Chapter XXIX. The Beatitudes of Opium
 

At least once each week Roger took Belle to some evening entertainment, selecting places that, while innocent, were in keeping with their years--full of color, life, and interest. The young girl improved at once, as the result of this moderate gratification of a craving that was as proper as it was natural. The sense of being restricted and arbitrarily shut away from the pleasures belonging to her youth no longer worked like a subtle and evil ferment in her mind. The repressed and unhappy are in tenfold more danger from temptation than those who feel they are having their share of life's good. The stream that cannot flow in the sunshine seeks a subterranean channel, and in like manner when circumstances, or the inconsiderate will of others, impose unrelenting restraint upon the exuberant spirit of youth, it usually finds some hidden outlet which cannot bear the light. Until Roger came, circumstances had restricted Belle within such a narrow and colorless life, and she was growing very discontented with her lot--a dangerous tendency. Through all this long ordeal her mother and Mildred had retained her sympathy, for she knew that they were not to blame, and that they were right in protesting against all acquaintances and amusements which involved danger. Now that she and Roger occasionally had a merry time together, and a confidential chat on Sunday, she accepted her long days of toil without complaint.

The wholesome and tonic influence of a few hours of positive and unalloyed enjoyment in a busy or burdened life is properly estimated by a very few. Multitudes would preach better, live better, do more work and die much later, could they find some innocent recreation to which they could often give themselves up with something of the wholehearted abandon of a child.

Belle now had pleasures to look forward to, or some bright scene to live over again, and, were it not for her sympathy for her sister and anxiety on her father's behalf, her brow would have been serene.

To Mildred, however, the days were growing darker and the way more thorny. She was gaining only in the power of endurance; she was unconsciously developing the trait that bade fair to become the keynote of her life--fidelity. It was her absolute loyalty to her long-cherished love that prevented her from accepting invitations to go with Belle and Roger. Through all disguises she saw that the latter was a lover and not a friend, and while she had learned to respect him much more, she shrank from him none the less. True, therefore, to her womanly instincts, and pathetically patient with a life full of pain and weariness, she faltered on toward a future that seemed to promise less and less. Roger did not need to be told by Belle of Mildred's burdened life, although the young girl did speak of it often with sad and indignant emphasis. "Beautiful Millie, who would grace the finest house in the city," she said, "is as much out of place in this life as if a gazelle were made to do the work of a cart-horse. It's just killing her."

"It's not the work that's harming her so much as the accursed brutality which permits more cruelty to white women than was ever inflicted on black slaves. If the shopkeepers owned these girls who serve their counters they would provide them seats instantly, on the same principle that some of your Southern people, who had no humanity, cared well for their human property; but these fellows know that when a girl breaks down they can take their pick from twenty applicants the next morning. If I could scalp a few of these woman-murderers, I'd sleep better to-night. Oh, Belle, Belle, ii you knew how it hurts me to see such advantage taken of Miss Mildred! I sometimes walk the streets for hours chafing and raging about it, and yet any expression of my sympathy would only add to her distress. You must never speak to her of me, Belle, except in a casual way, when you cannot help it, for only as I keep aloof, even from her thoughts, can she tolerate me at all."

"Be patient, Roger. Millie is unlike many girls, and wants only one lover. Now I'd like half a dozen, more or less, generally more. She's too infatuated with that weakling, Vinton Arnold, to care for any one else. And to think he hasn't sent her one reassuring word since last summer! There isn't enough of him to cast a shadow. Catch me moping after such a dim outline of a man! But it's just like Millie. If he'd only vanish into thin air she might give him up, and perhaps he has."

"No, he's in Europe, and has been there ever since he left the hotel at Forestville. I learned the fact the other day. He's living in luxury and idleness, while the girl who loves him is earning her bread in a way that's infernal in its cruelty."

"How did you find that out?" Belle asked quickly.

"It was in no mean or underhand way, and no knowledge of my inquiries will ever reach him. I thought she'd like to know, however, and you can tell her, but give her no hint of the source of your information."

"Who told you?" was Mildred's prompt response to Belle's news that night, while a sudden bloom in her pale face showed how deeply the tidings interested her.

"No matter how I learned the fact," replied Belle a little brusquely; 'it's true. He wouldn't lift his little finger to keep you from starving."

"You wrong him," cried Mildred passionately; "and I don't wish you ever to speak of him again. I know who told you: it was Roger Atwood, and I wish he would leave me and my affairs alone. He is singularly stupid and ill-bred to meddle in such a matter."

