THE AUTHOR OF THE SPANISH BROTHERS
THE BEGINNING OF SEVENTY YEARS OF THOUGHT
BY DEBORAH ALCOCK
PROBABLY the past century saw no Evangelicalism more fervent, more wholehearted or more simple than was the Irish Evangelicalism of its middle and later years. In this atmosphere I was born, and lived — the motherless child of a father I adored, and who, more than anyone else I have ever known, lived and walked with God.
I cannot remember a time when I was not thinking about religion. Among earliest memories are the delights of going into a room by myself, or far out in the field, to sing hymns about Heaven at the top of my voice — which would certainly have been a trial to anyone within hearing, for neither then nor since have I ever had the least vestige of a musical ear. "High in yonder realms of light" was a great favourite, but still more "The hour of my departure’s come;" and best of all "Oh for a closer walk with God;" especially the verse:
"What peaceful hours I once enjoyed,
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
The world could never fill."
I thought that was lovely!
The Second Coming of our Lord was often in my thoughts, and whenever I saw a beautiful sunset, I used to look up at the golden clouds in rapturous expectation of His appearance, ready to raise the cry "This is our King! We have waited for Him." I soon learned to read, and found joy in books, especially the Pilgrim’s Progress. I must have been some four years old, (footnote: Probably three and a half, when she stayed with her grandmother before the Parsonage was ready.) when playing on the floor while my elders talked together, a word from my grandmother’s lips arrested me and stamped itself forever on my memory. "Some people think the souls of the wicked will not burn forever in hell — that they will burn out, so to speak." A thrill of horror passed through me, but whether at the thought that such suffering would be, or that it would so end, I could not have told.
My mental life awoke in an atmosphere charged with religion, of which the two prevailing notes were intense earnestness and reality, and very definite dogmatic teaching. I was just the child to take it in — being from infancy my father’s pupil and regarding him with a love and reverence unbounded, which knew no change, except that of increase, until, more than fifty years later, I closed his eyes in death. Into my own religion, however, there soon came an element of doubt. Was I really a child of God? Had I saving faith? Was I justified? This was in the air at that time. My father’s preaching was not more introspective than that of others, but it was eminently solemn and impressive, and very doctrinal. Justification by faith was much insisted on, and most clearly as well as constantly taught. The solemn issues that hung upon our acceptance of the Gospel were continually put before us. No wonder that a sensitive, imaginative child had the problem often in her mind "Am I Christ’s, or am I not?" ‘Tests’ by which to decide the answer were much in vogue. The one I liked best was, "Do you feel your sinfulness and need of a Saviour? And do you trust only in Jesus Christ for salvation?" If we could answer "Yes" we might safely assume that we were on the right side of the Rubicon. I must own I do not remember any deep conviction of sin — though assuredly from no lack of sins to be convinced of — only a feeling of general dissatisfaction with myself, and wish to be sure I was converted.
"Faith in Christ" was continually insisted upon — and most rightly. I should say, in looking back, that the fault — if fault there were — consisted in dwelling more upon the faith than on the Christ. It was as if, in trying to induce some invalid to take nourishment, you were to dwell upon the processes of eating and swallowing, instead of setting delicate food before him and telling him how good it was. It is not of the act that we should think, but of the Object; and to think too much of the act is often a real hindrance to its performance.
Of the two things which faith in Christ includes — faith in His Person and in His work — the latter was the more dwelt upon. We were exhorted to faith in His atoning death: His Divine nature was chiefly impressed on us as that which "gave His death its infinite value." Such was the theology of my childhood.
My outward life was as happy as that of any child — at least, of any motherless child — could possibly be. I remember nothing of the gloom which some who have been religiously brought up associate with their early Sundays — even though, my father being a hard-working clergyman, there was not the pleasant leisure for family intercourse which Sunday brings to many households. Our views were strict — to pick a flower was considered an indiscretion, perhaps bordering on a sin. But wanderings in the garden were permitted — there was the pleasant excitement of Sunday school (attended, in Ireland, by children of all ranks), the church, with the service — dreamed through too often, I fear — and my father’s sermon, usually, though not always, listened to with real interest — a long afternoon with delightful Sunday books, and when I was old enough, evening service. I have often heard Evangelicals accused of want of order and sweetness in their manner of worship, and the upkeep and arrangement of their churches. This has been alleged as proof of a want of reverence, and in some degree the occasion of the High Church movement. I can only say that although, in the little church where my father ministered, everything was severely simple, it was also seemly, reverent and attractive. No fairer picture could be seen, on a fine Sunday morning, than Frankfield Church in its sweet rural surroundings, its approaches thronged with worshippers — mostly from the adjacent city of Cork. It lingers still in memory, and no child could wish for early memories at once more pleasant and more solemn.
