Chapter XLII. Hopes Given and Slain
 

The skies seemed serene and bright, with promise to all for many happy days, but clouds were gathering below the horizon, and, most unexpectedly to him, the first bolt fell upon Roger. A day or two before his return to the city he found at the village office a letter with a foreign post-mark, addressed, in his care, to Miss Mildred Jocelyn. He knew the handwriting instantly, and he looked at the missive as if it contained his death-warrant. It was from Vinton Arnold. As he rode away he was desperately tempted to destroy the letter, and never breathe a word of its existence. He hoped and half believed that Mildred was learning to love him, and he was sure that if Arnold did not appear he would win all that he craved. The letter, which he had touched as if it contained nitro-glycerine, might slay every hope. Indeed he believed that it would, for he understood Mildred better than she understood herself. She believed that Arnold had given her up. Her heart had become benumbed with its own pain, and was sleeping after its long, weary waiting. He was sure, however, that if not interfered with he could awaken it at last to content and happiness. This letter, however, might be the torch which would kindle the old love with tenfold intensity. Long hours he fought his temptation like a gladiator, for fine as had been Mildred's influence over him, he was still intensely human. At last he gained the victory, and went home quiet, but more exhausted than he had ever been from a long hot day's toil in the harvest-field. He had resolved to keep absolute faith with Mildred, and having once reached a decision he was not one to waver.

As his mother kissed him good-by she held him off a moment, then whispered, "Roger, Miss Jocelyn has given you something better than all your uncle's money. I am content that it should be as it is."

On the afternoon of the day of his arrival in the city he went to meet his fate. Mrs. Jocelyn greeted him like the mother he had just left, and Mildred's glad welcome made him groan inwardly. Never before had she appeared so beautiful to him--never had her greeting been so tinged with her deepening regard. And yet she looked inquiringly at him from time to time, for he could not wholly disguise the fear that chilled his heart.

"Belle had a perfectly lovely time in the country," said Mrs. Jocelyn. "She has told us all about your people, and what a farmer you became. She said everybody was proud of you up at Forestville, and well they might be, although they don't know what we do. Oh, Roger, my dear boy, it does my heart good to see you again. We have all missed you so much. Oh, you'll never know--you never can know. Good-by now, for a little while. I promised Mrs. Wheaton that I'd bring the children over and spend the afternoon with her. She is going to show me about cutting some little clothes for Fred. What a dear kind soul she is, with all her queer talk. God bless you, my boy. You bring hope and happiness back with you."

But the poor fellow was so conscious of his own coming trouble that tears came into his eyes, and after Mrs. Jocelyn had gone he looked at Mildred in a way that made her ask, gently and anxiously:

"What is it, Roger?"

Alter a moment's hesitation he said grimly, "Millie, it's rough on a fellow when he must be his own executioner. There, take it. It's the heaviest load I ever carried in my life," and he threw the letter into her lap.

After a moment's glance she trembled violently, and became pale and red by turns, then buried her face in her hands.

"I knew it would be so," he said doggedly. "I knew what was the matter all along."

She sprang up, letting the letter drop on the floor, and clung to him. "Roger," she cried, "I won't read the letter. I won't touch it. No one shall come between us--no one has the right. Oh, it would be shameful after all--"

"Millie," he said almost sternly, replacing her in her chair, "the writer of that letter has the right to come between us--he is between us, and there is no use in disguising the truth. Come, Millie, I came here to play the man, and you must not make it too hard for me. Read your letter."

"I can't," she said, again burying her burning face in her hands, and giving way to a sudden passion of tears.

"No, not while I'm here, of course. And yet I'd like to know my fate, for the suspense is a little too much. I hope he's written to tell you that he has married the daughter of the Great Mogul, or some other rich nonentity," he added, trying to meet his disappointment with a faint attempt at humor; "but I'm a fool to hope anything. Good-by, and read your letter in peace. I ought to have left it and gone away at once, but, confound it! I couldn't. A drowning man will blindly catch at a straw."

