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THOUGH my district is usually spoken of as "low,"
and is, in the bulk, the kind of neighbourhood generally intended to be
indicated by the use of the word low, it has still its respectable parts, and
inhabitants who, though perhaps hardly coming quite up to the
"genteel" standard, would consider themselves wronged were they
described as anything less than "highly respectable." There are the
substantial tradesmen of the High Street, with their brigade of shopmen and
"young ladies." There are retired tradesmen, too, and a sprinkling of
retired captains; small manufacturers, and the managers, foremen, and leading
workmen of the larger manufacturing establishments in the vicinity, together
with a considerable sprinkling of City clerks and salesmen, who take up their
residence in the better part of the district, on the ground of its rents being
like their salaries, small.
Now, it is mostly in the parts habitually spoken of as the respectable parts, that the churches and chapels of the district are situated, and from the dwellers in those parts that' their congregations are almost exclusively drawn. In the low quarters-to which my own peregri-[-158-]nations were, as a rule, confined - I regret to say, that a regular attendant at a place of worship, a really religious person, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, was a rarity - so much of a rarity as to be set down as a "character" on that ground alone. And, in truth, the go-to-meetingers, as they were scornfully called, had generally something of marked character about them, a circumstance probably to be accounted for by the fact that a man must have more than ordinary strength and firmness of mind to be a go-to-meetinger among such neighbours and surroundings as were to be found in the quarters I am speaking of. A mere go-to-meetinger then being regarded as a character, it is easy to understand that a call-to-meetinger would be looked upon as something approaching the eccentric. It was in the latter light that the neighbours of "Old Fend-Off" viewed him - though it is due to them to state that they spoke of what they conceived to be his eccentricity as of an amiable, even a noble, kind, and while they sometimes laughed at, they always respected him. Not to know Old Fend-Off would, in my district, be to argue yourself unknown, and yet it so fell out that I had been a considerable time in the district, and made the acquaintance of many of its more commonplace inhabitants, before I even heard of Old Fend-Off; but at length I did come to hear of him, make his acquaintance, and learn his history.
The local Industrial Home for Destitute Boys was mainly supported by local subscriptions; and numbers of the contributors not only gave their money, but also [-159-] visited it, and by advice and otherwise aided the managers in their work. One of the most valuable of these friends was a master rigger, in a considerable way of business, and one evening when we were going through the Home together, he asked:
"Can any of your boys do rope work? Mats, and nets, and that kind of thing?"
On inquiry I found that they could not, and answered accordingly.
"Ah, that's a pity," said our friend; "it just occurred to me that if they could do such work I could put a goodish bit in your way."
"In that case we might have them taught," I observed, in a questioning tone.
"Well, I almost think it would be worth your while," was the answer. "Who would you get to teach them?"
"Well, I don't exactly know," I replied; "couldn't you recommend us a person?"
My friend, shrugging his shoulders, replied that he could not; that his own men were union men, and that the union would be horrified at one of its members being employed for such a purpose, that it would cry aloud the trade was being ruined, and "call out" his men. "In fact," he concluded with a laugh, "now I think of it, I would have to give you the work on the quiet, or by the 'kind permission' of the union. However, I would give it to you and doubt not you'll be able to get some outsider to teach the boys."
[-160-] "We will try, anyway," I said; and on the following day I commenced to make inquiries, applying in the first instance to a friendly old Waterman, Bill Scott, by name, who had lived in the district all his life, and had an extensive acquaintance among its inhabitants. Old Bill, as he was familiarly called, did, perhaps, the best trade of any man plying at the stairs; but steam ferries, and other modern improvements, had seriously interfered with the waterman's calling since his young days, and now even he had a good deal more time on his hands than he would have wished. During his long waits for fares he was generally to be seen perched on top of a tall make-fast post, and here I found him enjoying a pipe of particularly strong tobacco.
Having explained matters, I asked-
"Can you tell me of any such man?"
"Well, I don't know as how I can, speaking right off;" he answered; "but let me think a minute."
