"They might have an indirect connection with the party," returned Doctor Kline, "but can hardly be called legitimate consequences."
"They are legitimate consequences of the free wine and brandy dispensed at Mr. Birtwell's," said Doctor Hillhouse. "Tempted by its sparkle and flavor, Archie Voss, as pure and promising a young man as you will find in the city, was lured on until he had taken more than his brain would bear. In this state he went out at midnight alone in a blinding storm and lost his way—how or where is not yet known. He may have been set upon and robbed and murdered in his helpless condition, or he may have fallen into a pit where he lies buried beneath the snow, or he may have wandered in his blind bewilderment to the river and gone down under its chilling waters.
"Mr. Ridley, with his old appetite not dead, but only half asleep and lying in wait for an opportunity, goes also to Mr. Birtwell's, and the sparkle and flavor of wine and the invitations that are pressed upon him from all sides prove too much for his good resolutions. He tastes and falls. He goes in his right mind, and comes away so much intoxicated that he cannot find his way home. How he reached there at last I do not know—he must have been in some station-house until daylight; but when I saw him, his pitiable suffering and alarmed face made my heart ache. He had killed his wife! He, or the wine he found at Mr. Birtwell's? Which?"
Doctor Hillhouse was nervous and excited, using stronger language than was his wont.
"And I," he added, before Doctor Kline could respond—"I went to the party also, and the sparkle and flavor of wine and spirit of conviviality that pervaded the company lured me also—not weak like Archie, nor with a shattered self-control like Mr. Ridley—to drink far beyond the bounds of prudence, as my nervous condition to-day too surely indicates. A kind of fatality seems to have attended this party."
The doctor gave a little shiver, which was observed by Doctor Kline.
"Not a nervous chill?" said the latter, manifesting concern.
"No; a moral chill, if I may use such a term," replied Doctor Hillhouse—"a shudder at the thought of what might have been as one of the consequences of Mr. Birtwell's liberal dispensation of wine."
"The strain of the morning's work has been too much for you, doctor, and given your mind an unhealthy activity," said his companion. "You want rest and time for recuperation."
"It would have been nothing except for the baleful effects of that party," answered the doctor, whose thought could not dissever itself from the unhappy consequences which had followed the carousal (is the word too strong?) at Mr. Birtwell's. "If I had not been betrayed into drinking wine enough to disturb seriously my nervous system and leave it weak and uncertain to-day, if Mr. Ridley had not been tempted to his fall, if poor Archie Voss had been at home last night instead of in the private drinking-saloon of one of our most respected citizens, do you think that hand," holding up his right hand as he spoke, "would have lost for a moment its cunning to-day and put in jeopardy a precious life?"
The doctor rose from his chair in much excitement and walked nervously about the room.
"It did not lose its cunning," said Doctor Kline, in a calm but emphatic voice. "I watched you from the moment of the first incision until the last artery was tied, and a truer hand I never saw."
"Thank God that the stimulus which I had to substitute for nervous power held out as long as it did. If it had failed a few moments sooner, I might have—"
Doctor Hillhouse checked himself and gave another little shudder.
"Do you know, doctor," he said, after a pause speaking in a low, half-confidential tone and with great seriousness of manner, "when I severed that small artery as I was cutting close to the internal jugular vein and the jet of blood hid both the knife-points and the surrounding tissues, that for an instant I was in mental darkness and that I did not know whether I should cut to the right or to the left? If in that moment of darkness I had cut to the right, my instrument would have penetrated the jugular vein."
It was several moments before either of the surgeons spoke again. There was a look something like fear in both their faces.
"It is the last time," said Doctor Hillhouse, breaking at length the silence and speaking with unwonted emphasis, "that a drop of wine or brandy shall pass my lips within forty-eight hours of any operation."
"I am not so sure that you will help as much as hurt by this abstinence," replied Doctor Kline. "If you are in the habit of using wine daily, I should say keep to your regular quantity. Any change will be a disturbance and break the fine nervous tension that is required. It is easy to account for your condition to-day. If you had taken only your one or two or three glasses yesterday as the case may be, and kept away from the excitement and—pardon me excesses of last night—anything beyond the ordinary rule in these things is an excess, you know—there would have been no failure of the nerves at a critical juncture."
"Is not the mind clearer and the nerves steadier when sustained by healthy nutrition than when toned up by stimulants?" asked Doctor Hillhouse.
"If stimulants have never been taken, yes. But you know that we all use stimulants in one form or another, and to suddenly remove them is to leave the nerves partially unstrung."
"Which brings us face to face with the question whether or not alcoholic stimulants are hurtful to the delicate and wonderfully complicated machinery of the human body. I say alcoholic, for we know that all the stimulation we get from wine or beer comes from the presence of alcohol."
While Doctor Hillhouse was speaking, the office bell rang violently. As soon as the door was opened a man came in hurriedly and handed him, a slip of paper on which were written these few words:
"An artery has commenced bleeding. Come quickly! ANGIER"
Doctor Hillhouse started to his feet and gave a quick order for his carriage. As it drove up to the office-door soon after, he sprang in, accompanied by Doctor Kline. He had left his case of instruments at the house with Doctor Angier.
Not a word was spoken by either of the two men as they were whirled along over the snow, the wheels of the carriage giving back only a sharp crisping sound, but their faces were very sober.
Mr. Carlton met them, looking greatly alarmed.
"Oh, doctor," he exclaimed as he caught the hand of Doctor Hillhouse, almost crushing it in his grasp, "I am so glad you are here. I was afraid she might bleed to death."
"No danger of that," replied Doctor Hillhouse, trying to look assured and to speak with confidence. "It is only the giving way of some small artery which will have to be tied again."
On reaching his patient, Doctor Hillhouse found that one of the small arteries he had been compelled to sever in his work of cutting the tumor away from the surrounding parts was bleeding freely. Half a dozen handkerchiefs and napkins had already been saturated with blood; and as it still came freely, nothing was left but to reopen the wound and religate the artery.
Ether was promptly given, and as soon as the patient was fairly under its influence the bandages were removed and the sutures by which the wound had been drawn together cut. The cavity left by the tumor was, of course, full of blood. This was taken out with sponges, when at the lower part of the orifice a thin jet of blood was visible. The surrounding parts had swollen, thus embedding the mouth of the artery so deeply that it could not be recovered without again using the knife. What followed will be best understood if given in the doctor's own words in a relation of the circumstances made by him a few years afterward.
"As you will see," he said, "I was in the worst possible condition for an emergency like this. I had used no stimulus since returning from Mr. Carlton's though just going to order wine when the summons from Doctor Angier came. If I had taken a glass or two, it would have been better, but the imperative nature of the summons disconcerted me. I was just in the condition to be disturbed and confused. I remembered when too late the grave omission, and had partly resolved to ask Mr. Carlton for a glass of wine before proceeding to reopen the wound and search for the bleeding artery. But a too vivid recollection of my recent conversation with him about Doctor Kline prevented my doing so.
"I felt my hand tremble as I removed the bandages and opened the deep cavity left by the displaced tumor. After the blood with which it was filled had been removed, I saw at the deepest part of the cavity the point from which the blood was flowing, and made an effort to recover the artery, which, owing to the uncertainty of hand which had followed the loss of stimulation, I had tied imperfectly. But it was soon apparent that the parts had swollen, and that I should have to cut deeper in order to get possession of the artery, which lay in close contact with the internal jugular vein. Doctor Kline was holding the head and shoulders of the patient in such a way as to give tension to all the vessels of the neck, while my assistant held open the lips of the wound, so that I could see well into the cavity.
"My hand did not recover its steadiness. As I began cutting down to find the artery I seemed suddenly to be smitten with blindness and to lose a clear perception of what I was doing. It seemed as if some malignant spirit had for the moment got possession of me, coming in through the disorder wrought in my nervous system by over stimulation, and used the hand I could no longer see to guide the instrument I was holding, for death instead of life. I remember now that a sudden impulse seemed given to my arm as if some one had struck it a blow. Then a sound which it had never before been my misfortune to hear—and I pray God I may never hear it again—startled me to an agonized sense of the disaster I had wrought. Too well I knew the meaning of the lapping, hissing, sucking noise that instantly smote our ears. I had made a deep cut across the jugular vein, the wound gaping widely in consequence of the tension given to the vein by the position of the patient's head. A large quantity of air rushed in instantly.
"An exclamation of alarm from Doctor Kline, as he changed the position of the patient's neck in order to force the lips of the wound together and stop the fatal influx of air, roused me from a momentary stupor, and I came back into complete self-possession. The fearful exigency of the moment gave to nerve and brain all the stimulus they required. Already there was a struggle for breath, and the face of Mrs. Carlton, which had been slightly suffused with color, became pale and distressed. Sufficient air had entered to change the condition of the blood in the right cavities of the heart, and prevent its free transmission to the lungs. We could hear a churning sound occasioned by the blood and air being whipped together in the heart, and on applying the hand to the chest could feel a strange thrilling or rasping sensation.
