Chapter VI.
 

Mr. Ridley went home from that first party with his head as clear and his pulse as cool as when he came. The wine had not tempted him very strongly, though its odor had been fragrant to his nostrils, and the sparkle in the glasses pleasant to his sight. Appetite had not aroused itself nor put on its strength, but lay half asleep, waiting for some better opportunity, when the sentinels should be weaker or off their guard.

It had been much harder for him to refuse the invitation of his host than to deny the solicitations of the old desire. He had been in greater danger from pride than from appetite; and there remained with him a sense of being looked down upon and despised by the wealthy and eminent citizen who had honored him with an invitation, and who doubtless regarded his refusal to take wine with him as little less than a discourtesy. There were moments when he almost regretted that refusal. The wine which had been offered was of the purest quality, and he remembered but too well the theory advanced by Mr. Elliott, that the moderate use of pure wine would restore the normal taste and free a man whose appetite had been vitiated from its enslaving influence. His mind recurred to that thought very often, and the more he dwelt upon it, the more inclined he was to accept it as true. If it were indeed so, then he might be a man among men again.

Mr. Ridley did not feel as comfortable in his mind after as before this party, nor was he as strong as before. The enemy had found a door unguarded, had come in stealthily, and was lying on the alert, waiting for an opportunity.

A few weeks afterward came another invitation. It was accepted. Mrs. Ridley was not really well enough, to go out, but for her husband's sake she went with him, and by her presence and the quiet power she had over him held him back from the peril he might, standing alone, have tempted.

A month later, and cards of invitation were received from Mr. and Mrs. Spencer Birtwell. This was to be among the notable entertainments of the season. Mr. Birtwell was a wealthy banker who, like other men, had his weaknesses, one of which was a love of notoriety and display. He had a showy house and attractive equipages, and managed to get his name frequently chronicled in the newspapers, now as the leader in some public enterprise or charity, now as the possessor of some rare work of art, and now as the princely capitalists whose ability and sagacity had lifted him from obscurity to the proud position he occupied. He built himself a palace for a residence, and when it was completed and furnished issued tickets of admission, that the public might see in what splendor he was going to live. Of course the newspapers described everything with a minuteness of detail and a freedom of remark that made some modest and sensitive people fancy that Mr. Birtwell must be exceedingly annoyed. But he experienced no such feeling. Praise of any kind was pleasant to his ears; you could not give him too much, nor was he over-nice as to the quality. He lived in the eyes of his fellow-citizens, and in all his walk and conversation, he looked to their good opinion.

Such was Mr. Birtwell, at whose house a grand entertainment was to be given. Among the large number of invited guests were included Mr. and Mrs. Ridley. But it so happened that Mrs. Ridley could not go. A few days before the evening on which this party was to be given a new-born babe had been laid on her bosom.

"Good-night, dear, and God bless you!" Mr. Ridley had said, in a voice that was very tender, as he stooped over and kissed his wife. No wonder that all the light went out of her face the moment she was alone, nor that a shadow fell quickly over it, nor that from beneath the fringes of her shut eyelids tears crept slowly and rested upon her cheeks. If her husband had left her for the battlefield, she could not have felt a more dreadful impression of danger, nor have been oppressed by a more terrible fear for his safety. No wonder that her nurse, coming into the chamber a few minutes after Mr. Ridley went out, found her in a nervous chill.

The spacious and elegant drawing-rooms of Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell were crowded with the elite of the city, and the heart of the former swelled with pride as he received his guests and thought of their social, professional or political distinction, the lustre of which he felt to be, for the time, reflected upon himself. It was good to be in such company, and to feel that he was equal with the best. He had not always been the peer of such men. There had been an era of obscurity out of which he had slowly emerged, and therefore he had the larger pride and self-satisfaction in the position he now held.

Mrs. Birtwell was a woman of another order. All her life she had been used to the elegancy that a wealthy parentage gave, and to which her husband had been, until within a few years, an entire stranger. She was "to the manner born," he a parvenu with a restless ambition to outshine. Familiarity with things luxurious and costly had lessened their value in her eyes, and true culture had lifted her above the weakness of resting in or caring much about them, while their newness and novelty to Mr. Birtwell made enjoyment keen, and led him on to extravagant and showy exhibitions of wealth that caused most people to smile at his weakness, and a good many to ask who he was and from whence he came that he carried himself so loftily. Mrs. Birtwell did not like the advanced position to which her husband carried her, but she yielded to his weak love of notoriety and social eclat as gracefully as possible, and did her best to cover his too glaring violations of good taste and conventional refinement. In this she was not always successful.

