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   Chapter 9 No.9

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 11369

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

It was a week before John Westerfelt was strong enough to leave his room in the hotel. Inflammation of his wound had set in, and at one time his condition was thought to be quite critical.

One day Luke Bradley came in his buggy to drive him out to his house.

"Marthy won't heer to a refusal," he said. "She's powerful' troubled. She 'lowed ef we'd 'a' made you stay with us you'd not 'a' been apt to 'a' met Wambush that day, an' 'a' been laid up like this. She's jest dyin' to git to cook things fer you an' doctor you up."

"I'll go and stay a day, anyway," promised Westerfelt. He glanced at Harriet Floyd, who stood behind the curtains looking out of the window. "I don't need any finer treatment than I've had, Luke. Miss Harriet's been better than a sister to me. She saved my life the other night, too. If she hadn't interfered that gang would have nabbed me as sure as preaching, and I was unarmed and too weak to stand rough handling."

Harriet came from the window. She took the roll of blankets that

Bradley had brought and held one of them before the fire.

"It's chilly out to-day," she said. "You'd better wrap him up well,

Mr. Bradley."

Bradley did not reply. He heard a noise outside, and went out hastily to see if his horse was standing where he had left him. Westerfelt dragged himself from his chair and stood in front of the fire. He had grown thinner during his confinement, and his clothes hung loosely on him.

"You have been good to me," he repeated, in a low tone, "and I wish I could do something to pay you back." She said nothing. She bent over and felt the blanket to see if it were scorching, and then turned the other side to the fire.

"Mrs. Bradley is a fine nurse," she said, presently. "She'll take good care of you. Besides, she has a better claim on you than we-mother and I-have; she has known you longer."

"I'll tell you the truth," he answered, after studying her face for a moment in silence. "I'd really be willing to get hurt over again for an excuse to live here like I have. I am the loneliest man that was ever born-lonely is no name for it. In the dead hours of the night I suffer agonies-you see, I am not a good sleeper. I have been as near insanity as any man that ever lived out of an asylum. But I have been mighty nearly free from all that since you began to nurse me. I wish to God it could go on forever-forever, do you understand?-but it can't-it can't. I have my troubles and you have yours-that is," he added, quickly, as she shot a sudden glance of inquiry at him, "I reckon you have troubles, most girls do."

"Yes, I have my troubles, Mr. Westerfelt," she said, simply.

"Sometimes I think I cannot bear mine, but I do."

He said nothing, but his eyes were upon her almost with a look of fear.

Was she about to tell him frankly of her love for Wambush?

She rolled up one of the blankets and put it on the rug in front of the fire, and held up another to be warmed. He thought he had never seen a face so full of sweet, suffering tenderness. His heart bounded suddenly with a thought so full of joy that he could hardly breathe. She had driven the outlaw from her heart and already loved him; she had learned to love him since he had been there. He could see it, feel it in her every tender word and act, and he-God knew he loved her-loved her with his whole wearied soul. Then the thought of her appeal to old John Wambush and the lies she had told that night to save her lover struck him like a blow in the face, and he felt himself turning cold all over in the embrace of utter despair. "No, no, no!" he said, in his heart, "she's not for me! I could never forget that-never! I've always felt that the woman I loved must never have loved before, and Wambush-ugh!"

She raised her great eyes to his in the mellow firelight, and then, as if puzzled by his expression, calmly studied his face.

"You are not going back to that room over the stable, are you?" she questioned.

"Yes, to-morrow night."

"Don't do it-it is not comfortable; it is awfully roomy and bare and cold."

"Oh, I am used to that. Many a time I've slept out in the open air on a frosty night, with nothing round me but a blanket."

"You could occupy this room whenever it suited you; it is seldom used.

I heard mother say yesterday that she wished you would."

"I'd better stay there," he answered, moved again by her irresistible solicitude, and that other thing in her tone to which he had laid claim and hugged to his bruised heart. He felt an almost uncontrollable desire to raise her in his arms, to unbosom his anguish to her, and propose that they both fight their battles of forgetfulness side by side, but he shrank from it. The thought of Wambush was again upon him like some rasping soul-irritant.

"No, no; I'm going back to the stable," he said, fiercely. "I will not stay here any longer-not a day longer!"

He saw her start, and then she put down the blanket and stood up. "I do not understand you at all, sometimes" she faltered, "not at all."

"But I understand you, God knows," he returned, bitterly. "Harriet, little, suffering, wronged woman, I know something about you. I know what has been worrying you so much since I came here."

She started and an awful look crept into her face.

"Oh, Mr. Westerfelt, do you?"

"Yes, I know it-that's enough now; let's agree never again to speak of it. I don't want to talk about it, and I reckon you don't. Anyway, it can't be helped."

"No, it can't be helped." Her lips began to twitch and quiver, and her eyes went down.

