The Works of E. P. Roe
WHAT CAN SHE DO?
IF I WERE TO DEDICATE THIS BOOK IT WOULD BE TO THOSE GIRLS WHO RESOLVE THAT THEY WILL NOT PLAY THE POOR ROLE OF MICAWBER, THEIR ONLY CHANCE FOR LIFE BEING THAT SOME ONE WILL "TURN UP" WHOM THEY MAY BURDEN WITH THEIR HELPLESS WEIGHT
This book was not written to amuse, to create purposeless excitement, or to secure a little praise as a bit of artistic work. It would probably fail in all these things. It was written with a definite, earnest purpose, which I trust will be apparent to the reader.
As society in our land grows older, and departs from primitive simplicity, as many are becoming rich, but more poor, the changes that I have sought to warn against become more threatening. The ordinary avenues of industry are growing thronged, and it daily involves a more fearful risk for a woman to be thrown out upon the world with unskilled hands, an untrained mind, and an unbraced moral nature. Impressed with this danger by some considerable observation, by a multitude of facts that might wring tears from stony eyes, I have tried to write earnestly if not wisely.
Of necessity, it touches somewhat on a subject delicate and difficult to treat—the "skeleton in the closet" of society. But the evil exists on every side, and at some time or other threatens every home and life. It is my belief that Christian teachers should not timidly or loftily ignore it, for, mark it well, the evil does not let us or ours alone. It is my belief that it should be dealt with in a plain, fearless, manly manner. Those who differ with me have a right to their opinion.
There is one other thought that I wish to suggest. Much of the fiction of our day, otherwise strong and admirable, is discouraging in this respect. In the delineation of character, some are good, some are bad, and some indifferent. We have a lovely heroine, a noble hero, developing seemingly in harmony with the inevitable laws of their natures. Associated with them are those of the commoner or baser sort, also developing in accordance with the innate principles of their natures. The first are presented as if created of finer clay than the others. The first are the flowers in the garden of society, the latter the weeds. According to this theory of character, the heroine must grow as a moss-rose and the weed remain a weed. Credit is not due to one; blame should not be visited on the other. Is this true? Is not the choice between good and evil placed before every human soul, save where ignorance and mental feebleness destroy free agency? In the field of the world which the angels of God are to reap, is it not even possible for the tares to become wheat? And cannot the sweetest and most beautiful natural flowers of character borrow from the skies a fragrance and bloom not of earth? So God's inspired Word teaches me.
I have turned away from many an exquisite and artistic delineation of human life, sighing, God might as well never have spoken words of hope, warning, and strength for all there is in this book. The Divine and human Friend might have remained in the Heavens, and never come to earth in human guise, that He might press His great heart of world- wide sympathy against the burdened, suffering heart of humanity. He need not have died to open a way of life for all. There is nothing here but human motive, human strength, and earthly destiny. We protest against this narrowing down of life, though it be done with the faultless skill and taste of the most cultured genius. The children of men are not orphaned. Our Creator is still "Emmanuel—God with us." Earthly existence is but the prelude of our life, and even from this the Divine artist can take much of the discord, and give an earnest of the eternal harmonies.
We all are honored with the privilege of "co-working with Him."
If I in my little sphere can by this book lead one father to train his children to be more strong and self-reliant, one mother to teach her daughters a purer, more patient, more heroic womanhood—if I have placed one more barrier in the tempter's way, and inspired one more wholesome fear and principle in the heart of the tempted—if, by lifting the dark curtain a moment, I can reveal enough to keep one country girl from leaving her safe native village for unprotected life in some great city—if I can add one iota toward a public opinion that will honor useful labor, however humble, and condemn and render disgraceful idleness and helplessness, however gilded—if, chief of all, I lead one heavy-laden heart to the only source of rest, I shall be well rewarded, whatever is said of this volume.
CHAPTER I THREE GIRLS
CHAPTER II A FUTURE OP HUMAN DESIGNING
CHAPTER III THREE MEN
CHAPTER IV THE SKIES DARKENING
CHAPTER V THE STORM THREATENING
CHAPTER VI THE WRECK
CHAPTER VII AMONG THE BREAKERS
CHAPTER VIII WARPED
CHAPTER IX A DESERT ISLAND
CHAPTER X EDITH BECOMES A "DIVINITY"
CHAPTER XI MRS. ALLEN'S POLICY
CHAPTER XII WAITING FOR SOME ONE TO TURN UP
CHAPTER XIII THEY TURN UP
CHAPTER XIV WE CAN'T WORK
CHAPTER XV THE TEMPTATION
CHAPTER XVI BLACK HANNIBAL'S WHITE HEART
CHAPTER XVII THE CHANGES OF TWO SHORT MONTHS
CHAPTER XVIII IGNORANCE LOOKING FOR WORK
CHAPTER XIX A FALLING STAR
CHAPTER XX DESOLATION
CHAPTER XXI EDITH'S TRUE KNIGHT
CHAPTER XXII A MYSTERY
CHAPTER XXIII A DANGEROUS STEP
CHAPTER XXIV SCORN AND KINDNESS
CHAPTER XXV A HORROR OF GREAT DARKNESS
CHAPTER XXVI FRIEND AND SAVIOUR
CHAPTER XXVII THE MYSTERY SOLVED
CHAPTER XXVIII EDITH TELLS THE OLD, OLD STORY
CHAPTER XXIX HANNIBAL LEARNS HOW HIS HEART CAN BE WHITE
CHAPTER XXX EDITH'S AND ARDEN'S FRIENDSHIP
CHAPTER XXXI ZELL
CHAPTER XXXII EDITH BRINGS THE WANDERER HOME
CHAPTER XXXIII EDITH'S GREAT TEMPTATION
CHAPTER XXXIV SAVED
CHAPTER XXXV CLOSING SCENES
CHAPTER XXXVI LAST WORDS
It was a very cold blustering day in early January, and even brilliant thronged Broadway felt the influence of winter's harshest frown. There had been a heavy fall of snow which, though in the main cleared from the sidewalks, lay in the streets comparatively unsullied and unpacked. Fitful gusts of the passing gale caught it up and whirled it in every direction. From roof, ledges, and window-sills, miniature avalanches suddenly descended on the startled pedestrians, and the air was here and there loaded with falling flakes from wild hurrying masses of clouds, the rear-guard of the storm that the biting northwest wind was driving seaward.
It was early in the afternoon, and the great thoroughfare was almost deserted. Few indeed would be abroad for pleasure in such weather, and the great tide of humanity that must flow up and down this channel every working day of the year under all skies had not yet turned northward.
But surely this graceful figure coming up the street with quick, elastic steps has not the aspect of one driven forth by grave business cares, nor in the natural course of things would one expect so young a lady to know much of life's burdens and responsibilities. As she passes I am sure the reader would not turn away from so pleasant a vision, even if Broadway were presenting all its numberless attractions, but at such a time would make the most of the occasion, assured that nothing so agreeable would greet his eyes again that sombre day.
The fierce gusts make little impression on her heavy, close-fitting velvet dress, and in her progress against the wind she appears so trim and taut that a sailor's eye would be captivated. She bends her little turbaned head to the blast, and her foot strikes the pavement with a decision that suggests a naturally brave, resolute nature, and gives abundant proof of vigor and health. A trimming of silver fox fur caught and contrasted the snow crystals against the black velvet of her dress, in which the flakes catch and mingle, increasing the sense of lightness and airiness which her movements awaken, and were you seeking a fanciful embodiment of the spirit of the snow, you might rest satisfied with the first character that appears upon the scene of my story.
But on nearer view there was nothing spirit-like or even spirituelle in her aspect, save that an extremely transparent complexion was rendered positively dazzling by the keen air and the glow of exercise; and the face was much too full and blooming to suggest the shadowy and ethereal.
When near Twenty-first Street she entered a fruit store and seemed in search of some delicacy for an invalid. As her eye glanced around among the fragrant tropical fruits that suggested lands in wide contrast to the wintry scene without, she suddenly uttered a low exclamation of delight, as she turned from them to old friends, all the more welcome because so unexpected at that season. These were nothing less than a dozen strawberries, in dainty baskets, decked out, or more truly eked out, with a few green leaves. Three or four baskets constituted the fruiterer's entire stock, and probably the entire supply for the metropolis of America that day.
She had scarcely time to lift a basket and inhale its delicious aroma, before the proprietor of the store was in bowing attendance, quite as openly admiring her carnation cheeks as she the ruby fruit The man's tongue was, however, more decorous than his eyes, and to her question as to price he replied:
"Only two dollars a basket, miss, and certainly they are beauties for this season of the year. They are all I could get, and I don't believe there is another strawberry in New York."
"I will take them all," was the brief, decisive answer, and from a costly portemonnaie she threw down the price, a proceeding which the man noted in agreeable surprise, again curiously scanning the fair face as he made up the parcel with ostentatious zeal. But his customer was unconscious, or, more truly, indifferent to his admiration, and seemed much more interested in the samples of choice fruit arranged on every side. From one to another of these she flitted with the delicate sensuousness of a butterfly, smelling them and touching them lightly with the hand she had ungloved (which was as white as the snow without), as if they had for her a peculiar fascination.
