Chapter X. A Council
 

Roger saw Miss Jocelyn rush into the arms of a tall, florid gentleman, whose dark eyes grew moist at the almost passionate warmth of his daughter's greeting. To Mildred her father's unexpected coming was thrice welcome, for in addition to her peculiarly strong affection for him, his presence ended an interview not at all agreeable, and promised relief from further unwelcome attentions on the part of Roger. Almost in the moment of meeting, she resolved to persuade him that his family would be happier with him in the city. This had been her feeling from the first, but now she was wholly bent on leaving the farm-house; for with her larger experience and womanly intuition she read in Roger's frank and still half-boyish face the foreshadowing of an unwelcome regard which she understood better than he did.

While his manner for a few weeks past, and especially his words during their recent interview, made it clear that he was not the rough, awkward rustic she had first imagined him to be, he still seemed very crude and angular. In spite of her love for Vinton Arnold, which had not abated in the least, he had ceased to be her ideal man. Nevertheless, his refined elegance, his quiet self-restraint, his knowledge of the niceties and proprieties of the world to which she felt she belonged by right, did combine to produce an ideal in her mind of which she was but half conscious, and beside which Roger appeared in a repulsive light. She shrank with instinctive distaste from his very strength and vehemence, and feared that she would never be safe from interviews like the one just described, and from awkward, half-concealed gallantries. Even the flowers he had set out became odious, for they represented a sentiment the very thought of which inspired aversion.

A coquette can soon destroy the strong instinct of sacredness and exclusiveness with which an unperverted girl guards her heart from all save the one who seems to have the divine right and unexplained power to pass all barriers. Even while fancy free, unwelcome advances are resented almost as wrongs and intrusions by the natural woman; but after a real, or even an ideal image has taken possession of the heart and imagination, repugnance is often the sole reward of other unfortunate suitors, and this dislike usually will be felt and manifested in a proportion corresponding with the obtrusiveness of the attentions, their sincerity, and the want of tact with which they are offered.

To that degree, therefore, that Roger was in earnest, Mildred shrank from him, and she feared that he would not--indeed, from his antecedents could not--know how to hide his emotions. His words had so startled her that, in her surprise and annoyance, she imagined him in a condition of semi-ambitious and semi-amative ebullition, and she dreaded to think what strange irruptions might ensue. It would have been the impulse of many to make the immature youth a source of transient amusement, but with a sensitive delicacy she shrank from him altogether, and wished to get away as soon as possible. Pressing upon her was the sad, practical question of a thwarted and impoverished life--impoverished to her in the dreariest sense--and it was intolerable that one who seemed so remote from her sphere should come and ask that, from her bruised and empty heart, she should give all sorts of melodramatic sentiment in response to his crude, ambitious impulses, which were yet as blind as the mythical god himself.

Had she seen that Roger meant friendship only when he asked for friendship, she would not have been so prejudiced against him; but the fact that this "great boy" was half consciously extending his hand for a gift which now she could not bestow on the best and greatest, since it was gone from her beyond recall, appeared grotesque, and such a disagreeable outcome of her changed fortunes that she was almost tempted to hate him. There are some questions on which women scarcely reason--they only feel intensely.

Mildred, therefore, was heartily glad that Roger did not wait to be introduced to her father, and that he kept himself aloof from the reunited family during the evening. She also was pleased that they were not joined by the Atwoods at the supper-table. That this considerate delicacy was due to the "young barbarian's" suggestion she did not dream, but gave good-hearted but not very sensitive Mrs. Atwood all the credit. As for poor Roger, his quick insight, his power to guess something of people's thoughts and feelings from the expression of their faces, brought but little present comfort or promise for the future.

"I made a bad impression at the start," he muttered, "and it will be long before she loses it, if she ever does. She shrinks from me as from something coarse and rough. She feels that I don't belong to her world at all. In fact, her father's fine bearing, his erect, elegant carriage make me feel as if I were but a country lout in very truth." The reception given to Mr. Jocelyn satisfied Mrs. Atwood thoroughly that his prolonged absence did not result from any alienation from his family. They overwhelmed him with caresses, and either Fred or Minnie could scarcely be kept out of his arms a moment.

"Fanny," he said to his wife, "I almost made a vow that I would not come here until I had secured a position that would give you all the comforts of life, if not at once its luxuries; but such positions are occupied, and when one becomes vacant they are filled by relatives of the firm, or by those who have stronger claims than I can present. Still my friends are working for me, and I have the prospect of employment where the compensation will be small at first, but if I can draw a considerable Southern trade it will be increased rapidly."

And yet he sighed while revealing this hopeful outlook, and Mildred noticed that he sighed more than once during the evening, in spite of the torrent of affectionate welcome which almost swept him away.

After Belle and the younger children were sleeping, the husband and wife with Mildred talked late over their prospects. Mr. Jocelyn suggested that they should remain in the country, and even that they should rent a small cottage in Forestville or elsewhere, but his gentle wife soon proved that on some occasions she could be decided.

"No, Martin," she said, with the quiet emphasis which reveals a purpose not to be combated, "one thing is settled--there must be no more separation. I have suffered too much during these last few weeks ever to listen again to such an arrangement. Now that you are with us once more, I learn that the ache in my heart was caused not so much by losses and the prospect of poverty as by loneliness and the feeling that you were left to struggle by yourself. It's my place to be with you, and I am willing to live anywhere and in any way. I can see that I might have aided you in providing against this evil time, but it seems now that I thought only of what we wanted for each day as it came, and the trouble was that we all got just what we wanted. Here is the result. Oh, I've thought it over through long sleepless nights till my heart ached with a pain that I hope none of you will ever know. But to sit idly here and wait while you are trying to retrieve my folly is a greater punishment than I can endure. Give me something to do which will be of help to you, and I will do it gladly, even though it be in two attic rooms."

