Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Boreham on the 'Comrades of the Night'

A recent note from Boreham enthusiast, Les Nixon, who oversees Australia’s Outback Patrol, prompted the posting of this essay by F W Boreham in which he shares some truths he discovered on a trip to the outback.

Tea at the End of the World
We had come to the End of the World; at least, that is what they called it. In point of fact, it was an Australian sheep station, away in the Never-Never country. The nearest neighbors were twenty miles away. All through that golden autumn afternoon our car had been making its way as rapidly as the condition of the road would permit, between the barbed-wire fences that seemed to stretch from one end of the continent to the other. We had been assured, when we left the run at Seldom Seen, that, with luck, we could reach the End of the World by dusk. Perhaps the luck was lacking; at any rate, we were getting nervous about things. The mists were settling down upon the hills; the nip of evening was laying hold of our ears and finger-tips; yet still there was no sign of a settlement. We were gloomily speculating on our chances of getting back to Seldom Seen before mid-night when, all at once, we detected a suspicion of smoke curling up from behind a distant ridge. A moment later we distinctly heard the barking of dogs. Involuntarily we increased the speed of the car, and then, as we swept round the bend of the grassy road, the homestead broke suddenly upon us. We reached the End of the World in time for tea; and tea at the End of the World is a noble meal.

Whole Galaxy of Heaven
After tea we sat around the great log-fire. At the End of the World they build fires such as civilization never dreams of. We talked and laughed together for awhile; and then the experiences of the day began to tell upon me. The fierce glow of the huge fire and the genial atmosphere of the cosy room, following upon the long drive in the strong bracing air of the hills, proved too much for me, and I felt as drowsy as a tired child. Before retiring, however, I stepped out on to the verandah to have a look at the night. There is something very captivating about a lonely Australian scene by starlight. And this particular night seemed to have called out the whole galaxy of heaven. Every star was in its place. I stepped off the verandah in order to get a better view of the skies. Sauntering down towards the great white gate I discovered that I was not alone. The little governess whom they all called Grace was standing with her elbow resting on the top bar of the gate, and her chin resting on her hand. I hesitated to disturb her, but she turned on my approach, and we were soon engaged in conversation. And either the conversation or the night air made me forget my sleepiness. For she said a very interesting thing:

Cure for Homesickness
`I always come out here on a night like this,' she said. `It does me good, and cures my homesickness. My home is in Melbourne, and I have always been used to the city. But they wanted a governess at the End of the World. They pay well; I needed the money; and so it suited me to come. But, oh, it's so different from Melbourne in the daytime, and home seems an eternity away. But at night this gate seems just like the gate at home. Everything strange is wrapped up in the darkness, so that I shall not see it. And the stars come out, the very same stars that I used to watch from our dear old front garden. It is lovely to see them. They seem so companionable, and when I stand here and look at them I forget that I am at the End of the World. I sometimes think I could never stay here but for them!'

Odd Coincidence
I left her musing by the gate and went to my room. And then a strange thing happened, one of those odd coincidences that stamp truth as stranger far than fiction. At the last post-town through which we had passed I received a letter from a young fellow away at the war. He came out from England to these new lands five years ago; but, when the war broke out, he heard the call of the flag and marched away with the rest. I glanced over his letter in the car coming along, but in the quietude of my room I was able to read it more carefully. And, to my astonishment, I came upon this:

'It sometimes happens, 'he writes from Flanders, 'it sometimes happens that we really wonder if we are living on the same planet as that which we formerly inhabited. There is absolutely nothing here to connect us with the quiet life we once lived. But at night-time it is different. One by one the stars come out, and we trace the same constellations that we used to watch as we strolled up the old lane or trudged along the great high-road; and when we see them taking their old places in the skies above us, the link with the old land and the old life seems to have been suddenly restored.'

I rather wish I could introduce these two—our little governess at the End of the World and our young officer in Flanders. You never know what night come of it. They evidently have a good deal in common.

Excellent Medicine
But let neither of them suppose that they were the first to think along this line. It is thousands of years since it was first discovered that the stars make an excellent medicine for homesick hearts. Many an empire has risen and declined since one of the ancient prophets was commanded to direct the attention of an exiled and dejected people to the stars that circled peacefully above their heads.

Lift your eyes on high,' he exclaimed, 'and behold who hath created these things, that brings out their host by number; He calls them all by names by the greatness of His might, for that He is strong in power; not one, fails.' And when, lifting their downcast faces, the captives observed that the stars that looked down upon the land of their banishment were the same as those with which they had become familiar in the country from which they had been cruelly snatched, they instinctively felt that there were ties to the old land that no conqueror could break, and possibilities of restoration of which no tyrant could deprive them.

Eyes to the Skies
From time immemorial disconsolate men and women have turned their eyes to the skies at night and have felt precisely as our lonely little governess felt by the gate the other evening. The stars have always seemed to be speaking some consoling and heartening message to suffering nations and to distracted individuals. How they soothed the mental the mental anguish of Mark Rutherford! ‘The provision of infinity in Nature,' he says, 'is an immense help to me. No person can look up to the stars at night and reflect upon what lies behind them without feeling that the tyranny of the senses is loosened. The beyond and the beyond, turn it over as we may, is a constant visible warning not to make our minds the measure of the universe. This understanding of ours whose function it seems to be to imprison us, is manifestly limited.’ And, in his Autobiography, the stars appear to have been his comforters.

