A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
It is a depressing law of life that worries invariably hunt in packs. If it were just a matter of one yelping little annoyance that barked at your heels, you could frighten it away with a laugh; but when a ravenous horde gets on your trail with the grim determination of running you to earth, it is quite a different matter.
Donald Morley, pacing the terrace at Angora Heights on a certain dark night in March, felt the breath of the pursuing pack close upon him. The failure to win his case had been a serious blow not only to his pride, but to his faith in his fellow man. He had gone into the trial with the assured confidence of an innocent man who is still young enough to rely absolutely upon the justice of the law. In spite of the array of damaging evidence presented by the prosecuting attorney, and the opinionated egotism of Mr. Gooch which rendered him unpopular with judge and jury, Donald's victory was almost assured, when the rumor of the People's Bank failure swept the court room. In the instant wave of suspicion that rose against Basil Sequin, Donald's cause was lost. Half the men on the jury were directly, or indirectly, involved. The case was summarily disposed of and the smaller matter swallowed up in the larger.
Humiliated and chagrined as Donald was over his own position, he was equally concerned about the bank. The papers were full of disturbing innuendoes; people avoided speaking of it in his presence; distrust and suspicion lurked around the corners.
Donald paused at the end of the terrace and looked up at the dark massive pile of masonry above him. In every leering gargoyle and carved coping, he read the ruin of some humble home.
At the first hint of impending trouble, Mrs. Sequin had taken Margery and fled to Europe, leaving Mr. Sequin fighting with his back to the wall to meet the difficulties into which her extravagance had plunged him. "I have no fear for Basil," she assured her friends on leaving. "He'll straighten things out. Of course he'll be talked about, clever people always are, and the directors have been rather nasty. But he'll control the situation yet, you'll see."
And Mrs. Sequin's confidence was being justified. Basil Sequin was controlling the situation. He had emerged from the ruin with his finances less affected than his reputation.
Each time that Donald turned at the end of the long terrace, his eyes involuntarily sought a light that gleamed far below through the bare trunks of the trees. It was the light from Thornwood that once more threw its familiar beams across the Cane Run Road and up the gentle slope of Billy-goat Hill. He rested his arms on the balustrade and stood looking out into the night. There was a softness in the air, a smell of upturned earth, a faint whispering among the newly budded treetops that hinted of things about to be revealed.
Suddenly there was a strange fluttering in the air above him, a tremulous, expectant thrill. Looking up he saw a flock of birds, wheeling and circling above him, making ready to light. Night after night they had traveled, over forests and across dark rivers, valiantly beating their frail wings against the gale, one purpose urging them on, straight as an arrow through the silent air,--the longing to find their old haunts under the friendly shelter of the Hill, and there to keep their love trysts in the place called home.
Donald's throat contracted sharply. Never in those tumultuous days in Japan, nor in those desperate ones in Singapore had he wanted Miss Lady as he wanted her now. It was not her youth or her beauty that he was thinking of; it was the firm confident clasp of her hand, the unfaltering courage of her eyes, her words, "I do believe in you, Don, with all my heart and soul." He was like a starving man who must have bread even if it belongs to another. Before he knew it he was plunging down the footpath to the road.
Connie would be his excuse, although he had been rather conscience- stricken about Connie of late. She had developed a taste for exploring that beguiling land of Flirtation where the boundary lines have never been defined, and dangers are known to lurk beyond the borders. As an old and experienced adventurer he felt that he had already accompanied her too far.
As he reached Thornwood's big colonial gateway, he found some one alighting from a buggy.
"Hello, Wick!" he said. "Wait, I'll open it for you. I thought you were staying in town!" Noah removed a pair of unmistakably new tan gloves and opened the gate for himself.
"I am staying in town," he said distantly "Are you coming in here?"
"Yes, I think I will drop in for a little while, unless you have an engagement?"
Noah's pause was even longer than usual. "No," he drawled presently. "I can't say I have. Will you get in?"
Donald could not suppress a smile as he got in beside him, and noticed the grandeur of his toilet.
"You are getting awfully dressy these days, old chap. Who's the girl?"
