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THE STEP-FATHER; OR, CAN I BE A MARTYR?
Chap. I.-The Old Church. The last faint beams of a bright autumnal sun were lighting up the old grey walls of the Abbey Church of Clairton, a beautiful village on the southern coast of England. But it was in olden times, when such sacred edifices were not merely objects to be gazed at from a distance, but were known, valued, and used as in very truth the Houses of God. Forth from the western door there came streaming, after evensong, a goodly company of devout Christians, of all ranks, and of all ages—whose very faces seemed to reflect something of the glory of the sanctuary they were leaving. Across the green, down the river side, through the meadow where the herds were grazing, and over the hill from which the distant ocean came in view, they went forth; witnesses each one of them of God's living Presence, as in His house, so also in the hearts of His baptized children.
But one little worshipper, a girl about twelve years of age, lingered within the sacred walls. She had such a sweetly beautiful expression of countenance that amidst the silence and the shade she might almost be taken for one of its heavenly guardians come to watch it through the night. Yet every now and then, she changed her place, as if she were either afraid of being sent away, or expected to meet some object whom she knew. Not, however, that there were no faces to recognise around her, for even at that time many a carved stone pourtrayed the images of departed children of the Church. She passed from one to another as though she knew, and would bestow a hasty greeting on them all. At times she paused with a start, when in the deepening twilight some more life-like form looked as if about to beckon her to its cold embrace. She had no fear, however—whence should she? Beneath the shadow of holy Church, all were holy; and if, perchance, spirits should haunt those walls, they would not come to terrify, but to cheer, that helpless little one of their own family.
She was so wrapped up in her own solemn musings that she did not hear or heed the approach of an old ecclesiastic who held the office of “ doorkeeper.” Anybody might have read his office in his very appearance. Not only was his once strong frame bent nearly double by extreme old age, but moreover, from his zealous attendance early and late at his honoured post, his trembling limbs could now scarce bear him up and down the cloistered pavements. His head, bald in front, had yet some few gray locks remaining, to give an unusually commanding appearance to his venerable person. By his side hung a bunch
of keys, which rendered it unnecessary for his voice to declare wherefore he came.
" Well, little maiden," he said kindly, as he drew near the place where Annie stood, “ you need not be frightened at me: the bad alone should fear; and this is no place nor hour for them. You seem to love these old stony faces; one would think you knew the history of each by heart.”
“Good father, nobody need be frightened at you. Your look is too kind, and your voice too gentle for anything but to be loved. It is so good of you to let me stay here after all are gone. Why do you watch me so carefully? Why do you bless me so warmly, every evening when I go? Oh, father! if you only knew what pleasure it gives me to linger here even amongst these tombs, if you only knew how sad I feel when I get out again into the noisy world and evil ways of men, you would not be sorry that you do not send me away with the rest. This place looks so still, so peaceful, so holy,—would that I could be always here.”
“Hush, hush, child; you must not talk like this: you are drawing out an old man's very heart in drops. To think that a little rosebud like you should be showing the dew-drops at this time : what can you know of sorrow yet, child ? Come, look yonder. Do you see that figure lying there-a little to the right next to the grim-looking warrior with his sword, like the Cross, symbol of his sure confidence, lying upon his breast."
“Yes, father; I quite love that lady's sweet face."
“Well you may, my child; well, indeed, you may; for she was full of love; too full, perhaps, for a world in which the selfishness of sinful men has wellnigh drunk it dry."
“Who was she? Is there time to tell me something about her? Did she all through life look so smiling and so calm as that? Had she nothing to vex her at home, nothing to try her in the world? Did no one ever hurt her enough to make her shed tears, father? You know in the little book of prayers you gave me not long ago, it is said, They that sow in tears shall reap in joy,' which you told me means that the way to the joyfulness of saints is often through the sadness of mourners.”
The old man shook his head as he reverently whispered something to himself; then raising his eyes upwards with his hands clasped with fervour, he repeated twice aloud, "O God, Thou knowest; O GOD, Thou knowest.” Then taking the little girl by the hand, he led her close to the monument she so much admired.
“Those words written in Latin beneath,” he said, “explain all. They mean With Jesus suffering; with Christ trium
“ Was she a martyr, then?
Was she put to death like so many of the saints of whom you often tell me? Was it by the sword or the flame ?”
“There are martyrs who have seen not a sword, and on whom the smell of fire has never been. Do not ask me; I could not bear to tell how they drove out her holy soul; though all in God's good time, it was quietly and secretly, and almost without pain, yet she was a martyr: ay, and a noble confession did she witness. She was a martyr. It is a glorious thing to be a martyr. The trial is short and quick, the flesh quails for a moment, the tread of death, though only just heard, is heavy and terrible; but who would not bear it all, nay, and more a thousand-fold, to be the meanest witness for our beloved REDEEMER. Who would not bear the cross, however heavy, to share the crown?".
“ Could I be a martyr, father ? Really I should like to be. What can I do? what can I say—to witness for my SAVIOUR as she did ?”
The old man started back at the burst of enthusiasm in which these words came forth. “Hush, hush !” he said, “it is a fearful gift. Ask not for it, lest He Who heareth prayer should too faithfully grant it. What ! already the prayer offered, already registered in heaven; already the theme of angels' strains. Ó Thou Strength of the feeble, Thou Refuge of the weary, Thou Saviour of all that put their trust in Thee; strengthen and protect, and keep this Thy daring child; Thy hand is upon her, Thy breath passing over her, the signet of Thy kingdom upon her, Thy love surrounding her on every side, wherefore should we fear? If Thou biddest her, and she have faith to follow even into the deep billows of affliction, Thou wilt hold her up with Thine hand of Mercy, even as Thou didst Thine own S. Peter of old.”
