THE AUTHOR OF THE SPANISH BROTHERS
BEFORE quoting again from letters, I must give Miss Alcock’s own account of another landmark set up in the realm of thought. This is copied from my note-book —
We had been talking of the hymn "I gave My life for thee, What hast thou given for Me." I spoke of the real renunciation she had made in giving up her writing — as she thought, for life; and God gave it back to her.
"And I gave up the question of eternal torments," she said. "I said to Him, ‘Lord, whatever it is, if Thou art satisfied, I am.’ But I think all the time there was a feeling that I should find that doctrine was not true."
"You couldn’t believe that He could be satisfied with that," I said.
She smiled, and said that there was another factor in the case. "While my father lived, I never could actually admit to myself — still less, say to him — that I did not believe anything that he did. It was not till after his death that I got loose from it altogether. I remember the exact moment, and the scene before me. Debby Gore came to stay with Mama, and Mary and I had a little tour together. We went first to Cork and then to Killarney — and it was there, sitting on a mountain-side, I just felt that it could not be: that was settled."
Mary was sitting by her, but knew nothing of what was in her heart.
Not long after our correspondence began, Miss Alcock had asked me to tell her something of my own life. I knew the outline of hers, from her father’s memoir: she knew nothing of mine. In reply I sent her the chief outward events, and also — rather in fear of what she might say to one thing in it — a short inward history. She wrote in answer —
It draws me strangely towards you that the problem of the unsaved has actually "tortured" you, and that it took the brightness out of your life, as more than once out of mine. The solution to which my mind inclines is that of Conditional Immortality, or, to use a better expression, Conditional Eternity. My attraction to it is that it seems the only one to fulfil all the Scripture requirements.
Her view was near to mine — except that I went a little farther than she did then, as to hope — I might say confidence — that those who had never rejected Christ on earth — like Socrates, having never seen Him — must have opportunity to know Him in the world to come. In no other way could heaven be heaven to them: there is no other Way of Life. She loved the thought, but took time to thresh it out.
As regards the old view held by so many saints of God, Miss Alcock pointed out how it grew out of the philosophy of the Ancients, who, having no Revelation — only the general traditions of the human race — based their assurance of having any future life at all on belief in the inherent immortality of the human soul; which is contradicted in Scripture by numbers of passages, if we take the words in their natural sense. "People have begun with that assumption of immortality," she said, "and it is the strangest thing how they couldn’t see the difference between the power of surviving death, and the inherent necessity of living for ever. Kingsley believed that, and believed all would be restored. I can’t. I can’t. The Bible is dead against it, and so is the whole analogy of Nature. All through Nature we find that organisms which do not fulfil their purpose perish, are disintegrated — dissolved — die."
She would not use the word "annihilation: "there is no such thing in nature. That which vanishes away is only resolved into its elements, which Life has held together. The principle of Life is eternal; may it not return to God who gave it?
Another day we were speaking of Jude 7.
[Copied] "Sodom and Gomorrah ‘suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.’ But they are destroyed: it is the fire that is eternal," said D. "It is not correct to change the adjective from one to another — it’s removing it from the subject to the object. Grammatically, it is the opposite, ‘fire’ being in the objective case; but in the sense, fire is the active factor — the cities are its object."
She spoke of the exceeding evil of preaching a doctrine of retribution so awful that "all idea of proportion is lost in a sea of unimaginable horror." It ceases to be a deterrent from anyone act of sin — like capital punishment for theft, which was so often remitted that thieving went on. When smaller penalties were appointed, and really inflicted, they were far more effective.
In this connection she said (I have to fill in part of the words from memory, but can answer for exact statement of the thoughts): "We Evangelicals have more need of this change of opinion than anyone, because we demand so much. In all ages and all other religions it has been held that the good — those who do their duty and are kind and just to others — go to a good place. We require more than that — and rightly, ‘Ye must be born again.’ That great claim came with Christ. The glory that He offered to man compelled it, no man, however good in human sight, could live in the visible presence of God, and be happy there, unless Christ’s own life had entered into him and changed him into His image. Then where is he to go? The Roman Catholics have a way out of escape in purgatory: the High Church in the Sacraments — baptismal regeneration: the Broad Church think that Christ is in us, in the sense required, from the time of our natural birth. Only we Evangelicals make this tremendous claim for a new life, voluntarily accepted, in order to salvation."
We paused to speak of the seekers, the true seekers after God, who do not seem to find Him here —
Where, where were those fine spirits hurled
That seemed unmeet for either world?
and I quoted my sheet-anchor, "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they SHALL be filled," and wondered how people lived who thought that, for them, all ends here.
