Chapter XXXIII. Edith's Great Temptation
 

Though even Mrs. Allen was tearful and kind in her greeting, and Laura warm and affectionate in the extreme, old Hannibal's welcome, so frank, genuine, and innocent, seemed to soften Zell more than any one's else.

"You poor, heavenly-minded old fool," she said, with an unwonted tear in her eye, "you don't know any better."

Then she seemed to settle down into a dreamy apathy; to sit moping around in shadowy places. She had a horror of meeting any one, even Mrs. Lacey and Rose, and would not go out till after night. Edith saw, more and more clearly, that she was almost insane in her shame and despair, and that she would be a terrible burden to them all if she remained in such a condition; but her love and patience did not fail. They would, had they not been daily fed from heavenly sources. "I must try to show her Jesus' love through mine," she thought.

Poor Edith, the great temptation of her life was soon to assail her. It was aimed at her weakest yet noblest side, her young enthusiasm and spirit of self-sacrifice for others. And yet, it was but the natural fruit of woman's helplessness and Mrs. Allen's policy of marrying one's way out of poverty and difficulty.

Simon Crowl had ostensibly made a very fair transaction with Edith, but Simon Crowl was a widower at the time, and on the lookout for a wife. He was a pretty sharp business man, Crowl was, or he wouldn't have become so rich in little Pushton, and he at once was satisfied that Edith, so beautiful, so sensible, would answer. Through the mortgage he might capture her, as it were, for even his vanity did not promise him much success in the ordinary ways of love-making. So the spider spun his web, and unconscious Edith was the poor little fly. During the summer he watched her closely, but from a distance. During the autumn and winter he commenced calling, ostensibly on Mrs. Allen, whom he at once managed to impress with the fact that he was very rich. Though he brushed up his best coat and manners, that delicate- nosed lady scented an air and manner very different from what she had been accustomed to, but she was half-dead with ennui, and, after all, there was something akin between worldly Mrs. Allen and worldly Mr. Crowl. Then, he was very rich. This had covered a multitude of sins on the avenue. But, in the miserable poverty of Pushton, it was a golden mantle of light. Mrs. Allen chafed at privation and want of delicacies with the increasing persistency of an utterly weak and selfish nature. She had no faith in Edith's plans, and no faith in woman's working, and the garden seemed the wildest dream of all. Her hard, narrow logic, constantly dinned into Edith's ears, discouraged her, and she began to doubt herself.

Mr. Crowl (timid lover) had in Edith's absence confirmed his previous hints, thrown out to Mrs. Allen as feelers, by making a definite proposition. In brief, he had offered to settle twenty-five thousand dollars on Edith the day she married him, and to take care of the rest of the family.

"I have made enough," he said majestically, "to live the rest of my life like a gentleman, and this offer is princely, if I say it myself. You can all ride in your carriage again." Then he added, with his little black eyes growing hard and cunning, "If your daughter won't accept my generosity, our relationship becomes merely one of business. Of course I shall foreclose. Money is scarce here, and I shall probably be able to buy in the place at half its worth. Seems to me," he concluded, looking at the case from his valuation of money, "there is not much room for choice here."

And Mr. Crowl had been princely--for him. Mrs. Allen thought so, too, and lent herself to the scheme with all the persistent energy that she could show in these matters. But, to do her justice, she really thought she was doing what was best for Edith and all of them. She was acting in accordance with her lifelong principle of providing for her family, in the one way she believed in and understood. But sincerity and singleness of purpose made her all the more dangerous as a tempter.

In one of Edith's most discouraged moods she broached the subject and explained Mr. Crowl's offer, for he, prudent man, had left it to her.

Edith started violently, and the project was so revolting to her that she fled from the room. But Mrs. Allen, with her small pertinacity, kept recurring to it at every opportunity. Though it may seem a little strange, her mother's action did not so shock Edith as some might expect; nor did the proposition seem so impossible as it might to some girls. She had all her life been accustomed, through her mother, to the idea of marrying for money, and we can get used to almost anything.

In March their money was very low. Going to Zell and taking care of her had involved much additional expense. She found out that her mother had already accepted and used in part a loan of fifty dollars from Mr. Crowl. Laura, from the long confinement of the winter, and from living on fare too coarse and lacking in nutrition for her delicate organization, was growing very feeble. Zell seemed in the first stages of consumption, and would soon be a sick, helpless burden. The chill of dread grew stronger at Edith's heart.

"Oh, can it be possible that I shall be driven to it!" she often groaned; and she now saw, as poor Laura said, "the black hand in the dark pushing her down." To her surprise her thoughts kept reverting to Arden Lacey.

"What will he think of me if I do this?" she thought, with intense bitterness. "He will tell me I was not worthy of his friendship, much less of his love--that I deceived him;" and the thought of Arden, after all, perhaps, had the most weight in restraining her from the fatal step. For then, to her perverted sense of duty, this marriage began to seem like an heroic self-sacrifice.

