Chapter XVI. Black Hannibal's White Heart
 

Edith half led, half carried her sobbing sister to the parlor. Mrs. Allen, no longer languid, and Laura from her exile, were already there, and with dismayed faces drew near the sofa where Zell had been placed.

"What has happened?" asked Mrs. Allen tremblingly.

Edith's self-control, now that her enemies were gone, gave way utterly, and sinking on the floor, she swayed back and forth, sobbing even more hysterically than Zell, and her mother and Laura, oppressed with the sense of some new impending disaster, caught the contagion of their bitter grief, and wept and wrung their hands also.

The frightened maid stood in one door, with white questioning face, and old gray-haired Hannibal in another, with streaming eyes of honest sympathy.

"Speak, speak, what is the matter?" almost shrieked Mrs. Allen.

Edith could not speak, but Zell sobbed, "I--don't--know. Edith--seems to have--gone--mad."

At last, after the application of restoratives, Edith so far recovered herself as to say brokenly:

"We've been betrayed--they're--villains. They never--meant--marriage at all."

"That's false!" screamed Zell. "I won't believe it of my lover, whatever may have been true of your mean little Gus Elliot. He promised to marry me, and you have spoiled everything by your mad folly. I'll never forgive you."--When Zell's wild fury would have ceased, cannot be said, but a new voice startled and awed them into silence. In the storm of sorrow and passion that raged within, the outer storm had risen unnoted, but now an awful peal of thunder broke over their heads and rolled away among the hills in deep reverberations. Another and a louder crash soon followed, and a solemn, expectant silence fell upon them akin to that when the noisy passionate world will suddenly cease its clamor as the trump of God proclaims the end.

"Merciful heaven! we shall be struck," said Mrs. Allen shudderingly.

"What's the use of living?" said Zell in a hard, reckless tone.

"What is there to live for?" sighed Edith, deep in her heart. "There are none to be trusted--not one."

Instead of congratulations received with blushing happiness, and solitaire engagement rings, thus is shown the first result of Mrs. Allen's policy, and of society's injunction:

"Keep your hands white, my dears."

The storm passed away, and they crept off to such poor rest as they could get, too miserable to speak, and too worn to renew the threatened quarrel that a voice seemingly from heaven had interrupted.

The next morning they gathered at a late breakfast-table with haggard faces and swollen eyes. Zell looked hard and sullen, Edith's face was so determined in its expression as to be stern. Mrs. Allen lamented feebly and indefinitely, Laura only appeared more settled in her apathy, and, like Zell and Edith, was utterly silent through the forlorn meal.

When it was over, Zell went up to her room and Edith followed her. Zell had not spoken to her sister since the thunder peal had suddenly checked her bitter words. Edith dreaded the alienation she saw in Zell's face, and felt wronged by it, knowing that she had only acted as truest friend and protector. But in order still to shield her sister she must secure her confidence, or else the danger averted the past evening would threaten as grimly as ever. She also realized how essential Zell's help would be in the struggle for bread on which they must enter, and wished to obtain her hearty co-operation in some plan of work. She saw that labor now was inevitable, and must be commenced immediately. From Laura little was to be hoped. She seemed so lacking in mental and physical force since their troubles began, that it appeared as if nothing could arouse her. She threatened soon to become an invalid like her mother. The thought of help from the latter did not even occur to her.

Edith had not slept, and as the chaos and bitterness of the past evening's experience passed away, her practical mind began to concentrate itself on the problem of support. Her disappointment had not been so severe as that of Zell, by any means, and so she was in a condition to rally much sooner. She had never much more than liked Elliot, and now the very thought of him was sickening, and though labor and want might be hard indeed, and regret for all they had lost keen, still she was spared the bitterer pain of a hopeless love.

But it was just this that Zell feared, and though she repeated to herself over and over again Van Dam's last words, "I will never give you up," she feared that he would, or what would be equally painful, she would be compelled to give him up, for she could not disguise from herself that her confidence had been shaken.

But sincere love is slow to believe evil of its object. If Van Dam had shown preference for another, Zell's jealousy and anger would have known no bounds, but this he had never done, and she could not bring herself to believe that the man whom she had known, since childhood, who had always treated her with uniform kindness and most flattering attention, who had partaken of their hospitality so often and intimately that he almost seemed like one of the family, meditated the basest evil against her.