"The most eminent surgeons differ in regard to the best treatment in cases like this, which are of very rare occurrence; to save life the promptest action is required. So large an opening as I had unhappily made in this vein could not be quickly closed, and with each inspiration of the patient more, air was sucked in, so that the blood in the right cavities of the heart soon became beaten into a spumous froth that could not be forced except in small quantities through the pulmonary vessels into the lungs.
"The effect of a diminished supply of blood to the brain and nervous centres quickly became apparent in threatened syncope. Our only hope lay in closing the wound so completely that no more air could enter, and then removing from the heart and capillaries of the lungs the air already received, and now hindering the flow of blood to the brain. One mode of treatment recommended by French surgeons consists in introducing the pipe of a catheter through the wound, if in the right jugular vein—or if not, through an opening made for the purpose in that vein—and the withdrawal of the air from the right auricle of the heart by suction.
"Doctor Kline favored this treatment, but I knew that it would be fatal. Any reopening of the wound now partially closed in order to introduce a tube, even if my instrument case had contained one of suitable size and length, must necessarily have admitted a large additional quantity of air, and so made death certain.
"Indecision in a case like this is fatal. Nothing but the right thing done with an instant promptness can save the imperiled life. But what was the right thing? No more air must be permitted to enter, and the blood must be unloaded as quickly as possible of the air now obstructing its way to the lungs, so, that the brain might get a fresh supply before it was too late. We succeeded in the first, but not in the last. Too much air had entered, and my patient was beyond the reach of professional aid. She sank rapidly, and in less than an hour from the time my hand, robbed of its skill by wine, failed in its wonted cunning, she lay white and still before me."
IT was late in the afternoon when Mrs. Voss came out of the deep sleep into which the quieting draught administered by Doctor Hillhouse had thrown her. She awoke from a dream so vivid that she believed it real.
"Oh, Archie, my precious boy!" she exclaimed, starting up and reaching out her hands, a glad light beaming on her countenance.
While her hands were still outstretched the light began to fade, and then died out as suddenly as when a curtain falls. The boy who stood before her in such clear presence had vanished. Her eyes swept about the room, but he was not there. A deadly pallor on her face, a groan on her lips, she fell back shuddering upon the pillow from which she had risen.
Mr. Voss, who was sitting at the bedside, put his arm under her, and lifting her head, drew it against his breast, holding it there tightly, but not speaking. He had no comfort to give, no assuring word to offer. Not a ray of light had yet come in through the veil of mystery that hung so darkly over the fate of their absent boy. Many minutes passed ere the silence was broken. In that time the mother's heart had grown calmer. She was turning, in her weakness and despair, with religious trust, to the only One who was able to sustain her in this great and crushing sorrow.
"He is in God's hands," she said, in a low voice, lifting her head from her husband's breast and looking into his face.
"And he will take care of him," replied Mr. Voss, falling in with her thought.
"Yes, we must trust him. He is present in every place. He knows where Archie is, and how to shield and succor him. O heavenly Father, protect our boy! If in danger, help and save him. And, O Father, give me strength to bear whatever may come."
The mother closed her eyes and laid her head back upon her husband's bosom. The rigidity and distress went out of her face. In this hour of darkness and distress, God, to whom she looked and prayed for strength, came very close to her, and in his nearer presence there is always comfort.
But as the day declined and the shadows off another dreary winter night began to draw their solemn curtains across the sky the mother's heart failed again, and a wild storm of fear and anguish swept over it. Neither policemen nor friends had been able to discover a trace of the missing young man, and advertisements were given out for the papers next morning offering a large reward for his restoration to his friends if living or for the recovery of his body if dead.
The true cause of Archie's disappearance began to be feared by many of his friends. It did not seem possible that he could have dropped so completely out of sight unless on the theory that he had lost his way in the storm and fallen into the river. This suggestion as soon as it came to Mrs. Voss settled into a conviction. Her imagination brooded over the idea and brought the reality before her mind with such a cruel vividness that she almost saw the tragedy enacted, and heard again that cry of "Mother!" which had seemed to mingle with the wild shrieks of the tempest, but which came only to her inner sense.
She dreamed that night a dream which, though it confirmed all this, tranquilized and comforted her. In a vision her boy stood by her bedside and smiled upon her with his old loving smile. He bent over and kissed her with his wonted tenderness; he laid his hand on her forehead with a soft pressure, and she felt the touch thrilling to her heart in sweet and tender impulses.
"It is all well with me," he said; "I shall wait for you, mother."
And then he bent over and kissed her again, the pressure of his lips bringing an unspeakable joy to her heart. With this joy filling and pervading it, she awoke. From that hour Mrs. Voss never doubted for a single moment that her son was dead, nor that he had come to her in a vision of the night. As a Christian woman with whom faith was no mere ideal thing or vague uncertainty, she accepted her great affliction as within the sphere and permission of a good and wise Providence, and submitted herself to the sad dispensation with a patience that surprised her friends.
Months passed, and yet the mystery was unsolved. The large reward offered by Mr. Voss for the recovery of his son's remains kept hundreds of fishermen and others who frequented the river banks and shores of the bay leading down to the ocean on the alert. As the spring opened and the ice began to give way and float, these men examined every inlet, cove and bar where the tide in its ebb and flow might possibly have left the body for which they were in search; and one day, late in the month of March, they found it, three miles away from the city, where it had drifted by the current.
The long-accepted theory of the young man's death was proved by this recovery of his body. No violence was found upon it. The diamond pin had not been taken from his shirt-bosom, nor the gold watch from his pocket. On the dial of his watch the hands, stopping their movement as the chill of the icy water struck the delicate machinery, had recorded the hour of his death—ten minutes to one o'clock.
It was not possible, under the strain of such an affliction and the wear of a suspense that no human heart was able to endure without waste of life, for one in feeble health like Mrs. Voss to hold her own. Friends read in her patient face and quiet mouth, and eyes that had a far-away look, the signs of a coming change that could not be very far off.
After the sad certainty came and the looking and longing and waiting were over, after the solemn services of the church had been said and the cast-off earthly garments of her precious boy hidden away from sight for ever, the mother's hold upon life grew feebler every day. She was slowly drifting out from the shores of time, and no hand was strong enough to hold her back. A sweet patience smoothed away the lines of suffering which months of sorrow and uncertainty had cut in her brow, the grieving curves of her pale lips were softened by tender submission, the far-off look was still in her eyes, but it was no longer fixed and dreary. Her thought went away from herself to others. The heavenly sphere into which she had come through submission to her Father's will and a humble looking to God for help and comfort began to pervade her soul and fill it with that divine self-forgetting which all who come spiritually near to him must feel.
She could not go out and do strong and widely-felt work for humanity, could not lift up the fallen, nor help the weak, nor visit the sick, nor comfort the prisoner, though often her heart yearned to help and strengthen the suffering and the distressed. But few if any could come into the chamber where most of her days were spent without feeling the sphere of her higher and purer life, and many, influenced thereby, went out to do the good works to which she so longed to put her hands. So from the narrow bounds of her chamber went daily a power for good, and many who knew her not were helped or comforted or lifted into purer and better lives because of her patient submission to God and reception of his love into her soul.
It is not surprising that one thought took a deep hold upon her. The real cause of Archie's death was the wine he had taken in the house of her friend. But for that he could never have lost his way in the streets of his native city, never have stepped from solid ground into the engulfing water.
The lesson of this disaster was clear, and as Mrs. Voss brooded over it, the folly, the wrong—nay, the crime—of those who pour out wine like water for their guests in social entertainments magnified themselves in her thought, and thought found utterance in speech. Few came into her chamber upon whom she did not press a consideration of this great evil, the magnitude of which became greater as her mind dwelt upon it, and very few of these went away without being disturbed by questions not easily answered.
One day one of her attentive friends who had called on her said:
"I heard a sorrowful story yesterday, and can't get it out of my mind."
Before Mrs. Voss could reply a servant came in with a card.
"Oh, Mrs. Birtwell. Ask her to come up."
The visitor saw a slight shadow creep over her face, and knew its meaning. How could she ever hear the name or look into the face of Mrs. Birtwell without thinking of that dreadful night when her boy passed, almost at a single step, from the light and warmth of her beautiful home into the dark and frozen river? It had cost her a hard and painful struggle to so put down and hold in check her feelings as to be able to meet this friend, who had always been very near and dear to her. For a time, and while her distress of mind was so great as almost to endanger reason, she had refused to see Mrs. Birtwell; but as that lady never failed to call at least once a week to ask after her, always sending up her card and waiting for a reply, Mrs. Voss at last yielded, and the friends met again. Mrs. Birtwell would have thrown her arms about her and clasped her in a passion of tears to her heart, but something stronger than a visible barrier held her off, and she felt that she could never get as near to this beloved friend as of old. The interview was tender though reserved, neither making any reference to the sad event that was never a moment absent from their thoughts.
