Chapter XXXI. An Opium Maniac's Christmas
 

Beneath his brusque manner Dr. Benton masked a kind heart when once its sympathies were touched. He soon became satisfied that Mr. Jocelyn's family were not trying to shield his patient, but were, on the contrary, overwhelmed with dismay and shame at the truth which he had made clear to them. He therefore set about helping them, in his own prosaic but effective way, and he did not leave them until they were all as well and quiet as the dread circumstances of the situation permitted. Opium slaves are subject to accidents like that which had overtaken Mr. Jocelyn, who, through heedlessness or while half unconscious, had taken a heavy overdose, or else had punctured a vein with his syringe. Not infrequently habitues carelessly, recklessly, and sometimes deliberately end their wretched lives in this manner. Dr. Benton knew well that his patient was in no condition to enter upon any radical curative treatment, and it was his plan to permit the use of the drug for a few days, seeking meanwhile to restore as far as possible his patient's shattered system, and then gain the man's honest and hearty co-operation in the terrible ordeal essential to health and freedom. If Mr. Jocelyn had not the nerve and will-power to carry out his treatment--which he much doubted--he would advise that he be induced to go to an institution where the will of others could enforce the abstinence required. He believed that Mr. Jocelyn would consent to this, when convinced of his inability to endure the ordeal in his own strength. Having explained his intentions and hopes to Mrs. Jocelyn and Mildred, he left them cast down indeed, but not utterly devoid of hope.

It seemed to them that the husband and father must renounce the fatal habit at once, in response to their appeals. They could not understand that it was already beyond his power to break his chains--that they must be broken by other hands, if broken at all.

It may well be doubted if the light of Christmas day dawned on a sadder household than that which was sheltered in the old mansion. Worn and exhausted to the last degree, and yet sleepless from anxiety, grief, and shame, the two women watched beside the fitful, half-conscious man. At last he appeared to throw off his stupor sufficiently to recognize his wife; but it was with a strange look, in which were blended fear, suspicion, and shame. A cold perspiration broke out over his whole form, for something in her expression, and especially in the aspect of Mildred's face, seemed to indicate that they knew all, and his own guilty fears and conscience made the surmise true for the moment; but the tender manner in which his wife wiped his brow and kissed him were reassuring, and with his rallying powers grew the hope that his weakness might yet be unknown and successfully concealed until, by his physician's aid, he had thrown off the curse. Fearing above and beyond all things else that his wife would learn his degradation, he slowly and fitfully tried to mature plans of deception; but his enfeebled mind rallied so slowly that he felt for a time that silence and observation were his best allies. He would cautiously and suspiciously feel his way, and having learned all that had transpired since he remembered being on the steamer, he could then decide more clearly how to shape his course. He therefore affected to regard his condition as the result of a severe illness, and murmured that "quiet and home life would soon bring him round."

Mildred kissed him also, and answered, "We cannot think otherwise, papa, for our love, our lives, and all are bound up in you."

The morning dragged heavily away, for all except the little ones were under the impression that dark and woful days were before them. Mr. Benton had not disguised the truth--that the problem with which they had to deal was one of great difficulty and much doubt. This prospect was depressing, but that which weighed like lead upon their hearts was the thought that one who had ever been their ideal of honor and truth had deceived them for months, and had steadily yielded to a habit which he knew must destroy his family's honor and leave them friendless, penniless, and disgraced. The weeks of pain that Mildred had endured were not the result of a hard necessity, but of a vicious indulgence of a depraved appetite. Not disease but sin had so darkened their lives and brought them to a pass where even daily bread and shelter for the future were doubtful questions.

A thousand times Mildred asked herself, "How can I go out and face the world with my name blackened by this great cloud of shame?" She felt as if she never wished to step into the open light of day again, and the thought of Vinton Arnold made her shudder. "There is now a great gulf between us," she moaned. "The truth that my father is an opium slave can never be hidden, and even were Vinton inclined to be faithful, his family would regard me as a leper, and he will yield to their abhorrence."

