His Days and His Ways
A Continuation of the Book as a Biography
CHAPTER FORTY-THREE: Dies at San Francisco, and is Buried at New York (1898).
Simultaneously with the voyagings of our fellow-travellers to and from New Zealand, briefly alluded to in the last chapter, there were developments in Birmingham (now their antipodes), which providentially cleared the way for the change that was so near. The lease of the premises at 139, Moor Street, was optionally terminable at Christmas, 1898. But before then, brother Roberts was to be dead and buried, though we knew it not.
I transcribe a short paragraph that I wrote for The Christadelphian (August, 1898): --
“This is the last issue from the publishing offices at 139, Moor Street. The lease is not up till Christmas, but we make way for a tenant who desires immediate possession. In the absence of the editor, and in view of the impossibility of making satisfactory arrangements for new central premises at such short notice, temporary premises have been found at 21, Hendon Road, Spakrhill, whence all the business will be transacted for the next few months.
“The address given is my own house, into which I hurried what books were necessary, storing the remainder in the warehouse of a furniture remover in the district. The bearing of this upon the future developments will presently appear.
“We return to Melbourne, Australia, to which city brother and sister Roberts had returned on August 10th, 1898. ‘After spending a pleasant fortnight with the brethren,’ he says, ‘attending the meetings and lecturing two Sundays on ‘The Voice of God in History’ and ‘The Voice of God in Prophecy,’ I bade them a reluctant adieu early on Thursday, August 25th, and took the train at Glenroy for Albury, where it had been arranged I should lecture on my way to Sydney.”
Sister Roberts accompanied him to Sydney; but this was the last that his daughters saw of him. The lecture at Albury duly came off on the Friday, and the same night they left for Sydney, reaching their destination about midday on Saturday. From A Second Voyage,etc. I extract the following few lines: --
“After a certain amount of writing, I spent a very enjoyable day with sister Roberts at Many, a seaside resort at the lower side of the harbour just outside The Heads. We could not help some degree of sadness at the prospect of separating so soon for so long a time. Next day (Sunday, August 28th), we had a profitable day with the brethren, morning and evening. The lecture was on ‘The meaning of God’s dealings with mankind past and future.’ On Monday, having done the needful packing, we sent my part of ‘the things’ down to the ss. Alameda and then went for the last few hours together. (My italics. –C.C.W.) At four o’clock there was a good muster of brethren and sisters at the wharf of the Union Steamship Company, at the foot of Margaret Street. (Sister Roberts was to sail next day in the coasting steamboat for Melbourne.) Having said farewell, the gangway was unshipped punctually at four o’clock, and the Alameda slowly left her moorings and was soon moving down the harbour among those handkerchief wavings which sadly mean so much more than can be expressed, a curious mixture of reminiscences, friendship, sorrow and hope.”
Sister Roberts had seen the last of her husband in this life; she returned to Melbourne as arranged.
Brother Roberts settled down to literary work on the voyage. “I had a certain amount of work to get through which required sticking to,” said he, and he enumerated some items. I marvel that he did what he did under such circumstances. And he found time for conversations on the truth by way of diversion. In particular there was one studious young Englishman who, talking of eternal life, which brother Roberts of course defined to be immortal bodily life by resurrection from the dead, was surprised to hear the “there were nearly as many recognitions of this in the Old Testament as in the New.” “I drew out a list of 140 references,” says brother Roberts, “under the heading --- ‘Passages in the Old Testament in which either by figure, by implication, or by express statement, the doctrine of a future life is taught.’ In going through this list it struck me that it would make a good subject for a book some day if time permitted. I handed him the list and received thanks, but heard no more of it.”
I found the rough copy of this list among brother Roberts’ papers, and taking the hint, afterwards wrote a series of articles on the subject in The Christadelphian, publishing them in a little book in 1906, under the title—The Old Testament Doctrine of Eternal Life, the subtitle being just as given above. Whether it is anything like what the deceased intended I cannot say. When he awakes it will at any rate interest him to know that his idea bore some sort of fruit while he slept. By the way, that is how Jesus himself says the Word-seed of the Kingdom of God springs and grows up (Mark 4:26-28).
