THE AUTHOR OF THE SPANISH BROTHERS
"ONLY remembered by what I have done."
That will never be true of Deborah Alcock. Partly because the unknown cannot be remembered, and year after year her books came out — the first by "D. A.," the next "By the Author of" the one or more before it, until the wide success of The Spanish Brothers stamped its name, without her own, on all she wrote; and for twenty years longer she went on writing stories which left their impress on innumerable lives, while the writer’s identity remained strangely unknown outside the quiet little city in the South of Ireland where her best years were spent. In 1890 The Story of Constance came out in serial form, and was afterwards continued and published under the title of Crushed yet Conquering, "by Deborah Alcock." In 1891, at the age of fifty-six — a lone woman, deeply bereaved — Miss Alcock came to England, and to her astonishment "found herself famous." And still her new friends, like the old ones, said, "She is greater than her books — though we loved them so well." More than by her writings or her gracious acts — by what she was will she be remembered, in life and in eternity, by those whose privilege it was to know her.
This makes the great difficulty of writing her life. Its outward routine was commonplace: her personality made it unique. How can it be conveyed, in all its rare power to bless? Even her own spoken words, repeated, can never be the same thing on the cold white page, as when they fell hot from her eager lips — they lack the flash in her eye, the thrill and tremor in her voice. Her witty sayings were so utterly unstudied — they lose half their point without the surroundings or the trend of conversation that led up to them, and the deep voice and sober gravity, — as if she were wholly unconscious of saying anything funny, until it was said, and at once she saw the joke, and laughed with the rest. One may fill pages with instances of her generous kindness, but where are the words to tell how she knew how to love? Passionately centred on the few most dear to her, she seemed to have no less love remaining to pour out on others; and for each one the love was individual — as though, in loving, she fastened on her heart a magnetic cord that held her in touch with the one beloved, as the electric wire unites the bell-call to the bell. All great hearts have this gift more or less: she had it in large measure. One young friend wrote after her death, "I have known others who were adored by girls, but never anyone else who gave so much back." I could not quite say that, having lived longer than the young writer, but Miss Alcock certainly was remarkable for her equal power of loving downwards to those below her, upwards to those above, and on a level with her equals.
In one form of affection I think her feeling stands alone in its intensity and endurance — the power of loving, with the passion of a woman’s love, a succession of heroes never seen or heard, who fired her solely by their moral beauty-poets, sages, warriors, kings and martyrs. "And all unrequited!" she would say in her old age, with mock pathos and a twinkle in her eye, "Not one of them ever cared a rap for me!" One sometimes wonders whether she has found out now that they did.
At the same time she had lived a practical woman’s life, full of plain duties and sweet homely love. One living hero gave her back her love in full measure — the father who from her babyhood until his death was all in all to his motherless child — and whose characteristics she inherited so markedly — one could almost say that she was his exact copy in feminine form, with a touch of her own sweet mother’s delicate fancy, and with developments that were all her own. The story of her life therefore must begin with his, as related by herself in the Memoir she wrote of him. Wherever quotation marks are given with no other reference in the following pages, it may be understood that the passage is taken from it.
John Alcock was born at Kilkenny in 1804, the second son of Nathaniel Alcock, a doctor, descended from a long line of doctors. He is described as "a fine specimen of the old-world physician and gentleman, trusted and loved by rich and poor. In his own household his rule was as firm as it was kind." His wife, Deborah, was the daughter of John Prim, Esq., of Ennisnag — a country house where the Alcock boys and girls delighted to stay with their grandparents, and be told by their aunt "This is Liberty Hall." There John could enjoy riding and field sports to his heart’s content. He always loved dogs and horses. He grew up a tall, slender lad, full of fun, and noted for his grace and agility of movement — "the best foot for a reel or a jig in all the country round," the neighbours said. He must have been as keen for study as for sport and play, for he was ready for Trinity College before he was sixteen. There, for the first time, the shadow side of his nature appeared. Shy and sensitive, he was probably too young for University life, and the change from the large, merry party of brothers and sisters at Kilkenny to lonely College rooms brought on a long fit of the deep melancholy from which he suffered at intervals through life. His daughter writes that he was always "remarkable for his clinging to the familiar and well known, whether persons or places" — (a trait she inherited strongly). "Almost every change and uprooting which followed in after years cost him a period of depression."
