Chapter XXII. Skilled Labor

Miss Wetheridge's visit bade fair to occasion important changes for the better in Mildred's prospects. From Mrs. Wheaton the young lady had learned of her protegee's long hours of ill-repaid toil. She was eager to gain Mildred's confidence to an extent that would warrant some good advice, and after another call early in the week she induced the girl to come and see her and to open her heart fully in the privacy thus secured. Of course there was one secret jealously guarded, and the reader can well understand that Vinton Arnold's name was not mentioned, and the disagreeable episode of Roger Atwood was not deemed worth speaking of. He was now but a fast-fading memory, for even Belle rarely recalled him.

That the Jocelyns did not belong to the ordinary ranks of the poor, and that Mildred was not a commonplace girl, was apparent to Miss Wetheridge from the first; and it was her design to persuade her friend to abandon the overcrowded and ill-paid divisions of labor for something more in accordance with her cultivation and ability. Mildred soon proved that her education was too general and superficial to admit of teaching except in the primary departments, and as the schools were now in session it might be many months before any opening would occur. With a mingled sigh and laugh she said, "The one thing I know how to do I shall probably never do--I could make a home, and I could be perfectly happy in taking care of it."

"Pardon me!" cried Miss Wetheridge roguishly, "that seems to me your inevitable fate, sooner or later. We are only counselling together how best to fill up the interval. My friend almost made me jealous by the way he talked about you the other evening."

A faint color stole into Mildred's face. "All that's past, I fear," she said with low, sad emphasis, "and I would never marry merely for the sake of a home. My future is that of a working-woman unless papa can regain his former means. Even then I should not like to live an idle life. So the question is, What kind of work shall I do? How can I do the most for the family, for I am troubled about papa's health, and mamma is not strong."

Her warm-hearted friend's eyes grew moist as she looked intently and understandingly into the clouded and beautiful face. In one of her pretty impulses that often broke through her polite restraint she exclaimed, "Millie, you are a true woman. Please pardon my familiarity, but I can't tell you how much you interest me, how I respect you, and--and--how much I like you."

"Nor can I tell you," responded Mildred earnestly, "how much hope and comfort you have already brought me."

"Come," said Miss Wetheridge cheerily, "we will go down to the rooms of the Young Women's Christian Association at once. We may get light there. The thing for you to do is to master thoroughly one or more of the higher forms of labor that are as yet uncrowded. That is what I would do."

While she was preparing for the street she observed Mildred's eyes resting wistfully on an upright piano that formed part of the beautiful furniture of her private sanctum. "You are recognizing an old friend and would like to renew your acquaintance," she said smilingly. "Won't you play while I am changing my dress?"

"Perhaps I can best thank you in that way," answered Mildred, availing herself of the permission with a pleasure she could not disguise. "I admit that the loss of my piano has been one of my greatest deprivations."

Miss Wetheridge's sleeping-apartment opened into her sitting-room, and, with the door open, it was the same as if they were still together. The promise of thanks was well kept as the exquisite notes of Mendelssohn's "Hope" and "Consolation" filled the rooms with music that is as simple and enduring as the genuine feeling of a good heart.

"I now understand how truly you lost a friend and companion in your piano," said Miss Wetheridge, "and I want you to come over here and play whenever you feel like it, whether I am at home or not."

Mildred smiled, but made no reply. She could accept kindness and help from one who gave them as did Miss Wetheridge, but she was too proud and sensitive to enter upon an intimacy that must of necessity be so one-sided in its favors and advantages, and she instinctively felt that such wide differences in condition would lead to mutual embarrassments that her enthusiastic friend could not foresee. It was becoming her fixed resolve to accept her lot, with all that it involved, and no amount of encouragement could induce her to renew associations that could be enjoyed now only through a certain phase of charity, however the fact might be disguised. But she would rather reveal her purpose by the retiring and even tenor of her way than by any explanations of her feelings. Thus it came about in the future that Miss Wetheridge made three calls, at least, to one that she received, and that in spite of all she could do Mildred shrank from often meeting other members of her family. But this sturdy self-respect on the part of the young girl--this resolute purpose not to enter a social circle where she would at least fear patronage and surprise at her presence--increased her friend's respect in the secrecy of her heart.

