Chapter XXI.
 

Mr. Elliott still sat in a kind of helpless maze when his servant came in with the card of Mrs. Spencer Birtwell. He read the name almost with a start. Nothing, it seemed to him, could have been more inopportune, for now he remembered with painful distinctness that it was at the party given by Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell that Ridley had yielded to temptation and fallen, never, he feared, to rise again.

Mrs. Birtwell met him with a very serious aspect.

"I am in trouble," was the first sentence that passed her lips as she took the clergyman's hand and looked into his sober countenance.

"About what?" asked Mr. Elliott.

They sat down, regarding each other earnestly.

"Mr. Elliott," said the lady, with solemn impressiveness, "it is an awful thing to feel that through your act a soul may be lost."

Mrs. Birtwell saw the light go out of her minister's face and a look of pain sweep over it.

"An awful thing indeed," he returned, in a voice that betrayed the agitation from which he was still suffering.

"I want to talk with you about a matter that distresses me deeply," said Mrs. Birtwell, wondering as she spoke at Mr. Elliott's singular betrayal of feeling.

"If I can help you, I shall do so gladly," replied the clergyman. "What is the ground of your trouble?"

"You remember Mr. Ridley?"

Mrs. Birtwell saw the clergyman start and the spasm of pain sweep over his face once more."

"Yes," he replied, in a husky whisper. But he rallied himself with an effort and asked, "What of him?" in a clear and steady voice.

"Mr. Ridley had been intemperate before coming to the city, but after settling here he kept himself free from his old bad habits, and was fast regaining the high position he had lost. I met his wife a number of times. She was a very superior woman; and the more I saw of her, the more I was drawn to her. We sent them cards for our party last winter. Mrs. Ridley was sick and could not come. Mr. Ridley came, and--and--" Mrs. Birtwell lost her voice for a moment, then added: "You know what I would say. We put the cup to his lips, we tempted him with wine, and he fell."

Mrs. Birtwell covered her face with her hands. A few strong sobs shook her frame.

"He fell," she added as soon as she could recover herself," and still lies, prostrate and helpless, in the grasp of a cruel enemy into whose power we betrayed him."

"But you did it ignorantly," said Mr. Elliott.

"There was no intention on your part to betray him. You did not know that your friend was his deadly foe."

"My friend?" queried Mrs. Birtwell. She did not take his meaning.

"The wine, I mean. While to you and me it may be only a pleasant and cheery friend, to one like Mr. Ridley it may be the deadliest of enemies."

"An enemy to most people, I fear," returned Mrs. Birtwell, "and the more dangerous because a hidden foe. In the end it biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder."

Her closing sentence cut like a knife, and Mr. Elliott felt the sharp edge.

"He fell," resumed Mrs. Birtwell, "but the hurt was not with him alone. His wife died on the next day, and it has been said that the condition in which he came home from our house gave her a shock that killed her."

Mrs. Birtwell shivered.

"People say a great many things," returned Mr. Elliott, "and this, I doubt not is greatly exaggerated. Have you asked Doctor Hillhouse in regard to the facts in the case? He attended Mrs. Ridley, I think."

"No. I've been afraid to ask him."

"It might relieve your mind."

"Do you think I would feel any better if he said yea instead of nay? No, Mr. Elliott. I am afraid to question him."

"It's a sad affair," remarked the clergyman, gloomily, "and I don't see what is to be done about a it. When a man falls as low as Mr. Ridley has fallen, the case seems hopeless."

"Don't say hopeless, Mr. Elliott." responded Mrs. Birtwell, her voice still more troubled. "Until a man is dead he is not wholly lost. The hand of God is not stayed, and he can save to the uttermost."

"All who come unto him," added the clergyman, in a depressed voice that had in it the knell of a human soul. But these besotted men will not go to him. I am helpless and in despair of salvation, when I stand face to face with a confirmed drunkard. All one's care and thought and effort seem wasted, You lift them up to-day, and they fall to-morrow. Good resolutions, solemn promises, written pledges, go for nothing. They seem to have fallen below the sphere in which God's saving power operates."

"No, no, no, Mr. Elliott. I cannot, I will not, believe it," was the strongly-uttered reply of Mrs. Birtwell. "I do not believe that any man can fall below this potent sphere."

A deep, sigh came from the clergyman's lips, a dreary expression crept into his face. There was a heavy weight upon his heart, and he felt weak and depressed.

"Something must be done." There was the impulse of a strong resolve in Mrs. Birtwell's tones.

"God works by human agencies. If we hold back and let our hands lie idle, he cannot make us his instruments. If we say that this poor fallen fellow-creature cannot be lifted out of his degradation and turn away that he may perish, God is powerless to help him through us. Oh, sir, I cannot do this and be conscience clear. I helped him to fall, and, God giving me strength, I will help him to rise again."

Her closing sentence fell with rebuking force upon the clergyman. He too was oppressed by a heavy weight of responsibility. If the sin of this man's fall was upon the garments of Mrs. Birtwell, his were not stainless. Their condemnation was equal, their duty one.

"Ah!" he said, in tones of deep solicitude, "if we but knew how to reach and influence him!"

"We can do nothing if we stand afar off, Mr. Elliott," replied Mrs. Birtwell. "We must try to get near him. He must see our outstretched hands and hear our voices calling to him to come back. Oh, sir, my heart tells me that all is not lost. God's loving care is as much over him as it is over you and me, and his providence as active for his salvation."

"How are we to get near him, Mrs. Birtwell? This is our great impediment."

God will show us the way if we desire it. Nay, he is showing us the way, though we sought it not," replied Mrs. Birtwell, her manner becoming more confident.

"How? I cannot see it," answered the clergyman.

