What Can She Do by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter VIII. Warped
It is the early breakfast hour at a small frame house, situated about a mile from the staid but thriving village of Pushton. But the indications around the house do not denote thrift. Quite the reverse. As the neighbors expressed it, "there was a screw loose with Lacey," the owner of this place. It was going down hill like its master. A general air of neglect and growing dilapidation impressed the most casual observer. The front gate hung on one hinge; boards were off the shackly barn, and the house had grown dingy and weather-stained from lack of paint. But as you entered and passed from the province of the master to that of the mistress a new element was apparent, struggling with, but unable to overcome, the predominant tendency to unthrift and seediness. But everything that Mrs. Lacey controlled was as neat as the poor overworked woman could keep it.
At the time our story becomes interested in her fortunes, Mrs. Lacey was a middle-aged woman, but appeared older than her years warranted, from the long-continued strain of incessant toil, and from that which wears much faster still, the depression of an unhappy, ill-mated life. Her face wore the pathetic expression of confirmed discouragement. She reminded one of soldiers fighting when they know that it is of no use, and that defeat will be the only result, but who fight on mechanically, in obedience to orders.
She is now placing a very plain but wholesome and well-prepared breakfast on the table, and it would seem that both the eating and cooking were carried on in the same large living-room. Her daughter, a rosy-cheeked, half-grown girl of fourteen, was assisting her, and both mother and daughter seemed in a nervous state of expectancy, as if hoping and fearing the result of a near event. A moment's glance showed that this event related to a lad of about seventeen, who was walking about the room, vainly trying to control the agitation which is natural even to the cool and experienced when feeling that they are at one of the crises of life.
It could not be expected of Arden Lacey at his age to be cool and experienced. Indeed his light curling hair, blue eyes, and a mobile sensitive mouth, suggested the reverse of a stolid self-poise, or cheerful endurance. Any one accustomed to observe character could see that he was possessed of a nervous, fine-fibred nature capable of noble achievement under right influences, but also easily warped and susceptible to sad injury under brutal wrong. He was like those delicate and somewhat complicated musical instruments that produce the sweetest harmonies when in tune and well played upon, but the most jangling discords when unstrung and in rough, ignorant hands. He had inherited his nervous temperament, his tendency to irritation and excess, from the diseased, over-stimulated system of his father, who was fast becoming a confirmed inebriate, and who had been poisoning himself with bad liquors all his life. From his mother he had obtained what balance he had in temperament, but he owed more to her daily influence and training. It was the one struggle of the poor woman's life to shield her children from the evil consequences of their father's life. For her son she had special anxiety, knowing his sensitive, high-strung nature, and his tendency to go headlong into evil if his self-respect and self-control were once lost. His passionate love for her had been the boy's best trait, and through this she had controlled him thus far. But she had thought that it might be best for him to be away from his father's presence and influence if she could only find something that accorded with his bent. And this eventually proved to be a college education. The boy was of a quick and studious mind. From earliest years he had been fond of books, and as time advanced, the passion for study and reading grew upon him. He had a strong imagination, and his favorite styles of reading were such as appealed to this. In the scenes of history and romance he escaped from the sordid life of toil and shame to which his father condemned him, into a large realm that seemed rich and glorified in contrast. When he was but fourteen the thought of a liberal education fired his ambition and became the dream of his life. He made the very most of the district school to which he was sent in winter. The teacher happened to be a well-educated man, and took pride in his apt, eager scholar. Between the boy's and the mother's savings they had obtained enough to secure private lessons in Latin and Greek, and now at the age of seventeen he was tolerably well prepared for college.
But the father had no sympathy at all with these tastes, and from the incessant labor he required of his son, and the constant interruptions he occasioned in his studies even in winter, he had been a perpetual bar to all progress.
On the day previous to the scene described in the opening of this chapter, the winter term had closed, and Mr. Rule, the teacher, had declared that Arden could enter college, and with natural pride in his own work as instructor, intimated that he would lead his class if he did.
Both mother and son were so elated at this that they determined at once to state the fact to the father, thinking that if he had any of the natural feelings of a parent he would take some pride in his boy, and be willing to help him obtain the education he longed for.
