Without a Home by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XXXVII. Strong Temptation
Well, I must admit that I have rarely been so touched and interested before," said Mr. Wentworth, as he and Roger walked homeward together; "and that is saying much, for my calling brings human life before me in almost every aspect. Mildred Jocelyn is an unusual girl. Until to-day I thought her a trifle cold, and even incapable of very deep feeling. I thought pride--not a common pride, you know, but the traditional and proverbial pride of a Southern woman--her chief characteristic, but the girl was fairly volcanic with feeling to-night. I believe she would starve in very truth to save her father, though of course we won't permit any such folly as they are meditating, and I do not believe there is any sacrifice, not involving evil, at which she would hesitate. She's a jewel, Atwood, and in winning her, as you will, you will obtain a girl for whom a prince might well sue. She's one of a thousand, and beneath all her wonted self-control and reserve she has as true and passionate a heart as ever beat in a woman's breast."
"Good-night," said Roger, a little abruptly. "I agree with all you can say in regard to Miss Jocelyn's nobility, and I shall not fail her, nor shall I make bargains or conditions in my loyalty. The privilege of serving such a woman is enough. I will see you again soon," and he walked rapidly down the street on which his uncle resided.
Roger and Mr. Wentworth had become very good friends, and the latter had been of much service to the young fellow by guiding him in his reading and study. The clergyman had shown his usual tact in dealing with Roger. Never once had he lectured or talked religion at him, but he preached interestingly, and out of the pulpit was the genial, natural, hearty man that wins the respect and goodwill of all. His interviews with Roger were free from the faintest trace of religious affectation, and he showed that friendly appreciation and spirit of comradeship which young men like. Roger felt that he was not dealing with an ecclesiastic, but with a man who was as honest, earnest, and successful in his way as he ever hoped to be in his. He was therefore being drawn by motives that best accorded with his disposition toward the Christian faith--by a thorough respect for it, by seeing its practical value as worked out in the useful busy life of one who made his chapel a fruitful oasis in what would otherwise have been a moral desert. In his genuine humanity and downright honesty, in his care of people's bodies as well as souls, and temporal as well as spiritual interests, the minister was a tower of strength, and his influence for good over the ambitious youth, now fast developing the character which would make or mar him for life, was most excellent. While Roger spoke freely to him of his general hopes and plans, and gave to him more confidence than to any one else, there was one thing that, so far as words were concerned, he hid from all the world--his love for Mildred. The sagacious clergyman, however, at last guessed the truth, but until to-night never made any reference to it. He now smiled to think that the sad-hearted Jocelyns might eventually find in Roger a cure for most of their troubles, since he hoped that Mr. Jocelyn, if treated scientifically, might be restored to manhood.
Mr. Ezra Atwood, Roger's uncle, sat in his small parlor far beyond his usual hour for retiring, and occasionally he paced the floor so impatiently as to show that his mind was deeply perturbed. While his nephew had studied books he had studied his nephew, and in the process the fossilization of his heart had been arrested, and the strong, steady youth had suggested hopes of something like a filial relation to the childless man. At first he had growled to himself, "If the boy were only mine I'd make a man of him," and then gradually the idea of adopting and making a man of him, had presented itself and slowly gained full possession of his mind. Roger was capable, persevering, and tremendously ambitious--qualities that were after the old man's heart, and, after maintaining his shrewd furtive observation for months, he at last muttered to himself, "I'll do it, for he's got the Atwood grit and grip, and more brains than any of us. His father is shrewd and obstinate enough, but he's narrow, and hasn't breadth of mind to do more than pinch and save what he can scratch out of that stony farm of his. I'm narrow, too. I can turn an honest penny in my line with the sharpest in the market, and I'm content; but this young fellow is a new departure in the family, and if given a chance and kept from all nonsense he can climb to the top notch. There's no telling how high a lawyer can get in this country if he has plenty of brains and a ready tongue."
