Without a Home by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XIV. The Old Mansion
Mildred's letter to her father brought a request that she should join him at once and choose between two sets of rooms, of which he had the refusal. She insisted upon going, for she was eager to leave a place that had become hateful to her. She greatly wished to hear of Arnold's welfare before her departure, but would not make any effort to do so.
To her surprise, however, Roger handed her a note the following morning. She knew the handwriting well, and asked, "How do you happen to have this, Mr. Atwood?"
"I supposed you would wish to hear from your friend, and so went up to the hotel. As soon as Mr. Arnold saw me he asked me to give you that letter."
Mildred bit her lip. Was it an officious or a friendly act? She was beginning to doubt whether she had fully gauged the character of this young farmer, but of one thing she was instinctively certain--his motive was personal, and sprung from an interest in her which was now more repugnant than ever. Whether this instance was an obtrusive meddling in her affairs, or an act well meant, but unwarranted by their relations, she could not tell. However it might be, she wished the letter had come by any other hands than his.
She gravely thanked him, and added, "Mr. Atwood, please do not feel called upon to do anything further for me unless requested."
He grew pale and his lips tightened, for her words and manner hurt him. His act had been in truth very generous and self-effacing, but he merely bowed in seeming acquiescence, and turned away.
Arnold's letter ran as follows:
"The memory of that scene yesterday will oppress me forever. Nothing could have happened that would more clearly convince you that I am unworthy of your thought. And yet it will be a life-long agony to know that I am unworthy. When I tell you that I love and honor you above all other women it is but a poor compensation, I fear, for all that I have made you suffer. My mother has kindly (?) informed me that she told you how feeble I am, and I proved her words true. I feel that the best service I can render you is to say, Forget me wholly; and yet you can never know what such words cost me. I shall never forget, unless death is forgetting. If I had the strength to be of any help to you at all, I would break away at once and take the consequences; but I have been an invalid all my life, and why I still continue to live I scarcely know. If, however, there should ever be a time when one so weak as I am can aid you, give me this one shadowy hope that you will come to me. VINTON ARNOLD."
This was Mildred's reply:
"It is not in my nature to forget, therefore I cannot. It is not my wish to forget, therefore I will not. You will find me ever the same. MILDRED JOCELYN."
Roger would have taken her reply to the hotel that very night, so great was her power over him, but for his sake, as well as her own, she wished to teach him once for all that their ways were apart. She dreaded from what he had said that he would follow her to the city and renew the unwelcome association of his life with hers. Therefore she engaged heavy, blundering Jotham to deliver the note, giving him a dollar from her slender purse as a reward. He lost the note where it was never found, and stolidly concealed the fact lest he should lose the dollar. The little characteristic missive fell to the earth somewhere like a seed that drops into an unkindly soil and perishes. Roger only knew that stupid Jotham had been preferred as her messenger. She made no secret of the fact, but gave the note to the laborer when he came in to his nooning the following day. She knew Roger was watching her from the front porch, and as she turned toward him she saw she had wounded him so deeply that she had some compunctions; but he avoided meeting her, nor did she find a chance to speak to him again. When, an hour later, she was ready to depart with Mr. Atwood for the distant landing, Roger was not to be found. Her conscience smote her a little, but she felt that it would be the best for him in the future, and would probably end his nonsense about leaving home and winning fame out in the world. She had a warm, genuine good-will for Mrs. Atwood and Susan, and even for poor, grumbling Mr. Atwood, at whose meagre, shrivelled life she often wondered; and it would be a source of much pain to her if she became even the blameless cause of Roger's leaving home in the absurd hope of eventually becoming great and rich, and then appearing to her in her poverty, like a prince in fairy lore. "Nothing but the most vigorous snubbing will bring him to his senses," she thought, and she now believed that he would soon subside into his old life, and be none the worse for the summer's episode. Therefore, after embracing her mother again and again in her room, she bade Mrs. Atwood and Susan good-by very kindly, and they saw her depart with genuine regret. For Roger there was nothing more than the quiet remark to Mrs. Atwood, "Please say good-by for me to your son."
