What Can She Do by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XIV. We Can't Work
The gentlemen agreed to meet the ladies the next day at church. Mrs. Allen insisted upon it, as she wished to show the natives of Pushton that they were visited by people of style from the city. As yet they had not received many calls, and those venturing had come in a reconnoitring kind of way. She knew so little of solid country people as to suppose that two young men, like Gus Elliot and Van Dam, would make a favorable impression. The latter, with a shrug and grimace at Zell, which she, poor child, thought funny, promised to do so, and then they took leave with great cordiality.
So they were ready to hand the Allens out of their carriage the next morning, and were, with the ladies, who were dressed even more elaborately than on the previous Sabbath, shown to a prominent pew, the centre of many admiring eyes, as they supposed. But where one admired, ten criticised. The summer hotel at Pushton had brought New York too near and made it too familiar for Mrs. Allen's tactics. Visits to town were easily made and frequent, and by brief diversions of their attention from the service, the good church people soon satisfied themselves that the young men belonged to the bold fast type, an impression strengthened by the parties themselves, who had devotion only for Zell and Edith, and a bold stare for any pretty girl that caught their eyes.
After church they parted with the understanding that the gentlemen should come out toward night and spend the evening.
Mr. Van Dam and Gus Elliot dined at the village hotel, having ordered the best dinner that the landlord was capable of serving, and a couple of bottles of wine. Over this they became so exhilarated as to attract a good deal of attention. A village tavern is always haunted by idle clerks, and a motley crowd of gossips, on the Sabbath, and to these the irruption of two young bloods from the city was a slight break in the monotony of their slow shuffling jog toward perdition; and when the fine gentlemen began to get drunk and noisy it was really quite interesting. A group gathered round the bar, and through the open door could see into the dining-room. Soon with unsteady step, Van Dam and Elliot joined them, the latter brandishing an empty bottle, and calling in a thick loud voice:
"Here landlord (hic) open a bottle (hic) of wine, for these poor (hic) suckers, (hic) I don't suppose (hic) they ever tasted (hic) anything better than corn-whiskey, (hic) But I'll moisten (hic) their gullets to-day (hic) with a gentleman's drink."
The crowd was mean enough, as the loafers about a tavern usually are, to give a faint cheer at the prospect of a treat, even though accompanied by words equivalent to a kick. But one big raw-boned fellow, who looked equal to any amount of corn-whiskey or anything else, could not swallow Gus's insolence, and stepped up saying:
"Look here, Cap'n, I'm ready enough to drink with a chap when he asks me like a gentleman, but I feel more like puttin' a head on you than drinkin' with yer."
Gus had the false courage of wine and prided himself on his boxing. In the headlong fury of drunkenness he flung the bottle at the man's head, just grazing it, and sprang toward him, but stumbled and fell. The man, with a certain rude sense of chivalry, waited for him to get up, but the mean loafers who had cheered were about to manifest their change of sentiment toward Gus by kicking him in his prostrate condition. Van Dam, who also had drunk too much to be his cool careful self, now drew a pistol, and with a savage volley of oaths swore he would shoot the first man who touched his friend. Then, helping Gus up, he carried him off to a private room, and with the skill of an old experienced hand set about righting himself and Elliot, so that they might be in a presentable condition for their visit at the Allens'.
"Curse it all, Gus, why can you not keep within bounds? If this gets to the girls' ears it may spoil everything."
By five o'clock Gus had so far recovered as to venture to drive to the Allens', and the fresh air restored him rapidly. Before leaving, the landlord said to Van Dam:
"You had better stay out there all night. From what I hear the boys are going to lay for you when you come home to-night. I don't want any rows connected with my house. I'd rather you wouldn't come back."
Van Dam muttered an oath, and told the driver to go on.
As a matter of course they were received very cordially. Gus was quite himself again. He only seemed a little more inclined than usual to be sentimental and in high spirits.
They walked again in the twilight through the garden and under the budding trees of the orchard. Gus assumed a caressing tone and manner, which Edith half received and half resented. She felt that she did not know her own mind and did not understand him altogether, and so she took a diplomatic middle course that would leave her free to go forward or retreat. Zell, under the influence of Mr. Van Dam's flattering manner, walked in a beautiful but lurid dream. At last they all gathered in the parlor and chatted and laughed over old times.
