Chapter XVI. Belle and Mildred
 

The cosmopolitan bachelor living in apartments knows far more of Sanscrit than of a domestic woman's feelings as she explores the place she must call her home. It may be a palace or it may be but two rooms in a decaying tenement, but the same wistful, intent look will reveal one of the deepest needs of her nature. Eve wept not so much for the loss of Eden as for the loss of home--the familiar place whose homeliest objects had become dear from association. The restless woman who has no home-hunger, no strong instinct to make a place which shall be a refuge for herself and those she loves, is not the woman God created. She is the product of a sinister evolution; she is akin to the birds that will not build nests, but take possession of those already constructed, ousting the rightful occupants.

Mrs. Jocelyn and Mildred were unperverted; they were womanly in every fibre, and the interest with which they planned, consulted, and dwelt upon each detail of their small household economy is beyond my power to interpret. They could have made the stateliest mansion in the city homelike; they did impart to their two poor rooms the essential elements of a home. It was a place which no one could enter without involuntary respect for the occupants, although aware of nothing concerning them except their poverty.

"Mrs. Atwood and Susan actually cried when we came to go," Mrs. Jocelyn remarked as they were all busy together, "and even old Mr. Atwood was wonderfully good for him. He and Roger put a great many harvest apples and vegetables in a large box, and Mrs. Atwood added a jar of her nice butter, some eggs, and a pair of chickens. I told them that we must begin life again in a very humble way, and they just overflowed with sympathy and kindness, and I could scarcely induce them to take any money for the last week we were there. It was funny to see old Mr. Atwood: he wanted the money dreadfully--any one could see that, for a dollar is dear to his heart--but he also wanted to be generous like his wife, and to show his strong good-will. They sent heaps of love to you, Millie, and cordially invited us to visit them next summer; they also offered to board us again for just as little as they could afford. Even Jotham appeared to have something on his mind, for he was as helpful as an elephant, and stood around, and stood around, but at last went off muttering to himself."

"Millie," said Belle indignantly, "I think you treated Roger shamefully. After we returned from seeing you off, mamma and I went mooning up to that hill of yours looking toward the south, because you and papa were in that direction. Suddenly we came upon Roger sitting there with his face buried in his hands. 'Are you ill?' mamma asked, as if his trouble might have been a stomach-ache. He started up and looked white in the moonlight. 'She was cruel,' he said passionately; 'I only asked for friendship. I would have given my life for her, but she treated Jotham better than she did me, and she thinks I'm no better than he is--that I'm one of the farm animals.' 'Mr. Atwood,' mamma began, 'she did not mean to be cruel'--he interrupted her with an impatient gesture. 'The end hasn't come yet,' he muttered and stalked away."

Mildred sat down with a little perplexed frown upon her face. "I'm sure I meant him only kindness," she said; "why will he be so absurd?"

"You had a queer way of showing your kindness," snapped Belle.

"What would you have me to do? Encourage him to leave home, and all sorts of folly?"

"You can't prevent his leaving home. Mark my words, he'll soon be in this city, and he'll make his way too. He's a good deal more of a man than your lily-fingered Mr. Arnold, and if he wants to be friendly to me and take me out sometimes, I won't have him snubbed. Of course all my old friends will cut me dead."

"Oh, if he will transfer his devotion to you, Belle, I'll be as friendly as you wish.

