Chapter XLIX. Home
 

We take up the thread of our story after the lapse of several months. Mildred left the Arnold family softened and full of regret. Even proud Mrs. Arnold asked her forgiveness with many bitter tears, but beyond a few little significant gifts they found it impossible to make the one toward whom their hearts were now so tender take more than the regular compensation that went toward the support of the institution to which she belonged. Mr. Arnold and Mrs. Sheppard would not give her up, and often came to see her, and the old gentleman always made her promise that when he became ill she would take care of him; and once he whispered to her, "You won' take anything from me now, but in my will I can remember my debt. All my wealth cannot pay what I owe to you."

"Money has nothing to do with my relations to you," she replied gently.

"Vinton's portion belongs to you," was his quiet reply. The poor boy so understood it, and I shall not break faith with the dead."

"Then his portion shall go toward relieving suffering in this city," was her answer.

"You can do what you please with it, for it shall be yours."

While Mildred quietly performed her duties as head-nurse in one of the wards during the last six months of the two years of her sojourn at the Training School, some important changes had occurred in Roger's circumstances. He had, more than a year before, graduated second in his class at college, and had given the impression that he would have been first had he taken the full four years' course. His crotchety uncle, with whom since the reconciliation he had resided, had died, and after a few months his wife followed him, and Roger found himself a wealthy man, but not a happy one. Beyond giving his parents every comfort which they craved, and making his sister Susan quite an heiress, he scarcely knew what to do with the money. His uncle's home was not at all to his taste, and he soon left it, purchasing a moderate-sized but substantial and elegant house in a part of the city that best suited his convenience. Here he installed Mrs. Wheaton as housekeeper, and, with the exception of his own suite of rooms and the sleeping apartments, left all the rest unfurnished. After placing himself in a position to offer hospitalities to his country relatives, he determined that the parlors should remain empty, as a mute reproach to Mildred.

One evening, a week before she graduated, he induced her to go with him to see his house. "It's not a home," he whispered; "I merely stay here." Then, without giving time for reply, he ushered her into the hall, which was simply but very elegantly furnished. Mildred had time only to note two or three fine old engravings and a bronze figure, when Mrs. Wheaton, bustling up from the basement, overwhelmed her with hospitality. They first inspected her domains, and in neatness and comfort found them all that could be desired. "You see," said the good woman, as she and Mildred were hidden from view in a china closet, "I could get hup quite a grand dinner, but I hain't much use fur these 'ere things, for he heats less and less hevery day. I'm troubled habout Mr. Roger, fur he seems kinder low hin 'is spirits and discouraged like. Most young men vould feel like lords hin 'is shoes, but he's a-gettin' veary and listless-like. Vun day he vas so down that I vanted 'im to see a doctor, but he smiled kinder strange and said nothin'. He's a-gettin' thin and pale. Vat vould I do hif he should get sick?"

Mildred turned in quick alarm and glanced at the young man, who stood looking at the glowing kitchen-range, as if his thoughts were little interested in the homely appliances for his material comfort. His appearance confirmed Mrs. Wheaton's words, for his features were thinner than they had been since he recovered from his illness, and there was a suggestion of lassitude and dejection in his manner. She went directly to him and said:

"Mrs. Wheaton tells me you are not well."

He started, then threw off all depression, remarking lightly, "Mrs. Wheaton is fidgety. She prepares enough food for four men. I'm well--have been working rather late at night, that's all."

"Why do you, Roger?" she asked, in a voice full of solicitude.

"If I don't feel sleepy there is no use in wasting time. But come, you have seen enough of the culinary department. Since Mrs. Wheaton has charge of it you can know beforehand that everything will be the best of its kind. I think I can show you something in my sitting-room that will interest you more."

Mrs. Wheaton preceded them, and Mildred took his arm in a way that showed that he had not been able to banish her anxiety on his behalf. "Let me see your parlors, Roger," she said when they again reached the hall. "I expect to find them models of elegance."

