"Unto him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted to him for righteousness."
All the world has heard how John Wesley rode, eight years later, into Epworth; and how, his father's pulpit having been denied to him, he stood outside upon his father's tomb and preached evening after evening in the warm June weather the gospel of Justification by Faith to the listening crowd. Visitors are shown the grit slab, now recut and resting on a handsome structure of stone, but then upon plainest brickwork; and are bidden to notice, in the blank space below the words "Their works do follow them," two rough pieces of ironstone which mark where the preacher's feet rested.
Eight evenings he preached from it, and on the third evening chose for his text these words: "Unto him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted to him for righteousness."
Under a sycamore by the churchyard wall at a little distance from the crowd a man stood and listened--a clergyman in a worn black gown, a man not old in years but with a face prematurely old, and shoulders that already stooped under the burden of life--John Whitelamb. He watched between fear and hope to be recognised. When the preacher mounted the slab, stroked back his hair and, turning his face towards the sycamore, fixed his eyes (as it seemed) upon the figure beneath it, he felt sure he had been recognised: a moment later he doubted whether that gaze had passed over him in forgetfulness or contempt.
He felt himself worthy of contempt. They had been too hard for him, these Wesleys. They had all departed from Epworth, years before, and left him, who had been their brother, alone with his miserable doubts. No letters, no message of remembered affection or present good will, ever came from them. He had been unfaithful to his religion: they had cast him off. For seven years he had walked and laboured among the men and women here gathered in the midsummer dusk: but the faces to which he had turned for comfort were faces of the past--some dead, others far away.
So the preacher's voice came to him as one rending the sepulchre. "Son of man, can these bones live?" Yes, the bones of Christ's warrior beneath the slab--laid there to rest in utter weariness--were stirring, putting forth strength and a voice that pierced his living marrow. Ah, how it penetrated, unlocking old wells of tears!
He listened, letting his tears run. Only once did he withdraw his eyes, and then for a moment they fell on John Romley, loitering too, on the outskirts of the crowd by the churchyard gate and plainly in two minds about interfering. Romley was curate of Epworth now, delegate of an absentee sporting rector: and had in truth set this ball rolling by denying John Wesley his pulpit. He had miscalculated his flock; this stubborn English breed, so loyal in enmity, loving the memory of a foe who had proved himself a man. He watched with a loose-lipped sneer; too weak to conquer his own curiosity, far too weak to assert his authority and attempt to clear the churchyard of that "enthusiasm" which he had denounced in his most florid style last Sunday, within the church.
John Whitelamb's gaze travelled back to the preacher. Up to this he had heard the voice only, and the dead man in his grave below speaking through that voice. Now he listened to the words. If the dead man spoke through them, what a change had death wrought--what wisdom had he found in the dust that equals all! What had become of the old confident righteousness, the old pride of intellect? They were stripped and flung aside as filthy rags. "Apart from faith we do not count. We are redeemed: we are saved. Christ has made with us no bargain at all except to believe that the bargain is concluded. What are we at the best that He should make distinctions between us? We are all sinners and our infinitesimal grades of sin sunk in His magnificent mercy. Only acknowledge your sin: only admit the mercy; and you are healed, pardoned, made joint heirs with Christ--not in a fair way to be healed, not going to be pardoned in some future state; but healed, pardoned, your sins washed away in Christ's blood, actually, here and now."
He heard men and women--notorious evil-livers, some of them--crying aloud. Ah, the great simplicity of it was beyond him!--and yet not perhaps beyond him, could he believe the truth, in the bygone years never questioned by him, that Jesus Christ was very God.
He waited for the last word and strode back to his lonely home with a mind unconvinced yet wondering at the power he had witnessed, a heart bursting with love. He sat down to write at once: but tore up many letters. With Christ, to believe was to be forgiven. If Christ could not be tender to doubt, how much less would John Wesley be tender? It was not until Friday that he found courage to dispatch the following:
I saw you at Epworth on Tuesday evening. Fain would I have spoken to you, but that I am quite at a loss to know how to address or behave to you.
Your way of thinking is so extraordinary that your presence creates an awe, as if you were an inhabitant of another world. God grant you and your followers may always have entire liberty of conscience. Will you not allow others the same?
Indeed I cannot think as you do, any more than I can help honouring and loving you. Dear sir, will you credit me? I retain the highest veneration and affection for you. The sight of you moves me strangely. My heart overflows with gratitude; I feel in a higher degree all that tenderness and yearning of bowels with which I am affected towards every branch of Mr. Wesley's family. I cannot refrain from tears when I reflect, This is the man who at Oxford was more than a father to me; this is he whom I have heard expound, or dispute publicly, or preach at St. Mary's, with such applause; and--oh, that I should ever add--whom I have lately heard preach at Epworth, on his father's tombstone!
