Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

The Hills of Refuge: A Novel online

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lamp. She reached out and took his hands and clung to them.

"I've been listening. I expected a scene, a commotion, but I heard
nothing of the sort," she whispered. "It must have simply stunned him.
The blow was too deep even to stir his fury."

William pressed her hands convulsively, appealingly. He put an arm
around her, a shaking, half-palsied arm.

"Lessie," he panted, raspingly. "I found out down there - Wait, wait!
Give me time." He cleared his throat. "I found out - It was like this,
darling. You know how rapidly he talks at times? Well, he wouldn't give
me a chance to break in; and finally he told me something that made
me - forced me to feel that if you had been there - I mean - "

"What? Go on! Go on!" Celeste breathed quickly.

"He was in a jolly mood. He spoke more freely than ever before. He let
out the fact that he is worth several millions and that he intends to
leave it all to us - _I mean to you and Ruth_. He has no idea of donating
anything to charity, but all to you two. So you see - you see, it put me
where I simply had to - to lay it before you. It strikes me as a
reasonable idea that with all that money at your disposal you
could - why, Lessie, you could make Charlie rich, and surely you cannot
stand between our child and all that good fortune. Don't you see, dear?
The truth would so infuriate uncle that he would - would drop us
all - you, me, Ruth, Charlie - everybody! Old men are like that; they
can't seem to recuperate after such a blow. I didn't tell him. I confess
I didn't even mention it, for it was my duty to - to show you how matters
stand. I'd not be a natural husband and father if - if I had acted
otherwise. We have got in this awful mess. How are we going to get out?
Remember, dear, I was trying to earn money for you and the baby when it
happened, so how can I bear to - to think of going to jail and leaving
you penniless? He would be mad enough to send me to jail, dear; he is
just that vindictive, and he would not take care of you two, either. You
don't seem to realize that it would make him the laughing-stock of the
public, and he so sensitive and hot-tempered. You see, I have forced him
to be my active accomplice in covering it all up, and he would have to
remain silent or turn me over to the authorities. Oh, it is
awful - awful! He puts such a high and unjust value on me that when he
finds he has been fooled he will - why, he won't know how to control
himself! It would be like him to leave the house to-night - this very
night - and go to a hotel, where he would chatter even to the bell-boys.
Think of Ruth - if not of me; have pity on that sweet, inoffensive

"Oh, but Charlie! Charlie!" Celeste found voice to say.

"But don't you remember that Charlie himself proposed going away? Why,
he was down and out - sick of Boston and everything in it. He said he
never wanted to come back or to be heard of again. That was to save
me - just _me_ - from - from trouble. Is it likely that he would be willing
to have me - to have any of us take a step like this now? How do you know
that - that he'd like to - to have his old life raked up again? He is
evidently playing a part of some sort. Have we the right, without
consulting him, to have all this put in the papers and flashed from end
to end of the country?"

Celeste stood like a statue, cold and motionless, in his half-embrace.
The dim light disclosed her marble cheek to his sight. Her wide-open
eyes caught the flare from the street lamp and gave it back in gleams of

"You say he spoke of Ruth's inheritance?" she gasped.

"More of her than you or me," said William, grasping at the straw. "He
fairly dotes on her. But don't think he would stand by her if - if we
anger him by this exposure. He would hate us all, Ruth along with us. In
a burst of fury he would cut us all out. Oh, I know him, Lessie," went
on William, imbibing hope from the dead stare turned on him. "I have
been right at his elbow for over a year. He has given me his innermost

"I know," Celeste whispered. "I've noticed it, and knew why it was. He
looked upon you as a paragon of nobility because you - because he thought
you were sacrificing so much to atone for Charlie's conduct. He told me
once that it had given him a new faith in men - that he had not thought
such a thing possible. But that was wrong - cursed of God. It was
hypocrisy as black as the lowest vats of hell. And I helped you in it. I
feared all along that my intuition was telling me the truth, but because
I didn't know where Charlie was, because I thought he might be dead, I
kept silent. But, husband, it is different now - oh - oh! so different!
God has sent us this trial. Charlie's life and happiness are at stake.
If we are untrue he will bear the burden meant for us. God knows he has
suffered enough for his boyish escapades - that has been proved by his
throwing off his old habits and becoming a clean, decent, and ambitious
man. He loves and is loved, and yet he is regarded as little more than a
tramp by the people around him. William, I am weak, wavering, and all
but dying under this. What am I to do?"

