Chapter XXVI.
 

The seed and the harvest are alike in quality. Between cause and effect there is an unchanging and eternal relation. Men never find grapes on thorns nor figs on thistles.

As an aggregate man, society has no escape from this law. It must reap as it sows. If its customs be safe and good, its members, so far as they are influenced by these customs, will be temperate, orderly and virtuous; but if its tone be depraved and its customs evil or dangerous, moral and physical ruin must; in too many sad cases be the inevitable result.

It is needless to press this view, for it is self-evident and no one calls it in question. Its truth has daily and sorrowful confirmation in the wan faces and dreary eyes and wrecks of a once noble and promising manhood one meets at every turn.

The thorn and the thistle harvest that society reaps every year is fearfully great, and the seed from which too large a portion of this harvest comes is its drinking customs. Men of observation and intelligence everywhere give this testimony with one consent. All around us, day and night, year by year, in palace and hovel, the gathering of this sad and bitter harvest goes on--the harvest of broken hearts and ruined lives. And still the hand of the sower is not stayed. Refined and lovely women and men of low and brutal instincts, church members and scoffers at religion, stately gentlemen and vulgar clowns, are all at work sowing the baleful seed that ripens, alas! too quickly its fruit of woe. The home saloon vies with the common licensed saloon in its allurements and attractions, and men who would think themselves degraded by contact with those who for gain dispense liquor from a bar have a sense of increased respectability as they preside over the good wine and pure spirits they offer to their guests in palace homes free of cost.

We are not indulging in forms of rhetoric. To do so would only weaken the force of our warning. What we have written is no mere fancy work. The pictures thrown upon our canvas with all the power of vivid portraiture that we possess are but feeble representations of the tragic scenes that are enacted in society year by year, and for which every, member of society who does not put his hand to the work of reform is in some degree responsible.

We are not developing a romance, but trying, as just said, to give from real life some warning pictures. Our task is nearly done. A few more scenes, and then our work will be laid for the present aside.

There are men who never seem to comprehend the lesson of events or to feel the pressure of personal responsibility. They drift with the tide, doing as their neighbors do, and resting satisfied. The heroism of self-sacrifice or self-denial is something to which they cannot rise. Nothing is farther from their ambition than the role of a reformer. Comfortable, self-indulgent, placid, they move with the current and manage to keep away from its eddies. Such a man was Mr. Birtwell. He knew of some of the disasters that followed so closely upon his grand entertainment, but refused to connect therewith any personal responsibility. It was unfortunate, of course, that these things should have happened with him, but he was no more to blame for them than if they had happened with his neighbor across the way. So he regarded the matter. But not so Mrs. Birtwell. As we have seen, a painful sense of responsibility lay heavily upon her heart.

The winter that followed was a gay one, and many lag entertainments were given. The Birtwells always had a party, and this party was generally the event of the season, for Mr. Birtwell liked eclat and would get it if possible. Time passed, and Mrs. Birtwell, who had sent regrets to more than half the entertainments to which they received invitations said nothing.

"When are we going to have our party?" asked Mr. Birtwell of his wife as they sat alone one evening. He saw her countenance change. After a few moments she replied in a low but very firm and decided voice:

"Whenever we can have it without wine."

"Then we'll never have it," exclaimed Mr. Birtwell, in considerable excitement.

"It will be better so," returned his wife, "than again to lay stumbling-blocks at the feet of our neighbors."

There came a sad undertone in her voice that her husband did not fail to perceive.

"We don't agree in this thing," said Mr. Birtwell, with some irritation of manner.

"Then will it not be best to let the party go over until we can agree? No harm can come of that, and harm might come, as it did last year, from turning our house into a drinking-saloon."

The sting of these closing words was sharp. It was not the first time Mr. Birtwell had heard his wife use them, and they never failed to shock his fine sense of respectability.

"For Heaven's sake, Margaret," he broke out, in a passion he could not control, "don't say that again! It's an outrage. You'll give mortal offence if you use such language."

"It is best to call things by their right names," replied Mrs. Birtwell, in no way disturbed by her husband's weak anger. "As names signify qualities, we should be very careful how we deceive others by the use of wrong ones. To call a lion a lamb might betray a blind or careless person into the jaws of a ferocious monster, or to speak of the fruit of the deadly nightshade as a cherry might deceive a child into eating it."

"You are incorrigible," said Mr. Birtwell, his anger subsiding. It never went very deep, for his nature was shallow.

"No, not incorrigible, but right," returned Mrs. Birtwell.

"Then we are not to have a party this winter?"

