Chapter XXXIV. Saved
 

Edith's efforts still to help Zell to better things were very pathetic, considering how unhappy and tempted she was herself. She did try, even when her own heart was breaking, to bring peace and hope to the poor creature, but she was taught how vain her efforts were, in her present mood, by Zell's saying, sharply:

"Physician, heal thyself."

Though Zell did not understand Edith, she saw that she was almost as unhappy as herself, and she had lost hope in everybody and everything. Though she had not admitted it, Edith's words and kindness at first had excited her wonder, and, perhaps, a faint glimmer of hope; but, as she saw her sister's face cloud with care, and darken with pain and fear, she said, bitterly:

"Why did she talk with me so? It was all a delusion. What is God doing for her any more than for me?"

But, in order to give Zell occupation, and something to think about besides herself, Edith had induced her to take charge of the flowers in the garden.

"They won't grow for me," Zell had said at first. "They will wither when I look at them, and white blossoms will turn black as I bend over them."

"Nonsense!" said Edith, with irritation; "won't you do anything to help me?"

"Oh, certainly," wearily answered Zell. "I will do the work just as you tell me. If they do die, it don't matter. We can eat or sell them." So Zell began to take care of the flowers, doing the work in a stealthy manner, and hiding when any one came.

The month of May was unusually warm, and Edith was glad, for it would hasten things forward. That upon which she now bent almost agonized effort and thought was the possibility of paying the interest on the mortgage by the middle of June, when it was due. All hope concentrated on her strawberries, as they would be the first crop worth mentioning that she could depend on from her place. She gave the plants the most careful attention. Not a weed was suffered to grow, and between the rows she placed carefully, with her own hands, leaves she raked up in the orchard, so that the ground might be kept moist and the fruit clean. Almost every hour of the day her eyes sought the strawberry- bed, as the source of her hope. If that failed her, no bleeding human sacrifice in all the cruel past could surpass in agony her fate.

The vines began to blossom with great promise, and at first she almost counted them in her eager expectation. Then the long rows looked like little banks of snow, and she exulted over the prospect. Laura was once about to pick one of the blossoms, but she stopped her almost fiercely. She would get up in the night, and stand gazing at the lines of white, as she could trace them in the darkness across the garden. So the days passed on till the last of May, and the blossoms grew scattering, but there were multitudes of little green berries, from the size of a pea to that of her thimble, and some of them began to have a white look. She so minutely watched them develop that she could have almost defined the progress day by day. Once Zell looked at her wonderingly, and said:

"Edith, you are crazy over that strawberry-bed. I believe you worship it."

For a time Edith's hopes daily rose higher as the vines gave finer promise, but during the last week of May a new and terrible source of danger revealed itself, a danger that she knew not how to cope with-- drought.

It had not rained since the middle of May. She saw that many of her young and tender vegetables were wilting, but the strawberries, mulched with leaves, did not appear to mind it at first. Still she knew they would suffer soon, unless there was rain. Most anxiously she watched the skies. Their serenity mocked her when she was so clouded with care. Wild storms would be better than these balmy, sunny days.

The first of June came, the second, third, and fourth, and here and there a berry was turning red, but the vines were beginning to wilt. The suspense became so great she could hardly endure it. Her faith in God began to waver. Every breath almost was a prayer for rain, but the sunny days passed like mocking smiles.

"Is there a God?" she queried desperately. "Can I have been deceived in all my past happy experience?" She shuddered at the answer that the tempter suggested, and yet, like a drowning man, she still clung to her faith.

During the long evening, she and Hannibal sought to save the bed by carrying water from the well, but they could do so little, it only seemed to show them how utterly dependent they were on the natural rain from heaven; but the skies seemed laughing at her pain and fear. Moreover, she noticed that those they watered appeared injured rather than helped, as is ever the case where it is insufficiently done, and she saw that she must helplessly wait.

Arden Lacey had been away for a week, and, returning in the dusk of the evening, saw her at work watering, before she had come to this conclusion. His heart was hungry, even for the sight of her, and he longed for her to let him stop for a little chat as of old. So he said, timidly:

"Good-evening, Miss Allen, haven't you a word to welcome me back with?"

"Oh!" cried Edith, not heeding his salutation, "why don't it rain! I shall lose all my strawberries."

His voice jarred upon her heart, now too full, and she ran into the house to hide her feelings, and left him. Even the thought of him now, in her morbid state, began to pierce her like a sword.

"She thinks more of her paltry strawberry-bed than of me," muttered Arden, and he stalked angrily homeward. "What is the matter with Miss Allen?" he asked his mother abruptly. "I don't understand her."

"Nor I either," said Mrs. Lacey with a sigh.

