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Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

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darkest streets I can get into. I know every alley in this old town.
Good-by, Mike. Deliver the note to my brother in the morning."




CHAPTER VI


It was near midnight when he reached the station. He had met no one on
the way whom he knew. He was tired and his arm ached from the weight of
the bag, for he had taken a long, roundabout way to avoid being seen.
Few persons were at the station, for it was not a popular train that he
was to take. He bought his ticket at the little window, glad that the
clerk was too busy to look up as he pushed the exact fare in to him.
This done, he took up his bag and hastened for the train. He sought the
smoking-car, feeling that he would be less conspicuous there than in the
coaches set aside for the accommodation of women and children. He had
the car almost to himself and was glad of the fact. Seated in one
corner, he lighted a cigar. Somehow he was impatient for the train to
move. He was not guilty of the crime he had shouldered, but he had a
guilty man's fear of detection at that moment. He almost felt as if he
and William were identical, for, after all, would not William's arrest
and exposure have been quite as painful to him? The train did not start.
He was becoming seriously alarmed now. He went to a window and looked
out. An attendant with a lantern stood close by.

"What is the delay?" Charles asked.

"Accident ahead," the man answered. "Train off the track ten miles away.
The wrecking-train has gone on. They will have the road clear before
long. May as well wait here as farther on."

Charles went back to his corner. Why was he nervous? he argued. What was
there to fear, since the exposure would not be made till the following
morning after the bank opened? Why, nothing - nothing at all. He puffed
at his cigar. The only thing was to avoid being seen by any passing
acquaintance; but his face was known to many of all classes and he must
be careful. He pulled the brim of his cap down over his eyes; he raised
the collar of his light overcoat above his ears, and crouched down as
low as possible. The train still lingered. His watch told him that it
was two o'clock. He stretched his legs out on the seat in front of him
and tried to sleep. He was quite fatigued, and yet his brain was too
active to permit it. He thought of little Ruth. Again he heard her
startled cry and pictured the child as lying in his arms and being
soothed back to sleep. A sob filled his throat. Was it possible that she
was going out of his life forever? Was it possible that he was actually
renouncing home and home ties and going out into a new world in which he
would be absolutely unknown, a veritable babe of mature age born among
strangers? A mood of deep dejection was on him and it seemed to thicken
and become more depressing as the hours stretched along. Then terror
filled him, for he had a facile imagination which reached out for the
disagreeable as well as the pleasant. What if the train were not to go
for hours? What if the dawn of day found him still in Boston? He sat up.
He rose and went to the platform of the car. The brakeman with the
lantern was chatting with a man at a trunk-truck several car-lengths
away. He descended and sauntered up to them.

"Any news?" he asked the man with the light.

"Yes. We will move soon," was the answer. "I see you are sticking to it.
Most of the passengers went home, to take a morning train. You could
take it yourself, if you are bound for New York, and get there almost as
soon as by this train."

"Oh, I'm here now and will go this way," Charles answered. He turned
away, for he realized that he had made his first serious mistake in
talking to the man about his destination. The fellow might remember it
later. He might even give the information to the police when they got on
his trail. If the train were delayed between Boston and New York a
telegram might be sent on and he would be arrested upon his arrival. He
shuddered - not for himself, but for his brother. How the news would
stagger William! He would confess, then. He would tell it all rather
than permit the punishment to fall where it was not merited. Poor
haggard, nerve-torn William! He would kill himself, and the black
tragedy would settle upon the old home. Charles went back to his seat in
the corner. His brain was whirling and pounding like that of a madman
capable of half reasoning. Another hour passed. It was three o'clock. A
desperate idea flashed into his mind. What if he should leave the train
and take to the country roads? Might he not escape arrest in that way?
He was about to resort to it when he heard a shout outside:

"All aboard!" A bell on the locomotive rang. Steam was heard escaping.
The cars began to jerk one against the other, then to move steadily and
to pick up speed. He looked through the open window. Through a shower of
fine cinders and wisps of steam and smoke he saw the street-lamps
dancing past, whirling, waltzing to the roar and clatter of the cars.
Soon they were left behind. Fields and country roads lay dimly visible
in the darkness. He was now conscious of a feeling of boundless elation.
It amounted almost to ecstasy. He chuckled. After all, his brother and
the others would escape the thing William had dreaded. They would live
in happiness, and why should not he manage to exist in the new life
before him? There must be a God, and a God of love and pity and mercy;
surely some one, something, was holding the black curtain of fate aside
for both William and himself, that he might enter upon a further
probation and have one more chance to make good.

