Chapter XVII. The Changes of Two Short Months
 

At the dinner-table it was reluctantly admitted to be necessary that Edith should go to the city in the morning and dispose of some of their jewelry. She went by the early train, and the familiar aspects of Fourth Avenue as she rode down town were as painful as the features of an old friend turned away from us in estrangement. She kept her face closely veiled, hoping to meet no acquaintances, but some whom she knew unwittingly brushed against her. Her mother's last words were:

"Go to some store where we are not known to sell the jewelry."

Edith's usually good judgment seemed to fail her in this case, as generally happens when we listen to the suggestions of false pride. She went to a jeweller downtown who was an utter stranger. The man's face to whom she handed her valuables for inspection did not suggest pure gold that had passed through the refiner's fire, though he professed to deal in that article. An unknown lady, closely veiled, offering such rich articles for sale, looked suspicious; but, whether it was right or wrong, there was a chance for him to make an extraordinary profit. Giving a curious glance at Edith, who began to have misgivings from the manner and appearance of the man, he swept the little cases up and took them to the back part of the store, on pretence of wishing to consult his partner. He soon returned and said rather harshly:

"I don't quite understand this matter, and we are not in the habit of doing this kind of business. It may be all right that you should offer this jewelry, and it may not. If we take it, we must run the risk. We will give you"--offering scarcely half its value.

"I assure you it is all right," said Edith indignantly, at the same time with a sickening sensation of fear. "It all belongs to us, but we are compelled to part with it from sudden need."

"That is about the way they all talk," said the man coolly. "We will give you no more than I said."

"Then give me back my jewelry," said Edith, scarcely able to stand, through fear and shame.

"I don't know about that. Perhaps I ought to call in an officer any way and have the thing investigated. But I give you your choice, either to take this money, or go with a policeman before a justice and have the thing explained," and he laid the money before her.

She shuddered at the thought. Edith Allen in a police court, explaining why she was selling her jewelry, the gifts of her dead father, followed by a rabble in the street, her name in the papers, and she the town-talk and scandal of her old set on the avenue! How Gus Elliot and Van Dam would exult! All passed through her mind in one dreadful whirl. She snatched up the money and rushed out with one thought of escape, and for some time after had a shuddering apprehension of being pursued and arrested.

"Oh, if I had only gone to Tiffany's, where I am known!" she groaned. "It's all mother's work. Her advice is always fatal, and I will never follow it again. It seems as if everything and everybody were against me," and she plunged into the sheltering throng of Broadway, glad to be a mere unrecognized drop in its mighty tide.

But even as Edith passed out of the jeweller's store her eye rested for a moment on the face of a man whom she thought she had seen before, though she could not tell where, and the face haunted her, causing much uneasiness.

"Could he have seen and known me?" she queried most anxiously.

He had done both. He was no other than Tom Crowl, a clerk in the village at one of the lesser dry-goods stores, where the Allens had a small account. He was one of the mean loafers who were present at the bar-room scene, and had cheered, and then kicked Gus Elliot, and "laid for him" in the evening with the "boys." He was one of the upper graduates of Pushton street-corners, and having spent an idle, vicious boyhood, truant half the time from school, had now arrived at the dignity of clerk in a store, that thrived feebly on the scattering trade that filtered through and past Mr. Hard's larger establishment. He was one of the worst phases of the male gossip, and had the scent of a buzzard for the carrion of scandal. The Allens were now the uppermost theme of the village, for there seemed some mystery about them. Moreover, the rural dabblers in vice had a natural jealousy of the more accomplished rakes from the city, which took on something of the air of virtuous indignation against them. Of course the talk about Gus and Van Dam included the Allens; and if poor Edith could have heard the surmises about them in the select coterie of clerks that gathered after closing hours around Crowl, as the central fountain of gossip, she would have felt more bitterly than ever that the spirit of chivalry had utterly forsaken mankind.

