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AN EVENING WITH OLD BIBLE.
AMONG those who knew him Bible Braidy was familiarly spoken
of as "Old Bible ;" but in his case the familiarity of expression was
the outcome of respect and affection, and I also soon fell into the habit of so
speaking of him. To meet the old man once, was to desire his further
acquaintance, to know him was to love him. After our first meeting, I availed
myself of every opportunity that offered for talking with him, and I was
gratified to find that, in addition to being a sincerely religious man, he was
also highly intelligent and well read, and, though grave, was neither gloomy nor
severe-had, indeed, a touch of humour in his composition. When we encountered
each other it was by chance, and our conversation on such occasions was of a
very general kind - not at all calculated to gratify my curiosity to know more
of him. Having this curiosity, however, it will be readily understood that I at
once accepted his invitation when, after some months, Old Bible one morning
suggested that I should "give him a look in at his home some afternoon or
[-186-] "I will be most happy to do so," I said.
"And I shall be most happy to see you under my humble roof," he answered heartily. "You will at least be sure of a kindly welcome; and though the neighbourhood, as you know, is dangerous, you will be safe enough in it. I dare say you would be under any circumstances, but I am sure you will as a known friend of mine."
"I feel sure of that," I said, "from the manner in which I have always heard you spoken of by any of the Barker's Buildings people I have come across."
"I know they speak well of me," he said quietly, "and, to a certain extent, I am proud to think that it is so, not on my own account, but for their sakes. I know too much about thieves to believe in the proverbial honour among them: but I have found gratitude among them - ay, and other good qualities too - pity, and on occasions, generosity and self-sacrifice!"
"I can easily believe that," I said; and then, having named a day when I would call upon him, I parted with him for the time being.
Happening on the following day to run against Shiny Smith, it occurred to me that probably that volatile gentleman would be able to tell me something about Old Bible - something that would give me a hint as to the best line to take in order to "draw out" the old man. Having mentioned Braidy's invitation and my acceptance of it, I asked-
"What is Braidy?"
[-187-] "'A man, take him for all in all,
We shall not look upon his like again!' "
exclaimed Shiny by way of answer.
"Aptly quoted," I said; "but not quite what I wanted."
"Of course not," replied Shiny, "don't think I don't take. The bit of flowery came in pat, and so I gave it mouth. 'It is my nature to' - another bit of flowery. I know what you want. You don't want a multum in parvo definition of him; you want a few details - who he is, where he came from, what makes him live in such a neighbourhood, what he does for a living, and, in fact - to give another bit of flowery - ' the story of his life from year to year.' That's about what you want; but giving you the information is up another street. The old man knows more about others than they do about him; he's the oldest inhabitant. I don't suppose he has got anything to conceal; but he never talks about himself at least, he never has to me. If any one knows his history hereabout it will be Larry H-, a talkative Irishman, who sets up as his friend and gossip; but who, it is my opinion, takes advantage of his simplicity to get trifles of money out of him, and that sort of thing, you know. All that I know about Braidy is, that he was in the Dockyard for many years, as a storekeeper or timekeeper, or something of that sort; that he has a small pension, and that with this and the interest from some savings he manages to rub along pretty comfortably. He always dresses as you see him, is plain in his eating, and neither [-188-] drinks nor smokes. His only extravagance - if you can call it extravagance - is laying out a few shillings now and again in books. His idea of a day's pleasure is rummaging over second-hand book-stalls, and coming home at night with a volume tucked under his arm. He has got a very tidy collection, and mighty proud he is of them; in fact, they are his pets."
This was all that I knew of Old Bible's private life when I set out to pay my promised visit to him. He occupied a couple of rooms over a "general" shop, which was so situated that I had to traverse nearly the whole length of Barker's Buildings to reach it. In making this passage I found Braidy's name was a safeguard and passport. The sight of an outsider was a novelty in the Buildings, and from doors and windows I was furtively but closely scanned by fearsome-looking customers, who were evidently making mental calculation as to the probable value of my clothing, and speculating on the chances of my carrying a watch or purse. But with recognition danger passed, and I could hear such whispers as, "Oh, I know him, he'll be going to Braidy's," "A bit of a pal of Old Bible's," "Don't you remember he was down here with the old man on the day Fly Palmer was corpsed?"
Picking my way along the dirty footpath, and among the equally dirty children who were playing about on it, I at length came to Old Bible's abode. Hearing my voice in the shop, he hurried down-stairs, and, with a face glowing with satisfaction, ushered me up to the apartment which served him as sitting and living room. [-189-] It was plainly but comfortably furnished, and a good part of one side of it was fitted up with well-filled bookshelves, the volumes being such that, independent of what I had been told by Shiny Smith, I should at once have guessed to be gatherings from the second-hand stalls.
