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He Came and Went Again

by Will N. Harben

He was the humblest man in the world. He wore ragged clothing and lived in the filthiest tenement-house in New York. He was unlettered, had never opened a book, and seemed to know little of the ways of men. His hair and beard were long, and like golden silk; his eyes held the blue of infinite space.

When wealthy people passed him they shook their heads and said, "He is demented;" but the poor, who knew him, lowered their voices when he was near and whispered that he belonged to a better world, for in his eyes they saw a strange light of eternal kindness.

"Why are you so good to me?" the poor would ask, marvelling over his tears of sympathy.

"Because I love you," he would answer, "and love is the mother of all that is good. If you will love men as I do your way of life will be strewn with roses from heaven and your vision know no end."

He had never been in a church nor heard one word in the Bible, and yet, with a far-away light in his eyes, he used to talk of immortality and infinite love. "Love is everlasting life," he would say, "love is eternal."

His poor old mother did not understand him, and she was often troubled on his behalf. She used to plead with him to stay with her more and not to give up his life so completely to others.

"Why," she would argue plaintively, "even the great clergymen who preach in the grand churches, and who are said to be the best of men, do not risk their lives and love others as you do. They seldom come here where everybody is so poor." Once he asked her to tell him what the clergymen taught, and when she tried to explain the creeds of the different denominations, he shook his head and turned pale with perplexity and pain.

"I cannot understand," he said sorrowfully. "It all makes my heart ache. It seems to me that the church-members, too, are in the dark. Love is food for the soul and they are starving. People everywhere are dying in crime and pain and no one offers to help them."

One day, after he had been laboring for a week without sufficient food and sleep among the fever-stricken poor, he fell ill, and his mother thought he was about to die. She ran, her gray locks streaming in the wind, to the parsonage of a little church near by and inquired for the minister, but was told by his wife that he had been gone for several weeks to a watering place in the mountains. The old woman ran on further, till she came to a great church whose majestic spire seemed to touch the clouds. A stately rectory was near. Soft music, mingled with merry voices, came out to her through the open doors. Awkwardly and tremblingly she went up the polished marble steps and rang. A servant in livery told her gruffly that his master was dining with his bishop and other distinguished personages, and that she would have to wait.

She replied with a groan that she feared her son was dying. The man went to his master and came back saying, "He cannot see you now."

She sat down in the great hall and tried to pray. Before her hung a costly painting representing Jesus with a child in his arms, a lamb at his side. She smelt the fragrance of flowers, and heard the clinking of wine-glasses, the tinkling of silver and rare china, short speeches and laughter.

"The dean, it seems," she heard the bishop say, "was reproving one of the young clergymen for becoming intoxicated. The young scamp's reply quite took the dean off his feet. 'If I mistake not, sir,' said the young priest, 'the liquor I drank came from your celebrated art-gallery and bar-room.'"

This story was greeted by hearty laughter, and then the old woman heard the bishop giving a description of a new yacht which he had just bought. By and by the rector came out. His cheeks were slightly flushed, his manner betrayed impatience."

"Well," said he to her, "what is it? I am very busy."

"I am afraid my son is dying," she said timidly, abashed by the splendor of his dress and abrupt manner. "I thought some minister ought to see him."

"Where do you attend church?" he asked, looking down at her tattered attire.

"I do not go to any," she faltered.

"I have as much as I can attend to in my own parish," he frowned; "besides my bishop is here as my guest; there is a young theological student with me who will go." And he went back to the dining-room and sent a young man out to her.

"Show me the way," said the student, and he shrugged his shoulders, and blushed because the footman seemed to comprehend the situation.

Without a word she led him through the squalid streets to the house, and up the narrow stairs to her miserable room. The sick man lay alone on a hard couch.

"What can I do for you?" asked the visitor.

A look of hope came into the pallid features of the one addressed. His voice was low and eager when he replied:—

"A poor woman downstairs has fallen and broken her spine. I fear she is without attention, I was trying to reach her when I fell ill. Perhaps you will go to see her; I need nothing."

"His mind is wandering," said the student, turning to the mother. "He could not comprehend anything I might read or say now. He needs medical treatment. You should apply to the public charities." And he went away, brushing the sleeve of his coat which had caught a cobweb.

At her son's request the mother went below. Presently she returned with the information that the injured woman's needs had been attended to. Then she got a Bible and began to read to him for the first time in life. When she had read a few passages he asked her what it was, and she replied:—

"They say it is the Word of God, and that it shows us how to live."

When she was reading of the life of Christ he listened with a profound look of perplexity on his pale face. But when she pronounced the words, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," he uttered an exclamation of surprise, and sat up in his bed.

"I have spoken those words before!" he cried, "but in a different language. It was in another life which seems like a dream. I lived long, long ago, in a far-away land. I had another mother there, Mary was her name, and a good father whom the people called Joseph. I lived there as I do here, but the world mocked me because I tried to teach them to love one another—they could not understand. They put me to death. They made a cross, and hung me on it, on a hill in the direction of the setting sun from Jerusalem. A multitude gathered to see me die."

