« PreviousContinue »
families of preceding generations than in the present day; be that as it may, our great love to this good man did not exclude considerable awe.
I will pass over my first visits to Earlham. I have no particular recollection of these, indeed, beyond childish astonishment at the lateness of the dinner-hour, the number of the dishes, &c., with a complete home-sickness long before the wheels were heard on the ground before the hall door, and the stout butler announced the arrival of our carriage.
I must have been nine years old at the time of my first long and memorable visit, when, in the early part of February, owing to the dangerous illness of our father, the four elder children (the noisiest I suppose) were one day removed to the hospitable roof of Earlham.
The snow covered everything, and I remember being particularly impressed with the dreariness of the flat landscape in its winter dress. The white posts of the park gate were tipped with the whiter snow; the large branching trees, with their outstretched arms, were laden ; the sloping park, the laurels and the yews were all white too; and there was a stillness in the air which you may frequently have remarked in a snowy season, but which I then associated with the peculiar stillness and solemnity of Earlham, and which, even to this hour, through the shadowy distance of many years, brings back the old hall and my wintry visit there.
It was my first separation from home, and very complete I felt it when my brothers left me to the care of the ladies of the family, and I saw them run across the park in pursuit of their boyish amusements.
The rooks looked sadly ominous to me as I was taking off my bonnet in an upper chamber, and their cawing (for they had just begun their arrangements and colloquies previous to building for the spring) was a most melancholy sound. I had never thought it so in my city home—but amongst those tall trees, and in that still, solemn landscape, rooks seemed quite of another family, and their voices did not tend to raise my spirits. The only daughter of the family-a kind-hearted little lady of nearly my own age-was very attentive and considerate, and so indeed was every one; but I was cold and home-sick, and could scarcely keep back my tears. When we went down stairs into the school-room, I was much surprised at the sight of a row of little girls who came twice a week for instruction in reading, spelling, and other simple matters, from this same little Miss Gurney, whose practice of the schoolmistress-art was quite astonishing to me. It had never entered into my heart or head to teach. I thought I had quite enough to do to learn ; but this my first lesson at Earlham-and it was not my last-taught me that every one might do something, and that those who had gifts, whether of money or learning, are bound to administer to such as have not. I cannot, at this distance of time, pretend to discover what amount of learning the little villagers really received from their young teacher's instructions, but I am disposed to think that the intimate knowledge she obtained of the circumstances, whether of joy or sorrow, sickness or prosperity, of her children and their families, was an admirable training for more enlarged sympathy with the poor, and blessed both the giver and the receivers. Many a nice print-gown or pinafore, many a strong pair of shoes, and many a little bundle of small clothing for some newlyarrived brother or sister, was given out of her private purse to these cottage.children; and many a winter's walk has been taken to ascertain the occasional causes of absence, or to minister to the necessities of the sick child or parent.
Activity of benevolence, practical kindness, seemed to me to be the ruling spirit of Earlham. I did not hear much of great schemes, but I saw much of real acts of charity; and these recollections, on that account, are both pleasant and profitable. The whole household seemed imbued with the same happy feeling. As I sat pondering on how very Little I had ever done, and making in my inmost heart first excuses, and then resolutions, I caught sight of the figure of some lady's maid or upper servant of the family cheerfully crossing the scarcely-tracked path amidst the drifting snow, on some errand of mercy to a poor neighbour. I have forgotten many and many a sermon and lecture on the duty of benevolence: that one little act of self-denial has remained in my memory for a long course of years.
The day passed slowly; it seemed to be so systematically divided, and to have its several occupations for every hour, that I was quite weary, and thought within myself that the time for going home would at this rate be long in coming. The dining-room had a particularly grand and stately appearance to me. It was hung round with long, full-length pictures of the ancestors not of the Gurney family, as I have since those days discovered, but of those very Bacons to whom allusion has been made, and of whom the Gurneys held the property. I set them all down, however, for Gurneys, and began to trace some fanciful likenesses between certain wigged gentlemen and armed knights and Joseph John Gurney, marvelling how he would look in the scarlet robe of one and the mail-coat of another, till I was reminded of my dinner by his well-known voice. All the time of my visit, and in many subsequent ones, the thought of meeting those grim old pictures, to each of which I had attached my own imaginary history, was an indescribable consolation for the length and formality of the formidable dinner.
