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Chapter 6

THE LADIES' SOCIETIES

Our Parish is very prolific in ladies' charitable institutions. In
winter, when wet feet are common, and colds not scarce, we have the
ladies' soup distribution society, the ladies' coal distribution
society, and the ladies' blanket distribution society; in summer,
when stone fruits flourish and stomach aches prevail, we have the
ladies' dispensary, and the ladies' sick visitation committee; and
all the year round we have the ladies' child's examination society,
the ladies' bible and prayer-book circulation society, and the
ladies' childbed-linen monthly loan society. The two latter are
decidedly the most important; whether they are productive of more
benefit than the rest, it is not for us to say, but we can take
upon ourselves to affirm, with the utmost solemnity, that they
create a greater stir and more bustle, than all the others put
together.

We should be disposed to affirm, on the first blush of the matter,
that the bible and prayer-book society is not so popular as the
childbed-linen society; the bible and prayer-book society has,
however, considerably increased in importance within the last year
or two, having derived some adventitious aid from the factious
opposition of the child's examination society; which factious
opposition originated in manner following:- When the young curate
was popular, and all the unmarried ladies in the parish took a
serious turn, the charity children all at once became objects of
peculiar and especial interest. The three Miss Browns
(enthusiastic admirers of the curate) taught, and exercised, and
examined, and re-examined the unfortunate children, until the boys
grew pale, and the girls consumptive with study and fatigue. The
three Miss Browns stood it out very well, because they relieved
each other; but the children, having no relief at all, exhibited
decided symptoms of weariness and care. The unthinking part of the
parishioners laughed at all this, but the more reflective portion
of the inhabitants abstained from expressing any opinion on the
subject until that of the curate had been clearly ascertained.

The opportunity was not long wanting. The curate preached a
charity sermon on behalf of the charity school, and in the charity
sermon aforesaid, expatiated in glowing terms on the praiseworthy
and indefatigable exertions of certain estimable individuals. Sobs
were heard to issue from the three Miss Browns' pew; the pew-opener
of the division was seen to hurry down the centre aisle to the
vestry door, and to return immediately, bearing a glass of water in
her hand. A low moaning ensued; two more pew-openers rushed to the
spot, and the three Miss Browns, each supported by a pew-opener,
were led out of the church, and led in again after the lapse of
five minutes with white pocket-handkerchiefs to their eyes, as if
they had been attending a funeral in the churchyard adjoining. If
any doubt had for a moment existed, as to whom the allusion was
intended to apply, it was at once removed. The wish to enlighten
the charity children became universal, and the three Miss Browns
were unanimously besought to divide the school into classes, and to
assign each class to the superintendence of two young ladies.

A little learning is a dangerous thing, but a little patronage is
more so; the three Miss Browns appointed all the old maids, and
carefully excluded the young ones. Maiden aunts triumphed, mammas
were reduced to the lowest depths of despair, and there is no
telling in what act of violence the general indignation against the
three Miss Browns might have vented itself, had not a perfectly
providential occurrence changed the tide of public feeling. Mrs.
Johnson Parker, the mother of seven extremely fine girls--all
unmarried--hastily reported to several other mammas of several
other unmarried families, that five old men, six old women, and
children innumerable, in the free seats near her pew, were in the
habit of coming to church every Sunday, without either bible or
prayer-book. Was this to be borne in a civilised country? Could
such things be tolerated in a Christian land? Never! A ladies'
bible and prayer-book distribution society was instantly formed:
president, Mrs. Johnson Parker; treasurers, auditors, and
secretary, the Misses Johnson Parker: subscriptions were entered
into, books were bought, all the free-seat people provided
therewith, and when the first lesson was given out, on the first
Sunday succeeding these events, there was such a dropping of books,
and rustling of leaves, that it was morally impossible to hear one
word of the service for five minutes afterwards.

The three Miss Browns, and their party, saw the approaching danger,
and endeavoured to avert it by ridicule and sarcasm. Neither the
old men nor the old women could read their books, now they had got
them, said the three Miss Browns. Never mind; they could learn,
replied Mrs. Johnson Parker. The children couldn't read either,
suggested the three Miss Browns. No matter; they could be taught,
retorted Mrs. Johnson Parker. A balance of parties took place.
The Miss Browns publicly examined--popular feeling inclined to the
child's examination society. The Miss Johnson Parkers publicly
distributed--a reaction took place in favour of the prayer-book
distribution. A feather would have turned the scale, and a feather
did turn it. A missionary returned from the West Indies; he was to
be presented to the Dissenters' Missionary Society on his marriage
with a wealthy widow. Overtures were made to the Dissenters by the
Johnson Parkers. Their object was the same, and why not have a
joint meeting of the two societies? The proposition was accepted.
The meeting was duly heralded by public announcement, and the room
was crowded to suffocation. The Missionary appeared on the
platform; he was hailed with enthusiasm. He repeated a dialogue he
had heard between two negroes, behind a hedge, on the subject of
distribution societies; the approbation was tumultuous. He gave an
imitation of the two negroes in broken English; the roof was rent
with applause. From that period we date (with one trifling
exception) a daily increase in the popularity of the distribution
society, and an increase of popularity, which the feeble and
impotent opposition of the examination party, has only tended to
augment.

