Slave or Free?
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
"John," said a sweet-faced girl, laying her hand familiarly upon the shoulder of a young man who was seated, near a window in deep abstraction of mind. There was something sad in her voice — and her countenance, though, lovely, wore an expression of pain.
"What do you want, sister?" the young man replied, without lifting his eyes from the floor.
"You are not happy, brother."
To this, there was no reply, and an embarrassing pause of some moments ensued.
"May I speak a word with you, brother?" — the young girl at length said, with a tone and manner that showed her to be compelling herself to the performance of a painful and repugnant task.
"On what subject, Alice?" the brother asked, looking up with a doubting expression.
This question brought the color to Alice's cheeks, and the moisture to her eyes.
"You know what I would say, John," she at length made out to utter, in a voice that slightly trembled.
"How would I know, sister?"
"You were not yourself last night, John."
"Forgive me, brother, for what I now say," the maiden rejoined. "It is a painful trial, indeed; and were it not that I loved you so well — were it not that, besides you, there is no one else in the wide world to whom I can look up — I might shrink from a sister's duty. But I feel that it would be wrong for me not to whisper in your ear one warning word — wrong not to try a sister's power over you."
"I will forgive you this time, on one condition," the brother said, in a tone of rebuke, and with a grave expression of countenance.
"What is that?" asked Alice.
"On condition that you never again, directly or indirectly, allude to this subject. It is not in your province to do so. A sister should not look out for her brother's faults."
A sudden gush of tears followed this cold, half-angry repulse; and then the maiden turned slowly away and left the room.
John Barclay's anger towards his only sister, who had no one, as she had feelingly said, in the wide world to look up to and love, but him, subsided the moment he saw how deeply his rebuke had wounded her. But he could not speak to her, nor recall his words — for the subject she had introduced was one so painful and mortifying, that he could not bear an allusion to it.
From long indulgence, the habit of drinking had become confirmed in the young man to such a degree that he had almost ceased to resist an inclination that was gaining a dangerous power over him. And yet there was in his mind an abiding resolution one day to break away from this habit. He did not intend to become a drunkard. Oh, no! The condition of a drunkard was too low and degrading. He could never sink to that! After awhile, he intended to "swear off," as he called it, and be done with the seductive poison altogether; but he had not yet been able to bring so good a resolution into present activity. This being his state of mind — conscious of danger, and yet unwilling to fly from that danger — he could not bear any allusion to the subject.
Half an hour passed in troubled thought, elapsed after this brief interview between the brother and sister, when the young man left the house and took his way, scarcely reflecting upon where he was going, to one of his accustomed places of resort — a fashionable tavern, where every device that ingenuity could invent, was displayed to attract customers. Splendid mirrors and pictures hung against the walls, affecting the mind with pleasing thoughts — and tempting to self-indulgence. There were lounges, where one might recline at ease, while he sipped the delicious compounds which the richly furnished bar afforded, never once dreaming that a serpent lay concealed in the cup that he held to his lips — a serpent that one day would sting him, perhaps unto death!
"Regular as clock-work," — said an old man, a friend of Barclay's father, who had been dead several years, meeting the young man as he was about to enter the attractive establishment just alluded to.
"How?" asked Barclay in a tone of inquiry.
"Six times a day, John, is too often for you to be seen going into the same tavern," — said the old man, with plain-spoken honesty.
"You must not talk to me in that way, Mr. Gray," the other rejoined sternly.
"My respect and regard for the father, will ever cause me to speak plainly to the son, when I think him in danger," was Mr. Gray's calm reply.
"In danger of what, Mr. Gray?"
"In danger of — shall I utter the word in speaking to the son of my old friend, Mr. Barclay? Yes — in danger of — drunkenness!"
"Mr. Gray, I cannot permit anyone to speak to me thus."
"Be not offended at me, John. I utter but the truth."
