"You put the case sharply."
"Perhaps not. No good ever comes of calling evil things by dainty names or veiling hard truth under mild and conservative phrases. In granting men a license to dispense alcohol in every variety of enticing forms and in a community where a large percentage of the people have a predisposition to intemperance, consequent as well on hereditary taint as unhealthy social conditions, society commits itself to a disastrous error the fruit of which is bitterer to the taste than the ashen core of Dead Sea apples."
"What about Dead Sea apples?" asked Mr. Elliott, who came up at the moment and heard the last remark. The two gentlemen were pew-holders in his church. Mr. Elliott's countenance was radiant. All his fine social feelings were active, and he was enjoying a "flow of soul," if not "a feast of reason." Wine was making glad his heart—not excess of wine, in the ordinary sense, for Mr. Elliott had no morbid desire for stimulants. He was of the number who could take a social glass and not feel a craving for more. He believed in wine as a good thing, only condemning its abuse.
"What were you saying about Dead Sea apples?" Mr. Elliott repeated his question.
"We were speaking of intemperance," replied one of the gentlemen.
"O—h!" in a prolonged and slightly indifferent tone. Mr. Elliott's countenance lost some of its radiance. "And what were you saying about it?"
Common politeness required as much as this, even though the subject was felt to be out of place.
"We were talking with Dr. Angier just now about hereditary drunkenness, or rather the inherited predisposition to that vice—disease, as the doctor calls it. This predisposition he says exists in a large number of persons, and is as well defined pathologically, and as certain to become active, under favoring causes, as any other disease. Alcoholic stimulants are its exciting causes. Let, said the doctor, a man so predisposed indulge in the use of intoxicating liquors, and he will surely become a drunkard. There is no more immunity for him, he added, than for the man who with tubercles in his lungs exposes himself to cold, bad air and enervating bodily conditions. Now, is not this a very serious view to take of the matter?"
"Certainly it is," replied Mr. Elliott. "Intemperance is a sad thing, and a most fearful curse."
He did not look comfortable. It was to him an untimely intrusion of an unpleasant theme. "But what in the world set the doctor off on this subject?" he asked, trying to make a diversion.
"Occasions are apt to suggest subjects for conversation," answered the gentleman. "One cannot be present at a large social entertainment like this without seeing some things that awaken doubts and questionings. If it be true, as Dr. Angier says, that the disease of intemperance is as surely transmitted, potentially, as the disease of consumption, and will become active under favoring circumstances, then a drinking festival cannot be given without fearful risk to some of the invited guests."
"There is always danger of exciting disease where a predisposition exists," replied Mr. Elliott. "A man can hardly be expected to make himself acquainted with the pathology of his guests before inviting them to a feast. If that is to be the rule, the delicate young lady with the seeds of consumption in her system must be left at home for fear she may come with bare arms and a low-necked dress, and expose herself after being heated with dancing to the draught of an open window. The bilious and dyspeptic must be omitted also, lest by imprudent eating and drinking they make themselves sick. We cannot regulate these things. The best we can do is to warn and admonish. Every individual is responsible for his own moral character, habits and life. Because some may become the slaves of appetite, shall restraint and limitation be placed on those who make no abuse of liberty? We must teach men self-control and self-mastery, if we would truly help and save them. There is some exaggeration, in my opinion, about this disease-theory of intemperance. The deductions of one-idea men are not always to be trusted. They are apt to draw large conclusions from small facts. Man is born a free agent, and all men have power, if they will, to hold their appetites in check. This truth should be strongly impressed upon every one. Your disease-theory takes away moral responsibility. It assumes that a man is no more accountable for getting drunk than for getting the consumption. His diathesis excuses him as much in one case as in the other. Now, I don't believe a word of this. I do not class appetites, however inordinate, with physical diseases over which the will has no control. A man must control his appetite. Reason and conscience require this, and God gives to every one the mastery of himself if he will but use his high prerogative."
Mr. Elliott spoke a little loftily, and in a voice that expressed a settlement of the argument. But one at least of his listeners was feeling too strongly on the subject to let the argument close.
"What," he asked, "if a young man who did not, because he could not, know that he had dypso-mania in his blood were enticed to drink often at parties where wine is freely dispensed? Would he not be taken, so to speak, unawares? Would he be any more responsible for acts that quickened into life an over-mastering appetite than the young girl who, not knowing that she had in her lungs the seeds of a fatal disease, should expose herself to atmospheric changes that were regarded by her companions as harmless, but which, to her were fraught with peril?"
"In both cases," replied Mr. Elliott, "the responsibility to care for the health would come the moment it was found to be in danger."
"The discovery of danger may come, alas! too late for responsible action. We know that it does in most cases with the consumptive, and quite as often, I fear, with the dypso-maniac."
As the gentleman was closing the last sentence he observed a change pass over the face of Mr. Elliott, who was looking across the room. Following the direction of his eyes, he saw General Abercrombie in the act of offering his arm to Mrs. Abercrombie. It was evident, from the expression of his countenance and that of the countenances of all who were near him that something had gone wrong. The general's face was angry and excited. His eyes had a fierce restlessness in them, and glanced from his wife to a gentleman who stood confronting him and then back to her in a strange and menacing way.
Mrs. Abercrombie's face was deadly pale. She said a few words hurriedly to her husband, and then drew him from the parlor.
"What's the matter?" asked Mr. Elliott, crossing over and speaking to the gentleman against whom the anger of General Abercrombie had seemed to be directed.
"Heaven knows," was answered, "unless he's jealous of his wife."
"Very strange conduct," said one.
"Been drinking too much," remarked another.
"What did he do?" inquired a third.
"Didn't you see it? Mr. Ertsen was promenading with Mrs. Abercrombie, when the general swept down upon them as fierce as a lion and took the lady from his arm."
This was exaggeration. The thing was done more quietly, but still with enough of anger and menace to create something more than a ripple on the surface.
A little while afterward the general and Mrs. Abercrombie were seen coming down stairs and going along the hall. His face was rigid and stern. He looked neither to the right nor the left, but with eyes set forward made his way toward the street door. Those who got a glimpse of Mrs. Abercrombie as she glided past saw a face that haunted them a long time afterward.
AS General and Mrs. Abercrombie reached the vestibule, and the door shut behind them, the latter, seeing, that her husband was going out into the storm, which was now at its height, drew back, asking at the same time if their carriage had been called.
The only answer made by General Abercrombie was a fiercely-uttered imprecation. Seizing at the same time the arm she had dropped from his, he drew her out of the vestibule and down the snow-covered step with a sudden violence that threw her to the ground. As he dragged her up he cursed her again in a cruel undertone, and then, grasping her arm, moved off in the very teeth of the blinding tempest, going so swiftly that she could not keep pace with him. Before they had gone a dozen steps she fell again.
Struggling to her feet, helped up by the strong grasp of the madman whose hand was upon her arm, Mrs. Abercrombie tried to rally her bewildered thoughts. She knew that her life was in danger, but she knew also that much, if not everything, depended on her own conduct. The very extremity of her peril calmed her thoughts and gave them clearness and decision. Plunging forward as soon as his wife could recover herself again, General Abercrombie strode away with a speed that made it almost impossible for her to move on without falling, especially as the snow was lying deep and unbroken on the pavement, and her long dress, which she had not taken time to loop up before starting, dragged about her feet and impeded her steps. They had not gone half a block before she fell again. A wild beast could hardly have growled more savagely than did this insane man as he caught her up from the bed of snow into which she had fallen and shook her with fierce passion. A large, strong man, with an influx of demoniac, strength in every muscle, his wife was little more than a child in his hands. He could have crushed the life out of her at a single grip.
Not a word or sound came from Mrs. Abercrombie. The snow that covered the earth was scarcely whiter than her rigid face. Her eyes, as the light of a flickering gas-lamp shone into them, hardly reflected back its gleam, so leaden was their despair.
He shook her fiercely, the tightening grasp on her arms bruising the tender flesh, cursed her, and then, in a blind fury, cast her from him almost into the middle of the street, where she lay motionless, half buried in the snow. For some moments he stood looking at the prostrate form of his wife, on which the snow sifted rapidly down, making the dark garments white in so short a space of time that she seemed to fade from his view. It was this, perhaps, that wrought a sudden change in his feelings, for he sprang toward her, and taking her up in his arms, called her name anxiously. She did not reply by word or sign, He carried her back to the pavement and turned her face to the lamp; it was white and still, the eyes closed, the mouth shut rigidly.
But Mrs. Abercrombie was not unconscious. Every sense was awake.
"Edith! Edith!" her husband cried. His tones, anxious at first, now betrayed alarm. A carriage went by at the moment. He called to the driver, but was unheard or unheeded. Up and down the street, the air of which was so filled with snow that he could see only a short distance, he looked in vain for the form of a policeman or citizen. He was alone in the street at midnight, blocks away from his residence, a fierce storm raging in the air, the cold intense, and his wife apparently insensible in his arms. If anything could free his brain from its illusions, cause enough was here. He shouted aloud for help, but there came no answer on the wild careering winds. Another carriage went by, moving in ghostly silence, but his call to the driver was unheeded, as before.
