Chapter IV. "Pitiless Waves"
 

A deeper shadow than that of the night fell upon Mildred Jocelyn's home after the return of her father. Feeling that there should be no more blind drifting toward he knew not what, he had employed all the means within his power to inform himself of the firm's prospects, and learned that there was almost a certainty of speedy failure. He was so depressed and gloomy when he sat down to dinner that his wife had not the heart to tell him of her schemes to secure his daughter's happiness, or of the gossamer-like fabrics she had bought, out of which she hoped to construct a web that would more surely entangle Mr. Arnold. Even her sanguine spirit was chilled and filled with misgivings by her husband's manner. Mildred, too, was speedily made to feel that only a very serious cause could banish her father's wonted good-humor and render him so silent. Belle and the little ones maintained the light talk which usually enlivened the meal, but a sad constraint rested on the others. At last Mr. Jocelyn said, abruptly, "Fanny, I wish to see you alone," and she followed him to their room with a face that grew pale with a vague dread. What could have happened?

"Fanny," he said sadly, "our firm is in trouble. I have hoped and have tried to believe that we should pull through, but now that I have looked at the matter squarely I see no chance for us, and from the words and bearing of my partners I imagine they have about given up hope themselves."

"Oh, come, Martin, look on the bright side. You always take such gloomy views of things. They'll pull through, never fear; and if they don't, you will soon obtain a better position. A man of your ability should be at the head of a firm. You would make money, no matter what the times were."

"Unfortunately, Fanny, your sanguine hopes and absurd opinion of my abilities do not change in the least the hard facts in the case. If the firm fails, I am out of employment, and hundreds of as good--yes, better men than I, are looking vainly for almost any kind of work. The thought that we have laid up nothing in all these years cuts me to the very quick. One thing is now certain. Not a dollar must be spent, hereafter, except for food, and that of the least costly kind, until I see our way more clearly."

"Can't we go to Saratoga?" faltered Mrs. Jocelyn.

"Certainly not. If all were well I should have had to borrow money and anticipate my income in order to spend even a few weeks there, unless you went to a cheap boarding-house. If things turn out as I fear, I could not borrow a dollar. I scarcely see how we are to live anywhere, much less at a Saratoga hotel. Fanny, can't you understand my situation? Suppose my income stops, how much ahead have we to live upon?" Mrs. Jocelyn sank into a chair and sobbed, "Oh that I had known this before! See there!"

The bed was covered with dress goods and the airy nothings that enhance a girl's beauty. The husband understood their meaning too well, and he muttered something like an oath. At last he said, in a hard tone, "Well, after buying all this frippery, how much money have you left?"

"Oh, Martin," sobbed his wife, "don't speak to me in that tone. Indeed I did not know we were in real danger. You seemed in such good spirits last evening, and Mr. Arnold showed so much feeling for Millie, that my heart has been as light as a feather all day. I wouldn't have bought these things if I had only known--if I had realized it all."

Mr. Jocelyn now uttered an unmistakable anathema on his folly.

"The money you had this morning is gone, then?"

"Yes."

"How much has been charged?"

"Don't ask me."

He was so angry--with himself more than his wife--and so cast down that he could not trust himself to speak again. With a gesture, more expressive than any words, he turned on his heel and left the room and the house. For hours he walked the streets in the wretched turmoil of a sensitive, yet weak nature. He was not one who could calmly meet an emergency and manfully do his best, suffering patiently meanwhile the ills that could not be averted. He could lead a cavalry charge into any kind of danger, but he could not stand still under fire. The temptation to repeat his folly of the previous evening was very strong, but it had cost him so dearly that he swore a great oath that at least he would not touch liquor again; but he could not refrain from lifting himself in some degree out of his deep dejection, by a recourse to the stimulant upon which he had so long been dependent. At last, jaded and sober indeed, he returned to a home whose very beauty and comfort now became the chief means of his torture.