"Here you are then, sir," said Braidy, taking my hat from my hand, and placing a chair for me. "Be seated. I'm delighted to see you under my roof-tree. I have been looking forward to your visit; for, I can assure you, it is quite an event for me to have an educated man to talk to. It's a thing I often long for, the want I feel most; for my nature is social, and I feel as if I could give anything to have some one of understanding mind to converse with. But great are circumstances, and they will prevail; as Cowper says-
'Where penury is felt, the thought is chained,
And sweet colloquial pleasures are but few.'
So far as the gratification of my wish is concerned, I might almost as well be a Robinson Crusoe; placed here, I am alone in a crowd."
"But you are not bound to be placed here?" I said questioningly.
"Oh no, I'm a free agent in the matter," he answered, smiling and resuming his ordinary quiet tone and composed manner. "I could if I liked live anywhere where a man with a guinea a week might live honestly. But I lived in the Buildings here when they were inhabited by [-190-] a very different class from those who occupy them at present. When they first became what they are now, I stayed on from force of habit, and later I remained from a sense of duty; because I felt a call to do so. And, after all, I believe I have been happier here than I would have been elsewhere, and I am certain I have done more good than I could have done in a better place. I do sometimes feel the want of companionship, and yet it is wrong of me to complain; for it has been given to me - and it is a great gift to a poor, childless, kinless old man - to be able to find companions in these." And as he spoke he walked to his books, and placed his hand upon them. "There they are to be taken up or put down at will, the best of all good company. There -" pointing to one shelf - "are the sermons of great divines; there -" pointing to another - "the lives of great and good men; and here -" he concluded, again laying his hand lightly upon the shelf upon which was arranged copies of the works of most of our great poets from Spenser downwards - "are the veritable
'great of old,
The dead but sceptred sovereigns who still rule
Our spirits from their urns.'
"Well, it is a pleasant thing to be able to make friends of books," I said, feeling called upon to make some remark.
"It is," Braidy assented; "and yet there are times when you tire of them alone; when you long for the [-191-] sight of a human face, the sound of a human voice; when you want to disburden your mind as well as to fill it; when you would be glad even to be contradicted. However, if I keep on in this strain you'll be setting me down as an old grumbler. But it is only the novelty of your visit that has set my tongue running on that theme, and after all I am not quite companionless, I have one friend that often drops in to have a crack."
"Larry H----," I said, making use of what Shiny Smith had told me, in order to give Braidy a little surprise.
" Do you know Larry H----?"
I explained that I didn't know him, but that I had heard of him, and, from what I had heard, thought there was no danger of conversation flagging where he was.
I am afraid there was a sneer in the tone in which I spoke. At any rate, Old Bible caught what was intended to be the covert meaning of my words.
"Well, we all have our failings," he said, smiling, "and it is no libel on Larry to say that he has a flux of works, and loves to hear the sound of his own voice; but then he has ideas and knowledge as well; and you should bear in mind that I must judge him by comparison. When I compare him with the bulk of my neighbours, I can paraphrase the poet's line and say, 'Better a year of Larry than a cycle of the rest.' There are great doings in the way of talk when we get together. Larry is a strong politician; and we settle the affairs of the nation, argue as to the relative merits of our favourite authors, [-192-] and discuss whatever general topics may turn up; and, if we do no good to others by our talk, we certainly do no harm, while it pleases us, and, I hope, improves us a little. I enter into these details, because otherwise Larry's ways might seem strange, and the fact is I have asked him to drop in after tea, - speaking of that, I must see about getting tea ready; you must know that I 'do' for myself."
I murmured something about not wishing to put him to expense or trouble.
"It's no trouble, sir," he answered promptly, "and a plain cup of tea, and a slice of bread and butter once in a way, can scarcely be considered an expense. I look upon the hospitality of a first visit as incomplete unless my guest takes bite or sup with me."
