Precautionary measures on entering commercial life. I join the N.S.L. and the S.P.S.D.T. A crying need in the conduct of prayer-meetings. I join the A.D.S.U. Personal appearance of Ezekiel Stool. Personal appearance of his five sisters. Predicament of Ezekiel Stool on the fifth of November. A timely instance of presence of mind. I am invited to a meal at the Stools' residence. A foreshadowing of sinister events.
It was a distressing end. Few things are more distressing, indeed, than the sudden demise of a potential clergyman. And for the first three or four days of my work in Paternoster Row my spirits were appreciably clouded. Nevertheless, I was happy not only that I had embarked upon the career so satisfactorily chosen for me, but also in the consciousness that, but for my own perspicacity, Providence would have found it difficult to assist me. Moreover, it was an additional comfort to me to reflect that, during my upward progress in the firm, I should have the obligatory if unwilling support of Mrs Chrysostom Lorton. A word in the ear of her husband, and her infamy could be no longer concealed, and I could not suppose that, callous as she was, she would dare to expose herself to such an event.
Few young men, therefore, can have entered business life better equipped or so advantageously placed, and had I in consequence been carried away a little, it would scarcely perhaps have been unnatural. Very fortunately, however, and thanks in a great degree to the character-forming incidents already related, I realized from the outset that I was now definitely committed to the most critical period of a young man's life - namely, the years, so fatal to the vast majority, between his seventeenth and twenty-fourth birthdays. Then it is, alas, that intoxicated with the knowledge that he has become, in my father's phrase, a marriageable adult that he begins to resort for the first time to the tobacconist and the publican - to buy the cigarette that will so inevitably lure him into loose and licentious company, and the fermented liquor that will only too surely encase him in a drunkard's coffin.
Nor is that all. For it is in these same years, turning aside from the pleasures of home, - from such innocent round games as Conceal the Thimble or the less familiar Up Jenkins, or from the happy singing round the family harmonium of such a humorous glee as Three Blind Mice -that he enters the Pit (so appropriately named) of some garish and degrading theatre.
It is a sorrowful spectacle. But happily for my own sake, I had already been so deeply saddened by it that I had long since resolved, when the necessity should arise, to take every possible precaution. No sooner, therefore, had I obtained my appointment than I hastened to enrol myself as a member of the Peckham Branch of the Non-Smokers' League as well as of the Kennington Division of the Society for the Prohibition of the Strong Drink Traffic. Congenial in every way, I not only discovered in these an enormous sphere for the exercise of my influence, but the membership of both societies conferred the privilege of wearing a small badge or bone medallion.
A slightly convex and circular plaque to be pinned on the lapel of the wearer's coat, the token of membership of the Non-Smokers' League was about an inch in diameter. Of a pale cream colour, it was tastefully wreathed with dark blue lilies, symbolic of purity, the centre of it being occupied with the initials N.S.L. boldly imprinted in the same colours. No less decorative to the wearer than intriguing to the beholder, a reply to the question so often put as to what the initials N.S.L. stood for frequently afforded a valuable opportunity for soul-intercourse on the subject of tobacco.
Nor was the medallion of the Society for the Prohibition of the Strong Drink Traffic either less attractive or efficient as an instigator of fruitful converse. Slightly larger - its diameter was an inch and a quarter - its ground-work was of an olive green, the letters S.P.S.D.T. richly emerging from this in an ingenious monogram of canary yellow.
Into the work of these societies I now threw myself with all the vehemence at my command, and had soon forced myself into the innermost councils of the local branch of each. Meeting every fortnight in a neighbouring church hall, the Peckham Branch of the Non-Smokers' League did not confine itself merely to the organization of these central gatherings. Valuable as they were in providing a pulpit for lectures upon nicotine poisoning and its attendant evils, we rightly regarded the outside world as the main field of our endeavours. Provided with such strikingly headed pamphlets as A Gentleman or a Chimney? or the even more dramatic and spiritually searching Your Soul or Your Cigar? we would range the streets addressing obvious smokers, or station ourselves upon the pavement in the neighbourhood of tobacconists' shops. In this way, though frequently required to endure verbal persecution, I am proud to believe that the work performed by us was both timely and enduring.
Working on lines that were somewhat similar, the Kennington Division of the S.P.S.D.T. held monthly reunions for the purpose of communally denouncing the use of alcohol; and here we would discuss, over cups of tea and slices of plain but palatable cake, the results of our labours during the previous four weeks and our plans for the four immediately ensuing. Appreciably more dangerous, in that we deemed it our duty to distribute literature at the doors of Public Houses, whence there would emerge in depressingly large numbers combative men of considerable size, we never embarked upon this particular mission save in groups of four or five, each member being provided with a police whistle in addition to his parcel of appropriate leaflets.