At Trinity, the cloud passed off. High spirits returned, and with his warm heart and singular charm of manner the lad made many friends. But a greater change was at hand. There was then at Trinity a young student named Henry Peters, who, it was said long after, "glided through the halls, watching for some poor sinner he might lay hands on, to bring him to Christ." To common eyes young Alcock, with his high principle and stainless life, was anything but a "poor sinner;" but it is the purest who most deeply feel their sinfulness when brought face to face with the awful purity of the Eternal. So it was with him, when at seventeen he was "led to Christ" indeed, by Henry Peters. From that time he had but one object in life — wholly, utterly, to serve his Lord.
His future profession in life had long been chosen, or rather accepted. "John, what would you like to be?" his father had asked him in his early boyhood.
"Born a doctor, of a family of doctors," as he often said, he answered promptly, "A doctor, sir."
"But Ben, and Nat and Aby are all to be doctors. I think you had better be a clergyman."
"Very well, sir," said the dutiful son — like his daughter, without an idea of resisting lawful authority. The choice was made in Heaven, for never was man more fitted by nature as well as grace, for that holy office. The medical gifts he inherited — tenderness, decision, courage to wound when needful, and power to soothe — keen observation, and above all, the recognition of each person’s individuality — all these were as valuable in "ministering to the mind diseased " as to the body. When to them we add the gifts of the scholar and marvellous eloquence, we have a rare combination, needing only the touch of fire from above to kindle a great light. Like his spiritual father, Henry Peters, he waited not for ordination before he took upon his heart the burden of "the cure of souls," and bore it for all the careless ones around him — not in vain. At first the three or four young fellows who stood up for Christ had to endure much opposition and ridicule — enough to give them a taste of the joy of bearing something for His sake, but by courtesy and kindly ways this was soon disarmed. In taking on their yearning hearts the souls of others — even as their Master wept over Jerusalem — they bore a load infinitely more weighty. But if the pangs of those who travail in birth for souls are sharp, there is no joy on earth to equal that of seeing souls newborn. This joy was given them abundantly. "A noble band of pious and earnest-minded youths gathered around the earlier standard bearers." If John Alcock’s first months in College were sad, the later years were exceptionally happy. He and his friends found their recreation in visiting the poor and sick, and teaching in Sunday and day schools. One of his fellow-students, then a Roman Catholic, said afterwards that it was by the holy and beautiful lives of Mr. Alcock and his friend Mr. Greer, that he had himself been "driven to turn from ceremonies to the living Christ."
Yet — with all reverence for their self-devotion be it said — they renounced too much. It is strange that Bible students so ardent should have failed to see how full the Holy Scriptures are of sympathy with innocent delights. "It was meet that we should make merry and be glad." At Trinity, John Alcock, Henry Peters and another friend not named went by the names of "Grave, Graver, Gravest" — in what order is not recorded. Mr. Alcock’s niece, without knowing this, happened to say that she did not remember "when it was that Uncle John became so very grave;" but she had often heard her mother (his sister Mary) tell how much they all felt the change in the home, where he had been always the life of every meal-time and every game — brimful of fun and spirits. No more jigs or reels! "In those days, no one would have thought of dancing a jig after he had been converted," Miss Alcock said — to my surprise, as in almost those same days my dear father — quite as truly converted — had been always ready for a reel or a country dance on suitable occasions, though in after life he disapproved of modern favourite dances, observing that in his time they were "not considered decorous." Light literature found as little favour as the light foot. John Alcock’s nature was full of poetry and imagination. As a little child he thought, as many others have, that the stars were "holes in the sky, and the glory shining through;" he added the pretty thought that they twinkled when the angels, passing, shook the floor of Heaven. But henceforth poetry not devotional was hardly to be found in his abode. Art also belonged to "the world" — so did politics — regardless of the vital importance of having Christian men to govern us in all departments. Under this rule the deepest emotions were expected to be always at full stretch — with the inevitable result that now and then the keenness of feeling wore off, from sheer exhaustion; and then the young Christians lashed themselves for "spiritual declension." They were diligent students, however — that was part of their duty — and College benefits (a catechetical premium and a scholarship) fell to Mr. Alcock’s share, as well as College honours won.
He had to wait a while after leaving Trinity before he was old enough for ordination in 1828. After that, one could not fancy him dancing a reel; he had "put away childish things." Needless to say, he flung his whole soul into his parish work. The Diary then begun, and continued up to 1876, shows how he strove and agonized for souls. The list of visits accomplished day after day almost takes away one’s breath; and they were not mere calls; if a single one, long or short, passed without his pleading with a soul unsaved or strengthening one already in the right way, he marked it "Wasted." And then, when the labourer gets home exhausted, come such self-upbraidings, one is almost angry at his hardness to himself; but turn a few more leaves, and what do we find? Those souls are won. Over and over come the words, "He" (or "She") "gave way," or " yielded to Christ," or similar expressions, showing that the Lord had triumphed through His servant’s toil. Who would not leap for joy if by any travail he could bring such a list of trophies to his King, at the year’s end?
