What Can She Do by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter IX. A Desert Island
The good cry that Edith indulged in on her way to the boat was a relief to her heart, which had long been overburdened. But the necessity of controlling her feelings, and the natural buoyancy of youth, enabled her by the time they reached the wharf to see that the furniture and baggage were properly taken care of. No one could detect the traces of grief through her thick veil, or guess from her firm, quiet tones, that she felt somewhat as Columbus might when going in search of a new world. And yet Edith had a hope from her country life which the others did not share at all.
When she was quite a child her feeble health had induced her father to let her spend an entire summer in a farmhouse of the better class, whose owner had some taste for flowers and fruit. These she had enjoyed and luxuriated in as much as any butterfly of the season, and as she romped with the farmer's children, roamed the fields and woods in search of berries, and tumbled in the fragrant hay, health came tingling back with a fullness and vigor that had never been lost. With all her subsequent enjoyment, that summer still dwelt in her memory as the halcyon period of her life, and it was with the country she associated it. Every year she had longed for July, for then her father would break away from business for a couple of months and take them to a place of resort. But the fashionable watering-places were not at all to her taste as compared with that old farmhouse, and whenever it was possible she would wander off and make "disreputable acquaintances," as Mrs. Allen termed them, among the farmers' and laborers' families in the vicinity of the hotel. But by this means she often obtained a basket of fruit or bunch of flowers that the others were glad to share in.
In accordance with her practical nature she asked questions as to the habits, growth, and culture of trees and fruits, so that few city girls situated as she had been knew as much about the products of the garden. She had also haunted conservatories and green-houses as much as her sisters had frequented the costly Broadway temples of fashion, where counters are the altars to which the women of the city bring their daily offerings; and as we have seen, a fruit store was a place of delight to her.
The thought that she could now raise without limit fruit, flowers, and vegetables on her own place was some compensation even for the trouble they had passed through and the change in their fortunes.
Moreover she knew that because of their poverty she would have to secure from her ground substantial returns, and that her gardening must be no amateur trifling, but earnest work. Therefore, having found a seat in the saloon of the boat, she drew out of her leather bag one of her garden-books and some agricultural papers, and commenced studying over for the twentieth time the labors proper for April. After reading a while, she leaned back and closed her eyes and tried to form such crude plans as were possible in her inexperience and her ignorance of a place that she had not even seen.
Opening her eyes suddenly she saw old Hannibal sitting near and regarding her wistfully.
"You are a foolish old fellow to stay with us," she said to him. "You could have obtained plenty of nice places in the city. What made you do it?"
"I'se couldn't gib any good reason to de world, Miss Edie, but de one I hab kinder satisfies my ole black heart."
"Your heart isn't black, Hannibal."
"How you know dat?" he asked quickly.
"Because I've seen it often and often. Sometimes I think it is whiter than mine. I now and then feel so desperate and wicked, that I am afraid of myself."
"Dere now, you'se worried and worn-out and you tinks dat's bein' wicked."
"No. I'm satisfied it is something worse than that. I wonder if God does care about people who are in trouble, I mean practically, so as to help them any?"
"Well, I specs he does," said Hannibal vaguely. "But den dere's so many in trouble dat I'm afeard some hab to kinder look after demselves." Then as if a bright thought struck him, he added, "I specs he sorter lumps 'em jes as Massa Allen did when he said he was sorry for de people burned up in Chicago. He sent 'em a big lot ob money and den seemed to forget all about 'em."
Hannibal had never given much attention to religion, and perhaps was not the best authority that Edith could have consulted. But his conclusion seemed to secure her consent, for she leaned back wearily and again closed her eyes, saying:
"Yes, we are mere human atoms, lost sight of in the multitude."
Soon her deep regular breathing showed that she was asleep, and Hannibal muttered softly:
"Bress de child, dat will do her a heap more good dan askin' dem deep questions," and he watched beside her like a large faithful Newfoundland dog.
At last he touched her elbow and said, "We get off at de next landin', and I guess we mus' be pretty nigh dere."
Edith started up much refreshed and asked, "What sort of an evening is it?"
"Well, I'se sorry to say it's rainin' hard and berry dark."