"You seem very fond of fruit," said the merchant, his amour propre pleased by her evident interest in his stock.
"I have ever had a passion for fine fruits and flowers," was the reply, spoken with that perfect frankness characteristic of American girls. "No, you need not send it; I prefer to take it with me."
And with a slight smile, she passed out, leaving the fruiterer chuckling over the thought that he had probably had the pleasantest bit of trade on Broadway that dull day.
Plunging through the drifts, our nymph of the snow resolutely crossed the street and passed down to a flower store, but, instead of buying a bouquet, ordered several pots of budding and blooming plants to be sent to her address. She then made her way to Fifth Avenue and soon mounted a broad flight of steps to one of its most stately houses. The door yielded to her key, her thick walking boots clattered for a moment on the marble floor, but could not disguise the lightness of her step as she tripped up the winding stair and pushed open a rosewood door leading into the upper hall.
"Mother, mother," she exclaimed, "here is a treat for you that will banish nerves, headache, and horrors generally. See what I have found for you out in the wintry snows. Now am I not a good fairy for once?"
"Oh, Edith, child, not so boisterous, please," responded a querulous voice from a great easy-chair by the glowing grate, and a middle-aged lady turned a white, faded face toward her daughter.
"Forgive me, mother, but my tramp in the January storm has made me feel rampantly well. I wish you could go out and take a run every day as I do. You would then look younger and prettier than your daughters, as you used to."
The invalid shivered and drew her shawl closer around her, complaining:
"I think you have brought the whole month of January in with you. You really must show more consideration, my dear, for if I should take cold—" and the lady ended with a weary, suggestive sigh.
In fact, Edith had entered the dim heavily-perfumed room like a gust of wholesome air, her young blood tingling and electric with exercise, and her heart buoyant with the thought of the surprise and pleasure she had in store for her mother. But the manner in which she had been received had already chilled her more than the biting blasts on Broadway. She therefore opened her bundle and set out the little baskets before her mother very quietly. The lady glanced at them for a moment and then said, indifferently:
"It is very good of you to think of me, my dear; they look very pretty. I am sorry I cannot eat them, but their acid would only increase my dyspepsia. Those raised in winter must be very sour. Ugh! the thought of it sets my teeth on edge," and the poor, nervous creature shrank deeper into her wrappings.
"I am very sorry, mother, I thought they would be a great treat for you," said Edith, quite crestfallen. "Never mind; I got some flowers, and they will be here soon."
"Thank you, dear, but the doctor says they are not healthy in a room— Oh, dear—that child! what shall I do!"
The front door banged, there was a step on the stairs, but not so light as Edith's had been, and a moment later the door burst open, and "the child" rushed in like a mild whirlwind, exclaiming:
"Hurrah! hurrah! school to the shades. No more teachers and tyrants for me," and down went an armful of books with a bang on the table.
"Oh, Zell!" cried Edith, "please be quiet; mother has a headache."
"There, there, your baby will kiss it all away," and the irrepressible young creature threw her arms around the bundle that Mrs. Allen had made herself into by her many wrappings, and before she ceased, the red pouting lips left the faintest tinge of their own color on the faded cheeks of the mother.
The lady endured the boisterous embrace with a martyr-like expression. Zell was evidently a privileged character, the spoiled pet of the household. But a new voice was now heard that was sharper than the "pet" was accustomed to.
"Zell, you are a perfect bear. One would think you had learned your manners at a boys' boarding school."
Zell's great black eyes blazed for a moment toward the speaker, who was a young lady reclining on a lounge near the window, and who in appearance must have been the counterpart of Mrs. Allen herself as she had looked twenty-three years before. In contrast with her sharp, annoyed tone, her cheeks and eyes were wet with tears.
"What are you crying about?" was Zell's brusque response. "Oh, I see; a novel. What a ridiculous old thing you are. I never saw you shed a tear over real trouble, and yet every few days you are dissolved in brine over Adolph Moonshine's agonies, and Seraphina's sentiment, which any sensible person can see is caused by dyspepsia. No such whipped syllabub for me, but real life."
"And what does 'real life' mean for you, I would like to know, but eating, dressing, and flirting?" was the acid retort.
"Though you call me 'child,' I have lived long enough to learn that eating, dressing, and flirting, and while you are about it you might as well add drinking, is the 'real life' of most of the ladies of our set. Indeed, if my poor memory does not fail me, I have seen you myself take a turn at these things sufficiently often to make the sublime scorn of your tone a little inconsistent."
As these barbed arrows flew, the tears rapidly exhaled from the hot cheeks of the young lady on the sofa. Her elegant languor vanished, and she started up; but Mrs. Allen now interfered, and in tones harsh and high, very different from the previous delicate murmurs, exclaimed:
"Children, you drive me wild. Zell, leave the room, and don't show yourself again till you can behave yourself."
Zell was now sobbing, partly in sorrow and partly in anger, but she let fly a few more Parthian arrows over her shoulder as she passed out.
"This is a pretty way to treat one on their birthday. I came home with heart as light as the snowflakes around me, and now you have spoiled everything. I don't know how it is, but I always have a good time everywhere else, but there is something in this house that often sets one's teeth on edge," and the door banged appropriately with a spiteful emphasis as the last word was spoken.
"Poor child," said Edith, "it is too bad that she should be so dashed with cold water on her birthday."
"She isn't a child," said the eldest sister, rising from the sofa and sweeping from the room, "though she often acts like one, and a very bad one too. Her birthday should remind her that if she is ever to be a woman, it is time to commence," and the stately young lady passed coldly away. Edith, went to the window and looked dejectedly out into the early gloom of the declining winter day. Mrs. Allen sighed and looked more nervous and uncomfortable than usual.
The upholsterer had done his part in that elegant home, The feet sank into the carpets as in moss. Luxurious chairs seemed to embrace the form that sank into them. Everything, was padded, rounded, and softened, except tongues and tempers. If wealth could remove the asperities from these as from material things, it might well be coveted. But this is beyond the upholsterer's art, and Mrs. Allen knew little of the Divine art that can wrap up words and deeds with a kindness softer than eider-down.
"Mother's room," instead of being a refuge and a favorite haunt of these three girls, was a place where, as we have seen, their "teeth were set on edge."
Naturally they shunned the place, visiting the invalid rather than living with her; their reluctant feet impelled across the threshold by a sense of duty rather than drawn by the cords of love. The mother felt this in a vague, uncomfortable way, for mother love was there, only it had seemingly turned sour, and instead of attracting her children by sweetness and sympathy, she querulously complained to them and to her husband of their neglect. He would sometimes laugh it off, sometimes shrug his shoulders indifferently, and again harshly chide the girls, according to his mood, for he varied much in this respect. After being cool and wary all day in Wall Street, he took off the curb at home; therefore the variations that never could be counted on. How he would be at dinner did not depend on himself or any principle, but on circumstances. In the main he was indulgent and kind, though quick and passionate, brooking no opposition; and the girls were really more attached to him and found more pleasure in his society than in their mother's. Zelica, the youngest, was his special favorite, and he humored and petted her at a ruinous rate, though often storming at some of her follies.
Mrs. Allen saw this preference of her husband, and was weak enough to feel and show jealousy. But her complainings were ineffectual, for we can no more scold people into loving us than nature could make buds blossom by daily nipping them with frost. And yet she made her children uncomfortable by causing them to feel that it was unnatural and wrong that they did not care more for their mother. This was especially true of Edith, who tried to satisfy her conscience, as we have seen, by bringing costly presents and delicacies that were seldom needed or appreciated.
Edith soon became so oppressed by her mother's sighs and silence and the heavy perfumed air, that she sprang up, and pressing a remorseful kiss on the white thin face, said:
"I must dress for dinner, mamma: I will send your maid," and vanished also.
A FUTURE OF HUMAN DESIGNING
The dining-room at six o'clock wore a far more cheerful aspect than the invalid's room upstairs. It was furnished in a costly manner, but more ostentatiously than good taste would dictate. You instinctively felt that it was a sacred place to the master of the house, in which he daily sacrificed to one of his chosen deities.
The portly colored waiter, in dress coat and white vest, has just placed the soup on the table, and Mr. Allen enters, supporting his wife. He had sort of manly toleration for all her whims and weaknesses. He had never indulged in any lofty ideas of womanhood, nor had any special longings for her sympathy and companionship. Business was the one engrossing thing of his life, and this he honestly believed woman incapable of, from her very nature. It was true of his wife, but due to a false education rather than to any innate difficulties, and he no more expected her to comprehend and sympathize intelligently with his business operations, than to see her go down to Wall Street with him wearing his hat and coat.
She had been the leading belle in his set years ago. He had admired her immensely as a stylish, beautiful woman, and carried her off from dozens of competitors, who were fortunate in their failure. He always maintained a show of gallantry and deference; which, though but veneer, was certainly better than open disregard and brutal neglect.