The conductor was coming, his ticket-punch in hand.

"What time shall you arrive in New York?" Charles asked, as casually as
was in his power.

"About eight o'clock," the conductor answered, punching the ticket and
handing it back. "That is the best we can do now."




CHAPTER VII


Reclining on the two benches, Charles managed to fall asleep, and in
spite of his worries he slept soundly. The gray morning light crept in
at the open window and swept his dust-coated face, but still he did not
wake. The light grew yellow and warm as the sun rose, but still he
slept. He waked and sat up as the train was entering the suburbs of New
York.

"Safe - still safe!" was his first thought, as he looked about him. The
car was now half-full of passengers, many of them commuters going in to
work. How fresh, clean, and contented they looked with their cigars and
damp papers, and what a dismal tramp was he, at least in his own eyes!
There was a little lavatory at the end of the car, and his first impulse
was to go to it, wash the dust from his face and hands, and brush off
his clothing; then it occurred to him that, as he was, he was less
recognizable than otherwise, and he gave up the idea.

Slowly the long train clattered over the switches and crossings and
pulled into the station at Forty-second Street. The vast roof cut off
the direct rays of the sun and the forms and faces of the passengers
became indistinct in the shadow. He followed the others down the packed
aisle and joined the stream of passengers on the platform, all forging
their way to the street. Covertly, as he hurried along, holding his bag
in his right hand, he watched the crowd of bystanders to see if any one
wore a police uniform. He was gratified to notice that the way seemed
clear in that respect. And then he smiled at his imagined fears, for how
could the police be on his track before the opening of the bank? No, no,
he was safe so far, and he would soon be hidden from sight in the slums
of the great city, for it was the slums that were to shelter him. There
no one would look for a man of his type.

He was soon out in the crowded thoroughfare. Somehow it appealed to him
to-day more than ever before. He walked along the street until he
reached Fifth Avenue, and then he realized that he was not going in the
direction he desired and turned back. He walked on till the buildings
began to look more antiquated and shabby, and then he turned south. He
pursued this direction till he had reached Twenty-eighth Street,
and then turned east again. The surroundings were now decidedly
squalid. The street was unclean and thronged. The houses were old
three-story-and-basement residences, the ground floors of many having
been turned into shops, the upper floors being rented as sleeping
quarters at a very low rate as was shown by the soiled cards placed
against the window-panes to catch the eye of passers-by.

Suddenly he became aware that he was hungry, and he looked about him for
a place to break his fast, for he had eaten scarcely anything since noon
the day before. Presently he descried a restaurant. It was located on
the first floor immediately above a delicatessen shop. The street in
front of it was unclean, ash-cans and garbage-pails flanking the
crumbling brownstone steps to the entrance; and yet his aversion to
these unsavory surroundings was conquered by his hunger and the security
that such a place afforded him.

He went in and was surprised at the inviting appearance of the room. It
was clean. The walls were snow white. White-clothed tables stood close
together, some small, some long and narrow. He put down his bag and hung
his hat and overcoat on an upright rack. The tables were nearly all
filled with a motley assortment of human beings. The table near his bag
had a single occupant, a young man of about his own age. Charles sat
down opposite him. The fellow's face appealed to him vaguely, as
reminding him of some countenance he had once seen and forgotten. It was
a rather round face, blue-eyed, clean shaved, and crowned by light-brown
curly hair.

A waitress in spotless apron and cap came to Charles. "You forgot to get
your check," she said.

"Check? What is that?" he asked.

"Oh, I'll get it for you," the girl said, hurriedly, and she went to the
glass-inclosed desk by the door at which another girl sat.

