AN ANGEL OF GOD

A TRUE STORY

BY ELLEN THORNEYCROFT FOWLER

"You may talk about the Germans as much as you like," remarked Mrs. Batterby with her customary decision; "but, for my part, I have no doubt that we shall beat them in the end: no doubt whatsoever!"

"Still, the German hosts are very numerous, and their artillery is magnificent," said Mrs. Veale, who, much as she longed for the defeat of Germany, longed for the defeat of Mrs. Batterby still more.

Little Miss Skipworth hastened, as usual, to thrust in the olive-branch. "Dear Mrs. Batterby is thinking of the superior courage of our brave English soldiers," she explained gently.

But Mrs. Batterby could not stand being Bowdlerised, or even translated. "No, I wasn't, Matilda; at least not at that particular minute, though nobody admires the courage of the British Army more than I do, and always have done, and especially with Lord Kitchener at their head and in action against the enemy. I've got a very high opinion of the British soldier myself; none higher: much too high, in fact, to allow him to wear a collar to his bed-jacket like the one you are making, Matilda, without speaking a word in his defence."

Matilda collapsed at once: she was composed of the most collapsible material ever provided for the manufacture of souls. "What is wrong with my collar, Mrs. Batterby? I thought I was exactly copying the pattern sent to us by the Red Cross. Anyway, I was trying to do so."

"Trying and succeeding are two different things, which I should have thought you'd have found out by this time, Matilda, and you five-and-forty, if you are a day! Give me the collar, and I'll fix it for you, or else the wounded soldier that wears it will wish he had died in the trenches before he had the chance of putting it on."

It was the afternoon of the Red Cross weekly working-party, held in the village of Summerglade, in the early stages of the Great War. The party was a small one, consisting of Mrs. Batterby, a farmer's wife, in whose parlour the meeting was held; Mrs. Veale, the wife of the village doctor; Mrs. Windybank, a gloomy widow; and Miss Skipworth, an ingenuous and tender-hearted spinster. Between Mrs. Batterby and Mrs. Veale there existed a bitter and abiding warfare.

"May I ask what you were thinking of—if not of the bravery of our own dear soldiers—when you expressed your assurance of the ultimate success of the Allied Forces?" asked Mrs. Veale, with her needle in her fingers and the light of battle in her eye.

"By all means," replied Mrs. Batterby; "and, a civil question demanding a civil answer, I don't mind telling you that I feel sure we shall win, because we know that God is on our side and is fighting for us."

"But their numbers are so great and their guns so magnificent," repeated Mrs. Windybank with a lugubrious sigh. "I sometimes fear that they will win in the end, and we shall all be blown up by Zeppelins and trampled underfoot. I'm sure I pray every morning that our armies may win, but I tremble when I think of the forces against us."

"So did the Prophet's servant till his eyes were opened and he saw the mountain full of horses and chariots," replied Mrs. Batterby. "But some folk's eyes seem made not to open, like the stained-glass windows in Summerglade Church."

"It is right to pray, but we must beware of presumptuousness in our prayers," said Mrs. Veale sententiously.

"We'd much better beware of want of faith," retorted the hostess.

"But it is difficult to have faith when things seem going against us," said Matilda Skipworth.

"Stuff and nonsense, Matilda! It's when things seem going against us that our faith is really any compliment to the Almighty. I can't see anything very complimentary to Him when every morning I pray with faith, 'Give us this day our daily bread,' knowing all the time that it's in the larder with a damp cloth over it. But it's when people pray that particular prayer, with no bread in the house and no money to pay for any, that their faith is any compliment to God or worthy of His acceptance."

"I know my faith is very feeble and my prayers are unworthy," sighed Miss Skipworth, "but I do try to believe. Still, I cannot help envying the Prophet's servant who saw the horses and the chariots fighting on his side. I wish we could see the angel hosts fighting for us. I do so wish that we had appearances of that kind nowadays: it would make faith so much easier and life altogether so much more beautiful."

"But it would not be in accordance with God's teaching in these later times. Such assistance to faith as the appearance of saints and angels would not be at all in accordance with our modern religious thought, and I am sure that the Almighty would not permit it," said Mrs. Veale.

"I am not so sure of that," retorted Mrs. Batterby. "I think that visions of angels are granted to-day to those that have eyes to see them, just as they were in Old Testament times."

"Oh! Mrs. Batterby," exclaimed Matilda in excitement, "do you really believe that?"

