THE BORDER LAND OF LIFE
“Date not God’s mercy from thy nativity, look beyond to the Everlasting
. . . . . . . . . .
“Ask me not, for I may not speak of it—I saw it.”—Tennyson.
I entered this incarnation on March the twenty-ninth, a.d. 1831, at the ancient town of Ulverston, Lancashire, England. My soul came with me. This is not always the case. Every observing mother of a large family knows that the period of spiritual possession varies. For days, even weeks, the child may be entirely of the flesh, and then suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, the mystery of the indwelling spirit is accomplished. This miracle comes not by observation; no mother ever saw it take place. She only knows that at one moment her child was ignorant of her; that at the next moment it was consciously smiling into her face, and that then, with an instinctive gladness, she called to the whole household, “the baby has begun to notice.”
I brought my soul with me—an eager soul, impatient for the loves and joys, the struggles and triumphs of the dear, unforgotten world. No doubt it had been aware of the earthly tabernacle which was being prepared for its home, and its helper in the new onward effort; and was waiting for the moment which would make them companions. The beautifully fashioned little body was already dear, and the wise soul would not suffer it to run the risks of a house left empty and unguarded. Some accident might mar its beauty, or cripple its powers, or still more 2baneful, some alien soul might usurp the tenement, and therefore never be able effectually to control, or righteously use it.
I was a very fortunate child, for I was “possessed by a good spirit, yea rather being good, my spirit came into a body undefiled and perfect” (Wisdom of Solomon, 8:20). Also, my environments were fair and favorable; for my parents, though not rich, were in the possession of an income sufficient for the modest comforts and refinements they desired. My father was the son of Captain John Henry Huddleston, who was lost on some unknown sea, with all who sailed in his company. His brother, Captain Thomas Henry Huddleston, had a similar fate. His ship, The Great Harry, carrying home troops from America, was dashed to pieces on the Scarlet Rocks, just outside Castletown, the capital of the Isle of Man. When the storm had subsided the bodies of the Captain and his son Henry were found clasped in each other’s arms, and they were buried together in Kirk Malew churchyard. During the years 1843 and 1844 I was living in Castletown, and frequently visited the large grave with its upright stone, on which was carved the story of the tragedy. Fifteen years ago my sister Alethia went purposely to Castletown to have the lettering on this stone cleared, and made readable; and I suppose that it stands there today, near the wall of the inclosure, on the left-hand side, not far from the main entrance.
When my grandmother, Amelia Huddleston, was left a widow she had two sons, John Henry and William Henry, both under twelve years of age. But she seems to have had sufficient money to care well for them, to attend to their education, and to go with them during the summer months to St. Ann’s-by-the-Sea for a holiday; a luxury then by no means common. She inspired her sons with a great affection; my father always kept the anniversary of her death in solitude. Yet, he never spoke of her to me but once. It was on my eleventh birthday. Then he took my face between his hands, and said: “Amelia, you have the name of a good woman, loved of God and man; see that you honor it.”
After the death of their mother, I believe both boys went to their uncle, Thomas Henry Huddleston, collector of the port of Dublin. He had one son, the late Sir John Walter Huddleston, 3Q. C., a celebrated jurist, who died in 1891 at London, England. I was living then at East Orange, New Jersey. Yet, suddenly, the sunny room in which I was standing was thrilled through and through by an indubitable boding token, the presage of his death—a presage unquestionable, and not to be misunderstood by any of his family.
Sir John Walter was the only Millom Huddleston I ever knew who had not “Henry” included in his name. This fact was so fixed in my mind that, when I was introduced to the one Huddleston in the city of New York, a well-known surgeon and physician, I was not the least astonished to see on his card “Dr. John Henry Huddleston.” Again, one day not two years ago, I lifted a newspaper, and my eyes fell on the words “Henry Huddleston.” I saw that it was the baptismal name of a well-known New Yorker, and that he was seriously ill. Every morning until his death I watched anxiously for the report of his condition; for something in me responded to that singular repetition, and, though I never heard any tradition concerning it, undoubtedly there is one.
Millom Castle and lands passed from the Huddleston family to the Earls of Lonsdale, who hold them with the promise that they are not to be sold except to some one bearing the name of Huddleston. Not more than ten years ago, the present Earl admitted and reiterated the old agreement. One part of the castle is a ruin covered with ivy, the rest is inhabited by a tenant of the Earl. My sister stayed with this family a few days about twelve years ago. Soon afterwards Dr. John Henry Huddleston, accompanied by his wife, visited Millom and brought me back some interesting photos of the church and the Huddleston monuments.
The Millom Huddlestons have always been great ecclesiastics. There lies upon my table, as I write, a beautifully preserved Bible of the date a.d. 1626. It has been used by their preachers constantly, and bears many annotations on the margins of its pages. It is the most precious relic of the family, and was given to me by my father on my wedding-day. Their spiritual influence has been remarkable. One tradition asserts that an Abbot Huddleston carried the Host before King Edward 4the Confessor, and it is an historical fact that Priest Huddleston, a Benedictine monk, found his way up the back stairs of Windsor Castle to King Charles the Second’s bedroom, and gave the dying monarch the last comforting rites of his church.