I made no further objection, and in a short time Old Bible, who had everything handy in a neatly arranged cupboard, had tea upon the table. We lingered over the meal, more intent on conversation than eating or drinking. We had been speaking of the death of parents being so frequently the cause of children drifting into the criminal classes, when the old man with marked earnestness exclaimed-
"I can speak feelingly there, for I have much to be thankful for in that relation. I was left an orphan at so early an age that I have but the faintest recollection of my parents - so faint, in fact, that I can scarcely tell whether it is recollection or only imagination. My father, a common sailor, was lost at sea when I was [-193-] about five years of age, and my mother, a loving but weakly woman - as I knew afterwards - died a year later, beaten in the struggle to earn a subsistence for herself and me. Her death is the earliest event my impression of which I can be sure is a recollection, and not a mere self-formed mind-picture. I can remember being lifted up to look at her as she lay dead, and crying when I found that she did not speak to me; and the neighbours coming in and out the house, and taking unusual notice of me. The parish buried my mother, but fortunately, as it turned out, they objected to take charge of me. There was some technicality that they said relieved them from the obligation to do so. Portsmouth - for it was there these things happened - was not my mother's settlement, or something of that sort. They found some old letters in her room, giving the address of a sister in London, and to this sister they wrote with a view to obtaining some information as to the settlement; but she settled the matter out of hand by writing to say that if they would send me to her, she would keep me, and, being I suppose glad to be rid of me, they did send me, packing me off by coach under charge of the guard, who, I remember, was very kind to me.
"So I came under the care of my aunt Martha, and I can truly say that from the moment when she took me in her arms as the guard lowered me from the coach, till the hour of her death, I was never allowed to feel the want of parents. She was all to me that the best of parents could have been, and I loved her as a parent. [-194-] The proudest thought of my life is that I was able in part to repay her in kind. She kept me when I was a helpless child, educated me and made a man of me, and her kindness was so far blessed in this life, that when years and infirmities had made her helpless, I was in a position to support her in comfort; and, when at a good old age she sank to her last rest, it was in my arms, and with my parting kiss on her lips, that in life had never spoke aught to me save words of kindness and good counsel."
He spoke with evident feeling, but still in a quiet, even, and indeed rather musing tone, and on his coming to a pause at this point, I merely asked, by way of saying something to lead him to go on with his story-
"Was she a single woman?"
"Yes," he answered; "what she herself would have called a lone woman, dependent upon her own exertions. She lived in this very street which, at the time I speak of was quite a new one, and inhabited almost exclusively by artizans engaged in a neighbouring Government establishment. She took in the washing of a number of the unmarried men among them, and the washing of their black greasy working clothes was no light task. She was slaving at the wash-tub from morning to night; but she never grumbled, and when work was over and the place 'tidied up a bit,' she would take her seat by the fireside, and with her knitting in her hand, and her old large-print Bible - the one book she read - open before her, would be as happy as any lady in the land. [-195-] She was an ignorant, ungainly, hard-featured woman, and to a stranger her manner might have appeared austere, and even crabbed; but she was at bottom as kindhearted a creature as ever breathed; and a true Christian. It was she-poor, ignorant, and uneducated as she was - who, while I was yet a child, implanted in me a reverence and love for the Bible, and both by precept and example led me to aim at living a Christian life. Before I could read she used to read the Bible to me, and explain it in her simple way; and when I was better educated she used to call upon me to read her a chapter every evening. I have often fancied that we would not have made a bad picture as we sat there on either side the fireplace; she busy with her knitting, her eyes fixed on me, with a look of listening attention on her homely countenance, and I, a little fellow of ten, perched up at the table, with my head bent over the book or with my finger marking my place, looking up at her as she asked a question or made some remark as it was her practice to do each time that she snuffed the candle-the snuffing being her duty at these evening readings.
"She was a regular chapel-goer too - I mention it because it is connected with something that is to follow - and I can see us now in my mind's eye as we used to troop out of a Sunday morning dressed in our best. She had a little pew of her own that just held us two. 'Not, Jim,' as she once explained to me, 'as I'm above the free seats; but the minister has to depend a good deal upon the lettings, and even a preacher of the Word has [-196-] to think about making ends meet as well as other people, and if he has to think too much of that, he can't think enough of other matters, which is a bad thing for his congregation as well as himself. For that reason it's your duty to pay for your seat if you can manage it at all; that's live and let live, as the saying is, don't you see?' And I answered that I did see, though I'm afraid I was not very clear upon the point at the time. Her chapel-going was no mere form. With her hymn-book before her, and her heavy tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles on her nose, she lifted up her voice boldly in the singing; her Amens were loud and fervent; and, though she was ignorant and had certainly not the gift of tongues, her voice was sometimes to be heard at the evening prayer-meetings. Her one idea of pleasure was a chapel tea-party, and though necessarily a small, she was always a cheerful giver to the collections that were frequently made. In short, though only a poor illiterate washer-woman, 'Sister Simpson' was somewhat of a personage among the congregation to which she belonged.
