Chapter XL. Neighbors
 

Promptly the following evening Roger appeared, and with glowing cheeks told his friends that Mr. Wentworth had found him employment in a lawyer's office, which would enable him to pay his way and at the same time give him much practical insight into his chosen profession. Mildred looked at him wistfully, but her resolution was not shaken, and they went out together, Roger saying, with a smiling nod at Belle, "It will be your turn to-morrow evening."

"Roger," said Mildred, "I've much to say to you, and it is of great importance that you should listen calmly and sensibly."

"All right," he answered laughingly. "You will find me as quiet and impressible as the oysters over which we'll have our talk, but only on this condition. You shall not fatigue yourself by a word here in the street." Nevertheless she felt the phlegmatic creature's arm trembling under her hand. After a moment he went on, in the same light way, "I want you to understand I am not going to be a friend in name merely; I intend to assert my rights, and you had better learn from the start that I am the most tremendously obstinate fellow in the city."

"But you must listen to reason."

"Certainly; so must you."

"To begin with," she resumed, "I've had my supper, and so don't need any more."

"I haven't had mine, and am ravenous. The idea of talking reason to a hungry man! I know of a nice quiet restaurant which, at this hour, we'll have almost to ourselves. You surely won't be so unsocial as to let me eat alone."

"Well, if I yield in trifles you must yield in matters that are vital. Why did you not get your supper before?"

"Too busy; and then, to be honest, I knew I'd enjoy it a hundredfold more with you. I'm a social animal."

Mildred sighed, for this good-comradeship was making her duty very hard.

They soon reached the place in question, and Roger ordered enough for four.

"You don't realize what you are doing in any respect," said Mildred in smiling reproof.

"Wait half an hour before you settle that question," he replied with a confident nod. "I'll soon prove to you what an unsentimental being I am."

"Oh," thought Mildred, "how can I give up his friendship when he acts in this way? And yet I must. He must be shown just how he is wronging himself." When the waiter had departed she looked straight into his eyes with one of her steadfast glances, and said earnestly, "Roger, I appreciate your generous kindness far more than any words can tell you, but the time has come for me to act resolutely and finally. Sad experience has taught me more within a year than most women learn in a lifetime. Mrs. Wheaton, who often works for your aunt, has told us of the sacrifice you have made in our behalf, and we cannot permit it. If not in years, I'm much older than you in other respects, and you don't realize--"

Roger interrupted her by leaning back in his chair and breaking out into an irrepressible laugh. "So you are going to interfere in behalf of the small boy's interests? My venerable friend, permit me to remind you that I am six feet high in my stockings, and have lately reached the mature age of twenty-one."

"Roger," replied Mildred, with a pained look on her face, "I'm in earnest, and I've lain awake nearly all of two nights thinking about it."

"Millie, your oysters are getting cold. You don't know anything about boys, much less about men. Don't you know I'll be much more amiable after supper? It's the nature of the male animal, and what's the use of going against nature?"

"Oh, Roger, listen to me. I'm desperately in earnest. To let you sacrifice such prospects as Mrs. Wheaton said your uncle held out to you for our sakes oppresses me with guilt. I can't eat anything--you don't realize--"

"Millie Jocelyn," said Roger, his face becoming grave and gentle, "I know what you are driving at. You might as well try to stop Spring from coming on. I'm going to be your honest, faithful friend, so help me God! Even if you left me now and refused to speak to me again, I'd watch over you and yours in every way I could. It's my good destiny, and I thank God for it, for I feel it's making a man of me. I won't deceive you in one iota, and I admit to my shame that my worldly old uncle tempted me that night, especially after I saw from your face just how you felt. Even then my hope was that I could do more for you by yielding to his views than if I stood out against them, but a little thought convinced me that you would starve rather than take aid from one who would not give open friendship and companionship, and you would be right. Oh, I exult in your pride, and respect you for it. You are my ideal woman, Millie, and if my uncle had owned this island, and had offered it all to me, I'd have made a wretched bargain in giving up for it the privilege of being here this evening, with the right to look you straight in the eyes without shame. If I had yielded to him then, as the devil tempted me to, I'd never have known another day of self-respect or happiness. I'm building now on the rock of honor and manhood, and you can't say anything that will change my purpose. I know what I am about if I am only a 'boy'; and Mr. Wentworth, who has been told all, approves of my course. So eat your oysters, Millie, and submit to the inevitable."

