Chapter Twenty-Two of In His Steps by Charles Sheldon – inspiration for the “What Would Jesus Do?” (WWJD) movement
FELICIA started off to the play not very happy, but she was familiar with that feeling, only sometimes she was more unhappy than at others. Her feeling expressed itself tonight by a withdrawal into herself. When the company was seated in the box and the curtain had gone up Felicia was back of the others and remained for the evening by herself. Mrs. Delano, as chaperon for half a dozen young ladies, understood Felicia well enough to know that she was “queer,” as Rose so often said, and she made no attempt to draw her out of her corner. And so the girl really experienced that night by herself one of the feelings that added to the momentum that was increasing the coming on of her great crisis.
The play was an English melodrama, full of startling situations, realistic scenery and unexpected climaxes. There was one scene in the third act that impressed even Rose Sterling.
It was midnight on Blackfriars Bridge. The Thames flowed dark and forbidden below. St. Paul’s rose through the dim light imposing, its dome seeming to float above the buildings surrounding it. The figure of a child came upon the bridge and stood there for a moment peering about as if looking for some one. Several persons were crossing the bridge, but in one of the recesses about midway of the river a woman stood, leaning out over the parapet, with a strained agony of face and figure that told plainly of her intention. Just as she was stealthily mounting the parapet to throw herself into the river, the child caught sight of her, ran forward with a shrill cry more animal than human, and seizing the woman’s dress dragged back upon it with all her little strength. Then there came suddenly upon the scene two other characters who had already figured in the play, a tall, handsome, athletic gentleman dressed in the fashion, attended by a slim-figured lad who was as refined in dress and appearance as the little girl clinging to her mother, who was mournfully hideous in her rags and repulsive poverty. These two, the gentleman and the lad, prevented the attempted suicide, and after a tableau on the bridge where the audience learned that the man and woman were brother and sister, the scene was transferred to the interior of one of the slum tenements in the East Side of London. Here the scene painter and carpenter had done their utmost to produce an exact copy of a famous court and alley well known to the poor creatures who make up a part of the outcast London humanity. The rags, the crowding, the vileness, the broken furniture, the horrible animal existence forced upon creatures made in God’s image were so skilfully shown in this scene that more than one elegant woman in the theatre, seated like Rose Sterling in a sumptuous box surrounded with silk hangings and velvet covered railing, caught herself shrinking back a little as if contamination were possible from the nearness of this piece of scenery. It was almost too realistic, and yet it had a horrible fascination for Felicia as she sat there alone, buried back in a cushioned seat and absorbed in thoughts that went far beyond the dialogue on the stage.
From the tenement scene the play shifted to the interior of a nobleman’s palace, and almost a sigh of relief went up all over the house at the sight of the accustomed luxury of the upper classes. The contrast was startling. It was brought about by a clever piece of staging that allowed only a few moments to elapse between the slum and the palace scene. The dialogue went on, the actors came and went in their various roles, but upon Felicia the play made but one distinct impression. In realty the scenes on the bridge and in the slums were only incidents in the story of the play, but Felicia found herself living those scenes over and over. She had never philosophized about the causes of human misery, she was not old enough she had not the temperament that philosophizes. But she felt intensely, and this was not the first time she had felt the contrast thrust into her feeling between the upper and the lower conditions of human life. It had been growing upon her until it had made her what Rose called “queer,” and other people in her circle of wealthy acquaintances called very unusual. It was simply the human problem in its extreme of riches and poverty, its refinement and its vileness, that was, in spite of her unconscious attempts to struggle against the facts, burning into her life the impression that would in the end either transform her into a woman of rare love and self-sacrifice for the world, or a miserable enigma to herself and all who knew her.
“Come, Felicia, aren’t you going home?” said Rose. The play was over, the curtain down, and people were going noisily out, laughing and gossiping as if “The Shadows of London” were simply good diversion, as they were, put on the stage so effectively.
Felicia rose and went out with the rest quietly, and with the absorbed feeling that had actually left her in her seat oblivious of the play’s ending. She was never absent-minded, but often thought herself into a condition that left her alone in the midst of a crowd.
