Chapter IX. Neither Boy nor Man
 

The two following weeks passed uneventfully at the farmhouse, but silent forces were at work that were as quiet and effective as those of Nature, who makes her vital changes without ever being observed in the act. In respect to the domestic arrangements Mrs. Atwood effected a sensible compromise. She gave the men-folk an early breakfast in the kitchen, so that they might go to their work as usual, and her boarders were thus not compelled to rise at an unaccustomed hour. She and Susan afterward sat down with them, and Mr. Atwood and Roger joined them at dinner and supper. On the Monday following the scenes described in the last chapter, Mildred and Mrs. Jocelyn were listless and unable to recover even the semblance of cheerfulness, for a letter from Mr. Jocelyn informed them that he was making very little headway, and that some agencies which he accepted yielded but a scanty income. Mildred chafed more bitterly than ever over her position of idle waiting, and even grew irritable under it. More than once Roger heard her speak to Belle and the children with a sharpness and impatience which proved her not angelic. This did not greatly disturb him, for he neither "wanted to be an angel" nor wished to have much to do with uncomfortable perfection. A human, spirited girl was quite to his taste, and he was quick-witted enough to see that unrest and anxiety were the causes of her temper. Poor Mrs. Jocelyn was too gentle for irritation, and only grew more despondent than ever at hope deferred.

"Millie," she said, "I have dreadful forebodings, and can never forgive myself that I did not think night and day how to save instead of how to spend. What should we do if we had no money at all?"

"Belle and I must go to work," said Mildred, with a resolute face, "and it's a shame we are not at work now."

"What can you do when your father can do so little?"

"Other poor people live; so can we. I can't stand this wretched waiting and separation much longer," and she wrote as much to her father. In the hope of obtaining a response favorable to her wishes she became more cheerful. Every day increased her resolution to put an end to their suspense, and to accept their lot with such fortitude as they could command.

One morning she found Mr. and Mrs. Atwood preparing to go to the nearest market town with butter, eggs, and other farm produce. She readily obtained permission to accompany them, and made some mysterious purchases. From this time onward Roger observed that she was much in her room, and that she went out more for exercise than from the motive of getting through with the weary, idle hours. For some reason she also gained such an influence over thoughtless Belle that the latter took tolerably good care of little Fred and Minnie, as the children were familiarly called. While she maintained toward him her polite and friendly manner, he saw that he was forgotten, and that it had not entered her mind that he could ever do anything for her or be anything more to her than at the present time. But every hour she gained a stronger hold upon his sympathy, and occasionally, when she thought herself unobserved, he saw a troubled and almost fearful look come into her eyes, as if something were present to her imagination that inspired the strongest dread. At such times he was mastered by impulses of self-sacrifice that would have seemed very absurd if put into plain words. He kept his thoughts, however, to himself, and with an instinctive reticence sought to disguise even from his mother the feelings that were so new, and so full of delicious pain. That he was becoming quite different from the careless, self-satisfied young fellow that he had been hitherto was apparent to all, and after his outburst on Sunday evening his mother half guessed the cause. But he misled her to some extent, and Susan altogether, by saying, "I've had a falling-out with Amelia Stone."

"Well, she's the last girl in the world that I'd mope about if I were a man," was his sister's emphatic reply.

"You're not a man; besides I'm not moping. I'm only cutting my wisdom teeth. I want to do something in the world, and I'm thinking about it."

"He's a-growing," said his mother with a smile, and on this theory she usually explained all of her son's vagaries.

He still further misled his unsophisticated sister by making no special effort to seek Mildred's society. After one or two rather futile attempts he saw that he would alienate the sad-hearted girl by obtrusive advances, and he contented himself by trying to understand her, in the hope that at some future time he might learn to approach her more acceptably. The thought that she would soon leave the farmhouse depressed him greatly. She had suggested to him a new and wholly different life from that which he had led hitherto, and he felt within himself no power or inclination to go on with his old ways. These thoughts he also brooded over in silence, and let himself drift in a current which seemed irresistible.

