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Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

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as old Walton was going to the bank on the morning in question Bailey
Thornton, a man of great size, who kept a grocery where the banker
bought his supplies, essayed a jest as he passed the old man’s morning
cigar to him over the showcase. The bystanders thoroughly understood
what was meant, as was evinced by the hearty laugh which went round, but
the old man didn’t.

“Don’t be hard on the boy, Mr. Walton,” Thornton added, and he smiled
broadly enough to explain any ordinary innuendo. “Remember your own
young days. I’ll bet Fred came by it honestly. The whole town knows the
truth; there is no good in trying to hide it. Tell him it is all right,
and make him come back home.”

Old Simon grunted and walked on, flushing under the irritating chorus of
laughter which followed him out of the store. “Come by it honestly!” he
repeated. “What could the meddling fool mean? _The whole town knows the
truth!_”

He fell to quivering, and almost came to a dead halt in the street.
Surely the circumstance of the bank’s loss was not leaking out, after
all his caution? He decided that he would at once sound Toby Lassiter.
Perhaps Fred had confided in others. The bare chance of the shortage
being known and used against him by the rival bank alarmed him. In fancy
he saw the report growing and spreading through the town and country
till an army of half-crazed depositors, egged on by his enemies, was
clamoring at the door, and demanding funds which had been put out on
collateral security, and could not be drawn in at a moment’s notice.

As he was passing along the corridor by the counting-room, where,
beyond the green wire grating, the bookkeepers were at work, he
caught Lassiter’s glance, and with a wild glare in his eyes he nodded
peremptorily toward the rear. He had just hung up his old slouch hat and
seated himself in his chair when the clerk joined him, a look of wonder
in his mild eyes.

“Say, Toby, sit down - no, shut the door!” Simon ordered; and when the
clerk had obeyed and taken a chair near the desk, the banker leaned
toward him.

“I want to know,” he panted, “if the report is out about Fred’s
shortage?”

“Why, no, Mr. Walton,” the clerk said, astonished in his turn; “that is,
not to my knowledge. I haven’t heard a word that would indicate such
a thing. In fact, they all seem so busy with - ” But Lassiter colored
deeply, and suddenly checked himself.

“Well, _something_ is in the wind, I know,” Simon went on, his lip
quivering. “It may be that Thornton only had reference to the boy’s
general extravagance, or he may have heard false reports about my own
bringing-up; but I am not sure, Toby, but that the thing we are trying
to hide is out.” Thereupon old Simon, his anxious eyes fixed on the
face of his clerk, recounted in detail all that the grocer had said, and
exactly how it had come up.

“Oh, I see!” Lassiter exclaimed, in a tone of relief. “He didn’t refer
to _the money_, Mr. Walton. He meant - ” It was loyalty to his absent
friend which again checked the conscientious Toby, who was trying to
reconcile two adverse duties, and now sat twirling his thumbs in visible
embarrassment.

“You see what?” old Simon demanded, fiercely. “Don’t you begin shifting
here and there, and keeping things from me. I want to know what’s took
place, and I _will!_ You and I have always got on harmoniously, but I
don’t like your shillyshallying whenever that boy’s name is mentioned.
The other day, when I sent for the sheriff - well, you happened to be
right in stopping me _that time_, I’ll admit, but I want to know what
you think Bailey Thornton meant by what he said. Do you know?”

The clerk looked down. His face was quite grave and rigid.

“Mr. Walton,” he faltered, “I don’t like to carry tales about matters
which don’t concern me, and when a nasty report gets in the air I try to
keep from having anything to do with it.”

“I’m talking to you about _business_ now!” Old Simon raised his voice
to a shrill cry, which, had it not stranded in his throat, would have
reached the adjoining room.

“The report touches on my affairs here in this house, and if you don’t
tell me, if you don’t aid me with whatever knowledge you may have run
across, you can draw your pay and quit.”

Lassiter saw the utter futility of remaining silent longer, and with a
desperate look on his face he answered: “I didn’t want to make the
poor boy’s case any worse, Mr. Walton, and so I hoped it would turn
out untrue before it got to you; but they say the girl admits the whole
thing. The minister of the church where she plays the organ told me it
was true.”

“Girl? What girl?” the banker gasped. “Why do you take all day to get at
a thing?”

