In His Steps
by Charles M. Sheldon
"These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth."
WHEN Dr. Bruce and the Bishop entered the Sterling mansion everything in the usually well appointed household was in the greatest confusion and terror. The great rooms downstairs were empty, but overhead were hurried footsteps and confused noises. One of the servants ran down the grand staircase with a look of horror on her face just as the Bishop and Dr. Bruce were starting to go up.
"Miss Felicia is with Mrs. Sterling," the servant stammered in answer to a question, and then burst into a hysterical cry and ran through the drawing-room and out of doors.
At the top of the staircase the two men were met by Felicia. She walked up to Dr. Bruce at once and put both hands in his. The Bishop then laid his hand on her head and the three stood there a moment in perfect silence. The Bishop had known Felicia since she was a little child. He was the first to break the silence.
"The God of all mercy be with you, Felicia, in this dark hour. Your mother--"
The Bishop hesitated. Out of the buried past he had, during his hurried passage from his friend's to this house of death, irresistibly drawn the one tender romance of his young manhood. Not even Bruce knew that. But there had been a time when the Bishop had offered the incense of a singularly undivided affection upon the altar of his youth to the beautiful Camilla Rolfe, and she had chosen between him and the millionaire. The Bishop carried no bitterness with his memory; but it was still a memory.
For answer to the Bishop's unfinished query, Felicia turned and went back into her mother's room. She had not said a word yet, but both men were struck with her wonderful calm. She returned to the hall door and beckoned to them, and the two ministers, with a feeling that they were about to behold something very unusual, entered.
Rose lay with her arms outstretched upon the bed. Clara, the nurse, sat with her head covered, sobbing in spasms of terror. And Mrs. Sterling with "the light that never was on sea or land" luminous on her face, lay there so still that even the Bishop was deceived at first. Then, as the great truth broke upon him and Dr. Bruce, he staggered, and the sharp agony of the old wound shot through him. It passed, and left him standing there in that chamber of death with the eternal calmness and strength that the children of God have a right to possess. And right well he used that calmness and strength in the days that followed.
The next moment the house below was in a tumult. Almost at the same time the doctor who had been sent for at once, but lived some distance away, came in, together with police officers, who had been summoned by frightened servants. With them were four or five newspaper correspondents and several neighbors. Dr. Bruce and the Bishop met this miscellaneous crowd at the head of the stairs and succeeded in excluding all except those whose presence was necessary. With these the two friends learned all the facts ever known about the "Sterling tragedy," as the papers in their sensational accounts next day called it.
Mr. Sterling had gone into his room that evening about nine o'clock and that was the last seen of him until, in half an hour, a shot was heard in the room, and a servant who was in the hall ran into the room and found him dead on the floor, killed by his own hand. Felicia at the time was sitting by her mother. Rose was reading in the library. She ran upstairs, saw her father as he was being lifted upon the couch by the servants, and then ran screaming into her mother's room, where she flung herself down at the foot of the bed in a swoon. Mrs. Sterling had at first fainted at the shock, then rallied with a wonderful swiftness and sent for Dr. Bruce. She had then insisted on seeing her husband. In spite of Felicia's efforts, she had compelled Clara to support her while she crossed the hall and entered the room where her husband lay. She had looked upon him with a tearless face, had gone back to her own room, was laid on her bed, and as Dr. Bruce and the Bishop entered the house she, with a prayer of forgiveness for herself and for her husband on her quivering lips, had died, with Felicia bending over her and Rose still lying senseless at her feet.
So great and swift had been the entrance of grim Death into that palace of luxury that Sunday night! But the full cause of his coming was not learned until the facts in regard to Mr. Sterling's business affairs were finally disclosed.
Then it was learned that for some time he had been facing financial ruin owing to certain speculations that had in a month's time swept his supposed wealth into complete destruction. With the cunning and desperation of a man who battles for his very life when he saw his money, which was all the life he ever valued, slipping from him, he had put off the evil day to the last moment. Sunday afternoon, however, he had received news that proved to him beyond a doubt the fact of his utter ruin. The very house that he called his, the chairs in which he sat, his carriage, the dishes from which he ate, had all been bought with money for which he himself had never really done an honest stroke of pure labor.
It had all rested on a tissue of deceit and speculation that had no foundation in real values. He knew that fact better than any one else, but he had hoped, with the hope such men always have, that the same methods that brought him the money would also prevent the loss. He had been deceived in this as many others have been. As soon as the truth that he was practically a beggar had dawned upon him, he saw no escape from suicide. It was the irresistible result of such a life as he had lived. He had made money his god. As soon as that god was gone out of his little world there was nothing more to worship; and when a man's object of worship is gone he has no more to live for. Thus died the great millionaire, Charles R. Sterling. And, verily, he died as the fool dieth, for what is the gain or the loss of money compared with the unsearchable riches of eternal life which are beyond the reach of speculation, loss or change?
Mrs. Sterling's death was the result of the shock. She had not been taken into her husband's confidence for years, but she knew that the source of his wealth was precarious. Her life for several years had been a death in life. The Rolfes always gave an impression that they could endure more disaster unmoved than any one else. Mrs. Sterling illustrated the old family tradition when she was carried into the room where her husband lay. But the feeble tenement could not hold the spirit and it gave up the ghost, torn and weakened by long years of suffering and disappointment.
