Chapter XXII. A Mystery
 

At Arden's request his mother called in the evening, and also Mrs. Groody, from the hotel. Hannibal met them, and stated the doctor's orders. Mrs. Allen and Laura did not feel equal to facing any one. Though the old servant was excessively polite, the callers felt rather slighted that they saw no member of the family. They went away a little chilled in consequence, and contented themselves thereafter by sending a few delicacies and inquiring how Edith was.

"If you have any self-respect at all," said Rose Lacey to her mother, "you will not go there again till you are invited. It's rather too great a condescension for you to go at all, after what has happened."

Arden listened with a black look, and asked, rather sharply:

"Will you never learn to distinguish between Miss Edith and the others?"

"Yes," said Rose, dryly, "when she gives me a chance."

The doctor's view of Edith's case was correct. Her vigorous and elastic constitution soon rallied from the shock it had received. Hannibal had sent to the village for nutritious diet, which he knew so well how to prepare, and, after a few days, she was quite herself again. But with returning strength came also a sense of shame, anxiety, and a torturing dread of the future. The money accruing from her last sale of jewelry would not pay the debts resting on them now, and she could not hope to earn enough to pay the balance remaining, in addition to their support. Her mother suggested the mortgaging of her place. She had at first repelled the idea, but at last entertained it reluctantly. There seemed no other resource. It would put off the evil day of utter want, and might give her time to learn something by which she could compete with trained workers.

Then there was the garden. Might not that and the orchard, in time, help them out of their troubles?

As the long hours of her convalescence passed, she sat at her window and scanned the little spot with a wistfulness that might have been given to one of Eden-like proportions. She was astonished to see how her strawberries had improved since she hoed them, but noted in dismay that both they and the rest of the garden were growing very weedy.

When the full knowledge of their poverty and danger dawned upon her, she felt that it would not be right for Malcom to come any more. At the same time she could not explain things to him; so she sent a written request through the mail for his bill, telling him not to come any more. This action, following the evening when Gus Elliot had surprised her in the garden, perplexed and rather nettled Malcom, who was, to use his own expression, "a bit tetchy." Their money had grown so scarce that Edith could not pay the bill, and she was ashamed to go to see him till there was some prospect of her doing so. Thus Malcom, though disposed to be very friendly, was lost to her at this critical time, and her garden suffered accordingly. She and Hannibal had done what they could, but of late her illness, and the great accession of duties resting on the old servant, had caused complete neglect in her little plantation of fruit and vegetables. Thus, while all her crops were growing well, the weeds were gaining on them, and even Edith knew that the vigor of evil was in them, and that, unchecked, they would soon make a tangled swamp of that one little place of hope. She could not ask Hannibal to work there now, for he was overburdened already. Laura seemed so feeble and crushed that her strength was scarcely equal to taking care of her mother, and the few lighter duties of housework. Therefore, though the June sunshine rested on the little garden, and all nature seemed in the rapture of its early summer life, poor, practical Edith saw only the pestiferous weeds that threatened to destroy her one slender prospect of escape from environing difficulties. At last she turned away. To the sad and suffering, scenes most full of cheer and beauty often seem the most painful mockery.

She brooded over her affairs most of the day, dwelling specially on the suggestion of a mortgage. She felt extreme reluctance in perilling her home. Then again she said to herself, "It will at least give me time, and perhaps the place will be sold for debt, for we must live."

The next morning she slept late, her weary, overtaxed frame asserting its need. But she rose greatly refreshed, and it seemed that her strength had come back. With returning vigor hopefulness revived. She felt some cessation of the weary, aching sorrow at her heart. The world is phosphorescent to the eyes of youth, and even ingulfing waves of misfortune will sometimes gleam with sudden brightness.

