Kent Hampden
1892
Serialized Jan-Feb. 1891, Youth's Companion

Dublin Core

Title

Kent Hampden
1892
Serialized Jan-Feb. 1891, Youth's Companion

Description

 

KENT HAMPDEN[1]

Chapter First

The Package

ONE cold evening in September, nearly seventy years ago, two men were walking up one of the four hilly streets of Wheeling.

Now a large manufacturing centre, Wheeling was then only a quiet village in the north-western part of Virginia. Its four streets straggled along the slope of a high of a high wooded hill, side by side. At the base of the hill the Ohio[2] ran, while a wide creek of a peculiar emerald clearness cut them in two and emptied its green flood into the muddy river.

Two or three steamboats from some point down the river usually lay at the little wharf, which was piled with cotton bales brought from the south, or with freight which had been carried in wagons along the new National Road. [3] The village was the southern terminus for this road, which was the only thoroughfare by which travellers or trade from the seaboard could penetrate the vast wilderness which then covered the country back of the Ohio. The wharf was faced by large warehouses for the storage of freight, and during the day was alive with joking leisurely groups of merchants, clerks, and negroes. [4] The little town then complacently put on an air of lazy industry.

But now, in the twilight, wharf and streets were deserted, and through the windows of the scattered dwelling-houses, each half hidden in its big garden, shone the red lights of the huge coal fires within. The people inside were doing nothing, with true Southern zest.

The wind blew sharply down the gorge behind the town. The two men facing it buttoned their long frogged surtouts[5] closely.

“What a pull up that hill!” said one, a short stout man with an unctuous voice which smacked of sixty years of good meals. “I’m glad, on the whole, that Duff isn’t going! Let us try to get Hampden to do it for us, Jarret. My legs are giving out, and——”

“And you smell Mrs. Hampden’s supper,” said Jarret, laughing. “I am of the same mind with you about that, Judge. Let us go in.”

They turned into the cross-street. Their change of plan, as they thought, affected only the question of supper. But in fact, it determined the fate of more lives than one.

The house to which they hastened was a plain brick dwelling standing near a church. A row of locust trees grew before it. At the side and back was a large garden of vegetables and flowers, shaded by lilacs and huge cherry trees.

Little Margery Hampden was perched in one of these trees. She scrambled down when she saw the men, red and ashamed of being out alone in the dark and cold. Mr. Jarret nodded to her.

“Queer child! They are a peculiar family, Judge. Not like Wheeling people. Hampden himself never seems to be quite one of us.”

“Hey? Well now, Jarret, that never struck me. There is not a more popular, hospitable fellow in town than Ralph, and his wife is one of the finest women I know. Why I would trust her eye to choose venison as soon as my own! Oh, I see what you mean! Hampden likes to dress, to give game suppers? You think him an airy feather-headed fellow. Hey?”

“No, it’s not that precisely. His easy ways are not to my liking, it’s true; but they make him popular. Why, they talk of electing him mayor in Cole’s place! Yes, sir! You know Zeb Cole’s grandfather took up a tomahawk claim here by the side of Zane and Wetzel.[6] But who is Hampden? Had he ever a grandfather? I went down to Orleans rafting one year, and when I came back, here was Hampden established and everybody’s friend! Sprang up like a mushroom in a night! No roots!”

“Well, yes,” assented the Judge, uneasily. “He began as a book-keeper for the Pyms, and—I don’t know! He’s a good fellow. Everybody liked him from the first. So much energy, you see. After he opened a forwarding house[7] you saw how he pushed his way with Southern customers. They think him a capital fellow.”

“Oh, of course! Did I deny that he was a capital fellow? But who is he? That is all that I ask. We old Wheeling people know each other,—the Zanes, Chaplines, Spriggs, and the rest. But did you ever hear Ralph with all his jokes and stories allude to a single day in his life before he came to Wheeling?”

“N-no, I can’t say that I did; though it never occurred to me before. But why do you bring thi up, Jarret? Have you any fears about entrusting the package to him?”

“No, of course not. Hampden’s as honest as steel. I am assured of that. But I saw to-day in the United States Gazette an advertisement for a certain Ralph Hampden Stoughton. It struck me that he might be kinsman of Ralph’s, and that by questioning him on that point we might get a clue to his own early history.”

“That’s so! There certainly has been a little too much reticence in Ralph about himself, considering how the town has accepted him. Such a talkative fellow, too! As you say, it is queer, very queer. Have you that newspaper about you?”

“Yes. It is in my pocket.”

“Aha! Read it to him to-night. Mind you, when I am there.”

Next to a piece of venison pie, the Judge loved a bit of racy gossip.

They had been standing not far from the steps as they talked. They knocked, and Kent Hampden opened the door. He was a lad of fifteen with much of his father’s cordial, winning manner; but the boy’s eyes were dark and slow-moving, while Mr. Hampden’s blue ones kindled with every passing thought.

“Margery saw you coming,” he said, leading them directly to the supper-room. “Mother is pouring out your coffee now.”

They were met by a hearty welcome. When Judge Morris shook hands with his host and looked up into his handsome beaming face, the small cloud of suspicion melted from his mind as fog does in the broad sunshine.

“Ha! A bear-steak!” he exclaimed, glancing eagerly at the table. “I did not know that any trappers had been in town to-day. You think too much of the good things of this life, Ralph. And waffles! We all know Mrs. Hampden’s waffles. We did not intend to make this foray upon you, madam; we started for Captain Duff’s. We heard he was going with you to Philadelphia to-morrow, Ralph, and we thought we would ask him to—”

“To transact a little business for the bank,” interrupted the cautious cashier, with a warning glance towards the negro waiters. “We have learned that he is not going, and we have come to ask the favor of you.”

“Command me in anything, gentlemen,” said Mr. Hampden, courteously. “We will talk of it after supper. Try a spiced pear, Judge. Have you read Mr. Jefferson’s letter in the Gazette to-day?”

The conversation drifted into politics. Mrs. Hampden and Kent exchanged anxious glances. They guessed the business which had brought the officers of the bank to the house.

There were no express companies or telegraphs in those days. The mails were carried in coaches or on horseback, and the robberies of both on the lonely mountain-passes were so frequent that business men were afraid to use them freely. It had become a universal custom to entrust large sums of money intended for the banks or merchants in Eastern cities to individual travellers. A journey across the Allegheny Mountains was a serious even then, talked of long before it was undertaken. The traveller was always encumbered with parcels and letters by his friends and neighbours.

When Kent and his mother were left alone together after supper, he laughed. “More commissions! Father will have to take the big trunk, after all.”

“No. It is probably money that they wish him to carry for the bank. It will not be bulky, but—” she stopped significantly.

“I wish you or I could go with him, mother.”

“He has twenty commissions already,” said Mrs. Hampden.

“And now, to cap all, a big sum of money! And father would lose the eyes out of his head, if—I beg your pardon, mother! I did not mean to be impertinent.”

“You forget yourself,” his mother said sternly. “If your father is careless about trifles, it is because his mind is occupied with matters which children cannot understand.”

Kent, with a mortified look, sat down to his Caeser. Mrs. Hampden rose, and, her sewing in hand, entered the parlour. Mr. Jarret stopped speaking as she came in.

“Go on,” said Mr. Hampden, after she was seated. “I have no secrets from my wife, gentlemen. She is the balance-wheel of this household. My dear, Judge Morris wishes me to take charge of a package of money for a bank in Philadelphia. You must stitch it in a belt to be worn under my clothes.”

“You have so many commissions already, Ralph,” she ventured timidly, “and Captain Duff is going.”

His face clouded. “One really would think you were afraid to trust me, Sarah. You will give our friends the impression that I am careless. Captain Duff has changed his plans. He is not going. Send the package to me to-morrow, Judge.”

He walked with an irritated air up and down, stirred the fire, and threw up the window-sash. Then, his vexation suddenly gone, he seated himself, smiling affectionately at his wife. Judge Morris hastily began talking again of the tariff.

Mrs. Hampden noticed that Mr. Jarret’s eyes were fixed upon her husband with a keen scrutiny. He had taken an old newspaper from his pocket and slowly unfolded it. Then he waited, smiling politely. There was something sinister and threatening, her instinct told her, under his smile.

Mr. Hampden had begun to tell an amusing anecdote of General Jackson.[8] He was a good raconteur, even in that day, when men studied story-telling as the first among personal accomplishments. His wife watched his dramatic action and sensitive animated face, with secret pride, and then glanced again at Mr. Jarret, to see if he appreciated them. He was still smiling politely with the profound attention which well-bred people always gave then to the man who held the stage, however tedious he might be.

But, she thought, there was certainly something peculiar about Mr. Jarret. He was a little spare man with hair, skin, and eyebrows all of one yellow hue, and a pair of round watery eyes, which were now staring fixedly at her husband. It was his mouth which never was at rest. Now the teeth ground together, now he smiled, now he bit his dry lips, puckered them to whistle, wet them with his tongue or showed his teeth like an angry dog. His mouth seemed to have escaped from his control and to act for itself. Margery, watching him through the glass door, made a picture of him on her slate as an ogre.

When the story was finished, he laughed loudly, patting and smoothing his newspaper on his knee.

“What a memory you have, Hampden! I read that story years ago, in an almanac I think, but had quite forgotten it. Apropos of memory, I observed a singular item in the Gazette to-day on which I thought you might throw some light. Let me see! Where was it?” He ran his finger down the rows of tiny black horses, bonnets, and runaway slaves in the advertising column.

Mr. Hampden tossed back his curly hair and smiled. He liked to be consulted or asked for advice.

“Oh, here it is! It is an inquiry for a man who left Maryland about the time, I should judge, that you came here. I thought, from the name, he might be one of your kin.”

He peer up, his finger fixed upon the advertisement. Hampden was not smiling now. His face was quiet and void of expression.

“What is the name?” he asked.

“Ralph Hampden Stoughton. Ah! you have heard it before! I thought he must be one of your family. Hampden is an uncommon name, and so is Ralph.”

Mr. Hampden raised his hand to his hair and let it fall uncertainly, but said nothing.

“A relation, eh? You never have told us much about your people, you know.”

“No,” said Hampden, deliberately, “I have no relation by the name of Ralph Hampden Stoughton.”

“Oh?” Mr. Jarret bowed civilly, but his mouth smiled incredulously. “It was just a notion of mine. Would you like to have the paper?”

“No, thank you.” But Jarret fancied his eye followed it with an alarmed eagerness.

“Well, I must be off,” said Judge Morris, rising. “Good luck, Ralph. When you reach Philadelphia, eat some terrapin at the Indian Queen for me. Bon voyage!”

As he and Jarret went down the hill, he said, “I suspect that this missing man is an acquaintance of our friend, and that Ralph is ashamed of him.”

Jarret did not reply directly. “I had no idea,” he said after a few minutes, “that Hampden was so successful a man. He has just bought that house. He will no doubt be elected mayor, and I heard a rumour that he is going to ask Colonel Congdon to appoint Kent a cadet at West Point. It seems to me that is a good deal of headway for a man whom nobody knows. Mind,I like Hampden. I trust him. But,” he lowered his voice, “if this story gets about, you will find that many of the townspeople will suspect the miss Ralph Hampden Stoughton to be our friend himself.”

“Ridiculous!” growled the Judge. “Hampden is as honourable man as any in Virginia!”

He was crusty with Jarret the rest of the way, feeling that the cashier was unduly suspicious. But he was secretly uneasy, and began to wish that Duff had decided to go.

Mrs. Hampden, after the men had gone, sat silent, furtively watching her husband while she sewed.

The truth was that Sarah Hampden knew as little of her husband’s youth as did the cashier. He had come to Wheeling, a gay, handsome, energetic young fellow, with not a penny in his purse, but with the unmistakable air of gentle breeding and with a magnetic face which soon brought a host of friends about him, and drew her to his side for life. Never woman lived who loved her husband more faithfully than Sarah Hampden.

And yet—yet? There was something else than love in the look which she bent on him now.

In the sixteen years of their married life he had never once spoken of his past history, never mentioned his childhood, his father, or mother. When, as a young bride, she had besieged him with eager, tender questions about his home and boyhood, he had put her aside smilingly, saying:—

“It is better that those dead years should be blotted out, Sarah. They were not so good or happy for me as these.”

Mrs. Hampden was a sunny-tempered, tactful woman. She had submitted at once and had never since broken the silence between them on this matter. With every day her faith grew stronger in her husband’s brilliant abilities, his warm heart, his chivalrous honour. Yet the doubt would come. Why should he nurse a mystery? Why hang a black curtain behind their commonplace wholesome life? It was foolish, childish, and Mrs. Hampden detested anything melodramatic.

During all of these years she had struggled against this doubt; now, hurt and angry with him because he kept a secret from her, and again with herself that she could suspect him of dishonor.

But to-day, in a moment,—after this long silence,—the matter was dragged to the light by Jarret’s question.

Her husband, usually restless and talkative, sat for a long time, after the men were gone, motionless, his hands clasped behind his head, his eyes shut. Was he afraid that she should read their look? Was it guilt—remorse?

She could bear it no longer! She threw down her sewing and went to him.

“Ralph! Look at me, dear. Why did you evade Jarett’s questions? Surely, I have a right to hear the answer. Is this missing man one of your family?”

“I said that he was not, Sarah.”

“Yes. But you kept something back! You have always kept your past life hidden from me.”

It was said at last.

He turned from her as if she had struck him, and did not speak. His unnatural quiet frightened her.

“Ralph,” she sobbed, “forgive me! Look at me,—look at me.”

There was an expression in his face which she had never seen there before.

“Sarah,” he said gravely, taking both her hands in his, “you must trust me. That is all that I can ever say to you.”

“That is enough, my husband.” He had told her nothing. Yet, in a moment, she was filled with shame and remorse. It was enough! How could she have suspected him? Was there ever a nobler soul than that which looked out of his kind eyes? Had she not learned every day of these sixteen years how honest and true he was?

“Forgive me! Oh, Ralph, can you ever forgive me?” she cried, her arms about his neck.

And yet, that night while he slept peacefully, she lay with strained, burning eyes, her brain full of stories which she remembered of the many good men who had been tempted to crime in their youth and—had fallen.

No secret crimes, apparently, clouded Mr. Hampden’s spirits the next morning. He went gayly about the house, whistling and singing, as he packed his clothes in a huge sack made of carpet, before starting on his journey. Margery trotted at his heels. He sent her away presently.

“What shall I bring the baby, Sarah? I thought of a crimson silk frock, or a chinchilla turban-cap with a gold buckle.”

“Nonsense! You fill that child’s head with vanity, Ralph. We cannot afford such finery.”

“No, I suppose not,” with a vexed shrug. He seated himself on the table, swinging his feet lazily. “I’d like to give you and her and Kent all the good things in this world. I often think,” he said, with a boyish chuckle, “what if I should grow suddenly rich,—find a pot of gold, say? I would buy the old Shepard plantation and enlarge the house and—”

“Hadn’t you better finish your packing?” said Mrs. Hampden, dryly. She opened the carpet-bag. “Mercy! What a mess it is in! coats, boots, papers, all jammed in together! I will pack it for you, Ralph.”

“You’re the best woman in the world, Sarah. Is that Kent playing hockey with young Jarret yonder? I will go and stretch my legs with them a bit.”

But the boys met him in the hall. “My father is coming,” said Josiah Jarret. He was a slow, quiet lad, with his father’s gray lack-lustre eyes.

“I have brought the package,” said the cashier, as Mr. Hampden ushered him into the parlour. “It is very kind of you to burden yourself with it—very kind. Ten thousand dollars. Count it, if you please. Wait one moment!” He closed the door leading into the dining-room and drew the curtain over the upper half, which was of glass.

“Nobody there but Kent and Si,” said Mr. Hampden, as he counted the notes. They were of large denominations and easily reckoned.

“I trust no business secrets to boys,” said Mr. Jarret. “Nobody knows from me that you have this sum in charge. The amount is correct?”

“Yes. Will you have claret or sherry?” motioning toward the beaufet. No business transaction was ever concluded at that time without a drink, even in religious assemblies.

“N-no,” said Jarret, uneasily, “not now, thank you.”

“You don’t mean that you will not drink with me—for good luck to my journey?”

“I have a headache to-day, Ralph. Oh, here is the receipt. Just put your name on it.”

This formula was unusual in those easy-going days. Mr. Hampden’s colour rose as he wrote his name.

“Well, good by, and good luck to you,” said Jarret, pocketing the receipt. “Come, Si, come home to your dinner,” opening the door.

Si hung back, grumbling.

“Let him stay with Kent,” said Mr. Hampden, courteously, though he wished to be alone with his wife and children. Si’s father nodded consent and he took his way down the hill.

