Annie Besant

Autobiography

 

Cardiff Theosophical Society in Wales

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206 Newport Road, Cardiff, Wales, UK. CF24 -1DL

 

 

Annie Besant

Autobiography

 

 

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ANNIE BESANT

 

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

 

LONDON

 

SECOND EDITION

 

 

PREFACE.

 

It is a difficult thing to tell the story of a life, and yet more

difficult when that life is one's own. At the best, the telling has a

savour of vanity, and the only excuse for the proceeding is that the

life, being an average one, reflects many others, and in troublous

times like ours may give the experience of many rather than of one.

And so the autobiographer does his work because he thinks that, at the

cost of some unpleasantness to himself, he may throw light on some of

the typical problems that are vexing the souls of his contemporaries,

and perchance may stretch out a helping hand to some brother who is

struggling in the darkness, and so bring him cheer when despair has

him in its grip. Since all of us, men and women of this restless and

eager generation--surrounded by forces we dimly see but cannot as yet

understand, discontented with old ideas and half afraid of new, greedy

for the material results of the knowledge brought us by Science but

looking askance at her agnosticism as regards the soul, fearful of

superstition but still more fearful of atheism, turning from the husks

of outgrown creeds but filled with desperate hunger for spiritual

ideals--since all of us have the same anxieties, the same griefs, the

same yearning hopes, the same passionate desire for knowledge, it may

well be that the story of one may help all, and that the tale of one

should that went out alone into the darkness and on the other side

found light, that struggled through the Storm and on the other side

found Peace, may bring some ray of light and of peace into the

darkness and the storm of other lives.

 

ANNIE BESANT.

 

THE THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY,

 

17 & 19, AVENUE ROAD, REGENT'S PARK, LONDON.

 

_August_, 1893.

 

 

 

 

CONTENTS.

 

CHAP.

 

I.    "OUT OF THE EVERYWHERE INTO THE HERE"

 

II.   EARLY CHILDHOOD

 

III.  GIRLHOOD

 

IV.   MARRIAGE

 

V.    THE STORM OF DOUBT

 

VI.   CHARLES BRADLAUGH

 

VII.  ATHEISM AS I KNEW AND TAUGHT IT

 

VIII. AT WORK

 

IX.   THE KNOWLTON PAMPHLET

 

X.    AT WAR ALL ROUND

 

XI.   MR. BRADLAUGH'S STRUGGLE

 

XII.  STILL FIGHTING

 

XIII. SOCIALISM

 

XIV.  THROUGH STORM TO PEACE

 

LIST OF BOOKS QUOTED

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER I.

 

"OUT OF THE EVERYWHERE INTO THE HERE."

 

 

On October 1, 1847, I am credibly informed, my baby eyes opened to the

light(?) of a London afternoon at 5.39.

 

A friendly astrologer has drawn for me the following chart, showing the

position of the planets at this, to me fateful, moment; but I know

nothing of astrology, so feel no wiser as I gaze upon my horoscope.

 

Keeping in view the way in which sun, moon, and planets influence the

physical condition of the earth, there is nothing incongruous with the

orderly course of nature in the view that they also influence the

physical bodies of men, these being part of the physical earth, and

largely moulded by its conditions. Any one who knows the

characteristics ascribed to those who are born under the several signs

of the Zodiac, may very easily pick out the different types among his

own acquaintances, and he may then get them to go to some astrologer

and find out under what signs they were severally born. He will very

quickly discover that two men of completely opposed types are not born

under the same sign, and the invariability of the concurrence will

convince him that law, and not chance, is at work. We are born into

earthly life under certain conditions, just as we were physically

affected by them pre-natally, and these will have their bearing on our

subsequent physical evolution. At the most, astrology, as it is now

practised, can only calculate the interaction between these physical

conditions at any given moment, and the conditions brought to them by a

given person whose general constitution and natal condition are known.

It cannot say what the person will do, nor what will happen to him, but

only what will be the physical district, so to speak, in which he will

find himself, and the impulses that will play upon him from external

nature and from his own body. Even on those matters modern astrology is

not quite reliable--judging from the many blunders made--or else its

professors are very badly instructed; but that there is a real science

of astrology I have no doubt, and there are some men who are past

masters in it.

 

[Illustration: Horoscope of Annie Besant.]

 

It has always been somewhat of a grievance to me that I was born in

London, "within the sound of Bow Bells," when three-quarters of my

blood and all my heart are Irish. My dear mother was of purest Irish

descent, and my father was Irish on his mother's side, though belonging

to the Devonshire Woods on his father's. The Woods were yeomen of the

sturdy English type, farming their own land in honest, independent

fashion. Of late years they seem to have developed more in the

direction of brains, from the time, in fact, that Matthew Wood became

Mayor of London town, fought Queen Caroline's battles against her most

religious and gracious royal husband, aided the Duke of Kent with no

niggard hand, and received a baronetcy for his services from the Duke

of Kent's royal daughter. Since then they have given England a Lord

Chancellor in the person of the gentle-hearted and pure-living Lord

Hatherley, while others have distinguished themselves in various ways

in the service of their country. But I feel playfully inclined to

grudge the English blood they put into my father's veins, with his

Irish mother, his Galway birth, and his Trinity College, Dublin,

education. For the Irish tongue is musical in my ear, and the Irish

nature dear to my heart. Only in Ireland is it that if you stop to ask

a worn-out ragged woman the way to some old monument, she will say:

"Sure, then, my darlin', it's just up the hill and round the corner,

and then any one will tell you the way. And it's there you'll see the

place where the blessed Saint Patrick set his foot, and his blessing be

on yer." Old women as poor as she in other nations would never be as

bright and as friendly and as garrulous. And where, out of Ireland,

will you see a whole town crowd into a station to say good-bye to half

a dozen emigrants, till the platform is a heaving mass of men and

women, struggling, climbing over each other for a last kiss, crying,

keening, laughing, all in a breath, till all the air is throbbing and

there's a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes as the train

steams out? Where, out of Ireland, will you be bumping along the

streets on an outside car, beside a taciturn Jarvey, who, on suddenly

discovering that you are shadowed by "Castle" spies, becomes

loquaciously friendly, and points out everything that he thinks will

interest you? Blessings on the quick tongues and warm hearts, on the

people so easy to lead, so hard to drive. And blessings on the ancient

land once inhabited by mighty men of wisdom, that in later times became

the Island of Saints, and shall once again be the Island of Sages, when

the Wheel turns round.

 

My maternal grandfather was a typical Irishman, much admired by me and

somewhat feared also, in the childish days. He belonged to a decayed

Irish family, the Maurices, and in a gay youth, with a beautiful wife

as light-hearted as himself, he had merrily run through what remained

to him in the way of fortune. In his old age, with abundant snow-white

hair, he still showed the hot Irish blood on the lightest provocation,

stormily angry for a moment and easily appeased. My mother was the

second daughter in a large family, in a family that grew more numerous

as pounds grew fewer, and she was adopted by a maiden aunt, a quaint

memory of whom came through my mother's childhood into mine, and had

its moulding effect on both our characters. This maiden aunt was, as

are most Irish folk of decayed families, very proud of her family tree

with its roots in the inevitable "kings." Her particular kings were the

"seven kings of France"--the "Milesian kings"--and the tree grew up a

parchment, in all its impressive majesty, over the mantelpiece of their

descendant's modest drawing-room. This heraldic monster was regarded

with deep respect by child Emily, a respect in no wise deserved, I

venture to suppose, by the disreputable royalties of whom she was a

fortunately distant twig. Chased out of France, doubtless for cause

shown, they had come over the sea to Ireland, and there continued their

reckless plundering lives. But so strangely turns the wheel of time

that these ill-doing and barbarous scamps became a kind of moral

thermometer in the home of the gentle Irish lady in the early half of

the present century. For my mother has told me that when she had

committed some act of childish naughtiness, her aunt would say, looking

gravely over her spectacles at the small culprit, "Emily, your conduct

is unworthy of the descendant of the seven kings of France." And Emily,

with her sweet grey Irish eyes and her curling masses of raven black

hair, would cry in penitent shame over her unworthiness, with some

vague idea that those royal, and to her very real, ancestors would

despise her small, sweet, rosebud self, so wholly unworthy of their

disreputable majesties.

 

Thus those shadowy forms influenced her in childhood, and exercised

over her a power that made her shrink from aught that was unworthy,

petty or mean. To her the lightest breath of dishonour was to be

avoided at any cost of pain, and she wrought into me, her only

daughter, that same proud and passionate horror at any taint of shame

or merited disgrace. To the world always a brave front was to be kept,

and a stainless reputation, for suffering might be borne but dishonour

never. A gentlewoman might starve, but she must not run in debt; she

might break her heart, but it must be with a smile on her face. I have

often thought that the training in this reticence and pride of honour

was a strange preparation for my stormy, public, much attacked and

slandered life; and certain it is that this inwrought shrinking from

all criticism that touched personal purity and personal honour added a

keenness of suffering to the fronting of public odium that none can

appreciate who has not been trained in some similar school of dignified

self-respect. And yet perhaps there was another result from it that in

value outweighed the added pain: it was the stubbornly resistant

feeling that rose and inwardly asserted its own purity in face of

foulest lie, and turning scornful face against the foe, too proud

either to justify itself or to defend, said to itself in its own heart,

when condemnation was loudest: "I am not what you think me, and your

verdict does not change my own self. You cannot make me vile whatever

you think of me, and I will never, in my own eyes, be that which you

deem me to be now." And the very pride became a shield against

degradation, for, however lost my public reputation, I could never bear

to become sullied in my own sight--and that is a thing not without its

use to a woman cut off, as I was at one time, from home, and friends,

and Society. So peace to the maiden aunt's ashes, and to those of her

absurd kings, for I owe them something after all. And I keep grateful

memory of that unknown grand-aunt, for what she did in training my dear

mother, the tenderest, sweetest, proudest, purest of women. It is well

to be able to look back to a mother who served as ideal of all that was

noblest and dearest during childhood and girlhood, whose face made the

beauty of home, and whose love was both sun and shield. No other

experience in life could quite make up for missing the perfect tie

between mother and child--a tie that in our case never relaxed and

never weakened. Though her grief at my change of faith and consequent

social ostracism did much to hasten her death-hour, it never brought a

cloud between our hearts; though her pleading was the hardest of all to

face in later days, and brought the bitterest agony, it made no gulf

between us, it cast no chill upon our mutual love. And I look back at

her to-day with the same loving gratitude as ever encircled her to me

in her earthly life. I have never met a woman more selflessly devoted

to those she loved, more passionately contemptuous of all that was mean

or base, more keenly sensitive on every question of honour, more iron

in will, more sweet in tenderness, than the mother who made my girlhood

sunny as dreamland, who guarded me, until my marriage, from every touch

of pain that she could ward off or bear for me, who suffered more in

every trouble that touched me in later life than I did myself, and who

died in the little house I had taken for our new home in Norwood, worn

out, ere old age touched her, by sorrow, poverty, and pain, in May,

1874.

 

My earliest personal recollections are of a house and garden that we

lived in when I was three and four years of age, situated in Grove

Road, St. John's Wood. I can remember my mother hovering round the

dinner-table to see that all was bright for the home-coming husband; my

brother--two years older than myself--and I watching "for papa"; the

loving welcome, the game of romps that always preceded the dinner of

the elder folks. I can remember on the 1st of October, 1851, jumping up

in my little cot, and shouting out triumphantly: "Papa! mamma! I am

four years old!" and the grave demand of my brother, conscious of

superior age, at dinner-time: "May not Annie have a knife to-day, as

she is four years old?"

 

It was a sore grievance during that same year, 1851, that I was not

judged old enough to go to the Great Exhibition, and I have a faint

memory of my brother consolingly bringing me home one of those folding

pictured strips that are sold in the streets, on which were imaged

glories that I longed only the more to see. Far-away, dusky, trivial

memories, these. What a pity it is that a baby cannot notice, cannot

observe, cannot remember, and so throw light on the fashion of the

dawning of the external world on the human consciousness. If only we

could remember how things looked when they were first imaged on the

retinae; what we felt when first we became conscious of the outer world;

what the feeling was as faces of father and mother grew out of the

surrounding chaos and became familiar things, greeted with a smile,

lost with a cry; if only memory would not become a mist when in later

years we strive to throw our glances backward into the darkness of our

infancy, what lessons we might learn to help our stumbling psychology,

how many questions might be solved whose answers we are groping for in

the West in vain.

 

The next scene that stands out clearly against the background of the

past is that of my father's death-bed. The events which led to his

death I know from my dear mother. He had never lost his fondness for

the profession for which he had been trained, and having many medical

friends, he would now and then accompany them on their hospital rounds,

or share with them the labours of the dissecting-room. It chanced that

during the dissection of the body of a person who had died of rapid

consumption, my father cut his finger against the edge of the

breast-bone. The cut did not heal easily, and the finger became swollen

and inflamed. "I would have that finger off, Wood, if I were you," said

one of the surgeons, a day or two afterwards, on seeing the state of

the wound. But the others laughed at the suggestion, and my father, at

first inclined to submit to the amputation, was persuaded to "leave

Nature alone."

 

About the middle of August, 1852, he got wet through, riding on the top

of an omnibus, and the wetting resulted in a severe cold, which

"settled on his chest." One of the most eminent doctors of the day, as

able as he was rough in manner, was called to see him. He examined him

carefully, sounded his lungs, and left the room followed by my mother.

"Well?" she asked, scarcely anxious as to the answer, save as it might

worry her husband to be kept idly at home. "You must keep up his

spirits," was the thoughtless answer. "He is in a galloping

consumption; you will not have him with you six weeks longer." The wife

staggered back, and fell like a stone on the floor. But love triumphed

over agony, and half an hour later she was again at her husband's side,

never to leave it again for ten minutes at a time, night or day, till

he was lying with closed eyes asleep in death.

 

I was lifted on to the bed to "say good-bye to dear papa" on the day

before his death, and I remember being frightened at his eyes which

looked so large, and his voice which sounded so strange, as he made me

promise always to be "a very good girl to darling mamma, as papa was

going right away." I remember insisting that "papa should kiss Cherry,"

a doll given me on my birthday, three days before, by his direction,

and being removed, crying and struggling, from the room. He died on the

following day, October 5th, and I do not think that my elder brother

and I--who were staying at our maternal grandfather's--went to the

house again until the day of the funeral. With the death, my mother

broke down, and when all was over they carried her senseless from the

room. I remember hearing afterwards how, when she recovered her senses,

she passionately insisted on being left alone, and locked herself into

her room for the night; and how on the following morning her mother, at

last persuading her to open the door, started back at the face she saw

with the cry: "Good God, Emily! your hair is white!" It was even so;

her hair, black, glossy and abundant, which, contrasting with her large

grey eyes, had made her face so strangely attractive, had turned grey

in that night of agony, and to me my mother's face is ever framed in

exquisite silver bands of hair as white as the driven unsullied snow.

 

I have heard that the love between my father and mother was a very

beautiful thing, and it most certainly stamped her character for life.

He was keenly intellectual and splendidly educated; a mathematician and

a good classical scholar, thoroughly master of French, German, Italian,

Spanish, and Portuguese, with a smattering of Hebrew and Gaelic, the

treasures of ancient and of modern literature were his daily household

delight. Nothing pleased him so well as to sit with his wife, reading

aloud to her while she worked; now translating from some foreign poet,

now rolling forth melodiously the exquisite cadences of "Queen Mab."

Student of philosophy as he was, he was deeply and steadily sceptical;

and a very religious relative has told me that he often drove her from

the room by his light, playful mockery of the tenets of the Christian

faith. His mother and sister were strict Roman Catholics, and near the

end forced a priest into his room, but the priest was promptly ejected

by the wrath of the dying man, and by the almost fierce resolve of the

wife that no messenger of the creed he detested should trouble her

darling at the last.

 

Deeply read in philosophy, he had outgrown the orthodox beliefs of his

day, and his wife, who loved him too much to criticise, was wont to

reconcile her own piety and his scepticism by holding that "women ought

to be religious," while men had a right to read everything and think as

they would, provided that they were upright and honourable in their

lives. But the result of his liberal and unorthodox thought was to

insensibly modify and partially rationalise her own beliefs, and she

put on one side as errors the doctrines of eternal punishment, the

vicarious atonement, the infallibility of the Bible, the equality of

the Son with the Father in the Trinity, and other orthodox beliefs, and

rejoiced in her later years in the writings of such men as Jowett,

Colenso, and Stanley. The last named, indeed, was her ideal Christian

gentleman, suave, polished, broad-minded, devout in a stately way. The

baldness of a typical Evangelical service outraged her taste as much as

the crudity of Evangelical dogmas outraged her intellect; she liked to

feel herself a Christian in a dignified and artistic manner, and to be

surrounded by solemn music and splendid architecture when she "attended

Divine service." Familiarity with celestial personages was detestable

to her, and she did her duty of saluting them in a courtly and reverent

fashion. Westminster Abbey was her favourite church, with its dim light

and shadowy distances; there in a carven stall, with choristers

chanting in solemn rhythm, with the many-coloured glories of the

painted windows repeating themselves on upspringing arch and clustering

pillars, with the rich harmonies of the pealing organ throbbing up

against screen and monument, with the ashes of the mighty dead around,

and all the stately memories of the past inwrought into the very

masonry, there Religion appeared to her to be intellectually dignified

and emotionally satisfactory.

 

To me, who took my religion in strenuous fashion, this dainty and

well-bred piety seemed perilously like Laodicean lukewarmness, while

my headlong vigour of conviction and practice often jarred on her as

alien from the delicate balance and absence of extremes that should

characterise the gentlewoman. She was of the old _régime_; I of the

stuff from which fanatics are made: and I have often thought, in

looking back, that she must have had on her lips many a time unspoken

a phrase that dropped from them when she lay a-dying: "My little one,

you have never made me sad or sorry except for your own sake; you have

always been too religious." And then she murmured to herself: "Yes,

it has been darling Annie's only fault; she has always been too

religious." Methinks that, as the world judges, the dying voice spake

truly, and the dying eyes saw with a real insight. For though I was

then kneeling beside her bed, heretic and outcast, the heart of me was

religious in its very fervour of repudiation of a religion, and in its

rebellious uprising against dogmas that crushed the reason and did not

satisfy the soul. I went out into the darkness alone, not because

religion was too good for me, but because it was not good enough; it

was too meagre, too commonplace, too little exacting, too bound up

with earthly interests, too calculating in its accommodations to

social conventionalities. The Roman Catholic Church, had it captured

me, as it nearly did, would have sent me on some mission of danger and

sacrifice and utilised me as a martyr; the Church established by law

transformed me into an unbeliever and an antagonist.

 

For as a child I was mystical and imaginative religious to the very

finger-tips, and with a certain faculty for seeing visions and

dreaming dreams. This faculty is not uncommon with the Keltic races,

and makes them seem "superstitious" to more solidly-built peoples.

Thus, on the day of my father's funeral, my mother sat with vacant

eyes and fixed pallid face--the picture comes back to me yet, it so

impressed my childish imagination--following the funeral service,

stage after stage, and suddenly, with the words, "It is all over!"

fell back fainting. She said afterwards that she had followed the

hearse, had attended the service, had walked behind the coffin to the

grave. Certain it is that a few weeks later she determined to go to

the Kensal Green Cemetery, where the body of her husband had been

laid, and went thither with a relative; he failed to find the grave,

and while another of the party went in search of an official to

identify the spot, my mother said, "If you will take me to the chapel

where the first part of the service was read, I will find the grave."

The idea seemed to her friend, of course, to be absurd; but he would

not cross the newly-made widow, so took her to the chapel. She looked

round, left the chapel door, and followed the path along which the

corpse had been borne till she reached the grave, where she was

quietly standing when the caretaker arrived to point it out. The grave

is at some distance from the chapel, and is not on one of the main

roads; it had nothing on it to mark it, save the wooden peg with the

number, and this would be no help to identification at a distance

since all the graves are thus marked, and at a little way off these

pegs are not visible. How she found the grave remained a mystery in

the family, as no one believed her straightforward story that she had

been present at the funeral. With my present knowledge the matter is

simple enough, for I now know that the consciousness can leave the

body, take part in events going on at a distance, and, returning,

impress on the physical brain what it has experienced. The very fact

that she asked to be taken to the chapel is significant, showing that

she was picking up a memory of a previous going from that spot to the

grave; she could only find the grave if she started from _the place

from which she had started before_. Another proof of this

ultra-physical capacity was given a few months later, when her infant

son, who had been pining himself ill for "papa," was lying one night

in her arms. On the next morning she said to her sister: "Alf is going

to die." The child had no definite disease, but was wasting away, and

it was argued to her that the returning spring would restore the

health lost during the winter. "No," was her answer. "He was lying

asleep in my arms last night, and William" (her husband) "came to me

and said that he wanted Alf with him, but that I might keep the other

two." In vain she was assured that she had been dreaming, that it was

quite natural that she should dream about her husband, and that her

anxiety for the child had given the dream its shape. Nothing would

persuade her that she had not seen her husband, or that the

information he had given her was not true. So it was no matter of

surprise to her when in the following March her arms were empty, and a

waxen form lay lifeless in the baby's cot.

