Chapter XXVII. The Mystery Solved
 

Edith resumed her watching in her mother's room. The invalid was still dwelling on the past, and her delirium appeared to Edith a true emblem of her old, unreal life. Indeed, it seemed to her that she had never lived before. A quiet but divine exaltation filled her soul. She did not care to read any more, but just sat still and thought, and her spiritual light grew clearer and clearer.

Her faith was very simple, her knowledge very slight. She was scarcely in advance of a Hebrew maiden who might have been one of the mournful procession passing out of the gates of Nain, when a Stranger, unknown before, revealed Himself by turning death into life, sorrow into joy. The eye of her faith was fastened on the distinct, living, loving personality of our human yet Divine Friend, who no longer seemed afar off, but as near as to that other burdened one who touched the hem of His garment.

"He does not change, the Bible says," she thought. "He cannot change. Therefore He will help me, just as surely as He did the poor, suffering people among whom He lived."

It was but three o'clock, and yet the eastern sky was pale with dawn. At length her attention was gained by a faint but oft-repeated sound. It seemed to come from the direction of the garden, and at once the mystery that so oppressed poor Hannibal occurred to her. She rose, and passed back to her own room, which overlooked the garden, and, through the lattice, in the faint morning twilight, saw a tall, dusky figure, that looked much too substantial to be any such shadowy being as the old negro surmised, and the strokes of his hoe were too vigorous and noisy for ghostly gardening.

"It must be Arden Lacey," thought Edith, "but I will put this matter beyond all doubt. I don't like this night work, either; though for different reasons than those of poor Hannibal. We have suffered enough from scandal already, and henceforth all connected with my life shall be as open as the day. Then, if the world believes evil of me, it will be because it likes it best."

These thoughts passed through her mind while she hastily threw off her wrapper and dressed. Cautiously opening the back-door, she looked again. The nearer view and clearer light revealed to her Arden Lacey. She did not fear him, and at once determined to question him as to the motive of his action. He was but a little way off, and was tying up a grape-vine that had been neglected, his back being toward her. Edith had great physical courage and firmness naturally, and it seemed that on this morning she could fear nothing, in the strength of her new- born enthusiasm.

With noiseless step she reached his side, and asked, almost sternly:

"Who are you, sir; and what does this action mean?"

Arden started violently, trembled like the leaves in the morning wind, and turned slowly toward her, feeling more guilty and alarmed than if he had been playing the part of a burglar, instead of acting as her good genius.

"Why don't you answer?" she asked, in still more decided tones. "By what right are you doing this work?"

Edith had lost faith in men. She knew little of Arden, and the thought flashed through her mind, "This may be some new plot against us." Therefore her manner was stern and almost threatening.

Poor Aden was startled out of all self-control, Edith's coming was so sudden and unexpected, and her pale face was so spirit-like, that for a moment he scarcely knew whether the constant object of his thoughts was really before him, or whether his strong imagination was only mocking him.

Edith mistook his agitation and hesitancy as evidences of guilt, and he so far recovered himself as to recognize her suspicions.

"I will be answered. You shall speak the truth," she said, imperiously. "By what right are you doing this work?"

Then his own proud, passionate spirit flamed up, and looking her unblenchingly in the face, he replied:

"The right of my great love for you. Can I not serve my idol?"

An expression of deep pain and repulsion came out upon Edith's face, and he saw it. The avowal of his love was so abrupt--indeed it was almost stern; and, coming thus from quite a stranger, who had little place even in her thoughts, it was so exceedingly painful that it was like a blow. And yet she hardly knew how to answer him, for she saw in his open, manly face, his respectful manner, that he meant no evil, however he might err through ignorance or feeling.

He seemed to wait for her to speak again, and his face, from being like the eastern sky, became very pale. From recent experience, and the teachings of the Patient One, Edith's heart was very tender toward anything that looked like suffering, and though she deemed Arden's feeling but the infatuation of a rude and ill-regulated mind, she could not be harsh, now that all suspicion of evil designs was banished. Therefore she said quietly, and almost kindly:

"You have done wrong, Mr. Lacey. Remember I have no father or brother to protect me. The world is too ready to take up evil reports, and your strange action might be misunderstood. All transactions with me must be like the sunlight."