"I will not stand to be insulted by anyone!" was the young man's angry reply, as he turned suddenly away from his aged friend, and entered the tavern. He did not go up at once to the bar, as had been his habit, but threw himself down upon one of the lounges, took up a newspaper, and commenced; or rather, appeared to commence reading, though he did not, in fact, see a letter.
"What will you have, Mr. Barclay?" asked an attendant, coming up, a few moments after he had entered.
"Nothing just now," was the reply, made in a low tone, while his eyes were not lifted from the newspaper. No very pleasant reflections were those that passed through his mind as he sat there. At last he rose up quickly, as if a resolution had been suddenly formed, and left the place where clustered so many temptations, with a hurried step.
"I want you to administer an oath," he said, entering the office of an Alderman, a few minutes after.
"Very well, sir. I am ready," replied the Alderman. "What is its nature?"
"I will give you the form."
"I, John Barclay, do solemnly swear, that for six months from this hour, I will not taste a drop of any kind of liquor that intoxicates."
"I wouldn't take that oath, young man," the Alderman said.
"You had better go and join a temperance society. Signing the pledge will be of as much avail."
"No — I will not sign a pledge never to drink again. I'm not going to make a mere slave of myself. I'll swear off for six months."
"Why not swear off perpetually, then?"
"Because, as I said, I am not going to make a slave of myself. Six months of total-abstinence will give me a control over myself that I do not now possess."
"I very much fear, sir," urged the Alderman, notwithstanding he perceived that the young man was growing impatient — "and you must pardon my freedom in saying so, that you will find yourself in error. If you are already so much the slave of drink as to feel yourself compelled to have recourse to the solemnities of an oath to break away from its bewitching power — then depend upon it, that no temporary expedient of this kind will be of any avail. You will, no doubt, keep your oath for 6 months — but when its influence is withdrawn, you will find the strength of an unsupported resolution as weak as ever."
"I do not believe the position you take to be a true one," argued young Barclay — "All I want is to get rid of present temptation, and to be freed from present associations. Six months will place me beyond the reach of these, and then I shall be able to do right from an internal principle, and not from mere external restraint."
"I see the view you take, and would not urge a word against it, did I not know so many instances of individuals who have vainly opposed their resolutions against the power of habit. When once an appetite for intoxicating drinks has been formed, there is only one way of safety — that of taking a perpetual pledge of total-abstinence. That, and that alone is the wall of sure protection. Without it, you are exposed to temptations on every hand. The manly and determined effort to be free. will not always avail. In some weak and unsuspecting moment, the tempter will steal quietly in — and all will be again lost!"
"It is useless, sir, to argue the point with me," Barclay replied to this. "I will not take the pledge — that is settled. I will take an oath of abstinence for six months. If I can keep to it that long, I can keep from drinking always."
Seeing that further argument would be useless, the Alderman said no more, but proceeded to administer the oath. The young man then paid the required fee, and turned from the office in silence.
When Alice left the room in tears, stung by the cutting rebuke of her brother, she retired to her chamber with an oppressed and aching heart. She loved him tenderly. They were, sister and brother, alone in the world, and, therefore, her affections clung the closer to him. The struggle had been a hard one in bringing herself to perform the duty which had called down upon her the anger of one for whom she would almost have given her life; and, therefore, the result was doubly painful, more particularly, as it had effected nothing, apparently, towards a change in his habits.
"But perhaps it will cause him to reflect. If so, I will cheerfully bear his anger," was the consoling thought that passed through her mind, after the passage of an hour, spent under the influence of most painful feelings.
"O, if he will only be more on his guard," she went on, in thought — "if he will only give up that evil habit, how glad I should be!"
Just then she heard him enter, and marked the sound of his footsteps as he ascended to his own room, with a fluttering heart. In the course of fifteen or twenty minutes, he went down again, and she listened to observe if he were going out. But he entered the parlors, and then all was again quiet.
For some time Alice debated with herself whether she should go down to him or not, and make the effort to dispel the anger that she had aroused against her; but she could not make up her mind how to act, for she could not tell in what mood she might find him. One repulse was as much, she felt, as she could bear. At last, however, her feelings became so wrought up, that she determined to go down and seek to be reconciled. Her brother's anger was more than she could bear.
