Chapter XXXV. "I Am so Perplexed"
 

The little group that Roger left on the sidewalk looked after him in a dazed manner for a moment, and then Belle exclaimed, a trifle indignantly, "Well, I declare, if he hasn't thanked you, instead of you thanking him."

Mildred sprang into the carriage, feeling that she must have some refuge at once, and, burying her face on her mother's shoulder, burst into another passion of tears.

"There, there," said Mrs. Wheaton, as they were driven toward their home; "the poor child's 'eart is too full for hany neat speeches now. Ven they meets hagain she'll thank him with heyes an' 'and, better than hany vords 'ere hon the street. He vas too bright a chap to take his thanks in this 'ere public place."

To their surprise, Mildred raised her head, and replied, in strong protest, "You do him wrong, Mrs. Wheaton. He was so modest and manly that he wished to escape all thanks. He has taken a noble revenge on me for all my stupid prejudice."

"That's right," cried ecstatic Belle. "Honest confession is good for the soul. I'll admit that most men and women are made of dust--street dust at that--but Roger Atwood is pure gold. He has the quickest brain and steadiest hand of any fellow in the world, and he'll stand up at the head before he's gray."

Fortunately, Mr. Jocelyn was not at home when they returned, and they had a chance to take a quiet breath after their strong excitement. Mrs. Wheaton, with many hearty congratulations and words of cheer, took her departure. Mrs. Jocelyn was justly solicitous about Mildred, fearing that the reaction from an ordeal that would tax the strongest might bring utter prostration to her delicate and sensitive organism. Mildred's manner soon threatened to realize her worst fears. She had passed a sleepless night, and was faint from fatigue, and yet, as the hours lapsed, she grew more nervously restless. Her eyes were hot and dry, sometimes so full of resolution that they were stern in their steadfastness, and again her face expressed a pathetic irresoluteness and sadness that made the mother's heart ache.

"Millie," she whispered, as she came to the bed on which the girl was tossing restlessly, "there's something on your mind. Mother's eyes are quick in reading the face of her child. You are thinking--you are debating something that won't let you rest, when you need rest so much. Oh, Millie darling, my heart was growing apathetic--it seemed almost dead in my breast. I've suffered on account of your father, till it seemed as if I couldn't suffer any more; but your peril and your troubled face teach me that it is not dead, and that my best solace now is devotion to my children. What is it, Millie, that you are turning over in your mind, which makes you look so desperately sad and fearful, and again--and then your expression frightens me--so determined as if you were meditating some step, which, I fear, you ought not to take? Oh, Millie, my child, the worst that I know about is bad enough, God knows, but your face makes me dread that you may be led by your troubles to do something which you would not think of were you less morbid and overwrought. I may have seemed to you a poor, weak woman in all of our troubles, but mother's love is strong, if her mind and body are not."

"Mamma, mamma, do not judge me or yourself so harshly. You have always been my ideal, mamma, and I was thinking of nothing worse than how to rescue you and the others from your desperate straits. How can we go on living in this way, your heart breaking, your poor, frail body overtaxed with coarse labor, and Belle, Minnie, and Fred becoming contaminated by our dreadful surroundings. The shock I've received has awakened me from my old apathy. I see that while I just toiled for daily bread, and a little of it too, we were drifting down, down. Papa grows worse and worse. Belle is in danger; and what will become of Fred and Minnie if they remain long amid such scenes? Only yesterday morning I heard Fred quarrelling with another little boy on the landing, and lisping out oaths in his anger. Oh, mamma, we must be able to look forward to some escape from all this, or else you will soon give way to despair, and the worst will come. Oh that I were a man! Oh that I knew how to do something, through which I could earn enough to put papa into an institution, such as I have read of, and give you a home worthy of the name. But I cannot. I can only do what thousands of others can do, and take my chances with them in getting work. And now I seem so broken down in body and soul that I feel as if I could never work again. There seems to be one way, mamma, in which I can help you." And then she hesitated, and a deep, burning flush crimsoned the face that was so pale before. "Well," she said, at last, in a kind of desperation, "I might as well speak plainly, if I speak at all. It's no secret to you how Roger Atwood feels toward me, and also, mamma, you know my heart. While I could kiss his hand in gratitude, while I would not shrink from any suffering for his sake, to show how deeply I appreciate the priceless service he has rendered me, still, mamma, mamma, I'm only a woman, and am cursed with all the perversity of a woman's heart. Oh, what a loyal friend, what a devoted sister I could be to him! Mamma, can't you understand me?"

