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It is now more than twenty years since the morning a slender youth of handsome face and modest mien came into my office on the corner of Montgomery and Clay streets, San Francisco. He was the son of a preacher well known in Missouri and California, a man of rare good sense, caustic wit, and many eccentricities. The young man became an attache of my newspaper-office and an inmate of my home. He was as fair as a girl, and refined in his taste and manners. A genial taciturnity, if the expression may be allowed, marked his bearing in the social circle. Everybody had a kind feeling and a good word for the quiet, brightfaced youth. In the discharge of his duties in the office he was punctual and trustworthy, showing not only industry but unusual aptitude for business It was with special pleasure that I learned that he was turning his thoughts to the subject of religion. During the services in the little Pine-street church he would sit with thoughtful face, and not seldom with moistened eyes. He read the Bible and prayed in secret. I was not surprised when he came to me one day and opened his heart. The great crisis in his life had come. God was speaking to his soul, and he was listening to his voice. The uplifted cross drew him, and he yielded to the gentle attraction. We prayed together, and henceforth there was a new and sacred bond that bound us to each other. I felt that I was a witness to the most solemn transaction that can take place on earth - the wedding of a soul to a heavenly faith. Soon thereafter he went to Virginia, to attend college. There he united with the Church. His letters to me were full of gratitude and joy. It was the blossoming of his spiritual life, and the air was full of its fragrance, and the earth was flooded with glory. A pedestrian tour among the Virginia hills brought him into communion with Nature at a time when it was rapture to drink in its beauty and its grandeur. The light kindled within his soul by the touch of the Holy Spirit transfigured the scenery upon which he gazed, and the glory of God shone round about the young student in the flush and blessedness of his first love. O blessed days! O days of brightness, and sweetness, and rapture! The soul is then in its blossoming-time, and all high enthusiasms, all bright dreams, all thrilling joys, are realities which inwork themselves into the consciousness, to be forgotten never; to remain with us as prophecies of the eternal springtime that awaits the true-hearted on the hills of God beyond the grave, or as accusing voices charging us with the murder of our dead ideals! Amid the dust and din of the battle in after-years we turn to this radiant spot in our journey with smiles or tears; according as we have been true or false to the impulses, aspirations, and purposes inspired within us by that first, and brightest, and nearest manifestation of God. Such a season is a natural to every life as the April buds and June roses are to forest and garden. The springtime of some lives is deferred by unpropitious circumstance to the time when it should be glowing with autumnal glory, and rich in the fruitage of the closing year. The life that does not blossom into religion in youth may have light at noon, and peace at sunset, but misses the morning glory on the hills, and the dew that sparkles on grass and flower. The call of God to the young to seek him early is the expression of a true psychology no less than of a love infinite in its depth and tenderness.
His college-course finished, my young friend returned to California, and in one of its beautiful valley-towns he entered a law-office, with a view to prepare himself for the legal profession. Here he was thrown into daily association with a little knot of skeptical lawyers. As is often the case, their moral obliquities ran parallel with their errors in opinion. They swore, gambled genteelly, and drank. It is not strange that in this icy atmosphere the growth of any young friend in the Christian life was stunted. Such influences are like the dreaded north wind that at times sweeps over the valleys of California in the spring and early summer, blighting and withering the vegetation it does not kill. The brightness of his hope was dimmed, and his soul knew the torture of doubt - a torture that is always keenest to him who allows himself to sink in the region of fogs after he has once stood upon the sunlit summit of faith. Just at this crisis, a thing little in itself deepened the shadow that was falling upon his life. A personal misunderstanding with the pastor kept him from attending church. Thus he lost the most effectual defense against the assaults that were being made upon his faith and hope, in being separated from the fellowship and cut off from the activities of the Church of God. Have you not noted these malign coincidences in life? There are times when it seems that the tide of events sets against us when, like the princely sufferer of the land of Uz, every messenger that crosses the threshold brings fresh tidings of ill, and our whole destiny seems to be rushing to a predoomed perdition. The worldly call it bad luck; the superstitious call it fate; the believer in God calls it by another name. Always of a delicate constitution, my friend now exhibited symptoms of serious pulmonary disease. It was at that time the fashion in California to prescribe whisky as a specific for that class of ailments. It is possible that there is virtue in the prescription, but I am sure of one thing, namely, that if consumption diminished, drunkenness increased; if fewer died of