Thus the old man's dominant trait, ambition, which he had satisfied in becoming known as one of the most solid and wealthy men of his calling, found in his nephew a new sphere of development. In return for the great favors which he proposed to confer, however, he felt that Roger should gratefully accept his wishes as absolute law. With the egotism and confidence of many successful yet narrow men, he believed himself perfectly capable of guiding the young fellow's career in all respects, and had little expectation of any fortunate issue unless he did direct in all essential and practical matters. Mr. Atwood worshipped common-sense and the shrewd individuality of character which separates a man from his fellows, and enables him to wrap himself in his own interests and pursuits without babbling to others or being impeded by them. Influenced by his wife, he was kind to the poor, and charitable in a certain methodical way, but boasted to her that in his limited circle he had no "hangers-on," as he termed them. He had an instinctive antipathy to a class that he called "ne'er-do-weels," "havebeens," and "unlucky devils," and if their misfortunes and lack of thrift resulted from causes like those destroying Mr. Jocelyn he was sternly and contemptuously implacable toward them. He was vexed that Roger should have bothered himself with the sick man he had discovered on shipboard the day before Christmas. "It was no affair of his," he had grumbled; but as the young fellow had been steady as a clock in his business and studies after Mr. Jocelyn had recovered, he had given no further thought to these friends, nor had it occurred to him that they were more than passing acquaintances. But a letter from Roger's father, who had heard of Mr. Jocelyn's condition and of his son's intimacy with the family, awakened the conservative uncle's suspicions, and that very afternoon the well-meaning but garrulous Mrs. Wheaton had told his wife all about what she regarded as brilliant performances on the part of Roger at the police court. Mrs. Atwood was a kind-hearted woman, but she had much of her husband's horror of people who were not respectable after her strict ideal, and she felt that she ought to warn him that Roger's friends were not altogether desirable. Of course she was glad that Roger had been able to show that the young girl was innocent, but shop-girls living in low tenements with a drunken father were not fit companions for their nephew and possible heir. Her husband indorsed her views with the whole force of his strong, unsympathetic, and ambitious nature, and was now awaiting Roger with the purpose of "putting an end to such nonsense at once." The young man therefore was surprised to find, as he entered the hallway, that his uncle was up at an hour late for him.
"I wish to see you," was the prompt, brief greeting from Mr. Atwood, who was uneasily tramping up and down the small stiff parlor, which was so rarely used that it might almost have been dispensed with as a part of the residence. Roger came forward with some anxiety, for his uncle lowered at him like a thunder-cloud.
"Sit there, where I can see your face," was the next curt direction. There was neither guilt nor fear in the frank countenance that was turned full upon him. "I'm a man of few words," he resumed more kindly, for Roger's expression disarmed him somewhat. "Surely," he thought, "when the boy gets a hint of what I can do for him, he'll not be the fool to tangle himself up with people like the Jocelyns."
"Where have you been to-night?" he asked bluntly. Roger told him. "Where were you last night and this morning?" Roger briefly narrated the whole story, concluding, "It's the first time I've been late to business, sir."
The old man listened grimly, without interruption, and then said, "Of course I'm glad you got the girl off, but it's bad management to get mixed up in such scrapes. Perhaps a little insight into court-room scenes will do you no harm since you are to be a lawyer. Now that the affair is over, however, I wish you to drop these Jocelyns. They are of no advantage to you, and they belong to a class that is exceedingly disagreeable to me. I suppose you know what kind of a man Mr. Jocelyn is?"
"Yes, sir; but you do not know what kind of a woman Mrs. Jocelyn is. She is--"
"She is Jocelyn's wife, isn't she?"
"And the girl is his daughter. They live in a dowdy tenement, and are as poor as crows."
