XIII. THE HIGHWAY PASTOR.
THE Gubbings family, of Twister's Alley, Seven Dials, and
of Keate Street, Spitalfields, and of Kent Street, Southwark, will not go to
church. Throw open the portals wide as may be, ring the most inviting peals from
belfries, announce, in large type, that a bishop will preach, and, in larger
type still, that no collection will be made; invite Gubbings specially by
calling him "dear brother," or, generally, by proclaiming that the
attendance of working men "in their jackets," and with their wives and
families, is particularly solicited-it's all of no use. The Gubbingses, as a
body, look on each endeavour as a "dodge;" and, though they may give
you credit for extreme artfulness, are-to use their own expressive
language--" not to be had." You may even take possession of Gubbings's
theatre on the only evening of the seven that he can spare it, absolve him from
the customary threepence, and admit him free to pit or gallery, set the
footlights blazing, and fill the orchestra with hymn music; still Gubbings winks
his superiority to your machinations, and presents you the back of his ragged
Gubbings's present ways suit him; they are hereditary ways, convenient to meet, and requiring no exertion. He can lie till ten on Sunday morning, and enjoy till dinner-time-beyond if he prefers it-the luxuries of an unwashed and unshaven face, and tobacco unlimited. If he keeps pigeons he can go out and fly them; if dogs, take them to the sporting barber's (there is always a sporting barber in Gubbings's neighbourhood), and get their ears cropped, or their tails bitten off. Maybe he has his donkey to " clip," or a spoke to put to a wheel of his barrow; or he keeps a "battling finch" (a goldfinch pitted to sing against another for money), and, as the said finch is supposed to improve in tone and steadiness of voice if shut out from all distracting sights, Gubbings sets about blinding it by poking its optics with red-hot needles-cambric needles, five of them with their points clustered like a diamond, and lashed at the end of a bit of stick; if he be a humane man he merely scales the eyes of the poor little battler by scorching them till covered with a film, which after a time will wear off, and the tortured goldfinch regains his sight again. These are a few of the goods in which Gubbings traffics during church time. If you have anything of a more attractive character to offer, bring it to his door. He can't run after you. You are the seller, and you must wait on him if you want to deal.
Who is to do it? Where is the man so daring as to set up his tent in the midst of the Gubbings colony, and offer to the inhabitants new lamps in exchange for the blear-eyed stenching things that glow snugly in places unknown tothe sun-goods shunned and cold-shouldered, and which cannot find acceptors or store-room till heaps of long-garnered and comfortable evils are swept out and abandoned? Who is the bold pioneer who will, all alone, penetrate to the very nucleus of these hotbeds of crime and ruffianism, and there taking his stand declare to the beetlebrows, and threatening eyes, and sneering pipe-laden mouths gathered around, that they are all wrong, and ought to be ashamed ? Whenever you come across one such, you see a hero, and, considering the dearth of heroes in these nail-driving, man-shearing times, a man worthy of your respect. I, however, by no means promise that you will invariably find the highway preacher either a person of refined education or clerically attired. He may-nay, undoubtedly will-be found wearing a black suit and a white neckerchief; but ten to one, if the fingers that turn the leaves of the good book are not corned with the hammer and chisel, or scored and channeled by constant tugging at "wax-ends," or that the top of the middle finger of his right hand seems newer and cleaner than any other portion of his digits, because of its constant thimble sheathing.
