“A Little Child Shall Lead Them”
When Sir Edward retired to his room that night, he paced up and down for some time in front of his little niece’s picture that she had given him. His brow was knitted, and he was thinking deeply.
“I am longing to have peace,” he muttered. “Why cannot I make up my mind to seek it! ‘I will arise’ (Luke 15:18)—ay, easy to say; it’s a hard and bitter thing for a backslider to retrace his steps. How the child stabs me sometimes, and how little she knows my past!”
He stopped and gazed at the picture. “And the Lord Himself used this as an illustration. I could not want anything stronger.”
A deep-drawn sigh followed, then a heartfelt cry rose to heaven. “May God have mercy on me, and bring me back, for I can’t bring myself!”
The next morning Sir Edward had an interview with his keeper, who brought his son up with him, and as the tall, broad-shouldered young fellow stood before the squire, and in earnest, humble tones asked if he could be given a chance of redeeming his character by being employed on the estate, Sir Edward’s severity relaxed, and after a long conversation with him he promised he would give him a trial.
He smiled grimly to himself as father and son left him with warm expressions of gratitude.
“So that is the child’s hero! One whose example I might well follow. He has had the courage at last to take the step from which I am still shrinking. Why should I fear that my welcome home would be less full of love and forgiveness than his?”
It was Christmas Eve, a wild and stormy day. The wind raged ceaselessly round the old house, howling down the chimneys, and beating the branches of the trees outside against the window panes.
Milly had been very busy for some hours helping Mr. Ford to decorate the hall and rooms with holly and evergreen, though Mr. Ford would every now and then pause in his work, saying, “There, Miss Milly, I’m sure we’re overdoing it. If the house was full of company now, I would take a pride in it, but I don’t believe the master will notice whether it’s done or not. It seems to me as he is getting more and more shut up into hisself lately. Christmas is a dull time with us.”
All was finished at last, and Milly went up to the nursery and stood at the window, her bright brown eyes eagerly scanning and taking note of every object out of doors.
“It’s a perfect hurricane,” said nurse, presently, as she sat with her work in a comfortable chair by the fire. “If we feel it inland like this, what must it be at sea!”
“I should like to be on the sea,” said Milly. “I love the wind, but I think it is getting a little bit too rough this afternoon. I’m rather afraid it will hurt the little trees. Mr. Ford said if I went out I should be blown away. Do you think, nurse, if the wind was very, very strong it would ever be able to blow me up to heaven?”
“I am afraid not,” said nurse, gravely, “and I don’t think we could spare you, my dear. You would not like to leave this world yet awhile.”
“Sometimes I think I should, and sometimes I think I shouldn’t. I think I should like to be blown up to spend a day there, and then come back again. Oh, nurse, Goliath is screaming and cracking so! I wish the wind would knock him over, he is a horrid old tree. I always think he is making faces at me when I run past him. Wouldn’t it be nice to see him blown down?”
“You mustn’t wish that,” said nurse, getting up from her chair and moving towards the door. “It’s a dangerous thing for an old tree to be blown down. Now I am going downstairs for a short time, so be a good child and don’t get into mischief while I am away.”
Milly remained at the window for some minutes after nurse’s departure, then her quick eyes noticed a poor wretched little kitten mewing pitifully as she vainly tried to shelter herself from the violent blasts by crouching close to a tree.
In an instant, without thought of consequences, the child darted to the nursery door and down the broad oak staircase.
“Poor pussy, I will run and fetch her in. I expect she has run away from the kitchen.”
Sir Edward was writing at his study table, when an unusually violent gust of wind caused him to raise his eyes and glance out of the window. There, to his amazement, he saw, under the old oak tree on the lawn, his little niece, her golden brown curls flying as she battled with the elements, and struggled vainly to stoop and take the kitten in her arms.
He started up from his seat, but as he did so a blast that shook the house swept by. There was an awful cracking, then a crash, and, to his horror, a huge limb of the old oak came with an awful thud upon the very spot where his little niece was standing.
“My God, save her!” was his agonized cry, as he saw at the same moment the little figure stagger and fall. Then, forgetting his weakness and lack of physical strength, he dashed out of the house, and in another instant was standing over her.
