The Witnesses by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
The old clergyman sighed and closed the volume of "Browne on The Thirty-nine Articles," and pushed it from him on the table. He could not tell what the words meant; he could not keep his mind tense enough to follow an argument of three sentences. It must be that he was very tired. He looked into the fire, which was burning badly, and about the bare, little, dusty study, and realized suddenly that he was tired all the way through, body and soul. And swiftly, by way of the leak which that admission made in the sea-wall of his courage, rushed in an ocean of depression. It had been a hard, bad day. Two people had given up their pews in the little church which needed so urgently every ounce of support that held it. And the junior warden, the one rich man of the parish, had come in before service in the afternoon to complain of the music. If that knife-edged soprano did not go, he said, he was afraid he should have to go himself; it was impossible to have his nerves scraped to the raw every Sunday.
The old clergyman knew very little about music, but he remembered that his ear had been uncomfortably jarred by sounds from the choir, and that he had turned once and looked at them, and wondered if some one had made a mistake, and who it was. It must be, then, that dear Miss Barlow, who had sung so faithfully in St. John's for twenty-five years, was perhaps growing old. But how could he tell her so; how could he deal such a blow to her kind heart, her simple pride and interest in her work? He was growing old, too.
His sensitive mouth carved downward as he stared into the smoldering fire, and let himself, for this one time out of many times he had resisted, face the facts. It was not Miss Barlow and the poor music; it was not that the church was badly heated, as one of the ex-pewholders had said, nor that it was badly situated, as another had claimed; it was something of deeper, wider significance, a broken foundation, that made the ugly, widening crack all through the height of the tower. It was his own inefficiency. The church was going steadily down, and he was powerless to lift it. His old enthusiasm, devotion, confidence--what had become of them? They seemed to have slipped by slow degrees, through the unsuccessful years, out of his soul, and in their place was a dull distrust of himself; almost--God forgive him--distrust in God's kindness. He had worked with his might all the years of his life, and what he had to show for it was a poor, lukewarm parish, a diminished congregation, debt--to put it in one dreadful word, failure!
By the pitiless searchlight of hopelessness, he saw himself for the first time as he was--surely devoted and sincere, but narrow, limited, a man lacking outward expression of inward and spiritual grace. He had never had the gift to win hearts. That had not troubled him much, earlier, but lately he had longed for a little appreciation, a little human love, some sign that he had not worked always in vain. He remembered the few times that people had stopped after service to praise his sermons, and to-night he remembered not so much the glow at his heart that the kind words had brought, as the fact that those times had been very few. He did not preach good sermons; he faced that now, unflinchingly. He was not broad minded; new thoughts were unattractive, hard for him to assimilate; he had championed always theories that were going out of fashion, and the half-consciousness of it put him ever on the defensive; when most he wished to be gentle, there was something in his manner which antagonized. As he looked back over his colorless, conscientious past, it seemed to him that his life was a failure. The souls he had reached, the work he had done with such infinite effort--it might all have been done better and easily by another man. He would not begrudge his strength and his years burned freely in the sacred fire, if he might know that the flame had shone even faintly in dark places, that the heat had warmed but a little the hearts of men. But--he smiled grimly at the logs in front of him, in the small, cheap, black marble fireplace--his influence was much like that, he thought, cold, dull, ugly with uncertain smoke. He, who was not worthy, had dared to consecrate himself to a high service, and it was his reasonable punishment that his life had been useless.