When they were not priests they were daring seamen and explorers. In the seventeenth century India was governed by its native princes, and was a land of romance, a land of obscure peril and malignant spells. An enchanted veil hung like a mist over its sacred towns on the upper Ganges, and the whole country, with its barbaric splendors and amazing wealth, had a luring charm, remote and unsubstantial as an ancient fable. In that century, there was likely always to be some Captain Huddleston rounding the Cape, in a big, unwieldy Indiaman. That the voyage occupied a year or two was no deterrent. Their real home was the sea, their Millom home only a resting-place. By such men the empire of England was builded. They gave their lives cheerfully to make wide her boundaries, and to strengthen her power.
My father and his brother both chose theology, and they were suitably educated for the profession. John Henry, on receiving orders, sailed for Sierra Leone as one of the first, if not the first missionary of the English Church to the rescued slaves of that colony. My father finally allied himself with the Methodist Church, a decision for which I never heard any reason assigned. But the reason must have been evident to any one who considered the character and movements of William Henry Huddleston. In that day the English Church, whatever she may do now, did not permit her service to be read, in any place not sanctified by a bishop with the proper ceremonies. My father found in half a dozen shepherds on the bare fells a congregation and a church he willingly served. To a few fishers mending their nets on the shingly seashore, he preached as fine a sermon as he would have preached in a cathedral. It was his way to stroll down among the tired sailormen, smoking and resting on the quiet pier in the gloaming, and, standing among them, to tell again the irresistible story of Christ and Him Crucified.
He was indeed a born Evangelist, and if he had been a contemporary of General Booth would certainly have enrolled himself 5among the earliest recruits of his evangelizing army. In the Methodist Church this tendency was rather encouraged than hindered, and that circumstance alone would be reason most sufficient and convincing to a man, who believed himself in season and out of season in charge of souls. In this decision I am sure there was no financial question; he had money enough then to give his conscience all the elbow-room it wanted.
Soon after this change my father married Mary Singleton—
“A perfect woman, nobly planned,
To trust, to comfort, and command.”
Physically she was small and delicately formed, but she possessed a great spirit, a heart tender and loving as a child’s, and the most joyous temper I ever met. Every fret of life was conquered by her cheerfulness. Song was always in her heart, and very often on her lips. She brooded over her children like a bird over its nest, and was exceedingly proud of her clever husband, serving and obeying him, with that touching patience and fidelity which was the distinguishing quality of English wives of that period.
And it was to this happy couple, living in the little stone house by the old chapel in Ulverston, I came that blessed morning in March, a.d. 1831. Yes, I will positively let the adjective stand. It was a “blessed” morning. Though I have drunk the dregs of every cup of sorrow,
“My days still keep the dew of morn,
And what I have I give;
Being right glad that I was born,
And thankful that I live.”
I came to them with hands full of gifts, and among them the faculty of recollection. To this hour I wear the key of memory, and can open every door in the house of my life, even to its first exquisite beginnings. The thrills of joy and wonder, of pleasure and terror I felt in those earliest years, I can still recapture; only that dim, mysterious memory of some previous existence, where the sandy shores were longer and the hills far higher, has 6become fainter, and less frequent. I do not need it now. Faith has taken the place of memory, and faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Childhood is fed on dreams—dreams waking, and dreams sleeping. My first sharp, clear, positive recollection is a dream—a sacred, secret dream, which I have never been able to speak of. When it came to me, I had not the words necessary to translate the vision into speech, and, as the years went on, I found myself more and more reluctant to name it. It was a vision dim and great, that could not be fitted into clumsy words, but it was clearer and surer to me, than the ground on which I trod. It is nearly seventy-eight years since I awoke that morning, trembling and thrilling in every sense with the wonder and majesty of what I had seen, but the vision is not dim, nor any part of it forgotten. It is my first recollection. Beyond—is the abyss. That it has eluded speech is no evidence of incompleteness, for God’s communion with man does not require the faculties of our mortal nature. It rather dispenses with them.
When I was between three and four years old I went with my mother to visit a friend, who I think was my godmother. I have forgotten her name, but she gave me a silver cup, and my first doll—a finely gowned wax effigy—that I never cared for. I had no interest at all in dolls. I did not like them; their speechlessness irritated me, and I could not make-believe they were real babies. I have often been aware of the same perverse fretful kind of feeling at the baffling silence of infants. Why do they not talk? They have the use of their eyes and ears; they can feel and taste and touch, why can they not speak? Is there something they must not tell? Will they not learn to talk, until they have forgotten it? For I know
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting
The soul that rises with us, our Life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting;
And cometh from afar.
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter darkness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.”
