Chapter XXXIII. Mildred in a Prison Cell
 

Not from any sense of guilt, but rather from the trembling apprehensiveness of one whose spirit is already half broken by undeserved misfortune, Mildred tottered to a chair within the small apartment to which she had been taken. With an appealing glance to the two women who stood beside her she said, "Oh, hasten to prove that I am innocent! My burden was already too heavy, and this is horrible."

"Miss Jocelyn," replied the elder of the women, in a matter-of-fact tone, "it's our duty to search you thoroughly, and, if innocent, you will not fear it. There will be nothing 'horrible' about the affair at all, unless you have been stealing, and it seems to me that an honest girl would show more nerve."

"Search me, then--search as thoroughly as you please," cried Mildred, with an indignant flush crimsoning her pale, wan face. "I'd sooner starve a thousand times than take a penny that did not belong to me."

Grimly and silently, and with a half-incredulous shrug, the woman, whose mind had been poisoned against Mildred, began her search, first taking off the young girl's waterproof cloak. "Why is the bottom of this side-pocket slit open?" she asked severely. "What is this, away down between the lining and the cloth?" and she drew out two pieces of valuable lace.

Mildred looked at the ominous wares with dilated eyes, and for a moment was speechless with astonishment and terror.

"Your words and deeds are a trifle discordant," began the woman, in cold satire, "but your manner is more in keeping."

"I know nothing about that lace," Mildred exclaimed passionately. "This is a plot against--"

"Oh, nonsense!" interrupted the woman harshly. "Here, officer," she continued, opening the door, "take your prisoner. These goods were found upon her person, concealed within the lining of her cloak," and she showed him where the lace had been discovered.

"A mighty clear case," was his grinning reply; "still you must be ready to testify to-morrow, unless the girl pleads guilty, which will be her best course."

"What are you going to do with me?" asked Mildred, in a hoarse whisper.

"Oh, nothing uncommon, miss--only what is always done under such circumstances. We'll give you free lodgings to-night, and time to think a bit over your evil ways."

One of the seniors of the firm, who had drawn near to the door and had heard the result of the search, now said, with much indignation, and in a tone that all present could hear, "Officer, remove your prisoner, and show no leniency. Let the law take its full course, for we intend to stamp out all dishonesty from our establishment, most thoroughly."

"Come," said the policeman, roughly laying his hand on the shoulder of the almost paralyzed girl.

"Where?" she gasped.

"Why, to the station-house, of course," he answered impatiently.

"Oh, you can't mean that."

"Come, come, no nonsense, no airs. You knew well enough that the station-house and jail were at the end of the road you were travelling. People always get found out, sooner or later. If you make me trouble in arresting you, it will go all the harder with you."

"Can't I--can't I send word to my friends?"

"No, indeed, not now. Your pals must appear in court to-morrow."

She looked appealingly around, and on every face within the circle of light saw only aversion and anger, while the cruel, mocking eyes of the man whose coarse advances she had so stingingly resented were almost fiendish in their exultation.

"It's of no use," she muttered bitterly. "It seems as if all the world, and God Himself, were against me," and giving way to a despairing apathy she followed the officer out of the store--out into the glaring lamplight of the street, out into the wild March storm that swept her along toward prison. To her morbid mind the sleet-lad en gale seemed in league with all the other malign influences that were hurrying her on to shame and ruin.

"Hi, there! Look where you are going," thundered the policeman to a passenger who was breasting the storm, with his umbrella pointed at an angle that threatened the officer's eye.

The umbrella was thrown back, and then flew away on the gale from the nerveless hands of Roger Atwood. Dumb and paralyzed with wonder, he impeded their progress a moment as he looked into Mildred's white face. At last a time had come when she welcomed his presence, and she cried, "Oh, Mr. Atwood, tell them at home--tell them I'm innocent."

"What does this outrage mean?" he demanded, in a tone that cause the officer to grasp his club tightly.

"It means that if you interfere by another word I'll arrest you also. Move on, and mind your business."

"Miss Jocelyn, explain," he said earnestly to her, without budging an inch, and the comparatively few passers-by began to gather around them.

"You can have no communication with the prisoner on the street," said the arm of the law roughly; "and if you don't get out of my way you'll be sorry."

"Please don't draw attention to me," entreated Mildred hurriedly. "You can do nothing. I'm falsely accused--tell them at home."

