Danger; or Wounded in the House of a Friend by T.S. Arthur
"Ellis, my son."
There was a little break and tremor in the voice. The young man addressed was passing the door of his mother's room, and paused on hearing his name.
"What is it?" he asked, stepping inside and looking curiously into his mother's face, where he saw a more than usually serious expression.
"Sit down, Ellis; I want to say a word to you before going to Mrs. Birtwell's."
The lady had just completed her toilette, and was elegantly dressed for an evening party. She was a handsome, stately-looking woman, with dark hair through which ran many veins of silver, large, thoughtful eyes and a mouth of peculiar sweetness.
The young man took a chair, and his mother seated herself in front of him.
The tremor still remained in her voice.
"Well, what is it?"
The young man assumed a careless air, but was not at ease.
"There is a good old adage, my son, the remembrance of which Has saved many a one in the hour of danger: Forewarned, forearmed."
"Oh, then you think we are going into danger to-night?" he answered, in a light tone.
"I am sorry to say that we are going where some will find themselves in great peril," replied the mother, her manner growing more serious; "and it is because of this that I wish to say a word or two now."
"Very well, mother; say on."
He moved uneasily in his chair, and showed signs of impatience.
You must take it kindly, Ellis, and remember that it is your mother who is speaking, your best and truest friend in all the world."
"Good Heavens, mother! what are you driving at? One would think we were going into a howling wilderness, among savages and wild beasts, instead of into a company of the most cultured and refined people in a Christian city."
"There is danger everywhere, my son," the mother replied, with increasing sobriety of manner, "and the highest civilization of the day has its perils as well as the lowest conditions of society. The enemy hides in ambush everywhere--in the gay drawing-room as well as in the meanest hovel."
She paused, and mother and son looked into each other's faces in silence for several moments. Then the former said:
"I must speak plainly, Ellis. You are not as guarded as you should be on these occasions. You take wine too freely."
"Oh, mother!" His voice was, half surprised, half angry. A red flush mounted to cheeks and forehead. Rising, he walked the room in an agitated manner, and then came and sat down. The color had gone out of his face:
"How could you say so, mother? You do me wrong. It is a mistake."
The lady shook her head:
"No, my son, it is true. A mother's eyes rarely deceive her. You took wine too freely both at Mrs. Judson's and Mrs. Ingersoll's, and acted so little like my gentlemanly, dignified son that my cheeks burned and my heart ached with mortification. I saw in other eyes that looked at you both pity and condemnation. Ah, my son! there was more of bitterness in that for a mother's heart than you will ever comprehend."
Her voice broke into a sob.
"My dear, dear mother," returned the young man, exhibiting much distress, "you and others exaggerated what you saw. I might have been a trifle gay, and who is not after a glass or two of champagne? I was no gayer than the rest. When young people get together, and one spurs another on they are apt to grow a little wild. But to call high spirits, even noisy high spirits, intoxication is unjust. You must not be too hard on me, mother, nor let your care for your son lead you into needless apprehensions. I am in no danger here. Set your heart at rest on that score."
But this was impossible. Mrs. Whitford knew there was danger, and that of the gravest character. Two years before, her son had come home from college, where he had graduated with all the honors her heart could desire, a pure, high-toned young man, possessing talents of no common order. His father wished him to study law; and as his own inclinations led in that direction, he went into the office of one of the best practitioners in the city, and studied for his profession with the same thoroughness that had distinguished him while in college. He had just been admitted to the bar.
For the first year after his return home Mrs. Whitford saw nothing in her son to awaken uneasiness. His cultivated tastes and love of intellectual things held him above the enervating influences of the social life into which he was becoming more and more drawn. Her first feeling of uneasiness came when, at a large party given by one of her most intimate friends, she heard his voice ring out suddenly in the supper-room. Looking down the table, she saw him with a glass of champagne in his hand, which he was flourishing about in rather an excited way. There was a gay group of young girls around him, who laughed merrily at the sport he made. Mrs. Whitford's pleasure was gone for that evening. A shadow came down on the bright future of her son--a future to which her heart had turned with such proud anticipations. She was oppressed by a sense of humiliation. Her son had stepped down from his pedestal of dignified self-respect, and stood among the common herd of vulgar young men to whom in her eyes he had always been superior.