His first feeling was one of intense thankfulness to find that the branch in falling could have only slightly grazed her, as she was lying on the ground untouched by it. But as he raised the motionless figure, and noted a red mark on her forehead which was swelling rapidly, his heart sank within him. It did not take him long to carry her into the house, and he was met at the door by nurse, who wisely wasted no time in useless lamentation, but set to work at once to restore animation to her little charge. Her efforts were successful. Milly was only slightly stunned, but it had been a miraculous escape, and had the blow been an inch nearer her temple it might have been fatal. As it was, the child was more frightened than hurt, and when a little time after her uncle took her in his arms with unusual tenderness, she clung to him and burst into passionate sobs.
“Take care of me, uncle! That nasty old Goliath! He tried to kill me, he did! I saw him coming on the top of me. God only just saved me in time, didn’t He?”
When the bruise had been bathed and dressed by nurse, Sir Edward still kept her on his knee, and after nurse had left the room, and the child rested her little head on his shoulder in a very subdued frame of mind, he did, what he had never done yet—he stooped over her and kissed her.
“You have been very near death this afternoon, little one, and I could ill have spared you.”
Milly raised her large dark eyes to his. “If I had died I should have gone straight up to God, shouldn’t I?”
“Yes, you would.”
“I should have liked that. I suppose He doesn’t want me yet, or He would have sent for me.”
When she came down to her uncle that evening she raised a very sad little face to his from the opposite side of the table.
“Uncle Edward, have you heard who Goliath really did kill?”
“Do you mean the tree that came on you? No one else was hurt, I hope?” and Sir Edward’s tone was a little anxious.
“She was killed dead—quite dead and mangled, nurse said. It was the poor little kitten, uncle, that I ran out to fetch.”
The brown eyes were swimming with tears, and Milly could not understand the smile that came to Sir Edward’s lips.
“Only a kitten. Well, it was sad, I daresay, but there are plenty of kittens about the place.”
“But, uncle, I’ve been thinking so much about this one. Mr. Ford says she had run away from the stable. I expect she was going to be a prodigal kitten, perhaps, and now she’ll never run away anymore. It’s so sad about her, and I think why it is sad is because nobody cares, not even nurse. She said she would rather it had been the kitten than me. Poor little kitty, her mother will be missing her so much tonight! Do you think, uncle, the wind or Goliath killed her? I think it was Goliath. I just looked out of my window on the stairs before I came down. The wind has stopped now, and the trees seemed to be crying and sobbing together. I’m sure they were sorry for kitty. I think they were tired out themselves, too, they have been so knocked about today. I wish so much I had been just in time to save the dear little kitten.”
“We will not talk about her anymore,” said Sir Edward cheerfully. “Have you seen Tom Maxwell lately?”
Milly’s little tongue was only too ready to talk of him.
“He helped nurse and me to get some holly in the wood yesterday. I have nice talks with him often. He says he is very happy, and this will be the best Christmas he has spent in his life. Uncle, I want to ask you something. I’ve been thinking of it a great deal today, only since I was knocked down this afternoon I’ve had such a pain in my head I left off thinking. But I’ve just remembered it now. You see it is really Jesus Christ’s birthday tomorrow, and I was thinking I’ve been getting presents for everyone in the house but Him. Nurse has been helping me with some of them. I’ve made nurse a kettleholder, and cook a needlebook, and I’ve bought a penknife for Mr. Ford, and a thimble for Sarah, and some handkerchiefs for Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell, and some woolen gloves for Tommy. And I’ve nothing—no, nothing for Him. If I only knew something He would like.”
She paused, and a soft wistfulness came into her eyes.
“I was thinking,” she went on, “that perhaps I could put my present for Him outside the nursery window on the ledge. And then when we are all in bed, and it is very quiet, I expect He might send an angel down to bring it up to Him. I think He might do that, because He knows how much I want to give Him something. But then I don’t know what to give Him. Could you tell me, uncle?”
“I think,” said Sir Edward, gravely, “the only way you can give Him a Christmas present is to give something to the poor. He would rather have that. I will give you this to put in the plate tomorrow in church.” And Sir Edward put his hand in his pocket, and rolled a coin across the table to his little niece.
But Milly was not satisfied.
“This is your present,” she said, doubtfully. “What will you give Him this Christmas besides? Is money the only thing you can give Him, uncle?”
Sir Edward pushed back his chair and rose from the table. His feelings were almost getting beyond his control. With the one subject that was now always foremost in his thoughts, the child’s question rang again in his ears, “Is money the only thing you can give Him, uncle?” And like a flash of light came a reply: “No, I can give myself back to Him, my soul and body, that have now been so long in the keeping of His enemy.”