To her dismay she also found that it was nearly nine o'clock. The boat had been late in starting, and was so heavily laden as to make slow progress against wind and tide. Edith's heart sank within her at the thought of landing alone in a strange place that dismal night. It was indeed a new experience to her. But she donned her waterproof, and the moment the boat touched the wharf, hurried ashore, and stood under her small umbrella, while her household gods were being hustled out into the drenching rain. She knew the injury that must result to them unless they could speedily be carried into the boat-house near. At first there seemed no one to do this save Hannibal, who at once set to work, but she soon observed a man with a lantern gathering up some butter-tubs that the boat was landing, and she immediately appealed to him for help.
"I'm not the dock-master," was the gruff reply.
"You are a man, are you not? and one that will not turn away from a lady in distress. If my things stand long in this rain they will be greatly injured."
The man thus adjured turned his lantern on the speaker, and while we recognize the features of our acquaintance, Arden Lacey, he sees a face on the old dock that quite startles him. If Edith had dropped down with the rain, she could not have been more unexpected, and with her large dark eyes flashing suddenly on him, and her appealing yet half-indignant voice breaking in upon the waking dream with which he was beguiling the outward misery of the night, it seemed as if one of the characters of his fancy had suddenly become real. He who would have passed Edith in surly unnoting indifference on the open street in the garish light of day, now took the keenest interest in her. He had actually been appealed to, as an ancient knight might have been, by a damsel in distress, and he turned and helped her with a will, which, backed by his powerful strength, soon placed her goods under shelter. The lagging dock-master politicly kept out of the way till the work was almost done and then bustled up and made some show of assisting in time for any fees, if they should be offered, but Arden told him that since he had kept out of sight so long, he might remain invisible, which was the unpopular way the young man had.
When the last article had been placed under shelter Edith said:
"I appreciate your help exceedingly. How much am I to pay you for your trouble?"
"Nothing," was the rather curt reply.
The appearance of a lady like Edith, with a beauty that seemed weird and strange as he caught glimpses of her face by the fitful rays of his lantern, had made a sudden and strong impression on his morbid fancy and fitted the wild imaginings with which he had occupied the dreary hour of waiting for the boat. The presence of her sable attendant had increased these impressions. But when she took out her purse to pay him his illusions vanished. Therefore the abrupt tone in which he said "Nothing," and which was mainly caused by vexation at the matter-of-fact world that continually mocked his unreal one.
"I don't quite understand you," said Edith. "I had no intention of employing your time and strength without remuneration."
"I told you I was not the dock-master," said Arden rather coldly. "He'll take all the fees you will give him. You appealed to me as a man, and said you were in distress. I helped you as a man. Good- evening."
"Stay," said Edith hastily. "You seem not only a man, but a gentleman, and I am tempted, in view of my situation, to trespass still further on your kindness," but she hesitated a moment.
It perhaps had never been intimated to Arden before that he was a gentleman, certainly never in the tone with which Edith spoke, and his fanciful, chivalric nature responded at once to the touch of that chord. With the accent of voice he ever used toward his mother, he said:
"I am at your service."
"We are strangers here," continued Edith. "Is there any place near the landing where we can get safe, comfortable lodging?"
"I am sorry to say there is not. The village is a mile away."
"How can we get there?"
"Isn't the stage down?" asked Arden of the dock-master.
"No!" was the gruff response.
"The night is so bad I suppose they didn't come. I would take you myself in a minute if I had a suitable wagon."
"Necessity knows no choice," said Edith quickly. "I will go with you in any kind of a wagon, and I surely hope you won't leave me on this lonely dock in the rain."
"Certainly not," said Arden, reddening in the darkness that he could be thought capable of such an act. "But I thought I could drive to the village and send a carriage for you."
"I would rather go with you now, if you will let me," said Edith decidedly.
"The best I have is at your service, but I fear you will be sorry for your choice. I've only a board for a seat, and my wagon has no springs. Perhaps I could get a low box for you to sit on."
"Hannibal can sit on the box. With your permission I will sit with you, for I wish to ask you some questions."