"There has come a crisis in his life," said Mrs. Birtwell. "In his downward course he has reached a point where, unless he can be held back and rescued, he will, I fear, drift far out from the reach of human hands. And it has so happened that I am brought to a knowledge of this crisis and the great peril it involves. Is not this God's providence? I verily believe so, Mr. Elliott. In the very depths of my soul I seem to hear a cry urging me to the rescue. And, God giving me strength, I mean to heed the admonition. This is why I have called today. I want your help, and counsel."

"It shall be given," was the clergyman's answer, made in no half-hearted way. "And now tell me all you know about this sad case. What is the nature of the crisis that has come in the life of this unhappy man?"

"I called on Mrs. Sandford this morning," replied Mrs. Birtwell, "and learned that his daughter, who is little more than a child, had applied for the situation of day-governess to her children. From Ethel she ascertained their condition, which is deplorable enough. They have been selling or pawning furniture and clothing in order to get food until but little remains, and the daughter, brought face to face with want, now steps forward to take the position of bread-winner."

"Has Mrs. Sandford engaged her?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Ethel is scarcely more than a child. Deeply as Mrs. Sandford feels for her, she cannot give her a place of so much responsibility. And besides, she does not think it right to let her remain where she is. The influence upon her life and character cannot be good, to say nothing of the tax and burden far beyond her strength that she will have to bear."

"Does she propose anything?"

"Yes. To save the children and let the father go to destruction."

"She would take them away from him?"

"Yes, thus cutting the last strand of the cord that held him away from utter ruin."

A groan that could not be repressed broke from Mr. Elliott's lips.

This must not be--at least not now," added Mrs. Birtwell, in a firm voice. "It may be possible to save him through his home and children. But if separated from them and cast wholly adrift, what hope is left?"

"None, I fear," replied Mr. Elliott.

"Then on this last hope will I build my faith and work for his rescue," said Mrs. Birtwell, with a solemn determination; "and may I count on your help?"

"To the uttermost in my power." There was nothing half-hearted in Mr. Elliott's reply. He meant to do all that his answer involved.

"Ah!" remarked Mrs. Birtwell as they talked still farther about the unhappy case, "how much easier is prevention than cure! How much easier to keep a stumbling-block out of another's way than to set him on his feet after he has fallen! Oh, this curse of drink!"

"A fearful one indeed," said Mr. Elliott, "and one that is desolating thousands of homes all over the land."

"And yet," replied Mrs. Birtwell, with a bitterness of tone she could not repress, "you and I and some of our best citizens and church people, instead of trying to free the land from this dreadful curse, strike hands with those who are engaged in spreading broadcast through society its baleful infection."

Mr. Elliott dropped his eyes to the floor like one who felt the truth of a stinging accusation, and remained silent. His mind was in great confusion. Never before had his own responsibility for this great evil looked him in the face with such a stern aspect and with such rebuking eyes.

"By example and invitation--nay, by almost irresistible enticements," continued Mrs. Birtwell--"we tempt the weak and lure the unwary and break down the lines of moderation that prudence sets up to limit appetite. I need not describe to you some of our social saturnalias. I use strong language, for I cannot help it. We are all too apt to look on their pleasant side, on the gayety, good cheer and bright reunions by which they are attended, and to excuse the excesses that too often manifest themselves. We do not see as we should beyond the present, and ask ourselves what in natural result is going to be the outcome of all this. We actually shut our eyes and turn ourselves away from the warning signs and stern admonitions that are uplifted before us.

"Is it any matter of surprise, Mr. Elliott, that we should be confronted now and then with some of the dreadful consequences that flow inevitably from the causes to which I refer? or that as individual participants in these things we should find ourselves involved in such direct personal responsibility as to make us actually shudder?"

Mrs. Birtwell did not know how keen an edge these sentences had for Mr. Elliott, nor how, deeply they cut. As for the clergyman, he kept his own counsel.

"What can we do in this sad case?" he asked, after a few assenting remarks on the dangers of social drinking. This is the great question now. I confess to being entirely at a loss. I never felt so helpless in the presence of any duty before."

"I suppose," replied Mrs. Birtwell, "that the way to a knowledge of our whole duty in any came is to begin to do the first thing that we see to be right."

"Granted; and what then? Do you see the first right thing to be done?"

"I believe so."

"What is it?"

"If, as seems plain, the separation of Mr. Ridley from his home and children is to cut the last strand of the cord that holds him away from destruction, then our first work, if we would save him, is to help his daughter to maintain that home."

"Then you would sacrifice the child for the sake of the father?"

"No; I would help the child to save her father. I would help her to keep their little home as pleasant and attractive as possible, and see that in doing so she did not work beyond her strength. This first."

"And what next?" asked Mr. Elliott.

"After I have done so much, I will trust God to show me what next. The path of duty is plain so far. If I enter it in faith and trust and walk whither it leads, I am sure that other ways, leading higher and to regions of safety, will open for my willing feet."

"God grant that it may be so," exclaimed Mr. Elliott, with a fervor that showed how deeply he was interested. "I believe you are right. The slender mooring that holds this wretched man to the shore must not be cut or broken. Sever that, and he is swept, I fear, to hopeless ruin. You will see his daughter?"

"Yes. It is all plain now. I will go to her at once. I will be her fast friend. I will let my heart go out to her as if she were my own child. I will help her to keep the home her tender and loving heart is trying to maintain."

Mrs. Birtwell now spoke with an eager enthusiasm that sent the warm color to her cheeks and made her eyes, so heavy and sorrowful a little while before, bright and full of hope.

On rising to go, Mr. Elliott urged her to do all in her power to save the wretched man who had fallen over the stumbling-block their hands had laid in his way, promising on his part all possible co-operation.