THE AUTHOR OF THE SPANISH BROTHERS
GROWTH AND RENUNCIATION
AMONG the many friendships formed in Dublin was one, peculiarly dear to Deborah’s heart, with two sisters, near her own age, who had been brought up as Unitarians.
"Or rather," she said when speaking of them, "they were Arians. Arius, in the beginning of the fourth century, taught, and I suppose further developed, the Alexandrine doctrines. He believed that Christ was created out of nothing, before the universe was made — that He was above all human creatures, but not of the Divine essence — Arians did not believe in His full and eternal Godhead."
These girls, infinitely revering the Person of Christ as a created Being, were led to attend Mr. Alcock’s Friday Bible-class for young ladies, and there became acquainted with his daughter. As they listened to his teaching they felt they could not stay where they were, in belief: it must be more or less. Then came deep mental conflict. They longed to open their minds to Debbie, but feared that her father might not like it, lest they should put their own doubts into her head. She, however, knowing their upbringing, and seeing that their minds were troubled, asked him of her own accord if he thought she might open the subject with them, and he answered that this was just what he would like her to do. "Talk to them by all means." On this, she spoke out, explaining that she had his permission.
"And we did talk!" one of them said afterwards. The only way of securing privacy was by going for walks together. "We used to walk and walk, up one street and down another and back again, and then round a corner and do it over again, or round and round a square" — it mattered not where, as long as they could go on talking. They were struck with her wonderful clearness of thought. "Whatever it was about, the answer came as clear — directly. She never had to stop for a word."
Their hearts were ready, but all the more they felt bound to "thresh things out" intellectually, and not allow themselves to follow their hearts’ desires unless the mind could be satisfied. A mystery that Divine Being ever must be: but they came to see that only by accepting this mystery could they find a clue to all others. The mystery of His nature could never be explained to mortal ken, but it fitted in! "It ended in their both coming right over," Miss Alcock said. Other members of the family followed, becoming regular attendants at Bethesda; and through a more than common share of sorrow and bereavement in after years, they had the Light of Life.
Those long discussions were an immense help to Deborah’s own faith. Whatever else might be called in question, she could never again have a doubt that Christianity and the full Divinity of its Founder must stand or fall together: there was no halfway house. In the long and keen debates — for those sisters were real thinkers — she had the joy of finding that for each difficulty there was an answer; and in giving those clear answers, the clearness of her own line of thought was revealed to her.
She would often say with some vexation, in after years, how very much of the quarrelling and disputing in this world come from the want of clear thinking — as though we all could think as clearly as she did, however hard we tried! But as a teacher, she had a wonderful gift for helping her girls to do so — mainly because she was so clear herself. And she was honest: I never knew her minimize a difficulty, or refuse to look it in the face.
The mutual love that grew up during those long times of talk remained, on both sides —
Ne’er ruffled by those cataracts and breaks
That human intercourse too often makes.
— a love unflawed, treasured by Deborah among her chiefest blessings: and surely in Heaven they do not love each other less.
Another real advantage gained was a taste of success. Like her father, Deborah was too full of self-depreciation — too humble. How beautifully the grace sat on her in the days of her fame, all who knew her then will remember; but in the young, untried years, it was a positive drawback, needing every encouragement to balance it; and Debbie, from her babyhood, had had it impressed on her that every attention and kindness shown her was done for her father’s sake: she must not think any better of herself for it. In addition, there was always the one "standing dire discouragement" which met her at every turn, at all hours of the day — her own unhandiness, and the timidity which made her afraid to overcome it by practice. With Mrs. Alcock’s views on "vocations," and fingers so deft and willing as Mary’s always at hand, she had no chance. "Oh, how my heart used to sink," she said, "at that perpetual call: Where’s Mary? I was no use." With all her humbleness, she was far too proud, as well as unselfish, to betray what she felt. Besides, the accustomed eye does not observe what another coming in may see. One pair of very bright dark eyes must have noticed something. There came a day when Mary was absent, and Mrs. Alcock wanted a piece of work cut out, a very plain, simple undergarment, and Debbie ventured to say timidly, "Couldn’t I do it?"
"Oh, no," was the prompt answer, with all Mrs. Alcock’s decision. Meanwhile the loving combatant of former days had walked in.
"Sally, you’ll cut this out for me, won’t you?" she said.
"Oh, Deb can do it," answered Sally — and she carried her point — took her cousin into another room and showed her how to lay the pattern on the right way of the stuff, pin it down and allow for turnings. The hopeless mystery resolved itself into something quite simple: the garment was correctly cut by Deborah’s hands, and a new era began. As plainly as the gift of Miss Bunbury’s Tales marked the day when the historic passion was kindled, this little act of loving penetration marked the beginning of deliverance from the bondage and humiliation of being reckoned hopelessly stupid and clumsy in common things. Long after, when she had won her spurs in wider fields, Miss Alcock had a pretty way of exaggerating her own deficiencies in little things, by way of enhancing the value of every small service rendered her. She could afford it then — with a record behind her of years and years when, as she said with tearful eyes, "The time came with Mama when nobody could do anything right but Deb."
