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A short story by Harriet S. Caswell

The Faithful Wife

Title:     The Faithful Wife
Author: Harriet S. Caswell [More Titles by Caswell]

It is a mild and beautiful evening in the early autumn. Mrs. Harland is alone in her home; she is seated by a table upon which burns a shaded lamp, and is busily occupied with her needle. She has been five years a wife; her countenance is still youthful, and might be termed beautiful, but for the look of care and anxiety so plainly depicted thereon. She had once been happy, but with her now, happiness is but a memory of the past. When quite young she had been united in marriage to Wm. Harland, and with him removed to the City of R., where they have since resided. He was employed as bookkeeper in a large mercantile house, and his salary was sufficient to afford them a comfortable support,--whence then the change that has thus blighted their bright prospects, and clouded the brow of that fair young wife with care? It is an unpleasant truth, but it must be told. Her husband has become addicted to the use of strong drink, not an occasional tippler, but a confirmed and habitual drunkard. His natural disposition was gay and social, and he began by taking an occasional glass with his friends--more for sociability than for any love of the beverage. His wife often admonished him of the danger of tampering with the deadly vice of intemperance; but he only laughed at what he termed her idle fears. Well had it been for them both had the fears of his wife proved groundless! It is needless for me to follow him in his downward path, till, we find him reduced to the level of the common drunkard. Some three months previous to the time when our story opens his employers were forced to dismiss him, as they could no longer employ him with any degree of safety to their business. It was fortunate for Mrs. Harland that the dwelling they occupied belonged to her in her own right--it had been given her by her father at the period of her marriage--so that notwithstanding the dissipated habits of the husband and father they still possessed a home, although many of the comforts of former days had disappeared before the blighting influence of the demon of intemperance. After being dismissed by his employers Mr. Harland seemed to lose all respect for himself, as well as for his wife and children, and, but for the unceasing toil of the patient mother, his children might have often asked for bread in vain.

So low had he now fallen that almost every evening found him in some low haunt of drunkenness and dissipation; and often upon returning to his home he would assail his gentle wife with harsh and unfeeling language.

Many there were who advised Mrs. Harland to return with her children to her parents, who were in affluent circumstances, but she still cherished the hope that he would yet reform. "I pray daily for my erring husband," she would often say, "and I feel an assurance that, sooner or later, my prayers will be answered; and I cannot feel it my duty to forsake him." But on this evening, as she sits thus alone, her mind is filled with thoughts of the past, which she cannot help contrasting with the miserable present, till her reverie is interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps, which she soon recognizes as those of her husband: she is much surprised--for it is long, very long, since he has returned to his home at so early an hour--and, as he enters the room, her surprise increases when she perceives that he is perfectly sober. As he met her wondering gaze a kind expression rested upon his countenance, and he addressed her saying: "I do not wonder at your astonishment, dear Mary, when I call to mind my past misconduct. I have been a fiend in human shape thus to ill-treat and neglect the best of wives; but I have made a resolve, 'God helping' me, that it shall be so no longer." Seating himself by her side, he continued: "If you will listen to me, Mary, I will tell you what caused me to form this resolution. When I went out this evening I at once made my way to the public house, where I have spent so much of my time and money. Money, I had none, and, worse than this, was owing the landlord a heavy bill. Of late he had assailed me with duns every time I entered the house; but so craving was the appetite for drink that each returning evening still found me among the loungers in the bar-room trusting to my chance of meeting with some companion who would call for a treat. It so happened that to-night none of my cronies were present. When the landlord found that I was still unable to settle the 'old score,' as he termed it, he abused me in no measured terms; but I still lingered in sight of the coveted beverage; and knowing my inability to obtain it my appetite increased in proportion. At length I approached the bar, and begged him to trust me for one more glass of brandy. I will not wound your ears by repeating his reply; and he concluded by ordering me from the house, telling me also never to enter it again till I was able to settle the long score already against me. The fact that I had been turned from the door, together with his taunting language stung me almost to madness. I strolled along, scarce knowing or caring whither, till I found myself beyond the limits of the city; and seating myself by the roadside I gazed in silent abstraction over the moonlit landscape; and as I sat thus I fell into a deep reverie. Memory carried me back to my youthful days when everything was bright with joyous hope and youthful ambition. I recalled the time when I wooed you from your pleasant country home, and led you to the altar a fair young bride, and there pledged myself before God and man to love, honour and cherish you, till death should us part. Suddenly, as if uttered by an audible voice, I seemed to hear the words 'William Harland, how have you kept your vows?' At that moment I seemed to suddenly awake to a full sense of my fallen and degraded position. What madness, thought I, has possessed me all this time, thus to ruin myself and those dear to me? And for what? for the mere indulgence of a debasing appetite. I rose to my feet and my step grew light with my new-formed resolution, that I would break the slavish fetters that had so long held me captive; and now, my dear wife, if you can forgive the past and aid me in my resolutions for amendment there is hope for me yet." Mrs. Harland was only too happy to forgive her erring but now truly penitent husband; but she trembled for the future, knowing how often he had formerly made like resolutions, but to break them. She endeavoured, however, to be hopeful, and to encourage him by every means which affection could devise.