So now, with a good-natured tolerance and politeness, he seated the feeble creature in a cushioned chair at the table, treating her more like a spoiled child than as a friend and companion. The girls immediately appeared also, for they knew their father's weakness too well to keep him waiting for his dinner.
Zell bounded into his arms in her usual impulsive style, and the father caressed her in a way that showed that his heart was very tender toward his youngest child.
"And so my baby is seventeen to-day," he said. "Well, well, how fast we are growing old."
The girl laughed; the man sighed. The one was on the threshold of what she deemed the richest pleasures of life; the other had well-nigh exhausted them, and for a moment realized it.
Still he was in excellent spirits, for he had been unusually fortunate that day, and had seen his way to an "operation" that promised a golden future. He sat down therefore to the good cheer with not a little of the spirit of the man in the parable, whose complacent exhortation to his soul has ever been the language of false security and prosperity.
The father's open favoritism for Zell was another source of jealousy, her sisters naturally feeling injured by it. Thus in this household even human love was discordant and perverted, and the Divine love unknown. What chance had character, that thing of slow growth, in such an atmosphere?
The popping of a champagne cork took the place of grace at the opening of the meal, and the glasses were filled all around. In honor of Zell's birthday they drank to her health and happiness. By no better form or more suggestive ceremony could this Christian (?) family wish their youngest member "God-speed" on entering the vicissitudes of a new year of life. But what they did was done heartily, and every glass was drained. To them it seemed very appropriate and her father said, glancing admiringly at her flaming cheeks and dancing eyes—
"This is just the thing to drink Zell's health in, for she is as full of sparkle and effervescence as the champagne itself."
Had he been a wiser and more thoughtful man, he would have carried the simile further and remembered the fate of champagne when exposed. However piquant and pleasing Zell's sparkle might be, it would hardly secure success and safety for life. But in his creed a girl's first duty was to be pretty and fascinating, and he was extremely proud of the beauty of his daughters. It was his plan to marry them to rich men who would maintain them in the irresponsible luxury that their mother had enjoyed.
Circumstances seemed to justify his security. The son of a rich man, he had also inherited a taste for business and the art of making money. Years of prosperity had confirmed his confidence, and he looked complacently around upon his family and talked of the future in sanguine tones.
He was a man considerably past his prime, and his florid face and portly form indicated that he was in the habit of doing ample justice to the good cheer before him. Intense application to business in early years and indulgence of appetite in later life had seriously impaired a constitution naturally good. He reminded you of a flower fully blown or of fruit overripe.
"Since you have permitted Zell to leave school, I suppose she must make her debut soon," said Mrs. Allen with more animation than usual in her tone.
"Oh, certainly," cried Zell, "on Edith's birthday, in February. We have arranged it all, haven't we, Edith?"
"Heigho! then I am to have no part in the matter," said her father.
"Yes, indeed, papa," cried the saucy girl, "you are to have no end of kisses, and a very long bill."
This sally pleased him immensely, for it expressed his ideal of womanly return for masculine affection, at least the bills had never been wanting in his experience. But, mellowed by wine and elated by the success of the day, he now prepared to give the coup that would make a far greater sensation in the family circle than even a debut or a birthday party. So, glancing from one eager face to another (for between the wine and the excitement even Mrs. Allen was no longer a colorless, languid creature, ready to faint at the embrace of her child), he said with a twinkle in his eye—
"Well, go to your mother about the party. She is a veteran in such matters. But let there be some limit to the length of the bill, or I can't carry out another plan I have in view for you."
Chorus—"What is that?"
Coolly filling his glass, he commenced leisurely sipping, while glancing humorously from one to another, enjoying their impatient expectancy.
"If you don't tell us right away," cried Zell, bouncing up, "I'll pull your whiskers without mercy."
"Papa, you will throw mother into a fever. See how flushed her face is!" said Laura, the eldest daughter, speaking at the same time two words for herself.
The face of Edith, with dazzling complexion all aglow, and large dark eyes lustrous with excitement, was more eloquent than words could have been, and the bon vivant drank in her expression with as much zest as he sipped his wine. Perhaps it was well for him to make the most of that little keen-edged moment of bright anticipation and bewildering hope, for what he was about to propose would cost him many thousands, and exile him from business, which to him was the very breath of life.
But Mrs. Allen's matter-of-fact voice brought things to a crisis, for with an injured air she said:
"How can you, George, when you know the state of my nerves?"
"What I propose, mamma, will cure your nerves and everything else, for it is nothing less than a tour through Europe."
There was a shriek of delight from the girls, in which even the exquisite Laura joined, and Mrs. Allen trembled with excitement. Apart from the trip itself, they considered it a sort of disgrace that a family of their social position and wealth had never been abroad. Therefore the announcement was doubly welcome. Hitherto Mr. Allen's devotion to business had made it impossible, and he had given them no hints of the near consummation of their wishes. But he had begun to feel the need of change and rest himself, and this weighed more with him than all their entreaties.
In a moment Zell had her arms about his neck, and her sisters were throwing him kisses across the table. His wife, looking unusually gratified, said:
"You are a sensible man at last," which was a great deal for Mrs. Allen to say.
"Why, mamma," exclaimed her husband, elevating his eyebrows in comic surprise, "that I should live to hear you say that!"
"Now don't be silly," she replied, joining slightly in the laugh at her expense, "or we shall think that you have taken too much champagne, and that this Europe business is all a hoax."
"Wait till you have been outside of Sandy Hook an hour, and you will find everything real enough then. I think I see the elegant ladies of my household about that time."
"For shame, papa! what an uncomfortable suggestion over a dinner table!" said the fastidious Laura. "Picture the ladies of your household in the salons of Paris. I promise we will do you credit there."
"I hope so, for I fear I shall have need of credit when you all reach that Mecca of women."
"It's no more the Mecca of women than Wall Street is the Jerusalem of men. What you are all going to do in Heaven without Wall Street, I don't see."
Mr. Allen gave his significant shrug and said, "I don't meet notes till they are due," which was his way of saying: "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."
"The salons of Paris!" said Edith, with some disdain. "Think of the scenery, the orange-groves, and vineyards that we shall see, the Alpine flowers—"
"I declare," interrupted Zell, "I believe that Edith would rather see a grape-vine and orange-tree than all the toilets of Paris."
"I shall enjoy seeing both," was the reply, "and so have the advantage of you in having two strings to my bow."
"By the way, that reminds me to ask how many beaux you now have on the string," said the father.
Edith tossed her head with a pretty blush and said: "Pity me, my father; you know I am always poor at arithmetic."
"You will take up with a crooked stick after all. Now Laura is a sensible girl, like her mother, and has picked out one of the richest, longest-headed fellows on the street."
"Indeed!" said his wife. "I do not see but you are paying yourself a greater compliment than either Laura or me."
"Oh, no, a mere business statement. Laura means business, and so does Mr. Goulden."
Laura looked annoyed and said:
"Pa, I thought you never talked business at home."
"Oh, this is a feminine phase that women understand. I want your sisters to profit by your good example."
"I shall marry an Italian count," cried Zell.
"Who will turn out a fourth-rate Italian barber, and I shall have to support you both. But I won't do it. You would have to help him shave."
"No, I should transform him into a leader of banditti, and we would live in princely state in the Apennines. Then we would capture you, papa, and carry you off to the mountains, and I would be your jailer, and give you nothing but turtle-soup, champagne, and kisses till you paid a ransom that would break Wall Street."
"I would not pay a cent, but stay and eat you out of house and home."
"I never expect to marry," said Edith, "but some day I am going to commence saving my money—now don't laugh, papa, for I could be economical if I once made up my mind"—and the pretty head gave a decisive little nod.
"I am going to save my money and buy a beautiful place in the country and make it as near like the garden of Eden as possible."
"Snakes will get into it as of old," was Mrs. Allen's cynical remark.
"Yes, that is woman's experience with a garden," said her husband with a mock sigh.
Popping off the cork of another bottle, he added, "I have got ahead of you, Edith. I own a place in the country, much as I dislike that kind of property. I had to take it to-day in a trade, and so am a landholder in Pushton—prospect, you see, of my becoming a rural gentleman (Squire is the title, I believe), and of exchanging stock in Wall Street for the stock of a farm. Here's to my estate of three acres with a story and a half mansion upon it! Perhaps you would rather go up there this summer than to Paris, my dear?" to his wife.
Mrs. Allen gave a contemptuous shrug as if the jest were too preposterous to be answered, but Edith cried:
"Fill my glass; I will drink to your country place. I know the cottage is a sweet rustic little box, all smothered with vines and roses like one I saw last June." Then she added in sport, "I wish you would give it to me for my birthday present. It would make such a nice porter's lodge at the entrance to my future Eden."
"Are you in earnest?" asked the father suddenly.
Both were excited by the wine they had drunk. She glanced at her father, and saw that he was in a mood to say yes to anything, and, quick as thought, she determined to get the place if possible.
"Of course I am. I would rather have it than all the jewelry in New York." She was over-supplied with that style of gift.