"No, you've spoiled him for me or any one else. He's fool enough to think there's not another girl in the world but Mildred Jocelyn, and he'll get you if you don't look out, for he has the most resolute look that I ever saw in any one's eyes. The day before we came away something happened that took away my breath. A man brought a young horse which he said no one could manage. Roger went out and looked into the beast's eyes, and the vicious thing bit at him and struck at him with his forefoot. Then as he tried to stroke his back he kicked up with both hind feet. Oh, he was a very Satan of a horse, and they had a rope around his head that would have held a ship. Roger went and got what he called a curb-bit, and almost in a twinkling he had slipped it on the horse, and without a moment's hesitation he sprang upon his bare back. The horse then reared so that I thought he'd fall over backward on Roger. Mamma fairly looked faint--it was right after dinner--Susan and the children were crying, his father and mother, and even the owner of the horse, were calling to him to get off, but he merely pulled one rein sharply, and down the horse came on his four feet again. Instead of looking frightened he was coolly fastening the rope so as to have it out of the way. After letting the ugly beast rear and plunge and kick around in the road a few minutes, Roger turned his head toward a stone wall that separated the road from a large pasture field that was full of cows, and he went over the fence with a flying leap, at which we all screamed and shouted again. Then away they went round and round that field, the cows, with their tails in the air, careering about also, as much excited as we were. At last, when the horse found he couldn't throw him, he lay down and rolled. Roger was off in a second, and then sat on the beast's head for a while so he couldn't get up when he wanted to. At last he let the brute get up again, but he was no sooner on his feet than Roger was on his back, and away they went again till the horse was all in a foam, and Roger could guide him easily with one hand. He then leaped the tamed creature back into the road, and came trotting quietly to the kitchen door. Springing lightly down, and with one arm over the panting horse's neck, he said quietly, 'Sue, bring me two or three lumps of sugar.' The horse ate them out of his hand, and then followed him around like a spaniel. His owner was perfectly carried away; 'Jerusalem!' he exclaimed, 'I've never seen the beat of that. I offered you twenty-five dollars if you would break him, and I'll make it thirty if at the end of a month you'll train him to saddle and harness. He wasn't worth a rap till you took him in hand.' 'It's a bargain,' said Roger coolly, and then he whispered to me, 'That will buy me a pile of books.' That's the kind of a man that I believe in," concluded Belle, nodding her head emphatically, "and I want you to understand that Roger Atwood and I are very good friends."

Mildred meditatively bit her lip, and her cheeks had flushed with excitement at Belle's story, but she would make no comment upon it in words. "What does he want with so many books?" she asked, after a moment.

"You'll see before you are gray."

"Indeed! has he taken you into his confidence, also?"

"That's my affair. I believe in him, and so will you some day. He already knows more Latin than you do."

"That's not saying a great deal," replied Mildred, with a short, vexed laugh. "How came he to know Latin?"

"He studied it at school as you did. The fact is, you are so prejudiced you know nothing about him. He's strong and brave, and he'll do what he attempts."

"He'll find that I am strong, too, in my way," said Mildred coldly. "He said something that hurt me more than I hurt him, and all I ask of him is to leave me alone. I wish him well, and all that, but we are not congenial. Complete success in his wild ambition wouldn't make any difference. He ought to remain at home and take care of his own people."

"Well, I'm glad he's coming to New York, and I hope for my sake you'll treat him politely."

"Oh, certainly for your sake, Belle. Let us all stick to that."

"Belle's a mere child," said Mrs. Jocelyn, with her low laugh.

"I'm sixteen years old, I thank you; that is, I shall be soon; and I know a real man from the ghost of one."

"Belle," cried Mildred, in a tone she rarely used, "I will neither permit nor pardon any such allusions."

"Come, girls," expostulated their mother, "our nest is too small for any disagreements, and we have a great deal too much to do for such useless discussions. I'm sorry with Millie that Roger is bent on leaving home, for I think his parents need him, and he could do well in the country. The city is too crowded already."

"He'll make his way through the crowd," persisted Belle.

"Does his father or mother know of his plans?"

"Well, to tell the truth, I don't know very much about his plans. He talks little concerning himself, but when he took me out to drive the day after Millie left, he said he had decided to come to New York and get an education, and that if I'd let him know where we lived he'd come and see me occasionally. I said, 'What will they do at home without you?' and he replied, 'I can do more for them away from home by and by than here.' Now, mamma, you'll let him come to see me, won't you?"

"Certainly, Belle. I'll be reasonable in this respect. I know young people need company and recreation. My only aim has ever been to secure you and Millie good company, and I hope your love for me, Belle, will lead you to shun any other. As we are now situated you must be very, very cautious in making new acquaintances. Young Mr. Atwood is a good, honest-hearted fellow, and I think Millie is a little prejudiced against him."

"Very well, mamma, I'll be all smiles so long as he devotes himself to Belle; but he must stop there most emphatically."

Thus with busy tongues and busier hands they talked of the past and the future while they unpacked and stowed away their belongings with almost the same economy of space that is practiced on shipboard. Mrs. Wheaton was introduced, and she at once became a fast ally of Mrs. Jocelyn as well as of Mildred.

