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A Handful of Stars: 4: Sydney Carton's Text

By Frank W. Boreham


      I

      Memory is the soul's best minister. Sydney Carton found it so. On the greatest night of his life--the night on which he resolved to lay down his life for his friend--a text swept suddenly into his mind, and, from that moment, it seemed to be written everywhere. He was in Paris; the French Revolution was at its height; sixty-three shuddering victims had been borne that very day to the guillotine; each day's toll was heavier than that of the day before; no man's life was safe. Among the prisoners awaiting death in the Conciergerie was Charles Darnay, the husband of her whom Sydney himself had loved with so much devotion but so little hope.

      'O Miss Manette,' he had said, on the only occasion on which he had revealed his passion, 'when, in the days to come, you see your own bright beauty springing up anew at your feet, think now and then that there is a man who would give his life to keep a life you love beside you!'

      And now that hour had come. It happened that Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton were, in form and feature, extraordinarily alike. Darnay was doomed to die on the guillotine: Carton was free. For the first time in his wayward life, Sydney saw his course clearly before him. His years had been spent aimlessly, but now he set his face like a flint towards a definite goal. He stepped out into the moonlight, not recklessly or negligently, but 'with the settled manner of a tired man who had wandered and struggled and got lost, but who at length struck into his road and saw its end.' He would find some way of taking Darnay's place in the gloomy prison; he would, by his substitution, restore her husband to Lucy's side; he would make his life sublime at its close. His career should resemble a day that, fitful and overcast, ends at length in a glorious sunset. He would save his life by losing it!

      It was at that great moment that memory exercised its sacred ministry upon the soul of Sydney Carton. As he paced the silent streets, dark with heavy shadows, the moon and the clouds sailing high above him, he suddenly recalled the solemn and beautiful words which he had heard read at his father's grave: 'I am the Resurrection and the Life; he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.' Sydney did not ask himself why the words had rushed upon him at that hour, although, as Dickens says, the reason was not far to seek. But he kept repeating them. And, when he stopped, the air seemed full of them. The great words were written across the houses on either side of him; he looked up, and they were inscribed across the dark clouds and the clear sky; the very echoes of his footsteps reiterated them. When the sun rose, it seemed to strike those words--the burden of the night--straight and warm to his heart in its long bright rays. Night and day were both saying the same thing. He heard it everywhere: he saw it in everything--

      'I am the Resurrection and the Life; he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.'

      That was Sydney Carton's text.

      II

      It is a great thing--a very great thing--to be able to save those you love by dying for them. I well remember sitting in my study at Hobart one evening, when there came a ring at the bell. A moment later a man whom I knew intimately was shown in. I had seen him a few weeks earlier, yet, as I looked upon him that night, I could scarcely believe it was the same man. He seemed twenty years older; his hair was gray; his face furrowed and his back bent. I was staggered at the change. He sat down and burst into tears.

      'Oh, my boy, my boy!' he sobbed.

      I let him take his time, and, when he had regained his self-possession, he told me of his son's great sin and shame.

      'I have mentioned this to nobody,' he said, 'but I could keep it to myself no longer. I knew that you would understand.'

      And then he broke down again. I can see him now as he sits there, rocking himself in his agony, and moaning:

      'If only I could have died for him! If only I could have died for him!'

      But he couldn't! That was the torture of it! I remember how his heart-broken cry rang in my ears for days; and on the following Sunday there was only one subject on which I could preach. 'And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept; and as he went he cried: O my son Absalom! my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!'

      It was the unutterable grief of David, and of my poor friend, that they could not save those they loved by dying for them. It was the joy of Sydney Carton that he could! He contrived to enter the Conciergerie; made his way to Darnay's cell; changed clothes with him; hurried him forth; and then resigned himself to his fate. Later on, a fellow prisoner, a little seamstress, approached him. She had known Darnay and had learned to trust him. She asked if she might ride with him to the scaffold.

      'I am not afraid,' she said, 'but I am little and weak, and, if you will let me ride with you and hold your hand, it will give me courage!'

      As the patient eyes were lifted to his face, he saw a sudden doubt in them, and then astonishment. She had discovered that he was not Darnay.