Arden hung his lantern on a hook in front of his wagon, and helped or partly lifted Edith over the wheel to the seat, which was simply a board resting on the sides of the box. He turned a butter-tub upside down for Hannibal, and then they jogged out from behind the boat-house where he had sheltered his horses.
This was all a new experience to Arden. He had, from his surly misanthropy, little familiarity with society of any kind, and since as a boy he had romped with the girls at school he had been almost a total stranger to all women save those in his own home. Most young men would have been awkward louts under the circumstances. But this was not true of Arden, for he had daily been holding converse in the books he dreamed over with women of finer clay than he could have found at Pushton. He would have been excessively awkward in a drawing-room or any place of conventional resort, or rather he would have been sullen and bearish, but the place and manner in which he had met Edith accorded with his romantic fancy, and the darkness shielded his rough exterior from observation.
Moreover, the presence of this flesh-and-blood woman at his side gave him different sensations from the stately dames, or even the most piquant maidens that had smiled upon him in the shadowy scenes of his imagination; and when at times, as the wagon jolted heavily, she grasped his arm for a second to steady herself, it seemed as if the dusky little figure at his side was a sort of human electric battery charged with that subtile fluid which some believe to be the material life of the universe. Every now and then as they bounced over a stone, the lantern would bob up and throw a ray on a face like those that had looked out upon him from those plays of Shakespeare the scenes of which are laid in Italy.
Thus the dark, chilly, rainy night was becoming the most luminous period of his life. Reason and judgment act slowly, but imagination takes fire.
But to poor Edith all was real and dismal enough, and she often sighed heavily. To Arden each sigh was an appeal for sympathy. He had driven as rapidly as he dared in the darkness to get her out of the rain, but at last she said, clinging to his arm:
"Won't you drive slowly? The jolting has given me a pain in my side."
He was conscious of a new and peculiar sensation there also, though not from jolting. He had been used to that in many ways all his life, but thereafter they jogged forward on a walk through the drizzling rain, and Edith, recovering her breath, and a sense of security, began to asked the questions.
"Do you know where the cottage is that was formerly owned by Mr. Jenks?"
"Oh, yes, it's not far from our house--between our house and the village." Then as if a sudden thought struck him he added quickly, "I heard it was sold; are you the owner?"
"Yes," said Edith a little coolly. She had expected to question and not to be questioned. And yet she was very glad she had met one who knew about her place. But she resolved to be non-committal till she knew more about him.
"What sort of a house is it?" she asked after a moment. "I have never seen it."
"Well, it's not very large, and I fear it is somewhat out of repair-- at least it looks so, and I should think a new roof was needed."
Edith could not help saying pathetically, "Oh, dear! I'm so sorry."
Arden then added hastily, "But it's a kind of a pretty place too--a great many fruit-trees and grapevines on it."
"So I've been told," said Edith. "And that will be its chief attraction to me."
"Then you are going to live there?"
Arden's heart gave a sudden throb. Then he would see this mysterious stranger often. But he smiled half bitterly in the darkness as he queried, "What will she appear like in the daylight?"
Her next question broke the spell he was under utterly. They were passing through the village and the little hotel was near, and she naturally asked:
"To whom am I indebted for all this kindness? I am glad to know so much as that you are my neighbor."
Suddenly and painfully conscious of his outward life and surroundings, he answered briefly:
"My name is Arden Lacey. We have a small farm a little beyond your cottage."
Wondering at his change of tone and manner, Edith still ventured to ask:
"And do you know of any one who could bring my furniture and things up to-morrow?"
As he sometimes did that kind of work, an impulse to see more of her impelled him to say:
"I suppose I can do it. I work for a living."
"I am sure that is nothing against you," said Edith kindly.
"You will not live long in Pushton before learning that there is something against us," was the bitter reply. "But that need not prevent my working for you, as I do for others. If you wish, I will make a fire in your house early, to take off the chill and dampness, and then go for your furniture. The people here will send you out in a carriage." "I shall be greatly obliged if you will do so and let me pay you."
"Oh, certainly, I will charge the usual rates."
"Well, then, how much for to-night?" said Edith as she stood in the hotel door.
"To-night is another affair," and he jumped into his wagon and rattled away in the darkness, his lantern looking like a "will-o'-the-wisp" that might vanish altogether.
