What Can She Do by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter X. Edith Becomes a "Divinity"
As the wrecked would hasten up the strand and explore eagerly in various directions in order to gain some idea of the nature and resources of the place where they might spend months and even years, so Edith hurriedly passed from one room to another, looking the house over first, as their place of refuge and centre of life, and then went out to a spot from which she could obtain a view of the garden, the little orchard, and the pasture field.
The house had three rooms on the first floor, as many on the second, and a very small attic. There was also a pretty good cellar, though it looked to Edith like a black, dismal hole, and was full of rubbish and old boxes.
The entrance of the house was at the commencement of the porch, which ran along under the windows of the large front room. Back of this was one much smaller, and doors opened from both the apartments named into a long and rather narrow room running the full depth of the house, and which had been designed as the kitchen. With the families that would naturally occupy a house of this character, it would have been the general living-room. To Edith's eyes, accustomed to magnificent spaces and lofty ceilings, these apartments seemed stifling dingy cells. The walls were broken in places and discolored by smoke. With the exception of the large room there were no places for open fires, but only holes for stovepipes.
"How can such a place as this ever look homelike?"
The muddy garden, with its patches of snow, its forlorn and neglected air, its spreading vines and the thickly standing stalks of last year's weeds, was even less inviting. Edith had never seen the country in winter, and the gardens of her experience were full of green, beautiful life. The orchard looked not only gaunt and bare, but very untidy. The previous year had been most abundant in fruit, and the trees were left to bear at will. Therefore many of the limbs were wholly or partly broken off, and lay scattered where they fell, or still hung by a little of the woody fibre and bark.
Edith came back to the fire from the survey of her future home, not only chilled in body by the raw April winds, but more chilled in heart. Though she had not expected summer greenness and a sweet inviting home, yet the reality was so dreary and forbidding, from its necessary contrast with the past, that she sank down on the floor, and buried her head in her lap in an uncontrollable passion of grief. Hannibal was out gathering wood to replenish the fire, and it was a luxury to be alone a few minutes with her sorrow.
But soon she had the consciousness that she was not alone, and looking up, saw Arden in the door, with a grave troubled face. Hastily turning from him, and wiping away her tears, she said rather coldly:
"You should have knocked. The house is my home, if it is empty."
His face changed instantly to its usual hard sullen aspect, and he said briefly:
"I did knock."
"The landlady has told her all about us," he thought, "and she rejects sympathy and fellowship from such as we are."
But Edith's feeling had only been annoyance that a stranger had seen her emotion, so she said quickly, "I beg your pardon. We have had trouble, but I don't give way in this manner often. Have you brought a load?"
"Yes. If your servant will help me I will bring the things in."
As he and Hannibal carried in heavy rolls of carpet and other articles, Edith removed as far as possible the traces of her grief, and soon began to scan by the light of day with some curiosity her acquaintance of the previous evening. He was the very opposite to herself in appearance. Her eyes were large and dark. He had a rather small but piercing blue eye. His locks were light and curly, and his beard sandy. Her hair was brown and straight. He was fully six feet tall, while she was only of medium height. And yet Edith was not a brunette, but possessed a complexion of transparent delicacy which gave her the fragile appearance characteristic of so many American girls. His face was much tamed by exposure to March winds, but his brow was as white as hers. In his morbid tendency to shun every one, he usually kept his eyes fixed on the ground so as to appear not to see people, and this, with his habitual frown, gave a rather heavy and repelling expression to his face.
"He would make a very good representative of the laboring classes," she thought, "if he hadn't so disagreeable an expression."
It had only dimly dawned upon poor Edith as yet that she now belonged to the "laboring classes."
But her energetic nature soon reacted against idle grieving, and her pale cheeks grew rosy, and her face full of eager life as she assisted and directed.
"If I only had one or two women to help me we could soon get things settled," she said, "and I have so little time before the rest come."
Then she added suddenly to Arden, "Haven't you sisters?"
"My sister does not go out to service," said Arden proudly.
"Neither do I," said the shrewd Edith, "but I would be willing to help any one in such an emergency as I am in," and she glanced keenly to see the effect of this speech, while she thought, "What airs these people put on!"
Arden's face changed instantly. Her words seemed like a ray of sunlight falling on a place before shadowed, for the sullen frowning expression passed into one almost of gentleness, as he said:
"That puts things in a different light. I am sure Rose and mother both will be willing to help you as neighbors," and he started for another load, going around by the way of his home and readily obtaining from his mother and sister a promise to assist Edith after dinner.
