By H. RIDER HAGGARD.
Author of "She," "Allan Quatermain,"
"King Solomon's Mines," &c.
Has the age of miracle gone by or is it still possible to the Voice of Faith calling aloud upon the earth to wring from the dumb heavens an audible answer to its prayer? Does the promise uttered by the Master of mankind upon the eve of the end - "Whoso that believeth on Me, the works that I do he shall do also . . .
and whatsoever ye shall ask in My name, that will I do" - still hold good to such as
do ask and do believe?
Let those who study the history of the Rev. Thomas Owen, and of that strange man who carried on and completed his work, answer this question according to their judgment.
The time was a Sunday afternoon in summer, and the place a church in the midland counties. It was a beautiful church, ancient and spacious; moreover, it had recently been restored at great cost. Seven or eight hundred people could have found sittings in it, and doubtless they had
done so when Busscombe was a large manu
facturing town, before the failure of the coal supply and other causes drove away its trade. Now it was much what it had been in the time of the Normans, a little agricultural village with a population of three hundred souls. Out of this popula tion, including the choir boys, exactly thirty-nine had elected to attend church on this particular Sunday; and of these, three were fast asleep and four were doz ing. The Rev. Thomas Owen counted them from his seat in the chancel, for an other clergyman was preaching; and, as he counted, bitterness and disappointment took hold of him. The preacher was a
"Deputation," sent by one of the large missionary societies to arrouse the indiffer ent to a sense of their duty towards their unconverted black brethren in Africa, and incidentally to collect cash to be spent in
the conversion of the said brethren. The Rev. Thomas Owen had himself suggested the visit of the Deputation, and laboured
hard to secure him a good audience. But the beauty of the weather, or terror of the
inevitable subscription, had prevailed against him. Hence his disappointment.
"Well," he thought, with a sigh, "I
have done my best, and I must make it up out of my own pocket."
Then he settled himself to listen to the
The preacher was a battered-looking in dividual of between fifty and sixty years of age, gaunt with recent sickness, patient and unimaginative in aspect. He preached extemporarily, with the aid of notes; and it cannot be said that his discourse was remarkable for interest, at any rate in its beginning. Doubtless the sparse congrega tion, so prone to slumber, discouraged him; for offering exhortations to empty benches is but weary work. Indeed, he was meditating the advisability of bringing his argument to an abrupt conclusion, when,
chancing to glance round, he became aware
that he had at least one sympathetic lis tener, his host, the Rev. Thomas Owen. From that moment the sermon improved by degrees, till at length it reached a really high level of excellence. Ceasing from rhe toric, the preacher began to tell of his own experiences and sufferings in the Cause amongst savage tribes; for he himself was a missionary of many years standing. He told how once he and a companion had been sent to a nation, who named themselves the sons of fire because their god was the lightning, if indeed they could be said to boast and gods other than the Spear and the King. In simple language, he narrated his terrible adventures among these savages, the murder of his companion by command of the Council of Wizards, and his own fight for his life, a tale so interesting and vivid that even the bucolic sleepers awak ened and listened open-mouthed.
"But this is by the way," he went on; "for my Society does not ask you to sub scribe towards the conversion of the Child ren of Fire. Until that people is con quered, which very likely will not be for generations, seeing that they live in Cen tral Africa territory that white men do not desire, no missionary will dare again to visit them."
At this moment something caused him to look a second time at Thomas Owen. He was leaning forward in his place listening eagerly, and a strange light filled the large, dark eyes that shone in the pallor of his delicate and nervous face.
"There is a man who would dare, if he were put to it," thought the Deputation to
himself. Then he ended his sermon.
That evening the two men sat at dinner in the rectory. It was a very fine rectory, beautifully furnished; for Owen was a man of taste, and had the means to gratify it. Also, although they were alone, the dinner was good - so good that the poor broken- down missionary, sipping his unaccustomed port, a vintage wine, sighed aloud in ad miration and involuntary envy.
"What is the matter?" asked Owen
"Nothing, Mr. Owen;" then, of a sudden thawing into candour, he added:
"that is, everything. Heaven forgive me; but I, who am enjoying your hospitality, am envious of you. Don't think too hardly of me; but I have a large family to support, and if only you knew what a struggle my life is, and has been for the last twenty years, you would not, I am sure. But you have never experienced it, and could not understand. 'The labourer is worthy of his hire.' Well, my hire is under two hun dred a year, and eight of us must live - or starve - on it. And I have worked, ay, until my health is broken. A labourer indeed! I am a very hodman, a spiritual Sysyphus. And now I must go back to carry my load and roll my stone again and
again among those hopeless savages till I die of it - till I die of it!"
"At least it is a noble life and death!"
exclaimed Owen, a sudden fire of enthu siasm lighting up his dark eyes.
"Yes, viewed from a distance. Were you asked to leave this living of two thousand a year - I see that is what they put it at in Crockford - with its English comforts and easy work, that you might lead that life and attain that death, then you would think differently. But why should I bore your with such talk? Thank Heaven that your lines are cast in pleasant places. Yes, please, I will take one more glass; it does me good."
