It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
Jail is still a grim and castellated mountain of masonry, but a human heart beats and a human brain throbs inside it now.
Enter without fear of seeing children kill themselves, and bearded men faint like women, or weep like children--horrible sights.
The prisoners no longer crouch and cower past the officers, nor the officers look at them and speak to them as if they were dogs, as they do in most of these places, and used to here.
Open this cell. A woman rises with a smile! why a smile? Because for months an open door has generally let in what is always a great boon to a separate prisoner--a human creature with a civil word. We remember when an open door meant "way for a ruffian and a fool to trample upon the solitary and sorrowful!"
What is this smiling personage doing? as I live she is watchmaking! A woman watchmaking, with neat and taper fingers, and a glass at her eye sometimes, but not always, for in vision as well as in sense of touch and patience nature has been bounteous to her. She is one of four. Eight, besides these four, were tried and found incapable of excellence in this difficult craft. They were put to other things; for permanent failures are not permitted in ---- Jail. The theory is that every home can turn some sort of labor to profit.
Difficulties occur often. Impossibilities will bar the way now and then; but there are so few real impossibilities. When a difficulty arises, the three hundred industrious arts and crafts are freely ransacked for a prisoner; ay!--ransacked as few rich men would be bothered to sift the seven or eight liberal professions in order to fit a beloved son.
Here, as in the world, the average of talent is low. The majority can only learn easy things, and vulgar things, and some can do higher things and a few can do beautiful things, and one or two have developed first-rate gifts and powers.
There are 25 shoemakers (male); 12 tailors, of whom 6 female; 24 weavers, of whom 10 female; 4 watchmakers, all female; 6 printers and composers, 5 female; 4 engrainers of wood, 2 female. (In this art we have the first artist in Britain, our old acquaintance, Thomas Robinson. He has passed all his competitors by a simple process. Beautiful specimens of all the woods have been placed and kept before him, and for a month he has been forced to imitate nature with his eye never off her. His competitors in the world imitate nature from memory, from convention, or from tradition. By such processes truth and beauty are lost at each step down the ladder of routine. Mr. Eden gave clever Tom at first starting the right end of the stick, instead of letting him take the wrong.) Nine joiners and carpenters, 3 female; 3 who color prints downright well, 1 female; 2 painters, 1 female; 3 pupils shorthand writing, 1 female.
[Fancy these attending the Old Bailey and taking it all down solemn as judges.]
Workers in gutta-percha, modelers in clay, washers and getters-up of linen, hoe-makers, spade-makers, rake-makers, woodcarvers, stonecutters, bakers, etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum. Come to the hard-labor yard. Do you see those fifteen stables? there lurk in vain the rusty cranks; condemned first as liars they fell soon after into disrepute as weapons of half-science to degrade minds and bodies. They lurk there grim as the used-up giants in "Pilgrim's Progress," and like them can't catch a soul.
Hark to the music of the shuttle and the useful loom. We weave linen, cotton, woolen, linsey-woolsey, and, not to be behind the rogues outside, cottonsey-woolsey and cottonsey-silksey; damask we weave, and a little silk and poplin, and Mary Baker velvet itself for a treat now and then. We of the loom relieve the county of all expense in keeping us, and enrich a fund for taking care of discharged industrious prisoners until such time as they can soften prejudices and obtain lucrative employment. The old plan was to kick a prisoner out and say:
"There, dog! go without a rap among those who will look on you as a dog and make you starve or steal. We have taught you no labor but crank, and as there are no cranks in the outside world, the world not being such an idiot as we are, you must fill your belly by means of the only other thing you have ever been taught--theft."
Now the officers take leave of a discharged prisoner in English. Farewell; good-by!--a contraction for God be wi' ye--etc. It used to be in French, Sans adieu! au revoir! and the like.
