THE AUTHOR OF THE SPANISH BROTHERS
CHILDHOOD AT FRANKFIELD
THE first glimpse we get of Deborah Alcock shows her a fair little girl with very bright blue-gray eyes, a round dimpled face and rosebud mouth — very cold in one of those cruel low-necked frocks with short sleeves that children used to wear then — and her father carrying her to the fireside and warming her little cold neck and arms with his own warm hands, as she sat on his knee. She loved the fire. One of her first recorded sayings is, "Papa, flame is a beautiful animal, but it lives in a black house, and it eats its own house." Her next recollection is of some childish ailment, when she told her father that she liked to be ill. "You like to be petted," he answered fondly, "and you shall be petted," and he took her in his arms.
Next, I am sorry to say, comes a whipping. Her Irish nurse sometimes called Debbie "a bold" child (Irish for "naughty"). Every one else seems to have thought her "very good;" but she must have had her outbreaks. She vividly remembered one solemn day when something happened which sent her crying to her nurse, saying, "Papa fip me all the fip ever he could!" Apparently an impression was made once for all, for we hear no more of that form of chastisement.
Dora, the nurse, also acted as working housekeeper, with no assistance but that of a handylad who also took care of the pony that Mr. Lane kept for the pastor’s use — so that happily her hands were full, and the child, when not with her father, was left to amuse herself in garden and orchard, as freely as any little peasant. One of the green meadows around the church was the Parsonage field, shaded here and there by fine old trees. It reached to the high road, where the church stood at one corner of it, and at the other end came the gate of an avenue leading up to the house — the little schoolhouse standing just beyond the gate. The Parsonage was a cosy house with a large study, parlour and small sitting-room besides, all on the ground floor — literally, for there were no steps up to the house, and garden, orchard and field lay around it so compactly that a child’s cry from any part of them would have been heard within. In safety and happy liberty Debbie wandered over them at her own sweet will, alone with her pretty fancies, or perhaps her dolls, or the large gentle housedog that she dearly loved. These were her only playfellows. It was quite a rare excitement for her even to see another child passing by in the road, except on Sunday, when they came to Sunday school.
Indoors, she had a place of her own beside a French window in her father’s study, where the dolls were carefully educated. "I delighted in dolls," she once wrote, "but not to nurse or dress them — only to teach them and make stories about them. So doing, I gradually came up to an important discovery — the stories could do just as well without the dolls!" Some time before that grand event, one day when trees were being lopped, Mr. Alcock brought in a bough and set it up against her window corner, saying, "There is something for your dolls to climb." Overjoyed, she hastened to set them all upon it, scrambling up in attitudes by no means ladylike — then left the room, and soon returning, said with an air of high dignity — "My dear children, how is it that I can’t leave you alone for ten minutes without your getting into all this mischief?"
The dog’s mental training was a more serious matter. She remembered a time when she was very much concerned about his soul, and would sit on the ground beside him with her arm round his neck, trying to tell him about God. And the dog looked up lovingly at her — and that was all! "He could no more understand me than I could him," she said.
Yet one more trifle may be mentioned, to illustrate the companionship of father and child. At Frankfield, as everywhere, Mr. Alcock was a diligent visitor, and the number of listeners who came from Cork to hear him, and sought his counsel, caused him often to be going there in his pony-car. He liked to take his little girl with him, and she was a special favourite at the house of a young married lady who, with her husband, had found new life and peace at Frankfield church. This was Mrs. Meredith, afterwards to be the founder and head of the great Mission to Woman Prisoners. It is not surprising. that in talk and prayer with her the time passed unheeded, till suddenly they remembered the child, left to play by herself in the hall. Hurrying to look out, they found her perfectly happy, having entertained herself agreeably by taking out all the stair-rods! The child was mother to the woman in the energy of the proceeding: whatever task she put her hand to was done, and done quickly, through life.
Miss Alcock used to say that she was one of the few motherless children who never "felt a mother-want about the earth," — so tender was the love between her and her father. I incline to think there were times when she felt the want keenly, but never identified it. She did not even see other children with their mothers, for Mr. and Mrs. Lane were childless — nor read of mothers in her early story books, for almost the only story she seems to have had then was the Pilgrim’s Progress; and in Christiana, the mother is quite merged in the pilgrim.
In the same way she believed that the capacity for falling in love was left out of her composition: she had never felt the least desire to have a lover. Yet where she loved intensely, she had by nature more than a common yearning to make the love exclusive; and the love of one and one would have been very sweet to her. But the centre of her heart was preoccupied from her babyhood, in real life, by those six years in which she and her father were "We Two" indeed. And in her dreams it was not home life but the great drama of History that fired her imagination; and History has little to say of happy love affairs: the leading figures are men in strenuous action; and among women, the bad are more conspicuous than the good. Thus from infancy her great Employer "prepared her for that which He was preparing for her" — concentrating the ardent soul on the passion for hero-worship, and moulding it also by the constant company of a singularly high-minded, noble and chivalrous man. That "old world courtesy" and dignity so marked in her, — and which can never be taught, only imbibed, in perfection, — she drew in unconsciously with her childhood’s breath, learning unawares how to picture the princes and courtiers of olden days.