The landlord received Edith and her attendant with a gruff civility, and gave her in charge of his wife, who was a bustling red-faced woman with a sort of motherly kindness about her.
"Why, you poor child," she said to Edith, turning her round before the light, "you're half drowned. You must have something hot right away, or you'll take your death o' cold," and with something of her husband's faith in whiskey, she soon brought Edith a hot punch that for a few moments seemed to make the girl's head spin, but as it was followed by strong tea and toast, she felt none the worse, and danger from the chill and wet was effectually disposed of.
As she sat sipping her tea before a red-hot stove, she told, in answer to the landlady's questions, how she had got up from the boat.
"Who is this Lacey, and what is there against them?" she asked suddenly.
The hostess went across the hall, opened the bar-room door, and beckoned Edith to follow her.
In a chair by the stove sat a miserable bloated wreck of a man, drivelling and mumbling in a drunken lethargy.
"That's his father," said the woman in a whisper. "When he gets as bad as that he comes here because he knows my husband is the only one as won't turn him out of doors."
An expression of intense disgust flitted across Edith's face, and by the necessary law of association poor Arden sank in her estimation through the foulness of his father's vice.
"Is there anything against the son?" asked Edith in some alarm. "I've engaged him to bring up my furniture and trunks. I hope he's honest."
"Oh, yes, he's honest enough, and he'd be mighty mad if anybody questioned that, but he's kind o' soured and ugly, and don't notice nobody nor nothing. The son and Mrs. Lacey keep to themselves, the man does as you see, but the daughter, who's a smart, pretty girl, tries to rise above it all, and make her way among the rest of the girls; but she has a hard time of it, I guess, poor child."
"I don't wonder," said Edith, "with such a father."
But between the punch and fatigue, she was glad to take refuge from the landlady's garrulousness, and all her troubles in quiet sleep.
The next morning the storm was passing away in broken masses of cloud, through which the sun occasionally shone in April-like uncertainty.
After an early breakfast she and Hannibal were driven in an open wagon to what was to be her future home--the scene of unknown joys and sorrows.
The most memorable places, where the mightiest events of the world have transpired, can never have for us the interest of that humble spot where the little drama of our own life will pass from act to act till our exit.
Most eagerly did Edith note everything as revealed by the broad light of day. The village, though irregular, had a general air of thriftiness and respectability. The street through which she was riding gradually fringed off, from stores and offices, into neat homes, farmhouses, and here and there the abodes of the poor, till at last, three-quarters of a mile out, she saw a rather quaint little cottage with a roof steeply sloping and a long low porch.
"That's your place, miss," said the driver.
Edith's intent eyes took in the general effect with something of the practiced rapidity with which she mastered a lady's toilet on the avenue.
In spite of her predisposition to be pleased, the prospect was depressing. The season was late and patches of discolored snow lay here and there, and were piled up along the fences. The garden and trees had a neglected look. The vines that clambered up the porch had been untrimmed of the last year's growth, and sprawled in every direction. The gate hung from one hinge, and many palings were off the fence, and all had a sodden, dingy appearance from the recent rains. The house itself looked so dilapidated and small, in contrast with their stately mansion on Fifth Avenue, that irrepressible tears came into her eyes, as she murmured:
"It will kill mother just to see it."
Old Hannibal said in a low, encouraging tone, "It'll look a heap better next June, Miss Edie."
But Edith dropped her veil to hide her feelings, and shook her head.
They got down before the rickety gate, took out the basket of provisions which Hannibal had secured, paid the driver, who splashed away through the mud as a boat might that had landed and left two people on a desert island. They walked up the oozy path with hearts about as chill and empty as the unfurnished cottage before them.
But utter repulsiveness had been taken away by a bright fire that Arden had kindled on the hearth of the largest room; and when lighting it he had been so romantic as to dream of the possibility of kindling a more sacred fire in a heart that he knew now to be as cold to him as the chilly room in which he shivered.
Poor Arden! If he could have seen the expression on Edith's face the night previous, as she looked on his besotted father, he would have cursed more bitterly than ever what he termed the blight of his life.