"You shall have it then, for I am sure I don't want it, and am devoutly thankful to be rid of it."
Edith clapped her hands with a delight scarcely less demonstrative than that of Zell in her wildest moods.
"Nonsense!" said Mrs. Allen; "the idea of giving a young lady such an elephant!"
"Bat remember," continued her father, "you must manage it yourself, pay the taxes, keep it repaired, insured, etc. There is a first-class summer hotel near it. Next year, after we get back from Europe, we will go up there and stay awhile. You shall then take possession, employ an agent to take care of it, who by the way will cheat you to your heart's content. I will wager you a box of gloves that, before a year passes, you will try to sell the ivy-twined cottage for anything you can get, and will be thoroughly cured of your mania for country life."
"I'll take you up," said Edith, in great excitement, "but remember, I want my deed on my birthday."
"All right," said Mr. Allen, laughing. "I will transfer it to you to- morrow, while I think of it. But don't try to trade it off to me before next month for a new dress."
Edith was half wild over her present. Many and varied were her questions, but her father only said:
"I don't know much about it. I did not listen to half the man said, but I remember he stated there was a good deal of fruit on the place, for it made me think of you at the time. Bless you, I could not stop for such small game. I am negotiating a large and promising operation which you understand about as well as farming. It will take some time to carry it through, but when finished we will start for the 'salons of Paris.'"
"I half believe," said Laura, with a covert sneer, "that Edith would rather go up to her farm of three acres."
"I am well satisfied as papa has arranged it," said the practical girl. "Everything in its place, and get all out of life you can, is my creed."
"That means, get all out of me you can, don't it, sly puss?" laughed the father, well pleased, though, with the worldly wisdom of the speech.
"Kisses, kisses, unlimited kisses, and consider yourself well repaid," was the arch rejoinder; and not a few, looking at her as she then appeared, would have coveted such bargains. So her father seemed to think as he gazed admiringly at her.
But something in Zell's pouting lips and vexed expression caught his eye, and he said good-naturedly:
"Heigho, youngster, what has brought a thunder-cloud across your saucy face?"
"In providing for birthdays to come, I guess you have forgotten your baby's birthday present."
"Come here, you envious elf," said her father, taking something from his pocket. Like light she flashed out from under the cloud and was at his side in an instant, dimpling, smiling, and twinkling with expectation, her black eyes as quick and restless as her father was deliberate and slow in undoing a dainty parcel.
"Oh, George, do be quick about it, or Zell will explode. You both make me nervous," said Mrs. Allen fretfully.
Suddenly pressing open a velvet casket, Mr. Allen hung a jewelled watch with a long gold chain about his favorite's neck, while she improvised a hornpipe around his chair.
"There," said he, "is something that is worth more than Edith's farm, tumble-down cottage, roses, and all. So remember that those lips were made to kiss, not to pout with."
Zell put her lips to proper uses to that extent that Mrs. Allen began to grow jealous, nervous, and out of sorts generally, and having finished her chocolate, rose feebly from the table. Her husband offered his arm and the family dinner party broke up.
And yet, take it altogether, each one was in higher spirits than usual, and Zell and Edith were in a state of positive delight. They had received costly gifts that specially gratified their peculiar tastes, and these, with the promise of a grand party and a trip to Europe, youthful buoyancy, and champagne, so dilated their little feminine souls that Mrs. Allen's fears of an explosion of some kind were scarcely groundless. They dragged their stately sister Laura, now unwontedly bland and affable, to the piano, and called for the quickest and most brilliant of waltzes, and a moment later their lithe figures flowed away in a rhythm of motion, that from their exuberance of feeling, was as fantastic as it was graceful.
Mr. Allen assisted his wife to her room and soon left her in an unusually contented frame of mind to develop strategy for the coming party. Mrs. Allen's nerves utterly incapacitated her for the care of her household, attendance upon church, and such humdrum matters, but in view of a great occasion like a "grand crush ball," where among the luminaries of fashion she could become the refulgent centre of a constellation which her fair daughters would make around her, her spirit rose to the emergency. When it came to dress and dressmakers and all the complications of the campaign now opening, notwithstanding her nerves, she could be quite Napoleonic.
Her husband retired to the library, lighted a choice Havana, skimmed his evening papers, and then as usual went to his club.
This, as a general thing, was the extent of the library's literary uses. The best authors in gold and Russia smiled down from the black walnut shelves, but the books were present rather as furniture than from any intrinsic value in themselves to the family. They were given prominence on the same principle that led Mrs. Allen to give a certain tone to her entertainments by inviting many literary and scientific men. She might be unable to appreciate the works of the savants, but as they appreciated the labors of her masterly French cook, many compromised the matter by eating the petits soupers and shrugging their shoulders over the entertainers.
And yet the Allens were anything but vulgar upstarts. Both husband and wife were descended from old and wealthy New York families. They had all the polish which life-long association with the fashionable world bestows. What was more, they were highly intelligent, and, in their own sphere, gifted people. Mr. Allen was a leader in business in one of the chief commercial centres, and to lead in legitimate business in our day requires as much ability, indeed we may say genius, as to lead in any order department of life. He would have shown no more ignorance in the study, studio, and laboratory, than their occupants would have shown in the counting-room. That to which he devoted his energies he had become a master in. It is true he had narrowed down his life to little else than business. He had never acquired a taste for art and literature, nor had he given himself time for broad culture. But we meet narrow artists, narrow clergymen, narrow scientists just as truly. If you do not get on their hobby and ride with them, they seem disposed to ride over you. Indeed, in our brief life with its fierce competitions, few other than what are known as "one idea" men have time to succeed. Even genius must drive with tremendous and concentrated energy, to distance competitors. Mr. Allen was quite as great in his department as any of the lions that his wife lured into her parlors were in theirs.
Mrs. Allen was also a leader in her own chosen sphere, or rather in the one to which she had been educated. Given carte-blanche in the way of expense, she would produce a brilliant entertainment which few could surpass. The coloring and decorations of her rooms would not be more rich, varied, or in better taste, than the diversity, and yet harmony of the people she would bring together by her adroit selections. She had studied society, and for it she lived, not to make it better, not to elevate its character, and tone down its extravagances, but simply to shine in it, to be talked about and envied.
Both husband and wife had achieved no small success, and to succeed in such a city as New York in their chosen departments required a certain amount of genius. The savants had a general admiration for Mrs. Allen's style and taste, but found that she had nothing to offer on the social exchange of her parlors but fashion's smallest chit-chat. They had a certain respect for Mr. Allen's wealth and business power, but, having discussed the news of the day, they would pass on, and the people during the intervals of dancing drifted into congenial schools and shoals, like fish in a lake. Mr. and Mrs. Allen had a vague admiration for the learning of the scholars and the culture of the artists, but would infinitely prefer marrying their daughters to downtown merchant princes.
Take the world over, perhaps all classes of people are despising others quite as much as they are despised themselves.
But when the French cook appeared upon the scene, then was produced your true democracy. Then was shown a phase of life into which all entered with a zest that proved the common tie of humanity.
While Mrs. Allen was planning the social pyrotechnics that should dazzle the fashionable world, Edith and Zell were working off their exuberant spirits in the manner described in the last chapter, which was as natural to their city-bred feet as a wild romp is to a country girl.
The brilliant notes of the piano and the rustle of their silks had rendered them oblivious to the fact that the door-bell had rung twice, and that three gentlemen were peering curiously through the half-open door. They were evidently frequent and favored visitors, and had motioned the old colored waiter not to announce them, and he reluctantly obeyed.
For a moment they feasted their eyes on the scene, as the two girls, with twining arms and many innovations on the regular step, whirled through the rooms, and then Zell's quick eye detected them.
Pouncing upon the eldest gentleman of the party, she dragged him from his ambush, while the others also entered. The youngest approached the blushing, panting Edith with an almost boyish confidence of manner, as if assured of a welcome, while the remaining gentleman, who was verging toward middle age, quietly glided to the piano and gave his hand to Laura, who greeted him with a cordiality scarcely to be expected from so stately a young lady.
The laws of affinity and selection were evidently in force here, and as the reader must surmise, long acquaintance had led to the present easy and intimate relations.
"What do you mean," cried Zell, dragging under the gaslight her cavalier, who assumed much penitence and fear, "by thus rudely and abruptly breaking in upon the retirement of three secluded young ladies?"
"At their devotions," added the cynical voice of the gentleman at the piano, who was no other than Mr. Goulden, Laura's admirer.
Zell's attendant threw himself in the attitude of a suppliant and said deprecatingly:
"Nay, but we are astronomers."
"That's a fib, and not a very white one either," she retorted. "I don't believe you ever look toward heaven for anything."
"What need of looking thither for heavenly bodies?" he replied in a low, meaning tone, regarding with undisguised admiration her glowing cheeks. "Moreover, I don't like telescopic distances," he continued, with a half-made motion to put his arm around her waist.
"Come," she said, pirouetting out of his reach, "remember I am no longer a child, I am seventeen to-day."
