What Can She Do by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter VII. Among the Breakers
After another brief but fuller examination of Mr. Allen in the privacy of his own room, Dr. Mark went down to the parlors. The guests were gathered in little groups, talking in low, excited whispers; those who had seen the reading of the note and Mr. Allen's strange action gaining brief eminence by their repeated statements of what they had witnessed and their varied surmises. The role of commentator, if mysterious human action be the text, is always popular, and as this explanatory class are proverbially gifted in conjecture, there were many theories of explanation. Some of the guests had already the good taste to prepare for departure, and when Dr. Mark appeared from the sick room, and said:
"Mr. Allen and the family will be unable to appear again this evening. I am under the painful necessity of saying that this occasion, which opened so brilliantly, must now come to a sad and sudden end. I will convey your adieux and expressions of sympathy to the family"--there was a general move to the dressing-rooms. The doctor was overwhelmed for a moment with expressions of sympathy, that in the main were felt, and well questioned by eager and genuine curiosity, for Fox had dropped some mysterious hints during the evening, which had been quietly circulating. But Dr. Mark was professionally non-committal, and soon excused himself that he might attend to his patient.
The house, that seemingly a moment before was ablaze with light and resounding with fashionable revelry, suddenly became still, and grew darker and darker, as if the shadowing wings of the dreaded angel were drawing very near. In the large, elegant rooms, where so short a time before gems and eyes had vied in brightness, old Hannibal now walked alone with silent tread and a peculiarly awed and solemn visage. One by one he extinguished the lights, leaving but faint glimmers here and there, that were like a few forlorn hopes struggling against the increasing darkness of disaster. Under his breath he kept repeating fervently, "De Lord hab mercy," and this, perhaps, was the only intelligent prayer that went up from the stricken household in this hour of sudden danger and alarm. Though we believe the Divine Father sees the dumb agony of His creatures, and pities them, and often when they, like the drowning, are grasping at straws of human help and cheer, puts out His strong hand and holds them up; still it is in accordance with His just law that those who seek and value His friendship find it and possess it in adversity. The height of the storm is a poor time and the middle of the angry Atlantic a poor place in which to provide life-boats.
The Allens had never looked to Heaven, save as a matter of form. They had a pew in a fashionable church, but did not very regularly occupy it, and such attendance had done scarcely anything to awaken or quicken their spiritual life. They came home and gossiped about the appearance of their "set," and perhaps criticised the music, but one would never have dreamed from manner or conversation that they had gone to a sacred place to worship God in humility. Indeed, scarcely a thought of Him seemed to have dwelt in their minds. Religious faith had never been of any practical help, and now in their extremity it seemed utterly intangible, and in no sense to be depended on.
When Mrs. Allen recovered from her swoon, and Laura had gained some self-control, they sent for Dr. Mark, and eagerly suggested both their hope and fear.
"It's only a fainting fit, doctor, is it not? Will he not soon be better?"
"My dear madam, we will do all we can," said the doctor, with that professional solemnity which might accompany the reading of a death warrant, "but it is my painful duty to tell you to prepare for the worst. Your husband has an attack of apoplexy."
He had scarcely uttered the words before she was again in a swoon, and Laura also lost her transient quietness. Leaving his assistant and Mrs. Allen's maid to take care of them, he went back to his graver charge.
Mr. Allen lay insensible on his bed, and one could hardly realize that he was a dying man. His face was as flushed and full as it often appeared on his return from his club. To the girls' unpracticed ears, his loud, stentorous breathing only indicated heavy sleep. But neither they nor the doctor could arouse him, and at last the physician met Edith's questioning eyes, and gravely and significantly shook his head. Though she had borne up so steadily and quietly, he felt more for her than for any of the others.
"Oh, doctor! can't you save him?" she pleaded.
"You must save him," cried Zell, her eyes flashing through her tears, "I would be ashamed, if I were a physician, to stand over a strong man, and say helplessly, 'I can do nothing.' Is this all your boasted skill amounts to? Either do something at once or let us get some one who will."
