Chapter V.
 

A handsome man of forty-five stood lingering by the bedside of his wife, whose large tender eyes looked up at him almost wistfully. A baby's head, dark with beautiful hair that curled in scores of silken ringlets, lay close against her bosom. The chamber was not large nor richly furnished, though everything was in good taste and comfortable. A few articles were out of harmony with the rest and hinted at better days. One of these was a large secretary of curious workmanship, inlaid with costly woods and pearl and rich with carvings. Another was a small mantel clock of exquisite beauty. Two or three small but rare pictures hung on the walls.

Looking closely into the man's strong intellectual face, you would have seen something that marred the harmony of its fine features and dimmed its clear expression--something to stir a doubt or awaken a feeling of concern. The eyes, that were deep and intense, had a shadow in them, and the curves of the mouth had suffering and passion and evidences of stern mental conflict in every line. This was no common man, no social drone, but one who in his contact with men was used to making himself felt.

"Come home early, Ralph, won't you?" said his wife.

The man bent down and kissed her, and then pressed his lips to the baby's head.

"Yes, dear; I don't mean to stay late. If it wasn't for the expectation of meeting General Logan and one or two others that I particularly wish to see, I wouldn't go at all. I have to make good, you know, all the opportunities that come in my way."

"Oh yes, I know. You must go, of course." She had taken her husband's hand, and was holding it with a close pressure. He had to draw it away almost by force.

"Good-night, dear, and God bless you." His voice trembled a little. He stooped and kissed her again. A moment after and she was alone. Then all the light went out of her face and a deep shadow fell quickly over it. She shut her eyes, but not tightly enough to hold back the tears that soon carne creeping slowly out from beneath the closed lashes.

Ralph Ridley was a lawyer of marked ability. A few years before, he had given up a good practice at the bar for an office under the State government. Afterward he was sent to Congress and passed four years in Washington. Like too many of our ablest public men, the temptations of that city were too much for him. It was the old sad story that repeats itself every year. He fell a victim to the drinking customs of our national capital. Everywhere and on all social occasions invitations to wine met him. He drank with a friend on his way to the House, and with another in the Capitol buildings before taking his seat for business. He drank at lunch and at dinner, and he drank more freely at party or levee in the evening. Only in the early morning was he free from the bewildering effects of liquor.

Four years of such a life broke down his manhood. Hard as he sometimes struggled to rise above the debasing appetite that had enslaved him, resolution snapped like thread in a flame with every new temptation. He stood erect and hopeful to-day, and to-morrow lay prone and despairing under the heel of his enemy.

At the end of his second term in Congress the people of his district rejected him. They could tolerate a certain degree of drunkenness and demoralization in their representative, but Ridley had fallen too low. They would have him no longer, and so he was left out in the party nomination and sent back into private life hurt, humiliated and in debt. No clients awaited his return. His law-office had been closed for years, and there was little encouragement to open it again in the old place. For some weeks after his failure to get the nomination Ridley drank more desperately than ever, and was in a state of intoxication nearly all the while. His poor wife, who clung to him through all with an unwavering fidelity, was nearly broken-hearted. In vain had relatives and friends interposed. No argument nor persuasion could induce her to abandon him. "He is my husband," was her only reply, "and I will not leave him."

One night he was brought home insensible. He had fallen in the street where some repairs were being made, and had received serious injuries which confined him to the house for two or three weeks. This gave time for reflection and repentance. The shame and remorse that filled his soul as he looked at his sad, pale wife and neglected children, and thought of his tarnished name and lost opportunities, spurred him to new and firmer resolves than ever before made. He could go forward no longer without utter ruin. No hope was left but in turning back. He must set his face in a new direction, and he vowed to do so, promising God on his knees in tears and agony to hold, by his vow sacredly.

A new day had dawned. As soon as Mr. Ridley was well enough to be out again he took counsel of friends, and after careful deliberation resolved to leave his native town and remove to the city. A lawyer of fine ability, and known to the public as a clear thinker and an able debater, he had made quite an impression on the country during his first term in Congress; neither he nor his friends had any doubt as to his early success, provided he was able to keep himself free from the thraldom of old habits.

