My reading of heretical and Broad Church works on one side, and of orthodox ones on the other, now occupied a large part of my time, and our removal to Sibsey, in Lincolnshire, an agricultural village with a scattered population, increased my leisure. I read the works of Robertson, Stopford Brooke, Stanley, Greg, Matthew Arnold, Liddon, Mansel, and many another, and my scepticism grew deeper and deeper as I read. The Broad Church arguments appeared to me to be of the nature of special pleading, skilful evasions of difficulties rather than the real meeting and solving of them. For the problem was: Given a good God, how can He have created mankind, knowing beforehand that the vast majority of those whom He created were to be tortured for ever? Given a just God, how can He punish people for being sinful, when they have inherited a sinful nature without their own choice and of necessity? Given a righteous God, how can He allow sin to exist for ever, so that evil shall be as eternal as good, and Satan shall reign in hell as long as Christ in heaven? Worst of all puzzles, perhaps, was that of the existence of evil and of misery, and the racking doubt whether God could be good, and yet look on the evil and the misery of the world unmoved and untouched. It seemed so impossible to believe that a Creator could be either cruel enough to be indifferent to the misery, or weak enough to be unable to stop it. The old dilemma faced me incessantly: "If He can prevent it and does not, He is not good; if He wishes to prevent it and cannot, He is not almighty." I racked my brains for an answer. I searched writings of believers for a clue, but I found no way of escape. Not yet had any doubt of the existence of God crossed my mind.
Mr. D—— continued to write me, striving to guide me along the path which had led his own soul to contentment, but I can only find room here for two brief extracts, which will show how to himself he solved the problem. He thought me mistaken in my view
"Of the nature of the sin and error which is supposed to grieve God. I take it that sin is an absolutely necessary factor in the production of the perfect man. It was foreseen and allowed as means to an end—as, in fact, an education. The view of all the sin and misery in the world cannot grieve God any more than it can grieve you to see Digby fail in his first attempt to build a card-castle or a rabbit-hutch. All is part of the training. God looks at the ideal man to which all tends.... "No, Mrs. Besant; I never feel at all inclined to give up the search, or to suppose that the other side may be right. I claim no merit for it, but I have an invincible faith in the morality of God and the moral order of the world. I have no more doubt about the falsehood of the popular theology than I have about the unreality of six robbers who attacked me three nights ago in a horrid dream. I exult and rejoice in the grandeur and freedom of the little bit of truth it has been given me to see. I am told that 'Present-day Papers,' by Bishop Ewing (edited), are a wonderful help, many of them, to puzzled people; I mean to get them. But I am sure you will find that the truth will (even so little as we may be able to find out) grow on you, make you free, light your path, and dispel, at no distant time, your painful difficulties and doubts. I should say on no account give up your reading. I think with you that you could not do without it. It will be a wonderful source of help and peace to you. For there are struggles far more fearful than those of intellectual doubt. I am keenly alive to the gathered-up sadness of which your last two pages are an expression. I was sorrier than I can say to read them. They reminded me of a long and very dark time in my own life, when I thought the light never would come. Thank God it came, or I think I could not have held out much longer. But you have evidently strength to bear it now. The more dangerous time, I should fancy, has passed. You will have to mind that the fermentation leaves clear spiritual wine, and not (as too often) vinegar. I wish I could write something more helpful to you in this great matter. But as I sit in front of my large bay window and see the shadows on the grass and the sunlight on the leaves, and the soft glimmer of the rosebuds left by the storms, I can but believe that all will be very well. 'Trust in the Lord, wait patiently for Him'—they are trite words. But He made the grass, the leaves, the rosebuds, and the sunshine, and He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And now the trite words have swelled into a mighty argument."
I found more help in Theistic writers like Grey, and Agnostic like Arnold, than I did in the Broad Church teachers, but these, of course, served to make return to the old faith more and more impossible. The Church services were a weekly torture, but feeling as I did that I was only a doubter, I kept my doubts to myself. It was possible, I felt, that all my difficulties might be cleared up, and I had no right to shake the faith of others while in uncertainty myself. Others had doubted and had afterwards recovered their faith; for the doubter silence was a duty; the blinded had better keep their misery to themselves.