"There was a school in connection with the chapel, and there, by the time I was thirteen, I picked up the rudiments of a good plain education. Through the influence of a foreman, for whom my aunt washed, I was then taken as office-boy into the Stores' Department in a Government establishment. I suppose I gave satisfaction, for by the time I was sixteen my wages were sufficient to keep me respectably, and on my twenty-first birthday I was in a position to say that my aunt should [-197-] slave at the wash-tub no longer, but simply manage the household. In the meantime I had joined a Mechanics' Institution, and read a good deal; I belonged to a Debating Society, in which friends said I was by no means the worst speaker, and - a thing of which my aunt was prouder than all the rest - I was actively engaged as a Sunday-school teacher at her chapel. Among the teachers was an exceedingly pretty girl, the daughter of a moderately well-to-do tradesman. I was not the only one that fell in love with her, but I proved to be the favoured suitor, and after a time we became regularly engaged. I was received at her father's house as her accepted lover, and I took her to my aunt's as my wife that was to be. On the very first occasion I saw that she not only did not like my aunt, but took a dislike to her. From words and hints dropped at various times, I found that she considered her old-fashioned and vulgar, and was inclined to be ashamed of her. At first I tried to reason her out of this prejudice, but finding that this only made matters worse, I avoided the subject.
"At length, however, when we came to speak definitely of being married she brought the point to a crisis. After a good deal of argument, and beating about the bush, she spoke out most unmistakably. She wouldn't, she said, live under that same roof with that horrid old woman, and so I must choose between my aunt and her. Well, I loved her very dearly, but not less dearly in another way did I love the woman who had been a mother to me. I remembered all her goodness to me, [-198-] and remembered too that she who wanted me to abandon her knew of all her kindness to me, and that - well I won't say that decided me, but it made my task comparatively easy. Without a moment's hesitation, without a quiver of the lip or a shade of either anger or reproach in my voice, I spoke the words that were to part us for ever. 'So be it then,' I said,' I do choose, and I choose to stand by the woman who from infancy has stood by me; a woman to honour, not to be ashamed of, and who, homely as she is, is at heart as noble a woman as any breathing.'
"I meant what I said, and though I knew even while I was speaking them that the words would make me a lonely man, I did not then regret what I had done, or at any other time wish it undone. I never let my aunt know why the affair was broken off - the knowledge would have made her uncomfortable. Through all the years that followed, till the day of her death, I kept my own counsel, and she died in happy ignorance of what she would have called my sacrifice."
This portion of Old Bible's life history, though containing nothing specially striking, I had listened to with a considerable feeling of interest. Still it was not exactly the sort of thing I had expected to hear, or that I was most wishful to learn something about, and so, after a brief pause, I asked-
"How did the Buildings here come to fall into their present condition?"
"The explanation is very simple," he answered. [-199-] "The work in which the bulk of those living in the Buildings in its respectable days were engaged was stopped. Hundreds of men were thrown out of employment, and there being no work of the same kind to be got anywhere near, they had to go elsewhere. Nearly every house in the Buildings was left empty, and they remained empty so long, that at last the landlord was fain to lower the rents, and take whatever tenants offered. The first of the new-comers were very poor, the sort of people who live a family in a room, and have a lot of ragged, dirty children, who run about the street regardless of whom they annoy or what mischief they get into. But after a while there came into one of the houses a couple of families, who, though calling themselves costermongers, were really thieves of the type known as farmyard poachers. They had a fast-trotting pony-which they stabled in the kitchen-and a light trap, with which they used to go out on night expeditions to plunder market gardens and farmyards. So much was well enough known, but they conducted their operations so cleverly, that though the police came after them several times, they could never succeed in substantiating a charge against them. Getting their stock in this way, they made a goodish bit of money, the greater part of which they spent in drink, and being quarrelsome and riotous when in their cups, they soon made things so 'hot' for their neighbours, that the more peaceably disposed among them were driven away. They were replaced by a worse class of tenants, who, in their turn [-200-] drove away the decenter sort, and so matters went from bad to worse, till the place became what it is - a refuge for criminal men and lost women, the terror and disgrace of the district."
Again, what Old Bible had said had been interesting enough in itself, but it had not explained the point about which I was chiefly curious, namely, why Braidy himself should be living in such a spot, and, with a view to leading him to that subject, I observed-
"Well, it appears you held your ground against all comers?"