His thinking was accompanied by such hard puffing, that he was soon enveloped in a cloud of smoke. Presently dispersing it with his hat, so that we could see each other's faces again, he observed-
"Well, I know of a feller as could teach the rope work, and as would be glad enough to pick up a trifle I that way; but you see, wuss luck for himself; he's been misfortunate in his day, in fact it was in prison he learnt the rope work. I think he's had his lesson, and won't want no more, but I know that there's them as thinks that a man as'll go wrong once, will again, if he gets a [-161-] chance; and I suppose you must think of the look of the thing and the 'say so. '"
"Well, yes, both for the 'say so,' and for higher considerations," I answered, "the man, whoever he was, should be of good character. Can't you think of any other?"
"Let me think a minute," he repeated, proceeding to blow another and denser cloud, which, after brief silence, he energetically brushed away, exclaiming as he did so-
"I've got it! Old Fend-Off's your man. You couldn't have a better for the job if you had a man made to order."
He had spoken with evident assurance that I must know the man, and was quite taken aback when I asked-
"But who is Old Fend-Off?"
"Ain't you come across him, then?" he questioned; looking at me in surprise.
"No," I answered; "at least not by that name."
"Well, I don't suppose you've heard of him by any other," said the old waterman. "Of course he has a proper name like other people, but there ain't one in a hundred as could tell you as it was Joe Barber. Everybody calls him Old Fend-Off."
"What is he?" was my next question.
"Ah, that's a bit of a puzzle!" I answered the old waterman reflectively; "he's a lot of things. He's Jack of a good many trades, but he is master of one. His fends-off are more run upon than any other small maker's [-162-] and making them is his leading job - that's why he's called by that name.* [* A fend-off is the technical term for the rope-encased oakum-stuffed buffers which are put over the sides of steamers and other craft when there is danger of their being brought too sharply against a pier or another boat.] But, beside that, he's a regular handy man; he can repair a clock or a sewing machine, frame a pictur', make a table, paper a house, do a bit o' tailoring or shoe-making, and I don't know what beside. And then he's a Methody, and a preacher. None of your high-flying sort as talks over your head, mind you, nor yet one of those as is always making out to be miserable themselves, and wanting every one else to be the same. He smokes his pipe, and he'll laugh at a joke, and he won't turn his eyes up as if he was going to faint, even if he's chaff'd a bit-for one thing, he can generally turn the tables upon any one as does chaff him. He is a ranter, but he ain't a canter - he practises as he preaches, which is more than can be said of a good many. He's as kind-hearted an old chap as ever walked; why his house is a regular menagerie, as you may say."
Bill had spoken with sincere enthusiasm, and I had listened with unfeigned interest until the conclusion of the speech, which certainly struck me as being in the nature of an anti-climax. To have a house like a menagerie was not after all, I thought, the highest proof of kind-heartedness that might have been adduced, and I was conscious of a coldness in my tone as I observed-
"Is he very fond of animals, then?"
[-163-] "Animals!" exclaimed Bill Scott, pausing in the act of carrying his pipe to his mouth, and looking confused. "Ah - drat it, that's wot comes of being wi'out book- laming. Of course a menagerie is for animals, now I thinks of it. I should have said the other thing; you know, a place for people as hasn't a place of their own, and as are too broke down to be able to make a home for themselves."
"A refuge," I suggested.
"That's it!" he exclaimed; "his house is a regilar refuge for the destitute. He's got neither chick nor child of his own, but he's always got a lot of misfortunate beings about him as no one else would harbour. The chap as helps him to stuff the fends-off has been crazy these nine years, and is a lot of trouble to manage. 'Poor Dick,' says he, 'I knew him before his calamity - he was druv off his head by a sudden fright - as if plenty of those who would make game of his foolish ways, if they weren't afraid of Old Fend-Off, hadn't known him before too. Then there's a younger fellow as helps him, as he's kep' and edicated ever since he was a boy, just because he was by when his mother was drowned; and as to the old woman as he lets call herself his housekeeper, he's a great deal more a nurse to her than she is a housekeeper to him, and it must cost him a little fortin a-paying doctors' bills for her, for she's mor'n half blind, and a'most always laid up with the rheumatics."
I felt decidedly interested at hearing this, but knowing [-164-] that with Bill Scott "old age was garrulous," I made no attempt to draw him out, merely observing-
"Well, from what you say of him, I should think he's just the sort of man we want; where does he live?"