At the same time, this very chivalry in the father — his profound reverence for even the soul of a child — forbade his fostering in her the sense of her own importance. He would not have had her defiled with one touch of vanity: indeed he was only too anxious to warn others against flattering her: as years went on the child suffered for want of encouragement. But above and beyond all else, she felt that to him God was supreme. She could never be his first object; but — and here the glory came — she might share it, he and she could both serve this great God together. When she learned this, she never knew: she had no recollection of living without Him. So from the beginning, instead of self-love being crushed down in her, all unconsciously she was lifted above it. The craving, starving self, so often the curse of the imaginative temperament, with its dire necessity of living in something beyond the daily round, had a centre and a vista in the Infinite. Her dramas seldom revolved round herself. In her earlier fancies the dolls were the heroines; it was striking to note, in her recollections, how, when fancy outran the dolls, the central figure was not a good little girl — always some great and noble man. And in her hero-worship, there was always ONE behind the hero for whose sake the glorious acts were done.
In a little sketch of her childhood which she was persuaded to write, she says "Unlike other piously brought-up children, I cannot remember when or how I came to know the great facts of the Bible and the great truths of religion. I have a vague impression of the first stirrings of an inborn passion for the heroic, awakened by the story of our Lord’s death." "I remember the thrill that went through me," she said in speaking of it. "My first historic hero was Himself. I believe I loved Him then as I loved the heroes and martyrs afterwards," until He rose too high above them all for that. How soon that happened is not quite clear, but it seems plain that in the first spring and summer of delight when she played in the Frankfield grounds, the central Figure of the sweet Gospel stories made the dream of her childish thoughts. By the age of four she could read easily, and read the Bible; but she still liked best to listen. Mrs. Lane was very fond of her — she must indeed have been a fascinating child, with her quaint sayings and eager eyes and ears — and used often to take her out in the carriage, failing not to bring her own Bible and hymn book, to read aloud by the way. This was the one motherliness in Debbie’s little life: or rather, as she said herself, "Dora loved me with all the love she knew — which was spent on my bodily comfort. Mrs. Lane cared for my spirit."
And found response. There was one hymn the lady used to read which the child learned as if by magic. Words printed themselves easily on her wonderful memory at all times, but these were stamped upon her very soul; and seventy-three years after, when the restlessness of death was on her, the sound of the first line soothed her, and she lay still.
"Oh how the thought that I shall know
The Man who suffered here below,
To manifest His favour,
* * * * *
Doth my delighted spirit move,
At that sweet word — ‘Forever.’
"For ever to behold Him shine,
Forevermore to call Him mine,
And see Him still before me,
Forever on His face to gaze,
While all the Father He displays
In all His full assembled rays,
To all the saints, in glory.
"Not all things else are half so dear
As His delightful presence here —
What must it be in Heaven!
‘Tis Heaven on earth to hear Him say
As now I journey day by day,
‘Poor sinner, cast thy fears away,
Thy sins are all forgiven.’
"But how will His celestial voice
Make my enraptured heart rejoice
When I in glory hear Him!
When I before the heavenly gate
For everlasting entrance wait,
And Jesus, on His throne of state,
Invites me to come near Him.
" ‘Come in, thou blessed, sit by Me,
With Mine own life I ransomed Thee —
Come, taste My perfect favour.
Come in, thou happy spirit, come —
Thou now shalt dwell with Me at home.
Ye blissful mansions, make him room,
For he must stay for ever.’ "
I give the hymn in full, as it is very little known, and it strikes the key-note of her spiritual life. "For evermore to call Him mine." In it, breathe the two great mysteries — "HIM" and "me." And it must have come to the little girl at a time when the beautiful Man of long ago — with "those kind hands that did such good" and were nailed to the Cross for our sake — this Man was beginning to pass dimly into the heavens, high above; and she was told that there — there — He loved her. He alone, of all the long line of heroes she was to worship, gave back love for love. Nay, He loved first. Whether the hymn first taught her that sweet lesson, or only set it to music, I know not; but she remembered how it laid hold on her.
In those drives Mrs. Lane pleaded with her to give her heart to Jesus, and she had a perfectly clear recollection of doing so, consciously, in the carriage — she thought, when between four and five — and that this made a difference. Not a revolution, for already the little pilgrim’s face was turned towards "yonder shining light;" but a new, hidden force came into the little life — something of her very own, not only reflected from those around her.
But though she always felt that the lady’s appeal was heaven-sent, she herself, in after years, would not have made it in quite the same way to any child. The manner of it turned her eyes too much from Christ to self. True, the "self" could not be left out. As Miss Alcock would have put it, "There can be no possession without a "Me" to have it" — but the teaching of those days laid the stress too much upon the human side. Mrs. Lane little guessed for what conflicts she opened the way in this child’s precocious mind as to her own spiritual condition. But at first it was all joy, when in every golden sunset she looked out for her King to come. She has herself told the story of her childhood’s inner life in an unfinished sketch, which she was beguiled into writing by the suggestion that she might give an interesting account of the phases of religious thought which she had watched, during her long life. I have woven into it a fragmentary record of Frankfield days which was coaxed out of her with much persuasion, but soon laid aside.
One more unwritten memory must be given before we leave these earliest years. Mr. Alcock’s study was a long room with two windows, and he was accustomed to pace up and down there, in the twilight, often reciting poetry with all the charm of his dramatic power and wonderful intonation, while Debby sat motionless in a corner, listening. His favourite, repeated almost nightly, was Wesley’s on "Jacob Wrestling."
"Come, O Thou Traveller unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see.
My company before is gone
And I am left alone with Thee.
With Thee all night I mean to stay
And wrestle till the break of day."
"Alone with Thee" — the sweetest "company" he had ever known on earth gone from him, he poured his soul into the Wrestler’s words; and the child listened entranced, all the budding, unused instincts within her quivering into delicious emotion, not half understood, but felt.
III. THE BEGINNING OF SEVENTY YEARS OF THOUGHT
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Last modified: June 27, 2016