"I did not say so. On the contrary, I am ready to entertain our friends, but the party I give must be one in which no wine or brandy is served."

"Preposterous!" ejaculated Mr. Birtwell. "We'd make ourselves the laughing-stock of the city."

"Perhaps not," returned his wife.

Mr. Birtwell shook his head and shut his mouth tightly:

"There's no use in talking about it if the thing can't be done right, it can't be done at all."

"So say I. Still, I would do it right and show society a better way if you were brave enough to stand by my side. But as you are not, our party must go by default this winter."

Mrs. Birtwell smiled faintly to soften the rebuke of her words. They had reached this point in their conversation when Mr. Elliott, their clergyman, called. His interest in the Home for inebriates had increased instead of abating, and he now held the place of an active member in the board of directors. Mrs. Birtwell had, months before, given in her adhesion to the cause of reform, and the board of lady managers, who had a close supervision of the internal arrangements of the Home, had few more efficient workers.

In the beginning Mr. Birtwell had "pooh-poohed" at his wife's infatuation, as he called it, and prophesied an early collapse of the whole affair. "The best thing to do with a drunkard," he would say, with mocking levity, "is to let him die. The sooner he is out of the way, the better for himself and society." But of late he had given the matter a more respectful consideration. Still, he would have his light word and pleasant banter both with his wife and Mr. Elliott, who often dropped in to discuss with Mrs. Birtwell the interests of the Home.

"Just in the nick of time," exclaimed Mr. Birtwell, smiling, as he took the clergyman's hand.

"My wife and I have had a disagreement--we quarrel dreadfully, you know--and you must decide between us."

"Indeed! What's the trouble now?" said Mr. Elliott, looking from one to the other.

"Well, you see, we've been discussing the party question, and are at daggers' points."

The light which had spread over Mr. Elliott's countenance faded off quickly, and Mr. Birtwell saw it assume a very grave aspect. But he kept on:

"You never heard anything so preposterous. Mrs. Birtwell actually proposes that we give a coldwater-and-lemonade entertainment. Ha! ha!"

The smile he had expected to provoke by this sally did not break into the clergyman's face.

"But I say," Mr. Birtwell added, "do the thing right, or don't do it all."

"What do you call right?" asked Mr. Elliott.

"The way it is done by other people--as we did it last year, for instance."

"I should be sorry to see last year's entertainment repeated if like consequences must follow," replied Mr. Elliott, becoming still more serious.

Mr. Birtwell showed considerable annoyance at: this.

"I have just come from a visit to your friend Mrs. Voss," said the clergyman.

"How is she?" Mrs. Birtwell asked, anxiously.

"I do not think she can last much longer," was replied.

Tears came into Mrs. Birtwell's eyes and fell over her cheeks.

"A few days at most--a few hours, maybe--and she will be at rest. She spoke of you very tenderly, and I think would like to see you."

"Then I will go to her immediately," said Mrs. Birtwell, rising. "You must excuse me, Mr. Elliott. I will take the carriage and go alone," she added, glancing toward her husband.

The two men on being left alone remained silent for a while. Mr. Birtwell was first to speak.

"I have always felt badly," he said, "about the death of Archie Voss. No blame attaches to us of course, but it was unfortunate that he had been at our house."

"Yes, very unfortunate," responded the clergyman. Something in his voice as well as in his manner awakened an uncomfortable feeling in the mind of Mr. Birtwell.

They were silent again, neither of them seeming at his ease.

"I had hoped," said Mr. Elliott, breaking at length this silence, "to find you by this time over upon our side."

"The cold-water side, you mean?" There was perceptible annoyance in Mr. Birtwell's tone.

"On the side of some reform in our social customs. Why can't you join with your excellent wife in taking the initiative? You may count on me to endorse the movement and give it my countenance and support."

"Thank you, Mr. Elliott, but I'm not your man," returned Mr. Birtwell. He spoke with decision. "I have no desire to be counted in with reformers."

"Think of the good you might do."

"I am not a philanthropist."

"Then think of the evil you might prevent."

"The good or the evil resulting from my action, take which side I may, will be very small," said Mr. Birtwell, with an indifference of manner that showed his desire to drop the subject. But Mr. Elliott was only leading the way for some plainer talk, and did not mean to lose his opportunity.

"It is an error," he said, "to make light of our personal influence or the consequences that may flow from what we do. The hand of a child is not too weak to hold the match that fires a cannon. When evil elements are aggregated, the force required to release them is often very small. We may purpose no wrong to our neighbor in the indulgence of a freedom that leads him into fiery temptation; but if we know that our freedom must of necessity do this, can we escape responsibility if we do not deny ourselves?"