But there is little to be hoped from a man who is completely under the influence of ignorance and rum. Mr. Lacey was the son of a small farmer like himself, and never had anything to recommend him but his fine looks, which had captivated poor Mrs. Lacey to her cost. Unlike the majority of his class, who are fast becoming a very intelligent part of the community, and are glad to educate their children, he boasted that he liked the "old ways," and by these he meant the worst ways of his father's day, when books and schools were scarce, and few newspapers found their way to rural homes. He was, like his father before him, a graduate of the village tavern, and had imbibed bad liquor and his ideas of life at the same time from that objectionable source. With the narrow-mindedness of his class, he had a prejudice against all learning that went beyond the three R's, and had watched with growing disapprobation his son's taste for books, believing that it would spoil him as a farm hand, and make him an idle dreamer. He was less and less inclined to work himself as his frame became diseased and enfeebled from intemperance, and he determined now to get as much work as possible out of that "great hulk of a boy," as he called Arden. He had picked up some hints of the college hopes, and the very thought angered him. He determined that when the boy broached the subject he would give him such a "jawing" (to use his own vernacular) "as would put an end to that nonsense." Therefore both Arden and his mother, who were waiting as we have described in such a perturbed anxious state for his entrance, were doomed to bitter disappointment. At last a heavy red-faced man entered the kitchen, stalking in on the white floor out of the drizzling rain with his muddy boots leaving tracks and blotches in keeping with his character. But he had the grace to wash his grimy hands before sitting down to the table. He was always in a bad humor in the morning, and the chilly rain had not improved it. A glance around showed him that something was on hand, and he surmised that it was the college business. He at once thought within himself:
"I'll squelch the thing now, once for all."
Turning to his son, he said, "Look here, youngster, why hain't you been out doing your chores? D'ye expect me to do your work and mine, too?"
"Father," said the impulsive boy with a voice of trembling eagerness, "if you will let me go to college next fall, I'll do my work and yours too. I'll work night and day--"
"What cussed nonsense is this?" demanded the man harshly, clashing down his knife and fork and turning frowningly toward his son.
"No, but father, listen to me before you refuse. Mr. Rule says I'm fit to enter college and that I can lead my class too. I've been studying for this three years. I've set my heart upon it," and in his earnestness, tears gathered in his eyes.
"The more fool you, and old Rule is another," was the coarse answer.
The boy's eyes flashed angrily, but the mother here spoke.
"You ought to be proud of your son, John; if you were a true father you would be. If you'd encourage and help him now, he'd make a man that--"
"Shut up! little you know about it. He'd make one of your snivelling white-fingered loafers that's too proud to get a living by hard work. Perhaps you'd like to make a parson out of him. Now look here, old woman, and you, too, my young cock, I've suspicioned that something of this kind was up, but I tell you once for all it won't go. Just as this hulk of a boy is gettin' of some use to me, you want to spoil him by sending him to college. I'll see him hanged first," and the man turned to his breakfast as if he had settled it. But he was startled by his son's exclaiming passionately:
"I will go."
"Look here, what do you mean?" said the father, rising with a black ugly look.
"I mean I've set my heart on going to college and I will go. You and all the world shan't hinder me. I won't stay here and be a farm drudge all my life."
The man's face was livid with anger, and in a low, hissing tone he said:
"I guess you want taking down a peg, my college gentleman. Perhaps you don't know I'm master till you're twenty-one," and he reached down a large leather strap.
"You strike me if you dare," shouted the boy.
"If I dare! haw! haw! If I don't cut the cussed nonsense out of yer this morning, then I never did," and he took an angry stride toward his son, who sprang behind the stove.
The wife and mother had stood by growing whiter and whiter, and with lips pressed closely together. At this critical moment she stepped before her infuriated husband and seized his arm, exclaiming:
"John, take care. You have reached the end."
"Stand aside," snarled the man, raising the strap, "or I'll give you a taste of it, too."
The woman's grasp tightened on his arm, and in a voice that made him pause and look fixedly at her, she said:
"If you strike me or that boy I'll take my children and we will leave your roof this hateful day never to return."
"Hain't I to be master in my own house?" said the husband sullenly.
"You are not to be a brute in your own house. I know you've struck me before, but I endured it and said nothing about it because you were drunk, but you are not drunk now, and if you lay a finger on me or my son to-day, I will never darken your doors again."
The unnatural father saw that he had gone too far. He had not expected such an issue. He had long been accustomed to follow the lead of his brutal passions, but had now reached a point where he felt he must stop, as his wife said. Turning on his heel, he sullenly took his place at the table, muttering:
"It's a pretty pass when there's mutiny in a man's own house." Then to his son, "You won't get a d--n cent out of me for your college business, mind that."
Rose, the daughter, who had been crying and wringing her hands on the door-step, now came timidly in, and at a sign from her mother she and her brother went into another room.
