Project Canterbury

Vernon Harold Starr 1882-1918 and after

By John Oxenham

[London]: Church Missionary Society, [1918]

Chapter III. And After That?

How should he die
Seeing that death hath no part in him any more, no power
Upon his head
He has bought his eternity with a little hoar,
And is not dead.
For an hour if he look for him, he is no more found--
For one hour's space
Then ye lift up your eves to him and behold him crowned
A deathless face.

A. C. Swinburne

Saturday, March 16, had been exceptionally busy--indeed, it was so far the biggest day of the busy spring season, and there were, with the admittances of that day, forty more patients in the hospital than there was really accommodation for. Both the doctors had been at it all day, and the last operation (a serious one for the removal of goitre) was not over till 5.30 o'clock. The doctor and his wife had accepted an invitation out to tea; but this was impossible; it was too late, and he was very tired. He saw this particular patient again the last thing that evening and reported all well, but left orders that he should be called up if she seemed worse in the night. When a man with a lantern came straight to the doctor's bedroom at midnight, the first thought was of this case. The doctor went out, spoke to the messenger, and finding a lady doctor was wanted for a case in the city, he directed him on to the women's hospital.

The second call came at 4 a.m.---this time two men and a boy, carrying the lantern belonging to the night watchman. They, too, came to the window of the doctor's bedroom as the other man had done, and thinking that this time it was doubtless the expected call to hospital, he, after inquiring their business, and getting no audible answer, told the men to go round to the side door, and went out quickly to them. A shout brought his wife to the door on the instant, to see the men already walking away down the garden path, carrying the light with them, while the doctor was staggering back into the room where, with a cry, he fell on the floor. "I am stabbed," he said. His wife realized instantly that there was not a moment to lose: the staff were called up, the theatre prepared, and every possible assistance was rendered. The civil surgeon operated, and stayed on to do all that was in his power. Murphy, the doctor's Irish terrier, who at a word had flown at the men, came back badly cut about the head.

When the doctor was put on the table in the operating theatre, before the an was begun, he said quietly and clearly: "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit." By 6 a.m. the operation was over, and from then on he himself made a heroic fight for life, doing his best and quite conscious the whole time. The pain was acute, but he was quietly brave and perfectly calm, smiling and speaking constantly. "No tears," he said; and almost his last words were: "I should like to get well--I want to; but Thy will be done."

To those present it seemed as if death could not be allowed to have dominion, and indeed it did not. Rather the Christ came Himself instead, and two at least in that room were conscious of His Presence. One moment perfectly conscious of those around him, and a moment after safe across the bar, and by the look on his face they knew he had seen the Pilot face to face. Death had no sting; for him it simply was not death. It was just four o'clock.

One who was present writes: "In the evening the hospital staff all came to see him, and from then on and next day a constant stream of people--Mohammedans and Hindus, Pathans and Sikhs--kept coming up. We let the people see what the five fearful wounds had meant, and to every group we spoke of the greater Sacrifice and the sure and certain hope which is in Christ alone."

It was a great object lesson, and God was the speaker. Group after group, leaving their shoes outside, came reverently up to look. One of our hospital boys who was asked to explain, just put out his hand and said brokenly in Pushtu: "For you, for you." Cataract cases, with one eye still bandaged; all those among the in-patients who were able; out patients; and even Mohammedans and Hindus, who had come in all the twenty miles from Charsadda in spite of the heavy rain--kept coming up. We had no idea they loved him so; it was a revelation to us, for he had often felt that it took ten years or more to get trusted by the people and gain an influence--but some things are not measured by time. Their comments meant much. Said one Mussulman: "They have not killed our Starr Sahib, but they have killed thousands of us Indians." Again: "There are many Sahibs in Peshawar, but he was to us people the most useful of them all." His Mohammedan munshi gazed a moment, then pointing to his face, said: "Look eternal life." Another said: "Had I known, to have given my life instead." Another: "To lose father or mother were less than this." Again: "Beshakh (certainly) he has great reward." Again: "He was always ready for another's service by day or night, our Doctor Sahib; he would run to do it." Another: "All Peshawar weeps." Many were glad it poured with rain--they said: "What else could the heavens do?" More than one said: "Beshakh, he is with Allah." "Our hearts are hurt, they break," they said. "A martyr" (using the English word), said by a Mohammedan. "A Sahib everybody loved," said a Hindu. Another Mohammedan: "It is not that one has died, it is that it is Starr Sahib."

The bishop of the diocese, who was that very week paying his annual visit to Peshawar, and who, with the four mission clergy and the Indian padri of the place, took the funeral service, writes: "Those words of Christ have been much in my mind: 'It is enough for the disciple that he be as his Master, and the servant as his Lord.' There was so much in the death of this very faithful disciple that reminded one of that of the Master, the coming treacherously with weapons at night and the pierced side, and the end of a life that had been given freely and selflessly to the service of others. And all through Holy Week, with its message of the fruit of the Cross, one felt absolutely sure that this sacrifice too was not in vain. It was to many no doubt, as it was to me, a beautiful instance of sortes liturgicae that the second lesson for matins on the eighteenth, the clay he was buried, was the account of the breaking of the alabaster box of 'exceeding precious ointment,' and the world's verdict of 'waste' contrasted with the Master's of 'accepted sacrifice.'

He was buried that afternoon in the cemetery on the frontier that he had lived and died so faith fully to serve. I don't think any of the great throng who were there that day will ever forget that funeral. The consciousness of the Great Victory was more vivid than I have ever known it before, as we sang, by the special request of the one who had the right to ask, the Easter hymn

The strife is o'er, the battle done,
The victory of life is won."

Before the gun-carriage, covered with the Union Jack, left the house, all, standing on the steps of the bungalow, had said aloud the Lord's Prayer; and "Forgive us our sins as we forgive them that sin against us," took of a sudden a new meaning. All cantonments had shown their sympathy, and were represented at the cemetery. The Chief Commissioner of the province, the General in command of the division, the Roman Catholic and the Wesleyan padris, and the Hindu college professor, were among the great company, English and Indian, who were there. The cemetery lies in the green open country beyond the cantonments, facing the mountains beyond which are the transfrontier regions into which no missionary is yet allowed to enter. An English soldier expressed the general feeling when he said: "That was no funeral."

A big tribute of thanks is due to the men of the regiments then in Peshawar, many of whom were personally acquainted with the doctor and his wife.

The members of the C.E.M.S. among them gathered at the Soldiers' Home that same day to send a united message of sympathy. Several had offered to do guard on the doctor's house, and did it for the first few nights after the attack, until they were relieved by a native police guard, although they had their day duties just the same as usual. Such help as this is not quickly forgotten.

The doers of the crime, and their reason for deliberately perpetrating such a cruel murder, are not definitely known. But investigation shows that it was probably due to the fact that a young man, who had come to the hospital in 1913 as an inquirer, was a year later killed by his father because of his belief. The father apparently then felt his son's death must be revenged on the head of the hospital, and in true Pathan fashion he, it seems, waited his opportunity for years. It was strange that such a fate should meet Starr, a quiet, even-tempered man, who was never rash or hasty in his dealings with the Pathan.

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