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Chapter 15

"MADAM!"

They had reached their own apartments, and Mrs. Dexter was moving forward past her husband. The stern imperative utterance caused her to pause and turn round.

"We leave for home in the morning!" said Mr. Dexter.

"We?" His wife looked at him fixedly as she made the simple interrogation.

"Yes, we!" was answered, and in the voice of one who had made up his mind, and did not mean to be thwarted in his purpose.

"Mr. Dexter!" his wife stood very erect before him; her eyes did not quail beneath his angry glances; nor was there any sign of weakness in her low, even tones. "Let me warn you now--and regard the warning as for all time--against any attempt to coerce me into obedience to your arbitrary exactions. Your conduct to-night was simply disgraceful--humiliating to yourself, and mortifying and unjust to your wife. Let us have no more of this. There is a high wall between us, Mr. Dexter--high as heaven and deep as--." Her feelings were getting the rein and she checked herself. "Your own hands have built it," she resumed in a colder tone, "but your own hands, I fear, have not the strength to pull it down. Love you I never did, and you knew it from the beginning; love you I never can. That is a simple impossibility. But true to you as steel to the magnet in all the externals of my life, I have been and shall continue to be, even to the end of this unhappy union. As a virtuous woman, I could be nothing less. The outrage I have suffered this day from your hands, is irreparable. I never imagined it would come to this. I did not dream that it was in you to charge upon your wife the meditation of a crime the deepest it is possible for a woman to commit. That you were weakly jealous, I saw; and I came here in cheerful acquiescence to your whim, in order to help you to get right. But this very act of cheerful acquiescence was made the ground of a charge that shocked my being to the inmost and changed me towards you irrevocably."

The stern angry aspect of Mr. Dexter was all gone. It seemed as if emotion had suddenly exhausted itself.

"We had better go home to-morrow." He spoke in a subdued voice. "Neither of us can find enjoyment here."

"I shall not be ready to morrow, nor the next day either," was the out-spoken reply. "To go thus hurriedly, after your humiliating exhibition of distrust, would only be to give free rein to the tongue of scandal; and that I wish to avoid."

"It has free rein already," said Mr. Dexter. "At Saratoga I heard your name lightly spoken and brought you away for that very reason. You are not chary enough of yourself in these public places. I know men better than you do."

"If a light word was spoken of me, sir, at Saratoga or anywhere else, you alone are to blame. My conduct has warranted no such freedom of speech. But I can easily imagine how men will think lightly of a woman when her husband shows watchfulness and suspicion. It half maddens me, sir, to have this disgrace put upon me. To-morrow week I will go home if you then desire it--not a day earlier. And I warn you against any more such exhibitions as we have had to-night. If you cannot take pleasure in society that is congenial to my taste, leave me to my enjoyment, but don't mar it with your cloudy presence. And set this down as a truism--the wife that must be watched, is not worth having."

For utterances like these, Mr. Dexter was not prepared. They stunned and weakened him. He felt that he had a spirit to deal with that might easily be driven to desperation. A man, if resolute, he had believed might control the actions of almost any woman--that woman being his wife. And he had never doubted the result of marital authority, should he at any time deem it necessary to lay upon Mrs. Dexter an iron hand. The occasion, as he believed, had arrived; the hand was put forth; the will was resolute; but his vice-like grip closed upon the empty air! The spirit with which he had to deal was of subtler essence and more vigorous life than he had imagined.

How suddenly were Mrs. Dexter's wifely, unselfish and self-denying purposes in regard to her husband scattered upon the winds! She had come to Newport, resolved to be all to him that it was possible for her to be--even to the withdrawing of herself more from social circles in which attractive men formed a part. The admonitions of Mrs. De Lisle sunk deeply into her heart. She saw her relation to her husband in a new aspect. He had larger claims upon her than she had admitted heretofore. If she had been partly coerced into the compact, he had been deceived by her promises at the altar into expecting more than it was in her power to give. She owed him not only a wife's allegiance, but a wife's tender consideration.

Alas! how suddenly had all these good purposes been withered up, like tender flowers in the biting frost! And now there was strife between them--bitterness, anger, scorn, alienation. The uneasiness which her husband had manifested for some months previously, whenever she was in free, animated conversation with gentlemen, annoyed her slightly; but she had never regarded it as a very serious affection on his part, and, conscious of her own purity, believed that he would ere long see the evidence thereof, and cease to give himself useless trouble. His conduct at Saratoga, followed by the conversations with Mrs. De Lisle and Mrs. Anthony, aroused her to a truer sense of his actual state of mind. His singular, stealthy scanning of her countenance, immediately after their arrival at Newport, following, as she rightly concluded, his unexpected meeting with Hendrickson, considerably disturbed the balance of mind she had sought to gain, and this dimmed her clear perceptions of duty. His direct reference to Mr. Hendrickson, after her hurried meeting with him, filled her with indignation, and simply prepared the way for this last defiant position. She felt deeply outraged, and wholly estranged.

