"What was that?" exclaimed Mrs. Andrews, to the lady who was seated next to her, as a single strain of music vibrated for a few moments on the atmosphere.
"A violin, I suppose," was answered.
"A violin!" An expression almost of horror came into the countenance of Mrs. Andrews. "It can't be possible."
It was possible, however, for the sound came again, prolonged and varied.
"What does it mean?" asked Mrs. Andrews, looking troubled, and moving uneasily in her chair.
"Cotillions, I presume," was answered, carelessly.
"Not dancing, surely!"
But, even as Mrs. Andrews said this, a man entered, carrying in his hand a violin. There was an instant movement on the part of several younger members of the company; partners were chosen, and ere Mrs. Andrews had time to collect her suddenly bewildered thoughts, the music had struck up, and the dancers were in motion.
"I can't remain here. It's an outrage!" said Mrs. Andrews, making a motion to rise.
The lady by whom she was sitting comprehended now more clearly her state of mind, and laying a hand on her arm, gently restrained her.
"Why not remain? What is an outrage, Mrs. Andrews?" she asked.
"Mrs. Burdick knew very well that I was a member of the church." The lady's manner was indignant.
"All your friends know that, Mrs. Andrews," replied the other. A third person might have detected in her tones a lurking sarcasm. But this was not perceived by the individual addressed. "But what is wrong?"
"Wrong! Isn't that wrong?" And she glanced towards the mazy wreath of human figures already circling on the floor. "I could not have believed it of Mrs. Burdick; she knew that I was a professor of religion."
"She doesn't expect you to dance, Mrs. Andrews," said the lady.
"But she expects me to countenance the sin and folly by my presence."
"Sin and folly are strong terms, Mrs. Andrews."
"I know they are, and I use them advisedly. I hold it a sin to dance."
"I know wise and good people who hold a different opinion."
"Wise and good!" Mrs. Andrews spoke with strong disgust. "I wouldn't give much for their wisdom and goodness--not I!"
"The true qualities of men and women are best seen at home. When people go abroad, they generally change their attire--mental as well as bodily. Now, I have seen the home-life of certain ladies, who do not think it sin to dance, and it was full of the heart's warm sunshine; and I have seen the home-life of certain ladies who hold dancing to be sinful, and I have said to myself, half shudderingly: "What child can breathe that atmosphere for years, and not grow up with a clouded spirit, and a fountain of bitterness in the heart!"
"And so you mean to say," Mrs. Andrews spoke with some asperity of manner, "that dancing makes people better?--Is, in fact, a means of grace?"
"No. I say no such thing."
"Then what do you mean to say? I draw the only conclusion I can make."
"One may grow better or worse from dancing," said the lady. "All will depend on the spirit in which the recreation is indulged. In itself the act is innocent."
Mrs. Andrews shook her head.
"In what does its sin consist?"
"It is an idle waste of time."
"Can you say nothing worse of it?"
"I could, but delicacy keeps me silent."
"Did you ever dance?"
"Me? What a question! No!"
"I have danced often. And, let me say, that your inference on the score of indelicacy is altogether an assumption."
"Why everybody admits that."
"Not by any means."
"If the descriptions of some of the midnight balls and assemblies that I have heard, of the waltzing, and all that, be true, then nothing could be more indelicate,--nothing more injurious to the young and innocent."
"All good things become evil in their perversions," said the lady. "And I will readily agree with you, that dancing is perverted, and its use, as a means of social recreation, most sadly changed into what is injurious. The same may be said of church going."
"You shock me," said Mrs. Andrews. "Excuse me, but you are profane."
"I trust not. For true religion--for the holy things of the church--I trust that I have the most profound reverence. But let me prove what I say, that even church going may become evil."
"I am all attention," said the incredulous Mrs. Andrews.
"You can bear plain speaking."
"Me!" The church member looked surprised.
"Certainly I can. But why do you ask?"
"To put you on your guard,--nothing more."
"Don't fear but what I can bear all the plain speaking you may venture upon. As to church going being evil, I am ready to prove the negative against any allegations you can advance. So speak on."
