Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 12 - The Parson's Experiment

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THAT "the needy shall not always be forgotten : the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever," we have the oft-repeated assurance of Him whose word shall not pass away. This promise is generally held to be one of those whose fulfilment has reference to the life to come; the life whereinto sorrow or suffering cannot enter; in which all are rich alike, having entered into the joy of their Lord; the life everlasting, whose joy it passeth mortal mind to realise, or mortal tongue to tell, and towards which, if rightly used, the trials and crosses which poverty brings into the brief space of this earthly life may be made stepping-stones. It is a promise which, taken thus, often brings much-needed consolation and sustainment to the poor in their greatest trials.
But while this is true, it is also pleasant to see that oven in this world, and as regards the life that is now, the needy are not always forgotten. True it is that one half the world does not know how the other half lives; that the great mass of those to whom time hues have fallen iii pleasant i4aees here below take no beech of' or for their less fortunately placed brethren, more, one us fain to hope, through thoughtlessness of spirit than hardness of heart.
    There are happily, however, many exceptions to this [-168-] rule. There are numbers of men and women - and here I speak not of those who have made themselves name and fame in this wise, but of the rank and file of the noble army of workers, who are little known beyond the spheres in which their labours of lore are wrought - who, simply moved by a Christ-like spirit of pity and love, do "consider the poor;" who visit them when sick, clothe them when naked, feed them when hungry, console them in sorrow, counsel them when in difficulties, bear with them if the hardships of their lot make them bitter of spirit; who, risking disease and death, seek them out in their fever-haunted rookeries; who wisely, gently lead them into the path of everlasting life by showing a practical interest in their life below; who do not turn the message of the Master to stone by offering it where bread should be offered first, or weaken the teaching of our common brotherhood in Christ by any forgetfulness of our common brotherhood in humanity.
    That there are many such men and women in our midst should be matter of rejoicing to us all; and it certainly is matter of rejoicing with myself that my own district is not lacking in such workers. One of the most notable of these is a clergyman whom men of the world, and perhaps some who would not account themselves men of the world, would probably regard as a sort of combination of Don Quixote and "Parson Lot." Extremes, we are told, meet, and he is so extremely practical in his Christianity that to superficial observers, or those content to hold that
        "Whatever is is right"
he would seem to be impracticable.
    [-169-] "God has made all men of one blood" is to him not a well-sounding phrase merely, but a truth, indicating man's common fatherhood in God, and one upon which Christians are bound to act in a liberal and literal spirit. He believes that in the seemingly vilest there is always something, and often much, that is at least a possibility of good; and that in any case it is not for us to hate, but to pity, and try to raise them. He advocates a personal charity so broad in spirit and prompt in action that it narrowly escapes the dreadful charge of being "promiscuous;" and it is to be feared that his ideas of the duties of employers towards employed would be condemned as highly heterodox by the stricter disciples of political economy. Nay, his social heterodoxy goes even further than this. He stoutly maintains that even in dealing with the people and things of this world we should be guided by a higher law than the law of the realm - by a law which is above that law, the law of Christ, the law of love. This latter us one of his strong points - one of his favourite hobbyhorses, as some would put it. On this head he will not hesitate to speak evil of dignities, and roundly assert that much of our criminality, though neither from design nor from real indifference, is yet really law-made; is such as must result from the application of the statutory law as it is, but might be prevented if individuals would apply the higher law of Christ.
    Nor is he content with merely holding and theorising upon such views. He has the courage of his opinions, and acts upon them. That in doing so he occasionally meets with curious adventures, is sometimes deceived, [-170-] and often "chaffed," or called a foolish fellow, even by his friends - all this will be readily understood. But such things fall lightly upon him, for in many instances his acts bring their own exceeding great reward, in the shape of knowledge that they have been effectual for good. And one rather striking instance of this kind, with its sequel, I here propose to relate - an instance of a wise and firm application of the law of love in preference to the lair of the police court.