"I did," he said, smiling with a good-humoured knowingness of expression, "and now I'll tell you how that came about. In the first place - as I hinted to you a little while back - it was through a feeling made up of indolence of disposition, force of habit, and aversion to 'bother,' and afterwards it was through my feeling called upon to stay, and providentially, as I think, the last-named feeling became operative just at the time when things had reached such a pass as to have conquered the first feeling. When, like others in the street, I was thrown out of employment by the closing of the establishment in which I had been engaged, I was a middle- aged man, and was at the time just recovering from the accident that caused my lameness. I was alone in the world, and was of the type that really thinks 'man wants but little here below.' I was entitled to a small pension, had saved a few hundred pounds, and was, by means of clubs, provided for the rainy day of sickness. So, as I [-201-] had no other situation in view, was troubled with no ambition, and had no greater idea of pleasure than being allowed to potter about at will, I made up my mind that I would lie by for a bit. I took to going in the mornings to the reading-room of the Mechanics' Institution, at first for the purpose of looking over the advertisements of 'Situations Vacant,' but soon I got acquainted with a set of old fellows who, despite the institution rule of silence, discussed as well as read the news of the day, and by-and-by I became one of them. In the afternoon I would go for a walk, or sit down with a book according as the mood took me, and in the evening I would either read on or go out to some lecture or meeting connected with the institution, or to my chapel. Finding this style of life very pleasant, and a situation very difficult to get, and being, according to my plain notions, secure against want, I gradually gave up the idea of going to work again. Meanwhile, the Buildings had been so degenerating that they were no longer a suitable place of residence for a honest, peace-loving person who had the means of living elsewhere, and I was constantly saying that I would get away. But I had been there many years, I was used to my landlady - one of the few respectable inhabitants who had remained - and she to me; I had my books and everything comfortable around me, and I disliked the idea of going into a new household unused to my ways, which I know some people would have considered eccentric, and what was of more immediate consequence, troublesome, for your ordinary [-202-] landlady will tell you that above all things she detests a man pottering about the house in the day-time."
"So it came about that while I was constantly saying I really must clear out, I delayed taking action. At last, however, the drunkenness and ruffianism, the night-rioting, woman-beating, shoutings of murder, smashings of windows, and so forth, became so rampant, that I screwed my courage to the moving point. I was devoting my afternoon walks to a search for fresh lodgings, and had already partly decided upon a place, when the event occurred that led to my changing my mind and coming to the conclusion that I was called upon to stay in the Buildings.
"One winter's night, or rather morning, for it was in the small hours, I was awoke by a sharp but cautious knocking at the street door. I lay still awhile to hear whether my landlady would answer, and finding that she didn't, I got out of bed and opened my window. It was very dark, and I could just make out the figure of a man standing below. He had heard the window open, and in a gruff undertone said-
"'I want to speak to Mr. Braidy.'
"'You are speaking to Mr. Braidy,' I answered, and before I could ask what he wanted with me, he put in-
"'I'm in luck so far, I thought it was the old woman.'
"As he spoke he turned on a dark lantern, and by its light I recognised one of the greatest ruffians in the Buildings, a fellow known as Gipsy Johnson, the leader of a gang who went about at nights stripping roofs of [-203-] lead, and untenanted houses or unfinished buildings of brass, or other metal fixtures.
"My first feeling on seeing him was one of alarm, and I dare say my face showed it, for he said in a tone meant to be reassuring-
"'I begs yer pardon for knockin' of yer out, guv'nor; but it's a case of needs must, as yer may say, and there's no harm meant to you; honour bright on that!'
"'Well, but what do you want with me?' I asked.
"He seemed to consider for a moment, and then in the tone of a man who had come to a decision with himself, answered-
"'Well, the shortest way will be to tell the truth; and so here goes, for time's precious. Our lot wos doing a strip in a empty house, and just as we were packin' the swag we wos fluttered by a Blue, and in making a bolt Carroty Blake tumbled smash out of a second-floor window. We picked him up alive, and we've managed to carry him home, but he's booked for kingdom-come as certain as if it had killed him on the spot, and knowin' as he's done for, pore chap, he's a takin' on badly, which perhaps any of the rest of us would do the same. He's a cryin' out for a parson, but none on us know'd where one lived, and agen we could a ferreted one out and a persuaded him to trust hisself down here it would be all over, for it don't want no doctor to see as he'll be a dead man within the hour. It comed into my head though as how you was a square party and a go-to-meetinger, which I'd seen you myself stumpin' off with yer books under [-204-] yer arm. So says I to him, "I don't see my way for to gettin' a regular parson, but there's Braidy as lives in the street here, he's a proper religious chap according to all accounts, and after all a parson couldn't be much more. I'll knock him up if you like." "Do, for God's sake!" he says, "don't let me die here with no one better than myself to say a word to me. So here I am to ask you to go in to him; and look here, meanin' no offence, if yer religion is worth anythink you'll go, for beside the way he's takin' on in his mind, there is only a old woman with him. We've sent for a doctor, but he ain't come yet, and as what's happened to Carroty will blow the gaff on us, we must step it; the others have gone, and now, as I've done what I promised, I'm off.'
