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The young nurse soon became known through the house simply as Miss Mildred. With the exception of Mrs. Sheppard, the valet, and the physician, no one entered the sick-room except Mr. Arnold, and the old man often lingered and hovered around like a remorseful ghost. He had grown somewhat feeble, and no longer went to his business. His son had tolerated his presence since he had come home to die, but had little to say to him, for the bitterness of his heart extended to the one who had yielded to his mother's hardness and inveterate worldliness. In the secrecy of his heart the old merchant admitted that he had been guilty of a fatal error, and the consequences had been so terrible to his son that he had daily grown more conscience-smitten; but his wife had gained such an ascendency over him in all social and domestic questions that beyond occasional protests he had let matters drift until Vinton returned from his long exile in Europe. The hope that his son would get over what his wife called "an absurd youthful folly" was now rudely dispelled, and in bitterness he reproached himself that he had not adopted a different course.
From the way in which he came in and looked at his son when he was sleeping, it was soon revealed to Mildred how he felt, and she pitied him also.
Mrs. Sheppard was a wealthy widow, and the eldest daughter. She was for the present making her home under the paternal roof. Unlike her mother, she had quick, strong sympathies, which sorrows of her own had deepened. She had assumed the care of her brother, and infused into her ministry a tenderness which at last led the imbittered heart to reveal itself to her. She was therefore already prepared to be Mildred's sincere ally in bringing a little light into the late evening-tide of her brother's clouded day.
Most of the time she sat in her own room with the door ajar, leaving Vinton to the ministrations of his nurse. He required far less care now, for he seemed content to rest as one might during a respite from torture. His eyes would follow Mildred with a pathetic longing when he was awake, and when she took his hand and told him to sleep he would obey like a child. He seemed better because so quiet, but he grew weaker daily. All knew, and none better than himself, that life was slowly ebbing. His father came in more frequently than ever, for his son showed no restlessness at his presence now. At Mildred's request Vinton even began to greet him with something like a welcome, and the young girl did all in her power to make the old gentleman feel at home; sometimes she would place a large easy-chair by the fire and ask him to sit with them. He was glad to comply, and often looked wonderingly and earnestly at the fair young nurse that was working such a transformation in the patient. He once or twice tried to become better acquainted with her, but ever found her gentle, deferential, and very reserved.
Twice Mildred asked Vinton to let her send for Mr. Wentworth, but he shook his head and said that she alone could do him any good. "Read the Bible to me when you feel like it. I'll listen to you, but my best hope is to sleep so quietly that I shall have no dreams. If that cannot be, I'll remember that you forgave me."
"Such words make me very sad," she replied, on the latter occasion, tears rushing into her eyes.
"I am not worthy that you should care so much," he said. "What am I but a flickering rush-light which your hand is shielding that it may burn out quietly?"
"Vinton, you are wrong. The life which God has given you cannot cease. I am not wise and learned, and I have an almost unconquerable diffidence in speaking on these subjects, except to children and the poor and ignorant. But since you won't see any one else, I must speak. You say God sent me to you, and I accept your belief, but He did not send me to you merely to relieve physical pain and mental disquiet. If a man is stumbling toward an abyss of darkness, is it any great kindness to hold a lamp so that his last steps may be easier? There is for each one of us a vital truth and a sacred duty, and in shutting your eyes to these and living in the present hour, you show--pardon an honest friend for saying it--you show a more fatal weakness than you have yet manifested."
"You are mistaken, Mildred," he said bitterly. "As far as I am concerned, what truth is there for me to contemplate except a wasted, unhappy life, wrecked and shamed beyond remedy, beyond hope. I long ago lost what trace of manhood I once had. Never dream that because you have forgiven me I shall forgive myself. No, no," he said, with a dark vindictiveness in his eyes, "there are three that I shall never forgive, and I am one of them. As for duty, the word is torment. What can I do--I who can scarcely raise my hand? My day is over, my chance has gone by forever. Don't interrupt me. I know you would speak of the consolations of religion, but I'd rather go to the devil himself--if there is one--than to such a God as my mother worships; and she has always been a very religious woman. The whole thing long since became a farce to me at our church. It was just as much a part of the fashionable world that blighted me as the rest of society's mummeries. You never went there after you had real trouble to contend with. It was the last place that you would think of going to for comfort or help. The thought of you alone has kept me from utter unbelief, and I would be glad to believe that there is some kindly power in existence that watches over such beings as you are, and that can reward your noble life; but as far as I am concerned it's all a mystery and a weariness. You are near--you are merciful and kind. This is all the heaven I expect. It is far more than I deserve. Let me rest, Mildred. It will be but for a few more days. Then when you close my eyes, may I sleep forever," and he leaned back faint and exhausted. He would not let her interrupt him, for he seemed bent on settling the question as far as he was concerned, and dismissing it finally.
