What Can She Do by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XXXII. Edith Brings the Wanderer Home
Mrs. Lacey and Arden, at last, in the stress of their poverty, gave their consent that Rose should go to the city and try to find employment in a store as a shop-girl. Mrs. Glibe, her dressmaking friend, went with her, and though they could obtain no situation the first day, one of Mrs. Glibe's acquaintances directed Rose where she could find a respectable boarding-house, from which, as her home, she could continue her inquiries. Leaving her there, Mrs. Glibe returned.
Rose, with a hope and courage not easily dampened, continued her search the next day, and for several days following. The fall trade had not fairly commenced, and there seemed no demand for more help. She had thirty dollars with which to start life, but a week of idleness took seven of this.
At last her fine appearance and sprightly manner induced the proprietor of a large establishment to put her in the place of a girl discharged that day, with the wages of six dollars a week.
"We give but three or four, as a general thing, to beginners," he said.
Rose was grateful for the place, and yet almost dismayed at the prospect before her. How could she live on six dollars? The bright- colored dreams of city life were fast melting away before the hard, and in some instances revolting, facts of her experience. She could have obtained situations in two or three instances at better wages, if she had assented to conditions that sent her hastily into the street with burning blushes and indignant tears. She knew the great city was full of wickedness, but this rude contact with it appalled her.
After finding what she had to live on, she exchanged her somewhat comfortable room, where she could have a fire, for a cold, cheerless attic closet in the same house. "As I learn the business, they will give more," she thought, and the idea of going home penniless, to be laughed at by Mrs. Glibe, Miss Klip, and others was almost as bitter a prospect to her proud spirit as being a burden to her impoverished family, and she resolved to submit to every hardship rather than do it. By taking the attic room she reduced her board to five dollars a week.
"You can't get it for less, unless you go to a very common sort of a place," said her landlady. "My house is respectable, and people must pay a little for that."
In view of this fact, Rose determined to stay, if possible, for she was realizing more every day how unsheltered and tempted she was.
Her fresh blond face, her breezy manner, and her wind-shaken curls made many turn to look after her. Like some others of her sex, perhaps she had no dislike for admiration, but in Rose's position it was often shown by looks, manner, and even words, that, however she resented them, followed and persecuted her.
As she grew to know her fellow-workers better, her heart sickened in disgust at the conversation and the evident life of many of them, and they often laughed immoderately at her greenness.
Alas for the fancied superiority of these knowing girls! They laughed at Rose because she was so much more like what God meant a woman should be than they. A weak-minded, shallow girl would have succumbed to their ridicule, and soon have become like them, but high-spirited Rose only despised them, and gradually sought out and found some companionship with those of the better sort in the large store. But there seemed so much hollowness and falsehood on every side that she hardly knew whom to trust.
Poor Rose was quite sick of making a career for herself alone in the city, and her money was getting very low. Shop life was hard on clothes, and she was compelled by the rules of the store to dress well, and was only too fond of dress herself. So, instead of getting money ahead, she at last was reduced to her wages as support, and nothing was said of their being raised, and she was advised to say nothing about any increase. Then she had a week's sickness, and this brought her in debt to her landlady.
Several times during her evening walks home Rose noticed a dark face and two vivid black eyes, that seemed watching her; but as soon as observed, the face vanished. It haunted her with its suggestion of some one seen before.
She went back to her work too soon after her illness, and had a relapse. Her respectable landlady was a woman of system and rules. From long experience, she foresaw that her poor lodger would grow only more and more deeply in her debt. Perhaps we can hardly blame her. It was by no easy effort that she made ends meet as it was. She had an application for Rose's little room from one who gave more prospect of being able to pay, so she quietly told the poor girl to vacate it. Rose pleaded to stay, but the woman was inexorable. She had passed through such scenes so often that they had become only one of the disagreeable phases of her business.
"Why, child," she said, "if I did not live up to my rule in this respect, I'd soon be out of house and home myself. You can leave your things here till you find some other place."