Bill gave the required information, and within the hour I was at Old Fend-Off's place. It was a good-sized, old-fashioned house, abutting on the river-bank, one of a row mostly let out in rooms to watermen, lightermen, coalheavers, and dock-labourers.
I had knocked for the second time, and was still waiting for some one to answer the door, when a boy who, to judge from his rolled-up trousers and a little basket of coal slung at his back, was just returning from a long-shore range, asked-
"Does yer want Old Fend-Off?"
I replied that I did.
"You'll have to go through, then," said the boy; "he works in a shed at the back."
"Ah, but how am I to go through?"
"Easy; look here!" and as he spoke he advanced, and taking hold of a string that I had not noticed hanging through the door below the handle, pulled up a latch, and let the door swing back.
I could see straight through the passage into the yard, and waiving ceremony, went forward. On reaching the end of the passage, I could see right into the work-shed, the occupants of which were too busy to notice me. They were five in number, three men and two boys, and I had no hesitation in singling out Old Fend-Off himself. [-165-] He was a broad-shouldered, deep-chested, ruddy-faced old fellow, with long, iron-grey hair and beard; and, though he was seated, it was easy to see that he was long as well as large of limb-at least a six-foot man. He was plaiting the outer casing of rope round the body of a fend-off, and as he worked was singing in a good bass voice,-
"O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope in years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home."
At the side of him nearest to us, another man, whom I set down as being the one Bill Scott had spoken of as crazed, was busy ramming down the stuffing into fend-off cases. He was a stout-built man, somewhere between forty and fifty, and had nothing specially striking in his appearance. The third man was sewing up the canvas cases that were already stuffed. He seemed to be about five-and-twenty. The two boys were seated in the corner of the shed "teazing" the oakum for stuffing, or rather they were supposed to be "teazing," for they were playing at "odds or evens," a game which consists in the one player trying to guess whether the number of marbles held in the other one's hand is odd or even. Old Fend-Off happening to lift his head, however, they made a sudden dash at their work, but not before the old man had seen how things were.
"Ah boys!" he exclaimed, "that's bad. Don't learn to be eye-servants; an eye-servant is always a bad servant, [-166-] and will never get on in this world, to say nothing of the next. There's always One Eye that sees you, remember. Open skulking is bad enough, but eye-service is worse. It ain't for the sake of the bit of work you're shirking now I'm jawing you; it's for your own sake: I want to make honest men of you. Don't you see what mean skunks they must be as 11 only work when their gaffer's eye is on 'em? There now! there's no occasion to be breaking your neck over it; work away steadily and be good boys, that's all that's wanted."
Just as he finished speaking I stepped from the shadow of the passage, and the elder of the adult helpers being first to catch sight of me, he plucked the old man by the sleeve, and in a startled tone exclaimed-
"Cap'en, look there!"
Laying down his work, he came forward to meet me with a smile upon his face.
I found that he knew who I was, and I had, therefore, only to explain the object of my visit. Having done so, I asked-
"Would you be willing to undertake it?"
"Well, as far as I see, I think I would," he answered; "but there's a many things go to everything; would you mind just stepping inside and talking it over a bit, before I say the word."
I replied that I would be very happy to do so; whereupon the old man led the way into a cosey little parlour, in the furnishing and ornamentation of which his genius as a "handy" man was conspicuously displayed. The apart-[-167-]ment was fitted up neatly, compactly, and with as much ingenious economization of space as a state cabin, of which, indeed, it strongly reminded me.
"Of course," I observed, by way of commencing the conversation when we were seated - "of course we couldn't give much pay."
"Would it be a case of reg'lar hours and must come?" Fend-Off questioned.
"No," I answered; "we thought the boys might be taught at odd times, as might best suit the convenience of the teacher."
"Then I'm with you!" he said.
"At such pay as we can give?" I put in.
"Without pay at all, brother," he answered gravely; "as I can do it in my own time, I see it as Lord's work. Don't I know the poor little chaps? Don't I know that they are as lambs that are being brought within the fold? And shall I sell em my bit of spare labour, and yet look upon myself as a worker in the vineyard, however humble? God bless 'em, and prosper the work with 'em, I would think I was robbing 'em if I did."
