Saturday, 9 November 2013
Two Men in the Snow - Jack Stoker by Reginald Woods
The fug in the compartment was thick, the conversation heated, and the night dark. When the tram jerked to a standstill, Jack found that he had travelled two stations too far and would have a five-mile walk through the snowbound countryside.
As he trudged through the snow-drifts he happened upon a man lurching along the road ahead. The boom of Jack's rich voice as he hailed him brought the fellow to a gliding sort of halt, like a ship coming to rest at a quayside.
The stranger heaved and tossed a little as he straightened up to look into the lines of a pleasantly wrinkled face. Deep-set eyes glowed at him from beneath bushy eyebrows, but the white light of the snow thrown upward played tricks with the shadows and robbed Jack's jovial face of much of its kindliness. Even the heavy moustache which in daylight adorned his friendly mouth looked fierce and bristling in this un natural twilight. Putting the backs of his hands against his eyes, the boozer turned away with a half hysterical cry. `Don’t!' he barked, as he took two or three running steps, stopped unsteadily, and turned again to stare with frightened eyes and open mouth. `Don’t!’
Jack contemplated the pathetic figure-slightly bowed, sallow-cheeked, ragged, unkempt, dispirited - and tears welled into his eyes. His companion, seeing the new fires glowing in those depths, started whining again:
`Don't deshpishe me, mate,' he slobbered. `God knows, I'm not like thish for want o' trying to be better!'
The man was maudlin drunk and wanted to weep about his little wife breaking her heart at home because of him and his drinking, his bairns going to school without boots because their father could not pass a public-house with money in his pocket. Then he turned suddenly querulous:
`It's all right for you with your fine serge suit and your smooth clean face,' he scolded. `It's easy for folk like you to look shocked at a poor devil like me!'
Jack's heart nearly burst with love and pity. A flood of memories surged over him, and he linked arms with the boozer. The two men in the snow went rolling along the road together over the hills of South Yorkshire.
‘Mate,' said Jack, adopting his native North country way of talking, `seeing as how we're going the same way let me tell you som'at!
`When I was young I used to gamble and booze, box and fight, and go cock-fighting. But when I was twenty and fell in love with a bonny Northumbrian lassie who married me and made a lovely Christian home, I never thought of going to a pub again. I tell you, mon, I found more fun carrying my pay packet home unopened for Janie than in spending it among my pals in the pubs. The last night she was alive I tossed five gold sovereigns into her lap-and wasn't she pleased with me for it' I reckon if you really loved that little wife of yours and cared for those bairns 'he continued slowly-' you'd have another big try to help it.'
`Don’t! don’t!' whined the man. `I do try, an' I'
‘Well, listen here, mon,' Jack interrupted, `you think that I never knew what you go through. I know you could help it, for I was a hundred times worse than you've ever been, and I helped it!'
`Worse than me.' gasped the man, pulling his arm out of Stoker's. The two, silhouetted against the snow clad countryside, looked slightly ludicrous - Stoker short, broad, beaming; the drunkard sagging at the knees, leaning back almost into the form of a human question mark. `Worse than me?' he repeated.
`Do y'know, the night my Janie died left me desolate, defiant, wretched, mad, set on vengeance,' Jack went on. `I can't remember the funeral because I was too drunk the whole of that week, and for many a week after, to remember anything.
'The baby she died bringing into the world I used to take with me to the public-house. I'd lay it in its long clothes on a table and my dog'd watch over it while I boozed. Once I was out with the baby when a storm of sleet and snow came and I took off my jacket and wrapped her in it, and went on in my shirt sleeves. A bobby asked me what I'd got. I just laid the jacket on the snow and unrolled it, and there was the baby with her bottle of milk. “My God, Stoker!" he said, and let me go on.'
The two men in the snow staggered on across the white landscape, the one absorbed in his terrible memories, and the other sobering fast under the spell of the story.
`I used to go to my wife's grave,' continued Jack, `and get grass off it to carry in my bosom to have something of her near me.