The wound in both her own and her mother's heart was deep indeed. Their confidence was shattered, their faith in human goodness and honor destroyed. While they still hoped much, they nevertheless harbored a desperate fear, and, at best, the old serene trust could never return. Even if Mr. Jocelyn could rally and reform, there would ever remain the knowledge that he had once been weak and false, and might be again. He would be one who must be watched, shielded, and sustained, and not one upon whom they could lean in quiet faith. The quaking earth which shatters into ruin the material home brings but a slight disaster compared with the vice that destroys a lifelong trust in a husband and father.

Mr. Jocelyn's nerves were much too weak and irritable to endure his children's voices, and their innocence and unconsciousness of danger smote him with unendurable remorse; they were, therefore, sent to Mrs. Wheaton's room. There, too, Belle met Roger, and was much reassured by his hopeful words. She only half comprehended the truth concerning her father, and now, feeling the worst was past, her mercurial nature was fast regaining its cheerfulness. She was one who might despair one day and be joyous the next. Like her father, she had unlimited courage, and but little fortitude. Although she did not know it, the outlook for her was more threatening than for any of the others, for she could not patiently submit to a slow, increasing pressure of poverty and privation. As her father feared, she might be driven to interpose the protest of a reckless life.

Mr. Jocelyn was greatly reassured when Dr. Benton called, and treated him with much respect; and when a liberal allowance of morphia was injected into his arm, he became quite cheerful, believing that not only his family but even the physician was unaware, as yet, of his weakness. By neither sign nor word did Dr. Benton indicate his knowledge, for it was his design to rally his patient into the best possible condition, and then induce him to yield himself up wholly to medical skill, naturally believing that in his present enfeebled state he would shrink from entering on the decisive and heroic treatment required. Promising to call in the evening, he left Mr. Jocelyn apparently very much improved.

In the afternoon Mildred went to her room to seek a little rest. The physician thought he had given enough of the drug to satisfy his patient until he returned, but he had not properly gauged the morbid craving with which he was trying to deal, and as the day declined Mr. Jocelyn became very restless. Finally, he said he felt so much better that he would rise and dress himself, and, in spite of his wife's remonstrances, he persisted in doing so. Although tottering from weakness, he said, irritably, and almost imperiously, that he needed no help, and wished to be alone. With sad foreboding his wife yielded, and waited tremblingly for his next step, for he had become to her an awful mystery.

Her fears were fulfilled, for he soon lifted the curtain door and looked at her in a strange, suspicious manner. "I miss some medicine from my vest pocket," he said hesitatingly.

Her face crimsoned, and she found no words with which to reply.

"Did you take it out?" he demanded sharply.

"No," she faltered.

His manner began to grow excited, and he looked like a distorted image of his former self. Anger, suspicion, fear, and cunning were all blended in his face, but he so far mastered himself as to assume a wheedling tone and manner as he came toward her and said, "Nan, it was only a little tonic that I found beneficial while in the South. You must know where it is. Please give it to me."

The poor woman was so overcome by her husband's appearance and falsehood that she felt sick and faint, and knew not what to say.

"Where is it?" he demanded angrily, for he felt that unless he had the support of the drug speedily, he would wholly lose his self-control.

"Oh, Martin," pleaded his wife, "wait till Dr. Benton comes; he will be here this evening."

"Why this ado about nothing? I merely wish to take a little tonic, and you look as if I proposed suicide."

"Martin, Martin, it is suicide of body and soul. It is worse than murder of me and your innocent children. Oh, Martin, my heart's true love, make me a Christmas gift that I will prize next to Him from whom the day is named. Give me the promise that you will never touch the vile poison again," and she knelt before him and sought to take his hand.

For a moment he was overwhelmed. She evidently knew all! He sank into a chair, and trembled almost convulsively. Then came the impulse--an almost inevitable effect of the drug upon the moral nature--to lie about the habit, and to strive to conceal it, even after an unclouded mind would see that deception was impossible.

"Nan," he began, as he grew a little quieter, "you take cruel advantage of my weak nerves. You must see that I am greatly reduced by illness, and I merely wish to take a little tonic as any sane man would do, and you treat me to a scene of high tragedy. Give me my medicine, and I know that I shall soon be much better."

