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Alexander Heriot Mackonochie: A Memoir

By E.A. Towle

Edited by Edward Francis Russell.

London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., 1890.

Chapter XVI. 1887.

Last official acts--Visit to St. Paul's Cathedral--Taking leave of Wantage--Visit to Ballachulish--His death, December 15, 1887.

IN the May of 1887, Mr. Mackonochie went, as he had often done before, to the Home of Rest of the St. Saviour's Sisterhood at Herne Bay, but in June he was again in London, and present at the services on St. Alban's Day. To many his presence as a guest had a mournful significance, as they remembered other St. Alban's Days, and all that he had done and suffered. They sought out his tall figure, so easily distinguished amongst the crowd at the public luncheon, and noted the storm-beaten expression upon his worn features.

Looking on as a spectator at the scene in which he had so often played the principal part, he was probably the only person present who did not feel that for that very reason there was something missing. He had been especially anxious to see the Bishop of Lincoln, who was to be there that day, and with characteristic humility noted with pleasure in his diary the greeting which the Bishop gave him.

There might be sadness indeed, the inevitable sadness which accompanies the loosening of old ties, the filling up of vacant places, the relinquishment of everything which bound him most closely to the past, but there was no single drop of bitterness in the cup.

His birthday fell on August 11. He was sixty-two, and in one sense his life, which had so long been one of incessant mental activity, was over. Yet no word of complaint escaped him. To God alone he breathed the prayer wrung from him by the momentary pressure of an incurable evil that he might not cumber the earth. They are the very words in which he emphasised the desire by noting it in his diary.

I wish I could put my hand on Mackonochie's last letter to me (writes Dr. Liddon). We had met at Wantage in July 1887 when he was staying with his brother. He then asked me to take some young women in whom he was interested over St. Paul's in August, and to my surprise he came himself as one of the party, going all round the building as though he had everything to learn about it, and showing the greatest interest in everything. On his way back to Wantage he appears to have got out of the train by mistake at Didcot Station, and to have wandered about in roads and villages between Didcot and Wantage during a part or the whole of the night. He described this to me in the letter which he afterwards wrote from Wantage, thanking me for the afternoon in St. Paul's.

And in warm and affectionate response to this letter from Mr. Mackonochie, we find Dr. Liddon's note, dated 'August 26, 1887,' which had been carefully preserved:

It was a great pleasure to me to see you the other day, as it is to get a letter from you this morning . . . You know that I am one of the many who will always love and honour you, and pray constantly for your restoration in God's good time to stronger health.

Ever your affectionate

H. P. Liddon.

The missing of his way, to which these letters refer, had always been a symptom of his malady. One of his friends might well write that' his mental state was a puzzle.' His spirit at one moment so unclouded, his intellectual grasp so strong, the consciousness of his own failure so keen, and yet all this combined with a vain groping in the labyrinths of his mind for a forgotten word, or, as upon this occasion, wanderings out of the right road, even in well-known and often frequented places.

As to the condition of his mind during his abode with us (writes the Bishop of Argyll), there were no fancies or delusions such as come to some people. He was only forgetful of names and words, and incapable sometimes of expressing himself clearly. He was, I may say, holy and happy in his tone of mind to the last. He took a great interest in all the small events of our daily life) and was enthusiastically delighted with the beauties of this place.

It was the same at Wantage. None but those who were his constant companions knew how naturally and simply he accepted each incident of his difficult position; how gratefully he welcomed any casual event which gave him pleasure, from the visit of an old friend, to the blossoming of a favourite shrub in the garden; nor how readily he entered into all those trivial anxieties and joys which belong to the life of a large family.

The death of his brother's eldest son in the September of this year was a great shock to him, and though after a time he regained his quiet cheerfulness, there was a change as if his life had imperceptibly fallen into a lower key. He was again for a short time in London in October, and once more in his old place at St. Saviour's Priory, taking part in a Guild service; but here too his work was over, and for the last time he went back for a few days to Wantage.

The autumn days were darkening into winter, and a shadow had fallen upon his spirits. If he had suffered, at least he had suffered in silence, and he had battled with a foreboding which was nevertheless gathering strength because he had thought it cowardly to relinquish hope.

He left Wantage on October 19, and as he took leave of the place where he had known so many joys and so much sorrow, and said good-bye to those who had made their house his home, for once, under the pressure of that parting hour, truth leaped to light.

