Chapter XXVI. Waxing and Waning Manhood

Both Belle and Roger saw that Mildred had not been reassured by Mr. Jocelyn's return and manner; and as they thought it over they found it difficult to account for his strangely varying moods. After a rather lame effort to chat cheerily, Roger bad Belle good-night, and assured her that she now had a friend always within call.

His uncle's modest residence was in a side street and not far away, but the young fellow walked for hours before applying his night-key to the door. What he had seen and heard that day touched his heart's core, and the influences that were so rapidly developing his manhood were greatly strengthened. For Belle he now had a genuine liking and not a little respect. He saw her foibles clearly, and understood that she was still more a child than a woman, and so should not be judged by the standards proper for those of mature age; but he also saw the foundations on which a noble womanhood might be built. She inspired a sense of comradeship and honest friendliness which would easily deepen into fraternal love, but Mrs. Jocelyn's surmise that she might some day touch that innermost spring which controls the entire man had no true basis. Nor would there have been any possibility of this had he never seen Mildred. A true man--one governed by heart and mind, not passion--meets many women whom he likes and admires exceedingly, but who can never quicken his pulse. On Mildred, however--although she coveted the gift so little--was bestowed the power to touch the most hidden and powerful principles of his being, to awaken and stimulate every faculty he possessed. Her words echoed and re-echoed in the recesses of his soul; even her cold, distant glances were like rays of a tropical sun to which his heart could offer no resistance; and yet they were by no means enervating. Some natures would have grown despondent over prospects seemingly so hopeless, but Roger was of a different type. His deep and unaccepted feeling did not flow back upon his spirit, quenching it in dejection and despair, but it became a resistless tide back of his purpose to win her recognition and respect at least, and his determination to prove himself her peer. A girl so beautiful and womanly might easily gain such power over several men without any conscious effort, remaining meanwhile wholly indifferent or even averse herself, and Roger had indeed but little cause for hope. He might realize every ambitious dream and win her respect and admiration, and her heart continue as unresponsive as it had been from the first. Many a man has loved and waited in vain; and some out of this long adversity in that which touched their dearest interests have built the grandest successes of life and the loftiest and purest manhood.

A few months before, Roger seemingly had been a good-natured, pleasure-loving country youth, who took life as it came, with little thought for the morrow. Events had proved that he had latent and undeveloped force. In the material world we find substances that apparently are inert and powerless, but let some other substance be brought sufficiently near, and an energy is developed that seems like magic, and transformations take place that were regarded as supernatural in times when nature's laws were little understood. If this be true concerning that which is gross and material, how much more true of the quick, informing spirit that can send out its thoughts to the furthest star! Strong souls--once wholly unconscious of their power--at the touch of adequate motives pass into action and combinations which change the character of the world from age to age.

But in the spiritual as in the physical world, this development takes place in accordance with natural law and within the limitations of each character. There is nothing strange, however strange it may appear to those who do not understand. Roger Atwood was not a genius that would speedily dazzle the world with bewildering coruscations. It would rather be his tendency to grow silent and reserved with years, but his old boyish alertness would not decline, or his habit of shrewd, accurate observation. He thus would take few false steps, and would prove his force by deeds. Therefore he was almost predestined to succeed, for his unusually strong will would not drive him into useless effort or against obstacles that could be foreseen and avoided.

After Mildred's departure from the country he carried out his plans in a characteristic way. He wrote frankly and decidedly to his uncle that he was coming to the city, and would struggle on alone if he received no aid. At the same time he suggested that he had a large acquaintance in his vicinity, and therefore by judicious canvassing among the farmers he believed he could bring much patronage with him. This looked not unreasonable to the shrewd commission merchant, and, since his nephew was determined to make an excursion into the world, he concluded it had better be done under the safest and most business-like circumstances. At the same time recalling the character and habits of the country boy, as he remembered him, he surmised that Roger would soon become homesick and glad to go back to his old life. If retained under his eye, the youth could be kept out of harm's way and returned untainted and content to be a farmer. He therefore wrote to Roger that, if his parents were willing, he might secure what trade he could in farm produce and make the trial.

At first Mr. and Mrs. Atwood would not hear of the plan, and the father openly declared that it was "those Jocelyn girls that had unsettled the boy."

"Father," said Roger, a little defiantly and sarcastically, doesn't it strike you that I'm rather tall for a boy? Did you never hear of a small child, almost of age, choosing his own course in life?"

"That is not the way to talk," said his mother reprovingly. "We both very naturally feel that it's hard, and hardly right, too, for you to leave us just as we are getting old and need some one to lean on."

