What Are You?
On Saturday of that week the sun shone brightly, and I was up betimes, had an early breakfast, and set to work at my picture as soon as possible. I had not been painting long before I again heard voices above me, the same childish voices that I had heard before.
“You give it to him,” said one voice.
“No, Marjorie, I daren’t; you take it.”
“You ought not to be afraid, because you’re a boy,” said the first speaker. “Father says boys ought always to be brave.”
“But you’re big, Marjorie, and big people ought to be braver than little people!”
There was a long, whispered conversation after this, and I could not distinguish the words which were spoken. But presently a small piece of pink paper was thrown over the wall, and fluttered down upon my palette. I caught it up quickly, to prevent it from sticking to the paints, and I saw there was something printed on it. It ran thus:
There will be a short service on the shore on Sunday morning at 11 o’clock, when you are earnestly requested to be present.
Subject: WHAT ARE YOU?
“Thank you,” I said aloud. “Who sent me this?”
There was no answer at first, then a little voice just above me said, “Both of us, sir.”
“Come down and talk to me,” I said. “I can’t talk to children whom I can’t see. Come out here and look at my picture.”
They came out presently hand in hand, a little girl of five in a blue tam-o’-shanter cap, a pale pink frock, and a white pinafore, and a boy of three, the merriest, most sturdy little fellow I thought I had ever seen. His face was as round and rosy as an apple, his eyes were dark blue, and had the happiest and most roguish expression that it would be possible for eyes to have. When the child laughed (and whenever was he not laughing?), every part of his face laughed together. His eyes began it, his lips followed suit, even his nose was pressed into the service. If a sunbeam could be caught and dressed up like a little boy, I think it would look something like that child.
“Now,” I said, “that’s right. I like to see children’s faces when I talk to them. Tell me your names to begin with.”
“I’m Marjorie, sir,” said the little girl, “and he’s Jack.”
“Jack!” I said; “that’s my name, and a nice name, too, isn’t it, little Jack? Come and look at my picture, little Jack, and see if you think big Jack knows how to paint.”
By degrees they grew more at their ease, and chatted freely with me. Marjorie told me that her father had sent the paper. Father was going to preach on Sunday; he preached every Sunday, and numbers of people came, and Jack was in the choir.
What a dear little chorister, to be sure, a chubby little cherub if ever there was one!
“Shall you come, big Jack?” he said, patting my hand with his strong, sturdy little fist.
“I don’t know,” I said. “If it’s a fine day, perhaps I shall want to get on with my picture.”
“On Sunday?” said the child in a shocked voice. “It’s on Sunday Father preaches, and you couldn’t paint on Sunday, could you?”
“Well, I’ll see,” I said. “Perhaps I’ll come and hear you sing, little Jack.”
“Thank you, big Jack,” he said, with a merry twinkle in his pretty blue eyes.
“What is this preaching on the shore, Duncan?” I asked, later in the day.
“Oh, it’s our lay preacher,” he said. “He’s a good man, and has done a sight of good in this place. You see, it’s too far for folks here to go to church, and so he lives among us, and has meetings in the hall yonder in winter, and in summer, why, we have ’em on the shore, and the visitors comes mostly. There’s a few won’t come, but we get the best of them, and we have some fine singing—real nice it is! I’m in the choir myself, sir,” he said. “You wouldn’t think it, but I am. I’ve got a good strong voice, too!”
It must be a choir worth seeing, I thought, if it contained two such strange contrasts, the big burly fisherman and the tiny child who had invited me to be present.
I had not quite made up my mind to go. I had not been to a service for many months, I might almost say years. I had slipped out of it lately, and I thought I should feel myself a fish out of water. However, when the next day came, everyone seemed to take it as a matter of course that I should be going. Polly was up early, and had dressed little John in his best.
“You’ll see him at church, sir,” she said, as she laid my breakfast. “He always likes to go to church, and he’s as good as gold, bless him!”