Edith smiled to herself and said, "I have found the key to his surly nature already." She had, and to many other natures also. Kindness and human fellowship will unbar and unbolt where all other forces may clamor in vain.
Arden went away in a maze of new sensations. This one woman of all the world beside his mother and sister that he had come to know somewhat was to him a strange, beautiful mystery. Edith was in many respects conventional, as all society girls are, but it was the conventionality of a sphere of life that Arden knew only through books, and she seemed to him utterly different from the ladies of Pushton as he understood them from his slight acquaintance. This difference was all in her favor, for he cherished a bitter and unreasonable prejudice against the young girls of his neighborhood as vain, shallow creatures who never read, and thought of nothing save dress and beaux. His own sister in fact had helped to confirm these impressions, for while he was fond of her and kind, he had no great admiration for her, saying in his sweeping cynicism, "She is like the rest of them." If he had met Edith only in the street and in conventional ways, stylishly dressed, he would scarcely have noticed her. But her half-indignant, half-pathetic appeal to him on the dock, the lonely ride in which she had clung to his arm for safety, her tears, and the manner in which she had last spoken to him, had all combined to pierce thoroughly his shell of sullen reserve; and, as we have said, his vivid imagination had taken fire.
Edith and Hannibal worked hard the rest of the forenoon, and her experienced old attendant was invaluable. Edith herself, though having little practical knowledge of work of any kind, had vigor and natural judgment, and her small white hands accomplished more than one would suppose.
So Arden wonderingly thought on his return with a second load, as he saw her lift and handle things that he knew to be heavy. Her short, close-fitting working-dress outlined her fine figure to advantage, and with complexion bright and dazzling with exercise, she seemed to him some frail fairylike creature doomed by a cruel fate to unsuited toil and sorrows. But Edith was very matter-of-fact, and had never in all her life thought of herself as a fairy.
Arden went home to dinner, and by one o'clock Edith said to Hannibal:
"There is one good thing about the place if no other. It gives one a savage appetite. What have you got in the basket?"
"A scrumptious lunch, Miss Edie. I told de landlady you'se used to havin' things mighty nice, and den I found a hen's nest in de barn dis mornin'."
"I hope you didn't take the eggs, Hannibal," said Edith slyly.
"Sartin I did, Miss Edie, cause if I didn't de rats would."
"Perhaps the landlady would also if you had shown them to her."
"Miss Edie," said Hannibal solemnly, "findin' a hen's nest is like findin' a gold mine. It belongs to de one dat finds it."
"I am afraid that wouldn't stand in law. Suppose we were arrested for robbing hens' nests. That wouldn't be a good introduction to our new neighbors."
"Now, Miss Edie," said Hannibal, with an injured air, "you don't spec I do a job like dat so bungly as to get cotched at it?"
"Oh, very well," said Edith, laughing, "since you have conformed to the morality of the age, it must be all right, and a fresh egg would be a rich treat now that it can be eaten with a clear conscience. But, Hannibal, I wish you would find a gold mine out in the garden."
"I guess you'se find dat with all your readin' about strawberries and other yarbs."
"I hope so," said Edith with a sigh, "for I don't see how we are going to live here year after year."
"You'se be rich again. De men wid de long pusses ain't agoin' to look at your black eyes for nothin'," and Hannibal chuckled knowingly.
The color faintly deepened in Edith's cheeks, but she said with some scorn, "Men with long purses want girls with the same. But who are these?"
Coming up the path they saw a tall middle-aged woman, and by her side a young girl of about eighteen who was a marked contrast to her in appearance.
"Dey's his moder and sister. You will drive tings dis arternoon."
Mrs. Lacey and her daughter entered with some little hesitancy and embarrassment, but Edith, with the poise of an accomplished lady, at once put them at ease by saying:
"It is exceedingly kind of you to come and help, and I appreciate it very much."
"No one should refuse to be neighborly," said Mrs. Lacey quietly.
"And to tell the truth I was delighted to come," said Rose, "the winter has been so long and dull."
"Oh, dear!" thought Edith, "if you find them so, what will be our fate?"
Mrs. Lacey undid a bundle and took out a teapot from which the steam yet oozed faintly, and Rose undid another containing some warm buttered biscuits, Mrs. Lacey saying, "I thought your lunch might seem a little cold and cheerless, so I brought these along."
