Chapter XXI. Edith's True Knight
 

The next morning Edith was too ill to rise. She had become chilled after her extraordinary exertion of the previous evening, and a severe cold was the consequence; and this, with the nervous prostration of an over-taxed system, made her appear more seriously indisposed than she really was. For the sake of her mother and Laura, she wished to be present at the meagre little breakfast which her economy now permitted, but found it impossible; and later in the day her mind seemed disposed to wander.

Mrs. Allen and Laura were terror-stricken at this new trouble. As Hannibal had said, they were all leaning on Edith. They had lost confidence in themselves, and now hoped nothing from the outside world. They had scarcely the shadow of an expectation that Van Dam would marry Zell, and therefore they knew that worse than work would separate them from all old connections, and they had learned to hope nothing from the people of Pushton. Poor, feverish, wandering Edith seemed the only one who could keep them from falling into the abyss of utter want. They instinctively felt that total wreck was impossible as long as she kept her hand upon the helm; but now they had all the wild alarm of those who are drifting helplessly toward a reef, with a deep and stormy sea on either side of it. Thus to the natural anxiety of affection was added sickening fear.

Poor old Hannibal had no fear for himself. His devotion to Edith reminded one of a faithful dog: it was so strong, instinctive, unreasoning. He realized vaguely that his whole existence depended on Edith's getting well, and yet we doubt whether he thought of himself any more than the Newfoundland, who watches beside the bed, and then beside the grave of a loved master, till famine, that form of pain which humanity cannot endure, robs him of life.

"We must have a physician immediately," said Laura, with white lips.

"Oh, no," murmured Edith; "we can't afford it."

"We must," said Laura, with a sudden rush of tears. "Everything depends on you."

Hannibal, who heard this brief dialogue, went silently downstairs, and at once started in quest of Arden Lacey.

"If he is quar, he seemed kind o' human; and I'se believe he'll help us now."

Arden was on the way to the barn, having just finished a farmer's twelve o'clock dinner, when Hannibal entered the yard. An angel of light could not have been more welcome than this dusky messenger, for he came from the centre of all light and hope to poor Arden. Then a feeling of alarm took possession of him. Had anything happened to Edith? He had seen her shrinking shame. Had it led her to--and he shuddered at the thought his wild imagination suggested. It was almost a relief when Hannibal said:

"Oh, Mr. Lacey, I'se sure from de way you acted when we fust come, dat you can feel for people in trouble. Miss Edie's berry sick, and I don't know whar to go for a doctor, and she won't have any; but she mus, and right away. Den again, I oughter not leave, for dey's all nearly dead with trouble and cryin'."

"You are a good, faithful fellow," said Arden, heartily. "Go back and do all you can for Miss Edith, and I'll bring a doctor myself, and much quicker too than you could."

Before Hannibal reached home, Arden galloped past him, and the old man chuckled:

"De drunken Laceys' mighty good neighbors when dey's sober."

As may well be imagined, recent events, as far as he understood them, had stirred Arden's sensitive nature to the very depths. Hiding his feelings from all save his mother, and often from her; appearing to his neighbors stolid and sullen in the extreme, he was, in fact, in his whole being, like a morbidly-excited nerve. He did not shrink from the world because indifferent to it, but because it wounded him when he came in contact with it. He seemed so out of tune with society that it produced only jarring discord. His father's course brought him many real slights, and these he resented as we have seen, and he resented fancied slights quite as often, and thus he had cut himself off from the sympathies, and even the recognition, of nearly all.

But what human soul can dwell alone? The true hermit finds in communion with the Divine mind the perfection of companionship. But Arden knew not God. He had heard of Him all his life; but Jove and Thor were images more familiar to his mind than that of his Creator. He loved his mother and sister, but their life seemed a poor, shaded little nook, where they toiled and moped. And so, to satisfy the cravings of his lonely heart, he had created and peopled an unreal world of his own, in which he dwelt most of the time. As his interest in the real world ceased, his imagination more vividly portrayed the shadowy one, till at last, in the scenes of poetry and fiction, and the splendid panorama of history, he thought he might rest satisfied, and find all the society he needed in converse with those whom, by a refinement of spiritualism, he could summon to his side from any age or land. He secretly exulted in the still greater magic by which the unreal creatures of poetic thought would come at his volition, and he often smiled to think how royally attended was "old, drunken Lacey's" son, whom many of the neighbors thought scarcely better than the horses he drove.

Thus he lived under a spell of the past, in a world moon-lighted by sentiment and fancy, surrounded by his ideals of those about whom he read, and Shakespeare's vivid, life-like women were better known to him than any of the ladies of Pushton. But dreams cannot last in our material world, and ghosts vanish in the sunlight of fact. Woman's nature is as beautiful and fascinating now as when the master-hand of the world's greatest poet delineated it, and when living, breathing Edith Allen stepped suddenly among his shadows, seemingly so luminous, they vanished before her, as the stars pale into nothingness when the eastern sky is aglow with morning. Now, in all his horizon, she only shone, but the past seemed like night, and the present, day.

The circumstances under which he had met Edith had, in brief time, done more to acquaint him with her than years might have accomplished, and for the first time in his life he saw a superior girl with the distorting medium of his prejudice pushed aside. Therefore she was a sudden beautiful revelation to him, as vivid as unexpected. He did not believe any such being existed, and indeed there did not, if we consider into what he came to idealize Edith. But a better Edith really lived than the unnatural paragon that he pictured to himself, and the reality was capable of a vast improvement, though not in the direction that his morbid mind would have indicated.

