In The Parish
The richest man in our parish was the squire. He dwelt in a great house on the hill that over-looked, with its broad white face, the whole of the village below, with its clustering cottages and neat farmer’s houses, and seemed to say proudly, as it looked down, “I have my eyes on you all, and intend to keep you in order.” And in truth, a great many eyes it had, with its rows of high windows brightly reflecting the summer sun, from early morning till evening, when not unfrequently the last flush in the west left them glowing as with red fire. When strangers looked up at the great house, and inquired about it, the people of our parish used to tell them with some awe what treasures of grand furniture, and pictures, and choice specimens of art, the squire had collected in his many handsome rooms; what was the worth of one picture alone, that he had refused thousands of pounds for, and the number of others that were beautiful enough, and valuable enough, to have adorned a palace.
They were very proud to be able to say that so rich a man belonged to them, and lived among them, and to point out his crimson-lined and curtained pew at church, and the great tombstone that stood behind the pathway in the churchyard, recording the virtues of his ancestors, and testifying, as well as it could, to his own riches.
I suppose the squire knew the homage that was paid to him, and liked it, and was proud in his turn, not of his neighbors, but of himself, and the wealth he possessed. Whenever he rode abroad, he met with bows and smiles from rich and poor, everybody made way for him, everybody courted him. A man with so much money, and so much land, and such fine furniture, and pictures, and statues, and gardens, was not to be pushed in a corner and thought little of, and he knew it, as he went along the lanes and roads on his thoroughbreds, and nodded to this man, and “good-morninged” that, with some degree of condescension. He knew that he was courted, and admired, and deferred to, because of his riches, and was quite satisfied that it should be so. He did not wish to be thought ill-natured, so he gave, every year, a treat to his work people, and sent money, and coal, and blankets to the poor at Christmas, but he thought little more about them. They were poor, and he was rich; those two words, “poor” and “rich,” indicated a great difference, and he was quite well pleased there should be such a difference.
One summer morning, he was taking a ride through the woods that skirted one side of his estate. It was very hot, and in the lanes the sun and the flies teased both him and his horse, so when they turned in beneath the shadows of the oaks and beeches, it was great relief to both. The squire gave Dandy the rein, and went along softly. He was soon thinking of other things than oaks and beeches. Perhaps the glitter of the sunshine here and there, as it lay upon a cluster of trembling leaves, or turned to richer red the tall heads of the willow herb beside his path, suggested the crimson draperies and gilded ornaments of his home, for he was thinking of a sight he had seen there only the day before; when there had been at the birthday of his eldest son a grand gathering of friends, and a feast such as a rich man makes to the rich, with dainties, and spices, and wines, served in gold, silver and rarest china, in the utmost profusion, and with the greatest display. He remembered the hilarity of the guests, the healths drank, the speeches made, the compliments so freely given and taken; and with some pride he remembered, too, it had been said, that within the memory of man. No one has given so grand a feast in the parish as he had done that day.
Dandy’s feet fell softly, and made little noise on the soft carpet of grass and last years leaves, that covered and hid the stout roots of the oaks. It was no wonder, then, that presently the squire heard a gentle sound not far away. He became aware that some other human being than himself was in the wood, and checking his horse, he listened a moment, as words, half prayer, half praise, met his ears. “Who can be praying here?” he asked himself, and as the voice was near, he pushed aside a bough or two, and stretched his head, till he could see a little shady hollow not far from the roadside, and discovered the strange wood-guest.
Ah! it was only an old man, a pauper, or next door to one, whom he had frequently seen before, breaking stones by the highway.
But what was the deaf old man about? “Praying!” with his eyes shut, and his head uplifted, and his hat just taken off, held in his toil-swollen fingers, while before him was spread out his dinner---a piece of dry bread, part of a small loaf, and a can of water by his side—bread and water, nothing else; but the old man was thanking God for it, and with content. More than content. An expression of happy praise was on his uplifted face. Such an expression the squire had not seen on any face at his own loaded table for many years. And he was thanking God for bread and water, and was happy! The old man was a sincere Christian.
The richest man in the parish did not understand how, when the soul loves God, the least mercies from His hands are felt to be priceless blessings; how bread and water, with a thankful heart, are sweeter to the taste than any food without it; and he felt humiliated. What right had that old man to thank God for bread and water, when he never thanked Him for all his great possessions?
The woods closed in on him again, he left the stone-breaker behind, and his face soon assumed its usual self-satisfied expression. But during that morning’s ride, again and again returned to him the picture he had seen in the green hollow, of the man who had thanked God for bread and water, and the thought of his own great riches did not give him quite its usual satisfaction. Had those riches ever made him as happy as that old man looked to be over his poor meal? He was obliged to confess to himself that they had not, and it was to him a sad confession. His pride was sorely touched, and his heart disquieted, and the farther he rode, the more he felt a sense of discomfort and discontent, that was strangely new to him.