During these weary months of anxiety and torment I found some relief from the mental strain in practical parish work, nursing the sick, trying to brighten the lot of the poor. I learned then some of the lessons as to the agricultural labourer and the land that I was able in after-years to teach from the platform. The movement among the agricultural labourers, due to the energy and devotion of Joseph Arch, was beginning to be discussed in the fens, and my sympathies went strongly with the claims of the labourers, for I knew their life-conditions. In one cottage I had found four generations sleeping in one room—the great-grandfather and his wife, the unmarried grandmother, the unmarried mother, the little child; three men lodgers completed the tale of eight human beings crowded into that narrow, ill-ventilated garret. Other cottages were hovels, through the broken roofs of which poured the rain, and wherein rheumatism and ague lived with the human dwellers. How could I do aught but sympathise with any combination that aimed at the raising of these poor? But the Agricultural Labourers' Union was bitterly opposed by the farmers, and they would give no work to a "Union man." One example may serve for all. There was a young married man with two small children, who was sinful enough to go to a Union meeting and sinful enough to talk of it on his return home. No farmer would employ him in all the district round. He tramped about vainly looking for work, grew reckless, and took to drink. Visiting his cottage, consisting of one room and a "lean-to," I found his wife ill with fever, a fever-stricken babe in her arms, the second child lying dead on the bed. In answer to my soft-spoken questions: Yes, she was pining (starving), there was no work. Why did she leave the dead child on the bed? Because she had no other place for it till the coffin came. And at night the unhappy, driven man, the fever-stricken wife, the fever-stricken child, the dead child, all lay in the one bed. The farmers hated the Union because its success meant higher wages for the men, and it never struck them that they might well pay less rent to the absent landlord and higher wage to the men who tilled their fields. They had only civil words for the burden that crushed them, hard words for the mowers of their harvests and the builders-up of their ricks; they made common cause with their enemies instead of with their friends, and instead of leaguing themselves together with the labourers as forming together the true agricultural interest, they leagued themselves with the landlords against the labourers, and so made ruinous fratricidal strife instead of easy victory over the common foe. And, seeing all this, I learned some useful lessons, and the political education progressed while the theological strife went on within.
In the early autumn a ray of light broke the darkness. I was in London with my mother, and wandered one Sunday morning into St. George's Hall, where the Rev. Charles Voysey was preaching. There to my delight I found, on listening to the sermon and buying some literature on sale in the ante-room, that there were people who had passed through my own difficulties, and had given up the dogmas that I found so revolting. I went again on the following Sunday, and when the service was over I noticed that the outgoing stream of people were passing by Mr. and Mrs. Voysey, and that many who were evidently strangers spoke a word of thanks to him as they went on. Moved by a strong desire, after the long months of lonely striving, to speak to one who had struggled out of Christian difficulties, I said to Mr. Voysey, as I passed in my turn, "I must thank you for very great help in what you said this morning," for in truth, never having yet doubted the existence of God, the teaching of Mr. Voysey that He was "loving unto every man, and His tender mercy over all His works," came like a gleam of light across the stormy sea of doubt and distress on which I had so long been tossing. The next Sunday saw me again at the Hall, and Mrs. Voysey gave me a cordial invitation to visit them in their Dulwich home. I found their Theism was free from the defects that had revolted me in Christianity, and they opened up to me new views of religion. I read Theodore Parker's "Discourse on Religion," Francis Newman's works, those of Miss Frances Power Cobbe, and of others; the anguish of the tension relaxed; the nightmare of an Almighty Evil passed away; my belief in God, not yet touched, was cleared from all the dark spots that had sullied it, and I no longer doubted whether the dogmas that had shocked my conscience were true or false. I shook them off, once for all, with all their pain and horror and darkness, and felt, with joy and relief inexpressible, that they were delusions of the ignorance of man, not the revelations of a God.
But there was one belief that had not been definitely challenged, but of which the rationale was gone with the orthodox dogmas now definitely renounced—the doctrine of the Deity of Christ. The whole teaching of the Broad Church school tends, of course, to emphasise the humanity of Christ at the expense of His Deity, and when eternal punishment and the substitutionary atonement had gone there seemed no reason remaining sufficient to account for so tremendous a miracle as the incarnation of the Deity. In the course of my reading I had become familiar with the idea of Avatâras in Eastern creeds, and I saw that the incarnate God was put forward as a fact by all ancient religions, and thus the way was paved for challenging the especially Christian teaching, when the doctrines morally repulsive were cleared away. But I shrank from the thought of placing in the crucible a doctrine so dear from all the associations of the past; there was so much that was soothing and ennobling in the idea of a union between Man and God, between a perfect man and a Divine life, between a human heart and an almighty strength. Jesus as God was interwoven with all art and all beauty in religion; to break with the Deity of Jesus was to break with music, with painting, with literature; the Divine Babe in His Mother's arms; the Divine Man in His Passion and His Triumph; the Friend of Man encircled with the majesty of the Godhead. Did inexorable Truth demand that this ideal Figure, with all its pathos, its beauty, its human love, should pass away into the Pantheon of the dead Gods of the Past?