"You know who it is."
"You surely don't mean Connie Queerington! Now, Wick, you want to go slow and not trifle with that girl. The first thing you know she will be falling in love with you.",
Noah's lip stiffened. "If you would leave her alone perhaps she might."
"What am I doing?"
"The same thing you've always done. Going with a girl just long enough to spoil her for every other fellow, then going off and forgetting all about her."
Donald looked in amazement at the angry face beside him.
"What in thunder do you mean by that, Wick?"
"What I say. I guess it hasn't been so long ago that we've both forgotten another instance." "See here, Wick," said Donald, his anger rising, "you'd better drop this. You don't know what you are talking about."
"I know you spoiled my chances once and you are not going to spoil them again. You've got to leave Miss Connie alone. You've got to promise me--"
"I promise you nothing."
They had reached the hitching block and Donald got out of the buggy and, not waiting for his companion, went up the walk to the house. The peace of the old place wrapped him round like the folds of a warm garment He forgot Noah, and the pursuing troubles; he forgot everything except that Thornwood, with all its memories and traditions, was for the present his, held in sacred trust until that time when he could give it back to the one who loved it best.
"Why, it's Cousin Don!" cried Connie who had heard the wheels and come to investigate. "I never was so glad to see anybody in my life. I thought it was Mr. Wicker!"
"Cheer up! He's hitching his horse at the block now."
"How tiresome! I thought we left him in town yesterday. I don't believe you are a bit glad to have us for a neighbor. Why didn't you come over last night? I haven't seen you for four days!"
"You haven't missed anything, Connie. I've been down and out."
"Everybody has! It's too stupid for words. Since the trial and the bank failure I haven't been able to get a smile out of anybody! I hope the Turtle won't be grumpy."
"Who is the Turtle?"
"Mr. Wicker. Hat calls him that, because he never lets go 'til it thunders. Aren't you coming in the parlor?"
"No, I'll give Wick the field to-night. I want to see your Father on business."
"That sounds interesting!" said Connie audaciously. "You might have spoken to me first!"
The Doctor was preparing to go up to bed when Donald entered the sitting-room, but he put down his candle and greeted him warmly.
"A phenix rising from his ashes!" he said. "I am glad to see that you have survived the trials of the past ten days. It is very kind of you to come over in the midst of your trouble to welcome us to our new quarters. You are not going to leave us, my dear?" this to Miss Lady who had risen at Donald's entrance.
"I was going to get your beef-tea."
"Oh, to be sure. I can't begin to tell you, Donald, how much I regret the decision in your case. How did it happen?"
Donald, whose hungry eyes were devouring every familiar detail of the homely fire-lit room, shrugged his shoulders. "Eleven jury-men were for acquittal, I am told, and the twelfth, a fellow named Jock Hibben talked them over."
"Jock Hibben? I know the man. A radical Socialist who has been giving us some trouble at the university. Quite an orator, I believe, but a fanatic. You have made a motion for a new trial?"
"It has been refused."
"Indeed! And you appeal it, of course?"
"The decision is bound to be reversed," the Doctor assured him, "and the second trial will go in your favor. I have never doubted the ultimate outcome. What is that scratching noise?"
Miss Lady, who was just entering, paused to listen, then she suddenly set the cup she carried on the table, and flung open the door.
A long, shaggy, disheveled dog, with small, sad eyes, and a stub of a tail, hurled himself upon her, and began rapturously to lick her hands.
"It's Mike," she cried joyously, sitting on the floor and gathering her muddy visitor into her arms. "I knew he'd find out we were home. Oh! you blessed, blessed dog!"
Mike, unable to restrain his transports, made a mad tour of the room, upsetting the stack of manuscript that the Doctor had neatly arranged on a stand beside him. On his second round he discovered the visitor whom he sniffed with increasing excitement.
Donald raised a forefinger, and tapped his knee. In an instant Mike remembered. Lifting his fore-paws, and dropping his head upon them, he answered the call to prayer.
Two pairs of eyes met involuntarily, and the owners smiled.
