Chapter XV. The Temptation
 

The same mail brought them a long bill from Mr. Hard, accompanied with a very polite but decisive note saying that it was his custom to have a monthly settlement with his customers.

The rest of the family looked with new dismay and helplessness at this, and Edith added bitterly:

"There are half a dozen other bills also."

"What can we do?" again Mrs. Allen cried piteously. "If you girls had only accepted some of your splendid offers--"

"Hush, mother," said Edith imperiously. "I have heard that refrain too often already," and the resolute practical girl went to her room and shut herself up to think.

Two hours later she came down to lunch with the determined air of one who had come to a conclusion.

"These bills must be met, in part at least," she said, "and the sooner the better. After that we must buy no more than we can pay for, if it's only a crust of bread. I shall take the first train to-morrow and dispose of some of my jewelry. Who of you will contribute some also? We all have more than we shall ever need."

"Pawn our jewelry!" they all shrieked.

"No, sell it," said Edith firmly.

"You hateful creature!" sobbed Zell. "If Mr. Van Dam heard it he would never come near me again."

"If he's that kind of a man, he had better not," was the sharp retort.

"I'll never forgive you if you do it. You shall not spoil all my chances and your own too. He as good as offered himself to me, and I insist on your giving me a chance to write to him before you take one of your mad steps."

They all clamored against her purpose so strongly that Edith was borne down and reluctantly gave way. Zell wrote immediately a touching, pathetic letter that would have moved a man of one knightly instinct to come to her rescue. Van Dam read it with a look of fiendish exultation, and calling on Gus said:

"We will go up to-morrow. The right time has come. They won't be nice as to terms any longer."

It was an unfortunate thing for Edith that she had yielded at this time to the policy of waiting one hour longer. In the two days that intervened before the young men appeared there was time for that kind of thought that tempts and weakens. She was in that most dangerous attitude of irresolution. The toilsome path of independent labor looked very hard and thorny--more than that, it looked lonely. This latter aspect causes multitudes to shrink, where the work would not. She knew enough of society to feel sure that her mother was right, and that the moment she entered on bread-winning by any form of honest labor, her old fashionable world was lost to her forever. And she knew of no other world, she had no other friends save those of the gilded past. She did not, with her healthful frame and energetic spirit, shrink so much from labor as from association with the laboring classes. She had been educated to think of them only as coarse and common, and to make no distinctions.

"Even if a few are good and intelligent as these Laceys seem, they can't understand my feelings and past life, so there will be no congeniality, and I shall have to work practically alone. Perhaps in time I shall become coarse and common like the rest," she said with a half-shudder at the thought of old-fashioned garb, slipshod dressing, and long monotonous hours at one employment. All these were inseparable in her mind from poverty and labor.

Then after a long silence, during which she had sat with her chin resting on her hands, she continued:

"I believe I could stand it if I could earn a support out of the garden with such a man as Malcom to help me. There are variety and beauty there, and scope for constant improvement. But I fear a woman can't make a livelihood by such out-of-door, man-like work. Good heavens! what would my Fifth Avenue friends say if it should get to their ears that Edith Allen was raising cabbages for market?"

Then in contrast, as the alternative to labor, Gus Elliot continually presented himself.

"If he were only more of a man!" she thought. "But if he loves me so well as to marry me in view of my poverty, he must have some true manhood about him. I suppose I could learn to love him after a fashion, and I certainly like him as well as any one I know. Perhaps if I were with him to cheer, incite, and scold, he might become a fair business man after all."

And so Edith in her helplessness and fear of work was tempted to enter on that forlorn experiment which so many energetic women of decided character have made--that of marrying a man who can't stand alone, or do anything but dawdle, in the hope that they may be able to infuse in him some of their own moral and intellectual backbone.

