Chapter XIX.
 

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.'"