"Oh, my husband, has it really come to this?" and the wretched wife buried her face in her arms, and leaned heavily on the table.

He was growing desperate. Through excess he had already reached a point where ordinary life became an unendurable burden without the stimulant; but facing a harrowing scene like this was impossible. He felt that his appetite was like a savage beast on which he held a weakening and relaxing grasp. With the strange, double consciousness of the opium maniac, he saw his wife in all her deep distress, and he had the remorse of a lost soul in view of her agony; he was almost certain that she knew how he had wronged her and his children, and he had all the shame and self-loathing of a proud, sensitive man; he knew that he was false to the sacred trusts of husband and father, and that awful thing we call a sense of guilt added its deep depression. It is not inability to comprehend his degradation, his danger, his utter loss of manhood, which opium imposes on its wretched slave, but an impossibility to do aught except gratify the resistless craving at any and every cost. All will-power has gone, all moral resistance has departed, and in its place is a gnawing, clamorous, ravening desire. The vitiated body, full of indescribable and mysterious pain, the still more tortured mind, sinking under a burden of remorse, guilt, fear, and awful imagery, both unite in one desperate, incessant demand for opium.

While his wife sat leaning upon the table, her face hidden, she was the picture of despair; and, in truth, she felt almost as if she were turning into stone. If her husband had been brought home a mangled, mutilated man, as she often feared he might be during the long years of the war, she would have bent over him with a tenderness equalled only by the pride and faith that had ever found in him their centre; but this strange apparition of a man with odd, sinister-looking eyes, who alternately threatened and cowered before her--this man, mutilated more horribly in the loss of truth and love, who was thus openly and shamelessly lying--oh, was he the chivalric, noble friend, who had been lover and husband for so many years! The contrast was intolerable, and the sense of his falseness stung her almost to madness. She did not yet know that opium, like the corruption of the grave, blackens that which is the fairest and whitest.

For a few minutes Mr. Jocelyn debated with himself. Was he strong enough to go out to the nearest drug store? After one or two turns up and down the room he found that he was not. He might fall in utter collapse while on the way, and yet his system, depleted by his recent excess, demanded the drug with an intensity which he could not restrain much longer without becoming wild and reckless. He therefore said to his wife, in a dogged manner, "Nan, I must have that medicine."

The gentle creature was at last goaded into such a burst of indignation that for a few moments he was appalled, and trembled before her. The fire in her blue eyes seemed to scorch away her tears, and standing before him she said passionately, "As you are a man and a Southern gentleman, tell me the truth. I never concealed a thought from you; what have you been concealing from us for weeks and months? I wronged you in that I did not think and plan. day and night how to save instead of how to spend, and I can never forgive myself, but my fault was not deliberate, not intentional. There was never a moment when I tried to deceive you--never a moment when I would not have suffered hunger and cold that you and the children might be warmed and fed. What is this tonic for which you are bartering your health, your honor and ours, your children's bread and blood? Mildred sold her girlhood's gifts, the few dear mementoes of the old happy days, that you might have the chance you craved. That money was as sacred as the mercy of God. For weeks the poor child has earned her bread, not by the sweat of her face, but in agony of body and unhappiness of heart. If it were disease that had so cast us down and shadowed our lives with fear, pain, and poverty, we would have submitted to God's will and watched over you with a patient tenderness that would never have faltered or murmured; but it's not disease, it's not something that God sent. It is that which crimsons our faces with shame."

He sat cowering and trembling before her, with his face buried in his hands.

In a sudden revulsion of tenderness she sank again on her knees before him, and pleaded in tones of tenderest pathos: "Martin, I know all; but I am ready to forgive all if you will be true from this time forward. I know now the cause of all your strange moods which we attributed to ill-health; I know the worst; but if, in humble reliance upon God, you will win back your manhood, the past evil days shall be blotted out, even as God blots out our sins and remembers them no more against us. We will sustain your every effort with sympathy and loving faith. We will smile at cold and hunger that you may have time--Great God!" and she sprang to her feet, white, faint, and panting.

Her husband had taken his hands from his face, and glared at her like a famished wolf. In his desperate, unnatural visage there was not a trace of manhood left.