"Would that you might never be a day older in appearance and feelings!"
"Are you willing to leave me so far behind?" she asked with some maliciousness.
"No, but you would make me a boy again. If old Ponce de Leon had met a Miss Zell, he would soon have forsaken the swamps and alligators of Florida." "Oh, what a watery, scaly compliment! Preferred to swamps and alligators! Who would have believed it?"
"I am not blind to your pretty, wilful blindness. You know I likened you to something too divine and precious to be found on earth."
"Which is still true in the carrying out of your marvellously mixed metaphors. I must lend you my rhetoric book. But as your meaning dawns on me, I see that you are symbolized by old Ponce. I shall look in the history for the age of the ancient Spaniard to-morrow, and then I shall know how old you are, a thing I could never find out."
As with little jets of silvery laughter and with butterfly motion she hovered round him, the very embodiment of life and beautiful youth, she would have made, to an artist's eye, a very true realization of the far-famed mythical fountain.
And yet, as a moment later she confidingly took his arm and strolled toward the library, it was evident that all her flutter and hesitancy, her seeming freedom and mimic show of war, were like those of some bright tropical bird fascinated by a remorseless serpent whose intent eyes and deadly purpose are creating a spell that cannot be resisted.
Mr. Van Dam, upon whose arm she was leaning, was one of the worst products of artificial metropolitan life. He had inherited a name which ancestry had rendered honorable, but which he to the utmost dishonored, and yet so adroitly, so shrewdly respecting fashion's code, though shunning nothing wrong, that he did not lose the entree of the gilded homes of those who called themselves "the best society."
True, it was whispered that he was rather fast, that he played heavily and a trifle too successfully, and that he lived the life of anything but a saint at his luxurious rooms. "But then," continued society, openly and complacently, "he is so fine-looking, so courtly and polished, so well connected, and what is still more to the point, my dear, he is reputed to be immensely wealthy, so we must not heed these rumors. After all, it is the way of these young men of the world."
Thus "the best society" that would have politely frozen out of its parlors the Chevalier Bayard, sans peur et sans reproche, had he not appeared in the latest style, with golden fame rather than golden spurs, welcomed Mr. Van Dam. Indeed, not a few forced exotic belles, who had prematurely developed in the hothouse atmosphere of wealth and extravagance, regarded him as a sort of social lion; and his reticence, with a certain mystery in which he shrouded his evil life, made him all the more fascinating. He was past the prime of life, though exceedingly well preserved, for he was one of those cool, deliberate votaries of pleasure that reduce amusement to a science, and carefully shun all injurious excess. While exceedingly deferential toward the sex in general, and bestowing compliments and attentions as adroitly as a financier would place his money, he at the same time permitted the impression to grow that he was extremely fastidious in his taste, and had never married because it had never been his fortune to meet the faultless being who could satisfy his exacting eyes. Any special and continued admiration on his part therefore made its recipient an object of distinction and envy to very many in the unreal world in which he glided serpent-like, rather than moved as a man. To morbid minds his rumored evil deeds became piquant eccentricities, and the whispers of the oriental orgies that were said to take place in his bachelor apartments made him an object of a curious interest, and many sighed for the opportunity of reforming so distinguished a sybarite.
On Edith's entrance into society he had been much impressed by her beauty, and had gradually grown quite attentive, equally attracted by her father's wealth. But she, though with no clear perception of his character, and with no higher moral standard than that of her set, instinctively shrank from the man. Indeed, in some respects, they were too much alike for that mysterious attraction that so often occurs between opposites. Not that she had his unnatural depravity, but like him she was shrewd, practical, resolute, and was controlled by her judgment rather than by her impulses. Her vanity, of which she had no little share, led her to accept his attentions to a certain point, but the keen man of the world soon saw that his "little game," as in his own vernacular he styled it, would not be successful, and he was the last one to sigh in vain or mope an hour in lovelorn melancholy. While ceasing to press his suit, he continued to be a frequent and familiar visitor at the house, and thus his attention was drawn to Zell, who, though young, had developed early in the stimulating atmosphere in which she lived. At first he petted and played with ner as a child, as she wilfully flitted in and out of the parlors, whether her sisters wanted her or not. He continually brought her bon-bons and like fanciful trifles, till at last, in jest, the family called him Zell's "ancient beau."
But during the past year it had dawned on him that the child he petted on account of her beauty and sprightliness, was rapidly becoming a brilliant woman, who would make a wife far more to his taste than her equally beautiful but matter-of-fact sister. Therefore he warily, so as not to alarm the jealous father, but with all the subtle skill of which he was master, sought to win her affections, knowing that she would have her own way when she knew what way she wanted.
For Zell this unscrupulous man had a peculiar fascination. He petted and flattered her to her heart's content, and thus made her the envy of her young acquaintances, which was incense indeed to her vain little soul. He never lectured or preached to her on account of her follies and nonsense, as her elderly friends usually did, but gave to her wild, impulsive moods free rein. Where a true friend would have cautioned and curbed, he applauded and incited, causing Zell to mistake extravagance in language and boldness in manner for spirit and brilliancy. Laura and Edith often remonstrated with her, but she did not heed them. Indeed, she feared no one save her father, and Mr. Van Dam was propriety itself when he was present, which was but seldom. What with his business, and club, and Mrs. Allen's nerves, the girls were left mainly to themselves.
What wonder that there are so many shipwrecks, when young, heedless, inexperienced hands must steer, unguided, through the most perilous and treacherous of seas?
Mr. Allen's elegant, costly home was literally an unguarded fold, many a laborer, living in a tenement house, doing more to shield his daughters from the evil of the world.
To Mr. Van Dam, Zell was a perfect prize. Though he had sipped at the cup of pleasure so leisurely and systematically, he was getting down to the dregs. His taste was becoming palled, and satiety was burdening him with its leaden weight. But as the child he petted developed daily toward womanhood, he became interested, then fascinated by the process. Her beauty was so brilliant, her excessive sprightliness so contagious, that he felt his sluggish pulses stir and tingle with excitement the moment he came into her presence. Her wild, varying moods kept him constantly on the qui vive, and he would say in confidence to one of his intimate cronies:
"The point is, Hal, she is such a spicy, piquant contrast to the insipid society girls, who have no more individuality than fashion blocks in Broadway windows."
He liked the kittenish young creature all the more because her repartee was often a little cutting. If she had always struck him with a velvet paw, the thing would have grown monotonous, but he occasionally got a scratch that made him wince, cool and brazen as he was. But, after all, he daily saw that he was gaining power over her, and the manner in which the frank-hearted girl took his arm and leaned upon it spoke volumes to the experienced man. While he habitually wore a mask, Zell could conceal nothing, and across her April face flitted her innermost thoughts.
If she had had a mother, she might, even in the wilderness of earth, have become a blossom fit for heavenly gardens, but as it was, her wayward nature, so full of dangerous beauty, was left to run wild.
Edith was beginning to be troubled at Zell's intimacy with Mr. Van Dam, and to conceive a growing dislike for him mingled with suspicion. As for Laura, the eldest, she was like her mother, too much wrapped up in herself to have many thoughts for any one else, and they all regarded Zell as a mere child still. Mr. Allen, who would have been very anxious had Zell been receiving the attentions of some penniless young clerk or artist, laughed at her "flirtation with old Van Dam" as an eminently safe proceeding.
But on the present evening her sisters were too much occupied with their own friends to give Zell or her dangerous admirer much attention. As yet no formal engagement had bound any of them, but an intimacy and mutual liking, tending to such a result, was rapidly growing.
In Edith's case the attraction of contrasts was again shown. Augustus Elliot, the youth who had approached her with such confidence and grace, was quite as stylish a personage as herself, and that was saying a great deal. But every line of his full handsome face, as well as the expression of his light blue eyes, showed that he had less decision in the whole of his luxurious nature than she in her little finger. Self-indulgence and good-natured vanity were unmistakably his characteristics. To yield, not for the good of others, but because not strong enough to stand sturdily alone, was the law of his being. If he could ever have been kept under the influence of good and stronger natures, who would have developed his naturally kind heart and good impulses into something like principle, he might have had a safe and creditable career. But he was the idol of a foolish, fashionable mother, and the pet of two or three sisters who were empty-brained enough to think their handsome brother the perfection of mankind; and by eye, manner, and often the plainest words, they told him as much, and he had at last come to believe them. Why should they not? He was faultless in his own dress, faultless in his criticism of a lady's dress, taking the prevailing fashion as the standard. He was perfectly versed in the polite slang of the day. He scented afar off and announced the slightest change in the mode, so that his elegant sisters could appear on the avenue in advance of the other fashion- plates. As they sailed away on a sunny afternoon in their gorgeous plumage, the envy of many a competing belle, they would say:
"Isn't he a duck of a brother to give us a hint of a change so early? After all there is no eye or taste like that of man when once perfected."
And then they knew him to be equally au fait on the flavor of wines, the points of horses, the merits of every watering-place, and all the other lore which in their world gave pre-eminence. They had been educated to have no other ideal of manhood, and if an earnest, straight forward man, with a purpose, had spoken out before them, they would have regarded him as an uncouth monster.