Like a stab came back the thought of the junior warden, of the two more empty pews, and then the thought, in irresistible self-pity, of how hard he had tried, how well he had meant, how much he had given up, and he felt his eyes filling with a man's painful, bitter tears. There had been so little beauty, reward, in his whole past. Once, thirty years before, he had gone abroad for six weeks, and he remembered the trip with a thrill of wonder that anything so lovely could have come into his sombre life--the voyage, the bit of travel, the new countries, the old cities, the expansion, broadening of mind he had felt for a time as its result. More than all, the delight of the people whom he had met, the unused experience of being understood at once, of light touch and easy flexibility, possible, as he had not known before, with good and serious qualities. One man, above all, he had never forgotten. It had been a pleasant memory always to have known him, to have been friends with him even, for he had felt to his own surprise and joy that something in him attracted this man of men. He had followed the other's career, a career full of success unabused, of power grandly used, of responsibility lifted with a will. He stood over thousands and ruled rightly--a true prince among men. Somewhat too broad, too free in his thinking--the old clergyman deplored that fault--yet a man might not be perfect. It was pleasant to know that this strong and good soul was in the world and was happy; he had seen him once with his son, and the boy's fine, sensitive face, his honest eyes, and pretty deference of manner, his pride, too, in his distinguished father, were surely a guaranty of happiness. The old man felt a sudden generous gladness that if some lives must be wasted, yet some might be, like this man's whom he had once known, full of beauty and service. It would be good if he might add a drop to the cup of happiness which meant happiness to so many--and then he smiled at his foolish thought. That he should think of helping that other--a man of so little importance to help a man of so much! And suddenly again he felt tears that welled up hotly.
He put his gray head, with its scanty, carefully brushed hair, back against the support of the worn armchair, and shut his eyes to keep them back. He would try not to be cowardly. Then, with the closing of the soul-windows, mental and physical fatigue brought their own gentle healing, and in the cold, little study, bare, even, of many books, with the fire smoldering cheerlessly before him, he fell asleep.
* * * * *
A few miles away, in a suburb of the same great city, in a large library peopled with books, luxurious with pictures and soft-toned rugs and carved dark furniture, a man sat staring into the fire. The six-foot logs crackled and roared up the chimney, and the blaze lighted the wide, dignified room. From the high chimney-piece, that had been the feature of a great hall in Florence two centuries before, grotesque heads of black oak looked down with a gaze which seemed weighted with age-old wisdom and cynicism, at the man's sad face. The glow of the lamp, shining like a huge gray-green jewel, lighted unobtrusively the generous sweep of table at his right hand, and on it were books whose presence meant the thought of a scholar and the broad interests of a man of affairs. Each detail of the great room, if there had been an observer of its quiet perfection, had an importance of its own, yet each exquisite belonging fell swiftly into the dimness of the background of a picture when one saw the man who was the master. Among a thousand picked men, his face and figure would have been distinguished. People did not call him old, for the alertness and force of youth radiated from him, and his gray eyes were clear and his color fresh, yet the face was lined heavily, and the thick thatch of hair shone in the firelight silvery white. Face and figure were full of character and breeding, of life lived to its utmost, of will, responsibility, success. Yet to-night the spring of the mechanism seemed broken, and the noble head lay back against the brown leather of his deep chair as listlessly as a tired girl's. He watched the dry wood of the fire as it blazed and fell apart and blazed up brightly again, yet his eyes did not seem to see it--their absorbed gaze was inward.
The distant door of the room swung open, but the man did not hear, and, his head and face clear cut like a cameo against the dark leather, hands stretched nervelessly along the arms of the chair, eyes gazing gloomily into the heart of the flame, he was still. A young man, brilliant with strength, yet with a worn air about him, and deep circles under his eyes, stood inside the room and looked at him a long minute--those two in the silence. The fire crackled cheerfully and the old man sighed.
"Father!" said the young man by the door.
In a second the whole pose changed, and he sat intense, staring, while the son came toward him and stood across the rug, against the dark wood of the Florentine fireplace, a picture of young manhood which any father would he proud to own.
"Of course, I don't know if you want me, father," he said, "but I've come to tell you that I'll be a good boy, if you do."
The gentle, half-joking manner was very winning, and the play of his words was trembling with earnest. The older man's face shone as if lamps were lighted behind his eyes.
"If I want you, Ted!" he said, and held out his hand.
With a quick step forward the lad caught it, and then, with quick impulsiveness, as if his childhood came back to him on the flood of feeling unashamed, bent down and kissed him. As he stood erect again he laughed a little, but the muscles of his face were working, and there were tears in his eyes. With a swift movement he had drawn a chair, and the two sat quiet a moment, looking at each other in deep and silent content to be there so, together.
