The Flaming Cross

by Francis Clement Kelley

I.

IT was already midnight when Orville, Thornton and Callovan arose from a table of the club dining-room and came down in the elevator for their hats and coats. They had spent an evening together, delightful to all three. This dinner and chat had become an annual affair, to give the old chums of St. Wilbur's a chance to live over college days, and keep a fine friendship bright and lasting. Not one of them was old enough to feel much change from the spirit of youth. St. Wilbur's was a fresh memory and a pleasant one; and no friends of business or society had grown half so precious for any one of these three men as were the other two, whom the old college had introduced and had bound to him.

The difference in the appearance of the friends was very marked. Thornton had kept his promise of growing up as he had started: short, fat and jovial. Baldness was beginning to show at thirty-five. His stubby mustache was as unmanageable as the masters of St. Wilbur's had found its owner to be. He had never affected anything, for he had always been openly whatever he allowed himself to drift into. Neither of his friends liked many of his  actions, nor the stories told of him; but they liked him personally and were inclined to be silently sorry for him, but not to sit in judgment upon him. Both Orville and Callovan waited and hoped for "old Thornton"; but the wait had been long and the hope very much deferred.

Callovan was frankly Irish. The curly black hair of the Milesian spoke for him as clearly as the blue-gray eye. He shaved clean and he looked clean. An ancestry of hard workers left limbs that lifted him to almost six feet of strong manhood. His skin was ruddy and fresh. Two years younger than Thornton, he yet looked younger by five. And Callovan, like Thornton, was inwardly what the outward signs promised.

Orville was tall and straight. The ghost of a black mustache was on his lip. His hair was scanty, and was parted carefully. His dress showed taste, but not fastidiousness. He was handsome, well groomed and particular, without obtrusiveness in any one of the points. He was just a little taller than Callovan; but he was grayer and a great deal more thoughtful. He was a hard book to read, even for an intimate; but the print was large, if the text was puzzling. He looked to be "in" the world, but who could say if he were "of" it?

All three of these friends were very rich. Thornton had made his money within five years—a lucky mining strike, a quick sale, a move to the city, speculation,  politics were mixed up in a sort of rapid-fire story that the other friends never cared to hear the details of. Callovan inherited his wealth from his hard-fisted old father, who had died but a year before. Orville was the richest of the three. He had always been rich. His father had died a month before he was born. His mother paid for her only child with her life. Orville's guardian had, as soon as possible, placed him in St. Wilbur's Preparatory School and then in the College; but he was a careful and wise man, this guardian, so, though plenty of money was allowed him, yet the college authorities had charge of it. They doled it out to the growing boy and youth in amounts that could neither spoil nor starve him. It was good for Orville that the guardian had been thus wise and the college authorities thus prudent. He himself was generous and kind-hearted; by nature a spendthrift, but by training just a bit of a miser. He had learned a little about values during these school and college days.

"Your car is not here yet, Mr. Orville," said the doorman, when the three moved to leave the club.

"Very unlike your careful Michael," remarked Callovan.

Orville came at once to the defense of his exemplary chauffeur. "I gave him permission to go to St. Mary's to-night for confession," he said. "Michael will be here in a moment. He goes to confession  every Saturday night and is a weekly communicant. I can stand a little tardiness once a week for the sake of having a man like Michael around."

"Good boy is Michael," put in Thornton. "I wish I could get just a small dose of his piety. Candidly, I am awfully lonesome sometimes without a little of it.

A page came running up. "Telephone for you, Mr. Orville," he said; and at almost the same moment the doorman called out: "Your car is here now, sir." Orville went to the telephone booth, but returned in a moment.

"Lucky for us that we waited," he said. "It was Marion who called. She is at the Congress, and she wants me to take her home. She came down-town with her brother to meet the Dixes from Omaha, and that worthless pup has gone off and left her. She knew that I was here to-night, and 'phoned, hoping to catch me. We will pass around by the hotel and take her back with us."

When the friends came out, Michael was standing with his hand on the knob of the big limousine's door. "I am sorry if I made you wait, sir," he said. "I had a fainting spell in the church and could not get away sooner. A doctor said it was a little heart attack; but I am all right now."

