Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - The Precatory Order

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A MAN may live for fifty years, in the very heart and focus of social bustle and turmoil - shall know the ways of mankind so well, and manage them so much to his own advantage as to place the world under his feet - shall be, so far as the known and recognised usages of social life are concerned, a very Solon, whose verdict is invaluable on affairs legal, political, parochial, municipal, commercial, and what not - yet it shall happen all the while, that he is as innocent as a babe of all knowledge respecting what, for the want of a better name, we shall call the Precatory Science ; and that he shall have been from his youth up, and shall continue to be from his maturity down, the unsuspecting tee-totum of its ingenious professors, who will never leave him nor forsake him until the family-vault shrouds him from their polite attentions. The extent and importance of the undeniably respectable body to which we have given the above denomination have dawned upon us by slow degrees ; and we have only been made fully sensible of their unity of purpose, their systematic persistency in labour, and the philanthropic end they have m view, by a series of condescensions on their part, and a sort of semi-mesmeric semi-sympathetic experience on ours, which, notwithstanding all the benefit we have derived from them, we are ungrateful enough to own we would rather have been without. Every man or woman that comes into the world, according to a prevailing figure of speech, has a mission to accomplish and that of the Precatory Order is, [-71-] to teach stingy humanity to be liberal - to inculcate the divine maxim that charity is the essence of religion - to open the hearts of the niggard and the churl to the claims of want and. wretchedness - to impress the wealth and the proud with the obligation they are under of showing to the poor and needy that mercy "which blesseth him that gives and him that takes" - to do all this and more - and to pocket the contributions they receive from their pupils in return for the trouble they take in imparting the lesson. How we came to be thus far enlightened on the subject of this hitherto unrecognised benevolent association, we shall, with the reader's permission, unfold, by simply narrating some few of the incidents of our own experience. It is many years ago since we took our first lesson, and thus it happened.
    It was during the transitory and fragile season of the honey-moon, when we had just returned from the wedding- tour. Twilight was brooding over London, and we were pacing up and down in that apology for a garden which London offers to her denizens, when a low, rumbling, genteel rap at the door aroused us from a pleasant reverie, and we were summoned to the parlour to meet a gentleman, "who would not detain us five minutes." A tall and rather aristocratic-looking stranger bowed low as we entered the room, and. sighing deeply, looked despondingly round, as if at a loss for words. We mechanically pointed to a seat, into which lie smile gracefully, heaving another deep sigh, and, directing a tearful glance at the lady whom we had hardly yet learned to call "my wife," invoked a blessing on her head. We hinted, somewhat apologetically, that he had the advantage of us, that we had not the pleasure of knowing, or at least of recollecting him, at the moment - a hint which opened the floodgates of his eloquence, and was the signal. for the commencement of a dolorous narrative, as long, at least, as the story of AEneas before Dido, and abounding in details of personal suffering and domestic [-72-] calamity of the most pathetic character. Our better-half actually shed tears at the touching recital, coupled with the spectacle of a gentleman, a scholar, and father of an interesting family, reduced to such heart-rending distress. He wound up his history with ill-concealed emotion and half-suppressed sobs, and in a faltering voice besought us, if Providence had blessed us with the means, to stretch out a helping-hand towards him - not for his sake ; he disclaimed that nothing should have induced him to humiliate himself before a fellow-mortal on his own account merely, but for the sake of those whose necessities had driven him to an act so desperate as an appeal to the sympathy of strangers on their behalf. We are not going to be overcandid on the subject of the effect of his oratory. Enough to say, that when he had taken his leave - with few expressions, but the most significant looks of the profoundest gratitude, we felt all the pleasure of having performed a good action, and experienced, both of us, to the fullest extent, the truth of the declaration, that "it is more blessed to give than to receive." The unhappy gentleman was the subject of conversation occasionally for months, nay, for years afterwards, and figured in many an air-built castle, the foundations of which were laid for his especial benefit. We had served an apprenticeship to the business of housekeeping before we accidentally discovered, owing to a chance visit to the Cold Bath Prison, that our distressed gentleman was none other than a rather maudlin member of the Precatory Order, who had invaded the sanctuary of our wedded bliss to experiment upon our charitable tendencies, at a moment when he probably considered they might be in a favourable state. From a habit of observing and remembering faces, we recollected him at once. He was undergoing the exercises peculiar to the Metropolitan Cold Bath, being engaged in getting up a very harmless kind of revolution, by accelerating the gyrations of a wheel which is not that of fortune.