On this Sabbath evening one of the officers of the church, seeing that the Allens had twice worshipped with them, felt that perhaps he ought to call and give them some encouragement. As he came up the path he was surprised at the confused sound of voices. With his hand on the door-bell he paused, and through an opening between the curtains saw the young men of whose bar-room performance he had happened to hear. Not caring to meet any of their sort he went silently away, shaking his head with ill-omened significance. Of course one good man told his wife what sort of company their new neighbors kept, and whom didn't she tell?
The evening grew late, but no carriage came from the village.
"It's very strange," said Van Dam.
"If it doesn't come you must stay all night," said Mrs. Allen graciously. "We can make you quite comfortable even if we have a little house."
Mr. Van Dam, and Gus also, were profuse in their thanks. Edith bit her lip with vexation. She felt that she and Zell were being placed in a false position since the gentlemen who to the world would seem so intimate with the family in reality held no relation to them. But no scruples of prudence occurred to thoughtless Zell. With an arch look toward her lover she said:
"I think it threatens rain, so of course you cannot go."
"Let us go out and see," he said.
In the darkness of the porch he put his arm around the unresisting girl and drew her to him, but he did not say like a true man:
"Zell, be my wife."
But poor Zell thought that was what all his attention and show of affection meant.
Edith and Gus joined them, and the latter thought also to put his regard in the form of caressing action, rather than in honest outspoken words, but she turned and said a little sharply:
"You have no right."
"Give me the right then," he whispered.
"Whether I shall ever do that I cannot say. It depends somewhat on yourself. But I cannot now and here."
The warning hand of Van Dam was reached through the darkness and touched Gus's arm.
The next morning they walked back to the village, were driven two or three miles to the nearest railway station, and took the train to the city, having promised to come again soon.
The week following their departure was an eventful one to the inmates of the little cottage, and all unknown the most unfavorable influences were at work against them. The Sunday hangers-on of a tavern have their points of contact with the better classes, and gossip is a commodity always in demand, whatever brings it to market. Therefore the scenes in the dining and bar rooms, in which Mrs. Allen's "friends" had played so prominent a part, were soon portrayed in hovel and mansion alike, with such exaggerations and distortions as a story inevitably suffers as passed along. The part acted by the young men was certainly bad enough, but rumor made it much worse. Then this stream of gossip was met by another coming from the wife of the good man who had called with the best intentions on Sunday evening, but, pained at the nature of the Allen's associations, had gone lamenting to his wife, and she had gone lamenting to the majority of the elder ladies of the church. These two streams uniting, quite a tidal wave of "I want to knows," and "painful surprises," swept over Pushton, and the Allens suffered wofully through their friends. They had already received some reconnoitering calls, and a few from people who wanted to be neighborly. But the truth was the people of Pushton had been somewhat perplexed. They did not know where to place the Allens. The fact that Mr. Allen had been a rich merchant, and lived on Fifth Avenue, counted for something. But then even the natives of Pushton knew that all kinds of people lived on Fifth Avenue, as elsewhere, and that some of the most disreputable were the richest. A clearer testimonial than that was therefore needed. Then again there was another puzzle. The fact that Mr. Allen had failed, and that they lived in a little house, indicated poverty. But their style of dressing and ordering from the store also suggested not a little property left. The humbler portion of the community doubted whether they were the style of people for them to call on, and the rumor of Rose Lacey's treatment, getting abroad in spite of Arden's injunction to the contrary, confirmed these doubts, and alienated this class. The more wealthy and fashionably inclined doubted the grounds for their calling, having by no means made up their minds whether they could take the Allens into their exclusive circle. So thus far Mrs. Allen and her daughters had given audience to a sort of middle class of skirmishers and scouts representing no one in particular save themselves, who from a penchant in that direction went out and obtained information, so that the more solid ranks behind could know what to do. In addition, as we have intimated, there were a few good kindly people who said:
"These strangers have come to live among us, and we must give them a neighborly welcome."
But there was something in their homely honest heartiness that did not suit Mrs. Allen's artificial taste, and she rather snubbed them.
"Heaven deliver us soon from Pushton," she said, "if the best people have no more air of quality than these outlandish tribes. They all look and act as if they had come out of the ark."
If the Allens had frankly and patiently accepted their poverty and misfortunes, and by close economy and some form of labor had sought to maintain an honest independence, they could soon, through this latter class, have become en rapport with, not the wealthy and fashionable, but the finest people of the community; people having the refinement, intelligence, and heart to make the best friends we can possess. It might take some little time. It ought to. Social recognition and esteem should be earned. Unless strangers bring clear letters of credit, or established reputation, they must expect to be put on probation. But if they adopt a course of simple sincerity and dignity, and especially one of great prudence, they are sure to find the right sort of friends, and win the social position to which they are justly entitled. But let the finger of scandal and doubt be pointed toward them, and all having sons and daughters will stand aloof on the ground of self-protection, if nothing else. The taint of scandal, like the taint of leprosy, causes a general shrinking away.