Presently the bright sun became overcast, great clouds gathered, and the woods looked dark and gloomy. Dandy walked along untroubled by nervous fears and fancies, but an influence came over the squire for which he could not account. A strange sinking was at his heart, and an impression of coming calamity. Then a voice struck his inward ear, a voice not of this world, one of those voices God sends sometimes to be heard for our good and guidance, and the words it uttered were terrible to him. That voice spoke to him clearly and distinctly, “This night the richest man in the parish will die.” Strange and fearful were these words. He did not look round to know whence they proceeded; he knew it was an inward and spiritual voice that spoke, and he believed what it said. With a shudder he remembered the parable of the rich man in the Gospel, to whom had come the same terrible warning—“This night thy souls shall be required of thee.”
“What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? And what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” were words that haunted him now, and a cold perspiration covered him from head to foot. He felt that he had been an unwise merchant, who had exchanged his soul for very little. Unable at length to bear his own reflections, he galloped home.
There he arrive in a state of great agitation, and alarmed his wife and family by sending at once for a physician. To all inquiries he gave the answer that he was about to die and must prepare for it. In vain they tried to persuade him that his health was as good as ever, that he was only the subject of a nervous fancy. The physician arrived, and laughed at his fears, but he heeded neither ridicule not entreaties. Death was not a thing to be laughed or entreated away, and to death he was doomed. What did it signify what the world said about it? He must make ready for it. His solicitor was called in, and his worldly affairs settled. Wife and children were all provided for, houses and lands were portioned out to his beloved ones, then he had nothing to do but prepare himself for the great change; that, however, he found impossible. In great perturbation of mind he awaited the coming of his great enemy, Death. When night drew on, his fears increased; every time the great hall clock sounded the hour he shuddered, not knowing if he might ever hear it again. The physician and lawyer remained with him at his request, but they could not bring calm to his agitated mind. They could only listen to what he said, as to the ravings of a madman, for mad they judged him to be.
Hour after hour went by, and the richest man in the parish, lying in his splendid bed, expecting Death every moment, found how poor he had become, and of how little real use all his vast possessions were to him now. Midnight passed away, early morning came, light dawned upon the hills. A faint color came into the sky, and with it color once more stole back into the cheeks of the spire, and hope returned to his heart. Death had not arrive as he had feared; he was still living. The night was passed, the morning was come, and the prophecy of the mysterious voice was not accomplished. His family gathered about him, and with smiles congratulated him, advising him to take his rest, now the danger was past. But how could he rest after such a night, such an upturning of all the cherished thoughts and aims of his life, such a revelation of the poverty of riches? He chose rather to walk abroad, and with thoughtful face and slow steps proceeded toward the village. There he heard that Death had indeed been a visitor in one house during the night, but instead of appearing in his own grand mansion, he had entered the poorest cottage in the place—the old stone-breaker had died during the night. With a still more thoughtful face he returned home, for his heart smote him. He remembered the old man’s simple dinner; he saw again the uplifted face, on which God’s sunshine rested in a double sense; he heard again the words of his thankful prayer, and his own laugh of derision, and he was again humiliated, but this time to better purpose.
His wife met him at the threshold of his house, with a smiling face, glad to see him once more, “clothed and in his right mind,” for she, too, had feared for his reason. She accompanied him in, and then, when seated at his side, gently chided him for his last nights fears, and what she called ”superstitious fancies.” “I hope now,” she added, “you are quite satisfied that there was no truth in what that mysterious voice told you. The night is past, and you are alive, and as well as ever.”
“True, my dear,” he replied: “the night is past, and I am alive and well. But nevertheless the richest man in the parish has died. And if you will take the trouble to inquire in the village, you will find it is so.”
“How is that?” she asked, and as she spoke she looked round somewhat proudly, as though a rival to her grandeur had appeared. “Who can be richer here than you?”
“The man who can say to God, ‘Whom have I in heaven but Thee, and there is non upon the earth that I desire beside thee.” I cannot say that, for I have desired many things and persons besides God, and almost all things more than God. But there was a poor stone-breaker alive yesterday, who in possessing God possessed all things. I call him poor after the manner of the world, but he was really rich—an heir of the kingdom of heaven. Last night I was shown his riches and my poverty. People will tell you he is dead, and I dare say that he did not leave a shilling to pay for his burial; but he was the richest man in the parish,’”
WALKING WITH JESUS
Walking with God in sorrow’s dark hour
Calm and serene in His infinite power
Walking with him, I am free from all dread
Filled with His Spirit, O! softly I tread.
Walking with God, O! fellowship sweet
Thus to know God, and in Him be complete
Walking with Him whom the world cannot know
O! it is sweet through life thus we go.
Walking with God in sorrow’s dark hour
Soothed and sustained by his infinite power
O! it is sweet to my soul thus to live
Filled with a peace, which the world cannot give.
Walking with God, O! may my life be
Such that my Lord can walk always with me
Walking with Him, I shall know, day by day
That He is my Father, and leads all the way.