Through the influence of friends, his former employers were induced to give him another trial. He had many severe struggles with himself ere he could refrain from again joining his dissipated companions; but his watchful wife would almost every evening form some little plan of her own for his amusement, that he might learn to love his home. In a short time their prospects for the future grew brighter, his wife began to smile again; and his children, instead of fleeing from his approach as they had formerly done, now met him upon his return with loving caresses and lively prattle. Some six months after this happy change, Mrs. Harland one evening noticed that her husband seemed very much downcast and dejected. After tea, she tried vainly to interest him in conversation.

He had a certain nervous restlessness in his manner, which always troubled her, knowing, as she did, that it was caused by the cravings of that appetite for strong drink, which at times still returned with almost overwhelming force. About eight o'clock he took down his hat preparatory to going out. She questioned him as to where he was going, but could obtain no satisfactory reply; her heart sank within her; but she was aware that remonstrance would be useless. She remained for a few moments, after he left the house, in deep thought, then suddenly rising she exclaimed aloud, "I will at least make one effort to save him." She well knew that should he take but one glass, all his former resolves would be as nothing. As she gained the street she observed her husband a short distance in advance of her, and walking hastily she soon overtook him, being careful to keep on the opposite side of the street, that she might be unobserved by him. She had formed no definite purpose in her mind; she only felt that she must endeavor to save him by some means. As they drew nigh the turn of the street she saw two or three of his former associates join him, and one of them addressed him, saying, "Come on, Harland; I thought you would get enough of the cold water system. Come on, and I'll stand treat to welcome you back among your old friends." For a moment he paused as if irresolute; then his wife grew sick at heart, as she saw him follow his companions into a drinking saloon near at hand. Mrs. Harland was by nature a delicate and retiring woman; for a moment she paused: dare she go further! Her irresolution was but momentary, for the momentous consequences at stake gave her a fictitious courage. She quickly approached the door, which at that moment some one in the act of leaving the house threw wide open, and she gained a view of her husband in the act of raising a glass to his lips; but ere he had tasted its fiery contents it was dashed from his hand, and the shattered fragments scattered upon the floor. Mr. Harland, supposing it the act of one of his half-drunken companions, turned with an angry exclamation upon his lips; but the expression of anger upon his countenance suddenly gave place to one of shame and humiliation when he saw his wife standing before him, pale but resolute. In a subdued voice he addressed her, saying, "Mary, how came you here?" "Do not blame me, William," she replied; "for I could not see you again go astray without, at least, making an effort to save you. And now will you not return with me to your home?" The other occupants of the room had thus far remained silent since the entrance of Mrs. Harland; but when they saw that Mr. Harland was about to leave the house by her request, they began taunting him with his want of spirit in being thus ruled by a woman. One of them, who was already half drunk, staggered toward him, saying, "I'd just like to see my old woman follerin' me round in this way. I'll be bound I'd teach her a lesson she would'nt forget in a hurry." Many similar remarks were made by one and another present. The peculiar circumstances in which Mrs. Harland found herself placed gave her a degree of fortitude, of which upon ordinary occasions she would have found herself incapable. Raising her hand with an imperative gesture she said in a firm voice: "Back tempters, hinder not my husband from following the dictates of his better nature." For a few moments there was silence in the room, till one of the company, more drunken and insolent than the others, exclaimed in a loud, derisive voice: "Zounds, madam, but you would make a capital actress, specially on the tragedy parts; you should seek an engagement upon the stage." Mr. Harland's eyes flashed angrily as his listened to the insulting words addressed to his wife, and, turning to the man who had spoken, he addressed him, saying, in a decided tone of voice: "I wish to have no harsh language in this room while my wife is present, but I warn each one of you to address no more insulting language to her." The manner in which Mr. Harland addressed them, together with the gentle and lady-like appearance of his wife, had the effect to shame them into silence. His voice was very tender as he again addressed his wife, saying, "Come Mary I wills accompany you home--this is no place for you." When they gained the street the unnatural courage which had sustained Mrs. Harland gave way, and she would have fallen to the earth, but for the supporting arm of her husband. For a few moments they walked on in silence, when Mr. Harland said, in a voice choked with emotion,

"You have been my good angel, Mary, for your hand it was which saved me from violating a solemn oath; but I now feel an assurance that I have broken the tempter's chains forever." I am happy to add that from this hour he gained a complete victory over the evil habit which well-nigh had proved his ruin; and in after years, when peace and prosperity again smiled upon them, he often called to mind the evening when his affectionate and devoted wife, by her watchful love, saved him from ruin, and perchance from the drunkard's grave.

[The end]
Harriet S. Caswell's short story: Faithful Wife