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Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

The Redemption of Kenneth Galt online

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faltered, “and told me there wasn’t any letter.”

The poor woman felt that her defence, if defence it might be called,
was falling on wilfully closed ears, and again she was conscious of that
rocking, floating sensation. The round, red visage of the washerwoman
seemed to recede from her; there was a sound as of roaring water in
her ears. But through it all the insistent voice of her tormentor beat
into her consciousness.

“If she didn’t show it to you, she _hid_ it; I’m dead sure of that. She
_hid_ it. I have been watching your girl, Mrs. Barry, for several weeks,
and I’m free to say that something has gone wrong with her. A body can
see it in the drooping way she has in moving about. The day you sent her
over for the salt I thought, on my soul, she’d drop in her tracks before
she left the kitchen. Maybe the letter was to tell her where the scamp
was going, or - or - well, there could be lots a fellow like that might
say at such a time. But I’ll be bound, he was putting her off. They all
do. It is man-nature.”

“I am sure she didn’t _get_ any letter,” Mrs. Barry said, and she now
tore herself away, conscious of her overwhelming disadvantage in the
adroit woman’s hands.

“Well, you’ll find out I’m right,” was the shot which struck her in the
back as she turned the corner of the cottage. “If you don’t believe me,
you can ask the postman; there he is - coming down the street right now.”

But Mrs. Barry did not pause. She went into the house and closed her
door. She stood in the middle of the room like a creature deprived of
animation. Through the parted curtains of an open window she heard the
washerwoman call out to the man in uniform:

“I just had a bet up with Mrs. Barry, Sim Carter! She must think I’m
blind. I told her you left a letter at her house this morning, and she
says she never saw hair nor hide of it.”

“It is there all right,” the man laughed. “I gave it to Miss Dora.”

“That’s what I told her. I say, Sim Carter, have they heard anything
more yet about - ” But the postman was gone.

Through the window, by stooping and peering forth, Mrs. Barry could see
him crossing the street to the next house. With a heart as heavy as
lead she went into the parlor; Dora was not there. She passed on to the
kitchen; no one was there, either. There was something incongruous
in the contented aspect of the fat, gray cat lying and purring in the
sunlight on the door-sill. Bliss like that under the coat of a mere dumb
brute when she had this to bear - this lurking, insinuating, maddening
thing, which had been creeping slowly upon her night and day until it
had assumed the shape and size of a monster of mental and spiritual
torture.

She went on to Dora’s room, where she found the girl seated on her bed.
The great, long-lashed, somnolent eyes, over the exquisite beauty of
which men and women had marvelled, were red as from weeping. She gave
her mother, as the old woman stood in the doorway, a weary, despondent
glance, and then, half startled, looked down. Mrs. Barry saw the charred
remains of a sheet of writing-paper in the open fireplace, and a fresh
pang darted through her.

“Did you need me, mother?” Dora inquired, softly, in the musical voice
so many had admired, and which to-day sounded sweeter, more appealing,
than ever before.

“Mrs. Chumley says you got a letter from the postman this morning,” Mrs.
Barry said, tremblingly.

The girl seemed to hesitate just an instant; then she nodded, mutely.

“Who was it from, daughter?”

“Mother, I don’t want to say - even to you. I have reasons why - ”

“It was from Fred Walton! You need not deny it.”

Dora made no protest; she simply dropped her eyes to her lap, and sat
motionless.

“You knew he had left, didn’t you?”

“Yes, mother. I knew he was gone.”

“And while the whole town is wondering why he went, you know, I
suppose?”

“I don’t feel that I have the right to talk about it, mother.”

“Well, I sha’n’t urge you!” And the older woman shambled away, now
bearing doubts which were heavier and more maddening than ever.

“Something’s wrong - very, very wrong - or she wouldn’t droop like that,”
she said. “Oh, God have mercy, I’m actually afraid to question my own
child! I am afraid to even do that!”

The sun went down, the night came on; workingmen, women, and children
passed along on their homeward way from the cotton and woolen mills,
carrying their dinner-pails. The very cheerfulness of their faces,
lightness of step, and merry jesting with one another sent shafts of
misery to the heart of the brooding woman. When she had put the supper
on the table she went to the daughter’s room and told her it was ready.

“Some of your art pupils came to the gate just now, didn’t they?” she
inquired.