But Gus Elliot was not man enough, had not sense enough, to give her this poor chance of matrimonial escape from labor that seemed to her like a giant taskmaster, waiting with grimy, horny hand to claim her as another of his innumerable slaves. Though a life of lonely, ill- paid toil would have been better for Edith than marriage to Gus, he was missing the one golden opportunity of his life, when he thought of Edith Allen in other character than his wife. God uses instruments, and she alone could give him a chance of being a man among men. In his meditated baseness toward her, he aimed a fatal blow at his own life.

And this is ever true of sins against the human brotherhood. The recoil of a blow struck at another's interests has often the retributive wrath of heaven in it, and the selfish soul that would destroy a fellow-creature for its own pleasure is itself destroyed.

False pride, false education, helpless, unskilled hands, an untaught, unbraced moral nature, made strong, resolute, beautiful Edith Allen so weak, so untrue to herself, that she was ready to throw herself away on so thin a shadow of a man as Gus Elliot. She might have known, indeed she half feared, that wretchedness would follow such a union. It is torment to a large strong-souled woman to despise utterly the man to whom she is chained. She revolts at his weakness and irresolution, and the probabilities are that she will sink into that worst phase of feminine drudgery, the supporting of a husband, who, though able, will not work, and that she will become that social monster of whom it is said with a significant laugh:

"She is the man of the house."

The only thing that reconciled her to the thought of marrying Gus was the hope that she could inspire him to better things; and he seemed the only refuge from the pressing troubles that environed her, and from a lonely life of labor; for the thought that she could bring herself to marry among the laboring classes had never occurred to her.

So she came to the miserable conclusion on the afternoon of the second day:

"I'll take him if he will me, knowing how I am situated."

If Gus could have been true and manly one evening, he might have secured a prop that would have kept him up, though it would have been at sad cost to Edith.

On the afternoon of Friday, Zell returned from the village with radiant face, and, waving a letter before Edith who sat moping in her room, exclaimed with a thrill of ecstasy in her tone:

"They are coming. Help make me irresistible."

Edith felt the influence of Zell's excitement, and the mysteries of the toilet began. Nature had done much for these girls, and they knew how to enhance every charm by art. Edith good-naturedly helped her sister, weaving pure shimmering pearls in the heavy braids of her hair, whose raven hue made the fair face seem more fair. The toilet- table of a queen had not the secrets of Zell's beauty, for the most skilful art must deal with the surface, while Zell's loveliness glowed from within. Her rich young blood mantled her cheek with a color that came and went with her passing thoughts, and was as unlike the flaming, unchanging red of a painted face as sunlight that flickers through a breezy grove is to a gas-jet. Her eyes shone with the deep excitement of a passionate love, and the feeling that the crisis of her life was near. Even Edith gazed with wondering admiration at her beauty, as she gave the finishing touches to her toilet, before she commenced her own.

Discarded Laura had a sorry part in the poor little play. She was to be ill and unable to appear, and so resigned herself to a novel and solitude. Mrs. Allen was to discreetly have a headache and retire early, and thus all embarrassing third parties should be kept out of the way.

The late afternoon of Friday (unlucky day for once) brought the gentlemen, dressed as exquisitely as ever, but the vision on the rustic little porch almost dazzled even their experienced eyes. They had seen these girls more richly dressed before and more radiant. There was, however, a delicious pensiveness hanging over them now, like those delicate veils that enhance beauty and conceal nothing. And there was a deep undertone of excitement that gave them a magnetic power that they could not have in quieter moods.

Their appearance and manner of greeting caused secret exultation in the black hearts that they expected would be offered to them that night, but Edith looked so noble as well as beautiful that Gus rather trembled in view of his part in the proposed tragedy. As warm and gentle as had been her greeting, she did not appear like a girl that could be safely trifled with. However, Gus knew his one source of courage and kept up on brandy all day, and he proposed a heavier onslaught than ever on poor Mrs. Allen's wine. But Edith did not bring it out. She meant that all that was said that night should be spoken in sober earnest.

