Gladys Aylward: The Adventure of a Lifetime

Chapter 1
Back up the Tracks

Gladys Aylward pulled herself up to her full five-foot height as she peered over the edge of the wooden train platform. Eerie flashes of orange light lit up the sky and the forest to the east. Loud cracks of gunfire and the boom of cannons rolled through the darkness. Ahead lay the railroad tracks. Even though the train had rumbled down them less than an hour ago, they were already covered with the powdery snow that continued to fall, blanketing everything.

Gladys pulled her fur coat tight around her and shuddered. She didn’t want to step off the platform and begin her trek, but she had no choice. The only reason she had no choice now was that she had refused to get off the train earlier when asked to, and the frustrated conductor had allowed her to stay on board as the train wound its way through the Siberian forest. Now Gladys chided herself for being so stubborn and not getting off the train in Chita, as everyone else had. But she’d thought that every mile traveled down the line was a mile closer to China. And it was. But it was also a mile traveled farther into a war zone!

It had all looked so easy back at Muller’s Shipping Agency in Haymarket, London, where the clerk had traced out the route on a map. “Over the English Channel by boat from Hull,” he had said. “Board the train in The Hague, Holland, and overland through Germany, Poland, Russia, Siberia, and on to Tientsin in China.”

Gladys frowned. As easy as he had made it sound at the time, the clerk had also mentioned that there was a war going on in Siberia. But to Gladys, then twenty-eight years old, it seemed an unimportant detail in the grand scheme of getting herself to China. Now she found herself in the middle of that unimportant detail! The train she’d been riding was stopped at the front line of the little war going on between Russia and China. It had delivered fresh Russian soldiers and now waited to pick up the dead and wounded and carry them away from the front. But how long it would take to fill up the train with the dead and wounded was anyone’s guess. Perhaps a week. Perhaps a month. Possibly not until the New Year, 1931! No one seemed to know.

Finally, the frustrated conductor had given Gladys a cup of strong, black coffee and pointed back up the railroad tracks in the direction from which they had come. Although he spoke no English, his message was clear: Gladys was not welcome to stay and wait for the return train ride. She was going to have to walk back to Chita.

With her bags in hand, Gladys finally stepped down onto the railroad tracks and began her trek. As she walked, she recalled the landscape. She hadn’t seen a single person, not even the light from a house or a barn, on the journey down. For thirty miles there was nothing but thick, dark forest.

An icy wind whipped at Gladys’s exposed face. Gladys could feel its bitter cold seep through her woolen stockings and sweater. With each whip of the wind around her, she felt her strength being sapped. Soon she could no longer carry her bags, so she slid them along on the snow. Her smaller bag had a pot and a kettle tied to its outside that jangled loudly with each slide.

Gladys had been stumbling along for about an hour when she realized that the orange glow of cannon fire was no longer on the horizon. Even though she’d been at the front line, the thought of people being nearby had been strangely comforting. Now she was completely alone in the vast Siberian wilderness, trudging along snow-covered train tracks. Every so often, a large clump of snow slipped off a tree limb and landed with a loud thud. Gladys would stop and peer into the dark shadows of the forest and wonder whether it was the sound of a bear or a wolf nearby. Such animals were out there, and a lone woman in the forest at night was easy prey for them.

Gladys began wondering whether she would actually make it back to Chita, or whether the bitter cold or a wild beast would claim her life first. But she had to make it back. She had things to do in China. God had called her there. Surely He wouldn’t let her die in the snow in a Siberian forest.

Slowly Gladys shuffled on up the tracks. The hours folded one into another. Her feet became numb, and she began dragging and sliding them along just as she did her two suitcases. But stubborn as she was, Gladys finally had to admit she was totally exhausted. What should she do? If she stopped she could make herself some hot coffee and eat a stale cookie. But would she be able to go on after that? She’d heard stories of people who when trapped in the cold and snow had become so exhausted they calmly sat down and froze to death. Gladys was scared of that happening to her. Yet she knew that if she kept going, in the end she would fall facedown in the snow. Then, with nothing warm in her stomach, she would not have the energy to get up again.

Finally, she could no longer resist the lure of a stale cookie and hot cup of coffee. She scooped away the snow until she felt one of the wooden railroad ties beneath it. With both hands she took her small spirit stove from her bag, set it down on the tie, and tried to light it. Her fingers were so thick and numb that it took her four fumbled attempts before a yellow-blue flame finally began to glow from the stove. Gladys placed some snow into the kettle and set the kettle on the stove to melt and boil the snow.

With a cookie and hot coffee inside her, Gladys felt even more tired. But she dared not sleep in this frozen wasteland. In the end, though, she gave in, but she promised herself that she would sleep for only a little while. She arranged her suitcases around herself and pulled the top of her fur coat up over her head. Then she rolled up into a ball and fell asleep.

Chapter 2
Not Good Enough to Be a Missionary

Her worst nightmare had come true. Gladys sat in a straight-backed chair while the director of the China Inland Missionary Society’s training school in London droned on. By now she was hardly listening to what he had to say. All that needed to be said had already been said. Gladys was no longer welcome to continue her studies. She was being thrown out of the training school for failing Bible class. Her grades were not good enough for her to be a missionary. Not to mention the fact that she was twenty-seven years of age, old by the training school’s standards. The director had tried to explain that the experience of the China Inland Mission had shown that it was difficult enough for “quick-minded” older people to learn the complex languages of China. He also tried to explain that it would be unfair to allow Gladys to continue failing classes when others could take her place and do much better. Other younger and more-qualified people were waiting in line to take her place in the school.

