Chapter XXX. The Secret Vice Revealed
 

On the day preceding Christmas, late in the afternoon, Roger Atwood boarded a steamer which had just arrived from a Southern city. His uncle, the commission merchant, was expecting a consignment of tropical fruits, and as the young man stood among others waiting to see the freight clerk, he overheard one of the vessel's officers remark, "His name is Jocelyn--so papers on his person indicate--and he must be sent to a hospital as soon as possible."

Advancing promptly to the speaker, Roger said, "I overheard your remark, sir, and think I know the gentleman to whom you refer. If I am right, I will take him to his family immediately."

The officer acted with such alacrity as to prove that he was very glad to get the sick man off his hands, and Roger noted the fact. A moment later he saw Martin Jocelyn, sadly changed for the worse, and lying unconscious in a berth.

"I am right, I am very sorry to say," Roger said, after a moment, with a long, deep breath. "This will be a terrible shock to his family."

"Do you think he is dying?" the officer asked.

"I don't know. I will bring a physician and take Mr. Jocelyn home on one condition--that our consignment of produce is delivered at once. I must be absent, and my employer's interests must not suffer in consequence. I am doing you a favor, and you must return it just as promptly."

The freight clerk was summoned, and Roger was assured that his uncle's consignment should take the precedence as fast as it could be reached. The young man then hastened to find the nearest physician, stopping a moment at his place of business to give a hurried explanation of his course. Mr. Atwood listened in silence, and nodded merely; but, as Roger hastened away, he muttered, "This mixing himself up with other people's troubles isn't very shrewd, but his making capital out of it so that my consignment will all be delivered to-night is--well, we'll call it even. He's no fool."

The physician was rather young and inexperienced, and he pronounced Mr. Jocelyn's trouble to be congestion of the brain. He agreed to go with Roger to the old mansion and do what he could for the patient, although holding out slight hope of recovery.

"She is learning to associate me with misfortune, and will dread my presence as if I were a bird of ill-omen," Roger groaned mentally, as he recalled the several miserable occasions which, in the mind of Mildred, were inseparably connected with himself; "but some day--some day, if I have to strive for a lifetime--she shall also learn that it is not I who bring the trouble."

Christmas comes at the darkest and dreariest season of the year, making short, cold days, and longer, colder nights the holiday season, just as He, whose birth the day commemorates, comes to human hearts in the darkest and coldest hours of desolation. Even in the great city there were few homes so shadowed by poverty and sorrow that they were not brightened by some indications of the hallowed time. The old mansion, that once may have been embowered in evergreens, was again filled with the aromatic breath of the forest, for Roger had commissioned a friend in the country to send so large a supply to Belle that she was embarrassed with riches of hemlock, laurel, and pine, which, although given away prodigally, left enough to transform their rooms into the aspect of bowers. Since they had not money for toys, they could make the Christmas-tide a time of wonder and delight to Fred and Minnie in this inexpensive way, and Mildred, who would naturally shrink from the wild mountain home of the evergreen boughs, found in weaving and arranging them into tasteful decorations a pleasure alloyed by only one thought--she was indebted for it to Roger Atwood, the silent yet determined rival of the man she loved. Though he buried his feeling in such profound silence, and hid all manifestation so carefully that even her intuition could not lay hold of any one thing, and say, "This proves it," she nevertheless felt the presence of his love, and sometimes thought she felt it all the more because of its strong repression. It almost vexed her that he made no advances, and gave her nothing to resent, while all the time he was seeking her with the whole force of his will, or at least waiting for some possibility of the future. When Belle proposed that he should help decorate their living-room, since they, at this season, had only the remnants of evenings to give, and were wearied, too, almost beyond the power for extra effort, she felt that for Belle's sake she ought not to object, and that for her own sake she could not, so scrupulous had been the quiet, distant respect with which he had treated her. When he came he seemed to anticipate her thoughts and to obey her wishes in the arrangement of the greenery, even before she spoke, so keen was his observation and quick his sympathy with her mind.

