What Can She Do by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XXXI. Zell
"And the silence of the grave ought to swallow such as poor Zell had become," is, perhaps, the thought of some. All reference to her and her class should be suppressed.
We firmly say, No! If so, the New Testament must be suppressed. The Divine Teacher spoke plainly both of the sin and the sinner. He had scathing denunciation for the one, and compassion and mercy for the other. Shall we enforce His teachings against all other forms of evil, and not against this deadliest one of all--and that, too, in the laxity and wide demoralization of our age, when temptation lurks on every hand, and parents are often sleepless with just anxiety?
Evil is active, alluring, suggesting, insinuating itself when least expected, and many influences are at work, with the full approval of society, to poison forever all pure thoughts. And temptation is sure to come at first as an angel of light.
There is no safety save in solemn words of warning, the wholesome terror which knowledge inspires, the bracing of principle, and the ennobling of Christian faith. There are too many incarnate fiends who will take advantage of the innocence of ignorance.
Zell is not in her grave. She is sinning, but more sinned against. He who said to one like her, of old, "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven," loves her still, and Edith is praying for her. The grave cannot close over her yet.
But as we look upon this long-lost one, as she reclines on a sofa in Van Dam's luxurious apartments, as we see her temples throbbing with pain, and that her cheeks are flushed and feverish, it would seem that the grave might soon hide her from a contemptuous and vindictive world.
Her head does ache sadly--it seems bursting with pain; but her heart aches with a bitterer anguish. Zell had too fine a nature to sin brutally and unfeelingly. Her betrayer's treachery wounded her more deeply than he could understand. Even her first strong love for him could not bridge the chasm of guilt to which he led her, and her passionate nature and remorse often caused her to turn upon, him with such scathing reproaches that even he, in his hardihood, trembled.
Knowing how proud and high-strung she was, he feared to reveal his treachery in New York, a locality with which she was familiar; so he said that very important business called him at once to Boston, a city where he had few acquaintances. Zell reluctantly acquiesced in this further journey.
They jaunted about in the North and West through the summer and autumn, and now have but recently returned to New York.
With a wild terror she saw that his passion for her was waning. Therefore, her reproaches and threats became at times almost terrific, and again her servile entreaties were even more pitiable and dreadful, in view of what a true wife's position and right ought to be. He, wearying of her fierce and alternating moods, and selfishly thinking of his own ease and comfort, as was ever the case, had resolved to throw her off at the first opportunity.
But retribution for both was near. The smallpox was almost epidemic in the city: Zell's silk had swept against a beggar's infected rags, and fourteen days later appeared the fatal symptoms.
And truly she is weary and heart-sick this afternoon. She never remembered feeling so ill. The thought of death appalled her. She felt, as never before, that she wanted some one to love and take care of her.
Van Dam entered, and said, rather roughly:
"What's the matter?"
"I'm sick," said Zell, faintly.
He muttered an oath.
She arose from the sofa and tottered to his easy-chair, knelt, and clasped his knees.
"Guilliam," she pleaded, "I am very sick. I have a feeling that I shall die. Won't you marry me? Won't you take care of your poor little Zell, that loved you so well as to leave all for you? Perhaps I sha'n't burden you much longer, but, if I do get well, I will be your patient slave, if you will only marry me;" and the tears poured over the hot, feverish cheeks, that they could not cool.
His only reply was to ask, with some irritation:
"How do you feel?"
"Oh, my head aches, my bones ache, every part of my body aches, but my heart aches worst of all. You can ease that, Guilliam. In the name of God's mercy, won't you?"
A sudden thought caused the coward's face to grow white with fear. "I must have a doctor see you," was his only reply to her appeal, and he passed hastily out.
Zell felt that a blow would have been better than his indifference, and she crawled back to her couch. A little later, she was conscious that a physician was feeling her pulse, and examining her symptoms. After he was gone she had strength enough to take off her jewelry and rings--all, save one solitaire diamond, that her father had given her. The rest seemed to oppress her with their weight. She then threw herself on the bed.
She was next conscious that some one was lifting her up. She roused for a moment, and stared around. There were several strange faces.
"What do you want? What are you going to do with me?" she asked, in a thick voice, and in vague terror.
