Danger; or Wounded in the House of a Friend by T.S. Arthur
"Heavens and earth! Why doesn't some one go to the door?" exclaimed Mr. Spencer Birtwell, rousing himself from a heavy sleep as the bell was rung for the third time, and now with four or five vigorous and rapid jerks, each of which caused the handle of the bell to strike with the noise of a hammer.
The gray dawn was just breaking.
"There it is again! Good heavens! What does it mean?" and Mr. Birtwell, now fairly awake, started up in bed and sat listening. Scarcely a moment intervened before the bell was pulled again, and this time continuously for a dozen times. Springing from the bed, Mr. Birtwell threw open a window, and looking out, saw two policemen at the door.
"What's wanted?" he called down to them.
"Was there a young man here last night named Voss?" inquired one of the men.
"What about him?" asked Mr. Birtwell.
"He hasn't been home, and his friends are alarmed. Do you know where he is?"
"Wait, returned Mr. Birtwell; and shutting down the window, he dressed himself hurriedly.
"What is it?" asked his wife, who had been awakened from a heavy slumber by the noise at the window.
"Archie Voss didn't get home last night."
"What?" and Mrs. Birtwell started out of bed.
"There are two policemen at the door."
"Yes; making a grand row for nothing, as if young men never stayed away from home. I must go down and see them. Go back into bed again, Margaret. You'll take your death o' cold. There's nothing to be alarmed about. He'll come up all right."
But Mrs. Birtwell did not return to her bed. With warm wrapper thrown about her person, she stood at the head of the stairway while her husband went down to admit the policemen. All that could be learned from them was that Archie Voss had not come home from the party, and that his friends were greatly alarmed about him. Mr. Birtwell had no information to give. The young man had been at his house, and had gone away some time during the night, but precisely at what hour he could not tell.
"You noticed him through the evening?" said one of the policemen.
"Oh yes, certainly. We know Archie very well. He's always been intimate at our house."
"Did he take wine freely?"
An indignant denial leaped to Mr. Birtwell's tongue, but the words died unspoken, for the image of Archie, with flushed face and eyes too bright for sober health, holding in his hand a glass of sparkling champagne, came vividly before him.
"Not more freely than other young men," he replied. "Why do you ask?"
"There are two theories of his absence," said the policeman. "One is that he has been set upon in the street, robbed and murdered, and the other that, stupefied and bewildered by drink, he lost himself in the storm, and lies somewhere frozen to death and hidden under the snow."
A cry of pain broke from the lips of Mrs. Birtwell, and she came hurrying down stairs. Too well did she remember the condition of Archie when she last saw him--Archie, the only son of her oldest and dearest friend, the friend she had known and loved since girlhood. He was not fit to go out alone in that cold and stormy night; and a guilty sense of responsibility smote upon her heart and set aside all excuses.
"What about his mother?" she asked, anxiously. "How is she bearing this dreadful suspense?"
"I can't just say, ma'am," was answered, "but I think they've had the doctor with her all night--that is, all the last part of the night. She's lying in a faint, I believe."
"Oh, it will kill her! Poor Frances! Poor Frances!" wailed out Mrs. Birtwell, wringing her hands and beginning to cry bitterly.
"The police have been on the lookout for the last two or three hours, but can't find any trace of him," said the officer.
"Oh, he'll turn up all right," broke in Mr. Birtwell, with a confident tone. "It's only a scare. Gone home with some young friend, as like as not. Young fellows in their teens don't get lost in the snow, particularly in the streets of a great city, and footpads generally know their game before bringing it down. I'm sorry for poor Mrs. Voss; she isn't strong enough to bear such a shock. But it will all come right; I don't feel a bit concerned."
But for all that he did feel deeply concerned. The policemen went away, and Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell sat down by an open grate in which the fire still burned.
