Chapter XXX. Edith's and Arden's Friendship
 

As Edith laid aside her work for a frugal dinner at one o'clock, she heard the sound of a hoe in her garden. The thought of Arden at once recurred to her, but looking out she saw old Malcom. Throwing a handkerchief over her head, she ran out to him, exclaiming:

"How good you are, Mr. McTrump, to come and help me when I know you are so very busy at home!"

"Weel, nothin' to boast on," replied Malcom; "I tho't that if ye had na one a-lookin' after the garden save Hannibal's 'spook,' ye'd have but a ghaistly crop. But I'm a-thinkin' there's mair than a ghaist been here."

"It was Arden Lacey," said Edith, frankly, but with deepening color. Malcom, in telling his wife about it, said, "She looked like the rose- bush, a' in bloom, that she was a-stonnin' beside."

Edith, seeing the mischievous twinkle in her little friend's eye, added hastily, "Both Mrs. Lacey and her son have been very kind to us in our sickness and trouble, as well as yourself. But, Mr. McTrump," she continued, anxious to change the subject, also eager to speak on the topic uppermost in her thoughts, "I think I am beginning to 'learn it a',' as you said, about that good Friend who suffered for us that we might not suffer. What you and your wife said to me the other day led me to read the 'Gude Book' after I got home. I don't feel as I did then. I think I can trust Him now."

Malcom dropped his hoe and came over into the path beside her.

"God be praised!" he said. "I gie je the right hond o' fellowship an' welcome ye into the kirk o' the Lord. Ye noo belong to the household o' faith, an' God's true Israel, an' may His gude Spirit guide ye into all truth."

The little man spoke very earnestly, and with a certain dignity and authority that his small stature and rude working-dress could not diminish. A sudden feeling of solemnity and awe came over Edith, and she felt as if she were crossing the mystic threshold and entering the one true church consisting of all believers in Christ.

For a moment she reverently bowed her head, and a sweeter sense of security came over her, as if she were no longer an outsider, but had been received into the household.

Malcom, "a priest unto God" through his faith, officiated at the simple ceremony. The birds sang the choral service. The wind-shaken roses, blooming around her, with their sweet ordos, were the censers and incense, and the sunlighted garden, the earliest sacred place of Bible history, where the first fair woman worshipped, was the hallowed ground of the initiatory rite.

"Why, Mr. McTrump, I feel almost as if I had joined the church," said Edith, after a moment.

"An' sae ye ha' afore God, an' I hope ere long ye'll openly profess yer faith before men."

"Do you think I ought?" said Edith, thoughtfully.

"Of coorse I do, but the Gude Book'll teach a' aboot it. Ye canna gang far astray wi' that to guide ye."

"I would like to join the church that you belong to, Mr. McTrump, as soon as I feel that I am ready, for it was you and your good wife that turned my thoughts in the right direction. I was almost desperate with trouble and shame when I came to you that afternoon, and it was your speaking of the Bible and Jesus, and especially your kindness, that made me feel that there might be some hope and help in God."

The old man's eyes became so moist that he turned away for a moment, but recovering himself after a little, he said:

"See, noo, our homely deeds and words can be like the seeds we drop into the mould. Look aroon once and see how green and grand the garden is, and a' from the wee brown seeds we planted the spring. Sae would the garden o' the Lord bloom and floorish if a' were droppin' a 'word in season' and a bit o' kindness here and there. But if I stay here an' preach to ye that need na preachin', these sins o' the garden, the weeds, will grow apace. Go you an' look in yer strawberry-bed."

With an exclamation of delight, Edith pounced upon a fair-sized red berry, the first she had picked from her own vines. Then glancing around, she saw one and another showing its red cheek through the green leaves, till with a little cry of exultation she said:

"Oh, Mr. McTrump, I'll get enough for mother and Laura."

"Aye, and enoof to moisten yer own red lips wi' too, I'm a-thinkin'. There'll be na crop the year wourth speakin' of; but next June 'twill puzzle ye to gither them. But ye a' can ha' a dainty saucer yoursels the season, when ye're a mind to stoop for them."

Edith soon had the pleasure of seeing her mother and Laura enjoying some, and, as Malcom said, there were plenty for her, and they tasted like the ambrosia of the gods. Varied experiences had so thoroughly engrossed her thoughts and time the past few days, that she had scarcely looked toward her garden. But with the delicious flavor of the strawberries lingering in her mouth, and with the consciousness that she enjoyed picking them much more than sewing, the thought of winning her bread by the culture of the ground grew in her favor.