He passed swiftly on her side, and, as he did so, whispered, "You shall not be left alone a moment. I'll follow, and to-morrow prove you innocent," for, like a flash, the scene he had witnessed the evening before came into his mind.

"Quit that," warned the officer, "or I'll--" but the young man was gone. He soon turned, however, and followed until he saw Mildred led within the station-house door. The storm was so severe as to master the curiosity of the incipient crowd, and only a few street gamins followed his example. He was wary now, and, having regained his self-control, he recognized a task that would tax his best skill and tact.

Having watched until he saw the officer who had made the arrest depart, he entered the station-house. To the sergeant on duty behind the long desk he said, with much courtesy, "I am a friend of Miss Jocelyn, a young woman recently brought to this station. I wish to do nothing contrary to your rules, but I would like to communicate with her and do what I can for her comfort. Will you please explain to me what privileges may be granted to the prisoner and to her friends?"

"Well, this is a serious case, and the proof against her is almost positive. The stolen goods were found upon her person, and her employers have charged that there be no leniency."

"Her employers could not have wished her treated cruelly, and if they did, you are not the man to carry out their wishes," Roger insinuated. "All that her friends ask is kindness and fair play within the limits of your rules. Moreover, her friends have information which will show her to be innocent, and let me assure you that she is a lady by birth and breeding, although the family has been reduced to poverty. She has influential friends."

His words evidently had weight with the sergeant, and Roger's bearing was so gentlemanly that the official imagined that the young man himself might represent no mean degree of social and political influence.

"Yes," he said, "I noticed that she wasn't one of the common sort."

"And you must have observed also that she was delicate and frail looking."

"Yes, that, too, was apparent, and we have every disposition to be humane toward prisoners. You can send her some supper and bedding, and if you wish to write to her you can do so, but must submit what you write to the captain of the precinct. I'm expecting him every minute."

Roger wrote rapidly:

"MISS JOCELYN--Your friends fully believe in your innocence, and I think I can say without doubt that they have the means of proving it. Much depends on your maintaining strength and courage. Bedding will be sent to make you comfortable, and, for the sake of your mother and those you love at home, I hope you will not refuse the supper that shall soon be sent also. I have ever believed that you were the bravest girl in the world, and now that so much depends on your fortitude and nerve, I am sure you will second the efforts of those who are trying to aid you. With the strongest respect and sympathy, ROGER ATWOOD."

The captain, who soon appeared, saw no objection to this note, and promised that it should be sent to Mildred.

Roger then went to the nearest restaurant, and procured a delicate and inviting supper, which, with a generous pot of coffee, he carried so swiftly through the storm that it was sent smoking hot to the cell in which Mildred was confined.

He then hastened to a livery-stable, and, having obtained a carriage, was driven rapidly to the tenement in which the Jocelyns had their rooms. Mr. Jocelyn, fortunately, was absent; for Mildred's natural protector would only have made matters far worse. If the guardians of the law had looked upon the wrecked and fallen man they would have felt that the daughter's alleged crime was already half explained. But a visit from Mrs. Jocelyn would make a far different impression, and he determined that she alone should accompany him to the station-house.

It would be useless to pain the reader with Mrs. Jocelyn's distress, and for a time Roger thought the tidings would crush the already stricken woman; but in answer to his appeal she soon rallied in defence of her child. At his request she assumed, as far as possible, the garb of a lady--the appearance and bearing of one was inseparable from her. It was with much difficulty that he persuaded the weeping and indignant Belle to remain with the children, for he well knew that she was far too excitable to deal with the police. Having made every provision possible for Mildred's comfort, they soon reached the station-house, and the sergeant in charge greeted them politely; but on learning their errand he frowned, and said to Mrs. Jocelyn, "No, you can't see her till she is brought into court to-morrow."

In answer to the mother's appeals and Roger's expostulations he remarked impatiently, "Do you think I'm going to disobey orders? Either take my answer or wait till the captain comes in again."

They had no other resource, and sat down to weary waiting, the mother weeping silently, and Roger, with sternly knit brows, deep in thought.

At last the captain returned, and the sergeant rose and said, "Here's the mother of the girl who was taken with stolen goods on her person. She wishes to speak with you."