Orville answered kindly. "I am sorry you were ill, Michael, but we are glad enough that you were late. That ill wind for you blew good to us, for  we have Miss Fayall home with us. If you had been on time we would have missed her. Go around to the Congress first."

The car glided down Michigan avenue to the hotel, where Marion was already waiting in the ladies' lobby. She looked just what she was, the pampered and petted daughter of a rich man. Tonight her cheeks were flushed and her hand was very unsteady. Orville noticed both when she entered the car. He was startled, for Marion was his fiancée. He knew that she was usually full of life and spirit; but this midnight gaiety worried him, and all the more that he loved the girl sincerely.

Marion talked fast and furiously, railing continually at her brother; but she averted her face from Orville as much as possible and spoke to Thornton. Orville said nothing after he had greeted her.

The car sped on, passed the club again and down toward the bridge at the foot of the avenue. Marion was scolding at Thornton as they approached the bridge at a good rate of speed. Orville was staring straight ahead, so only he saw Michael's hand make a quick movement toward the controller, and another movement, at the same time, as if his foot were trying to press on the brake; but both movements seemed to fall short and Michael's head dropped on his breast. Alarmed, Orville looked up. He had a swift glimpse of a flashing red light. A chain snapped like a pistol shot. He heard an oath from  Thornton, and a scream from Marion. Then, in an instant, he felt the great weight falling, and a flood of cold water poured through the open window of the car. He tried to open the door, but the weight of water against it made this impossible. The car filled and the door moved. He was pushed out. He thought of saving Marion; but all was dark around him. He tried to call, but the water choked him. He could only think a prayer, before he seemed to be falling asleep. Everything was fading away before him, in a strange feeling of dreamy satisfaction; so only vaguely did he realize the tragedy that had fallen upon him.

II.

WHEN light and vision came back to Orville, he was standing up and vaguely wondering why. Before him he saw Thornton and Marion, side by side. Near them was Callovan with Michael. All were changed; but Orville could not understand just in what the change consisted. In Thornton and Marion the change was not good to look at, and Orville somehow felt that it was becoming more marked as he gazed. Michael was almost transformed, and was looking at Orville with a smile on his face. Callovan was smiling also, so Orville naturally smiled back at them. Thornton was frowning, and Marion looked horrible in her terror.  Orville could understand nothing of it. He glanced about him and saw thousands of men and women, all smiling or frowning, like his companions. Several seemed to be about to begin a journey and were moving away from the groups, most of them alone. Some had burdens strapped to their shoulders and bent under them as they walked. Those who were not departing were preparing for departure; but Orville could see no guides about. All the travelers appeared to understand where they were to go.

Orville watched the groups divide again and again, wondering still, not knowing the reason for the division. Some took a road that led upward to a mountain. It was a rough, hard and tiresome road. Orville could see men and women far above on that road, dragging themselves along painfully. Another road led down into a valley; but Orville could not see deep into that valley, because of a haze which hung over it. He looked long at the road before he noticed letters on a rock which rose up like a gateway to it, and he vaguely resolved that later he would go over and read them. But first he wanted to ask questions.

"Michael, what does all this mean?" Orville said; all the time marveling that it was to his servant he turned for information.

Michael still smiled, and answered: "It means, sir, that we are dead." 

Orville was astonished that he felt neither shocked nor startled. "Dead? I do not quite understand, Michael. You are not joking?"

"No, sir. It happened quickly. We went over the bridge a minute ago. Our bodies are in the river now, but we are here."

"Where?" asked Orville.

Michael answered, "That I do not know, sir, except that we are in The Land of the Dead."

"But you seem to know a great deal, Michael," said Orville.

"Yes," answered Michael; "I died a minute before you, sir, so I came earlier. I was dead on my seat when we struck the chain and broke it. One learns much in a minute here. But tell me, sir, can you see anything at the top of that mountain?"

Orville looked up and saw a bright light before him on the very summit and seemingly at the end of the road. As he gazed it took the form of a Flaming Cross.

"I see a Cross on fire, Michael," he said. Michael answered simply: "Thank God."

"I can see a Flaming Cross, too," said Callovan, speaking for the first time. "I can see it, and what is more, I am going up to it; let us not delay an instant"; and Callovan began to gird his strange-looking garment about him for the climb.

