IT is a melancholy gulf, that sea of Japan, which rolls between those vast islands and Northern China. Lands of darkness and of the shadow of death circling it on every side; every height that looks down upon it, crowned with some memorial of the worship of Buddha, of that saddest of all religions, which does not believe in any present supreme Deity, and which considers the highest reward of goodness to be annihilation.
At the time of my story the peninsula of Corea, that juts out so boldly between the Yellow Sea and that of Japan, was full of strange reports regarding certain Europeans who had visited the islands of Japan, and had preached a new faith. For they affirmed that all the traditions of those countries were false and evil; that the teaching of the Bonzes was a lie; that the gods Amida and Zaca were only idols made with hands, and if possessing any power at all, merely possessing it because tenanted by evil spirits. Multitudes of Japanese had forsaken the worship of their fathers, and had given car to the new faith. The Emperor had stirred up such a persecution against them as had never been heard of since the world began, and the converts died joyfully for their new belief; professing that from the fire, or the frozen pool, or the stroke of the Catana, they should go without any doubt to the land of everlasting blessedness. Such were the stories that were told at nightfall under the palm-thatch of Corean cottages; just when the howling of wild beasts began to be heard, and the doors were made fast in the villages, and the wind in the autumn evenings came more chilly over the sea of Okhotsk and from distant Kamschatka. And people heard these stories and wondered at them, and then went their ways to their fields, or their merchandise, living as they chose, and making up their minds to die as they best could.
But there was a certain man--his name at that time I know not, but he was afterwards called Caius, and so I shall call him now--who, wearied out with the uncertainty of all that the Bonzes taught, and longing to know what was the reason for which he was sent into the world, and whither he would go when he left it, resolved to leave the village where he dwelt, and to take up his abode in entire solitude. He had heard from the Bonzes that the gods were most willing to be found in loneliness and in silence, and he was much in the condition of those of whom S. Paul speaks, "that they should seek the LORD, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us." There were no missionaries in the Corea; there was no apparent method by which GOD could bring this poor heathen to the knowledge of Himself; but He Who has the services of angels as well as men at His command, could hear and could help in the woods of Corea as well as if He had sent any of His many devoted servants in Europe, S. Vincent de Paul or Lancelot Andrewes, to preach the Gospel in that country.
An old solemn wood it was to which Caius retired, clothing the sides of the mountain backbone that divides the peninsula in two, and affording here and there between the trunks of its giant trees peeps over Basil Bay and the innumerable coral islands that stud its surface. Here, nearly in the centre of the forest, rose a huge rock, covered over with moss and ferns, and shaded by two or three teak trees and mahoganies. By some former earthquake this rock had been well-nigh cleft in two; a narrow chasm, just broad enough to be passable, led as it were into its very heart, and gave access to a cavern something above the height of a man, and strewed with the whitest and driest of sand. This place Caius discovered about the twilight of an autumn evening, and congratulated himself on having found a retreat which would so well give him the solitude for which he was seeking. Next day he brought up such provisions as he needed, and established himself in his new abode.
He had been sitting one evening at the mouth of the chasm, and watching the sun as it slowly descended over the coral archipelago, and glittered in the waters of the Yellow Sea,--that sun which was now rising over the wonderful country from which the new teachers had come. And Caius was musing over what he had heard of their doctrine, and especially how the GOD Whom they worshipped had been, according to their report, crucified in another land many centuries before. They too, His followers, no few of them, had themselves by the Emperor's command suffered crucifixion in Japan; but still they saw in the Cross the sign of all victory and of all peace, and held it in such reverence that they were commonly called the Cross-worshippers. So he sat and thought; GOD, Who has compassion where He will have compassion, leading him nearer and nearer every minute to the discovery of the truth. He could not see it, but at that moment and amidst the deepening twilight an angel was watching over him, ready to fulfil in his case that saying, "Thou shalt go upon the lion and adder, the young lion and the dragon shalt thou tread under thy feet."
