The Soldier’s Story, or a Religion of Reality.
IT was a sultry day in June. A group of some dozen or twenty soldiers were taking some refreshment at a small coffee marquee near their encampment. Hard by, a gospel tent had been erected, and a faithful servant of God was at the time referred to preaching to a goodly number of soldiers who had gathered within it. Wishing to add to the number of listeners, I joined the group of men in the refreshment marquee, and by way of introduction, offered each a little book, which all thankfully received, while I remarked at the same time, that the weather being so hot and their military exercises so fatiguing, no doubt they found rest, shelter, and refreshment most enjoyable.
“There's no mistake about that," said a sunburnt young man, throwing his hat on the table and himself on a form beside it; "there's no mistake about it, and I for one am always glad when 'tis over for the day;" and scanning my appearance with one eye, and winking to some of his comrades with the other, he added for the benefit of all:
"I suppose you are one of them gentlemen that's come to convert us miserable sinners?"
A suppressed titter from several, greeted this enquiry; and many looked upon it as the gauntlet thrown down, and waited for me to take it up and enter the lists.
Affecting not to observe their expectancy, I replied, "Indeed, are there such gentlemen in the neighbourhood? I should like to see them; for they certainly must be very remarkable specimens of humanity to be able to convert miserable sinners. I remember when I was miserable enough and tried in vain to find a friend who could convert me; and when I failed in that direction, I went into it with all my might to convert myself; but I was equally unsuccessful in this as in the former attempt. Really, I should like to see such an one. But didn't you call yourself 'miserable sinners? You don't look very miserable. Do you think you are a sinner at all?"
"You mustn't take people by their looks at all times," broke in an intelligent-looking man, also in regimentals; "for while the face may be an index of the mind, it isn't always so."
"I suppose then," said I, "you have proof to the contrary. Anyway, your face seems bright enough. Do you mean to say it covers a heavy heart?"
"No, sir, thank God," he replied; "it doesn't now, though it has often done so before now."
"So you really know what it is to have a truly happy heart, do you?" I asked. "How did you get it, I should so much like to know" (for I thought a page of that soldier's real history would have greater weight with his comrades than volumes from me, and besides, I wished to get them to see the truth from a soldier's standpoint).
"Well, sir," he began, after finishing his cup of tea, and wiping his forehead with his handkerchief, while the whole company were eagerly listening to every word—"well, sir, it's just like this: I wasn't always as I am now, in more senses than one, and I can say I heartily thank God for it. You must know, sir, that I was brought up most respectably and religiously as a boy. My father was very well-to-do in this world and wishing to educate me according to his station in life, put me for some years to St. ——College, where I succeeded well. From thence, he removed me to the ——County School at ——, where I obtained honours. Some of my compeers and inferiors at that time are among the chief men of the county. But I always had a longing for the world and its pleasures, and when at twenty-one, my father gave me £3,000 to start in life, I determined I would first see something of the world. I travelled here and there, crossed to America, travelled the Continent, and in three years returned to E——penniless and in disgrace. Ah, sir, that's just like the prodigal over again! I began to be in want, not merely of money and friends, but of that which money nor friends can ever buy. I wanted peace of conscience. I walked from E——to T——, a distance of thirty miles, only in time to hear that my father had died several months previous, and out of despair, I enlisted, and was drafted to Bristol. Oh, how I longed to see mother! but I was ashamed and afraid; for somehow, though I could face father, my mother's looks, her patient endurance with me, though she never said a harsh word to me, I never could stand. I knew she would welcome me, but my conscience wouldn't let me go back, so I stayed away. A friend met me in the city and carried word back home. Whether it was the news of my disgrace or not, I can't say, but mother was taken ill, and I was sent for to come and see her. I asked permission of Colonel M——, but he couldn't or wouldn't grant it till the Saturday. I left Bristol by the night train in uniform (I was not allowed to go in plain clothes), and on my arrival at the T—— station, a friend informed me that my mother had passed away and was to be buried that day. At first my determination was to go and throw myself in her grave, if only I could rest in peace with her; but no, I was afraid; my sin haunted me. Then I resolved to attend her funeral, and thus pay the last tribute of love to her memory; but as I looked on my red coat, I knew what other friends would think if I attended in colours, and my pride gained the mastery. I returned again to Bristol and sunk deeper in sin and misery. I married, and in a little while, left my wife. When two years ago on this ground, the colour-sergeant handed me a letter from her, begging me to return, I resolved I would do so. She was then in London, somewhere in Camden Town. I walked from Bristol and got to —— Bridge on a Saturday evening, when a little boy said to his mother, 'Why, there's father! He had known me by my photograph, which his mother had always carried with her. I dared not look and walked on. I at last found my way to the street, and as God would have it, met my wife at the very corner."
"What did she say?" I asked.
"Say, sir? Nothing. She took me by the hand and pulled me indoors, weeping for joy; and, sir, she never mentioned my wickedness, not a word about my neglect; but she said, 'Harry, 'tis so good to have you back again, and God has saved my soul since you left home, and has made me so happy, and I am sure He will yours, if you would like—and you will like, won't you, Harry?' and she burst into tears again, and, sir, I thought my heart would break. I never seemed to be such a sinner as I did then in sight of those tears. I said, 'Like, Fanny, like, 'tis what I am longing for; but 'tisn't for me; I'm too bad. There's no hope for me.' 'Oh, yes there is!' she said. 'You are the very one, for "this is a faithful saying, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." ' 'No, Fanny, not you,' I said, 'not you the chief; 'tis me.' Well, sir, next day was Sunday, and I went with my wife to a mission-hall, where she had been converted, and that day, God converted me. Yea, it was God. He enlightened me to see myself; and then, when I came to Him as I was, He showed me His blessed Son, who died for me. And just as Fanny told, He never mentioned my sins, only to say, 'Son, thy sins, which are many, are all forgiven thee.' Ah, sir, I wouldn't exchange places with the richest man in the county! I am not what I once was, thank God. I was once rich, yet miserably poor. I was once seemingly happy, but miserably wretched. Now I am poor, but wonderfully rich—wonderfully happy." And turning to his fellow-soldiers, said, "You know me, mates, and you know what I say is true, don't you?"
"Yes," said a chorus, "you are all right." "And," added a young fellow whose eyes had filled and refilled with tears as his comrade had been telling his story, "that's what I call real religion, something worth hearing, and worth having; and that's what I intend to have, or nothing."
Whether more than he had it or not, I cannot say, but I believe he went away the better for the soldier's story, and so did the writer. Has the reader proved the realities of a Saviour's love?
You may be a very affable and engaging companion, and yet there may lie underneath the merry laugh and the joyous expression, a weight of care, that finds vent in the sigh, and perhaps the tear, when you are quite alone. The friend comes by, the tear is brushed away, and the sigh is succeeded by the smile, and yet the burden within lies untouched. Why should you remain so, when Jesus has said, "Come unto me; all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest "? Just make trial of His willingness and power while you are reading these lines, and you shall know the reality of rest, like the soldier Harry, and rejoice to sing—
"I left it all with Jesus long ago;
All my sin I brought Him, and my woe;
When by faith I saw Him on the tree,
Heard His small still whisper, ‘ ‘Tis for thee,'
From my heart the burden rolled away. Happy day! "
“The Gospel Watchman” 1884