When she entered the parlors, with her usual quiet step, she found him seated near the window, reading. He lifted his head as she came in, and she saw at a glance that all his angry feelings were gone. How lightly did her heart bound as she sprang forward!
"Will you forgive me, brother?" she said, laying her hand upon his shoulder as she stood by his side, and bent her face down until her fair cheek almost touched his own.
"Rather let me say, will you forgive me, sister?" was his reply, as he kissed her affectionately — "for the unkind repulse I gave you, when to say what you did must have caused you a most painful sacrifice of feeling?"
"Painful indeed it was, brother. But it is past now and all forgiven."
"Since then, Alice," he said, after a pause, "I have taken a solemn oath, administered by an Alderman, not to touch any kind of intoxicating drink for six months."
"O, I am so glad, John!" the sister said, a joyful smile lighting up her beautiful young face. "But why did you say six months? Why not for life?"
"Because, Alice, I do not wish to bind myself down to a kind of perpetual slavery. I wish to be free, and act right in freedom from a true principle of right. Six months of entire abstinence from all kinds of liquor will destroy that appetite for it which has caused me, of late, to seek it far too often. And then I will, as a free man, remain free."
"I shall now be so happy again, John!" Alice said, fully satisfied with her brother's reason.
"So you have not been happy then of late?"
"O, no, brother. Far from it."
"And has the fact of my using wine so freely, been the cause of your unhappiness?"
"Its effects upon me have not been so visible as often to attract your attention, have they Alice?"
"O, yes, they have. Scarcely a day has gone by for three or four months past, that I could not see that your mind was obscured, and often your actions sensibly affected."
"I did not dream that it was so bad, Alice.'
"Are you not sensible, that at Mr. Weston's, last night you were by no means yourself?"
"Yes, Alice, I am sensible of that, and deeply has it mortified me. I was suffering acutely from the recollection of the exposure which I made of myself on that occasion, especially before Helen, when you alluded to the subject. That was the reason that I could not bear your allusion to it. But tell me, Alice, did you perceive that my situation attracted Helen's attention particularly?"
"Yes. She noticed, evidently, that you were not as you ought to have been."
"How did it affect her, Alice?" asked the young man.
"She seemed much pained, and, I thought, mortified."
A pause of some moments ensued, when John asked, in a tone of interest,
"Do you think it has prejudiced her against me?"
"It has evidently pained her very much, but I do not think that it has created in her mind any prejudice against you."
"From what do you infer this, Alice?"
"From the fact, that, while we were alone in her chamber, on my going upstairs to put on my bonnet and shawl, she said to me, and her eyes were moist as well as my own, 'Alice, you ought to speak to your brother, and caution him against this free indulgence in wine; it may grow on him, unawares. If he were as near to me as he is to you, I would not feel that my conscience was clear unless I warned him of his danger.'"
"Did she say that, sister?"
"Yes, those were her very words."
"And you did warn me, faithfully."
"Yes. But the task is one I pray that I may never again have to perform."
"Amen," was the fervent response.
"How do you like Helen?" the young man asked, in a livelier tone, after a silence of nearly a minute.
"I have always been attached to her, John. You know that we have been together since we were little girls, until now we seem almost like sisters."
"And a sister, truly, I hope she may one day become," the brother said, with a meaning smile.
"Most affectionately will I receive her as such," was the reply of Alice. "As for Helen Weston, there is no one whom I had rather see the wife of my dear brother."
As she said this, she drew her arm around his neck, and kissed him affectionately.
"It shall not be my fault, then, Alice, if she does not become your sister-in-law," was the brother's response.
Rigidly true to his pledge, John Barclay soon gained the honorable estimation in the social circle through which he moved, that he had held, before wine, the mocker, had seduced him from the ways of true sobriety, and caused even his best friends to regard him with changed feelings. Possessing finances which a father's patient industry had accumulated — he had not, hitherto, thought of entering upon any business. Now, however, he began to see the propriety of doing so, and as he had plenty of capital, he proposed to a young man of industrious habits and thorough knowledge of business to enter into a co-partnership with him. This offer was accepted, and the two young men commenced the world with the fairest prospects.
