Has the age of miracle quite gone by, or is it still possible to
the Voice of Faith calling aloud upon the earth to wring from the
dumb heavens an audible answer to its prayer? Does the promise
uttered by the Master of mankind upon the eve of the end—"Whoso
that believeth in Me, the works that I do he shall do also …
and whatsoever ye shall ask in My name, that will I do"—still hold
good to such as do ask and do believe?
Let those who care to study the history of the Rev. Thomas Owen,
and of that strange man who carried on and completed his work,
answer this question according to their judgment.
The time was a Sunday afternoon in summer, and the place a
church in the Midland counties. It was a beautiful church, ancient
and spacious; moreover, it had recently been restored at great
cost. Seven or eight hundred people could have found sittings in
it, and doubtless they had done so when Busscombe was a large
manufacturing town, before the failure of the coal supply and other
causes drove away its trade. Now it was much what it had been in
the time of the Normans, a little agricultural village with a
population of 300 souls. Out of this population, including the
choir boys, exactly thirty-nine had elected to attend church on
this particular Sunday; and of these, three were fast asleep and
four were dozing.
The Rev. Thomas Owen counted them from his seat in the chancel,
for another clergyman was preaching; and, as he counted, bitterness
and disappointment took hold of him. The preacher was a
"Deputation," sent by one of the large missionary societies to
arouse the indifferent to a sense of duty towards their unconverted
black brethren in Africa, and incidentally to collect cash to be
spent in the conversion of the said brethren. The Rev. Thomas Owen
himself suggested the visit of the Deputation, and had laboured
hard to secure him a good audience. But the beauty of the weather,
or terror of the inevitable subscription, prevailed against him.
Hence his disappointment.
"Well," he thought, with a sigh, "I have done my best, and I
must make it up out of my own pocket."
Then he settled himself to listen to the sermon.
The preacher, a battered-looking individual of between fifty and
sixty years of age, was gaunt with recent sickness, patient and
unimaginative in aspect. He preached extemporarily, with the aid of
notes; and it cannot be said that his discourse was remarkable for
interest, at any rate in its beginning. Doubtless the sparse
congregation, so prone to slumber, discouraged him; for offering
exhortations to empty benches is but weary work. Indeed he was
meditating the advisability of bringing his argument to an abrupt
conclusion when, chancing to glance round, he became aware that he
had at least one sympathetic listener, his host, the Rev. Thomas
From that moment the sermon improved by degrees, till at length
it reached a really high level of excellence. Ceasing from
rhetoric, the speaker began to tell of his own experience and
sufferings in the Cause amongst savage tribes; for he himself was a
missionary of many years standing. He told how once he and a
companion had been sent to a nation, who named themselves the Sons
of Fire because their god was the lightning, if indeed they could
be said to boast any gods other than the Spear and the King. In
simple language he narrated his terrible adventures among these
savages, the murder of his companion by command of the Council of
Wizards, and his own flight for his life; a tale so interesting and
vivid that even the bucolic sleepers awakened and listened
"But this is by the way," he went on; "for my Society does not
ask you to subscribe towards the conversion of the Children of
Fire. Until that people is conquered—which very likely will not be
for generations, seeing that they live in Central Africa, occupying
a territory that white men do not desire—no missionary will dare
again to visit them."
At this moment something caused him to look a second time at
Thomas Owen. He was leaning forward in his place listening eagerly,
and a strange light filled the large, dark eyes that shone in the
pallor of his delicate, nervous face.
"There is a man who would dare, if he were put to it," thought
the Deputation to himself. Then he ended his sermon.
That evening the two men sat at dinner in the rectory. It was a
very fine rectory, beautifully furnished; for Owen was a man of
taste which he had the means to gratify. Also, although they were
alone, the dinner was good—so good that the poor broken-down
missionary, sipping his unaccustomed port, a vintage wine, sighed
aloud in admiration and involuntary envy.
"What is the matter?" asked Owen.
"Nothing, Mr. Owen;" then, of a sudden thawing into candour, he
added: "that is, everything. Heaven forgive me; but I, who enjoy
your hospitality, am envious of you. Don't think too hardly of me;
I have a large family to support, and if only you knew what a
struggle my life is, and has been for the last twenty years, you
would not, I am sure. But you have never experienced it, and could
not understand. 'The labourer is worthy of his hire.' Well, my hire
is under two hundred a year, and eight of us must live—or starve—on
it. And I have worked, ay, until my health is broken. A labourer
indeed! I am a very hodman, a spiritual Sisyphus. And now I must go
back to carry my load and roll my stone again and again among those
hopeless savages till I die of it —till I die of it!"
