THE AUTHOR OF THE SPANISH BROTHERS

 

CHAPTER VIII

"ACA NADA" — NOTHING THERE

THE first discoverers of Canada were Spaniards, who, finding no trace of the precious metals and a snowy, inhospitable climate, said "Aca Nada" (nothing there), since abbreviated into "Canada."

Let us pause, — although no treasures

Gold or silver meet our view,

Ere we say the "Aca Nada"

Love and faith might prove untrue.

Sow the seed in trust and patience,

God will send His blessed rain;

We shall reap a glorious harvest

From the fields of golden grain.

Aye, full oft the "Aca Nada"

Of the faithless heart’s despair

Proves God’s Acre, rich in blessing,

Overpaying all our care.

D. Alcock.

When Deborah turned her face to life with no vista in it for any writing save verse, in which she felt her own deficiencies, she was ready to say, "Aca Nada — Nothing There — except my Lord."

And He was enough! But in truth, her life, on its human side, was steadily filling up with human interests. The stroke that shut the door on the imaginative life was gently timed to fall when the real life was growing fast. The marriage of an elder sister means promotion to the next in age. Mary had indeed been as an elder daughter in her uncle’s house; without her, Debbie was of more importance, and made further developments in practical matters.

In the end of May, Mrs. Lane died. She had come to Dublin some time before, her health quite broken and her memory failing. The first time that Debbie, grown a woman, went to see her, naturally she was not recognized. "But when I said ‘Don’t you remember me — the little girl you were so kind to, and used to take out for drives?’ the light came back into her poor face. ‘Oh, yes, I do,’ she said."

Mr. Alcock visited her to the last. One link with Frankfield still remained: the family of Mr. William Lane were at Vernon Mount, and there, long after, Miss Alcock stayed with his son — the "little Willie Lane" of Frankfield days — and the son’s wife, now his widow, who still resides there.

Mr. Alcock, his wife and sister, again spent August and September on the Continent, and Deborah went meanwhile for a long visit to Mary. Will it be believed that the Game went on again in full vigour during the long drives on the little "outside car" to visit parishioners? This was a delightful holiday to Deborah. King Alfred was still the hero, with his young secretary for the next figure; and talking in character, the two cousins spoke their inner thoughts on spiritual things as they could not have done without that veil. They parted nearer than ever to each other in heart, when Debbie returned home. By this time she had a class for elder girls, who had grown up in her children’s class and outgrown it. This was an ever-increasing interest. In the home she was insensibly slipping into the family counsels, treated more as a companion by her stepmother; and before this winter of 1858-9 was over, a phase of life quite new to her began to open.

In the year 1858, the institution of Biblewomen had its beginning. The Bible Society made an effort to bring the Word of God to the poorest and lowest in our great London, by employing good poor women to take round Bibles and Testaments to the homes of the poor, persuade them to buy, paying by instalments, and then call weekly to collect the pence and halfpence, till the book was paid for and delivered. This brought each woman into very close touch with her customers. It was part of her work to read from the Bibles she offered, when permitted. "Marian," as the first Biblewoman was called in the reports, was a woman of deep Christian experience, and the words she read and spoke went home to many hearts. Each woman employed had a lady superintendent. Marian’s was Mrs. Ranyard, well known as "L.N.R.," author of The Book and Its Story. She was then editing a monthly magazine, The Book and Its Missions, at that time connected with the Bible Society; and reports of "Marian’s" work appeared in it. That was a time when, through the influence of Lord Shaftesbury, and the work of the Ragged School Union and the London City Mission, the eyes of Christian people were being opened to the appalling need of help, spiritual and temporal, for the "submerged" in our great cities — then neglected in a way we can hardly conceive of now. Many sheltered women were longing to do something, but knew not how. Mrs. Ranyard’s far-seeing eye perceived that here was the agency required — the Christian working woman, paid, so that she was set free to devote herself to the work, with a reason for calling at every door in a given district without intrusion; and a lady superintendent at her back, whom she would link with the poor. "They know I know their ways, ma’am," Marian said. They could not take her in as they could a lady. Under the Bible Society each woman employed was a half-timer, visiting only in the mornings, but Marian gave up two afternoons a week to visiting special cases for love.