Mildred at once became a member of the Young Women's Association, and its library and reading-room promised to become a continued means of pleasure and help. From among the several phases of skilled labor taught under the auspices of the Association, she decided to choose the highest--that of stenography--if her father thought he could support the family without much help for a few months. She was already very rapid and correct in her penmanship, and if she could become expert in taking shorthand notes she was assured that she could find abundant and highly remunerative scope for her skill, and under circumstances, too, that would not involve unpleasant publicity. She thought very favorably, also, of the suggestion that she should join the bookkeeping class. With her fine mental capacity and previous education Miss Wetheridge believed that Mildred could so far master these two arts as to be sure of an independence, and her kind friend proposed to use no little influence in finding opportunities for their exercise.

Mildred, naturally, lost no time in explaining her projects to her father, and it so happened that she spoke at a moment of peculiar exhilaration on his part. "If it would give you pleasure," he said, "to learn these two accomplishments, you may do so, of course, but I foresee no probability of your ever putting them to use. I now have prospects," etc., etc. Soon after, he was in a deep sleep. She looked at him with troubled eyes, and promptly entered on her studies the following day, working with the assiduity of one who feels that the knowledge may be needed before it can be acquired.

Belle was in quite a flutter of excitement on the evening named for Mr. Wentworth's visit, and the genial clergyman would have laughed again could he have heard one of her reasons for welcoming him. "He is so deliciously homely," she said, "I like to look at him." He came at the hour appointed, and his visit was truly a "spiritual" one, if enlivened spirits, more hopeful hearts, and a richer belief in their Divine Father's goodwill toward them all were the legitimate result of a spiritual visit. Mr. Jocelyn, in expectancy of the guest, had carefully prepared himself in guilty secrecy, and appeared unusually well, but he was the only one who sighed deeply after the good man's departure. Rising from the depths of his soul through his false exhilaration was a low, threatening voice, saying, "That man is true; you are a sham, and your hollowness will become known."

Indeed, Mr. Wentworth went away with a vague impression that there was something unreal or unsound about Mr. Jocelyn, and he began to share Mrs. Wheaton's painful forebodings for the family. Belle enjoyed the visit greatly, for the minister was an apostle of a very sunny gospel, and she was then ready for no other. Moreover, the healthful, unwarped man delighted in the girl's frolicsome youth, and no more tried to repress her vivacity than he would the bubble and sparkle of a spring. Indeed he was sensible enough to know that, as the spring keeps pure by flowing and sparkling into the light, so her nature would stand a far better chance of remaining untainted if given abundant yet innocent scope. His genial words had weight with her, but her quick intuition of his sympathy, his sense of humor, which was as genuine as her own, had far more weight, and their eyes rarely met without responsive smiles. There was nothing trivial, however, in their interplay of mirthfulness--nothing that would prevent the child from coming to him should her heart become burdened with sin or sorrow. She was assigned to Miss Wetheridge's class, and soon became warmly attached to her teacher. Mildred, to her great surprise, was asked to take a class of rude-looking, half-grown boys. In answer to her look of dismay, Mr. Wentworth only said smilingly, "Try it; trust my judgment; you can do more with those boys than I can."

"Were it not for my promise to Miss Wetheridge, I shouldn't even dare think of such a thing," she replied; "but I now feel bound to attempt it, although I hope you will soon give me some very, very little girls."

"In complying you show a high sense of honor, Miss Jocelyn. I will relieve you after a time, if you wish me to," and the student of human nature walked away with a peculiar smile. "When I was a harum-scarum boy," he muttered, "a girl with such a face could almost make me worship her. I don't believe boys have changed."