I was seven years old when I first felt the spell of history, and ever since I have proved the truth of Michelet’s words: "History never releases her slaves. He who has once drunk of that sharp, strong wine will go on drinking to the end." The way in which it came to me determined the line it took. An aunt sent me a present of Miss Bunbury’s Stories from Church History. Thenceforward the martyrs became my heroes. The annals of their sufferings I could soon repeat from memory verbatim; and I think I have been the better all my life for the knowledge of such things as grand old Polycarp’s witness to his Lord, "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He hath never wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King who hath saved me?" The Master said to the servant, "Be thou faithful"; the servant said to his Master, "How can I but be faithful to my faithful Lord?"
But I was ten when the impulse came that made me specially the devotee of Protestant history.
Here I must take up the narrative, as Miss Alcock has passed over the most important change that occurred in her outer life, during her childhood.
From the age of about six, she had received lessons from a lady who came out from Cork, but her father saw the great need of companionship for her, and asked his sister, Mrs. Gore, if she could spare one of her six children to be a companion to his "lonely little girl." Neither father nor mother could bear to entertain the thought, and it would have been exile to any child to leave that ideally happy home. But in Debbie’s eighth year, Mr. Gore became very seriously ill, and to lighten the mother’s burdens it was arranged for two of her little girls to go to Frankfield on a long visit, — Mr. Alcock’s mother coming to the parsonage to receive them. A resident governess was also there. But before the day appointed for their journey came, Mr. Gore died, to the deep grief of Mr. Alcock, who greatly esteemed and loved him. His widow would have to leave her large and pleasant home. A fortnight after the beloved father’s death, the two girls came to Frankfield, with the understanding that the younger, "Sallie," a few months older than Debbie, was to remain there as her uncle’s adopted child. It was their mother who, in all her grief, remembered to send Debbie the Stories from Church History by their hand.
With the blessed elasticity of childhood, they arrived full of the excitement of the coach journey from Kilkenny. When the kind governess had seen them to their beds, Debbie, always absent-minded, sighed, "Oh, I’ve left my handkerchief on the table!"
"Maybe it’ll walk to you," said a voice from Sallie’s bed, and with the words the little sprite was across the room, bringing the handkerchief to its owner. "Just like both of us," Miss Alcock said.
She dated her struggles to know whether she "had assurance" by remembering that when her cousins came, she — at seven years and eight months — looked back on that conflict as a thing of the far past. She had found it, as she thought. "But I didn’t live up to it," she added, "for when Sallie came, we quarrelled like cats." Not surprising, in two high-spirited children, almost of the same age, when one of them had been always an only child. But there is not a trace of any quarrel that could leave a rankling pain. Rather, the impression received is that the two little Celts enjoyed the fray — like their countryman at the fair: "What, twelve av the clock, and no row! Will any jintleman tread upon me coat-tail?" "We loved each other very much — then, and always!" Miss Alcock said — a love that to both made one of the dearest joys of life; but its early tempests were not convenient, and Sallie’s two grandmothers wisely decided to separate the loving combatants, leaving Mary — three and a half years older than her cousin — to be loved with a love second only to the love that Debbie bore to her father.
She has said that if her love of him was the key-note of her life, that of a long line of heroes made the dominant. If so, Mary’s was a strong sub-dominant. A beautiful woman, she must have been a very pretty child — dark-eyed, tall, slender, and very light and quick, yet graceful, in her movements — old for her years in thoughtfulness, young in simplicity — high-minded, intelligent, only too anxious for opportunities of self-denial and service — and conscientious and industrious to a fault. Her nature was full of tenderness, but with none of Deborah’s passion; and though hers was by far the stronger will (save in the few points where Debbie’s was reinforced by passion), her sweet kindness made her will to do what pleased the younger child, whom to her life’s end she never quite realized as a woman, so ingrained became the instinct to guide and take care of "Deb."
The advent of grandmother and governess had already broken in upon the father and child’s long tLte-B-tLte. In all our many talks, Miss Alcock never seemed to note this, or to look back on the change with any sense of loss. Between the spell of history and the charm of a young companion, she was probably too much absorbed to notice it — the more as Mr. Alcock’s mother remained for some time at Frankfield. I have often wondered whether the father felt it, even while rejoicing to see her so happy.