With an expression of almost anguish, Arden bowed his head before her, and groaned:

"Forgive me; I did not think."

"I am sure you meant no harm," said Edith, with real kindness now in her tone. "You would not knowingly make the way harder for a poor girl that has too much already to struggle against. And now, good-by. I shall trust to your sense of honor, assured that you will treat me as you would wish your own sister dealt with;" and she vanished, leaving Arden so overwhelmed with contending emotions that he could scarcely make his way home.

An hour later Edith heard Hannibal's step downstairs, and she at once joined him. The old man had aged in a night, and his face had a more worn and hopeless look than had yet rested upon it. He trembled at the rustle of her dress, and called:

"Miss Edie, am dat you?"

"Yes, you foolish old fellow. I have seen your spook, and ordered it not to come here again unless I send you for it."

"Oh, Miss Edie!" gasped Hannibal.

"It's Arden Lacey."

Hannibal collapsed. He seemed to drop out of the realm of the supernatural to the solid ground of fact with a heavy thump.

He sank into a chair, regarding her first with a blank, vacant face, which gradually became illumined with a knowing grin. In a low, chuckling voice, he said:

"I jes declar to you I'se struck all of a heap. I jes done see whar de possum is dis minute. What an ole black fool I was, sure 'nuff. I tho't he'se de mos 'bligin man I eber seed afore," and he told her how Arden had served her in her illness.

She was divided between amusement and annoyance, the latter predominating. Hannibal concluded impressively:

"Miss Edie, it must be lub. Nothin' else dan dat which so limbered up my ole jints could get any livin' man ober as much ground as he hoed dat night."

"Hush, Hannibal," said Edith, with dignity; "and remember that this is a secret between ourselves. Moreover, I wish you never to ask Mr. Lacey to do anything for us if it can possibly be helped, and never without my knowledge."

"You knows well, Miss Edie, dat you'se only to speak and it's done," said Hannibal, deprecatingly.

She gave him such a gentle, grateful look that the old man was almost ready to get down on his knees before her. Putting her hand on his shoulder, she said:

"What a good, faithful, old friend you are! You don't know how much I love you, Hannibal;" and she returned to her mother.

Hannibal rolled up his eyes and clasped his hands, as if before his patron saint, saying, under his breath:

"De idee of her lubing ole black Hannibal! I could die dis blessed minute," which was his way of saying, "Nunc dimittis."

Laura slept quietly till late in the afternoon, and wakened as if to a new and better life. Her manner was almost child-like. She had lost all confidence in herself, and seemed to wish to be controlled by Edith in all things, as a little child might be. But she was very feeble.

As the morning advanced Edith grew exceedingly weary. Reaction from her strong excitement seemed to bear her down in a weakness and lethargy that she could not resist, and by ten o'clock she felt that she must have some relief. It came from an unexpected source, for Hannibal appeared with a face of portentous solemnity, saying that Mrs. Lacey was downstairs, and that she wished to know if she could do something to help.

The mother's quick eye saw that something had deeply moved and was troubling her son. Indeed, for some time past, she had seen that into his unreal world had come a reality that was a source of both pain and pleasure, of fear and hope. While she followed him every hour of the day with an unutterable sympathy, she silently left him to open his heart to her in his own time and manner. But her tender, wistful manner told Arden that he was understood, and he preferred this tacit sympathy to any spoken words. But this morning the evidence of his mental distress was so apparent that she went to him, placed her hands upon his shoulders, and with her grave, earnest eyes looking straight into his, asked:

"Arden, what can I do for you?"

"Mother," he said, in a low tone, "there are sickness and deep trouble at our neighbors'. Will you go to them again?"

"Yes, my son," she replied, simply, "as soon as I can get ready."

So she arranged matters to stay if needed, and thus in Edith's extremity she appeared. In view of Arden's words, Edith hardly knew how to receive her or what to do. But when she saw the plain, grave woman sitting before her in the simple dignity of patient sorrow, her course seemed clear. She instinctively felt that she could trust this offered friendliness, and that she needed it.