They sat down to cards for a while after tea, during which conversation was rather forced, consisting mainly of extravagant compliments from the gentlemen, and tender, meaning glances which the girls did not resent. Mrs. Allen languidly joined them for a while, and excused herself saying:

"My poor head has been too heavily taxed of late," though how, save as a small distillery of helpless tears, we do not remember.

The regret of the young men at being deprived of her society was quite affecting in view of the fact that they had often wished her dead and out of the way.

"Why should we shut ourselves up within walls this lovely spring evening, this delicious earnest of the coming summer?" said Mr. Van Dam to Zell. "Come, put on your shawl and show me your garden by moonlight."

Zell exultingly complied, believing that now she would show him, not their poor little garden, but the paradise of requited love. A moment later her graceful form, bending like a willow toward him, vanished in the dusky light of the rising moon, down the garden path which led to the little arbor.

Gus, having the parlor to himself, went over to the sofa, seated himself by the side of Edith and sought to pass his arm around her waist. "You have no right," again said Edith with dignity, shrinking away.

"But will you not give the right? Behold me a suppliant at your feet," said Gus tenderly, but comfortably keeping his seat.

"Mr. Elliot," said Edith earnestly, "do you realize that you are asking a poor girl to marry you?"

"Your own beautiful self is beyond all gold," said Gus gushingly.

"You did not think so a month ago," retorted Edith bitterly.

"I was a fool. My friends discouraged it, but I find I cannot live without you."

This sounded well to poor Edith, but she said half sadly:

"Perhaps your friends are right. You cannot afford to marry me."

"But I cannot give you up," said Gus with much show of feeling. "What would my life be without you? I admit to you that my friends are opposed to my marriage, but am I to blight my life for them? Am I, who have seen the best of New York for years, to give up the loveliest girl I have ever seen in it? I cannot and I will not," concluded Gus tragically.

"And are you willing to give up all for me?" said Edith feelingly, her glorious eyes becoming gentle and tender.

"Yes, if you will give up all for me," said Gus languishingly, taking her hand and drawing her toward him.

Edith did not resist now, but leaned her head on his shoulder with the blessed sense of rest and at least partial security. Her cruelly harassed heart and burdened, threatened life could welcome even such poor shelter as Gus Elliot offered. The spring evening was mild and breathless, and its hush and peace seemed to accord with her feelings. There was no ecstatic thrilling of her heart in the divine rapture of mutual and open recognition of love, for no such love existed on her part. It was only a languid feeling of contentment--moon-lighted with sentiment, not sun-lighted with joy--that she had found some one who would not leave her to labor and struggle alone.

"Gus," she said pathetically, "we are very poor; we have nothing. We are almost desperate from want. Think twice ere you engage yourself to a girl so situated. Are you able to thus burden yourself?"

Gus thought these words led the way to the carrying out of Van Dam's instructions, for he said eagerly:

"I know how you are situated. I learned all from Zell's letter to Van Dam, but our hearts only cling the closer to you, and you must let me take care of you at once. If you will only consent to a secret marriage I can manage it."

Edith slowly raised her head from his shoulder. Gus could not meet her eyes, but felt them fixed searchingly on his face. There was a distant mutter of thunder like a warning voice. He continued hurriedly:

"I think you will agree with me, when you think of it, that such a marriage would be best. It would be hard for me to break with my family at once. Indeed I could not afford to anger my father now. But I would soon get established in business myself, and I would work so hard if I knew that you were dependent on me!"

"Then you would wish me to remain here in obscurity your wife," said Edith in a low constrained tone that Gus did not quite like.

"Oh, no, not for the world," replied Gus hurriedly. "It is because I so long for your daily and hourly presence that I urge you to come to the city at once."

"What is your plan then?" asked Edith in the same low tone.

"Go with me to the city, on the boat that passes here in the evening. I will see that you are lodged where you will have every comfort, yes luxury. We can there be quietly married, and when the right time comes we can openly acknowledge it."