Duncan was out before I was up, and I had seen him, as I was dressing, going round to the fishermen sitting as usual on the seats on the cliff, with a bundle of pink papers in his hand, similar to the one which had been given me, and distributing them to every group of his mates which he came across. Yes, I felt that I was expected to go, and it would be hard work to keep away. But if I had still had any doubt about the matter, it would have surely disappeared when at half-past ten exactly a tiny couple came toiling hand in hand up the steps leading to Duncan’s door, and announced to Polly that they had come to call for big Mr. Jack to go to church.
It was Marjorie and her little brother, and the small Jack put his little fat hand into that of big Jack, and led him triumphantly away.
It was a pretty sight to see that congregation gathering on the village green. From the fishermen’s cottages there came a stream of people down to the shore—mothers with babies in their arms and leading young children by the hand, groups of boys and girls wearing shoes and stockings who had been barefooted all the week, many a weather-beaten sailor, many a sunburnt fisher lad, many elderly people, too, old men, and white-haired women in closely-plaited white caps. There were visitors, too, coming down from the rocks, and these mostly kept in the background, and had at first an air of watching the movement rather than joining in it. My York friends were, however, well to the front, and the children nodded to me, and smiled at one another as they saw me led like a lamb to the service by my two small guardians.
It was a lovely day, and the sandy ground was dry, and the congregation sat on the rough coarse grass or perched on the sand hillocks round. As for the old boat, it was occupied by the choir, and little Jack, having seen me safely to the spot, climbed into it and stood proudly in the stern. He had a hymnbook in his hand, which I knew he could not read, for he was holding it upside down, but he looked at it as long and as earnestly as if he could understand every word. Marjorie planted herself beside me, I suppose to watch me, in case I showed signs of running away before the service was over.
Then just before eleven, and when quite a large company of people had gathered on the green, her father arrived. He was a man of about forty, and his face gave me the impression that he had known trouble. And yet I fancied, as I looked further at him, that the trouble, whatever it was, had ended. He seemed to me like one who has come out of a sharp storm, and has anchored in a quiet haven. For while I noticed in his face the traces of heavy sorrow, still at the same time he looked happier and more peaceful than any of those who stood round him; in fact, it was the most restful face I had ever seen. He was not an educated man, and yet there was a refinement about him which made one feel at once that he was no common man, and had no common history. His face was so interesting to me, that I am afraid I was gazing at him instead of finding the hymn he had given out. But I was recalled to my duty by his little daughter, who seized the hymnbook she had given me at the beginning of the service, found the page for me, and pointed with her small finger to the place.
It was a mission hymn, sung to a wild, irregular tune. I daresay I should have smiled if I had heard it anywhere else, but it was no laughing matter that morning. As I looked at the brown fishermen who had taken off their oilskin caps, as I glanced at the earnest face of the preacher, as I noticed how even children, like little Marjorie beside me, were singing with all their heart and soul the simple plaintive words, I felt strangely solemnized.
Then came the prayer, and I felt as he prayed that One whom we could not see was standing among us. It was a very simple prayer, but it was the outpouring of his heart to God, and many a low amen broke from the lips of the fishermen as their hearts went with his.
The sermon followed. Shall I call it a sermon? It was more an appeal than a sermon, or even an address. There was no attempt at style, there were no long words or stilted sentences. It was exactly what his prayer had been, words spoken out of the abundance of his earnest heart. The prayer had contained the outpouring of his soul to his God in heaven; the words, to which we listened afterwards, contained the outpouring of his soul to us, his brothers and sisters on earth.
There was a great hush over the congregation while he spoke. The mothers quieted their babes, the children sat with their eyes fixed on the speaker. Even those visitors who had been on the outskirts of the crowd drew near to listen.
“What are you, dear friends?” he began; “that is our subject today. What are you? How many different answers I hear you make, as you answer my question in your hearts!
“ ‘What am I?’ you say. ‘I am a fisherman, a strong, active man, accustomed to toil and danger.’
“ ‘I am a mother, with a large family of little ones, working hard from morning till night.’
