Handful of Stars


12. Walter Petherick's Text


He was born at Islington on the day on which Sir Walter Raleigh was executed; and his father named him after the gallant knight whom he himself was so proud of having served. That was forty-seven years ago. He is now a prosperous London merchant, living, at ordinary times, over his warehouse, and delighting in the society of his four motherless children. At ordinary times! But these are not ordinary times. The plague is in the city! It appeared for the first time about two months ago and has gradually increased in virulence ever since. Mr. Petherick has therefore withdrawn with his two boys and his two girls to Twickenham. This morning--the morning of July 16, 1665--they all go together to the Parish Church. The riverside is in all its summer glory. The brilliant sunshine seems to mock both the wretchedness so near at hand and the heavy anxiety that weighs upon their hearts. During the week a solemn fast-day has been observed, and to-day, services of humiliation and intercession are to be held in all the churches. Several times, during the past week or two, Mr. Petherick has visited the city. It was a melancholy experience. Most of the shops were shut; poor creatures who claimed that they themselves or their relatives were infected by the pestilence cried for alms at every corner; and he had passed many houses on whose doors a red cross had been marked, and, underneath, the words, 'Lord, have mercy upon us!' To-day that pathetic entreaty is to be offered in every sanctuary. All through the country, men and women are pleading that the awful visitation may be stayed. At Twickenham the church soon fills, and the fervently murmured responses give evidence of the depth and intensity of the universal emotion. Mr. Petherick never forgot the sermon that was preached in the old church that July morning. At least, he never forgot the text. 'Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flocks shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls; yet I will rejoice in the Lord and I will joy in the God of my salvation!'

The fields barren! The stalls empty! The vineyards bare!

I will rejoice! I will joy! I will joy! I will rejoice!

The text reminded the Pethericks of the dazzling sunshine that, as they came along, had seemed so unsympathetic. For here was a radiance equally incongruous! Here was faith shining like a solitary star on a dark night! Here was joy, singing her song, like the nightingale, amidst the deepest gloom! It was as though a merry peal of bells was being rung on a day of public lamentation.


'The words took hold upon me mightily!' wrote Walter Petherick to a friend in 1682. I do not wonder. Quite apart from their singular application to his own case, they are full of nobility and grandeur. When, in 1782--exactly a century later--Benjamin Franklin was appointed American Plenipotentiary at Paris, some of the brilliant French wits of that period twitted him on his admiration for the Bible. He determined to test their knowledge of the Volume they professed to scorn. Entering their company one evening, he told them that he had been reading an ancient poem, and that its stately beauty had greatly impressed him. At their request he took from his pocket a manuscript and proceeded to read it. It was received with exclamations of extravagant admiration. 'Superb!' they cried. 'Who was the author? Where did Franklin discover it? How could copies be obtained?' He informed them, to their astonishment, that it was the third chapter of the prophecy of Habakkuk--the passage to which Mr. Petherick and his children listened that sad but sunny morning at Twickenham.

The Petherick incident belongs to the seventeenth century; the Franklin incident belongs to the eighteenth; and they remind me of one that belongs to the nineteenth. Daniel Webster was one morning discussing with a number of eminent artists the subjects commonly chosen for portrayal upon canvas. 'I have often wondered,' he said, 'that no painter has yet thought it worth his while to draw his inspiration from one of the most sublime passages in any literature.' 'And what is that?' they asked. 'Well,' he replied, 'what finer conception for a masterpiece could any artist desire than the picture of the prophet Habakkuk sitting in the midst of utter ruin and desolation, singing, in spite of everything, faith's joyous and triumphant song?'



It is a Song of Suppositions;

'Suppose the fig tree shall not blossom!'

'Suppose the vine shall bear no fruit!'

'Suppose the labor of the olive shall fail!'

'Suppose the fields shall yield no corn!'

'Suppose the flock shall be cut off from the fold!'

'Suppose there shall be no herd in the stalls!'

'Suppose! Suppose! Suppose!'

I very well remember a conversation I once had at Mosgiel with old Jeanie McNab. Jeanie subsisted on a mixed diet of smiles and songs.

'But, supposing, Jeanie----' I began one day.

