbound by the tragedy which was being enacted,
with him as the sole spectator. Charles noted that Frazier sank heavily
into a chair without first seeing that Mary was seated. He saw him take
a cigar damp with saliva from the corner of his great mouth and place it
on a plate at his side. He saw him reach out and take Mary's hand and
fondle it patronizingly as he continued to talk. Even in the dim
lamplight Charles read in the girl's face the growing desire to resent
the fellow's coarse familiarity.

Charles uttered a groan and turned away. Off toward the barn he
wandered, finding himself presently at the blacksmith's shop. The wide
sliding-door was open, and for no reason of which he was conscious he
went into the dark room and sat on the anvil. Money was now the thing he
wanted above all else in the world. If only he could anonymously send to
the suffering girl the funds needed for Keith's treatment, how glorious
it would be! So small a thing and yet it might free the girl from a
union that would be a lifelong outrage against her sensitive spirit.
Only four hundred dollars! He remembered having spent more than that in
a single night at a card-table - more than that on a drunken trip to
Atlantic City in the company of reckless associates. Obtaining the
money, however, was out of the question. He might get it from William,
but he had pledged his honor never to enter his brother's life again;
besides, the time was too short. The window of the dining-room gleamed
in a sheen of light through the boughs of the trees about the house. He
fancied he saw the pair again, and the thought maddened him. Marry that
man! Could she possibly work herself up to the ordeal? Yes, for she was
simply ready to sacrifice herself, and Charles knew from experience what
self-sacrifice was like. He groaned as he left the shop and went toward
the barn. The dense wood beyond it, lying under the mystic light of the
rising moon, lured him into its bosom, and he decided that he would walk
there, for no reason than that he hoped in that way to throw off the
gnawing agony which lay upon him.

He had climbed over the fence and was about to plunge into the thicket
when he heard a low, guarded whistle. He recognized it as the one
Kenneth had used in response to his own as he approached the secret
hiding-place. In a low whistle he answered and stood still.

"It's him!" He now recognized Kenneth's voice. "I knew him as he got
over the fence. Come on, stupid! It's all right!"

"Yes, it is all right. I'm alone," Charles said softly.

"Come here to us, then," Kenneth proposed. "The bushes are thicker."

Charles obeyed, and soon stood facing the two bedraggled boys.

"What does this mean?" he asked, aghast over the risk they were running.

"It means that we've made up our minds to hide closer to home," Kenneth
half-sheepishly explained. "Nobody's looking for us here in the
mountains; you said so yourself. Sister said Albert Frazier was keeping
the sheriff off the track. We don't like it out there, and - "

"How is Tobe Keith?" Martin's tremulous voice broke in. "What is the use
of so much chatter about smaller things? How is he?"

"The doctors say there has been no vital change," Charles informed the
quaking boy.

"No change? My God! when _will_ there be a change?" Martin groaned. He
was covering his pale face with his hands, when Kenneth roughly swept
them down.

"Don't be a baby, silly!" he snarled. "Blubbering won't undo the matter.
If he dies, he dies, and we can't help it." Kenneth forced a wry smile
which on his soiled, bloodless face was more like a grimace in the white
moonlight. "Martin behaves like that all the time, morning, noon, and
night. That is one reason I decided to come nearer home. He needs sister
to cheer him up and pet him. I don't know how. Then our cave is damp and
chilly. I'm afraid he will get sick. He don't eat enough. I get away
with most of the grub. Here is my plan, Brown. You are a good chap, and
a friend, too. We may as well sleep in the hay in the loft of the barn.
We'd have nothing to fear in the night, and through the day, with all of
the family to keep a lookout up and down the road, we could get away
even if the sheriff did come."

Charles informed him of Albert Frazier's presence in the house and that
he might remain over night. At this the two boys exchanged dubious
glances.

"Well," Kenneth opined, slowly, "I am sure he can be trusted in the
main. As long as he and sister understand each other he will be on our
side. He has stood behind the old man often in raising money; though,
take it from me, Brown, Albert is not made of money. He owes a lot here
and there and has to be dunned frequently even for small amounts. In her
last note sister said that he would raise the money to send Keith to
Atlanta. He can get it, I guess, by some hook or crook."

"Sister mustn't let him furnish the money," Martin faltered, his voice
raising in uncertainty and ending in firmness.

"Mustn't? What do you mean, silly?" and Kenneth turned on him
impatiently.

