Chapter XI.
 

Among the guests at Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell's was an officer holding a high rank in the army, named Abercrombie. He had married, many years before, a lady of fine accomplishments and rare culture who was connected with one of the oldest families in New York. Her grandfather on her mother's side had distinguished himself as an officer in the Revolutionary war; and on her father's side she could count statesmen and lawyers whose names were prominent in the early history of our country.

General Abercrombie while a young man had fallen into the vice of the army, and had acquired the habit of drinking.

The effects of alcohol are various. On some they are seen in the bloated flesh and reddened eyes. Others grow pale, and their skin takes on a dead and ashen hue. With some the whole nervous system becomes shattered; while with others organic derangements, gout, rheumatism and kindred evils attend the assimilation of this poison.

Quite as varied are the moral and mental effects of alcoholic disturbance. Some are mild and weak inebriates, growing passive or stupid in their cups. Others become excited, talkative and intrusive; others good-natured and merry; not a few coarse, arbitrary, brutal and unfeeling; and some jealous, savage and fiend-like.

Of the last-named class was General Abercrombie. When sober, a kinder, gentler or more considerate man toward his wife could hardly be found; but when intoxicated, he was half a fiend, and seemed to take a devilish delight in tormenting her. It had been no uncommon thing for him to point a loaded pistol at her heart, and threaten to shoot her dead if she moved or cried out; to hold a razor at his own throat, or place the keen edge, close to hers; to open a window at midnight and threaten to fling himself to the ground, or to drag her across the floor, swearing that they should take the leap together.

For years the wretched wife had borne all this, and worse if possible, hiding her dreadful secret as best she could, and doing all in her power to hold her husband, for whom she retained a strong attachment, away from temptation. Friends who only half suspected the truth wondered that Time was so aggressive, taking the flash and merriment out of her beautiful eyes, the color and fullness from her cheeks, the smiles from her lips and the glossy, blackness from her hair.

"Mrs. Abercrombie is such a wreck," one would say on meeting her after a few years. "I would hardly have known her; and she doesn't look at all happy."

"I wonder if the general drinks as hard as ever?" would in all probability be replied to this remark, followed by the response:

"I was not aware that he was a hard drinker. He doesn't look like it."

"No, you would not suspect so much; but I am sorry to say that he has very little control over his appetite."

At which a stronger surprise would be expressed.

General Abercrombie was fifty years old, a large, handsome and agreeable man, and a favorite with his brother officers, who deeply regretted his weakness. As an officer his drinking habits rarely interfered with his duty. Somehow the discipline of the army had gained such a power over him as to hold him repressed and subordinate to its influence. It was only when official restraints were off that the devil had power to enter in and fully possess him.

A year before the time of which we are writing General Abercrombie had been ordered to duty in the north-eastern department. His headquarters were in the city where the characters we have introduced resided. Official standing gave him access to some of the wealthiest and best circles in the city, and his accomplished wife soon became a favorite with all who were fortunate enough to come into close relations with her. Among these was Mrs. Birtwell, the two ladies drawing toward each other with the magnetism of kindred spirits.

A short time before coming to the city General Abercrombie, after having in a fit of drunken insanity come near killing his wife, wholly abandoned the use of intoxicants of every kind. He saw in this his only hope. His efforts to drink guardedly and temperately had been fruitless. The guard was off the moment a single glass of liquor passed his lips, and, he came under the influence of an aroused appetite against which resolution set itself feebly and in vain.

Up to the evening of this party at Mr. Birtwell's General Abercrombie had kept himself free from wine, and people who knew nothing of his history wondered at his abstemiousness. When invited to drink, he declined in a way that left no room for the invitation to be repeated. He never went to private entertainments except in company with his wife, and then he rarely took any other lady to the supper-room.

The new hope born in the sad heart of Mrs. Abercrombie had grown stronger as the weeks and months went by. Never for so long a time had the general stood firm. It looked as, if he had indeed gained the mastery over an appetite which at one time seemed wholly to have enslaved him.

With a lighter heart than usual on such occasions, Mrs. Abercrombie made ready for the grand entertainment, paying more than ordinary attention to her toilette. Something of her old social and personal pride came back into life, giving her face and bearing the dignity and prestige worn in happier days. As she entered the drawing-room at Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell's, leaning on her husband's arm, a ripple of admiration was seen on many faces, and the question, "Who is she?" was heard on many lips. Mrs. Abercrombie was a centre of attraction that evening, and no husband could have been prouder of such a distinction for his wife than was the general. He, too, found himself an object of interest and attention. Mr. Birtwell was a man who made the most of his guests, and being a genuine parvenu, did not fail through any refinement of good breeding in advertising to each other the merits or achievements of those he favored with introductions. If he presented a man of letters to an eminent banker, he informed each in a word or two of the other's distinguished merits. An officer would be complimented on his rank or public service, a scientist on his last book or essay, a leading politician on his statesmanship. At Mr. Birtwell's you always found yourself among men with more in them than you had suspected, and felt half ashamed of your ignorance in regard to their great achievements.