Then Orville knew that he himself was drawn toward that Flaming Cross. There was a something  urging him on. His whole being was filled with a desire to get to that goal, and he, too, prepared quickly for the ascent.

"Wait a moment, sir," said Michael. "Do the others see nothing on the mountain?"

Thornton and Marion, still frowning, were looking down into the haze of the valley. They were paying no attention to their friends.

"Come, let us go," said Thornton to the girl, as he pointed to the road which led down into the valley.

"No, no," said Michael, "not there. Look up at the mountain. What do you see?"

Both Marion and Thornton glanced upward. "I see nothing," said Marion.

"I see a Cross, but it is black and repellant-looking," said Thornton. "Come, Marion, let us go at once."

Orville, alarmed, called out: "Marion, you will surely come with me."

The frown on her face changed to a look of awful sadness, but she put her hand into Thornton's while saying to Orville: "I can not go there with you—not upward. I must enter the valley with him." She moved away, her hand still in Thornton's. Orville watched them go, only wondering why he had no regrets.

"Michael," he said, "I loved her on earth. Why am I unmoved to see her leave me?"

"But when their feet touched the road, they turned and
looked their terror."

"But when their feet touched the road, they turned and looked their terror."

 

But Michael answered, "It is not strange in The Land of the Dead. There are stranger partings here; but all of them are like yours—tearless for those who see the Cross."

Thornton and Marion by this time had entered the valley road and were on the other side of the rock gateway. But when their feet touched the road they turned and looked their terror. Suddenly they recoiled and struck viciously at each other. Then they parted. With the wide road between them they went down into the valley and the haze together.

Orville read the words on the rock gateway, for now they stood out so that he could see plainly, and they were: "THE ROAD WITHOUT ENDING." "Michael," he said, "what does it mean?"

Michael answered, "She could not see the Cross here, who would not see it on earth. It repelled him, who so often had repelled it in life."

III.

NEITHER Orville nor Callovan was at all moved by the tragedy each had witnessed. Orville's love for Marion was as if it had never existed. The friendship of both for Thornton did not in the slightest assert itself. They felt moved to sorrow, but the overpowering sense of another feeling—a feeling of victory for some Great Friend or Cause—left the vague sorrow forgotten in an instant. Both men  knew that Thornton and Marion had passed out of their ken forever, and in the future would be to them as if they had not been. All three made haste to go toward the road which led up to the Flaming Cross. Then upon Orville's shoulders he felt a heavy burden, but still heavier was one which was bending Callovan down. Michael alone stood straight, without a weight upon him.

"It will be hard to climb to the Cross with these burdens, Michael," said Orville.

"Yes, sir, it will," said Michael, "but you must carry them. You brought them here. They are the burdens of your wealth. They will hamper you; but you saw the Cross, and in the end all will be well."

"Then these burdens, Michael, are our riches?" asked both Orville and Callovan in the same breath.

"They are your riches," replied Michael. "I have no burden, for I had no riches. Poor was I on earth, and unhampered am I now for the climb to the Cross. Look yonder." He pointed to a man standing at the fork of the roads. His burden was weighing him to the earth. "He brought it all with him, sir," continued Michael; "in life he gave nothing to God. Now he must carry the burden up to the Cross, or leave it and go the other road. He sees the Cross, too; but it will take ages for him to reach it."

The man had thrown down the burden and now started to climb without it. But unseen hands lifted  it back to his shoulders. Men and women going to the other road beckoned him to throw it away again and come with them; but he had seen the Cross and, keeping his eyes fixed upon it, he crawled along with his burden upon him, inch by inch, up the mountain.

"In life he was good and faithful, but he did not understand that riches were given him to use for a purpose and that he was not, himself, the purpose," said Michael. "It was a miracle of grace that he could see the Cross at all."

"I knew that man in life," said Callovan. "But why is not my burden heavier than his? I was richer by far."

"You lightened it by more charity than he," said Michael, "but you did not lighten it sufficiently: Had you given even one-tenth of all that you had, you would now be even as I am—free of all burden."

"I wish I had known that," said Callovan.

"But, alas! you did know," replied Michael. "We all knew these things. We are not learning them now. But look up, sir, and see the old man with the heavy burden above you. You are going to pass him on your way, yet he has been dead now for a year."