Mr. Hampden turned to his wife as soon as the boys left them. “That pettifogger[9] asked for a receipt!” he exclaimed angrily. “As if he were likely to forget that he had given me the package, or I, that I had it to carry! Feel the weight of that!”

The notes were folded in an oblong bundle, wrapped in a heavy foolscap, [10] and again in several thicknesses of brown paper. The whole was put into a case of black oilcloth.

Mrs. Hampden, like Jarret, shut the door. “It has been very clumsily done,” she said. “They are afraid of dampness, I suppose; wait, I can arrange it better.”

The chief treasure of her wardrobe was a crêpe shawl brought to her by a sailor uncle. It was kept wrapped in Chinese silk paper. She ran up stairs now and brought down this paper.

“How clever you are, Sarah!” He stood by, praising her deftness while she took off the heavy wrappings, folded the notes in the tough light web and tied them in a single sheet of the brown paper, replacing the package in the oilcloth case.

“You can hang it by a strap to your shoulder under your coat, Ralph.”

He made a wry face. “It wouldn’t do to put it in the sack? There, there! Don’t lecture me! I’ll not let it out of my sight once. Ten thousand dollars! Why, this is a pot of gold! I could buy that plantation now!”

“Don’t talk so idly, Ralph. If anybody should hear you!”

“Anybody would know that I was not a thief,” he said, quietly. “Let us have dinner. The stage coach will soon be here.”

The meal was quiet and hurried. The journey was as important as a voyage to Europe is now. All the neighbours were on the watch to see Mr. Hampden’s departure and to wish him good luck.

They had not left the table when the great red coach, with its four white horses and its many-caped driver, dashed around the corner and stopped at the door.

Mr. Hampden ran up stairs to get a forgotten coat, followed by his wife and Margery. When they came down again Mrs. Hampden brought the package out of the parlour. “You would actually have forgotten it,” she said reprovingly, “but for me. Promise me, Ralph, you will not let it go out of your sight again.”

He kissed her, laughing. “Possess your soul in patience with me, Sarah.”

Margery was hanging to his arm, Kent and Si dashing madly in and out, clamouring for leave to ride on the boot as far as the toll-gate.

“How many passengers, boys?” asked Mr. Hampden.

“Three, sir. A lady, a clergyman, and a blind man. The guard says there is not one through passenger to Philadelphia but yourself.”

“All aboard!” The bugle blew, the horses strained their huge flanks, the neighbours waved their good bys. Mr. Hampden kissed his hand from the coach roof,—there was a great white cloud of dust,—and they were gone.

Chapter Second

Hunting the “Hidden Foe”[11]

KENT HAMPDEN was president of a secret Society. There were five members—just enough to fill the offices: one president, two vice-presidents, a secretary, and a treasurer. When Tom Congdon joined, there was no place for him but private; but, his father being a representative in Congress, Tom had picked up so many ideas about the rules of debate, that the Society created an office expressly for him. He was made “parliamentary tactician.”

The Society had its by-laws, its passwords, a badge, and a name. The public—that is, a remainder of the pupils of Mr. Hildreth’s school—knew it as the O. W. B. S. Mrs. Hampden, who baked gingerbread for the members every week, alone knew them to be the Order of Wild Beast Slayers. There were bears, wolves, and an occasional panther still to be found on the hills bordering the river. None of the boys had ever seen one; but hope sprang eternal in their breasts every Saturday morning, as they set out with their muskets and heavy dinner-baskets for slaughter.

Besides, ought not “wild beasts” to include the lynxes, wild-cats, gray squirrels, snakes, and musk-rats which they really did kill? The members were sworn to “rid their native land of all noxious creatures, the enemies of humanity.”

One Friday evening, about five weeks after Mr. Hampden’s departure, the six boys were assembled to watch Mrs. Hampden make their new badges. She was embroidering O. W. B. S. with gold thread on little tabs of black velvet, which were to be conspicuously hidden on their waistcoats.

“We must take a big snack to-morrow,” said Joe Doty. “We’ll start early. Tom, you, Monroe, and Will can go out over Hubbard’s hill, and search that range. Kent, Si, and I will take the north trail. We’ll meet at McCulloch’s Leap.”

“I don’t know that I shall go,” said Kent. “This search is all tomfoolery.”

His mother looked up, startled at his irritated tone. The faces of the other boys were red and excited; Kent’s was annoyed and grave.

“What are you going to hunt?” she asked. “Squirrels?”

The boys looked doubtfully at each other. “Now, Mrs. Hampden,” said Tom Congdon, “this is a serious thing—a secret. But we’ll tell you, if you’ll be as dumb as death about it.”

“I see no use in bothering mother about it,” said Kent.

But Tom hurried on, excitedly. “We have a Hidden Foe! We’re going to run him to earth, and punish him horribly to-morrow. You see, we used to have the run of all the hills. We set out traps, and left our powder or tackle in our hiding-places just as safely as in our parlour. Why, Kent and I had a secret den where we kept our fishing clothes a whole summer.

“But for six months there’s been a thief prowling on the hills. One week the traps are robbed: he next, the powder is taken. My shot-pouch, that I left in the den, is gone, and Si Jarret’s brand-new wamus[12] with it. We’re bound to run that scoundrel down to-morrow, be he black or white! Come! You’ll go, Kent!”

“I suppose so,” said Kent, uneasily. “I’ll shoot squirrels, and you can play sheriff.”

Tom Congdon’s badge was the last one finished. Margery, who had come in, was allowed to pin them on, and then she proudly surveyed the boys. “I should think,” she said, earnestly, “you would want to go to the West, and fight Indians.”

“What a bloodthirsty baby you are!” said Kent, kissing her. “Where are you going, Tom? It’s early.”

“I know; but my father came home this afternoon. I scarcely saw him; for your father, Si, met him when he got out of the coach, and stayed to have a talk with him.”

Tom as an incessant talker, and never so happy as when he had a secret of his own or of somebody else to scatter broadcast over the town. He went on, gleefully: “Your father was talking all the time of you, Si. I listened to his account, and thought, ‘Hello! Can this be Si Jarret?’”

Josiah wriggled uncomfortably, but said nothing.

“I asked father why Mr. Jarret was singing Si’s praises, and—he told me.”

Tom paused to glance around triumphantly at the interested faces about him. “He me that your father asked him to appoint you to West Point.”

The boys were too much surprised to notice the look of dismay which, at these words, passed between Kent and his mother.

“I reckon you dreamed it,” grumbled Josiah.

“No, I didn’t. I heard every syllable. Your father thinks you’ll be a credit to the nation. Cadet Jarret! Hurray!” shrieked Tom, jumping around him.

The Wild Beast Slayers soon went out, all talking of this new event at once. Kent came back when they were gone, and stood by the fire.

“What is to be done, mother? Colonel Congdon will give the appointment to Si! Father has not written to him about me. You see how Mr. Jarret is pushing it. Met him at the coach door—”

“I can’t bear that man, Jarret!” said Mrs. Hampden.

“He’s not to blame for working for his son.” Kent was always more moderate than his mother or father. “There is no time to lose. Colonel Congdon said he would make the appointment this term for the next vacancy.”

“What if you do not get this appointment?”

“There will not be another appointment for four years.”

“And your father will not be at home for two weeks! I cannot imagine why he has not written!” Mrs. Hampden’s voice began to choke, and the tears came. “I declare, I don’t know what to do!”

“I know!” Kent seized his hat. “I’ll go to Colonel Congdon myself!”

“Oh, my son!” Mrs. Hampden started up. “That is ridiculous. But, no! If he sees you, he will know what a noble boy you are. Go! O Kent, hurry! God help you, my boy!”

Mrs. Hampden and Margery sat by the fire, crying and praying silently all the evening. They imagined a dramatic scene—Kent urging his claims, and the Colonel, deeply touched by his gallant mien, consenting; but the meeting really was very commonplace. The Colonel was called out of the parlour to see Kent.

“Colonel Congdon, I am Kent Hampden,” he said. “My father intended to ask you to appoint me to West Point; but he is out of town, and I came myself. I was afraid—”

“That I would give it to Jarret’s son to-night?” the Congressman laughed. “No hurry, my boy. Your father is not at home, eh? I hear he has been busy in the campaign. Stumping the district for Clay?”[13]

“Oh, yes, sir!” Kent said eagerly. He had been taught from his cradle the fervent loyalty to Henry Clay shared by all Virginian Whigs. The country was just then agitated by the presidential campaign, in which Clay was a candidate.

The Colonel tapped Kent on the shoulder, smiling. “A pity you have not a vote, my lad! I hear that your father is taking a prominent part in local politics now.”

Kent’s eyes shone proudly. “You might have noticed the big posters, sir, all over town: ‘For President, Henry Clay. For Mayor, Ralph Hampden.’”

The Colonel nodded. “Well, my boy, this matter of yours is not to be settled in a minute. Make haste slowly, eh? I’ll look into it.”

Kent said good night, and went down the street, walking as if to triumphant music. No promise had been given, but he felt quite sure of his appointment. To be an officer, like Napoleon, like Washington![14] It had been the dream of his life! The whole future opened before him full of waving banners, or armies, of marching music. He passed the flaring red placards bearing Henry Clay’s and his father’s names. His father deserved to be ranked side by side with the great man of the country!

In this triumphant mood he struck across the wharf, making a short cut homeward, and passed Mr. Hampden’s warehouse.

“Kent!” a voice called from the door. It was Pomeroy, the book-keeper. “Can you come into the office for half an hour?” he asked. “I must go home to supper, but I’m coming back. Will you sit here till I return?”

“You’ll not be long? I have some important news for mother,” said Kent, as he sat down, reluctantly.

“Heard from your father? No? Very queer that he has not written!” grumbled Pomeroy, as he hurried away.

The warehouse was dark and vacant. A single lamp burned in the office where Pomeroy had been at work. Kent took up a paper, but was too much excited to read.

At that moment a hurried footstep sounded without on the cobble-stones, and a tall man, whose heavy cloak and fur cap showed that he was a traveller, stood in the doorway.

“Is Mr. Hampden here?” he asked.

Kent rose. “No, sir.”

“Shall I find him at his house?”

Kent came nearer as he answered. By the dim light he caught an uncertain glimpse of the stranger’s face. His heart suddenly throbbed wildly. Could it be—

“Out of town!” The traveller paused, annoyed and disappointed. “This is vexatious. I have just arrived in the coach, and the boat leaves in a few minutes. I have a favour to ask of Mr. Hampden.”

There could be no mistake! There was the towering forehead, the wide mouth; there were the searching eyes. The portrait of the stranger hung in every house in the town. Kent’s voice trembled with his excitement.

“Mr. Clay,” he said, “I am Mr. Hampden’s son, Kent. Could I—can you make use of me?

Mr. Clay lifted his hat again, and held out his hand with a quick, pleased smile.

“Thank you, my boy! The fact is, I find that I am out of ready money, and I wished to ask your father to cash a check for me. But—”

“Oh, I can do it!” exclaimed Kent, throwing open the desk, and drawing out some notes.

Mr. Clay hesitated, with the check in his hand. “But are you sure that you have authority?”

“Oh, indeed, yes! I act as cashier for father sometimes. He says that I am more careful about money than he is.”

“That may be,” said the visitor, laughing. “Hampden is no fonder of reckoning dollars and cents than I am myself. Well, here it is—one hundred dollars.”

Kent counted out the notes.

“This is a real service,” said Mr. Clay, as he strapped them into his pocket-book. “I could have asked any business man to cash the check, but I am tired, and wish to pass through the town quietly. Your father is a very old friend.”

The bell on the boat rang, but he leaned leisurely against the desk, scanning Kent’s face as though he had no other interest in the world.

“And you—what are you going to do with your life, my boy?”

“I intend—I mean I hope to go to West Point.”

Mr. Clay was silent and thoughtful a moment. “Very good. I shall keep my eye on you, Kent. We shall be good friends, always.”

Kent stammered out something, he knew not what, the words fairly tumbling over one another in his vehemence, and ending with, “Oh, if I only had a vote next month!”

His new friend laughed, shook hands warmly, and left him, having secured a faithful follower for life by a smile and a few words.

Kent heard the cheer as Mr. Clay reached the boat and was recognized. Then, Mr. Pomeroy appearing, he dashed homeward, bursting with his wonderful news.

Colonel Congdon, meanwhile, went in to supper, glad to thrust aside politics and business, and to chat idly with his wife and Judge Morris, who had come to welcome him home. Tom poured out the school news, and his father soon had heard all about the Wild Beast Slayers, and the intended hunt for their Secret Enemy to-morrow.

“We were at just such pranks not very long ago,” he said to the Judge. “By the way, Tom, young Hampden was here just now. He, too, wants the cadetship. Which boy do you recommend?”

“Kent, sir,” said Tom, promptly.

“But Jarret’s son is at the head of his class?”

“Yes. But Si is a prig, and Kent is always a gentleman.”

His father laughed. “Now, do you know, Judge, Tom has hit the very bull’s eye of the matter? What we want in our army officers is the high sense of honour, the untarnished character of the Southern gentleman, rather than scholarship. I am anxious about this appointment. I wish that the boy sent may be a credit hereafter to Virginia. Tom,” he said, after a moment’s thought, “what would the boys say if the Judge and I joined your hunt to-morrow? I should like to see those lads behind the scenes. What d’ye say, Morris? I want to feel a rifle in my hands again and to dodge the politicians for a few hours longer at least.”

The Judge nodded, laughing, and Tom rushed away to tell the boys. They could hear his hurrahs far down the street.

Chapter Third

The Hunt

THE next morning, long before sunrise, the Wild Beast Slayers gathered at the mouth of the gorge behind the town. The sleeping village was wrapped in a gray mist, and a damp wind blew down in their faces from the forests which they were going to penetrate. It fairly smelled rank of bears and panthers to them.

“We certainly will find some big game to-day, now that the Colonel is along,” said Kent, anxiously, as they began to climb the mountain.

“My father killed panthers when he was a boy all through the Cheat[15] ranges,” bragged Tom. “And as for wolves, sir, they were as common there as—as rats.”

Kent said nothing. He would like to have brought up some of his father’s own exploits when he was young, and for the first time it occurred to him, with a startled surprise, that he knew nothing of Mr. Hampden’s boyhood.

Tom fell behind the other boys presently. They could hear the Colonel’s big bass voice before them rolling out:—

“A southerly wind and a cloudy sky,
Proclaim it a hunting morning;
Before the sun rises, away let us hie<br?>While Phœbus the East is adoring!
With a hey-ho, tantivy, tantivy.

“That may be the way to lure wolves up to a gun,” sneered Si Jarret. “But it will scare away every squirrel on the hills.”

“Who wants to shoot squirrels to-day?” Kent broke in, indignantly. “Bears are my game, sir!”

“Bears!” shrieked Si, with a jeering laugh. “There’s nothing bigger on these mountains than coons, anyway. I’ll undertake to knife every bear you find, myself, single-handed.”

The boys eyed him with silent rage, and a secret qualm of fear that, after all, he might be right.

“That boy,” said Monroe to Kent, “don’t believe in anything. My father, the other day, was telling me about Hoko’s Island, how the old chief, when he was driven off it, cursed the ground so that whoever owned it should die suddenly, and how it was a fact that for four generations the owners had died in their boots. Si spoke up and said he reckoned bad whiskey and fights had more to do with their deaths than old Hoko. It was an insult to my father, sir! I don’t suppose Si believes in the Bible.”

“Hush-h!” said Kent. “Even the devil does that. Si was born that way. He can’t help it, I reckon.”

When the hunting-party had crossed the first line of hills, they scattered through the forest, appointing a rendezvous at noon. The Judge and Colonel after one or two shots sat down to discuss Mr. Clay’s chances. The boys had varied luck; Si and Monroe bagged several squirrels, but Tom and Kent shot nothing. Tom lost his temper. He declared that he had not come out to shoot, anyhow, and several times when the other boys insisted on beginning the intended search for the thief who had stolen the game and other belongings of the Society, but each time he was checked sharply by Kent.

“How will you set about such a hunt as that?” Kent said. “Where will you find his trail? Do you suppose he has hung the pouch and game on trees to blaze the path for you to his house?”

Tom beckoned him apart at last. “What do you mean, Kent? Do you want to furnish powder and squirrels to a thief? It looks as if you were protecting him.”

Kent looked startled for a minute. “I have a reason, but I cannot tell it,” he said. “Come, all of you. It is time we had a snack. Your father, Tom, told us to meet him and the Judge on the top of the mountain about this time.”

The boys suddenly discovered that they were nearly starved, and pressed forward in a body up the narrow trail. Suddenly, Si, who was leading, fell back with a hoarse screech.

“What’s that?”

He pointed to a shaggy black mass among the paw-paw bushes before them. There was silence for a minute, the boys crowding back on each other: then Tom gasped out, “It’s a panther!”

