The Allen House, or Twenty Years Ago and Now by T.S. Arthur
I was shocked and distressed by the painful revelation which Mrs. Dewey had made to Constance. A sadder history in real life I had never heard.
A few days after this memorable visit to the Allen House, a note was received by my wife, containing this single word, "Come," and signed Delia.
"Any change in the aspect of affairs?" I inquired of Constance on her return.
"Yes. Mrs. Dewey has received notice, in due form, of her husband's application for a divorce."
"What has she done?"
"Nothing yet. It was to ask my advice as to her best course that she sent for me."
"And what advice did you give her?"
"I gave none. First, I must consult you."
I shook my head and replied,
"It will not do for me to be mixed up in this affair, Constance."
Worldly prudence spoke there.
My wife laid her hand upon my arm, and looking calmly in my face, said,
"The right way is always a safe way."
"It will be right for you to give such advice as your judgment dictates, and therefore safe. I do not know much about law matters, but it occurs to me that her first step should be the employment of counsel."
"Is her father going to stand wholly aloof?" I inquired.
"Yes, if she be resolved to defend herself in open court. He will not sanction a course that involves so much disgrace of herself and family."
"Has she shown him the letter you saw?"
"I think she is afraid to let it go out of her hands."
"She might trust it with her father, surely," said I.
"Her father has been very hard with her; and seems to take the worst for granted. He evidently believes that it is in the power of Dewey to prove her guilty; and that if she makes any opposition to his application for a divorce, he will hold her up disgraced before the world."
"This letter might open his eyes."
"The letter is no defence of her; only a witness against him. It does not prove her innocence. If it did, then it would turn toward her a father's averted face. In court its effect will be to throw doubt upon the sincerity of her husband's motives, and to show that he had a reason, back of alleged infidelity, for wishing to be divorced from his wife."
"I declare, Constance!" said I, looking at my wife in surprise, "you have taken upon yourself a new character. I think the case is safe in your hands, and that Mrs. Dewey wants no more judicious friend. If you were a man, you might conduct the defence for her to a successful issue."
"I am not a man, and, therefore, I come to a man," she replied, "and ask the aid of his judgment. I go by a very straight road to conclusions; but I want the light of your reason upon these conclusions."
"I am not a lawyer as you are aware, Constance--only a doctor."
"You are a man with a heart and common sense," she answered, with just a little shade of rebuke in her tones, "and as God has put in your way a wretched human soul that may be lost, unless you stretch forth a saving hand, is there any room for question as to duty? There is none, my husband! Squire Floyd believes his daughter guilty; and while he rests in this conclusion, he will not aid her in anything that points to exposure and disgrace. She must, therefore, if a vigorous defence is undertaken, look elsewhere for aid and comfort."
I began to see the matter a little clearer.
"Mr. Wallingford is the best man I know."
"Mr. Wallingford!" I thought Constance would have looked me through.
"Mr. Wallingford!" she repeated, still gazing steadily into my face. "Are you jesting?"
"No," I replied calmly. "In a case that involves so much, she wants a wise and good defender; and I do not know of any man upon whom she could so thoroughly rely."
Constance dropped her eyes to the floor.
"It would not do," she said, after some moments.
"Their former relation to each other precludes its possibility."
"But, you must remember, Constance, that Delia never knew how deeply he was once attached to her."
"She knows that he offered himself."
"And that, in a very short time afterwards, he met her with as much apparent indifference as if she had never been to him more than a pleasant acquaintance. Of the struggle through which he passed, in the work of obliterating her image from his mind, she knows nothing."
"But he knows it," objected Constance.
"And what does that signify? Will he defend her less skillfully on this account? Rather will he not feel a stronger interest in the case?"
"I do not think that she will employ him to defend her," said Constance. "I would not, were the case mine."
"Womanly pride spoke there, Constance."
"Or rather say a manly lack of perception in your case."
"Perception of what?"
"Of the fitness of things," she answered.
"That is just what I do see," I returned. "There is no man in S----better fitted for conducting this case than Mr. Wallingford."