The stranger across the table held up his own check and smiled. "It's
like this," he explained. "You see the prices, from five cents up to one
dollar, are printed on it. The girl who waits on you punches the amount
you order, and that is what you pay as you turn the check over at the
desk when you go out."

"Oh, I see! Thank you!" Charles liked the face more than ever. Its
underlying humor and good nature at once soothed and attracted him. The
waitress came back with the check, and with it brought a printed bill of
fare which she gave to Charles. While he was looking it over she bent
near the man across the table.

"You can't keep this up," she said, gently. "It will kill you. I've been
watching you for a week."

"Oh, leave that to me," he answered, with a smile that Charles now saw
was drawn and twisted by manly embarrassment. "I've been this way before
and pulled through."

The waitress sighed. "I wish I could manage it," she said in an
undertone, "but I can't. That woman at the desk is a cat. She has it in
for me."

"You don't think I'd let you do anything like that for me, I hope," he
said, sensitively. "I appreciate it very much, but no working-girl shall
lose through me."

Without replying she came around and bent over Charles. "Ready to
order?" she asked.

"Eggs and bacon and coffee with cream," he said. As he spoke he noticed
that his table companion had apparently ordered nothing but the few
slices of bread and butter which he was slowly eating. A goblet of water
was all the man had to drink. Charles now understood the situation and
he wanted to assist, but Boston men of his class are not as free with
strangers as Western and Southern people, and he found himself unable
tactfully to accomplish what he desired.

"You are not quite on to the ropes," the stranger remarked, his eyes on
the dress-suitcase which Charles had put down. "It was all new to me
when I came here, but it doesn't take long to get the run of things. God
knows it is simple enough if you have the money to do it with."

"I suppose so," Charles responded. "I've just come in."

The waitress was bringing his breakfast. She placed it before him,
handing him a paper napkin and leaving spoons and knife and fork.
"Anything else?" she asked.

"Nothing now, thank you," Charles answered.

Instead of going on to the next table at which a man and a woman with
drink-flushed faces were seating themselves amid the soiled dishes left
by others, she leaned again over the shoulder of the young man opposite
Charles.

"You must let me help," she whispered. "I know you are all right, and
you will never get work if you are underfed. You see, I know because
I've been there myself."

"Please, please, don't mention it," the young man said, his face drawn
and flushed with chagrin. "I assure you I am all right. That's a good
girl - let it drop."

She said nothing, but moved on to the new arrivals and began to place
the soiled things onto a tray preparatory to taking their order.

"Do you intend to stop in the city awhile?" the young man asked Charles.

"I may," the Bostonian returned. "I am looking for a room in this
neighborhood."

"Oh, there are plenty of them," the other smiled, "but you don't always
run across clean ones. I've tried several places and left. The house
where I am now is clean and cheap, and I think there are plenty of
vacancies. I have the landlady's card, if you care to look her up."

"Thank you, I'd like to do so." Charles had the feeling that he would
like to see more of the stranger, and living in the same house might
afford him the opportunity. The young man took a card from his pocket,
and as he got up he laid it before Charles. "I hope you will find a room
you like," he said, wearily, as he reached up for his hat, which Charles
noticed was dented and frayed on the edges of the brim. As he went out
Charles watched him, and saw him push a five-cent piece across the desk
to the cashier. He looked very thin and his step seemed uncertain, like
that of a convalescent.

The waitress came back to Charles. "He is in bad shape," she sighed. "He
has been coming here for two weeks and eating like that. He is silly. He
won't take help from any one. He has been well brought up, I'll bet."

"I wanted to help him, but I didn't see an opening for it," Charles
said. "It was kind of you to offer it."

"Oh, I'd break if I owned this joint," she laughed. "I see things like
that every day. Our cook used to make pancakes in the window. It was
pitiful to see the people stand watching him with their poor mouths
open."

Her voice shook and she suddenly turned away. As he was leaving the
restaurant a wonderful sense of peace and quiet was on him. Already his
new life was full of attractive novelty. How could he account for it
logically? He was a fugitive from law, without any income to provide for
his needs; he had renounced every tie of blood and former associate; he
was a man without a home, without a prop to lean upon, and yet an
inexpressible content was his. Was it due to his disgust over his past
life and the sense of having put it behind him, or was it on account of
the sacrifice he had made for his brother? He could not have said.

