Chapter XLVII. Light at Eventide
 

As Mrs. Wheaton crossed the hallway from a brief call on a neighbor, Vinton Arnold passed her. She noted by the light of the lamp in her hand that his pallor was ghostlike, and she asked quickly:

"Vere is Miss Jocelyn?"

He paid no more heed to her than if he were a shadow of a man, and went by her with wavering, uncertain steps, without a word. In sudden alarm she hastened to the roof, and found Mildred kneeling by her chair, weeping and almost speechless from grief. She took the girl in her arms, and said excitedly, "Vat did he say to you?"

"Oh," sobbed Mildred, "my heart is broken at last. I feel as mamma did when she said her heart was bleeding away. Mrs. Wheaton, I shall stay with you now as long as I live, and it seems as if it wouldn't be very long. Never speak of him again--never speak of it to a living soul. He asked that which would banish you and Roger--dear, brave, patient Roger--from my side forever, and I will never see his face again. Oh, oh, I wish I could die!"

"I'm a plain voman," Mrs. Wheaton said grimly, "but I took the measure of 'im soon as I clapped my heyes on 'im; but, Millie, me darlin', you couldn't be so cruel as to break hour 'earts by dying for sich a man. You vould make the vorld black for us hall, yer know. Come, dear, come vith me. I'll take care hof yer. I'm not fine like 'im that's gone, thank the Lord, but I'll never ax ye to do haught that Mr. Ventvorth vouldn't bless," and she half supported the exhausted, trembling girl to her room, and there was tender and tireless in her ministrations. In the early dawn, when at last Mildred slept for an hour or two, she wrote, in a half-eligible scrawl, to Roger, "Come back. Millie wants you."

His presence in response was prompt indeed. On the second morning after the events described, Mildred sat in her chair leaning back with closed eyes. Mrs. Wheaton was away at work, and her eldest daughter was watching the little brood of children on the sidewalk. A decided knock at the door caused the young girl to start up with apprehension. She was so nervously prostrated that she trembled like a leaf. At last she summoned courage and opened the door slightly, and when she saw Roger's sun-burned, honest face she welcomed him as if he were a brother indeed.

He placed her gently in her chair again, and said, with a keen look into her eyes, "How is this, Millie? I left you happy and even blooming, and now you appear more pale and broken than ever before. You look as if you had been seriously ill. Oh, Millie, that couldn't be, and you not let me know," and he clasped her hand tightly as he spoke.

She buried her burning face on his shoulder, and said, in a low, constrained tone, "Roger, I've told Mr. Arnold this much about you--I said I'd die ten thousand deaths rather than cause you to blush for me."

He started as if he had been shot. "Great God!" he exclaimed, "and did he ask you aught that would make you blush?"

Bitter tears were Mildred's only answer.

The young man's passion for a few moments was terrible, but Mildred's pallid face soon calmed him. "You could not harm him," she said sadly. "What is one blow more to a man who is in torture? I pity him from the depths of my soul, and you must promise me to let him alone. Never for a moment did I forget that you were my brother."

In strong revulsion of feeling he bent one knee at her side and pleaded, "Oh, Millie, give me the right to protect you. I'll wait for you till I'm gray. I'll take what love you can give me. I'll be devotion itself."

"Don't, Roger," she said wearily. "I love you too well to listen. Such words only wound me. Oh, Roger, be patient with me. You don't understand, you never will understand. I do give you the right to protect me; but don't talk that way again. I just long for rest and peace. Roger, my friend, my brother," she said, lifting her eyes appealingly to his, and giving him both of her hands, "don't you see? I can give you everything in this way, but in the way you speak of--nothing. My heart is as dead as poor Belle's."

"Your wish shall be my law," he said gently.

"And you'll not harm Mr. Arnold?"

"Not if it will hurt you."

"I never wish to see or hear from him again, and you'll never have cause to fear any one else."

"Millie," he said sadly, "it is for you I fear most. You. look so sad, pale, and broken-hearted. There isn't a sacrifice I wouldn't make for you. Millie, you won't let this thing crush you? It would destroy me if you did. We will resume our old quiet life, and you shall have rest of body and soul;" and he kept his word so well that, before many months passed, her mind regained sufficient tone and strength to enable her to engage in the simple duties of life with something like zest. He talked to her about many of his studies, he searched the stores for the books which he thought would be to her taste, and took her to see every beautiful work of art on exhibition. In spite of her poverty, he daily made her life richer and fuller of all that he knew to be congenial to her nature. While she gained in serenity and in capability for quiet enjoyment, he was positively happy, for he believed that before many years passed she would be ready to spend the rest of life at his side. He meantime was pursuing his studies with a vigor and success that inspired his friends with the most sanguine hopes.