    For the sake of clearness we will call our friend Mr. B., and mention that he is a married man with a family. One afternoon his son, a little fellow about eight years of age, asked him for a shilling, as he wished to buy something by way of a birthday gift to a schoolmate. The shilling was given him, and he immediately set out in joyous haste to make his purchase, little dreaming of the adventure that awaited him. He had not gone very far when the shilling fell out of his hand and rolled down the grating of an area. As it happened in a respectable neighbourhood, this in itself was not a particularly alarming occurrence to an intelligent, well-mannered boy. Ringing the bell of the house to which the area pertained, he politely explained matters to the servant who answered the door, and she at once descended to recover the shilling for him. She easily found it, and was just handing it up when, lo and behold, a burly figure stepped in between her and the boy, and a rough voice exclaimed, "That's my shilling; let's have it."
    "No, sir, it is my shilling," said the boy.
    "Why, what do you mean, you young varmint?" answered the intruder, affecting surprise and virtuous [-171-] indignation; "I've just dropped it, my mates there seed me," and as he spoke he pointed to a man and two women, tramps in appearance, who stood waiting for him a little in advance. "Come, let's have it," he repeated, and suiting the action to the word, he snatched the coin from the still upraised hand of the astonished servant, and hastened to join his companions.
    To the child whose money he had thus seized this ready-witted, prompt-acting spoiler must have seemed a fearsome-looking creature. He was big arid rough of build, and determined of look, and his face as well as his clothing was dust - begrimed and travel-stained. A sheaf of split cane hanging slantwise across his shoulders stamped him as of the chair-caning profession, to which trade his three companions also belonged.
    Though fully impressed by the unpromising appearance of this man, the little fellow, mustering up his courage, boldly followed him, and with tears demanded restitution of his shilling. He was met, however, with fiercely uttered threats, under which he was quickly fain to retreat, weeping as he went for the loss of his money. On his road home he met a policeman, whose aid he invoked, but the official servant of the law took no notice of his complaint.
    Of this last point he made a special grievance when, on reaching home, he proceeded to relate the woeful story of his misadventures to his father. The parent, to the child's astonishment, replied to him on this head that he was very glad the policeman had not taken any notice of him; that he did not believe in policemen meddling with wrong-doers, at least until every means [-172-] which Christians should use had been tried. It would not be the best way to send the man to prison. "But we won't let the matter drop," he quickly added, seeing his son's look of disappointment; "you must have your shilling back; if possible, for several reasons; so come with me and see if we can find this man."
    So saying, he put on his hat, took his child by the hand, and set out on what most people would have probably considered a wild-goose chase. But there was method in his apparent madness. He knew the ways of life prevailing among such itinerants as chair-caners, and from that knowledge reasoned - correctly, as the event proved - that the worthy associates concerned in "conveying" the shilling, concluding from there being no immediate pursuit that they had safely "bounced" the child out of the money, would not go far without proceeding to "melt" it in drink, and thus give him a chance of catching them up. He was prepared to recognise them from his son's description of their dress and appearance, and he sighted them just as they were coming out of a public-house, wiping their mouths as they came.
    Still holding his child by the hand, our parson friend stepped forward, and, confronting the astonished chair-caner, said, "You have taken a shilling from my little boy here; give it back to him, please." The chair-mending gang consisted, as already intimated, of two men and two women, of the ordinary hard-featured, slouching, drabby tramp look. The man, about forty years of age, weather-beaten, somewhat bloated, with grizzly beard, and altogether unpromising look, was evidently taken aback by such moderate language being addressed to him [-173-] in so firm a tone. That such an accusation and demand should be put in simple, quietly spoken words, was an altogether novel experience to him; and it was some little time before he could screw his own courage to the blustering point, and deny the charge with the explosion of expletives which he deemed necessary to such an occasion.
    "Pray don't add lying to dishonesty, my man; that is making bad very much worse ; you have taken the shilling, and made a little boy very miserable," came the reply to this outburst of denial. "I can see what the boy says is true in both your faces. I don't want to harm you, I only want to do you good. You'll be a worse man for to-day's work if you don't give him back that shilling."
    "I haven't his shilling, and you'd better mind what you're saying, or I'll make you prove your words," answered the chair-caner, still trying, though less successfully than at first, to assume a tone of virtuous indignation.
    "Which is speaking truth, my boy or you, can be easily proved, I think, if you will kindly come with me to the house where the shilling was dropped. Will you come? I'm not going to make a police case of it, I only want back the shilling."