These very facts increased her prejudice and dislike. He was too clever, too keen-sighted and appreciative. Had he been indifferent toward her, and not so observant, she would have soon learned to like him and enjoy his society, for he had a bright, piquant way of talking, and was seldom at a loss for words. In fact, he had plenty of ideas, and was fast gaining more. One reason why Mildred shrank from him in strengthening repulsion was because, in his absorbing interest and his quick comprehension of her thought and feeling, he came too near. Without intending it, and in spite of himself, he intruded on her woman's privacy; for no matter how careful he might be, or how guarded she was in words or manner, she felt that he understood what was in her mind. Her natural impulse, therefore, was to shun his presence and suppress her own individuality when she could not escape him, for only an answering affection on her part could make such understanding appreciation acceptable.

Roger was not long in guessing quite accurately how he stood in her thoughts, and he was often much depressed. As he had said to Clara Bute, he had a downright dislike to contend against, and this might not change with his success. And now it was his misfortune to become associated in her mind with another painful event--perhaps a fatal one. She might thank him sincerely for his kindness and the trouble he had taken in their behalf, but, all the same, deep in her heart, the old aversion would be strengthened.

"That invertebrate, Arnold," he muttered, "represents to her the old, happy life; I, her present life, and it's my luck always to appear when things are at their worst. After to-night she will shudder with apprehension whenever she sees me. What will become of them if Mr. Jocelyn dies!"

Full of forebodings and distress at the shock and sorrow impending over those in whom he was so deeply interested, he and the physician placed Mr. Jocelyn in a covered express wagon that was improvised into an ambulance, and drove up town as rapidly as they dared.

In response to a low knock Mrs. Jocelyn opened the door, and the white, troubled face of Roger announced evil tidings before a word was spoken.

"My husband!" she gasped, sinking into a chair.

The young man knelt beside her and said, "Mrs. Jocelyn, his life may depend on your courage and fortitude."

He had touched the right chord, and, after a momentary and half-convulsive sob, she rose quietly, and said, "Tell me what to do--tell me the worst."

"I have brought him with me, and I have a physician also. I found him on a steamer, by accident. They were about to send him to a hospital, but I was sure you would want him brought home."

"Oh, yes--God bless you--bring him, bring him quick."

"Courage. Good nursing will prevent the worst."

Roger hastened back to the patient, stopping on the way only long enough to ask Mrs. Wheaton to go to Mrs. Jocelyn's room instantly, and then, with the physician's aid, he carried the unconscious man to his room, and laid him on his bed.

"Oh, Martin! Martin!" moaned the wife, "how changed, how changed! Oh, God! he's dying."

"I hope not, madam," said the physician; "at any rate we must all keep our self-possession and do our best. While there is life there is hope."

With dilated eyes, and almost fierce repression of all aid from other hands, she took the clothing from the limp and wasted form.

"He is dying," she moaned; "see how unnatural his eyes are; the pupils are almost gone. Oh, God! why did I let him go from me when he was so ill!"

"Would you not like Belle and Miss Mildred summoned at once?" Roger asked.

"Yes, yes, they ought to be here now; every moment may be precious, and he may become conscious."

"At the same time I would like you to call on Dr. Benton in Twenty-third Street," added the physician. "He is a friend of mine, and has had much experience. In so serious a case I would like to consult him."

Roger, while on his way to Dr. Benton's office, passed a livery-stable with a coach standing just within the door, and he at once resolved that the weary girls should not be exhausted by flying home in terror-stricken haste. He took the carriage, obtained the physician, and explained to him what had happened while on the way to the shop in which Belle was employed. It was Christmas-eve, and the store was still crowded with eleventh-hour purchasers, on whom the weary child was waiting in a jaded, mechanical way. Her vacant look and the dark lines under her eyes proved how exhausted she was; but at the sight of Roger a flash of light and pleasure came into her face, and then his expression caused it to fade into extreme pallor.

"What is it?" she asked, turning from a garrulous customer.

"Don't be alarmed; get your things and come with me. I will make it all right with your employer."

"Belle," he said, when they were by the carriage door, "you must be a brave woman to-night. Your father is home, and he is very ill. Perhaps his life depends on quiet and freedom from all excitement. Dr Benton, an experienced physician, is in the carriage, and will go with us. You must tell your sister--I cannot."