Three months from the day on which John Barclay had mentioned to his sister that he entertained a regard for Helen Weston, he made proposals of marriage to that young lady, which were accepted.
"But how is he doing in regard to his pledge?" I hear someone ask.
O, as to that, it was kept, rigidly. Nothing that could intoxicate was allowed to touch his lips. Of course, he was at first frequently asked to drink by his associates, but his reply to all importunities was —
"No — I have sworn off alcohol for six months."
"So you have said for the last six months," remarked young man, named Watson, one day, on his refusing for the twentieth time to drink with him.
"Not for six months, Watson. It is only three months this very day, since I swore off."
"Well, it seems to me like six months, anyhow. But do you think that you feel any better for all this total-abstinence?"
"O as to that, I don't know that I feel such a wonderful difference in body; but in mind I certainly do feel a great deal better."
"While I drank, I was conscious that I was beginning to be too fond of drinking, and was too often painfully conscious that I had taken too much. Now, I am, of course, relieved from all such unpleasant feelings."
"Well, that's something, at least. But I never saw you out of the way."
"Do you know the reason, Watson?"
"I'll tell you. You were always too far gone yourself, when we drank freely together, to perceive my condition."
"So you say."
"Well, have it as you like. But, see here, John, what are you going to do when your six months are out?"
"I'm going to be a sober man, as I am now."
"You never were a drunkard."
"I was very near being one, then."
"Nonsense! That's all some old woman's notion of yours."
"Well, be that as it may, I certainly intend continuing to be as sober a man, as I have been for the last three months."
"Won't you drink a drop after your time is up?"
"That'll be just as I choose. I will drink — or let it alone, just as I like. I shall then be free to drink moderately, or not at all, as seems agreeable to me."
"That is a little more sensible than your perpetual total-abstinence, tee-totaler, cold-water system. Who would be such a miserable slave? I would rather die drunk in the gutter — than throw away my liberty."
"I believe I have said as much myself."
"Don't you feel a desire to have a good glass of wine, or rum, now and then?"
"No, not the slightest. I've sworn off for six months, and that ends the matter. Of course, I have no more desire for a glass of liquor, than I have to fly to the moon — one is a moral, and the other a physical impossibility; and, therefore, are dismissed from my thoughts."
"What do you mean by a moral impossibility?"
"I have taken an oath not to drink for six months, and the violation of that oath is, for one of my views and feelings, a moral impossibility."
"Exactly. There are three months yet to run, you say. After that, I hope to have the pleasure of taking a glass of wine with you in honor of your restoration to a state of freedom."
"You shall have that pleasure, Watson, if it will really is one — " was Barclay's reply, as the two young men parted.
Time wore on, and John Barclay, besides continuing perfectly sober, gave constant attention to business. So complete a change in him gave confidence to the parents and friends of Helen Weston, who made no opposition to his wish for an early marriage. It was fixed to take place on the evening of the very day upon which his temporary pledge was to expire.
To the expiration of this pledge, Barclay had never ceased, from the moment it was taken, to look forward with a lively interest. Not that he felt a desire to drink. But he allowed himself to be worried with the idea that he was no longer a free man. The nearer the day came which was to terminate the period for which he had bound himself to abstinence, the more did his mind dwell upon it, and the more did he desire its approach. It was, likewise, to be his wedding-day, and for that reason, also, did he look eagerly forward. But it is doubtful whether the consummation of his marriage — or the expiration of his pledge, occupied most of his thoughts. The day so long looked for came at last.
The day that was to make Barclay a free man, and happy in the possession of one of the sweetest girls for a wife he had ever seen.