 

My brother and I were allowed to see him just before he was placed in

his coffin; I can see him still, so white and beautiful, with a black

spot in the middle of the fair, waxen forehead, and I remember the

deadly cold which startled me when I was told to kiss my little

brother. It was the first time that I had touched Death. That black

spot made a curious impression on me, and long afterwards, asking what

had caused it, I was told that at the moment after his death my mother

had passionately kissed the baby brow. Pathetic thought, that the

mother's kiss of farewell should have been marked by the first sign of

corruption on the child's face!

 

I do not mention these stories because they are in any fashion

remarkable or out of the way, but only to show that the sensitiveness

to impressions other than physical ones, that was a marked feature in

my own childhood, was present also in the family to which I belonged.

For the physical nature is inherited from parents, and sensitiveness

to psychic impressions is a property of the physical body; in our

family, as in so many Irish ones, belief in "ghosts" of all

descriptions was general, and my mother has told me of the banshee

that she had heard wailing when the death-hour of one of the family

was near. To me in my childhood, elves and fairies of all sorts were

very real things, and my dolls were as really children as I was myself

a child. Punch and Judy were living entities, and the tragedy in which

they bore part cost me many an agony of tears; to this day I can

remember running away when I heard the squawk of the coming Punch, and

burying my head in the pillows that I might shut out the sound of the

blows and the cry of the ill-used baby. All the objects about me were

to me alive, the flowers that I kissed as much as the kitten I petted,

and I used to have a splendid time "making believe" and living out all

sorts of lovely stories among my treasured and so-called inanimate

playthings. But there was a more serious side to this dreamful fancy

when it joined hands with religion.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER II.

 

EARLY CHILDHOOD.

 

 

And now began my mother's time of struggle and of anxiety. Hitherto,

since her marriage, she had known no money troubles, for her husband

was earning a good income; he was apparently vigorous and well: no

thought of anxiety clouded their future. When he died, he believed

that he left his wife and children safe, at least, from pecuniary

distress. It was not so. I know nothing of the details, but the

outcome of all was that nothing was left for the widow and children,

save a trifle of ready money. The resolve to which my mother came was

characteristic. Two of her husband's relatives, Western and Sir

William Wood, offered to educate her son at a good city school, and to

start him in commercial life, using their great city influence to push

him forward. But the young lad's father and mother had talked of a

different future for their eldest boy; he was to go to a public

school, and then to the University, and was to enter one of the

"learned professions"--to take orders, the mother wished; to go to the

Bar, the father hoped. On his death-bed there was nothing more

earnestly urged by my father than that Harry should receive the best

possible education, and the widow was resolute to fulfil that last

wish. In her eyes, a city school was not "the best possible

education," and the Irish pride rebelled against the idea of her son

not being "a University man." Many were the lectures poured out on the

young widow's head about her "foolish pride," especially by the female

members of the Wood family; and her persistence in her own way caused

a considerable alienation between herself and them. But Western and

William, though half-disapproving, remained her friends, and lent many

a helping hand to her in her first difficult struggles. After much

cogitation, she resolved that the boy should be educated at Harrow,

where the fees are comparatively low to lads living in the town, and

that he should go thence to Cambridge or to Oxford, as his tastes

should direct. A bold scheme for a penniless widow, but carried out to

the letter; for never dwelt in a delicate body a more resolute mind

and will than that of my dear mother.

 

In a few months' time--during which we lived, poorly enough, in

Richmond Terrace, Clapham, close to her father and mother--to Harrow,

then, she betook herself, into lodgings over a grocer's shop, and set

herself to look for a house. This grocer was a very pompous man, fond

of long words, and patronised the young widow exceedingly, and one day

my mother related with much amusement how he had told her that she was

sure to get on if she worked hard. "Look at me!" he said, swelling

visibly with importance; "I was once a poor boy, without a penny of my

own, and now I am a comfortable man, and have my submarine villa to go

to every evening." That "submarine villa" was an object of amusement

when we passed it in our walks for many a long day.

 

"There is Mr. ----'s submarine villa," some one would say, laughing:

and I, too, used to laugh merrily, because my elders did, though my

understanding of the difference between suburban and submarine was on

a par with that of the honest grocer.

 

My mother had fortunately found a boy, whose parents were glad to place

him in her charge, of about the age of her own son, to educate with

him; and by this means she was able to pay for a tutor, to prepare the

two boys for school. The tutor had a cork leg, which was a source of

serious trouble to me, for it stuck out straight behind when we knelt

down to family prayers--conduct which struck me as irreverent and

unbecoming, but which I always felt a desire to imitate. After about a

year my mother found a house which she thought would suit her scheme,

namely, to obtain permission from Dr. Vaughan, the then head-master of

Harrow, to take some boys into her house, and so gain means of

education for her own son. Dr. Vaughan, who must have been won by the

gentle, strong, little woman, from that time forth became her earnest

friend and helper; and to the counsel and active assistance both of

himself and of his wife, was due much of the success that crowned her

toil. He made only one condition in granting the permission she asked,

and that was, that she should also have in her house one of the masters

of the school, so that the boys should not suffer from the want of a

house-tutor. This condition, of course, she readily accepted, and the

arrangement lasted for ten years, until after her son had left school

for Cambridge.

 

The house she took is now, I am sorry to say, pulled down, and

replaced by a hideous red-brick structure. It was very old and

rambling, rose-covered in front, ivy-covered behind; it stood on the

top of Harrow Hill, between the church and the school, and had once

been the vicarage of the parish, but the vicar had left it because it

was so far removed from the part of the village where all his work

lay. The drawing-room opened by an old-fashioned half-window,

half-door--which proved a constant source of grief to me, for whenever

I had on a new frock I always tore it on the bolt as I flew

through--into a large garden which sloped down one side of the hill,

and was filled with the most delightful old trees, fir and laurel,

may, mulberry, hazel, apple, pear, and damson, not to mention currant

and gooseberry bushes innumerable, and large strawberry beds spreading

down the sunny slopes. There was not a tree there that I did not

climb, and one, a widespreading Portugal laurel, was my private

country house. I had there my bedroom and my sitting-rooms, my study,

and my larder. The larder was supplied by the fruit-trees, from which

I was free to pick as I would, and in the study I would sit for hours

with some favourite book--Milton's "Paradise Lost" the chief favourite

of all. The birds must often have felt startled, when from the small

swinging form perching on a branch, came out in childish tones the

"Thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues, powers," of Milton's

stately and sonorous verse. I liked to personify Satan, and to declaim

the grand speeches of the hero-rebel, and many a happy hour did I pass

in Milton's heaven and hell, with for companions Satan and "the Son,"

Gabriel and Abdiel. Then there was a terrace running by the side of

the churchyard, always dry in the wettest weather, and bordered by an

old wooden fence, over which clambered roses of every shade; never was

such a garden for roses as that of the Old Vicarage. At the end of the

terrace was a little summer-house, and in this a trap-door in the

fence, which swung open and displayed one of the fairest views in

England. Sheer from your feet downwards went the hill, and then far

below stretched the wooded country till your eye reached the towers of

Windsor Castle, far away on the horizon. It was the view at which

Byron was never tired of gazing, as he lay on the flat tombstone close

by--Byron's tomb, as it is still called--of which he wrote:--

 

  "Again I behold where for hours I have pondered,

     As reclining, at eve, on yon tombstone I lay,

  Or round the steep brow of the churchyard I wandered,

     To catch the last gleam of the sun's setting ray."

 

Reader mine, if ever you go to Harrow, ask permission to enter the old

garden, and try the effect of that sudden burst of beauty, as you

swing back the small trap-door at the terrace end.

 

Into this house we moved on my eighth birthday, and for eleven years it

was "home" to me, left always with regret, returned to always with joy.

 

Almost immediately afterwards I left my mother for the first time; for

one day, visiting a family who lived close by, I found a stranger

sitting in the drawing-room, a lame lady with a strong face, which

softened marvellously as she smiled at the child who came dancing in;

she called me to her presently, and took me on her lap and talked to

me, and on the following day our friend came to see my mother, to ask

if she would let me go away and be educated with this lady's niece,

coming home for the holidays regularly, but leaving my education in

her hands. At first my mother would not hear of it, for she and I

scarcely ever left each other; my love for her was an idolatry, hers

for me a devotion. (A foolish little story, about which I was

unmercifully teased for years, marked that absolute idolatry of her,

which has not yet faded from my heart. In tenderest rallying one day

of the child who trotted after her everywhere, content to sit, or

stand, or wait, if only she might touch hand or dress of "mamma," she

said: "Little one" (the name by which she always called me), "if you

cling to mamma in this way, I must really get a string and tie you to

my apron, and how will you like that?" "O mamma, darling," came the

fervent answer, "do let it be in a knot." And, indeed, the tie of love

between us was so tightly knotted that nothing ever loosened it till

the sword of Death cut that which pain and trouble never availed to

slacken in the slightest degree.) But it was urged upon her that the

advantages of education offered were such as no money could purchase

for me; that it would be a disadvantage for me to grow up in a

houseful of boys--and, in truth, I was as good a cricketer and climber

as the best of them--that my mother would soon be obliged to send me

to school, unless she accepted an offer which gave me every advantage

of school without its disadvantages. At last she yielded, and it was

decided that Miss Marryat, on returning home, should take me with her.

 

Miss Marryat--the favourite sister of Captain Marryat, the famous

novelist--was a maiden lady of large means. She had nursed her brother

through the illness that ended in his death, and had been living with

her mother at Wimbledon Park. On her mother's death she looked round

for work which would make her useful in the world, and finding that one

of her brothers had a large family of girls, she offered to take charge

of one of them, and to educate her thoroughly. Chancing to come to

Harrow, my good fortune threw me in her way, and she took a fancy to

me and thought she would like to teach two little girls rather than

one. Hence her offer to my mother.

 

Miss Marryat had a perfect genius for teaching, and took in it the

greatest delight. From time to time she added another child to our

party, sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl. At first, with Amy Marryat

and myself, there was a little boy, Walter Powys, son of a clergyman

with a large family, and him she trained for some years, and then sent

him on to school admirably prepared. She chose "her children"--as she

loved to call us--in very definite fashion. Each must be gently born

and gently trained, but in such position that the education freely

given should be a relief and aid to a slender parental purse. It was

her delight to seek out and aid those on whom poverty presses most

heavily, when the need for education for the children weighs on the

proud and the poor. "Auntie" we all called her, for she thought "Miss

Marryat" seemed too cold and stiff. She taught us everything herself

except music, and for this she had a master, practising us in

composition, in recitation, in reading aloud English and French, and

later, German, devoting herself to training us in the soundest, most

thorough fashion. No words of mine can tell how much I owe her, not

only of knowledge, but of that love of knowledge which has remained

with me ever since as a constant spur to study.

 

Her method of teaching may be of interest to some, who desire to train

children with least pain, and the most enjoyment to the little ones

themselves. First, we never used a spelling-book--that torment of the

small child--nor an English grammar. But we wrote letters, telling of

the things we had seen in our walks, or told again some story we had

read; these childish compositions she would read over with us,

correcting all faults of spelling, of grammar, of style, of cadence; a

clumsy sentence would be read aloud, that we might hear how unmusical

it sounded, an error in observation or expression pointed out. Then, as

the letters recorded what we had seen the day before, the faculty of

observation was drawn out and trained. "Oh, dear! I have nothing to

say!" would come from a small child, hanging over a slate. "Did you not

go out for a walk yesterday?" Auntie would question. "Yes," would be

sighed out; "but there's nothing to say about it." "Nothing to say! And

you walked in the lanes for an hour and saw nothing, little No-eyes?

You must use your eyes better to-day." Then there was a very favourite

"lesson," which proved an excellent way of teaching spelling. We used

to write out lists of all the words we could think of which sounded the

same but were differently spelt. Thus: "key, quay," "knight, night,"

and so on, and great was the glory of the child who found the largest

number. Our French lessons--as the German later--included reading from

the very first. On the day on which we began German we began reading

Schiller's "Wilhelm Tell," and the verbs given to us to copy out were

those that had occurred in the reading. We learned much by heart, but

always things that in themselves were worthy to be learned. We were

never given the dry questions and answers which lazy teachers so much

affect. We were taught history by one reading aloud while the others

worked--the boys as well as the girls learning the use of the needle.

"It's like a girl to sew," said a little fellow, indignantly, one day.

"It is like a baby to have to run after a girl if you want a button

sewn on," quoth Auntie. Geography was learned by painting skeleton

maps--an exercise much delighted in by small fingers--and by putting

together puzzle maps, in which countries in the map of a continent, or

counties in the map of a country, were always cut out in their proper

shapes. I liked big empires in those days; there was a solid

satisfaction in putting down Russia, and seeing what a large part of

the map was filled up thereby.

 

The only grammar that we ever learned as grammar was the Latin, and

that not until composition had made us familiar with the use of the

rules therein given. Auntie had a great horror of children learning by

rote things they did not understand, and then fancying they knew them.

"What do you mean by that expression, Annie?" she would ask me. After

feeble attempts to explain, I would answer: "Indeed, Auntie, I know in

my own head, but I can't explain." "Then, indeed, Annie, you do not

know in your own head, or you could explain, so that I might know in my

own head." And so a healthy habit was fostered of clearness of thought

and of expression. The Latin grammar was used because it was more

perfect than the modern grammars, and served as a solid foundation for

modern languages.

 

Miss Marryat took a beautiful place, Fern Hill, near Charmouth, in

Dorsetshire, on the borders of Devon, and there she lived for some five

years, a centre of beneficence in the district. She started a Sunday

School, and a Bible Class after awhile for the lads too old for the

school, who clamoured for admission to her class in it. She visited the

poor, taking help wherever she went, and sending food from her own

table to the sick. It was characteristic of her that she would never

give "scraps" to the poor, but would have a basin brought in at dinner,

and would cut the best slice to tempt the invalid appetite. Money she

rarely, if ever, gave, but she would find a day's work, or busy herself

to seek permanent employment for any one seeking aid. Stern in

rectitude herself, and iron to the fawning or the dishonest, her

influence, whether she was feared or loved, was always for good. Of the

strictest sect of the Evangelicals, she was an Evangelical. On the

Sunday no books were allowed save the Bible or the "Sunday at Home";

but she would try to make the day bright by various little devices; by

a walk with her in the garden; by the singing of hymns, always

attractive to children; by telling us wonderful missionary stories of

Moffat and Livingstone, whose adventures with savages and wild beasts

were as exciting as any tale of Mayne Reid's. We used to learn passages

from the Bible and hymns for repetition; a favourite amusement was a

"Bible puzzle," such as a description of some Bible scene, which was to

be recognised by the description. Then we taught in the Sunday School,

for Auntie would tell us that it was useless for us to learn if we did

not try to help those who had no one to teach them. The Sunday-school

lessons had to be carefully prepared on the Saturday, for we were

always taught that work given to the poor should be work that cost

something to the giver. This principle, regarded by her as an

illustration of the text, "Shall I give unto the Lord my God that which

has cost me nothing?" ran through all her precept and her practice.

When in some public distress we children went to her crying, and asking

whether we could not help the little children who were starving, her

prompt reply was, "What will you give up for them?" And then she said

that if we liked to give up the use of sugar, we might thus each save

sixpence a week to give away. I doubt if a healthier lesson can be

given to children than that of personal self-denial for the good of

others.

 

Daily, when our lessons were over, we had plenty of fun; long walks and

rides, rides on a lovely pony, who found small children most amusing,

and on which the coachman taught us to stick firmly, whatever his

eccentricities of the moment; delightful all-day picnics in the lovely

country round Charmouth, Auntie our merriest playfellow. Never was a

healthier home, physically and mentally, made for young things than in

that quiet village. And then the delight of the holidays! The pride of

my mother at the good report of her darling's progress, and the renewal

of acquaintance with every nook and corner in the dear old house and

garden.

 

The dreamy tendency in the child, that on its worldly side is fancy,

imagination, on its religious side is the germ of mysticism, and I

believe it to be far more common than many people think. But the

remorseless materialism of the day--not the philosophic materialism of

the few, but the religious materialism of the many--crushes out all the

delicate buddings forth of the childish thought, and bandages the eyes

that might otherwise see. At first the child does not distinguish

between what it "sees" and what it "fancies"; the one is as real, as

objective, to it as the other, and it will talk to and play with its

dream-comrades as merrily as with children like itself. As a child, I

myself very much preferred the former, and never knew what it was to be

lonely. But clumsy grown-ups come along and tramp right through the

dream-garden, and crush the dream-flowers, and push the dream-children

aside, and then say, in their loud, harsh voices--not soft and singable

like the dream-voices--"You must not tell such naughty stories, Miss

Annie; you give me the shivers, and your mamma will be very vexed with

you." But this tendency in me was too strong to be stifled, and it

found its food in the fairy tales I loved, and in the religious

allegories that I found yet more entrancing. How or when I learned to

read, I do not know, for I cannot remember the time when a book was not

a delight. At five years of age I must have read easily, for I remember

being often unswathed from a delightful curtain, in which I used to

roll myself with a book, and told to "go and play," while I was still a

five-years'-old dot. And I had a habit of losing myself so completely

in the book that my name might be called in the room where I was, and I

never hear it, so that I used to be blamed for wilfully hiding myself,

when I had simply been away in fairyland, or lying trembling beneath

some friendly cabbage-leaf as a giant went by.

 

I was between seven and eight years of age when I first came across

some children's allegories of a religious kind, and a very little

later came "Pilgrim's Progress," and Milton's "Paradise Lost."

Thenceforth my busy fancies carried me ever into the fascinating world

where boy-soldiers kept some outpost for their absent Prince, bearing

a shield with his sign of a red cross on it; where devils shaped as

dragons came swooping down on the pilgrim, but were driven away

defeated after hard struggle; where angels came and talked with little

children, and gave them some talisman which warned them of coming

danger, and lost its light if they were leaving the right path. What a

dull, tire-some world it was that I had to live in, I used to think to

myself, when I was told to be a good child, and not to lose my temper,

and to be tidy, and not mess my pinafore at dinner. How much easier to

be a Christian if one could have a red-cross shield and a white

banner, and have a real devil to fight with, and a beautiful Divine

Prince to smile at you when the battle was over. How much more

exciting to struggle with a winged and clawed dragon, that you knew

meant mischief, than to look after your temper, that you never

remembered you ought to keep until you had lost it. If I had been Eve

in the garden, that old serpent would never have got the better of me;

but how was a little girl to know that she might not pick out the

rosiest, prettiest apple from a tree that had no serpent to show it

was a forbidden one? And as I grew older the dreams and fancies grew

less fantastic, but more tinged with real enthusiasm. I read tales of

the early Christian martyrs, and passionately regretted I was born so

late when no suffering for religion was practicable; I would spend

many an hour in daydreams, in which I stood before Roman judges,

before Dominican Inquisitors, was flung to lions, tortured on the

rack, burned at the stake; one day I saw myself preaching some great

new faith to a vast crowd of people, and they listened and were

converted, and I became a great religious leader. But always, with a

shock, I was brought back to earth, where there were no heroic deeds

to do, no lions to face, no judges to defy, but only some dull duty to

be performed. And I used to fret that I was born so late, when all the

grand things had been done, and when there was no chance of preaching

and suffering for a new religion.