If Belle had been herself she would not have failed him; but, after the long strain of the day, she became completely unnerved at his tidings, and sobbed almost hysterically. She could not control herself sufficiently to enter the shop where Mildred stood, unconscious of the approaching shadow, and so the heavy task of breaking the news fell upon Roger. "If Belle, naturally so strong, was white and faint from the long, toilsome day, how wan and ghost-like poor Mildred will appear!" was his thought as he sprang to the sidewalk.

They were closing up, and the discipline of the shop was over. Instead of pallor, there was an angry crimson in Mildred's cheeks, and an indignant fire in her eyes. She evidently was deeply incensed, and her companions apparently were as greatly amused. When she saw Roger the crimson deepened in her face, her brow knitted in strong vexation, and she went on with her task of putting the goods under her charge in order, as if she had not seen him; but the thought flashed through her mind: "Oh that he were to me what he is to Belle! Then he might punish my insolent persecutor, but he's the last one in the world to whom I can appeal. Oh, where's papa?"

"Miss Jocelyn--"

"Don't you see you have another beau?" whispered one of her companions as she passed out. "You won't treat this one with words and manner that are the same as a slap in the face, for he's too good-looking."

She paid no heed to the gibe, for the young man's tone was significant, and she had lifted her eyes to his with eager questioning. His grave, sad face banished the flush from hers instantly.

"Miss Jocelyn," Roger began again, in a low tone, "you have already learned to associate me with painful experiences. I cannot help it. But this, my misfortune, is nothing; you must nerve yourself for anxiety that will test even your strength. Your father is home, and ill. I will not explain further before strangers. Belle and a physician are awaiting you in the carriage."

How quiet and measured were his words; but even in her distress she was painfully conscious that the slight tremor in his voice was the low vibration of a feeling whose repressed intensity would sooner or later break forth. Beyond a momentary shrinking from what seemed to her but well-mastered vehemence, she gave him no thought in her overwhelming solicitude.

Scarcely a moment elapsed before she joined him at the door. As he placed her in the carriage he said, "Dr. Benton will explain to you what has happened."

"Roger--" sobbed Belle, but he sprang on the box with the driver, and in a few moments they were at the door of the old mansion.

"Dr. Benton," said the young man, "will you please accompany Miss Jocelyn? After the fatigue of the day and the shock of this evening she will need your support," and he saw that she leaned heavily on the physician's arm.

Having dismissed the carriage, he found Belle leaning against the side of the house, faint and trembling. The young athlete lifted her in his arms and bore her steadily and easily to the doorway, and then again up the winding stairway. "Belle," he whispered, "if you lose your father you shall at least have a brother."

She entwined her arm about his neck in mute acceptance of the relationship. Her every breath was a low sob, and she could not then tell him how his words reassured her, taking away, in part, the almost overwhelming terror of being left unprotected in the world.

During Mr. Jocelyn's absence his family had tried to banish from their minds the memory of his weakness, and thus they had come to think of him again as the strong, cheerful, genial man they had known all their lives. The months preceding his departure were like a hateful dream. It had been a dearly cherished hope that, after breathing his native air for a few weeks, he would return the same frank, clear-eyed, clear-brained man that had won his way, even among strangers, after the wreck and ruin of the war. To him their thoughts had turned daily, in the hope of release from toil that was often torture, and from anxieties that filled every waking hour with foreboding.

How bitter the disappointment then, and how terrible the shock, as they now looked upon his prostrate form, meagre, shrunken, and almost lifeless! Instead of the full, dark eyes that had beamed mirthfully and lovingly for so many years, there was an unnatural contraction of the pupils which rendered them almost invisible. His once healthful complexion was now livid, or rather of a leaden, bluish hue; his respirations stertorous and singularly deliberate.

"He is dying," Mildred moaned; "he is far, far away from us, even now. Oh, if we could have but one look, one sign of farewell!"

