What Can She Do by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XIII. They Turn Up
One morning, a month after the Allens had gone into poverty's exile, Gus Elliot lounged into Mr. Van Dam's luxurious apartments. There was everything around him to gratify the eye of sense, that is, such sense as Gus Elliot had cultivated, though an angel might have hidden his face. We will not describe these rooms--we had better not. It is sufficient to say that in their decorations, pictures, bacchanalian ornaments, and general suggestion, they were a reflex of Mr. Van Dam's character, in the more refined and aesthetic phase which he presented to society. Indeed, in the name of art, whose mantle, if at times rather flimsy, is broader than that of charity, not a few would have admired the exhibitions of Mr. Van Dam's taste.
But concerning Gus Elliot, no doubt exists in our mind. The atmosphere of Mr. Van Dam's room was entirely adapted to his chosen direction of development. He was a young man of leisure and fashion, and was therefore what even the fashionable would be horrified at their daughters ever becoming. This nice distinction between son and daughter does not result well. It leaves men in the midst of society unbranded as vile, unmarked so that good women may shrink in disgust from them. It gives them a chance to prey upon the weak, as Mr. Van Dam purposed to do, and as he intended to induce Gus Elliot to do, and as multitudes of exquisitely dressed scoundrels are doing daily.
If Mr. and Mrs. Allen had done their duty as parents, they would have kept the wolf (I beg the wolf's pardon) the jackal, Mr. Van Dam, with his thin disguise of society polish, from entering their fold. Gus Elliot was one of those mean curs that never lead, and could always be drawn into any evil that satisfied the one question of his life, "Will it give me what I want?"
Gus was such an exquisite that the smell of garlic made him ill, and the sight of blood made him faint, and the thought of coarse working hands was an abomination, but in worse than idleness he could see his old father wearing himself out, he could get "gentlemanly drunk," and commit any wrong in vogue among the fast young men with whom he associated. And now Mephistopheles Van Dam easily induces him to seek to drag down beautiful Edith Allen, the woman he had meant to marry, to a life compared with which the city gutters are cleanly.
Van Dam in slippers and silken robe was smoking his meerschaum after a late breakfast and reading a French novel.
"What is the matter?" he said, noting Gus's expression of ennui and discontent.
"There is not another girl left in the city to be mentioned the same day with Edith Allen," said Gus, with the pettishness of a child from whom something had been taken.
"Well, spooney, what are you going to do about it?" asked Mr. Van Dam coolly.
"What is there to do about it? You know well enough that I can't afford to marry her. I suppose it's the best thing for me that she has gone off to the backwoods somewhere, for while she was here I could not help seeing her, and after all it was only an aggravation."
"I can't afford to marry Zell," replied Van Dam, "but I am going up to see her to-morrow. After being out there by themselves for a month, I think they will be glad to see some one from the civilized world." The most honest thing about Van Dam was his sincere commiseration for those compelled to live in quiet country places, without experience in the highly spiced pleasures and excitements of the metropolis. In his mind they were associated with oxen--innocent, rural, and heavy, these terms being almost synonymous to him, and suggestive of such a forlorn tame condition that it seemed only vegetating, not living. Mr. Van Dam believed in a life, like his favorite dishes, that abounded in cayenne. Zell's letters had confirmed this opinion, and he saw that she was half desperate with ennui and disgust at their loneliness.
"I imagine we have stayed away long enough," he continued. "They have had sufficient of the miseries of mud, rain, and exile, not to be very nice about the conditions of return to old haunts and life. Of course I can't afford to marry Zell any more than you can Edith, but for all that I expect to have her here with me before many months pass, and perhaps weeks."
"Look here, Van Dam, you are going too far. Remember how high the Allens once stood in society," said Gus, a little startled.
"'Once stood;' where do they stand now? Who in society has lifted, or will lift a finger for them, and they seem to have no near relatives to stand by them. I tell you they are at our mercy. Luxury is a necessity, and yet they are not able to earn their bare bread.