"I'm telling you all this calmly," Braidy went on, "but it passed much more quickly between Gipsy Johnson and me. I was dressing before he had finished speaking, and in a very few minutes after he had gone I was with the dying man. He lay moaning on a bed which nearly filled the little room, while leaning over him, with one hand on the bed, and the other holding aloft a spluttering tallow candle stuck in a bottle, was the old woman spoken of by Gipsy. With the hand on the bed forming, so to speak, a pivot, she was swaying slowly to and fro, evidently muddled with drink and fright. On hearing me enter she managed to straighten and steady herself, and in a tone of relief exclaimed-
"'Oh, dear, I'm so glad you've come, I can't make him out a bit, I do believe he's a going off he's 'ead, [-205-] and in course I couldn't manage him myself; they say -'
"'Who has come?' he asked suddenly, but speaking in a faint tone and without opening his eyes.
"'Why, you know,' she answered; 'the square feller as Gipsy went arter.'
"He opened his eyes on hearing this, and murmuring, 'You are very kind,' motioned me to the bedside, and obeying him, I could see by the dim light of the candle - novice as I was in such matters at that time - that he was indeed nigh unto death. I needn't go into the details of what passed. There was the usual terror and hopelessness, the usual questions - was there, could there be any chance for the like of him? what should he do? would I pray for him? would I teach him how to pray? would I read him something out of the Bible? and so forth. His was a very common story in another respect too, namely, that it was 'the drink' that had brought him to crime. He was utterly ignorant as regarded education, but he must have had a fair share of natural understanding, and power of observation, and I always remember what he said on this point of the drink. 'There's plenty,' he said, 'as'll tell you they was fust druv to steal through hunger, and very likely many on 'em was in want when they laid hands on what wasn't their own, but if you on'y knew all you'd find that drink had in one way or another done the biggest share bringing on the want with most of 'em. If it hadn't been for drink I might a' lived and died a 'onest [-206-] labourin' man as my father did before me. I was a honest working chap till I took to drinking, and then it was all up with me. I drank myself out of work and out of character, and then of course I got hard up, and I actually was in want when I did my fust bit o' thieving, but I was in drink at the very time I did it, and spent most of what I got by the job in drink. I've heard talk of the devil fishing for souls; if he does you may take my sinful word for it drink is his favourite bait.'"
"Coming from such a man and under such circumstances, those were expressions to be remembered," I said.
Braidy nodded assent, and then went on:
"I spoke to him," he said, "in such a manner as it was given me to do, and when about three-quarters of an hour after my arrival he passed away, he was calmer and seemed more hopeful than he had been when I came. I trust that his late repentance was acceptable. I went back to my own bed full of thought. The general conclusion to which my reflections led me, was that the life I had been leading latterly, and which I had intended to continue to lead, though pleasant to myself; was such as I had scarcely a moral right to lead, being as it was utterly useless to my fellow-men; while here I thought was a way pointed out to me in which I might be of use. I determined that I would remain in the Buildings, and try as far as in me lay, and as opportunity should offer, to bring my neighbours to a sense of better things. At first I was very enthusiastic in my new resolution. I [-207-] gave them tracts, forced myself upon them both in and out of season, and tried to get up open-air preachings among them. But it wouldn't do. I soon found that if I was to do any good among them at all, I must do it, not as I would, but as I could;- as they would let me. At ordinary times they wouldn't listen to 'patter' as they call it; but in times of sickness and death they took to sending for me; and, acting to the best of my judgment, I learned to restrain myself and wait till I was sent for, and then when called upon to try and soothe the dying I was sometimes able to say a fruitful word to the living as well. My being called to see Carroty Blake proved a turning-point in my life, and since that night I can say that-
'By many a death-bed I have been,
And many a sinner's parting seen.'
