Chapter XXIV.
 

Mrs. Birtwell slept but little that night and in the brief periods of slumber that came to her she was disturbed by unquiet dreams. The expression of Mr. Ridley's face as the closing door shut it from her sight on the previous evening haunted her like the face of an accusing spectre.

Immediately after breakfast she dressed herself to go out, intending to visit the Home for reforming inebriates and learn something of Mr. Ridley. Just as she came down stairs a servant opened the street door, and she saw the slender figure of Ethel.

"My poor child!" she said, with great kindness of manner, taking her by the hand and drawing her in. "You are frightened about your father."

"Oh yes, ma'am," replied Ethel, with quivering lips. "He didn't come home all night, and I'm so scared about him. I don't know what to do. Maybe you'll think it wrong in me to trouble you about it, but I am in such distress, and don't know where to go.

"No, not wrong, my child, and I'm glad you've come. I ought to have sent you word about him."

"My father! Oh, ma'am, do you know where he is?"

"Yes; he came here last night sick, and I took him in my carriage to a Home for just such as he is, where he will be kindly taken care of until he gets well."

Ethel's large brown eyes were fixed in a kind of thankful wonder on the face of Mrs. Birtwell. She could not speak. She did not even try to put thought or feeling into words. She only took the hand of Mrs. Birtwell, and after touching it with her lips laid her wet cheek against it and held it there tightly.

"Can I go and see him?" she asked, lifting her face after some moments.

"It will not be best, I think," replied Mrs. Birtwell--"that is, not now. He was very sick when we took him there, and may not be well enough to be seen this morning."

"Very sick! Oh, ma'am!" The face of Ethel grew white and her lips trembled.

"Not dangerously," said Mrs. Birtwell, "but yet quite ill. I am going now to see him; and if you will come here in a couple of hours, when I shall return home--"

"Oh. ma'am, let me go along with you," broke in Ethel. "I won't ask to see him if it isn't thought best, but I'll know how he is without waiting so long."

The fear that Mr. Ridley might die in his delirium had troubled Mrs. Birtwell all night, and it still oppressed her. She would have much preferred to go alone and learn first the good or ill of the case, but Ethel begged so hard to be permitted to accompany her that she could not persist in objection.

On reaching the Home, Mrs. Birtwell found in the office the man in whose care Mr. Ridley had been placed. Remembering what Mr. G----had said of this man, a fresh hope for Ethel's father sprang up in her soul as she looked into his clear eyes and saw his firm mouth and air of conscious poise and strength. She did not see in his manly face a single scar from the old battle out of which he had come at last victorious. Recognizing her, he called her by name, and not waiting for her to ask the question that looked out of her face, said:

"It is all right with him."

A cry of joy that she could not repress broke from Ethel. It was followed by sobbing and tears.

"Can we see him?" asked Mrs. Birtwell.

"The doctor will not think it best," replied the man. "He has had a pretty hard night, but, the worst is over. We must keep him quiet to-day."

"In the morning can I see him?" asked Ethel lifting her eyes, half blinded by tears, to the man's face.

"Yes; I think I can say yes," was the reply.

"How soon?"

"Come at ten o'clock."

"You'll let me call and ask about him this evening, won't you?"

"Oh yes, and you will get a good report, I am sure."

The care and help and wise consideration received in the Home by Mr. Ridley, while passing through the awful stages of his mania, had probably saved his life. The fits of frenzy were violent, so overwhelming him with phantom terrors that in his wild and desperate struggles to escape the fangs of serpents and dragons and the horrid crew of imaginary demons that crowded his room and pressed madly upon him he would, but for the restraint to which he was subjected, have thrown himself headlong from a window or bruised and broken himself against the wall.

It was the morning of the second day after Mr. Ridley entered the Home. He had so far recovered as to be able to sit up in his room, a clean and well ventilated apartment, neatly furnished and with an air of home comfort about it. Two or three pictures hung on the walls, one of them representing a father sitting with a child upon each knee and the happy mother standing beside them. He had looked at this picture until his eyes grew dim. Near it was an illuminated text: "WITHOUT ME YE CAN DO NOTHING."

There came, as he sat gazing at the sweet home-scene, the beauty and tenderness of which had gone down into his heart, troubling its waters deeply, a knock at the door. Then the matron, accompanied by one of the lady managers of the institution, came in and made kind inquiries as to his condition. He soon saw that this lady was a refined and cultivated Christian woman, and it was not long before he felt himself coming under a new influence and all the old desires and purposes long ago cast away warming again into life and gathering up their feeble strength.

Gradually the lady led him on to talk to her of himself as he would have talked to his mother or his sister. She asked him of his family, and got the story of his bereavement, his despair and his helplessness. Then she sought to inspire him with new resolutions, and to lead him to make a new effort.

"I will be a man again," he exclaimed, at last, rising to this declaration under the uplifting and stimulating influences that were around him.

