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Two Wives, a fiction by T. S. Arthur

Chapter 7

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"COME home early, dear," said Mrs. Wilkinson, resting her hand upon her husband, and looking into his face with a loving smile. "The time seems so long when you are away!"

"Does it?" returned Wilkinson, and he kissed his wife. Yet, did not the tenderness of tone with which he spoke, nor the act of love which accompanied it, hide from the quick perception of Mary the fact that her husband's thoughts were elsewhere.

"Oh, yes," she replied. "I count the hours when you are absent. You'll be home early to tea?"

"Certainly I will. There now, let your heart be at rest."

And Wilkinson retired. This was after dinner, on the day that succeeded the opening of our story.

As in the morning, he found it the most natural thing in the world to call in at a certain drinking house and get his accustomed glass of brandy. As he entered the door of the bar-room, a man named Carlton stepped forward to meet him, with extended hand. He was an old acquaintance, with whom Wilkinson had often passed an agreeable hour,--one of your bar-room loungers, known as good fellows, who, while they exhibit no apparent means of support, generally have money to spend, and plenty of time on their hands.

"Glad to see you, Wilkinson; 'pon my soul! Where have you kept yourself for this month of Sundays?"

Such was the familiar greeting of Carlton.

"And it does one's eyes good to look upon your pleasant face," returned Wilkinson, as he grasped the other's hand. "Where have you kept yourself?"

"Oh, I'm always on hand," said Carlton, gayly. "It's you who are shut up, and hid away from the pure air and bright sunshine in a gloomy store, delving like a mole in the dark. The fact is, old fellow! you are killing yourself. Turning gray, as I live!"

And he touched, with his fingers, the locks of Wilkinson, in which a few gray lines were visible.

"Bad! bad!" he went on, shaking his head. "And you are growing as thin as a lath. When did you ride out?"

"Oh, not for two months past. I've been too closely occupied with business."

"Business!" there was a slight air of contempt in Carlton's voice and manner. "I hate to hear this everlasting cant, if I must so call it, about business; as if there were nothing else in the world to think or care about. Men bury themselves between four brick walls, and toil from morning until night, like prison-slaves; and if you talk to them about an hour's recreation for body and mind, all you can get out of them is--'Business! business!' Pah! I'm out of all patience with it. Life was made for enjoyment as well as toil. But come, what'll you drink? I've preached to you until I'm as dry as a chip."

The two men stepped to the bar and drank. As they turned away, Carlton drew his arm within that of Wilkinson, saying, as he did so--

"As it is an age since I saw you, I must prolong the pleasure of this meeting. Your work is done for the day, of course."

"No, I can't just say that it is."

"Well, I can then. If you've been immuring yourself, as you have on your own confession, for some two months, or more, an afternoon with good company is indispensable. So, consider this a holiday, and think no more of bags, boxes, cash-book, or ledger. I bought a splendid trotter yesterday, and am going to try his speed. You are a first-rate judge of horse-flesh, and I want your opinion. So, consider yourself engaged for a flying trip to Mount Airy."

"You are a tempter," said Wilkinson, laughing.

"Oh, no. A friend, who will give health to your veins, and life to your spirit."

"Let me see," said Wilkinson, now turning his thoughts upon his business--"if there isn't something special that requires my attention. Yes," he added, after thinking for a few moments--"a customer promised to be in after dinner. He is from the country, and bought a good bill last season. You will have to excuse me, Carlton. I'll go with you to-morrow."

"Indeed, and I shall do no such thing," was promptly answered. "Let your customers call in the morning--always the best time for business. Men don't buy in the afternoon."

"My experience says differently."

"A fig for your experience! No, no, my good friend. You're booked for a ride with me this very afternoon; so let your business and customers take care of themselves. Health is better than dollars; and length of days than great possessions. There's wisdom in miniature for you. Wouldn't I make a capital preacher, ha?"

"But Carlton"--

"But me no buts, my hearty!" and Carlton slapped Wilkinson on the shoulder as he spoke, in a familiar manner. "You're my prisoner for the rest of the day. Do you understand that?"