"Oh, Roger, Roger, what shall I say to you?"

"Look here, Millie; if you were in my place, would you desert a brave, true girl in misfortune? No; unlike me, you would never have hesitated a moment."

"But, Roger, as you say you--you--saw in my face a truth that absolved you--"

"What I saw in your face," he said gravely, "is my misfortune. It is not anything for which you are to blame in the least. And, Millie, I'd rather have your friendship than any other woman's love. I'm choosing my own course with my eyes open, and, thank God, I've chosen rightly. I'd have been the most miserable fellow in the whole city if I had chosen otherwise. Now I'm happy. It's all right. I've vowed to be a brother to Belle, and to do all in my power for your sweet, gentle mother. I've vowed to be your true friend in all respects, and if you protested till Doomsday it wouldn't make any difference. I've written to my mother, and I know her well enough to be sure that she will approve of my course. So will my father by and by. He isn't bad at heart, but, like uncle, a dollar is so large in his eyes that it hides the sun. Be that as it may, I'm just as much of an Atwood as he is, and can be just as obstinate in doing what I know to be right as he can be in requiring a course that would spoil my life. Millie, there never was a soldier, in all the past, braver than you have shown yourself to be, and you are a delicate girl that I could carry like a child. Do you advise a young, strong-handed fellow to play the coward, and desert the women I love and honor in their sore need and danger? You have looked on only one side of this question, and you must not think so meanly of me as to even suggest anything of the kind again."

"Roger, Roger, can you realize what you are saying?" Mildred faltered, a slow, painful flush crimsoning her face. "How can you honor those who are so disgraced? You don't know what papa has become. The world will share your uncle's views concerning us."

"I do know all about your father, Millie, and I pity him from the depths of my soul. He is the dark background which brings out your absolute truth and purity. I do honor you and Mrs. Jocelyn as I honor my own mother, and I intend to prove myself worthy of your respect at least, for its loss would be fatal to me. I even honor your rare fidelity, though it stands so awfully in my way. Now, surely, we understand each other. But, come, this is far too serious talk for a restaurant and the supper-table. I am now going to give my whole soul to oysters, and I adjure you by our bonds to do the same. Here's to our friendship, Millie, and may I be choked the moment I'm false to it!" and he drained a generous cup of coffee.

"You won't listen to me, then," she said, with a face wherein perplexity, relief, and gratitude were blended.

"I won't listen to a word that will make me the most miserable wretch in the world, and you won't get rid of me as long as I live. So, there, you might as well submit to fate and eat your oysters."

Her expression became very grave and resolute. "Roger," she said slowly, "I did not know there was so kind and true a man in the world. I will do anything that you can ask."

His eyes suddenly became infinitely wistful and tender, and then he gave himself a little characteristic shake as he said, rather brusquely, "I accept that promise, and shall at once tax it to the utmost with the request that you eat a jolly good supper and call on me every time I can aid you."

Her glance in response warmed his soul, and then she gave herself up to social friendliness in a way which proved that a great burden had been taken from her heart. On their way home, however, she hinted her fears in regard to Belle, and Roger understood her thoroughly. For the next few days he watched the young girl, and soon satisfied himself as to the character of the man who was pursuing her. His object now was to obtain some ground for brotherly interference, and one Saturday evening, while following Belle home, he saw a young man join her and receive an undoubted welcome. He soon became aware that matters were progressing fast and far, for the young people wandered off into unfrequented streets, and once, where the shadows were deepest, he saw Belle's attendant steal his arm about her waist and kiss her. Belle's protest was not very vigorous, and when at last they parted in the passageway that led to Belle's home the kiss was repeated and not resented at all.

Roger followed the young man, and said, "You have just parted from Miss Belle Jocelyn."

"Well, that's my affair."