"I have heard that your mother has been sick as well as yourself," Mrs. Lacey said kindly but quietly. "You look very worn and weary, Miss Allen; and if I, as a neighbor, can watch in your place for a while, I think you can trust me to do so."

Tears sprang into Edith's eyes, and she said, with sudden color coming into her pale face, "You take noble revenge for the treatment you have received from us, and I gratefully submit to it. I must confess I have reached the limit of my endurance; my sister is ill also, and yet mother needs constant attention."

"Then I am very glad I came, and I have left things at home so I can stay," and she laid aside her wraps with the air of one who sees a duty plainly and intends to perform it. Edith gave her the doctor's instructions a little incoherently in her utter exhaustion, but the experienced matron understood all, and said:

"I think I know just what to do. Sleep till you are well rested."

Edith went to her room, and, with her face where the sweet June air could breathe directly upon it through the open window, sleep came with a welcome and refreshing balm that she had never known before. Her last thought was, "He will take care of me and mine."

She had left the door leading into the sick-room open, and Mrs. Lacey stepped in once and looked at her. The happy, trustful thought with which she had closed her eyes had left a faint smile upon her face, and given it a sweet spiritual beauty.

"She seems very different from what I supposed," murmured Mrs. Lacey. "She is very different from what people are imagining her. Perhaps Arden, poor boy, is nearer right than all of us. Oh, I hope she is good, whether he ever marries her or not, for this love will be the saving or ruining of him."

When Edith awoke it was dark, and she started up in dismay, for she had meant to sleep but an hour or two. Having hastily smoothed her hair, she went to the sick-room, and found Laura reclining on the sofa, and talking in the most friendly manner to Mrs. Lacey. Her mother's delirium continued, though it was more quiet, with snatches of sleep intervening, but she noticed no one as yet. Mrs. Lacey sat calmly in her chair, her sad, patient face making the very ideal of a watcher, and yet in spite of her plain exterior there was a refinement, an air of self-respect, that would impress the most casual observer. As soon as Laura saw Edith she rose as quickly as her feebleness permitted, and threw her arms around her sister, and there was an embrace whose warmth and meaning none but themselves, and the pitying eye of Him who saved, could understand. Then Edith turned and said, earnestly:

"Truly, Mrs. Lacey, I did not intend to trespass on your kindness in this manner. I hope you will forgive me."

Nature knew what was best for you, Miss Allen, and have not incommoded me at all. I made my plans to stay till nine o'clock, and then Arden will come for me."

"Miss Edie," said Hannibal, in his loud whisper, "I'se got some supper for you down here."

Why did Edith go to her room and make a little better toilet before going down? She hardly thought herself. It was probably a feminine instinct. As she took her last sip of tea there was a timid knock at the door. "I will see him a moment," she decided.

Hannibal, with a gravity that made poor Edith smile in her thoughts, admitted Arden Lacey. He was diffident but not awkward, and the color deepened in his face, then left it very pale, as he saw Edith was present. Her pale cheek also took the faintest tinge of pink, but she rose quietly, and said:

"Please be seated, Mr. Lacey. I will tell your mother you are here." Then, as Hannibal disappeared, she added earnestly, "I do appreciate your mother's kindness, and--yours also. At the same time, too deep a sense of obligation is painful; you must not do so much for us. Please do not misunderstand me."

Arden had something of his mother's quiet dignity, as he rose and held out to Edith a letter, saying:

"Will you please read that--you need not answer it--and then perhaps you will understand me better."

Edith hesitated, and was reluctant.

"I may be doing wrong," continued he, earnestly and with rising color. "I am not versed in the world's ways; but is it not my right to explain the rash words I uttered this morning? My good name is dear to me also. Few care for it, but I would not have it utterly blurred in your eyes. We may be strangers after you have read it, if you choose, but I entreat you to read it."

"You will not feel hurt if I afterward return it to you?" asked Edith, timidly.

"You may do with it what you please."

She then took the letter, and a moment later Mrs. Lacey appeared, and said:

"I will sit up to-morrow night, with your permission."

Edith took her hand, and replied, "Mrs. Lacey, you burden me with kindness."