"Give me the bottle of morphia you took from my pocket," he demanded, rising threateningly. "No words; you might as well read the Ten Commandments to an unchained tiger. Give it to me, or there is no telling what may happen. You talk as if I could stop by simply saying, coolly and quietly, I will stop. Ten thousand devils! haven't I suffered the torments of the damned in trying to stop! Was I not in hell for a week when I could not get it? Do you think I ask for it now as a child wants candy? No, it's the drop of water that will cool my tongue for a brief moment, and as you hope for mercy or have a grain of mercy in your nature, give it to me now, now, now!"

The poor wife tottered a step or two toward her daughter's room, and fell swooning at the threshold. Mildred opened the door, and her deep pallor showed that instead of sleeping she had heard words that would leave scars on memory until her dying day.

"The poison you demand is there," she said brokenly, pointing to her bureau. "After mamma's appeal I need not, cannot speak," and she knelt beside her mother.

Her father rushed forward and seized the drug with the aspect of one who is famishing. Mildred shuddered, and would not see more than she could help, but gave her whole thought and effort to her mother, who seemed wounded unto death. After a few moments, to her unbounded surprise, her father knelt beside her and lifted her mother to a lounge, and, with a steady hand and a gentle, considerate manner, sought to aid in her restoration. His face was full of solicitude and anxiety--indeed he looked almost the same as he might have looked and acted a year ago, before he had ever imagined that such a demon would possess him.

When at last Mrs. Jocelyn revived and recalled what had occurred, she passed into a condition of almost hysterical grief, for her nervous system was all unstrung. Mr. Jocelyn, meanwhile, attended upon her in a silent, gentle, self-possessed manner that puzzled Mildred greatly, although she ascribed it to the stimulant he had taken.

After a few minutes a strange smile flitted across his face, and he disappeared within his own apartment. A little later, Mildred, returning from a momentary absence, saw him withdraw his syringe from the arm of her half-conscious mother.

"What have you done?" she asked sternly, and hastening to his side.

Secreting the instrument as a miser would his gold, he answered, with the same strange smile, "She shall have a merry Christmas yet; I have just remembered the day. See how quiet she is becoming; see that beautiful flush stealing into her pale face; see the light dawning in her eye. Oh, I gauged the dose with the skill of the best of them; and see, my hand is as steady as yours. I'm not a wreck yet, and all may still be well. Come, this is Christmas night, and we will keep it in good old Southern style. Where are Belle and the children? Ah! here they are. Where have you been, Belle?"

"In Mrs. Wheaton's room," she replied, looking at her father in much surprise. "I was trying to keep the children quiet, so that you, mamma, and Millie might have a little rest."

"That was very kind and good of you, and you now see that I am much better; so is mamma, and with your help and Mildred's we shall have a merry Christmas night together after all."

"Papa is right," Mrs. Jocelyn added with vivacity. "I do feel much better, and so strangely hopeful. Come here, Belle. I've scarcely seen you and the children all day. Kiss me, darlings. I believe the worst is now past, that papa will soon be well, and that all our troubles will end in renewed prosperity and happiness. I have been looking on the dark side, and it was wrong in me to do so. I should have had more faith, more hope, more thankfulness. I should bless God for that sight--Fred and Minnie on their father's knees as in old times. Oh, what a strange, bright turn everything has taken."

"Mamma dear," said Belle, who was kneeling and caressing her, "can I not ask Roger in to see you? He has looked like a ghost all day, from anxiety about you."

"Oh, no, no," gasped Mildred.

"Now, Millie," began Mrs. Jocelyn in gentle effusion, "you carry your prejudice against Roger much too far. He has been the world and all to Belle since he came to town. Belle was like a prisoned bird, and he gave her air and room to fly a little, and always brought her back safe to the nest. Think of his kindness last night (suddenly she put her hand to her brow as if troubled by something half forgotten, but her serene smile returned). Papa, thanks to Roger's kindness, is here, and he might have been taken to a hospital. I now feel assured that he will overcome all his troubles. What we need is cheerfulness--the absence of all that is depressing. Roger is lonely away from his home and people, and he shall share our Christmas cheer; so call him, Belle, and then you and Millie prepare as nice a supper as you can;" and the girl flew to make good a prospect so in accordance with her nature.