She had seen little of Arden since her return. He was kind and respectful as ever, outwardly, but she saw in his deep blue eyes that she was the divinity that he still worshipped with unfaltering devotion, and as she once smiled at the idea of being set up as an idol in his heart, she now began unspeakably to dread falling from her pedestal.

One dreary day, the last of March, when sleet and rain were pouring steadily down, and Laura was sick in her bed, and Zell moping with her hacking cough over the fire, with Hannibal in the kitchen, Mrs. Allen turned suddenly to Edith, and said:

"On some such day we shall all be turned into the street. You could save us, you could save yourself, by taking a kind, rich man for your lawful husband; but you won't."

Then Satan, who is always on hand when we are weakest, quoted Scripture to Edith as he had done once before. The words flashed into her mind, "He saved others, himself he cannot save."

In a wild moment of mingled enthusiasm and desperation, she sprang up before her mother, and said:

"If I can't pay the interest of the mortgage--if I can't take care of you all by some kind of work, I will marry him. But if you have a spark of love for me, save, economize, try to think of some other way."

Mrs. Allen smiled triumphantly, and tried in her gratitude to embrace her daughter, saying: "A kind husband will soon lift all burdens off your shoulders." The burden on the heart Mrs. Allen did not understand, but Edith fled from her to her own room.

In a little while her excitement and enthusiasm died away, and life began to look gaunt and bare. Even her Saviour's face seemed hidden, and she only saw an ugly spectre in the future--Simon Crowl.

In vain she repeated to herself, "He sacrificed Himself for others--so will I." The nature that He had given her revolted at it all, and though she could not understand it, she began to find a jarring discord between herself and all things.

Mrs. Allen told Mr. Crowl of her success, and he looked upon things as settled. He came to the house quite often, but did not stay long or assume any familiarity with Edith. He was a wary old spider; and under Mrs. Allen's hints, behaved and looked very respectably. He certainly did the best he could not to appear hideous to Edith, and though she was very cold, she compelled herself to treat him civilly.

Perhaps many might have considered Edith's chance a very good one; but with an almost desperate energy she set her mind at work to find some other way out of her painful straits. Everything, however, seemed against her. Mr. McTrump was sick with inflammatory rheumatism. Mrs. Groody was away, and would not be back till the last of May. On account of Arden she could not speak to Mrs. Lacey. She tried in vain to get work, but at that season there was nothing in Pushton which she could do. Farmers were beginning to get out a little on their wet lands, and various out-of-door activities to revive after the winter stagnation. Moreover, money was very scarce at that season of the year. She at last turned to the garden as her only resource. She realized that she had scarcely money enough to carry them through May. Could she get returns from her garden in time? Could it be made to yield enough to support them? With an almost desperate energy she worked in it whenever the weather permitted through April, and kept Hannibal at it also. Indeed, she had little mercy on the old man, and he wondered at her. One day he ventured:

"Miss Edie, you jes done kill us both," but his wonder increased as she muttered:

"Perhaps it would be the best thing for us both," Then, seeing his panic-stricken face, she added more kindly, "Hannibal, our money is getting low, and the garden is our only chance."

After that he worked patiently without a word and without a thought of sparing himself.

Edith insisted on the closest economy in the house, though she was too sensible to stint herself in food in view of her constant toil. But one day she detected Mrs. Allen, with her small cunning and her determination to carry her point, practicing a little wastefulness. Edith turned on her with such fierceness that she never dared to repeat the act. Indeed, Edith was becoming very much what she was before Zell ran away, only in addition there was something akin, at times, to Zell's own hardness and recklessness, and one day she said to Edith:

"What is the matter? You are becoming like me."

Edith fled to her room, and sobbed and cried and tried to pray till her strength was gone. The sweet trust and peace she had once enjoyed seemed like a past dream. She was learning by bitter experience that it can never be right to do wrong; and that a first false step, like a false premise, leads to sad conclusions.

She had insisted that her mother should not speak of the matter till it became absolutely necessary, therefore Laura, Zell, and none of her friends could understand her.

Arden was the most puzzled and pained of all, for she shrank from him with increasing dread. He was now back at his farm work, though he said to Edith one day despondently that he had no heart to work, for the mortgage on their place would probably be foreclosed in the fall. She longed to tell him how she was situated, but she saw he was unable to help her, and she dreaded to see the scorn come into his trusting, loving eyes; she could not endure his absolute confidence in her, and in his presence her heart ached as if it would break, so she shunned him till he grew very unhappy, and sighed:

"There's something wrong. She finds I am not congenial. I shall lose her friendship," and his aching heart also admitted, as never before, how dear it was to him.

Nature was awakening with the rapture of another spring; birds were coming back to old haunts with ecstatic songs; flowers budding into their brief but exquisite life, and the trees aglow with fragrant prophecies of fruit; but a winter of fear and doubt was chilling these two hearts into something far worse than nature's seeming death.