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Chapter 8

He continued to stare out of the window long after the gig had disappeared over the low horizon: a small, nervous, indomitable figure of a man close upon his sixty-second birthday, standing for a while with his back turned upon his unwieldy manuscripts and his jaw thrust forward obstinately as he surveyed the blank landscape. He had the scholar's stoop, but this thrust of the jaw was habitual and lifted his face at an angle which gave an "up-sighted" expression to his small eyes, set somewhat closely together above a long straight nose. Nose, eyes, jaw announced obstinacy, and the eyes, quick and fiery, warned you that it was of the aggressive kind which not only holds to its purpose, but never ceases nagging until it be attained. In build he was lean and wiry: in carriage amazingly dignified for one who (to be precise) stood but 5 feet 5 and a half inches high.

His father had been a non-juring clergyman, one of the many ejected from their livings on St. Bartholomew's Day, 1662; and he himself had been educated as a Nonconformist at Mr. Morton's famous academy on Newington Green, where Daniel Defoe had preceded him as a pupil, and where he had heard John Bunyan preach. At the conclusion of his training there he was pitched upon to answer some pamphlets levelled against the Dissenters, and this set him on a course of reading which produced an effect he was far from intending: for instead of writing the answer he determined to renounce Dissent and attach himself to the Established Church. He dwelt at that time with his mother and an old aunt, themselves ardent Dissenters, to whom he could not tell his design. So he arose before daybreak one morning, tramped sixty miles to Oxford, and entered himself at Exeter College as a poor scholar. This was in August, 1683.

He took up his residence in Oxford with forty-five shillings in his pocket. He studied there five years, and during that time received from his family and friends just five shillings; obtained his Bachelor's degree, and departed seven pounds and fifteen shillings richer than when he entered the University. The winter of 1683 was a hard beginning for a scholar too poor to buy fuel, the cold being so severe in the Thames valley that coaches plied as freely on the river from the Temple to Westminster as if they had gone upon the land. Yet "I tarried," he afterwards wrote, "in Exeter College, though I met with some hardships I had before been unacquainted with, till I was of standing sufficient to take my Bachelor's degree; and not being able to subsist there afterwards, I came to London during the time of my Lord Bishop of London's suspension by the High Commission, and was instituted into deacon's orders by my Lord Bishop of Rochester, at his palace at Bromley, August 7th, 1688."

He had maintained himself by instructing wealthier undergraduates and writing their exercises for them (as a servitor he had to black their boots and run their errands); also by scribbling for John Dunton, the famous London bookseller, whose acquaintance he had made during his last year at Mr. Morton's. With all this he found time and the will to be charitable, and had visited the poor creatures imprisoned in the Castle at Oxford--many for debt. He lived to take the measure of this kindness, and to see it repeated by his sons.

Maggots: or Poems on Several Subjects never before Handled was no very marketable book of rhymes. Yet it served its purpose and helped him, through Dunton, to become acquainted with a few men of letters and learning. He had something better, too, to cheer his start in London. Dunton in 1682 had married Elizabeth, one of the many daughters of Dr. Samuel Annesley, the famous Dissenter, then preaching at a Nonconformist church which he had opened in Little St. Helen's, Bishopsgate. Young Wesley, a student at Newington Green, had been present at the wedding, with a copy of verses in his pocket: and there, in a corner of the Doctor's gloomy house in Spital Yard, he came on the Doctor's youngest daughter, a slight girl of fourteen, seated and watching the guests.

She was but a child, and just then an unhappy one, though with no childish trouble. Minds ripened early in Annesley House, where scholars and divines resorted to discuss the battle raging between Church and Dissent. Susanna Annesley had listened and brooded upon what she heard; and now her convictions troubled her, for she saw, or thought she saw, the Church to be in the right, and herself an alien in her father's house, secretly rebellious against those she loved and preparing to disappoint them cruelly. She knew her father's beliefs to be as strong and deep as they were temperately expressed.

So it happened that Samuel Wesley, halting awkwardly (as a hobbledehoy will) before this slip of a girl and stammering some words meant to comfort her for losing her sister, presently found himself answering strange questions, staring into young eyes which had somehow surprised his own doubts of Dissent, and beyond them into a mind which had come to its own decision and quietly, firmly, invited him to follow. It startled him so that love dawned at the same moment with a lesser shock. He seated himself on the window cushion beside her, and after this they talked a very little, but watched the guests, feeling like two conspirators in the crowd, feeling also that the world was suddenly changed for them both.

