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Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

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col’ water not mo’n ten minutes ago.”

Back to the front hall Dearing went, and thence up the stairs to his
sister’s room, adjoining his own. The door was ajar, but he stood on the
threshold and rapped softly.

“Come!” It was a sweet young voice, and belonged to a pretty girl
seventeen or eighteen years of age, who, as Dearing entered the room,
sat at a quaint mahogany writing-desk between two lace-curtained windows
through which a gentle breeze was blowing. She wore a becoming wrapper,
and her small feet were shod in dainty embroidered slippers. Her
abundant hair was quite dark, and her eyes very blue. She had been
writing, for on the page of tinted note-paper before her he saw an
unfinished sentence in the round, schoolgirl hand.

“I don’t want to disturb you, Madge,” Dearing began, “but you will have
to stop anyway soon, and get ready for dinner.”

“I am not going down,” she told him, her glance falling to the rug at
her feet. “I had breakfast late, and I am not a bit hungry.”

“But that wouldn’t be treating Uncle Tom quite right, you know,” Dearing
gently protested, as he took a seat on the broad window-sill, swung
his hat between his knees, and eyed her significantly. “You know how
childish he is getting, Madge. It really upsets him not to have you at
the table. He is old-fashioned, and was something of a beau when he was
a young man. Making a fine lady of you and paying court to you seems to
be about all the pleasure he gets in life. I know it must be tiresome,
but there are many things we - ”

“He is _childish!_” Margaret exclaimed, her eyes flashing angrily,
“but I bore with it because I loved him, and because mother would have
approved it; but he is getting worse and worse. He wants me at his beck
and call every minute in the day, and even if I go out to see one of
my girl friends he either comes or sends one of the servants to see if
anything has happened. Then he - he - oh, there are a lot of things a girl
can’t put up with!”

“You mean his opposition to the visits of a certain friend of yours?”
Dearing said, in a forced tone of indifference, as he glanced out at the
window. Although his eyes were still ostentatiously averted, he saw her
cautiously draw a blank sheet of paper over the lines she had written.

“Yes,” she said, “that is _one_ thing. Fred Walton is a friend of mine,
and for all I know his feelings may be hurt by what uncle has said and
done. I know Fred is wild and reckless, but he has a good side to him - a
side everybody can’t see who doesn’t know him intimately.”

Young as he was, Wynn Dearing was wise in the ways of the world, and he
well knew that a temperament and will like his sister’s would never
be coerced. He decided to profit by the error in the method of his
blustering uncle.


“You have never heard _me_ abuse Fred,” he said, gently. “Many young
men who have wealthy parents are inclined to ‘sow wild oats,’ as the old
folks say; but really, Madge” - and he was smiling now - “for an honest,
inoffensive cereal, the ‘wild oat’ has to bear the burden of many a
tough young weed. Charity is said to cover a multitude of sins, but for
genuine selfsacrifice give me the old-fashioned, long-bearded wild oat,
in all its verdant and succulent - ”

“Brother, I’m not in a mood for silliness!” the girl interrupted him,
quickly, and with an impatient flush.

“I’m not either, Madge.” He took one of his knees between his hands,
and drew it up toward him. “The fact is, I am worried - worried like
everything! I may not show it, but this thing has taken a deep hold on
me. Something has got to be done, and that right away. Young folks may
love each other, or _think_ they love each other, and if it does no harm
to any one _else_, why, all well and good. But if their love business is
causing suffering - yes, and positive bodily injury to another - then they
ought to stop and ponder.”

“You mean that Uncle Tom - ”

“I mean this, Madge, and now I am talking to you as a physician - _his_
physician, too. The old man is actually so near the end of his
natural life that irritation like this is apt to undermine what little
constitution he has left. I’ve known old men to worry themselves into
softening of the brain over smaller things than this. You may not think
it would make much difference; but remember that if any act of yours and
Fred Walton’s were to cause his death, even indirectly, you could never
outlive the reproach of your conscience. Uncle Tom is in a dangerous
condition: his heart-action is bad, and so are his kidneys. You are too
young a girl to take such a responsibility as that on your shoulders;
besides, Madge, I must say that Fred - it is my duty as a brother to
say - ”

“You are going to abuse him; remember, you have not done it so far!”
Margaret broke in. “You won’t gain by it, brother. The whole town has
talked of nothing lately but him and his faults, and I appreciated your
silence, and so does he. We were speaking about it only yesterday,
and he praised you for it. He said you were the truest, most perfect
gentleman he had ever known, that you knew human nature too well to
expect young men to be absolutely perfect, and that - ”

“I wasn’t going to say a word against his _honor_, Madge,” Dearing
interrupted her, gently; “but I am going to say this: if I were in _his_
place right now I’d feel that I could not conscientiously, or even quite
honorably, continue to pay attention to a young lady situated - well,
situated _just as you are_.”