Nor was this all. If I gave up belief in Christ as God, I must give up Christianity as creed. Once challenge the unique position of the Christ, and the name Christian seemed to me to be a hypocrisy, and its renouncement a duty binding on the upright mind. I was a clergyman's wife; what would be the effect of such a step? Hitherto mental pain alone had been the price demanded inexorably from the searcher after truth; but with the renouncing of Christ outer warfare would be added to the inner, and who might guess the result upon my life? The struggle was keen but short; I decided to carefully review the evidence for and against the Deity of Christ, with the result that that belief followed the others, and I stood, no longer Christian, face to face with a dim future in which I sensed the coming conflict.
One effort I made to escape it; I appealed to Dr. Pusey, thinking that if he could not answer my questionings, no answer to them could be reasonably hoped for. I had a brief correspondence with him, but was referred only to lines of argument familiar to me—as those of Liddon in his "Bampton Lectures"—and finally, on his invitation, went down to Oxford to see him. I found a short, stout gentleman, dressed in a cassock, looking like a comfortable monk; but keen eyes, steadfastly gazing straight into mine, told of the force and subtlety enshrined in the fine, impressive head. But the learned doctor took the wrong line of treatment; he probably saw I was anxious, shy, and nervous, and he treated me as a penitent going to confession and seeking the advice of a director, instead of as an inquirer struggling after truth, and resolute to obtain some firm standing-ground in the sea of doubt. He would not deal with the question of the Deity of Jesus as a question for argument. "You are speaking of your Judge," he retorted sternly, when I pressed a difficulty. The mere suggestion of an imperfection in the character of Jesus made him shudder, and he checked me with raised hand. "You are blaspheming. The very thought is a terrible sin." Would he recommend me any books that might throw light on the subject? "No, no; you have read too much already. You must pray; you must pray." When I urged that I could not believe without proof, I was told, "Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed"; and my further questioning was checked by the murmur, "O my child, how undisciplined! how impatient!" Truly, he must have found in me—hot, eager, passionate in my determination to know, resolute not to profess belief while belief was absent—nothing of the meek, chastened, submissive spirit with which he was wont to deal in penitents seeking his counsel as their spiritual guide. In vain did he bid me pray as though I believed; in vain did he urge the duty of blind submission to the authority of the Church, of blind, unreasoning faith that questioned not. I had not trodden the thorny path of doubt to come to the point from which I had started; I needed, and would have, solid grounds ere I believed. He had no conception of the struggles of a sceptical spirit; he had evidently never felt the pangs of doubt; his own faith was solid as a rock, firm, satisfied, unshakable; he would as soon have committed suicide as have doubted of the infallibility of the "Universal Church."
"It is not your duty to ascertain the truth," he told me, sternly. "It is your duty to accept and believe the truth as laid down by the Church. At your peril you reject it. The responsibility is not yours so long as you dutifully accept that which the Church has laid down for your acceptance. Did not the Lord promise that the presence of the Spirit should be ever with His Church, to guide her into all truth?"
"But the fact of the promise and its value are just the very points on which I am doubtful," I answered.
He shuddered. "Pray, pray," he said. "Father, forgive her, for she knows not what she says."
It was in vain that I urged on him the sincerity of my seeking, pointing out that I had everything to gain by following his directions, everything to lose by going my own way, but that it seemed to me untruthful to pretend to accept what was not really believed.
"Everything to lose? Yes, indeed. You will be lost for time and lost for eternity."
"Lost or not," I rejoined, "I must and will try to find out what is true, and I will not believe till I am sure."
"You have no right to make terms with God," he retorted, "as to what you will believe or what you will not believe. You are full of intellectual pride."
I sighed hopelessly. Little feeling of pride was there in me just then, but only a despairful feeling that in this rigid, unyielding dogmatism there was no comprehension of my difficulties, no help for me in my strugglings. I rose, and, thanking him for his courtesy, said that I would not waste his time further, that I must go home and face the difficulties, openly leaving the Church and taking the consequences. Then for the first time his serenity was ruffled.
