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"Mrs. Atwood," said Mildred the next morning, "I want to thank you for your kindness in giving us our supper alone with papa the first evening of his arrival; but you need not put yourself to any extra trouble to-day."
"Roger is the one to thank," replied Mrs. Atwood. "He's grown so different, so considerate like, that I scarcely know him any more than I do the old place he's so fixed up. He says he's going to paint the house after the summer work slacks off. I don't see what's come over him, but I like the change very much."
Mildred flushed slightly, but said, with some constraint, "Please thank him then from papa and mamma, but do not let us make you further trouble. We shall all return to the city soon, and then you will have easier times every way."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Miss Jocelyn, for we shall miss you all very much. You've done us good in more ways than one."
Roger did not appear at breakfast. "A young horse strayed from the pasture, and Roger is out looking for him," his mother explained when Mrs. Jocelyn asked after him.
Although not a member of any church, Mr. Jocelyn had great respect for his wife and daughter's faith, and accompanied them to service that morning very readily. Roger appeared in time to take Belle, as usual, but she found him so taciturn and preoccupied that she whispered to Mildred, "You've spoiled him for me. He sits staring like an owl in the sunlight, and seeing just about as much. You ought to be ashamed of yourself to make him so glum. I intend to have a dozen beaux, and to keep them all jolly."
Mildred was obliged to admit to herself that the young fellow was very undemonstrative at dinner, and that he did not exhibit the rusticity that she half hoped to see. She gained the impression that he was observing her father very closely, and that no remark of his escaped him. "He has the eyes of a lynx," she thought, with a frown. Still, apart from a certain annoyance at his deep interest in her and all relating to her, she was rather pleased at the impression which such a man as her father must make on one so unsophisticated. Mr. Jocelyn was a finished man of the world, and his large experience left its impress on all that he said and did. Although a little courtly in manner, he was so kindly and frank in nature that his superiority was not at all oppressive, and with true Southern bonhomie he made the farmer's family quite at ease, leading them to speak freely of their rural affairs. Susan soon lost all sense of restraint and began to banter her brother.
"You must have had a very affecting time in making up with Amelia Stone to have stayed out so late," she remarked sotto voce.
"I've not seen Amelia Stone since the evening she was here," he answered dryly.
"Indeed! what other charmer then tied you to her apron-strings so tightly? You are very fickle."
"Now you've hit it," he answered, with a slight flush. "I was so undecided that I drove by every door, and was not tied at all."
Belle "made eyes" at Mildred, as much as to say, "It's you who are distracting him."
"Next time," Sue continued, "I think it would be well to make up your mind before Sunday morning."
"My mind is made up," replied Roger--Belle looked at Mildred with an expression of horror, to her intense annoyance--"I shall trouble no one," he added, quietly.
Belle now gave such a great sigh of relief that he turned upon her too swift a glance to leave time for disguise. He smiled a little bitterly, and then began talking in an off-hand way to Mr. Jocelyn about the hotel a few miles distant, saying that it had filled up very rapidly of late. As they rose from the table he remarked, hesitatingly, "My horse and wagon are at your service this afternoon or evening if you would like to take a drive."
Mr. Jocelyn was about to accept, but Mildred trod significantly on his foot. Therefore he thanked Roger cordially, and said he would spend a quiet day with his family.
"I don't wish to be under the slightest obligations to him," explained Mildred when they were alone; "and Belle," she warned, "you must stop your nonsense at once. I won't endure another trace of it."
"Oh, indeed! I didn't know you were so touchy about him," cried the girl. "Is it for his sake or your own that you are so careful? You're stupid not to let him amuse you, since you've spoiled him for me."
Her sister made no reply, but gave the giddy child a glance that quieted her at once. When Mildred was aroused her power over others was difficult to explain, for, gentle as she was, her will at times seemed irresistible.
Roger did not need to be told in so many words that his overtures of "friendship" had been practically declined. Her tones, her polite but distant manner revealed the truth clearly. He was sorely wounded, but, so far from being disheartened, his purpose to win her recognition was only intensified.
"I can at least compel her respect and prove myself her equal," he thought, and instead of lounging or sleeping away the afternoon, as had been his custom, he took a book and read steadily for several hours. At last he left his room to aid his father in the evening labors of the farm-yard, and in doing so would have to pass near Mr. Jocelyn, who, with his family, was seated under a wide-spreading tree. The gentleman evidently was in a very genial mood; he was caressing his children, flattering his wife and Mildred, and rallying Belle after her own frolicsome humor. Roger thought, as he looked at them a few moments through the kitchen window, that he had never seen a happier family, and with a sigh wished that it was his privilege to join them without being thought an intruder. Mildred's reserve, however, formed an impassable barrier, and he was hastening by with downcast eyes, when, to his surprise and the young girl's evident astonishment, Mr. Jocelyn arose and said, "Ah, Mr. Atwood, we're glad to see you. Won't you join our little party? I want to thank you again for offering me your horse and carriage, but I assure you that a quiet hour like this with one's family after long separation is happiness enough. Still, as a Southern man, I appreciate courtesy, and am always ready to respond to it in like spirit. Moreover, it gives me peculiar pleasure to see a Northern man developing traits which, if they were general, would make the two great sections of our land one in truth as well as in name."
