Some chance word
May strike upon an inattentive ear
And rouse the soul from selfish slumberings,
To wrestle with a thousand subtle foes
That would destroy its hope of Paradise.
Outside the snow fell fast and thick from the dull impenetrable sky,
but within the church all was warmth and light. Owing to the primitive
civilization of the village the holy edifice was only illuminated by a
few oil lamps, which just sufficed to fill it with shadows. The great
arched roof above was completely in darkness, and hanging low down,
almost on a level with the pews, the lamps burned with a dull yellow
light in the heavy atmosphere. On the communion table four tapers
shone like amber-coloured stars, touching the white limbs of the
Christ hanging on the ebony cross with fitful lights. A lamp enclosed
in a red globe swung from the centre of the chancel arch, naming
fiercely crimson like a red eye glaring out of the semi-darkness, and
on each side of the pulpit two candles threw a doubtful glimmer on the
open bible. Amid all this fantasy of shadow and light knelt the simple
villagers with bowed heads, following, with murmuring voices, the
Lord’s Prayer, recited by the vicar. The confused sound buzzed among
the multitudinous arches, losing itself in faint echoes amid the great
oaken beams, and then the thunder of the organ rolled out a melodious
amen which died away in a whisper as, with a rustle, the congregation
arose to their feet to make the responses.
During the singing of the psalms, the door at the lower end of the
church opened and, heralded by a blast of cold air which made all the
lamps flicker, a man stole stealthily to a dark seat and knelt down.
This was Duncan Nestley, who, tortured by maddening thoughts and
overpowering mental anguish had come to religion for consolation, now
kneeling, with hot dry eyes and clasped hands, amid the shadows.
The evening psalm was that magnificent chant wherein David describes
Jehovah as coming forth in all his glory, and the choir, really being
an excellent one, the rolling verse of the Hebrew poet was well
rendered. The thin treble of the boys rang out piercingly shrill
through the mystic twilight.
“_He rode upon the cherubims and did fly: he came flying upon the
wings of the wind_.”
Then, without pause, the deeper voices of the men thundered out the
“_He made darkness his secret place his pavilion round about him with
dark water and thick clouds to cover him_.”
No wonder, as the great volume of sound rang through the church, the
heart of the unhappy man was filled with fear.
This terrible Deity who came forth in such appalling splendour was his
enemy, this awful Jehovah of the Hebrews, in whose hand flashed the
sword of vengeance, was his merciless judge, and kneeling there with
tightly clenched hands he felt crushed to the earth by the fierce
denunciations thundered forth by the choir. But then a change came
over the terrible vehemence of the music, and sweet as a silver
trumpet rang out the proclamation:
“_The Lord liveth, and blessed be my strong helper and praised be the
God of my salvation_.”
There was mercy then–this unknown Splendour whose terrors had been
shadowed forth with such grandeur had pity as well as vengeance; a
dull feeling of exhaustion stole over him as the psalm ended with the
promise of mercy, and his dry lips moved mutely as though to join in
the final “Glory be to the Father.”
He did not rise from his knees, but still in a posture of abject
supplication heard, as in a dream, the reading of the lessons and the
sweet kindly music of the hymns. It was only when the vicar, tall and
stately in his white surplice, mounted the pulpit and gave out the
text, that he stirred. With a weary sigh he arose and sat down in the
pew, utterly exhausted by the conflicting emotions roused within him
by the music, but the words of the text given out by the resonant
voice of Dr. Larcher seemed to convey some comfort to his despairing
“_Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble and he saveth them out
of their distresses_.”
He listened to the sermon idly at first, but soon found, to his
surprise, that he was following the words of the preacher with close
attention. Dr. Larcher was no golden-mouthed Chrysostom by any manner
of means, but he preached a plain, homely sermon, eminently adapted to
the simple congregation of which he was pastor. Never for a moment did
he lose himself amid abstruse theological arguments which they would
not have understood, but told them practical truths in vigorous Saxon,
the meaning of which no one could fail to grasp.
