"Helensburgh House" and Garden BY MRS. C. H. SPURGEON
A WELL-KNOWN writer of to-day, in one of his pleasant little sketches, says: "There are certain scenes in one's early life which come before us in a somewhat confused fashion. One is quite sure of the facts, but where to place them as to time, and how to connect them with relation to other facts, is not easy. It is a curious medley that memory gives back to one, passing quickly 'from grave to gay, from lively to severe'."
This exactly describes my experience while trying to chronicle the further events of our early married life. I am embarrassed with the multitude and variety of the recollections which crowd upon me, but many of them are not important enough to be written down, and some are so disjointed that I fail to reproduce them connectedly. I seem to have before me a mass of bright, shining webs of precious memories, hopelessly disarranged and entwisted; and the question is--How can I bring these rebellious threads into something like order and beauty? I remember a story of my childhood's days, in which a little maiden--for a punishment of untidy habits, I think--was given a basket full of tangled skeins of silk, and told that she must, by a certain time, have them all sorted out, and laid in regular rows. The fairy "Order", pitying her distress, came to her relief, and, with a touch of her wand, did the work deftly, and thus disposed of all her difficulties. I want better help than a fairy could give. "Order" and dates are some little aid to me; but, beside this, I have earnestly asked to have brought to my full remembrance only those incidents, the relation of which shall not tend so much to gratify natural curiosity, as to render some immediate and lasting benefit to those who read them. My husband's whole life was "an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity"; and if, in any of the pages I have written, I have failed to set this bright example forth with due prominence, the fault is mine, and will be deeply grieved over; but if I have at all succeeded in magnifying the grace of God in him, it is simply because the Lord, for His own glory, has given skill for the service. I can say with Ezra, "I was strengthened as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me."
We left the New Kent Road, in 1857, to reside in Nightingale Lane, Clapham. This was then a pretty and rural, but comparatively unknown, region, and our delight in the change and interest it afforded, was unbounded. On the right hand of the road, if the visitor came from Clapham, stretched a glorious park, which, with its residential mansion, was then the property of J. Dent., Esq. Our house stood on the left side, facing the park and its palings. I do not think there were more than five or six houses, beside our own, the whole length of the "Lane" from one end to the other! This secludedness was a great attraction to my beloved, for he felt the need of absolute quiet and rest after the labours and toils of the day; and he found them here. We could walk abroad, too, in those days, in the leafy lanes, without fear of being accosted by too many people, and this privilege brought us very great pleasure. In one of these wanderings, an incident occurred which my dear husband has so tenderly described, and so aptly turned into an encouragement for a seeking sinner, that I introduce it here, as a diamond among my rock-crystals, praying that some longing soul may find it, appropriate it, and be rich for ever:
"We were walking up the lane near where I live, and there was a poor woman, who stopped us. She spoke in French. This poor soul had some children at Guildford, and she was wanting to find her way to them, but did not know a single sentence of English. She had knocked at the doors or all the gentlemens houses down the lane, and of course the servants could do nothing for her, for they did not understand a word she said. So she went from one place to another, and at last she did not know what would become of her. She had some thirty miles to walk; she did not mind that, but then, she could not tell which way to go, so I suppose she had made up her mind she would ask everybody. All she knew was, she had written on a piece of paper the word 'Guildford', and she held it up, and began to ask in French which was the right road.
When, at last, she had met with someone who could tell her the path she must take, beautifully did she express both her distress and her gratitude; she said she felt like a poor bird who was hunted about, and did not know how to find her way to the nest. She poured a thousand blessings on us when we told her the way, and, I thought--how much this is like the sinner when he wants to find the way to Heaven! All he knows is, he wants Christ, but where to find Him, and how to get to Him, he cannot tell; and he knocks, first at one door, and then at another, and perhaps the minister at the place of worship does not know the language of human sympathy. He cannot comprehend that sinner's need, for there are many servants in my Master's house, I am sorry to-say, who do not understand the language of a sinner's cry. O sinner, thou shalt surely find Christ though thou knowest not how to find Him! He will ask thee, 'Whom seekest thou?' and thou wilt answer, 'I seek Jesus,' and He will say, 'I that speak unto thee am He.' I am much mistaken if He who speaks in thy heart is not the very Jesus whom thou art seeking. His speaking in thy heart is a token of His love. Trust Him, believe in Him, and Thou shalt be saved."
