THE Rev. Jabez Bunting was a man of outstanding intellect. He had been put in charge of the great Missionary enterprise of his Church. A great deal of its success was due to his wonderful business capacity. He was a man who believed in making a good outward show. The offices of the Missionary Society were imposing for that time—far too imposing to make Jane Davis’s visit an easy thing. At the door she encountered a manservant in resplendent uniform. In Tolpuddle, and round about, she had occasionally seen such wonderful clothing, but the wearers had always been employed by the aristocracy. She had not dreamt that in connexion with the Church that was so much persecuted in her village, there could be so much splendour. She began to quake in her shoes, and wondered if really she ought to have set out on her errand. But she thought of George and James Loveless, and the Standfields and good James Hammett, suffering away somewhere in Dorchester gaol or in the ships on the way to Australia. She thought of the terrible mistake that had been made in arresting the wrong brother, and determined that now she had paid all that large sum of money to reach London, she would somehow go through with it.
The flunkey looked her up and down. This was not the sort of person who usually asked for Jabez Bunting. Ministers of religion, all apologetic as a rule, missionaries back after a long period of work abroad, not knowing how much criticism they would have to bear from their chief, young men in the prime of life coming to take their leave of him and receive his blessing and many warnings before they sailed—these were the usual visitors. If any ladies came, it was generally those of charitable disposition, obviously prosperous and anxious to gain merit by giving of ther substance to the work so much loved by the great man. A countrywoman was a rare sight for him.
‘The Rev. Jabez Bunting, did you say?’ he asked her. ‘Have you an appointment with him?’
‘No, I haven’t, sir. I’ve come to see him about some good men who are being shamefully treated. I am sure he can help if he will.’
‘But, madam, don’t you know that Dr. Bunting is the busiest man in all London? I have just taken an ex-President of the Conference to the waiting-room, and even he will have to wait a long time before Dr. Bunting can see him. I am sure he will not be able to see you, so you had better go away and see somebody else.’
‘But there is nobody I can see,’ she said, as she burst into a torrent of tears.
The flunkey was a good Methodist, and a kind-hearted man. He had been selected for his post partly because of his faith. In this his employers thought they had an assurance of his trustworthiness. He couldn’t bear to see this woman in tears. He began to think of his own sister away in Yorkshire, and knew if she had anything on her mind, she might have travelled a long way. He knew she wouldn’t have taken his answer quite so easily, and that no mere man in uniform would keep her out of the great man’s room if she meant to get there. He could see that this woman was in dead earnest, and felt that she perhaps had something of real importance to say.
‘Come, come, madam,’ he said, ‘it may be that we may be able to manage it somehow. But I have my duty to perform, and I must protect good Dr. Bunting from too many visitors. He expects me to see that he is saved from trouble as much as possible. But he is a good man and tenderhearted, too, and if you really have anything to ask him to do that can relieve your distress, I am sure that he will do all in his power. Where did you come from, did you say?’
‘I have come up from Dorsetshire, and a terrible long journey it has been. And I’m frightened of this great big London. But it’s kind of you to talk like that. It’s the first bit of kindness I have had in this great big place.’
‘Well, well, come upstairs into the waiting-room. I’ll see if the Doctor will speak with you. But you will have to wait a long time.’
She was led into the waiting-room, and saw there a dear old minister. She did not know who he was. He had been President of the Conference, but she would not have known his name if she had been told it. They knew very little about the way in which the Church was governed down in Dorsetshire. They knew good Jacob Newton of Dorchester, and could remember the names of the ministers who had come amongst them for many years back. And they remembered traditional talk about the visits of Charles Wesley, and there was a man who said he had once seen the great John Wesley himself, when he visited Swanage for one night. But Presidents of the Conference came and Presidents went, and Tolpuddle hardly heard of it.
True, perhaps George Loveless or James Hammett might know. They, with their devotion to the Society, were always anxious to know about what was going on in the Conference. But it was only once in two or three years that the minister who was stationed at Dorchester ever went to Conference. And he was so busy attending to the affairs of Dorchester that he had little time for the villages. If she had known what a distinguished man this was, she would have looked at him with even more interest than she did. She saw that he had a strong, and, in many ways, a beautiful face. It was marked with the anguish of the moment, but even that could not obscure the fact that there was an inward peace and calm that came only from great love. She could see that he was a godly man. White-haired and somewhat bowed, he pensively walked to and fro in the room, muttering distressing words half to himself and half aloud: ‘Oh, Joseph, my son, my son,’ he was saying, ‘why can you not go on forward in the way you have chosen? Would that I could suffer for you! My son, my son!’