After this Mrs. Birtwell came often, and a measure of the old feeling returned to Mrs. Voss. Still, the card of Mrs. Birtwell whenever it was placed in her hand by a servant never failed to bring a shadow and sometimes a chill to her heart.
In a few moments Mrs. Birtwell entered the room; and after the usual greetings and some passing remarks, Mrs. Voss said, speaking to the lady with whom she had been conversing:
"What were you going to say—about some sorrowful story, I mean?"
The pleasant light which had come into the lady's face on meeting Mrs. Birtwell, faded out. She did not answer immediately, and showed some signs of embarrassment. But Mrs. Voss, not particularly noticing this, pressed her for the story. After a slight pause she said:
"In visiting a friend yesterday I observed a young girl whom I had never seen at the house before. She was about fifteen or sixteen years of age, and had a face of great refinement and much beauty. But I noticed that it had a sad, shy expression. My friend did not introduce her, but said, turning to the girl a few moments after I came in:
"'Go up to the nursery, Ethel, and wait until I am disengaged!'
"As the girl left the room I asked, 'Who is that young lady?' remarking at the same time that there was something peculiarly interesting about her.
"'It's a sad case, remarked my friend, her voice falling to a tone of regret and sympathy. 'And I wish I knew just what to do about it.'
"'Who is the young girl?' I asked repeating my question.
"'The daughter of a Mr. Ridley,' she replied."
Mrs. Birtwell gave a little start, while an expression of pain crossed her face. The lady did not look at her, but she felt the change her mention of Mr. Ridley had produced.
"'What of him?' I asked; not having heard the name before.
"'Oh, I thought you knew about him. He's a lawyer, formerly a member of Congress, and a man of brilliant talents. He distinguished himself at Washington, and for a time attracted much attention there for his ability as well as for his fine personal qualities. But unhappily he became intemperate, and at the end of his second term had fallen so low that his party abandoned him and sent another in his place. After that he reformed and came to this city, bringing his family with him. He had two children, a boy and a girl. His wife was a cultivated and very superior woman. Here he commenced the practice of law, and soon by his talents and devotion to business acquired a good practice and regained the social position he had lost.
"'Unhappily, his return to society was his return to the sphere of danger. If invited to dine with a respectable citizen, he had to encounter temptation in one of its most enticing forms. Good wine was poured for him, and both appetite and pride urged him to accept the fatal proffer. If he went to a public or private entertainment, the same perils compassed him about. From all these he is said to have held himself aloof for over a year, but his reputation at the bar and connection with important cases brought him more and more into notice, and he was finally drawn within the circle of danger. Mrs. Ridley's personal accomplishments and relationship with one or two families in the State of high social position brought her calls and invitations, and almost forced her back again into society, much as she would have preferred to remain secluded.
"'Mr. Ridley, it is said, felt his danger, and I am told never escorted any lady but his wife to the supper-room at a ball or party, and there you would always see them close together, he not touching wine. But it happened last winter that invitations came, for one of the largest parties of the season, and it happened also that only a few nights before the party a little daughter had been born to Mrs. Ridley. Mr. Ridley went alone. It was a cold and stormy night. The wind blew fiercely, wailing about the roofs and chimneys and dashing the fast-falling snow in its wild passion against the windows of the room in which his sick wife lay. Rest of body and mind was impossible, freedom from anxiety impossible. There was everything to fear, everything to lose. The peril of a soldier going into the hottest of the battle was not greater than the peril that her husband would encounter on that night; and if he fell! The thought chilled her blood, as well it might, and sent a shiver to her heart.
"'She was in no condition to bear any shock or strain, much less the shock and strain of a fear like this. As best she could she held her restless anxiety in check, though fever had crept into her blood and an enemy to her life was assaulting its very citadel. But as the hour at which her husband had promised to return passed by and he came not, anxiety gave place to terror. The fever in her blood increased, and sent delirium to her brain. Hours passed, but her husband did not return. Not until the cold dawn of the next sorrowful morning did he make his appearance, and then in such a wretched plight that it was well for his unhappy wife that she could not recognize his condition. He came too late—came from one of the police stations, it is said, having been found in the street too much intoxicated to find his way home, and in danger of perishing in the snow—came to find his wife, dying, and before the sun went down on that day of darkness she was cold and still as marble. Happily for the babe, it went the way its mother had taken, following a few days afterward.
"'That was months ago. Alas for the wretched man! He has never risen from that terrible fall, never even made an effort, it is said, to struggle to his feet again. He gave up in despair.
"'His eldest child, Ethel, the young lady you saw just now, was away from home at school when her mother died. Think of what a coming back was hers! My heart grows sick in trying to imagine it. Poor child! she has my deepest sympathy.
"'Ethel did not return to school. She was needed at home now. The death of her mother and the unhappy fall of her father brought her face to face with new duties and untried conditions. She had a little brother only six years old to whom she must be a mother as well as sister. Responsibilities from which women of matured years and long experience might well shrink were now at the feet of this tender girl, and there was no escape for her. She must stoop, and with fragile form and hands scarce stronger than a child's lift and bear them up from the ground. Love gave her strength and courage. The woman hidden in the child came forth, and with a self-denial and self-devotion that touches me to tears when I think of it took up the new life and new burdens, and has borne them ever since with a patience that is truly heroic.
"'But new duties are now laid upon her. Since her father's fall his practice has been neglected, and few indeed have been willing to entrust him with business. The little he had accumulated is all gone. One article of furniture after another has been sold to buy food and clothing, until scarcely anything is left. And now they occupy three small rooms in an out-of-the-way neighborhood, and Ethel, poor child! is brought face to face with the question of bread.'"
THE voice of the speaker broke as she uttered the last sentence. A deep silence fell upon the little company. Mrs. Birtwell had turned her face, so that it could not be seen, and tears that she was unable to keep back were falling over it. She was first to speak.
"What," she asked, "was this young lady doing at the house of your friend?"
"She had applied for the situation of day-governess. My friend advertised, and Ethel Ridley, not knowing that the lady had any knowledge of her or her family came and offered herself for the place. Not being able to decide what was best to be done, she requested Ethel to call again on the next day, and I came in while she was there."
"Did your friend engage her?" asked Mrs. Birtwell.
"She had not done so when I saw her yesterday. The question of fitness for the position was one that she had not been able to determine. Ethel is young and inexperienced. But she will do all for her that lies in her power."
"What is your friend's name?" asked Mrs. Birtwell.
"The lady I refer to is Mrs. Sandford. You know her, I believe?"
"Mrs. Sandford? Yes; I know her very well."
By a mutual and tacit consent the subject was here dropped, and soon after Mrs. Birtwell retired. On gaining the street she stood with an air of indetermination for a little while, and then walked slowly away. Once or twice before reaching the end of the block she paused and went back a few steps, turned and moved on again, but still in an undecided manner. At the corner she stopped for several moments, then, as if her mind was made up, walked forward rapidly. By the firm set of her mouth and the contraction of her brows it was evident that some strong purpose was taking shape in her thoughts.
As she was passing a handsome residence before which a carriage was standing a lady came out. She had been making a call. On seeing her Mrs. Birtwell stopped, and reaching out her hand, said:
"Mrs. Sandford! Oh, I'm glad to see you. I was just going to your house."
The lady took her hand, and grasping it warmly, responded:
"And I'm right glad to see you, Mrs. Birtwell. I've been thinking about you all day. Step into the carriage. I shall drive directly home."
Mrs. Birtwell accepted the invitation. As the carriage moved away she said:
"I heard something to-day that troubles me. I am told that Mr. Ridley, since the death of his wife, has become very intemperate, and that his family are destitute—so much so, indeed, that his daughter has applied to you for the situation of day-governess in order to earn something for their support."
"It is too true," replied Mrs. Sandford. "The poor child came to see me in answer to an advertisement."
"Have you engaged her?"
"No. She is too young and inexperienced for the place. But something must be done for her."
"What? Have you thought out anything? You may count on my sympathy and co-operation."
"The first thing to be done," replied Mrs. Sandford, "is to lift her out of her present wretched condition. She must not be left where she is, burdened with the support of her drunken and debased father. She is too weak for that—too young and beautiful and innocent to be left amid the temptations and sorrows of a life such as she must lead if no one comes to her rescue."
"But what will become of her father if you remove his child from him?" asked Mrs. Birtwell.
Her voice betrayed concern. The carriage stopped at the residence of Mrs. Sandford, and the two ladies went in.
"What will become of her wretched father?"
Mrs. Birtwell repeated her question as they entered the parlors.
