Chapter XIV.
 

On the next morning, after some persuasion, Edith consented to postpone her visit to Grubb's court until after her father had seen Mr. Paulding, the missionary.

"Let me go first and gain what information I can," he urged. "It may save you a fruitless errand."

It was not without a feeling of almost unconquerable repugnance that Mr. Dinneford took his way to the mission-house, in Briar street. His tastes, his habits and his naturally kind and sensitive feelings all made him shrink from personal contact with suffering and degradation. He gave much time and care to the good work of helping the poor and the wretched, but did his work in boards and on committees, rather than in the presence of the needy and suffering. He was not one of those who would pass over to the other side and leave a wounded traveler to perish, but he would avoid the road to Jericho, if he thought it likely any such painful incident would meet him in the way and shock his fine sensibilities. He was willing to work for the downcast, the wronged, the suffering and the vile, but preferred doing so at a distance, and not in immediate contact. Thus it happened that, although one of the managers of the Briar street mission and familiar with its work in a general way, he had never been at the mission-house--had never, in fact, set his foot within the morally plague-stricken district in which it stood. He had often been urged to go, but could not overcome his reluctance to meet humanity face to face in its sadder and more degraded aspects.

Now a necessity was upon him, and he had to go. It was about ten o'clock in the morning when, at almost a single step, he passed from what seemed paradise to purgatory, the sudden contrast was so great. There were but few persons in the little street; where the mission was situated at that early hour, and most of these were children--poor, half-clothed, dirty, wan-faced, keen-eyed and alert bits of humanity, older by far than their natural years, few of them possessing any higher sense of right and wrong than young savages. The night's late orgies or crimes had left most of their elders in a heavy morning sleep, from which they did not usually awaken before midday. Here and there one and another came creeping out, impelled by a thirst no water could quench. Now it was a bloated, wild-eyed man, dirty and forlorn beyond description, shambling into sight, but disappearing in a moment or two in one of the dram-shops, whose name was legion, and now it was a woman with the angel all gone out of her face, barefooted, blotched, coarse, red-eyed, bruised and awfully disfigured by her vicious, drunken life. Her steps too made haste to the dram-shop.

Such houses for men and women to live in as now stretched before his eyes in long dreary rows Mr. Dinneford had never seen, except in isolated cases of vice and squalor. To say that he was shocked would but faintly express his feelings. Hurrying along, he soon came in sight of the mission. At this moment a jar broke the quiet of the scene. Just beyond the mission-house two women suddenly made their appearance, one of them pushing the other out upon the street. Their angry cries rent the air, filling it with profane and obscene oaths. They struggled together for a little while, and then one of them, a woman with gray hair and not less than sixty years of age, fell across the curb with her head on the cobble-stones.

As if a sorcerer had stamped his foot, a hundred wretched creatures, mostly women and children, seemed to spring up from the ground. It was like a phantasy. They gathered about the prostrate woman, laughing and jeering. A policeman who was standing at the corner a little way off came up leisurely, and pushing the motley crew aside, looked down at the prostrate woman.

"Oh, it's you again!" he said, in a tone of annoyance, taking hold of one arm and raising her so that she sat on the curb-stone. Mr. Dinneford now saw her face distinctly; it was that of an old woman, but red, swollen and terribly marred. Her thin gray hair had fallen over her shoulders, and gave her a wild and crazy look.

"Come," said the policeman, drawing on the woman's arm and trying to raise her from the ground. But she would not move.

"Come," he said, more imperatively.

"Nature you going to do with me?" she demanded.

"I'm going to lock you up. So come along. Have had enough of you about here. Always drunk and in a row with somebody."

Her resistance was making the policeman angry.

"It'll take two like you to do that," returned the woman, in a spiteful voice, swearing foully at the same time.

At this a cheer arose from the crowd. A negro with a push-cart came along at the moment.

"Here! I want you," called the policeman.

The negro pretended not to hear, and the policeman had to threaten him before he would stop.