"I forbid you to speak of your disbelief," he cried. "I forbid you to lead into your own lost state the souls for whom Christ died."
Slowly and sadly I took my way back to the station, knowing that my last chance of escape had failed me. I recognised in this famous divine the spirit of priest-craft, that could be tender and pitiful to the sinner, repentant, humble, submissive; but that was iron to the doubter, the heretic, and would crush out all questionings of "revealed truth," silencing by force, not by argument, all challenge of the traditions of the Church. Out of such men were made the Inquisitors of the Middle Ages, perfectly conscientious, perfectly rigid, perfectly merciless to the heretic. To them heretics are centres of infectious disease, and charity to the heretic is "the worst cruelty to the souls of men." Certain that they hold, "by no merit of our own, but by the mercy of our God, the one truth which He has revealed," they can permit no questionings, they can accept nought but the most complete submission. But while man aspires after truth, while his mind yearns after knowledge, while his intellect soars upward into the empyrean of speculation and "beats the air with tireless wing," so long shall those who demand faith from him be met by challenge for proof, and those who would blind him shall be defeated by his resolve to gaze unblenching on the face of Truth, even though her eyes should turn him into stone. It was during this same autumn of 1872 that I first met Mr. and Mrs. Scott, introduced to them by Mr. Voysey. At that time Thomas Scott was an old man, with beautiful white hair, and eyes like those of a hawk gleaming from under shaggy eyebrows. He had been a man of magnificent physique, and, though his frame was then enfeebled, the splendid lion-like head kept its impressive strength and beauty, and told of a unique personality. Well born and wealthy, he had spent his earlier life in adventure in all parts of the world, and after his marriage he had settled down at Ramsgate, and had made his home a centre of heretical thought. His wife, "his right hand," as he justly called her, was young enough to be his daughter—a sweet, strong, gentle, noble woman, worthy of her husband, and than that no higher praise could be spoken. Mr. Scott for many years issued monthly a series of pamphlets, all heretical, though very varying in their shades of thought; all were well written, cultured, and polished in tone, and to this rule Mr. Scott made no exception; his writers might say what they liked, but they must have something to say, and must say it in good English. His correspondence was enormous, from Prime Ministers downwards. At his house met people of the most varied opinions; it was a veritable heretical salon. Colenso of Natal, Edward Maitland, E. Vansittart Neale, Charles Bray, Sarah Hennell, and hundreds more, clerics and laymen, scholars and thinkers, all coming to this one house, to which the entrée was gained only by love of Truth and desire to spread Freedom among men. For Thomas Scott my first Freethought essay was written a few months after, "On the Deity of Jesus of Nazareth," by the wife of a benefited clergyman. My name was not mine to use, so it was agreed that any essays from my pen should be anonymous.
And now came the return to Sibsey, and with it the need for definite steps as to the Church. For now I no longer doubted, I had rejected, and the time for silence was past. I was willing to attend the Church services, taking no part in any not directed to God Himself, but I could no longer attend the Holy Communion, for in that service, full of recognition of Jesus as Deity and of His atoning sacrifice, I could no longer take part without hypocrisy. This was agreed to, and well do I remember the pain and trembling wherewith on the first "Sacrament Sunday" after my return I rose and left the church. That the vicar's wife should "communicate" was as much a matter of course as that the vicar should "administer"; I had never done anything in public that would draw attention to me, and a feeling of deadly sickness nearly overcame me as I made my exit, conscious that every eye was on me, and that my non-participation would be the cause of unending comment. As a matter of fact, every one naturally thought I was taken suddenly ill, and I was overwhelmed with calls and inquiries. To any direct question I answered quietly that I was unable to take part in the profession of faith required by an honest communicant, but the statement was rarely necessary, as the idea of heresy in a vicar's wife is slow to suggest itself to the ordinary bucolic mind, and I proffered no information where no question was asked.