Admirably illustrated, these bore such arresting titles as Passing the Poison or From Beer to Bier, two of the most efficient being The Dram Drinker's Downfall, and Virtue versus Vertigo. That all these works, like those of the N.S.L., were published by the firm of Chrysostom Lorton was, of course, an additional and pleasurable inducement to further their disposal in every way. And although as yet this could not result for me in any direct financial advantage, it must be remembered that at this time there was still every prospect of its eventually doing so.
To thousands of my readers, slacker in fibre, or not so resolute in the pursuit of goodness, it may well seem now as if these activities must have exhausted my spiritual capacity. But this was not the case, and conscious as I was - it would have been an affectation to deny it - of my very rapidly increasing ability for both religious and commercial leadership, I took every opportunity of developing my unchallenged gift of self-expression. Thus, within a year of my business advent, I had not only addressed both the foregoing societies, but I had become a familiar and, I trust, welcome figure at every local prayer-meeting.
I use the word welcome because I had not only discerned in these gatherings an admirable vehicle of elocutionary progress, but I had quickly discovered in them a crying need that it was plainly my duty to supply. Familiar to every frequenter of the average prayer-meeting, whether Church of England or Nonconformist, this was nothing less than the presence of a gap-filler, especially in the earlier stages of the proceedings. Few can have failed, for example, to notice the pause that almost invariably takes place after the Chairman has delivered his own petition and invited the efforts of further supplicants. Painful in itself, in that it so often accentuates the respiratory difficulties of those present, how often is it broken, alas, by the simultaneous commencement of two or more separate competitors? Nor is that all. For, each realizing that he is too late, a disheartened silence generally ensues, only to be broken perhaps by a second neck-to-neck effort on the part of all the previous starters that abortively collapses again on some such unfortunate phrase as `Oh dear, oh Lord.'
It was here, then, that I descried, and at once began to work, an almost virgin field, never allowing an instant to elapse after the right to supplicate had been declared general. Indeed on many occasions I filled the subsequent gaps also, and at one particularly reluctant gathering, I can well remember, in less than an hour, offering a dozen full-length petitions. That I soon had rivals goes without saying. Who, in such a position, could have escaped them? But once started, I allowed no second petitioner to deflect or abbreviate my entreaties.
Perhaps the work, however, in which I was most interested was that of the Anti-Dramatic and Saltatory* Union, founded by Ezekiel Stool, the son of Abraham Stool, the inventor and proprietor of Stool's Adult Gripe Water. Probably the most persistent and unflinching opponent that the theatre and dancing saloon have ever known, he was then some twenty-six years of age and of a very remarkable and beautiful character. Indeed all that he lacked of these two qualities in his actual physical appearance seemed to have been concentrated with additional force in his spiritual personality. No taller than myself, and weighing considerably less, he had suffered all his life from an inherent dread of shaving, and the greater portion of his face was in consequence obliterated by a profuse but gentle growth of hair. His voice, too, owing to some developmental defect, had only partially broken; and indeed his father Abraham (afterwards removed to an asylum) had on more than one occasion attempted to sacrifice him, under the mistaken impression that he was some sort of animal that would be suitable as a burnt offering.
Regarded as a character, however, and when he had fully assured himself that he was not in the presence of a theatre-goer or dancer, it would have been difficult to imagine a more affectionate or deeply trustful companion;* and many an hour we spent together combating the drama, both in Central London and the suburbs. Well provided with money, thanks to the sales of the Gripe Water - an excellent remedy to which I have frequently had recourse - he had himself composed and caused to be printed several extremely powerful leaflets. Of these perhaps the best were The Chorus Girl's Catastrophe and Did Wycliffe Waltz? and these we would distribute in large numbers among the degenerate pleasure-seekers standing outside theatres. Purchasing seats, too, we would ourselves from time to time enter these buildings, rising in our places when the curtain was drawn up and audibly rebuking the performers. Needless to say, having registered our protest, we would then immediately leave the premises, not always immune from the coarse objurgations of obviously interested minions.
Nor were we less vigorous in our onslaught upon the equally prevalent sin of dancing, either personally attending or stationing delegates at the entrances to halls or private houses, and endeavouring if possible by individual appeals to warn or deter would-be malefactors. An uphill task, it was not for us to say to how great an extent we may have succeeded, but I can remember at least twelve persons, male and female, who promised to consider what we had pointed out to them.
