Following him quickly, Mr. Elliott laid his hand firmly upon his arm.
"Stop a moment, Mr. Ridley," he said, with such manifest interest that the wretched man turned and looked at him half in surprise.
"Where are you going?" asked the clergyman.
"Where?" His voice fell to a deep whisper. There was a look of terror in his eyes. "Where? God only knows. Maybe to hell."
A strong shiver went through his frame.
"The 'Home,' Mr. Elliott! We must get him into the' Home,'" said Mrs. Birtwell, speaking close to the minister's ear.
"What home?" asked Mr. Ridley, turning quickly upon her.
She did not answer him. She feared to say a "Home for inebriates," lest he should break from them in anger.
"What home?" he repeated, in a stronger and more agitated voice; and now both Mr. Elliott and Mrs. Birtwell saw a wild eagerness in his manner.
"A home," replied Mr. Elliott, "where men like you can go and receive help and sympathy. A home where you will find men of large and hopeful nature to take you by the hand and hold you up, and Christian women with hearts full of mother and sister love to comfort, help, encourage and strengthen all your good desires. A home in which men in your unhappy condition are made welcome, and in which they are cared for wisely and tenderly in their greatest extremity."
"Then take me there, for God's sake!" cried out the wretched man, extending his hand eagerly as he spoke.
"Order the carriage immediately," said Mrs. Birtwell to the servant who stood in the half-open parlor door.
Then she drew Mr. Ridley back to the sofa, from which he had started up a little while before, and said, in a voice full of comfort and persuasion:
"You shall go there, and I will come and see you every day; and you needn't have a thought or care for Ethel. All is going to come out right again."
The carriage came in a few minutes. There was no hesitation on the part of Mr. Ridley. The excitement of this new hope breaking in so suddenly upon the midnight of his despair acted as a temporary stimulant and held his nerves steady for a little while longer.
"You are not going?" said Mr. Elliott, seeing that Mrs. Birtwell was making ready to accompany them in the carriage.
"Yes," she replied. "I want to see just what this home is and how Mr. Ridley is going to be received and cared for."
She then directed their man-servant to get into the carriage with them, and they drove away. Mr. Ridley did not stir nor speak, but sat with his head bent down until they arrived at their destination. He left the carriage and went in passively. As they entered a large and pleasant reception-room a gentleman stepped forward, and taking Mr. Elliott by the hand, called him by name in a tone of pleased surprise.
"Oh, Mr. G——!" exclaimed the clergyman. "I am right glad to find you here. I remember seeing your name in the list of directors."
"Yes, I am one of the men engaged in this work," replied Mr. G——. Then, as he looked more closely at Mr. Ridley, he recognized him and saw at a glance his true condition.
"My dear sir," said he, stepping forward and grasping his hand, "I am glad you have come here."
Mr. Ridley looked at, or rather beyond, him in a startled way, and then drew back a few steps. Mr. G—— saw him shiver and an expression of fear cross his face. Turning to a man who sat writing at a desk, he called him by name, and with a single glance directed his attention to Mr. Ridley. The man was by his side in a moment, and as Mr. Elliott did not fail to notice all on the alert. He spoke to Mr. Ridley in a kind but firm voice, and drew him a little way toward an adjoining room, the door of which stood partly open.
"Do the best you can for this poor man," said Mrs. Birtwell, now addressing Mr. G——. "I will pay all that is required. You know him, I see."
"Yes, I know him well. A sad case indeed. You may be sure that what can be done will be done."
At this moment Mr. Ridley gave a cry and a spring toward the door. Glancing at him, Mrs. Birtwell saw that his countenance was distorted by terror. Instantly two men came in from the adjoining room and quickly restrained him. After two or three fruitless efforts to break away, he submitted to their control, and was immediately removed to another part of the building.
With white lips and trembling limbs Mrs. Birtwell stood a frightened spectator of the scene. It was over in a moment, but it left her sick at heart.
"What will they do with him?" she asked, her voice husky and choking.
"All that his unhappy case requires," replied Mr. G——. "The man you saw go first to his side can pity him, for he has himself more than once passed through that awful conflict with the power of hell upon which our poor friend has now entered. A year ago he came to this Home in a worse condition than Mr. Ridley begging us for God's sake to take him in. A few weeks saw him, to use sacred words, 'clothed and in his right mind,' and since then he has never gone back a single step. Glad and grateful for his own rescue, he now devotes his life to the work of saving others. In his hands Mr. Ridley will receive the gentlest treatment consistent with needed restraint. He is better here than he could possibly be anywhere else; and when, as I trust in God the case may be, he comes out of this dreadful ordeal, he will find himself surrounded by friends and in the current of influences all leading him to make a new effort to reform his life. Poor man! You did not get him here a moment too soon."
MRS. BIRTWELL slept but little that night and in the brief periods of slumber that came to her she was disturbed by unquiet dreams. The expression of Mr. Ridley's face as the closing door shut it from her sight on the previous evening haunted her like the face of an accusing spectre.
Immediately after breakfast she dressed herself to go out, intending to visit the Home for reforming inebriates and learn something of Mr. Ridley. Just as she came down stairs a servant opened the street door, and she saw the slender figure of Ethel.
"My poor child!" she said, with great kindness of manner, taking her by the hand and drawing her in. "You are frightened about your father."
"Oh yes, ma'am," replied Ethel, with quivering lips. "He didn't come home all night, and I'm so scared about him. I don't know what to do. Maybe you'll think it wrong in me to trouble you about it, but I am in such distress, and don't know where to go.
"No, not wrong, my child, and I'm glad you've come. I ought to have sent you word about him."
"My father! Oh, ma'am, do you know where he is?"
"Yes; he came here last night sick, and I took him in my carriage to a Home for just such as he is, where he will be kindly taken care of until he gets well."
Ethel's large brown eyes were fixed in a kind of thankful wonder on the face of Mrs. Birtwell. She could not speak. She did not even try to put thought or feeling into words. She only took the hand of Mrs. Birtwell, and after touching it with her lips laid her wet cheek against it and held it there tightly.
"Can I go and see him?" she asked, lifting her face after some moments.
"It will not be best, I think," replied Mrs. Birtwell—"that is, not now. He was very sick when we took him there, and may not be well enough to be seen this morning."
"Very sick! Oh, ma'am!" The face of Ethel grew white and her lips trembled.
"Not dangerously," said Mrs. Birtwell, "but yet quite ill. I am going now to see him; and if you will come here in a couple of hours, when I shall return home—"
"Oh. ma'am, let me go along with you," broke in Ethel. "I won't ask to see him if it isn't thought best, but I'll know how he is without waiting so long."
The fear that Mr. Ridley might die in his delirium had troubled Mrs. Birtwell all night, and it still oppressed her. She would have much preferred to go alone and learn first the good or ill of the case, but Ethel begged so hard to be permitted to accompany her that she could not persist in objection.
On reaching the Home, Mrs. Birtwell found in the office the man in whose care Mr. Ridley had been placed. Remembering what Mr. G—— had said of this man, a fresh hope for Ethel's father sprang up in her soul as she looked into his clear eyes and saw his firm mouth and air of conscious poise and strength. She did not see in his manly face a single scar from the old battle out of which he had come at last victorious. Recognizing her, he called her by name, and not waiting for her to ask the question that looked out of her face, said:
"It is all right with him."
