An Autobiography/Chapter III


In the spring of 1861 Miss Marryat announced her intention of going abroad, and asked my dear mother to let me accompany her. A little nephew whom she had adopted was suffering from cataract, and she desired to place him under the care of the famous Düsseldorf oculist. Amy Marryat had been recalled home soon after the death of her mother, who had died in giving birth to the child adopted by Miss Marryat, and named at her desire after her favourite brother Frederick (Captain Marryat). Her place had been taken by a girl a few months older than myself, Emma Mann, one of the daughters of a clergyman, who had married Miss Stanley, closely related, indeed, if I remember rightly, a sister of the Miss Mary Stanley who did such noble work in nursing in the Crimea.

For some months we had been diligently studying German, for Miss Marryat thought it wise that we should know a language fairly well before we visited the country of which it was the native tongue. We had been trained also to talk French daily during dinner, so we were not quite "helpless foreigners" when we steamed away from St. Catherine's Docks, and found ourselves on the following day in Antwerp, amid what seemed to us a very Babel of conflicting tongues. Alas for our carefully spoken French, articulated laboriously! We were lost in that swirl of disputing luggage-porters, and could not understand a word! But Miss Marryat was quite equal to the occasion, being by no means new to travelling, and her French stood the test triumphantly, and steered us safely to a hotel. On the morrow we started again through Aix-la-Chapelle to Bonn, the town which lies on the borders of the exquisite scenery of which the Siebengebirge and Rolandseck serve as the magic portal. Our experiences in Bonn were not wholly satisfactory. Dear Auntie was a maiden lady, looking on all young men as wolves to be kept far from her growing lambs. Bonn was a university town, and there was a mania just then prevailing there for all things English. Emma was a plump, rosy, fair-haired typical English maiden, full of frolic and harmless fun; I a very slight, pale, black-haired girl, alternating between wild fun and extreme pensiveness. In the boarding-house to which we went at first—the "Château du Rhin," a beautiful place overhanging the broad, blue Rhine—there chanced to be staying the two sons of the late Duke of Hamilton, the Marquis of Douglas and Lord Charles, with their tutor. They had the whole drawing-room floor: we a sitting-room on the ground floor and bedrooms above. The lads discovered that Miss Marryat did not like her "children" to be on speaking terms with any of the "male sect."

Here was a fine source of amusement. They would make their horses caracole on the gravel in front of our window; they would be just starting for their ride as we went for walk or drive, and would salute us with doffed hat and low bow; they would waylay us on our way downstairs with demure "Good morning"; they would go to church and post themselves so that they could survey our pew, and Lord Charles—who possessed the power of moving at will the whole skin of the scalp—would wriggle his hair up and down till we were choking with laughter, to our own imminent risk. After a month of this Auntie was literally driven out of the pretty château, and took refuge in a girls' school, much to our disgust; but still she was not allowed to be at rest. Mischievous students would pursue us wherever we went; sentimental Germans, with gashed cheeks, would whisper complimentary phrases as we passed; mere boyish nonsense of most harmless kind, but the rather stern English lady thought it "not proper," and after three months of Bonn we were sent home for the holidays, somewhat in disgrace. But we had some lovely excursions during those months; such clambering up mountains, such rows on the swift-flowing Rhine, such wanderings in exquisite valleys. I have a long picture-gallery to retire into when I want to think of something fair, in recalling the moon as it silvered the Rhine at the foot of Drachenfels, or the soft, mist-veiled island where dwelt the lady who is consecrated for ever by Roland's love.

A couple of months later we rejoined Miss Marryat in Paris, where we spent seven happy, workful months. On Wednesdays and Saturdays we were free from lessons, and many a long afternoon was passed in the galleries of the Louvre, till we became familiar with the masterpieces of art gathered there from all lands. I doubt if there was a beautiful church in Paris that we did not visit during those weekly wanderings; that of St. Germain de l'Auxerrois was my favourite—the church whose bell gave the signal for the massacre of St. Bartholomew—for it contained such marvellous stained glass, deepest, purest glory of colour that I had ever seen. The solemn beauty of Notre Dame, the somewhat gaudy magnificence of La Sainte Chapelle, the stateliness of La Madeleine, the impressive gloom of St. Roch, were all familiar to us. Other delights were found in mingling with the bright crowds which passed along the Champs Elysees and sauntered in the Bois de Boulogne, in strolling in the garden of the Tuileries, in climbing to the top of every monument whence view of Paris could be gained. The Empire was then in its heyday of glitter, and we much enjoyed seeing the brilliant escort of the imperial carriage, with plumes and gold and silver dancing and glistening in the sunlight, while in the carriage sat the exquisitely lovely empress, with the little boy beside her, touching his cap shyly, but with something of her own grace, in answer to a greeting—the boy who was thought to be born to an imperial crown, but whose brief career was to find an ending from the spears of savages in a quarrel in which he had no concern.