'When you come back--when you are better,'--so they said with that desperate clinging to the future which tells that the present has failed us, with that blind reliance on a hope which we guard as a starving man guards his last crust, when those whom we love are sick. 'When you are better,' and for once the answer came, 'I shall never be better.' He walked away and stood looking out at the bare wind-swept garden and patches of leafless orchards below; struggling in silence with the pain which, having once found a voice, was now striving for the mastery, until in a few moments he could turn, gentle and composed as ever, with his kindly farewell words to each member of the household. He never saw Wantage again.

On his way to Scotland he passed through London, and spent a few days with connections in Yorkshire, and some time with his old friend Mr. Ball in Edinburgh. Dr. Teape, of St. Andrew's Church, at whose house he attended a clerical meeting, writes as follows:

Mr. Ball wrote asking if he might bring Mr. Mackonochie as a visitor. I was very happy he did so. He sat next to me, and looked so happy and guileless and pleased. He listened at the clerical meeting, but made no remarks.

It was the last place where he met any number of the clergy, or appeared at any general gathering.

He parted from Mr. Ball in good spirits, and on December 10 reached Ballachulish. On his way he met the Bishop of Argyll in the train, and they travelled together as far as Dalmally, where they parted, little thinking it was for the last time. For years past, as we have seen, it had been one of his favourite resorts. Its wild and picturesque surroundings of loch and mountain; its winds, free yet soft like the soft-tongued Celtic peasantry; the vivid contrasts of its snow-covered hills and blue waters, had an attraction which outweighed in his mind the charm of Southern skies. North Ballachulish lies in a curve of the Lochaber shore, about ten miles from the head of Loch Leven. Beyond it, stretching inland, is the desolate and almost trackless forest of Mamore, separated by the Kinloch hills from the pass of Glencoe, or the 'glen of weeping,' which Macaulay describes 'as the most dreary and melancholy of all the Scottish passes, the very valley of the shadow of death,' and now for ever since the times of which he wrote overshadowed by the memory of an awful crime.

Mists and storms brood over it through the greater part of the finest summer. All down the side of the crags heaps of ruin mark the headlong path of the torrents. Mile after mile the only sound that indicates life is the faint cry of a bird of prey from some storm-beaten pinnacle of rock. The progress of civilisation, which has turned so many wastes into fields yellow with harvests or gay with apple blossom, has only made Glencoe more desolate.

When Mr. Mackonochie arrived the weather was intensely cold, but he had not suffered from it, and his friends found no lack of cheerfulness cither in his looks or conversation.

The day after his arrival was a Sunday, and he went to church with Mrs. Chinnery Haldane. In the afternoon he took a walk with the dogs, but did not go far, as the snow was beginning to fall in large flakes. In the evening all were weather-bound, and he talked a great deal, especially upon the subject of burials, and of the portion of Woking cemetery set apart for the St. Alban's people, the Christianising of funeral and burial arrangements having been (as it will be remembered) always very near to his heart.

On the Monday morning (writes Mrs. Chinnery Haldane) he spoke a great deal about the 'little old moon' which he had seen early in the morning over Donald's Peak, and wanted me to look at it, and see a star near it which I could not make out.

During the next days he both read and talked with interest upon various subjects. An article in ' The Church Quarterly Review,' which he had read aloud, called ' A French Diocesan,' led him on to speak of a journey which he had taken with his friend Mr. Russell, and what they had seen of Sunday-school organisation and teaching abroad. And a copy of the St. Alban's magazine which was lying about recalled old times, of which he spoke freely, but with an emotion which made his friends glad to change the subject. Then again, in the ordinary course of conversation during the long dark evenings which followed, he talked of French politics, and the attempt upon Jules Ferry's life; of Mrs. Scurfield's efforts on behalf of the London flower-girls; of the death of Chatterton in reference to a club connected with St. Alban's which had been called by his name; and of many other things naturally and easily as they recurred to his mind, or were mentioned by other people.

On Wednesday the frost had given way, and about mid-day drenching rain came on. He had gone out, and came back wet through two hours late for luncheon, apparently unconscious of the lapse of time, observing that he had not been far from the head of the loch, and was not at all tired. When the evening came and the household assembled for prayers in the private chapel, he said the office of Compline for the last time, and thus unconsciously with the ' Nunc Dimittis,' and the commendation of the souls of the faithful departed to the mercy of God, brought his long ministry to a close.