 

From the age of eight my education accented the religious side of my

character. Under Miss Marryat's training my religious feeling received

a strongly Evangelical bent, but it was a subject of some distress to

me that I could never look back to an hour of "conversion"; when

others gave their experiences, and spoke of the sudden change they had

felt, I used to be sadly conscious that no such change had occurred in

me, and I felt that my dreamy longings were very poor things compared

with the vigorous "sense of sin" spoken of by the preachers, and used

dolefully to wonder if I were "saved." Then I had an uneasy sense that

I was often praised for my piety when emulation and vanity were more

to the front than religion; as when I learned by heart the Epistle of

James, far more to distinguish myself for my good memory than from any

love of the text itself; the sonorous cadences of many parts of the

Old and New Testaments pleased my ear, and I took a dreamy pleasure in

repeating them aloud, just as I would recite for my own amusement

hundreds of lines of Milton's "Paradise Lost," as I sat swinging on

some branch of a tree, lying back often on some swaying bough and

gazing into the unfathomable blue of the sky, till I lost myself in an

ecstasy of sound and colour, half chanting the melodious sentences and

peopling all the blue with misty forms. This facility of learning by

heart, and the habit of dreamy recitation, made me very familiar with

the Bible and very apt with its phrases. This stood me in good stead

at the prayer-meetings dear to the Evangelical, in which we all took

part; in turn we were called on to pray aloud--a terrible ordeal to

me, for I was painfully shy when attention was called to me; I used to

suffer agonies while I waited for the dreaded words, "Now, Annie dear,

will you speak to our Lord." But when my trembling lips had forced

themselves into speech, all the nervousness used to vanish and I was

swept away by an enthusiasm that readily clothed itself in balanced

sentences, and alack! at the end, I too often hoped that God and

Auntie had noticed that I prayed very nicely--a vanity certainly not

intended to be fostered by the pious exercise. On the whole, the

somewhat Calvinistic teaching tended, I think, to make me a little

morbid, especially as I always fretted silently after my mother. I

remember she was surprised on one of my home-comings, when Miss

Marryat noted "cheerfulness" as a want in my character, for at home I

was ever the blithest of children, despite my love of solitude; but

away, there was always an aching for home, and the stern religion cast

somewhat of a shadow over me, though, strangely enough, hell never

came into my dreamings except in the interesting shape it took in

"Paradise Lost." After reading that, the devil was to me no horned and

hoofed horror, but the beautiful shadowed archangel, and I always

hoped that Jesus, my ideal Prince, would save him in the end. The

things that really frightened me were vague, misty presences that I

felt were near, but could not see; they were so real that I knew just

where they were in the room, and the peculiar terror they excited lay

largely in the feeling that I was just going to see them. If by chance

I came across a ghost story it haunted me for months, for I saw

whatever unpleasant spectre was described; and there was one horrid

old woman in a tale by Sir Walter Scott, who glided up to the foot of

your bed and sprang on it in some eerie fashion and glared at you, and

who made my going to bed a terror to me for many weeks. I can still

recall the feeling so vividly that it almost frightens me now!

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER III.

 

GIRLHOOD.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER IV.

 

MARRIAGE.

 

 

The last year of my girlish freedom was drawing to its close; how shall

I hope to make commonsense readers understand how I became betrothed

maiden ere yet nineteen, girl-wife when twenty years had struck?

Looking back over twenty-five years, I feel a profound pity for the

girl standing at that critical point of life, so utterly, hopelessly

ignorant of all that marriage meant, so filled with impossible dreams,

so unfitted for the _rôle_ of wife. As I have said, my day-dreams held

little place for love, partly from the absence of love novels from my

reading, partly from the mystic fancies that twined themselves round

the figure of the Christ. Catholic books of devotion--English or Roman,

it matters not, for to a large extent they are translations of the same

hymns and prayers--are exceedingly glowing in their language, and the

dawning feelings of womanhood unconsciously lend to them a passionate

fervour. I longed to spend my time in worshipping Jesus, and was, as

far as my inner life was concerned, absorbed in that passionate love of

"the Saviour" which, among emotional Catholics, really is the human

passion of love transferred to an ideal--for women to Jesus, for men to

the Virgin Mary. In order to show that I am not here exaggerating, I

subjoin a few of the prayers in which I found daily delight, and I do

this in order to show how an emotional girl may be attracted by these

so-called devotional exercises:--

 

"O crucified Love, raise in me fresh ardours of love and consolation,

that it may henceforth be the greatest torment I can endure ever to

offend Thee; that it may be my greatest delight to please Thee."

 

"Let the remembrance of Thy death, O Lord Jesu, make me to desire and

pant after Thee, that I may delight in Thy gracious presence."

 

"O most sweet Jesu Christ, I, unworthy sinner, yet redeemed by Thy

precious blood.... Thine I am and will be, in life and in death."

 

"O Jesu, beloved, fairer than the sons of men, draw me after Thee with

the cords of Thy love."

 

"Blessed are Thou, O most merciful God, who didst vouchsafe to espouse

me to the heavenly Bridegroom in the waters of baptism, and hast

imparted Thy body and blood as a new gift of espousal and the meet

consummation of Thy love."

 

"O most sweet Lord Jesu, transfix the affections of my inmost soul with

that most joyous and most healthful wound of Thy love, with true,

serene, most holy, apostolical charity; that my soul may ever languish

and melt with entire love and longing for Thee. Let it desire Thee and

faint for Thy courts; long to be dissolved and be with Thee."

 

"Oh, that I could embrace Thee with that most burning love of angels."

 

"Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth; for Thy love is better

than wine. Draw me, we will run after Thee. The king hath brought me

into his chambers.... Let my soul, O Lord, feel the sweetness of Thy

presence. May it taste how sweet Thou art.... May the sweet and burning

power of Thy love, I beseech Thee, absorb my soul."

 

All girls have in them the germ of passion, and the line of its

development depends on the character brought into the world, and the

surrounding influences of education. I had but two ideals in my

childhood and youth, round whom twined these budding tendrils of

passion; they were my mother and the Christ. I know this may seem

strange, but I am trying to state things as they were in this

life-story, and not give mere conventionalisms, and so it was. I had

men friends, but no lovers--at least, to my knowledge, for I have since

heard that my mother received two or three offers of marriage for me,

but declined them on account of my youth and my childishness--friends

with whom I liked to talk, because they knew more than I did; but they

had no place in my day-dreams. These were more and more filled with the

one Ideal Man, and my hopes turned towards the life of the Sister of

Mercy, who ever worships the Christ, and devotes her life to the

service of His poor. I knew my dear mother would set herself against

this idea, but it nestled warm at my heart, for ever that idea of

escaping from the humdrum of ordinary life by some complete sacrifice

lured me onwards with its overmastering fascination.

 

Now one unlucky result of this view of religion is the idealisation of

the clergyman, the special messenger and chosen servant of the Lord.

Far more lofty than any title bestowed by earthly monarch is that

patent of nobility straight from the hand of the "King of kings," that

seems to give to the mortal something of the authority of the immortal,

and to crown the head of the priest with the diadem that belongs to

those who are "kings and priests unto God." Viewed in this way, the

position of the priest's wife seems second only to that of the nun, and

has, therefore, a wonderful attractiveness, an attractiveness in which

the particular clergyman affected plays a very subordinate part; it is

the "sacred office," the nearness to "holy things," the consecration

which seems to include the wife--it is these things that shed a glamour

over the clerical life which attracts most those who are most apt to

self-devotion, most swayed by imagination. And the saddest pity of all

this is that the glamour is most over those whose brains are quick,

whose hearts are pure, who are responsive to all forms of noble

emotions, all suggestions of personal self-sacrifice; if such in later

life rise to the higher emotions whose shadows have attracted them, and

to that higher self-sacrifice whose whispers reached them in their

early youth, then the false prophet's veil is raised, the poverty of

the conception seen, and the life is either wrecked, or through

storm-wind and surge of battling billows, with loss of mast and sail,

is steered by firm hand into the port of a nobler faith.

 

That summer of 1866 saw me engaged to the young clergyman I had met at

the mission church in the spring, our knowledge of each other being an

almost negligeable quantity. We were thrown together for a week, the

only two young ones in a small party of holiday-makers, and in our

walks, rides, and drives we were naturally companions; an hour or two

before he left he asked me to marry him, taking my consent for granted

as I had allowed him such full companionship--a perfectly fair

assumption with girls accustomed to look on all men as possible

husbands, but wholly mistaken as regarded myself, whose thoughts were

in quite other directions. Startled, and my sensitive pride touched by

what seemed to my strict views an assumption that I had been flirting,

I hesitated, did not follow my first impulse of refusal, but took

refuge in silence; my suitor had to catch his train, and bound me

over to silence till he could himself speak to my mother, urging

authoritatively that it would be dishonourable of me to break his

confidence, and left me--the most upset and distressed little person

on the Sussex coast. The fortnight that followed was the first unhappy

one of my life, for I had a secret from my mother, a secret which I

passionately longed to tell her, but dared not speak at the risk of

doing a dishonourable thing. On meeting my suitor on our return to

town I positively refused to keep silence any longer, and then out

of sheer weakness and fear of inflicting pain I drifted into an

engagement with a man I did not pretend to love. "Drifted" is the

right word, for two or three months passed, on the ground that I was

so much of a child, before my mother would consent to a definite

engagement; my dislike of the thought of marriage faded before the

idea of becoming the wife of a priest, working ever in the Church and

among the poor. I had no outlet for my growing desire for usefulness

in my happy and peaceful home-life, where all religious enthusiasm was

regarded as unbalanced and unbecoming; all that was deepest and truest

in my nature chafed against my easy, useless days, longed for work,

yearned to devote itself, as I had read women saints had done, to the

service of the Church and of the poor, to the battling against sin and

misery--what empty names sin and misery then were to me! "You will

have more opportunities for doing good as a clergyman's wife than as

anything else," was one of the pleas urged on my reluctance.

 

In the autumn I was definitely betrothed, and I married fourteen months

later. Once, in the interval, I tried to break the engagement, but, on

my broaching the subject to my mother, all her pride rose up in revolt.

Would I, her daughter, break my word, would I dishonour myself by

jilting a man I had pledged myself to marry? She could be stern where

honour was involved, that sweet mother of mine, and I yielded to her

wish as I had been ever wont to do, for a look or a word from her had

ever been my law, save where religion was concerned. So I married in

the winter of 1867 with no more idea of the marriage relation than if I

had been four years old instead of twenty. My dreamy life, into which

no knowledge of evil had been allowed to penetrate, in which I had been

guarded from all pain, shielded from all anxiety, kept, innocent on all

questions of sex, was no preparation for married existence, and left me

defenceless to face a rude awakening. Looking back on it all, I

deliberately say that no more fatal blunder can be made than to train a

girl to womanhood in ignorance of all life's duties and burdens, and

then to let her face them for the first time away from all the old

associations, the old helps, the old refuge on the mother's breast.

That "perfect innocence" may be very beautiful, but it is a perilous

possession, and Eve should have the knowledge of good and evil ere she

wanders forth from the paradise of a mother's love. Many an unhappy

marriage dates from its very beginning, from the terrible shock to a

young girl's sensitive modesty and pride, her helpless bewilderment and

fear. Men, with their public school and college education, or the

knowledge that comes by living in the outside world, may find it hard

to realise the possibility of such infantile ignorance in many girls.

None the less, such ignorance is a fact in the case of some girls at

least, and no mother should let her daughter, blindfold, slip her neck

under the marriage yoke.

 

Before leaving the harbourage of girlhood to set sail on the troublous

sea of life, there is an occurrence of which I must make mention, as

it marks my first awakening of interest in the outer world of

political struggle. In the autumn of 1867 my mother and I were staying

with some dear friends of ours, the Robertses, at Pendleton, near

Manchester. Mr. Roberts was "the poor man's lawyer," in the

affectionate phrase used of him by many a hundred men. He was a close

friend of Ernest Jones, and was always ready to fight a poor man's

battle without fee. He worked hard in the agitation which saved women

from working in the mines, and I have heard him tell how he had seen

them toiling, naked to the waist, with short petticoats barely

reaching to their knees, rough, foul-tongued, brutalised out of all

womanly decency and grace; and how he had seen little children working

there too, babies of three and four set to watch a door, and falling

asleep at their work to be roused by curse and kick to the unfair

toil. The old man's eye would begin to flash and his voice to rise as

he told of these horrors, and then his face would soften as he added

that, after it was all over and the slavery was put an end to, as he

went through a coal district the women standing at their doors would

lift up their children to see "Lawyer Roberts" go by, and would bid

"God bless him" for what he had done. This dear old man was my first

tutor in Radicalism, and I was an apt pupil. I had taken no interest

in politics, but had unconsciously reflected more or less the decorous

Whiggism which had always surrounded me. I regarded "the poor" as folk

to be educated, looked after, charitably dealt with, and always

treated with most perfect courtesy, the courtesy being due from me, as

a lady, to all equally, whether they were rich or poor. But to Mr.

Roberts "the poor" were the working-bees, the wealth producers, with a

right to self-rule not to looking after, with a right to justice, not

to charity, and he preached his doctrines to me in season and out of

season. I was a pet of his, and used often to drive him to his office

in the morning, glorying much in the fact that my skill was trusted in

guiding a horse through the crowded Manchester streets. During these

drives, and on all other available occasions, Mr. Roberts would preach

to me the cause of the people. "What do you think of John Bright?" he

demanded suddenly one day, looking at me with fiery eyes from under

heavy brows. "I have never thought of him at all," was the careless

answer. "Isn't he a rather rough sort of man, who goes about making

rows?" "There, I thought so!" he thundered at me fiercely. "That's

just what I say. I believe some of you fine ladies would not go to

heaven if you had to rub shoulders with John Bright, the noblest man

God ever gave to the cause of the poor."

 

This was the hot-tempered and lovable "demagogue," as he was called,

with whom we were staying when Colonel Kelly and Captain Deasy, two

Fenian leaders, were arrested in Manchester and put on their trial. The

whole Irish population became seething with excitement, and on

September 18th the police van carrying them to Salford Gaol was stopped

at the Bellevue Railway Arch by the sudden fall of one of the horses,

shot from the side of the road. In a moment the van was surrounded, and

crowbars were wrenching at the van door. It resisted; a body of police

was rapidly approaching, and if the rescue was to be effective the door

must be opened. The rescuers shouted to Brett, the constable inside, to

pass out his keys; he refused, and some one exclaimed, "Blow off the

lock!" In a moment the muzzle of a revolver was against the lock, and

it was blown off; but Brett, stooping down to look through the keyhole,

received the bullet in his head, and fell dying as the door flew open.

Another moment, and Allen, a lad of seventeen, had wrenched open the

doors of the compartments occupied by Kelly and Deasy, dragged them

out, and while two or three hurried them off to a place of safety, the

others threw themselves between the fugitives and the police, and with

levelled revolvers guarded their flight. The Fenian leaders once safe,

they scattered, and young William Allen, whose one thought had been for

his chiefs, seeing them safe, fired his revolver in the air, for he

would not shed blood in his own defence. Disarmed by his own act, he

was set on by the police, brutally struck down, kicked and stoned, and

was dragged off to gaol, faint and bleeding, to meet there some of his

comrades in much the same plight as himself. Then Manchester went mad,

and race-passions flared up into flame; no Irish workman was safe in a

crowd of Englishmen, no Englishman safe in the Irish quarter. The

friends of the prisoners besieged "Lawyer Roberts's" house, praying his

aid, and he threw his whole fiery soul into their defence. The man who

had fired the accidentally fatal shot was safely out of the way, and

none of the others had hurt a human being. A Special Commission was

issued, with Mr. Justice Blackburn at its head--"the hanging judge,"

groaned Mr. Roberts--and it was soon in Manchester, for all Mr.

Roberts's efforts to get the venue of the trial changed were futile,

though of fair trial then in Manchester there was no chance. On October

25th the prisoners were actually brought up before the magistrates in

irons, and Mr. Ernest Jones, their counsel, failing in his protest

against this outrage, threw down his brief and left the court. So great

was the haste with which the trial was hurried on that on the 29th

Allen, Larkin, Gould (O'Brien), Maguire, and Condon were standing in

the dock before the Commission charged with murder.

 

My first experience of an angry crowd was on that day as we drove to

the court; the streets were barricaded, the soldiers were under arms,

every approach to the court crowded with surging throngs. At last our

carriage was stopped as we were passing at a foot's pace through an

Irish section of the crowd, and various vehement fists came through the

window, with hearty curses at the "d----d English who were going to see

the boys murdered." The situation was critical, for we were two women

and three girls, when I bethought myself that we were unknown, and

gently touched the nearest fist: "Friends, these are Mr. Roberts' wife

and daughters." "Roberts! Lawyer Roberts! God bless Roberts! Let his

carriage through." And all the scowling faces became smile-wreathen,

and curses changed to cheers, as a road to the court steps was cleared

for us.

 

Alas! if there was passion on behalf of the prisoners outside, there

was passion against them within, and the very opening of the trial

showed the spirit that animated the prosecution and the bench. Digby

Seymour, Q.C., and Ernest Jones, were briefed for the defence, and Mr.

Roberts did not think that they exercised sufficiently their right of

challenge; he knew, as we all did, that many on the panel had loudly

proclaimed their hostility to the Irish, and Mr. Roberts persisted in

challenging them as his counsel would not. In vain Judge Blackburn

threatened to commit the rebellious solicitor: "These men's lives are

at stake, my lord," was his indignant plea. "Remove that man!" cried

the angry judge, but as the officers of the court came forward very

slowly--for all poor men loved and honoured the sturdy fighter--he

changed his mind and let him stay. Despite all his efforts, the jury

contained a man who had declared that he "didn't care what the evidence

was, he would hang every d----d Irishman of the lot." And the result

showed that he was not alone in his view, for evidence of the most

disreputable kind was admitted; women of the lowest type were put into

the box as witnesses, and their word taken as unchallengeable; thus was

destroyed an _alibi_ for Maguire, afterwards accepted by the Crown, a

free pardon being issued on the strength of it. Nothing could save the

doomed men from the determined verdict, and I could see from where I

was sitting into a little room behind the bench, where an official was

quietly preparing the black caps before the verdict had been delivered.

The foregone "Guilty" was duly repeated as verdict on each of the five

cases, and the prisoners asked if they had anything to say why sentence

of death should not be passed on them. Allen, boy as he was, made a

very brave and manly speech; he had not fired, save in the air--if he

had done so he might have escaped; he had helped to free Kelly and

Deasy, and did not regret it; he was willing to die for Ireland.

Maguire and Condon (he also was reprieved) declared they were not

present, but, like Allen, were ready to die for their country. Sentence

of death was passed, and, as echo to the sardonic "The Lord have mercy

on your souls," rang back from the dock in five clear voices, with

never a quiver of fear in them, "God save Ireland!" and the men passed

one by one from the sight of my tear-dimmed eyes.

 

It was a sorrowful time that followed; the despair of the heart-broken

girl who was Allen's sweetheart, and who cried to us on her knees,

"Save my William!" was hard to see; nothing we or any one could do

availed to avert the doom, and on November 23rd Allen, Larkin, and

O'Brien were hanged outside Salford Gaol. Had they striven for freedom

in Italy England would have honoured them; here she buried them as

common murderers in quicklime in the prison yard.

 

I have found, with a keen sense of pleasure, that Mr. Bradlaugh and

myself were in 1867 to some extent co-workers, although we knew not of

each other's existence, and although he was doing much, and I only

giving such poor sympathy as a young girl might, who was only just

awakening to the duty of political work. I read in the _National

Reformer_ for November 24, 1867, that in the preceding week he was

pleading on Clerkenwell Green for these men's lives:--"According to

the evidence at the trial, Deasy and Kelly were illegally arrested.

They had been arrested for vagrancy of which no evidence was given, and

apparently remanded for felony without a shadow of justification. He

had yet to learn that in England the same state of things existed as in

Ireland; he had yet to learn that an illegal arrest was sufficient

ground to detain any of the citizens of any country in the prisons of

this one. If he were illegally held, he was justified in using enough

force to procure his release. Wearing a policeman's coat gave no

authority when the officer exceeded his jurisdiction. He had argued

this before Lord Chief Justice Erie in the Court of Common Pleas, and

that learned judge did not venture to contradict the argument which he

submitted. There was another reason why they should spare these men,

although he hardly expected the Government to listen, because the

Government sent down one of the judges who was predetermined to convict

the prisoners; it was that the offence was purely a political one. The

death of Brett was a sad mischance, but no one who read the evidence

could regard the killing of Brett as an intentional murder. Legally, it

was murder; morally, it was homicide in the rescue of a political

captive. If it were a question of the rescue of the political captives

of Varignano, or of political captives in Bourbon, in Naples, or in

Poland, or in Paris, even earls might be found so to argue. Wherein is

our sister Ireland less than these? In executing these men, they would

throw down the gauntlet for terrible reprisals. It was a grave and

solemn question. It had been said by a previous speaker that they were

prepared to go to any lengths to save these Irishmen. They were not. He

wished they were. If they were, if the men of England, from one end to

the other, were prepared to say, 'These men shall not be executed,'

they would not be. He was afraid they had not pluck enough for that.