Of course the best of liquors in lavish abundance were provided by Mr. Birtwell for his guests. Besides the dozen different kinds of wine that were on the supper-table, there was a sideboard for gentlemen, in a room out of common observation, well stocked with brandy, gin and whisky, and it was a little curious to see how quickly this was discovered by certain of the guests, who scented it as truly as a bee scents honey in a clover-field, and extracted its sweets as eagerly.

Of the guests who were present we have now to deal chiefly with Mr. Ridley, and only incidentally with the rest. Dr. Hillhouse was there during the first part of the evening, but went away early--that, is, before twelve o'clock. He remained long enough, however, to do full justice to the supper and wines. His handsome and agreeable young associate, Dr. Angler, a slight acquaintance with whom the reader has already, prolonged his stay to a later hour.

The Rev. Dr. Elliott was also, among the guests, displaying his fine social qualities and attracting about him the young and the old. Everybody liked Dr. Elliott, he was so frank, so cordial, free and sympathetic, and, withal, so intelligent. He did not bring the clergyman with him into a gay drawing-room, nor the ascetic to a feast. He could talk with the banker about finance, with the merchant about trade, with the student or editor about science, literature and the current events of the day, and with young men and maidens about music and the lighter matters in which they happened to be interested. And, moreover, he could enjoy a good supper and knew the flavor of good wine. A man of such rare accomplishments came to be a general favorite, and so you encountered Mr. Elliott at nearly all the fashionable parties.

Mr. Ridley had met the reverend doctor twice, and had been much pleased with him. What he had heard him say about the healthy or rather saving influences of pure wine had taken a strong hold of his thoughts, and he had often wished for an opportunity to talk with him about it. On this evening he found that opportunity. Soon after his arrival at the house of Mr. Birtwell he saw Mr. Elliott in one of the parlors, and made his way into the little group which had already gathered around the affable clergyman. Joining in the conversation, which was upon some topic of the day, Mr. Ridley, who talked well, was not long in awakening that interest in the mind of Mr. Elliott which one cultivated and intelligent person naturally feels for another; and in a little while, they had the conversation pretty much to themselves. It touched this theme and that, and finally drifted in a direction which enabled Mr. Ridley to refer to what he had heard Mr. Elliott say about the healthy effect of pure wine on the taste of men whose appetites had become morbid, and to ask him if he had any good ground for his belief.

"I do not know that I can bring any proof of my theory," returned Mr. Elliott, "but I hold to it on the ground of an eternal fitness of things. Wine is good, and was given by God to make glad the hearts of men, and is to be used temperately, as are all other gifts. It may be abused, and is abused daily. Men hurt themselves by excess of wine as by excess of food. But the abuse of a thing is no argument against its use. If a man through epicurism or gormandizing has brought on disease, what do you do with him? Deny him all food, or give him of the best in such quantities as his nutritive system can appropriate and change into healthy muscle, nerve and bone? You do the latter, of course, and so would I treat the case of a man who bad hurt himself by excess of wine. I would see that he had only the purest and in diminished quantity, so that his deranged system might not only have time but help in regaining its normal condition."

"And you think this could be safely done?" said Mr. Ridley.

"That is my view of the case."

"Then you do not hold to the entire abstinence theory?"

"No, sir; on that subject our temperance people have run into what we might call fanaticism, and greatly weakened their influence. Men should be taught self-control and moderation in the use of things. If the appetite becomes vitiated through over-indulgence, you do not change its condition by complete denial. What you want for radical cure is the restoration of the old ability to use without abusing. In other words, you want a man made right again as to his rational power of self-control, by which he becomes master of himself in all the degrees of his life, from the highest to the lowest."

"All very well," remarked Dr. Hillhouse, who had joined them while Mr. Elliott was speaking. "But, in my experience, the rational self-control of which you speak is one of the rarest things to be met with in common life, and it may be fair to conclude that the man who cannot exercise it before a dangerous habit has been formed will not be very likely to exercise it afterward when anything is done to favor that habit. Habits, Mr. Elliott, are dreadful hard things to manage, and I do not know a harder one to deal with than the habit of over-indulgence in wine or spirits. I should be seriously afraid of your prescription. The temperate use of wine I hold to be good; but for those who have once lost the power of controlling their appetites I am clear in my opinion there is only one way of safety, and that is the way of entire abstinence from any drink in which there is alcohol, call it by what name you will; and this is the view now held by the most experienced and intelligent men, in our profession."

