The Trio and Topsy
Penge, South London, February 5, 1998…
The funeral of an elderly woman, daughter of a Mongolian Chief father and a Tibetan mother. An unusual event in itself, even for our cosmopolitan capital. Her story was, by any account, a remarkable one.
No one knows exactly when Topsy was born, but at just three weeks old, she was taken from the Tibetan foothills and sold to a childless Chinese couple living in Suchow, at the far western end of the Great Wall of China. She seemed a good buy, until it became clear that she was deaf and consequently dumb. Then, when a natural son was born to the couple, Gwa-Gwa (Little Lonely) was turned out to beg.
It was this beggar girl, “with rags tied round her anyhow” who came knocking at the door of three missionaries some time in 1925. She was about seven years old, and her legs were badly bitten by roaming dogs. In her silent world, she did not hear them bark, as other children did, so could not escape.
As she was to reflect afterwards through mime, this was the first time in her life that she had received kindness. For the first time in her life, someone said “Come!” and not “Go!”
Mildred Cable and Evangeline and Francesca French had an itinerant ministry in Bible teaching and evangelism in towns strewn across the Gobi Desert. Gwa-Gwa would forlornly follow their cart for as long as she could keep up with it when they went on their trips, and visit their courtyard daily while they were away, glad of the soup provided for her at the missionaries’ request, and longing for their return.
“The Trio” as these women became known, were concerned for her, as her adoptive mother, an opium addict, would beat her hard. With help and advice from local Christian friends, they eventually offered to purchase her for ten cents. This was a massive undertaking with lifelong implications. But for now she had clothes to wear, a bed to sleep in, and “three mamas” to look after her.
Gwa-Gwa was no longer “Little Lonely” and the Trio called her Ai-Lien (Love Bond). However, this was difficult for her to lip-read, so it was shortened to “Topsy.” In due course, she would need a British passport, and UK citizenship. This was eventually procured for her under the name Eileen Guy, the nearest equivalent sound to her Chinese name. She would also need to adopt a new culture when the missionaries came home, and to learn to lip-read in a new, different, and difficult language. Each of these aspects of Topsy’s life could be a story in itself.
The Trio were spirited women; spurred on by passion and conviction… “PC” missionaries! Their deep devotion to Christ comes out clearly in their spiritual autobiography Something Happened(Hodder and Stoughton, 1933).
Eva French had been an outrageous child, so frequently courting death that the family had carefully, if painfully, resolved that it would be better for no one to risk their own life in saving her. She was to describe herself later as “the fervid nihilist, the incipient communist, the embryonic Bolshevist, known to her world as Evangeline French.”
When finally despairing with herself and with the world, she confided in her sister, Francesca, “I wish I could take everyone’s misery onto myself, and throw myself in the sea.” As her sister pointed out, there was no need, as Christ had already done that. It stunned the family when Eva became a Christian, and soon afterwards expressed her desire to serve Christ in China.
During the selection process, there was some doubt as to whether she should be allowed to sail on health grounds, and Hudson Taylor intervened, accepting personal responsibility for her to go to North China, where the climate would be less exacting. She arrived in Shansi in 1893, seven years before the Boxer Uprising, and nine years ahead of Mildred Cable.
Mildred Cable was an adventurer from childhood, though family and teachers tried to repress this spirit in her, so she could give all she had to her academic studies. In her early teens, a mission was held in Guildford, and she went to the first meeting. However, with fears that “anything might happen” she wasn’t allowed to go back, until her pastor made a special request to her parents that she be permitted to attend the closing meeting that Sunday afternoon. Here she was converted.
A year or two later she was on vacation when a message arrived from this same pastor to say that a missionary was coming to town and would be speaking on the work of the China Inland Mission. Something inside made her return early, to be there. The missionary wore a text embroidered on her collar, which Mildred felt was rather embarrassing for the south of England, and she told her so!
A year later, Mildred announced her decision to serve in China, and visited the mission’s Candidate Department while still at school. She went on to study human sciences at London University. As she was nearing the end of her course, the Boxer Uprising brought terrible news of the slaughter of “foreign devils,” including 58 missionaries and 20 children from the China Inland Mission. The missionary who had visited Guildford, now a friend, had been the first to die.
Then the man to whom Mildred was engaged, and who had been as committed to China as she, wrote to say that he would not marry her unless she decided not to go there. This almost broke her. Her final exam was the following day; she didn’t sit it. Instead she shrank into a period of isolation. But as news crept through that the mission was now sending people to China again, as the Uprising had subsided, she sailed in 1901, letting “the curtain fall upon the past.”
Francesca, four years younger than her sister, loved music and the arts, read widely, and had the skill of persuasion in discussions. Their eldest sister married shortly before Eva left for missionary training, and the very day after she left, their father died. So the family of five at home was quickly reduced to two, and Francesca went to live with the mother. The girls had been schooled in Geneva, and their move to England had been difficult for them.
Francesca and her mother moved to Richmond, Surrey, and began to attend an evangelical church for the first time. That summer, Francesca went to the Keswick Convention, returning a week later with a new grasp of spiritual things. She loved the Sunday sermons: “Every time he [Evan Hopkins] came into his pulpit, his heart was indicting some great matter. There was never anything slovenly, commonplace or trivial about his preaching.”