"You will find yourself so greatly mistaken that you had better answer my questions honestly. What are your intentions toward her? I have the right to ask."

"None of your business."

"Look here, young man, she has acknowledged me as her brother, and as a brother I feel toward her. I've only a few plain words to say. If your intentions are honorable I'll not interfere, although I know all about you, and you are not my style of man by any means. If your intentions are not honorable, and you do not cease your attentions, I'll break every bone in your body--I swear it by the God who made me."

"Go to the devil!" muttered the fellow.

"No, sir, nor shall I permit you to take one dear to me to the devil, but I pledge my word to send you straight to him if you harm Belle Jocelyn. Here, stop and look me in the eyes under this lamp. You kissed her twice to-night. Do you intend to make her your wife?"

There was no answer, but the sullen, half-frightened face was an unmistakable response. "I understand you now," said Roger savagely, taking the fellow by the throat, "and I'll send you swiftly to perdition if you don't promise to let that girl alone," and his gleaming eyes and iron grasp awed the incipient roue so completely that he quavered out:

"Oh, let go. If you feel the girl is your property, I'll let her alone."

Roger gave him a wrathful push which precipitated his limp form into the gutter, and growled as he walked of, "If you value your life, keep your promise."

An evening or two later Roger said to Belle, whom he had taken out for a stroll, "I kept my word--I cowhided that fellow Bissel, who played such a dastardly part toward your sister. Of course I did not want to get myself into trouble, or give him any power over me, so I found out his haunts and followed him. One night, as he was returning rather late from a drinking saloon, I spoiled his good looks with a dozen savage cuts. He was too confused to see who it was in the dark, and to mislead him more thoroughly I said, with the last blow, 'Take that for lying and causing a poor girl to be sent to prison.' He thinks, no doubt, that some friend of the thief was the one who punished him. What's more, he won't forget the lashing I gave him till his dying day, and if I mistake not his smooth face will long bear my marks."

Belle gave but a languid approval, for she had missed her lover for the last two evenings. "Belle," he continued, gravely but gently, "I was tempted to choke the life out of a fellow the other night, and it was the life of one who kissed you twice."

She dropped her hand from his arm, but he replaced it and held it tightly as he resumed, "I'm no make-believe brother, you know. I'm just such a brother as I would be if I had been born with you on a Southern plantation. Though the young man was not to my mind, I told him that if his intentions were honorable I would not interfere, but I soon learned that he was an out-and-out scoundrel, and I said words to him that will make him shun you as he would death. Belle, I would kill him as I used to club rattlesnakes in the country, if he harmed a hair of your head, and he knows it."

"You misjudge him utterly," cried Belle in a passion. "and you have just driven away the one friend that I had in all the world. I won't stand it. I'm not a baby, and I won't be treated like one."

Roger let her storm on without a word, but at last, when she concluded, "I've no father worthy of the name, and so I'll take care of myself," he asked quietly:

"How about your mother, Belle?"

In strong revulsion the impulsive girl gave way to an equally passionate outburst of grief. "Oh," she cried, "I wish I were dead!"

"Belle," said Roger, very gently now, "if you listened to that fellow you would soon make that wish in earnest. Now in your heart you don't mean it at all. You don't love such a man, and you know it. Why should you throw your young, beautiful life into the gutter? It is a mere reckless protest against your unhappy life. Belle, you are not seventeen, and you may live till you are seventy if you take care of yourself. Think of the changes for the better that may come in that time. They shall come, too. I shall share with you all my fortunes, and you have told me many a time that I was sure to succeed. I pledge you my word that before many years you shall have good honest men at your feet," and he reasoned with her so sensibly, and petted and soothed her so kindly, that at last she clung to his arm as if it were a defence indeed, and said, with tearful eyes, "You are a brother in the best sense of the word, and I wonder you have patience with such a reckless, passionate fool as I am. I'm not fit for you to speak to."

"No, Belle, you are not bad at heart--far from it. You are half desperate from your present misfortunes, and in your blind impulse to escape you would make matters infinitely worse. Be patient, dear. It's a long lane that has no turning. To one so young as you are life promises very much, if it is not spoiled at the beginning, and Mr. Wentworth would tell us that there is a heaven beyond it all."

