Autobiographical Sketches/Chapter X
The "world was all before us where to choose", but circumstances narrowed the choice down to Hobson's. I had no ready money beyond the first month's payment of my annuity; furnished lodgings were beyond my means, and I had nothing wherewith to buy furniture. My brother offered me a home, on condition that I should give up my "heretical friends" and keep quiet; but, being freed from one bondage, nothing was further from my thoughts than to enter another. Besides, I did not choose to be a burden on anyone, and I resolved to "get something to do", to rent a tiny house, and to make a nest where my mother, my little girl, and I could live happily together. The difficulty was the "something"; I spent various shillings in agencies, with a quite wonderful unanimity of failures. I tried to get some fancy needlework, advertised as an infallible source of income to "ladies in reduced circumstances"; I fitted the advertisement admirably, for I was a lady, and my circumstances were decidedly reduced, but I only earned 4s. 6d. by weeks of stitching, and the materials cost nearly as much as the finished work. I experimented with a Birmingham firm, who generously offered everyone an opportunity of adding to their incomes, and received in answer to the small fee demanded 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 casually on my acquaintances, so did not start in that business. It would be idle to relate all the things I tried, and failed in, until I began to think that the "something to do" was not so easy to find as I had expected.
I made up my mind to settle at Upper Norwood, near Mr. and Mrs. Scott, who were more than good to me in my trouble; and I fixed on a very little house in Colby Road, Gipsy Hill, to be taken from the ensuing Easter. Then came the question of furniture; a friend of Mr. Scott's gave me an introduction to a manufacturer, who agreed to let me have furniture for a bedroom and sitting-room, and to let me pay him by monthly instalments. The next thing was to save a few months' annuity, and so have a little money in hand, wherewith to buy necessaries on starting, and to this end I decided to accept a loving invitation to Folkestone, where my grandmother was living with two of my aunts, and there to seek some employment, no matter what, provided it gave me food and lodging, and enabled me to put aside my few pounds a month.
Relieved from the constant strain of fear and anxiety, my health was quickly improving, and the improvement became more rapid after I went down with my mother to Folkestone. The hearty welcome offered to me there was extended with equal warmth to little Mabel, who soon arrived, a most forlorn little maiden. She was only three years old, and she had not seen me for some weeks; her passion of delight was pitiful; she clung to me, in literal fashion, for weeks afterwards, and screamed if she lost sight of me for a moment; it was long before she got over the separation and the terror of her lonely journey from Sibsey and London in charge only of the guard. But she was a "winsome wee thing", and danced into everyone's heart; after "mamma", "granny" was the prime favorite, and my dear mother worshipped her first grand-daughter; never was prettier picture than the red-golden hair nestled against the white, the baby-grace contrasting with the worn stateliness of her tender nurse. From that time forward— with the exception of a few weeks of which I shall speak presently and of the yearly stay of a month with her father—little Mabel was my constant companion, until Sir George Jessel's brutality robbed me of my child. She would play contentedly while I was working, a word now and again enough to make her happy; when I had to go out without her she would run to the door with me, and the "good-bye" came from down-curved lips, and 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 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 dreariness for her sake shook it off altogether, and brought back the sunshine. I have never forgiven Sir George Jessel, and I never shall, though his death has left me only his memory to hate.
At Folkestone, I continued my search for "something to do", and for some weeks sought for pupils, thinking I might thus turn my heresy to account. But pupils are not readily attainable by a heretic woman, away from her natural home, and with a young child as "encumbrance". It chanced, however, that the vicar of Folkestone, Mr. Woodward, was then without a governess, and his wife was in very delicate health. My people knew him well, and as I had plenty of spare time, I offered to teach the children for a few hours a day. The offer was gladly accepted, and I soon arranged to go and stay at the house for awhile, until he could find a regular governess. I thought that at least I could save my small income while I was there, and Mabel and I were to be boarded and lodged in exchange for my work. This work was fairly heavy, but I did not mind that; it soon became heavier. Some serious fault on the part of one or both servants led to their sudden retirement, and I became head cook as well as governess and nurse. On the whole, I think I shall not try to live by cooking, if other trades fail; I don't mind boiling and frying, and making pie-crust is rather pleasant, but I do object to lifting saucepans and blistering my hands over heavy kettles. There is a certain charm in making a stew, especially to the unaccustomed cook, because of the excitement of wondering what the result of such various ingredients will be, and whether any flavor save that of onions will survive the competition in the mixture. On the whole my services as cook were voted very successful; I did my cooking better than I did my sweeping: the latter was a failure from sheer want of muscular strength.