In the spring of 1862 it chanced that the Bishop of Ohio visited Paris, and Mr. Forbes, then English chaplain at the Church of the Rue d'Aguesseau, arranged to have a confirmation. As said above, I was under deep "religious impressions," and, in fact, with the exception of that little aberration in Germany, I was decidedly a pious girl. I looked on theatres (never having been to one) as traps set by Satan for the destruction of foolish souls; I was quite determined never to go to a ball, and was prepared to "suffer for conscience' sake "—little prig that I was—if I was desired to go to one. I was consequently quite prepared to take upon myself the vows made in my name at my baptism, and to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, with a heartiness and sincerity only equalled by my profound ignorance of the things I so readily resigned. That confirmation was to me a very solemn matter; the careful preparation, the prolonged prayers, the wondering awe as to the "seven-fold gifts of the Spirit," which were to be given by "the laying on of hands," all tended to excitement. I could scarcely control myself as I knelt at the altar rails, and felt as though the gentle touch of the aged bishop, which fluttered for an instant on my bowed head, were the very touch of the wing of that "Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove," whose presence had been so earnestly invoked. Is there anything easier, I wonder, than to make a young and sensitive girl "intensely religious"? This stay in Paris roused into activity an aspect of my religious nature that had hitherto been latent. I discovered the sensuous enjoyment that lay in introducing colour and fragrance and pomp into religious services, so that the gratification of the aesthetic emotions became dignified with the garb of piety. The picture-galleries of the Louvre, crowded with Madonnas and saints, the Roman Catholic churches with their incense-laden air and exquisite music, brought a new joy into my life, a more vivid colour to my dreams. Insensibly, the colder, cruder Evangelicalism that I had never thoroughly assimilated, grew warmer and more brilliant, and the ideal Divine Prince of my childhood took on the more pathetic lineaments of the Man of Sorrows, the deeper attractiveness of the suffering Saviour of Men. Keble's "Christian Year" took the place of "Paradise Lost," and as my girlhood began to bud towards womanhood, all its deeper currents set in the direction of religious devotion. My mother did not allow me to read love stories, and my daydreams of the future were scarcely touched by any of the ordinary hopes and fears of a girl lifting her eyes towards the world she is shortly to enter. They were filled with broodings over the days when girl-martyrs were blessed with visions of the King of Martyrs, when sweet St. Agnes saw her celestial Bridegroom, and angels stooped to whisper melodies in St. Cecilia's raptured ear. "Why then and not now?" my heart would question, and I would lose myself in these fancies, never happier than when alone.

The summer of 1862 was spent with Miss Marryat at Sidmouth, and, wise woman that she was, she now carefully directed our studies with a view to our coming enfranchisement from the "schoolroom." More and more were we trained to work alone; our leading-strings were slackened, so that we never felt them save when we blundered; and I remember that when I once complained, in loving fashion, that she was "teaching me so little," she told me that I was getting old enough to be trusted to work by myself, and that I must not expect to "have Auntie for a crutch all through life." And I venture to say that this gentle withdrawal of constant supervision and teaching was one of the wisest and kindest things that this noble-hearted woman ever did for us. It is the usual custom to keep girls in the schoolroom until they "come out"; then, suddenly, they are left to their own devices, and, bewildered by their unaccustomed freedom, they waste time that might be priceless for their intellectual growth. Lately, the opening of universities to women has removed this danger for the more ambitious; but at the time of which I am writing no one dreamed of the changes soon to be made in the direction of the "higher education of women."