"He has not meddled," retorted Belle indignantly, and wholly off her guard; "he thought you might like to know the truth, and he learned it in a way that left no trace. When you are in the streets you are always looking for Mr. Arnold (it's a pity he wasn't doing a little looking, too), and now your mind can be at ease. He isn't sick or dead; he's entirely safe and having a good time, faring sumptuously every day, while you are dying by inches for little more than bread and a nook in a tenement-house. I don't care what you say, I detest such a man."

Mildred's overtaxed nerves gave way at Belle's harsh and prosaic words, and throwing herself on her couch she sobbed so bitterly that the inconsiderate child, in deep compunction, coaxed and pleaded with her not "to take it so hard," and ended by crying in sympathy, almost as heartily as Mildred herself. The latter was completely disarmed of her anger by Belle's feelings, and, indeed, as she came to think it all over, it did not seem so like desertion on Arnold's part, since he might have written from Europe and the letter have failed to reach her. That he should have been in New York all this time and have made no effort to find her would seem heartless indeed. At any rate, with her rare fidelity and faith, she would believe nothing against him without absolute proof.

But of Roger Atwood she thought resentfully, "He reads my very thoughts. He has seen me looking for Vinton half-unconsciously when in the streets. He keeps himself in the background, and no doubt thinks himself very distant and considerate; but I can scarcely turn in any direction but I see his shadow, or meet with some indication that he is watching and waiting."

There was more truth in her words than she half suspected. His duties required that he should be down town very early in the morning, but he was usually released in the afternoon, for his uncle tacitly humored his desire for study. Scarcely an evening elapsed that the young man did not pass and repass the shop in which Mildred was employed, for through the lighted windows he could see the object of his thoughts unobserved, and not infrequently he followed her as she wearily returned homeward, and his heart ached with the impotent desire to lighten the burdens of her life. He feared that she would never accept of his watchful care or thank him for it; but love is its own reward, and impels to action that does not well stand the test of the world's prosaic judgment. Beyond this brief and furtive gratification of his passion, he lost no time in sighing or sentiment, but bent his mind to his tasks with such well-directed and persistent energy that the commission merchant occasionally nodded significantly; for, in accordance with his habit, he took counsel of no one except himself.

It was Roger's hope that, eventually, Mildred, for her own sake, could be persuaded to accompany Belle on some of their pursuits of evening recreation, and he suggested that the latter should persistently try to induce her to go, saying that her health and success in the future required more change and cheerfulness; but Mildred always said "No," with a quiet emphasis which admitted of no argument.

In truth, when evening came she was too weary to go with him or with any one else, and the first Sunday after her duties at the shop began she could not be present at the chapel and meet her class.

Mr. Wentworth called, fearing she was ill. She explained in part, and he was quick to understand. His brow darkened in such a frown that the poor girl grew frightened, and began: "Indeed, Mr. Wentworth, do not judge me harshly, or think that I let a trifle keep me--"

Then he awakened to her misapprehension, and coming directly to her side he took her hand, with a face so kind, so full of deep, strong sympathy, that her eyes filled at once.

"My poor child," he said, "could you imagine I was frowning at you?--brave little soldier that you are, braver and stronger in your way and place than I in mine. God bless you, no. I felt savage to think that in this nineteenth century, and right under the shadow of our church spires, this diabolical cruelty is permitted to go on year after year. Oh, I know all about it, Miss Mildred; you are not the first one by hundreds and hundreds. I wish I could give you more than sympathy, and that some other way would open--we must find some other way for you--but you have no idea how many are worse off in these bad times than you are--worthy people who are willing to work, but cannot get work. If it seems to you that I cannot do very much for you, remember that there are scores who, for the time, seem to have no resources at all. I trust you may soon hear such tidings from your father as will bring relief to both body and mind. And now, my child, don't let a morbid conscience add to your burdens. When you are as greatly in need of rest as you were last Sunday, don't come to the chapel. I'll take your class, or find a substitute."

In a few minutes he was gone; but they were not alone, for he had made them conscious of One who is touched with the feeling of our infirmities.

How was the absent husband and father fulfilling the hopes that daily turned to him, but found no reward? He was literally writhing under chains that, to his horror, he could not break. He had found on shipboard that sudden and complete abstinence irom the drug brought a torture of mind and body that he could not endure, and now he was learning, in sickening fear, that he could not gradually reduce his daily allowance below a certain point without immediate sufferings beyond his fortitude to sustain.