“Panthers are not shaggy and black,” Kent thought he said. But in reality his lips were glued together. There was a queer shudder in his stomach as if he had a chill, but his hands seemed to move of themselves like lightning. He unshouldered his gun, rammed down the load, took aim—

“Stop!” shouted the Colonel’s voice from above. “It’s a bear. If you don’t kill him, he’ll attack you!”

Too late. The report of the rifle rang out like thunder in the narrow ravine; the Colonel and Judge Morris came scrambling down through the underbrush. Their shouts, the yells of the boys, the fierce growls of the bear, all made a hideous discord in the stifling smoke.

When it cleared away, the bear had disappeared.

“He’s behind that rock!” shrieked Tom. “Kent hit him! Here’s his blood!”

“Be calm, boys, be quiet!” exclaimed the Colonel, shaking with excitement. “He would have run from you if you had let him alone, but now he is dangerous. What do you advise, Judge?”

“Send Si in to knife him!” cried Tom. “Now’s his chance.”

The boys yelled with delight.

Where was Si?

He was discovered at last on top of an oak, peering down with a sickly grin.

Kent, behind the others, drew out a long bent dagger. “I borrowed father’s Bowie-knife this morning,” he whispered to Monroe. “This will finish him. I shot him; I ought to have the job.”

Monroe looked with awe at his white jaws and shining eyes.

“That’s so! It’s a big game, sir! Big game! Go in,” he gasped.

Kent dashed off his jacket, tightened the belt about his waist. There was a flash of triumph through his brain—he shut his teeth. The chance of his life had come—it was big game!

Judge Morris, parleying excitedly with the Colonel at the mouth of the den, was nearly upset by the boy as he rushed into it.

“Who is that? Great heaven! Kent! He will be killed! I am responsible to his mother for him,” shouted the Colonel. “Knife him! Knife him! Is he dead, Kent?”

They crowded about the hole and peered in. Kent was kneeling over the black mass, from which came a hoarse groan.

The boy crawled out. “It isn’t worth while to use the knife,” he said. “He is almost dead. I happened to hit him in the eye,” he added, with an awkward laugh. “It was pure luck, sir; I am not a good shot.”

“You had no right to risk your life! It was sheer foolhardiness!” blustered the Judge, angrily. He took his turn, however, with the others in crawling into the den on his hands and knees to inspect the bear.

“He is small but fat,” he said, on emerging. “Send some of the negroes out to bring it to town, Kent, to-day, and when it is cut up, remember that I prefer the second steak from the loin. The second, mind.”

The adventure had made them hungrier than ever, and they all soon gathered round the fire which the Judge had kindled on top of the ridge, and busied themselves in boiling coffee and broiling ham.

The Colonel lay idly on the grass, looking down into the beautiful valley through which ran the broad river dotted with fairy islands, like green plumes. On its farther side were the Ohio hills, an almost unbroken wilderness. The early frosts had turned the forests into ramparts of gold and flaming crimson.

So short a time had passed since the red men had been driven out of these hills, that stories of burning homes and stolen children and massacred savages were still the familiar talk of every day. Most of these boys could boast of a grandfather or an uncle who had been a famous Indian fighter.

The Colonel therefore naturally fell into this kind of gossip as he lay waiting for his breakfast.

“I see that they have destroyed the last trace of the old fort in the town,” he said. “It stood on the bluff near the river, boys. Did old Molly Scott never tell you how she carried the bullets and powder in her apron across the stockade, in the face of the Indian? I hear they claim the credit of that feat for some other woman, but it certainly was Molly Scott who did it. Madam Sheppard was in the fort at the time, and she says so. She knew the Indian chief Logan, too, and the Wetzels.” [16]

Lewis Wetzel ranked next to Washington as a hero in the opinion of the boys: while they ate their breakfast they eagerly discussed his different fights.

“He was no braver than the other Indian fighters,” said the Colonel. “But he was cool: he kept his head. He had learned, too, to load his gun while running, which trick stood him in good stead in many a battle.”

“I suppose,” said Si, demurely, “he never would rush into a den to knife a dead bear, sir?”

“No,” said Judge Morris, sharply, “nor climb a tree to hide from a living one.”

As they were making their way home that afternoon, the Judge said to Colonel Congdon, “Si showed the white feather[17] very promptly to-day. Bad stuff out of which to make a soldier—eh?”

The Colonel laughed, but said, “Foolhardiness is no better stuff, in my opinion.”

They were climbing a steep hill at the time. Presently he halted until the boys came up, when he said, “Lewis Wetzel’s cave used to be hereabouts. Don’t you know it, boys?”

“No, sir! A cave?” They all crowded close except Kent, who hung back, pale and watchful. The Colonel stopped and took his bearings. “Due north from that rock; east of that great gum-tree—I have it! It must be behind that rock!”

They climbed through the narrow passage. Tom shouted, “Here, father! Here’s the mouth. Hurrah! I’m in first!”

The cave, which was about ten feet deep, was completely hidden by the rock and hanging vines.

“Wetzel used to hide here,” said the Colonel, “and imitate the call of the wild turkey. When the Indian followed it he shot him, and—what have you found there, Tom?”

Tom dragged forward a dark mass. “Look at that!” he panted. “The powder-flask! The traps! Si’s wamus! All jammed under this ledge. This is the thief’s den!”

The boys were wild with excitement, searching for booty, but they found nothing more, and were at last persuaded by the Colonel to turn homeward. Tom observed that Josiah had suddenly grown grave and silent. “What’s the matter with you?” he said, enforcing the remark by a thrust in the side. Si drew him behind the others.

“O Tom! look here! look at that!” His hands shook as he held out a memorandum book, marked on the back, “Kent Hampden.” “I found that below the ledge.”

“The rascal has stolen it from Kent!” said Tom. “I’ll call him—”

“No, no! Look at that!” On the last page was written, “September fourth, 1824. K.H.”

“That is Kent’s writing,” said Josiah, with a scared face.

“It looks like it. Give it to me.” He closed the book and put it into his pocket. “It looks like Kent’s writing, and that date is later than the time when the things were stolen. But look here, Si Jarret! I wouldn’t believe that Kent stole if I saw him do it! I wouldn’t believe my own eyes if they made out Kent Hampden to be a thief. No! you’ll not have the book. Stand off! I’ll find out the truth of this, and if you tell about the book, I’ll break every bone in your body!”

He rushed up to Kent the next minute to shake hands with him, much to the surprise of the Wild Beast Slayers, who were not given to such polite usages.

The hunting-party reached town just after sunset. The usual crowd had gathered at Beymer’s inn, waiting for the stage coach to come in. The Colonel stopped and told the story of Kent’s prowess.

“Hit the bear fair in the eye! As pretty a shot as I ever saw!” cried the Judge.

Kent, his face as red as a poppy, hurried through the crowd. He hated anything like bragging, and he knew that the eye-shot was an accident.

Somebody, however, called out, “Hurrah for the Hampdens! Kent slaughters bears, and his dad, Democrats!” A chorus of cheers and laughter followed, in which the Democrats were loudest, while Si went about eagerly whispering that the bear was no bigger than a six-months pig.

Kent ran hastily down the street. His heart was thumping with delight at the news he had to tell his mother and Margery.

The house was in sight. He saw that an unusual light was in the rooms. He dashed up the steps:—

“Mother! Margery!” he shouted. “I have killed a bear!”

Candles were flaring in the hall. The door stood open. What could have happened?

He pushed into the parlour. Margery met him. “Father has come!” she whispered, with a sob.

Mr. Hampden, still in his great-coat and cap, stood with his back to the fire.

“Yes, I’m here, Kent,” he said, with an unnatural laugh. “But you need not rejoice. I have lost that money!”

Chapter Fourth

Dark Days

“I HAVE lost the money,” repeated Mr. Hampden. “Ten thousand dollars!”

“If you lost it, father, it wasn’t your fault, I’m certain,” said Kent, stoutly.

Mrs. Hampden threw her arms about her husband’s neck. “So I tell him, Kent!” she exclaimed. “Don’t worry, Ralph; it will all come right! I should like to know who would dare suspect you!” Mrs. Hampden was accustomed sometimes to reproach her careless husband when he erred in trifles, but in this crisis she and Kent stood by him shoulder to shoulder.

“Come, now!” she said cheerfully, “you must have your supper. You are worn out. Margery, bring your father’s slippers.”

She herself ran to bring water, to bathe his face; Kent took the tray with his supper from old Aunt Elsy at the door, and placed it before him; Margery knelt at his knees, caressing him. Hampden was fond of affectionate attentions from those he loved. The colour began to come back to his face, and his eyes filled with tears.

“One would think I had come home after winning a victory, instead of having ruined you all!” he said, with a nervous laugh.

Aunt Elsy thereupon spread the news that some terrible misfortune had befallen her master, and every negro in the kitchen came to the rescue to console him. Sukey brought in a basket of paw-paws;[18] old Sentry piled up the grate with huge lumps of coal; and little Poz followed with half a dozen yelping puppies.

Mr. Hampden ate a hearty supper, and warmed and comforted more than other men would have been by these homely things. They did not warm or comfort Mr. Jarret, however, when that gentleman arrived, and entering the open hall, stood looking into the parlour, his eyes twinkling and his jaws moving nervously.

“Sorry to disturb this happy home circle!” he said, at last.

The paw-paws, the puppies, the supper, and negroes all disappeared in a scurry. Margery followed them, but Kent sat resolutely down by his father. A new life stirred at the boy’s heart.

“I heard that you had returned, Mr. Hampden,” said the cashier. “I also heard some ill news that I am loath to credit. The package—”

“I have lost it. Or, rather, I have lost the money. There is the package.” He drew out of his breast and threw on the table what was to all appearance the package as he had received it.

Jarret eagerly seized it, and drew out of the black oil-skin case a bundle of brown paper in which were folded sheets of blank foolscap.

“A strange parcel!” he said. “I gave you, wrapped in this very sheet of brown paper, ten thousand dollars. You do not deny it? I have your receipt for the money.”

“Oh, yes, I had the money with me when I started,” said Mr. Hampden, coolly. “How it was conjured out of that case I do not know. I have felt sometimes as if I were going mad, in my efforts to understand it. I did not open the case from the time I left home until I reached Philadelphia. I had been three weeks on the way, having been delayed in Cumberland. I had thee case constantly with me; went directly to the bank in Philadelphia, glad enough to be rid of the thing; opened it, and found—blank paper within it.”

Mr. Jarret fingered the foolscap thoughtfully, without looking up.

“You did not part with the package at all, then?” he asked.

Mr. Hampden flushed, and hesitated before replying. “Yes, I did—twice. Once I followed a rattlesnake into the woods, and another time, near night, we saw a wolf—as pretty a shot as you would wish to see! Each time I gave the package to a passenger in whom I had perfect confidence; once to a blind man, the other time to a clergyman. You do not suppose they took the notes?”

“Who did take them?” said the cashier, quietly.

Mr. Hampden started to his feet. “How can I tell? That package has been a curse to me!” His face grew paler every moment.

“It is a most unfortunate affair,” said Jarret, deliberately, still without looking at him. “Of course, my dear sir, none of the officers of the bank suspect you. But the thing looks badly—it does indeed! There was the case of Vanuxem,[19] who lost the jewels confided to him;—you know the black cloud of suspicion that hung about him all of his life. People knew Vanuxem, too, from his cradle, while in your case there is, unfortunately, an obscurity—”

Mr. Hampden stared at him, bewildered. “What do you mean?” he stammered.

“He means,” said Mrs. Hampden, in an unusually quiet voice, “something which he will not say in this house or in my presence. Kent, Mr. Jarret’s visit is over. Will you open the door for him?” Her cheeks were pink, her eyes burned with a soft fire. Kent smiled; he had never thought his little mother a beautiful woman before.

“Stop, Jarret!” said Mr. Hampden, sternly. “I understand you now. I will see the directors of the bank to-morrow. I will repay that money, if it leaves me a beggar.”

“My dear sir, all this agitation is totally uncalled for,” said Jarret, his jaws working convulsively. “You will think better of it to-morrow—and so will your wife.”

He was gathering up the paper of the package as he spoke. Kent laid his hand on it. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Jarret; my father may find a clue to the thief in that. You have no use for it?”

“I? Oh, certainly not.” With an elaborate bow he left the room.

“There is not another man in Wheeling who would harbour such base suspicions of me,” Mr. Hampden burst forth. “You gave him a quietus, Sarah!” He laughed delightedly.

“But, father,” said Kent, after an anxious pause, “must you pay this money back?”

“Can you ask me, my son? In law, I am not bound to pay it, because I acted as an unpaid agent; but I shall pay it, nevertheless, if I starve! I cannot have any stain resting upon my honour.”

“Ten thousand dollars!” said his wife. “This house must go.”

“Yes, this house must go, and the warehouse. All we have shall go!”

“That may not be enough, father,”

“No, it will not be enough. But I’m a young man; I can work. I began here without a dollar, and I can push my way up again.”

Mrs. Hampden was standing in the doorway. Kent saw her slow look pass over the belongings which had been earned so slowly, and which were so dear to her. There was the rag-carpet, every inch of which she had made; the carved table—how long she had saved to buy that! The little chair in which he and Margery had sat when they were babies; the few books, read in winter evenings; the silver forks, Ralph’s last Christmas gift, her pride and glory. Fifteen years had been spent in gathering these household treasures, and now—Kent saw her shut her mouth closely, but not a sigh escaped. Presently she said:—

“Must everything go?”

Kent went to her and put his arm about her.

“Everything!” Mr. Hampden was pacing up and down in a fever of excitement. “Everything! I shall begin life again, bare of all but honour!”

The little woman who had often scolded him sharply when he spilled ink on his cuffs, said not a word. When he sat down, she stroked his forehead to quiet him.

* * * * *

There was much excitement in the town when the story of the loss of the money was known. The tide of sympathy at first set in favour of Hampden.

“A man could not take a journey but he must be hampered with these commissions by the bank, which made his life a burden!” people said. “The accident might happen to any one; and as to Ralph Hampden’s proposal to pay back the money, when he was not bound to do it, it was very honourable in him, and he deserves great credit for it.”

But after a week or two there was a change like the sudden chill of a summer day before a storm. Mr. Hampden’s friends saluted him pleasantly, but they avoided the subject of the lost package. If he approached a group of his friends on the street, they were suddenly silent, and soon scattered.

He went to Judge Morris. “You are my friend,” he said. “Tell me what is wrong! I have done all that an honourable man can do. I have offered both warehouse and house for sale. Jarret proposes to take the house, furniture and all.”

“That is hard for your wife, Ralph.”

“She does not complain. In intend to pay this money, though it keep me slaving for many a year. What more can I do? I see the suspicion in the faces of my friends. Do they dare suspect me of being a thief?”

“Calm yourself, Hampden. I will be candid about it. No one really believes you took the money, but there is an unfortunate mystery. You have kept your early life secret. Jarret attaches a good deal of importance to that.”

“My early life concerns no one but myself,” said Mr. Hampden, haughtily.

“Oh? Well—then Jarret thinks there was something kept back about that advertisement, eh? Then there was another odd thing—”

“Go on.”

“You spent ten days in Cumberland. What were you doing there? Of course, Hampden, nobody has a right to ask; nobody does ask. But as it was about that time the money was lost, the best course for you would to state frankly where you were, and make no mystery about it.”

Mr. Hampden stood silent and thoughtful. “You are right; but I cannot tell you anything about those ten days. I simply cannot, if it ruins me.”

The Judge took both his hands. “Well, my dear fellow, it will all come right. I will try to silence this buzz of talk.”

That night Colonel Congdon called on Mr. Hampden to talk the matter over.

“Your course in giving up your property is very honourable,” he said. “But you have some enemies busily at work. They whisper, ‘He can afford to give up the house if he has the ten thousand dollars safely hidden away somewhere.’ Keep cool, Hampden; you are partly to blame. You make mysteries where none are needed. Judge Morris has spoken to you of this?”

“Yes. It is impossible to speak, Congdon. I can explain nothing.”

“You are aware, I suppose, that your name has been withdrawn as candidate for mayor?”

“Yes. They will not give to me, because they think I am unworthy. Let it be so.”

“More than that,” said the Colonel. “Until you declined to explain these matters, I was resolved to give the West Point cadetship to Kent. But I dare not outrage public sentiment. I am warned by my party leaders that the government should have no favours for the sons of men of doubtful antecedents. I am warned by the fathers of the boys who were out on the hills with me that day, that some suspicion attaches to Kent. My boy Tom tells me there is no truth in these scandalous whispers. I don’t believe them; but the whole thing is annoying.”

“I do not know what you are talking about,” cried Mr. Hampden, starting up. “Suspicion attached to Kent! To my son! No friend of mine would listen to such slanders! No, sir, I will hear nothing more! I will make no defence against any charges. But my boy, Colone Congdon, is as worthy of respect and confidence as I am!”

