In His Steps
by Charles M. Sheldon
“For I come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in- law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”
“Be ye therefore imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, even as Christ also loved you.”
“HADN’T we better take a policeman along?” said one of the girls with a nervous laugh. “It really isn’t safe down there, you know.”
“There’s no danger,” said Virginia briefly.
“Is it true that your brother Rollin has been converted?” asked the first speaker, looking at Virginia curiously. It impressed her during the drive to the Rectangle that all three of her friends were regarding her with close attention as if she were peculiar.
“Yes, he certainly is.”
“I understand he is going around to the clubs talking with his old friends there, trying to preach to them. Doesn’t that seem funny?” said the girl with the red silk parasol.
Virginia did not answer, and the other girls were beginning to feel sober as the carriage turned into a street leading to the Rectangle. As they neared the district they grew more and more nervous. The sights and smells and sounds which had become familiar to Virginia struck the senses of these refined, delicate society girls as something horrible. As they entered farther into the district, the Rectangle seemed to stare as with one great, bleary, beer-soaked countenance at this fine carriage with its load of fashionably dressed young women. “Slumming” had never been a fad with Raymond society, and this was perhaps the first time that the two had come together in this way. The girls felt that instead of seeing the Rectangle they were being made the objects of curiosity. They were frightened and disgusted.
“Let’s go back. I’ve seen enough,” said the girl who was sitting with Virginia.
They were at that moment just opposite a notorious saloon and gambling house. The street was narrow and the sidewalk crowded. Suddenly, out of the door of this saloon a young woman reeled. She was singing in a broken, drunken sob that seemed to indicate that she partly realized her awful condition, “Just as I am, without one plea” — and as the carriage rolled past she leered at it, raising her face so that Virginia saw it very close to her own. It was the face of the girl who had kneeled sobbing, that night with Virginia kneeling beside her and praying for her.
“Stop!” cried Virginia, motioning to the driver who was looking around. The carriage stopped, and in a moment she was out and had gone up to the girl and taken her by the arm. “Loreen!” she said, and that was all. The girl looked into her face, and her own changed into a look of utter horror. The girls in the carriage were smitten into helpless astonishment. The saloon-keeper had come to the door of the saloon and was standing there looking on with his hands on his hips. And the Rectangle from its windows, its saloon steps, its filthy sidewalk, gutter and roadway, paused, and with undisguised wonder stared at the two girls. Over the scene the warm sun of spring poured its mellow light. A faint breath of music from the band- stand in the park floated into the Rectangle. The concert had begun, and the fashion and wealth of Raymond were displaying themselves up town on the boulevard.
When Virginia left the carriage and went up to Loreen she had no definite idea as to what she would do or what the result of her action would be. She simply saw a soul that had tasted of the joy of a better life slipping back again into its old hell of shame and death. And before she had touched the drunken girl’s arm she had asked only one question, “What would Jesus do?” That question was becoming with her, as with many others, a habit of life.
She looked around now as she stood close by Loreen, and the whole scene was cruelly vivid to her. She thought first of the girls in the carriage.
“Drive on; don’t wait for me. I am going to see my friend home,” she said calmly enough.
The girl with the red parasol seemed to gasp at the word “friend,” when Virginia spoke it. She did not say anything.
The other girls seemed speechless.
“Go on. I cannot go back with you,” said Virginia. The driver started the horses slowly. One of the girls leaned a little out of the carriage.
“Can’t we — that is — do you want our help? Couldn’t you — “
“No, no!” exclaimed Virginia. “You cannot be of any help to me.”
The carriage moved on and Virginia was alone with her charge. She looked up and around. Many faces in the crowd were sympathetic. They were not all cruel or brutal. The Holy Spirit had softened a good deal of the Rectangle.
“Where does she live?” asked Virginia.
No one answered. It occurred to Virginia afterward when she had time to think it over, that the Rectangle showed a delicacy in its sad silence that would have done credit to the boulevard. For the first time it flashed across her that the immortal being who was flung like wreckage upon the shore of this early hell called the saloon, had no place that could be called home. The girl suddenly wrenched her arm from Virginia’s grasp. In doing so she nearly threw Virginia down.
“You shall not touch me! Leave me! Let me go to hell! That’s where I belong! The devil is waiting for me. See him!” she exclaimed hoarsely. She turned and pointed with a shaking finger at the saloon-keeper. The crowd laughed. Virginia stepped up to her and put her arm about her.
“Loreen,” she said firmly, “come with me. You do not belong to hell. You belong to Jesus and He will save you. Come.”
The girl suddenly burst into tears. She was only partly sobered by the shock of meeting Virginia.
Virginia looked around again. “Where does Mr. Gray live?” she asked. She knew that the evangelist boarded somewhere near the tent. A number of voices gave the direction.
“Come, Loreen, I want you to go with me to Mr. Gray’s,” she said, still keeping her hold of the swaying, trembling creature who moaned and sobbed and now clung to her as firmly as before she had repulsed her.
So the two moved on through the Rectangle toward the evangelist’s lodging place. The sight seemed to impress the Rectangle seriously. It never took itself seriously when it was drunk, but this was different. The fact that one of the richest, most beautifully- dressed girls in all Raymond was taking care of one of the Rectangle’s most noted characters, who reeled along under the influence of liquor, was a fact astounding enough to throw more or less dignity and importance about Loreen herself. The event of Loreen’s stumbling through the gutter dead-drunk always made the Rectangle laugh and jest. But Loreen staggering along with a young lady from the society circles uptown supporting her, was another thing. The Rectangle viewed it with soberness and more or less wondering admiration.
