Chapter VIII. Changes
 

Bent upon carrying out her project of introducing among the Atwoods a more gracious and genial family life, and lured by the fresh coolness of the summer morning, Mildred left her room earlier than usual. Mrs. Atwood, whose one indulgence was a longer sleep on the day of rest, came down not very long after and began bustling about the kitchen. Hitherto their meals had been served to the Jocelyns in the sitting-room, the farmer and his family eating as before in the kitchen. Mildred felt that they had no right to impose this extra labor on Mrs. Atwood, especially on the Sabbath, and she also thought it would do her mother good to be roused from the listless apathy into which she was sinking. These were her chief motives, but she knew that at no other place could people be taught the refinements of life more effectually than at the table, and it was her plan to bring about the changes she desired, without appearing to be the conscious cause.

"Mrs. Atwood," she said, "why can we not all take our breakfast together in the sitting-room this morning? I have noticed that your hired man is absent on Sundays"--her zeal for reform would not induce her to sit down with Jotham--"and I can see no reason why you should have the task to-day of preparing two meals. Of course, if this is not agreeable to you let there be no change, but do not put yourself to the extra trouble on our account."

"Well, now, miss, you are very kind, and to tell you the truth, I was thinking of this very thing, but we don't wish to intrude."

"Intrude, Mrs. Atwood!" exclaimed Mildred, assuming surprise. "I don't understand you, and shall now feel hurt if we do not take our meals together to-day."

"It's very good of you to think of us, and Susan and me will have a more restful day."

Mildred gave her one of her rare smiles, which Mrs. Atwood said "lighted up the old kitchen like a ray of sunshine," and then went to prepare her mother and sister for the change. Belle was pleased, as she ever was with novelty.

"Millie," she cried, "you shall sit next to that great animal, Jotham, and if you don't take care he'll eat you unawares."

"Jotham is not here to-day, and I'll have him fed in the kitchen hereafter."

"Have you become mistress of the farmhouse? Has Roger made proposals? Won't it be fun to hear Mr. Atwood grumble! There is nothing I enjoy more than to hear him grumble and old Gruff growl. They must be chips off the same block."

Mrs. Jocelyn shrank from seeing and speaking to any one, bat was much too unselfish to impose extra tasks on Mrs. Atwood.

Susan soon came down to assist her mother, and was delighted at the prospect of taking her meals in the sitting-room, feeling that it was a decided social promotion. Moreover, like all young girls, she longed for companionship, and believed that Mildred would now be more approachable.

By and by Roger came from the barnyard in his working-clothes, and seeing no preparations for breakfast in the kitchen, exclaimed:

"So we heathen must sit down to the second table to-day."

"Yes, if you wish. Susan and me are going to take our breakfast in the sitting-room with Mrs. Jocelyn and her family."

"Am I not invited?" he asked a little anxiously.

"There's no need of any invitation. You have as much right there as I have, only I would not come in looking like that."

"They won't like it--this new arrangement."

"It seems to me that you have grown very considerate of what they like," put in Susan.

"Miss Jocelyn proposed it herself," Mrs. Atwood said, "and if you and father would fix up a little and come in quietly and naturally it would save a deal of trouble. If I can't get a little rest on Sunday I'll wear out."

Roger waited to hear no more, and went hastily to his room.

Mr. Atwood was more intractable. He distinguished the Sabbath from the rest of the week, by making the most of his larger leisure to grumble.

"I'm in no state to sit down with those people," he growled, after the change and the reasons for it had been explained to him.

"I'm glad you feel so," his wife replied; "but your old clothes have not yet grown fast to you; you can soon fix yourself up, and you might as well dress before breakfast as after it."