"Well, what is it?" demanded the police-captain a little harshly, turning toward Mrs. Jocelyn; but his manner softened as he looked upon the thin, delicate features which had not yet lost their old, sweet charm, and which now were eloquent with a mother's unspeakable grief and solicitude. "Don't be frightened, madam," he added, somewhat kindly, as he saw the poor woman's ineffectual efforts to rise and speak. "I'm human, and not more hard-hearted than my duties require."

At last Mrs. Jocelyn burst forth: "If you have a heart at all, sir, save mine from breaking. My child is innocent--it will be proved to-morrow. A year ago we had a happy, beautiful home, and my girl a father whom all men respected. We've had misfortunes, that, thank God, fall to the lot of few, but my child has kept herself spotless through them all. I can prove this. She is in prison to-night through no fault of hers. Oh, sir, in the name of mother-love, can you keep me from my child? Can I not see her even for a moment, and say to her one reassuring word? She may go mad from fear and shame. She may die. Oh, sir, if you have the heart of a man, let me see her, let me speak to her. You, or any one, may be present and see that I mean no harm."

"There certainly has been some dreadful mistake," Roger put in hastily, as he saw the man was irresolute, and was regarding the suppliant sympathetically. "People who must command your respect will be glad to testify that Miss Jocelyn's character is such as to render impossible anything dishonorable on her part."

"Let me warn you," said the officer keenly, "that any such negative testimony will have but little weight against the positive facts in the case."

"Oh, let me see my child," cried Mrs. Jocelyn, in tones of such passionate pathos that his scruples gave way, and he said to the sergeant, "Let her see the girl! I'd be a brute to deny her, even if it is against our rules. The doorman need not stand near enough to embarrass them."

As Mrs. Jocelyn eagerly descended to the cells in the basement, the captain remarked to Eoger, "The girl's friends will have to bestir themselves if they clear her. The evidence is so strong that she'll be committed for further trial, without doubt."

"I think she'll be discharged to-morrow," replied Roger quietly. "I thank you for your kindness to Mrs. Jocelyn."

"Mere statements as to the girl's previous character will not clear her," resumed the captain emphatically. "You are a relative, lover, or something, I suppose. This poor woman has knocked my routine methods a little out of gear. One rarely sees a face like hers in a station-house. She evidently comes of no common stock, and I'd like to hear that the charge is all a mistake, as you claim; but, young man, you can't meet criminal charges with generalities. You've got to show that she didn't steal that lace. I wish you success, for the mother's sake at least," and he passed into his private room.

As Mildred was about to enter the station-house she had looked back, hoping, for the first time in her life, that Roger Atwood was near. The eager and reassuring wave of his hand satisfied her that he would know the place of her imprisonment, and that he would do for her all within his power. Again he had appeared in the hour of misfortune and bitter humiliation. But, inspite of her heart, she now did justice to his sturdy loyalty, and she was comforted and sustained by the thought that not quite all the world was against her. She also knew that he would relieve her mother and Belle from unendurable anxiety on account of her absence, and that he would summon Mr. Wentworth to her aid. His promise to prove her innocent had meant nothing to her more than that he would inform and rally all of her friends. That he could know anything that would throw light on the evil mystery did not seem possible. She was then too miserable and depressed to do much more than wait, in a sort of stunned torpor, for what might next occur. Mechanically she answered such questions as were put to her in order that a record of the case might be made, and then was led to the cells below. She shuddered as she saw the dimly lighted stairway, and it seemed to her morbid fancy that she was to be thrust into a subterranean dungeon. Such, in a certain sense, it was; for in some of the older station-houses the cells are located in the basement. At the end of the corridor, nearest the street, she saw several women, and, unkempt and disgusting as these station-house tramps appeared, the fact that some of her own sex were near was reassuring. A prison was to her a place full of nameless horrors, for the romances she had read in brighter days gave to it the associations of medieval dungeons. Of the prosaic character of a modern jail she knew nothing, and when she was placed within a bare cell, and the grated iron door was locked upon her, the horrible desolation of her position seemed as complete and tragic a fate as had ever overtaken the unfortunate in the cruel past. She sat down upon the grimy wooden bench, which was the only provision made for rest or comfort, and the thought of spending a lonely night in such a place was overpowering. Not that she could hope for sleep, even if there were downy pillows instead of this unredeemed couch of plank on which some beastly inebriate may have slept off his stupor the night before, but she felt weak and faint, and her overtaxed physical nature craved some support and rest.

