Chapter XXV. A Horror of Great Darkness
 

By the time Edith reached home the transient strength and transient brightening of the skies seemed to pass away. Her mother was no better and the poor girl saw too plainly the grisly spectres, care, want, and shame upon her hearth, to fear any good fairy that left such traces as she saw in her garden. But the mystery troubled her; she longed to know who it was. As she mused upon it on her way home, Arden Lacey suddenly occurred to her, and there was a glimmer of a smile and a faint increase of color on her pale face. But she did not suggest her suspicion to Hannibal, when he eagerly asked if it were Malcom.

"No, strange to say, it was not," said Edith. "Who could it have been?"

Hannibal's face fell, and he looked very solemn. "Sumpen awful's gwine to happen, Miss Edie," he said, in a sepulchral tone.

Edith broke into a sudden reckless laugh, and said, "I think something awful is happening about as fast as it can. But never mind, Hannibal, we'll watch to-night, and perhaps he will come again."

"Oh, Miss Edie, I'se hope you'll 'scuse me. I couldn't watch for a spook to save my life. I'se gwine to bed as soon as it's dark, and cover up my head till mornin'."

"Very well," said Edith, quietly. "I'm going to sit up with mother to- night, and if it comes again, I'll see it."

"De good Lord keep you safe, Miss Edie," said Hannibal, tremblingly. "You'se know I'd die for you in a minit; but I'se couldn't wateh for a spook nohow," and Hannibal crept away, looking as if the very worst had now befallen them.

Edith was too weary and sad even to smile at the absurd superstition of her old servant, for with her practical, positive nature she could scarcely understand how even the most ignorant could harbor such delusions. She said to Laura, "Let me sleep till nine o'clock, and then I will watch till morning."

Laura did not waken her till ten.

After Edith had shaken off her lethargy, she said, "Why, Laura, you look ready to faint!"

With a despairing little cry, Laura threw herself on the floor, and buried her face in her sister's lap, sobbing:

"I am ready to faint--body and soul. Oh, Edie, Edie, what shall we do? Oh, that I were sure death was an eternal sleep, as some say! How gladly I would close my eyes to-night and never wish to open them again! My heart is ashes, and my hope is dead. And yet I am afraid to die, and more afraid to live. Ever since--Zell--went--the future has been--a terror to me. Edith," she continued, after a moment, in a low voice, that trembled and was full of dread, "Zell has not written--the silence of the grave seems to have swallowed her. He has not married her!" and an agony of grief convulsed Laura's slight frame.

Edith's eyes grew hard and tearless, and she said sternly, "It were better the grave had swallowed her than such a gulf of infamy."

Laura suddenly became still, her sobs ceasing. Slowly she raised such a white, terror-stricken face, that Edith was startled. She had never seen her elder sister, once so stately and proud, then so apathetic, moved like this.

"Edith," she said, in an awed whisper, "what is there before us? Zell's, flight, like a flash of lightning, has revealed to me where we stand, and ever since I have brooded over our situation, till it seems as if I shall go mad. There's an awful gulf before us, and every day we are being pushed nearer to it;" and Laura's large blue eyes were dilated with horror, as if she saw it.

"Mother is going to die," she continued, in a tone that chilled Edith's soul. "Our money will soon be gone; we then shall be driven away even from this poor shelter, out upon the streets--to New York, or somewhere. Edith, Oh, Edith, don't you see the gulf? What else is before us?"

"Honest work is before me," said Edith, almost fiercely. "I will compel the world to give me a place entitled at least to respect."

Laura shook her head despairingly. "You may struggle back and up to where you are safe. You are good and strong. But there are so many poor girls in the world like me, who are not good and strong! Everything seems to combine to push a helpless, friendless woman toward that gulf. Poor rash, impulsive Zell saw it, and could not endure the slow, remorseless pressure, as one might be driven over a precipice, and one she loved seemed to stand ready to break the fall. I understand her stony, reckless face now."

"Oh, Laura, hush!" said Edith, desperately.

