Project Canterbury

Tales Illustrative of the Apostles' Creed

By John Mason Neale

London: Masters, 1885.

V. The Bridge of Des Jardins
"Suffered under Pontius Pilate."

AND so once more all things are preparing to keep the Resurrection Feast of their LORD by their own resurrection. The trees need but a few bright sunny days and a few soft showers to break out into full leaf. The larks, like those birds of which we read in Holy Scripture, seem to know the season, and to be preparing their Easter songs. But we have still, what they have not, our Passiontide to go through. It is the natural sun that makes their Easter, and he knows no such time of dimness: our Sun of Righteousness suffered His great eclipse before He shone forth in the brightness of His everlasting splendour.

So for Passiontide, here is a Passion story; and the moral is this: "Scarcely for a righteous man would one die; yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die: but GOD commendeth His love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners CHRIST died for us."

O what a bitter, biting wind it was! It swept over Hudson's Bay, and the wild lakes and moorlands of Lower Canada; it roared and rioted through those huge solemn pine-trees, it drifted snow twenty feet deep on the windward side of dykes and banks; it clothed lake and river with ice six or eight feet thick; and it brought out that intense blue of the sky for which a Canadian winter may vie with an Italian summer.

Bitter it was everywhere; doubly bitter on the narrow neck of land that juts out between Lakes Huron and Erie. It was about five o'clock on the evening of the 12th of March; Thursday in the second week of this last Lent. The sun wanting but an hour to his setting, when he will go down behind those blue hills of Michigan, glitters coldly and faintly on the Huron, throws a long, deep line of shadow from the embankment of the Toronto and Detroit Railway, and brings out the music of the telegraphic wires, as from a great Aeolian harp. On the place where we stand, a long straight canal--those early French settlers called it the Canal des Jardins--stretches away from the Ontario to the north-west. An outlet has been cut for it through this low chain of hills. Barren and scrubby they seem now, where the wind has swept the snow from their poor bare sides, but their turf is soft and their flowers are bright enough in summer. Right over these the railway passes: crossing the canal by that swing bridge which towers up almost over our heads, at a height, they say, of sixty feet, and then plunging into a cutting as it pursues its way to the far west.

The down train from Toronto must be almost due: it is timed to reach Hamilton at a quarter before six; and in that country town, those who are expecting friends or relations are already wrapping themselves up in their furs, and bravely venturing forth into the cold evening. All along that wonderful line--for its length is a thousand and seven miles--by which so many emigrants have passed from the villages, and deep lanes, and hedgerows, and copses of England, to the wide and boundless country of the prairies, they are lighting the lamps on a hundred platforms. In the great cities the gas glows out. In quiet little country stations the oil-lamp is as yet barely perceptible in the daylight.--I told you so; far away to the left, at the uttermost edge of that high ground the sun turns the steam of the engine into a fountain, as it were, of rose-coloured light. People may talk as much as they will of the destruction of beauty by railways; but, for my part, I know nothing more beautiful than that cloud of steam thus lit up by the sunset of a spring or autumn evening, and seen at a distance in a woody valley, or tracking its course round the smooth side of a down.

If we could look into the advancing train, we should find that many of the richest and most influential of the inhabitants of Canada were in it. There is the man who had made his thousands on thousands by this very railway, still speculating how he may increase that enormous pile of wealth. Two hours ago he was discussing business with a friend in the parliament-house of Toronto; and there, his fur cap tied tightly over his ears, and his hat resting on his knees, he is making calculations in pursuit of gains which he will never realise, and scheming out plans by which others are to profit. He little thinks that the last line of the last leaf of the great account of his life is almost finished; that a few minutes will make manifest how the sum of his good deeds and shortcomings stands in His sight with Whom is no acceptance of persons. Those passengers sitting next to him in the long first-class car, are busy about the politics of the province, and very little imagining that less than five minutes will make them citizens of another Country, where the ambition of parties, and squabbles of this world, will be rated at their true value.