"Misfortune and the wrong of others might make all this true of us," began the youth impetuously; "and yet if old friends should turn their backs--"
"You are not an old friend," his uncle again interrupted, in his hard, business-like tones. "They are merely accidental acquaintances, who happened to board at your father's house last summer. They haven't the ghost of a claim upon you. It looks far more as if you were in love with the girl, and were making a romantic fool of yourself."
Roger's face grew very white, but he controlled himself, and asked, "Uncle, have I ever treated you with disrespect?"
"Certainly not; why should you?"
"With some right I may also ask why you treat me with such disrespect?"
The old man opened his eyes, and was somewhat taken aback by this unexpected question, and yet a moment's reflection showed him that he had given cause for it. He also misunderstood his nephew, and resumed, with a short conciliatory laugh, "I guess I'm the fool, to be imagining all this nonsense. Of course you are too much of an Atwood to entangle yourself with such people and spoil your prospects for life. Look here, Roger. I'll be frank with you, and then we'll understand each other. You know I've neither chick nor child, and I've turned a good big penny in business. When you first came I thought you were a rattle-pated country boy that wanted a lark in the city, and I took you more to keep you out of mischief than for any other cause. Well, I've watched you closely, and I was mistaken. You've got the stuff in you to make a man, and I see no reason why you should not be at the top of the heap before you reach my years, and I mean to give you a chance. You've got a little soft place in your head and heart, or you wouldn't be getting yourself mixed up in other people's troubles. I tell you what it is, my boy, a man who gets ahead in these times must strike right out for himself, and steer clear of all fouling with 'ne'er-do-weels,' as if they had a pestilence. Hook on to the lucky ones, the strong ones, and they'll help you along. Now if you'll take this course and follow my advice right along, I'll give you a chance with the first. You shall go to the best college in the land, next to the law-school, and then have money enough to enable you to strike high. By the time you are thirty you can marry an heiress. But no more Jocelyns and shop-girls who have been at stationhouses, if you please. The girl may have been innocent of that offence; but, plain man as I am, I don't like this style of people at all, and I know human nature well enough to be sure that they'll try to tie themselves on to you if they can. I've thought it all out in my slow way, and, since you've got it in you, I'm going to give you a chance to put the Atwood name where I can't, with all my money."
Roger was deeply moved, for he had no idea that his uncle was cherishing such far-reaching plans in his behalf. While he had little sympathy with the cold, selfish side of the programme, his strong ambition responded powerfully to the prospect held out to him. He knew that the hopes inspired were not vain, for his uncle was a man whose deeds always outstripped his words, and that his fortunes were practically assured if he would follow the worldly-wise policy to which he had listened. His ambition whispered, "Mildred Jocelyn does not love you, and never will. Even now, after you have done so much for her, and her gratitude is boundless, her heart shrinks from you. She may not be able to help it, but it is true nevertheless. Why should you throw away such prospects for the sake of one who loves another man, and who, until in a time of desperate need, treated you with undisguised coldness and dislike? Besides, by yielding to your uncle's will you can eventually do more for the family than if thrown on your own resources." It was indeed the great temptation of his life, and he wavered.
"Uncle," he said irresolutely, "you have indeed opened a very alluring prospect, and I am grateful that you think So well of me, and that you are willing to do so much. Since you have been so frank with me, I will be equally so with you," and he told him all about his relations with the Jocelyns, and tried to make the shrewd old merchant understand that they were not common people.
