This continues the series of poems and short stories taken from Ailenroc’s Book, by Cornelia Alexander
Of all the beautiful, accomplished young ladies who brightened by their presence the town of Greenville, Blanche Milum reigned the acknowledged belle, by right of birth and breeding; and, joined to these, she was the lucky owner of an almost perfect face; a graceful, supple figure; and the most winning, charming manners.
It was the last day of the year, and she stood upon the hearth rug looking with satisfied eyes upon the adornings of her parlor, and chatting busily with her aunt, a middle-aged widow lady, who was visiting Mr. Milum’s family.
“Auntie, dear,” said Blanche, gayly, “I fear that you do not approve of my arrangements for the morrow. If not, speak out and let me know if you think I have done amiss.”
“I have not expressed any dissatisfaction,” said her aunt, smiling gravely. “It is not my place to find fault with you or your home; still—”
“Well, auntie, you would not! But you are too particular about little things. Custom demands it, my friends expect it, and what harm is there in a glass of wine?”
“The harm lies in this: You may inadvertently lead some young man astray. You may not do it, but there is the risk to run, and you a member of the church, too—are you not, Blanche?”
“Certainly I am, and have been for several years, and I do not think it will come up in judgment against Blanche Milum that she led any astray,” she answered, proudly.
“Not willingly and willfully, I admit; but O the little tempting baits and traps that beset the feet of the young! Do you remember that one of the old pronounced a curse against the one who put a bottle to his neighbor’s lips?”
“Don’t talk so, auntie,” said Blanche. “I will never put a bottle to my neighbor’s lips. A small glass of wine is a different matter.”
“There is alcohol in it, there is intoxication in it. I wish you could see it as I do.”
“What a dear ‘old-fogy’ aunt you are!” said Blanche, laughing. “How many more things do you find in me to condemn?”
“One more thing, while we are talking. I see since I have been here that card playing is a favorite amusement with you and your friends.”
“O yes, I love to play! There isn’t a bit of harm in a social game of cards.”
“I am always doubtful about anything that you have to apologize for,” said her aunt. “It strikes me that if it really were a good thing, you would not feel called upon to say that there is no harm in it.”
“But some contend that there is harm in it, you know. As for me, it is a nice pastime; that is all.”
“There was a lad here a few nights since, who was, I think, just learning to play. Suppose it should be not merely ‘a nice pastime’ for him.”
“Willie Carleton? Yes, I was teaching him to play. He is one of the nicest boys I know. Really, auntie, you are on extremes; everybody here plays.”
“No, you are mistaken,” her aunt answered; “nothing could induce me to play.”
“But you are an exception,” said Blanche, flinging her arms around her aunt’s neck. “You are like the Indian’s tree—so straight you lean over. But let us go to bed, my dearest, fault-finding, good-hearted auntie, for my eyes must be bright tomorrow.”
With bright dreams of the future floating through her mind, Blanche Milum sought her couch, and was soon wrapped in peaceful, healthful slumber. The night wore on, and presently the stroke of twelve announced the death of the old year and the birth of the new, and a new and terrible dread hovered over the sleeping girl. Thrilled by a nameless, haunting fear, she started from her slumbers, and, behold, a dark shape stood before her—a hideous, awful presence—and she knew at once that the enemy of all souls stood at her bedside.
“The hour has come!” said a dreadful voice, which almost stilled the beating of her sinking heart. “Thy soul is required at thy hands, and I have come to escort you to your future abode.”
“No, no,” she cried in anguish of spirit, “not you! No, no, not to your abode!”
“Yes, to my abode,” said the devil, and his eyes flashed with sudden fires; “for you are one of my servants.”
“I?” cried Blanche, horrified. “O no, not I; I am a Christian!”
Then the devil laughed loud and long—a derisive, mocking laugh—and a thousand impish voices out of the surrounding darkness seemed to join in his Satanic glee.
“‘By their fruits ye shall know them,’” said the devil. “I tell you you have been my disciple.”
“No, no!” she cried again. “I am a Christian; I want to go to heaven; I never saw a day in my life but that I wished to go to heaven.”
“You have not labored to that end,” her terrible visitor responded. “You have worked for me in many ways.”
“O, you are mistaken!” urged the terrified girl. “Indeed, I have not worked for you; my hopes and desires have been in another direction entirely.”
“Your practice has not,” said he, grimly. “I can bring witnesses to prove that you have worked for me and recruited my ranks.”
“Bring them then,” she pleaded; “convince me by actual proof. But I know that you are mistaken in the person, for I desire to be saved in heaven.”
The devil waved his hand, and a shape which had once been a mortal man appeared beside him. Despair was in every feature, and the burning eye fixed on hers transfixed her with terror.