The influence of this interview did not speedily pass from her mind, and by her gentler and more patient bearing Mildred was taught again how much she owed to one whom she had so long repelled.

Mr. Wentworth succeeded in interesting the lady to whom he had referred in Mildred, and a visit from the young girl confirmed her good impressions. As a result, sufficient work was found or made to give Mildred steady employment. Mr. Jocelyn was comparatively quiet and much at home. Often he was excessively irritable and exasperating in words and manner, but no longer violent from bestial excess. He put off the project of going to a curative institution, with the true opium inertia and procrastination, and all efforts to lead him to definite action proved fruitless. His presence, however, and his quiet, haughty ways, with Roger's frequent visits, did much for a time to restrain the ill-disposed people around them, but the inevitable contact with so much depravity and coarseness was almost unendurable.

Now that Mildred no longer went out to her work, she taxed her ingenuity to the utmost to amuse Fred and Minnie, that she might keep them from the horrible associations beyond their door, but her father's irritability often rendered it impossible for them to remain in the room, and, childlike, they would assimilate somewhat with the little heathen among whom their lot was now cast.

Poor Mrs. Jocelyn was sinking under her sorrows. She did not complain: she blamed herself with a growing morbidness for the ruin of her husband and the hard lot of her children, and hope deferred was making her heart sick indeed. Her refined, gentle nature recoiled with an indescribable repugnance from her surroundings, and one day she received a shock from which she never fully recovered.

Her husband was out, and Mildred had gone to deliver some work. The children, whom she tried to keep with her, broke away at last and left the door open. Before she could close it a drunken woman stumbled in, and, sinking into a chair, she let a bundle slip from her hands. It fell on the floor, unrolled, and a dead infant lay before Mrs. Jocelyn's horrified gaze. Her cries for help brought a stout, red-faced woman from across the hallway, and she seemed to understand what was such a fearful mystery to Mrs. Jocelyn, for she took the unwelcome intruder by the shoulder and tried to get her to go out hastily, but the inebriated wretch was beyond shame, fear, or prudence. Pulling out of her pocket a roll of bills, she exclaimed, in hideous exultation:

"Faix, I'oive had a big day's work. Trhree swell families on the Avenue guv me all this to burry the brat. Burry it? Divil a bit. It's makin' me fortin'. Cud we ony git dead babbies enough we'd all be rich, Bridget, but here's enough to kape the pot bilin' for wakes to come, and guv us a good sup o' whiskey into the bargain. Here, take a drap," she said, pulling out a black bottle and holding it up to Mrs. Jocelyn. "What yer glowrin' so ghostlike for? Ah, let me alone, ye ould hag," she said angrily to the red-faced woman, who seemed in great trepidation, and tried to put her hand over the drunken creature's mouth. "Who's afeard? Money'll buy judge and jury, an' if this woman peaches on us I'll bate her brains out wid the dead babby."

Finding that words were of no avail, and that she could not move the great inert mass under which Mrs. Jocelyn's chair was creaking, the neighbor from across the way snatched the money and retreated to her room. This stratagem had the desired effect, for the woman was not so intoxicated as to lose her greed, and she followed as hastily as her unsteady steps permitted. A moment later the red-faced woman dashed in, seized the dead child and its wrappings, and then shaking her huge fist in Mrs. Jocelyn's face, said, "If yees ever spakes of what yer've sane, I'll be the death of ye--by the V'argin I will; so mum's the word, or it'll be worse for ye."

When Mildred returned she found her mother nervously prostrated. "I've had a bad turn," was her only explanation. Her broken spirit was terrified by her awful neighbors, and not for the world would she add another feather's weight to the burdens under which her family faltered by involving them in a prosecution of the vile impostor who had sickened her with the exposure of a horrible trade. [Footnote: This character is not an imaginary one, and, on ample authority, I was told of an instance where the large sum of fifty dollars was obtained from some kindly family by this detestable method of imposition.]

"Mamma," cried Mildred, in sharp distress, "we must leave this place. It's killing you."