"I am sorry, miss," said one of the men, in an official tone; "but you have the smallpox, and we must take you to the hospital."
She gave one shriek of horror. A hand was placed over her mouth. She murmured faintly:
"Guilliam--help!" and then, under the effects of disease and fear, became partially unconscious; but her hand clenched, and with some instinct hard to understand, remained so, over the diamond ring that was her father's gift.
She was conscious of riding in something hard over the stony street, for the jolting hurt her cruelly. She was conscious of the sound of water, for she tried to throw herself into it, that it might cool her fever. She was conscious of reaching some place, and then she felt as if she had no rest for many days, and yet was not awake. But through it all she kept her hand closed on her father's gift. At times it seemed to her that some one was trying to take it off, but she instinctively struggled and cried out, and the hand was withdrawn.
At last one night she seemed to wake and come to herself. She opened her eyes and looked timidly around the dim ward. All was strange and unaccountable. She feared that she was in another world. But as she raised her hand to her head, as if to clear away the mist of uncertainty, a sparkle from the diamond caught her eye. For a long time she stared vacantly at it, with the weak, vague feeling that in some sense it might be a clew. Its faint lustre was like the glimmer of a star through a rift in the clouds to a lost traveller. Its familiar light and position remind him of home, and by its ray he guesses in what direction to move; so the crystallized light upon her finger threw its faint glimmer into the past, and by its help Zell's weak mind groped its way down from the hour it was given to the moment when she became partially unconscious in Van Dam's apartments. But the word smallpox was burned into her brain, and she surmised that she was in a hospital.
At last a woman passed. Zell feebly called her.
"What do you want?" said a rather gruff voice.
"I want to write a letter."
"You can't. It's against the rules."
"I must," pleaded Zell. "Oh, as you are a woman, and hope in God's mercy, don't refuse me."
"Can't break the rules," said the woman, and she was about to pass on.
"Stop!" said Zell, in a whisper. "See there," and she flashed the diamond upon her. "I'll give you that if you'll promise before God to send a letter for me. It would take you many months to earn the value of that."
The woman was a part of the city government, so she acted characteristically. She brought Zell writing materials and a bit of candle, saying:
With her poor, stiff, diseased hand, Zell wrote:
"Guilliam--You cannot know where I am. You cannot know what has happened. You could not be such a fiend as to cast me off and send me here to die--and die I shall. The edge of the grave seems crumbling under me as I write. If you have a spark of love for me, come and see me before I die. Oh, Guilliam, Guilliam! what a heaven of a home I would have made you, if you had only married me! It would have been my whole life to make you happy. I said bitter words to you--forgive them. We both have sinned--can God forgive us? I will not believe you know what has happened. You are grieving for me--looking for me. They took me away while you were gone. Come and see me before I die. Good- by, I'm writing in the dark--I'm dying in the dark--my soul is in the dark--I'm going away in the dark--where, O God, where?
"Your poor little Zell. "Smallpox Hospital (I don't know date)."
Poor, poor Zell! As in the case of a tempest-tossed one of old, "sun, moon, and stars" had long been hidden.
Almost fainting with weakness, she sealed and directed the letter, drew off the ring, pressed it to her lips, and then turned her eyes, unnaturally large and bright, on the woman waiting at her side, and said:
"Look at me! Promise me you will see that this letter is delivered. Remember, I am going to die. If you ever hope for an hour's peace, promise!"
"I promise," said the woman solemnly, for she was as superstitious as avaricious, and though she had no hesitancy in breaking the rules and taking a bribe, she would not have dared for her life to have risked treachery to a girl whom she believed dying.
Zell gave her the ring and the letter, and sank back for the time unconscious.
The woman had her means of communication with the city, and before many hours elapsed the letter was on its way.
Van Dam was in a state of nervous fear till the fourteen days passed, and then he felt that he was safe. He had his rooms thoroughly fumigated, and was reassured by his physicians saying daily: "There was not much danger of her giving you the disease in its first stage. She is probably dead by this time."
But the wheels of life seemed to grow heavier and more clogged every day. He was fast getting down to the dregs, and now almost every pleasure palled upon his jaded taste. At one time it seemed that Zell might so infuse her vigorous young life and vivacity into his waning years that his last days would be his best. And this might have been the case, if he had reformed his evil life and dealt with her as a true man. In her strong and exceptional love, considering their difference in age, there were great possibilities of good for both. But he had foully perverted the last best gift of his life, and even his blunted moral sense was awakening to the truth.