Mildred almost as precipitately sought her room. A moment later Roger was ushered in, and he could scarcely believe his eyes. The unconscious man, whom he at this time on the previous day believed dying, had his children on his lap, and was caressing them with every mark of affection. Although he still appeared to be very much of an invalid, and his complexion had a sallow and unnatural hue, even in the lamplight, it was difficult to believe that twenty-four hours before he had appeared to be in extremis. When he arose and greeted Roger with a courtesy that was almost faultless, the young fellow was tempted to rub his eyes as if all were a dream. Mrs. Jocelyn, too, was full of cheerfulness and hope, and made him sit beside her while she thanked him with a cordiality and friendliness that seemed even tinged with affection. If memory could be silenced there would be nothing to dispel the illusion that he looked upon a humble but happy home, unshadowed by any thought or trouble. As it was, the illusion was so strong that he entered into the apparent spirit of the occasion, and he chatted and laughed with a freedom and ease he had never yet known in their presence.

"Where is Millie?" Mrs. Jocelyn suddenly asked. "We must be all together on this happy occasion. Minnie, call her, for I do not wish a moment of this long-deferred hour marred or clouded."

"Millie," cried the child, opening the door, "mamma wants you to come right away. We are having a lovely time."

"Don't mind Millie's ways," said Mrs. Jocelyn, touching Roger's arm and giving him a little confidential nod. "You understand each other."

These words, with her manner, struck Roger as peculiar in one who had ever seemed to him the embodiment of delicacy, but he was too inexperienced to gauge them properly. When he turned, however, to bow to Mildred, who entered and took a seat in a distant corner, he was startled by her extreme pallor, but acting on Mrs. Jocelyn's advice he tried to act as before, resolving, nevertheless, that if his presence continued to be a restraint on one for whom he was ever ready to sacrifice himself, he would speedily depart. Belle was radiant in her reaction from the long, miserable day, and, with a child's unconsciousness, gave herself up to her happiness.

"Millie shall rest as well as yourself, mamma, for she was up all night, and I'll get supper and prove what a housewife I am. Roger, if you do not swallow everything I prepare without a wry face, and, indeed, with every appearance of relish, I shall predict for you the most miserable old bachelorhood all your days."

"I am afraid you will put Roger's gallantry to a very severe test," cried Mrs. Jocelyn gayly. "Indeed, I fear we have not very much for supper except the warmest good-will. Our poverty now, however, will not last long, for I feel that I can so manage hereafter as to make amends for all the past. I can see that I am the one who has been to blame; but all that's past, and with my clearer, fuller knowledge and larger opportunities I can do wonders."

Roger was much struck by the peculiar smile with which Mr. Jocelyn regarded his wife as she uttered these words.

"Lemme show you what Aunty Wheaton gave me dis mornin'," lisped Fred, pulling Roger up.

As he rose he caught a glimpse of Mildred's face, and saw that she was regarding her mother and father in undisguised horror. Something was evidently wrong--fearfully wrong. There was a skeleton in that cheerful lighted room, and the girl saw it plainly. Never would he forget her terrible expression. He trembled with apprehension as he stood over the child's toy and tried to imagine what it was that had suddenly filled the place with a nameless dread and foreboding. So quick and strong was his sympathy for Mildred, so unmistakable had been the expression of the girl's face, that he was sure something must soon occur which would explain her fears.

He was right, for at this moment Dr. Benton knocked, entered, and took the chair he had vacated. The physician looked with some surprise at his patient and Mrs. Jocelyn's flushed, smiling face. As he felt her pulse her sleeve fell back, and he saw the ominous little red scar, and then he understood it all, and fixed a penetrating glance on the face of her husband, who would not meet his eye.

"I have done you wrong, Dr. Benton," Mrs. Jocelyn began volubly, "for we all are indebted to your skill that my husband is so much better. This day, which promised to pass so sadly, has a bright ending, thanks to your timely remedies. We are once more a united household, and I can never thank our dear young friend here, Mr. Atwood, enough that he discovered my husband and brought him to us and to your able treatment. Surely, Millie, your prejudice against him must vanish now, for--"

"Mother," cried Mildred, "if you have a grain of reason or self-control left, close your lips. Oh, what a mockery it all is!"

