Without a Home by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XXXIX. "Home, Sweet Home!"
"Oh, Millie," cried Mrs. Jocelyn, entering with the children and throwing herself into a chair, fatigued and panting from her walk and climb of the stairs, "I've so much to tell you. Oh, I'm so distressed and sorry. It seems that evil has become our lot, and that we bring nothing but evil to others. You, too, look as if you had been crying as if your heart would break."
"No, mamma, I feel much better--more at rest than I have been for a long time. My tears have done me good."
"Well, I'm sorry I must tell you something that will grieve you dreadfully, but there's no help for it. It does seem when things are going wrong in one's life, there's no telling where they'll stop. You know Mrs. Wheaton works for Roger's aunt, Mrs. Atwood. Well, she was there this morning, and Mrs. Atwood talked dreadfully about us, and how we had inveigled her nephew into the worst of folly. She told Mrs. Wheaton that Mr. Atwood had intended to give Roger a splendid education, and might have made him his heir, but that he demanded, as his condition, that he should have nothing more to do with such people as we were, and how Roger refused, and how after a bitter quarrel the latter left the house at midnight. She also said that his uncle would have nothing more to do with him, and that his family at home would be almost equally angry. Oh, I feel as if I could sink into the earth with shame and worry. What shall we do?"
"Surely, mamma, there is some mistake. Roger was here much of the afternoon, and he never said one word about it," Mildred answered, with a troubled face.
"It's just like him. He didn't want to pain you with the news. What did he say?" she asked, with kindling interest, and Mildred told her substantially all that had occurred.
"Well, Millie," said her mother emphatically, "you will be the queerest girl on the face of the earth if you can't love him now, for he has given up everything for you. He might have been richer than Vinton Arnold."
"He must not give up anything," said Mildred resolutely. "There is reason in all things. He is little more than a boy in years, and he has a boy's simplicity and unworldliness. I won't let him sacrifice himself for me. He doesn't know what he is doing. His aunt's estimate of such people as we have become is correct, and I'll perish a thousand times before I'll be the means of dragging down such a man as Roger Atwood. If I knew where to find him I'd go and tell him so this moment."
That was a dreary hour in the poor little home, but worse things were in store for them, for, as Mrs. Jocelyn said, when things are going wrong there is a terrible logic about them, and malign events follow each other with almost inevitable sequence. All was wrong with the head of the family, and terrible were the consequences to his helpless wife and children. Mr. Jocelyn heard a rumor of Mildred's experience in the police court, and he went to the place that day and obtained some account of the affair. More clearly and awfully than ever before he comprehended the depths into which he had fallen. He had not been appealed to--he had not even been told. He did not stop to consider how good the reasons were for the course his family had taken, but, blind with anger and despair, he sought his only refuge from the hell within his breast, and began drinking recklessly. By the time he reached the tenement where he dwelt he was in a state of wild intoxication. A man at the door called him a drunken beast, at which Mr. Jocelyn grasped him by the throat and a fierce scuffle ensued. Soon the whole populous dwelling was in an uproar, while the man retreated, fighting, up the stairways, and his infuriated assailant followed with oaths and curses. Women and children were screaming, and men and boys pouring out of their rooms, some jeering and laughing, and others making timid and futile efforts to appease and restrain the liquor-crazed man.
Suddenly a door opened, and a pale face looked out; then a slight girlish figure darted through the crowd and clasped Mr. Jocelyn. He looked down and recognized his daughter Mildred. For a moment he seemed a little sobered, and then the demon within him reasserted itself. "Get out of my way!" he shouted. "I'll teach that infernal Yankee to insult a Southern officer and gentleman. Let me go," he said furiously, "or I'll throw you down the stairway," but Mildred clung to him with her whole weight, and the men now from very shame rushed in and overpowered him.
He was speedily thrust within his own doorway, and Mildred turned the key after him and concealed it. Little recked the neighbors, as they gradually subsided into quiet, that there came a crash of crockery and a despairing cry from the Jocelyns' room. They had witnessed such scenes before, and were all too busy to run any risk of being summoned as witnesses at a police court on the morrow. The man whom Mr. Jocelyn had attacked said that he would see the agent of the house in the morning and have the Jocelyn family sent away at once, because a nuisance, and all were content with this arrangement.
