"If they wouldn't let him have it!" said Mrs. Leslie, weeping. "O, if they wouldn't sell him liquor, there'd be no trouble! He's one of the best of men when he doesn't drink. He never brings liquor into the house; and he tries hard enough, I know, to keep sober, but he cannot pass Jenks's tavern."
Mrs. Leslie was talking with a sympathizing neighbor, who responded, by saying, that she wished the tavern would burn down, and that, for her part, she didn't feel any too good to apply fire to the place herself. Mrs. Leslie sighed, and wiped away the tears with her checked apron.
"It's hard, indeed, it is," she murmured, "to see a man like Jenks growing richer and richer every day out of the earnings of poor working-men, whose families are in want of bread. For every sixpence that goes over his counter some one is made poorer--to some heart is given a throb of pain."
"It's a downright shame!" exclaimed the neighbor, immediately. "If I had my way with the lazy, good-for-nothing fellow, I'd see that he did something useful, if it was to break stone on the road. Were it my husband, instead of yours, that he enticed into his bar, depend on't he'd get himself into trouble."
While this conversation was going on, a little girl, not over ten years of age, sat listening attentively. After a while she went quietly from the room, and throwing her apron over head, took her way, unobserved by her mother, down the road.
Where was little Lizzie going? There was a purpose in her mind: She had started on a mission. "O, if they wouldn't sell him liquor!" These earnest, tearful words of her, mother had filled her thoughts. If Mr. Jenks wouldn't sell her father anything to drink, "there would be no more trouble." How simple, how direct the remedy! She would go to Mr. Jenks, and ask him not to let her father have any more liquor, and then all would be well again. Artless, innocent child! And this was her mission.
The tavern kept by Jenks, the laziest man in Milanville,--he was too lazy to work, and therefore went to tavern-keeping,--stood nearly a quarter of a mile from the poor tenement occupied by the Leslies. Towards this point, under a hot, sultry sun, little Lizzie made her way, her mind so filled with its purpose that she was unconscious of heat of fatigue.
Not long before a traveller alighted at the tavern. After giving directions to have his horses fed, he entered the bar-room, and went to where Jenks stood, behind the counter.
"Have something to drink?" inquired the landlord.
"I'll take a glass of water, if you please."
Jenks could not hide the indifference at once felt towards the stranger. Very deliberately he set a pitcher and a glass upon the counter, and then turned partly away. The stranger poured out a tumbler of water, and drank it off with an air of satisfaction.
"Good water, that of yours, landlord," said he.
"Is it?" was returned, somewhat uncourteously.
"I call it good water--don't you?"
"Never drink water by itself." As Jenks said this, he winked to one of his good customers, who was lounging, in the bar. "In fact, it's so long since I drank any water, that I forgot how it tastes. Don't you, Leslie?"
The man, to whom this was addressed, was not so far lost to shame as Jenks. He blushed and looked confused, as he replied,--
"It might be better for some of us if we had not lost our relish for pure water."
"A true word spoken, my friend!" said the stranger, turning to the man, whose swollen visage, and patched, threadbare garments, too plainly told the story of his sad life. "'Water, pure water, bright water;' that is my motto. It never swells the face, nor inflames the eyes, nor mars the countenance. Its attendants are health, thrift, and happiness. It takes not away the children's bread, nor the toiling wife's garments. Water!--it is one of God's chiefest blessings! Our friend, the landlord here, says he has forgotten how it tastes; and you have lost all relish for the refreshing draught! Ah, this is a sad confession!--one which the angels might weep to hear!"
There were two or three customers in the bar besides Leslie, to whom this was addressed; and all of them, in spite of the landlord's angry and sneering countenance, treated the stranger with attention and respect. Seeing this, Jenks could not restrain himself; so, coming from behind his bar, he advanced to his side, and, laying his hand quite rudely on his shoulder, said, in a peremptory manner,--
"See here, my friend! If you are about making a temperance lecture, you can adjourn to the Town Hall or the Methodist Chapel."
The stranger moved aside a pace or two, so that the hand of Jenks might fall from his person, and then said, mildly,--
"There must be something wrong here if a man may not speak in praise of water without giving offense."
"I said you could adjourn your lecture!" The landlord's face was now fiery red, and he spoke with insolence and passion.
"O, well, as you are president of the meeting, I suppose we must let you exercise an arbitrary power of adjournment," said the stranger, good-humoredly. "I didn't think any one had so strong a dislike for water as to consider its praise an insult."
At this moment a child stepped into the bar-room. Her little face was flushed, and great beads of perspiration were slowly moving down her crimson cheeks. Her step was elastic, her manner earnest, and her large, dark eyes bright with an eager purpose. She glanced neither to the right nor the left, but walking up to the landlord, lifted to him her sweet young face, and said, in tones that thrilled every heart but his,--
"Please, Mr. Jenks, don't sell papa any more liquor!"
"Off home with you, this instant!" exclaimed Jenks, the crimson of his face deepening to a dark purple. As he spoke, he advanced towards the child, with his hand uplifted in a threatening attitude.
"Please don't, Mr. Jenks," persisted the child, not moving from where she stood, nor taking her eyes front the landlord's countenance. "Mother says, if you wouldn't sell him liquor, there'd be no trouble. He's kind and good to us all when he doesn't drink."