"I 'ope yer'll halways remember yer 'ave a neighbor that's 'andy and villing," she said, as she courtesied herself out. "Hit's too bad," she muttered, on her way back to her room, "that she's 'ad to come down to this, for she's a born lady; she's has much a lady as hany 'oo howned this 'ouse a 'undred years hago."

Thus their life began in the old mansion, and from its humble shelter they looked abroad to see what they could obtain from the great indifferent world without.

"Belle and I must not be idle an hour longer than we can help," said Mildred resolutely, on the following day; "and the only thing is to find what it would be best to do. I am going out to try to sell the work I did in the country, and see if I cannot get orders for more of the same kind. My great hope is that I can work at home. I wish I knew enough to be a teacher, but like all the rest I know a little of everything, and not much of anything. Fancy work will be my forte, if I can only sell it. I do hope I shan't meet any one I know," and heavily veiled she took her way with her dainty fabrics toward the region of fashionable shops. Those, however, who were willing to buy offered her so little that she was discouraged, and she finally left the articles at a store whose proprietor was willing to receive them on commission.

"You must not calculate on speedy sale," the lady in charge remarked. "People are very generally out of town yet, and will be for some time. Your work is pretty, however, and will sell, I think, later on, although in these hard times useful articles are chiefly in demand."

"Please do your best for me," said Mildred appealingly, "and please let me know what you think will sell. I'm willing to do any kind of work I can that will bring the money we need." After receiving some suggestions she bought more material, and then sat down to work in the hope that the returning citizens would purchase her articles so liberally that she could do her share toward the family's support.

She did not shrink from labor, but with the false pride so general she did shrink morbidly from meeting those who knew her in the past, and from their learning where and how she lived. She was wholly bent on seclusion until their fortunes were greatly mended, fondly hoping that her father would rally such a constituency from his Southern acquaintance that he would soon command a fine salary. And the expectation was not an unreasonable one, had Mr. Jocelyn been able to work with persistent energy for a few years. The South was impoverished, and while a remunerative trade might be built up from it, patient and exceedingly aggressive labor would be required to secure such a result. It is the curse of opium, however, to paralyze energy, and to render all effort fitful and uncertain. He should have written scores of letters daily, and attended to each commission with the utmost promptness and care, but there were times when the writing of a single letter was a burden, and too often it was vague and pointless like the condition of his mind when it was written. Mildred did not dream of this, and his employers felt that they must give him time before expecting very much return for his effort. Since he attended to routine duties fairly well there was no cause for complaint, although something in his manner often puzzled them a little. It was Mildred's belief that renewed prosperity would soon enable them to live in a way entitling them to recognition in the society to which Arnold belonged. If thus much could be accomplished she felt that he own and her lover's faithfulness would accomplish the rest. They were both young, and could afford to wait.

"The world brings changes for the better sometimes," she thought, as she plied her needle, "as well as for the worse; and no matter what his proud mother thinks, I'm sure I could take better care of him than she can. Whether they know it or not, the course of his family toward him is one of cold-blooded cruelty and repression. If he could live in a genial, sunny atmosphere of freedom, affection, and respect, his manhood would assert itself, he would grow stronger, and might do as much in his way as Roger Atwood ever can in his. He has a fine mind and a brilliant imagination; but he is chilled, imbittered, and fettered by being constantly reminded of his weakness and dependence; and now positive unhappiness is added to his other misfortunes, although I think my little note will do him no harm"--she dreamed that it might be carried next to his heart instead of mouldering where the faithless Jotham had dropped it. "I shall not punish him for his family's harsh pride, from which he suffers even more than I do. Turn, turn, fortune's wheel! We are down now, but that only proves that we must soon come up again. Being poor and living in a tenement isn't so dreadful as I feared, and we can stand it for a while. As stout Mrs. Wheaton says, 'There's vorse troubles hin the vorld.' Now that we know and have faced the worst we can turn our hopes and thoughts toward the best."

Poor child! It was well the future was veiled.

The mode of Belle's activity was a problem, but that incipient young woman practically decided it herself. She was outspoken in her preference.

"I don't want to work cooped up at home," she said. "I'd go wild if I had to sit and stitch all day. School half killed me, although there was always some excitement to be had in breaking the rules."