"You've bought a fast trotter, have you?" said Wilkinson, after a brief but hurried self-communion, the end of which was a determination to take the afternoon for pleasure, and let his customer call in the morning.

"I have; and the prettiest animal your eyes ever looked upon."

"Fleet as an arrow?"

"Ay; as the very wind. But you shall have a taste of his quality. So come along. Time passes."

The two men left the tavern, and went to the stable where Carlton's new horse was kept. The animal was soon in harness.

Four hours afterwards, the last rays of the setting sun came through the windows of a room, in which were seated, at a table, Carlton and Wilkinson. Liquor and glasses were on the table, and cards in the hands of the men. Wilkinson appeared excited, but Carlton was calm and self-possessed. The former had been drinking freely; but the latter exhibited not the smallest sign of inebriation. A single five-dollar bill lay beside Wilkinson; a dozen bills and two gold coins were beside the other. They were playing for the last stake. Nervously did Wilkinson lay card after card upon the table, while, with the most perfect coolness, his adversary played his hand, a certainty of winning apparent in every motion. And he did win.

"Curse my luck!" exclaimed Wilkinson, grinding his teeth together, as the last five-dollar bill he had with him passed into the hands of his very particular friend.

There was more than "luck" against him, if he had but known it.

"The fortune of war," smilingly replied the winner. "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, you know. You played well--very well; never better within my knowledge. But, as you say, luck was against you. And, by the way, what a curious and uncertain thing this luck is! I've seen men lose at every turn of the card, until they had parted with thousands; and then, on a borrowed dollar, perhaps, start again, and not only get every thing back, but break their antagonists. This is an every-day occurrence, in fact."

Wilkinson had risen from the table, and was pacing the room in a fretful, impatient manner. Suddenly he stopped. A light flashed over his face. Then, sitting down, he snatched up a pen, and writing on a slip of paper--"Due Andrew Carlton $20," signed it with his name.

Carlton saw every letter and word as they left the pen, and ere the last flourish was made to the signature, had selected four five-dollar bills from the pile beside him. Simultaneously with the motion of Wilkinson's hand, in pushing to him this memorandum of debt, was the motion of his hand in furnishing the sum required.

"Not the man to be frightened at a little adverse fortune, I see," remarked the cunning tempter. "Well, I do like a man who never can acknowledge himself beaten. The timid and easily discouraged are soon left far behind in the world's race--and they deserve to be."

Wilkinson did not reply. Another deal was made, and again the two men bent over the table in their unequal contest.

In less than half an hour, the money obtained from Carlton had gone back to him.

By this time twilight had fallen.

"Nearly eight o'clock, as I live!" muttered Wilkinson. He had drawn forth his watch. "I had no idea of this. And we are ten miles from the city!"

A thought of his anxiously waiting wife flitted across his mind. He remembered her last pleading injunction for him to come home early, and the promise he had given. Alas! like so many more of his promises to her, made to be broken.

"Shall we return now; or order supper here?" said Carlton, in his bland way.

"I must go back immediately," replied Wilkinson. "It is an hour later than I supposed. I was to have been home early this evening."

"It is too late now to join your family at tea. They have given you out before this. So, I think we'd better order supper here. The moon is full, and it will be almost as clear as daylight; and much pleasanter riding, for the dew will keep down the dust. What say you?"

The end was, Wilkinson yielded.

"Not down in the mouth, because of this little run of ill-luck?" said Carlton, in a bantering way, as he saw a cloud settling over the face of his victim.

Lights had been brought in, and the two men still remained seated by the table at which they had been playing, awaiting the preparation of supper.

I'm never down in the mouth," replied Wilkinson, forcing a smile to his countenance. "Better luck next time, has always been my motto."

"And it will carry you safely through the world. Try another glass of brandy."

"No--I've taken enough already."

"It isn't every man who knows when he has enough," returned the other. "I've often wished that I knew exactly the right guage."

And, as Carlton spoke, he poured some brandy into a glass, and, adding a little water, affected to take a deep draught thereof; but, though the glass was held long to his mouth, only a small portion of the contents passed his lips. In replacing the tumbler on the table, he managed to give it a position behind the water-pitcher where the eye of Wilkinson could not rest upon it. He need hardly have taken this trouble, for his companion was too much absorbed in his own thoughts to notice a matter like this.