“Yes,” the girl answered. “Sally and Mary Hill wanted to know if I’d go
sketching with them to the swamp to-morrow afternoon.”

“And are you going?”

“I told them I’d let them know in the morning.” Dora was at her place at
the side of the table, and she felt her mother’s despondent gaze turned
on her.

“You told them you’d let them know! Why, don’t you know already? I
thought you liked to go out that way. Some of your best studies were
made at the swamp.”

“I was feeling so badly,” the girl sighed, “that I didn’t have the heart
to promise. I can never work to any advantage if I am not in the mood
for it.”

“Oh! _that_ is it!” They both sat down. “You ought to fight against
languor at this time of the year. I never let an ache or pain keep me
from work. Sometimes merely being busy seems to help one. Your father
used to stick at his easel as long as the light would hold out. He
used to say the time would come when the whole world would admire your
painting, and you really _are_ improving.”

Dora sighed, but said nothing.

Mrs. Barry passed her a cup of coffee. “Here, drink this down while it
is hot,” she advised. “I made it strong. It will do you good.”

“Thank you, mother, you are very kind to me.” Dora drank some of the
coffee, and daintily munched a piece of buttered toast. In the afternoon
light, which fell through a western window, Mrs. Barry saw a deeply
troubled look on the wan face - a certain nervous twitching of the
tapering fingers.

Presently Dora pushed back her chair and rose.

“I don’t care for anything else,” she said, avoiding her mother’s eyes.

“But you haven’t eaten anything at all,” Mrs. Barry protested,
anxiously.

“I can’t eat - I simply can’t,” Dora said, with strange and desperate
frankness. “I’m too miserable. Oh, mother, mother, pity me! pity me!”

Mrs. Barry sat motionless, her head, with its scant hair, now supported
by her two sinewy hands. She saw her daughter turn away, and, with
dragging feet, go on to her bedroom.

“God, have mercy!” she moaned. “She’s as good as admitted it. What else
could she have meant? Oh, God, what else - what else? She must know what
I am afraid of. Oh, my baby! - my poor, poor baby!”

She rose from her untasted meal and followed her child, not noticing,
in the gathering dusk, that Mrs. Chumley had entered the outer door,
and was treading softly and with bated breath in her wake. She found the
girl standing at a window, dumb and pale, looking out into the yard.

“You must tell me everything, daughter,” Mrs. Barry said. “I can’t sleep
to-night unless you do. I am afraid I am going mad. Tell me, tell me!”

“Oh, mother, mother, how can I?”

“You are ruined!” Mrs. Barry groaned. “Tell me I am right - you are
ruined!”

With a cry, Dora turned and threw herself on the bed, and with her face
hidden in a pillow she burst into dry sobs.

“Make her tell you the whole thing,” Mrs. Chumley spoke up, as she stood
in the doorway. “Have it out of her, and be done with it; that’s the
course I took.”

Mrs. Barry turned upon her, but no anger or resentment over the
intrusion stirred the dregs of her despair. A faint shock came to her
with the thought that now all Stafford would know the truth, but it
was followed by the realization that, after all, concealment would not
lessen in any degree the horror of the disaster.

“Come away!” she heard herself imploring the gossip. “Let her alone!
I won’t have folks bothering her. She’s got enough to bear as it is,
without having people prying. Come away, come away!”

Mrs. Chumley suffered herself to be led to the outer door.

“All right. I came over to return the cup of sugar you lent me; I left
it in the kitchen. I am much obliged, and I’m as sorry for you as one
woman could be for another. Good-night.”

Mrs. Barry went to the supper-table, and, as it was growing dark, she
lighted a lamp. She proceeded to wash and dry and put away the dishes.
No one would have suspected that such a deadening blow had been dealt
her to have looked in on her at this moment, as she moved dumbly about
the room, her head and face hidden by the gingham sunbonnet she had
put on. It was a badge of humility - a thing she vaguely fancied hid her
maternal shame from eyes which she already felt prying.

Her task finished, she stood for a moment hesitatingly; then she blew
out the lamp and crept softly to the door of her daughter’s room.
Bending her head, she listened at the keyhole. No sound came to her
ears, and she softly lifted the latch and went in. Dora still lay on the
bed, her arms clutching the pillow, her face out of view in the darkened
room.