During the winter of 1862-63 Miss Marryat was in London, and for a few months I remained there with her, attending the admirable French classes of M. Roche. In the spring I returned home to Harrow, going up each week to the classes; and when these were over, Auntie told me that she thought all she could usefully do was done, and that it was time that I should try my wings alone. So well, however, had she succeeded in her aims, that my emancipation from the schoolroom was but the starting-point of more eager study, though now the study turned into the lines of thought towards which my personal tendencies most attracted me. German I continued to read with a master, and music, under the marvellously able teaching of Mr. John Farmer, musical director of Harrow School, took up much of my time. My dear mother had a passion for music, and Beethoven and Bach were her favourite composers. There was scarcely a sonata of Beethoven's that I did not learn, scarcely a fugue of Bach's that I did not master. Mendelssohn's "Lieder" gave a lighter recreation, and many a happy evening did we spend, my mother and I, over the stately strains of the blind Titan, and the sweet melodies of the German wordless orator. Musical "At Homes," too, were favourite amusements at Harrow, and at these my facile fingers made me a welcome guest.

Thus set free from the schoolroom at 16½, an only daughter, I could do with my time as I would, save for the couple of hours a day given to music, for the satisfaction of my mother. From then till I became engaged, just before I was 19, my life flowed on smoothly, one current visible to all and dancing in the sunlight, the other running underground, but full and deep and strong. As regards my outer life, no girl had a brighter, happier life than mine; studying all the mornings and most of the afternoons in my own way, and spending the latter part of the day in games and walks and rides—varied with parties at which I was one of the merriest of guests. I practised archery so zealously that I carried up triumphantly as prize for the best score the first ring I ever possessed, while croquet found me a most eager devotee. My darling mother certainly "spoiled" me, so far as were concerned all the small roughnesses of life. She never allowed a trouble of any kind to touch me, and cared only that all worries should fall on her, all joys on me. I know now what I never dreamed then, that her life was one of serious anxiety. The heavy burden of my brother's school and college life pressed on her constantly, and her need of money was often serious. A lawyer whom she trusted absolutely cheated her systematically, using for his own purposes the remittances she made for payment of liabilities, thus keeping upon her a constant drain. Yet for me all that was wanted was ever there. Was it a ball to which we were going? I need never think of what I would wear till the time for dressing arrived, and there laid out ready for me was all I wanted, every detail complete from top to toe. No hand but hers must dress my hair, which, loosed, fell in dense curly masses nearly to my knees; no hand but hers must fasten dress and deck with flowers, and if I sometimes would coaxingly ask if I might not help by sewing in laces, or by doing some trifle in aid, she would kiss me and bid me run to my books or my play, telling me that her only pleasure in life was caring for her "treasure." Alas! how lightly we take the self-denying labour that makes life so easy, ere yet we have known what life means when the protecting motherwing is withdrawn. So guarded and shielded had been my childhood and youth from every touch of pain and anxiety that love could bear for me, that I never dreamed that life might be a heavy burden, save as I saw it in the poor I was sent to help; all the joy of those happy years I took, not ungratefully I hope, but certainly with as glad unconsciousness of anything rare in it as I took the sunlight. Passionate love, indeed, I gave to my darling, but I never knew all I owed her till I passed out of her tender guardianship, till I left my mother's home. Is such training wise? I am not sure. It makes the ordinary roughnesses of life come with so stunning a shock, when one goes out into the world, that one is apt to question whether some earlier initiation into life's sterner mysteries would not be wiser for the young. Yet it is a fair thing to have that joyous youth to look back upon, and at least it is a treasury of memory that no thief can steal in the struggles of later life. "Sunshine" they called me in those bright days of merry play and earnest study. But that study showed the bent of my thought and linked itself to the hidden life; for the Fathers of the early Christian Church now became my chief companions, and I pored over the Shepherd of Hernias, the Epistles of Polycarp, Barnabas, Ignatius, and Clement, the commentaries of Chrysostom, the confessions of Augustine. With these I studied the writings of Pusey, Liddon, and Keble, with many another smaller light, joying in the great conception of a Catholic Church, lasting through the centuries, built on the foundations of apostles and of martyrs, stretching from the days of Christ Himself down to our own—"One Lord, one Faith one Baptism," and I myself a child of that Holy Church. The hidden life grew stronger, constantly fed by these streams of study; weekly communion became the centre round which my devotional life revolved, with its ecstatic meditation, its growing intensity of conscious contact with the Divine; I fasted, according to the ordinances of the Church; occasionally flagellated myself to see if I could bear physical pain, should I be fortunate enough ever to tread the pathway trodden by the saints; and ever the Christ was the figure round which clustered all my hopes and longings, till I often felt that the very passion of, my devotion would draw Him down from His throne in heaven, present visibly in form as I felt Him invisibly in spirit. To serve Him through His Church became more and more a definite ideal in my life, and my thoughts began to turn towards some kind of "religious life," in which I might prove my love by sacrifice and turn my passionate gratitude into active service.