The director was a kindly man with deep blue eyes and a soft voice. He wasn’t trying to hurt Gladys’s feelings. He was just giving her the facts as they were. Gladys could see his point. She hadn’t done well during the first three months of the school. But then she’d never done well at school. She had left school at age fourteen to take a job as a housemaid. And by missionary standards, she was an older woman, though she didn’t feel it. If she stayed in the training school to the end, she would be thirty years old by the time she got to China. At that age it would probably be difficult for her to learn Chinese. It was also true she had no useful qualifications. She wasn’t a nurse or a teacher. She was just Gladys Aylward, daughter of Thomas and Rosina Aylward, a postman and a housewife from Edmonton, a small suburb of London.

Even though she understood all this, tears of disappointment welled in Gladys’s eyes as the young woman stood to leave the director’s office. Gladys didn’t trust herself to speak without bursting into loud sobs. Instead, she thrust out her hand to shake the director’s hand. He was about to shake her hand when he hesitated. “One more thing, Miss Aylward,” he said. “There is one way you could serve God with regard to China.”

Gladys’s heart skipped a beat. Was she going to get to China some other way, after all?

The director continued. “I see you’ve been in service before as a housemaid.”

“Yes,” replied Gladys, wondering what was coming next.

“As it happens,” the director went on, “I received news this morning of an elderly missionary couple, Dr. and Mrs. Fisher, who have just returned from China. They have retired to Bristol and need a housemaid. I would be more than happy to recommend you for the job.”

Gladys clutched the back of the chair. Her head was spinning. After all her effort to make her dream of going to China as a missionary come to pass, the director thought she was fit only to be a housemaid. Her shoulders slumped as she sat down again to copy the Fishers’ address.

Dr. and Mrs. Fisher turned out to be not at all like Gladys had imagined them. They didn’t need much help around the house, and they were still very interested in missionary work. They listened to Gladys’s story of how she had grown up in a Christian home, though Christianity hadn’t come alive to her until one night two years before when she had visited an unfamiliar church. She had heard a young preacher tell about the many wonderful missionary opportunities that existed, especially in China. Something inside Gladys was stirred that night, and she knew she wanted to serve God as a missionary in China.

Gladys asked the Fishers all sorts of questions about China and wrote their answers in her journal.

Because the Fishers were so kind, Gladys didn’t mind being their housemaid. Dr. and Mrs. Fisher became concerned for Gladys, however. They could see that Gladys had too much enthusiasm and energy to limit herself to being a housemaid. They didn’t see how she would ever get to China, but they did think she should find some full-time Christian work where her talents could be put to better use. They knew the director of a rescue mission in Swansea, a seaport in south Wales. They contacted him, and he invited Gladys to work for the mission as a “rescue sister.” The job involved patrolling the streets of Swansea in the middle of the night looking for young girls who had no place to stay. Many of the girls had come to the city to escape the boredom of their villages but quickly ran out of money after they arrived. With no money for food or rent, they began living on the streets. Often, out of desperation, they became involved in prostitution as a way to make ends meet. A rescue sister’s job was to find these girls before the sailors did. The mission would pay for the girls to stay one night in a hostel and in the morning would put them on a train back home to their villages.

Gladys’s parents had never tried to shelter their daughter from the way other people lived. Even so, Gladys was shocked at the way these girls lived on the street each night. Yet Gladys loved the job. She especially liked it when she got to share the gospel message with the girls. As much as she loved the job, though, something was missing. Yes, she was doing very useful work, but she wasn’t doing it in China, where she knew God wanted her to be.

Gladys knew, of course, that after her mission training school experience no missionary organization would send her to China. If she was going to go there, she would have to get there on her own. But she had no money, and her parents were not rich. Nor did she have any rich friends who would sponsor her. She had only one option: She would have to save up the money to pay her own way to China. Much as she loved being a rescue sister, she needed a job that paid more money. The little she did get paid by the rescue mission usually ended up buying food for the girls who were going home. The job she knew best, and the job where she knew she could earn enough money to save some, was being a housemaid again. With a heavy heart at leaving the job in Swansea she enjoyed so much, she returned to London to find work as a housemaid.

In London, the employment agency sent her to work at the home of Sir Francis Younghusband. Gladys pulled the silver bell at the door of the huge house in Belgravia, near Buckingham Palace. A butler answered the door and showed Gladys to her new room. The room had a bed, a chair, and a water stand, like most maid’s rooms. Gladys lifted her cardboard suitcase onto the bed. Inside it was everything she owned. She pulled out her black leather-bound Bible and placed it carefully on the chair beside her bed. Next she reached into her purse and took out all the money she had left after getting to Belgravia. She didn’t need to count it; she knew exactly how much she had. After paying the train fare from Edmonton, where she had visited her parents, Gladys had two and a half pennies left. She laid them in a row on top of her Bible. A sense of hopelessness came over her. What was the use of trying to save enough money to get to China when traveling across London had taken nearly all the money she had?