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Two Wives, a fiction by T. S. Arthur

Chapter 12

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TWELVE o'clock of the day on which Ellis was to return the two hundred dollars borrowed of Wilkinson came, and yet he did not appear at the store of the latter, who had several payments to make, and depended on receiving the amount due from his friend.

"Has Mr. Ellis been here?" asked Wilkinson of his clerk, coming in about noon from a rather fruitless effort to obtain money.

The clerk replied in the negative.

"Nor sent over his check for two hundred dollars?"

"No, sir."

"Step down to his store, then, if you please, and say to him from me that he mustn't forget the sum to be returned to-day, as I have two notes yet in bank. Say also, that if he has any thing over, I shall be glad to have the use of it."

The clerk departed on his errand. In due time he returned, but with no money in his possession.

"Did you see Mr. Ellis?" asked Wilkinson.

"No, sir," was replied. "He hasn't been at the store to-day."

"Not to-day!"

"No, sir."

"What's the matter? Is he sick?"

"His clerk didn't say."

Taking up his hat, Wilkinson left his store hurriedly. In a few minutes he entered that of his friend.

"Where is Mr. Ellis?" he inquired.

"I don't know, sir," was answered by the clerk.

"Has he been here this morning?"

"No, sir."

"He must be sick. Have you sent to his house to make inquiry?"

"Not yet. I have expected him all the morning."

"He was here yesterday?"

"Not until late in the afternoon."

"Indeed! Did he complain of not being well?"

"No, sir. But he didn't look very well."

There was something in the manner of the clerk which Wilkinson did not understand clearly at first. But all at once it flashed upon his mind that Ellis might, in consequence of some trouble with his wife, have suddenly abandoned himself to drink. With this thought came the remembrance of what had passed between them two days before; and this but confirmed his first impression.

"If Mr. Ellis comes in," said he, after some moments of hurried thought, "tell him that I would like to see him."

The clerk promised to do so.

"Hadn't you better send to his house?" suggested Wilkinson, as he turned to leave the store. "He may be sick."

"I will do so," replied the clerk, and Wilkinson retired, feeling by no means comfortable. By this time it was nearly one o'clock, and six or seven hundred dollars were yet required to make him safe for that day's payments. The failure of Ellis to keep his promise laid upon him an additional burden, and gradually caused a feeling of despondency to creep in upon him. Instead of making a new and more earnest effort to raise the money, he went back to his store, and remained there for nearly half an hour, in a brooding, disheartened state of mind. A glance at the clock, with the minute-hand alarmingly near the figure 2, startled him at length from his dreaming inactivity; and he went forth again to raise, if possible, the money needed to keep his name from commercial dishonour. He was successful; but there were only fifteen minutes in his favour when the exact sum he needed was made up, and his notes taken out of bank.

Two o'clock was Mr. Wilkinson's dinner hour, and he had always, before, so arranged his bank business as to have his notes taken up long enough before that time to be ready to leave promptly for home. But for the failure of Ellis to keep his promise, it would have been so on this day.

"It's hardly worth while to go home now," said he, as he closed his cash and bill books, after making some required entries therein. "Mary has given me over long ago. And, besides, I don't feel in the mood of mind to see her just now. I can't look cheerful, to save me; and I have already called too many shadows to her face to darken it with any more. By evening I will recover myself, and then can meet her with a brighter countenance. No, I won't go home now. I'll stop around to Elder's, and get a cut of roast beef."

Wilkinson had taken up his hat, and was moving down the store, when a suggestion that came to his mind made him pause. It was this:

"But is not Mary waiting for me, and will not my absence for the whole day cause her intense anxiety and alarm? I ought to go home."

And now began an argument in his thoughts. The fact was, a sense of exhaustion of body and depression of spirits had followed the effort and trouble of the day, and Wilkinson felt a much stronger desire for something stimulating to drink than he did for food. Elder's was a drinking as well as an eating-house; and in deciding to go there, instead of returning home, the real influence, although he did not perceive it to be so, was the craving felt for a glass of brandy. And now came the conflict between appetite and an instinctive sense of what was due both to himself and his wife.

