The Brother's Temptation
By Timothy Shay Arthur, 1853
"Come, Henry," said Blanche Armor to her brother, who had seemed unusually silent and thoughtful since tea time — "I want you to read while I make this cap for mother."
"Excuse me, Blanche, if you please, I don't feel like reading tonight," the brother replied, shading his face both from the light and the penetrating glance of his sister, as he spoke.
Blanche did not repeat the request, for it was a habit with her never to urge her brother; nor, indeed, anyone, to do a thing for which they seemed disinclined. She, therefore, took her work-basket, and sat down by the center-table, without saying anything farther, and commenced sewing. But she did not feel quite easy, for it was too apparent that Henry was disturbed about something.
For several days he had seemed more than usually reserved and thoughtful. Now he was gloomy as well as thoughtful. Of course, there was a cause for this. And as this cause was hidden from Blanche, she could not but feel troubled. Several times during the evening she attempted to draw him out into conversation, but he would reply to her in monosyllables, and then fall back into his state of silent abstraction of mind. Once or twice he got up and walked across the floor, and then again resumed his seat, as if he had compelled himself to sit down by a strong effort of the will. Thus the time passed away, until the usual hour of retiring for the night came, when Blanche put away her work, and rising from her chair by the center-table, went to Henry, and stooping down over him, as he lay half reclined upon the sofa, kissed him tenderly, and murmured an affectionate "good night."
"Good night, dear," he returned, without rising or adding another word.
Blanche lingered a moment, and then, with a repressed sigh, left the room, and retired to her chamber. She could not understand her brother's strange mood. For him to be troubled and silent was altogether new. And the cause? Why should he conceal it from her, toward whom, till now, he had never withheld anything which gave him either pleasure or pain?
The moment Blanche retired, the whole manner of Henry Armor changed. He arose from the sofa and commenced walking the floor with rapid steps, while the deep lines upon his forehead and his strongly compressed lips showed him to be laboring under some powerful mental excitement. He continued to walk thus hurriedly backward and forward, for the space of half an hour; when, as if some long debated point had been at last decided, he grasped the parlor door with a firm hand, threw it open, took from the rack his hat, cloak, and cane, and in a few moments was in the street.
The jar of the street door, as it closed, was distinctly heard by Blanche, and this caused the troubled feeling which had oppressed her all the evening, to change into one of anxiety. Where could Henry be going at this late hour? He rarely stayed out beyond ten o'clock; and she had never before known him to leave the house after the usual bedtime of the family. His going out had, of course, something to do with his unhappy mood. What could it mean?
She could not suspect him of any wrong. She knew him to be too pure-minded and honorable. But there was mystery connected with his conduct — and this troubled her. She had just laid aside a book, that she had taken up for the purpose of reading a few pages before retiring for the night, and commenced disrobing herself, when the sound of the door closing after her brother startled her, and caused her to pause and think. She could not now retire, for to sleep would be impossible. She, therefore, drew a shawl about her, and again resumed her book, determined to sit up until Henry's return. But little that she read made a very distinct impression on her mind. Her thoughts were with her brother, whom she tenderly loved, and had learned to confide in as one of pure sentiments and firm principles.
While Henry Armor still lingered at home in moody indecision of mind, a small party of young men were assembled in an upper room of a celebrated dining hall — drinking, smoking, and indulging in conversation — a large portion of which would have shocked a modest ear. They were all members of wealthy and respectable families. Some had passed their majority, and others still lingered between nineteen and twenty-one — that dangerous age for a young man — especially if he be so unfortunate as to have little to do, and a liberal supply of pocket money.
"Confound the fellow! What keeps him so long?" said one of the company, looking at his watch. "It's nearly ten o'clock, and he has not made his appearance!"
"Whom do you mean? Armor?" asked another.
"Certainly I do. He promised to join us again tonight."
"So he did! But I'll bet a pewter sixpence that he won't come."
"His sister won't let him. Don't you know that he is tied to her apron strings almost every night, the silly fellow! Why doesn't he be a man, and enjoy life as it comes?"
"Sure enough! What is life worth, if its pleasures are all to be sacrificed for a sister?" returned the other, sneeringly.
"Here! Pass that champagne," interrupted one of the company. "Let Harry Armor break his engagement with us, for a sister if he likes. That needn't mar our enjoyment. There are enough of us here for a regular good time."