"Now that is kind," said Edith, so cordially that their faces flushed with that natural pleasure which we all feel when our little efforts for others are appreciated. To them it was intensified, for Edith was a grand city lady, and the inroads that she made on the biscuits, and the zest with which she sipped her tea, showed that her words had the ring of truth.
"Do sit down and eat, while things are nice and warm," she said to Hannibal. "There's no use in our putting on airs now," but Hannibal insisted on waiting upon her as when he was butler in the great dining-room on the avenue, and when she was through, carried the things off to the empty kitchen, and took his "bite" on a packing box, prefacing it as his nearest approach to grace by an indignant grunt and profession of his faith.
"Dis ole niggah eat before her? Not much! She's quality now as much as eber."
But the world and Hannibal were at variance on account of a sum of subtraction which had taken away from Edith's name the dollar symbol.
Edith set to work, her helpers now increased to three, with renewed zest, and from time to time stole glances at the mother and daughter to see what the natives were like.
They were very different in appearance: the mother looking prematurely old, and she also seemed bent and stooping under the heavy burdens of life. Her dark blue eyes had a weary, pathetic look, as if some sorrow was ever before them. Her cheek bones were prominent and her cheeks sunken, and the thin hair, brushed plainly under her cap, was streaked with gray. Her quietness and reserve seemed rather the result of a crushed, sad heart than of natural lack of feeling.
The daughter was in the freshest bloom of youth, and was not unlike the flower she was named after, when, as a dewy bud, it begins to develop under the morning sun. Though not a beautiful girl, there was a prettiness, a rural breeziness about her, that would cause any one to look twice as she passed. The wind ever seemed to be in her light flaxen curls, and her full rounded figure suggested superabundant vitality, an impression increased by her quick, restless motions. Her complexion reminded you of strawberries and cream, and her blue eyes had a slightly bold and defiant expression. She felt the blight of her father's course also, but it acted differently on her temperament. Instead of timidly shrinking from the world like her mother, or sullenly ignoring it like her brother, she was for going into society and compelling it to recognize and respect her.
"I have done nothing wrong," she said; "I insist on people treating me in view of what I am myself," and in the sanguine spirit of youth she hoped to carry her point. Therefore her manner was a little self- asserting, which would not have been the case had she not felt that she had prejudice to overcome. Unlike her brother, she cared little for books, and had no ideal world, but lived vividly in her immediate surroundings. The older she grew, the duller and more monotonous did her home life seem. She had little sympathy from her brother; her mother was a sad, silent woman, and her father a daily source of trouble and shame. Her education was very imperfect, and she had no resource in this, while her daily work seemed a tiresome round that brought little return. Her mother attended to the more important duties and gave to her the lighter tasks, which left her a good deal of leisure. She had no work that stimulated her, no training that made her thorough in any department of labor, however humble. From a friend, a dressmaker in the village, she obtained a little fancy work and sewing, and the proceeds resulting, and all her brother gave her, she spent in dress. The sums were small enough in all truth, and yet with the marvellous ingenuity that some girls, fond of dress, acquire, she made a very little go a great way, and she would often appear in toilets that were quite effective. With those of her own age and sex in her narrow little circle, she was not a special favorite, but she was with the young men, for she was bright, chatty, and had the knack of putting awkward fellows at ease. She kept her little parlor as pretty and inviting as her limited materials permitted, and with a growing imperiousness gave the rest of the family, and especially her father, to understand that this parlor was her domain, and that she would permit no intrusion. Clerks from the village and farmers' sons would occasionally drop in of an evening, though they preferred taking her out to ride where they could see her away from her home. But the more respectable young men, with anxious mothers and sisters, were rather shy of poor Rose, and none seemed to care to go beyond a mild flirtation with a girl whose father was "on the rampage," as they expressed it, most of the time. On one occasion, when she had two young friends spending the evening, her father came home reckless and wild with drink, and his language toward the young men was so shocking, and his manner in general so outrageous, that they were glad to get away. If Arden had not come home and collared his father, carrying him off to his room by his almost irresistible strength, Rose's parlor might have become a sad wreck, literally as well as socially. As it was, it seemed deserted for a long time, and she felt very bitter about it. In her fearless frankness, her determination not to succumb to her sinister surroundings (and perhaps from the lack of a sensitive delicacy), she reproached the same young men when she met them for staying away, saying, "It's a shame to treat a girl as if she were to blame for what she can't help."
