Chapter XI. Mrs. Allen's Policy
 

True to her promise, Rose helped Edith all the next day, and while she worked, the frank-hearted girl poured out the story of her troubles, and Edith came to have a greater respect and sympathy for her "kind and humble neighbors" as she characterized them in her own mind. Still with her familiarity with the farming class, kept up since her summer in the country as a child, she made a broad distinction between them and the mere laborer. Moreover, the practical girl wished to conciliate the Laceys and every one else she could, for she had a presentiment that there were many trials before them, and that they would need friends. She said in answer to Rose:

"I never realized before that the world was so full of trouble. We have seen plenty of late."

"One can bear any kind of trouble better than a daily shame," said Rose bitterly.

For some unexplained reason Edith thought of Zell and Mr. Van Dam with a sudden pang.

Arden brought his last load and watched eagerly for her appearance, fearing that there might be some great falling off in the vision of the past evening.

But to his eyes the girl he was learning to glorify presented as fair an exterior in the garish day, and the reality of her beauty became a fixed fact in his consciousness, and his fancy had already begun to endow her with angelic qualities. With all her vanity, even sorrowful Edith would have laughed heartily at his ideal of her. It was one of the hardest ordeals of his life to take the money she paid him, and she saw and wondered at his repugnance.

"You will never get rich," she said, "if you are so prodigal in work, and so spare in your charges."

"I would rather not take anything," he said dubiously, holding the money, as if it were a coal of fire, between his thumb and finger.

"Then I must find some one who will do business on business principles," she said coldly. "If the fellow has any sentimental nonsense about him, I'll soon cure that," she thought.

Arden colored, thrust his money carelessly into his pocket as if it were of no account, and said briefly, "Good-morning."

But when alone he put the money in the innermost part of his pocketbook, and when his father asked him for some of it, he sternly answered:

"No, sir, not a cent." Nor did he spend it himself; why he kept it could scarcely have been explained. He was simply acting according to the impulses of a morbid romantic nature that had been suddenly and deeply impressed. The mother's quick eye detected a change in him and she asked:

"What do you think of our new neighbor?"

"Mother," said he fervently, "she is an angel."

"My poor boy," said she anxiously, "take care. Don't let your fancy run away with you."

"Oh," said he with assumed indifference, "one can have a decided opinion of a good thing as well as a bad thing, without making a fool of one's self."

But the mother saw with a half-jealous pang that her son's heart was awaking to a new and stronger love than her own.

Mrs. Allen with Zell and Laura was to come by the boat that evening, and Edith's heart yearned after them as her kindred. Now that she had had a little experience of loneliness and isolation, she deeply regretted her former harshness and impatience, saying to herself, "It is harder for them than for me. They don't like the country, and don't care anything about a garden," and she purposed to be very gentle and long-suffering.

If good resolutions were only accomplished certainties as soon as made, how different life would be!

Arden had ordered a close carriage that she might go down and meet them, and had agreed to bring up their trunks and boxes in his large wagon.

The boat fortunately landed under the clear starlight on this occasion, and feeble Mrs. Allen was soon seated comfortably in the carriage. But her every breath was a sigh, and she regarded the martyrs as a favored class in comparison with herself. Laura still had her look of dreary apathy; but Zell's face wore an expression of interest in the new scenes and experiences, and she plied Edith with many questions as she rode homeward. Mrs. Allen brought a servant up with her who was condemned to ride with Arden, much to their mutual disgust.

"Oh, dear!" sighed Edith as they rode along. "It's a dreadful come- down for us all and I don't know how you are going to stand it, mother."

Mrs. Allen's answer was a long inarticulate sigh.

When she reached the house and entered the room where supper was awaiting them, she glanced around as a prisoner might on being thrust into a cell in which years must be spent, and then she dropped into a chair, sobbing--

"How different--how different from all my past!" and for a few moments they all cried together. As with Edith at first, so now again the new home was baptized with tears as if dedicated to sorrow and trouble.

Edith then led them upstairs to take off their things, and Mrs. Allen had a fresh outburst of sorrow as she recognized the contrast between this bare little chamber and her luxurious sleeping-apartment and dressing-room in the city. Laura soon regained her air of weary indifference, but Zell, hastily throwing off her wraps, came down to explore, and to question Hannibal.

"Bress you, chile, it does my eyes good to see you all, ony you'se musn't take on as if we'se all dyin' with slow 'sumption."