A cry of joy that she could not repress broke from Ethel. It was followed by sobbing and tears.
"Can we see him?" asked Mrs. Birtwell.
"The doctor will not think it best," replied the man. "He has had a pretty hard night, but, the worst is over. We must keep him quiet to-day."
"In the morning can I see him?" asked Ethel lifting her eyes, half blinded by tears, to the man's face.
"Yes; I think I can say yes," was the reply.
"Come at ten o'clock."
"You'll let me call and ask about him this evening, won't you?"
"Oh yes, and you will get a good report, I am sure."
The care and help and wise consideration received in the Home by Mr. Ridley, while passing through the awful stages of his mania, had probably saved his life. The fits of frenzy were violent, so overwhelming him with phantom terrors that in his wild and desperate struggles to escape the fangs of serpents and dragons and the horrid crew of imaginary demons that crowded his room and pressed madly upon him he would, but for the restraint to which he was subjected, have thrown himself headlong from a window or bruised and broken himself against the wall.
It was the morning of the second day after Mr. Ridley entered the Home. He had so far recovered as to be able to sit up in his room, a clean and well ventilated apartment, neatly furnished and with an air of home comfort about it. Two or three pictures hung on the walls, one of them representing a father sitting with a child upon each knee and the happy mother standing beside them. He had looked at this picture until his eyes grew dim. Near it was an illuminated text: "WITHOUT ME YE CAN DO NOTHING."
There came, as he sat gazing at the sweet home-scene, the beauty and tenderness of which had gone down into his heart, troubling its waters deeply, a knock at the door. Then the matron, accompanied by one of the lady managers of the institution, came in and made kind inquiries as to his condition. He soon saw that this lady was a refined and cultivated Christian woman, and it was not long before he felt himself coming under a new influence and all the old desires and purposes long ago cast away warming again into life and gathering up their feeble strength.
Gradually the lady led him on to talk to her of himself as he would have talked to his mother or his sister. She asked him of his family, and got the story of his bereavement, his despair and his helplessness. Then she sought to inspire him with new resolutions, and to lead him to make a new effort.
"I will be a man again," he exclaimed, at last, rising to this declaration under the uplifting and stimulating influences that were around him.
Then the lady answered him in a low, earnest, tender voice that trembled with the burden of its great concern:
"Not in your own strength. That is impossible."
His lips dropped apart. He looked at her strangely.
"Not in your own strength, but in God's," she said reverently. "You have tried your own strength many times, but it has failed as often. But his strength never fails."
She lifted her finger and pointed to the text on the wall, "Without me ye can do nothing," then added: "But in him we can do all things. Trusting in yourself, my friend, you will go forth from here to an unequal combat, but trusting in him your victory is assured. You shall go among lions and they will have no power to harm you, and stand in the very furnace flame of temptation without even the smell of fire being left upon your garments."
"Ah, ma'am, you are doubtless right in what you say," Mr. Ridley answered, all the enthusiasm dying out of his countenance. "But I am not a religious man. I have never trusted in God."
"That is no reason why you should not trust in him now," she answered, quickly. "All other hope for you is vain, but in God there is safety. Will you not go to him now?"
There came a quick, nervous rap upon the door; then it was flung open, and Ethel, with a cry of "Oh, father, my father, my father!" sprang across the room and threw herself into Mr. Ridley's arms.
With an answering cry of "Oh, Ethel, my child, my child!" Mr. Ridley drew her to his bosom, clasped her slender form to his heart and laid his face, over which tears were flowing, down among the thick masses of her golden hair.
"Let us pray," fell the sweet, solemn voice of the lady manager on the deep stillness that followed. All knelt, Mr. Ridley with his arm drawn tightly around his daughter. Then in tender, earnest supplication did this Christian woman offer her prayers for help.
"Dear Lord and Saviour," she said, in hushed, pleading tones, "whose love goes yearning after the lost and straying ones, open the eyes of this man, one of thy sick and suffering children, that he may see the tender beauty of thy countenance. Touch his heart, that he may feel the sweetness of thy love. Draw him to come unto thee, and to trust and confide in thee as his ever-present and unfailing Friend. In thee is safety, in thee is peace, and nowhere else."
God could answer this prayer through its influence upon the mind of him for whom it was offered. It was the ladder on which his soul climbed upward. The thought of God and of his love and mercy with which it filled all his consciousness inspired him with hope. He saw his own utter helplessness, and felt the peril and disaster that were before him when his frail little vessel of human resolution again met the fierce storms and angry billows of temptation; and so, in despairing abandonment of all human strength, he lifted his thoughts to God and cried out for the help and strength he needed.
And then, for he was deeply and solemnly in earnest, there was a new birth in his soul—the birth of a new life of spiritual forces in which God could be so present with him as to give him power to conquer when evil assailed him. It was not a life of his own, but a new life from God—not a self-acting life by which he was to be taken over the sea of temptation like one in a boat rowed by a strong oarsman, but a power he must use for himself, and one that would grow by use, gaining more and more strength, until it subdued and subordinated every natural desire to the rule of heavenly principles, and yet it was a life that, if not cherished and made active, would die.
There was a new expression in Mr. Ridley's face when he rose from his knees. It was calmer and stronger.
"God being your helper," said the lady manager, impressively, "victory is sure, and he will help you and overcome for you if you will let him. Do not trust to any mere personal motives or considerations. You have tried to stand by these over and over again, and every time you have fallen their power to help you has become less. Pride, ambition, even love, have failed. But the strength that God will give you, if you make his divine laws the rule of your life, cannot fail. Go to him in childlike trust. Tell him as you would tell a loving father of your sin and sorrow and helplessness, and ask of him the strength you need. Read every morning a portion of his holy word, and lay the divine precepts up in your heart. He is himself the word of life, and is therefore present in a more real and saving way to those who reverence and obey this word than it is possible for him to be to those who do not.
"Herein will lie your strength. Hence will come your deliverance. Take hold upon God our Saviour, my friend, and all the powers of hell shall not prevail against you. You will be tempted, but in the moment you hear the voice of the tempter look to God and ask him for strength, and it will surely come. Don't parley, for a single moment. Let no feeling of security lead you to test your own poor strength in any combat with the old appetite, for that would be an encounter full of peril. Trust in God, and all will be safe. But remember that there is no real trust in God without a life in harmony with his commandments. All-abiding spiritual strength comes through obedience only."
Mr. Ridley listened with deep attention, and when the lady ceased speaking said:
"Of myself I can do nothing. Long ago I saw that, and gave up the struggle in despair. If help comes now, it must come from God. No power but his can save me."
"Will you not, then, go to him?"
"How am I to go? What am I to do? What will God require of me?"
He spoke hurriedly and with the manner of one who felt himself in imminent danger and looked anxiously for a way of escape.
"To do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly before him; he requires nothing more," was the calmly spoken reply.
A light broke into Mr. Ridley's face.
