Chapter II. Weakness
 

Vinton Arnold's walk down Fifth Avenue was so rapid as to indicate strong perturbation. At last he entered a large house of square, heavy architecture, a creation evidently of solid wealth in the earlier days of the thoroughfare's history. There was something in his step as he crossed the marble hall to the hat-rack and then went up the stairway that caused his mother to pass quickly from her sitting-room that she might intercept him. After a moment's scrutiny she said, in a low, hard tone:

"You have spent the evening with Miss Jocelyn again."

He made no reply.

"Are you a man of honor?"

His pallid face crimsoned instantly, and his hands clenched with repressed feeling, but he still remained silent. Neither did he appear to have the power to meet his mother's cold, penetrating glance.

"It would seem," she resumed, in the same quiet, incisive tone, "that my former suggestions have been unheeded. I fear that I must speak more plainly. You will please come with me for a few moments."

With evident reluctance he followed her to a small apartment, furnished richly, but with the taste and elegance of a past generation. He had become very pale again, but his face wore the impress of pain and irresolution rather than of sullen defiance or of manly independence. The hardness of the gold that had been accumulating in the family for generations had seemingly permeated the mother's heart, for the expression of her son's face softened neither her tone nor manner. And yet not for a moment could she be made to think of herself as cruel, or even stern. She was simply firm and sensible in the performance of her duty. She was but maintaining the traditional policy of the family, and was conscious that society would thoroughly approve of her course. Chief of all, she sincerely believed that she was promoting her son's welfare, but she had not Mrs. Jocelyn's gentle ways of manifesting solicitude.

After a moment of oppressive silence, she began:

"Perhaps I can best present this issue in its true light by again asking, Are you a man of honor?"

"Is it dishonorable," answered her son irritably, "to love a pure, good girl?"

"No," said his mother, in the same quiet, measured voice; "but it may be very great folly and a useless waste. It is dishonorable, however, to inspire false hopes in a girl's heart, no matter who she is. It is weak and dishonorable to hover around a pretty face like a poor moth that singes its wings."

In sudden, passionate appeal, he exclaimed, "If I can win Miss Jocelyn, why cannot I marry her? She is as good as she is beautiful. If you knew her as I do you would be proud to call her your daughter. They live very prettily, even elegantly--"

By a simple, deprecatory gesture Mrs. Arnold made her son feel that it was useless to add another word.

"Vinton," she said, "a little reason in these matters is better than an indefinite amount of sentimental nonsense. You are now old enough to be swayed by reason, and not to fume and fret after the impossible like a child. Neither your father nor I have acted hastily in this matter. It was a great trial to discover that you had allowed your fancy to become entangled below the circle in which it is your privilege to move, and I am thankful that my other children have been more considerate. In a quiet, unobtrusive way we have taken pains to learn all about the Jocelyns. They are comparative strangers in the city. Mr. Jocelyn is merely a junior partner in a large iron firm, and from all your father says I fear he has lived too elegantly for his means. That matter will soon be tested, however, for his firm is in trouble and will probably have to suspend. With your health, and in the face of the fierce competition in this city, are you able to marry and support a penniless girl? If, on the contrary, you propose to support a wife on the property that now belongs to your father and myself, our wishes should have some weight. I tell you frankly that our means, though large, are not sufficient to make you all independent and maintain the style to which you have been accustomed. With your frail health and need of exemption from care and toil, you must marry wealth. Your father is well satisfied that whoever allies himself to this Jocelyn family may soon have them all on his hands to support. We decline the risk of burdening ourselves with these unknown, uncongenial people. Is there anything unreasonable in that? Because you are fascinated by a pretty face, of which there are thousands in this city, must we be forced into intimate associations with people that are wholly distasteful to us? This would be a poor return for having shielded you so carefully through years of ill health and feebleness."

The young man's head drooped lower and lower as his mother spoke, and his whole air was one of utter despondency. She waited for his reply, but for a few moments he did not speak. Suddenly he looked up, with a reckless, characteristic laugh, and said:

"The Spartans were right in destroying the feeble children. Since I am under such obligations, I cannot resist your logic, and I admit that it would be poor taste on my part to ask you to support for me a wife not of your choosing."