"It will only put her to trouble if I go home now." Thus he sought to justify himself in doing what his better sense clearly condemned as wrong.

"It will rather relieve her from trouble," was quickly answered to this.

For a little while Wilkinson stood undecided, then slowly retired to a remote part of the store, took off his hat, and sat down to debate the point at issue in his mind more coolly.

"I will go home early," said he to himself.

"Why not go home now?" was instantly replied.

"It is too late; Mary has given me up long ago."

"She will be extremely anxious."

"I can explain all."

"Better do it now than two or three hours later: poor Mary has suffered enough already."

This last suggestion caused the image of his wife to come up before the mind of Wilkinson very distinctly. He saw, now, her smile of winning love; now, the sad drooping of her countenance, as he turned to leave her alone for an evening; now, the glance of anxiety and fear with which she so often greeted his return; and now, her pale, grief-stricken face, after some one of his too many lapses from the right way. And, in imagination, his thoughts went to his home in the present moment. What did he see? A waiting, anxious, troubled wife, now sitting with fixed and dreamy eyes; now moving about with restless steps; and now standing at the street-door, eagerly straining her eyes to see in the distance his approaching form. With such images of his wife came no repulsive thought to the mind of Wilkinson. Ever loving, tender, patient, forbearing, and true-hearted had Mary been. Not once in the whole of their married life had she jarred the chord that bound them together, with a touch of discord. He could only think of her, therefore, with love, and a feeling of attraction; and this it was that saved him in the present hour. Starting up suddenly, he said, "I will go home: why have I hesitated an instant? My poor Mary! Heaven knows you have already suffered enough through my short-comings and wanderings from the way of right and duty. I am walking a narrow path, with destruction on either hand: if I get over safely, it will be through you as my sustaining angel."

A skilful limner, at least in this instance, was the imagination of Wilkinson. Much as it had been pictured to his thoughts was the scene at home. Poor Mary! with what trembling anxiety did she wait and hope for her husband's coming, after the usual hour for his return had passed. Now she sat motionless, gazing on some painful image that was presented to her mind; now she moved about the room from an unquietness of spirit that would not let her be still; and now she bent her ear towards the street, and listened almost breathlessly for the sound of her husband's footsteps. Thus the time passed from two until three o'clock, the dinner yet unserved.

"Oh, what can keep him away so long?"

How many, many times was this spoken audibly! Now her heart beat with a quick, panting motion, as the thought of some accident to her husband flitted through the mind of Mrs. Wilkinson; now its irregular motion subsided, and it lay almost still, with a heavy pressure; for the fear lest he had again been tempted from the path of sobriety came with its deep and oppressive shadow.

And thus the lingering moments passed. Three o'clock came, and yet Mr. Wilkinson was absent.

"I can bear this suspense no longer," said the unhappy wife. "Something has happened."

And as she said this, she went quickly into her chamber to put into execution some suddenly-formed resolution. Opening a wardrobe, she took therefrom her bonnet and a shawl. But, ere she had thrown the latter around her shoulders, she paused, with the words on her lips--

"If business should have detained him at his store, how will my appearance there affect him? I must think of that. I do not want him to feel that I have lost confidence in him."

While Mrs. Wilkinson stood, thus musing, her ear caught the sound of her husband's key in the lock of the street-door. How quickly were her bonnet and shawl returned to their places! How instant and eager were her efforts to suppress all signs of anxiety at the prolonged absence!

"He must not see that I have been over-anxious," she murmured.

The street-door closed; Mr. Wilkinson's well-known tread sounded along the passage and up the stairway. With what an eager discrimination was the ear of his wife bent towards him for a sign that would indicate the condition in which he returned to her! How breathless was her suspense! A few moments, and the door of her room opened.