All this was told in the Magazine; and more women were already employed, when one day Deborah received a pencil note from a young invalid friend, saying, "There are Biblewomen in England. Why are there none in Ireland? Will you come and have a committee of you and me, to see what can be done."

The writer belonged to a northern branch of the large Guinness family, and was then staying in Dublin for medical treatment. Mr. Alcock visited her constantly, to her great comfort. The committee of two resulted in her writing to friends and relatives to ask their help in raising a Biblewoman’s salary. Money was given freely, to please the sufferer as well as to help the poor, and a Biblewoman was engaged. The invalid lived to see it before she went Home.

In the summer of 1859, my mother’s book, Ragged Homes and How to Mend Them, appeared, giving an account of the Mothers’ Meeting she had then held for six years. This, like so many other good things, took its rise in the Ragged Schools. Teachers, despairing of saving their children while home influences were so bad, invited — some, mothers; some, fathers — to meet them occasionally, to talk of their own responsibility. In two or three cases a meeting for the mothers of scholars was held regularly by their teacher. A city missionary, hearing of this, asked my mother to begin a meeting for mothers, as mothers, with no other limitation. Her hands were full with her own little children, but she could not refuse, and the meeting, which began with six or seven, had reached about a hundred members when, in answer to many inquiries, the book was written; and inquiries were multiplied more than a hundredfold, till, in a few years, Mothers’ Meetings had spread all over the world — nowhere more valued than in the Foreign Mission Field. Biblewomen being already at work, the two agencies furthered one another. Ladies who could not spare time for all the visiting could take a meeting, and employ a Biblewoman to visit. Where a Biblewoman was employed, she begged her "Lady" to have a Mothers’ Meeting.

Very precious to me is the knowledge that Ragged Homes was a real help to Deborah in her time of need. She found in it the same intense sympathy with suffering that she loved in Kingsley — with nothing to fight against! — and instead of the horrible contrasts between rich and poor revealed in Alton Locke, this book, with equal truth, showed their unity — the mother who taught placing herself side by side with the mothers who learned, and often learning from them. They were all one in the mother’s supreme joys and sorrows, with the same great responsibility, the same utter need of wisdom from on High. The book also told with what interest these mothers had listened to the story of the first Biblewoman, and how some of them had followed in her steps, for love. This made it all the more attractive to Dublin readers. "Ragged Homes was one of my landmarks," Miss Alcock said — partly because it opened a new sphere in her outward life, for a friend began a Mothers’ Meeting and asked her help in arranging the needlework, for which she found herself quite competent, though often wishing that her "scissors knew the way," like those of a certain "Mrs. A." in Ragged Homes.

The beginning of new friendships could hardly make landmarks, being usually so gradual. But one friendship, destined strongly to influence Deborah’s after life, budded and blossomed in a single morning, somewhere in this period. This also she owed to her friendship with Miss Guinness. It was on the first morning of a visit to her at their country house, "St. Anne’s," that a lady, slightly older than herself, heard her say to Mr. Guinness, "What attracts me in Kingsley is his intense sympathy with humanity."

The listener who caught the words, far down the long breakfast-table, said to herself, "That is not a usual observation from a girl as young as she appears to be. I must know more of her." They had scarcely exchanged a word, beyond the first introduction, overnight, but after breakfast they found themselves, the only two lady guests, left together — Miss Guinness, who had to be the acting lady of the house, having gone to her invalid mother. Miss D— offered to take Miss Alcock for a walk. "But we never even got round the grounds!" she said. Their two hearts and minds flew to each other like steel to magnet. "We did not want to go and see anything, only to talk, and talk." They paced or sat till they suddenly found out that there was barely time to get to the house before lunch, and hurried back, very much ashamed of themselves for having run away from everybody else, like two schoolgirls. "We wished we could get in unobserved; but all the party were out on the lawn playing croquet, and — we did not appear to have been missed!" One or two sayings of Deborah’s in that first talk lingered in the hearer’s mind. One, "My father’s life is to me one long poem on the text ‘God is love.’ " Another, "If I ever wrote a Litany, the first sentence in it would be, ‘From myself Good Lord deliver me.’ "

So began a friendship which, like Cowper’s heavenly harp, was

 

Strung and tuned for endless years

And kept by power Divine.