So poor Rose, weak through her sickness, more weak through terror, found herself out in the streets of the great city, utterly penniless. She was so unfamiliar with it that she did not know where to go, or to whom to apply. It was her purpose to find a cheaper boarding-house. She went down toward the meaner and poorer part of the city, and stopped at the low stoop of a house where there was a sign, "Rooms to let."
She was about to enter, when a hand was laid sharply on her arm, and some one said:
"Don't go there. Come with me, quick!"
"Who are you?" asked Rose, startled and trembling.
"One who can help you now, whatever I am," was the answer. "I know you well, and all about you. You are Hose Lacey, and you did live in Pushton. Come with me, quick, and I will take you to a Christian lady whom you can trust. Come."
Rose, in her trouble and perplexity, concluded to follow her. They soon made their way to quite a respectable street, and rang the bell at the door of a plain, comfortable-appearing house.
A cheery, stout, middle-aged lady opened it. She looked at Rose's new friend, and reproachfully shook her finger at her, saying:
"Naughty Zell, why did you leave the Home?"
"Because I am possessed by a restless devil," was the strange answer. "Besides, I can do more good in the streets than there. I have just saved her" (pointing to Rose, who at once surmised that this was Zell Allen, though so changed that she would not have known her). "Now," continued Zell, thrusting some money into Rose's hand, "take this and go home at once. Tell her, Mrs. Ranger, that this city is no place for her."
"If you have friends and a home to go to, it's the very best thing you can do," said the lady.
"But my friends are poor," sobbed Rose.
"No matter, go to them," said Zell, almost fiercely. "I tell you there is no place for you here, unless you wish to go to perdition. Go home, where you are known. Scrub, delve, do anything rather than stay here. Your big brother can and will take care of you, though he does look so cross."
"She is right, my child; you had better go at once," said the lady, decidedly.
"Who are you?" asked Rose of the latter speaker, with some curiosity.
"I am a city missionary," answered the lady, quietly, "and it is my business to help such poor girls as you are. I say to you from full knowledge, and in all sincerity, to go home is the very best thing that you can do."
"But why is there not a chance for a poor, well-meaning girl to earn an honest living in this great city?"
"Thousands are earning such a living, but there is not one chance in a hundred for you."
"Why?" asked Rose, hotly,
"Do you see all these houses? They are full of people," continued Mrs. Ranger, "and some of them contain many families. In these families there are thousands of girls who have a home, a shelter, and protectors here in the city. They have society in relatives and neighbors. They have no board to pay, and fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, helping support them. They put all their earnings into a common fund, and it supports the family. Such girls can afford, and will work for two, three, four, and five dollars a week. All that they earn makes the burden so much less on the father, who otherwise would have supported them in idleness. Now, a homeless stranger in the city must pay board, and therefore they can't compete with those who live here. Wages are kept too low. Not one in a hundred, situated as you are, can earn enough to pay board and dress as they are required to in the fashionable stores. Have you been able?"
"No," groaned Rose. "I am in debt to my landlady now, and I had some money to start with."
"There it is," said Mrs. Ranger, sadly; "the same old story."
"But these stores ought to pay more," said Rose, indignantly.
"They will only pay for labor, as for everything else, the market price, and that averages but six dollars a week, and more are working for from three to five than for six. As I told you, there are thousands of girls living in the city glad to get a chance at any price."
Rose gave a weary, discouraged sigh and said, "I fear you are right, I must go home. Indeed, after what has happened I hardly dare stay."
"Go," said Zell, "as if you were leaving Sodom, and don't look back." Then she asked, with a wistful, hungry look, "Have you see any of--?" She stopped--she could not speak the names of her kindred.
"Yes," said Rose, gently. (Yesterday she would have stood coldly aloof from Zell. To-day she was very grateful and full of sympathy.) "I know they are well. They were all sick after--after you went away. But they got well again, and (lowering her voice) Edith prays for you night and day."
"Oh! oh!" sobbed Zell, "this is torment, this is to see the heaven I cannot enter," and she dashed away.
"Poor child!" said Mrs. Ranger, "there's an angel in her yet if I only knew how to bring it out. I may see her to-morrow, and I may not for weeks. Take the money she left with you, and here is some more. It may help her, to think that she helped you. And now, my dear, let me see you safely on your way home."
