Chapter XLV. Mother and Son
 

Our story passes rapidly over the events of the ensuing months. In his native mountain air, and under the impulse of his strong, unbroken constitution, Roger recovered rapidly and steadily. As soon as he was strong enough he went to the village cemetery, and, leaning his head on Belle's grave, sobbed until Mildred led him away. For a long time tears would come into his eyes whenever the names of Mrs. Jocelyn and the young girl he loved so fondly were mentioned. He and Mildred planted the sacred place thick with roses and spring-flowering bulbs.

Mildred resisted all entreaties to remain in the country, saying that she was a city girl at heart, and that, with Mr. Wentworth's aid, she could easily earn her livelihood in town, and do much for Fred and Minnie. Moreover, she felt that she could not be parted from Roger, for seemingly he had become an inseparable part of her life. The experiences he had shared with her were developing within him a strong and noble manhood, and he vowed that the young girl who had known so much sorrow should have all the happiness that he could bring to pass.

When Mrs. Wheaton learned of Mildred's purpose to return to town, she took more commodious apartments in the old mansion, and set apart a room for the young girl. She also sold most of her own things and took Mildred's furniture out of storage, so that the place might seem familiar and homelike to her friend.

When Roger had almost recovered his wonted health, Mrs. Atwood told her husband that he must go with her to visit his brother in town, for the worthy woman had a project on her mind which she carried out with characteristic directness and simplicity.

They surprised Mr. and Mrs. Ezra Atwood at breakfast, and partook of the cheer offered them rather grimly and silently. After the meal was over Roger's mother said, without any circumlocution:

"Brother-in-law, I've come to have a plain, honest talk with you, and if you're a true Atwood you'll listen to me. I want your wife and my husband to be present. We are nigh of kin, but we are forgetting ties which the Lord hath ordained. Ezra, I believe you are a good man at heart, but, like my husband, you set too much store by things that perish in the using. My boy has taught me that there are better things in this world, and we'll all soon be where we may look on money as a curse. You have not spoken to my son since last spring, and you've been cold toward us. I want you to know the truth, and realize what you're doing; then if you go on in this way, you must settle it with your own conscience;" and with a homely pathos all her own she told the whole story.

The uncle at first tried to be grim and obstinate, but he soon broke down completely. "I'm glad you've come," he said huskily. "My conscience hasn't given me any peace for months, and I wanted to give in, but you know that it's like drawing an eye-tooth for an Atwood to give in. I'm proud of the boy, and he'll be a blessing to us all. He is a new departure in the family; he's got more brains than any of us, and with it all a big, brave heart. He shall marry the girl if he wants to; and now that her old wretch of a father is dead, no harm need come of it. But they're young; they must wait until Roger is educated up to the best of 'em. Well, now that I've given in, there shall be no half-way work," and he insisted on sending for his lawyer and making his will in Roger's favor at once.

"I didn't come for any such purpose as this," said Roger's mother, wiping her eyes, while his father could scarcely conceal his exultation; "but I felt that it was time for us to stop living like heathen," and after a visit of a very different nature from the one they had feared, the worthy couple returned to Forestville well content with the results of their expedition.

Roger was jubilant over the news, and he hastened to impart it to Mildred, who was spending the remaining weeks of her sojourn in the country with her friend Mrs. Wilson.

"Millie," he said, "you shall never want again. My good fortune would be nothing to me unless I shared it with you."

But she disappointed him by saying, "No, Roger, you must let me live the independent life that my nature requires," and the only concession that he could obtain from her was a promise to receive his aid should any emergency require it.

Before Mildred's return a letter from Vinton Arnold was forwarded to her at Forestville, and it must be admitted that it gave her sad heart something like a thrill of happiness. It was an eloquent and grateful outpouring of affection, and was full of assurances that she had now given him a chance for life and happiness.

When she told Roger, he looked very grim for a moment, and then by a visible effort brightened up and said, "It's all right, Millie." After pacing the room for a few moments with a contracted brow, he continued, "Millie, you must grant me one request--you must not say anything to Arnold about me."

"How can I say anything then about myself?" she answered. "I want him to know that I owe everything to you, and I hope to see the day when you will be the closest of friends."

"Well, that will be a good way on. I must see him first, and learn more about him, and--well, friends related as Arnold will be to me are not common. I've too much of the old untamed man in me to go readily into that kind of thing. I will do anything in the world for you, but you must not expect much more till I have a few gray hairs in my head. Come now, you must humor me a little in this affair; you can say generally that some friends were kind, and all that, without much personal reference to me. If you should write as you propose, he might be jealous, or--worse yet--write me a letter of thanks. It may prevent complications, and will certainly save me some confoundedly disagreeable experiences. After I've seen him and get more used to it all, I may feel differently."