"He is beyond our reach," was answered. "When a man falls so low, the case is hopeless. He is the slave of an appetite that never gives up its victims. It is a sad and a sorrowful thing, I know, to abandon all efforts to save a human soul, to see it go drafting off into the rapids with the sound of the cataract in your ears, and it is still more sad and sorrowful to be obliged to hold back the loving ones who could only perish in their vain attempts at rescue. So I view the case. Ethel must not be permitted to sacrifice herself for her father."
Mrs. Birtwell sat for a long time without replying. Her eyes were bent upon the floor.
"Hopeless!" she murmured, at length, in a low voice that betrayed the pain she felt. "Surely that cannot be so. While there is life there must be hope. God is not dead."
She uttered the last sentence with a strong rising inflection in her tones.
"But the drunkard seems dead to all the saving influences that God or man can bring to bear upon him," replied Mrs. Sandford.
"No, no, no! I will not believe it," said Mrs. Birtwell, speaking now with great decision of manner. "God can and does save to the uttermost all who come unto him."
"Yes, all who come unto him. But men like Mr. Ridley seem to have lost the power of going to God."
"Then is it not our duty to help them to go? A man with a broken leg cannot walk to the home where love and care await him, but his Good Samaritan neighbor who finds him by the way can help him thither. The traveler benumbed with cold lies helpless in the road, and will perish if some merciful hand does not lift him up and bear him to a place of safety. Even so these unhappy men who, as you say, seem to have lost the power of returning to God, can be lifted up, I am sure, and set down, as it were, in his very presence, there to feel his saving, comforting and renewing power."
"Perhaps so. Nothing is impossible," said Mrs. Sandford, with but little assent in her voice. "But who is to lift them up and where will you take them? Let us instance Mr. Ridley for the sake of illustration. What will you do with him? How will you go about the work of rescue? Tell me."
Mrs. Birtwell had nothing to propose. She only felt an intense yearning to save this man, and in her yearning an undefined confidence had been born. There must be away to save even the most wretched and abandoned of human beings, if we could but find that way, and so she would not give up her hope of Mr. Ridley—nay, her hope grew stronger every moment; and to all the suggestions of Mrs. Sanford looking to help for the daughter she supplemented something that included the father, and so pressed her views that the other became half impatient and exclaimed:
"I will have nothing to do with the miserable wretch!"
Mrs. Birtwell went away with a heavy heart after leaving a small sum of money for Mrs. Sandford to use as her judgment might dictate, saying that she would call and see her again in a few days.
The Rev. Mr. Brantly Elliott was sitting in his pleasant study, engaged in writing, when a servant opened the door and said:
"A gentleman wishes to see you, sir."
"What name?" asked the clergyman.
"He did not give me his name. I asked him, but he said it wasn't any matter. I think he's been drinking, sir."
"Ask him to send his name," said Mr. Elliott, a slight shade of displeasure settling over his pleasant face.
The servant came back with information that the visitor's name was Ridley. At mention of this name the expression on Mr. Elliott's countenance changed:
"Did you say he was in liquor?"
"Yes, sir. Shall I tell him that you cannot see him, sir?"
"No. Is he very much the worse for drink?"
"He's pretty bad, I should say, sir."
Mr. Elliott reflected for a little while, and then said:
"I will see him."
The servant retired. In a few minutes he came back, and opening the door, let the visitor pass in. He stood for a few moments, with his hand on the door, as if unwilling to leave Mr. Elliott alone with the miserable-looking creature he had brought to the study. Observing him hesitate, Mr. Elliott said:
"That will do, Richard."
The servant shut the door, and he was alone with Mr. Ridley. Of the man's sad story he was not altogether ignorant. His fall from the high position to which he had risen in two years and utter abandonment of himself to drink were matters of too much notoriety to have escaped his knowledge. But that he was in the slightest degree responsible for this wreck of a human soul was so far from his imagination as that of his responsibility for the last notorious murder or bank-robbery.
The man who now stood before him was a pitiable-looking object indeed. Not that he was ragged or filthy in attire or person. Though all his garments were poor and threadbare, they were not soiled nor in disorder. Either a natural instinct of personal cleanliness yet remained or a loving hand had cared for him. But he was pitiable in the signs of a wrecked and fallen manhood that were visible everywhere about him. You saw it most in his face, once so full of strength and intelligence, now so weak and dull and disfigured. The mouth so mobile and strong only a few short months before was now drooping and weak, its fine chiseling all obliterated or overlaid with fever crusts. His eyes, once steady and clear as eagles', were now bloodshotten and restless.
He stood looking fixedly at Mr. Elliott, and with a gleam in his eyes that gave the latter a strange feeling of discomfort, if not uneasiness.
"Mr. Ridley," said the clergyman, advancing to his visitor and extending his hand. He spoke kindly, yet with a reserve that could not be laid aside. "What can I do for you?"
A chair was offered, and Mr. Ridley sat down. He had come with a purpose; that was plain from his manner.
"I am sorry to see you in this condition, Mr. Ridley," said the clergyman, who felt it to be his duty to speak a word of reproof.
"In what condition, sir?" demanded the visitor, drawing himself up with an air of offended dignity. "I don't understand you."
"You have been drinking," said Mr. Elliott, in a tone of severity.
"No, sir. I deny it, sir!" and the eyes of Mr. Ridley flashed. "Before Heaven, sir, not a drop has passed my lips to-day!"
His breath, loaded with the fumes of a recent glass of whisky, was filling the clergyman's nostrils. Mr. Elliott was confounded by this denial. What was to be done with such a man?
"Not a drop, sir," repeated Mr. Ridley. "The vile stuff is killing me. I must give it up."
"It is your only hope," said the clergyman. "You must give up the vile stuff, as you call it, or it will indeed kill you."
"That's just why I've come to you, Mr. Elliott. You understand this matter better than most people. I've heard you talk."
"Heard me talk?"
"Yes, sir. It's pure wine that the people want. My sentiments exactly. If we had pure wine, we'd have no drunkenness. You know that as well as I do. I've heard you talk, Mr. Elliott, and you talk right—yes, right, sir."
"When did you hear me talk?" asked Mr. Elliott, who was beginning to feel worried.
"Oh, at a party last winter. I was there and heard you."
"What did I say?"
"Just these words, and they took right hold of me. You said that 'pure wine could hurt no one, unless indeed his appetite were vitiated by the use of alcohol, and even then you believed that the moderate use of strictly pure wine would restore the normal taste and free a man from the tyranny of an enslaving vice.' That set me to thinking. It sounded just right. And then you were a clergyman, you see, and had studied out these things and so your opinion was worth something. There's no reason in your cold-water men; they don't believe in anything but their patent cut-off. In their eyes wine is an abomination, the mother of all evil, though the Bible doesn't say so, Mr. Elliott, does it?"
At this reference to the Bible in connection with wine, the clergyman's memory supplied a few passages that were not at the moment pleasant to recall. Such as, "Wine is a mocker;" "Look not upon the wine when it is red;" "Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? ... They that tarry long at the wine;" "At last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder."
"The Bible speaks often of the misuse of wine," he answered, "and strongly condemns drunkenness."
"Of course it does, and gluttony as well. But against the moderate use of good wine not a word is said. Isn't that so, sir?"
"Six months ago you were a sober man, Mr. Ridley, and a useful and eminent citizen. Why did you not remain so?"
Mr. Elliott almost held his breath for the answer. He had waived the discussion into which his visitor was drifting, and put his question almost desperately.
"Because your remedy failed." Mr. Ridley spoke in a repressed voice, but with a deliberate utterance. There was a glitter in his eyes, out of which looked an evil triumph.
"My remedy? What remedy?"
"The good wine remedy. I tried it at Mr. Birtwell's one night last winter. But it didn't work. And here I am!"
Mr. Elliott made no reply. A blow from the arm of a strong man could not have hurt or stunned him more.
"You needn't feel so dreadfully about it," said Mr. Ridley seeing the effect produced on the clergy man. "It wasn't any fault of yours. The prescription was all right, but, you see, the wine wasn't good. If it had been pure, the kind you drink, all would have been well. I should have gained strength instead of having the props knocked from under me."
But Mr. Elliott did not answer. The magnitude of the evil wrought through his unguarded speech appalled him. He had learned, in his profession, to estimate the value of a human soul, or rather to consider it as of priceless value. And here was a human soul cast by his hand into a river whose swift waters were hurrying it on to destruction. The sudden anguish that he felt sent beads of sweat to his forehead and drew his flexible lips into rigid lines.
"Now, don't be troubled about it," urged Mr. Ridley. "You were all right. It was Mr. Birtwell's bad wine that did the mischief."
Then his manner changed, and his voice falling to a tone of solicitation, he said:
"And now, Mr. Elliott, you know good wine—you don't have anything else. I believe in your theory as much as I believe in my existence. It stands to reason. I'm all broken up and run down. Not much left of me, you see. Bad liquor is killing me, and I can't stop. If I do, I shall die.' God help me!"