"Why, John!" said she, with a pleasant smile, and a tone so well disguised that it betrayed little of the sea of agitation below--"what has kept you so late? I was really afraid something had happened. Have you been sick; or did business detain you?"

"It was business, dear," replied Mr. Wilkinson, as he took the hand which Mary placed within his. The low, nervous tremour of that hand he instantly perceived, and as instantly comprehended its meaning. She had been deeply anxious, but was now seeking to conceal this from him. He understood it all, and was touched by the fact.

"I ought to have sent you word," said he, as he kissed her with more than usual tenderness of manner. "It was wrong in me. But I've been very hard put to it to take up my notes, and didn't succeed until near the closing of bank hours. I loaned Ellis some money, which he was to return to me to-day; but his failing to do so put me to a good deal of inconvenience."

"Oh, I'm sorry," was the sympathizing response. "But how came Mr. Ellis to disappoint you?"

"I don't exactly know. He hasn't been at his store to-day."

"Is he sick?"

"Worse, I'm afraid."

"How, worse?"

"His habits have not been very good of late."

"Oh! how sad! His poor wife!"

This was an almost involuntary utterance on the part of Mrs. Wilkinson.

"Her poor husband, rather say," was the reply. "The fact is, if Ellis goes to ruin, it will be his wife's fault. She has no sympathy with him, no affectionate consideration for him. A thoroughly selfish woman, she merely regards the gratification of her own desires, and is ever making home repulsive, instead of attractive."

"You must be mistaken."

"No. Ellis often complains to me of her conduct."

"Why, John! I can scarcely credit such a thing."

"Doubtless it is hard for _you_ to imagine any woman guilty of such unwifelike conduct. Yet such is the case. Many a night has Ellis spent at a tavern, which, but for Cara's unamiable temper, would have been spent at home."

"Ah! she will have her reward," sighed Mrs. Wilkinson.

"And you yours," was the involuntary but silent ejaculation of Wilkinson.

Ere further remark was made, the dinner-bell rang, and Mr. Wilkinson and his wife repaired to the dining-room.

It was not possible for the former to endure the pressure that was on his feelings without letting the fact of its existence betray itself in his countenance; and Mary, whose eyes were scarcely a moment from her husband's face, soon saw that his mind was ill at ease.

"How much did Mr. Ellis borrow of you?" she asked, soon after they had taken their places at the table.

"Two hundred dollars," was replied.

"No more?" The mind of Mrs. Wilkinson was evidently relieved, at knowing the smallness of the sum.

"True, it isn't much," said Wilkinson. "But even a small sum is of great importance when we have a good deal to pay, and just lack that amount, after gathering in all our available resources. And that was just my position to-day." Why didn't you call on me?" Mary smiled, with evident meaning as she said this.

"On you!" Wilkinson looked at her with a slight air of surprise.

"Yes, on me. I think I could have made you up that sum."


A bright gleam went over the face of Mrs. Wilkinson, as she saw the surprise of her husband.

"Yes, me. Why not? You have always been liberal in your supplies of money, and it is by no means wonderful that I should have saved a little. The fact is, John, I've never spent my entire income; I always made it a point of conscience to keep as far below it as possible."

"Mary!" Beyond this simple ejaculation, Wilkinson could not go, but sat, with his eyes fixed wonderingly on the face of his wife.

"It is true, dear," she answered, in her loving gentle way. "I haven't counted up lately; but, if I do not err, I have twice the sum you needed to-day; and, what is more, the whole is at your service. So don't let this matter of Ellis's failure to return you the sum borrowed, trouble you in the least. If it never comes back to you, the loss will be made up in another quarter."

It was some moments before Wilkinson could make any answer. At last, dropping the knife and fork which he held in his hands, he started from his place, and coming round to where his wife sat, drew his arms around her, and as he pressed his lips to hers, said with an unsteady voice--

"God bless you, Mary! You are an angel!"

Had she not her reward in that happy moment? Who will say nay? _

Read next: Chapter 13

Read previous: Chapter 11

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