Thursday, the 15th, his last day upon earth, was clear and fine, and he was eager to accomplish the walk he had planned the clay before. He was urged to take some food with him, and a stick, and he acquiesced in both suggestions, observing in reference to the latter that 'a stick was always company.' 'You will be back before dark?' his hostess said; and with one of his bright looks he answered, 'I hope so, I hope so,' twice over. They were the last words which any of his friends heard him utter. A few minutes later he started at his usual rapid pace, walking with firmness and vigour, the two dogs running at his side.

There was no thought of danger, no foreboding of what was to happen. He had always been perfectly independent in his habits, and that morning especially it seemed as if amongst the hills which he loved, he was stepping out from the shadow which lay across his path of life into the sunshine. He reached Kinloch before two o'clock, and was observed by a gamekeeper eating his luncheon on the hillside above the bridge. After this it would appear that instead of turning homewards he went up the glen, following the course of the river Leven, and making his way ever eastward toward the desolate country of moorland and marsh and lakes which extends towards the mountainous outskirts of the vast Mamore deer forest. From this point all is necessarily conjecture.

It is supposed that as the evening fell he may have mistaken the glimmer of the dim pools for the head of the loch which he was leaving behind him, and still he pursued his way, the two dogs following, perplexed but faithful. On and on into wilder and deeper solitudes, ever further from the friendly lights and anxious watchers at Ballachulish, until to his weary limbs and bewildered brain, it was only the way to Heaven which still lay open. [When a snow-storm drove St. Cuthbert's boat upon the coast of Fife, his companions cried in despair, 'The snow closes the road along the shore, and the storm bars our way across the sea,' and he replied, 'The way to Heaven still lies open.']

At first no great apprehension had been felt. The Kinloch road was well known to him, and when towards evening the darkness came on it was supposed likely that he had taken refuge in some cottage, or in any case, if anything had happened to him, that the dogs would have come back. But when time passed and no tidings came, the Bishop, who had returned that afternoon, grew uneasy, and then there began that long and weary search which lasted with but little intermission, and with ever-deepening fears, from that Thursday night until two o'clock on Saturday afternoon:

Of all our searchings (writes the Bishop) I have the most terrible recollection of our Friday night's work among the hills between the head of Loch Leven and Glencoe. It was pitch-dark, except for the light of our storm lanterns, which were every now and then blown out by the force of the wind. We stumbled on over rocks and ice and sometimes through deep snow, whilst the howling tempest and driving hail were at times almost overpowering.

By Saturday the news had spread all over the district, and roused the keenest sympathy.

The Bishop was accompanied by a crowd of men and dogs, who had come in from all quarters, when, after a short rest at a shooting lodge near Kinloch, he started out again. For hours the search was protracted and in vain. It was not until the afternoon that some of the foremost men raised a cry that the Bishop's two dogs had been sighted in the distance. A few minutes more and the search was over.

He lay outstretched upon the snow, which half shrouded his limbs, and wreathed his uncovered head, in an attitude of undisturbed repose. Righ, the deer-hound, sat bolt upright beside him, whilst the little Skye terrier lay at his feet, alert and vigilant, growling at the approach of strangers. It was about twenty miles from the house which he had left more than forty-eight hours before.

The day had been overcast, but as the Bishop knelt and kissed him, the clouds divided in the west, over the Glencoe and Glen-Etive mountains, and the light which overspread the wild and rugged landscape rested upon his calm features still in the peaceful majesty of death.

He had never been easily vanquished, and he had fought hard for his life. There had evidently been a long struggle in the darkness amongst the rocks; the snow all around the spot where he lay was trampled and trodden down, and beyond the wire fence, which he had apparently followed, his footsteps had only been arrested by an impassable snowdrift; but strong as he was, death was stronger. Silently, resistlessly, but in no unfriendly guise, it had drawn near. The physical conflict and the mental perplexity were for ever ended, as under that touch, chill yet gentle as the falling snow, he sank down to his last sleep.

And who could doubt that after his long restlessness and weary wanderings that night at least he slept well? For him already 'the crooked was made straight, and the rough places plain.' The darkness deepened and the snow fell ever faster, blurring the outlines of the rocks and hills and blotting out the homeward track; but it did not matter to him any longer; as his memorial tablet in the Bishop's chapel fitly expresses it, he had 'departed into his own country another way.'