Seeing the cart, the drunken woman threw herself back upon the pavement and set every muscle to a rigid strain. And now came one of those shocking scenes--too familiar, alas! in portions of our large Christian cities--at which everything pure and merciful and holy in our nature revolts: a gray-haired old woman, so debased by drink and an evil life that all sense of shame and degradation had been extinguished, fighting with a policeman, and for a time showing superior strength, swearing vilely, her face distorted with passion, and a crowd made up chiefly of women as vile and degraded as herself, and of all ages, and colors, laughing, shouting and enjoying the scene intensely.

At last, by aid of the negro, the woman was lifted into the cart and thrown down upon the floor, her head striking one of the sides with a sickening thud. She still swore and struggled, and had to be held down by the policeman, who stood over her, while the cart was pushed off to the nearest station-house, the excited crowd following with shouts and merry huzzas.

Mr. Dinneford was standing in a maze, shocked and distressed by this little episode, when a man at his side said in a grave, quiet voice,

"I doubt if you could see a sight just like that anywhere else in all Christendom." Then added, as he extended his hand,

"I am glad to see you here, Mr. Dinneford."

"Oh, Mr. Paulding!" and Mr. Dinneford put out his hand and grasped that of the missionary with a nervous grip. "This is awful! I am sixty years old, but anything so shocking my eyes have not before looked upon."

"We see things worse than this every day," said the missionary. "It is only one of the angry boils on the surface, and tells of the corrupt and vicious blood within. But I am right glad to find you here, Mr. Dinneford. Unless you see these things with your own eyes, it is impossible for you to comprehend the condition of affairs in this by-way to hell."

"Hell, itself, better say," returned Mr. Dinneford. "It is hell pushing itself into visible manifestation--hell establishing itself on the earth, and organizing its forces for the destruction of human souls, while the churches are too busy enlarging their phylacteries and making broader and more attractive the hems of their garments to take note of this fatal vantage-ground acquired by the enemy."

Mr. Dinneford stood and looked around him in a dazed sort of way.

"Is Grubb's court near this?" he asked, recollecting the errand upon which he had come.

"Yes."

"A young lady called to see you yesterday afternoon to ask about a child in that court?"

"Oh yes! You know the lady?"

"She is my daughter. One of the poor children in her sewing-class told her of a neglected baby in Grubb's court, and so drew upon her sympathies that she started to go there, but was warned by the child that it would be dangerous for a young lady like her to be seen in that den of thieves and harlots, and so she came to you. And now I am here in her stead to get your report about the baby. I would not consent to her visiting this place again."

Mr. Paulding took his visitor into the mission-house, near which they were standing. After they were seated, he said,

"I have seen the baby about which your daughter wished me to make inquiry. The woman who has the care of it is a vile creature, well known in this region--drunken and vicious. She said at first that it was her own baby, but afterward admitted that she didn't know who its mother was, and that she was paid for taking care of it. I found out, after a good deal of talking round, and an interview with the mother of the child who is in your daughter's sewing-class, that a girl of notoriously bad character, named Pinky Swett, pays the baby's board. There's a mystery about the child, and I am of the opinion that it has been stolen, or is known to be the offcast of some respectable family. The woman who has the care of it was suspicious, and seemed annoyed at my questions."

"Is it a boy?" asked Mr. Dinneford.

"Yes, and has a finely-formed head and a pair of large, clear, hazel eyes. Evidently it is of good parentage. The vicious, the sensual and the depraved mark their offspring with the unmistakable signs of their moral depravity. You cannot mistake them. But this baby has in its poor, wasted, suffering little face, in its well-balanced head and deep, almost spiritual eyes, the signs of a better origin."

"It ought at once to be taken away from the woman," said Mr. Dinneford, in a very decided manner.

"Who is to take it?" asked the missionary.

Mr. Dinneford was silent.

"Neither you nor I have any authority to do so. If I were to see it cast out upon the street, I might have it sent to the almshouse; but until I find it abandoned or shamefully abused, I have no right to interfere."

"I would like to see the baby," said Mr. Dinneford, on whose mind painful suggestions akin to those that were so disturbing his daughter were beginning to intrude themselves.

