Chapter XX. Desolation
 

Not only did Edith's bitter cry startle poor Zell, coming to her ear as a despairing recall from the battlements of heaven might have sounded to a falling angel, but Arden Lacey was as thoroughly aroused from his painful revery as if shaken by a giant hand. He had been down to meet the boat, with many others, and was sending off some little produce from their place. He had not noticed in the dusk the closely- veiled lady; indeed, he rarely noticed any one unless they spoke to him, and then gave but brief, surly attention. Only one had scanned Zell curiously, and that was Tom Crowl. With his quick eye for something wrong in human action, he was attracted by Zell's manner. He could not make out through her thick veil who she was, in the increasing darkness, but he saw that she was agitated, and that she looked eagerly for the coming of the boat, also landward, where the road came out on the dock, as if fearing or expecting something from that quarter. But when he saw her join Van Dam, he recognized his old bar-room acquaintance, and surmised that the lady was one of the Allen family. Possessing these links in the chain, he was ready for the next. Edith's presence and cry supplied this, and he chuckled exultantly:

"An elopement!" and ran in the direction of the sound.

But Arden was already at Edith's side, having reached her almost at a bound, and was gently lifting the unconscious girl, and regarding her with a tenderness only equalled by his helplessness and perplexity in not knowing what to do with her.

The first impulse of his great strength was to carry her directly to her home. But Edith was anything but ethereal, and long before he could have passed the mile and a half, he would have fainted under the burden, even though love nerved his arms. But while he stood in piteous irresolution, there came out from the crowd that had gathered round, a stout, middle-aged woman, who said, in a voice that not only betokened the utmost confidence in herself, but also the assurance that all the world had confidence in her:

"Here, give me the girl. What do you men-folks know about women?"

"I declare, it's Mrs. Groody from the hotel," ejaculated Tom Crowl, as this delightful drama (to him) went on from act to act.

"Standin' there and holdin' of her," continued Mrs. Groody, who was sometimes a little severe on both sexes, "won't bring her to, unless she fainted 'cause she wanted some one to hold her."

A general laugh greeted this implied satire, but Arden, between anger and desire to do something, was almost beside himself. He had the presence of mind to rush to the boat-house for a bucket of water, and when he arrived with it a man had also procured a lantern, which revealed to the curious onlookers who gathered round with craning necks the pale features of Edith Allen.

"By golly, but it's one of them Allen girls," said Tom Crowl, eagerly. "I see it all now. She's down to stop her sister, who's just run away with one of those city scamps that was up here awhile ago. I saw her join him and take his arm on the boat, but wasn't sure who she was then."

"Might know you was around, Tom Crowl," said Mrs. Groody. "There's never nothing wrong going on but you see it. You are worse than any old woman for gossip. Why don't you put on petticoats and go out to tea for a livin'?"

When the laugh ceased at Crowl's expense, he said:

"Don't you put on airs, Mrs. Groody; you are as glad, to hear the news as any one. It's a pity you turned up and spoiled Mr. Lacey's part of the play, for, if this one is anything like her sister, she, perhaps, wanted to be held, as you--"

Tom's further utterance was effectually stopped by such a blow across his mouth, from Lacey's hand, as brought the blood profusely on the spot, and caused such disfigurement, for days after, that appropriate justice seemed visited on the offending region.

"Leave this dock," said Arden, sternly; "and if I trace any slander to you concerning this lady or myself, I will break every bone in your miserable body."

Crowl shrank off amid the jeers of the crowd, but on reaching a safe distance, said, "You will be sorry for this."

Arden paid no need to him, for Edith, under Mrs. Groody's treatment, gave signs of returning consciousness. She slowly opened her eyes, and turned them wonderingly around; then came a look of wild alarm, as she saw herself surrounded by strange bearded faces, that appeared both savage and grotesque in the flickering light of the lantern."

"O, Heaven! have mercy," she cried, faintly. "Where am I?"

"Among friends, I assure you, Miss Allen," said Arden, kneeling at her side.

"Mr. Lacey! and are you here?" said Edith, trying to rise. "You surely will protect me."

"Do not be afraid, Miss Allen. No one would harm you for the world; and Mrs. Groody is a good kind lady, and will see you safely home, I am sure."

Edith now became conscious that it was Mrs. Groody who was supporting her, and regained confidence, as she recognized the presence of a woman.

"Law bless you, child, you needn't be scared. You have only had a faint. I'll take care of you, as young Lacey says. Seems to me he's got wonderfully polite since last summer," she muttered to herself.

"But where am I?" asked Edith, with a bewildered air; "what has happened?"

"Oh, don't worry yourself; you'll soon be home and safe."