That night the stage left Rose at the poor dilapidated little farmhouse, and in her mother's close embrace she felt the blessedness of the home shelter, however poor, and the protecting love of kindred, however plain.
"Arden is away," said the quiet woman of few words. "He is home only twice a month. He has a job of cutting and carting wood a good way from here. We are so poor this winter he had to take this chance. Your father is doing better. I hope for him, though with fear and trembling."
Then Rose told her mother her experience and how she had been saved by Zell, and the poor woman clasped her daughter to her breast again and again, and with streaming eyes raised toward heaven, poured out her gratitude to God.
"Rose," said she, with a shudder, "if I had not prayed so for you night and day, perhaps you would not have found such friends in your time of need. Oh! let us both pray for that poor lost one, that she may be saved also."
From this day forth Rose began to pray the true prayer of pity, and then the true prayer of a personal faith. The rude, evil world had shown her her own and others' need, in a way that made her feel that she wanted the Heavenly Father's care.
In other respects she took up her life for a time where she had left it a few months before.
Edith was deeply moved at Rose's story, and Zell's wild, wayward steps were followed by prayers, as by a throng of reclaiming angels.
"I would go and bring her home in a moment, if I only knew where to find her," said Edith.
"Mrs. Ranger said she would write as soon as there was any chance of your doing so," said Rose.
About the middle of January a letter came to Edith as follows:
"Miss Edith Allen--Your sister, Zell, is in Bellevue Hospital, Ward ---. Come quickly; she is very ill."
Edith took the earliest train, and was soon following an attendant, with eager steps, down the long ward. They came to a dark-eyed girl that was evidently dying, and Edith closed her eyes with a chill of fear. A second glance showed that it was not Zell, and a little further on she saw the face of her sister, but so changed! Oh! the havoc that sin and wretchedness had made in that beautiful creature during a few short months! She was in a state of unconscious, muttering delirium, and Edith showered kisses on the poor, parched lips; her tears fell like rain on the thin, flushed face. Zell suddenly cried, with the girlish voice of old:
"Hurrah, hurrah! books to the shades; no more teachers and tyrants for me."
She was living over the old life, with its old, fatal tendencies.
Edith sat down, and sobbed as if her heart would break. Unnoticed, a stout, elderly lady was regarding her with eyes wet with sympathy. As Edith's grief subsided somewhat she laid her hand on the poor girl's shoulder, saying:
"My child, I feel very sorry for you. For some reason I can't pass on and leave you alone in your sorrow, though we are total strangers. Your trouble gives you a sacred claim upon me. What can I do for you?"
Edith looked up through her tears, and saw a kind, motherly face, with a halo of gray curls around it. With woman's intuition she trusted her instantly, and, with another rush of tears, said:
"This is--my--poor lost-sister. I've--just found her."
"Ah!" said the lady, significantly, "God pity you both."
"Were it not--for Him," sobbed Edith, with her hand upon her aching heart, "I believe--I should die."
The lady sat down by her, and took her hand, saying, "I will stay with you, dear, till you feel better."
Gradually and delicately she drew from Edith her story, and her large heart yearned over the two girls in the sincerest sympathy.
"I was not personally acquainted with your father and mother, but I know well who they were," she said. "And now, my child, you cannot remain here much longer; where are you going to stay?"
"I haven't thought," said Edith, sadly.
"I have," replied the lady, heartily; "I am going to take you home with me. We don't live very far away, and you can come and see your sister as often as you choose, within the limits of the rules."
"Oh!" exclaimed Edith, deprecatingly, "I am not fit--I have no claim."
"My child," said the lady, gently, "don't you remember what our Master said, 'I was a stranger and ye took me in'? Is He not fit to enter my house? Has He no claim? In taking you home I am taking Him home, and so I shall be happy and honored in your presence. Moreover, my dear, from what I have seen and heard, I am sure I shall love you for your own sake."
Edith looked at her through grateful tears, and said, "It has seemed to me that Jesus has been comforting me all the time through your lips. How beautiful Christianity is, when it is lived out. I will go to your house as if it were His."
