Chapter XXXII. A Black Conspiracy
 

On the following morning Mrs. Jocelyn was ill and much depressed from the reaction of the drug that had been given without her knowledge, and after learning all that had transpired she sank into an almost hopeless apathy. Mildred also was unable to rise, and Belle went to their respective employers and obtained a leave of absence for a day or two, on the ground of illness in the family. Mrs. Wheaton now proved herself a discreet and very helpful friend, showing her interest by kindly deeds and not by embarrassing questions. Indeed she was so well aware of the nature of the affliction that overwhelmed the family that she was possessed by the most dismal forebodings as well as the deepest sympathy.

Mr. Jocelyn had departed at an early hour, leaving a note wherein he stated that he might be absent some days seeking employment in a neighboring city. He had felt that it would be impossible to meet his family immediately after the experiences of the previous day. Indeed he had gone away with the desperate resolve that he would break his habit or never return; but alas for the resolves of an opium slave!

Time dragged heavily on, the family living under a nightmare of anxiety, fear, and horrible conjectures. What might he not do? What new phase of the tragedy would hereafter be developed?

Now that the busy season was over, the girls found that they could retain their position as saleswomen only by accepting whatever their employers chose to pay, and the thrifty shopkeepers satisfied their consciences with the thought that they could obtain scores of others at even lower prices. Mr. Schriven, in the multiplicity of other interests, had almost forgotten Belle, and she had become in his mind merely a part of the establishment. Her dejected face and subdued manner excited some remark among her companions when she again appeared, but her explanation, "Mother is ill," quieted all curiosity.

For a few days Mildred looked as white and crushed as a broken lily, and then the reserve strength and courage of the girl began to reassert themselves. With a fortitude that was as heroic as it was simple and unostentatious, she resolutely faced the truth and resolved to do each day's duty, leaving the result in God's hands. With a miser's care she husbanded her strength, ate the most nourishing food they could afford, and rested every moment her duties permitted. The economy they were now compelled to practice amounted almost to daily privation. Belle and the children were often a little petulant over this change, Mrs. Jocelyn apathetic, but Mildred was inflexible. "We must not run in debt one penny," she would often remark with compressed lips.

Although frequently unoccupied at the shop, she was nevertheless compelled to stand, and in spite of this cruel requirement she rallied slowly. Thanks, however, to her wise carefulness, she did gain steadily in her power to endure and to fight the hard battle of life.

One of the saddest features of their trouble was the necessity of reticence and of suffering in silence. Their proud, sensitive spirits did not permit them to speak of their shame even to Mrs. Wheaton, and she respected their reserve. Indeed, among themselves they shrank from mentioning the sorrow that oppressed every waking moment and filled their dreams with woful imagery.

Daring an absence of nearly two weeks Mr. Jocelyn occasionally wrote a line, saying that he was as well as they could expect, and that was all. Then he reappeared among them and began leading a desultory kind of life, coming and going in an aimless way, and giving but little account of himself. They saw with a deeper depression that he had not improved much, although apparently he had avoided any great excesses. Occasionally he gave Mildred a little money, but how it was obtained she did not know. It was well he was reticent, for had she known that it was often part of a small loan from some half-pitying friend of former days, and that it would never be repaid, she would not have used a penny of it. They were simply compelled to recognize the awful truth, that the husband and father was apparently a confirmed opium inebriate. At first they pleaded with him again and again, unable to understand how it was possible for him to continue in so fatal a course, but at last they despairingly desisted. He would at times weep almost hysterically, overwhelmed with remorse, and again storm in reckless anger and unreasoning fury. As in thousands of other homes wherein manhood and honor have been destroyed, they found no better resource than silent endurance. Under such inflictions resignation is impossible. For Mrs. Jocelyn and Mildred it was simply a daily martyrdom, but in her companionship with Roger, Belle had much to sustain, cheer, and even brighten her life.