“Darling, I haven’t come to scold you, don’t think that,” the old woman
said, most tenderly, as she sat down on the edge of the bed and took her
daughter’s tear-damp hand. “This calamity has fallen on both of us, just
as the death of your dear father did so far away from home, and just as
many other hard things have come to us. I shall stand by you through it
all. It is not the first time a poor young girl has been misled. Nothing
is left for us but to do our duty to the best of our ability in the
sight of Heaven. I shall not press you to tell me a thing, either. My
knowing particulars wouldn’t better matters at all. It is done, and that
is enough. Now, go to sleep, baby girl, and don’t give way to despair.
Good-night.”

Dora sat up, extended her arms, and for a moment the two remained
locked in a tight, sobbing embrace. Neither spoke after that. Tenderly
releasing her daughter’s twining arms, Mrs. Barry went out and softly
closed the door. In her own room, in utter darkness, she undressed.
Before retiring, and with the sunbonnet still on her head, she knelt
beside a chair in the room and started to pray, but somehow the needed
words failed to come. Prayer is born in hope in some sort of faith, at
least, but this lone widow, brave as her front appeared, had neither.

“Oh, Edwin!” she suddenly cried out, “she was your idol, your little
pet; you used to say, as she sat on your knee in the firelight at night,
that she was born to be lucky and happy. You said her beauty, genius,
and gentleness would draw the world to her feet. You hoped all that for
her, Edwin, and yet there she is bowed down in the greatest shame and
sorrow that can fall to a young girl’s lot. On the day you left never to
return, you told me of the great Virginia family from which she was
descended, and said that some day we’d be grandparents of children that
would make us proud. Poor, dear Edwin! - that was only one of your pretty
dreams - _our_ grandchild, if God lets it come, won’t even have a name of
its own, and may bear this curse through a long life to its grave. Oh,
Edwin! - my gentle, loving husband - you are here by my side to-night,
aren’t you? You are here putting your dear spirit arms about me, trying
to comfort me, and you will help her, too, dear husband, as you are
helping me. Hold up the sweet, stricken child. Fill her dark life with
your own unrealized dreams. Give her something - _anything_ to help her
bear her burden! That’s my prayer to you, Edwin - to you, and to God!”

She went to her bed and threw herself down. Tears welled up in her, but
she forced them back, and, dry-eyed and still, she lay with her wrinkled
face near to the wall.




CHAPTER X

|ONE evening, two days later, General Sylvester and his niece and nephew
sat on the front veranda to catch the cool breezes which swept across
the town and stirred the foliage of the trees on the lawn. The old
gentleman had been urging Margaret to go to the piano in the big
parlor and sing for them, but she had persistently declined. Since Fred
Walton’s leaving, despite her evident efforts to appear unconcerned,
she had not seemed to her watchful brother and uncle to be at all like
herself, and they were constantly trying to divert her mind from the
unpleasant matter.

At this juncture Kenneth Galt’s carriage and pair of spirited blacks,
driven by John Dilk, his faithful negro coachman, came briskly down the
street, and turned into the adjoining grounds through the gateway to the
gravelled drive, and drew up at the steps of the house, which was not
very different from the Dearing home in size, period, and architecture.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you!” the General exclaimed, suddenly. “Galt is
off to Atlanta, to see some more capitalists on our new railroad scheme.
You may think lightly of it, my boy, but as sure as fate we are going to
put that big trunk-line through - or, rather, Galt is. He thinks it is in
good shape, and that is encouragement enough for me. He has handled my
affairs ever since he hung out his shingle as a lawyer, and as he made
money hand over hand for himself, he has for me too.”

“Yes, he has the keenest sense of values of any man in the State,” Wynn
agreed. “He has the full confidence of his clients, and he is not
afraid to back up his ideas with money; that is what makes a successful
speculator. He will put the road through if any one can. Investors will
listen to a man who has succeeded in everything he has attempted.”

The carriage was now leaving the house, and when it had regained
the street and was about to pass, the General stood up and waved
his handkerchief. The carriage paused at the gate, and the man under
discussion sprang out, hat in hand, and hurried up the walk.

“I have only a minute to get to the 8.40 train,” he informed them, as he
bowed to Margaret, and smiled cordially at Dearing.

