WINE AND WATER
The people of Wellington had voted on the prohibition question, and a majority of them had declared that decorous and prosperous little town thenceforth "dry." A Baptist college and a Methodist female seminary were flourishing local institutions, and their influence had been largely instrumental in bringing about the temperance reform.
Of course such a measure could not be entirely popular, and a number of hard drinkers felt deeply injured by the closing of the few saloons which the town had formerly supported; they had no place to loiter, no "free lunch" to nibble at, and but limited opportunities for getting into that beatific con-condition of "gloriously drunk."
The saloon keepers were indignant but powerless. They closed out their business and one of them set up a grocery with a drug-store attachment. The new grocery was largely patronized, and soon became extremely popular with the former frequenters of the defunct saloons. These found Walker's a convenient lounging place. A barrel of peanuts and a box of red herrings did duty as "free lunch," and the drug clerk was often suspiciously busy.
One evening about nine o'clock Israel Higgins, sexton of the Baptist church, called at the grocery and bought a gallon of wine for communion purposes.
"Give the best, Mr. Pillroller," said Israel to the clerk, "our folks are able to pay for it."
The clerk poured a gallon of port-wine into the sexton's big brown jug, and charged the item on his day-book against the Baptist church. Israel took his departure, jug in hand.
The transaction between Israel and the drug-clerk had been witnessed by several people in the store, and among them by old Peter Hardcase. From long indulgence in the habit of drinking, Peter had become unconsciously interested in any transaction which involved the transfer of all alcoholic beverages. The sparkle of liquor in a glass charmed him like the eye of a serpent. Its trickle from cask or bottle was music in his ears; and when he had no money he at least liked to be where its aroma would not be denied him.
The magnitude of Israel's purchase had, therefore, appealed to the strongest side of Peter's nature. A gallon of wine! What possibilities of pleasure were bound up in it! How gloriously drunk he could get if he had a gallon of liquor.
Impelled by a sort of instinct, and without any definite end in view, Peter followed Isaac as he left the grocery. Israel walked down Main street a short distance, and then turned into College street, on which the church was situated, Peter following, unperceived, a short distance behind.
The sexton unlocked the church, entered, and striking a match, lit a gas-jet, throwing the still smoking match upon the floor. He then went to the rear of the room, and entering a small apartment to the left of the pulpit, which we will call the vestry-room, deposited the jug in a cupboard.
Peter Hardcase had divined Israel's purpose in entering the church, and as the sexton's footsteps resounded with a hollow echo in the dim depths of the large auditorium, Peter slipped within the open door and concealed himself behind a pew. Peter Hardcase had long passed the period when the fear of committing sacrilege would have moved him, or where there was any lingering trace of early training, although his parents had been church members, and had brought him up religiously.
The sexton, having disposed of his jug, retraced his steps down the aisle, turned out the gas, and left the church, locking the door behind him. At this Peter, seeing the coast clear, emerged from his hiding-place, and found his way to the vestry room, which he entered, and, closing the door behind him, lighted the gas. It required but a moment to force the lock of the cupboard, and with trembling hands and eager eyes Peter lifted the jug from the shelf and raised it to his lips.
While he is resting, let us look for a moment at the manner in which the church was built. Of somewhat recent construction, and erected by a wealthy congregation, it was built of brick and stone, in approved modern style. It fronted on College street, the right side of the building extending along a street which crossed College street at right angles. The building was lighted from this side. On the left the church was separated by a solid brick party wall from one of the buildings of the Baptist college; there was no opening on this side, the light being supplied from a skylight in the roof. The only exit in the rear was a door which led from the vestry room to a small court surrounded by brick walls and opening through a stout oaken door upon the college grounds. Its key was kept by the president of the college, who acted as pastor and usually came in that way from his residence.