    "Come! of course I'll come," answered the man, with a swaggering confidence of tone that might have staggered a less shrewd or experienced observer than my friend.
    The woman accompanying the chair-caner was his wife, and at this point in a most excited manner she put in her word.
    [-174-] "Don't go, Bill," she exclaimed in genuine alarm, and with clenched fist and in somewhat close quarters was proceeding to pour out the vials of her wrath upon the pertinacious parson, when she was stopped by an angry and emphatic, "You shut up!" from her husband.
    "Don't blame your wife for believing in you. She doubtless has good cause," said our friend unaffectedly. "But we had better have this out ourselves - come along." The man, apparently nothing daunted, defiantly flung down his bundle of canes at his wife's feet, and at once set out with his captor; the crowd, that had, of course, gathered around them while they had been speaking, following a little way at their heels. His agreeing to go back had been mere "bounce" upon the chair-caner's part, but the resolute action of Mr. B. convincing him that he was dealing with a man who was not to be "bounced," he once more changed his plan of defence. They had not gone many yards when, suddenly coming to a standstill, he exclaimed - and now there was a touch of genuine feeling in his voice - 
    "Has it come to this, that I am called on to prove myself a honest man ? I'll not go. I'm a poor man, but I'm honest, as honest as you are. What should I go for?"
    "It may be so," was the answer; "we all have our weak points. I sin in one way, and maybe you sin in another, and we ought never to be ashamed to confess it. It's a cold day. You might be short of money. It's easy to keep your hands off other people's shillings when you have plenty of your own. I assure you I want to do you no harm I want to prevent you doing yourself [-175-]  harm. If you have really been an honest man till now, and have now suddenly yielded to temptation, that is all the greater reason why I should not let you go till you have returned the shilling. Come now, you must give it back."
    "Or else you'll charge me, I suppose?" said the man questioningly.
    "Certainly not," was the answer, given with an earnestness of repudiation that put the chair-caner "all abroad" as to what manner of man he could be that had got hold of him. One who  "stuck to him like a leech" for the restoration of misappropriated money, and yet thus threw away his most powerful weapon (for such, according to his idea, was a threat to "charge" him), was to him a startling anomaly. "It's because I believe in you that I talk to you, rather than give the case to the police."
    "I would not on any account give you into the hands of the police," went on the parson, seeing that his man was for the moment struck dumb. " You have children to feed, I dare say, as I have, and I would not rob them and your wife of your labour; they need it, I am sure. I am not following you up like this for the sake of the shilling, but for your sake, your character's sake, your soul's sake. I would give you money if I knew you needed it, but to let you go away with a shilling dishonestly come by would not be honest. It would be doing you an irreparable injury. Sin, my man, goes from little to great. If you had got clear with that shilling, you would in all likelihood be tempted at some future time to do something worse. No, my man, you must get back your character as an honest man by giving [-176-]  up that shilling. It's yourself I want to get back, not the shilling."
    There was an encouraging pause. Then he continued, "You have yielded to temptation, and unless you repent and make restitution you can never think well of yourself again. Come now, give me back the money; cast it from you as you would a curse." The chair-caner stood confused and silent, but evidently moved and impressed.
    To Mr. B. it was now clear that he had at length found the good that was in the man. He felt it, and, guessing at the cause of the accused man's still-continued silence and hesitancy, he came to his relief by saying, "Is it that you haven't got the shilling heft; that you spent it, I mean?"
    "Yes, sir," he answered, with eyes east down and in a voice scarcely above a whisper; "that is how I'm held. We've had a drop of rum apiece."
    "Well, I can quite believe you there," said Mr. B., "and of course you can't give up what you no longer possess. Still, for your own sake, you must make good the shilling. You say you are an honest man, and I will take your word for it. Will you take mine that I am one too, and let us treat each other as honest men ? Here is my card" - handing out a card from his case - "give me yours - you have a card with your business on, I dare say, and I will trust to your sending me the shilling by post when you have one to spare."
    The trade card was handed out, and the exchange duly made. So the offer was accepted, and on this understanding the chair-caner was at length allowed to go on his way with a  "Good-day" certainly a sadder, and, [-177-] as the event proved, a wiser man from his encounter within Mr. B. The card showed the residence of the man to be ten miles away.