“Why, what do you mean?” the girl asked, her lip quivering stubbornly.

“This, sister, and nothing else. We may say what we please about Fred’s
good qualities, his sincerity, his - his devotion to you; his plans,
whatever they are; but a very disagreeable fact stands out like a black
splotch on the whole business, and that is simply this: Fred really has
failed to make good in the way a man ought to make good who aspires to
the hand of a girl like yourself. His father gave him a splendid chance
in the bank, but Fred’s best friends admit that he hasn’t profited by
it. Instead of attending to business and helping his old daddy - who,
harsh old skinflint though he is as to money matters, is a safe man in
any community - instead of doing what was expected of him, Fred - well, he
has turned his father against him, that’s all. The old man swears he
is going to cut him off without a penny, and everybody in town knows he
means it; Fred doesn’t dispute it himself. So, taking that along with
_the other thing_, I honestly can’t see how he can talk of love and
marriage to a girl like you are.”

“What _other_ thing do you mean?” Margaret demanded, pale with
suppressed emotion.

“I mean the fact that his marriage to you would cause Uncle Tom to
disinherit you outright. A man might sink low enough to want to marry a
girl after he himself has been disinherited for his irregular conduct,
but no creature with a spark of manhood in him would let his act
impoverish the woman he loves. I have said nothing against him so far,
but when he knows what uncle has determined to do - when he is told that
if he persists - well” - Dealing’s eyes were burning now with the fire
of genuine anger - “he’ll have _me_ to reckon with, that’s all - _me_,
Madge!”

Margaret stared at him for a moment, and then, with a piteous little
sob, she covered her face with her hands. “You are going to _tell_ him!”
she said, huskily. “Yes.” Dearing stood up and laid his hand on her
head. “I’m going to tell him, Madge, but it will be only for his own
good. In any case, he couldn’t honorably ask you to marry him _now_, and
the delay - if he is willing to wait - won’t do either of you any harm.
You are both young, and the world is before you. You can’t realize it
now, Madge, but this very thing may be the making of him. If he loves
you as truly as he ought, this will be only a spur toward proving his
worthiness.”

“Brother, must you really - ? oh, I can’t - can’t - ” The girl stood
up, her cheeks wet with tears, and clasped her hands round his
neck appealingly. “You really must not! He is already in trouble.
Surely - surely - ”

“There is no other way, Madge, but I’ll not be rough; I pity the poor
chap too much for that.”

“When do you intend to - to see him?” She was sobbing again, her face
pressed against his shoulder.

“This evening, Madge, if I can find him at home. There is no other way.
Uncle and I are the only protectors you have, and he is too angry and
easily wrought up to be trusted with the matter. I’d better manage it;
but you know I’ll be fair.”

The girl gazed fixedly at him for a moment, and then, in a storm of
tears, she threw herself oh her bed and hid her face in a pillow.
Glancing at her pityingly, and with moisture in his own eyes, Dearing
turned from the room.

“I am sorry for them both,” he muttered. “They are having hard luck, and
yet Fred Walton isn’t, from any point of view, worthy of her; there are
no two ways about it. He has got himself into a terrible plight, and he
has no right to involve my sister. No, and he sha’n’t!”




CHAPTER III

|THE greater part of the ensuing afternoon was spent by Dr. Dearing in
his musty little office on the ground-floor of a building in the central
square of the town which was devoted to lawyers’ quarters, the rooms of
the sheriff of the county, and the council-chamber where the mayor held
his court. He received a few patients, made some examinations, wrote
several prescriptions, and, considering that it was Sunday, he felt that
he was fairly well occupied. His mind, however, was constantly on the
topic of the morning and the disagreeable task confronting him. Finally
he turned over the placard on the door till the word “out” was exposed
to view, and went home to supper. Here, however, he met only General
Sylvester, who, a dejected picture of offended loneliness, sat on the
veranda, a dry cigar between his lips.

