It was the deliberate opinion of Charley Bates, the pickpocket, that Bill Sikes’ dog was ‘an out-and-out Christian.’
‘He wouldn’t so much as bark in a witness-box for fear of committing himself; no, not if you tied him up in one, and left him there without wittles for a fortnight,’ added the Artful Dodger.
‘He’s an out-and-out Christian,’ said Charley.
I do not quite understand why I have begun this chapter with Bill Sikes’ dog. I meant to have written about Balaam’s ass. I must apologize to my readers for having introduced the wrong animal. But now that we have Bill Sikes’ dog here, we may as well have a good look at him. For there is a distinct connexion between the two after all; and, personally, I always find it more easy to understand the record of the wayward prophet and his eloquent beast when I think of it with the story of Bill Sikes and his dog open before me.
“Yes, he’s an out-and-out Christian!” said Charley.
I’m inclined to go one step further than did Charley. I propose to establish a new order, to be called The Minor Minor Prophets. And among those Minor Minor Prophets both Balaam’s ass and Sikes’ dog will find honourable places.
Principal George Adam Smith, of Aberdeen—our greatest living authority on Hebrew prophecy—says that the two indispensable qualifications of a prophet are Vision and Voice. Your prophet sees what others cannot see, and therefore he says what others cannot say. Now, these are precisely the features about these Minor Minor Prophets that impress me most. Their vision is positively uncanny, and they say things unutterable. Balaam’s ass is by no means alone in that respect.
I do not keep a dog. It is too humiliating. A man cannot possibly enjoy the companionship of a dog and maintain his self-respect. Walk along a country road with a dog, and he will discover, and draw your attention to, a hundred things to which you are totally blind. Every broken stick, every mark in the mud, every scratch in the sand, every gap in the hedge, every fluttering leaf, mean something to the dog. It is his way of reading history. He knows exactly what has happened, and what is happening now, and what is going to happen. A wonderful seer is he. It is positively painful. He makes his owner feel like a dolt and dullard. It is the story of Balaam over again. The ass saw the angel, but Balaam didn’t. Any man who keeps a dog, or a horse, or a Minor Minor Prophet of any kind knows that this sort of thing happens very often.
Travellers tell us that a horse or a donkey is never deceived by a mirage. And just because these Minor Minor Prophets see so much more than we can see, they say so much more than we can say. I have never been able to sympathize with those who find a difficulty in the eloquence of Balaam’s ass. When I was a child I pored over Aesop’s fables, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to me that the wolves and foxes, the dogs and the horses, the storks and the cranes, should speak to each other and to men. I do not remember ever pausing to think about it; it seemed so perfectly and exquisitely fitting and right. Then followed that silly and superior stage in which we doubt everything that we had ever believed. And during that period I, of course, turned up my nose contemptuously at my childish simplicity, and assured myself that was all nonsense. How could animals speak? The idea was preposterous. Then came wisdom, or, at least, an inkling of it. I remembered that the history of the world was crammed with just such stories as the story of Balaam’s ass. Did not geese call up the slumbering Roman guards and save the capitol? Did not a spaniel cry aloud and spare not—after the fashion of a major prophet—until he had saved a nation from disgrace? The Prince of Orange and all his sentries slept. The Spanish soldiers were within striking distance. And in that moment of imminent peril, on which the destinies of nations trembled, the Prince’s spaniel spake out bravely. ‘To his dying day,’ says Motley, ‘the Prince ever afterwards kept a spaniel of the same race in his bed-chamber.’ I came, too, upon Luther’s tribute to his robin. ‘I have one preacher,’ he says, ‘that I love better than any other upon earth; it is my little tame robin, which preaches to me daily. I put his crumbs upon my window-sill, especially at night. He hops on to the sill when he wants his supply, and takes as much as he desires to satisfy his need. From thence, he always hops on to a little tree close by, and lifts up his voice to God and sings his carol of praise and gratitude, tucks his little head under his wing, and goes fast to sleep, and leaves to-morrow to look after itself. He is the best preacher that I have on earth.’ And then, my scepticism almost gone, and my mind swinging rapidly back to my childhood’s faith, I came upon Bill Sikes’ dog. How reproachfully he used to look up into the burglar’s face! Tell me that these Minor Minor Prophets cannot speak! Call them ‘dumb creatures’! I have heard a dog say more in two seconds than I could express in two minutes or write in two pages! Does not a pointer say more than a parrot? To be sure! These creatures are no more dumb than Balaam’s ass. Like him, they are Minor Minor Prophets. They have Vision and they have Voice. If we think them dumb, it is because we ourselves are deaf; that is all.