"It would hardly be prudent to go there to-day," said Mr. Paulding.

"Why not?"

"It would arouse suspicion; and if there is anything wrong, the baby would drop out of sight. You would not find it if you went again. These people are like birds with their wings half lifted, and fly away at the first warning of danger. As it is, I fear my visit and inquiries will be quite sufficient to the cause the child's removal to another place."

Mr. Dinneford mused for a while:

"There ought to be some way to reach a case like this, and there is, I am sure. From what you say, it is more than probable that this poor little waif may have drifted out of some pleasant home, where love would bless it with the tenderest care, into this hell of neglect and cruelty. It should be rescued on the instant. It is my duty--it is yours--to see that it is done, and that without delay. I will go at once to the mayor and state the case. He will send an officer with me, I know, and we will take the child by force. If its real mother then comes forward and shows herself at all worthy to have the care of it, well; if not, I will see that it is taken care of. I know where to place it."

To this proposition Mr. Paulding had no objection to offer.

"If you take that course, and act promptly, you can no doubt get possession of the poor thing. Indeed, sir"--and the missionary spoke with much earnestness--"if men of influence like yourself would come here and look the evil of suffering and neglected children in the face, and then do what they could to destroy that evil, there would soon be joy in heaven over the good work accomplished by their hands. I could give you a list of ten or twenty influential citizens whose will would be next to law in a matter like this who could in a month, if they put heart and hand to it, do such a work for humanity here as would make the angels glad. But they are too busy with their great enterprises to give thought and effort to a work like this."

A shadow fell across the missionary's face. There was a tone of discouragement in his voice.

"The great question is what to do," said Mr. Dinneford. "There are no problems so hard to solve as these problems of social evil. If men and women choose to debase themselves, who is to hinder? The vicious heart seeks a vicious life. While the heart is depraved the life will be evil. So long as the fountain is corrupt the water will be foul."

"There is a side to all this that most people do not consider," answered Mr. Paulding. "Self-hurt is one thing, hurt of the neighbor quite another. It may be questioned whether society has a right to touch the individual freedom of a member in anything that affects himself alone. But the moment he begins to hurt his neighbor, whether from ill-will or for gain, then it is the duty of society to restrain him. The common weal demands this, to say nothing of Christian obligation. If a man were to set up an exhibition in our city dangerous to life and limb, but so fascinating as to attract large numbers to witness and participate therein, and if hundreds were maimed or killed every year, do you think any one would question the right of our authorities to repress it? And yet to-day there are in our city more than twenty thousand persons who live by doing things a thousand times more hurtful to the people than any such exhibition could possibly be. And what is marvelous to think of, the larger part of these persons are actually licensed by the State to get gain by hurting, depraving and destroying the people. Think of it, Mr. Dinneford! The whole question lies in a nutshell. There is no difficulty about the problem. Restrain men from doing harm to each other, and the work is more than half done."

"Is not the law all the while doing this?"

"The law," was answered. "is weakly dealing with effect--how weakly let prison and police statistics show. Forty thousand arrests in our city for a single year, and the cause of these arrests clearly traced to the liquor licenses granted to five or six thousand persons to make money by debasing and degrading the people. If all of these were engaged in useful employments, serving, as every true citizen is bound to do, the common good, do you think we should have so sad and sickening a record? No, sir! We must go back to the causes of things. Nothing but radical work will do."

"You think, then," said Mr. Dinneford, "that the true remedy for all these dreadful social evils lies in restrictive legislation?"

"Restrictive only on the principles of eternal right," answered the missionary. "Man's freedom over himself must not be touched. Only his freedom to hurt his neighbor must be abridged. Here society has a right to put bonds on its members--to say to each individual, You are free to do anything by which your neighbor is served, but nothing to harm him. Here is where the discrimination must be made; and when the mass of the people come to see this, we shall have the beginning of a new day. There will then be hope for such poor wretches as crowd this region; or if most of them are so far lost as to be without hope, their places, when they die, will not be filled with new recruits for the army of perdition."