Notwithstanding all his vanity, "Gus," as he was familiarly called, was a very weak man, and though he would not acknowledge it, even to himself, instinctively recognized the fact. He continually attached himself to strong, resolute natures, by whom, if they were adroit, he could easily be made a tool of. He took a great fancy to Edith from the first hour of their acquaintance, and she soon obtained a strong influence over him. She instinctively detected his yielding disposition, and liked him the better for it, while his good-nature and abundant supply of society talk made him a general favorite.
When every one whispered, "What a handsome couple they would make!" and she found him so looked up to and quoted in the fashionable world, she began to entertain quite an admiration as well as liking for him, though she saw more and more clearly that there was nothing in him that she could lean upon.
Gus's parents, who knew that the Allens were immensely wealthy, urged on the match, but Mr. Allen, aware that the Elliots were living to the extent of their means, discouraged it, plainly telling Edith his reasons.
"But," said Edith, at the same time showing her heart in the practical suggestion, "could not Gus go into business himself?"
"The worst thing he could do," said the keen Mr. Allen. "He has tried it a few times, I have learned, but has not one business qualification. He could not keep himself in toothpicks. His mother and sisters have spoiled him. He is nothing but a society man. Mr. Elliot has not a word to say at home. His business is to make money for them to spend, and a tough time he has to keep up with them. You girls must marry men who can take care of you, unless you wish to support your husbands."
Mr. Allen's verdict was true, and Edith felt that it was. When a boy, Gus could get out of lessons by running to his mother with a plea of headache or any trifle, and in youth he had escaped business in like manner. His father had tried him a few times in his office, but was soon glad to fall in with his wife's opinion, that her son "had too much spirit and refinement for plodding humdrum business, that he was a born gentleman and suited only to elegant leisure," and as his gentleman son only did mischief downtown, the poor over-worked father was glad to have him out of the way, for he with difficulty made both ends meet, as it was. Hoping he would do better with strangers, he had, by personal influence, procured him situations elsewhere, but between the mother's weakness and the young man's confirmed habits of idleness, it always ended by Gus saying to his employers:
"I'm going of on a little trip—by-by," at which they gave a sigh of relief. It had at last become a recognized fact that Gus must marry an heiress, this being about the only way for so fine a gentleman to achieve the fortune that he could not stoop to toil for. As he admired himself complacently in the gilded mirror that ornamented his dressing-room, he felt that a wise selection would be his only difficulty, and though an heiress is something of a rara avis, he sternly resolved to cage one with such heavy golden plumage that even his mother, whom no one satisfied save himself, would give a sigh of perfect content. When at last he met Edith Allen, it seemed as if inclination might happily blend with his lofty sense of duty, and he soon became Edith's devoted and favored attendant. And yet, as we have seen, our heroine was not the sentimental style of girl that falls hopelessly and helplessly in love with a man for some occult reason, not even known to herself, and who mopes and pines till she is permitted to marry him, be he fool, villain, or saint. Edith was fully capable of appreciating and weighing her father's words, and under their influence nearly decided to chill her handsome but helpless admirer into a mere passing acquaintance; but when he next appeared before her in his uniform, as an officer in one of the "crack" city regiments, her eyes, taste, and vanity, and somehow her heart, so pleaded for him that, so far from being an icicle, she smiled on him like a July sun.
But whenever he sought to press his suit into something definite, she evaded and shunned the point, as only a feminine diplomatist can. In fact, Gus, on account of his vanity, was not a very urgent suitor, as the idea of final refusal was preposterous. He regarded himself as virtually accepted already. Meanwhile Edith for once in her life was playing the role of Micawber, and "waiting for something to turn up." And something had, for this trip to Europe would put time and space between them, and gently cure both of their folly, as she deemed it. Folly! She did not realize that Gus regarded himself as acting on sound business principles and a strong sense of duty, as well as obeying the impulses of what heart he had. The sweet approval of conscience and judgment attended his action, while both condemned her.
As Gus approached this evening, she felt a pang of commiseration that not only were they separated by her father's and her own disapproval, but that soon the briny ocean would also be between them, and she was unusually kind. She decided to play with her poor little mouse till the last, and then let absence remedy all. Her mind was quick, if not very profound.
As Mr. Goulden leaned across the corner of the piano, and paid the blushing Laura some delicate compliments, one could not but think of an adroit financier, skilfully placing some money. There was nothing ardent, nothing incoherent and lover-like, in his carefully modulated tones, and nicely selected words that meant much or little, as he might afterward decide. Mr. Goulden always knew what he was about, as truly in a lady's boudoir as in Wall Street. The stately, elegant Laura suited his tastes; her father's financial status had suited him also. But he, who through his agents knew all that was going on in Wall Street, was aware that Mr. Allen had engaged in a very heavy speculation, which, though promising well at the time, might, by some unexpected turn of the wheel, wear a very different aspect. He would see the game through before proceeding with his own, and in the meantime, by judicious attention, hold Laura well in hand.
In that brilliantly lighted parlor none of these currents and counter currents were apparent on the surface. That was like the ripple and sparkle of a summer sea in the sunlight. Every year teaches us something of what is hidden under the fair but treacherous seeming of life.
The young ladies were now satisfied with the company they had, and the gentlemen, as can well be understood, wished no further additions. Therefore they agreed to retire to the library for a game of cards.
"Hannibal," said Edith, summoning the portentous colored butler who presided over the front door and dining-room, "if any one calls, say we are out or engaged."
That solemn dignitary bowed as low as his stiff white collar would permit, but soliloquized:
"I guess I is sumpen too black to tell a white lie, so I'se say dey is engaged."
As the ladies swept away, leaning heavily on the arms of their favored gallants, he added, with a slight grin illumining the gravity of his face, "It looks mighty like it."
THE SKIES DARKENING
The game of cards fared indifferently, for they were all too intent on little games of their own to give close attention. Mr. Van Dam won when he chose, and gave the game away when he chose, but made Zell think the skill was mainly hers.
Still, in common parlance, they had a "good time." From such clever men the jests and compliments were rather better than the average, and repartee from the ruby lips that smiled upon them could not seem other than brilliant.
Edith soon added to the sources of enjoyment by ordering cake and wine, for though not the eldest she seemed naturally to take the lead.
Mr. Goulden drank sparingly. He meant that not a film should come across his judgment. Mr. Van Dam drank freely, but he was seasoned to more fiery potations than sherry. Not so poor Gus, who, while he could never resist the wine, soon felt its influence. But he had sufficient control never to go beyond the point of tipsiness that fashion allows in the drawing-room.
Of course through Zell's unrestrained chatter the recently made plans soon came out.
Adroit Mr. Van Dam turned to Zell with an expression of much pleased surprise, exclaiming:
"How fortunate I am! I had completed my plans to go abroad some little time since."
Zell clapped her hands with delight, but an involuntary shadow darkened. Edith's face.
Gus looked nonplussed. He knew that his father and mother with difficulty kept pace with his home expenses and that a Continental tour was impossible for him. Mr. Goulden looked a little thoughtful, as if a new element had entered into the problem.
"Oh, come," laughed Zell. "Let us all be good, and go on a pilgrimage together to Paris—I mean Jerusalem."
"I will worship devoutly with you at either shrine," said Mr. Van Dam.
"And with equal sincerity, I suppose," said Edith, rather coldly.
"I sadly fear, Miss Edith, that my sincerity will not be superior to that of the other devotees," was the keen retort, in blandest tones.
Edith bit her lip, but said gayly, "Count me out of your pilgrim band. I want no shrine with relics of the past. I wish no incense rising about me obscuring the view. I like the present, and wish to see what is beyond."
"But suppose you are both shrine and divinity yourself?" said Gus, with what he meant for a killing look.
"Do you mean that compliment for me?" asked Edith, all sweetness.
Between wine and love Gus was inclined to be sentimental, and so in a low, meaning tone answered:
"Who more deserving?"
Edith's eyes twinkled a moment, but with a half sigh she replied:
"I fear you read my character rightly. A shrine suggests many offerings, and a divinity many worshippers."
Zell laughed outright, and said, "In that respect all women would be shrines and divinities if they could."
Van Dam and Goulden could not suppress a smile at the unfortunate issue of Elliot's sentiment, while the latter glanced keenly to see how much truth was hinted in the badinage.
"For my part," said Laura, looking fixedly at nothing, "I would rather have one true devotee than a thousand pilgrims who were gushing at every shrine they met."
"Brava!" cried Mr. Goulden. "That was the keenest arrow yet flown;" for the other two men were notorious flirts.
"I do not think so. Its point was much too broad," said Zell, with a meaning look at Mr. Goulden, that brought a faint color into his imperturbable face, and an angry flush to Laura's.
A disconcerted manner had shown that even Gus's vanity had not been impervious to Edith's barb, but he had now recovered himself, and ventured again:
"I would have my divinity a patron saint sufficiently human to pity human weakness, and so come at last to listen to no other prayer than mine."