With Debbie, the intoxication of that "sharp, strong wine of history" came simultaneously with a live listener — the first she had ever had, and how much better than the dumb dolls! And before Mary grew tired of having stories poured out upon her, the children reached a new departure. The history of the Children’s Crusade, of which Debbie had read, fired them both: they stuck the Red Cross on their hoops, called them horses, and rode away with them into the land of dreams, both talking now! For, of course, each horse had his own rider, named in history — and when convenient, fresh characters could mount. So came the grand discovery that they could not only talk but play the stories; and actually, until some time after Mary’s marriage, they were never long together without "Playing the game," or "Talking the play," as they called it indifferently — in various characters. "Only I had to be all the bad people!" Miss Alcock would say with mock pathos. "My dear cousin was so good, she couldn’t do them: I had to take them all." And how she enjoyed it! The normal human passions, all but sensuality and greed, were strong within her, and it was glorious to let them all out in the game — fight, rove, hector, entrap — break all bounds, and call her hosts to battle — without hurting anybody. Timid as a fawn among her fellow-creatures in real life — no one more pathetically easy to extinguish where principle was not involved — she had the physical courage of a hearty boy — a fearless rider on the rare occasions when she had opportunity to mount a mortal horse, and delighting in any expeditions that had a touch of risk. The less she had of that experience, the more she revelled in it, in imagination. One of her girl friends used to say, "There’s a deal of sin in Debbie."
"We wove endless stories," she writes, "beginning with the wildest and most impossible figments, and going on, through the practice of years, to long historical romances, in which we at least tried to pay some respect to the possibilities of life and the facts of history."
There was always a character or event in real history to make the centre of the drama; and grouped around it or him were fictitious characters filling up the scene. "Him," I say advisedly, for as a rule the heroines played quite a subordinate part. "I don’t know how it is," she once said, "though I am a woman’s woman, and never seem to have any call upon me to think about men or to do them good, I always care most for them in the stories."
When first "the game" began, the children agreed, from motives of reverence, that religion must be left out of it. But the stories fell so flat, so tame, so utterly poor without it, that the law had to be rescinded.
When writing of this period, Miss Alcock added, "Poetry became a passion with me at the same time, and when not making stories, I was reading, learning, or repeating it to myself." Campbell’s Pleasures of Hope was long her favourite poem. "So theology fell into the background," she adds. "Had I lived among the Methodists, it would have been said that I had ‘fallen from grace.’ " Perhaps Mr. Alcock observed a change, for in his Diary for 1845 comes the entry: "Walked this evening with my girls, and spoke to Debbie about her declension in spiritual love." Later, we find: "Cause for great thanksgiving to God for the gracious dispositions of my dear child."
There may have been a reason for this happy change which he did not connect with it. Beneath the current of Debbie’s outer life, the worship of each new hero waxed and waned — a worship kept as sacredly silent as a girl’s first love — except in the game, where she could speak in character. At five she had had a faint attachment to King David — at some time, a deeper one for Jonathan. Then for a long time King Alfred held the field, and went into the "play," which had begun by that time. Between the ages of eight and nine, her fancy took a turn and developed une grande passion for Archbishop Cranmer — so vivid that she could not hear or speak his name, when it came up at lessons, without blushing. How she laughed at herself when she made this confession in her old age! "To think of a little girl, eight years old, getting such a fever for an old archbishop, who had been dead hundreds of years, that she could not hear his name without so much emotion!" She thought what smote her heart into a flame was his putting into the fire his own hand that had signed what he felt to be his denial of his Lord. She knew so well what it was to fail and to repent. And even while she told the tale, she owned to still shrinking from uttering the name of whoever was the hero foremost in her heart at the time, and having often lost an opportunity of getting valuable information in consequence.
The archbishop’s star was waning — some minor hero occupied "the play," when a new star arose, destined to be the morning and the evening star of her life, shining — with a heavenly light. She was ten years old when Mr. Lane lent Mr. Alcock the translation of Bonnechose’s Reformers before the Reformation. He was reading aloud from it one evening — probably to the children’s kind, elderly governess — when Debbie came into the room and paused to listen. Her father had just reached the account of the last interview of John Huss with Stephen Paletz, once his intimate friend, who had become his enemy, and was the chief witness against him at his trial. They had taken sweet counsel together and walked in the house of God as friends. Huss felt his treachery most bitterly; he could not conceal his pain when Paletz brought up fragments of their old, confidential talk — things they had said to each other in open-hearted friendship — and turned them against him. According to custom, Huss, after his condemnation, was offered a confessor, whom he had leave to choose. He chose Paletz, who refused the office, but came to see him, at his desire.