Zell put her hand on the black's shoulder and looked up into his face with a wonderfully gentle and grateful expression, saying:

"You are as good as gold Hannibal. I am so glad you stayed with us, for you seem like one of the best bits of our old home. Never mind, I'll have a grander house again soon, and you shall have a stiffer necktie and higher collar than ever."

"Bress you," said Hannibal with moist eyes, "it does my ole black heart good to hear you. But, Miss Zell, I say," he added in a loud whisper, "when is it gwine to be?"

"Oh!" said poor Zell, asked for definiteness, "some day," and she passed into the large room where Arden was just setting down a trunk.

"Don't leave it there in the middle of the floor," she said sharply. "Take it upstairs."

Arden suddenly straightened himself as if he had received a slight cut from a whip, and turned his sullen face full on Zell, and it seemed very repulsive to the imperious little lady.

"Don't you hear me?" she asked sharply.

"Perhaps it would be well for you not to ask favors of your neighbors in that tone," he replied curtly.

Edith, coming down, saw the situation and said with oil in her voice, "You must excuse my sister, Mr. Lacey. She does not know who you are. Hannibal will assist with the trunks if you will be so kind as to take them upstairs."

"She is different from the rest," thought Arden, readily complying with her request.

But Zell said as she turned away, loud enough for him to hear, "What airs these common country people do put on!" Zell might have loaded Arden's wagon with gold, and he would not have lifted a finger for her after that. If he had known that Edith's kindness had been half policy, his face would have been more sullen and forbidding than ever. But she dwelt glorified and apart in his consciousness, and if she could only maintain that ideal supremacy, he would be her slave. But in his morbid sensitiveness she would have to be very careful. The practical girl at this time did not dream of his fanciful imagining about her, but she was bent on securing friends and helpers, however humble might be their station, and she had shrewdly and quickly learned how to manage Arden.

The next day was spent by the family in getting settled in their narrow quarters, and a dreary time they had of it. It was a long rainy day, the roof leaked badly, and every element of discomfort seemed let loose upon them.

Mrs. Allen had a nervous headache, and one of her worst touches of dyspepsia, and Zell and Laura were so weary and out of sorts that little could be accomplished. Between the tears and sighs within, and the dripping rain without, Edith looked back on the first two days, when the Laceys were helping her, as bright in contrast. But Mrs. Allen was already worrying over the Laceys' connection with their settlement in the neighborhood.

"We shall be associated with these low people," said she to Edith querulously. "Your first acquaintances in a new place are of great importance."

Edith was not ready any such association, and she felt that there was force in her mother's words. She had thought of the Laceys chiefly in the light of their usefulness.

She was glad when the long miserable day came to a close, and she welcomed the bright sunshine of the following morning, hoping it would dispel some of the gloom that seemed gathering round them more thickly than ever.

After partaking of a rather meagre breakfast, for Hannibal's materials were running low, Edith pushed back her chair, and said:

"I move we hold a council of war, and look the situation in the face. We are here, and we've got to live here. Now what shall we do? I suppose we must go to work at something that will bring in money."

"Go to work, and for money!" said Mrs. Allen sharply from her cushioned arm-chair. "I hope we haven't ceased to be ladies."

"But, mother, we can't live forever on the title. The 'butchers, bakers, and candlestick-makers' won't supply us long on that ground. What did the lawyer, who settled father's estate, say before you left?"

"Well," replied Mrs. Allen vaguely, "he said he had placed to our credit in--Bank, what there was left, and he gave me a check-book and talked economy as men always do. Your poor father, after losing hundreds at the club, would talk economy the next morning, in the most edifying way. He also said that there was some of that hateful stock remaining that ruined your father, but that it was of uncertain value, and he could not tell how much it would realize, but he would sell it and place the proceeds also to our credit. It will amount to considerable, I think, and it may rise.

"Now, girls," continued Mrs. Allen, settling herself back among the cushions, and resting the forefinger of her right hand impressively on the palm of the left, "this is the proper line of policy for us to pursue. I hope in all these strange changes I am still mistress of my own family. You certainly don't think that I expect to stay in this miserable hovel all my life. If you two girls, Laura and Edith, had made the matches you might, we should still be living on the avenue. But I certainly cannot permit you now to spoil every chance of getting out of this slough. You may not be able to do as well as you could have done, but if you are once called working-girls, what can you do?

