Chapter XLIV. The Final Consolations of Opium
 

The glowing September sun had rarely revealed a sadder group than that which still watched beside poor Belle. At last Roger looked at his watch and said:

"I will now go and see Mr. Wentworth, and bring Mrs. Wheaton."

"Very well, Roger," Mildred replied, "we leave everything in your hands."

"Millie, I can't bear to have Belle placed in one of the crowded city cemeteries. Would you not be willing to have her sleep in our tree-shadowed graveyard at Forestville? We could keep flowers on her grave there as long as we lived."

"Oh, Roger, how kind of you to think of that! It would be such a comfort to us!"

"I will take her there myself on the evening boat," he said decisively, and he hastened away feeling that he must act promptly, for his aching head and limbs led him to fear that Belle's fever was already in his veins. Mr. Wentworth overflowed with sympathy, and hastened to the afflicted family with nourishing delicacies. Mrs. Wheaton soon followed, tearful and regretful.

"I didn't know," she said; "I've 'ad a sick child or I'd a been hover before. Not 'earing from you I thought hall vas veil, and there's the poor dear dead, an' I might 'ave done so much for 'er."

"No, Mrs. Wheaton, all was done that could be done in this poisoned air. We feared you might catch the fever if you came, and we knew you would come."

"Hindeed I vould, if you hall 'ad the small-pox. Now I'm going to do heverything," and she fretted at every effort of the exhausted watchers to help her.

Eoger telegraphed his father to meet him at the boat with the village hearse. The news spread fast, and the little community was soon deeply stirred with sympathetic interest. Mrs. Jocelyn was too weak to endure the journey, and Mildred would not leave her. Therefore Mr. Wentworth held a simple, heartfelt service over the one they all so loved, and Roger departed on his sad errand. He was eager to get away, and, if the thought of Belle had not been uppermost in all minds, it would have been seen that he was far from well in spite of his almost desperate efforts to hide his illness. His father found him on the boat delirious with fever. The old man's face was haggard and drawn as he returned to Forestville with his two helpless burdens, grieving far more for the one that was ill than for the one that was dead. "It's turning out just as brother Ezra said," he growled. "A man's a fool to mix himself up with other people's troubles." The interest in the village deepened into strong excitement when it became known that Roger was ill with the fever that had caused Belle's death, some timid ones fearing that a pestilence would soon be raging in their midst. But the great majority yielded to their good impulses, and Mrs. Atwood was overwhelmed with offers of assistance. Several young farmers to whom Belle had given a heartache a few weeks before volunteered to watch beside her until the funeral, and there was a deeper ache in their hearts as they sat reverently around the fair young sleeper. The funeral was a memorable one in Forestville, for the most callous heart was touched by the pathos of the untimely death.

Meanwhile poor Roger was tossing in fever and muttering constantly of his past life. The name, however, oftenest on his lips was that of Millie Jocelyn.

Never before in all the troubled past did the poor girl so need his sustaining love as on the night he left her. Mr, Wentworth spent an hour with the sad mother and daughter after the others had gone, and then sorrowfully departed, saying that he had an engagement out of town, and that he would come again immediately on his return. Mrs. Wheaton had gone home, promising that she would come back in the evening and spend the night with them, for she had a neighbor who would take care of the children, and so at last the two stricken women were left alone.

Mildred was bathing her mother's head and trying to comfort her when the door opened, and a haggard, unkempt man stood before them. For a second they looked at him in vague terror, for he stood in a deep shadow, and then Mrs. Jocelyn cried, "Martin! Martin!" and tears came to her relief at last.

He approached slowly and tremblingly. Mildred was about to throw herself into his arms, but he pushed her away. His manner began to fill them with a vague, horrible dread, for he acted like a spectre of a man.

"Where are the children?" he asked hoarsely.

"We have sent them to the country. Oh, papa, do be kind and natural--you will kill mamma."

"There is crape on the door-knob," he faltered. "Where's Belle?"

"Oh, oh, oh!" sobbed Mildred, "Papa, papa, have mercy on us. Can't you sustain and help us at such a time as this?"

"She is dead, then," he whispered, and he sank into a chair as if struck down.

"Yes, she's dead. You were the first one she asked for when she came out of her fever."

"Great God! my punishment is greater than I can bear," he groaned.

"Oh, Martin," pleaded his wife, "come to me," and too weak to rise from her couch she held out her arms to him.

He looked at her with a remorse and agony in his expression that were indescribable. "No, Nan," he said, "I'm not fit for you to touch now. I'm murdering you all," and he went hastily to his room and locked the door.