But they could not have added —

To sound in God the Father’s ears

No other name than Thine.

"No name apart from Thine" would indeed have been the speech of their hearts; but both were learning — if in all reverence one may dare to say it — just some faint idea of the Divine "sympathy with humanity" — intense beyond all human thought. The Master would not like to hear no human names upon our lips in His presence, hereafter. Deborah was gaining assurance of this, and in Miss D— she met a mind enlarged by experiences far wider than her own. All who have read the ghastly history of the Irish Famine will remember the name of William Edward Forster (afterwards the Right Hen. W. E. Forster), the young Quaker who came over from England at the very worst of it, bringing help from the Society of Friends: how he sought out the sick in fever-stricken hovels — watched them, carried them in his arms to the car that would bear them to a hospital, or laid their bodies on that other car which took them to the grave, heedless of the fearful danger of infection — bringing a ray of light even to the poor survivors by his tender sympathy. In one of the brief intervals of rest he was compelled to snatch, he had stayed at the house of Miss D—’s father. She was then only just outgrowing childhood, but such a visitor would not be soon forgotten, and the friendship with the father passed on to the next generation.

Mr. Forster’s singularly happy marriage with the eldest daughter of Dr. Arnold added his gifted wife to the circle of Miss D—’s friends, and also brought her in touch with the Arnold family, their wide range of interests and many diversities of opinion. Her own vividness of mind and feeling won the regard of these living leaders of thought. Even the lights reflected from such a constellation brought a kindling glow to Deborah, who had lived so completely apart from the strenuous world of politics, and the clash of modern opinions.

Miss D— introduced her to many books she would not otherwise have seen, which gave her glimpses of that far-off place "the outside world." Her rapid insight saw much at a glance, enough to prevent its being justly said to her

This same world,

Uncomprehended by you, must remain

Uninfluenced by you.

She would often say, "J. D—’s friendship with the Forster family has made a great difference to me."

The days were past when Mrs. Alcock would wish to impound any book that "Deb" cared for: the heart of her parents did safely trust in her.

The friendship of Miss Guinness brought Deborah yet another "find" — small, but important — about this time. "When my love for King Alfred sprang up into une grande passion, she said, "I searched for him in history; but I had only the common shallow histories. At last, one day when I was staying with Annie Guinness, a friend of Mama’s took me in to dinner, and I ventured to throw out a feeler to find whether he cared for history. He responded so warmly that I ventured farther, and even spoke of Alfred; and he said, ‘Strange to say, the best life of Alfred is by a German. A translation of it is in Bohn’s Library.’ Bohn’s books were only 4s. each, so at once I was in the seventh heaven. As soon as I could scrape up four shillings, I bought and devoured it — and the old histories vanished away — superfluous!"

And yet, she said, all that was true in them, still more, the long concentration of her thoughts on every trait of his character, had prepared her to grasp and understand the fuller knowledge, when it came, and realize the man. "One of my errors was about lanterns. I knew Alfred invented lanterns, and thought of lanterns like the one which the sexton used to carry before us as we went to church, on dark nights: whereas the object of Alfred’s lanterns had been to shield from draughts the candles he had had carefully made to burn for eight hours, so as to measure time exactly."

It was interesting to learn that it was Alfred, the great social reformer of his time — most practical of saints and heroes — who dominated her affections during the years when she was herself so busy with practical work.

Another point incidentally disclosed, is that up to this time, whatever else her advances, financially she still had "the rating of a schoolgirl," as Trollope expresses it. One word to her father would have altered this; but true to her first resolve, it was never spoken. She ventured a hint to her stepmother, but found no response. One day, however, when Mr. Alcock was not present, his wife alluded to some girl of their acquaintance who was known to have a dress allowance, as "not being well off," and Deborah said pointedly, "I call any girl well off who has an allowance." Mrs. Alcock was vexed, and spoke rather sharply, believing that she took good care that Deb had all she wanted — as no doubt she did, according to her own lights. Deborah said no more; but two or three days after, Mrs. Alcock said of her own accord, "You ought to have an allowance: it’s right you should — you shall have eighteen pounds a year."

"That was just Mama," Deborah said. "She would be angry for a moment, but she always came round — and generously — always."