Distress of mind, however, soon made her forget all this, as her faculties slowly rallied from the shock they had received, and she began to realize that she was charged with a crime of which it might be difficult--perhaps impossible--to prove her innocence. At best, she feared she would always be so clouded with suspicion that all would refuse to employ her, and that her blighted life and undeserved shame, added to her father's character, would drag the family down to the lowest depths. The consequences to them all, and especially to Belle, seemed so threatening and terrible that she wrung her hands and moaned aloud.

At every sound she started up, nervous and morbidly apprehensive. The grating of the key in the iron door had given her a sense of relief and refuge. The massive bars that shut her in also shut out the brutal and criminal, who were associated with a prison in her mind; the thoughts of whom had filled her very soul with terror, when she was first arrested. As it was early in the evening she happened to be the first prisoner, and she prayed that there might be no others, for the possibility that some foul, drunken man might be thrust into an adjoining cell made her flesh creep. How many long, sleepless hours must pass before morning could bring any hope of release! And yet she dreaded the coming day unspeakably, for her path to freedom lay through a police court, with all its horrible publicity. Her name might get into the papers, and proud Mrs. Arnold treasure up every scrap of such intelligence about her. The tidings of her shame might be sent to her who as Miss Wetheridge had been her friend, and even she would shrink from one around whom clung such disgraceful associations. Again and again she asked herself, How could the charge against her be met? How could the family live without her? What would become of them? Belle, alas, would be rendered utterly reckless, because hopeless. The unhappy prisoner was far beyond tears. Even her faith in God failed her, for, seemingly, He had left her the victim of cruel wrong and unredeemed misfortune. With her hot, dry eyes buried in her hands she sat motionless and despairing, and the moments passed like hours.

At this crisis in her despair Roger's note was handed to her, and it was like the north star suddenly shining out on one who is benighted and lost. It again kindled hope, without which mind and body give way in fatal dejection. She kissed the missive passionately, murmuring, with eyes heavenward, "If he can clear my name from dishonor, if he will rescue my loved ones from the poverty and shame which are now threatening such terrible evils, I will make any sacrifice that he can ask. I will crush out my old vain love, if I die in the effort. My heart shall not prove a traitor to those who are true and loyal at such a time. He can save mamma, Belle, and the children from hopeless poverty, and perhaps destruction. If he will, and it is his wish, I'll give all there is left of my unhappy self. I will be his loyal wife--would to God I could be his loving wife! Oh, would to God he had loved Belle instead of me! I could be devotion itself as his sister. But surely I can banish my old fond dream--which was never more than a dream--when one so deserving, so faithful, is willing to give me his strong, helpful hand. We are both very young; it will be years before--before--and, surely, in so long a time, I can conquer my infatuation for one who has left me all these dreary months without a word. A woman's heart cannot be proof against reason, gratitude, and the sacred duty owed to those she loves best. At any rate, mine shall not be, and if he still craves the loyalty and--and--yes, the love of one so shamed and impoverished as I am, he shall have all-all," and her face grew stern with her purpose of self-mastery. She forced down some of the food he sent, and drank the coffee. "I will be brave," she murmured. "I will try to second his efforts to clear my name, for death were better than shame. I shall, at least, try to deserve his respect."

Then musingly she added, "How can my friends have gained any information that would prove me innocent? Mother and Belle cannot know anything definite, nor can Mr. Wentworth. He promised in that brief whisper when he passed me in the street that he would prove it. Can he have learned anything in his strange vigilance? It seems impossible. Alas, I fear that their best hope is to show that I have hitherto borne a good character, and yet if my present home and our poverty are described, if--worse than all--papa appears in the court-room, I fear they will think the worst," and something of her old despair began to return when she heard approaching footsteps.

"Millie!" cried a loved and familiar voice. The key grated in the lock, and in another moment she was sobbing on her mother's breast, and her bruised heart was healed by the unutterable tenderness of a mother's love. It filled the dark cell with the abounding, undoubting, unquestioning spirit of unselfish devotion, which was akin to the fragrance diffused from the broken box of alabaster.

When sufficiently calm, Mildred told her mother what had happened, and she in turn whispered that Roger had strong hopes that he could prove her innocence on the following day, though how she did not know. "And yet, Millie," she concluded, "for some reason he inspires me with confidence, for while he feels so deeply, he is quiet and thoughtful about the least thing. Nothing seems to escape his mind, and he says he has some information of which he does not think it best to speak at present. He entreats you to take courage, and says that if you will 'keep up and be your brave, true self, gentle and strong,' you can do much to aid him. We will all stand by you, and Mr. Wentworth will be with us."

