Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Great Army of London Poor, by The River-side Visitor [Thomas Wright], [1882] - Chapter 4 - Bible Braidy

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I HAD not been very long in my district before I I began to hear in various incidental ways of Bible Braidy; and to gather that he was an institution in the neighbourhood. In the language of the district - a very slangy language - he was a "proper old bloke;" as good an old sort as ever stepped, and as "mum as a mute" in respect to criminal secrets entrusted to him under confessional-like circumstances. Further I was told that he was "no end of a scolard," and could "talk like a book about almost anything; while as to reading the Bible-" and a snap of the finger, or shrug of the shoulders, generally intimated that the rest upon that point was a thing to be imagined, not described.
    "Why, bless you, sir!" exclaimed the only person who went into anything like details upon the subject - a gentleman who in his day had undergone sundry terms of imprisonment, - why bless you, sir!" exclaimed this worthy, with a real enthusiasm, "the regular patterers as is paid for it, and as comes messing about when they ain't wanted, ain't a patch on old Bible, who wouldn't take a penny for it though he's as poor as a church mouse, as the sayen is. And as to doing good, why, [-83-] there ain't one of the regular hands fit to be mentioned in the same week with him. Not as I go for to say that the regulars, as I call 'em, don't want to do good, or for to deny that they sometimes do do a good turn, or that they are plucky going where fevers are and the like. All the same, there ain't any one of em as you can name as comes within a long chalk of old Braidy, in doing good - in the Bible way I mean, you know. And cos why? Why, cos he's got our measure. He knows us. He don't come potterin' about when he ain't wanted; but when he is wanted he's always up to time. Early or late, fair weather or foul, send for him, and there he is, and no questions asked. No matter who the man maybe; if he was the worst fellow as ever died in his shoes, he'd read to him, and pray for him, and stick to him. There's many a poor 'cross' cove about here, sir, I can tell you, as has died happy, but as would have died hard, awful hard, sir - I mean in the way of being troubled in their mind - if Bible Braidy hadn't been with them at the last. Strike me!" exclaimed my informant in conclusion, "if old Bible shouldn't be the head of all the parsons if I had the making of them! If things was managed as they ought to be, the old man would be a lot better off than he is - a bishop, or a schoolmaster with a big screw, or something of that sort."
    "Seeing that he can do so much good in it, Mr. Braidy would perhaps rather remain in his present position," I observed.
    "Well, I was only saying what I would do for him, if [-84-] I had my way," rejoined my friend. "As far as he's concerned, I dare say he would rather be where he is than in a better sort of place, and, as you say, on account of the good he can do. I'll back him to be as square an old party as any breathing, bar none: so that it's only from choice that he needs to live in a cross quarter, and above all in such a h*ll hole as Barker's Buildings, for that's about what it is, though I live in it."
    What I heard of Bible Braidy made me anxious to form acquaintance with him, and at length an opportunity occurred of doing so under circumstances so impressive and so characteristic of the spot in which Braidy lived, and the good work done by him in it, that I will venture to relate them.
    One day I had occasion to call upon an odd-job labourer. On reaching his place of abode, I was informed by his landlady that he was house-bound, by reason of an injury to his foot, and that if. I wanted to see him I must go up to his apartment. I accordingly ascended to the third-floor back room, which served him and his wife and three children as living, eating, and sleeping room. There were only two chairs in the room. He was seated on one of them, while his bandaged foot rested upon the other; so I took my seat upon the end of the bed, which stood across the window of the room. When, in answer to my inquiry, I had heard the story of the accident to the foot, and had said that which I had come to say, I chanced to glance out of the window, and beheld a scene that would certainly have been strange [-85-] and striking to eyes that, unlike my own, had not become familiar with such districts as that in which I was. I could see right down a narrow street, which a single glance was sufficient to show was a "hot" quarter - a quarter given up to the worst description of the habitual criminal classes. The houses were lean-to and dilapidated to an alarming extent. Broken, rag-stuffed, curtainless windows were in the ascendant; numbers of the street-doors had panels stove in, and in two or three instances the doors were gone altogether.