Then she turned and pressed a loving kiss on Zell's unconscious face, but her wonder was past words when the lady stooped down also, and kissed the "woman which was a sinner." She seized her hand with both of hers and faltered:
"You don't despise and shrink from her, then?"
"Despise her! no," said the noble woman. "I have never been tempted as this poor child has. God does not despise her. What am I?"
From that moment Edith could have kissed her feet, and feeling that God had sent His angel to take care of her, she followed the lady from the hospital. A plain but elegantly-liveried carriage was waiting, and they were driven rapidly to one of the stateliest palaces on Fifth Avenue. As they crossed the marble threshold, the lady turned and said:
"Pardon me, my dear, my name is Mrs. Hart. This is your home now as truly as mine while you are with us," and Edith was shown to a room replete with luxurious comfort, and told to rest till the six o'clock dinner.
With some timidity and fear she came down to meet the others. As she entered she saw a portly man standing on the rug before the glowing grate, with a shock of white hair, and a genial, kindly face.
"My husband," said Mrs. Hart, "this is our new friend, Miss Edith Allen. You knew her father well in business, I am sure."
"Of course I did," said the old gentleman, taking Edith's hand in both of his, "and a fine business man he was, too. You are welcome to our home, Miss Edith. Look here, mother," he said, turning to his wife with a quizzical look, and still keeping hold of Edith's hand, "you didn't bring home an 'angel unawares' this time. I say, wife, you won't be jealous if I take a kiss now, will you--a sort of scriptural kiss, you know?" and he gave Edith a hearty smack that broke the ice between them completely.
With a face like a peony, Edith said, earnestly, "I am sure the real angels throng your home."
"Hope they do," said Mr. Hart, cheerily. "My old lady there is the best one I have seen yet, but I am ready for all the rest. Here come some of them," he added, as his daughters entered, and to each one he gave a hearty kiss, counting, "one, two, three, four, five--now, 'all present or accounted for?'"
"Yes," said his wife, laughing.
"Dinner, then," and after the young ladies had greeted Edith most cordially, he gave her his arm, as if she had been a duchess, and escorted her to the dining-room. After being seated, they bowed their heads in quiet reverence, and the old man, with the voice and manner of a child speaking to a father, thanked God for His mercies, and invoked His blessing.
The table-talk was genial and wholesome, with now and then a sparkle of wit, or a broad gleam of humor.
"My good wife there, Miss Edith," said Mr. Hart, with a twinkle in his eye, "is a very sly old lady. If she does wear spectacles, she sees with great discrimination, or else the world is growing so full of interesting saints and sinners, that I am quite in hopes of it. Every day she has a new story about some very good person, or some very bad person becoming good. If you go on this way much longer, mother, the millennium will commence before the doctors of divinity are ready for it."
"My dear," said Mrs. Hart, with a comic aside to Edith, "my husband has never got over being a boy. When he will become old enough to sober down, I am sure I can't tell."
"What have I to sober me, with all these happy faces around, I should like to know?" was the hearty retort. "I am having a better time every day, and mean to go on so ad infinitum. You're a good one to talk about sobering down, when you laugh more than any of these youngsters."
"Well," said his wife, her substantial form quivering with merriment, "it's because you make me."
During the meal Edith had time to observe the young ladies more closely. They were fine-looking, and one or two of them really beautiful. Two of them were in early girlhood yet, and there was not a vestige of the vanity and affectation often seen in those of their position. They evidently had wide diversities of character, and faults, but there were the simplicity and sincerity about them which make the difference between a chaste piece of marble and a painted block of wood. She saw about her a house as rich and costly in its appointments as her own old home had been, but it was not so crowded or pronounced in its furnishing and decoration. There were fewer pictures, but finer ones; and in all matters of art, French taste was not prominent, as had been the case in her home.
The next day she sat by unconscious Zell as long as was permitted, and wrote fully to Laura.
The dark-eyed girl that seemed dying the day before was gone.
"Did she die?" she asked of an attendant.
"What did they do with her?"
"Buried her in Potter's Field."
Edith shuddered. "It would have been Zell's end," she thought, "if I hadn't found her, and she had died here alone."
