Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

The Hills of Refuge: A Novel online

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repentance at the time over his trivial mistakes, but now he must see it
differently. Shall we drive him to roving again? Would God give my child
a happy life at such a cost? Would He blight the lives of two of His
children for one - and those two wholly innocent? No, justice must be
done. It must! It must! It must! But I can't be her executioner. Why,
I'm her mother! She is all I have in the world!"

Celeste crept back to the bed and bent over the sleeping child. Her hand
went out as if to caress the white brow, but her fingers lifted only a
fragrant lock of hair, and this she bent and kissed as soundlessly as
the sunlight's vibration on the rug-strewn floor.

The next day was Sunday. Leaving her husband and his uncle smoking over
their papers in the dining-room, her child in the care of a maid,
Celeste slipped away unnoticed. She did not often attend church, but she
was going to-day. Why, she could not have explained. It was as if a
building with a spire and chimes, altar and surpliced clergyman,
white-robed choristers and bowed suppliants, would help her make the
decision that a long, sleepless night had withheld. She felt faint as
she entered the family pew and bowed her head, for she had taken little
nourishment since her travail began. Somehow her own death seemed a near
thing, but she did not care. There were other things so much worse than
mere death.

She failed to comprehend any part of the sermon which the gray-haired
minister was delivering in that far-off, detached tone. She noticed some
rings on his stout fingers and wondered how such mere trinkets could be
worn by an ordained helper of the despairing and the God-forsaken. As
soon as the service was over she hastened homeward. She told herself
that she would act at once and face her husband with a demand that
either he or she should perform the bounden duty. But as she entered the
door and heard the voices of the two men in the dining-room, and smelled
the smoke of their cigars, her courage oozed from her. She could not
tell them both. Her talk must be for William alone; it would be for him
to inform his uncle, and he would do it. William, once shown the right
road, would take it. She knew him well enough for that. His wavering for
the past year had been like hers, but when he knew all and was faced
with the call of justice, as she was facing it, he would obey.

At the foot of the stairs in the hall she paused. Should she go back to
the two men, or - It was the rippling laugh of her child up-stairs, who
was being amused by a maid, the joyous clapping of a small pair of
hands, that drew Celeste up the carpeted steps and into the child's

"Oh, mother, see what she has put on me!" Ruth cried, gleefully, as she
sprang into the middle of the room robed in a filmy pink gown which had
been made for her use in a class in interpretative dancing, and held out
the skirt, forming wings like those of a fairy floating over beds of
roses. A circle of artificial flowers rested on the golden tresses.
Ruth's eyes were sparkling with delight as she bowed low in one of the
postures she had been taught, and then glided gracefully into her
mother's arms.

"Oh, we've had so much fun! Haven't we, Annette?"

"Madame will pardon me," the French maid said. "I know it is Sunday, but
she was so full of joy when she waked that - "

"It doesn't matter," Celeste said. "You may go. I'll dress her for
dinner myself."

And as she did it, that morning of all mornings to be remembered,
Celeste was the most pitiable of all pitiable creatures. Her coming
sacrifice was not like that of Abraham in his offering of Isaac to his
God, for, while he was a child of God, Abraham was not a mother.

"Justice must be done!" she kept saying. "The happiness of two against
the misery of one - two against _two_, in reality; but I don't count, I
mustn't count. Charlie said to Michael that nothing counts that we do
for ourselves, and this protesting ache within me is self, for my baby
is myself. Sweet, sweet little daughter! Mother has the blade ready and
must thrust it deep into your joyous heart. Oh, if my cup would only
pass, and my will might be done instead of God's!" She held her child on
her knees as she took off the pink symbol of dawn and robed her anew.
She was laying her child on an altar before God and no sacrificial ram
was in sight.


All the rest of the day Celeste was with Ruth. She walked with her in
the Public Gardens. She stayed away from home, fearing that some one
might call, and she felt unequal to the mocking convention. Surely this
was no time for smirking formalities. When, as the sun was going down,
she and the child returned home she found no one there except the
servants. She felt relieved, for she was not prepared yet to meet her
husband's eye, for surely he would know that something unusual had
happened to her. She was glad that he did not return till just before
the supper was served. She took Ruth down-stairs and into the
dining-room as soon as the meal was announced. William and his uncle had
met again in the parlor and were talking there in low tones. She and
Ruth were in their places at the table when they came in.