Then, as Lassiter told the story which was on every tongue, old Simon
stared, his mouth falling open and his unlighted cigar seesawing between
his jagged stumps of teeth.

“So you are plumb sure it wasn’t the money that Thornton was talking
about!” he exclaimed, with a deep breath of relief.

“Yes, I am sure of that, Mr. Walton. They have been so full of chatter
about the girl that not a word has been said about money, although some
think you actually furnished the ready cash for him to get away on.” The
two sat silent for several minutes; then, shaking his tousled head and
shrugging his gaunt shoulders in his faded black alpaca coat, the banker
said, with grim finality of tone: “He’s a bad egg, Toby. That fellow is
rotten to the core. This last discovery really helps us hide the other
matter, but the two of them put together will wipe his name off the
slate of this town forever. He’ll never dare to show his face here
again. He might have tried to get around me and live down the shortage,
but I reckon both things coming to a head at once kind o’ broke his
courage, and he decided to skedaddle. I have no pity for the girl
neither - not a smidgin; a woman that would give in to a scamp like him
don’t deserve any man’s pity. Say, Toby, I’m a peculiar in some ways:
as long as I felt that I owed something to that boy as his father
his doings kind o’ lay on my mind, but he has plumb cancelled that
obligation. I can get along without worry over him if he is put clean
out of my calculations, so after this I don’t want no human being to
mention his name to me. I’ll let ‘em know that they can’t joke with
me about it on the street. I want you to go this minute to Bailey
Thornton’s store and ask him for my account up to date. Then I’ll send
him my check, and do my trading with Pete Longley. He will be trotting
in to apologize, but keep him away from me. Huh! he can’t sneer at me as
I walk along the public highways of this town; his account with us isn’t
worth ten cents a month, and he’s shaky, anyway. I wish I’d hit him in
the mouth as he stood there gloating over his dirty joke!”




CHAPTER XII

|KENNETH GALT came back from Atlanta at the end of the week. John Dilk
drove down, and brought him up from the station at dusk. Galt had just
alighted at his front steps, and the carriage had gone round the house
toward the stables in the rear, when he saw Margaret Dearing among the
flowers on the lawn adjoining. Through an open window, in the glow of
gas-light, he could see the supper-table waiting for him, and knew that
his housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson, had all in readiness for his evening meal.
He knew, too, that she was most particular about having his favorite
dishes served while they were hot, and yet he could not resist the
temptation to exchange greetings with this fair young girl whose genial
friendship and interest in his affairs had always appealed to him. The
prospects were very bright for success in his plan of building a railway
from Stafford to the sea, and he was still young enough to want to warm
himself in the smile of the girl’s approval.

“Oh, you are back!” she said, cordially, as he strode across the grass,
and lightly vaulted over the row of boxwood which divided the two
properties. “Uncle Tom will be delighted.”

“Yes, and I am very tired,” he answered. He paused and shook her hand,
experiencing a decided shock as he noticed the unexpected pallor of
her face and the dark splotches beneath her eyes. “I was on my feet all
morning in Atlanta. I made a speech to-day at a luncheon, and then had
to ride up on a slow train.”

“And the railroad is almost a certainty?” she asked, forcing a wan
smile. “You are about to have your dream realized?”

“Almost,” he answered, modestly. “I think we may count on most of the
subscribers for the stock throughout the South, and the farmers who
have agreed to donate the right of way through their lands still seem
enthusiastic. The only thing we lack is the support of a certain group
of New York capitalists who are to put up the bulk of the funds and are
now considering our final proposition. If they should go in the road
would be a certainty.”

“My uncle is sure they can be counted on,” the girl went on,
sympathetically. “He declares no one but you could have won the
confidence of all those prim, old-fashioned ladies and pious elders, who
have never been willing to invest their savings before.”

Galt shrugged his shoulders and drew back somewhat into his habitual
mantle of reserve. “If we _do_ put it through,” he said, “they won’t
regret it. Thorough confidence in an enterprise like this is necessary,
of course, and I am glad they trust me.”

“All Stafford was reading the articles in the Atlanta papers yesterday
about it,” Margaret said. “Uncle says when it is settled beyond a doubt
the town will give a torch-light procession in your honor.”

