What Old Bill Could Not do
Charles Naylor, 1920
Old Bill was a drunkard. Everybody knew it. People expected to see him stagger as he walked; that was the common thing. As a young man he had been the leader among his chums, and people thought he would make his mark in the world. He had excelled most of his companions, but alas! it was not in the things that make men noble and great. As people said, "The drink was getting him." He was a familiar figure in each of the three saloons in town. He was popular, for he was good-natured and jolly. He was still the leader of a company, who called themselves the "bunch." Each night they made the rounds of the saloons, then at a late hour staggered homeward.
Yes, Old Bill was a drunkard. He had tried many times to quit. His friends had warned him and advised him to quit. His wife had begged him a hundred times, with tears running down her face. He had promised again and again, had tried, over and over, to master the habit — but it held him fast. One night when he went home, drunk as usual, he found his wife seriously ill. Three days he watched by her bedside, and then the end came. In her dying hour she laid her hand on his and asked him once more for her sake, and his own, to quit drinking. Bill promised with hot tears falling like rain, and he meant it with all his heart.
Two days later he followed her body to the church, and as he took his last look at that still form, he vowed with all his strength of will never to touch drink again. He walked silently back to his home, but it was not home any more. He was heart-broken. What would he do? How could he bear it? Presently two of his comrades came out to sympathize with him. After talking a while, one pulled a bottle from his pocket, saying, "Here, Bill, take a bit to brace you up."
"No, Jack," he answered, "I'm going to quit the stuff; I promised her I would."
"That's all right," said Jack, "but you need a little now for your nerves."
He lifted the bottle to his own lips, then held it uncorked in his hand. The odor entered Bill's nostrils, the old appetite asserted itself, and before he knew it he had seized the bottle. A minute later it was empty! When Bill next came to realize what was happening, it was a week later. He had been drunk all the time; he did not even know what day it was; but when he realized what had happened, he was stricken with remorse. He knew now, as never before, that drink was his master.
Two years passed. His few belongings had been sold to pay the funeral expenses; the remainder had gone for drink. Another family lived in the home now. Mr. Wilson, a kind neighbor, had given him a home, and he worked for him when he was sober enough. One evening as he was making his way to the saloon as usual, he heard singing.
"That's strange," he muttered; "wonder what's going on?" He turned and walked toward the singing and soon found a large tent filled with people. "That is an odd looking show," he thought as he approached the entrance. A pleasant-faced young man stepped up to him and said, "Come in, Bill, and I will get you a good seat." He mechanically followed the usher in. The singing was good, and he enjoyed it. Presently a man arose and, with tears running down his face, related that he had been a drunkard, and that after years of trying to overcome the habit, he had finally turned to God for help, and that he was now a free and happy man. Bill understood the struggle part, but not the rest. He knew what it meant to fail, and as he pondered he thought of his wife. Did she know how he had broken his promise? Did she weep over him now as she used to?
Someone entered the pulpit and talked for a long time, but Bill did not hear anything he said. Bill was thinking, thinking. There was a man who had "beat the drink," and he said the Lord had helped him. Bill wondered if the Lord would help him. When the preacher finished, the first man rose again, and Bill straightened up and looked keenly. "Yes," he thought, "he has been a drinker all right, and a hard one; his face shows it." The speaker was inviting men to Christ for the help they needed.
Old Bill never quite knew how it happened, but he suddenly found himself up in front holding the stranger's hand and telling him that he wanted help to quit drink. Side by side they knelt while the saved man earnestly poured out his heart to God for the drunkard. Old Bill did not know how to pray, he had never tried in his life, but he wanted help — all his soul longed for it. He listened to the other man praying. He was asking for just what Bill needed; his heart joined in. Yes, he wanted to quit drinking; he wanted to be a good man, but he had to have help. The other man prayed as though God were right close by, and Bill felt that He must be, so he said, "Yes, God, I'll quit it — if you'll help me. I'll be a man — if you'll help me, but I can't do it by myself!" That was all, but he meant it, and he felt that God would help him. A strange, quiet peace came into his heart, and he really felt happy. He went home sober that night.
Some of the "bunch" outside the tent had seen Bill go forward, and soon the news was in all the saloons. "He'll be back by Saturday night," they said. But he did not come back. Instead he was in the meeting telling the people what wonderful things God had done for him. He did not want liquor any more at all, he declared. The "bunch" did not believe this. They laughed and made many prophecies; they waited week by week, but Old Bill came to the saloon no more. Two years passed; Bill lived a joyful Christian life and never tired of telling what the Lord had done for him. He went out to a country schoolhouse, where he organized a Sunday-school and labored zealously and successfully.
There were many temptations. At first the "bunch" laughed and made him the butt of many rude jests, then they laid plans to trap him. One day one of them stuck an open whisky-bottle under his nose, saying, "Smell it, Bill!" Bill stepped back, all smiles, and said quietly, "Well, Tom, drink was my master a long time, but I have a better Master now." He went on his way unobtrusively but steadily, and finally won the respect and confidence of all.
At last the end came. Old Bill was dead. There was a peaceful smile upon his face, for his sun had gone down in splendor. The "bunch" followed him to the grave. They could not quite understand even yet what had happened to him. It was a wonderful change, and his life had won their respect, and they followed him silently to his last resting-place. After the burial they stood talking it over in a little group by themselves, "I thought the drink had him for sure," said one; "I don't see how he beat it." "It was not Bill who did it," said a quiet voice behind them; "it was Jesus Christ." They turned and saw the pastor walking away. "Guess the parson must have it right," said one of them. "It was a pretty good job, too."