Chapter XXII.
 

As Mrs. Birtwell left the house of Mr. Elliott a slender girl, thinly clad, passed from the beautiful residence of Mrs. Sandford. She had gone in only a little while before with hope in her pale young face; now it had almost a frightened look. Her eyes were wet, and her lips had the curve of one who grieves helplessly and in silence. Her steps, as she moved down the street, were slow and unsteady, like the steps of one who bore a heavy burden or of one weakened by long illness. In her ears was ringing a sentence that had struck upon them like the doom of hope. It was this--and it had fallen from the lips of Mrs. Sandford, spoken with a cold severity that was more assumed than real--

"If you will do as I suggest, I will see that you have a good home; but if you will not, I can do nothing for you."

There was no reply on the part of the young girl, and no sign of doubt or hesitation. All the light--it had been fading slowly as the brief conference between her and Mrs. Sandford had progressed--died out of her face. She shrunk a little in her chair, her head dropping forward. For the space of half a minute she sat with eyes cast down. Both were silent, Mrs. Sandford waiting to see the effect of what she had said, and hoping it would work a change in the girl's purpose. But she was disappointed. After sitting in a stunned kind of way for a short time, she rose, and without trusting herself to speak bowed slightly and left the room. Mrs. Sandford did not call after the girl, but suffered her to go down stairs and leave the house without an effort to detain her.

"She must gang her ain gait," said the lady, fretfully and with a measure of hardness in her voice.

On reaching the street, Ethel Ridley--the reader has guessed her name--walked away with slow, unsteady steps. She felt helpless and friendless. Mrs. Sandford had offered to find her a home if she would abandon her father and little brother. The latter, as Mrs. Sandford urged, could be sent to his mother's relatives, where he would be much better off than now.

Not for a single instant did Ethel debate the proposition. Heart and soul turned from it. She might die in her effort to keep a home for her wretched father, but not till then had she any thought of giving up.

On leaving the house of Mr. Elliott, Mrs. Birtwell. went home, and after remaining there for a short time ordered her carriage and drove to a part of the town lying at considerable distance from that in which she lived. Before starting she had given her driver the name of the street and number of the house at which she was going to make a call. The neighborhood was thickly settled, and the houses small and poor. The one before which the carriage drew up did not look quite so forlorn as its neighbors; and on glancing up at the second-story windows, Mrs. Birtwell saw two or three flower-pots, in one of which a bright rose was blooming.

"This is the place you gave me, ma'am," said the driver as he held open the door. "Are you sure it is right?"

"I presume so;" and Mrs. Birtwell stepped out, and crossing the pavement to the door, rang the bell. It was opened by a pleasant-looking old woman, who, on being asked if a Miss Ridley lived there, replied in the affirmative.

"You will find her in the front room up stairs, ma'am," she added. "Will you walk up?"

The hall into which Mrs. Birtwell passed was narrow and had a rag carpet on the floor. But the carpet was clean and the atmosphere pure. Ascending the stairs, Mrs. Birtwell knocked at the door, and was answered by a faint "Come in" from a woman's voice.

The room in which she found herself a moment afterward was almost destitute of furniture. There was no carpet nor bureau nor wash-stand, only a bare floor, a very plain bedstead and bed, a square pine table and three chairs. There was not the smallest ornament of any kind on the mantel-shelf but in the windows were three pots of flowers. Everything looked clean. Some work lay upon the table, near which Ethel Ridley was sitting. But she had, turned away from the table, and sat with one pale cheek resting on her open hand. Her face wore a dreary, almost hopeless expression. On seeing Mrs. Birtwell, she started up, the blood leaping in a crimson tide to her neck, cheeks and temples, and stood in mute expectation.

"Miss Ridley?" said her visitor, in a kind voice.

Ethel only bowed. She could not speak in her sudden surprise. But recovering herself in a few moments she offered Mrs. Birtwell a chair.

"Mrs. Sandford spoke to me about you."

As Mrs. Birtwell said this she saw the flush die out of Ethel's face and an expression of pain come over it. Guessing at what this meant, she added, quickly:

"Mrs. Sandford and I do not think alike. You must keep your home, my child."

Ethel gave a start and caught her breath. A look of glad surprise broke into her face.

"Oh, ma'am," she answered, not able to steady her voice or keep the tears out of her eyes, "if I can only do that! I am willing to work if I can find anything to do. But--but--" She broke down, hiding her face in her hands and sobbing.

Mrs. Birtwell was deeply touched. How could she help being so in presence of the desolation and sorrow for which she felt herself and husband to be largely responsible?