"Here's a toast," cried another, as he lifted a sparkling glass to his lips, "Pleasant dreams to the old folks!"
"Good! Good! Good!" passed round the table, about which the young revelers were gathered, and each drained a glass to the well understood sentiment.
In the mean time, young Armor had left his home, having decided at last, and after a long struggle with himself, to join this mirthful company, as he had agreed to do. It was, in fact, a little club, formed a short time previous, the members of which met once a week to eat, drink, smoke, and corrupt each other by ridiculing those beneficial moral restraints which, once laid aside, leave the thoughtless youth in imminent danger of ruin.
Henry Armor had been blessed with a sister a year or two older than himself, who loved him tenderly. The more rapid development of her mind, as well as body, had given her the maturity which enabled her to exercise a strong influence over him. Of the dangers that beset the path of a young man — she knew little or nothing. The constant effort which she made to render home agreeable to her brother by consulting his tastes, and entering into everything that seemed to give him pleasure — did not, therefore, spring from a wish to guard him from the world's allurements; it was the spontaneous result of a pure sisterly affection. But it had the right effect. To him, there was no place like home; nor any smile so alluring, or voice so sweet — as his sister's. And abroad, no company possessed a perfect charm, unless Blanche were one of its members.
This continued until Henry gained his twenty-second year, when, as a law student, he found himself thrown more and more into the company of young men of his own age, and the same standing in society. An occasional ride out with one and another of these, at which times an hour at least was always spent in a tavern, opened to him new scenes in life, for an attractive young man of lively, buoyant mind. That there was danger in these paths which he did not attempt to disguise from himself. More than one, or two, or three, whom he met on almost every visit he made to a fashionable resort for young men, about five miles from the city, showed too strong indications of having passed beyond the bounds of self-control, as well in their use of wines and stronger drinks as in their conduct, which was too free from those external moral restraints that we look for even in men who make no pretensions to virtue. But he did not fear for himself. The exhibitions which these made of themselves, instinctively disgusted him. Still, he did not perceive that he was less and less shocked at some things he beheld, and more than at first inclined to laugh at follies which verged too nearly upon moral delinquencies.
Gradually his circle of acquaintance with young men of the mirthful class extended, and a freer participation with them in many of their pleasures came as a natural consequence.
"Come," said one of them to him, as the two met in the street, by accident, one evening — "I want you to go with me."
"But why should I go with you? Or, rather, where are you going?" asked Armor.
"To meet some of our friends down at Charlie's Tavern," replied the young man.
"What are you going to do there?" farther inquired Armor.
"Nothing more than to drink a glass of wine, and have some pleasant chit-chat. So come along."
"Will I be welcome?"
"Certainly you will. I'll guarantee that. Some half dozen of us have formed a little club, and each member has the privilege of inviting anyone he pleases. Tonight I invite you, and on the next evening I expect to see you present, not as a guest, but as a member. So come along, and see how you like us."
Armor had no definite object in view. He had walked out, because he felt rather listless at home, Blanche having retired with a sick headache. It required, therefore, no persuasion to induce him to yield to the friend's invitation. Having arrived at Charlie's Tavern, a fashionable house of refreshment — the two young men passed up stairs and entered one of the private rooms of the house, which they found handsomely furnished and brilliantly lighted. In this, gathered around a circular, or rather oblong table, were five or six young men, nearly all of them well known to Armor. On the table were bottles of wine and glasses — the latter filled.
"Just in time!" cried the president of the club. "Henry Armor, I bid you welcome! Here's a place waiting for you," placing his hand upon a chair by his side as he spoke. "And now," as Armor seated himself, "let me fill your glass. We were waiting for a sentiment to find its way out of some brain as you came in, and our brimming glasses had stood untasted for more than a minute. Can't you help us to a toast?"
"Here's to good fellowship!" said Armor, promptly lifting his glass, and touching it to that of the president.
"And to get drunk!" added the president.
All rose on the instant, and drank with mock solemnity to the sentiment of their guest.
Then followed brilliant flashes of wit — or what was thought to be wit. To these followed the song, the jest, the story — and to these again the sparkling wine-cup. Gayly thus passed the hours, until midnight stole quietly upon the thoughtless revelers. Surprised, on reference to his watch, to find that it was one o'clock, Armor arose and begged to be excused.