Eighteen pounds for dress in those days, when in Dublin five shillings was a usual charge for making a simple dress, was equal to 25 at least in England now. From that time, life was another thing to Deborah.

So little by little, without a particle of self-assertion, the girl stole up into her woman’s place, and the years which had stretched out before her so lean and dreary, were filled with happy work and new acquirements — the very training most wanted for her future calling. She was learning lessons of human life among the mothers and babies (she always loved babies) and in the lives of her friends. Above all, she was learning what our Lord can be, when other lights have failed. "He has never given me quite such joy in Him, before or since," she said wistfully one day. "Except, I have it in the joy of the martyrs, or of my spiritual children."

And she feared lest she had gone back in her allegiance. But no one else could think so. It is very striking, in going through her life, to watch her growth in knowledge and obedience towards her Lord. But her own life became so vicarious there was not enough left of the "Me" for her to have, for herself, the same conscious rapture in Him that was given her in the hungry days of youth. Even then she "felt Him in the martyrs," too, and that added to her sense of loss in giving up their stories. But the day of renunciation was almost over, the hard task so meekly accepted was almost learned, and the time drew near when the great Teacher would say —

The book may close over,

For all that lesson is said.

In carrying on the story of the Biblewomen and the Mothers’ Meetings to its consummation, I have passed over one of the leading features of this year — the great "Irish Revival." In August Mr. and Mrs. Alcock took a fortnight’s tour in the north, where the movement began. The spiritual work was sometimes strangely mingled with physical seizures, as though the evil spirit tore its victims in coming out of them, "but there were more without this than with it," Mr. Alcock wrote — i.e. more converts. The records of different cases show a real Power working, and a great ingathering of souls. They also show the fierceness of Roman Catholic opposition. Those who attended the meetings often did so at great personal risk. In one place a Scripture reader’s house was set on fire when the family were all asleep within; and but for a good woman who saw the flames and ran full speed to wake the inmates, they must have perished. No inquiries were made — no one was punished.

Thence Mr. Alcock went to visit his sister Barbara, and her husband, who was very ill — apparently slowly sinking, in perfect peace. They parted feeling it might be for the last time, and so it proved. Mr. Baillie died in September.

Deborah and Miss McKenny were staying meanwhile with Mary at Letterkenny. She joined the others for a visit to Oban, a time of intense enjoyment to her, from the great beauty of the scenery and the charm of having long walks alone with her father to see it, while Miss McKenny stayed behind with her sister. One sunset especially was never forgotten.

She felt herself drawing nearer to both parents; yet, when back in Dublin, she could not help having a sad feeling of distance to balance the nearness. Evidently, her own people felt it such an advantage to her to have shut up her imagination, and gone into Christian work like anybody else! One day she brought her stepmother a letter which had filled her own heart with joy: it was from one of her pupils who had given herself to Christ, and said she owed it all to her dear teacher. Mrs. Alcock was in full sympathy with that joy, but said, as she returned the letter, "You will never get anything like that by your writing," little guessing that by writing Deborah was to multiply such fruits beyond all calculation. The words pierced the girl’s heart: had she really to choose between stories and soul-winning? Were it so, she would not hesitate a moment to renounce the stories — but was it? Where did the two things run counter? When Mrs. Alcock praised good, commonplace young ladies as such nice "simple girls," something in Deborah rebelled against taking them as her examples. When another very good lady supported an untenable statement by the remark that "we ought to be as ‘little children,’ " she thought. "Little children if you like, but not fools." An obstinate conviction would rise up within her, and insist that brains were worth something after all.

In this heresy she was encouraged by two good friends of her father, both clergymen, who made a friend of her also. One was the Rev. R. S. Brooke, father of the well-known Stopford Brooke, Robertson’s biographer — a man of fine culture. The other was a very old friend — the Rev. Christopher Eades. His letters are the very pink of old-fashioned courtesy. He was a great admirer of Miss Alcock’s life of Gustavus Adolphus; but when, at his request, she sent him a specimen of blank verse, and it was all out of metre, he wrote her, with extreme politeness and circumlocution, a long letter about iambics and trochees, dactyls and anapests, which first taught her something of the technique of verse, and gave her a mental rule to supply the want of ear.

