Chapter XIII. A Scene Beneath the Hemlocks
 

Roger sat out on the dusky piazza of the hotel, looking into the large parlor through open windows which came to the floor, bent on making the most of such glimpses as he could obtain of the world to which he felt that Mildred belonged by right. He saw clearly that she would appear well and at home amid such surroundings. A young and elegantly dressed woman crossed the wide apartment, and he muttered, "Your carriage is very fine and fashionable, no doubt, but Miss Jocelyn would have added grace and nature to your regulation gait." He watched the groups at the card-tables with a curious interest, and the bobbing heads of gossiping dowagers and matrons; he compared the remarkable "make up," as he phrased it, of some of them with the unredeemed plainness of his mother's Sunday gown. "Neither the one nor the other is in good taste," he thought. "Mrs. Jocelyn dresses as I intend my mother shall some day." He coolly criticised a score or more of young men and women who were chatting, promenading, flitting through the open windows out upon the piazza and back again into the light, as a small stringed orchestra struck into a lively galop or the latest waltz. He saw a general mustering of the younger guests, even down to the boys and girls, for the lancers, and followed one and another that caught his eye through the mazy intricacies, making little gestures of disgust at those who seemed outre and peculiar in manner and appearance, and regarding with the closest observation such as exhibited a happy mean between a certain rusticity and awkwardness with which he was well acquainted, and a conventional artificiality which was to him all the more unnatural and absurd because his perception was not dulled by familiarity with society's passing whims.

The young stranger whom Mr. Jocelyn had repulsed, and who was the real object of his quest, did not appear among the pleasure-seekers, nor could he discover him on the piazza, in the billiard-room, or in other places of resort. At last in much disappointment he returned to his seat, from which he commanded a view of the parlor; and scarcely had he done so before the one he sought mounted the steps near him as if returning from a stroll in the hotel grounds, threw away his cigar, and entered an open window with the same graceful, listless saunter witnessed in the afternoon. He crossed the wide apartment with as much ease and nonchalance as if it had been empty, and sat down on a sofa by a somewhat stout and very elegantly apparelled gentlewoman.

Roger never thought of accounting for the intensity of his interest in this stranger--the young rarely analyze their feelings--but, obedient to an impulse to learn this man's power to win the favor of one so unapproachable by himself, he scanned with keenest scrutiny everything in his appearance and manner, and sought eagerly to gauge his character.

He felt instinctively that the "cold-blooded snob," as Mr. Jocelyn had characterized him, was of the very opposite type to his own. His graceful saunter, which, nevertheless, possessed a certain quiet dignity, suggested a burdensome leisure and an utter lack of purpose to go anywhere or do anything. He dropped on the sofa rather than sat down. The lady at his side spoke rather decidedly to him, and he answered briefly without even looking at her. By and by she spoke again, more energetically; he then slowly arose, approached a young woman sitting near, who in response to something he said sprang up with alacrity, and they glided away in the waltz with an ease and grace scarcely equalled by the others upon the floor. After a few moments they circled around very near Roger's post of observation, and he was able to scan both the features and expression of the man whom he felt inclined to hate. But he was disarmed and perplexed, for the stranger showed no more pleasure or animation than would a fallen leaf that was swept here and there by varying eddies of wind. He kept time and step with perfect accuracy, but evidently from such complete familiarity with the form that he gave it not a thought. He danced as easily as a bird flies, avoiding the others without appearing to notice them. No color came from the exercise, no light kindled in his face. His expression was not blase or cynical, but weary and dejected; the melancholy in his large brown eyes was all the more striking from contrast with the music, the lighted room, and an amusement suggesting gayety. Pale, utterly unresponsive to the brilliant and mirthful scenes, he glided ghost-like here and there, and before very long seated his companion by the elderly woman whose urgency had led to his automaton-like performance. Then with a slight bow he passed through a window near and disappeared. The two lades spoke together for a few moments and seemed annoyed, and Roger now noted such a resemblance between them as to suggest that they were mother and daughter.

He had seen sufficient to satisfy him, and he went away muttering, "There isn't enough of him to hate; he's but the shadow of a man. She fancy him! I couldn't have believed it; I can't account for it, unless he's very gifted in mind or very different when with her. This must be true, and he would be a mummy indeed if she couldn't wake him up."

Roger rode home, however, ill at ease. "He hasn't forgotten her if he has given her up on account of her poverty," he thought. "He could see as well as I that there was no one there who could compare with her; but he mopes instead of trying to win her. If he can dance, why can't he work? I've no reason to complain, however, and I thank my stars that I have muscle and a will. In the meantime I shall come up here and study your tricks of manner, my elegant nonentity. I believe in force. Force moves the world and carries a man through it; but I now see that it should be well-managed and well-mannered force. Miss Jocelyn compares me with you, and I seem to her uncouth, unfinished, and crude in the extreme. Litheness and grace need not take an atom from my strength, and the time shall come when I will not fear comparisons. I'll win her yet with your own weapons."

