Chapter XXV.
 

"I have come," said Mrs. Whitford, after she was seated and had composed herself, "to perform the saddest duty of my whole life."

She paused, her white lips quivering, then rallied her strength and went on:

"Even to dishonor my son."

She caught her breath with a great sob, and remained silent for nearly half a minute, sitting so still that she seemed like one dead. In that brief time she had chained down her overwrought feelings and could speak without a tremor in her voice.

"I have come to say," she now went on, "that this marriage must not take place. Its consummation would be a great wrong, and entail upon your daughter a life of misery. My son is falling into habits that will, I sadly fear, drag him down to hopeless ruin. I have watched the formation and growth of this habit with a solicitude that has for a long time robbed my life of its sweetness. All the while I see him drifting away from me, and I am powerless to hold him back. Every day he gets farther off, and every day my heart grows heavier with sorrow. Can nothing be done? Alas! nothing, I fear; and I must tell you why, Mrs. Birtwell. It is best that you should see the case as hopeless, and save your daughter if you can."

She paused again for a few moments, and then continued:

"It is not with my son as with most young men. He has something more to guard against than the ordinary temptations of society. There is, as you may possibly know, a taint in his blood--the taint of hereditary intemperance. I warned him of this and implored him to abjure wine and all other drinks that intoxicate, but he was proud and sensitive as well as confident in his own strength. He began to imagine that everybody knew the family secret I had revealed to him, and that if he refused wine in public it would be attributed to his fear of arousing a sleeping appetite which when fully awake and active might prove too strong for him, and so he often drank in a kind of bravado spirit. He would be a man and let every one see that he could hold the mastery over himself. It was a dangerous experiment for him, as I knew it would be, and has failed."

Mrs. Whitford broke down and sobbed in an uncontrollable passion of grief. Then, rising, she said:

"I have done a simple duty, Mrs. Birtwell. How hard the task has been you can never know, for through a trial like mine you will never have to pass. It now remains for you to do the best to save your child from the great peril that lies before her. I wish that I could say, 'Tell Blanche of our interview and of my solemn warning.' But I cannot, I dare not do so, for it would be to cast up a wall between me and my son and to throw him beyond the circle of my influence. It would turn his heart against his mother, and that is a calamity from the very thought of which I shrink with a sickening fear."

The two women, sad partners in a grief that time might intensify, instead of making less, stood each leaning her face down upon the other's shoulder and wept silently, then raised their eyes and looked wistfully at each other.

"The path of duty is very rough sometimes; but if we must walk it to save another, we cannot stay our feet and be guiltless before God," said Mrs. Whitford. "It has taken many days since I saw this path of suffering and humiliation open its dreary course for me to gather up the strength required to walk in it with steady feet. Every day for more than a week I have started out resolved to see you, but every day my heart has failed. Twice I stood at your door with my hand on the bell, then turned, and went away. But the task is over, the duty done, and I pray that it may not be in vain."

What was now to be done? When Mr. Birtwell was informed of this interview, he became greatly excited, declaring that he should forbid any further intercourse between the young people. The engagement, he insisted, should be broken off at once. But Mrs. Birtwell was wiser than her husband, and knew better than he did the heart of their daughter.

Blanche had taken more from her mother than from her father, and the current of her life ran far deeper than that of most of the frivolous girls around her. Love with her could not be a mere sentiment, but a deep and all-pervading passion. Such a passion she felt for Ellis Whitford, and she was ready to link her destinies with his, whether the promise were for good or for evil. To forbid Ellis the house and lay upon her any interdictions, in regard to him would, the mother knew, precipitate the catastrophe they were anxious to avert.

It was not possible for either Mr. or Mrs. Birtwell to conceal from their daughter the state of feeling into which the visit of Mrs. Whitford had thrown them, nor long to remain passive. The work of separation must be commenced without delay. Blanche saw the change in her parents, and felt an instinct of danger; and when the first intimations of a decided purpose to make a breach between her and Ellis came, she set her face like flint against them, not in any passionate outbreak, but with a calm assertion of her undying love and her readiness to accept the destiny that lay before her. To the declaration of her mother that Ellis was doomed by inheritance to the life of a drunkard, she replied:

"Then he will only the more need my love and care."

Persuasion, appeal, remonstrance, were useless. Then Mr. Birtwell interposed with authority. Ellis was denied the house and Blanche forbidden to see him.

