Chapter XLVI. A Fatal Error
 

The next morning Arnold started out to visit the one rarely absent from his thoughts. It was a lovely day in the latter part of June, and his heart grew glad and hopeful in spite of the discouraging conditions of his lot. All the world could not prevent his loving Mildred, or destroy her faith, and at some time and in some way they would attain their happiness. These hopes were like the bright summer sun, and he walked with a firmer and more elastic tread than he had ever known before.

When he reached the haggard old mansion his heart misgave him. "Can it be reality," he asked himself, "that she has been living in places like this?" and the half-defined fear entered his mind that she might have changed somewhat with her fortunes, and might no longer be in appearance the delicate, refined, beautiful girl that he had left so long since. But his impatient heart gave him no time for such imaginings, and he hastened to gratify his intense desire to look upon her face.

In response to a low knock Mildred opened the door, and found herself in the arms of her lover. Then he held her off and looked at her earnestly. "Oh, Millie!" he exclaimed, "you have only grown more beautiful, more womanly in these long, weary years. Your face is the reflex of the letters on which I have lived, and which gave me the power to live."

Then in the excess of his joy he sank into a chair, and, putting his hand upon his heart, looked very pale. She sprang to his side in alarm. "Don't worry, Millie," he said, taking her hand. "It's passing. I don't have them very often now. I'm much better, thanks to you. Happiness rarely kills."

It was well that Mrs. Wheaton and the children were out. This scene would have been a great shock to the good woman, for she was Roger's ally, heart and soul, and did not even know of Arnold's existence. Since Arnold and Mildred were so fortunate as to be alone, they talked frankly over their old happy days, and as far as she could without breaking her promise to Roger, Mildred spoke of the deep sorrows which had almost overwhelmed her during his absence.

"How my heart aches for you!" Arnold said. "I never realized before what sad experiences you have passed through. The part which I can't endure is that I have been of no help to you. On the contrary, you reached out this little hand and saved me. Everything has been just the opposite of what it ought to have been, and even now in these surroundings you are like a diamond in a dust-heap. Oh, how different it would all be if I had my way!" and he in turn told her quite frankly how he was situated.

"Vinton," she said earnestly, "you must do all in your power to grow strong and make a place for yourself in the world. As you say, I cannot punish you for the pride and hostility of your parents; I don't think of them, and I could never take any favors at their hands. As a man you have the right to choose for yourself, and can do so while maintaining the utmost courtesy and respect toward your family. I don't fear poverty--I'm used to it. The thing for you to do is to find some honest work that won't tax you too greatly, and gain strength in its performance."

"Oh, Millie, how strong and true you are! I will take your advice in this as in all respects. But we shall have to wait a long time, I fear. I have so little knowledge of business, and I think my father, influenced by my mother, will thwart rather than help me."

"Very well, I can wait," she answered smilingly. "Indeed I'd rather wait."

Now that her happiness seemed assured, however, she sighed over Roger so often and remorsefully that at last Arnold said,

"You have some trouble on your mind, Millie?"

"You must not expect to find me a light-hearted girl any more," she replied evasively.

"Well," he said, as he clasped her closely in farewell, "my every waking thought shall now be how best to banish sighs and bring smiles."

That evening, while they were out for a walk, Mildred said to Roger, with a little tremor in her voice, "He's come."

He gave her a swift look, and then he turned as quickly away, but his arm grew rigid under her hand.

"Don't fail me, Roger," she pleaded.

"It's unexpected--I wasn't prepared," he said, in a low tone, and then he was silent. He felt her hand trembling so greatly that he soon mastered himself for her sake. "It's all right, Millie," he said heartily. "Be just as happy as you can."

"How can I be truly happy when you are not?" she sighed.

"Bless your kind heart! do you think I am going to stand off and lower at your happiness like a black cloud? Do you think I'm going to droop, look forlorn and deserted, and heave great sighs in dark corners? By all the powers! if I were capable of such meanness toward you, I'd whip myself worse than I did that fellow Bissel."

"Do you think I'll feel for you any the less because you are so good and brave about it?"

"Oh, confound it!" he said impatiently, "you must not feel too much. Spoiling your happiness won't do me any good; it would just make me savage."

She leaned her head for a second against his shoulder and said, "I'm not a bit afraid of you, Roger."

"There, Millie," he said quietly, "you always get the better of the old Satan in me, but I sometimes feel as if I could more easily tame a whole menagerie than my own nature. Come to think of it, it's all turning out for the best. To-morrow I go home on quite a long vacation. Father isn't very well this summer, and I'm to take charge of the harvest for him."

"Isn't this plan a little sudden?" she asked.

"Not more so than your news," he replied grimly.

"Are you not willing to meet him yet?"

"Not quite. After a few weeks in the fields I shall come back with the stoicism and appearance of a wild Indian. Come, Millie, I said I wouldn't fail you, nor shall I. Leave it all to me. I will explain to Mrs. Wheaton to-night, and to our other friends when the right time comes, and I will make it appear all right to them. If I justify you, they should have nothing to say. And now you have nothing to do but accept your happiness and make the most of it. I still request that you do not speak of me to Arnold except in a casual way. When we meet you can introduce me simply as a friend who was kind during your troubles. I'll soon know after we meet whether we can get on together, and if we can't it will save complications for you as well as myself. You must let me serve you in my own way, and I think my judgment will be better than yours in this matter."

