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   Chapter 24 No.24

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 11084

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


After breakfast, at Bradley's, Westerfelt went into his room and hastily packed his valise and told Alf to take it to the stable and put it into the hack going that morning to the station. Mrs. Bradley came to him in the entry.

"John Westerfelt, what's got into you?" she asked, looking at him with concern. "Shorely you are not goin' off."

"To Atlanta for a few days on business, that's all," he said; "I'll write back from there."

She looked at him curiously, as if not quite satisfied with his explanation. "Well, hurry back," she said. "Me 'n' Luke'll miss you mightily."

"Tell Luke good-bye for me," he called back from the gate, and she nodded to him from the hall, but he could not hear what she said. As he approached the stable, he saw the hack waiting for him at the door. Budd Ridly sat on the driver's seat.

"Time we wus off," he remarked to Westerfelt. "It takes peert drivin' to catch the two-forty, south-bound."

"That's a fact," said Washburn, coming from the stable, "but I'll bet you'll have to wait a few minutes, anyway." He was looking back in the direction from whence Westerfelt had come. "I saw Miss Harriet come out o' the hotel jest after you passed; it looks to me like she's trying to overtake you."

Westerfelt turned and saw Harriet about a hundred yards away. "Maybe she is," he said. "I'll go meet her."

She paused when she saw him approaching, and he noticed that she looked greatly troubled and was quite pale.

"I must see you, Mr. Westerfelt," she said, a catch in her voice. "I came right at once so you wouldn't get left. Oh, Mr. Westerfelt, mother has just told me what she said to you last night. I don't know what she did it for-I reckon she thought she was acting right-but I cannot help her in deception of any kind. I was not sick last night."

"I knew you were not," he said, and then he could think of nothing else to say.

"But mother said she told you I was, and that she left the impression on your mind that it was because you were going off. That is not true, Mr. Westerfelt. I cannot presume to dictate to you about what you ought to do. Besides, it really seems a sensible thing for you to go. She said you promised not to leave, but I can't have it that way."

Something in the very firmness of her renunciation of him added weights to his sinking spirits.

"You think it would be best for me to go?" he managed to articulate.

"Oh, do you, Harriet?"

"Yes, I do," she said, emphatically, after a little pause in which she looked down at the ground. "I am only a girl, a poor weak girl, and then-" raising her fine eyes steadily to his face-"I have my pride, too, you see, and it has never been so wounded before. If-if I had not loved you as I have this would have been over between us long ago. And then I excused you because you were sick and unjustly persecuted, but you are well now, Mr. Westerfelt-well enough to know what's right and just to a defenceless girl."

There was now not a trace of color in his face, and he felt as if he were turning to stone. He found himself absolutely unable to meet her words with any of his own, but he had never been so completely her slave.

"You must answer me one question plainly," she continued, "and I want the truth. Will you, Mr. Westerfelt?"

"If I can I will, Harriet."

"On your honor?"

"Yes, on my honor."

"Were you not leaving simply to-to get away from the-(oh, I don't know how to say it)-the-because you did not want to be near me?"

He shrank back; how was he to reply to such a pointed question?

"On your word of honor, Mr. Westerfelt!"

There was nothing for him to do but answer in the affirmative, but it fired him with a desire to justify himself. "But it was not because I don't love you, Harriet. On the other hand, it was because I do-so much that the whole thing is simply driving me crazy. As God is my judge, I worship you-I love you as no man ever loved a woman before. But when I remember-"

"I know what you are going to say," her lip curling in scorn, "and I want to help you forget my misfortune. Perhaps you will when I tell you that my feeling for you is dying a natural death, and it is dying because I no longer respect you as I did."

"Oh, God! don't-don't say that, Harriet!"

"But I'm only telling you the truth. I would not marry you-not if you were the only man on earth-not if you were worth your weight in gold-not if you got down on your knees and asked me a thousand times."

"You would not, Harriet?"

"Why should I? A girl wants a husband she can lean on and go to in every trouble she has. You wouldn't fill the bill, Mr. Westerfelt. Good gracious, no!"

She turned back towards the hotel, and like a man with his intelligence shaken from him by a superior force, he tried to keep at her side. In silence they reached the steps of the hotel.

"You'll miss that hack if you don't hurry," she said. "Besides, you've acted as if this was a pest-house ever since mother and I nursed you here and I made such a fool of myself."

"Harriet, if you do not consent to be my wife I don't know what I shall do. I want you-I want you. I love you, I can't do without you. That's God's truth. If I hesitated it was only because I was driven crazy with-"

"It's a great pity about your love," she sneered; her eyes flashed, and she snapped her fingers in his face, her breast rising and falling in agitation. "Sweethearts may be hard to find, and husbands, too, but I wouldn't marry you-you who have no more gentlemanly instincts than t

o blame a girl for what happened when she was a helpless little baby."