"I do. But I don't believe that the angels appear as you would expect them, Matilda—all got up in harps and crowns and flaming swords. I believe that when they come nowadays they look so commonplace and what you might call ordinary-looking, that only those folks that have the eye of faith can perceive them at all. They can see them all right, mind you! But they can't recognise them as the angels of God."

"How I should like to see somebody who had actually seen an angel!" sighed Miss Skipworth.

"Did you ever come across any one who had enjoyed such an experience, Mrs. Batterby?" asked Mrs. Veale in a sceptical tone.

"Yes, I did, Mrs. Veale—that is, if you can say that you ever came across yourself."

"Oh, how interesting!—how very interesting!" cried Miss Skipworth. "But you don't look at all the sort of person that would see angels and spirits."

Mrs. Batterby took the last remark as a compliment; as indeed it was intended. "That's just my point, Matilda. The real angels don't look like the Scripture-picture sort of angels; and they don't appear to the high-flown, star-gazing sort of people who are always looking for them."

"Do tell us what you saw, Mrs. Batterby," besought the emotional Matilda.

"And also what calamity it foretold," added Mrs. Windybank. "I always believe that supernatural appearances precede some terrible misfortune."

"Well, my experience, or whatever you call it, happened five-and-thirty years ago, and no calamity has happened to me since. On the contrary, it taught me that no calamity could happen to me as long as I lay safe in my Heavenly Father's Hand. That's just the lesson that I learnt from it."

"Do tell us the story," urged Miss Skipworth.

"I will, Matilda, if you'll get on with your bed-jacket, and not leave off your sewing whenever anybody speaks, as if your hearing lay in your fingers, and you couldn't sew and listen at the same time.

"Well, when I was a young woman I lived with an aunt in Merchester who kept a stationer's shop; and every Sunday I used to walk over to see my mother who lived at a village about three miles off, she being a widow and keeping the post-office there and my two little sisters as well.

"It was one Sunday in September—one of those deceitful sort of days that look like summer, and then take you all of a heap by getting dark before you can say Jack Robinson—and I had been spending the day with my mother as usual; I stayed for the evening service, it being the Sunday-school Anniversary and a special preacher for the occasion; quite a young man, but one of the finest preachers I ever heard. Though it was five-and-thirty years ago, I remember that sermon as if I'd heard it last Sunday."

"What was it about?" asked Mrs. Windybank. "For my part, I always enjoy funeral-sermons the most; but I've heard some very sweet ones in times of war, and on the last Sundays in the Old Year."

"It was on the very subject that Matilda was speaking about—in fact, it was her conversation that recalled the whole incident to my mind. The text was, 'Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him'; and the preacher said—what I've just being saying to you—that the angels of God meet us far oftener than we think; only we are so busy looking out for them to come in our own particular way that we don't recognise them. Unless they are in their flowing robes with their harps and halos and fiery swords, we don't know that they are angels at all: which is just as stupid of us as if we didn't believe we'd seen the Queen, unless we'd seen her with her crown on. I remember that this impressed us very much: Queen Victoria had just been to Merchester to lay the foundation-stone of some public building or other (I forget what), and we had all cried at seeing her in a widow's bonnet; it seemed to make her so much more real and human than if she'd had her crown on. I'm sure that black bonnet brought her nearer to our hearts than all the Crown Jewels out of the Tower of London could have done; and taught us to love and reverence her as a woman as well as obey and serve her as a Queen. And so, as the young minister said, it ought to be with the angels; because when the Lord came among us, He came as One of ourselves, and led us by the paths that we were used to.

"Well, the sermon was so grand, and the hymn after the sermon so beautiful—I remember it was a six-lines-eight, sung to the tune called Stella, and mother and I swayed to it till we kept bumping against each other—that by the time we got out of chapel it was quite dark—so dark that mother didn't like the idea of my walking to Merchester alone, as it was three miles at the least, and along a very lonely road. But there was nobody to go with me, and I was bound to get back to aunt's that night, for some special reason that I forget now; so—like it or not like it—I had to go, though I was very timid."

"Oh, how dreadful! I should have been terrified," groaned Miss Skipworth. "I don't wonder that you were frightened."

"I shouldn't have minded if I'd been your age, Matilda: surely a woman of five-and-forty is old enough to go anywhere by herself! But I was only eighteen, and that makes all the difference."

Matilda returned a soft answer—or, to be more accurate, a soft question.

"Then did you venture, Mrs. Batterby?"