The house was a very old one, and, in its first estate, I should judge it had been an eight-roomed cottage, with underground cellars afterwards turned into kitchens. Some bygone owner had built another storey, and thrown the eight small rooms into four better-sized ones, but, even with this improvement, they were narrow and incommodious. To us, however, they were then all that we could desire, and the large garden made up for all the inconveniences indoors. Oh, what a delightsome place we thought it, though it was a very wilderness through long neglect--the blackberry bushes impertinently asserting themselves to be trees, and the fruit trees running wild for want of the pruning-knife! It was all the more interesting to us in this sweet confusion and artlessness because we had the happy task of bringing it gradually into accord with our ideas of what a garden should be. I must admit that we made many absurd mistakes both in house and garden management, in those young days of ours, but what did that matter? No two birds ever felt more exquisite joy in building their nest in the fork of a tree-branch, than did we in planning and placing, altering and rearranging our pretty country home.
What a boon such a retreat was to my beloved, can be well understood by all zealous workers who know the penalties exacted by weary brains and jaded powers. At this time, Mr. Spurgeon's sermons were having a phenomenal sale both at home and abroad, and the generous arrangements of the publishers, together with the increased income from the church, made possible the purchase of the freehold of this house and grounds; and the fact of the place being old and long untenanted, enabled him to obtain it on very easy terms. It had some queer corners in it, which we peopled with mysterious shadows for the mere gratification of afterwards dispersing them. A large brew-house sort of erection at the side was a great puzzle to us, with its flagged floor, its great boiler in one corner, and its curious little rooms, like cells, which we converted into apple-chambers.
But the sensation of the place was the well, which altogether fascinated us, and did not withdraw its spell till the demolition of the house broke the charm by covering it up entirely, and leaving only a common pump-handle "en évidence". It was a wonderful well; the water came up pure, sparkling, and cold as ice. The story of it was, as far as I can recollect, as follows: A former occupant of the house had resolved, at any cost, to have water at that particular spot. So he hired well-diggers, and they began, to dig. At one hundred feet depth, they stopped. There was no sign of water. "Go on," said the master; "you must go deeper." They dug another two hundred feet, and came to the solid rock! "Now," said he, "you must bore, for I am going to have water here if I bore to the centre of the earth for it." So they bored, and bored, and got quite disheartened, for they had now gone 460 feet into the bowels of the earth! But the master insisted that they should continue their efforts, and, one day, they came up as usual to have their dinner, but they never went down to the rock again, for the water had burst through, and covered up their tools, and risen high in the well! Was not the man right glad that he had not relinquished his object, and was he not well rewarded for his perseverance? He was a benefactor to succeeding generations, too, for the delicious water had quite a fame round about the place and residents in our time used to send and beg the favour of a large jugful of "water from the well".
Many years afterwards, when the main drainage works were in progress, its generous abundance diminished, and when the new house was built, though its services were still secured, it lost, as I have said, all its ancient attractiveness--and danger. Yes, there was danger in the old well, as we painfully realized, one day, when a man, while making some repairs, a short way down, lost his footing, and fell through many of the wooden stages (erected inside the well, and reached by ladders), and would have been precipitated into the deep water, with a very faint chance of life, but that, by God's great mercy, he was caught by the arms on one of the stagings, and there hung suspended, in horror and darkness, till his mates could reach and rescue him! I can never forget my dear husband's anguish of mind on that occasion. He paced to and fro, before the well-house door, in an agony of suspense. We were all white and trembling, and sick with frightful fears. But it pleased the Lord to avert the threatened tragedy; and, after a time, the man was brought up from the depths, to see again the blessed light of the sun. He looked more like a dead than a living creature when he was safely on terra firma; but, beyond being much bruised, he was uninjured. After that, my dear husband allowed no one to go down the well without having a stout rope round his body, securely fastened, or held by other men. We never again had an accident there.