She listened with fast-falling tears, and answered sighingly, "Oh, I do wish you would see Mr. Wentworth. You are so wrong--so fatally mistaken."
"No," he said firmly, "I will see no one but you."
"Oh, what shall I say to you?"
"Do not grieve so about me. You cannot change anything. You cannot give me your strong, grand nature any more than you can your beautiful life and perfect health. I could become a Catholic and worship St. Mildred," he added with a smile, trying to banish her tears. "The only duty that I am capable of is to try to make as little trouble as possible, and to cease making it altogether soon. Go and rest, and I will too, for I'm very tired."
"No," she said resolutely. "My mission to you must not end so weakly, so uselessly. Will you do me a favor?"
"Yes; listen quietly and honestly;" and she read the first verses of the nineteenth chapter of St. John, ending with the words, "Behold the man."
"Vinton," she said eagerly, "the truth to which I referred was embodied truth, and your first sacred duty is to look to Him and live. To the last conscious moment of life this will remain your first and most sacred duty, and were you the strongest man in this city you could not do more. It's not a question of religions at all, or of what other people are or believe. The words I have read have brought you face to face with this Divine Man, who came to seek and save that which was lost. Never did a despairing human soul cry out to Him in vain. He is as real as I am. His tender pity is infinitely beyond mine. Far better and wiser would it be for you to turn from me than from Him. Oh, merciful Christ, how the world wrongs Thee!" and she buried her face in her hands and sobbed bitterly.
"Millie, please don't," he entreated. "I can't endure to see you so grieved."
"Forgive me--I am forgetting myself sadly; but how can I see you so hopeless, so despairing, when there is no more need of it than of your refusing what I try to do for your comfort? There, rest now, but think of what I've said. I may have done wrong to tire you so, but to minister to the body only, when the soul, the man within you, is in such infinite need seems but a mockery. If you continue to wrong Him who should be the one great hope of every human heart, you will sadden all my days. My mission will be but a poor one indeed."
He was very much exhausted, but he said gently, "I will think of it, and may the One you serve so faithfully bless you for your divine pity. What you have said seems to make everything different; you appear to have something real and definite in your mind. Give me your hand and I will rest; then, my good angel, teach me your faith."
This Mildred did almost wholly from God's own word. At first it was hard for him to believe that there were any possibilities for one like him, but at last he accepted the truth that God is not willing that the least should perish. "The mystery of life is something that the wisest cannot solve," she said to him, "but the best hopes of the world have ever centred about this Divine Friend. Burdened hearts have gone to Him in every age and found rest. Oh, how often He has comforted me when mine seemed breaking! In response to a simple trust He gives a hope, a life which I do not think can be found elsewhere, and in the limitless future that which was all wrong here may be made right and perfect."
"So this is your revenge, Millie. You come and bring me this great hope."
"No, God sent me."
Mildred's mission to the sad-hearted Mrs. Sheppard was almost as sacred and useful as to her brother, and they had many long talks which possessed all the deep interest which is imparted by experiences that leave a lasting impress on memory.
Every day increased the bitter regret that short-sighted worldliness had blighted one life and kept from others one who had such rare powers of creating all that constitutes a home.
To Roger Mildred had written almost daily, telling him everything. Her letters were so frank and sincere that they dispelled the uneasiness which first took possession of his mind, and they gradually disarmed him of his hostility to the dying man. There is a point in noble souls beyond which enmity falters and fails, and he felt that Mildred's course toward Arnold was like the mercy of God. He reverenced the girl who like an angel of mercy was bringing hope to a despairing soul.