She looked at him, and saw that his face was white with pain and fear.

"Roger," she said resolutely, "I'll burn that letter without opening it if you say so. I'll do anything you ask."

He paced the room excitedly with clenched hands for a few moments, but at last turned toward her and said quietly, "Will you do what I ask?"

"Yes, yes indeed."

"Then read your letter."

She looked at him irresolutely a moment, then made a little gesture of protest and snatched up the missive almost vindictively.

After reading a few lines her face softened, and she said, in accents of regret which she was too much off her guard to disguise, "Oh, he never received my answer last summer."

"Of course not," growled Roger. "You deserved that, for you gave your note to that old blunderbuss Jotham, when I would have carried it safely."

"Oh, Roger, I can't go on with this; I am wronging you too shamefully."

"You would wrong me far more if you were not honest with me at this time," he said almost harshly.

His words quieted and chilled her a little, and she replied sadly, "You are right, Roger. You don't want, nor should I mock you with the mere semblance of what you give."

"Read the letter," was his impatient reply, "or I shall go at once."

She now turned to it resolutely, proposing to read it with an impassive face, but, in spite of herself, he saw that every word was like an electric touch upon her heart. As she finished, the letter dropped from her hands, and she began crying so bitterly that he was disarmed, and forgot himself in her behalf. "Don't cry so, Millie," he pleaded. "I can't stand it. Come, now; I fought this battle out once before, and didn't think I could be so accursedly weak again."

"Roger, read that letter."

"No," he answered savagely; "I hate him--I could annihilate him; but he shall never charge me with anything underhanded. That letter was meant for your eyes only. Since it must be, God grant he proves worthy; but his words would sting me like adders."

She sprang to him, and, burying her face upon his shoulder, sobbed, "Oh, Roger, I can't endure this. It's worse than anything I've suffered yet."

"Oh, what a brute I am!" he groaned. "His letter ought to have brought you happiness, but your kind heart is breaking over my trouble, for I've acted like a passionate boy. Millie, dear Millie, I will be a brave, true man, and, as I promised you, your heart shall decide all. From this time forth I am your brother, your protector, and I shall protect you against yourself as truly as against others. You are not to blame in the least. How could I blame you for a love that took possession of your heart before you knew of my existence, and why has not Millie Jocelyn. as good a right to follow her heart as any other girl in the land? And you shall follow it. It would be dastardly meanness in me to take advantage of your gratitude. Come now, wipe your eyes, and give a sister's kiss before I go. It's all right."

She yielded passively, for she was weak, nerveless, and exhausted. He picked up the open letter, replaced it within the envelope, and put it in her hand. "It's yours," he said, "by the divine right of your love. When I come this evening, don't let me see a trace of grief. I won't mope and be lackadaisical, I promise," and smilingly he kissed her good-by.

She sat for an hour almost without moving, and then mechanically put the letter away and went on with her work. She felt herself unequal to any more emotion at that time, and after thinking the affair all over, determined to keep it to herself, for the present at least. She knew well how bitterly her father, mother, and Belle would resent the letter, and how greatly it would disquiet them if they knew that her old love was not dead, and seemingly could not and would not die. With the whole force of her resolute will she sought to gain an outward quietude, and succeeded so well that the family did not suspect anything. She both longed for and dreaded Roger's appearance, and when he came she looked at him so kindly, so remorsefully, that she tasked his strength to the utmost; but he held his own manfully, and she was compelled to admit that he had never appeared so gay or so brilliant before. For an hour he and Belle kept them all laughing over their bright nonsense, and then suddenly he said, "Vacation's over; I must begin work to-morrow," and in a moment he was gone.

"Millie," cried Belle, "you ought to thank your stars, for you have the finest fellow in the city," and they all smiled at her so brightly that she fled to her room. There Belle found her a little later with red eyes, and she remarked bluntly, "Well, you are a queer girl. I suppose you are crying for joy, but that isn't my way."