I am quite forgot. None of the family ever honour me with a line. Have I been ungrateful? I have been passionate, fickle, a fool; but I hope I never shall be ungrateful.
Dear sir, is it in my power to serve or oblige you in any way? Glad I should be that you would make use of me. God open all our eyes and lead us into truth wherever it be!
The answer was delivered to him that same evening. It ran:
I take you at your word, if indeed it covers permission to preach in your church at Wroote on Sunday morning next. I design to take for text--and God grant it may be profitable to you and to others!--"Ask, and it shall be given you."
From Epworth John Wesley rode on to Sheffield, and then southward through Coventry, Evesham and Painswick to Bristol, preaching as he went, sometimes thrice a day: from Bristol to Cardiff and back; and so, on Sunday evening, July 18th, towards London. On Tuesday morning he dismounted by the door of the Foundry, having left it just two months before.
To his surprise it was opened by Hetty: but at once he guessed the reason.
"Hist! The end is very near--a few hours perhaps." She kissed him. "I have been with her these five days, taking turns with the others. They are all here--Emmy and Sukey and Nancy and Pat. Charles cannot be fetched in time, I fear."
"He was in North Wales when he last wrote."
"Listen!"--a sound of soft singing came down the stairway. "They are singing his hymn to her: she begs us constantly to sing to her."
"Jesu, Lover of my soul, Let me to thy bosom fly While the nearer waters roll--"
Sang the voices overhead as John followed his sister into the small sitting-room.
"What do the doctors say?"
"There is nothing to be said. She feels no pain; has no disease. It is old age, brother, loosening the cords."
"She is happy?"
"Ah, so happy!" Hetty's eyes brimmed with tears and she turned away.
"Sister, that happiness is for you too. Why have you, alone of us, so far rejected it?"
"No--not now!" she protested. "Speak to me some other time and I will listen: not now, when my body and heart are aching!"
Her sisters sang:
"Other refuge have I none; Hangs my helpless soul on Thee; Leave, ah! leave me not alone, Still support and comfort me! All my trust on Thee is stay'd, All my help from Thee I bring: Cover my defenceless head With the shadow of Thy wing!"
She stepped to the door with a feeble gesture of the hands. She knew that, worn as he was with his journey, if she gave him the chance he would grasp it and pause, even while his mother panted her last, to wrestle for and win a soul--not because she, Hetty, was his sister; simply because hers was a soul to be saved. Yes, and she foresaw that sooner or later he would win: that she would be swept into the flame of his conquest: yet her poor bruised spirit shrank back from the flame. She craved only to be let alone, she feared all new experience, she distrusted even the joy of salvation. Life had been too hard for Hetty.
He followed her up the stairs to his mother's room, and entering commanded his sisters with a gesture to sing the hymn to an end. They did so. Mrs. Wesley lay propped on the pillows, her wasted face turned to the light, a faint smile on her lips. For a little while after the hymn ended she lay silent with no change on her face. They doubted if she saw John or, seeing, had recognised him. But by and by her lips moved and she murmured his name.
He stepped to the bedside, and with his hand covered the transparent hand with its attenuated marriage ring.
"I like them--to sing to me," she whispered. "When--when I am released--sing--a psalm of praise to God. Promise me."
He pressed her hand for reply, and her eyes closed peacefully. She seemed to sleep.
It was not until Friday that the end came. Shortly before eleven that morning she waked suddenly out of slumber with lips muttering rapidly. They, bending close, caught the words "Saviour--dear Saviour--help--at the last." By the time they had summoned John, though the muttering continued, the words were unintelligible: yet they knew she was praising God.
In a little while the voice ceased and she lay staring calmly upwards. From three to four o'clock the last cords were loosening. Suddenly John arose, and lifting his hand in benediction, spoke the words of the Commendatory Prayer: "O Almighty God, in whom do live the spirits of just men made perfect, after they are delivered from their earthly prison; we humbly commend the soul of this Thy servant, our dear Mother, into Thy hands, as into the hands of a faithful Creator and most merciful Saviour, most humbly beseeching Thee that it may be precious in Thy sight. . . ."