Feeling the chill of the intensely cold air going deeper and deeper, and conscious of the helplessness of their situation unless she used the strength that yet remained, Mrs. Abercrombie showed symptoms of returning life and power of action. Perceiving this, the general drew an arm around her for support and made a motion to go on again, to which she responded by moving forward, but with slow and not very steady steps. Soon, however, she walked more firmly, and began pressing on with a haste that ill accorded with the apparent condition out of which she had come only a few moments before.
The insane are often singularly quick in perception, and General Abercrombie was for the time being as much insane as any patient of an asylum. It flashed into his mind that his wife had been deceiving him, had been pretending a faint, when she was as strong of limb and clear of intellect as when they left Mr. Birtwell's. At this thought the half-expelled devil that had been controlling him leaped back into his heart, filling it again with evil passions. But the wind was driving the fine, sand-like, sharp-cutting snow into his face with such force and volume as to half suffocate and bewilder him. Turning at this moment a corner of the street that brought him into the clear sweep of the storm, the wind struck him with a force that seemed given by a human hand, and threw him staggering against his wife, both falling.
Struggling to his feet, General Abercrombie cursed his wife as he jerked her from the ground with a sudden force that came near dislocating her arm. She gave no word of remonstrance nor cry of pain or fear, but did all in her power to keep up with her husband as he drove on again with mad precipitation.
How they got home Mrs. Abercrombie hardly knew, but home they were at last and in their own room, the door closed and locked and the key withdrawn by her husband, out of whose manner all the wild passion had gone. His movements were quiet and his voice when he spoke low, but his wife knew by the gleam of his restless eyes that thought and purpose were active.
Their room was in the third story of a large boarding-house in a fashionable part of the city. The outlook was upon the street. The house was double, a wide hall running through the centre. There were four or five large rooms on this floor, all occupied. In the one adjoining theirs were a lady and gentleman who had been at Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell's party, and who drove up in a carriage just as the general and Mrs. Abercrombie, white with snow, came to the door. They entered together, the lady expressing surprise at their appearance, at which the general growled some incoherent sentences and strode away from them and up the stairs, Mrs. Abercrombie following close after him.
"There's something wrong, I'm afraid," said the gentleman, whose name was Craig, as he and his wife gained their own room. "They went in a carriage, I know. What can it mean?"
"I hope the general has not been drinking too much," remarked the wife.
"I'm afraid he has. He used to be very intemperate, I've heard, but reformed a year or two ago, A man with any weakness in this direction would be in danger at an entertainment such as Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell gave to-night."
"I saw the general taking wine with a lady," said Mrs. Craig.
"If he took one glass, he would hardly set that as a limit. It were much easier to abstain altogether; and we know that if a man over whom drink has once gained the mastery ventures upon the smallest indulgence of his appetite he is almost sure to give way and to fall again. It's a strange thing, and sad as strange."
Mr. Craig turned quickly toward the door which when opened made a communication between their apartment and that of General and Mrs. Abercrombie. It was shut, and fastened on both sides, so that it could not be opened by the occupants, of either room.
A low but quickly-stifled cry had struck on the ears of Mr. and Mrs. Craig. They looked at each other with questioning glances for several moments, listening intently, but the cry was not repeated.
"I don't like that," said Mr. Craig. He spoke with concern.
"What can it mean?" asked his wife.
"Heaven knows!" he replied.
They sat silent and listening. A sharp click, which the ear of Mr. Craig detected as the sound made by the cocking of a pistol, struck upon the still air. He sprang to his feet and took a step or two toward the door leading into the hall, but his wife caught his arm and clung to it tightly.
"No, no! Wait! wait!" she cried, in a deep whisper, while her face grew-ashen pale. For some moments they stood with repressed breathing, every instant expecting to hear the loud report of a pistol. But the deep silence remained unbroken for nearly a minute; then a dull movement of feet was heard in the room, and the opening and shutting of a drawer.
"No, general, you will not do that," they heard Mrs. Abercrombie say, in a low, steady tone in which fear struggled with tenderness.
"Why will I not do it?" was sternly demanded.
They were standing near the door, so that their voices could be heard distinctly in the next room.
"Because you love me too well," was the sweet, quiet answer. The voice of Mrs. Abercrombie did not betray a single tremor.
All was hushed again. Then came another movement in the room, and the sound of a closing drawer. Mr. and Mrs. Craig were beginning to breathe more freely, when the noise as of some one springing suddenly upon another was heard, followed by a struggle and a choking cry. It continued so long that Mr. Craig ran out into the hall and knocked at the door of General Abercrombie's room. As he did so the noise of struggling ceased, and all grew still. The door was not opened to his summons, and after waiting for a little while he went back to his own room.
"This is dreadful," he said. "What can it mean? The general must be insane from drink. Something will have to be done. He may be strangling his poor wife at this very moment. I cannot bear it. I must break open the door."
Mr. Craig started toward the hall, but his wife seized hold of him and held him back.
"No, no, no!" she cried, in a low voice. "Let them alone. It may be her only chance of safety. Hark!"
The silence in General Abercrombie's room was again broken. A man's firm tread was on the floor and it could be heard passing clear across the apartment, then returning and then going from side to side. At length the sound of moving furniture was heard. It was as if a person were lifting a heavy wardrobe or bureau, and getting it with some difficulty from one part of the room to the other.
"What can he be doing?" questioned Mrs. Craig, with great alarm.
"He is going to barricade the door, most likely," replied her husband.
"Barricade the door? What for? Good heavens, Mr. Craig! He may have killed his wife. She may be lying in there dead at this very moment. Oh, it is fearful! Can nothing be done?"
"Nothing, that I know of, except to break into the room."
"Hadn't you better rouse some of the boarders, or call a waiter and send for the police?"
The voice of Mrs. Abercrombie was heard at this moment. It was calm and clear.
"Let me help you, general," she said.
The noise of moving furniture became instantly still. It seemed as if the madman had turned in surprise from his work and stood confronting his wife, but whether in wrath, or not it was impossible to conjecture. They might hear her fall to the floor, stricken down by her husband, or cry out in mortal agony at any moment. The suspense was dreadful.
"Do it! I am ready."
It was Mrs. Abercrombie speaking again, and in a calm, even voice. They heard once more and with curdling blood, the sharp click of a pistol-lock as the hammer was drawn back. They held their breaths in horror and suspense, not moving lest even the slightest sound they made should precipitate the impending tragedy.
"I have been a good and true wife to you always, and I shall remain so even unto death."
The deep pathos of her quiet voice brought tears to the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Craig.
"If you are tired of me, I am ready to go. Look into my eyes. You see that I am not afraid."
It was still as death again. The clear, tender eyes that looked so steadily into those of General Abercrombie held him like a spell, and made his fingers so nerveless that they could not respond to the passion of the murderous fiend that possessed him. That was why the scared listeners did not hear the deadly report of the pistol he was holding within a few inches of his wife's head.
"Let me put it away. It isn't a nice thing to have in a lady's chamber. You know I can't bear the sight of a pistol, and you love me too well to give me the smallest pain or uneasiness. That's a dear, good husband."
They could almost see Mrs. Abercrombie take the deadly weapon from the general's hand. They heard her dress trailing across the room, and heard her open and shut and then lock a drawer. For some time afterward they could hear the low sound of voices, then all became silent again.
"Give me that pistol!" startled them not long afterward in a sudden wild outbreak of frenzied passion.
"What do you want with it?" they heard Mrs. Abercrombie ask. There was no sign of alarm in her tones.
"Give me that pistol, I say!" The general's voice was angry and imperious. "How dared you take, it out of my hand!"
"Oh, I thought you wished it put away because the sight of a pistol is unpleasant to me."
And they heard the dress trailing across the room again.
"Stop!" cried the general, in a commanding tone.
"Just as you please, general. You can have the pistol, if you want it," answered Mrs. Abercrombie, without the smallest tremor in her voice. "Shall I get it for you?"
"No!" He flung the word out angrily, giving it emphasis by an imprecation. Then followed a growl as if from an ill-natured beast, and they could hear his heavy tread across the floor.
"Oh, general!" came suddenly from the lips of Mrs. Abercrombie, in a surprised, frightened tone. Then followed the sound of a repressed struggle, of an effort to get free without making a noise or outcry, which continued for a considerable time, accompanied by a low muttering and panting as of a man in some desperate effort.
Mr. and Mrs. Craig stood with pale faces, irresolute and powerless to help, whatever might be the extremity of their neighbor. To attempt a forcible entry into the room was a doubtful expedient, and might be attended with instant fatal consequences. The muttering and panting ceased at length, and so did all signs of struggling and resistance. The madman had wrought his will, whatever that might be. Breathlessly they listened, but not a sound broke the deep silence. Minutes passed, but the stillness reigned.
"He may have killed her," whispered Mrs. Craig, with white lips. Her husband pressed his ear closely to the door.
"Do you hear anything?"
They spoke in a low whisper.
"Put your ear against the door."