"Let me inform you," he continued, speaking with the confidence of a hunter, who from long experience knows just where the game is most easily captured, "that there is no class more helpless than the very rich when reduced to sudden poverty. They are usually too proud to work, in the first place, and in the second, they don't know how to do anything. What does a fashionable education fit a girl for, I would like to know, if, as often occurs, she has to make her own way in the world?--a smattering of everything, mistress of nothing."
"Well, Van Dam," said Gus, "according to your showing, it fits them for little schemes like the one you are broaching."
"Precisely. Girls who know how to work and who are accustomed to it, will snap their fingers in your face, and tell you they can take care of themselves, but the class to which the Allens belong, unless kept up by some rich relations, are soon almost desperate from want. I have kept up a correspondence with Zell. They seem to have no near relatives or friends who are doing much for them. They are doing nothing for themselves, save spend what little there is left, and their monotonous country life has half-murdered them already. So I conclude I have waited long enough and will go up to-morrow. Instead of pouting like a spoiled child over your lost Edith, you had better go up and get her. It may take a little time and management. Of course they must be made to think we intend to marry them, but if they once elope with us, we can find a priest at our leisure."
"I will go up to-morrow with you any way," said Gus, who, like so many others, never made a square bargain with the devil, but was easily "led captive" from one wrong and villany to another.
It was the last day of April--one on which the rawness and harshness of early spring were melting into the mildness of May. The buds on the trees had perceptibly swollen. The flowering maple was still aflame, the sweet centre of attraction to innumerable bees, the hum of whose industry rose and fell on the languid breeze. The grass had the delicate green and exquisite odor belonging to its first growth, and was rapidly turning the brown, withered sward of winter into emerald. The sun shone through a slight haze, but shone warmly. The birds had opened the day with full orchestra, but at noon there was little more than chirp and twitter, they seeming to feel something of Edith's languor, as she leaned on the railing of the porch, and watched for the coming of Malcom. She sighed as she looked at the bare brown earth of the large space that she purposed for strawberries, and work there and everywhere seemed repulsive. The sudden heat was enervating and gave her the feeling of luxurious languor that she longed to enjoy with a sense of security and freedom from care. But even as her eyelids drooped with momentary drowsiness, there was a consciousness, like a dull, half-recognized pain, of insecurity, of impending trouble and danger, and of a need for exertion that would lead to something more certain than anything her mother's policy promised.
She was startled from her heaviness by the sharp click of the gate latch, and Malcom entered with two large baskets of strawberry-plants. He had said to her:
"Wait a bit. The plants will do weel, put oot the last o' the moonth. An ye wait I'll gie ye the plants I ha' left cover and canna sell the season. But dinna be troobled, I'll keep it enoof for ye ony way."
By this means Edith obtained half her plants without cost, save for Malcom's labor of transplanting them.
The weather had little influence on Malcom's wiry frame, and his spirit of energetic, cheerful industry was contagious. Once aroused and interested, Edith lost all sense of time, and the afternoon passed happily away.
At her request Malcom had brought her a pair of pruning nippers, such as she had seen him use, and she kept up a delicate show of work, trimming the rose-bushes and shrubs, while she watched him. She could not bring her mind to anything that looked like real work as yet, but she had a feeling that it must come. She saw that it would help Malcom very much if she went before and dropped the plants for him, but some one might see her, and speak of her doing useful work. The aristocratically inclined in Pushton would frown on the young lady so employed, but she could snip at roses and twine vines, and that would look pretty and rural from the road.
