Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

The Hills of Refuge: A Novel online

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"If I am going to quit, now's the time," Charles answered, gravely. "I
don't want to part from you, but really we are not situated alike. You
have been homesick for the last three months. You cannot hide it. You
are always talking of your people."

Mason blushed visibly. "Well, so are you homesick. I wish I could see
that fellow Mike you are always talking about. I know every story by
heart that the Mick ever told, and the little girl and your brother and
his wife - why, you think about them as often as I do about my folks."

Charles made no denial. They were passing one of the churches of the
town. It was an old brick building with ivy growing on the walls, a
beautiful sward about it. The front doors were open. They paused and
looked in. A negro sexton was sweeping the floor near the pulpit. Mason
was for moving on, but his friend seemed to linger.

As they left, Charles said, frankly: "I'm not a member of any church and
I have no religious creed, but if I lived in this town I'd want to come
here every Sunday morning and sit back somewhere in the rear and listen,
and get into contact with the people, real people - not the sort we've
been traveling with for nearly a year. O God! I'm weary of it - weary,
weary! I want a home of some sort. You have one that you can go to. I
haven't, but I want to make one. Strange idea, isn't it? But I want it."

Mason laid his hand on his friend's arm gently, tenderly. "Poor old
chap!" he said. "I understand you better now. And you think you could
make a permanent home for yourself in a place like this?"

"Something tells me to stop here - right here, old man. Something seems
to say that it is to be my home for all the rest of my life. Ever since
we turned northward I've felt uneasy. I've not slept so well. I've
dreamed of disaster up there. I've not heard from home once since we
left New York. I've seen no paper. I don't know what they think of me.
Some of my people may be dead. I don't know. I don't dare to think of
it. I want to blot it all out, for it no longer pertains to me."

"I see," Mason said, gloomily. "Well, you must be your own judge and I
must be mine. Somehow I can't dig the homesick feeling out of myself. I
thought I could stick to the gang till we got back to New York, but, as
I have my pay, and some more besides, if you quit I'll follow suit and
travel first-class, like a gentleman, back to New York, where I'll stop
a while before going home. Have you made up your mind?"

"Yes, fully," Charles answered. "I'll find something to do. I'd like to
work on a farm. Out in the country my life could be even more private
and secluded than here in a town like this. See those hills? They seem
made for me, old man. They seem to have fallen from the eternal blue
overhead. They will shelter me. I'll work and sleep and forget. The
inhabitants will never know who I am, but I'll like them. I'll serve
them, and perhaps they will like me a little after a while. The manager
can easily fill my place."

"Well, then, it is settled," said Mason, with a deep breath. "It seems
strange to think of parting with a pal like you, and I guess it means
for good and all. You don't intend ever to see your folks again?"

"My relatives, no," Charles said. "I've thought often of writing back to
dear old Mike, but don't think it would be quite safe. If I had any way
of communicating with him other than the mails I would let him know
where I am. I could trust him with my life."

"How about letting me go to Boston? I could see him on the quiet and
tell him about you."

"No, that would be out of your way," Charles protested. "Never mind. It
is better as it is. I'd like to hear from Mike, but he belongs to the
past with all the rest. Let's go to the car and pack."


The two friends parted at the train that night. Charles felt a pang of
loneliness as his companion was borne away. He had his bag with him and
he wondered what he had better do. There was a small hotel near by and
he went into the office and asked for a room. The clerk handed a pen to
him across the counter and turned the register around for him to
inscribe his name. Charles hesitated for barely an instant, then decided
to make use of his own name. It looked strange to him, for he had not
written it since he left home.

"C. Brown," he smiled. "Too common to attract notice. I've given up
everything else; I will stick to my name. I can't always be lying about

A negro porter showed him his room. It was on the second floor and
looked out toward the circus-grounds. The windows were up and he could
hear the band and the clapping of hands by the audience. The air of the
room was hot, and so he threw off his coat and tried to be comfortable,
but he was restless and had no inclination to sleep. He knew, from the
changing airs of the band, every act that was on in the ring. He could
hear the familiar voice of the clown, the crack of the ringmaster's
whip, and the clown's comical cry of pain, followed by the moss-grown
jests Charles had heard hundreds of times.