"Laura," said old Mr. Arnold to Mrs. Sheppard one evening as she was sitting with him in his library, "this young nurse is a continual surprise to me."
"What do you mean, papa?"
"Well, she impresses me strangely. She has come to us as a professional nurse, and yet I have never seen a more perfect gentlewoman. There is a subtle grace and refinement about her which is indescribable. No wonder Vinton has been made better by her care. I wouldn't mind being sick myself if I could have her about me. That girl has a history. How comes she in such a position?"
"I think her position a very exalted one," said his daughter warmly. "Think what an infinite blessing and comfort she has been in our household."
"True, true enough; but I didn't expect any such person to be sent to us."
"I am perfectly ready to admit that this young girl is an unusual character, and have no doubt that she has had a history that would account for her influence. But you are in error if you think that these trained nurses are recruited from the ranks of commonplace women. Many of them come from as good families as ours, and have all the instincts of a true lady. They have a noble calling, and I envy them."
"Well, you know more about it than I do, but I think this Miss Mildred a rare type of woman. It's not her beautiful face, for she has a charm, a winsomeness that is hard to define or account for. She makes me think of some subtle perfume that is even sweeter than the flower from which it is distilled. Would to God Vinton had met such a girl at first! How different it all might have been!"
Mrs. Sheppard left the room so hastily as to excite her father's surprise.
One day Vinton said to Mildred, "How can I be truly forgiven unless I forgive? I now see that I have wronged God's love even more than my mother has wronged me, and in my deep gratitude from the consciousness of God's forgiveness I would like to forgive her and be reconciled before I die. To my brother I will send a brief message--I can't see him again, for the ordeal would be too painful. As for my father, I have long ceased to cherish enmity against him. He, like myself, is, in a certain sense, a victim of our family pride."
"Vinton," Mildred replied, "I cannot tell you how glad I am to hear you speak so. I have been waiting and hoping for this, for it is proof that your feeling is not mere emotion and sentiment. You now propose to do something that is more than manly--it is divine. God's greatest, dearest, most godlike prerogative is to forgive, and man's noblest act is to forgive a great wrong. Vinton, you have now won my respect."
She never forgot his answering glance. "Millie," he said softly, "I can die happy now. I never expected more than your pity."
"If you will do this, your memory will become sweet and ennobled in my heart. Your action will show me how grandly and swiftly God can develop one who has been wronged by evil."
"God bless you, my good angel. Ask my sister to send for my father and mother at once. I feel a little stronger this evening, and yet I think the beginning of my new life is very near."
Mildred went into Mrs. Sheppard's room and told her of Vinton's purpose. She looked at the young girl for a moment with eyes blinded by tears, and then clasped her in a close, passionate embrace which was more eloquent than any words. "Oh, Mildred," she said, with a low sob, "if you only could have been my sister!" Then she hastened to carry out her brother's wishes.
The fire burned brightly in the grate, the softened lights diffused a mild radiance through the room, and the old impression of gloom was utterly absent when Vinton's parents entered. Neither Mrs. Arnold nor her husband was quite able to hide the surprise and embarrassment felt at the unexpected summons, but Mr. Arnold went promptly to the bedside, and, taking his son's hand, said huskily, "I'll come any time you wish, my dear boy, be it night or day."
Vinton gave as warm a pressure in answer as his feebleness permitted, and then he said gravely, "I wish you and mother to sit here close to me, for I must speak low, and my words must be brief. I have but a little fragment of life left to me, and must hasten to perform the few duties yet within my power."
"Had not this young woman better retire?" suggested Mrs. Arnold, glancing coldly at Mildred, who stood in the background, Mrs. Sheppard detaining her by a strong, warm clasp of her hand.
