Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - VII - Sunday Morning at the Refuge

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WHEN I went back to the Refuge next morning the sun was shining in a pale, but still cloudless, blue sky. Even in the East End we have bright suns and blue skies far more frequently than our West End neighbours - so near to us and yet severed from us by so great a gulf-have any idea of. The church bells were ringing cheerfully in the frosty air. The viscous slush of the night before had been caked on the pavements into black and yellow glazed crust, which men and boys were still picking, and shovelling, and sweeping, into the roadway; whilst others, with their tools over their shoulders, went about monotonously chanting 'Sweep your doorway, mum?' In front of some houses there was a funereal pall of ashes on the pavement - but still now and then, spread out like a sheet on roofs, furring mortar-lines and linen posts, and gathered in tiny drifts in corners, some genuine, unsullied, frost-crisped [-55-] snow was sparkling. To the well-housed, well-clad, well- fed there is scarcely a prettier or more inspiriting sight; but it is a shroud-like apparition to the London poor. A 'hard-frost' to them is a horror, however brightly the sun may shine upon it. There were sad hearts in many of the houses I passed on my way to the Refuge-houses with chimneys that sent forth no smoke, or, if they had fires, the feeblest fires, that were being squeezed to death between almost touching 'cheeks;' but the Refuge people, in spite of the frost, had gained a little cheerfulness. They had awoke refreshed, an extra allowance of bread and a little cheese had been served out to them, they had a day of warm rest before them - this Sunday was a little island in their billowy life.
    When they all mustered in the men's ward for service, it was touching to note the little attempts which some of the women had made at tidying themselves up in honour of the day. The scarecrow rags had been made to look as trim and continuous as possible, hair had been reparted and smoothed down, and hands and faces carefully washed. The poor girl I had spoken to the night before was one of the congregation, but she was not one of those who had striven to smarten themselves. She sat as before, with her head between her hands, gazing into a future that was all black to her. Young as she was, the spring of her hope seemed broken.
    It was a strange congregation that I had that day. In front of a knot of Irish, who had drawn off scowling, grinned a colony of tramps, who regarded all religions with the impartiality of ignorant indifference, and were [-56-] looking forward to the service as a change, or, in their own term, 'a lark.' Many a nominal creed, at any rate, because many a country, had, however, its representative or representatives there. Beside a heavy-footed, mild-eyed Essex ploughman crouched a wicked-eyed, lithe Lascar, looking very much like a viper that would spring as soon as it should be quite thawed out of its torpor. There were two Chinamen, who had nothing but their thin blue calico jumpers to keep the keen wind from goose-skinning their lemon-coloured bodies, when again turned out to its tender mercies. Black and brown faces of the negro type blotched the mass of lighter countenances with round dots like music notes. The large majority of those present belonged, of course, to the British Isles; but the Register showed that amongst my hearers there were natives of every division of the globe-five countries of continental Europe having contributed their quotas, and Africa being represented not only by negroes, but also by a bankrupt Algerine. Amongst the English was a university man, whom drink had brought down to seek, and seek in vain, for labour at the Docks. He was not the only one of the Refuge's inmates whom drink had driven thither; but the proportion of such, though large, was not nearly so large as some might imagine. The circumstances in which they had been born and bred, without any fault of their own, had plainly disqualified the largest proportion from making any efficient fight for life - they were mental and physical weaklings. Their moral perceptions, of course, were not very strong either; but still they seemed to have a sincerely honest wish for [-57-] work-work that fled them like a. tantalizing phantom; sometimes letting itself be apparently clasped, and then vanishing into thin air. The look of the fathers and mothers of this class, and even more pathetically, the look of their poor little bandy-legged, strumously-scarred and swollen, goggle-eyed babies, told a plain story of the conditions of their lives. It was not necessary to consult the doctor's report to learn that they had far more than the average share of the ills to which all flesh is heir. The doctor's 'Rheumatism.' they would have called 'roomatics;' they might not have understood what his 'Catarrh,' 'Incipient Fever,' &c., meant in words; but they were terribly familiar with the whole long list in fact. 'Excessive debility from starvation' stood out prominently in the doctor's book, but it was writ far larger on their pinched faces and in the crooked-knee totterings of their lath-like legs. 'Dyspepsy,' I may add, in passing, was one of the few diseases not to be found in the Refuge doctor's list. It is a horrible disorder, but from that the poorest of the poor would seem to be exempt. Exercise, change of scene, and simple diet are, I believe, some of the chief items in the regimen prescribed for dyspeptic patients by the faculty. As a rider, I would venture to add, let them exercise themselves, change their scene, and simplify their diet by going to see those startling phenomena, their non-dyspeptic countrymen, and relieving their necessities out of their own superfluities. They might thus not only escape from the overbrooding hypochondria that darkens their lives, upon the sunniest day, with the shadow of its fiend-like wings, but also secure [-58-] one of the purest of positive pleasures. To visit the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, are A B C duties of Christianity, but they meet with a marvellously rich reward. As if the pleasure which the doing of the deeds gives -supplemented as it is, in  very many cases (rnaugre all the talk about the ungrateful mercenariness of the poor), by the lasting earthly love they win for the doer - as if all this were not enough, our Lord has said, 'Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these little ones, ye have done it unto me.' The Founder of our religion proudly claimed the common humanity which linked Him with 'the least.' How fond we poor little creatures are of fancying ourselves, through merits of our own, of an entirely different species, if not genus, from our fellow-men!
