Chapter XII.
 

"The doctor likes his glass of wine," remarked one of the gentlemen as Dr. Angier left them.

"Is that so?"

"Didn't you observe his heightened color and the gleam in his eyes?"

"I noticed something unusual in his manner, but did not think it the effect of wine."

"He is a reticent man, with considerable of what may be called professional dignity, and doesn't often let himself down to laymen as he did just now."

"There wasn't much letting down, that I could see."

"Perhaps not; but professional pride is reserved and sensitive in some persons. It hasn't much respect for the opinions of non-experts, and is chary of discussion with laymen. Dr. Angier is weak, or peculiar if you please, in this direction. I saw that he was annoyed at your reply to his remark that you do not cure a thirsty man by withholding water. It was a little thing, but it showed his animus. The argument was against him, and it hurt his pride. As I said, he likes his glass of wine, and if he does not take care will come to like it too well. A doctor has no more immunity from dypso-mania than his patient. The former may inherit or acquire the disease as well as the latter."

"How does the doctor know that he has not from some ancestor this fatal diathesis? Children rarely if ever betray to their children a knowledge of the vices or crimes of their parents. The death by consumption, cancer or fever is a part of oral family history, but not so the death from intemperance. Over that is drawn a veil of silence and secresy, and the children and grandchildren rarely if ever know anything about it. There may be in their blood the taint of a disease far more terrible than cancer or consumption, and none to give them warning of the conditions under which its development is certain."

"Is it not strange," was replied, "that, knowing as Dr. Angier certainly does, from what he said just now, that in all classes of society there is a large number who have in their physical constitutions the seeds of this dreadful disease--that, as I have said, knowing this, he should so frequently prescribe wine and whisky to his patients?"

"It is a little surprising. I have noticed, now that you speak of it, his habit in this respect."

"He might as well, on his own theory, prescribe thin clothing and damp air to one whose father or mother had died of consumption as alcoholic stimulants to one, who has the taint of dypso-mania in his blood. In one case as in the other the disease will almost surely be developed. This is common sense, and something that can be understood by all men."

"And yet, strange to say, the very men who have in charge the public health, the very men whose business it is to study the relations between cause and effect in diseases, are the men who in far too many instances are making the worst possible prescriptions for patients in whom even the slightest tendency to inebriety may exist hereditarily. We have, to speak plainly, too many whisky doctors, and the harm they are doing is beyond calculation. A physician takes upon himself a great responsibility when, without any knowledge of the antecedents of a patient or the stock from which he may have come, he prescribes whisky or wine or brandy as a stimulant. I believe thousands of drunkards have been made by these unwise prescriptions, against which I am glad to know some of the most eminent men in the profession, both in this country and Europe, have entered a solemn protest."

"There is one thing in connection with the disease of intemperance," replied the other, "that is very remarkable. It is the only one from which society does not protect itself by quarantine and sanitary restrictions. In cholera, yellow fever and small-pox every effort is made to guard healthy districts from their invasion, and the man who for gain or any other consideration should be detected in the work of introducing infecting agents would be execrated and punished. But society has another way of dealing with the men who are engaged in spreading the disease of intemperance among the people. It enacts laws for their protection, and gives them the largest liberty to get gain in their work of disseminating disease and death, and, what is still more remarkable, actually sells for money the right to do this."

"You put the case sharply."

"Too sharply?"

"Perhaps not. No good ever comes of calling evil things by dainty names or veiling hard truth under mild and conservative phrases. In granting men a license to dispense alcohol in every variety of enticing forms and in a community where a large percentage of the people have a predisposition to intemperance, consequent as well on hereditary taint as unhealthy social conditions, society commits itself to a disastrous error the fruit of which is bitterer to the taste than the ashen core of Dead Sea apples."

"What about Dead Sea apples?" asked Mr. Elliott, who came up at the moment and heard the last remark. The two gentlemen were pew-holders in his church. Mr. Elliott's countenance was radiant. All his fine social feelings were active, and he was enjoying a "flow of soul," if not "a feast of reason." Wine was making glad his heart--not excess of wine, in the ordinary sense, for Mr. Elliott had no morbid desire for stimulants. He was of the number who could take a social glass and not feel a craving for more. He believed in wine as a good thing, only condemning its abuse.

"What were you saying about Dead Sea apples?" Mr. Elliott repeated his question.

"We were speaking of intemperance," replied one of the gentlemen.

"O--h!" in a prolonged and slightly indifferent tone. Mr. Elliott's countenance lost some of its radiance. "And what were you saying about it?"

Common politeness required as much as this, even though the subject was felt to be out of place.