He threw open the door and revealed two bare rooms, the brilliantly burning gas showing frescoes of unusual beauty, but beyond these there was nothing to relieve their bleak emptiness. "I have no use for these rooms," he remarked briefly, closing the door. "Come with me," and he led her to the apartment facing the street on the second floor. The gas was burning dimly, but when he had placed her where he wished her to stand, he suddenly turned it up, and before her, smiling into her eyes from the wall, were three exquisitely finished oil portraits--her father and mother and Belle, looking as she remembered them in their best and happiest days.

The effect upon her at first was almost overpowering. She sank into a chair with heart far too full for words, and looked until tears so blinded her eyes that she could see them no longer.

"Roger," she murmured, "it's almost the same as if you had brought them back to life. Oh, Roger, God bless you--you have not banished papa; you have made him look as he asked us to remember him," and her tender grief became uncontrollable for a few moments.

"Don't cry so, Millie," he said gently. "Don't you see they are smiling at you? Are the likenesses good?"

"They are lifelike," she answered after a little. "How could you get them so perfect?"

"Belle and your mother gave me their pictures long ago, and you remember that I once asked you for your father's likeness when I was looking for him. There were some who could aid me if they knew how he looked. Then you know my eye is rather correct, and I spent a good deal of time with the artist. Between us we reached these results, and it's a great happiness to me that they please you."

Her eyes were eloquent indeed as she said, in a low tone: "What a loyal friend you are!"

He shook his head so significantly that a sudden crimson came into her face, and she was glad that Mrs. Wheaton was busy in an adjoining room. "Come," he said lightly, "you are neglecting other friends;" and turning she saw fine photographs of Mr. Wentworth, of Clara Wilson, Mrs. Wheaton, and her little brother and sister; also oil portraits of Roger's relatives.

She went and stood before each one, and at last returned to her own kindred, and her eyes began to fill again.

"How rich you are in these!" she at last said. "I have nothing but little pictures."

"These are yours, Millie. When you are ready for them I shall place them on your walls myself."

"Roger," she said a little brusquely, dashing the tears out of her eyes, "don't do or say any more kind things to-night, or my self-control will be all gone."

"On the contrary, I shall ask you to do me a kindness. Please sit down on this low chair by the fire. Then I can add the last and best picture to this family gallery."

She did so hesitatingly, and was provoked to find that her color would rise as he leaned his elbow on the mantel and looked at her intently. She could not meet his eyes, for there was a heart-hunger in them that seemed to touch her very soul. "Oh," she thought, "why doesn't he--why can't he get over it?" and her tears began to flow so fast that he said lightly:

"That will do, Millie. I won't have that chair moved. Perhaps you think an incipient lawyer has no imagination, but I shall see you there to-morrow night. Come away now from this room of shadows. Your first visit to me has cost you so many tears that you will not come again."

"They are not bitter tears. It almost seems as if I had found the treasures I had lost. So far from being saddened, I'm happier than I've been since I lost them--at least I should be if I saw you looking better. Roger, you are growing thin; you don't act like your old self."

"Well, I won't work late at night any longer if you don't wish me to," he replied evasively.

"Make me that promise," she pleaded eagerly.

"Any promise, Millie."

She wondered at the slight thrill with which her heart responded to his low, deep tones.

In the library she became a different girl. A strange buoyancy gave animation to her eyes and a delicate color to her face. She did not analyze her feelings. Her determination that Roger should have a pleasant evening seemed to her sufficient to account for the shining eyes she saw reflected in a mirror, and her sparkling words. She praised his selection of authors, though adding, with a comical look, "You are right in thinking I don't know much about them. The binding is just to my taste, whatever may be the contents of some of these ponderous tomes. There are a good many empty shelves, Roger."

"I don't intend to buy books by the cartload," he replied. "A library should grow like the man who gathers it."