Amazed at his radiant and transformed countenance, which held in it the light of eternity, she fell down before him crying:—

"My Lord! My Master!"

He lifted her up, his weakness gone.

"Rise," said he gently. "Call me not 'Master,' for I am but the son of God, as you are His daughter. The Father of us all, in His love, is not better than the humblest of His children."

She was going out to cry aloud in the streets that Jesus, the son of God, had come to earth, but he prevented her.

"Speak not of me to them," he said softly; "they could not understand; it would be even as it was before."

That very day he went about according to his humble wont, among the poor and the miserable, spreading joy and comfort everywhere. Wan-faced courtesans, with death and hate in their eyes, despairing thieves, murderers, and would-be suicides, listened to his words of hope and began life anew. He went to the houses of the wealthy and plead in the behalf of suffering men and women, misguided children, and mistreated animals, but was called a tramp and sent away.

One day his mother lead him to the corpse of a dead friend. "Make him live again," she whispered.

He looked down at the dead and smiled infinitely. He took a flower from a vase, and put it into the hand that was cold. "This is the birthday of our friend," he said. "Should I wish to alter the work of my Father, in whose eyes all things are perfect? Our friend is this day delivered from the womb of earthly travail."

One bright morning she came and laid herself at his feet.

"I have heard strange things to-day," she said, "things I have not learned before because I am so ignorant. They say that all the great and good churches in Christendom have grown up upon the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth."

"Nazareth," he repeated dreamily, "I lived in Nazareth."

"They worship him that was crucified on Calvary; ah! they would listen to you now, my Master. You have lived in their memories for centuries. Hear, the bells are ringing. It is the Sabbath, the Lord's day!"

"My Father's day has neither beginning nor end."

"Come, go with me," went on the woman eagerly, "we shall hear them praise your name."

"I will go with you," said he, a strange look in his eyes.

She ran from the room and presently came back with a suit of new clothes which she had borrowed from a dealer: Her face was aglow with pride and joy as she spread them before him.

"What are they for?" he asked in gentle surprise.

"For you," she said, "that you may go into the house of the Lord robed as—as others are."

A blended look of wonder and pain passed over his face.

"The spirit of the man is not clothed with the wool of the sheep that was slain," he said gently. "I will go as I am, and fear naught in my Father's presence."

She led him down several streets till they reached a grand thoroughfare. Along this they went side by side, jostled by the fashionable throng, till they came to a stately church. Going up the broad stone steps they entered the great Gothic doors. A group of men in the vestibule laughed at his long hair and ragged attire. Elegantly dressed ushers were seating the people as they entered. They did not speak to the woman and her son, but smiled at one another, and passed some jests in undertones. After awhile one of them drew near, and said to her:—

"Have you not made a mistake, my good woman? This is St. —— Church. St. ——'s is the next below."

Tears were in her eyes as she led her son away. By and by they came to another edifice. In a niche in the stone wall near the entrance was the figure of Jesus on a cross. He paused and looked at it for several minutes, murmuring, "Strange! Strange!"

In the vestibule she was so awed by the imposing interior of the structure and the fashionable congregation, that she drew him to one side.

"Perhaps we had better stand here," she whispered. "We seem to be unlike the rest. We shall not be in the way out here, and through the door we can see and hear the service."

He made no answer. He was looking at a grand window on which stood a representation of Jesus, in a stream of light from heaven, bearing the words, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." "Strange, very strange!" she heard him whisper, and tears were in his eyes.

No one offered to give them seats, and they remained standing in the vestibule against a wall. A grand organ began to peal out the music of Gounod's Saint Cecilia Mass. Presently it died down; there was a short pause, then, like the rising of a musical storm came the subdued voices of the choristers from the closed vestry. The door was gradually opened, and the music swelled out into the church. The crucifer, a beautiful lad, attired in a blood-red cassock and a white, lace-trimmed cotta, entered. Behind him, chanting, came a long train of choir-boys, followed by two acolytes who swung by chains of brass censers from which rose clouds of fragrant smoke. Two priests brought up the rear; one, the celebrant of the Holy Communion, was magnificently garbed. He wore a trailing black cassock of richest silk, and over it a short lawn cotta trimmed with priceless lace, an enormous cloth-of-gold cope on the back of which blazed a cross wrought in jewels. About his neck he had a white stole, over an arm a snowy maniple, upon his head a priestly beretta.

"Is it not beautiful?" asked the poor woman of her son. But he did not hear her. His eyes, blinded by tears of infinite sorrow, were resting on the white statue of the Virgin near the snowy altar of marble, on which burnt a constellation of tapers and candles around the red lamp of the "Holy Presence."

