Chapter XXIV. Roger Reappears
 

Roger Atwood had entered Mildred's mind as a part of a grotesque dream, but he had no place in her waking thoughts. With Vinton Arnold, however, it was very different, and scarcely an hour passed that she was not wondering where he was, and again questioning his prolonged silence. Often her heart beat quick as she imagined she caught a glimpse of him in the street; and it must be admitted that she looked for him constantly, although she took pains never to pass his residence. Could he be ill, or was he patiently waiting like herself, secure in her good faith? She longed to see him, even though unseen herself, and one Sunday early in November she yielded to her strong desire to look upon one in reality who had become an abiding presence in her mind. She believed that from a certain part of the gallery in the church they both had attended in former days she could look down upon the Arnold pew. If he were not ill she felt quite sure he would be in his old place.

It was almost with a sense of guilty intrusion that she crossed the threshold of her old church-home and stole to the thinly occupied gallery. She saw familiar faces, but shrank from recognition in almost trembling apprehension, scarcely feeling secure behind her thick veil. The place, once so familiar, now seemed as strange as if it belonged to another world; and in a certain sense she felt that it was part of a world with which she would never willingly identify herself again. It was a place where fashion was supreme, and not the spirit of Christ, not even the spirit of a broad, honest, and earnest humanity. The florid architecture, the high-priced and elegantly upholstered pews, sparsely occupied by people who never wished to be crowded under any possible circumstances, and preferred not to touch each other except in a rather distant and conventional way, the elaborately ritualistic service, and the cold, superficial religious philosophy taught, were all as far removed from the divine Son of Mary as the tinsel scenery of a stage differs from a natural landscape. Mildred's deep and sorrowful experience made its unreality painfully apparent and unsatisfactory. She resolved, however, to try to give the sacred words that would be uttered their true meaning; and, in fact, her sincere devotion was like a simple flower blooming by the edge of a glacier. She felt that the human love she brought there and sought to gratify was pure and unselfish, and that in no sense could it be a desecration of the place and hour. To a nature like hers, her half-pitying love for one so unfortunate as Vinton Arnold was almost as sacred as her faith, and therefore she had no scruple in watching for his appearance.

Her quest was unrewarded, however, for no one entered the pew except Mr. Arnold and one of his daughters. The absence of Mrs. Arnold and the invalid son filled her with forebodings and the memory of the past; the influence of the place combined with her fears was so depressing that by the time the service ended her tears were falling fast behind her veil. With natural apprehension that her emotion might be observed she looked hastily around, and, with a start, encountered the eyes of Roger Atwood. Her tears seemed to freeze on her cheeks, and she half shuddered in strong revulsion of feeling. She had come to see the man she loved; after months of patient waiting she had at last so far yielded to the cravings of her heart as to seek but a glimpse of one who fed her dearest earthly hope; but his place is vacant. In his stead she finds, almost at her side, one whom she hoped never to see again; and she knew he was offering through his dark eyes a regard loathed in her inmost soul. She was oppressed with a sudden, superstitious fear that she could not escape him--that he was endowed with such a remorseless will and persistence that by some strange necessity she might yield in spite of herself. Belle's words, "He'll win you yet," seemed like a direful prophecy. How it could ever be fulfilled she could not imagine; but his mere presence caused a flutter of fear, and the consciousness that she was followed by a man pre-eminently gifted with that subtle power before which most obstacles crumble made her shiver with an undefined dread.

She believed her veil had been no protection--that he had seen her emotion and divined its cause, indeed that nothing could escape his eyes. She also felt sure that he had come to the city to carry out the projects which he had vaguely outlined to her, and that henceforth she could never be sure, when away from home, that his searching eyes were not upon her. However well-intentioned his motive might be, to her it would be an odious system of espionage. There was but one way in which she could resent it--by a cold and steadily maintained indifference, and she left the church without any sign of recognition, feeling that her lowered veil should have taught him that she was shunning observation, and that he had no right to watch her. She went home not only greatly depressed, but incensed, for it was the same to her as if she had been intruded upon at a moment of sacred privacy, and coldly scrutinized while she was giving way to feelings that she would hide from all the world. That he could not know this, and that it was no great breach of delicacy for a young man to sit in the same church with a lady of his acquaintance, and even to regard her with sympathy, she did not consider. She was in no mood to do him justice, and circumstances had imbued her mind with intense prejudice. She was by no means perfect, nor above yielding to very unjust prejudices when tempted to them by so unwelcome an interest as that entertained by Roger Atwood.