But greater than her humiliation were the fears of Mrs. Whitford. A thoughtful and observant woman, she had reason for magnifying the dangers that lay in the path of her son. The curse of more than one member of both her own and husband's family had been intemperance. While still a young man her father had lost his self-control, and her memory of him was a shadow of pain and sorrow. He died at an early age, the victim of an insatiable and consuming desire for drink. Her husband's father had been what is called a "free liver"--that is, a man who gave free indulgence to his appetites, eating and drinking to excess, and being at all times more or less under the influence of wine or spirits.
It was the hereditary taint that Mrs. Whitford dreaded. Here lay the ground of her deepest anxiety. She had heard and thought enough on this subject to know that parents transmit to their children an inclination to do the things they have done from habit--strong or weak, according to the power of the habit indulged. If the habit be an evil one, then the children are in more than common danger, and need the wisest care and protection. She knew, also, from reading and observation, that an evil habit of mind or body which did not show itself in the second generation would often be reproduced in the third, and assert a power that it required the utmost strength of will and the greatest watchfulness to subdue.
And so, when her son, replying to her earnest warning, said, "I am in no danger. Set your heart at rest," she knew better--knew that a deadly serpent was in the path he was treading. And she answered him with increasing earnestness:
"The danger may be far greater than you imagine, Ellis. It is greater than you imagine."
Her voice changed as she uttered the last sentence into a tone that was almost solemn.
"You are talking wildly," returned the young man, "and pay but a poor compliment to your son's character and strength of will. In danger of becoming a sot!--for that is what you mean. If you were not my mother, I should be angry beyond self-control."
"Ellis," said Mrs. Whitford, laying her hand upon the arm of her son and speaking with slow impressiveness, "I am older than you are by nearly thirty years, have seen more of life than you have, and know some things that you do not know. I have your welfare at heart more deeply than any other being except God. I know you better in some things than you know yourself. Love makes me clear-seeing. And this is why I am in such earnest with you to-night. Ellis, I want a promise from you. I ask it in the name of all that is dearest to you--in my name--in the name of Blanche--in the name of God!"
All the color had, gone out of Mrs. Whitford's face, and she stood trembling before her son.
"You frighten me, mother," exclaimed the young man. "What do you mean by all this? Has any one been filling your mind with lies about me?"
"No; none would dare speak to me of you in anything but praise, But I want you to promise to-night, Ellis. I must have that, and then my heart will be at ease. It will be a little thing for you, but for me rest and peace and confidence in the place of terrible anxieties."
"Promise! What? Some wild fancies have taken hold of you."
"No wild fancies, but a fear grounded in things of which I would not speak. Ellis, I want you to give up the use of wine."
The young man did not answer immediately. All the nervous restlessness he had exhibited died out in a moment, and he stood very still, the ruddy marks of excitement going out of his face. His eyes were turned from his mother and cast upon the floor.
"And so it has come to this," he said, huskily, and in a tone of humiliation. "My mother thinks me in danger of becoming a drunkard--thinks me so weak that I cannot be trusted to take even a glass of wine."
"Ellis!" Mrs. Whitford again laid her hand upon the arm of her son. "Ellis," her voice had fallen to deep whisper, "if I must speak, I must. There are ancestors who leave fatal legacies to the generations that come after them, and you are one accursed by such a legacy. There is a taint in your blood, a latent fire that a spark may kindle into a consuming flame."
She panted as she spoke with hurried utterance. "My father!" exclaimed the young man, with an indignant flash in his eyes.
"No, no, no! I don't mean that. But there is a curse that descends to the third and fourth generation," replied Mrs. Whitford, "and you have the legacy of that curse. But it will be harmless unless with your own hand you drag it down, and this is why I ask you to abstain from wine. Others may be safe, but for you there is peril."
"A scarecrow, a mere fancy, a figment of some fanatic's brain;" and Ellis Whitford rejected the idea in a voice full of contempt.
