Chapter XXXV. Closing Scenes
 

The clouds were clearing away when Edith came down late the next morning, and all saw that the clouds had passed from her brow.

"Bress de Lord, Miss Edie, you'se yoursef again!" said Hannibal, joyfully. "I neber see a shower do such a heap ob good afore."

"No," said Edith, sadly; "I was myself. I lost my Divine Friend and Helper, and I then became myself--poor, weak, faulty Edith Allen. But, thanks to His mercy, I have found Him again, and so hope to be the better self that He helped me to be before."

Zell looked at her with a sudden wonder, and went out and stayed among her flowers all day.

Laura came and put her arms around her neck, and said,

"Oh, Edie, I am so glad! What you said set me to fearing and doubting; but I am sure we can trust Him."

Mrs. Allen sighed drearily, and said, "I don't understand it at all."

But old Hannibal slapped his hands in true Methodist style, exclaiming, "Dat's it! Trow away de ole heart! Get a new one! Bress de Lord!"

Edith went out into the garden, and saw that there were a great many berries ripe; then she hastened to the hotel, and said:

"Oh, Mrs. Groody, for Heaven's sake, won't you help me sell my strawberries up here?"

"Yes, my dear," was the hearty response; "both for your sake and the strawberries, too. We get them from the city, and would much rather have fresh country ones."

Edith returned with her heart thrilling with hope, and set to work picking as if every berry was a ruby, and in a few hours she had six quarts of fragrant fruit. Malcom had lent her little baskets, and Hannibal took them up to the hotel, for Arden would not even look toward the little cottage any more. The old servant came back grinning with delight, and gave Edith a dollar and a half.

The next day ten quarts brought two dollars and a half. Then they began to ripen rapidly, the rain having greatly improved them, and Edith, with considerable help from the others, picked twenty, thirty, and fifty quarts a day. She employed a stout boy from the village, to help her, and, through him, she soon had quite a village trade also. He had a percentage on the sales, and, therefore, was very sharp in disposing of them.

How Edith gloated over her money! how, with more than miserly eyes, she counted it over every night, and pressed it to her lips!

In the complete absorption of the past few weeks Edith had not noticed the change going on in Zell. The poor creature was surprised and greatly pleased that the flowers grew so well for her. Every opening blossom was a new revelation, and their sweet perfume stole into her wounded heart like balm. The blue violets seemed like children's eyes peeping timidly at her; and the pansies looked so bright and saucy that she caught herself smiling back at them. The little black and brown seeds she planted came up so promptly that it seemed as if they wanted to see her as much as she did them.

"Isn't it queer," she said one day to herself, "that such pretty things can come out of such ugly little things." Nothing in nature seemed to turn away from her, any more than would nature's God. The dumb life around began to speak to her in many and varied voices, and she who fled from companionship with her own kind would sit and chirp and talk to the birds, as if they understood her. And they did seem to grow strangely familiar, and would almost eat crumbs out of her hand.

One day in June she said to Hannibal, who was working near, "Isn't it strange the flowers grow so well for me?"

"Why shouldn't dey grow for you, Miss Zell?" asked he, straightening his old back up.

"Good, innocent Hannibal, how indeed should you know anything about it?"

"Yes, I does know all 'bout it," said he, earnestly, and he came to her where she stood by a rosebush. "Does you see dis white rose?"

"Yes," said Zell, "it opened this morning. I've been watching it."

Poor Hannibal could not read print, but he seemed to understand this exquisite passage in nature's open book, for he put his black finger on the rose (which made it look whiter than before), and commenced expounding it as a preacher might his text. "Now look at it sharp, Miss Zell, 'cause it'll show you I does know all 'bout it. It's white, isn't it?"

"Yes," said Zell, eagerly, for Hannibal held the attention of his audience.

"Dat means pure, doesn't it?" continued he.

"Yes," said Zell, looking sadly down.

"And it's sweet, isn't it? Now dat means lub."

And Zell looked hopefully up.

"And now, dear chile," said he, giving her a little impressive nudge, "see whar de white rose come from--right up out of de brack, ugly ground."

Having concluded his argument and made his point, the simple orator began his application, and Zell was leaning toward him in her interest.

"De good Lord, he make it grow to show what He can do for us. Miss Zell," he said, in an awed whisper, "my ole heart was as brack as dat ground, but de blessed Jesus turn it as white as dis rose. Miss Edie, Lor' bless her, telled me 'bout Him, and I'se found it all true. Now, doesn't I know 'bout it? I knows dat de good Jesus can turn de brackest heart in de world jes like dis rose, make it white and pure, and fill it up wid de sweetness of lub. I knows all 'bout it."

He spoke with the power of absolute certainty and strong feeling, therefore his hearer was deeply moved.

"Hannibal," she said, coming close to him, and putting her hand on his shoulder, "do you think Jesus could turn my heart white?"

"Sartin, Miss Zell," answered he, stoutly. "Jes as easy as He make dis white rose grow."

"Would you mind asking Him? It seems to me I would rather pray out here among the flowers," she said, in low, tremulous tones.

So Hannibal concluded his simple, but most effective, service by kneeling down by his pulpit, the rosebush, and praying:

"Bressed Jesus, guv dis dear chile a new heart, 'cause she wants it, and you wants her to hab it. Make it pure and full of lub. You can do it, dear Jesus. You knows you can. Now, jes please do it. Amen."

Zell's responsive "Amen" was like a note from an Aeolian harp.

"Hannibal," said she, looking wistfully at him, "I think I feel better. I think I feel it growing white."