His voice shook now, and the muscles of his face quivered.
"Some good wine—some pure wine, Mr. Elliott!" he went on, his voice rising and his manner becoming more excited. "It's all over with me unless I can get pure wine. Save me, Mr. Elliott, save me, for God's sake!"
The miserable man held out his hands imploringly. There was wild look in his face. He was trembling from head to foot.
"One glass of pure wine, Mr. Elliott—just one glass." Thus he kept on pleading for the stimulant his insatiable appetite was craving. "I'm a drowning man. The floods are about me. I am sinking in dark waters. And you can save me if you will!"
Seeing denial still on the clergyman's face, Mr. Ridley's manner changed, becoming angry and violent.
"You will not?" he cried, starting from the chair in which he had been sitting and advancing toward Mr. Elliott.
"I cannot. I dare not. You have been drinking too much already," replied the clergyman, stepping back as Mr. Ridley came forward until he reached the bell-rope, which he jerked violently. The door of his study opened instantly. His servant, not, liking the visitor's appearance, had remained in the hall outside and came in the moment he heard the bell. On seeing him enter, Mr. Ridley turned from the clergyman and stood like one at bay. His eyes had a fiery gleam; there was anger on his brow and defiance in the hard lines of his mouth. He scowled at the servant threateningly. The latter, a strong and resolute man, only waited for an order to remove the visitor, which he would have done in a very summary way, but Mr. Elliott wanted no violence.
The group formed a striking tableau, and to any spectator who could have viewed it one of intense interest. For a little while Mr. Ridley and the servant stood scowling at each other. Then came a sudden change. A start, a look of alarm, followed by a low cry of fear, and Mr. Ridley sprang toward the door, and was out of the room and hurrying down stairs before a movement could be made to intercept him, even if there had been on the part of the other two men any wish to do so.
Mr. Elliott stood listening to the sound of his departing feet until the heavy jar of the outer door resounded through the passages and all became still. A motion of his hand caused the servant to retire, As he went out Mr. Elliott sank into a chair. His face had become pale and distressed. He was sick at heart and sorely troubled. What did all this mean? Had his unconsidered words brought forth fruit like this? Was he indeed responsible for the fall of a weak brother and all the sad and sorrowful consequences which had followed? He was overwhelmed, crushed down, agonized by the thought, It was the bitterest moment in all his life.
MR. ELLIOTT still sat in a kind of helpless maze when his servant came in with the card of Mrs. Spencer Birtwell. He read the name almost with a start. Nothing, it seemed to him, could have been more inopportune, for now he remembered with painful distinctness that it was at the party given by Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell that Ridley had yielded to temptation and fallen, never, he feared, to rise again.
Mrs. Birtwell met him with a very serious aspect.
"I am in trouble," was the first sentence that passed her lips as she took the clergyman's hand and looked into his sober countenance.
"About what?" asked Mr. Elliott.
They sat down, regarding each other earnestly.
"Mr. Elliott," said the lady, with solemn impressiveness, "it is an awful thing to feel that through your act a soul may be lost."
Mrs. Birtwell saw the light go out of her minister's face and a look of pain sweep over it.
"An awful thing indeed," he returned, in a voice that betrayed the agitation from which he was still suffering.
"I want to talk with you about a matter that distresses me deeply," said Mrs. Birtwell, wondering as she spoke at Mr. Elliott's singular betrayal of feeling.
"If I can help you, I shall do so gladly," replied the clergyman. "What is the ground of your trouble?"
"You remember Mr. Ridley?"
Mrs. Birtwell saw the clergyman start and the spasm of pain sweep over his face once more.
"Yes," he replied, in a husky whisper. But he rallied himself with an effort and asked, "What of him?" in a clear and steady voice.
"Mr. Ridley had been intemperate before coming to the city, but after settling here he kept himself free from his old bad habits, and was fast regaining the high position he had lost. I met his wife a number of times. She was a very superior woman; and the more I saw of her, the more I was drawn to her. We sent them cards for our party last winter. Mrs. Ridley was sick and could not come. Mr. Ridley came, and—and—" Mrs. Birtwell lost her voice for a moment, then added: "You know what I would say. We put the cup to his lips, we tempted him with wine, and he fell."
Mrs. Birtwell covered her face with her hands. A few strong sobs shook her frame.
"He fell," she added as soon as she could recover herself, "and still lies, prostrate and helpless, in the grasp of a cruel enemy into whose power we betrayed him."
"But you did it ignorantly," said Mr. Elliott.
"There was no intention on your part to betray him. You did not know that your friend was his deadly foe."
"My friend?" queried Mrs. Birtwell. She did not take his meaning.
"The wine, I mean. While to you and me it may be only a pleasant and cheery friend, to one like Mr. Ridley it may be the deadliest of enemies."
"An enemy to most people, I fear," returned Mrs. Birtwell, "and the more dangerous because a hidden foe. In the end it biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder."
Her closing sentence cut like a knife, and Mr. Elliott felt the sharp edge.
"He fell," resumed Mrs. Birtwell, "but the hurt was not with him alone. His wife died on the next day, and it has been said that the condition in which he came home from our house gave her a shock that killed her."
Mrs. Birtwell shivered.
"People say a great many things," returned Mr. Elliott, "and this, I doubt not is greatly exaggerated. Have you asked Doctor Hillhouse in regard to the facts in the case? He attended Mrs. Ridley, I think."
"No. I've been afraid to ask him."
"It might relieve your mind."
"Do you think I would feel any better if he said yea instead of nay? No, Mr. Elliott. I am afraid to question him."
"It's a sad affair," remarked the clergyman, gloomily, "and I don't see what is to be done about a it. When a man falls as low as Mr. Ridley has fallen, the case seems hopeless."
"Don't say hopeless, Mr. Elliott." responded Mrs. Birtwell, her voice still more troubled. "Until a man is dead he is not wholly lost. The hand of God is not stayed, and he can save to the uttermost."
"All who come unto him," added the clergyman, in a depressed voice that had in it the knell of a human soul. "But these besotted men will not go to him. I am helpless and in despair of salvation, when I stand face to face with a confirmed drunkard. All one's care and thought and effort seem wasted, You lift them up to-day, and they fall to-morrow. Good resolutions, solemn promises, written pledges, go for nothing. They seem to have fallen below the sphere in which God's saving power operates."
"No, no, no, Mr. Elliott. I cannot, I will not, believe it," was the strongly-uttered reply of Mrs. Birtwell. "I do not believe that any man can fall below this potent sphere."
A deep, sigh came from the clergyman's lips, a dreary expression crept into his face. There was a heavy weight upon his heart, and he felt weak and depressed.
"Something must be done." There was the impulse of a strong resolve in Mrs. Birtwell's tones.
"God works by human agencies. If we hold back and let our hands lie idle, he cannot make us his instruments. If we say that this poor fallen fellow-creature cannot be lifted out of his degradation and turn away that he may perish, God is powerless to help him through us. Oh, sir, I cannot do this and be conscience clear. I helped him to fall, and, God giving me strength, I will help him to rise again."
Her closing sentence fell with rebuking force upon the clergyman. He too was oppressed by a heavy weight of responsibility. If the sin of this man's fall was upon the garments of Mrs. Birtwell, his were not stainless. Their condemnation was equal, their duty one.
"Ah!" he said, in tones of deep solicitude, "if we but knew how to reach and influence him!"
"We can do nothing if we stand afar off, Mr. Elliott," replied Mrs. Birtwell. "We must try to get near him. He must see our outstretched hands and hear our voices calling to him to come back. Oh, sir, my heart tells me that all is not lost. God's loving care is as much over him as it is over you and me, and his providence as active for his salvation."
"How are we to get near him, Mrs. Birtwell? This is our great impediment."
"God will show us the way if we desire it. Nay, he is showing us the way, though we sought it not," replied Mrs. Birtwell, her manner becoming more confident.
"How? I cannot see it," answered the clergyman.
"There has come a crisis in his life," said Mrs. Birtwell. "In his downward course he has reached a point where, unless he can be held back and rescued, he will, I fear, drift far out from the reach of human hands. And it has so happened that I am brought to a knowledge of this crisis and the great peril it involves. Is not this God's providence? I verily believe so, Mr. Elliott. In the very depths of my soul I seem to hear a cry urging me to the rescue. And, God giving me strength, I mean to heed the admonition. This is why I have called today. I want your help, and counsel."
"It shall be given," was the clergyman's answer, made in no half-hearted way. "And now tell me all you know about this sad case. What is the nature of the crisis that has come in the life of this unhappy man?"
"I called on Mrs. Sandford this morning," replied Mrs. Birtwell, "and learned that his daughter, who is little more than a child, had applied for the situation of day-governess to her children. From Ethel she ascertained their condition, which is deplorable enough. They have been selling or pawning furniture and clothing in order to get food until but little remains, and the daughter, brought face to face with want, now steps forward to take the position of bread-winner."