“Well, what did you think of it?” asked Rose when the sisters had reached home and were in the drawing-room. Rose really had considerable respect for Felicia’s judgment of a play.
“I thought it was a pretty fair picture of real life.”
“I mean the acting,” said Rose, annoyed.
“The bridge scene was well acted, especially the woman’s part. I thought the man overdid the sentiment a little.”
“Did you? I enjoyed that. And wasn’t the scene between the two cousins funny when they first learned they were related? But the slum scene was horrible. I think they ought not to show such things in a play. They are too painful.”
“They must be painful in real life, too,” replied Felicia.
“Yes, but we don’t have to look at the real thing. It’s bad enough at the theatre where we pay for it.”
Rose went into the dining-room and began to eat from a plate of fruit and cakes on the sideboard.
“Are you going up to see mother?” asked Felicia after a while. She had remained in front of the drawing-room fireplace.
“No,” replied Rose from the other room. “I won’t trouble her tonight. If you go in tell her I am too tired to be agreeable.”
So Felicia turned into her mother’s room, as she went up the great staircase and down the upper hall. The light was burning there, and the servant who always waited on Mrs. Sterling was beckoning Felicia to come in.
“Tell Clara to go out,” exclaimed Mrs. Sterling as Felicia came up to the bed.
Felicia was surprised, but she did as her mother bade her, and then inquired how she was feeling.
“Felicia,” said her mother, “can you pray?”
The question was so unlike any her mother had ever asked before that she was startled. But she answered: “Why, yes, mother. Why do you ask such a question?”
“Felicia, I am frightened. Your father–I have had such strange fears about him all day. Something is wrong with him. I want you to pray–.”
“Now, here, mother?”
“Yes. Pray, Felicia.”
Felicia reached out her hand and took her mother’s. It was trembling. Mrs. Sterling had never shown such tenderness for her younger daughter, and her strange demand now was the first real sign of any confidence in Felicia’s character.
The girl kneeled, still holding her mother’s trembling hand, and prayed. It is doubtful if she had ever prayed aloud before. She must have said in her prayer the words that her mother needed, for when it was silent in the room the invalid was weeping softly and her nervous tension was over.
Felicia stayed some time. When she was assured that her mother would not need her any longer she rose to go.
“Good night, mother. You must let Clara call me if you feel badly in the night.”
“I feel better now.” Then as Felicia was moving away, Mrs. Sterling said: “Won’t you kiss me, Felicia?”
Felicia went back and bent over her mother. The kiss was almost as strange to her as the prayer had been. When Felicia went out of the room her cheeks were wet with tears. She had not often cried since she was a little child.
Sunday morning at the Sterling mansion was generally very quiet. The girls usually went to church at eleven o’clock service. Mr. Sterling was not a member but a heavy contributor, and he generally went to church in the morning. This time he did not come down to breakfast, and finally sent word by a servant that he did not feel well enough to go out. So Rose and Felicia drove up to the door of the Nazareth Avenue Church and entered the family pew alone.
When Dr. Bruce walked out of the room at the rear of the platform and went up to the pulpit to open the Bible as his custom was, those who knew him best did not detect anything unusual in his manner or his expression. He proceeded with the service as usual. He was calm and his voice was steady and firm. His prayer was the first intimation the people had of anything new or strange in the service. It is safe to say that the Nazareth Avenue Church had not heard Dr. Bruce offer such a prayer before during the twelve years he had been pastor there. How would a minister be likely to pray who had come out of a revolution in Christian feeling that had completely changed his definition of what was meant by following Jesus? No one in Nazareth Avenue Church had any idea that the Rev. Calvin Bruce, D. D., the dignified, cultured, refined Doctor of Divinity, had within a few days been crying like a little child on his knees, asking for strength and courage and Christlikeness to speak his Sunday message; and yet the prayer was an unconscious involuntary disclosure of his soul’s experience such as the Nazareth Avenue people had seldom heard, and never before from that pulpit.