The morning light also brought Edith a pleasant surprise, for, as she was dressing, her eyes eagerly sought the strawberry-bed. She had been thinking, "If I only continue to gain in this style, I shall soon be able myself to attack the weeds." Therefore, instead of a helpless look, such as she gave yesterday, her glance had something vengeful and threatening in it. But the moment she opened the lattice, so that she could see, an exclamation came from her lips, and she threw back the blinds, in order that there might be no mistake as to the wonder that startled her. What magic had transformed the little place since, in the twilight of the previous evening, she had given the last discouraged look in that direction? There was scarcely a weed to be seen in the strawberry-bed. They had not only been cut off, but raked away, and here and there she could see a berry reddening in the morning sun. In addition, some of her most important vegetables, and her prettiest flower border, had been cleaned and nicely dressed. A long row of Dan O'Rourk peas, that had commenced to sprawl on the ground, was now hedged in by brush; and, better still, thirty cedar poles stood tall and straight among her Lima beans, whose long slender shoots had been vainly feeling round for a support the last few days. Her first impulse was to clap her hands with delight and exclaim: "How, in the name of wonder, could he do it all in a night! Oh, Malcom, you are a canny Scotchman, but you put the 'black art' to very white uses."

She dressed in excited haste, meaning to question Hannibal, but, as she left her room, Laura met her, and said, in a tone of the deepest despondency--

"Mother seems very ill. She has not felt like herself since that dreadful night, but we did not like to tell you, fearing it would put back your recovery."

The rift in the heavy clouds, through which the sun had gleamed for a moment, now closed, and a deeper gloom seemed to gather round them. In sudden revulsion Edith said, bitterly:

"Are we to be persecuted to the end? Cannot the heavy hand of misfortune be lifted a moment?"

She found her mother suffering from a low, nervous fever, and quite delirious.

Hannibal was at once despatched for the doctor, who, having examined Mrs. Allen's symptoms, shook his head, saying:

"Nothing but good nursing will bring her through this."

Edith's heart sank like lead. What prospect was there for work now, even if Mrs. Groody gave it to her, as she had promised? She saw nothing before her but the part of a weary watcher, for perhaps several weeks. She hesitated no longer, but resolved to mortgage her place at once. Her mother must have delicacies and good attendance, and she must have time to extricate herself from the difficulties into which she had been brought by false steps at the beginning. Therefore she told Hannibal to give her an early lunch, after which she would walk to the village.

"You isn't able," said he earnestly.

"Oh, yes I am," she replied; "better able than to stay at home and worry. I must have something settled, and my mind at rest, even for a little while, or I shall go distracted." Then she added, "Did you see Malcom here early this morning?"

"No, Miss Edie, he hasn't been here."

"Go look at the garden."

He returned with eyes dilated in wonder, and asked quickly, "Miss Edie, when was all dat done?"

"Between dark last night and when I got up this morning. It seems like magic, don't it? But of course it is Malcom's work. I only wish I could see him."

But Hannibal shook his head ominously and said with emphasis, "Dat little Scotchman couldn't scratch around like dat, even if de debil was arter him. 'Tain't his work."

"Why, whose else could it be?" asked Edith, sipping a strong cup of coffee, with which she was fortifying herself for the walk.

Hannibal only shook his head with a very troubled expression, but at last he ventured:

"If 'tis a spook, I hope it won't do nothin' wuss to us."

Even across Edith's pale face a wan smile flitted at this solution of the mystery, and she said:

"Why, Hannibal, you foolish old fellow! The idea of a ghost hoeing a strawberry-bed and sticking in bean-poles!"

But Hannibal's superstitious nature was deeply stirred. He had been under a severe strain himself of late, and the succession of sorrows and strange experiences was telling on him as well as on the others. He could not indulge in a nervous fever, like Mrs. Allen, but he had reached that stage when he could easily see visions, and tremble before the slightest vestige of the supernatural. So he replied a little doggedly:

"Spooks does a heap ob quar tings, Miss Edie. I'd tink it was Massa Allen, ony I knows dat he neber hab a hoe in his hand all his life. I doesn't like it. I'd radder hab de weeds."

"O Hannibal, Hannibal! I couldn't believe it of you. I'll go and see Malcom, just to satisfy you."