General Abercrombie, like many others that evening, felt unusually well satisfied with himself. Mr. Birtwell complimented him whenever they happened to meet, sometimes on his public services and sometimes on the "sensation" that elegant woman Mrs. Abercrombie was making. He grew in his own estimation under the flattering attentions of his host, and felt a manlier pride swelling in his heart than he had for some time known. His bearing became more self-poised, his innate sense of strength more apparent. Here was a man among men.

This was the general's state of mind when, after an hour, or two of social intercourse, he entered the large supper-room, whither he escorted a lady. He had not seen his wife for half an hour. If she had been, as usual on such occasions, by his side, he would have been on guard. But the lady who leaned on his arm was not his good angel. She was a gay, fashionable woman, and as fond of good eating and drinking as any male epicure there. The general was polite and attentive, and as prompt as any younger gallant in the work of supplying his fair companion with the good things she was so ready to appropriate.

"Will you have a glass of champagne?"

Of course she would. Her eyebrows arched a little in surprise at the question. The general filled a glass and placed it in her hand. Did she raise it to her lips? No; she held it a little extended, looking at him with an expression which said, "I will wait for you."

For an instant General Abercrombie felt as if be were sinking through space. Darkness and fear were upon him. But there was no time for indecision. The lady stood holding her glass and looking at him fixedly. An instant and the struggle was over. He turned to the table and filled another glass. A smile and a bow, and then, a draught that sent the blood leaping along his veins with a hot and startled impulse.

Mrs. Abercrombie, who had entered the room a little while before, and was some distance from the place where her husband stood, felt at the moment a sudden chill and weight fall upon her heart. A gentleman who was talking to her saw her face grow pale and a look that seemed like terror come into he eyes.

"Are you ill, Mrs. Abercrombie?" he asked, in some alarm.

"No," she replied. "Only a slight feeling of faintness. It is gone now;" and she tried to recover herself.

"Shall I take you from the room?" asked the gentleman, seeing that the color did not come back to her face.

"Oh no, thank you."

"Let me give you a glass of wine."

But she waved her hand with a quick motion, saying, "Not wine; but a little ice water."

She drank, but the water did not take the whiteness from her lips nor restore the color to her cheeks. The look of dread or fear kept in her eyes, and her companion saw her glance up and down the room in a furtive way as if in anxious search for some one.

In a few moments Mrs. Abercrombie was able to rise in some small degree above the strange impression which had fallen upon her like the shadow of some passing evil; but the rarely flavored dishes, the choice fruits, confections and ices with which she was supplied scarcely passed her lips. She only pretended to eat. Her ease of manner and fine freedom of conversation were gone, and the gentleman who had been fascinated by her wit, intelligence and frank womanly bearing now felt an almost repellant coldness.

"You cannot feel well, Mrs. Abercrombie," he said. "The air is close and hot. Let me take you back to the parlors."

She did not reply, nor indeed seem to hear him. Her eyes had become suddenly arrested by some object a little way off, and were fixed upon it in a frightened stare. The gentleman turned and saw only her husband in lively conversation with a lady. He had a glass of wine in his hand, and was just raising it to his lips.

"Jealous!" was the thought that flashed through his mind. The position was embarrassing. What could he say? In the next moment intervening forms hid those of General Abercrombie and his fair companion. Still as a statue, with eyes that seemed staring into vacancy, Mrs. Abercrombie remained for some moments, then she drew her hand within the gentleman's arm and said in a low voice that was little more than a hoarse whisper:

"Thank you; yes, I will go back to the parlors."

They retired from the room without attracting notice.

"Can I do anything for you?" asked the gentleman as he seated her on a sofa in one of the bay-windows where she was partially concealed from observation.

"No, thank you," she answered, with regaining self-control. She then insisted on being left alone, and with a decision of manner that gave her attendant no alternative but compliance.

The gentleman immediately returned to the supper-room. As he joined the company there he met a friend to whom he said in a half-confidential way: "Do you know anything about General Abercrombie's relations with his wife?

"What do you mean?" inquired the friend, with evident surprise.

"I saw something just now that looks very suspicious."

"What?"

"I came here with Mrs. Abercrombie a little while ago, and was engaged in helping her, when I saw her face grow deadly pale. Following her eyes, I observed them fixed on the general, who was chatting gayly and taking wine with a lady."

"What! taking wine did you say?"

The gentleman was almost as much surprised at the altered manner of his friend as he had been with that of Mrs. Abercrombie:

"Yes; anything strange in that?"