Kenneth Galt was an interesting man from many points of view. His
intimate friends liked him because, to them, he sometimes unbent and was
himself; to strangers and mere acquaintances he was cold, formal, and
almost painfully dignified. To his many clients he was seldom cordial or
free, and never familiar. He had gleaned the idea somewhere, from his or
some one else’s experience, that no genuinely successful financier
ever allowed himself to be taken lightly, so he never jested about
his affairs nor encouraged it in others. He had set a high price upon
himself and his chances of success in life, and he held to it the
more tenaciously the higher he climbed. When approached for legal or
financial advice his face was as immovable as granite, and when he gave
an opinion it always had weight, for he was apt to be right. He was
considered a man of wonderful ability and power among men. He couldn’t
have been a successful politician, for he could never have sufficiently
lowered himself to the level of the common people, so it was fortunate
for him that his ambition associated him with another and a more
lucrative class. He was interesting as any human enigma could be which
showed outward signs of hidden depth and strength. For an orthodox
community like that of old Stafford, his iconoclastic views on some
sacred subjects shocked many conservative individuals, but he was so
firm in his philosophy and frank in his open expression of it, that
he was forgiven where a weaker, less-important man would have been
adversely criticized. He had convinced himself, or been convinced during
the hours he had spent in his unique library, that there is no such
thing as a soul or a soul’s immortality, and he was proving, by his
persistent effort to make the most of the present, that in the very
renunciation of the dogma he had discovered the highest law of life.

“Well, you are off, I see,” the General said, “and I hope the parties
will not only be there, but with their check-books wide open.”

“Yes, I’ll see what can be done,” Galt answered, somewhat coldly, for it
was against his policy to speak of business matters in any social group.
“I happened to have the land deed you wanted in my pocket, General, and
I thought I’d stop and hand it to you.”

“Oh yes, thank you,” Sylvester said. “I knew it was all right, but I
want to keep all my papers which you don’t have need for in my safe.”

“And how is Miss Margaret?” Galt now asked, as he turned the document
over to its owner, and bent toward the wistful face of the young girl.

“Oh, I’m quite well, thank you,” she responded, forcing a smile. “You
are a fortunate man, Mr. Galt. My uncle doesn’t praise many people, but
he can’t say enough in your favor.”

“That’s because he only knows the _business_ side of me,” Galt said,
ceasing to smile, and drawing himself up.

“Well, I must be off. I see John lashing the air with his whip; he is my
time-table.”

“Yes, you’d better not lose your train,” the General put in. “I don’t
want to be the cause of your missing that appointment. Get a rosebud for
his buttonhole, Madge. It may bring us good luck.”

“Yes, I will.” The girl rose languidly. “There are some pretty ones near
the gate.”

Galt gallantly assisted her down the steps, and, side by side, they
moved along the wide brick walk. Dear-ing heard his uncle chuckling as
the old man peered through the twilight at the couple, who now stood
facing each other over a bush of choice roses.

“Mark my words, my boy,” he said, “we may have to wait awhile for it,
but as sure as you and I are alive, that pair will some day be more
closely related to each other than they are now.”

Dearing shrugged his shoulders and remained silent. “You don’t think
so?” the General pursued, with the eagerness of a child who has
discovered a new toy. “They can’t help it. He is much older than she
is, but it would be an ideal match. The fellow is actually a great man.
There is no curbing his ambition. He has accomplished wonders so far,
and there is no telling what his particular genius will ripen into.”

“It may be as you say - _in time_,” Dearing answered, after a pause; “but
I’m afraid it will be years before Madge forgets Fred Walton, and if he
should take a notion to come back, as such fellows always do, sooner or
later, why, we’d only have our trouble over again.”

“But he told you he was going, never to come back?” the old man said,
with a touch of resentment even at the thought.

“Yes; he said positively that his conduct, whatever it was, would keep
him from ever showing his face in Stafford again.”

“I have been wondering what he could have done,” General Sylvester said,
musingly. “I dropped in on his father the other day for no other reason
than that he might let out some hint of the situation, but he never said
a word. A big change has certainly come over him. His face was haggard
and almost bloodless, and his eyes had a queer, shifting look. I am sure
he knows all about the affair, whatever it is.”

“Yes; Fred said the old man knew, and would tell it, but it seems he has
not,” Dearing answered.

“Ashamed to let it be known, I guess,” Sylvester said.