"I heard my father read this," Miss Alcock said, "as I was crossing the room, and stopped short. How would they meet ? What would they say to each other? Huss broke the silence. ‘Paletz, I have said some things before the Council which must have offended you. Will you forgive me?’ Paletz burst into tears. I can remember now how that went through me — remember even the physical thrill."
"I suppose it was the drama of the situation that caught me," she writes, "or that sense of the morally beautiful which has always been a passion with me, but caught I was, and from that time perused the history with a zeal which not even the annals of the Council, nor the histories of the Anti-popes could repel." And living thus in the holy company of one of the noblest and purest of God’s servants, her own soul was drawn upwards too.
The book had to be returned; but regularly once a week the Parsonage family dined at "big Frankfield," as the children called Frankfield House, and "Bonnechose" lay on the drawing-room table there. After dinner, while the elders lingered at the table talking, the children played in the hall, in and out of a small pillared alcove which served as prison, home, or place of refuge, according to the requirements of the reigning story. When the elders left the table, all the party repaired to the drawing-room, and Debbie always flew upon The Reformers. Kind Mrs. Lane observed this, and on the child’s eleventh birthday gave her a copy of the book! What words Debbie found to express her gratitude she knew not, but vividly she remembered carrying away the two heavy volumes, repeating over and over in her mind Campbell’s words: —
"Ecstatic throbs the trembling heart employ,
And all its strings are harmonized to joy."
At this time The Pleasures of Hope haunted her subconsciously, as a melody would haunt anyone who cared for music. In the centre of the Parsonage meadow there lies a large flat stone. This Debbie called "Conrad’s Tomb," and there she would sit and make stories or verses about him. Her range of choice in poetry to read was very limited, as she tells next —
In our house there was very little poetry that was not sacred. No Shakespeare, although my father had a strong dramatic taste which lent power and point to his preaching. Milton we had, but I did not care for him; and my father, observing my love of poetry, gave me Cowper. I did not at all appreciate him. I was given "My Mother’s Picture" to learn as a task, and I confess with shame and sorrow that the only lines which impressed me were those referring to
Thy morning bounties, ere I left my home,
The biscuit, or confectionery plum,
given as the boy set off for school. The "confectionery plum" was an unknown mystery, with which I greatly desired a practical acquaintance. I can only plead in extenuation that I never knew my mother. But though "My Mother’s Picture" was lost upon me, I can repeat, to this day, every word of Conrad’s parting from his daughter, which I read at ten years old in one of the idols of my childhood, Campbell’s Pleasures of Hope; and not only that, but a great part of the entire poem. Poetry was absorbed eagerly, passionately, from the headings in Pinnock’s Goldsmith’s History, The Last Man, Lochiel’s Warning, and the Dramatic Scenes of Mrs. Hemans.
In these days of shilling classics, there is something very pathetic in the thought of that eager little soul feeding on the crumbs of poetry (often very good ones) which head the chapters of Pinnock’s Goldsmith’s Histories. But each small gem sank all the deeper for that.
This life of thinking and dreaming was carried on behind an outer life as healthy and regular as could be desired — leaving on Debbie’s mind a lasting love of routine. Except at lesson times, the children seem to have lived out of doors. The usual order of the day was, breakfast at half-past eight, then lessons; dinner at three, before or after dinner a walk, or perhaps a ride in the pony-car. At twelve, the children had each a large hunk of bread, without butter, but not "dry" — it was delicious home-made bread, so good, they never even wished for butter on it. Throughout the long apple season, they picked up fallen apples under the orchard trees to eat with it, and for several weeks in summer there were gooseberries. Was there ever a feast to compare with these orchard lunches, lingered over in the sweet air and sunshine?
From one to three were the pastor’s best hours for visiting, in those days, when the poor dined at twelve and the genteel at three — except the very genteel, like Mr. Lane, who dined at five! All round the year Mr. Lane would be continually sending over fruit or vegetables to the Parsonage, and butter and milk came regularly from his dairy.