Mrs. Craig did so, and after a moment or two could hear a faint movement, as of something being pulled across the carpet. The sound was intermittent, now being very distinct and now ceasing altogether. The direction of the movement was toward that part of the room occupied by the bed. The listeners' strained sense of hearing was so acute that it was able to interpret the meaning of each varying sound. A body had been slowly dragged across the floor, and now, hushed and almost noiselessly as the work went on, they knew that the body was being lifted from the floor and placed upon the bed. For a little while all was quiet, but the movements soon began again, and were confined to the bed. Something was being done with the dead or unconscious body. What, it was impossible to make out or even guess. Mrs. Abercrombie might be lifeless, in a swoon or only feigning unconsciousness.
"It won't do to let this go on any longer," said Mr. Craig as he came back from the door at which he had been listening. "I must call some of the boarders and have a consultation."
He was turning to go out, when a sound as of a falling chair came from General Abercrombie's room, and caused him to stop and turn back, This was followed by the quick tread of heavy feet going up and down the chamber floor, and continuing without intermission for as much as five minutes. It stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and all was silent again. They knew that the general was standing close by the bed.
"My God!" in a tone full, of anguish and fear dropped from his lips. "Edith! Edith! oh, Edith!" he called in a low wail of distress. "Speak to me, Edith! Why don't you speak to me?"
They listened, but heard no answer. General Abercrombie called the name of his wife over and over again, and in terms of endearment, but for all Mr. and Mrs. Craig could tell she gave back no sign.
"O my God! what have I done?" they heard him say, the words followed by a deep groan.
"It is my time now;" and Mr. Craig ran out into the hall as he said this and knocked at the general's door. But no answer came. He knocked again, and louder than at first. After waiting for a short time he heard the key turn in the lock. The door was opened a few inches, and he saw through the aperture the haggard and almost ghastly face of General Abercrombie. His eyes were wild and distended.
"What do you want?" he demanded, impatiently.
"Is Mrs. Abercrombie sick? Can we do anything for you, general?" said Mr. Craig, uttering the sentences that came first to his tongue.
"No!" in angry rejection of the offered service. The door shut with a jar, and the key turned in the lock. Mr. Craig stood for a moment irresolute, and then went back to his wife. Nothing more was heard in the adjoining room. Though they listened for a long time, no voice nor sound of any kind came to their ears. The general had, to all appearance, thrown himself upon the bed and fallen asleep.
It was late on the next morning when Mr. and Mrs. Craig awoke. Their first thought was of their neighbors, General and Mrs. Abercrombie. The profoundest silence reigned in their apartments—a silence death-like and ominous.
"If he has murdered her!" said Mrs. Craig, shivering at the thought as she spoke.
"I hope not, but I shouldn't like to be the first one who goes into that room," replied her husband. Then, after a moment's reflection, he said:
"If anything has gone wrong in there, we must be on our guard and make no admissions. It won't do for us to let it be known that we heard the dreadful things going on there that we did, and yet gave no alarm. I'm not satisfied with myself, and can hardly expect others to excuse where I condemn."
WHEN Mr. and Mrs. Craig entered the breakfast-room, they saw, to their surprise, General Abercrombie and his wife sitting in their usual places. They bowed to each other, as was their custom on meeting at the table.
The face of Mrs. Abercrombie was pale and her features pinched. She had the appearance of one who had been ill and was just recovering, or of one who had endured exhausting pain of mind or body. She arose from the table soon after Mr. and, Mrs. Craig made their appearance, and retired with her husband from the room.
"The general is all out of sorts this morning," remarked a lady as soon as they were gone.
"And so is Mrs. Abercrombie," said another. "Dissipation does not agree with them. They were at the grand party given last night by Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell. You were among the guests, Mrs. Craig?"
The lady addressed bowed her affirmative.
"A perfect jam, I suppose?"
"Who were there? But I needn't ask. All the world and his wife, of course, little bugs and big bugs. How was the entertainment?"
"Splendid! I never saw such a profusion of everything."
"Fools make feasts for wise men to eat," snapped out the sharp voice of a lady whose vinegar face gave little promise of enjoyment of any kind. "Nobody thinks any more of them for it. Better have given the money to some charity. There's want and suffering enough about, Heaven knows."
"I don't imagine that the charity fund has suffered anything in consequence of Mr. Birtwell's costly entertainment," replied Mr. Craig. "If the money spent for last night's feast had not gone to the wine-merchant and the caterer, it would have remained as it was."
The lady with the vinegar face said something about the Dives who have their good things here, adding, with a zest in her voice, that "Riches, thank God! can't be taken over to the other side, and your nabobs will be no better off after they die than the commonest beggars."
"That will depend on something more than the money-aspect of the case," said Mr. Craig. "And as to the cost of giving a feast, what would be extravagance in one might only be a liberal hospitality in another. Cake and ice cream for my friends might be as lavish an expenditure for me as Mr. Birtwell's banquet last night was for him, and as likely to set me among the beggars when I get over to the other side."
"Then you don't believe that God holds rich men to a strict account for the manner in which they spend the money he has placed in their hands? Are they not his almoners?"
"No more than poor men, and not to be held to any stricter accountability," was replied. "Mr. Birtwell does not sin against the poor when he lavishes his hundreds, or it may be thousands, of dollars in the preparation of a feast for his friends any more than you do when you buy a box of French candies to eat alone in your room or share with your visitors, maybe not so much."
There was a laugh at the expense of the vinegar-faced lady, who did not fail in a sharp retort which was more acid than convincing. The conversation then went back to General Abercrombie and his wife.
"Didn't she look dreadful?" remarked one of the company.
"And her manner toward the general was so singular."
"In what respect?" asked Mrs. Craig.
"She looked at him so strangely, so anxious and scared-like. I never knew him to be so silent. He's social and talkative, you know—such good company. But he hadn't a word to say this morning. Something has gone wrong between him and his wife. I wonder what it can be?"
But Mr. and Mrs. Craig, who were not of the gossiping kind, were disposed to keep their own counsel.
"I thought I heard some unusual noises in their room last night after they came home from the party," said a lady whose chamber was opposite theirs across the hall. "They seemed to be moving furniture about, and twice I thought I heard a scream. But then the storm was so high that one might easily have mistaken a wail of the wind for a cry of distress."
"A cry of distress! You didn't imagine that the general was maltreating his wife?"
"I intimated nothing of the kind," returned the lady.
"But what made you think about a cry of distress?"
"I merely said that I thought I heard a scream; and if you had been awake from twelve to one or two o'clock this morning, you would have thought the air full of wailing voices. The storm chafed about the roof and chimneys in a dreadful way. I never knew a wilder night."
"You saw the general at the party?" said one, addressing Mr. Craig.
"Yes, a few times. But there was a crowd in all the rooms, and the same people were not often thrown together."
"Nothing unusual about him? Hadn't been drinking too much?"
"Not when I observed him. But—" Mr. Craig hesitated a moment, and then went on: "But there's one thing has a strange look. They went in a carriage, I know, but walked home in all that dreadful storm."
"Walked home!" Several pairs of eyes and hands were upraised.
"Yes; they came to the door, white with snow, just as we got home."
"How strange! What could it have meant?"
"It meant," said one, "that their carriage disappointed them—nothing else, of course."
"That will hardly explain it. Such disappointments rarely, if ever, occur," was replied to this.
"Did you say anything to them, Mr. Craig?"
"My wife did, but received only a gruff response from the general. Mrs. Abercrombie made no reply, but, went hastily after her husband. There was something unusual in the manner of both."
While this conversation was going on General Abercrombie and his wife stood in the hall, she trying, but in vain, to persuade him not to go out. He said but little, answering her kindly, but with a marked decision of manner. Mrs. Abercrombie went up slowly to their room after he left her, walking as one who carried a heavy load. She looked ten years older than on the day previous.
No one saw her during the morning. At dinner-time their places were vacant at the table.
"Where are the general and his wife?" was asked as time passed and they did not make their appearance.
No one had seen either of them since breakfast.
Mrs. Craig knew that Mrs. Abercrombie had not been out of her room all the morning, but she did not feel inclined to take part in the conversation, and so said nothing.
"I saw the general going into the Clarendon about two o'clock," said a gentleman. "He's dining with some friend, most probably."
"I hear," remarked another, "that he acted rather strangely at Mr. Birtwell's last night."
Every ear pricked up at this.
"How?" "In what way?" "Tell us about it," came in quick response to the speaker's words.
"I didn't get anything like a clear story. But there was some trouble about his wife."
"About his wife?" Faces looked eagerly down and across the table.
"What about his wife?" came from half a dozen lips.
"He thought some one too intimate with her, I believe. A brother officer, if I am not mistaken. Some old flame, perhaps. But I couldn't learn any of the particulars."
"Ah! That accounts for their singular conduct this morning. Was there much of a row?" This came from a thin-visaged young man with eye-glasses and a sparse, whitish moustache.
"I didn't say anything about a row," was the rather sharp reply. "I only said that I heard that the general had acted strangely, and that there had been some trouble about his wife."
"What was the trouble?" asked two or three anxious voices—anxious for some racy scandal.
"Couldn't learn any of the particulars, only that he took his wife from a gentleman's arm in a rude kind of way, and left the party."