"They're a long time in getting supper," remarked Carlton, in a well-affected tone of impatience. "What is the time now?"

Wilkinson drew forth his watch, and, after glancing upon the face, replied--

"Ten minutes after eight."

"We shall have it pretty soon now, I suppose. They don't understand the double quick time movement out here."

As Carlton said this, his eyes rested, with more than a mere passing interest, on the gold lever that Wilkinson, instead of returning to his pocket, retained in one hand, while with the other he toyed with the key and chain in a half-abstracted manner.

For the space of nearly a minute, neither of the men spoke, but the thought of each was at the same point.

"That's a beautiful watch," at length Carlton ventured to say. There was a well disguised indifference in his tones.

"It ought to be," was the reply of Wilkinson.

"What did it cost you?"

"One hundred and forty dollars."

"Is it a good time-keeper?"

"First-rate. It hasn't varied a minute in six months."

"Just such a watch as I would like to own. I've had terrible bad luck with watches."

This was a kind of feeler.

No reply was made by Wilkinson, although an offer to sell trembled on his tongue. He still kept the watch in his hand, and toyed with the key and chain, as before, in an absent manner.

"Could you be tempted to sell?" finally asked Carlton.

"I don't know. Perhaps I might,"--said Wilkinson. He drew his breath deeply as he spoke.

"Or, perhaps you would trade?" and Carlton now produced his gold lever. "Mine is a very good watch, though not so valuable as yours. It keeps fair time, however. I paid a hundred dollars for it three or four years ago."

A mutual examination of watches took place.

"Well--what do you say to a trade?"

The servant appeared at this juncture, and announced supper. The two watches were returned to their respective places of deposit, and the two men proceeded to the dining-room. Here the traffic, just begun, was renewed and completed. The watches were exchanged, and Wilkinson received sixty dollars "boot."

"Shall I order the horse brought out?" asked Carlton, as they arose, about half an hour afterwards, from the supper-table.

"Yes; if you please."

This was not said with much promptness of tone; a fact instantly noted by the ear of Carlton.

"Well, I'm ready. Come--let's have a drink before we go!"

The two men stepped to the bar and drank. Then they lingered, each with a lighted cigar, and finally withdrew--to proceed to the city? No. To return to their room up-stairs, and renew their unequal contest. The sixty dollars which Wilkinson had received were staked, and soon passed over to his adversary. Rendered, now, desperate by his losses and the brandy which inflamed his brain, he borrowed, once more, on his due-bill--this time to the amount of several hundred dollars. His ill-success continued.

It was nearly eleven o'clock, when Wilkinson started up from the table, exclaiming, as he threw the cards upon the floor--

"Fool! fool! fool! One step more, and I am ruined. Carlton!" And he fixed his eyes almost fiercely upon his companion.

"Carlton! I thought you my friend, but find, when it is almost too late to profit by the discovery, that you are a tempter. Ay! and worse than a tempter. Pure air and the bright sunshine! Is this your health for mind and body? Oh! weak, weak, unstable one that I am! Poor Mary!" This was said in a low, mournful, and scarcely audible voice. "Thus has my promise to you vanished into thin air!"

As Wilkinson said this, he turned away and left the room. Carlton was in no hurry to follow. When, at length, he came down, and made inquiry for the one he had dealt by so treacherously, the man, who was shutting the windows of the bar-room, and about locking up for the night, replied that he had not seen him.

"Not seen him?" he asked, in a tone of surprise.

"No, sir. He didn't come in here."

The hostler was aroused from his sleeping position on a bench in the corner, and directed by Carlton to bring out his buggy. During the time he was away, the latter made a hurried search in and around the house. Not finding the object thereof, he muttered, in an under tone, a few wicked oaths; then, jumping into his vehicle, he put whip to his horse, and dashed off towards the city. He had Wilkinson's due-bills in his pocket for various sums, amounting, in all, to nearly two thousand dollars! _

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