Mr. Brooke’s letter is equally candid. I fear it hit hard, in the dark year of 1858.

KINGSTOWN.

MY DEAR YOUNG FRIEND, —

Your little drama I have read with true interest, and I judge much of its innate power by the impression which remains on my mind after reading it; all your writings have had this influence on me.

It is lofty-minded, pure, and most pathetic, as all the records of at terrible time are. But I do not think it fit for publication in its exact present form. Now I am going, like a true friend, to criticize it. Some of the lines are inaccurate in measure (measure the ten feet mechanically). You have "we’ll" for "we will," or "we shall" — this would not do — and "I’ve" for "I have." There are words and exclamations reiterated: this weakens the line; occasionally an error in grammar — see page 19, third line, where "thou" should be "thee."

I think you are deficient in simile, trope, and illustration. Your mind is too artless for drama making. Your forte is the exhibition of pure feeling; you despise gilding.

I entirely disapprove of Victoria going out and leaving her husband to die in a soliloquy. The drama wants more painting, and for the present day, more piquancy.

Did you ever read Lamartine’s Girondists? See the marvellous effect there. I like your Fragment so much that I could read it over again this moment; but before I could send it to Mr. Brady it must be re-written on single sheets, one side; it must be a little condensed and trimmed — Grammar, English, metre, sternly overhauled — lines strengthened by compression of thought (a full strong thought in one line is a glorious thing). Now if you are not angry with all this advice, re-write it; be very fastidious with every line, polish it well. Dismiss every word which is not graceful, have nothing expletive or iterated — and then let me see it, or you and it, and we might go over it together. I will leave the drama to your address at McGee’s, the booksellers in Nassau Street, near Dawson Street.

Ever affectionately yours R. S. B.

P.S. — I have addressed the MS. to your father.

Such a critic was indeed worth having, even at the cost of a smart. One cannot help grudging the time spent on writing verse, but probably it served the writer well, at this time for what in after years she called "a thought-stopper." The year 1860 opened with "The Lodiana week," when in answer to the appeal of a little band of missionaries at Lodiana, a mission station in India, Christians all over the world, of all denominations, united together, meeting by turn in one another’s churches or schoolrooms, for a week of prayer. Those whose memories go back so far will remember the thrilling life in those meetings, and the baptism of power that came upon many of God’s servants in answer to those prayers. The custom has now passed its Jubilee, and still each year opens with this "Week of Prayer."

By this time the Revival had "come" to Dublin, Mr. Denham Smith being the chief leader at the great meetings held in the Rotunda and elsewhere. Mr. Alcock had heartily joined in the Week of Prayer, but in the longer work his share mainly consisted in building up the many — especially among the young — who came to him, "impressed" through Revival meetings, but not wholly decided. Deborah also had her share of the same kind of work, intensely happy work to both, for it was rare for anyone who came to either of them to go away finally without making the great decision.

Again Deborah stayed in Ireland, when Mr. and Mrs. Alcock went to England and the Continent that year, and paid a series of happy visits. One, especially enjoyed, was to Mr. and Mrs. F. Hewson, the latter a sister of Merle D’Aubigne’s second wife, "a delightful and thoughtful woman." It was a great treat to Deborah to stay in a large family, and the young people there were "so full of life, and so good also. They were great croquet players, and they played croquet like Christians," she said. "I had seen much of croquet that brought the greatest disputing. These children were all so ready to give way to one another."

Once, in talk with Mrs. Hewson, they considered what each would most desire, if she could have it. Deborah said, "A simple, unquestioning faith." " I don’t think I could wish for that," said Mrs. Hewson. "That impressed me deeply," Miss Alcock said. "I had been accustomed to think of all questioning as evil. She gave it another aspect." Deborah went next to another large happy family in a rectory near Mr. Henson’s. There she found eleven children, ranging from the eldest son, home from Oxford for vacation, to quite little tots. There was a pony-car, of course, and one of the children’s greatest pleasures was to go in it, by turn, when there was room to spare. One day something happened to cause the eldest daughter to start off unexpectedly, in a hurry, Deborah going with her. As they went down the drive, a little boy came in sight, and his sister called him to come too.

