The Hallidays lived but a few rods from the Sutherlands. Yet as it was dusk when Miss Halliday rose to depart, Frederick naturally offered his services as her escort.
She accepted them with a slight blush, the first he had ever seen on her face, or at least had ever noted there. It caused him such surprise that he forgot Amabel’s presence in the garden till they came upon her at the gate.
“A pleasant evening,” observed that young girl in her high, unmusical voice.
“Very,” was Miss Halliday’s short reply; and for a moment the two faces were in line as he held open the gate before his departing guest.
They were very different faces in feature and expression, and till that night he had never thought of comparing them. Indeed, the fascination which beamed from Amabel Page’s far from regular features had put all others out of his mind, but now, as he surveyed the two girls, the candour and purity which marked Agnes’s countenance came out so strongly under his glance that Amabel lost all attraction for him, and he drew his young neighbour hastily away.
Amabel noted the movement and smiled. Her contempt for Agnes Halliday’s charms amounted to disdain.
She might have felt less confidence in her own had she been in a position to note the frequent glances Frederick cast at his old playmate as they proceeded slowly up the road. Not that there was any passion in them — he was too full of care for that; but the curiosity which could prompt him to turn his head a dozen times in the course of so short a walk, to see why Agnes Halliday held her face so persistently away from him, had an element of feeling in it that was more or less significant. As for Agnes, she was so unlike her accustomed self as to astonish even herself. Whereas she had never before walked a dozen steps with him without indulging in some sharp saying, she found herself disinclined to speak at all, much less to speak lightly. In mutual silence, then, they reached the gateway leading into the Halliday grounds. But Agnes having passed in, they both stopped and for the first time looked squarely at each other. Her eyes fell first, perhaps because his had changed in his contemplation of her. He smiled as he saw this, and in a half-careless, half-wistful tone, said quietly:
“Agnes, what would you think of a man who, after having committed little else but folly all his life, suddenly made up his mind to turn absolutely toward the right and to pursue it in face of every obstacle and every discouragement?”
“I should think,” she slowly replied, with one quick lift of her eyes toward his face, “that he had entered upon the noblest effort of which man is capable, and the hardest. I should have great sympathy for that man, Frederick.”
“Would you?” he said, recalling Amabel’s face with bitter aversion as he gazed into the womanly countenance he had hitherto slighted as uninteresting. “It is the first kind word you have ever given me, Agnes. Possibly it is the first I have ever deserved.”
And without another word he doffed his hat, saluted her, and vanished down the hillside.
She remained; remained so long that it was nearly nine when she entered the family parlour. As she came in her mother looked up and was startled at her unaccustomed pallor.
“Why, Agnes,” cried her mother, “what is the matter?”
Her answer was inaudible. What was the matter? She dreaded, even feared, to ask herself.
Meantime a strange scene was taking place in the woods toward which she had seen Frederick go. The moon, which was particularly bright that night, shone upon a certain hollow where a huge tree lay. Around it the underbrush was thick and the shadow dark, but in this especial place the opening was large enough for the rays to enter freely. Into this circlet of light Frederick Sutherland had come. Alone and without the restraint imposed upon him by watching eyes, he showed a countenance so wan and full of trouble that it was well it could not be seen by either of the two women whose thoughts were at that moment fixed upon him. To Amabel it would have given a throb of selfish hope, while to Agnes it would have brought a pang of despair which might have somewhat too suddenly interpreted to her the mystery of her own sensations.
He had bent at once to the hollow space made by the outspreading roots just mentioned, and was feeling with an air of confidence along the ground for something he had every reason to expect to find, when the shock of a sudden distrust seized him, and he flung himself down in terror, feeling and feeling again among the fallen leaves and broken twigs, till a full realisation of his misfortune reached him, and he was obliged to acknowledge that the place was empty.
Overwhelmed at his loss, aghast at the consequences it must entail upon him, he rose in a trembling sweat, crying out in his anger and dismay:
“She has been here! She has taken it!” And realising for the first time the subtlety and strength of the antagonist pitted against him, he forgot his new resolutions and even that old promise made in his childhood to Agatha Webb, and uttered oath after oath, cursing himself, the woman, and what she had done, till a casual glance at the heavens overhead, in which the liquid moon hung calm and beautiful, recalled him to himself. With a sense of shame, the keener that it was a new sensation in his breast, he ceased his vain repinings, and turning from the unhallowed spot, made his way with deeper and deeper misgivings toward a home made hateful to him now by the presence of the woman who was thus bent upon his ruin.
He understood her now. He rated at its full value both her determination and her power, and had she been so unfortunate as to have carried her imprudence to the point of surprising him by her presence, it would have taken more than the memory of that day’s solemn resolves to have kept him from using his strength against her. But she was wise, and did not intrude upon him in his hour of anger, though who could say she was not near enough to hear the sigh which broke irresistibly from his lips as he emerged from the wood and approached his father’s house?
