“HELENSBURGH HOUSE” AND GARDEN.
BY Mrs. C. H. Spurgeon.
AWELL-KNOWN writer of to-day, in one of his pleasant little sketches, : — ”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. The sketch on page 282 (the original being a water-colour by our late friend, Mr. Sherrin,) gives a good idea of the umbrageous beauty of the locality. 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; it was just below and behind the spot where the angle of a cottage wall is shown in the picture. 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 rockcrystals, 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 of all the gentlemen’s 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 little 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 the 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 story, 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 brewhouse 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 old house broke the charm by covering it up entirely, and leaving only a common pump-handle “en e vidence.” 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 favor o! 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 (Mr. 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.