Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In the Slums, by the Rev. D. Rice-Jones, 1884 - Chapter 21 - Called Up

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A LONDON clergyman is no more sure than a physician of being allowed to enjoy an undisturbed night's rest. It is not an uncommon thing for him to be called up two or three times the same week, to minister to the sick or dying. And it is a remarkable fact that in London, bad as it is, people are much more particular in sending for a clergyman to see persons in extremis, than they are in the country. It may be that they have never been inside a church for years, or devoted a thought to religion; but when they are once convinced that the case is hopeless, and that the patient is about to die, off they run at once for a clergyman. This, of course, is better than if they remained utterly indifferent; but it is very sad to think that in most cases, amongst the poorer orders, they leave it almost to the last hour.
    One of the most harassing things to a London clergyman, however, is the circumstance that he is [-131-] often called upon to visit sick folk in neighbouring parishes. The poor, as a rule, do not seem to understand that it can make any difference whether the sick belong to your own parish or not. They think they have a right to call in any clergyman they think proper to select; and if that clergyman does not instantly respond to the call, they look upon him as a very heartless and unworthy person.
    I always make it a rule to go at least once wherever I may be sent for; and if the sick person lives in another parish or district, I then advise the friends of the patient either to send, or to allow me to send for one of their own clergy. I venture to think that no clergyman should ever refuse to go, at least once, to see the sick when he is thus sent for. I have known such refusals to produce very sad results, and to alienate whole families, not only from the Church, but from religion altogether.
    On the other hand, having once visited a patient living in another parish, it is sometimes very difficult to give him up, or rather to get him to give you up, and to consent to your sending for another clergyman. The following is the history of a case in which I had all these difficulties to contend with.
    In the depth of winter, I was once called up about an hour after midnight, and was told that a woman had come to fetch me to attend a dying man.
    On seeing her, I requested her to leave the [-132-] name and address, promising to follow her in a few minutes. But she would give me no name or address, and she refused to go away without me. So without putting any further questions, I hastened to get ready ; and in the course of a few minutes we were on our way, I knew not whither, or to what kind of a place.
    After we had proceeded a short distance, I again ventured to ask the woman where the sick man lived, and she then mentioned the name of a street unknown to me. I informed her that there was no such street in my district, or anywhere in the parish to which I was attached. The mere mention of this fact, however, brought down upon my head such a volley of rebuke that I heartily repented of having said anything about it.
    "Parish!" exclaimed the woman in a voice of' scorn; "parish indeed a nice thing for a clergyman to begin to talk about when he is fetched to attend a person at the point of death! Why, the poof fellow may be dead before we reach the house; and I should like to know who is to be expected to think about what parish he lives in at such a time as this. I couldn't have believed that any Christian minister could be so hard-hearted as to let such a thing enter his head. Parish indeed!"
    "Pardon me," I replied; "I have not the least objection to go with you; on the contrary, I am [-133-] very glad you came for me. I merely mentioned the fact of your not living in my district as a reason for my not knowing you or any of your family, and because; we are expected to confine our visits as clergymen to the parish in which we are serving."
   I had hoped that this explanation would pacify the woman; but she sulked and grumbled the whole way; and all because I had simply mentioned the fact that the street in which she lived was not in my district.
    The neighbourhood through which she led me was anything but inviting. It was, in fact, nothing but a maze of poverty-stricken slums. And when, after taking many turnings and passing through many unknown places, we emerged from a dark narrow court which she had taken as a short cut, and she at last said to me, "here we are!" I found myself in a very poor and obscure street with scarcely any light in it.
    I had not the least notion as to where I was. But the street itself; though poor and dark, was not the worst part of it. Instead of taking me to an ordinary house with an ordinary entrance to it, my guide led me first into a dark court, or yard, then to a tumble-down sort of old building that looked something like a disused coach-house with a loft over it. But it was not a coach-house, nor was the yard a mews.
    [-134-] "Is this the place?" I asked with some surprise, as she stopped and unlocked the door with a key which she carried with her.
    "Yes," she replied sharply ; " this is the place - step in!"