"It shall all be made plain and easy for you, my dear child," she answered, taking Ethel's hand and kissing her with almost a mother's tenderness. "It is to tell you this that I have come. You are too young and weak to bear these burdens yourself. But stronger hands shall help you."

It was a long time before Ethel could recover herself from the surprise and joy awakened by so unexpected a declaration. When she comprehended the whole truth, when the full assurance came, the change wrought in her appearance was almost marvelous, and Mrs. Birtwell saw before her a maiden of singular beauty with a grace and sweetness of manner rarely found.

The task she had now to perform Mrs. Birtwell found a delicate one. She soon saw that Ethel had a sensitive feeling of independence, and that in aiding her she would have to devise some means of self-help that would appear to be more largely remunerative than it really was. From a simple gratuity the girl shrank, and it was with some difficulty that she was able to induce her to take a small sum of money as an advance on some almost pretended service, the nature of which she would explain to her on the next day, when Ethel was to call at her house.

So Mrs. Birtwell took her first step in the new path of duty wherein she had set her feet. For the next she would wait and pray for guidance. She had not ventured to say much to Ethel at the first interview about her father. The few questions asked had caused such evident distress of mind that she deemed it best to wait until she saw Ethel again before talking to her more freely on a subject that could not but awaken the keenest suffering.

Mrs. Birtwell's experience was a common one. She had scarcely taken her first step in the path of duty before the next was made plain. In her case this was so marked as to fill her with surprise. She had undertaken to save a human soul wellnigh lost, and was entering upon her work with that singleness of purpose which gives success where success is possible. Such being the case, she was an instrument through which a divine love of saving could operate. She became, as it were, the human hand by which God could reach down and grasp a sinking soul ere the dark waters of sin and sorrow closed over it for ever.

She was sitting alone that evening, her heart full of the work to which she had set her hand and her mind beating about among many suggestions, none of which had any reasonable promise of success, when a call from Mr. Elliott was announced. This was unusual. What could it mean? Naturally she associated it with Mr. Ridley. She hurried down to meet him, her heart beating rapidly. As she entered the parlor Mr. Elliott, who was standing in the centre of the room, advanced quickly toward her and grasped her hand with a strong pressure. His manner was excited and there was a glow of unusual interest on his face:

"I have just heard something that I wish to talk with you about. There is hope for our poor friend."

"For Mr. Ridley?" asked Mrs. Birtwell, catching the excitement of her visitor.

"Yes, and God grant that it may not be a vain hope!" he added, with a prayer in his heart as well as upon his lips.

They sat down and the clergyman went on:

"I have had little or no faith in any of the efforts which have been made to reform drunkenness, for none of them, in my view, went down to the core of the matter. I know enough of human nature and its depravity, of the power of sensual allurement and corporeal appetite, to be very sure that pledges, and the work usually done for inebriates in the asylums established for their benefit, cannot, except in a few cases, be of any permanent good. No man who has once been enslaved by any inordinate appetite can, in my view, ever get beyond the danger of re-enslavement unless through a change wrought in him by God, and this can only take place after a prayerful submission of himself to God and obedience to his divine laws so far as lies in his power. In other words, Mrs. Birtwell, the Church must come to his aid. It is for this reason that I have never had much faith in temperance societies as agents of personal reformation. To lift up from any evil is the work of the Church, and in her lies the only true power of salvation."

"But," said Mrs. Birtwell, "is not all work which has for its end the saving of man from evil God's work? It is surely not the work of an enemy."

"God forbid that I should say so. Every saving effort, no matter how or when made, is work for God and humanity. Do not misunderstand me. I say nothing against temperance societies. They have done and are still doing much good, and I honor the men who organize and work through them. Their beneficent power is seen in a changed and changing public sentiment, in efforts to reach the sources of a great and destructive evil, and especially in their conservative and restraining influence. But when a man is overcome of the terrible vice against which they stand in battle array, when he is struck down by the enemy and taken prisoner, a stronger hand than theirs is needed to rescue him, even the hand of God; and this is why I hold that, except in the Church, there is little or no hope for the drunkard."

"But we cannot bring these poor fallen creatures into the Church," answered Mrs. Birtwell. "They shun its doors. They stand afar off."

"The Church must go to them," said Mr. Elliott--"go as Christ, the great Head of the Church, himself went to the lowest and the vilest, and lift them up, and not only lift them up, but encompass them round with its saving influences."

"How is this to be done?" asked Mrs. Birtwell.