The man ate for a while in dogged silence, but at last in a tone that was meant to be somewhat conciliatory said:
"What the devil did you mean by putting the boy up to such foolishness?"
"Hush!" said his wife imperiously, "I'm in no mood to talk with you now."
"Oh, ah, indeed, a man can't even speak in his own house, eh? I guess I'll take myself off to where I can have a little more liberty," and he went out, harnessed his old white horse, and started for his favorite groggery in the village.
His father had no sooner gone than Arden came out and said passionately:
"It's no use, mother, I can't stand it; I must leave home to-day. I guess I can make a living; at any rate I'd rather starve than pass through such scenes."
The poor, overwrought woman threw herself down in a low chair and sobbed, rocking herself back and forth.
"Wait till I die, Arden, wait till I die. I feel it won't be long. What have I to live for but you and Rosy? And if you, my pride and joy, go away after what has happened, it will be worse than death," and a tempest of grief shook her gaunt frame.
Arden was deeply moved. Boylike he had been thinking only of himself, but now as never before he realized her hard lot, and in his warm, impulsive heart there came a yearning tenderness for her such as he had never felt before. He took her in his arms and kissed and comforted her, till even her sore heart felt the healing balm of love and ceased its bitter aching. At last she dried her eyes and said with a faint smile: "With such a boy to pet me, the world isn't all flint and thorns yet."
And Rosy came and kissed her too, for she was an affectionate child, though a little inclined to be giddy and vain.
"Don't worry, mother," said Arden. "I will stay and take such good care of you that you will have many years yet, and happier ones, too, I hope," and he resolved to keep this promise, cost what it might.
"I hardly think I ought to ask it of you, though even the thought of your going away breaks my heart." "I will stay," said the boy, almost as passionately as he had said, "I will go." "I now see how much you need a protector."
That night the father came home so stupidly drunk that they had to half carry him to bed where he slept heavily till morning, and rose considerably shaken and depressed from his debauch. The breakfast was as silent as it had been stormy on the previous day. After it was over, Arden followed his father to the door and said:
"I was a boy yesterday morning, but you made me a man, and a rather ugly one too. I learned then for the first time that you occasionally strike my mother. Don't you ever do it again, or it will be worse for you, drunk or sober. I am not going to college, but will stay at home and take care of her. Do we understand each other?"
The man was in such a low, shattered condition that his son's bearing cowed him, and he walked off muttering:
"Young cocks crow mighty loud," but from that time forward he never offered violence to his wife or children.
Still his father's conduct and character had a most disastrous effect upon the young man. He was soured, because disappointed in his most cherished purpose at an age when most youths scarcely have definite plans. Many have a strong natural bent, and if turned aside from this, they are more or less unhappy, and their duties, instead of being wings to help life forward, become a galling yoke.
This was the case with Arden. Farm work, as he had learned it from his father, was coarse, heavy drudgery, with small and uncertain returns, and these were largely spent at the village rum shops in purchasing slow perdition for the husband, and misery and shame for his wife and children. In respectable Pushton, a drunkard's family, especially if poor, had a very low social status. Mrs. Lacey and her children would not accept of bad associations, so they had scarcely any. This ostracism, within certain limits, is perhaps right. The preventive penalties of vice can scarcely be too great, and men and women must be made to feel that wrong-doing is certain to be followed by terrible consequences. The fire is merciful in that it always burns, and sin and suffering are inseparably linked. But the consequences of one person's sin often blight the innocent. The necessity of this from our various ties should be a motive, a hostage against sinning, and doubtless restrains many a one who would go headlong under evil impulses. But multitudes do slip off the paths of virtue, and helpless wives, and often helpless husbands and children, writhe from wounds made by those under sacred obligations to shield them. Upon the families of criminals, society visits a mildew of coldness and scorn that blights nearly all chance of good fruit. But society is very unjust in its discriminations, and some of the most heinous sins in God's sight are treated as mere eccentricities, or condemned in the poor, but winked at in the rich. Gentlemen will admit to their parlors men about whom they know facts which if true of a woman would close every respectable door against her, and God frowns on the Christian (?) society that makes such arbitrary and unjust distinctions. Cast both out, till they bring forth fruits meet for repentance.
But we hope for little of a reformative tendency from the selfish society of the world. Changing human fashion rules it, rather than the eternal truth of the God of love. The saddest feature of all is that the shifting code of fashion is coming more and more to govern the church. Doctrine may remain the same, profession and intellectual belief the same, while practical action drifts far astray. There are multitudes of wealthy churches, that will no more admit associations with that class among which our Lord lived and worked, than will select society. They seem designed to help only respectable, well- connected sinners, toward heaven.