When Belle took her astonished eyes from Mildred's face, Roger, who stood near the door, was gone.

"You had better follow your daughter's advice, Mrs. Jocelyn," said the physician quietly and soothingly; "you are a little feverish, and I prescribe quiet. May I see you alone a moment or two, Mr. Jocelyn?"

"Yes, here in my room," added Mildred eagerly.

It was with the aspect of mingled fear and haughtiness that Mr. Jocelyn followed Dr. Benton into the apartment, and the door was closed.

"Mother, you are ill," said Mildred, kneeling beside her. "For my sake, for yours, pray keep quiet for a while."

"Ill! I never felt better in my life. It's all your unreasonable prejudice, Millie."

"I think so too," cried Belle indignantly. "We were just beginning to have a little sunshine, and you have spoiled everything."

"I am the only one who knows the truth, and I shall take the responsibility of directing our affairs for the next few hours," replied Mildred, rising, with a pale, impassive face. "Belle, my course has nothing to do with Roger Atwood. I exceedingly regret, however, that he has been present. Wait till you hear what Dr. Benton says;" and there was something so resolute and almost stern in her manner that even Mrs. Jocelyn, in her unnatural exaltation, yielded. Indeed, she was already becoming drowsy from the effects of the narcotic.

"You are not yourself, mamma. I'll explain all to-morrow," the young girl added soothingly.

"Mr. Jocelyn," said the physician, with quiet emphasis, "you have injected morphia into your wife's arm."

"I have not."

"My dear sir, I understand your case thoroughly, and so do your wife and daughter, as far as they can understand my explanations. Now if you will cease your mad folly I can save you, I think; that is, if you will submit yourself absolutely to my treatment."

"You are talking riddles, sir. Our poverty does not warrant any assumption on your part."

"I know the insane and useless instinct of those in your condition to hide their weakness; but can you not control it, and permit me as your friend and physician to help you? I am seeking your interests, not my own."

"Curse you!" cried Mr. Jocelyn, in a burst of uncontrollable anger; "if you had been my friend you would have let me die, but instead you have said things to my wife that have blasted me forever in her eyes. If she had not known, I could have made the effort you require; but now I'm a lost man, damned beyond remedy, and I'd rather see the devil himself than your face again. These are my rooms, and I demand that you depart and never appear here again."

The physician bowed coldly, and left the ill-fated family to itself.

Mildred, who overheard her father's concluding words, felt that it would be useless then to interpose. Indeed she was so dispirited and exhausted that she could do no more than stagger under the heavy burden that seemed crushing her very soul.

She assisted her mother to retire, and the latter was soon sleeping with a smile upon her lips. Mr. Jocelyn sat sullenly apart, staring out into the bleak, stormy darkness, and Mildred left him for the first time in her life without giving him his good-night kiss. As she realized this truth, she sank on her couch and sobbed so bitterly that Belle, who had been meditating reproaches, looked at her with tearful wonder. Suddenly Mildred arose in strong compunction, and rushed back to her father; but he started up with such a desperate look that she recoiled.

"Don't touch me," he cried. "Put your lips to the gutter of the streets, if you will, but not to such pitch and foulness as I have become."

"Oh, papa, have mercy!" she pleaded.

"Mercy!" he repeated, with a laugh that froze her blood, "there is no mercy on earth nor in heaven," and he waved her away, and again turned his face to the outer darkness.

"Millie, oh, Millie, what is the matter?" cried Belle, shocked at her sister's horror-stricken face.

"Oh, Belle, is there any good God?"

"Millie, I'm bewildered. What does it all mean? The evening that began so brightly seems ending in tragedy."

"Yes, tragedy in bitter truth. Hope is murdered, life poisoned, hearts made to bleed from wounds that can never heal. Belle, papa loves opium better than he does you or me, better than his wife and little helpless children, better than heaven and his own soul. Would to God I had never lived to see this day!"