Looking back to-day over my life, I see that its keynote—through all the blunders, and the blind mistakes, and clumsy follies—has been this longing for sacrifice to something felt as greater than the self. It has been so strong and so persistent that I recognise it now as a tendency brought over from a previous life and dominating the present one; and this is shown by the fact that to follow it is not the act of a deliberate and conscious will, forcing self into submission and giving up with pain something the heart desires, but the following it is a joyous springing forward along the easiest path, the "sacrifice" being the supremely attractive thing, not to make which would be to deny the deepest longings of the soul, and to feel oneself polluted and dishonoured. And it is here that the misjudgment comes in of many generous hearts who have spoken sometimes lately so strongly in my praise. For the efforts to serve have not been painful acts of self-denial, but the yielding to an overmastering desire. We do not praise the mother who, impelled by her protecting love, feeds her crying infant and stills its wailings at her breast; rather should we blame her if she turned aside from its weeping to play with some toy. And so with all those whose ears are opened to the wailings of the great orphan Humanity; they are less to be praised for helping than they would be to be blamed if they stood aside. I now know that it is those wailings that have stirred my heart through life, and that I brought with me the ears open to hear them from previous lives of service paid to men. It was those lives that drew for the child the alluring pictures of martyrdom, breathed into the girl the passion of devotion, sent the woman out to face scoff and odium, and drove her finally into the Theosophy that rationalises sacrifice, while opening up possibilities of service beside which all other hopes grow pale.

The Easter of 1866 was a memorable date in my life. I was introduced to the clergyman I married, and I met and conquered my first religious doubt. A little mission church had been opened the preceding Christmas in a very poor district of Clapham. My grandfather's house was near at hand, in Albert Square, and a favourite aunt and myself devoted ourselves a good deal to this little church, as enthusiastic girls and women will. At Easter we decorated it with spring flowers, with dewy primroses and fragrant violets, and with the yellow bells of the wild daffodil, to the huge delight of the poor who crowded in, and of the little London children who had, many of them, never seen a flower. Here I met the Rev. Frank Besant, a young Cambridge man, who had just taken orders, and was serving the little mission church as deacon; strange that at the same time I should meet the man I was to marry, and the doubts which were to break the marriage tie. For in the Holy Week preceding that Easter Eve, I had been—as English and Roman Catholics are wont to do—trying to throw the mind back to the time when the commemorated events occurred, and to follow, step by step, the last days of the Son of Man, living, as it were, through those last hours, so that I might be ready to kneel before the cross on Good Friday, to stand beside the sepulchre on Easter Day. In order to facilitate the realisation of those last sacred days of God incarnate on earth, working out man's salvation, I resolved to write a brief history of that week, compiled from the Four Gospels, meaning them to try and realise each day the occurrences that had happened on the corresponding date in A.D. 33, and so to follow those "blessed feet" step by step, till they were

"... nailed for our advantage to the bitter cross."

With the fearlessness which springs from ignorance I sat down to my task. My method was as follows:—