And thus it came about that Samuel Wesley dropped his pen, packed his books, and tramped off to Oxford. He was back again now, after five years, with his degree, but no money as yet to marry on. He started with a curacy at 28 pounds a year; was appointed chaplain on board a man-of-war, when his income rose to 70 pounds; and began an epic poem on the Life of Christ, scribbling (since he had leisure) at the rate of two hundred couplets a day; but soon returned to London, where he obtained a second curacy and 30 pounds year. His pen earned him another 30 pounds, and on this he decided to marry.

Between him and Susanna Annesley there had been little talk of love, but no doubt at all. She was now close upon twenty, and ready to marry him when he named the day. So married they were, in 1689. Less than a year later their first child, Samuel, was born in their London lodgings, and soon after came an offer, from the Massingberd family, through the Marquis of Normanby, of the living of South Ormsby in Lincolnshire. Thither accordingly they journeyed on Midsummer Day, 1690, and there resided until the spring of 1697 in a vicarage little better than a mud-built hut. There Mrs. Wesley bare Emilia, Susannah and Molly, besides other children who died in infancy, and there the Rector put forth his Life of our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. A heroic poem in ten books: besides such trifles as "The Young Student's Library: containing Extracts and Abridgments of the most Valuable Books printed in England and in the Foreign Journals from the year '65 to this time. To which is added A New Essay upon all sorts of Learning."

Close by the parish church stood the Hall, the great house of the Lord Marquis of Normanby who in 1694 made Mr. Wesley his domestic chaplain. The Marquis was a rake, and he and his mistresses gave the poor clergyman many searchings of heart. There was one who took a fancy to Mrs. Wesley and would be intimate with her. Coming home one day and finding this visitor seated with his wife, Mr. Wesley went up to her, took her by the hand and very fairly handed her out. It cost him his living: but the Marquis, being what is called a good fellow in the main, bore him no grudge; nay, rather liked his spirit, and afterwards showed himself a good friend to the amount of twenty guineas, to which the Marchioness (but this is more explicable) added five from her own purse.

By good fortune the living of Epworth fell vacant just then, and in accordance with some wish or promise of the late Queen Mary, to whom he had dedicated his Life of Christ, Mr. Wesley was presented to it, a decent preferment, worth about 200 pounds a year in the currency of those times. But by this time his family was large; he was in debt; the fees to be paid before taking up the living ate farther into his credit; a larger house had to be maintained, with three acres of garden and farm-buildings; and his new parishioners hated his politics and made life as miserable for him as they could. They were savage fighters, but they found their match. In 1702 they set fire secretly to the parsonage-house, and burned down two-thirds of it. In the winter of 1704 they destroyed a great part of his crop of flax. This was the year of Blenheim, and upon news of the victory Mr. Wesley sat down to commemorate it in heroic verse. The poem (published in the early days of 1705), if inferior to Mr. Addison's on the same occasion, ran to five hundred and ninety-four lines, and contained compliments enough to please the great Duke of Marlborough, who sent for its author, rewarded him with the chaplaincy of Colonel Lepelle's regiment, and promised him a prebend's stall. The Dissenters, who (with some excuse, perhaps) looked upon Mr. Wesley as that worst of foes, a deserter from their own ranks, using their influence in Parliament and at Court, had him deprived of his regiment and denied the stall. In April Queen Anne dissolved Parliament, and in May the late Tory members for the county of Lincoln, Sir John Thorold--and the Dymoke who then held--as his descendant holds to-day--the dignity of Royal Champion, fought and lost an election with the Whig candidates, Colonel Whichcott and Mr. Albert Bertie. The Dissenters of course supported these; and Mr. Wesley, scorning insults and worse, the unpopular side: with what results we may read in these extracts from letters to the Archbishop of York.

Epworth, June 7th, 1705.

I went to Lincoln on Tuesday night, May 29th, and the election began on Wednesday, 30th. A great part of the night our Isle people kept drumming, shouting, and firing of pistols and guns under the window where my wife lay, who had been brought to bed not three weeks. I had put the child to nurse over against my own house; the noise kept his nurse waking till one or two in the morning. Then they left off, and the nurse being heavy with sleep, overlaid the child. She waked, and finding it dead, ran over with it to my house almost distracted, and calling my servants, threw it into their arms. They, as wise as she, ran up with it to my wife and, before she was well awake, threw it cold and dead into hers. She composed herself as well as she could, and that day got it buried.

A clergyman met me in the castle yard and told me to withdraw, for the Isle men intended me a mischief. Another told me he had heard near twenty of them say, "if they got me in the castle yard, they would squeeze my guts out." My servant had the same advice. I went by Gainsbro', and God preserved me.

When they knew I was got home, they sent the drum and mob, with guns etc. as usual, to compliment me till after midnight. One of them, passing by on Friday evening and seeing my children in the yard, cried out "O ye devils! We will come and turn ye all out of doors a-begging shortly." God convert them, and forgive them!