Icy reserve and distant formality now marked the intercourse of Mr. and Mrs. Dexter. It was all in vain that he sought to win back that semblance of affection which he had lost. Mrs. Dexter was too sincere a woman--too earnest and true--for broad disguises. She could be courteous, regardful, attentive to all the needs of her husband; but she could not pretend to love, when daily her heart experienced new occasions of dislike.

On the next morning, Mrs. Dexter, on going into one of the parlors, met Mr. Hendrickson. From his manner, it was evident that he had been waiting there in hopes to gain an interview. Mrs. Dexter felt displeased. She was a lawful wife, and it struck her as an implication on his part of possible dishonor on hers. He came forward to meet her as she entered the room, with a pleased smile on his face, but she gave his warm greeting but a cold return. An instant change in his manner, showed the effect upon his feelings.

"I shall leave to-day," he said.

"So soon? I thought you purposed remaining for several days."

"So I did. But I have a letter this morning from the brother of Miss Arden, of whom I spoke last evening. He leaves her at Albany to-day, and asks me to join her to-morrow. They were on their way to Niagara; but unexpected business--he is a lawyer--requires him to return home; and I am to be the young lady's escort. So they have arranged the matter, and I cannot decline, of course."

"Why should you?" Mrs. Dexter schooled her voice. Its natural expression, at that time, might have betrayed a state of feeling that it would have been treason to exhibit.

"True. Why should I? The lady is charming. I was going to say that she has not her peer."

"Why not say it?" remarked Mrs. Dexter.

"Because," replied Mr. Hendrickson, as his eyes withdrew themselves from the face of Mrs. Dexter, "I do not believe it. She has her peer."

"She must be a lovely woman so to captivate your fancy," said Mrs. Dexter.

"Did I say that she had captivated my fancy?" asked Hendrickson.

"If not in so many formally spoken words, yet in a language that we ladies can read at a glance," replied Mrs. Dexter, affecting a gay smile. "Well," she added, "as you are to be so largely the gainer by this sudden withdrawal from Newport, we quiet people, who cannot but miss your pleasant company, have nothing left but acquiescence. I hope to make Miss Arden's acquaintance on our return to B--."

The voice of Mrs. Dexter had a faint huskiness and there were signs of depression which she was not able to conceal. These the watchful eyes of Mr. Hendrickson detected. But so far from taking any advantage thereof, he made an effort to divert both her mind and his own by the introduction of a more indifferent subject. They conversed for half an hour longer, but no further reference was made to Miss Arden. Then Mr. Hendrickson excused himself. Mrs. Dexter did not see him again.

He left for Boston soon after, on his way to join Miss Arden at Albany.

From the parlor Mrs. Dexter returned to her own rooms, and did not leave them during the day. She had felt feverish on rising, and was conscious of a pressure on the brain, accompanied by a feeling of lassitude that was unusual. This condition of the system increased, as the day wore on. At dinner-time, her husband urged her to go with him to the table; but she had a loathing for food, and declined. He ordered a servant to take tea, with toast and some delicacies, to her room; but when he came up again, he found them untasted.

"Was this a disease of mind or body?" Mr. Dexter asked himself the question, and studied over the solution. Notwithstanding the disturbed interview with his wife on the previous evening, he had kept his eyes on her, and noticed her meeting with Hendrickson in the parlor. Her warning, however, had proved effectual in preventing his intrusion upon them. He saw Hendrickson leave her, and noticed that she sat in deep abstraction for some time afterwards, and that when she arose, and went up to her own apartments, her face wore an expression that was unusual. Much to his surprise, he saw Hendrickson leave soon after for Boston. On examining the register, he learned that his destination was Albany.

A momentary relief was experienced at this departure; but soon mystery was suggested, and a mutual understanding between his wife and Hendrickson imagined. And so fuel was heaped on the fires of jealousy, which blazed up again as fiercely as ever. The seclusion of herself in her own room by Mrs. Dexter, following as it did immediately on the departure of Hendrickson, confirmed him in the impression that she was deeply interested in her old lover. How else could he interpret her conduct? If she were really sick, conflict of feeling, occasioned by his presence, was the cause. That to his mind was clear. And he was not so far wrong; for, in part, here lay the origin of her disturbed condition of mind and body. Still, his conclusions went far beyond the truth.

Mrs. Dexter was lying on the bed when her husband came up from dinner. She did not stir on his entrance. Her face was turned away, and partly hidden by the fringe of a pillow.

"You must eat something," he said, speaking kindly. But she neither moved nor replied.

"Jessie." No motion or response.

"Jessie!" Mr. Dexter stood a few feet from the bed, looking at her.