Vinton Arnold, on that terrible night when his false dream of life was shattered, went through the streets as oppressed with shame and despair as if he were a lost spirit. As he was slowly and weakly climbing the stairs his father called him to the sitting-room, where he and his wife were in consultation, feeling that matters must be brought to some kind of a settlement, Mrs. Arnold urging extreme measures, and her husband bent on some kind of compromise. As his son entered, the old gentleman started up, exclaiming:

"Good God, my boy, what is the matter?"

"He's going to have one of his bad turns," said his mother, rising hastily.

"Hush, both of you," he commanded sternly, and he sat down near the door. Fixing a look of concentrated hatred on his mother, he said slowly, "Madam, you are not willing that I should marry Mildred Jocelyn."

"And with very good reason," she replied, a little confused by his manner.

"Well, let it rejoice such heart as you have--I shall never marry her."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean never to speak to you again after this brief interview. I am a lost man--lost beyond hope, and you are the cause. If you had had a mother's heart my father would not have been so obdurate. Since you would not let me marry her, I was tempted by my love and the horrible life I lead in this house to offer her a relation which would have been marriage to me, but from which her proud, pure spirit, recoiled, as I recoil from you, and I shall never see her face again in this world or in any world. Your work is finished. You need not scheme or threaten any more. While she is as good as an angel of heaven, she is as proud as you are, and you have murdered my hope--my soul. Father, I have but one request to make to you. Give me money enough to live anywhere except under this roof. No, no more words to-night, unless you would have me die in your presence with curses on my lips. I have reached the utmost limit;" and he abruptly left the room.

Mrs. Arnold took refuge in hysterics, and her husband rang violently for her maid, and then locked himself up in his library, where he walked the floor for many an hour. The next morning he tried to make overtures to his son, but he found the young man deaf and stony in his despair. "It's too late," was all that he would say.

"Oh, let him alone," protested his wife irritably, as her husband came down looking sorely troubled; "Vinton will indulge in high tragedy for a few months, and then settle down to sensible life," and in the hope of this solution the old merchant went gloomily to his business.

That day Vinton Arnold left his home, and it was years before he returned.

Two years or more passed away in quiet, toilsome days for Mildred. She had gained serenity, and apparently had accepted her lot without repining. Indeed, thanks to Roger's unfaltering devotion, it was not a monotonous or a sad one. He let her heart rest, hoping, trusting that some day it would wake from its sleep. In compliance with her wish he was in semblance a brother, and his attentions were so quiet and frank, his manner toward her so restful, that even she half believed at times that his regard for her was passing into the quiet and equable glow of fraternal love. Such coveted illusions could not be long maintained, however, for occasionally when he was off his guard she would find him looking at her in a way that revealed how much he repressed. She shed many bitter tears over what she termed his "obstinate love," but an almost morbid conviction had gained possession of her mind that unless she could return his affection in kind and degree she ought not to marry him.

At last she began to grow a little restless under her rather aimless life, and one day she said to her pastor, Mr. Wentworth, "I want a career--isn't that what you call it? I'm tired of being a sewing-woman, and soon I shall be a wrinkled spinster. Isn't there something retired and quiet which a girl with no more brains and knowledge than I have can do?"

"Yes," he said gravely; "make a home for Roger."

She shook her head. "That is the only thing I can't do for him," she replied very sadly. "God only knows how truly I love him. I could give him my life, but not the heart of a wife. I have lost everything except truth to my womanly nature. I must keep that. Moreover, I'm too good a friend of Roger's to marry him. He deserves the strong first love of a noble woman, and it will come to him some day. Do you think I could stand before you and God's altar and promise what is impossible? No, Mr. Wentworth, Roger has a strength and force of character which will carry him past all this, and when once he sees I have found a calling to which I can devote all my energies, he will gradually become reconciled to the truth, and finally accept a richer happiness than I could ever bring him."

"You are an odd girl, Mildred, but perhaps you are right. I've learned to have great faith in you. Well, I know of a career which possibly may suit you. It would open an almost limitless field of usefulness," and he told her of the Training School for Nurses in connection with Bellevue Hospital.

The proposition took Mildred's fancy greatly, and it was arranged that they should visit the institution on the following afternoon. Roger sighed when he heard of the project, but only remarked patiently, "Anything you wish, Millie."

"Dear old fellow," she thought; "he doesn't know I'm thinking of him more than myself."

Mildred made her friend Clara Wilson and her brother and sister a long visit the following summer, and in the fall entered on her duties, her zest greatly increased by the prospect of being able before very long to earn enough to give Fred and Minnie a good education. The first year of her training passed uneventfully away, she bringing to her tasks genuine sympathy for suffering, and unusual aptness and ability. Her own sorrowful experience made her tender toward the unfortunate ones for whom she cared, and her words and manner brought balm and healing to many sad hearts that were far beyond the skill of the hospital surgeons.