"You cannot be just and merciful if you touch the accursed thing, for that would destroy your power to be so. To touch it, then, will be to sin against God and hurt your neighbor. Just here, then, must your religious life be in. For you to taste any kind of intoxicating drink would be a sin. God cannot help you, unless you shun this evil as a sin against him, and he will give you the power to shun it if, whenever you feel the desire to drink, you resist that desire and pray for strength by which to gain a victory.
"Every time you do this you will receive new spiritual strength, and be so much nearer the ark of safety. So resisting day by day, always in a humble acknowledgment that every good gift comes from a loving Father in heaven, the time is not far distant when your feet will be on the neck of the enemy that has ruled over you so long. God, even our God, will surely bring you off conqueror."
Mr. Ridley on whose calmer face the light of a new confidence now rested, drew his arm closely about Ethel, who was leaning against him, and said:
"Take heart, darling. If God is for us, who shall be against us? Henceforth I will trust in him."
Ethel put her arms about his neck, weeping silently. The matron and lady manager went out and left them alone.
Mrs. Birtwell did not visit the Home on this morning to see how it fared with Mr. Ridley as she had intended doing. The shadow of a great evil had fallen upon her house. For some time she had seen its approaches and felt the gathering gloom. If the reader will go back over the incidents and characters of this story, he will recall a scene between Mrs. Whitford and her son Ellis, the accepted lover of Blanche Birtwell, and will remember with what earnestness the mother sought to awaken in the mind of the young man a sense of danger, going so far as to uncover a family secret and warn him of a taint in his blood. It will also be remembered how the proud, self-confident young man rejected, her warnings and entreaties, and how wine betrayed him.
The humiliation that followed was deep, but not effective to save him. Wine to his inherited appetite was like blood to the wolf-nature. To touch it was to quicken into life an irrepressible desire for more. But his pride fought against any acknowledgment of his weakness, and particularly against so public an acknowledgment as abstinence when all around him were taking wine. Every time he went to a dinner or evening-party, or to any entertainment where wine was to be served, he would go self-admonished to be on guard against excess, but rarely was the admonition heeded. A single glass so weakened his power of restraint that he could not hold back his hand; and if it so happened that from any cause this limit was forced upon him, as in making a morning or an evening call, the stimulated appetite would surely draw his feet to the bar of some fashionable saloon or hotel in order that it might secure a deeper satisfaction.
It was not possible, so impelled by appetite and so indulging its demands, for Ellis Whitford to keep from drifting out into the fatal current on whose troubled waters thousands are yearly borne to destruction.
After her humiliation at Mrs. Birtwell's, a smile was never seen upon the mother's face. All that she deemed it wise to say to her son when he awoke in shame next morning she said in tears that she had no power to hold back. He promised with solemn asseverations that he would never again so debase himself, and he meant to keep his promise. Hope stirred feebly in his mother's heart, but died when, in answer to her injunction, "Touch not, taste not, handle not, my son. Herein lies your only chance of safety," he replied coldly and with irritation:
"I will be a man, and not a slave. I will walk in freedom among my associates, not holding up manacled wrists."
Alas! he did not walk in freedom. Appetite had already forged invisible chains that held him in a fatal bondage. It was not yet too late. With a single strong effort he could have rent these bonds asunder, freeing himself for ever. But pride and a false shame held him back, from making this effort, and all the while appetite kept silently strengthening every link and steadily forging new chains. Day by day he grew feebler as to will-power and less clear in judgment. His fine ambition, that once promised to lift him into the highest ranks of his profession, began to lose its stimulating influence.
None but his mother knew how swiftly this sad demoralization was progressing, through others were aware of the fact that he indulged too freely in wine.
With a charity that in too many instances was self-excusing, not a few of his friends and acquaintances made light of his excesses, saying:
"Oh, he'll get over it;" or, "Young blood is hot and boils up sometimes;" or, "He'll steady himself, never fear."
The engagement between Ellis and Blanche still existed, though Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell were beginning to feel very much concerned about the future of their daughter, and were seriously considering the propriety of taking steps to have the engagement broken off. The young man often came to their house so much under the influence of drink that there was no mistaking his condition; but if any remark was made about it, Blanche not only exhibited annoyance, but excused and defended him, not unfrequently denying the fact that was apparent to all.
One day—it was several months from the date of that fatal party out of which so many disasters came, as if another Pandora's box had been opened—the card of Mrs. Whitford was placed in the hands of Mrs. Birtwell.
"Say that I will be down in a moment."
But the servant who had brought up the card answered:
"The lady wished me to say that she would like to see you alone in your own room, and would come up if it was agreeable."
"Oh. certainly. Tell her to come right up."
Wondering a little at this request, Mrs. Birtwell waited for Mrs. Whitford's appearance, rising and advancing toward the door as she heard her steps approaching. Mrs. Whitford's veil was down as she entered, and she did not draw it aside until she had shut the door behind her. Then she pushed it away.
An exclamation of painful surprise fell from the lips of Mrs. Birtwell the moment she saw the face of her visitor. It was pale and wretched beyond description, but wore the look of one who had resolved to perform some painful duty, though it cost her the intensest suffering.
"I HAVE come," said Mrs. Whitford, after she was seated and had composed herself, "to perform the saddest duty of my whole life."
She paused, her white lips quivering, then rallied her strength and went on:
"Even to dishonor my son."
She caught her breath with a great sob, and remained silent for nearly half a minute, sitting so still that she seemed like one dead. In that brief time she had chained down her overwrought feelings and could speak without a tremor in her voice.
"I have come to say," she now went on, "that this marriage must not take place. Its consummation would be a great wrong, and entail upon your daughter a life of misery. My son is falling into habits that will, I sadly fear, drag him down to hopeless ruin. I have watched the formation and growth of this habit with a solicitude that has for a long time robbed my life of its sweetness. All the while I see him drifting away from me, and I am powerless to hold him back. Every day he gets farther off, and every day my heart grows heavier with sorrow. Can nothing be done? Alas! nothing, I fear; and I must tell you why, Mrs. Birtwell. It is best that you should see the case as hopeless, and save your daughter if you can."
She paused again for a few moments, and then continued:
"It is not with my son as with most young men. He has something more to guard against than the ordinary temptations of society. There is, as you may possibly know, a taint in his blood—the taint of hereditary intemperance. I warned him of this and implored him to abjure wine and all other drinks that intoxicate, but he was proud and sensitive as well as confident in his own strength. He began to imagine that everybody knew the family secret I had revealed to him, and that if he refused wine in public it would be attributed to his fear of arousing a sleeping appetite which when fully awake and active might prove too strong for him, and so he often drank in a kind of bravado spirit. He would be a man and let every one see that he could hold the mastery over himself. It was a dangerous experiment for him, as I knew it would be, and has failed."
Mrs. Whitford broke down and sobbed in an uncontrollable passion of grief. Then, rising, she said:
"I have done a simple duty, Mrs. Birtwell. How hard the task has been you can never know, for through a trial like mine you will never have to pass. It now remains for you to do the best to save your child from the great peril that lies before her. I wish that I could say, 'Tell Blanche of our interview and of my solemn warning.' But I cannot, I dare not do so, for it would be to cast up a wall between me and my son and to throw him beyond the circle of my influence. It would turn his heart against his mother, and that is a calamity from the very thought of which I shrink with a sickening fear."
