Chapter XXV. The Dark Shadow of Coming Events
 

During the sermon it must be admitted that Belle's thoughts wandered from the text and its able development by Mr. Wentworth. In fact, she was developing a little scheme of her own, and, as the result, whispered at the close of service, "Mamma, Roger and I are going to take a walk in the Park. Can't I ask him home to supper? This is his first Sunday in town, and it will be so dismal--"

"Yes, child, go and have a good time."

Within the next five minutes radiant Belle was an unconscious embodiment of foreordination to Roger. He had had no idea of going to the Park, but Belle had decreed he should go, and as he smilingly accompanied her he certainly remained a very contented free agent.

It was a clear, bracing afternoon and evening, wherein were blended the characteristics of both autumn and winter, and the young people returned with glowing cheeks and quickened pulses.

"Oh, Millie!" cried Belle, "such a walk as I have had would make you over new. I felt as if I were a hundred this morning, but now I feel just about sixteen--that was my last birthday, wasn't it, mamma?"

Both mother and sister smiled to see her sparkling eyes and bubbling happiness; and the latter thought, "For her sake I must certainly either master or conceal my dislike for that young fellow."

Indeed, she herself appeared sadly in need of a little vigorous exercise in the frosty air. The events of the day had been exceedingly depressing; despondency had taken the place of the irritation and the hopes and fears that had alternated in the morning hours; but she unselfishly tried to disguise it, and to aid her mother in preparing an inviting supper for Belle and her guest.

Mildred was obliged to admit to herself that Roger had very little of the appearance and manner of an uncouth countryman. There was a subtle, half-conscious homage for her mother in his every look and word, and for herself a politeness almost as distant and unobtrusive as her own. Once, when a sigh escaped her as she was busy about the room, she looked apprehensively at him, and, as she feared, encountered a glance from which nothing could escape. She now felt that her assumed cheerfulness deceived him so little that, were it not for Belle, she would wholly forego the effort, and end the long, miserable day in her own room.

Suddenly the thought occurred to her: "I will learn from his microscopic eyes how papa appears to others not blinded by love as we are; for, in spite of all my efforts to look on the bright side, I am exceedingly ill at ease about him. I fear he is failing faster than we think--we who see him daily. Mr. Atwood has not seen him for months, and the least change would be apparent to him."

Immunity from business induced Mr. Jocelyn to gratify his cravings more unstintedly on Sunday; and as he was often exceedingly irritable if disturbed when sleeping off the effects of an extra indulgence, they usually left him to wake of his own accord. Unfortunately the walls of his apartment were but curtains, and his loud breathings made it necessary to rouse him. This Mrs. Jocelyn accomplished with some difficulty, but did not mention the presence of Roger, fearing that in his half-wakened condition he might make some remark which would hurt the young man's feelings. She merely assisted him to arrange his disordered hair and dress, and then led the way to the supper-table he in the meantime protesting petulantly that he wished no supper, but would rather have slept.

As he emerged from the curtained doorway, Mildred's eyes were fastened on Roger's face, determined that nothing in its expression should escape her. He at the moment was in the midst of a laughing reply to one of Belle's funny speeches, but he stopped instantly and turned pale as his eyes rested on the visage of her father. Had that face then changed so greatly? Had disease made such havoc that this comparative stranger was aghast and could not conceal the truth that he was shocked?

It was with sharp anguish that these queries flashed through Mildred's mind, and, with her own perceptions sharpened and quickened, she saw that her father had indeed changed very greatly; he had grown much thinner; his complexion had an unnatural, livid aspect; his old serene, frank look was absent, and a noticeable contraction in the pupils of his eyes gave an odd, sinister aspect to his expression.

There were other changes that were even more painful to witness. In former days he had been the embodiment of genial Southern hospitality; but now, although he made a visible effort for self-control, his whole body seemed one diseased irritable nerve.

Roger almost instantly overcame his pained surprise, yet not so quickly but that it was observed by all, and even by him who had been the cause. "I am very sorry to learn you are not in good health," he was indiscreet enough to say as he offered his hand in greeting.