That evening Mrs. Hart, as they all sat in her own private parlor, said to her daughters:
"Girls, away with you. I can't move a step without stumbling over one of you. You are always crowding into my sanctum, as if there was not an inch of room for you anywhere else. Vanish. I want to talk to Edith."
"It's your own fault that we crowd in here, mother," said the eldest. "You are the loadstone that draws us."
"I'll get a lot of stones to throw at you and drive you out with," said the old lady, with mock severity.
The youngest daughter precipitated herself on her mother's neck, exclaiming:
"Wouldn't that be fun, to see jolly old mother throwing stones at us. She would wrap them in eider-down first."
"Scamper; the whole bevy of you," said the old lady, laughing; and Edith, with a sigh, contrasted this "mother's room" with the one which she and her sisters shunned as the place where their "teeth were set on edge."
"My dear," said Mrs. Hart, her face becoming grave and troubled, "there is one thing in my Christian work that discourages me. We reclaim so few of the poor girls that have gone astray. I understand, from Mrs. Ranger, that your sister was at the Home, but that she left it. How can we accomplish more? We do everything we can for them."
"I don't think earthly remedies can meet their case," said Edith, in a low tone.
"I agree with you," said Mrs. Hart, earnestly, "but we do give them religious instruction."
"I don't think religious instruction is sufficient," Edith answered. "They need a Saviour."
"But we do tell them about Jesus."
"Not always in a way that they understand, I fear," said Edith, sadly. "I have heard people tell about Him as they would about Socrates, or Moses, or Paul. We don't need facts about Him so much as Jesus Himself. In olden times people did not go to their sick and troubled friends and tell them that Jesus was in Capernaum, and that He was a great deliverer. They brought the poor, helpless creatures right to Him. They laid them right at the feet of a personal Saviour, and He helped them. Do we do this? I have thought a great deal about it," continued Edith, "and it seems to me that more associate the ideas of duty, restraint, and almost impossible effort with Him, than the ideas of help and sympathy. It was so with me, I know, at first."
"Perhaps you are right," said Mrs. Hart thoughtfully. "The poor creatures to whom I referred seemed more afraid of God than anything else."
"And yet, of all that ever lived, Jesus was the most tender toward them--the most ready to forgive and save. Believe me, Mrs. Hart, there was more gospel in the kiss you gave my sister--there was more of Jesus Christ in it, than in all the sermons ever written, and I am sure that if she had been conscious, it would have saved her. They must, as it were, feel the hand of love and power that lifted Peter out of the ingulfing waves. The idea of duty and sturdy self- restraint is perhaps too much emphasized, while they, poor things, are weak as water. They are so 'lost' that He must just 'seek and save' them, as He said--lift them up--keep them up almost in spite of themselves. Saved--that is the word, as the limp, helpless form is dragged out of danger. On account of my sister I have thought a good deal about this subject, and there seems to me to be no remedy for this class, save in the merciful, patient, personal Saviour. He had wonderful power over them when He was on earth, and He would have the same now, if His people could make them understand Him."
"I think few of us understand this personal Saviour ourselves as we ought," said Mrs. Hart, somewhat unveiling her own experience. "The Romish Church puts the Virgin, saints, penances, and I know not what, between the sinner and Jesus, and we put catechisms, doctrines, and a great mass of truth about them, between Him and us. I doubt whether many of us, like the beloved disciple, have leaned our heads on His heart of love, and felt its throbs. Too much of the time He seems in Heaven to me, not here."
"I never had much religious instruction," said Edith, simply. "I found Him in the New Testament, as people of old found Him in Palestine, and I went to Him, just as I was, and He has been such a Friend and Helper. He lets me sit at His feet like Mary, and the words He spoke seem said directly to poor little me."
Wistful tears came into Mrs. Hart's eyes, and she kissed Edith, saying:
"I have been a Christian forty years, my child, but you are nearer to Him than I am. Stay close to His side. This talk has done me more good than I imagined possible."
"If I seem nearer," said Edith, gently, "isn't it, perhaps, because I am weaker than you are? His 'sheep follow' Him, but isn't there some place in the Bible about his 'carrying the lambs in His bosom'? I think we shall find at last that He was nearer to us all than we thought, and that His arm of love was around us all the time."