"Oh, how much rather would I be out there with Malcom!" she sighed.

Glancing up from her work during the afternoon, she saw Arden Lacey on his way to the village. There was a strange mingling of hope and fear in his mind. His mother's manner had been such as to lead him to say when alone with her after breakfast:

"I think your watching has done you good, mother, in stead of wearying you too much, as I feared."

She had suddenly turned and placed both her hands on his shoulders, saying:

"Arden, I hardly dare speak of it yet. It seems too good to be true, but a hope is coming into my heart like the dawn after night. She's worthy of your love, however it may result, and if I find true what she told me last night I shall have reason to bless her name forever; but I see only a glimmer of light yet, and I rejoice with fear and trembling." And she told him what had occurred.

He was deeply moved, but not for the same cause as his mother. His desire and devotion went no further than Edith. "Can she have read my letter?" he thought, and he was consumed with anxiety for some expression of her feeling toward him. Therefore he was glad that business called him to the village that afternoon, but his steps were slow as he approached the little cottage, and his eyes were upon it as a pilgrim gazes at a shrine he long has sought. He envied Malcom working in the garden, and felt that if he could work there every day, it would be Adam's life before he fell. Then he caught a glimpse of Edith sewing at the window, and he dropped his eyes instantly. He would not be so afraid of a battery of a hundred guns as of that poor sewing-girl (for such Edith now was), stitching away on Mrs. Groody's coarse hotel linen. But Edith had noted his timid, wistful looks, and calling Hannibal, said:

"Please give that note to Mr. Lacey. He is just passing toward the village."

Hannibal, with the impressive dignity he had learned in olden times, handed the missive to Arden, saying, "Miss Edie telled me to guv you dis 'scription."

If Hannibal had been Hebe he could not have been a more welcome messenger.

Arden could not help his hand trembling as he took the letter, but he managed to say, "I hope Miss Allen is well."

"Her health am berry much disproved," and Hannibal retired with a stately bow.

Arden quickened his steps, holding the missive in his hand. As soon as he was out of sight, he opened and devoured Edith's words. The light of a great joy dawned in his face, and made it look noble and beautiful, as indeed almost every human face appears when the light of a pure love falls upon it. Where most men would have murmured at the meagre return for their affection, he felt himself immeasurably rewarded and enriched, and it seemed as if he were walking on air the rest of the day. With a face set like a flint, he resolved to be true to the condition implied in the underscored word "friendship," and never to whisper of love to her again. But a richer experience was still in store for him. For, on his return, in the cool of the evening, Edith was in the garden picking currants. She saw him coming, and thought, "If he is ever to be a friend worth the name, I must break the ice of his absurd diffidence and formality. And the sooner he comes to know me as I am, the sooner he will find out that I am like other people, and he will have a new 'revelation' that will cure him of his infatuation. I would like him for a friend very much, not only because I need his help, but because one likes a little society now and then, and he seems so well educated, if he is 'quar,' as Hannibal says." So she startled poor Arden almost as much as if one of his Shakespearean heroines had called him in audible voice, by saying, as he came opposite her:

"Mr. Lacey, won't you come in a moment and tell me if it is time to pick my currants, and whether you think I could sell them in the village, or at the hotel?"

This address, so matter-of-fact in tone and character, seemed to him like the June twilight, containing, in some subtle manner, the essence of all that was beautiful and full of promise in his heart-history. He bowed and went toward the little gate to comply with her request, as Adam might if he had been created outside of Eden and Eve inside, and she had looked over a flowering hedge in the purple twilight and told him to come in. He was not going merely to look at currants and consider their marketable condition; he was entering openly upon the knightly service to which he had devoted himself. He was approaching his idol, which was not a heathen stock or stone, but a sweet little woman. In regard to the currants, he ventured dubiously--

"They might do for pies."

In regard to herself, his eyes said, in spite of his purpose to be merely friendly, that she was too good for the gods of Mount Olympus. He both amused and interested Edith, whose long familiarity with society and lack of any such feeling as swayed him made her quite at ease. With a twinkle in her eyes, she said:

"I have thought that perhaps Mrs. Groody could help me find sale for them at the hotel."

"I am going there to-morrow, and I will ask her for you, if you wish," said Arden, timidly.

"Thank you," replied Edith. "I shall be very much obliged to you if you will. You see, I wish to sell everything out of the garden that I can find a market for."

