Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - IX - A Scholar and a Gentleman

[back to menu for this book ...]




HALF an hour before the time appointed on Monday morning the Cambridge man I had met at the Refuge called at my lodgings. He was in a very restless condition. His watery eye ceaselessly wandered, as if seeking a hole in which it could hide itself from questioning glances. His trembling hands never stopped twitching and twirling something his left thumb scratched at the only button left upon his coat, as if it had been a dry splash of mud that he wanted to scrape off. He was plainly in a great hurry to get the sovereign he had been promised, and then to take his departure immediately. But I wanted to have some talk with him, and therefore persuaded him to stay to breakfast with me. The bit of bread that he had had that morning at the Refuge seemed, however, to have quite satisfied his appetite for food. He merely took a sip of coffee, and then glanced about with the furtive fretfulness [-77-] which a man who has sold himself, body and soul, to drink so often shows when he is longing for a spirituous stimulant, and yet does not like to ask for it. His manner made me feel doubtful about him even then, although I still believed that he sincerely desired to reform.
    I got him at last to tell me a little of his history, and it was strange to note how much self-conceit there was still left in the miserable man. He bragged about his university career, and almost openly sneered at me when he found that I had taken my degree without even Junior Optime honours. I learnt then that he was in orders. 'I've been a London clergyman, too,' he said half-boastfully; 'but mine was a very different kind of life from what yours must be, I fancy. Don't you find it a bore to have nobody but common people to mix with? But then, of course, if you've been used to that sort of thing, it's different. I don't suppose I ever had a poor person inside my place - why, the pew-openers made little fortunes. It was a proprietary shop in the West-End, and nice profits the proprietors must have netted until they were fools enough to quarrel with me. There was no peddling parish-work there - blankets and coals, and bedridden old paupers, and all that kind of rubbish. Cream of the cream, sir - that's what I had for my congregation.'
    According to his own account, he was not to blame for his degradation. Circumstances had combined to pull him down. The chapel-speculators - 'rank snobs, every one of them, though they had the sense to hire a gentleman to "catch the swells," as they called it' - had un-[-78-]warrantably interfered with his personal liberty, although he was at the highest tide of his aristocratic popularity, and he had thrown over the chapel in indignant disgust. And then the girl to whom he had been engaged, and to whom he had been, and was still, devotedly fond, had been driven by her friends to put an end to the engagement without a shadow of a shade of reasonable excuse, and he had been tempted now and then to try to raise his spirits from their deep depression first by a little extra wine, and next by an occasional glass of raw brandy, and the habit had insensibly grown upon him, &c., &c. I learnt afterwards that the chapel authorities had not interfered with his 'personal liberty' until it had run to seed in license which seriously menaced his popularity, and consequently their profits; and that the extra wine, &c., had been the cause instead of the consequence of the rupture of the other engagement. After he lost his chapel, St John, as I will call him, had lived for a time on his friends, and when they grew weary of him, he had taken to private pupils. A man of his abilities and attainments might have done well in that line of life, if he could have kept his head cool, and been industrious enough to rub off the rust which was beginning to gather on his classical and mathematical lore; but the life, both morally and mentally, was too exacting for such a man as St John had become. He next turned 'hack-parson;' drinking the proceeds of the occasional services and sermons for which he plied almost as soon as he had pocketed them. Sometimes he had begun to drink before he mounted the reading-desk or pulpit, and the demand for his services fell [-79-] off-even in city churches in which six hearers were considered an overflowing congregation. He somehow got appointed chaplain to one of the obscurer cemeteries, but he did not hold the appointment long. His version of his dismissal was, that the wet yellow clods piled up round the gaping, roughly-boarded graves, the wet yellow leaves that dropped into them from the dank, dark, over-brooding branches, in the autumn in which he obtained and forfeited his appointment; the ever-tolling chapel-bell, the black groups of sobbing people, the black groups of almost grinning 'mourners,' and the utter callousness of all the other cemetery-officials, so weighed upon his already nearly broken spirits that he could not always command his voice when he was consigning ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life. Unless that hope be sure and certain in the heart of him who utters it, or unless he has hardened himself into looking upon the shovelling in of earth upon the end of a life of hopes and fears (that reached beyond the grave) as carelessly as he might watch the shutting of an empty drawer, I can imagine that a cemetery-chaplains must be one of the dreariest of lives. But gin is no balm of Gilead for a bruised and wounded heart, and, according to the official account of poor St John's dismissal, he lost his appointment because he was so fond of gin that, before a funeral train could file out of the cemetery gateway - even at time jolting trot which so jars upon the sincere mourners who were drawn into the cemetery at a snail's pace - the chaplain might be seen slipping in at the side-door of a beetle-browed [-80-]  low public-house, peeping round a corner on the opposite side of the road.