Finding that he could not sleep, he put on his coat and went out. The
street below was quite deserted. The stores were all closed. Everybody
had gone to the circus. He walked to the end of the street, then turned
eastward and climbed a hill in the edge of the town. He had the square
and the diverging streets before him, and an odd sense of part ownership
in it all crept over him.

"It is mine, it is mine!" he whispered. "I'll live here or close by.
I'll make a home of it."

The performance was over under the vast canvas. He knew it from the
ceasing of the music and the far-away hum of voices as the crowd
filtered back to the town. One by one the tent lights went out. He heard
the rumble of the wheeled animal cages, the gilded band-wagon and gaudy
chariots, as they were rolled on to the flat cars; the loud shouts of
teamsters; the roar of a disturbed lion. He heard the clatter of the
seat-boards and supports as they were taken down and hauled to the
train, the crash of falling tent-poles, the familiar oaths of the
foreman of the gang he had just left. Soon the lights were all out save
those moving about the train. The bell of the locomotive was ringing a
hurry signal. Charles had a mental picture of his former companions
tumbling, half undressed, into their berths in the dimly lighted cars.
There was a sound of escaping steam from the locomotive, a clanging of
its bell. The train was moving. Charles waved his hat in the still air
as the train was passing the foot of the hill.

"Good-by, boys!" he said, with feeling. "I'll never see you again."

The train moved on and disappeared in the distance. Charles sat down on
a boulder. For a year past he had longed for just that sort of freedom,
but, now that it was within his reach, it somehow lacked the charm he
had expected. Suddenly he felt averse to the thought of sleeping in the
room he had taken at the hotel. He wanted to lie on the grass there in
the starlight, and greet the rising of the sun upon his new life. But he
told himself that he had better go to the hotel. Not to occupy a room
after engaging it might arouse suspicion, so he went back to the
deserted square.

The clerk was behind the counter and gave him his key, "You was with the
circus, wasn't you?" he asked.

"Yes, but how could you tell?" Charles answered.

"Oh, by your clothes," the young man replied. "All of you fellers look
different from common folks, somehow; your hats, shirts, shoes ain't the
sort we-all wear. Then you are as sunburnt as gipsies. You've quit 'em,
I reckon!"

"Yes," Charles told him. "I'm going to try something else. I want to
work on a farm if I can get a job."

"Easy enough, the Lord knows," said the clerk, smiling broadly.
"Farm-hands are awfully scarce; niggers all moving off. Now I come to
think of it, I heard to-day of a job that is open. Miss Mary Rowland is
stopping here in the house now. In fact, I think she came in town to
catch some of the floating labor brought in by the show. I know she
didn't go to either performance. She is a friend of Mrs. Quinby, the
wife of the feller that runs this hotel, and when she comes in town she
always puts up with us. She is a fine girl and a hard worker. The
Rowlands are one of our oldest and best families, but run down at the
heel, between you and me. Her daddy lost a hand in the Civil War, and
can't work himself. He's got two boys, and take it from me they are the
limit. The wildest young bucks in seven states. The old man don't know
how to handle 'em, and Miss Mary has give up trying. If she can keep 'em
out o' jail she will be satisfied."

Not being in the mood to enjoy the clerk's gossip, Charles sought his
room and went to bed. It was somewhat cooler now and he soon fell
asleep. He was waked at nine o'clock by the sound of some enormous
trunks being trundled into the sample-room set aside for the use of
commercial travelers across the hall from his own chamber, and, rising
hurriedly, he went down-stairs. He was quite hungry and afraid that he
might be too late to be served with breakfast. The same clerk was on
duty; he smiled and nodded.

"I kept your breakfast for you," he said. "The dining-room is closed,
but we make exceptions once in a while. Walk right in - just give the
door a shove. I'll go in the kitchen and have you waited on. You take
coffee, I reckon?"

Charles said he did, and went into the big, many-tabled room adjoining
the office. The clerk followed and passed into the kitchen through a
screened door.

