Chapter XX.
 

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.