Belle and the children accompanied her to the landing, and were in great glee over the long drive. Mildred's spirits rose also. She had learned most emphatically that she was not dead to her lover, and she thought her words, brief as they were, would cheer and sustain him and suggest hope for the future. Although she was a little sorry for Roger, she was glad to think that his dark, searching eyes would no longer follow her, nor she be compelled from day to day to recognize a curbed but ever-present and unwelcome regard. His feeling toward her seemed like something pent up, yet growing, and she was always fearing it might burst forth. In his mastery of the horse he had shown himself so strong and fearless that, not sure of his self-restraint, she dreaded lest in some unguarded moment he might vehemently plead for her love. The very thought of this made her shudder and shrink, and the belief that she would probably never see him again gave decided relief.
Chief of all, she was glad that her weary waiting and uncertainty were over. She was now on her way to seek independence and a home. However humble the latter, it would be a place from which could be excluded all strange and prying looks. When together and alone again, their sorrows and weaknesses could be hidden or seen only with the eyes of love.
The ten days or more that had elapsed since Mr. Jocelyn's departure had made him doubtful whether he could hide his weakness or overcome it very readily. He believed he was gaining ground since he was able to reduce the amount of morphia taken, but in order to keep up he had to employ the stimulant more frequently. By this method he hoped never so to lose self-control as to excite suspicion, and also gradually to wean himself from the drug altogether. Of the two he would rather meet Mildred than his wife; the latter must be kept in ignorance, since to destroy her absolute trust was to be destroyed. Mildred would more quickly suspect his fault than would her mother, and if he could hide his failing from her he surely could from his wife, until complete mastery left nothing to be concealed. That day of liberty always seemed but a little in advance. He surely had the will and the strength to give up a mere drug. He who had led charges amid the smoke and thunder of a hundred cannon, and had warded off sabre-thrusts from muscular, resolute hands, was not going to be pricked to death by a little syringe in his own hand. His very thraldom to the habit seemed an improbable, grotesque dream, which some morning would dissipate, but as a matter of experience each morning brought such a profound sinking and "goneness" that his will-power shrivelled like a paper barricade before the scorching intensity of his desire. After the stimulant began its work, however, all things seemed possible, and nothing more so than his power to abandon the drug when he should fully decide upon the act.
On the morning of Mildred's arrival, having lifted himself out of his chronic dejection by the lever of opium, he went to meet her with the genuine gladness of a proud, loving father asserting itself like a ray of June light struggling through noxious vapors. She was delighted to find him apparently so well. His walk and the heat had brought color to his face, the drug had bestowed animation and confidence, while his heart gave an honest, loving welcome without the aid of any stimulant. They rode uptown together as happily and hopefully as if the nearly empty car were their own carriage, and they were seeking a home in Fifth Avenue instead of a tenement-house; but the hope and happiness of one was based on youth, love, faith, courage, and inexperience, and of the other on a lurid cloud that would darken steadily except as renewed gleams were shot through it by a light that was infernal. Any kindly man or woman would have smiled appreciatively to see the handsome father and beautiful daughter apparently as absorbed in each other's plans and interests as a young couple seeking the home in which their future life would centre. Who would dream that on this sunny morning, and in a prosaic street-car, the actors of a sad, sad tragedy were on their way to its unsuspected scenes? Who would dream that Mildred and her father, of all others, were the actors?