He appeared again in a moment. "It will be right in," he said. "You can
set right here by the window. This seat ain't taken. We've got a lot of
town boarders. It helps out, I'm here to state. They get a low cut rate
by the month, but it brings in money in the long run. Say, you remember
you said you were looking for a job on some farm? That young lady I was
telling you about, Miss Mary Rowland, was at breakfast just now, and I
told her about you. She was powerfully interested, for, between you and
me, she is in a hole for want of labor out her way. She missed fire in
every attempt she made yesterday. She trotted about town all day, and
had to give it up. She begged me to see you. She went out about half an
hour ago to do some trading at the dry-goods stores. She said tell you
she'd be at Sandow & Lincoln's 'most all morning, and hoped you'd come
in there. I'll tell you one thing - you will be treated right out there
if you do go, and they will feed you aplenty and give you a clean bed to
sleep in. You just tell her Sam Lee sent you - everybody about here knows
Sam Lee - and if you just said 'Sam' it would do as well. I get up all
the dances for the young folks here in this room. We shove the tables
back ag'in' the wall, hire a nigger fiddler and guitar-picker, and have
high old times at least once a month. You see Mrs. Quinby favors that
because it makes a pile of drummers lie over here, and they pay the top
rate. What do they care? Expense-account stretches to any size."

Charles promised to look Miss Rowland up, and, being needed in the
office, Sam Lee hastened away. Charles enjoyed his breakfast. The food
was an agreeable change from the fare of which he had grown tired in the
dining-tent of the circus. The clean white plates and dishes appealed to
him by contrast to the scratched and dented tin ones the canvasmen had
been obliged to use. The eggs, butter, and ham seemed to be fresh from
the mountain farms; the coffee was fine, clear, and strong; the cream
was thick and fresh; the bread was hot biscuits just from the range.


After breakfast Charles went out into the street. It was a clear day,
and the mountains in the distance, the near-by green hills, the blue
sky, appealed to him. His morbid mood of the night before was gone. Life
seemed to promise something to him that had not been within his reach
since the hopeful days of his boyhood. He wondered if he was already
becoming identified with a locality which he could regard as a permanent
home. He smiled as he asked himself who would look for him here among
these buried-alive people. How simple and quaint the farmers looked as
they slowly moved about their produce-wagons in front of the stores of
general merchandise! How amusing their drawling dialect as they priced
their cotton, potatoes, chickens, and garden truck! The sign of Sandow &
Lincoln's store hung across the sidewalk in front of him. He turned in
there. A number of country women with their children stood along the
counters on both sides of the narrow room, all being waited on by
coatless clerks. A clerk approached Charles.

"Something to-day, sir?" he asked.

Charles told him what he wanted, and the clerk nodded. "Oh yes!" he
said, "Miss Mary was talking about you just now. She said you might come
in, but she wasn't at all sure. She is in the grocery department, next
door. She said tell you to wait back in the rear, if you came. You will
find a seat there. I'll tell her when she comes in. No, Mrs. Spriggs,
we've quit handling nails." This to a gaunt young woman at his elbow,
with a baby on her arm. "When the new hardware started up we agreed to
go out of that line and sold 'em our stock. It is right across the
street. You can't miss it."

Charles went back to the rear of the long room and took one of the
chairs. A country girl came with several pairs of shoes in her arms, and
sat down near him to try them on. It amused him to note the way she
pulled them on over her coarse stockings, and stood up on a piece of
brown paper to prevent any scratching of the soles. Finally she made a
selection, and went back with all the shoes in her arms. There was a
long table holding suits of clothing against the wall, and a young
farmer came back and began to pull out some of the coats and examine

Catching Charles's glance, he smiled. "Most of 'em moth-eaten," he said,
dryly. "They've had 'em in stock ever since the war - mildewed till they
smell as musty as rotting hay in a damp stack. Show feller, eh?"

"I was," Charles admitted.

"I heard the clerk talking about you just now," the man went on. "That
was a good show, if I'm any judge. The best clown I think I ever saw.
How any mortal man can think up funny things and fire 'em back as quick,
first shot out of the box, as that feller did in answering questions
beats me."

Charles explained that both the questions and replies had been in use a
long time, and the farmer stared in wonder.

"You don't mean it," he said. "That sorter spoils it, don't it? Well,
every man to his own line, I reckon."