"Your feelings to-night, Miss Zell," said the doctor quietly, "will excuse anything you say, however wild and irrational. I am doing all--"
"I am not wild or unreasonable," cried Zell. "I only demand that my father's life be saved." Then starting up she threw off a shawl and stood before Dr. Mark in the dress she had worn in the evening, that seemed a sad mockery in that room of death. Her neck and arms were bare, and even the cool, experienced physician was startled by her wonderful beauty and strange manner. Her white throat was convulsed, her bosom heaved tumultuously, and on her face was the expression that might have rested on the face of a maiden like herself centuries before, when shown the rack and dungeon, and told to choose between her faith and her life.
But after a moment she extended her white rounded arm toward him and said steadily:
"I have read that if the blood of a young, vigorous person is infused into another who is feeble and old, it will give renewed strength and health. Open a vein in my arm. Save his life if you take mine."
"You are a brave, noble girl," said Dr. Mark, with much emotion, taking the extended hand and pressing it tenderly, "but you are asking what is impossible in this case. Do you not remember that I am an old friend of your father's? It grieves me to the heart that his attack is so severe that I fear all within the reach of human skill is vain."
Zell, who was a creature of impulse, and often of noblest impulse, as we have seen, now reacted into a passion of weeping, and sank helplessly on the floor. She was capable of heroic action, but she had no strength for woman's lot, which is so often that of patient endurance.
Edith came and put her arms around her, and with gentle, soothing words, as if speaking to a child, half carried her to her room, where she at last sobbed herself asleep.
For another hour Edith and the doctor watched alone, and the dying man sank rapidly, going down into the darkness of death without word or sign.
"Oh that he would speak once more!" moaned Edith.
"I fear he will not, my dear," said the doctor, pitifully.
A little later Mr. Allen was motionless, like one who has been touched in unquiet sleep and becomes still. Death had touched him, and a deeper sleep had fallen upon him.
One of the great daily bulletins will go to press in an hour. A reporter jumps into a waiting hack and is driven rapidly uptown.
While the city sleeps preparations must go on in the markets for breakfast, and in printing rooms for that equal necessity in our day, the latest news. Therefore all night long there are dusky figures flitting hither and thither, seeing to it that when we come down in gown and slippers, our steak and the world's gossip be ready.
The breakfast of the Gothamites was furnished abundantly with sauce piquante on the morning of the last day of February, for Hannibal had shaken his head ominously, and wiped away a few honest tears, before he could tremulously say to the eager reporter:
Gathering what few particulars he could, and imagining many more, the reporter was driven back even more rapidly, full of the elation of a man who has found a good thing and means to make the most of it. Mr. Allen himself was not of importance to him, but news about him was. And this fact crowning the story of his violation of the revenue law and his prospective loss of a million, would make a brisk breeze in the paper to which he was attached, and might waft him a little further on as an enterprising news-gatherer.
It certainly would be the topic of the day on all lips, and poor Mr. Allen might have plumed himself on this if he had known it, for few people, unless they commit a crime, are of sufficient importance to be talked of all day In large, busy New York. In the world's eyes Mr. Allen had committed a crime. Not that they regarded his stock gambling as such. Multitudes of church members in good and regular standing were openly engaged in this. Nor could the slight and unintentional violation of the revenue law be regarded as such, though so grave in its consequences. But he had faltered and died when he should not have given way. What the world demands is success: and sometimes a devil may secure this where a true man cannot. The world regarded Mr. Van Dam and Mr. Goulden as very successful men.
Mr. Fox also had secured success by one adroit wriggle--we can describe his mode of achieving greatness by no better phrase. He was destined to receive half a million for his treachery to his employers. During the war, when United States securities were at their worst; when men, pledged to take them, forfeited money rather than do so, Mr. Allen had lent the government millions, because he believed in it, loved it, and was resolved to sustain it. That same government now rewards him by putting it in the power of a dishonest clerk to ruin him, and gives him $500,000 for doing so. Thus it resulted; for we are compelled to pass hastily over the events immediately following Mr. Allen's death. His partners made a good fight, showed that there was no intention to violate the law, and that it was often difficult to comply with it literally--that the sum claimed to be lost to the government was ridiculously disproportionate to the amount confiscated. But it was all in vain. There was the letter of the law, and there were Mr. Fox and his associates in the custom-house, "all honorable men," with hands itching to clutch the plunder.