"Curse it all," he muttered, late one morning, "perhaps I had better have married her. I hoped so much from her, and she has been nothing but a source of trouble and danger. I wonder if she is dead."
He had been out very late the night before, and had played heavily, but not with his usual skill. He had kept muttering grim oaths against his luck, and drinking deeper and deeper till a friend had half forced him away. And now, much shaken by the night's debauch, depressed by his heavy losses, conscience, that crouches like a tiger in every bad man's soul, and waits to rush from its lair and rend, in the long hours--the long eternity of weakness and memory--already had its fangs in his guilty heart.
Long and bitterly he thought, with a frown resting like night on his heavy brow. The servant brought him a dainty breakfast, but he sullenly motioned it away. He had wronged his digestive powers so greatly the night before that even brandy was repugnant to him, and he leaned heavily and wearily back in his chair, a prey to remorse.
He was in just the right physical condition to take a contagious disease.
There was a knock at the door, and the servant entered, bringing him a letter, saying, "This was just left here for ye, sir."
"A dun," thought he, languidly, and he laid it unopened on the stand beside him.
It was; and from one whom he owed a reparation he could never make, though he paid with his life.
With his eyes closed, he still leaned back in a dull, painful lethargy. A faint, disagreeable odor gradually pervaded the room, and at last attracted his attention. The luxurious sybarite could not help the stings of conscience, the odor he might. He grew restless, and looked around.
Zell's letter caught his attention. "Might as well see who it's from," he muttered. Weakness, pain, and emotion had so changed Zell's familiar hand, that he did not recognize it.
But, as he opened and read, his eyes dilated with horror. It seemed like a dead hand grasping him out of the darkness. But a dreadful fascination compelled him to read every line, and re-read them, till they seemed burned into his memory. At last, by a desperate effort, he broke the strong spell her words had placed upon him, and, starting up, exclaimed:
"Go to her, in that pest-house! I would see her dead a thousand times first. I hope she is dead, for she is the torment of my life. What is it that smells so queer?"
His eyes again rested on the letter. A suspicion crossed his mind. He carried the letter to his nose, and then started violently, uttering awful oaths.
"She has sent the contagion directly to me," he groaned, and he threw poor Zell's appeal on the grate. It burned with a faint, sickly odor. Then, as the day was raw and windy, a sudden gust down the chimney blew it all out into the room, and scattered it in ashes, like Zell's hopes, around his feet.
A superstitious horror that made his flesh creep and hair rise took possession of him, and hastily gathering a few necessary things, he rushed out into the chill air, and made his way to a large hotel. He wanted to be in a crowd. He wanted the hard, material world's noise and bustle around him. He wanted to hear men talking about gold and stocks, and the gossip of the town-anything that would make living on seem a natural, possible matter of course.
But men's voices sounded strange and unfamiliar, and the real world seemed like that which mocks us in our dreams. Mingling with all he saw and heard were Zell's despairing looks and Zell's despairing words. He wrapped himself in his great coat, he drank frequent and fiery potations, he hovered around the registers, but nothing could take away the chill at his heart. He tossed feverishly all night. His sudden exposure to the raw wind in his heated, excited condition caused a severe cold. But he would not give up. He dared not stay alone in his room, and so crept down to the public haunts of the hotel. But his flushed cheeks and strange manner attracted attention. As the days passed, he grew worse, and the proprietor of the house said:
"You are ill, you must go to bed."
But he would not. There was nothing that he seemed to dread so much as being alone. But the guests began to grow afraid of him. There was general and widespread fear of the smallpox in the city, and for some reason it began to be associated with his illness. As the suspicion was whispered around, all shrank from him. The proprietor had him examined at once by a physician. It was the fatal fourteenth day, and the dreaded symptoms were apparent.
"Have you no friends, no home to which you can go?" he was asked.
"No," he groaned, while the thought pierced his soul. "She would have made me one and taken care of me in it." But he pleaded, "For God's sake, don't send me away."