"Naughty Belle!" cried her mother.

"Never naughty when you coax, mamma. I'd have been a saint if they'd only taken your tactics with me, but they didn't know enough, thank fortune, so I had my fun. If they had only looked at me as you do, and put me on my honor, and appealed to my better feelings and all that, and laughed with me and at me now and then, I'd been fool enough to have kept every rule. You always knew, mamma, just how to get me right under your thumb, in spite of myself."

"I hope I may always keep you there, my darling, in spite of this great evil world, out into which you wish to go. It is not under my thumb, Belle, but under my protecting wing that I wish to keep you."

"Dear little mother," faltered the warm-hearted girl, her eyes filling with tears, "don't you see I've grown to be too big a chicken to be kept under your wing? I must go out and pick for myself, and bring home a nice morsel now and then for the little mother, too. Yes, I admit that I want to go out into the world. I want to be where everything is bright and moving. It's my nature, and what's the use of fighting nature? You and Millie can sit here like two doves billing and cooing all day. I must use my wings. I'd die in a cage, even though the cage was home. But never fear, I'll come back to it every night, and love it in my way just as much as you do in yours. You must put me in a store, mamma, where there are crowds of people going and coming. They won't do me any more harm than when I used to meet them in the streets, but they'll amuse me. My eyes and hands will be busy, and I won't die from moping. I've no more education than a kitten, but shop-girls are not expected to know the dead languages, and I can talk my own fast enough."

"Indeed you can!" cried Mildred.

"But, Belle," said her mother, who was strongly inclined toward Mildred's idea of seclusion until fortune's wheel had turned, "how will you like to have it known in after years that you were a shopgirl?"

"Yes," added Mildred, "you may have to wait on some whom you invited to your little company last spring. I wish you could find something to do that would be quiet and secluded."

"Oh, nonsense!" cried Belle impatiently. "We can't hide like bears that go into hollow trees and suck their paws for half a dozen years, more or less"--Belle's zoological ideas were startling rather than accurate--"I don't want to hide and cower. Why should we? We've done nothing we need be ashamed of. Father's been unfortunate; so have hundreds and thousands of other men in these hard times. Roger showed me an estimate, cut from a newspaper, of how many had failed during the last two or three years--why, it was an army of men. We ain't alone in our troubles, and Roger said that those who cut old acquaintances because they had been unfortunate were contemptible snobs, and the sooner they were found out the better; and I want to find out my score or two of very dear friends who have eaten ice-cream at our house. I hope I may have a chance to wait on 'em. I'll do it with the air of a princess," she concluded, assuming a preternatural dignity, "and if they put on airs I'll raise the price of the goods, and tell them that since they are so much above other people they ought to pay double price for everything. I don't believe they'll all turn up their noses at me," she added, after a moment, her face becoming wistful and gentle in its expression as she recalled some favorites whose whispered confidences and vows of eternal friendship seemed too recent to be meaningless and empty.

The poor child would soon learn that, although school-girls' vows are rarely false, they are usually as fragile and transient as harebells. She had dropped into a different world, and the old one would fade like a receding star. She would soon find her that her only choice must be to make new associations and friendships and find new pleasures; and this her mercurial, frank, and fearless nature would incline her to do very promptly.

With Mildred it was different. The old life was almost essential to her, and it contained everything that her heart most craved.

Her courage was not Belle's natural and uncalculating intrepidity. She would go wherever duty required her presence, she would sacrifice herself for those she loved, and she was capable of martyrdom for a faith about as free from doctrinal abstractions as the simple allegiance of the sisters of Bethany to the Christ who "loved" them. Notwithstanding the truth of all this, it has already been shown that she was a very human girl. Brave and resolute she could be, but she would tremble and escape if possible. Especially would she shrink from anything tending to wound her womanly delicacy and a certain trace of sensitive Southern pride. Above all things she shrank from that which threatened her love. This was now her life, and its absorbing power colored all her thoughts and plans. Both conscience and reason, however, convinced her that Belle was right, and that the only chance for the vigorous, growing girl was some phase of active life. With her very limited attainments, standing behind a counter seemed the only opening that the family would consider, and it was eventually agreed upon, after a very reluctant consent from her father.