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Two Wives, a fiction by T. S. Arthur

Chapter 9

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WILKINSON, on leaving the presence of the man who, under the guise of friendship, had so basely led him astray, and robbed him--it was robbery, in fact, for Carlton had not only enticed his victim to drink until his mind was confused, but had played against him with trick and false dealing--passed, not by the bar-room of the hotel, but through one of the passages, into the open air, and with hurried steps, and mind all in a whirl of excitement, started on foot for home. He was not in a state to consider exactly what he was doing--he did not reflect that he was at least ten miles from the city, and that it would take him hours to walk that distance. His predominant feeling was a desire to escape from the presence of the man who had so basely betrayed and almost ruined him.

It was a calm, clear, summer night; and the full moon, which had reached the zenith, shone with an unusual radiance. Not a leaf moved on the forest trees, for even the zephyrs were asleep. All was stillness and tranquil beauty.

Yet nature did not mirror herself on the feelings of Wilkinson, for their surface was in wild commotion. The unhappy man was conscious only of the folly he had committed and the wrong he had sustained; and thought only of his culpable weakness in having been drawn, by a specious villain, to the very verge of ruin.

Onward he strode, toward the city, with rapid pace, and soon his thoughts began to go forward towards his home.

"Poor Mary!" he sighed, as the image of his wife, when she said to him--"I count the hours when you are away," arose before his eyes. Then, as the image grew more and more distinct, his hands were clenched tightly, and he murmured through his shut teeth--

"Wretch! cruel wretch, that I am! I shall break her heart! Oh, why did I not resist this temptation? Why was I so thoughtless of the best, the truest, the most loving friend I ever knew or ever can know--my Mary!"

Rapid as his steps had been from the first, the thought of his wife caused Wilkinson to increase his pace, and he moved along, the only passenger at that hour upon the road, at almost a running speed. Soon the perspiration was gushing freely from every pore, and this, in a short time, relieved the still confused pressure on the brain of the alcohol which had been taken so freely into his system. Thoroughly sobered was he, ere he had passed over half the distance; and the clearer his mind became, the more troubled grew his feelings.

"What," he repeated to himself, over and over, "what if our dear Ella should be in convulsions again?"

So great was the anguish of the unhappy man, that he was all unconscious of bodily fatigue. He was nearly half way to the city when overtaken by Carlton. The latter called to him three or four times, and invited him to get up and ride; but Wilkinson strode on, without so much as uttering a word in reply, or seeming to hear what was said to him. So Carlton, finding that his proffer was disregarded, dashed ahead and was soon out of sight.

At what hour Wilkinson reached his home, and how he was received, has already been seen.

Too heavy a pressure lay on the mind of the unhappy man, as he met his wife at the breakfast table on the next morning, for him even to make an effort at external cheerfulness. There was not only the remembrance of his broken promise, and the anguish she must have suffered in consequence of his absence for half the night--how visible, alas! was the effect written on her pale face, and eyes still red and swollen from excessive tears--but the remembrance, also, that he had permitted himself, while under the influence of drink, to lose some two thousand dollars at the gaming table! What would he not endure to keep that blasting fact from the knowledge of his single-hearted, upright companion? He a gambler! How sick at heart the thought made him feel, when that thought came into the presence of his wife!

Few words passed between Mr. and Mrs. Wilkinson, but the manner of each was subdued, gentle, and even affectionate. They parted, after the morning meal, in silence; Wilkinson to repair to his place of business, his wife to busy herself in household duties, and await with trembling anxiety the return of her husband at the regular dinner hour.

This time, Wilkinson did not, as usual, drop in at a certain drinking-house that was in his way, but kept on direct to his store. The reason of this omission of his habitual glass of brandy was not, we are compelled to say, from a purpose in his mind to abandon the dangerous practice, but to avoid encountering the man Carlton, who might happen to be there. But he was not to keep clear of him in this way. Oh, no. Carlton held his due-bills for "debts of honour," calling for various sums, amounting in all, as we have before said, to about two thousand dollars, and he was not a person at all likely to forget this fact. Of this Wilkinson was made sensible, about an hour after appearing at his store. He was at his desk musing over certain results figured out on a sheet of paper that lay before him, and which had reference to payments to be made during the next three or four weeks, when he heard his name mentioned, and, turning, saw a stranger addressing one of his clerks, who had just pointed to where he was sitting. The man, with his unpleasant eyes fixed upon Wilkinson, came, with firm yet deliberate steps, back to his desk.

"Mr. Wilkinson, I believe?" said he.

"That is my name." Wilkinson tried to feel self-possessed and indifferent. But that was impossible, for he had an instinctive knowledge of the purport of the visit.

The man thrust his hand into a deep inside pocket, and abstracted therefrom a huge pocket-book. He did not search long in the compartments of this for what he wanted, but drew directly therefrom sundry small, variously shaped pieces of paper, much blotted and scrawled over in a hurried hand. Each of these bore the signature of Wilkinson, and words declaring himself indebted in a certain sum to Andrew Carlton.

"I am desired to collect these," said the man coldly.

Much as Wilkinson had thought, in anticipation of this particular crisis, he was yet undecided as to what he should do. He had been made the victim of a specious scoundrel--a wolf who had come to him in sheep's clothing. Running back his thoughts, as distinctly as it was possible for him to do, to the occurrences of the previous night, he remembered much that fully satisfied him that Carlton had played against him most unfairly; he not only induced him to drink until his mind was confused, but had taken advantage of this confused state, to cheat in the grossest manner. Some moments passed ere he replied to the application; then he said--

"I'm not prepared to do any thing with this matter just now."

