Chapter XXXVIII. No "Dark Corners"
 

From his uncle's house Roger went to a small hotel and obtained a room in which to spend a sleepless night. After the excitement of anger passed, he recognized the difficulties of his position. He was worse than friendless in the great city, for when he sought employment and gave an account of his antecedents, people would ask suspiciously why he left his uncle. The reasons were of too delicate a nature to be babbled about in business offices.

At first he was much depressed, and complained that "luck was dead against him." Moreover he felt that he had responded too harshly to his uncle, who, after all, was only trying to aid him in his cold-blooded way. Nevertheless he, too, had his share of the Atwood pride and obstinacy, and he resolved that the man who had called him a "soft-headed fool" for sacrificing himself to his sense of honor and duty must apologize before there could be any reconciliation. His good sense led him to make one wise resolution, and early in the morning he carried it out by making a clean breast of it to Mr. Wentworth. The good man listened with deep interest, and heartened the young fellow wonderfully by clapping him on the shoulder and saying, "You are made of the right stuff, Atwood, and although the material is yet a little raw and crude, experience and Christian principle will temper it in time into the finest metal."

"Don't ascribe Christian principle to me," growled Roger, "for I'm tempted to swear like a pirate."

"Very likely, and not without some reason. I occasionally feel a little that way myself, but I don't do it; neither have you."

Roger stared. "You're not a bit like a minister," he burst out.

"Sorry to hear it."

"That isn't what I mean. You are a man. Our dominie up at Forestville was only a minister."

"I have my share of human nature, Roger, and am glad of it, for I know from experience just how you young fellows feel. But it involves many a big fight. Christian principle doesn't mean a cotton-and-wool nature, or a milk-and-water experience, to put it in a homely way. It's Christian principle that makes Mildred Jocelyn, as you say, one of the bravest and best girls in the world. She's worth more than all your uncle's money, and you needn't be discouraged, for you'll win her yet. A young fellow with your pluck can make his way unaided, and thousands have done so without your motives or your ability. I'll stand by you, for you are the kind of man that I believe in. To make your course completely blameless, you must write a long filial letter to your mother, explaining everything; and if you'll take my advice you will send something like this to your uncle;" and sitting down he scratched off the following words:

"On calmer reflection I perceive that your intentions toward me were kindly and friendly. I should have remembered this, and the respect due to your years, and not have spoken so harshly. For all that it was not right for me to say, I apologize. At the same time it is my undoubted right and unwavering purpose to be guided by my own conscience. Our views of life and duty vary so widely that it will be best for me to struggle on alone, as I can. This, however, is no reason why we should quarrel, or forget the ties of blood which unite us, or our characters as gentlemen."

"Such a note will put you right with your own conscience and your people at home," resumed Mr. Wentworth, "and there's nothing like starting right."

Roger complied at once, for the clergyman's "human nature" had gained his unlimited confidence.

"Now I'm going out," said his friend. "You stay and make my study your own. There is paper, etc. I think I know of a room that you can obtain for a small sum from a nice, quiet family, and perhaps it will just suit you. I'll see; but don't take it if you don't like it. You'll stay and lunch with us, and we'll drink to your success in generous cups of coffee that only my wife knows how to make," and he left Roger cheered, hopeful, and resolute. What was better still, the young man was starting right, as was well proved by the long, affectionate, yet firm and manly letter written to his mother.

After a genial lunch, at which he was treated with a respect and kindness which did him a world of good, he went with Mr. Wentworth to see the room, and was well pleased with it, and he added his future address to the note to his uncle. He then said:

"I keep my promise about Mr. Jocelyn, and the sooner that man is put under treatment the better."

"Why, Roger!" exclaimed his friend, "you can't do anything now."

"I can do just what I promised. I have a hundred dollars in the bank, and there is about twenty-five still due me. With the latter sum I can get along until I can find employment."

"Hold on, Roger; it seems to me that your generosity is getting the better of you now. Circumstances have greatly changed since you made your promise."

"I've not changed, and my promises don't change with circumstances. It may be some time before you can raise the money, even if you can get it at all in these bard times, and it's something that ought to be done at once."

"Give me your hand again, old fellow. The world would say we were a pair of fools, but we'll wait and see who's right. Come to me at nine to-morrow morning."

Mr. Wentworth had several things on hand that he meant to do, but he dropped everything and started for the offices of some lawyers whom he knew, determined to find a foothold at once for his plucky protege. Roger went to call on Mrs. Jocelyn, feeling that he would like to get the matter relating to her husband settled, so that he might give all his thought and energy to the problem of making his way unaided. In response to his knock a light step crossed the floor, and the door was opened a little, revealing Mildred's face, then it was thrown open hospitably. "Oh, Mr. Atwood," she exclaimed, "I am very glad to see you. Forgive me that I opened the door so suspiciously, but you have never lived in a tenement, and do not know what awful neighbors are often prowling around. Besides, I was alone, and that made me more timid. I am so troubled about something, and perhaps you can help me, for you seem to be able to help every one," Mildred continued hastily, for she dreaded an embarrassing silence between them unspeakably. "I've been to see my employers in the hope they would forgive that poor girl who put the lace in my cloak, and they won't. They were polite and kind to me, and offered me better wages if I would come back, but were relentless toward the girl, saying they 'meant to break up that kind of thing once for all.' Don't you think something might be done?"