But the pallor and solemnity of his mother's face warned him that such a treatment of her fears could not allay them. Moreover, the hint of ancestral disgrace had shocked his family pride.
"A sad and painful truth," Mrs. Whitford returned, "and one that it will be folly for you to ignore. You do not stand in the same freedom in which many others stand. That is your misfortune. But you can no more disregard the fact than can one born with a hereditary taint of consumption in his blood disregard the loss of health and hope to escape the fatal consequences. There is for every one of us 'a sin that doth easily beset,' a hereditary inclination that must be guarded and denied, or it will grow and strengthen until it becomes a giant to enslave us. Where your danger lies I have said; and if you would be safe, set bars and bolts to the door of appetite, and suffer not your enemy to cross the threshold, of life."
Mrs. Whitford spoke with regaining calmness, but in tones of solemn admonition.
A long silence followed, broken at length by the young man, who said, in a choking, depressed voice that betrayed a quaver of impatience:
"I'm sorry for all this. That your fears are groundless I know, but you are none the less tormented by them. What am I to do? To spare you pain I would sacrifice almost anything, but this humiliation is more than I am strong enough to encounter. If, as you say, there has been intemperance in our family, it is not a secret locked up in your bosom. Society knows all about the ancestry of its members, who and what the fathers and grandfathers were, and we have not escaped investigation. Don't touch wine, you say. Very well. I go to Mrs. Birtwell's to-night. Young and old, men and women, all are partakers, but I stand aloof--I, of all the guests, refuse the hospitality I have pretended to accept. Can I do this without attracting attention or occasioning remark? No; and what will be said? Simply this--that I know my danger and am afraid; that there is in my blood the hereditary taint of drunkenness, and that I dare not touch a glass of wine. Mother, I am not strong enough to brave society on such an issue, and a false one at that. To fear and fly does not belong to my nature. A coward I despise. If there is danger in my way and it is right for me to go forward in that way, I will walk steadily on, and fight if I must. I am not a craven, but a man. If the taint of which you speak is in my blood, I will extinguish it. If I am in danger, I will not save myself by flight, but by conquest. The taint shall not go down to another generation; it shall be removed in this."
He spoke with a fine enthusiasm kindling over his handsome face, and his mother's heart beat with a pride that for the moment was stronger than fear.
"Ask of me anything except to give up my self-respect and my manliness," he added. "Say that you wish me to remain at home, and I will not go to the party."
"No. I do not ask that. I wish you to go. But--"
"If I go, I must do as the rest, and you must have faith in me. Forewarned, forearmed. I will heed your admonition."
So the interview ended, and mother and son went to the grand entertainment at Mr. Birtwell's. Ellis did mean to heed his mother's admonition. What she had said, about the danger in which he stood had made a deeper impression on him than Mrs. Whitford thought. But he did not propose to heed by abstinence, but by moderation. He would be on guard and always ready for the hidden foe, if such a foe really existed anywhere but in his mother's fancy.
"Ah, Mrs. Whitford! Glad to see you this evening;" and the Rev. Mr. Brantley Elliott gave the lady a graceful and cordial bow. "Had the pleasure of meeting your son a few moments ago--a splendid young man, if you will pardon me for saying so. How much a year has improved him!"
Mrs. Whitford bowed her grateful acknowledgment.
"Just been admitted to the bar, I learn," said Mr. Elliott.
"Yes, sir. He has taken his start in life."
"And will make his mark, or I am mistaken. You have reason to feel proud of him, ma'am."
"That she has," spoke out Dr. Hillhouse, who came up at the moment. "When so many of our young men are content to be idle drones--to let their fathers achieve eminence or move the world by the force of thought and will--it is gratifying to see one of their number taking his place in the ranks and setting his face toward conquest. When the sons of two-thirds of our rich men are forgotten, or remembered only as idlers or nobodies, or worse, your son will stand among the men who leave their mark upon the generations."
"If he escapes the dangers that lie too thickly in the way of all young men," returned Mrs. Whitford, speaking almost involuntarily of what was in her heart, and in a voice that betrayed more concern than she had meant to express.