The next morning was very warm, and Edith saw that the day would be hotter than any that preceded. A dry wind sprang up and it seemed worse than the sun. The vines began to wither early after the coolness of the night, and those she had watered suffered the most, and seemed to say to her mockingly:

"You can't do anything."

"Oh, heaven!" cried Edith, almost in despair, "there is a black hand pushing me down."

In an excited, feverish manner she roamed restlessly around and could settle down to nothing. She scanned the horizon for a cloud, as the shipwrecked might for a sail.

"Edie, what is the matter?" said Laura, putting her arms about her sister.

"It won't rain," said Edith, bursting into tears. "My home, my happiness, everything depends on rain, and look at these skies."

"But won't He send it?" asked Laura, gently.

"Why don't He, then?" said Edith, almost in irritation. Then, in a sudden passion of grief, she hid her face in her sister's lap, and sobbed, "Oh, Laura, Laura, I feel I am losing my faith in Him. Why does He treat me so?"

Here Laura's face grew troubled and fearful also. Her faith in Christ was so blended with her faith in Edith that she could not separate them in a moment. "I don't understand it, Edie," she faltered. "He seems to have taken care of me, and has been very kind since that-- that night But I don't understand your feeling so."

"Oh, oh, oh!" sobbed Edith, "I don't know what to think--what to believe; and I fear I shall hurt your faith," and she shut herself up in her room, and looked despairingly out to where the vines were drooping in the fierce heat.

"If they don't get help to-day, my hopes will wither like their leaves," she said, with pallid lips. As the sun declined in the west, she went out and stood beside them, as one might by a dying friend. Her fresh young face seemed almost growing aged and wrinkled under the ordeal. She had prayed that afternoon, as never before in her life, for help, and now, with a despairing gesture upward, she said:

"Look at that brazen sky!"

But the noise of the opening gate caused her to look thither, and there was Arden entering, with a great barrel on wheels, which was drawn by a horse. His heart, so weak toward her, had relented during the day. "I vowed to serve her, and I will," he thought. "I will be her slave, if she will permit."

Edith did not understand at first, and he came toward her so humbly, as if to ask a great favor, that it would have been comic, had not his sincerity made it pathetic.

"Miss Allen," he said, "I saw you trying to water your berries. Perhaps I can do it better, as I have here the means of working on a larger scale."

Edith seized his hand and said, with tears: "You are like an angel of light; how can I thank you enough?"

Her manner puzzled him to-night quite as much as on the previous occasion. "Why does she act as if her life depended on these few berries?" he vainly asked himself. "They can't be so poor as to be in utter want. I wish she would speak frankly to me."

In her case, as in thousands of others, it would have been so much better if she had.

Then Edith said, a little dubiously, "I hurt the vines when I tried to water them."

"I know enough about gardening to understand that," said Arden, with a smile. "If the ground is not thoroughly soaked it does hurt them. But see," and he poured the water around the vines till the dry leaves swam in it. "That will last two days, and then I will water these again. I can go over half the bed thoroughly one night, and the other half the next night; and so we will keep them along till rain comes."

She looked at him as if he were a messenger come to release her from a dungeon, and murmured, in a low, sweet voice:

"Mr. Lacey, you are as kind as a brother to me."

A warm flush of pleasure mantled his face and neck, and he turned away to hide his feelings, but said:

"Miss Edith, this is nothing to what I would do for you."

She had it on her lips to tell him how she was situated, but he hastened away to fill his barrel at a neighboring pond. She watched him go to and fro in his rough, working garb, and he seemed to her the very flower of chivalry.

Her eyes grew lustrous with admiration, gratitude, hope, and--yes, love, for before the June twilight deepened into night it was revealed in the depths of her heart that she loved Arden Lacey, and that was the reason that she had kept away from him since she had made the hateful promise. She had thought it only friendship, now she knew that it was love, and that his scorn and anger would be the bitterest ingredient of all in her self-immolation.

For two long hours he went to and fro unweariedly, and then startled her by saying in the distance on his way home, "I will come again to- morrow evening," and was gone. He was afraid of himself, lest in his strong feeling he might break his implied promise not even to suggest his love, when she came to thank him, and so, in self-distrustfulness, he was beginning to shun her also.

An unspeakable burden of fear was lifted from her heart, and hope, sweet, warm, and rosy, kept her eyes waking, but rested her more than sleep. In the morning she saw that the watering had greatly revived one half of the bed, and that all through the hot day they did not wilt, while the unwatered part looked very sick.

Old Crowl also had seen the proceeding in the June twilight, and did not like it. "I must put a spoke in his wheel," he said. So the next afternoon he met Arden in the village, and blustered up to him, saying:

"Look here, young Lacey, what were you doing at the Allens' last night?"

"None of your business."

