Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XII - Bessie's Parish

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'THE wildest colts make the best horses,' said Themistocles, 'if they only get properly broken in,' and wild little Creases, very soon after she had been lured into it, became one of the best scholars in our Sunday-school. A good many of the children, like Bessie, went to no other school, and therefore we had a great deal of a, b, ab, b, a, ba work to get through - most necessary under the circumstances, but generally rather distasteful to both teachers and taught. Bessie, however, revelled in the dry, rhyming columns, and rang their changes backwards and forwards as merrily as if they had been a peal of bells, as soon as she had learnt her letters. 'You look out, Fred - I'm a-ketchin' of ye up fast,' she exclaimed proudly to her young friend and fellow-pupil, the bird-seller's protégé, when she was promoted to words of one syllable in sentences. And although Fred, thanks to his mother's [-115-] care, read remarkably well for a child of his age, Bessie's was no vain boast. It was not long before she was Fred's class-fellow. She threw her whole heart into what she was about. So long as she supposed that 'learning the markets' was all that she needed to learn she devoted herself entirely to that study; but now that she had arrived at the conclusion that there were other things in the world worth learning, she learnt those other things with an equal ardour. Whatever she took in hand, she pulled at with a will, as the sea-phrase goes. As soon as she had picked up our chants and psalm-tunes, her voice, not only in the school-room, but in the church also, rose above all others - sweetly shrill. We were in the habit of singing the Old Version Psalm, in which these somewhat quaint, tautological, ungrammatical, but still stirring lines occur:-
    'On cherubs and on cherubims
        Full royally he rode;
    And on the wings of mighty winds
        Came flying all abroad.'
The tune had something of the irresistible motion of a march in it, and that and the alliterative music of the second and third lines, between them, quite carried Bessie away. For some seconds after the rest of the congregation had finished the line, her 'ro-o-o--o--ode' could be heard ringing up in the rafters.
    The variety of characters over whom our Blessed Lord exercised, so to speak, a magnetic influence during his life on earth is one of the most striking facts in his earthly history. The doctors in the Temple and the Baptist in [-116-] the desert, Peter and Pilate, Mary of Magdala, and Joseph of Arimathlea - those who agreed in scarcely anything else agreed in recognizing in their various ways the divinely exceptional personality of Christ. And throughout all the centuries during which Christ's life has been read, that marvellously many-sided influence has continued to act. Every one who reads this must be able to count up people by the score who have scarcely anything in common except a reverential love of Jesus of Nazareth. Social circumstances, dispositions, tastes, modes of thought, may seem to have dug impassable gulfs between the sharers of that love, but that makes them feel akin. It was curiously interesting to note the gradual way in which the character of Christ exercised its attraction on the little London street girl. At first she greatly preferred the Old Testament to the New. There was 'a deal more fun an' fightin' in it,' she said. The story of Samson and the foxes greatly took her fancy. 'Worn't that a knowin' game?' was her admiring comment on it. The trick by which Michal saved her husband's life was another exploit which made Bessie chuckle in a very infectiously indecorous manner; and she gloated over accounts of pitched battles and single combats. Owing to the bellicosity which her street-life had bred in her, the gentle forgivingness of the Saviour was to her at starting a disagreeable puzzle. She liked him for 'goin' about doctorin' poor folks, an' givin' em bread an fish when they was hungry,' but, according to her original notions of nobility of character, it was cowardly not to resent an injury or 'take your own part,' and therefore the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount perplexed [-117-] her sorely, and she was utterly at a loss to understand why Peter was told to put back his sword into his sheath. 'He'd ha' fought, anyhow, if he'd been let, though they did all on 'em cut away arterwards,' remarked Bessie, trying in vain to make her newly-acquired belief that all which Jesus did must be right, tally with her old faith in the manliness of fighting. The first time she read the fifth of St Matthew, she had a stiff argument with her teacher over 'Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.'
    'It can't mean that, I know,' exclaimed Bessie, decidedly. 'Do it, teacher?'
    'It means what it says - it's in the Bible, and that's enough,' answered the teacher.
    Any unsympathizing appeal to authority of this kind, as a settler, or rather silencer, of moral difficulties, does not, however, satisfy children, any more than it satisfies adults. It is far more likely to weaken the weight of the appealed-to authority in the estimation of those who are morally muddled. Bessie was not to be so put down. I have no doubt that she half became a little infidel - fancied that, after all, the Bible could not be true, if it taught things like that.