    St John, seventh (bracketed) wrangler of his year, had next to stoop to usherships in third-rate classical and commercial academies for young gentlemen. For a time he was a favourite customer with one of the clerical and scholastic agents who, in those days, colonized the Adelphi purlieus of the Strand. He had not to stand long in the crowded little outer room, furnished with frayed faded oil-cloth, a tall blistered slate-coloured desk, a lame flabby-cushioned, lanky stool, a set of rusty fire- irons, and a yellow fly-spitten engraving of Louis XVI. mounting the scaffold in his shirt sleeves. The raw boys, and middle-aged failures in other lines, who were waiting to secure their first scholastic engagements; the experienced ushers, who horrified the others, and thought themselves 'fast,' because they spoke slightingly of 'governors' - i.e. the men they wanted to hire them without any intention that they should govern them; and with the contempt which familiarity had bred of 'Old Nick,' the agent - clashing the rusty fire-irons, in the broadsword exercise, beneath his very nose: all of these queer would-be instructors of English middle-class youth made way for St John to get up to the parlour door when he entered the stifling little outer office. His seventh wranglership had mounted to a senior wranglership in their mythology. As soon as he was aware of St John's presence, 'Old Nick' would glide in with a cat-like step, and, grinning like a big-headed, purring, old tabby tom cat (I am quoting St John in my description of the  [-81-]  agency), would beckon to him to enter the more luxuriously furnished chamber set apart for the 'principals,' who paid the agent nothing. There, at first, St John was eagerly snapped up by underbred, half-educated, or totally uneducated men, who jumped at the chance of getting a distinguished university man - in orders, too - cheap for their 'establishments.' The examiner, whom 'Old Nick' kept to make a pretence of examining other aspirants in Caesar, Greek Testament, the Anabasis, and Simple Equations, never dreamt, of course, of tasting and testing St John's quality. The schoolmasters talked bumptiously about the 'first desk' of which he was to be the incumbent, and of the 'clerical duty' which their influence would procure for him in their parishes ; but still they seemed half afraid of the phoenix they had caught. But the phoenix soon moulted, without getting brighter feathers, in the schoolmasters' opinion. He made himself such an insufferable nuisance that time after time he came back upon 'Old Nick's' hands. At first the agent had no objection - there was another five-shillings registration-fee to pocket, and another five-percentage on the next year's salary, a quarter's advance of which (although it was never earned) St John and the agent always stipulated for. But St John came back too often and the agent, for the sake of his 'connection,' was obliged to give him the cold shoulder. He tried other agents, and ran a still shorter course with them.
    After that he went utterly 'to the dogs.' For months he had been 'living anyhow.' The story he had told me about the Upper Norwood tutorship - in spite of the pre- [-82-]cise name, address, and directions which way I was to turn, if I wished to verify his statements, that he gave me - proved to be a tissue of plausibly barefaced falsehoods. He confessed that he had tried to earn 2s. 6d. a day at the docks, and was very indignant at the thought that he had not been able to earn it, after stooping to seek for it; but he made out that such extremity was merely an exceptional, instead of being, as I found afterwards, a normal result of his 'weakness.' However he might disguise it, it was a very sad story that St John told me. There was a maudlin pathos, a maudlin humour, a maudlin cynicism in it, that were almost equally distressing to listen to. When he spoke of his lost love, he wept a drunkard's maudlin tears, and cursed her with a drunkard's maudlin oaths. 'She might have done anything with me, but she chose to marry some one else,' he said, as if he thought that she had done herself as well as him a great injury in refusing to link their lots in life - and then he swore, and then he cried, and then he glanced slyly at me, to see whether he was impressing me, or committing himself' in my opinion. It was a doleful exhibition of unstrung character, but I still clung to the belief that he wished to make another effort to struggle out of the slough in which he had defiled himself, and might succeed if he obtained a helping hand. So meanly mixed are our motives, that I am afraid I derived a little ignoble pride from the thought that, after all, a high wrangler had been forced to appeal for assistance to undistinguished me. He pulled out a greasy, dirty, crumpled fasciculus of pawn-tickets to convince me of the truth of  [-83-] his story about the box whose detention prevented him from resuming his Upper Norwood tutorship, and then, when he saw that he had been believed without the duplicates' testimony, whined for 'another sov.' to take him down 'and so on,' when he had recovered his box. He offered to leave with me the whole bundle of his pawn-tickets as security for the double loan. 'The things would cover it a hundred times over, if you took them out of pledge,' he boasted - immediately adding, when he noticed that the proffer had brought, for the first time, his pecuniary honour into doubt, 'That's only my joke, you know.' 'You shall have it again in a week's time, with many thanks,' he said, as he slipped the money into a waistcoat-pocket, the lining of which dropped it out upon the floor. 'All right,' laughed St John, as he stooped to pick up the rolling coin. 'I'll come in more presentable togs next time. I'm sure I'm very much obliged. I'll often call, and we'll have a chat together about the old place - Cambridge, I mean - I think we shall get on together, old fellow,' he added, patronizingly, as he left the house.