"It is easy to ask questions and to generalize," returned Mr. Birtwell, not hiding the annoyance he felt.

"Shall I come down to particulars and deal in facts?" asked Mr. Elliott.

"If you care to do so."

"I have some facts--very sad and sorrowful ones. You may or may not know them--at least not all. But you should know them, Mr. Birtwell."

There was no escape now.

"You half frighten me, Mr. Elliott. What are you driving at?"

"I need not refer," said the clergyman, "to the cases of Archie Voss and Mr. Ridley."

Mr. Birtwell raised his hands in deprecation.

"Happily," continued Mr. Elliott, "Mr. Ridley has risen from his fall, and now stands firmer, I trust, than ever, and farther away from the reach of temptation, resting not in human but in divine strength. Archie is in heaven, where before many days his mother will join him."

"Why are you saying this?" demanded Mr. Birtwell. "You are going too far." His face had grown a little pale.

"I say it as leading to something more," replied the clergyman. "If there had been no more bitter fruit than this, no more lives sacrificed, it would have been sad enough. But--"

"Sir, you are trifling," exclaimed Mr. Birtwell, starting from his chair. "I cannot admit your right to talk to me in this way."

"Be calm, my dear sir," answered Mr. Elliott, laying his hand upon his companion. "I am not trifling with you. As your warm personal friend as well as your spiritual counselor, I am here to-night to give a solemn admonition, and I can best do this through the communication of facts--facts that stand on record for ever unchangeable whether you know them or not. Better that you should know them."

Mr. Birtwell sat down, passive now, his hand grasping the arms of his chair like one bracing himself for a shock.

"You remember General Abercrombie?"

"Yes."

"Do you know what has become of him?"

"No. I heard something about his having been dismissed from the army."

"Did you hear the cause?"

"It was drunkenness, I believe."

"Yes, that was the cause. He was a fine officer and a man of high character, but fell into habits of intemperance. Seeing himself drifting to certain ruin, he made a vigorous effort to reform his life. Experience told him that his only safety lay in complete abstinence, and this rule he adopted. For many months he remained firm. But he fell at your house. The odor of wine that pervaded all the air and stirred within him the long-sleeping appetite, the freedom he saw around him, the invitations that met him from distinguished men and beautiful women, the pressure of a hundred influences upon his quickened desires, bore him down at last, and he fell.

"I heard the whole sad story to-day," continued Mr. Elliott. He did not even attempt to struggle up again, but abandoned himself to his fate. Soon after, he was removed from the command of this department and sent off to the Western frontier, and finally court-martialed and dismissed from the army.

"To his wife, who was deeply attached to him, General Abercrombie was when sober one of the kindest and most devoted of husbands, but a crazy and cruel fiend when drunk. It is said that on the night he went home from your house last winter strange noises and sudden cries of fear were heard in their room, and that Mrs. Abercrombie when seen next morning looked as if she had just come from a bed of sickness. She accompanied him to the West, but I learned today that since his dismissal from the army his treatment of her has been so outrageous and cruel that she has had to leave him in fear of her life, and is now with her friends, a poor broken-hearted woman. As for the general, no one seems to know what has become of him."

"And the responsibility of all this you would lay at my door?" said Mr. Birtwell, in a husky voice, through which quivered a tone of anger. "But I reject your view of the case entirely. General Abercrombie fell because he had no strength of purpose and no control of his appetite. He happened to trip at my house--that is all. He would have fallen sooner or later somewhere."

"Happened to trip! Yes, that is it, Mr. Birtwell; you use the right word. He tripped at your house. But who laid the stone of stumbling in his path? Suppose there had been no wine, served to your guests, would he have stumbled on that fatal night? If there had been no wine served, would Archie Voss have lost his way in the storm or perished in the icy waters? No, my friend, no; and if there had been no wine served at your board that night, three human lives which have, alas! been hidden from us by death's eclipse would be shedding light and warmth upon many hearts now sorrowful and desolate. Three human lives, and a fourth just going out. There is responsibility, and neither you nor I can escape it, Mr. Birtwell, if through indifference or design we permit ourselves to become the instruments of such dire calamities."

Mr. Birtwell had partly risen from his chair in making the weak defence to which this was a reply, but now sunk back with an expression that was half bewilderment and half terror on his countenance.

"In Heaven's name, Mr. Elliott, what does all this mean?" he cried. "Three lives and a fourth going out, and the responsibility laid at my door!"

