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   Chapter 3 THE MAN'S MAN

White Fire By John Oxenham Characters: 24254

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Unflecked blue sky above, with a blazing white sun in it. A mighty mountain peak, with bald summit, seamed sides mantled with greenery, and round its waist, where it sat in the water, a narrow band of gleaming white sand and tufted cocoa-palms, like an Island woman's girdle. A smooth, dark, ruffled mirror of lagoon; and farther out, with gaps here and there, a barrier reef on which the hungry sea chafed and roared in ceaseless thunder. Two white men and a menacing crowd of brown ones.

"Ready?" asked the elder of the two men.

He was tall and thin, white-haired and grey-bearded, and his eyes shone like stars. His face was bronzed with much sun. There was a glow in it which did not come from the sun, a mighty determination which did not come from mere strength of will, a sweet white soul-fire which had made him a power throughout the islands of the Southern Seas.

"I am ready," said the younger man.

His face was brown also, but not bronzed. There was a lighter patch of tightened skin above each cheek-bone. His jaw was set so grimly that it looked aggressive. His lips were tightly closed. His eyes were unnaturally wide at the moment. He looked slightly raised-fey, in fact, as a man looks when he and death meet face to face in a narrow way.

In front, the crowd of Islanders stood waiting for them at an angle of rock where the white beach curved round into the land. They carried clubs and spears, and swung them restlessly. Behind, on the smooth reflexive swell of the lagoon, a white boat, just pushed off from the shore, rode like a seabird with wings outstretched for swoop or flight. Farther out a waiting schooner, whose white sails shivered softly to a head breeze.

"Remember, my son," said the elder man quietly, "one sign of flinching and it is finished. Now let us go." He bared his white head and said softly, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Spirit," and went up towards the dark men like the courteous Christian gentleman he was. The younger man did the same.

One sign of flinching and it is finished.

The natives drew back round the rock; the white men followed. The men in the boat watched intently, and then listened and gazed at the angle of the rock. Their orders were to wait.

The two men passed out of sight, the elder, quiet and calm, as if going for a stroll in his mission garden, the younger, strung to martyr pitch, ready to endure to the utmost. The islanders retreated foot by foot; the white men followed steadily. Then, suddenly, clubs whirled and spears bristled, and the brown men turned and rolled on the white like a flood, and parted them.

The elder man stood and eyed them steadfastly. He had been through it many times before. Death and he had been old friends and fellow-travellers for many a year, and the passing of The Gate was to him but the entrance to a larger life. He spoke to them in words he thought they might understand. For a moment the two men were like two white rocks in a foaming mountain stream. Brown arms, clubs, spears whirled about them. Not one man in ten thousand could have stood it unmoved.

The white-haired man was such a one. He stood. The younger man's face broke; the strings had been drawn too tight. He cast one swift glance round.

In an instant the silvery crown beside him ran blood, and disappeared. With bent head inside his folded arms the younger man dashed at the throng, and sent the brown men spinning, as he had sent men of a brawnier breed spinning on the football field at home. He burst through them in spite of blows and cuts. He was close up to the wild eddy under which his old friend lay when a well-flung club caught him deftly in the neck and brought him down in a heap. The brown men danced madly, and let their shouts go up. They took the younger man by the heels, and dragged him to where the body of the elder lay, and flung him down on top of it. Then the sailors from the boat burst on them with a yell, and sent them scattering.

It was days before he recovered consciousness, weeks before he could lie in a chair on the verandah of the distant mission-house-weak from loss of blood, weaker still in other ways.

They tended him lovingly. There were gracious women there who ministered to him like angels. To them he was hero, saint, martyr but once removed. To himself--!

He was almost too weak to think about it yet. He was hacked to pieces, and bruised to pulp. When he tried to move, it seemed to him that not one sound inch of flesh was left him. When he tried to think, all the little blood that was left in him rushed up into his head and set it humming and buzzing, and dyed his face crimson under the partly bleached tan.

His mind was still in a state of confusion; his thoughts were almost as broken as his body. He remembered facing the bristling brown men. He could see their shaggy heads and twisted faces, their white teeth, their gleaming eyes, and the whirl of their brandished weapons. After that all was blurred, and broke off into sudden darkness. He had a dim remembrance of intense strain and a sudden snap. He groped for the ends of the broken threads, but they were hidden in the outer void. He was still very weak.

He accepted gratefully all that was done for him, but for the most part lay in silence. His sufferings were great, but no word of complaint ever passed his lips. If he had permitted himself any such, it would have been that he still lived when his leader died. To all he was a monument of patient resignation.

So great was his depression, and so slow his recovery, that it was decided at last to send him home, as the only hope of full recuperation. He acquiesced, as he had done in everything they suggested, but in this matter with evident reluctance. He thought it unlikely he would ever return. His heart had been in the work, but he had been tried and found wanting. The work, he said to himself, was for abler and more faithful hands.