During this period he was under the influence of neither apathy nor dejection. On the contrary, his mind was surging with half-formed plans, crude purposes, and ambitious dreams. His horizon lifted from the farm and Forestville until there seemed space for a notable career. His soul kindled at the thought of winning a position that would raise him to Mildred's side. So far from fearing to burn his ships, and strike out unsupported, the impulse grew strong to make the attempt at any cost. He was sure that his father would not listen to the project, and that he would be wholly unaided, but riot many days passed before the thought of such obstacles ceased to influence him. "I'll take my way through the world, and cut my own swath," he muttered a hundred times as he swung the scythe under the July sun.

Moreover, he had a growing belief in his power to climb the heights of success. His favorite books of travel and adventure that he had devoured in boyhood made almost anything seem possible, and the various biographies that the village library furnished revealed grand careers in the face of enormous obstacles. His mind was awaking like a young giant eager for achievement. Even after the toil of long, hot days he took up his old school-books in the solitude of his room, and found that he could review them with the ease with which he would read a story. "I've got some brains as well as muscle," he would mutter, exultantly. "The time shall come when Mildred Jocelyn won't mistake me for Jotham."

Poor Mr. Atwood would have been in consternation had he known what was passing in his son's mind; and Mildred even less pleased, for after all it was she who had inspired the thoughts which were transforming him from a simple country youth into an ambitious, venturesome man.

He knew of but one way to please her, but he made the most of that, and worked quietly but assiduously whenever he could without exciting his father's opposition. After the day's tasks were over the time was his own. He began by cutting all the weeds and grass in the door-yard and around the house. Palings that had disappeared from the fence were replaced, and all were whitewashed.

Mrs. Atwood and Susan were greatly pleased at the changes, but thought it politic not to say much about them; one evening, however, his father began to banter him, remarking that Roger must be intending to "bring home a wife some fine morning." The young fellow reddened resentfully, and brusquely retorted that they "had lived in their old slovenly way long enough. People might well think they were going to the bad." This practical view somewhat reconciled his father to the new ideas, and suggested that Roger was not so daft as he feared. A little time after he was led to believe his son to be shrewder than himself. Needing some money, he took a note to the bank with much misgiving, but was agreeably surprised when one of the officers said affably, "I think we can accommodate you, Mr. Atwood. I was by your place the other day, and it is so improved that I scarcely knew it. Thrift and credit go together."

But Mildred doubted whether thrift and policy were the only motives which had led to Roger's unwonted action, and believed rather that he had awakened to a perception of the value and attractiveness of those things which hitherto he had not appreciated. This, in a sense, was already true, but had she known to what extent she was in his thoughts she would not have smiled so complacently when, on the Saturday morning after the completion of his other labors, she noted that the weed-choked flower-borders along the walk had been cleaned and neatly rounded up, and the walk itself put in perfect order. "The flower-beds remind me of himself," she thought, as from time to time she glanced at them through her open window. "They contain a good deal of vacant space, and suggest what might be there rather than what is. Would to heaven, though, that Mr. Arnold had more of his muscle and decision. If Vinton were only different, how different all the future might be! But I fear, I fear. We have not enough money to last all summer if we remain here, and father writes so discouragingly. Thank God, I'm no longer idle, whether anything comes of my work or not," and the delicate piece of fancy work grew rapidly in her deft hands.

Toward evening she started out for a walk, but uttered an exclamation of surprise as she saw the flower-borders were bright with verbenas, heliotrope, geraniums, and other bedding plants. Roger's buggy stood near, containing two large empty boxes, and he was just raking the beds smooth once more in order to finish his task.

"Why, Mr. Atwood!" she cried, "it has long seemed to me that a good fairy was at work around the house, but this is a master-stroke."

"If you are pleased I am well repaid," he replied, the color deepening on his sunburned cheeks.

"If I am pleased?" she repeated in surprise, and with a faint answering color. "Why, all will be pleased, especially your mother and Susan."

"No doubt, but I thought these would look more like what you have been accustomed to."

"Really, Mr. Atwood, I hope you have not put yourself to all this trouble on my account."

