Chapter XXIII.
 

On leaving the clergyman's residence, baffled in his efforts to get the wine he had hoped to obtain, Mr. Ridley strode hurriedly away, almost running, as though in fear of pursuit. After going for a block or two he stopped suddenly, and stood with an irresolute air for several moments. Then he started forward again, moving with the same rapid speed. His face was strongly agitated and nearly colorless. His eyes were restless, glancing perpetually from side to side.

There was no pause now until he reached the doors of a large hotel in the centre of the city. Entering, he passed first into the reading-room and looked through it carefully, then stood in the office for several minutes, as if waiting for some one. While here a gentleman who had once been a client came in, and was going to the clerk's desk to make some inquiry, when Ridley stepped forward, and calling him by name, reached out his hand. It was not taken, however. The man looked at him with an expression of annoyance and disgust, and then passed him without a word.

A slight tinge of color came into Ridley's pale face. He bit his lips and clenched his hands nervously.

From the office he went to the bar-room. At the door he met a well-known lawyer with whom he had crossed swords many times in forensic battles oftener gaining victory than suffering defeat. There was a look of pity in the eyes of this man when they rested upon him. He suffered his hand to be taken by the poor wretch, and even spoke to him kindly.

"B----," said Ridley as he held up one of his hands and showed its nerveless condition, "you see where I am going?"

"I do, my poor fellow!" replied the man; "and if you don't stop short, you will be at the end of your journey sooner than you anticipate."

"I can't stop; it's too late. For God's sake get me a glass of brandy! I haven't tasted a drop since morning."

His old friend and associate saw how it was--saw that his over-stimulated nervous system was fast giving way, and that he was on the verge of mania. Without replying the lawyer went back to the bar, at which he had just been drinking. Calling for brandy, he poured a tumbler nearly half full, and after adding a little water gave it to Ridley, who drank the whole of it before withdrawing the glass from his lips.

"It was very kind of you," said the wretched man as he began to feel along his shaking nerves the stimulating power of the draught he had taken. "I was in a desperate bad way."

"And you are not out of that way yet," replied the other. "Why don't you stop this thing while a shadow of hope remains?"

"It's easy enough to say stop"--Ridley spoke in a tone of fretfulness--"and of about as much use as to cry 'Stop!' to a man falling down a precipice or sweeping over a cataract. I can't stop."

His old friend gazed at him pityingly, then, shrugging his shoulders, he bade him good-morning. From the bar Ridley drifted to the reading-room, where he made a feint of looking over the newspapers. What cared he for news? All his interest in the world had become narrowed down to the ways and means of getting daily enough liquor to stupefy his senses and deaden his nerves. He only wanted to rest now, and let the glass of brandy he had taken do its work on his exhausted system. It was not long before he was asleep. How long he remained in this state he did not know. A waiter, rudely shaking him, brought him back to life's dreary consciousness again and an order to leave the reading room sent him out upon the street to go he knew not whither.

Night had come, and Ethel, with a better meal ready for her father than she had been able to prepare for him in many weeks, sat anxiously awaiting his return. Toward her he had always been kind and gentle. No matter how much he might be under the influence of liquor, he had never spoken a harsh word to this patient, loving, much-enduring child. For her sake he had often made feeble efforts at reform, but appetite had gained such mastery; over him that resolution was as flax in the flame.

It was late in the evening when Mr. Ridley returned home. Ethel's quick ears detected something unusual in his steps as he came along the entry. Instead of the stumbling or shuffling noise with which he generally made his way up stairs, she noticed that his footfalls were more distinct and rapid. With partially suspended breath she sat with her eyes upon the door until it was pushed open. The moment she looked into her father's face she saw a change. Something had happened to him. The heavy, besotted look was gone, the dull eyes were lighted up. He shut the door behind him quickly and with the manner of one who had been pursued and now felt himself in a place of safety.

"What's the matter, father dear?" asked Ethel as she started up and laying her hand upon his shoulder looked into his face searchingly.

"Nothing, nothing," he replied. But the nervousness of his manner and the restless glancing of his eyes, now here and now there, and the look of fear in them, contradicted his denial.

"What has happened, father? Are you sick?" inquired Ethel.

"No, dear, nothing has happened. But I feel a little strange."

