Death and Life of a Soldier: 1
PART ONE. THE SOLDIER’S STORY
CHAPTER ONE THE WELCOME
The valley on the fringe of Heaven’s realm lay dreaming in fragrant peace. The pearly sky held no hurrying clouds, but remained lightly veiled in mist as though time and season stood still. Down the grassy hillside, flowers rose motionless on their slender stems, for not a breath of air was stirring. Their petals were half opened, like the eyes of a child in the early morning, and their fragrance mingled with the air in sweetness.
In the depths of the valley a stream flowed gently on its way, its silver ribbon cut with stooping foliage and the sharply-etched rim of a bridge. On the other side of the valley, the hills climbed and climbed as though in friendly rivalry. How high was the topmost peak it was not possible to see, for in the far distance the veiling mist seemed to close in with a secret smile. Almost, it seemed as though no sound had ever broken this deep stillness, nor any movement stirred to life the long, gleaming blades of grass. Then, startling in its unexpectedness, the bowed figure of a man appeared.
He came toiling up the hillside from the depths of the valley, stumbling a little as though he carried a great pack upon his back; but his hands and his back were empty of any burden. Now and then he paused and glanced round in perplexity, shading his eyes and gazing steadily in every direction. When he reached the plain he stood quite still, smiling a little. Then, yawning, he stretched himself among the flowers and fell asleep. The valley dreamed on. The man on the ground became a part of the peace of it all. Time flowed without measure.
Was it a mist that began to surround the sleeping man? At first it appeared so; then the misty outlines became more clearly defined and two angels stood looking down at him. They were smiling gently, as parents smile sometimes beside little beds at eventide.
Presently the man stirred slightly; the two angels sat down beside him; watchful, yet seeming to gaze out over the hills. “It is the silence that puzzles me so much,” the man said clearly. The angels became more alert and a glance passed between them. They looked down at the strong young face. The eyes were still closed and the sandy lashes lay on the bronzed cheek. Young as it was, the face was lined and hollow, telling of days of suffering, sleeplessness, hunger. “It is the silence” the man began again, and opened his eyes. For a moment he could not seem to focus them. He blinked and looked about him vaguely.
“It is the silence of Heaven,” said one of the angels. The man looked startled, his eyes focussing suddenly upon them.
“Heaven!” He started up on his elbow, but one of the angels gently pressed him back.
“Rest for a while. You have been so weary”
“I know all that,” the man said testily, “but Heaven! I don’t want to be in Heaven. Me Heaven!” He laughed shortly. “Never thought much about it, I suppose.”
“No, perhaps not,” said the taller angel who appeared to be a man. “All the same, you are here now.”
“But I thought people had to be good to get to Heaven? I have never been particularly good nor specially bad either, come to that. But Heaven…”
“Does it surprise you so much? ‘Love covereth a multitude of sins.'”
“Love!” Again the man laughed. “Can’t say I have loved much, either. Of course, there was my mother and the kids at home. Don’t know that I ever thought of loving them though. Just took them for granted, I guess.”
“No, I did not refer to that love,” explained the angel. “‘Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.'”
“That is from the Bible, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” For a time there was silence between the three. Then the man said musingly:
“We just all stood together and it did not seem to matter who lived and who died, so long as somebody held on. So much was at stake, you see … But those men! How they could take it! You ought to have seen my mates”
“I did see them,” the man-angel declared quietly.
“Yes. Do you think I should have forsaken you in the midst of the battle. I, who have guarded you all your life?”
“You have?” The man looked amazed. Then he smiled.
“I say, it doesn’t seem as though Heaven were such a strange place after all – to find a friend here.”
“Splendid!” smiled the angel, and the woman guide agreed.
“Try to realise that we are here to help you,” she counselled. “You have had a terrible and a glorious experience. You have lived your earth life in a few years, instead of it being spun out as most lives are. You have not had the opportunity to prepare slowly for Heaven, as the majority have. All these unusual circumstances mean additional problems. Let us help you with them!”
“You are kind.” The man sat up, now, looking much more at ease. “My name is Reg. Of course, it is really Reginald, but no one calls me that!”
“Well, we will call you Reg!”
“Thanks.” He pulled at the grass perplexedly. “There are so many problems, I don’t know how to begin! First, about my mates. How can I stay here and leave them to fight alone? It doesn’t seem fair. And what about my sins, even though they are covered? Don’t I have to give an account of them, or anything? What does one do here? We can’t just go on sitting on the grass, surely? And I hate to say it like this sounds sort of irreverent. But where’s God?”