"What's the matter, Millie?" her mother asked, following her into her room where Belle was writing a letter to Clara Bute. Mildred concluded to tell all, for she feared Roger might soon appear and occasion awkward explanations, so she said, "I felt, this morning, like having a glimpse of our old church and life. I suppose it was very weak and foolish and I was well punished, for toward the end of the service I was thinking over old times, and it all very naturally brought some tears. I looked around, and who, of all others, should be watching me but Roger Atwood!"

Belle sprang up and clapped her hands with a ringing laugh. "That's capital," she cried. "Didn't I tell you, Millie, you couldn't escape him? You might just as well give in first as last."

"Belle," said Mildred, in strong irritation, "that kind of talk is unpardonable. I won't endure it, and if such nonsense is to be indulged in Roger Atwood cannot come here. I shall at least have one refuge, and will not be persecuted in my own home."

"Belle," added Mrs. Jocelyn gravely, "since Mildred feels as she does, you must respect her feelings. It would be indelicate and unwomanly to do otherwise."

"There, Millie, I didn't mean anything," Belle said, soothingly. "Besides I want Roger to come and see us, for he can be jolly good company if he has a mind to; and I believe he will come this afternoon or evening. For my sake you must all treat him well, for I want some one to talk to once in a while--some one that mamma will say is a 'good, well-meaning young man.' The Atwoods have all been so kind to us that we must treat him well. It would be mean not to do so. No doubt he's all alone in the city, too, and will be lonely."

"There is no need of his being in the city at all," Mildred protested. "I've no patience with his leaving those who need him so much. I think of them, and am sure they feel badly about it, and likely enough are blaming me, when, if I had my way, he'd live and die in sight of his own chimney smoke."

"Millie, you are unreasonable," retorted Belle. "Why hasn't Roger Atwood as good a right to seek his fortune out in the world as other young men? Papa didn't stay on the old plantation, although they all wanted him to. What's more, he has as good a right to like you as you have to dislike him. I may as well say it as think it."

It was difficult to refute Belle's hard common-sense, and her sister could only protest, "Well, he has no right to be stealthily watching me, nor to persecute me with unwelcome attentions."

"Leave it all to me, Millie," said her mother gently. "I will manage it so that Belle can have his society occasionally, and we show our goodwill toward those who have been kind to us. At the same time I think I can shield you from anything disagreeable. He is pretty quick to take a hint; and you can soon show him by your manner that you wish him well, and that is all. He'll soon get over his half-boyish preference, or at least learn to hide it. You give to his feelings more importance than they deserve."

"I suppose I do," Mildred replied musingly, "but he makes upon me the queer impression that he will never leave me alone--that I can never wholly shake him off, and that he will appear like a ghost when I least expect it."

Belle smiled significantly. "There, you might as well speak plainly as look in that way," Mildred concluded irritably. "I foresee how it will be, but must submit and endure as best I can, I suppose."

Belle's anticipation proved correct, for just as they were nearly ready to start for the chapel Eoger appeared, and was a little awkward from diffidence and doubt as to his reception. Mrs. Jocelyn's kindness and Belle's warm greeting somewhat reassured him, and atoned for Mildred's rather constrained politeness. While answering the many and natural questions about those whom he had left in Forestville, he regained his self-possession and was able to hold his own against Belle's sallies. "You have come to the city to stay?" she asked, point-blank.

"Yes," he said briefly, and that was the only reference he made to himself.

She soon began vivaciously, "You must go with us to church and Sunday-school. Here you are, an innocent and unprotected youth in this great wicked city, and we must get you under good influence at once."

"That is my wish," he replied, looking her laughingly in the face, "and that is why I came to see you. If you have a class and will take me into it, I will accept all the theology you teach me."

"Mr. Wentworth's hair would rise at the idea of my teaching theology or anything; but I'll look after you, and if you get any fast ways I'll make you sorry. No, I'm only a scholar. Millie has a class of the worst boys in school, and if--" A warning glance here checked her.

"Well, then, can't I join your class?"

"Oh, no, we are all girls, and you'll make us so bashful we wouldn't dare say anything."

"I think Mr. Atwood had better go with us to the chapel, accepting the conditions on which we first attended," suggested Mrs. Jocelyn. "If he is pleased, as we were, he can then act accordingly."

"Yes, come," cried Belle, who had resumed at once her old companionable and mirthful relations with Roger. "I'll go with you, so you won't feel strange or afraid. I want you to understand," she continued, as they passed down the quaint old hallway, "that we belong to the aristocracy. Since this is the oldest house in town, we surely should be regarded as one of the old families."

"By what magic were you able to make so inviting a home in such a place?" he asked.