Roger's dreams proved that his sympathies with the melancholy stranger were not very deep, and that his idea of the survival of the fittest was the survival of the strongest. His human nature at that time was of the old Saxon type, that went directly for what it wanted, without much thought or sentiment for those weak enough to lose.

Although it was rather late before he reached home, he found his mother, Mrs. Jocelyn, and Mildred waiting for him in the sitting-room.

"What kept you so?" Mrs. Atwood exclaimed.

"I stopped a while at the hotel on my return," he replied.

"Did my husband send any message?" Mrs. Jocelyn asked, with a solicitude she could not disguise.

"He told me to say that I had left him well, and safely on his way to the city."

"Did--did he seem well when you left him?" the anxious wife persisted.

"Quite as well as he did yesterday, I think," was the reply.

"Mr. Atwood," said Mildred, in a tone that startled him a little, and he saw she was looking at him as if she would read his thoughts, "did my father truly appear well when you parted from him?"

Roger's eyes fell before hers, but he replied firmly, "I left him sitting quietly on the steamboat's deck, and when I asked him if he had any message for his family, he said the words I have just repeated. He seemed naturally depressed at leaving you all. If he were not well he did not say anything about it;" and with a bow he passed up to his room.

"Mother," said Mildred, when they were alone, "was it mere diffidence, or why was it, that he could not look me in the eyes? I wonder if he is concealing anything. It was in the afternoon and evening that papa was unlike himself yesterday. I wish I really knew whether or not that young man is hiding anything, for I have an impression that he is."

"Oh, it was diffidence, Millie. He would have no motive in hiding the truth from us. I can see that he is both fascinated by you and afraid of you--poor fellow!"

"A few weeks in the cornfield and a few smiles from the girls hereabouts will banish all his nonsense concerning me. I don't give him a thought except that his absurd feelings annoy me. Oh, mamma, you understand me. What he would like to offer is such a grotesque parody on that which I hoped for, on what I imagined I possessed, that it makes me sick. Oh, oh!" she sobbed, "I must give it all up. Mr. Arnold acts as if I were dead: and practically I am to him, although he may sigh and mope a little, perhaps. There, I'm wronging him; I know I wrong him. How can I forget his white, deathlike face and look of mortal pain. Oh that he had this young fellow's muscle and courage! I do not care for his money; I would be content with him in one bare room. But as it is I fear, I fear;" and the poor child buried her face in her mother's lap, and cried away some of her weight of foreboding.

"Millie, darling," faltered her mother, "God knows I'd shield your heart with my own if I could, but I don't know how to help you. You are too much like me. Your love is your life, and you can't stop loving just because it would be wise and thrifty to do so. I think of you almost as much as I do of Martin, and I daily pray the merciful Saviour, who was 'tempted in all points like as we are,' to sustain and comfort you. I don't see how I can help you in any other way, for my own heart shows me just how you suffer."

"There, little mother," said Mildred, raising her head and wiping her eyes, "I've had my cry, and feel the better for it. I'm going to help you and papa and be brave. I'm glad I'm like you. I'm glad I'm a true Southern girl, and that I can love as you loved; and I would despise myself if I could invest my heart and reinvest it like so much stock. Such a woman is cold-blooded and unnatural, and you are the dearest little mother and wife that ever breathed."

"Oh, Millie, Millie, if I had only foreseen and guarded against this evil day!"

"Come, dear mamma, don't always be blaming yourself for what you did not foresee. You are eager to do your best now, and that is all God or man can ask of us. These clouds will pass away some time, and then the sunshine will be all the brighter."

The next few days of waiting and uncertainty were a severer ordeal to Mrs. Jocelyn and Mildred than ever. Mr. Jocelyn, bent on gaining time, kept putting them off. His new duties upon which he had entered, he wrote, left him only the evening hours for his quest of rooms, and he had not succeeded in finding any that were suitable. Thus they expected something definite by every mail, but each day brought renewed disappointment. At last Mildred wrote that she would come down herself if he did not decide upon something at once.

The morning after this letter was despatched the young girl took her work out under some wide-boughed hemlocks that stood beside the quiet country road, along which a farmer occasionally jogged to the village beyond, but which at that hour was usually quite deserted. Fred and Minnie were with her, and amused themselves by building little log huts with the dry sticks thickly scattered around.

