Chapter XV. "Welcome Home"
 

Mildred felt that she had become a working-woman in very truth as she cleaned the dingy closets, vindictively prying into corners and crevices that had been unmolested by generations of tenants, and the rich color produced by summer heat and unwonted exertion deepened at the thought, "What would Vinton Arnold, what would his mother think if they saw me now? The latter would undoubtedly remark," she murmured, in bitterness of spirit, "that I had at last found my true sphere, and was engaged in befitting tasks; but should I lose in his eyes?"

Indeed she would not, either in his eyes or in those of any other man capable of appreciating womanly grace. Genuine beauty is a rare and wonderful gift, and, like genius, triumphs over adverse circumstances, and is often enhanced by them. Even prosaic Mrs. Wheaton was compelled to pause from time to time to admire the slender, supple form whose perfect outlines were revealed by the stooping, twisting, and reaching required by the nature of the labor. But the varying expressions of her face, revealing a mind as active as the busy hands, were a richer study. The impact of her brush was vigorous, and with looks of aversion and disgust she would cleanse away the grimy stains as if they were an essential part of the moral as well as gross material life of the former occupants. To a refined nature association forms no slight element in the constitution of a home; and horrible conjectures concerning repulsive indications of the vulgar people who once kennelled where others would live decently and purely are among the manifold miseries of tenement life. In spite of all her will-power, Mildred shuddered, and shrank from even this remote contact with a phase of humanity peculiarly revolting to her, and the protest of her innate delicacy would often appear strongly upon her face.

"The worst of it is," she muttered, "that soap and water cannot blot out thoughts of the people who were here before us."

But thoughts of other people, some of whom were very dear to her, brought varying expressions, and once she smiled and said to herself, "Roger Atwood now thinks, no doubt, that in me he has seen another 'ghost of a woman,' weighing a little less than 'two hundred.' Of all my little affairs of that nature, his was the most preposterous and absurd. That one human being should expect and seek from another what is so impossible to give produces a certain half-humorous irritation that is indescribable."

Stout Mrs. Wheaton's mind and fancy were not so busy as her hands, and when twelve o'clock came she knew the hour, although carrying no watch. She had interrupted Mildred's musings from time to time, but had received rather absent replies, for the actual inception of a life of toil occasioned many thoughts.

When, however, the practical woman remarked, "I've a hinside 'int that hit's time we took a bite together," Mildred awakened to an honest and hungry approval of the suggestion.

"I don't like to intrude upon you, Mrs. Wheaton," she said. "Isn't there some place near where I can go?"

"Hindeed there his--right down to my room, hif ye're not habove my company. I can brew yer has good a cup o' tea has hany cook in the land, and we'll find somethin' nourishin' to go vith hit."

"Mrs. Wheaton, you are a genuine friend. I'm so glad you were here and willing to help me, for you make me feel safer and more hopeful. You seem brave and not afraid of being poor, and I want to learn your courage. So far from being above your company, I am very grateful for it, and I shall try to repay your kindness with like neighborly return when I can; but when it comes to actual expense you must let me pay my way. How is it you are so brave and cheery when, as you say, you are alone with several children to support?"

"I'll tell yer vhile we heat hour dinner; so lock the door and come vith me."

Mrs. Wheaton's room was plain, indeed, but neat and homelike. A variegated and much-patched carpet covered part of the floor, which was bare around the ample cooking-stove, whereon a wholesome dinner soon smoked with appetizing odors. Her daughter, a young girl about twelve years of age, assisted in the preparations, and then went to call the other children, who were playing on the sidewalk.

'"Ow is it I'm so brave and cheery?" Mrs. Wheaton at last answered with a sunshiny smile. "I've a stout pair hof harms, I've a stout body, and I've a downright belief that the Lord means veil by me and mine. I'm try in' to do my best, and hit's 'is biziness to take care hof the rest. Hand 'E 'as so far. I've been a bit 'ungry meself now and then, but the children halways 'ad enough. So I vork and trust and lose no time and strength ha-vorrying. Things'll all come hout right some day; and I've no time to be doin' the Lord's vork bin carryin' the burden hon my shoulders, hif they are broad. 'Ere's the children; now sit right down wth hus, and velcome. Since we're neighbors we'll be neighborly and friendly like; and before yer know hit, yer'll be snug and comfortable hin your hown rooms, and yer can be jist as 'appy bin 'em has hever yer vas him yer life. Bein' poor and 'aving to vork hain't the vorst troubles in the vorld."