This was the condition of affairs at the time Mrs. Birtwell became so deeply interested in Mr. Ridley and his family. Blanche had risen, in a measure, above the deep depression of spirits consequent on the attitude of her parents toward her betrothed husband, and while showing no change in her feelings toward him seemed content to wait for what might come. Still, there was something in her manner that Mrs. Birtwell did not understand, and that occasioned at times a feeling of doubt and uneasiness.

"Where is Blanche?" asked Mr. Birtwell. It was the evening following that on which Mr. Ridley bad been taken to the Home for inebriates. He was sitting at the tea-table with his wife.

"She is in her room," replied Mrs. Birtwell.

"Are you sure?" inquired her husband.

Mrs. Birtwell noticed something in his voice that made her say quickly:

"Why do you ask?"

"For no particular reason, only she's not down to tea."

Mr. Birtwell's face had grown very serious.

"She'll be along in a few moments," returned Mrs. Birtwell.

But several minutes elapsed, and still she did not make her appearance.

"Go up and knock at Miss Blanche's door," said Mrs. Birtwell to the waiter. "She may have fallen asleep."

The man left the room.

"I feel a little nervous," said Mr. Birtwell, setting down his cup, the moment they were alone. Has Blanche been out since dinner?"

"No."

"All right, then. It was only a fancy, as I knew it to be at the time. But it gave me a start."

"What gave you a start?" asked Mrs. Birtwell.

"A face in a carriage. I saw it for an instant only."

"Whose face?"

"I thought for the moment it was that of Blanche."

Mrs. Birtwell grew very pale, leaned back in her chair and turned her head listening for the waiter. Neither of them spoke until he returned.

"Miss Blanche is not there."

Both started from the table and left the room, the waiter looking after them in surprise. They were not long in suspense. A letter from Blanche, addressed to her mother, which was found lying on her bureau, told the sad story of her perilous life-venture, and overwhelmed her parents with sorrow and dismay. It read:

"MY DEAR FATHER AND MOTHER: When you receive this, I shall be married to Ellis Whitford. There is nothing that I can say to break for you the pain of this intelligence. If there was, oh how gladly would I say it! My destiny is on me, and I must walk in the way it leads. It is not that I love you less that I go away from you, but because I feel the voice of duty which is calling to me to be the voice of God. Another life and another destiny are bound up in mine, and there is no help for me. God bless you and comfort you, and keep your hearts from turning against your loving

BLANCHE."

In all their fond looks forward to the day when their beautiful child should stand in bridal robes--and what parents with lovely daughters springing up toward womanhood do not thus look forward and see such visions?--no darkly, brooding fancy had conceived of anything like this. The voice that fell upon their ears was not the song of a happy bride going joyously to the altar, but the cry of their pet lamb bound for the sacrifice.

"Oh, madness, madness!" exclaimed Mr. Birtwell, in anger and dismay.

"My poor unhappy child! God pity her! "sobbed the white-lipped mother, tearless under the sudden shock of this great disaster that seemed as if it would beat out her life.

There was no help, no remedy. The fatal step had been taken, and henceforth the destiny of their child was bound up with that of one whose inherited desire for drink had already debased his manhood. For loving parents we can scarcely imagine a drearier outlook upon life than this.

The anger of Mr. Birtwell soon wasted its strength amid the shallows of his weaker character, but the pain and hopeless sorrow grew stronger and went deeper down into the heart of Mrs. Birtwell day by day. Their action in the case was such as became wise and loving parents. What was done was done, and angry scenes, coldness and repulsion could now only prove hurtful. As soon as Blanche returned from a short bridal-tour the doors of her father's house were thrown open for her and her husband to come in. But the sensitive, high-spirited young man said, "No." He could not deceive himself in regard to the estimation in which he was held by Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell, and was not willing to encounter the humiliation of living under their roof and coming in daily but restrained contact with them. So he took his bride to his mother's house, and Mrs. Birtwell had no alternative but to submit, hard as the trial was, to this separation from her child.

This was the shadow of the great evil in which Mrs. Birtwell was sitting on the day Mr. Ridley found himself amid the new influences and new friends that were to give him another start in life and another chance to redeem himself. She had passed a night of tears and agony, and though suffering deeply had gained a calm exterior. Ethel, after leaving the Home, came with a heart full of new hope and joy to see Mrs. Birtwell and tell her about her father.