"Millie," said Mr. Jocelyn, "I fear the place to which I shall at first take you may shock you a little. It's an old Revolutionary mansion, gray and rather dilapidated, but it reminded me of some of our residences in the South; and, although perhaps no better--perhaps not so good--it is still quite unlike the stereotyped tenement-house abomination prevailing in this city. This ancient abode of colonial wealth took my fancy. It suggested our own changed fortunes by its fall to its present uses. And yet the carving around and above the doors and windows, much of which still remains, and the lofty ceilings all remind one of past better days that can never return to the poor house, but which we must bring back as soon as possible. I shall never be content or happy, Millie, until I have placed my dear ones in the sphere to which they really belong; but for the present I do not see how we can pay rent for anything much better than rooms in the old mansion. As far as I can learn, the people who live in it are poor, but quiet and respectable."
Her father's opium-tinged description caught Mildred's fancy also, but when she saw the building her heart sank at the prospect. To her a tenement-house was as yet a vague, untested reality, and the one before her was indeed old and dilapidated, gray and haggard with more than a century's age.
The mansion having been built to face the river, its front was not upon the street, but toward the west. Around its base the mortar was crumbling away, revealing its mingled brick and stone foundation. The hip-roof of weather-beaten shingles still remained, and was surmounted by a wide-railed and wooden platform used by the occupants of the dwelling for the drying of clothes, etc.
"It makes me think of an old, dying, moss-draped white oak standing in the midst of trees of younger and different growth," said Mr. Jocelyn, as he and Mildred scanned the gable-end of the house.
Then they entered by two or three stone steps a narrow passage, ascended a forlorn wooden stairway, covered overhead by a few boards nailed lengthwise, and so reached a small landing, where once had been a stately porch or wide veranda, looking no doubt over a broad sweep of lawn and the shining river. The high-arched doorway was still intact, with elaborately carved but now defaced woodwork, which, rising from the sill on either side, was continued in various old-fashioned designs until it culminated over a large square window in the second story. Generations had watched the sunsets from that window, but now high brick walls threw it in shadow much of the day.
A quaint brass knocker which gentlemen--long since dust--had approached wearing laced three-cornered hats, velvet short-clothes, and silver buckles, and upon which they had rapped announcement of their social claims, still hung on the rest from which they had lifted it. It was not often used at present, for people entered without knocking, and the wide hall within was in a sense but a continuation of the street; also the winding stairway, with its ancient rail, which started out on one side and wound up to another square hallway. To each of these open spaces the several families had equal rights.
The lower hall had originally extended through the whole depth of the building to a rear doorway, equally old-fashioned but less elaborately ornamented, but now a partition crossed the raised circle on the ceiling from which had once hung an ancient candelabrum. Upon each hallway opened four suites of two rooms each, and thus the old mansion usually sheltered twelve families instead of one. The doors were high, and surmounted by quaint and worm-eaten carved work.
These halls seemed very dark and close to Mildred, who had just come out of the sunlight and from the country, but they were cool and spacious. They were shown by the janitor to a room over twenty feet square on the second story, whose former occupants had left the souvenir of unlimited dirt. "They was dissipated, and we don't let sich stay in the buildin'," said the man. "That's one thing in favor of the place, papa," poor Mildred remarked, and at the moment it seemed to her about the only thing, for the old house was evidently going down hill so fast that it seemed to her as if it might carry its occupants with it. Still, on further inspection, the room was found to be so large and airy and the ceiling so high that it might be made the abode of health and comfort. Opening into the large apartment was another about eight feet by twelve, and this was all.
Mildred drew a long breath. Could the whole domestic life of the family be carried on in those two rooms? "I never realized how thousands of people live," she sighed.
"It will only be for a little while, Millie," whispered her father.
The young girl shrank and shivered even in the summer morning at the ordeal of crowded life, with only intervening doorways and thin partitions between them and all sorts of unknown neighbors.
"Suppose, papa, we look at the other rooms of which you have the refusal," she faltered.
Even in his false buoyancy he could not suppress a sigh as he saw that Mildred, in spite of her determination to make the best of everything, had not imagined what a tenement-house was. "We will be back in an hour or more," he whispered to the janitor, for he believed the other rooms would appear still more repulsive.