“There were many inaccuracies in the papers,” he informed her, as he
stood wondering over her evident dejection. “Did you read the articles?”

“Did I? Twice - once for myself and again for Uncle. I am sure he had
already been over them, but, like the child he is, he wanted to hear the
glorious news coming from the lips of some one else. I didn’t like the
pictures of you, though - not a bit.”

“You didn’t? Why?”

“Because they don’t do you justice; they were so harsh and fierce. They
made your mouth look - what shall I say? - cruel? - yes, cruel and utterly
heartless. And we all know you are not so. Wynn says you have the
greatest fondness for children of any man he knows, and surely that is a
sign of a good heart.”

“There is one thing I am _now_ showing an extravagant fondness for,”
Galt said, with a cynical laugh, “and that is, hearing you sound praises
that aren’t deserved. So I am going to tear myself away from them and
run in to supper.”

“Poor girl!” he mused, as he walked away. “She looks pale and troubled,
and talks as if she were trying to hide something. She has altered,
even in the last week. I wonder if she really cared for Fred Walton? Who
knows? Women often like unworthy men. God knows, I ought to understand
that.”

After supper Galt went up to his sumptuous quarters on the floor above,
and, lighting a cigar, he threw himself into an easy-chair and began to
smoke.

“Yes, I must see her to-night,” he said, almost aloud. “I can’t wait
longer. It has been more than a month now, and not a line from her. I am
winning the fight of my life, and I want to see her glorious face light
up as I tell her about it. She is the sweetest, dearest girl in the
world. Her great dreamy eyes haunt me night and day. I love her, God
knows I do. But it mustn’t get out yet - not yet; not, at least, till my
road is built. We have a right to our secret, the sweetest that ever a
love-mad pair held between them. She trusts me, and for the present
no one need dream of our intimacy. The last time I saw her the little
darling had all sorts of fears in her dear little head, but such fancies
are only natural. I’ll kiss them away, once she is nestling in my arms.
The dear little thing is jealous - actually jealous - of my success. She
said once that she believed I would desert her if it would serve my
ambition to do so. She doesn’t know me. She has a wonderful brain, but
she reads me wrongly.”

The hours went by. The old grandfather clock in the hall below struck
nine and then ten, and he rose and slipped down the stairs into the
grounds below. Stafford was a town which went early to bed as a rule,
and Galt found a vast stillness all about him out under the mystically
shimmering stars. Softly treading the grass and furtively looking about,
he went down to a gate near his stables, passed through and closed it
without sound. Again looking up the little street cautiously, he went
on till he reached the rear gate of Mrs. Barry’s cottage. Going in, he
walked through the widow’s vegetable garden till he stood behind the
little coal-and-wood house not ten feet from the open window of Dora’s
room. Here he paused, holding his breath in suspense. There was a light
in the room as from a low-burning gas-jet at the bureau in the corner,
and against the white window-curtain he saw the shadow of some one bowed
over a table. The outlines of the silhouette were familiar, and they,
set his heart to beating rapidly. Picking up some small particles of
coal, he shot them at the window from his closed hand with the nail of
his thumb. Sometimes they would fall short of the mark, but now and then
one would strike the glass and produce a faint clicking sound. The trick
was successful, as it had been before. The crouching shadow straightened
up, the distinct profile of Dora’s face appeared for an instant, and
then lost its exquisite outlines in a blur of black which elongated
itself upward as the girl rose to her feet. The curtain was drawn, and
Dora, fully dressed, peered out. Stepping into open view, Galt signalled
with his hand for her to come out. He saw her shake her head excitedly
and stand motionless.