    I did so, and the woman followed me, and, having closed the door, again locked it.
    We were now in utter darkness, and I half expected to find myself seized by the throat; for a suspicion flashed through my mind that I might have been entrapped, and that sending to fetch me to minister to a dying man was perhaps only a ruse to get me there, and then rob, if they did not murder, me. But it was now too late to retreat, even had I wished to do so. Therefore I made up my mind to await the end as calmly as I could, feeling that whatever might happen I had really nothing to fear, since I was only there in obedience to the call of duty.
    "Wait a minute," said my guide as soon as she had locked the door; "wait a minute, and I will try to strike a light."
    This caution was hardly necessary. I had just stumbled upon a wheelbarrow, and in avoiding that, I had then fallen over a low pile of planks. So in the darkness and confusion of the place I had no choice but to await my guide's pleasure.
    Having at last lighted a match, the young woman [-135-] applied it to a candle inside a lantern. This gave us just sufficient light to enable me to see that we were in a sort of covered yard full of old window-frames, old doors, broken wheelbarrows, and other things of a similar nature. It was altogether a most uncanny-looking place, especially when seen only by the dim light of a lantern. Grim shadows danced upon the walls, and other shadows still more grim seemed to rise up out of the ground, while the various articles of lumber that lay around assumed the most fantastic shapes, looking like living figures, though not of human beings. The woman, too, as she slowly walked before me with the lantern in her hand, now looked like a witch conducting some poor spell-bound mortal to the cave where her caldron was kept boiling. Finally, to complete the mysterious and dismal character of the scene, my guide stopped at the foot of a ladder which communicated with the loft overhead, by means of a hole like that of a trap-door.
    "This way," she said; "you had better go up first, and then I can hold the light for you."
    Having arrived at the top of the ladder, my guide led me along a narrow passage, and then through two or three apartments which looked like workshops. At last I saw through the chink of a door a faint streak of light, and in another moment all my doubts were solved.
    [-136-] The door being thrown open, I saw a sight which I can never forget. On a chair in the middle of the room sat a young man, apparently in a dying state. He was unable to speak, and seemed to have the greatest difficulty in breathing. They had lifted him out of bed and placed him in a chair, because they were afraid of his being choked if left in a reclining posture. But he was far too weak even to sit on a chair by himself, and could only do so with the help of his father, who held him with one arm affectionately entwined around his neck, supporting his head, while with his left hand he grasped his son's right.
   Around the chair stood two or three boys and a young woman weeping, while at a short distance sat an elderly woman, rocking her body to and fro, and behaving as if she were quite beside herself with grief.
    This elderly woman was the poor young man's mother; the woman who had fetched me was his married sister; the boys were his brothers; and the young girl standing by his side was his intended bride.
    Sad as was the occasion of my visit, I could not help being at once struck with the contrast between the appearance of the father of the family and that of their surroundings. He was dressed like an ordinary artisan, not even wearing a coat; still it [-137-] was easy to see at a glance that the man had once been in better circumstances.
    "Thank God you are come, sir!" said he, as I entered the room; "I don't go to church myself - now - but I shouldn't like my poor boy here to - to - well, I shouldn't like him to leave us, without seeing a clergyman."
    "Hush!" I whispered, "let me have a word with him."
    "Bless you, sir!" replied the father, "he can't utter a word. I hardly expected him to last till you arrived."
    "Well, then, as he is too weak to speak or to be spoken to, let us all kneel down together and pray, and let nine ask you to pray with me; and when I say the prayer which you all know, the Lord's Prayer, I shall be glad if you will all join me in repeating the words."
    We then all knelt down around the dying youth, and remained on our knees for some time, the words of my prayer being frequently interrupted by the sobs of those who knelt with me. And when I ended with the Lord's Prayer, they all fervently joined in saying - some of them probably for the first time during many years - the words, "Our Father Which art in heaven."
    As for the poor sufferer, although he could not speak, he evidently understood what was going on, [-138-] and his lips moved as if he also were mentally joining in our prayers, which I have no doubt was the case.