"Well," I said, "we thought it right to make the proposal on a business footing, in the first instance, at any rate."
"That's right enough," he answered; "many would take it as business, and no blame to 'em; it's accordin' as the light is given. I preach sometimes, as you may have heard, and I may say for myself that I am a prayerful man in season; but I'm not one of those that look [-168-] upon preaching and praying as the only Lord's work. We can serve Him with our hands as well as on our knees."
To this I assented; and having accepted and sincerely thanked him for his offer of gratuitous service, I observed-
"You belong to the Methodist body, don't you?"
To the Primitives," he answered; "they brought me in, and my call is to them in many ways. At the same time I'm no wrangler over creeds; Christians may be many flocks, but they're one fold, and one Shepherd's care. Don't let us say that ours is the best sect or anybody else's the worst; let us suppose that each one feels called to his own, and remember that in our Father's house are many mansions."
I said that that was the proper spirit in which to regard the matter; Christians should be united, seeing the enormous amount of work in common that lies waiting to be done.
"Right you are, sir!" he exclaimed. "Pull together is as good an all round motto for Christians as ever it was for a boat's crew. But speaking of work reminds me of your youngsters - when shall I start with them?"
"Whenever it suits you," was my reply.
"Well, let me see; this is Wednesday," he observed, reflecting for a moment; "shall we say next Monday evening at seven?"
I nodded assent, and then he asked-
"How do you think of doing?"
"Well," I said, "the boys who have been longest in [-169-] the Home are already broken in to certain kinds of work; and our idea was that some five or six boys who had just been admitted should be taught the rope work."
To this Old Fend-Off was quite agreeable, and accordingly entered upon his labour of love - for a labour of love it was to him - on the following Monday evening. A little outhouse, which from that time was dignified by the name of "The Ropery," was set apart for him, and here he assembled the boys, two of whom he immediately recognised. Placing them in line, he opened proceedings by a characteristic address.
"Now look here, boys," he commenced, "you're in luck. You know how you were living before you came here, lurking about long shore living how you could, and where you could, and making a precious hard live of it."
"It worn't our faults, Fend," interrupted one of the boys to whom he had spoken.
"I ain't sayen as how it was," replied the old man, deftly coming down to the boy's style of language; "not," he added, with a slight smile, "but what it might a been, just a little bit, you know. However, take things altogether, I know it was a lot more your misfortunes than your faults; but, all the same, it was you as had to smart, worn't it? Wasn't it you as had to go hungry-bellied, and ragged-backed, and had to sleep in all sorts of holes and corners, and put up with all sorts of knockin' about - wasn't it, eh?"
"I should just think it was," answered the boy; "rather."
[-170-] "Well, that's just what I was going to say," resumed Old Fend-Off; "you know what hard lines you had of it then, and you see how comfortable you are here. Boys," he added, his manner suddenly becoming solemn, "God has been very good to you, and you should thank Him night and day for bringing you into the hands of your kind friends here. Only think," he went on, after a pause, "how many poor little fellows still have to lead the hard life that you've been taken from. Speaking of that, what has become of Humpy Crockett that used to pal with you?"
He put the question to the boy who had already spoken, and the latter answered-
"Oh, he's been dead nigh this whole year. I were away at the hoppin' at the time. Some people found him in an empty house dreful bad, and took him to the wukhouse, but it warn't no use; he turned his toes up the same night."
"Ah, poor little chap, see there!" exclaimed the old man, "he had no such shelter as this. However," he went on, changing his tone, "that ain't exactly the thing I've come to talk to you about. Your friends here mean to make men of you, if you'll only let 'em. They're a going to put a good trade into your fingers; you've been told-off to be taught the rope work, and I'm the man as has come to put you through your facings, and you may depend that I shall do my best to teach you, if you will only do your best to learn - will you, now?"
"Yes," they answered in chorus.
[-171-] "That's all right, then," he said, and without further delay he set the boys to work. He was very successful in teaching them his art; nor was that all that he taught them. We had prayers before the boys went to bed, and after having stayed to these several times, he remarked with a serious air-
"You don't teach em singing, I see."
