Chapter XXXVI. A Woman's Heart
 

Mrs. Jocelyn and her daughters were silent and depressed during their meagre supper, for they never could become accustomed to the terrible skeleton in their household. When Mr. Jocelyn confined himself solely to opium he was not so revolting, but common, beastly intoxication was unendurable. They felt that it was brutalizing his very soul, and becoming a millstone around their necks which must drag them down to some unknown abyss of infamy. Mechanically they went through the motions of eating, the mother and daughters forcing down the little food they could afford, and the children ravenously devouring all that was given to them. As Mildred saw the mother trying to slip unnoticed her almost untasted supper from her plate to Fred's, she laid a hand upon her arm and said:

"No, mamma; remember you are to live," she added in a low whisper, and the poor creature tried to smile and was submissive.

With a pathetic maintenance of their old-time habits, they had scarcely cleared away the supper-table, put the children to rest, and made the poor little place as neat and inviting as possible, when Mr. Wentworth appeared, followed by Roger. Mildred had been expecting the latter with trepidation, Belle with impatience; and the hard, lowering look on the face of the young girl gave way to one of welcome and pleasure, for if Belle's good moods were apt to be transient, so were her evil ones, and the hearty, healthy spirits of the young fellow were contagious. Mildred was greatly relieved to see Mr. Wentworth, for while she had fully resolved to yield to Roger's suit, her heart, despite her will, welcomed delay. She was also glad that her pastor was present, for she could now show her strong gratitude without fear of immediate and embarrassing results. She was therefore more prompt even than Belle, and, taking the young man's hand in both of her own, she said, with tears in her eyes:

"Why didn't you let me thank you this morning? My gratitude has been growing every moment, and you must take it all or I shall sink under it. Mr. Wentworth, I should have been in some horrible prison to-night, with my heart breaking from sorrow and shame, if it were not for this kind, generous friend, Mr. Atwood. I long cherished an unreasoning prejudice against you, and showed it openly. You have taken a strange revenge. No Southern gentleman could have acted more nobly, and a Southern girl could not use stronger praise than that."

Roger's hand, usually so strong and steady, trembled. These words, warm from the heart of the girl who had hitherto been so distant and unapproachable, almost took away his breath. "Please don't," he faltered. "Such gratitude--such words--from you oppress me. I don't deserve such thanks. Any decent man would have been glad to save one who was so good and so wronged, and I shall always regard it as the luckiest event of my life that I happened to be the one to aid you. Oh, you don't know, you never can know what immense good-fortune it was." Then, as if fearing he might lose his self-control, he broke hastily away to greet Mrs. Jocelyn, but Belle caught him with the impulse of the warm-hearted sister she had become, and throwing her arm around his neck exclaimed, "I'm going to pay you with the best coin I have." And she kissed him again and again.

"Oh, Jupiter!" gasped the blushing youth. "Bless that floor-walker and all his deviltry! I shall let him off just a little for this."

"No, don't. I'll give you another kiss if you'll get even with him," Belle whispered.

"It's a bargain," he said in her ear, and Belle ratified the compact immediately.

"Oh," thought Mildred, in the depths of her heart, "if it were only Belle instead of me!"

Mrs. Jocelyn's greeting was scarcely less demonstrative than Belle's, but there was a motherly tenderness in it that brought tears into the young fellow's eyes. "Blessings on you, my dear good boy," she murmured, "and a mother's blessing will do you no harm."

"Look here," said Roger brusquely, "if you don't let up on a fellow I shall make a confounded fool of myself." And his lip quivered as if he were a boy in truth.

Mr. Wentworth, who in their strong feeling had been quite ignored, at first looked on with smiling sympathy. Mildred had given him the hand that Roger released, and holding it in a warm clasp he did not speak at first, but watched a scene that had for him the attractions of a real drama. He now did not help Roger much by saying, in his hearty way, "That's right; lay it on strong; he deserves all, and more. Miss Mildred, I have been yellow with envy for the last two hours because I was absent. I would have eulogized you so in court that the judge would have addressed you as Saint Mildred, and yet it's but honest to say that you would have gone to jail like many a saint before you had not Roger got hold of the facts which enabled the judge to prove you innocent. The law is awfully matter-of-fact, and that lace on your person had to be accounted for."