"Yes, we certainly put it over on them," the old man said, with a
chuckling laugh. "I felt sure the market was firm and sent my wire at

"I was confident, too," William answered, "but I never knew you to take
a risk, and it may have been due to that fact that I was so

"Well, I think I can say as much for you, William," the old man
answered. "Since I have been with you at the bank you have been the most
conservative business man I ever knew. I have sometimes thought you were
too careful, but caution can never be a fault."

They took seats. The business talk continued. The bank was to become the
greatest in the state - every indication was in its favor. Celeste failed
to hear Ruth's pretty prattle at her side. As she looked at the two men
her determination, which had been held so firmly all day, grew weak and
vacillating. How could she carry out her plan before them? She sank more
deeply into the mire of misery than ever. The whole world seemed black
and mad under the contending forces of right and wrong. How frail was
the spirit flag she was striving to hold aloft in all that clash and
rush of evil!

No, the right thing could not be done - by her, at any rate. Charles
would have to remain the self-elected lifelong victim that he was. After
all, he would be saving her; he would be saving Ruth; he would be saving
his brother whom he had always loved. _Saving_ his brother! But was he?
Could it be done so vicariously? And as this question pounded upon her
brain she looked for the first time with scaleless eyes at her husband.
Why had she not noticed it before? William was the mere withering husk
of the man he had once been. His deep-sunken, shadowy eyes told his
story; his parchment-like skin, his furtive, haunted look, repeated it;
his constantly enforced attention to what was being said by others, his
Judas-like manner, the quivering of his mentally handcuffed hands,
confirmed it again and again. Why, William was dying - dying from the
sheer poison of his putrefying soul. Only his great, staring eyes seemed
alive, and they lived only in their dumb quest of mercy. Poor William!
No one could save him but himself. Charles's nobility, Charles's
sacrifice, would not do it. He must do it himself. Ah yes, that was the
key, and it had dropped down from heaven! The thing was settled now. She
would see him before the dawn of another day. She would suffer. Ruth
would suffer, but William would be saved. Ah, that was the point too
long overlooked! His only child would be paying the price, but in the
far-off future Ruth herself, with the spiritual wisdom of age, might
thank the memory of her mother for the opportunity given her.

The family retired before ten o'clock that night. Celeste sat by her
daughter's bed, and with a soft, soothing song lulled her child to
sleep. Gradually she felt the tiny fingers losing their grasp upon her
own. Shortly afterward Celeste heard William ascending the stairs to his
room adjoining hers. She heard him close his door. He always closed his
door. At night or in the day he closed his door. Even at the bank he
closed the door of his private office, perhaps in order that he might
release the drawn cords to those perpetual curtains of his secret self.

There was another door between her room and his. Even that was shut. If
she wished to see him before he retired she must hasten. She went into
her own room, but did not turn on the electric light. She stood in the
center of the room, shivering from head to foot as from cold. Presently
she knocked on his door. Then there was a moment of tense silence. The
sound must have startled her husband; and when at last he did fumblingly
turn the bolt and open the door he stood there in the dark, facing her
wonderingly, speechlessly.

"I - I didn't know who it was - at first!" he stammered. "I
thought - thought - "

"Excuse me," she said, stroking the death-damp sweat from her brow and
sliding past him into his room, "but I wanted to see you. I wanted to
talk to you. It is something important, it seems to me. I couldn't do it
before uncle, and you were with him all day. May we have a - a light?"

"Need we?" fell from his lips impulsively, then: "Yes, dear, of course.
I quite forgot. I - I sometimes undress in the - the dark in the
summer-time." He groped for the button on the wall. "Yes, I was right,"
he thought. "She has had something on her mind all day and last night,
and she says it is important. My God! important! Only one thing is
important - can it have come up again?"

His fingers touched the button. He pushed it in and the white glare
filled the room like a photographer's flash-light, revealing their set
visages to each other. William certainly looked old now, for a storm of
terror was laying waste his whole suppressed being. She turned from him
in sheer pity of his swaying frailty. She sat down in a chair, and, like
the ill man that he was, he sank into another. He had unfastened his
scarf and collar and the ends of both hung in disorder on his breast.

