Chapter XVI.
 

Mrs. Carlton was a favorite in the circle where she moved; and when it became known that she would have to submit to a serious operation in order to save her life, she became an object of painful interest to her many friends. Among the most intimate of these was Mrs. Birtwell, who, as the time approached for the great trial, saw her almost every day.

It was generally understood that Doctor Hillhouse, who was the family physician, would perform the operation. For a long series of years he had held the first rank as a surgeon. But younger men were coming forward in the city, and other reputations were being made that promised to be even more notable than his.

Among those who were steadly achieving success in the walks of surgery was Doctor Kline, now over thirty-five years of age. He held a chair in one of the medical schools, and his name was growing more and more familiar to the public and the profession every year.

The friends of Mrs. Carlton were divided on the question as to who could best perform the operation, some favoring Doctor Kline and some Doctor Hillhouse.

The only objection urged by any one against the latter was on account of his age.

Mr. and Mrs. Carlton had no doubt or hesitation on the subject. Their confidence in the skill of Doctor Hillhouse was complete. As for Doctor Kline, Mr. Carlton, who met him now and then at public dinners or at private social entertainments, had not failed to observe that he was rather free in his use of liquor, drinking so frequently on these occasions as to produce a noticeable exhilaration. He had even remarked upon the fact to gentlemen of his acquaintance, and found that others had noticed this weakness of Doctor Kline as well as himself.

As time wore on Doctor Hillhouse grew more and more undecided. No matter how grave or difficult an operation might be, he had always, when satisfied of its necessity, gone forward, looking neither to the right nor to the left. But so troubled and uncertain did he become as the necessity for fixing an early day for the removal of this tumor became more and more apparent that he at last referred the whole matter to Mr. Carlton, and proposed that Doctor Kline, whose high reputation for surgical skill he knew, should be entrusted with the operation. To this he received an emphatic "No!"

"All the profession award him the highest skill in our city, if not the whole country," said Doctor Hillhouse.

"I have no doubt of his skill," replied Mr. Carlton. "But--"

"What?" asked the doctor, as Mr. Carlton hesitated. "Are you not aware that he uses wine too freely?"

Doctor Hillhouse was taken by surprise at this intimation.

"No, I am not aware of anything of the kind," he replied, almost indignantly. "He is not a teetotaller, of course, any more than you or I. Socially and at dinner he takes his glass of wine, as we do. But to say that he uses liquor too freely. is, I am sure, a mistake."

"Some men, as you know, doctor, cannot use wine without a steady increase of the appetite until it finally gets the mastery, and I am afraid Doctor Kline is one of them."

"I am greatly astonished to hear you say this," replied Dr. Hillhouse, "and I cannot but hold you mistaken."

"Have you ever met him at a public dinner, at the club or at a private entertainment where there was plenty of wine?"

"Oh yes."

"And observed no unusual exhilaration?"

Dr. Hillhouse became reflective. Now that his attention was called to the matter, some doubts began to intrude themselves.

"We cannot always judge the common life by what we see on convivial occasions," he made answer. "One may take wine freely with his friends and be as abstemious as an anchorite during business-or profession-hours."

"Not at all probable," replied Mr. Carlton, "and not good in my observation. The appetite that leads a man into drinking more when among friends than his brain will carry steadily is not likely to sleep when he is alone. Any over-stimulation, as you know, doctor, leaves in the depressed state that follows a craving for renewed exhilaration. I am very sure that on the morning after one of the occasions to which I have referred Doctor Kline finds himself in no condition for the work of a delicate surgical operation until he has steadied his relaxed nerves with more than a single glass."

He paused for a moment, and then said, with strong emphasis:

"The hand, Doctor Hillhouse, that cuts down into her dear flesh must be steadied by healthy nerves, and not by wine or brandy. No, sir; I will not hear to it. I will not have Doctor Kline. In your hands, and yours alone, I trust my wife in this great extremity."

"That is for you to decide," returned Dr. Hillhouse. "I felt it to be only right to give you an opportunity to avail of Doctor Kline's acknowledged skill. I am sure you can do so safely."

But Mr. Carlton was very emphatic in his rejection of Dr. Kline.

"I may be a little peculiar," he said, "but do you know I never trust any important interest with a man who drinks habitually?--one of your temperate drinkers, I mean, who can take his three or four glasses of wine at dinner, or twice that number, during an evening while playing at whist, but who never debases himself by so low a thing as intoxication."

"Are not you a little peculiar, or, I might say, over-nice, in this?" remarked Doctor Hillhouse.

"No, I am only prudent. Let me give you a fact in my own experience. I had a law-suit several years ago involving many thousands of dollars. My case was good, but some nice points of law were involved, and I needed for success the best talent the bar afforded. A Mr. B----, I will call him, stood very high in the profession, and I chose him for my counsel. He was a man of fine social qualities, and admirable for his after-dinner speeches. You always met him on public occasions. He was one of your good temperate drinkers and not afraid of a glass of wine, or even brandy, and rarely, if ever, refused a friend who asked him to drink.