"They don’t," she said. "Every one gets out of it somehow — at any rate where anyone they know themselves is concerned. It is a human instinct to throw off the intolerable. That’s how it is the doctrine is supposed to be held: people assent to it, but they throw it off their minds." Then with her usual quaintness of illustration she went on, "They are like the Irishman who said, ‘I believe there are 60 bushels of wheat there, but I know when I come to count them it’s only 40 there’ll be." That was what I did myself, with the old view. We call it old — it’s as old as Augustine, but it was not Luther’s; it is not in the New Testament."
"Unless in the one exception, ‘These shall go away into everlasting punishment,’ " I said. We were speaking, of course, with knowledge that the Greek word translated "everlasting" is applied in several places to conditions which plainly have an end. But the word "punishment" carried the idea of continuance — or so I had been told. The fire and the worm do not; they consume. The fire, which represents that Divine attribute which, in human speech, we call "the wrath of God," burns eternally: it does not follow that a finite being, falling under that wrath, endures it in-finite-ly. But Matthew xxv. 46 had held me back for a long time. Miss Alcock had not felt the same difficulty — partly, it may be, from her estimate of the Greek word, but I remember only her feeling that one solitary word could not stand against the weight of testimony in the Scriptures, that the final end of the wicked is destruction. It might be an error in transcription. It so befell that only a few months before her death a friend came to see her, who was deep in the study of those old Latin MSS., now receiving so much attention — copied from the text of Greek MSS. certainly much older than the oldest we yet know in Greek. He had himself examined a number of these — some of them palimpsests — at great cost of eyesight. In every one, the word used in Matthew v. 46 was not "punishment" but "fire."
Miss Alcock liked Henry Dunn’s book, The Destiny of the Human Race. Farrar’s Eternal Hope she had read when it came out, and deplored it as a book which had "set back the question at least ten years" among those she most longed to see convinced, by its angry, even contemptuous tone towards those who believed and preached the dark view. "It was not that they did not care: they did: it was their reverence for the Word of God, as they had always heard it interpreted that held them," she said. "And the dread of believing what they liked instead of what was true," I said.
That was what had most held men back. I so feared it, that after the new thought was once suggested, in conversation, I read everything I could on the orthodox side, and nothing on the other, until I had found deliverance in the Bible itself — seeing how contradictions ceased and all things fell into place as never before, when once the words of our Lord were literally accepted, "I give unto them eternal life." They were not born with so fateful a possession.
The fact of the word "Fonial" being often used of things terminable did not touch His eternity. We use the word "forever" of the flowing of Tennyson’s Brook, which we expect will vanish when the time for the new earth comes. This does not lessen its force when we say, "Forever with the Lord." The truth is, the lips of the finite have no word for the in-finite, save a negative. We are told to seek for Im-mortality — which God only hath: in His nature only can we find it. Or so it seemed to us.
We had many talks, also, on the grounds of hope that those who have neither received Christ nor rejected Him in this world, may find Him in the world to come. If He is not to be found after this life; neither infants nor the heathen can ever know Him. Of our little ones, that is inconceivable; and for the heathen, and the multitudes in Christian lands who never really had a chance to choose Him here — we know one thing: — When the New Jerusalem appears, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband, there will still be nations that have need of healing, and there will be leaves of the Tree of Life for them. And in Alford’s rendering of Revelation xxi. 21, — following the picture of that city — the Bride — which needs no sun or moon, for the glory of God doth lighten it, we read, according to "all the ancient MSS.," "The nations shall walk by means of the light of it, and the kings of the earth do bring their glory into it." Can that be one reason why the gospel must be preached "for a witness" to all nations before the Lord comes? — that in the New Jerusalem there may be some from every nation to bear those healing leaves to their own people?
I have lingered long over this momentous subject, with a deep sense of responsibility to my dear friend for making known, as truly as any care can do, what her real thoughts upon it were. Yet one word more. It was great joy to be delivered from the haunting horror of that load of anguish inconceivable without purpose or end — but oh, greater still to have nothing left in the character of Almighty God into which one dared not look. With every other article of faith, one only longed to grasp it closer, believe more vividly. But from this, one must turn away; to make any approach to real belief in it would drive one too near the question of the scoffer and blasphemer: "If that’s true, how dared He ever make man?" Miss Alcock felt profoundly that the dark view brings an awful indictment on the character of our heavenly Father. It followed that, not believing it, if silent on the subject she would be helping to perpetuate this reproach. While teaching in Waterford, she did not feel herself quite a free agent. She writes, in the letter already quoted —
. . . I never speak of the subject unless I am spoken to. To the young people here, the members of my class, I only use Scripture words about it, but now and then, one and another will come to me, with the burden laid upon her heart, and then, I speak.