At this house, overlooking the valley of the Duddon, I needed nothing to play with. Every room in it was full of wonders, so also was the garden, with its dark walls shaded by yews, and pines, and glistening holly, the latter cut into all kinds of fantastic shapes. The house had a large entrance hall, and, rising sheer from it, was the steep, spiral stairway leading to the upper rooms. The stairs were highly polished and slippery, but they were the Alps of my baby ambition. Having surmounted them, there was in the corridor to which they led, queer, dark closets to be passed swiftly and warily, and closed guest rooms—obscure, indistinct, and shrouded in white linen. It gave me a singular pleasure to brave these unknown terrors, and after such adventures I returned to my mother with a proud sense of victory achieved; though I neither understood the feeling, nor asked any questions about it. Now I can accurately determine its why and its wherefore, but I am no happier for the knowledge. The joy, of having conquered a difficulty, and the elation of victory because of that conquest had then a tang and a savor beyond the power of later triumphs to give me. I know too much now. I calculate probabilities and attempt nothing that lacks strong likelihoods of success. Deservedly, then, I miss that exulting sense of accomplishment, which is the reward of those who never calculate, but who, when an attempt is to be made, dare and do, and most likely win.
There was also a closed room downstairs, and I spent much time there when the weather was wet, and I could not get into the garden. It had once been a handsome room, and the scene of much gaiety, but the passage of the Reform Bill had compelled English farmers to adopt a much more modest style of living; and the singing of lovers, and the feet of dancing youths and maidens was heard no more in its splendid space. But it was yet full of things strange and mysterious—things that ministered both to the heaven and hell of my imagination; beautiful images of girls carrying flowers and of children playing; empty shells of resplendent colors that had voices in them, mournful, despairing voices, that filled me with fear and pity; dreadful little heathen gods, monstrous, frightful! with more arms and hands and feet than they ought to have; a large white marble 8clock that was dead, and could neither tick nor strike; butterflies and birds motionless, silent, and shut up in glass cases; and what I believed to be a golden harp, with strings slack or broken, yet crying out plaintively if I touched them.
One afternoon I went to sleep in this room, and, as my mother was out, I was not disturbed; indeed when I opened my eyes it was nearly dark. Then the occult world, which we all carry about with us, was suddenly wide awake, also; the place was full of whispers; I heard the passing of unseen feet, and phantom-like men and women slipped softly about in the mysterious light. My heart beat wildly to the visions I created, but who can tell from what eternity of experiences, the mind-stuff necessary for these visions floated to me? Who can tell?
It was, however, the long, long nights, far more than the wonderful days, which impregnated my future—the dark, still nights full of hints and fine transitions, shadowy terrors, fleeting visions and marvelous dreams. I shall remember as long as I live, nights that I would not wish to dream through again, neither would I wish to have been spared the dreams that came to me in them. The impression they made was perhaps only possible on the plastic nature of a child soul, but, though long years lay between the dream and the event typified, the dream was unforgotten, and the event dominated by its warning. All education has this provisional quality. In school, as well as in dreams, we learn in childhood a great deal that finds no immediate use or expression. For many years we may scarcely remember the lesson, then comes the occasion for it, and the information needed is suddenly restored.
There is then no wonder that, in the full ripeness of my mental growth, I look back with wondering gratitude to these first apparently uneventful years on the border land of being. In them I learned much anteceding any reasoning whatever. There is nothing incredible in this. Heaven yet lies around infancy, and we are eternally related to heavenly intelligences “a little lower” that is all. Thus, in an especial manner,
“Our simple childhood sits,
Our simple childhood sits upon a throne,
That hath more power than all the elements.”
For it is always the simple that produces the marvelous, and these fleeting shadowy visions and intimations of our earliest years, are far from being profitless; not only because they are kindred to our purest mind and intellect, but much rather because the soul
“Remembering how she felt, but what she felt
Remembering not; retains an obscure sense
Of possible sublimity.”
I have a kind of religious reluctance to inquire too closely into these almost sacred years. Yet when I consider the material education of the children of this period, I feel that I have not said enough. For a boy educated entirely on a material basis, is not prepared to achieve success, even financial success. The work of understanding must be enlightened by the emotions, or he will surely sink to the level of the hewers of wood and drawers of water. The very best material education will not save a child who has no imagination. Therefore do not deprive childhood of fairy tales, of tales of stirring adventure and courage, and of the wondrous stories of the old Hebrew world. On such food the imagination produces grand ideals and wide horizons. It is true we live in a very present and very real world, and many are only too ready to believe that the spiritual world is far-off and shadowy. On the contrary, the spiritual world is here and now and indisputably and preëminently real. It is the material world that is the realm of shadows.
I doubt if any child is born without some measure of that vision and faculty divine which apprehends the supernatural. This is “the light within which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” If that light be neglected, and left to smoulder and die out, how great is the darkness it leaves behind! Precious beyond price are the shadowy recollections of a God-haunted childhood,
“Which be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day;
Are yet the master light of all our seeing.”
A child is a deep mystery. It has a life of its own, which it reveals to no one unless it meets with sympathy. Snub its first halting confidences concerning the inner life, or laugh at them, or be cross or indifferent, and you close the door against yourself forever. Now there is no faculty given us that the soul can spare. If we destroy in childhood the faculty of apprehending the spiritual or supernatural, as detrimental to this life, if there be left
“… no Power Divine within us,
How can God’s divineness win us?”
Categories: English Literature