Scottish Sketches by Amelia E. Barr
Facing His Enemy.
But things did not come to this pass all at once; few men take the steps towards ruin so rapidly as to be themselves alarmed by it. It was nearly seven years after his marriage when the fact that he was in dangerously embarrassed circumstances forced itself suddenly on David's mind. I say "suddenly" here, because the consummation of evil that has been long preparing comes at last in a moment; a string holding a picture gets weaker and weaker through weeks of tension, and then breaks. A calamity through nights and days moves slowly towards us step by step, and then some hour it has come. So it was with David's business. It had often lately been in tight places, but something had always happened to relieve him. One day, however, there was absolutely no relief but in borrowing money, and David went to his uncle again.
It was a painful thing for him to do; not that they had any quarrel, though sometimes David thought a quarrel would be better than the scant and almost sad intercourse their once tender love had fallen into. By some strange mental sympathy, hardly sufficiently recognized by us, John was thinking of his nephew when he entered. He greeted him kindly, and pulled a chair close, so that David might sit beside him. He listened sympathizingly to his cares, and looked mournfully into the unhappy face so dear to him; then he took his bank-book and wrote out a check for double the amount asked.
The young man was astonished; the tears sprang to his eyes, and he said, "Uncle, this is very good of you. I wish I could tell you how grateful I am."
"Davie, sit a moment, you dear lad. I hae a word to say to ye. I hear tell that my lad is drinking far mair than is good either for himsel' or his business. My lad, I care little for the business; let it go, if its anxieties are driving thee to whiskey. David, remember what thou accused me of, yonder night, when this weary mill was first spoken of; and then think how I suffer every time I hear tell o' thee being the warse o' liquor. And Jenny is greeting her heart out about thee. And there is thy sick wife, and three bonnie bit bairns."
"Did Isabel tell you this?"
"How can she help complaining? She is vera ill, and she sees little o' thee, David, she says."
"Yes, she is ill. She took cold at Provost Allison's ball, and she has dwined away ever since. That is true. And the house is neglected and the servants do their own will both with it and the poor children. I have been very wretched, Uncle John, lately, and I am afraid I have drunk more than I ought to have done. Robert and I do not hit together as we used to; he is always fault-finding, and ever since that visit from his cousin who is settled in America he has been dissatisfied and heartless. His cousin has made himself a rich man in ten years there; and Robert says we shall ne'er make money here till we are too old to enjoy it."
"I heard tell, too, that Robert has been speculating in railway stock. Such reports, true or false, hurt you, David. Prudent men dinna like to trust speculators."
"I think the report is true; but then it is out of his private savings he speculates."
"Davie, gie me your word that you wont touch a drop o' whiskey for a week--just for a week."
"I cannot do it, uncle. I should be sure to break it. I don't want to tell you a lie."
"O Davie, Davie! Will you try, then?"
"I'll try, uncle. Ask Jenny to go and see the children."
"'Deed she shall go; she'll be fain to do it. Let them come and stay wi' me till their mother is mair able to look after them."
Jenny heard the story that night with a dour face. She could have said some very bitter things about Deacon Strang's daughter, but in consideration of her sickness she forbore. The next morning she went to David's house and had a talk with Isabel. The poor woman was so ill that Jenny had no heart to scold her; she only gave the house "a good sorting," did what she could for Isabel's comfort, and took back with her the children and their nurse. It was at her suggestion John saw David the next day, and offered to send Isabel to the mild climate of Devonshire. "She'll die if she stays in Glasgo' through the winter," he urged, and David consented. Then, as David could not leave his business, John himself took the poor woman to Torbay, and no one but she and God ever knew how tenderly he cared for her, and how solemnly he tried to prepare her for the great change he saw approaching. She had not thought of death before, but when they parted he knew she had understood him, for weeping bitterly, she said, "You will take care of the children, Uncle John? I fear I shall see them no more."
"I will, Isabel. While I live I will."
"And, O uncle, poor David! I have not been a good wife to him. Whatever happens, think of that and judge him mercifully. It is my fault, uncle, my fault, my fault! God forgive me!"
"Nae, nae, lassie; I am far from innocent mysel';" and with these mournful accusations they parted for ever.
For Isabel's sickness suddenly assumed an alarming character, and her dissolution was so rapid that John had scarcely got back to Glasgow ere David was sent for to see his wife die. He came back a bereaved and very wretched man; the great house was dismantled and sold, and he went home once more to Blytheswood Square.
But he could not go back to his old innocent life and self; and the change only revealed to John how terribly far astray his nephew had gone. And even Isabel's death had no reforming influence on him; it only roused regrets and self-reproaches, which made liquor all the more necessary to him. Then the breaking up of the house entailed much bargain-making, all of which was unfortunately cemented with glasses of whiskey toddy. Still his uncle had some new element of hope on which to work. David's home was now near enough to his place of business to afford no excuse for remaining away all night. The children were not to be hid away in some upper room; John was determined they should be at the table and on the hearthstone; and surely their father would respect their innocence and keep himself sober for their sakes.
"It is the highest earthly motive I can gie him," argued the anxious old man, "and he has aye had grace enough to keep out o' my sight when he wasna himsel'; he'll ne'er let wee John and Flora and Davie see him when the whiskey is aboon the will and the wit--that's no to be believed."
And for a time it seemed as if John's tactics would prevail. There were many evenings when they were very happy. The children made so gay the quiet old parlor, and David learning to know his own boys and girl, was astonished at their childish beauty and intelligence. Often John could not bear to break up the pleasant evening time, and David and he would sit softly talking in the firelight, with little John musing quietly between them, and Flora asleep on her uncle's lap. Then Jenny would come gently in and out and say tenderly, "Hadna the bairns better come awa to their beds?" and the old man would answer, "Bide a bit, Jenny, woman," for he thought every such hour was building up a counter influence against the snare of strong drink.
But there is no voice in human nature that can say authoritatively, "Return!" David felt all the sweet influences with which he was surrounded, but, it must be admitted, they were sometimes an irritation to him. His business troubles, and his disagreements with his partner, were increasing rapidly; for Robert--whose hopes were set on America--was urging him to close the mill before their liabilities were any larger. He refused to believe longer in the future making good what they had lost; and certainly it was uphill work for David to struggle against accumulating bills, and a partner whose heart was not with him.
One night at the close of the year, David did not come home to dinner, and John and the children ate it alone. He was very anxious, and he had not much heart to talk; but he kept the two eldest with him until little Flora's head dropped, heavy with sleep, on his breast. Then a sudden thought seemed to strike him, and he sent them, almost hurriedly, away. He had scarcely done so when there was a shuffling noise in the hall, the parlor-door was flung open with a jar, and David staggered towards him--drunk!
In a moment, John's natural temper conquered him; he jumped to his feet, and said passionately, "How daur ye, sir? Get out o' my house, you sinfu' lad!" Then, with a great cry he smote his hands together and bowed his head upon them, weeping slow, heavy drops, that came each with a separate pang. His agony touched David, though he scarcely comprehended it. Not all at once is the tender conscience seared, and the tender heart hardened.
"Uncle," he said in a maudlin, hesitating way, which it would be a sin to imitate--"Uncle John, I'm not drunk, I'm in trouble; I'm in trouble, Uncle John. Don't cry about me. I'm not worth it."
Then he sank down upon the sofa, and, after a few more incoherent apologies, dropped into a deep sleep.