"Has Mrs. Sandford engaged her?"
"Ethel is scarcely more than a child. Deeply as Mrs. Sandford feels for her, she cannot give her a place of so much responsibility. And besides, she does not think it right to let her remain where she is. The influence upon her life and character cannot be good, to say nothing of the tax and burden far beyond her strength that she will have to bear."
"Does she propose anything?"
"Yes. To save the children and let the father go to destruction."
"She would take them away from him?"
"Yes, thus cutting the last strand of the cord that held him away from utter ruin."
A groan that could not be repressed broke from Mr. Elliott's lips.
"This must not be—at least not now," added Mrs. Birtwell, in a firm voice. "It may be possible to save him through his home and children. But if separated from them and cast wholly adrift, what hope is left?"
"None, I fear," replied Mr. Elliott.
"Then on this last hope will I build my faith and work for his rescue," said Mrs. Birtwell, with a solemn determination; "and may I count on your help?"
"To the uttermost in my power." There was nothing half-hearted in Mr. Elliott's reply. He meant to do all that his answer involved.
"Ah!" remarked Mrs. Birtwell as they talked still farther about the unhappy case, "how much easier is prevention than cure! How much easier to keep a stumbling-block out of another's way than to set him on his feet after he has fallen! Oh, this curse of drink!"
"A fearful one indeed," said Mr. Elliott, "and one that is desolating thousands of homes all over the land."
"And yet," replied Mrs. Birtwell, with a bitterness of tone she could not repress, "you and I and some of our best citizens and church people, instead of trying to free the land from this dreadful curse, strike hands with those who are engaged in spreading broadcast through society its baleful infection."
Mr. Elliott dropped his eyes to the floor like one who felt the truth of a stinging accusation, and remained silent. His mind was in great confusion. Never before had his own responsibility for this great evil looked him in the face with such a stern aspect and with such rebuking eyes.
"By example and invitation—nay, by almost irresistible enticements," continued Mrs. Birtwell—"we tempt the weak and lure the unwary and break down the lines of moderation that prudence sets up to limit appetite. I need not describe to you some of our social saturnalias. I use strong language, for I cannot help it. We are all too apt to look on their pleasant side, on the gayety, good cheer and bright reunions by which they are attended, and to excuse the excesses that too often manifest themselves. We do not see as we should beyond the present, and ask ourselves what in natural result is going to be the outcome of all this. We actually shut our eyes and turn ourselves away from the warning signs and stern admonitions that are uplifted before us.
"Is it any matter of surprise, Mr. Elliott, that we should be confronted now and then with some of the dreadful consequences that flow inevitably from the causes to which I refer? or that as individual participants in these things we should find ourselves involved in such direct personal responsibility as to make us actually shudder?"
Mrs. Birtwell did not know how keen an edge these sentences had for Mr. Elliott, nor how, deeply they cut. As for the clergyman, he kept his own counsel.
"What can we do in this sad case?" he asked, after a few assenting remarks on the dangers of social drinking. "This is the great question now. I confess to being entirely at a loss. I never felt so helpless in the presence of any duty before."
"I suppose," replied Mrs. Birtwell, "that the way to a knowledge of our whole duty in any came is to begin to do the first thing that we see to be right."
"Granted; and what then? Do you see the first right thing to be done?"
"I believe so."
"What is it?"
"If, as seems plain, the separation of Mr. Ridley from his home and children is to cut the last strand of the cord that holds him away from destruction, then our first work, if we would save him, is to help his daughter to maintain that home."
"Then you would sacrifice the child for the sake of the father?"
"No; I would help the child to save her father. I would help her to keep their little home as pleasant and attractive as possible, and see that in doing so she did not work beyond her strength. This first."
"And what next?" asked Mr. Elliott.
"After I have done so much, I will trust God to show me what next. The path of duty is plain so far. If I enter it in faith and trust and walk whither it leads, I am sure that other ways, leading higher and to regions of safety, will open for my willing feet."
"God grant that it may be so," exclaimed Mr. Elliott, with a fervor that showed how deeply he was interested. "I believe you are right. The slender mooring that holds this wretched man to the shore must not be cut or broken. Sever that, and he is swept, I fear, to hopeless ruin. You will see his daughter?"
"Yes. It is all plain now. I will go to her at once. I will be her fast friend. I will let my heart go out to her as if she were my own child. I will help her to keep the home her tender and loving heart is trying to maintain."
Mrs. Birtwell now spoke with an eager enthusiasm that sent the warm color to her cheeks and made her eyes, so heavy and sorrowful a little while before, bright and full of hope.
On rising to go, Mr. Elliott urged her to do all in her power to save the wretched man who had fallen over the stumbling-block their hands had laid in his way, promising on his part all possible co-operation.
AS Mrs. Birtwell left the house of Mr. Elliott a slender girl, thinly clad, passed from the beautiful residence of Mrs. Sandford. She had gone in only a little while before with hope in her pale young face; now it had almost a frightened look. Her eyes were wet, and her lips had the curve of one who grieves helplessly and in silence. Her steps, as she moved down the street, were slow and unsteady, like the steps of one who bore a heavy burden or of one weakened by long illness. In her ears was ringing a sentence that had struck upon them like the doom of hope. It was this—and it had fallen from the lips of Mrs. Sandford, spoken with a cold severity that was more assumed than real—
"If you will do as I suggest, I will see that you have a good home; but if you will not, I can do nothing for you."
There was no reply on the part of the young girl, and no sign of doubt or hesitation. All the light—it had been fading slowly as the brief conference between her and Mrs. Sandford had progressed—died out of her face. She shrunk a little in her chair, her head dropping forward. For the space of half a minute she sat with eyes cast down. Both were silent, Mrs. Sandford waiting to see the effect of what she had said, and hoping it would work a change in the girl's purpose. But she was disappointed. After sitting in a stunned kind of way for a short time, she rose, and without trusting herself to speak bowed slightly and left the room. Mrs. Sandford did not call after the girl, but suffered her to go down stairs and leave the house without an effort to detain her.
"She must gang her ain gait," said the lady, fretfully and with a measure of hardness in her voice.
On reaching the street, Ethel Ridley—the reader has guessed her name—walked away with slow, unsteady steps. She felt helpless and friendless. Mrs. Sandford had offered to find her a home if she would abandon her father and little brother. The latter, as Mrs. Sandford urged, could be sent to his mother's relatives, where he would be much better off than now.
Not for a single instant did Ethel debate the proposition. Heart and soul turned from it. She might die in her effort to keep a home for her wretched father, but not till then had she any thought of giving up.
On leaving the house of Mr. Elliott, Mrs. Birtwell went home, and after remaining there for a short time ordered her carriage and drove to a part of the town lying at considerable distance from that in which she lived. Before starting she had given her driver the name of the street and number of the house at which she was going to make a call. The neighborhood was thickly settled, and the houses small and poor. The one before which the carriage drew up did not look quite so forlorn as its neighbors; and on glancing up at the second-story windows, Mrs. Birtwell saw two or three flower-pots, in one of which a bright rose was blooming.
"This is the place you gave me, ma'am," said the driver as he held open the door. "Are you sure it is right?"
"I presume so;" and Mrs. Birtwell stepped out, and crossing the pavement to the door, rang the bell. It was opened by a pleasant-looking old woman, who, on being asked if a Miss Ridley lived there, replied in the affirmative.
"You will find her in the front room up stairs, ma'am," she added. "Will you walk up?"
The hall into which Mrs. Birtwell passed was narrow and had a rag carpet on the floor. But the carpet was clean and the atmosphere pure. Ascending the stairs, Mrs. Birtwell knocked at the door, and was answered by a faint "Come in" from a woman's voice.
The room in which she found herself a moment afterward was almost destitute of furniture. There was no carpet nor bureau nor wash-stand, only a bare floor, a very plain bedstead and bed, a square pine table and three chairs. There was not the smallest ornament of any kind on the mantel-shelf but in the windows were three pots of flowers. Everything looked clean. Some work lay upon the table, near which Ethel Ridley was sitting. But she had, turned away from the table, and sat with one pale cheek resting on her open hand. Her face wore a dreary, almost hopeless expression. On seeing Mrs. Birtwell, she started up, the blood leaping in a crimson tide to her neck, cheeks and temples, and stood in mute expectation.
"Miss Ridley?" said her visitor, in a kind voice.
Ethel only bowed. She could not speak in her sudden surprise. But recovering herself in a few moments she offered Mrs. Birtwell a chair.
"Mrs. Sandford spoke to me about you."
As Mrs. Birtwell said this she saw the flush die out of Ethel's face and an expression of pain come over it. Guessing at what this meant, she added, quickly:
"Mrs. Sandford and I do not think alike. You must keep your home, my child."