"Well, no," I answered; "none of those directly connected with the Home could teach it; and moreover," I added, "we were afraid both subscribers and the public might think it was going a little too far to add music to the things taught at such an establishment."
"Oh, I don't mean teaching em accomplishments, as they call 'em," he exclaimed; "not piano playing or Sol-Fa-in', or demi-semi-quavering, or anything of that kind. I only mean plain singing by ear, as the saying is; lifting up their voices tunefully in a few simple hymns. To my thinkin' music is a chosen means of grace. I fully believe that souls can be reached through the ear - and have been. I know some of these boys were quick enough at picking up street songs, and would soon learn songs and hymns of praise, and come to have delight in them. I would teach them if there was no objection."
On consultation I found that others, like myself, were pleased with the idea, and accordingly Old Fend-Off, like the ancient mariner, "had his way." In the course of a few months he had trained the boys into a really tolerable choir, and as he had predicted would be the case, they came to take great delight in their singing. [-172-] Before long, one of their proudest privileges was to be allowed to sing their hymns before visitors; while in working hours there was generally to be heard in some part of the building the humming of the burden of "A Day's March nearer Home," " Jerusalem the Golden," "I'm a Pilgrim," or some other of the hymns their old friend had taught them. That he was their true and loving friend the boys speedily came to recognise. He told them stories, he built a model ship for them to rig, he made them a set of cricketing implements, and fitted up a large swing for them. He was as kind with them as any man could be, but withal firm when occasion required; and while in a becoming way he made himself a companion, he never forgot that he was also a mentor to them. Altogether, both by moral influence and material service, he proved himself a benefactor to the Home and its inmates.
During these months I saw a good deal of him, and his out-door preaching being a frequent subject of incidental mention, I came to have a rather strong curiosity to see him in his character of parson. At length I determined to gratify this feeling, and one Sunday evening set out for the spot at which his open-air gatherings were held. It was a piece of waste land just outside a large foundry, and a mound of slag from the works served him for platform. When I arrived, he and a few members of "the connection" had already taken their stand upon the mound, and were faced by perhaps as strange a looking co ngregation as was ever gathered together. A [-173-] number of fish-hawkers' and costermongers' "shallows" were drawn up in lines, and occupied as seats by their respective proprietors and their friends, who had evidently come prepared to listen at their ease, as many of the men were in their shirt-sleeves, and most of them were smoking, while one or two parties had bottles of drink with them. Behind the "shallows" the standing portion of the congregation was ranged in close order; and behind them again were the stalls of sundry vendors of penny ices, ginger-beer, and fruit, who were on the spot with a view to "pushing trade." Rough labourers, and still rougher loafers, made up the bulk of the assembly, and had probably never before attended any form of public worship. Unpromising congregation as they looked, there was still something promising in the mere fact of their being assembled together as a congregation. I gathered that, generally speaking, they were there simply with a view to fill up a "nothing-doing hour;" and that the strong point of Old Fend-Off's preaching was - in their estimation-its anecdotal character. The general sentiment upon this point was pretty well summed up in the remarks which I heard a middle-aged lighter-man making to a companion, who, like myself, appeared to be a stranger to these gatherings.
"I come pretty nigh every Sunday," he said, "and in fact I should miss it now; I've got to think of it as a kind of treat. Old Fend-Off gives it you plain, and he always brings in a story or two pat, and that's the draw to most of us. He knows his way about; he knows [-174-] fast enough that a bit of a yarn will hold us together, and he makes em hit his nails on the head, and drive em home.
At this point the lighterman's talk was brought to a close by the commencement of the service. One of the group on the mound gave out the hymn with the burthen-
"I do believe, I do believe,
That Jesus died for me;
That on the cross He shed his blood
That I might happy be;
and it was pleasing to find that a considerable number so joined in the singing as to show they were familiar with the hymn.
