What Can She Do by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter I. Three Girls
It was a very cold blustering day in early January, and even brilliant thronged Broadway felt the influence of winter's harshest frown. There had been a heavy fall of snow which, though in the main cleared from the sidewalks, lay in the streets comparatively unsullied and unpacked. Fitful gusts of the passing gale caught it up and whirled it in every direction. From roof, ledges, and window-sills, miniature avalanches suddenly descended on the startled pedestrians, and the air was here and there loaded with falling flakes from wild hurrying masses of clouds, the rear-guard of the storm that the biting northwest wind was driving seaward.
It was early in the afternoon, and the great thoroughfare was almost deserted. Few indeed would be abroad for pleasure in such weather, and the great tide of humanity that must flow up and down this channel every working day of the year under all skies had not yet turned northward.
But surely this graceful figure coming up the street with quick, elastic steps has not the aspect of one driven forth by grave business cares, nor in the natural course of things would one expect so young a lady to know much of life's burdens and responsibilities. As she passes I am sure the reader would not turn away from so pleasant a vision, even if Broadway were presenting all its numberless attractions, but at such a time would make the most of the occasion, assured that nothing so agreeable would greet his eyes again that sombre day.
The fierce gusts make little impression on her heavy, close-fitting velvet dress, and in her progress against the wind she appears so trim and taut that a sailor's eye would be captivated. She bends her little turbaned head to the blast, and her foot strikes the pavement with a decision that suggests a naturally brave, resolute nature, and gives abundant proof of vigor and health. A trimming of silver fox fur caught and contrasted the snow crystals against the black velvet of her dress, in which the flakes catch and mingle, increasing the sense of lightness and airiness which her movements awaken, and were you seeking a fanciful embodiment of the spirit of the snow, you might rest satisfied with the first character that appears upon the scene of my story.
But on nearer view there was nothing spirit-like or even spirituelle in her aspect, save that an extremely transparent complexion was rendered positively dazzling by the keen air and the glow of exercise; and the face was much too full and blooming to suggest the shadowy and ethereal.
When near Twenty-first Street she entered a fruit store and seemed in search of some delicacy for an invalid. As her eye glanced around among the fragrant tropical fruits that suggested lands in wide contrast to the wintry scene without, she suddenly uttered a low exclamation of delight, as she turned from them to old friends, all the more welcome because so unexpected at that season. These were nothing less than a dozen strawberries, in dainty baskets, decked out, or more truly eked out, with a few green leaves. Three or four baskets constituted the fruiterer's entire stock, and probably the entire supply for the metropolis of America that day.
She had scarcely time to lift a basket and inhale its delicious aroma, before the proprietor of the store was in bowing attendance, quite as openly admiring her carnation cheeks as she the ruby fruit The man's tongue was, however, more decorous than his eyes, and to her question as to price he replied:
"Only two dollars a basket, miss, and certainly they are beauties for this season of the year. They are all I could get, and I don't believe there is another strawberry in New York."
"I will take them all," was the brief, decisive answer, and from a costly portemonnaie she threw down the price, a proceeding which the man noted in agreeable surprise, again curiously scanning the fair face as he made up the parcel with ostentatious zeal. But his customer was unconscious, or, more truly, indifferent to his admiration, and seemed much more interested in the samples of choice fruit arranged on every side. From one to another of these she flitted with the delicate sensuousness of a butterfly, smelling them and touching them lightly with the hand she had ungloved (which was as white as the snow without), as if they had for her a peculiar fascination.
"You seem very fond of fruit," said the merchant, his amour propre pleased by her evident interest in his stock.
"I have ever had a passion for fine fruits and flowers," was the reply, spoken with that perfect frankness characteristic of American girls. "No, you need not send it; I prefer to take it with me."
And with a slight smile, she passed out, leaving the fruiterer chuckling over the thought that he had probably had the pleasantest bit of trade on Broadway that dull day.
Plunging through the drifts, our nymph of the snow resolutely crossed the street and passed down to a flower store, but, instead of buying a bouquet, ordered several pots of budding and blooming plants to be sent to her address. She then made her way to Fifth Avenue and soon mounted a broad flight of steps to one of its most stately houses. The door yielded to her key, her thick walking boots clattered for a moment on the marble floor, but could not disguise the lightness of her step as she tripped up the winding stair and pushed open a rosewood door leading into the upper hall.
"Mother, mother," she exclaimed, "here is a treat for you that will banish nerves, headache, and horrors generally. See what I have found for you out in the wintry snows. Now am I not a good fairy for once?"
"Oh, Edith, child, not so boisterous, please," responded a querulous voice from a great easy-chair by the glowing grate, and a middle-aged lady turned a white, faded face toward her daughter.
"Forgive me, mother, but my tramp in the January storm has made me feel rampantly well. I wish you could go out and take a run every day as I do. You would then look younger and prettier than your daughters, as you used to."
The invalid shivered and drew her shawl closer around her, complaining:
"I think you have brought the whole month of January in with you. You really must show more consideration, my dear, for if I should take cold--" and the lady ended with a weary, suggestive sigh.
In fact, Edith had entered the dim heavily-perfumed room like a gust of wholesome air, her young blood tingling and electric with exercise, and her heart buoyant with the thought of the surprise and pleasure she had in store for her mother. But the manner in which she had been received had already chilled her more than the biting blasts on Broadway. She therefore opened her bundle and set out the little baskets before her mother very quietly. The lady glanced at them for a moment and then said, indifferently:
"It is very good of you to think of me, my dear; they look very pretty. I am sorry I cannot eat them, but their acid would only increase my dyspepsia. Those raised in winter must be very sour. Ugh! the thought of it sets my teeth on edge," and the poor, nervous creature shrank deeper into her wrappings.
