Chapter XVIII.
 
    "Where lives the man that has not tried
     How mirth can into folly glide,
     And folly into sin!"
                            --Scott.

Ralph Conly was not a favorite with any of his Ion relatives, because they knew his principles were not altogether such as they could approve, nor indeed his practice either; yet they had no idea how bad a youth he was, else intimacy between him and Max would have been forbidden.

All unsuspected by the older people, he was exerting a very demoralizing influence over the younger boy. Every afternoon they sought out some private spot and had a game of cards, and little by little Ralph had introduced gambling into the game, till now the stakes were high in proportion to the means of the players.

On this particular afternoon they had taken possession of a summer-house in a retired part of the grounds, and were deep in play.

Ralph at first let Max win, the stakes being small; then raising them higher, he won again and again, till he had stripped Max of all his pocket money and his watch.

Max felt himself ruined, and broke out in passionate exclamations of grief and despair, coupled with accusations of cheating, which were, indeed, well founded.

Ralph grew furious and swore horrible oaths, and Max answered with a repetition of his accusation, concluding with an oath, the first he had uttered since his father's serious talk with him on the exceeding sinfulness and black ingratitude of profanity.

All that had passed then, the passages of Scripture telling of the punishment of the swearer under the Levitical law, flashed back upon him as the words left his lips, and covering his face with his hands he groaned in anguish of spirit at thought of his fearful sin.

Then Mr. Dinsmore's voice, speaking in sternest accents, startled them both. "Ralph, is this the kind of boy you are? a gambler and profane swearer? And you, too, Max? Do you mean to break your poor father's heart and some day bring down his gray hairs with sorrow to the grave? Go at once to your room, sir. And you, Ralph, return immediately to Roselands. I cannot expose my grandchildren to the corrupting influence of such a character as yours."

The mandate was obeyed promptly and in silence by both, Ralph not daring to gather up his plunder, or even his cards from the table where they lay.

Mr. Dinsmore took possession of both, and followed Max to the house. In the heat of their altercation the lads had raised their voices to a high pitch, and he, happening to be at no great distance, and hastening to the spot to learn the cause of the disturbance, had come upon them in time to hear the last sentence uttered by each, and had taken in the whole situation at a glance.

He went directly to his daughter's dressing-room, and sent for Violet to join them there.

Both ladies were greatly distressed by the tale he had to tell.

"Oh," sobbed Violet, "it will break my husband's heart to learn that his only son has taken to such evil courses! And to think that it was a relative of our own who led him into it!"

"Yes," sighed Mr. Dinsmore, "I blame myself for not being more watchful; though I had no idea that Ralph had acquired such vices."

"I cannot have you blame yourself, papa," Elsie said, with tender look and tone, "I am sure it was no fault of yours. And I cannot believe the dear boy has become a confirmed swearer or gambler in so short a time. He is a warm-hearted fellow, and has a tender conscience. We will hope by divine aid to reclaim him speedily."

"Dear mamma, thank you!" exclaimed Violet, smiling through her tears. "What you say of Max is quite true, and I have no doubt that he is at this very moment greatly distressed because of his sin."

"I trust it may be so," said Mr. Dinsmore. "But now the question is, what is to be done with him? I wish his father were here to prescribe the course to be taken."

"Oh, he has already done so!" cried Violet, bursting into tears again. "He said if Max should ever be guilty of profanity he was to be confined to his own room for a week, and forbidden all intercourse with the rest of the family as unworthy to associate with them. I begged him not to compel us to be so severe, but he was inexorable."

"Then we have no discretionary power, no choice but to carry out his directions," Mr. Dinsmore said, feeling rather relieved that the decision was not left with him. "I shall go now and tell Max what his sentence is, and from whom it comes.

"And, unfortunately, it will be necessary, in order to carry it out, to inform the other members of the family, who might otherwise hold communication with him.

"That task I leave to you, Elsie and Violet."

He left the room, and Violet, after a little sorrowful converse with her mother, went to her own, and with many tears told Lulu and Gracie what had occurred, and what was, by their father's direction, to be Max's punishment.

Both little sisters were shocked and grieved, very sorry for Max, for it seemed to them quite terrible to be shut up in one room for a whole week, while to be out of doors was so delightful; but even Lulu had nothing to say against their father's decree, especially after Violet had explained that he had made it in his great love for Max, wanting to cure him of vices that would make him wretched in this life and the next.

Rosie was still more shocked and scarcely less sorry than Lulu and Gracie, for she had been taught to look upon swearing and gambling as very great sins, and yet she liked Max very much indeed, and pitied him for the disgrace and punishment he had brought upon himself.