"Do not believe, mother, that I have not thought of that," was the eager reply; "and if I have my way you and father, and Susan too, shall be well provided for."

"Thank you," Mr. Atwood snarled contemptuously. "I'll get what I can out of the old farm, and I don't expect any provision from an overgrown boy whose head is so turned by two city girls that he must go dangling after them."

Roger flushed hotly, and angry words rose to his lips, but he restrained them by a visible effort. After a moment he said quietly, "You are my father, and may say what you please. There is but one way of convincing you whether I am a boy or a man, and I'll take it. You can keep me here till I'm twenty-one if you will, but you'll be sorry. It will be so much loss to me and no gain to you. I've often heard you say the Atwoods never 'drove well,' and you found out years ago that a good word went further with me than what you used to call a 'good thrashing.' If you let me have my way, now that I'm old enough to choose for myself, I'll make your old age cozy and comfortable. If you thwart me, as I said before, you'll be sorry," and he turned on his heel and left them.

Politic Mrs. Atwood had watched her son closely for weeks and knew that something was coming, but with woman's patience she waited and was kind. No one would miss him so much as she, and yet, mother-like, she now took sides against her own heart. But she saw that her husband was in no mood to listen to her at present, and nothing more was said that day.

In the evening Roger drove out in his carriage and returned on horseback.

"There's the money you paid for the buggy, with interest," he said to his father.

"You aren't gone yet," was the growling answer.

"No matter. I shall not ride in it again, and you are not the loser."

Roger had a rugged side to his nature which his father's course often called out, and Mrs. Atwood made her husband feel, reluctant as he was to admit it, that he was taking the wrong course with his son. A letter also from his brother in town led him to believe that Roger would probably come back in the spring well content to remain at home; so at last he gave a grudging consent.

Ungracious as it was, the young man rewarded him by a vigorous, thorough completion of the fall work, by painting the house and putting the place in better order than it had ever known before; meanwhile for his mother and sister he showed a consideration and gentleness which proved that he was much changed from his old self.

"I can see the hand of Mildred Jocelyn in everything he says and does," Susan remarked one day after a long fit of musing, "and yet I don't believe she cares a straw for him." Her intuition was correct; it was Roger's ambition to become such a man as Mildred must respect in spite of herself, and it was also true that she was not merely indifferent, but for the reasons already given--as far as she had reasons--she positively disliked him.

Roger brought sufficient business from the country to prevent regretful second thoughts in the mind of his thrifty uncle, and the impression was made that the young fellow might steady down into a useful clerk; but when as much was hinted Roger frankly told him that he regarded business as a stepping-stone merely to the study of the law. The old merchant eyed him askance, but made no response. Occasionally the veteran of the market evinced a glimmer of enthusiasm over a prime article of butter, but anything so intangible as a young man's ambitious dreams was looked upon with a very cynical eye. Still he could not be a part of New York life and remain wholly sceptical in regard to the possibilities it offered to a young fellow of talent and large capacity for work. He was a childless man, and if Roger had it in him to "climb the ladder," as he expressed it to himself, "it might pay to give him the chance." But the power to climb would have to be proved almost to a demonstration. In the meantime Roger, well watched and much mistrusted, was but a clerk in his store near Washington Market, and a student during all spare hours.

He had too much sense to attempt superficial work or to seek to build his fortunes on the slight foundation of mere smartness. It was his plan to continue in business for a year or more and then enter the junior class of one of the city colleges. By making the most of every moment and with the aid of a little private tutoring he believed he could do this, for he was a natural mathematician, and would find in the classics his chief difficulties. At any rate it was his fixed resolve not to enter upon the study of the law proper until he had broadened his mind by considerable general culture. Not only did his ambition prompt to this, but he felt that if he developed narrowly none would be so clearly aware of the fact as Mildred Jocelyn. Although not a highly educated girl herself, he knew she had a well-bred woman's nice perception of what constituted a cultivated man; he also knew that he had much prejudice to overcome, and that he must strike at its very root.

In the meantime poor Mildred, unconscious of all save his unwelcome regard, was seeking with almost desperate earnestness to gain practical knowledge of two humble arts, hoping to be prepared for the time--now clearly foreseen and dreaded--when her father might decline so far in mind and health as to fail them utterly, and even become a heavy burden. She did not dream that his disease was a drug, and although some of his associates began to suspect as much, in spite of all his precautions, none felt called upon to suggest their suspicions to his family.