[Fall, snow! in stillness fall like dew,
On temple's roof and cedar's fan,
And mould thyself on pine and yew,
And on the awful face of man.

[Without a sound, without a stir,
In streets and wolds, on rock and mound,
O, omnipresent Comforter,
By Thee, this night, the lost are found!

[Bend o'er them, white-robed Acolyte,
Put forth thine hand from cloud and mist,
And minister the last sad Rite,
Where altar there is none, nor priest.

[Touch thou the gales of soul and sense;
Touch darkening eyes and dying ears;
Touch stiffening hands and feet, and thence
Remove the trace of sin and tears.

[And ere thou seal those filmed eyes
Into God's urn thy fingers dip,
And lay 'mid eucharistic sighs,
The sacred wafer on the lip.

[This night the Absolver issues forth,
This night the Eternal Victim bleeds,
O winds and woods! O heavens and earth!
Be still this night. The Rite proceeds!

[Aubrey de Vere, Poems, p. 62, 1855.]

They lifted his body after some prayers had been said, and laid it upon a bier formed of cross sticks and a plank, which the shepherds found a little lower down, and so whilst the Bishop walked behind supporting his head, they began their journey to Kinloch. [This plank is now a cross in the little chapel of St. Sepulchre at St. Alban's.] It was a rough and rocky way through swollen torrents and drifted snow, and their progress was necessarily slow until at Kinloch they found a carriage in which they could proceed to Ballachulish. Darkness had fallen before they reached the threshold over which he had passed in the morning sunshine only two days before.

It was in the Bishop's private chapel that during his visits to Ballachulish he had daily made his communions. 'He was ever the first to kneel at our altar,' writes the Bishop, 'and the last to leave it.' And it was before that altar now that they laid him; the Bishop himself assisting at the last sad offices until all was accomplished, and he lay in Eucharistic vestments with his crucifix upon his breast, and the well-worn Book of Prayers and Offices which had been found upon him, at his side.

Telegrams had been sent to Wantage and to St. Alban's, but it was not possible for any one to leave for Scotland before Sunday night, and Mr. Russell, who started at once, could not reach Ballachulish until Monday evening. As the boat which brought him from Oban touched the shore, the Bishop stood ready to receive him, and when they reached the house, took him into the chapel. 'Though I had watched his face for twenty years,' Mr. Russell said afterwards, when giving an account of his mission, 'I had never seen it as I saw it then. There was no pallor nor any trace of pain, but only such majesty as I had never known before.'

At seven the next morning (Tuesday) the Bishop celebrated, and in the darkness in boats from here and there across the loch there came the clergy of the neighbourhood to receive Communion from his hands, and then the service being over, while it was still dark they carried the coffin over the field to the waterside, where two boats were waiting.

A purple pall with a crimsom cross covered the coffin, and in the stern of the boat the Bishop took his place beside it. The snow was falling thick and fast, and all the hills were hidden by it. There was no sound of life about except from one great white sea-bird which rose up and flapped its wings, and led the way before the boats--even the very oars seemed muffled as the boats moved noiselessly down the loch. By the time they reached the pier-head the coffin which they had veiled in purple was veiled in white. It was like an absolution from the Hand of God, Then suddenly as the ship took them on board there came a change in the sky. The snow stopped falling, the clouds and mists rolled away, the sun shone out, and all at once the mountains which yesterday had only been patched here and there with snow, now stood revealed, clothed in virgin white from head to foot.

And so most fitly amidst beautiful sights and sounds that sorrowful journey began, and with sad hearts and loving reverence they bore him onwards towards his last earthly resting-place.

London could not be reached before Thursday morning, but it was known in the parish when the train was due, and as the hearse passed up Gray's Inn Road crowds lined the streets standing bareheaded, silent, and awestruck; watching until the body in its plain coffin of Scotch pine, the work of the village carpenter, was met by the surpliced clergy at the entrance to Bell Court, and carried into the beautiful little mortuary chapel. The windows surrounding the court were filled with spectators, and on the pavement below the poor people stood shoulder to shoulder or knelt as the coffin passed. It was no wonder. For twenty years he had gone in and out amongst them. Often misunderstood and patient under much provocation, upon how many now well-remembered occasions had that compassion for the weak and sinful shone forth which had been the solitary passion of his life. To how many of those now gathered round his coffin, from the group of his own near relations to the poor people standing in their doorways, had he not been at once a father and a friend! And as soon as the first Eucharist was over, all day long and through the night until the funeral on Friday, the footsteps of those who loved him passed softly in and out of the little chapel, as they came in silence to take their watch beside their dead.