During the first half of the second year, in accordance with the custom of the School, she responded to calls from wealthy families wherein there were cases of such serious illness as to require the services of a trained nurse, and in each instance she so won the confidence of the attending physician and the affection of the family as to make them personal friends. Her beautiful face often attracted to her not a little attention, but she was found to be as unapproachable as a Sister of Charity. Roger patiently waited, and filled the long months with unremitting toil.

One evening toward the latter part of the first six months of her outside work, Mildred returned from nursing a patient back to health. She found the lady in charge of the institution in much tribulation. "Here is Mrs. Sheppard, from one of the most influential families on Fifth Avenue, offering anything for a nurse. Her brother is dying with consumption, she says. He has a valet in attendance, but the physician in charge says he needs a trained nurse, for he wants constant watching. He is liable to die at any moment. We haven't a nurse unemployed. Do you feel too tired to go?"

"Oh, no," said Mildred. "My patient improved so much that for the last week I've almost been resting."

"And you think you can go?"

"Certainly."

"I'll tell Mrs. Sheppard then to send for you in a couple of hours. That will give you time to get ready."

Two hours later Mildred was driven rapidly by a coach-man in livery to a mansion on Fifth Avenue, and she was speedily ushered into the room where the patient lay. He was sleeping at the time, with curtains drawn and his face turned away. Mildred only glanced at him sufficiently to see that he was very much emaciated. A middle-aged lady who introduced herself as Mrs. Sheppard received her, saying, "I'm so glad you are here, for I am overcome with fatigue. Last night he was very restless and ill, and would have no one near him except myself. His valet is in that room just across the hall, and will come at the slightest summons. Now while my brother is sleeping I will rest at once. My room is here, opening into this. Call me if there is need, and don't mind if he talks strangely. Your room is there, just beyond this one," and with a few directions, given with the air of extreme weariness, she passed to her own apartment, and was soon sleeping soundly.

Mildred sat down in the dim room where the light fell upon her pure, sweet profile, which was made a little more distinct by the flickering of the cannel-coal fire, and began one of the quiet watches to which she was becoming so accustomed. Her thoughts were very painful at first, for they seemed strangely inclined to dwell on Vinton Arnold. From the time they parted she had heard nothing of him, and since the brief explanation that she had been compelled to give to Roger, his name had not passed her lips. He had been worse than dead to her, and she wondered if he were dead. She had never cherished any vindictive feelings toward him, and even now her eyes filled with tears of commiseration for his wronged and wretched life. Then by a conscious effort she turned her thoughts to the friend who had never failed her. "Dear Roger," she murmured, "he didn't appear well the last time I saw him. He is beginning to look worn and thin. I know he is studying too hard. Oh, I wish my heart were not so perverse, for he needs some one to take care of him. He can't change; he doesn't get over it as I hoped he would," and her eyes, bent on the fire, grew dreamy and wistful.

Unknown to herself, she was watched by one who scarcely dared to breathe lest what seemed a vision should vanish. The dying man was Vinton Arnold. His married sister, overcome by weariness and the stupor of sleep, had inadvertently forgotten to mention his name, and Mildred was under the impression that the name of her patient was Sheppard. She had never been within the Arnold mansion, nor was she specially familiar with its exterior. Entering it hastily on a stormy night, she had not received the faintest suggestion that it was the home to which she and her mother had once dreamed she might be welcomed.

When at last Arnold had awakened, he saw dimly, sitting by the fire, an unfamiliar form, which nevertheless suggested the one never absent from his thoughts. Noiselessly he pushed the lace curtain aside, and to his unspeakable wonder his eyes seemed to rest on Mildred Jocelyn. "She is dead," he first thought, "and it is her spirit. Or can it be that my reason is leaving me utterly, and the visions of my tortured mind are becoming more real than material things? Oh, see," he murmured, "there are tears in her eyes. I could almost imagine that a good angel had taken her guise and was weeping over one so lost and wrecked as I am. Now her lips move--she is speaking softly to herself. Great God! can it be real? Or is it that my end is near, and long-delayed mercy gives me this sweet vision before I die?"

His sombre and half-superstitious conjectures were almost dispelled by a little characteristic act on Mildred's part--an act that contained a suggestion of hope for Roger. In awakening the stronger traits of manhood in the latter she had also evoked an appreciation of beauty and a growing love for it. Mildred was human enough not to regret that this developing sense should find its fullest gratification in herself. Though so determined to become a wrinkled spinster, she found a secret and increasing pleasure in the admiring glances that dwelt upon her face and dainty figure, and this fact might have contained for him, had he known it, a pleasing hint. It must be confessed that she no longer wished to go into his presence without adding a little grace to her usually plain attire; and now that she was thinking so deeply of him she involuntarily raised her hand to adjust her coquettish nurse's cap, which by some feminine magic all her own she ever contrived to make a becoming head-dress rather than a badge of office.