    'But, teacher,' she persisted, if anybody was to fetch ye a clout a-one side o' yer face, would ye let 'em give ye a clout a-t'other? Ketch me a-bein' sich a soft. I'd do all I knew to give it to 'em back agin.'
    But, as the months went by, Bessie's character underwent a very striking change. She was as self-reliant a little body as ever, but self (with half-grudged sacrifice to [-118-] Granny) was no longer the centre of her little system of the universe. One Sunday morning, when she had been at the Sunday-school about two years, and I had happened to look in just as the children were filing off for morning service, Bessie stepped out of rank, and walked up to me with great aplomb, and yet manifestly in great distress. She waited until she had seen the backs of the last scholar and teacher, and then explained her trouble. (In spite of her readiness in reading, and the near approach to correctness which the purifying and enriching influence of music gave her 'vocalisation' when she sang, Bessie's spoken English, down to the last day I saw her, was very nearly as heteroepic and syntax-defying as on the morning we spent together on the Monument.) 'If you please, sir,' she said, I want to do some good, but I don't know how. He was al'ays a-goin' about doin' some good to somebody, but I don't do no good to nobody, though I goes about pretty much. I'm workin' walnuts now, and how's ye to do any good to anybody out o' them? Cept ye give 'em away, an# then how's Granny to live - let alone me?'
    'Don't despise the walnuts, Bessie,' I answered, 'if they help you to earn an honest living. Whilst you are getting that you are doing your duty so far - just as much as when you come to church. If people were to come to church all day long, and leave other people to work for them and their wives and children, that would be laziness, and not religion. Besides, Bessie, "doing good "doesn't mean giving only. That is one way, and a very good way when people give away what they really have a right to give, and take care that the people [-119-] who have no right to get it don't get it. But there are scores of ways in which you can do good, though you haven't a penny to spare. If you only want to find them out, you're sure to find them out. Just look about you when you get back to Granny's. Charity begins at home, you know. It isn't doing good to make a great fuss about people out of doors, and then to go home and sulk or be lazy. I don't mean you, Bessie. I don't think you sulk, and I'm sure you are not lazy. But if you look about perhaps you'll find that there is something you could do to make Granny more comfortable or happier in her mind, and when you have tried to do that, there are the other people in the Rents - the children and the grown-up people, too. You might do something for them. But I cannot talk to you any longer now. I ought to have been in the vestry five minutes ago. Some day this week I will come to the Rents, and we will consult together then.'
    When I called at Mrs Jude's I found that Bessie had very speedily acted on my hints. The floor had been scrubbed; the mantel-piece was no longer furred with dust. A little bunch of wall-flowers stood on it in an old medicine-bottle. The scanty crockery of the establishment was all clean, and arranged along the mantel-shelf. The window had been cleaned, too, and the few articles of furniture tidied up in some way. The battered flat candlestick had been rubbed until it shone like polished silver. Bessie, who was sitting at her grandmother's knee with a book on her lap, glanced proudly at this last proof of her industry, as it gleamed in the even-[-120-]ing sunlight, flanked on both sides with the clean crockery.
    'Why, Mrs Jude,' I exclaimed, 'you look quite smart.' The old woman was evidently pleased with the altered appearance of her abode, but, of course, she could not refrain from grumbling. Humph!' she answered, I don't know what's come to the gal. She come home from school last Sunday, an' says she, "Granny, how can I make ye comfor'bler an' 'appier in your mind?" "Well," says I, "I should be comfor'bler if I'd things a bit more like what they used to was afore your father treated me so bad, an' left me with a great gal like you on my 'ands." "How was that?" says she. So I told her about the nice furnitur' I used to have  - real mahogany, sir - an' sich like. "Can't we do summat with what we've got; Granny?" says she. "Stuff an' nonsense, child," says I, "in a mucky hole like this." " Well, Granny," says she, "I'll do what I can if you'll tell me how." An' so she went on botherin' till somehow, between us, we have made the place look a bit more Christian-like, I won't deny. But Bessie must needs clean the winder, though I told her not, an' so there we've got another broken pane, as if we hadn't got enough afore. Spendin' her money, too, on them flowers for the mankle-shelf!'
    'They didn't cost nuffink, Granny,' Bessie objected. 'Jim Greenham give 'em to me.'
    'An' if ye can git flowers give to ye, why didn't ye never bring me none afore?'