"I shall not see you again, until tonight, John," his sister said to him, as he was about leaving the house, after dinner, laying her hand as she spoke upon his arm, and looking into his face with a quiet smile resting upon her own lovely features. "I have promised Helen to go over and spend the afternoon with her."
"Very well, sis'."
"Of course we shall see you pretty early," — an arch smile playing about her lips as she made the remark.
"O, yes, I shall be there in time," was the brother's smiling reply, as he kissed the cheek of Alice, and then turned away and left the house. He first proceeded to his store, where he went through, hurriedly, some business that required his attention, occupying something like an hour. Then he went out, and walked rapidly up one of the principal streets of the city, and down another, as if on some urgent errand. Without stopping anywhere, he had nearly returned to his own store, when he was stopped by a friend, who accosted him with —
"Hallo, John! Where are you going in such a hurry?"
"I am on my way to the store."
"Any life and death in the case?"
"No — Only I'm to be married tonight, as you are aware; and, consequently, am hardly able to tell whether I am on my head or my heels."
"True enough! And besides, you are a free man today, are you not?"
"Yes, Watson, thank Heaven! that shackle will be off in half an hour."
"You must be fond of shackle s, John, seeing that you are going to put another on so soon after getting rid of this one." the friend said, laughing heartily at his jest.
"That will be a lighter, and far pleasanter bondage I trust, Watson, than the one from which I am about escaping. It will be an easy yoke compared to the galling one under which I have toiled for the last six months. Still, I do not regret having bound myself as I did. It was necessary to give me that self-control which I had well-near lost. Now I shall be able to act like a rational man, and be temperate from principle, and not from a mere external restraint which made me little better than a machine."
"Your time will be up, you say, in half an hour?"
"Yes — " looking at his watch — "in ten minutes. It is later than I thought."
"Come, then, let us go over to Raleigh's Tavern — it is full ten minutes' walk from here — and take a drink to."
"I am ready to join you, of course," was Barclay's prompt reply, as he drew his arm within that of his friend, and the two turned their steps towards the drinking establishment that had been named by the latter.
"A room, a bottle of sherry, and some cigars," said Watson, as they entered the tavern, and went up to the bar.
In a few minutes after, they were alone, with wine and glasses before them.
"Here's to freedom!" said Watson, lifting his glass, after having filled his own and Barclay's.
"And here's to the same high moral freedom which should ever be man's distinguishing characteristic," responded Barclay, lifting his own glass, and touching with it the brim of that held in the hand of his friend. Both then emptied their glasses at a single draught.
"Really, that is delicious!" Barclay said, smacking his lips, as the rich flavor of the wine lingered on his palate with a sensation of exquisite delight.
"It's a pretty fair article," was the indifferent reply of Watson — "though I have tasted better in my time. Long abstinence has made its flavor peculiarly pleasant. Here, let me fill your glass again."
Without hesitating, Barclay presented his glass, which was again filled to the brim. In the next moment it was empty. So eager was he to get it to his lips, that he even spilled a portion of the wine in lifting it hurriedly. Suddenly his old, and as he had thought, extinguished desires, came back upon him, roused into vigorous activity, like a giant awakening refreshed by a long repose. So keen was his appetite for wine, and stimulating drinks, thus suddenly restored — that he could no more have withstood its influence than he could have borne up against the current of a mighty river.
"Help yourself," said his friend, before another minute had elapsed, as Barclay took up the bottle to fill his glass for the third time. "Long-abstinence has no doubt made you keen."
"It certainly has, or else this is the finest wine that has ever passed my lips."
'It's not the best quality by a good deal; still it is pretty fair.
But won't you try a mint-julep, or a brandy punch, by way of variety?"
"No objection," was the brief response.
"Which will you choose?"
"I'll take a julep."
"Two juleps," said Watson to the waiter who entered immediately afterwards.
The juleps were soon ready, each furnished with a long straw.
"Delicious!" was Barclay's low, and delighted ejaculation, as he bent to the table, and "imbibed" through the straw a portion of the liquid.
"Our friend Raleigh understands his business," was Watson's brief reply.