"Oh, that's Millie's work," she replied.

"I might have known that," he said, and a sudden shadow crossed his face. Quickly as it passed away, she saw it.

"Yes," she resumed in a low, earnest tone--for she had no scruple in fanning the flame of his love which she more than half believed might yet be rewarded--"Millie is one of a million. She will be our main dependence, I fear. She is so strong and sensible."

"Is--is not Mr. Jocelyn well?" he asked apprehensively.

"I fear he isn't well at all," she answered with some despondency. "He is sleeping now; he always rests Sunday afternoon, and we try to let him rest all he can. He sleeps, or rather dozes, a great deal, and seems losing his strength and energy," and she spoke quite frankly concerning their plans, projects, and hopes. She believed in Roger, and knew him to be a sincere friend, and it was her nature to be very outspoken where she had confidence. "If Millie can learn thoroughly what she is now studying," she concluded, "I think we can get along."

"Yes," said Roger, in low, sad emphasis, "your sister is indeed one of a million, and my chance of winning one friendly thought from her also seems but one in a million. Belle, let us understand each other from the start. I have come to the city to stay, and I intend to succeed. I have an uncle in town who has given me a chance, and he'll do more for me, I think. He's peculiar, but he's shrewd and sensible, and when he is convinced that I intend to carry out certain plans he will aid me. He is watching me now, and thinks I am here only from a restless impulse to see the world; by and by he will know better. He has the obstinate Atwood blood, and if he takes a notion to give me a chance to get a first-class education, he will see me through. I'm going to have one anyway, but of course I'd rather be able to get it in five or six years than in eight or ten years, as would be the case if I had to work my own way. I am now employed in his commission store down town, but I am studying every spare moment I can get, and he knows it, only he thinks it won't last. But it will, and I shall at least try to be one of the first lawyers in this city. What's more, I shall work as few young men are willing to work or can work, for I am strong, and--well, I have motives for work that are not usual, perhaps. You see I am frank with you as you have been with me. You often talk like a gay child, but I understand you well enough to know that you are a whole-souled little woman, and thoroughly worthy of trust; and I have told you more about myself and present plans than any one else. Clara Bute informed me all about your courage at the store, and I felt proud that I knew you, and don't intend that you shall ever be ashamed of me. You may tell your mother all this if you please, because I wish her to know just what kind of a young fellow I am, and what are my connections and prospects. I would much like to come and see you and go out with you now and then; and if you and your--well, your family should ever need any service that it was in my power to render, I should like you all to feel that I am not altogether unfit to give it, or to be your associate."

"You needn't talk that way," said Belle; "you are up in the world compared with us."

"I mean every word I say. I respect your mother as I do my own, for I have seen her beautiful life and beautiful face for weeks and months. I never expect to see a more perfect and genuine lady. I am not well versed in society's ways, but I assure you I would make every effort in my power to act as she would think a young man ought to act. I'd rather fight a dragon than displease her."

Tears of gratified feeling were in Belle's eyes, but she said brusquely, "Not versed in society's ways! Account, then, for that fashionable suit of clothes you are wearing."

"They were not cut in Forestville," he replied dryly.

"Roger," she said impulsively, "I'm wonderfully glad you've come to New York to live, for I was dying for a little society and fun that mother and Millie wouldn't disapprove of. They are so particular, you know, that I fairly ache from trying to walk in the strait and narrow path which is so easy for them. I want a lark. I must have a lark before long, or I'll explode. What can we do that will be real genuine fun? It will do you good, too, or you'll become a dull boy with nothing but work, work, work. You needn't tell me the world was only made to work in. If it was, I've no business here. You must think up something spicy, and no make-believe. I want to go somewhere where I can laugh with my whole heart. I can't go on much longer at this old humdrum, monotonous jog, any more than your colts up at the farm could go around like the plow-horses, and I know it isn't right to expect it of me. And yet what has been the case? Off early in the morning to work, standing all day till I'm lame in body and mad in spirit--stupid owls to make us stand till we are so out of sorts that we are ready to bite customers' heads off instead of waiting on 'em pleasantly. When I come home, mamma often looks tired and sad, for this life is wearing on her, and she is worrying in secret over papa's health. Millie, too, is tired and downhearted in spite of her trying to hide it. She won't go out anywhere because she says there are no places where young girls can go unattended that are within our means. I've got tired of the other shop-girls. A few of them are nice; but more of them are stupid or coarse, so I just sit around and mope, and go to bed early to get through the time. If I even try to romp with the children a little, mamma looks distressed, fearing I will disturb papa, who of late, when he comes out of his dozing condition, is strangely irritable. A year ago he'd romp and talk nonsense with me to my heart's content; but that's all passed. Now is it natural for a young girl little more than sixteen to live such a life?"