Yes, they have Voice. And no man who has heard these Minor Minor Prophets can afford to ignore their message. Let me give one startling and tremendous illustration. I sometimes think it the most sensational thing in literature. A hundred years ago there took place Napoleon’s historic and memorable retreat from Moscow. Among those frozen mountain passes, and along those deep and shadowy valleys in which the drifted snow had buried the very pine-trees, Napoleon strewed the corpses of half a million men. It is the most stupendous tragedy that the history of the world can produce. Did no prophet rise up in those days to warn the Emperor that his invasion of Russia would be attended by so enormous and appalling a catastrophe? There were prophets to warn him! God never lets any man, much less half a million men, rush to his dreadful doom without sending some prophet to warn and deliver him. He sent Minor Minor Prophets. Listen! Frank Buckland, the great naturalist, who knew the Minor Minor Prophets thoroughly, says: ‘If the Emperor Napoleon, when on the road to Moscow, had condescended to observe the flights of storks and cranes passing over his fated battalions, subsequent events in the politics of Europe might have been very different. These storks and cranes knew of the coming on of a great and terrible winter; the birds hastened towards the south, but Napoleon and his huge army pressed on northwards.’ And we Australians remember gratefully the pigeon that, up in the dusty heart of the continent, showed Captain Sturt where the water was, and saved the life of the greatest of all our explorers. We gladly welcome that gentle bird, and it’s keen vision and it’s soft voice, to the goodly fellowship of the Minor Minor Prophets.
Balaam thrashed the ass, and Bill Sikes kicked the dog. That is always the fate of the prophets, even the Minor Minor Prophets. Indeed, it was not owing to the virtue of either Balaam or Bill Sikes that the ass or the dog—poor Minor Minor Prophets—did not fare even worse. ‘Balaam said onto the ass: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee!’ And Bill Sikes did actually prepare to drown the dog; had the stone and the string in the water already; but the dog—having a prophetic gift on which the burglar had not reckoned—mysteriously vanished. We are born persecutors. It comes quite naturally to us to stone the prophets. It is very absurd. We might just as well smash the mirror if it dares to suggest that we are not as handsome as Apollo or as beautiful as Venus! But absurd and illogical as it all is, we do it. We’re like Macaulay’s Hindu who, seeing the sacred water of the Ganges under a microscope, smashed the microscope! And so poor Balaam thrashed his ass, and longed to slay him! And so poor Bill Sikes kicked his dog, and tried to drown him! And so—and on precisely identical principles—all your persecutions have been inaugurated. Those roaring lions at Rome, that hideous inquisition in Spain, those blazing fires at Smithfield—it is the same sad and silly old story, over and over and over again.
There was a Prophet once, the peerless Prince of all the prophets. And all the prophets of all the ages reverently salute Him. He had Vision such as no prophet, before or since, ever enjoyed. And Voice; for it was like the sound of many waters. Beneath the magic of His utterance wicked men winced and weeping women were wondrously comforted. But they crucified Him! His path led to the Cross. It reached its climax on Calvary. That is always the way. The Prince of the prophets, and the major prophets, and the minor prophets, and even the minor minor prophets must all pay that same dread penalty for Truth’s dear sake. And I for my part am face to face with a terrible choice. Shall I take my stand with those noble souls—prophets and heroes and martyrs—who have seen clearly and spoken truly, come what may? Or shall I be found skulking among those who wince beneath the word, slash savagely at the faithful speaker, and stagger blindly out into the dark?
‘He’s an out-and-out Christian!’ said Charley Bates, that pickpocket, as he discussed Bill Sikes’ dog with his friend, the Artful Dodger. His bald and dogmatic affirmation may be open to theological criticism; but I am in no mood at this moment to take up the cudgels against him.
Taken from Mountains in the Mist, pp. 30-37.