He put both his hands on her shoulders, turned her face directly to his,
and went on, reassuringly: "Go to bed, darling. Let it be as it is.
Remember I gave promise to Charlie not to follow him up. He was to be
free forever. Go to bed, dear. This is a tempest in a teapot. You are
all wrought up and nervous. You'd never forgive yourself for stepping in
between our child and her rightful inheritance. Think of that. How would
you like to be treated that way just to satisfy some one else's finical
qualms as to right and wrong?"

She allowed him to push her toward her bed, and for no obvious reason
other than physical weakness she sat upon it, her staring eyes still
fixed upon his insistent face. He thought his case was won. He bent and
kissed her on the cheek. He tried to raise her chin that his lips might
put the seal of frailty upon hers, but she resisted him firmly,
inexorably. This gave him pause. All the terrors of his moribund being
gathered, screaming and threatening, from the nooks and crannies into
which they had but temporarily fled.

"Don't you - can't you see it as - as I do?" he pleaded, still trying to
lift her chin, and realizing his defeat even in that small failure.

"No!" That was all she said, but it was more than enough.

He stood away from her. Indescribable contingencies now waxing into grim
certainties hurtled about him - exposure, a felon's cell, the visible
hatred of the man who had so completely trusted him.

"No!" Celeste repeated, firmly. "There can be only one course to take,
and that is the right one - right if it kills us all. You can't tell him.
I must do it. He is still down there."

"Is this final?"

"Yes, final," she said, and stood up. He made a movement as if to stop
her; it ended by his dropping his limp arms to his sides. His lips
moved, but produced no sound. She left the room first, and he followed.
Together they leaned over the balustrade and peered at the light below.
Then she drew herself erect and started down the stairs. He watched her
till she was half-way down, then turned into his room.

She reached the library door. She saw the old man still bent over his
calculations, a glow of satisfaction on his pink face. She heard him
chuckle. No doubt he was thinking of Ruth's good fortune. She was about
to enter when a grim thought suddenly clutched her as if in a vise. How
strangely William had acted as they were parting up-stairs! Once before
he had started to end his life. Would he be so desperate now? Why not?
The crisis was even greater. She turned quickly, and, holding her
breath, she darted back up the stairs and tiptoed into William's room.
He was standing at his bureau. She heard a hard substance strike against
one of the smaller drawers as he turned to face her. Darting to him, she
grasped his arm and slid her fingers down to the revolver he was

"Oh, you wouldn't do that - would you, dear?" she panted, as she wrung
the weapon from his grasp.

His silence was his answer. He stepped back from her. He had steeled
himself for the supreme shock of death. How could he summon mere words
at this ultimate moment?

"I see, I see!" she moaned, and she was sure now that she loved him in
his weakness as a mother might love her child that was blind, crippled,
and in unending pain. She put the weapon into the bosom of her dress,
and, with her hands outstretched, she cried: "I didn't tell him,
darling. I hurried back to you when I thought - thought - thought of
_this_. Something else must be done. Charlie wouldn't be willing to
murder you. It was to prevent this that he went away."

Her hands were around his neck. He was still under the chill spell of
the ordeal he had faced. She drew his head down and kissed him again and
again on the lips, as if to restore life's breath to him.

"Yes, something else - but not _this_" she ran on. "We'll see - we'll see,
sweetheart. If Charlie were here he'd stop you - he would - he would, and
so must I. I see, you couldn't face it all, could you, dear? I ought to
have thought of that sooner. Some one has said that God never puts more
on us than we can bear, and that is why He turned me back to you when He
did. Now, now, we can go to sleep, can't we, darling boy?"

"Oh, it was wonderful - glorious - ecstatic!" he muttered as if to
himself, his blank stare fixed on the space beyond her. "I was
afraid - afraid - afraid as I put my hand in the drawer and felt it like
the icy foot of a corpse; but when I had hold of it - "

"What are you saying, darling?" Celeste asked, fearfully.