A few old friends and political associates made up a purse to enable him to remove to the city with his family. An office was taken and three rooms rented in a small house, where, with his wife and two children, one daughter in her fourteenth year, life was started anew. There was no room for a servant in this small establishment even if he had been able to pay the hire of one.

So the new beginning was made. A man of Mr. Ridley's talents and reputation could not long remain unemployed. In the very first week he had a client and a retaining fee of twenty-five dollars. The case was an important one, involving some nice questions of mercantile law. It came up for argument in the course of a few weeks, and gave the opportunity he wanted. His management of the case was so superior to that of the opposing counsel, and his citations of law and precedent so cumulative and explicit, that he gained not only an easy victory, but made for himself a very favorable impression.

After that business began gradually to flow in upon him, and he was able to gather in sufficient to keep his family, though for some time only in a very humble way. Having no old acquaintances in the city, Mr. Ridley was comparatively free from temptation. He was promptly at his office in the morning, never leaving it, except to go into court or some of the public offices on business, until the hour arrived for returning home.

A new life had become dominant, a new ambition was ruling him. Hope revived in the heart of his almost despairing wife, and the future looked bright again. His eyes had grown clear and confident once more and his stooping shoulders square and erect. In his bearing you saw the old stateliness and conscious sense of power. Men treated him with deference and respect.

In less than a year Mr. Ridley was able to remove his family into a better house and to afford the expense of a servant. So far they had kept out of the city's social life. Among strangers and living humbly, almost meanly, they neither made nor received calls nor had invitations to evening entertainments; and herein lay Mr. Ridley's safety. It was on his social side that he was weakest. He could hold himself above appetite and deny its cravings if left to the contest alone. The drinking-saloons whose hundred doors he had to pass daily did not tempt him, did not cause his firm steps to pause nor linger. His sorrow and shame for the past and his solemn promises and hopes for the future were potent enough to save him from all such allurements. For him their doors stood open in vain. The path of danger lay in another direction. He would have to be taken unawares. If betrayed at all, it must be, so to speak, in the house of a friend. The Delilah of "good society" must put caution and conscience to sleep and then rob him of his strength.

The rising man at the bar of a great city who had already served two terms in Congress could not long remain in social obscurity; and as it gradually became known in the "best society" that Mrs. Ridley stood connected with some of the "best families" in the State, one and another began to call upon her and to court her acquaintance, even though she was living in comparative obscurity and in a humble way.

At first regrets were returned to all invitations to evening entertainments, large or small. Mr. Ridley very well understood why his wife, who was social and naturally fond of company, was so prompt to decline. He knew that the excuse, "We are not able to give parties in return," was not really the true one. He knew that she feared the temptation that would come to him, and he was by no means insensible to the perils that would beset him whenever he found himself in the midst of a convivial company, with the odor of wine heavy on the air and invitations to drink meeting him at every turn.

But this could not always be. Mr. and Mrs. Ridley could not for ever hold themselves away from the social life of a large city among the people of which their acquaintance was gradually extending. Mrs. Ridley would have continued to stand aloof because of the danger she had too good reason to fear, but her husband was growing, she could see, both sensitive and restless. He wanted the professional advantages society would give him, and he wanted, moreover, to prove his manhood and take away the reproach under which he felt himself lying.

Sooner or later he must walk this way of peril, and he felt that he was becoming strong enough and brave enough to meet the old enemy that had vanquished him so many times.

"We will go," he said, on receiving cards of invitation to a party given by a prominent and influential citizen. "People will be there whom I should meet, and people whom I want you to meet."

He saw a shadow creep into his wife's face; Mrs. Ridley saw the shadow reflected almost as a frown from his. She knew what was in her husband's thoughts, knew that he felt hurt and restless under her continued reluctance to have him go into any company where wine and spirits were served to the guests, and feeling that a longer opposition might do more harm than good, answered, with as much heartiness and assent as she could get into her voice:

"Very well, but it will cost you the price of a new dress, for I have nothing fit to appear in."

The shadow swept off Mr. Ridley's face.

"All right," he returned. "I received a fee of fifty dollars to-day, and you shall have every cent; of it."

