Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In the Slums, by the Rev. D. Rice-Jones, 1884 - Chapter 18 - Temperance Work

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THEREFORE where intemperance prevails, temperance work must precede the preaching of the Gospel. It is, in fact, the forerunner, the pioneer, the John Baptist of the Gospel. No one ever heard of a tipsy man being converted to Christ; but I have known cases in which men have signed the pledge while under the influence of liquor, and have kept it. Such a case occurred at one of my temperance meetings some time ago. A man, accompanied by his wife, came to the meeting in a state of' such shameless intoxication, that not only did he continually interrupt the lecturer, but even boasted that he was drunk. As soon as the lecture was over, he again stood up, and insisted upon being allowed to address the meeting. He described himself as a man of uncommon ability and of extensive knowledge, and moreover as one who had had most brilliant chances in life, but who had thrown them all away, and reduced himself and family to a state [-110-] of poverty and degradation, through the love of strong drink. His wife, who was standing by, could bear witness that what he stated was the truth and nothing but the truth. (His wife here told him, in a very audible aside, not to make a fool of himself; but he went on without heeding her counsel.) But he now saw the error of his ways, and, as Mr. Charles Reade had told them, "It is never too late to mend." He had made up his mind to sign the pledge that very night, and he was a man of his word; and drunkard as he was, when he once pledged his word, he stuck to it, &c.
    This strange speech was listened to with intense eagerness by the audience. All the people stood up, and many even mounted on the benches to look at the unknown orator. But the excitement did not reach its climax until, at the end of his speech, he rushed up to the platform, followed by his wife.
    "Here! let's have the book and pen and ink," he said to the gentleman who had charge of the table, "I want to sign the pledge!"
    "But according to your own account," said the gentleman, "you are hardly in a fit state to sign the pledge to-night. Don't you think it will be better for you to come to-morrow when you are - when you are quite sober?"
    "No!" shouted the stranger, "you should never put off till to-morrow what you ought to do to-day. [-111-] We may not live to see to-morrow, so I have resolved to begin to-night, now! - now or never!"
    "Let him!" pleaded the wife; "he knows quite well what he's about, although he has had a drop too much; and I think he means to keep his word. And so do I too; for I am going to sign the pledge with him."
    This was more than our kind-hearted secretary could resist. "Suppose we try him?" he said to me; and I consented, though not without serious misgivings, because I never expected to see the man again, unless he should again come drunk. So the man and his wife took the pledge, amidst the silent jeers of time audience. And on that night week he again appeared with his wife at our temperance meeting, no longer looking the same person, but "clothed, and in his right mind." And he has been a regular attendant at our weekly meetings ever since; and we have every reason to believe that he has been faithful to his pledge.
    In another London parish, where I worked before I came here, I had another case not unlike this in some respects, although unhappily different in its results.
    A lady whom I did not know sent to ask me to go and see a man, in the welfare of whose family she was greatly interested. He was a butcher; and although his shop was situate in slums almost as [-112-] uninviting as any in London, he was said to be doing a very large amount of business, and to have a good prospect of making a fortune, if he attended to it. But unfortunately he had given way to habits of intemperance, and the lady feared, that unless he could be induced to give up drinking altogether, he would speedily bring utter ruin upon himself and family. He was described as being a most respectable, well-behaved man when sober, but one who, when under the influence of drink, lost all control over himself, insomuch that his wife went in fear of her life, and had been obliged to send their three young children away to her mother's in the country.
    I lost no time in carrying out the lady's wish; but when I arrived at the shop indicated, I found that the butcher was not there, the business being in charge of an assistant. While I was talking with this man, however, the butcher's wife came in from the street, and informed me that, if I wanted her husband, I might find him in the bar of a small public-house close at hand, as that was the place where he spent most of his time and money. I then had a short conversation with her, during which, after learning who I was and my object in wishing to see her husband, she gave me a very graphic account of her troubles. From this account it appeared, that the husband and the wife were both of the same age, thirty-five; that they were [-113-] both natives of the same country village; that they had been intimate friends from early childhood; that they had now been married some ten years, and had three children living; that, when they first came up to London some years ago, the husband, though always fond of his glass, was steady enough, on the whole, and never neglected his business; but that through constant association with men of dissolute habits he himself had become as bad as any of his pot-house companions; that he was now seldom or never sober, and not only neglected his business, which had been one of the most profitable in London, but led his wife such a dreadful life that she bad been obliged to send her children away to her mother's, and had made up her mind to follow them as soon as she could make the necessary arrangements, because while she lived with her husband she felt her life to be in danger, and the neighbours expected every night to hear that she bad been murdered.
    The public-house at which the butcher was said to be then drinking was within a few doors of his own house and shop; and in spite of the warning I had just received from his wife, that if I ventured to enter the tavern I should only get insulted, I resolved to make the venture, as a sort of forlorn hope.
    As it was situate in some of the poorest slums, it is scarcely necessary to describe the character of [-114-] the house, or to say more about it than that it was of the class usually found in such neighbourhoods.
    The side door at which I entered led me into a very small compartment, in which I found three men sitting together on a bench, with glasses of spirits and water before them, although it was not yet noon. Two out of the three appeared to be men of the lowest class, hut it was easy to see at a glance that the third was the person I wanted, for he had his butcher's costume on, with the sleeves of his white jersey rolled up above the elbows of his brawny arms, as if he had only just looked in from his shop for five minutes or so. His age, too, and general appearance corresponded with the description I had received of him; for although drink had transformed his face from the likeness of a rustic Apollo to that of a wild beast, he still retained some traces of respectability, while his companions, although comparatively sober, looked simply what they were, two low idle vagabonds preying upon the poor drunkard.