At solemn vespers for the dead on Thursday, the church was filled to overflowing, and the coffin was brought from the chapel into the church, where it lay in the chancel surrounded with tapers and almost hidden by flowers, whilst after the service was over Mr. Russell told from the pulpit the story of his journey (from which we have already given extracts), and related the circumstances of the death to the sorrowing congregation.

On Friday morning there were successive celebrations of the Holy Eucharist from a very early hour, at which numbers communicated, and at eleven the Requiem began. Admittance had been by ticket as a necessary precaution against a crush; nevertheless, the church was crowded in every part, and hundreds of persons were unable to obtain admission. As the service ended the procession formed in perfect order, the vast assembled crowd reverently and silently co-operating with the police so as to avoid any confusion.

The large silver Crucifix was followed by the members of the choir, and after them by about fifty clergy in surplices, then the bier with lights on either side, the pall-bearers being all clergy connected with St. Alban's. His own near relatives and friends followed in carriages, and then came the Sisters, members of the Confraternity, Parochial Guilds, and hundreds of clergy and laity walking four abreast. There were representatives of every age and class. The Holborn flower-girls; Lord Halifax as President of the English Church Union; the members and officials of the Church of England Working Men's Society, the men and women he had guided, his own spiritual children, clergy from remote country parishes, the children he had taught in his schools--in literal truth it might be said that 'his works did follow him.'

The long procession moved slowly on amongst the crowds of people who lined the way, down High Holborn and Chancery Lane, and along the Strand to Waterloo Station; and the hymns, sung at intervals as they passed along, rang out clearly above the mingled sounds and the roar of the City. For once the incessant traffic in the great thoroughfares was arrested. London was startled into wonder. Death had hushed even those who had once condemned him into silence, and the wave of feeling swept from the train of mourners over curious and indifferent spectators, as with tears and prayers, and yet in a sort of triumph, they carried him to his grave.

Woking was reached by the special train, which carried some hundreds of people, in the early brightness of a fine winter's afternoon. Even the bare heath seemed to hold a promise of spring, flecked as it was by light clouds and sunshine. For about half a mile the coffin was carried on a hand-bier to the burial-ground of the St. Alban's people. In the centre there stands a granite shaft supporting a crucifix, and it was at its foot that the grave had been prepared. The Rev. A. H. Stanton read the service, and 'Lead, kindly Light,' with its singularly appropriate reference to the circumstances of his death, was sung at its conclusion. Mr. Suckling, the Vicar of St. Alban's, then read a telegram from the Bishop of Argyll, dated from Ballachulish:

How I wish I could be present with you to-day, but though separated by space we are united in the same sorrow, and the same prayers for our dear departed friend, and in the same hope through Jesus Christ our Lord. May His peace be with you all.

They were the last words spoken, and as the mourners drew closer round, the grave was filled in, and the flowers, sent in almost overwhelming quantities, deposited upon it.

And so they left him--where he would most have wished his body to be laid, amongst his own people--and reluctantly turned their faces homewards.

To some it may well have seemed that a quiet grave on the Scotch hillside would have been his most fitting resting-place, in that deep seclusion where, far from the turmoil of a city, he had so often communed with his God. But his home was at St. Alban's; no earthly tie, except that of near relationship, could be stronger than that which bound him to his people. Almost the whole of his ministerial life had been spent amongst them; his lot had not been cast in the shady by-ways, but in the glaring thoroughfares of the world. It was there that the battle had been fought, and now that the victory was won, it was in the neighbourhood of the battle-field that he was most fitly laid to rest.

A cross of Scotch granite marks his grave, with the Chalice and Host engraved upon it, and the simple inscription:

Jesu Mercy. I. H. S. In Pace.

Alexander Heriot Mackonochie, Priest.

15 December 1887.

And a cross will be erected upon the spot where he died; but his fairest memorial is in the hearts of those who loved him, in the lives of those to whom he ministered--those hearts in which the flame of love to God and man burns brighter, those lives which are stronger and purer since Alexander Heriot Mackonochie has lived and died.

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