After a few minutes’ silence he said, in a strangely quiet voice, “Come, little one, it is bedtime. Say good-night, and run up to nurse!”
Milly came up to him, and as he stood with his back to the fire warming his hands, she took hold of the ends of his coat in her little hands, and, looking up at him, said, “Uncle Edward, you gave me a kiss like a father might have done this afternoon. Would you mind very much giving me another?”
Sir Edward looked down at the sweet little face raised so coaxingly to his, and then took her up in his arms. But after he had given her the desired kiss he said, with some effort, “I want you to do something tonight, little one. When you say your prayers, ask that one of God’s prodigal sons may be brought back this Christmas time. It is one who wants to return. Will you pray for him?”
“Yes, uncle,” replied the child softly. “And will you tell me his name?”
“No, I cannot do that.”
Something in his face made his little niece refrain from asking further questions. She left him a moment later, and Sir Edward went to the smoking-room and seated himself in a chair by the fire. The chimes of the village church were ringing out merrily, and presently outside in the avenue a little company of carol singers were singing the sweet old Christmas truths that none can hear untouched.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14)
A sense of the love of God seemed to surround his soul, and a verse came into his mind as he mused: “I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.” (Jeremiah 31:3)
Could he not trace in the events of the last few months the hand of a loving Father gently calling His wanderer home? Stricken down himself, placed on a sick bed for reflection, brought to the edge of the valley of the shadow of death, and then tenderly restored to life and health; the gentle voice and life of a little child pleading with him day by day, and that life having so lately been miraculously preserved from a great danger—all this filled his heart with the realization of the mercy and loving-kindness of God. Again the past came up before him, the again the tempter drew near with the old refrain, “You have wandered too long, you have hardened your heart, and God has shut His ear to your cry!” But this time Sir Edward, by the help and power of the Divine Spirit, was able to look up, and say from the depths of his heart, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” (Luke 15:21)
They were sitting in the study the next afternoon, the child upon his knee, when Sir Edward said suddenly, “Do you know that I have received a letter today about you?”
“Who from?” asked Milly, with interest.
“From my sister, your aunt, in Australia. I wrote to her when you came, and she wants to have you out there, and bring you up among her own children. She says a friend of hers will take charge of you and take you to her next month. I must talk to nurse about it.”
The little hands clutched hold of his coat sleeve tightly, but not a word did Milly say. Sir Edward noted a slight quivering of the lips, and a piteous gleam in the soft brown eyes. He waited in silence for a moment, then said cheerfully, “Won’t you be glad to have a lot of boys and girls to play with, instead of staying here with a lonely old man?”
Still the child said nothing. But suddenly down went the curly head upon his arm, and the tears came thick and fast.
Sir Edward raised the little face to his, “We must not have tears on Christmas Day,” he said. “What is the matter, don’t you want to go?”
“I suppose I must,” sobbed Milly. “Mr. Ford told nurse the day I came that you hated children. I’ve always been thinking of it, but you have been so kind to me that I thought perhaps he had made a little mistake. Miss Kent didn’t want me, and now you don’t want me, and perhaps my aunt won’t want me when I get there. I wish God wanted me, but I’m afraid He doesn’t. Nurse says she thinks He wants me to work for Him when I grow up. I think—I think I’m rather like the little kitten yesterday, that nobody was sorry for when she died. You said there were plenty more kittens, didn’t you?”
“I don’t think there are plenty of small Millicents in this world,” and Sir Edward’s voice was husky. “Now listen, little woman. I have been thinking over the matter, and have decided this afternoon to keep you with me. I find I do want you after all, and cannot afford to lose you. Supposing we dry these tears, and talk about something else.”
And as the little arms were thrown round his neck, and a face full of smiles and tears like an April shower was lifted to his, the “confirmed old bachelor” took to his heart the little maiden whose very existence had so annoyed and distressed him only a few months before.
“Uncle Edward,” she said, a little time after, “do you know if that prodigal son you told me about last night has come back to God?”
Sir Edward was silent for a minute. Then very gravely and solemnly he said, “I think he has, little one. It has been a very happy Christmas Day to him. And now, Milly, you must pray that he may not be ashamed to own his Lord, who has so mercifully brought him back by means of one of His lambs.”