Then the lady answered him in a low, earnest, tender voice that trembled with the burden of its great concern:

"Not in your own strength. That is impossible."

His lips dropped apart. He looked at her strangely.

"Not in your own strength, but in God's," she said reverently. "You have tried your own strength many times, but it has failed as often. But his strength never fails."

She lifted her finger and pointed to the text on the wall, "Without me ye can do nothing," then added: "But in him we can do all things. Trusting in yourself, my friend, you will go forth from here to an unequal combat, but trusting in him your victory is assured. You shall go among lions and they will have no power to harm you, and stand in the very furnace flame of temptation without even the smell of fire being left upon your garments."

"Ah, ma'am, you are doubtless right in what you say," Mr. Ridley answered, all the enthusiasm dying out of his countenance. But I am not a religious man. I have never trusted in God."

"That is no reason why you should not trust in him now," she answered, quickly. "All other hope for you is vain, but in God there is safety. Will you not go to him now?"

There came a quick, nervous rap upon the door; then it was flung open, and Ethel, with a cry of "Oh, father, my father, my father!" sprang across the room and threw herself into Mr. Ridley's arms.

With an answering cry of "Oh, Ethel, my child, my child!" Mr. Ridley drew her to his bosom, clasped her slender form to his heart and laid his face, over which tears were flowing, down among the thick masses of her golden hair.

"Let us pray," fell the sweet, solemn voice of the lady manager on the deep stillness that followed. All knelt, Mr. Ridley with his arm drawn tightly around his daughter. Then in tender, earnest supplication did this Christian woman offer her prayers for help.

"Dear Lord and Saviour," she said, in hushed, pleading tones, "whose love goes yearning after the lost and straying ones, open the eyes of this man, one of thy sick and suffering children, that he may see the tender beauty of thy countenance. Touch his heart, that he may feel the sweetness of thy love. Draw him to come unto thee, and to trust and confide in thee as his ever-present and unfailing Friend. In thee is safety, in thee is peace, and nowhere else."

God could answer this prayer through its influence upon the mind of him for whom it was offered. It was the ladder on which his soul climbed upward. The thought of God and of his love and mercy with which it filled all his consciousness inspired him with hope. He saw his own utter helplessness, and felt the peril and disaster that were before him when his frail little vessel of human resolution again met the fierce storms and angry billows of temptation; and so, in despairing abandonment of all human strength, he lifted his thoughts to God and cried out for the help and strength he needed.

And then, for he was deeply and solemnly in earnest, there was a new birth in his soul--the birth of a new life of spiritual forces in which God could be so present with him as to give him power to conquer when evil assailed him. It was not a life of his own, but a new life from God--not a self-acting life by which he was to be taken over the sea of temptation like one in a boat rowed by a strong oarsman, but a power he must use for himself, and one that would grow by use, gaining more and more strength, until it subdued and subordinated every natural desire to the rule of heavenly principles, and yet it was a life that, if not cherished and made active, would die.

There was a new expression in Mr. Ridley's face when he rose from his knees. It was calmer and stronger.

"God being your helper," said the lady manager, impressively, "victory is sure, and he will help you and overcome for you if you will let him. Do not trust to any mere personal motives or considerations. You have tried to stand by these over and over again, and every time you have fallen their power to help you has become less. Pride, ambition, even love, have failed. But the strength that God will give you, if you make his divine laws the rule of your life, cannot fail. Go to him in childlike trust. Tell him as you would tell a loving father of your sin and sorrow and helplessness, and ask of him the strength you need. Read every morning a portion of his holy word, and lay the divine precepts up in your heart. He is himself the word of life, and is therefore present in a more real and saving way to those who reverence and obey this word than it is possible for him to be to those who do not.

"Herein will lie your strength. Hence will come your deliverance. Take hold upon God our Saviour, my friend, and all the powers of hell shall not prevail against you. You will be tempted, but in the moment you hear the voice of the tempter look to God and ask him for strength, and it will surely come. Don't parley, for a single moment. Let no feeling of security lead you to test your own poor strength in any combat with the old appetite, for that would be an encounter full of peril. Trust in God, and all will be safe. But remember that there is no real trust in God without a life in harmony with his commandments. All-abiding spiritual strength comes through obedience only."

Mr. Ridley listened with deep attention, and when the lady ceased speaking said:

"Of myself I can do nothing. Long ago I saw that, and gave up the struggle in despair. If help comes now, it must come from God. No power but his can save me."

"Will you not, then, go to him?"

"How am I to go? What am I to do? What will God require of me?"

He spoke hurriedly and with the manner of one who felt himself in imminent danger and looked anxiously for a way of escape.

"To do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly before him; he requires nothing more," was the calmly spoken reply.

A light broke into Mr. Ridley's face.

"You cannot be just and merciful if you touch the accursed thing, for that would destroy your power to be so. To touch it, then, will be to sin against God and hurt your neighbor. Just here, then, must your religious life be in. For you to taste any kind of intoxicating drink would be a sin. God cannot help you, unless you shun this evil as a sin against him, and he will give you the power to shun it if, whenever you feel the desire to drink, you resist that desire and pray for strength by which to gain a victory.