When Israel had lighted the gas on entering the church, he had carelessly tossed the match aside. It was a sulphur-match—one of the sort which burn until extinguished or burnt out. Had it fallen on the hard floor it would probably have gone out immediately. But the Christmas holidays had just gone by, and the work of cleaning the church of its evergreen decorations was in progress. There was a little pile of withered leaves and dry festoons of cedar which had been swept up by Israel in the afternoon lying to the right of the door. The match fell upon this pile of rubbish. It caught, and the fire smouldered for several minutes, during which Israel had time to place his jug in the cupboard and leave the church.
The fire then burst into a little flame, slowly consuming the pile of half-dried rubbish. This only whetted its appetite. It seized a bit of carpet[?] on the floor, and, crawling under the nearest pew, reached up to the cushions on the seats, and greedily devoured them. Then, running along the carpet in the aisle on the right, it caught the ends of the pews, and, wrapping itself around the pillars, reached long tongues of flame up toward the gallery, which extended along the sides of the church.
Meanwhile Peter Hardcase had taken another drink, and was beginning to feel the effect of the rich liquid. A dreamy languor stole over him—a sense of comfort which the poor quality of the whisky he usually drank had for a long time been powerless to evoke. He had raised the jug for one drink more, when a dull roar proceeding from the body of the church fell upon his ear and made him pause with the uplifted jug in his hands. The roaring increased and the now distinct crackling of the burning woodwork made it impossible to mistake the meaning of the sounds. Quickly setting the jug down, Peter opened the door and saw the interior of the church in flames.
Peter was not too far gone to realize that his safety required an immediate adjournment to the outer air, and he looked around for a way of escape. He first tried the door in the rear, but found it locked hard and fast. He tried to force it, but the lock was set in the door, and the bolt ran into the frame in such a way that it was impossible to reach it without breaking the door down. Then he turned back to the auditorium to find that the flames had cut off all access to the front and the side where the windows were. The little door in the vestry was his only hope. He tried to batter it down with a heavy chair. But the little door was stout. A valuable communion set was kept in the cupboard, and with a view to its safety the door had been strongly constructed.
Meanwhile the flames crept steadily towards the platform, and Peter soon realized that if help did not arrive he would have taken his very last drink. He was growing desperate, when a thought struck him. There must be a baptismal tank under the pulpit, as in most Baptist churches. Perhaps there was water in it. It took but a moment to find the opening and to raise the lid. The tank was dry!
Peter sprang down, and, feeling along the side, found the faucet which supplied the tank with water. The water flowed! He rushed back into the vestry-room, secured the jug, and, returning, crouched in the tank and closed the door above him. The tank was of brick, with a cement lining, and rested on the ground, so that Peter's only danger was from overhead if the floor began to burn.
He could hear the flames crackling above him, and now the alarm had been given, and the welcome noise of fire-engines and the shouts of the gathering crowd, fell faintly, as from a distance, upon his ear. About this time the fire fastened its fangs into the pulpit floor, and began to eat through the stout planking. With his battered hat Peter dipped up water, and throwing it upward, kept the flames at bay. If the firemen could get the fire under control before the roof fell in and crushed his frail covering, he thought he could hold out until then.
With the assurance of safety from fire, Peter began to think of danger from other sources. If he made his presence in the tank known he would have to explain how he got there, and he would find it hard to convince other people that he had not fired the church. Besides, he would lose the wine, for which he had undergone so much. Moved by these considerations, he kept quiet. He tried to find the valve which emptied the tank, but in vain, and he was compelled to remain crouching in the water.
The fire was finally put out, the crowd went home to bed. The whole of the interior of the church had been burned out. It was long past midnight, when Peter Hardcase emerged from the ruins, and all drenched and smoke-begrimed, crept shivering homeward under the friendly veil of darkness.
It would be a fitting ending for this tale, to record that Peter's experience led him to think seriously of the manner of life he was leading, and to give up his evil courses. But alas! the cold, hard facts will not admit of any such perversion. Peter took the jug home with him, and finished up the wine within the next two days.