“Where is Madge?” Dearing asked, half standing, half sitting on the
balustrade in front of the old gentleman, and assuming a casual tone
which was far from natural.

“She hasn’t been down at all to-day,” the General answered, pettishly.
“I wouldn’t send for her. She knew I wouldn’t knuckle like that, but she
knows I always expect to walk with her Sunday afternoons, and she stayed
pouting in her room. She resents what has been said about that blackleg
gambler, and wants to show it as plainly as possible, so there won’t be
any mistake between her view and mine. She knows I don’t intend to leave
any property to her if she keeps this up, but she doesn’t care a rap.
She’s dead in love with the scamp, and, bad as he is, she glories in the
opportunity to show her contempt for me and all that pertains to me.
She can’t toss _me_ about like a ball, my boy! This thing has got to end
right here and now, or I’ll see my lawyer to-morrow and put something on
paper that may never be wiped out while I am alive.”

“Well, give her till to-morrow, then,” Dearing said, with strange,
suppressed calmness. “Her very sullenness now may be a sign that she is
about to give him up. I’ve talked to her, and, while I am not certain
what she’ll do, I have an idea that she may respect your wishes and
abide by your judgment.”

“I don’t think so,” the old man said, with an anxious look into the face
of his nephew; “that is, not so long as the rascal holds her to
whatever understanding they may have between them. When I was a young
man” - Sylvester clinched his fist and pounded his knee, as if to
emphasize his words - “things like this did not hang fire. A man who
could make no showing as to his being a proper suitor for a girl
under age was given orders from her family to desist in his harmful
attentions, and if he refused he was promptly dealt with - that’s all:
_dealt_ with!”

“Nowadays it’s different, Uncle Tom,” Dearing said, with the tone of an
older man. “Shooting or threatening to shoot about a young woman is sure
to cast a blight on her reputation, and there generally is some other
method to - ”

“You learned that up among those Yankees!” the General said, alluding to
the period his nephew had spent in a New York medical college. “But I am
miserable enough as it is without wanting you to stain your hands with
blood and have us all brought into court to justify your course. He is a
coward, I’m sure; no man has any pride or backbone who will cling on to
a respectable family, under the pretext of being in love, when his own
people have cut him off. His mother belonged to a good family, but he
hasn’t inherited any refinement of feeling from that side of the house.”

“I don’t think, to do Fred _full_ justice,” Dearing gently urged, “that
he quite realizes the seriousness of your objections to him. I really
believe, when he is told of the step you are about to take, that he will
act sensibly. He has a good side to him when he is thoroughly himself,
and I am going to look him up after supper and lay the whole thing
fairly before him.”

“Does Margaret know you - ” The General’s voice failed to carry further.

“Yes; I’ve told her what I intend to do, and I think that is one reason
she has remained in her room. She is hard hit, Uncle Tom. Girls never
can understand things of this sort. Their sympathies always go with
the unfortunate, and Madge knows Fred is down, and that most people are
against him.”

“Well, I hope you will accomplish something,” General Sylvester said,
hopefully. “You can straighten it out if any one can. I can trust you,
Wynn, and I am proud of you - proud of you in every way. I never regret
the loss of the old order of things when I think of what you are and
what you are bound to become as a leader of young men of your period.”

“We are certainly sharp enough to pull the wool over kind old eyes like
yours, Uncle Tom.” Dearing laughed as he leaned forward and laid his
hand on the old man’s shoulder. “In your day young blades boasted of
what they did under cover of the night, but we thank the darkness for
its shelter and don’t talk of our acts. Why, you old-timers didn’t know
the first principles of devilment! If it were not giving away
professional secrets, I’d tell you things that would make your hair
stand on end. You’ve heard me say I believe in the good old-time,
psalm-singing, God-fearing religion - well, I do. The longer I live the
more I think we need it. Look what modern thought has done for Kenneth
Galt. He has read so much on science and philosophy that he has reduced
us all - good, bad, and indifferent - to mere cosmic dust. According to
him, we are simply mud babies energized by planetary force, and living
on the pap of graft. Ask him to account for good spiritual impulses, and
he will - if he admits there are any - show you conclusively that good
conduct is the mere evolutionary result of communal self-interest; men
came to believe murder was wrong only because they didn’t want their
_own_ throats cut.”