But Rose's ambition had put on a phase against which circumstances were too strong, and she was made to feel in her struggle to gain a social footing that her father's leprosy had tainted her, and her brother's "ugly, sullen disposition," as it was termed, was a hindrance also. She had an increasing desire to get away among strangers, where she could make her own way on her own merits, and the city of New York seemed to her a great Eldorado, where she might find her true career. Some very showily dressed, knowing-looking girls, that she had met at a picnic, had increased this longing for the city. Her mother and brother thought her restless, vain, and giddy, but she was as good and honest a girl at heart as breathed, only her vigorous nature chafed at repression, wanted outlets, and could not settle down for life to cook, wash, and sew for a drunken father, a taciturn brother, or even a mother whose companionship was depressing, much as she was loved.
Rose welcomed the request of her brother, as helping Edith would cause a ripple in the current of her dull life, and give her a chance of seeing one of the grand city ladies, without the dimness and vagueness of distance, and she scanned Edith with a stronger curiosity than was bestowed upon herself. The result was rather depressing to poor Rose, for, having studied with her quick nice eye Edith's exquisite manner and movements, she sighed to herself:
"I'm not such a lady as this girl, and perhaps never can be."
While Edith was very kind and cordial to the Laceys, she felt, and made them feel, that there was a vast social distance between them. Even practical Edith had not yet realized her poverty, and it would take her some time to doff the manner of the condescending lady.
They accomplished a great deal that afternoon, but it takes much time and labor to make even a small empty house look home-like. Edith had taken the smallest room upstairs, and by evening it was quite in order for her occupation, she meaning to take Zell in with her. Work had progressed in the largest upper room, which she designed for her mother and Laura. Mrs. Lacey and Hannibal were in the kitchen getting that arranged, they very rightly concluding that this was the mainspring in the mechanism of material living, and should be put in readiness at once. Arden had been instructed to purchase and bring from the village a cooking-stove, and Hannibal's face shone with something like delight, as by five o'clock he had a wood fire crackling underneath a pot of water, feeling that the terra firma of comfort was at last reached. He could now soak in his favorite beverage of tea, and make Miss Edie quite "pertlike" too when she was tired.
Mrs. Lacey worked silently. Rose was inclined to be chatty and draw Edith out in regard to city life. She responded good-naturedly as long as Rose confined herself to generalities, but was inclined to be reticent on their own affairs.
Before dark the Laceys prepared to return, the mother saying gravely:
"You may feel it too lonely to stay by yourself. Our house is not very inviting, and my husband's manner is not always what I could wish, but such as it is, you will be welcome in it till the rest of your family comes."
"You are very kind to a stranger," said Edith, heartily, "but I am not a bit afraid to stay here since I have Hannibal as protector," and Hannibal, elated by this compliment, looked as if he might be a very dragon to all intruders. "Moreover," continued Edith, "you have helped me so splendidly that I shall be very comfortable, and they will be here to-morrow night."
Mrs. Lacey bowed silently, but Rose said in her sprightly voice, from the doorway:
"I'll come and help you all day to-morrow."
Arden was still to bring one more load. The setting sun, with the consistency of an April day, had passed into a dark cloud which soon came driving on with wind and rain, and the thick drops dashed against the windows as if thrown from a vast syringe, while the gutter gurgled and groaned with the sudden rush of water.
"Oh, dear! how dismal!" sighed Edith, looking out in the gathering darkness. Then she saw that the loaded wagon had just stopped at the gate, and in dim outline Arden sat in the storm as if he had been a post. "It's too bad," she said impatiently, "my things will all get wet." After a moment she added: "Why don't he come in? Don't he know enough to come in out of the rain?"
"Well, Miss Edie, he's kind o' quar," said Hannibal, "I'se jes done satisfied he's quar."
But the shower ceased suddenly, and Arden dismounted, secured his horses, and soon appeared at the door with a piece of furniture.
"Why, it's not wet," said Edith with surprise.
"I saw appearances of rain, and so borrowed a piece of canvas at the dock."
"But you didn't put the canvas over yourself," said Edith, looking at his dripping form, grateful enough now to bestow a little kindness without the idea of policy. "As soon as you have brought in the load I insist on your staying and taking a cup of tea."