He was in truth a loyal friend, and daily racked his brain for opportunities to show her and Mrs. Jocelyn some reassuring attention; and his kindness and that of Mrs. Wheaton were about the only glints of light upon their darkening way. Mildred was polite and even kind in her manner toward the young man, since for Belle's sake and her mother's she felt that she must be so. His course, moreover, had compelled her respect; but nevertheless her shrinking aversion did not diminish. The fact that an evil destiny had seemingly destroyed her hope of ever looking into the face of Vinton Arnold again made the revolt of her heart all the more bitter against an unwelcome love of which she was ever conscious when Roger was present. But he had won her entire respect; he knew so much, and he worked on and waited. The grasp of his mind upon his studies daily grew more masterful, and his industry and persistence were so steady that the old commission merchant began to nod to himself approvingly.

The current of time flowed sluggishly on, bringing only changes for the worse to the Jocelyns. Early spring had come, but no spring-tide hope, and in its stead a bitter humiliation. The pressure of poverty at last became so great that the Jocelyns were in arrears for rent and were compelled to move. In this painful ordeal Mrs. Wheaton was a tower of strength, and managed almost everything for them, since no dependence could be placed on Mr. Jocelyn. The reader's attention need not be detained by a description of their new shelter--for it could not be called a home. They had a living-room and two very small bedrooms in a brick tenement wedged in among others of like unredeemed angularity, and belonging to the semi-respectable, commonplace order. It was occupied by stolid working-people of various nationalities, and all engaged in an honest scramble for bread, with time and thought for little else. The house was simply a modern, cheap shelter, built barely within the requirements of the law, and, from its newness, unsoiled as yet with the grime of innumerable crowded families. Everything was slight, thin, and money-saving in the architecture; and if a child cried, a shrill-tongued woman vociferated, or a laborer, angry or drunk, indulged in the general habit of profanity, all the other inmates of the abode were at once aware of the fact. By the majority, such sounds were no more heeded than the rumble in the streets, but to poor Mrs. Jocelyn and Mildred, with natures like Aeolian harps, the discords of such coarse, crowded life were often horrible. There was naught to do but exist from day to day, to win what bread they could wherewith to sustain a life that seemed to promise less and less. Mr. Jocelyn was steadily sinking, and Belle, at last, growing bitter and restless under the privations of her lot, in spite of Roger's unfaltering friendship.

Mr. Jocelyn was not one who could sin in a conservative, prudent way. He seemed utterly unable to rally and be a man in his own strength, and his remorse over his conduct was so great that he sought a refuge in almost continuous excess. The greater the height, the more tremendous the fall, and he had now reached the recklessness of despair. He had many stolid, slouching neighbors in the tenements, who permitted life to be at least endurable for their families because of the intervals between their excesses; but an interval to Mr. Jocelyn was a foretaste of perdition. Nevertheless, if the wretched man, by a kindly violence, could have been shut up and away for weeks, perhaps months, from all possibility of obtaining the poisons that were destroying him, and treated with scientific skill, he might have been saved even at this late hour. When the world recognizes that certain vices sooner or later pass from the character of voluntary evil into the phase of involuntary disease, and should be treated rigorously and radically under the latter aspect, many lives and homes will be saved from final wreck.

No principles are better known than the influences of soil, climate, darkness, and light upon a growing plant. If the truth could be appreciated that circumstances color life and character just as surely, marring, distorting, dwarfing, or beautifying and developing, according as they are friendly or adverse, the workers in the moral vineyard, instead of trying to obtain fruit from sickly vines, whose roots grope in sterility, and whose foliage is poisoned, would bring the richness of opportunity to the soil and purify the social atmosphere. Immature Belle, in spite of all the influences for good from her mother, her sister, and Roger, could scarcely reside where she did and grow pure and womanly. She was daily compelled to see and hear too much that was coarse, evil, and debasing.

She knew that Roger was a friend, and nothing more--that his whole heart was absorbed in Mildred--and her feminine nature, stimulated by the peculiarities of her lot, craved warmer attentions. In her impoverished condition, and with her father's character becoming generally known, such attentions would not naturally come from young men whom those who loved her best could welcome. She was growing restless under restrictions, and her crowded, half-sheltered life was robbing her of womanly reserve. These undermining influences worked slowly, imperceptibly, but none the less certainly, and she recognized the bold, evil admiration which followed her more and more unshrinkingly.