There was a tremble in Edith's voice when she again spoke, it might be from mere excitement or anger. At any rate Gus grew more and more uncomfortable. He had a vague feeling that Edith suspected his falseness, and that her seeming calmness might presage a storm, and he found it impossible to meet her full searching gaze, fearing that his face would betray him. He was bad enough for his project, but not quite brazen enough.

She detached herself from his encircling arm, went to a book-stand near and took from it a richly bound Bible. With this she came and stood before Gus, who was half trembling with fear and perplexity, and said in a tone so grave and solemn that his weak impressible nature was deeply moved:

"Mr. Elliot, perhaps I do not understand you. I have received several offers before, but never one like yours this evening. Indeed I need not remind you that you have spoken to me in a different vein. I know circumstances have greatly altered with me. That I am no longer the daughter of a millionaire, I am learning to my sorrow, but I am the same Edith Allen that you knew of old. I would not like to misjudge you, one of my oldest, most intimate friends of the happy past. And yet, as I have said, I do not quite understand your offer. Place your hand on this sacred book with me, and, as you hope for God's mercy, answer me this truly. Would you wish your own sister to accept such an offer, if she were situated like myself? Look me, an honest girl with all my faults and poverty, in the face, and tell me as a true brother."

Gus felt himself in an awful dilemma. Something in Edith's solemn tone and look convinced him that both he and Van Dam had misjudged her. His knees trembled so that he could scarcely rise. A fascination that he could not resist drew his face, stamped with guilt, toward her, and slowly he raised his fearful eyes and for a moment met Edith's searching, questioning gaze, then dropped them in confusion.

"Why do you not put your hand on the book and speak?" she asked in the low, concentrated voice of passion.

Again he looked hurriedly at her. A flash of lightning illumined her features, and he quailed before an expression such as he had never seen before on any woman's face.

"I--I--cannot," he faltered.

The Bible dropped from her hands, they clasped, and for a moment she seemed to writhe in agony, and in a low, shuddering tone she said:

"There are none to trust--not one."

Then, as if possessed by a sudden fury, she seized him roughly by the arm and said hoarsely:

"Speak, man! what then did you mean? What have all your tender speeches and caressing actions meant?"

Her face grew livid with rage and shame as the truth dawned upon her, while poor feeble Gus lost his poise utterly and stood like a detected criminal before her.

"You asked me to marry you," she hissed. "Must no one ask your immaculate sisters to do this, that you could not answer my simple question? Or, did you mean something else? How dare you exist longer in the semblance of a man? You have broken the sacred law of hospitality, and here, in my little home that has sheltered you, you purpose my destruction. You take mean advantage of my poverty and trouble, and like a cowardly hunter must seek out a wounded doe as your game. My grief and misfortune should have made a sanctuary about me, but the orphaned and unfortunate, God's trust to all true men, only invite your evil designs, because defenceless. Wretch, would you have made me this offer if my father had lived, or if I had a brother?"

"It's all Van Dam's work, curse him," groaned Gus, white as a ghost.

"Van Dam's work!" shrieked Edith, "and he's with Zell! So this is a conspiracy. You both are the flower of chivalry," and her mocking, half-hysterical laugh curdled Gus's blood, as her dress fluttered down the path that led to the arbor.

She appeared in the doorway like a sudden, supernatural vision, Zell's head rested on Mr. Van Dam's shoulder, and he was portraying in low, ardent tones the pleasures of city life, which would be hers as his wife.

"It is true," he had said, "our marriage must be secret for the present. You must learn to trust me. But the time will soon come when I can acknowledge you as my peerless bride."

Foolish little Zell was too eager to escape present miseries to be nice and critical as to the conditions, and too much in love, too young and unsuspecting, to doubt the man who had petted her from a child. She agreed to do anything he thought best.

Then Edith's entrance and terrible words broke her pretty dream in fragments.

Snatching her sister from Van Dam's embrace, she cried passionately:

"Leave this place. Your villany is discovered."