      'Are you dying for him?' she whispered.

      'For him--and his wife and child. Hush! Yes!'

      'Oh, you will let me hold your brave hand, stranger?'

      'Hush! Yes, my poor sister; to the last!'

      Nobody has ever read A Tale of Two Cities without feeling that this was the moment of Sydney Carton's supreme triumph.

      'It is,' he said--and they are the last words in the book--'it is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done!'

      He had never tasted a joy to be compared with this. He was able to save those he loved by dying for them!

      That is precisely the joy of the Cross! That was the light that shone upon the Saviour's path through all the darkness of the world's first Easter. That is why, when He took the bread and wine--the emblems of His body about to be broken and His blood about to be shed--He gave thanks. It is that--and that alone--that accounts for the fact that He entered the Garden of Gethsemane with a song upon His lips. It was for the joy that was set before Him that He endured the Cross, despising its shame!

      'Death!' He said. 'What of Death? I am the Life, not only of Myself, but of all who place their hands in Mine!

      'The Grave! What of the Grave? I am the Resurrection!

      'I am the Resurrection and the Life; he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.'

      He felt that it was a great thing--a very great thing--to be able to save those He loved by dying for them.

      III

      'I am the Resurrection!'--those were the words that Sydney Carton saw written on land and on water, on earth and on sky, on the night on which he made up his mind to die. 'I am the Resurrection!' They were the words that he had heard read beside his father's grave. They are the words that we echo, in challenge and defiance, over all our graves. The rubric of the Church of England requires its ministers to greet the dead at the entrance to the churchyard with the words: 'I am the Resurrection and the Life;' and, following the same sure instinct, the ministers of all the other Churches have adopted a very similar practice. The earth seems to be a garden of graves. We speak of those who have passed from us as 'the great majority.' We appear to be conquered. But it is all an illusion.

      'O Grave!' we ask, in every burial service, 'where is thy victory?' And the question answers itself. The victory does not exist. The struggle is not yet ended. 'I am the Resurrection!'

      'I am the Life!'--that is what all the echoes were saying as Sydney Carton, cherishing a great heroic purpose in his heart, paced the deserted streets that night.

      'I am the Life! I am the Life!'
      'He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live!'
      'Whosoever believeth in Me shall never die!'

      That being so, what does death matter? 'O, death!' we cry, 'where is thy sting?' and once more the question answers itself.

      'O Death, where is thy sting?'--'I am the Life!'
      'O Grave, where is thy victory?'--'I am the Resurrection!'

      The Life and the Resurrection! 'I am the Resurrection and the Life!'

      The text that he saw in every sight, and heard in every sound, made all the difference to Sydney Carton. The end soon came, and this is how Dickens tells the story.

      The tumbrils arrive at the guillotine. The little seamstress is ordered to go first. 'They solemnly bless each other. The thin hand does not tremble as he releases it. Nothing worse than a sweet, bright constancy is in the patient face. She is gone. The knitting women, who count the fallen heads, murmur twenty-two. And then--

      'I am the Resurrection and the Life; he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.'

      They said of him about the city that night that it was the peacefullest man's face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.

      I am the Resurrection! O Grave, where is thy victory?

      I am the Life! O Death, where is thy sting?

      IV

      But there was more in Sydney Carton's experience than we have yet seen. It happens that this great saying about the Resurrection and the Life is not only Sydney Carton's text; it is Frank Bullen's text; and Frank Bullen's experience may help us to a deeper perception of Sydney Carton's. In his With Christ at Sea, Frank Bullen has a chapter entitled 'The Dawn.' It is the chapter in which he describes his conversion. He tells how, at a meeting held in a sail-loft at Port Chalmers, in New Zealand, he was profoundly impressed. After the service, a Christian worker--whom I myself knew well--engaged him in conversation. He opened a New Testament and read these words: 'I am the Resurrection and the Life; he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.' The earnest little gentleman pointed out the insistence on faith: the phrase 'believeth in Me' occurs twice in the text: faith and life go together. Would Frank Bullen exercise that faith?