As far as I can judge I think we both lean to the same solution of the dread problem — if we can call it a solution . . .
But in her latest years she felt constrained to do something more, and in much weakness, she wrote a fragmentary confession of her faith, giving grounds for it, which she never lived to finish. The reader will see how sacred is the legacy her silence left to me. I could not attempt to argue the question or answer objections here — only try, most imperfectly, to fulfil my trust.
The journey to Constance and the dear society of Master John Huss had brought new life to Deborah. She needed it. Early in November she lost her much loved friend Lady Plunkett. Almost at the same time Mrs. Alcock became seriously ill. Miss Alcock writes to me on November 13 —
. . . For these forty years, from my childhood up, Mama and I have shared the joys and sorrows of our lives. Together we tended and watched my dear Father during his long years of declining health, nursed him in all his illnesses, save indeed, the two last, when she needed nursing herself. And now I write in her room, as she lies sleeping — nearly always sleeping, thank God, not suffering. She had been for some time in failing health, but this illness came on a fortnight ago; it is very doubtful what the end will be . . . At the best, I can only look for a reprieve. She is eighty-three. I desire to leave her, and myself, wholly in the Lord’s Hand, that wise and loving Hand; but you will understand all too well, what this means for me. She is the last of my home ties. I have had them much longer than most people. I think it is a very unusual experience to pass the age of 50 without ever knowing the pain of a great bereavement. In some ways it is very terrible, for one has not the recuperative power of early years, nor of course the possibility of forming new ties. In some ways I feel so old — in others so strangely young, having had my childhood’s home up to the present. My Autobiography would have little in it to interest, if only on this account. I have had a singularly quiet, uneventful life; and if I were to try to write the story of it, I think I should say more about the books which had influenced me than about almost anything else — the books and the thoughts . . . So you will not think it very strange that the dear Martyr of Constance haunts me still, bringing happy thoughts of Christ’s power to help all who trust Him, and of His being still the same, yesterday, today and forever . . .
I have had, and have, many dear friends, friends of my own standing, chiefly made in youth. A very dear one has just gone home, Lady Plunkett, the wife of our Archbishop, and a friend of mine since we were girls together . . . But God’s special gift to me has been my cluster of young friends — my "children"; mostly members of my classes, and some, really my children in the highest sense. These gather round me and keep me from feeling desolate. Some are married and have children of their own, I share their joys and sorrows, and they come to me for sympathy and comfort, sometimes for counsel.
To Miss Bayly.
There are some verses of mine I should like you to see on "The Pebble Ridge, Westward Ho!" about Kingsley, but even that I can’t find.
I have been very busy in the intervals of nursing, preparing our Annual Box of Work for the Female Eastern Mission. Now there are many other things which I say to you in my heart, but have not time to write. Oh, that great Unwritten and Unsaid, how much it holds!
When first Miss Alcock asked me to call her by her name, in writing, she said —
I have a name, a little name,
Uncadenced to the ear,
by which she was known to a few, but "Debbie" was the name of common use. She writes:
December 7, 1889.
. . . My household name is not Deborah, but Debbie, or much more often, Deb. I cannot now keep back my tears as I write the familiar word, in thinking of those "voices which to name me aye their tenderest tones were keeping."
One is silent now; the one that remains soon will be. At least I think so, and I cannot wish life prolonged as it is now, . . . and yet "Earth from earth can scarce unclasp its fingers.". . . Since 1882 I have been watching and tending the long, slow decline of those I loved. This has been my life; and writing, teaching, etc., only interludes. . . Do you know Mrs. Charles’ poem, "I am with you all the days?" Some of its lines help me much now, especially "Thou sufferest not the heart to freeze"; but I must not — must not write of these things today. That which goes deep brings tears, and tears bring headache which takes strength that is needed for ministration still. In self-defence I try even yet to take an hour or so nearly every day for copying. I hope (if it be not perilously like praying for the dead) that in whatever star, or world, that marty-hero of mine is now serving Christ, He will give him some added joy for the great help he has been to me — but I fear I shall soon find even this hour’s sweet oblivion of present pain impossible. . .
. . . One word you say comes with special warmth to my heart, about God bringing us together to be a comfort to one another; yes, dear friend, I think He means this . . .