The good woman's stout, cheery spirit and homely faith were just the tonics that Mildred needed, and they were all the more effective because combined with the exhilarating tea and wholesome food. Therefore instead of a weary and depressing day, in which body and spirit acted and reacted on each other until the evening brought shadows deeper than the night, her courage and cheerfulness grew with the hours of sustained and healthful toil, and when her father appeared at six o'clock her smile warmed his heart. At the cost of no slight effort he had so reduced his doses of morphia that neither she nor any one could have detected anything unnatural in his manner. He praised their work unstintedly, and thanked Mrs. Wheaton for her kindness with such warm Southern frankness that her eyes grew moist with gratification. Indeed the rooms had grown so clean and wholesome that Mr. Jocelyn said that they looked homelike already. Mrs. Wheaton assured Mildred that if she would be content, she could be made quite comfortable on a lounge in her large living-room, and the young girl won her heart completely by saying that she would rather stay with her than go to the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Her words were sincere, for in accordance with her nature her heart was already drawn toward the place which gave even promise of a home, and the hearty kindness received there made her shrink from the strange, indifferent world without.

Her father asked her to resume her travelling dress, and then by a street-car they soon reached a quiet restaurant near Central Park, from which the outlook was upon trees and shrubbery. The people of New York are singularly fortunate in their ability to reach, at slight expense of money and time, many places where the air is pure, and the sense of beauty can find abundant gratification. Mildred felt that only extreme poverty could rob them in summer of many simple yet genuine pleasures. When, after their frugal supper, she and her father strolled through a path winding around a miniature lake on which swans were floating, she believed that one of her chief fears might be unfounded. Her love of beauty need not be stifled, since there was so much, even in the crowded town, which could be seen without cost.

"Papa," she said, "our lives will not be meagre and colorless unless we make them so. Every tree and shrub--indeed every leaf upon them and every ripple on the water--seems beautiful to me this evening. I do not fear working hard if we can often have these inexpensive pleasures. The thing in poverty that has most troubled me was the fear that one's nature might become blunted, callous, and unresponsive. A starved soul and heart seem to me infinitely worse than a starved body. Thank God, this beautiful place is as free to us now as ever, and I think we enjoy it more than many of those people in yonder carriages. Then at the cost of a few pennies we can get many a breezy outlook, and fill our lungs with fresh air on the ferryboats. So don't let us be downhearted, papa, and mope while we are waiting for better days. Each day may bring us something that we can enjoy with honest zest."

"God bless you, Millie," replied her father. "We'll try to do just as you suggest." Nevertheless he sighed deeply. She was free; he was a slave. In the depths of the placid lake the graceful swans, the pretty wooded shores, were faithfully reflected. In Mildred's clear blue eyes the truth of her words, the goodness and sincerity of her heart, were revealed with equal certainty. His eyes were downcast and fixed on an abyss which no soul has ever fathomed.

"Great God!" he murmured, "I must escape; I shall--I will escape;" but while Mildred stepped into a florist's shop to purchase a blooming plant for Mrs. Wheaton, he furtively took from his pocket a small paper of white-looking powder--just the amount which experience had taught him he could take and not betray himself. As a result she was delighted to find him genial and wakeful until they parted rather late in the old mansion wherein, she jestingly said, she proposed to build their nest, like a barn-swallow, the following day.

After a brief consultation with Mrs. Wheaton the next morning Mildred told her father to send for the rest of the family at once, and that she would be ready for them. The household goods arrived promptly from their place of storage, and she was positively happy while transforming the bare rooms into a home that every hour grew more inviting. They had retained, when giving up their house in the spring, more furniture than was sufficient for the limited space they would now occupy, and Mildred had enough material and taste to banish the impression of poverty almost wholly from their two rooms. She had the good sense, also, to make the question of appearances always secondary to that of comfort, and rigorously excluded what was bulky and unnecessary. "I don't like crowded rooms," she said, "and mamma must have just as little to care for and tax her strength as possible." One side of the large room was partitioned off as a sleeping apartment for her father, mother, and the two children, and was made private by curtains of dark, inexpensive material. The remainder and larger part facing the east was to be kitchen, dining and living room. Mrs. Wheaton did the heavy work, and looked on in delighted wonder as the young girl, with a gift peculiarly her own, gave an air of grace and homelike coziness to every part. Hers was a true woman's touch in woman's undisputed realm, and her father, with strange alternations of sighs and smiles, assisted her after his return from business. Gas had never been introduced in the old house, and so two pretty shaded lamps were bought. One stood on the lofty, old-fashioned mantel, which was so high that Mildred could pass under it without stooping, and the other on the table that was to serve for many uses.

"If we should put a crane in the fireplace," Mr. Jocelyn dreamily mused, "I could imagine that we were at my old home in the South;" but she had said they could not afford that amount of sentiment, and therefore a stove was obtained of the same model that shrewd Mrs. Wheaton had found so well adapted to varied uses.