"Yes, it is my business, too, as you may find out to your cost. I am engaged to marry Miss Edith Allen, and guess it's my business who's hanging around there. I warn you to keep away." Mr. Crowl had put the case truly, and yet with characteristic cunning. He was positively engaged to Edith, though she was only conditionally engaged to him.

"It's an accursed lie," thundered Arden, livid with rage, "and I warn you to leave--you make me dangerous."

"Oh, ho; touches you close, does it? I am sorry for you, but it's true, nevertheless."

Arden looked as if he would rend him, but by a great effort he controlled himself, and in a low, meaning voice said:

"If you have lied to me this afternoon, woe be unto you," and he turned on his heel and walked straight to Edith, where she stood at work among her grapevines, breaking off some of the too thickly budding branches. He was beside her before she heard him, and the moment she looked into his white, stern face, she saw that something had happened.

"Miss Allen," he said, abruptly, "I heard a report about you this afternoon. I did not believe it; I could not; but it came so direct, that I give you a chance to refute it. Your word will be sufficient for me. It would be against all the world. Is there anything between you and Simon Crowl?"

Her confusion was painful, and for a moment she could not speak, but stood trembling before him.

In his passion, he seized her roughly by the arm and said, hoarsely, "In a word, yes or no?"

His manner offended her proud spirit, and she looked him angrily in the face and said, haughtily;

"Yes."

He recoiled from her as if he had been stung.

Her anger died away in a moment, and she leaned against the grape- trellis for support.

"Do you love him?" he faltered, his bronzed cheek blanching.

"No," she gasped.

The blood rushed furiously into his face, and he took an angry stride toward her. She cowered before him, but almost wished that he would strike her dead. In a voice hoarse with rage, he said:

"This, then, is the end of our friendship. This is the best that your religion has taught you. If not your pitiful faith, then has not your woman's nature told you that neither priest nor book can marry you to that coarse lump of earth?" and he turned on his heel and strode away.

His mother was frightened as she saw his face. "What has happened?" she said, starting up. He stared at her almost stupidly for a moment. Then he said, in a stony voice:

"The worst that ever can happen to me in this or any world. If the lightning had burned me to a cinder, I could not be more utterly bereft of all that tends to make a good man. Edith Allen has sold herself to old Crowl. Some priest is going through a farce they will call a marriage, and all the good people will say, 'How well she has done!' What a miserable delusion this religious business is! You had better give it up, mother, as I do, here and now."

"Hush, my son," said Mrs. Lacey, solemnly. "You have only seen Edith Allen. I have seen Jesus Christ.

"There is some mystery about this," she added, after a moment's painful thought. "I will go and see her at once."

He seized her hand, saying:

"Have I not been a good son to you?"

"Yes, Arden."

"Then by all I have ever been to you, and as you wish my love to continue, go not near her again."

"But, Arden--"

"Promise me," he said, sternly.

"Well," said the poor woman, with a deep sigh, "not without your permission."

From that time forth, Arden seemed as if made of stone.

After he was gone Edith walked with uncertain steps to the little arbor, and sat down as if stunned. She lost all idea of time. After it was dark, Hannibal called her in, and made her take a cup of tea. She then went mechanically to her room, but not to sleep. Arden's dreadful words kept repeating themselves over and over again.

"O God!" she exclaimed, in the darkness, "whither am I drifting? Must I be driven to this awful fate in order to provide for those dependent upon me? Cannot bountiful Nature feed us? Wilt Thou not, in mercy, send one drop of rain? O Jesus, where is Thy mercy?"

The next morning the skies were still cloudless, and she scowled darkly at the sunny dawn. Then, in sudden alternation of mood, she stretched her bare, white arms toward the little farmhouse, and sighed, in tones of tremulous pathos:

"Oh, Arden, Arden! I would rather die at your feet than live in a palace with him."

She sent down word that she was ill, and that she would not come down. Laura, Mrs. Allen, and even Zell, came to her, but she kissed them wearily, and sent them away. She saw that there was deep anxiety on all their faces. Pretty soon Hannibal came up with a cup of coffee.

"You must drink it, Miss Edie," he said, "'cause we'se all a-leanin' on you."

Well-meaning words, but tending unconsciously to confirm her desperate purpose to sacrifice herself for them.

She lay with her face buried in the pillow all day. She knew that their money was almost gone, that provisions were scanty in the house, and to her morbid mind bags of gold were piled up before her, and Simon Crowl, as an ugly spectre, was beckoning her toward them.