The Colonel’s anger at this rebuff was short-lived. “Ralph Hampden,” he said to Judge Morris, “is a Quixotic fool, but he is, I firmly believe, an honourable man. The difficulty will be to make the town believe it. The ordinary citizen has no patience with Quixotism or mystery. His chance of the mayoralty is gone forever. And I cannot defy public opinion by nominating Kent for West Point. It would probably cost me my seat next term.”

“What boy will you name, then?”

“There is nobody else on the course but that young Jarret,” said Colonel Congdon, with a shrug of annoyance.

“He’s an ill-bred cub,” grumbled the Judge.

“I know it. But I have no choice.”

* * * * *

These were but bubbles on the rising flood of excitement that surged through the town.

Ralph Hampden was much beloved, but Mr. Jarret was busy with his hints and suggestions, and his friends could not deny that Ralph was unpardonably careless and freakish, and that the mystery in which he chose to shroud his past life was almost a proof of his guilt.

When he went out on the street, the embarrassed manner of his warmest adherents, and the persistency with which the subject of the lost money was ignored, almost maddened him.

He shut himself up in the house, neglected his business, and tormented his wife, his children, and the servants with his querulous ill temper.

But never since her marriage had Mr. Hampden been so cheerful and loving as now. The quiet little woman even became talkative. When her husband sank into a gloomy silence, she drew suddenly drew from her mind all kinds of merry, queer fancies to rouse him. Where had she stored them all these years? Margery watched her amazed, and felt that she had never known her mother before.

One night after Mrs. Hampden had kept him amused by discussing Kent’s victory over the bear, a subject which always delighted him, she brought his flute to him. He played his favourite tunes,—“Roy’s Wife” and “The Maid of Lodi,” chatting gayly between the airs as if there were no trouble in the world greater than a false note.

When he went out, Margery looked up into her mother’s face. How thin and white it was growing!

“Mother,” she said, “if you would ask father what he was doing in Cumberland, maybe he would tell you.”

“Go to your doll, child!” said Mrs. Hampden, sternly. “Is it for you to watch your father?”

When the child was gone she started up to follow him. Would he tell her? Was there a chance?

But she turned and sat down again, dull and hopeless. She knew well the element of obstinacy in Ralph Hampden’s character. His present course might be prompted by some whimsical, fantastic idea, but he would follow it to the death. “If he believed that an angel could dance on the point of a needle,[20] he would burn at the stake to prove it,” she thought. “Yes, and see his family burn, too!” she added, with a miserable laugh.

Mrs. Hampden saw nothing but ruin before them all.

They could leave their comfortable house, and seek shelter in some little cottage. But after that? Her husband’s business, that of a forwarding merchant, required an unblemished reputation. As soon as the story of the lost package reached his consignors in the East and South, his credit was gone. What would be Kent’s fate, or Margery’s—the children of a man suspected of theft?

For Mrs. Hampden the pain of giving up her home was lost in the greater misery. But to Kent and Margery the daily visits of Si Jarret to inspect “the house we are going buy” were a burden hard to bear. Si soon began, too, to assume airs of ownership.

“You’ve got to send off these rabbits,” he drawled one day to Kent. “I don’t want them burrowin’ under our garden.”

Then he turned to Margery, who was perched up in her favorite crotch of the cherry tree.

“You’d best keep off there!” he said. “We’ll get no fruit off that branch next year, I expect!”

Margery came down from the tree, inwardly angry, but showing no sign of her feeling until he was gone.

“If I were a boy,” she said then, reflectively.

“What would you do, baby?” Kent pulled her down upon his knee. “Would you shoot Si Jarret?”

“No, I can’t shoot. I’d go and find that package.”

The blood rushed to Kent’s head. The garden, the trees, wavered dizzily before him. He sat motionless for a long time, holding Margery close in his arms. At last he put her down, kissed her, and went into the house. Mrs. Hampden was sewing at the window by the fast fading light. His father sat before the fire, cowed and helpless.

“Father,” said Kent, “did you make any search for that money?”

“How should I search for it?” he answered, irritably. “It was not lost—to be found under my pillow at an inn or in the straw at the bottom of the coach. It was stolen, and the paper put in the place of the notes.”

After a few minutes’ pause, Kent ventured another question. “Did those passengers who left Wheeling with you go all the way?”

“No. Armitage, the blind man, stopped at Hardscrabble. He was a bright, intelligent fellow.”

“You gave the package to him to hold while you went to kill the rattlesnake?”

“Yes; that was when we had driven about twelve miles from Wheeling. Then there was a Mrs. Digby, a very well-bred lady indeed. She left us at Washington, in Pennsylvania.”

“Wasn’t there another passenger—a minister?”

“The Rev. Jabez Elkhart. He lives in Cumberland, Maryland. I gave the package to him, to hold while we went after the wolf.

“There were other passengers after I left Cumberland; but I told none of them about the package.”

“No,” said Kent, thoughtfully. “If any clue is to be found, one of the first three must have it.”

“What are you thinking of, Kent?” said his father, sharply. “You do not suspect the minister or Mr. Armitage of stealing the money?”

“I was thinking, sir, that if the money could be found, all of our troubles would be at an end.”

Mr. Hampden groaned. “It will never be found,” he said.

Kent came closer. The muscles in his face were firm. It was a man’s spirit, not a lad’s, that looked through his eyes.

“You have always told us, father, that God is just. He will help us to find the money!”

His father stood up, pale, unsteady. “And who will undertake the search?” he said.

“I will, sir,” said Kent, in a low voice.

Chapter Fifth

The Dwarf

A MONTH earlier, Kent’s mother would have regarded his proposition to set out on a long and perilous journey as sheer madness; but now she welcomed it, and began the next day to pack his knapsack, weeping and praying silently as she did it. She was stunned by the hopelessness of the whole calamity.

When Kent told her his plan, she said that God had put it into his heart. She thought she would send the boy out in faith that God would help him to prove his father’s innocence.

In order to travel independently, Kent must go on horseback.

“What is your plan?” his father asked.

“I suppose, sir, the money must have been stolen between here and Cumberland. You say you have confidence in the three passengers?”

“Perfect confidence, my boy.”

“Then the money must have been taken by the coachman or some way-passenger. I shall go to those who were with you all the way, and tell them the story. Perhaps they may have observed something which will be a clue.”

“Very good! very good!” Mr. Hampden’s spirits rose with this gleam of hope.

“You will not tell anyone that I have gone, father?”

“Not a soul! I did mention it to Congdon, but I charged him to keep it a secret. By the way, Tom Congdon wants to go with you.”

“Tom Congdon!” exclaimed Kent, dismayed.

“Yes. His father thinks the adventure will make a man of the boy. Do you object?”

“N-no,” said Kent, who on second thought found the idea of a companion not unpleasant. “If Tom knows about it, it will be much better to have him go.”

Tom was delighted with the prospect of adventure. Besides, his going as Kent’s comrade and friend would, he knew, prove to the boys his contempt for the scandal about Wetzel’s cave. He still kept the note-book, but he would not add to Kent’s trouble by telling him of the suspicion resting on him.

Colonel Congdon consented to Tom’s going, “because,” he said, “if Kent should find the money alone, the town would say his father told him where to look for it. They would quote the old saw, ‘Hiders are good finders.’ But no one will dare to hint that Tom is an accomplice.”

It was a cool October morning when the two boys started, Tom riding his frisky mare, Bess, and Kent his father’s black horse, Coaly. Each boy carried a rifle, a change of clothes in a knapsack, saddle-bags stored with provisions, and sufficient money to pay the expenses incurred on the way.

His father held Kent’s hand; his mother prayed that God might be with him. Margery laughed, and threw an old shoe after him.

He looked back at the corner of the street, and saw her perched on the cherry tree, watching them.

“How she does want to come!” said Kent. “That baby has a heart as big as Jack the Giant-Killer’s.”

“What a shame she’s a girl!” said Tom.

The fields were covered with white frost, which disappeared as the sun came up. The road climbed up the side of the hills, which now wore their royal autumn robes, gold and scarlet and crimson.

There was a measureless splendour and silence in the forest that would have awed any one but a boy with a gun. The only interest Tom and Kent had in the woods was the hope of seeing wild game. If they could bring home a panther-skin with the money, their glory would be almost too great to support.

The road was not a very lonely one. Sometimes they met a traveller on horseback, with pack and gun like themselves; sometimes there were great freight wagons from Philadelphia going West and South. Twice they passed huge emigrant wagons, with high canvas tops, and drawn by eight horses, each carrying his arch of chiming bells.

One of these was filled with emigrants going to “the Ohio,” which was then the West. They were from the Austrian Tyrol, and wore their picturesque costume; the women with their white sleeves and high red velvet caps peeping out of the wagon, and the men marching outside, each shouldering his gun.

Kent drew a long breath. “It is a fine thing to get out and see the world,” he said. The trouble at home dwindled and shrank on the open road. He became absolutely certain of success in his task of clearing his father’s reputation.

“I have no doubt the driver robbed father while he was napping. It will be easy to find him by inquiring in Hardscrabble.”

“As easy as treeing a coon!” shouted Tom. “Then seize the money, hand the thief over to the sheriff, and march home. That will be a great day! The whole town will turn out to meet us!”

He whipped up Bess in his excitement, and just at that moment one of the men with the retreating wagon uttered a shrill Tyrolese jodel.[21] Bess cocked her ears, danced wildly down the hill, and then changing her tactics, stopped and threw Tom clear over her head.

“Oh, she’s done it before!” he sputtered, as Kent pulled him out of the mud. “But I—I don’t want to keep you back; I’ll—mount.”

With the word, he reeled and fell senseless. The blood was oozing from a deep cut in is head. Kent brought water from a neighboring spring, sprinkled his face, tied up the wound with his handkerchief, rubbed his hands, and shouted in his ear.

But Tom, for almost the first time in his life, had nothing to say. He lay still and white, the blood soaking through the handkerchief.

There was a rattle of wheels behind them. “What’s the matter?” said a squeaky voice. “Don’t yell that way in the boy’s ears!”

“He’s dead,” Kent said, looking up, the tears rolling down his cheeks.

The man gave a perplexed whistle. “I reckon not, sonny,” he said. “Hold on a minute.”

He hurried back to his wagon—a queer structure, built like a little canvas house in front, with a square box behind. The canvas was painted red, and the box striped brown and yellow, like a tiger’s back.

The man was as extraordinary in experience as his wagon. He was a dwarf, not more than four feet high, with a heavy chest, thin legs, and a round, babyish face.

He climbed like a cat to the box, opened it, and in a minute was back with a sponge, plaster, scissors, and a bottle.

“Wet the sponge, my boy,” he said, taking Tom’s head in his lap, and expertly clipping the hair about the wound. “It won’t need a stitch.”

Kent watched while the dwarf, with the skill of a surgeon, dressed the cut and bandaged it.

Tom opened his eyes. “Take this,” said the queer little man, pouring a few drops of the medicine into a cup. “Aha! That brings the colour! Take his legs, and we’ll carry him back into the shade.”

“I must push on—push on!” muttered Tom. “I am keeping Kent back.”

“You mustn’t push on for an hour or two. Give your blood time to cool. It’s dinnertime, anyhow. I was going to have my own repast. Will you take a bite with me, gentlemen?”

“Thank you, sir. You’ve been very good indeed to us!” exclaimed Kent, wringing the hand which his new friend held out. “I’ll bring our saddle-bags.”

Tom regained his senses rapidly as the cold tongue, buttered biscuit, and chicken were spread on the grass. The dwarf whistled and sang as he hopped about, bringing at last from the wagon a tiny stove, in which he set some chips burning.

“Coffee!” he said. “And sausages!” He produced a miniature pot and pan. The savoury steam soon rose through the trees.

“I’m sound as a trivet!”[22] said Tom. “I was never so hungry in my life!”

“Set to, then, gentlemen.”

The dwarf himself ate little, but beamed down on his companions thoughtfully, running to the wagon to bring knives, salt, mustard, and whatever he fancied they might want. Suddenly he stopped, drawing himself to his full height.

“I have not introduced myself,” he said. “I am Nero Fife, at your service; pedler, travelling dentist, and mediciner. I can furnish you with stuffs, hats, pins, tapes, and jewelry; can apply dry cups and leeches,[23] cure cancers and corns, pull teeth, and play the fiddle for the dances of the bong tong.”[24]

Tom laughed aloud, but Kent rose and shook hands with him gravely. “This is Tom Congdon, Mr. Fife. My name is Kent Hampden,” he said.

“Hampden of Wheeling?” said the dwarf, with a keen glance at Kent’s face.

“He has heard that my father stole the package!” thought the boy, his blood hot in his veins. The dwarf was silent for a minute; then he began to chatter with fresh energy.

“Yes, sir! This is the famous Nemo Fife,” he said, clapping his hands on his breast. “Known throughout the Alleghany Mountains! My mother was the beautiful Miss McJilton, celebrated for having been stolen by the Indians when an infant. Not rescued until she was sixteen. She taught me the great secrets of the red men in the healing art—cancer, corns,—”

“Well, you worked a wonderful cure on me, Mr. Fife,” said Tom, pulling out his purse.

“Mr. Fife to the world,” said the pedler, loftily. “Doctor Nero to my friends. Put up your purse, sir. Fees from indoor patients; but here in the woods we are all jolly good fellows together.”

Doctor Nero would not allow Tom to mount until the heat of the day was over. Seeing their impatience to be off, the little man sought to beguile the time by playing on the fiddle and singing, in a high, cracked voice, the ballads of “Lord Lovel,” “Barbara Allen,” and others, and telling stories, to which the boys listened with great interest.

“The salt in my stories is that they’re true,” he said. “I’ve been twenty-five years a travelling these mountains in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, visiting the same plantations twice a year. Nothing goes on in these houses—marriages, murders, or ghosts—but Nero Fife keeps the run of it.

“I know some secrets. There are tales I could tell of men now living that would make your blood freeze in your heart! But Nero Fife knows how to hold his tongue! I carry news from house to house the year round; but no man can say that Nero Fife ever made mischief.”

About three o’clock he permitted the boys to go on, forcing a bottle of medicine on Tom. With all his chatter, he had not questioned the boys as to their destination or errand. When they were ready to mount, Kent said, “We are going to Cumberland. Shall we meet you again?”

“It’s likely. I keep the road pretty close, this trip. I’m sold out, and am going to Philadelphia to lay in stock. I made some heavy sales in Wheeling t’other day. So you’re Colonel Congdon’s son?” he said, turning abruptly to Tom.

“Do you know him?”

“Know him? I knew your grandfather and—why, I could tell you a story of your grandfather’s uncle that—but no matter! Who is there that I don’t know?”

The dwarf’s face, when he laughed, broke up into the countless wrinkles of old age; the next minute he had the vacant, smooth face of a baby. He came to Kent when he had mounted.

“And you’re Ralph Hampden’s boy?” he said, peering shrewdly up at him.

A sudden wild fancy rushed into Kent’s brain. Could this strange creature, who had been going up and down the hills so many years, know anything of his father’s early life? He shut his teeth to keep the question back. It was not for him to pry out his father’s secrets from strangers.

The dwarf’s blue eyes were on him. “You don’t ask me if I have any stories about your grandfather? No? Well, good by, and good luck to you, Ralph Hamdpen’s son!”

He reached up and patted Kent’s knee, and then turned and rotted off to his wagon.

“There’s something almost scary about that old man,” said Tom. “Sometimes he looks old enough to be the Wandering Jew.”[25]

About sunset they reached Hardscrabble. Kent’s pulses quickened. Here he would find the first clue! He rode up to the inn-door.

“Can you tell me where I shall find Mr. Armitage?” he asked of the hostler, who sat lazily on the end of a mossy trough by the pump.

“Blind Peter Armitage?”

“Yes.”

“Went to Pittsburg last week. Comin’ home Thursday. Light, boys?”

Kent and Tom looked at each other in dismay. They consulted in whispers.

“We can’t follow him to Pittsburg; we’ve no time,” Tom counselled.

“A blind man, anyhow, would have been the least likely to see what was going on,” said Kent. “Let us push on to find Mrs. Digby in Washington County, and if she can give us no clue, we’ll go to Cumberland to the clergyman.”

“Take yer hosses?” drawled the leisurely hostler. “Supper? Bed?”

“What do you say, Kent?”

“I say, let us cover more ground before night. We’ve lost too much time already!”

Tom trotted off, and Kent followed. The wind was chilly and damp. The boys were disheartened by their disappointment.

A couple miles farther on the stage coach dashed past them, full of drowsy passengers. The driver lifted his whip by way of salute, and the guard blew a single note on his bugle.

“Those fellows will sleep in Wheeling tonight,” said Tom, dolefully.