But it so happened that the one who caught a glimpse of her spring-day beauty, and saw the pretty rural scene she crowned, was not the critical occupant of some family carriage; for when, while near the road, she was reaching up to clip off the topmost spray of a bush, her attention was drawn by the rattle of a wagon, and in this picturesque attitude her eyes met those of Arden Lacey. The sudden remembrance of the unkind return made to him, and the fact that she had therefore dreaded meeting him, caused her to blush deeply. Her feminine quickness caught his expression, a timid questioning look, that seemed to ask if she would act the part of the others. Edith was a society and city girl, and her confusion lasted but a second. Policy whispered, "You can still keep him as a useful friend, though you must keep him at a distance, and you may need him." Some sense of gratitude and of the wrong done him and his also mingled with these thoughts, passing with the marvellous rapidity with which a lady's mind acts in social emergencies. She also remembered that they were alone, and that none of the Pushton notables could see that she was acquainted with the "drunken Laceys." Therefore before the diffident Arden could turn away, she bowed and smiled to him in a genial, conciliatory manner. His face brightened into instant sunshine, and to her surprise he lifted his old weather-stained felt hat like a gentleman. Though he had received no lessons in etiquette, he was inclined to be a little courtly and stately in manner, when he noticed a lady at all, from unconscious imitation of the high-bred characters in the romances he read. He said to himself in glad exultation:
"She is different from the rest. She is as divinely good as she is divinely beautiful," and away he rattled toward Pushton as happy as if his old box wagon were a golden chariot, and he a caliph of Arabian story on whom had just shone the lustrous eyes of the Queen of the East. Then as the tumult in his mind subsided, questioning thoughts as to the cause of her blush came trooping through his mind, and at once there arose a long vista of airy castles tipped with hope as with sunlight Poor Arden! What a wild, uncurbed imagination had mastered his morbid nature, as he lived a hermit's life among the practical people of Pushton! If he had known that Edith, had she seen him in the village, would have crossed the street rather than have met or recognized him, it would have plunged him into still bitterer misanthropy. She and his mother only stood between him and utter contempt and hatred of his kind, as they existed in reality, and not in his books and dreams.
She forgot all about him before his wagon turned the corner of the road, and chatted away to Malcom, questioning and nipping with increasing zest. As the day grew cooler, her spirits rose under the best of all stimulants, agreeable occupation. The birds ceased at last their nest-building, and from orchard and grove came many an inspiring song. Edith listened with keen enjoyment, and country life and work looked no longer as they had done in the sultry noon. She saw with deep satisfaction the long rows of strawberry-vines increasing under Malcom's labors. In the still humid air the plants scarcely wilted and stood up with the bright look of those well started in life.
As evening approached, and no carriage of note had passed, Edith ventured to get her transplanting trowel, doff her gloves, and commence dividing her flower roots, that she might put them elsewhere. She became so interested in her work that she was positively happy, and soft-hearted Malcom, with his eye for the beauties of nature, was getting his rows crooked, because of so many admiring glances toward her as she went to and fro.
The sun was low in the west and shone in crimson through the soft haze. But the color in her cheeks was richer as she rose from the ground, her little right hand lost in the scraggly earth-covered roots of some hardy phlox, and turned to meet exquisite Gus Elliot, dressed with finished care, his hands incased in immaculate gloves. Her broad- rimmed hat was pushed back, her dress looped up, and she made a picture in the evening glow that would have driven a true artist half wild with admiration; but poor Gus was quite shocked. The idea of Edith Allen, the girl he had meant to marry, grubbing in the dirt and soiling her hands in that style! It was his impression that only Dutch women worked in a garden; and for all he knew of its products she might be setting out a potato plant. Quick Edith caught his expression, and while she crimsoned with vexation at her plight, felt a new and sudden sense of contempt for the semblance of a man before her.
But with the readiness of a society girl she smoothed her way out of the dilemma, saying with vivacity:
"Why, Mr. Elliot, where did you drop from? You have surprised me among my flowers, you see."
"Indeed, Miss Edith," said Gus, in rather unhappily phrased gallantry, "to see you thus employed makes me feel as if we both had dropped into some new and strange sphere. You seem the lovely shepherdess of this rural scene, but where is your flock?"
Shrewd Malcom, near by, watched this scene as the terrier he resembled might have done, and took instant and instinctive dislike to the new- comer. With a contemptuous sniff he thought to himself, "There's mateerial enoof in ye for so mooch toward a flock as a calf and a donkey."