Their moral courage was not equal to their physical strength. Therefore

he would not say that they were prepared to do so. They must plead _ad

misericordiam_. He appealed to the press, which represented the power

of England; to that press which in its panic-stricken moments had done

much harm, and which ought now to save these four doomed men. If the

press demanded it, no Government would be mad enough to resist. The

memory of the blood which was shed in 1798 rose up like a bloody ghost

against them to-day. He only feared that what they said upon the

subject might do the poor men more harm than good. If it were not so,

he would coin words that should speak in words of fire. As it was, he

could only say to the Government: You are strong to-day; you hold these

men's lives in your hands; but if you want to reconcile their country

to you, if you want to win back Ireland, if you want to make her

children love you--then do not embitter their hearts still more by

taking the lives of these men. Temper your strength with mercy; do not

use the sword of justice like one of vengeance, for the day may come

when it shall be broken in your hands, and you yourselves brained by

the hilt of the weapon you have so wickedly wielded." In October he

had printed a plea for Ireland, strong and earnest, asking:--

 

"Where is our boasted English freedom when you cross to Kingstown pier?

Where has it been for near two years? The Habeas Corpus Act suspended,

the gaols crowded, the steamers searched, spies listening at shebeen

shops for sedition, and the end of it a Fenian panic in England. Oh,

before it be too late, before more blood stain the pages of our present

history, before we exasperate and arouse bitter animosities, let us try

and do justice to our sister land. Abolish once and for all the land

laws, which in their iniquitous operation have ruined her peasantry.

Sweep away the leech-like Church which has sucked her vitality, and has

given her back no word even of comfort in her degradation. Turn her

barracks into flax mills, encourage a spirit of independence in her

citizens, restore to her people the protection of the law, so that they

may speak without fear of arrest, and beg them to plainly and boldly

state their grievances. Let a commission of the best and wisest amongst

Irishmen, with some of our highest English judges added, sit solemnly

to hear all complaints, and then let us honestly legislate, not for the

punishment of the discontented, but to remove the causes of the

discontent. It is not the Fenians who have depopulated Ireland's

strength and increased her misery. It is not the Fenians who have

evicted tenants by the score. It is not the Fenians who have checked

cultivation. Those who have caused the wrong at least should frame the

remedy."

 

In December, 1867, I sailed out of the safe harbour of my happy and

peaceful girlhood on to the wide sea of life, and the waves broke

roughly as soon as the bar was crossed. We were an ill-matched pair, my

husband and I, from the very outset; he, with very high ideas of a

husband's authority and a wife's submission, holding strongly to the

"master-in-my-own-house theory," thinking much of the details of home

arrangements, precise, methodical, easily angered and with difficulty

appeased. I, accustomed to freedom, indifferent to home details,

impulsive, very hot-tempered, and proud as Lucifer. I had never had a

harsh word spoken to me, never been ordered to do anything, had had my

way smoothed for my feet, and never a worry had touched me. Harshness

roused first incredulous wonder, then a storm of indignant tears, and

after a time a proud, defiant resistance, cold and hard as iron. The

easy-going, sunshiny, enthusiastic girl changed--and changed pretty

rapidly--into a grave, proud, reticent woman, burying deep in her own

heart all her hopes, her fears, and her disillusions. I must have been

a very unsatisfactory wife from the beginning, though I think other

treatment might gradually have turned me into a fair imitation of the

proper conventional article. Beginning with the ignorance before

alluded to, and so scared and outraged at heart from the very first;

knowing nothing of household management or economical use of money--I

had never had an allowance or even bought myself a pair of

gloves--though eager to perform my new duties creditably; unwilling to

potter over little things, and liking to do swiftly what I had to do,

and then turn to my beloved books; at heart fretting for my mother but

rarely speaking of her, as I found my longing for her presence raised

jealous vexation; with strangers about me with whom I had no sympathy;

visited by ladies who talked to me only about babies and

servants--troubles of which I knew nothing and which bored me

unutterably--and who were as uninterested in all that had filled my

life, in theology, in politics, in science, as I was uninterested in

the discussions on the housemaid's young man and on the cook's

extravagance in using "butter, when dripping would have done perfectly

well, my dear"; was it wonderful that I became timid, dull, and

depressed?

 

All my eager, passionate enthusiasm, so attractive to men in a young

girl, were doubtless incompatible with "the solid comfort of a wife,"

and I must have been inexpressibly tiring to the Rev. Frank Besant.

And, in truth, I ought never to have married, for under the soft,

loving, pliable girl there lay hidden, as much unknown to herself as to

her surroundings, a woman of strong dominant will, strength that panted

for expression and rebelled against restraint, fiery and passionate

emotions that were seething under compression--a most undesirable

partner to sit in the lady's arm-chair on the domestic rug before the

fire. [_Que le diable faisait-elle dans cette galère,_] I have often

thought, looking back at my past self, and asking, Why did that foolish

girl make her bed so foolishly? But self-analysis shows the

contradictories in my nature that led me into so mistaken a course. I

have ever been the queerest mixture of weakness and strength, and have

paid heavily for the weakness. As a child I used to suffer tortures of

shyness, and if my shoe-lace was untied would feel shamefacedly that

every eye was fixed on the unlucky string; as a girl I would shrink

away from strangers and think myself unwanted and unliked, so that I

was full of eager gratitude to any one who noticed me kindly; as the

young mistress of a house, I was afraid of my servants, and would let

careless work pass rather than bear the pain of reproving the ill-doer;

when I have been lecturing and debating with no lack of spirit on the

platform, I have preferred to go without what I wanted at the hotel

rather than to ring and make the waiter fetch it; combative on the

platform in defence of any cause I cared for, I shrink from quarrel or

disapproval in the home, and am a coward at heart in private while a

good fighter in public. How often have I passed unhappy quarters of an

hour screwing up my courage to find fault with some subordinate whom my

duty compelled me to reprove, and how often have I jeered at myself for

a fraud as the doughty platform combatant, when shrinking from blaming

some lad or lass for doing their work badly! An unkind look or word has

availed to make me shrink into myself as a snail into its shell, while

on the platform opposition makes me speak my best. So I slid into

marriage blindly and stupidly, fearing to give pain; fretted my heart

out for a year; then, roused by harshness and injustice, stiffened and

hardened, and lived with a wall of ice round me within which I waged

mental conflicts that nearly killed me; and learned at last how to live

and work in armour that turned the edge of the weapons that struck it,

and left the flesh beneath unwounded, armour laid aside, but in the

presence of a very few.

 

My first serious attempts at writing were made in 1868, and I took up

two very different lines of composition; I wrote some short stories of

a very flimsy type, and also a work of a much more ambitious character,

"The Lives of the Black Letter Saints." For the sake of the

unecclesiastically trained it may be as well to mention that in the

Calendar of the Church of England there are a number of Saints' Days;

some of these are printed in red, and are Red Letter Days, for which

services are appointed by the Church; others are printed in black, and

are Black Letter Days, and have no special services fixed for them. It

seemed to me that it would be interesting to take each of these days

and write a sketch of the life of the saint belonging to it, and

accordingly I set to work to do so, and gathered various books of

history and legend where-from to collect my "facts." I do not in the

least know what became of that valuable book; I tried Macmillans with

it, and it was sent on by them to some one who was preparing a series

of Church books for the young; later I had a letter from a Church

brotherhood offering to publish it, if I would give it as "an act of

piety" to their order; its ultimate fate is to me unknown.

 

The short stories were more fortunate. I sent the first to the _Family

Herald_, and some weeks afterwards received a letter from which dropped

a cheque as I opened it. Dear me! I have earned a good deal of money

since by my pen, but never any that gave me the intense delight of that

first thirty shillings. It was the first money I had ever earned, and

the pride of the earning was added to the pride of authorship. In my

childish delight and practical religion, I went down on my knees and

thanked God for sending it to me, and I saw myself earning heaps of

golden guineas, and becoming quite a support of the household. Besides,

it was "my very own," I thought, and a delightful sense of independence

came over me. I had not then realised the beauty of the English law,

and the dignified position in which it placed the married woman; I did

not understand that all a married woman earned by law belonged to her

owner, and that she could have nothing that belonged to her of

right.[1] I did not want the money: I was only so glad to have

something of my own to give, and it was rather a shock to learn that it

was not really mine at all.

 

From time to time after that I earned a few pounds for stories in the

same journal; and the _Family Herald_, let me say, has one peculiarity

which should render it beloved by poor authors; it pays its contributor

when it accepts the paper, whether it prints it immediately or not;

thus my first story was not printed for some weeks after I received the

cheque, and it was the same with all the others accepted by the same

journal. Encouraged by these small successes, I began writing a novel!

It took a long time to do, but was at last finished, and sent off to

the _Family Herald_. The poor thing came back, but with a kind note,

telling me that it was too political for their pages, but that if I

would write one of "purely domestic interest," and up to the same

level, it would probably be accepted. But by that time I was in the

full struggle of theological doubt, and that novel of "purely domestic

interest" never got itself written.

 

I contributed further to the literature of my country a theological

pamphlet, of which I forget the exact title, but it dealt with the duty

of fasting incumbent on all faithful Christians, and was very patristic

in its tone.

 

In January, 1869, my little son was born, and as I was very ill for

some months before, and was far too much interested in the tiny

creature afterwards, to devote myself to pen and paper, my literary

career was checked for a while. The baby gave a new interest and a new

pleasure to life, and as we could not afford a nurse I had plenty to do

in looking after his small majesty. My energy in reading became less

feverish when it was done by the side of the baby's cradle, and the

little one's presence almost healed the abiding pain of my mother's

loss.

 

I may pass very quickly over the next two years. In August, 1870, a

little sister was born to my son, and the recovery was slow and

tedious, for my general health had been failing for some time.

 

[Illustration: _From a photograph by Dighton's Art Studio, Cheltenham_.

ANNIE BESANT 1869.]

 

The boy was a bright, healthy little fellow, but the girl was delicate

from birth, suffering from her mother's unhappiness, and born somewhat

prematurely in consequence of a shock. When, in the spring of 1871, the

two children caught the whooping cough, my Mabel's delicacy made the

ordeal well-nigh fatal to her. She was very young for so trying a

disease, and after a while bronchitis set in and was followed by

congestion of the lungs. For weeks she lay in hourly peril of death We

arranged a screen round the fire like a tent, and kept it full of steam

to ease the panting breath; and there I sat, day and night, all through

those weary weeks, the tortured baby on my knees. I loved my little

ones passionately, for their clinging love soothed the aching at my

heart, and their baby eyes could not critically scan the unhappiness

that grew deeper month by month; and that steam-filled tent became my

world, and there, alone, I fought with Death for my child. The doctor

said that recovery was impossible, and that in one of the paroxysms of

coughing she must die; the most distressing thing was that, at last,

even a drop or two of milk would bring on the terrible convulsive

choking, and it seemed cruel to add to the pain of the apparently dying

child. At length, one morning the doctor said she could not last

through the day; I had sent for him hurriedly, for the body had

suddenly swollen up as a result of the perforation of one of the

pleurae, and the consequent escape of air into the cavity of the chest.

While he was there one of the fits of coughing came on, and it seemed

as though it must be the last. He took a small bottle of chloroform out

of his pocket, and putting a drop on a handkerchief held it near the

child's face, till the drug soothed the convulsive struggle. "It can't

do any harm at this stage," he said, "and it checks the suffering." He

went away, saying that he feared he would never see the child alive

again. One of the kindest friends I had in my married life was that

same doctor, Mr. Lauriston Winterbotham; he was as good as he was

clever, and, like so many of his noble profession, he had the merits of

discretion and silence. He never breathed a word as to my unhappiness,

until in 1878 he came up to town to give evidence as to cruelty

which--had the deed of separation not been held as condonation--would

have secured me a divorce _a mensa et thoro._

 

The child, however, recovered, and her recovery was due, I think, to

that chance thought of Mr. Winterbotham's about the chloroform, for I

used it whenever the first sign of a fit of coughing appeared, and so

warded off the convulsive attack and the profound exhaustion that

followed, in which a mere flicker of breath at the top of the throat

was the only sign of life, and sometimes even that disappeared, and I

thought her gone. For years the child remained ailing and delicate,

requiring the tenderest care, but those weeks of anguish left a deeper

trace on mother than on child. Once she was out of danger I collapsed

physically, and lay in bed for a week unmoving, and then rose to face a

struggle which lasted for three years and two months, and nearly cost

me my life, the struggle which transformed me from a Christian into an

Atheist. The agony of the struggle was in the first nineteen months--a

time to be looked back upon with shrinking, as it was a hell to live

through at the time. For no one who has not felt it knows the fearful

anguish inflicted by doubt on the earnestly religious soul. There is in

life no other pain so horrible, so keen in its torture, so crushing in

its weight. It seems to shipwreck everything, to destroy the one steady

gleam of happiness "on the other side" that no earthly storm could

obscure; to make all life gloomy with a horror of despair, a darkness

that verily may be felt. Nothing but an imperious intellectual and

moral necessity can drive into doubt a religious mind, for it is as

though an earthquake shook the foundations of the soul, and the very

being quivers and sways under the shock. No life in the empty sky; no

gleam in the blackness of the night; no voice to break the deadly

silence; no hand outstretched to save. Empty-brained triflers who have

never tried to think, who take their creed as they take their fashions,

speak of Atheism as the outcome of foul life and vicious desires. In

their shallow heartlessness and shallower thought they cannot even

dimly imagine the anguish of entering the mere penumbra of the Eclipse

of Faith, much less the horror of that great darkness in which the

orphaned soul cries out into the infinite emptiness: "Is it a Devil

that has made the world? Is the echo, 'Children, ye have no Father,'

true? Is all blind chance, is all the clash of unconscious forces, or

are we the sentient toys of an Almighty Power that sports with our

agony, whose peals of awful mockery of laughter ring back answer to the

wailings of our despair?"

 

How true are the noble words of Mrs. Hamilton King:--

 

  "For some may follow Truth from dawn to dark,

  As a child follows by his mother's hand,

  Knowing no fear, rejoicing all the way;

  And unto some her face is as a Star

  Set through an avenue of thorns and fires,

  And waving branches black without a leaf;

  And still It draws them, though the feet must bleed,

  Though garments must be rent, and eyes be scorched:

  And if the valley of the shadow of death

  Be passed, and to the level road they come,

  Still with their faces to the polar star,

  It is not with the same looks, the same limbs,

  But halt, and maimed, and of infirmity.

  And for the rest of the way they have to go

  It is not day but night, and oftentimes

  A night of clouds wherein the stars are lost."[2]

 

Aye! but never lost is the Star of Truth to which the face is set, and

while that shines all lesser lights may go. It was the long months of

suffering through which I had been passing, with the seemingly

purposeless torturing of my little one as a climax, that struck the

first stunning blow at my belief in God as a merciful Father of men. I

had been visiting the poor a good deal, and had marked the patient

suffering of their lives; my idolised mother had been defrauded by a

lawyer she had trusted, and was plunged into debt by his non-payment of

the sums that should have passed through his hands to others; my own

bright life had been enshrouded by pain and rendered to me degraded by

an intolerable sense of bondage; and here was my helpless, sinless babe

tortured for weeks and left frail and suffering. The smooth brightness

of my previous life made all the disillusionment more startling, and

the sudden plunge into conditions so new and so unfavourable dazed and

stunned me. My religious past became the worst enemy of the suffering

present. All my personal belief in Christ, all my intense faith in His

constant direction of affairs, all my habit of continual prayer and of

realisation of His Presence--all were against me now. The very height

of my trust was the measure of the shock when the trust gave way. To me

He was no abstract idea, but a living reality, and all my heart rose up

against this Person in whom I believed, and whose individual finger I

saw in my baby's agony, my own misery, the breaking of my mother's

proud heart under a load of debt, and all the bitter suffering of the

poor. The presence of pain and evil in a world made by a good God; the

pain falling on the innocent, as on my seven months' old babe; the pain

begun here reaching on into eternity unhealed; a sorrow-laden world; a

lurid, hopeless hell; all these, while I still believed, drove me

desperate, and instead of like the devils believing and trembling, I

believed and hated. All the hitherto dormant and unsuspected strength

of my nature rose up in rebellion; I did not yet dream of denial, but I

would no longer kneel.

 

As the first stirrings of this hot rebellion moved in my heart I met a

clergyman of a very noble type, who did much to help me by his ready

and wise sympathy. Mr. Besant brought him to see me during the crisis

of the child's illness; he said little, but on the following day I

received from him the following note:--

 

"_April_ 21, 1871.

 

"My Dear Mrs. Besant,--I am painfully conscious that I gave you but

little help in your trouble yesterday. It is needless to say that it

was not from want of sympathy. Perhaps it would be nearer the truth to

say that it was from excess of sympathy. I shrink intensely from

meddling with the sorrow of any one whom I feel to be of a sensitive

nature. 'The heart hath its own bitterness, and the stranger meddleth

not therewith.' It is to me a positively fearful thought that I might

awaken such a reflection as

 

  "'And common was the commonplace,

  And vacant chaff well meant for grain.'

 

Conventional consolations, conventional verses out of the Bible, and

conventional prayers are, it seems to me, an intolerable aggravation of

suffering. And so I acted on a principle that I mentioned to your

husband that 'there is no power so great as that of one human faith

looking upon another human faith.' The promises of God, the love of

Christ for little children, and all that has been given to us of hope

and comfort, are as deeply planted in your heart as in mine, and I did

not care to quote them. But when I talk face to face with one who is in

sore need of them, my faith in them suddenly becomes so vast and

heart-stirring that I think I must help most by talking naturally, and

letting the faith find its own way from soul to soul. Indeed, I could

not find words for it if I tried. And yet I am compelled, as a

messenger of the glad tidings of God, to solemnly assure you that all

is well. We have no key to the 'mystery of pain' excepting the Cross of

Christ. But there is another and a deeper solution in the hands of our

Father; and it will be ours when we can understand it. There is--in the

place to which we travelsome blessed explanation of your baby's pain

and your grief, which will fill with light the darkest heart. Now you

must believe without having seen; that is true faith. You must

 

  "'Reach a hand through time to catch

  The far-off interest of tears.'

 

That you may have strength so to do is part of your share in the

prayers of

 

"Yours very faithfully,

 

"W. D----."

 

A noble letter, but the storm was beating too fiercely to be stilled,

and one night in that summer of 1871 stands out clearly before me. Mr.

Besant was away, and there had been a fierce quarrel before he left. I

was outraged, desperate, with no door of escape from a life that,

losing its hope in God, had not yet learned to live for hope for man.

No door of escape? The thought came like a flash: "There is one!" And

before me there swung open, with lure of peace and of safety, the

gateway into silence and security, the gateway of the tomb. I was

standing by the drawing-room window, staring hopelessly at the evening

sky; with the thought came the remembrance that the means was at

hand--the chloroform that had soothed my baby's pain, and that I had

locked away upstairs. I ran up to my room, took out the bottle, and

carried it downstairs, standing again at the window in the summer

twilight, glad that the struggle was over and peace at hand. I uncorked

the bottle, and was raising it to my lips, when, as though the words

were spoken softly and clearly, I heard: "O coward, coward, who used to

dream of martyrdom, and cannot bear a few short years of pain!" A rush

of shame swept over me, and I flung the bottle far away among the

shrubs in the garden at my feet, and for a moment I felt strong as for

a struggle, and then fell fainting on the floor. Only once again in all

the strifes of my career did the thought of suicide recur, and then it

was but for a moment, to be put aside as unworthy a strong soul.

 

My new friend, Mr. D----, proved a very real help. The endless torture

of hell, the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, the trustworthiness of

revelation, doubts on all these hitherto accepted doctrines grew and

heaped themselves on my bewildered soul. My questionings were neither

shirked nor discouraged by Mr. D----; he was not horrified nor was he

sanctimoniously rebukeful, but met them all with a wide comprehension

inexpressibly soothing to one writhing in the first agonies of doubt.

He left Cheltenham in the early autumn of 1871, but the following

extracts from a letter written in November will show the kind of net in

which I was struggling (I had been reading M'Leod Campbell's work "On

the Atonement"):--

 

"You forget one great principle--that God is impassive, cannot suffer.

Christ, _quâ_ God, did not suffer, but as Son of _Man_ and in His

humanity. Still, it may be correctly stated that He felt to sin and

sinners 'as God eternally feels'--_i.e., abhorrence of sin, and love of

the sinner_. But to infer from that that the Father in His Godhead

feels the sufferings which Christ experienced solely in humanity, and

because incarnate is, I think, wrong.

