Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XXIV - A Black Missionary to the Blacks

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UNLESS you are Lucretianly selfish enough to feel your own comfort heightened by others' sufferings, it is like a draught of icy wind rushing into the warm bed to be awoke at five o'clock on a winter's morning by a ponderous single knock, followed by a hoarsely shrill shout of 'swee-weep!' The stars shine with a cold, steel-like brilliance between the snow-furred chimney-pots over the way. You hear the black familiar in waiting tramping up and down on the ice-glazed, snow-caked pavement, coughing, clapping his hands on his breast, blowing on his fingers, and ever and anon repeating his knock and cry to hurry the sleepy, miserable maiden who has to let him in. She huddles on her clothes, a blink of candle-light glances into your bedroom as she slips past on her way to the drear, chill under-regions. The sound of the undoing of a door is heard, and presently a rumbling in the chimney; and listening, [-281-] you wonder, just before you drop off to sleep again, which feels the more wretched - the working sweep, or the watching servant.
    It chanced one winter morning that the maiden commissioned to let the sweep into my humble establishment proved deaf to his knockings and shouts, and my staff of servants being as modest as my house, there was no fellow-servant to rouse her. Accordingly I had to go down to let the man in. Kicking the snow off his boots, he clumped up the steps, when I opened the door.
    'Hoverslep' yourself, eh, Mary?' he said in a cheery tone, as he came in. 'I don't wonder at it. I should ha' liked to sleep a bit longer such a mornin' as this. Law, sir, I beg your pardon, I'd no notion it was you. You'll ketch your death o' cold standin' shiverin' there without your stockins. You go up to bed agin. I'll bang the door arter me when I've done. I shan't steal nothin',' he added with a smile. 'I see you every Sunday at church, sir; but I've got a cleaner face then than I have now.'
    There was such an honest ring in the old man's voice, that even if I had possessed anything within his reach worth stealing, I should have trusted him. I was glad enough to jump into my warm bed again, but as I did so, I felt ashamed of myself. A younger man somehow feels little when he sees an old man cheerfully doing work and bearing hardship - whatever they may be - that he would shrink from. And besides that, I felt ashamed that the sweep should know me well as his clergyman, whilst I knew nothing of him as a parishioner beyond [-282-] what his red-tape-bound card hung up in the kitchen told me. From that I had learnt that he beat carpets as well as swept chimneys, and in both capacities, I believed, my maiden had employed him to her satisfaction; but I had never thought of the chimney-sweeper and carpet-beater as a fellow Christian, and large as was the parish in which I then laboured, I felt that I could not excuse myself. He had been often in my house, he came regularly to church and yet, until I happened to have to let him into my house, I had taken as much or as little human interest in his brush, as I had in its wielder.
    After this I soon made his acquaintance. His little house certainly was not free from the stifling scent of soot, but his wife who let me in, the little passage into which I stepped, and the little parlour into which I was shown, were all startlingly clean. There being no fire in the prim little parlour, I asked leave to sit in the kitchen; and that, too, though a good deal more comfortable, was almost as clean.
    'Sam'l will be in directly, sir, he's cleanin' hisself. An' p'r'aps you'll be so good as to hexcuse me, sir, I was jest a-goin' out when you knocked. I'll tell Sam'l to 'urry hisself.' So spake the sweep's wife as she left the room, and presently Sam'l' entered in decent clean clothes, and with a face that shone from yellow soap and friction, although a fringe of black cloud still lingered, so to speak, on its horizon.
    'Your house is very different, Mr Craske, from what I had fancied,' I said with a laugh. 'I had got a notion that I should be ankle-deep in soot.'
    [-283-] 'You'd be a good bit over that, sir, if you was to step across into the outhouse, but I like to have my own place tidy, and so does my old woman. It ain't that I was brought up to such ways, for a sut-bag was the only bed I had when I was prentice. There's sweeps' houses still, too, where you might find a lot o' sut hinside - whole nests o' sweeps and sweeps' women that scarce gives theirselves a wash from year's bend to year's hend. There they huddles together and squabbles together, jest like pigs aboard a Hirish packet, till the walls is as black as the chimbley.'
    'How do you manage to keep your place so clean?'
    'Well, you see, sir, I've got a side-way to my backyard, and that's a 'elp. And then I've got a good wife, instid o' keepin' a drunken woman, an' gittin' drunk along wi' her, an' pitchin' into her, and her pitchin' into me. We respect each other, and that 'elps us to respect ourselves. And we've both got right notions, I 'ope, about things in your line, sir, and that's another 'elp. Cleanliness is next to godliness, they say, but in my way o' life it's the t'other way, I think. It wasn't till I took a serious turn that I cared about cleanin' myself. Of a Saturday night I takes a warm bath over there in Vitechap'l, and I takes my Sunday things with me, and when I've got my clean shirt on, I feels as if Sunday was begun.'