"A truce to your lame compliments," she said, concealing her vexation under badinage. "I do not live by hook and crook yet, whatever I may come to, and I remember that you only appreciate artificial flowers made by pretty shop girls, and these are not in the country. But come in. Mother and my sisters will be glad to see you."
Gus was not blind to her beauty, and while the idea of marriage seemed more impossible than ever, now that he had seen her hands soiled, the evil suggestion of Van Dam gained attractiveness with every glance.
Edith found Mr. Van Dam on the porch with Zell, who had welcomed him in a manner that meant much to the wily man. He saw how necessary he was to her, and how she had been living on the hope of seeing him, and the baseness of his nature was such that instead of being stirred to one noble kindly impulse toward her, he simply exulted in his power.
"Oh," said she, as with both hands she greeted him, her eyes half filling with tears, "we have been living like poor exiles in a distant land, and you seem as if just from home, bringing the best part of it with you."
"And I shall carry you back to it ere long," he whispered.
Her face grew bright and rosy with the deepest happiness she had ever know. He had never spoken so plainly before. "Edith can never taunt me again with his silence," she thought. Though sounding well enough to the ear, how false were his words! Zell was giving the best love of which her heart was capable in view of her defective education and character. In a sincere and deep affection there are great possibilities of good. Her passion, so frank and strong, in the hands of a true man, was a lever that might have lifted her to the noblest life. Van Dam sought to use it only to force her down. He purposed to cause one of God's little ones to offend.
Edith soon appeared, dressed with the taste and style of a Fifth Avenue belle of the more sensible sort, and Gus was comforted. Her picturesque natural beauty in the garden was quite lost on him, but now that he saw the familiar touches of the artificial in her general aspect, she seemed to him the peerless Edith of old. And yet his nice eye noted that even a month of absence from the fashionable centre had left her ignorant of some of the shadings off of one mode into another, and the thought passed over the polished surface of his mind (all Gus's thoughts were on the surface, there being no other accommodation for them), "Why, a year in this out-of-the-world life, and she would be only a country girl."
But all detracting thoughts of each other, all mean, vile, and deadly purposes, were hidden under smiling exteriors. Mrs. Allen was the gracious, elegant matron who would not for the world let her daughters soil their hands, but schemed to marry one to a weak apology for a man, and another to a villain out and out, and the fashionable world would cordially approve and sustain Mrs. Allen's tactics if she succeeded.
Laura brightened up more than she had done since her father's death. Anything that gave hope of return to the city, and the possibility of again meeting and withering Mr. Goulden with her scorn, was welcome.
And Edith, while she half despised Gus, found it very pleasant to meet those of her old set again, and repeat a bit of the past. The young crave companionship, and in spite of all his weakness she half liked Elliot. With youth's hopefulness she believed that he might become a man if he only would. At any rate, she half-consciously formed the reckless purpose to shut her eyes to all presentiments of coming trouble and enjoy the evening to the utmost.
Hannibal was enjoined to get up as fine a supper as possible, regardless of cost, with Mrs. Allen's maid to assist.
In the long purple twilight, Edith and Zell, on the arms of their pseudo lovers, strolled up and down the paths of the little garden and dooryard. As Edith and Gus were passing along the walk that skirted the road, she heard the heavy ramble of a wagon that she knew to be Arden Lacey's. She did not look up or recognize him, but appeared so intent on what Gus was saying as to be oblivious of all else, and yet through her long lashes she glanced toward him in a rapid flash, as he sat in his rough working garb on the old board where she, on the rainy night of her advent to Pushton, had clung to his arm in the jolting wagon. Momentary as the glance was, the pained, startled expression of his face as he bent his eyes full upon her caught her attention and remained with her.
His manner and appearance secured the attention of Gus also, and with a contemptuous laugh he said loud enough for Arden to hear partially:
"That native comes from pretty far back, I imagine. He looks as if he never saw a lady and gentleman before. The idea of living like such a cabbage-head as that!"
If Gus had not been with Edith, his good clothes and good looks would have been spoiled within the next five minutes.