"Where--where is papa?" faltered Mildred, with a slight flush. "I don't know," responded the wife, with a deep sob.

"Alas, mother, it's cruel to say it, but it will be best that he should not appear at all. Keep him away if possible. I hope he may never know anything about it, unless you think this terrible result of his course may awaken him to a final struggle to do right. I would gladly suffer anything to save him."

"No, Millie, he would not be his old self if he came into court," said her mother dejectedly, "and his appearance and manner might turn the scale against you. Our best hope is to let Roger manage everything. And now, good-by, my darling. God sustain you. Do not fear anything to night. Roger says you are safe, and that his only dread is that you may become nervously prostrated, and he relies on your help to-morrow. I can't stay any longer. Oh, God, how glad I would be if I could hold you in my arms all night! Belle is strongly excited, and says she will never believe a word against you, nor will any of your true friends--alas! I wish we had more."

"Time is up," warned the doorman.

"Tell Mr. Atwood that I am deeply grateful for his aid, and more grateful for his trust," said Mildred.

"Courage, Millie; you can sustain me by keeping up yourself. You will find us in the court-room waiting for you."

With an embrace in which heart throbbed against heart they separated, and the poor girl was comforted and more hopeful in spite of herself, for while she would shrink from Roger, her confidence in his shrewdness and intelligence had made such growth that she half believed he would find some way of proving her innocent, although how he had obtained any evidence in her favor she could not imagine. The bedding brought by her mother transformed the cellbunk into a comfortable couch, and she lay down and tried to rest, so as to be ready to do her part, and her overtaxed nature soon brought something like sleep. She was startled out of her half-consciousness by a shrill cry, and sprang to her feet. There was a confused sound of steps on the stairs, and then again the same wild cry that almost made her heart stand still. A moment later two policemen appeared, dragging a woman who was resisting and shrieking with demoniacal fury.

The sight was a horrible one. The faces of the great, stalwart men were reddened by exertion, for the woman seemed to possess supernatural strength, and their familiarity with crime was not so great as to prevent strong expressions of disgust. Little wonder, for if a fiend could embody itself in a woman, this demented creature would leave nothing for the imagination. Her dress was wet, torn, and bedraggled; her long black hair hung dishevelled around a white, bloated face, from which her eyes gleamed with a fierceness like that of insanity.

With no little difficulty they thrust her into a cell opposite the one in which Mildred was incarcerated, and as one of the men turned the key upon her he said roughly, "Stay there now, you drunken she-devil, till you are sober," and breathing heavily from their efforts they left the poor wretch to the care of the jailer.

Mildred shrank away. Not for the world would she encounter the woman's frenzied eyes. Then she stopped her ears that she might not hear the horrid din and shameful language, which made the place tenfold more revolting. The man in charge of the cells sat dozing stolidly by the stove, some distance away. His repose was not to be disturbed by such familiar sounds.

At last the woman became quiet, and Mildred breathed more freely, until some mysterious sounds, suggesting that her terrible neighbor was trying to open her door, awakened her fears, for even the thought of her coming any nearer made her tremble. She therefore sprang up and looked between the iron bars. At first she was perplexed by what she saw, and then her heart stood still, for she soon made out that the woman was hanging by the neck, from the highest bar of her cell door. "Help," Mildred shrieked; "quick, if you would save life."

The man by the stove sprang up and rushed forward.

"There, see--oh, be quick!"

The jailer comprehended the situation at once, unlocked the door, and cut the parts of her clothing which the woman had improvised into a halter. She soon revived, and cursed him for his interference. He now watched her carefully, paying no heed to her horrible tongue, until the crazed stage of her intoxication passed into stupor. [Footnote: The writer saw the cell in which, on the evening before, the woman described tried twice to destroy herself. He also saw the woman herself, when brought before the police justice. She had seen twenty-five years, but in evil she seemed old indeed. According to her story, she was a daughter of the uritans.] To Mildred he said, reassuringly, "Don't be afraid; you're as safe as if you were at home."

"Home, home, home!" moaned the poor girl. "Oh, what a mockery that word has become! My best hope may soon be to find one in heaven."