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- What Can She Do? - 30/72 -
the most ambitious of country churches. Mrs. Allen hoped to make a profound impression on the country people, and by this one dress parade to secure standing and cordial recognition among the foremost families. But she overshot the mark. The failure of Mr. Allen was known. The costly mourning suits and the little house did not accord, the solid, sensible people were unfavorably impressed, and those of fashionable and aristocratic tendencies felt that investigation was needed before the strangers could be admitted within their exclusive circles. So, though it was not a Methodist church that they attended, the Allens were put on longer probation by all classes, when if they had appeared in a simple unassuming manner, rating themselves at their true worth and position, many would have been inclined to take them by the hand.
THEY TURN UP
One morning, a month after the Allens had gone into poverty's exile, Gus Elliot lounged into Mr. Van Dam's luxurious apartments. There was everything around him to gratify the eye of sense, that is, such sense as Gus Elliot had cultivated, though an angel might have hidden his face. We will not describe these rooms--we had better not. It is sufficient to say that in their decorations, pictures, bacchanalian ornaments, and general suggestion, they were a reflex of Mr. Van Dam's character, in the more refined and aesthetic phase which he presented to society. Indeed, in the name of art, whose mantle, if at times rather flimsy, is broader than that of charity, not a few would have admired the exhibitions of Mr. Van Dam's taste.
But concerning Gus Elliot, no doubt exists in our mind. The atmosphere of Mr. Van Dam's room was entirely adapted to his chosen direction of development. He was a young man of leisure and fashion, and was therefore what even the fashionable would be horrified at their daughters ever becoming. This nice distinction between son and daughter does not result well. It leaves men in the midst of society unbranded as vile, unmarked so that good women may shrink in disgust from them. It gives them a chance to prey upon the weak, as Mr. Van Dam purposed to do, and as he intended to induce Gus Elliot to do, and as multitudes of exquisitely dressed scoundrels are doing daily.
If Mr. and Mrs. Allen had done their duty as parents, they would have kept the wolf (I beg the wolf's pardon) the jackal, Mr. Van Dam, with his thin disguise of society polish, from entering their fold. Gus Elliot was one of those mean curs that never lead, and could always be drawn into any evil that satisfied the one question of his life, "Will it give me what _I_ want?"
Gus was such an exquisite that the smell of garlic made him ill, and the sight of blood made him faint, and the thought of coarse working hands was an abomination, but in worse than idleness he could see his old father wearing himself out, he could get "gentlemanly drunk," and commit any wrong in vogue among the fast young men with whom he associated. And now Mephistopheles Van Dam easily induces him to seek to drag down beautiful Edith Allen, the woman he had meant to marry, to a life compared with which the city gutters are cleanly.
Van Dam in slippers and silken robe was smoking his meerschaum after a late breakfast and reading a French novel.
"What is the matter?" he said, noting Gus's expression of ennui and discontent.
"There is not another girl left in the city to be mentioned the same day with Edith Allen," said Gus, with the pettishness of a child from whom something had been taken.
"Well, spooney, what are you going to do about it?" asked Mr. Van Dam coolly.
"What is there to do about it? You know well enough that I can't afford to marry her. I suppose it's the best thing for me that she has gone off to the backwoods somewhere, for while she was here I could not help seeing her, and after all it was only an aggravation."
"I can't afford to marry Zell," replied Van Dam, "but I am going up to see her to-morrow. After being out there by themselves for a month, I think they will be glad to see some one from the civilized world." The most honest thing about Van Dam was his sincere commiseration for those compelled to live in quiet country places, without experience in the highly spiced pleasures and excitements of the metropolis. In his mind they were associated with oxen--innocent, rural, and heavy, these terms being almost synonymous to him, and suggestive of such a forlorn tame condition that it seemed only vegetating, not living. Mr. Van Dam believed in a life, like his favorite dishes, that abounded in cayenne. Zell's letters had confirmed this opinion, and he saw that she was half desperate with ennui and disgust at their loneliness.
"I imagine we have stayed away long enough," he continued. "They have had sufficient of the miseries of mud, rain, and exile, not to be very nice about the conditions of return to old haunts and life. Of course I can't afford to marry Zell any more than you can Edith, but for all that I expect to have her here with me before many months pass, and perhaps weeks."
"Look here, Van Dam, you are going too far. Remember how high the Allens once stood in society," said Gus, a little startled.