Kent said nothing, but he felt suddenly that his back was turned toward home, and that the world into which he was going was big and cold and unknown.

“I wish,” said Tom, “we had kept with Nero Fife. He was a good fellow!”

“You called him the Wandering Jew just now!” said Kent, crossly.

Tom laughed, but prudently made no answer.

The road now wound through thick forests. It dipped between two little hills into a gorge. At the side of the road in this gorge or hollow was the bed of a dried stream, thickly overgrown with briers and high grass. As the boys passed this point, the briers moved.

“Sh!” whispered Tom. “Did you see that? A bear!”

“It can’t be! It’s too near the farms. A wild-cat, probably.”

They unslung their rifles in desperate haste, looked to the priming, and cocked them. All the chill and ill-humour were gone. Each whispered “Sh!” and “Keep back!” and pushed his horse closer.

“It stirs again! Fire!” cried Tom.

“Foh heben’s sake, massa, doan shoot pore nigga!” a man cried, scrambling out of the undergrowth up the road. He, too, carried a gun, and his hat was slouched over his eyes.

“What are you hiding there for, then, like a wild beast?” said Tom, angrily, dropping his rifle. “I had almost put a bullet through your head.”

The man eyed them sullenly, but said nothing, and the boys rode on. When they were out of hearing, Kent said, “Tom, there was something queer about that fellow. He did not talk like a real negro, and while his face was jet black, his hands were white.”

Both boys turned and looked back.

“Kent, there are two of them,” said Tom, shading his eyes. “Don’t you see? One man is sitting on the road, and the other is creeping up out of the briers. What rascality can those fellows be up to?”

“I’d think they were runaway slaves, but I tell you that man’s hands were white,” said Kent.

“They’ve broken jail, more likely. Look there! Come back in the shade, or they’ll see us and send a bullet after us. There they go, creeping down into the thicket again. What shall we do?”

“Nothing; what can we do? They are in hiding for some reason, but they’ve done us no harm, and we have no cause to meddle with them. Besides, we’ve lost so much time already. Come, let’s ride on.”

“Just a minute!” pleaded Tom, trembling with excitement. “I want to know what they’re up to. They’re back among the brambles, still as death!”

The boys waited in silence. There was not a sound to break the stillness except the drowsy lapping of a stream in the woods. The sun had sunk out of sight, but the red shafts of light still struck up from behind the hills, while the hollow lay in twilight.

“Well, we may as well go on,” said Tom, reluctantly. “They seem to have settled themselves with the snakes and frogs for the night.”

They had hardly ridden twenty paces when the rattle of wheels behind them broke the silence, and a shrill voice piped out:—

 

“And out of her grave there grew a red rose,

      And out of his a brier,

  And they grew and grew to the church steeple top,

      Until they could grow no higher,

  And twined at the top a true lover’s knot,

      For all true lovers to admire—mire,

      For all true lovers to admire!”

 

“It’s Nero!” the boys exclaimed in a breath.

“He is behind us. Let us wait for him to come up. He must be in the hollow now,” said Tom.

They drew rein and waited. The sharp lilt rang out nearer, a the pedler’s wagon began to descend into the gulley.

“Tom!” exclaimed Kent, “Nero said he had made heavy sales. He must have his money with him. Those fellows in the swamp!”

Tom gave a smothered shout. Both lashed their horses into a gallop, unslung their rifles and loosened the pistols in their holsters. As they reached the top of the hill, the dwarf’s song stopped. A wild shriek rent the air. Below, in the hollow, was the pedler’s wagon, and a confusion of black figures.

“They’re on him!” muttered Tom.

“We’re coming, Nero!” shouted Kent, as they went thundering down the hill.

Chapter Sixth

Seeking a Trace

ONE of the robbers who had pounced upon Nero was at his horse’s head, and the other tried to drag the little pedler out of the wagon; but Nero clung to the seat with one arm, while with the other he dealt heavy blows with his loaded whip upon the man’s head and shoulders.

The highwayman had just drawn a knife from his belt, when the boys rode down the hill, yelling wildly. The man hesitated.

“Fire on them!” shouted Nero.

The rifles blazed at the same instant, but both the boys aimed over the heads of the robbers.

“It’s easy enough, you see, to shoot at a bear of snake,” Tom explained afterward to the Wild Beast Slayers, “but a man is a different matter. Something inside of me knocked up my arm as I pulled the trigger.”

The men found the shouts of the boys and their firing together more than their courage could face, and hastily disappeared into the swamp. Nero sent a shot after them.

“Hi, yi!” he shouted derisively, dancing on the seat of the wagon. “You’re no highwaymen! You’re nothing but miserable sneaks, trying to rob a poor cripple!” Then he scrambled down, panting and puffing, and hugged and patted his horse.

“Well done, Billy! You stood to it like a man! We settled them! Did you see me whack that fellow, Billy?”

“I beg your pardon, boys,” he said, with a sudden change of voice. “Billy and I are old companions, and when anything uncommon happens, if I don’t speak to him first about it, he feels it. He has the feelings of a gentleman, sir. Most horses have. Well, shall we go on?”

The red and tiger-striped wagon soon was rumbling up the hill, with Tom and Kent on each side as guard. As they reached the top of the hill a bullet pinged past their heads. The boys stopped, but Nero urged them on.

The little man was panting with excitement, but he controlled himself and did not even turn his head.

“It’s those miserable bullies! Don’t let them see we’re afeard of them!”

When they were safe on the other side, Nero said, “Gentlemen, now that those fellows can’t hear, I’ll confess that I owe you my life. If you had not come up, it would have been all over for me. Nero Fife will not forget it!”

They rode in silence for a little way. “There’s a good inn here,” said the pedler. “Let us stop until morning.”

The boys gladly dismounted, and all were soon seated before a meal of fried chickens and waffles at a snug little table in a separate room. The dwarf turned the key in the door.

“We will say nothing of our adventure,” he said, gravely, “until I reach Philadelphia. Here is what the rogues wanted.” He unstrapped a belt from his waist. “I have over a thousand dollars here; I had it changed into bills of a hundred each, to be light of carriage.”

As he smoothed out the bills, Kent took up some of them. “These bills are all marked with a little red cross,” he said. “Do you always mark your money?”

Nero examined the notes with a perplexed look.

“No,” he said. “I did not mark them.” He placed them one by one again in his belt. “Well, good night, gentlemen! I won’t forget that you saved my life to-day.”

He left the room with a sweeping bow.

The boys slept soundly that night, and were up with the dawn. The morning was bright, the sky a pearly blue, hoar-frost glittering on every leaf and spear of grass. Kent’s spirits rose. “We shall find the clue to-day!” he said as they trotted down the road before the wagon. “I’m going to take Nero into our secret, Tom. He’s a true friend.”

The pedler listened in silence to the story when it was told to him. “I heard something of this in Wheeling,” he said, after a pause, “and I guessed your arrant as soon as I met you. Oh, Nero Fife has learned to keep his eyes open and his mouth shut in his business!”

There was another long silence. Then he said, “I’ll help you in this matter, if I can.”

The road wound through beautiful valleys and low, rolling hills. Now it penetrated the forest, and now passed large farms, the soil of the fields showing rich and black beneath the light frost.

The dwellings were, for the most part, spacious houses of brick or of gray stone, already crusted over with brown and purple lichen. The old homesteads of the early settlers in Western Virginia and Pennsylvania, unlike those of the Eastern States, were substantial and picturesque. Many of these great gray mansions, with their overhanging eaves and large apartments, still stand unaltered.

It was to one of these, near the town of Washington in Pennsylvania, that Nero conducted the boys to find Mrs. Digby.

The house stood upon a hill surrounded by a noble natural park of green slopes and groves of forest trees, centuries old. One ancient oak, blasted at the top by lightning, the mighty lower limbs still green, stood alone at the crown of the hill: it ennobled the whole landscape with its dumb majesty.

“There’s no telling the age of that tree,” said Nero, lowering his voice, that it might not hear. “It has stood, blasted atop, that way, since before the memory of man. There is them that says that when it dies the life of the old Indian tribe that once owned this land will go out. But I dunno. One can’t tell how near dumb creatures, like trees and horses, come to us, nor how much they know. Nor what they’re thinking of us, eh, Billy?” thoughtfully stroking his horse’s neck.

The mansion was surrounded by barns, offices, and cabins. Mrs. Digby was a widow and managed a large estate and a swarming household of negroes (the oldest of whom were still slaves) and white slaves, or redemptioners, as they were called, who were bondsmen for a term of years.

Nero was greeted by the blacks as an old friend. “Go right in, Doctah!” they said. “Madam saw you and de genlmen way down de hill. Walk right in.”

“It is you who have business with Madam Digby,” said Nero to Kent. “You will tell it best alone. Go in, and Congdon and I will follow presently.”

Kent entered the wide arched hall with a nervous calm. He had a boy’s dislike of confiding in women.

Mrs. Digby came out to meet him. She was a self-confident, comely little woman, wearing a kerchief of fine linen lawn about her neck, and over her fair hair a cap of the same material.

Kent scarcely waited to sit down before he told her his errand, pouring out all the details of the disappearance of the money. She listened in silence, a frown gathering on her pleasant face.

“Lost the package!” she exclaimed, when she had heard Kent’s story. “Of course! I expected nothing else! I told him he would lose it. It swung in an oilcloth case over one shoulder, in full view of everybody. It would have been an easy matter to substitute a bundle of paper for the notes while your father was asleep—and he slept every afternoon on the coach. But you say that bundle substituted resembled the one stolen?”

“Exactly. Both were wrapped in brown paper, and tied with a red cord.”

“Then,” said Mrs. Digby, promptly, “the thief must have seen the bundle inside the oilcloth case, and had time to prepare the substitute leisurely. Now the case was securely fastened; your father showed the contents to no one while I was in the coach. What he did afterwards I cannot tell!”

She said this as if her opinion of Mr. Hampden’s discretion was very low.

“Then,” said Kent, rising, “there is no use for me to stay here longer. You can think of no clue?”

“None whatever,” said Mrs. Digby, with decision. “It is useless for you to look for one. The money may have been taken any day, from the time your father left Wheeling until he arrived in Philadelphia. But you must not leave this house until after dinner. You have Doctor Nero with you? I see his wagon outside. A most worthy, honest man! I have bought of him for fifteen years. Go out, my boy, and tell him and your friend to come into the house.”

“I thank you, madam,” he said. “We will stay, though I cannot afford to lose time. I must push off to Cumberland. I must find the thief!”

Kent was thoroughly disheartened; he had been balked at every step. Mr. Armitage was gone, Mrs. Digby had no clue, and more than all, it was apparent that she stated the exact truth when she described her father’s carelessness. What could this minister at Cumberland tell him?

The more hopeless his search appeared, however, the more obstinately Kent was resolved to go on with it. His father might be careless, but he was innocent, and God would surely help him to prove his innocence.

Tom, meanwhile made the acquaintance of Mrs. Digby’s sons, and eagerly explored the house, the kitchen where the negroes were making were making large stores of pickles, the loom-room where some white maids were weaving table linen, and the parlour, the walls of which were covered with a paper which represented Robin Hood and his merry men chasing a stag, the hunters and prey almost life-size.

A horn was blown at noon for dinner. The meal was spread in a large room, the walls of which were panelled with black walnut, carefully painted white. The table was bountifully spread with chicken-pie, game, venison, hot bread, vegetables, pudding, a thick soup, and coffee, all served at once.

Besides the boys and Nero, there were two other guests, itinerant Methodist preachers. At that day there was always a welcome at every table for the minister, no matter what his creed. One of these visitors was an old, feeble man, who belonged in the neighborhood. The other, a small, dark, keen-looking man, whom Mrs. Digby addressed as Brother Kaimes, was a traveller, as Kent discovered from his conversation, was from Cumberland.

It required a good deal of courage in those days for a boy to speak in a company of elder people, and it was only when the meal was nearly over that Kent said, modestly addressing the preacher:—

“I wish to go to Cumberland, sir, to find a minister of your denomination. Perhaps you can tell me if he is there. It is the Reverend Jabez Elkhart.”

“Jabez Elkhart? No, my lad, you will not find him in Cumberland. In fact, you would have a long search to find Brother Elkhart anywhere just now. He started two weeks ago on a missionary tour with the great Lorenzo Dow.”[26]

through the wilderness of the Northwest, to be gone until spring.”

Kent, who was raising his cup to his lips, set it down hastily. He felt as if he were choking.

“I told you it was a mad undertaking,” said Mrs. Digby, as they rose from the table. “You had better take my advice, and return to Wheeling. Brother Kaimes goes there tomorrow. Consent yourself here until then, and journey back in his company.”

“I cannot go back to my father without good news,” said Kent “I don’t know what to do!”

Mrs. Digby, looking at the boy’s face, took his hand kindly in hers. “It must come right!” she said, soothingly. “Come aside here, and tell me what were your plans.”

“I had no very clear plans,” said Kent, feeling as if his whole expedition had been as mad as she thought it. “Nothing could be done at home to prove my father’s innocence. He is ruined unless it is proved. His business will be destroyed; he is giving up every dollar he owns to repay the money—and—and there are other things.”

“What other things?” she said gently.

“I hoped to be appointed to West Point, but the son of a suspected man has no chance. My mother thinks, too, that such a suspicion will be a black cloud on my sister Margery’s life.”

“Your mother is right,” Mrs. Digby said authoritatively. She was touched, and suddenly become eager and zealous in Kent’s cause. “Your father’s innocence must be proved. You must trace the stolen money!” she exclaimed. “What did you purpose to do?”

“I intended to follow his route to Cumberland, making inquiries as I went. There were three persons from whom I hoped to get a clue; yourself—”

Mrs. Digby shook her head.

“Mr. Elkhart—”

“No hope there. Who was the third?”

“A blind man in Hardscrabble, who was in the coach the first day. But he is in Pittsburg.”

“I know; Peter Armitage. He is a shrewd fellow; the loss of one sense has quickened all the others. But how could he help us? He left the coach before I did, and assuredly the bundle inside the case was not changed then. But if you think you would like to consult him, stay here to-night. He will be here to-morrow morning on his way home.”

Kent’s heart gave a throb. “I’d like to see him!” he said. “I somehow counted on that blind man more than on any one else!”

“Very like a boy!” said Mrs. Digby, laughing. “Go out now to the other boys. They are riding their ponies in the field. You can do nothing for your father to-night. Go; ride with them and forget your troubles.”

Tom jumped off his horse and ran to meet Kent as soon as he came on the field. Nero was perched on a fence, superintending their evolutions. Kent told them that he had decided to stay and consult the blind man. The dwarf’s face took on its look of grizzly age as he pondered this in silence.”

“You’re right, my boy,” he said, at last. “People that have lost their sight or hearing or speech have a wit that other people don’t have; and if the blind man doesn’t help you, I will. I’m going back to Wheeling with you!”

Tom and Kent exchanged looks of dismay. The great cancer and corn doctor was hardly an auxiliary that would help their cause at home.

“I’m afraid it will delay your journey,” said Kent.

“What can you do to help Mr. Hampden, Nero?” asked Tom.

“I’ll do the head-work for you. Nero Fife never leaves a debt unpaid, and I owe you my life, gentlemen. I’ll stock close to you till you’re out of this scrape!”

He began to whistle and dance, clapping his hands on his knees to keep time. The farm-hands and negroes gathered about him, and he delightedly resumed the celebration of his own praises.

“No, gentlemen! Nero Fife is true to his friends! I follow the example of the great and good Roman emperor that I’m named for! They tell me that once when he was leading a battle, and parched with his wounds, a soldier brought him some water. He poured it on the ground, saying, ‘I’ll not drink it unless I can go halves with my friends!’ What d’ye think of that? That’s my make-up exactly. Hurrah for Emperor Nero!”

“Hurrah for Doctor Nero!” said Kent, laughing.

Tom, leading his horse back to the stable, encountered Mrs. Digby and the ministers, who had come out to look at some colts. As he came up, they were leaning over the fence, listening intently to some story which Brother Kaimes was telling.

Mrs. Digby’s face was flushed with interest. “That is one of the most remarkable stories I ever heard! And the man has totally disappeared?”

“No. After sixteen years’ absence, there was a report that he was seen in Cumberland a few weeks ago, inquiring in a secret way for the woman.”

“You are in search of him now?”

“Yes; I make that one object of my journey.”

“If you should find him, and justice should be done at last!” exclaimed Mrs. Digby. She drew aside to allow Tom to pass with his horse.

“By the way,” said Brother Kaimes, “our young friend here may be able to assist me in my search. The missing man is supposed to have gone into Western Virginia.”

Tom paused, ready to be of use in unearthing this fugitive from justice of whom they spoke.