He was perverse, however, and would make no greater concession to the unwelcome innovation than to put on his coat. Mildred smiled mentally when she saw him lowering at the head of the table, but an icicle could no more continue freezing in the sun than he maintain his surly mood before her genial, quiet greeting. It suggested courtesy so irresistibly, and yet so unobtrusively, that he already repented his lack of it. Still, not for the world would he have made any one aware of his compunctions. Mrs. Atwood and Susan had their doubts about Roger, fearing that he would rebel absolutely and compel a return to their former habits. They were all scarcely seated, however, before he appeared, a little flushed from his hasty toilet and the thought of meeting one who had been cold and disapproving toward the belle of Forestville, but Mildred said "good-morning" so affably and naturally that he was made quite at ease, and Mrs. Jocelyn, who had seemed unapproachable, smiled upon him so kindly that he was inclined to believe her almost as pretty as her daughter. As for Belle and the children, he already felt well acquainted with them. Mrs. Atwood and Susan looked at each other significantly, for Roger was dressed in his best and disposed to do his best. Mildred saw the glance, and felt that the young fellow deserved some reward, so she began talking to him in such a matter-of-course way that before he was aware he was responding with a freedom that surprised all the family, and none more than himself. Mildred was compelled to admit that the "young barbarian," as she had characterized him in her thoughts, possessed, in the item of intelligence, much good raw material. He not only had ideas, but also the power of expressing them, with freshness and vivacity. She did not give herself sufficient credit for the effects that pleased her, or understand that it was her good breeding and good will that banished his tongue-tied embarrassment. The most powerful influences are usually the most subtle, and Roger found, as had Vinton Arnold and others, that for some cause Mildred evoked the best there was in him.

Poor Mrs. Jocelyn did not have very much to say. Her depression was too deep to be thrown off appreciably, but she replied to Mrs. Atwood's remarks with her wonted gentleness. Belle's spirits soon passed all bounds, and one of her wild sallies provoked a grim smile from even Mr. Atwood, and she exulted over the fact all day. In brief, the ice seemed quite broken between the family and the "boarders."

The old farmer could scarcely believe his eyes when he went out to harness the horses to the three-seated wagon, for it was neat and clean, with buffalo robes spread over the seats. "Well," he ejaculated, "what's a-coming over this here family, anyway? I'm about all that's left of the old rusty times, and rusty enough I feel, with everybody and everything so fixed up. I s'pose I'll have to stand it Sundays, and the day'll be harder to git through than ever. To-morrow I'll be back in the kitchen again, and can eat my victuals without Miss Jocelyn looking on and saying to herself, 'He ain't nice; he don't look pretty'; and then a-showin' me by the most delicate little ways how I ought to perform. She's got Roger under her thumb or he wouldn't have cleaned up this wagon in the middle of the night, for all I know, but I'm too old and set to be made over by a girl."

Thus grumbling and mumbling to himself, Mr. Atwood prepared to take his family to the white, tree-shadowed meeting-house, at which he seldom failed to appear, for the not very devotional reason that it helped him to get through the day. Like the crab-apple tree in the orchard, he was a child of the soil, and savored too much of his source.

Roger was of finer metal, and while possessing his father's shrewdness, hard common-sense and disposition to hit the world between the eyes if it displeased him, his nature was ready at slight incentive, to throw off all coarseness and vulgarity. The greater number of forceful American citizens are recruited from the ranks of just such young men--strong, comparatively poor, somewhat rude in mind and person at the start, but of such good material that they are capable of a fine finish.

Roger had grown naturally, and healthily, thus far. He had surpassed the average boy on the play-ground, and had fallen slightly below him in the school-house, but more from indifference and self-assurance than lack of ability. Even his father's narrow thrift could not complain of his work when he would work, but while a little fellow he was inclined to independence, and persisted in having a goodly share of his time for the boyish sports in their season, and for all the books of travel and adventure he could lay his hands upon. In spite of scoldings and whippings he had sturdily held his own, and at last his father had discovered that Roger could be led much better than driven, and that by getting him interested, and by making little agreements, like that concerning the buggy, the best of the bargain could always be obtained, for the youth would then work with a will and carry out his verbal contracts in a large, good-natured way. Therefore Mildred's belief that he was good raw material for her humanizing little experiment had a better foundation than she knew. Indeed, without in the least intending it, she might awaken a spirit that would assert itself in ways as yet undreamed of by either of them. The causes which start men upon their careers are often seemingly the most slight and causal. Mildred meant nothing more than to find a brief and kindly-natured pastime in softening the hard lives and in rounding the sharp angles of the Atwood family, and Roger merely came in for his share of her attention. Flesh and spirit, however, are not wood and stone, and she might learn in deep surprise that her light aesthetic touches, while producing pleasing changes in externals, had also awakened some of the profoundest motives and forces that give shape and color to life.