He might have asked more questions, but Miss Rowland was approaching
from the front. As he rose to his feet Charles was quite unprepared for
what he saw. He had pictured her as an elderly spinster, somewhat soured
by work, misfortune, and family cares, but here was a graceful young
girl hardly past eighteen, with a smiling, good-humored face that was
quite pretty. She was slight and tall; she had small hands and feet,
hazel eyes, and a splendid head of golden-brown hair.

"I think you are Mr. Brown," she began, smiling sweetly. "Mr. Sam Lee
said he would speak to you about what I want."

"He sent me here," Charles answered. For the first time since his exile
he was conscious of the return of his old social manner in the presence
of a lady, and yet he knew there was much that was incongruous in it,
dressed as he was in soiled and shabby clothing.

"I certainly am glad you came," she said, in that round, deep and
musical voice which somehow held such charm for his ears. "I tell you I
am sick and tired of trying to get help, and our cotton and corn are
being choked to death by weeds. If you don't come I don't know what I'll

"I am perfectly willing," he half stammered, under the delectable thrall
of her eyes and appealing mien of utter helplessness, "but I must be
frank. I am ignorant of field work. My idea was to offer my help to some
farmer who would be patient with me till I got the hang of it. Of
course, I could not expect wages till - till - "

"Oh," she broke in, with a rippling laugh, "you wouldn't have any
trouble in that respect! A child can cut out weeds with a hoe. I did it
when I was a tiny thing. All you have to learn is the difference between
corn and cotton and weeds. I can show you that in a minute. Oh, if that
is all, we can fix that!"

"That is the only thing I can think of," Charles answered. "I am tired
of the roving life I've been leading with the circus and I want to
locate somewhere permanently."

"Then we may as well talk about the - the wages," the girl said. "The
price usually paid is two dollars a day for six days in the week, and
board thrown in. How would that suit you?"

"I am only afraid I won't earn it - at first, anyway," Charles said. "I
think I'd better let you pay me according to what I am worth. Money is
really not my chief object. I only want a place to live. It happens that
I am all alone in the world - no kin or close friends."

"Oh," Mary cried, softly, "that is sad - very, very sad. I sometimes
think that all my troubles come from having so many dear ones to bother
about, but it must be worse not to have any at all. What a strange life
you must have been leading! And you - you" - she hesitated, and then went
on, frankly - "you seem to be of a sensitive nature. And yet, from what
I've always heard of showmen - "

Seeing that she had paused, he prompted her. "You were saying - "

"More than I have any right to say on such a short acquaintance," she
replied, coloring prettily, "but I'll finish. Of course, we don't know
about such things, but we have the impression that showmen are rough and
uneducated; but you are quite the opposite."

"There are all classes among the workers about a circus," he
said - "good, bad, and indifferent."

"Well," she smiled, "let's get back to business. When can you come? We
live five miles out, at the foot of the mountains, and any one can
direct you to our plantation - I say 'plantation,' because it used to be
styled that when we owned a lot of slaves and land. Nowadays the slaves
are all free and our land has been sold off, for one reason or another,
till we have only a farm now."

"I can come any day," Charles answered. "I have nothing to do and would
rather be at work."

"Well, then, suppose you come out in the morning," Mary said. "I'm going
right home, and I want to fix a place for you to sleep. We've got a
rather roomy house, but it is not fully furnished. Oh, you will find us
odd enough! We used to have a lot of old furniture, but we got hard up a
few years ago and sold it by the wagon-load to a dealer in antiques. We
have some of the old things left, but very few. The man shipped the
furniture to Atlanta and sold it at a very high price. A funny thing
happened about it. I was down there visiting a cousin of mine, and we
went to a tea given by a wealthy woman - one of the sort, you know, that
says 'I seen,' and 'had went.' Well, you may imagine my surprise when I
recognized our old mahogany side-board in her dining-room. She saw me
looking at it, and set in and told me a long story about how it had come
down to her through several generations on her mother's side. I was
crazy to know how much she paid for it, to see how badly we were stuck
by that dealer, but of course I kept my mouth shut."