She was silent for a few moments, and by the light of a lamp he saw that her eyes were full of tears. "Roger," she said softly after a while, "I sometimes think that my affection for you is greater than my love for Vinton, but it is so different. It seems almost like my religion. You are a refuge for me, no matter what happens."

"Thank you, Millie, but I don't deserve such honor."

Mrs. Wheaton could not be brought to look at the situation as Roger did, and she accepted the fact of Vinton Arnold with but a grim acquiescence, which was not mollified by the young man's manner toward her. While meaning to be very kind and polite, he was unconsciously patronizing. She belonged to a class with which he had never had much to do, and in his secret soul he chafed at her presence and her relations to Mildred. While in the abstract he might say that Mildred's associations made no difference to him, he could not in fact overcome his lifelong prejudices, and Mildred's surroundings were not at all to his taste. Luxury and the absence of all that was rude and coarse had become essential to him, and Mrs. Wheaton's cockney English and homely life often gave him cold chills.

Mildred in one respect disappointed him also, for she would take no aid from him, and would in no way deviate from her retired, independent life. "Even if my feelings and principles were not involved," she said, "good taste requires that I conform to my circumstances."

She would take such quiet walks with him as his strength permitted, but would visit no places of public resort. In view of his family's hostility to his course, Arnold did not so much regret this, and so it came about that they spent many of their evenings on the platform over the roof, with the old German astronomer, star-gazing and oblivious, not far away.

While Mildred maintained her loyalty to her old friends, and her resolute plainness and simplicity of life, she considerately recognized that it was all so foreign to her lover's previous experience that she could not expect him to feel as she did. Moreover, his presence renewed her old love for the refined and beautiful, and her heart, that had been so sad and preoccupied, awoke at last to the truth that she was out of her sphere--an exile far from the world her nature craved. Arnold seemed an inseparable part of that old world of beauty and elegance. His every act and word brought it back, and it caused a deepening regret that he was compelled to seek her in her present situation; therefore she also began to share his ill-concealed wish that she might soon escape. Honestly as she loved Mrs. Wheaton, and would love her for all her kindness, the good woman's talk and ways often jarred discordantly on her nerves. Arnold soon discovered this fact, and it made him very impatient over the prospect of life long continued under its present aspects. He was conscious of Mrs. Wheaton's latent hostility, and he had not the tact to conciliate her nor indeed did he make very great effort to do so. Mildred was very sorry for this, but did not blame him greatly, for she knew her plain old friend could never be to him what she was to those who had learned her goodness and worth in emergencies that had levelled all external differences.

But in spite of the ingredients brought by these facts and the memories of the past, Mildred found the cup of happiness which Arnold pressed to her lips sweet indeed. She had been exceedingly sorrowful for a long time, and it is contrary to nature that the young should cling to sorrow, however true and constant they may be. Her love was a part of her happy girlhood, and now it seemed to have the power to bring back some of her former girlish lightness of heart. The prospects offered by Arnold certainly had little to do with the returning tide of gladness which seemed bearing her from the dark, rugged shores on which she had been nearly wrecked. It was a buoyancy inherent within the love she cherished, and her joy was so sweet, so profound, that she shut her eyes to the future and thought, "For a few days, for a few weeks, we'll just drink deeply at this life-giving fountain. After our long separation it will do us both more good than anything else."

She had said to Arnold that she was willing to wait, that she would rather wait, but she soon began to feel differently. Arnold infused into her nature some of his own dreamy, enervated spirit, and sometimes he would describe to her an imaginary home so exactly to her taste that she would sigh deeply; and one day she remonstrated, "Don't tantalize me with any more such exquisite mirages. Let us rather think of the best and quickest way to secure a real home, and let us be content in it, however humble it must be." But Arnold was far better able to construct an imaginary palace than an ordinary cottage. Although he seemed gaining steadily under the impulse of his happiness, she often trembled to see how frail he was in body and how untrained and impracticable in mind. He was essentially the product of wealth, luxury, and seclusion, and while his intentions might be the best, she was sometimes compelled to doubt his ability to make much headway in the practical, indifferent world. Instead of being discouraged, she only thought, "No one can ever doubt the genuineness of my love. Roger is rich already, and he is certain to become eminent, and yet my love is more than all the world to me, and I so long for a little nook of a home that I could call all my own, that I would be willing to marry Vinton at once and support him myself if his health required it. I don't think I can be like other girls. I shall never get over my pride, but I haven't a particle of ambition. The world at large is nothing to me, and instead of wishing to shine in it, I am best pleased to escape its notice altogether."

Arnold's family were as deeply perplexed as they were incensed at his course. He would not leave the city for any fashionable resort, and they well knew the reason. His father and mother hesitated in their departure, not knowing what "folly," as they termed it, he might be guilty of in their absence. They felt that they must bring the matter to some issue, and yet how to do so puzzled them greatly, for, as he had said, he had done nothing as yet to disgrace them, and his bearing toward them was as irreproachable as it was cold and dignified.