To Roger, who was cradling oats in an adjacent field, they made a picture which would always repeat itself whenever he passed that clump of hemlocks; and, as he cut his way down the long slope toward them, under the midsummer sun, he paused a second after each stroke to look with wistful gaze at one now rarely absent from his mental vision. She was too sad and preoccupied to give him a thought, or even to note who the reaper was. From her shady retreat she could see him and other men at work here and there, and she only envied their definite and fairly rewarded toil, and their simple yet assured home-life, while she was working so blindly, and facing, in the meantime, a world of uncertainty. Roger had been very unobtrusive since her father's departure, and she half consciously gave him credit for this when she thought about him at all, which was but seldom. He had imagined that she had grown less distant and reserved, and once or twice, when he had shown some little kindness to the children, she had smiled upon him. He was a hunter of no mean repute in that region, and was famous for his skill in following shy and scarce game. He had resolved to bring the principles of his woodcraft to bear upon Mildred, and to make his future approaches so cautiously as not to alarm her in the least; therefore he won the children's favor more thoroughly than ever, but not in an officious way. He found Belle moping the evening after her father's departure, and he gave her a swift drive in his buggy, which little attention completely disarmed the warm-hearted girl and became the basis of a fast-ripening friendship.

"You need not put on such distant airs," she had said to Mildred; "he never mentions your name any more." But when he asked Mrs. Jocelyn to take a drive with him she had declined very kindly, for she feared that he might speak to her of her daughter in an embarrassing way. Over Belle, Mildred had little control in such matters, but as far as she and her mother were concerned she determined that he should have no encouragement whatever; for, although he made no further efforts either to shun or obtain her society, and had become quite as reserved as herself, he unconsciously, yet very clearly, revealed his state of mind to her womanly intuition.

"There is one thing queer about Roger Atwood," said Belle, joining her sister under the hemlocks; "he now scarcely ever speaks of himself. I suppose he thinks I'd be silly enough to go and tell everything as you did."

"What do you talk about then?" asked Mildred, with a half smile.

"Oh, you are a little curious, are you? perhaps a little jealous, too, that he was so very easily cured of his admiration for you. If it were any secret, I wouldn't tell you. We talk about what we see, and it seems to me he sees everything. If a bird flies across the road he will point out its peculiarities, and he knows so much about the trees and bushes and wild flowers and the little creatures in the woods, how they live, and all that. He says a man's a fool that doesn't see all that's going on around him. Sometimes he makes me ache from laughing over his funny descriptions of the queer characters that live about here. Bat what interests me most is his accounts of the people at the hotel. Ob, I do wish mother would let me go there with him some evening! He is there nearly every night, and it's as good as a play to hear him take off the affected, snobbish ones. He has caught the English drawl and the 'yeh know' of some young fellows to perfection."

"He is a queer fellow," mused Mildred. "I wonder what he goes there for?"

"Oh, Roger Atwood is no fool, I can tell you. He knows country society in perfection, and he would not be long in understanding Fifth Avenue noodledom just as well. He detects sham people and sham ways as quickly as you could, and delights in ridiculing them. He says there's a ghost of a man up there which interests him exceedingly, but that it is such an extremely well-behaved, good-mannered ghost that it is tolerated without remark, and that is all he will say about it, although I have often questioned him. I can't think who or what he means."

Mildred looked up with a sudden access of interest, and then became silent and abstracted.

"Since the children are quiet here," continued Belle, "I'll go back to the house and finish a story in which the hero and heroine are sentimental geese and blind as bats. They misunderstand each other so foolishly that I'd like to bob their empty heads together," and away she went, humming a gay song, with as little thought for the morrow as the birds in the fields around her.

While Roger paused a moment to wipe the perspiration from his brow, the rustling of the grain ceased, and he heard the footfalls of a horse in the adjacent road. With a start he saw riding by the stranger who had been the object of his continued scrutiny at the hotel. The young men restrained to a walk the rather restless horse he bestrode, and seemed musing deeply under the shadow of a broad-brimmed Panama hat. He took no notice of Roger, and passing slowly on entered the shadow of the hemlocks, when an exclamation caused him to raise his head. A second later he sprang from his horse, threw the bridle over the limb of a tree, and seized Mildred's hand with an eagerness which proved that she had indeed the power to "wake him up."