    [-73-] A card, "Miss Caroline A. Johnson,'' is laid upon our desk as we are busy with arrears of correspondence. We had thought we heard the knocker slip through a lady's fingers. "Show Miss Johnson into the drawing-room.'' Miss Johnson, we find, as we approach within ceremonious distance, is a lady of uncertain age, enveloped voluminously in clouds of bombazin, and carrying a broad bluish face in the recesses of a black bonnet, a poke or two in the rear of the fashion, behind a very thick veil. Though by no means a lively-looking personage, the tone of her voice is both lively and decided, as she expresses a most resolute conviction that we will excuse the liberty she has taken in invading our domestic privacy, when we know what has induced her to do so. "You know Codger's Fields, my dear sir ?"
    We can't help knowing Codger's Fields, whence emanates the smell of burnt bricks, which, when the wind is northerly, invades our domestic privacy with even less ceremony than Miss Johnson herself; so we acknowledge that much.
    "Well, there's that poor Dab the brickmaker has tumbled off the kiln, and dislocated his shoulder, and broken his leg in two places, and the bones are come through the skin, they say, because the stupid people carried him home in a wheelbarrow instead of on a shutter ; and he's too ill to be moved to the hospital ; and there's his poor wretched wife and five little children - and what are they to do, my dear sir ?- what are they to do, unless some good Christians like yourself will help them a little to get over this unfortunate time. So I've taken them in hand myself, and I've determined to leave no stone unturned to supply them with the necessaries of life, till the poor man is able to get about again. You see what I have done. I am getting on famously. Here is my book I have taken the Reverend Mr. H-'s a advice, and limited the subscription to five shillings; that's the maximum, though I take any smaller sum I can get - a shilling, or even less. It's a capital plan - don't you think so? You [-74-] see, it gives everybody an opportunity, and - though it is not polite to say so - leaves nobody an excuse."
    With that the lady submits her book for inspection, where we see unmistakably enough the autographs of several of our neighbours opposite to small sums subscribed to ameliorate the condition of the family of the tumbling brickmaker. We are ashamed to torture our invention for an excuse for not affixing our own, and though not particularly relishing the invasion, as the lady has very justly termed it, down it goes with a dash of the pen, and the shillings vanish with a farewell chink into the fair collectors bulky reticule.
    "Many thanks on behalf of the distressed wife and children, my dear sir ;" and with that Miss Johnson trips down stairs, and a moment after we hear the creaking of our neighbours gate, and the dribbling knock at his door, as the ceremony recommences at No. 25.
    A few days after, we happen, in an evening stroll towards the locality of the Codger's Fields, to fall in with our medical man. The sight of him, and the damp bricks together recalls the calamity of poor Dab, and, imagining that the doctor has been to visit him, we inquire how he is getting on. The doctor, whose wife had been induced to subscribe during his absence, is savagely jocose on the subject, and anathematises Miss Caroline A. Johnson and Dab into the bargain. It appears that, anxious to have something to do with a case of compound fracture, he has been for the last two hours in search of the crippled brickmaker, and has just arrived at the irrefragable conclusion, that Dab himself, his dislocated shoulder, doubly-fractured limb, skin, bones, and all, with his disconsolate wife and five children into the bargain, never had any other existence than in the fertile brain of Miss Johnson, and that, together with the 10 which she had heroically made up her mind to collect for their necessities, they and she had vanished for ever from the paradise of Codger's Fields. And so it turns out to be. Miss C. A. [-75-] Johnson is a benevolent member of the Precatory Order, and Dab is not, and never was anything but a convenient myth, endowed for the nonce with "a local habitation and a name'' by that ingenious lady, to assist in the laudable purpose of arousing a comfortable and self-complacent neighbourhood to the delightful sensations attendant upon the exercise of Christian charity.