"Roger," she said suddenly, "I think I see some fancy work that I recognize. Yes, here is more." Then she darted back into the sitting-room. In a moment she returned exclaiming, "I believe the house is full of my work."

"There is none of your work in the parlors, Millie."

She ignored the implied reproach in words, but could not wholly in manner. "So you and Mrs. Wentworth conspired against me, and you got the better of me after all. You were my magnificent patron. How could you look me in the face all those months? How could you watch my busy fingers, looking meanwhile so innocent and indifferent to my tasks? I used to steal some hours from sleep to make you little gifts for your bachelor room. They were not fine enough for your lordship, I suppose. Have you given them away?"

"They are in my room upstairs. They are too sacred for use."

"Who ever heard of such a sentimental brother!" she said, turning abruptly away.

Mrs. Wheaton was their companion now, and she soon gave the final touches to a delicate little supper, which, with some choice flowers, she had placed on the table. It was her purpose to wait upon them with the utmost respect and deference, but Mildred drew her into a chair, with a look that repaid the good soul a hundred times for all the past.

"Roger," she said gayly, "Mrs. Wheaton says you don't eat much. You must make up for all the past this evening. I'm going to help you, and don't you dare to leave anything."

"Very well, I've made my will," he said, with a smiling nod.

"Oh, don't talk that way. How much shall I give the delicate creature, Mrs. Wheaton? Look here, Roger, you should not take your meals in a library. You are living on books, and are beginning to look like their half-starved authors."

"You are right, Miss Millie. 'Alf the time ven I come to take havay the thinks I finds 'im readin', and the wittles 'ardly touched."

"Men are such foolish, helpless things!" the young girl protested, shaking her head reprovingly at the offender.

"I must have some company," he replied.

"Nonsense," she cried, veiling her solicitude under a charming petulance. "Roger, if you don't behave better, you'll be a fit subject for a hospital."

"If I can be sent to your ward I would ask nothing better," was his quick response.

Again she was provoked at her rising color, for his dark eyes glowed with an unmistakable meaning. She changed the subject by saying, "How many pretty, beautiful, and costly things you have gathered in this room already! How comes it that you have been so fortunate in your selections?"

"The reason is simple. I have tried to follow your taste. We've been around a great deal together, and I've always made a note of what you admired."

"Flatterer," she tried to say severely.

"I wasn't flattering--only explaining."

"Oh dear!" she thought, "this won't do at all. This homelike house and his loneliness in it will make me ready for any folly. Dear old fellow! I wish he wasn't so set, or rather I wish I were old and wrinkled enough to keep house for him now."

Conscious of a strange compassion and relenting, she hastened her departure, first giving a wistful glance at the serene faces of those so dear to her, who seemed to say, "Millie, we have found the home of which you dreamed. Why are not you with us?"

Although she had grown morbid in the conviction that she could not, and indeed ought not to marry Roger, she walked home with him that night with an odd little unrest in her heart, and an unexpected discontent with the profession that heretofore had so fully satisfied her with its promise of independence and usefulness. Having spent an hour or two in her duties at the hospital, however, she laughed at herself as one does when the world regains its ordinary and prosaic hues after an absorbing day-dream. Then the hurry and bustle of the few days preceding her graduation almost wholly occupied her mind.

A large and brilliant company was present in the evening on which she received her diploma, for the Training School deservedly excited the interest of the best and most philanthropic people in the city. It was already recognized as the means of giving to women one of the noblest and most useful careers in which they can engage.

Mildred's fine appearance and excellent record drew to her much attention, and many sought an introduction. Mr. Wentworth beamed on her, and was eloquent on the credit she had brought to him. Old Mr. Arnold and Mrs. Sheppard spoke to her so kindly and gratefully that her eyes grew tearful. Mrs. Wheaton looked on exultantly as the proudest and richest sought the acquaintance of the girl who had so long been like her own child.