"Gus Elliot is capable of any meanness, but Edith was mistaken about my friend. And yet Edith has so insulted him that I fear he will never come to the house again," she said with deep resentment. "If I had declined a private marriage, I am sure he would have married me openly."

Therefore when Edith entered their little room Zell's face was averted, and there was every evidence of estrangement. Edith meant to be kind and considerate, and patiently show the reasons for her action.

She sat down and took her sister's cold, impassive hand, saying:

"Zell, did I not help you dress in this very place last evening? Did I not wait against my judgment till Mr. Van Dam came? These things prove to you that I would not put a straw between you and a true lover. Surely we have trouble enough without adding the bitter one of division and estrangement. If we don't stand by each other now what will become of us?"

"What right had you to misjudge Mr. Van Dam by such a mean little scamp as Gus Elliot? Why did you not give him a chance to explain himself?"

"O Zell, Zell, how can you be so blinded? Did he not ask you to go away with him in the night--to elope, and then submit to a secret marriage in New York?"

"Well, he told me there were good reasons that made such a course necessary at present."

"Are you George Allen's daughter, that you could even listen to such a proposal? When you lived on Fifth Avenue would he have dared to even faintly suggest such a thing? Can he be a true lover who insults you to begin with, and, in view of your misfortunes, instead of showing manly delicacy and desire to shield, demands not only hard but indecent conditions? Even if he purposed to marry you, what right has he to require of you such indelicate action as would make your name a byword and hissing among all your old acquaintances, and a lasting stain to your family? They would not receive you with respect again, though some might tolerate you and point you out as the girl so desperate for a husband that she submitted to the grossest indignity to get one."

Zell hung her head in shame and anger under Edith's inexorable logic, but the anger was now turning against Van Dam. Edith continued:

"A lady should be sought and won. It is for her to set the place and time of the wedding, and dictate the conditions. It is for her to say who shall be present and who absent, and woman, to whom a spotless name is everything, has the right, which even savage tribes recognize, to shield herself from the faintest imputation of immodesty by compelling her suitor to comply with the established custom and etiquette which are her safeguards. The daughter of a poor laborer would demand all this as a matter of course, and shall the beautiful Zell Allen, who has had scores of admirers, have all this reversed in her case, and be compelled to skulk away from the home in which she should be openly married, to hunt up a man at night who has made the pitiful promise that he will marry her somewhere at some time or other, on condition that no one shall know it till he is ready? Mark it well, the man who so insults a lady and all her family never means to marry her, or else he is so coarse and brutal in all his instincts that no decent woman ought to marry him."

"Say no more," said Zell, in a low tone, "I fear you are right, though I would rather die than believe it. Oh, Edith, Edith!" she cried in sudden passionate grief. "My heart is broken. I loved him so! I could have been so happy!"

Edith took her in her arms and they cried together. At last Zell said languidly;

"What can we do?"

"We must go to work like other poor people. If we had only done so at first and saved every dollar we had left, we should not now be in our present deeply embarrassed condition. And yet, Zell, if you, with your vigor and strength, will only stand by me, and help your best, we will see bright days yet There must be some way by which two girls can make a livelihood here in Pushton as elsewhere. We have at least a shelter, and I have great hopes of the garden."

"I don't like a garden. I fear I couldn't do much there. And it seems like man's work too. I fear I shall be too wretched and ignorant to do anything."

"Not at all. Youth, health, and time, against all the troubles of the world." (This was the best creed poor Edith then had.) "Now," she continued, encouragingly, "you like housework. Of course we must dismiss our servants, and if you did the work of the house with Laura, so that I had all my time for something else, it would be a great saving and help."

"Oh, dear! oh, dear! that we should ever come to this!" said Zell despairingly.

"We have come to it, and must face the truth."

"Well, of course I'll try," said Zell with something of Laura's apathy. Then with a sudden burst of passion she clenched her little hands and cried:

"I hate him, the cold-hearted wretch, to treat his poor little Zell so shamefully!" and she paced up and down the room with inflamed eyes and cheeks. Then in equally sudden revulsion she threw herself down on the floor with her head in her sister's lap, and murmured, "God forgive me, I love him still--I love him with my whole heart," and sobbed till all her strength was gone.