"From whom have you learned this?" demanded Mr. Jocelyn, looking angrily and suspiciously around. "I assure you that you are mistaken. I never was in better health, and I am not pleased that any one should gossip about me."

They sat down under a miserable constraint--Belle flushed and indignant, Mildred no longer disguising her sadness, and poor Mrs. Jocelyn with moist eyes making a pitiful attempt to restore serenity so that Belle's happy day might not become clouded. Roger tried to break the evil spell by giving his impressions of the Park to Mrs. Jocelyn, but was interrupted by her husband, who had been watching the young man with a perplexed, suspicious look, vainly trying to recall the name of one whose face was familiar enough, remarking at last very satirically, "Has it ceased to be the style to introduce people, especially at one's own table? I might appreciate this gentleman's conversation better if I knew his name."

They all looked at each other in sudden dismay, for they could not know that opium impairs memory as well as health and manhood. "Martin," cried his wife, in a tone of sharp distress, "you are ill, indeed. There is no use in trying to disguise the truth any longer. What! don't you remember Roger Atwood, the son of the kind friends with whom we spent the summer?" and in spite of all effort tears blinded her eyes.

The wretched man's instinct of self-preservation was aroused. He saw from the looks of all about him that he was betraying himself--that he was wholly off his balance. While vividly and painfully aware of his danger, his enfeebled will and opium-clouded mind were impotent to steady and sustain him or to direct his course. He had much of the terror and all the sense of helplessness of a man who finds himself in deep water and cannot swim. He trembled, the perspiration started out on his brow, and his one impulse now was to be alone with his terrible master, that had become the sole source of his semblance of strength as well as of his real and fatal weakness. "I--I fear I am ill," he faltered. "I'll go out and get a little air," and he was about to leave the room almost precipitately.

"Oh, Martin," expostulated his wife, "don't go out--at least not alone."

Again he lost control of himself, and said savagely, "I will. Don't any one dare to follow me," and he almost rushed away.

For a moment Mrs. Jocelyn tried to bear up from instinctive politeness, but her lip quivered like that of a child; then the tide of her feeling swept her away, and she fled to the adjoining apartment. Mildred followed her at once, and Belle, with a white, scared face, looked into Roger's eyes. He rose and came directly to her and said, "Belle, you know you can always count on me. Your father is so ill that I think I had better follow him. I can do so unobserved."

"Oh, Roger--why--is--is papa losing his mind?"

His quick eye now noted that Fred and Minnie had become so impressed that something dreadful had happened that they were about to make the occasion more painful by their outcries, and he turned smilingly to them, and with a few reassuring words and promises soon quieted their fears. "Be a brave little woman, Belle," he at last said to her. "There is my address, and please promise to let me know if I can do anything for you and for--for Mrs. Jocelyn."

"Don't go--please don't go yet," Belle pleaded. "Papa's looks and words to-night fill me with a strange fear as if something awful might happen."

"Perhaps if I follow your father I may prevent--"

"Oh, yes, go at once."

He was intercepted at the door by the entrance of Mr. Jocelyn, who had had ample time in the few brief minutes that had elapsed to fill his system with the subtle stimulant. He now took Roger by the hand most cordially, and said, "Pardon me, Mr. Atwood. My health has become somewhat impaired of late, and I fear I have just had a rather bad turn; but the air has revived me, and the trouble now has passed. I insist that you stay and spend the evening with us."

"Oh, papa," cried Belle, rushing into his arms, "how you frightened us! Please go into my room, there, and comfort mamma by telling her you are all well again."

This he did so effectively that he soon led her out smiling through her tears, for her confidence in him was the growth and habit of years, and anything he said to her seemed for the moment true. And, indeed, the man was so changed that it was hard to realize he was not well. His face, in contrast with its aspect a few moments since, appeared to have regained its natural hue and expression; every trace of irritability had passed away, and with his old-time, easy courtesy and seeming frankness he talked so plausibly of it all that Belle and his wife, and even Roger, felt that they had attached undue importance to a mere temporary indisposition.

