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Two Wives, a fiction by T. S. Arthur

Chapter 21

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LATE in the afternoon of the day on which occurred the incidents mentioned in the preceding chapter, Mr. Wilkinson, who had entirely recovered from his embarrassed condition, and who was now a sober man in every sense of the word, as well as a thrifty merchant, was standing at one of the counters in his large, well filled store, when a miserable looking creature entered and came back to where he stood.

"Good-day, Mr. Wilkinson," said the new-comer.

Surprise kept the merchant silent for some moments, when the other said--

"You don't know me, I presume."

"Henry Ellis!" exclaimed Wilkinson. "Is it possible you have fallen so low?"

"Just as you see me," was replied.

"You ought to be more of a man than this. You ought to have more strength of character," said Wilkinson, giving utterance to the first thought that came into his mind.

"Oh, yes; it is easy to talk," replied Ellis, with a slight impatience of manner. "But you know my history as well almost as I know it myself. I was driven to ruin."

"How so?"

"Why do you ask the question?"

"You refer to your wife?"

"Of course I do. She drove me to destruction."

"That is a hard saying, Mr. Ellis."

"Yet true as that the sun shines. And she has had her reward!"

This last sentence was uttered in a tone of self-satisfaction that deeply pained Mr. Wilkinson.

"I saw your wife this morning," he remarked, after a moment's silence.

"You did! Where?"

"I passed her in the street; and the sight of her made my heart ache. Ah, my friend! if you have been wronged, deeply is the wrong repaid! Such a wreck! I could scarcely believe my eyes. Ellis! I read at a single glance her countenance, marred by long suffering, and found in it only the sad evidences of patient endurance. She is changed. I am bold to say that. If she erred, she has repented."

"But not atoned for a wrong that is irreparable," said Ellis in a dogged tone, while his heavy brows contracted.

"Ah! how changed you are, Ellis: once so kind-hearted, so forgiving and forbearing!"

"And what changed me? Answer me that, John Wilkinson! Yes, I am changed--changed from a man into--into--yes, let me say the word--into a devil! And who held the enchanter's wand? Who? The wife of my bosom!"

Wilkinson felt a shudder creeping along his nerves as he looked at the excited man, and heard his words.

"Cara never acts toward you, now, other than with kindness," said he.

But Ellis made no answer to this.

"Let the past suffice, my friend," added Wilkinson. "Both have suffered enough. Resolve, in the strength of God and your own manhood, to rise out of the horrible pit and miry clay into which you have fallen."

"That is impossible. So we won't talk about it," said Ellis, impatiently. "Lend me half a dollar, won't you?"

The hand of Wilkinson went instinctively to his pocket. But he withdrew it, without the coin he had designed, from the moment's impulse, to give. Shaking his head, he replied to the application,

"I can't give you money, Ellis."

"You can't?"

"No; for that would be no real kindness. But, if you will reform your life; if you will abandon drink, and become a sober, industrious man, I will pledge myself to procure you a good situation as clerk. In a few years you may regain all that has been lost."

"Bah!" muttered Ellis, grinding his teeth as he spoke. "All good talk!" and, turning away, he passed from the store of his old friend. Without a cent in his pocket, and burning with a desire for drink, he had conquered all reluctance and shame, and applied, as we have seen, to an old friend, for money. Two or three other ineffectual attempts were made to get small sums, but they proved fruitless. For some time he wandered about the streets; then he entered one of the lower class of taverns, and boldly called for a glass of liquor. But the keeper of this den, grown suspicious by experience, saw in the face or manner of Ellis that he had no money, and coolly demanded pay before setting forth his bottle. It was just at this untimely crisis that Henry came in, and, taking hold of his father's arm, urged him to come home. The cruel rebuff he received is known.

The blow was no sooner given by Ellis than repented of; and this motion of regret prompted him to express his sorrow for the hasty act, but when he turned to speak to the lad, he was gone. Almost maddened by thirst and excitement, the poor wretch caught up from the counter a pitcher of ice water, and, placing it to his lips, took therefrom a long deep draught. Then slowly turning away, he sought a chair in a far corner of the room; where he seated himself, crossed his arms on a table, and buried his face therein.

