"And did this go on all night?" asked Dr. Hillhouse.
"Yes. She never closed her eyes except in intervals of feverish stupor, from which she would start up and cry out for her husband, who was, she imagined, in some dreadful peril."
"Bad! bad!" muttered Dr. Hillhouse. "There'll be a death, I fear, laid at Mr. Birtwell's door."
"I don't understand you," said his companion, in a tone of surprise.
"Mr. Ridley, as I have been informed," returned Dr. Hillhouse, "has been an intemperate man. After falling very low, he made an earnest effort to reform, and so far got the mastery of his appetite as to hold it in subjection. Such men are always in danger, as you and I very well know. In nine cases out of ten—or, I might say, in ninety-nine cases in a hundred—to taste again is to fall. It is like cutting the chain that holds a wild beast. The bound but not dead appetite springs into full vigor again, and surprised resolution is beaten down and conquered. To invite such a man to, an entertainment where wines and liquors are freely dispensed is to put a human soul in peril."
"Mr. Birtwell may not have known anything about him," replied Dr. Angier.
"All very true. But there is one thing he did know."
"That he could not invite a company of three hundred men and women to his house, though he selected them from the most refined and intelligent circles in our city, and give them intoxicating drinks as freely as he did last night, without serious harm. In such accompany there will be some, like Mr. Ridley, to whom the cup of wine offered in hospitality will be a cup of cursing. Good resolutions will be snapped like thread in a candle-flame, and men who came sober will go away, as from any other drinking-saloon, drunk, as he went out last night."
"Drinking-saloon! You surprise me, doctor."
"I feel bitter this morning; and when the bitterness prevails, I am apt to call things by strong names. Yes, I say drinking-saloon, Doctor Angier. What matters it in the dispensation whether you give away or sell the liquor, whether it be done over a bar or set out free to every guest in a merchant's elegant banqueting-room? The one is as much a liquor-saloon as the other. Men go away from one, as from the other, with heads confused and steps unsteady and good resolutions wrecked by indulgence. Knowing that such things must follow; that from every fashionable entertainment some men, and women too, go away weaker and in more danger than when they came; that boys and young men are tempted to drink and the feet of some set in the ways of ruin; that health is injured and latent diseases quickened into force; that evil rather than good flows from them,—knowing all this, I say, can any man who so turns his house, for a single evening, into a drinking-saloon—I harp on the words, you see, for I am feeling bitter—escape responsibility? No man goes blindly in this way."
"Taking your view of the case," replied Dr. Angier, "there may be another death laid at the door of Mr. Birtwell."
"Whose?" Dr. Hillhouse turned quickly to his assistant. They had reached home, and were standing in their office.
"Nothing has been heard of Archie Voss since he left Mr. Birtwell's last night, and his poor mother is lying insensible, broken down by her fears."
"Oh, what of her? I was called for in the night, and you went in my place."
"I found Mrs. Voss in a state of coma, from which she had only partially recovered when I left at daylight. Mr. Voss is in great anxiety about his son, who has never stayed away all night before, except with the knowledge of his parents."
"Oh, that will all come right," said Dr. Hillhouse. "The young man went home, probably, with some friend. Had too much to drink, it may be, and wanted to sleep it off before coming into his mother's pressence."
"There is no doubt about his having drank too much," returned Dr. Angier. "I saw him going along the hall toward the street door in rather a bad way. He had his overcoat on and his hat in his hand."
"Was any one with him?"
"I believe not. I think he went out alone."
"Into that dreadful storm?"
The countenance of Dr. Hillhouse became very grave:
"And has not been heard of since?"
"Have the police been informed about it?"
"Yes. The police have had the matter in hand for several hours, but at the time I left not the smallest clue had been found."
"Rather a bad look," said Dr. Hillhouse. "What does Mr. Voss say about it?"
"His mind seems to dwell on two theories—one that Archie, who had a valuable diamond pin and a gold watch, may have wandered into some evil neighborhood, bewildered by the storm, and there been set upon and robbed—murdered perhaps. The other is that he has fallen in some out-of-the-way place, overcome by the cold, and lies buried in the snow. The fact that no police-officer reports having seen him or any one answering to his description during the night awakens the gravest fears."
"Still," replied Dr. Hillhouse, "it may all come out right. He may have gone to a hotel. There are a dozen theories to set against those of his friends."
After remaining silent for several moments, he said:
"The boy had been drinking too much?"
"Yes; and I judge from, his manner, when I saw him on his way to the street, that he was conscious of his condition and ashamed of it. He went quietly along, evidently trying not to excite observation, but his steps were unsteady and his sight not true, for in trying to thread his way along the hall he ran against one and another, and drew the attention he was seeking to avoid."
"Poor fellow!" said Dr. Hillhouse, with genuine pity. "He was always a nice boy. If anything has happened to him, I wouldn't give a dime for the life of his mother."
"Nor I. And even as it is, the shock already received may prove greater than her exhausted system can bear. I think you had better see her, doctor, as early as possible."
"There were no especially bad symptoms when you left, beyond the state of partial coma?"
"No. Her respiration had become easy, and she presented the appearance of one in a quiet sleep."
"Nature is doing all for her that can be done," returned Dr. Hillhouse. "I will see her as early as practicable. It's unfortunate that we have these two cases on our hands just at this time, and most unfortunate of all that I should have been compelled to go out so early this morning. That doesn't look right."
And the doctor held up his hand, which showed a nervous unsteadiness.
"It will pass off after you have taken breakfast."
"I hope so. Confound these parties! I should not have gone last night, and if I'd given the matter due consideration would have remained at home."
"You know what that means as well as I do;" and Dr. Hillhouse held up his tremulous hand again. "We can't take wine freely late at night and have our nerves in good order next morning. A life may depend on a steady hand to-day."
"It will all pass off at breakfast-time. Your good cup of coffee will make everything all right."
"Perhaps yea, perhaps nay," was answered. "I forgot myself last night, and accepted too many wine compliments. It was first this one and then that one, until, strong as my head is, I got more into it than should have gone there. We are apt to forget ourselves on these occasions. If I had only taken a glass or two, it would have made little difference. But my system was stimulated beyond its wont, and, I fear, will not be in the right tone to-day."
"You will have to bring it up, then, doctor," said the assistant. "To touch that work with an unsteady hand might be death."
"A glass or two of wine will do it; but when I operate, I always prefer to have my head clear. Stimulated nerves are not to be depended upon, and the brain that has wine in it is never a sure guide. A surgeon must see at the point of his instrument; and if there be a mote or any obscurity in his mental vision, his hand, instead of working a cure, may bring disaster."
"You operate at twelve?"
"You will be all right enough by that time; but it will not do to visit many patients. I am sorry about this case of child-bed fever; but I will see it again immediately after breakfast, and report."
While they were still talking the bell rang violently, and in a few moments Mr. Ridley came dashing into the office. His face wore a look of the deepest distress.
"Oh, doctor, he exclaimed can't you do something for my wife? She'll die if you don't. Oh, do go to her again!"
"Has any change taken place since we left?" asked Dr. Hillhouse, with a professional calmness it required some effort to assume.
"She is in great distress, moaning and sobbing and crying out as if in dreadful pain, and she doesn't know anything you say to her."
The two physicians looked at each other with sober faces.
"You'd better see her again," said Dr. Hillhouse, speaking to his assistant.
"No, no, no, Dr. Hillhouse! You must see her yourself. It is a case of life and death!" cried out the distracted husband. "The responsibility is yours, and I must and will hold you to that responsibility. I placed my wife in your charge, not in that of this or any other man."
Mr. Ridley was beside himself with fear. At first Dr. Hillhouse felt like resenting this assault, but he controlled himself.
"You forget yourself, Mr. Ridley," he answered in a repressed voice. "We do not help things by passion or intemperance of language. I saw your wife less than half an hour ago, and after giving the utmost care to the examination of her case made the best prescription in my power. There has not been time for the medicines to act yet. I know how troubled you must feel, and can pardon your not very courteous bearing; but there are some things that can and some things that cannot be done. There are good reasons why it will not be right for me to return to your house now—reasons affecting the safety, it may be the life, of another, while my not going back with you can make no difference to Mrs. Ridley. Dr. Angier is fully competent to report on her condition, and I can decide on any change of treatment that may be required as certainly as if I saw her myself. Should he find any change for the worse, I will consider it my duty to see her without delay."
"Don't neglect her, for God's sake, doctor!" answered Mr. Ridley, in a pleading voice. His manner had grown subdued. "Forgive my seeming discourtesy. I am wellnigh distracted. If I lose her, I lose my hold on everything. Oh, doctor, you cannot know how much is at stake. God help me if she dies!"
"My dear sir, nothing in our power to do shall be neglected. Dr. Angier will go back with you; and if, on his return, I am satisfied that there is a change for the worse, I will see your wife without a moment's delay. And in the mean time, if you wish to call in another physician, I shall be glad to have you do so. Fix the time for consultation at any hour before half-past ten o'clock, and I will meet him. After that I shall be engaged professionally for two or three hours."
Dr. Angier returned with Mr. Ridley, and Dr. Hillhouse went to his chamber to make ready for breakfast. His hands were so unsteady as he made his toilette for the day that, in the face of what he had said to his assistant only a little while before, he poured himself a glass of wine and drank it off, remarking aloud as he did so, as if apologizing for the act to some one invisibly present:
"I can't let this go on any longer."