Glancing at the card, he saw that the rooming-house was quite near, and
he turned toward it.




CHAPTER VIII


The house was a red-brick building like all the others in the block. The
steps were of the conventional brownstone with rusty iron railings. The
front door over the basement entrance was open, and he rang a jangling
bell, the handle of which was so loose in its socket that it was drawn
almost out of place. While he waited he looked into the hall. It was
clean, though the carpets on the floor and visible stairs were worn and
the massive hat-rack of walnut leaned forward from the wall as if about
to fall. The basement door was opened and a portly woman with a red face
and tousled yellow hair climbed the stair to the sidewalk and approached
him.

"I understand you have rooms to rent," Charles said.

The woman eyed him curiously, evidently surprised at the elegance of his
clothing and the politeness of his attitude, for he had taken off his
hat in greeting her.

"Top floor back, three a week; hallroom back, next to it, two," she
answered, wiping her fat hands on a white apron. "Want to see 'em?"

"If you please," Charles said.

"No trouble. That's what I'm here for," she smiled pleasantly. She came
up the steps and led him into the hall. "Three flights up," she
explained. "Will you leave your bag? If you do I'll have to lock the
door. Roomers can't leave overcoats or hats on the rack now. Thieves are
as plentiful as mosquitoes in Jersey - some in the house, as for that. My
folks keep their rooms locked."

"I'll take the bag up with me," he said, feeling that, no matter what
the rooms were like, he would take one.

The stairs were dark. A wire hanging down the shaft was attached to a
bell at the top in order that it might be rung from the basement by the
landlady as a signal to her few servants who might be working above when
needed below. Immediately over the stairs in the roof was an oblong
skylight of variegated glass through which the tinted rays of sunlight
came. The woman pushed open the door of the larger room.

"The girl hasn't had a chance to get at it yet," she apologized. "The
bed hasn't been made up, and the man that is in it has left his things
lying around. He is going away this afternoon. If you like the room I'll
put his things out. He is unable to pay and I can't run my house on
nothing."

Charles saw an open unpacked trunk of very cheap quality in the center
of the room. The sight of the chamber in its disorder was decidedly
unpleasant, and Charles did not enter it. "What is the other like?" he
asked.

"I'll show you," said the woman, and she opened the door of the
adjoining room. It was very small, and it had only a single chair and
one window with a torn shade and cheap cotton-lace curtains. The only
place to hang clothing was the back of the door, into which hooks had
been screwed. There was a tiny wash-stand with a bowl in which a pitcher
stood, and a rack holding two thin cotton towels.

"This will do very well," he said. "It is large enough for me. I want to
cut down expenses. I am out of work at present."

"Oh, I see!" the landlady said, sympathetically. "A good many young men
are out of work. That is what is the matter with the fellow next door!"

Charles paid for a week in advance, and when she was about to leave she
said:

"Is your trunk coming? If it is, I'll send it up."

"No, I don't happen to have one," he said, trying to summon a casual
smile.

"Oh," she exclaimed, avoiding his eyes, "I make a rule to insist on
that. I've had trouble with some roomers, and it was always them that
just had hand-baggage."

"I can pay you more in advance, if you wish," he proposed, anxiously. "I
don't want you to break any rules on my account."

"Oh, never mind!" she said. "I know you are all right. I'm a pretty good
judge. The Lord knows I see all sorts of folks in my business, and most
of them will do me whenever they can. I've had thugs and counterfeiters
in my house. One man that said he was studying to be a minister had six
wives scattered over the country. They arrested him one afternoon while
I was giving him a cup of tea down-stairs - the smoothest talker that
ever lived, by all odds. I missed some trinkets, but, being a widow, I
never mentioned it to the officers. You see, it was all in the papers
and any little thing like that might have put my name on the list of his
victims; as it was, the number of my house was all that got into print."