 

"(2) I felt strongly inclined to blow you up for the last part of your

letter. You assume, I think quite gratuitously, that God condemns the

major part of His children to objectless future suffering. You say that

if He does not, He places a book in their hands which threatens what He

does not mean to inflict. But how utterly this seems to me opposed to

the gospel of Christ! All Christ's references to eternal punishment may

be resolved into references to the Valley of Hinnom, by way of imagery;

with the exception of the Dives parable, where is distinctly inferred a

moral amendment beyond the grave. I speak of the unselfish desire of

Dives to save his brothers. The more I see of the controversy, the more

baseless does the eternal punishment theory appear. It seems then, to

me, that instead of feeling aggrieved and shaken, you ought to feel

encouraged and thankful that God is so much better than you were taught

to believe Him. You will have discovered by this time in Maurice's

'What is Revelation?' (I suppose you have the 'Sequel,' too?), that

God's truth is our truth, and His love is our love, only more perfect

and full. There is no position more utterly defeated in modern

philosophy and theology than Dean Mansel's attempt to show that God's

love, justice, &c., are different in kind from ours. Mill and Maurice,

from totally alien points of view, have shown up the preposterous

nature of the notion.

 

"(3) A good deal of what you have thought is, I fancy, based on a

strange forgetfulness of your former experience. If you have known

Christ--(whom to know is eternal life)--and that you have known Him I

am certain--can you really say that a few intellectual difficulties,

nay, a few moral difficulties if you will, are able at once to

obliterate the testimony of that higher state of being?

 

"Why, the keynote of all my theology is that Christ is lovable because,

and _just_ because, He is the perfection of all that I know to be noble

and generous, and loving, and tender, and true. If an angel from heaven

brought me a gospel which contained doctrines that would not stand the

test of such perfect lovableness--doctrines hard, or cruel, or

unjust--I should reject him and his trumpery gospel with scorn, knowing

that neither could be Christ's. Know Christ and judge religions by Him;

don't judge Him by religions, and then complain because they find

yourself looking at Him through a blood-coloured glass."

 

"I am saturating myself with Maurice, who is the antidote given by God

to this age against all dreary doublings and temptings of the devil to

despair."

 

Many a one, in this age of controversy over all things once held

sacred, has found peace and new light on this line of thought, and has

succeeded in thus reconciling theological doctrines with the demands of

the conscience for love and justice in a world made by a just and

loving God. I could not do so. The awakening to what the world was, to

the facts of human misery, to the ruthless tramp of nature and of

events over the human heart, making no difference between innocent and

guilty--the shock had been too great for the equilibrium to be restored

by arguments that appealed to the emotions and left the intellect

unconvinced. Months of this long-drawn-out mental anguish wrought their

natural effects on physical health, and at last I broke down

completely, and lay for weeks helpless and prostrate, in raging and

unceasing head-pain, unable to sleep, unable to bear the light, lying

like a log on the bed, not unconscious, but indifferent to everything,

consciousness centred, as it were, in the ceaseless pain. The doctor

tried every form of relief, but, entrenched in its citadel, the pain

defied his puny efforts. He covered my head with ice, he gave me

opium--which only drove me mad--he did all that skill and kindness

could do, but all in vain. Finally the pain wore itself out, and the

moment he dared to do so, he tried mental diversion; he brought me

books on anatomy, on science, and persuaded me to study them; and out

of his busy life would steal an hour to explain to me knotty points on

physiology. He saw that if I were to be brought back to reasonable

life, it could only be by diverting thought from the channels in which

the current had been running to a dangerous extent. I have often felt

that I owed life and sanity to that good man, who felt for the

helpless, bewildered child-woman, beaten down by the cyclone of doubt

and misery.

 

So it will easily be understood that my religious wretchedness only

increased the unhappiness of homelife, for how absurd it was that any

reasonable human being should be so tossed with anguish over

intellectual and moral difficulties on religious matters, and should

make herself ill over these unsubstantial troubles. Surely it was a

woman's business to attend to her husband's comforts and to see after

her children, and not to break her heart over misery here and hell

hereafter, and distract her brain with questions that had puzzled the

greatest thinkers and still remained unsolved! And, truly, women or men

who get themselves concerned about the universe at large, would do well

not to plunge hastily into marriage, for they do not run smoothly in

the double-harness of that honourable estate. _Sturm und Drang_ should

be faced alone, and the soul should go out alone into the wilderness to

be tempted of the devil, and not bring his majesty and all his imps

into the placid circle of the home. Unhappy they who go into marriage

with the glamour of youth upon them and the destiny of conflict

imprinted on their nature, for they make misery for their partner in

marriage as well as for themselves. And if that partner, strong in

traditional authority and conventional habits, seeks to "break in" the

turbulent and storm-tossed creature--well, it comes to a mere trial of

strength and endurance, whether that driven creature will fall panting

and crushed, or whether it will turn in its despair, assert its Divine

right to intellectual liberty, rend its fetters in pieces, and,

discovering its own strength in its extremity, speak at all risks its

"No" when bidden to live a lie.

 

When that physical crisis was over I decided on my line of action. I

resolved to take Christianity as it had been taught in the Churches,

and carefully and thoroughly examine its dogmas one by one, so that I

should never again say "I believe" where I had not proved, and that,

however diminished my area of belief, what was left of it might at

least be firm under my feet. I found that four chief problems were

pressing for solution, and to these I addressed myself. How many are

to-day the souls facing just these problems, and disputing every inch

of their old ground of faith with the steadily advancing waves of

historical and scientific criticism! Alas! for the many Canutes, as the

waves wash over their feet. These problems were:--

 

(1) The eternity of punishment after death.

 

(2) The meaning of "goodness" and "love," as applied to a God who had

made this world, with all its sin and misery.

 

(3) The nature of the atonement of Christ, and the "justice" of God in

accepting a vicarious suffering from Christ, and a vicarious

righteousness from the sinner.

 

(4) The meaning of "inspiration" as applied to the Bible, and the

reconciliation of the perfections of the author with the blunders and

immoralities of the work.

 

It will be seen that the deeper problems of religion--the deity of

Christ, the existence of God, the immortality of the soul--were not yet

brought into question, and, looking back, I cannot but see how orderly

was the progression of thought, how steady the growth, after that first

terrible earthquake, and the first wild swirl of agony. The points that

I set myself to study were those which would naturally be first faced

by any one whose first rebellion against the dogmas of the Churches was

a rebellion of the moral nature rather than of the intellectual, a

protest of the conscience rather than of the brain. It was not a desire

for moral licence which gave me the impulse that finally landed me in

Atheism; it was the sense of outraged justice and insulted right. I was

a wife and mother, blameless in moral life, with a deep sense of duty

and a proud self-respect; it was while I was this that doubt struck me,

and while I was in the guarded circle of the home, with no dream of

outside work or outside liberty, that I lost all faith in Christianity.

My education, my mother's example, my inner timidity and self-distrust,

all fenced me in from temptations from without. It was the uprising of

an outraged conscience that made me a rebel against the Churches and

finally an unbeliever in God. And I place this on record, because the

progress of Materialism will never be checked by diatribes against

unbelievers, as though they became unbelievers from desire for vice and

for licence to do evil. What Religion has to face in the controversies

of to-day is not the unbelief of the sty, but the unbelief of the

educated conscience and of the soaring intellect; and unless it can arm

itself with a loftier ethic and a grander philosophy than its opponent,

it will lose its hold over the purest and the strongest of the younger

generation.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER V.

 

THE STORM OF DOUBT.

 

 

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."

 

[Illustration: THOMAS SCOTT.]

 

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.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER VI.

 

CHARLES BRADLAUGH.

 

 

During all these months the intellectual life had not stood still; I

was slowly, cautiously feeling my way onward. And in the intellectual

and social side of my life I found a delight unknown in the old days

of bondage. First, there was the joy of freedom, the joy of speaking

out frankly and honestly each thought. Truly, I had a right to say:

"With a great price obtained I this freedom," and having paid the

price, I revelled in the liberty I had bought. Mr. Scott's valuable

library was at my service; his keen brain challenged my opinions,

probed my assertions, and suggested phases of thought hitherto

untouched. I studied harder than ever, and the study now was unchecked

by any fear of possible consequences. I had nothing left of the old

faith save belief in "a God," and that began slowly to melt away. The

Theistic axiom: "If there be a God at all He must be at least as good

as His highest creature," began with an "if," and to that "if" I

turned my attention. "Of all impossible things," writes Miss Frances

Power Cobbe, "the most impossible must surely be that a man should

dream something of the good and the noble, and that it should prove at

last that his Creator was less good and less noble than he had

dreamed." But, I questioned, are we sure that there is a Creator?

Granted that, if there is, He must be above His highest creature,

but--is there such a being? "The ground," says the Rev. Charles

Voysey, "on which our belief in God rests is man. Man, parent of

Bibles and Churches, inspirer of all good thoughts and good deeds.

Man, the masterpiece of God's thought on earth. Man, the text-book of

all spiritual knowledge. Neither miraculous nor infallible, man is

nevertheless the only trustworthy record of the Divine mind in things

pertaining to God. Man's reason, conscience, and affections are the

only true revelation of his Maker." But what if God were only man's

own image reflected in the mirror of man's mind? What if man were the

creator, not the revelation of his God?

 

It was inevitable that such thoughts should arise after the more

palpably indefensible doctrines of Christianity had been discarded.

Once encourage the human mind to think, and bounds to the thinking can

never again be set by authority. Once challenge traditional beliefs,

and the challenge will ring on every shield which is hanging in the

intellectual arena. Around me was the atmosphere of conflict, and,

freed from its long repression, my mind leapt up to share in the

strife with a joy in the intellectual tumult, the intellectual strain.

 

I often attended South Place Chapel, where Moncure D. Conway was then

preaching, and discussion with him did something towards widening my

views on the deeper religious problems; I re-read Dean Mansel's

"Bampton Lectures," and they did much towards turning me in the

direction of Atheism; I re-read Mill's "Examination of Sir William

Hamilton's Philosophy," and studied carefully Comte's "Philosophie

Positive." Gradually I recognised the limitations of human intelligence

and its incapacity for understanding the nature of God, presented as

infinite and absolute; I had given up the use of prayer as a

blasphemous absurdity, since an all-wise God could not need my

suggestions, nor an all-good God require my promptings. But God fades

out of the daily life of those who never pray; a personal God who is

not a Providence is a superfluity; when from the heaven does not smile

a listening Father, it soon becomes an empty space, whence resounds no

echo of man's cry. I could then reach no loftier conception of the

Divine than that offered by the orthodox, and that broke hopelessly

away as I analysed it.

 

At last I said to Mr. Scott, "Mr. Scott, may I write a tract on the

nature and existence of God?"

 

He glanced at me keenly. "Ah, little lady, you are facing, then, that

problem at last? I thought it must come. Write away."

 

While this pamphlet was in MS. an event occurred which coloured all my

succeeding life. I met Charles Bradlaugh. One day in the late spring,

talking with Mrs. Conway--one of the sweetest and steadiest natures

whom it has been my lot to meet, and to whom, as to her husband, I owe

much for kindness generously shown when I was poor and had but few

friends--she asked me if I had been to the Hall of Science, Old

Street. I answered, with the stupid, ignorant reflection of other

people's prejudices so sadly common, "No, I have never been there. Mr.

Bradlaugh is rather a rough sort of speaker, is he not?"

 

"He is the finest speaker of Saxon-English that I have ever heard,"

she answered, "except, perhaps, John Bright, and his power over a

crowd is something marvellous. Whether you agree with him or not, you

should hear him."

 

In the following July I went into the shop of Mr. Edward Truelove,

256, High Holborn, in search of some Comtist publications, having come

across his name as a publisher in the course of my study at the

British Museum. On the counter was a copy of the _National Reformer_,

and, attracted by the title, I bought it. I read it placidly in the

omnibus on my way to Victoria Station, and found it excellent, and was

sent into convulsions of inward merriment when, glancing up, I saw an

old gentleman gazing at me, with horror speaking from every line of

his countenance. To see a young woman, respectably dressed in crape,

reading an Atheistic journal, had evidently upset his peace of mind,

and he looked so hard at the paper that I was tempted to offer it to

him, but repressed the mischievous inclination.

 

This first copy of the paper with which I was to be so closely

connected bore date July 19, 1874, and contained two long letters from

a Mr. Arnold of Northampton, attacking Mr. Bradlaugh, and a brief and

singularly self-restrained answer from the latter. There was also an

article on the National Secular Society, which made me aware that

there was an organisation devoted to the propagandism of Free Thought.

I felt that if such a society existed, I ought to belong to it, and I

consequently wrote a short note to the editor of the _National

Reformer_, asking whether it was necessary for a person to profess

Atheism before being admitted to the Society. The answer appeared in

the _National Reformer_:--

 

"S.E.--To be a member of the National Secular Society it is only

necessary to be able honestly to accept the four principles, as given

in the _National Reformer_ of June 14th. This any person may do

without being required to avow himself an Atheist. Candidly, we can

see no logical resting-place between the entire acceptance of

authority, as in the Roman Catholic Church, and the most extreme

Rationalism. If, on again looking to the Principles of the Society,

you can accept them, we repeat to you our invitation."

 

I sent my name in as an active member, and find it is recorded in the

_National Reformer_ of August 9th. Having received an intimation that

Londoners could receive their certificates at the Hall of Science from

Mr. Bradlaugh on any Sunday evening, I betook myself thither, and it

was on August 2, 1874, that I first set foot in a Freethought hall.

The Hall was crowded to suffocation, and, at the very moment announced

for the lecture, a roar of cheering burst forth, a tall figure passed

swiftly up the Hall to the platform, and, with a slight bow in answer

to the voluminous greeting, Charles Bradlaugh took his seat. I looked

at him with interest, impressed and surprised. The grave, quiet,

stern, strong face, the massive head, the keen eyes, the magnificent

breadth and height of forehead--was this the man I had heard described

as a blatant agitator, an ignorant demagogue?

 

He began quietly and simply, tracing out the resemblances between the

Krishna and the Christ myths, and as he went from point to point his

voice grew in force and resonance, till it rang round the hall like a

trumpet. Familiar with the subject, I could test the value of his

treatment of it, and saw that his knowledge was as sound as his

language was splendid. Eloquence, fire, sarcasm, pathos, passion, all

in turn were bent against Christian superstition, till the great

audience, carried away by the torrent of the orator's force, hung

silent, breathing soft, as he went on, till the silence that followed

a magnificent peroration broke the spell, and a hurricane of cheers

relieved the tension.

 

He came down the Hall with some certificates in his hand, glanced

round, and handed me mine with a questioning "Mrs. Besant?" Then he

said, referring to my question as to a profession of Atheism, that he

would willingly talk over the subject of Atheism with me if I would

make an appointment, and offered me a book he had been using in his

lecture. Long afterwards I asked him how he knew me, whom he had never

seen, that he came straight to me in such fashion. He laughed and said

he did not know, but, glancing over the faces, he felt sure that I was

Annie Besant.

 

From that first meeting in the Hall of Science dated a friendship that

lasted unbroken till Death severed the earthly bond, and that to me

stretches through Death's gateway and links us together still. As

friends, not as strangers, we met--swift recognition, as it were,

leaping from eye to eye; and I know now that the instinctive

friendliness was in very truth an outgrowth of strong friendship in

other lives, and that on that August day we took up again an ancient

tie, we did not begin a new one. And so in lives to come we shall meet

again, and help each other as we helped each other in this. And let me

here place on record, as I have done before, some word of what I owe

him for his true friendship; though, indeed, how great is my debt to

him I can never tell. Some of his wise phrases have ever remained in

my memory. "You should never say you have an opinion on a subject

until you have tried to study the strongest things said against the

view to which you are inclined." "You must not think you know a

subject until you are acquainted with all that the best minds have

said about it." "No steady work can be done in public unless the

worker study at home far more than he talks outside." "Be your own

harshest judge, listen to your own speech and criticise it; read abuse

of yourself and see what grains of truth are in it." "Do not waste

time by reading opinions that are mere echoes of your own; read

opinions you disagree with, and you will catch aspects of truth you do

not readily see." Through our long comradeship he was my sternest as

well as gentlest critic, pointing out to me that in a party like ours,

where our own education and knowledge were above those whom we led, it

was very easy to gain indiscriminate praise and unstinted admiration;

on the other hand, we received from Christians equally indiscriminate

abuse and hatred. It was, therefore, needful that we should be our own

harshest judges, and that we should be sure that we knew thoroughly

every subject that we taught. He saved me from the superficiality that

my "fatal facility" of speech might so easily have induced; and when I

began to taste the intoxication of easily won applause, his criticism

of weak points, his challenge of weak arguments, his trained judgment,

were of priceless service to me, and what of value there is in my work

is very largely due to his influence, which at once stimulated and

restrained.

 

One very charming characteristic of his was his extreme courtesy in

private life, especially to women. This outward polish, which sat so

gracefully on his massive frame and stately presence, was foreign

rather than English--for the English, as a rule, save such as go to

Court, are a singularly unpolished people--and it gave his manner a

peculiar charm. I asked him once where he had learned his gracious

fashions that were so un-English--he would stand with uplifted hat as

he asked a question of a maidservant, or handed a woman into a

carriage--and he answered, with a half-smile, half-scoff, that it was

only in England he was an outcast from society. In France, in Spain,

in Italy, he was always welcomed among men and women of the highest

social rank, and he supposed that he had unconsciously caught the

foreign tricks of manner. Moreover, he was absolutely indifferent to

all questions of social position; peer or artisan, it was to him

exactly the same; he never seemed conscious of the distinctions of

which men make so much.

 

Our first conversation, after the meeting at the Hall of Science, took

place a day or two later in his little study in 29, Turner Street,

Commercial Road, a wee room overflowing with books, in which he looked

singularly out of place. Later I learned that he had failed in

business in consequence of Christian persecution, and, resolute to

avoid bankruptcy, he had sold everything he possessed, save his books,

had sent his wife and daughters to live in the country with his

father-in-law, had taken two tiny rooms in Turner Street, where he

could live for a mere trifle, and had bent himself to the task of

paying off the liabilities he had incurred--incurred in consequence of

his battling for political and religious liberty. I took with me my

MS. essay "On the Nature and Existence of God," and it served as the

basis for our conversation; we found there was little difference in

our views. "You have thought yourself into Atheism without knowing

it," he said, and all that I changed in the essay was the correction

of the vulgar error that the Atheist says "there is no God," by the

insertion of a passage disclaiming this position from an essay pointed

out to me by Mr. Bradlaugh. And at this stage of my life-story, it is

necessary to put very clearly the position I took up and held so many

years as Atheist, because otherwise the further evolution into

Theosophist will be wholly incomprehensible. It will lead me into

metaphysics, and to some readers these are dry, but if any one would

understand the evolution of a Soul he must be willing to face the

questions which the Soul faces in its growth. And the position of the

philosophic Atheist is so misunderstood that it is the more necessary

to put it plainly, and Theosophists, at least, in reading it, will see

how Theosophy stepped in finally as a further evolution towards

knowledge, rendering rational, and therefore acceptable, the loftiest

spirituality that the human mind can as yet conceive.

 

In order that I may not colour my past thinkings by my present

thought, I take my statements from pamphlets written when I adopted

the Atheistic philosophy and while I continued an adherent thereof. No

charge can then be made that I have softened my old opinions for the

sake of reconciling them with those now held.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER VII.

 

ATHEISM AS I KNEW AND TAUGHT IT.

 

 

The first step which leaves behind the idea of a limited and personal

God, an extra-cosmic Creator, and leads the student to the point

whence Atheism and Pantheism diverge, is the recognition that a

profound unity of substance underlies the infinite diversities of

natural phenomena, the discernment of the One beneath the Many. This

was the step I had taken ere my first meeting with Charles Bradlaugh,

and I had written:--

 

"It is manifest to all who will take the trouble to think steadily,

that there can be only one eternal and underived substance, and that

matter and spirit must, therefore, only be varying manifestations of

this one substance. The distinction made between matter and spirit is,

then, simply made for the sake of convenience and clearness, just as

we may distinguish perception from judgment, both of which, however,

are alike processes of thought. Matter is, in its constituent elements,

the same as spirit; existence is _one_, however manifold in its

phenomena; life is one, however multiform in its evolution. As the

heat of the coal differs from the coal itself, so do memory,

perception, judgment, emotion, and will differ from the brain which is

the instrument of thought. But nevertheless they are all equally

products of the one sole substance, varying only in their

conditions.... I find myself, then, compelled to believe that one only

substance exists in all around me; that the universe is eternal, or at

least eternal so far as our faculties are concerned, since we cannot,

as some one has quaintly put it, 'get to the outside of everywhere';

that a Deity cannot be conceived of as apart from the universe; that

the Worker and the Work are inextricably interwoven, and in some sense

eternally and indissolubly combined. Having got so far, we will

proceed to examine into the possibility of proving the existence of

that one essence popularly called by the name of _God_, under the

conditions strictly defined by the orthodox. Having demonstrated, as I

hope to do, that the orthodox idea of God is unreasonable and absurd,

we will endeavour to ascertain whether _any_ idea of God, worthy to be

called an idea, is attainable in the present state of our faculties."