Once more he turned towards the little girl, whose beautiful form the growing darkness now wellnigh concealed; he crossed his hands upon her head, and said, in a broken hurried voice of deep affection, “ The night is upon thee, thy way is lonely and dark : it is time that I give thee my parting blessing. Think that the eye of the ALMIGHTY is upon thee all the way, and His holy Angels tarrying by thy side. Fear nothing ; sing thy simple hymns to beguile the way. Rejoice in hope. Be patient under whatever pain or grief is in store for thee; be at every hour a martyr for thy LORD, and then, whatever thou art, the glory of the LORD shall be upon thee.”
The words of his blessing died away upon the evening air, as the massive gate closed. The good “doorkeeper” was soon at prayer in his own little chamber; all signs of life were departed from the abbey walls, and little Annie singing with a right good joy her simple hymns, tripped homeward with only her guardian angel by her side along the dewy village green.
Chap. II.-The Mansion of Misery. The reader will naturally be anxious to know, after the scene in the last chapter, who little Annie was, and to what home she was setting out."
Must not she be the pet and joy of fond parents, counting, perhaps, the moments until she returned, timidly wondering what kept her back so long, and ready with sweetest smiles of welcome, though with a gentle chiding afterwards, when she came? Would not little brothers and sisters, as beautiful and loving, spring forth joyfully to hail her coming ?
Let us go on before her, and see something of the home in which her heavenly Father had set her worldly lot. It was a tall, overgrown, old-fashioned house, standing quite by itself, a little distance from the village, overshadowed by a gloomy clump of elms, which the breath of autumn was now fast robbing of the little cheerfulness they once possessed. A little gate, already deprived of one of its hinges, and giving certain signs of soon dropping down from sheer neglected old age, led into what was called a garden, and no doubt had been in better times cheerful and pretty enough. A central walk led directly to the front door of the mansion, but to get to it many an overreaching briar had to be torn away, and the rude faces of several drooping monsters of sunflowers and hollyhocks to be turned aside. To make things worse, the pathway was at this season quite strewn with the corpses of flowers and dead leaves, heaps upon heaps. Then there was not much to comfort one on reaching the door. A knock was almost in danger of letting one into the secresy of the home, without the ceremonial of a bidding, while its sound was as the very voice of indwelling melancholy. As for the windows, they certainly could only have been for appearance' sake, since no signs of life were ever beheld near them. .
Sitting in one of the back rooms was a man who could not have wanted much to make him a follower in the train of old age, for his hair was quite grey, and his frame bent. In his countenance were unmistakeable evidences of many cares; yet there was a fire in his keen grey eyes which quite appalled the stranger on whom it first fell. He was Annie's stepfather— he had married her mother (a widow), when her daughter had but just completed her seventh year; not however that he had, as it afterwards turned out, the least affection for her. He was a hard, selfish, worldly, and unprincipled man, who, looking with an evil eye upon her little patrimony sought to make it his by wooing to him a heart he only meant to break. Nor was he disappointed. His cruelty, beyond the credibility of a Christian, soon withered the gentle flower that had too trustingly leant on him. Before a year was over, her sorrows and her sufferings too were all ended. Fortunately in her last hours, against the will of her inhuman partner, a holy man from the Church had been sent by the Clergy to watch and attend to her needs bodily and spiritual. By his advice she willed over her property, partly to her husband, and partly to her daughter, with this one especial provision, that if the little girl did not live till the age when she could lawfully enjoy it, her portion should fall to her step-father. He had no affection for aught but his own selfish gains. The great scheme, therefore, which he immediately planned on the suggestion of the devil, was to cut short by any means Annie's life, and get possession of her portion. Yet what could he do? Her mother was too well known and beloved for her eariy decease to be readily overlooked. Many a terrible whisper was heard amongst the neighbours; many a dark look bent towards the solitary old house, and many a resolution made that Annie should be saved from his cruelty, if human watching could aught avail, or Christian prayers for others' welfare reach the throne of heaven.
Still the poor little girl had a fearful life to go through. All that could conduce to weigh her down with misery and want was well studied and practised by her wicked step-father. Oh! little thought they who saw her trip so gaily and lightly over the village-green, what a weight of secret woe her little heart was made to bear; little thought the stranger who paused to gaze upon the old dull, solitary mansion, that there was one within, the brightest, purest spirit that ever gladdened it, whose tears were her meat day and night, and into whose young soul the iron of a cruel bondage was hourly piercing. Flowers, indeed, bloomed in the little garden as cheerfully as elsewhere, the nightingale in spring did not disdain those old elm trees; all nature looked with no partial light of beauty, but yet the place itself was like a “ Calvary"--for a little heir of heaven within was unknowingly enduring her crucifixion. And now she herself lifted the latch of the crazy wicket, made her way through the briars, and the overreaching flowers, and with a beating heart, though not from fear, gently tapped at the door. Poor maiden! She did not see the cloud of wrath that had gathered in one face within for her. Never mind; there was a meaning and a truth in the old doorkeeper's words, “ Fear not, the eye of the ALMIGHTY is upon thee, His holy Angels by thy side. At every hour, be a martyr for thy LORD!"
CHURCH UNITY.-When the soul of the learned, the pious, the incomparable author of Ecclesiastical Polity, was about to take his flight to the regions of everlasting harmony and love, a friend asked him what might then be the subject of his contempla
tions? He replied, that "he was me. ditating the number and nature of angels, and their blessed obedience and order, without which peace could not be in heaven; and oh, that it might be so on earth !"-BP. HORNE.