"It is much easier to let loose an evil power than to stay its progress," said Mr. Elliott. "The near and more apparent effects we may see, rarely the remote and secondary. But we know that the action of all forces, good or evil, is like that of expanding wave-circles, and reaches far beyond, our sight. It has done so in this case. Yes, Mr. Birtwell, three lives, and a fourth now flickering like an expiring candle.

"I would spare you all this if I dared, if I could be conscience-clear," continued Mr. Elliott. "But I would be faithless to my duty if I kept silent. You know the sad case of Mrs. Carlton?"

"You don't mean to lay that, too, at my door!" exclaimed Mr. Birtwell.

"Not directly; it was one of the secondary effects. I had a long conversation with Dr. Hillhouse to-day. His health has failed rapidly for some months past, and he is now much broken down. You know that he performed the operation which cost Mrs. Carlton her life? Well, the doctor has never got over the shock of that catastrophe. It has preyed upon his mind ever since, and is one of the causes of his impaired health."

"I should call that a weakness," returned Mr. Birtwell. "He did his best. No one is safe from accidents or malign influences. I never heard that Mr. Carlton blamed him."

"Ah, these malign influences!" said the clergyman. "They meet us everywhere and hurt us at every turn, and yet not one of them could reach and affect our lives if some human hand did not set them free and send them forth among men to, hurt and to destroy. And now let me tell you of the interview I had with Dr. Hillhouse to-day. He has given his consent, but with this injunction: we cannot speak of it to others."

"I will faithfully respect his wishes," said Mr. Birtwell.

"This morning," resumed Mr. Elliott, "I received a note from the doctor, asking me to call and see him. He was much depressed, and said he had long wanted to have a talk with me about something that weighed heavily on his mind. Let me give you his own words as nearly as I am able to remember them. After some remarks about personal influence and our social responsibilities, he said:

"'There is one thing, Mr. Elliott, in which you and I and a great many others I could name have not only been derelict of duty, but serious wrongdoers. There is an evil in society that more than all others is eating out its life, and you and I have encouraged that evil even by our own example, calling it innocent, and so leading the weak astray and the unwary into temptation.'

"I understood what he meant, and the shock of his including accusation, his 'Thou art the man,' sent a throb of pain to my heart. That I had already seen my false position and changed front did not lessen the shock, for I was only the more sensitive to pain.

"'Happily for you, Mr. Elliott,' he went on. 'no such bitter fruit has been plucked by your hands as by mine, and I pray God that it may never be. For a long time I have carried a heavy load here'--he drew his hand against his breast--'heavier than I have strength to bear. Its weight is breaking me down. It is no light thing, sir, to feel at times that you are a murderer.'

"He shivered, and there passed across his face a look of horror. But it was gone in a moment, though an expression of suffering remained.

"'My dear doctor.' I interposed, 'you have permitted yourself to fall into a morbid state. This is not well. You are overworked and need change and relaxation.'

"'Yes,' he replied, a little mournfully 'I am overworked and morbid and all that, I know, and I must have change and relaxation or I shall die. Ah, if I could get rid of this heavy weight!' He laid his hand upon his breast again, and drew a deep inspiration. 'But that is impossible. I must tell you all about it, but place upon you at the same time an injunction of silence, except in the case of one man, Mr. Spencer Birtwell. He is honorable and he should know, and I can trust him.

"'You remember, of course, the entertainment he gave last winter and some, of the unhappy effects that came of it, but you do not know all. I was there and enjoyed the evening, and you were there, Mr. Elliott, and I am afraid led some into temptation through our freedom. Forgive me for saying so, but the truth is best.

"'Wine was free as water--good wine, tempting to the taste. I meant to be very guarded, to take only a glass or two, for on the next day I had a delicate and dangerous operation to perform, and needed steady nerves. But the wine was good, and my one or two glasses only made way for three or four. The temptation of the hour were too much for my habitual self-restraint. I took a glass of wine with you, Mr. Elliott, after I had already taken more than was prudent under the circumstances another with Mr. Birtwell, another with General Abercrombie--alas for him! he fell that night so low that he has never risen again--and another with some one else. It was almost impossible to put a restraint upon yourself. Invitation and solicitation met you at every turn. The sphere of self-indulgence was so strong that it carried almost every one a little too far, and many into excess and debauch. I was told afterward that at a late hour the scene in the supper-room was simply disgraceful. Boys and men, and sadder still, young women, were more than half drunk, and behaved most unseemly. I can believe this, for I have seen such things too often.