    A few days afterwards he called again, as wretchedly dressed as before, and once more full of alternating penitence and pride. He had only taken one glass, he said, on his road to the pawnbroker's but it had upset him, and whilst he was unconscious his pocket had been picked. Did. I doubt his word? No gentleman disputed another gentleman's honour simply because he was unfortunate. He was bitterly sorry that he had yielded to the temptation, but he had felt faint for want of a stimulant, and  [-84-]  could solemnly assure me that he had only taken one glass. Would I lend him one more sovereign just to get his box out of pawn? He could manage then, he thought, without troubling me further, and would ask for an advance the instant he got to Upper Norwood - his word was not doubted there - they would only be too glad to get him back - some people appreciated him still - and remit by P.O. order.
    It was plain enough how the money had gone. The wretched man was just on the verge of delirium tremens. Of course I did not lend the third sovereign, but as I had heard that for a man in such a state total deprivation of drink was as dangerous as unlimited indulgence in it, I got him a little weak brandy and water. He tossed it oft; and grew a little calmer. I persuaded him to sit down, and tried hard to discover some way of being useful to him. At last I remembered a friend whose charity was large enough to give even such an unpromising applicant emplovment, and went into my bedroom to get my desk to write to this friend. When I returned, St John was stealing back from the chiffoniere with the brandy-bottle in his hand. Before I could get to him he had filled his tumbler with unwatered cognac, and before I could clash the glass out of his grasp, he had swallowed more than three parts of its fiery contents. He abused me for my stinginess when I locked up the brandy-bottle, and almost immediately afterwards rushed away, declaring that I had deceived him, and that he deeply regretted that he had stooped to make such a fellow the recipient of his confidences. Twice again he called; the first time looking more like a walking corpse  [-85-]  than a living man, and the second time so ferociously intoxicated that I was compelled to call in the police. It was a dismal sight to see that wreck of good looks, good chances, who had once been the darling of a lovely, good girl's heart, borne away to the station-house strapped down upon a stretcher - it was horrible to hear the fiendish imprecations which his foaming mouth howled out.
    When he was released from confinement I made one more effort to save him; but it proved utterly useless. He was joined to his bestial idols, and I was forced to let him alone. Drink, obtained anyhow, was the only thing on earth he seemed to care for. 'Don't talk shop to me,' he answered fiercely, when I reminded him of the judgment to come. 'I'm up to the tricks of the trade; and I made a precious sight better thing of it than you ever will, old fellow!'
    About a year after my last interview with him, my eye fell on the following paragraph in a newspaper:-

   'FOUND DEAD.-A miserable object, well known to the police, was yesterday found dead in one of the new houses that are being built near Hackney Wick. A workman, on mounting the scaffolding in the morning, found the corpse lying half in, half outside, an unfinished window. The board that had been fastened to the ladder to prevent boys from climbing up it had been removed, no doubt by the deceased. The previous night, as our readers will remember, was one of the severest of the season, and the luckless outcast had succumbed to the inclemency of the weather. His clothing was of the most deplorable de- [-86-]scription, and the body in a frightful state of filth and emaciation. Incredible as it may sound, it is said that the deceased was well-connected, and at one time the idol of the aristocratic congregation of a West-End Proprietary Chapel, of which he was the incumbent. A yellow old letter, in a lady's hand, but almost illegible from dirt and tattered creases, was found in the breast pocket of what it sounds like satire to call the deceased's coat, containing a lock of hair, tied with what seems to have been once blue ribbon, and addressed to the Rev. F. St John, B.A., at some number in South Audley Street, so far as we could decipher the direction. "De mortuis nil nisi bonum" is a maxim that we would gladly follow; but in the interests of truth, and to hold up a warning to others who may be tempted to throw away similar opportunities, it is our painful duty to add that the Rev. F. St John, B.A., had been committed as "drunk and incapable " and "drunk and disorderly" no less than 187 times. The body was removed to the Hackney Dead-house, and the inquest is to take place to-day. It is not probable that any of his former associates wil1 he anxious to identify the corpse of the unhappy man. "Sic transit gloria mundi. "'

That was poor St John's end, and the penny-a-liner had made the most of it, and read over his account again, no doubt, with great complacency when he had made the round of the offices that had accepted his 'flimsy,' and was dining off the proceeds in a Shoe Lane tavern.
    But if, seated amongst her children, opposite her husband, the giver of that lock of hair, the writer of that letter  [-87-]  - kept back when the doleful return of correspondence on both sides took place, and kept to the last - if she, I say, happened to read that melancholy 'In Memoriam' perchance even poor St John found one genuine mourner, however heartily she might love her husband and her children, and thank God for her escape.
    The pharisaical feeling of thankfulness that I had never been tempted to sin like that 'luckless outcast,' to borrow the penny-a-liner's contemptuously compassionate phrase, which arose within me when I read the miserable news, received. a sudden check. 'Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall' tolled in my heart like a wind-stirred bell.