Tea-time was at six — the last meal of the day. Before or after, the children prepared their lessons for the next day in the little schoolroom, and in the evening they listened to reading, or read aloud themselves. Before going to bed, they had to put the schoolroom in perfect order. It transpired that Mary did all the putting away, while Debbie sat on the table telling her a story. On this the governess observed that Debbie might as well stay in the parlour, as she did nothing. "Oh, but she does," said Mary, "she talks to me all the time." It seems not to have occurred to anyone that Debbie ought to have been learning to put her own things away neatly, and to use her hands generally. She was taught plain sewing, in which she had abundant practice, but all the little household duties were given to Mary, who besides being so much the elder, was naturally as deft with her fingers, and enterprising, as Debbie was slow and timid in doing anything unaccustomed. In lessons — except French, which Debbie began late — the two were equal; in the Play, she was always the leader; she made all the plots of the stories. The elders seem to have forgotten that in other things the difference in age must count; and because the little one of nine or ten was so far behind her cousin of thirteen in handiness, instead of her being spurred and heartened to develop the power, she was allowed to bear the character of hopeless incompetence in common things. This did not trouble her then, as it left her all the more time for dreaming out plots for the Play, but she felt it keenly, painfully, all the rest of her life.
Dora, the nurse, who still had charge of her personally, liked to keep her a baby. Dear Mary’s one idea was to do everything she could for Debbie, and there was no one to point out that the greatest kindness she could do her would be gradually to help her to help herself.
This, however, seems the only consequence to be regretted, from the girls being left so much to themselves. Through all the stories of this happy childhood, what lingers most in memory is the atmosphere of perfect liberty and full confidence between old and young. No one looked after those children "out of hours." Within the limits of the household laws, they were as free as air. In that household, one Great Taskmaster ruled. Under the consciousness of His All-seeing Eye, each life was spent: there was no need for any other eye to watch. Trusted, trusty, and trusting with good reason in the loving rule of the home, the children went their way — only perhaps a little too much trusted to see, unaided, what the right and best way was. And here I may insert another extract from Miss Alcock’s recollections: —
Before taking leave of my childhood, I may say a word upon the moral aspects of a religious education such as I received. It has been said by many that the Evangelicals of that day were too exclusively occupied with doctrine, and that to the neglect of duty. They were reproached for preaching "faith" as the be-all and end-all of religion, and omitting to preach "morality." To a certain extent they admitted the charge, and gloried in it. I remember in my childhood hearing my father tell of a clergyman, who had become an earnest Evangelical, being asked by one of his flock, "Why don’t you preach morality to us anymore?" "Sir," he answered, "I have preached morality in that church until I nearly preached morality out of it. I will preach Christ in it now."
He was right. "Christ is the end of the law unto righteousness to every one that believeth." And about the Evangelicals there was no paltering with the solemn truth that "Without holiness no man can see the Lord." That good works are a necessary and indispensable outcome and proof of "a saving faith" was a truth constantly insisted upon; and I think I may assert without fear of contradiction, that the holy lives of the men and women who accepted the test in no way belied their profession.
Yet there may have been an omission. Many years after — in the nineties — I heard the late Bishop of Cashel preach in a Dublin church, where in his early days he had been the pastor, on the fiftieth anniversary of its opening. Looking back upon his own ministry — which had been a very faithful and fruitful one — he noted, among the things which he regretted, that he had not been sufficiently careful to instruct his flock in the details of Christian duty. There was truth in this, but the fault was that not of the man, but at that time, of the "school of thought" to which he belonged. In doctrine, as in practice, the Evangelicals were as men dazzled by the lustre of the sublime truths which had "risen upon them," and there may have been things — lesser, but still important — which they "could not see for the glory of that light." In their public ministrations there was no lack of exhortation to holiness and to walk before God worthy of the high vocation to which they were called, but these appeals were nearly always general. Laws rather than rules were given us. If the masters of other schools have been liable to "make void the law" — the great Law of Righteousness — by the multitude of petty rules they have wrapped round it, ours, on the other hand, used to give us the Law in its simple majesty, and trust us a little too easily to evolve the rules for ourselves.
This, however, applied much more to public than to private instruction. In the home, the nursery and the schoolroom, the ethics of daily life were inculcated earnestly, constantly, and very lovingly. Amongst the childish virtues we admired and tried in our small way to practise, self-denial held a conspicuous place, and perhaps was too readily accepted as a sign of "gracious dispositions." A child whose feelings are stirred will often part readily with a cherished possession, or forego a longed-for pleasure, to help some good object, and perhaps an hour or two after be guilty of flagrant naughtiness. If anyone should say "Speak for yourself," that would not be lair, for I never was anything of a model child. My precocious interest in theology, whatever else it did for me, never made me that.
IV. IRISH LIFE — THE FAMINE
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Last modified: June 27, 2016