"'As I went out from Mr. Birtwell's that night, and the cold, snow-laden air struck into my face on crossing the pavement to my carriage, cooling my blood and clearing my brain, I thought of Mrs. Carlton and the life that had been placed in my hands, and a feeling of concern dropped into my heart. A night's indulgence in wine-drinking was a poor preparation for the work before me, in which a clear head and steady nerves were absolutely essential. How would I be in the morning? The question thrust itself into my thoughts and troubled me. My apprehensions were not groundless. Morning found me with unsteady nerves. But this was not all. From the moment I left my bed until within half an hour of the time when the operation was to begin, I was under much excitement and deeply anxious about two of my patients, Mrs. Voss and Mrs. Ridley, both dangerously ill, Mrs. Voss, as you know, in consequence of her alarm about her son, and Mrs. Ridley--But you have heard all about her case and its fatal termination, and understand in what way it was connected with the party at Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell's. The consequence of that night's excesses met me at every turn. The unusual calls, the imminent danger in which I found Mrs. Ridley and the almost insane demands made upon me by her despairing husband, all conspired to break down my unsteady nerves and unfit me for the work I had to do. When the time came, there was only one desperate expedient left, and that was the use of a strong stimulant, under the effect of which I was able to extract the tumor from Mrs. Carlton's neck.

"'Alas for the too temporary support of my stimulant! It failed me at the last moment. My sight was not clear nor my hand steady as I tied the small arteries which had been cut during the operation. One of these, ligated imperfectly, commenced bleeding soon after I left the house. A hurried summons reached me almost immediately on my return home, and before I had steadied my exhausted nerves with a glass of wine. Hurrying back, I found the wound bleeding freely. Prompt treatment was required. Ether was again administered. But you know the rest, Mr. Elliott. It is all too dreadful, and I cannot go over it again. Mrs. Carlton fell another victim to excess in wine. This is the true story. I was not blamed by the husband. The real cause of the great calamity that fell upon him he does not know to this day, and I trust will never know. But I have not since been able to look steadily into his dreary eyes. A guilty sense of wrong oppresses me whenever I come near him. As I said before, this thing is breaking me down. It has robbed me, I know, of many years of professional usefulness to which I had looked forward, and left a bitter thought in my mind and a shadow on my feelings that can never pass away.

"'Mr. Elliott,' he continued, 'you have a position of sacred trust. Your influence is large. Set yourself, I pray you, against the evil which has wrought these great disasters. Set yourself against the dangerous self-indulgence called "moderate drinking." It is doing far more injury to society than open drunkenness, more a hundred--nay, a thousand--fold. If I had been a drunkard, no such catastrophe as this I have mentioned could have happened in my practice, for Mr. Carlton would not then have trusted his wife in my hands. My drunkenness would have stood as a warning against me. But I was a respectable moderate drinker, and could take my wine without seeming to be in any way affected by it. But see how it betrayed me at last.'"

Mr. Birtwell had been sitting during this relation with his head bowed upon his breast. When Mr. Elliott ceased speaking, he raised himself up in a slow, weary sort of way, like one oppressed by fatigue or weak from illness.

"Dreadful, dreadful!" he ejaculated. "I never dreamed of anything like this. Poor Carlton!"

"You see," remarked Mr. Elliott, "how easily a thing like this may happen. A man cannot go to one of these evening entertainments and indulge with anything like the freedom to which he is invited and be in a condition to do his best work on the day following. Some of your iron-nerved men may claim an exemption here, but we know that all over-stimulation must leave the body in some degree unstrung when the excitement dies out, and they suffer loss with the rest--a loss the aggregate of which makes itself felt in the end. We have to think for a moment only to satisfy ourselves that the wine-and brandy-drinking into which men and women are enticed at dinner-parties and fashionable entertainments is a fruitful source of evil. The effect upon body and mind after the indulgence is over is seen in headaches, clouded brain, nervous irritation, lassitude, inability to think, and sometimes in a general demoralization of both the physical and mental economy. Where there is any chronic or organic ailment the morbid condition is increased and sometimes severe attacks of illness follow.

"Are our merchants, bankers, lawyers, doctors and men holding responsible trusts as fit for duty after a social debauch--is the word too strong?--as before? If we reflect for a moment--you see, Mr. Birtwell, in what current my thoughts have been running--it must be clear to us that after every great entertainment such as you and other good citizens are in the habit of giving many business and professional mistakes must follow, some of them of a serious character. All this crowds upon and oppresses me, and my wonder is that it did not long ago so crowd upon and oppress me. It seems as though scales had dropped suddenly from my eyes and things I had never seen before stood out in clearest vision."