"I must," said the proprietor, frightened himself. "The law requires it, and your presence here would empty my house in an hour."
So, in the dusk, like poor Zell, he was smuggled down a back stairway, and sent to the "pest-house" also, he groaning and crying with terror all the way.
Zell did not die. Her vigorous constitution rallied, and she rapidly regained strength. But with strength and power of thought came the certainty to her mind of Van Barn's utter and final abandonment of her. She felt that all the world would now be against her, and that she would be driven from every safe and pleasant path. The thought of taking her shame to her home was a horror to her, and she felt sure that Edith would spurn her from the door. At first she wept bitterly and despairingly, and wished she had died. But gradually she grew hard, reckless, and cruel under her wrong, and her every thought of Van Bam was a curse.
The woman who helped her to write the letter greatly startled her one day by saying:
"There's a man in the men's ward who in his ravin' speaks of you."
"Could he, in just retribution, have been sent here also?" she thought. Pleading relationship, she was admitted to see him. He shuddered as he saw her advancing, with stony face and eyes in which glared relentless hate.
"Curse you!" he muttered, feebly, with his parched lips. "Go away, living or dead, I know not which you are; but I know it was through you I came here!"
Her only answer was a mocking smile.
The doctor came and examined his symptoms.
"Will he get well?" she asked, following him away a short distance.
"No," said the physician. "He will die."
Her cheek blanched for a moment; but from her eyes glowed a deadly gleam of satisfaction.
"What did he say?" whispered Van Dam.
"He says you will die," she answered, in a stony voice. "You see, I am better than you were. You would not come to me for even one poor moment. You left me to die alone; but I will stay and watch with you."
"Oh, go away!" groaned Van Dam.
"I couldn't be so heartless," she said, in a mocking tone. "You need dying consolation, I want to tell you, Guilliam, what was in my mind the night I left all for you. I did doubt you a little. That is where I sinned; but I shall only suffer for that through all eternity," she said, with a reckless laugh that chilled his soul. "But then, I hoped, I felt almost sure, you would marry me; and, oh, what a heaven of a home I purposed to make you! If you had only let even a magistrate say, 'I pronounce you man and wife,' I would have been your patient slave. I would have kissed away even your headaches, and had you ten contagions, I would not have left you. I would have taken care of you and nursed you back to life."
"Go away!" groaned Van Dam, with more energy.
"Guilliam," she said, taking his hand, which shuddered at her touch, "we might have had a happy little home by this time. We might have learned to live a good life in this world and have prepared for a better one in the next. Little children might have put their soft arms around your neck, and with their innocent kisses banished the memory and the power of the evil past. Oh," she gasped, "how happy we might have been, and mother, Edith, and Laura would have smiled upon us. But what is now our condition?" she said, bitterly, her grip upon his hand becoming hard and fierce. "You have made me a tigress. I must cower and hide through life like a wild beast in a jungle. And you are dying and going to hell," she hissed in his ear, "and by and by, when I get to be an old ugly hag, I will come and torment you there forever and forever."
"Curse you, go away," shrieked the terror-stricken man.
An attendant hastened to the spot; Zell was standing at the foot of the cot, glaring at him.
"I thought you was a relation of his'n," said the man, roughly.
"So I am," said Zell, sternly. "As the one stung is related to the viper that stung him," and with a withering look she passed away.
That night Van Dam died.
In process of time Zell was turned adrift in the city. She applied vainly at stores and shops for a situation. She had no good clothes, and appearances were against her. She had a very little money in her portemonnaie when she was taken to the hospital. This was given to her on leaving, and she made it go as far as possible. At last she went to an intelligence office and sat among the others, who looked suspiciously at her. They instinctively felt that she was not of their sort.
"What can you do?" was the frequent question.
She did not know how to do a single thing, but thought that perhaps the position of waitress would be the easiest.
"Where are your references?"
It was her one thought and effort to conceal all reference to the past. At last the proprietor in pity sent her to a lady who had told him to supply her with a waitress; the place was in Brooklyn, and Zell was glad, for she had less fear there of seeing any one she knew.