In the week that intervened Mrs. Ridley made herself ready for the party; but had she been preparing for a funeral, her heart could scarcely have been heavier. Fearful dreams haunted her sleep, and through the day imagination would often draw pictures the sight of which made her cry out in sudden pain and fear. All this she concealed from her husband, and affected to take a pleased interest in the coming entertainment.

Mrs. Ridley was still a handsome woman, and her husband felt the old pride warming his bosom when he saw her again among brilliant and attractive women and noted the impression she made. He watched her with something of the proud interest a mother feels for a beautiful daughter who makes her appearance in society for the first time, and his heart beat with liveliest pleasure as he noticed the many instances in which she attracted and held people by the grace of her manner and the charm of her conversation.

"God bless her!" he said in his heart fervently as the love he bore her warmed into fresher life and moved him with a deeper tenderness, and then he made for her sake a new vow of abstinence and set anew the watch and ward upon his appetite. And he had need of watch and ward. The wine-merchant's bill for that evening's entertainment was over eight hundred dollars, and men and women, girls and boys, all drank in unrestrained freedom.

Mrs. Ridley, without seeming to do so, kept close to her husband while he was in the supper-room, and he, as if feeling the power of her protecting influence, was pleased to have her near. The smell of wine, its sparkle in the glasses, the freedom and apparent safety with which every one drank, the frequent invitations received, and the little banter and half-surprised lifting of the eyebrows that came now and then upon refusal were no light draught on Mr. Ridley's strength.

"Have you tried this sherry, Mr. Ridley?" said the gentlemanly host, taking a bottle from the supper-table and filling two glasses. "It is very choice." He lifted one of the glasses as he spoke and handed it to his guest. There was a flattering cordiality in his manner that made the invitation almost irresistible, and moreover he was a prominent and influential citizen whose favorable consideration Mr. Ridley wished to gain. If his wife had not been standing by his side, he would have accepted the glass, and for what seemed good breeding's sake have sipped a little, just tasting its flavor, so that he could compliment his host upon its rare quality.

"Thank you," Mr. Ridley was able to say, "but I do not take wine." His voice was not clear and manly, but unsteady and weak.

"Oh, excuse me," said the gentleman, setting down the glass quickly. "I was not aware of that." He stood as if slightly embarrassed for a moment, and then, turning to a clergyman who stood close by, said:

"Will you take a glass of wine with me, Mr. Elliott?"

An assenting smile broke into Mr. Elliott's face, and he reached for the glass which Mr. Ridley had just refused.

"Something very choice," said the host.

The clergyman tasted and sipped with the air of a connoisseur.

"Very choice indeed, sir," he replied. "But you always have good wine."

Mrs. Ridley drew her hand in her husband's arm and leaned upon it.

"If it is to be had," returned the host, a little, proudly; "and I generally know where to get it. A good glass of wine I count among the blessings for which one may give thanks--wine, I mean, not drugs."

"Exactly; wine that is pure hurts no one, unless, indeed, his appetite has been vitiated through alcoholic indulgence, and even then I have sometimes thought that the moderate use of strictly pure wine would restore the normal taste and free a man from the tyranny of an enslaving vice."

That sentence took quick hold upon the thought of Mr. Ridley. It gave him a new idea, and he listened with keen interest to what followed.

"You strike the keynote of a true temperance reformation, Mr. Elliott," returned the host. "Give men pure wine instead of the vile stuff that bears its name, and you will soon get rid of drunkenness. I have always preached that doctrine."

"And I imagine you are about right," answered Mr. Elliott. "Wine is one of God's gifts, and must be good. If men abuse it sometimes, it is nothing more than they do with almost every blessing the Father of all mercies bestows upon his children. The abuse of a thing is no argument against its use."

Mrs. Ridley drew upon the arm of her husband. She did not like the tenor of this conversation, and wanted to get him away. But he was interested in what the clergyman was saying, and wished to hear what further he might adduce in favor of the health influence of pure wine.

"I have always used wine, and a little good brandy too, and am as free from any inordinate appetite as your most confirmed abstainer; but then I take especial care to have my liquor pure."