"Oh! that accounts for their not coming home in a carriage," broke in one of the listeners.
"Perhaps so. But who said they didn't ride home?"
"Mr. Craig. He and Mrs. Craig saw them as they came to the door, covered with snow. They were walking."
"Oh, you were at the party, Mr. Craig? Did you see or hear anything about this affair?"
"Nothing," replied Mr. Craig. "If there had been any trouble, I should most likely have heard something of it."
"I had my information from a gentleman who was there," said the other.
"I don't question that," replied Mr. Craig. "A trifling incident but half understood will often give rise to exaggerated reports—so exaggerated that but little of the original truth remains in them. The general may have done something under the excitement of wine that gave color to the story now in circulation. I think that very possible. But I don't believe the affair to be half so bad as represented."
While this conversation was going on Mrs. Abercrombie sat alone in her room. She had walked the floor restlessly as the time drew near for the general's return, but after the hour went by, and there was no sign of his coming, all the life seemed to go out of her. She was sitting now, or rather crouching down, in a large cushioned chair, her face white and still and her eyes fixed in a kind of frightened stare.
Time passed, but she remained so motionless that but for her wide-open eyes you would have thought her asleep or dead.
No one intruded upon her during the brief afternoon; and when darkness shut in, she was still sitting where she had dropped down nerveless from mental pain. After it grew dark Mrs. Abercrombie arose, lighted the gas and drew the window curtains. She then moved about the room putting things in order. Next she changed her dress and gave some careful attention to her personal appearance. The cold pallor which had been on her face all the afternoon gave way to a faint tinge of color, her eyes lost their stony fixedness and became restless and alert. But the trouble did not go out of her face or eyes; it was only more active in expression, more eager and expectant.
After all the changes in her toilette had been made, Mrs. Abercrombie sat down again, waiting and listening. It was the general's usual time to come home from headquarters. How would he come? or would he come at all? These were the questions that agitated her soul. The sad, troubled humiliating, suffering past, how its records of sorrow and shame and fear kept unrolling themselves before her eyes! There was little if anything in these records to give hope or comfort. Ah! how many times had he fallen from his high estate of manhood, each time sinking lower and lower, and each time recovering himself from the fall with greater difficulty than before! He might never rise again. The chances were largely against him.
How the wretched woman longed for yet dreaded the return of her husband! If he had been drinking again, as she feared, there, was before her a night of anguish and terror—a night which might have for her no awaking in the world. But she had learned to dread some things more than death.
Time wore on until it was past the hour for General Abercrombie's return, and yet there was no sign of his coming. At last the loud clang of the supper-bell ringing through the halls gave her a sudden start. She clasped her hands across her forehead, while a look of anguish convulsed her face, then held them tightly against her heart and groaned aloud.
"God pity us both!" she cried, in a low, wailing voice, striking her hands together and lifting upward her eyes, that were full of the deepest anguish.
For a few moments her eyes were upraised. Then her head sunk forward upon her bosom, and she sat an image of helpless despair.
A knock at the door roused her. She started to her feet and opened it with nervous haste.
"A letter for you," said a servant.
She took it from his hand and shut and locked the door before examining the handwriting on the envelope. It was that of her husband. She tore it open with trembling hand and read:
"DEAR EDITH: An order requiring my presence in Washington to-morrow morning has just reached me, and I have only time to make the train. I shall be gone two or three days."
The deep flush which excitement had spread over the face of Mrs. Abercrombie faded off, and the deadly pallor returned. Her hands shook so that the letter dropped out of them and fell to the floor. Another groan as of a breaking heart sobbed through her lips as she threw herself in despairing abandonment across the bed and buried her face deep among the pillows.
She needed no interpreter to unfold the true meaning of that letter. Its unsteady and blotted words and its scrawled, uncertain signature told her too well of her husband's sad condition. His old enemy had stricken him down, his old strong, implacable enemy, always armed, always lying in wait for him, and always ready for the unguarded moment.
DOCTOR HILLHOUSE was in his office one morning when a gentleman named Carlton, in whose family he had practiced for two or three years, came in. This was a few weeks before the party at Mr. Birtwell's.
"Doctor"—there was a troubled look on his visitor's face—"I wish you would call in to-day and examine a lump on Mrs. Carlton's neck. It's been coming for two or three months. We thought it only the swelling of a gland at first, and expected it to go away in a little while. But in the last few weeks it has grown perceptibly."
"How large is it?" inquired the doctor.
"About the size of a pigeon's egg."
"Indeed! So large?"
"Yes; and I am beginning to feel very much concerned about it."
"Is there any discoloration?"
"Any soreness or tenderness to the touch?"
"No; but Mrs. Carlton is beginning to feel a sense of tightness and oppression, as though the lump, whatever it may be, were beginning to press upon some of the blood-vessels."
"Nothing serious, I imagine," replied Dr. Hillhouse, speaking with a lightness of manner he did not feel. "I will call about twelve o'clock. Tell Mrs. Carlton to expect me at that time."
Mr. Carlton made a movement to go, but came back from the door, and betraying more anxiety of manner than at first, said:
"This may seem a light thing in your eyes, doctor, but I cannot help feeling troubled. I am afraid of a tumor."
"What is the exact location?" asked Dr. Hillhouse.
"On the side of the neck, a little back from the lower edge of the right ear."
The doctor did not reply. After a brief silence Mr. Carlton said:
"Do you think it a regular tumor, doctor?"
"It is difficult to say. I can speak with more certainty after I have made an examination," replied Doctor Hillhouse, his manner showing some reserve.
"If it should prove to be a tumor, cannot its growth be stopped? Is there no relief except through an operation—no curative agents that will restore a healthy action to the parts and cause the tumor to be absorbed?"
"There is a class of tumors," replied the doctor, "that may be absorbed, but the treatment is prejudicial to the general health, and no wise physician will, I think, resort to it instead of a surgical operation, which is usually simple and safe."
"Much depends on the location of a tumor," said Mr. Carlton. "The extirpation may be safe and easy if the operation be in one place, and difficult and dangerous if in another."
"It is the surgeon's business to do his work so well that danger shall not exist in any case," replied Doctor Hillhouse.
"I shall trust her in your hands," said Mr. Carlton, trying to assume a cheerful air. "But I cannot help feeling nervous and extremely anxious."
"You are, of course, over-sensitive about everything that touches one so dear as your wife," replied the doctor. "But do not give yourself needless anxiety. Tumors in the neck are generally of the kind known as 'benignant,' and are easily removed."
Dr. Angier came into the office while they were talking, and heard a part of the conversation. As soon as Mr. Carlton had retired he asked if the tumor were deep-seated or only a wen-like protuberance.
"Deep-seated, I infer, from what Mr. Carlton said," replied Dr. Hillhouse.
"What is her constitution?"
"Not as free from a scrofulous tendency as I should like."
"Then this tumor, if it should really prove to be one, may be of a malignant character."
"That is possible. But I trust to find only a simple cyst, or, at the worst, an adipose or fibrous tumor easy of removal, though I am sorry it is in the neck. I never like to cut in among the large blood-vessels and tendons of that region."
At twelve o'clock Doctor Hillhouse made the promised visit. He found Mrs. Carlton to all appearance quiet and cheerful.
"My husband is apt to worry himself when anything ails me," she said, with a faint smile.
The doctor took her hand and felt a low tremor of the nerves that betrayed the nervous anxiety she was trying hard to conceal. His first diagnosis was not satisfactory, and he was not able wholly to conceal his doubts from the keen observation of Mr. Carlton, whose eyes never turned for a moment from the doctor's face. The swelling was clearly outlined, but neither sharp nor protuberant. From the manner of its presentation, and also from the fact that Mrs. Carlton complained of a feeling of pressure on the vessels of the neck, the doctor feared the tumor was larger and more deeply seated than the lady's friends had suspected. But he was most concerned as to its true character. Being hard and nodulated, he feared that it might prove to be of a malignant type, and his apprehensions were increased by the fact that his patient had in her constitution a taint of scrofula. There was no apparent congestion of the veins nor discoloration of the skin around the hard protuberance, no pulsation, elasticity, fluctuation or soreness, only a solid lump which the doctor's sensitive touch recognized as the small section or lobule of a deeply-seated tumor already beginning to press upon and obstruct the blood vessels in its immediate vicinity. Whether it were fibrous or albuminous, "benignant" or "malignant," he was not able in his first diagnosis to determine.
Dr. Hillhouse could not so veil his face as to hide from Mr. Carlton the doubt and concern that were in his mind.
"Deal with me plainly," said the latter as he stood alone with the doctor after the examination was over. "I want the exact truth. Don't conceal anything."
Mr. Carlton's lips trembled.
"Is it a—a tumor?" He got the words out in a low, shaky voice.
"I think so," replied Doctor Hillhouse. He saw the face of Mr. Carlton blanch instantly.
"It presents," added the doctor, "all the indications of what we call a fibrous tumor."
"Is it of a malignant type?" asked Mr. Carlton, with suspended breath.
"No; these tumors are harmless in themselves, but their mechanical pressure on surrounding blood-vessels and tissues renders their removal necessary."