But before this question was settled the fate of the stock operation in Wall Street was most effectually disposed of. As soon as Mr. Goulden heard of Mr. Allen's death, he sold at a slight loss all he had; but his action awakened suspicion, and it was speedily learned that the rise was due mainly to Mr. Allen's strong pushing, and the inevitable results followed. As poor Mr. Allen's remains were lowered into the vault, his stock in Wall Street was also going down with a run.
In brief, in the absence of the master's hand, and by reason of his embarrassments, there were general wreck and ruin in his affairs; and Mrs. Allen was soon compelled to face the fact, even more awful to her than her husband's death, that not a penny remained of his colossal fortune, and that she had yawningly signed away all of her own means. But she could only wring her hands in view of these blighting truths, and indulge in half-uttered complaints against her husband's "folly," as she termed it. From the first her grief had been more emotional than deep, and her mind, recovering in part its usual poise, had begun to be much occupied with preparations for a grand funeral, which was carried out to her taste. Then arose deeply interesting questions as to various styles of mourning costume, and an exciting vista of dressmaking opened before her. She was growing into quite a serene and hopeful frame when the miserable and blighting facts all broke upon her. When there was little of seeming necessity to do, and there were multitudes to do for her, Mrs. Allen's nerves permitted no small degree of activity. But now, as it became certain that she and her daughters must do all themselves, her hands grew helpless. The idea of being poor was to her like dying. It was entering on an experience so utterly foreign and unknown that it seemed like going to another world and phase of existence, and she shrank in pitiable dread from it.
Laura had all her mother's helpless shrinking from poverty, but with another and even bitterer ingredient added. Mr. Goulden was extremely polite, exquisitely sympathetic, and in terms as vague as elegantly expressed had offered to do anything (but nothing in particular) in his power to show his regard for the family and his esteem for his departed friend. He was very sorry that business would compel him to leave town for some little time--
Laura had the spirit to interrupt him saying, "It matters little, sir. There are no further Wall Street operations to be carried on here. Invest your time and friendship where it will pay."
Mr. Goulden, who plumed himself that he would slip out of this bad matrimonial speculation with such polished skill that he would leave only flattering regret and sighs behind, under the biting satire of Laura's words suddenly saw what a contemptible creature is the man whom selfish policy, rather than honor and principle, governs. He had brains enough to comprehend himself and lose his self-respect then and there, as he went away tingling with shame from the girl whom he had wronged, but who had detected his sordid meanness. Sigh after him! She would ever despise him, and that hurt Mr. Goulden's vanity severely. He had come very near loving Laura Allen, about as near perhaps as he ever would come to loving any one, and it had cost him a little more to give her up than to choose between a good and a bad venture on the Street. With compressed lips he had said to himself--"No gushing sentiment. In carrying out your purpose to be rich you must marry wealth." Therefore he had gone to make what he meant to be his final call, feeling quite heroic in his steadfastness--his loyalty to purpose, that is, himself. But as he recalled during his homeward walk her glad welcome, her wistful, pleading looks, and then, as she realized the truth, her pain, her contempt, and her meaning words of scorn, his miserable egotism was swept aside, and for the first time the selfish man saw the question from her standpoint, and as we have said he was not so shallow but that he saw and loathed himself. He lost his self-respect as he never had done before, and therefore to a certain extent his power ever to be happy again.
Small men, full of petty conceit, can recover from any wounds upon their vanity, but proud and large-minded men have a self-respect, even though based upon questionable foundation. It is essential to them, and losing it they are inwardly wretched. As soldiers carry the painful scars of some wounds through life, so Mr. Goulden would find that Laura's words had left a sore place while memory lasted.