"They are the most dangerous people of all," he interrupted impatiently. "Having once been up in the world, they think they are still as good as anybody, and are wild to regain their old position. If they had always been poor and commonplace, they would not be so likely to presume. What you say about the girl's not caring for you is sheer nonsense. She'd marry you to-morrow if she could. The one idea of such people is to get out of the slough into which they have fallen, and they'll marry out of it the first chance they get, and like enough they'll do worse if they can't marry. I tell you they are the most dangerous kind of people, and Southern at that. I've learned all about them; the father has gone to the devil for good and all, and, with your feeling and weakness toward them, you'll never be safe a moment unless you drop them completely and finally. Come, young man, let this affair be the test between us. I've worked hard for nearly a lifetime, and have a right to impose some conditions with what has been earned by forty years of toil, early and late. I never speculated once. Every dollar I had to spare I put in paying real estate and governments, and, Roger, I'm worth to-day a good half a million. Ha, ha, ha! people who look at the plain old man in the plain little house don't know that he could afford a mansion on the Avenue better than most of them. This is between ourselves, but I want you to act with your eyes open. If you are such a soft-headed fool as to let that girl, who you admit does not like you or care a rap for you personally, stand between you and such prospects, then I'm mistaken in you, and the sooner I find it out the better. Come, now, I'll be good-natured and liberal in the matter, for young men will be a little addle-pated and romantic before they cut their wisdom teeth. Through that English woman who works for your aunt occasionally you can see to it that these people don't suffer, but beyond that you must drop them once for all. What is more, your father and mother take the same view that I do, and your filial duty to them requires what I ask. While we naturally refuse to be mixed up with such people, we are seeking chiefly to promote your welfare; for the worst thing that can happen to a young man starting in life is to have a helpless lot of people hanging on him. So, come, give me your promise--the promise of an Atwood--and it will be all right."
Eoger was not a self-sacrificing saint by any means. Moreover, he had inherited the Atwood characteristics sufficiently to feel all the worldly force of his uncle's reasoning, and to be tempted tremendously by his offers. They promised to realize his wildest dreams, and to make the path to fame and wealth a broad, easy track instead of a long, steep, thorny path, as he had expected. He was virtually on the mountain-top, and had been shown "all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them."
But against this brilliant background he saw the thin, pale face of Mrs. Jocelyn, as she looked up to him with loving trust and gratitude, and the motherly kiss that she had imprinted on his cheek was a seal to her absolute faith. He felt the pressure of Belle's arm about his neck, and remembered his promise to give her a brother's regard and protection, and justly he feared that if deserted now the impulsive, tempted girl would soon meet shipwreck. She would lose faith in God and man. But that which touched him most nearly were his words to Mildred--words spoken even when she showed him most plainly that her heart was not his, and probably never could be--"I am your friend; never doubt it." How false he would seem to them; how false and selfish to his friend, the great-hearted clergyman, who was like Christ himself in his devoted labors; how false and base he would ever feel himself to be in his own soul!
For a time there was a terrible conflict in his breast as he paced the floor in long strides, with hands clenched and brow heavily contracted. His uncle watched him curiously and with displeased surprise, for that he could hesitate at all seemed to the worldly man an evidence of fatal weakness.
Roger fought it out like a genuine Atwood, and was nearer akin to his uncle than the old merchant would ever suspect. His heart craved the kingdoms of the world unspeakably, but he now realized that he must barter for them his honor, his manhood, and love. Thus far he had a right to love Mildred, and it was not her fault she could not return it. But, poor and shamed as she was, he knew that she would despise him if he yielded now, even though he rose to be the foremost man of the nation. Not with any chivalric, uncalculating impulse did he reach his conclusion, but by the slow, deliberate reasoning of a cool-headed, sturdy race that would hold to a course with life-long tenacity, having once chosen it.
Turning to his uncle, he asked quietly. "What did you mean by 'the promise of an Atwood'?"
"You ought to know. Our family, for generations, have lived up among the granite hills of Forestville, and, although poor, our promises, whether spoken or written, are like them."
"I'm glad to hear you say that--I'm glad to be reminded of it," his nephew replied. "Well, my promise has already been given. I have promised that poor broken-hearted woman, Mrs. Jocelyn, that I'd try to help her through her terrible misfortunes. I've promised her daughter Belle that I'd give her a brother's care and affection. I've promised the girl I love that I would at least be her friend, since I cannot be more. I'll prove myself a true Atwood, worthy to sustain the family name and honor by keeping my promises, and if I break them, you yourself, deep in your heart, would despise me."