“_For, my brethren, when a man is at the lowest depths of despair it
is then that he first calls upon the name of the Lord. In time of
peace and plenty, when our friends are around us and our coffers are
full, we are alas too apt to forget that all these benefits come from
the Almighty, and thus at times neglect to thank him for His many
mercies. But when the clouds of adversity gather around us, when the
loved ones sink into the grave, when our worldly wealth disappears
like snow, when our name becomes a by word of scorn and reproach, it
is then that we turn to God for that help which is denied to us by
man. And does he ever refuse to aid us?–No!–In the words of the
Psalmist, ‘Cast thy burden upon the Lord and he shall sustain
thee’–to the heart that is truly contrite He gives peace and help in
time of need; none so low but what He will not hear and grant their
prayers if made from the heart. It is not to the terrible Jehovah of
the Jewish nation, with pomp and pride of sacrifices and blowing of
silver trumpets, that we of later generation appeal. No, since the
coming of our dear Lord, who forms the link between most high heaven
and lowly earth we offer up humble prayers to Him in solitude and He,
the mild and merciful Father of us all dries the tears from our eyes
and takes the sorrows from our hearts. If a man is weak and would
commit sin let him call upon the Lord and he will be strengthened–if
the temptations to which he has been exposed have been too heavy for
his bearing and he has succumbed, let him implore mercy of the
Almighty and he shall surely find it. Alas! how often do we find
unforgiveness in men Forgetting the words of Christ, ‘Forgive us our
trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,’ they turn
their faces away and leave us abased in the dust, but Christ lifts us
from that position of humiliation with comforting words, ‘Arise poor
sinner and thy sins be forgiven thee, for to this end did I come into
the world.’ If there is any one of you present who has sinned let him
repent this night and he will find the peace of God which passeth all
understanding. If he is weak, God will give him strength to conquer;
if he is in despair, God will give him hope of pardon. Pray–pray
unceasingly, for it is by prayer alone that our weak voices can reach
the ear of the eternal Father_.”
Nestley waited to hear no more, but with a stifled cry of anguish fled
from the church into the cold, white world outside. Stumbling over the
tombstones, through the blinding snow–now falling in thick flakes–he
soon found himself in the open street, and urged by some mad impulse,
he knew not what, he sped wildly onward through the market-place, over
the bridge and on to the trackless common. With clenched teeth and
wild, staring eyes he made head against the storm that was sweeping
along. His feet made no sound on the yielding snow and he glided along
like an unquiet ghost, the burning words of the sermon ringing in his
He was in the lowest depths of despair and all men had turned their
faces from him; he would call upon the Lord to help him–but would God
attend?–surely He would–What were the words of the text?
“_Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble and he saveth them out
of their distresses_.”
He also would cry and the Lord would save him from the terrible agony
he was enduring. He would kneel down there and then in the snow and
call upon this unseen God, pavilioned in the terrible splendour of
encircling clouds, to aid him.
“_God! Help me!_”
No answer save the whistling of the wind and the soft sound of the
snow sweeping past, caressing his cold face with delicate touch.
“_God! show me how to be saved_.”
Nothing, nothing, only the black sky above, the white earth below, and
himself, between the two, a reckless, despairing man holding up his
“_Our Father which art in heaven_—-”
How sweet those words sounded; he had surely heard them at his
mother’s knee–then he was an innocent child, but now! Oh God, the
evil life he had lived since then!
“_God! God!–pity and save!_”
It was getting quite warm now and he felt drowsy; if he slept for a
while he would then awake and ask God once more to save him; but no,
if he fell asleep in the snow he would never awake again, for this
treacherous snow would slay him with cold embraces. He would die–die.
Ah! he could not die, even though lulled to sleep by the siren voice,
and soft caressing of the snow queen; life was sweet, so he would
fight to retain it.
A long struggle and he was on his feet; the road! where was the road?
he could not see it. Never mind, the snow and wind were at his back,
he would walk on till he came to the bridge, then he would be in
safety. Oh, the weary, weary miles–half dazed, half mad, he staggered
on, reeling like a drunken man. Would the road never come to an end?
Oh this incessant whirl of snow-flakes that he was in, it was the
dance of death and he was the dancer.
Quicker and quicker fell the flakes on the white common and over to
the dark surface of the Gar but no figure was struggling along now;
no, it was lying upon the bridge, a disordered heap of black clothing,
which the snow was rapidly hiding beneath its soft white mantle.
Over the bridge comes the horse and gig of a sturdy farmer who has to
cross the wild white waste beyond to reach home, and the sturdy farmer
himself with his buxom wife beside him drives the wise old horse.
Suddenly the old horse shies at the figure lying in the snow–a start
on the part of the farmer and his wife–then exclamations and calls
for help, black figures come gliding over the snow like shadows, and
kindly hands raise Duncan Nestley from his deadly resting-place.
Take him to the inn, place him before a roaring fire, force some hot
brandy between his blue lips, and rub his frozen limbs to bring back
the circulation of the chill blood.
Dead! no, not dead! he opens his eyes. In them there is no
intelligence, only a vacant stare–he babbles a few words and then
falls back in a faint.
Delirious, yes, and delirious for many a long day, poor soul.