It was Hetty who bent low, took the inert hand, and after listening for a while laid it softly down on the coverlet. All was over: yet she listened until the voices of the watchers, released by her signal, rose together--
"Hark! a voice divides the sky-- Happy are the faithful dead In the Lord who sweetly die--"
She raised her face as if to entreat for yet a moment's respite. But their faces were radiant, transfigured with the joy of their faith. And then suddenly, certainly, in their rapture she saw the purpose and end of all their common sufferings; want, hunger, years of pinching and striving, a thousand petty daily vexations, all the hardships that had worn her mother down to this poor corpse upon the bed, her own sorrowful fate and her sisters' only less sorrowful--all caught up in the hand of God and blazing as a two-edged sword of flame. Across the blaze, though he was far away, she saw the confident eyes of Charles smiling as at a prophecy fulfilled. But the hand outstretched for the sword was John's, claiming it by right indefeasible. She, too, had a right indefeasible: and before the sword descended to cleave the walls of this humble death chamber and stretch over England, her heart cried and claimed to be pierced with it. "Let it pierce me and cut deep, for my tears, too, have tempered it!"
From the Journal of Charles Wesley for the year 1750:
"March 5th. I prayed by my sister Wright, a gracious, tender, trembling soul; a bruised reed which the Lord will not break.
"March 14th. I found my sister Wright very near the haven"; and again on Sunday, the 18th: "Yet still in darkness, doubts and fears, against hope believing in hope.
"March 21St. At four I called on my brother Wright, a few minutes after her spirit was set at liberty. I had sweet fellowship with her in explaining at the chapel those solemn words, 'Thy sun shall no more go down, neither shall thy moon withdraw itself; for the Lord shall be thy everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended.'
"March 26th. I followed her to her quiet grave, and wept with them that weep."
Early in December, 1803, in the cool decline of a torrid day, a small British force--mixed regulars and sepoys--threaded its way among the mountains of Berar. It moved slowly and with frequent halts, its pace regulated by the middle of the column, where teams of men panted and dragged at the six guns which were to batter down the hill fortress of Gawul Ghur: for roads in this country there were none, and all the long day ahead of the guns gangs laboured with pick and shovel to widen the foot-tracks leading up to the passes.
Still farther ahead trudged and halted the 74th regiment, following a squadron of the 19th Light Dragoons, and now and again the toilers on the middle slope, taking breath for a new effort and blinking the sweat from their eyes, would catch sight of a horseman on a ridge far overhead, silhouetted against the pale blue sky for a moment while he scanned a plateau or gully unseen by them. Now and again, too, in such pauses, the clear air pulsed with the tramp of the rearguard in the lower folds of the hills--sepoys and comrades of the 78th and 94th.
Though with arms, legs and loins strained almost to cracking, the men worked cheerfully. Their General had ridden forward with his staff: they knew that close by the head of the pass their camp was already being marked out for them, and before sleeping they would be fed as they deserved.
They growled, indeed, but good-humouredly, when, for the tenth time that day, they came to the edge of a gully into which the track plunged steeply to mount almost as steeply on the farther side: and their good humour did them the more credit since the General had forbidden them to lock the wheels, on the ground that locking shook and weakened the gun-carriages.
With a couple of drag-ropes then, and a dozen men upon each, digging heels in the slope, slipping, cursing, back-hauling with all their weight, the first gun was trailed down and run across the gully. As the second began its descent a couple of horsemen came riding slowly back from the advance-guard and drew rein above the farther slope to watch the operation.
About a third of the way down, the track, which trended at first to the left, bent abruptly away to the right, from the edge of a low cliff of rock; and at this corner the men on the drag-ropes must also fling themselves sharply to the right to check the wheels on the verge of the fall. They did so, cleverly enough: but almost on the instant were jerked out of their footholds like puppets. Amid outcries of terror and warning, the outer wheel of the gun broke through the crumbling soil on the verge, the ropes flew through their hands, tearing away the flesh before the flesh could cast off its grip; and with a clatter of stones the gun somersaulted over the slope. With it, caught by the left-hand rope before he could spring clear, went hurling a man. They saw his bent shoulders strike a slab of rock ripped bare an instant before, and heard the thud as he disappeared.
As they ran to view the damage, the two riders came cantering across the gully and joined them. By good fortune, at the base of the rock there welled a tiny spring and spread itself in a miniature bog before making up its mind to leap down the mountain-side and feed the infant waters of the Taptee. Into this plashy soil the gun had plunged and the carriage lay some yards away up-ended on a broken wheel, but otherwise uninjured. Beside the carriage, when the General reached it, an artillery sergeant and three of the team of No. 2 gun were lifting the injured man.
