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Two Wives, a fiction by T. S. Arthur

Chapter 2

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WILKINSON was nearly in front of his own door, when he was thus familiarly accosted by a man named Ellis, who came leisurely walking along with a lighted cigar in his mouth.

"Hallo! is this you, Wilkinson? What in the name of wonder are you doing out at such an hour?"

"And suppose I were to ask you the same question?" inquired Wilkinson, as he took the hand of the other, who was an old acquaintance.

"It would be easily answered," was the unhesitating reply of Ellis, who had been drinking rather freely.

"Well, suppose I have the benefit of your answer."

"You're quite welcome. I keep no secrets from an old friend, you see. Can't you guess?"

"I'm not good at guessing."

"Had a little tiff with Cara," said Ellis in a half whisper, as he bent to the ear of his companion.

"Oh, no!" returned Wilkinson.

"Fact. Cara's a dear, good soul, as you know; but she's a self-willed little jade, and if I don't do just as she wants me to--if I don't walk her chalk line--_presto!_ she goes off like a rocket. To-night, d'ye see, I came home with the first volume of Prescott's new work on Mexico--a perfect romance of a book, and wanted to read it aloud to Cara. But no, she had something else in her head, and told me, up and down, that she didn't want to hear any of my dull old histories. I got mad, of course; I always get mad when she comes athwart my hawes in this way.

"'Dull old histories!' said I, indignantly. 'There's more true life and real interest in this book than in all the Wandering Jews or Laura Matilda novels that ever were written; and I wish you'd throw such miserable trash into the fire, and read books from which to get some intelligence and strength of mind.' Whew! The way she combed my hair for me at this was curious. I am a philosopher, and on these occasions generally repeat to myself the wise saw--

'He that fights and runs away,
May live to fight another day.'

So, deeming discretion the better part of valour, I retreated in disorder."

"That's bad," remarked Wilkinson, who knew something of the character of his friend's wife.

"I know it's bad; but, then, I can't help myself. Cara has such a queer temper, I never know how to take her."

"You ought to understand her peculiarities by this time, and bear with them."

"Bear with them! I'd like to see you have the trial for a while; your wife is an angel. Ah, John! you're a lucky dog. If I had such a sweet-tempered woman in my house, I would think it a very paradise."

"Hush! hush! Harry; don't speak in that way. Few women possess so many good qualities as Mrs. Ellis; and it is your duty to cherish and love the good, and to bear with the rest."

"Well preached; but, as I am to apply the discourse, and not you, I must beg to be excused."

"Good-night. Go home, kiss Cara, and forgive her," said Wilkinson; and he made a motion to pass on, adding, as he did so, "I'm out much later than usual, and am in a hurry to get back. Mary will be uneasy about me."

But Ellis caught hold of one of his arms with both hands, and held on to him.

"Can't let you go, Wilkinson" said he, firmly. You're the man of all others I want to see--been thinking about you all the evening; want to have a long talk with you."

"Any other time, but not now," replied Wilkinson.

"Now, and no other time," persisted the other, clinging fast to his arm.

"What do you wish to talk about?" said Wilkinson, ceasing his effort to release himself from the firm grip of his friend.

"About Cara," was answered.

"Go home and make it up with her; that's the best way. She loves you, and you love her; and your love will settle all differences. And besides, Harry, you shouldn't talk about these things to other people. The relation between man and wife is too sacred for this."

"Do you think I talk in this way to everybody? No, indeed!" responded Ellis, in a half-offended tone of voice. "But you're a particular friend. You know Cara's peculiar temper, and can advise with me as a friend. So come along, I want to have a talk with you."

"Come where?"

Ellis turned and pointed to a brilliant gas lamp in the next square, that stood in front of a much frequented tavern.

"No, no; I must go home." And Wilkinson tried to extricate himself from the firm grasp of his friend. But the latter tightened his hold, as he said--

"It's of no use. I shall not let you go. So come along with me to Parker's. Over a couple of brandy toddies we will discuss this matter of Cara's."

A vigorous jerk from the hand of Ellis gave the body of Wilkinson a motion in the direction of the tavern. Had his mind been perfectly clear--had none of the effects of his wine-drinking at Elbridge's remained, he would have resisted to the end this solicitation, at the hour and under the circumstances. But his mind was not perfectly clear. And so, a few steps being taken by compulsion, he moved on by a sort of constrained volition.