“He may,” said the minister, in his deliberate way, “have gone to Wheeling. Do you know a man in your own town of the name of Stoughton?”

“No, sir; no one of that name,” said Tom, promptly. But as soon as the words were spoken, his countenance altered. He had heard Mr. Jarret’s story of the advertisement for a missing man who, it was suspected, was Kent’s father. The recollection came to Tom with a flash of alarm, but he controlled himself and stood attentive and silent.

“Stoughton,” repeated the preacher. “Ralph Hampden Stoughton. A remarkably handsome man, with a pleasant smile and winning blue eyes. A gay, light-hearted fellow. I’m disappointed; I hoped to run him down in Wheeling.”

“You’ll never run him down by my aid!” muttered Tom, as he led the horse into a stall.

He sat down on the edge of a manger to think. His brain, never very cool, was in a whirl. Why were they in pursuit of Mr. Hampden? What crime had he committed that had induced him to change his name? He had been in Cumberland lately. What if, haunted by remorse for some sin of his youth, he had tried to atone for it with money? The package was not lost then—

“I’ll not believe it!” said Tom, starting up. But he sat down again and slowly, unwillingly, drew out a note-book.

“September fourth, 1824. K. H.”

“There can be no doubt. It is Kent’s writing. Can father and son both alike be—?”

His face reddened with shame. He sat a long time in the dark stable, one minute doubtful, suspicious, miserable, while the next his heart would swell and throb with pride and zealous affection for Kent.

He rose at last. “I’ll put an end to this! I’ll show him the book and ask him what it means,” he said. Holding the little volume open at the Wetzel cave entry, he crossed the stable.

“Hello! Tom, where are you?” shouted Kent’s voice outside.

“Here! Coming!”

He thrust the book into his pocket. The pedler at the moment came into the stable to look after his horse.

“I never ate a meal in all the years Billy and I’ve been comrades without giving him his first,” Nero said.

He talked to the horse precisely as if he were another Nero Fife. The boy was wretched with doubt and anxiety, and the pedler’s homely face shone with honesty and kindness. Tom went to him and laid his hand on his arm.

“Nero, I want to ask you something. Suppose you had a friend you had known all your life. Suppose downright proof should be put before you—proof to your own eyes that he was a worthless scamp; what would you do?”

All the clown dropped from the dwarf as he listened. He had the dignity of age and reason as he answered, looking full into Tom’s eyes:—

“Just that thing has happened to me—about Billy. Billy and I have been companions for years. I know every thought in his mind, sir! I know his nature. I say he’s of good blood, mild and game. He belongs to the horse-gentry, sir. But folks tell me he’s of a low, ornary breed—they show me the signs of it in his build and coat and gait.

“But what do I care?” He put his arm about the horse, who whinnied and thrust his head down to be stroked. “I know it’s a lie. I know Billy!”

“You’re right!” said Tom. “And I’ll back my man, as you do your horse!”

Going to the house they found supper in progress—the table again heaped with bear-steak, venison, tea, coffee, and several kinds of warm bread. Mr. Kaimes sat near their hostess.

“Do you think you will go to Wheeling, Brother Kaimes,” she asked, “since you seem not likely to find this man Stoughton there?”

“Yes; I shall go in the morning. There may be a chance. Young Congdon may not know him. He is doubtless very poor.”

Tom overheard this conversation, and looked uneasily at Kent. Should he warn him of this new, impending danger to his father? But what could Kent do? Tom decided to say nothing. But when the two boys went to sleep that night young Congdon tossed, restless and gloomy, on his bed half the night.

He had the note-book hidden under his pillow, but when his hand touched it he drew it back as though it had been a coal of fire. He fell asleep at last, and woke with a start, his brain full of the same wearisome doubt and pain.

It was a gray, wintry morning. The wind blew with threatening gusts, and a flurry of snow whitened the air. Kent was splashing at ewer and basin, whistling and singing excitedly to himself. Tom lay watching him in silence, until Kent caught sight of him.

“Hello! Awake, old fellow? I’m up early. Mr. Armitage comes in the coach, and it will pass in a few minutes. What ails you, Tom? You were as dumb as a mole all night.”

Tom sprang out of bed. “It’s this that ails me!” He pulled out the note-book. “I can stand it no longer. Whose book is that?”

Kent, astonished, took the book. “It is mine. Where did you find it?”

“Look at the turned-down page!” urged Tom, breathlessly. “The writing!—It is not yours? Is it a forgery?”

Kent shot a keen glance at him over the book, then bent his head as if to examine the writing.

“Yes, it is mine,” he said quietly.

Chapter Seventh

On The Trail

THE boys dressed without a word. The accusing note-book lay on a table between them.

Tom went out of the room a few moments, and on his return found Kent on his knees by his bedside.

Kent often forgot his morning prayers, or rattled them over with his head full of school, or his dog and gun; but being sorely in need of help now, he prayed, like many older people, with suddenly quickened devotion.

As he rose from his knees, Tom faced him.

“Kent Hampden, you’re either a saint or a hypocrite!” he said hotly.

Kent laughed. “I’m neither, Tom. What is it you have against me? Have it out, old fellow. You and I can’t afford to quarrel.”

“I don’t want to quarrel. I’ve known this thing for a week, and said nothing. I took your part to my father, to Mr. Jarret, to all the boys!”

“Took my part? I don’t understand. What do they accuse me of?”

Tom stammered, choked, and was silent, turning away from Kent’s amazed, indignant face.

“Had this note-book anything to do with it? Where did you find it?”

“One of the boy’s found it in Wetzel’s cave the da we—”

The colour faded out of Kent’s face. “The day we found the stolen traps and powder? And they thought that I was the thief?”

“No! no! Nobody really thought it—unless it was Mr. Jarret and Si. They were hard on you,” said Tom, stammering in his eagerness. “Don’t be hurt, Kent; it was only whispered about. But you remember that you objected to our going in search of the thief, and you didn’t want to go to Wentzel’s cave?”

“Yes, I remember.”

“Si thought that looked bad. Of course he made the most of it, to influence my father not to give you the appointment; but father did not believe it, or I should not be here now.”

The blood had come back to Kent’s white face. He laughed, and said cordially, “Yes, you have been a good friend, Tom. Who found that note-book in the cave?”

“Si Jarret. He seemed to be very much worried and scared at first. I threatened to whip him f he told of it; but his father let it leak out.”

Kent walked to the window and stood silent, thinking. “Tom,” he said, at last, “there is a secret about Wetzel’s cave. But I’m not bound to keep it, now that my honesty is doubted. When we are at home, I will tell you the whole truth; but not until then.”

“I don’t want any explanation!” protested Tom. “I’m ashamed that I told you.”

“Your father and you will not be sorry that you trusted me,” said Kent, quietly.

At that moment the note of a bugle was heard, and a cloud of dust rose on the road. The boys seized their hats, and rushed down stairs and across the green in time to see the red Good Intent stage coach drawn up before Mrs. Digby’s house, and a gentleman in a furred cloak and wide-brimmed hat cautiously descend the carpet-lined steps which the guard rattled down.

“It is Mr. Armitage! He is our last chance!” said Kent, under his breath.

The boys would have gladly dragged him aside to tell their story at once, but they were forced to be patient. He disappeared into the house, guided by Mrs. Digby. Soon afterward they were summoned to breakfast, and saw the blind man at the other end of the table, the most honoured guest.

The meal was long and wearisome to Kent, who was burning with impatience. Mrs. Digby nodded kindly to him when she rose from the table, and led Mr. Armitage into her sitting-room. In a few minutes she sent for Kent.

“This is the son of our recent travelling companion, Mr. Hampden,” she said, when he entered. “He must tell you his own story. He hopes much from your advice.”

Mr. Armitage held out his hand. He was still a young man, and Kent thought had one of the kindest and most cheerful faces that he had ever seen.

He held Kent’s hand in one of his own, while he passed the other swiftly and lightly over the boy’s face.

“Pardon me, but I must see you in my own way,” he said, smiling. “Now sit down. Tell me all you know about the lost package, from beginning to end. Do not hurry. Tell me every little detail.”

Kent sat down beside him, and told the whole story, from the visit of Judge Morris and Mr. Jarret until the return of his father, including his mother’s attempt to lighten the package by a change in the wrappings, and the statements which his father had made concerning his care of it while on his journey.

“He says, positively, that the package never left his possession from the time he started from Wheeling until he opened it in the bank in Philadelphia, but twice.”

“Once,” said Mr. Armitage, “he entrusted it to Mr. Elkhart. He did not open it. Once to me, and I did not.” He sat lost in thought for some time. At last he said, “I have no eyes, you know, to help me form my opinions; nothing but my fingers. Have you the package that was substituted for the money? Can I take it in my hands?”

“Yes, sir, of course. I will bring it to you.”

Kent ran out and across the green to get it. On his way he met Tom, and brought him back with him, introducing him to the blind man as “my friend who is helping me.”

Mr. Armitage took the package, felt it carefully and weighed it in his long, nervous hands. As he did this, his face grew perplexed and anxious. Mrs. Digby, Kent, and Tom watched him eagerly.

“The notes,” he said, “if I understood you aright, were, when they were brought to your father, wrapped first in white foolscap and then in several thicknesses of stiff brown paper?”

“Yes, sir. My father complained of the weight. My mother supposed so many wrappings had been used in order to protect the notes from dampness.”

“Then she substituted—” began Mrs. Digby.

“Chinese silk paper,” resumed Kent,— “two folds. It was light, tough, and waterproof. Outside of that she wrapped a single sheet of brown paper.”

Mr. Armitage again carefully fingered and weighed the bundle in his hands. The surprise and perplexity on his face deepened.

“Now this package,” he said, “is made up of as many wrappings of brown paper as the original one, with white paper inside to take the place of the notes. It is much heavier than the notes wrapped in the Chinese silk tissue would have been.”

“Very likely,” said Kent, “but my father would not notice that. I believe that the bundle was taken out of the oilcloth case and this one put in its place some day while he was asleep on the coach. He would not be likely to notice the difference in weight. He is not a very close observer.”

Mr. Armitage smiled. “But I am—with my fingers! I supposed until now, as you do, that the bundle had been changed after your father left me. But—”

“Well, sir?”

Kent leaned forward breathlessly. The blind man’s face was grave. He stood up, still balancing the package on his fingers, speaking slowly and with reluctance.

“I know the importance of what I am going to say. It is a bold assertion, since I cannot see. But when your father gave me the package to hold while he was killing the rattlesnake, I weighed it in my hands as I am doing now—it is a habit which is natural to me. And—this is the same package. Notes folded in Chinese silk paper would have been much lighter and more pliable.”

Kent stared at him, bewildered and dumb.

“You think, then,” said Mrs. Digby, “that Mr. Hampden was robbed before he left Wheeling?”

“Yes. But you must remember,” turning quickly to Kent, “that this is but the opinion of a blind man.”

“I thank you,” said Kent. “I thought you would give me a clue.” But he continued to look at him with the same dazed, confused eyes.

“You do not agree with me?” said Mr. Armitage, quickly, noticing the meaning of his tone.

“It is no different from what we thought. It seems impossible.”

“I have only my fingers to support my opinion,” said Mr. Armitage, with a little laugh; “but, Kent, they never yet have deceived me. I am positive that this is the same package which I held in my hands while your father killed the rattlesnake.”

“Then the sooner we go back to Wheeling, the better,” said Tom. “Come, Kent! Let us see to our horses.”

He pulled him by the sleeve. Kent moved unwillingly to the door. Mrs. Digby followed them.

“Brother Kaimes starts in an hour,” she said. “I will give you some luncheon and feed for your horses, so that you need not lose time at inns by the way.”

Tom thanked her earnestly, but Kent did not hear her. He was going with lagging, despondent steps to the stables. Nero was waiting for them, and as soon as Tom had poured forth the news, he gave a shrill cheer.

“Back to Wheeling! I thought the scent lay in that direction. I’m with you, Kent! What ails you, boy?”

“I am at fault! What clue have I? None! I’m going back empty-handed, as I came, and poor father there, waiting—hoping!”

The boy’s voice choked. Tom and Nero were silent. The three horses were brought out, saddled and harnessed.

Mr. Kaimes, on a stout brown mare, was waiting for them when they returned to the house. A great basket of provender was stowed into Nero’s tiger-striped box. Mrs. Digby, Mr. Armitage, and whole household came to the door to see the departure of the travellers.

Kent and Tom went together to the room in which they had slept to bring their knapsacks, and Kent strapped his with a heavy heart. He had been so sure of success when he packed it, and now he was going back, without a word of comfort for his father, and with nothing but the wild guess of a blind man!

“There’s the note-book on the table,” said Tom.

Kent stretched out his hand for it. A ray of sunlight broke through the gray clouds and fell on it. It was a cheap pocket account-book, with coarse leather binding.

Kent’s eyes fell on a discoloured patch on the cover. He gave a cry; the blood ebbed from his heart, and he grew sick and faint.

He leaned over the table, caught the book in both hands, and carried it to the window.

It was but a patch of mould!

His eyes seemed blurred. He rubbed them, and looked again.

“Thank God!” he cried, and thrusting the book into his pocket, ran past Tom, who stood dumb with astonishment, down to the green, and began to buckle his knapsack to the saddle with furious haste.

“What is it?” whispered Tom, when he came up to him.

“The clue! The clue! Don’t ask me now! Wait until to-night!”

Tom caught his excitement, and fell into such a mad hurry of preparation, that he delayed their starting at least half an hour.

Mrs. Digby and Mr. Armitage came out on the road after Kent was mounted, to say good bye once more.

“I wish I could help you, my boy!” said the blind man, wringing his hand. “I shall come down to Wheeling in a few days, and pay my respects to your father.”

“So shall I,” said Mrs. Digby. The boy’s flushed face and resolute eyes touched her. “God help that lad in his work!” she said, as she turned away.

The little cavalcade was accompanied down the hill by the Digby boys and a noisy crowd of negroes and dogs. Tom looked back at the big hospitable house, and the majestic oak towering into the sky, with a little choking in his throat. He had been a great traveller in the eyes of the Digbys, something in the order of Captain Cook or Marco Polo. It was horribly stupid to have to go back to school to-morrow like any ordinary boy. He poured forth invitations to the Digbys to visit him in Wheeling, and talked grandiloquently to Bob, the youngest boy, of their going some day together on horseback to the backwoods in Ohio in search of adventure. Kent, at the bottom of the hill, shook hands with the boys, and thanked them earnestly for their kindness, but his face was grave and anxious.

They parted from the Digbys, and took their way across the hills homeward.

The day was tempestuous and gloomy. The wind blew fiercely, and the sky was gray and heavy with snow that did not fall.

The little caravan of travellers was not a merry one. Mr. Kaimes and Tom began by talking and laughing cheerfully enough, and Nero now and then volunteered a song, or a few remarks on the merits of the Roman emperor, Billy, or himself. But they all gradually fell into a somber, anxious mood.

Kent’s silence, the dumb, passionate excitement which possessed him, affected them like an electrical current.

“What is that boy’s story?” said the minister to Tom, as they rode apart. “Tell me, if you can. He interests me strangely. I feel as if I must join myself to him—must help him.”

Tom told the story of the lost package, and Kent’s search. It was no secret; all the town knew it.

“A gallant fellow,” said Mr. Kaimes. “What is his name?”

“Hampden.”

“And his father’s name?” said the minister, excitedly.“Ralph Hampden.”

Mr. Kaimes made an inarticulate sound of amazement, and rode on hurriedly to the front. But he did not, as Tom saw, join himself to Kent, nor attempt to speak to him, as he had said he meant to do.

They halted once or twice to eat the provisions Mrs. Digby had supplied; but Kent neither ate nor drank. He was in a fever of impatience, urging his horse into a gallop whenever he led the way.

Tom saw him take out the note-book from time to time, and pore over the spot on the corner. Could he have gone mad? The strain upon him had been long and heavy.

“What have you there, Kent?” he said at last, riding briskly up alongside.

Kent laughed, wildly, as it seemed to Tom.

“Look at it, old fellow! Can you make anything out of it?”

Tom took it eagerly.

“Nothing but a patch of mould—no, it is a thin web that is sticking to the leather—gray, with flecks of red on it. What is it?”

Kent took the book. “It is the one chance of proving father’s innocence. Don’t ask me. I may be mistaken.” He shivered, but not with cold.

As the afternoon wore on, a heavy fog rose from the creeks. It grew very dark. Nero urged haste, so that they might reach the town before midnight. But Kent, who had been unreasonably eager to push on, now as unreasonably insisted on remaining at a roadside village all night. He appealed to Mr. Kaimes.

“I hope to take with me tangible proof of my father’s innocence when I enter Wheeling, but I cannot work in the dark. Do not go on, sir,” he pleaded. “Stay until morning, and be my witness that I act fairly.”