Roger was too distant to see just how she greeted her unlooked-for friend of other days, but thought she appeared so startled that she leaned against a tree for support. He saw, however, that the "ghost of a man" was now flesh and blood in his earnestness, and that he retained her hand in both of his own while speaking rapidly. Before very long, however, the horse became so impatient that he suddenly jerked his bridle loose, wheeled, and came galloping up the road toward Roger, who, after a moment's hesitation, cleared the low stone wall at a bound and stood in the road awaiting him. Mildred's companion made a gesture of annoyance, and then said, with a shrug, "Let the beast go. I'm well content to remain here." When they saw Roger's purpose, however, they stood watching for the outcome of his effort.

As Arnold--for he it was--saw the horse, with broken and flying reins, thundering apparently right upon the motionless form of a man, he exclaimed, "By Jove! but that's a brave fellow."

The vicious brute soon seemed so nearly upon the rash youth that Mildred gave a slight scream of terror, but a second later she saw him spring lightly aside, catch one of the flying reins, hold on for a few yards, half dragged, half running, and then the animal yielded to a master. A cloud of dust obscured them momentarily; then the country-bred athlete vaulted lightly into the saddle and came trotting sharply toward them, riding like a centaur. She was enraged at herself that her face should grow scarlet under his brief glance from one to the other, but without a word he sprang lightly down and began to fasten the horse securely to a tree--an act scarcely necessary, for the animal appeared completely subdued.

"By Jove! my man, that was neatly done," said Arnold. "Here's a bank-note for your trouble."

"The fact that I've caught your horse does not prove me a hostler," Roger replied brusquely, without looking at the speaker.

Arnold now recognized the young man whom he had seen with Mr. Jocelyn, and also at the hotel several times subsequently. He had learned his name, and therefore began, "Oh, I beg pardon; this is Mr. Atwood;" but before he could say more a covered barouche came rapidly down the hill from the opposite direction, turned with the angle of the road, and passed into the shade of the hemlocks. Arnold had become very pale the moment he saw it, and in its occupant Roger recognized the woman whom he had seen at the hotel, and whom he had learned to be the mother of the listless dancer. A brief glance showed him that Mildred knew her also. The lady sharply ordered her coachman to stop, and after a brief but freezing look into Mildred's hot face she said, in a meaning tone, "Vinton, I will esteem it a favor if you will accompany me on my drive."

"I will join you presently," he said irresolutely.

"I will wait politely then until you have concluded your interview," the gentlewoman remarked coldly, leaning back in her carriage.

Her look, tone, and action stung Mildred to the very quick. Gentle and retiring usually, she was capable of a very decided and even an aggressive course under great provocation. For a moment her warm Southern blood boiled at Mrs. Arnold's implication that she was so eager to capture her wealthy son that it was not prudent to leave them alone together a moment. With decision and the dignity of conscious innocence she said, "Good-morning, Mr. Arnold"; then taking little Minnie's hand and calling Fred she led the way toward the house. It happened that the only path of egress led her by the carriage, and the manner in which its occupant ignored her presence was so intolerable in its injustice that she paused, and, fixing her clear, indignant eyes on the flushed, proud face before her, asked, in tones never forgotten by those who heard them, "Mrs. Arnold, wherein have I wronged you or yours?"

The lady was silent and a little embarrassed.

"I know, and you might know," Mildred continued, "if you chose, that you cannot charge me with one unwomanly act, but your look and manner toward me are both unwomanly and unchristian. You insult me in my poverty and misfortune. Without the shadow of right or reason, you cruelly wound one who was wounded already;" and she was about to pass on.

"Mother, as you are a woman, do not let her go without a word of respect and kindness," cried her son, in a hoarse, stifled voice.

"Miss Jocelyn," began Mrs. Arnold in a constrained tone, "I mean you no disrespect. Nevertheless--"

"Nevertheless!" exclaimed Arnold, wrought to frenzy. "Great God! are you going to qualify that grudging sentence?" He struck his hand to his forehead, reeled, and fell prone upon the earth. In a moment Mildred knelt beside him, and Roger saw that she loved him with her whole strong, womanly soul.

"Bring water, bring brandy; mother will give it to you," she said to him in a low voice, and he dashed off to obey.

Mrs. Arnold hastily descended from the carriage and felt her son's pulse with much solicitude. "He has only fainted," she said. "He is apt to have such attacks when overwrought. It's a part of his disease. Miss Jocelyn, you see he is a reed that must be supported, not leaned upon," she added, looking straight into the young girl's troubled eyes. "I mean you kindness as truly as I mean kindness to him. He will soon be better. He has often been in this condition ever since he was a child. With this knowledge you will understand me better. Thomas"--to the coach-man--"lift him into the carriage. He will soon revive," she continued to Mildred, "and at the hotel he shall have the best of care. Believe me, I feel for you both, but I know what is right and best."

The coachman did as he was directed, and they drove rapidly away.