"Of course I did: there was nothing else to do; and I didn't want mother to know I was frightened for fear of worrying her. But I didn't like it, I can tell you; and I started with my heart in my mouth, ready to jump at my own shadow. And then it came into my mind (I remember it as if it had happened last night) that I was a poor sort of Christian to enjoy a sermon and then make no sort of effort to put it into practice; in fact, that I was only a hearer of the Word, and not a doer, letting God's message go in at one ear and out at the other, leaving nothing behind it. So I set to to pray that as I went on my way the angels of God might meet me, as they met Jacob, and save me from all harm. And what with the excitement of the sermon, and my own fears, and the darkness of the road, I got worked up to such a pitch that I shouldn't have been surprised if a white-robed angel with shining wings had flown over the hedge and perched beside me."

"Which, of course, no angel did," interrupted Mrs. Veale.

"That is as may be," retorted Mrs. Batterby darkly. "In the middle of my prayer I heard a rustle in the hedge on the side of the road, which, of course, I thought was a thief lying in wait to waylay me and murder me, and I prayed harder and harder. But then, in the fading light, I perceived that it was no thief, but a huge yellow collie dog, such as they have for minding sheep."

"Oh dear!" said Miss Skipworth; "I should have been as much afraid of a strange dog as of a strange man, if I'd been you."

"Fortunately, however, you weren't me, nor ever likely to be, which seems fortunate for all parties concerned," replied her hostess dryly. "And as for being afraid of a dog—why! I'd been accustomed to dogs from a child, though I'm not the one to deny that collies are uncertain in temper and apt to snap at strangers unawares. So I spoke kindly to this one, in case it should take me for a thief come after its master's sheep; though where the sheep were I hadn't a notion, there being nothing but cornfields ready for cutting on both sides of the road, the harvest being very late that year."

"It was rather foolish, to my thinking, to speak to it at all," remarked Mrs. Windybank. "I had a friend once who spoke to a strange collie; and it bit her thimble finger so badly that she was never able to sew properly again."

"Then she must have said the wrong thing to it," replied Mrs. Batterby; "and it served her right. I know when folks say the wrong thing to me, I'd give anything to be able to bite their thimble finger, and dogs feel the same as we do. But to get on with my story. The dog came up to me quite friendly-like, and didn't attempt to snap or anything; but though it came close to me, it wouldn't let me touch or pet it. It shied away the moment I put out my hand to fondle it. So—being accustomed to dogs and their ways—I treated it as it evidently wished to be treated, and just talked to it pleasantly as it trotted along by my side."

"Then it followed you?" asked Miss Skipworth.

"Yes; all the way to Merchester, just as if it had been my own dog. When there was nobody in sight, it ran backwards and forwards and scampered about by itself; but whenever we met anybody—and we met some nasty-looking tramps, I can tell you, that I should have been terrified to meet alone—it came close to me, looking that big and fierce that the tramps kept well to the other side of the road, as far away from us as they could; and it stalked by me till they were out of sight, as is the way of collies when they scent danger ahead. I can't tell you how delighted I was to have found such a splendid pet; and I made up my mind to take it home with me and keep it, unless some one claimed it; as aunt and I had long wanted a house-dog to take care of the shop at nights. And, besides, I thought it would be such a nice companion for me on all the long country-walks which I was so fond of taking out of shop-hours."

"And did any one ever come and claim it?" asked Miss Skipworth with breathless interest.

"No; never. It followed me all the way to Merchester, wagging its tail whenever I spoke to it, and looking up at me with its soft brown eyes as friendly as never was; but it never let me touch it, though I tried to pat it once or twice."

"And you took it home with you, the dear creature?"

Mrs. Batterby shook her head. "It followed me right into Merchester; but when I was safe in the town among all the gas-lamps and the people and the traffic, it turned round and scampered back along the road by which we had come. I whistled to it to come back, but it took no notice; and the last I saw of it was its yellow coat disappearing into the darkness."

Miss Skipworth gave a deep sigh. "And you never saw it again?"

"Never."

"And you never found out who it belonged to?"

A look came into Mrs. Batterby's eyes that was new to Miss Skipworth. "I wouldn't say that. As a matter of fact, I believe I did find out Who it belonged to."

"I suppose it was the sheep-dog of one of the neighbouring farmers," suggested Mrs. Veale.

"Some might suppose so; but I don't," replied Mrs. Batterby, still with that wonderful smile in her sharp grey eyes. "For my part, I believe it was one of the angels of God."