Look into the next carriage. There are three or four farmers--well-to-do yeomen--men whose farms have been improved, whose barns have been enlarged year by year, talking of the weather, the unnatural heat of last February, and now the prospects of a late and backward spring. If they have but taken half the pains with the seed-time and the harvest of their own hearts, that often and often they have done with those of their own lands--and GOD grant it may have been so!--a few more minutes, and this biting cold will have been changed into the everlasting spring. But I confess, it gives me more pleasure to look at that party, the little girl who is sitting on the left of that middle-aged, good-humoured, bright-looking man, whom she calls "Uncle," and her still younger brother, who is standing by the window, and gazing out on the cold, snowy scene from the height which the train is now crossing. I see by the portmanteau, which lies on the seat beside them, that their name is Doyle.

"O, uncle, what a long, long way it is to Hamilton!" says the little girl, looking up into his face with an expression, half of playfulness, half of weariness.

"Half an hour more, pet, and we shall be in. Look, the sun is nearly setting at last; and I told you that he would be down before we should get to the station."

"Gone to the prairie-land, uncle: those large wide seas of meadow that are always green, and that I have heard my father talk so much about. Oh! how I should like to be going there too!"

"Look, Louisa!" cries her little brother Charles, "one would think that the sky there was reflecting those green prairies; for it is as green as they can be."

"A frosty night that means," said one of the passengers, joining in the conversation. "Going to Hamilton, sir?"

"Yes; taking these children home to my sister. She lives there."

"Ah! I wish I was so fortunate! I am going all the way to Detroit. Wonderful line this, sir. Beats everything, they say, in the old country."

"A grand thing for Canada, surely," with the Canadian production of the last syllable.

"What a height we are above the valley, uncle!" cried little Louisa. "Those cows down there look quite small, and the farms are just like baby-houses."

"A fine bit of work, this," said the stranger. "The driver trusts to the bridge, too, or he never would come on it at such a rate."

He said right. It was a noble bridge, that, which spanned the Des Jardins Canal, a masterpiece of the carpenter's art. Five massy brick piers rose out of the valley--(they formed the peasant's clock in the summer afternoon by their lengthening shadows)--and over them was that so ponderous, and yet so light construction of girders and cross-girders, of riveters and cross-riveters, of struts and purlins: its deflection, under the weight of many tons, calculated to an inch, yielding to the weight of the passing train, and, like a brave heart, resilient the very moment it was passed. Sixty feet lay the canal beneath: with oh! such clear black ice!

A joyous train from one end to the other. Most of the passengers were for Hamilton. Visions of bright eyes, sweet smiles, and dear kisses, came over the weary man: children thought of their mother's first hug, and then of the quiet little bed with its white curtains, and the uncertain fire-light dancing upon them. Even the hard-headed calculator put aside his strip of paper, with its elaborate figures; dismissed the thoughts of his wealth, and opened his heart to those of his home. But------.

But what?

When the railway was first made, it chanced that one of the workmen chipped a little bit of rock, by a careless stroke, as he was whistling his way homeward, from close by the Des Jardins canal. A little piece indeed: scarcely so large as a lark's egg, but it had a great, though a sad errand to perform. There it lay in the railroad, between the lines, thundered over day and night by fierce engines and ponderous trains, but not moving an inch till its appointed time was come.

And this evening it had come. The sleeper on which it lay had become a little loose. The casual passing of a workman knocked it up on to the rail.

There it now lies. That poor little despicable bit of stone is about to say to that huge train at full speed, constructed with such art, guided by such skill, rushing along in its strength, as if no force of man could compete with it, Thus far,--but no farther! That little stone is about to draw the impassable line of happiness and misery for a hundred immortal souls:--to place, by one short hideous pang, many an elect servant of GOD in his Master's presence,--to evoke for many an impenitent and worldly soul, the irreversible sentence, THOU ART WEIGHED IN THE BALANCES, AND ART FOUND WANTING.

"Now we are coming to the bridge, Robert," says the stranger to his little son, letting down the window as he spoke, to give a better view.

A jerk--a fierce rasping noise of the wheels,--a whirlwind of gravel and pebbles flying round the windows.

"Mercy on us! We are off the line!"