She was just a poor ignorant Dorsetshire peasant woman, but she could not bear to see such distress in such a fine old man, and longed just to take his trouble on her shoulders and comfort him. In the feeling of overwhelming sympathy she was experiencing, her natural diffidence was overcome, and she said
‘I don’t know you, sir, but I am sorry to see you in such distress of mind. Is there anything your son has done that a good boy shouldn’t have done? Is there no balm in Gilead?’
‘Madam,’ he said, feeling rebuked by the kindly tone of this ill-dressed woman, and noting the wonderful sympathy in her eyes and in her whole bearing, ‘Madam, you are very kind. I have no right to put my small troubles in this way. I am rebuked for thinking aloud as I did. I do not complain. My boy in all Christian virtues is a good man, thank God. But he is in trouble. I much fear that his whole life will have to be altered because of his self-will. But there, madam, I can see that you have trouble enough of your own to bear without my putting my slight anxiety upon you. Are you one of us?
‘I am a good Methodist from Tolpuddle in the County of Dorset, sir,’ she said. ‘Yes, I have my troubles, but like you I will aye try to bear them. I have come to see good Dr. Bunting about them, and perhaps with his great power he may be able to put them right.’
‘I am sure I hope so. Meantime I see that I am beckoned into his presence. I will try not to keep you too long from your errand. But I may have a long conference with the Doctor. Fare you well, and may God’s blessing be with you.’
‘Thank you kindly, sir,’ she said, as he passed into the next room.
Almost as soon as he had gone, her friend from downstairs came in to give her some very unwelcome news.
‘The Doctor, I am afraid, cannot see you,’ he said. ‘He is very busy, but if he can be of any service, he is always glad to help anyone. If it is impossible for him to see you today, he cannot find that there is a minute to spare for three weeks.
He is not likely even to be here for the next four days, and then he has a meeting about the Theological Institution which will take up a whole day, and there is a crowd of visitors for him to see and he is away speaking at meetings several days.’
To say that this was a disappointment to Jane Davis would perhaps hardly state the exact truth. She had dreaded this interview with Dr. Bunting ever since Mr. John Barnett, the Wesleyan local preacher of Strickland, had commissioned her to come to London. And now it seemed to be taken out of her hands. Still, if she could not see him, what could she do in London?’
‘Is they any one else in London who could help me?’ she asked the flunkey.
‘There is no one who has so much influence as Dr. Bunting,’ he said. ‘But I don’t think he could do much with the Government. But where are you staying in London?’
She told him she didn’t know where to stay. She knew nothing about London, and then she asked him about the dear old minister she had seen.
‘He looks a fine man,’ she said, ‘and is so wonderfully comforting.’
‘He has need enough of comfort himself, I am afraid,’ said the porter. ‘It is the Rev. John Stephens, who was President of the Conference before Dr. Bunting’s last year of office. He took over the Presidency from our great theologian, Richard Watson, and handed it over to our great administrator, Jabez Bunting. A good man, but weak when compared with those two!’
‘A good man, indeed, sir! And was I speaking to a man who had been President, and didn’t know it? And I offered to give him comfort about his own trouble. Dear, dear, what must he think of my forwardness? But he didn’t show that he minded. He was so good and comforting.’
‘Yes, he is a good man. But I must leave you. You will have to wait a long time, so make yourself as comfortable as possible. You might be able to get a nap if you go into one of those more comfortable chairs. I will see that you are awakened as soon as there is a chance to see Dr. Bunting.
