Chapter XLI. Glints of Sunshine

Their new rooms at first promised remarkably well. They were on the ground-floor of a large tenement that fronted on a rather narrow street, and their neighbors seemed quiet, well-disposed people. Mr. Wentworth soon called and congratulated them on the change. Mrs. Wheaton frequently came to give Mrs. Jocelyn a "'elping 'and," as she phrased it, but her eliminations did not extend to her work, which was rounded out with the completeness of hearty goodwill. Roger rarely missed an evening without giving an hour or two to the girls, often taking them out to walk, with now and then a cheap excursion on the river or a ramble in Central Park. In the latter resort they usually spent part of Sunday afternoon, going thither directly from the chapel. Mildred's morbidness was passing away. She had again taken her old class, and her face was gaining a serenity which had long been absent.

One of the great wishes of her heart now had good prospect of being fulfilled, for her father had at last consented to go to an institution wherein he could receive scientific treatment suited to his case. The outlook was growing so hopeful that even Mrs. Jocelyn was rallying into something like hopefulness and courage, and her health was slowly improving. She was one whose life was chiefly sustained by her heart and the well-being of those she loved.

Belle also was improving greatly. The memorable interview with Roger, already described, had a lasting influence, and did much to banish the giddiness of unthinking, ignorant girlhood, and the recklessness arising from an unhappy life. Now that the world was brightening again, she brightened with it. Among his new associates Roger found two or three fine, manly fellows, who were grateful indeed for an introduction to the handsome, lively girl, and scarcely a week passed during May and June that some inexpensive evening excursion was not enjoyed, and thoroughly enjoyed too, even by Mildred. Roger was ever at his best when in her society. His talk was bright and often witty, and his spirit of fun as genuine and contagious as that of Belle herself. He was now sincerely happy in the consciousness of Mildred's perfect trust and strong affection, believing that gradually, and even before the girl was aware of it, she would learn to give more than friendship. It was his plan to make himself essential to her life, indeed a part of it, and he was apparently succeeding. Mildred had put her fate into his hands. She felt that she owed so much to him that she was ready to keep her promise literally. At any time for months he might have bound her to him by promises that would never have been broken; he knew it, and she was aware of his knowledge, but when, instead of taking advantage of her gratitude, he avoided all sentiment, and treated her with a cordial frankness as if she were in truth simply the friend he had asked her to become, all of her old constraint in his presence was unthought of, and she welcomed the glances of his dark, intent eyes, which interpreted her thoughts even before they were spoken. The varying expressions of his face made it plain enough to her that he liked and appreciated her thoughts, and that his admiration and affection were only strengthened by their continued companionship. Moreover, she was well content with what she regarded as her own progress toward a warmer regard for him.

One moonlight night in June they made up a little party for an excursion on a steamer plying down the Bay. Belle had had two attendants, and would have been just as well pleased had there been two or three more. As she once asserted, she could have kept them "all jolly." During the earlier hours Roger had been as merry and full of nonsense as Belle, but on their return he and Mildred had taken seats a little apart from the others and drifted into some talk relating to one of his studies, he in a simple, lucid manner explaining to her the latest theories on a disputed question. She surprised and pleased him by saying, with a little pathetic accent in her voice,

"Oh, Roger, you are leaving me far, far behind."

"What do you mean, Millie?"

"Why, you are climbing the peaks of knowledge at a great pace, and what's to become of poor little me, that have no chance to climb at all worth naming? You won't want a friend who doesn't know anything, and can't understand what you are thinking about."

"I'll wait for you, Millie; rest assured you shall never be left alone."

"No, that won't do at all," she replied, and she was in earnest now. "There is one thing wherein you will find me as obstinate as an Atwood, and that is never to let our friendship retard your progress or render your success doubtful, now that you have struck out for yourself. Your relatives think that I--that we shall be a drag upon you; I have resolved that we shall not be, and you know that I have a little will of my own as well as yourself. You must not wait for me in any sense of the word, for you know how very proud I am, and all my pride is staked on your success. It ought to have been dead long ago, but it seems just as strong as ever."