"It’s Mollie’s turn," said the boy, running up.

"Oh, but she’s not here, and you are, and we can’t wait."

"I’ll find her." The boy was off like a shot, and soon came back hand in hand with a little sister. There was no need to dress for this country drive; she scrambled up, the brother helping her. "And I think I never saw anything prettier than the joy on that little boy’s face as we drove off, to think he had found Mollie, and she had the ride!" said Miss Alcock.

"And quite unconscious of virtue," I said.

"Oh, utterly! Mollie was the right one. That was all." It was a pretty instance of that "moral beauty" which she so loved, and after more than fifty years the pretty picture was still fresh in her mind.

The records of 1861 are very scanty. It may be called the last year before the frost broke up in her Aca Nada, and her hidden rills flowed out at last. Shall we pause to see what those five years of self-repression had brought her?

First, she had learned, as only the deep-wounded can:

‘How to my broken heart He is

I ES U,

And to my whole is

JESU.

Ever since, she had been learning what He can be in all human relations — to rich and poor, learned and simple — with the finishing touch of seeing how very happy family life becomes when His law is followed fully: in those two dear homes, morning by morning, every one awoke to a new day of joy. She had drunk deep of the supreme joy of making Him known to others. One of her elder girls writes in 1864, "Oh, friend, how truly are you connected with my best thoughts and life! From the first day until now, how great a blessing has your friendship been! How many elevating, soothing thoughts have you given me; how great the blessing of your intelligent sympathy!"

This letter is one of many in the same strain. Hers was a rich life now, and full. And yet the old passion beat against the bars — not only for its own sake, now — with a longing deeper than ever, to use this gift for Christ. Mr. Eades, when commenting on some lines of hers which he liked, said, "If I am not mistaken, you have a capacity for instructing others by writing as well as by oral teaching, which should not remain unemployed."

Mr. Brooke said the same to her father, in stronger terms: "I tell you what it is, my friend, you are like an old hen that stands cree-crawing on the bank when her ducklings take to the water." Somewhere about this time the two friends went together on a long preaching tour on behalf of the Irish Society. Perhaps they had talks by the way as to Deborah’s vocation. Another influence cannot have been without its weight. It must have been as early as 1852 or 1853 that Mrs. Charles published her first book The Two Vocations, but several years passed before she began to make her name with her beautiful Tales and Sketches of Christian Life, in different Lands and Ages. Here indeed was an instance of the highest, deepest truth, set forth in a fair robe of fancy, clean and white. The sternest opponents to fiction were disarmed by the exceeding beauty and holiness of her imaginative writing. In the days of both his courtships Mr. Alcock had written, "The Lord must be first with us, in all things." He could not question that He was first in all that Mrs. Charles wrote.

But there was yet another hard lesson appointed for his child before her heart’s desire could be given. The winter of 1861-2 began with the usual full tale of work — no little strain on daily strength. In November Deborah had a bad cold on the chest. She was supposed to have recovered from it, when, in the middle of the night, she was seized with a violent and prolonged attack of haemorrhage from the lungs. It subsided under treatment, but she had to be kept perfectly quiet for a long time. This may have given her unwonted leisure. However that might be, she must have found time to write at least two short stories, one of which was submitted to Mr. Brooke. Her long patience had its reward; she wrote now, not only with permission, but with the full and hearty sympathy of both parents. Neither of them did things by halves; having conquered their scruples, they prayed for her success. More than that, when Mrs. Alcock read through one of those stories, she said: "I don’t know how it is — I always used to think your manner of putting the way of salvation so very uninteresting; but this is quite different: it is most interesting."

Then Deborah’s eyes were opened, and she answered, "Then, I wrote of a system: now, of a Person." And as the words were uttered, she saw how she had changed. Not in her heart’s allegiance: she had loved Him all her life, though often through a veil of darkness; but she knew now how far He rose above her highest thoughts about Him. She would never have dared to appropriate the words herself, yet it was true that, at a far distance, she could say with the Italian martyr, as he pointed to the marks where his chains had cut deep into the flesh, "Christ has been teaching me something of how He suffered — and of how He loves."

IX. THE DESIRE ACCOMPLISHED

 

 

 

 

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Last modified: June 27, 2016