'Now don't you have anything to do with supposings,' she exclaimed. 'I know them all. "Suppose I should lose my money!" "Suppose I should lose my health!" And all the rest. When those supposings come knocking at your heart, you just slam the door, and bolt it, and don't let any of them in!'

It was excellent advice; yet the prophet acted on a diametrically opposite principle. When the supposings came knocking at his door, he cried 'Come in!' and in they came!

'Suppose the figs are barren!'

'Suppose the vines wither!'

'Suppose the olive fail!'

'Suppose the corn perish!'

'Suppose the sheep starve!'

'Suppose the cattle die!'

The prophet invites them all to come in. They jostle each other as they throng his little room. He hears all that they have to say, and then he answers them.

'Whence came all these things?' he demands. 'Whence came the figs and the vines and the olives, the corn and the flocks and the herds?' And, having asked this question, he himself proceeds to answer it.

'HE gave them!' he cries triumphantly, 'HE gave them! And if they perish, as you suppose, He can as easily replace them! Therefore will I rejoice in the Lord and will joy in the God of my salvation! It is a small thing to lose the gifts as long as you possess the Giver; the supreme tragedy lies in losing the Giver and retaining only the gifts;'

There is no record as to what the preacher said that Sunday morning at Twickenham; but some such thoughts as these must have been suggested to the eager minds of the Pethericks as they listened so attentively. 'The words took hold upon me mightily!' the father confessed, in a letter to a friend, long afterwards.


That evening a horror of great darkness fell upon the soul of Walter Petherick. He spent the sunset hours quietly with the young people, and, before they bade each other good-night, he read with them again the passage that had so impressed them in the morning. Then, left to himself, Mr. Petherick put on his hat and took a stroll in the lane. It was a perfect summer's evening, warm and star-lit; yet its peace failed to penetrate his tortured soul. A glow-worm twinkled in the grass under the hedge, but no ray of light pierced the impenetrable gloom within. He returned to his room, and, after sitting for a while at the open window, looking down on the sluggish waters of the tranquil river, he threw himself on his knees beside his bed. One by one he prayed for each of his children. The red cross that he had seen on so many doors seemed to have stamped itself upon the retina of his eye; it blazed before him even whilst the lids were closed in prayer.

'Lord, have mercy on us!' said the legend under the cross.

'Lord, have mercy on us!' cried Mr. Petherick over and over and over again.

He thought of the morning's text, but it only mocked him, as the sunshine mocked him on his way to church.

'I could not say it,' he moaned. 'If my children were snatched from me--my fine boys and my lovely girls--the treasures that she left me--how could I rejoice in the Lord and joy in the God of my salvation?'

He broke into a fresh outburst of supplication. Again he mentioned each of his children by name. 'Spare him; oh, spare him!' he cried; and, as he thought of the girls, 'Spare her, O Lord; have pity, I beseech Thee!'

He wiped his face; it was damp with perspiration. He allowed his forehead to rest upon his folded arms; and then, bowed there in the solitude of his room and in the stillness of the summer night, a strange thought took possession of him.


He remembered to have prayed as fervently as this before--many, many years ago. In those days--the days of his earliest religious experiences--he had prayed, almost as earnestly as this, for his own spiritual prosperity, for the extension of Christ's Kingdom and for the enlightenment of the world. It seemed like a dream as he recalled it. He was scarcely more than a boy in those days. The ardor and intensity of that distant time had deserted him so gradually, and had vanished so imperceptibly, that he had never missed it until now. Love had come into his life, irradiating and transfiguring everything. Love had led to marriage; four happy children had brought added gladness to his home and fresh contentment to his heart; and he had abandoned himself without reserve to these domestic cares and comforts. The things that had so completely captivated his soul were all of them good things--just as the fig and the vine and the olive, the corn and the flocks and the herds were all of them good things--but he had allowed them to elbow out the wealthiest things of all. The good had become the enemy of the best. Before his heart had been gladdened by those treasures that were now so dear to him, he had every day rejoiced in the Lord and joyed in the God of his salvation. But not since! His enrichment had proved his impoverishment! What was it that the preacher had said? 'It is a small thing to love the gifts as long as you possess the Giver; the supreme tragedy lies in losing the Giver and retaining only the gifts.' And Walter Petherick felt that night that that supreme tragedy was his.