To Miss Bayly.
End of December, 1889.
[Alluding to the condition of Ireland] . . . I acknowledge and confess that in past times there were great wrongs and great abuses. I believe that the Irish landlords of the present generation are suffering for the sins of their fathers, according to God’s law — a law, however, not only righteous, which it must be, being His, but, as I believe, often most merciful; because, when the children who suffer show any disposition to turn from the sins of the fathers (and it happens very often that they do, through His grace), He gives them "some better thing," even that deliverance through suffering which we wot of — witness your hero’s namesake, the son of Saul — Louis XVI — the French émigrés, and many of the victims of the Revolution, — Constantine, the last Greek Emperor, and many others. I do feel the immense difficulty and importance of the problem how to keep our people out of the great cities, and am very glad you have attacked it . . .
. . . My dear Invalid continues in the same state, and so far as I can see at present, may do so indefinitely. God is very good to me, in sparing her pain and suffering, and in strengthening me to bear the trial of this strange separation. As I said before, love survives, and shows itself often in very touching ways.
To the same.
Writing, as I do, almost at the end of 1889 and thinking of its trials and its joys, comes the thought of the new friend God has given me in you. I feel more and more, and especially since reading Jonathan Merle, that God means to send me help through you. There are parts of me, ordinarily crushed down and kept out of sight, that you could meet and understand. I am intensely shy ( — how well I understand some of Jonathan’s experiences! Like him, I can speak without fear to a large meeting, but shrink into myself in a drawing-room). However, I don’t mean that kind of shyness. I mean, as an Author, I am shy of the public. I dare not appear to it except en grande tenue, metaphorically. This is the real reason of the absence of humour in my stories; I am not at home enough with my readers to jest — in fact, I would not take the liberty. For the same reason, I fail in realistic touches and everyday scenes and characters. This was my defect always. . . But I can only take it all to Him who bade me do the work, and trust Him to make it what He would have it. That word "THOU remainest," was, and is, such a comfort to me. What should we do, if He were not there, if He were not here rather, with us, with you, with me? . . .
. . . Yet, life has high privileges and precious joys, and if it be His will, there are some things I should like to do, to see, and to enjoy, before I go to Him."
Miss Alcock had had my first book Alfreda Holme in Mrs. Alcock’s life-time, and it was read aloud in company with Mary. Jonathan Merle was written De profundis — on the inspiration of two mottoes — Erskine’s "The depth of our misery here is to me an earnest of the immensity of that blessedness which is to make all this worth while"; and the German rendering of Ecclesiastes i. 18: "Wer viel lehren muss, der muss viel leiden" — "He who hath much to teach must suffer much." "THOU remainest" was the motto of one chapter. I think nothing in the book has gone so home as those words, which are not mine.
On January 22 the MS. of the new story was sent to Mr. Stevens, the ever kind and inspiring Editor of The Sunday at Home. In the sick-room there had been a faint and feeble rally, but like the flicker of a dying candle, it only hastened the end. When there was a little more of life, the stepmother had held her daughter’s hand and said, "My own, own, own, own Deb." To the last, love lingered.
Mrs. Ashe came on a visit, and on mild, sunny, winter days Deborah took her drives in the little pony-trap. Then comes the entry, "My darling’s life slowly ebbing away." Three days later, in the afternoon of February 12, without a pang or struggle the spirit fled. Deborah had her desire — both her beloved ones "went so."
The Bishop and Mrs. Day had come to inquire. Both came up, and he prayed beside the dying bed. Mrs. Day was there at the last, with Mrs. Ashe and Miss Grayden.
Again Mr. Devenish came to the funeral. The day after was the worst time. And then came nearly four weeks of desperate exertion: a tenant wanted the house. On March 14 Deborah left it and went to her dear friend Miss Sandford at Cork. To her clinging nature the break-up of the home and parting from many familiar things was intensely painful. "I could never have borne it, but for the pleasure of giving many things as keepsakes," she said.
While at Cork she went again to Frankfield and called at Vernon Mount. "Long talk with Mr. Lane" — the "little Willie Lane" of former days, whom she always loved to meet. She writes the day before "Very low"; on this day " ‘Comfort the soul of Thy servant,’ I asked — and He did." She came back to Waterford to complete all business, and stayed at the Bishop’s Palace, where she found a History of Bohemia placed in her room, and read it! — the first time she had read a book since Mrs. Alcock’s death. She was surrounded with all that love could do, "Depressed, yet not discouraged: trustful, though very sad," she writes.