She was shrewd enough not to let the class see that she was afraid; and being only boys, they saw merely what was apparent--that they had the prettiest teacher in the room. Her beauty and refinement impressed them vaguely, yet powerfully; the incipient man within them yielded its involuntary homage, and she appealed to their masculine traits as only a woman of tact can, making them feel that it would be not only wrong but ungallant and unmannerly to take advantage of her. They all speedily succumbed except one, whose rude home associations and incorrigible disposition rendered futile her appeals. After two or three Sabbaths the other boys became so incensed that he should disgrace the class that after school they lured him into an alleyway and were administering a well-deserved castigation, when Mildred, who was passing, rescued him. His fear induced him to yield to her invitation to accompany her home; and her kindness, to which he knew he was not entitled, combined with the wholesome effect of the pummelling received from the boys, led him to unite in making the class--once known as "the Incorrigibles"--the best behaved in the school.

Everything apparently now promised well for the Jocelyns. Their mistaken policy of seclusion and shrinking from contact with the world during their impoverishment had given way to kindly Christian influences, and they were forming the best associations their lot permitted. All might have gone to their ultimate advantage had it not been for the hidden element of weakness so well known to the reader, but as yet unsuspected by the family.

If Mr. Jocelyn had been able to put forth the efforts of a sound and rational man, he could, with the aid of his daughters, even in those times of depression, have passed safely through the trials of sudden poverty, and eventually--having learned wisdom from the past experience--he could have regained a better and more stable financial position than the one lost. Thus far he had been able to maintain considerable self-control, and by daily experience knew just about how much morphia he could take without betraying himself. His family had become accustomed to its effects, and ascribed them to the peculiar state of his health. Loving eyes are often the most blind, and that which is seen daily ceases to seem strange. Beyond their natural solicitude over his failing appetite, his unwholesome complexion, and his loss of flesh, they had no misgivings. His decline was so very gradual that there was nothing to startle them. Every day they hoped to see a change for the better, and sought to bring it about by preparing such dainty dishes as were within their means to catch his capricious appetite, and by keeping all their little perplexities and worriments to themselves, so that he might have unbroken rest when free from business. He recognized their unselfish and considerate devotion, and it added to the horrible depression into which he sank more and more deeply the moment he passed from under the influence of the fatal drug. He was living over an abyss, and that which kept him from its depths was deepening and widening it daily. He still had the vague hope that at some time and in some way he could escape; but days and weeks were passing, bringing no change for the better, no honest, patient effort to regain the solid ground of safety. He was drifting down, and when at times he became conscious of the truth, a larger dose of morphia was his one method of benumbing the terror that seemed groping for his heart with a death-cold hand.

Mildred soon began to make rapid progress in her studies, and grew hopeful over the fact. If her father would give her the chance she could make a place for herself among skilled workers within a year, and be able, if there were need, to provide for the entire family. Great and prolonged destitution rarely occurs, even in a crowded city, unless there is much sickness or some destructive vice. Wise economy, patient and well-directed effort, as a rule, secure comfort and independence, if not affluence; but continued illness, disaster, and especially sin, often bring with them a train of evils difficult to describe.

Mildred found time between her lessons to aid her mother and also to do a little fancy work, for which, through the aid of Miss Wetheridge, she found private customers who were willing to pay its worth.

Thus the month of October was passing rapidly and rather hopefully away. They received letters from Clara Bute occasionally, wherein she expressed herself well content with the country and the situation Mrs. Atwood had obtained for her. "I'm getting as plump and rosy as Susan," she wrote, "and I'm not coming back to town. Going up and down those tenement stairs tired me more than all the work I do here. Still, I work hard, I can tell you; but it's all sorts of work, with plenty of good air and good food to do it on. I'm treated better than I ever was before--just like one of the family, and there's a young farmer who takes me out to ride sometimes, and he acts and talks like a man."

Whether this attentive friend were Roger or a new acquaintance she did not say. For some reason a reticence in regard to the former characterized her letters.