"And I'm proud of your pride. You are a soldier, Millie, and it isn't possible for you to say, 'I surrender.'"

"You are mistaken. When you saved me from prison; when you gave nearly all you had that papa might have the chance which I trust will restore his manhood, I surrendered, and no one knew it better than you did."

"Pardon me, Millie; the gates of the citadel were closed, and ever have been. Even your will cannot open them no, not even your extravagant sense of gratitude for what it would be my happiness to do in any case. That something which was once prejudice, dislike, repulsion, has retreated into the depths of your heart, and it won't yield--at least it hasn't yet. But, Millie, I shall be very patient. Just as truly as if you were the daughter of a millionaire, your heart shall guide your action."

"You are a royal fellow, Roger," she faltered. "If you were not so genuinely honest, I should think you wonderfully shrewd in your policy."

"Well, perhaps the honest course is always the shrewdest in the long run," he replied laughingly, and with a deep gladness in his tone, for her words gave a little encouragement. "But your charge that I am leaving you behind as I pursue my studies has a grain of truth in it as far as mere book learning goes. In your goodness, Millie, and all that is most admirable, I shall always follow afar off. Since I can't wait for you, as you say, and you have so little time to read and study yourself, I am going to recite my lessons to you--that is, some of them, those that would interest you--and by telling you about what I have learned I shall fix it all in my mind more thoroughly."

Mildred was exceedingly pleased with the idea. "I don't see why this isn't possible to some extent," she said gladly, "and I can't tell you how much hope and comfort it gives me. That I've had so little time to read and cultivate my mind has been one of the great privations of our poverty, but if you will patiently try to make me understand a little of what you are studying, I won't relapse into barbarism. Oh, Roger, how good you are to me!"

"That is like saying, How good I am to myself! Let me tell you, Millie, in all sincerity, that this plan promises as much for me as for you. Your mind is so quick, and you look at things so differently, that I often get new and better ideas of the subject after talking it over with you. The country boy that you woke up last summer was right in believing that you could be an invaluable friend, for I can't tell you how much richer life has become to me."

"Roger, how I misunderstood you! How blind and stupid I was! God was raising up for me the best friend a girl ever had, and I acted so shamefully that anybody but you would have been driven away."

"You do yourself injustice, and I wouldn't let any one else judge you so harshly."

After reaching her room that night, Mildred thought, "I do believe mamma was right, and that an old-fashioned Southern girl, such as she says that I am, can learn to love a second time. Roger is so genuinely good and strong! It rests me to be with him, and he gives some of his own strength and courage. To-night, for the first time since he told me everything so gently and honestly, has anything been said of that which I can see is in his mind all the time, and I brought on all that was said myself. I can now read his thoughts better than he can read mine, and it would be mean not to give him a little of the hope and encouragement that he so richly deserves. It troubles me, however, that my mind and heart are so tranquil when I'm with him. That's not the way I once felt," she sighed. "He seems like the dearest brother a girl ever had--no, not that exactly; he is to me the friend he calls himself, and I'd be content to have things go on this way as long as we lived."

"Millie," cried Belle roguishly, "what did Roger say to you to call out such sweet smiles and tender sighs?"

The young girl started, and flushed slightly. "We were talking about astronomy," she said brusquely.

"Well, I should think so, for the effects in your appearance are heavenly. If he could have seen you as you have appeared for the last ten minutes, he would be more desperately in love than ever. Oh, Millie, you are so pretty that I am half in love with you myself."

"Nonsense! you are a giddy child. Tell me about your own favorites, and which of them you like best."

"I like them all best. Do you think I'm going to be such a little goose as to tie myself down to one? These are but the advance guard of scores. Still I shall always like these ones best because they are kind to me now while I'm only a 'shop-lady,'"

"You mustn't flirt, Belle."

"I'm not flirting--only having a good time, and they know it. I'm not a bit sentimental--only jolly, you know. When the right time comes, and I've had my fun, I'm going to take my pick of the best."

"Well, that's sensible. Belle, darling, are not Roger's friends better than those underhanded fellows who could not look mamma in the eyes?"