"The Deity must of necessity be that one and only substance out of

which all things are evolved, under the uncreated conditions and

eternal laws of the universe; He must be, as Theodore Parker somewhat

oddly puts it, 'the materiality of matter as well as the spirituality

of spirit'--_i.e._, these must both be products of this one substance;

a truth which is readily accepted as soon as spirit and matter are

seen to be but different modes of one essence. Thus we identify

substance with the all-comprehending and vivifying force of nature,

and in so doing we simply reduce to a physical impossibility the

existence of the Being described by the orthodox as a God possessing

the attributes of personality. The Deity becomes identified with

nature, co-extensive with the universe, but the _God_ of the orthodox

no longer exists; we may change the signification of God, and use the

word to express a different idea, but we can no longer mean by it a

Personal Being in the orthodox sense, possessing an individuality

which divides Him from the rest of the universe."[3]

 

Proceeding to search whether _any_ idea of God was attainable, I came

to the conclusion that evidence of the existence of a conscious Power

was lacking, and that the ordinary proofs offered were inconclusive;

that we could grasp phenomena and no more. "There appears, also, to

be a possibility of a mind in nature, though we have seen that

intelligence is, strictly speaking, impossible. There cannot be

perception, memory, comparison, or judgment, but may there not be a

perfect mind, unchanging, calm, and still? Our faculties fail us when

we try to estimate the Deity, and we are betrayed into contradictions

and absurdities; but does it therefore follow that He _is_ not? It

seems to me that to deny His existence is to overstep the boundaries

of our thought-power almost as much as to try and define it. We

pretend to know the Unknown if we declare Him to be the Unknowable.

Unknowable to us at present, yes! Unknowable for ever, in other

possible stages of existence? We have reached a region into which we

cannot penetrate; here all human faculties fail us; we bow our heads

on 'the threshold of the unknown.'

 

  "'And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see,

  But if we could see and hear, this vision--were it not He?'

 

Thus sings Alfred Tennyson, the poet of metaphysics: '_if_ we could

see and hear.' Alas! it is always an 'if!'[4]

 

This refusal to believe without evidence, and the declaration that

anything "behind phenomena" is unknowable to man as at present

constituted--these are the two chief planks of the Atheistic platform,

as Atheism was held by Charles Bradlaugh and myself. In 1876 this

position was clearly reaffirmed. "It is necessary to put briefly the

Atheistic position, for no position is more continuously and more

persistently misrepresented. Atheism is _without_ God. It does not

assert _no_ God. 'The Atheist does not say "There is no God," but he

says, "I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the

word God is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation.

I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that of which I have no

conception, and the conception of which, by its affirmer, is so

imperfect that he is unable to define it to me."' (Charles Bradlaugh,

"Freethinker's Text-book," p. 118.) The Atheist neither affirms nor

denies the possibility of phenomena differing from those recognised by

human experience.... As his knowledge of the universe is extremely

limited and very imperfect, the Atheist declines either to deny or to

affirm anything with regard to modes of existence of which he knows

nothing. Further, he refuses to believe anything concerning that of

which he knows nothing, and affirms that that which can never be the

subject of knowledge ought never to be the object of belief. While the

Atheist, then, neither affirms nor denies the unknown, he _does_ deny

all which conflicts with the knowledge to which he has already

attained. For example, he _knows_ that one is one, and that three

times one are three; he _denies_ that three times one are, or can be,

one. The position of the Atheist is a clear and a reasonable one: I

know nothing about 'God,' and therefore I do not believe in Him or in

it; what you tell me about your God is self-contradictory, and is

therefore incredible. I do not deny 'God,' which is an unknown tongue

to me; I do deny your God, who is an impossibility. I am without

God."[5] Up to 1887 I find myself writing on the same lines: "No man

can rationally affirm 'There is no God,' until the word 'God' has for

him a definite meaning, and until everything that exists is known to

him, and known with what Leibnitz calls 'perfect knowledge.' The

Atheist's denial of the Gods begins only when these Gods are defined

or described. Never yet has a God been defined in terms which were not

palpably self-contradictory and absurd; never yet has a God been

described so that a concept of Him was made possible to human

thought--Nor is anything gained by the assertors of Deity when they

allege that He is incomprehensible. If 'God' exists and is

incomprehensible, His incomprehensibility is an admirable reason for

being silent about Him, but can never justify the affirmation of

self-contradictory propositions, and the threatening of people with

damnation if they do not accept them."[6] "The belief of the Atheist

stops where his evidence stops. He believes in the existence of the

universe, judging the accessible proof thereof to be adequate, and he

finds in this universe sufficient cause for the happening of all

phenomena. He finds no intellectual satisfaction in placing a gigantic

conundrum behind the universe, which only adds its own

unintelligibility to the already sufficiently difficult problem of

existence. Our lungs are not fitted to breathe beyond the atmosphere

which surrounds our globe, and our faculties cannot breathe outside

the atmosphere of the phenomenal."[7] And I summed up this essay with

the words: "I do not believe in God. My mind finds no grounds on which

to build up a reasonable faith. My heart revolts against the spectre

of an Almighty Indifference to the pain of sentient beings. My

conscience rebels against the injustice, the cruelty, the inequality,

which surround me on every side. But I believe in Man. In man's

redeeming power; in man's remoulding energy; in man's approaching

triumph, through knowledge, love, and work."[8]

 

These views of existence naturally colour all views of life and of the

existence of the Soul. And here steps in the profound difference

between Atheism and Pantheism; both posit an Existence at present

inscrutable by human faculties, of which all phenomena are modes; but

to the Atheist that Existence manifests as Force-Matter, unconscious,

unintelligent, while to the Pantheist it manifests as Life-Matter,

conscious, intelligent. To the one, life and consciousness are

attributes, properties, dependent upon arrangements of matter; to the

other they are fundamental, essential, and only limited in their

manifestation by arrangements of matter. Despite the attraction held

for me in Spinoza's luminous arguments, the over-mastering sway which

Science was beginning to exercise over me drove me to seek for the

explanation of all problems of life and mind at the hands of the

biologist and the chemist. They had done so much, explained so much,

could they not explain all? Surely, I thought, the one safe ground is

that of experiment, and the remembered agony of doubt made me very

slow to believe where I could not prove. So I was fain to regard life

as an attribute, and this again strengthened the Atheistic position.

"Scientifically regarded, life is not an entity but a property; it is

not a mode of existence, but a characteristic of certain modes. Life

is the result of an arrangement of matter, and when rearrangement

occurs the former result can no longer be present; we call the result

of the changed arrangement death. Life and death are two convenient

words for expressing the general outcome of two arrangements of

matter, one of which is always found to precede the other."[9] And

then, having resorted to chemistry for one illustration, I took

another from one of those striking and easily grasped analogies,

facility for seeing and presenting which has ever been one of the

secrets of my success as a propagandist. Like pictures, they impress

the mind of the hearer with a vivid sense of reality. "Every one knows

the exquisite iridiscence of mother-of-pearl, the tender, delicate

hues which melt into each other, glowing with soft radiance. How

different is the dull, dead surface of a piece of wax. Yet take that

dull, black wax and mould it so closely to the surface of the

mother-of-pearl that it shall take every delicate marking of the

shell, and when you raise it the seven-hued glory shall smile at you

from the erstwhile colourless surface. For, though it be to the naked

eye imperceptible, all the surface of the mother-of-pearl is in

delicate ridges and furrows, like the surface of a newly-ploughed

field; and when the waves of light come dashing up against the ridged

surface, they are broken like the waves on a shingly shore, and are

flung backwards, so that they cross each other and the oncoming waves;

and, as every ray of white light is made up of waves of seven colours,

and these waves differ in length each from the others, the fairy

ridges fling them backward separately, and each ray reaches the eye by

itself; so that the colour of the mother-of-pearl is really the spray

of the light waves, and comes from arrangement of matter once again.

Give the dull, black wax the same ridges and furrows, and its glory

shall differ in nothing from that of the shell. To apply our

illustration: as the colour belongs to one arrangement of matter and

the dead surface to another, so life belongs to some arrangements of

matter and is their resultant, while the resultant of other

arrangements is death."[10]

 

The same line of reasoning naturally was applied to the existence of

"spirit" in man, and it was argued that mental activity, the domain of

the "spirit," was dependent on bodily organisation. "When the babe is

born it shows no sign of mind. For a brief space hunger and repletion,

cold and warmth are its only sensations. Slowly the specialised senses

begin to function; still more slowly muscular movements, at first

aimless and reflex, become co-ordinated and consciously directed.

There is no sign here of an intelligent spirit controlling a

mechanism; there is every sign of a learning and developing

intelligence, developing _pari passu_ with the organism of which it is

a function. As the body grows, the mind grows with it, and the

childish mind of the child develops into the hasty, quickly-judging,

half-informed, unbalanced youthful mind of the youth; with maturity of

years comes maturity of mind, and body and mind are vigorous and in

their prime. As old age comes on and the bodily functions decay, the

mind decays also, until age passes into senility, and body and mind

sink into second childhood. Has the immortal spirit decayed with the

organisation, or is it dwelling in sorrow, bound in its 'house of

clay'? If this be so, the 'spirit' must be unconscious, or else

separate from the very individual whose essence it is supposed to be,

for the old man does not suffer when his mind is senile, but is

contented as a little child. And not only is this constant,

simultaneous growth and decay of body and mind to be observed, but we

know that mental functions are disordered and suspended by various

physical conditions. Alcohol, many drugs, fever, disorder the mind; a

blow on the cranium suspends its functions, and the 'spirit' returns

with the surgeon's trepanning. Does the 'spirit' take part in dreams?

Is it absent from the idiot, from the lunatic? Is it guilty of

manslaughter when the madman murders, or does it helplessly watch its

own instrument performing actions at which it shudders? If it can only

work here through an organism, is its nature changed in its

independent life, severed from all with which it was identified? Can

it, in its 'disembodied state,' have anything in common with its

past?"[11]

 

It will be seen that my unbelief in the existence of the Soul or

Spirit was a matter of cold, calm reasoning. As I wrote in 1885: "For

many of us evidence must precede belief. I would gladly believe in a

happy immortality for all, as I would gladly believe that all misery

and crime and poverty will disappear in 1885--_if I could_. But I am

unable to believe an improbable proposition unless convincing evidence

is brought in support of it. Immortality is most improbable; no

evidence is brought forward in its favour. I cannot believe only

because I wish."[12] Such was the philosophy by which I lived from

1874 to 1886, when first some researches that will be dealt with in

their proper place, and which led me ultimately to the evidence I had

before vainly demanded, began to shake my confidence in its adequacy.

Amid outer storm and turmoil and conflict, I found it satisfy my

intellect, while lofty ideals of morality fed my emotions. I called

myself Atheist, and rightly so, for I was without God, and my horizon

was bounded by life on earth; I gloried in the name then, as it is

dear to my heart now, for all the associations with which it is

connected. "Atheist is one of the grandest titles a man can wear; it

is the Order of Merit of the world's heroes. Most great discoverers,

most deep-thinking philosophers, most earnest reformers, most toiling

pioneers of progress, have in their turn had flung at them the name of

Atheist. It was howled over the grave of Copernicus; it was clamoured

round the death-pile of Bruno; it was yelled at Vanini, at Spinoza, at

Priestley, at Voltaire, at Paine; it has become the laurel-bay of the

hero, the halo of the martyr; in the world's history it has meant the

pioneer of progress, and where the cry of 'Atheist' is raised there

may we be sure that another step is being taken towards the redemption

of humanity. The saviours of the world are too often howled at as

Atheists, and then worshipped as Deities. The Atheists are the

vanguard of the army of Freethought, on whom falls the brunt of the

battle, and are shivered the hardest of the blows; their feet trample

down the thorns that others may tread unwounded; their bodies fill up

the ditch that, by the bridge thus made, others may pass to victory.

Honour to the pioneers of progress, honour to the vanguard of

Liberty's army, honour to those who to improve earth have forgotten

heaven, and who in their zeal for man have forgotten God."[13]

 

This poor sketch of the conception of the universe, to which I had

conquered my way at the cost of so much pain, and which was the inner

centre round which my life revolved for twelve years, may perhaps show

that the Atheistic Philosophy is misjudged sorely when it is scouted

as vile or condemned as intellectually degraded. It has outgrown

anthropomorphic deities, and it leaves us face to face with Nature,

open to all her purifying, strengthening inspirations. "There is only

one kind of prayer," it says, "which is reasonable, and that is the

deep, silent adoration of the greatness and beauty and order around

us, as revealed in the realms of non-rational life and in Humanity; as

we bow our heads before the laws of the universe, and mould our lives

into obedience to their voice, we find a strong, calm peace steal over

our hearts, a perfect trust in the ultimate triumph of the right, a

quiet determination to 'make our lives sublime.' Before our own high

ideals, before those lives which show us 'how high the tides of Divine

life have risen in the human world,' we stand with hushed voice and

veiled face; from them we draw strength to emulate, and even dare

struggle to excel. The contemplation of the ideal is true prayer; it

inspires, it strengthens, it ennobles. The other part of prayer is

work; from contemplation to labour, from the forest to the street.

Study nature's laws, conform to them, work in harmony with them, and

work becomes a prayer and a thanksgiving, an adoration of the

universal wisdom, and a true obedience to the universal law."[14]

 

To a woman of my temperament, filled with passionate desire for the

bettering of the world, the elevation of humanity, a lofty system of

ethics was of even more importance than a logical, intellectual

conception of the universe; and the total loss of all faith in a

righteous God only made me more strenuously assertive of the binding

nature of duty and the overwhelming importance of conduct. In 1874

this conviction found voice in a pamphlet on the "True Basis of

Morality," and in all the years of my propaganda on the platform of

the National Secular Society no subject was more frequently dealt with

in my lectures than that of human ethical growth and the duty of man

to man. No thought was more constantly in my mind than that of the

importance of morals, and it was voiced at the very outset of my

public career. Speaking of the danger lest "in these stirring times of

inquiry," old sanctions of right conduct should be cast aside ere new

ones were firmly established, I wrote: "It therefore becomes the duty

of every one who fights in the ranks of Freethought, and who ventures

to attack the dogmas of the Churches, and to strike down the

superstitions which enslave men's intellect, to beware how he uproots

sanctions of morality which he is too weak to replace, or how, before

he is prepared with better ones, he removes the barriers which do yet,

however poorly, to some extent check vice and repress crime.... That

which touches morality touches the heart of society; a high and pure

morality is the life-blood of humanity; mistakes in belief are

inevitable, and are of little moment; mistakes in life destroy

happiness, and their destructive consequences spread far and wide. It

is, then, a very important question whether we, who are endeavouring

to take away from the world the authority on which has hitherto been

based all its morality, can offer a new and firm ground whereupon may

safely be built up the fair edifice of a noble life."

 

I then proceeded to analyse revelation and intuition as a basis for

morals, and, discarding both, I asserted: "The true basis of morality

is utility; that is, the adaptation of our actions to the promotion of

the general welfare and happiness; the endeavour so to rule our lives

that we may serve and bless mankind." And I argued for this basis,

showing that the effort after virtue was implied in the search for

happiness: "Virtue is an indispensable part of all true and solid

happiness.... But it is, after all, only reasonable that happiness

should be the ultimate test of right and wrong, if we live, as we do,

in a realm of law. Obedience to law must necessarily result in

harmony, and disobedience in discord. But if obedience to law result

in harmony it must also result in happiness--all through nature

obedience to law results in happiness, and through obedience each

living thing fulfils the perfection of its being, and in that

perfection finds its true happiness." It seemed to me most important

to remove morality from the controversies about religion, and to give

it a basis of its own: "As, then, the grave subject of the existence

of Deity is a matter of dispute, it is evidently of deep importance to

society that morality should not be dragged into this battlefield, to

stand or totter with the various theories of the Divine nature which

human thought creates and destroys. If we can found morality on a

basis apart from theology, we shall do humanity a service which can

scarcely be overestimated." A study of the facts of nature, of the

consequences of man in society, seemed sufficient for such a basis.

"Our faculties do not suffice to tell us about God; they do suffice to

study phenomena, and to deduce laws from correlated facts. Surely,

then, we should do wisely to concentrate our strength and our energies

on the discovery of the attainable, instead of on the search after the

unknowable. If we are told that morality consists in obedience to the

supposed will of a supposed perfectly moral being, because in so doing

we please God, then we are at once placed in a region where our

faculties are useless to us, and where our judgment is at fault. But

if we are told that we are to lead noble lives, because nobility of

life is desirable for itself alone, because in so doing we are acting

in harmony with the laws of Nature, because in so doing we spread

happiness around our pathway and gladden our fellow-men--then, indeed,

motives are appealed to which spring forward to meet the call, and

chords are struck in our hearts which respond in music to the touch."

It was to the establishment of this secure basis that I bent my

energies, this that was to me of supreme moment. "Amid the fervid

movement of society, with its wild theories and crude social reforms,

with its righteous fury against oppression and its unconsidered

notions of wider freedom and gladder life, it is of vital importance

that morality should stand on a foundation unshakable; that so through

all political and religious revolutions human life may grow purer and

nobler, may rise upwards into settled freedom, and not sink downwards

into anarchy. Only utility can afford us a sure basis, the

reasonableness of which will be accepted alike by thoughtful student

and hard-headed artisan. Utility appeals to all alike, and sets in

action motives which are found equally in every human heart. Well

shall it be for humanity that creeds and dogmas pass away, that

superstition vanishes, and the clear light of freedom and science

dawns on a regenerated earth--but well only if men draw tighter and

closer the links of trustworthiness, of honour, and of truth. Equality

before the law is necessary and just; liberty is the birthright of

every man and woman; free individual development will elevate and

glorify the race. But little worth these priceless jewels, little

worth liberty and equality with all their promise for mankind, little

worth even wider happiness, if that happiness be selfish, if true

fraternity, true brotherhood, do not knit man to man, and heart to

heart, in loyal service to the common need, and generous

self-sacrifice to the common good."[15]

 

To the forwarding of this moral growth of man, two things seemed to me

necessary--an Ideal which should stir the emotions and impel to

action, and a clear understanding of the sources of evil and of the

methods by which they might be drained. Into the drawing of the first

I threw all the passion of my nature, striving to paint the Ideal in

colours which should enthral and fascinate, so that love and desire to

realise might stir man to effort. If "morality touched by emotion" be

religion, then truly was I the most religious of Atheists, finding in

this dwelling on and glorifying of the Ideal full satisfaction for the

loftiest emotions. To meet the fascination exercised over men's hearts

by the Man of Sorrows, I raised the image of man triumphant, man

perfected. "Rightly is the ideal Christian type of humanity a Man of

Sorrows. Jesus, with worn and wasted body; with sad, thin lips, curved

into a mournful droop of penitence for human sin; with weary eyes

gazing up to heaven because despairing of earth; bowed down and aged

with grief and pain, broken-hearted with long anguish, broken-spirited

with unresisted ill-usage--such is the ideal man of the Christian

creed. Beautiful with a certain pathetic beauty, telling of the long

travail of earth, eloquent of the sufferings of humanity, but not the

model type to which men should conform their lives, if they would make

humanity glorious. And, therefore, in radiant contrast with this,

stands out in the sunshine and under the blue summer sky, far from

graveyards and torture of death agony, the fair ideal Humanity of the

Atheist. In form strong and fair, perfect in physical development as

the Hercules of Grecian art, radiant with love, glorious in

self-reliant power; with lips bent firm to resist oppression, and

melting into soft curves of passion and of pity; with deep, far-seeing

eyes, gazing piercingly into the secrets of the unknown, and resting

lovingly on the beauties around him; with hands strong to work in the

present; with heart full of hope which the future shall realise;

making earth glad with his labour and beautiful with his skill--this,

this is the Ideal Man, enshrined in the Atheist's heart. The ideal

humanity of the Christian is the humanity of the slave, poor, meek,

broken-spirited, humble, submissive to authority, however oppressive

and unjust; the ideal humanity of the Atheist is the humanity of the

free man who knows no lord, who brooks no tyranny, who relies on his

own strength, who makes his brother's quarrel his, proud,

true-hearted, loyal, brave."[16]

 

A one-sided view? Yes. But a very natural outcome of a sunny nature,

for years held down by unhappiness and the harshness of an outgrown

creed. It was the rebound of such a nature suddenly set free,

rejoicing in its liberty and self-conscious strength, and it carried

with it a great power of rousing the sympathetic enthusiasm of men and

women, deeply conscious of their own restrictions and their own

longings. It was the cry of the freed soul that had found articulate

expression, and the many inarticulate and prisoned souls answered to

it tumultously, with fluttering of caged wings. With hot insistence I

battled for the inspiration to be drawn from the beauty and grandeur

of which human life was capable. "Will any one exclaim, 'You are

taking all beauty out of human life, all hope, all warmth, all

inspiration; you give us cold duty for filial obedience, and

inexorable law in the place of God'? All beauty from life? Is there,

then, no beauty in the idea of forming part of the great life of the

universe, no beauty in conscious harmony with Nature, no beauty in

faithful service, no beauty in ideals of every virtue? 'All hope'?

