Without a Home by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter VI. Roger Discovers a New Type
Young Atwood rose with a very definite purpose on the following morning. For his mother's sake he would be civil to their boarders, but nothing more. He would learn just what they had a right to expect in view of their business relations, and having performed all that was "nominated in the bond," would treat them with such an off-hand independence that they would soon become aware that he, Roger Atwood, was an entity that could exist without their admiring approval. He meant that they should learn that the country was quite as large as the city, and that the rural peculiarities of Forestville were as legitimate as those which he associated with them, and especially with the young lady who had mistaken him for the hired man. Therefore after his morning work in the barnyard he stalked to the house with the same manner and toilet as on the previous day.
But there were no haughty citizens to be toned down. They were all sleeping late from the fatigues of their journey, and Mrs. Atwood said she would give the "men-folks their breakfast at the usual hour, because a hungry man and a cross bear were nigh of kin."
The meal at first was a comparatively silent one, but Roger noted with a contemptuous glance that his sister's hair was arranged more neatly than he had seen it since the previous Sunday, and that her calico dress, collar, and cuffs were scrupulously clean.
"Expecting company?" he asked maliciously.
She understood him and flushed resentfully. "If you wish to go around looking like a scarecrow, that's no reason why I should," she said. "The corn is too large for the crows to pull now, so if I were you I would touch myself up a little. I don't wonder that Miss Jocelyn mistook you for Jotham."
"It's well," retorted Roger, with some irritation, "that your Miss Jocelyn has no grown brothers here, or you would come down to breakfast in kid gloves. I suppose, however, that they have insisted on a tidy and respectful waitress. Will you please inform me, mother, what my regulation costume must be when my services are required? Jotham and I should have a suit of livery, with two more brass buttons on my coat to show that I belong to the family."
"I think that a little more of the manner and appearance of a gentleman would show your relationship better than any amount of brass," remarked his mother quietly.
Roger was almost through his breakfast, and so, at no great loss, could assume the injured part. Therefore with a dignity that was somewhat in marked contrast with his rather unkempt appearance he rose and stalked off to the cornfield again.
"Umph," remarked Mr. Atwood sententiously, as he rose and followed his son. This apparently vague utterance had for his wife a definite and extended meaning. She looked annoyed and flurried, and was in no mood for the labors of preparing a second breakfast.
"The men-folks had better not roil me up too much," she said to her daughter. "If your father had said No! out and out, I wouldn't have brought strangers into his home. But he kinder wanted me to have their money without the bother of having them around. Now one thing is settled--he must either help me make it pleasant for these people, or else tell them to leave this very day."
"And how about Roger?" asked Susan, still under the influence of pique.
"Oh, Roger is young and foolish. He's a-growing yet," and the mother's severe aspect relaxed. He was her only boy.
Mr. Atwood, brought face to face with the alternative presented by his practical wife, succumbed with tolerable grace. In truth, having had his grumble out, he was not so very averse to the arrangement. He was much like old Gruff, their watch-dog, that was a redoubtable growler, but had never been known to bite any one. He therefore installed himself as his wife's out-of-door ally and assistant commissary, proposing also to take the boarders out to drive if they would pay enough to make it worth the while. As for Roger, he resolved to remain a farmer and revolve in his old orbit.
Mrs. Jocelyn and Mildred were listless and depressed, and time hung heavily on their hands. They were in that condition of waiting and uncertainty which renders cheerful or systematic occupation wellnigh impossible. They daily hoped that a letter would come assuring them that Mr. Jocelyn had secured a position that would change all their future for the better, but the letters received recorded futile efforts only, and often despondency; but occasionally there would come a letter full of vague, sanguine hopes that first produced elation and then perplexity that nothing came of them. His wife found his dejection contagious. If she had been with him she would have made strenuous efforts to cheer and inspirit, but without an unselfish woman's strongest motive for action she brooded and drooped. Belle's irrepressible vivacity and the children's wild delight over the wonders of the fields and farmyard jarred upon her sore heart painfully. She patiently tried to take care of them, but in thought and feeling she could not enter into their life as had been her custom. Belle was too young and giddy for responsibility, and Mildred had many a weary chase after the little explorers. In spite of his clearly defined policy of indifference, Roger found himself watching her on such occasions with a growing interest. It was evident to him that she did not in the slightest degree resent his daily declaration of independence; indeed, he saw that she scarcely gave him any thoughts whatever--that he was to her no more than heavy-footed Jotham.
"She does not even consider me worth snubbing," he thought, with much dissatisfaction, about a week subsequent to their arrival.
In vain, after the labors of the day, he dressed in his best suit and sported a flaming necktie; in vain he dashed away in his buggy, and, a little later, dashed by again with a rural belle at his side. He found himself unable to impress the city girl as he desired, or to awaken in her a sense of his importance. And yet he already began to feel, in a vague way, that she was not so distant to him, as distant from him.