phthisis, more died of delirium tremens. The physicians of California have sent a host of victims raving and gibbering in drunken frenzy or idiocy down to death and hell! I have reason to believe that my friend inherited a constitutional weakness at this point. As flame to tinder, was the medicinal whisky to him. It grew upon him rapidly, and soon this cloud overshadowed all his life. He struggled hard to break the serpent-folds that were tightening around him; but the fire that had been kindled seemed to be quenchless. An uncontrolled evil passion is hellfire. He writhed in its burnings in an agony that could be understood only by such as knew how almost morbidly sensitive was his nature, and how vital was his conscience. I became a pastor in the town where he lived, and renewed my association with him as far as I could. But there was a constraint unlike the old times. When under the influence of liquor, he would pass me in the streets with his head down, a deeper flush mantling his cheek as he hurried by with unsteady step. Sometimes I met him staggering homeward through a back street, hiding from the gaze of men. He was at first shy of me when sober, but gradually the constraint wore off, and he seemed disposed to draw nearer to me, as in the old days. His struggle went on, days of drunkenness following weeks of soberness, his haggard face after each debauch wearing a look of unspeakable weariness and wretchedness. One of the lawyers who had led him into the mazes of doubt - a man of large and versatile gifts, whose lips were touched with a noble and persuasive eloquence - sunk deeper and deeper into the black depths of drunkenness, until the tragedy ended in a horror that lessened the gains of the saloons for at least a few days. He was found dead in his bed one morning in a pool of blood, his throat cut by his own guilty hand.
My friend had married a lovely girl, and the cottage in which they lived was one of the coziest, and the garden in front was a little paradise of neatness and beauty. Ah! I must drop a veil over a part of this true tale. All along I have written under half protest, the image of a sad, wistful face rising at times between my eyes and the sheet on which these words are traced. They loved each other tenderly and deeply, and both were conscious of the presence of the devil that was turning their heaven into hell.
"Save him, Doctor, save him! He is the noblest of men, and the tenderest, truest husband. He loves you, and he will let you talk to him. Save him, O save him! Help me to pray for him! My heart will break!"
Poor child! her loving heart was indeed breaking; and her fresh young life was crushed under a weight of grief and shame too heavy to be borne.
What he said to me in the interviews held in his sober intervals I have not the heart to repeat now. He still fought against his enemy; he still buffeted the billows that were going over him, though with feebler stroke. When their little child died, her tears fell freely, but he was like one stunned. Stony and silent he stood and saw the little grave filled up, and rode away tearless, the picture of hopelessness.
By a coincidence; after my return to San Francisco, he came thither, and again became my neighbor at North Beach. I went up to see him one evening. He was very feeble, and it was plain that the end was not far off. At the first glance I saw that a great change had taken place in him.
He had found his lost self. The strong drink was shut out from him, and he was shut in with his better thoughts and with God. His religious life rebloomed in wondrous beauty and sweetness. The blossoms of his early joy had fallen off, the storms had torn its branches and stripped it of its foliage, but its root had never perished, because he had never ceased to struggle for deliverance. Aspiration and hope live or die together in the human soul. The link that bound my friend to God was never wholly sundered. His better nature clung to the better way with a grasp that never let go altogether.
"O Doctor, I am a wonder to myself! It does seem to me that God has given back to me every good thing I possessed in the bright and blessed past. It has all come back to me. I see the light and feel the joy as I did when I first entered the new life. O it is wonderful! Doctor, God never gave me up, and I never ceased to yearn for his mercy and love, even in the darkest season of my unhappy life?"
His very face had recovered its old look, and his voice its old tone. There could be no doubt of this soul had rebloomed in the life of God.
The last night came - they sent for me with the message,
"Come quickly! he is dying."
I found him with that look which I have seen on the faces of others who were nearing death - a radiance and a rapture that awed the beholder. O solemn, awful mystery of death! I have stood in its presence in every form of terror and of sweetness, and in every case the thought has been impressed upon me that it was a passage into the Great Realities.
"Doctor," he said, smiling, and holding my hand; "I had hoped to be with you in your office again, as in the old days - not as a business arrangement, but just to be with you, and revive old memories, and to live the old life over again. But that cannot be, and I must wait till we meet in the world of spirits, whither I go before you. It seems to be growing dark. I cannot see your face hold my hand. I am going - going. I am on the waves on the waves - ." The radiance was still upon his face, but the hand I held no longer clasped mine-the wasted form was still. It was the end. He was launched upon the Infinite Sea for the endless voyage.