After two busy days their task was wellnigh completed, and Mildred slept in her own little room, which she was to share with Belle, and her weariness, and the sense that the resting-place was hers by honest right, brought dreamless and refreshing sleep. For the sake of "auld lang syne," her father kindled a fire on the hearth, and sat brooding over it, looking regretfully back into the past, and with distrustful eyes toward the future. The dark commercial outlook filled that future with many uncertain elements; and yet, alas! he felt that he himself was becoming the chief element of uncertainty in the problem of their coming life. There were times when he could distinguish between his real prospects and his vague opium dreams, but this power of correct judgment was passing from him. When not under the influence of the drug everything looked dull, leaden, and hopeless. Thus he alternated between utter dejection, for which there would have been no cause were he in his normal condition, and sanguine hopes and expectations that were still more baseless. He had not gone to a physician and made known his condition, as he had intended while on his brief visit to the country; his pride had revolted at such a confession of weakness, and he felt that surely he would have sufficient strength of mind to break the spell unaided. But, so far from breaking it, every day had increased its power.

The effects of opium and the strength of the habit, as is the case with other stimulants, vary with the temperament and constitution of the victims. A few can use it with comparative moderation and with no great detriment for a long time, especially if they allow considerable intervals to elapse between the periods of indulgence, but they eventually sink into as horrible a thraldom as that which degrades the least cautious. Upon far more the drug promptly fastens its deathly grip, and too often when they awaken to their danger they find themselves almost powerless. Still if they would then seek a physician's advice and resolutely cease using the poison in any form, they would regain their physical and mental tone within a comparatively brief time. I am glad to believe that some do stop at this period and escape. Their sufferings for a time must be severe, and yet they are nothing compared with the tortures awaiting them if they do not abstain. The majority, however, temporize and attempt a gradual reformation. There is not a ray of hope or the faintest prospect of cure for those who at this stage adopt half-way measures. They soon learn that they cannot maintain the moderation which they have resolved upon. A healthful man of good habits may be said to be at par. One indulgence in opium lifts him far above par, but in the inevitable reaction he sinks below it, and wronged nature will not rally at once; therefore she is hastened and spurred by the stimulant, and the man rises above par again, yet not quite so high as before, and he sinks lower in the reaction. With this process often repeated the system soon begins to lose its elasticity; the man sinks lower and more heavily every time; the amount of the drug that once produced a delightful exhilaration soon scarcely brings him up to par, and he must steadily strengthen the fatal leverage until at last even a deadly dose cannot lift him into any condition like his old exhilaration or serenity.

There are a vast number of men and women who ought never to take stimulants at all. They had better die than to begin to use them habitually, and even to touch them is hazardous. There is slumbering in their natures a predisposition toward their excessive use which a slight indulgence may kindle into a consuming, clamorous desire. Opium had apparently found something peculiarly congenial in Mr. Jocelyn's temperament and constitution, and at first it had rewarded him with experiences more delightful than most of its votaries enjoy. But it is not very long content to remain a servant, and in many instances very speedily becomes the most terrible of masters. He had already reached such an advanced stage of dependence upon it that its withdrawal would now leave him weak, helpless, and almost distracted for a time. It would probably cost him his situation; his weakness would be revealed to his family and to the world, and the knowledge of it might prevent his obtaining employment elsewhere; therefore he felt that he must hide the vice and fight it to its death in absolute secrecy. Under the terrible necromancy of his sin the wife from whom he had scarcely concealed a thought in preceding years was the one whom he most feared. As yet the habit was a sin, because he had the power to overcome it if he would simply resolve to do right regardless of the consequences; and these would be slight indeed compared with the results of further indulgence. He had better lose his situation a hundred times; he had better see his family faint from hunger for weeks together, should such an ordeal be an essential part of his struggle for freedom, for only by such an unfaltering effort could he regain the solid ground on which enduring happiness and prosperity could be built. As it was, he was rapidly approaching a point where his habit would become a terrible and uncontrollable disease, for which he would still be morally responsible--a responsibility, however, in which, before the bar of true justice, the physician who first gave the drug without adequate caution would deeply share. He felt his danger as he sat cowering over the dying fire; even with its warmth added to that of the summer night he shivered at his peril, but he did not appreciate it in any proper sense. He resolved again, as he often had before, that each day should witness increasing progress, then feeling that he must sleep he bared his arm and sent enough of Magendie's solution into his system to produce such rest as opium bestows.

To her surprise Mildred found the awakening of her father a difficult task the following morning. The boat on which his wife and children were to arrive was probably already at the wharf, and she had thought he would be up with the sun to meet them, but he seemed oppressed with an untimely stupor. When at last he appeared he explained that the fire on the hearth had induced a fit of brooding over the past and future, and that he had sat up late.

"Here's a cup of coffee, papa," she said briskly, "and it will wake you up. I'll have breakfast ready for you all by the time you can return, and I'm so eager to see mamma that I could fly to her."