This tendency has two phases. In the cities the poor are practically excluded from worshipping with the rich, and missions are established for them as if they were heathen. There can be no objection to costly, magnificent churches. Nothing is too good to be the expression of our honor and love of God. But they should be like the cathedrals of Europe, where prince and peasant may bow together on the same level they have in the Divine presence. Christ made no distinction between the rich and poor regarding their spiritual value and need, nor should the Christianity named after Him. To the degree that it does, it is not Christianity. The meek and lowly Nazarene is not its inspiration. Perhaps the personage He told to get behind Him when promising the "kingdoms of the world and the glory of them" has more to do with it.
The second phase of this tendency as seen in the country, is kindred but unlike. Poverty may not be so great a bar, but moral delinquencies are more severely visited, and the family under a cloud, through the wrong-doing of one or more of its members, is treated very much as if it had a perpetual pestilence. The highly respectable keep aloof. Too often the quiet country church is not a sanctuary and place of refuge for the victims either of their own or another's sin, a place where the grasp of sympathy and words of encouragement are given; but rather a place where they meet the cold critical gaze of those who are hedged about with virtues and good connections. I hope I am wrong, but how is it where you live, my reader? If a well-to-do thriving man of integrity takes a fine place in your community, we all know how church people will treat him. And what they do is all right. But society--the world--will do the same. Is Christianity--are the followers of the "Friend of publicans and sinners"--to do no more?
If in contrast a drunken wretch like Lacey with his wife and children come in town on top of a wagon-load of shattered furniture, and all are dumped down in a back alley to scramble into the shelter of a tenement house as best they can, do you call upon them? Do you invite them to your pew? Do you ever urge and encourage them to enter your church? and do you make even one of its corners homelike and inviting?
I hope so; but, alas! that was not the general custom in Pushton, and poor Mrs. Lacey had acquired the habit of staying at home, her neighbors had become accustomed to call her husband a "dreadful man," and the family "very irreligious," and as the years passed they seemed to be more and more left to themselves. Mr. Lacey had brought his wife from a distant town where he had met and married her. She was a timid, retiring woman, and time and kindness were needed to draw her out. But no one had seemingly thought it worth while, and at the time our story takes an interest in their affairs, there was a growing isolation.
All this had a very bad effect upon Arden. As he grew out of the democracy of boyhood he met a certain social coldness and distance which he learned to understand only too early, and soon returned this treatment with increased coldness and aversion. Had it not been for the influence of his mother and the books he read, he would have inevitably fallen into low company. But he had promised his mother to shun it. He saw its result in his father's conduct, and as he read, and his mind matured, the narrow coarseness of such company became repugnant. From time to time he was sorely tempted to leave the home which his father made hateful in many respects, and try his fortunes among strangers who would not associate him with a sot; but his love for his mother kept him at her side, for he saw that her life was bound up in him, and that he alone could protect her and his sister and keep some sort of a shelter for them. In his unselfish devotion to them his character was noble. In his harsh cynicism toward the world and especially the church people, for whom he had no charity whatever --in his utter hatred and detestation of his father--it was faulty, though allowance must be made for him. He was also peculiar in other respects, for his unguided reading was of a nature that fed his imagination at the expense of his reasoning faculties. Though he drudged in a narrow round, and his life was as hard and real as poverty and his father's intemperance could make it, he mentally lived and found his solace in a world as large and unreal as an uncurbed fancy could create. Therefore his work was hurried through mechanically in the old slovenly methods to which he had been educated, he caring little for the results, as his father squandered these; and when the necessary toil was over, he would lose all sense of the sordid present in the pages of some book obtained from the village library. As he drove his milk cart to and from town he would sit in the chill drizzling rain, utterly oblivious of discomfort, with a half smile upon his lips, as he pictured to himself some scene of sunny aspect or gloomy castellated grandeur of which his own imagination was the architect. The famous in history, the heroes and heroines of fiction, and especially the characters of Shakespeare were more familiar to him than the people among whom he lived. From the latter he stood more and more aloof, while with the former he held constant intercourse. He had little in common even with his sister, who was of a very different temperament. But his tenderness toward his mother never failed, and she loved him with the passionate intensity of a nature to which love was all, but which had found little to satisfy it on earth, and was ignorant of the love of God.
And so the years dragged on to Arden, and hiss twenty-first birthday made him free from his father's control as he practically long had been, but it also found him bound more strongly than ever by his mother's love and need to his old home life.