Within that locked door a terrible scene would have been enacted had it not been for Mildred's almost supernatural courage, for her father was little better than a wild beast. In his mad rush forward he overturned the supper-table, and the evening meal lay in a heap upon the floor. The poor wife, with a cry in which hope and her soul itself seemed to depart fell swooning on the children's bed, and the little ones fled to the darkest corner of Mildred's room and cowered in speechless fear. There was none to face him save the slight girl, at whom he glared as if he would annihilate her.
"Let me out!" he said savagely.
"No," said the girl, meeting his frenzied gaze unwaveringly, "not until you are sober."
He rushed to the door, but could not open it. Then turning upon Mildred he said, "Give me the key--no words--or I'll teach you who is master."
There were no words, but only such a look as is rarely seen on. a woman's face. He raised his hand to strike her, but she did not shrink a hair-breadth. "Papa," she said, in a low, concentrated tone, "you called yourself a Southern gentleman. I did not dream you could strike a woman, even when drunk."
The effect of her words was magical. His hand sank to his side. Then he raised it and passed it over his brow as if it all were a horrid dream. Without a word he went with unsteady step to his own room, and again Mildred locked the door upon him.
Mrs. Jocelyn's swoon was long and death-like, and before Mildred could restore her, Belle, returning from her work, tried to enter, and finding the door locked called for admittance. When she crossed the threshold and saw the supper dishes broken and scattered on the floor: when she saw her mother looking as if dead, the little ones crying at her side, and Mildred scarcely less pale than the broken-hearted woman, with a desperate look in her blue eyes, the young girl gave a long, low cry of despair, and covering her face with her hands she sank into a chair murmuring, "I can't endure this any longer--I'd rather die. We are just going to rack and ruin. Oh, I wish I could die, for I'm getting reckless--and--and wicked. Oh, oh, oh!--"
"Belle, come and help me," said Mildred, in the hard, constrained tones of one who is maintaining self-control by the utmost effort. Belle complied, but there was an expression on her face that filled her sister's soul with dread.
It were well perhaps to veil the agony endured in the stricken household that night. The sufferings of such women as Mrs. Jocelyn and Mildred cannot be portrayed in words, and the dark chaos that had come into poor Belle's tempted, despairing, immature soul might well make her good angel weep. With a nature craving sunshine and pleasure like the breath of life, she felt herself being dragged hopelessly into darkness, shame, and abject poverty. The poor child was not deliberately contemplating evil--she was scarcely capable of doing good or evil deliberately--but a youth who had sought her once before, and of whom she had long been shy, was again hovering around her.
She was more wary now, yet bolder, and received his advances with a manner tinged with mocking coquetry. He was profuse with promises, and she tried to believe them, but in her heart she could not, and yet she did not repulse him with that stern, brief decision which forms the viewless, impassable wall that hedges virtue.
The sisters tried to remove the outward traces of their wrecked home, and mechanically restored such order as was within their power, but in their secret souls they saw their household gods overturned and trampled upon, and, with the honor and manhood of their father, they felt that night as if they had lost everything.
After they had quieted their mother and brought the poor creature a brief oblivion, Mildred made a passionate appeal to Belle to stand by her. The warm-hearted girl cried and wrung her hands passionately, but all her trembling sister could obtain from her were the words,
"Millie, we are being dragged down I don't know where."
Events followed rapidly. Before Mr. Jocelyn, sullen, nerveless, racked with headache and tortured with heartache, could leave his room on the morrow, the agent of the tenement served a notice on him to the effect that he must vacate his rooms at once; that the other tenants complained of him as a nuisance; and that he (the agent) would be content to lose the rent for the few days that had elapsed since the last regular payment if they would all go out at once. The angry reply was that they would move that day, and, without a word, he left his family in suspense. In the course of the forenoon he returned with a furniture van, and had so braced himself with opium that he was able to assist effectively, yet morosely, in the packing and removing of their fast-dwindling effects, for everything not essential had been sold. His wife and daughter did not remonstrate--they were too dispirited for that--but in dreary apathy did his bidding as far as their strength permitted, feeling meanwhile that any change could scarcely be for the worse.