After a slight pause, to collect her thoughts, the lady said:
"There has been a protracted meeting in Mr. B----'s church."
"I know it. And a blessed time it was."
"Yes, every day; and greatly was my soul refreshed and strengthened."
"Did you see Mrs. Eldridge there?"
"Mrs. Eldridge? No indeed, except on Sunday. She's too worldly-minded for that."
"She has a pew in your church."
"Yes; and comes every Sunday morning because it is fashionable and respectable to go to church. As for her religion, it isn't worth much and will hardly stand her at the last day."
"Why Mrs. Andrews! You shock me! Have you seen into her heart? Do you know her purposes? Judge not, that ye be not judged, is the divine injunction."
"A tree is known by its fruit," said Mrs. Andrews, who felt the rebuke, and slightly colored.
"True; and by their fruits shall ye know them," replied the lady. "But come, there are too many around us here for this earnest conversation. We will take a quarter of an hour to ourselves in one of the less crowded rooms. No one will observe our absence, and you will be freed from the annoyance of these dancers."
The two ladies quietly retired from the drawing rooms. As soon as they were more alone, the last speaker resumed.
"By their fruits ye shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Let me relate what I saw and heard in the families of two ladies during this protracted meeting. One of these ladies was Mrs. Eldridge. I was passing in her neighborhood about four o'clock, and as I owed her a call, thought the opportunity a good one for returning it. On entering, my ears caught the blended music of a piano, and children's happy voices. From the front parlor, through the partly opened door, a sight, beautiful to my eyes, was revealed. Mrs. Eldridge was seated at the instrument, her sweet babe asleep on one arm, while, with a single hand, she was touching the notes of a familiar air, to which four children were dancing. A more innocent, loving, happy group I have never seen. For nearly ten minutes I gazed upon them unobserved, so interested that I forgot the questionable propriety of my conduct, and during that time, not an unkind word was uttered by one of the children, nor did anything occur to mar the harmony of the scene. It was a sight on which angels could have looked, nay, did look with pleasure; for, whenever hearts are tuned to good affections, angels are present. The music was suspended, and the dancing ceased, as I presented myself. The mother greeted me with a happy smile, and each of the children spoke to her visitor with an air at once polite and respectful.
"'I've turned nurse for the afternoon, you see,' said Mrs. Eldridge, cheerfully. 'It's Alice's day to go out, and I never like to trust our little ones with the chambermaid, who is n't over fond of children. We generally have a good time on these occasions, for I give myself up to them entirely. They've read, and played, and told stories, until tired, and now I've just brightened them up, body and mind, with a dance.'
"And bright and happy they all looked.
"'Now run up into the nursery for a little while, and build block houses,' said she, 'while I have a little pleasant talk with my friend. That's good children. And I want you to be very quiet, for dear little Eddy is fast asleep, and I'm going to lay him in his crib.'
"Away went the children, and I heard no more of them for the half hour during which I staid. With the child in her arms, Mrs. Eldridge went up to her chamber, and I went with her. As she was laying him in the crib, I took from the mantle a small porcelain figure of a kneeling child, and was examining it, when she turned to me. 'Very beautiful,' said I. 'It is,' she replied.--'We call it our Eddy, saying his prayers. There is a history attached to it. Very early I teach my little ones to say an evening prayer. First impressions are never wholly effaced; I therefore seek to implant, in the very dawning of thought, an idea of God, and our dependence on him for life and all our blessings, knowing that, if duly fixed, this idea will ever remain, and be the vessel, in after years, for the reception of truth flowing down from the great source of all truth. Strangely enough, my little Eddy, so sweet in temper as he was, steadily refused to say his prayers. I tried in every way that I could think of to induce him to kneel with the other children, and repeat a few simple words; but not his aversion thereto was unconquerable. I at last grew really troubled about it. There seemed to be a vein in his character that argued no good. One day I saw this kneeling child in a store. With the sight of it came the thought of how I might use it. I bought the figure, and did not show it to Eddy until he was about going to bed. The effect was all I had hoped to produce. He looked at it for some moments earnestly, then dropped on his little knees, clasped his white hands, and murmured the prayer I had so long and so vainly striven to make him repeat.'