But the memory of it all suddenly came to Edith, and even by the lantern's light, Arden saw the sudden crimson pour into her face and neck, She gave one wild, deprecating look around, and then buried her face in her hands as if to hide the look of scorn she expected to see on every face.

The first arrow aimed by Zell's great wrong already quivered in her heart.

"Don't you think you could walk a little now, just enough to get into the hack with me and go home?" asked the kind woman, in a soothing voice.

"Yes, yes," said Edith, eagerly; "let us get away at once." And with Mrs. Groody's and Arden's assistance, she was soon seated in the hack, and was glad to note that there was no other passenger. The ride was a comparatively silent one. Edith was too exhausted from her desperate struggle to reach the boat, and her heart was too bruised and sore, to permit on her part much more than monosyllables, in answer to Mrs. Groody's efforts at conversation. But as they stopped at the cottage her new friend said, cheerily:

"Don't take it so hard, my child; you ain't to blame. I'll stand by you if no one else will. It don't take me long to know a good honest girl when I see one, and I know you mean well. What's more, I've took a likin' to you, and I can be a pretty fair sort of friend if I do work for a livin'."

Mrs. Groody was good if not grammatical. She had broad shoulders, that had borne in their day many burdens--her own and others'. She had a strong, stout frame, in which thumped a large, kindly heart. She had long earned her bread by callings that brought her in contact with all classes, and had learned to know the world very thoroughly without becoming worldly or hardened. But she had a quick, sharp tongue, and could pay anybody off in his own coin with interest. Everybody soon found it to his advantage to keep on the right side of Mrs. Groody, and the old habitues of the hotel were as polite and deferential to her as if she were a duchess. She was one of those shrewd, strong, cheery people, who would make themselves snug, useful, and influential in a very short time, if set down anywhere on the face of the earth.

Such a woman readily surmised the nature of Edith's trouble, and knew well how deeply the shadow of Zell's disgrace would fall on the family. Edith's desperate effort to save her sister, her bitter humiliation and shrinking shame in view of the flight, all proved her to be worthy of respect and confidence herself. When Mrs. Groody saw that Edith lived in a little house, and was probably not in so high a social position as to resent her patronage, her big heart yearned in double sympathy over the poor girl, and she determined to help her in the struggle she knew to be before her; so she said, kindly:

"If you'll wait till a clumsy old body like me can get out, I'll see you safe into your home."

"Oh, no," said Edith, eagerly, following the strong instinct to keep a stranger from seeing herself, her mother, and Laura in the first hour of their shame. "You have been very kind, and I feel that I can never repay you."

"Bless you, child, I don't expect greenbacks for all I do. I want a little of the Lord's work to come to me, though I'm afraid I fell from grace long ago. But a body can't be pious in a hotel. There's so many aggravatin' people and things that you think swearin', if you darsn't say it out. But I'm a human sort of a heathen, after all, and I feel sorry for you. Now ain't there somethin' I can do for you?"

The driver stood with his lantern near the door, and its rays fell on Edith's pale face and large, tearful eyes, and she turned, and for the first time tried to see who this kind woman was, that seemed to feel for her. Taking Mrs. Groody's hands, she said, in a voice of tremulous pathos:

"God bless you for speaking to me at all. I didn't think any one would again who knew. You ask if you can do anything for me. If you'll only get me work, I'll bless you every day of my life. No one on earth or in heaven can help me, unless I get work. I'm almost desperate for it, and I can't seem to find any that will bring us bread, but I'll do any honest work, no matter what, and I'll take whatever people are willing to give for it, till I can do better." Edith spoke in a rapid manner, but in a tone that went straight to the heart.

"Why, my poor child," said Mrs. Groody, wiping her eyes, "you can't do work. You are pale as a ghost, and you look like a delicate lady."

"What is there in this world for a delicate lady who has no money but honest work?" asked Edith, in a tone that was almost stern.

"I see that you are such a lady, and it seems that you ought to find some lady-like work, if you must do it," said Mrs. Groody, musingly.

"We have tried to get employment--almost any kind. I can't think my sister would have taken her desperate course if we could have obtained something to do. I know she ought to have starved first. But we were not brought up to work, and we can't do anything well enough to satisfy people, and we haven't time to learn. Besides, before this happened, for some reason people stood aloof from us, and now it will be far worse. Oh, what shall we do? What shall we do?" cried Edith, despairingly; and in her trouble she seemed to turn her eyes away from Mrs. Groody, with wild questioning of the future.