They waited, scarcely breathing in their deep apprehension.

In a few moments he came out, and his face was rigid and desperate in its aspect. In spite of his repelling gesture Mildred clasped him in her arms. The embrace seemed to torture him. "Let me go!" he cried, breaking away. "I poison the very air I breathe. You both are like angels of heaven and I--O God! But the end has come," and he rushed out into the gathering darkness. Mrs. Jocelyn tried to follow him, and fell prostrate with a despairing cry on the floor.

Mildred's first impulse was to restore her mother, without seeking help, in the faint hope that her father would return, for she had learned what strange alternations of mood opium produces; but as the sense of his words grew clearer she was overpowered, and trembled so violently that she was compelled to call to her help a neighbor--a plain, good-hearted woman who lived on the same floor. When at last Mrs. Jocelyn revived she murmured piteously:

"Oh, Millie, why didn't you let me die?"

"Mamma," pleaded the girl, "how can you even think of leaving me?"

"Millie, Millie darling, I fear I must. My heart feels as if it were bleeding internally. Millie"--and she grasped her child's shoulder convulsively, "Millie, look in his room for--for--his pistol."

"Oh, mamma, mamma!"

"Look, look!" said her mother excitedly. "I can't bear the suspense."

Thinking that her mother was a little hysterical, and that compliance would quiet her, Mildred went to the place where her father always kept his cavalry revolver--the one memento left of his old heroic army life. It was gone!

She almost sank to the floor in terror, nor did she dare return to her mother.

"Millie, Millie, quick!" came in a faint cry from the outer room.

The poor girl rushed forward and buried her face in her mother's bosom, sobbing, "Mamma, oh mamma, live for my sake."

"I knew it, I knew it," said the stricken wife, with a long low cry. "I saw it in his desperate face. Oh, Martin, Martin, we will die together!"

She clasped Mildred tightly, trembled convulsively a moment, and then her arms fell back, and she was as still as poor Belle had been.

"Oh, mamma!" Mildred almost shrieked, but she was far beyond recall, and the suffering heart was at rest.

When the woman returned with the cup of tea she had gone to prepare for Mrs. Jocelyn, she found the young girl leaning forward unconscious on the bosom of the dead mother.

When she revived it was only to moan and wring her hands in despair. Mrs. Wheaton soon appeared, and having learned what had happened she threw her apron over her head and rocked back and forth in her strong sympathetic grief. But her good heart was not long content with tears, and she took Mildred into her arms and said:

"I vill be a mother to you, and you shall never vant a 'ome vile I 'ave von," and the motherless girl clung to her in a way that did the kind soul a world of good.

Before the evening was very far advanced a boy brought a note to the door. Mildred seized it and asked:

"Who gave it to you?"

"I don't know--a man. He pointed to this door, and then he went away very fast."

She tore it open, and read in horror: "My darling wife, dear beyond all words in these my final despairing moments. My love for you and those left is the only trace of good remaining in my heart. I die for your sakes. My continued existence would be a curse, for I have lost my manhood. I am possessed by a devil that I can't control. I cannot ask you to forgive me. I can never forgive myself. Farewell. After I am gone, brighter days will come to you all. Pity me if you can, forgive me if you can, and remember me as I was before--"And there the terrible missive ended.

For an hour the girl lay moaning as if in mortal pain, and then the physician who was summoned gave her a sedative which made her sleep long and heavily. It was quite late in the morning when she awoke, and the events that had passed first came to her like a horrid dream, and then grew into terrible reality. But she was not left to meet the emergency alone, for Mrs. Wheaton and Clara Wilson watched beside her. The latter in her strong sympathy had come to the city to take Mildred and her mother to the country, and she said to Mrs. Wheaton that she would now never leave her friend until she was in the breezy farm-house.

After a natural outburst of grief Mildred again proved that Arnold's estimate of her was correct. She was equal to even this emergency, for she eventually grew quiet and resolute. "I must find papa," she said.

"Shall I?" Mrs. Wilson asked Mrs. Wheaton significantly.

"Yes, Millie is more hof a soldier than hany hof us."

"Well," continued Mrs. Wilson, "Mrs. Wheaton found this in the morning paper: 'An unknown man committed suicide on the steps of No. 73----Street. His remains have been taken to the Morgue for identification.'"

For a few moments Mildred so trembled and looked so crushed that they feared for her exceedingly. "Poor papa!" she moaned, "he was just insane from remorse and opium. Seventy-three----Street! Why, that was the house in which we used to live. It was there that papa spent his first happy years in this city, and it was there he went to die. Oh, how dreadful, how inexpressibly sad it all is! What shall we do?"