Mr. Jocelyn's condition was no longer a secret, and he often, in common with other confirmed habitues, increased the effects of opium by a free use of liquor. He therefore had practically ceased to be a protector to his daughters. Fred and Minnie, in spite of all the broken-hearted and failing mother could do, were becoming little street Arabs, learning all too soon the evil of the world.

Since the revelation of her father's condition Mildred had finally relinquished her class at the mission chapel. Her sensitive spirit was so shadowed by his evil that she felt she would be speechless before children who might soon learn to associate her name with a vice that would seem to them as horrible as it was mysterious. Bread and shelter she must obtain, but she was too fear-haunted, too conscious of the shame to which she was linked, to face the public on any occasion not connected with her daily toil.

The pride characteristic of American people who have lapsed from a better condition was intensified by her Southern birth and prejudices. More than hunger, cold, and even death, she feared being recognized, pointed out, stared at, and gossiped about, while the thought of receiving charity brought an almost desperate look into her usually clear blue eyes. Therefore she shrank from even Mr. Wentworth, and was reticent on all topics relating to their domestic affairs. She knew that there were many families whom he was almost sustaining through crises of illness and privation; she also knew that there were far more who sought to trade upon his sympathies. While she could take aid from him as readily as from any one, she also believed that before she could receive it she must be frank concerning her father. Rather than talk of his shame, even to her pastor, it might well be believed that the girl would starve. What she might do for the sake of the others was another question.

Mr. Wentworth in sadness recognized the barrier which Mildred's pride was rearing between them, but he was too wise and experienced to be obtrusively personal. He sought earnestly, however, to guard the young girl against the moral danger which so often results from discouragement and unhappiness, and he entreated her not to part with her faith, her clinging trust in God.

"A clinging trust is, indeed, all that I have left," she had replied so sadly that his eye suddenly moistened; "but the waves of trouble seem strong and pitiless, and I sometimes fear that my hands are growing numb and powerless. In plain prose, I'm just plodding on--God knows whither. In my weary, faltering way I am trying to trust Him," she added, after a brief silence, "and I always hope to; but I am so tired, Mr. Wentworth, so depressed, that I'm like the soldiers that have been described to me as marching on with heavy eyes and heavy feet because they must. There is no use in my coming to the chapel, for I haven't the heart to say a word of cheer to any one, and hollow words would hurt me, while doing no good. I am trying your charity sorely, but I can't help it. I fear you cannot understand me, for even your Christian sympathy is a burden. I'm too tired, too sorely wounded to make any response; while all the time I feel that I ought to respond gratefully and earnestly. It seems a harsh and unnatural thing to say, but my chief wish is to shrink away from everybody and everything not essential to my daily work. I think I shall have strength enough to keep up a mechanical routine of life for a long time, but you must not ask me to think or give way to feeling, much less to talk about myself and--and--the others. If I should lose this stolid self-control which I am gaining, and which enables me to plod along day by day with my eyes shut to what may be on the morrow, I believe I should become helpless from despair and grief."

"My dear child," the clergyman had replied, in deep solicitude, "I fear you are dangerously morbid; and yet I don't know. This approach to apathy of which you speak may be God's shield from thoughts that would be sharp arrows. I can't help my honest sympathy, and I hope and trust that I may soon be able to show it in some helpful way--I mean in the way of finding you more remunerative and less cruel work," he added quickly, as he saw a faint flush rising in the young girl's face. Then he concluded, gravely and gently, "Miss Mildred, I respect you--I respect even your pride; but, in the name of our common faith and the bonds it implies, do not carry it too far. Good-by. Come to me whenever you need, or your conscience suggests my name," and the good man went away wholly bent on obtaining some better employment for Mildred; and he made not a little effort to do so, only to find every avenue of labor suited to the girl's capacity already thronged. Meanwhile the needs and sorrows of others absorbed his time and thoughts.