But the first to reach and greet her when the formalities of the evening were over was her old friend who had been Miss Wetheridge. "We have just arrived from a long absence abroad," she exclaimed, "and I'm glad and thankful to say that my husband's health is at last restored. For the first year or two he was in such a critical condition that I grew selfish in my absorption in his case, and I neglected you--I neglected everybody and everything. Forgive me, Mildred. I have not yet had time to ask your story from Mr. Wentworth, but can see from the way he looks at you that you've inflated him with exultation, and now I shall wait to hear all from your own lips," and she made the girl promise to give her the first hour she could spare.

In spite of all the claims upon her time and attention, Mildred's eyes often sought Roger's face, and as often were greeted with a bright, smiling glance, for he had determined that nothing should mar her pleasure on this evening. Once, however, when he thought himself unobserved, she saw a look of weariness and dejection that smote her heart.

When the evening was quite well advanced she came to him and said, "Won't you walk with me a little in this hallway, where we can be somewhat by ourselves? It so happens that I must go on duty in a few moments, and exchange this bright scene for a dim hospital ward; but I love my calling, Roger, and never has it seemed so noble as on this evening while listening to the physician who addressed us. There is such a deep satisfaction in relieving pain and rescuing life, or at least in trying to do so; and then one often has a chance to say words that may bring lasting comfort. Although I am without a home myself, you do not blame me that I am glad it is my mission to aid in driving away shadows and fear from other homes?"

"I am homeless, too, Millie."

"You! in that beautiful house, with so many that you love looking down upon you?"

"Walls and furniture cannot make a home; neither can painted shadows of those far away. I say, Millie, how sick must a fellow be in order to have a trained nurse?"

She turned a swift, anxious glance upon him. "Roger, tell me honestly," she said, "are you well?"

"I don't know," he replied, in a low tone; "I fear I'll make you ashamed of me. I didn't mean to be so weak, but I'm all unstrung to-night. I'm losing courage--losing zest in life. I seem to have everything, and my friends consider me one of the luckiest of men. But all I have oppresses me and makes me more lonely. When I was sharing your sorrows and poverty, I was tenfold happier than I am now. I live in a place haunted by ghosts, and everything in life appears illusive. I feel to-night as if I were losing you. Your professional duties will take you here and there, where I cannot see you very often."

"Roger, you trouble me greatly. You are not well at all, and your extreme morbidness proves it."

"I know it's very unmanly to cloud your bright evening, but my depression has been growing so long and steadily that I can't seem to control it any more. There, Millie, the lady superintendent is looking for you. Don't worry. You medical and scientific people know that it is nothing but a torpid liver. Perhaps I may be ill enough to have a trained nurse. You see I am playing a deep game," and with an attempt at a hearty laugh he said good-night, and she was compelled to hasten away, but it was with a burdened, anxious mind.

A few moments later she entered on her duties in one of the surgical wards, performing them accurately from habit, but mechanically, for her thoughts were far absent. It seemed to her that she was failing one who had never failed her, and her self-reproach and disquietude grew stronger every moment. "After all he has been to me, can I leave him to an unhappy life?" was the definite question that now presented itself. At last, in a respite from her tasks, she sat down and thought deeply.

Roger, having placed Mrs. Wheaton in a carriage, was about to follow on foot, when Mr. Wentworth claimed his attention for a time. At last, after the majority of the guests had departed, he sallied forth and walked listlessly in the frosty air that once had made his step so quick and elastic. He had not gone very far before he heard the sound of galloping horses, then the voices of women crying for help. Turning back he saw a carriage coining toward him at furious speed. A sudden recklessness was mingled with his impulse to save those in extreme peril, and he rushed from the sidewalk, sprang and caught with his whole weight the headgear of the horse nearest to him. His impetuous onset combined with his weight checked the animal somewhat, and before the other horse could drag him very far, a policeman came to his aid, dealing a staggering blow behind the beast's ear with his club, then catching the rein.

