What Can She Do by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XIX. A Falling Star
Zell slept most of the day. She had reached that point where she did not want to think. On hearing Edith say that she would go to New York on Monday, a sadden and strong temptation assailed her. Impulsive, but not courageous, abounding in energy, but having little fortitude, she found the conditions of her country life growing unendurable. Van Dam seemed her only refuge, her only means of escape. She soon lost all hope of their sustaining themselves by work in Pushton. Her uncurbed nature could wait patiently for nothing, and as the long, idle days passed, she doubted, and then despaired, of any success from Edith's plans. She harbored Van Dam's temptation, and the consciousness of doing this hurt her womanly nature, and her hard, reckless tone and manner were the natural consequence. She said to herself, and tried to believe--
"He will marry me--he has promised again and again."
Still, there was the uneasy knowledge that she was placing herself and her reputation entirely at his mercy, and she long had known that Van Dam was no saint. It was this lurking knowledge, shut her eyes to it as she might, that acted on her nature like a petrifying influence.
And yet, Van Dam's temptation had more to contend with in her pride than in her moral nature. Everything in her education had tended to increase the former, and dwarf the latter. Her parents had taken her to the theatre far oftener than even to the fashionable church on the avenue. From the latter she carried away more ideas about dress than about anything else. From a child she had been familiar with the French school of morals, as taught by the sensational drama in New York. Society, that will turn a poor girl out of doors the moment she sins, will take her at the most critical age of her unformed character, night after night, to witness plays in which the husband is made ridiculous, but the man who destroys purity and home-happiness is as splendid a villain as Milton's Satan. Mr. Allen himself had familiarized Zell's mind with just what she was tempted to do, by taking her to plays as poisonous to the soul as the malaria of the Campagna at Rome to the body. He, though dead, had a part in the present temptation of his child, and we unhesitatingly charge many parents with the absolute ruin of their children, by exposing them, and permitting them to be exposed, to influences that they know must be fatal. No guardian of a child can plead the densest stupidity for not knowing that French novels and plays are as demoralizing as the devil could wish them to be; and constantly to place young, passionate natures, just awakening in their uncurbed strength, under such influences, and expect them to remain as spotless as snow, is the most wretched absurdity of our day. Society brings fire to the tow, the brand to the powder, and then lifts its hand to hurl its anathema in case they ignite.
But Mr. Allen sinned even more grievously in permitting a man like Van Dam to haunt his home. If now one of the lambs of his flock suffered irretrievably, he would be as much to blame as a shepherd who daily saw the wolf within his fold. Mr. Allen was familiar with the stories about Van Dam, as multitudes of wealthy men are to-day with the character of well-dressed scoundrels who visit their daughters. Some of the worst villains in existence have the entree into the "best society." It is pretty well known among men what they are, and fashionable mammas are not wholly in the dark. Therefore, every day, "angels that kept not their first estate" are falling from heaven. It may not be the open, disgraceful ruin that threatened poor Zell, but it is ruin nevertheless.
After all, it was the undermining, unhallowed influence of long association with Van Dam that now made Zell so weak in her first sharp stress of temptation. Crime was not awful and repulsive to her. There was little in her cunningly-perverted nature that revolted at it. She hesitated mainly on the ground of her pride, and in view of the consequences. And even these latter she in no sense realized, for the school in which she had been taught showed only the flowery opening of the path into sin, while its terrible retributions were kept hidden.
Therefore, as the miseries of her condition in the country increased, Zell's pride failed her, and she began to be willing to risk all to get away, and when she felt the pinch of hunger she became almost desperate. As we have said, on Edith's naming a day on which she would be absent on the forlorn mission that would only put off the day of utter want a little longer, the temptation took definite shape in Zell's mind to write at once to Van Dam, acceding to his shameful conditions.
But, to satisfy her conscience, which she could not stifle, and to provide some excuse for her action, and still more, to brace the hope she tried to cherish that he really meant truly by her, she wrote:
"If I will meet you at the boat Monday evening, will you surely marry me? Promise me on your sacred honor."
Van Dam muttered, with a low laugh, as he read the note:
"That's a rich joke, for her to accept such a proposition as mine, especially after all that has happened, and still prate of 'sacred honor.'"
But he unhesitatingly, promptly, and with many protestations assured her that he would, and at once prepared to carry out his part of the programme.
"What's the use of half-way lies?" he said, carelessly.
On Monday Edith again took the early train with the valuables of which she designed to dispose. Zell had said indifferently:
"You may take anything I have left except my watch and chain."
But Laura had insisted on sending her watch, saying, "I really wish to do something, Edith. I've left all the burden on you too long."
Mrs. Allen sighed, and said, "Take any thing you please."
So Edith carried away with her the means of fighting the wolf, hunger, from their doors a little longer. But if she had known that a more cruel enemy would despoil her home in her absence, she would rather have starved than gone.
Laura was reading to her mother when Zell put her head in at the door, saying:
"I am going for a short walk, and will be back soon."