All this, thank God, does not in the least sink my wife's spirits. For my own, I feel them disturbed and disordered. . . .

The rebuilding of the parsonage and some unhappy essays in farming his glebe had run the Rector still farther in debt: and now, not satisfied with winning the election, his enemies struck at him privily. His next letter is dated not three weeks later from the debtors' ward in Lincoln.

Lincoln Castle, June 25th, 1705.

My Lord,

Now I am at rest, for I am come to the haven where I have long expected to be. On Friday last (June 23rd), when I had been, in christening a child, at Epworth, I was arrested in my churchyard by one who had been my servant, and gathered my tithe last year, at the suit of one of Mr. Whichcott's relations and zealous friends (Mr Pinder) according to their promise when they were in the Isle before the election. The sum was not thirty pounds, but it was as good as five hundred. Now they knew the burning of my flax, my London journey, and their throwing me out of my regiment had both sunk my credit and exhausted my money. My adversary was sent to, when I was on the road, to meet me, that I might make some proposals to him. But all his answer was that 'I must immediately pay the whole sum, or go to prison.' Thither I went, with no great concern to myself: and find much more civility and satisfaction here than in brevibus gyaris of my own Epworth. I thank God, my wife was pretty well recovered and churched some days before I was taken from her; and hope she'll be able to look to my family, if they don't turn them out of doors as they have often threatened to do. One of my biggest concerns was my being forced to leave my poor lambs in the midst of so many wolves. But the great Shepherd is able to provide for them and to preserve them. My wife bears it with that courage which becomes her, and which I expected from her.

I don't despair of doing some good here (and so I sha'n't quite lose the end of living), and it may be, do more in this new parish than in my old one: for I have leave to read prayers every morning and afternoon here in the prison, and to preach once a Sunday, which I choose to do in the afternoon when there is no sermon at the minster. And I'm getting acquainted with my brother jail-birds as fast as I can; and shall write to London next post, to the Society for propagating Christian Knowledge, who, I hope, will send me some books to distribute among them. . . .

The next letter, dated from prison on September 12th, proves that he had reasons only too good to be fearful.

The other matter is concerning the stabbing of my cows in the night since I came hither, but a few weeks ago; and endeavouring thereby to starve my forlorn family in my absence; my cows being all dried by it, which was their chief subsistence; though I hope they had not the power to kill any of them outright. . . .

The same night the iron latch of my door was twined off, and the wood hacked in order to shoot back the lock, which nobody will think was with an intention to rob my family. My housedog, who made a huge noise within doors, was sufficiently punished for his want of politics and moderation, for the next day but one his leg was almost chopped off by an unknown hand. 'Tis not every one could bear these things; but, I bless God, my wife is less concerned with suffering them that I am in the writing, or than I believe your Grace will be in reading them. . . . Oh, my lord! I once more repeat it, that I shall some time have a more equal Judge than any in this world.

Most of my friends advise me to leave Epworth, if e'er I should get from hence. I confess I am not of that mind, because I may yet do good there; and 'tis like a coward to desert my post because the enemy fire thick upon me. They have only wounded me yet and, I believe, can't kill me. I hope to be home by Xmass. God help my poor family! . . .

By the end of the year (the Archbishop and other friends assisting) a good part of his debts had been paid and Mr. Wesley was at home again. From Epworth he refused to budge; and there, for three years and more, the rage of his enemies slumbered and his affairs grew easier. John (if we do not count the poor infant overlaid) had been the last child born before his imprisonment. Now arrived Patty, in the autumn of 1706, and Charles, in December, 1707. A third was expected, and shortly, when in the night of February 9th, 1709, the parsonage took fire again and burned to the ground in fifteen minutes.

On Wednesday last, at half an hour after eleven at night, in a quarter of an hour's time or less, my house at Epworth was burned down to the ground--I hope by accident; but God knows all. We had been brewing, but had done all; every spark of fire quenched before five o'clock that evening--at least six hours before the house was on fire. Perhaps the chimney above might take fire (though it had been swept not long since) and break through into the thatch. Yet it is strange I should neither see nor smell anything of it, having been in my study in that part of the house till above half an hour after ten. Then I locked the doors of that part of the house where my wheat and other corn lay, and went to bed.

The servants had not been in bed a quarter of an hour when the fire began. My wife being near her time, and very weak, I lay in the next chamber. A little after eleven I heard "Fire!" cried in the street, next to which I lay. If I had been in my own chamber, as usual, we had all been lost. I threw myself out of bed, got on my waistcoat and nightgown, and looked out of window; saw the reflection of the flame, but knew not where it was; ran to my wife's chamber with one stocking on and my breeches in my hand; would have broken open the door, which was bolted within, but could not. My two eldest children were with her. They rose, and ran towards the staircase, to raise the rest of the house. There I saw it was my own house, all in a light blaze, and nothing but a door between the flame and the staircase.