In the little parlour of this old house--see the window of the room to the left of the porch in the picture--there occurred, one day, an incident of much interest, which, though it concerns a notable and still living author (John Ruskin), I think I may be permitted to reveal. It will but disclose the existence, at that time, in a very noble and gifted heart, of a sweet spring of brotherly love, which has long remained sealed-up and hidden. Towards the end of the year 1858, my beloved had a serious illness, which kept him out of his pulpit for three Sabbaths. In those early days, Mr. Ruskin was not only a frequent attendant at the Surrey Music Hall services, and a loving friend to my dear husband, but I believe he was also an ardent admirer of him as a preacher of the gospel. When Mr. Spurgeon was partly convalescent, but still painfully weak, Mr. Ruskin, knowing of his condition, called to see him. My beloved was downstairs for the first time that day, and was lying on the couch in the room I have indicated. How well I remember the intense love and devotion displayed by Mr. Ruskin, as he threw himself on his knees by the dear patient's side, and embraced him with tender affection and tears. "My brother, my dear brother," he said, "how grieved I am to see you thus!" His sorrow and sympathy were most touching and comforting. He had brought with him two charming engravings--gems of artistic taste, which still adorn the walls of one of the rooms at "Westwood"--and some bottles of wine of a rare vintage, which he hoped would prove a cordial to the sufferer's much-weakened frame. My husband was greatly moved by the love and consideration so graciously expressed, and he very often referred to it afterwards in grateful appreciation; especially when, in later years, there came a change of feeling on Mr. Ruskin's part, and he strongly repudiated some of the theological opinions to which Mr. Spurgeon closely clung to the end of his life.
I am not sure that it was on the occasion of the visit I have now described, or at some other time, that Mr. Ruskin told my husband a very remarkable story, for the truth of which he himself could answer. I think they had been talking together of the interpositions of God's providence, of His care over His people, and of the singular deliverances which He had vouchsafed to them when in danger or distress; and Mr. Ruskin then related, with an impassioned tenderness and power which my pen cannot possibly imitate, the following instance of direct and Divine preservation from a dreadful death.
A Christian gentleman, a widower, with several little ones, was in treaty for the occupancy of an old farm-house in the country, for the sake of his children's health. One day, he took them to see their new residence, before finally removing into it. While he talked with the landlord or agent, the young people set off on a tour of inspection, and scampered here, there, and everywhere over the garden and grounds. Then they proceeded to examine the house, and rushed up and down stairs, looking into every room, dancing with delight, full of fun and frolic, and shouting out their joy over every new discovery. Presently, when they seemed to have exhausted the wonders of the old house, one of them suggested that the underground premises had not yet been explored, and must therefore be visited at once. So the merry band went helter-skelter in search of a way below; found a door at the head of some dark stairs, and were rushing down them at great speed, when, midway, they suddenly stopped in startled amazement, for, standing at the bottom of the steps, they saw their mother, with outstretched arms and loving gesture, waving them back, and silently forbidding their further passage With a cry of mingled fear and joy, they turned, and fled in haste to their father, telling him that they had seen "Mother", that she had smiled lovingly at them, but had eagerly motioned them to go back. In utter astonishment, the father listened to the children's tale, and at once perceived that something unusual had happened. Search was made, and close at the foot of those narrow, gloomy stairs, they found a deep and open well, entirely unguarded, into which, in their mad rush, every child must inevitably have fallen and perished had not the Lord in His mercy interposed.
Stories of the supernatural are seldom worthy of credence, but, in this case, both my dear husband and Mr. Ruskin were convinced that God permitted the appearance of their mother to those dear children, in order to save them from a terrible death; and that nothing else, and nothing less than such a vision could have attained this object, and prevented the calamity.
I find, from data kindly supplied to me by Pastor J. W. Davies, of Lee, that on one occasion, "under the Oak" at "Westwood", the question was asked of Mr. Spurgeon, "Do you believe in supernatural visitations?" and for answer he repeated this story of Mr. Ruskin's. The students listened with eager interest, and then promptly requested their President to give his theory of the nature of the appearance. He replied that he could not explain it, but he thought that God had impressed on the retina of the children's eyes an object which would naturally cause them to return at once to their father, thus ensuring their safety.
There have been many other well-authenticated instances of similar appearances permitted by the Lord in seasons of special danger to His children; and the calm and reverent consideration of such a subject, by devout minds, might have the happy effect of bringing the soul very close to the veil which separates the things that are seen, and are temporal, from the things that are not seen, and are eternal.
