Danger; or Wounded in the House of a Friend by T.S. Arthur
Blanche still held the untasted wine in her hand, when her father, who happened to be near, filled a glass, and said as he bowed to her:
"Your good health, my daughter; and yours, Mr. Whitford," bowing to her companion also.
The momentary spell was broken. Blanche smiled back upon her father and raised the glass to her lips. The lights in the room seemed to Ellis to flash up again and blaze with a higher brilliancy. Never had the taste of wine seemed more delicious. What a warm thrill ran along his nerves! What a fine exhilaration quickened in his brain! The shadow which a moment before had cast a veil over the face of Blanche he saw no longer. It had vanished, or his vision was not now clear enough to discern its subtle texture.
"Take good care of Blanche," said Mr. Birtwell, in a light voice. "And you, pet, see that Mr. Whitford enjoys himself."
Blanche did not reply. Her father turned away. Eyes not veiled as Whitford's now were would have seen that the filmy cloud which had come over her face a little while before was less transparent, and sensibly dimmed its brightness.
Scarcely had Mr. Birtwell left them when Mr. Elliott, who had only a little while before heard of their engagement, said to Blanche in an undertone, and with one of his sweet paternal smiles:
"I must take a glass of wine with you, dear, in, commemoration of the happy event."
Mr. Elliott had not meant to include young Whitford in the invitation. The latter had spoken to a lady acquaintance who stood near him, and was saying a few words to her, thus disengaging Blanche. But observing that Mr. Elliott was talking to Blanche, he turned from the lady and joined her again. And, so Mr. Elliott had to say:
"We are going to have a glass of wine in honor of the auspicious event."
Three glasses were filled by the clergyman, and then he stood face to face with the young man and maiden, and each of them, as he said in a low, professional voice, meant for their ears alone, "Peace and blessing, my children!" drank to the sentiment. Whitford drained his glass, but Blanche only tasted the wine in hers.
Mr. Elliott stood for a few moments, conscious that something was out of accord. Then he remembered his conversation with Dr. Hillhouse a little while before, and felt an instant regret. He had noted the manner of Whitford as he drank, and the manner of Blanche as she put the wine to her lips. In the one case was an enjoyable eagerness, and in the other constraint. Something in the expression of the girl's face haunted and troubled him a long time afterward.
"Our young friend is getting rather gay," said Dr. Hillhouse to Mr. Elliott, half an hour afterward. He referred to Ellis Whitford, who was talking and laughing in a way that to some seemed a little too loud and boisterous. "I'm afraid for him," he added.
"Ah, yes! I remember what you were saying about his two grandfathers," returned the clergyman. "And you really think he may inherit something from them?"
"Don't you?" asked the doctor.
"Well, yes, of course. But I mean an inordinate desire for drink, a craving that makes indulgence perilous?"
"Yes; that is just what I do believe."
If that be so, the case is a serious one. In taking wine with him a short time ago I noticed a certain enjoyable eagerness as he held the glass to his lips not often observed in our young men."
"You drank with him?" queried the doctor.
"Yes. He and Blanche Birtwell have recently become engaged, and I took some wine with them in compliment."
The doctor, instead of replying, became silent and thoughtful, and Mr. Elliott moved away among the crowd of guests.
"I am really sorry for Mrs. Whitford," said a lady with whom he soon became engaged in conversation.
"Why so?" asked the clergyman, betraying surprise.
"What's the matter? No family trouble, I hope?"
"Very serious trouble I should call it were it my own," returned the lady.
"I am pained to hear you speak so. What has occurred?"
"Haven't you noticed her son to-night? There! That was his laugh. He's been drinking too much. I saw his mother looking at him a little while ago with eyes so full of sorrow and suffering that it made my heart ache."
"Oh, I hope it's nothing," replied Mr. Elliott. "Young men will become a little gay on these occasions; we must expect that. All of them don't bear wine alike. It's mortifying to Mrs. Whitford, of course, but she's a stately woman, you know, and sensitive about proprieties."
Mr. Elliott did not wait for the lady's answer, but turned to address another person who came forward at the moment to speak to him.
"Sensitive about proprieties," said the lady to herself, with some feeling, as she stood looking down the room to where Ellis Whitford in a group of young men and women was giving vent to his exuberant spirits more noisily than befitted the place and occasion. "Mr. Elliott calls things by dainty names."
"I call that disgraceful," remarked an elderly lady, in a severe tone, as if replying to the other's thought.