"If you failed there would be no use of my trying," said Roger, smiling. "I think it was wonderfully good of you to go on such an errand."

"I've had some lessons in goodness lately," she replied, with a little friendly nod. "As I talked with those stern men, I realized more than ever what an escape I've had, and I've thanked you in my heart a thousand times."

The young fellow looked as if he had been repaid a thousand times, and wondered that he could have been so tempted by his uncle's terms, for it now seemed impossible that he could ever do aught else than serve the sweet, sad girl who looked into his eyes with the trust and friendliness which he had sought for so long in vain. His face became so expressive of his feelings that she hurried on to speak of another matter weighing on her mind.

"Mr. Atwood," she said hesitatingly, "I have another trouble. You looked so vindictively at that Mr. Bissel in the court-room that I have feared you might do something that you would afterward regret. I know how one with your honorable spirit would feel toward such a wretch, but, believe me, he is beneath your notice. I should feel so badly if you got into any trouble on my account. Indeed it seems that I couldn't stand it at all," and she said it with so much feeling that he was honestly delighted. His spirits were rising fast, for this frank, strong interest in his welfare, in contrast with her old constraint and coldness, was sweet to him beyond all words.

With a mischievous and rather wicked look in his dark eyes, he said, "You must leave that fellow to me. I'm not a saint as you are."

Mildred proved that she was not altogether a saint by inwardly relishing his spirit, for she never could overcome some of the traits of her Southern blood; but she said, honestly and anxiously, "I should feel very badly if you got into any trouble."

"That thought will make me prudent," he replied gratefully. "You would never feel badly again about anything, if I had my way."

"I believe you, Mr. Atwood, and I can't see why I did not understand you better before," said Mildred, the words slipping out almost before she knew it.

"I don't think you understand me yet," he answered, very gently.

She did not reply, but he saw her fingers trembling with nervous apprehension as she tried to go on with her sewing; he also saw that she was growing very pale. Indeed she had almost the sick, faint look of one who is about to submit to some painful operation.

"Don't be frightened, Miss Mildred," he remarked, after watching her keenly for a moment or two. She looked up and saw him smiling broadly at her. In answer to her perplexed look he continued quietly, "I can tell you what has been the matter between us, and what is the matter now--you are afraid of me."

"Mr. Atwood--" faltered Mildred, and then words failed her, and her pale face crimsoned.

"Don't you think it would be best for us to understand each other, now that we are to be friends?" he asked.

"Yes," gasped the young girl faintly, fearing every moment that he would lose his self-control and pour out a vehement declaration of his love. She was prepared to say, "Roger Atwood, I am ready to make any sacrifice within my power that you can ask," but at the same time felt that she could endure slow torture by fire better than passionate words of love, which would simply bruise the heart that could make no response. If he would only ask quietly, "Mildred, will you be my wife when the right time comes? I'll be content with such love as you can give," she would have replied with the calmness of an unalterable purpose, "Yes, Roger, and I'll do my best," believing that years of effort might be crowned with success. But now, to have him plead passionately for what she could no more bestow than if she were dead, gave her an indescribable sense of fear, pain, and repugnance; and she cowered and shrank over the sewing which she could scarcely hold, so great was her nervous apprehension.

Instead of the vehement declaration there came a low, mellow laugh, and she lifted her eyes and stared at him, her work dropping from her hands.

Roger understood the situation so well, and was so thoroughly the master of it in his generous self-control and kindly intentions, that he should scarcely be blamed if he got out of it such bitter-sweet enjoyment as he could, and he said, with a twinkle in his eyes, "Miss Millie, I wasn't going to strike you."

"I don't understand you at all," cried Mildred, with a pathetically perplexed expression and starting tears, for the nervous strain was becoming a little too prolonged.

Roger became grave at once, and with a quiet, gentle manner he came to her side and took her hand. "Will you be as honest with me as I shall be with you?" he asked.

"I'll try to be."

"Well, then, I'll soon solve for you my poor little riddle. Miss Mildred, you know that I have loved you ever since you waked up an awkwad, lazy, country fellow into the wish to be a man."

His words were plain enough now, surely, but she was no longer frightened, for he spoke in such a kindly natural voice that she looked him straight in the eyes, with a delicate bloom in her face, and replied:

"I didn't wish to mislead you, Mr. Atwood, and I wouldn't trifle with you."

"You have been truth and honesty itself."

"No, I've not," she answered impetuously; "I cherished an unreasoning prejudice against you, and--and--I disliked you, though why, I can't see now, and nobly you have triumphed over both prejudice and dislike."

"It will ever be the proudest triumph of my life; but, Miss Mildred, you do not love me in the least, and I fear you never will."

"I am so sorry, so very sorry," she faltered, with a crimson face and downcast eyes.