    At the particular request of the father I stayed there until daybreak, and dealt with the case as it seemed to require. But, before leaving, they made me promise to call again in the course of the day. The young woman who had fetched me then conducted me out of the strange building - for it was not a house although the family lived there - and as soon as we had left the sick-room, she very humbly apologised for having spoken to me as she had done on our way thither; and she thanked me for my attention to her brother.
    Before paying my second visit to that poor sufferer, however, I made it my business to call upon the vicar of the parish in which the family lived, to acquaint him with the circumstances of the case.
    The vicar took the matter very kindly. He thanked me for having gone to see the young man; and said, that if the family particularly wished me to continue my visits and I felt disposed to do so, he would offer no objection, although he would himself call at the house in the course of the day.
    When I saw the patient on the evening of the same day I found him rather better. He could now speak a little, and evidently recognised me, for he said, "Pray - pray again, like last night - it made me feel better."
   [-139-] "And you, William - you have been praying in my absence, haven't you? and you will again pray with me now?"
   "Oh yes, sir as well as I can, but - you - pray - pray for me!"
    We were now left alone for a short time, and the poor sufferer seemed to be much relieved when the other members of his family left us to ourselves. At the end of every sentence in my prayers he said "Amen!" and when we came to the Lord's Prayer, he repeated every word with clearness and great fervour.
    As I was taking my leave he said,- "I feel so much better since you came, sir: I thought I was dying last night, but now I hope God may spare my life a few days longer, and you - you won't leave me, sir - will you ? You'll come again - won't you?"
    "Oh yes, dear lad, I'll come again as often as I can ; and when you get a little stronger, i'll read to you, and bring you some nice books to read."
    "Oh, thank you, sir-thank you so much."
    "In the meanwhile, William, you must not depend upon my prayers, or upon anything that I can do for you, although I will not cease to pray for you, and there is nothing that I would not do for you if it would help you in any way. But we must all work out our own salvation with fear and trembling."
    [-140-] 'There is a Fountain filled with blood
    Drawn from Emmanuel's veins
    And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
    Lose all their guilty stains.'
    But if you want to be cleansed through the precious Blood you must yourself go straight to the Fountain. I may be allowed to show you the way, but I cannot go there instead of you. Therefore go to Him, and place yourself entirely in His hands. He has said, 'Whosoever cometh unto Me, I will in no wise cast out. Come unto Me, all ye that labour, and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.'"
    "But I don't know how to pray, sir, when I am by myself; I don't know what to say."
    "Neither did the disciples who were within our Lord upon earth. So they asked Him to teach them-' Lord,' said they, 'teach us how to pray.' Then he taught them that beautiful prayer beginning with the words 'Our Father.' Our Lord gave them that prayer not only for themselves, but for us also, for you and for me; and He himself prayed in the same spirit in His great agony in Gethsemane. In the midst of all His sufferings, which were so great that His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground, He still found courage to say, 'Father, not My will, but Thine be done.' Now, that is just what we must try to say and feel, William, in the midst of our sufferings: 'Father, not my will, but Thine be done.'"
    [-141-] "Father," repeated the poor lad with closed eyes, "Father, not my will, but Thine be done."
   I was not able to devote as much time to William Johnson as I could have wished, owing to a pressure of work. But I had then a dear friend - an unattached clergyman, now gone to his rest - who was always ready to help inc in my work. To him therefore I now applied for help in the case of William Johnson, and he visited the poor lad nearly every day. This went on for some weeks ; and I am glad to be able to state that our joint ministrations were blessed, not only to the sick youth, but also to some other members of the family.
    Previous to that time the family had never been accustomed to attend church or any other place of worship; but now two of the younger brothers joined my Bible-class and Youths' Guild, and began to regularly attend church.
    The father of the family was obliged to stay at home to nurse his sick son; for the daughter was married and lived away from her father's house while the mother - well, hers is a sad, sad story. But, painful as it is, perhaps I may as well relate it, if it be only to show how the best natures may become perverted when they remain under the influence of any besetting sin.