When she had left him Charles closed the door and softly locked it. He
sat down in the chair and leaned back. The little walled space gave him
an odd sense of security. It was his own, for the time being, at least.
The window was open and a cooling breeze came in, fanning back the white
curtains. He took out his cigarettes and began to smoke, and as he
smoked his mind became very active in dealing with recent events. Two
marvelous things had taken place. He was free from future contact with
his Boston friends and acquaintances, who knew of his recent escapades
and their humiliating consequences, and he had released his brother from
conditions that were even worse. The memory of William's open-mouthed
stare of hope as he clutched at life anew drenched his soul with joy
inexpressible. What did it matter that he was never again to see
William, or his wife or child, or that he was never again to walk the
historic streets of his native city? What was to become of him he knew
not. Somehow it did not seem to matter. For the first time in his
existence life had taken on a meaning that was worth consideration. It
meant that by his persistent self-obliteration another man might reach
readjustment, and a woman and a child would escape pain and disgrace.

"Good! good!" Charles exclaimed, and slapped his knee. "I haven't lived
in vain, after all - that is," was his afterthought, "if I am not caught;
but I shall escape. The infinite powers could not will it otherwise.
William shall be a new man, and - why, I am already one! It is strange,
but I am. This room" - he swept the walls with exultant eyes - "seems as
natural to me as one in a fashionable club or hotel. It is all owing to
one's point of view. I now live on this plane, and it is good. How
amusing that woman was just now! How remarkable that I should feel
inclined to laugh at her drollery! Another week and she would have been
the seventh wife. The tea in the basement proves it. She is funny. I
like her."

Then his facile mood changed. What was happening at the bank at that
very moment? He looked at his watch. It was ten o'clock. The bank
examiners were at work. The discovery was made. Poor, crushed William at
his desk had only to say that the brother he had trusted had fled, and,
understanding all, they would leave him alone.




CHAPTER IX


At nine o'clock that morning William Browne came down to breakfast.
Celeste was already in her place, and smiled as he bent down and kissed
her. As he drew out his chair he noticed on his plate the envelope in
his brother's handwriting. He was not expecting any communication from
Charles, and the sight of the letter startled him. What could it mean,
his morbid fears suggested, unless it was that Charles had changed his
mind, after all, and had not left the city? Perhaps he was now in his
room, sleeping late, as usual. The thought was unbearable, for it
brought back all the terrors which had beset him during the weeks just
past. He sat down, and for a moment let the envelope lie on the plate
untouched. Celeste was busy pouring his coffee.

Michael came in bringing toast. He indicated the note with a wave of his
pudgy hand. "Mr. Charles asked me to hand it to you," he said, in a
grave tone which caught the attention of Celeste and caused her eyes to
linger on his face inquiringly.

"Is he coming down?" she asked.

For the first time in his experience as a family servant Michael
deliberately decided not to answer. He pretended not to have heard and
turned from the room.

William took grim notice of the failure on the man's part. He tore off
the end of the envelope, drew out the note, and read it. A thrill of
joyous relief went over him. With tingling fingers he folded it and put
it back into the envelope, and then placed it in his pocket. The rays of
the sun falling in at the window on the plants and flowers held a beauty
he had never seen before. Life - life! After all, he was to live! Charles
was gone and all would yet be well. His wife was looking straight at him
now.

"Good news of some sort," she smiled, as she spoke.

"Why, why do you think that?" he inquired, his beaming eyes steadying
into an uneasy stare.

"Because I saw it in your face just then," she answered. "But why is he
writing you when he could have come down and seen you? Is - is he all
right?"

William wondered what he could now say. Why had it not occurred to him
that he must be as adroit in his explanations to his wife as to the bank
examiners, the directors, the public in general?

His brain seemed too heavy to deal adequately with a situation so
delicate and fraught with pitfalls, for Celeste had a subtle intuition.

"Yes, he is all right," William said. "That is, he is not - was not
drinking yesterday or last evening when I saw him at the bank. In this
note he tells me that he has left town. I don't think he slept here last
night. Did he, Michael?" The butler was entering with the eggs and
bacon. "Did my brother sleep in his room last night?"



Online LibraryWill N. (Will Nathaniel) HarbenThe Hills of Refuge: A Novel → online text (page 3 of 25)