"Yes, yes," cried Belle, "tell us everything. We've been dying with curiosity all day, and you've been so mysterious and important, and have put on such airs, that you quite awed me. Seems to me that for a country boy you are blossoming fast."

"It isn't necessary for a country boy to be a fool, especially when he has eyes," replied Roger in an off-hand way. "It's all simple enough. I happened to be passing the store where Miss Mildred--"

"Happened to be passing! How often did you happen to pass?" Belle interrupted, with a face full of mischief.

"You are not a judge, ma'am, and so can't cross-question," he answered, with a quick blush but a defiant little nod, "and if you were, no one is obliged to incriminate himself. I was merely passing, and the movements of that scamp, Bissel, slightly awakened my curiosity, and I followed him and the girl. I was exceedingly fortunate, and saw enough to enable the judge to draw from the girl the whole story. Now you see what a simple, prosaic part I played. Miss Jocelyn, in keeping up so bravely through scenes and experiences that were perfectly horrible to her, is the heroine of the piece. By Jove!--beg your pardon, Mr. Wentworth--it was as good as a play to see how she looked her innocence into the heart and mind of the judge. I saw the judicial frost in his eyes melting like two icicles on the south side of a barn. Oh, the judge could see as far into a millstone as the next man," he continued, laughing, as if he relished the memory hugely. "After those horrid old hags were sent along so fast to where they belonged, he looked when Miss Jocelyn appeared as if a whole picture gallery were before him. He could keep up his official regulation manner, but his eyes paid a certain prisoner many compliments."

"Roger, you've got the eyes of a lynx," said Belle, and Mildred was human enough to show the pleasure she felt at his words.

"Nonsense," replied the young fellow in sudden confusion. "Any one who has learned to hunt well gets a quick eye."

"The judge's eyes at least were not at all to blame," added Mr. Wentworth, laughing, and looking at Mildred so kindly and admiringly that the color which was stealing into her face deepened rapidly. "Well, to come down to business. Roger and I have been to see your employers, and we talked to them rather strongly. While they insist that they were misled and not to blame, they felt remorseful, and we struck while they were in their regretful mood. They give you a week's vacation, and send you twenty-five dollars as a small compensation for what you have suffered."

"I don't want it," cried Mildred indignantly.

"Oh yes, you do; besides it's only spoiling the Philistines. They had already discharged that scoundrel Bissel, and they intend prosecuting the girl. They apologize to you, and promise to raise your wages, but I think I can obtain enough sewing and fancy work to render it unnecessary for you to go back unless you prefer it. I don't want to think of your being subjected to that barbarous rule of standing any longer. I know of a lady on Fifth Avenue who is a host if she once becomes interested in any one, and through her I think I can enlist enough people to keep you busy. I feel sure she will be our ally when she knows all."

"Oh, if I could only stay with mamma and work at home, I should be so glad," was the young girl's response.

"Well, I must have one promise first, and your conscience should lead you to make it honestly. You must give me your word that you will not shut yourself up from light, air, and recreation. You must take a walk every day; you must go out with your sister and Roger, and have a good time as often as possible. If I find you sewing and moping here all the time, I shall feel hurt and despondent. Miss Millie, the laws of health are just as much God's laws as the Ten Commandments."

"I feel you are right," she faltered. Then she covered her face with her hands and sobbed, "But papa, papa. Mr. Wentworth, since all know it now, you must know the truth that is worse than death to us. I feel as if I wanted to hide where no one could ever see me again; I fear we do Mr. Atwood a wrong in permitting him to be so friendly."

Roger towered up until he "looked six feet six," as Belle remarked afterward, and, coming straight to the speaker, he took her hand and said, "Miss Jocelyn, when I'm ashamed to be seen with you and Belle, I'll strike hands with Bissel in the sneak-thieving line. I ask for no prouder distinction, than to be trusted by your mother and by you."