Roger gave Mildred a quick, questioning glance, and saw that she was regarding her father with much perplexity.
"Mr. Jocelyn," he said quietly, "the little courtesy of which you speak has cost me nothing, and if it had it would not be worth the words you bestow upon it."
"I do not think of the act itself so much as the spirit, the disposition it indicates," resumed Mr. Jocelyn in a manner that was courtly and pronounced, but otherwise natural and quiet enough. "I do not judge superficially, but look past apparent trifles to the character they suggest. Moreover, my wife informs me that you have been very polite to her, and very kind to Belle and the children, whom you have often taken out to drive without any compensation whatever. Since you will not make a business matter of such things, I wish to repay you in the coin which gentleman can always receive--that of friendly acknowledgments."
"Then please consider me amply repaid," and with a smile and a bow he was about to retire.
"Do not hasten away, sir," Mr. Jocelyn began again. "On this, day of rest your duties cannot be pressing. I want to assure you further of the pleasure I have in finding a young man who, so far from being rendered callous and material by hard and rather homely work, is alive to all refining influences. The changes in this place for the better since I was here, and those pretty flowers yonder, all prove that you have an eye for the beautiful as well as the practical. My daughter Mildred also informs me that you are cherishing hopes and ambitions that will eventually enlarge your sphere of life and take you out into the great world."
Hitherto Roger's eyes had been fixed keenly and unwaveringly on Mr. Jocelyn's urbane countenance, as if he would detect the cause of such unlooked-for words, but at the mention of Mildred's name his brow and even neck was suffused. "She must have spoken of me kindly," he thought, "or her father would not be so friendly." But when a swift glance around revealed that Mrs. Jocelyn was looking at her husband in perplexity, that Mildred was not even trying to conceal her vexation and amazement, and that Belle had stuffed her handkerchief into her mouth to prevent laughter, a spark of anger glittered in his eyes. His first thought was that Mr. Jocelyn was indulging in unexpected irony at his expense, and the ready youth whose social habits had inured him to much chaffing was able to reply, although a little stiffly and awkwardly, "I suppose most young men have ambitious hopes of doing something in the world, and yet that does not prevent mine from seeming absurd. At any rate, it's clear that I had better reveal them hereafter by deeds rather than words," and with a very slight bow he strode away, but not so quickly that he failed to hear Mildred's voice in the exclamation, "Oh, papa! how could you?" and then followed a paroxysm of laughter from Belle.
Roger was deeply incensed, for he believed that Mr. Jocelyn and Belle were deliberately ridiculing him. That Mildred had repeated his conversation was evident, but her manner showed that she did not expect his words to be used against him so openly, and that she had no part in the cruel sport. The worst he could charge against her was exclusive pride; and he did Mrs. Jocelyn the justice to see that she was pained by the whole affair. His face grew rigid as he finished his work and he muttered, "They shall see that my pride is equal to theirs: I won't go out of my way a hair-breadth for them," and he walked in to supper as if he were at home and had an absolute right to be there. He had been at the table but a few moments, however, before the aspect of the Jocelyn family began to puzzle him exceedingly. Belle appeared as if she had been crying; Mrs. Jocelyn looked perplexed and worried, and in Mildred's eyes there were anxiety and trouble. Mr. Jocelyn had not lost his serenity in the least, but his aspect now was grave, and his manner more courtly than ever. He did not seem inclined to say very much, however, and had an abstracted, dreamy look as if his thoughts were far away. When he did speak, Roger thought that Mildred looked apprehensive, as if fearing that he might again say something embarrassing, but his words were quiet and measured, betraying no excitement. The expression of his face, however, seemed unnatural to Roger's close yet furtive scrutiny. An hour before his eyes had been bright and dilated, and his countenance full of animation; now all the light and cheerfulness were fading, and the man seemed to grow older and graver by moments. Was the dusky pallor stealing across his features caused by the shadows of evening? Roger thought not, but a resentful glance from Mildred warned him to curb his curiosity.