"Young men will become a little gay on these occasions," said the person to whom she had spoken, with some irony in her tone. "So Mr. Elliott says."
"Mr. Elliott!" There was a tone of bitterness and rejection in the speaker's voice. "Mr. Elliott had better give our young men a safer example than he does. A little gay! A little drunk would be nearer the truth."
"Oh dear! such a vulgar word! We don't use it in good society, you know. It belongs to taverns and drinking-saloons--to coarse, common people. You must say 'a little excited,' 'a little gay,' but not drunk. That's dreadful!"
"Drunk!" said the other, with emphasis, but speaking low and for the ear only of the lady with whom she was talking. "We understand a great deal better the quality of a thing when we call it by its right name. If a young man drinks wine or brandy until he becomes intoxicated, as Whitford has done to-night, and we say he is drunk instead of exhilarated or a little gay, we do something toward making his conduct odious. We do not excuse, but condemn. We make it disgraceful instead of palliating the offence."
The lady paused, when her companion said:
"Look! Blanche Birtwell is trying to quiet him. Did you know they were engaged?"
"Then I pity her from my heart. A young man who hasn't self-control enough to keep himself sober at an evening party can't be called a very promising subject for a husband."
"She has placed her arm in his and is looking up into his face so sweetly. What a lovely girl she is! There! he's quieter already; and see, she is drawing him out of the group of young men and talking to him in such a bright, animated way."
"Poor child! it makes my eyes wet; and this is her first humiliating and painful duty toward her future husband. God pity and strengthen her is my heartfelt prayer. She will have need, I fear, of more than human help and comfort."
"You take the worst for granted?"
The lady drew a deep sigh:
"I fear the worst, and know something of what the worst means. There are few families of any note in our city," she added, after a slight pause, "in which sorrow has not entered through the door of intemperance. Ah! is not the name of the evil that comes in through this door Legion? and we throw it wide open and invite both young and old to enter. We draw them by various allurements. We make the way of this door broad and smooth and flowery, full of pleasantness and enticement. We hold out our hands, we smile with encouragement, we step inside of the door to show them the way."
In her ardor the lady half forgot herself, and stopped suddenly as she observed that two or three of the company who stood near had been listening.
Meantime, Blanche Birtwell had managed to get Whitford away from the table, and was trying to induce him to leave the supper-room. She hung on his arm and talked to him in a light, gay manner, as though wholly unconscious of his condition. They had reached the door leading into the hall, when Whitford stopped, and drawing back, said:
"Oh, there's Fred Lovering, my old college friend. I didn't know he was in the city." Then he called out, in a voice so loud as to cause many to turn and look at him, "Fred! Fred! Why, how are you, old boy? This is an unexpected pleasure."
The young man thus spoken to made his way through the crowd of guests, who were closely packed together in that part of the room, some going in and some trying to get out, and grasping the hand of Whitford, shook it with great cordiality.
"Miss Birtwell," said the latter, introducing Blanche. "But you know each other, I see."
"Oh yes, we are old friends. Glad to see you looking so well, Miss Birtwell."
Blanche bowed with cold politeness, drawing a little back as she did so, and tightening her hold on Whitford's arm.
Lovering fixed his eyes on the young lady with an admiring glance, gazing into her face so intently that her color heightened. She turned partly away, an expression of annoyance on her countenance, drawing more firmly on the arm of her companion as she did so, and taking a step toward the door. But Whitford was no longer passive to her will.
Any one reading the face of Lovering would have seen a change in its expression, the evidence of some quickly formed purpose, and he would have seen also something more than simple admiration of the beautiful girl leaning on the arm of his friend. His manner toward Whitford became more hearty.
"My dear old friend," he said, catching up the hand he had dropped and giving it a tighter grip than before, "this is a pleasure. How it brings back our college days! We must have a glass of wine in memory of the good old times. Come!"
And he moved toward the table. With an impulse she could not restrain, Blanche drew back toward the door, pulling strongly on Whitford's arm:
"Come, Ellis; I am faint with the heat of this room. Take me out, please."
Whitford looked into her face, and saw that it had grown suddenly pale. If his perceptions had not been obscured by drink, he would have taken her out instantly. But his mind was not clear.
"Just a moment, until I can get you a glass of wine," he said, turning hastily from her. Lovering was filling three glasses as he reached the table. Seizing one of them, he went back quickly to Blanche; but she waved her hand, saying: "No, no, Ellis; it isn't wine that I need, only cooler air."