"I have not put myself to any trouble. But you are in trouble, Miss Jocelyn, and perhaps these flowers may enliven you a little."

"I did not expect such kindness, such thoughtfulness. I do not see that I am entitled to so much consideration," she said hesitatingly, at the same time fixing on him a penetrating glance.

Although he was much embarrassed, his clear black eyes met hers without wavering, and he asked, after a moment: "Could you not accept it if it were given freely?"

"I scarcely understand you," she replied in some perplexity.

"Nor do I understand you, Miss Jocelyn. I wish I did, for then I might do more for you."

"No, Mr. Atwood," she answered gravely, "you do not understand me. Experience has made me immeasurably older than you are."

"Very possibly," he admitted, with a short, embarrassed laugh. "My former self-assurance and complacency are all gone."

"Self-reliance and self-restraint are better than self-assurance," she remarked with a smile.

"Miss Jocelyn," he began, with something like impetuosity, "I would give all the world if I could become your friend. You could do so much for me."

"Mr. Atwood," said Mildred, with a laugh that was mixed with annoyance, "you are imposed upon by your fancy, and are imagining absurd things, I fear. But you are good-hearted and I shall be a little frank with you. We are in trouble. Business reverses have overtaken my father, and we are poor, and may be much poorer. I may be a working-woman the rest of my days; so, for Heaven's sake, do not make a heroine out of me. That would be too cruel a satire on my prosaic lot."

"You do not understand me at all, and perhaps I scarcely understand myself. If you think my head is filled with sentimental nonsense, time will prove you mistaken. I have a will of my own, I can assure you, and a way of seeing what is to be seen. I have seen a great deal since I've known you. A new and larger world has been revealed to me, and I mean to do something in it worthy of a man. I can never go on with my old life, and I will not," he continued, almost passionately. "I was an animal. I was a conceited fool. I'm very crude and unformed now, and may seem to you very ridiculous; but crudity is not absurdity, undeveloped strength is not weakness. An awakening mind may be very awkward, but give me time and you will not be ashamed of my friendship."

He had ceased leaning against a tree that grew near the roadway, and at some distance from the house. In his strong feeling he forgot his embarrassment, and assumed an attitude so full of unconscious power that he inspired a dawning of respect; for, while he seemed a little beside himself, there was a method in his madness which suggested that she, as well as the young man, might eventually discover that he was not of common clay and predestined to be commonplace. But she said, in all sincerity, "Mr. Atwood, I'm sure I wish you twice the success you crave in life, and I've no reason to think you overrate your power to achieve it; but you greatly overrate me. It would be no condescension on my part to give you my friendship; and no doubt if you attain much of the success you covet you will be ready enough to forget my existence. What induces you to think that a simple girl like me can help you? It seems to me that you are vague and visionary, which perhaps is natural, since you say you are just awaking," she concluded, with a little smiling sarcasm.

"You are unjust both to yourself and to me," he replied firmly, "and I think I can prove it. If I shall ever have any power in the world it will be in seeing clearly what is before me. I have seldom been away from this country town, and yet as soon as I saw you with a mind free from prejudice I recognized your superiority. I brought the belle of Forestville and placed her by your side, and I could think of nothing but brazen instruments until I left her loudness at her father's door. I would not go near her again if there were not another woman in the world. I saw at a glance that she was earthenware beside you."

Mildred now could not forbear laughing openly. "If you lose your illusions so rapidly," she said, "my turn will come soon, and I shall be china beside some fine specimen of majolica."

"You may laugh at me, but you will one day find I am sincere, and not altogether a fool."

"Oh, I'm ready to admit that, even now. But you are altogether mistaken in thinking I can help you. Indeed I scarcely see how I can help myself. It is a very poor proof of your keen discernment to associate me with your kindling ambition."

"Then why had you the power to kindle it? Why do I think my best thoughts in your presence? Why do I speak to you now as I never dreamed I could speak? You are giving purpose and direction to my life, whether you wish it or not, whether you care or not. You may always be indifferent to the fact, still it was your hand that wakened me. I admit I'm rather dazed as yet. You may think I'm talking to you with the frankness--perhaps the rashness--of a boy, since you are 'immeasurably older,' but the time is not very distant when I shall take my course with the strength and resolution of a man."