The doctor gave a little shrug, but replied:
"His earnest purpose in life will be his protection, Mrs. Whitford. Work, ambition, devotion to a science or profession have in them an aegis of safety. The weak and the idle are most in danger."
"It is wrong, I have sometimes thought," said Mrs. Whitford speaking both to the physician and the clergyman, "for society to set so many temptations before its young men--the seed, as some one has forcibly said, of the nation's future harvest."
"Society doesn't care much for anything but its own gratification," replied Dr. Hillhouse, "and says as plainly as actions can do it 'After me the deluge.'"
"Rather hard on society," remarked Mr. Elliott.
"Now take, for instance, its drinking customs, its toleration and participation in the freest public and private dispensation of intoxicating liquors to all classes, weak or strong, young or old. Is there not danger in this--great danger? I think I understand you, Mrs. Whitford."
"Yes, doctor, you understand me;" and dropping her voice to a lower tone, Mrs. Whitford added: "There are wives and mothers and sisters not a few here to-night whose hearts, though they may wear smiles on their faces, are ill at ease, and some of them will go home from these festivities sadder than when they came."
"Right about that," said the doctor to himself as he turned away, a friend of Mrs. Whitford's having come up at the moment and interrupted the conversation--" right about that; and you, I greatly fear, will be one of the number."
"Our friend isn't just herself to-night," remarked Mr. Elliott as he and Dr. Hillhouse moved across the room. "A little dyspeptic, maybe, and so inclined to look on the dark side of things. She has little cause, I should think, to be anxious for her own son or husband. I never saw Mr. Whitford the worse for wine; and as for Ellis, his earnest purpose in life, as you so well said just now, will hold him above the reach of temptation."
"On the contrary, she has cause for great anxiety," returned Dr. Hillhouse.
"You surprise me. What reason have you for saying this?"
"A professional one--a reason grounded in pathology."
"Ah?" and Mr. Elliott looked gravely curious.
"The young man inherits, I fear, a depraved appetite."
"Oh no. I happen to be too well acquainted with his father to accept that view of the case."
"His father is well enough," replied Dr. Hillhouse, "but as much could not be said of either of his grandfathers while living. Both drank freely, and one of them died a confirmed drunkard."
"If the depraved appetite has not shown itself in the children, it will hardly trouble the grandchildren," said Mr. Elliott. "Your fear is groundless, doctor. If Ellis were my son, I should feel no particular anxiety about him."
"If he were your son," replied Dr. Hillhouse, "I am not so sure about your feeling no concern. Our personal interest in a thing is apt to give it a new importance. But you are mistaken as to the breaking of hereditary influences in the second generation. Often hereditary peculiarities will show themselves in the third and fourth generation. It is no uncommon thing to see the grandmother's red hair reappear in her granddaughter, though her own child's hair was as black as a raven's wing. A crooked toe, a wart, a malformation, an epileptic tendency, a swart or fair complexion, may disappear in all the children of a family, and show itself again in the grand-or great-grandchildren. Mental and moral conditions reappear in like manner. In medical literature we have many curious illustrations of this law of hereditary transmission and its strange freaks and anomalies."
"They are among the curiosities of your literature," said Mr. Elliott, speaking as though not inclined to give much weight to the doctor's views--"the exceptional and abnormal things that come under professional notice."
"The law of hereditary transmission," replied Dr. Hillhouse, "is as certain in its operation as the law of gravity. You may disturb or impede or temporarily suspend the law, but the moment you remove the impediment the normal action goes on, and the result is sure. Like produces like--that is the law. Always the cause is seen in the effect, and its character, quality and good or evil tendencies are sure to have a rebirth and a new life. It is under the action of this law that the child is cursed by the parent with the evil and sensual things he has made a part of himself through long indulgence."
There came at this moment a raid upon Mr. Elliott by three or four ladies, members of his congregation, who surrounded him and Dr. Hillhouse, and cut short their conversation.