The breakfast-bell rang, and the doctor sat down to get the better nerve-sustainer of a good meal. But even as he reached his hand for the fragrant coffee that his wife had poured for him, he felt a single dull throb in one of his temples, and knew too well its meaning. He did not lift the coffee to his mouth, but sat with a grave face and an unusually quiet manner. He had made a serious mistake, and he knew it. That glass of wine had stimulated the relaxed nerves of his stomach too suddenly, and sent a shock to the exhausted brain. A slight feeling of nausea was perceived and then came another throb stronger than the first, and with a faint suggestion of pain. This was followed by a sense of physical depression and discomfort.
"What's the matter, doctor?" asked his wife, who saw something unusual in his manner.
"A feeling here that I don't just like," he replied, touching his temple with a finger.
"Not going to have a headache?"
"I trust not. It would be a bad thing for me today."
He slowly lifted his cup of coffee and sipped a part of it.
"Late suppers and late hours may do for younger people," said Mrs. Hillhouse. "I feel wretched this morning, and am not surprised that your nerves are out of order, nor that you should be threatened with headache."
The doctor did not reply. He sipped his coffee again, but without apparent relish, and, instead of eating anything, sat in an unusually quiet manner and with a very sober aspect of countenance.
"I don't want a mouthful of breakfast," said Mrs. Hillhouse, pushing away her plate.
"Nor I," replied the doctor; "but I can't begin to-day on an empty stomach."
And he tried to force himself to take food, but made little progress in the effort.
"It's dreadful about Archie Voss," said Mrs. Hillhouse.
"Oh he'll come up all right," returned her husband, with some impatience in his voice.
"I hope so. But if he were my son, I'd rather see him in his grave than as I saw him last night."
"It's very easy to talk in that way; but if Archie were your son, you'd not be very long in choosing between death and a glass or two of wine more than he had strength to carry."
"If he were my son," replied the doctor's wife, "I would do all in my power to keep him away from entertainments where liquor is served in such profusion. The danger is too great."
"He would have to take his chances with the rest," replied the doctor. "All that we could possibly do would be to teach him moderation and self-denial."
"If there is little moderation and self-denial among the full-grown men and women who are met on these occasions, what can be expected from lads and young men?"
The doctor shrugged his shoulders, but made no reply.
"We cannot shut our eyes to the fact," continued his wife, "that this free dispensation of wine to old and young is an evil of great magnitude, and that it is doing a vast amount of harm."
The doctor still kept silent. He was not in a mood for discussing this or any other social question. His mind was going in another direction, and his thoughts were troubling him. Dr. Hillhouse was a surgeon of great experience, and known throughout the country for his successful operations in some of the most difficult and dangerous cases with which the profession has to deal. On this particular day, at twelve o'clock, he had to perform an operation of the most delicate nature, involving the life or death of a patient.
He might well feel troubled, for he knew, from signs too well understood, that when twelve o'clock came, and his patient lay helpless and unconscious before him, his hand would not be steady nor his brain, clear. Healthy food would not restore the natural vigor which stimulation had weakened, for he had no appetite for food. His stomach turned away from it with loathing.
By this time the throb in his temple had become a stroke of pain. While still sitting at the breakfast-table Dr. Angier returned from his visit to Mrs. Ridley. Dr. Hillhouse saw by the expression of his face that he did not bring a good report.
"How is she?" he asked.
"In a very bad way," replied Dr. Angier.
"Intense pain, rigors, hurried respiration and pulse up to a hundred and twenty. It looks like a case of puerperal peritonitis."
Dr. Hillhouse started from the table; the trouble on his face grew deeper.
"You had better see her with as little delay as possible," said Dr. Angier.
"Did you make any new prescription?"
Dr. Hillhouse shut his lips tightly and knit his brows. He stood irresolute for several moments.
"Most unfortunate!" he ejaculated. Then, going into his office, he rang the bell and ordered his carriage brought round immediately.
Dr. Angier had made no exaggerated report of Mrs. Ridley's condition. Dr. Hillhouse found that serious complications were rapidly taking place, and that all the symptoms indicated inflammation of the peritoneum. The patient was in great pain, though with less cerebral disturbance than when he had seen her last. There was danger, and he knew it. The disease had taken on a form that usually baffles the skill of our most eminent physicians, and Dr. Hillhouse saw little chance of anything but a fatal termination. He could do nothing except to palliate as far as possible the patient's intense suffering and endeavor to check farther complications. But he saw little to give encouragement.
Mr. Ridley, with pale, anxious face, and eyes in which, were pictured the unutterable anguish of his soul, watched Dr. Hillhouse as he sat by his wife's bedside with an eager interest and suspense that was painful to see. He followed him when he left the room, and his hand closed on his arm with a spasm as the door shut behind them.
"How is she, doctor?" he asked, in a hoarse, panting whisper.
"She is very sick, Mr. Ridley," replied Dr. Hillhouse. "It would be wrong to deceive you."
The pale, haggard face of Mr. Ridley grew whiter.
"Oh, doctor," he gasped, "can nothing be done?"
"I think we had better call in another physician," replied the doctor. "In the multitude of counselors there is wisdom. Have you any choice?"
But Mr. Ridley had none.
"Shall it be Dr. Ainsworth? He has large experience in this class of diseases."
"I leave it entirely with you, Dr. Hillhouse. Get the best advice and help the city affords, and for God's sake save my wife."
The doctor went away, and Mr. Ridley, shaking with nervous tremors, dropped weak and helpless into a chair and bending forward until his head rested on his knees, sat crouching down, an image of suffering and despair.
"ELLIS, my son."
There was a little break and tremor in the voice. The young man addressed was passing the door of his mother's room, and paused on hearing his name.
"What is it?" he asked, stepping inside and looking curiously into his mother's face, where he saw a more than usually serious expression.
"Sit down, Ellis; I want to say a word to you before going to Mrs. Birtwell's."
The lady had just completed her toilette, and was elegantly dressed for an evening party. She was a handsome, stately-looking woman, with dark hair through which ran many veins of silver, large, thoughtful eyes and a mouth of peculiar sweetness.
The young man took a chair, and his mother seated herself in front of him.
The tremor still remained in her voice.
"Well, what is it?"
The young man assumed a careless air, but was not at ease.
"There is a good old adage, my son, the remembrance of which Has saved many a one in the hour of danger: Forewarned, forearmed."
"Oh, then you think we are going into danger to-night?" he answered, in a light tone.
"I am sorry to say that we are going where some will find themselves in great peril," replied the mother, her manner growing more serious; "and it is because of this that I wish to say a word or two now."
"Very well, mother; say on."
He moved uneasily in his chair, and showed signs of impatience.
"You must take it kindly, Ellis, and remember that it is your mother who is speaking, your best and truest friend in all the world."
"Good Heavens, mother! what are you driving at? One would think we were going into a howling wilderness, among savages and wild beasts, instead of into a company of the most cultured and refined people in a Christian city."
"There is danger everywhere, my son," the mother replied, with increasing sobriety of manner, "and the highest civilization of the day has its perils as well as the lowest conditions of society. The enemy hides in ambush everywhere—in the gay drawing-room as well as in the meanest hovel."
She paused, and mother and son looked into each other's faces in silence for several moments. Then the former said:
"I must speak plainly, Ellis. You are not as guarded as you should be on these occasions. You take wine too freely."
"Oh, mother!" His voice was, half surprised, half angry. A red flush mounted to cheeks and forehead. Rising, he walked the room in an agitated manner, and then came and sat down. The color had gone out of his face:
"How could you say so, mother? You do me wrong. It is a mistake."
The lady shook her head:
"No, my son, it is true. A mother's eyes rarely deceive her. You took wine too freely both at Mrs. Judson's and Mrs. Ingersoll's, and acted so little like my gentlemanly, dignified son that my cheeks burned and my heart ached with mortification. I saw in other eyes that looked at you both pity and condemnation. Ah, my son! there was more of bitterness in that for a mother's heart than you will ever comprehend."
Her voice broke into a sob.
"My dear, dear mother," returned the young man, exhibiting much distress, "you and others exaggerated what you saw. I might have been a trifle gay, and who is not after a glass or two of champagne? I was no gayer than the rest. When young people get together, and one spurs another on they are apt to grow a little wild. But to call high spirits, even noisy high spirits, intoxication is unjust. You must not be too hard on me, mother, nor let your care for your son lead you into needless apprehensions. I am in no danger here. Set your heart at rest on that score."
But this was impossible. Mrs. Whitford knew there was danger, and that of the gravest character. Two years before, her son had come home from college, where he had graduated with all the honors her heart could desire, a pure, high-toned young man, possessing talents of no common order. His father wished him to study law; and as his own inclinations led in that direction, he went into the office of one of the best practitioners in the city, and studied for his profession with the same thoroughness that had distinguished him while in college. He had just been admitted to the bar.
