Chapter XLIII. Was Belle Murdered?
 

Mrs. Wheaton, Mr. Wentworth, and Roger did what they could for the afflicted family, and Roger spent the greater part of several nights in a vain search for the absent man, but he had hidden himself too securely, and was drowning reason, conscience, his entire manhood, in one long debauch. The young man grew more haggard than ever in his deep sympathy for his friends, for they clung to him with the feeling that he only could help them effectually. He begged them to move elsewhere, since the odors of the place were often sickening, but they all said No, for the husband and father might return, and this now was their one hope concerning him.

In the second fall of her husband Mrs. Jocelyn seemed to have received her death-wound, for she failed visibly every day.

One night Belle was taken with a severe chill, and then fever and delirium followed. When Roger came the ensuing evening, Mildred sobbed on his shoulder.

"Oh, Roger, my heart is paralyzed with dread. The skies you were making so bright for us have become black with ruin. You are the only one who brings me any hope or comfort. Come with me. Look at Belle there. She doesn't know any of us. For the last hour her mind has wandered. Half the time she is thanking you for all that you have done for us; then she calls for papa, or is away in the country. The doctor has been here, and he looked very grave. He says it's all due to the bad sanitary condition of this part of the city, and that there are other cases just like it, and that they are hard to manage. Why didn't we move before? Oh, oh, oh!" and she cried as if her heart would break.

"Don't grieve so, Millie," Roger faltered. "I never could stand it to see tears in your eyes. Belle is young and vigorous; she'll pull through."

"I hope so. Oh, what should we do if she should--But the doctor says the fever takes a stronger hold on persons of full habit like Belle, and now that I've made inquiries I find that it has been fatal in several instances. We have been so troubled about papa that we thought of nothing else, and did not realize our danger. There are two cases like Belle's across the way, and one in this house, and none of them are expected to live."

"Millie," said Roger resolutely, "I won't even entertain the thought of Belle's dying. I'm going to stay with you every night until she is out of danger. I can doze here in this chair, and I should be sleepless with anxiety anywhere else. You must let me become a brother now in very truth."

"No, Roger, we can't permit it. You might catch the fever."

"Millie, I will stay. Do you think I could leave you to meet this trouble alone? I can relieve you in many ways, and give you and your mother a chance for a little rest. Besides, what is the fever to me?" he added, with a touch of recklessness which she understood too well.

"Roger," she said gravely, "think what your life and health are to me. If you should fail me I should despair."

"I won't fail you," he replied, with a little confident nod. "You will always find me on hand like a good-natured dragon whenever you are in trouble. The first thing to do is to send these children to the country, and out of this poisoned air," and he sat down at once and wrote to his mother and Clara Wilson, formerly Clara Bute. Then, true to his word, he watched with Mildred and Mrs. Jocelyn every night. Frequently his hand upon the brow of the delirious girl would quiet her when nothing else could, and Mildred often saw his tears falling fast on the unconscious face.

Mrs. Wilson answered his letter in person. "I couldn't wait a minute," she said. "I went right over to Mrs. Atwood's and told her that no one could have the children but me, and my husband says they can stay until you want them back. He is so good to me! Dear little Belle!" she sobbed, bending over the sufferer, "to think that I once so misjudged you! A better-hearted girl never breathed. As soon as she's able to be moved you must bring her right to me, and I'll take care of her till she's her old rosy, beautiful self. No, I'll come for her. I wish I could take her in my arms and carry her home now."

"She often speaks of you," faltered Mildred. "Indeed she seems to be living all her old life over again."

The doctor looked graver every day, and at last held out no hope. Late one night they saw that the crisis was near. Belle was almost inanimate from weakness, and Mrs. Jocelyn, Mildred, and Roger sat beside her in the large living-room, into which they had moved her bed, so that if possible she might get a little air--air that was laden with vile, stifling odors. At last the feeble tossings of the poor sufferer ceased, and she looked around intelligently. Her mother kissed her, and said soothingly, "Sleep, dear, and you'll soon be better."

She shook her head, and continued to look as if in search of some one, and then whispered,

"Where is papa?"

"You are not strong enough to see him now," her mother replied with pallid lips, while Mildred put her hand to her side from the intolerable pain in her heart.

Belle lay still a few moments, and they breathed low in their suspense. Her mother kept her soothing touch upon her brow, while Mildred held her hand. At last two great tears rolled down the poor girl's face, and she said faintly, "I remember now."

"Oh, Belle, darling, sleep," murmured her mother, "and you will soon get well." Again she slowly shook her head. "Dear little mother," she whispered, "forgive naughty Belle for all her wild ways. You were always patient with me. Pray God to forgive me, for I'm going fast. If He's like you--I won't fear Him."

Mrs. Jocelyn would have fallen on her child if Roger had not caught her and placed her gently on the lounge, where she lay with dry, tearless eyes and all the yearnings of the mother-heart in her wan face. Belle's eyes followed her wistfully, then turned to Mildred.

"Good-by, Millie darling, best of sisters. You will have a long--happy life--in spite of all." Mildred clung to her passionately, but at Belle's faint call for Roger she knelt at the bedside and looked with streaming eyes on the near approach of death.

"Roger," Belle whispered, "lift me up. I want to die on your breast--you saved me--you know. Take care Millie--mamma--little ones. Don't wake them. Now--tell me--some--thing--comforting out of--the Bible."

"'God is not willing that one of His little ones should perish,'" said the young fellow brokenly, thankful that he could recall the words.

"That's sweet--I'm--one of His--littlest ones. It's--getting--very

I know--what it-means. Good--by. We'll--have--good--times--together--yet."

Then came that absolute stillness which he understood too well. He bowed his head upon the cold brow of the dead girl, and wept as only strong men weep in their first great sorrow. Mildred almost forgot her own grief in trying to lead him away and to comfort him, but he clung convulsively to Belle's lifeless form. At last he broke almost frantically away.

"Roger, Roger," cried Mildred, "where are you going? What are you going to do?"

"I don't know--I must have air or my heart will break; I'll go mad. She's just been murdered, murdered," and he rushed out.

After a little while he returned, and said, "There, Millie, I'm better. I won't give way again," and he took her in his arms and let her cry away some of the pain in her heart.

Mrs. Jocelyn still lay upon the sofa, white as marble, and with dry, dilated eyes. She was far beyond tears.

On the day following Belle's death the Hon.------sat down to a sumptuous dinner in one of the most fashionable of the Saratoga hotels. A costly bottle of wine added its ruddy hue to his florid complexion. The waiters were obsequious, the smiling nods of recognition from other distinguished guests of the house were flattering, and as the different courses were brought on, the man became the picture of corpulent complacence. His aspect might have changed could he have looked upon the still form of the once frolicsome, beautiful girl, who had been slain because he had failed so criminally in fidelity to his oath of office. It would not have been a pleasant task for him to estimate how much of the money that should have brought cleanliness and health among the tenements of the poor was being worse than wasted on his own gross personality.