Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XI - Life Through Death

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THE bird-catcher for years had contented himself with picking holes in other people's beliefs. He fancied that he was perfectly impartial - that he was an honestly sceptical truth-seeker. In fact, however, he was strongly prejudiced against any form of faith that had found expression in historical symbols. What he did not believe he could easily tell you: what he did believe it was a harder matter to find out.
    But a time came when this pseudo-suspension of judgment altogether ceased to satisfy. He experienced a great sorrow, and then he longed for a definite creed. It was the death of Black Pete that brought about this change. The outcast whom he had sheltered richly repaid him for his kindness by opening a door of escape from the bleak atmosphere of the 'Everlasting No.' Pete had only a tobacco-stopper of his own carving to leave [-105-] his master, so far as this world's goods went, but he indirectly left him the priceless legacy of faith in Christ. For a fortnight the wind was in the east - 'nailed' there, in sailors' phrase. The old negro had been for some time failing, and seemed visibly to shrivel up as hour after hour, day after day, that pitiless east wind still blew.
    Rus in urbe was green all the year round, but its plants looked almost as 'perished' as poor Pete during those two bleak, sunless weeks. In spite of a good fire and sandbags, and the other little comforts which Mr Jones provided for his retainer, Pete had a benumbed look. All day long he crouched over the parlour fire, only noticing his master and little Fred, the fire, and the birds and the plants. When the doctor felt his pulse he paid no attention to him: as soon as the black wrist was released from the white fingers the arm fell like a log. Next to his master and Fred, and one of the canaries that used to entangle its claws in his grey wool, I had been Pete's favourite, but he no longer gave me a white-toothed grin of greeting when I went in. The only thing that seemed to rouse him in the least was when he saw his master or Fred doing anything that had formed part of his duty. Then he would give a feeble look of protest, but he had not energy enough even to attempt to carry his protest into action.
    I had often requested the bird-seller to act as interpreter between me and the negro in a conversation on matters of faith. I was altogether at a loss to determine what he knew of spiritual things. He came to church in the morning with Fred, and was very anxious to imitate [-106-] as closely as possible the uprisings and downsittings of the rest of the congregation but, of course, this was nothing to go by.
    Hitherto, however, Mr Jones had obstinately refused to aid me. He said that he did not know how to put my questions, and that if he did he would not put them. What would be the good, he asked, of confusing the man's mind? At present, he added, Pete was in the enviable condition of having nothing but the direct light of nature to guide him-he had never been perplexed by the cross- lights of other-man-made creeds. 'If he'd got your catechism at his fingers' ends, an' knew what it was all about, instead of rattling it off on his fingers' ends, as I've seen some dumb folk have been taught to do, just like the gabbling youngsters that can talk do with their tongues, could Pete have done his duty better than he has done it, poor old chap? Did you ever see a kinder, willinger old soul? No, sir, you leave him alone. You couldn't do him any good, as I see. You'd on'y bother him' -so Mr Jones had been in the habit of answering me. But I felt very anxious about the negro's state. He was plainly soon about to die. It was my duty to prepare him for death; but how was I to set about it? He had become so weak, seemed so much easier when he could feel the fire, and see the foliage and the birds, that his gruff, kind old master had made up a bed on the sofa in the parlour. He had not been able to rise from it on the last day I saw him, although it was afternoon when I called. The bleak weather had broken up; a west wind that felt balmy even in Grimes Street [-107-] was blowing, and even in Grimes Street the calm autumn sun was shining brightly. The bird-seller's recently moping prisoners were hopping and chirping with renewed liveliness; but Black Pete was lying on the bed more languid than ever, looking at the dying fire with a lacklustre eye. Little Fred was sitting beside him on the sofa, stroking his face and holding his hand. Mr Jones went into the room with me, and at last I prevailed upon him to try to discover what were the thoughts about the next world of the poor fellow who had passed through this one so pathetically isolated.