No fame, no triumph, not even the supreme joy of winning souls, could quite make up to a loving woman for not having been the one to minister, in little things as well as great, to the best beloved — the star of their home, in sickness and in health. This joy she had to the full; but she could never have made a beginning without some word of encouragement to give her hope.
This nervousness, born of extreme diffidence of her own powers, she had in curious contrast to her fearlessness about things some women dread — as was once shown in something which also gives a wholesome example of how miserable very unselfish people can make one another, all out of kindness. On some excursion in an open coach and four, when one of the party had to sit on the box beside the driver, Debbie, to whom this would have been ecstasy, insisted on Mary’s mounting there. Mary, who was then extremely nervous in driving, though she had concealed it, accepted the sacrifice for herself. Away they went, over the hills, on the rough Irish roads, till at some extra jolt her terror overcame her, and she cried out. Of course the seats were changed at once — Mary was comforted, and Deb had hours of wild delight, dashing through the air behind the four horses.
One cannot help regretting that she had so little share in the pleasures of boys. All her life she had a fascination for men which she seldom perceived, and never dreamed of exercising consciously. To them she was "Bon camarade" — but never "Hail, fellow." She treated every human thing with respect, but — perhaps from her intense reverence for her own father — there was a touch of deference in her manner to men, of the sort that rather increases distance than lessens it, which added to the charm of her good company. It was good! She remembered one solitary occasion when, while on a visit away from home, she went from wherever she was staying to spend a long day with a family of distant cousins. The parents were absent: one of the daughters met her at the station, and all the young people welcomed her with Irish grace. There were two lads, about her own age or a little younger, whom she met for the first time — bright, pleasant young fellows. Evidently they soon found her out: they stuck to her the whole day long — both walked down with her to the station, and the talk never ceased till the train carried her off, out of hearing.
Several years later, at a dinner-party in Dublin, she sat beside the Rev. W. Fleming Stevenson, whose beautiful book, Praying and Working, introduced the Reformatory work of Dr. Wichern, and Pastor Fliedner’s Deaconess House at Kaiserswerth, to English readers. At table, they fell into earnest talk, and when the gentlemen came to the drawing-room, he came straight to her to continue it, and like the boys, went on till the last moment — a rare treat to her, and probably also to others gathering round. One would have liked to hear the answering thoughts of two such minds.
Deborah seldom went to parties for the young. Mrs. Alcock insisted that she should always leave at ten, regardless that no one else did. "Say good-bye to your hostess, and come quietly away," she said; and Debbie could not make her see that she, the Pastor’s daughter, was a centre — her leaving broke up whatever was going on, for the whole party. And this so distressed her — besides the misery of the "fuss," as she called it, to herself — that she refused invitations whenever she could, till gradually they ceased to be given. She did not lament this, caring little for average society "in bulk," though ready to be interested in each individual: but it was not good for her to give it up altogether: shyness grew upon her all the more.
But if Mrs. Alcock unwittingly kept her daughter out of "society," in Dublin, she was eager to give her a full share in her own large and interesting circle of friends. Her sphere had been among the Protestant country gentry, with a few county families, in Ireland and England — all heartily willing to welcome the young girl with or without her. Poor Deborah never forgot the tortures she endured from shyness when she went alone.
In the summer of 1854 she had her first sight of foreign lands, going with her parents and Miss McKenny for a continental tour which lasted two months. They travelled in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and France — in the last named, going off the beaten track of tourists and visiting some of the towns where lonely Protestant communities were faithful still. Debbie learned much on that journey; but as for enjoyment, she was sadly baulked by having always to pair with Miss McKenny, when the party of four went out. Mrs. Alcock, being lame, of course had her husband’s arm: Debbie’s was given to Aunt Sally, who had not one particle of interest or enthusiasm about anything: she simply "did" the sights.
But one thing she could not spoil. The father and daughter were early risers, and after their morning coffee they had an hour to themselves every day, exploring the quaint old German towns, or the by-ways of history anywhere, before the older ladies came out.
"I could tell him the history about them, and he liked that," Miss Alcock said. "It was the beginning of the change from child to friend — or rather, friendship was added." On his part, the father’s diary says, "I am astonished at her knowledge of history."
In her life of her father Miss Alcock writes that "rushes" and "scrambles" were "not in the least in Mr. Alcock’s line."