"You say it is something important?" he muttered, and with his hand he
made a pretext of shading his eyes.

"Yes, William, it is important, as I see it," she answered, her stare on
the floor, her bloodless hands in her lap, tightly clasped. "It is
about - about a subject we have not mentioned between us lately."

"I think I understand," he breathed low. "Then you have heard from him,
or at least you know where he went."

"Yes, and through Michael," she added. "Michael owed him some money and
so he searched for him till finally - "

"Oh!" burst eagerly from her listener. "Then it was not the
detectives - not the police. You see - you see, I thought - "

"No, he is safe in that respect, for a while, at any rate," Celeste
said. "Michael found him in a retired place down in the mountains of
Georgia, and - "

"Why, I - I thought he had gone abroad!" and there was no mistaking the
sudden uneasiness in William's tone. "But you say he is still here in
this country? Are you sure about that?"

"Yes, Michael has seen and talked with him. William, Charlie is very
unhappy. Don't think that he is complaining, for he is not, but a new
life has opened out before him and he is still young. William, justice
must be done to him."

The hand-shade fell lower over William's eyes, but she could still see
their fixed pupils just beneath the flesh-line of his palm.

"Justice!" he gasped. "Surely you are not going to - to hint at that
suspicion of yours again. Haven't I shown you - told you that it would
make you miserable for life?"

"It is not merely a suspicion now, William," she said, grimly. "I know
it to be a fact that Charlie is wholly innocent, and that you - But, oh,
you know what I mean!"

Like a murderer faced by skilled accusers confident of his guilt,
William could formulate no denial. His sheer silence condemned him, that
and the furtive flight of his eyes from object to object in the room.
They reached everything except her set face. He and she were silent for
a moment; then William spoke:

"So he talked to Michael. Probably he said a lot of things to him, and
Michael has come back full of - of - "

"He said nothing of that sort to Michael," Celeste corrected, quickly.
"Charlie is still true to his agreement with you. He lets Michael think
that he did it when under the influence of drink. Michael hasn't the
slightest idea that another is to blame."

"I see, and in spite of all this, and even Charlie's confession over his
own signature, which I showed you, you still hold the idea that - "

"Yes, I know that the poor boy was innocent, and that he did it all - the
written confession, the going away, the shouldering of the disgrace
here, and the nameless life among strangers as a common laborer - he did
all that for your sake and mine and Ruth's. Don't - don't deny it any
more, William - _don't lie to me_! I won't stand for it! I won't! I
won't! I _can't_!"

He gave in. He could have crawled like a worm before her in his
weltering despair.

"You know it is true, don't you, William?" There were pity, gentleness,
and even abiding love in her tone.

He was conquered. He covered his ashen face with his gaunt hands, and,
with his elbows on his knees, he sat leaning forward, dumb and undone.
Then she told him his brother's story. It fell from her lips like the
sweet consolation of a consecrated nun to a dying penitent, and yet it
rang full and firm with Heaven's demand for justice. With a wand of
flaming truth she pointed the way - the only way. He sobbed. William for
the first time sobbed in her presence. His lips hung loose and quivered
like those of a whimpering child.

"Have you realized the cost?" he asked, presently. "Do you know what it
will mean to you and to Ruth? As God is my judge, Lessie, I am not
thinking of myself. In fact, I was thinking only of you when I did it!"
Here he made a confession of how he had prepared to kill himself that
she might escape the long-drawn publicity of his trial, and how his
brother had thwarted the effort.

"Yes, I realize the cost," Celeste answered, "but Ruth and I must pay
it. It seems to me now that a greater thing in God's sight than paying
our own debts is paying the debts of others. Charlie is trying to pay
our debts, but he shall not. William, he shall not. You are dying under
the strain that is on you. It is God's way of blighting His fruitless

"You are right," he faltered. "A felon's cell, a convict's chains, would
furnish relief compared with the tortures I have been enduring. But you
and the baby - oh, Lessie, that is unbearable! That thought has haunted
me for over a year."

"I know, but don't think of it now," she said. "Act at once. See uncle
to-night before he retires. He is still in the library. He said he had
something to read."