"A thing not easily done," said the clergyman, replying to their host.

"Not easy for every one, but yet possible. I have never found much difficulty."

"There will be less difficulty, I presume," returned Mr. Elliott, "when this country becomes, as it soon will, a large wine producing region. When cheap wines take the place of whisky, we will have a return to temperate habits among the lower classes, and not, I am satisfied, before. There is, and always has been, a craving in the human system for some kind of stimulus. After prolonged effort there is exhaustion and nervous languor that cannot always wait upon the restorative work of nutrition; indeed, the nutritive organs themselves often need stimulation before they can act with due vigor. Isn't that so, Dr. Hillhouse?"

And the clergyman addressed a handsome old man with hair almost as white as snow who stood listening to the conversation. He held a glass of wine in his hand.

"You speak with the precision of a trained pathologist," replied the person addressed, bowing gracefully and with considerable manner as he spoke. "I could not have said it better, Mr. Elliott."

The clergyman received the compliment with a pleased smile and bowed his acknowledgments, then remarked:

"You think as I do about the good effects that must follow a large product of American wines?"

Dr. Hillhouse gave a little shrug.

"Oh, then you don't agree with me?"

"Pure wine is one thing and too much of what is called American wine quite another thing," replied the doctor. "Cheap wine for the people, as matters now stand, is only another name for diluted alcohol. It is better than pure whisky, maybe, though the larger quantity that will naturally be taken must give the common dose of that article and work about the same effect in the end."

"Then you are not in favor of giving the people cheap wines?" said the clergyman.

The doctor shrugged his shoulders again.

"I have been twice to Europe," he replied, "and while there looked a little into the condition of the poorer classes in wine countries. I had been told that there was scarcely any intemperance among them, but I did not find it so. There, as here, the use of alcohol in any form, whether as beer, wine or whisky, produces the same result, varied in its effect upon the individual only by the peculiarity of temperament and national character of the people. I'll take another glass of that sherry; it's the best I've tasted for a year."

And Dr. Hillhouse held out his glass to be filled by the flattered host, Mr. Elliott doing the same, and physician and clergyman touched their brimming glasses and smiled and bowed "a good health." Before the hour for going home arrived both were freer of tongue and a little wilder in manner than when they came.

"The doctor is unusually brilliant to-night," said one, with just a slight lifting of the eyebrow.

"And so is Mr. Elliott," returned the person addressed, glancing at the clergyman, who, standing in the midst of a group of young men, glass in hand, was telling a story and laughing at his own witticisms.

"Nothing strait-laced about Mr. Elliott," remarked the other. "I like him for that. He doesn't think because he's a clergyman that he must always wear a solemn face and act as if he were conducting a funeral service. Just hear him laugh! It makes you feel good. You can get near to such a man. All the young people in his congregation like him because he doesn't expect them to come up to his official level, but is ever ready to come down to them and enter into their feelings and tastes."

"He likes a good glass of wine," said the first speaker.

"Of course he does. Have you any objection?"

"Shall I tell you what came into my thought just now?"

"Yes."

"What St. Paul said about eating meat."

"Oh!"

"'If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.' And again: 'Take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling-block to them that are weak.'"

"How does that apply to Mr. Elliott?"

"There are more than one or two young men in the group that surrounds him who need a better example than he is now setting. They need repression in the matter of wine-drinking, not encouragement--a good example of abstinence in their minister, and not enticement to drink through his exhibition of liberty. Do you think that I, church member though I am not, could stand as Mr. Elliott is now standing, glass in hand, gayly talking to young Ellis Whitford, who rarely goes to a party without--poor weak young man!--drinking too much, and so leading him on in the way of destruction instead of seeking in eager haste to draw him back? No sir! It is no light thing, as I regard it, to put a stumbling-block in another's way or to lead the weak or unwary into temptation."

"Perhaps you are right about it," was the answer, "and I must confess that, though not a temperance man myself, I never feel quite comfortable about it when I see clergymen taking wine freely at public dinners and private parties. It is not a good example, to say the least of it; and if there is a class of men in the community to whom we have some right to look for a good example, it is the class chosen and set apart to the work of saving human souls."