“I was a stranger to you,” said this lost soul, at a sign from his master, “but I went to church one day, and I saw you there. You were beautiful to look upon, and methought a heavenly expression rested on your countenance. At the earnest appeal of the preacher, the tears trickled down your cheek. My heart smote me. I said: ‘When one so young and pure can weep, shall my eyes be dry?’ I had persuaded myself that I was an infidel, but when I heard you confess your faith in Christ, I said there must be reality in this religion. I saw you emerge from the baptismal waters; I saw you take the emblems of your Lord’s broken body and shed blood, and I thought how lovely it is to be a Christian. A half-formed resolve grew in my heart to turn from my evil ways and lead a different life; but while halting between two opinions, wandering restlessly to and fro, I stepped one night into a ballroom, and you were there. I saw you—Christian as you called yourself—floating through the mazy dance in the embrace of the most licentious of men. Then I cursed my good intentions. I said: ‘They are all hypocrites. I will run my course, and we will all go down to death together.’ I died an infidel. I am a lost soul, eternally undone, and you, Blanche Milum, are answerable for it.”
His dreadful words and hollow tones spoke conviction to her soul.
“How could I tell?” she faltered. “You were a stranger to me. I never dreamed of such a thing, and now it is too late.”
The impish voices then took up the strain, and out of the horrible darkness it rang again and again: “Too late, too late!”
“Are you satisfied of the justice of my claim,” the devil asked, “or shall I bring more witnesses?”
“He was a stranger to me,” she urged. “I did not know, I did not think. O, I cannot be punished for that!”
“Very well,” he said, and waved his hand, and there appeared before her a face which she well knew, notwithstanding it had long been covered by the coffin lid.
“Blanche,” said the hollow and unearthly voice, “you caused my ruin. I loved you in life, and would screen you now if I could; but it is impossible, I must speak. A love of strong drink lurked in my nature; I was born with it; it was mine by inheritance. My mother knew it, and I knew it. I promised her that I would never tamper with the poison which could inflame my blood and drag me to ruin. Manhood found me with the demon unaroused, but you tempted me; you poured for me the ruby wine nd put my love to the test. I fell, and you spurned the drunkard. You little thought that your white hand had unbarred for me the gates of woe, but it was true. I died the drunkard’s death. In all the horrors of mania a potu I yielded up the ghost, and took up my abode with devils and damned spirits.”
Terrible anguish seized upon her soul, hot tears burst from her eyes, and she cried aloud: “O, if I had only known! O, if I had only known before it was too late!”
Again the impish voices took up the cry, “Too late, too late!” and the devil smiled, well pleased. “One more witness,” he said, “and I am done.”
Then she saw appear at his side the sad face of her boy admirer, Willie. Pale, hopeless, and despairing, he stood in silence until commanded by his superior to speak.
“You caused my ruin,” he said, “though you did not know it. My father was passionately fond of cards, my grandfather was a gambler, and his father. No wonder my mother trembled for me, and I promised her that I would never touch a card; but I was too weak to withstand your raillery. You said there was no harm in playing, and I believed you. You taught me to play, for with you it was pleasant pastime; but I was fascinated, infatuated, and ceased to care for anything else. I became a gambler and broke my mother’s heart. After her death I ran the downward course swiftly, till finally I stabbed my antagonist over the gaming table and ended my days on the scaffold. If you heard of my terrible end, your conscience gave you no pang; but what you began in your parlor caused my body to swing on the gibbet and consigned my soul to unending woe.”
No sound came from the white lips of the shuddering girl, no further attempt at justification. “Too late!” was the cry of her terrified, remorseful soul, and “Too late!” echoed and reëchoed in her ears.
“You are mine,” said the devil, quoting scripture fluently, “for ‘to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are;’” and he reached out a strong black hand to grasp her; but—
With one long, agonizing shriek, Blanche Milum sprang out of bed, and, behold, her terrible visitor and his ghastly companions were gone, and the throbbing of her heart alone woke the stillness. Through her window crept the pale light of the coming day, and, looking out, she saw the rosy fingers of the dawn streaking the eastern sky; then she sunk upon her knees and poured out her soul in penitent, fervent prayer and thanksgiving to God.
“No wines,” was her order for that morning. “Let us have coffee, tea—anything the young men like, so it does not intoxicate. It is New Year’s morning, and I have turned over a new leaf.”
Her indulgent father only smiled at her new whim, but her sister, noting the dewy eyes and shaking lips, wondered at, and was thankful for, the change which had come over her.
Need I say that when the sun went down and “darkness wrapped her sable curtains around a sleeping world,” Blanche had nothing to regret concerning her entertainment?
Only a few nights after, Willie Carleton, a promising youth, came in, and, missing the card table, asked for it. Then came her opportunity, and as an elder sister might, she talked to him, told him of the dangerous ground on which they might be treading, and asked him to join with her in the New Year’s pledge against wine and cards. With boyish enthusiasm, he followed her guiding hand, and, with a half laugh, said: “As for wine, I do not care for it, Miss Blanche; but I do care for cards, although my mother has always opposed my playing. That night after I played with you I could not sleep. The cards and the run of the game were in my mind all night, and the next day too.”
How vividly, at those words, came back her dream! And Willie did not know why she cried out with such fervor: “O Willie! God forbid that I should ever lead you astray!”
“Of course not, Miss Blanche,” he answered, “and I pledge my word and honor never to play again.”
“Thank you,” she said, with a sob. “Hold to your honor, dear boy.”