And now the sun's rim touching the sea, the western breeze sprang up, and the forest trees began to sing their evening hymn of praise. As of old time, there was the sound of a going in the tops of them; a lulling soothing sound that seemed well to sympathize with the feelings of Caius, and to hush them off into peace. Very swiftly the twilight came on. It is scarcely ten minutes since the sun disappeared, and already it is night. The hum of the insects is quite hushed; the birds cease to flit backwards and forwards; the parrots have stilled their discordant cries; nothing will soon be stirring in the great forest but beasts of prey. Caius rises, and turns towards his cave.
As he passes up the chasm path that leads to it, there is a rustling sound in the tall grass and ferns at its entrance. He turns round, and there, glittering like two lamps, is the phosphoric light from the two eyes of some creature that is tracking his steps. Hardly knowing what he did in his terror, he hurried up the path, made for his cave, and with a trembling hand struck a light. He had contrived a kind of wicker door to the aperture, rather for the sake of keeping out the cold wind and the rain than any other visitant, for that part of the Corea was held to be singularly free from wild beasts. But now, before he could put up the fence, such as it was, he heard the stealthy tread of the beast that had been following him, and a huge tiger turned also into the same cave. There, in the silence of the night, they were alone together, the man and the beast; all human help at the distance of miles, nothing to preserve the solitary tenant of the cavern from the most horrible of deaths. But the same GOD Who in the den of Babylon had sent His angel and stopped the lions' mouths,--the same GOD, Who in the amphitheatres of Carthage and Rome had so changed the very nature of beasts, that instead of attacking, they fled from, His martyrs, He now laid His commands on this monster to do His future servant no harm. The tiger took no notice of Caius, but rolled himself up at the entrance of the cave and lay down to sleep; and all that evening, an evening of terror and agony to the lonely man, he was nevertheless as safe as--yes, and much safer than--the Xogune, who at that selfsame hour was sitting down to the banquet in his great city of Meaco. At midnight the tiger departed, and Caius believing himself as much in security where he was as he could be elsewhere in the forest, fastened the door as best he might, and then wearied out with his fear and his watching fell asleep.
It had pleased GOD, long before this time, to speak in this same country, by means of a remarkable dream. It is recorded of the Emperor Young-ping, who lived about seventy years after the birth of our LORD, that he beheld, in a vision, a glorious figure, double the ordinary stature of man, and shining as the sun, which said to him, "My religion shall be preached in this country; send therefore to the West, that thou mayest learn it." The Emperor, not disobedient to the heavenly vision, sent a solemn embassy of his nobles to the furthest West; but they, when they arrived in India, unhappily conceived their mission to be accomplished; they obtained the books of the Buddhists, and returned with them, and thus Buddhism was introduced into this vast empire of China.
As Caius slept, he thought that he beheld a venerable man, who addressed him. "You shall," he said, "cross the seas in the course of the next year, shall endure many hardships, and shall find the accomplishment of your desires." And so saying, he vanished.
And now see how the same Providence which had sent the dream also fulfilled it. At that time there was not the least likelihood that Caius should cross the sea. But in the next year the armies of the Emperor of Japan swept over the Corea, and in the negociations which followed that invasion Caius visited Japan. But still, wherever he went, it was the same doubt for the present, and the same darkness for the future; and so in despair of ever arriving at the certainty of the truth, he resolved to enter a monastery of the Bonzes, and see if he should thus gain the knowledge after which he longed.
Those monasteries, those churches, those offices would indeed surprise you. Whether, as some think, their various rites were derived from some contact ages ago with the Christians of the far East, or whether, as others believe, the whole system is the masterpiece of Satan, and a frightful caricature of the Catholic Church, so it is that you would see their altars standing as ours do, their priests vested much as ours should be, their incense, their Sacrament connected also with bread and wine; and that you would hear the chants and see the cross among them, of which some wish to deprive us. And GOD has permitted that this religion should number more worshippers than any other, and should far exceed those of all sections of Christianity put together. These services, then, Caius attended, at these rites he assisted; he sat at the feet of the most learned Bonzes, and left their instructions more weary and sick at heart than when he began them.
It would be long to tell you how GOD, leading him by paths which he knew not, at last brought him to the acquaintance of a Christian; how going into a church he beheld in the image of the crucified LORD, those very same features which he had seen in his dream; how he believed and was baptized, and then laboured with the missionaries in spreading the kingdom of CHRIST.