    It was a warm summer's afternoon, and crowds of dirty, ill-cared-for children, most of them nearly and some of them wholly naked, were playing about in the refuse-littered gutters and roadway. On the shady side of the street numbers of fearsome-looking men, with foreheads villanous-low, were seated upon window-sills, or stretched at full length upon the pavement, while frowzy, slatternly-looking women stood in groups around doorways or kept up loud-voiced conversation from opposite windows. Beer-cans were circulating freely, and this was especially the case with a band of choice spirits seated on a bench outside a public-house just under the window out of which I was looking. The whole scene was such an one as Dante might have imagined, and as I could not hope by mere words to give my readers a full realisation of its horrors-even if it were desirable that I should do so - I have simply given its leading outlines. It was a picture of most pandemonium-like aspect. The air that rose from the street was foetid, and such scraps [-86-] of language as distinctly reached the ear were tainted by foul ideas, and harsh with strange oaths. After a moment's mental comparison of localities, I knew that I was looking upon the blackest spot of my whole district-that Barker's Buildings which was but too characteristically described by the fiercely condemnatory epithet applied to it by the predatory gentleman who had spoken so enthusiastically of Bible Braidy.
    "This must be Barker's Buildings, then," I said, turning from the window.
    "Which it are, sir, and no mistake," answered the tenant of the room. "It isn't often you'd find two such spots as that, even in such neighbourhoods as this. One of 'em's one too many, for if you'll excuse me saying so, sir, if ever there was a devil's own quarter, Barker's Buildings is it. We're most of us a rough lot hereabout, and a good many ain't particular to a trifle how they knock out a living. We don't draw things very fine, but all of us out of it are quite agreed that Barker's Buildings are something awful. You ask any of the police whether any of them would venture into it single-handed. It would be about as much as their life was worth if they did. There ain't a worser lot out than the Buildings' gang. They say themselves that they are good for anything from pitch and toss to manslaughter, and from robbing a church to killing a man; and there's no mistake about it, they are. There's some of them that actually are laid by the heels at this very present time for stripping a church roof of lead."
    [-87-] At this point there arose a great hubbub in the street, and looking out of the window, to which the labourer also limped, I saw that the carousal of the band of worthies outside the public-house had been rudely broken in upon. A stalwart woman was brandishing her clenched list in the face of one of the men. In her excitement she had pulled the fastenings from her hair, which floated about her in grim disorder. Her face was heavily flushed, her eyes flashing, and her voice, trembling with passion, rose loud and harsh, as she exclaimed-
    "You rounded on my Bill, you know you did, you cowardly treacherous cur!"
    "Look here, my lady; if I have any more of your jaw, I'll come down on you like a thousand of bricks," said the man, standing up in a threatening attitude. "Just step it while you've got whole bones to carry away."
    "Sugar-bag is in for it now, "said the labourer at our elbow.
    "Sugar~bag!" I echoed.
"Sugar-bag is her nickname," he explained; "she works at the sugar-bag making, and is one of the very few of the Buildings lot as does do anything in a honest way. She's very quiet and inoffensive as a general thing, but her husband was sentenced to two years for a wharf- robbery, and she thinks, and as far as that goes, so do others, that it was through 'Fly' Palmer that he was taken; but she had better leave him alone."
    [-88-] The woman did not leave him alone. For a moment she seemed cowed by his manner, but only for a moment. Merely stepping back just so far as to be out of the reach of his arm, she began to rail again. Amid a volley of abuse she repeated her accusation of his having "rounded" on her Bill, and insinuated that she knew what would send him to the gallows.
    This insinuation seemed to sting "Fly" Palmer, for the last words had scarcely left her lips before he was on his feet again. This time he followed her up as she retreated. She became terrified, and turned and ran. Still he followed, and she had got but a short distance down the street, when he overtook her, and hit her such a heavy blow on the head that she fell, stunned. For a few seconds the fallen woman lay; then she rose hastily to her feet. She stood looking round her in a dazed kind of way for a moment, with her right hand pressed to her side; then with a passionate rapidity she swept back the hair from her face, and dashing forward, struck Palmer on the breast. A loud shivering cry, half sob, half groan, burst from his lips, and the next instant he sank to his knees, and after swaying twice to and fto, fell helplessly forward with his face to the ground. The whole street was instantly in an uproar. Some men came forward and gently raised him in their arms, and as they turned his face upwards, I could see that it was drawn with pain and ghastly pale.
    "This is horrible," I exclaimed, impulsively rising, and putting on my hat; but the labourer, laying a restraining [-89-] hand upon my shoulder, said in a tone of friendly remonstrance-
    "Excuse me being so bold, but if I was you, sir, I wouldn't go near; their quarrels are like man and wife's - best settled among themselves. Any one as goes between them is only likely to offend both. Beside, that sort of thing ain't so partic'lar out of the way in the Buildings, as it would be in any decent sort of neighbourhood. The bag-making hands carry a knife for cutting their twine, and having it handy, she's let him have it. It's the way with the women among em when they're roused. Whatever comes handy they'll use. They often smash a jug or bottle over one another's faces; and as to a clout over the head, why, they think nothing of that. I dare say Mr. Palmer ain't very much hurt, and any way, sir, what could you do if you went round; they're all in an uproar, and would only think you in the way."
