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- Without a Home - 70/94 -

"With some right I may also ask why you treat me with such disrespect?"

The old man opened his eyes, and was somewhat taken aback by this unexpected question, and yet a moment's reflection showed him that he had given cause for it. He also misunderstood his nephew, and resumed, with a short conciliatory laugh, "I guess I'm the fool, to be imagining all this nonsense. Of course you are too much of an Atwood to entangle yourself with such people and spoil your prospects for life. Look here, Roger. I'll be frank with you, and then we'll understand each other. You know I've neither chick nor child, and I've turned a good big penny in business. When you first came I thought you were a rattle-pated country boy that wanted a lark in the city, and I took you more to keep you out of mischief than for any other cause. Well, I've watched you closely, and I was mistaken. You've got the stuff in you to make a man, and I see no reason why you should not be at the top of the heap before you reach my years, and I mean to give you a chance. You've got a little soft place in your head and heart, or you wouldn't be getting yourself mixed up in other people's troubles. I tell you what it is, my boy, a man who gets ahead in these times must strike right out for himself, and steer clear of all fouling with 'ne'er-do-weels,' as if they had a pestilence. Hook on to the lucky ones, the strong ones, and they'll help you along. Now if you'll take this course and follow my advice right along, I'll give you a chance with the first. You shall go to the best college in the land, next to the law-school, and then have money enough to enable you to strike high. By the time you are thirty you can marry an heiress. But no more Jocelyns and shop-girls who have been at stationhouses, if you please. The girl may have been innocent of that offence; but, plain man as I am, I don't like this style of people at all, and I know human nature well enough to be sure that they'll try to tie themselves on to you if they can. I've thought it all out in my slow way, and, since you've got it in you, I'm going to give you a chance to put the Atwood name where I can't, with all my money."

Roger was deeply moved, for he had no idea that his uncle was cherishing such far-reaching plans in his behalf. While he had little sympathy with the cold, selfish side of the programme, his strong ambition responded powerfully to the prospect held out to him. He knew that the hopes inspired were not vain, for his uncle was a man whose deeds always outstripped his words, and that his fortunes were practically assured if he would follow the worldly-wise policy to which he had listened. His ambition whispered, "Mildred Jocelyn does not love you, and never will. Even now, after you have done so much for her, and her gratitude is boundless, her heart shrinks from you. She may not be able to help it, but it is true nevertheless. Why should you throw away such prospects for the sake of one who loves another man, and who, until in a time of desperate need, treated you with undisguised coldness and dislike? Besides, by yielding to your uncle's will you can eventually do more for the family than if thrown on your own resources." It was indeed the great temptation of his life, and he wavered.

"Uncle," he said irresolutely, "you have indeed opened a very alluring prospect, and I am grateful that you think So well of me, and that you are willing to do so much. Since you have been so frank with me, I will be equally so with you," and he told him all about his relations with the Jocelyns, and tried to make the shrewd old merchant understand that they were not common people.

"They are the most dangerous people of all," he interrupted impatiently. "Having once been up in the world, they think they are still as good as anybody, and are wild to regain their old position. If they had always been poor and commonplace, they would not be so likely to presume. What you say about the girl's not caring for you is sheer nonsense. She'd marry you to-morrow if she could. The one idea of such people is to get out of the slough into which they have fallen, and they'll marry out of it the first chance they get, and like enough they'll do worse if they can't marry. I tell you they are the most dangerous kind of people, and Southern at that. I've learned all about them; the father has gone to the devil for good and all, and, with your feeling and weakness toward them, you'll never be safe a moment unless you drop them completely and finally. Come, young man, let this affair be the test between us. I've worked hard for nearly a lifetime, and have a right to impose some conditions with what has been earned by forty years of toil, early and late. I never speculated once. Every dollar I had to spare I put in paying real estate and governments, and, Roger, I'm worth to-day a good half a million. Ha, ha, ha! people who look at the plain old man in the plain little house don't know that he could afford a mansion on the Avenue better than most of them. This is between ourselves, but I want you to act with your eyes open. If you are such a soft-headed fool as to let that girl, who you admit does not like you or care a rap for you personally, stand between you and such prospects, then I'm mistaken in you, and the sooner I find it out the better. Come, now, I'll be good-natured and liberal in the matter, for young men will be a little addle-pated and romantic before they cut their wisdom teeth. Through that English woman who works for your aunt occasionally you can see to it that these people don't suffer, but beyond that you must drop them once for all. What is more, your father and mother take the same view that I do, and your filial duty to them requires what I ask. While we naturally refuse to be mixed up with such people, we are seeking chiefly to promote your welfare; for the worst thing that can happen to a young man starting in life is to have a helpless lot of people hanging on him. So, come, give me your promise--the promise of an Atwood--and it will be all right."