Mr. Carlton caught his breath with a sigh of relief.
"Is their removal attended with danger?" he asked.
"None," replied Dr. Hillhouse.
"Have you ever taken a tumor from the neck?"
"Yes. I have operated in cases of this kind often."
"Were you always successful?"
"Yes; in every instance."
Mr. Carlton breathed more freely. After a pause, he said, his lips growing white as he spoke:
"There will have to be an operation in this case?"
"It cannot, I fear, be avoided," replied the doctor.
"There is one comfort," said Mr. Carlton, rallying and speaking in a more cheerful voice. "The tumor is small and superficial in character. The knife will not have to go very deep among the veins and arteries."
Doctor Hillhouse did not correct his error.
"How long will it take?" queried the anxious husband, to whom the thought of cutting down into the tender flesh of his wife was so painful that it completely unmanned him.
"Not very long," answered the doctor.
"Yes, or maybe a little longer."
"She will feel no pain?"
"Nor be conscious of what you are doing?"
"She will be as much in oblivion as a sleeping infant," replied the doctor.
Mr. Carlton turned from Dr. Hillhouse and walked the whole length of the parlor twice, then stood still, and said, with painful impressiveness:
"Doctor, I place her in your hands. She is ready for anything we may decide upon as best."
He stopped and turned partly away to hide his feelings. But recovering himself, and forcing a smile to his lips, he said:
"To your professional eyes I show unmanly weakness. But you must bear in mind how very dear she is to me. It makes me shiver in every nerve to think of the knife going down into her tender flesh. You might cut me to pieces, doctor, if that would save her."
"Your fears exaggerate everything," returned Doctor Hillhouse, in an assuring voice. "She will go into a tranquil sleep, and while dreaming pleasant dreams we will quickly dissect out the tumor, and leave the freed organs to continue their healthy action under the old laws of unobstructed life."
"When ought it to be done?" asked Mr. Carlton the tremor coming back into his voice.
"The sooner, the better, after an operation is decided upon," answered the doctor. "I will make another examination in about two weeks. The changes that take place in that time will help me to a clearer decision than it is possible to arrive at now."
After a lapse of two weeks Doctor Hillhouse, in company with another surgeon, made a second examination. What his conclusions were will appear in the following conversation held with Dr. Angier.
"The tumor is not of a malignant character," Doctor Hillhouse replied, in answer to his assistant's inquiry. "But it is larger than I at first suspected and is growing very rapidly. From a slight suffusion of Mrs. Carlton's face which I did not observe at any previous visit, it is evident that the tumor is beginning to press upon the carotids. Serious displacements of blood-vessels, nerves, glands and muscles must soon occur if this growth goes on."
"Then her life is in danger?" said Dr. Angier.
"It is assuredly, and nothing but a successful operation can save her."
"What does Doctor Kline think of the case?"
"He agrees with me as to the character of the tumor, but thinks it larger than an orange, deeply cast among the great blood-vessels, and probably so attached to their sheaths as to make its extirpation not only difficult, but dangerous."
"Will he assist you in the operation?"
Dr. Hillhouse became thoughtful and silent. His countenance wore a serious, almost troubled aspect.
"Never before," he said, after a long pause, "have I looked forward to an operation with such a feeling of concern as I look forward to this. Three or four months ago, when there was only a little sack there, it could have been removed without risk. But I greatly fear that in its rapid growth it has become largely attached to the blood-vessels and the sheaths of nerves, and you know how difficult this will make the operation, and that the risk will be largely increased. The fact is, doctor, I am free to say that it would be more agreeable to me if some other surgeon had the responsibility of this case."
"Dr. Kline would, no doubt, be very ready to take it off of your hands."
"If the family were satisfied, I would cheerfully delegate the work to him," said Doctor Hillhouse.
"He's a younger man, and his recent brilliant operations have brought him quite prominently before, the public."
As he spoke Doctor Hillhouse, who was past sixty-five and beginning to feel the effects of over forty years of earnest professional labor, lifted his small hand, the texture of which, was as fine as that of a woman's, and holding it up, looked at it steadily for some moments. It trembled just a little.
"Not quite so firm as it was twenty years ago," he remarked, with a slight depression in his voice.
"But the sight is clearer and the skill greater," said Doctor Angier.
"I don't know about the sight." returned Doctor Hillhouse. "I'm afraid that is no truer than the hand."
"The inner sight, I mean, the perception that comes from long-applied skill," said Doctor Angier. "That is something in which you have the advantage of younger men."
Doctor Hillhouse made no reply to this, but sat like one in deep and, perplexed thought for a considerable time.
"I must see Doctor Kline and go over the case with him more carefully," he remarked at length. "I shall then be able to see with more clearness what is best. The fact that I feel so averse to operating myself comes almost as a warning; and if no change should occur in my feelings, I shall, with the consent of the family, transfer the knife to Doctor Kline."
MRS. CARLTON was a favorite in the circle where she moved; and when it became known that she would have to submit to a serious operation in order to save her life, she became an object of painful interest to her many friends. Among the most intimate of these was Mrs. Birtwell, who, as the time approached for the great trial, saw her almost every day.
It was generally understood that Doctor Hillhouse, who was the family physician, would perform the operation. For a long series of years he had held the first rank as a surgeon. But younger men were coming forward in the city, and other reputations were being made that promised to be even more notable than his.
Among those who were steadily achieving success in the walks of surgery was Doctor Kline, now over thirty-five years of age. He held a chair in one of the medical schools, and his name was growing more and more familiar to the public and the profession every year.
The friends of Mrs. Carlton were divided on the question as to who could best perform the operation, some favoring Doctor Kline and some Doctor Hillhouse.
The only objection urged by any one against the latter was on account of his age.
Mr. and Mrs. Carlton had no doubt or hesitation on the subject. Their confidence in the skill of Doctor Hillhouse was complete. As for Doctor Kline, Mr. Carlton, who met him now and then at public dinners or at private social entertainments, had not failed to observe that he was rather free in his use of liquor, drinking so frequently on these occasions as to produce a noticeable exhilaration. He had even remarked upon the fact to gentlemen of his acquaintance, and found that others had noticed this weakness of Doctor Kline as well as himself.
As time wore on Doctor Hillhouse grew more and more undecided. No matter how grave or difficult an operation might be, he had always, when satisfied of its necessity, gone forward, looking neither to the right nor to the left. But so troubled and uncertain did he become as the necessity for fixing an early day for the removal of this tumor became more and more apparent that he at last referred the whole matter to Mr. Carlton, and proposed that Doctor Kline, whose high reputation for surgical skill he knew, should be entrusted with the operation. To this he received an emphatic "No!"
"All the profession award him the highest skill in our city, if not the whole country," said Doctor Hillhouse.
"I have no doubt of his skill," replied Mr. Carlton. "But—"
"What?" asked the doctor, as Mr. Carlton hesitated. "Are you not aware that he uses wine too freely?"
Doctor Hillhouse was taken by surprise at this intimation.
"No, I am not aware of anything of the kind," he replied, almost indignantly. "He is not a teetotaller, of course, any more than you or I. Socially and at dinner he takes his glass of wine, as we do. But to say that he uses liquor too freely is, I am sure, a mistake."
"Some men, as you know, doctor, cannot use wine without a steady increase of the appetite until it finally gets the mastery, and I am afraid Doctor Kline is one of them."
"I am greatly astonished to hear you say this," replied Dr. Hillhouse, "and I cannot but hold you mistaken."
"Have you ever met him at a public dinner, at the club or at a private entertainment where there was plenty of wine?"
"And observed no unusual exhilaration?"
Dr. Hillhouse became reflective. Now that his attention was called to the matter, some doubts began to intrude themselves.
"We cannot always judge the common life by what we see on convivial occasions," he made answer. "One may take wine freely with his friends and be as abstemious as an anchorite during business-or profession-hours."
"Not at all probable," replied Mr. Carlton, "and not good in my observation. The appetite that leads a man into drinking more when among friends than his brain will carry steadily is not likely to sleep when he is alone. Any over-stimulation, as you know, doctor, leaves in the depressed state that follows a craving for renewed exhilaration. I am very sure that on the morning after one of the occasions to which I have referred Doctor Kline finds himself in no condition for the work of a delicate surgical operation until he has steadied his relaxed nerves with more than a single glass."
He paused for a moment, and then said, with strong emphasis:
"The hand, Doctor Hillhouse, that cuts down into her dear flesh must be steadied by healthy nerves, and not by wine or brandy. No, sir; I will not hear to it. I will not have Doctor Kline. In your hands, and yours alone, I trust my wife in this great extremity."
"That is for you to decide," returned Dr. Hillhouse. "I felt it to be only right to give you an opportunity to avail of Doctor Kline's acknowledged skill. I am sure you can do so safely."
But Mr. Carlton was very emphatic in his rejection of Dr. Kline.
"I may be a little peculiar," he said, "but do you know I never trust any important interest with a man who drinks habitually?—one of your temperate drinkers, I mean, who can take his three or four glasses of wine at dinner, or twice that number, during an evening while playing at whist, but who never debases himself by so low a thing as intoxication."