“I have always wondered what Kenneth _does_ believe,” Sylvester said,
with his first smile. “He certainly is an interesting man; and he’s
rich, and growing more so.”

“Yes; he was well provided for at the start,” responded Dearing, “and he
has invested wisely.”

“I have seen him talking to Margaret several times of late,” Sylvester
remarked. “That is one thing that irritates me. I don’t care a red cent
about his cranky religious views; they will take care of themselves, for
he is a straight, safe, and honorable man; and if this harum-scarum Fred
Walton had not been taking up so much of her time, why - ”

“You old match-maker!” Dearing laughed. “I’m going to stir up Aunt Diana
and get something to eat. I am as hungry as a bear.”

While he and his uncle sat together at the long table in the big
dining-room, Dearing asked the cook if she had notified his sister that
supper was served.

“Yesser, Marse Wynn,” the woman answered over the coffee-tray she was
putting down, “I sent Lindy up dar to her room, and she say young miss
didn’t want er bite. I reckon she sho’ is sick. She haint tetch er
mouthful since ‘er breakfast.”

“Well, let her alone,” Dearing said, as his eyes met the wavering glance
of his uncle across the table. “She will be all right in the morning.”

The gloomy meal over, the General strode back to the veranda, and Wynn
went up to his room. He did not light the gas, as he intended doing, for
it occurred to him that there was really no need for it, and he sat down
in the darkness. He could see one of the windows of Margaret’s room in
the ell of the building, across the open court. A dim light was burning
there, and the curtains were drawn.

“Poor child!” he muttered; “that fellow has hit her hard. Women have
a wonderful amount of sympathy for him. It may be that Mrs. Barry
is correct in her fears, and that Dora may be in love with him, too.
Beautiful, trusting Dora - even _she_ is suffering on his account. Yes,
I must see him. There is no other way.” Dearing stood up and went to
his bureau to get a fresh handkerchief, and while his hand was fumbling
collars, cuffs, and neckties, it touched the cool, smooth handle of a
revolver. He picked it up and held it for a moment reflectively, and
then laid it down.

“No, I’ll not go to see him even with the thought that I may have to
use force,” he said. “My mission in life is to _cure_ men, not to
spill their blood. They say he sometimes goes armed, and if we met on
that sort of level there might be trouble.”

He closed the drawer, stood for a moment looking at the light in the
window of Margaret’s room, and then, shrugging his broad shoulders, he
turned away. He met no one on the stairs, but as he passed out at the
front door he saw the flare of his uncle’s cigar and the wrinkled,
brooding face and gray head and beard at the end of the veranda. Going
down the wide brick walk, which was edged by rows of well-trimmed
boxwood, he descried, near the gate, a willowy figure in white. It was
Margaret. She looked up as he approached, and in the piteous lines of
her face he read her final desperate appeal.

“I thought you were in your room,” he said, in an effort at gentle
deception. “Madge, old girl, I’ll have to take you in hand.” He passed
his fingers playfully under her cold chin. “You are on a direct road to
a thirty-day course of that very tonic you despised so much last
spring. No dinner to-day and no supper to-night. I don’t get any fee
for doctoring you, but I’m going to keep you in good shape as an
advertisement, if for nothing else. I don’t intend to have my patients
throwing it in my face that they won’t believe in me until I cure my own
family.”

She did not return his smile, and drew back from his caress as if she
half resented it.

“Are you really going to see Fred?” she asked, falteringly, her eyes
fixed coldly, half fearfully, on his through the dim, vague starlight.

“Yes, Madge,” he answered, simply. “I’ve thought it over deliberately
and calmly, with no feeling of ill-will toward him, and I can’t see my
duty in any other way.”

“To-night?” She breathed hard, her hand on her breast.

“Right away, sister; that is, if he is in town.”

She moved a little nearer to him. He saw the hand which started toward
his arm tremble, as it diverted its course to one of the palings of the
fence, which it clutched in visible desperation.