He rose from his knees, reached for his Bible, and turned once more to the chapter from which the minister had preached. 'O Lord,' it began, 'revive Thy work in the midst of years!' He himself was 'in the midst of years.' The thought brought with it a sense of shame and a rush of thankfulness. He was ashamed that he had permitted the years that had gone to filch so much from him. Like waves that strew treasures on the shore, and snatch treasures from the shore, he felt that the years had brought much and taken much. Yet he felt grateful that he was still 'in the midst of the years'; it is better to discover life's loss at the halfway house than to find it out at the end of the journey! He returned the Bible to its place, and, as he did so, he closed his eyes and repeated for himself the prophet's prayer.

'O Lord,' he cried, 'revive Thy work in the midst of the years; in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy!'

It seemed as if the prayer had opened the gates of his soul to the peace of the night. As he looked again at the glistening river, he felt strangely soothed and comforted. And, half an hour later, he was sleeping as restfully as any of his children.


Once more it is a Sunday evening, and once more we are at Twickenham. For at Twickenham the family have now made their home; they never, after the Plague Year, resided in the city. More than twelve months have passed. We last saw them on July 16, 1665; this is Sunday, September 2, 1666. And this Sunday has been as eventful and as memorable as that. For, just as the family were assembling at the breakfast table, Henry, the elder of the two boys, burst into the room, exclaiming excitedly:

'Father, the city is on fire!'

It was true! London was one great sea of flame! In the afternoon the father and the two sons drove as far as the Borough; it was as near as they could get to the raging conflagration. And what a sight confronted them! Immense tongues of crimson shot up from the burning city and seemed to lick the very skies. When the clouds of smoke parted for a moment, they saw towers falling, walls collapsing, chimneys tottering, whilst the crash of roof after roof kept up a series of reports that resembled the firing of artillery. Every now and again a terrific explosion rent the air, followed immediately by an eruption of flaming debris that looked volcanic in its weird grandeur. London seemed to be in the grip of an angry demon that was bent on tearing it to fragments. The fire exhibited a thousand fantastic forms; it blazed in every conceivable hue and color; it roared and shrieked and sputtered; it hissed and thundered and growled. A spectacle of such vivid beauty, yet of such awful horror, had never been seen in England before. And, somewhere within the area swept by that red, red ocean of flame, was Mr. Petherick's warehouse containing all, or practically all, his earthly possessions!

But that Sunday night the soul of Walter Petherick knew no such anguish as it had known a year ago. He thought of the 'supposes.' He read once more the prophet's song of defiance and of triumph. He smiled to himself as he reflected that the flames could only take the gifts; they could not rob him of the Giver. 'Therefore,' he said to himself, 'I will rejoice in the Lord and joy in the God of my salvation'; for 'it is a small thing to lose the gifts as long as you possess the Giver; the supreme tragedy lies in losing the Giver and retaining only the gifts;' And that Sunday night, whilst London crackled and blazed, the sleep of Walter Petherick was once more like the sleep of a little child.


Again it is a Sunday evening at Twickenham. Walter Petherick has been celebrating his fiftieth birthday. Three years have passed since the Great Plague and two since the Great Fire. In the presence of the young people, he has poured out his heart in reverent gratitude for the mercies that have so richly crowned his days. And now, the soft autumn day, with its russet tints and its misty sunlight having closed, he is once more alone in his room.

'O Lord,' he prays, 'Thou hast been pleased by pestilence and by fire to redeem my soul from destruction. Thou didst threaten me with the loss of Thy choicest gifts that I might set my heart's affections once more upon their Giver. But the fig tree did not wither; the vines did not perish; the olive did not fail. The pestilence did not touch my children; the flames did not destroy my goods. Accept the thanks of Thy servant this day and help him, all his days, to rejoice in the Lord and to joy in the God of his salvation.'

And the records show that Walter Petherick lived to enjoy long life, abounding wealth, great honors, and the clinging affection of his children's children. And ever in his heart he cherished a deep, deep secret and sang a rapturous song. For he reveled, not only in the gifts, but in the Giver. He rejoiced in the Lord and joyed in the God of his salvation.