"You needn't say it's wrong, Geoff--I know it sounds wrong, but Good Friday is a dull day. It all happened so long ago, you see, and now we've been to church what can we do this afternoon?"
Geoffrey was a boy of resources.
"Let's go and see Daddy," he suggested, and Stella gladly agreeing, they started at once for the cottage in the middle of the common where lived the best-loved man in all the country-side.
It was generally understood that "Daddy," as everyone called him, was only half an Englishman, but of all else concerning him the village was profoundly ignorant, though he had lived in that cottage for nearly thirty years. He was old now and frail, and the people who loved him so dearly despaired of ever hearing his story.
Some day they would knock at the little door and there would be no answer, for the time would have come for Daddy to sleep.
But for the present he was there, and to him, in all times of trouble, in all times of gladness, men, women, and little children made their way, sure of welcome.
The cottage contained two rooms, but into the inner one no one was ever invited to enter. Children wondered curiously what Daddy was often so busy at there. Mysterious hammerings and gentle chip ping sounds might be heard as they approached, but when timidly questioned by the bolder ones he would smile and shake his head, softening the refusal by taking the questioner on his knee and telling such stories as only Daddy knew how to tell.
He was standing in the porch as Stella and Geoffrey approached, and apparently did not see them till they were quite near, for he was gazing straight before him with a fixed stern look that almost frightened them, and they drew back.
Then he saw them and smiled.
"Well, little people, were you planning an ambush?" But they said nothing, as they slipped their hands into his. Only when Daddy had sat down in his armchair by the fire, Stella said, coaxingly, "Daddy, dear, tell us why you looked like that?"
"Oh, Stella!" protested Geoffrey.
"How was I looking?" asked Daddy.
"As if--as if--you were looking at something miles away, or years ago, or something," stammered Stella, for she was a little frightened at her own audacity.
"You are right," said Daddy, after a pause. "I was looking at something that happened years ago when I was a boy, and perhaps--yes, I think I'll tell you the story."
He sat with closed eyes so long the children thought he had forgotten. Then he looked up suddenly and began his story.
"My tale is of a boy who lived many years ago in a northern land, hundreds of miles from this fair England of ours. The boy had an English mother who died when he was quite small, but his father, who was a rich and powerful man, was so good and loving that neither this boy nor his younger brother ever felt his loss. We will call the elder one Henri and the younger, Jean. Those were not their names, but no matter.
"Neither need I tell you the name of the place where they lived--it has nothing to do with my story.
"Their home was comfortable, but not luxurious, for their father disapproved of too much softness of living, but it was a grand old house they lived in, the home of generations of their people, and they dearly loved every stone of it, especially Henri. He gloried in his home and the treasures it contained, and much though he loved his father, could not help feeling a thrill whenever he remembered it would one day be his--all his.
"But there was one fatal bar to his happiness.
"He was jealous, bitterly jealous, of his own little brother, who was only a year younger, but considerably smaller and weaker; jealous because he fancied their father loved Jean best.
"The pain of that jealousy was almost unbearable sometimes, for he really loved his brother.
"Then one day they were out alone on the snow covered hills, and in a fit of anger, Henri struck Jean--heavily, savagely, on the shoulder. All the concentrated passion of years was in that blow, and Jean fell silently in the snow. . . . For a long time Henri watched, horror-struck, fascinated, then fled in terror. . . . He went on blindly, stumbling up the hills, running or sliding down, till at last he stopped, trembling and exhausted, and sank down to rest on the snow. For a time he lay almost unconscious, but as his senses returned, he stumbled to his feet and looked about him. All was strange. He, who thought he knew those hills as well as he knew his father's house, could see no landmark, nothing familiar.
"The truth dawned on him slowly.
"He had run in his fear further than he had ever been before, and was hopelessly lost in the great solitude where, from year's end to year's end, no human foot ever penetrated. Presently night would fall. Morning would come again no doubt, but only to find another silent figure in the snow.
"He could have screamed, but no sound came. He shut his eyes as if to escape from the horrible fact opened them again.
"Before him, and away from him, but .only a few paces distant, was walking a figure dressed as a shepherd. He was moving slowly down the hill and took no notice when Henri called. The boy cried again; was the man deaf? There was no answer, neither did the shepherd turn his head, but he paused a moment, and Henri started to run after him. Instantly the man moved on, heeding neither cries nor entreaties, and Henri followed as best he could, till, night coming on, he found himself unexpectedly near his home, and at the same moment lost sight of his guide.
"His father received him lovingly and pitifully, but as the days went on and the search for Jean proved fruitless, the boy's anguish was unbearable. He was haunted day and night by remorse and terror, and refused all comfort till one day he found his way into the village church and told his tale to the kind old priest there.
"The terror left him and he went home in peace. But in the night all the old fear came back and he lay shivering and unhappy.
"Then--perhaps it was a creation of his own fancy, born of his own longing and love and remorse-- perhaps . . . something else. I cannot say, but suddenly the room was filled with an intense silence, and then there came to him a message. It was not in words that he heard with his ears, but deep down in his own heart someone spoke. 'Fear not . . . only love and be happy. See, I have borne all!' He did not open his eyes, but he saw."
"What?" whispered Geoffrey, but Daddy took no notice of the question.
"He went to sleep happy, and woke in the morning to hear the glad news that his brother had been found in a cottage some distance away, where he was unknown. He was ill, but recovering. How he got there no one seemed to know, but he had been well cared for.
All was gladness and rejoicing in Henri's home, but a resolution slowly shaped itself in the boy's mind, and years after, when his father needed him no more, he hastened to fulfil it. He left his inheritance to his brother and travelled miles away from his people and all who knew him, that, in silence and solitude, he might try to put into visible, material form, what had been shown to him that night. He wanted, if possible, to leave a memorial of it behind him, that others might learn what he learnt then. He spent all the rest of his life on it. He was a clever wood-carver as a boy, and long years of practice made him very proficient, but the task seemed always beyond him. Over and over again he tried, and just as many times he destroyed the attempts. Now he is old and very tired, and the last attempt is finished. It is not perfect, but it must stand.....
"I, dear children, was that boy, and now I will show you what I have been so busy at yonder."
Silently he opened the little door and they passed through, and found themselves facing something covered with a white cloth, which Daddy quietly with drew.
There was no sound in the room as the children gazed up at the wonderful life-sized figure of Our Lord, Who stood with Arms extended in the form of a cross, bearing in His Hands the marks of the nails. So perfectly had it been carved that they almost fancied they heard the breath issue from those beautiful stern lips.
When they could look away for a moment from the Face, with its impelling love, something struck them both. One shoulder was draped, the other bare, leaving exposed an ugly mark as from a heavy blow.
As they looked and thought of Daddy's story, they began dimly to understand.
"Yes," said Daddy, breaking the long silence, "this is the best I can do. It will be my gift to the dear people here, who have shown me so much kindness. It must stand where all can see, and may it help some at least to understand what was shown so plainly to me many long years ago: that all sin is sin against Love, and that it is Love Himself Who has paid the penalty."