"It is not my wish to burden, but to relieve you, Miss Allen. I think I can safely say, from our slight acquaintance, that in the case of sickness or trouble at a neighbor's, you would not spare yourself. We cease to be human when we leave the too heavily burdened to struggle alone."

Edith's eyes grew moist, and she said, simply, "I cannot refuse kindness offered in that spirit, and may God bless you for it. Good- night."

Arden's only parting was a grave, silent bow.

Edith was soon alone again, watching by her mother. With some natural curiosity, she opened the letter that was written by one so different from any man that she had ever known before. Its opening, at least, was reassuring.

"MISS EDITH ALLEN--You need not fear that I shall offend again by either writing or speaking such rash words as those which so deeply pained you this morning. They would not have been spoken then, perhaps never, had I not been startled out of my self-control--had I not seen that you suspected me of evil. I was very unwise, and I sincerely ask your pardon. But I meant no wrong, and as you referred to my sister, I can say, before God, that I would shield you as I would shield her.

"I know little of the conventionalities of the world. I live but a hermit's life in it, and my letter may seem to you very foolish and romantic, still I know that my motives are not ignoble, and with this consciousness I venture.

"Reverencing and honoring you as I do, I cannot bear that you should think too meanly of me. The world regards me as a sullen, stolid, bearish creature, but I have almost ceased to care for its opinion. I have received from it nothing but coldness and scorn, and I pay my debt in like coin. But perhaps you can imagine why I cannot endure that you should regard me in like manner. I would not have you think my nature a stony, sterile place, when something tells me that it is like a garden that needs only sunlight of some kind. My life has been blighted by the wrong of another, who should have been my best helper. The knowledge and university culture for which I thirsted were denied me. And yet, believe me, only my mother's need--only the absolute necessity that she and my sister should have a daily protector--kept me from pushing out into the word, and trying to work my way unaided to better things. Sacred duty has chained me down to a life that was outwardly most sordid and unhappy. My best solace has been my mother's love. But from varied, somewhat extensive, though perhaps not the wisest kind of reading, I came to dwell in a brave, beautiful, but shadowy world that I created out of books. I was becoming satisfied with it, not knowing any other. The real world mocked and hurt me on every side. It is so harsh and unjust that I hate it. I hate it infinitely more as I see its disposition to wound you, who have been so noble and heroic. In this dream of the past--in this unreal world of my own fancy--I was living when you came that rainy night. As I learned to know you somewhat, you seemed a beautiful revelation to me. I did not think there was such a woman in existence. My shadows vanished before you. With you living in the present, my dreams of the past ceased. I could not prevent your image from entering my lonely, empty heart, and taking its vacant throne, as if by divine right. How could I? How can I drive you forth now, when my whole being is enslaved?

"But forgive me. Though thought and feeling are beyond control, outward action is not. I hope never to lose a mastering grasp on the rein of deeds and words; and though I cannot understand how the feeling I have frankly avowed can ever change, I will try never, by look or sign, to pain you with it again.

"And yet, with a diffidence and fear equalled only by my sincerity and earnestness, I would venture to ask one great favor. You said this morning that you already had too much to struggle against. The future has its possibilities of further trouble and danger.

"Will you not let me be your humble, faithful friend, serving you loyally, devotedly, yet unobtrusively, and with all the delicate regard for your position which I am capable of showing, assured that I will gratefully accept any hints when I am wrong or presumptuous? I would gladly serve you with your knowledge and consent. But serve you I must. I vowed it the night I lifted your unconscious form from the wharf, and gave you into Mrs. Groody's care. There need be no reply. You have only to treat me not as an utter stranger when we next meet. You have only to give me the joy of doing something for you when opportunity offers.

"ARDEN LACEY."

Edith's eyes filled with tears before she finished this most unexpected epistle. Though rather quaint and stately in its diction, the passion of a true, strong nature so permeated it all, that the coldest and shallowest would have been moved. And yet a half-smile played upon her face at the same time, like sunlight on drops of rain.