"I'll never invest in stocks again. Down, down, down, and the money not
my own. I'll be caught. I can't hide it. The examiners will come and
look me in the eye, and - "

"Oh, what is it, dear?" Celeste moaned, and, catching his arm, she shook

"When I had hold of it," he wandered on, vacantly, "something said - out
of the very darkness down where he and my wife were settling my
fate - something said: 'Don't be afraid - it is nothing. It will be only a
pinprick and you'll be free.' And I was free. I saw - I saw - I heard - I
heard - I _felt_ - yes, that is it, I _felt_ as a man feels when he is
said to be dead and no living soul knows of the great change but

"Oh, William darling, you are ill - you are - "

"Good boy, Charlie! Bully boy, my brother! You were true as steel - you
knew it had gone down, down, down to the bottom of hell itself and so
you ran away. But I was left with it, brother mine. I was in a vat
filled with black, smirking imps. Every day I fought with them, every
night. But I'm glad now. Are you dead, too? Is that light, or is it -
Who ever heard of light and music being the same thing? It is even more
than that, eh, Charlie? It is language - the cosmic speech of the
universe, and we are in a sea of eternal bliss."

Celeste, wordless now, took his face between her trembling hands and
tried to turn it toward her own, but it was immovable. He was chuckling,
laughing, his eyes still fixed on space. Dropping her hands, Celeste ran
to the head of the stairs, and, like a hysterical woman giving an alarm
of fire, she called out:

"Oh, uncle - come quickly! Quick! Quick!"

"What is it? What is it?" he exclaimed, as he darted from the library
and plunged up the stairs.

"Quick! Quick!" she cried back, and vanished from his view. He found her
standing over her husband, who was now seated on his bed. Hearing his
step, William uttered a low, chuckling laugh, and, staring at him, said:

"Here you are again, Charlie. I missed you. That cloud - that dazzling
white cloud - seemed to come between us. I ran back to see Ruth and
Lessie. Ruth was asleep, and when children are asleep they ride on the
clouds - so a spirit told me. But Lessie was awake, standing over, over
it - you know what I mean, over the body that held me so long. Oh, I wish
she would hide it! Uncle was there, too, Charlie boy. Never could make
the old doubter understand this, eh, Charlie? At first it was strange to
us, too, eh? Wonderful, wonderful! I hear my old leathery tongue trying
to describe it now. How funny!"

"William, what is the matter?" the old man asked, bending over him.

William looked at him closely; he put his hand on his shoulder and went
on, chuckling: "Oh, I see it is you, uncle. I want to tell you. You
needn't be afraid of dying, as I was all my life. I held it right over
my heart and pulled the trigger. There was a flash, a little, tiny
tickling sting, and then Charlie and I - I'll never invest in stocks
again. It seemed very easy to pile up all that for Lessie and the baby.
Down, down, down - Every morning at breakfast I faced them with those
figures on my brain like the slimy tracks of coffin snails. Down, down
to doom! to doom - that's it, to my doom!"

The old man stood erect. He moved to a window. His niece followed him
like a praying shadow. Their eyes met.

"I am the cause of it," she said. "I tried to force him to confess to
you that he was to blame, and not Charlie. He tried to use this," taking
the revolver from her bosom, "while I went down to tell you."

"He, and not Charlie!" the old man exclaimed, with a fixed stare.

"Say what you like, _do_ what you like," she said, harshly, fiercely,
recklessly, her white lip curled in a sneer. "He said you would put him
in jail. I wonder if you will - I wonder. I would give my life for him.
We don't want your money - understand that. What living man has not
sinned? and _he_ did it for love. Don't you dare to accuse - abuse him.
He is down now and dying, perhaps."

With his eyes on the bent form on the bed, the old man seemed not to
hear her. "Oh, my God, this is awful - awful!" he said, under his breath.
"Well, there is but one thing to do."

Turning, he suddenly left the room. There was a telephone in the
hallway, just outside the door, and he went to it. He took up the
directory and then turned on the electric light. His hands shook as he
fumbled the pages. The book fell to the floor. He picked it up. His old
face seemed withered like crinkled parchment.

"I can't find it!" he groaned. "My God! have mercy! It is awful - awful!"

Celeste was at his side. Like an infuriated tigress defending her young,
she glared into his face, and all but snarled: "Do it, do it, if you
dare - and we'll hate you, despise you, curse your name! I'll teach Ruth
to spit on your grave."

"Lessie, Lessie, my child - my poor child! Do you object to my - "

"Object? Would you send him to jail when his reason is wrecked through
fear of you - when he is dying?"