Even to Vinton Arnold's perturbed and disordered mind the act was so essentially feminine and natural, so remote from ghostly weirdness, that he raised himself on his elbow and exclaimed, "Millie, Millie Jocelyn!"

"Ah," cried Mildred starting from her chair and looking fearfully toward the half-closed door of Mrs. Sheppard's room. In her turn her heart beat quickly, with the sudden superstitious fear which the strongest of us cannot control when we seem close to the boundaries of the unseen world. "It was his voice," she murmured.

"Millie, oh, Millie, are you real, or is it a dream?"

She took two or three steps toward the bed, stopped, and covered her face with her hands.

"Oh, speak!" he cried in agony. "I do not know whether I am dreaming or awake, or whether I now see as if before me the one ever in my thoughts. You hide your face from me," he groaned, sinking back despairingly. "You have come for a brief moment to show me that I can never look upon your face again."

Mildred thought swiftly. Her first impulse was to depart at once, and then her womanly pity and sense of duty gained the mastery. Vinton Arnold was now a dying man, and she but a trained nurse. Perhaps God's hand was in their strange and unexpected meeting, and it was His will that the threads of two lives that had been bound so closely should not be severed in fatal evil. Should she thwart His mercy?

"Mr. Arnold," she said, in an agitated voice, "this is a strange and undreamed-of meeting. Let me quiet your mind, however, by telling you how simple and matter-of-fact are the causes which led to it. I am now a professional nurse from the Training School connected with Bellevue Hospital, and your sister, having sent to the School for assistance, obtained my services as she might those of any of my associates. In view--perhaps--it would be best for one of them to take my place."

He was strongly moved, and listened panting and trembling in his weakness. "Millie," at last he faltered, "is there any God at all? Is there any kind or merciful spirit in nature? If so, you have been sent to me, for I am dying of remorse. Since you bade me leave you I have suffered tortures, day and night, that I cannot describe. I have often been at the point of taking my own life, but something held me back. Can it be that it was for this hour? Mildred, I am dying. The end of a most unhappy life is very near. Is there no mercy in your faith--no mercy in your strong, pure womanly heart?"

"Vinton," she said gently, "I believe you are right. God has sent me to you. I will not leave you until it is best."

"Millie, Millie," he pleaded, "forgive me. I cannot believe in God's forgiveness until you forgive me."

"I forgave you from the first, Vinton, because I knew there was no cold-blooded evil in your mind, and I have long felt that you were more sinned against than sinning. If I stay I must impose one condition--there must be no words concerning the past. That is gone forever."

"I know it, Mildred. I killed your love with my own hand, but the blow was more fatal to me than to you."

"Can you not rally and live?" she asked tearfully.

"No," he said, with a deep breath. "Moreover, I have no wish to live. The dark shadow of my life will soon fall on you no more, but the hope that I may breathe my last with you near brings a deep content and peace. Does any one yet suspect who you are?"

"No. I fear Mrs. Arnold will not think it best."

"I have never spoken to Mrs. Arnold since that awful night, and if she interferes now I will curse her with my last breath. This is my one hope--my one gleam of light in the life she has cursed--"

"Hush, oh hush! Unless my presence brings quietness I cannot stay," for at the name of his mother he became dangerously agitated. "I will tell Mrs. Sheppard in the morning, and I think she will arrange it so that I can do all in my power for you."

"No," he replied, after a little thought, "I will tell her. She is unlike my mother and other sisters, and has a good heart. She has taken entire charge of me, but I was in such a hell of suffering at the thought of dying without one word from you that I was almost a maniac. I will be quiet now. Leave all to me; I can make her understand."

When Mrs. Sheppard entered, as the late dawn began to mingle with the gaslight, she found her brother sleeping quietly, his hand clasping Mildred's. To her slight expression of surprise the young girl returned a clear, steadfast look, and said calmly, "When your brother awakes he has some explanations to make. I am Mildred Jocelyn."

The lady sank into a chair and looked at her earnestly. "I have long wished to see you," she murmured. "Vinton has told me everything. I was so overcome with sleep and fatigue last night that I neither told you his name nor asked yours. Did you not suspect where you were?"

"Not until he awoke and recognized me."

"Was he greatly agitated?"

"Yes, at first. It was so unexpected that he thought me a mere illusion of his own mind."

"Miss Jocelyn, I believe God sent you to him."

"So he thinks."

"You won't leave him till--till--It can't be long."

"That depends upon you, Mrs. Sheppard. I am very, very sorry for him," and tears came into her eyes.

Low as was the murmur of their voices, Arnold awoke and glanced with troubled eyes from one to the other before it all came back to him; but his sister brought quiet and rest by saying gently, as she kissed him:

"Vinton, Miss Jocelyn shall not leave you."