The effect of this triple blow, the death of father and mother, and the loss of property, was instantly apparent in the sisters. The horror of events stupefied Rose for weeks. She lay unmoved by sympathy or any effort to rally. She did not seem yet to realize that the money which had been so large a part of her very existence was gone. Even when she was told that she and Felicia must leave the house and be dependent on relatives and friends, she did not seem to understand what it meant.
Felicia, however, was fully conscious of the facts. She knew just what had happened and why. She was talking over her future plans with her cousin Rachel a few days after the funerals. Mrs. Winslow and Rachel had left Raymond and come to Chicago at once as soon as the terrible news had reached them, and with other friends of the family were planning for the future of Rose and Felicia.
"Felicia, you and Rose must come to Raymond with us. That is settled. Mother will not hear to any other plan at present," Rachel had said, while her beautiful face glowed with love for her cousin, a love that had deepened day by day, and was intensified by the knowledge that they both belonged to the new discipleship.
"Unless I can find something to do here," answered Felicia. She looked wistfully at Rachel, and Rachel said gently:
"What could you do, dear?"
"Nothing. I was never taught to do anything except a little music, and I do not know enough about it to teach it or earn my living at it. I have learned to cook a little," Felicia added with a slight smile.
"Then you can cook for us. Mother is always having trouble with her kitchen," said Rachel, understanding well enough she was now dependent for her very food and shelter upon the kindness of family friends. It is true the girls received a little something out of the wreck of their father's fortune, but with a speculator's mad folly he had managed to involve both his wife's and his children's portion in the common ruin.
"Can I? Can I?" Felicia responded to Rachel's proposition as if it were to be considered seriously. "I am ready to do anything honorable to make my living and that of Rose. Poor Rose! She will never be able to get over the shock of our trouble."
"We will arrange the details when we get to Raymond," Rachel said, smiling through her tears at Felicia's eager willingness to care for herself.
So in a few weeks Rose and Felicia found themselves a part of the Winslow family in Raymond. It was a bitter experience for Rose, but there was nothing else for her to do and she accepted the inevitable, brooding over the great change in her life and in many ways adding to the burden of Felicia and her cousin Rachel.
Felicia at once found herself in an atmosphere of discipleship that was like heaven to her in its revelation of companionship. It is true that Mrs. Winslow was not in sympathy with the course that Rachel was taking, but the remarkable events in Raymond since the pledge was taken were too powerful in their results not to impress even such a woman as Mrs. Winslow. With Rachel, Felicia found a perfect fellowship. She at once found a part to take in the new work at the Rectangle. In the spirit of her new life she insisted upon helping in the housework at her aunt's, and in a short time demonstrated her ability as a cook so clearly that Virginia suggested that she take charge of the cooking at the Rectangle.
Felicia entered upon this work with the keenest pleasure. For the first time in her life she had the delight of doing something of value for the happiness of others. Her resolve to do everything after asking, "What would Jesus do?" touched her deepest nature. She began to develop and strengthen wonderfully. Even Mrs. Winslow was obliged to acknowledge the great usefulness and beauty of Felicia's character. The aunt looked with astonishment upon her niece, this city-bred girl, reared in the greatest luxury, the daughter of a millionaire, now walking around in her kitchen, her arms covered with flour and occasionally a streak of it on her nose, for Felicia at first had a habit of rubbing her nose forgetfully when she was trying to remember some recipe, mixing various dishes with the greatest interest in their results, washing up pans and kettles and doing the ordinary work of a servant in the Winslow kitchen and at the rooms at the Rectangle Settlement. At first Mrs. Winslow remonstrated.
"Felicia, it is not your place to be out here doing this common work. I cannot allow it."
"Why, Aunt? Don't you like the muffins I made this morning?" Felicia would ask meekly, but with a hidden smile, knowing her aunt's weakness for that kind of muffin.
"They were beautiful, Felicia. But it does not seem right for you to be doing such work for us."
"Why not? What else can I do?"
Her aunt looked at her thoughtfully, noting her remarkable beauty of face and expression.
"You do not always intend to do this kind of work, Felicia?"
"Maybe I shall. I have had a dream of opening an ideal cook shop in Chicago or some large city and going around to the poor families in some slum district like the Rectangle, teaching the mothers how to prepare food properly. I remember hearing Dr. Bruce say once that he believed one of the great miseries of comparative poverty consisted in poor food. He even went so far as to say that he thought some kinds of crime could be traced to soggy biscuit and tough beefsteak. I'm sure I would be able to make a living for Rose and myself and at the same time help others."
Felicia brooded over this dream until it became a reality. Meanwhile she grew into the affections of the Raymond people and the Rectangle folks, among whom she was known as the "angel cook." Underneath the structure of the beautiful character she was growing, always rested her promise made in Nazareth Avenue Church, "What would Jesus do?" She prayed and hoped and worked and regulated her life by the answer to that question. It was the inspiration of her conduct and the answer to all her ambition.