"Mamma's right," added Mildred earnestly. "Papa, you must find a place for us in New York--a place within our means. Let us begin life right this time, and I believe God will bless and prosper us. It won't be many days before Belle and I will find something to do."

Mr. Jocelyn sighed more deeply than ever, and, indeed, appeared so overcome for a few moments that he could not speak. At last he faltered, "I have all of a Southern man's pride, and it's more bitter than death to me that my wife and daughters must work for their bread."

"Papa," exclaimed Mildred, "would it not be infinitely more bitter to us all to eat the bread of charity? I shall pretend to no unnatural heroism, nor say I like toil and poverty. On the contrary, I think I shrink from such things more than most girls do. But I don't propose to sit down and wring my hands. I can put them to a better use. We must just put away all talk of pride and sentiment, and remember only our poverty and self-respect. As Christian and sensible people we are bound to accept of our life and make the best of it. You and mother both know how much this change has cost me," she concluded, with a few half-stifled sobs, "and if I am willing to enter on a cheerful, patient effort to make the best of life as it is, I think all the rest might, too. If we give way to despondency we are lost. Let us be together again, and pull together as one."

"The idea of Nan and the children coming back to the city in August!" said Mr. Jocelyn dejectedly. "You don't either of you realize what you are talking about. We should have to go into a tenement-house."

"Martin, I do realize it," replied his wife earnestly. "The country is doing me no good--indeed I'm failing in health. Nothing does us good when we are unhappy and anxious. Find me two rooms in a tenement-house if we cannot afford more, and let us be together as soon as possible."

"Well," said Mr. Jocelyn, after a long breath, "with such a wife and such children to work for a man ought to be able to do great things; but it's much the same as it was in the army--if one lost his place in the ranks he was hustled about in everybody's way, and if weak and disabled he was left to his fate. The world goes right on and over you if you don't stand aside. I know you've suffered, Nan, and you know that if I had my wish you would never have a care or a pain; but God knows I suffered too. After you all were gone and my duties to my former partners ceased, I began to learn from experience how difficult it is in these cursed times to get a foothold, and I became almost sleepless from anxiety. Then set in that villanous neuralgia, which always strikes a man when he's down,' and for a week or more it seemed that I should almost lose my reason.

"Oh, Martin, Martin!" his wife exclaimed reproachfully, "and you did not let us know!"

"Why should I? It would only have added to your burden, and would not have helped me. I was glad you knew nothing about it."

"This is another proof that we must be together," said his wife, her eyes filling with tears. "How did you come to get better?"

"Oh, the doctor gave me something that made me sleep, and I seldom have neuralgia now."

"Come, papa," cried Mildred, as she put her arms around his neck and leaned her face against his, "there are thousands worse off than we are, and thousands more have retrieved far worse disasters. Now take courage; we'll all stand by you, and we'll all help you. We will one day have a prettier home than ever, and it will be all our own, so that no one can drive us from it;" and with hope springing up in her heart she tried to inspire hope and courage in theirs.

"Oh, Millie," he said, taking her on his lap, "when you coax and pet one you are irresistible. We will begin again, and win back all and more than we have lost."

Then, partly to amuse her father and mother, but more for the purpose of hastening their departure, Mildred told them of Roger's peculiar mood, and her conscience smote her a little as she caricatured rather than characterized the youth. Mrs. Jocelyn, in her kindliness, took his part, and said, "Millie, you are satirical and unjust I'm sure he's a well-meaning young man."

"The dear little mother!" cried Mildred, laughing; "when she can't think of anything else good to say of a person, she assures us that he is 'well-meaning.' Life may bring me many misfortunes, but I shall never marry what mamma calls 'a well-meaning man.'"

"But, Millie, I'm sure he's been very good and kind to us all, and he's kind to his mother and sister, and he seems steady--"

"Well, mamma, admitting it all, what follows?" asked Mildred.

"It follows that we had better go away," said Mrs. Jocelyn, with her low, sweet laugh, that had been rarely heard of late; "but I don't like you to be unjust to the young fellow. After all, he's not so very much to blame, Millie," she added, with a little nod. "If I were he I fear I might be in the same fix."

"Oh, papa, now we must go; for if mamma's sympathies are once aroused in behalf of this 'steady, well-meaning young man'--there! I will talk no more nonsense to-night, although I often find nonsense a sort of life preserver that keeps me from sinking. I admit, mamma, that I have been unjust to Mr. Atwood. He's far more clever than I ever imagined him to be, but he's so different"--she finished the sentence with a little repellent gesture that her mother well understood.

They were all comforted, and far more hopeful from their frank interchange of thought and feeling, and both father and mother breathed a fervent "God bless you, Millie," as they separated, long past midnight.

"God will bless us," said the young girl, "if we will just simply try to do what is right and best every day. The blessing will come on doing, not waiting."

She had not been in her room very long before hearing the crunching of gravel under the wheels of Roger's buggy. With a smile she thought, "He must have found a more sympathizing ear and heart than mine to have remained out so late."