His breast heaved; a sob escaped him, and his head sank upon his chest.

"And they do this in the name of love," he said, as if in prayer. "They make an idol of my memory while my brothers and sisters are dying for the lack of love and kindness. They do all this to praise me whom they have so little understood. O God, my Father, let this trial pass, or make me as you are that I may, this time, set them right, for I suffer past endurance."

The short sermon ended. The celebration of Mass began. The wafer and the wine were consecrated. The priest raised the wafer before the eyes of the congregation and said, "This is my body," and all heads bowed low.

"At the very instant you hear the bell strike," whispered a man to a boy near the mother and son, "at that very instant the Saviour will be there—listen!"

"Father, forgive them," the woman heard her son say, and she followed him out of the church. They had reached the street when three strokes from a silver bell was heard.

A few minutes later, as they were passing through a squalid street on the way home, they came to a little church. He read her wishes in her face, and they went in. A man approached and showed them to a back seat. On a platform a preacher was striding to and fro shouting, singing snatches of hymns, and praying. In his excitement he would fall on his knees and raise his hands heavenward; again he would spring up and beat himself with his hands, and violently kick the floor, preaching, singing, and praying alternately.

"Save yourselves from the eternal wrath of an angry God!" he cried. "I tell you that hell is yawning for you; the burning breath of countless devils is about you. Christ died to save you; will you not trust in him? Now is the only time; to-morrow it may be too late!"

After awhile the congregation began to sing a hymn, and the preacher went on: "Come forward all who want the prayers of the church. Come now, and embrace salvation!" And men, women, and children trembling with fear, and weeping and groaning, went to the altar and threw themselves on their knees.

The poor woman looked at her son. His face was pale and set as with the agony of death. She glanced over the congregation. People sat there wrestling with the greatest problem of their lives, their faces white, their eyes dilated. Others were smiling as if highly amused at the preacher's actions. Members of ritualistic churches, who had come out of curiosity, were frowning contemptuously, and congratulating themselves on the dignity of their own form of worship.

"I must go," said the son to his mother. "I must be with those that need me. Here they teach that the Eternal Father hates His children. If only they knew Him they would not be afraid."

He never entered a church again. He continued his life as he had begun it, teaching human love and gentleness to all he knew. Once he was trying to save a half-demented drunkard from being beaten by an inhuman policeman, and was put into prison. While he was there his mother died, and when he was released, his health was broken.

A week passed in which he could get no food to eat. He was starving. One moonlit night he rose and staggered out to search for bread, suffering indescribable tortures. His voice had gone. He stood on the corner of a street, and mutely held out his hands to passers-by, but they paid no heed to him. Along the street he tottered till he came to a brightly lighted building. A church was holding a festival. Beautiful women in the height of fashion, children in the daintiest of dresses, were promenading about. He looked in at the door, and when he saw the long tables filled with eatables, his eyes gleamed with the desire of a famished animal. He staggered across the threshold, but was stopped by the door-keeper. "Ticket," said the man. The outcast did not understand, he could see nothing but the food within. A policeman stepped forward and laid his hand on his arm.

"This is no place for you," he said roughly. "You have no money, move on!"

"He looks hungry, wait!" said a little girl, who was pinning some flowers on the lapel of a young minister's coat, and she ran to a table and brought a piece of bread to the starving man. He hugged it in his arms, and tottered out into the night, chuckling to himself in joy. A square where trees and flowers grew was before him. He entered it, and sank on to a bench near a fountain. He looked at the bread, and a savage content captured his features. He was about to break it when a man arose from a seat across a walk, and came and sat down beside him, eyeing the food covetously. He touched the thin hand that held it, and the two men looked into each other's eyes.

"I am starving," said the breadless one. "I have no means. I belong to a family who have descended from kings; I cannot beg. I thought you looked as if you did not want it. I am dying."

The other clutched the food tightly in both his hands for an instant. A look of ferocious desire wrung his face, and he raised it to his lips. Then a divine smile dawned in his eyes, and he proffered it to the other. The man took it eagerly, and slipped into the darkness, that he might eat it unseen. As he turned away the head of the giver sank slowly to his breast.

Brightly lighted streets stretched away in several directions. A procession of men and women bearing banners and beating drums and tambourines passed along, singing hymns, and pausing now and then to kneel on the cobblestones to pray or to urge the little clusters of idlers to join them in their march to safety. Above the wondrous stars and moon were shining as they had shone at the dawn of eternal thought. They shone on the Vatican at Rome, the imperial cradle of saints; on the comfortable homes of ministers in the church; on the "palaces" of gentle-blooded bishops; on assemblages of men who were wrangling over creeds; on gatherings where earnest searchers after truth were being tried for heresy; on prisons where inmates of dark, silent cells were praying for a gleam of light, for but the voice of an insect to keep madness from their tortured brains; on millions of suffering human beings—on the cold, dead form of one who understood naught but love.