"Really, Miss Edith"--began Van Dam with a poor show of dignity.

"Leave instantly!" cried Edith imperiously. "Do you wish me to strike you?"

"Edith, are you mad?" cried Zell.

"Your sister must have lost her reason," said Van Dam, approaching Zell.

"Stand back," cried Edith sternly. "I may go mad before this hateful night passes, but while I have strength and reason left, I will drive the wolves from our fold. Answer me this: have you not been proposing secret marriage to my sister?"

Her face looked spirit-like in the pale moonlight, and her eyes blazed like coals of fire. As she stood there with her arm around her bewildered, trembling sister, she seemed a guardian angel holding a baffled fiend at bay.

This was literally true, for even hardened Van Dam quailed before her, and took refuge in the usual resource of his satanic ally--lies.

"I assure you, Miss Edith, you do me great injustice. I have only asked your sister that our marriage be private for a time--"

"The same wretched bait--the same transparent falsehood," Edith cried. "We cannot be married openly at our own home, but must go away with you, two spotless knights, to New York. Do you take us for silly fools? You know well what the world would say of ladies that so compromised themselves, and no true man would ask this of a woman he meant to make his wife. These premises are mine. Leave them."

Van Dam was an old villain who had lived all his life in the atmosphere of brawls and intrigue, therefore he said brazenly:

"There is no use in wasting words on an angry woman. Zell, my darling, do me justice. Don't give me up, as I never shall you," and he vanished on the road toward the village, where Gus was skulking on before him.

"You weak, unmitigated fool," said he savagely, "why did I bring you?"

"Look here, Van Dam," whined Gus, "that isn't the way to speak to a gentleman."

"Gentleman! ha, ha," laughed Van Dam bitterly.

"I be hanged if I feel like one to-night. A pretty scrape you have got me into," snarled Gus.

"Well," said Van Dam cynically. "I thought I was too old to learn much more, but you may shoot me if I ever go on a lark again with one of your weak villains who is bad enough for anything, but has brains enough only to get found out. If it hadn't been for you I would have carried my point. And I will yet," he added with an oath. "I never give up a game I have once started."

And so they plodded on with mutual revilings and profanity, till Gus became afraid of Van Dam, and was silent.

The dark cloud that had risen unnoted in the south, like the slowly gathering and impending wrath of God, now broke upon them in sudden gusts, and then chased them, with pelting torrents of rain and stinging hail, into the village. The sin-wrought chaos--the hellish discord of their evil natures--seemed to have infected the peaceful spring evening, for now the very spirit of the storm appeared abroad. The rush and roar of the wind was so strong, the lightning so vivid, and the crashing thunder peals overhead so terrific, that even hardened Van Dam was awed, and Gus was so frightened and conscience- smitten that he could scarcely keep up with his companion, but shuddered at the thought of being left alone.

At last they reached the tavern, roused the startled landlord, and obtained welcome shelter.

"What!" he said, "are the boys after you?"

"No, no," said Van Dam impatiently; "the devil is after us in this infernal storm. Give us two rooms, a fire, and some brandy as soon as possible, and charge what you please."

When Grus viewed himself in the mirror, as he at once did from long habit, his haggard face, drenched, mud-splashed form, awakened sincere self-commiseration; and his stained, bedraggled clothes troubled him more than his soiled character. He did not remember the time when he had not been well dressed, and to be so was his religion--the sacred instinct of his life. Therefore he was inexpressibly shocked, and almost ready to cry, as he saw his forlorn reflection in the glass. And he had no change with him. What should he do? All other phases of the disastrous night were lost in this.

"There is nothing to be bought in this mean little town, and how can I go to the city in this plight?" he anxiously queried.

"Go to the devil then," and the sympathetic Van Dam wrapped himself up and went to sleep.

Gus worked fussily at his clothes till a late hour, devoutly hoping he should meet no one whom he knew before reaching his dressing-room in New York.