"Are not you a little peculiar, or, I might say, over-nice, in this?" remarked Doctor Hillhouse.
"No, I am only prudent. Let me give you a fact in my own experience. I had a law-suit several years ago involving many thousands of dollars. My case was good, but some nice points of law were involved, and I needed for success the best talent the bar afforded. A Mr. B——, I will call him, stood very high in the profession, and I chose him for my counsel. He was a man of fine social qualities, and admirable for his after-dinner speeches. You always met him on public occasions. He was one of your good temperate drinkers and not afraid of a glass of wine, or even brandy, and rarely, if ever, refused a friend who asked him to drink.
"He was not an intemperate man, of course. No one dreamed of setting him over among that banned and rejected class of men whom few trust, and against whom all are on guard. He held his place of honor and confidence side by side with the most trusted men in his profession. As a lawyer, interests of vast magnitude were often in his hands, and largely depended on his legal sagacity, clearness of thought and sleepless vigilance. He was usually successful in his cases.
"I felt my cause safe in his hands—that is, as safe as human care and foresight could make it. But to my surprise and disappointment, his management of the case on the day of trial was faulty and blind. I had gone over all the points with him carefully, and he had seemed to hold them with a masterly hand. He was entirely confident of success, and so was I. But now he seemed to lose his grasp on the best points in the case, and to bring forward his evidence in a way that, in my view, damaged instead of making our side strong. Still, I forced myself to think that he knew best what to do, and that the meaning of his peculiar tactics should soon become apparent. I noticed, as the trial went on, a bearing of the opposing counsel toward Mr. B—— that appeared unusual. He seemed bent on annoying him with little side issues and captious objections, not so much showing a disposition to meet him squarely, upon the simple and clearly defined elements of the case, as to draw him away from them and keep them as far out of sight as possible.
"In this he was successful. Mr. B—— seemed in his hands more like a bewildered child than a strong, clear-seeing man. When, after all the evidence was in, the arguments on both sides were submitted to the jury, I saw with alarm that Mr. B—— had failed signally. His summing up was weak and disjointed, and he did not urge with force and clearness the vital points in the case on which all our hopes depended. The contrast of his closing argument with that of the other side was very great, and I knew when the jury retired from the court-room that all was lost, and so it proved.
"It was clear to me that I had mistaken my man—that Mr. B——'s reputation was higher than his ability. He was greatly chagrined at the result, and urged me to take an appeal, saying he was confident we could get a reversal of the decision.
"While yet undecided as to whether I would appeal or not, a friend who had been almost as much surprised and disappointed at the result of the trial as I was came to me in considerable excitement of manner, and said:
"'I heard something this morning that will surprise you, I think, as much as it has surprised me. Has it never occurred to you that there was something strange about Mr. B—— on the day your case was tried?'
"'Yes,' I replied, 'it has often occurred to me; and the more I think about it, the more dissatisfied am with his management of my case. He is urging me to appeal; but should I do so, I have pretty well made up my mind to have other counsel.'
"'That I should advise by all means,' returned my friend.
"'The thought has come once or twice,' said I, 'that there might have been false play in the case.'
"'There has been,' returned my friend.
"What!' I exclaimed. 'False play? No, no, I will not believe so base a thing of Mr. B——.'
"'I do not mean false play on his part,' replied my friend. 'Far be it from me to suggest a thought against his integrity of character. No, no! I believe him to be a man of honor. The false play, if there has been any, has been against him.'
"'Against him?' I could but respond, with increasing surprise. Then a suspicion of the truth flashed into my mind.
"'He had been drinking too much that morning,' said my friend. 'That was the meaning of his strange and defective management of the case, and of his confusion of ideas when he made his closing argument to the jury.'
"It was clear to me now, and I wondered that I had not thought of it before. 'But,' I asked, 'what has this to do with foul play? You don't mean to intimate that his liquor was drugged?'
"'No. The liquor was all right, so far as that goes,' he replied. 'The story I heard was this. It came to me in rather a curious way. I was in the reading-room at the League this morning looking over a city paper, when I happened to hear your name spoken by one of two gentlemen who sat a little behind me talking in a confidential way, but in a louder key than they imagined. I could not help hearing what they said. After the mention of your name I listened with close attention, and found that they were talking about the law-suit, and about Mr. B—— in connection therewith. "It was a sharp game," one of them said. "How was it done?" inquired the other.
"'I partially held my breath,' continued my friend, 'so as not to lose a word. "Neatly enough," was the reply. "You see our friend the lawyer can't refuse a drink. He's got a strong head, and can take twice as much as the next man without showing it. A single glass makes no impression on him, unless it be to sharpen him up. So a plan was laid to get half a dozen glasses aboard, more or less, before court opened on the morning the case of Walker vs. Carlton was to be called. But not willing to trust to this, we had a wine-supper for his special benefit on the night before, so as to break his nerves a little and make him thirsty next morning. Well, you see, the thing worked, and B—— drank his bottle or two, and went to bed pretty mellow. Of course he must tone up in the morning before leaving home, and so come out all right. He would tone up a little more on his way to his office, and then be all ready for business and bright as a new dollar. This would spoil all. So five of us arranged to meet him at as many different points on his way down town and ask him to drink. The thing worked like a charm. We got six glasses into him before he reached his office. I saw as soon as he came into court that it was a gone case for Carlton. B—— had lost his head. And so it proved. We had an easy victory."'
"I took the case out of B——'s hands," said Mr. Carlton, "and gained it in a higher court, the costs of both trials falling upon the other side. Since that time, Dr. Hillhouse, I have had some new views on the subject of moderate drinking, as it is called."
"What are they?" asked the doctor.
"An experience like this set me to thinking. If, I said to myself, a man uses wine, beer or spirits habitually, is there no danger that at some time when great interests, or even life itself, may be at stake, a glass too much may obscure his clear intellect and make him the instrument of loss or disaster? I pursued the subject, and as I did so was led to this conclusion—that society really suffers more, from what is called moderate drinking than it does from out-and-out drunkenness."
"Few will agree with you in that conclusion," returned Doctor Hillhouse.
"On the contrary," replied Mr. Carlton, "I think that most people, after looking at the subject from the right standpoint, will see it as I do."
"Men who take a glass of wine at dinner and drink with a friend occasionally," remarked Doctor Hillhouse, "are not given to idleness, waste of property and abuse and neglect of their families, as we find to be the case with common drunkards. They don't fill our prisons and almshouses. Their wives and children do not go to swell the great army of beggars, paupers and criminals. I fear, my friend, that you are looking through the wrong end of your glass."
"No; my glass is all right. The number of drunken men and women in the land is small compared to the number who drink moderately, and very few of them are to be found in places of trust or responsibility. As soon as a man is known to be a drunkard society puts a mark on him and sets him aside. If he is a physician, health and life are no longer entrusted to his care; if a lawyer, no man will give an important case into his hands. A ship-owner will not trust him with his vessel, though a more skilled navigator cannot be found; and he may be the best engineer in the land, yet will no railroad or steamship company trust him with life and property. So everywhere the drunkard is ignored. Society will not trust him, and he is limited in his power to do harm.
"Not so with your moderate drinkers. They fill our highest places and we commit to their care our best and dearest interests. We put the drunkard aside because we know he cannot be trusted, and give to moderate drinkers, a sad percentage of whom are on the way to drunkenness, our unwavering confidence. They sail our ships, they drive our engines, they make and execute our laws, they take our lives in their hands as doctors and surgeons; we trust them to defend or maintain our legal rights, we confide to them our interests in hundreds of different ways that we would never dream of confiding to men who were regarded as intemperate. Is it not fair to conclude, knowing as we do how a glass of wine too much will confuse the brain and obscure the judgment, that society in trusting its great army of moderate drinkers is suffering loss far beyond anything we imagine? A doctor loses his patient, a lawyer his case, an engineer wrecks his ship or train, an agent hurts his principal by a loose or bad bargain, and all because the head had lost for a brief space its normal clearness.
"Men hurt themselves through moderate drinking in thousands of ways," continued Mr. Carlton. "We have but to think for a moment to see this. Many a fatal document has been signed, many a disastrous contract made, many a ruinous bargain consummated, which but for the glass of wine taken at the wrong moment would have been rejected. Men under the excitement of drink often enter into the unwise schemes of designing men only to lose heavily, and sometimes to encounter ruin. The gambler entices his victim to drink, while he keeps his own head clear. He knows the confusing quality of wine."
"You make out rather a strong case," said Doctor Hillhouse.
"Too strong, do you think?"
"Perhaps not. Looking at the thing through your eyes, Mr. Carlton, moderate drinking is an evil of great magnitude."
"It is assuredly, and far greater, as I have said, than is generally supposed. The children of this world are very wise, and some of them, I am sorry to add, very unscrupulous in gaining their ends. They know the power of all the agencies that are around them, and do not scruple to make use of whatever comes to their hand. Three or four capitalists are invited to meet at a gentleman's house to consider some proposition he has to lay before them. They are liberally supplied with wine, and drink without a lurking suspicion of what the service of good wine means. They see in it only the common hospitality of the day, and fail to notice that one or two of the company never empty their glasses. On the next day these men will most likely feel some doubt as to the prudence of certain large subscriptions made on the previous afternoon or evening, and wonder how they could have been so infatuated as to put money into a scheme that promised little beyond a permanent investment.