Eoger was not a self-sacrificing saint by any means. Moreover, he had inherited the Atwood characteristics sufficiently to feel all the worldly force of his uncle's reasoning, and to be tempted tremendously by his offers. They promised to realize his wildest dreams, and to make the path to fame and wealth a broad, easy track instead of a long, steep, thorny path, as he had expected. He was virtually on the mountain-top, and had been shown "all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them."

But against this brilliant background he saw the thin, pale face of Mrs. Jocelyn, as she looked up to him with loving trust and gratitude, and the motherly kiss that she had imprinted on his cheek was a seal to her absolute faith. He felt the pressure of Belle's arm about his neck, and remembered his promise to give her a brother's regard and protection, and justly he feared that if deserted now the impulsive, tempted girl would soon meet shipwreck. She would lose faith in God and man. But that which touched him most nearly were his words to Mildred--words spoken even when she showed him most plainly that her heart was not his, and probably never could be--"I am your friend; never doubt it." How false he would seem to them; how false and selfish to his friend, the great-hearted clergyman, who was like Christ himself in his devoted labors; how false and base he would ever feel himself to be in his own soul!

For a time there was a terrible conflict in his breast as he paced the floor in long strides, with hands clenched and brow heavily contracted. His uncle watched him curiously and with displeased surprise, for that he could hesitate at all seemed to the worldly man an evidence of fatal weakness.

Roger fought it out like a genuine Atwood, and was nearer akin to his uncle than the old merchant would ever suspect. His heart craved the kingdoms of the world unspeakably, but he now realized that he must barter for them his honor, his manhood, and love. Thus far he had a right to love Mildred, and it was not her fault she could not return it. But, poor and shamed as she was, he knew that she would despise him if he yielded now, even though he rose to be the foremost man of the nation. Not with any chivalric, uncalculating impulse did he reach his conclusion, but by the slow, deliberate reasoning of a cool-headed, sturdy race that would hold to a course with life-long tenacity, having once chosen it.

Turning to his uncle, he asked quietly. "What did you mean by 'the promise of an Atwood'?"

"You ought to know. Our family, for generations, have lived up among the granite hills of Forestville, and, although poor, our promises, whether spoken or written, are like them."

"I'm glad to hear you say that--I'm glad to be reminded of it," his nephew replied. "Well, my promise has already been given. I have promised that poor broken-hearted woman, Mrs. Jocelyn, that I'd try to help her through her terrible misfortunes. I've promised her daughter Belle that I'd give her a brother's care and affection. I've promised the girl I love that I would at least be her friend, since I cannot be more. I'll prove myself a true Atwood, worthy to sustain the family name and honor by keeping my promises, and if I break them, you yourself, deep in your heart, would despise me."

For a moment the old merchant was nonplussed, so adroitly and unexpectedly had Roger turned his words against him. Then, like most men suddenly put in a false position, he grew angry, and blurted out, "Nonsense! It doesn't apply at all. These artful women have come it over you--have entrapped you." The young man here made a strong gesture of protest. "Oh, don't try to deceive me," his uncle proceeded, more loudly and passionately; "I know the world. If I'd blindly made promises to adventurers who would compass my ruin, ought I to keep them? If I find I've indorsed a forged check, ought I not to stop its payment? In the name of your parents and as your uncle, I protest against this folly, for I see well enough where it will end. Moreover, I tell you plainly that you must choose between me and my offers, and that old sot of a Jocelyn and his scheming wife and daughters. If you can be carried away by such absurdity, you are weaker than water, and the sooner you learn by bitter experience the better, for you certainly belong to that class which only hard experience can teach. But I'd like to see those brazen-faced creatures and give them a piece of--"

"Stop!" thundered Roger; "beware how you say another word against those whom sorrow should render sacred. You know less about them than about heaven. Do you forget that I am of age? You made me an offer, and I thanked you for it honestly and gratefully. What's more, I was base enough to be tempted by it. Oh, yes"--with a bitter laugh--"I was an Atwood enough for that. If you had not coupled it with the condition that I should, like a coward, desert helpless and unfortunate women to whom my word is given, I would have fulfilled your best hopes and ambitions, and have made your age glad with my grateful love and service. In your cold-hearted worldliness you have overreached yourself, and you wrong yourself more than me, even though I perish in the streets. But I won't starve. Mark my words: I'll place the Atwood name where you can't, with all your money, and I shall not make broken faith with those who trust me, the foundation of my fortunes."

"Very well, then," said his uncle, who had quieted down into an anger of white heat; "since you prefer those disreputable strangers to your family, go to them. I wash my hands of you, and shall write to your father to this effect to-night. I'm a prompt man and don't dilly-dally."

"Mrs. Jocelyn and her daughters are no more disreputable than you are, sir, and calling me 'soft-headed fool' doesn't make me one.

Without a Home - 70/94

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