"Don't let it distress you so, Margaret," said the former, trying to comfort his wife. "There's nothing to fear for Archie. Nobody ever heard of a man getting lost in a city snow-storm. If he'd been out on a prairie, the case would have been different, but in the streets of the city! The thing's preposterous, Margaret."
"Oh, if he'd only gone away as he came, I wouldn't feel so awfully about it," returned Mrs. Birtwell. "That's what cuts me to the heart. To think that he came to my house sober and went away--"
She caught back from her tongue the word she would have spoken, and shivered.
"Nothing of the kind, Margaret, nothing of the kind," said her husband, quickly. "A little gay--that was all. Just what is seen at parties every night. Archie hasn't much head, and a single glass of champagne is enough to set it buzzing. But it's soon over. The effervescence goes off in a little while, and the head comes clear again."
Mrs. Birtwell did not reply. Her eyes were cast down and her face deeply distressed.
"If anything has happened to Archie," she said, after a long silence, "I shall never have a moment's peace as long as I live."
"Nonsense, Margaret! Suppose something has happened to him? We are not responsible. It's his own fault if he took away more wine than he was able to carry." Mr. Birtwell spoke with slight irritation.
"If he hadn't found the wine here, he could not have carried it away," replied his wife.
"How wildly you talk, Margaret!" exclaimed Mr. Birtwell, with increased irritation.
"We won't discuss the matter," said his wife. "It would be useless, agreement being, I fear, out of the question; but it is very certain that we cannot escape responsibility in this or anything else we may do, and so long as these words of Holy Writ stand, 'Woe unto him that giveth his neighbor drink, that putteth the bottle to him and maketh him drunken', we may well have serious doubts in regard to the right and wrong of these fashionable entertainments, at which wine and spirits are made free to all of both sexes, young and old."
Mr. Birtwell started to his feet and walked the floor with considerable excitement.
"If we had a son just coming to manhood--and I sometimes thank God that we have not--would you feel wholly at ease about him, wholly satisfied that he was in no danger in the houses of your friends? May not a young man as readily acquire a taste for liquors in a gentleman's dining-room as in a drinking-saloon--nay, more readily, if in the former the wine is free and bright eyes and laughing lips press him with invitations?"
Mrs. Birtwell's voice had gained a steadiness and force that made it very impressive. Her husband continued to walk the floor but with slower steps.
"I saw things last night that troubled me," she went on. "There is no disguising the fact that most of the young men who come to these large parties spend a great deal too much time in the supper-room, and drink a great deal more than is good for them. Archie Voss was not the only one who did this last evening. I watched another young man very closely, and am sorry to say that he left our house in a condition in which no mother waiting at home could receive her son without sorrow and shame."
"Who was that?" asked Mr. Birtwell, turning quickly upon his wife. He had detected more than a common concern in her voice.
"Ellis," she replied. Her manner was very grave.
"You must be mistaken about that," said Mr. Birtwell, evidently disturbed at this communication.
"I wish to Heaven that I were! But the fact was too apparent. Blanche saw it, and tried to get him out of the supper-room. He acted in the silliest kind of a way, and mortified her dreadfully, poor child!"
"Such things will happen sometimes," said Mr. Birtwell. "Young men like Ellis don't always know how much they can bear." His voice was in a lower key and a little husky.
"It happens too often with Ellis," replied his wife, "and I'm beginning to feel greatly troubled about it."
"Has it happened before?"
"Yes; at Mrs. Gleason's, only last week. He was loud and boisterous in the supper-room--so much so that I heard a lady speak of his conduct as disgraceful."
"That will never do," exclaimed Mr. Birtwell, betraying much excitement. "He will have to change all this or give up Blanche. I don't care what his family is if he isn't all right himself."
"It is easier to get into trouble than out of it," was replied. "Things have gone too far between them."
"I don't believe it. Blanche will never throw herself away on a man of bad habits."