"'Good taste' at least should have prevented such a remark. You can choose for yourself from a score of fine girls of your own station in rank and wealth."

"Pardon me, but I would rather not inflict my weakness on any of the score."

"But you would inflict it on one weak in social position and without any means of support."

"She is the one girl that I have met with who seemed both gentle and strong, and whose tastes harmonize with my own. But you don't know her, and never will. You have only learned external facts about the Jocelyns, and out of your prejudices have created a family of underbred people that does not exist. Their crime of comparative poverty I cannot dispute. I have not made the prudential inquiries which you and father have gone into so carefully. But your logic is inexorable. As you suggest, I could not earn enough myself to provide a wife with hairpins. The slight considerations of happiness, and the fact that Miss Jocelyn might aid me in becoming something more than a shadow among men, are not to be urged against the solid reasons you have named."

"Young people always give a tragic aspect to these crude passing fancies. I have known 'blighted happiness' to bud and blossom again so often that you must pardon me if I act rather on the ground of experience and good sense. An unsuitable alliance may bring brief gratification and pleasure, but never happiness, never lasting and solid content."

"Well, mother, I am not strong enough to argue with you, either in the abstract or as to these 'wise saws' which so mangle my wretched self," and with the air of one exhausted and defeated he languidly went to his room.

Mrs. Arnold frowned as she muttered, "He makes no promise to cease visiting the girl." After a moment she added, even more bitterly, "I doubt whether he could keep such a promise; therefore my will must supply his lack of decision;" and she certainly appeared capable of making good this deficiency in several human atoms.

If she could have imparted some of her firmness and resolution to Martin Jocelyn, they would have been among the most useful gifts a man ever received. As the stanchness of a ship is tested by the storm, so a crisis in his experience was approaching which would test his courage, his fortitude, and the general soundness of his manhood. Alas! the test would find him wanting. That night, for the first time in his life, he came home with a step a trifle unsteady. Innocent Mrs. Jocelyn did not note that anything was amiss. She was busy putting her home into its usual pretty order after the breezy, gusty evening always occasioned by one of Belle's informal companies. She observed that her husband had recovered more than his wonted cheerfulness, and seemed indeed as gay as Belle herself. Lounging on a sofa, he laughed at his wife and petted her more than usual, assuring her that her step was as light, and that she still looked as young and pretty as any of the girls who had tripped through the parlors that evening.

The trusting, happy wife grew so rosy with pleasure, and her tread was so elastic from maternal pride and exultation at the prospects of her daughters, that his compliments seemed scarcely exaggerated.

"Never fear, Nan," he said, in a gush of feeling; "I'll take care of you whatever happens," and the glad smile she turned upon him proved that she doubted his words no more than her own existence.

They were eminently proper words for a husband to address to his wife, but the circumstances under which they were uttered made them maudlin sentiment rather than a manly pledge. As spoken, they were so ominous that the loving woman might well have trembled and lost her girlish flush. But even through the lurid hopes and vague prospects created by dangerous stimulants, Mr. Jocelyn saw, dimly, the spectre of coming trouble, and he added:

"But, Nan, we must economize--we really must."

"Foolish man!" laughed his wife; "always preaching economy, but never practicing it."

"Would to God I had millions to lavish on you!" he exclaimed, with tears of mawkish feeling and honest affection mingled as they never should in a true man's eyes.

"Lavish your love, Martin," replied the wife, "and I'll be content."

That night she laid her head upon her pillow without misgiving.

Mrs. Jocelyn was the daughter of a Southern planter, and in her early home had been accustomed to a condition of chronic financial embarrassment and easy-going, careless abundance. The war had swept away her father and brothers with the last remnant of the mortgaged property.