"Tears were in the eyes of Mrs. Eldridge, as she uttered the closing words. I felt that she was a true mother, and loved her children with a high and holy love. And now, let me give you a picture that strongly contrasts with this. Not far from Mrs. Eldridge, resides a lady, who is remarkable for her devotion to the church, and, I am compelled to say, want of charity towards all who happen to differ with her--more particularly, if the difference involves church matters. It was after sundown; still being in the neighborhood, I embraced the opportunity to make a call. On ringing the bell, I heard, immediately, a clatter of feet down the stairs and along the passage, accompanied by children's voices, loud and boisterous. It was some time before the door was opened, for each of the four children, wishing to perform the office, each resisted the others' attempts to admit the visitor. Angry exclamations, rude outcries, ill names, and struggles for the advantage continued, until the cook, attracted from the kitchen by the noise, arrived at the scene of contention, and after jerking the children so roughly as to set the two youngest crying, swung it open, and I entered. On gaining the parlor, I asked for the mother of these children.
"'She isn't at home,' said the cook.
"'She's gone to church,' said the oldest of the children.
"'I wish she'd stay at home,' remarked cook in a very disrespectful way, and with a manner that showed her to be much fretted in her mind. 'It's Mary's day out, and she knows I can't do anything with the children. Such children I never saw! They don't mind a word you say, and quarrel so among themselves, that it makes one sick to hear them.'
"At this moment a headless doll struck against the side of my neck. It had been thrown by one child at another; missing her aim, she gave me the benefit of her evil intention. At this, cook lost all patience, and seizing the offending little one, boxed her soundly, before I could interfere. The language used by that child, as she escaped from the cook's hands, was shocking. It made my flesh creep!
"'Did I understand you to say that your mother had gone to church?' I asked of the oldest child.
"'Yes, ma'am,' was answered. 'She's been every day this week. There's a protracted meeting.'
"'Give me that book!' screamed a child, at this moment. Glancing across the room, I saw two of the little ones contending for possession of a large family Bible, which lay upon a small table. Before I could reach them, for I started forward, from an impulse of the moment, the table was thrown over, the marble top broken, and the cover torn from the sacred volume."
The face of Mrs. Andrews became instantly of a deep crimson. Not seeming to notice this, her friend continued.
"As the table fell, it came within an inch of striking another child on the head, who had seated himself on the floor. Had it done so, a fractured skull, perhaps instant death, would have been the consequence."
Mrs. Andrews caught her breath, and grew very pale. The other continued.
"In the midst of the confusion that followed, the father came home.
"'Where is your mother?' he asked of one of the children.
"'Gone to church,' was replied.
"'O dear!' I can hear his voice now, with its tone of hopelessness,--'This church-going mania is dreadful. I tell my wife that it is all wrong. That her best service to God is to bring up her children in the love of what is good and true,--in filial obedience and fraternal affection. But it avails not.'
"And now, Mrs. Andrews," continued the lady, not in the least appearing to notice the distress and confusion of her over-pious friend, whom she had placed upon the rack, "When God comes to make up his jewels, and says to Mrs. Eldridge, and also to this mother who thought more of church-going than of her precious little ones, 'Where are the children I gave you?' which do you think will be most likely to answer, 'Here they are, not one is lost?'"
"Have I not clearly shown you that even church-going may be perverted into an evil? That piety may attain an inordinate growth, while charity is dead at the root? Spiritual pride; a vain conceit of superior goodness because of the observance of certain forms and ceremonies, is the error into which too many devout religionists fall. But God sees not as man seeth. He looks into the heart, and judges his creatures by the motives that rule them."
And, as she said this, she arose, the silent and rebuked Mrs. Andrews, whose own picture had been drawn, following her down to the gay drawing rooms.
Many a purer heart than that of the humbled Pharisee beat there beneath the bosoms of happy maidens even though their feet were rising and falling in time to witching melodies.