As she lay in a dull lethargy of pain in the afternoon, a heavy jar of thunder aroused her. She sprang up instantly, and ran out bare-headed to the little rise of ground behind the house, and there, in the west, was a great black cloud. The darker and nearer it grew, the more her face brightened. It was a strange thing to see that fair young girl looking toward the threatening storm with eager, glad expectancy, as if it were her lover. The heavy and continued roll of the thunder, like the approaching roar of battle, was sweeter to her than love's whispers. She saw with dilating eyes the trees on the distant mountain's brow toss and writhe in the tempest; she heard the fall of rain-drops on the foliage of the mountain's side as if they were the feet of an army coming to her rescue. A few large ones, mingled with hail, fell around her like scattering shots, and she put out her hands to catch them. The fierce gusts caught up her loosened hair and it streamed away behind her. There was a blinding flash, and the branches of a tall locust near came quivering down--she only smiled.

But dismay and trembling fear overwhelmed her as the shower passed on to the north. She could see it raining hard a mile away, but the drops ceased to fall around her. The deep reverberations rolled away in the distance, and in the west there was a long line of light. As the twilight deepened, the whole storm was below the horizon, only sending up angry flashes as it thundered on to parts unknown. With clasped hands and despairing eyes, Edith gazed after it, as the wrecked floating on a raft might watch a ship sail away, and leave them to perish on the wide ocean.

She walked slowly down to the little arbor, and leaned wearily back on the rustic seat. She saw night come on in breathless peace. Not a leaf stirred. She saw the moon rise over the eastern hills, as brightly and serenely as if its rays would not fall on one sad face.

Hannibal called, but she did not answer, Then he came out to her, and put the cup of tea to her lips, and made her drink it. She obeyed mechanically.

"Poor chile, poor chile," he murmured, "I wish ole Hannibal could die for you."

She lifted her face to him with such an expression that he hastened away to hide his tears. But she sat still, as if in a dream, and yet she felt that the crisis had come, and that before she left that place she must come to some decision. Reason would be dethroned if she lived much longer in such suspense and irresolution. And yet she sat still in a dreamy stupor, the reaction of her strong excitement. It seemed, in a certain sense, peaceful and painless, and she did not wish to goad herself out of it.

"It may be like the last sleep before execution," she thought, "therefore make the most of it," and her thoughts wandered at will.

A late robin came flying home to the arbor where the nest was, and having twittered out a little vesper-song, put its head under its wing, near his mate, which sat brooding in the nest over some little eggs, and the thought stole into her heart, "Will God take care of them and not me?" and she watched the peaceful sleep of the family over her head as if it were an emblem of faith.

Then a sudden breeze swept a spray of roses against her face, and their delicate perfume was like the "still small voice" of love, and the thought passed dreamily across Edith's mind, "Will God do so much for that little cluster of roses and yet do nothing for me?"

How near the Father was to His child! In this calm that followed her long passionate struggle, His mighty but gentle Spirit could make itself felt, and it stole into the poor girl's bruised heart with heavenly suggestion and healing power. The happy days when she followed Jesus and sat daily at His feet were recalled. Her sin was shown to her, not in anger, but in the loving reproachfulness of the Saviour's look upon faithless Peter, and a voice seemed to ask in her soul, "How could you turn away your trust from Him to anything else? How could you think it right to do so great a wrong? How could you so trample upon the womanly nature that He gave you as to think of marrying where neither love nor God would sanction?"

Jesus seemed to stand before her, and point up to the robins, saying, "I feed them. I fed the five thousand. I feed the world. I can feed you and yours. Trust me. Do right. In trying to save yourself you will destroy yourself."

With a divine impulse, she threw herself on the floor of the arbor, and cried:

"Jesus, I cast myself at Thy feet. I throw myself on Thy mercy. When I look the world around, away from Thee, I see only fear and torment. If I die, I will perish at Thy feet."

Was it the moonlight only that made the night luminous? No, for the glory of the Lord shone around, and the peace that "passeth all understanding" came flowing into her soul like a shining river. The ugly phantoms that had haunted her vanished. The "black hand that seemed pushing her down," became her Father's hand, shielding and sustaining.

She rose as calm and serene as the summer evening and went straight to Mrs. Allen's room and said: "Mother, I will never marry Simon Crowl."

Her mother began to cry, and say piteously:

"Then we shall all be turned into the street."

"What the future will be I can't tell," said Edith, gently but firmly. "I will work for you, I will beg for you, I will starve with you, but I will never marry Simon Crowl, nor any other man that I do not love." And pressing a kiss on her mother's face, she went to her room, and soon was lost in the first refreshing sleep that she had had for a long time.

She was wakened toward morning by the sound of rain, and, starting up, heard its steady, copious downfall. In a sudden ecstasy of gratitude she sprang up, opened the blinds and looked out. The moon had gone down, and through the darkness the rain was falling heavily; she felt it upon her forehead, her bare neck and arms, and it seemed to her Heaven's own baptism into a new and stronger faith and a happier life.