"She may be sleeping," he thought, and stepping forward, he bent down and laid his fingers lightly on her cheek. It was unnaturally hot. "Jessie"--he uttered her name again--"are you asleep?"

"No." She replied in a feeble murmur.

"Won't you have a cup of tea?"

"No."

"Are you sick?"

She did not answer. He laid his hand upon her cheek again.

"You have fever."

A low sigh was the only response.

"Does your head ache?"

Something was said in reply, but the ear of Mr. Dexter could not make out the words.

"Jessie! Jessie! Why don't you answer me? Are you sick?"

Mr. Dexter spoke with rising impatience. Still and silent as an effigy she remained. For a moment or two he strode about the room, and then went out abruptly. He came back in half an hour.

There lay his wife as he had left her, and without the appearance of having stirred. A shadow of deeper concern now fell upon his spirits. Bending over the bed, and laying his hand upon her face again, he perceived that it was not only flushed, but hotter than before. He spoke, but her ears seemed shut to his voice.

"Jessie! Jessie!" He moved her gently, turning her face towards him. Her eyes were closed, her lips shut firmly, and wearing an expression of pain, her forehead slightly contracted.

"Shall I call a physician?" he asked.

But she did not reply. Sudden alarm awakened in the heart of Mr. Dexter. Going to the bell, he rang it violently. To the servant who came he said, hurriedly--

"Go and find Dr. G--, and tell him that I wish to see him immediately."

The servant departed, and Dexter went back to the bed. No change had occurred in his wife. She still lay, to all appearance, in a stupor. It was nearly a quarter of an hour before Dr. G--came; the waiter had been at some trouble to find him.

"My wife seems quite ill," said Mr. Dexter, as he entered, "and, I think requires medical attention."

Dr. G--went to the bedside and stood looking at the flushed face of Mrs. Dexter for some moments. Then he laid his hand against her cheek, and then took hold of her wrist. Mr. Dexter, whose eyes were on him, thought he saw him start and change countenance at the first stroke of the pulse that played against his fingers.

"How long has she been in this condition?" asked the doctor, turning with a serious aspect to Mr. Dexter.

"She has not seemed well since morning" was replied. "I noticed that she scarcely tasted food at breakfast, and she has kept her room for most of the day, lying down for a greater part of the time. I left her on the bed when I went to dinner. She did not complain of indisposition, but seemed listless and out of spirits. I ordered tea sent up, but, as you perceive, it has not been tasted. On my return, I found her in the condition in which she now lies--(sic)appparently in a heavy sleep."

The physician did not seem to get any light from this statement. He turned his eyes again upon the face of Mr. Dexter, and stood in thought for almost a minute. Then he examined her pulse again. It had a strong, rapid, wiry beat. Stooping, he looked very closely at the condition of her skin; then shook his head, and said something in an under tone.

"Do you think her seriously ill?" inquired Mr. Dexter.

"Has there been any unusual exposure; or any strong mental disturbance?" asked the doctor, not seeming to have heard the question.

"There has been mental disturbance," said Mr. Dexter.

"Of a violent character?"

"She was strongly agitated last night, at something that happened."

"Was it of a nature to leave a permanent impression on her feelings?"

"Yes." The answers were made with evident reluctance.

"Her condition is an unusual one," said the doctor, musing; and he resumed his examination of the case.

"Dr. R--, from Boston, arrived to-day;" he looked up, and presented a very grave face to the now seriously alarmed husband. "I think he had better be consulted."

"Oh, by all means," said Mr. Dexter. "Shall I go in search of him?"

"Do you know (sic) kim?"

"I do not."

"I will go then. It may save time, and that is important."

The doctor went out hurriedly, and in less than five minutes returned with Doctor R--. The two physicians conferred for some time, speaking in under tones. Mr. Dexter heard the words "congestion of the brain" and "brain fever," with increasing alarm.

"Well, doctors, how do you decide the case?" he inquired anxiously, as their conference terminated.

"There is a strong tendency to congestion of the brain," was replied by Doctor G--, "but, it is our opinion that we can check this tendency. Your wife, Mr. Dexter, is seriously ill. An experienced nurse must be had without delay. And every possible attention given, so as to second at all points the treatment under which she will be placed. A favorable result will doubtless crown our efforts. I present the case as a serious one, because it is so in its requirement of skill and unfailing attention."

The doctors did not err in their estimate of the case. The illness of Mrs. Dexter proved to be very serious. It was a brain fever. Four weeks elapsed before she was able to be removed from Newport to her home, and then she was so feeble in body and mind as to present but the shadowy semblance of her former self.

Very slowly did health flow back through her exhausted system. But a cheerful mind did not come with returning vigor. Her, spirit had bowed itself towards the earth; and power to rise again into the bracing atmosphere and warm sunshine, was not restored for a long period.


T.S. Arthur

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