Deeply as I appreciated, however, the opportunity of furthering this valuable and congenial work, I had not as yet realized the ultimate object that an inscrutable Providence had in view, or that in Ezekiel Stool I had already been handed the compass that was destined to lead my steps to matrimony. Such was the case, however, little as I then dreamed it, and even less, if such a thing were possible, was I attracted, on a first acquaintance, to any of his five sisters. Simply divided into twins and triplets, these were all younger than Ezekiel himself, the triplets being then twenty-four, and the twins three years younger. None of them was married, and indeed, as regarded the triplets, this was scarcely perhaps to be wondered at. For though they had been interestingly named by their father as Faith, Hope, and Charity, they were plain girls, deeply marked by smallpox, and of rather less than the average intelligence. Nor indeed were the twins, Tact and Understanding, at all remarkable for personal beauty, and the toes of one of them, as I was afterwards to discover, were most unfortunately webbed. On the other hand, they were kindly, domestic creatures. All five of them could play the piano. And the heart of each, as they have frequently told me, was profoundly stirred by my first visit.
Little as I shared, however, though I could not fail to perceive, the cardiac exaltation of these five females, I have always looked back to that first visit with a very considerable degree of pleasure, and not the less so because of the preliminary service that I was able to render their brother Ezekiel. Indeed it was this that led to an invitation to share the evening meal at the Stools' house, a substantial residence with a large garden, about five minutes' walk from Camberwell Green.
A November dusk, some eighteen months or so after my entrance into commercial life, I had forgotten that it was the anniversary of the attempt of Guy Fawkes to destroy the Upper Chamber of our Legislature, and my thoughts were engaged upon other matters as I began to walk home from the omnibus stopping-place. I had hardly walked a hundred yards, however, when my attention was suddenly attracted to a somewhat vociferous group of boys, in the midst of whom, to my surprise and anxiety, I saw my friend Ezekiel Stool. For a moment I was at a loss both as how to proceed and the possible reason for the conclave. But a moment later I discovered that the position was no less disturbing than grotesque. Doubtless intoxicated with the memories of the day, these ignorant and turbulent youths had apparently discerned in my friend Ezekiel a resemblance to the conspirator of 1605. Nay, they had gone further. They had professed to perceive in him an actual reincarnation of the original miscreant, and this in spite of the fact that Ezekiel had repeatedly explained to them that he had no knowledge of pyrotechnics.
`Believe me,' he had said, `I am neither the man you mention, nor do I resemble any authentic portrait of him. Nor have I placed explosives under anybody's chamber either in London or the Provinces.'
Despite his denials, however, supported as they were by references to prominent local residents, the group of vociferators was quickly growing both in numbers and excitement, and several suggestions were being audibly made that he should be exterminated by fire. It was a moment for action, and I took it. Fortunately my police whistle was in my pocket. And in the next instant I was blowing blast upon blast to the utmost capacity of my lung power. The effect was immediate. For scarcely had the boys dispersed when three or four constables arrived on the scene, all of them breathless from the act of running, but carrying their truncheons in their hands. Being breathless too, I could only point at Ezekiel, and for the first moment they misunderstood me, rapidly surrounding him, as he leaned against a lamp-post, and lifting their truncheons above their heads. Once again, therefore, it was a moment for action, and once again I took it. Throwing myself in front of him, I shouted to them to forbear, and then very briefly I explained what had happened. Unfortunately, as I have said, the boys had already dispersed. But then, as I pointed out to them, that had been my object, and the fact that this had taken place before their arrival was no reflection upon their courage. I cannot record, however, that their reception of this news was either Xtian or even courteous, and it was a very great relief both to myself and Ezekiel when these powerful professionals at last went away. Nevertheless, as Ezekiel said, I had probably twice saved his life, and during the evening meal, to which he at once invited me, both his parents and his five sisters repeatedly expressed their satisfaction. Mr Abraham Stool, indeed, who had not then been segregated, but who was already under the impression that he was the Hebrew patriarch, several times insisted upon my approaching him and placing my hand under his left thigh, after which he would offer me, in addition to Mrs Stool, a varying number of rams and goats.
Needless to say, I declined to accept these, and a week or two later, as I have already indicated, it was deemed advisable, owing to his tendency to sacrifice, to place him in other and remoter surroundings. But it was a happy evening, during which, as I shall always remember, Ezekiel Stool expressed his regret that my father and myself were not fellow-worshippers with them at St Nicholas, Newington Butts. Satisfied as we were, however, with St James-the-Least-of-All, where my father had now become senior sidesman, we had seen no reason, as I was obliged to point out to him, for again transferring our worship; and little did I dream that even as I was speaking those sinister events were already shaping themselves that were ultimately to unite us - their only redeeming outcome - in this new and closer bond.