"We were talking with Dr. Angier just now about hereditary drunkenness, or rather the inherited predisposition to that vice--disease, as the doctor calls it. This predisposition he says exists in a large number of persons, and is as well defined pathologically, and as certain to become active, under favoring causes, as any other disease. Alcoholic stimulants are its exciting causes. Let, said the doctor, a man so predisposed indulge in the use of intoxicating liquors, and he will surely become a drunkard. There is no more immunity for him, he added, than for the man who with tubercles in his lungs exposes himself to cold, bad air and enervating bodily conditions. Now, is not this a very serious view to take of the matter?"

"Certainly it is," replied Mr. Elliott. "Intemperance is a sad thing, and a most fearful curse."

He did not look comfortable. It was to him an untimely intrusion of an unpleasant theme. "But what in the world set the doctor off on this subject?" he asked, trying to make a diversion.

"Occasions are apt to suggest subjects for conversation," answered the gentleman. "One cannot be present at a large social entertainment like this without seeing some things that awaken doubts and questionings. If it be true, as Dr. Angier says, that the disease of intemperance is as surely transmitted, potentially, as the disease of consumption, and will become active under favoring circumstances, then a drinking festival cannot be given without fearful risk to some of the invited guests."

"There is always danger of exciting disease where a predisposition exists," replied Mr. Elliott. "A man can hardly be expected to make himself acquainted with the pathology of his guests before inviting them to a feast. If that is to be the rule, the delicate young lady with the seeds of consumption in her system must be left at home for fear she may come with bare arms and a low-necked dress, and expose herself after being heated with dancing to the draught of an open window. The bilious and dyspeptic must be omitted also, lest by imprudent eating and drinking they make themselves sick. We cannot regulate these things. The best we can do is to warn and admonish. Every individual is responsible for his own moral character, habits and life. Because some may become the slaves of appetite, shall restraint and limitation be placed on those who make no abuse of liberty? We must teach men self-control and self-mastery, if we would truly help and save them. There is some exaggeration, in my opinion, about this disease-theory of intemperance. The deductions of one-idea men are not always to be trusted. They are apt to draw large conclusions from small facts. Man is born a free agent, and all men have power, if they will, to hold their appetites in check. This truth should be strongly impressed upon every one. Your disease-theory takes away moral responsibility. It assumes that a man is no more accountable for getting drunk than for getting the consumption. His diathesis excuses him as much in one case as in the other. Now, I don't believe a word of this. I do not class appetites, however inordinate, with physical diseases over which the will has no control. A man must control his appetite. Reason and conscience require this, and God gives to every one the mastery of himself if he will but use his high prerogative."

Mr. Elliott spoke a little loftily, and in a voice that expressed a settlement of the argument. But one at least of his listeners was feeling too strongly on the subject to let the argument close.

"What," he asked, "if a young man who did not, because he could not, know that he had dypso-mania in his blood were enticed to drink often at parties where wine is freely dispensed? Would he not be taken, so to speak, unawares? Would he be any more responsible for acts that quickened into life an over-mastering appetite than the young girl who, not knowing that she had in her lungs the seeds of a fatal disease, should expose herself to atmospheric changes that were regarded by her companions as harmless, but which, to her were fraught with peril?"

"In both cases," replied Mr. Elliott, "the responsibility to care for the health would come the moment it was found to be in danger."

"The discovery of danger may come, alas! too late for responsible action. We know that it does in most cases with the consumptive, and quite as often, I fear, with the dypso-maniac."

As the gentleman was closing the last sentence he observed a change pass over the face of Mr. Elliott, who was looking across the room. Following the direction of his eyes, he saw General Abercrombie in the act of offering his arm to Mrs. Abercrombie. It was evident, from the expression of his countenance and that of the countenances of all who were near him that something had gone wrong. The general's face was angry and excited. His eyes had a fierce restlessness in them, and glanced from his wife to a gentleman who stood confronting him and then back to her in a strange and menacing way.

Mrs. Abercrombie's face was deadly pale. She said a few words hurriedly to her husband, and then drew him from the parlor.

"What's the matter?" asked Mr. Elliott, crossing over and speaking to the gentleman against whom the anger of General Abercrombie had seemed to be directed.

"Heaven knows," was answered, "unless he's jealous of his wife."

"Very strange conduct," said one.

"Been drinking too much," remarked another.

"What did he do?" inquired a third.

"Didn't you see it? Mr. Ertsen was promenading with Mrs. Abercrombie, when the general swept down upon them as fierce as a lion and took the lady from his arm."

This was exaggeration. The thing was done more quietly, but still with enough of anger and menace to create something more than a ripple on the surface.

A little while afterward the general and Mrs. Abercrombie were seen coming down stairs and going along the hall. His face was rigid and stern. He looked neither to the right nor the left, but with eyes set forward made his way toward the street door. Those who got a glimpse of Mrs. Abercrombie as she glided past saw a face that haunted them a long time afterward.