    MATTHEW.         |    MARK.     |    LUKE.      |    JOHN.
                     |              |               |
  PALM SUNDAY.       | PALM SUNDAY. | PALM SUNDAY.  | PALM SUNDAY.
                     |              |               |
  Rode into          | Rode into    | Rode into     | Rode into
  Jerusalem.         | Jerusalem.   | Jerusalem.    | Jerusalem.
  Purified the       | Returned to  | Purified the  | Spoke in
  Temple. Returned   | Bethany.     | Temple.       | the Temple.
  to Bethany.        |              | Note: "Taught |
                     |              | daily in the  |
                     |              | temple."      |
                     |              |               |
    MONDAY.          |    MONDAY.   |    MONDAY.    |    MONDAY.
                     |              |               |
  Cursed the         | Cursed the   | Like Matthew. |    ----
  fig-tree.          | fig-tree.    |               |
  Taught in the      | Purified the |               |
  Temple, and spake  | Temple. Went |               |
  many parables.     | out of city. |               |
  No breaks shown,   |              |               |
  but the fig-tree   |              |               |
  (xxi.19) did not   |              |               |
  wither till        |              |               |
  Tuesday (see       |              |               |
  Mark).             |              |               |
                     |              |               |
    TUESDAY.         |    TUESDAY.  |   TUESDAY.    |   TUESDAY.
                     |              |               |
  All chaps. xxi.    | Saw fig-tree | Discourses    |   ----
  20, xxii.-xxv.,    | withered up. | No date       |
  spoken on          | Then .       | shown.        |
  Tuesday, for xxvi. | discourses   |               |
  2 gives Passover   |              |               |
  as "after two      |              |               |
  days."             |              |               |
                     |              |               |
  WEDNESDAY.         |   WEDNESDAY. |  WEDNESDAY.   |  WEDNESDAY.
                     |              |               |
  Blank.             |   ----       |   ----        |  ----
  (Possibly remained in Bethany; the alabaster box of oinment.)
                     |              |               |
  THURSDAY.          |   THURSDAY.  |   THURSDAY.   |   THURSDAY.
                     |              |               |
  Preparation of     | Same as Matt.| Same as Matt. | Discourses
  Passover. Eating   |              |               | with disciples,
  of Passover, and   |              |               | but ''before'' the
  institution of the |              |               | Passover. Washes
  Holy Eucharist.    |              |               | the disciples'
  Gethsemane.        |              |               | feet. Nothing
  Betrayal by Judas. |              |               | said of Holy
  Led captive to     |              |               | Eucharist, nor
  Caiaphas. Denied   |              |               | of agony in
  by St. Peter.      |              |               | Gethsemane.
                     |              |               | Malchus' ear.
                     |              |               | Led captive to
                     |              |               | Annas first.
                     |              |               | Then to Caiaphas.
                     |              |               | Denied
                     |              |               | by St. Peter.
                     |              |               |
  FRIDAY.            |   FRIDAY.    |   FRIDAY.     |   FRIDAY
                     |              |               |
  Led to Pilate.     | As Matthew,  | Led to        | Taken to
  Judas hangs        | but hour of  | Pilate. Sent  | Pilate. Jews
  himself. Tried.    | crucifixion  | to Herod.     | would not enter,
  Condemned to       | given,       | Sent back to  | that they
  death. Scourged    | 9 a.m.       | Pilate. Rest  | might eat
  and mocked. Led    |              | as in         | the Passover.
  to crucifixion.    |              | Matthew; but  | Scourged by
  Darkness from 12   |              | one           | Pilate before
  to 3. Died at 3.   |              | malefactor    | condemnation,
                     |              | repents.      | and mocked. Shown
                     |              |               | by Pilate to
                     |              |               | Jews at 12.

I became uneasy as I proceeded with my task, for discrepancies leaped at me from my four columns; the uneasiness grew as the contradictions increased, until I saw with a shock of horror that my "harmony" was a discord, and a doubt of the veracity of the story sprang up like a serpent hissing in my face. It was struck down in a moment, for to me to doubt was sin, and to have doubted on the very eve of the Passion was an added crime. Quickly I assured myself that these apparent contradictions were necessary as tests of faith, and I forced myself to repeat Tertullian's famous "Credo quia impossible," till, from a wooden recital, it became a triumphant affirmation. I reminded myself that St. Peter had said of the Pauline Epistles that in them were "some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest ... unto their own destruction." I shudderingly recognised that I must be very unlearned and unstable to find discord among the Holy Evangelists, and imposed on myself an extra fast as penance for my ignorance and lack of firmness in the faith. For my mental position was one to which doubt was one of the worst of sins. I knew that there were people like Colenso, who questioned the infallibility of the Bible, but I remembered how the Apostle John had fled from the Baths when Cerinthus entered them, lest the roof should fall on the heretic, and crush any one in his neighbourhood, and I looked on all heretics with holy horror. Pusey had indoctrinated me with his stern hatred of all heresy, and I was content to rest with him on that faith, "which must be old because it is eternal, and must be unchangeable because it is true." I would not even read the works of my mothers favourite Stanley, because he was "unsound," and because Pusey had condemned his "variegated use of words which destroys all definiteness of meaning"—a clever and pointed description, be it said in passing, of the Dean's exquisite phrases, capable of so many readings. It can then be imagined with what a stab of pain this first doubt struck me, and with what haste I smothered it up, buried it, and smoothed the turf over its grave. But it had been there, and it left its mark.