The Almeda touched at Auckland on September 2nd, and brother Roberts saw a few of the brethren for a short time. Sailing eastward he notes “duplicating Sunday, to square with our longitude”; i.e., when crossing the “International Date Line,” which mainly follows the 180th meridian E. or W. of Greenwich, departing from it only near New Zealand and Melanesia on the South and Siberia and Alaska on the North, for convenience of reckoning. Sunday, 18th September, he says, “was our last Sunday at sea”; and it afterwards appeared that he landed at San Francisco on Wednesday morning, September 21st. But the last thing he wrote in this Second Voyage, which was the last thing he ever wrote for publication, was the following somewhat quaint but very appropriate paragraph: --
“When we left Auckland, we had a flock of sheep penned away on deck at the stern –in the very worst position, just over the screw where there is the greatest heave of the vessel. I spoke to them frequently during the voyage. They were quietly responsive with ear and eye to the voice of sympathy. They thinned in number as the time wore on. Yesterday they were all gone. I asked what had become of them. ‘We have eaten them,’ was the answer of a gentleman, who had suggested early in the voyage that perhaps they had souls. In that case, I remarked, we are cannibals. He gave the kind of squirm that signifies a nonplussed state of the intellect. But on the serious side, I thought to myself, the men around us will all disappear as completely, though not in the same way. The very figure is used by the Spirit of God: ‘Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them.’ It may be retorted, ‘So will you.’ It might have been so said to David. What would have been his rejoinder? ‘God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave.’ ‘The upright shall have dominion over them in the morning.’ ”
And thus Finis is written to the writings of Robert Roberts –a singularly happy finale:-- “God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave.” What more is there to desire?
On Saturday morning, September 24th, 1898, in Birmingham, I received the following cable form San Francisco: --
“Roberts died suddenly. Cable disposition remains.”
He had died of heart failure at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, San Francisco, on the morning of September 23rd. We learned this afterwards. I was shocked, but not in the least dismayed; in fact, I saw daylight. I telegraphed to Dr. Roberts in London (son of the deceased), who came down in the evening with brother A.T. Jannaway. We soon agreed that burial with or near Dr. Thomas in Brooklyn Cemetery, New York, seemed to be the best course; and that I should go over to New York by the next steamer to see it carried out. A cable was at once sent to our bereaved sister Roberts informing her of brother Roberts’ death, and of our intentions concerning burial; and another to brother Bruce, of Jersey City, who at once volunteered his aid. Sister Roberts consented; and sister Lasius (Dr. Thomas’ daughter) gladly consented to brother Roberts being laid to rest beside her father. A cable to Mr. Cockcroft, agent of the American and Australian steamship line at San Francisco, who had sent the cable concerning brother Roberts’ death, arranged for the transference of the body from San Francisco to Brooklyn Cemetery, New York. And I left Liverpool in the ss. Campania for New York on Saturday, October 1st. The change of premises to my own house (see previous paragraph, and the casting of lots alluded to in ch. 42) left me perfect freedom of action; a young married sister, since deceased, kindly took over the office routine in my absence, and I got away with marvellously little friction and discomfort, though of course, “with a desolating sense of personal bereavement,” as I said at the time.
We made a quick passage, landing in New York on Friday, October 7th, the funeral being fixed for October 9th. Brother Bruce took me in hand, and was kindness itself. He proposed we should run over to Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, on the Saturday to assure ourselves that all was in order. We went, and found that it was so, and then returned and paid a visit to sister Lasius at Jersey City, in Dr. Thomas’ old house.
On Sunday, October 9th, the funeral was fixed for 10:30, and brother Bruce and I repaired to Greenwood an hour or so earlier, that we might see and identify the dead. The coffin lid was removed and the form of our departed fellow-pilgrim exposed to view. Whatever apprehensions or fears we may have had, vanished at sight. In perfect repose, without the least trace of distortion, the features rested with an air of dignified contentment. He looked as though, in response to the command from heaven, he might at once have risen, and stepped forth modestly to receive the verdict of the judge of all the earth. In the midst of all the sorrow a sense of satisfaction came over us: “So He giveth His beloved sleep.”
At the time appointed the funeral took place in the presence of a large company of brethren and sisters. After the singing of a hymn and the reading of Psalm 103 by brother Bruce. I addressed the assembled company briefly on the work of the deceased in relation to that of Dr. Thomas, by whose side he was thus providentially laid to rest. “There was a kind of dramatic sense of completeness in the career that had ended thus and here. He was ‘taken away from the evil to come,’ while we remained. Concerning him we were comforted, but for ourselves we mourned. We must not despair, but holding fast the blessed hope press on to the end.” Then a hymn and prayer. Then the coffin lid was removed and the whole company filed past to take the last look before the resurrection. When the coffin was lowered into the grave and this filled up, it was crowned by some loving hands with a large and beautiful floral emblem, displaying in violet colour on a snow-white ground the simple legend ----
This is “An Appendix” to an autobiography, and has already overflowed its legitimate bounds. I refrain from comment on the work of the deceased, but it might be said concerning him, as is said of Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral, though with reference to a very different “temple”: --Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. (If thou seekest a monument, look around.) For he did much to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
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