"That has been our great and difficult problem; but, thank God! it is, I verily believe, now being solved."

"How? Where?" eagerly asked Mrs. Birtwell. "What Church has undertaken the work?"

"A Church not organized for worship and spiritual culture, but with a single purpose to go into the wilderness and desert places in search of lost sheep, and bring them, if possible, back to the fold of God. I heard of it only to-day, though for more than a year it has been at work in our midst. Men and women of nearly every denomination have joined in the organization of this church, and are working together in love and unity. Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, Presbyterians, Swedenborgians, Congregationalists, Universalists and Unitarians, so called, here clasp hands in a common Christian brotherhood, and give themselves to the work of saving the lost and lifting up the fallen."

"Why do you call it a Church?" asked Mrs. Birtwell.

"Because it was founded in prayer to God, and with the acknowledgment that all saving power must come from him. Men of deep religious experience whose hearts yearned over the hapless condition of poor drunkards met together and prayed for light and guidance. They were willing to devote themselves to the task of saving these unhappy men if God would show them the way. And I verily believe that he has shown them the way. They have established a Christian Home, not a mere inebriate asylum."

As he spoke Mr. Elliott drew a paper from his pocket.

"Let me read you," he said, "a few sentences from an article giving an account of the work of this Church, as I have called it. I only met with it to-day, and I am not sure that it would have taken such a hold upon me had it not been for my concern about Mr. Ridley.

"The writer says, 'In the treatment of drunkenness, we must go deeper than hospital or asylum work. This reaches no farther than the physical condition and moral nature, and can therefore be only temporary in its influence. We must awaken the spiritual consciousness, and lead a man too weak to stand in his own strength when appetite, held only in abeyance, springs back upon him to trust in God as his only hope of permanent reformation. First we must help him physically, we must take him out of his debasement, his foulness and his discomfort, and surround him with the influences of a home. Must get him clothed and in his right mind, and make him feel once more that he has sympathy--is regarded as a man full of the noblest possibilities--and so be stimulated to personal effort. But this is only preliminary work, such as any hospital may do. The real work of salvation goes far beyond this; it must be wrought in a higher degree of the soul--even that which we call spiritual. The man must be taught that only in Heaven-given strength is there any safety. He must be led, in his weakness and sense of degradation, to God as the only one who can lift him up and set his feet in a safe place. Not taught this as from pulpit and platform, but by earnest, self-denying, sympathizing Christian men and women standing face to face with the poor repentant brother, and holding him tightly by the hand lest he stumble and fall in his first weak efforts to walk in a better way. And this is just the work that is now being done in our city by a Heaven-inspired institution not a year old, but with accomplished results that are a matter of wonder to all who are familiar with its operations."

Mrs. Birtwell leaned toward Mr. Elliott as he read, the light of a new hope irradiating her countenance.

"Is not this a Church in the highest and best sense?" asked Mr. Elliott, with a glow of enthusiasm in his voice.

"It is; and if the membership is not full, I am going to join it," replied Mrs. Birtwell, "and do what I can to bring at least one straying sheep out of the wilderness and into its fold."

"And I pray God that your work be not in vain," said the clergyman. "It is that I might lead you to this work that I am now here. Some of the Christian men and women whose names I find here"--Mr. Elliott referred to the paper in his hand--"are well known to me personally, and others by reputation."

He read them over.

"Such names," he added, "give confidence and assurance. In the hands of these men and women, the best that can be done will be done. And what is to hinder if the presence and the power of God be in their work? Whenever two or three meet together in his name, have they not his promise to be with them? and when he is, present, are not all saving influences most active? Present we know him to be everywhere, but his presence and power have a different effect according to the kind and degree of reception. He is present with the evil as well as the good, but he can manifest his love and work of saving far more effectually through the good than he can through the evil.

"And so, because this Home has been made a Christian Home, and its inmates taught to believe that only in coming to God in Christ as their infinite divine Saviour, and touching the hem of his garments, is there any hope of being cured of their infirmity, has its great saving power become manifest."

Just then voices were heard sounding through the hall. Apparently there was an altercation between the waiter and some one at the street door.

"What's that?" asked Mrs Birtwell, a little startled at the unusual sound.

They listened, and heard the voice of a man saying, in an excited tone:

"I must see her!"

Then came the noise of a struggle, as though the waiter were trying to prevent the forcible entry of some one.

Mrs. Birtwell started to her feet in evident alarm. Mr. Elliott was crossing to the parlor door, when it was thrown open with considerable violence, and he stood face to face with Mr. Ridley.