What Can She Do by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XVIII. Ignorance Looking for Work
The next day Edith went to the village, and frankly told Mr. Hard how they were situated, mentioning that the failure of their lawyer to sell the stock had suddenly placed them in this crippled condition.
Mr. Hard's eyes grew more pebbly as he listened. He ventured in a constrained voice as consolation:
"That he never had much faith in stocks--No, he had no employment for ladies in connection with his store. He simply bought and sold at a small advance. Miss Klip, the dressmaker, might have something."
To Miss Klip Edith went. Miss Klip, although an unprotected female, appeared to be a maiden that could take care of herself. One would scarcely venture to hinder her. Her cutting scissors seemed instinct with life, and one would get out of their way as naturally as from a railroad train. She gave Edith a sharp look through her spectacles and said abruptly in answer to her application:
"I thought you was rich."
"We were," said Edith sadly, "but we must work now and are willing to."
"What do you know about dressmaking and sewing?"
"Well, not a great deal, but I think you would find us very ready to learn."
"Oh, bless you, I can get all my work done by thorough hands, and at my own prices, too. Good-morning."
"But can you not tell me of some one who would be apt to have work?"
"There's Mrs. Glibe across the street. She has work sometimes. Most of the dressmakers around here are well trained, have machines, and go out by the day."
Edith's heart sank. What chance was there for her untaught hands among all these "trained workers."
She soon found that Mrs. Glibe was more inclined to talk (being as garrulous as Miss Klip was laconic) and to find out all about them than to help her to work. Making but little headway in Edith's confidence she at last said, "I give Rose Lacey all the work I have to spare and it isn't very much. The business is so cut up that none of us have much more than we can do except a short time in the busy season. Still, those of us who can give a nice fit and cut to advantage can make a good living after getting known. It takes time and training you know of course."
"But isn't there work of any kind that we can get in this place?" said Edith impatiently.
"Well, not that you' d be willing to do. Of course there's housecleaning and washing and some plain sewing, though that is mostly done on a machine. A good strong woman can always get day's work, except in winter, but you ain't one of that sort," she added, looking at Edith's delicate pink and white complexion and little white hands in which a scrubbing-brush would look incongruous.
"Isn't there any demand for fancy work?" asked Edith.
"Mighty little. People buy such things in the city. Money ain't so plenty in the country that people will spend much on that kind of thing. The ladies themselves make it at home and when they go out to tea."
"Oh, dear!" sighed Edith, as she plodded wearily homeward, "what can we do? Ignorance is as bad as crime."
Her main hope now for immediate necessities was that they might get some scholars. She had put up a notice in the post-office and an advertisement in the paper. She had also purchased some rudimentary school books, and the poor child, on her return home, soon distracted herself by a sudden plunge into vulgar fractions. She found herself so sadly rusty that she would have to study almost as hard as any of her pupils, were they obtained. Laura's bookish turn and better memory had kept her better informed. Edith soon threw aside grammars and arithmetics, saying to Laura:
"You must take care of the school, if we get one. It would take me too long to prepare on these things in our emergency."
Almost desperate from the feeling that there was nothing she could do, she took a hoe that was by no means light, and loosened the ground and cut off all the sprouting weeds around her strawberry-vines. The day was rather cool and cloudy, and she was surprised at the space she went over. She wore her broad-brimmed straw hat tied down over her face, and determined she would not look at the road, and would act as if it were not there, letting people think what they pleased. But a familiar rumble and rattle caused her to look shyly up after the wagon had passed, and she saw Arden Lacey gazing wonderingly back at her. She dropped her eyes instantly as if she had not seen him, and went on with her work. At last, thoroughly wearied, she went in and said half triumphantly, half defiantly:
"A woman can hoe. I've done it myself."
"A woman can ride a horse like a man," said Mrs. Allen, and this was all the home encouragement poor Edith received.
They had had but a light lunch at one o'clock, meaning to have a more substantial dinner at six. Hannibal was showing Zell and getting her started in her department. It was but a poor little dinner they had, and Zell said in place of dessert:
"Edith, we are most out of everything."
"And I can't get any work," said Edith despondingly. "People have got to know how to do things before anybody wants them, and we haven't time to learn."
"Ten dollars won't last long," said Zell recklessly.
"I will go down to the village and make further inquiries to-morrow," Edith continued in a weary tone. "It seems strange how people stand aloof from us. No one calls and everybody wants what we owe them right away. Are there not any good kind people in Pushton? I wish we had not offended the Laceys. They might have advised and helped us, but nothing would tempt me to go to them after treating them as we did."
There were plenty of good kind people in Pushton, but Mrs. Allen's "policy" had driven them away as far as possible. By their course the Allens had placed themselves, in relation to all classes, in the most unapproachable position, and their "friends" from the city and Tom Crowl's gossip had made matters far worse. Poor Edith thought they were utterly ignored. She would have felt worse if she had known that every one was talking about them.
