The Tug of War
I had quite made up my mind not to attend the service on the following Sunday, and when a pink paper floated down on my easel on the Saturday morning, I caught it and thrust it into my pocket, without even looking to see what the subject was to be.
“Have you got it, Mr. Jack?” said the child’s voice above me.
“All right, little man,” I answered. “It’s all safe and sound.”
I made my plans for Sunday with great care. I asked for an early breakfast, so that I might walk over to Kettleness, a place about two miles off along the coast, and which could only be reached at low tide. And when I was once there, on the other side of the bay, I determined to be in no hurry to return, but to arrive at Runswick too late for the service on the sands. If Duncan and Polly missed me, they would simply conclude that I had found the walk longer than I had expected.
But, as I was just ready to set out for Kettleness, a tremendous shower came on.
“You’ll never set off in this weather, sir?” said Duncan anxiously.
“Oh, no, of course not,” I answered lightly.
I fancied that he looked more concerned than the occasion warranted, and I feared that he suspected the real reason for my early walk.
There was now nothing to be done but to wait till the shower was over, and by that time I found it would be impossible for me to go to Kettleness without seeming deliberately to avoid the service.
The sun came out, and the sky was quite blue before eleven o’clock, and the fishermen spread tarpaulins on the sand for the congregation to sit on, and I found myself—I must say very much against my will—being led to the place by little Jack.
“Well, there is no need for me to listen,” I said to myself. “I will plan out a new picture, and no one will know where my thoughts are.”
But, in spite of my resolution to the contrary, from the moment that Jack’s father began to speak, my attention was riveted, and I could not choose but listen.
“The Tug of War is our subject today, dear friends,” he began, “and a very suitable subject, I think, after what we have witnessed on this green during the past week. We have seen, have we not, a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together, as yon heavy crab boat was dragged up from the beach? How well she came, what progress she made! With each yodel we brought her farther from the sea. We all of us gave a helping hand; fishermen, wives, visitors, friends, all laid hold, and all pulled, and the work, hard as it seemed, was soon accomplished. Why? Because we were all united. It was a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together.
“And now let me bring back to your memory another event during this past week. The place is the same, our village green, the same rope is used, and those who pull are the very same men, strong, brawny, powerful fishermen. Yes, you pulled your very hardest; if possible you put forth more strength than when the crab boat was drawn up, and yet, strange to say, there was no result, the rope did not move an inch. What were you pulling? What was the mighty weight that you had to move? What was it that, for such a long time, baffled the strength of the strongest among you? The weight you could not move was not a heavy boat, but a light handkerchief!
“Why was there this difference? Why was the handkerchief harder to move than the boat? The answer to that question was to be found at the other end of the green. There were other pullers at the rope that day, pulling with all their might in an exactly opposite direction. It was not a united pull, and therefore for a long time there was no result, and we watched on, until at length one side was proved the strongest, and the handkerchief was drawn by them triumphantly across the line.
“Today, dear friends, I speak to you of yet another tug of war. The place is the same, Runswick Bay and our village green, but the weight to be drawn is not a boat, not a handkerchief; the weight is a human soul. It is your soul, my friend, your immortal soul. You are the one who is being drawn.
“And who are the pullers? Oh, how many they are! I myself have my hands on the rope. God only knows how hard I am pulling, striving with all my might, if possible to draw you, my friend, to Christ. But there are other hands on the rope besides mine. Your conscience pulls, your good old mother pulls, your little child pulls, your Christian mate pulls. Each sermon you hear, each Bible class you attend, each hymn you sing, each prayer uttered in your presence, each striving of the Spirit, each God-given yearning after better things; each storm you come through, each danger you escape, each sickness in your family, each death in your home, each deliverance granted you, gives you a pull God-ward, Christ-ward, heaven-ward.
“Yet, oh, my dear friend, you know, as clearly as you know that you are sitting there, that, so far, Christ’s pullers are drawing in vain. You have never yet, you know it, crossed the line which divides the saved from the unsaved. Why is this? Why, oh, why are you so hard to move?
“Oh, my friend, do you ask why? Surely you know the reason! Is it not because there are other hands on the rope, other pullers drawing in an exactly opposite direction? For Satan has many an agent, many a servant, and he sends forth a great army of soul-pullers. Each worldly friend, each desire of your evil nature, each temptation to sin, each longing after wealth, each sinful suggestion, gives you a pull, and a pull the wrong way; away from safety, away from Christ, away from God, away from heaven, away from Home. And towards what? Oh, dear friend, towards what? What are the depths, the fearful depths towards which you are being drawn?”
He said a good deal more, but I did not hear it. That question seemed burned in with a red-hot iron into my soul. “What are the depths, the fearful depths into which you are being drawn?” I could not shake it off. I wished I could get away from the green, but Jack had brought me close to the boat where the choir stood, and there was no escape. I should have to sit it out. It would soon be over, I said to myself.
The service ended with a hymn. Another of their queer, wild, irregular tunes, I thought. I was not going to sing it. But when Jack saw that I did not open my book, he leaned over the side of the boat, and poked my head with his hymnbook. “Sing, big Mr. Jack, sing,” he said aloud, and then, for very shame, I had to find my place and begin. I can still remember the first verse of that hymn, and I think I can recall the tune to which they sang it:
“Oh, tender and sweet was the Father’s voice,
As He lovingly called to me:
‘Come over the line! it is only a step—
I am waiting, My child, for thee!’