This curious episode came to an end abruptly. One of my little pupils fell ill with diptheria, and I was transformed from cook into sick-nurse. I sent my Mabel off promptly to her dear grandmother's care, and gave myself up to my old delight in nursing. But it is a horrible disease, diptheria, and the suffering of the patient is frightful to witness. I shall never forget the poor little girl's black parched lips and gasping breath.
Scarcely was she convalescent, when the youngest boy, a fine, strong, healthy little fellow, sickened with scarlet fever. We elders held a consultation, and decided to isolate the top floor from the rest of the house, and to nurse the little lad there; it seemed almost hopeless to prevent such a disease from spreading through a family of children, but our vigorous measures were successful, and none other suffered. I was voted to the post of nurse, and installed myself promptly, taking up the carpets, turning out the curtains, and across the door ways hanging sheets which I kept always wet with chloride of lime. My meals were brought upstairs and put on the landing outside; my patient and I remained completely isolated, until the disease had run its course; and when all risk was over, I proudly handed over my charge, the disease touching no other member of the flock.
It was a strange time, those weeks of the autumn and early winter in Mr. Woodward's house. He was a remarkably good man, very religious and to a very remarkable extent not "of this world". A "priest" to the tips of his finger-nails, and looking on his priestly office as the highest a man could fill, he yet held it always as one which put him at the service of the poorest who needed help. He was very good to me, and, while deeply lamenting my "perversion", held, by some strange unpriestlike charity, that my "unbelief" was but a passing cloud, sent as trial by "the Lord", and soon to vanish again, leaving me in the "sunshine of faith". He marvelled much, I learned afterwards, where I gained my readiness to work heartily for others, and to remain serenely content amid the roughnesses of my toiling life. To my great amusement I heard later that his elder daughters, trained in strictest observance of all Church ceremonies, had much discussed my non-attendance at the Sacrament, and had finally arrived at the conclusion that I had committed some deadly sin, for which the humble work which I undertook at their house was the appointed penance, and that I was excluded from "the Blessed Sacrament" until the penance was completed!
Very shortly after the illness above-mentioned, my mother went up to town, whither I was soon to follow her, for now the spring had arrived, and it was time to prepare our new home. How eagerly we had looked forward to taking possession; how we had talked over our life together and knitted on the new one we anticipated to the old one we remembered; how we had planned out Mabel's training and arranged the duties that should fall to the share of each! Day-dreams, that never were to be realised!
But a brief space had passed since my mother's arrival in town, when I received a telegram from my brother, stating that she was dangerously ill, and summoning me at once to her bedside. As swiftly as express train could carry me to London I was there, and found my darling in bed, prostrate, the doctor only giving her three days to live. One moment's sight I caught of her face, drawn and haggard; then as she saw me it all changed into delight; "At last! now I can rest."
The brave spirit had at length broken down, never again to rise; the action of her heart had failed, the valves no longer performed their duty, and the bluish shade of forehead and neck told that the blood was no longer sent pure and vivifying through the arteries. But her death was not as near as the doctor had feared; "I do not think she can live four-and-twenty hours," he said to me, after I had been with her for two days. I told her his verdict, but it moved her little; "I do not feel that I am going to die just yet," she said resolutely, and she was right. There was an attack of fearful prostration, a very wrestling with death, and then the grim shadow drew backwards, and she struggled back to life. Soon, as is usual in cases of such disease, dropsy intervened, with all its weariness of discomfort, and for week after week her long martyrdom dragged on. I nursed her night and day, with a very desperation of tenderness, for now fate had touched the thing that was 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.