    'Why, Granny, I used to think they'd choke like in here,' answered Bessie; 'but now I'll bring ye some [-121-] whenever I git the chance. I do like flowers. They make ye feel somehow, when ye smell 'em, an' they look at ye, as if ye could be good somewheres or other. An' there's about flowers in the Testament, Granny - in the very chapter I was a-readin' when you come up, sir.'
    'I didn't hear about no flowers,' growled Mrs Jude.
    'Becos, ye see, I was on'y jist a-comin' to it. Here tis, Granny -  "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." '
    'Well, sir, I don't deny that that do sound pretty,' said Mrs Jude, in a condescending tone - as if she thought that courtesy compelled her to compliment the New Testament in the presence of a clergyman. 'But what I should like to know is how we're to foller what she was a-readin' jist afore - about not takin' no thought for your wittles and your clothes. I'd heared it many a time afore you read it, Bessie, but it was your readin' of it that brought it to my mind. We ain't fowls as flies in the air, or flowers as grows in a garding.'
    'You'd look comikle a-flyin' in the air or a-growin' in a garding, Granny,' laughed Bessie, who had not lost her liking for looking at the ludicrous side of things. The old woman's temper was ruffled by her grand-daughter's irreverent conceit, and she paid very divided attention to the explanation I tried to give her of her difficulty. So I contented myself with reading the whole of the latter part of the chapter to her, that it might teach its own lesson - a plan which I have often found to be efficacious [-122-] under similar circumstances. Except in so far as it removes difficulties caused by differences of time and place, or gives a passing hint that enables one's hearers to make a personal use of circumstances that seem at first things that can have nothing to do with them, the less exposition is mixed up with the reading of the Scriptures in the houses of the poor the better, I think. The mere reading of a chapter may, I know, be made as mechanical an operation as the twirling of a 'praying cylinder,' on the part both of the reader and the hearer; but when the reading is not a perfunctory performance of official duty, the words have often a marvellous power of explaining themselves for purposes of edification. Mrs Jude echoed the last sentence of the chapter, and gave also, without knowing it, Jeremy Taylor's comment on the text.* [* 'Sufficient, but not intolerable. But if we look abroad, and bring into one day's thoughts the evil of many, certain and uncertain, what will be and what will never be, our load will be as intolerable as it is unreasonable.']  'Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,' she said. 'Ah, that it be. I'm tired to the very tips o' my finger nails. You never knew what it was to ache all over in your lines an' every one o' your j'ints-you never stood at a wash-tub, sir - so it's easy talkin'. But I won't deny that I can't rest my legs to-night by thinkin' how tired they'll be to-morrer an' day after. I mayn't be alive to-morrer. I can't last long, slavin' as I do, an' then, when you've lost me, you'll know how good I've been to you, Bessie. But I won't deny, sir, that you must ha' took pains wi' her readin', an' I've no objection to her readin' to me agin. Now we've  [-123-] done up the place a bit, you can sit down in a bit o' comfort, an' it's a beautiful book to listen to, I won't deny; though it do make ye feel that ye ought to be somehow as ye ain't. But there's myst'ries none of us knows the rights on, wise as we may think ourselves, I guess.'
    In spite of the parting shot at myself, I could see that Bessie had made a very good beginning on Granny. The clearing up of their room - although Bessie had been the chief agent in the joint-stock operations of which Mrs Jude (except in the case of the broken window) claimed the chief credit - led to greater personal cleanliness and tidiness in both. The reading of the Bible at home led to Mrs Jude's being prevailed upon to go to church again, although her church-going was only very slightly profitable to her in a pecuniary point of view.
    She never became what is called 'a cheerful Christian,' but I believe that, in a genuine sense, she did at last become a Christian. She learnt to feel the saving power of the Divinity manifested in Christ - to know that she ought, at any rate, to think little of herself, and to strive hard, and pray hard, for the curbing of her unchristian temper, and the cultivation of a more Christian character.