One thing, too, is notable through all the forty-eight years of Diary: the writer never let any cause for a cloud between his soul and God remain. When conscious of sin, he stopped — made a definite confession and asked forgiveness — and then come the words "Had rest." Sadness and want of joyous consciousness of his Master’s presence he might have to bear, but he never allowed himself to go dragging on, with a sense of sin unforgiven at his heart. One only wishes, for his health’s sake, that he had allowed himself more recreation. Like most men who feel intensely, he had a natural buoyancy, able to throw things off for an hour or two. This he combatted as a sin, in youth: in later years he recognized the need of it. Youth is intolerant — even to itself — perhaps by Nature’s mercy, since its temptations need a strong curb.
Mr. Alcock’s first curacy was at Thomastown, near Kilkenny. Within two years the Rev. Peter Roe, whose church the Alcock family attended in Kilkenny, invited him to be his curate. This brought him pleasantly near to his father’s house, and not too far from the village of Inistiogue, near Thomastown, for him occasionally to visit his friends there. Among these was a Miss Jane Innes — a lovely, sunny-hearted girl whose heart had been won for Christ through his teaching, and who attended his Bible Class. In July, 1831, comes a mysterious entry in the Diary:
"Do not often write, now. My reason is known to myself. I have much ground for giving thanks to Thee, my Father, this night."
Miss Alcock writes of her father: "A great element of his teaching, as of his experience, was his intense realization of the Fatherhood of God." In December, 1832, he lost his own beloved and honoured father. On April 29, 1833, we find:
"Received Jane’s word yesterday. Ever watch over us. O Lord, my hope is in Thee. Thou art our portion, never leave us nor forsake."
"May 11. My God, come to me. Keep my people and Thy people. Keep my house, shewing mercy to them that are in it. And keep her whom Thou hast given me. O Lord, how barren am I."
Most characteristic is that little cry at his own unworthiness. The following extract from a letter written to Miss Alcock by her mother’s brother Henry, forty-six years after the betrothal, belongs to this time.
THOMASTOWN, Nov. 29, 1879
". . . In my recollection, the space, long as it is, between you and your mother is filled up, and I think of you as one. There were few that loved all God’s children as she loved them, and her heart’s desire .as to do them good. Long before you were born, she did the duty of a curate at Inistiogue, where in truth a curate was much needed. Not long since, I heard of some of her little presents, still in the hands of old people there, not regarded, I am sorry to say, as she would have wished, as instructors, but still as keepsakes."
On July 9, 1833, they were united. Then followed two years of intense happiness. Mr. Alcock’s little niece of six years — Miss Annie Gore — still remembers how sweet and winning "Aunt Jane" was. "So clinging and timid, and so kind. She would find little things to give us for our doll’s house, and she was so kind at the Sunday School." The curate’s home was set up "on a very modest scale. ‘We have been very poor but very happy’ the young wife said to her husband on her death-bed."
"But frugal though the housekeeping might be, strangers were entertained, and the poor were never forgotten. Mr. Alcock all his life scrupulously set apart ‘God’s Tenth’ of whatever he had, but he was far from confining himself to that proportion. In fact, the only limitation he recognized to the Divine command ‘Give to him that asketh of thee’ was that other command: ‘Owe no man anything.’ He would empty his purse, but he would never incur a debt. His wife was of the same mind with him. It is remembered, however, that on one occasion, when he quoted the verse, ‘A good man showeth mercy and lendeth,’ she promptly replied, ‘But it is added "He shall guide his affairs with discretion." ’ "
In April, 1834 the birth of a little daughter filled up their cup of joy. On May 13, 1835, came another daughter — Deborah. She writes of her mother — "Her health was frail, her character gentle, sensitive and retiring, yet full of romance and enthusiasm. From her childhood she had tried to express her thought in verse."
She recovered perfectly after the baby’s birth, but soon after she took scarlet fever, and died at the age of twenty-five.
Beneath the entry of his wedding day, the stricken husband wrote —
"Severed, August 14, 1835."