"Do put him out, my dear," urged the Doctor, who had stooped to pick up the scattered sheets of his manuscript. "This is the last volume of my series, Donald. You remember I was collecting data for it when you were at the university. I had expected to publish it this spring, but it will have to be postponed now."
Donald winced. "On account of the bank failure, I suppose?"
"Well, yes. Basil advises a curtailment of all expenditure for the present. However, it may be just as well to publish in the fall. That will give me three more months on the revision."
"I hope you were not seriously involved, Doctor?"
"No, no, I imagine not," said the Doctor vaguely as he made a marginal correction on one of the sheets. "Basil and I have been so much occupied that we have scarcely had a chance to discuss the matter. He said I might possibly lose something, but that he would protect my interests. I trust you are not one of the losers?"
"No," Donald said shortly, "I lost nothing." Then after a pause during which he stared at the floor, he looked up. "Doctor, I want to consult you about something. Your standards of right and wrong seem to me a bit surer than most people's. I'm in trouble and I want your advice."
He was looking at the Doctor as he spoke, but he was acutely conscious of the slender figure that stood with her back to them before the open fire.
"You see," he said, plunging into his subject, "a week before the bank failed I found that I might need a lot of ready money before I got through with the trial. So I sold all my People's Bank stock."
"That was fortunate."
"But, Doctor! Don't you see? At the time I sold the shares they weren't worth the paper they were printed on!"
"But you were ignorant of this."
"Of course; but does that alter the fact that I took money for stock that was worthless?"
The Doctor rubbed his hands together thoughtfully. For once he was not prepared to give an immediate answer to a question concerning a moral issue.
"On the spur of the moment I should advise you to refund the money, but I do not know if such advice is wise. The fact is, neither you nor I are sufficiently versed in financial matters to know what is customary in such cases. What does your brother-in-law advise?"
"I have had no conversation with him since the bank failed. He stays in town nearly every night, and you can imagine what his days are."
"Well, I should put the matter before him, explain my scruples, and then act unquestioningly on his advice. It has been my rule in life, when my own judgment did not suffice, to consult the highest available authority upon that given subject and abide by it. Basil Sequin, in spite of this unfortunate failure, is undoubtedly our ablest financier. I can only bid you do as I have done; leave everything entirely to him."
"I shouldn't!" cried Miss Lady, wheeling about with a return of her old, childlike, impetuous manner; "I shouldn't leave it to anybody. I'd buy back the stock, every share of it. I wouldn't keep money for which I'd given nothing! You ought to see Miss Ferney Foster! She bought bank stock only last week; gave all the money she'd made on her pickles for ten years, and when she found the bank had failed, she went out of her head. I've been there to-day and she didn't know me."
"Who sold her the stock?"
"A broker named Gilson."
"It was my stock," Donald cried "Of course she's got to be paid back! And all the rest of them. I'll buy back every share of it, if it takes my last dollar!"
"Will it take all you have?" Miss Lady scanned his face anxiously.
"Yes, and more. I made an investment with some of the money before I knew the bank was in trouble; then there's the double liability law. It wouldn't matter so much if it weren't for the trial."
"Your sister, of course, will be ready to help you. Or has she, too, lost?"
"No," said Donald, his lips tightening, "she hasn't lost. She's had no stock in the bank for a year. But I shan't call upon her."
"Because she opposed your course so violently? Oh, I see. A point of honor on which I quite agree with you. But you are not going under, Donald. We will see to that. I am not a wealthy man, as you know. There have been times recently when the future looked very dark. But this little lady has steered us into calmer waters. If you should, in the course of the next few months, be in need of a reasonable sum, I am happy to say we will be in a position to accommodate you."
Donald gripped his hand. "I shan't call on you, Doctor. But once I'm through with this accursed trial, I'll try to justify your belief in me."
The tall clock in the hall gave a preliminary wheeze, then hiccoughed nine times violently. The Doctor carefully arranged his voluminous papers in a shabby, brown portfolio, and rose with an effort.
"You will excuse me now if I bid you good night? My physician has become rather arbitrary in regulating my hours. Keep up your courage, my boy; that courage that 'scorns to bend to mean devices for a sordid end.' I admire the course you have taken, I admire you. Good night to you both."