For the first year after his return home Mrs. Whitford saw nothing in her son to awaken uneasiness. His cultivated tastes and love of intellectual things held him above the enervating influences of the social life into which he was becoming more and more drawn. Her first feeling of uneasiness came when, at a large party given by one of her most intimate friends, she heard his voice ring out suddenly in the supper-room. Looking down the table, she saw him with a glass of champagne in his hand, which he was flourishing about in rather an excited way. There was a gay group of young girls around him, who laughed merrily at the sport he made. Mrs. Whitford's pleasure was gone for that evening. A shadow came down on the bright future of her son—a future to which her heart had turned with such proud anticipations. She was oppressed by a sense of humiliation. Her son had stepped down from his pedestal of dignified self-respect, and stood among the common herd of vulgar young men to whom in her eyes he had always been superior.
But greater than her humiliation were the fears of Mrs. Whitford. A thoughtful and observant woman, she had reason for magnifying the dangers that lay in the path of her son. The curse of more than one member of both her own and husband's family had been intemperance. While still a young man her father had lost his self-control, and her memory of him was a shadow of pain and sorrow. He died at an early age, the victim of an insatiable and consuming desire for drink. Her husband's father had been what is called a "free liver"—that is, a man who gave free indulgence to his appetites, eating and drinking to excess, and being at all times more or less under the influence of wine or spirits.
It was the hereditary taint that Mrs. Whitford dreaded. Here lay the ground of her deepest anxiety. She had heard and thought enough on this subject to know that parents transmit to their children an inclination to do the things they have done from habit—strong or weak, according to the power of the habit indulged. If the habit be an evil one, then the children are in more than common danger, and need the wisest care and protection. She knew, also, from reading and observation, that an evil habit of mind or body which did not show itself in the second generation would often be reproduced in the third, and assert a power that it required the utmost strength of will and the greatest watchfulness to subdue.
And so, when her son, replying to her earnest warning, said, "I am in no danger. Set your heart at rest," she knew better—knew that a deadly serpent was in the path he was treading. And she answered him with increasing earnestness:
"The danger may be far greater than you imagine, Ellis. It is greater than you imagine."
Her voice changed as she uttered the last sentence into a tone that was almost solemn.
"You are talking wildly," returned the young man, "and pay but a poor compliment to your son's character and strength of will. In danger of becoming a sot!—for that is what you mean. If you were not my mother, I should be angry beyond self-control."
"Ellis," said Mrs. Whitford, laying her hand upon the arm of her son and speaking with slow impressiveness, "I am older than you are by nearly thirty years, have seen more of life than you have, and know some things that you do not know. I have your welfare at heart more deeply than any other being except God. I know you better in some things than you know yourself. Love makes me clear-seeing. And this is why I am in such earnest with you to-night. Ellis, I want a promise from you. I ask it in the name of all that is dearest to you—in my name—in the name of Blanche—in the name of God!"
All the color had, gone out of Mrs. Whitford's face, and she stood trembling before her son.
"You frighten me, mother," exclaimed the young man. "What do you mean by all this? Has any one been filling your mind with lies about me?"
"No; none would dare speak to me of you in anything but praise, But I want you to promise to-night, Ellis. I must have that, and then my heart will be at ease. It will be a little thing for you, but for me rest and peace and confidence in the place of terrible anxieties."
"Promise! What? Some wild fancies have taken hold of you."
"No wild fancies, but a fear grounded in things of which I would not speak. Ellis, I want you to give up the use of wine."
The young man did not answer immediately. All the nervous restlessness he had exhibited died out in a moment, and he stood very still, the ruddy marks of excitement going out of his face. His eyes were turned from his mother and cast upon the floor.
"And so it has come to this," he said, huskily, and in a tone of humiliation. "My mother thinks me in danger of becoming a drunkard—thinks me so weak that I cannot be trusted to take even a glass of wine."
"Ellis!" Mrs. Whitford again laid her hand upon the arm of her son. "Ellis," her voice had fallen to deep whisper, "if I must speak, I must. There are ancestors who leave fatal legacies to the generations that come after them, and you are one accursed by such a legacy. There is a taint in your blood, a latent fire that a spark may kindle into a consuming flame."
She panted as she spoke with hurried utterance. "My father!" exclaimed the young man, with an indignant flash in his eyes.
"No, no, no! I don't mean that. But there is a curse that descends to the third and fourth generation," replied Mrs. Whitford, "and you have the legacy of that curse. But it will be harmless unless with your own hand you drag it down, and this is why I ask you to abstain from wine. Others may be safe, but for you there is peril."
"A scarecrow, a mere fancy, a figment of some fanatic's brain;" and Ellis Whitford rejected the idea in a voice full of contempt.
But the pallor and solemnity of his mother's face warned him that such a treatment of her fears could not allay them. Moreover, the hint of ancestral disgrace had shocked his family pride.
"A sad and painful truth," Mrs. Whitford returned, "and one that it will be folly for you to ignore. You do not stand in the same freedom in which many others stand. That is your misfortune. But you can no more disregard the fact than can one born with a hereditary taint of consumption in his blood disregard the loss of health and hope to escape the fatal consequences. There is for every one of us 'a sin that doth easily beset,' a hereditary inclination that must be guarded and denied, or it will grow and strengthen until it becomes a giant to enslave us. Where your danger lies I have said; and if you would be safe, set bars and bolts to the door of appetite, and suffer not your enemy to cross the threshold, of life."
Mrs. Whitford spoke with regaining calmness, but in tones of solemn admonition.
A long silence followed, broken at length by the young man, who said, in a choking, depressed voice that betrayed a quaver of impatience:
"I'm sorry for all this. That your fears are groundless I know, but you are none the less tormented by them. What am I to do? To spare you pain I would sacrifice almost anything, but this humiliation is more than I am strong enough to encounter. If, as you say, there has been intemperance in our family, it is not a secret locked up in your bosom. Society knows all about the ancestry of its members, who and what the fathers and grandfathers were, and we have not escaped investigation. Don't touch wine, you say. Very well. I go to Mrs. Birtwell's to-night. Young and old, men and women, all are partakers, but I stand aloof—I, of all the guests, refuse the hospitality I have pretended to accept. Can I do this without attracting attention or occasioning remark? No; and what will be said? Simply this—that I know my danger and am afraid; that there is in my blood the hereditary taint of drunkenness, and that I dare not touch a glass of wine. Mother, I am not strong enough to brave society on such an issue, and a false one at that. To fear and fly does not belong to my nature. A coward I despise. If there is danger in my way and it is right for me to go forward in that way, I will walk steadily on, and fight if I must. I am not a craven, but a man. If the taint of which you speak is in my blood, I will extinguish it. If I am in danger, I will not save myself by flight, but by conquest. The taint shall not go down to another generation; it shall be removed in this."
He spoke with a fine enthusiasm kindling over his handsome face, and his mother's heart beat with a pride that for the moment was stronger than fear.
"Ask of me anything except to give up my self-respect and my manliness," he added. "Say that you wish me to remain at home, and I will not go to the party."
"No. I do not ask that. I wish you to go. But—"
"If I go, I must do as the rest, and you must have faith in me. Forewarned, forearmed. I will heed your admonition."
So the interview ended, and mother and son went to the grand entertainment at Mr. Birtwell's. Ellis did mean to heed his mother's admonition. What she had said, about the danger in which he stood had made a deeper impression on him than Mrs. Whitford thought. But he did not propose to heed by abstinence, but by moderation. He would be on guard and always ready for the hidden foe, if such a foe really existed anywhere but in his mother's fancy.
"Ah, Mrs. Whitford! Glad to see you this evening;" and the Rev. Mr. Brantley Elliott gave the lady a graceful and cordial bow. "Had the pleasure of meeting your son a few moments ago—a splendid young man, if you will pardon me for saying so. How much a year has improved him!"
Mrs. Whitford bowed her grateful acknowledgment.
"Just been admitted to the bar, I learn," said Mr. Elliott.
"Yes, sir. He has taken his start in life."
"And will make his mark, or I am mistaken. You have reason to feel proud of him, ma'am."
"That she has," spoke out Dr. Hillhouse, who came up at the moment. "When so many of our young men are content to be idle drones—to let their fathers achieve eminence or move the world by the force of thought and will—it is gratifying to see one of their number taking his place in the ranks and setting his face toward conquest. When the sons of two-thirds of our rich men are forgotten, or remembered only as idlers or nobodies, or worse, your son will stand among the men who leave their mark upon the generations."
"If he escapes the dangers that lie too thickly in the way of all young men," returned Mrs. Whitford, speaking almost involuntarily of what was in her heart, and in a voice that betrayed more concern than she had meant to express.
The doctor gave a little shrug, but replied:
"His earnest purpose in life will be his protection, Mrs. Whitford. Work, ambition, devotion to a science or profession have in them an aegis of safety. The weak and the idle are most in danger."
"It is wrong, I have sometimes thought," said Mrs. Whitford speaking both to the physician and the clergyman, "for society to set so many temptations before its young men—the seed, as some one has forcibly said, of the nation's future harvest."
"Society doesn't care much for anything but its own gratification," replied Dr. Hillhouse, "and says as plainly as actions can do it 'After me the deluge.'"
"Rather hard on society," remarked Mr. Elliott.
"Now take, for instance, its drinking customs, its toleration and participation in the freest public and private dispensation of intoxicating liquors to all classes, weak or strong, young or old. Is there not danger in this—great danger? I think I understand you, Mrs. Whitford."
"Yes, doctor, you understand me;" and dropping her voice to a lower tone, Mrs. Whitford added: "There are wives and mothers and sisters not a few here to-night whose hearts, though they may wear smiles on their faces, are ill at ease, and some of them will go home from these festivities sadder than when they came."