It was a proverb that at ticket-office, or bank, or table d’hôte, every one else would surely be served before him. He would give place to every one, stand aside for every one. If any solitary lady or unaccustomed traveller seemed neglected or forlorn, he was sure to become her friend, to procure for her due attention, and yield to her the best place in the diligence or the window seat in the railway carriage. In money matters, in travel as at home, he said, "It is my way to treat every man as honest until I prove him to be a rogue, and I have found it answer very well." So he had.
On one occasion while in Germany, some small difficulty arose when Miss Alcock, the only one of the party who spoke German, was absent. A lady came forward courteously, and asked in English if she could be of any service. She soon set matters right, and in the conversation that followed Mr. Alcock found that she was not English but Irish, and connected with a family he knew. He spoke to her earnestly, though in few words, about the things which belonged to her peace, and they parted. His words followed her: she could not shake off the impression, and months afterwards wrote to tell him so. A correspondence followed, resulting in her entering into full light, and ultimately coming to live in Dublin to be near him and hear him preach. She became a close and greatly valued friend of all the family.
It is not surprising that after this tour Debbie had a revival of her old attachment to John the Steadfast, the Elector of Saxony, who was the first to sign the famous "Protest" presented at the Diet of Spires. She tried her hand in prose and wrote half a story about him, but never finished it. Next came a rekindling of an old flame — for Gustavus Adolphus.
The winter of 1855-6 brought her unwonted solitude. Mary spent it with her sister Annie and their only brother in Yorkshire. Without the absorbing interest of the game, and with a room to herself, she yielded to her burning impulse and, with indescribable excitement, wrote her first real story, deliberately intended for print — a fairly long one, circling round Gustavus Adolphus. Then, trembling, she placed it in her father’s hands.
He was deeply distressed. Seeing how much she cared, he grieved to hurt her; and yet he felt constrained to tell her his serious objections to her writing fiction. If not absolutely wrong, it was not a choice of employment befitting such a Christian as he had believed his daughter was, and always would be; and Mrs. Alcock, with her usual downrightness, not only agreed with him, but thought the story itself a poor affair, not worthy the time spent on it.
Of course she yielded. When did she ever resist her father’s will? — but it was like dividing soul from body: nay, more — it struck off half the soul. Eager to comfort her, he told her she could write history — that was her real vocation. If she would write a Life of Gustavus Adolphus instead of the story, she should have it printed.
It was true enough that she had the gift of the historian. When reading her fascinating Life of Alfred the Great, one realized what she might have done to make history vivid, had she ever had time or opportunity for sufficient study. But she never had. Besides, the soaring gift that bore up the musty records into the life of dreams — where the simple human life that throbs with the same passions through all the ages could find play — this could not breathe, down on the ground in solid history. She yielded, for love — not convinced, except so far as the conviction that her father must be always right could carry her. Something in her own soul would say that she was burying — no, not merely burying a talent of silver: she was choking to death a living, lovely thing, and it would struggle! With a bleeding heart she put away the MS., written in eager, trembling hope; but in all her terrible pain, there was no rebellion. Her father’s will must show the will of God to her: she would abide by His will.
It seems very strange to us that any man could fail to see the religious value of fiction; but the error perpetuated itself. As long as (with a few grand exceptions) the best Christians held back from writing it, the best elements of religious work could not abound in fiction. Even after The Spanish Brothers had appeared, Mr. Alcock’s early and life-long friend, the Rev. F. Hewson, wrote to the author that he thought it "the most interesting book of the kind" that he had ever read. "Views of Scripture truth so clear and interesting" — but he adds, "A doubt has been arising in my mind whether a narrative of fiction is a way in which it is quite in accordance with the Lord’s will that we should set forth Gospel truth." It was no small mitigation of the blow that by this time Deborah had quite a little circle of adoring pupils — her "children" grown older — some of them remarkably clever and interesting girls. One who was trying her own hand at the pen writes, "We shall be writing together," when Gustavus was in view. They probably knew nothing of the hope crushed, and were allowed to share in the faint and sickly hope of making a mark in history — as if that were possible, with so little access to original sources of information! The poor little history, too, had to compete not only with growing claims in real life, but also with the revival of another and stronger passion. Much though she loved Gustavus, he had never quite equalled in her heart the place of the great and good King Alfred — the idol of her childhood. He came to her now — in time of need. The spirit of his noble life was a fine tonic under disappointment. But poor Gustavus had just cause to say that she
Should have been off with the old love
Before she was on with the new.
Everything to do with him quickened afresh the sense of bitter, bitter disappointment. Everything in Alfred’s story told of foes conquered, failures repaired — a life of transcendent usefulness which was one long triumph over bodily sufferings and adverse forces. Debbie and Mary must have been playing the game about him while Gustavus Adolphus was on the stocks. And as this Life neared completion, the game of real life brought a great change to Mary. She became engaged to the Rev. Richard Smith, curate-in-charge of a church in Letterkenny — a man a good deal older than herself, but still in his prime, of whom Mr. Alcock writes: "He is truly a man of God." It was not a brilliant match as this world goes, for one so fair; but to her nature it was far sweeter to carry her gifts and graces to a lonely place where there was no one else to lighten the eyes of the poor as she could, than it would have been to shine among the rich and prosperous.