It happened that, shortly after that (to me) memorable Christmas of 1872, a sharp epidemic of typhoid fever broke out in the village of Sibsey. The drainage there was of the most primitive type, and the contagion spread rapidly. Naturally fond of nursing, I found in this epidemic work just fitted to my hand, and I was fortunate enough to be able to lend personal help that made me welcome in the homes of the stricken poor. The mothers who slept exhausted while I watched beside their darlings' bedsides will never, I like to fancy, think over-harshly of the heretic whose hand was as tender and often more skilful than their own. I think Mother Nature meant me for a nurse, for I take a sheer delight in nursing any one, provided only that there is peril in the sickness, so that there is the strange and solemn feeling of the struggle between the human skill one wields and the supreme enemy, Death. There is a strange fascination in fighting Death, step by step, and this is of course felt to the full where one fights for life as life, and not for a life one loves. When the patient is beloved the struggle is touched with agony, but where one fights with Death over the body of a stranger there is a weird enchantment in the contest without personal pain, and as one forces back the hated foe there is a curious triumph in the feeling which marks the death-grip yielding up its prey, as one snatches back to earth the life which had well-nigh perished.
The spring of 1873 brought me knowledge of a power that was to mould much of my future life. I delivered my first lecture, but delivered it to rows of empty pews in Sibsey Church. A queer whim took me that I would like to know how "it felt" to preach, and vague fancies stirred in me that I could speak if I had the chance. I saw no platform in the distance, nor had any idea of possible speaking in the future dawned upon me. But the longing to find outlet in words came upon me, and I felt as though I had something to say and was able to say it. So locked alone in the great, silent church, whither I had gone to practise some organ exercises, I ascended the pulpit steps and delivered my first lecture on the Inspiration of the Bible. I shall never forget the feeling of power and delight—but especially of power—that came upon me as I sent my voice ringing down the aisles, and the passion in me broke into balanced sentences and never paused for musical cadence or for rhythmical expression. All I wanted then was to see the church full of upturned faces, alive with throbbing sympathy, instead of the dreary emptiness of silent pews. And as though in a dream the solitude was peopled, and I saw the listening faces and the eager eyes, and as the sentences flowed unbidden from my lips and my own tones echoed back to me from the pillars of the ancient church, I knew of a verity that the gift of speech was mine, and that if ever—and then it seemed so impossible!—if ever the chance came to me of public work, this power of melodious utterance should at least win hearing for any message I had to bring.
But the knowledge remained a secret all to my own self for many a long month, for I quickly felt ashamed of that foolish speechifying in an empty church; but, foolish as it was, I note it here, as it was the first effort of that expression in spoken words which later became to me one of the deepest delights of life. And, indeed, none can know, save they who have felt it, what joy there is in the full rush of language that moves and sways; to feel a crowd respond to the lightest touch; to see the faces brighten or darken at your bidding; to know that the sources of human emotion and human passion gush forth at the word of the speaker as the stream from the riven rock; to feel that the thought which thrills through a thousand hearers has its impulse from you, and throbs back to you the fuller from a thousand heart-beats. Is there any emotional joy in life more brilliant than this, fuller of passionate triumph, and of the very essence of intellectual delight?
In 1873 my marriage tie was broken. I took no new step, but my absence from the Communion led to some gossip, and a relative of Mr. Besant pressed on him highly-coloured views of the social and professional dangers which would accrue if my heresy became known. My health, never really restored since the autumn of 1871, grew worse and worse, serious heart trouble having arisen from the constant strain under which I lived. At last, in July or August, 1873, the crisis came. I was told that I must conform to the outward observances of the Church, and attend the Communion; I refused. Then came the distinct alternative; conformity or exclusion from home—in other words, hypocrisy or expulsion. I chose the latter.
A bitterly sad time followed. My dear mother was heart-broken. To her, with her wide and vague form of Christianity, loosely held, the intensity of my feeling that where I did not believe I would not pretend belief, was incomprehensible. She recognised far more fully than I did all that a separation from my home meant for me, and the difficulties that would surround a young woman, not yet twenty-six, living alone. She knew how brutally the world judges, and how the mere fact that a woman was young and alone justified any coarseness of slander. Then I did not guess how cruel men and women could be, how venomous their tongues; now, knowing it, having faced slander and lived it down, I deliberately say that were the choice again before me I would choose as I chose then; I would rather go through it all again than live "in Society" under the burden of an acted lie.
The hardest struggle was against my mother's tears and pleading; to cause her pain was tenfold pain to me. Against harshness I had been rigid as steel, but it was hard to remain steadfast when my darling mother, whom I loved as I loved nothing else on earth, threw herself on her knees before me, imploring me to yield. It seemed like a crime to bring such anguish on her; and I felt as a murderer as the snowy head was pressed against my knees. And yet—to live a lie? Not even for her was that shame possible; in that worst crisis of blinding agony my will clung fast to Truth. And it is true now as it ever was that he who loves father or mother better than Truth is not worthy of her, and the flint-strewn path of honesty is the way to Light and Peace.