Another member of the connection offered up a prayer; and then Old Fend-Off gave out as his text, the words from the fourteenth chapter of Proverbs "Fools make a mock at sin." Sinners generally thought themselves very clever people, he said; but as a matter of fact those who made a mock of sin, who, because sin seemed for the time to prosper with them, spoke lightly of it, were really fools, as a little thoughtful consideration of the matter would show. "Be sure your sins will find you out," he went on, was a proverb with a great deal more truth in it than the sinners who hugged themselves in their supposed cleverness seemed to imagine. Of course a/i sin would be found out at last, and have to be answered for, but independent of that - though that ought to be sufficient for all who were not fools - most sin was [-175-] found out and in some way punished even in this world. He had no doubt that every one within reach of his voice had had experience of that. "At any rate, I have. I remember, for instance -"
As the last words left his lips, there arose a buzz of expectation; then came a swaying movement towards the mound, followed by a silence of eager attention.
"I remember, when I was in the marines," he resumed, "the regiment I belonged to was sent to Jamaica. Well, there was a great many drunkards among us - and I'm sorry to say that I was one of them - and as soon as we were settled on the island, we began drinking and rioting about. A Christian missionary on the island, who was a great advocate for teetotalism, hearing of our goings on, and thinking, I suppose, that we stood quite as much in need of a missionary as did the blacks, came to the barracks, and in a kindly way pressed us to sign the pledge, saying that he had just received a box of cards and medals from England with a view to establishing a temperance society; and that he would like to have us as the first members of it. We thought we would show our cleverness by 'taking a rise out of him,' and agreed among ourselves that we would all pretend to be teetotallers, and so clean him out of the cards and medals - and we did. The next day, behold, he met some of us on the drink again, and of course reproached us, but we only laughed at him; only made a mock at sin. However, those laugh best who laugh last; and, sharp as we thought ourselves, and simple as we thought the mis-[-176-]sionary, the last laugh in the business was at our expense. A few days later, one of the gang happened to show his medal to a nigger, and the darkie innocently enough turns up the whites of his eyes, and cries out, 'O golly, what fine big new dollar!' This was a fine hint for us. Like the blackguards we were, we took to persuading the poor ignorant blacks that they were fine new dollars, and worth more than a dollar at Kingstown. By means of this yarn we sold them the medals at a dollar a piece, and spent the money in drink. After a while, the niggers began to find out how they had been swindled, and some of them came to the particular men that had cheated them, only to get laughed at or be ill-used. But one morning a crowd of the blacks came to the barracks crying out about it, and one of the officers hearing them, had them in to explain; and of course they told him how bad 'buckkra' man soldier had sold them fine big dollar, no good, no changee at Kingstown, no buy nothing. Well, the officer was a just man. He asked how many had been swindled in that way, and found that there were forty. Next he paraded the regiment, and asked the blacks each to point out the man who had sold them a medal, which they did. Being children of the father of lies, we denied hard and fast that we were the men.
"Very well," our officer said, we would see, and he sent for the missionary, who, when he came, picked us out as the blacks had done, and showed the list of our names. This was enough for the officer. 'I'll soon settle this,' he said. 'All you whose names are down here produce [-177-] your medals, if you can. Every one who can't must pay a dollar to one of these negroes here.' And to this he stuck; and the money was stopped out of our pay. The niggers and every one else had the laugh of us, and our officer, a man whose good opinion we all liked to have, was brought to think meanly of us; in short our sins found us out."
I have told this one of Old Fend-Off's anecdotes, as illustrating not merely his style of preaching, but a style of preaching that "goes down," with such a class as he was addressing, better perhaps than any other style. He recounted the story dramatically, and was listened to with the greatest attention; and though there was at parts of it some slight laughter, he, to use the point of the lighterman's simile, drove home his nail in all seriousness, arguing from his story that the wisest as well as the happiest man was the sincere and humble Christian.
While listening to Old Fend-Off I had kept well in the background and escaped his observation; but being with him later in the week, I mentioned to him that I had been there, and, after a little preliminary conversation, asked in a friendly way-
"Do you think now that your preaching really has any good effect upon such characters as were listening to you?"
"'God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform,'"
he quoted by way of answer.
[-178-] "Yes," I said; "what seemed strange means of grace were often successful: but do you, as a matter of fact, know that any of the rough characters of the neighbourhood who listened to your preaching have thereby been brought to live a better - a religious - life?"