Mildred almost felt that it was for the better, for their new shelter was in a small rear tenement not far from the old mansion, and was reached from the street by a long covered passageway. To her morbid fancy it suggested the hiding-place that her heart craved. She now scarcely heeded the facts that the place was anything but cleanly and that their neighbors were more unpromising in appearance than those they had just left. Mrs. Jocelyn was so ill and weak that she ought not to raise her hands, and Mildred felt that her strength was unequal to the task of even arranging their household articles so as to make the poor little nook inhabitable. She therefore went for their old stanch ally Mrs. Wheaton, who returned with her and wrought such miracles as the wretched place permitted of. In just foreboding she shook her head over the prospects of her friends in such a neighborhood, for her experienced eyes enabled her to gauge very correctly the character of the people who lived across the hall and in the upper and lower stories. They were chiefly ignorant and debased Irish families, and the good woman's fears were not wholly due to race antipathy. In the tenement from which they came, the people, although poor, were in the main stolid, quiet, and hard-working, but here on every side were traces and hints, even at midday, of degraded and vicious lives. The classes in the tenements appear to have a moral gravity or affinity which brings to the same level and locality those who are alike, and woe be to aliens who try to dwell among them. The Jocelyns did not belong to the tenement classes at all, and Mrs. Wheaton correctly feared that the purgatory which was the corner-stone in their neighbors' creeds would be realized in the temporal experience of the Southern family. Now that the step had been taken, however, she concealed her anxieties, and did her best to avoid collisions with the burly, red-faced women and insolent children whose officious offers of help were but thin veils to a coarse curiosity and a desire for petty pilfering. Mildred shuddered at the people about her, and was cold and brief in her words. As it was, Fred nearly brought on general hostilities by resisting a shock-headed little urchin who had not the remotest regard for the principles of meum and tuum. As the sun declined the general verdict of the neighbors was, "They thinks themselves too foine for the loikes o' us, but we'll tache 'em."
After Mrs. Wheaton had departed with many misgivings, Mildred took her father aside and told him plainly what had occurred the evening before. He sat with his face buried in his hands, and listened without a word. Indeed, he was so overwhelmed with shame and remorse that he was speechless. "Papa, look at me," she said at last.
Slowly he raised his bloodshot, fearful eyes to hers, and the expression of his child's face made him tremble.
"Papa," she said slowly, and her tones were both sad and stern, "you must never come home drunk again. Another such scene might cost mamma her life. If you will take opium, we cannot help it, but you must drink no more vile liquor. I have now learned from bitter experience what the latter means, and what it must lead to. I shall not fail in love and duty to you, but I cannot permit mamma, Belle, and the children to be utterly destroyed. You may do some wild, reckless deed that would blast us all beyond remedy; therefore, if you have a particle of self-control left, let rum alone, or else we must protect ourselves. We have endured it thus far, not with patience and resignation, but in a sort of apathetic despair. This apathy has been broken. Belle is becoming reckless, mamma is dying of a broken heart, and the little ones are exposed to influences that threaten to blight their lives. There must be some change for the better. We must at least be relieved from the fear of bodily harm and the intolerable shame of such scenes as occurred last night. In our hard struggle we must find some kind of a refuge and some degree of quiet and peace in what we call home. It is no kindness to you to endure in silence any longer, and I now see that it will be fatal to those we both love. You may not be able to refrain from opium, but you can and must give up liquor. If you cannot, and there is a remedy in the land, we must avail ourselves of it. I do not know what kind of a place you have brought us to, but I feel sure that we shall need protection. If you should come home again as you did last night, I am satisfied, from the looks of the people in this house, that we should have a scene of violence that I shudder to think of. You had better--it would be more merciful to stab mamma to her heart than to cause her death by drunkenness."
Her words were not threatening, but were spoken with the calmness of inexorable resolve, and he sat before her with an ashen face, trembling like an aspen, for it was like the Day of Judgment to him. Then in gentler and pleading accents she told him of their plan to place him under skilful treatment, and besought him to yield himself up to the care of one who had won much reputation in dealing with cases like his own; but all the encouragement she could obtain were the words, "I'll think of it."