"I must speak," she went on, in the same low voice, so full of dread, "or my brain will burst. I have thought and thought, and seen that awful gulf grow nearer and nearer, till at times it seemed as if I should shriek with terror. For two nights I have not slept. Oh! why were we not taught something better than dressing and dancing, and those hollow, superficial accomplishments that only mock us now? Why were not my mind and body developed into something like strength? I would gladly turn to the coarsest drudgery, if I could only be safe. But after what has happened no good people will have anything to do with us, and I am a feeble, helpless creature, that can only shrink and tremble as I am pushed nearer and nearer."

Edith seemed turning into stone, herself paralyzed by Laura's despair. After a moment Laura continued, with a perceptible shudder in her voice:

"There is no one to break my fall. Oh, that I was not afraid to die! That seems the only resource to such as I, If I could just end it all by becoming nothing--"

"Laura, Laura," cried Edith, starting up, "cease your wild mad words. You are sick and morbid. You are more delirious than mother is. We can get work; there are good people who will take care of us."

"I have seen nothing that looks like it," said Laura, in the same despairing tone. "I have read of just such things, and I see how it all must end."

"Yes, that's just it," said Edith, impatiently. "You have read so many wild, unnatural stories of life that you are ready to believe anything that is horrible. Listen: I have over four hundred dollars in the bank."

"How did you get it?" asked Laura, quickly.

"I have followed mother's suggestion, and mortgaged the place."

Laura sank into a chair, and became so deathly white that Edith thought she would faint. At last she gasped:

"Don't you see? Even you in your strength can't help yourself. You are being pushed on, too. You said you would not follow mother's advice again, because it always led to trouble. You said, again and again, you would not mortgage the place, and yet you have done it. Now it's all clear. That mortgage will be foreclosed, and then we shall be turned out, and then--" and she covered her face with her hands. "Don't you see," she said, in a muffled tone, "the great black hand reaching out of the darkness and pushing us down and nearer? Oh, that I wasn't afraid to die!"

Edith was startled. Even her positive, healthful nature began to yield to the contagion of Laura's morbid despair. She felt that she must break the spell and be alone. By a strong effort she tried to speak in her natural tone and with confidence. She tried to comfort the desperate woman by endearing epithets, as if she were a child. She spoke of those simple restoratives which are so often and vainly prescribed for mortal wounds, sleep and rest.

"Go to bed, poor child," she urged. "All will look differently in the sunlight to-morrow."

But Laura scarcely seemed to heed her. With weak, uncertain steps she drew near the bed, and turned the light on her mother's thin, flushed face, and stood, with clasped hands, looking wistfully at her.

"Yes, my dear," muttered Mrs. Allen in her delirium, "both your father and myself would give our full approval to your marriage with Mr. Goulden." The poor woman made watching doubly hard to her daughters, since she kept recalling to them the happy past in all its minutiae.

Laura turned to Edith with a smile that was inexpressibly sad, and said, "What a mockery it all is! There seems nothing real in this world but pain and danger. Oh, that I was not afraid to die!"

"Laura, Laura! go to your rest," exclaimed Edith, "or you will lose your reason. Come;" and she half carried the poor creature to her room. "Now, leave the door ajar," she said, "for if mother is worse I will call you."

Edith sat down to her weary task as a watcher, and never before, in all the sad preceding weeks, had her heart been so heavy, and so prophetic of evil, Laura's words kept repeating themselves to her, and mingling with those of her mother's delirium, thus strangely blending the past and the present. Could it be true that they were helpless in the hands of a cruel, remorseless fate, that was pushing them down? Could it be true that all her struggles and courage would be in vain, and that each day was only bringing them nearer to the desperation of utter want? She could not disguise from herself that Laura's dreadful words had a show of reason, and that, perhaps, the mortgage she had given that day meant that they would soon be without home or shelter in the great, pitiless world. But, with set teeth and white face, she muttered:

"Death first."

Then, with a startled expression, she anxiously asked herself: "Was that what Laura meant when she kept saying, 'Oh, if I wasn't afraid to die!'" She went to her sister's door and listened. Laura's movements within seemed to satisfy her, and she returned to the sick-room and sat down again. Putting her hand upon her heart, she murmured:

"I am completely unnerved to-night. I don't understand myself;" and she looked almost as pale and despairing as Laura.

She was, in truth, in the midst of that "horror of great darkness" that comes to so many struggling souls in a world upon which the shadow of sin rests so heavily.