Belle, because of her thorough liking and respect for Mr. Wentworth, and even more for the reason that he had obtained her promise to come, was rarely absent from her class, and the hour spent at the chapel undoubtedly had a good and restraining influence; but over and against this one or two hours in seven days were pitted the moral atmosphere of the shop, the bold admiration and advances in the streets, which were no longer unheeded and were scarcely resented, and the demoralizing sights and sounds of a tenement-house. The odds were too great for poor Belle. Like thousands of other girls, she stood in peculiar need of sheltered home life, and charity broad as heaven should be exercised toward those exposed as she was.

As Mr. Jocelyn sank deeper in degradation, Mildred's morbid impulse to shrink, cower, and hide, in such poor shelter as she had, grew stronger, and at last she did little more than try to sleep through the long, dreary Sabbaths, that she might have strength for the almost hopeless struggle of the week. She was unconsciously drifting into a hard, apathetic materialism, in which it was her chief effort not to think or remember--from the future she recoiled in terror--but simply to try to maintain her physical power to meet the daily strain.

It is a sad and terrible characteristic of our Christian city, that girls, young, beautiful, and unprotected like Mildred and Belle, are the natural prey of remorseless huntsmen. Only a resolute integrity, great prudence and care, can shield them; and these not from temptation and evil pursuit, but only from the fall which such snares too often compass.

Of these truths Mildred had a terrible proof. A purer-hearted girl than she never entered the maelstrom of city life; but those who looked upon her lovely face looked again, and lingeringly, and there was one who had devoured her beauty daily with wolfish eyes. In charge of the department of the shop wherein she toiled, there was a man who had long since parted with the faintest trace of principle or conscience. He was plausible, fine-looking, after a certain half-feminine type, and apparently vigilant and faithful in his duties as a floor-walker; but his spotless linen concealed a heart that plotted all the evil his hands dared to commit. For him Mildred had possessed great attractions from the first; and, with the confidence bestowed by his power, and many questionable successes, he made his first advances so openly that he received more than one public and stinging rebuff. A desire for revenge, therefore, had taken entire possession of him, and with a serpent's cold, deadly patience he was waiting for a chance to uncoil and strike. Notwithstanding his outward civility, Mildred never met the expression of his eyes without a shudder.

From frank-tongued Belle, Roger had obtained some hints of this man's earlier attentions, and of his present ill-concealed dislike--a latent hostility which gave Mildred no little uneasiness, since, by some pretext, he might cause her dismissal. She knew too well that they were in such straits now that they could not afford one hour's idleness. Roger therefore nursed a bitter antipathy against the fellow.

One evening, late in March, the former was taking his usual brief walk before sitting down to long hours of study. He was at liberty to go whither he pleased, and not unnaturally his steps, for the hundredth time, perhaps, passed the door through which he could catch a glimpse of the young girl, who, with apparent hopelessness, and yet with such pathetic patience, was fighting a long battle with disheartening adversity. He was later than usual, and the employees were beginning to leave. Suddenly the obnoxious floor-walker appeared at the entrance with a hurried and intent manner. Then he paused a second or two and concealed himself behind a show-case. Roger now saw that his eyes were fixed on a girl who had just preceded him, and who, after a furtive glance backward, hastened up the avenue. Her pursuer--for such he evidently was--followed instantly, and yet sought to lose himself in the crowd so that she could not detect him. Partly in the hope of learning something to the disadvantage of one who might have it in his power to injure Mildred, and partly from the motive of adding zest to an aimless walk, Roger followed the man.

The girl, with another quick glance over her shoulder, at last turned down a side street, and was soon walking alone where passengers were few and the street much in shadow; here her pursuer joined her, and she soon evinced violent agitation, stopping suddenly with a gesture of indignant protest. He said something, however, that subdued her speedily, and they went on together for some little distance, the man talking rapidly, and then they turned into a long, dark passage that led to some tenements in the rear of those fronting on the street. About midway in this narrow alley a single gas jet burned, and under its light Roger saw them stop, and the girl produce from beneath her waterproof cloak something white, that appeared like pieces of wound lace. The man examined them, made a memorandum, and then handed them back to the girl, who hesitated to take them; but his manner was so threatening and imperious that she again concealed them on her person. As they came out together, Roger, with hat drawn over his eyes, gave them a glance which fixed the malign features of the man and the frightened, guilty visage of the girl on his memory. They regarded him suspiciously, but, as he went on without looking back, they evidently thought him a casual passer-by.

