The Old Man's Story

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Taken from "Treasures Of The Snow", a story of Switzerland, by Patricia St. John, Moody Press, copyright 1952. Used with permission.

I was an only child, and there was nothing in the world my father would not give me. If ever a child was spoiled, it was I.

I was a clever boy, for all my selfishness, and when I grew up I was given a good place in the bank. I worked hard and climbed to the top. I fell in love with a girl, and married her. God gave us two little sons, and for the first few years of our life together I believe I was a good father and a good husband.

But I got in with a bad lot of friends who flattered me and invited me to their homes. They were interested in gambling, and they drank heavily. I admired them and began to learn their ways. Gradually I began to spend more and more money on drink and gambling.

I need not tell you about those years. I was less and less at home, and often came home drunk in the evenings. My little boys grew to fear me and dislike me. My wife pleaded with and prayed for me, but I could not give it up. Drink had me in its grip, and I knew of no power stronger than myself that could free me.

Our money began to dwindle away, and people began to talk about my bad ways. The bank manager warned me twice, but the third time, when I was found drunk and disorderly in the streets, he dismissed me. That day I went home sober and told my wife I had lost my job. She simply replied, "Then I shall have to go out and work. We can't fail our boys."

I tried to find another job, but my story was known, and no one would employ me. I tried to earn money on the gambling tables, but I never had any luck. I lost the little money I had.

My wife went daily to work, as well as looking after the house and the boys, but she could not earn enough to keep us all. One day she came and told me we were in debt, and could not pay.

I was desperate for money: to pay our debts and to buy myself more drink. I had not worked in the bank as a high and trusted official for nothing. I knew the ways of it inside out, and I decided to commit a robbery.

My plan, which was a skillful one, succeeded; but it was not quite skillful enough. I was discovered, and tried, and as I could pay nothing back, and the robbery had been a heavy one, I was condemned to a long term of imprisonment.

My wife had been ill for many weeks. She was overworked, and ate next to nothing so that there should be enough for the boys. Three times she came to the prison to visit me, pale and worn to a shadow. Then my elder boy wrote that she was too ill to come. A few weeks later a policeman escorted me to her bedside to say good-by to her. She was dying; they say she died of consumption. I say she died of a broken heart, and that I killed her.

I sat beside her for twenty-four hours, with her hand in mine. She spoke to me about the love and mercy of God, and about the forgiveness of sins. I stayed with her until she died, and then the policeman took me back the prison.

I remember little about the months that followed. I seemed numbed and lost in despair. I had only one comfort. All my life I had loved wood carving, and in my spare hours they let me have my tools and whittle away at bits of wood. I grew more and more skillful, and a kindly prison warden used to take my work out and sell it in the town. I earned a little money in that way and saved it eagerly. One day I supposed I should have to start again.

The day came sooner than I expected. I was summoned to the governor and told that in three weeks' time I should be a free man because of my good conduct.

I wandered back to the prisoners' room hardly knowing whether to be pleased or sorry. I supposed I should be glad to leave prison, but where should I go, and how start life again? One thing I had determined. My boys should never see me again, or know where I was. They had been adopted by their grandparents, and I knew they were growing up into fine boys with good futures ahead of them. They should never be branded with my bad name or shadowed by my past. To them I would be as though I were dead.

Beyond that I knew nothing. The governor offered to help me start afresh, but I wanted to leave no traces of where I was going, and refused his help. When the day of my release came, I walked out with my little sum of money in my pocket and took the first train up into the mountains.

I got out at this village, because I saw a man in difficulty with a herd of cows who were trying to push through a broken fence. I helped him get them back onto the road, and then asked him if he could give me work.

He did not need me, but pointed to a chalet, halfway up the mountain. Up there, he told me, was a peasant whose son had gone down to the lake towns to learn a trade. He badly needed someone to take the place of his son.

I shall never forget that day! The narcissus flowers were out in the fields as I climbed the hill. I found the chalet, and the man himself was chopping wood outside when I arrived. I went and stood in front of him. I was tired and hungry and sick at heart.

"I hear you need a herdsman," I began; "will you take me?"

He looked me up and down. His face was good and his eyes were kind.

"You are not from our village," he said. "Where have you come from, and who are you?"

"I come from Geneva."

"What is your work?"

"I have none."

"But what have you been doing up to now?"

I cast about in my mind for some good lie, but the man looked at me so straight, and his face was so honest that I could not lie. I wanted him to know me for what I was, or not to know me at all.

"I have just come out of prison," I replied simply.

"Why were you in prison?"

"For stealing money."

"How do I know that you will not steal my money?"

"Because I want to start again, and I am asking you to trust me. If you do not trust me I will go away."

Again he looked me up and down. Then he held out his hand to me, and I sat down on the bench beside him and wept. Prison makes a man weak.

I worked for than man for five years, early and late. I made friends with no one and took no rest. My only joy was to work for the man I loved and who had received me when everyone else had cast me out. I often wondered why he did it, until one night I heard him talking to his son, who was home from town for the weekend.

"Father," said the boy, "why did you take in that prisoner without any character? Surely it was a very unwise thing to do!"

"My son," answered the man, "Christ received sinners, and we are His disciples."

In the summer he and I took the cows up the mountain, and lived in this chalet where I live now. The peace of the mountain seemed to enter into me and heal me. For me, the sinner, as for him, the saint, the flowers grew on the slopes, the sunsets were beautiful, and the early mornings were cloudless. There was no difference. I, too, began to believe in the love and mercy of God.

But after four years my master began to grow weak and ill. He visited the doctor, but nothing could be done for him. I cared for him for a year and his son often came to see him, but at the end of that time he died, and I was left alone. The night before he left this earth he spoke to me, as my wife had done, about the love and mercy of God and about the forgiveness of sins.

So I lost my only friend, although his son was very good to me. His son was a rich man then; he sold the cows and gave me this chalet for my own. So I bought a goat and a few hens, collected my few possessions and came here and have lived here ever since.

I have only one friend-the shopkeeper in the town who sells my wood carvings; he sometimes gives me news about my sons. They have grown up into good men and they have done well; one is a doctor and one is a businessman. They do not know that I am alive, and it is better that way. I have nothing that I could give them, and my name would only disgrace them.

But through the lives and words of my master and my wife, I too have come to believe in the love and mercy of God and the forgiveness of sins. I cannot pay back the people I robbed, for I don't know them, but I am working hard. I have now saved nearly as much money as I stole, and when I have saved the whole sum I will seek for some person who truly needs it-and to him I will pay my debt.

You tell me there is no way to start again, but you are wrong. I have sinned far, far more deeply than you have done, and have suffered in a way that a boy like you can know nothing about. But I believe that God has forgiven me, and I am spending my days working to give back what I owe, and striving to become what God meant me to be. It is all I can do-it is all everyone can do. Our past we must leave to God.

1952-2002 Moody Press. Used With Permission.