When therefore young Crowl saw Edith get on the same train as himself, he determined to watch her, and startle, if possible, his small squad of admirers with a new proof of his right to lead as chief scandal- monger. The scene in the jewelry store thus became a brilliant stroke of fortune to him, though so severe a blow to Edith. (The number of people who are like wolves, that turn upon and devour one of their kind when wounded, is not small.) Crowl exultingly saw himself doubly the hero of the evening in the little room of the loft over the store, where poor Edith would be discussed that evening over a black bottle and sundry clay pipes.

As Edith returned up town toward the depot, the impulse to go and see her old home was very strong. She thought her veil sufficient protection to allow her to venture. Slowly and with heavy step she passed up the well-known street on the opposite side, and then crossed and passed down toward that door from which she had so often tripped in light-hearted gayety, or rolled away in a liveried carriage, the envied and courted daughter of a millionaire. And to-day she was selling her jewelry for bread--to-day she had narrowly, as she thought, escaped the police court--to-day she had no other prospect of support save her unskilled hands, and little more than two short months ago, that house was ablaze with light, resounding with mirth and music, and she and her sisters were known as among the wealthiest belles of the city. It was like a horrid dream. It seemed as if she might see old Hannibal opening the door, and Zell come tripping out, or Laura at the window of her room with a book, or the portly form of her father returning from business, indeed even herself, radiant with pride and pleasure, starting for an afternoon walk as of old. All seemed to look the same. Why was it not? Why could she not enter and be at home! Again she passed. A name on the door caught her eye. With a shudder of disgust and pain, she read--

"Uriah Fox."

"So the villain lives in the home of which he robbed us," she said bitterly. "The world seems made for such. Old Hannibal was right. God lumps the world, but the devil seems to look after his friends and prosper them."

She now hastened to the depot. The city had lost its attractions to her, in view of what she had seen and suffered that day, and though inclined to feel hard and resentful at her fate, she was sincerely thankful that she had a quiet home in the country from which at least the false-hearted and cruel could be kept away.

She saw during the day several faces that she knew, but none recognized her, and she realized how soon we are forgotten by our wide circle of friends, and how the world goes on just the same after we have vacated the large space we suppose we occupy.

She reached home in the twilight, weary and despondent. Her mother asked eagerly:

"Did you meet any one you knew?" as if this were the all-important question.

"Don't speak to me," said Edith impatiently. "I'm half dead with fatigue and trouble. Hannibal, please give me a cup of tea, and then I will go to bed."

"But, Edith," persisted Mrs. Allen querulously, "did you see any of our old set? I hope you didn't take the jewelry where you were known."

Edith's overtaxed nerves gave way, and she said sharply--

"No, I did not go where I was known, as I ought, and therefore have been robbed, and might have been in jail myself to-night. I will never follow your advice again. It has brought nothing but trouble and disaster. I have had enough of your silly pride and its results. What practical harm would it have done me, if I had met all the persons I know in the city? By going where I was not known I lost half my jewelry, and was insulted and threatened with great danger in the bargain. If I had gone to Tiffany's, or Ball and Black's, where I am known, I should have been treated politely and obtained the full value of what I offered. I can't even forgive myself for being such a fool. But I have done with your ridiculous false pride forever."

These were harsh words for a daughter to speak to her mother, under any provocation, and even Zell said:

"Edith, you ought to be ashamed of yourself to speak to mother so."

"I think so, too," said Laura. "I'm sure she meant everything for the best, and she took the course which is taken by the majority in like circumstances."

"All the worse for the majority then, if they fare anything as we have done. The division of labor in this family seems to be that I am to do all the work, and bear the brunt of everything, and the rest sit by and criticise, or make more trouble. You have all got to do something now or go hungry," and Edith swallowed her tea, and went frowningly away to her room. She was no saint, to begin with, and her overtaxed mind and body revenged themselves in nervous irritation. But her young and healthful nature soon found in sound sleep the needed restorative.