Tom, who was now almost convinced that Kent’s mind was wandering, remonstrated. “This is folly, Kent,” he said. “If you have any clue, let us hurry on, and put into my father’s or some other lawyer’s hands. If it is worth anything, they will advise you how—”

“I must stay here all night,” interrupted Kent. “It would help me if you would stay with me, but you must do as you think right.”

“If I can do anything to help you to establish your father’s innocence, it is right that I should do it,” said the minister gravely. “We will stay.”

He went to the house of one of his friends in the village of the Three Brothers, while the others put up at the inn.

Tom, whose curiosity was greatly excited, hope to get at the secret when they were alone together. But Kent, exhausted by fatigue and excitement, was asleep as soon as his head touchef the pillow.

He was up at dawn, however, and had left the house long before Tom was awake. They waited breakfast for him an hour, and when he did not come sat down without him.

The meal was almost finished when he appeared, coming up the road accompanied by a stout, elderly man, and a boy of Kent’s age, all three on horseback.

“The boy,” said Tom, peering out curiously, “is Henry Doty, Joe Doty’s cousin. Joe introduced him to the Wild Beast Slayers one day. He lives out in this neighbourhood. What can Kent want with him?”

“The man,” volunteered Nero, “is Zach Jourdan, the constable. What can he want with him?

“Kent must be on the track of the thief!” cried Tom, jumping up in wild excitement to meet them. “Come in, Kent! You’ve had no breakfast.”

“I want none, thank you. No, Nero, I can’t drink it,” he said, as the pedler brought him a cup of coffee. “It would choke me. I can’t waste another minute. I must finish what I have to do! Are you ready to take the road?”

“Yes,” said Tom. “I’ll have the horses out while Nero locks his box. There comes Mr. Kaimes up the street. Is Henry Doty going with us? Is the constable, too?”

Kent nodded, but made no further explanation.

He rode apart, while the others were saddling and harnessing their horses. The landlord came to the door to speed his guests. He looked earnestly at Kent, and called to him:—

“Aren’t you Colonel Hampden’s son, down to Wheeling?”

“Yes,” said Kent, proudly.

The landlord lounged down the steps, while the hostler, negroes, and smiths from the for next door lent attentive ears.

“There was a man here last week,” the landlord went on, leisurely, “who said he reckoned the folks at Wheeling ’u’d make your father mayor. Hey?”

Kent did not speak for a full minute. Tom, with his foot on the stirrup, waited, his face reddening, his breath quickening, watching Kent.

“Think he’ll be elected, hey?” said the landlord again.

“Yes,” said Kent, with peculiar distinctness. “I think he will.”

With a nod of good by he rode quickly down the street, followed by the rest of the party.

Tom pushed forward to his side. Kent glanced at him affectionately. Tom noticed that his features were sunken and pinched.

“That’s right, Tom. Keep close to me. It gives me courage. But I can’t talk. If I should be mistaken after all!”

They rode rapidly through the long valley, and up the range of hills. The day was clear and frosty. In an hour the sun shone out, melting the thin ice upon the mountain streams.

Kent stopped under an old oak by the roadside. The others hastily gathered about him.

“I must ask you to dismount here, gentlemen,” he said, “and follow me on foot.”

They climbed down the side of the hill until they came to a trail through the underbrush that led to Wetzel’s cave.

Kent drew aside the vines and undergrowth which hid the entrance.

“Now, Henry Doty, lead the way!”

Doty and the constable pushed their way into the cave.

“Shall we go in?” asked Mr. Kaimes.

Kent did not hear him. He was watching for Doty to come out again, to bring the proof! If he should not bring it—

The men, seeing his face, kept silence.

Suddenly there came from the cave a cry of terror, and a tumult of angry voices.

“They have found the thief himself!” shouted Tom.

Chapter Eighth

Mr. Hampden at Work

AFTER Kent had started on his search, his father woke from the gloomy apathy into which he had fallen.

“I’ll take heart, Sarah,” he said, with something of his old gay energy. “I’ll go down to the warehouse and talk the matter over freely with my friends.”

The resolute courage of the boy had inspired him with fresh courage. He put on his hat and sallied down the street, bowing low to some ladies whom he met, and waving his hand, with his old airy grace, to the merchants, who, according to the indolent habit of the village, were lounging in their doorways. But the men, he noted with jealous quickness, returned his salute with grave, unsmiling formality, while the women—

“The women, Sarah,” he said, when he came home, “they hurt me most of all! Instead of passing with a careless smile, as usual, they stop and speak to me with studied kindness, as they might a convict, blushing and glancing around, as if, in doing it, they defied public opinion. It is hard—hard to bear!”

The next day, he went from one friend to another and with each broached the subject of the lost money. But they all shunned it. Not a single man would discuss it openly with him. There was no direct charge against him, no enmity shown; but a mildew of suspicion, a dead blight, seemed to be at work upon his reputation and his life.

In the morning he met Colonel Congdon and Mr. Jarret. They both greeted him warmly, pausing to look after him as he walked away. He was a tall, erect man, always carefully dressed, and the dark, curling hair, the picturesque, wide-brimmed hat then in vogue, the frogged surtout,[27] with its high, rolling collar, and the delicate cambric ruffles at his breast and wrists set off well the noble, finely cut face.

Jarret, who was a slovenly little man, laughed. “Our friend,” he said, “walks as if he owned the earth to its centre.”

“He walks like an honest man who fears nobody,” said the Colonel, curtly.

Mr. Hampden was always nervous and sensitive as a woman; now he was keenly on the watch for slights.

“Even my book-keeper, Pomeroy, was impertinent to-day,” he told his wife. “Turned his back when I spoke to him! And to think how I made that man! Took him out of the gutter!”

“He is always a surly, grumpish fellow,” said Mrs. Hampden.

“No; he would not have done that a month ago. He thinks me a thief! And Carr, the butcher, when I paid his bill, turned the note over as if he expected to find it counterfeit. I can bear it no longer! I will give up all I have and leave the place forever!” He buried his face in his hands with a long breath very near to a sob.

“No,” said Mrs. Hampden, firmly, “we will not run away! We will stay just here, where this foul slander has been started, and live it down! Kent has only been gone twenty-four hours, Ralph. Wait until he comes back. He may—”

“Kent!” cried Mr. Hampden, impatiently. “What can he do? His going was utter folly!”

“Then God will help us.” Mrs. Hampden put her arms around her husband’s neck. “Only trust in Him, and be patient, and wait, Ralph.”

“I will not be patient, and I will not wait!” he said, starting up. “I will go to work now—to-night—to clear up this thing. Do not interfere with me, Sarah. I know what I ought to do!”

He sat down at the desk and with fiery haste scribbled some words on a sheet of paper, and after that wrote two or three notes, which he sealed and directed.

“Here, Sentry!” he shouted. The old negro, who was squatted outside the door, miserable in the family misery, appeared. “Take this notice to the printing office, and tell them to strike off fifty placards and have them posted before dawn to-morrow morning. And send Poz and Primus with these notes, to Colonel Congdon, Judge Morris, and Mr. Jarret. Yes, Sarah,” turning to his wife, “I have sent for them. I will consult with them to-night.”

“Very well, Ralph.”

“You had better go to bed. Leave this thing to me. Women naturally are cowardly. You would rather leave town and drop all of this horror behind us. I swear it is like a nightmare! But I shall do it! I made up my mind to stay here and live it down! I’ll fight it—fight it—”

Mrs. Hampden said nothing. She sat down in a dark corner and remained silent, while her husband paced up and down, trembling with excitement.

In a few minutes the knocker sounded loudly, and the three men entered.

“What has happened, Ralph?” said the Judge. “Have you heard from Kent?”

“Nothing has happened, gentlemen,” said Mr. Hampden, trying to assume his natural, easy courtesy. “Be seated. I only wished to consult you. You are all my friends. You will advise me. I am resolved,” he broke for vehemently, “to put a stop to this slander! It is sapping my life! I am going mad!”

“What do you propose to do?” asked Colonel Congdon, gently.

“I am going to have an investigation of the charges against me.”

“There are no charges, my dear fellow,” said Jarret, quickly. “There is nothing to investigate.”

“I can bear this no longer,” exclaimed Mr. Hampden. “I am being smothered under suspicion and doubts which no man dares to put into words. If there is anything to fight, let me fight it.”

“I fear you are making a misstep,” said Congdon, gravely. “The money is lost. You propose—what neither the law nor honour requires—to beggar yourself to replace it. What more can you do?”

“I must give some shape to this formless suspicion. I will force my fellow-citizens to pronounce me innocent or guilty!” returned Hampden. This is the way I shall do it: I have been nominated for mayor. It is an honourable office. I have put forth a call for a public meeting to-morrow to decide whether I am the candidate or not. If my name has been withdrawn, I will force those who have it to state upon what charge they have done so, and to produce the proofs of that charge.”

“Better let sleeping dogs lie,” muttered Jarret, whose jaws were working ominously.

“No,” said Congdon, after a moment’s thought. “You are right, Ralph. Let the dogs wake and do their worst. I’m with you!” He held out both his hands, Mr. Hampden grasped them, his face flushing scarlet, his eyes full of tears. “I thank you, Congdon; and you, Judge. I shall never forget that you have stood by me to-day.”

After a short consultation, he escorted them to the door, and came back humming a gay catch. “What! are you still awake, Sarah? It is all right, my dear. I see my way out of the fog. We’ll have a rousing town-meeting to-morrow, and we’ll force these slanderers to speak out. Congdon, the Judge, and Jarret will back me. The posters will be out by dawn.” And he lighted a cigar, with a boyish laugh of triumph. “Go and sleep in peace. It’s all right, all right!”

Chapter Ninth

The Meeting

The next day dawned, brilliant with frost and sunshine. The excitement in this little town when the placards were read was with greater than even Mr. Hampden had foreseen. He had requested his fellow-citizens to meet him in the town-hall at the hour of noon, and long before that time the market-place below the hall was filled with eager groups discussing the unusual summons.

Wild rumours were afloat.

“The officers of the bank are ready to prove that Hampden has the stolen money now in his possession,” said one.

“Hampden gambled the money away in Cumberland,” said another.

“He can prove his innocence,” still another insisted.

While these and many other reports circulated in the crowd, Mr. Jarret went about whispering his opinion.

“I am Ralph’s most intimate friend, and I warned him that it was madness to force this exposure. ‘Never stir up muddy water,’ say I. He has not been put on trial. He took the money away, and can give no account of it. The bank did not prosecute him. Any other man would think he got off easily in such a case, without forcing the town to elect him to its most honourable office. If Ralph’s past history were only known!” Jarret sighed. “But there’s the rub: it’s all a mystery.”

So he went from one to another, sometimes convincing his hearer that he was trying to shield his friend, who was a scoundrel, sometimes followed by suspicious and contemptuous looks.

Just at the time when Kent and his friends left Wetzel’s cave and set out for Wheeling, the doors of the hall were thrown open, and in a few moments the room was packed to overflowing.

Little Margery, perched on her crotch of the cherry tree, watched her father’s tall, picturesque figure go down the grassy street. “He is going to fight his enemies,” she thought, trying to feel proud and victorious. But she was afraid; she was not sure of her father’s fighting qualities. He was a giant to her, but a giant with weak knees. There was her gentle, low-voiced little mother in the window, watching him go.

“Now she,” said Margery to herself, “would put her foot on the necks of his enemies, and never take it off—never! His heart is too kind.”

As soon as Mr. Hampden entered the hall, the meeting was called to order by Judge Morris. Colonel Congdon was made chairman. He stepped up upon the platform.

“Gentlemen,” he said, looking around him with a friendly smile, “I am glad to see all classes of Wheeling men here to-day. Mr. Ralph Hampden, who has been your friend and my friend for many years, has something to say upon a subject which is of interest to us all.”

The audience greeted the suspected man as he walked forward, with a hearty round of applause. He was under a cloud, but the people liked him.

“Rafe Hampden is a good fellow, thief or not!” said a river pilot at the door; and the men about him laughed and cheered.

“I thank you,” said Hampden gravely, as the people applauded him. “You encourage me to believe that you will be just with me. I shall put all that I have to say into very few words.

“Recently you nominate me for an office which is given in this town as an expression of the trust and confidence of the people. Since that nomination I have fallen under grave suspicion, which has never yet been formulated or taken tangible shape. I call upon you to give it shape.

“If the nomination is to be withdrawn from me, I call upon you to state why it is withdrawn. Put me on trial before my fellow-citizens; let them hear the story of the lost package, and of my offers to refund the money.

“I have lived among you for many years an honest, clean life. I will not be trampled out of sight now, unaccused, undefended. If any man here believes that I took that money, let him accuse me now. If any man has detected me in a single dishonourable action during these sixteen years that you have known me, let him bring it to the light.”

There was silence. Mr. Hampden leaned forward, his eyes passing from face to face of his old neighbours with passionate appeal.

“I know that this course is unusual—perhaps foolish,” he said in a broken voice. “I am beating the air. But I can be silent no longer under this suspicion. I have nothing to leave my children but a name. I must keep it clean!”

Murmurs of sympathy were heard through the house. The warm-hearted, impulsive Virginians needed but a word to burst into cheer to take Ralph Hampden, untried, back into their full confidence.

Mr. Jarret hastily climbed upon the platform.

“My dear fellow!” he said, in his squeaking, rasping voice, laying his hand on Ralph’s arm. “Give me a moment! You are wandering from the real point at issue. Nobody here suspects you of taking that money. But the losing of it has brought before your townsmen an unpleasant fact concerning you, which you can, I am sure, explain in a moment.” He turned to the audience with a laugh. “My friend Hampden, here, has chosen foolishly to shroud his early life in mystery, and that has raised a suspicion, a—what shall I call it? A shadow on his good name, an ugly ghost, which a word from him will lay. I call upon you, Hampden,” suddenly facing him, “to speak that word now. We are a people who think much of our honest descent, and of our honourable records. I call upon you, as your friend, to prove that there is no crime hidden behind your mystery, that your youth was decent and honest.”

He paused.

Mr. Hampden stood clinching the rail of the platform, his eyes fixed upon his accuser, stunned by the sudden assault. But he answered not a word.

The silence grew painful. There was an eager movement in the audience and a faint clap to encourage him, but he took no heed of it.

“Ralph! My friend!” said Jarret. “Recollect yourself! Surely these people do not ask too much. They do not seek to pry into your secrets from idle curiosity. They propose to give you the highest office in the community, and they have a right to ask first, who and what you are.”

Mr. Hampden’s mouth opened as if he would have spoken. Then a look of dogged obstinacy clouded his sensitive face, and his lips closed.

“Who and what are you?” repeated Jarret, shrilly, peering up at him.

“I will not answer.”

“You say you wish to leave an honourable name to your children. If you can clear it of suspicion by a word, why do you not speak?”

Jarret came a step closer; his pale eyes glistened with triumph as they scanned his haggard face above him.

“No,” said Hampden, hoarsely. “No. Not even for them. I said I never would speak, and I never will. I never will!”

The mass of listeners in front had followed this dialogue with such absorbed and breathless interest that they had not heard a trampling of many horses in the street below, nor noticed that Colonel Congdon and Judge Morris had left the hall in obedience to a whispered summons.

They returned at this moment, followed by several men.

Colonel Congdon came up on the platform. He was pale and agitated.

“Stand back one moment, if you please, Mr. Jarret,” he said. “I think this matter can be settled in a short time. Mr. Hampden has appealed to us to put him on his trial, and we will do it.”

Mr. Jarret took a prominent seat on the platform, nodding and smiling complacently. Ralph remained standing, looking bewildered at Congdon. His face, his whole attitude, expressed utter defeat.

“I have a painful task before me,” said Colonel Congdon. “I will make it as brief as I can. The first witness whom I will ask you to hear is Reverend Mr. Kaimes, a minister in the Baltimore conference. Those of you who are Methodists doubtless know him by reputation.”

Brother Kaimes, a thin dark man in the long black coat and shovel hat the worn by ministers of his sect, stepped forward and leaned over the rail of the platform, his eye passing over the eager upturned faces below.

“My friends,” he said, “I am not going to give you a sermon. I only want to tell you a story. It dates back to this man’s youth, in—”

Mr. Hampden, at whom he glanced, took a hasty step forward.

“Who are you? Are you going to tell the truth about me?” he cried.

“Yes, and the whole truth. Keep back.”

Ralph sank into a chair and buried his face in his hands.

Brother Kaimes paused until the confusion in the audience had died into silence.

“Mine is a short story,” he said, “but it is an interesting story, and I can vouch that it is a true one.”

“More than thirty years ago, there lived in Maryland an obstinate, wrong-headed, wicked old planter, whose name was Stoughton. He adopted a nephew—an orphan boy. Soon afterward he married a widow with one child. This widow had a good deal of wealth. She was a meek little woman, whom he could drive and bully as he chose.