And terrible partings they were to some of them, for it is most true that 'the way of transgressors is hard.' I remember -" Old Bible was proceeding, when we were disturbed by the sound of some one ascending the stairs, and the next moment Braidy's friend, Larry H----, entered the room. He was a middle-aged man, smart looking, with erect carriage, grizzled hair, smoothly shaven face, clearly cut features, and bright restless eyes. His clothes, though stylish as to cut, were decidedly shabby, despite the "furbishing up" that had evidently been bestowed upon them. In a word, his outward appearance was "seedy," and I was not long in tliscovering that Shiny Smith had done him no injustice [-208-] in describing him as "bouncing" and talkative. He slapped Braidy upon the back, and was very effusive in expressing himself "deloighted" to meet me. I soon made out that he had in a great measure invited himself upon this occasion. A minor parochial office was vacant, and he was among the candidates for it, and to ascertain whether I had any influence in the matter was palpably the chief object of his visit. He had been canvassing those with whom the election lay, and professed to be astonished to find that they had been unable to realise that he had been conferring an honour upon them by offering himself for so humble an office. If they would only have given him ten minutes each, he went on, he could have demonstrated to a mathematical certainty that they ought to give him the place, and that he was fifty times a better man than the one whom he had reason to believe they did intend to elect. Further, he hinted in no very obscure terms that he could as conclusively demonstrate that he was a much abler man than any of the electing body, or than the whole of them taken collectively; that, in fact, it had been their inability to recognise genius when it was before them that had led to their rejecting him. He could get "quoires" of testimonials from people about, he continued, but did I think it would be better for him to get "one master-testimonial signed by a score or so of Members of Parliament and the like." He asked the question with the most matter-of-fact air, and taking the same tone I answered that I thought the master-testimonial would be the best if he could get such [-209-] signatures as he spoke of. There would be no difficulty about that, he answered loftily. Though he had been down in the world of late years, he was well connected, had in better days largely devoted himself to literature, and had at one time or another submitted some of his writings to most of the men of note in the religious and political world.
Had his writings been published then?
No, they hadn't been brought out; they were over the heads of your general reader, and so publishers did not care for them. But he had sent the manuscripts to public men who could not but have been influenced by them, and speaking of that, he might say that some of them had been published after a fashion; for editors, though refusing his articles, had not scrupled to appropriate his ideas. He cited a number of what he chose to consider cases in point, and then proceeded to tell a story so richly illustrative of the overweening self-esteem characterizing him as to be worth relating. Having premised that politically he was "a scathing, he might say, an annihilating writer," he went on to state that he sent an article condemnatory of the character and policy of a prominent public man, to a well-known weekly newspaper. As after a considerable lapse of time it was not printed, he wrote for it to be returned. Getting no answer to his letter, he called at the office, and obtaining no satisfaction there, he resolved to "waste a cane on that same editor's carcase." Armed with a cane, he accordingly paraded in front of the office for some hours; but the [-210-] editor not coming forth, he went to the police-court to apply for a summons against him. Being asked the name of the person against whom he wanted the summons, he found that he could not give it, and was so enraged at finding himself baffled at every step, that, cane in hand, he rushed back to the office and attempted to force his way to the editor's room. He was prevented from doing so but was also promised that his manuscript should be looked out and sent back to him; and two days later he received it. But of course by that time it had served the purpose for which it had been kept back.
"What might you suppose that purpose to have been?" I asked.
"Why, don't you see!" he exclaimed. "It was made use of to put the screw upon ------" (naming the statesman reflected upon). "It would be taken down to him, and he would be told, 'Now here is an article that would be a death-blow to you as a public man; if it is printed, down you go. Whether it is printed or not lies with yourself - you understand. '"
To have tried to convince the man that he was talking arrant nonsense would have been simple waste of time, and I did not attempt it. I have given the merest epitome of his talk, and even that not for the sake of the talk, but. in order to show how unlike himself was Old Bible's friend. After a number of fruitless endeavours to bring the conversation back to the point at which it had been interrupted by the entry of Larry, I at last succeeded in my object.
[-211-] "Yes, I should say that Braidy had witnessed some as curious death-bed scenes as any man living," said Larry, commenting upon an observation of mine, "and heard some strange confessions too; eh, Braidy?"
"I have heard enough," answered Braidy sadly, "to convince me that it is often but too literally true, that 'the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.'"
"Have you shown this gentleman your cabinet of relics, as I call them?" asked Larry, who now that he had been induced to turn to the subject of Braidy's position in the Buildings, seemed disposed to further my views.
"No. I scarcely thought it worth while," answered Braidy with a slight smile.
"What are they?" I asked.
"Well, they are a few trifling - very trifling - things that some of those that I have been with in the hour of death, or relations for them, have given to me as remembrancers. I suppose the wicked, as well as the just, sometimes desire their memory to be kept green; especially those of the wicked who have fallen into, rather than been born to, evil courses; at least, those are the class who have given me the relics, as Larry calls them. There they are."
While speaking he had risen, and going to a box in a corner of the room, had taken a till out of it, and returning placed it upon the table before me as he finished his speech.