Mildred put her hand to her side, and then, with pale and downcast face, led the wondering children toward the house. She soon met. Roger returning, and running like a deer.

"They have taken him away," she said briefly, without looking up. "Please care for his horse and accept my thanks," and then she hastened to her room and did not appear again that day.

He complied with her request, then went back to his work, and the grain fell as if the reaper were Death himself.

Mrs. Arnold's course was not so harsh and rude as it seemed, and can readily be explained on the theory by which she governed her feelings and actions toward her son. An obscure weakness in the functions of his heart had rendered him subject to fainting turns from early childhood. Physicians had always cautioned against over-exertion and over-excitement of any kind; therefore he had not been sent to school like the other children, or permitted to indulge in the sports natural to his age. Having been constantly cautioned, curbed, and repressed, he grew into a timid, self-distrustful, irresolute man, and yet was keenly sensible of the defects that separated him from other men. No one ever longed for independence more earnestly than he; few were less able to achieve it. His mother, having shielded him so many years from himself as well as from adverse influences from without, had formed the habit of surveillance. Exaggerating his weakness and dependence, his unfitness to compete with other men in active pursuits, she had almost ignored his manhood. The rest of the family naturally took their tone from her, regarding him as an invalid, and treating him as one. Chafing with secret and increasing bitterness over his misfortune and anomalous position, he grew more and more silent and reserved, dwelling apart in a world created from a literature that was not of the best or most wholesome character. As long as he lived a quiet, monotonous life that accorded with the caution enjoined by physicians, he gave his mother little solicitude, for the woman of the world, versed in all the proprieties of her station, had no comprehension of the sensitive spirit that had been repressed equally with his physical nature. That he should become cold toward her, and cynical toward her world of wealth and fashion, was to her but a proof that his character was defective also, and led to the fear that his "absurd notions" might occasion trouble. His intimacy with the Jocelyns threatened to justify her forebodings, and, while knowing nothing of Mildred personally, she was naturally inclined to the belief that she, like many others, would be glad to escape poverty by allying herself to an old and wealthy family, and she regarded her son as weak enough to become a ready victim. Nevertheless he was of age, and if he should enter into a formal engagement it might be no easy matter to break it or escape the consequences. Therefore she determined at all hazards to prevent such a consummation, and thus far had succeeded. She was greatly angered that, in spite of her precautions and injunctions, he had again met Mildred, and she resolved to end the interview at once, even at the cost of being thought rude and harsh, for if left to themselves that summer day they might realize all her fears. At the same time she proposed to manifest her disapproval so decidedly that if the young woman still sought to enter her family, it would be by a sort of violence; and she also was not unmindful of the fact that, with the exception of an apparent laborer and her coachman, only the parties interested were the witnesses of her tactics. Therefore she had looked at Mildred as coldly and haughtily as only a proud woman can, with the result already narrated. Although compelled to admit that the girl was not what she had imagined her to be, she was none the less bent on preventing further complications, and resolved to take her son elsewhere as soon as he had sufficiently recovered.

The next morning Mildred left her seclusion, and her aspect was pale and resolute, but no reference was made to the events uppermost in the minds of those aware of them. Even the children and Belle had been so cautioned that they were reticent. In the evening, however, as Roger was raking the flower-beds over to prevent the weeds from starting, Mildred came out, and joining him said, a little bitterly, "Well, what did your microscopic vision reveal to you yesterday morning?"

"A brave, proud girl, for whom I have the deepest respect," he replied, looking directly into her eyes.

"Was that all?"

"No, indeed."

"Well, what else?" she persisted, in a tone quite unlike her usual accent.

"I saw the merest shadow of a man and the ghost of a woman who must weigh nearly two hundred."

She flushed hotly as she said, "You pride yourself on your keen perceptions, but the truth is you are blind," and she was turning angrily away when he answered, "Time will show how blind I am," and then he went on quietly with his work.

"Oh, how I detest that man!" she muttered, as she went up to her favorite haunt on the hilltop looking toward the south. "Why did he, of all others, have to be present with his prying eyes at the odious scene? He must know now how I feel toward Vinton Arnold, and yet he has so little sense and delicacy that he expresses contempt for him to my face. Brute strength may be his ideal of manhood, but it's not mine; and he knows so little of women that he thinks I ought to despise one who is simply unfortunate, and through no fault of his own. Poor, poor Vinton! Brief as were the moments before we were interrupted, he had time to assure me that life had become a burden because of our separation, and yet he said that he had no right to see me, no right to send me a line, no right to add his weakness to my other misfortunes. Time shall at least show one thing--that I can be patient and true. That proud, cold woman has no control over me, and as long as he is faithful I shall be."