Mortified that he should even appear dilatory at such a time, he hastened away, but he was far beyond such a mild stimulant as coffee. Even now, when events were occurring which would naturally sustain from their deep personal interest, he found himself reduced to an almost complete dependence on an unnatural support. Before sleeping he had appealed to his dread master, and his first waking moments brought a renewed act of homage. Opium was becoming his god, his religion. Already it stood between him and his wife and children. It was steadily undermining his character, and if not abandoned would soon leave but the hollow semblance of a man.

As the steamboat arrived in the night, Mrs. Jocelyn had no sense of disappointment at not being met, and through Mildred's persistency it was still early when her husband appeared. His greeting was so affectionate, and he appeared so well after his hasty walk, that the old glad, hopeful look came into her eyes. To Belle and the children, coming back to the city was like coming home as in former years, only a little earlier. The farm had grown to be somewhat of an old story, and Belle had long since voted it dull.

"Well, Nan, we've come down to two rooms in very truth, and in an old, old house, too, that will remind you of some of the oldest in the South," and he drew such a humorous and forlorn picture of their future abode that his wife felt that he had indeed taken her at her word, and that they would scarcely have a place to lay their heads, much less to live in any proper sense; and when she stopped before the quaint and decrepit house without any front door; when she followed her husband up the forlorn stairway to what seemed a side entrance with its most dismal outlook, she believed that the time for fortitude had come, in bitter truth. The hall was dark to her sun-blinded eyes, as it had been to Mildred's, yet not so dark but that she saw doors open and felt herself scanned with an unblushing curiosity by slattern-looking women, her near neighbors, and the thought that they were so very near made her shiver. As for Belle, she did not take pains to hide her disgust. With a sinking heart and faltering courage the poor gentlewoman mounted the winding stairs, but before she reached the top there was a rush from an open doorway, and Mildred clasped her in close embrace.

"Welcome home!" she cried, in her clear, sweet, girlish voice.

"Home, Millie! what a mockery that word is in this strange, strange place!" she half whispered, half sobbed in her daughter's ear.

"Courage, mamma. We promised papa we'd ask nothing better than he could afford," Mildred murmured. "Don't let him see tears--he has already put Fred down and is turning to welcome you to the best home he can offer."

Had the rooms been cells only, with but a pallet of straw upon the floors, Mrs. Jocelyn would have responded to that appeal, and she stepped forward resolved to smile and appear pleased with everything, no matter how stifled she might feel for want of space, air, and light.

But when she crossed the threshold into the spacious, sun-lighted room, and looked up at the high ceiling and across its wide area; when she had glanced around and seen on every side the results of the strong spells laid upon stout Mrs. Wheaton by Mildred's domestic magic, and the dainty touches with which the solid work had been supplemented, her face lighted up with a sweet surprise.

"Oh, oh, how much better this is than you led me to expect! Is all this really ours? Can we afford so large a room? Here are the dear old things, too, with which I first went to housekeeping." Then stepping to her husband's aide she put her arm around his neck as she looked into his eyes and said, "Martin, this is home. Thank God, it is home-like after all. With you and the children around me I can be more than content--I can be very happy in this place. I feared that we might be too crowded, and that the children might suffer."

"Of course you didn't think of yourself, Nan. Millie's the good fairy to thank for all this. The way she and another female divinity have conjured in these rooms the last three days is a matter wholly beyond the masculine mind."

"Father did a great deal, too, and did it much better than you could expect from a man. But, come, I'm mistress of this small fraction of the venerable mansion till after breakfast, and then, mamma, I'll put the baton of rule in your hands. I've burned my fingers and spoiled my complexion over the stove, and I don't intend that a cold breakfast shall be the result."

"Millie," cried Belle, rushing out of the second room, which she had inspected in her lightning-like way before greeting her sister, "our room is lovely. You are a gem, an onyx, a fickle wild rose. It's all splendid--a perpetual picnic place, to which we'll bring our own provisions and cook 'em our own way. No boss biddies in this establishment. It's ever so much better than I expected after you once get here; but as the hymn goes, 'How dark and dismal is the way!'"

It was with difficulty that the children, wild over the novelty of it all, could be settled quietly at the table. It was the family's first meal in a tenement-house. The father's eye grew moist as he looked around his board and said, deep in his heart, "Never did a sweeter, fairer group grace a table in this house, although it has stood more than a century. If for their sakes I cannot be a man--"

"Martin," began his wife, her delicate features flushing a little, "before we partake of this our first meal I want you all to join me in your hearts while I say from the depths of mine, God bless our home."

An hour later, as he went down-town, Mr. Jocelyn finished his sentence. "If for the sake of such a wife and such children I cannot stop, I'm damned."