They watched him go, with his tall, stooped figure, and his fine, serious eyes that saw life only through the stultifying medium of books. Then they looked at each other.
"I'll call Connie," Miss Lady said, moving to the door.
"Just a minute, please."
She came back reluctantly, and stood with her hands clasped on the back of a chair, breathing quickly.
"Do you remember," Donald asked, standing in front of her and speaking in a low, tense voice, "the last time we stood in this room, and the promises I made you? Well, I've kept them. I've fought like the devil,--You don't know what it means, you can't know. But I've kept them. Now I want to tell you that I've got to break over. You are right about the bank-stock money. It's not mine. I'll pay it back to- morrow. But more money has to come from somewhere to carry on the trial. There's only one chance I can think of. I've got to enter Lickety Split for the Derby."
"No, you haven't! There are other ways. You must go to work."
"Work!" he broke out fiercely. "Haven't I been trying to get a position ever since I came home? Who wants to tie up to me until this cursed case is decided? I have been trying to write, but my things come back faster than I can send them out. What am I good for? A game at billiards, sixty miles an hour in a motor car, a lark with any idler that happens in the club. Bah! I'm sick of having people patronize me because I am not in the game, because I've never earned a penny, except by gambling, in my life!"
"But that's all behind you, Don! You've got the rest of your life to live differently. When the case is decided--"
"Yes, and suppose it goes against me? It did before, it may again. Talk about justice and truth! I've failed to find them. I've had enough of this glorious thing called life; I'm ready to quit."
"You can't quit, Don!" She said it softly, with the firelight flushing her eager, solicitous face. "Don't you suppose we all want to quit sometimes? We've just got to take a fresh grip on our courage and fight it out. I'm in trouble myself, to-night, Don. Will you help me?"
His eyes flew to hers as he half knelt on the chair before her.
"I've sold Thornwood," she went on, her lips trembling. "I can hardly speak of it, even yet. I feel like a traitor to Daddy, to all the Carseys who ever lived here, to myself! You know what the place means to me. I believe I should die if I ever saw any one else living here! I don't know who bought it, I don't want to know. All I know is that I've been perfectly wretched every hour since I signed the paper, until just now when the Doctor offered to lend you the money. Oh! Don, if I thought selling Thornwood meant that we could help clear your name, there'd never be another instant of regret! You'll let us help you?"
He put up his hand as if to ward off a blow: "Don't," he said harshly. "I can't take your help. I can't even take your friendship, or the Doctor's. Don't you see that I'm going through hell? Don't you know that I love you?"
The color left her face, and her eyes wavered a moment, then steadied.
"You must never say that again, Don! You must try not to think of it. I'll forgive you because I want you to forgive me for something. You know the letter you sent me from San Francisco? I burned it, unopened, right there where you are standing now. It was a cowardly thing to do, even though I thought you were in the wrong. If I had known the truth I never would have kept silent all those months. It was a great wrong I did you, Don; can you forgive me?"
He studied her face, as if he would by sheer intensity probe those luminous eyes that said everything and nothing. At last his head dropped.
"I was a fool ever to think you cared," he said brokenly; "I knew I wasn't good enough for you. I knew it from the first, but I tried. Shall I keep on trying for your sake?"
"No, Don, not for mine. For your own, and for the sake of the girl you'll some day make your wife. But I want you to remember that I shall feel responsible for whatever happens to you. If you give up the fight and go back to the old life, I shall know it was because I failed you; if you succeed, as I believe you will, I shall be happy always in knowing that I had a little part in it. Shall we say good night?"
He took the hand she offered him and one of those silences followed which once having passed between a man and woman, is remembered above all spoken words, a silence in which all barriers fall away, and soul speaks to soul. It was like a great harmony quivering with beautiful things unsaid.
He left her standing in the firelight, her eyes shining strangely in her otherwise passive face. He closed the door resolutely on the light and warmth of the homelike, cheery room, and passing out to the road, miserably turned his steps toward the empty grandeur of the big house whose turreted and gabled roof broke the sky-line at the top of the Hill.