"Right about that," said the doctor to himself as he turned away, a friend of Mrs. Whitford's having come up at the moment and interrupted the conversation—"right about that; and you, I greatly fear, will be one of the number."
"Our friend isn't just herself to-night," remarked Mr. Elliott as he and Dr. Hillhouse moved across the room. "A little dyspeptic, maybe, and so inclined to look on the dark side of things. She has little cause, I should think, to be anxious for her own son or husband. I never saw Mr. Whitford the worse for wine; and as for Ellis, his earnest purpose in life, as you so well said just now, will hold him above the reach of temptation."
"On the contrary, she has cause for great anxiety," returned Dr. Hillhouse.
"You surprise me. What reason have you for saying this?"
"A professional one—a reason grounded in pathology."
"Ah?" and Mr. Elliott looked gravely curious.
"The young man inherits, I fear, a depraved appetite."
"Oh no. I happen to be too well acquainted with his father to accept that view of the case."
"His father is well enough," replied Dr. Hillhouse, "but as much could not be said of either of his grandfathers while living. Both drank freely, and one of them died a confirmed drunkard."
"If the depraved appetite has not shown itself in the children, it will hardly trouble the grandchildren," said Mr. Elliott. "Your fear is groundless, doctor. If Ellis were my son, I should feel no particular anxiety about him."
"If he were your son," replied Dr. Hillhouse, "I am not so sure about your feeling no concern. Our personal interest in a thing is apt to give it a new importance. But you are mistaken as to the breaking of hereditary influences in the second generation. Often hereditary peculiarities will show themselves in the third and fourth generation. It is no uncommon thing to see the grandmother's red hair reappear in her granddaughter, though her own child's hair was as black as a raven's wing. A crooked toe, a wart, a malformation, an epileptic tendency, a swart or fair complexion, may disappear in all the children of a family, and show itself again in the grand-or great-grandchildren. Mental and moral conditions reappear in like manner. In medical literature we have many curious illustrations of this law of hereditary transmission and its strange freaks and anomalies."
"They are among the curiosities of your literature," said Mr. Elliott, speaking as though not inclined to give much weight to the doctor's views—"the exceptional and abnormal things that come under professional notice."
"The law of hereditary transmission," replied Dr. Hillhouse, "is as certain in its operation as the law of gravity. You may disturb or impede or temporarily suspend the law, but the moment you remove the impediment the normal action goes on, and the result is sure. Like produces like—that is the law. Always the cause is seen in the effect, and its character, quality and good or evil tendencies are sure to have a rebirth and a new life. It is under the action of this law that the child is cursed by the parent with the evil and sensual things he has made a part of himself through long indulgence."
There came at this moment a raid upon Mr. Elliott by three or four ladies, members of his congregation, who surrounded him and Dr. Hillhouse, and cut short their conversation.
Meanwhile, Ellis Whitford had already half forgotten his painful interview with his mother in the pleasure of meeting Blanche Birtwell, to whom he had recently become engaged. She was a pure and lovely young woman, inheriting her mother's personal beauty and refined tastes. She had been carefully educated and kept by her mother as much within the sphere of home as possible and out of society of the hoydenish girls who, moving in the so-called best circles, have the free and easy manners of the denizens of a public garden rather than the modest demeanor of unsullied maidenhood. She was a sweet exception to the loud, womanish, conventional girl we meet everywhere—on the street, in places, of public amusement and in the drawing-room—a fragrant human flower with the bloom of gentle girlhood on every unfolding leaf.
It was no slender tie that bound these lovers together. They had moved toward each other, drawn by an inner attraction that was irresistible to each; and when heart touched heart, their pulses took a common beat. The life of each had become bound up in the other, and their betrothal was no mere outward contract. The manly intellect and the pure heart had recognized each other, tender love had lifted itself to noble thought, and thought had grown stronger and purer as it felt the warmth and life of a new and almost divine inspiration. Ellis Whitford had risen to a higher level by virtue of this betrothal.
They were sitting in a bay-window, out of the crowd of guests, when a movement in the company was observed by Whitford. Knowing what it meant, he arose and offered his arm to Blanche. As he did so he became aware of a change in his companion, felt rather than seen; and yet, if he had looked closely into her face, a change in its expression would have been visible. The smile was still upon her beautiful lips, and the light and tenderness still in her eyes, but from both something had departed. It was as if an almost invisible film of vapor had drifted across the sun of their lives.
In silence they moved on to the supper-room—moved with the light and heavy-hearted, for, as Dr. Hillhouse had intimated, there were some there to whom that supper-room was regarded with anxiety and fear—wives and mothers and sisters who knew, alas! too well that deadly serpents lie hidden among the flowers of every banqueting-room.
How bright and joyous a scene it was! You did not see the trouble that lay hidden in so many hearts; the light and glitter, the flash and brilliancy, were too strong.
Reader, did you ever think of the power of spheres? The influence that goes out from an individual or mass of individuals, we mean—that subtle, invisible power that acts from one upon another, and which when aggregated is almost irresistible? You have felt it in a company moved by a single impulse which carried you for a time with the rest, though all your calmer convictions were in opposition to the movement. It has kept you silent by its oppressive power when you should have spoken out in a ringing protest, and it has borne you away on its swift or turbulent current when you should have stood still and been true to right. Again, in the company of good and true men, moved by the inspiration of some noble cause, how all your weakness and hesitation has died out! and you have felt the influence of that subtle sphere to which we refer.
Everywhere and at all times are we exposed to the action of these mental and moral spheres, which act upon and impress us in thousands of different ways, now carrying us along in some sudden public excitement in which passion drowns the voice of reason, and now causing us to drift in the wake of some stronger nature than our own whose active thought holds ours in a weak, assenting bondage.
You understand what we mean. Now take the pervading sphere of an occasion like the one we are describing, and do you not see that to go against it is possible only to persons of decided convictions and strong individuality? The common mass of men and women are absorbed into or controlled by its subtle power. They can no more set themselves against it, if they would, than against the rush of a swiftly-flowing river. To the young it is irresistible.
As Ellis Whitford, with Blanche leaning on his arm, gained the supper-room, he met the eyes of his mother, who was on the opposite side of the table, and read in them a sign of warning. Did it awaken a sense of danger and put him on his guard? No; it rather stirred a feeling of anger. Could she not trust him among gentlemen and ladies—not trust him with Blanche Birtwell by his side? It hurt his pride and wounded his self-esteem.
He was in the sphere of liberty and social enjoyment and among those who did not believe that wine was a mocker, but something to make glad the heart and give joy to the countenance; and when it began to flow he was among the first to taste its delusive sweets. Blanche, for whom he poured a glass of champagne, took it from his hand, but with only half a smile on her lips, which was veiled by something so like pain or fear that Ellis felt as if the lights about him had suddenly lost a portion of their brilliancy. He stood holding his own glass, after just tasting its contents, waiting for Blanche to raise the sparkling liquor to her lips, but she seemed like one under the influence of a spell, not moving or responding.
BLANCHE still held the untasted wine in her hand, when her father, who happened to be near, filled a glass, and said as he bowed to her:
"Your good health, my daughter; and yours, Mr. Whitford," bowing to her companion also.
The momentary spell was broken. Blanche smiled back upon her father and raised the glass to her lips. The lights in the room seemed to Ellis to flash up again and blaze with a higher brilliancy. Never had the taste of wine seemed more delicious. What a warm thrill ran along his nerves! What a fine exhilaration quickened in his brain! The shadow which a moment before had cast a veil over the face of Blanche he saw no longer. It had vanished, or his vision was not now clear enough to discern its subtle texture.
"Take good care of Blanche," said Mr. Birtwell, in a light voice. "And you, pet, see that Mr. Whitford enjoys himself."
Blanche did not reply. Her father turned away. Eyes not veiled as Whitford's now were would have seen that the filmy cloud which had come over her face a little while before was less transparent, and sensibly dimmed its brightness.
Scarcely had Mr. Birtwell left them when Mr. Elliott, who had only a little while before heard of their engagement, said to Blanche in an undertone, and with one of his sweet paternal smiles:
"I must take a glass of wine with you, dear, in, commemoration of the happy event."
Mr. Elliott had not meant to include young Whitford in the invitation. The latter had spoken to a lady acquaintance who stood near him, and was saying a few words to her, thus disengaging Blanche. But observing that Mr. Elliott was talking to Blanche, he turned from the lady and joined her again. And, so Mr. Elliott had to say:
"We are going to have a glass of wine in honor of the auspicious event."
Three glasses were filled by the clergyman, and then he stood face to face with the young man and maiden, and each of them, as he said in a low, professional voice, meant for their ears alone, "Peace and blessing, my children!" drank to the sentiment. Whitford drained his glass, but Blanche only tasted the wine in hers.
Mr. Elliott stood for a few moments, conscious that something was out of accord. Then he remembered his conversation with Dr. Hillhouse a little while before, and felt an instant regret. He had noted the manner of Whitford as he drank, and the manner of Blanche as she put the wine to her lips. In the one case was an enjoyable eagerness, and in the other constraint. Something in the expression of the girl's face haunted and troubled him a long time afterward.