"Oh, Millie," said the impulsive girl with a rush of tears, "don't speak of those horrid days. I was an ignorant, reckless fool--I was almost beside myself with despair and unhappiness; I could kiss Roger's hands from gratitude. Look here, Millie, if you don't marry him I will, for there's no one that can compare with him."

"Come, now, don't make me jealous."

"I wish I could. I've a great mind to flirt with him a little, just to wake up your old stupid heart. Still I think you are coming on very well. Oh, Millie, how I could dance at your wedding! Solid as I am, my feet would scarcely touch the floor."

Mildred laughed, and said softly, "It would be a pity to deny you so much pleasure, Belle." Then she added resolutely, "No more talk about weddings, if you please. For long, long years Roger must give his whole mind to his studies. His relatives say that we shall hang helplessly upon him and spoil his life, but we'll prove them mistaken, Belle. I'd work my fingers off to give him the chance that he'll make so much of, for I'm as proud of him as you are."

"That's the way to talk," exulted Belle. "I see how it's all coming out. He'll stand up head, as I told you, and I told you, too, that he'd win you in spite of yourself. Roger Atwood does all he undertakes--it's his way."

"Well, we'll see," was the half-smiling, half-sighing answer; but sanguine Belle had no doubt concerning the future, and soon her long eyelashes drooped over her glowing cheeks in untroubled sleep.

"Oh, how good for us all is the sunlight of a little happiness and hope!" Mildred thought. "Darling mamma is reviving, Belle is blossoming like a blush rose, and I--well, thank God for Roger Atwood's friendship. May I soon be able to thank Him for his love."

Ah, Mildred Jocelyn, you have still much to learn. A second love can grow up in the heart, but not readily in one like yours.

Within a month from the time that Mr. Jocelyn entered a curative institution, he returned to his family greatly changed for the better. His manner toward his family was full of remorseful tenderness, and he was eager to retrieve his fortunes. They welcomed him with such a wealth of affection, they cheered and sustained him in so many delicate and sympathetic ways, that he wondered at the evil spell which had bound him so long and made him an alien among those so lovable and so dearly beloved. He now felt sure that he would devote body and soul to their welfare for the rest of his days, and he could not understand why or how it was that he had been so besotted. The intense sufferings during the earlier stage of his treatment at the institution made him shrink with horror from the bare thought of his old enslavement, and during the first weeks after his return he did not dream it was possible that he could relapse, although he had been warned of his danger. His former morbid craving was often fearfully strong, but he fought it with a vindictive hatred, and his family, in their deep gladness and inexperience, felt assured that husband and father had been restored to them.

It seemed as if he could not thank Roger enough, and his eyes grew eloquent with gratitude when the young fellow's name was mentioned, and when they rested on his bright, honest face. Mr. Wentworth went out among his business friends, and so interested one of them that a position was in a certain sense made for the poor man, and although the salary was small at first, the prospect for its increase was good if he would maintain his abstinence and prove that he had not lost his old fine business powers. This he bade so fair to do that hope and confidence grew stronger every day, and they felt that before very long they would be able to move into more commodious quarters, situated in a better part of the city, for by reason of the neglect of the streets and sewerage on the part of the authorities, the locality in which they now were was found to be both very disagreeable and unwholesome. They would have removed at once, but they were eager to repay Roger the money he had loaned them, although he protested against their course. Not realizing their danger, and in the impulse of their pride and integrity, they remained, practicing the closest economy.

Early in July, Roger obtained a vacation, and went home on a visit, proposing to harden his muscles by aiding his father through the harvest season. He was so helpful and so kind and considerate that even grim, disappointed Mr. Atwood was compelled to admit that his boy had become a man. Mrs. Atwood tenderly and openly exulted over him, and, obeying her impulse, she wrote a friendly letter to Mildred, which made the young girl very happy.

Susan became more than reconciled to Roger's course, for he promised that some day she should often come to the city and have splendid times. Clara Bute bad become the happy wife of a well-to-do farmer, and she sent an urgent request to Belle and Mildred to visit her. The latter would not leave her parents, but Belle accepted gladly, and the gay, frolicsome girl left more than one mild heartache among the rural beaux that vied with each other in their attentions.