She was rather astonished at the effect of this mercenary speech, for there was a wonderful blending of sympathy and admiration in his face as he said:

"I am frequently going to the hotel and village, and if you will let me know what you have to dispose of, I can find out whether it is in demand, and carry it to market for you." He could not help adding, with a voice trembling with feeling, "Miss Allen, I am so glad you permit me to be of some help to you."

"Oh, dear!" thought Edith, "how can I make him understand what I really am?" She turned to him with an expression that was both perplexed and quizzical, and said:

"Mr. Lacey, I very frankly and gratefully accept your delicately offered friendship (emphasizing the last word), not only because of my need, but of yours also. If any one needs a sensible friend, I think you do. You truly must have lived a 'hermit's life in the world' to have such strange ideas of people. Let me tell you as a perfect certainty, that no such person exists as the Edith Allen that you have imagined. She is no more a reality than your other shadows, and the more you know of me, the sooner you will find it out. I am not in the least like a heroine in a romance. I live on the most substantial food rather than moonlight, and usually have an excellent appetite. I am the most practical matter-of-fact creature in existence, and you will find no one in this place more sharp on the question of dollars and cents. Indeed, I am continually in a most mercenary frame of mind, and this very moment here, in the romantic June twilight, if you ransacked history, poetry, and all the fine arts, you could not tell me anything half so beautiful, half so welcome, as how to make money in a fair, honorable way."

"There," thought she, "that will be another 'revelation' to him. If he don't jump over the garden fence in his haste to escape such a monster, I shall be glad."

But Arden's face only grew more grave and gentle as he looked down upon her, and he asked:

"Is it because you love the money itself, Miss Allen?"

"Well, no," said Edith, somewhat taken aback. "I can never earn enough to make it worth while to do that. Misers love to count their money," she added, with a little pathetic accent in her voice, "and I fear mine will go before I can count it."

"You wish me to think less of you, then, because you are bravely, and without thought of sparing yourself, trying to earn money to provide home-shelter and comfort for your feeble mother and sister. You wish me to think you commonplace because you have the heroism to do any kind of work, rather than be helpless and dependent. Pardon me, but for such a 'practical, matter-of-fact' lady, I do not think your logic is good."

Edith's vexation and perplexity only increased, and she said, earnestly, "But I wish you to understand that I am only Edith Allen, and as poor as poverty, nothing but a sewing girl, and only hoping to arrive at the dignity of a gardener. The majority of the world thinks I am not even fit to speak to," she added, in a low tone.

Arden bowed his head, as if in reverence before her, and then said, firmly:

"And I wish you to understand that I am only Arden Lacey, with a sot for a father, and the scorn, contempt, and hatred of all the world as my heritage. I am a slipshod farmer. Our place is heavily mortgaged, and will eventually be sold away from us. It grows more weeds now than anything else; and it seems that nettles have been the principal crop that I have reaped all my life. Thus, you see, I am poorer than poverty, and am rich only in my mother, and, eventually, I hope," he added timidly, "in the possession of your friendship, Miss Allen; I shall try so sincerely and hard to deserve it."

With a frown, a laugh, and a shy look of sympathy at him, Edith said, "I don't see but you have got to find out your mistake for yourself. Time and facts cure many follies." But she found little encouragement in his incredulous smile.

The next moment she turned upon him so sharply that he was startled.

"I am a business woman," she said, "and conduct my affairs on business principles. You said, I think, you would help me find a market for the produce of my place?"

"Certainly," he replied.

"As certainly you must take fifteen per cent commission on all sales."

"Oh, Miss Allen," commenced Arden, "I couldn't--"

"There," said she, decisively, "you haven't the first idea of business. Not a thing can you touch unless you comply with my conditions. There is no sentiment, I assure you, connected with currants and cabbages."

"You may be certain, Miss Allen, that I would comply with any condition," said Arden, with the air of one who is cornered, "but let me suggest, since we are arranging this matter so strictly on business grounds, that ten per cent is all I should take. That is the regular commission, and is all I pay in sending produce to New York."

"Oh, I didn't know that," said the experienced and uncompromising woman of business, innocently. "Do you think that would pay you for your trouble?"

"I think it would," he replied, so demurely and yet with such a twinkle in his blue eyes, that now looked very different with the light of hope and happiness in them, that Edith turned away with a laugh.

But she said, with assumed sharpness, "See that you keep your accounts straight. I shall be a very dragon over your account-book."

Thus the ice was broken, and Edith and Arden became friends.

The future has now been quite clearly indicated to the reader, and, lest my story should grow wearisome as a "twice-told tale," we pass over several subsequent months with but a few words.