Belle soon formed his acquaintance, asking innumerable questions and not a few favors, and she found him more good-natured than she had been led to expect. At last, to her great delight, he took her with him in his wagon to the post-office. The lively girl interested and amused him, but he felt himself immeasurably older than she. With a tendency common to very young men, he was more interested in the elder sister, who in character and the maturity that comes from experience was certainly far beyond him. Belle he understood, but Mildred was a mystery, and she had also the advantage of being a very beautiful one.
As time passed and no definite assurances came from her father, the young girl was conscious of a growing dissatisfaction with the idle, weary waiting to which she and her mother were condemned. She felt that it might have been better for them all to have remained in the city, in spite of the summer heat, than thus to be separated. She believed that she might have found something to do which would have aided in their support, and she understood more clearly than her mother that their slender means were diminishing fast. That she could do anything at a country farmhouse to assist her father seemed very doubtful, but she felt the necessity of employment more strongly each day, not only for the sake of the money it might bring, but also as an antidote to a growing tendency to brood over her deep disappointment. She soon began to recognize that such self-indulgence would unfit her for a struggle that might be extended and severe, and was not long in coming to the conclusion that she must make the best of her life as it was and would be. Days and weeks had slipped by and had seen her looking regretfully back at the past, which was receding like the shores of a loved country to an exile. Since the prospect of returning to it was so slight, it would be best to turn her thoughts and such faint hope as she could cherish toward the vague and unpromising future. At any rate she must so occupy herself as to have no time for morbid self-communings.
Her first resource was the homely life and interests of those with whom she dwelt. Thus far she had regarded them as uncongenial strangers, and had contented herself with mere politeness toward them. In her sad preoccupation she had taken little note of their characters or domestic life, and her mother had kept herself even more secluded. Indeed the poor lady felt that it was hardly right to smile in view of her husband's absence and misfortune, and she often chided Belle for her levity; but Belle's life was like an over-full fountain in spring-time, and could not be repressed.
In her deep abstraction Mildred had seen, but had scarcely noted, certain changes in the farmhouse that would have interested and pleased her had her mind been at rest. Almost unconsciously she had revealed her love of that which is pretty and inviting; therefore Susan, not content with being neat, was inclined to brighten her costume by an occasional ribbon, and to suggest comparisons between her fresh and youthful bloom and an opening flower that she would fasten in her hair as the summer day declined. So far from resenting this imitation of her own habits and tastes, Mildred at last recognized the young girl's awakening perceptions of womanly grace with much satisfaction. Even poor Mrs. Atwood exhibited a tendency to emerge from her chronic and rather forlorn condition of household drudge. For years she had known and thought of little else save sordid work, early and late. The income from the small farm permitted no extra help except on rare occasions, and then was obtained under protest from her husband, who parted with a dollar as he would with a refractory tooth. His strong and persistent will had impressed itself on his family, and their home life had been meagre and uninviting; the freedom and ease that he and Roger were so loath to lose, consisting chiefly in careless dress and a disregard of the little refinements and courtesies of life.
It was with some self-reproach that Mildred admitted that for nearly a month she had practically ignored these people, and that she was becoming selfish in her trouble; and yet, not so much from a sense of duty, as from a kindling zest in life, she began to take an interest in them and their ways. She was still far too young for her spirit to lose its spring, even under a continuous weight of misfortune. Her nature was not morbid, but sunny and wholesome, and when with the children and Belle unexpected smiles would brighten her face like glints of sunshine here and there on a cloudy day. Deep as had been her wounds, she found that there were moments when she half forgot their pain, and an instinct of self-preservation taught her that it would be best to forget them as far as possible.
When the thought of trying to refine the somewhat rude household in which she dwelt occurred to her, she discovered that the work was already well begun, for the chief condition of success was present--the disposition to do as she would like. The Atwoods soon surmised that the family was in trouble of some kind, and were able to distinguish between pride of caste and a sorrowful preoccupation. It was scarcely in Mrs. Jocelyn and Mildred's nature to speak otherwise than gently and kindly, and so without trying they disarmed their hosts and won their sympathy. Notwithstanding their dejection and lassitude, they maintained the habits of their lives, and unwittingly gave Mrs. Atwood and her daughter a vague impression that neatness, attractiveness, and order were as essential as good morals.
At first Roger had dressed more roughly than ever, in order to assert his right to his old ways, but as Mildred did not protest even by a glance, he next took pains to show her that he had "good clothes" if he chose to wear them. This fact she also accepted without the faintest interest, and so at last he was rather nonplussed. He was not accustomed to being politely ignored, and since he felt a growing interest in this new type of girl, he had an increasing desire to make her aware of his existence. "Hang it all," he would mutter, "I'm no more to her than Jotham and the other farm animals. What can a fellow do to make her look at him as if she saw him? She's very kind and polite and all that; she'd as soon hurt the brindle cow as me, but this fact is not very flattering. However, I'll find you out, my lady, and you too shall learn that the one whom you now regard as an object merely has a will and a way of his own."
Therefore it may be guessed that in Roger Mildred might discover more docility and plastic readiness than she desired. Only old Mr. Atwood and Jotham seemed incorrigible material; but she did not despair even of them, and resolved to set about reclaiming this family from barbarism at once.