"Tell me some more about that tribe you were speaking of in your sermon, the 'Sons of Fire' I think you called them," said Owen, as he pushed him the decanter.
So, with an eloquence induced by the generous wine and a quickened imagination, the Deputation told him - told him many strange things and terrible. For this people was an awful people; vigorous in mind and body, and warriors from generation to generation, but superstition-ridden and cruel. They lived in the far interior, some months' journey by boat and ox-waggon from the coast, and white men and their
ways they knew but little.
"How many of them are there," asked
"Who can say," he answered. "Nearly
half a million perhaps; at least they pre
tend that they can put sixty thousand men
"And did they treat you badly when you
"Not at first. They received us civilly
enough; and on a given day we were re quested to explain to the King and the Council of Wizards the religion that we came to teach. All that day we explained, and all the next - or rather my friend did, for I knew very little of the language - and they listened with great interest. At last
the chief of the wizards and the first prophet to the King rose to question us. He was named Hokosa, a tall, thin man, with a spiritual face and terrible calm eyes.
" 'You speak well, son of a white man,'
[Copyright, 1896, by H. Rider Haggared, in the
United States of America. The right of publica tion of this work throughout the Australasian colonies has been purchased by the proprietors of
he said; 'but let us pass from words to
deeds. You tell us that this God of yours, whom you desire that we should take as our God, so that you may become His chief prophets in the land, was a wizard such as we are, though greater that we are; for not only did He know the past and the future as we do, but also He could cure those who were smitten with hopeless sick ness, and raise those who were dead, which we cannot do. You tell us, moreover, that by faith those who believe on Him can do works as great as He did, and that you do believe on Him. Therefore we will put you to the proof. Ho! there, lead forth that
"As he spoke a man was placed before us, one who had been convicted of witch craft of some other crime.
" 'Kill him!' said Hokosa.
"There was a faint cry, a scuffle, a flash ing of spears, and the man lay still before
" 'Now, followers of the new God,' said Hokosa, 'raise him from the dead as your
"In vain did we offer explanations.
" 'Peace!' said Hokosa, at length, 'your words weary us. Look now, either you have preached to us a false god and are liars, or you are traitors to the King you preach, since, lacking faith in Him, you cannot do such works as He gives power to do to those who have faith in Him. Out of your own mouths are you judged, White Men. Choose which horn of the bull you will, you hang to one of them, and it shall pierce you. This is the sentence of the King, I speak it who am the King's Mouth: That you, White Man, who have spoken to us these two weary days, be put to death, and that you, his companion, be driven
from the land.'
"I can hardly bear to tell the rest of it, Mr. Owen. They gave my poor friend ten minutes 'to talk to his Spirit,' then they speared him before my face. After it was over, Hokosa spoke to me, saying:-
" 'Go back, White Man, to those who sent you, and tell them the words of the Sons of Fire: That they have listened to the message of peace, and though they be a people of warriors, yet they thank them for that message, for in itself it sounds good and beautiful in their ears, if it be true. Tell them that having proved you to be liars, they dealt with you as all honest men seek that liars should be dealt with. Tell them that they desire to hear more of this matter, and if one can be sent to them who has no false tongue, who in all things fulfils the promise of his lips, that they will hearken to him and treat him well, but that for such as you they
keep a spear.' "
"And who went after you got back?" asked Owen, who was listening with the deepest interest.
"Who went! Do you suppose that there are many mad clergymen in Africa, Mr. Owen! Nobody went."
"And yet," said Owen, speaking more to himself than to his guest, "the man Hokosa was right, and the Christian, who
of a truth believes the promises of our re ligion, should trust to them and go."
"Then perhaps you would like to under
take the mission, Mr. Owen," said the Deputation briskly; for the reflection stung him, unintentional as it was.
"That is a new idea," he said. "And now perhaps you wish to go to bed; it is past 11 o'clock."
Thomas Owen went to his room, but not to bed. Taking a Bible from the table, he consulted reference after reference.
"The promise is clear," he said aloud, presently, as he shut the book, "clear and often repeated. There is no escape from it, and no possibility of a double meaning. If it is not true, then it would seem that nothing is true, and that every Christian in the world is tricked and deluded. But if it is true, why do we never hear of miracles? The answer is easy: Because we have not faith enough to work them. the Apostles worked miracles; for they had seen, therefore their faith was perfect. since then day nobody's faith has been quite perfect, at least I think not. The physical part of out nature prevents it. Or perhaps the miracles still happen, but they are spiritual miracles "
Then he sat down by the open window and gazing at the dreamy beauty of the summer night he thought, for his soul was troubled. Once before it had been troubled thus; that was nine years ago, for now he was but a little over thirty. then a call had come to him, a voice had seemed to speak in his ears bidding him to lay down
great possessions to follow whither Heaven should lead him. thomas Owen had obeyed the voice, though, owing to cir cumstances which need not be detailed, to do so he was obliged to renounce his succes sion to a v ei v largo est ite, and to con tent himself with a younger son's portion of thirty thousand pounds and the rever sion to the living which he had now held for some five years. Then and there, with sin gular unanimity and despatch, his relations came to the conclusion that he was mad. To this hour, indeed, those who stand in his place and enjoy the wealth and position that were his by right speak of him as "poor Thomas," and mark their disappro bation of his peculiar conduct by refusing with an unvarying steadiness to subscribe even a single shilling to a missionary so ciety. How "poor Thomas" speaks of them in the place where he is we may won der, but as yet we cannot know - probably with the gentle love and charity that marked his every action upon earth. But this is by the way.