Having passed the merry, useful looms open this cell. A she-thief looks up with an eye six times as mellow as when we were here last. She is busy gilding. See with what an adroit and delicate touch the jade slips the long square knife under the gossamer gold-leaf which she has blown gently out of the book--and turns it over; and now she breathes gently and vertically on the exact center of it, and the fragile yet rebellious leaf that has rolled itself up like a hedgehog is flattened by that human zephyr on the little leathern easel. Now she cuts it in three with vertical blade; now she takes her long flat brush and applies it to her own hair once or twice; strange to say the camel-hair takes from this contact a soupcon of some very slight and delicate animal oil, which enables the brush to take up the gold-leaf, and the artist lays a square of gold in its place on the plaster bull she is gilding. Said bull was cast in the prison by another female prisoner who at this moment is preparing a green artificial meadow for the animal to stand in. These two girls had failed at the watchmaking. They had sight and the fine sensation of touch required, but they lacked the caution, patience and judgment so severe an art demanded; so their talents were directed elsewhere. This one is a first-rate gilder, she mistressed it entirely in three days.
The last thing they did in this way was an elephant. Cost of casting him, reckoning labor and the percentage he ought to pay to the mold, was 1s. 4d. Plaster, chrome, water-size and oil-size, 3d.; goldleaf, 3s.; 1 foot of German velvet, 4d.; thread, needles and wear of tools, 1d.; total, 5s.
Said gold elephant standing on a purple cushion was subjected to a severe test of his value. He was sent to a low auction room in London. There he fell to the trade at 18s. This was a "knock-out" transaction; twelve buyers had agreed not to bid against one another in the auction room, a conspiracy illegal but customary. The same afternoon these twelve held one of their little private unlawful auctions over him; here the bidding was like drops of blood oozing from flints, but at least it was bona-fide, and he rose to 25s. The seven shillings premium was divided among the eleven sharpers. Sharper No. 12 carried him home and sold him the very next day for 37s. to a lady who lived in Belgravia, but shopped in filthy alleys, misled perhaps by the phrase "dirt cheap."
Mr. Eden conceived him, two detected ones made him at a cost of 5s., twelve undetected ones caught him first for 18s., and now he stands in Belgravia, and the fair ejaculate over him, "What a duck!"
The aggregate of labor to make and gild this elephant was not quite one woman's work (12 hours). Taking 18s. as the true value of the work, for in this world the workman has commonly to sell his production under the above disadvantages, forced sale and the conspiracies of the unimprisoned--we have still 13s. for a day's work by a woman.
From the bull greater things are expected. The cast is from the bull of the Vatican, a bull true to Nature, and Nature adorned the very meadows when she produced the bull. What a magnificent animal is a bull! what a dewlap! what a front! what clean pasterns! what fearless eyes! what a deep diapason is his voice! of which beholding this his true and massive effigy in ---- Jail we are reminded. When he stands muscular, majestic, sonorous, gold, in his meadow pied with daisies, it shall not be "sweet" and "love" and "duck"--words of beauty but no earthly signification; it shall be, "There, I forgive Europa."
And need I say there were more aimed at in all this than pecuniary profit. Mr. Eden held that the love of production is the natural specific antidote to the love of stealing. He kindled in his prisoners the love of producing, of what some by an abuse of language call "creating." And the producers rose in the scale of human beings. Their faces showed it--the untamed look melted away--the white of the eye showed less, and the pupil and iris more, and better quality.
Gold-leaf when first laid on adheres in visible squares with uncouth edges, a ragged affair; then the gilder takes a camelhair brush and under its light and rapid touch the work changes as under a diviner's rod, so rapidly and majestically come beauty and finish over it. Perhaps no other art has so delicious a one minute as this is to the gilder. The first work our prisoner gilded she screamed with delight several times at this crisis. She begged to have the work left in her cell one day at least. "It lights up the cell and lights up my heart."
"Of course it does," said Mr. Eden. "Aha! what, there are greater pleasures in the world than sinning, are there?"
"That there are. I never was so pleased in my life. May I have it a few minutes?"
"My child, you shall have it till its place is taken by others like it. Keep it before your eyes, feed on it, and ask yourself which is the best, to work and add something useful or beautiful to the world's material wealth, or to steal; to be a little benefactor to your kind and yourself, or a little vermin preying on the industrious. Which is best?"
"I'll never take while I can make."
This is, of course, but a single specimen out of scores. To follow Mr. Eden from cell to cell, from mind to mind, from sex to sex, would take volumes and volumes. I only profess to reveal fragments of such a man. He never hoped from the mere separate cell the wonders that dreamers hope. It was essential to the reform of prisoners that moral contagion should be checkmated, and the cell was the mode adopted, because it is the laziest, cheapest, selfishest and cruelest way of doing this. That no discretion was allowed him to let the converted or the well-disposed mix and sympathize, and compare notes, and confirm each other in good under a watchful officer's eye; this he thought a frightful blunder of the system.