    Bessie's missionary work amongst her neighbours was not quite so judiciously begun. The brave little body went about reproving sin of all kinds like a little Nathan, with a considerable infusion of the small Pharisee, and the sinners would not 'stand her cheek.' Bessie was very proud at first of the persecution she had provoked, but when she found that no good came of it, she adopted a quieter tone. When I think that any one is actuated by a good  [-124-] motive - which can have been given only by the good God - (to use what is a pleonasm in English), I am very reluctant to interfere with the modes of action to which that motive urges, simply because they do not tally with my own idiosyncracy. But I suggested to Bessie that only the Sinless Man had a right to speak to sinning men and women as if He did not share their sinfulness, and that that was a stand-point which He did not take. Bessie's quiet work succeeded far better than her Boanerges business. She became more carefully anxious than she had been before to make her conduct harmonize in little things - which, as a rule, because they are always turning up for notice, are really great things-with the principles she professed. She conquered the prejudices entertained against her by the young folks of the Rents very speedily. As soon as she 'larked' with them, in an innocent way, again, she was so good a hand at larking that she secured us sundry even of the least likely of her boy and girl neighbours as pupils for our Sunday-school. She used to introduce the half-scared, half-saucy, shock-headed tatterdemalions with 'Here's another, sir' - much as if she had lugged in a ragged, restive colt from the marshes by the bur-buttoned mane.
    That she ever did much amongst the adults of the Rents, I cannot say, but she did something. After a time they ceased to snub her and swear at her. They even recovered a good deal of the kindly feeling they had entertained towards her before she had taken to being 'a saint.' With a difference, however. They felt that she was no longer 'their sort,' and though they could not help  [-125-]  owning to themselves that it was she who had risen by the change, the necessity of being obliged to make such a confession even to themselves somewhat chilled their friendly feeling for little Bessie. She proved herself such a willing, helpful little body, however, in the way of fetching water, running to the chandler's, nursing babies that must otherwise have been tossed about in the Rents' gutter very much like its cabbage-stalks, at odd times of her very scanty leisure, that two or three of the Rents' women who had very large families, came to church now and then out of gratitude to her. It was partly genuine gratitude, looking back upon the past. Bessie had helped them, and so they wanted to please her by going to a place to which she said they ought to go. But it was partly, also, I must own, the prospective gratitude which cynical cleverness has defined. 'I was at church yisterday arternoon, so you'll come an' nuss my Johnny, won't ye, Bessie?' is a specimen of the appeals that were often made to my little lay assistant. She was greatly amused when I called the Rents her 'parish.' 'Anyhow,' she said, slyly, 'there's people in the Rents that'll let me talk to 'em, as wouldn't let a parson inside their places - let alone a missioner. Why, Big Sam's wife - he's the fightin' sweep, you know, sir - pitched a missioner into the dust-cart, an she said she'd serve you jist the same; but I said she shouldn't - not if I was by to help ye.'
    One of Bessie's parishioners was of a very different type from any I have as yet referred to: an old apple-woman who 'pitched' just outside the mouth of the Rents. Bessie ran evening errands for her, and some [-126-] times kept her stall for her when the old woman wanted to go home for a little time. When rheumatism laid the poor old body up, Bessie looked in before she started on her rounds, to light her old friend's fire for her, and make her as comfortable as she could for the day. As soon as weary little Bessie got back from her rounds, she looked in again on Mrs Reynolds-thereby making Mrs Jude feel very jealous, in spite of her hard struggles to think that it was all right that Bessie should do so when she knew (as was always the case when she did it) that her Granny was not 'ailing more than ordinary.' Mrs Reynolds was a widow, without a soul in the world to care for her but Bessie; and she doted on Bessie accordingly. She was a very simple-minded woman, strictly honest, and willing to 'do anybody a good turn,' in her little way; but so far as any definite belief about God's government of the world was concerned, her mind was a blank sheet when Bessie first took her in charge. Her heart, nevertheless, was half-consciously thirsting for something that would make life a more satisfying thing than merely giving fair ha'porths of apples in a muddy street. However fair she might make them, she did not feel comfortable when she got home at night. She wanted something to make her feel at peace, though what it was she could not tell. She found out soon after Bessie had begun to read the New Testament to her. 'Lor, sir,' said the old woman to me once, 'that little gal's been next door to a hangel o' light to me. Afore she come an' read to me, I knew I wasn't as good as I might be, but I comforted myself wi' thinkin' I was as good as my neighbours. But there  [-127-] she read about him as called hisself the chiefest o' sinners, arter all he'd done - an' what had I done like him? I was awful scared at first, but then she'd read to me about Jesus, too, an' she talked to me about Jesus in a surprisin' manner for a little gal like her. So now I try to do the best I can, and I just trust to Jesus for the rest.'
    Systematic theologians might, perhaps, object to this creed of Mrs Reynolds's, but under the circumstances I did not see that I could improve upon it by shaping it into more regular form.