Roger's right arm was so badly strained that it seemed to fail him, and before he could get out of the way, the rearing horse he was trying to hold struck him down and trampled upon him. He was snatched out from under the iron-shod hoofs by the fast gathering crowd, but found himself unable to rise.

"Take me to Bellevue," he said decisively.

The hospital was not far away, and yet before an ambulance could reach him he felt very faint.

Mildred sat in her little room that was partitioned off from the ward. Her eyes were wide and earnest, but that which she saw was not present to their vision.

Suddenly there were four sharp strokes of the bell from the hospital gate, and she started slightly out of her revery, for the imperative summons indicated a surgical case which might come under her care. There was something so absorbing in the character of her thoughts, however, that she scarcely heeded the fact that an ambulance dashed in, and that the form of a man was lifted out and carried into the central office. She saw all this obscurely from her window, but such scenes had become too familiar to check a deep current of thought. When, a few moments later, the male orderly connected with the ward entered and said, "Miss Jocelyn, I've been down and seen the books, and accordin' to my reckonin' we'll have that case," she sprang up with alacrity, and began assuring herself that every appliance that might be needed was in readiness. "I'm glad I must be busy," she murmured, "for I'm so bewildered by my thoughts and impulses in Roger's behalf, that it's well I must banish them until I can grow calm and learn what is right."

The orderly was right, and the "case" just brought in was speedily carried up on the elevator and borne toward the ward under her charge. With the celerity of well-trained hands she had prepared everything and directed that her new charge should be placed on a cot near her room. She then advanced to learn the condition of the injured man. After a single glance she sprang forward, crying,

"Oh, merciful Heaven! it's Roger!"

"You are acquainted with him then?" asked the surgeon who had accompanied the ambulance, with much interest.

"He's my brother--he's the best friend I have in the world. Oh, be quick--here. Gently now. O God, grant his life! Oh, oh, he's unconscious; his coat is soaked with blood--but his heart is beating. He will, oh, he will live; will he not?"

"Oh, yes, I think so, but the case was so serious that I followed. You had better summon the surgeon in charge of this division, while I and the orderly restore him to consciousness and prepare him for treatment."

Before he ceased speaking Mildred was far on her way to seek the additional aid.

When she returned Roger's sleeve had been removed, revealing an ugly wound in the lower part of his left arm, cut by the cork of a horseshoe, made long and sharp because of the iciness of the streets. A tourniquet had been applied to the upper part of the arm to prevent further hemorrhage, and under the administration of stimulants he was giving signs of returning consciousness.

The surgeon in charge of the division soon arrived, and every effort of modern skill was made in the patient's behalf. Bottles of hot water were placed around his chilled and blood-drained form, and spirits were injected hypodermically into his system. The fair young nurse stood a little in the background, trembling in her intense anxiety, and yet so trained and disciplined that with the precision of a veteran she could obey the slightest sign from the attendant surgeons. "He never failed me," she thought; "and if loving care can save his life he shall have it night and day."

At last Roger knew her, and smiled contentedly; then closed his eyes in almost mortal weariness and weakness. As far as he was able to think at all, he scarcely cared whether he lived or died, since Mildred was near him.

The physicians, after as thorough examination as was possible, and doing everything in their power, left him with hopeful words. The most serious features in the case were his loss of blood and consequent great exhaustion. The division surgeon said that the chief danger lay in renewed hemorrhage, and should it occur he must be sent for at once, and then he left the patient to Mildred's care, with directions as to stimulants and nourishment.