    In the Refuge, moreover, there was a large sprinkling of decent folk -honest, industrious, skilful working people, who had done well at their trades, until thrown out of work by a sudden cessation of demand for their workmanship. A few of these had grown reckless, and were some of the untidiest and least attentive of my congregation; but most were just the opposite. The husband-no longer, poor fellow, the proud house-band - the wife, the children, were all freshened up in their poor little way, and knelt and rose and sat in decorous regularity and rest. Poor things, they looked, even in a Refuge, a little proud to be able to prove their by-gone 'social superiority' to the British heathen around them, by showing their familiarity with the Prayer-book; but it must have been sad for them to think of the past Sundays in [-59-] which they had turned out together for service in their Sunday best.
    The voice of the Litany, in one language or another, is heard in many lands; but scarcely anywhere can its comprehensive supplications for God's succour, help, and comfort to all that are in danger, necessity, and tribulation - all that are desolate and oppressed - have had a more emphatic point than they had in the Refuge that morning. Even those who had previously been only parroting, the experienced repeaters of the responses, when we came to those wide-hearted prayers, joined in the 'We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord,' with a meaning in their tone which showed that they felt they were praying for themselves. The parrot tone was plainly perceptible again when I had read, 'That it may please thee to give and preserve to our use the kindly fruits of the earth, so as in due time we may enjoy them.' Irrational, radically blasphemous, as it was, I could not help feeling that the prayer there almost sounded like a taunt.
    It was the fourth Sunday in Advent. In reference to both worlds, the refugees, in the words of the Collect for the day, were sore let and hindered in running the race set before them. Inexperienced as I was, I was sorely puzzled as to what I was to say that would give them any comfort, or do them any good. When the prayers were over, I fumbled in the Bible and Prayer-book, and at last read out, almost at desperate random, as my text, the latter part of the Epistle for the day :- 'Be careful for nothing: but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And [-60-] the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.'
    My first extempore sermon was a miserable failure, so far as elocution went; and yet in effect it was not quite a failure. I managed to make some of my hearers believe - in spite of my stammerings, and sentences that ended abruptly as turned-up rails - that I believed in my text, and that they might believe in it too. Again and again I read the text, rolling its easy flow of words and direct meaning, like a sweet morsel, in my mouth. 'Why not keep on reading it over and over again, until they have got it by heart, and then give the glory and the benediction? what good will your limping "interpretation" of it do?' I often thought; but still, having stood up to preach a sermon without book, I felt compelled to spin out my five-and-twenty minutes in an extempore sermon of some kind. I repeat that it was the sorriest sermon, but still I tried hard to make my hearers understand that it was possible even for them to be careful for nothing, if they sought by prayer with thanksgiving, through Christ Jesus, the peace of God, which passeth all understanding. And my stuttering efforts, as I have said before, were not entirely vain. There were not many of my hearers who seemed to have any notion of what I had been driving at; but now and then I had seen a nod of satisfaction instead of somnolence, and heard a sigh of incipient resignation-of relief from what had long been a state of chronic hopelessness; and when I was going out at the Refuge door, a carpenter, with a rule-less rule-pocket in his trousers, came up to me and said, 'I felt lost, sir, when I had to get rid of this' -clapping the [-61-] empty rule-pocket - 'but now I don't feel all at sea. Perhaps I may get all my tools back-perhaps I mayn't; but anyhow you've made' me feel that there's a God that squares everything, after all, He hasn't lost his rule. No, sir,' the man added, in an offended tone, when (I fear, quite as much out of vanity, that had not expected to be gratified, as out of benevolence) I had inquired whether there was any one I could speak to about him - 'No, sir; I didn't come to beg, and I didn't think you would have thought so. I came to thank you, because you had relieved my feelings. You spoke as if you meant it just now, and I trusted to you to understand me. Of course I should be glad to get work - God knows how glad I should be - but I didn't come carneying to you to get it. I'm not a say-after-me, sir. I can see you're young at preaching, sir - I've heard real preachers, that can run it out like oil - but if you'll only try to speak from your heart, as you did just now, you needn't mind so much that you haven't got the gift of the gab. People who want a bit of comfort will overlook your failings.'