`Mon, you don't know what anguish is ! I've gone at midnight with an iron rod and thrust it down so that I could touch her coffin. Whiles I've slept all night on her grave. I've lain there and asked God to send me to Hell at once. The grave-digger's come and found me in the morning wet through with the rain. "What are you going to do?" he asked me once. "If I wasn't afraid of the future, I'd cut my head off," I told him.
‘I went to pay the doctor, and when I saw him a hatred against the man who "let her die" so overcame me that I knocked him down in his own surgery and would have put him on the fire - only his assistant came in. The doctor was frightened and went away out of the town.'
`Lor', mate,' the boozer gasped, 'you used to be like that? An' you're like you are now. How did you do it?’
Jack straightened his slightly bowed legs legacy of youthful days in the cramped workings of the coal mine - and his eyes shone with a light they did not gather from the snow. He parted his bushy moustache with the manner of a man about to make a momentous admission.
`It was nothing but the grace of God,' he whispered.
The drunkard turned his head away and stared meditatively at the snow. 'Then, lifting his dim calf-like eyes for a moment, he announced in a flat and lifeless tone: `Can't be done, mate; can't be done!’
`But it has been done, I tell you!' urged Stoker. `I was worse than you've ever been. You seem to think I'm different now. Why can't it be done?'
`How'd you do it?’
`Prayer, o' course. A man can't save himself,' announced Jack as he again linked arms.
Before that part of the tale was through the two had arrived at a humble cottage where the miner's wife, heavy-eyed through watching and weeping, was waiting for her man, and not a little surprised to find him with a companion who was not drunk.
That's how it came about that Stoker who should long ago have been at home and in bed was found sitting by a stranger's fireside, drinking hot coffee and telling an enthralled audience of two the story of the great change. Presently man and wife were kneeling at the kitchen table, and the stranger was praying earnestly while they gave a tearful assent.
`Now you pray,' he suggested, but the poor fellow only cried out that he `couldn't say no prayers’.
`Never mind,' said the traveler. `The night I tried first it wasn't any good, either. I went home. I didn't know what to do, and I went into the garden-house where I'd pigeons and gamecocks, and I locked the door and went on my knees and said, "Now what shall I do? Shall I pray or swear or drink or cut my throat?" A gamecock flew at me. I kicked it away twice. Then I threw it out o' the door and I cried, "O God, if You can save a wretch like me, do! Save me, or damn me!"
`I went into the garden at ten minutes to eleven and at ten minutes past I came up a changed man, shouting that God had saved me.'
Thus encouraged, the poor drunkard and his wife both claimed the help of God to begin a new life by His grace.
Jack urged them to remember that strength to live the new life could only come by constant prayer. He told them the moving story of his own beginnings in the practice of the presence of God:
`I told my wife - the darling who's waiting at home for me now,' he explained, `that I couldn't understand how people really prayed. It seemed funny to me to be in a room alone and to carry on like a man talking to himself.'
`"Next time you go to pray," she advised me, "shut yourself in the room and take two chairs, one for yourself and one for the Saviour. Seat yourself in one and face the other, and then just talk to Him as if He were sitting there listening. Tell Him about the things in which you are most interested; ask His advice on points on which you feel you need it. Share your worries with Him and seek His help for your battles and problems."'
'And did it work' the newly converted drunkard asked.
`Mon,' Stoker burst out enthusiastically. `I did just as she had told me to do and I had not been praying long before I found myself crawling on my hands and knees to the other chair. He was sitting on that other chair listening so kindly to all my heart's outpourings.’
Meanwhile, across the hills Jack's wife was wondering why her husband had not arrived by the last train as he had intended doing. `It's funny about father,' remarked one of her sons, as the time wore on.
`Nothing's funny about your father,' smilingly corrected his mother, who knew her man after almost a lifetime of happy association with him from his earliest convert days. 'You should know that with him it's "all or nothing." He's so natural and full of honest purpose that anything he did would seem right to the people he might have met with. His simplicity and whole-heartedness let him get away with things that might be resented as crude coming from other folk.'