      'Every word spoken by the little man went right to my heart,' Mr. Bullen assures us, 'and, when he ceased, there was an appeal in his eyes that was even more eloquent than his words. But beyond the words and the look was the interpretation of them to me by some mysterious agency beyond my comprehension. For, in a moment, the hidden mystery was made clear to me, and I said quietly, "I see, sir; and I believe!" "Let us thank God!" answered the little man, and together we knelt down by the bench. There was no extravagant joy, no glorious bursting into light and liberty, such as I have read about as happening on those occasions; it was the satisfaction of having found one's way after long groping in darkness and misery--the way that led to peace.'

      Now the question is: did those words--the words that came with such power to Frank Bullen in the New Zealand sail-loft, and to Sydney Carton in the Paris streets--have the same effect upon both? Did they lead both of them to penitence and faith and peace? I think they did. Let us return to Sydney Carton as the sun is rising on that memorable morning on which he sees the text everywhere. He leaves the streets in which he has wandered by moonlight and walks beside a stream.

      'A trading-boat, with a sail of the softened color of a dead leaf, glided into his view, floated by him, and died away. As its silent track in the water disappeared, the prayer that had broken up out of his heart for a merciful consideration of all his poor blindnesses and errors ended in the words: "I am the Resurrection and the Life."'

      'He that believeth in Me ... whosoever believeth in Me!'--the insistent demand for faith.

      'He that believeth in Me!'--Sydney Carton believed and found peace.

      'He that believeth in Me!'--Frank Bullen believed and found peace.

      Paul has a classical passage in which he shows that those who have passed through experiences such as these, have themselves 'risen with Christ into newness of life.'

      Risen with Christ! They have found the Resurrection!

      Newness of life! They have found the Life!

      In his Death in the Desert, Browning describes the attempts that were made to revive the sinking man. It seemed quite hopeless. The most that he would do was--

         To smile a little, as a sleeper does,
         If any dear one call him, touch his face--
         And smiles and loves, but will not be disturbed.

      Then, all at once, the boy who had been assisting in these proceedings, moved by some swift inspiration, sprang from his knees and proclaimed a text: 'I am the Resurrection and the Life!' As if by magic, consciousness revisited the prostrate form; the man opened his eyes; sat up; stared about him; and then began to speak. A wondrous virtue seemed to lurk in the majestic words that the boy recited. By that virtue Sydney Carton, Frank Bullen, and a host of others passed from death into life everlasting.

      V

      I began by saying that it is a great thing--a very great thing--to be able to save those you love by dying for them.

      I close by stating the companion truth. It is a great thing--a very great thing--to have been died for.

      On the last page of his book Dickens tells us what Sydney Carton would have seen and said if, on the scaffold, it had been given him to read the future.

      'I see,' he would have exclaimed, 'I see the lives for which I lay down my life--peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy--in that England which I shall see no more. I see her with a child upon her bosom who bears my name. I see that I hold a sanctuary in all their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed; and I know that each was not more honored and held sacred in the other's soul than I was in the souls of both!'

      'I see that I hold a sanctuary in all their hearts!'--it is a lovely phrase.

      It is a great thing--a very great thing--to have been died for!

      Wherefore let each man be at some pains to build in his heart a sanctuary to Him who, for us men and for our salvation, laid down His life with a song!

Back to Frank W. Boreham index.

See Also:
   Introduction
   1: William Penn's Text
   2: Robinson Crusoe's Text
   3: James Chalmers' Text
   4: Sydney Carton's Text
   5: Ebenezer Erskine's Text
   6: Doctor Davidson's Text
   7: Henry Martyn's Text
   8: Michael Trevanion's Text
   9: Hudson Taylor's Text
   10: Rodney Steele's Text
   11: Thomas Huxley's Text
   12: Walter Petherick's Text
   13: Doctor Blund's Text
   14: Hedley Vicars' Text
   15: Silas Wright's Text
   16: Michael Faraday's Text
   17: Janet Dempster's Text
   18: Catherine Booth's Text
   19: Uncle Tom's Text
   20: Andrew Bonar's Text
   21: Francis D'assisi's Text
   22: Everybody's Text

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