In April the "girls" of her class presented her with a very beautiful likeness of her father, enlarged from a photo, and in a frame rich but chaste — in perfect harmony with the grave and noble face it encircled. The letter, throbbing with love, that went with it, says, "No words of ours can adequately tell what a help and blessing your teaching has been to us." In her reply she thanks them for this picture of "that beloved father . . . the ‘footsteps’ of whose life I ‘feel’ and shall forever ‘feel in mine.’ "
And then she left Waterford, and went out into the world, alone indeed. Wherever she went, love met her, encircled her — and she loved to feel it; but the strangeness grew upon her of having no home to go back to. And the number of short visits paid was very exhausting, though every one meant fresh draughts of love. Work, too, was being offered to her — pressed upon her. For some time she seriously considered the thought of taking, for one year at any rate, the post of Head of the Clergy Daughters’ School, Dublin. This was still being considered when she came over to England, stayed with Mrs. Meredith, and on Sunday evening spoke to the girls at a school there on John Huss, which quite revived her. Next day — June 2, she came to our house at Streatham.
I see her now as she came up the steps — quickly, for she was nervous — in heavy travelling cloak, and on her face, as the French say, "une fatigue immense." The first longing was to get her rested, somehow; and the quiet, semi-invalid ways that my dear mother’s weakness required made her house a restful place — that, and her own motherliness and peaceful spirit. They drew to each other at once. We talked over the Clergy Daughters’ School question and went against it. Now I know more of Miss Alcock’s organizing powers, I am not so sure it would not have been her sphere; but her story was still unfinished, and we thought the work for her was writing.
One day my life-long friend Miss Taylor — youngest daughter of the Isaac Taylor — and Miss Wilson, her friend and ours, came over to spend the day, by Deborah’s special wish. The writings of Isaac Taylor had been among her landmarks, especially The Physical Theory of Another Life, and — even dearer — The Restoration of Belief. One sentence in that book ever remained with her. He had been writing — as he could write — of the burden, on the heart, of human suffering and sin. "Do you ask if I have found any way of escape from it? I have not, but I have found ONE Who bears it with me, and will bear it with me to the end."
It was very delightful to see the two together. Isaac Taylor was forty when he married, and my friend was the youngest of his twelve children, which brought her down to my generation. She had the Taylor wit, and she and Miss Alcock flashed out sayings from one another. When the visitors were gone, we went over the "Story of Constance," and agreed with the author that the "anti-climax" — the sudden descent to a shallow, perfunctory love affair, after the Council of Constance and a martyr’s death — would not do. There was no space left to do it properly: Miss Alcock decided to end the "Story of Constance," in the Sunday at Home, by placing her fictitious hero, Hubert, in the service of the noble knight, John de Chlum. "My best and dearest friend — my other self," Huss called him. Then, having left him in safety, she could close the scene, and take him up again in a second part for the volume, to show how deeply the influence of Huss affected the national life of Bohemia.
It was beautiful to see how life flew back into her, as a vista of completing her work well opened before her. All the fatigue immense was gone. In the vague emptiness before her, one thing was fixed; she could finish this story. Her cousin Mary was to meet her in London to go on a Continental trip. Europe was "all before them, where to choose," — of course they would go to Bohemia; and the second half of the book should be called A Story of Bohemia.
She left us on Monday for a visit to Dr. and Mrs. Waller — always a great enjoyment to her. On Sunday night we prayed together in her room, and I shall never forget the tone of her voice in one petition. She was asking for my dear mother’s life to be lengthened for my sake, "That the years may be long, for her, before the time comes when it shall be harder for her to say ‘Whom have I in heaven but Thee?’ than it is to say ‘None upon earth that I desire beside Thee.’ " We parted next day: but already God had put into her heart the beginning of that wonderful love for me which gave me such a power to make her happy when we could be together, for the rest of her life. It was not what I did but what she felt that made the spell. Sympathy in purely imaginative life was a thing quite new to her. Her friends who wrote had not had their characters to live with them, as both she and I had; and she did enjoy the sympathy of one who had shared that experience.
On my part — in a life unusually centred in the home — even more than Deborah’s had been — when both parents were failing, I prayed that, if it were His will, He would give me in the lonely future a woman friend, whose own life would not be too full for her to need my friendship in return. I had so many good friends, but all their lives were filled. It was little more than a passing thought and prayer; but the Lord remembered it, and sent an answer beyond all that I asked or thought: He gave me Deborah Alcock.
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