So the mission schooner carried him to the nearest port of call, and in due course he was lying in a deck chair carefully swathed in plaids, and the great steamer bore him swiftly homewards.

The story of the martyrdom and of his heroic defence of his old friend: how they two had gone up alone to the peaceful assault of an island of the night; how he had fought for his leader till he could fight no longer, and had fallen at last wounded to death across his dead body,-it had all preceded him. The very sailors were proud to have him on board. The officers made much of him in an undemonstrative way. The ladies fluttered round his chair like humming-birds, and loaded him with attentions.

And he suffered it all in silence. He was still very weak. How could he turn his sick soul inside out to these strangers, and what good to do so?

He had not yet decided what course to take when he got home. He had thought and thought, till he was sick of thinking, sick of himself, sick of life. Ah! why had he not died with the brave old man out there on the shore of the creek behind the rocks? Why had his nerve given way at that supreme moment? Why had this bitter cross been laid upon him? Far better to have died-far easier, at all events. But easier and better run opposite ways as a rule, and have little in common.

Should he confess the whole matter, and retire from the field and find some other way of life? Truly he felt no call to any other work. This had been the one desire of his life; he had grown from youth to manhood in the hope of it. He believed he could still be of service when once he got over the effects of his present fall. Should he not rather bury the dead past, with God as only mourner, and start afresh?-to fail once more when the strain came again, he said to himself with exceeding bitterness. He grieved over his lapse as another might grieve over a deliberate crime. But he postponed any final decision as to the future till he should feel stronger in mind and body.

There was a noted writer on board, a realist of realists. He sought impressions at first hand. He cultivated the sick man's acquaintance, greatly to his discomfort.

"Mr. Blair," he said, sitting down by his side one day, "I would very much like to know just how you felt, and what you thought of, when you were fighting those brown devils. Won't you tell me?"

And the sick man roused himself for a moment, and looked at him with that in his eye which the other comprehended not, and said slowly, "I felt like the devil and I thought of the devil," and not another word would he say. And the writer pondered much on the saying, but never got to the bottom of it or knew how true it was.

His people met him at the landing-place, the reverend father and the white-haired mother, proud to be known even as the foster-parents of such a son, grateful for one more sight of him in the flesh. How could he break their hearts by telling them what a broken reed their trusted one had proved? They rejoiced over him greatly, and said to one another that as his strength came back the cloud that lay on his spirits would be lifted. Their gentle encomiums stung him like darts.

But, by degrees, broken body and broken spirit were healed. Slowly and thoughtfully he made up his mind that the past should be past. He would go out again. He would take his stand in the forefront of the battle in the hope of an honourable death-for he held his life forfeit to the past.

Decision brings a certain peace of mind. He was happier than he had been since he leaped out of the white boat on to the shore of the Dark Island that morning-so long ago that it seemed to belong to a previous life.

The old people said God-speed to his decision. They had possessed him once again after giving him up for good. It was more than they had ever hoped for. They were thankful.

All interested in mission work hailed his decision with enthusiasm. He was common property and too big to be monopolised by any one sect. They had not been able to make one quarter as much of him as they had wished. He had quietly declined to be fêted and lionised. They considered he carried his modesty to too great an extreme. They would have made capital out of him and kindled fresh enthusiasms for the cause by the sight and sound of him. It was with the greatest difficulty that he avoided it all, using the plea of ill-health till his bodily appearance would no longer countenance it.

Once his decision was made known, however, they decided to drag him out of his retirement, and by dint of persistent importunity prevailed on him at last to appear at a public meeting. He consented with reluctance, and only because it was represented to him as a matter of duty.

As the time drew near he began to fear that he was in for more than he had expected. But he had given his word, and he would not draw back.

There were clever men at the head of the movement. Thousands of interested men and women were hungering for a sight of the almost-martyr. They had seen his portrait in the illustrated papers-how joyously the old mother had responded to the many requests for it!-but they wanted to see him with their eyes and hear him with their ears, and the younger folk were to remember all their lives that they had done so. And so, without going into details with him, the leaders of the various societies quietly arranged matters on a generous scale. There were men of imagination among them too, and they prepared a dramatic touch for the meeting which they calculated would make it go with a swing. It went beyond their expectations.

When the young missionary stepped on to the platform he stopped short, and for a moment looked almost as fey as he had done when he leaped out of the white boat that morning on the beach of Dark Island. But there must be no drawing back. He had flinched once-never again!

The chairman of the meeting was a philanthropic Cabinet Minister. As he welcomed the hero of the hour the great audience rose and waved and shouted.