"Roger has settled that question, and shown himself a sensible fellow," resumed Mr. Wentworth, with an emphatic and approving nod. "Since you have spoken of a subject so deeply painful, I will speak plainly too. There are plenty of people, I admit, who treat the family of wrong-doers as if their unspeakable misfortune were their fault; and in a certain sense this tendency is wholesome, for it has a great restraining influence on those tempted to give way to evil. But this tendency should not be carried to cruel lengths by any one, and there are those who are sufficiently just to discriminate and feel the deepest sympathy--as I do. While it would be in bad taste for you and Miss Belle to ignore this trouble, and flaunt gayly in public places, it would be positively wicked to let your trouble crush out health, life, and hope. You are both young, and you are sacredly bound to make the best and the most of the existence that God has bestowed upon you. You have as good a right to pure air and sunshine as I have, and as good a right to respect while you maintain your present character. It would do your father no good, it would break your mother's heart, if you followed your morbid impulses. It would only add to your father's remorse. I fear his craving for the poisons that are destroying him has become a disease, and that it is morally impossible for him to refrain."

"Do you think--would it be possible to put him into an institution," Mildred faltered.

"Well, it would be expensive, and yet if he will go to one and make an honest effort to be cured, perhaps the money might be raised."

"Oh," cried Mildred, "we'd starve almost, we'd work night and day to give him a chance."

"The money shall be raised," said Roger quietly. "I've saved nearly all my wages, and--"

"Oh, Mr. Atwood," burst out Mildred impetuously, "this would be far better than saving me from prison. I would pay you back every penny if I toiled all my life, and if papa could be his old self once more we would soon regain all that we have lost." Then a sudden passion of sobs shook her slight form. "Oh," she gasped brokenly, "I could die--I could suffer anything to save papa."

"Mr. Wentworth," said the wife, with a look in her large tearless blue eyes which they never forgot, "we will live in one room, we'll spend only enough for bare existence, if you'll help us in this matter." Then putting her arms around Roger's neck she buried her face on his breast and murmured, "You are like a son to me, and all there is left of my poor crushed heart clings to you. If I could see Martin the man he was, I could die in peace."

"He shall have the chance of the best and richest," said Roger brokenly. "I ask nothing better than to have a hand in saving such a man as Mr. Jocelyn must have been."

Then was Roger's hour and opportunity, and he might at that time have bound Mildred to him by vows that the girl would sooner perish than break. Indeed in her abounding gratitude, and with every generous, unselfish chord in her soul vibrating, even his eyes could have been deceived, and he might easily have believed that he had won her heart. But there was neither policy nor calculation in his young enthusiasm. His love truly prompted his heart, but it was a heart abounding in good, unselfish impulses, if sufficient occasion called them forth. He loved Mrs. Jocelyn and Belle scarcely less than his own mother and sister, and yet with a different affection, a more ideal regard. They appealed to his imagination; their misfortunes made them sacred in his eyes, and aroused all the knightly instincts which slumber in every young, unperverted man. Chief of all, they belonged to Mildred, the girl who had awakened his manhood, and to whom he had felt, even when she was so cold and prejudiced, that he owed his larger life and his power to win a place among men. Now that she was so kind, now that she was willing to be aided by him in her dearest hopes, he exulted, and life grew rich in tasks for which the reward seemed boundless. The hope would come to him, as Mildred rose to say good-by with a look that he had never seen on any human face before, that she might soon give him something warmer and better than gratitude; but if she could not soon, he would wait, and if she never could return his love, he proposed to be none the less loyal as a friend.