"Our young friend is getting rather gay," said Dr. Hillhouse to Mr. Elliott, half an hour afterward. He referred to Ellis Whitford, who was talking and laughing in a way that to some seemed a little too loud and boisterous. "I'm afraid for him," he added.
"Ah, yes! I remember what you were saying about his two grandfathers," returned the clergyman. "And you really think he may inherit something from them?"
"Don't you?" asked the doctor.
"Well, yes, of course. But I mean an inordinate desire for drink, a craving that makes indulgence perilous?"
"Yes; that is just what I do believe."
"If that be so, the case is a serious one. In taking wine with him a short time ago I noticed a certain enjoyable eagerness as he held the glass to his lips not often observed in our young men."
"You drank with him?" queried the doctor.
"Yes. He and Blanche Birtwell have recently become engaged, and I took some wine with them in compliment."
The doctor, instead of replying, became silent and thoughtful, and Mr. Elliott moved away among the crowd of guests.
"I am really sorry for Mrs. Whitford," said a lady with whom he soon became engaged in conversation.
"Why so?" asked the clergyman, betraying surprise.
"What's the matter? No family trouble, I hope?"
"Very serious trouble I should call it were it my own," returned the lady.
"I am pained to hear you speak so. What has occurred?"
"Haven't you noticed her son to-night? There! That was his laugh. He's been drinking too much. I saw his mother looking at him a little while ago with eyes so full of sorrow and suffering that it made my heart ache."
"Oh, I hope it's nothing," replied Mr. Elliott. "Young men will become a little gay on these occasions; we must expect that. All of them don't bear wine alike. It's mortifying to Mrs. Whitford, of course, but she's a stately woman, you know, and sensitive about proprieties."
Mr. Elliott did not wait for the lady's answer, but turned to address another person who came forward at the moment to speak to him.
"Sensitive about proprieties," said the lady to herself, with some feeling, as she stood looking down the room to where Ellis Whitford in a group of young men and women was giving vent to his exuberant spirits more noisily than befitted the place and occasion. "Mr. Elliott calls things by dainty names."
"I call that disgraceful," remarked an elderly lady, in a severe tone, as if replying to the other's thought.
"Young men will become a little gay on these occasions," said the person to whom she had spoken, with some irony in her tone. "So Mr. Elliott says."
"Mr. Elliott!" There was a tone of bitterness and rejection in the speaker's voice. "Mr. Elliott had better give our young men a safer example than he does. A little gay! A little drunk would be nearer the truth."
"Oh dear! such a vulgar word! We don't use it in good society, you know. It belongs to taverns and drinking-saloons—to coarse, common people. You must say 'a little excited,' 'a little gay,' but not drunk. That's dreadful!"
"Drunk!" said the other, with emphasis, but speaking low and for the ear only of the lady with whom she was talking. "We understand a great deal better the quality of a thing when we call it by its right name. If a young man drinks wine or brandy until he becomes intoxicated, as Whitford has done to-night, and we say he is drunk instead of exhilarated or a little gay, we do something toward making his conduct odious. We do not excuse, but condemn. We make it disgraceful instead of palliating the offence."
The lady paused, when her companion said:
"Look! Blanche Birtwell is trying to quiet him. Did you know they were engaged?"
"Then I pity her from my heart. A young man who hasn't self-control enough to keep himself sober at an evening party can't be called a very promising subject for a husband."
"She has placed her arm in his and is looking up into his face so sweetly. What a lovely girl she is! There! he's quieter already; and see, she is drawing him out of the group of young men and talking to him in such a bright, animated way."
"Poor child! it makes my eyes wet; and this is her first humiliating and painful duty toward her future husband. God pity and strengthen her is my heartfelt prayer. She will have need, I fear, of more than human help and comfort."
"You take the worst for granted?"
The lady drew a deep sigh:
"I fear the worst, and know something of what the worst means. There are few families of any note in our city," she added, after a slight pause, "in which sorrow has not entered through the door of intemperance. Ah! is not the name of the evil that comes in through this door Legion? and we throw it wide open and invite both young and old to enter. We draw them by various allurements. We make the way of this door broad and smooth and flowery, full of pleasantness and enticement. We hold out our hands, we smile with encouragement, we step inside of the door to show them the way."
In her ardor the lady half forgot herself, and stopped suddenly as she observed that two or three of the company who stood near had been listening.
Meantime, Blanche Birtwell had managed to get Whitford away from the table, and was trying to induce him to leave the supper-room. She hung on his arm and talked to him in a light, gay manner, as though wholly unconscious of his condition. They had reached the door leading into the hall, when Whitford stopped, and drawing back, said:
"Oh, there's Fred Lovering, my old college friend. I didn't know he was in the city." Then he called out, in a voice so loud as to cause many to turn and look at him, "Fred! Fred! Why, how are you, old boy? This is an unexpected pleasure."
The young man thus spoken to made his way through the crowd of guests, who were closely packed together in that part of the room, some going in and some trying to get out, and grasping the hand of Whitford, shook it with great cordiality.
"Miss Birtwell," said the latter, introducing Blanche. "But you know each other, I see."
"Oh yes, we are old friends. Glad to see you looking so well, Miss Birtwell."
Blanche bowed with cold politeness, drawing a little back as she did so, and tightening her hold on Whitford's arm.
Lovering fixed his eyes on the young lady with an admiring glance, gazing into her face so intently that her color heightened. She turned partly away, an expression of annoyance on her countenance, drawing more firmly on the arm of her companion as she did so, and taking a step toward the door. But Whitford was no longer passive to her will.
Any one reading the face of Lovering would have seen a change in its expression, the evidence of some quickly formed purpose, and he would have seen also something more than simple admiration of the beautiful girl leaning on the arm of his friend. His manner toward Whitford became more hearty.
"My dear old friend," he said, catching up the hand he had dropped and giving it a tighter grip than before, "this is a pleasure. How it brings back our college days! We must have a glass of wine in memory of the good old times. Come!"
And he moved toward the table. With an impulse she could not restrain, Blanche drew back toward the door, pulling strongly on Whitford's arm:
"Come, Ellis; I am faint with the heat of this room. Take me out, please."
Whitford looked into her face, and saw that it had grown suddenly pale. If his perceptions had not been obscured by drink, he would have taken her out instantly. But his mind was not clear.
"Just a moment, until I can get you a glass of wine," he said, turning hastily from her. Lovering was filling three glasses as he reached the table. Seizing one of them, he went back quickly to Blanche; but she waved her hand, saying: "No, no, Ellis; it isn't wine that I need, only cooler air."
"Don't be foolish," replied Whitford, with visible impatience. "Take a few sips of wine, and you will feel better."
Lovering, with a glass in each hand, now joined them. He saw the change in Blanche's face, and having already observed the exhilarated condition of Whitford, understood its meaning. Handing the latter one of the glasses, he said:
"Here's to your good health, Miss Birtwell, and to yours, Ellis," drinking as he spoke. Whitford drained his glass, but Blanche did not so much as wet her lips. Her face had grown paler.
"If you do not take me out, I must go alone," she said, in a voice that made itself felt. There was in it a quiver of pain and a pulse of indignation.
Lovering lost nothing of this. As his college friend made his way from the room with Blanche on his arm, he stood for a moment in an attitude of deep thought, then nodded two or three times and said to himself:
"That's how the land lies. Wine in and wit out, and Blanche troubled about it already. Engaged, they say. All right. But glass is sharp, and love's fetters are made of silk. Will the edge be duller if the glass is filled with wine? I trow not."
And a gleam of satisfaction lit up the young man's face.
With an effort strong and self-controlling for one so young, Blanche Birtwell laid her hand upon her troubled heart as soon as she was out of the supper-room, and tried to still its agitation. The color came back to her cheeks and some of the lost brightness to her eyes, but she was not long in discovering that the glass of wine taken with his college friend had proved too much for the already confused brain of her lover who began talking foolishly and acting in a way that mortified and pained her exceedingly. She now sought to get him into the library and out of common observation. Her father had just received from France and England some rare books filled with art illustrations, and she invited him to their examination. But he was feeling too social for that.
"Why, no, pet." He made answer with a fond familiarity he would scarcely have used if they had been alone instead of in a crowded drawing-room, touching her cheek playfully with his fingers as he spoke. "Not now. We'll reserve that pleasure for another time. This is good enough for me;" and he swung his arms around and gave a little whoop like an excited rowdy.
A deep crimson dyed for a moment the face of Blanche. In a moment afterward it was pale as ashes. Whitford saw the death-like change, and it partially roused him to a sense of his condition.
"Of course I'll go to the library if your heart's set on it," he said, drawing her arm in his and taking her out of the room with a kind of flourish. Many eyes turned on them. In some was surprise, in some merriment and in some sorrow and pain.
"Now for the books," he cried as he placed Blanche in a large chair at the library-table. "Where are they?"
Self-control has a masterful energy when the demand for its exercise is imperative. The paleness went out of Blanche's face, and a tender light came into her eyes as she looked up at Whitford and smiled on him with loving glances.
"Sit down," she said in a firm, low, gentle voice.
The young man felt the force of her will and sat down by her side, close to the table, on which a number of books were lying.
"I want to show you Dore's illustrations of Don Quixote;" and Blanche opened a large folio volume.