Then there were the children, the two little ones who worshipped me, who was to them mother, nurse, and playfellow. Were they, too, demanded at my hands? Not wholly—for a time. Facts which I need not touch on here enabled my brother to obtain for me a legal separation, and when everything was arranged, I found myself guardian of my little daughter, and possessor of a small monthly income sufficient for respectable starvation. With a great price I had obtained my freedom, but—I was free. Home, friends, social position, were the price demanded and paid, and, being free, I wondered what to do with my freedom. I could have had a home with my brother if I would give up my heretical friends and keep quiet, but I had no mind to put my limbs into fetters again, and in my youthful inexperience I determined to find something to do. The difficulty was the "something," and I spent various shillings in agencies, with a quite wonderful unanimity of failures. I tried fancy needle-work, offered to "ladies in reduced circumstances," and earned 4s. 6d. by some weeks of stitching. I experimented with a Birmingham firm, who generously offered every one the opportunity of adding to their incomes, and on sending the small fee demanded, received a pencil-case, with an explanation that I was to sell little articles of that description, going as far as cruet-stands, to my friends. I did not feel equal to springing pencil-cases and cruet-stands on my acquaintances, so did not enter on that line of business, and similar failures in numerous efforts made me feel, as so many others have found, that the world-oyster is hard to open. However, I was resolute to build a nest for my wee daughter, my mother, and myself, and the first thing to do was to save my monthly pittance to buy furniture. I found a tiny house in Colby Road, Upper Norwood, near the Scotts, who were more than good to me, and arranged to take it in the spring, and then accepted a loving invitation to Folkestone, where my grandmother and two aunts were living, to look for work there. And found it. The vicar wanted a governess, and one of my aunts suggested me as a stop-gap, and thither I went with my little Mabel, our board and lodging being payment for my work. I became head cook, governess, and nurse, glad enough to have found "something to do" that enabled me to save my little income. But I do not think I will ever take to cooking for a permanence; broiling and frying are all right, and making pie-crust is rather pleasant; but saucepans and kettles blister your hands. There is a charm in making a stew, to the unaccustomed cook, from the excitement of wondering what the result will be, and whether any flavour save that of onions will survive the competition in the mixture. On the whole, my cooking (strictly by cookery book) was a success, but my sweeping was bad, for I lacked muscle. This curious episode came to an abrupt end, for one of my little pupils fell ill with diphtheria, and I was transformed from cook to nurse. Mabel I despatched to her grandmother, who adored her with a love condescendingly returned by the little fairy of three, and never was there a prettier picture than the red-gold curls nestled against the white, the baby-grace in exquisite contrast with the worn stateliness of her tender nurse. Scarcely was my little patient out of danger when the youngest boy fell ill of scarlet fever; we decided to isolate him on the top floor, and I cleared away carpets and curtains, hung sheets over the doorways and kept them wet with chloride of lime, shut myself up there with the boy, having my meals left on the landing; and when all risk was over, proudly handed back my charge, the disease touching no one else in the house.
And now the spring of 1874 had come, and in a few weeks my mother and I were to set up house together. How we had planned all, and had knitted on the new life together we anticipated to the old one we remembered! How we had discussed Mabel's education, and the share which should fall to each! Day-dreams; day-dreams! never to be realised.
My mother went up to town, and in a week or two I received a telegram, saying she was dangerously ill, and as fast as express train would take me I was beside her. Dying, the doctor said; three days she might live—no more. I told her the death-sentence, but she said resolutely, "I do not feel that I am going to die just yet," and she was right. There was an attack of fearful prostration—the valves of the heart had failed—a very wrestling with Death, and then the grim shadow drew backwards. I nursed her day and night with a very desperation of tenderness, for now Fate had touched the thing dearest to me in life. A second horrible crisis came, and for the second time her tenacity and my love beat back the death-stroke. She did not wish to die, the love of life was strong in her; I would not let her die; between us we kept the foe at bay. Then dropsy supervened, and the end loomed slowly sure.