Mr. Van Dam quite disarmed Edith's suspicions and prejudices by being more friendly and intimate with Zell than ever, and the latter was happy and exultant in the fact, saying, with much elation, that her friend was "not a mercenary wretch, like Mr. Goulden, but remained just as true and kind as ever."
It was evident that this attention and show of kindness to the warm- hearted girl made a deep impression and greatly increased Mr. Van Dam's power over her. But Edith's suspicion and dislike began to return as she saw more of the manner and spirit of the man. She instinctively felt that he was bad and designing.
One day she quite incensed Zell, who was chanting his praises, by saying:
"I haven't any faith in him. What has he done to show real friendship for us? He comes here only to amuse himself with you; Gus Elliot is the only one who has been of any help."
But Edith had her misgivings about Gus also. Now, in her trouble and poverty, his weakness began to reveal itself in a new and repulsive light. In fact, that exquisitely fine young gentleman loved Edith well enough to marry her, but not to work for her. That was a sacrifice that he could not make for any woman. Though out of his natural kindness and good-nature he felt very sorry for her, and wanted to help and pet her, he had been shown his danger so clearly that he was constrained and awkward when with her, for, to tell the truth, his father had taken him aside and said:
"Look here, Gus. See to it that you don't entangle yourself with Miss Allen, now her father has failed. She couldn't support you now, and you never can support even yourself. If you would go to work like a man--but one has got to be a man to do that. It seems true, as your mother says, that you are of too fine clay for common uses. Therefore, don't make a fool of yourself. You can't keep up your style on a pretty face, and you must not wrong the girl by making her think you can take care of her. I tell you plainly, I can't bear another ounce added to my burden, and how long I shall stand up under it as it is, I can't tell."
Gus listened with a sulky, injured air. He felt that his father never appreciated him as did his mother and sisters, and indeed society at large. Society to Gus was the ultra-fashionable world of which he was one of the shining lights. The ladies of the family quite restored his equanimity by saying:
"Now see here, Gus, don't dream of throwing yourself away on Edith Allen. You can marry any girl you please in the city. So, for Heaven's sake" (though what Heaven had to do with their advice it is hard to say), "don't let her lead you on to say what you would wish unsaid. Remember they are no more now than any other poor people, except that they are refined, etc., but this will only make poverty harder for them. Of course we are sorry for them, but in this world people have got to take care of themselves. So we must be on the lookout for some one who has money which can't be sunk in a stock operation as if thrown into the sea."
After all this sound reason, poor, weak Grus, vaguely conscious of his helplessness, as stated by his father, and quite believing his mother's assurance that "he could marry any girl he pleased," was in no mood to urge the penniless Edith to give him her empty hand, while before the party, when he believed it full, he was doing his best to bring her to this point, though in fact she gave him little opportunity.
Edith detected the change, and before very long surmised the cause. It made the young girl curl her lip, and say, in a tone of scorn that would have done Gus good to hear:
"The idea of a man acting in this style."
But she did not care enough about him to receive a wound of any depth, and with a good-natured tolerance recognized his weakness, and his genuine liking for her, and determined to make him useful.
Edith was very practical, and possessed of a brave, resolute nature. She was capable of strong feelings, but Gus Elliot was not the man to awaken such in any woman. She liked his company, and proposed to use him in certain ways. Under her easy manner Gus also became at ease, and, finding that he was not expected to propose and be sentimental, was all the more inclined to be friendly.
"I want you to find me books, and papers also, if there are any, that tell how to raise fruit," she said to him one day.
"What a funny request! I should as soon expect you would ask for instruction how to drive four-in-hand."
"Nothing of that style, henceforth. I must learn something useful now. Only the rich can afford to be good-for-nothing, and we are not rich now."
"For which I am very sorry," said Gus, with some feeling.
"Thank you. Such disinterested sympathy is beautiful," said Edith dryly.
Gus looked a little red and awkward, but hastened to say, "I will hunt up what you wish, and bring it as soon as possible."