    'You don't look much like a chimney-sweep now, Mr Craske.'
    'Oh, I allus gives myself a good sluice every night when my work is done, and changes my clothes. But that ain't like Saturday's wash. I enjy my meals twice [-284-] as much a-Sundays as other days. If I could manage it, I'd put off my grubbin' till I'd cleaned myself at night, but I'm too sharp-set for that.'
    'And how do you spend your evenings?'
    'Oh, my old gal's good company. We talks, and I spell her a bit out o' the paper, and reads her a chapter, or a good book, and so on. And then -'
    Mr Craske stopped suddenly.
    'Well, Mr Craske, and then?'
    'Why, you see, sir, I don't like to talk as if I was braggin', but I'm a bit of a public character of an evenin',' he answered with a grin.
    'In what way?'
    'Why, you see, sir, I'm a Total Abstainer, and so's my old gal. Not that I'd want her to be, if she didn't like it, for she never took enough to 'urt her, but I used to be a hawful lushington. There's lots of sweeps is still, and a missionary that goes about amongst 'em, and is a teetotaller hisself, says to me one day, "I can't do any-thin' with them - they won't listen to me, or if they do, it's only to chaff me afterwards; but if you was to speak to 'em, Craske, p'r'aps they might mind you more. You know what a good thing Total Abstinence has been to you," says he, "and it's your duty to try to make your fellow-tradesmen see the benefit of it." Well, sir, he borrered a room, and he got me to let him give out amongst 'em that a sweep wos goin' to talk to sweeps in it. "A Talk with Sweeps by a Sweep" was what he put on the little bills he got printed. A lot of 'em came for the fun of the thing, and rare game they made of me at [-285-] first, for I was wery shame-faced at startin'. But I got my pluck an' my woice as I went on, and before I'd finished they was quiet enough, and most of 'em looked friendly when I'd done. Some of 'em came up to thank me, and I'd another talk with them. Since then, when I've time, I've gone about of a evening among 'em, trying to git 'em to give up their lushing and save their money, and live decenter, and remember there's a world where there's no sut, and another place where there must be a dreadful lot on it: "an' that chimbley never gits swep'," I says to them, "becos they never lets the fire out there." Some of 'em cuts up rough, and offers to fight me for a pot, an' the women offen is wery himpident, poor creaturs. I can't say I've done much good, but I've done some, thank God. It seems presumsheous in the likes of me settin' up for a sort o' parson, but it worn't my own thought at startin'; and now you see, sir  - knowin' the ways of the trade and so on - I've found out that I can git along with some of 'em, p'r'aps, better than a reg'lar parson could. He'd know a million times more than me, but then he wouldn't jest know the ways o' sweeps; and so I 'ope you'll excuse me, sir.'
    'I ought rather to ask you to excuse me, Mr Craske. I ought to have known you long ago, and the people you visit too. You may be sure, though, that I shall not interfere with you - even if I had the power, or the right, I should hot have the will. From what you tell me, I should say that you were just the man to do them good.'
    'Oh, sir, I 'ope you don't think I've been crackin' myself up that way. It's jest this. If I hadn't gone amongst [-286-] 'em, there was no one they could 'ear a good word from. They was like sheep without a shepherd - and precious black sheep, too, hinside as well as out.'
    'Just the kind our Shepherd came to seek and to save. Try to talk to them as much like Him as you can, Mr Craske. I mean, don't trust only to scaring them. I've no doubt that they need a good deal of scaring. When a man is lying dead drunk in a house on fire, it's a kindness to give him a good shaking. But I have not much faith in mere frightening. If a man only gives up his sins because he is afraid of hell-fire, he is very apt to fall into them again. You know, we don't think much of a man's honesty when it is only the fear of being taken up that keeps him from stealing. Talk to them about the holiness and love of God. I don't mean as if you were preaching them a sermon; but tell them bits out of Jesus's life, just as if you were telling them stories. They will be fresh enough to them, poor fellows, and when they hear them, they will understand what you mean by God's holiness and love. Leading is generally better than driving.'
    'I partly see what you mean, sir. You think I've too much bark, like a young drover's dog, and so I do more 'arm than good - only drive 'em up into a muddle like.'
    'Indeed, I mean no such thing.'
    'Well, sir, whether you do or whether you don't, I can see there's sense in it, and I'll bear your words in mind.'