Now, the great points about the childbed-linen monthly loan society
are, that it is less dependent on the fluctuations of public
opinion than either the distribution or the child's examination;
and that, come what may, there is never any lack of objects on
which to exercise its benevolence. Our parish is a very populous
one, and, if anything, contributes, we should be disposed to say,
rather more than its due share to the aggregate amount of births in
the metropolis and its environs. The consequence is, that the
monthly loan society flourishes, and invests its members with a
most enviable amount of bustling patronage. The society (whose
only notion of dividing time, would appear to be its allotment into
months) holds monthly tea-drinkings, at which the monthly report is
received, a secretary elected for the month ensuing, and such of
the monthly boxes as may not happen to be out on loan for the
month, carefully examined.

We were never present at one of these meetings, from all of which
it is scarcely necessary to say, gentlemen are carefully excluded;
but Mr. Bung has been called before the board once or twice, and we
have his authority for stating, that its proceedings are conducted
with great order and regularity: not more than four members being
allowed to speak at one time on any pretence whatever. The regular
committee is composed exclusively of married ladies, but a vast
number of young unmarried ladies of from eighteen to twenty-five
years of age, respectively, are admitted as honorary members,
partly because they are very useful in replenishing the boxes, and
visiting the confined; partly because it is highly desirable that
they should be initiated, at an early period, into the more serious
and matronly duties of after-life; and partly, because prudent
mammas have not unfrequently been known to turn this circumstance
to wonderfully good account in matrimonial speculations.

In addition to the loan of the monthly boxes (which are always
painted blue, with the name of the society in large white letters
on the lid), the society dispense occasional grants of beef-tea,
and a composition of warm beer, spice, eggs, and sugar, commonly
known by the name of 'candle,' to its patients. And here again the
services of the honorary members are called into requisition, and
most cheerfully conceded. Deputations of twos or threes are sent
out to visit the patients, and on these occasions there is such a
tasting of candle and beef-tea, such a stirring about of little
messes in tiny saucepans on the hob, such a dressing and undressing
of infants, such a tying, and folding, and pinning; such a nursing
and warming of little legs and feet before the fire, such a
delightful confusion of talking and cooking, bustle, importance,
and officiousness, as never can be enjoyed in its full extent but
on similar occasions.

In rivalry of these two institutions, and as a last expiring effort
to acquire parochial popularity, the child's examination people
determined, the other day, on having a grand public examination of
the pupils; and the large school-room of the national seminary was,
by and with the consent of the parish authorities, devoted to the
purpose. Invitation circulars were forwarded to all the principal
parishioners, including, of course, the heads of the other two
societies, for whose especial behoof and edification the display
was intended; and a large audience was confidently anticipated on
the occasion. The floor was carefully scrubbed the day before,
under the immediate superintendence of the three Miss Browns; forms
were placed across the room for the accommodation of the visitors,
specimens in writing were carefully selected, and as carefully
patched and touched up, until they astonished the children who had
written them, rather more than the company who read them; sums in
compound addition were rehearsed and re-rehearsed until all the
children had the totals by heart; and the preparations altogether
were on the most laborious and most comprehensive scale. The
morning arrived: the children were yellow-soaped and flannelled,
and towelled, till their faces shone again; every pupil's hair was
carefully combed into his or her eyes, as the case might be; the
girls were adorned with snow-white tippets, and caps bound round
the head by a single purple ribbon: the necks of the elder boys
were fixed into collars of startling dimensions.

The doors were thrown open, and the Misses Brown and Co. were
discovered in plain white muslin dresses, and caps of the same--the
child's examination uniform. The room filled: the greetings of
the company were loud and cordial. The distributionists trembled,
for their popularity was at stake. The eldest boy fell forward,
and delivered a propitiatory address from behind his collar. It
was from the pen of Mr. Henry Brown; the applause was universal,
and the Johnson Parkers were aghast. The examination proceeded
with success, and terminated in triumph. The child's examination
society gained a momentary victory, and the Johnson Parkers
retreated in despair.

A secret council of the distributionists was held that night, with
Mrs. Johnson Parker in the chair, to consider of the best means of
recovering the ground they had lost in the favour of the parish.
What could be done? Another meeting! Alas! who was to attend it?
The Missionary would not do twice; and the slaves were emancipated.
A bold step must be taken. The parish must be astonished in some
way or other; but no one was able to suggest what the step should
be. At length, a very old lady was heard to mumble, in indistinct
tones, 'Exeter Hall.' A sudden light broke in upon the meeting.
It was unanimously resolved, that a deputation of old ladies should
wait upon a celebrated orator, imploring his assistance, and the
favour of a speech; and the deputation should also wait on two or
three other imbecile old women, not resident in the parish, and
entreat their attendance. The application was successful, the
meeting was held; the orator (an Irishman) came. He talked of
green isles--other shores--vast Atlantic--bosom of the deep--
Christian charity--blood and extermination--mercy in hearts--arms
in hands--altars and homes--household gods. He wiped his eyes, he
blew his nose, and he quoted Latin. The effect was tremendous--the
Latin was a decided hit. Nobody knew exactly what it was about,
but everybody knew it must be affecting, because even the orator
was overcome. The popularity of the distribution society among the
ladies of our parish is unprecedented; and the child's examination
is going fast to decay.

Charles Dickens