"I move that our guest be excused on one condition," said the friend who had brought him to the company. "And that is, on his promise to meet with us again, on this evening next week."
"What do you think of the condition?" asked the president, who, like nearly all of the rest, was rather the worse for the wine he had taken, looking at Armor as he spoke.
"I agree to it with pleasure!" was the prompt reply.
"Another drink before you go, then," said the president, "and I will give the toast. Fill up your glasses."
The bottle again passed round the table.
"Here's to a good fellow!" was the sentiment announced. It was received standing. Armor then retired with bewildered senses. The mirthful scene which had floated before his eyes, and in which himself had been an actor, and the freedom with which he had taken wine, left him confused, almost in regard to his own identity. He did not seem to himself the same person he had been a few hours before. A new world had opened before him, and he had, almost involuntarily, entered into, and become a citizen of that world. Long after he had reached his home, and retired to his bed, did his imagination revel amid the scenes he had just left. In sleep, too, imagination was busy. But here came a change. Serpents would too often glide across the table around which the mirthful company, himself a member, were assembled; or some other sudden and more appalling change scatter into fragments, the bright phantasma of his dreams.
The sober morning found him in a soberer mood. Calm, cold, unimpassioned reflection came. What had he been doing? What path had he entered; and where did it lead? These were questions which would intrude themselves, and clamor for an answer. He shut his eyes and endeavored again to sleep. Waking thoughts were worse than the dreamy terrors which had visited him in sleep. At length he arose, with dull pains in his head, and an oppressive sluggishness of the whole body.
But more painful than his own reflections, or the physical consequences of the last night's irregularity — was the thought of meeting Blanche, and bearing the glance of her innocent eyes. He felt that he had been among the impure — and worse, that he had enjoyed their impure sentiments, and indulged with them in excess of wine. The taint was upon him, and the pure mind of his sister must instinctively perceive it. These thoughts made him wretched. He really dreaded to meet her. But this could not be avoided.
"You do not look well, brother," said Blanche, almost as soon as she saw him.
"I am not well," he replied, avoiding her steady look. "My head aches, and I feel dull and heavy."
"What has caused it, brother?" the affectionate girl asked, with a look and voice of real concern.
Now this was, of all others, the question that Henry was least prepared to answer. He could not utter a direct falsehood. From that, his firm principles shrank. Nor could he equivocate, for he considered equivocation little better than a direct falsehood. "Why should I wish to conceal any part of my conduct from her?" he asked himself, in his dilemma. But the answer was instant and conclusive. His participation in the revelry of the last night was a thing not to be whispered in her ear. Not being prepared, then, to tell the truth, and shrinking from falsehood and equivocation, Armor preferred silence as the least evil of the three. The question of Blanche was not, therefore, answered.
At the breakfast-table, his father and mother remarked upon his appearance. To this, he merely replied that he was not well. As soon as the meal was over, he went out, glad to escape the eye of Blanche, which, it seemed to him, rested searchingly upon him all the while.
A walk of half an hour in the fresh morning air dispelled the dull pain in his head, and restored his whole system to a more healthy tone. This drove away, to some extent, the oppressive feeling of self-condemnation which he had indulged. The scenes of the previous evening, though silly enough for sensible young men to engage in, seemed less objectionable than they had appeared to him on his first review. To laugh involuntarily at several remembered jests and stories, the points of which were not exactly the most chaste or reverential — marked the change that a short period had produced in his state of mind.
During that day, he did not fall in with any of his wild companions of the last evening — too many of whom had already fairly entered the road to ruin. The evening was spent at home, in the society of Blanche. He read while she sewed, or he turned for her the leaves of her music book, or accompanied her upon the flute while she played him a favorite tune upon the piano. Conversation upon books, music, society, and other topics of interest, filled up the time not occupied in these mental recreations, and added zest, variety, and unflagging interest to the gently-passing hours. On the next evening, they attended a concert, and on the next a party. On that following, Henry went out to see a friend of a different character from any of those with whom he had passed the hours a few nights previous — a friend about his own age, of fixed habits and principles, who, like himself, was preparing for the bar. With him he spent a more rational evening than with the others, and, what was better, no sting was left behind.