'Such as?' asked the boy, knowing well, as children do, what was his mother's favourite topic of conversation, and how pleasantly the time would pass if he could just get her started talking about his father.
'Such as:' Mrs. Stoker thought aloud, `such as the time your father took a boxer into the front door of a Salvation Army Hall and let him out of the back door.'
'What was that?' the boy asked, and Mrs. Stoker told again the tale of the Northern Field Day which local Salvationists had arranged to coincide with the visit of a fair to the town. The Army procession was marching along the main thoroughfare on one side of which was a large green, covered with shows and boxing booths.
Seeing the huge crowds in front of them the visiting Salvationist leader had said to Stoker, now a Salvation Army Officer: `We're in for a rough time here, Jack!'
'Not if I know it!' replied Stoker, and immediately ran up the steps of a boxing booth, warmly greeting Bill Blank, champion boxer.
'Hallo, Bill,' he said, 'whoever would have thought of meeting you here!'
'Who are you?' asked Bill, uncertainly.
`Me?' queried Stoker, adding rather ambiguously, `Haven't I seen you on Newcastle Moor?' `That's very likely,' admitted the boxer.
'Well,' said Stoker, 'take my arm and let's see if we can't remember having met each other before.'
The boxer strolled into the road just in time to be led along in front of the Salvation Army march, and, while Stoker told something of his remarkable story, the unusual sight of' the Captain marching at the head of his troops arm in arm with a notorious boxer attracted an enormous crowd. At the Hall the boxer protested: 'Here, mate, I can't come to your Meeting. I must get back to my tent.'
'That's all right,' said Stoker. 'Come in and I'll let you out by the back door.'
The boxer went in and the crowd went in behind him: the boxer went out at the back door but the crowd had to stay. Stoker took his place on the platform and held the attention of' the multitude so completely that the fun of the fair and the disappearance of the boxer were alike wholly forgotten.
`Whatever methods he adopted,' went on Mrs. Stoker. 'his purpose was always the same - to attract men and women simply that he might make them hear his message of Salvation from sin and win them to the Saviour he loves so dearly. That is why he is so successful, and that is why people really could never be offended with him.
'I remember his stopping an Open-Air Meeting more than once to take off his coat, roll up his sleeves and thrash an interrupter while I could only weep and pray. He feels everything so intensely, he lives so completely, his heart is in the job at hand.'
'Good old dad!' interrupted the boy eagerly, despite the fact that he had heard the story before.
'Oh, boy, you shouldn't!' chided his mother, but went on with undiminished zest. 'Your father, being short and genial and in Salvation Army uniform, didn't look so tough as he really was. His early work in the coal-mine had given him a grip like a vice and a punch like the kick of a mule.'
Mother had other tales to tell of his impulsive solution of every problem that presented itself. There was the day when, on the way home from an early morning Meeting, he had seen a man in rags and evident need. Taking off his jacket he had handed it to the tramp with a cheery 'Take this, old chap, it will help to keep you warm.' Jack arrived home in his shirt sleeves to ask his wife: 'Where's that old tunic of mine? I think I'll wear that to-day.'
'Oh, you told me to give it to a poor man yesterday.' she had replied.
'There was the night at Hartlepool when the Treasurer was not present at the Meeting, and Stoker had had to take charge of the collection. When it came to the time for balancing accounts, however, the collection for that night was missing. 'Who had it?' asked the Captain.
'You did, John!' replied his wife.
'So I did,' he replied, 'and now I remember that as I was going home I met a poor fellow worse off than myself, and gave him the lot.'
His impulses introduced him to many people. Once he went into the vestry to speak to the great preacher, Charles Spurgeon, who 'laughed and cried and praised God while I told him a bit of my life story.'
Some gentlemen joking on the steps of a large hotel in a south coast resort chaffed him with an invitation to come and dine with them. Stoker accepted, and while at the table told some of his history in such a way as to move the company to tears and laughter in turns. The proprietor exclaimed, 'Come and stay here for a month and have the best I've got, free of charge.'