It was then, after eighteen months' abstention, that I took the Sacrament for the last time. My mother had an intense longing to communicate before she died, but absolutely refused to do so unless I took it with her. "If it be necessary to salvation," she persisted, doggedly, "I will not take it if darling Annie is to be shut out. I would rather be lost with her than saved without her." I went to a clergyman I knew well, and laid the case before him; as I expected, he refused to allow me to communicate. I tried a second, with the same result. At last a thought struck me. There was Dean Stanley, my mother's favourite, a man known to be of the broadest school within the Church of England; suppose I asked him? I did not know him, and I felt the request would be an impertinence; but there was just the chance that he might consent, and what would I not do to make my darling's death-bed easier? I said nothing to any one, but set out to the Deanery, Westminster, timidly asked for the Dean, and followed the servant upstairs with a sinking heart. I was left for a moment alone in the library, and then the Dean came in. I don't think I ever in my life felt more intensely uncomfortable than I did in that minute's interval as he stood waiting for me to speak, his clear, grave, piercing eyes gazing questioningly into mine. Very falteringly—it must have been very clumsily—I preferred my request, stating boldly, with abrupt honesty, that I was not a Christian, that my mother was dying, that she was fretting to take the Sacrament, that she would not take it unless I took it with her, that two clergymen had refused to allow me to take part in the service, that I had come to him in despair, feeling how great was the intrusion, but—she was dying.
His face changed to a great softness. "You were quite right to come to me," he answered, in that low, musical voice of his, his keen gaze having altered into one no less direct, but marvellously gentle. "Of course I will go and see your mother, and I have little doubt that, if you will not mind talking over your position with me, we may see our way clear to doing as your mother wishes."
I could barely speak my thanks, so much did the kindly sympathy move me; the revulsion from the anxiety and fear of rebuff was strong enough to be almost pain. But Dean Stanley did more than I asked. He suggested that he should call that afternoon, and have a quiet chat with my mother, and then come again on the following day to administer the Sacrament.
"A stranger's presence is always trying to a sick person," he said, with rare delicacy of thought, "and, joined to the excitement of the service, it might be too much for your dear mother. If I spend half an hour with her to-day, and administer the Sacrament to-morrow, it will, I think, be better for her."
So Dean Stanley came that afternoon, all the way to Brompton, and remained talking with my mother for about half an hour, and then set himself to understand my own position. He finally told me that conduct was far more important than theory, and that he regarded all as "Christians" who recognised and tried to follow the moral law of Christ. On the question of the absolute Deity of Jesus he laid but little stress; Jesus was "in a special sense the Son of God," but it was folly to quarrel over words with only human meanings when dealing with the mystery of the Divine existence, and, above all, it was folly to make such words into dividing walls between earnest souls. The one important matter was the recognition of "duty to God and man," and all who were one in that recognition might rightfully join in an act of worship, the essence of which was not acceptance of dogma, but love of God and self-sacrifice for man. "The Holy Communion," he concluded, in his soft tones, "was never meant to divide from each other hearts that are searching after the one true God. It was meant by its founder as a symbol of unity, not of strife."
On the following day Dean Stanley celebrated the Holy Communion by the bedside of my dear mother, and well was I repaid for the struggle it had cost me to ask so great a kindness from a stranger, when I saw the comfort that gentle, noble heart had given to her. He soothed away all her anxiety about my heresy with tactful wisdom, bidding her have no fear of differences of opinion where the heart was set on truth. "Remember," she told me he said to her—"remember that our God is the God of truth, and that therefore the honest search for truth can never be displeasing in His eyes." Once again after that he came, and after his visit to my mother we had another long talk. I ventured to ask him, the conversation having turned that way, how, with views so broad as his, he found it possible to remain in communion with the Church of England. "I think," he answered, gently, "that I am of more service to true religion by remaining in the Church and striving to widen its boundaries from within, than if I left it and worked from without." And he went on to explain how, as Dean of Westminster, he was in a rarely independent position, and could make the Abbey of a wider national service than would otherwise be possible. In all he said on this his love for and his pride in the glorious Abbey were manifest, and it was easy to see that old historical associations, love of music, of painting, of stately architecture, were the bonds that held him bound to the "old historic Church of England." His emotions, not his intellect, kept him Churchman, and he shrank, with the over-sensitiveness of the cultured scholar, from the idea of allowing the old traditions to be handled roughly by inartistic hands. Naturally of a refined and delicate nature, he had been rendered yet more exquisitely sensitive by the training of the college and the court; the polished courtesy of his manners was but the natural expression of a noble and lofty mind—a mind whose very gentleness sometimes veiled its strength. I have often heard Dean Stanley harshly spoken of, I have heard his honesty roughly challenged; but never has he been attacked in my presence that I have not uttered my protest against the injustice done him, and thus striven to repay some small fraction of that great debt of gratitude which I shall ever owe his memory.