"I am very sorry, mother, I thought they would be a great treat for you," said Edith, quite crestfallen. "Never mind; I got some flowers, and they will be here soon."
"Thank you, dear, but the doctor says they are not healthy in a room-- Oh, dear--that child! what shall I do!"
The front door banged, there was a step on the stairs, but not so light as Edith's had been, and a moment later the door burst open, and "the child" rushed in like a mild whirlwind, exclaiming:
"Hurrah! hurrah! school to the shades. No more teachers and tyrants for me," and down went an armful of books with a bang on the table.
"Oh, Zell!" cried Edith, "please be quiet; mother has a headache."
"There, there, your baby will kiss it all away," and the irrepressible young creature threw her arms around the bundle that Mrs. Allen had made herself into by her many wrappings, and before she ceased, the red pouting lips left the faintest tinge of their own color on the faded cheeks of the mother.
The lady endured the boisterous embrace with a martyr-like expression. Zell was evidently a privileged character, the spoiled pet of the household. But a new voice was now heard that was sharper than the "pet" was accustomed to.
"Zell, you are a perfect bear. One would think you had learned your manners at a boys' boarding school."
Zell's great black eyes blazed for a moment toward the speaker, who was a young lady reclining on a lounge near the window, and who in appearance must have been the counterpart of Mrs. Allen herself as she had looked twenty-three years before. In contrast with her sharp, annoyed tone, her cheeks and eyes were wet with tears.
"What are you crying about?" was Zell's brusque response. "Oh, I see; a novel. What a ridiculous old thing you are. I never saw you shed a tear over real trouble, and yet every few days you are dissolved in brine over Adolph Moonshine's agonies, and Seraphina's sentiment, which any sensible person can see is caused by dyspepsia. No such whipped syllabub for me, but real life."
"And what does 'real life' mean for you, I would like to know, but eating, dressing, and flirting?" was the acid retort.
"Though you call me 'child,' I have lived long enough to learn that eating, dressing, and flirting, and while you are about it you might as well add drinking, is the 'real life' of most of the ladies of our set. Indeed, if my poor memory does not fail me, I have seen you myself take a turn at these things sufficiently often to make the sublime scorn of your tone a little inconsistent."
As these barbed arrows flew, the tears rapidly exhaled from the hot cheeks of the young lady on the sofa. Her elegant languor vanished, and she started up; but Mrs. Allen now interfered, and in tones harsh and high, very different from the previous delicate murmurs, exclaimed:
"Children, you drive me wild. Zell, leave the room, and don't show yourself again till you can behave yourself."
Zell was now sobbing, partly in sorrow and partly in anger, but she let fly a few more Parthian arrows over her shoulder as she passed out.
"This is a pretty way to treat one on their birthday. I came home with heart as light as the snowflakes around me, and now you have spoiled everything. I don't know how it is, but I always have a good time everywhere else, but there is something in this house that often sets one's teeth on edge," and the door banged appropriately with a spiteful emphasis as the last word was spoken.
"Poor child," said Edith, "it is too bad that she should be so dashed with cold water on her birthday."
"She isn't a child," said the eldest sister, rising from the sofa and sweeping from the room, "though she often acts like one, and a very bad one too. Her birthday should remind her that if she is ever to be a woman, it is time to commence," and the stately young lady passed coldly away. Edith, went to the window and looked dejectedly out into the early gloom of the declining winter day. Mrs. Allen sighed and looked more nervous and uncomfortable than usual.
The upholsterer had done his part in that elegant home, The feet sank into the carpets as in moss. Luxurious chairs seemed to embrace the form that sank into them. Everything, was padded, rounded, and softened, except tongues and tempers. If wealth could remove the asperities from these as from material things, it might well be coveted. But this is beyond the upholsterer's art, and Mrs. Allen knew little of the Divine art that can wrap up words and deeds with a kindness softer than eider-down.
"Mother's room," instead of being a refuge and a favorite haunt of these three girls, was a place where, as we have seen, their "teeth were set on edge."
Naturally they shunned the place, visiting the invalid rather than living with her; their reluctant feet impelled across the threshold by a sense of duty rather than drawn by the cords of love. The mother felt this in a vague, uncomfortable way, for mother love was there, only it had seemingly turned sour, and instead of attracting her children by sweetness and sympathy, she querulously complained to them and to her husband of their neglect. He would sometimes laugh it off, sometimes shrug his shoulders indifferently, and again harshly chide the girls, according to his mood, for he varied much in this respect. After being cool and wary all day in Wall Street, he took off the curb at home; therefore the variations that never could be counted on. How he would be at dinner did not depend on himself or any principle, but on circumstances. In the main he was indulgent and kind, though quick and passionate, brooking no opposition; and the girls were really more attached to him and found more pleasure in his society than in their mother's. Zelica, the youngest, was his special favorite, and he humored and petted her at a ruinous rate, though often storming at some of her follies.
Mrs. Allen saw this preference of her husband, and was weak enough to feel and show jealousy. But her complainings were ineffectual, for we can no more scold people into loving us than nature could make buds blossom by daily nipping them with frost. And yet she made her children uncomfortable by causing them to feel that it was unnatural and wrong that they did not care more for their mother. This was especially true of Edith, who tried to satisfy her conscience, as we have seen, by bringing costly presents and delicacies that were seldom needed or appreciated.
Edith soon became so oppressed by her mother's sighs and silence and the heavy perfumed air, that she sprang up, and pressing a remorseful kiss on the white thin face, said:
"I must dress for dinner, mamma: I will send your maid," and vanished also.