At this period, after eighteen months of abstention, and for the last time, I took the Sacrament. This statement will seem strange to my readers, but the matter happened in this wise:
My dear mother had an intense longing to take it, but absolutely refused to do so unless I partook of 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." In vain I urged that I could not take it without telling the officiating clergyman of my heresy, and that under such circumstances the clergyman would be sure to refuse to administer to me. She insisted that she could not die happy if she did not take it with me. 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; the result was the same. I was in despair; to me the service was foolish and superstitious, but I would have done a great deal more for my mother than eat bread and drink wine, provided that the eating and drinking did not, by pretence of faith on my part, soil my honesty. At last a thought struck me; there was Dean Stanley, my mother's favorite, a man known to be of the broadest school within the Church of England; suppose I asked him? I did not know him, though as a young child I had known his sister as my mother's friend, and I felt the request would be something of an impertinence. Yet there was just the chance that he might consent, and then my darling's death-bed would be the easier. I told no one, but set out resolutely for the Deanery, Westminster, timidly asked for the Dean, and followed the servant upstairs with a very 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 right into mine.
Very falteringly I preferred my request, stating baldly that I was not a believer in Christ, 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.
"You were quite right to come to me," he said as I concluded, in that soft musical voice of his, his keen gaze having changed 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, 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. 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 jangle about words with only human meanings when dealing with the mysteries of divine existence, and above all it was folly to make such words into dividing lines 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 said, 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 he came again, and celebrated the "Holy Communion" by the bedside of my dear mother. 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 my mother. 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 had 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 own, he found it possible to remain in communion with the Church of England. "I think", he said 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, and 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 shrunk 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 sensitive by the training of the college and the court; the exquisite courtesy of his manners was but the high polish of a naturally gentle and artistic spirit, a spirit whose gentleness sometimes veiled its strength. I have often heard Dean Stanley harshly spoken of, I have heard his honesty roughly challenged, but never in my presence has he been attacked 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 owe to his memory as long as I live.
As the spring grew warmer, my mother rallied wonderfully, and we began to dare to hope. At last it was decided to move her down to Norwood; she was wearying for change, and it was thought that the purer air of the country might aid the system to recover tone and strength. The furniture was waiting for me to send for it, and it was soon, conveyed to Colby Road; it only furnished two rooms, but I could easily sleep on the floor, and I made the two rooms on the ground floor into bedroom and sitting-room for my dear invalid. One little servant-maid was all our slender resources could afford, and a very charming one was found for me by Mrs. Scott. Through the months of hard work and poor living that followed, Mary was the most thoughtful and most generous of comrades. And, indeed, I have been very fortunate in my servants, always finding in them willingness to help, and freely-rendered, ungrudging kindness.
I have just said that I could only furnish two rooms, but on my next visit to complete all the arrangements for my mother's reception, I found the bedroom that was to be mine neatly and prettily furnished. The good fairy was Mrs. Scott, who, learning the "nakedness of the land" from Mary, had determined that I should not be as uncomfortable as I had expected.
It was the beginning of May, and the air was soft and bright and warm. We hired an invalid carriage and drove slowly down to Norwood. My mother seemed to enjoy the drive, and when we lifted her into the bright cosy room prepared for her, she was delighted with the change. On the following morning the improvement was continued, but in the evening she was taken suddenly worse, and we lifted her into bed and telegraphed for the doctor. But now the end had come; her strength completely failed, and she felt that death was upon her; but selfless to the last, her only fear was for me. "I am leaving you alone," she would sigh from time to time, and truly I felt, with an anguish I dared not realise, that when she died I should indeed be alone on earth.
For two days longer she was with me, and, miser with my last few hours, I never left her side for five minutes. At last on the 10th of May the weakness passed into 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.
All that followed was like a dream. I would have none touch my dead save myself and her favorite sister, who was with us at the last; she wept over her, but I could not, not even when they hid her beneath the coffin-lid, nor all that weary way to Kensal Green, whither we took her to lay her with her husband and her baby-son. I could not believe that our day-dream was dead and buried, and the home destroyed ere it was fairly made. My "house was left unto" me "desolate", and the rooms filled with sunshine, but unlighted by her presence, seemed to reiterate to me: "You are all alone ".