He was curious, but not in a vulgar or prying way, and his anger was all gone. He was sure that something was amiss with Mr. Jocelyn, and that his family also was disturbed and anxious. There had been none of the incoherency and excitement of a man who had drank too much, but only a slight exaggeration of the genial traits manifested at the dinner-table followed by a quietude and abstraction that were not natural. Mental aberrations, even though slight and temporary, are instinctively felt by those who are sound and normal in mind. Still Roger would have charged Mr. Jocelyn's words and manner to the peculiarities of a stranger, had not his family been perplexed and troubled also. "There's something wrong about him," he said to himself as he rose from the table; "he lacks balance, or he's not well. I half believe that the time will come when that young girl will be the stay and support of the whole family. You cannot prevent my friendliness, Miss Jocelyn, any more than you can stop the sun from shining, and some day it will melt all your reserve and coldness." He took his volume of history out on the sward near the porch, resolving to see the end of the domestic drama. His mother had told him during the day that their "boarders" would soon depart. He had made no response whatever, but his sinking spirits revealed to him that in some way his life had become involved with that of the girl now so distant and repellent.
He did not turn many leaves, but he sat with the book in his lap until long after nightfall. The domestic drama apparently had a very prosaic ending. Mr. Jocelyn and his family returned for a time to their seats under the trees, but all except the little children were apparently under some constraint. The latter soon grew sleepy, and Mrs. Jocelyn took them in to bed. Belle was not long in following them, darting an ireful glance at Roger in passing, to which he responded by a rather mocking smile. "We were having a lovely time till you came, you old marplot," she muttered under her breath.
Mr. Jocelyn grew more and more quiet until his head sank on his breast, and it was with difficulty that Mildred aroused him sufficiently to urge his retiring. At last he took his daughter's arm and entered the house as if in a dream. The young girl's face was downcast and averted. As they passed between the youth and the still glowing west they cast a faint shadow upon him. Though by no means imaginative, he noted the shadow and thought about it. It seemed that it still rested on him after they were gone, and that it might never pass away. His was not a dreamy, fanciful nature, that could create a score of improbable contingencies, but his shrewd, strong sense was quick to recognize traces of weakness and untrustworthiness in those he met, and the impression grew upon him that Mr. Jocelyn was not a well-balanced man. "If he fails her, I will not," he murmured. Then with a short laugh he continued, "How is it that I am ready to admit such a far-reaching claim from one who repels and dislikes me? I don't know, and I don't care. She has waked me up; she has the power of calling into action every faculty I have. Already, I scarcely know myself. I never lived before, and I feel that I can become a man--perhaps a great man--if I follow this impulse, and I shall follow it."
Soon all were sleeping, and mother and daughter were alone.
"Mamma," said Mildred, in a low, troubled tone, "it seemed to me that papa acted very strangely this afternoon and evening. Can he be well?"
"Oh, Millie," cried the loving, anxious wife, "I fear he is not well at all; and no wonder, when we think of the long strain he has been under. Haven't you noticed that his appetite is very poor? to-night he scarcely ate a mouthful. He has just been trying to keep up ever since he came, and this afternoon he made unusual effort; reaction of course followed, and at last he was so weary and troubled that he could not hide his feelings from us."
"I suppose you take the right view," said Mildred hesitatingly, "but papa has not seemed the same this afternoon as at other times when tired and worried. His gayety was a little extravagant, and so it might naturally be if it were forced. But I can't understand his speaking to young Mr. Atwood as he did. Papa never showed such a lack of tact or delicacy before. I would not dare tell him things if he spoke of them afterward so inopportunely. I felt as if I could sink into the ground. And when Belle--who can't help seeing everything in a ridiculous light--began to laugh he turned and spoke to her as he has never spoken to any of us before, And yet he did not seem angry, but his gravity was more oppressive than any amount of natural anger."
"Well, Millie, your father is very kind-hearted, and, like all Southern men, very sensitive to kindness and courtesy. I suppose he thought that you and Belle had not treated Roger well, and that he ought to make amends. The real explanation is that he is overstrained and unhappy, and so cannot act like himself."
"I do hope he is not going to be ill," faltered Mildred. "Such a strange lethargy came over him after you left us. Oh, the day is ending horribly, and it leaves a weight of foreboding on my mind. I wish we could get away tomorrow, for I feel that Roger Atwood is watching us, and that nothing escapes him. I know that papa's manner seemed strange to him as well as to us, and I almost hate him for his obtrusive and prying interest. Why can't he see that he's nothing to us, nor we to him, and let us alone?"
She often recalled these words in after years.
The wife went to her room and found that her husband was sleeping quietly. Returning, she said, more cheerily, "I think papa will be like himself after a good night's sleep, and there's every promise now that he'll get it; so don't look on the dark side, Millie, nor worry about that young man. He don't mean to be obtrusive, and I must say that I think he behaves very well considering. With troubles like ours, why think of such a transient annoyance? If I only knew just how I could help your father I would not think about much else."
It would have been well indeed if she could have known, for she would have taken from his pocketbook a small syringe and a bottle of Magendie's solution of morphia; she would have entreated him upon her knees, she would have bound him by the strongest oaths to die rather than to use it again. The secret of all that was peculiar and unnatural in his conduct can be explained by the fact that early in the afternoon he went apart for a moment, and with a little innocent-looking instrument injected into his arm the amount of the fatal drug which he believed he could enjoy without betraying himself.
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