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Two Wives, a fiction by T. S. Arthur

Chapter 6

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MORNING found little Ella, though much exhausted by the severe struggle through which she had passed, so far restored that her parents ceased to feel that anxiety with which for hours, as they hung over her, their hearts had been painfully oppressed.

It could not but be that a shadow would rest on the gentle face of Mrs. Wilkinson, as she met her husband at the breakfast table; for it was impossible to obliterate the memory of such a night of trial and alarm as the one through which she had just passed. And yet, with a strong effort, she strove to appear cheerful, and when she spoke to her husband, it was with a forced smile and a tone of tenderness that touched and subdued his feelings; for he well understood that, in a certain sense, she was merely acting.

But few words passed between them during the brief morning meal. As the hour was later than usual, Wilkinson found it necessary to hurry off to his place of business; so, rising before his wife left the table, he kissed her pale lips, and, without venturing to make a remark, left the room.

The door had scarcely closed upon him, ere a tear stole out from the sad eyes of Mrs. Wilkinson. A few moments she sat in statue-like stillness, then there was a quick glancing of her eye upwards, while the motion of her lips showed that she asked strength for herself, or protection for one whom she loved better than herself.

It was a regular custom with Wilkinson to stop at a drinking-house on his way to his store, and get a glass of brandy. This was an afternoon as well as a morning custom, which had been continued so long that it was now a habit. Yet he was not aware of this fact, and, if he had thought about the custom, would have regarded it as one easily abandoned. He had a glimpse of his error on the present occasion.

To do a thing by habit is to do it without reflection; and herein lies the dangerous power of habit; for, when we act from confirmed habit, it is without thought as to the good or evil to result from our action. Thus had Wilkinson been acting for months as regards his regular glass of brandy in the morning and afternoon, while passing from his dwelling to his store. Not until now was he in the least conscious that habit was gaining an undue power over him.

As the eyes of Wilkinson rested upon the form of a certain elegant coloured glass lamp standing in front of a well-known drinking-house, he was conscious of a desire for his accustomed draught of brandy and water; but, at the same instant, there came a remembrance of the painful occurrences of the evening previous, and he said to himself--"One such lesson ought to make me hate brandy, and every thing else that can rob me of a true regard for the happiness of Mary."

Yet, even as he said this, habit, disturbed in the stronghold of its power, aroused itself, and furnished him with an argument that instantly broke down his forming resolution. This argument was his loss of rest, the consequent debility arising therefrom, and the actual need of his system for something stimulating, in order to enable him to enter properly upon the business of the day.

So habit triumphed. Wilkinson, without even pausing at the door, entered the drinking-house and obtained his accustomed glass of brandy.

"I feel a hundred per cent. better," said he, as he emerged from the bar-room and took his way to his store. "That was just what my system wanted."

Yet, if he felt, for a little while, better as regarded his bodily sensations, the act did not leave him more comfortable in mind. His instinctive consciousness of having done wrong in yielding to the desire for brandy, troubled him.

"I shall have to break up this habit entirely," he remarked to himself during the morning, as his thought returned, again and again, to the subject. "I don't believe I'm in any particular danger; but, then, it troubles Mary; and I can't bear to see her troubled."

While he thus communed with himself, his friend Ellis dropped in.

I meant to have called earlier," said Ellis, "to ask about your sick child, but was prevented by a customer. She is better, I hope?"

"Oh, yes, much better, thank you."

"What was the matter?" inquired Ellis.

"She is teething, and was thrown into convulsions."

"Ah! yes. Well, I never was so startled in my life as by the appearance of Mrs. Wilkinson. And the child is better?"

"When I came away this morning, I left her sleeping calmly and sweetly; and, what is more, the points of two teeth had made their way through the red and swollen gums."

"All right, then. But how is Mary?"

"Not very well, of course. How could she be, after such a night of anxiety and alarm? The fact is, Harry, I was to blame for having left her alone during the evening, knowing, as I did, that Ella was not very well."

Ellis shrugged his shoulders, as he replied--"Not much excuse for you, I must admit. I only wish the attraction at my home was as strong as it is at yours: Parker's would not see me often. As for you, my old friend, if I speak what I think, I must say that your inclination to go out in the evening needs correcting. I spend most of my evenings from home, because home is made unpleasant; you leave your wife, because a love of conviviality and gay company entices you away. Such company I know to be dangerous, and especially so for you. There now, as a friend, I have talked out plainly. What do you think of it? Ain't I right?"

"I don't know," replied Wilkinson, musingly. "Perhaps you are. I have thought as much, sometimes, myself."

"I know I'm right," said Ellis, positively. "So take a friend's advice, and never go out after sundown, except in company with your wife."

There was a change from gravity to mock seriousness in the voice of Ellis as he closed this sentence. Wilkinson compressed his lips and shook his head.

"Can't always be tied to my wife's apron-string. Oh, no! haven't come to that."

"With such a wife, and your temperament, it is the best place for you," said Ellis, laughing.

"May be it is; but, for all that, I like good company too well to spend all my time with her."

"Isn't she good company?"

"Oh, yes; but, then, variety is the very spice of life, you know."

"True enough. Well, we'll not quarrel about the matter. Come! let's go and take a drink; I'm as dry as a fish."

"I don't care if I do," was the instinctive reply of Wilkinson, who took up his hat as he spoke.

The two men left the store, and were, a little while after, taking a lunch at a public house, and chatting over their brandy and water.

At the usual dinner hour, Wilkinson returned home. He did not fully understand the expression of his wife's face, as she looked at him on his entrance: it was a look of anxious inquiry. She sat with Ella upon her lap: the child was sleeping.

"How is our little pet?" he asked, as he bent over, first kissing his wife, and then touching his lips lightly to the babe's forehead.

"She's been in a heavy sleep for most of the time since morning," replied Mrs. Wilkinson, turning her face aside, so that her husband could not see its changed expression.

Mr. Wilkinson's habitual use of brandy had long been a source of trouble to his wife. In reviewing the painful incidents of the previous evening, a hope had sprung up in her heart that the effect would be to awaken his mind to a sense of his danger, cause him to reflect, and lead to a change of habit. Alas! how like a fairy frost-work fabric melted this hope away, as the strong breath of her husband fell upon her face. She turned away and sighed--sighed in her spirit, but not audibly; for, even in her pain and disappointment, active love prompted to concealment, lest the shadow that came over her should repel the one she so earnestly sought to win from his path of danger.

Ah, who can tell the effort it cost that true-hearted wife to call up the smile with which, scarcely a moment afterwards, she looked into her husband's face!

"It is no worse, if no better," was her sustaining thought; and she leaned upon it, fragile reed as it was. _

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