We lived in the dear old house in Nightingale Lane for many happy years, and, looking back upon them from this distance of time, I think they must have been the least shadowed by care and sorrow of all the years of our married life. We were both young, and full of high spirits. We had fairly good health, and devoutly loved each other. Our children grew apace in the sweet country air, and my whole time and strength were given to advance my dear husband's welfare and happiness. I deemed it my joy and privilege to be ever at his side, accompanying him on many of his preaching journeys, nursing him in his occasional illnesses--his delighted companion during his holiday trips, always watching over and tending him with the enthusiasm and sympathy which my great love for him inspired. I mention this, not to suggest any sort of merit on my part, but simply that I may here record my heartfelt gratitude to God that, for a period of ten blessed years, I was permitted to encircle him with all the comforting care and tender affection which it was in a wife's power to bestow. Afterwards, God ordered it otherwise. He saw fit to reverse our position to each other; and for a long, long season, suffering instead of service became my daily portion, and the care of comforting a sick wife fell upon my beloved.
I have already said what a great joy the garden was to us. At first, there was always something fresh and new to interest us; and when, by degrees, the novelty of its possession wore off, then we loved it all the better, because we knew more about it. Here my dear husband enjoyed, not only rest and recreation for the body, but stimulus and quickening for the mind. Original illustrations for sermons--side-lights on texts--metaphors and parables, whereby the hearts of hearers might be moved or impressed--all these Mr. Spurgeon found ready to his hand in this old pleasance, which ungrudgingly laid its stores at his feet. It mattered not to him how commonplace was the figure which could supply a barb or a feather to the arrow which he designed to send straight home to the heart of a saint or a sinner. He did not disdain to employ the simplest incidents or similes to further the important purposes of illustration and instruction.
He himself gives a noble instance of the working of this life-long habit, in one of the lectures to his students, where he says: "If you keep your eyes open, you will not see even a dog following his master, nor a mouse peeping up from his hole, nor will you hear even a gentle scratching behind the wainscot, without getting something to weave into your sermons if your faculties are all on the alert. When you go home to-night, and sit by your fireside, you ought not to be able to take up your domestic cat without finding that which will furnish you with an illustration. How soft are pussy's pads, and yet, in a moment, if she is angered, how sharp will be her claws! How like to temptation, soft and gentle when it first cometh to us, but how deadly, how damnable the wounds it causeth ere long!
I recollect using, with very considerable effect in a sermon in the Tabernacle, an incident that occurred in my own garden. There was a dog which was in the habit of coming through the fence, and scratching in my flower-beds, to the manifest spoiling of the gardener's toil and temper. Walking in the garden, one Saturday afternoon, and preparing my sermon for the following day, I saw the four-footed creature--rather a scurvy specimen, by-the-by-and having a walking-stick in my hand, I threw it at him with all my might, at the same time giving him some good advice about going home. Now, what should my canine friend do but turn round, pick up the stick in his mouth, bring it, and lay it down at my feet, wagging his tail all the while in expectation of my thanks and kind words! Of course, you do not suppose that I kicked him, or threw the stick at him any more. I felt quite ashamed of myself, and told him that he was welcome to stay as long as he liked, and to come as often as he pleased. There was an instance of the power of non-resistance, submission, patience, and trust, in overcoming even righteous anger. I used that illustration in preaching the next day, and I did not feel that I had at all degraded myself by telling the story."
If my memory does not play me false, there used to be sundry crusts, or even bones, secretly conveyed to that mongrel cur after this memorable encounter.
Here, too, the young Pastor could peacefully enjoy all the ordinary sights and sounds of an open space in the country. The song of birds was sweetest music to him, and the commonest flowers gave him joy, because they both revealed to him the love of his Father's heart. "When I go into my garden," he once said, referring to this same old place of which I am writing, "I have a choir around me in the trees. They do not wear surplices, for their song is not artificial and official. Some of them are clothed in glossy black, but they carol like little angels; they sing the sun up, and wake me at break of day; and they warble on till the last red ray of the sun has departed, still singing out from bush and tree the praises of their God. And all the flowers--the primroses that are almost gone--convey to my heart deep meanings concerning God till the last one shuts his eye. And now the mignonette, and the wallflowers, and the lilac, and the guelder-roses, and a host of sweet beauties are pouring out their incense of perfume as if they said, 'Thank the God that made us! Blessed be His Name! The earth is full of His goodness.'"