"I wish we could leave it, dear," sighed the poor woman. "I think I'd be better anywhere else."

"We shall leave it," said the girl resolutely. "Let the rent go. I had already about decided upon it, and now I'll go with Mrs. Wheaton to-morrow and find rooms among more respectable people."

The events of the evening confirmed her purpose, for the young roughs that rendezvoused nightly at the entrance of the long passageway determined that they would no longer submit to the "uppish airs" of the sisters, but "tache 'em" that since they lived in the same house they were no better than their neighbors. Therefore, as Belle boldly brushed by them as usual on her return from the shop, one young fellow, with a wink to his comrades, followed her, and where the passage was darkest put his arm around her waist and pressed upon her cheek a resounding kiss. In response there came from the entrance a roar of jeering laughter. But the young ruffian found instantly to his sorrow that he had aroused a tigress. Belle was strong and furious from the insult, and her plump hand came down on the fellow's nose with a force that caused the blood to flow copiously. After the quick impulse of anger and self-defence passed she ran sobbing like a child to Mildred, and declared she would not stay another day in the vile den. Mildred was white with anger, and paced the room excitedly for a few moments.

"Oh, God, that we had a father!" she gasped. "There, Belle, let us be patient," she continued after a few moments; "we can't contend with such wretches. I promise you that this shall be your last day in this place. We ought to have left before."

Then, as the girls grew calmer, they resolved not to tell either their father or Roger, fearing that they might become embroiled in a dangerous and disgraceful quarrel involving their presence in a police court. Mildred had given her mother a sedative to quiet her trembling nerves, and she was sleeping in one of the bedrooms, and so happily was not aware of Belle's encounter.

Mr. Jocelyn soon came in, and, for the first time since Mildred's warning, was a little the worse for liquor, but he had the self-control to keep quiet, and after a few mouthfuls of supper went to his room overcome by the stupor he had sought. After the children were sleeping the girls gladly welcomed Roger, for he had become the chief source of light and hope in their saddened lives. And he did brighten and cheer them wonderfully, for, content with a long and prosperous day's work, and full of the hopefulness and courage of youth, he imparted hope and fortitude to them in spite of all that was so depressing.

"Come, girls," he said at last, "you need some oxygen. The air is close and stifling in this den of a house, and outside the evening is clear and bracing. Let's have a stroll."

"We can't go far," said Mildred, "for mamma is sleeping, and I would not have her wake and be frightened for anything."

"Well, we'll only go around a block or two. You'll feel the stronger for it, and be in a better condition to move to-morrow," for Mildred had told him of her purpose, and he had promised to help them get settled on the following evening. When they reached the end of the dark passage-way they feared that trouble was brewing, for a score of dark, coarse faces lowered at them, and the fellow that Belle had punished glared at her above his bandaged face. Paying no heed to them, however, they took a brief, quick walk, and returned to find the entrance blocked by an increasing number of dangerous-looking young ruffians.

"Stand aside," said Roger sternly.

A big fellow knocked off his hat in response, and received instantly a blow in the eye which would have felled him had he not been sustained by the crowd, who now closed on the young man.

"Run up the street and call for police," he said to the girls, but they were snatched back and held by some of the gang, and hands placed over their mouths, yet not before they had uttered two piercing cries.

Roger, after a brief, desperate struggle, got his back to the wall and struck blows that were like those of a sledge-hammer. He was dealing, however, with some fairly trained pugilists, and was suffering severely, when a policeman rushed in, clubbing right and left. The gang dispersed instantly, but two were captured. The girls, half fainting from excitement and terror, were conducted to their room by Roger, and then they applied palliatives to the wounds of their knight, with a solicitude and affection which made the bruises welcome indeed to the young fellow. They were in terror at the idea of his departure, for the building was like a seething caldron. He reassured them by promising to remain until all was quiet, and the police also informed them that the house would be under surveillance until morning.

On the following day, with Mrs. Wheaton's aid, they found rooms elsewhere, and Roger, after appearing as witness against the rowdies that had been captured, and informing his employers of what had occurred, gave the remaining hours to the efficient aid of his friends.