Margaret and Galt had parted, the carriage was disappearing down the
street, and the girl was slowly strolling back. At a bed of flowers
about ten yards from them she paused and stood looking down. Just then
a loud, strident voice reached them from the side of the house. It was
from Mrs. Chumley, who had brought the General’s laundry home, and with
her great empty basket was making her way across the grass toward the
front gate, accompanied by old Diana, the colored cook.

“Oh, but I know it _is_ true - every word of it!” The white woman had
raised her voice exultantly. “I was right there at the girl’s elbow, and
heard Mrs. Barry accuse her of it. Dora admitted her ruin, and laid it
to Fred Walton. Now, I reckon folks will know why he had to skip out by
the light o’ the moon without a bit of baggage.”

Instantly the two men were on their feet, Margaret’s protection foremost
in their minds. There was no doubt that she had heard, for she was
standing facing the two women like a figure carved from stone.

“Excuse me, Miss Margaret, I didn’t know you was there,” Mrs. Chumley
said, as she walked on; “but it is the truth - the Lord knows it is the
truth.”

“My God, the brutality of it!” the old man ejaculated. “To think it
should come to her like that!”

“The scoundrel!” Dearing cried. “Now I understand fully, and if I had
known the truth, I’d have - ” But he went no further, for Margaret was
slowly coming toward them. The grass she trod was wet with dew, and
ordinarily she would have realized it, and lifted her skirt, but she
now moved toward them like a somnambulist. At the bottom step her foot
caught, and as they both sprang to her assistance she gave a forced,
harsh laugh.

“How awkward I - I am!” she stammered. “I could never da - dance the
minuet with you now, Uncle Tom. I gave Mr. Galt a pretty bud. He is
_such_ a flatterer - saying that I - saying that he - ”

She suddenly pressed her hand to her head and reeled helplessly. The
strong arm of her brother went round her, and her head sank upon his
shoulder. His face was wrung and dark with blended fury and anxiety, his
strong lip was quivering.

“No, she is not fainting!” He spoke to his uncle, but for her ears, with
the intention of rousing her. “She is all right. Wake up, Madge! I’ll
slap your jaws, old girl, if you play ‘possum with me. You may fool
_some_ folks, but not your family doctor.”

“No, I am not fainting. Who said I was?” and Margaret raised her head,
and drew herself quite erect. “I - I am going in to sing for you.”

She was moving toward the door when her brother, with a catch in his
voice and a firm step after her, said: “No, not to-night, dear. Uncle
Tom wouldn’t listen, anyway. He’s simply daft about the new railroad,
and couldn’t hold his tongue even for a minute. Look at those damp
shoes. You will catch pneumonia. Run up to your room and change them at
once!”

“I _did_ get them wet, didn’t I?” the girl said, glancing down at her
feet. The next moment they heard her ascending the stairs. Her brother
stood at the door peering after her till she was out of sight; then he
went back to his chair, and sank into it. The General was eager to take
up the startling topic, now that they were alone, but Dearing’s ears
were closed to what he was saying.

“Poor child!” the young doctor said to himself. “To think that it should
come to her - to beautiful, gentle Dora, with her wonderful ideals! _And
he could deliberately desert her!_ He could look another man in the face
and confess that he was without the courage to lift a woman up after he
had knocked her down.”

Leaving his uncle, he went up to his room and sat alone in the darkness
before an open window. Across the lawn he saw a solitary light in Mrs.
Barry’s cottage. It was from the window of Dora’s room, and for an hour
he sat watching it. He kept his eyes on it till it went out; then he
rose, and began to undress.




CHAPTER XI

|A FEW days after the report of Dora Barry’s fall had permeated Stafford
from the town’s centre to its scattering outskirts, and the beautiful
girl’s disgrace had been duly recorded as the now certain explanation of
Fred Walton’s flight, it came to his father’s ears in a rather indirect
manner. Old Simon was erroneously supposed to have learned the truth,
even before it became town-talk; for it was vaguely whispered that
the banker had been so moved by Mrs. Barry’s personal appeal to him
in behalf of her daughter that he had called in the sheriff with the
intention of having his son held to honor by sheer force, but for some
reason had refrained from taking action.

There are individuals in every community, too, who are bold enough to
mention a delicate topic even to those most sensitively concerned, and



Online LibraryWill N. (Will Nathaniel) HarbenThe Redemption of Kenneth Galt → online text (page 6 of 24)