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Two Wives, a fiction by T. S. Arthur

Chapter 8

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ALMOST motionless, with her sleeping babe upon her lap, sat Mrs. Wilkinson for nearly half an hour after her husband left the house. She saw nothing that was around her--heard nothing--felt nothing. Not even the breathings of her sleeping infant reached her ear; nor was she conscious of the pressure of its body against her own. Fixed in a dreamy, inward gaze were her eyes; and her soul withdrew itself from the portal at which, a little while before, it hearkened into the world of nature. At last there came a motion of the eyelids--a quivering motion--then they closed, slowly, over the blue orbs beneath; and soon after a tear trembled out to the light from behind the barriers that sought to retain them. A deep, fluttering sigh succeeded to this sign of feeling. Then her lips parted, and she spoke audibly to herself.

"Oh, that I knew how to win him back from the path of danger! He does not love his home; and yet how have I striven to make it attractive! How much have I denied myself! and how much yielded to and thought of him! He is always kind to me; and he--yes--I know he loves me; but--ah!"

The low voice trembled back sighing into silence. Still, for a long time, the unhappy wife sat almost as motionless as if in sleep. Then, as some thought grew active towards a purpose in her mind, she arose, and laying Ella on the bed, began busying herself in some household duties.

The afternoon passed slowly away, yet not for a moment was the thought of her husband absent from the mind of Mrs. Wilkinson.

"What ought I to do? How shall I make his home sufficiently attractive?"

This was her over and over again repeated question; and her thoughts bent themselves eagerly for some answer upon which her heart might rest with even a small degree of hope.

The prolonged, intense anxiety and alarm of the previous night, added to bodily fatigue and loss of rest, were not without their effect upon Mrs. Wilkinson. Early in the day she suffered from lassitude and a sense of exhaustion; and, after dinner, a slight headache was added; this increased hourly, and by four o'clock was almost blinding in its violence. Still, she tried to forget herself, and what she suffered in thinking about and devising some means of saving her husband from the dangers that lay hidden from his own view about his footsteps.

"If I could only add some new attraction to his home!" she murmured to herself, over and over again.

Sometimes she would hold her temples with both her hands, in the vain effort to still, by pressure, the throbbing arteries within, while she continued to think of her husband.

As tea-time drew near, Mrs. Wilkinson left Ella in the care of a domestic, and went into the kitchen to prepare some delicacy for the evening meal of which she knew her husband was fond; this engaged her for half an hour, and the effort increased the pain in her aching head.

The usual time at which Mr. Wilkinson came home arrived, and his wife, who had returned to her chamber, sat with her babe on her bosom, listening for the well-known welcome sound of her husband's footsteps in the passage below. Time glided by, yet she waited and listened in vain; and to the pleasant thoughts of the influence her love was to throw around him on that very evening, to keep him at home, began to succeed a fear, which made her heart faint, that he would not come home at all; or, at least, not until a late hour.

The sun went down, and stealthily the sober twilight began to fall, bringing with it shadows and forebodings for the heart of the anxious wife.

How vainly she waited and watched! The twilight was lost in darkness, and yet her eagerly listening ear failed to note the well-known sound of her husband's footfall on the pavement, as she stood, listening at the open window.

"Oh! what can keep him so long away!"

How often did these words come sighing from her lips, yet there was no answer. Alas! how to the very winds were flung the pleasant hopes she had cherished--cherished with a sense of fear and trembling--during the afternoon.

Night closed in, and the time wore on steadily, minute by minute, and hour by hour, until the poor wife was almost wild with suspense and anxiety. The dainties she had so thoughtfully and lovingly prepared for her husband remained untasted, and had now become cold and unpalatable--were, in fact, forgotten. Food she had not, herself, tasted. Once or twice a servant had come to know if she would have tea served; but she merely answered--"Not until Mr. Wilkinson returns."

Nine--ten--eleven o'clock; still Mrs. Wilkinson was alone. Sometimes she moved restlessly about her chamber; or wandered, like a perturbed spirit, from room to room; and, sometimes in mere exhaustion, would drop into a chair or sink across the bed, and sit or lie as motionless as if in a profound sleep.

Ah! could her husband have looked in upon her, but for a few moments; could he have seen the anguish of her pale face; the fixed and dreamy expression of her tearful eyes; the grieving arch of the lips he loved--could he have seen and comprehended all she suffered and all she feared, it must have won him back from his selfish folly. And how many wives have suffered all this, and more! How many still suffer! Errant husband, pause, look upon the picture we have presented, and think of the many, many heart-aches you have given the tender, long-suffering, loving one who clings to you yet so closely, and who, for your sake, would even lay down, if needful, her very life.

Happily for Mrs. Wilkinson, her child lay in a sound sleep; for, with the appearance of the edges of two teeth through her red and swollen gums, the feverish excitement of her system yielded to a healthy reaction.

Twelve o'clock was rung out clearly upon the hushed air of midnight; and yet the poor wife was alone. One o'clock found her in a state of agonized alarm, standing at the open street-door, and hearkening, eagerly, first in one direction and then in another; yet all in vain--for the absent one came not.

It was nearly two o'clock, and Mrs. Wilkinson, in the impotence of her prolonged and intense anxiety and fear, had thrown herself, with a groan, across her bed, when a sound in the street caught her ear. Instantly she started up, while a thrill ran through every nerve. Feet were on the door-steps; a key was in the lock--a moment more, and the door opened and shut, and a familiar tread that made her heart leap echoed along the passage. Her first impulse was to fly to meet the comer, but a hand seemed to hold her back; and so, half reclining, she awaited, with her heart beating violently, the appearance of him whose strange absence had cost her so many hours of bitter anguish. A moment or two more, and then an exclamation of surprise and almost terror, fell from her lips. And well might she be startled at the appearance of her husband.

Pale, haggard, covered with dust, and with large drops of perspiration on his face, Wilkinson stood before his wife. With a grieving look he gazed upon her for some moments, but did not speak.

"My husband!" exclaimed Mrs. Wilkinson as soon as she could recover herself; and, as she uttered the words, she threw her arms around him, and buried her weeping face on his bosom.

But Wilkinson tried to disengage her arms, saying, as he did so--

"Not this!--not this, Mary! I am unworthy of even your feeblest regard. Speak to me coldly, harshly, angrily, if you will. That I deserve--but nothing of kindness, nothing of love. Oh, that I were dead!"

"My husband! my husband! you are dearer to me than life!" was whispered in reply, as Mary clung to him more closely.

Such evidences of love melted the strong man's heart. He tried to brace himself up against what, in his pride, he felt to be a weakness, but failed, and leaning his face downward until it rested upon the head of his wife, sobbed aloud. _

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