"Why, Lessie, Lessie, darling child, did you think _that_? Why, I am
telephoning for the doctor, that is all. I love William and pity him as
much as you do. We must save him, child, we must save him!"


About a week later Tobe Keith was brought back to Carlin from Atlanta.
He was able to walk through the streets from the station to his home.
The news reached Kenneth and Martin as they were working in the
cotton-fields. The bearer of the tidings said that the sheriff himself
had asked that they be informed. Charles was at work close by, and,
tossing his straw hat into the air, Kenneth ran toward him, followed by
Martin, who was all aglow with joy.

"I thought it would be so," Charles said, when he was informed of the
good news.

With his hat swinging at his side, Kenneth held out his hand to him. "I
want to thank you," he said, in a manly tone. "You did it, Brown."

And Martin chimed in, a hand outstretched also: "Yes, you did it. If it
hadn't been for you he would have stayed here and died. Sister says so."

Flushing red, Charles was unable to deny the part he had played, though
still unable fully to explain it. At this instant they saw Mary coming
down the path.

"She's heard, too," Martin chuckled. "It lifts a load off her mind - an
awful load of worry. She was always afraid there would be an unfavorable
turn down there. And they say Tobe is friendly to us."

The two boys went on to meet their sister, but Charles, feeling that he
had no valid reason for following them, resumed his work with his hoe in
the cotton. Several minutes passed. His back was turned to the trio on
the path and he was constantly working away from them. Presently he
heard the soft swishing of a starched skirt against the cotton-plants
and Mary was at his side. Looking up, he was surprised to find her
countenance overcast with a look of depression.

"They've gone over to Dodd's to tell father," she said. "They are very,
very happy."

"But you - ?" and he leaned on his hoe. "You don't seem - Has anything
gone wrong? Was it - a false report, after all?"

"Oh no, it is true enough." She took a deep, lingering breath and
released it in a sigh. "But the man that brought the news about Tobe
told me something else - something that everybody in the neighborhood
seems to know. Charlie, the sheriff has sent those men back to watch you
again. They were seen hiding in the woods on the hillside. They are
watching us even now. I thought that was all off, but they say the
sheriff has had fresh instructions from the East. The men he is after
are hiding somewhere in this part of the state, and he seems to think
they are here in the mountains and that Tobe Keith and you know
something about them."

Charles looked toward the hillside indicated, and then drew his
lingering eyes back to hers. He was slightly pale; his lips were drawn
tight in chagrin. He made a failure of a smile of indifference.

"I thought that was over," he said. "I thought the sheriff had turned
his attention elsewhere. But it can't be helped. You ought not to have
taken me in. I ought not to have stopped here at all."

"Don't talk that way!" Mary commanded, with desperate warmth. "What are
we going to do about it? I want the truth. I know you are bound by
honor, as you say, but as far as you are able I want you to tell me what
to expect. If he arrests you - well, what then?"

Charles dropped his eyes to the soil his hoe had turned up and the weeds
he had cut. His fine face was stamped with the misery that permeated his
being like an absorbent fluid. "If he arrests me he will want me to do
the impossible," he said. "He will want me to show who and what I am.
I've tried to tell you that I have no past that I can bring up
even - even to stand well in your sight. I shall say nothing to him. I
don't think the law would let him torture me bodily, but my silence will
be ground enough to confirm his suspicions. A man who has been the daily
associate of a bunch of circus crooks, and who refuses to show his
record to an officer of the law, will stand a poor show."

"I wonder - couldn't you escape? But, oh, I don't want you to leave! I
couldn't bear that."

"I thought of escape when they were hanging round before," he answered,
with a pale, frank smile, "but gave it up. Such men would be hard to get
away from, now that they are on guard, and, besides, to try it would be
a confession that I am guilty of what they charge. No, I'll have to let
them have their way about it. The men they are after are a dangerous lot
and ought to be apprehended."

"Listen to me, Charlie," and Mary, in her earnestness, put her hand on
his arm. "I know _something_ - a little something - of all this, and you
need not deny it. You are trying to protect some one else in some way. I
know it; I feel it; I've been sure of it for some time."