Belle and Mrs. Jocelyn became almost helpless with grief, for it did not seem possible to them that he could rally. "Oh, why did I let him go--why did I let him go!" was the wife's remorseful and often-repeated question.

The elderly and experienced physician whom Roger had brought ignored with professional indifference the grief-stricken household, and was giving his whole mind to the study of the case. After examining the pupils of Mr. Jocelyn's eyes, taking his temperature, and counting his pulse, he looked at his associate and shook his head significantly. Roger, who stood in the background, saw that Dr. Benton did not accept the young physician's diagnosis. A moment later Dr. Benton bared the patient's arm and pointed to many small scars, some old and scarcely visible, and others recent and slightly inflamed. The young practitioner then apparently understood him, for he said, "This is both worse and better than I feared."

"Worse, worse," growled Dr. Benton.

"What do you mean?" asked Mrs. Jocelyn, more dead than alive.

"Madam," began Dr. Benton very gravely, "have you never seen your husband using a little instrument like this?" and he produced from his pocket a hypodermic syringe.

"Never," was the perplexed and troubled reply.

The physician smiled a little satirically, and remarked, in a low aside, "I hope the drug has not affected the whole family. It's next to impossible to get at the truth in these cases."

"Do you think he will die?" was her agonized query.

"No, madam, we can soon bring him around, I think, and indeed he would probably have come out of this excess unaided; but he had better die than continue his excessive use of morphia. I can scarcely conceive how you could have remained ignorant of the habit."

Mildred bowed her head in her hands with a low, despairing cry, for a flash of lurid light now revealed and explained all that had been so strange and unaccountable. The terrible secret was now revealed, as far as she was able to comprehend it--her father was an opium inebriate, and this was but the stupor of a debauch! The thought of his death had been terrible, but was not this worse? She lifted her face in a swift glance at Roger, and saw him looking at her with an expression, that was full of the strongest sympathy, and something more. She coldly averted her eyes, and a slow, deep flush of shame rose to her face, "Never shall I endure a humiliation but he will witness it, and be a part of it," was her bitter thought.

The physicians meanwhile changed their treatment, and were busy with professional nonchalance. Mrs. Jocelyn was at first too bewildered by their words and manner to do more than look at them, with hands clasping and unclasping in nervous apprehension, and with eyes full of deep and troubled perplexity. Then, as the truth grew clearer, that a reflection had been made upon her own and her husband's truth, she rose unsteadily to her feet, and said, with a pathetic attempt at dignity, "I scarcely understand you, and fear that you as little understand my husband's condition. He never concealed anything from me. He has been unfortunate and in failing health for months, and that is all. I fear, from your cruel and unjust surmises, that you do not know what you are doing, and that you are destroying his slender chances for life."

"Do you wish to discharge us, then?" was Dr. Benton's brusque response. He was a man of unusual skill, but blunt and unsympathetic, especially in cases wherein he suspected deception--an element almost inseparable from the morphia habit. The victim is almost invariably untruthful, and the family not unfrequently hide the whole truth in the desire to shield the disgraceful weakness. Dr. Benton was too familiar with these facts to be easily moved, but when the sad-hearted wife clasped her hands and cried, in tones that would touch the coldest heart, "I wish him to live, for his death would be far worse than death to us all," the physician said kindly, "There, there, Mrs. Jocelyn, I have seen many cases like this. Your husband will live, and will soon be able to speak to you. If you then can induce him to leave morphia alone, he may become as sound a man as ever."

Mildred put her arm around her mother and drew her into her room, closing the door.

A few moments later Roger heard the wife's passionate protest, "I do not believe it--I will never believe it." Then Dr. Benton said to him, "Here, young man, run to my house for an electric battery."

When he returned Mr. Jocelyn was coming slowly out of his deep coma, and his appearance was changing rapidly for the better. There was a deep, indignant flush on Mrs. Jocelyn's face, and she took Roger aside and said earnestly, "Never believe the lies you have heard here to-night. I know that you will never repeat them."

"Never, Mrs. Jocelyn."