"No; I do not think she will. But there may be, in her view, a very great distance between an occasional glass of wine too much at an evening party and confirmed bad habits. We must not hope to make her see with our eyes, nor to take our judgment of a case in which her heart is concerned. Love is full of excuses and full of faith. If Ellis Whitford should, unhappily, be overcome by this accursed appetite for drink which is destroying so many of our most promising young men, there is trouble ahead for her and for us."
"Something must be done about it. We cannot let this thing go on," said Mr. Birtwell, in a kind of helpless passion. "A drunkard is a beast. Our Blanche tied to a beast! Ugh! Ellis must be talked to. I shall see him myself. If he gets offended, I cannot help it. There's too much at stake--too much, too much!"
"Talking never does much in these cases," returned Mrs. Birtwell, gloomily. "Ellis would be hurt and offended."
"So far so good. He'd be on guard at the next party."
"Perhaps so. But what hope is there for a young man in any danger of acquiring a love of liquor as things now are in our best society? He cannot always be on guard. Wine is poured for him everywhere. He may go unharmed in his daily walks through the city though thousands of drinking-saloons crowd its busy streets. They may hold out their enticements for him in vain. But he is too weak to refuse the tempting glass when a fair hostess offers it, or when, in the midst of a gay company wine is in every hand and at every lip. One glass taken, and caution and restraint are too often forgotten. He drinks with this one and that one, until his clear head is gone and appetite, like a watchful spider, throws another cord of its fatal web around him."
"I don't see what we are to do about it," said Mr. Birtwell. "If men can't control themselves--" He did not finish the sentence.
"We can at least refrain from putting temptation in their way," answered his wife.
"We can refuse to turn our houses into drinking-saloons," replied Mrs. Birtwell, voice and manner becoming excited and intense.
"Margaret, Margaret, you are losing yourself," said the astonished husband.
"No; I speak the words of truth and soberness," she answered, her face rising in color and her eyes brightening. "What great difference is there between a drinking-saloon, where liquor is sold, and a gentleman's dining-room, where it is given away? The harm is great in both--greatest, I fear, in the latter, where the weak and unguarded are allured and their tastes corrupted. There is a ban on the drinking-saloon. Society warns young men not to enter its tempting doors. It is called the way of death and hell. What makes it accursed and our home saloon harmless? It is all wrong, Mr. Birtwell--all wrong, wrong, wrong! and to-day we are tasting some of the fruit, the bitterness of which, I fear, will be in our mouths so long as we both shall live."
Mrs. Birtwell broke down, and sinking back in her chair, covered her face with her hands.
"I must go to Frances," she said, rising after a few moments.
"Not now, Margaret," interposed her husband. "Wait for a while. Archie is neither murdered nor frozen to death; you may take my word for that. Wait until the morning advances, and he has time to put in an appearance, as they say. Henry can go round after breakfast and make inquiry about him. If he is still absent, then you might call and see Mrs. Voss. At present the snow lies inches deep and unbroken on the street, and you cannot possibly go out."
Mrs. Birtwell sat down again, her countenance more distressed.
"Oh, if it hadn't happened in our house!" she said. "If this awful thing didn't lie at our door!"
"Good Heavens, Margaret! why will you take on so? Any one hearing you talk might think us guilty of murder, or some other dreadful crime. Even if the worst fears are realized, no blame can lie with us. Parties are given every night, and young men, and old men too, go home from them with lighter heads than when they came. No one is compelled to drink more than is good for him. If he takes too much, the sin lies at his own door."
"If you talked for ever, Mr. Birtwell," was answered nothing you might say could possibly change my feelings or sentiments. I know we are responsible both to God and to society for the stumbling-blocks we set in the way of others. For a long time, as you know, I have felt this in regard to our social wine-drinking customs; and if I could have had my way, there would have been one large party of the season at which neither man nor woman could taste wine."
"I know," replied Mr. Birtwell. "But I didn't choose to make myself a laughing-stock. If we are in society, we must do as society does. Individuals are not responsible for social usages. They take things as they find them, going with the current, and leaving society to settle for itself its code of laws and customs. If we don't like these laws and customs, we are free to drift out of the current. But to set ourselves against them is a weakness and a folly."