Edith glanced the other way and pointed to her strawberry-bed as if not noticing his remark or its object, saying:
"If you will come and see us a year from next June, I can give you a dainty treat from these plants."
"You will not be here next June," said Gus tenderly. "Do you imagine we can spare you from New York? The city has seemed dull since robbed of the light of your bright eyes."
Edith rather liked sugar-plums of such make, even from Gus, and she, as it were, held out her hand again by the rather sentimental remark:
"Absent ones are soon forgotten."
Gus, from much experience, knew how to flirt beautifully, and so with some aptness and show of feeling, replied:
"From my thoughts you are never absent."
Edith gave him a quick questioning look. What did he mean? He had avoided everything tending to commit him to a penniless girl after her father's death. Was this mere flirtation? Or had he, in absence, learned his need of her for happiness? and was he now willing to marry her even though poor?
"If he is man enough to do this, he is capable of doing more," she thought quickly, and circumstances pleaded for him. She felt so troubled about the future, so helpless and lonely, and he seemed so inseparably associated with her old bright life, that she was tempted to lean on such a swaying reed as she knew Gus to be. She did not reply, but he could see the color deepen in her cheeks even in the fading twilight, her bosom rose and fell more quickly, and her hand rested upon his arm with a more confiding pressure. What more could he ask? and he exulted.
But before he could speak again they were summoned to supper. Van Dam touched Gus's elbow as they passed in and whispered:
"Don't be precipitate. Say nothing definite to-night. I gather from Zell that a little more of their country purgatory will render them wholly desperate."
Edith noticed the momentary detention and whispering, and the thought that there was some understanding between the two occurred to her. For some undefined reason she was always inclined to be suspicious and on the alert when Mr. Van Dam was present. And yet it was but a passing thought, soon forgotten in the enjoyment of the evening, after so long and dull an experience. Zell was radiant, and there was a glimmer of color in Laura's pale cheeks.
After supper they sat down to cards. The decanter was placed on the side table, and heavy inroads were made on Mrs. Allen's limited stock of wine, for the gentlemen, feeling that they were off on a lark, were little inclined to self-control. They also insisted on the ladies drinking health with them, which foolish Zell, and more foolish Mrs. Allen were too ready to do, and for the first time since their coming the little cottage resounded with laughter that was too loud and frequent to be inspired by happiness only.
If guardian angels watched there, as we believe they do everywhere, they may well have veiled their faces in sadness and shame.
But the face of poor innocent Hannibal shone with delight, and nodding his head toward Mr. Allen's maid with the complacency of a prophet who saw his predictions fulfilled, he said:
"I told you my young ladies wasn't gwine to stay long in Bushtown" (as Hannibal persisted in calling the place).
To Arden Lacey, the sight of Edith listening with glowing cheeks and intent manner to a stranger with her hand within his arm--a stranger too that seemed the embodiment of that conventionality of the world which he despised and hated, was a vision that pierced like a sword. And then Gus's contemptuous words and Edith's non-recognition, though he tried to believe she had not seen him, were like vitriol to a wound. At first there was a mad impulse of anger toward Elliot, and, as we have intimated, only Edith's presence prevented Arden from demanding instant apology. He knew enough of his fiery nature to feel that he must get away as fast as possible, or he might forever disgrace himself in Edith's eyes.
As he rode home his mind was in a sad chaos. He was conscious that his airy castles were falling about him with a crash, which, though unheard by all the world, shook his soul to the centre.
Too utterly miserable to face his mother, loathing the thought of food, he put up his horses and rushed out into the night.
In his first impulse he vowed never to look toward Edith again, but, before two hours of fruitless wandering had passed, a fascination drew him toward Edith's cottage, only to hear that detested voice again, only to hear even Edith's laugh ring out too loud and reckless to come from the lips of the exquisite ideal of his dreams. Though the others had spoken in thunder tones, he would have had ears for these two voices only. He rushed away from the spot, as one might from some torturing vision, exclaiming:
"The real world is a worse mockery than the one of my dreams. Would to heaven I had never been born!"