"Thank the Lord, who made me his humble instrument," he exclaimed reverentially, "I do. Without taxing my memory, I can think of at least half-a-dozen souls who have been made happy in the Saviour's love, through hearing the word as it was given to me to speak it. I speak in all humbleness, sir, but I know how to 'fetch' these rough people-as they would put it themselves - better than a better man. The Lord, sir, sends the special means of salvation; He did with me, and I was a worse, a more hardened, and seemingly more hopeless case than any of those you saw listening to me. When I think of myself as I am, and as I was, I cannot but look upon myself as a miracle of God's goodness."
"And what were the special means by which you were brought to your better life?" I asked, becoming interested.
"Well, it wasn't preaching in my own case," he answered, "it was practice; it was a noble act done in a Christian spirit. It's a longish yarn, but I think it's worth hearing; and I'll tell you, if you don't mind."
I said that I should be very pleased to hear his story; and without further preliminary Old Fend-Off began to tell it.
"I'm not London bred, he commenced. "I was [-179-]born and brought up in the Black Country, and when a young fellow worked there as a miner. They're a rough lot there even now, and they were rougher in my young days, and I was one of the roughest of the rough. I was given up to gambling, and to dog-fighting, man-fighting, and poaching; while drinking and swearing were my daily habits-notably swearing. So much was the latter the case, that to distinguish me from another miner named Joe, who was a Methodist and a local preacher, our mates called me Swearing and him Christian Joe; and he was a Christian, and a brave one. He wasn't content with not sinning himself, he reproved sin when he heard or saw it, and that was no light thing to do among such a set as us miners. Many a time when he had checked me in my vile swearing I've turned to knock him down; but he always used to meet me with a look that somehow or other made me feel ashamed of myself."
"And his example and influence at length made a second Christian Joe of you?" I put in, as the old man paused for a moment.
"You'll hear," he resumed. "After a while I got mixed up in a poaching affair in which a keeper was wounded. To escape being arrested I made my way up to London, and in a drunken fit I enlisted into a regiment of marines. I was soon afterwards sent abroad, and was out of England for three years. When I did come back I was tired of soldiering, and the poaching business having blown over, I wrote to some of my old [-180-] companions and as they were generous after their fashion, and earning big wages, they raised a subscription and bought me off; and I went down to my native place again. Trade was rather slack at the time, and I could not get a job directly, but I could get plenty of drink; there were scores ready to treat me. Well, in the dinner hour of the fourth day after my return, I was coming out of a public-house blustering and swearing, when who should I meet but Christian Joe. Hearing how I was going on, he spoke to me in his old style about my swearing; and this time, the drink and the devil being strong in me, I did hit him. The blow staggered him, but the instant he recovered himself he looked me straight in the eyes, and said, in a quiet, sorrowful sort of way, 'Brother, I'm afraid you've come back a worse man than you went. I did not think you would have struck me; you know I would not strike again, and you know too, that I speak to you for your own good. However, I freely forgive you, arid I shall not cease to raise my voice against your besetting sin, or to hope that I may live to see the day when you will have put that sin away from you, and be ready to raise your voice in reproof when you hear the name of God taken in vain.'"
"You said rightly that he was a brave Christian," I put in, as Old Fend-Off once more came to a brief pause.
"He was," Fend-Off assented, "but those standing round didn't see it in that light. If he had struck me back they would have sided with him, but they thought [-181-] that, Christian or not Christian, he ought to have hit again, and they set down his not doing it to cowardice. As to myself; I felt ashamed of the blow the moment I had struck it, but I wasn't man enough to say so; I only went back to the public-house and tried to drink down the feeling of shame. This was what I was doing when there came into the house a reckless sort of fellow, who was in a small way of business as a shaft sinker. Whether he had come specially after me, or seeing me there had put the idea into, his head, I never knew; but he struck up a conversation with me, and got telling me that he had a job he just wanted to finish; that the men he had had working for him had turned out milksops, and gone away, saying that they were afraid the shaft was going to give way, though it was as safe as any shaft could be. If he had only one good man to help him he could finish it in two or three days, and could afford to give a sovereign a day for that time-did I care about the job?