"'Once stood;' where do they stand now? Who in society has lifted, or will lift a finger for them, and they seem to have no near relatives to stand by them. I tell you they are at our mercy. Luxury is a necessity, and yet they are not able to earn their bare bread.
"Let me inform you," he continued, speaking with the confidence of a hunter, who from long experience knows just where the game is most easily captured, "that there is no class more helpless than the very rich when reduced to sudden poverty. They are usually too proud to work, in the first place, and in the second, they don't know how to do anything. What does a fashionable education fit a girl for, I would like to know, if, as often occurs, she has to make her own way in the world?--a smattering of everything, mistress of nothing."
"Well, Van Dam," said Gus, "according to your showing, it fits them for little schemes like the one you are broaching."
"Precisely. Girls who know how to work and who are accustomed to it, will snap their fingers in your face, and tell you they can take care of themselves, but the class to which the Allens belong, unless kept up by some rich relations, are soon almost desperate from want. I have kept up a correspondence with Zell. They seem to have no near relatives or friends who are doing much for them. They are doing nothing for themselves, save spend what little there is left, and their monotonous country life has half-murdered them already. So I conclude I have waited long enough and will go up to-morrow. Instead of pouting like a spoiled child over your lost Edith, you had better go up and get her. It may take a little time and management. Of course they must be made to think we intend to marry them, but if they once elope with us, we can find a priest at our leisure."
"I will go up to-morrow with you any way," said Gus, who, like so many others, never made a square bargain with the devil, but was easily "led captive" from one wrong and villany to another.
It was the last day of April--one on which the rawness and harshness of early spring were melting into the mildness of May. The buds on the trees had perceptibly swollen. The flowering maple was still aflame, the sweet centre of attraction to innumerable bees, the hum of whose industry rose and fell on the languid breeze. The grass had the delicate green and exquisite odor belonging to its first growth, and was rapidly turning the brown, withered sward of winter into emerald. The sun shone through a slight haze, but shone warmly. The birds had opened the day with full orchestra, but at noon there was little more than chirp and twitter, they seeming to feel something of Edith's languor, as she leaned on the railing of the porch, and watched for the coming of Malcom. She sighed as she looked at the bare brown earth of the large space that she purposed for strawberries, and work there and everywhere seemed repulsive. The sudden heat was enervating and gave her the feeling of luxurious languor that she longed to enjoy with a sense of security and freedom from care. But even as her eyelids drooped with momentary drowsiness, there was a consciousness, like a dull, half-recognized pain, of insecurity, of impending trouble and danger, and of a need for exertion that would lead to something more certain than anything her mother's policy promised.
She was startled from her heaviness by the sharp click of the gate latch, and Malcom entered with two large baskets of strawberry-plants. He had said to her:
"Wait a bit. The plants will do weel, put oot the last o' the moonth. An ye wait I'll gie ye the plants I ha' left cover and canna sell the season. But dinna be troobled, I'll keep it enoof for ye ony way."
By this means Edith obtained half her plants without cost, save for Malcom's labor of transplanting them.
The weather had little influence on Malcom's wiry frame, and his spirit of energetic, cheerful industry was contagious. Once aroused and interested, Edith lost all sense of time, and the afternoon passed happily away.
At her request Malcom had brought her a pair of pruning nippers, such as she had seen him use, and she kept up a delicate show of work, trimming the rose-bushes and shrubs, while she watched him. She could not bring her mind to anything that looked like real work as yet, but she had a feeling that it must come. She saw that it would help Malcom very much if she went before and dropped the plants for him, but some one might see her, and speak of her doing useful work. The aristocratically inclined in Pushton would frown on the young lady so employed, but she could snip at roses and twine vines, and that would look pretty and rural from the road.
But it so happened that the one who caught a glimpse of her spring-day beauty, and saw the pretty rural scene she crowned, was not the critical occupant of some family carriage; for when, while near the road, she was reaching up to clip off the topmost spray of a bush, her attention was drawn by the rattle of a wagon, and in this picturesque attitude her eyes met those of Arden Lacey. The sudden remembrance of the unkind return made to him, and the fact that she had therefore dreaded meeting him, caused her to blush deeply. Her feminine quickness caught his expression, a timid questioning look, that seemed to ask if she would act the part of the others. Edith was a society and city girl, and her confusion lasted but a second. Policy whispered, "You can still keep him as a useful friend, though you must keep him at a distance, and you may need him." Some sense of gratitude and of the wrong done him and his also mingled with these thoughts,
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