Whitford had grown more passive. He was having a confused impression that all was not just right with him, and that it was better to be in the library looking over books and pictures with Blanche than in the crowded parlors, where there was so much to excite his gayer feelings. So he gave himself up to the will of his betrothed, and tried to feel an interest in the pictures she seemed to admire so much.
They had been so engaged for over twenty minutes, Whitford beginning to grow dull and heavy as the exhilaration of wine died out, and less responsive to the efforts made by Blanche to keep him interested, when Lovering came into the library, and, seeing them, said, with a spur of banter in his voice:
"Come, come, this will never do! You're a fine fellow, Whitford, and I don't wonder that Miss Birtwell tolerates you, but monopoly is not the word to-night. I claim the privilege of a guest and a word or two with our fair hostess."
And he held out his arm to Blanche, who had risen from the table. She could do no less than take it. He drew her from the room. As they passed out of the door Blanche cast a look back at Whitford. Those who saw it were struck by its deep concern.
"Confound his impudence!" ejaculated Ellis Whitford as he saw Blanche vanish through the library door. Rising from the table he stood with an irresolute air, then went slowly from the apartment and mingled with the company, moving about in an aimless kind of way, until he drifted again into the supper-room, the tables of which the waiters were constantly replenishing, and toward which a stream of guests still flowed. The company here was noisier now than when he left it a short time before. Revelry had taken the place of staid propriety. Glasses clinked like a chime of bells, voices ran up into the higher keys, and the loud musical laugh of girls mingled gaily with the deeper tones of their male companions. Young maidens with glasses of sparkling champagne or rich brown and amber sherry in their hands were calling young men and boys to drink with them, and showing a freedom and abandon of manner that marked the degree of their exhilaration. Wine does not act in one way on the brain of a young man and in another way on the brain of a young woman. Girls of eighteen or twenty will become as wild and free and forgetful of propriety as young men of the same age if you bring them together at a feast and give them wine freely.
We do not exaggerate the scene in Mr. Birtwell's supper-room, but rather subdue the picture. As Whitford drew nigh the supper-room the sounds of boisterous mirth struck on his ears and stirred him like the rattle of a drum. The heaviness went out of his limbs, his pulse beat more quickly, he felt a new life in his veins. As he passed in his name was called in a gay voice that he did not at first recognize, and at the same moment a handsome young girl with flushed face and sparkling eyes came hastily toward him, and drawing her hand in his arm, said, in a loud familiar tone:
"You shall be my knight, Sir Ellis."
And she almost dragged him down the room to where half a dozen girls and young men were having a wordy contest about something. He was in the midst of the group before he really understood who the young lady was that had laid such violent hands upon him. He then recognized her as the daughter of a well-known merchant. He had met her a few times in company, and her bearing toward him had always before been marked by a lady-like dignity and reserve. Now she was altogether another being, loud, free and familiar almost to rudeness.
"You must have some wine, Sir Knight, to give you mettle for the conflict," she said, running to the table and filling a glass, which she handed to him with the air of a Hebe.
Whitford did not hesitate, but raised the glass to his lips and emptied it at a single draught.
"Now for knight or dragon, my lady fair. I am yours to do or die," he exclaimed, drawing up his handsome form with a mock dignity, at which a loud cheer broke out from the group of girls and young men that was far more befitting a tavern-saloon than a gentleman's dining-room.
Louder and noisier this little group became, Whitford, under a fresh supply of wine, leading in the boisterous mirth. One after another, attracted by the gayety and laughter, joined the group, until it numbered fifteen or twenty half-intoxicated young men and women, who lost themselves in a kind of wild saturnalia.
It was past twelve o'clock when Mrs. Whitford entered the dining-room, where the noise and laughter were almost deafening. Her face was pale, her lips closely compressed and her forehead contracted with pain. She stood looking anxiously through the room until she saw her son leaning against the wall, with a young lady standing in front of him holding a glass in her hand which she was trying to induce him to take. One glance at the face of Ellis told her too plainly his sad condition.
To go to him and endeavor to get him away Mrs. Whitford feared might arouse his latent pride and make him stubborn to her wishes.
"You see that young man standing against the wall?" she said to one of the waiters.
"Mr. Whitford do you mean?" asked the waiter.
"Yes," she replied. "Go to him quietly, and say that his mother is going home and wants him. Speak low, if you please."
Mrs. Whitford stood with a throbbing heart as the waiter passed down the room. The tempter was before her son offering the glass of wine, which he yet refused. She saw him start and look disconcerted as the waiter spoke to him, then wave the glass of wine aside. But he did not stir from him place.
The waiter came back to Mrs. Whitford:
"He says don't wait for him, ma'am."
The poor mother felt an icy coldness run along her nerves. For some moments she stood irresolute, and then went back to the parlor. She remained there for a short time, masking her countenance as best she could, and then returned to the dining-room, where noise and merriment still prevailed. She did not at first see her son, though her eyes went quickly from face to face and from form to form. She was about retiring, under the impression that he was not there, when the waiter to whom she had spoken before said to her:
"Are you looking for Mr. Whitford?"
There was something in his voice that made her heart stand still.
"Yes," she replied.
"You will find him at the lower end of the room, just in the corner," said the man.
Mrs. Whitford made her way to the lower end of the room. Ellis was sitting in a chair, stupid and maudlin, and two or three thoughtless girls were around his chair laughing at his drunken efforts to be witty. The shocked mother did not speak to him, but shrunk away and went gliding from the room. At the door she said to the waiter who had followed her out, drawn by a look she gave him:
"I will be ready to go in five minutes, and I want Mr. Whitford to go with me. Get him down to the door as quietly as you can."
The waiter went back into the supper-room, and with a tact that came from experience in cases similar to this managed to get the young man away without arousing his opposition.
Five minutes afterward, as Mrs. Whitford sat in her carriage at the door of Mr. Birtwell's palace home, her son was pushed in, half resisting, by two waiters, so drunk that his wretched mother had to support him with her arm all the way home. Is it any wonder that in her aching heart the mother cried out, "Oh, that he had died a baby on my breast!"
AMONG the guests at Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell's was an officer holding a high rank in the army, named Abercrombie. He had married, many years before, a lady of fine accomplishments and rare culture who was connected with one of the oldest families in New York. Her grandfather on her mother's side had distinguished himself as an officer in the Revolutionary war; and on her father's side she could count statesmen and lawyers whose names were prominent in the early history of our country.
General Abercrombie while a young man had fallen into the vice of the army, and had acquired the habit of drinking.
The effects of alcohol are various. On some they are seen in the bloated flesh and reddened eyes. Others grow pale, and their skin takes on a dead and ashen hue. With some the whole nervous system becomes shattered; while with others organic derangements, gout, rheumatism and kindred evils attend the assimilation of this poison.
Quite as varied are the moral and mental effects of alcoholic disturbance. Some are mild and weak inebriates, growing passive or stupid in their cups. Others become excited, talkative and intrusive; others good-natured and merry; not a few coarse, arbitrary, brutal and unfeeling; and some jealous, savage and fiend-like.
Of the last-named class was General Abercrombie. When sober, a kinder, gentler or more considerate man toward his wife could hardly be found; but when intoxicated, he was half a fiend, and seemed to take a devilish delight in tormenting her. It had been no uncommon thing for him to point a loaded pistol at her heart, and threaten to shoot her dead if she moved or cried out; to hold a razor at his own throat, or place the keen edge, close to hers; to open a window at midnight and threaten to fling himself to the ground, or to drag her across the floor, swearing that they should take the leap together.
For years the wretched wife had borne all this, and worse if possible, hiding her dreadful secret as best she could, and doing all in her power to hold her husband, for whom she retained a strong attachment, away from temptation. Friends who only half suspected the truth wondered that Time was so aggressive, taking the flash and merriment out of her beautiful eyes, the color and fullness from her cheeks, the smiles from her lips and the glossy, blackness from her hair.
"Mrs. Abercrombie is such a wreck," one would say on meeting her after a few years. "I would hardly have known her; and she doesn't look at all happy."
"I wonder if the general drinks as hard as ever?" would in all probability be replied to this remark, followed by the response:
"I was not aware that he was a hard drinker. He doesn't look like it."
"No, you would not suspect so much; but I am sorry to say that he has very little control over his appetite."
At which a stronger surprise would be expressed.
General Abercrombie was fifty years old, a large, handsome and agreeable man, and a favorite with his brother officers, who deeply regretted his weakness. As an officer his drinking habits rarely interfered with his duty. Somehow the discipline of the army had gained such a power over him as to hold him repressed and subordinate to its influence. It was only when official restraints were off that the devil had power to enter in and fully possess him.
A year before the time of which we are writing General Abercrombie had been ordered to duty in the north-eastern department. His headquarters were in the city where the characters we have introduced resided. Official standing gave him access to some of the wealthiest and best circles in the city, and his accomplished wife soon became a favorite with all who were fortunate enough to come into close relations with her. Among these was Mrs. Birtwell, the two ladies drawing toward each other with the magnetism of kindred spirits.
A short time before coming to the city General Abercrombie, after having in a fit of drunken insanity come near killing his wife, wholly abandoned the use of intoxicants of every kind. He saw in this his only hope. His efforts to drink guardedly and temperately had been fruitless. The guard was off the moment a single glass of liquor passed his lips, and, he came under the influence of an aroused appetite against which resolution set itself feebly and in vain.