"It's a piece of villany," Roger muttered, "but of what nature I have no means of discovering, even were it any affair of mine. I am satisfied of one thing, however--that man's a scoundrel; seemingly he has the girl in his power, and it looks as if she had been stealing goods and he is compounding the felony with her."

If he had realized the depth of the fellow's villany he would not have gone back to his studies so quietly, for the one nearest to his heart was its object. The scene he had witnessed can soon be explained. Goods at the lace counter had been missed on more than one occasion, and it had been the hope of Mildred's enemy that he might fasten the suspicion upon her. On this evening, however, he had seen the girl in question secrete two or three pieces as she was folding them up, and he believed she had carried them away with her. Immediately on joining her he had charged her with the theft, and in answer to her denials threatened to have her searched before they parted. Then in terror she admitted the fact, and was in a condition to become his unwilling accomplice in the diabolical scheme suggested by his discovery.

He had said to her, in effect, that he suspected another girl--namely, Mildred Jocelyn--and that if she would place the goods in the pocket of this girl's cloak on the following afternoon he would by this act be enabled to extort a confession from her also, such as he had received in the present case. He then promised the girl in return for this service that he would make no complaint against her, but would give her the chance to find another situation, which she must do speedily, since he could no longer permit her to remain in the employ of the house for whom he acted. She was extremely reluctant to enter into this scheme, but, in her confusion, guilt, and fear, made the evil promise, finding from bitter experience that one sin, like an enemy within the walls, opens the gate to many others. She tried to satisfy such conscience as she had with the thought that Mildred was no better than herself, and that the worst which could happen to the object of this sudden conspiracy was a quiet warning to seek employment elsewhere. The man himself promised as much, although he had no such mild measures in view. It was his design to shame Mildred publicly, to break down her character, and render her desperate. He had learned that she had no protector worthy of the name, and believed that he could so adroitly play his part that he would appear only as the vigilant and faithful servant of his employers.

Mildred, all unconscious of the pit dug beneath her feet, was passing out the following evening into the dreary March storm, when the foreman touched her shoulder and said that one of the proprietors wished to see her. In much surprise, and with only the fear of one whose position meant daily bread for herself and those she loved better than self, she followed the man to the private office, where she found two of the firm, and they looked grave and severe indeed.

"Miss Jocelyn," began the elder, without any circumlocution, "laces have been missed from your department, and suspicion rests on you. I hope you can prove yourself innocent."

The charge was so awful and unexpected that she sank, paie and faint, into a chair, and the appearance of the terror-stricken girl was taken as evidence of guilt. But she goon rallied sufficiently to say, with great earnestness, "Indeed, sir, I am innocent."

"Assertion is not proof. Of course you are willing, then, to be searched?"

She, Mildred Jocelyn, searched for stolen goods! Searched, alone, in the presence of these dark-browed, frowning men! The act, the indignity, seemed overwhelming. A hot crimson flush mantled her face, and her womanhood rose in arms against the insult.

"I do not fear being searched," she said indignantly; "but a woman must perform the act."

"Certainly," said her employer; "we do not propose anything indecorous; but first call an officer."

They were convinced that they had found the culprit, and were determined to make such an example of her as would deter all others in the shop from similar dishonesty.

Mildred was left to herself a few moments, faint and bewildered, a whirl of horrible thoughts passing through her mind; and then, conscious of innocence, she began to grow calm, believing that the ordeal would soon be over. Nevertheless she had received a shock which left her weak and trembling, as she followed two of the most trusty women employed in the shop to a private apartment, at whose door she saw a bulky guardian of the law. The majority, unaware of what had taken place, had departed; but such as remained had lingered, looking in wonder at the hasty appearance of the policeman, and the intense curiosity had been heightened when they saw him stationed near an entrance through which Mildred was speedily led. They at once surmised the truth, and waited for the result of the search in almost breathless expectation. The girl who had done Mildred so deep a wrong had hastened away among the first, and so was unaware of what was taking place; the chief conspirator, from an obscure part in the now half-lighted shop, watched with cruel eyes the working of his plot.