He signalled again and again, showing his impatience by the growing
rapidity of his gestures and the impassioned movement of his mute lips.
He heard her sigh, and then she nodded resignedly and retreated into the
room. Her light went out. She was coming; he knew she would join him if
her mother was asleep. And yet that sigh! What could it mean from her
who had always come so joyfully, so full of love and faith? Ah, he
had it! The gentle girl, not having seen him for several weeks, was
genuinely jealous of the weighty affairs which had recently absorbed so
much of his attention. All the uproar over his prospective success in
the papers, the graphic accounts of his high position, had made her
fancy, in her artistic sensitiveness, that circumstances were separating
them. Ah, yes, that was it! But he would set her right on that score,
as he always had done. He would convince her that their sweet secret was
their own, and assure her that it need not be long now before they could
announce their love to the world. Where could he look for a better or a
truer mate? The secret of their present, and perhaps imprudent, intimacy
would never be known. But for the time being, of course, he could not
think of marrying _any one_. Much depended, right now, on his remaining
exactly as he was - the suave bachelor whom certain prim and accurate
maiden ladies had intrusted with the management of their finances, and
reserved a right to decide, as members of some churches do in the cases
of their unmarried pastors, what manner of woman their paragon was to
choose, if any, as his partner in life. They would be unanimous in their
verdict against the artist’s beautiful daughter, not being able to see
her worth and charm as he could see them. And to announce at the present
crisis that he had chosen such a wife would certainly be inadvisable.
He had become their idol, and his judgment told him he must retain their
good-will in all things - at least, till he was independent of their
support.

There was a low, creaking sound from the rusty hinges of the rear door
of the cottage, followed by profound stillness, and he knew she had
paused on the steps to see if her mother would wake. Then he breathed
in vast relief, for he saw her coming. She had thrown a light shawl
over her head, and as she passed from under the intervening arbor of
grape-vines and the moonlight fell upon her partly exposed face, he was
struck by its pallor, and by the desperate gleam in the eyes so steadily
fixed on him.

“Thank God, I see you at last, darling!” he exclaimed, passionately, as
he held out his arms. But to his amazement she drew back, warding off
his embrace with a hand that was firm, strong, and cold as ice.

“You must go - you must never come again!” she said, in a voice filled
with suffering.

The little wood-house was between them and the cottage, and some tall
trees bordering the little street threw a shadow over them.

“But, darling, what’s the matter?” he cried. “What has changed you so
remarkably? Why, little girl - ”

“Do you mean, you haven’t - haven’t _heard?_” She clutched the shawl
under her marble-like chin and stared at him, her pretty lips parted and
quivering piteously.

“Heard what?” he asked. “I have heard nothing - certainly no _bad_ news.
I’ve been away for a week, and only came home this evening.”

She lowered her head, and stood silent and motionless. He put his hand
on her shoulder and gently shook her.

“Tell me,” he urged, groping for an explanation of her agitation, “is
your mother ill again? Is she worse?”

“No, it isn’t that - God knows even that would be a blessing. Kenneth,
I’m ruined!”

“You don’t mean? - you _can’t_ mean? - ” He stood aghast before her,
quivering now from head to foot.

“Yes, there is no doubt of it. Mother suspected it, and was so miserable
that I had to admit the truth. It almost drove her crazy. She was
talking to me about it when that meddlesome woman, Mrs. Chumley, came
in and overheard it. She lost no time in spreading the report broadcast
over town. Everybody has known it for several days.”

“Oh, my God!” Galt pronounced the words in his throat. This thing, of
all unexpected things, had burst upon him at the very crisis of his
triumph, and it would ruin him - there was no denying that; it would ruin
him! In his fancy he saw his hitherto irreproachable character torn to
shreds by the men and women who, till now, had stood behind him. The
dream of his life might be carried out some day, but not by a man of
his stamp. He groaned aloud. For the moment it was impossible for him to
show sympathy where sympathy most belonged. He stood as a man stands who
loves life, and yet has been condemned to death. Love and the capacity
for self-sacrifice in Kenneth Galt were best nourished by hope and
happiness, and of these things he was now bereft.

“Well,” his quivering lips finally produced, “we must make the best of
it. We’ve only done what millions before us have done for love of each
other. And what do they say of me? I suppose they think I won’t act the
part of an honorable man; but, Dora darling - ”

“Say of _you?_” she broke in, bitterly. “They have never mentioned your
name. Not a soul - _not even my mother_ - dreams that I ever met you in
secret. You are the last human being on earth that would be - be accused.
Oh, you are safe! And I’d die ten thousand lingering deaths rather than
drag you into it! Oh no, you are absolutely safe. I know full well what
such an exposure would mean to you.”

A sense of unaccountable lightness possessed him; a vague sort of relief
seemed to hover over him; the blood packed in his heart by horror
now began to flow warm and free. “They haven’t mentioned - you
say - You - didn’t tell your mother - that I - ?”