The young man clasped the chairman's welcoming hand as though he were a drowning man, and that hand the one on

ly hope of safety. Then he sank into the chair provided for him, and dropped his face into his hand.

All this was torture to him. Why could they not have let him go out quietly to his work, to his death? No bristling mob of savages that ever could confront him was half so appalling to him as that great well-dressed crowd of enthusiastic men and women and children, gathered to do him honour. Honour! And he before God a dishonoured man-a man who had failed when the pinch came. He groaned in his heart, and wished that he had not come.

But the chairman was speaking, speaking of him, and what he had done-what he was supposed to have done-in warm, appreciative words and flowing periods, and the audience was as still as a flower-garden on a summer afternoon. In the young man's soul there was a great stillness also, a stillness equal almost to that which had fallen on him when he came out of the shadows and lay in the verandah of the mission house.

His eyes wandered unseeingly over those solid banks of faces, all turned on him in eulogy of what he had not done. Those thousands of eyes seemed to pierce his soul.

One face caught his attention and held it, the face of a girl sitting in the third row from the front. Even in his agony he recognised it, as how could he help when it had been so constantly with him in his thoughts. The smooth white brow, like a little slab of polished ivory; the level brows; the large dark eyes looking up at him with something akin to reverence-the beautiful eyes with lustrous points in them; the sweet oval of the lower part of the face; the firm little chin and slightly parted lips, emphasising the old inquiring look which he knew so well: it was a face any man might remember with gratitude for the mere sight of it. It was the face he had at once longed for the sight of and feared to meet, since ever the thought of coming home had been suggested to him. And now here it was, more beautiful than even his dreams of it-inquiring, hopeful, trustful. And he must satisfy the inquiry-and dash the hope, and shatter the trust for ever. Oh, it was hard! It was grievously hard! His life laid down then and there would have been a small price to pay for the confirmation of her belief in him. And he must destroy it and still live on!

But what was this? The chairman had turned to him in his speech, the flower-garden in front had suddenly become a fluttering snowbank.

"Mr. Blair does not happen to belong to that particular section of the Church to which I belong, and which, as the State Church of the realm, retains, and rightly retains, within its own hands the appointment of its own high officers. There are some of us who, as we grow older, and perhaps wiser, regret more and more that any differences should remain among the followers of Christ. We would fain see them done away with. We would cast down all fences and walls of partition, and meet our Christian brothers and sisters on an absolute equality, on the common platform of love and service to the one Master.

"This meeting to-night, of many sects with one common object, is one step in the right direction-a great step. And here is another. The necessity for a supreme hand and head in the guidance of the mission enterprises of the Outer Islands is apparent to all. For such a position we require a man of tried courage and endurance, a man who can look death in the face without flinching, a man who holds his own life of small account, and who is ready at any moment to lay it down in the service of the cause he loves. Of such stuff martyrs are made. That the man who has given us such signal proofs of his fidelity and courage should be chosen for so onerous and so honourable a post is a matter of great satisfaction to us all. Mr. Blair, as all the world knows, has proved his fitness in a time of grievous danger and perplexity.-a time which I do not hesitate to say would have tried the nerve of any man to breaking-point, under a strain which might have broken any ordinary man, and small blame to him. But here"-and he laid his hand upon young Blair's shoulder-"we have the one man who did not break down, and it is this man whom we would rejoice to recognise as the first bishop of the Outer Islands. I am authorised to request Mr. Blair's acceptance of this arduous and honourable post, without reference to any question of form or creed. And that request is made, not in the name or on behalf of my own Church only, but in the names and on behalf of all the Churches represented by the missions to the Outer Islands. It is a common point of union. Mr. Blair's acceptance of the post will, perhaps, be one step towards that greater union of the Churches to which we look hopefully forward, and I earnestly hope that he will see fit to accept this joint and unanimous request of the Churches." And he sat down with glowing face amidst thunders of applause.

And Kenneth Blair? Oh! why could they not have left him to work out his redemption in quietness and silence? Now it was not possible. Those thousands of eyes burnt into his soul. The words he had listened to pierced him like two-edged swords. Silence was no longer possible. To accept all this, as if it were his rightful due, was to hang a millstone round his neck which would drag him down to perdition.

When the tumult died at last into silence, the young man got up and stood and gripped the railing of the platform.

His face was white and set. "A man of indomitable will," they said.

His eyes burnt with a gloomy fire. "He has seen strange and terrible things," they said.

He swayed slightly once or twice before he found his voice. "He has been very near to death," they said.

And then he began to speak, quietly, as one who might need all his strength before he was done; but there was a timbre in it, born of outdoor speaking, which carried to the remotest corner, and a thrill in it which found its way to every heart. And, of all that great assembly, the only face he saw with any distinctness was the face of the girl in the third row, with its calm brow and its lustrous up-glance. He spoke to it. He watched it. If he could convince that one face of all that was in him, he felt that it would be well with him.

