Autobiographical Sketches/Chapter IV


My grandfather's house, No. 8, Albert Square, Clapham Road, was a second home from my earliest childhood.

That house, with its little strip of garden at the back, will always remain dear and sacred to me. I can see now the two almond trees, so rich in blossom every spring, so barren in fruit every autumn; the large spreading tufts of true Irish shamrock, brought from Ireland, and lovingly planted in the new grey London house, amid the smoke; the little nooks at the far end, wherein I would sit cosily out of sight reading a favorite book. Inside it was but a commonplace London house, only one room, perhaps, differing from any one that might have been found in any other house in the square. That was my grandfather's "work-room", where he had a lathe fitted up, for he had a passion and a genius for inventive work in machinery. He took out patents for all sorts of ingenious contrivances, but always lost money. His favorite invention was of a "railway chair", for joining the ends of rails together, and in the ultimate success of this he believed to his death. It was (and is) used on several lines, and was found to answer splendidly, but the old man never derived any profit from his invention. The fact was he had no money, and those who had took it up and utilised it, and kept all the profit for themselves. There were several cases in which his patents dropped, and then others took up his inventions, and made a commercial success thereof.

A strange man altogether was that grandfather of mine, whom I can only remember as a grand-looking old man, with snow-white hair and piercing hawk's eyes. The merriest of wild Irishmen was he in his youth, and I have often wished that his biography had been written, if only as a picture of Dublin society at the time. He had an exquisite voice, and one night he and some of his wild comrades went out singing through the streets as beggars. Pennies, sixpences, shillings, and even half-crowns came showering down in recompense of street music of such unusual excellence; then the young scamps, ashamed of their gains, poured them all into the hat of a cripple they met, who must have thought that all the blessed saints were out that night in the Irish capital. On another occasion he went to the wake of an old woman who had been bent nearly double by rheumatism, and had been duly "laid out", and tied down firmly, so as to keep the body straight in the recumbent position. He hid under the bed, and when the whisky was flowing freely, and the orgie was at its height, he cut the ropes with a sharp knife, and the old woman suddenly sat up in bed, frightening the revellers out of their wits, and, luckily for my grandfather, out of the room. Many such tales would he tell, with quaint Irish humor, in his later days. He died, from a third stroke of paralysis, in 1862.

The Morrises were a very "clannish" family, and my grandfather's house was the London centre. All the family gathered there on each Christmastide, and on Christmas day was always held high festival. For long my brother and I were the only grandchildren within reach, and were naturally made much of. The two sons were out in India, married, with young families. The youngest daughter was much away from home, and a second was living in Constantinople, but three others lived with their father and mother. Bessie, the eldest of the whole family, was a woman of rigid honor and conscientiousness, but poverty and the struggle to keep out of debt had soured her, and "Aunt Bessie" was an object of dread, not of love. One story of her early life will best tell her character. She was engaged to a young clergyman, and one day when Bessie was at church he preached a sermon taken without acknowledgment from some old divine. The girl's keen sense of honor was shocked at the deception, and she broke off her engagement, but remained unmarried for the rest of her life. "Careful and troubled about many things" was poor Aunt Bessie, and I remember being rather shocked one day at hearing her express her sympathy with Martha, when her sister left her to serve alone, and at her saying: "I doubt very much whether Jesus would have liked it if Martha had been lying about on the floor as well as Mary, and there had been no supper. But there! it's always those who do the work who are scolded, because they have not time to be as sweet and nice as those who do nothing." Nor could she ever approve of the treatment of the laborers in the parable, when those who "had borne the burden and heat of the day" received but the same wage as those that had worked but one hour. "It was not just", she would say doggedly. A sad life was hers, for she repelled all sympathy, and yet later I had reason to believe that she half broke her heart because none loved her well. She was ever gloomy, unsympathising, carping, but she worked herself to death for those whose love she chillily repulsed. She worked till, denying herself every comfort, she literally dropped. One morning, when she got out of bed, she fell, and crawling into bed again, quietly said she could do no more; lay there for some months, suffering horribly with unvarying patience; and died, rejoicing that at last she would have "rest".