    An unctuous elder, with broad shining buckles on his shoes, with silk stockings shining too - in solemn sable garb - the coat of straight cut and single collar, and all of the newest broad-cloth, waited upon us graciously a few months back to solicit a subscription on behalf of a certain foreign mission, in aid of which, he informed us - what, indeed, we knew already, from placards on the church-door and on the walls in the neighbourhood, that the Rev. Mr. --- was about to preach a sermon on the coming Sunday morning in the parish church. He produced from his side-pocket a copy of the last annual report of one of the missionary societies, bound up, together with a dozen or two of ruled memorandum leaves, in black morocco, and lettered on the side "African Mission - Subscriptions."  We naturally connected him in our mind with the coming ecclesiastic, and if we had had any suspicions, they would have been put to flight by the gracious ease and dignity of his manner, and the undeniable good sense which marked his conversation. He spoke with great feeling of the degraded, condition of the African races, who, by making war upon one another, and selling the prisoners taken in battle to the white dealers, are the source and origin of the slave-trade ; and talked with much enthusiasm of the necessity of making a grand and united effort to overthrow the reign of violence and bloodshed by the influence of Christianity. A dignitary of the church had suggested the plan of a domiciliary canvas for subscriptions, and he and a few of his brethren had undertaken each a specified district, and, at the risk even of [-76-] an equivocal welcome - for he knew it was not always a pleasant thing to he thus appealed to - had resolved to call in person upon all the inhabitants whose circumstances enabled them to contribute, and to endeavour to enlist their co-operation on behalf of these poor benighted heathen. He must say it was a burdensome, and, in some respects, a humiliating commission to undertake ; but still he found a pleasure in it, from the consciousness of the good which, under the blessing of Providence, might result from his feeble endeavours.
    What this sleek, silver-tongued, and self-sacrificing individual scraped together on behalf of the benighted Africans, we had no opportunity of ascertaining but a brief commentary upon his proceedings from the lips of the preacher at the close of the promised sermon on the following Sunday morning effectually put to flight the satisfaction that any of us might have entertained from the consciousness of having charitably interfered to effect their reformation. The reverend gentleman denounced their eloquent advocate as a plundering impostor, and gave us regretfully to understand, that we had parted with our money to augment the ill-gotten gains of an unprincipled and godless deceiver. Thus did a son of Mother Church stigmatise a full-blown professor of the precatory science - who, on his part, modest man, returned not railing for railing, but, with characteristic humility, forbore to emerge from his placid retirement, even for the vindication of his good name.
    We forget exactly how long it is ago since we were favoured with a visit from the honorary secretary of the Cramp Hospital, or something of the kind - a gentlemanly-whiskered man of five-and-forty, who in a most confident and persevering manner enforced upon our attention the claims of that most useful institution. He was armed with printed documents in the shape of begging-circulars, and some copies of a column apparently cut from a London [-77-] newspaper, recommending the hospital, now languishing for lack of funds, to the generous sympathies of the public. Happening to be intimate with the locality in which the hospital was said to exist, and having no recollection of any building that could possibly subserve such a purpose, we put off the honorary secretary to a future day, promising to make inquiries, and act according to the information we received. Our suspicions in this case turned out well founded. On investigation, it proved that no hospital of the kind, or indeed of any kind, had existed in the neighbourhood within the memory of man. The begging-circulars, signed with names purporting to be those of the trustees, resident surgeon, &c., were a pure invention and the newspaper column, we have little doubt, was equally so. The hospital, with all its wards and patients, nurses and medical men, was nothing more than the stock-in-trade of the soi-disant honorary secretary, an independent member of the Precatory Order, who in this instance lost his labour, and deprived us of the pleasure of bestowing upon him a substantial token of regard, by not calling to receive it.