At last, unknown to them, an elder brother undertook to solve the problem. He was a thorough man of the world, and his scrupulous compliance with the requirements of fashionable society led his mother to regard him as a model of propriety. In his private, hidden life he was as unscrupulous as the ultra fashionable often are.

"Vinton," he said one day, "what a fool you are making of yourself in this affair! You have been brought up like a girl, and you are more simple and innocent than they average. I've seen your charmer, and I admit that she is a fine creature. As far as looks go, you show as much judgment as any man in town, but there your wits desert you. Girls in her position are not nice as to terms when they can greatly better themselves. You have money enough to lodge her like a princess compared with her present condition. Verbum sat sapienti."

Vinton replied indignantly that he knew nothing about Mildred.

"Oh, I know all about women," was the confident reply; "have forgotten more than you ever knew."

Nevertheless this thought, like an evil seed, sprang up into a speedy but not rank growth. Arnold saw that his family would regard his marriage as an outrage which they would resent in every possible way, and that their hostility now was but an ill-concealed, smouldering fire. The relation to him would not be what his brother suggested, but as sacred and binding as marriage. His unhealthful reading, his long years abroad, and the radical weakness of his nature prepared him to accept this solution as the easiest and best that circumstances permitted of. He justly doubted whether he would soon, if ever, gain the power of being independent. He knew nothing of business, and hated its turmoil and distractions, and while for Mildred's sake he would attempt anything and suffer anything, he had all the unconquerable shrinking from a manful push out into the world which a timid man feels at the prospect of a battle. He had been systematically trained into weakness, and he felt that men, when he came to compete with them, would discover and take advantage of his defects. His cold, haughty reticence was but disguised timidity. In Mildred's presence he ever showed the best side of his nature, and his lonely, repressed life had always touched the tenderest chords of her heart. If their love had been smiled upon from the first, how different would have been his fate! She would have tenderly developed his dwarfed, crushed manhood, and the result would have been happiness for them both.

"Millie," said Arnold, one starlight night, "do you care very much for the world's opinions?" They were sitting on the platform above the old mansion. The German astronomer, after grumbling awhile at an obscuring haze, had gone downstairs in disgust, and left the lovers to themselves.

"No, Vinton, I never cared much for the world at any time, and now I have an almost morbid impulse to shrink from it altogether. I'm like my dear mamma. Home was her world. Poor, dear mamma!" and she buried her face on his shoulder and shed tears that his presence robbed of much of their bitterness.

"I not only do not care for the world," he said impetuously, "but I hate it. I've been dragged through it, and have ever found it a desert, stony place. My heart just aches for the sweet quiet and seclusion of such a home as you could make, Millie. As it is, I have no home. A hollow iceberg could not be more cold and joyless than my present abode. Neither have you a home. It is only in stolen moments like these, liable to interruption, that we can speak of what is in our hearts;" and then, prompted by his feelings, longings, and the apparently friendless condition of the girl whose head rested so trustingly on his breast, he broached the scheme of life that had taken possession of his imagination.

At first, in her faith and innocence she scarcely understood him, but suddenly she raised her head, and looked at him with startled eyes. "What!" she said, in trembling alarm, "no marriage? Mr. Wentworth and Roger Atwood not present?"

"No minister could make our union more sacred than it would be to me," he faltered, "and as soon as my obdurate parents--"

She sprang to her feet, and exclaimed passionately, "I'd rather die ten thousand deaths than bring a blush of shame to Roger Atwood's face." Then she sank into her chair in an uncontrollable outburst of grief. He pleaded with her, but she was deaf; he tried to caress her, but although half unconscious from her agony, she repulsed him. "Oh, oh," she moaned, "is this the sole reward of my fidelity?"

"Millie, Millie," he entreated, "you will kill me if you cannot control yourself. I will do anything you say--submit to any terms. Oh, pity me, or I shall die."

"Leave me," she said faintly.

"Never," he cried; "I'd sooner cast myself down from this height."

By visible and painful effort she at last grew calm enough to say firmly:

"Mr. Arnold, I do pity you. Even at this moment I will try to do you justice. My heart seems broken, and yet, I fear you will suffer more than I. My own womanhood would make your words the sufficient cause for our final separation, and had I not a friend in the world we could never meet again. But I have a friend, a brother to whom I owe more than life, and whom I love better than life. He would have made me rich if I would have let him, but I loved you too well. Not for my hope of heaven would I make him blush for me. I would have married you and lived in a single room in a tenement. I would have supported you with my own hands. The weaknesses for which you were not to blame drew my heart toward you, but you have shown a defect in your character to-night which creates an impassable gulf between us. In view of the wrong done you by others I forgive you--I shall pray God to forgive you--but we have fatally misunderstood each other. If you have any manhood at all, if you have the ordinary instincts of a gentleman, you will respect the commands of an orphan girl, and leave me, never to approach me again."

Speechless, almost paralyzed in his despair, he tottered to the steps and disappeared.