"Oh, GOD!"

"The LORD be gracious to--"

That little stone has done its work well.

The stranger,--almost in the very article of death showed forth that best of GOD'S natural gifts,--presence of mind. The bridge must go down--the ice must give way--death, irrevocable death, before--but at that moment--

In a second he had hurled his child out of the window. A poor wretched chance--a miserable forlorn hope of life, but yet a chance. And the angels of the little ones were not forgetful of their charge. In their hands they held him up that he should not dash his foot against a stone. Another second,--and who can describe the fearful contortions, the mad whirls of the train as crashing over the battlement, as diving down through the air, carriage over carriage, a very-chaos of ungoverned power, it took the fatal leap! The third second,--a very wreck of life: shattered planks, panels, wheels, axles, door frames, seats, roofs, luggage vans, driven about like the chaff from a threshing floor: wild unearthly shrieks: doleful ejaculations for mercy, the day of mercy being past: death revelling on those who were unprepared for death: some crushed out of all likeness of human form, and already in the other land: some in the mortal agony, but still in retention of all their senses: a part of the train driven in through the ice, and miserable creatures panting, heaving, gurgling, in the last sobs of suffocation. Some are vainly struggling in the mingled chaos of broken ice and turbid waters: some, by the impetus of the train, driven far into the solid glassy surface, and there, in their death prisons giving up their souls to GOD.

But the guardian Angels of those two children watched over them still. They had sheltered them in the crash of the train: they had guarded them in that awful descent: and now Louisa was clinging on a large fragment of ice, and Charles grasping the edge of the unbroken floe, without power to raise himself upon it, and his little strength failing and failing every moment.

"Help me! help me! Louisa! I shall be drowned! I cannot hold on!"

"Cling on! cling as tight as you can, Charlie! Look! there are people running down the hill!"

"Hold on by your eyelids, my boy, rather than let go!" cries a rough voice from the shore--that of a passenger who, mortally wounded by the concussion, and stretched helpless on the beach, could not but watch with interest the gallant struggles of the little fellow for his life.

"I cannot hold any longer. O, Louisa, my fingers are leaving go."

"Dear Charlie,--only one moment,--for all our sakes,--for mamma's sake! Do try: GOD will help you!"

She spoke of him, and not of herself: and yet that delicate frame was fast yielding to the effect of the freezing water. She could hardly feel the ice she was grasping: the dead cold lay like a weight of lead on her breathing:--her arms are beginning to relax: a minute or two, and poor Louisa's fate will be sealed. But still she does not think of herself,--it is of him.

"Now then,--here goes for some one!" cries a stout young Canadian farmer, coming down the hill like a roe, and tearing off his coat as he ran.

He plunged in, and struck out boldly towards Louisa.

"No! no! not me," she panted out. "Save him! save him!"

"You first, and then him,"--still swimming on towards her.

"No, him first! his strength is going!"--and she said it so earnestly that the man struck off as she told him.

Charlie is safe on the shore. The fanner plunges into the water again: but the cold and the fear and the struggle have done their worst. Those poor little arms leave go,--and she sinks.

And was she drowned?

No. The farmer dived boldly,--felt round him convulsively,--seized her bonnet--drew her up,--and in another moment laid her senseless, white,--apparently lifeless, on the beach. The women came round her. They chafed the little motionless form; they poured brandy down her throat,--tenderly and skilfully they coaxed back the breath of life. But in will,--she had saved her brother's life at the cost of her own.

Oh what cities of mourning were Toronto and Hamilton on that awful night! What a scene was that, in the hall where the corpses were laid, as one and another came in and recognised,--perhaps in a calm quiet sleep, perhaps so fearfully mutilated as to be distinguished only by the eye of love,--those whom they had held dearest! But still when the cars, brought down by a pilot engine, came on to Hamilton, the mother of those children had to thank GOD their Preserver that, though her brother was in the unseen world,--the two little pets had been preserved in this also,--that their lives had been bound in the bundle of life with Him, that they were brought up safe out of that wreck of so many human hopes, that goal of so many mortal journeys!

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