Chapter I. One Girl's Ideal of Life
 

It was an attractive picture that Martin Jocelyn looked upon through the open doorway of his parlor. His lively daughter Belle had invited half a score of her schoolmates to spend the evening, and a few privileged brothers had been permitted to come also. The young people were naturally selecting those dances which had some of the characteristics of a romp, for they were at an age when motion means enjoyment.

Miss Belle, eager and mettlesome, stood waiting for music that could scarcely be lighter or more devoid of moral quality than her own immature heart. Life, at that time, had for her but one great desideratum--fun; and with her especial favorites about her, with a careful selection of "nice brothers," canvassed with many pros and cons over neglected French exercises, she had the promise of plenty of it for a long evening, and her dark eyes glowed and cheeks flamed at the prospect. Impatiently tapping the floor with her foot, she looked toward her sister, who was seated at the piano.

Mildred Jocelyn knew that all were waiting for her; she instinctively felt the impatience she did not see, and yet could not resist listening to some honeyed nonsense that her "friend" was saying. Ostensibly, Vinton Arnold was at her side to turn the leaves of the music, but in reality to feast his eyes on beauty which daily bound him in stronger chains of fascination. Her head drooped under his words, but only as the flowers bend under the dew and rain that give them life. His passing compliment was a trifle, but it seemed like the delicate touch to which the subtle electric current responds. From a credulous, joyous heart a crimson tide welled up into her face and neck; she could not repress a smile, though she bowed her head in girlish shame to hide it. Then, as if the light, gay music before her had become the natural expression of her mood, she struck into it with a brilliancy and life that gave even Belle content.

Arnold saw the pleasure his remark had given, and surmised the reason why the effect was so much greater than the apparent cause. For a moment an answering glow lighted up his pale face, and then, as if remembering something, he sighed deeply; but in the merry life which now filled the apartments a sigh stood little chance of recognition.

The sigh of the master of the house, however, was so deep and his face so clouded with care and anxiety as he turned from it all, that his wife, who at that moment met him, was compelled to note that something was amiss.

"Martin, what is it?" she asked.

He looked for a moment into her troubled blue eyes, and noted how fair, delicate, and girlish she still appeared in her evening dress. He knew also that the delicacy and refinement of feature were but the reflex of her nature, and, for the first time in his life, he wished that she were a strong, coarse woman.

"No matter, Fanny, to-night. See that the youngsters have a good time," and he passed hastily out.

"He's worrying about those stupid business matters again," she said, and the thought seemed to give much relief.

Business matters were masculine, and she was essentially feminine. Her world was as far removed from finance as her laces from the iron in which her husband dealt.

A little boy of four years of age and a little girl of six, whose tiny form was draped in such gossamer-like fabrics that she seemed more fairy-like than human, were pulling at her dress, eager to enter the mirth-resounding parlors, but afraid to leave her sheltering wing. Mrs. Jocelyn watched the scene from the doorway, where her husband had stood, without his sigh. Her motherly heart sympathized with Belle's abounding life and fun, and her maternal pride was assured by the budding promise of a beauty which would shine pre-eminent when the school-girl should become a belle in very truth.

But her eyes rested on Mildred with wistful tenderness. Her own experience enabled her to interpret her daughter's manner, and to understand the ebb and flow of feeling whose cause, as yet, was scarcely recognized by the young girl.

The geniality of Mrs. Jocelyn's smile might well assure Vinton Arnold that she welcomed his presence at her daughter's side, and yet, for some reason, the frank, cordial greeting in the lady's eyes and manner made him sigh again. He evidently harbored a memory or a thought that did not accord with the scene or the occasion. Whatever it was it did not prevent him from enjoying to the utmost the pleasure he ever found in the presence of Mildred. In contrast with Belle she had her mother's fairness and delicacy of feature, and her blue eyes were not designed to express the exultation and pride of one of society's flattered favorites. Indeed it was already evident that a glance from Arnold was worth more than the world's homage. And yet it was comically pathetic--as it ever is--to see how the girl tried to hide the "abundance of her heart."

"Millie is myself right over again," thought Mrs. Jocelyn; "hardly in society before in a fair way to be out of it. Beaux in general have few attractions for her. Belle, however, will lead the young men a chase. If I'm any judge, Mr. Arnold's symptoms are becoming serious. He's just the one of all the world for Millie, and could give her the home which her style of beauty requires--a home in which not a common or coarse thing would be visible, but all as dainty as herself. How I would like to furnish her house! But Martin always thinks he's so poor."

Mrs. Jocelyn soon left the parlor to complete her arrangements for an elegant little supper, and she complacently felt that, whatever might be the tribulations of the great iron firm down town, her small domain was serene with present happiness and bright with promise.

While the vigorous appetites of the growing boys and girls were disposing of the supper, Arnold and Mildred rather neglected their plates, finding ambrosia in each other's eyes, words, and even intonations. Now that they had the deserted parlor to themselves, Mildred seemed under less constraint.

"It was very nice of you," she said, "to come and help me entertain Belle's friends, especially when they are all so young."

"Yes," he replied. "I am a happy monument of self-sacrifice."

"But not a brazen one," she added quickly.