The two women, sad partners in a grief that time might intensify, instead of making less, stood each leaning her face down upon the other's shoulder and wept silently, then raised their eyes and looked wistfully at each other.
"The path of duty is very rough sometimes; but if we must walk it to save another, we cannot stay our feet and be guiltless before God," said Mrs. Whitford. "It has taken many days since I saw this path of suffering and humiliation open its dreary course for me to gather up the strength required to walk in it with steady feet. Every day for more than a week I have started out resolved to see you, but every day my heart has failed. Twice I stood at your door with my hand on the bell, then turned, and went away. But the task is over, the duty done, and I pray that it may not be in vain."
What was now to be done? When Mr. Birtwell was informed of this interview, he became greatly excited, declaring that he should forbid any further intercourse between the young people. The engagement, he insisted, should be broken off at once. But Mrs. Birtwell was wiser than her husband, and knew better than he did the heart of their daughter.
Blanche had taken more from her mother than from her father, and the current of her life ran far deeper than that of most of the frivolous girls around her. Love with her could not be a mere sentiment, but a deep and all-pervading passion. Such a passion she felt for Ellis Whitford, and she was ready to link her destinies with his, whether the promise were for good or for evil. To forbid Ellis the house and lay upon her any interdictions, in regard to him would, the mother knew, precipitate the catastrophe they were anxious to avert.
It was not possible for either Mr. or Mrs. Birtwell to conceal from their daughter the state of feeling into which the visit of Mrs. Whitford had thrown them, nor long to remain passive. The work of separation must be commenced without delay. Blanche saw the change in her parents, and felt an instinct of danger; and when the first intimations of a decided purpose to make a breach between her and Ellis came, she set her face like flint against them, not in any passionate outbreak, but with a calm assertion of her undying love and her readiness to accept the destiny that lay before her. To the declaration of her mother that Ellis was doomed by inheritance to the life of a drunkard, she replied:
"Then he will only the more need my love and care."
Persuasion, appeal, remonstrance, were useless. Then Mr. Birtwell interposed with authority. Ellis was denied the house and Blanche forbidden to see him.
This was the condition of affairs at the time Mrs. Birtwell became so deeply interested in Mr. Ridley and his family. Blanche had risen, in a measure, above the deep depression of spirits consequent on the attitude of her parents toward her betrothed husband, and while showing no change in her feelings toward him seemed content to wait for what might come. Still, there was something in her manner that Mrs. Birtwell did not understand, and that occasioned at times a feeling of doubt and uneasiness.
"Where is Blanche?" asked Mr. Birtwell. It was the evening following that on which Mr. Ridley bad been taken to the Home for inebriates. He was sitting at the tea-table with his wife.
"She is in her room," replied Mrs. Birtwell.
"Are you sure?" inquired her husband.
Mrs. Birtwell noticed something in his voice that made her say quickly:
"Why do you ask?"
"For no particular reason, only she's not down to tea."
Mr. Birtwell's face had grown very serious.
"She'll be along in a few moments," returned Mrs. Birtwell.
But several minutes elapsed, and still she did not make her appearance.
"Go up and knock at Miss Blanche's door," said Mrs. Birtwell to the waiter. "She may have fallen asleep."
The man left the room.
"I feel a little nervous," said Mr. Birtwell, setting down his cup, the moment they were alone. "Has Blanche been out since dinner?"
"All right, then. It was only a fancy, as I knew it to be at the time. But it gave me a start."
"What gave you a start?" asked Mrs. Birtwell.
"A face in a carriage. I saw it for an instant only."
"I thought for the moment it was that of Blanche."
Mrs. Birtwell grew very pale, leaned back in her chair and turned her head listening for the waiter. Neither of them spoke until he returned.
"Miss Blanche is not there."
Both started from the table and left the room, the waiter looking after them in surprise. They were not long in suspense. A letter from Blanche, addressed to her mother, which was found lying on her bureau, told the sad story of her perilous life-venture, and overwhelmed her parents with sorrow and dismay. It read:
"MY DEAR FATHER AND MOTHER: When you receive this, I shall be married to Ellis Whitford. There is nothing that I can say to break for you the pain of this intelligence. If there was, oh how gladly would I say it! My destiny is on me, and I must walk in the way it leads. It is not that I love you less that I go away from you, but because I feel the voice of duty which is calling to me to be the voice of God. Another life and another destiny are bound up in mine, and there is no help for me. God bless you and comfort you, and keep your hearts from turning against your loving
In all their fond looks forward to the day when their beautiful child should stand in bridal robes—and what parents with lovely daughters springing up toward womanhood do not thus look forward and see such visions?—no darkly, brooding fancy had conceived of anything like this. The voice that fell upon their ears was not the song of a happy bride going joyously to the altar, but the cry of their pet lamb bound for the sacrifice.
"Oh, madness, madness!" exclaimed Mr. Birtwell, in anger and dismay.
"My poor unhappy child! God pity her!" sobbed the white-lipped mother, tearless under the sudden shock of this great disaster that seemed as if it would beat out her life.
There was no help, no remedy. The fatal step had been taken, and henceforth the destiny of their child was bound up with that of one whose inherited desire for drink had already debased his manhood. For loving parents we can scarcely imagine a drearier outlook upon life than this.
The anger of Mr. Birtwell soon wasted its strength amid the shallows of his weaker character, but the pain and hopeless sorrow grew stronger and went deeper down into the heart of Mrs. Birtwell day by day. Their action in the case was such as became wise and loving parents. What was done was done, and angry scenes, coldness and repulsion could now only prove hurtful. As soon as Blanche returned from a short bridal-tour the doors of her father's house were thrown open for her and her husband to come in. But the sensitive, high-spirited young man said, "No." He could not deceive himself in regard to the estimation in which he was held by Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell, and was not willing to encounter the humiliation of living under their roof and coming in daily but restrained contact with them. So he took his bride to his mother's house, and Mrs. Birtwell had no alternative but to submit, hard as the trial was, to this separation from her child.
This was the shadow of the great evil in which Mrs. Birtwell was sitting on the day Mr. Ridley found himself amid the new influences and new friends that were to give him another start in life and another chance to redeem himself. She had passed a night of tears and agony, and though suffering deeply had gained a calm exterior. Ethel, after leaving the Home, came with a heart full of new hope and joy to see Mrs. Birtwell and tell her about her father.
The first impulse of the unhappy mother, sitting in the shadows of her own great sorrow, was to send the girl away with a simple denial.
"Say that I cannot see her this morning," she said coldly. But before the servant could leave the room she repented of this denial.
"Stay!" she called. Then, while the servant paused, she let her thoughts go from herself to, Ethel and her father.
"Tell the young lady to wait for a little while," she said. "I will ring for you in a few minutes." The servant went out, and Mrs. Birtwell turned to her secretary and wrote a few lines, saying that she was not feeling well and could not see Miss Ridley then, but would be glad to have her call in two or three days. Placing this with a bank-bill in an envelope, she rang for the servant, who took the letter down stairs and gave it to Ethel.