    This last consideration had already occurred to myself, and yielding to its cogency, I sat down again. In the meantime the wounded man had been carried into the house in which he lived, and a few minutes later a doctor arrived. He soon left, and, immediately after, a woman wringing her hands and moaning aloud came hastily out of it and up the street.
    "Is he much hurt, Poll ?" asked another woman in a tone of sympathy, as she approached the window at which I was placed.
    "Done for! done for!" she exclaimed in a voice made [-90-] shrill by agony. "He says he knows he's going, and the doctor won't contradict him, won't say a word, only shakes his head. But there; I can't stop, I'm going for Bible Braidy. Joe's that troubled in his mind, they can scarcely keep him down in bed, and all his cry is for old Bible."
    She rushed off as she finished speaking, but presently came slowly back, and seeing the woman who had spoken to her still standing in the roadway, she broke out:
    "Oh dear! oh dear! Whatever shall I do! Braidy's out, and face Joe again without him I daren't. Do you know, does any one know, where the old man is?"
    And as she asked the question, she turned from side to side with a look of wild appeal in her eyes. Acting upon my impulse this time, before my labourer friend could do anything to prevent it, I leaned from the window, and having attracted the woman's attention, asked, "Is the man really dying?"
    "Oh yes, sir, I'm afraid he is," she sobbed; "and he knows it, and he knows he ain't fit to go, and it's come on him so sudden. He's past the law doing anythink to him; so it don't matter who knows it now. He's got a deal to answer for - as much as a man can have, and he's taking on dreadful. He wants some good man to come to him - some one as'll read to him, and say a prayer for him. Will you come, sir?" and she raised her eyes to mine with a beseeching look.
    I answered that I would come round at once; and, putting on my hat, I set out with all speed possible.
    On getting round to the nearest corner of Barker's [-91-] Buildings, I found the woman waiting for me. She greeted me with an exclamation of thankfulness, and led the way towards the house, which I had nearly reached when I was brought to a standstill by the announcement that old Bible had been found, and was hastening to the spot. Even among the "dangerous" classes there is a feeling of kindness to one another, and it had now been at work. Unbidden and unsolicited, a number of men, on hearing the woman's exclamations of disappointment, had hurried away in different directions in search of Bible Braidy; and one of them now returned in breathless haste to say that he had found him, and that he was "a-coming along as fast as ever his game leg would let him."
   A look of relief came over the woman's troubled countenance, immediately followed by a look of embarrassment. I understood the meaning of the latter, and hastened to observe, "You had better wait for Mr. Braidy; he will be of greater service than I can hope to be."
    "Well, he's used to the ways of such as Joe," she said, and turned her gaze anxiously towards the end of the street by which the messenger had intimated that Braidy would enter it. In a moment or two he came in sight, and impulsively I started forward to meet him. He was a man of middle height, stoutly built, large headed, heavy featured, with cleanly shaven face, and his grizzled iron-grey hair closely cropped. He walked lame with one leg, and on that side leaned heavily upon a walking-stick; and he was attired in a long, loose, rusty-looking coat, [-92-] dark trousers patched at the knees with some material a shade lighter, and a low-buttoning, double-breasted waistcoat, which freely displayed his blue check shirt, and high, old-fashioned stock. A poor-looking man enough, and, at a distance, a commonplace-looking man; but, face to face with him, a glance was sufficient to show that he was not commonplace. The broad, high forehead, the great brown eyes, soft and liquid as a woman's, but still bright, unwavering, and straight-glancing, eyes to "look the whole world in the face," - these, and the generally thoughtful, and modestly self-assured expression, gave the beholder assurance of a man with "something in him."
    This was the impression instantaneously made upon me as he looked up at me as I confronted him on the pavement of Barker's Buildings. Turning and walking with him, so as not to delay by a moment his mission of grace, I as briefly as possible explained to him how I came to be there, and that I was now going to withdraw.
    "No, don't go," he said. "This is no time to bandy compliments; I believe that I will be the fitter instrument here, but you too may be able to say a word in season; and any way, you may take my word for it, that this poor dying sinner would sooner see a man like you at his bedside than any of his companions."
    I felt that it was no time to bandy compliment, and simply answered-
    "In that case I'll come, then."