"I am, too; but that which I want to say to you is, that you are not to blame, and I don't blame you. I could not love a girl simply because she wanted me to, were such a thing possible, and why should I demand of you what I couldn't do myself? All I asked in the first place--don't you remember it in the old front walk at home?--was friendship. Let us go back to that. Let me become your simple, honest friend, and help you in every way within my power. Don't let me frighten you any more with the dread of high tragedy. Now you've had all the declaration you ever need fear. I won't break loose or explode under any provocation. I can't help my love, and you must not punish me for it, nor make yourself miserable about it, as if it were a powder magazine which a kind word or look might touch off. I want to put your heart to rest, for you have enough to bear now, Heaven knows; I want you to feel safe with me--as free from fear and annoyance as Belle is. I won't presume or be sentimental."

"Oh, my perverse, perverse heart!" wailed Mildred. "I could tear it out of my breast and throw it away in disgust. I want to love--it would be a poor return for all that you are and have done for me--but it is of no use. I will not deceive one so true as you are, by even a trace of falseness. You deserve the love of the best woman in the world, and some day you'll find her---"

"I have found her," he put in quietly.

"No, no, no!" she cried passionately; "but I am as nature made me, and I can't seem to help myself. How strange it seems that I can say from the depths of my soul I could die for you, and yet that I can't do just the one thing you deserve a thousand times! But, Roger, I will be the most devoted sister that ever a man had."

"No," he said, smiling, "that won't answer at all. That wouldn't be honest, as far as I am concerned. Belle is my sister, but you can never be. I know you don't love me now, and, as I've said, perhaps you never can, but I'm too persistent in my nature to give up the hope. Time may bring changes, and I've got years of up-hill work before I can think of marrying. You are in a self-sacrificing mood now. I saw it in your eyes and manner last night--I see it now. Mildred, I could take a very great advantage of you if I chose."

"Indeed you could. You don't know how generous you are. You have conquered me, overwhelmed me by your kindness, and I couldn't say No to anything in your nature to ask."

For a moment he looked sorely tempted, and then he said brusquely, "I'll put a spoke in that wheel. I'd give all the world for this little hand, but I won't take it until your heart goes with it. So there!"

The young girl sighed deeply. "You are right," she murmured, "when you give so much I can give so little."

"That is not what I was thinking of. As a woman you have sacred rights, and I should despise myself if I tried to buy you with kindness, or take advantage of your gratitude. I'll admit, too, since we are to have no dark corners in this talk, that I would rather be loved as I know you can love. I'd rather have an honest friendship than a forced affection, even though the force was only in the girl's will and wishes. I was reading Maud Muller the other night, and no woman shall ever say of her life's happiness, that but for me 'it might have been.'"

"I don't think any woman could ever say that of you."

"Mildred, you showed me your heart last night, and it has a will stronger than your will, and it shall have its way."

The girl again sighed. "Roger," she said, "one reason why I so shrank from you in the past was that you read my thoughts. You have more than a woman's intuition."

"No," he said, laughing a little grimly, "I'm not a bit feminine in my nature. My explanation may seem absurd to you, but it's true, I think. I am exceedingly fond of hunting, and I so trained my eyes that if a leaf stirred or a bird moved a wing I saw it. When you waked me up, and I determined to seek my fortunes out in the world, I carried with me the same quickness of eye. I do not let much that is to be seen escape me, and on a face like yours thoughts usually leave some trace."

"You didn't learn to be a gentleman, in the best sense of the word, in the woods," she said, with a smile.

"No, you and your mother taught me that, and I may add, your father, for when I first saw him he had the perfection of manners." He might also have referred to Vinton Arnold, whom he had studied so carefully, but he could not bring himself to speak of one whom in his heart he knew to be the chief barrier between them, for he was well aware that it was Mildred's involuntary fidelity to her first love that made his suit so dubious. At his reference to her father Mildred's eyes had filled at once, and he continued gently, "We understand each other now, do we not? You won't be afraid of me any more, and will let me help you all to brighter days?"

She put both of her hands in his, and said earnestly, "No, I will never be afraid of you again, but I only half understand you yet, for I did not know that there was a man in the world so noble, so generous, so honest. You have banished every trace of constraint, and I'll do everything you say."

There was a look of almost boyish pleasure on his face as she spoke, and in imitation of the heroes of the interminable old-time romances that once had formed the larger part of his reading, he was about to raise her hand to his lips when she snatched it away, and as if mastered by an impulse not to be controlled, put her arms around his neck and kissed him, then burst into tears with her head upon his shoulder.

He trembled a moment, and said, in low tones, "God bless you, Millie." Then he gently placed her in her chair. "You mustn't do that again," he said gravely. "With you it was but a grateful sisterly impulse, but if I were Samson I'd not be strong enough--well, you understand me. I don't want to give the lie to all I've said."

"Oh, Roger, Roger," sobbed the girl, "I can do nothing for you and yet you have saved me from shame and are giving us all hope and life."

"You are responsible for all there is good in me," he tried to say lightly, "and I'll show you in coming years if you have done nothing for me. Good-by now. It's all right and settled between us. Tell Mrs. Jocelyn that one hundred dollars are ready as soon as she can induce her husband to take the step we spoke of." And he hastened away, feeling that it was time he retreated if he would make good the generous words he had spoken.