"Thank heaven!" she said, "I know of one more true man in the world, if he is a strange one. How different he is from what I thought! I don't believe there's another in this place who could have written such a letter. What would a New York society man, whose compliments are as extravagant as meaningless, think of it? Truly he doesn't know the world, and isn't like it. I supposed him an awkward, eccentric young countryman, that, from his very verdancy, would be difficult to manage, and he writes to me like a knight of olden time, only such language seems Quixotic in our day. The foolish fellow, to idealize poor, despised, faulty Edith Allen into one of the grand heroines of his interminable romances, and that after seeing me hoe my garden like a Dutch woman. If I wasn't so sad and he so earnest, I could laugh till my sides ached. There never was a more matter-of-fact creature than I am, and yet here am I enveloped in a halo of impossible virtues and graces. If I were what he thinks me, I shouldn't know myself. Well, well, I must treat him somewhat like a boy, for such he really is, ignorant of himself and all the world. When he comes to know me better, the Edith of his imagination will vanish like his other shadows, and he will have another revelation that I am an ordinary, flesh-and-blood girl."

With deepening color she continued: "So it was he who lifted me up that night. Well, I am glad it was one who pitied me, and not some coarse, unfeeling man. It seems strange how circumstances have brought him who shuns and is shunned by all, into such a queer relationship to me. But heaven forbid that I should give him lessons as to the selfish, matter-of-fact world. He will outgrow his morbidness and romantic chivalry with the certainty of years, and seeing more of me will banish his absurd delusions in regard to me. I need his friendship and help--indeed it seems as if they were sent to me. It can do him no harm, and it may give me a chance to do him good. If any man ever needed a sensible friend, he does."

Therefore Edith wrote him--

"It is very kind of you to offer friendship and help to one situated like myself, and I gratefully grant what you rather oddly call 'a favor.' At the same time, if you ever find such friendliness a pain or trouble to you in any way, I shall in no degree blame you for withdrawing it."

The "friendship" and "friendliness" were underscored, thus delicately hinting that this must be the only relation.

"There," she said, "all his chains will now be of his own forging, and I shall soon demolish the paragon he is dreaming over."

She laid both letters aside, and took down her Bible with a little sigh of satisfaction.

"His lonely, empty heart," she murmured; "ah, that is the trouble with all. He thinks to fill his with a vain dream of me, as others do with as vain a dream of something else. I trust I have learned of One here who can fill and satisfy mine;" and soon she was again deep in the wondrous story, so old, so new, so all-absorbing to those from whose spiritual eyes the scales of doubt and indifference have fallen. As she read she saw, not truths about Jesus, but Him, and at His feet her heart bowed in stronger faith and deeper love every moment.

She had not even thought whether she was a Christian or not. She had not even once put her finger on her spiritual pulse, to gauge the evidences of her faith. A system of theology would have been unintelligible to her. She could not have defined one doctrine so as to have satisfied a sound divine. She had not even read the greater part of the Bible, but, in her bitter extremity, the Spirit of God, employing the inspired guide, had brought her to Jesus, as the troubled and sinful were brought to Him of old. He had given her rest. He had helped her save her sister, and with childlike confidence she was just looking, lovingly and trustingly, into His divine face, and He was smiling away all her fear and pain. She seemed to feel sure that her mother would get well, that Laura would grow stronger, that they would all learn to know Him, and would be taken care of.

As she read this evening she came to that passage of exquisite pathos, where the purest, holiest manhood said to "a woman of the city, which was a sinner,"

"Thy sins are forgiven. Go in peace."

Instantly her thoughts reverted to Zell, and she was deeply moved. Could she be forgiven? Could she be saved? Was the God of the Bible-- stern, afar off, as she had once imagined--more tender toward the erring than even their own human kindred? Could it be possible that, while she had been condemning, and almost hating Zell, Jesus had been loving her?

The feeling overpowered her. Closing the book, she leaned her head upon it, and, for the first time, sobbed and mourned for Zell with a great, yearning pity.

Every such pitiful tear, the world over, is a prayer to God. It mingles with those that flowed from His eyes as He wept over the doomed city that would not receive Him. It mingles with that crimson tide which flowed from His hands and feet when He prayed--

"Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."