Francesca was made missionary treasurer, but this was not considered a success, as she actively dissuaded people from giving unless they really wanted to. “Missionary subscriptions fell off appallingly.” When her mother died, Francesca took herself away for a few months to consider what she should do next. Her sister was shortly due home for furlough, together with Mildred. They asked her to join them.
When Mildred had first worked with Eva, senior people expressed concern that the partnership could not work. Both were too strong-willed. Too individualistic. They would be like the immovable object and the irresistible force. And now it may have seemed that their friendship was too close to admit a third party, but this was not so, and together this threesome became the legendary Trio, the “threefold cord which could not easily be broken.” They first returned to the school Mildred and Eva had run in Hwochow, now with 200 pupils. Then in 1923, four years before Chiang Kai-shek became China’s leader, they began their nomadic mission to the tribes of the Gobi. Brave women for an all-demanding task. They were the first missionaries to go to the region since the Nestorians in the sixth century.
Writers and influencers
There have been an unusual number of gifted writers in OMF’s history. Mildred Cable and Francesca French were among the best known in their day. They were shrewd in their observations of trends and of human nature, drawing out spiritual lessons, and using them to illustrate scripture.
Their best-known children’s book, The Story of Topsy, was not without its didactic note, affectionately put:
“She really was very happy, and life would have been perfect, she thought, if only she could always have her own way about everything. But that could not be, for now she had to find her place in a picture where there was a background of home, and while the solitary Topsy had looked quite all right as an isolated beggar-maid, the great big TOPSY in the pretty picture looked very ugly.”
The missionaries continued their writing after they returned to Britain, while working for the Bible Society. They completed 20 books, for adults and children, many going into eight or nine editions within the first five years. (Virago Press, the feminist publishing house, reissued The Gobi Desert in 1984.) Their fluency, imagination, and sheer authority commanded a wide readership. Biography, history, apologetics – all came across with a sense of warmth. These women loved Christ, and wanted to grow a deeper love for him in their readers.
Oliver Barclay in his book Evangelicalism in Britain 1935-1995 (IVP) comments on the “continuing source of spiritual challenge and encouragement” brought by OMF’s books and magazine in and around the war years. No doubt the names of Cable and French were among those in his mind.
The Trio were well-known and admired, and huge crowds would gather to hear them at public meetings on their furloughs. By 1935 the situation in Central Asia was worsening, and they resolved to return, though they knew it may be a fairly brief last tour. Kingsway Hall in Central London was jammed full. An account of that meeting in China’s Millions, August 1935, tells its own story.
“With no sense of incongruity, humour and gravity blended together, the Lord being Lord of all. …Miss Eva French, having thanked friends for their overflowing love, centred her remarks around a question she had been frequently asked, namely ‘Are you not thrilled to be going back?’ Picturing conditions of the Gobi, its stony floor, the filth of its inns, the hard bread and unappetizing food, the uncertainties of life, the rumours, the brigands, etc., these things, she said, made poor thrills. But contacts with needy souls, the evidences that kind deeds did bear fruit, were thrills worthwhile. But the only true thrill was to be able to say, as the Master did, ‘I delight to do thy will.’
“People had asked if Topsy was thrilled at going back to her native land, but Topsy’s bitter experiences in the land of her birth were poor preparations for being thrilled at the prospect of return. But there were a few things that Topsy wanted to say, and though she had been born deaf and was consequently dumb, she had been taught to know about 500 words. At Miss French’s invitation, Topsy then rose and said ‘goodbye’ and ‘forget-me-not,’ waving her hand as she did so. Topsy will not be forgotten, and the memory of her will speak for her people.
“Miss Cable immediately transported us to the realities of the Central Asian roads. In spirit she had been there while her companions had been speaking. She almost felt the desert grit. At home, all was for speed, but the ancient roads, with their three miles per hour, were better suited for the great business of preaching the gospel. Christ had joined himself to two discouraged disciples on the road, and the talk had been about great things. The great question of the road was ‘Whence do you come, and whither are you going?’ Think what you lose by your speed, she said. You can’t talk of these great and everlasting subjects when speed is the passion.”
The reporter then added,
“What a traveller puts in his hand-luggage could not fail to be a revelation, and Bunyan was her choice.”
The Trio were returning to the most inhospitable desert in the world. They had already crossed it four times, and were under no romantic delusions of excitement. They would once more pack and repack their ramshackle cart, the Flying Turki, to get in as many scripture booklets as it could hold, along with their bare living essentials. They knew what it was to face terrors from brigands and threats of death from the fearful General Ma, the 19-year-old “Baby General” who had assumed power in many places, and they had seen friends executed. They knew what it was to be shrivelled by thirst, taunted by mirages, and blown senseless in windstorms.
The Trio’s suffering is reminiscent of the apostle Paul’s and as reluctantly recounted. They shared in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering in a way which is given to few of us. Mildred Cable died in 1952, and the French sisters within a month of each other in 1960. Now Topsy is reunited with her “three mamas.”
Julia Cameron © OMF International (UK)