"What-what do you mean by that, Harriet?" he questioned, his eyes opening wide. "I have never-"

"You told me-or, at least, you showed it mighty plain-" she broke in, "that it was because I was a foundling and never knew who my real parents were that you have such a contempt for me."

"Harriet, as God is my judge, I don't know what you're talking about.

You have never mentioned such a thing to me before."

"Oh yes, I did," she was studying his startled face curiously, "or rather you told me you knew about it-that you had heard of it."

"But I had never heard of it-I never dreamed of it till this minute. Besides that would not make a particle of difference to me. It would only make me love you more-it does make me love you more."

Her face clouded over with perplexity. Somebody was coining down the sidewalk, and she led him into the parlor.

"Why, Mr. Westerfelt," she began again, "I-I don't know what to make of you. It was one day when you were sick here, just after you asked me to burn a letter you had got. I remember it distinctly."

He started. "I was not alluding to that," he said.

"Then what were you speaking of?"

"Of Wambush, and all the rest. Oh, Harriet, I've tried so hard to forget him and overcome my-"

"What about him? Answer me; what about him?"

"The letter I asked you to burn was not for me. It was from old Wambush to Toot. In it he mentioned you, and how you helped Toot hide that whiskey, and how you confessed your love and cried in the old man's arms."

"Mr. Westerfelt, are you crazy? Are you a raving maniac? I never did anything like that. Toot Wambush was writing about Hettie Fergusson. She is his sweetheart; she helped him hide the barrel of whiskey in the kitchen. Oh, Mr. Westerfelt, was that what you've been thinking all this time?"

A great joy had illuminated his face, and he grasped her hands and clung to them.

"Harriet, I see it all now; can you ever forgive me?"

She did not answer, but hearing her mother's step in the hall she called out, while she tightened her little fingers over his, "Mother, come in here; come quick!"

"What is it, darling?" asked the old woman, anxiously, as she entered the room.

"Oh, mother, he thought I was Hettie; he thought I loved Toot Wambush; he says he doesn't care about the other thing one bit."

"Well, I didn't see how he could," said Mrs. Floyd. "I didn't, really."

"She hasn't said she will forgive me for thinking she was in love with Wambush, and making such a fool of myself on account of the mistake," said Westerfelt. "I wish you'd help me out, Mrs. Floyd."

"I may not forgive you for thinking I could love such a man," answered Harriet, "but I don't blame you a bit for the way you acted. I reckon that was just jealousy, and that showed he cared for me; don't you think so, mother?"

"Yes, daughter, I always have believed that Mr. Westerfelt loved you. And if I had had the management of this thing there wouldn't have been such a long misunderstanding. Mr. Westerfelt, Hettie Fergusson is out in the kitchen, just crazy to know if you will withdraw the charges against Toot so that he can come back home."

"I wouldn't prosecute that man," laughed Westerfelt, "not if he'd killed my best friend. Tell her that, Mrs. Floyd."

"Well, she'll be crazy to hear it, and I'll go tell her." She went into the hall and quickly returned. "Will Washburn is in front and wants to speak to you," she said. But Washburn came to the door himself, an anxious look on his face.

"The hack's still waitin' fer you, Mr. Westerfelt," he said. "What must I do about it?"

"Tell Ridly to go on without me," laughed Westerfelt. "And-Wash!" he added. "Take all the money out of the cash drawer and go get blind drunk. Shoot off all the guns you can find, and set the stable on fire. Wash, shake hands! I'm the luckiest fellow on God's green earth."

Washburn was not dense, and he reddened as it occurred to him that his reply ought to voice some sort of congratulations.

"Ef I'm any jedge o' human natur' yo're both lucky," he stammered. "Mr. Westerfelt is about the squarest man I ever struck an' would fight a circular saw bare-handed, an' Miss Harriet, I'll sw'ar I jest can't think o' nothin' good enough to say about you, except ef you hadn't a-been all wool an' a yard wide Mr. Westerfelt wouldn't a-been so crazy about you." Washburn laughed out suddenly, and added, "Some time I'll tell you about how he used to do at night when he couldn't sleep, especially after Bas' Bates got to cuttin' his patchin', an' buyin' paper collars an' neckties."

After Washburn had left they sat together on the sofa for several minutes in silence. The pause was broken by Harriet.

"I've been trying to make out what God meant by making us go through all this-you through all your ups and downs, and me mine. Don't you reckon it was so that He could make us feel just like we do now?"

He nodded, but there was a lump of happiness in his throat that kept him from speaking.

"Well, I do," she said. "I used to think He hadn't treated me fair, but I thank Him with all my heart for all of it-all of it. I wouldn't alter a thing. I believe you love me, and I can't think of anything else I could want. I believe you loved me even when you thought I loved Toot Wambush, and if you did then, I know you will now when I tell you I never loved any other man but you, and never even allowed any other man even hold my hand."

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