After her sister was asleep Mildred read and re-read Arnold's letter. At first she sighed and cried over it, and then lapsed into a long, deep reverie. "Hard as it is for Roger," she thought, "he is right--I am not to blame. I learned to love Vinton Arnold, and permitted him to love me, before I had ever seen Roger. I should have a heart of stone could I resist his appeal in this letter. Here he says: 'You did not answer my note last summer--I fear you have cast me off. I cannot blame you. After insults from my mother and my own pitiful exhibitions of weakness, my reason tells me that you have banished all thoughts of me in anger and disgust. But, Millie, my heart will not listen to reason, and cries out for you night and day. My life has become an intolerable burden to me, and never in all the past has there been a more unhappy exile than I. The days pass like years, and the nights are worse. I am dragged here and there for the benefit of my health--what a miserable farce it is! For half the money I am spending here I could live happily with you, and, sustained by your love and sympathy, I might do something befitting my man's estate. One day, when I said as much to my mother, her face grew cold and stern, and she replied that my views of life were as absurd as those of a child! I often wish I were dead, and were it not for the thought of you I half fear that I might be tempted to end my wretched existence. Of course my health suffers from this constant unhappiness, repression, and humiliation. The rumor has reached me that your father has become very poor, and that he is in ill health. The little blood I have left crimsons my face with shame that I am not at your side to help and cheer you. But I fear I should be a burden to you, as I am to every one else. My fainting turns--one of which you saw-are becoming more frequent. I've no hope nor courage to try to get well--I am just sinking under the burden of my unhappy, unmanly lite, and my best hope may soon be to become unconscious and remain so forever. And yet I fully believe that one kind word from you would inspire me with the wish, the power to live. My mother is blind to everything except her worldly maxims of life. She means to do her duty by me, and is conscientious in her way, but she is killing me by slow torture. If you would give me a little hope, if you would wait--oh, pardon the selfishness of my request, the pitiable weakness displayed in this appeal! Yet, how can I help it? Who can sink into absolute despair without some faint struggle--some effort to escape? I have had the happiness of heaven in your presence, and now I am as miserable as a lost soul. You have only to say that there is no hope, and I will soon cease to trouble you or any one much longer.'

"How can I tell him there is no hope?" she murmured. "It would be murder--it would be killing soul and body. What's more, I love him--God knows I love him. My heart just yearns for him in boundless pity and sympathy, and I feel almost as if he were my crippled, helpless child as well as lover. It would be cruel, selfish, and unwomanly to desert him because of his misfortune. I haven't the heart to do it. His weakness and suffering bind me to him. His appeal to me is like the cry of the helpless to God, and how can I destroy his one hope, his one chance? He needs me more than does Roger, who is strong, masterful, and has a grand career before him. In his varied activities, in the realization of his ambitious hopes, he will overcome his present feelings, and become my brother in very truth. He will marry some rich, splendid girl like Miss Wetheridge by and by, and I shall be content in lowly, quiet ministry to one whose life and all God has put into my hands. His parents treat Vinton as if he were a child; but he has reached the age when he has the right to choose for himself, and, if the worst comes to the worst, I could support him. myself. Feeling as I do now, and as I ever shall, now that my heart has been revealed to me, I could not marry Roger. It would be wronging him and perjuring myself. He is too grand, too strong a man not to see the facts in their true light, and he will still remain the best friend a woman ever had."

Then, with a furtive look at Belle to see that she was sleeping soundly, she wrote: "DEAR VINTON: My heart would indeed be callous and unwomanly did it not respond to your letter, over which I have shed many tears. Take all the hope you can from the truth that I love you, and can never cease to love you. You do yourself injustice. Your weakness and ill health are misfortunes for which you are not responsible. So far from inspiring disgust, they awaken my sympathy and deepen my affection. You do not know a woman's heart--at least you do not know mine. In your constant love, your contempt for heartless, fashionable life, and your wish to do a man's part in the world, you are manly. You are right also in believing that if you lived in an atmosphere of respect and affection you would so change for the better that you would not recognize yourself. For my sake as well as your own, try to rally, and make the most of your sojourn abroad. Fix your mind steadily on some pursuits or studies that will be of use to you in the future. Do not fear; I shall wait. It is not in my nature to forget or change." And with some reference to their misfortunes, a repetition of her note which Jotham had lost, and further reassuring words, she closed her letter.