In smiling ignorance of such possibilities, she said to him as she came out on the porch dressed for church, "You have given your mother and me also a pleasant surprise, and we shall enjoy our ride to church far more, not only because the wagon is nice and clean, but also because of your thoughtfulness of our pleasure. The wagon looked so inviting from our windows that I have induced my mother to go, and to take the children. I think they will keep still. We will sit near the door, and I can take them out if they get tired."

Her words were very simple, but she spoke them with a quiet grace all her own, while pulling her glove over a hand that seemed too small and white for any of the severer tasks of life. As she stood there in her pretty summer costume, a delicate bloom in her cheeks relieving the transparent fairness of her complexion, she seemed to him, as Amelia Stone had said, perfect indeed--and the young girl could not suppress a smile at the almost boyish frankness of his admiration.

"You gave me a pleasant surprise, also," he said, flushing deeply.

"I?" with a questioning glance.

"Yes. You have brought about a pleasant change, and made breakfast something more than eating. You have made me feel that I might be less nigh of kin to Jotham than I feared."

"I shall imitate your frankness," she replied, laughing; "you are not near so nigh of kin to him as I feared."

"I have not forgotten that you thought me identical with him," he could not forbear saying.

"I did not mean to hurt your feelings," she answered, with deepening color.

"Oh, you were not to blame in the least," he said good-naturedly. "I deserved it."

"You must remember, too," she continued, deprecatingly, "that I am a city girl, and not acquainted with country ways, and so have charity." Then she added earnestly, "We do not want to put a constraint on your family life, or make home seem less homelike to you all."

Mrs. Jocelyn with Belle and the children were descending the stairs. "I misunderstood you, Miss Jocelyn," said Roger, with a penitent look, and he hastily strode away.

"I've disarmed him," thought Mildred, with a half smile. She had, a little too completely.

Belle claimed her old place with Roger, and their light wagon was soon lost in the windings of the road.

"Millie," whispered Belle, as the former joined her at church, "what could you have said to Roger to make him effervesce so remarkably? I had to remind him that it was Sunday half a dozen times."

"What a great boy he is!" answered Mildred.

"The idea of my teaching him sobriety seemed to amuse him amazingly."

"And no wonder. You are both giddy children."

"Until to-day, when you have turned his head, he has been very aged in manner. Please let him alone hereafter; he is my property."

"Keep him wholly," and the amused look did not pass from Mildred's face until service began.

Dinner was even a greater success than breakfast. Mrs. Jocelyn had become better acquainted with Mrs. Atwood during the drive, and they were beginning to exchange housekeeping opinions with considerable freedom, each feeling that she could learn from the other. Fearing justly that a long period of poverty might be before them, Mrs. Jocelyn was awakening to the need of acquiring some of Mrs. Atwood's power of making a little go a great way, and the thought of thus becoming able to do something to assist her absent husband gave her more animation than she had yet shown in her exile. Mildred ventured to fill her vase with some hardy flowers that persisted in blooming under neglect, and to place it on the table, and she was greatly amused to see its effect on Roger and Mr. Atwood. The latter stared at it and then at his wife.

"Will any one take some of the flowers?" he asked at last, in ponderous pleasantry.

"I think we all had better take some, father," said Roger. "I would not have believed that so little a thing could have made so great a difference."

"Well, what is the difference?"

"I don't know as I can express it, but it suggests that a great deal might be enjoyed that one could not put in his mouth or his pocket."