Ethel gave a start and caught her breath. A look of glad surprise broke into her face.
"Oh, ma'am," she answered, not able to steady her voice or keep the tears out of her eyes, "if I can only do that! I am willing to work if I can find anything to do. But—but—" She broke down, hiding her face in her hands and sobbing.
Mrs. Birtwell was deeply touched. How could she help being so in presence of the desolation and sorrow for which she felt herself and husband to be largely responsible?
"It shall all be made plain and easy for you, my dear child," she answered, taking Ethel's hand and kissing her with almost a mother's tenderness. "It is to tell you this that I have come. You are too young and weak to bear these burdens yourself. But stronger hands shall help you."
It was a long time before Ethel could recover herself from the surprise and joy awakened by so unexpected a declaration. When she comprehended the whole truth, when the full assurance came, the change wrought in her appearance was almost marvelous, and Mrs. Birtwell saw before her a maiden of singular beauty with a grace and sweetness of manner rarely found.
The task she had now to perform Mrs. Birtwell found a delicate one. She soon saw that Ethel had a sensitive feeling of independence, and that in aiding her she would have to devise some means of self-help that would appear to be more largely remunerative than it really was. From a simple gratuity the girl shrank, and it was with some difficulty that she was able to induce her to take a small sum of money as an advance on some almost pretended service, the nature of which she would explain to her on the next day, when Ethel was to call at her house.
So Mrs. Birtwell took her first step in the new path of duty wherein she had set her feet. For the next she would wait and pray for guidance. She had not ventured to say much to Ethel at the first interview about her father. The few questions asked had caused such evident distress of mind that she deemed it best to wait until she saw Ethel again before talking to her more freely on a subject that could not but awaken the keenest suffering.
Mrs. Birtwell's experience was a common one. She had scarcely taken her first step in the path of duty before the next was made plain. In her case this was so marked as to fill her with surprise. She had undertaken to save a human soul wellnigh lost, and was entering upon her work with that singleness of purpose which gives success where success is possible. Such being the case, she was an instrument through which a divine love of saving could operate. She became, as it were, the human hand by which God could reach down and grasp a sinking soul ere the dark waters of sin and sorrow closed over it for ever.
She was sitting alone that evening, her heart full of the work to which she had set her hand and her mind beating about among many suggestions, none of which had any reasonable promise of success, when a call from Mr. Elliott was announced. This was unusual. What could it mean? Naturally she associated it with Mr. Ridley. She hurried down to meet him, her heart beating rapidly. As she entered the parlor Mr. Elliott, who was standing in the centre of the room, advanced quickly toward her and grasped her hand with a strong pressure. His manner was excited and there was a glow of unusual interest on his face:
"I have just heard something that I wish to talk with you about. There is hope for our poor friend."
"For Mr. Ridley?" asked Mrs. Birtwell, catching the excitement of her visitor.
"Yes, and God grant that it may not be a vain hope!" he added, with a prayer in his heart as well as upon his lips.
They sat down and the clergyman went on:
"I have had little or no faith in any of the efforts which have been made to reform drunkenness, for none of them, in my view, went down to the core of the matter. I know enough of human nature and its depravity, of the power of sensual allurement and corporeal appetite, to be very sure that pledges, and the work usually done for inebriates in the asylums established for their benefit, cannot, except in a few cases, be of any permanent good. No man who has once been enslaved by any inordinate appetite can, in my view, ever get beyond the danger of re-enslavement unless through a change wrought in him by God, and this can only take place after a prayerful submission of himself to God and obedience to his divine laws so far as lies in his power. In other words, Mrs. Birtwell, the Church must come to his aid. It is for this reason that I have never had much faith in temperance societies as agents of personal reformation. To lift up from any evil is the work of the Church, and in her lies the only true power of salvation."
"But," said Mrs. Birtwell, "is not all work which has for its end the saving of man from evil God's work? It is surely not the work of an enemy."
"God forbid that I should say so. Every saving effort, no matter how or when made, is work for God and humanity. Do not misunderstand me. I say nothing against temperance societies. They have done and are still doing much good, and I honor the men who organize and work through them. Their beneficent power is seen in a changed and changing public sentiment, in efforts to reach the sources of a great and destructive evil, and especially in their conservative and restraining influence. But when a man is overcome of the terrible vice against which they stand in battle array, when he is struck down by the enemy and taken prisoner, a stronger hand than theirs is needed to rescue him, even the hand of God; and this is why I hold that, except in the Church, there is little or no hope for the drunkard."
"But we cannot bring these poor fallen creatures into the Church," answered Mrs. Birtwell. "They shun its doors. They stand afar off."
"The Church must go to them," said Mr. Elliott—"go as Christ, the great Head of the Church, himself went to the lowest and the vilest, and lift them up, and not only lift them up, but encompass them round with its saving influences."
"How is this to be done?" asked Mrs. Birtwell.
"That has been our great and difficult problem; but, thank God! it is, I verily believe, now being solved."
"How? Where?" eagerly asked Mrs. Birtwell. "What Church has undertaken the work?"
"A Church not organized for worship and spiritual culture, but with a single purpose to go into the wilderness and desert places in search of lost sheep, and bring them, if possible, back to the fold of God. I heard of it only to-day, though for more than a year it has been at work in our midst. Men and women of nearly every denomination have joined in the organization of this church, and are working together in love and unity. Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, Presbyterians, Swedenborgians, Congregationalists, Universalists and Unitarians, so called, here clasp hands in a common Christian brotherhood, and give themselves to the work of saving the lost and lifting up the fallen."
"Why do you call it a Church?" asked Mrs. Birtwell.
"Because it was founded in prayer to God, and with the acknowledgment that all saving power must come from him. Men of deep religious experience whose hearts yearned over the hapless condition of poor drunkards met together and prayed for light and guidance. They were willing to devote themselves to the task of saving these unhappy men if God would show them the way. And I verily believe that he has shown them the way. They have established a Christian Home, not a mere inebriate asylum."
As he spoke Mr. Elliott drew a paper from his pocket.
"Let me read you," he said, "a few sentences from an article giving an account of the work of this Church, as I have called it. I only met with it to-day, and I am not sure that it would have taken such a hold upon me had it not been for my concern about Mr. Ridley.
"The writer says, 'In the treatment of drunkenness, we must go deeper than hospital or asylum work. This reaches no farther than the physical condition and moral nature, and can therefore be only temporary in its influence. We must awaken the spiritual consciousness, and lead a man too weak to stand in his own strength when appetite, held only in abeyance, springs back upon him to trust in God as his only hope of permanent reformation. First we must help him physically, we must take him out of his debasement, his foulness and his discomfort, and surround him with the influences of a home. Must get him clothed and in his right mind, and make him feel once more that he has sympathy—is regarded as a man full of the noblest possibilities—and so be stimulated to personal effort. But this is only preliminary work, such as any hospital may do. The real work of salvation goes far beyond this; it must be wrought in a higher degree of the soul—even that which we call spiritual. The man must be taught that only in Heaven-given strength is there any safety. He must be led, in his weakness and sense of degradation, to God as the only one who can lift him up and set his feet in a safe place. Not taught this as from pulpit and platform, but by earnest, self-denying, sympathizing Christian men and women standing face to face with the poor repentant brother, and holding him tightly by the hand lest he stumble and fall in his first weak efforts to walk in a better way. And this is just the work that is now being done in our city by a Heaven-inspired institution not a year old, but with accomplished results that are a matter of wonder to all who are familiar with its operations."
Mrs. Birtwell leaned toward Mr. Elliott as he read, the light of a new hope irradiating her countenance.
"Is not this a Church in the highest and best sense?" asked Mr. Elliott, with a glow of enthusiasm in his voice.
"It is; and if the membership is not full, I am going to join it," replied Mrs. Birtwell, "and do what I can to bring at least one straying sheep out of the wilderness and into its fold."
"And I pray God that your work be not in vain," said the clergyman. "It is that I might lead you to this work that I am now here. Some of the Christian men and women whose names I find here"—Mr. Elliott referred to the paper in his hand—"are well known to me personally, and others by reputation."
He read them over.
"Such names," he added, "give confidence and assurance. In the hands of these men and women, the best that can be done will be done. And what is to hinder if the presence and the power of God be in their work? Whenever two or three meet together in his name, have they not his promise to be with them? and when he is, present, are not all saving influences most active? Present we know him to be everywhere, but his presence and power have a different effect according to the kind and degree of reception. He is present with the evil as well as the good, but he can manifest his love and work of saving far more effectually through the good than he can through the evil.
"And so, because this Home has been made a Christian Home, and its inmates taught to believe that only in coming to God in Christ as their infinite divine Saviour, and touching the hem of his garments, is there any hope of being cured of their infirmity, has its great saving power become manifest."