A movement in the company being observed, Mr. Elliott, instead of replying, stepped toward a lady, and asked the pleasure of escorting her to the supper-room. Dr. Hillhouse was equally courteous, and Mr. Ridley, seeing the wife of General Logan, whom he had often met in Washington, standing a little way off, passed to her side and offered his arm, which was accepted.

There was a crowd and crush upon the stairs, fine gentlemen and ladies seeming to forget their courtesy and good breeding in their haste to be among the earliest who should reach the banqueting-hall. This was long and spacious, having been planned by Mr. Birtwell with a view to grand entertainments like the one he was now giving. In an almost incredibly short space of time it was filled to suffocation. Those who thought themselves among the first to move were surprised to find the tables already surrounded by young men and women, who had been more interested in the status of the supper-room than in the social enjoyments of the parlors, and who had improved their advanced state of observation by securing precedence of the rest, and stood waiting for the signal to begin.

Mr. Birtwell had a high respect for the Church, and on an occasion like this could do no less than honor one of its dignitaries by requesting him to ask a blessing on the sumptuous repast he had provided--on the rich food and the good wine and brandy he was about dispensing with such a liberal hand. So, in the waiting pause that ensued after the room was well filled, Mr. Elliott was called upon to bless this feast, which he did in a raised, impressive and finely modulated voice. Then came the rattle of plates and the clink of glasses, followed by the popping of champagne and the multitudinous and distracting Babel of tongues.

Mr. Ridley, who felt much inclined to favor the superficial and ill-advised utterances of Mr. Elliott, took scarcely any heed of what Dr. Hillhouse had replied. In fact, knowing that the doctor was free with wine himself, he did not give much weight to what he said, feeling that he was talking more for argument's sake than to express his real sentiments.

A feeling of repression came over Mr. Ridley as he entered the supper-room and his eyes ran down the table. Half of this sumptuous feast was forbidden enjoyment. He must not taste the wine. All were free but him. He could fill a glass for the elegant lady whose hand was still upon his arm, but must not pledge her back except in water. A sense of shame and humiliation crept into his heart. So he felt when, in the stillness that fell upon the company, the voice of Mr. Elliott rose in blessing on the good things now spread for them in such lavish profusion. Only one sentence took hold on, Mr. Ridley's mind. It was this: "Giver of all natural as well as spiritual good things, of the corn and the wine equally with the bread and the water of life, sanctify these bounties that come from thy beneficent hand, and keep us from any inordinate or hurtful use thereof."

Mr. Ridley drew a deeper breath. A load seemed taken from his bosom. He felt a sense of freedom and safety. If the wine were pure, it was a good gift of God, and could not really do him harm. A priest, claiming to stand as God's representative among men, had invoked a blessing on this juice of the grape, and given it by this act a healthier potency. All this crowded upon him, stifling reason and experience and hushing the voice of prudence.

And now, alas! he was as a feather on the surface of a wind-struck lake, and given up to the spirit and pressure of the hour. The dangerous fallacy to which Mr. Elliott had given utterance held his thoughts to the exclusion of all other considerations. A clear path out of the dreary wilderness in which he had been, straying seemed to open before him, and he resolved to walk therein. Fatal delusion!

As soon as Mr. Ridley had supplied Mrs. General Locran with terrapin and oysters and filled a plate for himself, he poured out two glasses of wine and handed one of them to the lady, then, lifting the other, he bowed a compliment and placed it to his lips. The lady smiled on him graciously, sipping the wine and praising its flavor.

"Pure as nectar," was the mental response of Mr. Ridley as the long-denied palate felt the first thrill of sweet satisfaction. He had taken a single mouthful, but another hand seemed to grasp the one that held the cup of wine and press it back to his lips, from which it was not removed until empty.

The prescription of Mr. Elliott failed. Either the wine was not pure or his theory was at fault. It was but little over an hour from the fatal moment when Mr. Ridley put a glass of wine to his lips ere he went out alone into the storm of a long-to-be-remembered night in a state of almost helpless intoxication, and staggered off in the blinding snow that soon covered his garments like a winding sheet.