"Mr. Roger," cried Belle, "you are coming on famously. I didn't know that you were inclined, hitherto, to put everything you liked in your mouth or pocket. What escapes some people may have had."

"I never said I liked you," retorted the youth, with a touch of the broad repartee with which he was accustomed to hold his own among the girls in the country.

"No, but if I saw that you liked some one else I might be alarmed"--and she looked mischievously toward Mildred.

For reasons inexplicable to himself, he fell into a sudden confusion at this sally.

With a warning glance at the incorrigible Belle, whose vital elements were frolic and nonsense, Mildred began talking to Mr. Atwood about the great hotel a few miles distant.

"Would you like to go there?" asked Roger after a little.

"No," she said; "I have not the slightest wish to go there." Indeed there was nothing that she shrank from more than the chance of meeting those who had known her in the city.

Later in the day Susan said to her mother, with much satisfaction, "She's not stuck up at all, and we might have found it out before. I can't go back to the kitchen and live in our old haphazard way. I can see now that it wasn't nice at all."

"We'll see," said the politic Mrs. Atwood. "We mustn't drive father too fast."

Roger felt that at last he was getting acquainted, and he looked forward to the long summer evening with much hope. But nothing happened as he expected, for Mildred was silent and preoccupied at supper, and Mrs. Jocelyn appeared to have relapsed into her old depression.

Instead of going out in his buggy to spend the evening with one of his many favorites, as had been his custom, he took a book and sat down under a tree near the porch, so that he might join Mildred if she gave him any encouragement to do so. Belle found him taciturn and far removed from his gay mood of the morning, and so at last left him in peace.

Sue was entertaining a rural admirer in the parlor, which was rarely used except on such momentous occasions, and all was propitious for a quiet talk with the object of his kindling interest. His heart beat quickly as he saw her appear on the porch with her hat and shawl, but instead of noticing him she went rapidly by with bowed head and climbed an eminence near the house, from which there was an extended view to the southward. He felt, as well as saw, that she wished to be alone, that he was not in her thoughts, that she was still as distant from him as he had ever imagined her to be. The shadows deepened, the evening grew dusky, the stars came out, and yet she did not return. For a long time he could see her outline as she sat on the hill top, and then it faded. He knew she was in trouble, and found a vague pleasure in watching with her, in remaining within call should she be frightened, knowing, however, that there was little danger of this in quiet Forestville. Still, the illusion that he was in some sense her protector pleased him in his sentimental mood, and in after years he often recalled this first faint foreshadowing of his lot.

Could he have seen the poor girl, when at last, conscious of solitude and darkness, she gave way to the passionate grief that, for her mother's sake, she had so long repressed, he would have felt that she was distant indeed--far removed by experiences of which he as yet knew nothing. She had been gazing southward, toward the city in which her father was vainly seeking a foothold on the steep incline up which the unfortunate must struggle, and in fancy she saw him lonely, dejected, and deprived of the family life of which he was so fond. Her sympathy for him was as deep as her strong affection. But in spite of her will her thoughts would recur to the beautiful dream which had been shattered in that distant city. Not a word had she heard from Arnold since leaving it, and her heart so misgave her concerning the future that she threw herself on the sod, sobbing bitterly, and almost wishing that she were beneath it and at rest. In the deep abstraction of her grief she had scarcely noted the lapse of time, nor where she was, and the moon had risen when she again glided by Roger, her step and bearing suggesting lassitude and dejection.

Soon after he entered the sitting-room, where he found his mother with a troubled look on her face. "Roger," she said, "I feel sorry for these people. When I went upstairs a while ago I heard Mrs. Jocelyn crying in her room, and coming down with the lamp I met the young lady on the stairs, and her eyes were very red. It's certain they are in deep trouble. What can it be? It's queer Mr. Jocelyn doesn't come to see them. I hope they are all right."

"Mother," he burst out impetuously, "they are all right--she is, anyway," and he went abruptly to his room.

"Well," remarked the bewildered woman sententiously, "there never were such goings on in the old house before."

An event momentous to her had indeed taken place--Roger's boyish days were over.