"Yes, Millie," sadly answered her mother.

"Well, mamma, I'm so perplexed. It seems for his sake, since we have become so poor and disgraced, that I ought to refuse his suit. To the world, and especially to his friends, it will appear dreadfully selfish that we should link our wretched fortunes to his, and so cloud his prospects and impede his progress. I can't tell you how I dread such criticism. And yet, mamma, you know--no, mamma, even you cannot understand how great would be my self-sacrifice, when to others it will appear that I am only too glad to cling to one who gives some promise of better days. But the turning point has now come. Hitherto my manner toward Mr. Atwood has been unmistakable, and he has understood me; and were he obtuseness itself he could not fail to understand me. But after what has happened I cannot treat him so any longer. It would be shameful ingratitude. Indeed, in my cell last night I almost vowed that if he would prove me innocent--if he would save you and Belle and the children, I would make any sacrifice that he would ask. If I feel this way he will know it, for he almost reads my thoughts, he is so quick, and his feeling for me is so deep. And yet, mamma, now that I have thought more I fear that in sacrificing my own heart I am also sacrificing him. His friends will think so, at least. He is so young, chivalric, and unworldly that he may think it a noble thing to help us fight out our battle; but will he think so in coming years? Will he think so if the struggle is long and hard? Will he think so if we impede and retard him? Alas, will he think so if he finds that I can give him only gratitude and respect? Oh, mamma, I am so perplexed. I don't want to wrong him; I can't see you suffer on hopelessly and helplessly, and therefore it seems I ought to give him the right to help us should he seek for it, as I feel sure he will if I show any relenting. We could not be married for a long time; but if we were engaged he could do much to shield and protect us all; and now, alas, we have no protector. Belle needs one--oh, how sorely she needs one--and what would have been my fate had he not come to my aid? It would seem heartless in me to say simply, Thank you, sir; and yet, what heart have I to give in exchange for his devotion? He deserves so much, and I can give so little. Oh, mamma, will an old love die and a new one grow because they--because you wish it, and pray for it? I am so perplexed, so tossed and torn by my conflicting thoughts and feelings that my poor brain reels, and it seems as if I should lose my reason. And yet I must decide upon some course, for if, after his loyalty to me, I give him hope, I'll not disappoint him if I died a thousand times--no, not if Vinton Arnold came and laid all his wealth at my feet; I can see his love in every glance of his eye, still more can I feel it when he is near me; and if I offer him friendship or a sister's affection, it will seem to him like giving a stone for bread. But I must offer him only these or else give him hope--a hope that it would now be dishonor to disappoint. Mamma, mamma, what shall I do--what ought I to do?"

During this outpouring of her child's soul Mrs. Jocelyn was much agitated, and wiped tear after tear from her eyes. The impulse of her loyal, unworldly heart was first to take sides with Mildred's faithfulness to her earliest love, but her reason condemned such a course so positively that she said all she could against it. "Millie," she began, falteringly at first, "I feel with you and for you deeply. I know your rare quality of fidelity--of constancy. You are an old-fashioned Southern girl in this respect. While I would not have you wrong your heart, you must not blindly follow its impulses. It is often said that women have no reason, though some are calculating enough, Heaven knows. Surely, Millie, this is a case in which you should take some counsel of your reason, your judgment; and believe me, darling, I speak more for your sake than ours. While I admit that Roger has become very dear to me, I would not sacrifice you, my love, even in our sore straits. It is of you I think chiefly. I cannot endure the thought that the future of my darling child may be utterly blighted. I cannot bear to think of your settling down into a weary working-woman, with nothing to look forward to but daily drudgery for daily bread."