“ ‘Over the line,’ hear the sweet refrain,
Angels are chanting the heavenly strain;
‘Over the line!’—Why should I remain
With a step between me and Jesus?”*
I was heartily glad when the service was over, and I went on the shore at once, to try to walk the sermon away. But I was not so successful as I had been the Sunday before. That question followed me; the very waves seemed to be repeating it. “What are the depths, the fearful depths, to which you are being drawn?” I had not looked at it in that light before. I had been quite willing to own that I was not religious, that I was leading a gay, easy-going kind of life, that my Sundays were spent in bed, or in novel reading, or in rowing, or in some other amusement. I was well aware that I looked at these things very differently from what my mother had done, and I had even wondered sometimes, whether, if she had been spared to me, I should have been a better fellow than I knew myself to be. But as for feeling any real alarm or anxiety with regard to my condition, such a thought had never for one moment crossed my mind.
Yet if this man was right, there was real danger in my position. I was not remaining stationary, as I had thought, but I was being drawn by unseen forces towards something worse, towards the depths, the fearful depths, of which he had spoken.
At times I wished I had never come to Runswick Bay to be made so uncomfortable. At other times I wondered if I had been brought there on purpose to hear those words.
I went back to dinner, but I could not enjoy it, much to Polly’s distress. The rain fell fast all the afternoon, and as I lay on my bed upstairs I heard Polly washing up, and singing as she did so the hymn we had sung at the service—
“ ‘Come over the line, it is only a step—
I’m waiting, My child, for thee.’ ”
There seemed no chance of forgetting the words which had made me so uneasy.
That night I had a strange dream. I thought I was once more on the village green. It was a wild, stormy night, the wind was blowing hard, and the rain was falling fast. Yet through the darkness I could distinguish crowds of figures gathered on the green. On the side farther from the sea there was a bright light streaming through the darkness. I wondered in my dream what was going on, and I found that it was a tug of war, taking place in the darkness of the night. I saw the huge cable, and gradually as I watched I caught sight of those who were pulling. I walked to the side from which the light streamed, and there I saw a number of holy and beautiful angels with their hands on the rope, and among them I distinctly caught sight of my mother. She seemed to be dragging with all her might, and there was such an earnest, pleading, beseeching expression on her dear face that it went to my very heart to look at her. I noticed that close beside her was the preacher, little Jack’s father, and behind him was Duncan. They were all intent on their work, and took no notice of me, so I walked to the other end of the green, the one nearest the sea, that I might see who were there. It was very dark at that end of the rope, but I could dimly see evil faces, and dark, strange forms, such as I could not describe. Those on this side seemed to be having it much their own way, I thought, for the weight, whatever it was, was gradually drawing near to the sea. And, lo and behold, I saw that they were close upon a terrible place, for mighty cliffs stood above the shore, and they were within a very short distance of a sheer and terrible precipice.
“What are you dragging?” I cried to them.
And a thousand voices seemed to answer, “A soul! a soul!”
Then, as I watched on, I saw that the precipice was nearly reached, and that both those who pulled and the weight they were dragging were on the point of being hurled over, and suddenly it flashed upon me in my dream that it was my soul for which they were struggling, and I heard the cry of the pullers from the other side of the green, and it seemed to me that, with one voice, they were calling out that terrible question, “What are the depths, the fearful depths, to which you are being drawn?” And through the streaming light I saw my mother’s face, and a look of anguish crossed it, as suddenly the rope broke, and those who were drawing it on the opposite side went over with a crash, dragging my soul over with them.
I woke in a terror, and cried out so loudly that Duncan came running into my room to see what was the matter.
“Nothing, Duncan,” I said, “I was only dreaming; I thought I had gone over a precipice.”
“No, thank God, you’re all safe, sir,” he said. “Shall I open your window a bit? Maybe the room’s close; is it?”
“Thank you, Duncan,” I answered. “I shall be all right now. I’m so sorry I have waked you.”
“You haven’t done that, sir; me and Polly have been up all night with the little lad. He’s sort of funny, too, sir, burning hot, and yet he shivers like, and he clings to his daddy. So I’ve been walking a mile or two with him up and down our chamber floor, and I heard you skrieking out, and says Polly, ‘Run and see what ails him.’ So you haven’t disturbed me, sir, not one little bit, you haven’t.”
He left me then, and I tried to sleep, but sleep seemed far from me. I could hear Duncan’s footsteps pacing up and down in the next room; I could hear little John’s fretful cry; I could hear the rain beating against the casement; I could hear the soughing and whistling of the wind; I could hear Polly’s old grandfather clock striking the hours and the half-hours of that long, dismal night. But through it all, and above it all, I could hear the preacher’s question, “What are the depths, the fearful depths, to which you are being drawn?”
I found it impossible to close my eyes again, so I drew up the blind, and, as morning began to dawn, I watched the pitiless rain and longed for day. The footsteps in the next room ceased as the light came on, and I concluded that the weary child was at last asleep. I wished that I was asleep too. I thought how often my mother, when I was a child, must have walked up and down through long weary nights with me. I wondered whether, as she did so, she spent the slow, tedious hours in praying for her boy, and then I wondered how she would have felt, and how she would have borne it, had she known that the child in her arms would grow up to manhood, living for this world and not for the Christ she loved. I wondered if she did know this now, in the far-off land where she dwelt with God.
I think I must have dozed a little after this, for I was suddenly roused by Polly’s cheery voice, cheery in spite of her bad night, “Have a cup of tea, sir, it’ll do you good. You’ve not slept over well, Duncan says. I’ll put it down by your door.”
I jumped out of bed and brought it in, feeling very grateful to Polly, and I drank it before I dressed. That’s just like a Yorkshire woman, I thought. My mother came from Yorkshire.
“I think it must have been that nightmare I had last night, Polly,” I said as I finished my breakfast, and began to put all in order for my morning’s work.