"No, nor a bronze one, either," he said, and a sudden gloom gathered in his large dark eyes.

She had always admired the pallor of his face. "It set off his superb brown eyes and heavy mustache so finely," she was accustomed to say. But this evening for some reason she wished that there was a little more bronze on his cheek and decision in his manner. His aristocratic pallor was a trifle too great, and he seemed a little frail to satisfy even her ideal of manhood.

She said, in gentle solicitude, "You do not look well this spring. I fear you are not very strong."

He glanced at her quickly, but in her kindly blue eyes and in every line of her lovely face he saw only friendly regard--perhaps more, for her features were not designed for disguises. After a moment he replied, with a quiet bitterness which both pained and mystified her:

"You are right. I am not strong."

"But summer is near," she resumed earnestly. "You will soon go to the country, and will bring back this fall bronze in plenty, and the strength of bronze. Mother says we shall go to Saratoga. That is one of your favorite haunts, I believe, so I shall have the pleasure, perhaps, of drinking 'your very good health' some bright morning before breakfast. Which is your favorite spring?"

"I do not know. I will decide after I have learned your choice."

"That's an amiable weakness. I think I shall like Saratoga. The great hotels contain all one wishes for amusement. Then everything about town is so nice, pretty, and sociable. The shops, also, are fine. Too often we have spent our summers in places that were a trifle dreary. Mountains oppress me with a sense of littleness, and their wildness frightens me. The ocean is worse still. The moment I am alone with it, such a lonely, desolate feeling creeps over me--oh, I can't tell you! I fear you think I am silly and frivolous. You think I ought to be inspired by the shaggy mountains and wild waves and all that. Well, you may think so--I won't tell fibs. I don't think mother is frivolous, and she feels as I do. We are from the South, and like things that are warm, bright, and sociable. The ocean always seemed to me so large and cold and pitiless--to care so little for those in its power."

"In that respect it's like the world, or rather the people in it--"

"Oh, no, no!" she interrupted eagerly; "it is to the world of people I am glad to escape from these solitudes of nature. As I said, the latter, with their vastness, power, and, worse than all, their indifference, oppress me, and make me shiver with a vague dread. I once saw a ship beaten to pieces by the waves in a storm. It was on the coast near where we were spending the summer. Some of the people on the vessel were drowned, and their cries ring in my ears to this day. Oh, it was piteous to see them reaching out their hands, but the great merciless waves would not stop a moment, even when a little time would have given the lifeboats a chance to save the poor creatures. The breakers just struck and pounded the ship until it broke into pieces, and then tossed the lifeless body and broken wood on the shore as if one were of no more value than the other. I can't think of it without shuddering, and I've hated the sea ever since, and never wish to go near it again."

"You have unconsciously described this Christian city," said Arnold, with a short laugh.

"What a cynic you are to-night! You condemn all the world, and find fault even with yourself--a rare thing in cynics, I imagine. As a rule they are right, and the universe wrong."

"I have not found any fault with you," he said, in a tone that caused her long eyelashes to veil the pleasure she could not wholly conceal.

"I hope the self-constraint imposed by your courtesy is not too severe for comfort. I also understand the little fiction of excepting present company. But I cannot help remembering that I am a wee bit of the world and very worldly; that is, I am very fond of the world and all its pretty follies. I like nice people much better than savage mountains and heartless waves."

"And yet you are not what I should call a society girl, Miss Millie."

"I'm glad you think so. I've no wish to win that character. Fashionable society seems to me like the sea, as restless and unreasoning, always on the go, and yet never going anywhere. I know lots of girls who go here and there and do this and that with the monotony with which the waves roll in and out. Half the time they act contrary to their wishes and feelings, but they imagine it the thing to do, and they do it till they are tired and bored half to death."

"What, then, is your ideal of life?"

Her head drooped a little lower, and the tell-tale color would come as she replied hesitatingly, and with a slight deprecatory laugh:

"Well, I can't say I've thought it out very definitely. Plenty of real friends seem to me better than the world's stare, even though there's a trace of admiration in it Then, again, you men so monopolize the world that there is not much left for us poor women to do; but I have imagined that to create a lovely home, and to gather in it all the beauty within one's reach, and just the people one best liked, would be a very congenial life-work for some women. That is what mother is doing for us, and she seems very happy and contented--much more so than those ladies who seek their pleasures beyond their homes. You see I use my eyes, Mr. Arnold, even if I am not antiquated enough to be wise."

His look had grown so wistful and intent that she could not meet it, but averted her face as she spoke. Suddenly he sprang up, and took her hand with a pressure all too strong for the "friend" she called him, as he said:

"Miss Millie, you are one of a thousand. Good-night."

For a few moments she sat where he left her. What did he mean? Had she revealed her heart too plainly? His manner surely had been unmistakable, and no woman could have doubted the language of his eyes.

"But some constraint," she sighed, "ties his tongue."

The more she thought it over, however--and what young girl does not live over such interviews a hundred times--the more convinced she became that her favorite among the many who sought her favor gave as much to her as she to him; and she was shrewd enough to understand that the nearer two people exchange evenly in these matters the better it is for both. Her last thought that night was, "To make a home for him would be happiness indeed. How much life promises me!"