But Mrs. Birtwell did not feel as though she had done her whole duty in the case. A pressure was left upon her feelings. What of the father? How was it faring with him? She hesitated about recalling the servant until it was too late. Ethel took the letter, and without opening it went away.
A new disquiet came from this cause, and Mrs. Birtwell could not shake it off. Happily for her relief, Mr. Elliott, whose interest in the fallen man was deep enough to take him to the Home that morning, called upon her with the most gratifying intelligence. He had seen Mr. Ridley and held a long interview with him, the result of which was a strong belief that the new influences under which he had been brought would be effectual in saving him.
"I have faith in these influences," said the clergyman, "because I understand their ground and force. Peter would have gone down hopelessly in the Sea of Galilee if he had depended on himself alone. Only the divine Saviour, on whom he called and in whom he trusted, could save him; and so it is in the case of men like Mr. Ridley who try to walk over the sea of temptation. Peter's despairing cry of 'Save, Lord, or I perish,' must be theirs also if they would keep from sinking beneath the angry waters, and no one ever calls sincerely upon God for help without receiving it. That Mr. Ridley is sincere I have no doubt, and herein lies my great confidence."
At the end of a week Blanche returned from her wedding-tour, and was received by her parents with love and tenderness instead of reproaches. These last, besides being utterly useless, would have pushed the young husband away from them and out of the reach of any saving influences it might be in their power to exercise.
The hardest trial now for Mrs. Birtwell was the separation from Blanche, whose daily visits were a poor substitute for the old constant and close companionship. If there had not been a cloud in the sky of her child's future, with its shadow already dimming the brightness of her young life, the mother's heart would have still felt an aching and a void, would have been a mourner for love's lost delights and possessions that could nevermore return. But to all this was added a fear and, dread that made her soul grow faint when thought cast itself forward into the coming time.
The Rev. Mr. Brantley Elliott was a wiser and truer man than some who read him superficially imagined. His churchmanship was sometimes narrower than his humanity, while the social element in his character, which was very strong, often led him to forget in mixed companies that much of what he might say or do would be judged of by the clerical and not the personal standard, and his acts and words set down at times as favoring worldliness and self-indulgence. Harm not unfrequently came of this. But he was a sincere Christian man, deeply impressed with the sacredness of his calling and earnest in his desire to lead heavenward the people to whom he ministered.
The case of Mr. Ridley had not only startled and distressed him, but filled him with a painful concern lest other weak and tempted ones might have fallen through his unguarded utterance or been bereaved through his freedom. The declaration of Paul came to him with a new force: "Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no meat while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend;" and he resolved not only to abstain from wine hereafter in mixed companies, but to use his influence to discourage a social custom fraught, as he was now beginning to see, with the most disastrous consequences.
The deep concern felt for Mr. Ridley by Mr. Elliott and Mrs. Birtwell drew them oftener together now, and took them frequently to the Home for inebriates, in which both took a deep interest. For over three weeks Mr. Ridley remained at the institution, its religious influences growing deeper and deeper every day. He met there several men who had fallen from as high an estate as himself—men of cultured intellect, force of character and large ability—and a feeling of brotherhood grew up between them. They helped and strengthened each other, entering into a league offensive and defensive, and pledging themselves to an undying antagonism toward every form of intemperance.
When Mr. Ridley returned to his home, he found it replete with many comforts not there when love and despair sent him forth to die, for aught he knew, amid nameless horrors. An office had been rented for him, and Mr. Birtwell had a case of considerable importance to place in his hands. It was a memorable occasion in the Court of Common Pleas when, with the old clear light in his eyes and bearing of conscious power, he stood among his former associates, and in the firm, ringing voice which had echoed there so many times before, made an argument for his client that held both court and jury almost spellbound for an hour.
THE seed and the harvest are alike in quality. Between cause and effect there is an unchanging and eternal relation. Men never find grapes on thorns nor figs on thistles.
As an aggregate man, society has no escape from this law. It must reap as it sows. If its customs be safe and good, its members, so far as they are influenced by these customs, will be temperate, orderly and virtuous; but if its tone be depraved and its customs evil or dangerous, moral and physical ruin must; in too many sad cases be the inevitable result.
It is needless to press this view, for it is self-evident and no one calls it in question. Its truth has daily and sorrowful confirmation in the wan faces and dreary eyes and wrecks of a once noble and promising manhood one meets at every turn.
The thorn and the thistle harvest that society reaps every year is fearfully great, and the seed from which too large a portion of this harvest comes is its drinking customs. Men of observation and intelligence everywhere give this testimony with one consent. All around us, day and night, year by year, in palace and hovel, the gathering of this sad and bitter harvest goes on—the harvest of broken hearts and ruined lives. And still the hand of the sower is not stayed. Refined and lovely women and men of low and brutal instincts, church members and scoffers at religion, stately gentlemen and vulgar clowns, are all at work sowing the baleful seed that ripens, alas! too quickly its fruit of woe. The home saloon vies with the common licensed saloon in its allurements and attractions, and men who would think themselves degraded by contact with those who for gain dispense liquor from a bar have a sense of increased respectability as they preside over the good wine and pure spirits they offer to their guests in palace homes free of cost.
We are not indulging in forms of rhetoric. To do so would only weaken the force of our warning. What we have written is no mere fancy work. The pictures thrown upon our canvas with all the power of vivid portraiture that we possess are but feeble representations of the tragic scenes that are enacted in society year by year, and for which every member of society who does not put his hand to the work of reform is in some degree responsible.
We are not developing a romance, but trying, as just said, to give from real life some warning pictures. Our task is nearly done. A few more scenes, and then our work will be laid for the present aside.
There are men who never seem to comprehend the lesson of events or to feel the pressure of personal responsibility. They drift with the tide, doing as their neighbors do, and resting satisfied. The heroism of self-sacrifice or self-denial is something to which they cannot rise. Nothing is farther from their ambition than the role of a reformer. Comfortable, self-indulgent, placid, they move with the current and manage to keep away from its eddies. Such a man was Mr. Birtwell. He knew of some of the disasters that followed so closely upon his grand entertainment, but refused to connect therewith any personal responsibility. It was unfortunate, of course, that these things should have happened with him, but he was no more to blame for them than if they had happened with his neighbor across the way. So he regarded the matter. But not so Mrs. Birtwell. As we have seen, a painful sense of responsibility lay heavily upon her heart.
The winter that followed was a gay one, and many lag entertainments were given. The Birtwells always had a party, and this party was generally the event of the season, for Mr. Birtwell liked eclat and would get it if possible. Time passed, and Mrs. Birtwell, who had sent regrets to more than half the entertainments to which they received invitations said nothing.
"When are we going to have our party?" asked Mr. Birtwell of his wife as they sat alone one evening. He saw her countenance change. After a few moments she replied in a low but very firm and decided voice:
"Whenever we can have it without wine."
"Then we'll never have it," exclaimed Mr. Birtwell, in considerable excitement.
"It will be better so," returned his wife, "than again to lay stumbling-blocks at the feet of our neighbors."
There came a sad undertone in her voice that her husband did not fail to perceive.
"We don't agree in this thing," said Mr. Birtwell, with some irritation of manner.
"Then will it not be best to let the party go over until we can agree? No harm can come of that, and harm might come, as it did last year, from turning our house into a drinking-saloon."