In the meantime Mildred and her mother sat by the pretty fabrics that had the bright hues of their morning hopes, and they looked at each other with tears and dismay. If the silk and lawn should turn into crape, it would seem so in accordance with their feelings as scarcely to excite surprise. Each queried vainly, "What now will be the future?" The golden prospect of the day had become dark and chaotic, and in strong reaction a vague sense of impending disaster so oppressed them that they scarcely spoke. Deep in Mildred's heart, however, born of woman's trust, was the sustaining hope that her friend, Vinton Arnold, would be true to her whatever might happen. Poor Mrs. Jocelyn's best hope was, that the financial storm would blow over without fulfilling their fears. She had often known her father to be half desperate, and then there was patched up some kind of arrangement which enabled them to go on again in their old way. Still, even with her unbusiness-like habits of thought and meagre knowledge of the world, she could not see how they could maintain themselves if her husband's income should suddenly cease, and he be unable to find a like position.

She longed for his return, but when he came he gave her no comfort.

"Don't speak to me," he said; "I can tell you nothing that you do not already know. The events of the next few weeks will make all plain enough."

The logic of events did convince even Mrs. Jocelyn that making no provision for a "rainy day" is sad policy. The storm did not blow over, although it blew steadily and strongly. The firm soon failed, but Mr. Jocelyn received a small sum out of the assets, which prevented immediate want. Mildred's course promised to justify Arnold's belief that she could be strong as well as gentle, for she insisted that every article obtained on credit should be taken back to the shops. Her mother shrank from the task, so she went herself and plainly stated their circumstances. It was a bitter experience for the poor child--far more painful than she had anticipated. She could not believe that the affable people who waited on her so smilingly a few days before would appear so different; but even those who were most inclined to be harsh, and to feel aggrieved at their small loss in cutting the material returned, were softened as she said, gently and almost humbly:

"Since we could not pay for it we felt that it would be more honorable to bring it back in as good condition as when received." In every instance, however, in which the goods had been paid for, she found that she could effect no exchange for the money, except at such reduced rates that she might as well give them away.

Even Mrs. Jocelyn saw the need of immediate changes. One of their two servants was dismissed. Belle pouted over the rigid economy, now enforced all too late. Mildred cried over it in secret, but made heroic efforts to be cheerful in the presence of her father and mother; but each day, with a deeper chill at heart, she asked herself a thousand times, "Why does not Mr. Arnold come to see me?"

Vinton Arnold was in even greater distress. He had to endure not only the pain of a repressed affection, but also a galling and humiliating sense of unmanly weakness. He, of course, learned of the failure, and his father soon after took pains to say significantly that one of the members of the iron firm had told him that Mr. Jocelyn had nothing to fall back upon. Therefore Arnold knew that the girl he loved must be in sore trouble. And yet, how could he go to her? What could he say or do that would not make him appear contemptible in her eyes? But to remain away in her hour of misfortune seemed such a manifestation of heartless indifference, such a mean example of the world's tendency to pass by on the other side, that he grew haggard and ghost-like in his self-reproach and self-contempt. At last his parents began to insist that his health required a change of air, and suggested a mountain resort or a trip abroad, and he was conscious of no power to resist the quiet will with which any plan decided upon would be carried out. He felt that he must see Mildred once more, although what he would say to her he could not tell. While there had been no conscious and definite purpose on the part of his parents, they nevertheless had trained him to helplessness in mind and body. His will was as relaxed as his muscles. Instead of wise, patient effort to develop a feeble constitution and to educate his mind by systematic courses of study, he had been treated as an exotic all his days. And yet it had been care without tenderness, or much manifestation of affection. Hot a thing had been done to develop self-respect or self-reliance. Even more than most girls, he was made to feel himself dependent on his parents. He had studied but little; he had read much, but in a desultory way. Of business and of men's prompt, keen ways he was lamentably ignorant for one of his years, and the consciousness of this made him shrink from the companionship of his own sex, and begat a reticence whose chief cause was timidity. His parents' wealth had been nothing but a curse, and they would learn eventually that while they could shield his person from the roughnesses of the world they could not protect his mind and heart from those experiences which ever demand manly strength and principle. As a result of their costly system, there were few more pitiable objects in the city than Vinton Arnold as he stole under the cover of night to visit the girl who was hoping--though more faintly after every day of waiting--that she might find in him sustaining strength and love in her misfortunes.

But when she saw his white, haggard face and nervous, timid manner, she was almost shocked, and exclaimed, with impulsive sympathy, "Mr. Arnold, you have been ill. I have done you wrong."

He did not quite understand her, and was indiscreet enough to repeat, "You have done me wrong, Miss Millie?"