"If," added Mr. Carlton, "we could come at any proximate estimate of the loss which falls upon society in consequence of the moderate use of intoxicating drinks, we would find that it exceeded a hundred—nay, a thousand—fold that of the losses sustained through drunkenness. Against the latter society is all the while seeking to guard itself, against the former it has little or no protection—does not, in fact, comprehend the magnitude of its power for evil. But I have wearied you with my talk, and forgotten for the time being the anxiety that lies so near my heart. No, doctor, I will not trust the hand of Doctor Kline, skillful as it may be, to do this work; for I cannot be sure that a glass too much may not have been taken to steady the nerves a night's excess of wine may have left unstrung."
Doctor Hillhouse sat with closely knit brows for some time after Mr. Carlton ceased speaking.
"There is matter for grave consideration in what you have said," he remarked, at length, "though I apprehend your fears in regard to Doctor Kline are more conjectural than real."
"I hope so," returned Mr. Carlton, "but as a prudent man I will not take needless risk in the face of danger. If an operation cannot be avoided, I will trust that precious life to none but you."
WE have seen how it was with Doctor Hillhouse on the morning of the day fixed for the operation. The very danger that Mr. Carlton sought to avert in his rejection of Doctor Kline was at his door. Not having attended the party at Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell's, he did not know that Doctor Hillhouse had, with most of the company, indulged freely in wine. If a suspicion of the truth had come to him, he would have refused to let the operation proceed. But like a passenger in some swiftly-moving car who has faith in the clear head and steady hand of the engineer, his confidence in Doctor Hillhouse gave him a feeling of security.
But far from this condition of faith in himself was the eminent surgeon in whom he was reposing his confidence. He had, alas! tarried too long at the feast of wine and fat things dispensed by Mr. Birtwell, and in his effort to restore the relaxed tension of his nerves by stimulation had sent too sudden an impulse to his brain, and roused it to morbid action. His coffee failed to soothe the unquiet nerves, his stomach turned from the food on which he had depended for a restoration of the equipoise which the night's excesses had destroyed. The dangerous condition of Mrs. Ridley and his forced visit to that lady in the early morning, when he should have been free from all unusual effort and excitement, but added to his disturbance.
Doctor Hillhouse knew all about the previous habits of Mr. Ridley, and was much interested in his case. He had seen with hope and pleasure the steadiness with which he was leading his new life, and was beginning to have strong faith in his future. But when he met him on that morning, he knew by unerring signs that the evening at Mr. Birtwell's had been to him one of debauch instead of restrained conviviality. The extremity of his wife's condition, and his almost insane appeals that he would hold her back from death, shocked still further the doctor's already quivering nerves.
The imminent peril in which Doctor Hillhouse found Mrs. Ridley determined him to call in another physician for consultation. As twelve o'clock on that day had been fixed for the operation on Mrs. Carlton, it was absolutely necessary to get his mind as free as possible from all causes of anxiety or excitement, and the best thing in this extremity was to get his patient into the hands of a brother in the profession who could relieve him temporarily from all responsibility, and watch the case with all needed care in its swiftly approaching crisis. So he sent Doctor Angier, immediately on his return from his visit to Mrs. Ridley, with a request to Doctor Ainsworth, a physician of standing and experience, to meet him in consultation at ten o'clock.
Precisely at ten the physicians arrived at the house of Mr. Ridley, and were admitted by that gentleman, whose pale, haggard, frightened face told of his anguish and alarm. They asked him no questions, and he preceded them in silence to the chamber of his sick wife. It needed no second glance at their patient to tell the two doctors that she was in great extremity. Her pinched face was ashen in color and damp with a cold sweat, and her eyes, no longer wild and restless, looked piteous and anxious, as of one in dreadful suffering who pleaded mutely for help. An examination of her pulse showed the beat to be frequent and feeble, and on the slightest movement she gave signs of pain. Her respiration was short and very rapid. Mr. Ridley was present, and standing in a position that enabled him to observe the faces of the two doctors as they proceeded with their examination. Hope died as he saw the significant changes that passed over them. When they left the sick-chamber, he left also, and walked the floor anxiously while they sat in consultation, talking together in low tones. Now and then he caught words, such as "peritoneum," "lesion," "perforation," etc., the fatal meaning of which he more than half guessed.
They were still in consultation when a sudden cry broke from the lips of Mrs. Ridley; and rising hastily, they went back to her chamber. Her face was distorted and her body writhing with pain.
Doctor Hillhouse wrote a prescription hastily, saying to Mr. Ridley as he gave it to him: "Opium, and get it as quickly as you can."
The sick woman had scarcely a moment's freedom from pain of a most excruciating character during the ten minutes that elapsed before her husband's return. The quantity of opium administered was large, and its effects soon apparent in a gradual breaking down of the pains, which had been almost spasmodic in their character.
When Doctor Hillhouse went away, leaving Doctor Ainsworth in charge of his patient, she was sinking: into a quiet sleep. On arriving at his office he found Mr. Wilmer Voss impatiently awaiting his return.
"Doctor," said this gentleman, starting up on seeing him and showing considerable agitation, "you must come to my wife immediately."
Doctor Hillhouse felt stunned for an instant. He drew his hand tightly against his forehead, that was heavy with its dull, half-stupefying pain which, spite of what he could do, still held on. All his nerves were unstrung.
"How is she?" he asked, with the manner of one who had received an unwelcome message. His hand was still held against his forehead.
"She broke all down a little while ago, and now lies moaning and shivering. Oh, doctor, come right away! You know how weak she is. This dreadful suspense will kill her, I'm afraid."
"Have you no word of Archie yet?" asked Doctor Hillhouse as he dropped the hand he had been holding against his forehead and temples.
"None! So far, we are without a sign."
"What are you doing?"
"Everything that can be thought of. More than twenty of our friends, in concert with the police, are at work in all conceivable ways to get trace of him, but from the moment he left Mr. Birtwell's he dropped out of sight as completely as if the sea had gone over him. Up to this time not the smallest clue to this dreadful mystery has been found. But come, doctor. Every moment is precious."
Doctor Hillhouse drew out his watch. It was now nearly half-past ten o'clock. His manner was nervous, verging on to excitement. In almost any other case he would have said that it was not possible for him to go. But the exigency and the peculiarly distressing circumstances attending upon this made it next to impossible for him to refuse.
"At twelve o'clock, Mr. Voss, I have a delicate and difficult operation to perform, and I have too short a time now for the preparation I need. I am sure you can rely fully on my assistant, Doctor Angler."
"No, no!" replied Mr. Voss, waving his hand almost impatiently. "I do not want Doctor Angier. You must see Mrs. Voss yourself."
He was imperative, almost angry. What was the delicate and difficult operation to him? What was anything or anybody that stood in the way of succor for his imperiled wife? He could not pause to think of others' needs or danger.
Doctor Hillhouse had to decide quickly, and his decision was on the side where pressure was strongest. He could not deny Mr. Voss.
He found the poor distressed mother in a condition of utter prostration. For a little while after coming out of the swoon into which her first wild fears had thrown her, she had been able to maintain a tolerably calm exterior. But the very effort to do this was a draught on her strength, and in a few hours, under the continued suspense of waiting and hearing nothing from her boy, the overstrained nerves broke down again, and she sunk into a condition of half-conscious suffering that was painful to see.
For such conditions medicine can do but little. All that Doctor Hillhouse ventured to prescribe was a quieting draught. It was after eleven o'clock when he got back to his office, where he found Mr. Ridley waiting for him with a note from Doctor Ainsworth.
"Come for just a single moment," the note said. "There are marked changes in her condition."
"I cannot! It is impossible!" exclaimed Doctor Hillhouse, with an excitement of manner he could not repress. Doctor Ainsworth can do all that it is in the power of medical skill to accomplish. It will not help her for me to go again now, and another life is in my hands. I am sorry, Mr. Ridley, but I cannot see your wife again until this afternoon.
"Oh, doctor, doctor, don't say that!" cried the poor, distressed husband, clasping his hands and looking at Doctor Hillhouse with a pale, imploring face. "Just for single moment, doctor. Postpone your operation. Ten minutes, or even an hour, can be of no consequence. But life or death may depend on your seeing my wife at once. Come, doctor! Come, for God's sake!"
Doctor Hillhouse looked at his watch again, stood in a bewildered, uncertain way for a few moments, and then turned quickly toward the door and went out, Mr. Ridley following.
"Get in," he said, waving his hand in the direction of his carriage, which still remained in front of his office. Mr. Ridley obeyed. Doctor Hillhouse gave the driver a hurried direction, and sprang in after him. They rode in silence for the whole distance to Mr. Ridley's dwelling.