"Less strange than sad, was replied. "I don't wonder you saw the color go out of Mrs. Abercrombie's face."

"Why so? What does it mean?"

"It means sorrow and heartbreak."

"You surprise and pain me. I thought of the lady by his side, not of the glass of wine in his hand."

The two men left the crowded supper-room in order to be more alone.

"You know something of the general's life and habits?"

"Yes."

"He has not been intemperate, I hope?"

"Yes."

"Oh, I am pained to hear you say so."

"Drink is his besetting sin, the vice that has more than once come near leading to his dismissal from the army. He is one of the men who cannot use wine or spirits in moderation. In consequence of some diseased action of the nutritive organs brought on by drink, he has lost the power of self-control when under the influence of alcoholic stimulation. He is a dypso-maniac. A glass of wine or brandy to him is like the match to a train of powder. I don't wonder, knowing what I do about General Abercrombie, that his wife grew deadly pale to-night when she saw him raise a glass to his lips."

"Has he been abstaining for any length of time?"

"Yes; for many months he has kept himself free. I am intimate with an officer who told me all about him. When not under the influence of drink, the general is one of the kindest-hearted men in the world. To his wife he is tender and indulgent almost to a fault, if that were possible. But liquor seems to put the devil into him. Drink drowns his better nature and changes him into a half-insane fiend. I am told that he came near killing his wife more than once in a drunken phrensy."

"You pain me beyond measure. Poor lady! I don't wonder that the life went out of her so suddenly, nor at the terror I saw in her face. Can nothing be done? Has he no friends here who will draw him out of the supper-room and get him away before he loses control of himself?"

"It is too late. If he has begun to drink, it is all over. You might as well try to draw off a wolf who has tasted blood."

"Does he become violent? Are we going to have a drunken scene?"

"Oh no; we need apprehend nothing of that kind. I never heard of his committing any public folly. The devil that enters into him is not a rioting, boisterous fiend, but quiet, malignant, suspicious and cruel."

"Suspicious? Of what?"

"Of everybody and everything. His brother officers are in league against him; his wife is regarded with jealousy; your frankest speech covers in his view some hidden and sinister meaning. You must be careful of your attentions to Mrs. Abercrombie to-night, for he will construe them adversely, and pour out his wrath on her defenceless head when they are alone."

"This is frightful," was answered. "I never heard of such a case."

"Never heard of a drunken man assaulting his wife when alone with her, beating, maiming or murdering her?"

"Oh yes, among the lowest and vilest. But we are speaking now of people in good society--people of culture and refinement."

"Culture and social refinements have no influence over a man when the fever of intoxication is upon him. He is for the time an insane man, and subject to the influx and control of malignant influences. Hell rules him instead of heaven."

"It is awful to think of. It makes me shudder."

"We know little of what goes on at home after an entertainment like this," said the other. "It all looks so glad and brilliant. Smiles, laughter, gayety, enjoyment, meet you at every turn. Each one is at his or her best. It is a festival of delight. But you cannot at this day give wine and brandy without stint to one or two or three hundred men and women of all ages, habits, temperaments and hereditary moral and physical conditions without the production of many evil consequences. It matters little what the social condition may be; the hurt of drink is the same. The sphere of respectability may and does guard many. Culture and pride of position hold others free from undue sensual indulgence. But with the larger number the enticements of appetite are as strong and enslaving in one grade of society as in another, and the disturbance of normal conditions as great. And so you see that the wife of an intoxicated army officer or lawyer or banker may be in as much danger from his drunken and insane fury, when alone with him and unprotected, as the wife of a street-sweeper or hod-carrier."

"I have never thought of it in that way."

"No, perhaps not. Cases of wife-beating and personal injuries, of savage and frightful assaults, of terrors and sufferings endured among the refined and educated, rarely if ever come to public notice. Family pride, personal delicacy and many other considerations seal the lips in silence. But there are few social circles in which it is not known that some of its members are sad sufferers because of a husband's or a father's intemperance, and there are many, many families, alas! which have always in their homes the shadow of a sorrow that embitters everything. They hide it as best they can, and few know or dream of what they endure."

Dr. Angier joined the two men at this moment, and heard the last remark. The speaker added, addressing him:

"Your professional experience will corroborate this, Dr. Angier."

"Corroborate what?" he asked, with a slight appearance of evasion in his manner.

"We were speaking of the effects of intemperance on the more cultivated and refined classes, and I said that it mattered little as to the social condition; the hurt of drink was the same and the disturbance of normal conditions as great in one class of society as in another, that a confirmed inebriate, when under the influence of intoxicants, lost all idea of respectability or moral responsibility, and would act out his insane passion, whether he were a lawyer, an army officer or a hod-carrier. In other words, that social position gave the wife of an inebriate no immunity from personal violence when alone with her drunken husband."