"You certainly will, Roger. Your life will gradually become so rich, full, and happy, that some day you will look back in wonder at your present feelings."

"Life will be full enough if work can make it so; but you must not expect me to outgrow this. It will strengthen with my years. It's my nature as well as yours. But I foresee how it will be," he continued despondently; "I shall inevitably be pushed further and further into the background. In your happy home life--"

Before he could utter another word Mildred was sobbing passionately. "Roger," she cried, "don't talk that way. I can't bear it. If Vinton is jealous of you, if he fails in manly appreciation of you, I will never marry him. Strong as my love is for him, such a course would destroy it. There are certain kinds of weakness that I can't and won't tolerate."

He was surprised and deeply touched, for her manner was usually so quiet and well controlled that even he was at times tempted to forget how strong and passionate was her nature on occasions sufficient to awaken it. "There, Millie, I've hurt your feelings," he said remorsefully. "Even I do not half understand your good, kind heart. Well, you must have patience with me. When the right time comes my deeds will satisfy you, I think, though my words are now so unpromising. But please don't deny me--don't say anything about me until I give you permission. What has occurred between us is sacred to me--it's our affair."

"Very well, if you so wish it; but never even think again that you will ever be less to me than you are now."

Nevertheless he went sadly away, saying to himself, "She's sincere, Heaven knows, but what I said will be true in spite of her best intentions."

The next day, after many farewells and an hour spent beside Belle's grave, Roger returned to the city, far better prepared for life's battle than when he first left his native village. Two or three days later Mildred followed him, accompanied by Mrs. Wilson, who was determined to see her safely settled in Mrs. Wheaton's care. Pain and pleasure were almost equally blended in Mildred's experience as she looked upon the furniture and the one or two pictures that had escaped their poverty--all of which were so inseparable, in their associations, from those who were gone, yet never absent long from memory. But the pleasure soon got the better of the pain, for she did not wish to forget. Mrs. Wheaton's welcome was so hearty as to be almost overpowering, and when Roger appeared in the evening with a beautiful picture for her walls she smiled as she once thought she never could smile again. Mr. Wentworth also called, and was so kind and sympathetic that the young girl felt that she was far from friendless. "I so managed it," he whispered in parting, "that there was little public reference to your father's sad end. Now, Millie, turn your thoughts toward the future. Let Roger make you happy. Believe me, he's pure gold."

"Just what poor Belle said," she thought sighingly after he had gone. "I must disappoint them all. But Roger will help me out. He deserves a far better wife than poor shamed, half-crushed Millie Jocelyn can ever make him, and he shall have her, too, for he is much too young and strong not to get over all this before many years elapse."

Life soon passed into a peaceful, busy routine. Roger was preparing himself for the junior class in college under the best of tutors, and his evenings, spent with Mildred, were usually prefaced by a brisk walk in the frosty air. Then he either read aloud to her or talked of what was Greek to good-natured Mrs. Wheaton, who sat knitting in a corner discreetly blind and deaf. Unknown to Mildred, he was able to aid her very efficiently, for he taxed Mrs. Wentworth's ingenuity in the invention of all kinds of delicate fancy work, and that good lady, in the most business-like manner, gave the orders to Mildred, who thought that, considering the hard times, she was wonderfully prosperous.

Twice during the winter she went with Roger to Forestville, and she had her little brother and sister spend the Christmas week with her. It was the brightest experience the little people ever remembered, although, unnoted by them, Mildred, with sad memories that do not belong to childhood, often wiped bitter tears from her eyes as she recalled the terrible events of the preceding holiday season. She became an efficient ally of Mr. Wentworth, and was almost as glad to aid him, in return for his stanch friendship, as the cause he represented.