Generally he held the good effect of separate confinement to be merely negative; he laughed to scorn the chimera that solitude is an active agent, capable of converting a rogue. Shut a rogue from rogues and let honest men in upon him--the honest men get a good chance to convert him, but if they do succeed it was not solitude that converted him but healing contact. The moments that most good comes to him are the moments his solitude is broken.
He used to say solitude will cow a rogue and suspend his overt acts of theft by force, and so make him to a non-reflector seem no longer a thief; but the notion of the cell effecting permanent cures might honestly be worded thus: "I am a lazy self-deceiver, and want to do by machinery and without personal fatigue what St. Paul could only do by working with all his heart, with all his time, with all his wit, with all his soul, with all his strength and with all himself." Or thus: "Confine the leopards in separate cages, Jock; the cages will take their spots out while ye're sleeping."
Generally this was Mr. Eden's theory of the cell--a check to further contamination, but no more. He even saw in the cell much positive ill which he set himself to qualify.
"Separate confinement breeds monstrous egotism," said he, "and egotism hardens the heart. You can't make any man good if you never let him say a kind word or do an unselfish action to a fellow-creature. Man is an acting animal. His real moral character all lies in his actions, and none of it in his dreams or cogitations. Moral stagnation or cessation of all bad acts and of all good acts is a state on the borders of every vice and a million miles from virtue."
His reverence attacked the petrifaction and egotism of the separate cell as far as the shallow system of this prison let him. First, he encouraged prisoners to write their lives for the use of the prison; these were weeded, if necessary (the editor was strong-minded and did not weed out the re-poppies); printed and circulated in the jail. The writer's number was printed at the foot if he pleased, but never his name. Biography begot a world of sympathy in the prison. Second, he talked to one prisoner acquainted with another prisoner's character, talked about No. 80 to No. 60, and would sometimes say: "Now could you give No. 60 any good advice on this point?"
Then if 80's advice was good he would carry it to 60, and 60 would think all the more of it that it came from one of his fellows.
Then in matters of art he would carry the difficulties of a beginner or a bungler to a proficient, and the latter would help the former. The pleasure of being kind on one side, a touch of gratitude on the other, seeds of interest and sympathy in both. Then such as had produced pretty things were encouraged to lend them to other cells to adorn them and stimulate the occupants.
For instance, No. 140, who gilded the bull, was reminded that No. 120, who had cast him, had never had the pleasure of setting him on her table in her gloomy cell and so raising its look from dungeon to workshop. Then No. 140 said, "Poor No. 120! that is not fair; she shall have him half the day or more if you like, sir."
Thus a grain of self-denial, justice and charity was often drawn into the heart of a cell through the very keyhole.
No. 19, Robinson, did many a little friendly office for other figures, received their thanks, and, above all, obliging these figures warmed and softened his own heart.
You might hear such dialogues as this:
No. 24. "And how is poor old No. 50 to-day (Strutt)?"
Mr. Eden. "Much the same."
No. 24. "Do you think you will bring him round, sir?"
Mr. Eden. "I have great hopes; he is much improved since he had the garden and the violin."
No. 24. "Will you give him my compliments, sir? No. 24's compliments and tell him I bid him 'never say die'?"
Mr. Eden. "Well, ----, how are you this morning?"
"I am a little better, sir. This room (the infirmary) is so sweet and airy, and they give me precious nice things to eat and drink."
"Are the nurses kind to you?"
"That, they are, sir, kinder than I deserve."
"I have a message for you from No. -- on your corridor."
"No! have you, sir?"
"He sends his best wishes for your recovery."
"Now that is very good of him."
"And he would be very glad to hear from yourself how you feel."
"Well, sir, you tell him I am a trifle better, and God bless him for troubling his head about me."
In short, his reverence reversed the Hawes system. Under that a prisoner was divested of humanity and became a number and when he fell sick the sentiment created was, "The figure written on the floor of that cell looks faint." When he died or was murdered, "There is such and such a figure rubbed off our slate."