    The bird-seller took from the shelves that held his little library, Young's 'Night Thoughts,' and pointed to an engraving of a churchyard. He closed Pete's eyes, and placed his arms straight by his sides; then he opened his eyes, pointing to an open grave in the illustration, and going through a pantomime of digging a grave in the floor, lowering a corpse into it, and filling it up, and patting down the clods. Poor Pete was puzzled at first, but presently he pointed interrogatively to himself. When he received an affirmative nod in answer, he nodded too; but the only sign of fear he showed was to draw little Fred closer to him. His master next pointed upwards, but this only made the negro glance at the birds' cages, as if he was afraid that, unwittingly, he had allowed a bird to escape. He then tried to rise from the bed, as if he had been requested to get up. His master gently laid him down again, and took his hand. When he was quieted, Mr Jones pointed to the bed, to himself the boy, myself, the birds, the beasts, the plants, the sky; and  [-108-] then spreading out his arms slowly gathered them in again, as a token of the Universal Love. A light of pleasure danced for a moment in the negro's eyes - he seemed to have got a sudden glimpse of the divine truth which glorified the grotesque face and figure of its expounder; but then Poor Pete grew puzzled again, and pointed fearfully at the floor, meanwhile clutching the boy more closely, and spasmodically jerking his chin upwards to invite his master to come nearer to him. To re-assure him, and at the same time guide him, the stingy, pet-loving 'infidel' opened the window, and liberated his pet thrush; again pointing to the sky as it flew away. The would-be cynical old bird-seller had tears in his eyes when he saw the effect this had on the dying man. I left poor Pete clinging lovingly to his two friends.
    When I called next day, three of the shop-shutters were up. 'He's gone, sir,' said Mr Jones; 'as good a feller as ever breathed, though he was a black; and if there's a next world, he's happy in it, or he ought to be, sacrament or no sacrament; and we'll say no more about it. If you want to do any good, see if you can cheer up Fred a bit. He's worse cut up than he was about his mother.'
    It was because the bird-seller could not trust himself to talk about his old friend that he dismissed me so abruptly. I found Fred in the kitchen, with smeared face and swollen eyes, but he had already sobbed away the keenest anguish of his grief. Whilst I sat talking with him of heaven, and of Poor Pete, through God's mercy, admitted to it - no longer deaf and dumb, but able to [-109-] hear and join in the angels' song of praise, the kitchen- door opened, and Mr Jones came in and seated himself by the fire. 'You'll think I'm growin' childish, sir,' he said, 'but I should like to hear what you're telling the boy. When those you really cared for are gone, it's dreary not to feel sure of a heaven. You can't bear to think that they've gone out like sparks on tinder  - that they'll never come out o' the blackness again. And it seems cruel on'y to fancy 'em hoverin' about somewheres you don't know where - instead of housin' em for ever in a happy home. Poor old Pete! He did care for me! What d'ye think, sir? He gave me this just afore he died. He hadn't had time quite to finish it, but he'd been workin' at it up to the time he was took so bad. He must ha' seen that I had lost mine, an' so he was a-workin' away at this for me. Ain't it curious the pattern he took? It's the cross a-top the church clock-case on the parlour mankleshelf. I'll never part with it, not while I live, I won't ' - and as he spoke, Mr Jones, to the astonishment of Fred, sobbed aloud. I could not, of course, help seeing the incongruity between poor Pete's model and the purpose to which his workmanship was to be applied, and yet, in spite of that incongruity, there was something hopefully ominous in his last little gift.
    When he had mastered his voice, Mr Jones asked- 'Would you like to see him, sir?'
    We all three went up-stairs, little Fred clinging to me in terror when we entered the parlour. Rus in urbe was very different from an ordinary chamber of death. It was filled with a cheerful twitter instead of a brooding [-110-] sepulchral hush. 'He liked the birds when he was alive, though he couldn't hear 'em, an' they can't disturb him now,' Mr Jones remarked half apologetically. Then he reverently lifted up the white cloth, and we saw the face of the poor black, with a sweet smile upon it that made the sable features beautiful.
    'Kiss him, Fred,' said Mr Jones almost sternly, as the frightened little fellow held back. 'Poor Pete was a good friend to you; of course you'll bury him, sir,' he said to me. 'Pete had a likin' for you, though he never heard a word you said.'
    I did bury Pete, on a mild autumn afternoon; the red and yellow leaves falling as noiselessly as snow-flakes, and a robin singing its soft little hymn on the headstone of a neighbouring grave. Mr Jones and Fred were the only mourners. The old man started when I came to that triumphal burst in the lesson,- 'We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump (for the trumpet shall sound), and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruption shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?'