    Before the carpenter came up to me I had had a talk with the matron's young countywoman, and also a talk with the Cambridge man. In a moral point of view - in a logical point of view - it is hard to say why we should lavish so much pity on those who have thrown away good chances, and complacently remark of those to whose level the fortunate ones have brought themselves-in the handicap race of life in which, at starting, they were so much favoured - Oh! that is only what they were born to. But still the feeling is widely-spread, even amongst the [-62-] most heavily-handicapped. A 'reduced gentleman' - however guilty he may be of having reduced himself to a lower denomination - finds no more outspoken pitiers than amongst those who have struggled with poverty from their cradles (if they had any), and are likely to struggle with it to their graves. This Cambridge man, probably, was the least worthy inmate of the Refuge. Friends, fortune, intellect, a very creditable university career  - he had sacrificed all, because, without any appreciable temptation, beyond a suddenly - acquired liking for it, he had taken to drink. And yet his co-inmates, who had any knowledge of his history, treated him with a compassion which had no contempt in it - they even 'respected' him, because his accent and little tricks of manner showed, in spite of the blackguardism in word and deed in which he could indulge, that he had once been a 'gentleman.' The 'feudal system' may have been cut down, but its roots are not yet grubbed-up, in England. The Cambridge man was far more complimentary than the carpenter. He plastered me with flattery that would have been impudently fulsome, had it not been plain that the unhappy man had been brought by drink and want into an almost fatuous condition. He cried copiously - solemnly assured me that he had made up his mind to reform - and then asked me for the loan of a sovereign, to get a box of clothes out of pawn. If he could dress himself decently, he said, he could recover a tutorship at Upper Norwood from which he had absented himself for a week or so. Sovereigns then, as now, were scarce with me - sense (I am afraid) was scarce also - but I could not refuse the [-63-] sovereign. I thought it might be just the stone that would block his downward rush upon the road to ruin. I promised him that he should have it, if he would call at my lodgings next morning. The issue of that unhappy promise I shall have to relate afterwards.
    The girl I have spoken of returned to the women's ward as soon as service was over, and when the matron and I went up, we found her sitting at the end of her bunk, just as she had been sitting the night before. She was in an obstinately sullen mood. The matron tried to get her to talk about their common county. 'I'm sure you come from Buckinghamshire, my girl,' said the good woman. 'What part is it? Anywhere near Aylesbury way ?-perhaps I might know your friends.' 'Friends!' echoed the girl; but in a tone of dreary scorn, that had a terribly lonely sound. 'We all have a Friend,' I answered to the 'I've got no friends' that tone conveyed - 'a Friend who sticketh closer than a brother, if we will but accept his love. Father and mother, every human being we cared for on earth, may forsake us, and yet we need not feel lonely if we can feel that Jesus Christ is our friend.' She shook her head impatiently, as a horse shakes its to get rid of flies - she was plainly weary of all such preaching. 'I never did anything to be brought to this,' she cried, half fiercely, 'and yet I'm brought to it-what's the good of talking?' After this she continued so obstinately silent that the matron's patience gave way. 'You're an ungrateful girl,' she said. 'The parson and me mean you well. You're Buckinghamshire bred, I know, and so you ought to have more respect for the clergy  - let alone me, that [-64-] would do you a good turn if I could see my way clear to it. But if you won't speak, who's to know what to do? You haven't such a lot to help you, I should say, as you can afford to snub them that would.'
    The matron would have spared that taunt if she could have foreseen the forlorn look that followed it. That look instantly softened the good woman; but the girl called back the tears that had gushed for a moment into her lonely eyes, and became more stonily silent than before.
    'I can't make her out, poor young thing,' said the matron, as we went down-stairs. 'A pretty creature she must have been, and might be again, if her face was filled out a bit. The Buckinghamshire women have a name for their good looks - anyhow, that's what people used to say in my time. It's a pity she's so shut-up, and thinks so much about her rights. If you come to rights, bad's the best with the best of us, ain't it, sir? And it ain't possible for such as us to stand alone, as if we didn't want a bit of help now and then from one another. We're always wanting it, proud as we may be. It's like the way the children prop up the cards-knock away one, and down they all come. Rights, poor young thing! Those who think so much about their rights are apt to do wrongs to get their rights  - rights as they fancy 'em. I do believe she'd rather starve now than go astray - she's got pride in her. But that can't last for ever, if she don't starve meanwhile. I wish she'd open her mind to me. She's Buckinghamshire - born-and-bred, I know, and I meant her well, and did my best to show it.'