She was surprised at the kindness this man had shown since she had wept in the entrance hail. She was very grateful, and she tried to do as he had said. But the thoughts would come surging to her head. She had never known what it was to have surging thoughts like this before. She felt how poorly she represented the men she wanted to help. She knew that if only her heart was touched when she met the great man, she would be able to plead their cause well. And then she thought again of those fine men. Farm labourers they were! She remembered, whilst she waited, things that had happened in the chapel. She could see George Loveless there one Sunday night, preaching on the truth that makes you free. He did not dwell so long on the truth. Everyone there knew what the truth meant. It was Christ in the heart. There was no other interpretation. But freedom! He dwelt on freedom. Freedom from the power of sin! Freedom from the dominion of tyrants! Freedom from the things round about that kept the poor labouring man down! Freedom from the menace of the unholy combination of squire and parson, which had made their village a place of petty persecution for so many years! She remembered he talked of John Haime, that soldier follower of John Wesley in the early days, who went through the war with shot and shell falling round him, but with peace in his heart. He quoted Haime when he said that he had three armies fighting round him, the army of France, the wicked army of England, and the army of devils. John Haime, indeed, had been an inspiration to all their little company of folk in Tolpuddle. She remembered how George Loveless had stressed the point of his being able to withstand even the General himself, and how God had helped him through it all. It was freedom, glorious freedom, he had spoken about. It seems impossible,’ he had said, ‘that we shall ever be free with these masters who are beating us down to the last penny, and who have turned some of us out of our homes because we go to chapel instead of church. But it is not impossible. God is with us. Who, then, can be against us? Friends, let us sing my favourite hymn.’ And he gave out one verse of the hymn they knew so well, because George Loveless loved it so:
All things are possible to him
That can in Jesu’s name believe:
Lord, I no more Thy truth blaspheme,
Thy truth I lovingly receive;
I can, I do believe in Thee,
All things are possible to me.
And they sang it, six verses of it. She didn’t know the name of the tune, but she started to hum it. It was one of those inspiring curly tunes of the later days of the eighteenth century. It fitted the words and set her heart a-dancing in spite of her anxiety. ‘All things are possible! ‘ She believed it. Then she could make Dr. Bunting listen to her. She did believe in her Saviour, and so did George Loveless, and the Standfields and James Hammett. And if Brine had not made the same confession, still he was in the same condemnation. And if they were standing for a principle, surely he was, too. At any rate he had proved himself a fine lad who would not betray his comrades. He could not be far from the Kingdom.
Oh, how she wished that good Mr. Stephens would finish his long conversation with Dr. Bunting! What was this famous man like? She had heard he was very clever, and that he was a man who was head and shoulders above every Methodist in the Kingdom. It had even been whispered that if he would only have gone over to the Church of England, he might have been Archbishop of Canterbury, and those who said it, said that he was a far abler man than any who had yet been Archbishop. He was one of the greatest men of his time, and here was she, a poor humble Dorsetshire woman, coming to see him, and plead with him to help her friends. But if he was such a great man, could he be much greater than George Loveless? She remembered how he stood on the green at Piddletrenthide last year, when Rev. James Oke had come over from Dorchester to help them open the place for Methodism. The first night, the Tolpuddle folk had gone round about the village and told the people that this minister had come over to preach and had asked them to come and support him. Not many of them came. There were only one or two whom she and her friends knew personally, one of the labourers who had met George in connexion with his visit to the farmers, and the Tolpuddle group of half a dozen or so who came out on these expeditions. The good minister had been pleased with the few who had come and was convinced that Brother Loveless would be able to speak such words in the future that more would come, and that in a short time a room could be taken and they could form a Society. But the second night they were there, word went round that George was to speak. They had timed the meeting to take place in the dark, because they knew there would be spies about. The church parson did not like this preaching that had no respects for his rights. And if he could see which men of his village were inclined to help in it, he might nip it in the bud. There were ways and means of doing it. Just a word would keep some back. Poorly though the squire paid his labourers, there were times when his generous heart would declare itself. Under the influence of the Christmas spirit when his friends came to see him, or when his children were round him and the time of great feeding in his own home was upon him, when he anticipated the broaching of a fine old vintage, and rested awhile from his busy life, the squire was inclined to recall the good old days of yore. He sung about ‘The Roast Beef of old England’, and its liquid accompaniments, and felt he was really a ‘fine old English gentleman’. At such times his lady thought of the tenants and the labourers, and set out for her annual luxury of distributing largesse. Any one who had misbehaved or who was lacking in respect during the year was apt to lose the chance of taking her charity.
This was nothing to men like Loveless, strong in the knowledge that they were better than squires, or lords, or parsons, or even kings.
On all the kings of earth
With pity we look down,
they sang, assured as they were of the royalty of their spiritual birth and the certainty of their everlasting crown of glory. But these whom they wanted to preach to were not yet in the Kingdom. They were not even seeking. They had to be convinced of the sinfulness of their ways and of the mercy of God. Such men and women would not risk the displeasure of the parson and squire just out of curiosity to hear what this man had to say. His fame had gone forth throughout the county. He was known as one of the finest preachers on the Dorchester plan. He was known for his great zeal and his fiery eloquence. Besides, he had stood fire so often from the mob, and had been able to stand. And not one, but many times, those who came to scoff remained to pray.