"Four are very good. That is all at present," said Edith, in a tone that made Gus feel that it was indeed all that it was in his power to do for her at that time, and he went away with a dim perception that he was scarcely more than her errand boy. It made him very uncomfortable. Though he wished her to understand he could not marry her now, he wished her to sigh a little after him. Gus's vanity rather resented that, instead of pining for him, she should with a little quiet satire set him to work. He had never read a romance that ended so queerly. He had expected that they might have a little tender scene over the inexorable fate that parted them, give and take a memento, gasp, appeal to the moon, and see each other's face no more, she going to the work and poverty that he could never stoop to from the innate refinement and elegance of his being, and he to hunt up the heiress to whom he would give the honor of maintaining him in his true sphere.
But his little melodrama was entirely spoiled by her matter-of-fact way, and what was worse still he felt in her presence as if he did not amount to much, and that she knew it; and yet, like the poor moth that singes its wings around the lamp, he could not keep away.
The prominent trait of Gus's character, as of so many others in our luxurious age of self-pleasing, was weakness; and yet one must be insane with vanity to be at ease if he can do nothing resolutely and dare nothing great. He is a cripple, and, if not a fool, knows it.
During the eventful month that followed Mr. Allen's death, Mrs. Allen and her daughters led what seemed to them a very strange life. While in one sense it was real and intensely painful, in another the experiences were so new and strange that it all seemed an unreal dream, a distressing nightmare of trouble and danger, from which they might awaken to their old life.
Mrs. Allen, from her large circle of acquaintances, had numerous callers, many coming from mere morbid curiosity, more from mingled motives, and not a few from genuine tearful sympathy. To these "her friends," as she emphatically called them, she found a melancholy pleasure in recounting all the recent woes, in which she ever appeared as chief sufferer and chief mourner, though her husband seemed among the minor losses, and thus most of her time was spent daring the last few weeks at her old home. Her friends appeared to find a melancholy pleasure in listening to these details and then in recounting them again to other "friends" with a running commentary of their own, until that little fraction of the feminine world acquainted with the Allens had sighed, surmised, and perhaps gossiped over the "afflicted family" so exhaustively that it was really time for something new. The men and the papers downtown also had their say, and perhaps all tried, as far as human nature would permit, to say nothing but good of the dead and unfortunate.
Laura, after the stinging pain of each successive blow to her happiness, sank into a dreary apathy, and did mechanically the few things Edith asked of her.
Zell lived in varied moods and conditions, now weeping bitterly for her father, again resenting with impotent passion the change in their fortunes, but ending usually by comforting herself with the thought that Mr. Van Dam was true to her. He was as true and faithful as an insidious, incurable disease when once infused into the system. His infernal policy now was to gradually alienate her interest from her family and centre it in him. Though promising nothing in an open, manly way, he adroitly made her believe that only through him, could she now hope to reach brighter days again, and to Zell he seemed the one means of escape from a detested life of poverty and privation. She became more infatuated with him than ever, and cherished a secret resentment against Edith because of her distrust and dislike of him.
The Allens had but few near relatives in the city at this time, and with these they were not on very good terms, nor were they the people to be helpful in adversity. Mr. Allen's partners were men of the world like himself, and they were also incensed that he should have been carrying on private speculations in Wall Street to the extent of risking all his capital. His fatal stock operation, together with the government confiscation, had involved them also in ruin; and they had enough to do to look after themselves. They were far more eager to secure something out of the general wreck than to see that anything remained for the family. The Allens were left very much to themselves in their struggle with disaster, securing help and advice chiefly as they paid for it.
Mr. Allen was accustomed to say that women were incapable of business, and yet here are the ladies of his own household compelled to grapple with the most perplexing forms of business or suffer aggravated losses. Though all of his family were of mature years, and thousands had been spent on their education, they were as helpless as four children in dealing with the practical questions that daily came to them for decision. At first all matters were naturally referred to the widow, but she would only wring her hands and say:
"I don't know anything about these horrid things. Can't I be left alone with my sorrow in peace a few days? Go to Edith."