When the great persecution of the year 1624 broke out in Western Japan, he was among the first to be seized by the governor. You may read in the newspapers of this day how that port of Nangasaqui is now opened to all foreigners; and how the merchants of this world are exulting in the thought that other cities will soon be accessible to their merchandise. That port was opened three centuries ago to a higher traffic than theirs; scarcely a hill round Nangasaqui but is sacred with the blood of martyrs; and the year of which I am telling you added many to their number.
For now you shall see how GOD, having led His servant through so many difficulties and brought him out of darkness into the knowledge of the truth, after he had suffered a while, made him perfect, stablished, strengthened, and settled him. To the north of the sea-port of Nangasaqui there is a long tract of sand, circled in by green hills, that rise from it as from an inland water, so smooth, so lake-like it is. Those calm hills behind, and that summer sea before, represented the Podium, and the arena, and the vomitories of the ancient amphitheatres; this was a nobler one than they, for it was of GOD'S own building. On this very arena multitudes of martyrs had in past years rendered up their spirits to Him, and lie was about to show that His Arm was not shortened that it could not save, nor His Ear heavy that it could not hear. Since the early grey of the morning multitudes from the whole island had flocked to the most convenient spots in the surrounding hills. The troops of the Tono prevented those who were not immediately connected with the prisoners from trespassing on the sand tract itself; but so near were the downs, and so clear was the atmosphere, that to the greater part of the vast crowd who thronged them, every action, and almost each feature, of those that were to suffer was visible. When the sun came up above the eastern heights you might have seen the whole preparation of death. In the first place, four stakes fixed firmly in the sand, and in a broken circle round them, at the distance of some three or four yards, vast piles of wood, so heaped together that the several fagots lay loosely one upon another and afforded vent for the air to penetrate the mass. Between the various portions of this circle there were five or six spaces by which access to the stakes themselves was afforded. The piles of wood, being about six feet high, partially concealed the interior from those that stood on the sand, but afforded no obstacle whatever to the sight of the spectators on the hills.
It was the first of September. By eight o'clock the whole surrounding circuit of hills was one sea of heads: here and there some more especially favourite position had been secured for a man of distinction,--and his servants stood behind him, or held the silk umbrella over his head. They who were to suffer were four: Caius, who had so lately found our LORD, and who was now to play the man for Him: James, who had been the means of leading the poor Corean to the knowledge of the truth: Organtine Tanxu, a nobleman of considerable property in that part of the empire: and his wife Lucy, who was almost to receive the crown of a double martyrdom, for in a few days she expected to become a mother.
You are to understand that Satan's malice seemed greatly to have increased since the days of Primitive Martyrdom--such unheard of tortures he now put into the hearts of his followers: tortures too horrible to be described, or even to be thought of. And now, by a refinement of cruelty on the old stake, which, however dreadful, was yet a short passage to glory, these victims were to be burnt--or rather roasted--at a slow fire. Hence the distance of the piles of wood from the stake: so that instead of minutes, the martyrdom might be lengthened into hours of agony.
There was one spectator of that memorable scene who would thankfully have changed places with any one of the Martyrs,--and thought it merciful in her persecutors. A lady--she was quite a girl--called Monica, was fastened to the wall in a cell of the prison at Nangasaqui: in the same cell her two children were also fastened, the youngest a baby at the breast,--and all three starving to death for the Name of CHRIST. The elder, young as he was, knew yet for Whom he suffered,--and behaved not unworthily of the martyr-children of old: but the pitiful cries of the poor little infant, close to her mother, and yet unable to come to her, needed all the grace that Monica had to be withstood. From the little aperture in the cell this martyr in her children as well as in herself could see the concourse of the multitude, could see the preparations for death, could see the entrance of the four Confessors:--and how earnestly she besought GOD that herself and her darling little ones might be taken to their rest!
Caius and James were men of middle age: but Caius had suffered from long illness, and came, pale and weak, on to the arena.
"Cheer up, good brother," said his companion: "yonder is the best medicine for your sickness that the skill of the physician ever yet invented."
"Not for this only, but for all," returned Caius, cheerfully. "It is the remedy of that Physician Who Himself took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses."
"Miserable man!" cried one of the guards to Organtine: "what say you to yonder stake now?"