And now the end came swiftly. I had hurriedly furnished a couple of rooms in the little house, now ours, that I might take my mother into the purer air of Norwood, and permission was given to drive her down in an invalid carriage. The following evening she was suddenly taken worse; we lifted her into bed, and telegraphed for the doctor. But he could do nothing, and she herself felt that the hand of Death had gripped her. Selfless to the last, she thought but for my loneliness. "I am leaving you alone," she sighed from time to time; and truly I felt, with an anguish I did not dare to realise, that when she died I should indeed be alone on earth.
For two days longer she was with me, my beloved, and I never left her side for five minutes. On May 10th the weakness passed into gentle delirium, but even then the faithful eyes followed me about the room, until at length they closed for ever, and as the sun sank low in the heavens, the breath came slower and slower, till the silence of Death came down upon us and she was gone.
Stunned and dazed with the loss, I went mechanically through the next few days. I would have none touch my dead save myself and her favourite sister, who was with us at the last. Cold and dry-eyed I remained, even when they hid her from me with the coffin-lid, even all the dreary way to Kensal Green where her husband and her baby-son were sleeping, and when we left her alone in the chill earth, damp with the rains of spring. I could not believe that our day-dream was dead and buried, and the home in ruins ere yet it was fairly built. Truly, my "house was left unto me desolate," and the rooms, filled with sunshine but unlighted by her presence, seemed to echo from their bare walls, "You are all alone."
But my little daughter was there, and her sweet face and dancing feet broke the solitude, while her imperious claims for love and tendance forced me into attention to the daily needs of life. And life was hard in those days of spring and summer, resources small, and work difficult to find. In truth, the two months after my mother's death were the dreariest my life has known, and they were months of tolerably hard struggle. The little house in Colby Road taxed my slender resources heavily, and the search for work was not yet successful. I do not know how I should have managed but for the help ever at hand, of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Scott. During this time I wrote for Mr. Scott pamphlets on Inspiration, Atonement, Mediation and Salvation, Eternal Torture, Religious Education of Children, Natural v. Revealed Religion, and the few guineas thus earned were very valuable. Their house, too, was always open to me, and this was no small help, for often in those days the little money I had was enough to buy food for two but not enough to buy it for three, and I would go out and study all day at the British Museum, so as to "have my dinner in town," the said dinner being conspicuous by its absence. If I was away for two evenings running from the hospitable house in the terrace, Mrs. Scott would come down to see what had happened, and many a time the supper there was of real physical value to me. Well might I write, in 1879, when Thomas Scott lay dead: "It was Thomas Scott whose house was open to me when my need was sorest, and he never knew, this generous, noble heart, how sometimes, when I went in, weary and overdone, from a long day's study in the British Museum, with scarce food to struggle through the day—he never knew how his genial, 'Well, little lady,' in welcoming tone, cheered the then utter loneliness of my life. To no living man—save one—do I owe the debt of gratitude that I owe to Thomas Scott."
The small amount of jewellery I possessed, and all my superfluous clothes, were turned into more necessary articles, and the child, at least, never suffered a solitary touch of want. My servant Mary was a wonderful contriver, and kept house on the very slenderest funds that could be put into a servant's hands, and she also made the little place so bright and fresh-looking that it was always a pleasure to go into it. Recalling those days of "hard living," I can now look on them without regret. More, I am glad to have passed through them, for they have taught me how to sympathise with those who are struggling as I struggled then, and I never can hear the words fall from pale lips, "I am hungry," without remembering how painful a thing hunger is, and without curing that pain, at least for the moment.
The presence of the child was good for me, keeping alive my aching, lonely heart: she would play contentedly for hours while I was working, a word now and again being enough for happiness; when I had to go out without her, she would run to the door with me, and the "good-bye" would come from down-curved lips; she was ever watching at the window for my return, and the sunny face was always the first to welcome me home. Many and many a time have I been coming home, weary, hungry, and heart-sick, and the glimpse of the little face watching has reminded me that I must not carry in a grave face to sadden my darling, and the effort to throw off the depression for her sake threw it off altogether, and brought back the sunshine. She was the sweetness and joy of my life, my curly-headed darling, with her red-gold hair and glorious eyes, and passionate, wilful, loving nature. The torn, bruised tendrils of my heart gradually twined round this little life; she gave something to love and to tend, and thus gratified one of the strongest impulses of my nature.