Mr. Birtwell's voice and manner grew more confident as he spoke. He felt that he had closed the argument.
"If society," answered his wife, "gets wrong, how is it to get right?"
Mr. Birtwell was silent.
"Is it not made up of individuals?"
"And is not each of the individuals responsible, in his degree, for the conduct of society?"
"In a certain sense, yes."
"Society, as a whole, cannot determine a question of right and wrong. Only individuals can do this. Certain of these, more independent than the rest, pass now and then from the beaten track of custom, and the great mass follow them. Because they do this or that, it is right or in good taste and becomes fashionable. The many are always led by the few. It is through the personal influence of the leaders in social life that society is now cursed by its drinking customs. Personal influence alone can change these customs, and therefore every individual becomes responsible, because he might if he would set his face against them, and any one brave enough to do this would find many weaker ones quick to come to his side and help him to form a better social sentiment and a better custom."
"All very nicely said," replied Mr. Birtwell, "but I'd like to see the man brave enough to give a large fashionable party and exclude wine."
"So would I. Though every lip but mine kept silence, there would be one to do him honor."
"You would be alone, I fear," said the husband.
"When a man does a right and brave thing, all true men honor him in their hearts. All may not be brave enough to stand by his side, but a noble few will imitate the good example. Give the leader in any cause, right or wrong, and you will always find adherents of the cause. No, my husband, I would not be alone in doing that man honor. His praise would be on many lips and many hearts would bless him. I only wish you were that man! Spencer, if you will consent to take this lead, I will walk among our guests the queenliest woman, in heart at least, to be found in any drawing-room this season. I shall not be without my maids-of-honor, you may be sure, and they will come from the best families known in our city. Come! say yes, and I will be prouder of my husband than if he were the victorious general of a great army."
"No, thank you, my dear," replied Mr. Birtwell, not in the least moved by his wife's enthusiasm. "I am not a social reformer, nor in the least inclined that way. As I find things I take them. It is no fault of mine that some people have no control of their appetites and passions. Men will abuse almost anything to their own hurt. I saw as many of our guests over-eat last night as over-drink, and there will be quite as many headaches to-day from excess of terrapin and oysters as from excess of wine. It's no use, Margaret. Intemperance is not to be cured in this way. Men who have a taste for wine will get it, if not in one place then in another; if not in a gentleman's dining-room, then in a drinking-saloon, or somewhere else."
The glow faded from Mrs. Birtwell's face and the light went out of her eyes. Her voice was husky and choking as she replied:
"One fact does not invalidate another. Because men who have acquired a taste for wine will have it whether we provide it for them or not, it is no reason why we should set it before the young whose appetites are yet unvitiated and lure them to excesses. It does not make a free indulgence in wine and brandy any the more excusable because men overeat themselves."
"But," broke in Mr. Birtwell, with the manner of one who gave an unanswerable reason, "if we exclude wine that men may not hurt themselves by over-indulgence, why not exclude the oysters and terrapin? If we set up for reformers and philanthropists, why not cover the whole ground?"
"Oysters and terrapin," replied Mrs. Birtwell, in a voice out of which she could hardly keep the contempt she felt for her husband's weak rejoinder, "don't confuse the head, dethrone the reason, brutalize, debase and ruin men in soul and body as do wine and brandy. The difference lies there, and all men see and feel it, make what excuses they will for self-indulgence and deference to custom. The curse of drink is too widely felt. There is scarcely a family in the land on which its blight does not lie. The best, the noblest, the purest, the bravest, have fallen. It is breaking hopes and hearts and fortunes every day. The warning cross that marks the grave of some poor victim hurts your eyes at every turn of life. We are left without excuse."
Mrs. Birtwell rose as she finished speaking, and returned to her chamber.