On the following morning at breakfast Owen had some talk with his friend the Deputation.
“You asked me last night,” he said quietly, “whether I would undertake a mission to that people of whom you were telling me—the Sons of Fire. Well, I have been thinking it over, and come to the conclusion that I will do so——”
At this point the Deputation, concluding that his host must be mad, moved quietly but decidedly towards the door.
“Wait a moment,” went on Owen, in a matter-of-fact voice, “the dog-cart will not be round for another three-quarters of an hour. Tell me, if it were offered to you, and on investigation you proved suitable, would you care to take over this living?”
“Would I care to take over this living?” gasped the astonished Deputation. “Would I care to walk down that garden and find myself in Heaven? But why are you making fun of me?”
“I am not making fun of you. If I go to Africa I must give up the living, of which I own the advowson, and it occurred to me that it might suit you—that is all. You have done your share; your health is broken, and you have many dependent upon you. It seems right, therefore, that you should rest, and that I should work. If I do no good yonder, at the least you and yours will be a little benefited.”
That same day Owen chanced to meet the lady who has been spoken of as having caught his heart. He had meant to go away without seeing her, but fortune brought them together. Hitherto, whilst in reality leading him on, she had seemed to keep him at a distance, with the result that he did not know that it was her fixed intention to marry him. To her, with some hesitation, he told his plans. Surprised and frightened into candour, the lady reasoned with him warmly, and when reason failed to move him she did more. By some subtle movement, with some sudden word, she lifted the veil of her reserve and suffered him to see her heart. “If you will not stay for aught else,” said her troubled eyes, “then, love, stay for me.”
For a moment he was shaken. Then he answered the look straight out, as was his nature.
“I never guessed,” he said. “I did not presume to hope—now it is too late! Listen! I will tell you what I have told no living soul, though thereafter you may think me mad. Weak and humble as I am, I believe myself to have received a Divine mission. I believe that I shall execute it, or bring about its execution, but at the ultimate cost of my own life. Still, in such a service two are better than one. If you—can care enough—if you——”
But the lady had already turned away, and was murmuring her farewell in accents that sounded like a sob. Love and faith after this sort were not given to her.
Of all Owen’s trials this was the sharpest. Of all his sacrifices this was the most complete.