When they finally reached Mr. Gray’s lodging place the woman who answered Virginia’s knock said that both Mr. and Mrs. Gray were out somewhere and would not be back until six o’clock.
Virginia had not planned anything farther than a possible appeal to the Grays, either to take charge of Loreen for a while or find some safe place for her until she was sober. She stood now at the door after the woman had spoken, and she was really at a loss to know what to do. Loreen sank down stupidly on the steps and buried her face in her arms. Virginia eyed the miserable figure of the girl with a feeling that she was afraid would grow into disgust.
Finally a thought possessed her that she could not escape. What was to hinder her from taking Loreen home with her? Why should not this homeless, wretched creature, reeking with the fumes of liquor, be cared for in Virginia’s own home instead of being consigned to strangers in some hospital or house of charity? Virginia really knew very little about any such places of refuge. As a matter of fact, there were two or three such institutions in Raymond, but it is doubtful if any of them would have taken a person like Loreen in her present condition. But that was not the question with Virginia just now. “What would Jesus do with Loreen?” That was what Virginia faced, and she finally answered it by touching the girl again.
“Loreen, come. You are going home with me. We will take the car here at the corner.”
Loreen staggered to her feet and, to Virginia’s surprise, made no trouble. She had expected resistance or a stubborn refusal to move. When they reached the corner and took the car it was nearly full of people going uptown. Virginia was painfully conscious of the stare that greeted her and her companion as they entered. But her thought was directed more and more to the approaching scene with her grandmother. What would Madam Page say?
Loreen was nearly sober now. But she was lapsing into a state of stupor. Virginia was obliged to hold fast to her arm. Several times the girl lurched heavily against her, and as the two went up the avenue a curious crowd of so-called civilized people turned and gazed at them. When she mounted the steps of her handsome house Virginia breathed a sigh of relief, even in the face of the interview with the grandmother, and when the door shut and she was in the wide hall with her homeless outcast, she felt equal to anything that might now come.
Madam Page was in the library. Hearing Virginia come in, she came into the hall. Virginia stood there supporting Loreen, who stared stupidly at the rich magnificence of the furnishings around her.
“Grandmother,” Virginia spoke without hesitation and very clearly, “I have brought one of my friends from the Rectangle. She is in trouble and has no home. I am going to care for her here a little while.”
Madam Page glanced from her granddaughter to Loreen in astonishment.
“Did you say she is one of your friends?” she asked in a cold, sneering voice that hurt Virginia more than anything she had yet felt.
“Yes, I said so.” Virginia’s face flushed, but she seemed to recall a verse that Mr. Gray had used for one of his recent sermons, “A friend of publicans and sinners.” Surely, Jesus would do this that she was doing.
“Do you know what this girl is?” asked Madam Page, in an angry whisper, stepping near Virginia.
“I know very well. She is an outcast. You need not tell me, grandmother. I know it even better than you do. She is drunk at this minute. But she is also a child of God. I have seen her on her knees, repentant. And I have seen hell reach out its horrible fingers after her again. And by the grace of Christ I feel that the least that I can do is to rescue her from such peril. Grandmother, we call ourselves Christians. Here is a poor, lost human creature without a home, slipping back into a life of misery and possibly eternal loss, and we have more than enough. I have brought her here, and I shall keep her.”
Madam Page glared at Virginia and clenched her hands. All this was contrary to her social code of conduct. How could society excuse familiarity with the scum of the streets? What would Virginia’s action cost the family in the way of criticism and loss of standing, and all that long list of necessary relations which people of wealth and position must sustain to the leaders of society? To Madam Page society represented more than the church or any other institution. It was a power to be feared and obeyed. The loss of its good- will was a loss more to be dreaded than anything except the loss of wealth itself.
She stood erect and stern and confronted Virginia, fully roused and determined. Virginia placed her arm about Loreen and calmly looked her grandmother in the face.
“You shall not do this, Virginia! You can send her to the asylum for helpless women. We can pay all the expenses. We cannot afford for the sake of our reputations to shelter such a person.”
“Grandmother, I do not wish to do anything that is displeasing to you, but I must keep Loreen here tonight, and longer if it seems best.”
“Then you can answer for the consequences! I do not stay in the same house with a miserable — ” Madam Page lost her self-control. Virginia stopped her before she could speak the next word.
“Grandmother, this house is mine. It is your home with me as long as you choose to remain. But in this matter I must act as I fully believe Jesus would in my place. I am willing to bear all that society may say or do. Society is not my God. By the side of this poor soul I do not count the verdict of society as of any value.”
“I shall not stay here, then!” said Madam Page. She turned suddenly and walked to the end of the hall. She then came back, and going up to Virginia said, with an emphasis that revealed her intensive excitement of passion: “You can always remember that you have driven your grandmother out of your house in favor of a drunken woman;” then, without waiting for Virginia to reply, she turned again and went upstairs. Virginia called a servant and soon had Loreen cared for. She was fast lapsing into a wretched condition. During the brief scene in the hall she had clung to Virginia so hard that her arm was sore from the clutch of the girl’s fingers.
Virginia did not know whether her grandmother would leave the house or not. She had abundant means of her own, was perfectly well and vigorous and capable of caring for herself. She had sisters and brothers living in the South and was in the habit of spending several weeks in the year with them. Virginia was not anxious about her welfare as far as that went. But the interview had been a painful one. Going over it, as she did in her room before she went down to tea, she found little cause for regret. “What would Jesus do?” There was no question in her mind that she had done the right thing. If she had made a mistake, it was one of judgment, not of heart.