As mentioned above, Wilkinson had nearly reached his own door when he encountered Ellis; was, in fact, so near, that he could see the light shining from the chamber-window through which, some hours before, he had marked on the wall the flitting shadow of his wife, as she walked to and fro, seeking to soothe into slumber her sick and grieving child. For nearly five minutes, he had stood talking with his friend, and the sound of their voices might easily have been heard in his dwelling, if one had been listening intently there. And one was listening with every sense strung to the acutest perception. Just as Wilkinson moved away, an observer would have seen the door of his house open, and a slender female form bend forth, and look earnestly into the darkness. A moment or two, she stood thus, and then stepped forth quickly, and leaning upon the iron railing of the door steps, fixed eagerly her eyes upon the slowly receding forms of the two men.

"John! John!" she called, in half suppressed tones.

But her voice did not reach the ear of her husband, whose form she well knew, even in the obscurity of night.

Gliding down the steps, Mrs. Wilkinson ran a few paces along the pavement, but suddenly stopped as some thought passed through her mind; and, turning, went back to the door she had left. There she stood gazing after her husband, until she saw him enter the tavern mentioned as being kept by a man named Parker, when, with a heavy, fluttering sigh, she passed into the house, and ascended to the chamber from which she had, a few minutes before, come down.

It was past eleven o'clock. The two domestics had retired, and Mrs. Wilkinson was alone with her sick child. Ella's moan of suffering came on her ear the instant she re-entered the room, and she stepped quickly to the crib, and bent over to look into its face. The cheeks of the child were flushed with fever to a bright crimson, and she was moving her head from side to side, and working her lips as if there was something in her mouth. Slight twitching motions of the arms and hands were also noticed by the mother. Her eyes were partly open.

"Will Ella have a drink of water?" said Mrs. Wilkinson, placing her hand under the child's head, and slightly raising it from the pillow.

But Ella did not seem to hear.

"Say--love, will you have some water?"

There was no sign that her words reached the child's ears.

A deeper shade of trouble than that which already rested on the mother's face glanced over it.

"Ella! Ella!" Mrs. Wilkinson slightly shook the child.

The only response was the muttering of some incoherent words, and a continued moaning as if pain were disturbing her sleep.

The mother now bent low over her child, and eagerly marked the expression of her face and the character of her breathing. Then she laid a hand upon her cheek. Instantly it was withdrawn with a quick start, but as quickly replaced again.

"What a burning fever!" she murmured. Then she added, in a tone of anxiety,

"How strangely she works her mouth! I don't like this constant rolling of her head. What can it mean? Ella! Ella!"

And she shook the child again.

"Want some water, love?"

The mother's voice did not appear to reach the locked sense of hearing.

Mrs. Wilkinson now lifted a glass of water from the bureau near by, and raising the head of Ella with one hand, applied, with the other, the water to her lips. About a table-spoonful was poured into her mouth. It was not swallowed, but ran out upon the pillow.

"Mercy! mercy! what can ail the child!" exclaimed Mrs. Wilkinson, a look of fear coming into her face.

A little while she stood over her, and then leaving her place beside the crib, she hurried out into the passage, and, pausing at the bottom of the stairs leading to the room above, called several times--

"Anna! Anna! Anna!"

But no answer came. The domestic thus summoned had fallen into her first sound sleep, and the voice did not penetrate her ears.

"Anna!" once more called Mrs. Wilkinson.

There was no response, but the reverberation of her own voice returned upon the oppressive silence. She now hurried back to her sick child, whose low, troubled moaning had not been hushed for a moment.

There was no apparent change. Ella lay with her half-opened eyes, showing, by the white line, that the balls were turned up unnaturally; with her crimsoned cheeks, and with the nervous motions of her lips and slight twitchings of her hands, at first noticed with anxiety and alarm.

Mrs. Wilkinson was but little familiar with sickness in children; and knew not the signs of real danger--or, rather, what unusual signs such as those now apparent in Ella really indicated. But she was sufficiently alarmed, and stood over the child, with her eyes fixed eagerly upon her.

Again she tried to arouse her from so strange and unnatural a state, but with as little effect as at first.

"Oh, my husband!" she at length exclaimed, clasping her hands together, and glancing upward, with tearful eyes, "why are you away from me now? Oh, why did you break your promise to return hours and hours ago?"

Then covering her face with her hands, she sobbed and wept, until, startled by a sharp, unnatural cry from the lips of Ella, her attention was once more fixed upon her suffering child. _

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