The sting of these closing words was sharp. It was not the first time Mr. Birtwell had heard his wife use them, and they never failed to shock his fine sense of respectability.
"For Heaven's sake, Margaret," he broke out, in a passion he could not control, "don't say that again! It's an outrage. You'll give mortal offence if you use such language."
"It is best to call things by their right names," replied Mrs. Birtwell, in no way disturbed by her husband's weak anger. "As names signify qualities, we should be very careful how we deceive others by the use of wrong ones. To call a lion a lamb might betray a blind or careless person into the jaws of a ferocious monster, or to speak of the fruit of the deadly nightshade as a cherry might deceive a child into eating it."
"You are incorrigible," said Mr. Birtwell, his anger subsiding. It never went very deep, for his nature was shallow.
"No, not incorrigible, but right," returned Mrs. Birtwell.
"Then we are not to have a party this winter?"
"I did not say so. On the contrary, I am ready to entertain our friends, but the party I give must be one in which no wine or brandy is served."
"Preposterous!" ejaculated Mr. Birtwell. "We'd make ourselves the laughing-stock of the city."
"Perhaps not," returned his wife.
Mr. Birtwell shook his head and shut his mouth tightly:
"There's no use in talking about it if the thing can't be done right, it can't be done at all."
"So say I. Still, I would do it right and show society a better way if you were brave enough to stand by my side. But as you are not, our party must go by default this winter."
Mrs. Birtwell smiled faintly to soften the rebuke of her words. They had reached this point in their conversation when Mr. Elliott, their clergyman, called. His interest in the Home for inebriates had increased instead of abating, and he now held the place of an active member in the board of directors. Mrs. Birtwell had, months before, given in her adhesion to the cause of reform, and the board of lady managers, who had a close supervision of the internal arrangements of the Home, had few more efficient workers.
In the beginning Mr. Birtwell had "pooh-poohed" at his wife's infatuation, as he called it, and prophesied an early collapse of the whole affair. "The best thing to do with a drunkard," he would say, with mocking levity, "is to let him die. The sooner he is out of the way, the better for himself and society." But of late he had given the matter a more respectful consideration. Still, he would have his light word and pleasant banter both with his wife and Mr. Elliott, who often dropped in to discuss with Mrs. Birtwell the interests of the Home.
"Just in the nick of time," exclaimed Mr. Birtwell, smiling, as he took the clergyman's hand.
"My wife and I have had a disagreement—we quarrel dreadfully, you know—and you must decide between us."
"Indeed! What's the trouble now?" said Mr. Elliott, looking from one to the other.
"Well, you see, we've been discussing the party question, and are at daggers' points."
The light which had spread over Mr. Elliott's countenance faded off quickly, and Mr. Birtwell saw it assume a very grave aspect. But he kept on:
"You never heard anything so preposterous. Mrs. Birtwell actually proposes that we give a coldwater-and-lemonade entertainment. Ha! ha!"
The smile he had expected to provoke by this sally did not break into the clergyman's face.
"But I say," Mr. Birtwell added, "do the thing right, or don't do it all."
"What do you call right?" asked Mr. Elliott.
"The way it is done by other people—as we did it last year, for instance."
"I should be sorry to see last year's entertainment repeated if like consequences must follow," replied Mr. Elliott, becoming still more serious.
Mr. Birtwell showed considerable annoyance at: this.
"I have just come from a visit to your friend Mrs. Voss," said the clergyman.
"How is she?" Mrs. Birtwell asked, anxiously.
"I do not think she can last much longer," was replied.
Tears came into Mrs. Birtwell's eyes and fell over her cheeks.
"A few days at most—a few hours, maybe—and she will be at rest. She spoke of you very tenderly, and I think would like to see you."
"Then I will go to her immediately," said Mrs. Birtwell, rising. "You must excuse me, Mr. Elliott. I will take the carriage and go alone," she added, glancing toward her husband.
The two men on being left alone remained silent for a while. Mr. Birtwell was first to speak.
"I have always felt badly," he said, "about the death of Archie Voss. No blame attaches to us of course, but it was unfortunate that he had been at our house."
"Yes, very unfortunate," responded the clergyman. Something in his voice as well as in his manner awakened an uncomfortable feeling in the mind of Mr. Birtwell.
They were silent again, neither of them seeming at his ease.
"I had hoped," said Mr. Elliott, breaking at length this silence, "to find you by this time over upon our side."
"The cold-water side, you mean?" There was perceptible annoyance in Mr. Birtwell's tone.
"On the side of some reform in our social customs. Why can't you join with your excellent wife in taking the initiative? You may count on me to endorse the movement and give it my countenance and support."
"Thank you, Mr. Elliott, but I'm not your man," returned Mr. Birtwell. He spoke with decision. "I have no desire to be counted in with reformers."
"Think of the good you might do."
"I am not a philanthropist."
"Then think of the evil you might prevent."
"The good or the evil resulting from my action, take which side I may, will be very small," said Mr. Birtwell, with an indifference of manner that showed his desire to drop the subject. But Mr. Elliott was only leading the way for some plainer talk, and did not mean to lose his opportunity.
"It is an error," he said, "to make light of our personal influence or the consequences that may flow from what we do. The hand of a child is not too weak to hold the match that fires a cannon. When evil elements are aggregated, the force required to release them is often very small. We may purpose no wrong to our neighbor in the indulgence of a freedom that leads him into fiery temptation; but if we know that our freedom must of necessity do this, can we escape responsibility if we do not deny ourselves?"
"It is easy to ask questions and to generalize," returned Mr. Birtwell, not hiding the annoyance he felt.
"Shall I come down to particulars and deal in facts?" asked Mr. Elliott.
"If you care to do so."
"I have some facts—very sad and sorrowful ones. You may or may not know them—at least not all. But you should know them, Mr. Birtwell."
There was no escape now.
"You half frighten me, Mr. Elliott. What are you driving at?"
"I need not refer," said the clergyman, "to the cases of Archie Voss and Mr. Ridley."
Mr. Birtwell raised his hands in deprecation.
"Happily," continued Mr. Elliott, "Mr. Ridley has risen from his fall, and now stands firmer, I trust, than ever, and farther away from the reach of temptation, resting not in human but in divine strength. Archie is in heaven, where before many days his mother will join him."
"Why are you saying this?" demanded Mr. Birtwell. "You are going too far." His face had grown a little pale.
"I say it as leading to something more," replied the clergyman. "If there had been no more bitter fruit than this, no more lives sacrificed, it would have been sad enough. But—"
"Sir, you are trifling," exclaimed Mr. Birtwell, starting from his chair. "I cannot admit your right to talk to me in this way."
"Be calm, my dear sir," answered Mr. Elliott, laying his hand upon his companion. "I am not trifling with you. As your warm personal friend as well as your spiritual counselor, I am here to-night to give a solemn admonition, and I can best do this through the communication of facts—facts that stand on record for ever unchangeable whether you know them or not. Better that you should know them."
Mr. Birtwell sat down, passive now, his hand grasping the arms of his chair like one bracing himself for a shock.
"You remember General Abercrombie?"
"Do you know what has become of him?"