One glance at the face of the sick woman was enough to show Doctor Hillhouse that she was beyond the reach of professional skill. Her disease, as he had before seen, had taken on its worst form, and was running its fatal course with a malignant impetuosity it was impossible to arrest. The wild fever of anxiety occasioned by her husband's absence during that dreadful night, the cold to which, in her delirium of fear, she had exposed herself, the great shock her delicate organism had sustained at a time when even the slightest disturbance might lead to serious consequences,—all these causes combined had so broken down her vitality and poisoned her blood that nature had no force strong enough to rally against the enemies of her life.
A groan that sounded like a wail of desperation broke from Mr. Ridley's lips as he came in with the doctor and looked at the death-stricken countenance of his wife. The two physicians gazed at each other with ominous faces, and stood silent and helpless at the bedside.
When Doctor Hillhouse hurried away ten minutes afterward he knew that he had looked for the last time upon his patient. Mr. Ridley did not attempt to detain him. Hope had expired, and he sat bowed and crushed, wishing that he could die.
The large quantity of opium which had been taken by Mrs. Ridley held all her outward senses locked, and she passed away, soon after Doctor Hillhouse retired, without giving her husband a parting word or even a sign of recognition.
WHEN Doctor Hillhouse arrived at his office, it lacked only a quarter of an hour to twelve, the time fixed for the operation on Mrs. Carlton. He found Doctor Kline and Doctor Angier, who were to assist him, both awaiting his return.
"I thought twelve o'clock the hour?" said Doctor Kline as he came in hurriedly.
"So it is. But everything has seemed to work adversely this morning. Mr. Ridley's wife is extremely ill—dying, in fact—and I have had to see her too or three times. Other calls have been imperative, and here I am within a quarter of an hour of the time fixed for a most delicate operation, and my preparations not half completed."
Doctor Kline regarded him for a few moments, and then said:
"This is unfortunate, doctor, and I would advise a postponement until to-morrow. You should have had a morning free from anything but unimportant calls."
"Oh no. I cannot think of a postponement," Doctor Hillhouse replied. "All the arrangements have been made at Mr. Carlton's, and my patient is ready. To put it off for a single day might cause a reaction in her feelings and produce an unfavorable condition. It will have to be done to-day."
"You must not think of keeping your appointment to the hour," said Doctor Kline, glancing at his watch. "Indeed, that would now be impossible. Doctor Angier had better go and say that we will be there within half an hour. Don't hurry yourself in the slightest degree. Take all the time you need to make yourself ready. I will remain and assist you as best I can."
A clear-seeing and controlling mind was just what Doctor Hillhouse needed at that moment. He saw the value of Doctor Kline's suggestion, and promptly accepted it. Doctor Angier was despatched to the residence of Mr. Carlton to advise that gentleman of the brief delay and to make needed preparations for the work that was to be done.
The very necessity felt by Doctor Hillhouse for a speedy repression of the excitement from which he was suffering helped to increase the disturbance, and it was only after he had used a stimulant stronger than he wished to take that he found his nerves becoming quiet and the hand on whose steadiness so much depended growing firm.
At half-past twelve Doctor Hillhouse, in company with Doctor Kline, arrived at Mr. Carlton's. The white face and scared look of the female servant who admitted them showed how strongly fear and sympathy were at work in the house. She directed them to the room which had been set apart for their use. In the hall above Mr. Carlton met them, and returned with a trembling hand and silent pressure the salutation of the two physicians, who passed into a chamber next to the one occupied by their patient and quickly began the work of making everything ready. Acting from previous concert, they drew the table which had been provided into the best light afforded by the room, and then arranged instruments, bandages and all things needed for the work to be done.
When all these preparations were completed, notice was given to Mrs. Carlton, who immediately entered from the adjoining room. She was a beautiful woman, in the very prime of life, and never had she appeared more beautiful than now. Her strong will had mastered fear, strength, courage and resignation looked out from her clear eyes and rested on her firm lips. She smiled, but did not speak. Doctor Hillhouse took her by the hand and led her to the table on which she was to lie during the operation, saying, as he did so, "It will be over in a few minutes, and you will not feel it as much as the scratch of a pin."
She laid herself down without a moment's hesitation, and as she did so Doctor Angier, according to previous arrangement, presented a sponge saturated with ether to her nostrils, and in two minutes complete anaesthesis was produced. On the instant this took place Doctor Hillhouse made an incision and cut down quickly to the tumor. His hand was steady, and he seemed to be in perfect command of himself. The stimulants he had taken as a last resort were still active on brain and nerves. On reaching the tumor he found it, as he had feared, much larger than its surface presentation indicated. It was a hard, fibrous substance, and deeply seated among the veins, arteries and muscles of the neck. The surgeon's hand retained its firmness; there was a concentration of thought and purpose that gave science and skill their best results. It took over twenty minutes to dissect the tumor away from all the delicate organs upon which it had laid its grasp, and nearly half as long a time to stanch the flow of blood from the many small arteries which had been severed during the operation. One of these, larger than the rest, eluded for a time the efforts of Doctor Hillhouse at ligation, and he felt uncertain about it even after he had stopped the effusion of blood. In fact, his hand had become unsteady and his brain slightly confused. The active stimulant taken half an hour before was losing its effect and his nerves beginning to give way. He was no longer master of the situation, and the last and, as it proved, the most vital thing in the whole operation was done imperfectly.
At the end of thirty-five minutes the patient, still under the influence of ether was carried back to her chamber and laid back upon her bed, quiet as a sleeping infant.
"It is all over," said Doctor Hillhouse as the eyes of Mrs. Carlton unclosed a little while afterward and she looked up into his face. He was no longer the impassive surgeon, but the tender and sympathizing friend. His voice was flooded with feeling and moisture dimmed his eyes.
What a look of sweet thankfulness came into the face of Mrs. Carlton as she whispered, "And I knew nothing of it!" Then, shutting her eyes and speaking to herself, she said, "It is wonderful. Thank God, thank God!"
It was almost impossible to, restrain Mr. Carlton, so excessive was his delight when the long agony of suspense was over. Doctor Hillhouse had to grasp his arm tightly and hold him back as he stooped down over his wife. In the blindness of his great joy he would have lifted her in his arms.
"Perfect quiet," said the doctor. "There must be nothing to give her heart a quicker pulsation. Doctor Angier will remain for half an hour to see that all goes well."
The two surgeons then retired, Doctor Kline accompanying Doctor Hillhouse to his office. The latter was silent all the way. The strain over and the alcoholic stimulation gone, mind and body had alike lost their abnormal tension.
"I must congratulate you, doctor," said the friendly surgeon who had assisted in the operation. "It was even more difficult than I had imagined. I never saw a case in which the sheathings of the internal jugular vein and carotid artery were so completely involved. The tumor had made its ugly adhesion all around them. I almost held my breath when the blood from a severed artery spurted over your scalpel and hid from sight the keen edge that was cutting around the internal jugular. A false movement of the hand at that instant might have been fatal."
"Yes; and but for the clearness of that inner sight which, in great exigencies, so often supplements the failing natural vision, all might have been lost," replied Doctor Hillhouse, betraying in his unsteady voice the great reaction from which he was suffering. "If I had known," he added, "that the tumor was so large and its adhesion so extensive, I would not have operated to-day. In fact, I was in no condition for the performance of any operation. I committed a great indiscretion in going to Mr. Birtwell's last night. Late suppers and wine do not leave one's nerves in the best condition, as you and I know very well, doctor; and as a preparation for work such as we have had on hand to-day nothing could be worse."
"Didn't I hear something about the disappearance of a young man who left Mr. Birtwell's at a late hour?" asked Doctor Kline.
"Nothing has been heard of the son of Wilmer Voss since he went away from Mr. Birtwell's about one o'clock," replied Doctor Hillhouse, "and his family are in great distress about him. Mrs. Voss, who is one of my patients, is in very delicate health and when I saw her at eleven o'clock to-day was lying in a critical condition."
"There is something singular about that party at Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell's, added Doctor Hillhouse, after a pause. I hardly know what to make of it."
"Singular in what respect?" asked the other.
The face of Doctor Hillhouse grew more serious:
"You know Mr. Ridley, the lawyer? He was in Congress a few years ago."
"He was very intemperate at one time, and fell so low that even his party rejected him. He then reformed and came to this city, where he entered upon the practice of his profession, and has been for a year or two advancing rapidly. I attended his wife a few days ago, and saw her yesterday afternoon, when she was continuing to do well. There were some indications of excitement about her, though whether from mental or physical causes I could not tell, but nothing to awaken concern. This morning I found her in a most critical condition. Puerperal fever had set in, with evident extensive peritoneal involvement. The case was malignant, all the abdominal viscera being more or less affected. I learned from the nurse that Mr. Ridley was away all night, and that Mrs. Ridley, who was restless and feverish through the evening, became agitated and slightly delirious after twelve o'clock, talking about and calling for her husband, whom she imagined dying in the storm, that now raged with dreadful violence. No help could be had all night; and when we saw her this morning, it was too late for medicine to control the fatal disease which was running its course with almost unprecedented rapidity. She was dying when I saw her at half-past eleven this morning. This case and that of Mrs. Voss were the ones that drew so largely on my time this morning, and helped to disturb me so much, and both were in consequence of Mr. Birtwell's party."