Two other "Aunties" were my playfellows, and I their pet. Minnie, a brilliant pianiste, earned a precarious livelihood by teaching music. The long fasts, the facing of all weathers, the weary rides in omnibuses with soaked feet, broke down at last a splendid constitution, and after some three years of torture, commencing with a sharp attack of English cholera, she died the year before my marriage. But during my girlhood she was the gayest and merriest of my friends, her natural buoyancy re-asserting itself whenever she could escape from her musical tread-mill. Great was my delight when she joined my mother and myself for our spring or summer trips, and when at my favorite St. Leonards—at the far unfashionable end, right away from the gay watering-place folk—we settled down for four or five happy weeks of sea and country, and when Minnie and I scampered over the country on horseback, merry as children set free from school. My other favorite auntie was of a quieter type, a soft pretty loving little woman. "Co" we called her, for she was "such a cosy little thing", her father used to say. She was my mother's favorite sister, her "child", she would name her, because "Co" was so much her junior, and when she was a young girl the little child had been her charge. "Always take care of little Co", was one of my mother's dying charges to me, and fortunately "little Co" has—though the only one of my relatives who has done so—clung to me through change of faith, and through social ostracism. Her love for me, and her full belief that, however she differed from me, I meant right, have never varied, have never been shaken. She is intensely religious—as will be seen in the later story, wherein her life was much woven with mine—but however much "darling Annie's" views or actions might shock her, it is "darling Annie" through it all; "You are so good" she said to me the last time I saw her, looking up at me with all her heart in her eyes; "anyone so good as you must come to our dear Lord at last!" As though any, save a brute, could be aught but good to "little Co".

On the Christmas following my eighteenth birthday, a little Mission Church in which Minnie was much interested, was opened near Albert Square. My High Church enthusiasm was in full bloom, and the services in this little Mission Church were "high", whereas those in all the neighboring churches were "low". A Mr. Hoare, an intensely earnest man, was working there in most devoted fashion, and was glad to welcome any aid; we decorated his church, worked ornaments for it, and thought we were serving God when we were really amusing ourselves in a small place where our help was over-estimated, and where the clergy, very likely unconsciously, flattered us for our devotion. Among those who helped to carry on the services there, was a young undermaster of Stockwell Grammar School, the rev. Frank Besant, a Cambridge man, who had passed as 28th wrangler in his year, and who had just taken orders. At Easter we were again at Albert Square, and devoted much time to the little church, decking it on Easter Eve with soft yellow tufts of primrose blossom, and taking much delight in the unbounded admiration bestowed on the dainty spring blossoms by the poor who crowded in. I made a lovely white cross for the super-altar with camelias and azaleas and white geraniums, but after all it was not really as spring-like, as suitable for a "Resurrection", as the simple sweet wild flowers, still dewy from their nests in field and glade and lane.

That Easter was memorable to me for another cause. It saw waked and smothered my first doubt. That some people did doubt the historical accuracy of the Bible I knew, for one or two of the Harrow masters were friends of Colenso, the heretic Bishop of Natal, but fresh from my Patristic studies, I looked on heretics with blind horror, possibly the stronger from its very vagueness, and its ignorance of what it feared. My mother objected to my reading controversial books which dealt with the points at issue between Christianity and Freethought, and I did not care for her favorite Stanley, who might have widened my views, regarding him (on the word of Pusey) as "unsound in the faith once delivered to the saints". I had read Pusey's book on "Daniel the prophet", and, knowing nothing of the criticisms he attacked, I felt triumphant at his convincing demonstrations of their error, and felt sure that none but the wilfully blind could fail to see how weak were the arguments of the heretic writers. That stately preface of his was one of my favorite pieces of reading, and his dignified defence against all novelties of "that which must be old because it is eternal, and must be unchangeable because it is true", at once charmed and satisfied me. The delightful vagueness of Stanley, which just suited my mother's broad views, because it was vague and beautiful, was denounced by Pusey—not unwarrantably— as that "variegated use of words which destroys all definiteness of meaning". When she would bid me not be uncharitable to those with whom I differed in matters of religion, I would answer in his words, that "charity to error is treason to truth", and that to speak out the truth unwaveringly as it was revealed, was alone "loyalty to God and charity to the souls of men".