"My directions are to collect these bills," was the simple reply, made in a tone that expressed even more than the words.

"You may find that more difficult than you imagine," replied Wilkinson, with some impatience.

"No--no--we never have much difficulty in collecting debts of this kind." There was a meaning emphasis on the last two words, which Wilkinson understood but too well. Still he made answer,

"You may find it a little harder in the present case than you imagine. I never received value for these tokens of indebtedness."

"You must have been a precious fool to have given them then," was promptly returned, with a curling lip, and in a tone of contempt. "They represent, I presume, debts of honour?"

"There was precious little honour in the transaction," said Wilkinson, who, stung by the manner and words of the collector, lost his self-possessions. "If ever a man was cheated, I was."

"Say that to Mr. Carlton himself; it is out of place with me. As I remarked a little while ago, my business is to collect the sums called for by these due-bills. Are you prepared to settle them?"

"No," was the decisive answer.

"Perhaps," said the collector, who had his part to play, and who, understanding it thoroughly, showed no inclination to go off in a huff; "you do not clearly understand your position, nor the consequences likely to follow the answer just given; that is, if you adhere to your determination not to settle these due-bills."

"You'll make the effort to collect by law, I presume?"

"Of course we will."

"And get nothing. The law will not recognise a debt of this kind."

"How is the law to come at the nature of the debt?"

"I will"--Wilkinson stopped suddenly.

"Will you?" quickly chimed in the collector. "Then you are a bolder, or rather, more reckless man than I took you for. Your family, friends, creditors, and mercantile associates will be edified, no doubt, when it comes to light on the trial, under your own statement, that you have been losing large sums of money at the gaming table--over two thousand dollars in a single night."

A strong exclamation came from the lips of Wilkinson, who saw the trap into which he had fallen, and from which there was, evidently, no safe mode of escape.

"It is impossible for me to pay two thousand dollars now," said he, after a long, agitated silence, during which he saw, more clearly than before, the unhappy position in which he was placed. "It will be ruin anyhow; and if loss of credit and character are to come, it might as well come with the most in hand I can retain."

"You are the best judge of that," said the collector, coldly, turning partly away as he spoke.

"Tell Carlton that I would like to see him."

"He left the city this morning," replied the collector.

"Left the city?"

"Yes, sir; and you will perceive that all of these due-bills have been endorsed to me, and are, consequently, my property, for which I have paid a valuable consideration. They are, therefore, legal claims against you in the fullest sense, and I am not the man to waive my rights, or to be thwarted in my purposes. Are you prepared to settle?"

"Not to-day, at least."

"I am not disposed to be too hard with you," said the man, slightly softening in his tone; "and will say at a word what I will do, and all I will do. You can take up five hundred of these bills to-day, five hundred in one week, and the balance in equal sums at two and three weeks. I yield this much; but, understand me, it is all I yield, and you need not ask for any further consideration.

"Well, sir, what do you say?" Full five minutes after the collector had given his ultimatum, he thus broke in upon the perplexed and undecided silence of the unhappy victim of his own weakness and folly. "Am I to receive five hundred dollars now, or am I not?"

"Call in an hour, and I will be prepared to give an answer," said Wilkinson.

"Very well. I'll be here in one hour to a minute," and the man consulted his watch.

And to a minute was he there.

"Well, sir, have you decided this matter?" said he, on confronting Wilkinson an hour later. He spoke with the air of one who felt indifferent as to which way the decision had been made. Without replying, Wilkinson took from under a paper weight on his desk a check for five hundred dollars, and presented it to the collector.

"All right," was the satisfied remark of the latter as he read the face of the check; and, immediately producing his large pocket-book, drew forth Wilkinson's due-bills, and selecting one for three hundred and one for two hundred dollars, placed them in his hands.

"On this day one week I will be here again," said the man, impressively, and, turning away, left the store.

The moment he was out of sight, Wilkinson tore the due-bills he had cancelled into a score of pieces, and, as he scattered them on the floor, said to himself--"Perish, sad evidences of my miserable folly! The lesson would be salutary, were it not received at too heavy a cost. Can I recover from this? Alas! I fear not. Fifteen hundred more to be abstracted from my business, and in three weeks! How can it possibly be done?"

To a certain extent, the lesson was salutary. During the next three weeks, Wilkinson, who felt a nervous reluctance to enter a drinking-house lest he should meet Carlton, kept away from such places, and therefore drank but little during the time; nor did he once go out in the evening, except in company with his wife, who was studious, all the time, in the science of making home happy. But it was impossible for her to chase away the shadow that rested upon her husband's brow.

Promptly, on a certain day in each week of that period, came the man who held the due-bills given to Carlton, leaving Wilkinson five hundred dollars poorer with each visitation--poorer, unhappier, and more discouraged in regard to his business, which was scarcely stanch enough to bear the sudden withdrawal of so much money.

Under such circumstances it was impossible for Wilkinson to appear otherwise than troubled. To divine the cause of this trouble soon became the central purpose in the mind of his wife. To all her questions on the subject, he gave evasive answers; still she gathered enough to satisfy her that every thing was not right in regard to his business. Assuming this to be the case, she began to think over the ways and means of reducing their range of expenses, which were in the neighbourhood of fifteen hundred dollars per annum. The result will appear. _

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