The pure cold water allayed the fever that burned along the drunkard's veins. Gradually a deep calm pervaded his mind, and then thought became active amid thronging memories of the past. He had once loved his home and his children; and the image of Henry, when a bright-eyed, curly-headed, happy child, came up so vividly before him, that it was only by an effort that he kept the tears from gushing over his face. For years he had cherished, in mere self-justification, the bitterest feeling towards his wife; and hundreds of times had he given expression to these feelings in words that smote the heart of Cara with crushing force. Only a little while before he had spoken of her, in the presence of Wilkinson, in a hard and unforgiving spirit; but now he thought of her more kindly. He remembered how patiently she had borne with him; how uncomplainingly she had met and struggled with her hard lot; how many times she had tried to smile upon him, even through tears that could not be restrained. Never was he met, on his return home, with coldness or neglect. Wife and children all sought his comfort; yet he cared nothing for them, and even filled their paths through life with thorns. And his boy, Henry, whom he had just repulsed in so cruel a manner, to his labour was he indebted, mainly, for the food that was daily set before him. How this thought smote him! How it filled his heart with shame and repentance!

Musing thus, the unhappy man remained, until, gradually, his thoughts became confused. The temporary excitement of feeling died away, and sleep overcame him. In his sleep he dreamed, and his dream was vivid as reality. Not as of old did he find himself; but, in the vision that came to him, he was still in bondage and degradation, with a horribly distinct realization of his condition. His vile companions were around him, but greatly changed; for they appeared more like monsters of evil than men, and were malignant in their efforts to do harm. Against him they seemed to feel an especial hatred. Some glared and gleamed upon him with the fire of murder in their eyes; some pointed to a cheerless apartment, in which he saw his wife and children cowering and shivering over a few dying embers, and they said--"It is your work! It is your work!" They were devils in distorted human shapes, and he was terribly afraid. Suddenly he was set upon by one, who caught him by the throat and dragged him into what seemed the cell of a prison, where he was cast upon a heap of straw, and left shuddering with cold and fear. Alone, for days and weeks he remained in this prison, until despair seemed to dry up the very blood in his veins, and, after a desperate struggle to break through the bars of his narrow house, he sank down exhausted and ready to die. Then came a new horror. He had died, to all outward appearance, and was in his coffin. He felt his body compressed, and gasped and panted for air in his narrow house of boards. It was an awful moment. Suddenly a voice came to his ear: "Father! father!" It was the voice of his child--of Kate. How its tones thrilled through him! How his heart leaped with the hope of deliverance! "Father! dear father!"--The call was renewed, but he could make no answer, for his tongue was powerless. Again and again the call was repeated, yet he could utter no sound--could make no sign. Farther off, then, he heard his name called. Horror! she had failed to discover him, and was about departing. In the agony of the moment he awoke. There was a hand laid gently upon him, and a voice said--"Father! dear father! come!"

It was the voice of his child; the same voice that had penetrated his dreaming ear.

"Oh, Kate!" he exclaimed, eagerly; "is it indeed you?"

"Yes, father," she answered; "and won't you come home with me?"

The wretched man did not answer in words but arose immediately and went out with his daughter.

"Oh, what a dream I had, Kate!" said Mr. Ellis, as he left the door of the tavern; "and you came to me in my dream."

His feelings were much excited, and he spoke with emotion.

"Did I, father?" replied the girl. "And how did I come? As a good angel to save you?"

"Waking, you have come to me as such," answered the father after a brief silence, speaking more calmly, and as if to himself.

How wild a thrill shot through the frame of Kate at these words, so full of meaning to her; but she dared not trust herself to make an answer, lest she should do harm rather than good. And so they walked, in silence, all the way home; Henry, who had accompanied his sister, keeping a short distance behind them, so that his father had no indication of his presence. _

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