The finger of doubt and scandal in Pushton was now most decidedly pointed toward the Allens. It was reported around:
"Their father was a Wall Street gambler who lost all in a big speculation and died suddenly or committed suicide. They belonged to the ultra-fast fashionable set in New York, and the events of the past Sabbath show that they are not the persons for self-respecting people to associate with."
Some of the rather dissipated clerks and semi-loafers of the village were inclined to make the acquaintance of such stylish handsome girls, but the Allens received the least advance from them with ineffable scorn.
Thus within the short space of a month Mrs. Allen had, by her policy, contrived to isolate her family as completely as if they had had a pestilence.
Even Mrs. Lacey and Rose were inclined to pass from indignation to contempt; for Mr. Lacey was present at the scene in the bar-room, and reported that the "two young bucks were friends of their new neighbors, the Allens, and had stayed there all Sunday night because they darsn't go back to town."
"Well," said Rose, "with all their airs, I haven't got to keeping company with that style of men yet."
"Cease to call yourself my sister if you ever do knowingly," said Arden sternly. "I don't believe Edith Allen knows the character of these men. They would not report themselves, and who is to do it?"
"Perhaps you had better," said Rose maliciously.
Arden's only answer was a dark frowning look. A severe conflict was progressing in his mind. One impulse was to regard Edith as unworthy of another thought. But his heart pleaded for her, and the thought that she was different from the rest, and capable of developing a character as beautiful as her person, grew stronger as he dwelt upon it.
"Like myself, she is related to others that drag her down," he thought, "and she seems to have no friend or brother to protect or warn her. Even if this over-dressed young fool is her lover, if she could have seen him prostrate on the bar-room floor, she would never look at him again. If she would I would never look at her."
His romantic nature became impressed with the idea that he might become in some sense her unknown knight and protector, and keep her from marrying a man that would sink to what his father was. Therefore he passed the house as often as he could in hope that there might be some opportunity of seeing her.
To poor Edith troubles thickened fast, for, as we have seen, the brunt of everything came on her. Early on the forenoon of Monday the carpenter appeared, asking with a hard, determined tone for his money, adding with satire:
"I suppose it's all right of course. People who want everything done at once must expect to pay promptly."
"Your bill is much too large--much larger than you gave us any reason to suppose it would be," said Edith.
"I've only charged you regular rates, miss, and you put me to no little inconvenience besides."
"That's not the point. It's double the amount you gave us to understand it would be, and if you should deduct the damage caused by your delay it would greatly reduce it. I do not feel willing that this bill should be paid as it stands."
"Very well then," said the man, coolly rising. "You threatened me with a lawyer; I'll let my lawyer settle with you."
"Edith," said Mrs. Allen majestically, "bring my checkbook."
"Don't pay it, mother. He can't make us pay such a bill in view of the fact that he left our roof open in the rain."
"Do as I bid you," said Mrs. Allen impressively.
"There," she said to the chuckling builder, in lofty scorn, throwing toward him a check as if it were dirt. "Now leave the presence of ladies whom you don't seem to know much about."
The man reddened and went out muttering that "he had seen quite as good ladies before."
Two days later a letter from Mrs. Allen's bank brought dismay by stating that she had overdrawn her account.
The next day there came a letter from their lawyer saying that a messenger from the bank had called upon him--that he was sorry they had spent all their money--that he could not sell the stock he held at any price now--and they had better sell their house in the country and board.
This Mrs. Allen was inclined to do, but Edith said almost fiercely:
"I won't sell it. I am bound to have some place of refuge in this hard, pitiless world. I hold the deed of this property, and we certainly can get something to eat off of it, and if we must starve, no one at least can disturb us."
"What can we do?" said Mrs. Allen, crying and wringing her hands.
"We ought to have saved our money and gone to work at something," answered Edith sternly.
"I am not able to work," whined Laura.
"I don't know how to work, and I won't starve either," cried Zell passionately. "I shall write to Mr. Van Dam this very day and tell him all about it."
"I would rather work my fingers off," retorted Edith scornfully, "than have a man come and marry me out of charity, finding me as helpless as if I were picked up off the street, and on the street we should soon be, without shelter or friends, if we sold this place."
And so the blow fell upon them, and such was the spirit with which they bore it.