"Surely, Mr. Elliot, you would wish your saint to listen for some other reason than your weakness only," said Edith.
"Come, ladies and gentlemen, I move this party breaks up, or some one will get hurt," said Gus, with a half-vexed laugh.
"What is the matter?" asked Edith innocently.
"Yes," echoed Zell, rising, "what is the matter with you, Mr. Van Dam? Are you asleep, that you are so quiet? Tell us about your divinity."
"I am an astronomer and fire-worshipper, somewhat dazzled at present by the nearness and brilliancy of my bright luminary."
"Nonsense! your sight is failing, and you have mistaken a will-o'-the- wisp for the sun.
"'Dancing here, dancing there, Catch it if you can and dare,'" and she flitted away before him.
He followed with his intent eyes and graceful, serpent-like gliding, knowing her to be under a spell that would soon bring her fluttering back.
After circling round him a few moments she took his arm and he commenced breathing into her ear the poison of his passion.
No woman could remain the same after being with Mr. Van Dam. Out of the evil abundance of his heart he spoke, but the venom of his words and manner were all the more deadly because so subtle, so minutely and delicately distributed, that it was like a pestilential atmosphere, in which truth and purity withered.
No parent should permit to his daughters the companionship of a thoroughly bad man, whatever his social standing. His very tone and glance are unconsciously demoralizing, and, even if he tries, he cannot prevent the bitter waters overflowing from their bad source, his heart.
Mr. Van Dam did not try. He meant to secure Zell, with or without her father's approval, believing that when the marriage was once consummated Mr. Allen's consent and money would follow eventually.
For some little time longer the young ladies and their favored attendants strolled about the room in quiet tete-a-tete, and then the gentlemen bowed themselves out.
The door-bell had rung several times during the evening, but Hannibal, with the solemnity of a funeral, had quenched each comer by saying with the decision of the voice of fate:
"De ladies am engaged, sah," and no Cerberus at the door, or mailed warder of the middle ages, could have proved such an effectual barrier against all intruders as this old negro in his white waistcoat and stiff necktie, backed by the usage of modern society. Indeed, in some respects he was a greater potentate than old King Canute, for he could say to the human passions, inclinations, and desires that surged up to Mr. Allen's front door, "Thus far and no farther."
But upon this evening there was a caller who looked with cool, undaunted eyes upon the stiff necktie and solemn visage rising above it, and to Hannibal's reiterated statement, "Dey am engaged," replied in a quiet tone of command:
"Take that card to Miss Edith."
Even Hannibal's sovereignty broke down before this persistent, imperturbable visitor, and scratching his head with a perplexed grin he half soliloquized, half replied:
"Miss Edith mighty 'ticlar to hab her orders obeyed."
"I am the best judge in this case," was the decisive response. "You take the card and I will be responsible."
Hannibal came to the conclusion that for some occult reason the gentleman, who was well known to him, had a right to pronounce the "open sesame" where the portal had been remained closed to all others, and, being a diplomatist, resolved to know more fully the quarter of the wind before assuming too much. But his statecraft was sorely puzzled to know why one of Mr. Allen's under-clerks should suddenly appear in the role of social caller upon the young ladies, for Mr. Fox, the gentleman in question, ostensibly had no higher position. His appearance and manner indicated a mystery. Old Hannibal's wool had not grown white for nothing, and he was the last man in the world to go through a mystery as a blundering bumblebee would through a spider's web. He was for leaving the web all intact till he knew who spun it and whom it was to catch. If it was Mr. Allen's work or Miss Edith's, it must stand; if not, he could play bumblebee with a vengeance, and carry off the gossamer of intrigue with one sweep.
So, showing Mr. Fox into a small reception room, he made his way to the library door with a motion that would have reminded you of a great, stealthy cat, and called in a loud, impressive whisper:
Edith at once rose and went to him, knowing that her prime minister had some important question of state to present when summoning her in that tone.
Screened by the library door, Hannibal commenced in a deprecating way:
"I told Mr. Fox you'se engaged, but he say I must give you dis card. He kinder acted as if he own dis niggar and de whole establishment."
A sudden heavy frown drew Edith's dark eyebrows together and she said loud enough for Mr. Fox in his ambush to hear:
"Was there ever such impudence!" and straightway the frown passed to the listener, intensified, like a flying cloud darkening one spot now and another a moment later.
"Return the card, and say I am engaged," she said haughtily. "Stay," she added thoughtfully. "Perhaps he wished to see papa, or there is some important business matter which needs immediate attention. If not, dismiss him," and Edith returned to the library quite as much puzzled as Hannibal had been. Two or three times recently she had found Mr. Fox's card on returning from evenings out. Why had he called? She had only a cool, bowing acquaintance with him, formed by his coming occasionally to see her father on business, and her father had not thought it worth while to formally introduce Mr. Fox to any of his family at such times, but had treated him as a sort of upper servant. Her certainly was putting on strange airs, as her old grand- vizier had intimated. But in the game of cards, and her other little game with Grus, she soon forgot his existence.
Meantime Hannibal, reassured, was regal again, and marched down the marble hall with something like the feeling and bearing of his great namesake. If there were a web here, the Allens were not spinning it, and he owed. Mr. Fox nothing but a slight grudge for his "airs."
Therefore with the manner of one feeling himself master of the situation he said:
"Hab you a message for Mr. Allen?"
"No," replied Mr. Fox quietly.
"Den I tell you again Miss Edith am engaged."
Looking straight into Hannibal's eyes, without a muscle changing in his impassive face, Mr. Fox said in the steady tone of command:
"Say to Miss Edith I will call again," and he passed out of the door as if he were master of the situation.
Hannibal rolled up his eyes till nothing but the whites were seen, and muttered:
"Brass ain't no name for it."
Mr. Fox's action can soon be explained. Mr. Allen, while accustomed to operate largely in Wall Street through his brokers, was also the head of a cloth-importing firm. This in fact had been his regular and legitimate business, but like so many others he had been drawn into the vortex of speculation, and after many lucky hits had acquired that overweening confidence that prepares the way for a fall. He came to believe that he had only to put his hand to a thing to give it the needful impulse to success. In his larger and more exciting operations in Wall Street he had left the cloth business mainly to his junior partners and dependants, they employing his capital. Mr. Fox was merely a clerk in this establishment, and not in very high standing either. He was also another unwholesome product of metropolitan life. As office boy among the lawyers, as a hanger-on of the criminal courts, he had scrambled into a certain kind of legal knowledge and had gained a small pettifogging practice when an opening in Mr. Allen's business led to his present connection. Mr. Allen felt that in his varied and extended business he needed a man of Mr. Fox's stamp to deal with the legal questions that came up, look after the intricacies of the revenue laws, and manage the immaculate saints of the custom- house. As far as the firm had dirty, disagreeable, perplexing work to do, Mr. Fox was to do it. Whenever it came in contact with the majesty of the law and government, Mr. Fox was to represent it. Whenever some Israelite in whom was guile sought, on varied pretext, to wriggle out of the whole or part of a bill, the wary Mr. Fox met him on his own plane and with his own weapons, skirmished with him, and won the little fight.
I would not for a moment give the impression that Mr. Allen was in favor of sharp practice. He merely wished to conduct his business on the business principles and practice of the day, and it was not his purpose, and certainly not his policy, to pass beyond the law. But even the judges disagree as to what the law is, and he was dealing with many who thrived by evading it; therefore the need of a nimble Mr. Fox who could burrow and double on his tracks with the best of them. All went well for years, and the firm was saved many an annoyance, many a loss, and if this guerilla of the house, as perhaps we may term him, had been as devoted to Mr. Allen's interests as to his own, all might have gone well to the end. But these very sharp tools are apt to cut both ways, and so it turned out in this case. The astute Mr. Fox determined to serve Mr. Allen faithfully as long as he could faithfully and pre-eminently serve himself. If he who had scrambled from the streets to his present place of power could reach a higher position by stepping on the great rich merchant, such power would have additional satisfaction. He was as keen-scented after money as Mr. Allen, only the latter hunted like a lion, and the former like a fox. He mastered Mr. Allen's business thoroughly in all its details. Until recently no opportunity had occurred save work which, though useful, caused him to be half-despised by the others who would not or could not do it. But of late he had gained a strong vantage point. He watched with intense interest Mr. Allen's attraction toward, and entrance upon, a speculation that he knew to be as uncertain of issue as it was large in proportions, for, if the case ever became critical, he was conscious of the power of introducing a very important element into the problem.
In his care of the custom-house business he had discovered technical violations of the revenue laws which already involved the loss to the firm of a million dollars, and, with his peculiar loyalty to himself, thought this knowledge ought to be worth a great deal. As Mr. Allen went down into the deep waters of Wall Street, he saw that it might be. In saving his employer from wreck he might virtually become captain of the ship.