"Because she doesn't want to accept it from him, that's why," Martin
stated, almost angrily. "She doesn't want to bind herself to him like
that. I know how she feels about that fellow. She was just amusing
herself with him and was ready to break off when this awful thing came
up. If she takes the money and binds herself we'll be responsible, for
if we hadn't been drunk that night at Carlin - "

"Oh, dry up! dry up! you sniffling chump!" Kenneth retorted. "We are in
a hole, and we have got to get out the best we can."

"She mustn't take the money from him," reiterated the younger boy,
turning his twisting face aside. "If she takes it she will marry him,
and she is no wife for that dirty, low-bred scoundrel. You and I know
all about the girls he has ruined. Didn't Jeff Raymond come all the way
from Camden County to shoot him like a dog for the way he treated his
niece, and then the sheriff stepped in and smoothed it over? Pouf! do
you think I want my sweet, beautiful sister to marry a man like that to
save my neck? I'll tell you what I'll do, Mr. Brown, if she starts to do
that for my sake I'll drown myself. She is an angel. She has had enough
trouble from me and Ken. We have treated her worse than a nigger slave
ever was treated."

"For the Lord's sake, let up!" thundered Kenneth. "This is no
camp-meeting. If sis wants to take the money, let her do it. Now, Brown,
I'm willing to trust Albert Frazier to some extent, but he need not know
just yet that we are bunking in the barn. Let him keep on thinking we
are at the other place. Tell the others about it, though. We've had
enough to eat to-night, but please have Aunt Zilla get us up a warm
breakfast in the morning. It will tickle the old soul and she will
spread herself. You see, I'm in a better mood than Martin is. I don't
cross a bridge till I get to it, but he has attended Keith's funeral a
hundred times in a single night, and as for the other" - Kenneth uttered
a short, hoarse laugh and made a motion as if tying a rope around his
neck - "he has been through _that_ quite as often. That boy is full of
imagination. Mother used to say he would write poems or paint pictures.
He has 'painted towns red' with me often enough, the Lord knows. Some
say I am ruining him. I don't know. I don't care. If a fellow is weak
enough to be twisted by another - well, he deserves to be twisted, that's
all."

"I don't blame anybody but _myself_," Martin whispered from a full,
almost gurgling throat. "I know I never let sister twist me, and I ought
to have done so. A man is a low cur that will bring his sister down to
this sort of thing, and that's what I am. But she shall not marry
Frazier if I can help it. The trouble is, I can't help it!" he ended,
with a groan. "By my own conduct I have sealed her fate and mine. If our
gentle mother were - "

Kenneth abruptly turned his back on his brother. "Come on," he said to
Charles, with a frown of displeasure, "let's go to the barn and put the
baby to bed in the hay. Then you may go tell sister, if you will be so
kind."




CHAPTER XV


When they had disappeared in the barn, Charles, for precautionary
reasons, skirted the stable lot, plunged into the thicket at the side of
the house, and entered the yard at the front gate. The parlor was
lighted, and he knew that Mary was there, entertaining her visitor. He
tried to walk noiselessly, but his tread made a low grinding sound on
the gravel, and the broken steps creaked as he ascended them. To his
consternation he heard Mary coming. She stood in the front doorway,
staring in agitation.

"Oh!" she cried out, in relief, when her glance fell on him. "I
thought - thought that you might be a messenger from town. Mrs. Quinby
said she would send word if a dangerous change came."

"I must see you about your brothers - " he was beginning, when they heard
Frazier's heavy tread in their direction.

In a flash of comprehension she acted. Stepping close to him, she
whispered, softly, "After he goes up to bed - meet me under the
apple-trees out there!"

She stepped back to the doorway just as Frazier was emerging from the
parlor. "Yes, I thought it was a messenger from town," she said, aloud.
"Good night, Mr. Brown."

"Good night," Charles answered, and he passed on to the stairway and
went up to his room. He heard the voices of Mary and Frazier on the
veranda. They were walking to and fro, for he could hear their steps
side by side.

Charles did not undress. He did not light his lamp, but sat waiting.
There was a certain undefinable comfort in the knowledge that he was
serving Mary, that she had made the appointment to meet him later. At
all events, her uncouth suitor did not have her full confidence. But how
slowly the time dragged along, how irritating the thought that the girl
was tortured by suspense over his interrupted disclosure!