"At least it is a noble life and death!" exclaimed Owen, a
sudden fire of enthusiasm burning in his dark eyes.
"Yes, viewed from a distance. Were you asked to leave this
living of two thousand a year—I see that is what they put it at in
Crockford— with its English comforts and easy work, that
you might lead that life and attain that death, then you
would think differently. But why should I bore you with such talk?
Thank Heaven that your lines are cast in pleasant places. Yes,
please, I will take one more glass; it does me good."
"Tell me some more about that tribe you were speaking of in your
sermon, the 'Sons of Fire' I think you called them," said Owen, as
he passed him the decanter.
So, with an eloquence induced by the generous wine and a
quickened imagination, the Deputation told him—told him many
strange things and terrible. For this people was an awful people:
vigorous in mind and body, and warriors from generation to
generation, but superstition- ridden and cruel. They lived in the
far interior, some months' journey by boat and ox-waggon from the
coast, and of white men and their ways they knew but little.
"How many of them are there?" asked Owen.
"Who can say?" he answered. "Nearly half-a-million, perhaps; at
least they pretend that they can put sixty thousand men under
"And did they treat you badly when you first visited them?"
"Not at first. They received us civilly enough; and on a given
day we were requested to explain to the king and the Council of
Wizards the religion which we came to teach. All that day we
explained and all the next—or rather my friend did, for I knew very
little of the language —and they listened with great interest. At
last the chief of the wizards and the first prophet to the king
rose to question us. He was named Hokosa, a tall, thin man, with a
spiritual face and terrible calm eyes.
"'You speak well, son of a White Man,' he said, 'but let us pass
from words to deeds. You tell us that this God of yours, whom you
desire that we should take as our God, so that you may become His
chief prophets in the land, was a wizard such as we are, though
grater than we are; for not only did He know the past and the
future as we do, but also He could cure those who were smitten with
hopeless sickness, and raise those who were dead, which we cannot
do. You tell us, moreover, that by faith those who believe on Him
can do works as great as He did, and that you do believe on Him.
Therefore we will put you to the proof. Ho! there, lead forth that
"As he spoke a man was placed before us, one who had been
convicted of witchcraft or some other crime.
"'Kill him!' said Hokosa.
"There was a faint cry, a scuffle, a flashing of spears, and the
man lay still before us.
"'Now, followers of the new God,' said Hokosa, 'raise him from
the dead as your Master did!'
"In vain did we offer explanations.
"'Peace!' said Hokosa at length, 'your words weary us. Look now,
either you have preached to us a false god and are liars, or you
are traitors to the King you preach, since, lacking faith in Him,
you cannot do such works as He gives power to do to those who have
faith in Him. Out of your own mouths are you judged, White Men.
Choose which horn of the bull you will, you hang to one of them,
and it shall pierce you. This is the sentence of the king, I speak
it who am the king's mouth: That you, White Man, who have spoken to
us and cheated us these two weary days, be put to death, and that
you, his companion who have been silent, be driven from the
"I can hardly bear to tell the rest of it, Mr. Owen. They gave
my poor friend ten minutes to 'talk to his Spirit,' then they
speared him before my face. After it was over, Hokosa spoke to me,
"'Go back, White Man, to those who sent you, and tell them the
words of the Sons of Fire: That they have listened to the message
of peace, and though they are a people of warriors, yet they thank
them for that message, for in itself it sounds good and beautiful
in their ears, if it be true. Tell them that having proved you
liars, they dealt with you as all honest men seek that liars should
be dealt with. Tell them that they desire to hear more of this
matter, and if one can be sent to them who has no false tongue; who
in all things fulfills the promises of his lips, that they will
hearken to him and treat him well, but that for such as you they
keep a spear.'"
"And who went after you got back?" asked Owen, who was listening
with the deepest interest.
"Who went? Do you suppose that there are many mad clergymen in
Africa, Mr. Owen? Nobody went."
"And yet," said Owen, speaking more to himself than to his
guest, "the man Hokosa was right, and the Christian who of a truth
believes the promises of our religion should trust to them and
"Then perhaps you would like to undertake the mission, Mr.
Owen," said the Deputation briskly; for the reflection stung him,
unintentional as it was.
"That is a new idea," he said. "And now perhaps you wish to go
to bed; it is past eleven o'clock."