Dr. Angier did not reply, but his face became thoughtful.

"Have you given much attention to the pathology of drunkenness?" asked one of the gentlemen.

"Some; not a great deal. The subject is one of the most perplexing and difficult we have to deal with."

"You class intemperance with diseases, do you not?"

"Yes; certain forms of it. It may be hereditary or acquired like any other disease. One man may have a pulmonary, another a bilious and another a dypso-maniac diathesis, and an exposure to exciting causes in one case is as fatal to health as in the other. If there exist a predisposition to consumption, the disease will be developed under peculiar morbific influences which would have no deleterious effect upon a subject not so predisposed. The same law operates as unerringly in the inherited predisposition to intemperance. Let the man with a dypso-maniac diathesis indulge in the use of intoxicating liquors, and he will surely become a drunkard. There is no more immunity for him than for the man who with tubercles in his lungs exposes himself to cold, bad air and enervating bodily conditions."

"A more serious view of the case, doctor, than is usually taken."

"I know, but a moment's consideration--to say nothing of observed facts--will satisfy any reasonable man of its truth."

"What do you mean by dypso-mania as a medical term?"

"The word," replied Dr. Angier, "means crazy for drink, and is used in the profession to designate that condition of alcoholic disease in which the subject when under its influence has no power of self-control. It is characterized by an inordinate and irresistible desire for alcoholic liquors, varying in intensity from a slight departure from a normal appetite to the most depraved and entire abandonment to its influence. When this disease becomes developed, its action upon the brain is to deteriorate its quality and impair its functions. All the faculties become more or less weakened. Reason, judgment, perception, memory and understanding lose their vigor and capacity. The will becomes powerless before the strong propensity to drink. The moral sentiments and affections likewise become involved in the general impairment. Conscience, the feeling of accountability, the sense of right and wrong, all become deadened, while the passions are aroused and excited."

"What an awful disease!" exclaimed one of the listeners.

"You may well call it an awful disease," returned the doctor, who, under the influence of a few glasses of wine, was more inclined to talk than usual. "It has been named the mother of diseases. Its death-roll far outnumbers that of any other. When it has fairly seized upon a man, no influence seems able to hold him back from the indulgence of his passion for drink. To gratify this desire he will disregard every consideration affecting his standing in society, his pecuniary interests and his domestic relations, while the most frightful instances of the results of drinking have no power to restrain him. A hundred deaths from this cause, occurring under the most painful and revolting circumstances, fail to impress him with a sense of his own danger. His understanding will be clear as to the cases before him, and he will even condemn the self-destructive acts which he sees in others, but will pass, as it were, over the very bodies of these victims, without a thought of warning or a sense of fear, in order to gratify his own ungovernable propensity. Such is the power of this terrible malady."

"Has the profession found a remedy?"

"No; the profession is almost wholly at fault in its treatment. There are specialists connected with insane and reformatory institutions who have given much attention to the subject, but as yet we have no recorded line of treatment that guarantees a cure."

"Except," said one of his listeners, "the remedy of entire abstinence from drinks in which alcohol is present."

The doctor gave a shrug:

"You do not cure a thirsty man by withholding water."

His mind was a little clouded by the wine he had taken.

"The thirsty man's desire for water is healthy; and if you withhold it, you create a disease that will destroy him," was answered. "Not so the craving for alcohol. With every new supply the craving is increased, and the man becomes more and more helpless in the folds of an enslaving appetite. Is it not true, doctor, that with few exceptions all who have engaged in treating inebriates agree that only in entire abstinence is cure possible?"

"Well, yes; you are probably right there," Dr. Angler returned, with some professional reserve. "In the most cases isolation and abstinence are no doubt the only remedies, or, to speak more correctly, the only palliatives. As for cure, I am one of the skeptics. If you have the diathesis, you have the danger of exposure always, as in consumption."

"An occasion like this," remarked the other, "is to one with a dypso-maniac diathesis like a draft of cold, damp air on the exposed chest of a delicate girl who has the seeds of consumption in her lungs. Is it not so, doctor?"

"Yes, yes."

"There are over three hundred persons here to-night."

"Not less."

"In so large a company, taking society as we have it to-day, is it likely that we have none here with a hereditary or acquired love of drink?"

"Scarcely possible," replied Dr. Angier.

"How large do you think the percentage?"

"I have no means of knowing; but if we are to judge by the large army of drunkards in the land, it must be fearfully great."

"Then we cannot invite to our houses fifty or a hundred guests, and give them as much wine and spirits as they care to drink, without seriously hurting some of them. I say nothing of the effect upon unvitiated tastes; I refer only to those with diseased appetites who made happen to be present."

"It will be bad for them, certainly. Such people should stay at home."

And saying this, Dr. Angier turned from the two gentlemen to speak with a professional friend who came toward him at the moment.