In a sudden, strong impulse, Mrs. Hart embraced Edith, and, looking upward, exclaimed:
"Truly 'Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto babes.' As my husband said, I am entertaining a good angel."
The physician gave Edith great encouragement about Zell, and told her that in two weeks he thought she might be moved. The fever was taking a light form.
One evening, after listening to some superb music from Annie, the second daughter, between whom and Edith quite an affinity seemed to develop itself, the latter said:
"How finely you play! I think you are wonderful for an amateur."
"I am not an amateur," replied Annie, laughing. "Music is my profession."
"I don't understand," said Edith.
"Father has made me study music as a science," explained Annie." I could teach it to-morrow. All of us girls are to have a profession. Ella, my eldest sister, is studying drawing and painting. Here is a portfolio of her sketches."
Even Edith's unskilled eyes could see that she had made great proficiency.
"Ella could teach drawing and coloring at once," continued Annie, "for she has studied the rules and principles very carefully, and given great attention to the rudiments of art, instead of having a teacher help her paint a few show-pictures. But I know very little about it, for I haven't much taste that way. Father has us educated according to our tastes; that is, if we show a little talent for any one thing, he has us try to perfect ourselves in that one thing. Julia is the linguist, and can jabber French and German like natives. Father also insisted on our being taught the common English branches very thoroughly, and he says he could get us situations to teach within a month, if it were necessary."
Edith sighed deeply as she thought how superficial their education had been, but she said rather slyly to Annie, "But you are engaged. I think your husband will veto the music-teaching."
"Oh, well," said Annie, laughing, "Walter may fail, or get sick, or something may happen. So you see we shouldn't have to go to the poor- house. Besides, there's a sort of satisfaction in knowing one thing pretty well. But the half is not told you, and I suppose you will think father and mother queer people; indeed, most of our friends do. For mother has had a milliner come to the house, and a dressmaker, and a hair-dresser, and whatever we have any knack at she has made us learn well, some one thing, and some another. Wouldn't I like to dress your long hair!" continued the light-hearted girl. "I would make you so bewitching that you would break a dozen hearts in one evening. Then mother has taught us how to cook, and to make bread and cake and preserves, and Ella and I have to take turns in keeping house, and marketing, and keeping account of the living expenses. The rest of the girls are at school yet. Mother says she is not going to palm off any frauds in her daughters when they get married; and if we only turn out half as good as she is, our husbands will be lucky men, if I do say it; and if all of us don't get any, we can take care of ourselves. Father has been holding you up as an example of what a girl can do, if she has to make her own way in the world."
And the sprightly, but sensible, girl would have rattled on indefinitely, had not Edith fled to her room in an uncontrollable rush of sorrow over the sad, sad, "It might have been."
One afternoon Annie came into Edith's room, saying, "I am going to dress your hair. Yes, I will--now don't say a word, I want to. We expect two or three friends in--one you'll be glad to see. No, I won't tell you who it is. It's a surprise." And she flew at Edith's head, pulled out the hairpins, and went to work with a dexterity and rapidity that did credit to her training. In a little while she had crowned Edith with nature's most exquisite coronet.
A cloud of care seemed to rest on Mr. Hart's brow as they entered the dining-room, but he banished it instantly, and with the quaint, stately gallantry of the old school, pretended to be deeply smitten with Edith's loveliness. And so lovely she appeared that their eyes continually returned, and rested admiringly on her, till at last the blushing girl remonstrated:
"You all keep looking at me so that I feel as if I were the dessert, and you were going to eat me up pretty soon."
"I speak for the biggest bite," cried Mr. Hart, and they laughed at her and petted her so that she said:
"I feel as if I had known you all ten years."
But ever and anon, Edith saw traces of the cloud of care that she had noticed at first. And so did Mrs. Hart, for she said:
"You have been a little anxious about business lately. Is there anything new?"