After dinner came dessert, and more musings on the ancestors, then the run and the play, and the visit to the housekeeper's room till the tea hour. Tea went on more in the home style, and by the time it was ended, I was warmed, and happier than I had been all day. But my happiness fled, at the intimation from the governess that I had better take my work, and having no work to do, I was constrained to hem a poor child's pinafore for one of Miss Gurney's scholars, and to listen to
Pilgrim's Progress' in good earnest. I had already read the Pilgrim's Progress'—there are few children who have not-but I had not suspected that there was a precious kernel contained in the husk on which alone I had been content to feed, and great was my astonishment to hear the exposition of every character, and to see how many portraits of human nature that wonderful artist had drawn. This book lasted us for many evenings. Sometimes Joseph John Gurney himself read, always explaining, as he went along, the obscure parts of the beautiful allegory, and I have not yet forgotten some of the lessons he taught us out of that old book. I fancied he looked at me very particularly when he came to the character of Talkative.' You know he knew me at home, where I was not often so still and orderly as when listening to • Pilgrim's Progress,' and hemming a poor child's pinafore. He told us the tale of Bunyan himself-how he endured persecution for conscience sake-how in his lonely prison-life he conceived, if he did not write the wonderful allegory which has immortalized his name, and how his word was so entirely to be relied upon, that during the last few years of his imprisonment, he was allowed by his gaoler the liberty of going out weekly to one of the meetings of his sect on no other condition than that of his promise to return at a given hour.
So our time glided on. Occasionally the rooks, or the cold, the industry, a difficult lesson, or a large dinner party, brought back the old chill of awe, and threw me on the resources of the • Bacon ancestors,' but the weeks passed away happily and smoothly on the whole. The snow melted, crocuses and snowdrops, anemones and violets peeped out, my spirits rose, and I began to show the character of • Talkative' to perfection.
One night-I remember it well— I received a severe lesson on the sin of evil speaking. Severe I thought it then, and my heart rose in childish indignation against him who gave it, but I had not lived long enough in the world to know how much mischief a child's inconsiderate talk may do, and how frequently it happens that great talkers run off the straight line of truth. I was talking very fast about some female relative, who did not stand particularly high in my estimation, and was proceeding to give particulars of her delinquencies, failings in temper, &c., to the amusement, I suppose, of one or two of my hearers, or I should not have been so communicative. In a few moments my eye caught an expression in that of one of my auditors, of such calm and steady disapprobation, that I stopped suddenly short. There was no mistaking the meaning conveyed by that dark, speaking eye; it brought the colour to my very temples, I am sure, and confusion and shame to my heart. I was silent for a few moments, when Joseph John Gurney asked very gravely,
• Dost thou not know of any good thing to tell us of ?' I did not answer, and the question was more seriously repeated. • Think. Is there nothing good thou canst tell us of her?'
Oh yes, I know of some good things, certainly, but • Would it not have been better then to relate those good things than to have told us that which must lower her in our estimation? Since there is good to relate, would it not be kinder to be silent on the evil ? “Charity rejoiceth not in iniquity" thou knowest.'
After this you may be sure that • Talkative 'hemmed the pinafore very industriously, and laid down her character for the evening.
It was our custom every morning,—that of Miss Gurney and any little visitor she had with her,-to go before breakfast into the room adjoining her father's dressing-room, and recite certain portions of scripture, either of our own choice or his selection. There was a particular appropriateness in the 13th chapter of Corinthians, which I was that morning desired to read, and afterwards to commit to memory. There was no comment made as usual on what I read. That was unnecessary, the reproof was felt even to the shedding of tears; but the kind voice
and silent caress soon spoke love and peace, and I was comforted. “A word spoken in season, how good is it.'
Little could he have supposed that this gentle rebuke, to a thoughtless child, would be a lesson to be remembered by her, not always with good effect, alas ! but still not to be quite lost, and that the 13th chapter of Corinthians would be brought back again and again before her to check that tendency in frail human nature to speak evil one of another.
Children are so observant of inconsistency in those who are over them, that I am quite sure had I ever found my Mentor guilty of the sin of uncharitableness, I should not have failed to put it down in the note-book of my heart; but I can truly say that the force of that beautiful precept was never weakened by a contradictory example. I never heard a censorious word pass those calm lips, nor knew a cloud of unworthy suspicion to darken his bright trusting hope of the best of every one.