The lady scolded bitterly about such an ignoramus being sent to her, but Zell seemed so patient and willing that she decided to try her. Zell gave her whole soul to the work, and though the place was a hard one, would have eventually learned to fill it. The family were a little surprised sometimes at her graceful movements, and the quick gleams of intelligence in her large eyes as some remark was made naturally beyond me in her sphere. One day they were trying to recall, while at the table, the name of a famous singer at the opera. Before she thought, the name was almost out of her lips. The poor girl tried to disguise herself by assuming, as well as she could, the stolid, stupid manner of those who usually blunder about our homes.
All might have gone well, and she have gained an honest livelihood, had not an unforeseen circumstance revealed her past life. Those who have done wrong are never safe. At the most unexpected time, and in the most unexpected way, their sin may stand out before all and blast them,
Zell's mistress had told her to make a little extra preparation for she expected a gentleman to dine that evening. With some growing pride and interest in her work, she had done her best, and even her mistress said:
"Jane" (her assumed name), "you are improving," and a gleam of something like hope and pleasure shot across the poor child's face. A passionate sigh came up from her heart--
"Oh, I will try to do right if the world will let me."
But imagine her terror as she saw an old crony of Van Dam's enter the room. The man recognized her in a moment, and she saw that he did. She gave him an imploring glance, which he returned by one of cool contempt. Zell could hardly get through the meal, and her manner attracted attention. The cold-blooded fellow, whose soul was akin to that of his dead friend, was considerate enough to his hostess not to spoil her dinner or rob her of a waitress till it was over. But the moment they returned to the parlor he told who Zell was, and how she must have just come from the smallpox hospital.
The lady (?) was in a frenzy of rage and fear. She rushed down to where Zell was panting with weakness and emotion, exclaiming:
"You shameful hussy, how dare you come into a respectable house, after your loathsome life and loathsome disease?"
"Hear me," pleaded Zell; "the doctor said there was no danger, and I want to do what is right."
"I don't believe a word you say. I wouldn't trust you a minute. How much you have stolen now it will be hard to tell, and I shouldn't wonder if we all had the smallpox. Leave the house instantly."
"Oh, please give me a chance," cried Zell, on her knees. "Indeed, I am honest. I'll work for you for nothing, if you will let me stay."
"Leave instantly, or I will call for a policeman."
"Then pay me my week's wages," sobbed Zell.
"I won't pay you a cent, you brazen creature. You didn't know how to do anything, and have been a torment ever since you came. I might have known there was something wrong. Now go, take your old, pest-infected rags out of my house, or I will have you sent to where you properly belong. Thank Heaven, I have found you out."
A sudden change came over Zell. She sprang up, and a scowl black as night darkened her face.
"What has Heaven to do with your sending a poor girl out into the night, I would like to know?" she asked, in a harsh, grating voice; "I wouldn't do it. Therefore, I am better than you are. Heaven has nothing to do with either you or me;" and she looked so dark and dangerous that her mistress was frightened, and ran up to the parlor, exclaiming:
"She's an awful creature. I'm afraid of her."
Then that manly being, her husband, towered up in his wrath, saying, majestically, "I guess I'm master in my own house yet."
He showed poor Zell the door. Her laugh rang out recklessly, as she called--
"Good-by. May the pleasant thought that you have sent one more soul to perdition lull you to sweet sleep."
But, for some reason, it did not. When they became cool enough to think it over, they admitted that perhaps they had been a "little hasty."
They had a daughter of about Zell's age. It would be a little hard if any one should treat her so.
Zell had scarcely more than enough to pay her way to New York. It seemed that people ought to stretch out their hands to shield her, but they only jostled her in their haste. As she stood, with her bundle, in the ferry entrance on the New York side, undecided where to go, a man ran against her in his hurry.
"Get out of the way," he said, irritably.
She moved out one side into the darkness, and with a pallid face said:
"Yes, it has come to this. I must 'get out of the way' of all decent people. There is the river on one side. There are the streets on the other. Which shall it be?"
"Oh! it was pitiful,
that no hand was stretched to her aid.
She shuddered. "I can't, I dare not die yet. It must be a little easier here than there, where he is."
Her face became like stone. She went straight to a liquor saloon, and drank deep of that spirit that Shakespeare called "devil," in order to drown thought, fear, memory--every vestige of the woman.
Then--the depths of the gulf that Laura shrank from with a dread stronger than her love of life.