Up to the evening of this party at Mr. Birtwell's General Abercrombie had kept himself free from wine, and people who knew nothing of his history wondered at his abstemiousness. When invited to drink, he declined in a way that left no room for the invitation to be repeated. He never went to private entertainments except in company with his wife, and then he rarely took any other lady to the supper-room.
The new hope born in the sad heart of Mrs. Abercrombie had grown stronger as the weeks and months went by. Never for so long a time had the general stood firm. It looked as, if he had indeed gained the mastery over an appetite which at one time seemed wholly to have enslaved him.
With a lighter heart than usual on such occasions, Mrs. Abercrombie made ready for the grand entertainment, paying more than ordinary attention to her toilette. Something of her old social and personal pride came back into life, giving her face and bearing the dignity and prestige worn in happier days. As she entered the drawing-room at Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell's, leaning on her husband's arm, a ripple of admiration was seen on many faces, and the question, "Who is she?" was heard on many lips. Mrs. Abercrombie was a centre of attraction that evening, and no husband could have been prouder of such a distinction for his wife than was the general. He, too, found himself an object of interest and attention. Mr. Birtwell was a man who made the most of his guests, and being a genuine parvenu, did not fail through any refinement of good breeding in advertising to each other the merits or achievements of those he favored with introductions. If he presented a man of letters to an eminent banker, he informed each in a word or two of the other's distinguished merits. An officer would be complimented on his rank or public service, a scientist on his last book or essay, a leading politician on his statesmanship. At Mr. Birtwell's you always found yourself among men with more in them than you had suspected, and felt half ashamed of your ignorance in regard to their great achievements.
General Abercrombie, like many others that evening, felt unusually well satisfied with himself. Mr. Birtwell complimented him whenever they happened to meet, sometimes on his public services and sometimes on the "sensation" that elegant woman Mrs. Abercrombie was making. He grew in his own estimation under the flattering attentions of his host, and felt a manlier pride swelling in his heart than he had for some time known. His bearing became more self-poised, his innate sense of strength more apparent. Here was a man among men.
This was the general's state of mind when, after an hour, or two of social intercourse, he entered the large supper-room, whither he escorted a lady. He had not seen his wife for half an hour. If she had been, as usual on such occasions, by his side, he would have been on guard. But the lady who leaned on his arm was not his good angel. She was a gay, fashionable woman, and as fond of good eating and drinking as any male epicure there. The general was polite and attentive, and as prompt as any younger gallant in the work of supplying his fair companion with the good things she was so ready to appropriate.
"Will you have a glass of champagne?"
Of course she would. Her eyebrows arched a little in surprise at the question. The general filled a glass and placed it in her hand. Did she raise it to her lips? No; she held it a little extended, looking at him with an expression which said, "I will wait for you."
For an instant General Abercrombie felt as if he were sinking through space. Darkness and fear were upon him. But there was no time for indecision. The lady stood holding her glass and looking at him fixedly. An instant and the struggle was over. He turned to the table and filled another glass. A smile and a bow, and then, a draught that sent the blood leaping along his veins with a hot and startled impulse.
Mrs. Abercrombie, who had entered the room a little while before, and was some distance from the place where her husband stood, felt at the moment a sudden chill and weight fall upon her heart. A gentleman who was talking to her saw her face grow pale and a look that seemed like terror come into he eyes.
"Are you ill, Mrs. Abercrombie?" he asked, in some alarm.
"No," she replied. "Only a slight feeling of faintness. It is gone now;" and she tried to recover herself.
"Shall I take you from the room?" asked the gentleman, seeing that the color did not come back to her face.
"Oh no, thank you."
"Let me give you a glass of wine."
But she waved her hand with a quick motion, saying, "Not wine; but a little ice water."
She drank, but the water did not take the whiteness from her lips nor restore the color to her cheeks. The look of dread or fear kept in her eyes, and her companion saw her glance up and down the room in a furtive way as if in anxious search for some one.
In a few moments Mrs. Abercrombie was able to rise in some small degree above the strange impression which had fallen upon her like the shadow of some passing evil; but the rarely flavored dishes, the choice fruits, confections and ices with which she was supplied scarcely passed her lips. She only pretended to eat. Her ease of manner and fine freedom of conversation were gone, and the gentleman who had been fascinated by her wit, intelligence and frank womanly bearing now felt an almost repellant coldness.
"You cannot feel well, Mrs. Abercrombie," he said. "The air is close and hot. Let me take you back to the parlors."
She did not reply, nor indeed seem to hear him. Her eyes had become suddenly arrested by some object a little way off, and were fixed upon it in a frightened stare. The gentleman turned and saw only her husband in lively conversation with a lady. He had a glass of wine in his hand, and was just raising it to his lips.
"Jealous!" was the thought that flashed through his mind. The position was embarrassing. What could he say? In the next moment intervening forms hid those of General Abercrombie and his fair companion. Still as a statue, with eyes that seemed staring into vacancy, Mrs. Abercrombie remained for some moments, then she drew her hand within the gentleman's arm and said in a low voice that was little more than a hoarse whisper:
"Thank you; yes, I will go back to the parlors."
They retired from the room without attracting notice.
"Can I do anything for you?" asked the gentleman as he seated her on a sofa in one of the bay-windows where she was partially concealed from observation.
"No, thank you," she answered, with regaining self-control. She then insisted on being left alone, and with a decision of manner that gave her attendant no alternative but compliance.
The gentleman immediately returned to the supper-room. As he joined the company there he met a friend to whom he said in a half-confidential way: "Do you know anything about General Abercrombie's relations with his wife?
"What do you mean?" inquired the friend, with evident surprise.
"I saw something just now that looks very suspicious."
"I came here with Mrs. Abercrombie a little while ago, and was engaged in helping her, when I saw her face grow deadly pale. Following her eyes, I observed them fixed on the general, who was chatting gayly and taking wine with a lady."
"What! taking wine did you say?"
The gentleman was almost as much surprised at the altered manner of his friend as he had been with that of Mrs. Abercrombie:
"Yes; anything strange in that?"
"Less strange than sad," was replied. "I don't wonder you saw the color go out of Mrs. Abercrombie's face."
"Why so? What does it mean?"
"It means sorrow and heartbreak."
"You surprise and pain me. I thought of the lady by his side, not of the glass of wine in his hand."
The two men left the crowded supper-room in order to be more alone.
"You know something of the general's life and habits?"
"He has not been intemperate, I hope?"
"Oh, I am pained to hear you say so."
"Drink is his besetting sin, the vice that has more than once come near leading to his dismissal from the army. He is one of the men who cannot use wine or spirits in moderation. In consequence of some diseased action of the nutritive organs brought on by drink, he has lost the power of self-control when under the influence of alcoholic stimulation. He is a dypso-maniac. A glass of wine or brandy to him is like the match to a train of powder. I don't wonder, knowing what I do about General Abercrombie, that his wife grew deadly pale to-night when she saw him raise a glass to his lips."
"Has he been abstaining for any length of time?"
"Yes; for many months he has kept himself free. I am intimate with an officer who told me all about him. When not under the influence of drink, the general is one of the kindest-hearted men in the world. To his wife he is tender and indulgent almost to a fault, if that were possible. But liquor seems to put the devil into him. Drink drowns his better nature and changes him into a half-insane fiend. I am told that he came near killing his wife more than once in a drunken phrensy."
"You pain me beyond measure. Poor lady! I don't wonder that the life went out of her so suddenly, nor at the terror I saw in her face. Can nothing be done? Has he no friends here who will draw him out of the supper-room and get him away before he loses control of himself?"
"It is too late. If he has begun to drink, it is all over. You might as well try to draw off a wolf who has tasted blood."
"Does he become violent? Are we going to have a drunken scene?"
"Oh no; we need apprehend nothing of that kind. I never heard of his committing any public folly. The devil that enters into him is not a rioting, boisterous fiend, but quiet, malignant, suspicious and cruel."
"Suspicious? Of what?"
"Of everybody and everything. His brother officers are in league against him; his wife is regarded with jealousy; your frankest speech covers in his view some hidden and sinister meaning. You must be careful of your attentions to Mrs. Abercrombie to-night, for he will construe them adversely, and pour out his wrath on her defenceless head when they are alone."
"This is frightful," was answered. "I never heard of such a case."
"Never heard of a drunken man assaulting his wife when alone with her, beating, maiming or murdering her?"
"Oh yes, among the lowest and vilest. But we are speaking now of people in good society—people of culture and refinement."
"Culture and social refinements have no influence over a man when the fever of intoxication is upon him. He is for the time an insane man, and subject to the influx and control of malignant influences. Hell rules him instead of heaven."
"It is awful to think of. It makes me shudder."
"We know little of what goes on at home after an entertainment like this," said the other. "It all looks so glad and brilliant. Smiles, laughter, gayety, enjoyment, meet you at every turn. Each one is at his or her best. It is a festival of delight. But you cannot at this day give wine and brandy without stint to one or two or three hundred men and women of all ages, habits, temperaments and hereditary moral and physical conditions without the production of many evil consequences. It matters little what the social condition may be; the hurt of drink is the same. The sphere of respectability may and does guard many. Culture and pride of position hold others free from undue sensual indulgence. But with the larger number the enticements of appetite are as strong and enslaving in one grade of society as in another, and the disturbance of normal conditions as great. And so you see that the wife of an intoxicated army officer or lawyer or banker may be in as much danger from his drunken and insane fury, when alone with him and unprotected, as the wife of a street-sweeper or hod-carrier."