"If the laws we now have were only executed," said Mr. Dinneford, "there might be hope in our legislative restrictions. But the people are defrauded of justice through defects in its machinery. There are combinations to defeat good laws. There are men holding high office notoriously in league with scoundrels who prey upon the people. Through these, justice perpetually fails."

"The people are alone to blame," replied the missionary. "Each is busy with his farm and his merchandise with his own affairs, regardless of his neighbor. The common good is nothing, so that his own good is served. Each weakly folds his hands and is sorry when these troublesome questions are brought to his notice, but doesn't see that he can do anything. Nor can the people, unless some strong and influential leaders rally them, and, like great generals, lead them to the battle. As I said a little while ago, there are ten or twenty men in this city who, if they could be made to feel their high responsibility--who, if they could be induced to look away for a brief period from their great enterprises and concentrate thought and effort upon these questions of social evil, abuse of justice and violations of law--would in a single month inaugurate reforms and set agencies to work that would soon produce marvelous changes. They need not touch the rottenness of this half-dead carcass with knife or poultice. Only let them cut off the sources of pollution and disease, and the purified air will do the work of restoration where moral vitality remains, or hasten the end in those who are debased beyond hope."

"What could these men do? Where would their work begin?" asked Mr. Dinneford.

"Their own intelligence would soon discover the way to do this work if their hearts were in it. Men who can organize and successfully conduct great financial and industrial enterprises, who know how to control the wealth and power of the country and lead the people almost at will, would hardly be at fault in the adjustment of a matter like this. What would be the money influence of 'whisky rings' and gambling associations, set against the social and money influence of these men? Nothing, sir, nothing! Do you think we should long have over six thousand bars and nearly four hundred lottery-policy shops in our city if the men to whom I refer were to take the matter in hand?"

"Are there so many policy-shops?" asked Mr. Dinneford, in surprise.

"There may be more. You will find them by scores in every locality where poor and ignorant people are crowded together, sucking out their substance, and in the neighborhood of all the market-houses and manufactories, gathering in spoil. The harm they are doing is beyond computation. The men who control this unlawful business are rich and closely organized. They gather in their dishonest gains at the rate of hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, and know how and where to use this money for the protection of their agents in the work of defrauding the people, and the people are helpless because our men of wealth and influence have no time to give to public justice or the suppression of great social wrongs. With them, as things now are, rests the chief responsibility. They have the intelligence, the wealth and the public confidence, and are fully equal to the task if they will put their hands to the work. Let them but lift the standard and sound the trumpet of reform, and the people will rally instantly at the call. It must not be a mere spasmodic effort--a public meeting with wordy resolutions and strong speeches only--but organized work based on true principles of social order and the just rights of the people."

"You are very much in earnest about this matter," said Mr. Dinneford, seeing how excited the missionary had grown.

"And so would you and every other good citizen become if, standing face to face, as I do daily, with this awful debasement and crime and suffering, you were able to comprehend something of its real character. If I could get the influential citizens to whom I have referred to come here and see for themselves, to look upon this pandemonium in their midst and take in an adequate idea of its character, significance and aggressive force, there would be some hope of making them see their duty, of arousing them to action. But they stand aloof, busy with personal and material interest, while thousands of men, women and children are yearly destroyed, soul and body, through their indifference to duty and ignorance of their fellows' suffering."

"It is easy to say such things," answered Mr. Dinneford, who felt the remarks of Mr. Paulding as almost personal.

"Yes, it is easy to say them," returned the missionary, his voice dropping to a lower key, "and it may be of little use to say them. I am sometimes almost in despair, standing so nearly alone as I do with my feet on the very brink of this devastating flood of evil, and getting back only faint echoes to my calls for help. But when year after year I see some sheaves coming in as the reward of my efforts and of the few noble hearts that work with me, I thank God and take courage, and I lift my voice and call more loudly for help, trusting that I may be heard by some who, if they would only come up to the help of the Lord against the mighty, would scatter his foes like chaff on the threshing-floor. But I am holding you back from your purpose to visit the mayor; I think you had better act promptly if you would get possession of the child. I shall be interested in the result, and will take it as a favor if you will call at the mission again."