A lamp was still burning in Mr. Sutherland’s study over the front door, and the sight of it seemed to change for a moment the current of Frederick’s thoughts. Pausing at the gate, he considered with himself, and then with a freer countenance and a lighter step was about to proceed inward, when he heard the sound of a heavy breather coming up the hill, and hesitated — why he hardly knew, except that every advancing step occasioned him more or less apprehension.
The person, whoever it was, stopped before reaching the brow of the hill, and, panting heavily, muttered an oath which Frederick heard. Though it was no more profane than those which had just escaped his own lips in the forest, it produced an effect upon him which was only second in intensity to the terror of the discovery that the money he had so safely hidden was gone.
Trembling in every limb, he dashed down the hill and confronted the person standing there.
“You!” he cried, “you!” And for a moment he looked as if he would like to fell to the ground the man before him.
But this man was a heavyweight of no ordinary physical strength and adroitness, and only smiled at Frederick’s heat and threatening attitude.
“I thought I would be made welcome,” he smiled, with just the hint of sinister meaning in his tone. Then, before Frederick could speak: “I have merely saved you a trip to Boston; why so much anger, friend? You have the money; of that I am positive.”
“Hush! We can’t talk here,” whispered Frederick. “Come into the grounds, or, what would be better, into the woods over there.”
“I don’t go into any woods with you,” laughed the other; “not after last night, my friend. But I will talk low; that’s no more than fair; I don’t want to put you into any other man’s power, especially if you have the money.”
“Wattles,”— Frederick’s tone was broken, almost unintelligible — “what do you mean by your allusion to last night? Have you dared to connect me ——”
“Pooh! Pooh!” interrupted the other, good-humouredly. “Don’t let us waste words over a chance expression I may have dropped. I don’t care anything about last night’s work, or who was concerned in it. That’s nothing to me. All I want, my boy, is the money, and that I want devilish bad, or I would not have run up here from Boston, when I might have made half a hundred off a countryman Lewis brought in from the Canada wilds this morning.”
“Wattles, I swear ——”
But the hand he had raised was quickly drawn down by the other.
“Don’t,” said the older man, shortly. “It won’t pay, Sutherland. Stage-talk never passed for anything with me. Besides, your white face tells a truer story than your lips, and time is precious. I want to take the 11 o’clock train back. So down with the cash. Nine hundred and fifty-five it is, but, being friends, we will let the odd five go.”
“Wattles, I was to bring it to you to-morrow, or was it the next day? I do not want to give it to you to-night; indeed, I cannot, but — Wattles, wait, stop! Where are you going?”
“To see your father. I want to tell him that his son owes me a debt; that this debt was incurred in a way that lays him liable to arrest for forgery; that, bad as he thinks you, there are facts which can be picked up in Boston which would render Frederick Sutherland’s continued residence under the parental roof impossible; that, in fact, you are a scamp of the first water, and that only my friendship for you has kept you out of prison so long. Won’t that make a nice story for the old gentleman’s ears!”
“Wattles — I— oh, my God! Wattles, stop a minute and listen to me. I have not got the money. I had enough this morning to pay you, had it legitimately, Wattles, but it has been stolen from me and ——”
“I will also tell him,” the other broke in, as quietly as if Frederick had not uttered a word, “that in a certain visit to Boston you lost five hundred dollars on one hand; that you lost it unfairly, not having a dollar to pay with; that to prevent scandal I be came your security, with the understanding that I was to be paid at the end of ten days from that night; that you thereupon played again and lost four hundred and odd more, so that your debt amounted to nine hundred and fifty-five dollars; that the ten days passed without payment; that, wanting money, I pressed you and even resorted to a threat or two; and that, seeing me in earnest, you swore that the dollars should be mine within five days; that instead of remaining in Boston to get them, you came here; and that this morning at a very early hour you telegraphed that the funds were to hand and that you would bring them down to me to-morrow. The old gentleman may draw conclusions from this, Sutherland, which may make his position as your father anything but grateful to him. He may even — Ah, you would try that game, would you?”
The young man had flung himself at the older man’s throat as if he would choke off the words he saw trembling on his lips. But the struggle thus begun was short. In a moment both stood panting, and Frederick, with lowered head, was saying humbly:
“I beg pardon, Wattles, but you drive me mad with your suggestions and conclusions. I have not got the money, but I will try and get it. Wait here.”
“For ten minutes, Sutherland; no longer! The moon is bright, and I can see the hands of my watch distinctly. At a quarter to ten, you will return here with the amount I have mentioned, or I will seek it at your father’s hands in his own study.”
Frederick made a hurried gesture and vanished up the walk. Next moment he was at his father’s study door.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55