It was not a good fruit year, and Edith's place had been sadly neglected previous to her possession. Therefore, though Arden surprised himself in the sharp business traits he developed as Edith's salesman, the results were not very large. But still they greatly assisted her, and amounted to more than the earnings of her unskilled hands from other sources. She insisted on doing everything on business principles, and made Arden take his ten per cent, which was of real help to him in this way: he gave all the money to his mother, saying, "I couldn't spend it to save my life." Mrs. Lacey had many uses for every penny she could obtain.

Then Edith paid old Malcom by making up bouquets for sale at the hotel, and arranging baskets of flowers for parties there and elsewhere, and other lighter labors. Mrs. Groody continued to send her work; and thus during the summer and early fall she managed to make her garden and her labor provide for all family expenses, saving what was left of the four hundred, after paying all debts, for winter need. Moreover, she stored away in cellar and attic enough of the products of the garden to be of great help also.

Mrs. Allen did recover her usual health, and also her usual modes of thought and feeling. The mental and moral habits of a lifetime are not readily changed. Often and earnestly did Edith talk with her mother, but with few evidences of the result she longed to see.

Mrs. Allen's condition, in view of the truth, was the most hopeless one of all. She saw only her preconceived ideas, and not the truth itself. One day she said, with some irritation, to Edith, who was pleading with her:

"Do you think I am a heathen? Of course, I believe the Bible. Of course, I believe in Jesus Christ. I have been a member of the church ever since I was sixteen."

Edith sighed, and thought, "Only He who can satisfy her need can reveal it to her."

Poor Mrs. Allen! With the strange infatuation of a worldly mind, she was turning to the world, and it alone, for hope and solace. Untaught by the wretched experience of the past, she was led to enter upon a new and similar scheme for the aggrandizement of her family, as will be explained in another chapter.

Laura regained her strength somewhat, and was able to relieve Edith of the care of her mother and the lighter duties of the house. Her faith developed like that shy, delicate blossom called the "wind-flower," easily shaken, and yet with a certain hardiness and power to live and thrive in sterile places.

Edith and Mrs. Lacey were eventually received into the church that Malcom attended, and, after the simple service, they took dinner with the old Scotchman and his wife. Malcom seemed hardly "in the body" all day.

"My heart's a-bloom," he said, "wi' a' the sweet posies that God ever made blush when he looked at them the first time, an' ye seem the sweetest o' them a', Miss Edith. Ah, but the Crude Husbandman gathered a fair blossom the day."

"Now, Mr. McTrump," said Edith, reproachfully, but with a face like Malcom's posies, "you shouldn't give compliments on Sunday." For Arden and Rose were present also, and Edith thought, "Such foolish words will only increase his infatuation."

"Weel," said Malcom, scratching his head, in his perplexed effort at apology, "I wud na mak ye vain, nor hurt yer conscience, but it kind o' slippit out afore I could stop it."

In the laugh that followed Malcom's explanation Edith felt that matters had not been helped much, and she adroitly turned the conversation.

Public opinion, from being at first very bitter and scornful against the Allens, gradually began to soften. One after another, as they recognized Edith's patient, determined effort to do right, began to give her the credit and the respect to which she was entitled. Little acts and tokens of kindly feeling became more frequent, and were like glints of sunlight on her shadowed path. But the great majority felt that they could have no associations with such as the Allens, and completely ignored them.

In their relations with the church, Edith and Mrs. Lacey found increasing satisfaction. Many of its humble, and some of its more influential, members treated them with much kindness and sympathy, and they realized more and more that there are good, kind people in the world, if you look in the right way and right places for them. The Rev. Mr. Knox was a faithful preacher and pastor, and if his sermons were a little dry and doctrinal at times, they were as sound and sweet as a nut. Moreover, both Edith and Mrs. Lacey were sadly deficient in the doctrines, neither having ever had any religious instruction, and they listened with the grave, earnest interest of those desiring to be taught.

Mrs. Groody reconnected herself with her old church "I want to go where I can shout 'Glory!'" she said.

Rose but faintly sympathized with her mother's feelings. Her restless, ambitious spirit turned longingly toward the world. Its attractions she could understand, but not those of faith. Through her father's evil habits, and Arden's poor farming, the pressure of poverty rested heavier and heavier on the family, and she had about resolved to go to New York and find employment in some store.