In the end of July, 1857, Mr. Alcock went over all the proofs of "Debbie’s book;" soon after, the party of four again set out for two months’ travel abroad. This time they visited Eisenach, the Wartburg and Erfurth. In the Augustinian monastery at Erfurth they saw in Luther’s cell his Bible, marked apparently by himself, his writing-table and inkstand, and some autographs — intensely interesting to Deborah; and yet, every thrilling sight brought a fresh pang. Year by year as her knowledge grew of the doings of Rome, past and present, stronger and stronger had burned her inward sense of
"The world-wide throes
"Which went to make the Popedom" — the despair
Of free men, good men, wise men —
* * * *
Priests trained to rob
And kings that like encouraged nightmares sat
On nations’ hearts.
She had dreamed of striking, with her little hand, some blow against that giant enemy, drunk with the blood of the saints. Her own instinct told her that the poor little life of Gustavus, written without inspiration, would never do it. And the stories that were full of fire — to her, at any rate — were forbidden.
Before crossing to Ireland they spent ten days in London — a real pleasure to Debbie; she loved the stress and stir of life there. Then they went home to begin the winter’s work and help Mary to prepare for her wedding. It took place early in January, and Gustavus went to Mrs. Innes in a parcel with her share of the wedding cake. Mr. Smith was much respected in Letterkenny, and his sweet young wife found many friends.
Debbie sent out her little book in fear. "It was as cold as Christmas," she said. "I had no heart to put into it." Nevertheless, the girls who loved her were charmed with it, her grandmother sat up at night to finish it, and wrote high praise. "But who would think of buying a little book like that, on history, without a name that was known on the title page?" Miss Alcock said.
Had she given her own name, it would have had a little more sale, for her father’s sake; as it was, it fell flat altogether. A day came that brought proof of this — probably a letter from the publisher; and the outspoken stepmother, without an idea of the mortal stab that she was giving, said, "You have mistaken your vocation and over-estimated your capacities."
The words sank like a knell into a heart always too easily discouraged. Deborah never thought of disputing this verdict. How could she, with her innate diffidence, and blank failure staring her in the face? She made no allowance for the wish being father to the thought with Mrs. Alcock, who believed it to be far better and happier for her to give her mind to teaching, instead of wasting so much time on futile scribbling. Deborah felt that the dream of her life was stabbed to death; and with it, all went, of earthly hope. True, love remained; but with the curse of her imaginative power to fear, she looked forward to the days when father and mother must be gone, and she, without sister or brother, would be left alone. Mary was gone already; and the dream-life, with all it might have meant for her — all it might have done to give her a strong deep life of her own, with readers answering to her voice — this now was gone too.
Always, behind the Game had lain the dream of doing, which took clearer shape as the years went on; and it was never to come true! She longed to be a power; it was all vain; she was not gifted enough to make her dreaming, or even her thinking, anything but child’s play as long as she lived. This was worse than a prohibition, which might one day be withdrawn: there was no hope now.
Then, indeed, the great deeps were broken up. The "Me" had found itself — crushed, bleeding, agonized, in pain awfully real; and then, more real, deeper, came the Voice of the ETERNAL THOU.
When first Miss Alcock and I met each other, and I learned that she had never had a deep bereavement until her father’s death, twenty-five years after she began to write — nor any tragedy of disenchantment or disappointed love, I wondered how she could have learned to write as she did of the power of Christ to satisfy in the lowest depths of desolation, without ever having been down into them, until she told me the story of her youth. Then I knew! For her dream companions had been more to her than anything on earth, except her father’s love. In her childhood, their company was joy enough, but that could not last. It was no longer "I" and "they"; they were part of herself, her heart, her voice in theirs; there must be another voice to answer; and the dire need of response which God has put deep into each human heart — that need which lies at the root of love — clamoured within her. The longing for answer and the other longing to do, to be, to act, both made a burning fire within her; and at two and twenty she had to say, "My days are past, my purposes are broken off, even the thoughts of my heart."
Then, through the darkness, in the awful silence, came THE WORD; and, as she has written, there is no speech nor language to utter what He saith to broken hearts. But among His promises which can be told in words, one stayed with her above the rest. I must give the very words, as I have so often heard her say them with trembling voice: —
So foolish am I, and ignorant; I am as a beast before Thee.
Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast holden me by
my right hand.
Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterward receive me
Whom have I in heaven but Thee! And there is none upon earth
that I desire in comparison of Thee.
My flesh and my heart faileth; but God is the strength of my heart,
and my portion forever.
VIII. "ACCA NADA" — NOTHING THERE
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Last modified: June 27, 2016