"I am right," she said; "even Roger will say I am doing right. I could not do otherwise."

Having made a copy of the letter that she might show it to Roger, she at last slept, in the small hours of the night. As early as possible on the following day she mailed the letter, with a prayer that it might not be too late.

A day or two later she sought a private interview with her friend, and whispered, "Roger, dear Roger, if you do not fail me now you will prove yourself the best and bravest man in the world. I am going to repose a trust in you that I cannot share at present with any one else--not even my mother. It would only make her unhappy now that she is reviving in our brighter days. It might have a bad influence on papa, and it is our duty to shield him in every way."

She told him everything, made him read the copy of her letter to Arnold. "You are strong, Roger," she said in conclusion, "and it would kill him, and--and I love him. You know now how it has all come about, and it does not seem in my nature to change. I have given you all I can--my absolute trust and confidence. I've shown you my whole heart. Roger, you won't fail me. I love you so dearly, I feel so deeply for you, I am so very grateful, that I believe it would kill me if this should harm you."

He did not fail her, but even she never guessed the effort he made.

"It's all right, Millie," he said with a deep breath, "and I'll be a jolly bachelor for you all my life."

"You must not say that," she protested. "One of these days I'll pick you out a far better wife than I could ever be."

"No," he replied decisively, "that's the one thing I won't do for you, if you picked out twenty score."

He tried to be brave--he was brave; but for weeks thereafter traces of suffering on his face cut her to the heart, and she suffered with him as only a nature like hers was capable of doing. Events were near which would tax his friendship to the utmost.

August was passing with its intense heat. The streets of the locality wherein the Jocelyns lived were shamefully neglected, and the sewerage was bad. Mr. Jocelyn was one of the first to suffer, and one day he was so ill from malarial neuralgia that he faltered in the duties of his business.

"I can't afford to be ill," he said to himself. "A slight dose of morphia will carry me through the day; surely I've strength of mind sufficient to take it once or twice as a medicine, and then plenty of quinine will ward off a fever, and I can go on with my work without any break or loss; meanwhile I'll look for rooms in a healthier locality."

His conscience smote him, warned him, and yet it did not seem possible that he could not take a little as a remedy, as did other people. With the fatuity of a self-indulgent nature he remembered its immediate relief from pain, and forgot the anguish it had caused. He no more proposed to renew the habit than to destroy his life--he only proposed to tide himself over an emergency.

The drug was taken, and to his horror he found that it was the same as if he had kindled a conflagration among combustibles ready for the match. His old craving asserted itself with all its former force. His will was like a straw in the grasp of a giant. He writhed, and anathematized himself, but soon, with the inevitableness of gravitation, went to another drug store and was again enchained. [Footnote: It is a sad fact that more than half of those addicted to the opium habit relapse. The causes are varied, but the one given is the most common: it is taken to bridge over some emergency or to give relief from physical pain or mental distress. The infatuated victim says, "I will take it just this once," and then he goes on taking it until it destroys him. I have talked with several who have given way for the second and third time, and with one physician who has relapsed five times. They each had a somewhat different story to tell, but the dire results were in all cases the same. After one indulgence, the old fierce craving, the old fatal habit, was again fixed, with more than its former intensity and binding power.]

For a few days Mr. Jocelyn tried to conceal his condition from his family, but their eyes were open now, and they watched him at first with alarm, then with terror. They pleaded with him; his wife went down on her knees before him; but, with curses on himself, he broke away and rushed forth, driven out into the wilderness of a homeless life like a man possessed with a demon. In his intolerable shame and remorse he wrote that he would not return until he had regained his manhood. Alas! that day would never come.