Knowing all this, they decided to have this meeting in the dark. None who came should be recognized by the parson’s or the squire’s myrmidons. Loveless feared no man. He stood there with his admiring brother beside him. And she remembered how first one and then another furtively came to her and said they would like to join but they were afraid, and how men broke down as they listened to Loveless’s further words, and they then and there decided that God helping them they would serve Him. Only last year, and now he was a condemned felon! How could God allow such things? ‘All things are possible.’ Did she believe it? Yes, yes, it must be true. George had been so sure of it. She held up her head and thought of that glorious man in his most glorious time. And then she thought of him at the trial, bold, upright, saying simply the things that were true, and that terrible judge condemning him to seven years’ transportation. It must be stopped.
She had been a long time in this reverie. She had not gone to sleep. But her mind was calmed, and she had far more confidence and determination. Then she dozed again and finally went to sleep. Having finished his interview, the Doctor for a moment came into the waiting-room and saw this poor woman sleeping. She looked tired out. It was unusual for any one to be allowed to sleep in this way, but he recognized the emergency. He refused to allow his servant to wake her up.
‘No, no,’ he said, ‘let her sleep on. I could give her no time today. In twenty minutes I must be at City Road to see the Book Steward,’ and with that he left.
A considerable time after he had left, Jane Davis woke up with a start. The time had passed and it was afternoon. Thorpe, the flunkey who had been so kind to her, came into the room. It was time for her to go, he said, and he asked her if she cared to take such hospitality as his wife could offer her for that night. He was a Methodist, and perhaps they might be able to find some way for her to see other Methodists who might be of help in her quest.
‘Dr. Bunting has had to go away and cannot see you,’ he said. ‘I wish I could help you. I can’t speak to you here. I have to do my duty. But if you would lodge with my wife tonight, I might then talk to you about it, and see if I couldn’t suggest something that might be done. But now, please leave this building. But you won’t know where to go, will you? I live in two rooms over against the Foundery. You will like to see the chapel at City Road where John Wesley used to preach and the house in which he lived, and the graveyard over the way where John Bunyan and many other good men and women lie buried. And then you can come on to my house about six o’clock tonight. I shall be there and I will tell the wife you are coming.’
She was almost overwhelmed with the kindness of this working man, a total stranger to her. And it came to her in thought that perhaps the great ones were not always the great Christians. It was a bit of delicate hospitality she had not expected. Her expectations had been with the man of God who was in authority, and she was learning that the man in the lowest position might be just as much a man of God, if not more so. So she went out, almost like Abraham, not knowing whither she went.
She wandered about and managed to find her way to Wesley’s chapel, as Thorpe had suggested, and had a good look both at the chapel and the house the great leader had lived at. It was interesting to her as to every Methodist. She did not go in. She wandered across to the burial ground of the puritans. And she thought of the Pilgrim’s Progress and the difficulties of the great Bunyan, though she did not find his grave by six o’clock. She had discovered that tramping about a great city is weary work.
So she found her way to the two-roomed tenement of the Thorpe’s. Her friend of the morning was already home, and she found that he was happily married to a bright little woman, who was anxious above all things to make her comfortable. There was a cup of tea for her almost as soon as she was inside the house and she shared their frugal evening meal. Fortunately she had strength enough of mind and the body to eat.
After the meal she opened her heart to them. She told of the splendid men who had been taken away. Mr. Thorpe let her know that he had read about the trial, and she described the scenes in the village and the despair of the womenfolk, and how they lived in terror lest the landlords should turn them out of their homes. He told her that there was a Dr. Wakley who was standing for Parliament at the next election and he seemed a very fair-minded and decent man. Perhaps he might be able to do something. If he took the case up, she could rely on his fearlessness. He had attacked distinguished medical men in the paper he had started for the doctors—which he called The Lancet. And his words had been so sharp sometimes that he had had to defend them in Court.
But it was Friday now. Why should she not stay over the Sunday, and make herself as comfortable as she could with them? She might be able to hear one of the great preachers on the Sunday and then her visit would have meant something to her. So it was arranged. The sleeping arrangements were a bit crude: Mr. Thorpe sleeping on the couch in the living room and the two women going together in the bedroom. It is the way that the poor always have to arrange, and thankful they are if it can be done with as much decency as that. Neither of them knew what was to happen on that fateful Sunday. If he had been in the working-class movements, John Thorpe would have known that something was astir and that a procession was being talked of. But he knew nothing about it, and Jane Davis had heard less than she would have done if she had stayed in Tolpuddle.