"I am sorry, but I can tell you - even you - nothing," he replied, and the
words came out with a low groan. "I'm glad you think so well of me. It
is the only good thing that has come my way in a long time, but you
mustn't care for me deeply, very deeply, for that would mar your future.
You know what I think of you, but I have no right to mention it. Your
father is right in warning you, as I know he has done; he shows it in
the strange, half-fearful way he now speaks to me."

She averted her face; her eyes were moist; her exquisite lips were
quivering like those of a weeping child. "I must go," she murmured. "I
am sure they are watching us."

"Yes, don't stay." He took up his hoe and began to work as she turned to

She hesitated and stood still. "The sheriff talks freely to father," she
said. "In fact, I think father went over to Dodd's to meet him. I am
sorry to have to tell you this, but you might hear it and not
understand. Father liked you all along till - " She broke off, at a loss
for words sufficiently delicate to express her meaning.

"Till the good old man found that I was a menace under his roof,"
Charles put in, bitterly. "That's what I am, Miss Row - "

"Stop!" she suddenly cried out. "Have you lost consideration for my
feelings? Am I to count for nothing in this matter? What if you can't
reveal everything to me? I don't care. To me you are the soul of honor;
to me you are the noblest, most abused man on earth. Charlie, I'll stand
by you; I'll go with you if they put you in jail. They can't punish you
without punishing me. I've told my father so. My brothers know how I
feel. That is why father - as I started to say - is so worried. He doesn't
know what to do. He has his pride; he loves me, wants to protect me, and
does not know which way to turn."

"And there is nothing I can do, as I see it," Charles groaned, leaning
on his hoe, his great, famished eyes on hers. "If it would help, I'd
gladly kill myself, but my death would prove nothing but my cowardice
and confirm them in their suspicions."

She stepped back to him. She laid her slender, tapering hand on his arm
and looked into his face steadily. "Yes, you are too brave for that,"
she faltered, giving her proud head a little shake of emphasis. "I've
never been afraid of that. You, like myself, were born to suffer, it
seems, but we will stand up under it, won't we? Let them all do their
worst; it won't kill us, for we love each other, don't we, Charlie?"

He lowered his uncovered head; his grim, ashen face was wrung as from
deathly pain.

"We love each other, don't we, Charlie?" she repeated, entreatingly.

A shudder shook him from head to foot. "How can I be glad to hear you
say that," he asked, "when I know that it is your ruin and that I
brought it on you? I have no right to tell you how I feel - how I've felt
ever since I kissed you that night in the parlor and you lay so
willingly in my arms and hung about my accursed neck. What can I
do - what in the name of God, my tormentor? Shall I throw my sacred
promise to the winds and laugh in the face of - of - ?"

"No!" she cried out. "No, for I'd be doing it. I'd be your evil
temptress. Be yourself, Charlie - be what you were before I met you. I
think I know - you are selling yourself for some one else as I was
willing to do when my brothers were in danger. Don't let me tempt
you - don't let anything tempt you. God brought me out of my darkness - by
your aid He brought me out. He only knows what my awful struggle was
when I was ready to go to that repulsive man as his wife with your image
locked in my breast - with my desire for you wrapped around my soul. God
helped me; surely He will help you. What are earthly troubles for if
they are not to be conquered, trampled under foot, as we mount to the
heights to which we are destined? _You shall not tell me anything._ I
know your soul, and that is enough."

She turned quickly and moved away. He saw the heads of her brothers as
they wended their way toward Dodd's through the tall waving corn. How
steadily, how erectly she walked toward the old mansion of her
forebears! He noted the tiny marks of her shoes in the soil at his feet.
He could have kissed them; he could have fallen on his knees before them
in reverent, worshipful humility.

Charles worked on till the cool, creeping shadows of the mountains told
him that the sun was down. Then he shouldered his hoe and listlessly
trudged homeward. He heard Kenneth and Martin singing as they returned
through the corn. It was a negro plantation melody, somehow maddening
now in its trustful suggestion of joy. He saw the boys come out into the
path. They were arm in arm, full of happiness, full of the ebullient
consciousness of their release. He smiled grimly. He told himself that
their nightmare had passed, while his was an abiding reality. He must be
the exception that proved the rule of life's cosmic harmony. Some things
could be borne with a smile. A man might die for his friend, and jest as
the black cap muffled his lips; a man might sing as he was being
vivisected for a good cause; but this - this fate belonged to no
imaginable category of tortures. He had won the heart of an angel and

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