He spoke with unusual tenderness in his manner, and his voice shook and had a mournful cadence.

"Supper is all ready and waiting. I've got something nice and hot for you. A strong cup of tea will do you good," said Ethel, trying to speak cheerily. She had her father at the table in a few minutes. His hand trembled so in lifting his cup that he spilled some of the contents, but she steadied it for him. He had better control of himself after drinking the tea, and ate a few mouthfuls, but without apparent relish.

"I've got something to tell you," said Ethel, leaning toward her father as they still sat at the table. Mr. Ridley saw a new light in his daughter's face.

"What is it, dear?" he said.

"Mrs. Birtwell was here to-day, and is going--"

The instant change observed in her father's manner arrested the sentence on Ethel's lips. A dark shadow swept across his face and he became visibly agitated.

"Going to do what?" he inquired, betraying some anger.

"Going to help me all she can. She was very kind, and wants me to go and see her to-morrow. I think she's very good, father."

Mr. Ridley dropped his eyes from the flushed, excited face of his child. The frown left his brow. He seemed to lose himself in thought. Leaning forward upon the table, he laid his face down upon his folded arms, hiding it from view.

A sad and painful conflict, precipitated by the remark of his daughter, was going on in the mind of this wretched man. He knew also too well that he was standing on the verge of a dreadful condition from the terrors of which his soul shrunk back in shuddering fear. All day he had felt the coming signs, and the hope of escape had now left him. But love for his daughter was rising above all personal fear and dread. He knew that at any moment the fiend of delirium might spring upon him, and then this tender child would be left alone with him in his awful conflict. The bare possibility of such a thing made him shudder, and all his thought was now directed toward the means of saving her from being a witness of the appalling scene.

The shock and anger produced by the mention of Mrs. Birtwell's name had passed off, and his thought was going out toward her in a vague, groping way, and in a sort of blind faith that through her help in his great extremity might come. It was all folly, he knew. What could she do for a poor wretch in his extremity? He tried to turn his thought from her, but ever as he turned it away it swung back and rested in-this blind faith.

Raising his eyes at last, his mind still in a maze of doubt, he saw just before him an the table a small grinning head. It was only by a strong effort that he could keep from crying out in fear and starting back from the table. A steadier look obliterated the head and left a teacup in its place.

No time was now to be lost. At any moment the enemy might be upon him. He must go quickly, but where? A brief struggle against an almost unconquerable reluctance and dread, and then, rising from the table, Mr. Ridley caught up his hat and ran down stairs, Ethel calling after him. He did not heed her anxious cries. It was for her sake that he was going. She heard the street door shut with a jar, and listened to her father's departing feet until the sound died out in the distance.

It was over an hour from this time when Mr. Ridley, forcing his way past the servant who had tried to keep him back, stood confronting Mr. Elliott. A look of disappointment, followed by an angry cloud, came into his face. But seeing Mrs. Birtwell, his countenance brightened; and stepping past the clergyman, he advanced toward her. She did not retreat from him, but held out her hand, and said, with an earnestness so genuine that it touched his feeling:

"I am glad to see you, Mr. Ridley."

As he took her extended hand Mrs. Birtwell drew him toward a sofa and sat down near him, manifesting the liveliest interest.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" she asked.

"No, ma'am," he replied, in a mournful voice--"not for me. I didn't come for that. But you'll be good to my poor Ethel, won't you, and--and--"

His voice broke into sobs, his weak frame quivered.

"I will, I will!" returned Mrs. Birtwell with prompt assurance.

"Oh, thank you. It's so good of you. My poor girl! I may never see you again."

The start and glance of fear he now threw across the room revealed to Mr. Elliott the true condition of their visitor, and greatly alarmed him. He had never been a witness of the horrors of delirium tremens, and only knew of it by the frightful descriptions he had sometimes read, but he could not mistake the symptoms of the coming attack as now seen in Mr. Ridley, who, on getting from Mrs. Birtwell a repeated and stronger promise to care for Ethel, rose from the sofa and started for the door.

But neither Mr. Elliott nor Mrs. Birtwell could let him go away in this condition. They felt too deeply their responsibility in the case, and felt also that One who cares for all, even the lowliest and most abandoned, had led him thither in his dire extremity.

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."