Judge, then, of my terror at my own results when I found myself betrayed into writing down some contradictions from the Bible. With that poetic dreaming which is one of the charms of Catholicism, whether English or Roman, I threw myself back into the time of the first century as the "Holy Week" of 1866 approached. 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 then 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. Spoke
Purified the      | Returned to     | Purified the    | in the Temple.
Temple. Returned  | Bethany.        | Temple. Note:   |
to Bethany.       |                 | "Taught daily   |
                  |                 | in the Temple". |
                  |                 |                 |
     MONDAY.      |     MONDAY.     |     MONDAY.     |     MONDAY.
                  |                 |                 |
Cursed the fig    | Cursed the fig  | Like Matthew.   |
tree. Taught in   | tree. Purified  |                 |
the Temple, and   | the Temple.     |                 |
spake many        | Went out of     |                 |
parables. No      | city.           |                 |
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. No  |
20, xxii.-xxv.,   | withered up.    | date shown.     |
spoken on Tues-   | Then discourses.|                 |
day, for xxvi., 2 |                 |                 |
gives Passover as |                 |                 |
"after two days". |                 |                 |
                  |                 |                 |
    WEDNESDAY.    |    WEDNESDAY.   |    WEDNESDAY.   |    WEDNESDAY.
                  |                 |                 |
Blank.            |                 |                 |
(Possibly remained in Bethany; the alabaster box of ointment.)
                  |                 |                 |
    THURSDAY.     |    THURSDAY.    |    THURSDAY.    |    THURSDAY.
                  |                 |                 |
Preparation of    | Same as Matt.   | Same as Matt.   | Discourses with
Passover. Eating  |                 |                 | disciples, but
of Passover,      |                 |                 | ''before'' the
and institution   |                 |                 | Passover. Washes
of the Holy Eu-   |                 |                 | the disciples'
charist. Gesthse- |                 |                 | feet. Nothing said
mane. Betrayal    |                 |                 | of Holy Eucharist,
by Judas. Led     |                 |                 | nor of agony in
captive to Caia-  |                 |                 | Gethsemane.
phas. Denied by   |                 |                 | Malchus' ear.
St. Peter.        |                 |                 | Led captive to
                  |                 |                 | Annas first. Then
                  |                 |                 | to Caiaphas. Denied
                  |                 |                 | by St. Peter.
                  |                 |                 |
     FRIDAY.      |     FRIDAY.     |     FRIDAY.     |      FRIDAY.
                  |                 |                 |
Led to Pilate.    | As Matthew,     | Led to Pilate.  | Taken to Pilate.
Judas hangs       | but hour of     | Sent to Herod.  | Jews would not
himself. Tried.   | crucifixion     | Sent back to    | enter, that they
Condemned to      | given, 9 a.m.   | Pilate. Rest as | might eat the
death. Scourged   |                 | in Matthew; but | Passover.
and mocked.       |                 | ''one''  male-    | Scourged by Pi-
Led to cruci-     |                 | factor repents. | late before con-
fixion. Darkness  |                 |                 | demnation, and
from 12 to 3.     |                 |                 | mocked. Shown by
Died at 3.        |                 |                 | Pilate to Jews
                  |                 |                 | at 12.

At this point I broke down. I had been getting more and more uneasy and distressed as I went on, but when I found that the Jews would not go into the judgment hall lest they should be defiled, because they desired to eat the passover, having previously seen that Jesus had actually eaten the passover with his disciples the evening before; when after writing down that he was crucified at 9 a.m., and that there was darkness over all the land from 12 to 3 p.m., I found that three hours after he was crucified he was standing in the judgment hall, and that at the very hour at which the miraculous darkness covered the earth; when I saw that I was writing a discord instead of a harmony, I threw down my pen and shut up my Bible. The shock of doubt was, however only momentary. I quickly recognised it as a temptation of the devil, and I shrank back horror-stricken and penitent for the momentary lapse of faith. I saw that these apparent contradictions were really a test of faith, and that there would be no credit in believing a thing in which there were no difficulties. Credo quia impossibile; I repeated Tertullian's words at first doggedly, at last triumphantly. I fasted as penance for my involuntary sin of unbelief. I remembered that the Bible must not be carelessly read, and that St. Peter had warned us that there were in it "some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest unto their own destruction". I shuddered at the "destruction" to the edge of which my unlucky "harmony" had drawn me, and resolved that I would never again venture on a task for which I was so evidently unfitted. Thus the first doubt was caused, and though swiftly trampled down, it had none the less raised its head. It was stifled, not answered, for all my religious training had led me to regard a doubt as a sin to be repented of, not examined. And it left in my mind the dangerous feeling that there were some things into which it was safer not to enquire too closely; things which must be accepted on faith, and not too narrowly scrutinised. The awful threat: "He that believeth not shall be damned," sounded in my ears, and, like the angel with the flaming sword, barred the path of all too curious enquiry.