Young Jocelyn's antecedents had been somewhat similar, and they had married much as the birds pair, without knowing very definitely where or how the home nest would be constructed. He, however, had secured a good education, and was endowed with fair business capacities. He was thus enabled for a brief time before the war to provide a comfortable support in a Southern city for his wife and little daughter Mildred, and the fact that he was a gentleman by birth and breeding gave him better social advantages than mere wealth could have obtained. At the beginning of the struggle he was given a commission in the Confederate army, but with the exception of a few slight scratches and many hardships escaped unharmed. After the conflict was over, the ex-officer came to the North, against which he had so bravely and zealously fought, and was pleased to find that there was no prejudice worth naming against him on this account. His good record enabled him to obtain a position in a large iron warehouse, and in consideration of his ability to control a certain amount of Southern trade he was eventually given an interest in the business. This apparent advancement induced him to believe that he might safely rent, in one of the many cross-streets up town, the pretty home in which we find him. The fact that their expenses had always a little more than kept pace with their income did not trouble Mrs. Jocelyn, for she had been accustomed to an annual deficit from childhood. Some way had always been provided, and she had a sort of blind faith that some way always would be. Mr. Jocelyn also had fallen into rather soldier-like ways, and after being so free with Confederate scrip, with difficulty learned the value of paper money of a different color.

Moreover, in addition to a certain lack of foresight and frugal prudence, bred by army life and Southern open-heartedness, he cherished a secret habit which rendered a wise, steadily maintained policy of thrift wellnigh impossible. About two years before the opening of our story he had been the victim of a painful disease, the evil effects of which did not speedily pass away. For several weeks of this period, to quiet the pain, he was given morphia powders; their effects were so agreeable that they were not discontinued after the physician ceased to prescribe them. The subtle stimulant not only banished the lingering traces of suffering, but enabled him to resume the routine of business with comparative ease much sooner than he had expected. Thus he gradually drifted into the habitual use of morphia, taking it as a panacea for every ill. Had he a toothache, a rheumatic or neuralgic twinge, the drug quieted the pain. Was he despondent from any cause, or annoyed by some untoward event, a small white powder soon brought hopefulness and serenity. When emergencies occurred which promised to tax his mental and physical powers, opium appeared to give a clearness and elasticity of mind and a bodily vigor that was almost magical, and he availed himself of the deceptive potency more and more often.

The morbid craving which the drug inevitably engenders at last demanded a daily supply. For months he employed it in moderate quantities, using it as thousands do quinine, wine, or other stimulants, without giving much thought to the matter, sincerely intending, however, to shake off the habit as soon as he felt a little stronger and was more free from business cares. Still, as the employment of the stimulant grew into a habit, he became somewhat ashamed of it, and maintained his indulgence with increasing secrecy--a characteristic rarely absent from this vice.

Thus it can be understood that his mind had ceased to possess the natural poise which would enable him to manage his affairs in accordance with some wisely matured system of expenditure. In times of depression he would demand the most rigid economy, and again he would seem careless and indifferent and preoccupied. This financial vacillation was precisely what his wife had been accustomed to in her early home, and she thoughtlessly took her way without much regard to it. He also had little power of saying No to his gentle wife, and an appealing look from her blue eyes would settle every question of economy the wrong way. Next year they would be more prudent; at present, however, there were some things that it would be very nice to have or to do.

But, alas, Mrs. Jocelyn had decided that, for Mildred's sake, the coming summer must be spent at Saratoga. In vain her husband had told her that he did not see how it was possible. She would reply,

"Now, Martin, be reasonable. You know Mr. Arnold spends his summers there. Would you spoil Millie's chances of making one of the best matches in the city?"

He would shrug his shoulders and wonder where the money was to come from. Meanwhile he knew that his partners were anxious. They had been strong, and had endured the evil times for years without wavering, but now were compelled to obtain a credit more and more extended, in the hope of tiding themselves over the long period of depression.

This increasing business stagnation occasioned a deepening anxiety to her husband and a larger resort to his sustaining stimulant. While he had no sense of danger worth naming, he grew somewhat worried by his dependence on the drug, and it was his honest purpose to gradually abandon it as soon as the financial pressure lifted and he could breathe freely in the safety of renewed commercial prosperity. Thus the weeks and months slipped by, finding him more completely involved in the films of an evil web, and more intent than ever upon hiding the fact from every one, especially his wife and children.

He had returned on the evening of Belle's company, with fears for the worst. The scene in his pretty and happy home, in contrast with the bitter experiences that might be near at hand, so oppressed him with foreboding and trouble that he went out and weakly sought temporary respite and courage in a larger amount of morphia than he had ever yet taken.

While off his guard from the resulting exaltation, he met a business acquaintance and was led by him to indulge in wine also, with the results already narrated.