"I'll tell him at the bank in the morning," William said. "It is the
proper place for it. Yes, yes, I'll tell him. You look as if you doubt
it, but I'll keep my word. If you stop to think of it, you will see that
there is nothing else to do."

"Wait!" Celeste rose and went out into the hallway. She leaned over the
balustrade and peered downward; then she came back. "I see the light in
the library," she said. "He is there now. Go. It must be settled
to-night. I am holding myself to it with all the strength of my soul. I
am afraid I will weaken. Another night and I might. Charlie's rights and
Ruth's are in a balance, and they are seesawing up and down. Hurry!
Hurry! Go this minute!"

He rose and staggered from the room. Celeste sat down and leaned
forward. She listened, all her soul in her ears. She remembered that the
old stairs had a harsh habit of creaking when one went down or up them.
They were uttering no sound now. Why? she wondered. Softly she got up
and crept out into the hall. There in the darkness stood William on the
first step, a hand on the railing. His face was turned toward the foot
of the stairs. The narrow strip of carpet stretched down toward the dim
light below. He was staring at the light as if turned to stone by its
gruesome import. She crept to him, touched him on the arm. He turned his
death-mask of a face to her, and moved his flabby lips soundlessly.

"Go on," she said.

"You forget one thing, Lessie." His voice came now in a rasping whisper.
"You forget that this thing was Charlie's own suggestion. He proposed
it. He would expect me to live up to it, as well as he himself. You
mentioned Ruth. She was in his mind at the time, as well as you and me.
Then there was another thing. He had - he said so himself - he had
disgraced himself here. He had acted in a way that made him want to
disappear, never to be heard of again. This would bring all that up
again. I have no doubt that he would want the matter to rest just as it

"Yes, he would, and for that very reason it shall not," Celeste flashed
out. "He loves a good girl, and she loves him. If you are silent
to-night they will be parted forever. The thing is killing you; it will
kill me, too. Are you trying to force me to be your accomplice?"

His head rocked negatively like a stone poised on a pivot, but still he
did not move forward. Gently she caught his hand, the one still on the
railing, and as she did so his fingers automatically clutched the wood
as if he were afraid of falling down the stairs.

"I'll go," he said. "You see, I was wondering just how to put it to
uncle. He will be humiliated in a peculiar way. I hardly know how to say
it, but he has all along felt the - the stigma of Charlie's - of what he
thinks Charlie did - felt it so keenly that he has overdone his - his
praise of me. You understand - of _me_. He has boasted of my - my moral
stamina and ability on all occasions, in that way, you see, to make up
for Charlie's - or what he thinks was Charlie's bad conduct. It will
upset him terribly. It will fill him with chagrin, for - for I and the
bank and its success have become his very life. I dread the effect on
him. He is old, you know, and not so very strong. What would we do if it
were to result disastrously - I mean to him, you understand? If Charlie
hadn't done this thing of his own accord - "

"Stop, William," Celeste said, with a resolute sigh. "I see how hard it
is for you to do. Let me do it. I'll know what to say perhaps better
than you. Besides, if you consent to my going to him it will be the same
as if you did it. In fact, I'll tell him you sent me."

"No, I'll have to put it through," said William, suddenly. He barred the
way by thrusting his disengaged hand against the wall, the other still
holding on to the balustrade. "Go to your room. I'll attend to it."

He moved forward now, and, standing still, she saw him slowly descend
the stairs and vanish at the library door. Then she went back to her own
room. But she did not disrobe nor turn on the light. She remained
sitting in a chair at a window through which the rays of a street lamp
fell. She would wait for William's return. She loved him; she was sorry
for him; she wanted to cry, but could not.


William found his uncle at a writing-table, sheets of paper and a
note-book before him, a fountain-pen in his hand. He looked up and
smiled a pleasant greeting. "Thought you had turned in," he chuckled,
softly. "I told Lessie I had a book to read, but it wasn't that, really.
I've been here figuring on my holdings. I love to do it. It makes the
things I've fought and won stand out, you see, before my eyes, as you
might say. It furnishes me with a fresh surprise every time I do it. It
always seems bigger, solider, you see. Sit down, my boy; take a
cigar - there are several pretty good ones. No, you won't? I see, it will
keep you awake, eh? Well, I must say I admire it in you. The best
business men are careful, and you are one of them. I owe you a lot, my
boy," he went on, as William sat down and clasped his cold knee-caps
with his shaking hands. "Do you know what you did for me? I see; you are
too modest to confess it. Well, you actually did this: I had practically
given up the financial game. I was trifling my time and income away in
Europe when this great family trouble clutched me and pulled me back
into harness. And what has been the result? Why, I've not only enjoyed
the game of defending our blood, but every venture I have made has
shoveled gold into my bin."