"Don't be foolish," replied Whitford, with visible impatience. "Take a few sips of wine, and you will feel better."
Lovering, with a glass in each hand, now joined them. He saw the change in Blanche's face, and having already observed the exhilarated condition of Whitford, understood its meaning. Handing the latter one of the glasses, he said:
"Here's to your good health, Miss Birtwell, and to yours, Ellis," drinking as he spoke. Whitford drained his glass, but Blanche did not so much as wet her lips. Her face had grown paler.
"If you do not take me out, I must go alone," she said, in a voice that made itself felt. There was in it a quiver of pain and a pulse of indignation.
Lovering lost nothing of this. As his college friend made his way from the room with Blanche on his arm, he stood for a moment in an attitude of deep thought, then nodded two or three times and said to himself:
"That's how the land lies. Wine in and wit out, and Blanche troubled about it already. Engaged, they say. All right. But glass is sharp, and love's fetters are made of silk. Will the edge be duller if the glass is filled with wine? I trow not."
And a gleam of satisfaction lit up the young man's face.
With an effort strong and self-controlling for one so young, Blanche Birtwell laid her hand upon her troubled heart as soon as she was out of the supper-room, and tried to still its agitation. The color came back to her cheeks and some of the lost brightness to her eyes, but she was not long in discovering that the glass of wine taken with his college friend had proved too much for the already confused brain of her lover who began talking foolishly and acting in a way that mortified and pained her exceedingly. She now sought to get him into the library and out of common observation. Her father had just received from France and England some rare books filled with art illustrations, and she invited him to their examination. But he was feeling too social for that.
"Why, no, pet." He made answer with a fond familiarity he would scarcely have used if they had been alone instead of in a crowded drawing-room, touching her cheek playfully with his fingers as he spoke. "Not now. We'll reserve that pleasure for another time. This is good enough for me;" and he swung his arms around and gave a little whoop like an excited rowdy.
A deep crimson dyed for a moment the face of Blanche. In a moment afterward it was pale as ashes. Whitford saw the death-like change, and it partially roused him to a sense of his condition.
"Of course I'll go to the library if your heart's set on it," he said, drawing her arm in his and taking her out of the room with a kind of flourish. Many eyes turned on them. In some was surprise, in some merriment and in some sorrow and pain.
"Now for the books," he cried as he placed Blanche in a large chair at the library-table. "Where are they?"
Self-control has a masterful energy when the demand for its exercise is imperative. The paleness went out of Blanche's face, and a tender light came into her eyes as she looked up at Whitford and smiled on him with loving glances.
"Sit down," she said in a firm, low, gentle voice.
The young man felt the force of her will and sat down by her side, close to the table, on which a number of books were lying.
"I want to show you Dore's illustrations of Don Quixote;" and Blanche opened a large folio volume.
Whitford had grown more passive. He was having a confused impression that all was not just right with him, and that it was better to be in the library looking over books and pictures with Blanche than in the crowded parlors, where there was so much to excite his gayer feelings. So he gave himself up to the will of his betrothed, and tried to feel an interest in the pictures she seemed to admire so much.
They had been so engaged for over twenty minutes, Whitford beginning to grow dull and heavy as the exhilaration of wine died out, and less responsive to the efforts made by Blanche to keep him interested, when Lovering came into the library, and, seeing them, said, with a spur of banter in his voice:
"Come, come, this will never do! You're a fine fellow, Whitford, and I don't wonder that Miss Birtwell tolerates you, but monopoly is not the word to-night. I claim the privilege of a guest and a word or two with our fair hostess."
And he held out his arm to Blanche, who had risen from the table. She could do no less than take it. He drew her from the room. As they passed out of the door Blanche cast a look back at Whitford. Those who saw it were struck by its deep concern.
"Confound his impudence!" ejaculated Ellis Whitford as he saw Blanche vanish through the library door. Rising from the table he stood with an irresolute air, then went slowly from the apartment and mingled with the company, moving about in an aimless kind of way, until he drifted again into the supper-room, the tables of which the waiters were constantly replenishing, and toward which a stream of guests still flowed. The company here was noisier now than when he left it a short time before. Revelry had taken the place of staid propriety. Glasses clinked like a chime of bells, voices ran up into the higher keys, and the loud musical laugh of girls mingled gaily with the deeper tones of their male companions. Young maidens with glasses of sparkling champagne or rich brown and amber sherry in their hands were calling young men and boys to drink with them, and showing a freedom and abandon of manner that marked the degree of their exhilaration. Wine does not act in one way on the brain of a young man and in another way on the brain of a young woman. Girls of eighteen or twenty will become as wild and free and forgetful of propriety as young men of the same age if you bring them together at a feast and give them wine freely.