"Yesterday I thought I'd never see you again this way," said the boy; and his father only smiled at him, satisfied as yet without words. The son went on, his eager, stirred feelings crowding to his lips. "There isn't any question great enough, there isn't any quarrel big enough, to keep us apart, I think, father. I found that out this afternoon. When a chap has a father like you, who has given him a childhood and a youth like mine--" The young voice stopped, trembling. In a moment he had mastered himself. "I'll probably never be able to talk to you like this again, so I want to say it all now. I want to say that I know, beyond doubt, that you would never decide anything, as I would, on impulse, or prejudice, or from any motives but the highest. I know how well-balanced you are, and how firmly your reason holds your feelings. So it's a question between your judgment and mine--and I'm going to trust yours. You may know me better than I know myself, and anyway you're more to me than any career, though I did think--but we won't discuss it again. It would have been a tremendous risk, of course, and it shall be as you say. I found out this afternoon how much of my life you were," he repeated.
The older man kept his eyes fixed on the dark, sensitive, glowing young face, as if they were thirsty for the sight. "What do you mean by finding it out this afternoon, Ted? Did anything happen to you?"
The young fellow turned his eyes, that were still a bit wet with the tears, to his father's face, and they shone like brown stars. "It was a queer thing," he said, earnestly, "It was the sort of thing you read in stories--almost like," he hesitated, "like Providence, you know. I'll tell you about it; see if you don't think so. Two days ago, when I--when I left you, father--I caught a train to the city and went straight to the club, from habit, I suppose, and because I was too dazed and wretched to think. Of course, I found a grist of men there, and they wouldn't let me go. I told them I was ill, but they laughed at me. I don't remember just what I did, for I was in a bad dream, but I was about with them, and more men I knew kept turning up--I couldn't seem to escape my friends. Even if I stayed in my room, they hunted me up. So this morning I shifted to the Oriental, and shut myself up in my room there, and tried to think and plan. But I felt pretty rotten, and I couldn't see daylight, so I went down to lunch, and who should be at the next table but the Dangerfields, the whole outfit, just back from England and bursting with cheerfulness! They made me lunch with them, and it was ghastly to rattle along feeling as I did, but I got away as soon us I decently could--rather sooner, I think--and went for a walk, hoping the air would clear my head. I tramped miles--oh, a long time, but it seemed not to do any good; I felt deadlier and more hopeless than ever--I haven't been very comfortable fighting you," he stopped a minute, and his tired face turned to his father's with a smile of very winning gentleness.
The father tried to speak, but, his voice caught harshly. Then, "We'll make it up, Ted," he said, and laid his hand on the boy's shoulder.
The young fellow, as if that touch had silenced him, gazed into the fire thoughtfully, and the big room was very still for a long minute. Then he looked up brightly.
"I want to tell you the rest. I came back from my tramp by the river drive, and suddenly I saw Griswold on his horse trotting up the bridle-path toward me. I drew the line at seeing any more men, and Griswold is the worst of the lot for wanting to do things, so I turned into a side-street and ran. I had an idea he had seen me, so when I came to a little church with the doors open, in the first half-block, I shot in. Being Lent, you know, there was service going on, and I dropped quietly into a seat at the back, and it came to me in a minute, that I was in fit shape to say my prayers, so--I said 'em. It quieted me a bit, the old words of the service. They're fine English, of course, and I think words get a hold on you when they're associated with every turn of your life. So I felt a little less like a wild beast, by the time the clergyman began his sermon. He was a pathetic old fellow, thin and ascetic and sad, with a narrow forehead and a little white hair, and an underfed look about him. The whole place seemed poor and badly kept. As he walked across the chancel, he stumbled on a hole in the carpet. I stared at him, and suddenly it struck me that he must be about your age, and it was like a knife in me, father, to see him trip. No two men were ever more of a contrast, but through that very fact he seemed to be standing there as a living message from you. So when he opened his mouth to give out his text I fell back as if he had struck me, for the words he said were, 'I will arise and go to my father.'"
The boy's tones, in the press and rush of his little story, were dramatic, swift, and when he brought out its climax, the older man, though his tense muscles were still, drew a sudden breath, as if he, too, had felt a blow. But he said nothing, and the eager young voice went on.