A silence of some moments ensued, during which a painful consciousness of danger rushed through the mind of Barclay. But with an effort, he dismissed it. He did not intend to drink beyond the bounds of moderation, and why should he permit his mind to be disturbed by idle fears?
* * * * *
"It is time that my brother was here," Alice said to Helen Weston, as the two maidens sat alone, near a window in Helen's chamber, the evening twilight falling gently and with a soothing influence.
"Yes. I expected him earlier," was the reply, in a low tone, while Helen's bosom heaved with a new, and exquisitely pleasurable emotion. "What can keep him?"
"He is lingering at his dressing, perhaps," Alice said, with a smile.
All was silent again for many minutes, each gentle and innocent heart; busy with images of delight.
"It's strange that he does not come, Alice, or sister, as I must call you," Helen remarked, in a graver tone, as the shadowy twilight deepened until everything wore a veil of indistinctness.
"There! That must be him!" Alice said. "Hark! That is certainly his voice! Yes — And he is coming right up to your room, as I live, as boldly as if the house belonged to him."
While Alice was yet speaking, the door of the chamber in which they sat was swung open with a rude hand, and her brother entered. His face was flushed, and his whole person in disorder.
"Why, brother! what has kept — " but the sister could utter no more. Her tongue was paralyzed, and she stood, statue-like, gazing upon him with a look of horror. He was intoxicated! It was his wedding-night, a portion of the company below, and the gentle, affectionate maiden who was to become his bride, all attired and waiting — and he had come intoxicated!
Poor Helen's bewildered senses could not at first fully comprehend the scene. When she did realize the terrible truth, the shock was more than she could bear.
Over the whole scene of pain, disorder, and confusion, which transpired on that evening — we must draw a veil. Any reader of even ordinary imagination can realize enough of the intensified distress which it must have brought to many hearts, without the aid of distinct pictures. And those who cannot realize it, will be spared the pain of its contemplation.
One week from that night, at about nine o'clock in the evening, as old Mr. Gray was passing along one of the principal streets of the city where the occurrences we are relating took place, a young man staggered against him, and then fell at full length upon the pavement, from whence he rolled into the gutter, drenched by a heavy shower that had just fallen. Too drunk to help himself, he must have been drowned even in that insignificant stream, had there not been help at hand.
Mr. Gray came at once to his relief, and assisted him to rise and get upon the pavement. But now he was unable to stand. Either hurt by the fall, or unnerved by the liquor he had taken — he was no longer able to keep his feet. While Mr. Gray stood holding him up, undetermined how to act, another young man, not quite so drunk as the one he had in charge, came whooping along like a wild Indian.
"Hallo! Is this you, John, holding up old Mr. Gray? or is it old Mr. Gray holding you up! hiccup. Blast me! If I can tell which of you is drunk-or which sober. Let me see? hic-hic-cup. Was it the Whale that swallowed Jonah — or Jonah the Whale? Is it old Mr. Gray — hic-cup — that is drunk, or John Barclay?"
"John Barclay!" ejaculated the old man, in a tone of surprise and grief. "Surely this wretched young man is not John Barclay!"
"If he is not John Barclay, then I am not — hic-cup — not Tom Watson. He's a bird, though! Isn't he, old gentleman? — hic-cup — Look here, I'll give you five dollars — hic-cup — if you'll stop these — hic — these confounded hic-hic-hic-cups — There now — There's a chance for you! — hic — blast 'em! He swore off for six months, ha! ha! ha! And it's just — hic — just a week tonight since the six months were up. Hurrah for freedom! Hur — hic — hurrah!"
"Thomas Watson! — "
"Don't come your preaching touch over me, mister, if you please. I'm free Tom Watson — hic-hic-hic-cup — I'm — hic — I'm a regular team — whoop! John, there, you see, would drink to freedom and principle — hic-cup — on the — hic — day his pledge was up. But the alcohol was — hic — too strong — hic-cup — for him. He's been drunk as a fool ever since — hic-cup! — "
Just at that moment a cab came by which was stopped by the old man. Young Barclay was gotten into it and driven to Mr. Gray's dwelling.