    "I believe you are Mr. Blank?" I said, addressing the butcher by his proper name.
    "No, that is my name," promptly answered one of the other men; "what is it you want?"
    "I want Mr. Blank, who keeps the butcher's shop close by here, and I am quite sure you are not that person," I said. Then turning again to the butcher, [-115-] I added,- "You are the person I want. Will you oblige me by going with me as far as your shop for a few minutes? I want to see you alone on very urgent business."
    "No," he replied, "my name is not Blank ; that's that fellow's name, and he'll go with you if you want him."
    "There, didn't I tell you so?" exclaimed the first speaker. "I am Mr. Blank. Now tell me what you want with me."
    I felt quite certain that they were not telling me the truth, but as I had never before seen any of those present, I could only request the man who said he was the butcher to accompany me to the butcher's shop.
    He went outside with me readily enough; but instead of proceeding with me at once to the shop, he tried to keep me standing in the street, and to ascertain from me there the nature of my business. No further proof was necessary. I left him, and at once returned to the public-house in quest of the right man. But when I re-entered the private bar, it was empty. The butcher and his other companion had disappeared, and as they could not have left the house without my seeing them, I felt sure that they must have got over the counter and taken refuge in the private part of the house.
    So, as it appeared useless to make any further efforts [-116-] on that occasion, I left the tavern and again went to the shop to try to ascertain when I should be most likely to find the butcher at home. But I had not been in the shop many minutes before the very man whom I had at first taken to be the butcher walked in, glaring at me in a very wild and dubious manner.
    "This is your husband, I presume?" said I, appealing to the wife.
    "Yes, I am her husband," replied the man himself; "but, if you want to see me, we had better go inside the parlour behind the shop."
    Having said this, he walked straight into the room, and I followed him, in a state of considerable doubt as to what sort of a reception he might give me. Then, without giving him time to ask me my business, I said,-
    "I am a clergyman, working for a short time in this parish, and I am come to you to ask you to let me be your friend."
    "And I am come in to beg your pardon, sir, for denying myself to you just now, and telling you a lie, for I could see that you came as a friend," was the unexpected reply. "And-and-oh! if you would only be a friend to me"-
    "You would take my advice, my friend, and try to follow it - wouldn't you?"
    "Sir, you think me a drunkard, and so I am. [-117-] My father was a drunkard before me, and died of drink; and I've heard say that my grandfather was also a drunkard, and died of drink; so I suppose it must be in the blood. But I am now more ill than drunk. In fact, I feel very, very ill, as if I should soon die. But I know very, well what I am talking about, sir, and, bad as I am, I have not forgotten what I was taught by my mother, who is now a saint in heaven, as she was once a saint upon earth."
    It is unnecessary to enter into further details respecting that painful interview. It is enough to state that it ended in the poor drunkard giving me a solemn promise to place himself there and then under my control, and to do nothing but what I might prescribe for him. I was to be at once his director and physician. But he entreated so pathetically that I would not be too hard upon him at first, and that I would give him a little time to recover before I made him sign the pledge of total abstinence, that I consented to let his wife administer to him small doses of brandy, diluted with water, at certain intervals for a day or two, on condition that he would take the pledge as soon as I might consider him in a fit state to do so.
    During the next three days he was confined to his bed; but on the last of those days I found him engaged in reading his Bible, and his conversation [-118-] led me to hope that a radical change had taken place in his spiritual as well as in his physical condition. He continued to speak much of his mother, of the religious training he had received from her, and of the influence which her teaching and pious example had exercised upon him after her death, and ofttimes even when he was surrounded by ungodly companions.
    On the following Sunday he was well enough to go out, and I was greatly cheered by seeing him and his wife amongst the congregation to which I had the privilege of ministering. It was their first visit to that or any other church for some years.
    During the next week I found him diligently attending to his business; and every day when I called at his house his wife gave me an excellent report of his conduct, and thanked me profusely for having, as she was pleased to say, been the means of making their home happier than it had ever been before. And thus all went on well for two or three weeks. Then came a Sunday when I missed them from their place in church, and on the following morning I called at their shop to inquire the cause of their absence.
    I found my protégé in a state of great excitement, and could see at a glance that he had been drinking, although he was not tipsy. Then soon after I had begun to converse with him, his wife [-119-] came in, looking very red in the face, and very peculiar about the eyes; and I began to fear that the faults were not all on one side. Still the husband said nothing until his wife began to relate to me in much-injured tones how he had broken his word, and again taken to drinking, and been creating a disturbance on the previous night. Then he interrupted her, saying "There, that will do- stop!" Then turning to me he said,-
    "Look here, sir! just look at this woman, and tell me if you think it possible for any man to keep straight while he is living with such a wife. Yesterday, instead of staying at home and going together to your church as I wanted to do, she made me go with her to see some friends out Notting Hill way; and although she had plenty to take at their house, she made me, while we were out, go with her into three different public-houses, and give her some strong port wine at each, under pretence that she felt weak, and required it to give her strength. And not only that, but she made me bring home a bottle of port wine for her special use, and she is drunk now, as you can plainly see."
    Unfortunately, I could not contradict this statement, and it was soon corroborated by the woman's violent conduct towards her husband. She almost flew at him, but he left the house; and although I diligently sought him for days and days together [-120-] during the remainder of my stay in the parish, I was never able to find him, nor have I ever seen him since.
    This sad case convinced me of three things in respect of temperance work:-
    1. That I had made a mistake in assenting to a moderate use of stimulants, even during the poor drunkard's first struggles against the power which they exercised over him.
    2. That it is much easier to rescue a man than a woman from habits of intemperance.
    3. That the man who has temptation thrown into his way by his own wife, instead of being helped by her, can only be saved, as it were, by a miracle.