“ ‘I am a schoolboy, learning the lessons which are to fit me to make my way in the world.’
“ ‘I am a busy merchant, toiling hard to make money, and obliged to come to this quiet place to recruit my wearied energies.’
“ ‘I am an artist, with great ambition of future success.’
“ ‘I am an old man, who has weathered many a storm, but my work is done now; I am too old to fish, too tired to toil.’
“ ‘I am a gentleman of non-occupation, idling comfortably through a busy world.’
“ ‘I’ ”—and here he glanced down at his own little Jack in the stern of the old boat—“ ‘I am a tiny child, with an unknown life all before me.’
“Dear friends, such are some of your answers to my question. Can I find, do you think, one answer, one description, which will suit you all—fisherman, mothers, boys and girls, artists, merchants, gentlemen, the old man and the little child? Yes, I can. If I could hand you each a piece of paper and a pencil this day, there is one description of yourself which would include you all, the old, the young, the rich and the poor. Each of you, without exception, might write this—I am a servant.
“I, the speaker, am a servant; you who listen, all of you, are servants.”
“Well, I don’t know how he is going to make that out,” I said to myself. “I thought he was going to say we were all sinners, and that, I suppose we are, but servants! I do not believe I am anybody’s servant.”
“All servants,” he went on, “but not all in the same service. As God and the angels look down upon this green today they see gathering together a great company of servants; but they also see that we are not all servants of the same master. They see what we do not see, a dividing line between us. On one side of the line God sees, and the angels see, one company of servants—and in God’s book He gives us the name of their master—Servants of Sin.
“On the other side of the line, God sees, and the angels see, another company of servants—Servants of Christ.
“Which company do you belong to, dear friend? You fishermen on the bank there, what are you? Little child, what are you?—a servant of sin, or a servant of Jesus Christ?
“Do you say, ‘How can I tell? How can I possibly know on which side of the line I stand? God may know, the angels may know, but how can I know, myself?’
“It is no difficult thing to discover; it is as plain and clear as possible. A servant of sin obeys his master. Sin rules in him. He pleases his own sinful heart. ‘What should I like?’ is the rule by which he is governed. He wakes in the morning, and he asks himself this question, ‘What do I wish to do today?’ And if the sin in his heart prompts him to do anything contrary to God’s will, he does it without scruple. Sin rules; he is a servant of sin.
“A servant of Christ obeys his master. Christ rules in him. He pleases Christ. ‘What would Christ have me do?’ is the rule by which he is governed. He wakes in the morning, and the question he asks is this, ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’ And if his Master bids him do anything contrary to his own inclinations, he does it readily, nay, cheerfully. Christ rules; he is a servant of Christ.”
Then he ended by a very solemn appeal. “You must be one or other,” he said. “Oh, my friend, which are you?—a servant of sin, or a servant of Christ? Who is your master? On which side of the line do you stand?”
I cannot remember all that he said that day, but I know that his words made me feel very uncomfortable.
The congregation broke up quietly, and I took a walk along the shore while Polly was preparing dinner.
“Ah, well,” I said to myself, “he did not speak badly, and I am glad those fishermen heard him. There is a great deal of drinking, I believe, in the place, and they need a bit of warning, I expect.”
So I tried to turn it off from myself, and to forget the words which had been spoken. And whenever the question came back to me, the question which the speaker had repeated so often, “What are you?” I answered it by saying to myself, “I am a poor artist, having a holiday in Runswick Bay, and I am not going to trouble my head with gloomy thoughts.”
Polly had prepared an excellent dinner in honor of the day, and I did full justice to it. Then I determined to walk to Staithes, and to spend the rest of the day in seeing the country. I had always been accustomed to paint on Sunday, but only one of the artists seemed to be at work, and Duncan and Polly had been so much shocked by seeing him, that I did not venture to do the same. I enjoyed the walk along the cliffs, and came back in good spirits, having completely shaken off, as I imagined, the remembrance of the speaker’s words.