"I should be sorry to be the very innocent cause of leading you into thorny paths. I truly think you will find more happiness here in your quiet country life."

His only answer was an impatient gesture.

"Perhaps," she resumed, "if you knew more of the world you would fear it more. I'm sure I fear it, and with good reason."

"I do not fear the world at all," he replied. "I would fear to lose your esteem and respect far more, and, distant as you are from me, I shall yet win them both."

"Mr. Atwood, I suppose I have as much vanity as most girls, but you make me blush. You are indeed dazed, for you appear to take me for a melodramatic heroine."

"Pardon me, I do not. I've been to the theatre occasionally, but you are not at all theatrical. You are not like the heroines of the novels I've read, and I suppose I've read too many of them."

"I fear you have," she remarked dryly. "Pray, then, What am I like?"

"And I may seem to you a hero of the dime style; but wait, don't decide yet. What are you like? You are gentle, like your mother. You are exceedingly fond of all that's pretty and refined, so much so that you tried to introduce a little grace into our meagre, angular farmhouse life--"

"Thanks for your aid," interrupted Mildred, laughing. "I must admit that you have good eyes."

"You shrink," he resumed, "from all that's ugly, vulgar, or coarse in life. You are an unhappy exile in our plain home."

"All which goes to prove what an ordinary and unheroic nature I have. You will soar far beyond me, Mr. Atwood, for you have portrayed a very weak character--one that is in love with the niceties of life, with mere prettiness."

"You are still laughing at me, but I'm in earnest; and if you mean what, you say, you understand yourself less than you do me. Why will you not go to the hotel occasionally? Because with all your gentleness you are too proud to run the slightest risk of patronage and pity from those who knew you in your more fortunate days. Why do you remain in your little hot room so much of the time? I don't know; but if you will permit a guess, you are working. Every day you grow less content to sit still in helpless weakness. You are far braver than I, for I do not fear the world in the least; but, no matter how much you feared it, you would do your best to the last, and never yield to anything in it that was low, base, or mean. Oh, you are very gentle, very delicate, and you will be misunderstood; but you have the strongest strength there is--a kind of strength that will carry you through everything, though it cost you dear."

"And what may that be?" she asked, looking at him now in genuine wonder.

"I can't explain exactly what I mean. It is something I've seen in mother, plain and simple as she is. It's a kind of enduring steadfastness; it's a patient faithfulness. I should know just where to find mother, and just what to expect from her, under all possible circumstances. I should never expect to see you very different from what you are, no matter what happened. You often have the same look or expression that she has; and it means to me that you would do the best you could, although discouraged and almost hopeless. Very few soldiers will fight when they know the battle is going against them. You would, as long as you could move a finger."

"Mr. Atwood, what has put all this into your head? This seems very strange language from you."

"It is not so strange as it seems. It comes from the gift on which I base my hope of success in life. I see clearly and vividly what is before me, and draw my conclusions. If I see the antlers of a stag above some bushes, it is not necessary to see the whole animal to know he is there, and what kind of a creature he is. I'm not a scholar, Miss Jocelyn, but you must not think I do not know anything because I work in the corn or the hayfield all day. We have long winters up here, and I've studied some and read a great deal more. There are but few books in the village library that I have not read more or less thoroughly, and some of them many times. Because I was a careless, conceited fellow a few weeks since, it does not follow that I'm an ignoramus."

Mildred was decidedly puzzled. She could not account for the change in him; and she did not like to think of that to which his words and feelings pointed. He asked for friendship, but she strongly doubted whether such a placid regard would long satisfy him. Her chief impulse was to escape, for the bare thought of words of love from him or any one except Vinton Arnold was intensely repugnant. As she glanced around, seeking in what direction she might take her flight, she saw a gentleman coming rapidly toward the house. After a second's hesitation she rushed toward him, crying, "Papa, papa, you are welcome!"