Mrs. Allen shed a few helpless tears, and Laura wearily watched the faint flicker on the hearth, for the night was chilly. Zell went into the dining-room and read for the twentieth time a letter received that day.

Unknown to Edith, the worst disaster yet had occurred in her absence. Zell had been to the village for the mail. She would not admit, even to herself, that she hoped for a letter from one who had acted so poor a part as her false lover, and yet, controlled so much more by her feelings and impulses than by either reason or principle, it was with a thrill of joy that she recognized the familiar handwriting. The next moment she dropped her veil to conceal her burning blush of shame. She hastened home with a wild tumult at heart.

"I will read it, and see what he says for himself," she said, "and then will write a withering answer."

But as Van Dam's ardent words and plausible excuses burned themselves into her memory, her weak foolish heart relented, and she half believed he was wronged by Edith after all. The withering answer became a queer jumble of tender reproaches and pathetic appeals, and ended by saying that if he would marry her in her own home it all might be as secret as he desired, and she would wait his convenience for acknowledgment.

She also did another wrong and imprudent thing; for she told him to direct his reply to another office about a mile from Pushton, for she dreaded Edith's anger should her correspondence be discovered.

The wily, unscrupulous man gave one of his satantic leers as he read the letter.

"The game will soon be mine," he chuckled, and he wrote promptly in return:

"In your request and reproaches, I see the influence of another mind. Left to yourself you would not doubt me. And yet such is my love for you, I would comply with your request were it not for what passed that fatal evening. My feelings and honor as a man forbid my ever meeting your sister again till she has apologized. She never liked me, and always wronged me with doubts. Elliot acted like a fool and a villain, and I have nothing more to do with him. But your sister, in her anger and excitement, classed me with him. When you have been my loved and trusted wife for some length of time, I hope your family will do me justice. When you are here with me you will soon see why our marriage must be private for the present. You have known me since you were a child. I will be true to my word and will do exactly as I agreed. I will meet you any evening you wish on the down boat. Awaiting your reply with an anxiety which only the deepest love can inspire, I remain,

"Your slave, GUILLIAM VAN DAM."

Such was the false but plausible missive that was aimed as an arrow at poor little Zell. There was nothing in her training or education, and little in her character, to shield her. Moreover the increasing miseries of their situation were Van Dam's allies.

Edith rose the next morning greatly refreshed, and her naturally courageous nature rallied to meet the difficulties of their position. But in her strength, as was too often the case, she made too little allowance for the weakness of the others. She took the reins in her hand in a masterful and not merciful way, and dictated to the rest in a manner that they secretly resented.

The store wagon was a little earlier than usual that morning, and a note from Mr. Hard was handed in, stating that he had payments to make that day and would therefore request that his little account might be met. Two or three other persons brought up bills from the village, saying that for some reason or another the money was greatly needed. Tom Crowl's gossip was doing its legitimate work.

In the post-office Edith found all the other accounts against the family, with requests for payment, polite enough, but pressing.

She resolved to pay all she could, and went first to Mr. Hard's, That worthy citizen's eyes grew less stony as he saw half the amount of his bill on the counter. The rumor of Edith's visit to the city had reached even him, and he had his fears that collecting might involve some unpleasant business; but, however unpleasant it might be, Mr. Hard always collected.

"I hope our method of dealing has satisfied you. Miss Allen," he ventured politely.

"Oh, yes," said Edith dryly, "you have been very liberal and prompt with everything, especially your bill."

At this Mr. Hard's eyes grew quite pebbly, and he muttered something about its being the rule to settle monthly.

"Oh, certainly," said Edith, "and like most rules, no doubt, has many exceptions. Good-morning."

She also paid something on the other bills, and found that she had but a few dollars left. Though there was a certain sense of relief in the feeling that she now owed much less, still she looked with dismay on the small sum remaining. Where was more to come from? She had determined that she would not go to New York again to sell anything except in the direst extremity.