Still, young Armor could never think of the "club" without having his mind thrown into a tumult. It awoke into activity opposing principles. Good and evil came in contact, and battled for supremacy. There was in his mind a clear conviction that to indulge in dissipation of that character, would be injurious both to moral and physical health. And yet, having tasted of the delusive sweets, he was tempted to further indulgence. Meeting with some two or three of the "members" during the week, and listening to their extravagant praise of the "club," and the pleasure of uniting in unrestrained social fellowship, made warm by generous wine, tended to make his internal contest more active — for the good principles that had been stored up in his mind were not to be easily silenced. Their hold upon his character was deep. They had entered into its warp and woof, and were not to be eradicated or silenced in a moment.
As the time for the next meeting of the club approached, this battle grew more violent. The condition into which it had brought him by the arrival of the night on which he had promised again to join his mirthful friends, the reader has already seen. He was still unable to decide his course of action. Carnal inclination prompted him to go; good principles opposed. "But then I have passed my word that I would go, and my word must be inviolable." Here reason came in to the aid of his inclinations, and made in their favor a strong preponderance.
We have seen that, yet undecided, he lingered at home, but in a state of mind strangely different from any in which his sister had ever seen him. Still debating the question, he lay, half reclined upon the sofa, when Blanche touched her innocent lips to his, and murmured a tender good-night. That kiss passed through his frame like an electric current. It came just as his imagination had pictured an impure image, and scattered it instantly. But no decision of the question had yet been made, and the withdrawal of Blanche only took off an external restraint from his feelings. He quietly arose and commenced pacing the floor. This he continued for some time. At last the decision was made.
"I have passed my word — and that ends it," said he, and instantly left the house. Without permitting himself to review the matter again, although a voice within asked loudly to be heard, he walked hastily in the direction of the club-room. In ten minutes he gained the door, opened it without pausing, and stood in the midst of the wild company within. His entrance was greeted with shouts of welcome, and the toast, "Here's to a good fellow!" with which he had parted from them, was repeated on his return, all standing as it was drank.
To this followed a sentiment that cannot be repeated here. It was too gross. All drank to it but Armor. He could not, for it involved a foul slander upon the other gender, and he had a sister whose pure kiss was yet warm upon his lips. The individual who proposed the toast marked this omission, and pointed it out by saying —
"What's the matter, Harry? Is not the wine good?"
The color mounted to the young man's face as he replied, with a forced smile —
"Yes, much better than the sentiment."
"What ails the sentiment?" asked the propounder of it, in a tone of affected surprise.
"I have a sister," was the brief, firm reply of Armor.
"So Charley, here, was just saying," retorted the other, with a merry laugh; "and, what is more, that he'd bet a sixpence you were tied to her apron-string, and would not be here tonight! Ha! ha!"
The effect of this upon the mind of Armor was decisive. He loved, nay, almost revered his sister. She had been like an angel of innocence about his path from early years. He knew her to be as pure as the mountain snow-flake. And yet that sister's influence over him, was sneered at by one who had just uttered a foul-mouthed slander upon her whole gender. The scales fell instantly from his eyes. He saw the dangerous ground upon, which he stood; while the character of his associates appeared in a new light. They were on a road that he did not wish to travel. There were serpents concealed amid the flowers which sprang along their path, and he shuddered as he thought of their poisonous fangs! Quick as a flash of light, these things passed through his mind, and caused him to act with instant resolution. Rising from the chair he had already taken, he retired, without a word, from the room. A sneering laugh followed him, but he either heard it not, or gave it no heed.
The book which Blanche resumed after she had heard her brother go out, soon ceased to interest her. She was too much troubled about him to be able to fix her mind on anything else. His singularly disturbed state, and the fact of his having left the house at that late hour, caused her to feel great uneasiness. This was beginning to excite her imagination, and to cause her to imagine many reasons for his strange conduct, none of which were calculated in any degree to allay the anxiety she felt.
Anxiety was fast verging upon serious alarm, when she heard the sound of footsteps approaching the house. She listened breathlessly. Surely it was the sound of Henry's footsteps! Yes! Yes! It was indeed her brother. The tears gushed from her eyes as she heard him enter below and pass up to his chamber. He was safe from harm, and for this her heart lifted itself up in fervent thankfulness! How near he had been to falling fatally, that pure-minded maiden never knew, nor how it had been her image and the remembrance of her parting kiss that had saved him in the moment of his greatest danger. Happy he who is blessed with such a sister! And happier still, if her innocence is allowed to overshadow him in the hours of temptation!