    In the course of our conversation, I learnt the history of this brother of the cloth.
    He thought that Craske was not his right name. His [-287-] first master's name was Craske, and he was sure that he was not his father. He had no idea who his parents were, or where he was born; but he fancied that it must have been in the country, from a few little things he remembered, and because the first time his master took him into the country, it didn't seem strange to him.
    'I rec'llect there was a old finger-post in the middle of a bit of green, with a bit of the board broken off and a moke standin' under it, and a sow rubbin' herself agin it, and it all seemed as I'd seen the wery same things the week before, though I know I'd never been out o' London before, since master had had me. What I remember of the country when I was a kid was what I've told you, sir, and a lane with the edges meetin' almost atop, and a big woman with a red face and a black eye; but I'm sure she wor'n't my mother from the way I think of her. And then I remember blubberin' and gittin' a hidin' in a little room full of smoke, and a crack in the wall above the mantel-shelf. It wom't the woman that bided me - I can remember that; but who it was, I don't remember. And then I rec'llect nothin' till I was lyin' atop of the sut-sacks in my master's shed, feelin' hawful scared and cold, and blubberin' becos I'd had another hidin' an' hadn't had nothin' to eat. The tramps used to kidnap country children in them days - boys and gals both - and sell 'em to the sweeps, and I've no doubt that's how it was with me. My master was a Tartar, but I expec' he worn't much worse than the rest. He didn't grudge me my grub when I got to be of use, but he was wery fond of hidin' me, with or without a cause. The missis was a [-288-] bit kinder, but it was heasy to be that, and when she was on the lush, she'd hit out at me with the poker or the rollin'-pin, or anythin' else that come to and first - sometimes it was the fender - she was noways partic'lar, poor old woman.
    'I remember the first time I ever climbed. I must ha' been goin' on for six then, I s'pose; but some was put to it as young as four - yes, sir, little gals as well as boys. My master had two boys as well as me - older than me - and they used to wallop me, too, and tell me all sorts o' flesh-creepin' stories about the chimbleys-lads stickin' in 'em, and bein' dug out with the flesh all burnt off their bones, and so on. It wasn't pleasant to 'ear sich tales of a night, layin' there in that shed that was as black as pitch. And there was truth in them stories, too; though, of course, the t'other boys made 'em out as bad as they could. Anyways, I was hawful scared when master first told me to go up a chimbley. He leathered me, but I caught old of his legs, and begged and prayed of him not to force me. But up he shoves me, and when I didn't go on, he set some stror alight in the grate, and that druv me up sharp enough. And then another of the lads was sent up arter me, to give me a prod with a pin when I turned faint-hearted. In the sole of my fut he druv it in, or the fleshy part of my leg - though my legs hadn't much flesh on them in them days. I was three-parts naked, and my knees and elbers was sore for months arterwards - the sut, you see, got in, and the sores wouldn't 'eal, but I'd to go up all the same. Yes, sometimes the servants pitied me [-289-] like, but if they give me a penny, my master or his man allus took it.
    'The masters and the journeymen too, took best part of what we got on May Day. The masters said it was for our clothes, but I don't think my clothing could ha' cost my master much. Whenever we got any coppers, if the journeymen couldn't bounce us out of 'em, they'd chisel us' out of 'em - at gambling, sir. And then it was the servants who was most set agin the machines. They would have the boys. The machines was inwented bless you, sir, years and years before climbing was put down by Hact o' Parli'ment, and there was climbing boys long arter they was supposed to be put down. The servants said the new things didn't sweep the flues half as well as the boys did - and there's some truth in that. You see, sir, our scramblin' up an' down rubbed off more sut than a machine will, and then we could git our brushes into 'oles and corners a machine can't reach. But it was a 'orrid life to set a child to.
    'Some folks say that the world's as bad as ever it was, but I can't believe that, or where would ha' been the use of Christ a'-comin' to it, and sufferin' what He did for nothin'? I've no doubt there's improvements, and puttin' down the climbin' was one of 'em. Let alone the boys bein' brought up like little 'eathens, and the life they led, there was all kinds of illnesses they ran the risk on. P'r'aps you may have 'eard, sir, that there's a cancer next to nobody ever had but chimbleysweepers. It was a 'orrid life. You can git used to most things, and I got used to that, but I never felt jolly like, 'cept when I was out of a May Day; [-290-] and there was a dinner use to be given becos a swell kid had been stole for a chimbley-sweep, and his mother found him out becos he'd been sent to a swell place, and crawled into bed, brush and all, jest as if he was used to it. I used to like the tuck-in, but didn't I wish sometimes that a swell lady would come along and say, "That's my kid - you come ome with me, Sam'l."