That evening Hannibal gave them a meagre supper, for Edith had told him of the absolute necessity of economy. There was a little grumbling over the fare. So Edith pushed her chair back, laid seven dollars on the table, saying:

"That's all the money I have in the world. Who's got any more?"

They raised ten dollars among them.

"Now," said Edith, "this is all we have. Where is more coming from?"

Helpless sighs and silence were her only answers.

"There is nothing clearer in the world," continued Edith, "than that we must earn money. What can we do?"

"I never thought I should have to work," said Laura piteously.

"But, my dear sister," said Edith earnestly, "isn't it clear to you now that you must? You certainly don't expect me to earn enough to support you all. One pair of hands can't do it, and it wouldn't be fair in the bargain."

"Oh, certainly not," said Laura. "I will do anything you say as well as I can, though, for the life of me, I don't see what I can do."

"Nor I either," said Zell passionately. "I don't know how to work. I never did anything useful in my life that I know of. What right have parents to bring up girls in this way, unless they make it a perfect certainty that they will always be rich? Here we are as helpless as four children. We have not got enough to keep us from starving more than a week at best. Just to think of it! Men are speculating and risking all they have every day. Ever since I was a child I have heard about the risks of business. I knew some people whose fathers failed, and they went away, I don't know where, to suffer as we have perhaps, and yet girls are not taught to do a single thing by which they can earn a penny if they need to. If anybody will pay me for jabbering a little bad French and Italian, and strumming a few operatic airs on the piano, I am at their service. I think I also understand dressing, flirting, and receiving compliments very well. I had a taste for these things, and never had any special motive given me for doing anything else. What becomes of all the girls thus taught to be helpless, and then tossed out into the world to sink or swim?"

"They find some self-sustaining work in it," said Edith.

"Not all of them, I guess," muttered Zell sullenly.

"Then they do worse, and had better starve," said Edith sternly.

"You don't know anything about starving," retorted Zell, bitterly. "I repeat, it's a burning shame to bring girls up so that they don't know how to do anything, if there's ever any possibility that they must. And it's a worse shame that respect and encouragement are not given to girls who earn a living. Mother says that if we become working girls, not one of our old wealthy, fashionable set will have anything to do with us. What makes people act so silly? Any one of them on the avenue may be where we are in a year. I've no patience with the ways of the world. People don't help each other to be good, and don't help others up. Grown-up folks act like children. How parents can look forward to the barest chance of their children being poor, and bring them up as we were, I don't see. I'm no more fit to be poor than to be President."

Zell never before had said a word that reflected on her father, but in the light of events her criticism seemed so Just that no one reproved her.

Mrs. Allen only sighed over her part of the implied blame. She had reached the hopeless stage of one lost in a foreign land, where the language is unknown and every sight and sound unfamiliar and bewildering. This weak fashionable woman, the costly product of an artificial luxurious life, seemed capable of being little better than a millstone around the necks of her children in this hour of their need. If there had been some innate strength and nobility in Mrs. Allen's character it might have developed now into something worthy of respect under this sharp attrition of trouble, however perverted before. But where a precious stone will take lustre a pumice stone will crumble. There is a multitude of natures so weak to begin with that they need tonic treatment all through life. What must such become under the influence of enervating luxury, flattery, and uncurbed selfishness from childhood? Poor, faded, sighing, helpless Mrs. Allen, shivering before the trouble she had largely occasioned, is the answer.

Edith soon broke the forlorn silence that followed Zell's outburst by saying:

"All the blame doesn't rest on the parents. I might have improved my advantages far better. I might have so mastered the mere rudiments of an English education as to be able to teach little children, but I can scarcely remember a single thing now."

"I can remember one thing," interrupted Zell, who was fresh from her books, "that there was mighty little attention given to the rudiments, as you call them, in the fashionable schools to which I went. To give the outward airs and graces of a fine lady seemed their whole aim. Accomplishments, deportment were everything. The way I was hustled over the rudiments almost takes away my breath to remember, and I have as remote an idea of vulgar fractions as of how to do the vulgar work before us. I tell you the whole thing is a cruel farce. If girls are educated like butterflies, it ought to be made certain that they can live like butterflies."