And to Edith at last all came till the poor girl was almost distracted. It was of no use to go to Laura for advice, for she would only say in dreary apathy:
"Just as you think best. Anything you say."
She was indulging in unrestrained wretchedness to the utmost. Luxurious despair is so much easier than painful perplexing action.
Zell was still "the child" and entirely occupied with Mr. Van Dam. So Edith had to bear the brunt of everything. She did not do this in uncomplaining sweetness, like an angel, but scolded the others soundly for leaving all to her. They whined back that they "couldn't do anything, and didn't know how to do anything."
"You know as much as I do," retorted Edith.
And this was true. Had not Edith possessed a practical resolute nature, that preferred any kind of action to apathetic inaction and futile grieving, she would have been as helpless as the rest.
Do you say then that it was a mere matter of chance that Edith should be superior to the others, and that she deserved no credit, and they no blame? Why should such all-important conditions of character be the mere result of chance and circumstance? Would not Christian education and principle have vastly improved the Edith that existed? Would they not have made the others helpful, self-forgetting, and sympathetic? Why should the world be full of people so deformed, or morally feeble, or so ignorant, as to be helpless? Why should the naturally strong work with only contempt and condemnation for the weak? While many say, "Stand aside, I am holier than thou," perhaps more say, "Stand aside, I am wiser--stronger than thou," and the weak are made more hopelessly discouraged. This helplessness on one hand, and arrogant fault-finding strength on the other, are not the result of chance, but of an imperfect education. They come from the neglect and wrong-doing of those whose province it was to train and educate.
If we find among a family of children reaching maturity one helpless from deformity, and another from feebleness, and are told that the parents, by employing surgical skill, might have removed the deformity, and overcome the weakness by tonic treatment, but had neglected to do so, we should not have much to say about chance. I know of a poor man who spent nearly all that he had in the world to have his boy's leg straightened, and he was called a "good father." What are these physical defects compared with the graver defects of character?
Even though Mr. Allen is dead, we cannot say that he was a good father, though he spent so many thousands on his daughters. We certainly cannot call Mrs. Allen a good mother, and the proof of this is that Laura is feeble and selfish, Zell deformed through lack of self-control, and Edith hard and pitiless in her comparative strength. They were unable to cope with the practical questions of their situation. They had been launched upon the perilous, uncertain voyage of life without the compass of a true faith or the charts of principle to guide them, and they had been provided with no life-boats of knowledge to save them in case of disaster. They are now tossing among the breakers of misfortune, almost utterly the sport of the winds and waves of circumstances. If these girls never reached the shore of happiness and safety, could we wonder?
How would your daughter fare, my reader, if you were gone and she were poor, with her hands and brain to depend on for bread, and her heart culture for happiness? In spite of all your providence and foresight, such may be her situation. Such becomes the condition of many men's daughters every day.
But time and events swept the Allens forward, as the shipwrecked are borne on the crest of a wave, and we must follow their fortunes. Hungry creditors, especially the petty ones uptown, stripped them of everything they could lay their hands on, and they were soon compelled to leave their Fifth Avenue mansion. The little place in the country, given to Edith partly in jest by her father as a birthday present, was now their only refuge, and to this they prepared to go on the first of April. Edith, as usual, took the lead, and was to go in advance of the others with such furniture as they had been able to keep, and prepare for their coming. Old Hannibal, who had grown gray in the service of the family, and now declined to leave it, was to accompany her. On a dark, lowering day, symbolic of their fortunes, some loaded drays took down to the boat that with which they would commence the meagre housekeeping of their poverty. Edith went slowly down the broad steps leading from her elegant home, and before she entered the carriage turned for one lingering, tearful look, such as Eve may have bent upon the gate of Paradise closing behind her, then sprang into the carriage, drew the curtains, and sobbed all the way to the boat. Scarcely once before, during that long, hard month, had she so given way to her feelings. But she was alone now and none could see her tears and call her weak. Hannibal took his seat on the box with the driver, and looked and felt very much as he did when following his master to Greenwood.