Just then voices were heard sounding through the hall. Apparently there was an altercation between the waiter and some one at the street door.
"What's that?" asked Mrs Birtwell, a little startled at the unusual sound.
They listened, and heard the voice of a man saying, in an excited tone:
"I must see her!"
Then came the noise of a struggle, as though the waiter were trying to prevent the forcible entry of some one.
Mrs. Birtwell started to her feet in evident alarm. Mr. Elliott was crossing to the parlor door, when it was thrown open with considerable violence, and he stood face to face with Mr. Ridley.
ON leaving the clergyman's residence, baffled in his efforts to get the wine he had hoped to obtain, Mr. Ridley strode hurriedly away, almost running, as though in fear of pursuit. After going for a block or two he stopped suddenly, and stood with an irresolute air for several moments. Then he started forward again, moving with the same rapid speed. His face was strongly agitated and nearly colorless. His eyes were restless, glancing perpetually from side to side.
There was no pause now until he reached the doors of a large hotel in the centre of the city. Entering, he passed first into the reading-room and looked through it carefully, then stood in the office for several minutes, as if waiting for some one. While here a gentleman who had once been a client came in, and was going to the clerk's desk to make some inquiry, when Ridley stepped forward, and calling him by name, reached out his hand. It was not taken, however. The man looked at him with an expression of annoyance and disgust, and then passed him without a word.
A slight tinge of color came into Ridley's pale face. He bit his lips and clenched his hands nervously.
From the office he went to the bar-room. At the door he met a well-known lawyer with whom he had crossed swords many times in forensic battles oftener gaining victory than suffering defeat. There was a look of pity in the eyes of this man when they rested upon him. He suffered his hand to be taken by the poor wretch, and even spoke to him kindly.
"B——," said Ridley as he held up one of his hands and showed its nerveless condition, "you see where I am going?"
"I do, my poor fellow!" replied the man; "and if you don't stop short, you will be at the end of your journey sooner than you anticipate."
"I can't stop; it's too late. For God's sake get me a glass of brandy! I haven't tasted a drop since morning."
His old friend and associate saw how it was—saw that his over-stimulated nervous system was fast giving way, and that he was on the verge of mania. Without replying the lawyer went back to the bar, at which he had just been drinking. Calling for brandy, he poured a tumbler nearly half full, and after adding a little water gave it to Ridley, who drank the whole of it before withdrawing the glass from his lips.
"It was very kind of you," said the wretched man as he began to feel along his shaking nerves the stimulating power of the draught he had taken. "I was in a desperate bad way."
"And you are not out of that way yet," replied the other. "Why don't you stop this thing while a shadow of hope remains?"
"It's easy enough to say stop"—Ridley spoke in a tone of fretfulness—"and of about as much use as to cry 'Stop!' to a man falling down a precipice or sweeping over a cataract. I can't stop."
His old friend gazed at him pityingly, then, shrugging his shoulders, he bade him good-morning. From the bar Ridley drifted to the reading-room, where he made a feint of looking over the newspapers. What cared he for news? All his interest in the world had become narrowed down to the ways and means of getting daily enough liquor to stupefy his senses and deaden his nerves. He only wanted to rest now, and let the glass of brandy he had taken do its work on his exhausted system. It was not long before he was asleep. How long he remained in this state he did not know. A waiter, rudely shaking him, brought him back to life's dreary consciousness again and an order to leave the reading room sent him out upon the street to go he knew not whither.
Night had come, and Ethel, with a better meal ready for her father than she had been able to prepare for him in many weeks, sat anxiously awaiting his return. Toward her he had always been kind and gentle. No matter how much he might be under the influence of liquor, he had never spoken a harsh word to this patient, loving, much-enduring child. For her sake he had often made feeble efforts at reform, but appetite had gained such mastery; over him that resolution was as flax in the flame.
It was late in the evening when Mr. Ridley returned home. Ethel's quick ears detected something unusual in his steps as he came along the entry. Instead of the stumbling or shuffling noise with which he generally made his way up stairs, she noticed that his footfalls were more distinct and rapid. With partially suspended breath she sat with her eyes upon the door until it was pushed open. The moment she looked into her father's face she saw a change. Something had happened to him. The heavy, besotted look was gone, the dull eyes were lighted up. He shut the door behind him quickly and with the manner of one who had been pursued and now felt himself in a place of safety.
"What's the matter, father dear?" asked Ethel as she started up and laying her hand upon his shoulder looked into his face searchingly.
"Nothing, nothing," he replied. But the nervousness of his manner and the restless glancing of his eyes, now here and now there, and the look of fear in them, contradicted his denial.
"What has happened, father? Are you sick?" inquired Ethel.
"No, dear, nothing has happened. But I feel a little strange."
He spoke with unusual tenderness in his manner, and his voice shook and had a mournful cadence.
"Supper is all ready and waiting. I've got something nice and hot for you. A strong cup of tea will do you good," said Ethel, trying to speak cheerily. She had her father at the table in a few minutes. His hand trembled so in lifting his cup that he spilled some of the contents, but she steadied it for him. He had better control of himself after drinking the tea, and ate a few mouthfuls, but without apparent relish.
"I've got something to tell you," said Ethel, leaning toward her father as they still sat at the table. Mr. Ridley saw a new light in his daughter's face.
"What is it, dear?" he said.
"Mrs. Birtwell was here to-day, and is going—"
The instant change observed in her father's manner arrested the sentence on Ethel's lips. A dark shadow swept across his face and he became visibly agitated.
"Going to do what?" he inquired, betraying some anger.
"Going to help me all she can. She was very kind, and wants me to go and see her to-morrow. I think she's very good, father."
Mr. Ridley dropped his eyes from the flushed, excited face of his child. The frown left his brow. He seemed to lose himself in thought. Leaning forward upon the table, he laid his face down upon his folded arms, hiding it from view.
A sad and painful conflict, precipitated by the remark of his daughter, was going on in the mind of this wretched man. He knew also too well that he was standing on the verge of a dreadful condition from the terrors of which his soul shrunk back in shuddering fear. All day he had felt the coming signs, and the hope of escape had now left him. But love for his daughter was rising above all personal fear and dread. He knew that at any moment the fiend of delirium might spring upon him, and then this tender child would be left alone with him in his awful conflict. The bare possibility of such a thing made him shudder, and all his thought was now directed toward the means of saving her from being a witness of the appalling scene.
The shock and anger produced by the mention of Mrs. Birtwell's name had passed off, and his thought was going out toward her in a vague, groping way, and in a sort of blind faith that through her help in his great extremity might come. It was all folly, he knew. What could she do for a poor wretch in his extremity? He tried to turn his thought from her, but ever as he turned it away it swung back and rested in-this blind faith.
Raising his eyes at last, his mind still in a maze of doubt, he saw just before him an the table a small grinning head. It was only by a strong effort that he could keep from crying out in fear and starting back from the table. A steadier look obliterated the head and left a teacup in its place.
No time was now to be lost. At any moment the enemy might be upon him. He must go quickly, but where? A brief struggle against an almost unconquerable reluctance and dread, and then, rising from the table, Mr. Ridley caught up his hat and ran down stairs, Ethel calling after him. He did not heed her anxious cries. It was for her sake that he was going. She heard the street door shut with a jar, and listened to her father's departing feet until the sound died out in the distance.
It was over an hour from this time when Mr. Ridley, forcing his way past the servant who had tried to keep him back, stood confronting Mr. Elliott. A look of disappointment, followed by an angry cloud, came into his face. But seeing Mrs. Birtwell, his countenance brightened; and stepping past the clergyman, he advanced toward her. She did not retreat from him, but held out her hand, and said, with an earnestness so genuine that it touched his feeling:
"I am glad to see you, Mr. Ridley."
As he took her extended hand Mrs. Birtwell drew him toward a sofa and sat down near him, manifesting the liveliest interest.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" she asked.
"No, ma'am," he replied, in a mournful voice—"not for me. I didn't come for that. But you'll be good to my poor Ethel, won't you, and—and—"
His voice broke into sobs, his weak frame quivered.
"I will, I will!" returned Mrs. Birtwell with prompt assurance.
"Oh, thank you. It's so good of you. My poor girl! I may never see you again."
The start and glance of fear he now threw across the room revealed to Mr. Elliott the true condition of their visitor, and greatly alarmed him. He had never been a witness of the horrors of delirium tremens, and only knew of it by the frightful descriptions he had sometimes read, but he could not mistake the symptoms of the coming attack as now seen in Mr. Ridley, who, on getting from Mrs. Birtwell a repeated and stronger promise to care for Ethel, rose from the sofa and started for the door.
But neither Mr. Elliott nor Mrs. Birtwell could let him go away in this condition. They felt too deeply their responsibility in the case, and felt also that One who cares for all, even the lowliest and most abandoned, had led him thither in his dire extremity.