“He drove and bullied her into her grave. Her child, a crippled daughter, remained in his house. It was then discovered that her step-father had got possession of all the property left by her mother. He treated the girl brutally, and when he died, left every dollar to his adopted son, who had just come of age.

“The boy, a hot-headed, generous fellow, went to Annapolis, transferred the whole estate to the poor cripple, and to stop all action on her part, disappeared. It was a foolish act, but it was what his ideas of honour prompted him to do. He ran away, gentlemen, literally ran away from his fortune, and went into the backwoods to earn his living, without a penny and without a friend. The woman tried in vain to trace him. She never married. A few years ago she removed to Louisa County in this state, and there, three months since, she died. She left the bulk of her property to him, or, if dead, to his heirs. I am one of the executors of her will, and I have been searching for him in vain until now.

“I find him here. He dropped his uncle’s name, and kept only his own. It is Ralph Hampden. Now you have the secret of his life.”

A ringing cheer broke from every man in the hall. The chivalric, unreasonable act appealed to the hot-blooded Southerners. Those in front swarmed up to the front to shake hands with Ralph, who stood up looking down at the crowd, with dazed eyes. He saw only Kent, who was below him in the front row. The boy’s eyes were full of tears. It was as if they two were alone together.

“I would not rob her! I did not tell it, Kent!” said Mr. Hampden, with a long breath.

“Much more like a rational being if you had!” muttered Judge Morris.

“Keep back, gentlemen, if you please,” said Colonel Congdon. “You forget that Mr. Hampden has not yet accounted for the lost money. That is the case now before us. I will bring forward some circumstances which bear upon it.”

“Really, Congdon, that is not necessary,” said Mr. Jarret, his jaws fairly chattering with excitement. “I can speak with authority as an officer of the bank. We are quite satisfied to let the matter drop, here and now. Quite. This very romantic story which we have just heard proves our friend Hampden to have been, even in his youth, honest but feather-headed. Being feather-headed, he has lost our money. Being honest, he has offered to pay it. What more do we need to know?”

“Much,” said the Colonel, dryly. “We will go to the bottom of this affair now.” He turned to the people. “There are,” he said, “certain matters which appear utterly irrelevant to this affair which I must explain before we can come to the gist of it. I hope you will be patient for a few minutes.

“I must remind you, first, that some of the boys in town, among whom were Mr. Hampden’s and Mr. Jarret’s sons and my own, formed last spring a club for hunting and fishing. During the summer the caches which they made, in the hills, of their ammunition, clothes, etc., were frequently robbed. This circumstance has become of importance. Henry Doty, come forward, and tell us what you know of this matter, beginning at the beginning.”

Doty, a quiet, diffident country boy, stepped out, and, with much hesitation, told of the thefts committed on the society to which his cousin Joe belonged, and of the resolve of the boys to find and punish the thief.

“About two months ago,” he said, gaining courage, “Kent Hampden came out to the farm to spend the day with me.”

Mr. Jarret nudged his neighbour. “Pay attention,” he said. “I heard this hinted before. Kent took the traps and powder. ‘Like father, like son,’ I fear.”

“I took him out among the hills,” continued young Doty, “to show him some hiding-places of the game that he did not know. At last we came to Wetzel’s cave. We found there—the thief! He was in the midst of his booty, and did not try to deny that he had stolen it.”

There was a stir in the audience, as the boys and their fathers all knew that Kent had been charged with these thefts.

“His name! His name!” shouted a dozen voices.

“Be patient!” said Congdon. “You shall hear it.”

“We both knew him,” said Doty, flushing painfully. “I was for thrashing him and exposing him to the town, but Kent was sorry for him. The fellow begged hard; he said he had never stolen a penny’s worth before, and that the shame would kill his father. He promised, if we would keep his secret, he would be a different boy for the rest of his life.”

“What did you do?”

“Kent agreed to let him off. He even made a friend of him afterward, to try to keep him straight. I always told Kent ’twas no use,” said Doty, hotly, “and it wasn’t!” We found him in the cave this very morning with fresh plunder.”

“This is very interesting,” said Jarret, “but what has it to do with the lost money?”

“You shall hear,” said Colonel Congdon. “Mr. Hampden, when you received the money from the officers of the bank, did you carry the package to Philadelphia as it was given to you?”

“No, the wrappings were clumsy. My wife removed them, and substituted a lighter covering.”

“Describe it,” suggested Judge Morris.

“It was a Chinese silk paper, soft and tough, in colour gray, flecked with red. I have never seen any like it. It was brought from China by a sailor.”

“Is that it?” said the Judge, holding out a small roll.

Mr. Hampden seized it, trembling from head to foot. “It is the paper! But the money—the money?”

“Ah, if we knew!” said the Colonel. “Officers, guard the door; a man is trying to escape. Let no one pass out! Constable Jourdan, will you tell us where you found this paper?”

The constable came to the front of the platform with a lumbering bow, and said:—

“I was called on this morning by young Hampden. He said he had dropped, two months ago, a note-book in a hole they call Wetzel’s cave. Yesterday it was brought to him, with a bit of this here paper stuck to it. I was given to understand that this paper was of importance. So I went to the cave with him, and there we found this roll, with a quantity of other stuff. I arrested the boy that had them.”

“Who was he?”

“Josiah Jarret.”

“It’s a lie!” Jarret, who had tried to escape from the room, now rushed forward to the platform. “My boy steal!” he exclaimed. “Colonel Congdon, it is a trumped-up lie!”

Mr. Hampden interfered. “Take care, Congdon! I don’t want a boy’s reputation ruined to save mine! The package was changed on the road. How could Si Jarret be concerned in that?”

“The package,” said Congdon, “was changed in your own house. You left it on the table while you went up stairs. This boy was in the next room alone. It needed but a minute to slip out the bundle of notes from the case, and substitute the bundle of paper which was ready in his hand.”

Jarret sprang forward, his hair dishevelled, his eyes contracted, his teeth exposed. He looked like an animal driven into a corner, and fighting for his life.

“Prove it! Prove it!” he exclaimed. “What is this trumpery bit of paper? There may be reams of it in town.”

Judge Morris came forward reluctantly.

“Yes, yes,” he said. “I’ll tell what I know, Congdon. I want to see justice done. I marked the money—yes, every note of it, for my own satisfaction. Jarret had made me uneasy about the money, and I marked it with a little red cross in one corner. I told nobody, not even Jarret.”

He sat down, perspiring, and grumbling to himself.

A queer dwarfish figure stepped into his place. Some of the audience who knew him began to laugh, and some to protest angrily, expecting some ill-timed antics from the corn-doctor. But Nero was grave and earnest, and went straight to the point.

“I am a travelling merchant,” he said. “My name is Fife. Last Tuesday I went into the bank to have my small notes changed for larger. Mr. Jarret made the exchange. He gave me eleven one-hundred-dollar bills.”

“Show those bills to Judge Morris,” said the Colonel.

“That is my mark,” uttered the Judge, after he had examined them.

“I heard this story of lost money,” said Nero, “and as soon as I saw the mark on my bills, I suspected that I had some of it with me. I turned back with it.”

Jarret had by this time calmed himself; he came forward coolly enough.

“This is a clever scheme devised by Hampden to hide his crime!” he called out. “It is a pity he could find no better tools than his own son and this crazy mountebank! Take away their evidence and what does this fine story amount to?”

“Mr. Jarret,” said Colonel Congdon. “It is too late!” He spoke with a faltering voice, for he had known the man for many years. “The marked notes have been identified with which you paid two tradesmen.”

“Hampden has bribed them!” gasped the cashier, his mouth working convulsively.

“Your son, since his arrest,” said the Colonel, “has confessed that at your instigation he changed the package in Mr. Hampden’s house and brought the money to you. Judge Morris, may I suggest that as a magistrate it is for you to order this man’s arrest?”

“Dear, dear! I suppose so! Officer, take Mr. Jarret into custody! A member of our dining club too!” grumbled the Judge. “Why couldn’t the fellow live decently?”

As the constables dragged Jarret out of the hall, the Judge called out cheerfully, “Well, thank heaven, we have Ralph Hampden back again!”

But when the people turned to find Ralph, he was gone. As soon as his innocence was proved, he had left the hall by a side-door, unseen by the crowd. Kent ran after his father, and together they went down the grassy deserted street.

“The money is found!” Mr. Hampden said again and again, talking to himself. “The money is found! My boy did it—my boy!” He caught Kent by the shoulder and swept him along with him, his head thrown back, his eyes sparkling, going with swift, loping strides homeward.

The sun shone on the river and the many-coloured hills; white flakes of snow glistened in the nipping air. The whole world, Kent thought, was glad and triumphant.

The story of their victory had gone before them. At every door some woman’s sweet smiling face beamed on them. When they neared the house, a dozen negroes rushed from the garden, Poz and Primus at the head, giving shrill yells of triumph.

“Shet up, yoh no ’count niggahs!” said old Sentry. “Yoh doan know nuffin!” He drew himself up with the importance of a whole brigade on the pavement in front of Mr. Hampden, and gave him a dignified salute.

“How d’ye, mars!” bowing to the ground.

“How d’ye, uncle!” Mr. Hampden bowed also, with a sharp twinge at his heart. Had even his own slaves doubted his honesty?

But it was all right now.

He threw open the door.

“The money is found, Sarah!” he cried. “It is all known. It was Kent that did it.”

Mrs. Hampden was standing in the middle of the room. She tried to smile, but she trembled very much.

“Of course the money would be found. God is too just to— I ought to have known that Jarret had it from the first. But this Maryland story, Ralph? They tell me you did all this for some woman? A cripple. Was she a cripple?”

“Oh, it’s all out now, thank God!” he exclaimed, with his happy boyish laugh, tossing off his cloak. “I should never have told it.”“You might have told me. I would have kept your secret, Ralph.”

“I don’t know about that. I was afraid to trust even you. Women are not always just to women. And it was right Hester should have the money, poor soul! She had nothing else. A poor, purblind, ugly creature!”

“Poor girl!” said Mrs. Hampden, earnestly, suddenly throwing her arms about her husband’s neck. “I am glad you did it. It was noble in you to do it just in that way, too. Poor thing! Lame and ugly and blind!”

“Never mind her! The money is found!”

He was too much excited to sit down or to be quiet for a moment. He caught Margery to his breast, thanking God that the stain was gone from his name, and then set her down nervously, and called to Sentry to bring in some supper for Kent.

“Tom Congdon tells me he has neither eaten nor slept for two days, Sarah,” he said. “Now be very careful, my son. You must take a very light meal. Tom told me you had not touched food for two days. Try this cake. Margery, cut your brother another piece of meat. You ought to be proud to wait on him. He has saved us all from ruin. He has given me more than life. More than life!”

Then he stopped to scold his wife, who was crying softly by the fire.

“What are you crying for, Sarah? Because you have such a son? Because God has brought us out of the depths—the depths!”

Then he went to the window and looked up to the clear heavens, his heart throbbing and his eyes wet with hot tears.

The next minute the silence was broken by the sound of drums and cornets, and a loud cheering. Then Tom Congdon burst in.

“Where are you, Kent? They’re coming! The town’s coming! They’ve put your father in nomination for mayor, and there won’t be a vote against him. Mr. Kaimes told his story to the people, Mrs. Hampden, of when Mr. Hampden was a boy in Maryland, and you would have thought the roof would come off with the shouting. They nominated him by a rising vote, and— Oh, I beg your pardon, sir! I did not know you were here.”

Tom rushed out of the door again.

The noise grew more deafening without. The advancing mass of people shouted “Hampden! Hampden!”

Kent saw the little pedler at the door, and dragged him in.

“Mother, this is our friend to whom we owe so much. Father!”

All Nero’s swagger had disappeared.

“I knew you as a boy in Maryland, sir,” he said. “I kept track of you all these years; but Nero Fife can hold his tongue! If a man has a mind to do a noble, generous deed, Nero Fife is not the one to balk him! The boys saved my life, sir. More than that, they treated me like a man, not like a clown, as most folks do!”

The tears stood in the little man’s eyes.

Colonel Congdon entered hastily. “They are calling for you, Hampden! You must show yourself. Don’t ask for my place in Congress, old fellow! They’ll give you anything you want, to-day.”

The Colonel stood inside, laughing, as he heard Tom and Nero join madly in the thunder of welcome.

A shrill shout of “Kent! Kent!” followed.

“The Wild Beast Slayers are calling you, Kent,” Colonel Congdon said. “I told them just now that you would represent this part of Virginia in West Point.”

Kent came up quickly to him. His lips moved, but he could say nothing.

“Yes, yes, I understand! You deserve it. Go out to your friends, my boy.”

Margery had the woman’s part of the triumph. She stood unseen in the dark, quiet parlour, and looked through the window at the tumult and rejoicing outside, half-frightened and half-angry. Had these people only found out just now what manner of man her father was?

She had known it always!

For her, she was most glad that they could keep the dear old home now, and the garden, and the cherry tree, into which she climbed every day to look out into the wide world and think what she would do out there sometime.

Her father had been speaking to the people. He had said nothing about himself, but much about what a Whig mayor should do, and about reform, and Henry Clay, and the tariff. He had finished and gone back, when he quickly stepped forward again.

What was it he was saying?

There was a sudden silence.

“It is much to me,” he said, in a hoarse voice, “that I can hold up my head again to-night among you, my old neighbours. I want to say that I owe it to my son that I can do it; to my son, and—to God.”

Kent drew quickly out of sight among the Wild Beast Slayers, on the edge of the crowd. At that moment, in the very throb of keen delight and victory, he felt for the first time in his life that God was a Something alive and near him. He had actually heard his prayer at his bedside that morning and had helped him out of his trouble!

“I’ll not—forget it to Him,” thought Kent. “I’ll not forget it to Him.”

He did not know exactly what he was thinking. Tom was thumping him on the back in an ecstasy, the air was filled with cheering, the drums beat, the cornets brayed. Kent laughed and shouted with the rest.

But in some quiet place in his heart he was telling himself that for this help from God, he would try to be a better and a bigger man always—more tender with his mother—more ready when he came to be a soldier to pull his sword and go into battle, to fight and—die there, if that was to be the way of it.

But with God near, and—in the front, always in the front.


Notes

 

1. The book was dedicated to RHD’s two surviving brothers, Hugh Wilson (“Wilse”) Harding and Richard Harris Harding: “To H.W.H. and R.H.H., who have hunted over every foot of Kent’s hills, I inscribe this little story of our old home.”

2. The Ohio River was the region’s major thorough for travel and transporting manufacturers’ goods.

3. The first major road built by the US government between 1811 and 1837; it connected the Ohio and Potomac Rivers.

4. In these years, Wheeling had both free and enslaved African Americans as residents.

5. A man’s coat with ornamental braiding and/or with a button and loop for fastening.

6. Jonathan Zane (1749-1823) and Lewis Wetzel (1763-1808), frontiersmen of the Virginia and Ohio area who were known for their involvement in fights between the settlers and Native Americans in the region. Their lives were later fictionalized in several novels by the novelist Zane Grey (1872-1939).

7. A business that organizes shipments between markets for companies.

8. Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), who gained fame in the War of 1812 and was later President of the United States (1829-1837).

9. An inferior attorney, one who only deals with petty cases.

10. A large sheet of paper.

11.The Hidden Foe, an 1891 novel by English historical novelist George A. Henty (1832-1902).

12. Dialect for a warm work jacket.

13. Henry Clay (1777-1852), an extremely popular lawyer and representative for Kentucky in Congress. For more on the Wheeling area viewed Clay, see RHD’s autobiography, Bits of Gossip.

14. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), French Revolutionary military leader; George Washington (1732-1799), American Revolutionary military leader and first President of the United States.

15. The Cheat Mountain ranges are a high, rugged ridge section of the Allegheny Mountains in what is now eastern West Virginia.

16. A famous incident in the history of Fort Henry, involving Molly Scott, Betty Zane, Lydia Boggs Shepherd (later Cruger) and the Iroquois leader, Logan.

17. A symbol signifying the recipient is a coward.

18. A tangy fruit indigenous to the area.

19. Possibly a reference to Lardner Vanuxem (1792-1848), an American geologist.

20. Usually attributed to a religious debate from medieval times.

21. Yodel.

22. Colloquial for in perfect health.

23. Traditional medical practices. Cups were heated glass cups placed on the body with the belief its suctioning action draws disease from the body. Leeches were a type of worm also placed on the body to suck out infections.

24. Mispronunciation of “bon ton,” French for “elite.”

25. Biblical legend of a man condemned by Jesus to wander the earth until the Second Coming.

26. Lorenzo Dow (1777-1834), a very popular itinerant preacher during the Second Great Awakening.

27. A man’s overcoat.

Creator

S. M. Harris