Arden rarely went to church, but read at home. He was somewhat sceptical in regard to the Bible, not that he had ever carefully examined either it or its evidences, but he had read much of the prevalent semi-infidelity, and was a little conceited over his independent thinking. Then, in a harsh, sweeping cynicism, he utterly detested church people, calling them the "holy sect of the Pharisees."

"Bat they are not all such," his mother would say.

"Oh, no," he would reply; "there are some sincere ones, of course; but I think they would be better out than in such a company of hypocrites."

But as he saw Edith's sincerity, and learned of her purpose to unite with the church, he kept these views more and more in the background; but he had too much respect for her and his mother's faith to go with them to what they regarded as a sacred place, from merely the personal motive of being near Edith.

One day Mrs. Lacey and Edith walked down to the evening prayer- meeting. Arden, who had business in the village, was to call for them at its close; as they were walking home, Edith suddenly asked him:

"Why don't you go to church?"

"I don't like the people I meet there."

"What have you against them?"

"Well, there is Mr. Hard. He is one of the 'lights and pillars'; and he would have sold the house over your head if you had not paid him. He can 'devour a widow's house' as well as they of olden time."

"That is not the question," said the practical Edith, earnestly. "What have you to do with Mr. Hard, or he with you? Does he propose--is he able to save you? The true question is, What have you got against Jesus Christ?"

"Well, really, Miss Edith, I can have nothing against Him. Both history and legend unite in presenting Him as one of the purest and noblest of men. But pardon me if I say in all honesty that I cannot quite accept your belief in regard to Him and the Bible in general. A man can hardly be a man without exercising the right of independent thought. I cannot take a book called the Bible for granted."

"But," asked, Edith keenly, "are you not taking other books for granted? Answer me truly, Mr. Lacey, have you carefully and patiently investigated this subject, not only on the side of your sceptical writers, but on God's side also? He has plenty of facts, as well as the infidels, and my rich, lasting, rational, spiritual experience is as much a fact as that stone there, and a good deal higher and better one, I think."

Arden was silent for some little time, and they could see in the moonlight that his face was very grave and thoughtful. At last he said, as if it had been wrung from him:

"Miss Allen, to be honest with you and myself, I have never given the subject such a fair examination." After a moment he continued, "Even if I became convinced that all were true, I might still remain at home, for I could find far more advantage in reading books, or the Bible itself, than from Mr. Knox's dry sermons."

"I think you are wrong," said Edith, gently but firmly. "Granting the premise you admitted a moment ago, that Christ was one of the purest and noblest of men, you surely, with your chivalric instincts, would say that such a man ought to be imitated."

"Yes," said Arden, "and He denounced the Pharisees."

"And He worshipped with them also," said Edith, quickly. "He went to the temple with the others. What was there to interest Him in the dreary forlorn little synagogue at Nazareth? and yet He was there with the regularity of the Sabbath. It was the best form of faith and worship then existing, and He sustained it by every means in His power, till He could give the people something better. Suppose all the churches in this place were closed, not one in a hundred would or could read the books you refer to. If your example were followed they would be closed. As far as your example goes it tends to close them. I have heard Mr. Knox say, that wherever Christian worship and the Christian Sabbath are not observed, society rapidly deteriorates. Is it not true?"

They had stopped at Edith's gate. Arden averted his face for a moment, then turning toward Edith he gave her his hand, saying:

"Yes, it is true, and a true, faithful friend you have been to me to- night. I admit myself vanquished."

Edith gave his hand a cordial pressure, saying earnestly, "You are not vanquished by the young ignorant girl, Edith Allen, but by the truth that will yet vanquish the world."

After that Arden went regularly with them to church, and tried to give sincere attention to the service, but his uncurbed fancy was wandering to the ends of the earth most of the time; or his thoughts were dwelling in rapt attention on Edith. She, after all, was the only object of his faith and worship, though he had a growing intellectual conviction that her faith was true.

And so the months passed into autumn, but with the nicest sense of honor he refrained from word or deed that would remind Edith that he was her lover. She became greatly attached to him, and he seemed almost like a brother to her. She found increasing pleasure in his society, for Arden, after the restraint of his diffidence was banished, could talk well, and he opened to her the rich treasures of his reading, and with almost a poet's fancy and power pictured to her the storied past.

To both herself and Mrs. Lacey, life grew sunnier and sweeter. But they each had a heavy burden on their hearts, which they daily brought to the feet of the Compassionate One. They united in praying for Mrs. Lacey's husband, and for Zell; and their strong faith and love would take no denial. But, as Laura had said, the silence of the grave seemed to have swallowed lost Zell.