It is July 18, 1882. General Charles Pomeroy Stone, an American engineer in the employ of the Khedive Ismail of Egypt, has since July 6 been separated from his wife and their two daughters while the British – with but two days’ warning – bomb Alexandria. Stone is there with the Khedive. His small son John is alone on a frigate offshore. The rest of his family is in Cairo, 120 miles away. They do not know if the general is alive or dead. Rumors are all bad. The nation is on the brink of civil war.
On this day, the general’s eldest child, Frances (age 17), her sister, and a few Muslim servants walk to an English chapel nearby to fetch some books. The clergyman, to Frances’ disappointment, had abandoned his post. The Muslims take cushions from the seats to kneel on and pray while the girls go to the library. When they return, they find the servants looking curiously at the organ. So Frances sits down at it and plays “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” while the men listen, rapt.
“Poor fellows!” Frances writes. “They are such fine brave men, and do so long to see us safe with Papa. I wonder what [the Khedive’s challenger ‘Urabi] and his creatures would have said could they have looked in and seen a young Christian girl playing sacred music to two armed Mussulmans in a Christian church.”
What would we say?
The days have dragged on. “Death to the Christians!” they hear from outside. One faithful servant has pleaded with them to flee to the country to lodge with his family, in hiding. But Mrs. Stone remained firm. “I shall not run away from my servants like a coward,” she says, “and leave my house to be pillaged.” She insists upon waiting for word from the general. “I propose that we stay at home like brave women,” she says to her girls, “and live like Christians as long as we can.”
She reads to them from The Imitation of Christ: “It is good for us now and then to have some trouble and adversities, for oftentimes they make a man enter into himself, that he may know that he is in exile and may not place his hope in anything of this world.”
What those adversities were, we may gather from Mrs. Stone’s words on the 12th: “I want you to promise me to be patient, to be cheerful, and always brave. Go on with your studies, keep always busy, and trust to me to save you, if it is possible, when the worst comes.” They have firearms to hold off the enemy till the staff officers come, but if they do not, she says, “you can be brave and face death like good soldiers.”…
After many days of fear and privation, and strategy too – frustrating spies by conversing simultaneously with loyalists in English, Arabic, French, and Italian – they would be reunited with General Stone on August 9. “Fanny” Stone published the selections from her diary in The Century Magazine, June 1884, in language that for clarity and breadth of knowledge would be impressive for a college professor in our time.
I recount some of the story to make four observations.
First, courage is the foundational virtue; without it, the other virtues wither.
Second, courage finds good soil in the loyalty and obedience that Christian family life demands.
Third, the family is more powerful than we know, and that is why Satan hates it.
Fourth, it is never safe to imitate Christ, and it never will be.
DR. ANTHONY ESOLEN is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of Liberal Arts in Warner, NH. He is author and translator of more than 20 books, including Defending Boyhood: How Building Forts, Reading Stories, Playing Ball, and Praying to God Can Change the World; Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World; Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture; Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child; and Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity (St. Benedict Press).