Mildred would not let Roger speak, and he lay in a dreamy, half-waking condition of entire content. As she sat beside him holding his hand, she was no longer in doubt. "My 'stupid old heart,' as Belle called it, is awake at last," she thought. "Oh, how awful would be my desolation if he should die! Now I know what he is to me. I loved Vinton as a girl; I love Roger as a woman. Oh, how gladly I'd take his place! What could I not sacrifice for him! Now I know what he has suffered in his loneliness. I understand him at last. I was hoping he would get over it--as if I could ever get over this! He said he was losing his zest in life. Oh, what an intolerable burden would his loss make of life for me! O God, spare him; surely such love as this cannot be given to two human souls to be poured out like water on the rock of a pitiless fate."

"Millie," said Roger faintly, "your hand seems alive, and its pulsations send little thrills direct to my heart. Were it not for your hand I would think my body already dead."

"Oh, Roger," she murmured, pressing her lips on his hand, "would to God I could put my blood into your veins. Roger, dear beyond all words, don't fail me, now that I need you as never before. Don't speak, don't move. Just rest and gain. Hush, hush. Oh, be quiet! I won't leave you until you are stronger, and I'll always be within call."

"I'll mind, Millie. I was never more contented in my life."

Toward morning he seemed better and stronger, and she left him a few moments to attend to some other duties. When she returned she saw to her horror that hemorrhage had taken place, and that his arm was bleeding rapidly. She sprang to his side, and with trained skill pressed her fingers on the brachial artery, thus stopping further loss of blood instantly. Then calling to the orderly, she told him to lose not a second in summoning the surgeon.

Roger looked up into her terror-stricken face, and said quietly, "Millie, I'm not afraid to die. Indeed I half think it's best. I couldn't go on in the old way much longer--"

"Hush, hush," she whispered.

"No," he said decisively, "my mission to you is finished. You will be an angel of mercy all your days, but I find that after all my ambitious dreams I'm but an ordinary man. You are stronger, nobler than I am. You are a soldier that will never be defeated. You think to save my life by holding an artery, but the wound that was killing me is in my heart. I don't blame you, Millie--I'm weak--I'm talking at random--"

"Roger, Roger, I'm not a soldier. I am a weak, loving woman. I love you with my whole heart and soul, and if you should not recover you will blot the sun out of my sky. I now know what you are to me. I knew it the moment I saw your unconscious face. Roger, I love you now with a love like your own--only it must be greater, stronger, deeper; I love you as a woman only can love. In mercy to me, rally and live--live!"

He looked at her earnestly a moment, and then a glad smile lighted up his face.

"I'll live now," he said quietly. "I should be dead indeed did I not respond to that appeal."

The surgeon appeared speedily, and again took up and tied the artery, giving stimulants liberally. Roger was soon sleeping with a quietude and rest in his face that assured Mildred that her words had brought balm and healing to a wound beyond the physician's skill, and that he would recover. And he did gain hourly from the time she gave him the hope for which he had so long and so patiently waited. It must be admitted that he played the invalid somewhat, for he was extremely reluctant to leave the hospital until the period of Mildred's duties expired.

A few months later, with Mrs. Heartwold--the Miss Wetheridge of former days--by her side, she was driven to Roger's house--her home now. The parlors were no longer empty, and she had furnished them with her own refined and delicate taste. But not in the midst of their beauty and spaciousness was she married. Mr. Wentworth stood beneath the portraits of her kindred, and with their dear faces smiling upon her she gave herself to Roger. Those she loved best stood around her, and there was a peace and rest in her heart that was beyond joy.

When all were gone, Roger wheeled the low chair to its old place beside the glowing fire, and said:

"Millie, at last we both have a home. See how Belle is smiling at us."

"Dear sister Belle," Mildred murmured, "her words have come true. She said, Roger, when I was fool enough to detest you, that you 'would win me yet,' and you have--all there is of me."

Roger went and stood before the young girl's smiling face, saying earnestly:

"Dear little Belle, 'we shall have good times together yet,' or else the human heart with its purest love and deepest yearning is a lie."

Then turning, he took his wife in his arms and said, "Millie darling, we shall never be without a home again. Please God it shall be here until we find the better home of Heaven."