"I do not dread that so much, mamma--oh, nothing like so much--as a long and perhaps a vain effort to love one who has a sacred right to love as well as loyalty."

"Millie, you don't know how lonely and desolate your life might become. Millie--forgive me for saying it--your old love is utterly vain."

"I know it, mamma," said Mildred, with a low sob.

"Therefore, my darling, the sweetness and goodness of your young life ought not to be wasted on that which is vain and empty. If Mr. Arnold were worthy of your affections he would not have left you all this time without even a word. And, Millie, we may as well face the truth: we never belonged to the Arnolds' world, and it was wicked folly, for which I suffer hourly remorse, that we ever tried to approach it. If, instead of attempting to live like our rich neighbors, I had saved a goodly portion of your father's income, all might have been so different; but I was never taught to save, and I was just blind--blind. I never see your father but the thought comes, like a stab in the heart, I might have prevented it. Oh, if I had only stayed with him! It was during that fatal separation that he formed the habit which will cause his death and mine." (Poor Mrs. Jocelyn always remained under this illusion.)

"Oh, mamma, mamma, don't talk that way: I can't bear it."

"I must prepare you, Millie, darling, for what I clearly foresee. Martin is destroying himself, and I shall not long survive him. Oh, Millie, it's a terrible thing to love a weak man as I love your father. I love him so that his course is killing me. It could not be otherwise, for I am much to blame. Don't interrupt me; I am speaking these bitter words for your ultimate good. Your life is before you--"

"Mamma, how can my life be before me if you die broken-hearted?"

"Because you are young. You know that it would add tenfold bitterness to my already overflowing cup if I saw no chance for you, Belle, and the little ones. You may soon have to be mother and sister both. I forewarn you, because, as Roger says, you are strong as well as gentle, and you must not just drift helplessly toward we know not what. Oh, Millie, my poor crushed heart must have one consolation before it is at rest. Roger is not, and never will be, a weak man. It is not in his nature to give way to fatal habits. I, too, with a woman's eye, have seen his deep, strong affection for you, and with a mother's jealous love I have studied his character. He is a young giant, Millie, whom you unconsciously awoke to manhood. He comes of a sturdy, practical race, and unites to their shrewdness a chivalric Southern heart and large brain. He doesn't begin to know, himself, how much of a man he is, but the experience of life will fast develop him. He is one who will master circumstances, and not be molded by them. Obstacles will only stimulate his will. Your prejudice and dislike have not made him falter a moment. In the heart of a girl like you, Millie, I truly believe that a new love for such a man will surely spring up, and grow and strengthen with each succeeding year, and you would be worthy of him. You could make him happy, and eventually add greatly to his success. He is sure to become eminent, and be burdened with many large affairs, and the home you could make for him would be a refuge and a resting-place from which he would go out daily, strong and refreshed. Let his friends say what they please at first. He has his own career to make, and in his choice of you he has shown how unerring and sound his instincts are, and you can prove them so, and will, I think, when time has given your morbid and unhappy heart its healthful tone. Mrs. Wheaton has done much work at his uncle's house, and Mrs. Atwood talks to her quite freely. Mrs. Wheaton says they are wealthy, although they live so plainly, and that Mr. Atwood, Roger's uncle, is wonderfully taken with the young man, and means to give him a chance to climb among the highest, if he continues to be so steady and persevering. Of course you know that Roger will never be anything else than steady. And Mrs. Wheaton also says that Mr. Atwood will, no doubt, leave everything to him, for he has no children."

"I am sorry you have told me this," sighed Mildred; "it would have been hard enough at best, but I should feel almost mercenary now."