Beguiled by the telling of such stories, the time passed pleasantly till father's footstep was heard approaching. His explanation of his lateness was: 'Well, my dear, I was talking to some fellows in the train, and just about the time I should have been getting out one of them turned serious and I could see that he wanted me to pray with him. So, while the others were quiet, he and I knelt in the compartment and he claimed God's forgiveness for his sins.'
And when his wife persisted - 'But where have you been since then?' he confessed that he had met a man on the road and 'told him some of my story, and when we got home he and his wife wanted to pray. So I stayed a little while to help them.'
It was just the sort of thing she knew had happened, and Jane Stoker was glad to have it so. The boy was sent to bed. Tired as they were, Jack and his wife stayed talking while she inquired 'what sort of a time the dear General had had.' It was a source of pride to them that William Booth found the support of Jack Stoker, with his sympathy and earnest endeavour to get men to turn from sin, something worth having in his great Meetings up and down the country.
When in a town in connection with one of William Booth's visits, Stoker would scour the public houses of the district and get drunkards and gamblers to promise to attend the meetings. On Sunday he would be beside his beloved Leader ready and willing to do anything to get these people to accept the message. If called upon to pray he would cry out:
'O Lord, I thank 'I thank Thee for coming to my poor heart - for changing my life - for meeting me when I was a drunken sot on the highway to Hell. I thank Thee for sending the Army lassies to Blyth when I was poor, reckless, helpless, without a character. Thou didst meet me then, and I thank Thee, Lord, that from that hour to this I have never had a desire to touch, taste or handle the unclean thing. Meet with these poor drunkards here, help them to serve Thee, too.'
His General loved him, too, because as he afterward wrote to some one: 'He understood my heart. He knew what I was after. I always felt certain when I had him in a Meeting that I had someone to pray and somebody who cared for sinners.’
When Jack Stoker died in February, 1911, with the rank of Major in The Salvation Army, news of his passing let loose a flood of memories:
His wife, dying of cancer in their little home, found her hours of suffering lightened by reliving the years she and her man had spent together. When first she saw him he had been in rags, standing in Blyth market place in his stockinged feet in the snow, listening to an Open Air Meeting she, as young Captain, Jane Cook, was leading. There he was without a friend and without a shilling, earning £1 a day and squandering it all in drink and gambling.
They had told her something of his early life - that the home into which he had been born in 1851 was a drunkard's home; that at the age of ten he himself had been sent to work in the coalmine and was so sleepy when he came up that his mother had had to fetch him from the pithead, take him on her knee and wash him and put him to bed as though he were a baby; that there were eight other children to care for and feed, and the little chap's wages were more than ever needed in a home where father wasted most of his earnings in drink.
Some despised the man for his dissolute manner of life. Others despaired of any transformation ever being effected in people so abandoned. But she had prayed and believed that such as he could be saved.
She recalled how, as she spoke in the Hall, compassion had brought tears to her eyes and Stoker had asked a pigeon-flying man who sat by him what she was weeping for, and when told 'for you and me, man,' he had leapt up and cried, 'If thou'll hold with me, I'll come,' and had knelt at the Penitent Form.
She remembered his struggle to find faith, and his determination to keep it. There was the day when he swore over a hurt and some one scolded him for 'breaking out.' 'Is that what you call breaking out' he asked. 'Then I'll break in right away!' and down on his knees he went at once, settling in a moment what might have led many another three week-old Convert into a distressing, purposeless muddle of mind as to what Christians meant when they talked about backsliding.
When William Booth heard of Stoker's passing he remembered the man as he had first seen him, and reflected on his and The Army's loss in the warrior's Home Call. He wrote:
'You meet to-day to mark and to mourn the loss of one of the bravest and most loyal Officers who ever fought in the ranks of The Salvation Army.’
His genial looks and hearty words and flowing wit, and above all his realization of God's great Salvation, together with his sympathy for the perishing souls around him, attracted and captivated me. I loved Major Stoker from the first.'