"In the first place we must go into the best society of this town. Our position warrants it of course. Therefore, for heaven's sake don't let it get abroad that we are associating with these drunken Laceys."(Mrs. Allen in her rapid generalization gave the impression that the entire family were habitually "on the rampage," and Edith remembered with misgivings that she had drunk tea with Arden Lacey on that very spot.) "Moreover," continued Mrs. Allen, "there is a large summer hotel near here, and 'my friends' have promised to come and see me this summer. "We must try to present an air of pretty, rural elegance, and your young gentleman friends from the city will soon be dropping in. Then Gus Elliot and Mr. Van Dam continue very kind and cordial, I am sure. Zell, though so young, may soon become engaged to Mr. Van Dam, and it's said he is very rich--"

"I can't get up much faith in these two men," interrupted Edith, "and as for Gus, he can't support himself."

"I hope you don't put Gus Elliot and my friend on the same level," said Zell indignantly.

"I don't know where to put 'your friend,'" said Edith curtly. "Why doesn't he speak out? Why doesn't he do something open, manly, and decided? It seems as if he can see nothing and think of nothing but your pretty face. If he would become engaged to you and frankly take the place of lover and brother, he might be of the greatest help to us. But what has he done since father's death but pet and flatter you like an infatuated old--"

"Hush!" cried Zell, blazing with anger and starting up; "no one shall speak so of him. What more has Gus Elliot done?"

"He has been useful as my errand boy," said Edith contemptuously, "and that's all he amounts to as far as I'm concerned. I am disgusted with men. Who in all our trouble has been noble and knightly toward us?--"

"Be still, children; stop your quarrelling," broke in Mrs. Allen. "You have got to take the world as you find it. Men of our day don't act like knights any more than they dress like them. The point I wish you to understand is that we must keep every hold we have on our old life and society. Next winter some of my friends will invite you to visit them in the city and then who knows what may happen?"--and she nodded significantly. Then she added, with a regretful sigh, "What chances you girls have had! There's Cheatem, Argent, Livingston, Pamby, and last and best, Goulden, who might have been secured if Laura had been more prompt, and a host of others. Edith had better have taken Mr. Fox, even, than have had all this happen."

An expression of disgust came out on Edith's face, and she said, "It seems to me that I would rather go to work than take any of them."

"You don't know anything about work," said Mrs. Allen. "It's a great deal easier to marry a fortune than to make one, and a woman can't make a fortune. Marrying well is the only chance you girls have now, and it's my only chance to live again as a lady ought, and I want to see to it that nothing is done to spoil these chances."

Laura listened with a dull assent, conscious that she would marry any man now who would give her an establishment and enable her to sweep past Mr. Goulden in elegant scorn. Zell listened, purposing to marry Mr. Van Dam, though Edith's words raised a vague uneasiness in her mind, and she longed to see him again, meaning to make him more explicit. Edith listened with a cooling adherence to this familiar faith and doctrine of the world in which the mother had brought up her children. She had a glimmering perception that the course indicated was not sound in general, or best for them in particular.

"And now," continued Mrs. Allen, becoming more definite, "we must have a new roof put on the house right away, or we shall all be drowned out, and the house must be painted, a door-bell put in, and fences and things generally put in order. We must fit this room up as a parlor, and we can use the little room there as a dining and sitting-room. Laura and I will take the chamber over the kitchen, and the one over this can be kept as a spare room, so that if any of our city friends come out to see us, they can stay all night."

"Oh, mother, the proposed arrangements will make us all uncomfortable, you especially," remonstrated Edith.

"No matter, I've set my heart on our getting back to the old life, and we must not stop at trifles."

"But are you sure we have money to spare for all these improvements?" continued Edith anxiously.

"Oh, yes, I think so," said Mrs. Allen indefinitely. "And as your poor father used to say, to spend money is often the best way to get money."

"Well, mother," said Edith dubiously, "I suppose you know best, but it doesn't look very clear to me. There seems nothing definite or certain that we can depend on."

"Perhaps not to-day, but leave all to me. Some one will turn up, who will fill your eye and fill your hand, and what more could you ask in a husband? But you must not be too fastidious. These difficult girls are sure to take up with 'crooked sticks' at last." (Mrs. Allen's views as to straight ones were not original.) "Leave all to me. I will tell you when the right ones turn up."