Her new acquaintance was sniffling and blowing her nose in a manner that betokened serious internal commotion. The driver, who would have hustled any ordinary passenger out quickly enough, waited Mrs. Groody's leisure at a respectful distance. He knew her potential influence at the hotel. At last the good woman found her voice, though it seemed a little husky:

"Lor' bless you, child! I ain't got a millstun for a heart, and if I had, you'd turn it into wax. If work's all you want, you shall have it. I'm housekeeper at the hotel. You come to me as soon as you are able, and we'll find something."

"Oh, thank you, thank you!" said Edith, fervidly.

"Is dat you, Miss Edie?" called Hannibal's anxious voice.

"Good-night, my dear," said Mrs. Groody, hastily, "Don't lose courage. I ain't on as good terms with the Lord as I ought to be. I seem too worried and busy to 'tend to religion; but I know enough about Him to be sure that He will take care of a poor child that wants to do right."

"I don't understand how God lets happen all that's happened to-day. The best I can believe is, that we are dealt with in a mass, and the poor human atoms are lost sight of. But I am indeed grateful for your kindness, and will come to-morrow and do anything I can. Good-by."

And the hack rumbled away, leaving her in the darkness, with Hannibal at the gate.

"Oh, Hannibal, Hannibal," was all that Edith could say.

"Is she done gone clean away?" asked Hannibal, in an awed whisper.

"Would to heaven she had never been born!" said Edith, bitterly. "Help me into the house, for I feel as if I should die."

Hannibal, trembling with fear himself, supported poor, exhausted Edith to a sofa, and then disappeared into the kitchen.

Mrs. Allen and Laura came and stood with white faces by Edith's languid, unnerved form.

There was no need of asking questions. She had returned alone, with her fresh young face looking old and drawn in its grief.

At last Mrs. Allen said, with bitter emphasis:

"She is no child of mine, from this day forth."

Then followed such a dreary silence that it might seem that Zell had died and was no more.

At last Hannibal bustled in, making a most desperate effort to keep up a poor show of courage and hope. He placed on a little table before Edith a steaming hot cup of tea, some toast, and wine, but the food was motioned away.

"It would choke me," said Edith.

Hannibal stood before her a moment, his quaint old visage working under the influence of emotion, almost beyond control. At last he managed to say:

"Miss Edie, we'se all a leanin' on you. We'se nothin' but vines a climbin' up de orange-bush. If you goes down, we all does. And now, Miss Edie, I'd swallow pison for you. Won't you take a cup o' tea for de sake of ole Hannibal? 'Cause your sweet face looks so pinched, honey, dat I feels dat my ole black heart's ready to bust;" and Hannibal, feeling that the limit of his restraint was reached, retreated precipitately to the kitchen.

The appeal, with its element of deep affection, was more needed by Edith in her half-paralyzed state than even the material refreshment. She sat up instantly, and drank the tea and wine, and ate a little of the toast. Then taking the cup and glass into the kitchen:

"There," she said, "see, I've drunk every drop. So don't worry about me any more, my poor old Hannibal, but go to bed, after your hard day's work."

But Hannibal would not venture out of his dark corner, but muttered, brokenly:

"Lor--bress--you--Miss Edie--you'se an angel--I'se be better soon-- I'se got--de hiccups."

Edith thought it kindness to leave the old man to recover his self- control in his own time and way, so she said:

"Good-night, my faithful old friend. You're worth your weight in gold."

Meantime, Laura had helped Mrs. Allen to her room but now she came running down to Edith, with new trouble in her face, saying:

"Mother's crying so, I can't do anything with her."

At first Mrs. Allen's heart seemed hardened against her erring child, but on reaching her room she stood a few moments irresolutely, then went to a drawer, took out an old faded picture-case and opened it. From it Zell smiled out upon her, a little, dimpled baby. Then, as if by a sudden impulse rare to her, she pressed her lips against the unconscious face, and threw herself into her low chair, sobbing so violently that Laura became alarmed.

Even in that arid place, Mrs. Allen's heart, there appeared a little oasis of mother love, as this last and bitterest sorrow pierced its lowest depths. She might cast out from her affection the grown, sinning daughter, but not the baby that once slept upon her breast.

As Edith came and took her hand she said, brokenly:

"It seems--but yesterday--that she was--a wee black-eyed--little thing--in my arms--and your father--came--and looked at her--so proudly--tenderly--"

"Would to heaven she had died then!" said Edith, sternly.

"It would have been better if we had all died then,", said Mrs. Allen drearily, and becoming quiet.

Edith's words fell like a chill upon her unwontedly stirred heart, and old habits of feeling and action resumed sway.

With Mrs. Allen's words ended the miserable day of Zell's flight. Hannibal's words were true. Zell, in her unnatural absence, would be more in the way--a heavier burden--than if she had become a helpless invalid upon their hands.