The next day Edith started on another unsuccessful expedition to the village, and while she was gone, Zell went to the post-office to which she had told Van Dam to direct his reply. She found the plausible lie we have already placed before the reader.
At first she experienced a sensation of anger that he had not complied with her wish. It was a new experience to have gentlemen, especially Van Dam, so long her obsequious slave, think of anything contrary to her wishes. She also feared that Edith might be right, and that Van Dam designed evil against her. She would not openly admit, even to herself, that this was his purpose, and yet Edith's words had been so clear and strong, and Van Dam's conditions placed her so entirely at his mercy, that she shrank from him and was fascinated at the same time.
But instead of indignantly casting the letter from her, she read it again and again. Her foolish heart pleaded for him.
"He couldn't be so false to me, so false to his written word," she said, and the letter was hidden away, and she passed into the dangerous stage of irresolution, where temptation is secretly dwelt upon. She hesitated, and, according to the proverb, the woman who does this is lost. Instead of indignantly casting temptation from her, she left her course open, to be decided somewhat by circumstances. She wilfully shut her eyes to the danger, and tried to believe, and did almost believe that her lover meant honestly by her.
And so the days passed, Edith vainly trying to find something to do, and working hard in her garden, which as yet brought no return. She was often very sad and despondent, and again very irritable. Laura's apathy only deepened, and she seemed like one not yet awakened from a dream of the past. Zell made some show of work, but after all left almost everything for Hannibal as before, and when Edith sharply chided her, she laughed recklessly and said:
"What's the use? If we are going to starve we might as well do so at once and have it over with."
"I won't starve," said Edith, almost fiercely. "There must be honest work somewhere in the world for one willing to do it, and I'm going to find it. At any rate, can raise food in my garden before long."
"I'm afraid we shall starve before your cabbages and carrots come to maturity, and we might as well as to try to live on such garbage. Supplies are running low, and, as you say, the money is nearly gone."
"Yes, and people won't trust us any more. Two or three declined to in the village to-day, and I felt too discouraged and ashamed to ask any further. For some reason people seem afraid of us. I see persons turn and look after me, and yet they avoid me. Two or three impudent clerks tried to make my acquaintance, but I snubbed them in such a way that they will let me alone hereafter. I wonder if any stories could have got around about us? Country towns are such places for gossip."
"Have you heard of any scholars?" said Laura languidly.
"No, not one," was Edith's despondent answer. "If nothing turns up before, I'll go to New York next Monday and sell some more things, and I'll go where I'm known this time."
Nothing turned up, and by Sunday they had nothing in the house save a little dry bread, which they ate moistened with wine and water. Mrs. Allen sighed and cried all day. Laura had the strange manner of one awaking up to something unrealized before. Restlessness began to take the place of apathy, and her eyes often sought the face of Edith in a questioning manner. Finding her alone in the garden, she said:
"Why, Edith, I'm hungry. I never remember being hungry before. Is it possible we have come to this?"
Edith burst into tears, and said brokenly:
"Come with me to the arbor."
"I'm sure I'm willing to do anything," said Laura piteously, "but I never realized we would come to this."
"Oh! how can the birds sing?" said Edith bitterly. "This beautiful spring weather, with its promise and hopefulness, seems a mockery. The sun is shining brightly, flowers are budding and blooming, and all the world seems so happy, but my heart aches as if it would burst. I'm hungry, too, and I know poor old Hannibal is faint, though he tries to keep up whenever I am around."
"But, Edith, if people knew how we are situated they would not let us want. Our old acquaintances in New York, or our relations even, though not very friendly, would surely help us."
"Oh, yes, I suppose so for a little while, but I can't bring myself to ask for charity, and no one would under take to support us. What discourages me most is that I can't get work that will bring in money. Between people wishing to have nothing to do with us, on one hand, and my ignorance on the other, there seems no resource. Some of those whom we owe seem inclined to press us. I'm so afraid of losing this place and being out on the street. If I could only get a chance somewhere, or get time to learn to do something well!"
Then after a moment she asked suddenly, "Where's Zell?"
"In her room, I think"
"I don't like Zell's manner," said Edith, after a brief painful revery. "It's so hard and reckless. Something seems to be on her mind. She has long fits of abstraction as if she were thinking of something, or weighing some plan. Could she have had any communication with that villain Van Dam? Oh! that would be the bitterest drop of all in our cup of sorrow. I would rather see her dead than that."
"Oh, dear!" said Laura, "it seems as if I had been in a trance and had just awakened. Why, Edith, I must do something. It is not right to let you bear all these things alone. But don't trouble about Zell, not one of George Allen's daughters will sink to that."