    'Arter I got too big for climbin', I did odd jobs here and there, now for this master and now for that. It was a poor life, and a wicked one too. I'd learnt to drink, and swear, and fight, and gamble, and do all kinds of wickedness, jest as if I'd been a man. I couldn't read then, and I s'pose I'd never been inside a church or chapel in my life. I think, though, that I must ha' been taught to say my prayers, becos, when I was quite a little kid, I used to kneel down by the sut-sacks, and say a bit of "Our Father "- I didn't know all on it. I'd no clear notion what it meant, but somehow I didn't feel so lonely when I said it. It's wery lonesome for a little kid not to have nobody as belongs to him. I've got a notion that p'r'aps them as was brought up like me, when they gits to know they've a Father in Heaven, vallies Him more than them that has had fathers and mothers to look.arter 'em. But I was soon laughed out o' sayin' my prayers, when the t'other lads saw what I was up to, and a real bad boy I turned out.
    'When I got a bit older, I'd journeyman's wages. They wasn't much, but then I'd my bed and my board and my perkisits - but it all went the same way. Wuss and wuss I got. A man must ha' been a blackguard for sweeps [-291-] to think him bad, in them days - and I'm afraid things isn't much altered now, so far as that goes - but even amongst my mates I'd a name for hem' an out-and-outer. Perkisits? Oh, that's the money you git for measurin' the sut for your master, and puttin' out chimneys a-fire, and the beer money the servants give you, and such like, sir. It's astonishin' what things people will pride themselves on. I'd got to be wery wentursome as well as wicked, and I don't know which I was the prouder on. But my pride was to have a fall. I fell into an airey, and a lucky fall it was for me. Instid of tumbling straight into hell, as I expected I should as I shot down, I tumbled into the kingdom of heaven. I'd been carryin' on on a roof; as usual, half drunk, as usual. I was runnin' along a ridge like a rope-dancer when I overbalanced myself, and down I come clatterin' over the tiles. There worn't no prarripet to bring me up, so over I went, as I was tellin' ye. I was a bag of broken bones when they picked me up, and months and months I laid in horsespittle. But I was cured at last, and I'd had somebody to see me that had done me more good than all the doctors even.
    'There was a kind old lady come to see me, sometimes twice a week. She lived opposite the house I fell off, and she'd seen me tumble. It was her that got me to give up drink, and taught me about Jesus. And she looked arter me, too, when I came out to see that I didn't fall back into bad ways. The kind old lady had me to her house in the evenin', and larnt me my letters. It was then, you see, sir, I got into the abit of givin' myself a sluice. When I'd saved up a bit of my earnin's, the old lady lent me a little [-292-] money, and recommended me to her friends; so I bought a machine and a few sticks, and started for myself As soon's ever I'd saved up the money the old lady had lent me, I took it back to her. I 'oped she'd take it back, but I was 'alf afraid she wouldn't. But she did, and writ me out a receipt for it, though she never axed for one. "Quite right, my good man," says she, when she'd counted it out. "It would not be a kindness to give you this money, because now you can earn money for yourself, and so I can lend this to some one else to help him to do the same."
    'Soon arter that I married my old woman - she was kitchen maid in one of the houses I went to - and neither on us, I 'ope, has had reason to repent it. Sometimes I can keep a man, and sometimes I can't, but we've allus had a livin'.
    'Cripps was the name of the lady who give me my start for the next world and this too. I got a suit o' black, and went to the church when she was buried, dear good soul. If I'd ever had a babby-boy or gal -I should ha' called it Cripps, though Cripps Craske might ha' had a rummy sort o' sound. She worn't only so good, she was so sensible. Says she to me one day, "What do you do with your soot, Mr Craske?" (Soot, she called it, so I s'pose that's right, but in the trade we mostly calls it sut.) "Well, ma'am," says I, "I sells it to them as sells it agin, but I believe at last the farmers gits it for their corn." "There, Mr Craske," says she, "think of that! The black soot helps to make the beautiful green corn grow, that gives us the sweet white bread. Think of that!" She meant it for a kind of parable like, like them in the [-293-] Testament, but I didn't twig what she meant at first, so I axed her. "Why," she says, "you mustn't think because you're a chimney-sweep that you can't do any more good to other people than sweeping their chimneys, and paying your debts with the money you get for doing it." Well, sir, I did think, offen and offen, of what Mrs Cripps had said to me, and that made me the readier to try to do my best when the missionary spoke to me about goin' about among the sweeps.'