"No," said Mr. Hart, who, in contrast to Mr. Allen, talked business to his family; "things are only growing a little worse. There have been one or two bad failures today. The worst of it all is, there seems a general lack of confidence. No one knows what is going to happen. One feels as if in a thunder-shower. The lightning may strike him, and it may fall somewhere else. But don't worry, good mother, I am as safe as a man can be. I have a round million in my safe ready for an emergency."
The wife knew just where her husband stood that night.
At nine o'clock, Edith was talking earnestly with Mrs. Ranger, whom she had expressed a wish to see. There were a few other people present of the very highest social standing, and intimate friends of the family, for her kind entertainers would not expose her to any strange and unsympathetic eyes. Annie was flitting about, the very spirit of innocent mischief and match-making, gloating over the pleasure she expected to give Edith. The bell rang, and a moment later she marshalled in Gus Elliot, as handsome and exquisitely dressed as ever. He was as much in the dark as to whom he should see as Edith. Some one had told Annie of his former devotedness to Edith, and so she innocently meant to do both a kindness. Having a slight acquaintance with Elliot, as a general society man, she invited him this evening to "meet an old friend." He gladly accepted, feeling it a great honor to visit at the Harts'.
He saw Edith a moment before she observed him, and had time to note her exquisite beauty. But he turned pale with fear and anxiety in regard to his reception.
Then she raised her eyes and saw him. The blood rushed in a hot torrent to her face, and then left it in extreme pallor. Gus advanced with all the ease and grace that he could command under the circumstances, and held out his hand. "She cannot refer to the past here before them all," he thought.
But Edith rose slowly, and fixed her large eyes, that glowed like coals of fire, sternly upon him, and put her hand behind her back.
All held their breath in awe-struck expectation. She seemed to see only him and the past, and to forget all the rest.
"No, sir," she said, in a low, deep voice, that curdled Gus's blood, "I cannot take your hand. I might in pity, if you were in the depths of poverty and trouble, as I have been, but not here and thus. Do you know where my sister is?"
"No," faltered Gus, his knees trembling under him.
"She is in Bellevue Hospital. A poor girl was carried thence to Potter's Field a day or two since. She might have been if I had not found her. And," continued Edith, with her face darkening like night, and her tone deepening till it sent a thrill of dread to the hearts of all present, "in Potter's Field I might now have been if I had listened to you."
Gus trembled before her in a way that plainly confirmed her words.
With a grand dignity she turned to Mrs. Hart, saying, "Please excuse my absence; I cannot breathe the same air with him," and she was about to sweep from the parlor like an incensed goddess, when Mr. Hart sprang up, his eyes blazing with anger, and putting his arm around Edith, said, sternly:
"I would shield this dear girl as my own daughter. Leave this house, and never cross my threshold again."
Gus slunk away without a word. As the guilty will be at last, he was "speechless." So, in a moment, when least expecting it, he fell from his heaven, which was society: for the news of his baseness spread like wildfire, and within a week every respectable door was closed against him.
Is it cynical to say that the well-known and widely-honored Mr. Hart, in closing his door, had influence as well as Gus's sin, in leading some to close theirs? Motives in society are a little mixed, sometimes.
Mr. Hart went down town the next morning, a little anxious, it is true, on general principles, but not in the least apprehensive of any disaster. "I may have to pay out a few hundred thousand," he thought, "but that won't trouble me."
But the bolt of financial suspicion was directed toward him; how, he could not tell. Within half an hour after opening, checks for twelve hundred thousand were presented at his counter. He telegraphed to his wife, "A run upon me." Later, "Danger!" Then came the words to the uptown palace, "Have suspended!" In the afternoon, "The storm will sweep me bare, but courage, God, and our right hands, will make a place and a way for us."
The business community sympathized deeply with Mr. Hart. Hard, cool men of Wall Street came in, and, with eyes moist with sympathy, wrung his hand. He stood up through the wild tumult, calm, dignified, heroic, because conscious of rectitude.
"The shrinkage in securities will be great, I fear," he said, "but I think my assets will cover all liabilities. We will give up everything."
