Jane Welsh Carlyle
Father Mathew (1843)
And now let me tell you something which you will perhaps think questionable, a piece of Hero-Worship that I have been after. My youthful enthusiasm, as John Sterling calls it, is not extinct then, as I had supposed; but must certainly be immortal! Only think of its blazing up for Father Mathew! You know I have always had the greatest reverence for that priest; and when I heard he was in London, attainable to me, I felt that I must see him, shake him [Page 221] by the hand, and tell him I loved him considerably! I was expressing my wish to see him, to Robertson, the night he brought the Ballad Collector; and he told me it could be gratified quite easily. Mrs. Hall had offered him a note of introduction to Father Mathew, and she would be pleased to include my name in it. 'Fix my time, then.' 'He was administering the pledge all day long in the Commercial Road.' I fixed next evening.
Robertson, accordingly, called for me at five, and we rumbled off in omnibus, all the way to Mile End, that hitherto for me unimaginable goal! Then there was still a good way to walk; the place, the 'new lodging,' was a large piece of waste ground, boarded off from the Commercial Road, for a Catholic cemetery. I found 'my youthful enthusiasm' rising higher and higher as I got on the ground, and saw the thousands of people all hushed into awful silence, with not a single exception that I saw - the only religious meeting I ever saw in cockneyland which had not plenty of scoffers hanging on its outskirts. The crowd was all in front of a narrow scaffolding, from which an American captain was then haranguing it; and Father Mathew stood beside him, so good and simple-looking! Of course, we could not push our way to the front of the scaffold, where steps led up to it; so we went to one end, where there were [Page 222] no steps or other visible means of access, and handed up our letter of introduction to a policeman; he took it and returned presently, saying that Father Mathew was coming. And he came; and reached down his hand to me, and I grasped it; but the boards were higher than my head, and it seemed our communication must stop there. But I have told you that I was in a moment of enthusiasm; I felt the need of getting closer to that good man. I saw a bit of rope hanging, in the form of a festoon, from the end of the boards; I put my foot on it; held still by Father Mathew's hand; seized the end of the boards with the other; and, in some, to myself (up to this moment), incomprehensible way, flung myself horizontally on to the scaffolding at Father Mathew's feet! He uttered a scream, for he thought (I suppose) I must fall back; but not at all; I jumped to my feet, shook hands with him and said - what? 'God only knows.' He made me sit down on the only chair a moment; then took me by the hand as if I had been a little girl, and led me to the front of the scaffold, to see him administer the pledge. From a hundred to two hundred took it; and all the tragedies and theatrical representations I ever saw, melted into one, could not have given me such emotion as that scene did. There were faces both of men and women that will haunt me while I live; faces exhibiting such concentrated wretchedness, making, [Page 223] you would have said, its last deadly struggle with the powers of darkness. There was one man, in particular, with a baby in his arms; and a young girl that seemed of the 'unfortunate' sort, that gave me an insight into the lot of humanity that I still wanted. And in the face of Father Mathew, when one looked from them to him, the mercy of Heaven seemed to be laid bare. Of course I cried; but I longed to lay my head down on the good man's shoulder and take a hearty cry there before the whole multitude! He said to me one such nice thing. 'I dare not be absent for an hour,' he said; 'I think always if some dreadful drunkard were to come, and me away, he might never muster determination perhaps to come again in all his life; and there would be a man lost!'
I was turning sick, and needed to get out of the thing, but, in the act of leaving him - never to see him again through all time, most probably - feeling him to be the very best man of modern times (you excepted), I had another movement of youthful enthusiasm which you will hold up your hands and eyes at. Did I take the pledge then? No; but I would, though, if I had not feared it would be put in the newspapers! No, not that; but I drew him aside, having considered if I had any ring on, any handkerchief, anything that I could leave with him in remembrance of me, and having bethought me of a pretty memorandum-book in my reticule, I drew him aside and [Page 224] put it in his hand, and bade him keep it for my sake; and asked him to give me one of his medals to keep for his! And all this in tears and in the utmost agitation! Had you any idea that your wife was still such a fool! I am sure I had not. The Father got through the thing admirably. He seemed to understand what it all meant quite well, inarticulate though I was. He would not give me a common medal, but took a little silver one from the neck of a young man who had just taken the pledge for example's sake, telling him he would get him another presently, and then laid the medal into my hand with a solemn blessing. I could not speak for excitement all the way home. When I went to bed I could not sleep; the pale faces I had seen haunted me, and Father Mathew's smile; and even next morning, I could not anyhow subside into my normal state, until I had sat down and written Father Mathew a long letter - accompanying it with your 'Past and Present!' Now, dear, if you are ready to beat me for a distracted Gomeril I cannot help it. All that it was put into my heart to do, Ich konnte nicht anders.