"The skies might have opened and the Lord's finger pointed at me, and I couldn't have felt more shocked. The sermon was mostly tommy-rot, you know--platitudes. You could see that the man wasn't clever--had no grasp--old-fashioned ideas--didn't seem to have read at all. There was really nothing in it, and after a few sentences I didn't listen particularly. But there were two things about it I shall never forget, never, if I live to a hundred. First, all through, at every tone of his voice, there was the thought that the brokenhearted look in the eyes of this man, such a contrast to you in every way possible, might be the very look in your eyes after a while, if I left you. I think I'm not vain to know I make a lot of difference to you, father--considering we two are all alone." There was a questioning inflection, but he smiled, as if he knew.
"You make all the difference. You are the foundation of my life. All the rest counts for nothing beside you." The father's voice was slow and very quiet.
"That thought haunted me," went on the young man, a bit unsteadily, "and the contrast of the old clergyman and you made it seem as if you were there beside me. It sounds unreasonable, but it was so. I looked at him, old, poor, unsuccessful, narrow-minded, with hardly even the dignity of age, and I couldn't help seeing a vision of you, every year of your life a glory to you, with your splendid mind, and splendid body, and all the power and honor and luxury that seem a natural background to you. Proud as I am of you, it seemed cruel, and then it came to my mind like a stab that perhaps without me, your only son, all of that would--well, what you said just now. Would count for nothing--that you would be practically, some day, just a lonely and pathetic old man like that other."
The hand on the boy's shoulder stirred a little. "You thought right, Ted."
"That was one impression the clergyman's sermon made, and the other was simply his beautiful goodness. It shone from him at every syllable, uninspired and uninteresting as they were. You couldn't help knowing that his soul was white as an angel's. Such sincerity, devotion, purity as his couldn't be mistaken. As I realized it, it transfigured the whole place. It made me feel that if that quality--just goodness--could so glorify all the defects of his look and mind and manner, it must be worth while, and I would like to have it. So I knew what was right in my heart--I think you can always know what's right if you want to know--and I just chucked my pride and my stubbornness into the street, and--and I caught the 7:35 train."
The light of renunciation, the exhaustion of wrenching effort, the trembling triumph of hard-won victory, were in the boy's face, and the thought, as he looked at it, dear and familiar in every shadow, that he had never seen spirit shine through clay more transparently. Never in their lives had the two been as close, never had the son so unveiled his soul before. And, as he had said, in all probability never would it be again. To the depth where they stood words could not reach, and again for minutes, only the friendly undertone of the crackling fire stirred the silence of the great room. The sound brought steadiness to the two who sat there, the old hand on the young shoulder yet. After a time, the older man's low and strong tones, a little uneven, a little hard with the effort to be commonplace, which is the first readjustment from deep feeling, seemed to catch the music of the homely accompaniment of the fire.
"It is a queer thing, Ted," he said, "but once, when I was not much older than you, just such an unexpected chance influence made a crisis in my life. I was crossing to England with the deliberate intention of doing something which I knew was wrong. I thought it meant happiness, but I know now it would have meant misery. On the boat was a young clergyman of about my own age making his first, very likely his only, trip abroad. I was thrown with him--we sat next each other at table, and our cabins faced--and something in the man attracted me, a quality such as you speak of in this other, of pure and uncommon goodness. He was much the same sort as your old man, I fancy, not particularly winning, rather narrow, rather limited in brains and in advantages, with a natural distrust of progress and breadth. We talked together often, and one day, I saw, by accident, into the depths of his soul, and knew what he had sacrificed to become a clergyman--it was what meant to him happiness and advancement in life. It had been a desperate effort, that was plain, but it was plain, too, that from the moment he saw what he thought was the right, there had been no hesitation in his mind. And I, with all my wider mental training, my greater breadth--as I looked at it--was going, with my eyes open, to do a wrong because I wished to do it. You and I must be built something alike, Ted, for a touch in the right spot seems to penetrate to the core of us--the one and the other. This man's simple and intense flame of right living, right doing, all unconsciously to himself, burned into me, and all that I had planned to do seemed scorched in that fire--turned to ashes and bitterness. Of course it was not so simple as it sounds. I went through a great deal. But the steady influence for good was beside me through that long passage--we were two weeks--the stronger because it was unconscious, the stronger, I think, too, that it rested on no intellectual basis, but was wholly and purely spiritual--as the confidence of a child might hold a man to his duty where the arguments of a sophist would have no effect. As I say, I went through a great deal. My mind was a battle-field for the powers of good and evil during those two weeks, but the man who was leading the forces of the right never knew it. The outcome was that as soon as I landed I took my passage back on the next boat, which sailed at once. Within a year, within a month almost, I knew that the decision I made then was a turning-point, that to have done otherwise would have meant ruin in more than one way. I tremble now to think how close I was to shipwreck. All that I am, all that I have, I owe more or less directly to that man's unknown influence. The measure of a life is its service. Much opportunity for that, much power has been in my hands, and I have tried to hold it humbly and reverently, remembering that time. I have thought of myself many times us merely the instrument, fitted to its special use, of that consecrated soul."