She hastened to the office at which she had told Van Dam to address her, and found his reply. With feverish cheeks, and eyes in which glowed excitement rather than happiness, she read it as soon as she was alone on the road, and returned as quickly as possible. Her mind was in a wild tumult, but she would not allow herself one rational thought. She spent most of the day in her room preparing for her flight. But when she came down to see Hannibal about their meagre lunch, he said in some surprise and alarm:
"Oh, Miss Zell, how burnin' red your cheeks be! You'se got a ragin' feber, sure 'nuff. Go and lie right straight down, and I'se see to eberyting. I'se been to de willage and got some tea. A man guv it to me as a sample, and I telled him we'se like our tea mighty strong, so you'se all hab a cup of tea to-day, and to-night Miss Edie'll come back wid a heap of money."
"Poor old Hannibal!" said Zell, with a sudden rush of tenderness. "I wish I were as good as you are."
"Lor bress you, Miss Zell, I isn't good. I'se kind of a heathen. But somehow I feels dat de Lord will bress me when I steals for you alls."
"Oh, Hannibal, I wish I was dead and out of the way! Then there would be one less to provide for."
"Dead and out of de way!" said Hannibal, half indignantly; "dat's jest how to get into de way. I'd be afeard of seein' your spook whenever I was alone. I had no comfort in New York arter Massa Allen died, and was mighty glad to get away even to Bushtown. And den Miss Edie and all would cry dar eyes out, and couldn't do nothin'. Folks is often more in de way arter dey's dead and gone dan when livin'. Seein' your sweet face around ebery day, honey, is a great help to ole Hannibal. It seems only yesterday it was a little baby face, and we was all pretty nigh crazy over you."
"I wish I had died then!" said Zell, passionately, and hurrying away.
"Poor chile, poor chile! she takes it mighty hard," said innocent Hannibal.
She kept her room during the afternoon, pleading that she did not feel well. It gave her pain to be with her mother and Laura, now that she purposed to leave them so abruptly, and she wished to see nothing that would shake her resolution to go as she had arranged. She wrote to Edith as follows:
"I am going, Edith, to meet Mr. Van Dam, as he told me. I cannot--I
will not believe that he will prove false to me. I leave his letter,
which I received to-day. Perhaps you never will forgive me at home;
but whatever becomes of poor little Zell, she will not cease to love
you all. I should only be a burden if I stayed. There will be one less
to provide for, and I may be able to help you far more by going than
staying. Don't follow me. I've made my venture, and chosen my lot.
As the long twilight was deepening, Hannibal, returning from the well with a pail of water, heard the gate-latch click, and, looking up, saw Zell hurrying out with hat and shawl on, and having the appearance of carrying something under her shawl. He felt a little surprise at first, but then, Zell was so full of impulse, that he concluded:
"She's gwine to meet Miss Edie. We'se all a-lookin' and leanin' on Miss Edie, Lor bres her."
But Zell was going to perdition.
Little later the stage brought tired Edith home, but in better spirits than before, as she had realized a somewhat fair sum for what she had sold, and had been treated politely.
After taking off her things, she asked, "Where's Zell?"
"Lying down, I think," said Laura. "She complained of not feeling well this afternoon."
But Hannibal's anxious face in the door now caught her attention, and she joined him at once.
"Didn't you meet Miss Zell?" he asked in a whisper.
"Meet her? No," answered Edith, excitedly.
"Dat's quare. She went out with hat and shawl on a little while ago. P'raps she's come back, and gone upstairs again."
Trembling so she could hardly walk steadily, Edith hurried to her room, and there saw Zell's note. Tearing it open, she only read the first line, and then rushed down to her mother and Laura, sobbing:
"Gone! Where?" they said, with dismayed faces.
Edith's only reply was to look suddenly at her watch, put on her hat, and dart out of the door. She saw that there were still ten minutes before the evening boat passed the Pushton landing, and remembered that it was sometimes delayed. There was a shorter road to the dock than the one through the village, and this she took, with flying feet, and a white but determined face. It would have been a terrible thing for Van Dam to have met her then. She seemed sustained by supernatural strength, and, walking and running by turns, made the mile and a half in an incredibly short space of time. As she reached the top of the hill above the landing, she saw the boat coming in to the dock. Though panting and almost spent, again she ran at the top of her speed. Half- way down she heard the plank ring out upon the wharf.
"Stop!" she called. But her parched lips uttered only a faint sound, like the cry of one in a dream.
A moment later, as she struggled desperately forward, there came, like the knell of hope, the command:
"Oh, wait, wait!" she again tried to call, but her tongue seemed paralyzed.
As she reached the commencement of the long dock, she saw the lines cast off. The great wheels gave a vigorous revolution, and the boat swept away.
She was too late. She staggered forward a few steps more, and then all her remaining strength went into one agonized cry:
And she fell fainting on the dock.
Zell heard that cry, and recognized the voice. Taking her hand from Mr. Van Dam's arm, she covered her face in sudden remorseful weeping.
But it was too late.
She had left the shelter of home, and ventured out into the great pitiless world on nothing better than Van Dam's word. It was like walking a rotten plank out into the sea.
Zell was lost!