It was she who told Zoe, seeking her in her dressing-room, where she was making her toilet for the evening.

"Oh, Rosie, how dreadful!" exclaimed Zoe. "I never could have believed it of Max! but it is all because of the bad influence of that wicked Ralph. I see now why Edward disapproves of him so thoroughly that he didn't like me to ride with him. But I do think Captain Raymond is a very severe father. A whole week in the house this lovely weather! How can the poor boy ever stand it!

"And nobody to speak a kind word to him, either. I don't think they ought to be so hard on him, for I dare say he is grieving himself sick over it now, for he isn't a bad boy."

"No," said Rosie, "I don't think he is; I like Max very much, but of course his father's orders have to be carried out, and for that reason we are all forbidden to go near him, and we have no choice but to obey."

"Forbidden, indeed!" thought Zoe to herself. "I for one shall do as I please about it."

"Zoe, how pretty you are! that dress is very becoming!" exclaimed Rosie, suddenly changing the subject.

"Am I? But I can't compare with Miss Deane in either beauty or conversational powers," returned Zoe, the concluding words spoken with some bitterness.

"Can't you? just ask Ned about it," laughed Rosie. "I verily believe he thinks you the sweetest thing he ever set eyes on. There, I hear him coming, and must run away, for I know he always wants you all to himself here; and besides, I have to dress."

She ran gayly away, passing her brother on the threshold.

Zoe was busying herself at a bureau drawer, apparently searching for something, and did not look toward him or speak. In another moment she had found what she wanted, closed the drawer, and passed into her boudoir.

Edward had been standing silently watching her, love and anger struggling for the mastery in his breast. If she had only turned to him with a word, or even a look of regret for the past, and desire for reconciliation, he would have taken her to his heart again as fully and tenderly as ever. He was longing to do so, but too proud to make the first advances when he felt himself the aggrieved one.

"All would be right between them but for Zoe's silly jealousy and pride. Why could she not trust him and submit willingly to his guidance and control while she was still so young and inexperienced--such a mere child as to be quite incapable of judging for herself in any matter of importance? In fact, he felt it his duty to guide and control her till she should grow older and wiser."

Such were his thoughts as he went through the duties of the toilet, while Zoe sat at the window of her boudoir gazing out over the smoothly shaven lawn with its stately trees, lovely in their fresh spring attire, to the green fields and woods beyond, yet scarcely taking in the beauty of the landscape, so full of tears were her eyes, so full her heart of anger, grief, and pain.

She had not looked at her husband as he stood silently near her a moment ago, but felt that he was gazing with anger and sternness upon her.

"If he had only said one kind word to me," she whispered to herself, "I would have told him I was sorry for my silly speech this afternoon, and oh, so happy to be his own little wife, if--if only he hasn't quit loving me."

She hastily wiped her eyes and endeavored to assume an air of cheerfulness and indifference, as she heard his step approaching.

"Are you ready to go down now, Zoe?" he asked in a freezing tone.

"Yes," she answered, turning to follow him as he led the way to the door.

There seemed to be a tacit understanding between them that their disagreements and coldness toward each other were to be concealed from all the rest of the world; in the old happy days they had always gone down together to the drawing-room or the tea-table, therefore would do so still.

Also, they studiously guarded their words and looks in the presence of any third person.

Yet Elsie, the tender mother, with eyes sharpened by affection, had already perceived that all was not right. She had noted Zoe's disturbed look when Edward seemed specially interested in Miss Deane's talk or Miss Fleming's music, and had silently determined not to ask them to prolong their stay at Ion.

The supper-bell rang as Edward and Zoe descended the stairs together, and they obeyed its summons without going into the drawing-room.

Violet's place at the table was vacant as well as that of Max, and Lulu and Gracie bore the traces of tears about their eyes.

These things reminded Zoe of Max's trouble, forgotten for a time in her own, and she thought pityingly of him in his imprisonment, wondered if he would be put upon prison fare, and determined to find out, and if he were, to try to procure him something better.

She made an errand to her own rooms soon after leaving the table, went to his door and knocked softly.

"Who's there?" he asked in a voice half choked with sobs.

"It is I, Maxie," she said in an undertone at the keyhole, "Zoe, you know. I want to say I'm ever so sorry for you, and always ready to do anything I can to help you."

"Thank you," he said, "but I mustn't see anybody, so can't open the door; and, indeed," with a heavy sob, "I'm not fit company for you or any of the rest."

"Yes, you are, you're as good as I am. But why can't you open the door? are you locked in?"

"No; but--papa said I--I must stay by myself for a week if--if I did what I have done to-day. So please don't stay any longer, though it was ever so good in you to come."

"Good-by, then," and she moved away.