    When, too, we were walking away from poor Pete's last bed, the bird-catcher was muttering to himself, from the last collect, 'that when we shall depart this life, we may [-111-] rest in Him, as our hope is that our brother doth.' 'It's a beautiful service, that of yours, sir, right or wrong; it soothes you about them as are gone, and yet it makes you think about yourself, too.'
    Next Sunday morning Mr Jones was at church with Fred. Sunday after Sunday passed, but the bird-catcher's shop continued closed, and he continued to come to church.' Of course, I must come to look after the little un, now poor black Pete is gone,' he said, when I expressed my pleasure.
    But a strange change had come over Mr Jones. He had taken to reading his New Testament, no longer captiously, but as a man weary of a dusty road might put his lips to water running over a mossy stone. He had ceased to carp at any 'professional' remark which I might make, but he said very little to me about his readings, and I said very little to him. He was daily growing more and more intimate with Christ-Jesus of Nazareth speaking by words and works - and words of mine, I thought, would merely blur the impress which the Divine character was manifestly making even on the stubborn material of the bird-catcher's mind.
    I do not mean to say that the bird-catcher suddenly became gentle in all his words and ways, and charitable in all his modes of thought. In spite of the goodness there was in it, his was a cross-grained nature; and plane and polish as he might, the gnarled knots could still be seen. But, from the time of Black Pete's death, it was evident that he had adopted a new rule of life, and was striving with loving laboriousness to live up to it. He still said [-112-] tart things now and then, but he no longer plumed himself on his cleverness in saying them. His neighbours ere long noticed the alteration in him. 'Well, sir,' said one of my parishioners to me, 'if I'd been axed, I should ha' said, beggin' your pardon, that you was a deal too soft-like to get round old Jones, but, blest, if you hain't converted him, or else he's a-turnin' soft hisself' It was nothing which I had said, however, that had produced the change in the bird-catcher; and so far from 'turning soft,' he had learnt the first lesson of real sanity - that man can only obtain peace by recognizing with humble gratitude his relation to a pardoning, succouring God.
    'Grandfather says his prayers now,' Fred told me one day with astonished delight. The fact that grandfather did not say his prayers had long perplexed Fred's mind, and pained his heart. The old man was so clever, in Fred's eyes, and so kind, and yet he did not do the thing which Fred's poor dead mamma had taught him nobody could be 'good' without doing.
    I repeated the remark to the old man, as a likely introduction to a little confidential conversation.
    ;Well, sir,' he exclaimed half-fiercely, 'it's nothing to be ashamed on as I knows of. Ashamed!' he added, in an altered tone. Well, that's sensible It's made me feel more at rest-like than I've felt for many a year, an' here I am a-talkin' as if I was ashamed of it. What stuck-up beggars we are - don't like to be under an obligation even to God A'mighty. Well, sir, I'll tell you all about it now. I was fond o' readin', as I've told you, sir, when I was a young man, an' I tried hard to read [-113-] myself into believin' in Christianity. I got a Paley's "Evidences" second-hand in Goswell Street, an' I read it through. But then you see, I couldn't remember it all, an'so what was the good? What I couldn't remember was like rungs out of the middle of a ladder. I warn't no nearer to the top with them gone. So I got tired of try-in' to carry Paley's book about in my head. I wanted to feel as the Bible was true just as I see the sky was blue - that don't want no provin'. Well, sir, I got all at sea. I thought it was silly to pray, because if God knew everything, and could do everything, an' was the kind God the parsons made out, it worn't only silly, but stuck-up, to tell Him what I wanted to happen to me - as if I knew better than He did. But when poor Black Pete died, I felt uncommon lonely, and somehow I took to readin' the New Testament agin, to see if I could git a bit o' comfort. And I did take it on trust to begin with-leastways, I wasn't al'ays lookin' out for reasons to doubt it - and it seemed quite different. I've got to believe there was a Jesus o' Nazareth as sure as I see you there with your umbrella, an' I've got to love Him, too, an' to want to do what He tells me. He says "pray," an' so I do pray - the prayer He taught them as was with Him. And it's wonderful what a help it is to me, sir, to try to do His will. I ain't a amiable sort, sir, you know, but when you say, "Our Father," you can't help thinkin' that them even as worries you most must be your brothers an' sisters; an' then you want to behave accordin'.'