"'Yes, I would take it,' I said; and we shook hands on the bargain, and went straight away to the shaft - and down it. When I'd been at work an hour I began to get sober, and then looking up, I could see why the other men had left the job. A good many yards towards the bottom was loose, nasty-looking stuff, and all the way up the bratticing was bulging out in a style that meant danger. I pointed this out to the other, but he only pooh-pooh'd it. However, I insisted upon going up a long ladder that we had down with us, to drive in a cross beam at a spot that looked particularly shaky; but I had [-182-] scarcely climbed to the point, when with a sudden crash the earth below it fell in, burying him, and jamming me in, with just my head and shoulders free. From where the shaft had fallen in up to the top the earth was overhanging, and was liable to fall in at any moment, and every second I expected it would come crushing down upon me. In my agony I roared out, and I suppose made somebody hear me, for presently I saw some one peep over the edge of the shaft, and directly afterwards I could tell by the sounds that a crowd had assembled near. I was wedged in with some of the broken bratticing, and I knew what a risky job it would be to attempt to rescue me; that any man who did attempt it, would do so with his life in his hand, as it was a hundred to one that the pulling and shaking necessary to release me would bring the overhanging earth down, and make the shaft a grave for him as well as me. I had just one shadow of a hope. I was the friend of all the daredevils in the neighbourhood, and I thought that hearing it was one of their own set that was in such desperate strait, one or other of them would run the risk. Several men crept to the edge of the shaft and looked down, and the look seemed to be enough, for nothing came of it. I had given up my last faint hope, when I became aware from the sudden bustling and shouting that something was going to be attempted. In about a minute I could make out a skip being put over the side and a man stepping into it. It was lowered very gently, and I strained my sight to see which of my companions had been so [-183-] bold and true. My heart went out towards him whoever he might be; and though when I had tried to pray for myself I couldn't, I did manage to think a prayer for him. Those who were letting down the skip knew what they were about, and lowered very slowly, so that it was some seconds before I could make out who it was that was risking his life for me; but at length, when he was within a few yards of me, I knew the face - and it was Christian Joe's.
"'Be of good cheer, brother,' he said, shaking the rope for them to stop lowering when he had got on a level with me-'.Be of good cheer! if it's the Lord's will all may be well yet.'
"He had got a saw with him, and as he spoke he commenced sawing for dear life at the piece of timber that I was wedged in by. As he worked, the loose earth came rattling down upon us, and I whispered to him, 'I'm afraid we shall neither of us ever be got out alive.' 'Well, it is in the Lord's hand, brother,' he answered cheerily; 'but lest we should not, let us each ask with our hearts that He will take us to himself.'
"Half a minute later he had cut me free and I stepped into the skip. The signal was given for winding up; and though we got some bruises from falling earth, we were drawn clear a second before the general fall-in came."
"Well, Joe certainly deserved his title of Christian," I observed, when Fend-Off had concluded this thrilling portion of his story.
"He did," said the old man, with an emphatic toss of [-184-] the head, "and that wasn't all he did for me. I had been badly crushed, and he took me to his home, and he and his sister kept me and nursed me through a month's illness; and, what was more, they made a Christian of me. To make short the rest of my story, I fell in love with the sister, and she promised to be my wife at the end of two years if, during that period, I held firm to my resolve to live a Christian life. I did remain firm, thank the Lord, and we were married; but she was only spared to me for a year. Feeling unsettled when she was gone, I came up to London, and joining a steamship as fireman, followed the sea for some years. Afterwards I was one of a lightship's company, and it was there I learned the rope-work. Then - my brother-in-law being dead - I settled on shore here, and started in my present way of business; and coming to feel the call, took to doing whatever of the Lord's work was brought to my hand. And remembering what I was before I was brought in," he concluded, "I would consider myself ungrateful for all the mercy and goodness that has been shown to me, if I doubted that even the worst of the people I try to speak to were beyond the reach of salvation; or gave up the hope that in some stray instance my humble efforts might be the appointed means."
Strong in his simple faith Old Fend-Off preached and teached on; and his example has a Christianizing influence upon many in the neighbourhood, who would otherwise stand little chance of being brought under any ordinary form of Christian influence.