[-212-] The contents of the till were certainly very trifling; but at the same time they formed a very curious little collection of articles. There were two or three cartes-de-visite; a German-silver thumb-ring, such as sailors sometimes wear; a necklet of coloured glass beads; a dark lantern, ingeniously constructed so as to fold, so that it could be easily carried in the waistcoat pocket; an ivory tobacco-stopper in the shape of a hand and hammer, a fancy-pipe, a snuff-box, two tobacco-boxes, a crooked sixpence with a hole in it, that had once been treasured as a lucky sixpence, a pocket knife, a lock of hair, a packet of letters, and two small Bibles.
Each article had its story, most of them, however, being much alike as to their broad outline and the moral to be drawn from them - stories of sinful lives leading to miserable deaths; of their sins at last finding out even the most hardened and reckless of sinners; of the still, small voice of conscience, stifled in time of health and strength, asserting itself and bringing remorse and despair in its train, when strength with life itself was failing. The story connected with the dark lantern was the most dramatic and "thrilling," being, as it was, the story of the life and death of a noted burglar, of whose "kit" of tools the lantern had formed part; but the saddest stories were those associated with the two Bibles. One of them, as an inscription of the fly-leaf showed, had been a Sunday-school prize to a young girl. She had been the child of decent labouring people, who had given her a plain education and set her a good home example. When she was of [-213-] sufficient age, a respectable place of service was obtained for her, and her life seemed in every way to promise fair. But she had fallen - and as the event proved, fallen to rise no more. She had rapidly sunk lower and lower until, while still quite a young woman, she had found her lowest level as an associate of the ruffianly men and abandoned women who constituted the bulk of the inhabitants of Barker's Buildings. In these latter days she had taken to drinking, and in an evil moment, when maddened by drink and the ill-usage of a man with whom she consorted, she took poison with a fatal result. The Bible was the one memorial of the days of her innocence that she had treasured through all her downward career, and with her dying breath she had confided it to old Braidy's hands, as the only one she deemed fit and worthy to receive it.
The other Bible had been the parting gift of a mother to a favourite son about to go out into the world. He had broken that mother's heart-had brought her grey hairs with sorrow to the grave. He had "gone wrong" - had embezzled, and had been imprisoned for his crime. He had come out of gaol only to sink into the position of a habitual criminal, and being of a delicate constitution, that life had soon worn him out, and he was not quite thirty when he died. His last words were of thankfulness that his mother had died without seeing the worst to which he had come, and of bitter regret that he had not acted upon her advice and taken the Bible for his guide. He had meant, he said, that the book should be [-214-] buried with him, because he had not thought he would again meet with one who was worthy to receive his mother's Bible; but, if Braidy would accept it, he would rather leave it with one who, as his dead mother had done, loved the Bible and lived by it. Braidy had accepted it, and it struck me that it was the one, of all his curious assortment of relics, that he had the most reverence for-and that for sake of the loving and disappointed mother whom he had never seen. From speaking of the death of such as the dwellers in Barker's Buildings, we came to speaking of their lives, and, as I expected, Old Bible's larger, longer, and more intimate experience of the class, confirmed my own opinion that their life is a hard one-not at all the rollicking life, even as regards mere material wants, that some people imagine it to be. It is true, he said, they have their feasts occasionally, but they have their fasts too, and as a rule, they are, in their own phrase, "hard up." Many of them will tell you, their life is a burden to them; they find by experience that suspicion haunts the guilty mind. They go in constant dread, "fearing each bush an officer," each unknown face a spy, each associate a traitor.
Of course on all these subjects Larry had had his say. Though friendships between men of widely different characters are by no means uncommon, the friendship between these two men-the one so humble and unaffected, the other so vain-glorious and forward - struck me as one of the most curious points in Old Bible's life. That their friendship was genuine there could be no [-215-] doubt. Judging from circumstances that subsequently came to my knowledge, I am afraid that Larry did occasionally negotiate trifling loans with his friend, and was not always as strict in the repayment as he might have been; but still he had a true affection for the old man, a warm admiration of his many good qualities; while Braidy was disposed to look upon Larry as an unappreciated genius.
When I took my departure well on in the evening, I left the two still together, and just entering upon the discussion of a theory of Larry's, to the effect - so well as I could make out - that poverty was an artificial evil, a .thing which had no right to be, and which, were Larry allowed to witch the world with noble statesmanship, would speedily be numbered with the things of the past.
In conclusion, I may be allowed to remark that the life of such a man as Braidy is at once answer and rebuke to the question, "What good can one person do?" so often asked by people desirous of excusing themselves from labouring and sacrificing to help the needy and raise the fallen.