Mr. Eden made these figures signify flesh and blood, even to those who never saw their human faces. When he had softened a prisoner's heart then he laid the deeper truths of Christianity to that heart. They would not adhere to ice or stone or brass. He knew that till he had taught a man to love his brother whom he had seen he could never make him love God whom he has not seen. To vary the metaphor, his plan was, first warm and soften your wax then begin to shape it after Heaven's pattern. The old-fashioned way is freeze, petrify and mold your wax by a single process. Not that he was mawkish. No man rebuked sin more terribly than he often rebuked it in many of these cells; and when he did so see what he gained by the personal kindness that preceded these terrible rebukes! The rogue said: "What! is it so bad that his reverence, who I know has a regard for me, rebukes me for it like this?--why, it must be bad indeed!"
A loving friend's rebuke is a rebuke--sinks into the heart and convinces the judgment; an enemy's or stranger's rebuke is invective and irritates--not converts. The great vice of the new prisons is general self-deception varied by downright calculating hypocrisy. A shallow zealot like Mr. Lepel is sure to drive the prisoners into one or other of these. It was Mr. Eden's struggle to keep them out of it. He froze cant in the bud. Puritanical burglars tried Scriptural phrases on him as a matter of course, but they soon found it was the very worse lay they could get upon in ---- Jail. The notion that a man can jump from the depths of vice up to the climax of righteous habits, spiritual-mindedness, at one leap, shocked his sense and terrified him for the daring dogs that profess these saltatory powers and the geese that believe it. He said to such: "Let me see you crawl heavenward first, then walk heavenward; it will be time enough to soar when you have lived soberly, honestly, piously a year or two--not here, where you are tied hands, feet and tongue, but free among the world's temptations." He had no blind confidence in learned-by-heart texts. "Many a scoundrel has a good memory," said he.
Here he was quite opposed to his friend Lepel. This gentleman attributed a sort of physical virtue to Holy Writ poured anyhow into a human vessel. His plan of making a thief honest will appear incredible to a more enlightened age; yet it is widely accepted now and its advocates call Mr. Eden a dreamer. It was this: He came into a cell cold and stern and set the rogues a lot of texts. Those that learned a great many he called good prisoners, and those that learned few--black sheep; and the prisoners soon found out that their life, bitter as it was, would be bitterer if they did not look sharp and learn a good many texts. So they learned lots--and the slyest scoundrels learned the most. "Why not?" said they, "in these cursed holes we have nothing better to do; and it is the only way to get the parson's good word, and that is always worth having in jail."
One rogue on getting out explained his knowledge of five hundred texts thus: "What did it hurt me learning texts? I'd just as lieve be learning texts as turning a crank, and as soon be d--d as either."
This fellow had been one of Mr. Lepel's sucking saints--a show prisoner. The Bible and brute force--how odd they sound together! Yet such was the Lepel system, humbug apart. Put a thief in a press between an Old Testament and a New Testament. Turn the screw, crush the texts in, and the rogue's vices out! Conversion made easy! What a wonder he opposes cunning cloaked with religion to brutality cloaked under religion. Ay, brutality, and laziness, and selfishness, all these are the true foundation of that system. Selfishness--for such a man won't do anything he does not like. No! "Why should I make myself 'all things to all men' to save a soul? I will save them this one way or none--this is my way and they shall all come to it," says the reverend Procrustes, forgetting that if the heart is not won in vain is the will crushed; or perhaps not caring so that he gets his own way.
To work on Mr. Eden's plan is a herculean effort day by day repeated; but to set texts is easy, easier even than to learn them--and how easy that is appears from the multitude of incurable felons who have swapped texts for tickets-of-leave. Messieurs Lepel, who teach solitary depressed sinners the Bible with screw and lifted lash and no love nor pity, a word in your ear. Begin a step higher. Go first to some charitable priest and at his feet learn that Bible yourselves!
Forgive my heat, dear reader. I am not an Eden, and these fellows rile me when I think of the good they might do, and they do nothing but force hypocrisy upon men who were bad enough without that. I allow a certain latitude; don't want to swim in hot water by quarreling with every madman or every dunce, but I do doubt any man's right to combine contradictory vices. Now these worthies are stupid yet wild, thick-headed yet delirious--tortoises and March hares.
My sketch of Mr. Eden and his ways is feeble and unworthy. But I conclude it with one master-stroke of eulogy--He was the opposite of these men.