For a moment the old merchant was nonplussed, so adroitly and unexpectedly had Roger turned his words against him. Then, like most men suddenly put in a false position, he grew angry, and blurted out, "Nonsense! It doesn't apply at all. These artful women have come it over you--have entrapped you." The young man here made a strong gesture of protest. "Oh, don't try to deceive me," his uncle proceeded, more loudly and passionately; "I know the world. If I'd blindly made promises to adventurers who would compass my ruin, ought I to keep them? If I find I've indorsed a forged check, ought I not to stop its payment? In the name of your parents and as your uncle, I protest against this folly, for I see well enough where it will end. Moreover, I tell you plainly that you must choose between me and my offers, and that old sot of a Jocelyn and his scheming wife and daughters. If you can be carried away by such absurdity, you are weaker than water, and the sooner you learn by bitter experience the better, for you certainly belong to that class which only hard experience can teach. But I'd like to see those brazen-faced creatures and give them a piece of--"
"Stop!" thundered Roger; "beware how you say another word against those whom sorrow should render sacred. You know less about them than about heaven. Do you forget that I am of age? You made me an offer, and I thanked you for it honestly and gratefully. What's more, I was base enough to be tempted by it. Oh, yes"--with a bitter laugh--"I was an Atwood enough for that. If you had not coupled it with the condition that I should, like a coward, desert helpless and unfortunate women to whom my word is given, I would have fulfilled your best hopes and ambitions, and have made your age glad with my grateful love and service. In your cold-hearted worldliness you have overreached yourself, and you wrong yourself more than me, even though I perish in the streets. But I won't starve. Mark my words: I'll place the Atwood name where you can't, with all your money, and I shall not make broken faith with those who trust me, the foundation of my fortunes."
"Very well, then," said his uncle, who had quieted down into an anger of white heat; "since you prefer those disreputable strangers to your family, go to them. I wash my hands of you, and shall write to your father to this effect to-night. I'm a prompt man and don't dilly-dally."
"Mrs. Jocelyn and her daughters are no more disreputable than you are, sir, and calling me 'soft-headed fool' doesn't make me one. I know the duty I owe my parents, and shall perform it. I shall write to them also. They shall hear both sides, and were your fortune multiplied a thousand times, I won't sell my manhood for it. Am I to have shelter another night, or do you wash your hands of me here and now?"
"Oh, stay by all means, or you may find yourself in the same cell in which your paragon spent last night," replied his uncle, whose rage now passed all bounds.
"Those words are brutal," said Roger sternly, "and if you are not ashamed of them after thinking them over, you are not the man I took you to be," and he stalked out of the room and out of the house, slamming the door after him.
The old merchant sank into a chair, trembling with both anger and chagrin, for he felt that he had been worsted in the encounter. He did regret the words as soon as spoken, and a certain rude sense of justice made him feel, even in his excitement, that his nephew, although an egregious fool of course, had been true to his sense of right and honor. He was assuredly the victim of a designing lot of women, but believing them to be true, his course had been manly, and the thought would come, "Since he was so faithful to them, he would have been equally so to me, and he might have found the hussies out in time to prevent trouble." And now he had said words which in effect turned his brother's son out of doors at midnight With something like a groan and an oath he resolved not to write that night, and to see how he felt in the morning. His nephew on provocation had proved as great a Tartar as he knew himself to be, and he now remembered that the former had some excuse in his hot young blood, and that he had a right to choose against his offer, if fool enough to do it, without being reviled and insulted.
After a wretched night he found on the breakfast-table a brief, cold note from Roger, saying that he would inform him in a day or two where to send his effects and such part of his salary as remained unpaid. The old man frowned, and the Atwood pride and obstinacy took possession of him like evil spirits. In grim reticence he resumed his old routine and life, and again gave himself up to the mechanical accumulation and saving of money.