    [-93-] The crowd round the door of the house in which "Fly" Palmer was lying silently parted to let Braidy through, and we entered together. The wounded man lay on a wretched bed, one end of which was supported by bricks, the legs having at some time been knocked off. He was lying back, panting after a struggle with the two men who stood one on either side, ready to restrain him should he again "take on wild," while his wife sat at the head of the bed, rocking herself to and fro, with her hands over her face. It was evident at a glance that Palmer was dying. The face was pinched and deadly pale; around the mouth it was already growing livid and clammy, and the rattle could be distinguished mingling with his laboured breathing. Gradually the breathing grew calmer, and he sank into a dozing state; but the troubled spirit would not be at rest. "Don't be a fool," he muttered; "pawning's a risky game - awkward questions asked, stuff stuck to, and all that. Sell to the regular melters," he muttered on, after a pause; "their price is small, but they're safe, and safety's a thing we must pay for."
    He was silent for a brief space, and then with a shudder and start he awoke, and the woman eagerly seized the opportunity to say, "Here's old Bible and another good gentleman come now, Joe."
    "Thank God for that!" he murmured earnestly, giving a quick glance round him. As his eye rested upon me he muttered some expression of thanks, then, turning to Braidy, he motioned him to his bedside; and, obeying [-94-] the signal, the old man advanced, and kneeling by the bed allowed Palmer to take his hand in both his.
    After lying still for a few seconds to gain breath, Palmer, slightly raising himself on his elbow, exclaimed, "O Bible, old man, I'm thankful you've come. I was beginning to think that I should be left to die without any one to say a good word for me, and I ain't fit to say one for myself; I've been trying to pray and I can't."
    "Oh, Braidy!" he went on, looking into the other's face with a haggard anxiety painful to behold, "it's domino with me; I knew it was as soon as I was hit. I shall go out with the tide, and it'll ebb in an hour. Is there any hope for me, Braidy? - any at all ?"
    "You're in the hands of God, Palmer," he answered, softly and solemnly, "and He is a merciful, a loving God, a God whose greatest desire and happiness is to forgive even the worst sinners, if they will ask him; to save them if they will only let him."
    "Then there is hope?" he said, questioningly, as he sank back on the bed.
    "Yes, there is hope and salvation for all who repent and believe," answered Braidy, in the same solemn tone; "who repent of their sins, and believe that -" and briefly, but clearly, kindlily, and in language suitable to the understanding of the dying man, he explained the essentials of Christian belief. "Believe in this all-merciful God," he concluded, "and seek his mercy through the Son, who He gave to suffer for our, for your, transgressions. Do this and there is hope for you. The promise of the Lord [-95-] is that, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow, and Christ himself has told us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents."
    - From sheer weakness, Palmer had closed his eyes while Braidy was speaking; but, watching the expression of his face from where I stood, I could see that it grew calmer, that hope was dawning upon his sorely troubled spirit. Still there were signs of doubt and terror, and presently, when there had been silence for about a minute's space, he suddenly raised himself in the bed again, and, gazing into Braidy's countenance with the painfully beseeching look already spoken of; broke out- "But I've been such a bad lot, Bible - such an awful bad lot, I'm afraid there can't be any hope for me. Don't go for to deceive me now, Braidy; is there really any chance for me?"
    "The mercy and goodness of the Lord is boundless, Joe," answered the old man gravely, "none can be bad enough to be beyond his forgiveness, if they only sincerely believe and repent; therefore there is hope for you. You heard" (Braidy had already partly told him, partly read to him, the story of the crucifixion), "when the dying thief on the cross prayed our Saviour to remember him when he came into his kingdom, Jesus answered him, 'To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise.' And that is the answer which, in his holy Word, the blessed Bible, God gives to all who sincerely pray to be taken into his kingdom. 'Knock,' he says, 'and it shall be opened;' and it is by prayer, Joe, that you [-96-] must knock at the gates of the kingdom of heaven. Pray!"
    "But I can't pray!" the other exclaimed in a voice of agonized despair. "I told you I tried and I couldn't. I had a notion I used to know 'Our Father' when I was a kid, but I couldn't think of a word of it; will you say it for me?"
    Reverently bowing his head and clasping his hands, Braidy, in a low fervent tone, repeated the Lord's Prayer, Palmer lying back with closed eyes, occasionally repeating the words after him.
    After the prayer there was again a brief silence, which was broken by Palmer's speaking as if in continuation of thought, and in a voice that had grown palpably weaker; he said- 
    "Oh yes, I see! Forgive them that trespass against us. Braidy, I do forgive poor Sugar-Bags from the bottom of my heart, and I 'ope as they wont do anything to her for this business."