"No. I heard something about his having been dismissed from the army."
"Did you hear the cause?"
"It was drunkenness, I believe."
"Yes, that was the cause. He was a fine officer and a man of high character, but fell into habits of intemperance. Seeing himself drifting to certain ruin, he made a vigorous effort to reform his life. Experience told him that his only safety lay in complete abstinence, and this rule he adopted. For many months he remained firm. But he fell at your house. The odor of wine that pervaded all the air and stirred within him the long-sleeping appetite, the freedom he saw around him, the invitations that met him from distinguished men and beautiful women, the pressure of a hundred influences upon his quickened desires, bore him down at last, and he fell.
"I heard the whole sad story to-day," continued Mr. Elliott. He did not even attempt to struggle up again, but abandoned himself to his fate. Soon after, he was removed from the command of this department and sent off to the Western frontier, and finally court-martialed and dismissed from the army.
"To his wife, who was deeply attached to him, General Abercrombie was when sober one of the kindest and most devoted of husbands, but a crazy and cruel fiend when drunk. It is said that on the night he went home from your house last winter strange noises and sudden cries of fear were heard in their room, and that Mrs. Abercrombie when seen next morning looked as if she had just come from a bed of sickness. She accompanied him to the West, but I learned today that since his dismissal from the army his treatment of her has been so outrageous and cruel that she has had to leave him in fear of her life, and is now with her friends, a poor broken-hearted woman. As for the general, no one seems to know what has become of him."
"And the responsibility of all this you would lay at my door?" said Mr. Birtwell, in a husky voice, through which quivered a tone of anger. "But I reject your view of the case entirely. General Abercrombie fell because he had no strength of purpose and no control of his appetite. He happened to trip at my house—that is all. He would have fallen sooner or later somewhere."
"Happened to trip! Yes, that is it, Mr. Birtwell; you use the right word. He tripped at your house. But who laid the stone of stumbling in his path? Suppose there had been no wine, served to your guests, would he have stumbled on that fatal night? If there had been no wine served, would Archie Voss have lost his way in the storm or perished in the icy waters? No, my friend, no; and if there had been no wine served at your board that night, three human lives which have, alas! been hidden from us by death's eclipse would be shedding light and warmth upon many hearts now sorrowful and desolate. Three human lives, and a fourth just going out. There is responsibility, and neither you nor I can escape it, Mr. Birtwell, if through indifference or design we permit ourselves to become the instruments of such dire calamities."
Mr. Birtwell had partly risen from his chair in making the weak defence to which this was a reply, but now sunk back with an expression that was half bewilderment and half terror on his countenance.
"In Heaven's name, Mr. Elliott, what does all this mean?" he cried. "Three lives and a fourth going out, and the responsibility laid at my door!"
"It is much easier to let loose an evil power than to stay its progress," said Mr. Elliott. "The near and more apparent effects we may see, rarely the remote and secondary. But we know that the action of all forces, good or evil, is like that of expanding wave-circles, and reaches far beyond, our sight. It has done so in this case. Yes, Mr. Birtwell, three lives, and a fourth now flickering like an expiring candle.
"I would spare you all this if I dared, if I could be conscience-clear," continued Mr. Elliott. "But I would be faithless to my duty if I kept silent. You know the sad case of Mrs. Carlton?"
"You don't mean to lay that, too, at my door!" exclaimed Mr. Birtwell.
"Not directly; it was one of the secondary effects. I had a long conversation with Dr. Hillhouse to-day. His health has failed rapidly for some months past, and he is now much broken down. You know that he performed the operation which cost Mrs. Carlton her life? Well, the doctor has never got over the shock of that catastrophe. It has preyed upon his mind ever since, and is one of the causes of his impaired health."
"I should call that a weakness," returned Mr. Birtwell. "He did his best. No one is safe from accidents or malign influences. I never heard that Mr. Carlton blamed him."
"Ah, these malign influences!" said the clergyman. "They meet us everywhere and hurt us at every turn, and yet not one of them could reach and affect our lives if some human hand did not set them free and send them forth among men to, hurt and to destroy. And now let me tell you of the interview I had with Dr. Hillhouse to-day. He has given his consent, but with this injunction: we cannot speak of it to others."
"I will faithfully respect his wishes," said Mr. Birtwell.
"This morning," resumed Mr. Elliott, "I received a note from the doctor, asking me to call and see him. He was much depressed, and said he had long wanted to have a talk with me about something that weighed heavily on his mind. Let me give you his own words as nearly as I am able to remember them. After some remarks about personal influence and our social responsibilities, he said:
"'There is one thing, Mr. Elliott, in which you and I and a great many others I could name have not only been derelict of duty, but serious wrongdoers. There is an evil in society that more than all others is eating out its life, and you and I have encouraged that evil even by our own example, calling it innocent, and so leading the weak astray and the unwary into temptation.'
"I understood what he meant, and the shock of his including accusation, his 'Thou art the man,' sent a throb of pain to my heart. That I had already seen my false position and changed front did not lessen the shock, for I was only the more sensitive to pain.
"'Happily for you, Mr. Elliott,' he went on, 'no such bitter fruit has been plucked by your hands as by mine, and I pray God that it may never be. For a long time I have carried a heavy load here'—he drew his hand against his breast—'heavier than I have strength to bear. Its weight is breaking me down. It is no light thing, sir, to feel at times that you are a murderer.'
"He shivered, and there passed across his face a look of horror. But it was gone in a moment, though an expression of suffering remained.
"'My dear doctor.' I interposed, 'you have permitted yourself to fall into a morbid state. This is not well. You are overworked and need change and relaxation.'
"'Yes,' he replied, a little mournfully 'I am overworked and morbid and all that, I know, and I must have change and relaxation or I shall die. Ah, if I could get rid of this heavy weight!' He laid his hand upon his breast again, and drew a deep inspiration. 'But that is impossible. I must tell you all about it, but place upon you at the same time an injunction of silence, except in the case of one man, Mr. Spencer Birtwell. He is honorable and he should know, and I can trust him.
"'You remember, of course, the entertainment he gave last winter and some, of the unhappy effects that came of it, but you do not know all. I was there and enjoyed the evening, and you were there, Mr. Elliott, and I am afraid led some into temptation through our freedom. Forgive me for saying so, but the truth is best.
"'Wine was free as water—good wine, tempting to the taste. I meant to be very guarded, to take only a glass or two, for on the next day I had a delicate and dangerous operation to perform, and needed steady nerves. But the wine was good, and my one or two glasses only made way for three or four. The temptation of the hour were too much for my habitual self-restraint. I took a glass of wine with you, Mr. Elliott, after I had already taken more than was prudent under the circumstances another with Mr. Birtwell, another with General Abercrombie—alas for him! he fell that night so low that he has never risen again—and another with some one else. It was almost impossible to put a restraint upon yourself. Invitation and solicitation met you at every turn. The sphere of self-indulgence was so strong that it carried almost every one a little too far, and many into excess and debauch. I was told afterward that at a late hour the scene in the supper-room was simply disgraceful. Boys and men, and sadder still, young women, were more than half drunk, and behaved most unseemly. I can believe this, for I have seen such things too often.