    I had noticed, almost from the first, that when all the other members of the family knelt down and [-142-] devoutly joined in prayer, the mother sat gloomily alone in a corner, rocking herself to and fro, and behaving altogether in a strange manner. This behaviour, however, I had at first attributed to excessive grief. But one day when we were going to prayers, Mr. Johnson walked up to his wife, and pointing towards an adjoining room, the door of which was standing open, he said to her in a stern voice: "This is no place for you as you now are. You had better go into the next room." Then, when she hesitated, he said in a still sterner voice: "Go at once!" And the unhappy woman rose and staggered into the next room without uttering a word.
    As I was leaving the house, Mr. Johnson followed me and said,- "I feel that I ought to apologise to you, sir, for the interruption that took place just now, and that I ought to explain why I acted as I did. The fact is, that my poor wife is not in a fit state to be in the room when prayer is going on. She is unfortunately a confirmed drunkard. She has been drunk during the whole of our son's illness, and she is drunk now. And not only so, but she has actually carried off that poor lad's clothes and pawned them to get drink. And would you believe it, sir?" added the unhappy man, with tears in his [-143-] eyes, "that same woman was once one of the best of women - one of the best of wives and mothers in the whole world - until she took to that accursed drink. It quite breaks my heart to see her, and to think of what she once was, and what she is now; and to think of what we all as a family might now have been, and of what we are."
    "I have tried every means to cure her," he added after a short pause, " but her case seems quite hopeless. For one would suppose that if anything in the world would soften her heart and cure her of her evil habit, it would be seeing her boy lying here in a dying state. But no! she goes about all the low public-houses in the neighbourhood, just as much now as she did before he was laid up, and she frequently stays out from morning till night. The fact is, that when people become the slaves of drink, they don't care for anything or anybody; they have no longer any regard either for God or man, either for themselves or for their own offspring. It's bad enough to see a man drunk, but a woman and a mother - O God what have I done that I should be so punished?" And the poor man sobbed like a child.
    I hardly knew what to say to him under such circumstances; but I did what I could to comfort and cheer him. It must, however, be difficult for a man to find comfort or consolation in anything when he [-144-] has a drunken wife. The loss of a dear friend or relative by death must be a small thing compared with such a calamity.
    But on the whole, Mr. Johnson bore his heavy troubles with much courage. He had once had a prosperous business in the Strand, but now he had to work like any common mechanic, and to live with his family in what proved to be, in reality, only a part of his workshop; because he could not afford to pay the rent of a house and of that place at the same time. But, although he attributed his downfall entirely to his wife's drinking habits, he still treated her kindly; for, as he said, she was still his wife and the mother of his children.
    His present workshop adjoined the room in which the family lived; and whenever I looked in, if he was not with his sick son, I was sure to find him working away with hammer and chisel just as if his life depended upon it.
    I attended poor William some five or six weeks altogether, during which time he was able to read a good deal for himself. His reading, however, was confined entirely to the Bible, the Prayer-Book, and a few little books of devotions and hymns which my friend and I had given him. He was especially fond of one little book of prayers and meditations, and learned almost the whole of it by heart. He seemed [-45-] also to derive much comfort and consolation from some hymns, such as that beginning:-
        "My God, my Father, while I stray
            Far from my home, on life's rough way,
            O teach me from my heart to say,
                                        Thy will be done."
    But the end was now fast approaching; and William gave such unmistakable signs of a sincere repentance and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, that my friend and I saw no reason why he should not receive the Holy Communion, since he was himself most anxious to have it administered to him. So we appointed a certain morning, and everything was got ready. The poor lad by this time was very weak, but his intellect was perfectly sound, and his mind calm and peaceful.
    The family, including the married daughter and poor William's affianced bride, all gathered round the bed and listened to the solemn service with the greatest attention, most of them shedding tears while it proceeded. But the unhappy mother sat alone, just inside the adjoining room, with the door open, her face buried in her hands.
    As soon as the service was over, William lay down again with his head on the pillow, and he fell into what at first appeared to be a peaceful sleep. My brother and I then said the Nunc Dimittis:-
"Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in [-146-] peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation."
    But before we had ended the Gloria, a long piercing scream was raised, and the betrothed fainted.
    Poor William had himself been called up.