William nodded. He could not find his voice. He was glad that his
uncle's enthusiastic face was bent over his writing.

"And don't think I am not realizing that I'm no longer young, either,"
the steady voice went on. "I'm not a silly fool. I sha'n't claim more
than ten years more of life, at the furthest, and what do you think I
expect to do with my effects? You saw the little item in _The
Transcript_ the other day, stating that I might make a big donation to
several charitable institutions? I know you must have seen it. Well,
nothing could be farther from my intentions. I am going to leave all I
have to a young fellow that I think had a pretty hard time of it. Of
course, you don't know who I mean, Billy. I didn't think I'd ever want
to provide for any particular person, but when I got back from Europe
and saw you haggard and unstrung, putting up practically all you had in
the world to pull our name from the mire - well, it changed me on the
spot. You see, it was a quality I didn't think a man could have, and I'd
found it in you."

"Wait! Stop, please!" William gulped. "I - I - "

"Too modest, eh?" the old man laughed. "Now you keep quiet. I am holding
the floor, and the chairman says you are out of order. Huh! if you are
too modest to want this for yourself, think of your wife and child. I've
grown to love them as if they were child and grandchild of my own. I
want to see them happy, and when I make them so you will be, too, Billy,
in spite of the rascally thing that has been done to you. You shall be
president of the bank; you shall run the whole thing, and I'll sit back
and take life easy to the end. Do you know that old men enjoy life more
than the young? Well, it is true. Aside from the bad conduct of your
brother - the lasting sting of it - there is nothing in my life to regret.
I am actually happy in the realization that I am doing so much for the
happiness of you and yours - and mine. Yes, they are mine, too."

There was a pause, but William was unable to fill it. He reached out and
took one of the cigars from the table; he struck a match and lighted it,
but it burnt for an instant only. The old man was looking at him
steadily. "You are not well to-night, are you, Billy?" he asked, in a
sudden swirl of affectionate concern.

"No, not very," William heard himself saying. "I - I - "

"Well, perhaps you'd better turn in," his uncle suggested. "This is your
day of rest, you know. Later I'll give you the details of what I am
going to do for you."

"Uncle," said William, desperately, standing up and leaning forward like
a storm-blown human reed, "I am unworthy, absolutely unworthy of - "

"Bosh! Go to bed!" the old man cried, in an ecstasy of delight. "I'm to
be the judge of worthiness in this case. It is a scarce commodity these
days, and when I see a man actually trying to stave off his just
rewards - why, he is a miracle, that's all - a miracle of unselfishness!
Stupid, think of that bonny child of yours! Don't you want to see her
take her proper place in the social world? What have you lived and
toiled for? I'll bet Lessie won't treat this thing as you do. I'll bet
she will kiss her old uncle, and - "

William lost the remainder of the remark. A sudden sense of respite
brooded over him like a protecting cloud. Had he the right now to step
between his wife and child and such a princely inheritance? In the face
of it would Lessie herself not feel impelled to take a different stand?
What normal mother would not? To disillusion the old idealist now would
ruin the chances of a good woman and a helpless child. Yes, at any rate,
he told himself, he must see Celeste and lay the matter in its new form
before her.

"Well, I'll go up," he said, as casually as was in his depleted power.
"I'll see you at breakfast. I - I am rather tired."

"Yes. Good night, my boy. Sleep will do you good."

Somehow William had the odd sense of being bodiless as he ascended the
stairs. As he approached his wife's room he saw the handle of her door
move, and then he knew that she was standing waiting for him just inside
the room. They faced each other in the deflected flare of the street

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Online LibraryWill N. (Will Nathaniel) HarbenThe Hills of Refuge: A Novel → online text (page 22 of 25)