"Every time you do this you will receive new spiritual strength, and be so much nearer the ark of safety. So resisting day by day, always in a humble acknowledgment that every good gift comes from a loving Father in heaven, the time is not far distant when your feet will be on the neck of the enemy that has ruled over you so long. God, even our God, will surely bring you off conqueror."

Mr. Ridley on whose calmer face the light of a new confidence now rested, drew his arm closely about Ethel, who was leaning against him, and said:

"Take heart, darling. If God is for us, who shall be against us? Henceforth I will trust in him."

Ethel put her arms about his neck, weeping silently. The matron and lady manager went out and left them alone.

Mrs. Birtwell did not visit the Home on this morning to see how it fared with Mr. Ridley as she had intended doing. The shadow of a great evil had fallen upon her house. For some time she had seen its approaches and felt the gathering gloom. If the reader will go back over the incidents and characters of this story, he will recall a scene between Mrs. Whitford and her son Ellis, the accepted lover of Blanche Birtwell, and will remember with what earnestness the mother sought to awaken in the mind of the young man a sense of danger, going so far as to uncover a family secret and warn him of a taint in his blood. It will also be remembered how the proud, self-confident young man rejected, her warnings and entreaties, and how wine betrayed him.

The humiliation that followed was deep, but not effective to save him. Wine to his inherited appetite was like blood to the wolf-nature. To touch it was to quicken into life an irrepressible desire for more. But his pride fought against any acknowledgment of his weakness, and particularly against so public an acknowledgment as abstinence when all around him were taking wine. Every time he went to a dinner or evening-party, or to any entertainment where wine was to be served, he would go self-admonished to be on guard against excess, but rarely was the admonition heeded. A single glass so weakened his power of restraint that he could not hold back his hand; and if it so happened that from any cause this limit was forced upon him, as in making a morning or an evening call, the stimulated appetite would surely draw his feet to the bar of some fashionable saloon or hotel in order that it might secure a deeper satisfaction.

It was not possible, so impelled by appetite and so indulging its demands, for Ellis Whitford to keep from drifting out into the fatal current on whose troubled waters thousands are yearly borne to destruction.

After her humiliation at Mrs. Birtwell's, a smile was never seen upon the mother's face. All that she deemed it wise to say to her son when he awoke in shame next morning she said in tears that she had no power to hold back. He promised with solemn asseverations that he would never again so debase himself, and he meant to keep his promise. Hope stirred feebly in his mother's heart, but died when, in answer to her injunction, "Touch not, taste not, handle not, my son. Herein lies your only chance of safety," he replied coldly and with irritation:

"I will be a man, and not a slave. I will walk in freedom among my associates, not holding up manacled wrists."

Alas! he did not walk in freedom. Appetite had already forged invisible chains that held him in a fatal bondage. It was not yet too late. With a single strong effort he could have rent these bonds asunder, freeing himself for ever. But pride and a false shame held him back, from making this effort, and all the while appetite kept silently strengthening every link and steadily forging new chains. Day by day he grew feebler as to will-power and less clear in judgment. His fine ambition, that once promised to lift him into the highest ranks of his profession, began to lose its stimulating influence.

None but his mother knew how swiftly this sad demoralization was progressing, through others were aware of the fact that he indulged too freely in wine.

With a charity that in too many instances was self-excusing, not a few of his friends and acquaintances made light of his excesses, saying:

"Oh, he'll get over it;" or, "Young blood is hot and boils up sometimes;" or, "He'll steady himself, never fear."

The engagement between Ellis and Blanche still existed, though Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell were beginning to feel very much concerned about the future of their daughter, and were seriously considering the propriety of taking steps to have the engagement broken off. The young man often came to their house so much under the influence of drink that there was no mistaking his condition; but if any remark was made about it, Blanche not only exhibited annoyance, but excused and defended him, not unfrequently denying the fact that was apparent to all.

One day--it was several months from the date of that fatal party out of which so many disasters came, as if another Pandora's box had been opened--the card of Mrs. Whitford was placed in the hands of Mrs. Birtwell.

"Say that I will be down in a moment."

But the servant who had brought up the card answered:

"The lady wished me to say that she would like to see you alone in your own room, and would come up if it was agreeable."

"Oh. certainly. Tell her to come right up."

Wondering a little at this request, Mrs. Birtwell waited for Mrs. Whitford's appearance, rising and advancing toward the door as she heard her steps approaching. Mrs. Whitford's veil was down as she entered, and she did not draw it aside until she had shut the door behind her. Then she pushed it away.

An exclamation of painful surprise fell from the lips of Mrs. Birtwell the moment she saw the face of her visitor. It was pale and wretched beyond description, but wore the look of one who had resolved to perform some painful duty, though it cost her the intensest suffering.