The sergeant saluted. "We doubt it's over with him, sir. His back's broken, seemingly."
The General turned away to examine the face of the cliff, and almost at once gave vent to a low whistle.
"See here, Ellerton, the rock is caverned and the gun must have broken through the roof. It doesn't look to me like a natural cavern, either. Hi! half a dozen of you, clear away this rubbish and let me have a nearer look."
The men turned to and heaved away the fallen stones under which the water oozed muddily.
"Just as I thought! Nature never made a hole like this."
An exclamation interrupted him. It came from one of the relief party who had clambered into the cavern and was spading there in the loose soil.
"What is it?"
"A skeleton, sir!--stretched here as natural as life."
The General dismounted and clambered to the entrance, followed by his staff officer. As they reached it, the man stooped again and rose with something in his hand.
"Eh? A begging-bowl?"
"Not a doubt of it," said the staff officer, as his chief passed it to him. He examined it, turning it slowly over in his hands. "It's clear enough, though curious. We have struck the den of some old hermit of the hills, some holy man--"
"Who pitched his camp here for the sake of the water-spring, no doubt."
"Queer taste," said the staff officer sagely. "I wonder how the deuce he picked up his food."
"Oh, the hill-men hereabouts will travel leagues to visit and feed such a man."
"That doesn't explain why his bones lie unburied."
"No." The General mused for a moment. "Found anything else?" he demanded sharply.
The searchers reported "Nothing," and wished to know if they should bring the skeleton out into the light.
"No: cover him up decently, and fall in to limber up the gun!" He took his horse's bridle and walked back to the group about the injured man.
"Who is he?"
He was told, a corporal of the 94th who had volunteered for the gun team two days before. The sergeant who reported this added diffidently, "He had half a dozen of his religious mates in the team. He's a Wesleyan Methodist, sir, begging your pardon."
"Are you one?"
The sergeant saluted.
"He was the best man in his company and--and," he added with a touch of awe, "he was converted by Charles Wesley himself--at Bristol in 'eighty, so he's told us--and him aged but sixteen."
The General bent with sudden interest as the dying man opened his eyes. After scanning his face for a moment or two he said gently:
"My man, they tell me you knew Charles Wesley."
The corporal painfully bent his brows, on which the last sweat was gathering. "Is that--the General?" he gasped with a feeble effort to salute. Then his brain seemed to clear suddenly and he answered, not as soldier to commanding officer, but as man to man. "He converted me. Praise be to God!"
"You are going to him. You know?"
The corporal nodded.
"And you may take him a message from me: for he once did me a handsome turn, too--though not in that way. You may tell him--for I watched you with the guns to-day--that I pass you for a good soldier. You may tell him and his brother John that I wish to command no better followers than theirs. Now, is there anything I can do for you?"
The man looked up into the eyes of the sergeant bending over him, muttered a word or two, slowly drew his palm up to his forehead; and so, with the self-same salute, parted from his earthly captain and met his eternal Captain in Heaven.
"What did he say?" asked the General.
"He was wishful not to be put away without a hymn, sir," answered the sergeant, drawing himself erect to "Attention" and answering respectfully through his captain who had drawn near, having limbered up his gun.
The General nodded and turned away to watch the lowering of the remaining guns. A new track had been cut and down it they were trailed without accident. One by one they crossed the gully. Then the rear regiments hove in sight with the ambulance. The dead man was lifted in and his carrying-party, Wesleyans all, fell into rank behind the light wagon as that, too, moved on.
"Ellerton," said the General suddenly as he gazed after them, "did you hear what I said to that poor fellow just now?"
"Yes, General, and wondered."
"It was true, though. If it hadn't been for Charles Wesley, I should never be here commanding these troops. Wesley or Wellesley, sir-- spell the name as you will: the man who adopted my great-grandfather spelt it Wesley: and he moved heaven and earth to make Charles Wesley his heir before he condescended to us. The offer stood open for years, but Charles Wesley refused it. I never heard why."
"Even so. Odd story, is it not?"
The man who was to be the great Duke of Wellington stared for a moment, lost in thought, at his rear-guard mounting the farther slope of the gully. And as the British guns rolled onward into the dusk, back from the glimmering pass were borne the words of Wesley, Handel's music wafting them on its majestic wings:
"Rejoice, the Lord is King! Your Lord and King adore: Mortals, give thanks and sing And triumph evermore. Lift up your heart, lift up your voice-- Rejoice! again I say, Rejoice!"
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