In Monkwearmouth, when they heard the news, they remembered how, on the day of the stone-laying ceremony for the Army building, 3,000 people had sat down to a public tea Stoker had organized so successfully that shipyards and works had to allow a holiday for the occasion.
They reminded each other of how so many drunkards had been converted as a result of this man's ministry in their midst that thirteen public houses had had to close their doors during his first three months in the town. One hundred and twenty Converts had been made on one Sunday alone.
At Chester-le-Street they remembered how he arrived in the town and before he was known to anyone there had squatted down among some miners who were sitting around the pithead.
'You've some very fair dogs here,' he said. 'Can they run any?' And the men fell to talking about the prowess of their pets. Then he took them over to a temperance hotel and stood them all drinks of ginger ale. Never a word of Salvation he spoke, only dogs and ginger ale. 'Know who he was?' someone asked the men after he had gone. 'That's the new leader of the Mission.' That night the building was absolutely packed with men and their dogs, and Stoker talked to them from eight till nearly ten with never a break for singing or prayer.
Before he had been in the town long, men were so anxious to kneel at the Penitent Form and confess their sins that they were leaping off the gallery to do so!
In another town a man who heard the news remembered his own conversion. Irreligious and blasphemous, he had assured his Salvationist wife that he would break the neck of any Army Officer who dared to set foot in his house. But he had been helpless and surprised when Stoker, rushing in one day, stood for a moment or two in front of a cage in which a canary was singing blithely, and exclaimed enthusiastically, 'My, but yon's a bird any man could be proud of!' and then apologizing for his bad manners hurried out again.
Next time he saw Stoker he had asked 'So you like birds, do you, Captain?' but the Salvationist, while declaring that he almost worshipped them, had added that he was quite unable to stay that day to discuss them. At the next Meeting, however, the man's wife announced:
'My husband says you're the only Salvation Army Officer that's ever been sent to this town who's got brains. You're to come to tea on Sunday!'
Stoker went, but did not say grace or mention religion. He was invited again and talked dogs, horses, birds, sport of every kind, but no religion. By about the sixth visit he had got as far as telling the bird fancier some of the experiences of his early days. Suddenly he put his hand on the man's shoulder and added, earnestly, 'But God has saved me from all that and made me a soul winner. And if you will cry to God He will do for you what He has done for me.'
The man had fallen on his knees and sought God's forgiveness, and now, at the time of Stoker's passing, was a well-known Local Officer in The Salvation Army's ranks.
At Blyth, his home-town and Corps, they remembered the young rough who became such a world-famous figure for his soul-winning successes, and found their sorrow mingled with justifiable pride in this son of their northern township.
At home on the funeral day Stoker's children took out treasured relics of his fatherly care and spiritual fervour. One drew out the telegram father had sent him on his last birthday-good wishes mixed up with details about the success of William Booth's Meetings, and conned again a letter in the rugged handwriting Stoker's absences from home had made familiar:
Thank God things are much better this year than last. Your own health is improved, you have got started work, and you seem to be much better in soul- more interested in the Band and Meetings . . . you ought to begin to read your Bible a little every day. If it is Just a verse it will help you to keep in touch with the Truth.
No wonder his children have grown up to share his enthusiasm for trying to get people to love God. The eldest daughter and son are Salvationists in Yorkshire; another son has the oversight of a Salvation Army Young People's Corps (Sunday school) in West London; while three sons are Salvation Army Officers - one in charge of a Corps and another of a large Men's Hostel in East London.
While the funeral cortege was on its wav to the cemetery through the crowd-lined streets of Leeds a man rushed out of the ranks of the onlookers. With tears in his eyes he told a Salvationist that he had ceased to be a Christian, but was so moved by Stoker's passing that he wished there and then to begin anew the Christian warfare.
Meanwhile at home the widow gazed with tear-dimmed eyes down the vista of the years and saw again a poor man in stockinged feet standing in the snow-ragged, ill, dejected-and she praised God for His amazing miracle-working grace and for the share she had had in leading such a man into paths of service.
Posted by David Miller at Saturday, November 09, 2013