Very few are the words given to his own deep grief — not one that approaches a murmur. He went back to his work, and with infinite tenderness watched over his two babes, and his spiritual children too. The entry of any fresh household visited contains the names of all the children, in order of age, with notes of the family connections, so that on his next visit he could enter into their concerns like an old friend. Great was the blessing on his ministry during that first year of bereavement. But his ties to Kilkenny were loosened now, and in the summer of 1836 he accepted the curacy of Tralee. The parishioners of St. Mary’s and other residents gave him a very handsome silver tea and coffee service; the clergy of the diocese and of the city gave costly books, with addresses beautifully free from laudation, yet full of love, esteem and gratitude. Tralee was ready to welcome him as warmly, and letters of that time describe the wonderful effect of the arrival of this young curate — who came, and straightway "a wave of revival swept through the whole town." Wherever he went there are testimonies to the changed lives not only of individuals but of whole households — so much so as to raise the whole standard of family life. In Tralee this was especially remarkable. Happy in his work, he was very happy too with his sweet children. Lizzie, the elder, was "one of those dear children soon removed from earth who leave behind them a fragrant memory." One little anecdote of her may be allowed, as it gives a pretty touch of Irish life.
The family lodged in the house of friendly Roman Catholics. One day, the goodwife told the pastor that the priest was coming to dinner, and they would have apple-pie — might the little girl come down and have some of it? Leave was given, and when the child had finished her share, she folded her little hands, and said, "Thank God for my good apple-pie."
"That’s the best grace I ever heard," said the celibate priest. Before a year had passed in Tralee, this sweet child was "called to meet Jesus." In dying, she seemed to see angels hovering over her, and her last act was to look up joyfully and beckon to them, murmuring "Little Sissie Debbie"as if she wanted to share the joy with her.
The death of this child was a grief beyond words to her father. For long years he could scarcely bring himself to utter her name, and her place in his heart was kept sacred to the end.
It is not strange that this second blow broke him down as the first and greater one had not: his power of resistance was exhausted. It soon became clear that he could not continue at Tralee; and while he rested in the happy homes of his married sisters in Kilkenny he received a call to a little country church, then being built at Frankfield, near Cork, by a rich merchant of the town who lived there, for the benefit of his own and his brother’s households and workpeople, and of the scattered Protestants around. Mr. Alcock went to visit the patron, Mr. Samuel Lane, before deciding. In him he found a friend "whose very countenance beamed with good-humour and benevolence," "full of the cheerfulness and genial mirth that ‘doeth good like a medicine.’ " The quiet beauty and sweet peacefulness of the scene were also very attractive — "the simple little church rising in the midst of green meadows in a wooded landscape lingers in the memory as a dear and hallowed picture."
Frankfield House, the home of Mr. Samuel Lane, stood on the brow of a hill — the church, with school and parsonage, on a broad level beside the high road, about halfway down the hillside. Mr. William Lane, a younger brother, lived at Vernon Mount, over the hill. Besides them and their dependants there were among the Protestants a few "strong farmers" and a sprinkling of country gentry. Mr. Alcock accepted the charge and had to begin his ministry in the dining-room at Frankfield House — or some building on the domain — till the church was finished. It was opened on July 1, 1838, but the parsonage was not ready for occupation until the following January. During this time "Little Debbie" and her faithful Irish nurse "Dora" stayed with the grandmother, Mrs. Innes at Inistiogue, or other relatives, and Mr. Alcock made his home with Mr. and Mrs. Lane. Thus, in unusual intimacy, began "a close friendship which for nine happy years was to unite him with one who regarded him with the tender solicitude of a father, the affectionate friendship of an elder brother, and the grateful reverence of a son in the faith."
While at Frankfield House, Mr. Alcock had a sharp attack of illness, and was cared for with unbounded kindness by Mr. Lane and his gentle, delicate wife. "You know what a nurse-tender our father was, about the beds of his children — such was Mr. Lane," he wrote to his sister, full of thankfulness.
On the other band, one can imagine the joy of Mr. Lane when, after giving freely to raise the fabric, he found what a man of God had been sent him to minister there. Neither of them had expected that the pastor’s influence would reach the neighbouring city of Cork, but before long hearers came out in such numbers that all the open spaces in the church had to be filled up with seats to receive them, and it used to be said that on Sundays — especially on summer evenings — "the road from Cork was black with people going out to hear Mr. Alcock," in cars and on foot. Among them were men and women who by their own gifts or from influential positions were fitted to spread far and wide whatever blessing they received. No one could have guessed that the listener whose influence was to reach farthest — bearing her father’s lessons to all parts of the world in many languages — was the little girl between three and four, always to be seen there on Sunday mornings, her great flashing eyes following the preacher’s every movement.
Yet not all his teaching passed into her books. Some few things which he held, she left out — some she added which he had not taught. But ever in her works as in his words —
"Christ is the end, for Christ is the beginning,
Christ the beginning, for the end is Christ."
II. CHILDHOOD AT FRANKFIELD
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Last modified: June 27, 2016