Callovan looked up and gasped: "My father!"

"Yes; your father," said Michael. "You had more charity than he, and when you did give you gave with better motives; yet he always saw the  Cross more plainly than you. He was filled with Faith."

"Is it possible that I will be able to help him when I get to his side?" asked Callovan.

"I think," replied Michael, "that you may; but you could have helped him better in life by prayers and the Great Sacrifice. You probably may go along with him, when you reach him, for you both see the Cross, and perhaps you will be allowed to aid him up the mountain."

They had by this time reached the first steps of the climb. Orville could read the words which marked the mountain road: "THE ROAD OF PAIN AND HOPE."

"But the Cross draws much of the pain out of it," said Michael. "We must leave you here, sir," he said to Callovan, turning to him. "You have far to go to reach your father; but your load is heavier than my master's, and then you must be lonely for a while."

"But why must I be lonely?" asked Callovan.

"For many reasons, sir," replied Michael. "You will know them all as you go along. Knowledge will come. I may tell you but a few things now. In life you loved company, and it was often an occasion of sin to you. You go alone for a while in the Land of Death, on this pilgrimage to the Cross, so that you may contemplate God, Whom you failed to enjoy by meditation, when you could have had Him  alone. Then you have few to pray for you now, for such companions as you had in life did not and do not pray. They will cover your coffin with flowers; but the only prayers will be those of the poor whom you befriended. One priest, after your funeral, will offer the Great Sacrifice for you. He was a friend whom you helped to educate. He will remember you at your burial, and again, too, before the climb is over."

"But, Michael," said Callovan, "I gave a great deal to many good works. Will none of the gifts count for me?"

"Yes, sir, it is true that you did give much, but," answered Michael, "the gifts were offerings more often to your own vanity than they were to God. Motives alone govern the value of sacrifice in the Land of Death. Look, now, behind you. There is one who can best answer your question."

Callovan turned to see an old and venerable looking man at the fork of the roads. He was gazing anxiously at the mountain, as if he dimly saw the Cross; but his burden was terrific in its weight. It rested on the ground before him. He scarcely had the courage to take the mountain road, knowing that the burden must go with him.

"I have seen that man before," said Orville. "They gave him a reception at our club once. He was a great philanthropist—yet, look at his burden." 

"Philanthropist he was, but I fear he will go on The Road without Ending," said Michael. "He has many amongst those who can hate for eternity to hate him."

Suddenly from the multitude of the dead came men and women, who looked with hatred upon the old man, and surrounded him on every side and menaced him with threatening fists. "Beast!" shouted one. "I saw the Cross in life, when I was young. The unbelief your work taught denies me the sight of it in death. I curse you!"

"One year in the schools you founded," wailed another, "lost me my God."

"Why do you stand at the foot of the hill of the Cross, you hypocrite?" cried another. "You have, in the name of a false science, encouraged by your gifts, destroyed the Faith of thousands. You shall not go by The Road of Pain and Hope, even though you might have to climb till Judgment. You shall go with us."

Screaming in terror, the old man was dragged away. They could hear his voice in the distance, as the multitude drove him along The Road without Ending.

"Alas, I understand—now," sadly said Callovan. He gazed at his friends with some of the pain of his coming solitude in his eyes. "Good-bye. Shall we meet again?"

Michael answered: "We shall meet again. Your  pain may be very great; but there is an end. He who sets his foot on this Road has a promise which makes even pain a blessing."

Callovan was left behind, for Orville and Michael climbed faster than he.

"Michael," said his master, "I am greatly favored. He was much better in life than I, yet now he climbs alone."

"You are not favored, sir," answered Michael. "Many pray for you, because you loved the poor and sheltered and aided them. He has all that is his, all that belongs to him. You have all that is yours. Do not forget that we are marching toward the Sun of Justice."