The memory of those fearful days on shipboard, when he was without morphia, made him recoil with unspeakable dread from a like ordeal again, but he promised earnestly that he would indulge no more in liquor. With the cunning of an opium maniac he understood his danger, knowing that further scenes of violence would lead to his arrest and imprisonment. Of his gentle wife he had no fears, but this frail, resolute girl subdued him. He saw that he was driving a strong nature to desperation--saw it with all the agony and remorse of a naturally good father whose better nature was bound hand and foot by depraved appetites. He was conscious of the terrible wrong that he was inflicting on those for whom he once would have died to shield them from a breath of dishonor. But, come what might, he must have opium now, and to counteract the words of his daughter he took enough morphia to kill all the wretched inmates of the tenement. Under its slight exhilaration he felt some hope of availing himself of the proposition that he should go to a curative institution, and he half promised that he would before long. At this point the painful interview ended, and Mildred went for Belle, who as yet had no knowledge of their change of abode.
As the two girls returned, in the dusk of evening, to the long dark passageway that led to the tenement in which they now had rooms, Mildred trembled with fear as she saw that its entrance was surrounded and blocked by a group of rough-looking young men and boys. Belle pushed boldly through them, although they leered, laughed, and made coarse jests. Mildred followed shrinkingly, with downcast eyes. "We'll tache 'em to be neighborly," were the last words she heard, showing that the young ruffians had already obtained their cue from their depraved and low-lived parents.
They looked forward to a dismal evening, but a loyal friend came to their rescue. Roger, having arranged the room selected for him by Mr. Wentworth, could not resist the temptation to see those who were ever uppermost in his thoughts. In dismay and anxiety he learned of their hasty removal and something of the causes which led to it. From the janitor he obtained their present address, and the appearance of his broad shoulders and fearless face had a restraining influence on the mischief-making propensities of the rowdies who kennelled in the vicinity. The alien new-comers evidently were not friendless, and there was hesitation in the half-formed measures for their annoyance.
Roger remained an hour or two, aiding the girls in trying to make the rooms more homelike, which, however, was rather a hopeless task. Mr. Jocelyn, half stupefied by opium, retreated to one of the small dark closet bedrooms, and left the scene unembarrassed by his presence. Roger remarked emphatically that the tenement was no place for them, but Mildred told him that the rent had been paid for a month in advance, and that they must try to endure it, adding, "The twenty-five dollars that you and Mr. Wentworth obtained for me has been, after all, a perfect Godsend."
He was touched, and bound to her with bands of steel by the perfect trust she now reposed in him, and he determined to watch over her like an amiable dragon, making it his first and constant thought how to rescue them all from their wretched condition. He was much surprised, however, when Mildred said to him, as he was preparing to leave, "Mr. Atwood, there is something I wish to say to you. Will you let me walk a block or two with you, and then bring me back again?"
Roger tried to disguise his feelings by saying laughingly that he would "walk to Spuyten Duyvil" with her, but added, "You are too tired to go out at all to-night. I will come to-morrow evening," and he remonstrated so earnestly and kindly that she yielded, promising to rest much of the following day.
"Oh, Millie," said her mother, with a faint smile, "it does my heart good to see that there is some one who knows how and has the will to take care of you."
"Yes," cried Belle, "this place is a perfect hole. It's not fit for nice girls to be seen in, and if Roger gives us a chance to get out of it you had better take it as soon as possible. I give you fair warning."
"What do you mean, Belle?" asked her mother. Belle made no answer, but went to her closet bedroom with a morose, sullen look on her face. The poor woman looked inquiringly at Mildred, who said soothingly, "Don't worry, mamma. Belle is a little tired and discouraged tonight. She'll be in a better mood in the morning."
When all were sleeping from the fatigues of the day, she sat alone with clasped hands and eyes so wide and troubled that it seemed as if she could never close them again. "Alas!" she sighed, "what must I do? He is our good genius, and yet I must drive him away. He must not sacrifice all his prospects for us. It would be most cruel and unjust to let him do so. I must reason with him and show him plainly that it would not be right, and absolve him from every shadow of blame for leaving us to such fate as God permits. Because he is so generous and brave he shall not suffer a loss which he cannot now comprehend."
At last, from utter weariness, she fell into a broken sleep.