Meanwhile, Ellis Whitford had already half forgotten his painful interview with his mother in the pleasure of meeting Blanche Birtwell, to whom he had recently become engaged. She was a pure and lovely young woman, inheriting her mother's personal beauty and refined tastes. She had been carefully educated and kept by her mother as much within the sphere of home as possible and out of society of the hoydenish girls who, moving in the so-called best circles, have the free and easy manners of the denizens of a public garden rather than the modest demeanor of unsullied maidenhood. She was a sweet exception to the loud, womanish, conventional girl we meet everywhere--on the street, in places, of public amusement and in the drawing-room--a fragrant human flower with the bloom of gentle girlhood on every unfolding leaf.
It was no slender tie that bound these lovers together. They had moved toward each other, drawn by an inner attraction that was irresistible to each; and when heart touched heart, their pulses took a common beat. The life of each had become bound up in the other, and their betrothal was no mere outward contract. The manly intellect and the pure heart had recognized each other, tender love had lifted itself to noble thought, and thought had grown stronger and purer as it felt the warmth and life of a new and almost divine inspiration. Ellis Whitford had risen to a higher level by virtue of this betrothal.
They were sitting in a bay-window, out of the crowd of guests, when a movement in the company was observed by Whitford. Knowing what it meant, he arose and offered his arm to Blanche. As he did so he became aware of a change in his companion, felt rather than seen; and yet, if he had looked closely into her face, a change in its expression would have been visible. The smile was still upon her beautiful lips, and the light and tenderness still in her eyes, but from both something had departed. It was as if an almost invisible film of vapor had drifted across the sun of their lives.
In silence they moved on to the supper-room--moved with the light and heavy-hearted, for, as Dr. Hillhouse had intimated, there were some there to whom that supper-room was regarded with anxiety and fear--wives and mothers and sisters who knew, alas! too well that deadly serpents lie hidden among the flowers of every banqueting-room.
How bright and joyous a scene it was! You did not see the trouble that lay hidden in so many hearts; the light and glitter, the flash and brilliancy, were too strong.
Reader, did you ever think of the power of spheres? The influence that goes out from an individual or mass of individuals, we mean--that subtle, invisible power that acts from one upon another, and which when aggregated is almost irresistible? You have felt it in a company moved by a single impulse which carried you for a time with the rest, though all your calmer convictions were in opposition to the movement. It has kept you silent by its oppressive power when you should have spoken out in a ringing protest, and it has borne you away on its swift or turbulent current when you should have stood still and been true to right. Again, in the company of good and true men, moved by the inspiration of some noble cause, how all your weakness and hesitation has died out! and you have felt the influence of that subtle sphere to which we refer.
Everywhere and at all times are we exposed to the action of these mental and moral spheres, which act upon and impress us in thousands of different ways, now carrying us along in some sudden public excitement in which passion drowns the voice of reason, and now causing us to drift in the wake of some stronger nature than our own whose active thought holds ours in a weak, assenting bondage.
You understand what we mean. Now take the pervading sphere of an occasion like the one we are describing, and do you not see that to go against it is possible only to persons of decided convictions and strong individuality? The common mass of men and women are absorbed into or controlled by its subtle power. They can no more set themselves against it, if they would, than against the rush of a swiftly-flowing river. To the young it is irresistible.
As Ellis Whitford, with Blanche leaning on his arm, gained the supper-room, he met the eyes of his mother, who was on the opposite side of the table, and read in them a sign of warning. Did it awaken a sense of danger and put him on his guard? No; it rather stirred a feeling of anger. Could she not trust him among gentlemen and ladies--not trust him with Blanche Birtwell by his side? It hurt his pride and wounded his self-esteem.
He was in the sphere of liberty and social enjoyment and among those who did not believe that wine was a mocker, but something to make glad the heart and give joy to the countenance; and when it began to flow he was among the first to taste its delusive sweets. Blanche, for whom he poured a glass of champagne, took it from his hand, but with only half a smile on her lips, which was veiled by something so like pain or fear that Ellis felt as if the lights about him had suddenly lost a portion of their brilliancy. He stood holding his own glass, after just tasting its contents, waiting for Blanche to raise the sparkling liquor to her lips, but she seemed like one under the influence of a spell, not moving or responding.