"No, Belle, it is not, and yet I have seen enough of the city during the week I have been here to know that your mother and sister are right in their restrictions."

"Well, then, it's a burning shame that in a city called Christian a poor girl is not more safe outside of her own door than if she were in a jungle. Do you mean to say that girls, situated as Millie and I are, must remain cooped up in little rooms the year round when our work is over?"

"The street is no place for you to take recreation in after nightfall; and where else you can go unattended I'm sure I don't know. If there is any place, I'll find out, for I intend to study this city from top to bottom. A lawyer is bound to know life as it is, above all things. But you needn't worry about this question in the abstract any more. I'll see that you have a good time occasionally. You sister will not go with me, at least not yet--perhaps never--but that is not my fault. I've only one favor to ask of you, Belle, and I'll do many in return. Please never, by word, or even by look, make my presence offensive or obtrusive to Miss Mildred. If you will be careful I will not prove so great an affliction as she fears."

"Roger Atwood, do you read people's thoughts?"

"Oh, no, I only see what is to be seen, and draw my conclusions," he said, a little sadly.

"Well, then, if you can have the tact and delicacy to follow such good eyesight, you may fare better than you expect," she whispered at the chapel door.

He turned toward her with a quick flash, but she had stepped forward into the crowd passing through the vestibule. From that moment, however, a ray of hope entered his heart, and in quiet resolve he decided to conform his tactics to the hint just received.

Mrs. Jocelyn and Mildred followed half a block away, and the former said to her daughter: "There they go, Millie, chattering together like two children. You surely take this affair too seriously. His sudden and boyish infatuation with you was the most natural thing in the world. He had never seen a girl like you before, and you awoke him into something like manhood. Very young men are prone to fall in love with women older than themselves, or those who seem older, and speedily to fall out again. Martin has often said his first flame is now a gray-headed lady, and yet he was sure at one time he never could endure life without her. You know that I consoled him quite successfully," and Mildred was pleased to hear the old, sweet laugh that was becoming too rare of late. Even now it ended in a sigh. Mr. Jocelyn was losing his resemblance to the man she had accepted in those bright days that now seemed so long ago.

"I hope you are right, mamma. It seems as if I ought to laugh at the whole affair and good-naturedly show him his folly, but for some reason I can't. He affects me very strangely. While I feel a strong repulsion, I am beginning to fear him--to become conscious of his intensity and the tenacity and power of his will. I didn't understand him at first, and I don't now, but if he were an ordinary, impulsive young fellow he would not impress me as he does."

"Don't you think him true and good at heart?"

"I've no reason to think him otherwise. I can't explain to you how I feel, nor do I understand it myself. He seems the embodiment of a certain kind of force, and I always shrank from mere force, whether in nature or people."

"I can tell you how it is, Millie. Quiet and gentle as you seem, you have a tremendous will of your own, and very strong-willed people don't get on well together."

"Astute little mother! Well, explain it in any way that pleases you, only keep your promise not to let him become the bane of my life."

"I'm not at all sure but that Belle will soon usurp your place in his regard, nor would I object, for I am very anxious about the child. I know that her present life seems dull to her, and the temptations of the city to a girl with a nature like hers are legion. He can be a very useful friend to her, and he seems to me manly and trustworthy. I'm not often deceived in my impressions of people, and he inspires me with confidence, and has from the first. I never saw anything underhand in him at the farm."

"Oh, no, he's honest enough, no doubt."

"There, Millie," resumed her mother, laughing, "you have a woman's reason for your feelings--you don't like him, and that is the end of it. You must admit, however, that he has improved wonderfully. I never saw a young fellow so changed, so thoroughly waked up. He has sense, too, in little things. One would think from his dress he had been born and bred in the city. They didn't palm off an old-fashioned suit on him, if he was from the country.

"Chant his praises to Belle, mamma, and she will greatly appreciate this last proof of his superiority. To me he seems like his clothes--a little too new. Still I admit that he can be of very great service to Belle; and if he will restrict his attentions to her I will be as polite as either of you can wish. I, too, feel a very deep sympathy for Belle. She is little more than a child, and yet her life is imposing upon her the monotonous work of a middle-aged woman, and I fear the consequences. It's contrary to nature, and no one knows it better than she. If he will help us take care of her I shall be grateful indeed; but if he grows sentimental and follows me as he did this morning, I could not endure it--indeed I could not."

"Well, Millie dear, we won't cross any bridges till we come to them."