"He was not an intemperate man, of course. No one dreamed of setting him over among that banned and rejected class of men whom few trust, and against whom all are on guard. He held his place of honor and confidence side by side with the most trusted men in his profession. As a lawyer, interests of vast magnitude were often in his hands, and largely depended on his legal sagacity, clearness of thought and sleepless vigilance. He was usually successful in his cases.

"I felt my cause safe in his hands--that is, as safe as human care and foresight could make it. But to my surprise and disappointment, his management of the case on the day of trial was faulty and blind. I had gone over all the points with him carefully, and he had seemed to hold them with a masterly hand. He was entirely confident of success, and so was I. But now he seemed to lose his grasp on the best points in the case, and to bring forward his evidence in a way that, in my view, damaged instead of making our side strong. Still, I forced myself to think that he knew best what to do, and that the meaning of his peculiar tactics should soon become apparent. I noticed, as the trial went on, a bearing of the opposing counsel toward Mr. B----that appeared unusual. He seemed bent on annoying him with little side issues and captious objections, not so much showing a disposition to meet him squarely, upon the simple and clearly defined elements of the case, as to draw him away from them and keep them as far out of sight as possible.

"In this he was successful. Mr. B----seemed in his hands more like a bewildered child than a strong, clear-seeing man. When, after all the evidence was in, the arguments on both sides were submitted to the jury, I saw with alarm that Mr. B----had failed signally. His summing up was weak and disjointed, and he did not urge with force and clearness the vital points in the case on which all our hopes depended. The contrast of his closing argument with that of the other side was very great, and I knew when the jury retired from the court-room that all was lost, and so it proved.

"It was clear to me that I had mistaken my man--that Mr. B----'s reputation was higher than his ability. He was greatly chagrined at the result, and urged me to take an appeal, saying he was confident we could get a reversal of the decision.

"While yet undecided as to whether I would appeal or not, a friend who had been almost as much surprised and disappointed at the result of the trial as I was came to me in considerable excitement of manner, and said:

"'I heard something this morning that will surprise you, I think, as much as it has surprised me. Has it never occurred to you that there was something strange about Mr. B----on the day your case was tried?'

"'Yes,' I replied, 'it has often occurred to me; and the more I think about it, the more dissatisfied am with his management of my case. He is urging me to appeal; but should I do so, I have pretty well made up my mind to have other counsel.'

"'That I should advise by all means,' returned my friend.

"'The thought has come once or twice,' said I, 'that there might have been false play in the case.'

"'There has been,' returned my friend.

"What!' I exclaimed. 'False play? No, no, I will not believe so base a thing of Mr. B----.'

"'I do not mean false play on his part,' replied my friend. 'Far be it from me to suggest a thought against his integrity of character. No, no! I believe him to be a man of honor. The false play, if there has been any, has been against him.'

"'Against him?' I could but respond, with increasing surprise. Then a suspicion of the truth flashed into my mind.

"'He had been drinking too much that morning,' said my friend. 'That was the meaning of his strange and defective management of the case, and of his confusion of ideas when he made his closing argument to the jury.'

"It was clear to me now, and I wondered that I had not thought of it before. 'But,' I asked, 'what has this to do with foul play? You don't mean to intimate that his liquor was drugged?'

"'No. The liquor was all right, so far as that goes,' he replied. 'The story I heard was this. It came to me in rather a curious way. I was in the reading-room at the League this morning looking over a city paper, when I happened to hear your name spoken by one of two gentlemen who sat a little behind me talking in a confidential way, but in a louder key than they imagined. I could not help hearing what they said. After the mention of your name I listened with close attention, and found that they were talking about the law-suit, and about Mr. B----in connection therewith. "It was a sharp game," one of them said. "How was it done?" inquired the other.

"'I partially held my breath,' continued my friend, 'so as not to lose a word. "Neatly enough," was the reply. "You see our friend the lawyer can't refuse a drink. He's got a strong head, and can take twice as much as the next man without showing it. A single glass makes no impression on him, unless it be to sharpen him up. So a plan was laid to get half a dozen glasses aboard, more or less, before court opened on the morning the case of Walker vs. Carlton was to be called. But not willing to trust to this, we had a wine-supper for his special benefit on the night before, so as to break his nerves a little and make him thirsty next morning. Well, you see, the thing worked, and B----drank his bottle or two, and went to bed pretty mellow. Of course he must tone up in the morning before leaving home, and so come out all right. He would tone up a little more on his way to his office, and then be all ready for business and bright as a new dollar. This would spoil all. So five of us arranged to meet him at as many different points on his way down town and ask him to drink. The thing worked like a charm. We got six glasses into him before he reached his office. I saw as soon as he came into court that it was a gone case for Carlton. B----had lost his head. And so it proved. We had an easy victory."'

"I took the case out of B----'s hands," said Mr. Carlton, "and gained it in a higher court, the costs of both trials falling upon the other side. Since that time, Dr. Hillhouse, I have had some new views on the subject of moderate drinking, as it is called."