Indeed the young girl's expression puzzled him. The old pride was all gone, and she gave him the impression of one who is conquered and defenceless, and who is ready to yield anything, everything to the victor. And this ill-defined impression was singularly true, for she was in a passion of self-sacrifice. She felt that one who had been so generous and self-forgetful had a right to all that a true man could ask, and that it would be base in her to refuse. The greater the sacrifice the more gladly she would make it, in order that she too might prove that a Southern girl could not be surpassed in noblesse oblige by a Northern man. She was in one of those supreme moods in which men and women are swayed by one dominant impulse, and all other considerations become insignificant. The fact that those she loved were looking on was no restraint upon her feeling, and the sympathizing presence of the clergyman added to it. Indeed her emotion was almost religious. The man who had saved her from prison and from shame--far more: the man who was ready to give all he had to rescue her fallen father--was before her, and without a second's hesitation she would have gone into a torture-chamber for the sake of this generous friend. She wanted him to see his absolute power. She wanted him to know that he had carried her prejudice, her dislike by storm, and had won the right to dictate his terms. Because she did not love him she was so frank in her abandon. If he had held her heart's love she would have been shy, were she under tenfold greater obligations. She did not mean to be unmaidenly--she was not so, for her unconscious delicacy saved her--but she was at his feet as truly as the "devotee" is prostrate and helpless before the car of Juggernaut. But Roger was no grim idol, and he was too inexperienced, too modest to understand her. As he held her throbbing palm he looked a little wonderingly into her flushed face and tear-gemmed eyes that acknowledged him lord and master without reserve; then he smiled and said in a low, half-humorous tone, "I shan't be an ogre to you--you won't be afraid of me any longer, Miss Mildred?"

"No," she replied impetuously; "you are the truest and best friend a woman ever had. Oh, I know it--I know it now. After what you said about papa, I should despise myself if I did not know it."

She saw all his deep, long-repressed passion leap into his face and eyes, and in spite of herself she recoiled from it as from a blow. Ah, Mildred, your will is strong, your gratitude is boundless, your generous enthusiasm had swept you away like a tide, but your woman's heart is stronger and greater than all, and he has seen this truth unmistakably. The passion died out of his face like a flame that sinks down to the hidden, smouldering fire that produced it. He gave her hand a strong pressure as he said quietly, "I am indeed your friend--never doubt it;" then he turned away decidedly, and although his leave-taking from Mrs. Jocelyn and Belle was affectionate, they felt rather than saw there was an inward struggle for self-mastery, which made him, while quiet in manner, anxious to get away.

Mr. Wentworth, who had been talking with Mrs. Jocelyn, observed nothing of all this, and took his leave with assurances that they would see him soon again.

Mildred stood irresolute, full of bitter self-reproach. She took an impulsive step toward the door to call Roger back, but, checking herself, said despairingly, "I can deceive neither him nor myself. Oh, mamma, it is of no use." And indeed she felt that it would be impossible to carry out the scheme that promised so much for those she loved. As the lightning flash eclipses the sun at noonday, so all of her gratitude and self-sacrificial enthusiasm now seemed but pale sickly sentiment before that vivid flame of honest love--that divine fire which consumes at touch every motive save the one for the sacred union of two lives.

"I wish I could see such a man as Roger Atwood look at me as he looked at you," said Belle indignantly. "I would not send him away with a heartache."

"Would to Heaven it had been you, Belle!" replied Mildred dejectedly. "I can't help it--I'm made so, and none will know it better than he."

"Don't feel that way," remonstrated Mrs. Jocelyn; "time and the thought of what Roger can do for us will work great changes. You have years before you. If he will help us save your father--"

"Oh, mamma, I could shed for him all the blood left in my body."

"Nonsense!" cried the matter-of-fact Belle. "He doesn't want your blood; he only wants a sensible girl who will love him as he deserves, and who will help him to help us all."

Mildred made a despairing gesture and went to her room. She soon reappeared with a quilt and a pillow, and placing them on the floor beside the low bed in which the children slept, said, "I'll stay here, and you take my place with Belle, mamma. No," she added resolutely, as her mother began to remonstrate; "what I resolve upon I intend to do hereafter, even to the least thing. You shall not go near the room where papa is to-night."

Throughout the evening, while love, duty, and generous sympathy planned for his redemption; throughout the long night, while the sad-hearted wife prayed for success in their efforts, the husband and father lay shrouded in the heavy, rayless darkness of a drunken stupor.