    "I'll tell her what you say," Braidy answered, and then Palmer, who was evidently sinking, fell back once more too exhausted for further speech. Braidy, who all this time had been kneeling by the bedside, now rose to his feet, and holding in his right hand the well-worn Bible that he had taken out of his pocket, stood beside me. Silently we both of us watched the countenance of the dying man, over which there again began to creep the expression of terror and doubt that had rested upon It when we first entered. Gradually it intensified until the [-97-] agony of mind that it indicated giving what was, under the circumstances, an almost supernatural strength, Palmer once more raised himself on his elbow, and convulsively grasping Braidy by the arm, on his stepping to the bedside again, he hoarsely exclaimed- 
    "It's no use, Bible; I can't believe that there can be hope for such an out-and-out bad lot as I've been. The Bible only spoke of a thief; but I've been worse." As he spoke a shudder ran through his weakened frame, and for a space his utterance was choked by sobs.
    "I can guess what you mean, Joe," said Braidy soothingly; "but even that would not place you beyond hope. As I told you just now, the mercy and goodness and forgiveness of the Lord is boundless. He will forgive even blood-guiltiness where the repentance for it is sincere. To despair is to doubt his mercy. However bad you may have been, there is hope for you in that mercy."
    "O Bible, old man, you have taken a load off me," exclaimed Palmer, sobbing again, but now rather joyously than despairingly, "and Braidy," he went on, in a tone of fervent assurance, "though I was never took for it, I have suffered-no tongue could tell how much."
    He paused for a moment to gain breath, and then, getting his mouth close to Braidy's ear, he resumed in a hoarse whisper- 
    "I knifed him, and he turned his eyes on me as he fell, and the look in them has haunted me ever since. Hundreds and hundreds of nights I've seen him glarin' at me out of the dark, till it druv me mad a'most, and [-98-] I'd have put an end to myself only I hadn't the pluck. But I thank God now that I hadn't. I wouldn't have had this chance then, and I do begin to feel happier, Bible, now that I am getting this off my mind and you still say there is hope."
    "There is hope," said Braidy, "but, Joe, my poor fellow, remember the end is near."
    "I know, Bible," he answered, his voice now barely audible, "but I must make a clean breast of this now I have begun it. He was a sailor, a darkie. We had cleaned him out, and he cut up rough, and talked about bringing the police. That was what did it; we had a lot of stuff in the house at the time as would have transported us if it had been found, and when he tried to break his way out, swearing that he would bring the Blues, I let him have it, and he scarcely lived two minutes after he was hit."
    As the other sank back exhausted, a shudder shook old Braidy's frame, and for a few moments he stood incapable of speech, but, controlling his feelings, he took the dying sinner's hand, and in a gentle voice said- "It was a foul crime, Joe, but remember, 'though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.' There is a place in heaven for all sinners, who seek it by true penitence and prayer-pray, Joe, pray, for the end is very near with you."
    "Pray for me, I can't pray, be moaned.
    "I will pray for you," answered Braidy; "but you too can pray; the blessed book here has provided a prayer for you - 'God be merciful to me a sinner.' That [-99-] is your prayer, Joe; a prayer that sincerely uttered or thought is never turned a deaf ear to."
    With a last effort of strength the dying man clasped his hands together, and fervently uttered the grandly simple prayer thus taught him. He tried to repeat it, but his arms fell helplessly by his side and the words died in his throat. Seeing this, Braidly knelt by the bedside again, and in homely language earnestly prayed that the soul then passing might be saved alive.
    When he had finished his prayer, no sound was heard in the room save the half-stifled sobs of Palmer's wife, who with a true affection had up to this point kept mute her grief, in order that it might not distract the attention of the dying man. He seemed to hear her now, for he put out his hand towards her, and she took it in both hers. Braidy held the other, and thus he lay, the faint flicker of life still remaining in him visibly waning. Once or twice he seemed to be bracing himself for some last effort, and at length there came from his lips in a barely audible whisper:- "Braidy, you've helped to save my soul. - Good-bye. - God be mer-" the last word died away uncompleted, and in a few minutes the great change took place.
    Thus in the solemn presence of death, by such a death-bed as that of "Fly" Palmer's, I first made the acquaintance of "Bible" Braidy. I had seen him engaged in the mission to which for years he had devoted himself, and in which I could now unhesitatingly believe he had done great good. What I had seen made me [-100-] anxious to cultivate the friendship thus commenced, but it will easily be believed that on passing out of the house of death neither of us felt much disposed to "chat." Scarcely a sentence had passed between us when we reached his own threshold, and there with a warm grasp of the hand I left him, having simply arranged that I was to give him a call in some more cheerful time - and I did give him a call, and as time passed on many calls.