Why, I give you more than hope, I give you certainty; if I bid you

labour for this world, it is with the knowledge that this world will

repay you a, thousand-fold, because society will grow purer, freedom

more settled, law more honoured, life more full and glad. What is your

heaven? A heaven in the clouds! I point to a heaven attainable on

earth. 'All warmth'? What! you serve warmly a God unknown and

invisible, in a sense the projected shadow of your own imaginings, and

can only serve coldly your brother whom you see at your side? There is

no warmth in brightening the lot of the sad, in reforming abuses, in

establishing equal justice for rich and poor? You find warmth in the

church, but none in the home? Warmth in imagining the cloud glories of

heaven, but none in creating substantial glories on earth?' All

inspiration'? If you want inspiration to feeling, to sentiment,

perhaps you had better keep to your Bible and your creeds; if you want

inspiration to work, go and walk through the East of London, or the

back streets of Manchester. You are inspired to tenderness as you gaze

at the wounds of Jesus, dead in Judaea long ago, and find no

inspiration in the wounds of men and women, dying in the England of

to-day? You 'have tears to shed for Him,' but none for the sufferer at

your doors? His passion arouses your sympathies, but you see no pathos

in the passion of the poor? Duty is colder than 'filial obedience'?

What do you mean by filial obedience? Obedience to your ideal of

goodness and love--is it not so? Then how is duty cold? I offer you

ideals for your homage: here is Truth for your Mistress, to whose

exaltation you shall devote your intellect; here is Freedom for your

General, for whose triumph you shall fight; here is Love for your

Inspirer, who shall influence your every thought; here is Man for your

Master--not in heaven, but on earth--to whose service you shall

consecrate every faculty of your being. 'Inexorable law in the place

of God'? Yes; a stern certainty that you shall not waste your life,

yet gather a rich reward at the close; that you shall not sow misery,

yet reap gladness; that you shall not be selfish, yet be crowned with

love; nor shall you sin, yet find safety in repentance. True, our

creed _is_ a stern one, stern with the beautiful sternness of Nature.

But if we be in the right, look to yourselves; laws do not check their

action for your ignorance; fire will not cease to scorch, because you

'did not know.'"[17]

 

With equal vigour did I maintain that "virtue was its own reward," and

that payment on the other side of the grave was unnecessary as an

incentive to right living. "What shall we say to Miss Cobbe's

contention that duty will 'grow grey and cold' without God and

immortality? Yes, for those with whom duty is a matter of selfish

calculation, and who are virtuous only because they look for a 'golden

crown' in payment on the other side the grave. Those of us who find

joy in right-doing, who work because work is useful to our fellows,

who live well because in such living we pay our contribution to the

world's wealth, leaving earth richer than we found it--we need no

paltry payment after death for our life's labour, for in that labour

is its own 'exceeding great reward.'"[18] But did any one yearn for

immortality, that "not all of me shall die"? "Is it true that Atheism

has no immortality? What is true immortality? Is Beethoven's true

immortality in his continued personal consciousness, or in his

glorious music deathless while the world endures? Is Shelley's true

life in his existence in some far-off heaven, or in the pulsing

liberty his lyrics send through men's hearts, when they respond to the

strains of his lyre? Music does not die, though one instrument be

broken; thought does not die, though one brain be shivered; love does

not die, though one heart's strings be rent; and no great thinker dies

so long as his thought re-echoes through the ages, its melody the

fuller-toned the more human brains send its music on. Not only to the

hero and the sage is this immortality given; it belongs to each

according to the measure of his deeds; world-wide life for world-wide

service; straitened life for straitened work; each reaps as he sows,

and the harvest is gathered by each in his rightful order."[19]

 

This longing to leave behind a name that will live among men by right

of service done them, this yearning for human love and approval that

springs naturally from the practical and intense realisation of human

brotherhood--these will be found as strong motives in the breasts of

the most earnest men and women who have in our generation identified

themselves with the Freethought cause. They shine through the written

and spoken words of Charles Bradlaugh all through his life, and every

friend of his knows how often he has expressed the longing that "when

the grass grows green over my grave, men may love me a little for the

work I tried to do."

 

Needless to say that, in the many controversies in which I took part,

it was often urged against me that such motives were insufficient,

that they appealed only to natures already ethically developed, and

left the average man, and, above all, the man below the average, with

no sufficiently constraining motive for right conduct. I resolutely

held to my faith in human nature, and the inherent response of the

human heart when appealed to from the highest grounds; strange--I

often think now--this instinctive certainty I had of man's innate

grandeur, that governed all my thought, inconsistent as that certainty

was with my belief in his purely animal ancestry. Pressed too hard, I

would take refuge in a passionate disdain for all who did not hear the

thrilling voice of Virtue and love her for her own sweet sake. "I have

myself heard the question asked: 'Why should I seek for truth, and why

should I lead a good life, if there be no immortality in which to reap

a reward?' To this question the Freethinker has one clear and short

answer: 'There is no reason why you should seek Truth, if to you the

search has no attracting power. There is no reason why you should lead

a noble life, if you find your happiness in leading a poor and a base

one.' Friends, no one can enjoy a happiness which is too high for his

capabilities; a book may be of intensest interest, but a dog will very

much prefer being given a bone. To him whose highest interest is

centred in his own miserable self, to him who cares only to gain his

own ends, to him who seeks only his own individual comfort, to that

man Freethought can have no attraction. Such a man may indeed be made

religious by a bribe of heaven; he may be led to seek for truth,

because he hopes to gain his reward hereafter by the search; but Truth

disdains the service of the self-seeker; she cannot be grasped by a

hand that itches for reward. If Truth is not loved for her own pure

sake, if to lead a noble life, if to make men happier, if to spread

brightness around us, if to leave the world better than we found

it--if these aims have no attraction for us, if these thoughts do not

inspire us, then we are not worthy to be Secularists, we have no right

to the proud title of Freethinkers. If you want to be paid for your

good lives by living for ever in a lazy and useless fashion in an idle

heaven; if you want to be bribed into nobility of life; if, like silly

children, you learn your lesson not to gain knowledge but to win

sugar-plums, then you had better go back to your creeds and your

churches; they are all you are fit for; you are not worthy to be free.

But we--who, having caught a glimpse of the beauty of Truth, deem the

possession of her worth more than all the world beside; who have made

up our minds to do our work ungrudgingly, asking for no reward beyond

the results which spring up from our labour--we will spread the Gospel

of Freethought among men, until the sad minor melodies of Christianity

have sobbed out their last mournful notes on the dying evening breeze,

and on the fresh morning winds shall ring out the chorus of hope and

joyfulness, from the glad lips of men whom the Truth has at last set

free."[20]

 

The intellectual comprehension of the sources of evil and the method

of its extinction was the second great plank in my ethical platform.

The study of Darwin and Herbert Spencer, of Huxley, Büchner and

Haeckel, had not only convinced me of the truth of evolution, but,

with help from W.H. Clifford, Lubbock, Buckle, Lecky, and many

another, had led me to see in the evolution of the social instinct the

explanation of the growth of conscience and of the strengthening of

man's mental and moral nature. If man by study of the conditions

surrounding him and by the application of intelligence to the subdual

of external nature, had already accomplished so much, why should not

further persistence along the same road lead to his complete

emancipation? All the evil, anti-social side of his nature was an

inheritance from his brute ancestry, and could be gradually

eradicated; he could not only "let the ape and tiger die," but he

could kill them out." It may be frankly acknowledged that man inherits

from his brute progenitors various bestial tendencies which are in

course of elimination. The wild-beast desire to fight is one of these,

and this has been encouraged, not checked, by religion.... Another

bestial tendency is the lust of the male for the female apart from

love, duty, and loyalty; this again has been encouraged by religion,

as witness the polygamy and concubinage of the Hebrews--as in Abraham,

David, and Solomon, not to mention the precepts of the Mosaic

laws--the bands of male and female prostitutes in connection with

Pagan temples, and the curious outbursts of sexual passion in

connection with religious revivals and missions. Another bestial

tendency is greed, the strongest grabbing all he can and trampling

down the weak, in the mad struggle for wealth; how and when has

religion modified this tendency, sanctified as it is in our present

civilisation? All these bestial tendencies will be eradicated only by

the recognition of human duty, of the social bond. Religion has not

eradicated them, but science, by tracing them to their source in our

brute ancestry, has explained them and has shown them in their true

light. As each recognises that the anti-social tendencies are the

bestial tendencies in man, and that man in evolving further must

evolve out of these, each also feels it part of his personal duty to

curb these in himself, and so to rise further from the brute. This

rational 'co-operation with Nature' distinguishes the scientific from

the religious person, and this constraining sense of obligation is

becoming stronger and stronger in all those who, in losing faith in

God, have gained hope for man."[21]

 

For this rational setting of oneself on the side of the forces working

for evolution implied active co-operation by personal purity and

nobility." To the Atheist it seems that the knowledge that the

perfecting of the race is only possible by the improvement of the

individual, supplies the most constraining motive which can be

imagined for efforts after personal perfection. The Theist may desire

personal perfection, but his desire is self-centred; each righteous

individual is righteous, as it were, alone, and his righteousness does

not benefit his fellows save as it may make him helpful and loving in

his dealings with them. The Atheist desires personal perfection not

only for his joy in it as beautiful in itself, but because science has

taught him the unity of the race, and he knows that each fresh

conquest of his over the baser parts of his nature, and each

strengthening of the higher, is a gain for all, and not for himself

alone."[22]

 

Besides all this, the struggle against evil, regarded as transitory

and as a necessary concomitant of evolution, loses its bitterness. "In

dealing with evil, Atheism is full of hope instead of despair. To the

Christian, evil is as everlasting as good; it exists by the permission

of God, and, therefore, by the will of God. Our nature is corrupt,

inclined to evil; the devil is ever near us, working all sin and all

misery. What hope has the Christian face to face with a world's

wickedness? what answer to the question, Whence comes sin? To the

Atheist the terrible problem has in it no figure of despair. Evil

comes from ignorance, we say; ignorance of physical and of moral

facts. Primarily, from ignorance of physical order; parents who dwell

in filthy, unventilated, unweathertight houses, who live on

insufficient, innutritious, unwholesome food, will necessarily be

unhealthy, will lack vitality, will probably have disease lurking in

their veins; such parents will bring into the world ill-nurtured

children, in whom the brain will generally be the least developed part

of the body; such children, by their very formation, will incline to

the animal rather than to the human, and by leading an animal, or

natural, life will be deficient in those qualities which are necessary

in social life. Their surroundings as they grow up, the home, the

food, the associates, all are bad. They are trained into vice,

educated into criminality; so surely as from the sown corn rises the

wheat-ear, so from the sowing of misery, filth, and starvation shall

arise crime. And the root of all is poverty and ignorance. Educate the

children, and give them fair wage for fair work in their maturity, and

crime will gradually diminish and ultimately disappear. Man is

God-made, says Theism; man is circumstance-made, says Atheism. Man is

the resultant of what his parents were, of what his surroundings have

been and are, and of what they have made him; himself the result of

the past he modifies the actual, and so the action and reaction go on,

he himself the effect of what is past, and one of the causes of what

is to come. Make the circumstances good and the results will be good,

for healthy bodies and healthy brains may be built up, and from a

State composed of such the disease of crime will have disappeared.

Thus is our work full of hope; no terrible will of God have we to

struggle against; no despairful future to look forward to, of a world

growing more and more evil, until it is, at last, to burned up; but a

glad, fair future of an ever-rising race, where more equal laws, more

general education, more just division, shall eradicate pauperism,

destroy ignorance, nourish independence, a future to be made the

grander by our struggles, a future to be made the nearer by our

toil."[23]

 

This joyous, self-reliant facing of the world with the resolute

determination to improve it is characteristic of the noblest Atheism

of our day. And it is thus a distintly elevating factor in the midst

of the selfishness, luxury, and greed of modern civilisation. It is a

virile virtue in the midst of the calculating and slothful spirit

which too ofter veils itself under the pretence or religion. It will

have no putting off of justice to a far-off day of reckoning, and it

is ever spurred on by the feeling, "The night cometh, when no man can

work." Bereft of all hope of a personal future, it binds up its hopes

with that of the race; unbelieving in any aid from Deity, it struggles

the more strenuously to work out man's salvation by his own strength.

"To us there is but small comfort in Miss Cobbe's assurance that

'earth's wrongs and agonies' 'will be righted hereafter.' Granting for

a moment that man survives death what certainty have we that 'the next

world' will be any improvement on this? Miss Cobbe assures us that

this is 'God's world'; whose world will the next be, if not also His?

Will He be stronger there or better, that He should set right in that

world the wrongs He has permitted here? Will He have changed His mind,

or have become weary of the contemplation of suffering? To me the

thought that the world was in the hands of a God who permitted all the

present wrongs and pains to exist would be intolerable, maddening in

its hopelessness. There is every hope of righting earth's wrongs and

of curing earth's pains if the reason and skill of man which have

already done so much are free to do the rest; but if they are to

strive against omnipotence, hopeless indeed is the future of the

world. It is in this sense that the Atheist looks on good as 'the

final goal of ill,' and believing that that goal will be reached the

sooner the more strenuous the efforts of each individual, he works in

the glad certainty that he is aiding the world's progress thitherward.

Not dreaming of a personal reward hereafter, not craving a personal

payment from heavenly treasury, he works and loves, content that he is

building a future fairer than his present, joyous that he is creating

a new earth for a happier race."[24]

 

Such was the creed and such the morality which governed my life and

thoughts from 1874 to 1886, and with some misgivings to 1889, and from

which I drew strength and happiness amid all outer struggles and

distress. And I shall ever remain grateful for the intellectual and

moral training it gave me, for the self-reliance it nurtured, for the

altruism it inculcated, for the deep feeling of the unity of man that

it fostered, for the inspiration to work that it lent. And perhaps the

chief debt of gratitude I owe to Freethought is that it left the mind

ever open to new truth, encouraged the most unshrinking questioning of

Nature, and shrank from no new conclusions, however adverse to the

old, that were based on solid evidence. I admit sorrowfully that all

Freethinkers do not learn this lesson, but I worked side by side with

Charles Bradlaugh, and the Freethought we strove to spread was

strong-headed and broad-hearted.

 

The antagonism which, as we shall see in a few moments, blazed out

against me from the commencement of my platform work, was based partly

on ignorance, was partly aroused by my direct attacks on Christianity,

and by the combative spirit I myself showed in those attacks, and very

largely by my extreme Radicalism in politics. I had against me all the

conventional beliefs and traditions of society in general, and I

attacked them, not with bated breath and abundant apologies, but

joyously and defiantly, with sheer delight in the intellectual strife.

I was fired, too, with passionate sympathy for the sufferings of the

poor, for the overburdened, overdriven masses of the people, not only

here but in every land, and wherever a blow was struck at Liberty or

Justice my pen or tongue brake silence. It was a perpetual carrying of

the fiery cross, and the comfortable did not thank me for shaking them

out of their soft repose.

 

The antagonism that grew out of ignorance regarded Atheism as implying

degraded morality and bestial life, and they assailed my conduct not

on evidence that it was evil, but on the presumption that an Atheist

must be immoral. Thus a Christian opponent at Leicester assailed me as

a teacher of free love, fathering on me views which were maintained in

a book that I had not read, but which, before I had ever seen the

_National Reformer_, had been reviewed in its columns--as it was

reviewed in other London papers--and had been commended for its clear

statement of the Malthusian position, but not for its contention as to

free love, a theory to which Mr. Bradlaugh was very strongly opposed.

Nor were the attacks confined to the ascription to me of theories

which I did not hold, but agents of the Christian Evidence Society, in

their street preaching, made the foulest accusations against me of

personal immorality. Remonstrances addressed to the Rev. Mr. Engström,

the secretary of the society, brought voluble protestations of

disavowal and disapproval; but as the peccant agents were continued in

their employment, the apologies were of small value. No accusation was

too coarse, no slander too baseless, for circulation by these men; and

for a long time these indignities caused me bitter suffering,

outraging my pride, and soiling my good name. The time was to come

when I should throw that good name to the winds for the sake of the

miserable, but in those early days I had done nothing to merit, even

ostensibly, such attacks. Even by educated writers, who should have

known better, the most wanton accusations of violence and would-be

destructiveness were brought against Atheists; thus Miss Frances Power

Cobbe wrote in the _Contemporary Review_ that loss of faith in God

would bring about the secularisation _or destruction_ of all

cathedrals, churches, and chapels. "Why," I wrote in answer, "should

cathedrals, churches, and chapels be destroyed? Atheism will utilise,

not destroy, the beautiful edifices which, once wasted on God, shall

hereafter be consecrated for man. Destroy Westminster Abbey, with its

exquisite arches, its glorious tones of soft, rich colour, its

stonework light as if of cloud, its dreamy, subdued twilight, soothing

as the 'shadow of a great rock in a weary land'? Nay, but reconsecrate

it to humanity. The fat cherubs who tumble over guns and banners on

soldiers' graves will fitly be removed to some spot where their clumsy

forms will no longer mar the upward-springing grace of lines of pillar

and of arch; but the glorious building wherein now barbaric psalms are

chanted and droning canons preach of Eastern follies, shall hereafter

echo the majestic music of Wagner and Beethoven, and the teachers of

the future shall there unveil to thronging multitudes the beauties and

the wonders of the world. The 'towers and spires' will not be effaced,

but they will no longer be symbols of a religion which sacrifices

earth to heaven and Man to God."[25] Between the cultured and the

uncultured burlesques of Atheism we came off pretty badly, being for

the most part regarded, as the late Cardinal Manning termed us, as

mere "cattle."

 

The moral purity and elevation of Atheistic teaching were overlooked

by many who heard only of my bitter attacks on Christian theology.

Against the teachings of eternal torture, of the vicarious atonement,

of the infallibility of the Bible, I levelled all the strength of my

brain and tongue, and I exposed the history of the Christian Church

with unsparing hand, its persecutions, its religious wars, its

cruelties, its oppressions. Smarting under the suffering inflicted on

myself, and wroth with the cruel pressure continually put on

Freethinkers by Christian employers, speaking under constant threats

of prosecution, identifying Christianity with the political and social

tyrannies of Christendom, I used every weapon that history, science,

criticism, scholarship could give me against the Churches; eloquence,

sarcasm, mockery, all were called on to make breaches in the wall of

traditional belief and crass superstition.

 

To argument and reason I was ever ready to listen, but I turned a

front of stubborn defiance to all attempts to compel assent to

Christianity by appeals to force. "The threat and the enforcement of

legal and social penalties against unbelief can never compel belief.

Belief must be gained by demonstration; it can never be forced by

punishment. Persecution makes the stronger among us bitter; the weaker

among us hypocrites; it never has made and never can make an honest

convert."[26]

 

That men and women are now able to speak and think as openly as they

do, that a broader spirit is visible in the Churches, that heresy is

no longer regarded as morally disgraceful--these things are very

largely due to the active and militant propaganda carried on under the

leadership of Charles Bradlaugh, whose nearest and most trusted friend

I was. That my tongue was in the early days bitterer than it should

have been, I frankly acknowledge; that I ignored the services done by

Christianity and threw light only on its crimes, thus committing

injustice, I am ready to admit. But these faults were conquered long

ere I left the Atheistic camp, and they were the faults of my

personality, not of the Atheistic philosophy. And my main contentions

were true, and needed to be made; from many a Christian pulpit to-day

may be heard the echo of the Freethought teachings; men's minds have

been awakened, their knowledge enlarged; and while I condemn the

unnecessary harshness of some of my language, I rejoice that I played

my part in that educating of England which has made impossible for

evermore the crude superstitions of the past, and the repetition of

the cruelties and injustices under which preceding heretics suffered.

 

But my extreme political views had also much to do with the general

feeling of hatred with which I was regarded. Politics, as such, I

cared not for at all, for the necessary compromises of political life

were intolerable to me; but wherever they touched on the life of the

people they became to me of burning interest. The land question, the

incidence of taxation, the cost of Royalty, the obstructive power of

the House of Lords--these were the matters to which I put my hand; I

was a Home Ruler, too, of course, and a passionate opponent of all

injustice to nations weaker than ourselves, so that I found myself

always in opposition to the Government of the day. Against our

aggressive and oppressive policy in Ireland, in the Transvaal, in

India, in Afghanistan, in Burmah, in Egypt, I lifted up my voice in

all our great towns, trying to touch the consciences of the people,

and to make them feel the immorality of a land-stealing, piratical

policy. Against war, against capital punishment, against flogging,

demanding national education instead of big guns, public libraries

instead of warships--no wonder I was denounced as an agitator, a

firebrand, and that all orthodox society turned up at me its most

respectable nose.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER VIII.