But Mildred was pale and almost stony in her cold, calm aspect; her heart, in her desperation, was hard toward every one. Belle had not comprehended the truth at all, having been too much overwhelmed by her emotions to heed the earlier remarks of the physicians, and Mildred had said to them significantly and almost sternly, "There is no need of giving your diagnosis any further publicity."

Dr. Benton had then looked at her more attentively, and muttered, "An unusual girl; more's the pity."

"Mr. Atwood," Mildred began, a few moments after his entrance, "we thank you for your aid in this painful emergency, but we need trouble you no further. Papa is rallying fast. I will thank you to inform me of all the expense which you have incurred in our behalf at your earliest convenience."

"Mildred," interposed Mrs. Jocelyn, suddenly appearing from beside her husband's couch, the unwonted fire still burning in her usually gentle eyes, "I cannot permit Mr. Atwood to be dismissed so coldly. He has been a true friend in the most terrible emergency of our lives. I must have a strong, kind hand to sustain me now that my husband, my life, has been foully slandered in his own home."

Belle, in even greater terror of being left alone, clung to his arm, and said, "He cannot leave us--he has made me a promise this night which will keep him here."

With a troubled and deprecating look at Mildred, Roger replied, "I will not fail you, Mrs. Jocelyn, nor you, Belle; but there is no further need of my intruding on your privacy. I shall be within call all night."

"He can stay in my room," said Mrs. Wheaton, who, although aiding the physicians, could not help overhearing the conversation.

"No, he shall stay here," cried Belle passionately; "I'm so unnerved that I'm almost beside myself, and he quiets me and makes me feel safer. Millie has no right to show her prejudice at such a time."

Mildred, white and faint, sank into a chair by the table and buried her face in her arms, leaving the young fellow in sore perplexity as to what course he ought to take. He believed the physicians were right, and yet Mrs. Jocelyn had taken it for granted that he shared her faith in her husband's truth, and he knew she would banish him from her presence instantly should he betray a doubt as to the correctness of her view. At the same time the expression of his face had shown Mildred that he understood her father's condition even better than she did. It seemed impossible to perform the difficult and delicate part required of him, but with love's loyalty he determined to do what he imagined the young girl would wish, and he said firmly, "Belle, I again assure you that you can depend upon my promise to the utmost. Mrs Jocelyn, my respect for you is unbounded, and the privilege of serving you is the best reward I crave. At the same time I feel that it is neither right nor delicate for me to witness sorrows that are so sacred. My part is to help, and not look on, and I can help just as well if within call all the time. Belle," he whispered, "dear Belle, I know you are unnerved by weeks of overwork as well as by this great trouble, but be a brave little woman once more, and all may soon be well," and he was about to withdraw when Dr. Benton appeared and said:

"Mrs. Jocelyn, your husband is now out of all immediate danger, but everything depends upon his future treatment. I wish this young man to remain a little longer, for you must now decide upon what course you will take. We have been called in an emergency. There is no need that I should remain any longer, for the physician who accompanied him here is now amply competent to attend to the case. You have, however, expressed lack of confidence in us, and may wish to send for your own physician. If so, this young man can go for him at once. I can prove to you in two minutes that I am right, and I intend to do so; then my responsibility ceases. Everything depends on your intelligent and firm co-operation with whatever physician has charge of the case, and it is no kindness to leave you under a delusion that does your heart more credit than your head or eyes."

He stepped back through the curtained doorway, and returned with her husband's vest, from an inner pocket of which he took a hypodermic syringe, a bottle of Magendie's solution, and also another vial of the sulphate of morphia.

"I am an old physician," he resumed, "and know your husband's symptoms as well as you know his face. His possession of these articles should confirm my words. The slight scars upon his arms and elsewhere were made by this little instrument, as I can show you if you will come and observe--"

His medical logic was interrupted by a low cry from the stricken wife, and then she fainted dead away.

Mildred, on the contrary, stepped forward, with a pale, stern face, and said, "I will take charge of these," and she, carried the agents of their ruin to her own room. Instantly she returned, and assisted Mrs. Wheaton in the restoration of her mother.

To Belle, who had looked on dazed, trembling, and bewildered, Roger whispered, "I shall be within call all night."