When brought to the light, he presented a sad spectacle, indeed. His face was swollen, and every feature distorted. His coat was torn, and all of his clothing wet and covered with mud. Too far gone to be able to help himself, Mr. Gray had him removed to a chamber, his wet garments taken off, and replaced by dry under-clothing. Then he was put into a bed and left for the night. When the morning broke, Barclay was perfectly sober, but with a mind altogether bewildered. The room in which he found himself, and the furniture, were all strange. He got up; and looked from the window; the houses outside were unfamiliar.
"Where am I? What is the meaning of all this?" he said, half-aloud, as he turned to look for his clothes. But no garments of any kind, not even his hat and boots, were visible.
"Strange!" he murmured, getting into bed again, and clasping his hands tightly upon his aching and bewildered head. He had lain, thus, for some minutes, trying to collect his scattered senses, when the door of his chamber was opened by a servant, who brought him in a full suit of his own clothes; not, however, those he remembered to have worn the day previous.
As soon as the servant had withdrawn, the young man, who had felt altogether disinclined to speak to him, hurriedly arose, and dressed himself. On attempting to go out, he was surprised, and somewhat angered, to find that the door of the room had been locked.
Ringing the bell with a quick jerk, he awaited, impatiently, an answer to his summons, for the space of about a minute, when he pulled the cord again with a stronger hand. Only a few moments more elapsed, when the key was turned in the door, and Mr. Gray entered.
"Mr. Gray! Is it possible!" Barclay ejaculated, as the old man stepped into the room, and closed the door after him.
"I can hardly believe it possible, John," his father's friend said, as he turned towards him a sad, yet unreproving countenance.
"But what is the meaning of all this, Mr. Gray? Where am I? And how did I get here?"
"Sit down, John, and be calm. You are in my house. Last night I took you from the gutter, too much intoxicated to help yourself. You would have drowned there, in three inches of water, had not a friendly hand been near to save you."
"Dreadful!" ejaculated the young man, striking his hand hard against his forehead, while an expression of shame and agonizing remorse passed over his face.
"It is, indeed, dreadful to think of, my young friend!" Mr. Gray remarked, in a sympathizing tone. "How wretched you must be!"
"Wretched? Alas! sir, you cannot imagine the horror of this dreadful moment. Surely I have been mad for the past few days! And enough has occurred to drive me mad."
"So I should think, John. But that is past now, and the future is still yours, and its bright page still unsullied by a single act of folly."
"But the past! The dreadful past! That can never be recalled — never be atoned for," Barclay replied, his countenance bearing the strongest expression of anguish and remorse. "To think of all I have lost! To think how cruelly I have mocked the fondest hopes, and crushed the purest affections — perhaps broken a loving heart by my folly! O, sir! It will drive me mad!"
As the young man said this, he arose to his feet, and commenced pacing the room to and fro with agitated steps. Now striking his hands against his forehead, and now wringing them violently.
"Since that accursed hour," he resumed, after a few minutes thus spent, "when I madly tempted myself, under the belief that I had gained the mastery over a depraved appetite by an abstinence from all kinds of liquor for six months, I have but a dim recollection of events. I do, indeed, remember, with tolerable distinctness, that I went to claim the hand of Helen Weston, according to appointment. But from the moment I entered the house, all is to me confusion, or a dead blank. Tell me, then, Mr. Gray," — and the young man's voice grew calmer — "the effect of my miserable conduct upon her whom I loved purely and tenderly. Let me know all. I ask no disguise."
"The effect, John, has been painful, indeed. Since that dreadful night, she has remained in a state of partial delirium. But her physician told me, yesterday, that all of her symptoms had become more favorable."
"And how are her father and friends?"
"Deeply incensed, of course, at your conduct."
"And my sister? How is Alice?"