Neither are the pills that he administers to the ugly-hearted Gubbings sugar coated. The horny sheathing that envelops Gubbings's understanding is nearly as invulnerable as the grimy cuticle that covers his carcase, which fact may go a long way towards meeting the charge of rant and bawling directed against highway pastors generally. Delicately-pointed logic will never puncture Gubbings's conscience; it will merely tickle it, and make him laugh. He must be speared-clubbed; his hard-set sin must be riven from him, as stubborn rocks are blasted with gunpowder. It's not the least use smoothing and patting Mr. Gubbings, and offering him a new life for his old in an affable whisper; he will certainly take it as part of the forcing-him-to-church dodge, and resist it as such. No; you must meet him on his own ground; you must-metaphorically, of course-take the collar of his jacket in both your hands, and, looking him hard in the face, say (supposing the sabbath question to be the one under discussion), "Now, look here, my friend. Suppose you were suddenly to find yourself hungry, and naked, and helpless in the world, and some one on whom you had not the least claim were to take you by the hand, and say, ' See; here are seven guineas. Take six of them, and therewith provide yourself with food, and lodging, and clothes; the seventh guinea is mine, and you must not ask it of me.' Don't you think you would be a great scoundrel to break into the good man's house and rob him of the remaining guinea?" "I'd like to ketch anybody I knowed doing sich a thing," responds Gubbings with a significant scowl. "Nobody 'ud do it-it's agin natur," murmurs the audience, wagging their heads till their sparse hirsute crops so recently browsed on by gaol scissors quiver again. "I know it is against nature," retorts the loud-voiced preacher; "nevertheless, you do it, and worse, everyweek of your lives. It is of something a million times more precious than guineas of which the Great Giver of all things is robbed. Here is his written command, 'Six days shalt thou labour,'" &c., &c. Argument, of which the above is a weak and tame sample, appeals direct to Gubbings. Its immediate effect is that he regards you with the same sort of savage admiration with which he regards Detective Twitcher, when that admirable and ferret-like officer gains a clue as fine as a hair, follows it up, and knots it and weaves it till his man is netted in a net with meshes strong as cables. Maybe when Gubbings gets home and to bed, and is lying awake in the dark, he will turn the matter over in his mind-the object being to find a side of it that suits him; and if he finds it, if you have not so roundly handled the said matter that there is still standing room for Gubbings's rough-shod feet, he will snort defiantly, and, dropping to sleep, awake yesterday's ruffian refreshed.
Very far, however, from the truth is it that the highway pastor's flocks are invariably Gubbingses. I know several spots about London where he holds forth as regularly as the parish parson in the parish church, and to audiences as sedate and devout as ever church doors closed on. At the obelisk in the Blackfriars Road, certain as the tolling of the Sabbath bells, are to be found a godly cabmaster and a hatblock-maker, and by the time the hatblock-maker's sister has taken her brother's hat, and the text has been found, and the windsor chair mounted, from every one of the six branching roads comes flocking the congregation, and, making a big ring round the preacher, listen sorrowfully to his preaching.
It must not be supposed that these highway gatherings arise from lack of church accommodation. I can positively assert that, in almost every case, in the immediate vicinity of the highway pastor's rostrum there is at least one church (frequently three or four) not more than three parts filled. How is it? The same religion is preached by the pulpit and the highway pastor, and the listeners to the former are accommodated with seats. If they have not a prayer-book, they may borrow one. When the weather is cold the building is comfortably warmed, and when the weather is hot it is cool and shady; whereas the highway preacher's flock is liable to sudden storms, to chill winds, and to an awful grilling in the summer's sun. Why don't the hot and tired mob pass through the churches' free portals and hear the gospel at their ease ? Perhaps it is that among a few of us so strong a love of liberty exists that even an hour or so in the body of a church, with an awkward sensation of "hush" filling the place, and the boots of a cane-bearing beadle creaking grimly on the muffled floor, is irksome, not to say unbearable. Perhaps it is that there are a few, not a whit more sinful than the best of us, but in whom there is more modesty, who, having so long stayed from church, are shy of taking their long-accumulated burdens across its threshold, preferring to get side-winds of gospel comfort, doing penance the while bareheaded in the sun. I beg pardon of the numerous body of anti-humbugs for writing such twaddle; but indeed I can't believe that the highway pastor's congregation are to a man vile hypocrites, who mouth prayers and hymns in public solely that people may see. Of this I am sure. More than once, more than twice or thrice, I have seen round the preacher's chair blear old eyes lighted with a light strange to them, and promising as buds in spring, and careworn, wrinkled faces, with an expression weird and mysterious as mistletoe mantling the frosty crabtree.
The labours of the highway pastor are not invariably bounded by daylight. It was observed that when the evening service was drawing to a close, and twilight was deepening into darkness, there came sidling up to the outer edge of the ring a few terribly shy folks, who for the previous half-hour had been lurking in the neighbourhood reading stale placards, lounging with their pipes against walls and posts, or gazing with great earnestness into the shop windows, appearing as if, of all things, Gospel preaching was the very last they are thinking of. Yet, as I before observed, no sooner did a good screen of darkness prevail than with stealthy steps the shy ones approached the attentive circle to glean a few good words before the pastor closed his book and bade his flock good night. The condition of these outsiders, as it were, content to kiss the very hem of religion, resolved the highway pastor to hold meetings in the dark. The result was successful beyond expectation. In the Mile End Road, in Rosemary Lane, Whitechapel; in Shepherdess Fields, Islington, and half-a-dozen places in and about London, on Sabbath nights, and occasionally on other nights in the week, the preacher mounts his stand and scatters his good tidings to a congregation whose faces alone are visible through the gloom.