It was eleven o'clock when he heard Mary saying good night and Frazier
went clattering up the stairs. He carried a lighted candle in his hand,
and Charles, peering from his darkened coign of vantage through the
half-opened door, beheld the sensual visage in a circle of light. How he
detested it! Frazier turned into the guest-room at the head of the
stairs, the windows of which overlooked the lawn in front of the house.
The door was closed after him. Charles heard the key turned and the bolt
rattle into its socket. Frazier was evidently a cautious man even in the
house of friends, and it was known that he had enemies who would not
hesitate to take advantage of him. He always carried a revolver. He was
permitted to do so by the law as an occasional deputy under his brother.

Frazier continued his noise. He made a clatter as he doffed his heavy
boots. A rickety old chair creaked under him as he sat in it. Charles
heard even his dull tread as he thumped about in his bare feet, removing
his outer clothing. A window-sash was thrown up with a jarring bang.
Then the groaning of the mahogany bedstead announced that he had retired
for the night.

Charles went to a window and looked out. He could see the apple-trees
Mary had indicated, and he was glad that they were not in view of the
windows of Frazier's room. He waited, wondering if the visitor were a
quick and sound sleeper. He took off his shoes that he might as
noiselessly as possible descend the stairs. He decided that he must go
at once; it would be discourteous to let Mary reach the rendezvous
first. So, with his shoes in his hand, he started down. In the great,
empty hall the creaking of the worn, well-seasoned steps seemed to ring
out sharply as exploding gun-caps. After each sound he paused, waited,
and listened to see if Frazier had been aroused. All was still, and he
moved on. Reaching the outer door, he found that Mary had left it
unlocked. He was soon outside and under the trees at the side of the
house. He could see the window of Mary's room. It was dark. She had not
retired, of that he was sure; like himself, she must be waiting
somewhere in the dark. The moon was higher now, and its pale, star-aided
light fell over the fields and mountains and the long, winding road to
the village.

Presently he saw Mary coming. She wore slippers and was very swift of
foot. As lightly as a wind-blown wisp of smoke she flitted across the
grass toward him.

"Are you here, Mr. Brown?" she asked, her voice trilling like the
suppressed warbling of a bird.

"Yes, Miss Rowland," he answered, softly, and he advanced toward her.

"Thank God!" she ejaculated, fervently. "I was afraid you would not be
able to get down past Albert's room. What is it you have to say? Oh, I'm
crazy - crazy to hear!"

He told her, watching her face closely. She started, narrowed her eyes
in perplexity, and then, unconsciously, put both of her hands on his arm
and held it as she might have that of a long-tried and trusted friend.

"Oh, what do you think? What do you think?" she all but moaned. "Will it
be safe?"

She had lifted her sweet face close to his. Her touch on his arm was a
thing never to be forgotten. It seemed to rivet his very soul to hers.

He weighed his decision deliberately. "I cannot really see that they are
in much more danger," he finally got out. "It is a fact, as Kenneth
says, that, with us to keep watch on the road, we could warn them of any
approach that had a suspicious look. After all, perhaps the very last
place the officers would think of searching would be one so close at
home. At any rate, the boys want to be near you - Martin especially."

"My poor baby!" Mary suddenly broke down and began to weep.

"Don't, don't! Please don't!" Charles put his arm around her; he drew
her to him. He wiped her eyes with his own handkerchief; his
toil-hardened fingers touched the velvety skin of her cheeks. She did
not resent his action.

"He is just a baby!" she sobbed; "he is as gentle and timid at times as
a little girl. I must see him to-night."

"To-night!" Charles exclaimed, in surprise.

"Yes," and she drew herself from his embrace as if unconscious of having
yielded to it, though her tear-wet face was still raised to his, the
tremulous, grief-twisted lips never before so maddeningly exquisite.
"Yes, I must see him to-night. I'll go alone. I can whistle and they
will know who it is. Kensy may be asleep - he no doubt is - but Martin
will be awake, poor boy!"

"May I not go with you to - " he began, hesitatingly.

"No, I'd better go alone. You see, if I happened to be discovered I
could make some excuse, but it would be different if we were seen
together. Don't wait for me. Please go back to your room. You are tired.
We are making you do both night and day work, but, oh, I am so grateful!
Good night."

"Good night," he echoed, as she flitted away from him like a vanishing
sprite produced by the moon and starlight.

At the steps he took off his shoes again. No experienced house-breaker
could have turned the bolt of the great door more softly than he did,
and yet an accident happened. The large brass key, which was loose in
the worn keyhole, fell to the floor just as he was opening the door. In


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Online LibraryWill N. (Will Nathaniel) HarbenThe Hills of Refuge: A Novel → online text (page 14 of 25)