Chapter One from Kent Hampden, by Rebecca Harding Davis (New York:
Scribner's Sons, 1892)
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 northwestern part of Virginia. Its four streets straggled along the slope of a high wooded hill, side by side. At the base of the hill the Ohio 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. 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. 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 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 as 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. 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 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 of 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 this 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 a 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 Alleghany Mountains was a serious event 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 Caesar. 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. 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 conveyed the malignant meaning. It was a 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 peered 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 moments, "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 missing Ralph Hampden Stoughton to be our friend himself."
"Ridiculous!" growled the Judge. "Hampden is as honourable a 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 dishonour.
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 be 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 Jarret'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! O 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 Sheppard 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 towards 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 to 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 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 heavy foolscap, 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 crepe 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 go out of my sight once. Ten thousand dollars! Why, this is the 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 harried. 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.
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