"Pardon me. Perhaps you do not know that we are in deep trouble. My father's firm has failed, and we shall have to give up our home. Indeed, I hardly know what we shall do. When in trouble, one's thoughts naturally turn to one's friends. I thought perhaps you would come to see me," and two tears that she could not repress in her eyes.

"Oh, that I were a man!" groaned Arnold, mentally, and never had human cruelty inflicted a keener pang than did Mildred's sorrowful face and the gentle reproach implied in her words.

"I--I have been ill," he said hesitatingly. "Miss Millie," he added impulsively, "you can never know how deeply I feel for you."

She lifted her eyes questioningly to his face, and its expression was again unmistakable. For a moment she lost control of her overburdened heart, and bowing her face in her hands gave way to the strong tide of her feelings. "Oh!" she sobbed, "I have been so anxious and fearful about the future. People have come here out of curiosity, and others have acted as if they did not care what became of us, if they only obtained the money we owed them. I did not think that those who were so smiling and friendly a short time since could be so harsh and indifferent. A thousand times I have thought of that poor ship that I saw the waves beat to pieces, and it has seemed as if it might be our fate. I suppose I am morbid, and that some way will be provided, but some way is not A way."

Instead of coming to her side and promising all that his heart prompted, the miserable constraint of his position led him to turn from grief that he was no longer able to witness. He went to the window, and, bowing his head against the sash, looked out into the darkness.

She regarded him with wonder as she slowly wiped her eyes.

"Mr. Arnold," she faltered, "I hope you will forgive me for my weakness, and also for inflicting our troubles on you."

He turned and came slowly toward her. She saw that he trembled and almost tottered as he walked, and that his face had become ashen. The hand he gave her seemed like ice to her warm, throbbing palm. But never could she forget his expression--the blending of self-contempt, pitiable weakness, and dejection.

"Miss Mildred," he said slowly, "there is no use in disguises. We had better both recognize the truth at once. At least it will be better for you, for then you may find a friend more worthy of the name. Can you not see what I am--a broken reed? The vine could better sustain a falling tree than I the one I loved, even though, like the vine, my heart clung to that one as its sole support. You suffer; I am in torment. You are sad; I despair. You associate strength and help with manhood, and you are right. You do not know that the weakest thing in the world is a weak, helpless man. I am only strong to suffer. I can do nothing; I am nothing. It would be impossible for me to explain how helpless and dependent I am--you could not understand it. My whole heart went out to you, for you seemed both gentle and strong. The hope would grow in my soul that you might be merciful to me when you came to know me as I am. Good-by, Millie Jocelyn. You will find a friend strong and helpful as well as kind. As for me, my best hope is to die." He bowed his head upon the hand he did not venture to kiss, and then almost fled from the house.

Mildred was too much overcome by surprise and feeling to make any attempt to detain him. He had virtually acknowledged his love for her, but never in her wildest fancy had she imagined so dreary and sad a revelation.

Mrs. Jocelyn, perplexed by Mr. Arnold's abrupt departure, came in hastily, and Mildred told her, with many tears, all that had been said. Even her mother's gentle nature could not prevent harsh condemnation of the young man.

"So he could do nothing better than get up this little melodrama, and then hasten back to his elegant home," she said, with a darkening frown.

Mildred shook her head and said, musingly, "I understand him better than you do, mamma, and I pity him from the depths of my heart."

"I think it's all plain enough," said Mrs. Jocelyn, in a tone that was hard and unnatural in her. "His rich parents tell him that he must not think of marrying a poor girl, and he is the most dutiful of sons."

"You did not hear his words, mamma--you did not see him. Oh, if he should die! He looked like death itself," and she gave way to such an agony of grief that her mother was alarmed on her behalf, and wept, entreated, and soothed by turns until at last the poor child crept away with throbbing temples to a long night of pain and sleeplessness. The wound was one that she must hide in her own heart; her pallor and languor for several days proved how deep it had been.

But the truth that he loved her--the belief that he could never give to another what he had given to her--had a secret and sustaining power. Hope is a hardy plant in the hearts of the young. Though the future was dark, it still had its possibilities of good. Womanlike, she thought more of his trouble than of her own, and that which most depressed her was the fear that his health might give way utterly. "I can bear anything better than his death," she said to herself a thousand times.