And so they did, for when Mildred had climbed up three stairways in a five-story, narrow house, which even at that hour was filled with a babel of sounds, the old mansion seemed a refuge, and when she had glanced around the narrow room and two dark closets of bedrooms, she shuddered and said, "Papa, can we really afford nothing better?"
"Honestly, Millie, we cannot for the present. My income is exceedingly small, although it will soon be increased, no doubt. But if we pay too much for rooms we shall have nothing to live upon while waiting for better times. These rooms are fourteen dollars a month. Those in the old mansion are only eight, and the two rooms there give more chance for comfort than do these three."
"Oh, yes, yes," cried Mildred, "I could not live here at all. Let us go back."
While returning, her father showed her apartments in other tenements for which rents of ten to sixteen dollars were charged, and she saw that she would not obtain any more in space and light than for half the money in the old house, which had been built when that part of the island was open country.
"Forgive me, papa," she said, smiling, "that I shivered a little at the first plunge. We will go to the old house and stay there until we can do better. It was once evidently a beautiful home, and I believe that within it we can make a happy home, if we will. These other tenements were never homes, and I don't see how they ever could be. They are angular, patent, human packing-boxes, which mock at the very idea of home coziness and privacy. They were never built for homes, they were built to rent. In the old house I noticed that a blank wall near will prevent people staring into our windows, and the space has not been so cut up but that we can keep ourselves somewhat secluded."
Next to a quiet way of earning money, Mildred coveted seclusion beyond everything else. There was one deep hope that fed her life. Her father would work his way up into affluence, and she again could welcome Vinton Arnold to her own parlor. Happiness would bring him better health, and the time would come when he could choose and act as his heart dictated. With woman's pathetic fortitude and patience she would hope and wait for that day. But not for the world must his proud mother know to what straits they were driven, and she meant that the old house should become a hiding-place as well as a home.
Therefore the rooms in the old mansion were taken. A stout, cheery Englishwoman, who with her plump, red arms was fighting life's battle for herself and a brood of little ones, was engaged to clean up and prepare for the furniture. Mildred was eager to get settled, and her father, having ordered such household goods as they required to be sent from their place of storage the following day, repaired to his place of business.
"Now, miss," said sensible Mrs. Wheaton, "I don't vant to do hany more than yer vants done, but hif I was you I'd give hall these 'ere vails a coat hof lime. Vitevash is 'olesome, yer know, and sweetens heverything; hit'll kind o' take haway the nasty taste those drunken people left."
"Please whitewash, then, and use plenty of lime. If you can sweeten these rooms, do so by all means, but I fear that result is beyond your brush or any other."
"You've seen better days, miss, and I 'ave meself; but yer mustn't be down'arted, yer know. See 'ow the sunshine comes in, and ven hit falls hon a carpet, a little furniture, and yer hown people, these 'ere rooms vill soon grow 'omelike, and yer'll come back to 'em hafteryer day's vork's hover gladly henough. I s'pose yer'll vork, since you've come hamong people who must vork hearly and late."
"Yes, indeed, we'll work--that is all we ask for."
"And hit's time I vas ha bout mine hinstead hof gossiping 'ere. Yer'll soon see 'ow spick and span I'll make heverything."
With a despatch, deftness, and strength that to Mildred seemed wonderful, she bought the lime, made the wash, and soon dark stains and smoky patches of wall and ceiling grew white under her strong, sweeping strokes. It was not in the girl's nature, nor in accordance with her present scheme of life, to be an idle spectator, and from her travelling-bag she soon transformed herself into as charming a house-cleaner as ever waged war against that chief enemy of life and health--dirt. Her round, white arms, bared almost to the shoulder, seemed designed as a sculptor's model rather than to wield the brush with which she scoured the paint and woodwork; but she thought not of sculpture except in the remote and figurative way of querying, with mind far absent from her work, how best she could carve their humble fortunes out of the unpromising material of the present and the near future.