"I understand it all now," she added. "And I don't blame you. I told mother yesterday that I t

hought you might suspect-"

"Your mother knows then?"

"Yes, of course," raising her eyes in surprise.

For a moment they were silent. Westerfelt leaned against the mantel-piece; he had never felt such utter despair. It was like being slowly tortured to death to hear her speaking so frankly of the thing which he had never been able to contemplate with calmness.

"So you see now that I'd better go back to the stable, don't you?" he asked, gloomily.

"I suppose so," she said. "I suppose you mean that-" but she was unable to formulate what lay in her confused mind. Besides, Luke Bradley was coming in. They heard his heavy tread on the veranda.

"Well, come on, John, ef you are ready," he called out. "That blamed nag o' mine won't stand still a minute."

When Westerfelt had been driven away, and Harriet had watched him out of sight down the road, she came back to the fire and sat down in the chair Westerfelt had used during his convalescence. She kept her eyes fixed on the coals till her mother entered the room.

"I reckon he thought funny that I didn't come in to tell him good-bye," she said, with a knowing little laugh; "but I'll be bound he was glad I didn't. Even Mr. Bradley had the good sense to go outside."

"Mother, what are you talking about?"

"You know mighty well what I mean," returned Mrs. Floyd, with a smile. "I know Mr. Westerfelt is dead in love with you, and goodness knows you couldn't fool me about how you feel if you tried. I was a girl once."

"Mother," said Harriet, "I never want you to mention him to me again," and she put her hands over her face and began to cry softly.

"Why, what is the matter, dear?" the old woman sat down near her daughter, now alarmed by her conduct. Harriet stared her mother in the face. "He knows all about it, mother-he knows I am not your child, that nobody knows where I came from. Oh, mother, I can't stand it-I simply cannot. I wanted him to know, and yet when he told me he knew, it nearly killed me."

Mrs. Floyd turned pale. "There must be some mistake," she said; "no one here knows it-and only one or two up in Tennessee."

"There is no mistake," sighed the girl. "He told me the other day that he had relatives in Tennessee. Oh, mother, more people know it than you think. I have always felt that they knew. So many have noticed that you and I do not look alike."

Mrs. Floyd's eyes were moist and her face was wrung with sympathy. She put her arms around the girl and drew her to her breast. "I ought never to have told you," she said; "but the lawyers knew it, and when your papa's estate was wound up it had to be told to a few. I thought you would soon forget it, but you have never stopped thinking about it. You are entirely too sensitive, too-"

"Mother, you don't know anything about it," said Harriet. "When you told me I was not your child I actually prayed to die. It has been the only real trouble I ever had. I never see poor, worthless people without thinking that I may be closely related to them, and since Mr. Westerfelt has been here and told me about his aristocratic relatives and his old family, I have been more unhappy than ever. I was going to tell him some day, but he saved me the trouble."

"I can't imagine how he knew it," gave in Mrs. Floyd, thoughtfully. "Perhaps he has had some dealings with our lawyers, though they promised not to speak of it. I thought when we moved down here among strangers you'd quit troubling about that. You know you are as good as anybody else, so what is the good of worrying? You make me very unhappy, Harriet. I feel almost as if I did wrong to bring you up. But you know I love you just the same as if you was my own child, don't you?"

"Yes, and I love you as if you were my own mother. I love you more, too, when I am in trouble, though I reckon I don't show it; but, mother, I am dying to know something about my own flesh and blood. I'd rather know that my blood was good than have all the wealth of the earth. You have let enough out to show me that I must have had very, very poor parents."

"I simply said that when they left you at my house you had on rather cheap clothing, but you know that was just after the war, when nobody could dress their children much."

"But they deserted me," said Harriet; "they could not have been very honorable. I reckon Mr. Westerfelt knows all about it."

"Well, he won't think any the less of you if he does," said Mrs. Floyd. "He looks like a born gentleman to me. You will never see a man like him turning against a girl for something she can't help. You ought not to say your parents were not honorable; they may have left you, thinking it would be best for you. We were considered pretty well off then."

Harriet made no reply for several minutes, and then she said:

"I think Mr. Westerfelt is the best man I ever knew, but he must be like his father some, and he told me that his father, who was a captain in the army, refused to ever see his daughter again who married the son of his overseer. She moved to Texas, and died out there. Mother, the legitimate daughter of an overseer would stand higher in any Southern community than-" At this point a sob broke in her voice, and the girl could go no further. Mrs. Floyd rose and kissed her on the cheek. "I see," she said, "that as long as you keep talking about this you will search and search for something to worry about. I'm glad Mr. Westerfelt knows about it, though, for he would have to be told some day, and now he knows what to count on. I'll bet you anything he keeps on loving you, and-"

"Oh, mother," broke in Harriet, "I don't think he lo-cares that much for me; I really do not."

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