Charles laughed heartily, and it struck him with surprise, as he
suddenly realized that it was almost the first genuine laugh he had
enjoyed since he had left his home. Then he became conscious of his
incongruous appearance. He noticed the enormously heavy, unpolished
boots he wore, with their thick leather and metal heel-taps. His nails
were neglected, his hands as rough and calloused as a blacksmith's; he
had not shaved for several days and his beard felt bristly and unclean.
The shirt he wore was thick, coarse, and collarless; the trousers
resembled the stained overalls of a plumber. He wondered that Miss
Rowland should be treating him in such a cordial and even friendly
manner, and he decided that it might be the way of the higher class in
the South.

"Well," she suddenly said, turning toward the entrance of the store,
"I'm going to expect you."

"I promise you that I won't fail," he said, earnestly, fumbling his
coarse cap in his hands.

"And I believe you mean it." She smiled that entrancing smile again and,
to his surprise, she held out her hand. As he took it an indescribable
sensation passed over him. It felt soft and warm and like some sentient,
pulsing thing too delicate and helpless for the touch of the rough palm
which now held it.

"Many have fooled me, both white and black," she went on. "They swore
they would come - even some of our old slaves - but didn't. However, I
know I can count on you."

"You may be sure of it," he answered. "The obligation is on the other
side. I want work badly and I am grateful to you for giving it to me."

"Oh, I hope you will like it out there!" she said, thoughtfully, as she
lingered, and with her words she dropped her eyes for the first time.
"We have our troubles and you will be sure to notice them. I have two
brothers, Kenneth and Martin, both older than I am, and I may as well
tell you that they are somewhat wild and reckless. I never know where
they are half the time. Yes, they are bad - they are my dear brothers and
I love them with all my heart, but they are bad. They drink; they play
poker; they are always in fights. It was to get Kenneth out of trouble,
to pay his lawyer and the fines, that we sold some of our best land. He
wasn't altogether to blame, I'll say that; but he is quick-tempered and
never could control himself. Martin is getting to be like him. He
imitates Kenneth in everything. It all rests on me, too. My father is as
easy-going as an old shoe and doesn't care much what happens. You will
find him odd, I reckon. He has only one hand; he can't work, and so he
is always at his books. He is writing a history of the Rowlands. He
spends all our spare change for stamps to write to people of that name
whenever he happens to hear of one. It is a fearful waste of time and
energy, but it amuses him and I can't object. Well, I am going now. I'll
count on you, sure."

"You may be sure I'll come," Charles repeated. He had the feeling that
he ought to accompany her to the door, but at once realized that the
instinct to do so came from the past in which he had the social right to
consider himself on an equality with any lady. He sat down in his chair
and watched her as she moved through the motley throng of country people
in the store. How different she seemed from them all! Then an
indescribable sense of dissatisfaction came over him. Why, he was to be
her servant, nothing more nor less, and the freedom she had shown meant
nothing. Yet surely it wasn't so bad as that, after all. She had said
that he seemed to have a sensitive nature and that he struck her as
being an educated man. Yes, she had said those things, and he was sure
that the memory of them would never leave him. He was glad that he had
parted company with Mason, as much as he liked him, for he wanted to hug
this new adventure close to his own individual breast. She had her
troubles, and was bravely bearing them. He would never complain again
over his lot. He went through the store and out onto the street. There
was something in the very atmosphere that seemed to shower down content
and joy upon him. He spent the remainder of the day wandering about the
old town, almost as one in a delightful dream. He was almost
superstitious enough to think that some guiding angel in an invisible
world had led him to this spot. Ruth, Celeste, William - they might
remain out of his life forever. He had passed through a terrible travail
to attain this new birth, but the whole ordeal was worth it. He told
himself that no vastly good thing ever came till the price was paid, and
he had paid long and well for this. Work? He laughed. He could work till
he fell in exhaustion in such a cause. Then he laughed again.

"Why, she is only a girl!" he said. "Am I a fool? After all these years
of common sense am I losing my mind? Now what is there about her that
does not belong to the average woman?"

He did not attempt to fathom the mystery. He only knew that he was
already itching with the desire to see her again. He wanted to serve
her. She was a merry child and a thoughtful woman deliciously
compounded. The lights of joy and the shadows of trouble seemed
alternately to flit over her wondrous being. She had troubles, and so
had he. He was almost glad that it was so, for he would kill his own in

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