The room in the Inquisition, whose circular walls, studded with long, sharp spikes, gradually closed upon and pierced the victim, had its spiritual counterpart in his present condition. He was shut in on every side. If he made a push for liberty by abstaining from the drug, he was met and driven back by many nameless agonies. He seemed to recoil, inevitably, as if from steel barbs. Meanwhile the walls were closing in upon him. In order to prevent life from being a continuous burden, in order to maintain even the semblance of strength and manhood, so that he might have some chance of finding employment, he had to increase the quantity of morphia daily; but each succeeding indulgence brought nearer the hour when the drug would produce pain--pain only, and death. After a week or two of futile and spasmodic effort he drifted on in the old way, occasionally suffering untold agony in remorse and self-loathing, but stifling conscience, memory, and reason, as far as possible, by continuous stimulation.

His quest of employment was naturally unsuccessful. The South was impoverished. Weak from the wounds of war, and the deeper enervation of a system that had poisoned her life for generations, she had not yet begun to rally. There was not enough business in the city for the slow and nerveless hands of its citizens, therefore there was little prospect for a new-comer, unless he had the capital and energy to create activity in the midst of stagnation. A few were slightly imposed upon at first by Mr. Jocelyn's exalted moods, and believed that he might do great things if he were given the chance; but they soon recognized that he was unsound and visionary, broaching plans and projects that varied widely with each succeeding interview. The greater number of his former friends and acquaintances were scattered or dead, and those who remembered him had their hands too full to do more than say a good word for him--saying it, too, more and more faintly as they saw how broken and untrustworthy he was. The story of his behavior on the ship, and correct surmises of the true cause of his manner and appearance, soon became current in business circles, and the half-pitying, half-contemptuous manner of those with whom he came in contact at last made it clear, even to his clouded mind, that further effort would be utterly useless.

Meanwhile his habit now began to inflict a punishment that often seemed beyond endurance. The increased quantities of morphia with which he sought to sustain himself, combined with his anxiety, remorse, and solicitude for his family and his own future, filled the hours of darkness with one long nightmare of horror. His half-sleeping visions were more vivid and real than the scenes of day. From some harrowing illusion he would start up with a groan or cry, only to relapse a few moments later into an apparent situation more appalling and desperate.

The earth would open and swallow him in fathomless darkness; then he was on a ship caught in a maelstrom and whirled down with a speed imaginable only by a mind as disordered and morbid as his own. Panting, struggling, drenched with a cold perspiration, he would struggle back into a brief and miserable consciousness. With scarcely any respite his diseased imagination would seize him again, and now the ship, with tattered sails and broken masts, would be becalmed in the centre of a cyclone. All around him was the whirling tornado from which the vessel had passed into awful silence and deceptive peace. Although viewless, a resistless volume was circling round him, a revolving torrent of air that might at any second make its existence known by wrenching the ship in some direction with such violence as to destroy it at once. When would the awful suspense be over, and the cyclone, with a peal of thunder through the rigging, again lay its frenzied grasp on the ill-fated ship? In unspeakable dread he seemed to spring from the deck in the hope of ending all, and would find himself gasping on his couch, which vice had made a place of torture, nor rest.

But the visions which most shook his soul were those connected with his wife and children. He saw them starving; he saw them turned into the street, mocked and gibed at by every passer-by. He saw them locked up in prison-cells, under the charge of jailers that were half brute, half fiend; he saw Fred and Minnie carried off by an Italian padrone to a den reeking with filth, and loud with oaths and obscenity. With a hoarse shout of rage he would spring up to avert blows that were bruising their little forms; he saw his wife turn her despairing eyes from heaven and curse the hour of their union; he saw Mildred, writhing and resisting, dragged from her home by great dark hands that were claws rather than hands; worse than all, he saw Belle, dressed in colors that seemed woven from stains of blood, stealing out under the cover of night with eyes like livid coals.

Such are the beatific visions that opium bestows, having once enchained its victims. Little wonder that, after spending nights upon a poisoned rack, Mr. Jocelyn was in no condition to meet his fellow-men and win their confidence.

The dark thought crossed his mind more than once that he had better never return home--that, since he had lost his manhood, life had better go too; but in these darkest and most desperate moments the face of his wife would rise before him, and from her white lips came the cry, "No! no! no!" with such agonized intensity that he was restrained.

Moreover, he had not given up hope altogether, and he determined to return, and, unknown to his family, consult his old physician, who had inadvertently led him into this terrible dilemma, and adjure him to undo his work. He might aid in concealing the truth from those from whom, of all others, the unhappy man would hide his shame. This seemed his one last chance.