"She will never place it in his hands; you may take a woman's word for that," said my wife confidently. "Of all living men he is the last one to whom she could talk of the humiliating particulars involved in a case like this."
"Suppose you suggest his name to her. Twelve years of such a life as she has led may have almost obliterated the memory of that passage in her life."
"Don't believe it. A woman never forgets a passage like that; particularly when the events of every passing day but serve to remind her of the error she once committed."
"I don't know what else to advise," said I. "She ought to have a good and discreet man to represent her, or all may be lost."
"Would you have any objection to confer with Mr. Wallingford on the subject in a private, confidential way?"
"None in the world," I replied.
"Will you see him at once?" The interest of Constance was too strongly excited to brook delay.
And putting on my overcoat I went to the office of Mr. Wallingford. I found him alone, and at once laid the whole case before him--relating, with particularity, all that had occurred between my wife and Mrs. Dewey. He listened with deep and pitying attention; and when I was through, expressed his opinion of Dewey in very strong language.
"And now what is to be done?" I asked, going at once to the vital question.
"Your wife is right," he answered. "I can hardly become her advocate. It would involve humiliation on her part too deep to be borne. But my aid she shall have to the fullest extent; and it will be strange if I do not thwart his wicked scheme."
"How will you aid her?"
"Through her right attorney, if my advice as to the choice be followed. You know James Orton?"
"He is a young man to be relied upon. Let Mrs. Dewey put the case in his hands. If she does so, it will be, virtually, in mine."
"Enough, Mr. Wallingford," said I. "It looks more hopeful for our poor unhappy friend, against whom even her own flesh and blood have turned."
When I gave Constance the result of my interview with Mr. Wallingford, she was quite elated at the prospect of securing his most valuable aid for Mrs. Dewey. Orton was young, and had been practising at the bar for only a couple of years. Up to this time he had not appeared in any case of leading importance; and had, therefore, no established reputation. Our fear was that Mrs. Dewey might not be willing to place her case in such inexperienced hands. In order to have the matter settled with as little delay as possible, Constance paid an early visit to the Allen House, and suggested Mr. Orton as counsel. Mrs. Dewey had not even heard his name; but, after being assured that I had the fullest confidence in him, and particularly advised his employment, she consented to accept of his services.
Their first interview was arranged to take place at my house, and in the presence of my wife, when the notice Mrs. Dewey had received on the institution of proceedings, was placed in the young lawyer's hands, and some conversation had as to the basis and tenor of an answer. A second interview took place on the day following, at which Mrs. Dewey gave a full statement of the affair at Saratoga, and asserted her innocence in the most solemn and impressive manner. The letter from her husband to the lady in New York, was produced, and at the request of Mr. Orton, given into his possession.
The answer to Mr. Dewey's application for a divorce was drawn up by Mr. Wallingford, who entered with great earnestness into the matter. It was filed in court within a week after notice of the application was received. This was altogether unexpected by the husband, who, on becoming aware of the fact, lost all decent control of himself, and ordered his wretched wife to leave his house. This, however, she refused to do. Then she had her father's angry opposition to brave. But she remained firm.
"He will cover you with infamy, if you dare to persevere in this mad opposition," he said. And she answered--
"The infamy may recoil upon his own head. I am innocent--I will not be such a traitor to virtue as to let silence declare me guilty."
There was a pause, now, for a few weeks. The unhappy state of affairs at the Allen House made it hardly proper for my wife to continue her visits there, and Mrs. Dewey did not venture to call upon her. The trial of the case would not come up for some two or three months, and both parties were waiting, in stern resolution, for the approaching contest.
One day I received a message from Mrs. Dewey, desiring me to call and see two of her children who were sick. On visiting them--the two youngest--I found them seriously ill, with symptoms so like scarletina, that I had little question in my mind as to the character of the disease from which they were suffering. My second visit confirmed these fears.
"It is scarlet fever?" said Mrs. Dewey, looking at me calmly, as I moved from the bed-side after a careful examination of the two little ones.
I merely answered--
There was no change in her countenance.
"They are both very ill."