After this brief delineation of character, it would strike the reader as very incongruous to say that Mr. Fox had fallen in love with Edith. Mr. Fox never stumbled or fell. He could slide down and scramble up to any extent, and when cornered could take a flying leap like that of a cat. But he had been greatly impressed by Edith's beauty, and to win her also would be an additional and piquant feature in the game. He had absolute confidence in money, much of which he might have gained from Mr. Allen himself. He knew a million of her father's money was in his power, and this, in a certain sense, placed him in the position of a suitor worth a million, and such he knew to be almost omnipotent on the avenue. If this money could also be the means of causing Mr. Allen's ruin, or saving him from it, he believed that Edith would be his as truly as the bonds and certificates of stock that he often counted and gloated over. Even before Mr. Allen entered on what he called his great and final operation for the present, Mr. Fox was half inclined to show his hand and make the most of it, but within the last few days he had learned that perhaps a greater opportunity was opening before him. Meantime in the full consciousness of power he had begun to call on Edith, as we have seen, something as a cat plays around and watches a caged bird, which it expects to have in its claws before long.
The next morning at breakfast Edith mentioned Mr. Fox's recent calls.
"What is he coming here for?" growled Mr. Allen, looking with a frown at his daughter.
"I'm sure I don't know."
"I hope you don't see him."
"Certainly not. I was out the first two times, and last night sent word that I was engaged. But he insisted on his card being given to me and put on airs generally, so Hannibal seems to think."
That dignitary gave a confirming and indignant grunt.
"He said he would call again, didn't he, Hannibal?"
"Yes'm," blurted Hannibal, "and he looked as if de next time he'd put us all in his breeches pocket and carry us off."
"What's Fox up to now?" muttered Mr. Allen, knitting his brows. "I must look into this."
But even within a few hours the cloud land of Wall Street had changed some of its aspects. The serenity of the preceding day was giving place to indications of a disturbance in the financial atmosphere. He had to buy more stock to keep the control he was gaining on the market, and things were not shaping favorably for its rise. He was already carrying a tremendous load, and even his herculean shoulders began to feel the burden. In the press and rush of business he forgot about Fox's social ambition in venturing to call where such men as Van Dam and Gus Elliot had undisputed rights.
Those upon whom society lays its hands are orthodox of course.
The wary Fox was watching the stock market as closely as Mr. Allen, and chuckled over the aspect of affairs; and he concluded to keep quietly out of the way a little longer, and await further developments.
Things moved rapidly as they usually do in the maelstrom of speculation. Though Mr. Allen was a trained athlete in business, the strain upon him grew greater day by day. But true to his promise, and in accordance with his habit of promptness, he transferred the deed for the little place in the country to Edith, who gloated over its dry technicalities as if they were full of romantic hope and suggestion to her.
One day when alone with Laura, Mr. Allen asked her suddenly:
"Has Mr. Goulden made any formal proposal yet?"
With rising color Laura answered:
"Why not? He seems very slow about it."
"I hardly know how you expect me to reply to such a question," said Laura, a little haughtily.
"Is he as attentive as ever?"
"Yes, I suppose so, though he has not called quite so often of late."
"Humph!" ejaculated Mr. Allen meditatively, adding after a moment, "Can't you make him speak out?"
"You certainly don't mean me to propose to him?" asked Laura, reddening.
"No, no, no!" said her father with some irritation, "but any clever woman can make a man who has gone as far as Mr. Goulden commit himself whenever she chooses. Your mother would have had the thing settled long ago, or else would have enjoyed the pleasure of refusing him."
"I am not mistress of that kind of finesse," said Laura coldly.
"You are a woman," replied her father coolly, "and don't need any lessons. It would be well for us both if you would exert your native power in this case."
Laura glanced keenly at her father and asked quickly:
"What do you mean?"
"Just what I say. A word to the wise is sufficient."
Having thus indicated to his daughter that phase of Wall Street tactics and principles that could be developed on the avenue, he took himself off to the central point of operations.
THE STORM THREATENING
Laura had a better motive than that suggested by her father for wishing to lead Mr. Goulden to commit himself, for as far as she could love any one beyond herself she loved him, and she also realized fully that he could continue to her all that her elegant and expensive tastes craved. Notwithstanding her show of maidenly pride and reserve, she was ready enough to do as she had been bidden. Mr. Allen guessed as much. Indeed, as was quite natural, his wife was the type of the average woman to his mind, only he believed that she was a little cleverer in these matters than the majority. The manner in which she had "hooked" him made a deep and lasting impression on his memory.
But Mr. Goulden was a wary fish. He had no objection to being hooked if the conditions were all right, and until satisfied as to these he would play around at a safe distance. As he saw Mr. Allen daily getting into deeper water, he grew more cautious. His calls were not quite so frequent. He managed never to be with Laura except in company with others, and while his manner was very complimentary it was never exactly lover-like. Therefore, all Laura's feminine diplomacy was in vain, and that which a woman can say frankly the moment a man speaks, she could scarcely hint. Moreover, Mr. Goulden was adroit enough to chill her heart while he flattered her vanity. There was something about his manner she could not understand, but it was impossible to take offence at the polished gentleman.
Her father understood him better. He saw that Mr. Goulden had resolved to settle the question on financial principles only.
As the chances diminished of securing him indirectly through Laura as a prop to his tottering fortunes, he at last came to the conclusion to try to interest him directly in his speculation, feeling sure if he could control only a part of Mr. Goulden's large means and credit, he could carry his operation through successfully.
Mr. Goulden warily listened to the scheme, warily weighed it, and concluded within the brief compass of Mr. Allen's explanation to have nothing to do with it. But his outward manner was all deference and courteous attention.
At the end of Mr. Allen's rather eager and rose-colored statements, he replied in politest and most regretful tones that he "was very sorry he could not avail himself of so promising an opening, but in fact, he was 'in deep' himself—carrying all he could stand up under very well, and was rather in the borrowing than in the lending line at present."
Keen Mr. Allen saw through all this in a moment, and his face flushed angrily in spite of his efforts at self-control. Muttering something to the effect:
"I thought I would give you a chance to make a good thing," he bade a rather abrupt "good-morning."
As the pressure grew heavier upon him he was led to do a thing the suggestion of which a few weeks previously he would have regarded as an insult. Mrs. Allen had a snug little property of her own, which had been secured to her on first mortgages, and in bonds that were quiet and safe. These her husband held in trust for her, and now pledged them as collateral on which to borrow money to carry through his gigantic operation. In respect to part of this transaction, Mrs. Allen was obliged to sign a paper which might have revealed to her the danger involved, but she languidly took the pen, yawned, and signed away the result of her father's long years of toil without reading a line.
"There," she said, "I hope you will not bother me about business again. Now in regard to this party—" and she was about to enter into an eager discussion of all the complicated details, when her husband, interrupting, said:
"Another time, my dear—I am very much pressed by business at present."
"Oh, business, nothing but business," whined his wife. "You never have time to attend to me or your family."
But Mr. Allen was out of hearing of the querulous tones before the sentence was finished.
Of course he never meant that his wife should lose a cent, and to satisfy his conscience, and impressed by his danger, he resolved that as soon as he was out of this quaking morass of speculation he would settle on his wife and each daughter enough to secure them in wealth through life, and arrange it in such a way that no one could touch the principal.
The large sum that he now secured eased up matters and helped him greatly, and affairs began to wear a brightening aspect. He felt sure that the stock he had invested in was destined to rise in time, and indeed it already gave evidences of buoyancy. He noticed with an inward chuckle that Mr. Goulden began to call a little oftener. He was the best financial barometer in Wall Street.
But the case would require the most adroit and delicate management for weeks still, and this Mr. Allen could have given. Success also depended on a favorable state of the money market, and a good degree of stability and quietness throughout the financial world. Political changes in Europe, a war in Asia, heavy failures in Liverpool, London, or Paris, might easily spoil all. Reducing Mr. Allen's vast complicated operation to its final analysis, he had simply bet several millions—all he had—that nothing would happen throughout the world that could interfere with a scheme so problematical that the chances could scarcely be called even.
But gambling is occasionally successful, and it began to look as if Mr. Allen would win his bet; and so he might had nothing happened. The world was quiet enough, remarkably quiet, considering the superabundance of explosive elements everywhere.
The financial centres seethed on as usual, like a witch's caldron, but there were no infernal ebullitions in the form of "Black Fridays." The storm that threatened to wreck Mr. Allen was no wide, sweeping tempest, but rather one of those little local whirlwinds that sometimes in the west destroy a farm or township.
For the last few weeks Mr. Fox had quietly watched the game, matured his plans, and secured his proof in the best legal form. He now concluded it was time to act, as he believed Mr. Allen to be in his power. So one morning he coolly walked into that gentleman's office, closed the door, and took a seat. Mr. Allen looked up with an expression of surprise and annoyance on his face. He instinctively disliked Mr. Fox, as a lion might be irritated by a cat, and the instinctive enmity was all the stronger because of a certain family likeness. But Mr. Allen's astuteness had nothing mean or cringing in it, while Mr. Fox heretofore had been a sort of Uriah Heep to him. Therefore his surprise and annoyance at his new role of cool confidence.