"Oh, Millie, you are too morbid and proud for anything," expostulated Mrs. Jocelyn, in whom no misfortune or sorrow could wholly blot out her old, mild passion for making good matches for her daughters--good matches in the right sense of the word--for she would look for worth, or what seemed worth to her, as well as the wealth that is too often considered solely. She had sought to involve Vinton Arnold by innocent wiles, and now, in pathetic revival of her old trait, she was even more bent on providing for Mildred by securing a man after her own heart. Love for her daughter, far more than ambition, was the main-spring of her motive, and surely her gentle schemes were not deserving of a very harsh judgment. She could not be blamed greatly for looking with wistful eyes on the one ray of light falling on her darkening path.

After a brief, troubled silence Mrs. Jocelyn resumed, with pathos and pleading in her voice, "Millie, darling, if this could all be, it would brighten my last days."

"There, there, mamma; as far as I can carry out your wishes, it shall be. I had already virtually promised it, and I should be perverse indeed could I not do all--all in my power to brighten your sad life. But, darling mamma, you must promise to live in return. A palace would be desolate if you were not seated in the snuggest corner of the hearth. I'll try to love him; I know I ought to give my whole heart to one who is so worthy, and who can do so much to brighten your life."

"Blessings on you, Millie. You will soon learn to return all his affection. You are both young, and it will probably be years before you can be married. In the meantime you will have a protector and friend who will have the right to aid you. You were slowly dying for want of air and change and hope. You worked all day, and shut yourself up in this miserable place at night, and it could not last; as your affianced he can take your part against the world, and protect Belle; and during the years while he is making his way upward, you will learn to love him. You will become interested in his studies, hopes, and prospects. You will encourage, and at the same time prevent undue application, for no man knows how to take care of himself. He can be our deliverer, and you his good angel. Your relations and long engagement may not be exactly conventional; but he is not conventional, neither is your need nor our sad fortunes. Since God has put within our reach this great alleviation of our sorrow, ought we to refuse it?"

"Set your mind at rest, mamma; you have made duty plain. I will do my best, and it now all rests with Roger."

"Millie, you are a dear, good child," said the mother brokenly, and with smiles shining like light through her tears; and after a close embrace she went out, closing the door that the weary girl might rest at last.

When alone, Mildred turned her face to the wall and breathed, like the lowest and saddest note of a wind-touched harp, "Vinton, Vinton Arnold, farewell forever. I must look for you no more--I must think of you no more. Oh, perverse heart, be still!"

But a decision had been reached, and her perplexed mind had at last found the rest of a fixed resolve. Then nature asserted her right, and she slept long and heavily. When she awoke, the lamp was lighted in the one living-room, from which came the sounds of an unsteady step and a thick, rough voice. She trembled, for she knew that her father had come home again intoxicated--an event that was becoming terribly frequent of late. She felt too weak and nerveless to go out and look upon their living disgrace, and lay still with long, sighing breaths. "Even Mr. Atwood will turn from us in disgust, when he realizes papa's degradation," she thought. "Alas! can it be right to cloud his bright young life with such a shameful stain! Oh, if it were not selfish, I could wish to die and escape from it all."

At last the heavy, shuffling step passed into the adjoining bedroom, and soon the wretched man was in stupor. As Mildred came out she saw Belle, who had returned from her work, looking toward the room in which her father slept, with a lowering, reckless expression that made her sister shudder.

Mildred tried to banish evil thoughts by putting her arm around the young girl's neck and kissing her between the eyes. "Don't look so, Belle," she whispered.

"Where is that to end?" Belle asked, in a strange, harsh voice, pointing toward the room. "Millie, I can't stand this life much longer."

"Oh, Belle, don't forget there is a heaven beyond this life."

"It's too far beyond. Look here, Millie; since God don't answer mamma's prayers, I haven't much faith in anything. See what undeserved trouble came upon you too. If it hadn't been for Roger you would have been in prison to-night, and we'd have been alone here with a drunken father. How can one have faith and try to be good when such things happen?"

"Belle," said Mildred, with a solemnity that made the reckless, discouraged girl turn pale, "you had better take a knife from that table and stab mamma than do anything wrong."

"Oh, hush!" whispered Belle, for Mrs. Jocelyn now entered with the children, whom she was glad to have away when the unnatural father returned, even though she knew they were with the wild young Arabs of the tenement.