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- Without a Home - 56/94 -
returning from a momentary absence, saw him withdraw his syringe from the arm of her half-conscious mother.
"What have you done?" she asked sternly, and hastening to his side.
Secreting the instrument as a miser would his gold, he answered, with the same strange smile, "She shall have a merry Christmas yet; I have just remembered the day. See how quiet she is becoming; see that beautiful flush stealing into her pale face; see the light dawning in her eye. Oh, I gauged the dose with the skill of the best of them; and see, my hand is as steady as yours. I'm not a wreck yet, and all may still be well. Come, this is Christmas night, and we will keep it in good old Southern style. Where are Belle and the children? Ah! here they are. Where have you been, Belle?"
"In Mrs. Wheaton's room," she replied, looking at her father in much surprise. "I was trying to keep the children quiet, so that you, mamma, and Millie might have a little rest."
"That was very kind and good of you, and you now see that I am much better; so is mamma, and with your help and Mildred's we shall have a merry Christmas night together after all."
"Papa is right," Mrs. Jocelyn added with vivacity. "I DO feel much better, and so strangely hopeful. Come here, Belle. I've scarcely seen you and the children all day. Kiss me, darlings. I believe the worst is now past, that papa will soon be well, and that all our troubles will end in renewed prosperity and happiness. I have been looking on the dark side, and it was wrong in me to do so. I should have had more faith, more hope, more thankfulness. I should bless God for that sight--Fred and Minnie on their father's knees as in old times. Oh, what a strange, bright turn everything has taken."
"Mamma dear," said Belle, who was kneeling and caressing her, "can I not ask Roger in to see you? He has looked like a ghost all day, from anxiety about you."
"Oh, no, no," gasped Mildred.
"Now, Millie," began Mrs. Jocelyn in gentle effusion, "you carry your prejudice against Roger much too far. He has been the world and all to Belle since he came to town. Belle was like a prisoned bird, and he gave her air and room to fly a little, and always brought her back safe to the nest. Think of his kindness last night (suddenly she put her hand to her brow as if troubled by something half forgotten, but her serene smile returned). Papa, thanks to Roger's kindness, is here, and he might have been taken to a hospital. I now feel assured that he will overcome all his troubles. What we need is cheerfulness--the absence of all that is depressing. Roger is lonely away from his home and people, and he shall share our Christmas cheer; so call him, Belle, and then you and Millie prepare as nice a supper as you can;" and the girl flew to make good a prospect so in accordance with her nature.
Mildred almost as precipitately sought her room. A moment later Roger was ushered in, and he could scarcely believe his eyes. The unconscious man, whom he at this time on the previous day believed dying, had his children on his lap, and was caressing them with every mark of affection. Although he still appeared to be very much of an invalid, and his complexion had a sallow and unnatural hue, even in the lamplight, it was difficult to believe that twenty-four hours before he had appeared to be in extremis. When he arose and greeted Roger with a courtesy that was almost faultless, the young fellow was tempted to rub his eyes as if all were a dream. Mrs. Jocelyn, too, was full of cheerfulness and hope, and made him sit beside her while she thanked him with a cordiality and friendliness that seemed even tinged with affection. If memory could be silenced there would be nothing to dispel the illusion that he looked upon a humble but happy home, unshadowed by any thought or trouble. As it was, the illusion was so strong that he entered into the apparent spirit of the occasion, and he chatted and laughed with a freedom and ease he had never yet known in their presence.
"Where is Millie?" Mrs. Jocelyn suddenly asked. "We must be all together on this happy occasion. Minnie, call her, for I do not wish a moment of this long-deferred hour marred or clouded."
"Millie," cried the child, opening the door, "mamma wants you to come right away. We are having a lovely time."
"Don't mind Millie's ways," said Mrs. Jocelyn, touching Roger's arm and giving him a little confidential nod. "You understand each other."
These words, with her manner, struck Roger as peculiar in one who had ever seemed to him the embodiment of delicacy, but he was too inexperienced to gauge them properly. When he turned, however, to bow to Mildred, who entered and took a seat in a distant corner, he was startled by her extreme pallor, but acting on Mrs. Jocelyn's advice he tried to act as before, resolving, nevertheless, that if his presence continued to be a restraint on one for whom he was ever ready to sacrifice himself, he would speedily depart. Belle was radiant in her reaction from the long, miserable day, and, with a child's unconsciousness, gave herself up to her happiness.