"Well, then," continued Edith, "we ought to have perfected ourselves in some accomplishment. They are always in demand. See what some French and music teachers obtain."

"Nonsense," said Zell pettishly, "you know well enough that by the time we were sixteen our heads were so full of beaux, parties, and dress, that French and music were a bore. We went through the fashionable mills like the rest, and if father had continued worth a million or so, no one would have found fault with our education."

"We can't help the past now," said Edith after a moment, "but I am not so old yet but that I can choose some kind of work and so thoroughly master it that I can get the highest price paid for that form of labor. I wish it could be gardening, for I have no taste for the shut- up work of woman; sitting in a close room all day with a needle would be slow suicide to me."

"Gardening!" said Zell contemptuously. "You couldn't plow as well as that snuffy old fellow who scratched your garden about as deeply as a hen would have done it. A woman can't dig and hoe in the hot sun, that is, an American girl can't, and I don't think she ought."

"Nor I either," said Mrs. Allen, with some returning vitality. "The very idea is horrid."

"But plowing, digging, and hoeing are not all of gardening," said Edith with some irritation.

"I guess you would make a slim support by just snipping around among the rose-bushes," retorted Zell provokingly,

"That's always the way with you, Zell," said Edith sharply, "from one extreme to another. Well, what would you like to do?"

"If I had to work I would like housekeeping. That admits of great variety and activity. I wish I could open a summer boarding-house up here. Wouldn't I make it attractive!"

"Such black eyes and red cheeks certainly would--to the gentlemen," answered Edith satirically.

"They would be mere accessories. I think I could give to a boarding- house, that place of hash and harrowing discomfort, a dainty, homelike air. If father, when he risked a failure, had only put aside enough to set me up in a boarding-house, I should have been made."

"A boarding-house! What horror next?" sighed Mrs. Allen.

"Don't be alarmed, mother," said Zell bitterly. "We can scarcely start one of the forlornest hash species on ten dollars. I admit I would rather keep house for a good husband, and it seems to me I could soon learn to give him the perfection of a good home," and her eyes filled with wistful tears. Dashing them scornfully away, she added, "The idea of a woman loving a man, and letting his home be dependent on the cruel mercies of foreign servants! If it's a shame that girls are not taught to make a living if they need to, it's a worse shame that they are not taught to keep house. Half the brides I know of ought to have been arrested and imprisoned for obtaining property on false pretences. They had inveigled men into the vain expectation that they would make a home for them, when they no more knew how to make a home than a heaven. The best they can do is to go to one of those places so satirically called an 'intelligence office,' and import them into their elegant houses a small mob of quarrelsome, drunken, dishonest foreigners, and then they and their husbands live on such conditions as are permitted. I would be mistress of my house, just as a man is master of his store or office, and I would know thoroughly how work of all kinds was done, and see that it was done thoroughly. If they wouldn't do it, I'd discharge them. I am satisfied that our bad servants are the result of bad housekeepers more than anything else."

"Poor little Zell!" said Edith, smiling sadly. "I hope you will have a chance to put your theories into most happy and successful practice."

"Little chance of it here in 'Bushtown,' as Hannibal calls it," said Zell suddenly.

"Well," said Edith, in a kind of desperate tone, "we've got to decide on something at once. I will suggest this. Laura must take care of mother, and teach a few little children if she can get them. We will give up the parlor to her at certain hours. I will put up a notice in the post-office asking for such patronage, and perhaps we can put an advertisement in the Pushton Recorder, if it doesn't cost too much. Zell, you must take the housekeeping mainly, for which you have a taste, and help me with any sewing that I can get. Hannibal will go into the garden and I will help him there all I can. I shall go to the village to-morrow and see if I can find anything to do that will bring in money."

There was a silent acquiescence in Edith's plan, for no one had anything else to offer.