"She keeps up with an effort. But oh, how wretched and broken-hearted she looks! Is it not dreadful, John, to think, how, by a single act of folly, you have lacerated the hearts that loved you most, and imposed upon them burdens of anguish, almost too heavy to be borne?"
"It is dreadful! dreadful! O, that I had died, before I became an accursed instrument of evil to those I love. But what can I do, Mr. Gray, to atone, in some degree, for the misery I have wrought?"
"You can do much, John, if you will."
"If I will, Mr. Gray?"
"Yes, John, if you will."
"There is nothing that I am not ready to do, Mr. Gray — even the cutting off of my right hand, could it be of any avail."
"You swore off, as I believe you called it, for six months, did you not?"
"Had you any desire to drink, during that time?"
"Sign a pledge of perpetual total-abstinence, and you are safe from all future temptations. Time will doubtless heal the present painful wounds."
"And make a slave of myself, Mr. Gray. Surely I ought to have power enough over myself, to abstain from all intoxicating drinks, without binding myself down by a written contract."
"That is true; but, unfortunately, you have not that control over yourself. Your only safety, then, lies in the pledge. Take that, and you throw between yourself and danger an insurmountable barrier. You talk about freedom; and yet are a slave to the most debasing appetite. Get free from the influence of that eager, insatiable desire, and you are free, indeed. The perpetual total-abstinence pledge will be your declaration of independence. When that is taken, you will be free, indeed. And until it is taken, rest assured, that none of your friends will again have confidence in you. For their sakes — for your sister's sake, that peace may once more be restored to her troubled heart — for the sake of her, from whose lip you dashed the cup of joy — sign the pledge!"
"I will sign it, Mr. Gray. But name not her whom I have so deeply wronged. I can never see Helen Weston again."
"Time heals many a wound, and closes many a breach my young friend."
"It can never heal that wound, nor close that breach," was the sad response. "But give me a pen and ink, and some paper; and let me write a pledge. I believe it is necessary for me to sign one."
The materials for writing were brought as desired, and Barclay wrote and subscribed a pledge of perpetual abstinence from all that could intoxicate.
"That danger is past," he said, with a lighter tone, as he arose from the table at which he had been writing. "I can never pass another such a week as that which has just elapsed."
"Now come down and take a good warm breakfast with me," Mr. Gray said, in a cheerful voice.
"Excuse me if you please," Barclay replied. "I cannot meet your family this morning, after what has occurred. Besides, I must see my sister as quickly as possible, and relieve, as far as lies in my power, her suffering heart."
"Go then, John Barclay," the old man said. "I will not, for Alice's sake, urge you to linger a moment."
It was still early when Mr. Barclay entered his own home. He found Alice sitting in the parlor so pale, haggard, and wretched, that her features hardly seemed like those of his own sister. She looked up into his face as he came in with a sad, doubting expression, while her lips trembled. One glance, however, told her heart that a change had taken place, and she sprang quickly towards him.
"Alice, my own dear sister!" he said, as her head sank upon his bosom. "The struggle is over. I am free once more, and free forever. I have just signed a pledge of total-abstinence from all that can intoxicate — a pledge that will remain perpetually in force."
"And may our Father in Heaven help you to keep it, John," the maiden murmured, in a low, fervent tone.
"I will die, before it shall be violated," was the stern response.
One year from that time, another bridal party assembled at the residence of Mr. Weston. Helen long since recovered from the shock she had received, had again consented to be led to the altar by John Barclay, whose life had been, since he signed the pledge, of the most unexceptionable character. Indeed, almost his only fault in former times had been a fondness for drinking, and mirthful company. Not much of boisterous mirth characterized the bridal party, for none felt like giving way to an exuberance of feeling — but there was, notwithstanding few could draw a veil entirely over the past, a rational conviction that true and permanent happiness must, and would crown that marriage union. And thus far, it has followed it, and must continue to follow it, for John Barclay is a man of high-toned principle, and would as soon think of committing a highway robbery, as violating his pledge.
"Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise." Proverbs 20:1
"Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine. Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper!" Proverbs 23:29-32