"No," said Vinton decisively, "she must remain. Were it not for the influence of this Christian--not religious, but Christian--girl, you would never have seen my face again, with my consent. In showing me how God forgives the sinful, she has taught me how to forgive. Mother, I never expected to forgive you, but I do from my heart. I am far beyond the world and all worldly considerations. In the clear light of the endless life to which we are all hastening, I see as never before how small, petty, and unworthy are those unnatural principles which blight human life at fashion's bidding. Mother, I wish to do you justice. You tried to care for me in my childhood and youth. You spared yourself no expense, no trouble, but you could not seem to understand that what I needed was sympathy and love--that my heart was always repressed and unhappy. The human soul, however weak, is not like an exotic plant. It should be tended by a hand that is as gentle as it is firm and careful. I found one who combined gentleness with strength; stern, lofty principle with the most beautiful and delicate womanhood; and you know how I lost her. Could I have followed the instincts of my heart, my fate would have been widely different. But that is now all past. You did not mean to wrong me so terribly. It was only because your own life was all wrong that you wronged me. Your pride and prejudice prevented you from knowing the truth concerning the girl I loved. Mother, I am dying, and my last earnest counsel to you and father is that you will obey the words of the loftiest and greatest, 'Learn of me, for I meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.' If you cannot do this, your lives will be a more wretched failure than mine has been. Bury your worldly pride in my grave, and learn to be gentle and womanly, and may God forgive you as truly as I do."
As he spoke slowly and feebly, the cold, proud woman began to tremble and weep, and when his words ceased she sank on her knees at his bedside and sobbed, "Oh, what have I done? Must I bear the remorse of having murdered my own child?"
"No, mother, you were blinded as I was. You will be forgiven as I have been. In the better home of heaven we'll find the secret of our true relationship which we missed here. Good-by now. I must hasten, for I am very weak."
Mrs. Arnold rose, put her arms around her son and kissed him, and her daughter supported her from the room, Vinton's eyes following her sorrowfully until she disappeared. Then he said, "Dear old father, come and sit close beside me."
He came, and bowed his head upon his son's hand.
"Millie," he called feebly to the young girl who stood by the fire with her face buried in her hands. She came at once. "God bless you for those tears. They fall like dew into my soul. Millie, I feel as if--I don't know what it means--it seems as if I might go to my rest now. The room is growing dark, and I seem to see you more in my mind than with my eyes. Millie, will you--can you so far forgive me as to take my head upon your bosom and let me say my last words near your heart?"
"Great God!" cried his father, starting up, "is he dying?"
"Father, please be calm. Keep my hand. Let my end come as I wish. Millie, Millie, won't you?"
Her experienced eyes saw that his death was indeed at hand--that his life had but flickered up brightly once more before expiring. Therefore she gratified his final wish, and took his head upon her breast.
"Rest, rest at last," he sighed.
"Father," he said after a moment or two, "look at this dear girl who has saved my soul from death." The old man lifted his head and gazed upon the pure, sweet face at which he had looked so often and questioningly before.
"Oh, Vinton, Vinton, God forgive me! I see it all. Our insane pride and prejudice kept a good angel from our home."
"Yes, father, this is Mildred Jocelyn. Was I wrong to love her?"
"Oh, blind, blind fool that I've been!" the old man groaned.
"Don't grieve so, father. If you will listen to her words, her mission to us all will be complete. She is fatherless. Be kind to her after I am gone."
The old man rose slowly and leaned his brow on Mildred's head. "My child," he said brokenly, "all my love for Vinton shall now go to you, and his portion shall be yours."
"God bless you, father. Good-by now. Let me sleep," and his eyes closed wearily.
"That's right, my boy; you'll be better in the morning," and with feeble, faltering steps he left the room, murmuring, "Oh, that I had only known in time!"
Mrs. Sheppard now entered and took his place. For a little time Vinton seemed to sleep. Then he opened his eyes and looked slowly around. They kindled into loving recognition as they rested on his sister. "Laura, your patience and mercy toward me have been rewarded," he whispered. "Say to Mansfield and my other brother and sisters what I told you. Be as kind to Mildred as you have been to me. Good-by."
"Millie, Millie, good angel of God to me, farewell for a little while."
His eyes closed again, his breath came more and more slowly, and at last it ceased. His sister put her hand over his heart. His sad, thwarted life had ended on earth.
Mildred kissed him for the first time in her ministry, and murmured, as she gently laid his head back upon the pillow, "Thank God, it has not ended as I feared!"
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