She and Vinton Arnold maintained quite a regular correspondence, and the fact occasioned the young man more than one stormy scene. His mother saw Mildred's letter before he received it, and the effect of the missive upon him, in spite of his efforts at concealment, were so marked that she at once surmised the source from which it came. The fact that a few words from Mildred had done more for the invalid than all the expensive physicians and the many health resorts they had visited would have led most mothers to query whether the secret of good health had not been found. Mrs. Arnold, on the contrary, was only angered and rendered more implacable than ever against the girl. She wrote to her husband, however, to find out what he could about her family, believing that the knowledge might be useful. Mr. Arnold merely learned the bare facts that the Jocelyns had become greatly impoverished, that they were living in low tenements, that the father had become a wretched sot, and, worse than all, that the girl herself had been in a station-house, although he believed she was proved innocent of the charge against her. He therefore wrote to his wife that the correspondence must cease at once, since it might involve the family in disgrace--certainly in disgraceful associations. He also wrote to his son to desist, under the penalty of his heaviest displeasure. With an expression of horror on her face, Mrs. Arnold showed this letter to her son. In vain he tried to protest that not one evil thing against Mildred could be proved; that she was innocence and purity itself; that her misfortunes and the wrong of others were no reason for desertion on his part. His mother for once lost her frigid politeness. "What!" she almost screamed, "do you think we would ever let that horrid creature bear our name? A woman who has been in a prison cell, and mixed up with the vilest and lowest people in the city, should not even be named in my presence."

Her son gave her a strange, vindictive look. "You unnatural mother," he muttered between his teeth, "thus to speak of the girl to whom your son has given his best love, and who is worthy of it!" and he turned on his heel and left her.

Mrs. Arnold became somewhat hysterical, and wrote home that she believed that Vinton was losing his mind. She soon learned, however, that she would have no ground for such a charge, although her son was becoming greatly changed. His politeness to her was scrupulous to a nicety, but was unrelenting in its icy coldness. At the same time she knew that he was continuing the correspondence, and she saw, too, that he was making the most studied and careful effort to gain in physical strength. One day she began to upbraid him bitterly for his disobedience, but he interrupted her by saying sternly:

"Madam, there is no child present. I treat you with respect. I also demand respect."

The proud, resolute woman admitted to herself that his management was becoming a difficult and dubious problem, and at last, discouraged and exasperated by the unwavering steadfastness of his course and manner, she wrote that they might as well return home, for "he was beyond her influence."

Therefore, thrilling with glad expectation, Arnold found himself in his native city much sooner than he had expected. He had no very definite plans. If he could only become sufficiently well to earn his own livelihood the future would be comparatively clear. If this were impossible, his best hope was to wait, secure in Mildred's faith, for the chances of the future, believing that his father might relent if his mother would not. For this event, however, the outlook was unpromising. Mr. Arnold was incensed by his wife's fuller account of his son's behavior, and the proof she had obtained, in spite of his precautions, that he was in frequent correspondence with Mildred. He had since learned the circumstances of Mr. Jocelyn's wretched death, and that Mildred was but a sewing-girl, living with an ignorant English woman in a dilapidated old tenement, and his bitter revolt at the whole affair was quite natural in view of his superficial inquiries and knowledge. Both he and his wife judged from their proud and worldly standpoint solely, and therefore on the day following Vinton's arrival they summoned him to a private interview. At first Mr. Arnold proposed to reason with his son, but the cold, unyielding face soon so irritated him that he became almost violent in his anger. After he and his mother had nearly exhausted themselves, Vinton said quietly:

"Now that you have both lectured and threatened me as if I were a boy, I would like to ask one question. Have I ever disgraced you yet?"

The husband and wife looked at each other, and were not a little perplexed how to meet this passive resistance. In the same low, incisive tones, Vinton continued, "If you propose to turn me into the streets for loving Miss Jocelyn, do so at once, for I do love her, and I shall ever love her."

"She shall not touch a penny of our money," said Mrs. Arnold, with an implacable look.

"With me," replied her son, with the same old vindictive glance, "it is not a question of pennies, but of life and death. I feel toward Miss Jocelyn as I suppose my father once felt toward you, although what heart you had to win I cannot understand from your manner toward me. I have seen considerable of society, but have never met a woman who could compare with Mildred Jocelyn in all that constitutes a true lady. I shall not waste any words concerning the virtues of her heart upon such unsympathetic listeners, but I am at least a man in years, and have the right to love her."

"Oh, certainly," said Mrs. Arnold angrily, "there is no law which can prevent your disgracing yourself and us."

"Nor is there any law or gospel, madam, for your unnatural, unsympathetic course toward your own flesh and blood. Good-evening."

"Now you see how strange and infatuated he has become," she said to her husband after her son's departure; but the old merchant shook his head in trouble and perplexity.

"We have been too hard upon him, I fear," he said.

"If you weaken in this matter, I shall not," she answered decisively. "If he gives way to this folly, both I and my children will disown all kith and kin."

"Well, well," he replied impatiently, "it will have to be so, I suppose; but nevertheless I believe we have been too hard with him."