The treatment of his sister, the sudden ceasing of all intercourse, and the appearance of Gus Elliot upon the scene, had cruelly wounded his fair ideal, but with a lover's faith and a poet's fancy he soon repaired the ravages of facts. He assured himself that Edith did not know the character of the men who visited her house.

Then came Crowl's gossip, the knowledge of her poverty, and her wretched errands to New York to dispose of the relics of the happy past. He gathered from such observations as he could maintain without being suspected, by every crumb of gossip that he could pick up (for once he listened to gossip as if it were gospel), that they were in trouble, that Edith was looking for work, and that she was so superior to the rest of the family that they now all deferred to her and leaned upon her. Then, to his deep satisfaction, he had seen Elliot, the morning after his scathing repulse, going to the train, and looking forlorn and sadly out of humor, and he was quite sure he had not been near the little cottage since. Arden needed but little fact upon which to rear a wondrous superstructure, and here seemed much, and all in Edith's favor, and he longed with an intensity beyond language to do something to help her.

Then came the tragedy of Zell's flight, Edith's heroic and almost superhuman effort to save her, now followed by her pathetic weakness and suffering, and no knight in the romantic age of chivalry ever more wholly and loyally devoted himself to the high-born lady of his choice, than did Arden to the poor sick girl at whom the finger of scorn would now be generally pointed in Pushton.

To come back to our hero, galloping away on his old farm horse to find a country doctor, may seem a short step down from the sublime. And so, perhaps, it may be to those whose ideal of the sublime is only in outward and material things. But to those who look past these things to the passionate human heart, the same in every age, it will be evident that Arden was animated by the same spirit with which he would have sought and fought the traditional dragon.

Dr. Neak, a new-comer who was gaining some little name for skill and success, and was making the most of it, was at home; but on Arden's hurried application, ahemmed, hesitated, colored a little, and at last said:

"Look here, Mr.---(I beg your pardon, I've not the pleasure of knowing your name), I'm a comparative stranger in Pushton, and am just gaining some little reputation among the better classes. I would rather not compromise myself by attendance upon that family. If you can't get any one else, and the girl is suffering, of course I'll try and go, but--"

"Enough," interrupted Arden, starting up blazing with wrath. "You should spell your name with an S. I want a man as well as a physician," and, with a look of utter contempt, he hastened away, leaving the medical man somewhat anxious, not about Edith, but whether he had taken the best course in view of his growing reputation.

Arden next traced out Dr. Blunt, who readily promised to come. He attended all alike, and charged roundly also.

"Business is business," was his motto. "People who employ me must expect to pay. After all, I'm the cheapest man in the place, for I tell my patients the truth, and cure them as quickly as possible."

Arden's urgency soon brought him to Edith's side, and his practiced eye saw no serious cause for alarm, and having heard more fully the circumstances, he said:

"She will be well in a few days if she is kept very quiet, and nothing new sets in. Of course she would be sick after last night. One might as well put his hand in the fire and not expect it to burn him, as to get very warm and then cool off suddenly and not expect to be ill. Her pulse indicates general depression of her system, and need of rest. That's all."

After prescribing remedies and a tonic, he said, "Let me know if I am needed again," and departed in rather ill-humor.

Meeting Arden's anxious, questioning face at the gate, he said gruffly:

"I thought from what you said the girl was dying. Used up and a bad cold, that's all. Somewhat feverish yourself, ain't you?" he added meaningly.

Though Arden colored under the doctor's satire, he was chiefly conscious of a great relief that his idol was not in danger. His only reply was the sullen, impassive expression he usually turned toward the world.

As the doctor rode away, Hannibal joined him, saying:

"Mr. Lacey, you'se a friend in need, and if you only knowed what an angel you'se servin', you wouldn't look so cross."

"Do I look cross?" asked Arden, his face becoming friendly in a moment. "Well, it wasn't with you, still less with Miss Edith; for even you cannot serve her more gladly than I will. That old doctor r'iled me a little, though I can forgive him, since he says she is not seriously ill."

"I'se glad you feels your privileges," said Hannibal, with some dignity. "I'se knowed Miss Edie eber since she was a baby, and when we lived on de avenue, de biggest and beautifullest in de city come to our house, but none of 'em could compare wid my young lady. I don't care what folks say, she's jes as good now, if she be poor, and her sister hab run away, poor chile. De world don't know all;" and old Hannibal shook his white head sadly and reproachfully.

This panegyric found strong echo in Arden's heart, but his habit of reticence and his sensitive shrinking from any display of feeling permitted him only to say, "I am sure every word you say is more than true, and you will do me a great favor when you let me know how I can serve Miss Edith."

Hannibal saw that he need waste no more ammunition on Arden, so he pulled out the prescriptions, and said:

"The doctor guv me dese, but, Lor bress you, my ole jints is stiff, and I'd be a week in gittin' down and back from de willage."

"That's enough," interrupted Arden. "You shall have the medicines in half an hour;" and he kept his word.

"He is quar," muttered Hannibal, looking after him. "Neber saw a man so 'bligin'. Folks say winegar ain't nothin' to him, but he seems sweet on Miss Edie, sure 'nuff. What 'ud he say, 'You'se do me great favor to tell me how I can serve Miss Edie'? I'se hope it'll last," chuckled Hannibal, retiring to his domain in the kitchen, "'cause I'se gwine to do him a heap ob favors."