The voice stopped, and the boy, his wide, shining eyes fixed on his father's face, drew a long breath. In a moment he spoke, and the father knew, as well as if he had said it, how little of his feeling he could put into words.
"It makes you shiver, doesn't it," he said, "to think what effect you may be having on people, and never know it? Both you and I, father--our lives changed, saved--by the influence of two strangers, who hadn't the least idea what they were doing. It frightens you."
"I think it makes you know," said the older man, slowly, "that not your least thought is unimportant; that the radiance of your character shines for good or evil where you go. Our thoughts, our influences, are like birds that fly from us as we walk along the road; one by one, we open our hands and loose them, and they are gone and forgotten, but surely there will be a day when they will come back on white wings or dark like a cloud of witnesses--"
The man stopped, his voice died away softly, and he stared into the blaze with solemn eyes, as if he saw a vision. The boy, suddenly aware again of the strong hand on his shoulder, leaned against it lovingly, and the fire, talking unconcernedly on, was for a long time the only sound in the warmth and stillness and luxury of the great room which held two souls at peace.
* * * * *
At that hour, with the volume of Browne under his outstretched hand, his thin gray hair resting against the worn cloth of the chair, in the bare little study, the old clergyman slept. And as he slept, a wonderful dream came to him. He thought that he had gone from this familiar, hard world, and stood, in his old clothes, with his old discouraged soul, in the light of the infinitely glorious Presence, where he must surely stand at last. And the question was asked him, wordlessly, solemnly:
"Child of mine, what have you made of the life given you?" And he looked down humbly at his shabby self, and answered:
"Lord, nothing. My life is a failure. I worked all day in God's garden, and my plants were twisted and my roses never bloomed. For all my fighting, the weeds grew thicker. I could not learn to make the good things grow, I tried to work rightly, Lord, my Master, but I must have done it all wrong."
And as he stood sorrowful, with no harvest sheaves to offer as witnesses for his toiling, suddenly back of him he heard a marvellous, many-toned, soft whirring, as of innumerable light wings, and over his head flew a countless crowd of silver-white birds, and floated in the air beyond. And as he gazed, surprised, at their loveliness, without speech again it was said to him:
"My child, these are your witnesses. These are the thoughts and the influences which have gone from your mind to other minds through the years of your life." And they were all pure white.
And it was borne in upon him, as if a bandage had been lifted from his eyes, that character was what mattered in the great end; that success, riches, environment, intellect, even, were but the tools the master gave into his servants' hands, and that the honesty of the work was all they must answer for. And again he lifted his eyes to the hovering white birds, and with a great thrill of joy it came to him that he had his offering, too, he had this lovely multitude for a gift to the Master; and, as if the thought had clothed him with glory, he saw his poor black clothes suddenly transfigured to shining garments, and, with a shock, he felt the rush of a long-forgotten feeling, the feeling of youth and strength, beating in a warm glow through his veins. With a sigh of deep happiness, the old man awoke.
A log had fallen, and turning as it fell, the new surface had caught life from the half-dead ashes, and had blazed up brightly, and the warmth was penetrating gratefully through him. The old clergyman smiled, and held his thin hands to the flame as he gazed into the fire, but the wonder and awe of his dream were in his eyes.
"My beautiful white birds!" he said, aloud, but softly. "Mine! They were out of sight, but they were there all the time. Surely the dream was sent from Heaven--surely the Lord means me to believe that my life has been of service after all." And as he still gazed, with rapt face, into his study fire, he whispered: "Angels came and ministered unto him."