"Millie shall rest as well as yourself, mamma, for she was up all night, and I'll get supper and prove what a housewife I am. Roger, if you do not swallow everything I prepare without a wry face, and, indeed, with every appearance of relish, I shall predict for you the most miserable old bachelorhood all your days."
"I am afraid you will put Roger's gallantry to a very severe test," cried Mrs. Jocelyn gayly. "Indeed, I fear we have not very much for supper except the warmest good-will. Our poverty now, however, will not last long, for I feel that I can so manage hereafter as to make amends for all the past. I can see that I am the one who has been to blame; but all that's past, and with my clearer, fuller knowledge and larger opportunities I can do wonders."
Roger was much struck by the peculiar smile with which Mr. Jocelyn regarded his wife as she uttered these words.
"Lemme show you what Aunty Wheaton gave me dis mornin'," lisped Fred, pulling Roger up.
As he rose he caught a glimpse of Mildred's face, and saw that she was regarding her mother and father in undisguised horror. Something was evidently wrong--fearfully wrong. There was a skeleton in that cheerful lighted room, and the girl saw it plainly. Never would he forget her terrible expression. He trembled with apprehension as he stood over the child's toy and tried to imagine what it was that had suddenly filled the place with a nameless dread and foreboding. So quick and strong was his sympathy for Mildred, so unmistakable had been the expression of the girl's face, that he was sure something must soon occur which would explain her fears.
He was right, for at this moment Dr. Benton knocked, entered, and took the chair he had vacated. The physician looked with some surprise at his patient and Mrs. Jocelyn's flushed, smiling face. As he felt her pulse her sleeve fell back, and he saw the ominous little red scar, and then he understood it all, and fixed a penetrating glance on the face of her husband, who would not meet his eye.
"I have done you wrong, Dr. Benton," Mrs. Jocelyn began volubly, "for we all are indebted to your skill that my husband is so much better. This day, which promised to pass so sadly, has a bright ending, thanks to your timely remedies. We are once more a united household, and I can never thank our dear young friend here, Mr. Atwood, enough that he discovered my husband and brought him to us and to your able treatment. Surely, Millie, your prejudice against him must vanish now, for--"
"Mother," cried Mildred, "if you have a grain of reason or self-control left, close your lips. Oh, what a mockery it all is!"
When Belle took her astonished eyes from Mildred's face, Roger, who stood near the door, was gone.
"You had better follow your daughter's advice, Mrs. Jocelyn," said the physician quietly and soothingly; "you are a little feverish, and I prescribe quiet. May I see you alone a moment or two, Mr. Jocelyn?"
"Yes, here in my room," added Mildred eagerly.
It was with the aspect of mingled fear and haughtiness that Mr. Jocelyn followed Dr. Benton into the apartment, and the door was closed.
"Mother, you are ill," said Mildred, kneeling beside her. "For my sake, for yours, pray keep quiet for a while."
"Ill! I never felt better in my life. It's all your unreasonable prejudice, Millie."
"I think so too," cried Belle indignantly. "We were just beginning to have a little sunshine, and you have spoiled everything."
"I am the only one who knows the truth, and I shall take the responsibility of directing our affairs for the next few hours," replied Mildred, rising, with a pale, impassive face. "Belle, my course has nothing to do with Roger Atwood. I exceedingly regret, however, that he has been present. Wait till you hear what Dr. Benton says;" and there was something so resolute and almost stern in her manner that even Mrs. Jocelyn, in her unnatural exaltation, yielded. Indeed, she was already becoming drowsy from the effects of the narcotic.
"You are not yourself, mamma. I'll explain all to-morrow," the young girl added soothingly.
"Mr. Jocelyn," said the physician, with quiet emphasis, "you have injected morphia into your wife's arm."
"I have not."
"My dear sir, I understand your case thoroughly, and so do your wife and daughter, as far as they can understand my explanations. Now if you will cease your mad folly I can save you, I think; that is, if you will submit yourself absolutely to my treatment."
"You are talking riddles, sir. Our poverty does not warrant any assumption on your part."
"I know the insane and useless instinct of those in your condition to hide their weakness; but can you not control it, and permit me as your friend and physician to help you? I am seeking your interests, not my own."
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