He gave his shoulders an indifferent shrug, saying, "A little cold water is the least of my troubles." Then he added, stealing a timid glance at her, "But you are very kind. People seldom think of their teamsters."
"The more shame to them then," said Edith. "I at least can feel a kindness if I can't make much return. It was very good of you to protect my furniture, and I appreciate your care. Besides your mother and sister have been helping me all the afternoon, and I am oppressed by my obligations to you all."
"I am sorry you feel that way," he said briefly, and vanished in the darkness after another load.
Soon all was safely housed, and he said, about to depart, "There is one more load; I will bring that to-morrow."
From the kitchen she called, "Stay, your tea will be ready in a moment."
"Do not put yourself to that truble," he answered, at the same time longing to stay. "Mother will have supper ready for me." He was so diffident that he needed much encouragement, and moreover he was morbidly sensitive.
But as she turned she caught his wistful glance, and thought to herself, "Poor fellow! he's cold and hungry." With feminine shrewdness she said, "Now, Mr. Lacey, I shall feel slighted if you don't take a cup of my tea, for see, I have made it myself. It's the one thing about housekeeping that I understand. Your mother brought me a nice cup at noon, and I enjoyed it very much. I am going to pay that debt now to you."
"Well--if you really wish it"--said Arden hesitatingly, with another of his bright looks, and color even deeper than the ruddy firelight warranted.
"My conscience!" thought Edith, "how suddenly his face changes. He is 'quar,' as Hannibal says." But she settled matters by saying, "I shall feel hurt if you don't. You must let there be at least some show of kindness on my part, as well as on yours and your friends'."
There came in again a delicate touch of that human fellowship which he had never found in the world, and had seemingly repelled, but which his soul was thirsting for with an intensity never so realized before, and this faintest semblance of human companionship and sympathy seemed inexpressibly sweet to his sore and lonely heart.
He took the cup from her as if it had been a sacrament, and was about to drink it standing, but she placed a chair at the table and said:
"No, sir, you must sit down there in comfort by the fire."
He did so as if in a dream. The whole scene was taking a powerful hold on his imagination.
"Hannibal," she cried, raising her voice in a soft, bird-like call, and from the dim kitchen whence certain spluttering sounds had preceded him, Hannibal appeared with a heaping plate of buttered toast.
"With your permission," she said, "I will sit down and take a cup of tea with you, in a neighborly way, for I wish to ask you some more questions, and tea, you know, is a great incentive to talk," and she took a chair on the opposite side of the table, while Hannibal stood a little in the background to wait on them with all the formality of the olden time.
The wood fire blazed and crackled, and threw its flickering light over Edith's fair face, and intensified her beauty, as her features gleamed out, or faded, as the flames rose and fell. Hannibal stood motionless behind her chair as if he might have been an Ethiopian slave attendant on a young sultana. To Arden's aroused imagination, it seemed like one of the scenes of his fancy, and he was almost afraid to move or speak, lest all should vanish, and he find himself plodding along the dark muddy road.
"What is the matter?" she asked curiously. "Why don't you drink your tea?"
"It all seems as strange and beautiful as a fairy tale," he said, looking at her earnestly.
Her hearty laugh and matter-of-fact tone dispelled his illusion, as she said:
"It's all dreadfully real to me. I feel as if I had done more work to- day than in all my life before, and we have only made a beginning. I want to ask you about the place and the garden, and how to get things done," and she plied him well with the most practical questions.
Sometimes he answered a little incoherently, for through them all he saw a face full of strange weird beauty, as the firelight flickered upon it, and gave a star-like lustre to the large dark eyes.
Hannibal, in the background, grinned and chuckled silently, as he saw Arden's dazed, wondering admiration, saying to himself, "Dey ain't used to such young ladies as mine, up here--it kind o' dazzles 'em."
At last, as if breaking away from the influence of a spell, Arden suddenly rose, turning upon Edith one of those warm, bright looks that he sometimes gave his mother, and said, "You have been very kind; good-night," and was gone in a moment. But the night was luminous about him. Along the muddy road, in the old barn as he cared for his horses, in his poor little room at home, to which he soon retired, he saw only the fair face of Edith, with the firelight playing upon it, with the vividness of one looking directly upon an exquisite cabinet picture, and before that picture his heart was inclined to bow, in the most devoted homage.
Edith's only comment was, "He is 'quar,' Hannibal, as you said."
Wearied with the long day's work, she soon found welcome and dreamless rest.