Edith sighed deeply. "Can she ever be depended on?" she thought. At last she lifted the languid form on the bed, threw over her an afghan, and bathed her head with cologne till the poor child fell asleep.

Then she went down to Laura and her mother, to whom she explained more fully the events of last evening. Laura only muttered, "shameful," but Mrs. Allen whined, "She could not understand it. Girls didn't know how to manage any longer. There must be some misunderstanding, for no young men in the city could have meant to offer such an insult to an old and respectable family like theirs. She never heard of such a thing. If she could only have been present--"

"Hush, mother," said Edith almost sternly. "It's all past now. I should gladly believe that when you were a young lady such poor villains were not in good society. Moreover, such offers are not made to young ladies living on the avenue. This is more properly a case for shooting than management. I have no patience to talk any more about it. We must now try to conform to our altered circumstances, and at least maintain our self-respect, and secure the comforts of life if possible. But we must now practice the closest economy. Laura, you will have to be mother's maid, for of course we can keep no servants. I have a little money left, and will pay your maid to-day and let her go."

"I don't see how I can get along without her," said Mrs. Allen helplessly.

"You must," said Edith firmly. "We have no money to pay her any longer, and your daughters will try to supply her place."

Mrs. Allen did not formally abdicate her natural position as head of the family, but in the hour of almost shipwreck Edith took the helm out of the feeble hands. Yet the young girl had little to guide her, no knowledge and experience worth mentioning, and the sea was rough and beset with dangers.

The maid had no regrets at departure, and went away with something of the satisfaction of a rat leaving a sinking ship. But with old Hannibal it was a different affair.

"You ain't gwine to send me away too, is you, Miss Edie?" said he, with the accent of dismay.

"My good old friend," said Edith feelingly, "the only friend I'm sure of in this great world full of people, I fear I must. We can't afford to pay you even half what you are worth any longer."

"I'se sure I doesn't eat sech a mighty lot," Hannibal sniffled out.

"Oh, I hope we shan't reach starvation point," said Edith, smiling in spite of her sore heart. "But, Hannibal, you are a valuable servant; besides, there are plenty of rich upstarts who would give you anything you would ask, just to have you come and give an old and aristocratic air to their freshly-gilded mansions."

"Miss Edie, you doesn't know nothin' 'tall about my feelin's. What's money to ole Hannibal! I'se lived 'mong de millionaires and knows all 'bout money. It only buys half of 'em a heap of trouble and doesn't keep dar hearts from gettin' sore. When Massa Allen was a livin', he paid me big, and guv me all de money I wanted, and if he, at last, lost my money which he keep, it's no mo'n he did wid his own. And now, Miss Edie, I toted you and you'se sisters roun' on my shouler when you was babies, and I hain't got nothin' left but you, no friends, no nothin'; and if you send me away, it's like gwine out into de wilderness. What 'ud I do in some strange man's big house, when my heart's here in de little house? My heart is all ole Hannibal has left, if 'tis black, and if you send me away you break it. I'd a heap rader stay here in Bushtown and starve to death wid you alls, dan live in de grandest house on de avenue."

"Oh, Hannibal," said Edith, putting her hand on the old man's shoulder, and looking at him with her large eyes dimmed with grateful tears, "you don't know how much good you have done me. I have felt that there were none to trust--not one, but you are as true as steel. Your heart isn't black, as I told you before. It's whiter than mine. Oh, that other men were like you!"

"Bress you, Miss Edie, I isn't a man, I'se only a nigger."

"You are my true and trusted friend," said Edith, "and you shall be one of the family as long as you wish to stay with us."

"Now bress you, Miss Edie, you'se an angel for sayin' dat. Don't be afeard, I'se good for sumpen yet, if I be old. I once work for fear in de South; den I work for money, and now I'se gwine to work for lub, and it 'pears I can feel my ole jints limber up at de tought. It 'pears like dat lub is de only ting dat can make one young agin. Neber you fear, Miss Edie, we'll pull trough, and I'se see you a grand lady yet. A true lady you'se allers be, even if you went out to scrub."

"Perhaps I'll have to, Hannibal. I know how to do that about as well as anything else that people are willing to pay for."