"I have never thought of it in that way."
"No, perhaps not. Cases of wife-beating and personal injuries, of savage and frightful assaults, of terrors and sufferings endured among the refined and educated, rarely if ever come to public notice. Family pride, personal delicacy and many other considerations seal the lips in silence. But there are few social circles in which it is not known that some of its members are sad sufferers because of a husband's or a father's intemperance, and there are many, many families, alas! which have always in their homes the shadow of a sorrow that embitters everything. They hide it as best they can, and few know or dream of what they endure."
Dr. Angier joined the two men at this moment, and heard the last remark. The speaker added, addressing him:
"Your professional experience will corroborate this, Dr. Angier."
"Corroborate what?" he asked, with a slight appearance of evasion in his manner.
"We were speaking of the effects of intemperance on the more cultivated and refined classes, and I said that it mattered little as to the social condition; the hurt of drink was the same and the disturbance of normal conditions as great in one class of society as in another, that a confirmed inebriate, when under the influence of intoxicants, lost all idea of respectability or moral responsibility, and would act out his insane passion, whether he were a lawyer, an army officer or a hod-carrier. In other words, that social position gave the wife of an inebriate no immunity from personal violence when alone with her drunken husband."
Dr. Angier did not reply, but his face became thoughtful.
"Have you given much attention to the pathology of drunkenness?" asked one of the gentlemen.
"Some; not a great deal. The subject is one of the most perplexing and difficult we have to deal with."
"You class intemperance with diseases, do you not?"
"Yes; certain forms of it. It may be hereditary or acquired like any other disease. One man may have a pulmonary, another a bilious and another a dypso-maniac diathesis, and an exposure to exciting causes in one case is as fatal to health as in the other. If there exist a predisposition to consumption, the disease will be developed under peculiar morbific influences which would have no deleterious effect upon a subject not so predisposed. The same law operates as unerringly in the inherited predisposition to intemperance. Let the man with a dypso-maniac diathesis indulge in the use of intoxicating liquors, and he will surely become a drunkard. There is no more immunity for him than for the man who with tubercles in his lungs exposes himself to cold, bad air and enervating bodily conditions."
"A more serious view of the case, doctor, than is usually taken."
"I know, but a moment's consideration—to say nothing of observed facts—will satisfy any reasonable man of its truth."
"What do you mean by dypso-mania as a medical term?"
"The word," replied Dr. Angier, "means crazy for drink, and is used in the profession to designate that condition of alcoholic disease in which the subject when under its influence has no power of self-control. It is characterized by an inordinate and irresistible desire for alcoholic liquors, varying in intensity from a slight departure from a normal appetite to the most depraved and entire abandonment to its influence. When this disease becomes developed, its action upon the brain is to deteriorate its quality and impair its functions. All the faculties become more or less weakened. Reason, judgment, perception, memory and understanding lose their vigor and capacity. The will becomes powerless before the strong propensity to drink. The moral sentiments and affections likewise become involved in the general impairment. Conscience, the feeling of accountability, the sense of right and wrong, all become deadened, while the passions are aroused and excited."
"What an awful disease!" exclaimed one of the listeners.
"You may well call it an awful disease," returned the doctor, who, under the influence of a few glasses of wine, was more inclined to talk than usual. "It has been named the mother of diseases. Its death-roll far outnumbers that of any other. When it has fairly seized upon a man, no influence seems able to hold him back from the indulgence of his passion for drink. To gratify this desire he will disregard every consideration affecting his standing in society, his pecuniary interests and his domestic relations, while the most frightful instances of the results of drinking have no power to restrain him. A hundred deaths from this cause, occurring under the most painful and revolting circumstances, fail to impress him with a sense of his own danger. His understanding will be clear as to the cases before him, and he will even condemn the self-destructive acts which he sees in others, but will pass, as it were, over the very bodies of these victims, without a thought of warning or a sense of fear, in order to gratify his own ungovernable propensity. Such is the power of this terrible malady."
"Has the profession found a remedy?"
"No; the profession is almost wholly at fault in its treatment. There are specialists connected with insane and reformatory institutions who have given much attention to the subject, but as yet we have no recorded line of treatment that guarantees a cure."
"Except," said one of his listeners, "the remedy of entire abstinence from drinks in which alcohol is present."
The doctor gave a shrug:
"You do not cure a thirsty man by withholding water."
His mind was a little clouded by the wine he had taken.
"The thirsty man's desire for water is healthy; and if you withhold it, you create a disease that will destroy him," was answered. "Not so the craving for alcohol. With every new supply the craving is increased, and the man becomes more and more helpless in the folds of an enslaving appetite. Is it not true, doctor, that with few exceptions all who have engaged in treating inebriates agree that only in entire abstinence is cure possible?"
"Well, yes; you are probably right there," Dr. Angler returned, with some professional reserve. "In the most cases isolation and abstinence are no doubt the only remedies, or, to speak more correctly, the only palliatives. As for cure, I am one of the skeptics. If you have the diathesis, you have the danger of exposure always, as in consumption."
"An occasion like this," remarked the other, "is to one with a dypso-maniac diathesis like a draft of cold, damp air on the exposed chest of a delicate girl who has the seeds of consumption in her lungs. Is it not so, doctor?"
"There are over three hundred persons here to-night."
"In so large a company, taking society as we have it to-day, is it likely that we have none here with a hereditary or acquired love of drink?"
"Scarcely possible," replied Dr. Angier.
"How large do you think the percentage?"
"I have no means of knowing; but if we are to judge by the large army of drunkards in the land, it must be fearfully great."
"Then we cannot invite to our houses fifty or a hundred guests, and give them as much wine and spirits as they care to drink, without seriously hurting some of them. I say nothing of the effect upon unvitiated tastes; I refer only to those with diseased appetites who made happen to be present."
"It will be bad for them, certainly. Such people should stay at home."
And saying this, Dr. Angier turned from the two gentlemen to speak with a professional friend who came toward him at the moment.
"THE doctor likes his glass of wine," remarked one of the gentlemen as Dr. Angier left them.
"Is that so?"
"Didn't you observe his heightened color and the gleam in his eyes?"
"I noticed something unusual in his manner, but did not think it the effect of wine."
"He is a reticent man, with considerable of what may be called professional dignity, and doesn't often let himself down to laymen as he did just now."
"There wasn't much letting down, that I could see."
"Perhaps not; but professional pride is reserved and sensitive in some persons. It hasn't much respect for the opinions of non-experts, and is chary of discussion with laymen. Dr. Angier is weak, or peculiar if you please, in this direction. I saw that he was annoyed at your reply to his remark that you do not cure a thirsty man by withholding water. It was a little thing, but it showed his animus. The argument was against him, and it hurt his pride. As I said, he likes his glass of wine, and if he does not take care will come to like it too well. A doctor has no more immunity from dypso-mania than his patient. The former may inherit or acquire the disease as well as the latter."
"How does the doctor know that he has not from some ancestor this fatal diathesis? Children rarely if ever betray to their children a knowledge of the vices or crimes of their parents. The death by consumption, cancer or fever is a part of oral family history, but not so the death from intemperance. Over that is drawn a veil of silence and secresy, and the children and grandchildren rarely if ever know anything about it. There may be in their blood the taint of a disease far more terrible than cancer or consumption, and none to give them warning of the conditions under which its development is certain."
"Is it not strange," was replied, "that, knowing as Dr. Angier certainly does, from what he said just now, that in all classes of society there is a large number who have in their physical constitutions the seeds of this dreadful disease—that, as I have said, knowing this, he should so frequently prescribe wine and whisky to his patients?"
"It is a little surprising. I have noticed, now that you speak of it, his habit in this respect."
"He might as well, on his own theory, prescribe thin clothing and damp air to one whose father or mother had died of consumption as alcoholic stimulants to one, who has the taint of dypso-mania in his blood. In one case as in the other the disease will almost surely be developed. This is common sense, and something that can be understood by all men."
"And yet, strange to say, the very men who have in charge the public health, the very men whose business it is to study the relations between cause and effect in diseases, are the men who in far too many instances are making the worst possible prescriptions for patients in whom even the slightest tendency to inebriety may exist hereditarily. We have, to speak plainly, too many whisky doctors, and the harm they are doing is beyond calculation. A physician takes upon himself a great responsibility when, without any knowledge of the antecedents of a patient or the stock from which he may have come, he prescribes whisky or wine or brandy as a stimulant. I believe thousands of drunkards have been made by these unwise prescriptions, against which I am glad to know some of the most eminent men in the profession, both in this country and Europe, have entered a solemn protest."
"There is one thing in connection with the disease of intemperance," replied the other, "that is very remarkable. It is the only one from which society does not protect itself by quarantine and sanitary restrictions. In cholera, yellow fever and small-pox every effort is made to guard healthy districts from their invasion, and the man who for gain or any other consideration should be detected in the work of introducing infecting agents would be execrated and punished. But society has another way of dealing with the men who are engaged in spreading the disease of intemperance among the people. It enacts laws for their protection, and gives them the largest liberty to get gain in their work of disseminating disease and death, and, what is still more remarkable, actually sells for money the right to do this."