"Leave hall to me," said Mrs. Wheaton. "Mrs. Wilson, you stay 'ere with the poor dear, an' I'll hattend to heverything."

Mildred was at last too overpowered to do more than lie on the lounge, breathing in long tremulous sighs.

Mrs. Wheaton went at once to the Morgue and found that the "unknown man" was indeed Mr. Jocelyn, and yet he had so changed, and a bullet-hole in his temple had given him such a ghastly appearance, that it was difficult to realize that he was the handsome, courtly gentleman who had first brought his beautiful daughter to the old mansion.

Mrs. Wheaton represented to the authorities that he was very poor, that his daughter was an orphan and overcome with grief, and that she now was the nearest friend of the afflicted girl. Her statement was accepted, and then with her practical good sense she attended to everything.

During her absence Mildred had sighed, "Oh, I do so wish that Eoger Atwood were here. He gives me hope and courage when no one else can."

"Millie," said Mrs. Wilson tearfully, "for his sake you must rally and be braver than you have ever been before. I think his life now depends upon you. He has the fever, and in his delirium he calls for you constantly."

At first Mrs. Wilson thought the shock of her tidings would be more disastrous to the poor girl, already so unnerved and exhausted, than all the terrible events which had thus far occurred. "I have brought him nothing but suffering and misfortune," she cried. "He gave up everything for us, and now we may cost him his life."

"Millie, he is not dead, and you, if any one, can bring him life."

She had touched the right chord, for the young girl soon became quiet and resolute. "He never failed me," she said in a low voice, "and I won't fail him."

"That is the right way to feel," said Mrs. Wilson eagerly. "I now think that everything depends on your courage and fortitude. Mrs. Wheaton and I have planned it all out. We'll go to Forestville on the evening boat, and take your father's and mother's remains with us."

Mrs. Wheaton learned from the undertaker connected with Mr. Wentworth's chapel that the clergyman would not be back until evening, and she told the former to tell their pastor all that had occurred, and to ask him to keep the circumstances of Mr. Jocelyn's death as quiet as possible.

The man was discreet and energetic, and they were all so expeditious that the evening saw them with their sad freight on the way to Forestville, the keys of Mildred's rooms having been left with the kind woman who had befriended her in the sudden and awful emergency. Mrs. Wheaton parted from Mildred as if she were her own child, and went mournfully back to her busy, useful life. Mr. and Mrs. Jocelyn were buried with a quiet, simple service beside poor Belle, and sensible Mrs. Wilson soon inspired the good-hearted village people with the purpose to spare the feelings of the stricken girl in every possible way. Mildred caressed her little brother and sister with the tenderness of a mother added to her sisterly affection, and she was comforted to see how much they had already improved in the pure country air. "Oh, Clara," she said, "what a friend you have been to me! God alone can repay you."

"Millie," Mrs. Wilson earnestly replied, "I owe you a debt I can never pay. I owe you and darling Belle happiness and prosperity for this life, and my hope of the life to come. My husband is strong and prosperous, and he says J shall do all that's in my heart for you. Oh, Millie, he is so good to me, and he cried over Belle like a child. I thought I loved him before, but when I saw those tears I just worshipped him. He has a man's heart, like Roger. Now, Millie, I'm going to keep these children as long as you'll let me, and treat them as my own. I feel that the promise has been given to me that they'll grow up to be a great comfort to us both."

On the evening after the funeral Mildred went to aid in the care of Roger, and Mrs. Atwood greeted her with all the warmth and tenderness that a daughter would have received. Even Mr. Atwood drew his sleeve across his eyes as he said, "If you'll help us save our boy, you'll find that I'm not as crabbed and crooked a stick as I seem."

Mildred was shocked and her heart chilled with fear at the change in Roger, but her hand upon his brow and her voice did more to quiet him than all the physician's remedies. She became his almost tireless watcher, and she said hopefully that the bracing autumn winds rustled around the farmhouse like the wings of ministering angels, and that they would bring life and health to the fever-stricken man. They all wondered at her endurance, for while she looked so frail she proved herself so strong. At last the crisis came, as it had in Belle's case, but instead of waking to die he passed from delirium into a quiet sleep, Mildred holding his hand, and when he opened his eyes with the clear glance of intelligence, they first looked upon her dear face. "Millie," he whispered.

She put her fingers upon her lips, smiled, and said, "I won't leave you if you will be good and do all I say. You never failed me yet, Roger, and you must not now."

"I'll surely get well if you stay with me, Millie," he answered contentedly, and soon he slept again as quietly as a child.