There is Room
On one occasion he is oppressed by his conviction—the most distressing and unmanning of all the convictions that sometimes seizes us—the conviction that there is nothing in him. He walks beneath the stars, and feels that, in a universe of such inconceivable immensity, there is room for every creature born, and, therefore, a place for him. `I sought refuge in the idea of God, the God of a starry night with its incomprehensible distances; and I was at peace, content to be the meanest worm of all the millions that crawl upon the earth.' Again, he is aflame with anger. He strolls beneath the stars, and, reflecting on the great idea of God, and on all that it implies, his animosities are softened and his heat against his brother is cooled.'

Stars Spoken Again
On a third occasion he is worried almost to death, and utterly disheartened. `But just before I reached home the clouds rolled off with the south-west wind into detached, fleecy masses, separated by liquid blue gulfs, in which were sowed the stars. The effect upon me was what that sight, thank God, always has been—a sense of the infinite, extinguishing all mean cares.' The stars had spoken, and his hurt was healed.

Linking the Ages
But standing beside the great white gate at the End of the World, our sad little governess did not see everything. When you turn your eyes starward you are apt to miss something. And both she and our young officer in Flanders missed the best part of the celestial vision. For the stars not only link the lonely station on which poor Grace now lives with the great city she has left behind; they not only link those trenches in Flanders with the tranquil English meadows; but they link up all the ages. Had our young officer who felt that the stars reunited him to his native village and his childhood's home given the matter a second thought, he would have seen that, along a similar line of reasoning, those same stars immediately related him to all the moving drama of the Empire's story. The stars that shine on the British regiments this evening are the selfsame stars that looked down upon the campaigns of Marlborough and Wellington. The stars that must seem to our people in the North Sea to be sharing with them their long and tedious vigil are the self-same stars that gazed upon the destruction of the Spanish Armada and upon Nelson's famous victory ill Trafalgar Bay. The stars link the reality of an age with the romance of all the ages; they unite the prose of the present with the poetry of the past. As Mr. Edward Shillito recently pointed out, the heavens upon whose wealth of wonder the average Londoner gazes with stolid indifference are:

The heavens, beneath which Alfred stood, when he
Built ramparts by the tide against his foes;
The skies men loved when in eternity
The dream-like Abbey rose;

The heavens whose glory has not known increase
Since Raleigh swaggered home by lantern-light,
And Shakespeare, looking upwards, knew the peace,
The cool deep peace of night.

Under those heavens brave Wesley rose betimes
To preach ere daybreak to the tender soul;
And in the heart of Keats the starry rhymes
Roll, and for ever roll.

Selfsame Stars
I fancy that this was the idea in the prophet's mind. It was not merely that the stars that looked down on Israel's captivity were the same that they had seen from the streets of Jerusalem; it was that the stars that they saw were the selfsame stars upon which Abraham gazed when lie received thee promise of the future glory of his race. 'Like the stars of the sky for multitude,' he repeated to himself as his eye scanned the radiant arch above him. And it was something for the stricken people in the day of their adversity to rest their eyes upon the selfsame spectacle that the father of their race had dwelt upon with such deep and mystic rapture.

When Napoleon's army, under Desaix, came within sight of the Pyramids, the men stood still in breathless admiration, and then, quite spontaneously, they rent the stillness of the desert with a shout of wonder and delight, Here was posterity cheering antiquity; the modern cheering the ancient; the world's newest today cheering the world's oldest yesterday. The fine deed was inspired by precisely the same emotions as those with which the captive Hebrews feasted their eyes upon the stars that had greeted the eyes of Abraham. It is good at times to catch sight of the things that abide, the things that filled the first person on this planet with wonder, and that will seem just as magnificent to the man who hears the crack of doom.

Life’s Immutabilities
Which things, besides being helpful and stimulating in themselves, are an allegory, a figure of things still greater. Life needs its fixed quantities, its immutabilities, its things that shine unchangingly. Was it for this reason that, in the Apocalypse, ministers are likened to the stars? `Coming home through the wood last night,' writes Dr. Andrew Bonar in his journal, 'I was refreshed and comforted in looking at the stars. Ministers, like those stars, are set to give light through the night. We shine on, whether travelers will make use of our light or not.' The Christian ministry passes on from age to age the things that abide. If a broken heart is comforted in a church today, it is because the minister gave a message that healed a stricken soul, long centuries ago. If into the broken and contrite spirit of some lowly penitent there flows tonight the rapture of sin forgiven, it is because the minister told an old, old story that has been the light of all the ages. .’I, Jesus, am the Bright and Morning Star,’ said the Risen Saviour, in the sentences with which the Bible closes; and tired eyes will rest steadily on Him until tie stunning tides and shifting scenes of time and sense have ceased for ever to confuse them.

F W Boreham, ‘Comrades of the Night’, The Silver Shadow (London: The Epworth Press, 1918), 77-86.

Image: ‘Comrades of the Night.’