She spoke with a slow deliberateness, that was unusual to her.
"They are sick children," said I.
"Sick, it may be, unto death."
There was no emotion in her voice.
I looked at her without replying.
"I can see them die, Doctor, if that must be."
Oh, that icy coldness of manner, how it chilled me!
"No hand but mine shall tend them now, Doctor. They have been long enough in the care of others--neglected--almost forgotten--by their unworthy mother. But in this painful extremity I will be near them. I come back to the post of duty, even at this late hour, and all that is left for me, that will I do."
I was deeply touched by her words and manner.
The latter softened a little as she uttered the closing sentence.
"You look at the darkest side," I answered. "With God are the issues of life. He calls us, our children, or our friends, in His own good time. We cannot tell how any sickness will terminate; and hope for the best is always our truest state."
"I hope for the best," she replied; but with something equivocal in her voice.
"The best is life," I said, scarcely reflecting upon my words.
"Not always," she returned, still speaking calmly. "Death is often the highest blessing that God can give. It will be so in the present case."
My tone of surprise did not move her.
"It is simply true, Doctor," she made answer. "As things are now, and as they promise to be in the future, the safest place for these helpless innocents is in Heaven; and I feel that their best Friend is about to remove them there through the door of sickness."
I could not bear to hear her talk in this way. It sent cold chills through me. So I changed the subject.
On the next day, all the symptoms were unfavorable. Mrs. Dewey was calm as when I last saw her; but it was plain from her appearance, that she had taken little if any rest. Her manner towards the sick babes was full of tenderness; but there was no betrayal of weakness or distress in view of a fatal termination. She made no anxious inquiries, such as are pressed on physicians in cases of dangerous illness; but received my directions, and promised to give them a careful observance, with a self-possession that showed not a sign of wavering strength.
I was touched by all this. How intense must have been the suffering that could so benumb the heart!--that could prepare a mother to sit by the couch of her sick babes, and be willing to see them die! I have witnessed many sad scenes in professional experience; but none so sad as this.
Steadily did the destroyer keep on with his work. There were none of those flattering changes that sometimes cheat us into hopes of recovery, but a regular daily accumulation of the most unfavorable symptoms. At the end of a week, I gave up all hope of saving the children, and made no more vain attempts to control a disease that had gone on from tie beginning, steadily breaking away the foundations of life. To diminish the suffering of my little patients, and make their passage from earth to Heaven as easy as possible, was now my only care.
On the mother's part, there was no sign of wavering. Patiently, tenderly, faithfully did she minister to her little ones, night and day. No lassitude or weariness appeared, though her face, which grew paler and thinner every day, told the story of exhausting nature. She continued in the same state of mind I have described; never for an instant, as far as I could see, receding from a full consent to their removal.
One morning, in making my usually early call at the Allen House, I saw, what I was not unprepared to see, a dark death sign on the door.
"All over?" I said to the servant who admitted me.
"Yes, sir, all is over," she replied.
"Yes, sir, both."
Tears were in her eyes.
"When did they die?"
"At the same time?"
"Yes, sir. Dear little souls! They went together."
"I will go up to see them," said I.
And the girl showed me to the room in which they were laid. The door was closed. I opened it, and stepped in softly. The room was darkened; but light came in through a small opening in the curtains at the top of the window, and fell in a narrow circle around the spot where the bodies, already in their snowy grave clothes, were laid. In a chair beside them sat the mother. She was alone with her dead. I felt that I was an intruder upon a sorrow too deep for tears or words; but it was too late to recede. So I moved forward and stood by the bedside, looking down upon the two white little faces, from which had passed every line of suffering.
Mrs. Dewey neither stirred nor spoke, nor in any way gave token that she was aware of my presence in the room. I stood for over a minute looking upon the sweet images before me--for in them, death had put on forms of beauty--and still there was no movement on the part of Mrs. Dewey. Then, feeling that she was with One who could speak to her heart by an inner way, better than I could speak through the natural ear, I quietly receded and left the apartment. As my eyes rested on her a moment, in closing the door, I saw that her form remained as still as a statue.