And so they went on, over The Road of Pain and Hope. Orville's feet were weary and bleeding. His hands and knees were bruised by falls. The adders stung him and the thorns pierced him. Cold rain chilled him and warm blasts oppressed him. He was one great pain; but within a voice that was his own kept saying: "I go to the Cross, I go to the Cross," and he forgot the suffering. He thought of earth for an instant; but the thought brought him no longing to return. His breast was swelling and seemed bursting with a wonderful great Love that made him content with every tortured step. He even seemed to love the pain; and he could not stop, nor could he rest for the Flaming Cross that was drawing him on. He longed for it with a burning and intense  desire. His eyes were wet with the tears of devotion, and his whole being cried out: "More pain, O Lord! more pain, if only I may sooner reach the Cross!"

But Michael tried to ease his master's burden.

At last Orville said to him: "How many ages have passed since I died?"

"You have been dead for ten minutes, sir," answered Michael. "The minutes are as ages in the Land of Death until you reach the Cross, and then the ages are as minutes."

IV.

THEY kept toiling on, but had known no darkness along The Road of Pain and Hope. Orville's hand sought Michael's, and it opened to draw him closer. "Michael, my brother," he said, "may you tell me why there is no night?"

Michael smiled again when Orville called him "brother" and answered: "Because, my master, on The Road of Pain and Hope there is no despair; but it is always night along The Road without Ending."

"Can you tell me, Michael, my brother," said Orville, "Why my eyes suffer more keenly than all the rest?"

"Because," said Michael, "your eyes, master,  have offended most in life, and so are now the weakest."

"But my hands have offended, too," said Orville, "and behold, they are already painless and cured of the bruises."

"Your hands are beautiful and white, master," said Michael, "and were little punished, because they were often outstretched in charity and in good deeds."

They had come to the brink of a Chasm which it seemed impossible to cross, but they hoped, for they knew no despair. Multitudes of people were before them on the brink of the Chasm looking longingly at the other side. A few pilgrims were being lifted, by unseen hands, and carried across the Chasm. Some Power there was to bear them which neither Orville nor Michael understood. Many, however, had waited long, while some were taken quickly. Every hand was outstretched toward the Cross, and it could easily be seen that waiting was a torture worse than the bruises.

"Alas, Michael," said Orville, "it is harder to suffer the wait than the pain."

"Yes, master," Michael replied, "but this is The Chasm of Neglected Duties. We must stay until those we have fulfilled may come to bear us across. The one who goes first will await the other on the opposite side."

"Alas, Michael," said Orville, "you must wait  for me. I have few good deeds and few duties well done."

Even as he spoke, Michael's face began to shine and his eyes were melting. Orville looked and saw a little child with great wings, and beautiful beyond all dreaming. Her gaze was fixed on Michael with the deepest love and longing. Her voice was like the music of a harp, and she spoke but one little word:

"Daddy!"

"Bride! My little Bride," whispered Michael.

Orville knew her, Michael's first-born child, who had died in infancy. He remembered her funeral. In pity for poor Michael, and feeling a duty toward his servant, he had followed the coffin to the church and to the grave, and had borne the expenses of her burial. His friends wondered at such consideration for one so far beneath him.

"Daddy," whispered the beautiful spirit, "I am to bring you across, and master, too. God sent me. And, daddy, there are millions of children who could bring their parents over quickly, if they had only let them be born. It was you and mother, daddy, who gave me life, baptism and Heaven. Had I lived only a minute, it would have been worth it. And, daddy, mother is coming soon, and I am waiting for you both."

Then the beautiful child touched and supported them, and lo! they were wafted across The Chasm of Neglected Duties: Michael, because he followed  the command and made his marriage a Holy Sacrament to fulfil the law of God; Orville, because he had shown mercy and recognition of his servant's claim upon him.

Without understanding why, Orville found himself repeating over and over again the words: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." Michael heard him and turned to say: "Yes, master, and 'Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God'! How well it was for us that we had the heart of a child to plead our cause when we came to The Chasm of Neglected Duties."

V.

"MICHAEL," said Orville, after a long and tiresome climb over a steep part of the Road, "these rocks are sharp and treacherous, and I have toiled hard and have made but very little progress."

"I know, master," said Michael, "but these rocks are the little faults of our lives. Such rocks cover the mountain at this spot and are constantly growing more numerous, yet one meets only one's own. The Plain is not far away now. We are just reaching it, and these stones are the only way to it."

"What Plain is it, Michael?" asked Orville.

"It is called, master," said Michael, "The Plain of Sinful Things. It is between us and the foot of the Cross." 