"Say!" repeated the nobleman. "Why, that I never expected to be so much beholden to any piece of wood as I am to this. For this is the ladder that will lift us from earth to heaven: this is the ship that will bring us out of storm into port Be of good courage, love,"--he continued to Lucy; "you were never half so much mine as you are now our LORD'S:--or as you are mine at the present moment."
"It is so," returned his wife;--"and if I speak faintly, it is from bodily fatigue: for I have a heart that, if it knows itself, is ready to bear twice as much for our dear LORD."
"Well," said the guard who had spoken before; "if the offer were made me to be the Tono for fifty years, and reign in as great prosperity as Taycosama,--and then to die in this fashion, I would not accept it."
"Fifty years! nor I neither," cried Caius. "But we shall reign--and that far more gloriously than Taycosama--not for fifty years, but for ever and ever."
"So you say," answered the guard; "but who ever came back to tell you so?"
"The Captain of our Salvation, Who cannot lie," returned the other, "and with Whom we shall soon be."
While they were thus talking, the guards were fastening the martyrs each to their stake. The cords were purposely left loose, so that, if any of them, overcome by the pain, wished to apostatize, nothing was easier for him than to slip his hand through the knots,--and pass out. The sun was fiercely hot; and not one breath of wind on the blue sea, or on the sandy plain.
"Xaca is pouring out his vengeance upon you," said an old Bonze who stood by. "Yesterday, it blew a perfect hurricane, and your sufferings would soon have been over: to-day in this dead calm you will broil by inches."
"That as it pleases our GOD," replied Organ-tine. "To us it matters not, so He only gives us grace to bear, and perseverance to conquer."
As GOD would have it, Lucy's stake was furthest to the west, and nearest therefore to the sea: the logs were lighter than those in the other piles, and more loosely put together. As the Bonze spoke, they brought forward a pan of living coal,--and a great silence fell on the multitude.
"These men and this woman," proclamation was made, "are to die for observing the Law of the Portuguese, contrary to the commandment of the Supreme authority of this realm: and so shall it be done to all who shall presume to follow their example."
"Nevertheless," said the cruel governor of Nangasaqui, who sat under a canopy of white silk, on a kind of throne, inlaid with tortoise-shell, at some little distance from the scene of death, "nevertheless, at this, the last moment, it is the most serene pleasure of the Xogune that mercy be shown to the prisoners, if they will abjure their barbarous religion, and return to the worship of their fathers. How say you, Lord Tanxu?"
"What I have said before," replied Organtine. "I die, not for the Law of the Portuguese, but for the faith of CHRIST."
"And I die with my husband for the same faith," added Lucy.
"If I had ten lives, I would lay them all down in such a cause," said Caius.
"And I also," said James.
"Then there is no use in further delay," observed the governor.
The coals were laid by each pile. A little wreath of smoke,--a crackling noise,--a mounting flame--and in a few moments all were aglow. Within, each as in a Sanctuary, the martyrs were approaching to the presence of their LORD.
But He, That was born of a Virgin-Mother, had pity on the sufferings of her who but for His Name's sake would so soon have become a mother. The sea darkened and rippled in the breeze. It blew up the fire in the western end of the pile, and amidst a whirlwind of flame and smoke, Lucy departed to her rest. They that stood nearest believed and said that the martyr was suffocated or ever the flame fastened upon her.
The crackling and roaring of the fire all round the pile. The heat goes up like the heat of a furnace. Men drew back on all sides. Who can fancy or describe the agony within those Sanctuaries of GOD'S grace?
Suddenly, a voice from one of the stakes. "Caius,--join with me in singing the Latidate pueri Dominum." And, out of the midst of the fire rose that Psalm, the watchword, as it were, and rallying cry of so many Japanese martyrs. James began,--Caius took up,--the chant. But the voice of the former faltered in the mediation of that verse, "That He may set him with the princes--," and the last clause was sung, if sung at all, among the True "Princes of the People," in Heaven.
For an hour more the other two lived and breathed: sometimes a brief word of encouragement from one to the other--generally, silent prayer. Caius went home next:--and then Organtine, exerting his last strength to utter the Name--JESUS,--joined his three companions in glory.