In his emotion he overlooked all formalities. He found his voice at last, and said, "My friends, the words I have just been listening to have been to me as sword-thrusts through the heart."

The silence was intense. Every ear and every eye was upon him. He saw only the calm, sweet face of the girl in the third row.

"I have a very terrible confession to make to you. Had I known what was intended this evening I should not have been here, but no slightest word of it reached me. My sole desire has been to get back to my work out yonder, and to lay down my life in it. I have been told that I am a man of courage and endurance ... of tried nerve ... of unflinching fidelity. There was a time when I too believed this of myself." He spoke very slowly and with a solemn impressiveness which those who heard it never forgot to the last day of their lives. "But between that and this there is a deep gulf ... and at the bottom of that gulf lies the dead body of my dear friend and chief. His death lies at my door."

An almost imperceptible movement ran through the audience, as though a cold breath shook it with a simultaneous chill. The face of the girl in the third row remained steadfastly calm. If anything, it seemed to glow with a deeper intensity of hopeful inquiry. "Say what you will, I believe in you!" it said.

"The whole truth of what happened on that dreadful day has never been told. I will confess that I had dared to hope that it might never need to be told-that it might lie between myself and God-that I might be permitted by Him to work out my redemption on the field of my failure, chastened, and perhaps strengthened, by what has passed. For, at a vital moment, when the flinching of an eyelid meant disaster, I ... flinched.

"This is what happened. As we went up towards the savages that day, my dear old friend asked me if I was ready. I was ready. I said so. He said, 'Remember, one sign of flinching and it is finished,' and we went up and round the corner. We were going, as I believed, to certain death, and I was ready-at least, and truly, I believed so. When the savages rushed in upon us, the horror of it broke upon me like a deluge. I glanced round to see if there was no possible way of escape for us. But there was no way. My dear old chief's head was crimson already with blood, and he went down among them. I burst through-and I know no more. They tell me my body was found on top of his. It may be so. How it got there I do not know. What I do know is-that at that supreme moment, when I believed myself to be strong, I found myself weak. When I believed myself ready for a martyr's death, I tried to escape by shameful flight. I was weighed and found wanting, and the remembrance of it has seared my heart like molten iron, night and day, since ever I came to myself. Whether we should have won through if I had remained firm, God only knows. But-I flinched and fled. It seems to me now that I would sooner die a hundred such deaths as I fled from then than stand here before you all and confess my default. I can accept no honours. Honours!" with a despairing lift and fall of the hand. "I can accept no position based on so terrible a misconception. All I ask, and I ask it with the deepest humility, is that I may be allowed to go out there again. My life is forfeit to the past. It shall be spent-if it be God's will, it shall be laid down joyfully-in the service to which I believe He called me, and from which I do not believe He has expelled me."

"My life is forfeit to the past."

He sat down and covered his face with his hands. There was a momentary silence. The chairman did not quite know what to do. The face of the girl in the third row was ablaze with emotion; the dark eyes were swimming. She glanced restlessly about to see what was going to happen; she looked like springing up herself with flaming words. But another did it. A tall, white-haired man, with a flowing white beard and a face like brown leather, stood up on the platform, and said, in a voice that went straight to all their hearts-

"My friends, we have all heard. Some of us understand, because we have passed through that same dark valley as our young friend. Dare I, in all humility, remind you that a Greater than any shrank from the supreme moment, and prayed, with agonies no man may conceive of, that His bitter cup might pass from Him? I tell you, gentlemen," he cried, in a voice that rang like a trumpet, "that in doing what he has done here this evening our friend has proved himself a man among men. He has said that a hundred savage deaths appear to him less terrible than the confession he has just made. And it is a true saying. Ask your own hearts. I could prove to you that no man can answer absolutely for himself at such a moment; but I will not even argue the point. Our friend has been through the fire. He has been through God's mill. He has been hammered on God's anvil. I tell you that he is true metal. He has proved it here and now. I hold it an honour to grasp his hand and bid him God-speed."

He stretched a sinewy, leather-brown hand to Blair, and the young man gripped it with a new light in his face, and the two stood facing one another.

Still holding the young man's hand, the old one turned to the front again.

"If you agree with me that this is the man we want for the work out there, rise in your seats."

His voice had rung like a bugle-call through the outer darknesses of the earth; his name stood but little lower than God's to tens of thousands who dwelt there, and was held in reverence wherever the English language was spoken. That great audience rose to his call as if a mine had exploded beneath it. His eyes shone with the light the black men knew and loved.

"Let us pray," he said; and the young man fell to his knees beside his chair and dropped his head into his hands again.

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