Causes that work steadily will sooner or later reach their legitimate results. The opium inertia grew inevitably upon Mr. Jocelyn. He disappointed the expectations of his employers to that degree that they felt that something was wrong, and his appearance and manner often puzzled them not a little even though with all the cunning which the habit engenders he sought to hide his weakness.

One day, late in November, an unexpected incident brought matters to a crisis. An experienced medical acquaintance, while making a call upon the firm, caught sight of Mr. Jocelyn, and his practiced eye detected the trouble at once.

"That man is an opium-eater," he said in a low tone, and his explanation of the effects of the drug was a diagnosis of Mr. Jocelyn's symptoms and appearance. The firm's sympathy for a man seemingly in poor health was transformed into disgust and antipathy, since there is less popular toleration of this weakness than of drinking habits. The very obscurity in which the vice is involved makes it seem all the more unnatural and repulsive, and it must be admitted that the fullest knowledge tends only to increase this horror and repugnance, even though pity is awakened for the wretched victim.

But Mr. Jocelyn's employers had little knowledge of the vice, and they were not in the least inclined to pity. They felt that they had been imposed upon, and that too at a time when all business men were very restless under useless expenditure. It was the man's fault and not misfortune that he had failed so signally in securing trade from the South, and, while they had paid him but a small salary, his ill-directed and wavering efforts had involved them in considerable expense. Asking the physician to remain, they summoned Mr. Jocelyn to the private office, and directly charged him with the excessive and habitual use of opium.

The poor man was at first greatly confused, and trembled as if in an ague fit, for his nerve power was already so shattered that he had little self-control in an emergency. This, of course, was confirmation of guilt in their eyes.

"Gentlemen, you do me a great wrong," he managed to say, and hastily left the office. Having secreted himself from observation he snatched out his hypodermic syringe, and within six minutes felt himself equal to any crisis. Boldly returning to the office he denied the charge in the most explicit terms, and with some show of lofty indignation. The physician who was still present watched him closely, and noticed that the cuff on his left hand was somewhat crumpled, as if it had been recently pushed back. Without a word he seized Mr. Jocelyn's arm and pulled back his coat and shirt sleeve, revealing a bright red puncture just made, and many others of a remoter date.

"There is no use in lying about such matters to me," said the physician. "How much morphia did you inject into your arm since you left us?"

"I am a victim of neuralgia," Mr. Jocelyn began, without any hesitation, "and the cruel and unreasonable charge here made against me brought on an acute paroxysm, and therefore I--"

"Stop that nonsense," interrupted the doctor, roughly. "Don't you know that lying, when lying is of no use, is one of the characteristic traits of an opium-eater? I am a physician, and have seen too many cases to be deceived a moment. You have all the symptoms of a confirmed morphia consumer, and if you ever wish to break your chains you had better tell doctors the truth and put yourself under the charge of one in whom you have confidence."

"Well, curse you!" said Mr. Jocelyn savagely, "it was through one of your damnable fraternity that I acquired what you are pleased to call my chains, and now you come croaking to my employers, poisoning their minds against me."

"Oh, as to poisoning," remarked the physician sarcastically, "I'll wager a thousand dollars that you have absorbed enough morphia within the last twenty-four hours to kill every one in this office. At the rate you are going on, as far as I can judge from appearances, you will soon poison yourself out of existence. No physician ever advised the destroying vice you are practicing, and no physician would take offence at your words any more than at the half-demented ravings of a fever patient. You are in a very critical condition, sir, and unless you can wake up to the truth and put forth more will-power than most men possess you will soon go to the bad."

"I sincerely hope you will take this experienced physician's advice," said the senior member of the firm very coldly. "At any rate we can no longer permit you to jeopardize our interests by your folly and weakness. The cashier will settle with you, and our relations end here and now."

"You will bitterly repent of this injustice," Mr. Jocelyn replied haughtily. "You are discharging a man of unusual business capacity--one whose acquaintance with the South is wellnigh universal, and whose combinations were on the eve of securing enormous returns."

"We will forego all these advantages. Good-morning, sir. Did you ever see such effrontery?" he continued, after Mr. Jocelyn had departed with a lofty and contemptuous air.

"It's not effrontery--it's opium," said the physician sadly. "You should see the abject misery of the poor wretch after the effects of the drug have subsided."

"I have no wish to see him again under any aspect, and heartily thank you for unmasking him. We must look at once into our affairs, and see how much mischief he has done. If he wants the aid and respect of decent men, let him give up his vile practice."

"That's easier said than done," the physician replied. "Very few ever give it up who have gone as far as this man."