DARK and gloomy was the day towards the close of 1877. A pale young man sat writing wearily at his desk in a London office. The thick fog had penetrated within, and only by the help of gaslight was work possible. However, with its aid, the row of clerks toiled diligently on in dreary silence, until the one next to our friend, suddenly throwing down his pen, drew to his side and whispered, "I say, Joe hand over half-a-crown; I'm hard up for one."
"A half-crown, indeed!" exclaimed Joe. "You know I've none to spare; you must go elsewhere for that."
"Not so fast," retorted the other, drawing still closer until he could almost hiss in Joe's ear, "I know your secret young man; it's worth your while to buy me off, before I hand you over to the authorities."
Joe's pale cheeks became ashen, as he endeavored to reply calmly, "You know nothing of me. What secret have I got?"
"Well, I should just like to know what business one of Her Majesty's soldiers has in this office?"
"I am not a soldier now," returned Joe, confusedly; "my regiment was sent on Foreign Service while I lay ill. It was no fault of mine that I got left behind."
"No, no, no, that won't do; you can't deceive me. You're nothing but a DESERTER, a craven, cowardly deserter," answered the other, tauntingly; "and I'll take good care to let every one know, if you don't make it worth my while to keep silence."
"No more of this; here's your half-crown," and the now trembling Joe threw the coin to his tormentor, who, with a fiendish laugh, pocketed it, and resumed his pen. Joe took up his, too, but the words swam before his eyes, as, with throbbing head and beating heart, he vainly strove to continue his task. The word 'Deserter' seemed to burn into his very soul, as he pictured himself being marched back to barracks between soldiers with fixed bayonets, and as the humiliating consequences of his dishonorable act pressed upon him. Alas, for poor Joe! He was proving that the 'way of transgressors is hard'. The cannon's mouth, on the battlefield, seemed now less terrible to him than the constant dread of the policeman's hand on his shoulder, or the taunts and threats of his fellow clerk. From that time his life was one of utter misery.
Let us take another glimpse of Joe as he walks through the London streets, rather more than nine years later. His figure is slightly bent, not with age, for he still is a young man, but with the burden of a sin whose consequences he daily reaps, and which has made him prematurely old. He enters a post office, and, while waiting until one of the busy officials is at liberty to attend to him, stands leaning wearily against the wall, gazing vacantly before him. What is that which suddenly catches his eyes, and transforms his whole appearance? It is but a large placard on the wall, which arrests his gaze that many others present have looked at idly or not looked at all. Why does it affect Joe so keenly? Let us study it. The first words are:
Joe's heart beats so loudly that he can almost hear it. He reads that Queen Victoria, to mark the completion of the fiftieth year of her reign, extends her most gracious pardon to all her soldiers who may have deserted before the issue of this royal proclamation, and who should report themselves within two months. It concluded with the words:
"And we do hereby make further declaration that every offender herein referred to, who shall not avail himself of the pardon we now graciously offer, shall be held amenable to all pains and penalties provided under the Army Act, Etc. Given at our Court at Windsor, the 17th day of June, 1887, in the fiftieth year of our reign."
"It is all very well," soliloquized Joe, as he wended his way back to his lodgings, " but it's far too good news to be true. No doubt it applies to less aggravated cases, Her Majesty's pardon would never be extended to a wretch like me." Thus Joe reasoned, and so he passed six miserable weeks of delay. At last came a night on which affairs reached their climax; it was the very worst Joe had spent, not a wink of sleep refreshed his fevered brain. At length, springing up, he exclaimed, "I'll do it! The die is cast! I'll trust Her Majesty's proclamation; and if she won't pardon me it's all up." His letter was short and to the point, a simple confession of his desertion from Her Majesty's forces, ten years previously, on his regiment being ordered abroad. Without venturing to read over what he had written, he closed the envelope, hurriedly seized his hat, and rushing out into the street, dropped his missive into the first letter box he came across.
The hours dragged their weary length along, while Joe, sick at heart, waited for a reply to his letter. When, at length, one bearing the mark, "On Her Majesty's Service," was placed in his hand, he felt almost faint. A cold perspiration broke out on his forehead, and he sank into a chair, before he dare venture to open the envelope, which would decide his fate. "Of course, my application is refused and I am a ruined man! What a fool I was to betray myself," he muttered, as with trembling hands he opened the letter. He could hardly believe his eyes, when he saw a certificate for a full pardon, drawn out in Her Majesty's name, and signed by the officer in command. Yes. He was pardoned! Joe placed the precious document in his bosom, and with a light step, and head erect, proceeded to the office.
"Joe's had some stroke of good luck, and no mistake," thought his tormentor, who, during those long years had made a rich harvest for himself by preying on the poor deserter. Drawing nearer to him, he whispered, "Come Joe, another half-crown; I've not had one lately, and you know it's worth your while to go on buying my silence."
"No more half-crowns you'll get from me," retorted Joe firmly; "you've had your last, my man." And Joe drew out triumphantly Her Majesty's certificate.
"Oh! Ah! What is this?" exclaimed the baffled persecutor ruefully. "Why, you're pardoned, Joe!"
"Yes," replied Joe, his eyes flashing brightly; "I have Queen Victoria's own gracious word for it that I am pardoned, and never again can the crime of desertion be laid at my door."
Yes! Joe was pardoned by the free grace of another. The dreaded terrors of the law could not touch him more. How is it to be with you? Will you avail yourself of the infinitely more gracious offer of forgiveness which is so freely made to you? Once given, that pardon is for all eternity. How priceless its worth! The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin - on the spot, and forever. Mark that, by the terms of Her Majesty's proclamation, only those who reported themselves as deserters were eligible for protecting certificates; and in the more important question of eternal pardon, only those who own themselves sinners can put in a claim for forgiveness.