"'As I went out from Mr. Birtwell's that night, and the cold, snow-laden air struck into my face on crossing the pavement to my carriage, cooling my blood and clearing my brain, I thought of Mrs. Carlton and the life that had been placed in my hands, and a feeling of concern dropped into my heart. A night's indulgence in wine-drinking was a poor preparation for the work before me, in which a clear head and steady nerves were absolutely essential. How would I be in the morning? The question thrust itself into my thoughts and troubled me. My apprehensions were not groundless. Morning found me with unsteady nerves. But this was not all. From the moment I left my bed until within half an hour of the time when the operation was to begin, I was under much excitement and deeply anxious about two of my patients, Mrs. Voss and Mrs. Ridley, both dangerously ill, Mrs. Voss, as you know, in consequence of her alarm about her son, and Mrs. Ridley—But you have heard all about her case and its fatal termination, and understand in what way it was connected with the party at Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell's. The consequence of that night's excesses met me at every turn. The unusual calls, the imminent danger in which I found Mrs. Ridley and the almost insane demands made upon me by her despairing husband, all conspired to break down my unsteady nerves and unfit me for the work I had to do. When the time came, there was only one desperate expedient left, and that was the use of a strong stimulant, under the effect of which I was able to extract the tumor from Mrs. Carlton's neck.
"'Alas for the too temporary support of my stimulant! It failed me at the last moment. My sight was not clear nor my hand steady as I tied the small arteries which had been cut during the operation. One of these, ligated imperfectly, commenced bleeding soon after I left the house. A hurried summons reached me almost immediately on my return home, and before I had steadied my exhausted nerves with a glass of wine. Hurrying back, I found the wound bleeding freely. Prompt treatment was required. Ether was again administered. But you know the rest, Mr. Elliott. It is all too dreadful, and I cannot go over it again. Mrs. Carlton fell another victim to excess in wine. This is the true story. I was not blamed by the husband. The real cause of the great calamity that fell upon him he does not know to this day, and I trust will never know. But I have not since been able to look steadily into his dreary eyes. A guilty sense of wrong oppresses me whenever I come near him. As I said before, this thing is breaking me down. It has robbed me, I know, of many years of professional usefulness to which I had looked forward, and left a bitter thought in my mind and a shadow on my feelings that can never pass away.
"'Mr. Elliott,' he continued, 'you have a position of sacred trust. Your influence is large. Set yourself, I pray you, against the evil which has wrought these great disasters. Set yourself against the dangerous self-indulgence called "moderate drinking." It is doing far more injury to society than open drunkenness, more a hundred—nay, a thousand—fold. If I had been a drunkard, no such catastrophe as this I have mentioned could have happened in my practice, for Mr. Carlton would not then have trusted his wife in my hands. My drunkenness would have stood as a warning against me. But I was a respectable moderate drinker, and could take my wine without seeming to be in any way affected by it. But see how it betrayed me at last.'"
Mr. Birtwell had been sitting during this relation with his head bowed upon his breast. When Mr. Elliott ceased speaking, he raised himself up in a slow, weary sort of way, like one oppressed by fatigue or weak from illness.
"Dreadful, dreadful!" he ejaculated. "I never dreamed of anything like this. Poor Carlton!"
"You see," remarked Mr. Elliott, "how easily a thing like this may happen. A man cannot go to one of these evening entertainments and indulge with anything like the freedom to which he is invited and be in a condition to do his best work on the day following. Some of your iron-nerved men may claim an exemption here, but we know that all over-stimulation must leave the body in some degree unstrung when the excitement dies out, and they suffer loss with the rest—a loss the aggregate of which makes itself felt in the end. We have to think for a moment only to satisfy ourselves that the wine-and brandy-drinking into which men and women are enticed at dinner-parties and fashionable entertainments is a fruitful source of evil. The effect upon body and mind after the indulgence is over is seen in headaches, clouded brain, nervous irritation, lassitude, inability to think, and sometimes in a general demoralization of both the physical and mental economy. Where there is any chronic or organic ailment the morbid condition is increased and sometimes severe attacks of illness follow.
"Are our merchants, bankers, lawyers, doctors and men holding responsible trusts as fit for duty after a social debauch—is the word too strong?—as before? If we reflect for a moment—you see, Mr. Birtwell, in what current my thoughts have been running—it must be clear to us that after every great entertainment such as you and other good citizens are in the habit of giving many business and professional mistakes must follow, some of them of a serious character. All this crowds upon and oppresses me, and my wonder is that it did not long ago so crowd upon and oppress me. It seems as though scales had dropped suddenly from my eyes and things I had never seen before stood out in clearest vision."
THEY were still in conversation when Mrs. Birtwell returned. Her eyes were wet and her face pale and sorrowful. She sat down beside her husband, and without speaking laid her head against him and sobbed violently. Mr. Birtwell feared to ask the question whose answer he guessed too well.
"How is it with our friend?" Mr. Elliott inquired as Mrs. Birtwell grew calmer. She looked up, answering sorrowfully:
"It is all over," then hid her face again, borne down by excessive emotion.
"The Lord bless and comfort his stricken ones," said the minister as he arose and stood for a few moments with his hand resting on the bowed head of Mrs. Birtwell. "The Lord make us wiser, more self-denying and more loyal to duty. Out of sorrow let joy come, out of trouble peace; out of suffering and affliction a higher, purer and nobler life for us all. We are in his merciful hands, and he will make us instruments of blessing if we but walk in the ways he would lead us. Alas that we have turned from him so often to walk in our own paths and follow the devices of our own hearts! His ways are way of pleasantness and his paths are peace, but ours wind too often among thorns and briars, or go down into the gloomy valley and shadow of death."
A solemn silence followed, and in that deep hush vows were made that are yet unbroken.
"If any have stumbled through us and fallen by the way," said Mr. Elliott, "let us here consecrate ourselves to the work of saving them if possible."
He reached his hand toward Mr. Birtwell. The banker did not hesitate, but took the minister's extended hand and grasped it with a vigor that expressed the strength of his new-formed purpose. Light broke through the tears that blinded the eyes of Mrs. Birtwell. Clasping both of her hands over those of her husband and Mr. Elliott, she cried out with irrepressible emotion:
"I give myself to God also in this solemn consecration!"
"The blessing of our Lord Jesus Christ rest upon it, and make us true and faithful," dropped reverentially from the minister's lips.
Somewhere this panorama of life must close. Scene after scene might still be given; but if those already presented have failed to stir the hearts and quicken the consciences of many who have looked upon them, rousing some to a sense of danger and others to a sense of duty, it were vain to display another canvas; and so we leave our work as it stands, but in the faith that it will do good.
Hereafter we may take it up again and bring into view once more some of the actors in whom it is impossible not to feel a strong interest. Life goes on, though the record of events be not given,—life, with its joys and sorrows, its tempests of passion and its sweet calms, its successes and its failures, its all of good and evil; goes on though we drop the pencil and leave our canvas blank.
It is no pleasant task to paint as we have been painting, nor as we must still paint should the work now dropped ever be resumed. But as we take a last look at some of the scenes over which we now draw the curtain we see strong points of light and a promise of good shining clear through the shadows of the evil.