He had entered the Church, but what had he done in it? That was the question that he asked himself as he sat this night by the open window, arraigning his past before the judgment-seat of conscience. For three years he had worked hard somewhere in the slums; then this living had fallen to him. He had taken it, and from that day forward his record was very much of a blanki. The parish was small and well ordered; there was little to do in it, and the Salvation Army had seized upon and reclaimed the three confirmed drunkards it could boast. His guest's saying echoed in his brain like the catch of a tune- "that you might lend that life and attain that death." Suppos ing that he were bidden so to do now, this very night, would he indeed "think differ ently?" He had entered the Church to serve his Maker. How would it be were that Maker to command that he should serve him in this extreme and heroic fashion? Would he flinch from the steel
or would he meet it as the martyrs met if of
Physically he was little suited to such an enterprise, for in appearance he was slight and pale, and in constitution delicate. Also, there was another reason against it. High Church and somewhat ascetic in his prin ciples, in the beginning he had admired celibacy, and in secret dedicated himself to that state. But in his heart Thomas was very much a man, and of late he had come to see that that which is against nature is presumably not right, though fanatics may not hesitate to pronounce it wrong. Pos sibly this conversion to these more genial viesw of life was qluickened by the presence in the neighbourhood of a young lady whom he chanced to admire; at least it is certain that the mere thought of seeing her no more for ever smote him like a sword of sudden pain.
That very night - or so it seemed to him,
and so he believed - the Angle of the Lord stood before him as he was wont to stand
before the men of old, and spoke a sum mons in his ear. How or in what seeming that summons came Owen never told, and we need not inquire. At the least he heard it, and, like the Apostles, he arose and
girded his loins to obey. For now, in the hour of trial, it proved that this man's faith partook of the nature of their faith;
it was utter and virgin; it was not clogged with nineteenth century qualifications; it had never dallied with strange doctrines, or kissed the feet of pinchbeck substitutes for God. In his heart he believed that the
Almighty, without intermediary, but face to face, had bidden him to go forth into the wilderness there to perish, and he bowed his head and went.
On the following morning at breakfast Owen had some talk with his friend the Deputation.
"You asked me last night," he said, quietly, "whether I would undertake a mis
sion to that people of whom you were telling me, the Sons of Fire. Well, I have been thinking it over, and come to the con clusion that I will do so -"
At this point the Deputation, concluding
that his host must be mad, moved quietly but decidedly towards the door.
"Wait a moment," went on Owen, in a mater-of-fact voice, "the dogcart will not be round for another three-quarters of an hour. Tell me, if it were offered to you, and on investigation you proved suitable, would you care to take over this living?"
"Would I care to take over this living?"
gasped the astonished Deputation. "Would I care to walk into that garden and find myself in heaven? But why are you making fun of me?"
"I am not making fun of you. If I go to Africa I must give up the living, of which I own the advowson, and it occurred to me
that it might suit you, that is all. You have done your share; your health is broken, and you have many dependant upon you. It seems right, therefore, that
you should rest and I should work. If I do no good yonder, at the least you and yours
will be a little benefited."
That same day Owen chanced to meet the lady who has been spoken of as having caught his heart. He had meant to go away without seeing her, but fortune brought them together. Hitherto, whilst in reality leading him on, she had seemed to keep him at a distance, with the result that he did not know that it was her fixed intention to marry him. To her, with some hesitation, he told his plans. Surprised and frightened into candour, the lady reasoned with him warmly, and when reason failed to move him she did more. By some subtle movement, with some sudden word, she lifted the veil of her reserve and suffered him to see her heart. "If you will not stay foru aught else," said her troubled eyes,
"then, love, stay for me."
For a moment he was shaken. Then he answered the look straight out, as was his
"I never guessed," he said. "I did not presume to hope - now it is to late! Listen
I will tell you what I have told no living soul, though thereafter you may think me mad. Weak and humble as I am, I be lieve myself to have received a Divine mis sion. I believe that I shall execute it, or bring about its execution, but at the ulti mate cost of my own life. Still, in such a service two are better than one. If you - can care enough - if you -"
But the lady had already turned away, and was murmuring her farewells in ac cents that sounded like a sob. Love and faith after this sort were not given to her.
Of all Owen's trials this was the sharpest. Of all his sacrifices this was the most com plete.
(To be continued next Saturday)