    When Mr. B. returned home and related his adventure, even "those of his own house" were against him. They wondered how he could be so foolish; put it that the proper and obvious and common-sense thing for him to have done was either to have let the shilling go, or to have given the man into custody; and "really had no patience within him" when his boy related the exchange of cards.
    Outsiders - for passers-by stopped at the crowd and heard what was going on and subsequently told the story - for the most part laughed the latter idea to scorn when they heard of it; and as day after day passed without bringing him any news of the chair-caner, he was genially bantered about the evident absurdity of his notions that good was to be found in everybody, even in a thief if you could only be wise and patient enough to get at him. But his own faith in the better side of the shilling stealer's nature, and the success of his appeal to it, was in nowise shaken by the hardness of belief in others. He knew better than most others how long it might take so poor a man to make up even a spare shilling, and making due allowance on this head, he held lovingly, loyally, and hopefully to his own higher view.
    At length his faith had its reward. After a lapse of some weeks a letter from the chair-caner arrived, enclosing a shilling's worth of stamps. With all its imperfections of penmanship and orthography upon its head, I think this letter is one of which any Christian who had [-178-]  been the means of drawing it forth aught be proud, and I may say for my friend that he is proud of it, numbering it among the more valuable of the honourable trophies of his work.
    The letter is short, and in its simplicity will speak best for itself:- 
    "DEAR SIR, - i Enclose you one shilling worth. of stamps . and i Humbley beg your Pardon . for What I did. Hoping you Will forgive me . and God . likewise it Was all through . Drink. - I . Remain your Humble Servant, WILLIAM . D------
    No. 2 L---- Terrace, F-----
        Road, B-------"

    It was some years after the occurrence of this little adventure that I heard of it, and I became curious to know how it might have affected the mind and actions of the chair-caner. Through the medium of some of the craft resident in my own district I made his acquaintance, and finding that though rather gruff, he was an honest, straightforward, sensible fellow, I ventured to broach the subject of his encounter with Mr. B.
    "Ah," he said, "that gentleman did a good day's work that day; if there wos more like him in the world there would be less of the kind that I'd have been by this time if he'd a' done by me as most would a' done. It was as true as I stand here that I had never before touched a penny that wasn't my own. The man didn't breathe that could have said a word agen my good name, or my father's afore me; and if I'd have been charged, and my [-179-]  character spoilt, I shouldn't have cared what I had done after, and I'd have been certain to have gone to the bad. It is very easy, you know, for the poor to go to the bad - more easy than most people think; and it's wonderful how quickly you can go from bad to worse if you once get the downward push - especially if it happens to be a push that lands you in prison. The prison stain is one that is a lot more likely to be rubbed in than rubbed off. With most of those who catch it, it sticks, and it comes to be a case of once a jail-bird always a jail-bird. I suppose till the world comes to be a good deal better than it has ever been yet, there will have to be prisons and people to put in them. All the same it is a pity. There is a bit of the medicine being worse than the disease about it, you know. More comes out of 'em worse than they went in, than better; you may take my word for that. I do hear as how some prisons are being closed now-a-days, and when you come to think of it, you couldn't well hear better news. The more of them that can be closed the better it will be all round - for the good 'uns as well as the bad 'uns. I ain't speaking for myself, mind you; thank the Lord I didn't get a push down, I got a hand up. My parson, as I may call him, was one of the real right sort. I'll be bound to say he thought pretty much as I have been putting things to you now, and so was merciful. You see, he didn't charge me. Instead of shoving me deeper into the mire, he lifts me out of the ditch and puts me in the right road again. And what he done for me that day ain't been thrown away on me, though I say it as shouldn't. I've known what it is to be short of bread since then, but never to feel inclined [-180-]  to give way to temptation to be dishonest; and though I don't make any particular perfession, thinking over what he said to me has made me more like what I know he would like me to be than I should have been. Though I didn't think so at the time, it was a blessed job for me that he overtook me that day. The poison was beginning to work, as you may say, for when he come up I was just saying how much easier it was to pick up money the way I'd just been doing than by tramping about looking for work. As the gentleman said, if I had got off with that shilling there is no saying what it would have led to. However, he did find me, and go where he will there will always be one man that will have good cause to say, God bless him.''