The first impulse of the unhappy mother, sitting in the shadows of her own great sorrow, was to send the girl away with a simple denial.

"Say that I cannot see her this morning," she said coldly. But before the servant could leave the room she repented of this denial.

"Stay!" she called. Then, while the servant paused, she let her thoughts go from herself to, Ethel and her father.

"Tell the young lady to wait for a little while," she said. "I will ring for you in a few minutes." The servant went out, and Mrs. Birtwell turned to her secretary and wrote a few lines, saying that she was not feeling well and could not see Miss Ridley then, but would be glad to have her call in two or three days. Placing this with a bank-bill in an envelope, she rang for the servant, who took the letter down stairs and gave it to Ethel.

But Mrs. Birtwell did not feel as though she had done her whole duty in the case. A pressure was left upon her feelings. What of the father? How was it faring with him? She hesitated about recalling the servant until it was too late. Ethel took the letter, and without opening it went away.

A new disquiet came from this cause, and Mrs. Birtwell could not shake it off. Happily for her relief, Mr. Elliott, whose interest in the fallen man was deep enough to take him to the Home that morning, called upon her with the most gratifying intelligence. He had seen Mr. Ridley and held a long interview with him, the result of which was a strong belief that the new influences under which he had been brought would be effectual in saving him.

"I have faith in these influences," said the clergyman, "because I understand their ground and force. Peter would have gone down hopelessly in the Sea of Galilee if he had depended on himself alone. Only the divine Saviour, on whom he called and in whom he trusted, could save him; and so it is in the case of men like Mr. Ridley who try to walk over the sea of temptation. Peter's despairing cry of 'Save, Lord, or I perish,' must be theirs also if they would keep from sinking beneath the angry waters, and no one ever calls sincerely upon God for help without receiving it. That Mr. Ridley is sincere I have no doubt, and herein lies my great confidence."

At the end of a week Blanche returned from her wedding-tour, and was received by her parents with love and tenderness instead of reproaches. These last, besides being utterly useless, would have pushed the young husband away from them and out of the reach of any saving influences it might be in their power to exercise.

The hardest trial now for Mrs. Birtwell was the separation from Blanche, whose daily visits were a poor substitute for the old constant and close companionship. If there had not been a cloud in the sky of her child's future, with its shadow already dimming the brightness of her young life, the mother's heart would have still felt an aching and a void, would have been a mourner for love's lost delights and possessions that could nevermore return. But to all this was added a fear and, dread that made her soul grow faint when thought cast itself forward into the coming time.

The Rev. Mr. Brantley Elliott was a wiser and truer man than some who read him superficially imagined. His churchmanship was sometimes narrower than his humanity, while the social element in his character, which was very strong, often led him to forget in mixed companies that much of what he might say or do would be judged of by the clerical and not the personal standard, and his acts and words set down at times as favoring worldliness and self-indulgence. Harm not unfrequently came of this. But he was a sincere Christian man, deeply impressed with the sacredness of his calling and earnest in his desire to lead heavenward the people to whom he ministered.

The case of Mr. Ridley had not only startled and distressed him, but filled him with a painful concern lest other weak and tempted ones might have fallen through his unguarded utterance or been bereaved through his freedom. The declaration of Paul came to him with a new force: "Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no meat while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend;" and he resolved not only to abstain from wine hereafter in mixed companies, but to use his influence to discourage a social custom fraught, as he was now beginning to see, with the most disastrous consequences.

The deep concern felt for Mr. Ridley by Mr. Elliott and Mrs. Birtwell drew them oftener together now, and took them frequently to the Home for inebriates, in which both took a deep interest. For over three weeks Mr. Ridley remained at the institution, its religious influences growing deeper and deeper every day. He met there several men who had fallen from as high an estate as himself--men of cultured intellect, force of character and large ability--and a feeling of brotherhood grew up between them. They helped and strengthened each other, entering into a league offensive and defensive, and pledging themselves to an undying antagonism toward every form of intemperance.

When Mr. Ridley returned to his home, he found it replete with many comforts not there when love and despair sent him forth to die, for aught he knew, amid nameless horrors. An office had been rented for him, and Mr. Birtwell had a case of considerable importance to place in his hands. It was a memorable occasion in the Court of Common Pleas when, with the old clear light in his eyes and bearing of conscious power, he stood among his former associates, and in the firm, ringing voice which had echoed there so many times before, made an argument for his client that held both court and jury almost spellbound for an hour.