"Is it hard to pass over, Michael?" again asked Orville.

"It is very hard to most men, sir," said Michael. "No one knows how hard who has not been on it; and yet when one has been over, one remembers nothing, for all is forgotten when The Flaming Cross is reached."

They stood now at the top of the stones, and on the edge of the vast Plain, which lay white and scorching before them. Multitudes, as far as the eye could see, were upon it. They struggled painfully along; but none stopped to rest, for all faces were turned to The Flaming Cross.

Michael took but one step and a great change came over him. Orville looked at him again and again, but Michael did not seem to notice the change in himself. His face shone with a marvelous beauty. His garments became robes of brilliant white. About his head a light played, the like of which Orville had never seen. It was more wondrous than dreams of Paradise. His bleeding feet were healed and shone like his visage. Orville thought that he heard sweet voices about Michael, but voices which spoke to Michael only.

"Michael, my brother," he said, "what is this; tell me?" and Orville's voice sounded soft, as if he were praying. "Michael, who are you?"

But Michael only smiled kindly and humbly. "I am none other than your servant, sir," he answered.  "He who serves, reigns; for his glory is in the service. I will be with you to the foot of the Cross. In life you were a good master. You will need me until you reach your own Master there." Michael pointed to where the Cross shone out over the blistering Plain.

Then they went on, but the heat penetrated to Orville's very marrow and he seemed to faint under it, yet he always kept struggling forward. The burning sands cooked his bleeding feet, but the anguish did not halt him. Torrents of tears and sweat rolled down from him, but his hunger for the Cross made him forget. To his pain-racked body it felt as if the Cross gave out the great heat, but Orville was more grateful than ever for it.

"Does this heat really come from the Cross, Michael?" he asked.

"Yes, from the Cross, master," said Michael, "for this is The Plain of Sinful Things, and the Cross is the Sun of Justice."

Then like a flash Orville began to understand, even as Michael had understood from the beginning. Michael saw the change in him. His face became more radiant before he spoke.

"Master," he said, "my service is almost over. It was my prayer constantly that I could return your goodness to me and mine; but on earth you were rich and I was poor. Here, master, in The Land of the Dead, I am rich and you are poor. God let me  make my pilgrimage with you. The child you buried when I had nothing, bore you over The Chasm of Neglected Duties, where your hardest lot was to be found. You did not even see another Chasm, which almost all meet, The Chasm of Forgotten Things, for the prayers gathered in a little chapel which you builded in a wilderness, a charity you forgot the day after you did it, filled up the Chasm before you came to it. Here on The Plain of Sinful Things we would naturally separate, for I had never wilfully sinned against God. But you needed me, and He let me stay. Master, your burden has fallen from you."

It was true. Orville was standing erect, with his eyes looking straight at The Flaming Cross, which did not blind him. His burden had vanished, and his face had almost the radiance of Michael's.

"The Cross is near you now, master. Look, It comes toward you. Your pilgrimage is ending."

Orville could see It coming, gently and slowly. The Plain was now all behind him, and yet it seemed as if he had scarcely gone over more than a few yards of it. The harping of a thousand harps was not sweet enough for the music that filled the air. Like the falling of many waters in the distance came the promise of coolness to Orville's parched throat and his burning lips. His breast heaved and he felt his heart, full of Love, break in his bosom; but with it broke the bond of Sin, and he knew that he was  dead, indeed, to earth, as out from the stainéd cover came his purified soul.

The Cross was close to him now. With his new spiritual vision he saw that in form it was One like himself, but One with eyes that were soft and mild and full of tenderness, with arms outstretched and nail-prints like glittering gems upon them, with a wounded side and out from it a flood pouring which cooled the parched sands, so that from them the flowers sprang up, full panoplied in color, form and beauty, and sweetly smelling. Around The Flaming Cross fluttered countless wings, and childish voices made melody, soft and harmonious beyond all compare. All else that Orville ever knew vanished before the glance of the Beloved; faces and forms dearest and nearest, old haunts and older affections, all were melted into this One Great Love that is Eternal. The outstretched arms were wrapped around them. The blood from the wounded side washed all their pains from them. On their foreheads fell the Kiss of Peace, and Orville and Michael had come home.