"What are they" asked the doctor.

"An experience like this set me to thinking. If, I said to myself, a man uses wine, beer or spirits habitually, is there no danger that at some time when great interests, or even life itself, may be at stake, a glass too much may obscure his clear intellect and make him the instrument of loss or disaster? I pursued the subject, and as I did so was led to this conclusion--that society really suffers more, from what is called moderate drinking than it does from out-and-out drunkenness."

"Few will agree with you in that conclusion," returned Doctor Hillhouse.

"On the contrary," replied Mr. Carlton, "I think that most people, after looking at the subject from the right standpoint, will see it as I do."

"Men who take a glass of wine at dinner and drink with a friend occasionally," remarked Doctor Hillhouse are not given to idleness, waste of property and abuse and neglect of their families, as we find to be the case with common drunkards. They don't fill our prisons and almshouses. Their wives and children do not go to swell the great army of beggars, paupers and criminals. I fear, my friend, that you are looking through the wrong end of your glass."

"No; my glass is all right. The number of drunken men and women in the land is small compared to the number who drink moderately, and very few of them are to be found in places of trust or responsibility. As soon as a man is known to be a drunkard society puts a mark on him and sets him aside. If he is a physician, health and life are no longer entrusted to his care; if a lawyer, no man will give an important case into his hands. A ship-owner will not trust him with his vessel, though a more skilled navigator cannot be found; and he may be the best engineer in the land, yet will no railroad or steamship company trust him with life and property. So everywhere the drunkard is ignored. Society will not trust him, and he is limited in his power to do harm.

"Not so with your moderate drinkers. They fill our highest places and we commit to their care our best and dearest interests. We put the drunkard aside because we know he cannot be trusted, and give to moderate drinkers, a sad percentage of whom are on the way to drunkenness, our unwavering confidence. They sail our ships, they drive our engines, they make and execute our laws, they take our lives in their hands as doctors and surgeons; we trust them to defend or maintain our legal rights, we confide to them our interests in hundreds of different ways that we would never dream of confiding to men who were regarded as intemperate. Is it not fair to conclude, knowing as we do how a glass of wine too much will confuse the brain and obscure the judgment, that society in trusting its great army of moderate drinkers is suffering loss far beyond anything we imagine? A doctor loses his patient, a lawyer his case, an engineer wrecks his ship or train, an agent hurts his principal by a loose or bad bargain, and all because the head had lost for a brief space its normal clearness.

"Men hurt themselves through moderate drinking in thousands of ways," continued Mr. Carlton. "We have but to think for a moment to see this. Many a fatal document has been signed, many a disastrous contract made, many a ruinous bargain consummated, which but for the glass of wine taken at the wrong moment would have been rejected. Men under the excitement of drink often enter into the unwise schemes of designing men only to lose heavily, and sometimes to encounter ruin. The gambler entices his victim to drink, while he keeps his own head clear. He knows the confusing quality of wine."

"You make out rather a strong case," said Doctor Hillhouse.

"Too strong, do you think?"

"Perhaps not. Looking at the thing through your eyes, Mr. Carlton, moderate drinking is an evil of great magnitude."

"It is assuredly, and far greater, as I have said, than is generally supposed. The children of this world are very wise, and some of them, I am sorry to add, very unscrupulous in gaining their ends. They know the power of all the agencies that are around them, and do not scruple to make use of whatever comes to their hand. Three or four capitalists are invited to meet at a gentleman's house to consider some proposition he has to lay before them. They are liberally supplied with wine, and drink without a lurking suspicion of what the service of good wine means. They see in it only the common hospitality of the day, and fail to notice that one or two of the company never empty their glasses. On the next day these men will most likely feel some doubt as to the prudence of certain large subscriptions made on the previous afternoon or evening, and wonder how they could have been so infatuated as to put money into a scheme that promised little beyond a permanent investment.

"If," added Mr. Carlton, "we could come at any proximate estimate of the loss which falls upon society in consequence of the moderate use of intoxicating drinks, we would find that it exceeded a hundred--nay, a thousand--fold that of the losses sustained through drunkenness. Against the latter society is all the while seeking to guard itself, against the former it has little or no protection--does not, in fact, comprehend the magnitude of its power for evil. But I have wearied you with my talk, and forgotten for the time being the anxiety that lies so near my heart. No, doctor, I will not trust the hand of Doctor Kline, skillful as it may be, to do this work; for I cannot be sure that a glass too much may not have been taken to steady the nerves a night's excess of wine may have left unstrung."

Doctor Hillhouse sat with closely knit brows for some time after Mr. Carlton ceased speaking.

"There is matter for grave consideration in what you have said," he remarked, at length, "though I apprehend your fears in regard to Doctor Kline are more conjectural than real."

"I hope so," returned Mr. Carlton, "but as a prudent man I will not take needless risk in the face of danger. If an operation cannot be avoided, I will trust that precious life to none but you."