 

AT WORK.

 

 

From this sketch of the inner sources of action let me turn to the

actions themselves, and see how the outer life was led which fed

itself at these springs.

 

I have said that the friendship between Mr. Bradlaugh and myself dated

from our first meeting, and a few days after our talk in Turner Street

he came down to see me at Norwood. It was characteristic of the man

that he refused my first invitation, and bade me to think well ere I

asked him to my house. He told me that he was so hated by English

society that any friend of his would be certain to suffer, and that I

should pay heavily for any friendship extended to him. When, however,

I wrote to him, repeating my invitation, and telling him that I had

counted the cost, he came to see me. His words came true; my

friendship for him alienated from me even many professed Freethinkers,

but the strength and the happiness of it outweighed a thousand times

the loss it brought, and never has a shadow of regret touched me that

I clasped hands with him in 1874, and won the noblest friend that

woman ever had. He never spoke to me a harsh word; where we differed,

he never tried to override my judgment, nor force on me his views; we

discussed all points of difference as equal friends; he guarded me

from all suffering as far as friend might, and shared with me all the

pain he could not turn aside; all the brightness of my stormy life

came to me through him, from his tender thoughtfulness, his ever-ready

sympathy, his generous love. He was the most unselfish man I ever

knew, and as patient as he was strong. My quick, impulsive nature

found in him the restful strength it needed, and learned from him the

self-control it lacked.

 

He was the merriest of companions in our rare hours of relaxation; for

many years he was wont to come to my house in the morning, after the

hours always set aside by him for receiving poor men who wanted advice

on legal and other matters--for he was a veritable poor man's lawyer,

always ready to help and counsel--and, bringing his books and papers,

he would sit writing, hour after hour, I equally busy with my own

work, now and then, perhaps, exchanging a word, breaking off just for

lunch and dinner, and working on again in the evening till about ten

o'clock--he always went early to bed when at home--he would take

himself off again to his lodgings, about three-quarters of a mile

away. Sometimes he would play cards for an hour, euchre being our

favourite game. But while we were mostly busy and grave, we would make

holiday sometimes, and then he was like a boy, brimming over with

mirth, full of quaint turns of thought and speech; all the country

round London has for me bright memories of our wanderings--Richmond,

where we tramped across the park, and sat under its mighty trees;

Windsor, with its groves of bracken; Kew, where we had tea in a funny

little room, with watercress _ad libitum_; Hampton Court, with its

dishevelled beauties; Maidenhead and Taplow, where the river was the

attraction; and, above all, Broxbourne, where he delighted to spend

the day with his fishing-rod, wandering along the river, of which he

knew every eddy. For he was a great fisherman, and he taught me all

the mysteries of the craft, mirthfully disdainful of my dislike of the

fish when I had caught them. And in those days he would talk of all

his hopes of the future, of his work, of his duty to the thousands who

looked to him for guidance, of the time when he would sit in

Parliament as member for Northampton, and help to pass into laws the

projects of reform for which he was battling with pen and tongue. How

often he would voice his love of England, his admiration of her

Parliament, his pride in her history. Keenly alive to the blots upon

it in her sinful wars of conquest, in the cruel wrongs inflicted upon

subject peoples, he was yet an Englishman to the heart's core, but

feeling above all the Englishman's duty, as one of a race that had

gripped power and held it, to understand the needs of those he ruled,

and to do justice willingly, since compulsion to justice there was

none. His service to India in the latest years of his life was no

suddenly accepted task. He had spoken for her, pleaded for her, for

many a long year, through press and on platform, and his spurs as

member for India were won long ere he was member of Parliament.

 

A place on the staff of the _National Reformer_ was offered me by Mr.

Bradlaugh a few days after our first meeting, and the small weekly

salary thus earned--it was only a guinea, for national reformers are

always poor--was a very welcome addition to my resources. My first

contribution appeared in the number for August 30, 1874, over the

signature of "Ajax," and I wrote in it regularly until Mr. Bradlaugh

died; from 1877 until his death I sub-edited it, so as to free him

from all the technical trouble and the weary reading of copy, and for

part of this period was also co-editor. I wrote at first under a _nom

de guerre_, because the work I was doing for Mr. Scott would have been

prejudiced had my name appeared in the columns of the terrible

_National Reformer_, and until this work--commenced and paid for--was

concluded I did not feel at liberty to use my own name. Afterwards, I

signed my _National Reformer_ articles, and the tracts written for Mr.

Scott appeared anonymously.

 

  The name was suggested by the famous statue of

  "Ajax Crying for Light," a cast of which may be seen

  in the centre walk by any visitor to the Crystal Palace,

  Sydenham. The cry through the darkness for light,

  even though light should bring destruction, was one

  that awoke the keenest sympathy of response from my

  heart:

 

  "If our fate be death

  Give light, and let us die!"

 

To see, to know, to understand, even though the seeing blind, though

the knowledge sadden, though the understanding shatter the dearest

hopes--such has ever been the craving of the upward-striving mind in

man. Some regard it as a weakness, as a folly, but I am sure that it

exists most strongly in some of the noblest of our race; that from the

lips of those who have done most in lifting the burden of ignorance

from the overstrained and bowed shoulders of a stumbling world has

gone out most often into the empty darkness the pleading, impassioned

cry:

 

"Give light!"

 

The light may come with a blinding flash, but it is light none the

less, and we can see.

 

And now the time had come when I was to use that gift of speech which

I had discovered in Sibsey Church that I possessed, and to use it to

move hearts and brains all over the English land. In 1874, tentatively, and in 1875 definitely, I took up this keen weapon, and have used it ever

since. My first attempt was at a garden party, in a brief informal

debate, and I found that words came readily and smoothly: the second

in a discussion at the Liberal Social Union on the opening of museums

and art galleries on Sunday. My first lecture was given at the

Co-operative Institute, 55, Castle Street, Oxford Street, on August

25, 1874. Mr. Greening--then, I think, the secretary--had invited me

to read a paper before the society, and had left me the choice of the

subject. I resolved that my first public lecture should be on behalf

of my own sex, so I selected for my theme, "The Political Status of

Women," and wrote thereon a paper. But it was a very nervous person

who presented herself at the Co-operative Institute on that August

evening. When a visit to the dentist is made, and one stands on the

steps outside, desiring to run away ere the neat little boy in buttons

opens the door and beams on one with a smile of compassionate

superiority and implike triumph, then the world seems dark and life is

as a huge blunder. But all such feelings are poor and weak as compared

with the sinking of the heart and the trembling of the knees which

seize upon the unhappy lecturer as he advances towards his first

audience, and as before his eyes rises a ghastly vision of a

tongue-tied would-be lecturer, facing rows of listening faces,

listening to--silence. But to my surprise all this miserable feeling

vanished the moment I was on my feet and was looking at the faces

before me. I felt no tremor of nervousness from the first word to the

last, and as I heard my own voice ring out over the attentive

listeners I was conscious of power and of pleasure, not of fear. And

from that day to this my experience has been the same; before a

lecture I am horribly nervous, wishing myself at the ends of the

earth, heart beating violently, and sometimes overcome by deadly

sickness. Once on my feet, I feel perfectly at my ease, ruler of the

crowd, master of myself. I often jeer at myself mentally as I feel

myself throbbing and fearful, knowing that when I stand up I shall be

all right, and yet I cannot conquer the physical terror and trembling,

illusory as I know them to be. People often say to me, "You look too

ill to go on the platform." And I smile feebly and say I am all right,

and I often fancy that the more miserably nervous I am in the

ante-room, the better I speak when once on the platform. My second

lecture was delivered on September 27th, at Mr. Moncure D. Conway's

Chapel, in St. Paul's Road, Camden Town, and redelivered a few weeks

later at a Unitarian Chapel, where the Rev. Peter Dean was minister.

This was on the "True Basis of Morality," and was later printed as a

pamphlet, which attained a wide circulation. This was all I did in the

way of speaking in 1874, but I took silent part in an electioneering

struggle at Northampton, where a seat for the House of Commons had

fallen vacant by the death of Mr. Charles Gilpin. Mr. Bradlaugh had

contested the borough as a Radical in 1868, obtaining 1,086 votes, and

again in February, 1874, when he received 1,653; of these no less than

1,060 were plumpers, while his four opponents had only 113, 64, 21 and

12 plumpers respectively; this band formed the compact and personally

loyal following which was to win the seat for its chief in 1880, after

twelve years of steady struggle, and to return him over and over again

to Parliament during the long contest which followed his election, and

which ended in his final triumph. They never wavered in their

allegiance to "our Charlie," but stood by him through evil report and

good report, when he was outcast as when he was triumphant, loving him

with a deep, passionate devotion, as honourable to them as it was

precious to him. I have seen him cry like a child at evidences of

their love for him, he whose courage no danger could daunt, and who

was never seen to blench before hatred nor change his stern immobility

in the face of his foes. Iron to enmity, he was soft as a woman to

kindness; unbending as steel to pressure, he was ductile as wax to

love. John Stuart Mill had the insight in 1868 to see his value, and

the courage to recognise it. He strongly supported his candidature,

and sent a donation to his election expenses. In his "Autobiography"

he wrote (pp. 311, 312):--

 

"He had the support of the working classes; having heard him speak I

knew him to be a man of ability, and he had proved that he was the

reverse of a demagogue by placing himself in strong opposition to the

prevailing opinion of the Democratic party on two such important

subjects as Malthusianism and Proportional Representation. Men of this

sort, who, while sharing the democratic feeling of the working

classes, judge political questions for themselves, and have the

courage to assert their individual convictions against popular

opposition, were needed, as it seemed to me, in Parliament; and I did

not think that Mr. Bradlaugh's anti-religious opinions (even though he

had been intemperate in the expression of them) ought to exclude him."

 

It has been said that Mr. Mill's support of Mr. Bradlaugh's

candidature at Northampton cost him his own seat at Westminster, and

so bitter was bigotry at that time that the statement is very likely

to be true. On this, Mr. Mill himself said: "It was the right thing to

do, and if the election were yet to take place, I would do it again."

 

At this election of September, 1874--the second in the year, for the

general election had taken place in the February, and Mr. Bradlaugh

had been put up and defeated during his absence in America--I went

down to Northampton to report electioneering incidents for the

_National Reformer_, and spent some days there in the whirl of the

struggle. The Whig party was more bitter against Mr. Bradlaugh than

was the Tory. Strenuous efforts were made to procure a Liberal

candidate, who would be able at least to prevent Mr. Bradlaugh's

return, and, by dividing the Liberal and Radical party, should let in

a Tory rather than the detested Radical. Messrs. Bell and James and

Dr. Pearce came on the scene only to disappear. Mr. Jacob Bright and

Mr. Arnold Morley were vainly suggested. Mr. Ayrton's name was

whispered. Major Lumley was recommended by Mr. Bernal Osborne. Dr.

Kenealy proclaimed himself ready to come to the rescue of the Whigs.

Mr. Tillett, of Norwich, Mr. Cox, of Belper, were invited, but neither

would consent to oppose a good Radical who had fought two elections at

Northampton and had been the chosen of the Radical workers for six

years. At last Mr. William Fowler, a banker, accepted the task of

handing over the representation of a Liberal and Radical borough to a

Tory, and duly succeeded in giving the seat to Mr. Mereweather, a very

reputable Tory lawyer. Mr. Bradlaugh polled 1,766, thus adding another

133 voters to those who had polled for him in the previous February.

 

That election gave me my first experience of anything in the nature of

rioting. The violent abuse levelled against Mr. Bradlaugh by the

Whigs, and the foul and wicked slanders circulated against him,

assailing his private life and family relations, had angered almost to

madness those who knew and loved him; and when it was found that the

unscrupulous Whig devices had triumphed, had turned the election

against him, and given over the borough to a Tory, the fury broke out

into open violence. One illustration may be given as a type of these

cruel slanders. It was known that Mr. Bradlaugh was separated from his

wife, and it was alleged that being an Atheist, and, (therefore!) an

opponent of marriage, he had deserted his wife and children, and left

them to the workhouse. The cause of the separation was known to very

few, for Mr. Bradlaugh was chivalrously honourable to women, and he

would not shield his own good name at the cost of that of the wife of

his youth and the mother of his children. But since his death his only

remaining child has, in devotion to her father's memory, stated the

melancholy truth: that Mrs. Bradlaugh gave way to drink; that for long

years he bore with her and did all that man could do to save her; that

finally, hopeless of cure, he broke up his home, and placed his wife

in the care of her parents in the country, leaving her daughters with

her, while he worked for their support. No man could have acted more

generously and wisely under these cruel circumstances than he did, but

it was, perhaps, going to an extreme of Quixotism, that he concealed

the real state of the case, and let the public blame him as it would.

His Northampton followers did not know the facts, but they knew him as

an upright, noble man, and these brutal attacks on his personal

character drove them wild. Stray fights had taken place during the

election over these slanders, and, defeated by such foul weapons, the

people lost control of their passions. As Mr. Bradlaugh was sitting

well-nigh exhausted in the hotel, after the declaration of the poll,

the landlord rushed in, crying to him to go out and try to stop the

people, or there would be murder done at the "Palmerston," Mr.

Fowler's headquarters; the crowd was charging the door, and the

windows were being broken with showers of stones. Weary as he was, Mr.

Bradlaugh sprang to his feet, and swiftly made his way to the rescue

of those who had maligned and defeated him. Flinging himself before

the doorway, from which the door had just been battered down, he

knocked down one or two of the most violent, drove the crowd back,

argued and scolded them into quietness, and finally dispersed them.

But at nine o'clock he had to leave Northampton to catch the mail

steamer for America at Queenstown, and after he had left, word went

round that he had gone, and the riot he had quelled broke out afresh.

The Riot Act was at last read, the soldiers were called out, stones

flew freely, heads and windows were broken, but no very serious harm

was done. The "Palmerston" and the printing-office of the _Mercury_,

the Whig organ, were the principal sufferers; doors and windows

disappearing somewhat completely. The day after the election I

returned home, and soon after fell ill with a severe attack of

congestion of the lungs. Soon after my recovery I left Norwood and

settled in a house in Westbourne Terrace, Bayswater, where I remained

till 1876.

 

In the following January (1875), after much thought and self-analysis,

I resolved to give myself wholly to propagandist work, as a

Freethinker and a Social Reformer, and to use my tongue as well as my

pen in the struggle. I counted the cost ere I determined on this step,

for I knew that it would not only outrage the feelings of such new

friends as I had already made, but would be likely to imperil my

custody of my little girl. I knew that an Atheist was outside the law,

obnoxious to its penalties, but deprived of its protection, and that

the step I contemplated might carry me into conflicts in which

everything might be lost and nothing could be gained. But the desire

to spread liberty and truer thought among men, to war against bigotry

and superstition, to make the world freer and better than I found

it--all this impelled me with a force that would not be denied. I

seemed to hear the voice of Truth ringing over the battlefield: "Who

will go? Who will speak for me?" And I sprang forward with passionate

enthusiasm, with resolute cry: "Here am I, send me!" Nor have I ever

regretted for one hour that resolution, come to in solitude, carried

out amid the surging life of men, to devote to that sacred cause every

power of brain and tongue that I possessed. Very solemn to me is the

responsibility of the public teacher, standing forth in Press and on

platform to partly mould the thought of his time, swaying thousands of

readers and hearers year after year. No weighter responsibility can

any take, no more sacred charge. The written and the spoken word start

forces none may measure, set working brain after brain, influence

numbers unknown to the forthgiver of the word, work for good or for

evil all down the stream of time. Feeling the greatness of the career,

the solemnity of the duty, I pledged my word then to the cause I loved

that no effort on my part should be wanted to render myself worthy of

the privilege of service that I took; that I would read and study, and

would train every faculty that I had; that I would polish my language,

discipline my thought, widen my knowledge; and this, at least, I may

say, that if I have written and spoken much, I have studied and

thought more, and that I have not given to my mistress Truth that

"which hath cost me nothing."

 

This same year (1875) that saw me launched on the world as a public

advocate of Freethought, saw also the founding of the Theosophical

Society to which my Freethought was to lead me. I have often since

thought with pleasure that at the very time I began lecturing in

England, H.P. Blavatsky was at work in the United States, preparing

the foundation on which in November, 1875, the Theosophical Society

was to be raised. And with deeper pleasure yet have I found her

writing of what she called the noble work against superstition done by

Charles Bradlaugh and myself, rendering the propaganda of Theosophy

far more practicable and safer than it would otherwise have been. The

fight soon began, and with some queer little skirmishes. I was a

member of the "Liberal Social Union," and one night a discussion arose

as to the admissibility of Atheists to the Society. Dr. Zerffi

declared that he would not remain a member if avowed Atheists were

admitted. I promptly declared that I was an Atheist, and that the

basis of the union was liberty of opinion. The result was that I found

myself cold-shouldered, and those that had been warmly cordial to me

merely as a non-Christian looked askance at me when I had avowed that

my scepticism had advanced beyond their "limits of religious thought."

The Liberal Social Union soon knew me no more, but in the wider field

of work open before me, the narrow-mindedness of this petty clique

troubled me not at all.

 

I started my definite lecturing work at South Place Chapel in January,

1875, Mr. Moncure D. Conway presiding for me, and I find in the

_National Reformer_ for January 17th, the announcement that "Mrs.

Annie Besant ('Ajax') will lecture at South Place Chapel, Finsbury, on

'Civil and Religious Liberty.'" Thus I threw off my pseudonym, and

rode into the field of battle with uplifted visor. The identification

led to an odd little exhibition of bigotry. I had been invited by the

Dialectical Society to read a paper, and had selected for subject,

"The Existence of God." (It may be noted, in passing, that young

students and speakers always select the most tremendous subjects for

their discourses. One advances in modesty as one advances in

knowledge, and after eighteen years of platform work, I am far more

dubious than I was at their beginning as to my power of dealing in any

sense adequately with the problems of life.) The Dialectical Society

had for some years held their meetings in a room in Adam Street,

rented from the Social Science Association. When the members gathered

as usual on February 17th, the door was found to be locked, and they

had to gather on the stairs; they found that "Ajax's" as yet

undelivered paper was too much for Social Science nerves, and that

entrance to their ordinary meeting-room was then and thenceforth

denied them. So they, with "Ajax," found refuge at the Charing Cross

Hotel, and speculated merrily on the eccentricities of religious

bigotry.

 

On February 12th I started on my first provincial lecturing tour, and

after speaking at Birkenhead that evening went on by the night mail to

Glasgow. Some races--dog races--I think, had been going on, and very

unpleasant were many of the passengers waiting on the platform. Some

Birkenhead friends had secured me a compartment, and watched over me

till the train began to move. Then, after we had fairly started, the

door was flung open by a porter, and a man was thrust in who half

tumbled on to the seat. As he slowly recovered he stood up, and as his

money rolled out of his hand on to the floor, and he gazed vaguely at

it, I saw to my horror that he was drunk. The position was not

pleasant, for the train was an express, and was not timed to stop for

a considerable time. My odious fellow-passenger spent some time on the

floor, hunting after his scattered coins; then he slowly gathered

himself up and presently became conscious of my presence. He studied

me for some time, and then proposed to shut the window. I assented

quietly, not wanting to discuss a trifle and feeling in deadly

terror--alone at night in an express with a man not drunk enough to be

helpless, but too drunk to be controlled. Never before nor since have

I felt so thoroughly frightened. I can see him still, swaying as he

stood, with eyes bleared and pendulous lips--but I sat there quiet and

outwardly unmoved, as is always my impulse in danger till I see some

way of escape, only grasping a penknife in my pocket, with a desperate

resolve to use my feeble weapon as soon as the need arose. The man

came towards me with a fatuous leer, when a jarring noise was heard

and the train began to slacken.

 

"What is that?" stammered my drunken companion.

 

"They are putting on the brakes to stop the train," I answered very

slowly and distinctly, though a very passion of relief made it hard to

say quietly the measured words.

 

The man sat down stupidly, staring at me, and in a minute or two the

train pulled up at a station--it had been stopped by signal. My

immobility was gone. In a moment I was at the window, called the

guard, and explained rapidly that I was a woman travelling alone, and

that a half-drunken man was in the carriage. With the usual kindness

of a railway official, he at once moved me and my baggage into another

compartment, into which he locked me, and he kept a friendly watch