    When Grace Darling performed the heroic exploit which rendered her name familiar to the whole kingdom, the members of thee Precatory Order took up her cause, and boldly canvassed the country in various directions, with the praise-worthy object of collecting a substantial testimonial of the public regard. When the news of the imprisonment of the Madiai was first brought to England, they did the same in behalf of the persecuted prisoners of the Grand Duke. They make it a matter of conscience to improve every public event which is of sufficient magnitude to be talked about, and capable of being used as an incentive to a contributory purpose. Shocking calamities, heroic deeds, unmerited sufferings, or visitations of Providence - all are manageable materials in their industrious hands, and all are texts on which they build their instructive homilies to teach the [-78-] world the obligations of charity and sympathy. We might add to the examples we have already cited of their ingenuity and perseverance, by the narration of many others but we have probably said enough to acquaint the reader with the merits of this disinterested school of practical philosophers. They are the living embodiments, in forms ever changing, and with which it is difficult, therefore, to become familiar, of a spirit which has been always prevalent with a not very distinguished or distinguishable order of humanity. It would almost appear that there is a certain and settled amount of the precatory faculty ever existing in all social communities, which it is impossible, by legislative or other means, to suppress or to transmute into any other hind of energy. Acts of parliament may shut up the unsightly ragged pauper in the workhouse, and drive the tattered professional mendicant from our streets - but they touch not the ladies and gentlemen of the Precatory Order. These, in the garb of gentility, and under the gentle aspect of angels of charity and mercy, penetrate to our parlours and firesides, and awakening our tenderest emotions, give us lessons of virtue in the abstract, lest our sympathies should decline from want of exercise, and we should forget the duties of compassion towards our humbler neighbours. In the accomplishment of their instructive mission they display a most remarkable ingenuity, and avail themselves of all the ills and calamities that flesh is heir to, to arouse the general benevolence. Does the cholera smite its victims? - the precatory professor brings you the news, and summons you to aid in withstanding the grim destroyer. Does a terrible inundation desolate a whole valley? - he comes at the heels of the inundation, demanding your sorrows and compassion for the sufferers. Does a fearful conflagration destroy life and property, overwhelming both rich and poor in one desolation? - he is as alert as the fire-brigade to secure your benevolent co-operation in alleviating their woes. True, [-79-] the sufferers never know anything of his enthusiastic labours in their cause. But what of that? They get your pity, and he gets your pay ; and thus the proceeds are equitably divided, at least according to the regulations of the Order. When real misfortunes are wanting on which to found a valid claim upon your sensibilities, they condescend to the department of fiction to furnish it - and, as we have shown above, are extremely happy and fertile in such resources. Because - their mission must be accomplished - the genial current of human affections must not be allowed to stagnate. They have devoted their lives to the purpose of keeping it in constant and active circulation ; and if some of them occasionally become martyrs to their calling, and incur the opprobrium of a class incapable of appreciating it., their merit is none the less.
    Occasionally a member of this Order will dispense with the formality of knocking at your door, and introducing himself to your family ; he will generously pick you up in the highway, and this mostly happens at the soothing hour of twilight, or when darkness lies settled down ripen the stony-hearted streets of London. Perhaps he will request the liberty of a moment's speech with you - he does not wish to detain you - but as you walk along. It is demonstrably a gentleman that accosts you, and you do not think of objecting. He pours a tale of woe into your ear, a touching and pathetic romance. You hear that he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, perhaps - that he was intended for a learned profession - but that, seduced by the charms of black bright eyes, he married secretly while yet a student - affronted his guardians and relatives by the step, who cast him upon the world and upon his own resources - that he maintained himself and wife by his literary talents, writing for one of the Dublin papers in the patriotic interest which exploded in the rebellion of 1848, when the journal was stopped, and he of course lost his engagement. After this [-80-] he came to London, where for the last four or five years ho has led a struggling life, enduring the most abject poverty and deprivation while obliged to maintain a respectable appearance, without which he would fall into utter destitution, now unhappily impending over him through a change in the proprietorship of a periodical from which he has latterly derived a small weekly payment of a few shillings. His wife and three small children are at the present moment in a most wretched garret, where they await his return. He hopes by your benevolence to be enabled to carry them a meal, if it be but of dry bread, to allay the pangs of hunger. Such, at least, in substance was the burden of the last precatory professor who condescendingly favoured us with his company during an evening walk. What effect it might have had upon us under ordinary circumstances, there is no knowing ; but the voice seemed not altogether strange to our ears, and the sudden flash of a gas-lamp upon the speaker's face revealed to us features known any day these ten years upon the same beat. We gave him to understand as much - when he vanished "just like a bullet from a gun" - doubtless from the sheer force of modesty.
    We cannot prolong this humble oration but we trust the few remarks and illustrations we have given above will assist in drawing the attention of the charitable part of society to these devoted missionaries of benevolence, and secure for their universal sympathies a more profound and discriminating appreciation than as yet has been awarded them.