“No, I’d cut out my tongue rather than let her know. You told me when we
last met that even a bare report of our engage - our love for each other
right now would harm your plans. Do you think that I’d let a horror like
this come up against you? Even if you declared it was true, I’d say it
was a lie! I’d say I cared for some one else. They declare it was
Fred Walton, anyway, because he left so suddenly. I’ve told them it
wasn’t - told them and told them, but they won’t believe me. They may
think what they please, but they sha’n’t say it was _you!_”

“Fred Walton!” Galt’s mind galloped on. “They blamed it on that
reckless, devil-may-care fellow, and it would be like Dora’s magnanimity
to deny the truth for all time. But should he let her?” A storm of
incongruous tenderness now swept over him as he stood in the coign of
immunity she had preserved for him and regarded the sweet, stricken
creature before him. He laughed aloud in sheer derision of the escape
she was offering him, and for one blind instant he actually believed in
his own manhood.

“Leave you?” he said, warmly, and he took her hands into his, and,
although she firmly resisted, he drew her into his arms and tenderly
kissed her cold, flower-like lips. “Let another man, and a scamp like
Fred Walton, have his name coupled in that way with yours? Never! I want
you, Dora. I’d be a miserable dog, even if I succeeded with my paltry
enterprise by leaving you! No, I’ll come here to-morrow and we’ll be
married, as we ought to have been months and months ago. Now, go to bed,
and let me see roses on your pretty cheeks in the morning.”

“You are speaking without thought - without knowledge of yourself.” The
girl sighed as she drew away from his embrace and forcibly put down his
detaining hands. “You see, I know you, Kenneth, better than you know
yourself. You love me in a way, I am sure; but when it was all over, and
you’d paid the debt you think you owe me, you’d blame me for being the
blight to your prospects that I would be. Listen! What is done is done.
Because I am disgraced is no reason you should be. You are a man whose
ambition is his life. Married to me, and hampered by the name I now
bear, you’d not only fail in your present enterprise, but you would be
held down to the end of life. Oh, I know you so well - so very well! The
praise and adulation of the prominent men and women whose friendship
you have are the very life-blood of your being. I’ve known you had
this weakness for a long time, but I had to bear with it as a natural
shortcoming.”

“How absurdly you talk!” he cried out, in dull, crushed admiration for
such logic in one so young and frail. “But I assure you, Dora, I’ll not
listen to such silly stuff for a minute. You are going to be my wife.
Do you hear me? - my wife! We will let the blamed railroad go. I’ll tell
General Sylvester in the morning that we are off for our honeymoon. Of
course he’ll drop me like a hot potato, but he may do it for all I care.
You are more to me, darling, than he and all the trunk-lines in the
world. Yes, I am coming for you to-morrow - to-morrow afternoon at three
o’clock! Remember that - at three, sharp, and I’ll - I’ll bring a - a
preacher and - everything necessary.”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Dora said, firmly. “You think at this
moment that you have the courage to do what you propose, but, Kenneth,
you _haven’t_ - you simply haven’t! I know you better than you know
yourself. You will not come to-morrow _nor any other day!_ I’ll never
see you again, nor do I want to. I had a kind of love for you that only
a woman could understand; you have had quite another sort for me. You
think yours is still alive, but it died of paltry fear, stifled by
avarice; mine was a girlish dream. I am awake now. Leave me, and don’t
approach me again. I swear to you that your secret is safe.”

She moved away. He tried to stop her; but, with a warning finger on her
lips, she eluded his grasp, and hurried into the house.




CHAPTER XIII

|BRAVE, very brave, and sweet and noble!” he said to himself, as he
walked back toward the gate of his grounds; “but she certainly sha’n’t
have her way. I’m not low enough for that, thank God! She is the only
creature I ever loved or could love, and she is mine by all the laws
of heaven and earth. She looked like a young goddess as she stood there
with that fire in her suffering face, and calmly consigned herself to
disgrace and oblivion that my sordid schemes might prosper. I am not
poor. I can make a living somehow, somewhere, if not in this sleepy old
town; and with her always by my side, why - ” Across the lawn he saw a
light in a window of the Dearing house. It was in General Sylvester’s



Online LibraryWill N. (Will Nathaniel) HarbenThe Redemption of Kenneth Galt → online text (page 7 of 24)