"Off, I say!" shouted Jenks, now maddened beyond self-control; and his hand was about descending upon the little one, when the stranger caught her in his arms, exclaiming, as he did so, with deep emotion,--
"God bless the child! No, no, precious one!" he added; "don't fear him. Plead for your father--plead for your home. Your petition must prevail! He cannot say nay to one of the little ones, whose angels do always behold the face of their Father in heaven. God bless the child!" added the stranger, in a choking voice. "O, that the father, for whom she has come on this touching errand, were present now! If there were anything of manhood yet left in his nature, this would awaken it from its palsied sleep."
"Papa! O, papa!" now cried the child, stretching forth her hands. In the next moment she was clinging to the breast of her father, who, with his arms clasped tightly around her, stood weeping and mingling his tears with those now raining from the little one's eyes.
What an oppressive stillness pervaded that room! Jenks stood subdued and bewildered, his state of mental confusion scarcely enabling him to comprehend the full import of the scene. The stranger looked on wonderingly, yet deeply affected. Quietly, and with moist eyes, the two or three drinking customers who had been lounging in the bar, went stealthily out; and the landlord, the stranger and the father and his child, were left the only inmates of the room.
"Come, Lizzie, dear! This is no place for us," said Leslie, breaking the deep silence. "We'll go home."
And the unhappy inebriate took his child by the hand, and led her towards the door. But the little one held back.
"Wait, papa; wait!" she said. "He hasn't promised yet. O, I wish he would promise!"
"Promise her, in Heaven's name!" said the stranger.
"Promise!" said Leslie, in a stern yet solemn voice, as he turned and fixed his eyes upon the landlord.
"If I do promise, I'll keep it!" returned Jenks, in a threatening tone, as he returned the gaze of Leslie.
"Then, for God's sake, promise!" exclaimed Leslie, in a half-despairing voice. "Promise, and I'm safe!"
"Be it so! May I be cursed, if ever I sell you a drop of drinking at this bar, while I am landlord of the 'Stag and Hounds'!" Jenks spoke with with an angry emphasis.
"God be thanked!" murmured the poor drunkard, as he led his child away. "God be thanked! There is hope for me yet."
Hardly had the mother of Lizzie missed her child, ere she entered, leading her father by the hand.
"O, mother!" she exclaimed, with a joy-lit countenance, and in a voice of exultation, "Mr. Jenks has promised."
"Promised what?" Hope sprung up in her heart, on wild and fluttering wings, her face flushed, and then grew deadly pale. She sat panting for a reply.
"That he would never sell me another glass of liquor," said her husband.
A pair of thin, white hands were clasped quickly together, an ashen face was turned upwards, tearless eyes looked their thankfulness to heaven.
"There is hope yet, Ellen," said Leslie.
"Hope, hope! And O, Edward, you have said the word!"
"Hope, through our child. Innocence has prevailed over vice and cruelty. She came to the strong, evil, passionate man, and, in her weakness and innocence, prevailed over him. God made her fearless and eloquent."
A year afterwards a stranger came again that way, and stopped at the "Stag and Hounds." As before, Jenks was behind his well-filled bar, and drinking customers came and went in numbers. Jenks did not recognize him until he called for water, and drank a full tumbler of the pure liquor with a hearty zest. Then he knew him, but feigned to be ignorant of his identity. The stranger made no reference to the scene he had witnessed there a twelvemonth before, but lingered in the bar for most of the day, closely observing every one that came to drink. Leslie was not among the number.
"What has become of the man and the little girl I saw here, at my last visit to Milanville?" said the stranger, speaking at last to Jenks.
"Gone to the devil, for all I care," was the landlord's rude answer, as he turned off from his questioner.
"For all you care, no doubt," said the stranger to himself. "Men often speak their real thoughts in a passion."
"Do you see that little white cottage away off there, just at the edge of the wood? Two tall poplars stand in front."
Thus spoke to the stranger one who had heard him address the landlord.
"I do. What of it?" he answered.
"The man you asked for lives there."
"And what is more, if he keeps on as he has begun, the cottage will be all his own in another year. Jenks, here, doesn't feel any good blood for him, as you may well believe. A poor man's prosperity is regarded as so much loss to him. Leslie is a good mechanic--one of the best in Milanville. He can earn twelve dollars a week, year in and year out. Two hundred dollars he has already paid on his cottage; and as he is that much richer, Jenks thinks himself just so much poorer; for all this surplus, and more too, would have gone into his till, if Leslie had not quit drinking."
"Aha! I see! Well, did Leslie, as you call him, ever try to get a drink here, since the landlord promised never to let him have another drop?"
"Twice to my knowledge."
"And he refused him?"
"Yes. If you remember, he said, in his anger, 'May I be cursed, if I sell him another drop.'"
"I remember it very well."
"That saved poor Leslie. Jenks is superstitious in some things. He wanted to get his custom again,--for it was well worth having,--and he was actually handing him the bottle one day, when I saw it, and reminded him of his self-imprecation. He hesitated, looked frightened, withdrew the bottle from the counter, and then, with curses, drove Leslie from his bar-room, threatening, at the same time, to horsewhip him if ever he set a foot over his threshold again."
"Poor drunkards!" mused the stranger, as he rode past the neat cottage of the reformed man a couple of hours afterwards. "As the case now stands, you are only saved as by fire. All law, all protection, is on the side of those who are engaged in enticing you into sin, and destroying you, body and soul. In their evil work, they have free course. But for you, unhappy wretches, after they have robbed you of worldly goods, and even manhood itself, are provided prisons and pauper homes! And for your children,"--a dark shadow swept over the stranger's face, and a shudder went through his frame. "Can it be, a Christian country in which I live, and such things darken the very sun at noonday!" he added as he sprung his horse into a gallop and rode swiftly onward.