When he came up home in the evening, he looked worn, and much older than in the morning, but his wife and daughters seemed to envelop him in an atmosphere of love and sympathy. They were so strong, cheerful, hopeful, that they infused their courage into him. Annie ran to the piano, and played as if inspired, saying to her father:
"Let every note tell you that we can take care of ourselves, and you and mother too, if necessary."
The words were prophetic. The strain had been too great on Mr. Hart. That night he had a stroke of paralysis and became helpless. But he had trained his daughters to be the very reverse of helpless, and they did take care of him with the most devoted love and skilled practical energy, making the weak, brief remnant of his life not a burden, but a peaceful evening after a glorious day. They all, except the youngest, soon found employment, for they brought superior skill and knowledge to the labor market, and such are ever in demand. Annie soon married happily, and her younger sisters eventually followed her example. But Ella, the eldest, remained single; and, though she never became eminent as an artist, did become a very useful and respected teacher of art, as studied in our schools for its refining influence.
To return to Edith, she felt for her kind friends almost as much as if she were one of the family.
"Do not feel that you must go away because of what has happened," said Mrs. Hart. "I am glad to have you with us, for you do us all good. Indeed, you seem one of us. Stay as long as you can, dear, and God help us both to bear our burdens."
"Dear, 'heavy-laden' Mrs. Hart," said Edith, "Jesus will bear the burdens for us, if we will let Him."
"Bless you, child, I am sure He sent you to me."
As Edith entered the ward that day, the attendant said, "She's herself, miss, at last."
Edith stole noiselessly to Zell's cot. She was sleeping. Edith sat down silently and watched for her waking. At last she opened her eyes and glanced fearfully around. Then she saw Edith, and instantly shrank and cowered as if expecting a blow.
"Zell," said Edith, taking the poor, thin hand, "Oh, Zell, don't you know me?"
"What are you going to do with me?" asked Zell, in a voice full of dread.
"Take you to my home--take you to my heart--take you deeper into my love than ever before."
"Edith," said Zell, almost cowering before her words as if they hurt her, "I am not fit to go home."
"Oh, Zell, darling," said Edith, tenderly, "God's love does not keep a debit and credit account with us, neither should we with each other. Can't you see that I love you?" and she showered kisses on her sister's now pallid face.
But Zell acted as if they were a source of pain to her, and she muttered, "You don't know, you can't know. Don't speak of God to me, I fear Him unspeakably."
"I do know all," said Edith, earnestly, "and I love you more fondly than ever I did before, and God knows and loves you more still."
"I tell you you don't know," said Zell, almost fiercely. "You can't know. If you did, you would spit on me and leave me forever. God knows, and He has doomed me to hell, Edith," she added, in a hoarse whisper. "I killed him--you know whom. And I promised that after I got old and ugly I would come and torment him forever. I must keep my promise."
Edith wept bitterly. This was worse than delirium. She saw that her sister's nature was so bruised and perverted, so warped, that she was almost insane. She slowly rallied back into physical strength, but her hectic cheek and slight cough indicated the commencement of consumption. Her mind remained in the same unnatural condition, and she kept saying to Edith, "You don't know anything about it at all. You can't know." She would not see Mrs. Hart, and agreed to go home with Edith only on condition that no one should see or speak with her outside the family.
At last the day of departure came. Mrs. Hart said, "You shall take her to the depot in my carriage. It will be among its last and best uses."
Edith kissed her kind friend good-by, saying, "God will send his chariot for you some day, and though you must leave this, your beautiful home, if you could only have a glimpse into the mansion preparing for you up there, anticipation would almost banish all thoughts of present loss."
"Well, dear," said Mrs. Hart, with a gleam of her old humor, "I hope your 'mansion' will be next door, for I shall want to see you often through all eternity."
Then Edith knelt before Mr. Hart's chair, and the old man's helpless hands were lifted upon her head, and he looked to heaven for the blessing he could not speak.
"Our ways diverge now, but they will all meet again. Home is near to you," she whispered in his ear as she kissed him good-by.
The old glad light shone in his eyes, the old cheery smile flitted across his lips, and thus she left him who had been the great, rich banker, serene, happy, and rich in a faith that could not be lost in any financial storm, or destroyed by disease, or enfeebled by age--she left him waiting as a little child to go home.