“Do you realize,” she asked, “that to - to tell him what Uncle Tom
intends to do in case he and I don’t give each other up may insult him?
He is not a man to care about a girl’s fortune; he hasn’t shown that he
wants his father’s money. He knows that I don’t let such things weigh
with me. What you are now starting out to do may be the immediate cause
of - of our both _defying you!_”

“Oh, I see,” Dearing said. “Well, in that case I shall have done all
in my power to protect your interests. I’ll tell you one thing, though,
Madge, little girl: the matter looks black enough as it stands; but,
really, if I felt that you were going absolutely penniless to a man who
has shown himself as reckless of his own interests as Fred Walton has,
I’d be blue in earnest, and - and I don’t know that I’d be quite able to
restrain my temper if such a reckless spendthrift were to thrust himself
between you and your natural rights, boldly robbing you, blind as you
now are, of what you ought to have, and which later in life you
will sadly need. I am not a fighting man, but - well, he’d better not
interfere with your material interests, that’s all.”

She shrank back before the force and suppressed fury in his face and
voice, and now, her last hope gone, she simply stared, speechless. He
had put his hand upon the iron latch of the gate when she caught his arm
and clung to it convulsively.

“Oh, brother, you don’t know Fred as I do!” she wailed. “He has some
faults, I’ll admit; but he is true and noble at heart. You see, I’ve
heard him talk in a confidential way and you haven’t. The last time I
met him he almost cried in telling me of his troubles. He does try very
hard to please his father. You see, I am convinced that he has just
reached a sort of turning-point, and I am afraid this very thing may
make him more desperate.”

“If he is sincere,” Wynn retorted, “and is any sort of man, he will
be glad of being warned against impoverishing the girl he professes to
love. You leave it all to me, sister. I am not going to be harsh with
him. I don’t really dislike him, and he has nothing against me.” From
the expression of utter despair in her eyes he knew that she intended
to resist no longer. She lowered her head to the top of the fence, and
without looking at him, she asked, in a smothered voice: “What time do
you think you will - will be back?”

“I can’t tell, Madge. I may not find him at once, you know.”

“I shall wait up for you,” she gulped. “I couldn’t close my eyes until I
see you and know what he says. Oh, brother, I am afraid - ”

“Afraid of w’hat?” he demanded, quickly.

“I hardly know how to express it.” She looked up, and on her cheeks lay
the damp traces of the tears she had wiped away on her sleeve. “But he
is desperate. I am actually afraid he may try to - to do himself harm.
It looked, the other evening, as if he were constantly on the point of
telling me something about some crisis or other in his affairs which
has just come up. He would start out as if about to make a disclosure of
some horrible kind, and then he would stop and say: ‘But I can’t worry
you by telling you everything. It won’t help matters to talk about my
trouble.”

“Poor chap,” Dearing said. “I will not be hard on him, sister; I promise
you that. I may find him at church; he sometimes goes to take Dora
Barry.”

“Yes; they are good friends,” Margaret said. “That is one thing I admire
in him. She is poor, and doesn’t receive much attention. Fred takes her
to places and goes to see her out of pure kindness of heart.”

“Well, I’m off,” Dearing said, as he turned to leave. “Now you go to
bed, young lady, and forget about this disagreeable mess for to-night,
anyway. It may be all for the best.”




CHAPTER IV

|LEAVING Madge mute and motionless at the gate, staring through the
starlight after him, Dearing strode down the street past the fine old
home of Kenneth Galt, which was set well back in spacious grounds on
the left. Along the way were old-fashioned houses in bad condition, old
buildings which had been modernized, and which stood on well-kept lawns,
and others which had no touch of antiquity. After a few minutes he
reached a plain two-story frame house which had once been white, but
now showed little trace of its original paint. It was the home of
Fred Walton’s father, Stafford’s well-to-do banker, money-lender,
“note-shaver,” and all-round speculator in stocks, bonds, and real
estate.

“Fred may be here,” Dearing reflected, as he paused at the ramshackle
gate and viewed the forbidding old house as it loomed up among the
trees, fifty yards from where he stood; “but he’d certainly be excusable
for seeking a more cheerful place to spend an evening, considering that
meddlesome stepmother of his.”



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