We do not exaggerate the scene in Mr. Birtwell's supper-room, but rather subdue the picture. As Whitford drew nigh the supper-room the sounds of boisterous mirth struck on his ears and stirred him like the rattle of a drum. The heaviness went out of his limbs, his pulse beat more quickly, he felt a new life in his veins. As he passed in his name was called in a gay voice that he did not at first recognize, and at the same moment a handsome young girl with flushed face and sparkling eyes came hastily toward him, and drawing her hand in his arm, said, in a loud familiar tone:
"You shall be my knight, Sir Ellis."
And she almost dragged him down the room to where half a dozen girls and young men were having a wordy contest about something. He was in the midst of the group before he really understood who the young lady was that had laid such violent hands upon him. He then recognized her as the daughter of a well-known merchant. He had met her a few times in company, and her bearing toward him had always before been marked by a lady-like dignity and reserve. Now she was altogether another being, loud, free and familiar almost to rudeness.
"You must have some wine, Sir Knight, to give you mettle for the conflict," she said, running to the table and filling a glass, which she handed to him with the air of a Hebe.
Whitford did not hesitate, but raised the glass to his lips and emptied it at a single draught.
"Now for knight or dragon, my lady fair. I am yours to do or die," he exclaimed, drawing up his handsome form with a mock dignity, at which a loud cheer broke out from the group of girls and young men that was far more befitting a tavern-saloon than a gentleman's dining-room.
Louder and noisier this little group became, Whitford, under a fresh supply of wine, leading in the boisterous mirth. One after another, attracted by the gayety and laughter, joined the group, until it numbered fifteen or twenty half-intoxicated young men and women, who lost themselves in a kind of wild saturnalia.
It was past twelve o'clock when Mrs. Whitford entered the dining-room, where the noise and laughter were almost deafening. Her face was pale, her lips closely compressed and her forehead contracted with pain. She stood looking anxiously through the room until she saw her son leaning against the wall, with a young lady standing in front of him holding a glass in her hand which she was trying to induce him to take. One glance at the face of Ellis told her too plainly his sad condition.
To go to him and endeavor to get him away Mrs. Whitford feared might arouse his latent pride and make him stubborn to her wishes.
"You see that young man standing against the wall?" she said to one of the waiters.
"Mr. Whitford do you mean?" asked the waiter.
"Yes," she replied. "Go to him quietly, and say that his mother is going home and wants him. Speak low, if you please."
Mrs. Whitford stood with a throbbing heart as the waiter passed down the room. The tempter was before her son offering the glass of wine, which he yet refused. She saw him start and look disconcerted as the waiter spoke to him, then wave the glass of wine aside. But he did not stir from him place.
The waiter came back to Mrs. Whitford:
"He says don't wait for him, ma'am."
The poor mother felt an icy coldness run along her nerves. For some moments she stood irresolute, and then went back to the parlor. She remained there for a short time, masking her countenance as best she could, and then returned to the dining-room, where noise and merriment still prevailed. She did not at first see her son, though her eyes went quickly from face to face and from form to form. She was about retiring, under the impression that he was not there, when the waiter to whom she had spoken before said to her:
"Are you looking for Mr. Whitford?"
There was something in his voice that made her heart stand still.
"Yes," she replied.
"You will find him at the lower end of the room, just in the corner," said the man.
Mrs. Whitford made her way to the lower end of the room. Ellis was sitting in a chair, stupid and maudlin, and two or three thoughtless girls were around his chair laughing at his drunken efforts to be witty. The shocked mother did not speak to him, but shrunk away and went gliding from the room. At the door she said to the waiter who had followed her out, drawn by a look she gave him:
"I will be ready to go in five minutes, and I want Mr. Whitford to go with me. Get him down to the door as quietly as you can."
The waiter went back into the supper-room, and with a tact that came from experience in cases similar to this managed to get the young man away without arousing his opposition.
Five minutes afterward, as Mrs. Whitford sat in her carriage at the door of Mr. Birtwell's palace home, her son was pushed in, half resisting, by two waiters, so drunk that his wretched mother had to support him with her arm all the way home. Is it any wonder that in her aching heart the mother cried out, "Oh, that he had died a baby on my breast"?