She made no tragic promises of constancy, nor did she indulge in very much sentimental dreaming. She simply recognized the truth that she loved him--that her whole woman's heart yearned in tenderness over him as one that was crippled and helpless. She saw that he was unable to stand alone and act for himself, and with a sensitive pride all her own she shrank from even the thought of forcing herself on the proud, rich family that had forbidden the alliance. Moreover, she was a good-hearted, Christian girl, and perceived clearly that it was no time for her to mope of droop. Even on the miserable day which followed the interview that so sorely wounded her, she made pathetic attempts to be cheerful and helpful, and as time passed she rallied slowly into strength and patience.

The father's apparent efforts to keep up under his misfortune were also a great incentive to earnest effort on her part. More than once she said in substance to her mother, "Papa is so often hopeful, serene, and even cheerful, that we ought to try and show a like spirit. Even when despondency does master him, and he becomes sad and irritable, he makes so brave an effort that he soon overcomes his wretched mood and quietly looks on the brighter side. We ought to follow his example." It would have been infinitely better had he followed theirs, and found in prayer, faith, and manly courage the serenity and fortitude that were but the brief, deceptive, and dangerous effects of a fatal poison.

It was decided that the family should spend the summer at some quiet farmhouse where the board would be very inexpensive, and that Mr. Jocelyn, in the meantime, should remain in the city in order to avail himself of any opening that he might discover.

After a day or two of search in the country, he found a place that he thought would answer, and the family prepared as quickly as possible for what seemed to them like a journey to Siberia.

Mildred's farewell to her own private apartment was full of touching pathos. This room was the outward expression not merely of a refined taste, but of some of the deepest feelings and characteristics of her nature. In its furniture and adornment it was as dainty as her own delicate beauty. She had been allowed to fit it up as she wished, and had lavished upon it the greater part of her spending money. She had also bestowed upon it much thought, and the skilful work of her own hands had eked out to a marvellous extent the limited sums that her father had been able to give her. The result was a prettiness and light, airy grace which did not suggest the resting-place of an ordinary flesh-and-blood girl, but of one in whom the spiritual and the love of the beautiful were the ruling forces of life.

It is surprising how character impresses itself on one's surroundings. Mrs. Arnold's elegant home was a correct expression of herself. Stately, formal, slightly rigid, decidedly cold, it suggested to the visitor that he would receive the courtesy to which his social position entitled him, and nothing more. It was the result of an exact and logical mind, and could no more unbend into a little comfortable disorder than the lady herself. She bestowed upon its costly appointments the scrupulous care which she gave to her children, and her manner was much the same in each instance. She was justly called a strong character, but she made herself felt after the fashion of an artist with his hammer and chisel. Carved work is cold and rigid at best.

Mildred had not as yet impressed people as a strong character. On the contrary, she had seemed peculiarly gentle and yielding. Vinton Arnold, however, in his deep need had instinctively half guessed the truth, for her influence was like that of a warm day in spring, undemonstrative, not self-asserting, but most powerful. The tongue-tied could speak in her presence; the diffident found in her a kindly sympathy which gave confidence; men were peculiarly drawn toward her because she was so essentially womanly without being silly. Although as sprightly and fond of fun as most young girls of her age, they recognized that she was perfectly truthful and loyal to all that men--even bad men--most honor in a woman. They always had a good time in her society, and yet felt the better and purer for it. Life blossomed and grew bright about her from some innate influence that she exerted unconsciously. After all there was no mystery about it. She had her faults like others, but at heart she was genuinely good and unselfish. The gentle mother had taught her woman's best graces of speech and manner; nature had endowed her with beauty, and to that the world always renders homage.

There are thousands of very pretty girls who have no love for beauty save their own, which they do their best to spoil by self-homage. To Mildred, on the contrary, the beautiful was as essential as her daily food, and she excelled in all the dainty handicrafts by which women can make a home attractive. Therefore her own little sanctum had developed like an exquisite flower, and had become, as we have said, an expression of herself. An auctioneer, in dismantling her apartment, would not have found much more to sell than if he had pulled a rose to pieces, but left intact it was as full of beauty and fragrance as the flower itself. And yet her own hands must destroy it, and in a brief time she must exchange its airy loveliness for a bare room in a farmhouse. After that the future was as vague as it was clouded. The pretty trifles were taken down and packed away, with tears, as if she were laying them in graves.