"Now jes look here, Miss Zell," said he, giving her a bit of pastoral counsel before going back to his work, "don't you keep lookin' at your heart, and seein' how it feels, or you'll get discouraged. See dis rose agin? It don't look at itself. It jes looks up at de sun. So you look straight at Jesus, and your heart grow whiter ebery day."

And Hannibal and the flower did gradually lead poor Zell to Him who "taketh away the sins of the world," and He said to her as to one of old, "Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace."

On the evening of the 14th of June, Edith had more than enough to pay the interest due on the 15th, and she was most anxious to have it settled. She was standing at the gate waiting for Hannibal to join her as escort, when she saw Arden Lacey coming toward her. He had not looked at her since that dreadful afternoon, and was now about to pass her without notice, though from his manner she saw he was conscious of her presence. He looked so worn and changed that her heart yearned toward him. A sudden thought occurred to her, and she said:

"Mr. Lacey."

He kept right on, and paid no heed to her.

There was a mingling of indignation and pathos in her voice when she spoke again.

"I appeal to you as a woman, and no matter what I am, if you are a true man, you will listen."

There was that in her tone and manner that reminded him of the dark rainy night when they first met.

He turned instantly, but he approached her with a cold, silent bow.

"I must go to the village to-night. I wish your protection," she said, in a voice she tried vainly to render steady.

He again bowed silently, and they walked to the village together without a word. Hannibal came out in time to see them disappear down the road, one on one side of it, and one on the other.

"Well now, dey's both quar," he said, scratching his white head with perplexity, "but one ting is mighty sartin, I'se glad my ole jints is saved dat tramp."

Edith stopped at the door of Mr. Crowl's office, and Arden, for the first time, spoke hastily:

"I can't go in there."

"I hope you are not afraid," said Edith, in a tone that made him step forward quick enough.

Mr. Crowl looked as if he could not believe his eyes, but Edith gave him no time to collect his wits, but by the following little speech quite overwhelmed both him and Arden, though with different emotions.

"There, sir, is the interest due on the mortgage. There is a slight explanation due you and also this gentleman here, who was my friend. There are four persons in our family dependent on me for support and shelter. We were all so poor and helpless that it seemed impossible to maintain ourselves in independence. You make a proposition through my mother, never to me, that might be called generous if it had not been coupled with certain threats of prompt foreclosure if not accepted. In an hour of weakness and for the sake of the others, I said to my mother, never to you, that if I could not pay the interest and could not support the family, I would marry you. But I did very wrong, and I became so unhappy and desperate in view of this partial promise, that I thought I should lose my reason. But in the hour of my greatest darkness, when I saw no way out of our difficulties, I was led to see how wrongly I had acted, and to resolve that under no possible circumstances would I marry you, nor any man to whom I could not give a true wife's love. Since that time I have been able honestly to earn the money there; and in a few days more I will pay you the fifty dollars that my mother borrowed of you. So please give me my receipt."

"And remember henceforth," said Arden, sternly, "that this lady has a protector."

Simon was sharp enough to see that he was beaten, so he signed the receipt and gave it to Edith without a word. They left his office and started homeward. When out of the village Arden said timidly:

"Can you forgive me, Miss Edith?"

"Can you forgive me?" answered she, even more humbly.

They stopped in the road and grasped each other's hands with a warmth more expressive than all words. Then they went on silently again. At the gate Edith said timidly:

"Won't you come in?"

"I dare not, Miss Allen," said Arden, gravely, and with a dash of bitterness in his voice "I am a man of honor with all my faults, and I would keep the promise I made you in the letter I wrote one year ago. I must see very little of you," he continued, in a very heartsick tone, "but let me serve you just the same."

Edith's face seemed to possess more than human loveliness as it grew tender and gentle in the radiance of the full moon, and he looked at it with the hunger of a famished heart.

"But you made the promise to me, did you not?" she asked in a low tone.

"Certainly," said Arden.

"Then it seems to me that I have the right to absolve you from the promise," she continued in a still lower tone, and a face like a damask-rose in moonlight.

"Miss Allen--Edith--" said Arden, "oh, for Heaven's sake, be kind. Don't trifle with me."

Edith had restrained her feelings so long that she was ready to either laugh or cry, so with a peal of laughter, that rang out like a chime of silver bells, she said:

"Like the fat abbot in the story, I give you full absolution and plenary indulgence."

He seized her hand and carried it to his lips: "Edith," he pleaded, in a low, tremulous voice, "will you let me be your slave?"

"Not a bit of it," said she, sturdily. She added, looking shyly up at him, "What should I do with a slave?"

Arden was about to kneel at her feet, but she said:

"Nonsense! If you must get on your knees, come and kneel to my strawberry-bed--you ought to thank that, I can tell you." And so the matter-of-fact girl, who could not abide sentiment, got through a scene that she greatly dreaded.

They could see the berries reddening among the green leaves, and the night wind blowing across them was like a gale from Araby the Blest.

"Were it not for this strawberry-bed you would not have obtained absolution to-night. But, Arden," she added, seriously, "here is your way out of trouble, as well as mine. We are near good markets. Give up your poor, slipshod farming (I'm plain, you see) and raise fruit. I will supply you with vines. We will go into partnership. You show what a man can do, and I will show what a girl can do."

He took her hand and looked at her so fondly that she hid her face on his shoulder. He stroked her head and said, in a half-mirthful tone:

"Ah, Edie, Edie, woman once got man out of a garden, but you, I perceive, are destined to lead me into one; and any garden where you are will be Eden to me."

She looked up, with her face suddenly becoming grave and wistful, and said:

"Arden, God will walk in my garden in the cool of the day. You won't hide from Him, will you?"

"No," he answered, earnestly. "I now feel sure that, through my faith in you, I shall learn to have faith in Him."