Mildred made great effort to be cheerful for her father's sake, but the pallor did not pass from her face, nor the look of deep anxiety from her eyes. The shadow of coming trouble had fallen too heavily upon her, and that the marked exhibition of her father's failing powers should have occurred at this time added to the impression that Roger Atwood was their evil genius. She recalled the fact that he seemingly had been the first exciting cause of her father's unnatural behavior, and now his reappearance was the occasion of the most convincing proof they had yet received that the one upon whom they all depended was apparently failing in both mind and body. Even now, while he was doing his best to reassure and render happy his family, there was to her perception an unreality in his words and manner. She almost imagined, too, that he feared to meet her eye and shunned doing so. Not in the remotest degree, however, did she suspect the cause of his suddenly varying moods and changed appearance, but regarded all as the result of his misfortunes; and the miserable presentiment grew strong upon her that soon--alas! too soon--she would be the slender reed on which they all would lean. If she could have six months, only, of careful preparation she would not so dread the burden; but if now, or soon, the whole responsibility of the family's support should come upon her and Belle, what would they do? Her heart sank, and her very soul cowered at the prospect. She could not live in the present hour like Belle, but with too keen a foresight realized how dark and threatening was the future.

The night was clear and beautiful, and Roger and Belle went up to the platform built over the roof. Not long afterward there was a knock at the door, and Mr. Ulph appeared. "Der night vas goot," he said to Mildred, "und I vill gif you von leedle glimpse oil hefen if you vould like him."

The poor girl felt that she certainly needed a glimpse of something bright and reassuring, and wrapping herself warmly she followed her quaint friend to the roof.

Roger grew taciturn as he watched the dim outline of her form and her white, upturned face. She seemed as cold and distant to him as the stars at which she gazed, and he thought dejectedly, "The least of them have an interest for her greater than I shall ever be able to inspire."

He overrated her interest in the stars on that occasion, however, for though she did her best to follow the old astronomer's words, her heart was too sorrowful and preoccupied, and her eyes too often blinded by tears, which once glittered so distinctly in the rays of a brilliant planet that her companion stopped in the midst of a sentence and looked at her keenly.

"You vas not habby, my leedle schild," he said kindly. "Dere's someding droubling you heart; put you gan no see vay inter der hefens drew dears do' dey vas glear as der lens off my glass."

"I fear I shall have to see through tears very often, if I see at all," Mildred replied, with a low, suppressed sob. "Forgive me to-night. I do feel grateful that you are willing to show me--but--I--I--well, I am troubled to-night about something, and I can't control myself. To-morrow night I'll be braver, and will help you. Please don't feel hurt if I leave you now."

"Ah, mine leedle girl, learn vrom der schtars dot der great laws moost be opeyed, und don't you vorry und vret ober vat you gannot help. Shust you go along quiet und easy like Shupiter oup dere. Lots off dings vill dry to bull dis vay and dot vay outen der right orpt, put dond you mind 'em, und shust go right schtrait along und not care. You veels too mooch apout oder beoples. Der schtars deach you petter; dey goes right on der own vay und about der own pisness, unless dey vas voolish leedle schtars, like dot von dere dots shust gone to der duyvel vrom runin outen his vay toward der earth."

She might have reminded him that, if she had acted upon this cold and selfish philosophy, his little child would now be sleeping in a distant cemetery instead of in his warm crib, but she only said, "Good-night, Mr. Ulph; I'll do better next time," and she hurried away. She felt that the sun and centre of their family life was passing under a strange and lasting eclipse, and the result might be darkness--chaos.

She wiped her eyes carefully, that no traces of grief might appear, and then entered their room. Her mother was putting the children to bed, and her father looking dreamily out of the window. She kissed him, and said briefly, "I'm tired and think I will retire early so as to be ready for my work." He made no effort to detain her. She clasped her mother in a momentary passionate embrace, and then shut herself up to a night of almost sleepless grief.