In after years I have often been impressed with the superior tone of conversation at Earlham. Scandal and small talk was not the fashion there. Things and not persons were the topics of discourse. Such was Joseph John Gurney's house as it appeared to a young child. Clouds there were, doubtless ; from human frailty and infirmity it were not entirely exempt, but few Christian households displayed a happier scene of concord, consistency, and holiness, than that which we have just visited.
There were seasons of affliction in that old hall. Twice was its master called to give up the beloved partner of his domestic joys and
Sickness and suffering were not shut out from Earlham, but withal, there was peace—the peace and joy of believing:
There was one anniversary which was kept in this house with scrupulous observance. Once in the year there was a great gathering of the friends of the Bible Society at the time of their public meeting. Time would fail to tell of the good men that have gathered round that hospitable board on such occasions. Chalmers and Richmond ; Buxton, Wilberforce, Brandram, with many more now entered into rest, have met there. Of that once numerous company how few remain below; but is it not a happy thought that they have met where their song will ever be the same, and where there are no distractions from the world, and no fear of parting to alloy their unity and peace?
A few years before his death, as though to prepare those who loved him for the yet longer separation, the parting that knows no return, Mr. Gurney went on a religious visit to the American continent. On the Sunday before his departure from Norwich, it was intimated that he desired to meet a few of his friends and fellow-citizens, at the accustomed hour for the evening worship of the ‘Friends, and at their usual place of meeting. Had the largest room in Norwich been engaged for the occasion, it would in all probability have been filled ; as it was, hundreds went away disappointed, unable to obtain a last glimpse of his well-known face, or to hear the tones of that peculiarly rich and musical voice—a voice only to be heard to be loved.
It was a mixed assembly. The mode of conducting the worship did
not differ from the established custom of the Friends.' Intervals of solemn silence, occasionally broken by exhortation and prayer, were followed by the farewell address of Joseph John Gurney. It was a powerful appeal, and perhaps one of the finest specimens of unstudied heart-eloqnence that ever passed the preacher's lips ; an appeal on the importance of the great concern of personal and evangelical religion, falling, doubtless, on many ears to which the sound of the gospel was strange.
The welcome home, after four eventful years, was as hearty and joyful as the parting had been sad. Death had as yet spared the fading branches of that cherished family-tree. Elizabeth Fry, his sister and associate in many a work of benevolence, was still alive. Sir Fowel Buxton, the kindred spirit and friend of his youth and manhood, had not yet passed away. He returned in time to follow these beloved ones to their last earthly resting-place. His own expression on the first meeting for worship at which he was present, on his return, was one of humble, and almost heavenly thankfulness. He described his mind when he rose to address his hearers as a “sky without a cloud ;' and truly his countenance bore witness to that cloudless state.
But trials were impending. In 1845, about three years after his return to England, his beloved brother-in-law Buxton died. It was a beautiful close ; and as he remarked in a simple sketch of his life, It was bright indeed, for the rays of the Sun of Righteousness rested on him!'
The last days of his own life were, perhaps, his most lovely. There was not, in his case, a long and suffering illness to lay him aside from his acts of public usefulness and love. But for a few days was he missei in his accustomed path before the end came. There had evidently been an increase of zeal, a quickened conscientiousness, and a fervour of charity, as he drew nearer home. He seemed oppressed with the greatness of the necessities, both moral and physical, of his fellow-creatures. There was famine and distress around him-Ireland was crying aloud for help; whilst in his native city, the unemployed and starving population were almost perishing for bread. He was not paralyzed, like some, with the tide of poverty, but manfully and earnestly devoted his own energies, and enlisted those of others, to meet and to stem it. More than one flourishing society in Norwich to aid the distressed may look on him as its founder; and oh, what better monument to such a man than monuments of charity and mercy!
His health had not for some years been vigorous ; and early in January, 1847, as he was returning home from business on his pony, owing to the slippery state of the streets, it fell with him; and although there were no outward marks of injury, yet from the effects of that fall he never recovered. But a few days passed, and many were scarcely aware of the dangerous condition of the sufferer, when the news spread through the city that he was no more.
A stranger entering Norwich on the following day would have asked what angel of destruction had passed through the gloomy streets. Almost every shop was closed ; every ordinary topic of conversation