I ran back to my wife, who by this time had got out of bed, naked, and opened the door. I bade her fly for her life. We had a little silver and some gold--about 20 pounds. She would have stayed for it, but I pushed her out; got her and my two eldest children downstairs (where two of the servant were now got), and asked for the keys. They knew nothing of them. I ran upstairs and found them, came down, and opened the street door. The thatch was fallen in all on fire. The north-east wind drove all the sheets of flame in my face, as if reverberated in a lamp. I got twice to the step and was drove down again. I ran to the garden door and opened it. The fire there was more moderate. I bade them all follow, but found only two with me, and the maid with another in her arms that cannot go; but all naked. I ran with them to an outhouse in the garden, out of the reach of the flames; put the least in the other's lap; and not finding my wife follow me, ran back into the house to seek her, but could not find her. The servants and two of the children were got out at the window. In the kitchen I found my eldest daughter, naked, and asked her for her mother. She could not tell me where she was. I took her up and carried her to the rest in the garden; came in the second time and ran upstairs, the flame breaking through the wall at the staircase; thought all my children were safe, and hoped my wife was some way got out. I then remembered my books, and felt in my pocket for the key of the chamber which led to my study. I could not find the key, though I searched a second time. Had I opened that door, I must have perished.

I ran down and went to my children in the garden, to help them over the wall. When I was without, I heard one of my poor lambs, left still above-stairs, about six years old, cry out, dismally, "Help me!" I ran in again, to go upstairs, but the staircase was now all afire. I tried to force up through it a second time, holding my breeches over my head, but the stream of fire beat me down. I thought I had done my duty; went out of the house to that part of my family I had saved, in the garden, with the killing cry of my child in my ears. I made them all kneel down, and we prayed to God to receive his soul.

I tried to break down the pales, and get my children over into the street, but could not; then went under the flame and got them over the wall. Now I put on my breeches and leaped after them. One of my maidservants that had brought out the least child, got out much at the same time. She was saluted with a hearty curse by one of the neighbours, and told that we had fired the house ourselves, the second time, on purpose! I ran about inquiring for my wife and other children; met the chief man and chief constable of the town going from my house, not towards it to help me. I took him by the hand and said "God's will be done!" His answer was, "Will you never have done your tricks? You fired your house once before; did you not get enough by it then, that you have done it again?" This was cold comfort. I said, "God forgive you! I find you are chief man still." But I had a little better soon after, hearing that my wife was saved; and then I fell on mother earth and blessed God.

I went to her. She was alive, and could just speak. She thought I had perished, and so did all the rest, not having seen me nor any share of eight children for a quarter of an hour; and by this time all the chambers and everything was consumed to ashes, for the fire was stronger than a furnace, the violent wind beating it down on the house. She told me afterwards how she escaped. When I went first to open the back-door, she endeavoured to force through the fire at the fore-door, but was struck back twice to the ground. She thought to have died there, but prayed to Christ to help her. She found new strength, got up alone and waded through two or three yards of flame, the fire on the ground being up to her knees. She had nothing on but her shoes and a wrapping gown, and one coat on her arm. This she wrapped about her breast, and got through safe into the yard, but no soul yet to help her. She never looked up or spake till I came; only when they brought her last child to her, bade them lay it on the bed. This was the lad whom I heard cry in the house, but God saved him almost by a miracle. He only was forgot by the servants, in the hurry. He ran to the window towards the yard, stood upon a chair and cried for help. There were now a few people gathered, one of whom, who loves me, helped up another to the window. The child seeing a man come into the window, was frightened, and ran away to get to his mother's chamber. He could not open the door, so ran back again. The man was fallen down from the window, and all the bed and hangings in the room where he was were blazing. They helped up the man a second time, and poor Jacky leaped into his arms and was saved. I could not believe it till I had kissed him two or three times. My wife then said unto me, "Are your books safe?" I told her it was not much, now she and all the rest were preserved. . . .

Mr. Smith of Gainsborough, and others, have sent for some of my children. . . . I want nothing, having above half my barley saved in my barns unthreshed. I had finished my alterations in the Life of Christ a little while since, and transcribed three copies of it. But all is lost. God be praised!

I hope my wife will recover, and not miscarry, but God will give me my nineteenth child. She has burnt her legs, but they mend. When I came to her, her lips were black. I did not know her. Some of the children are a little burnt, but not hurt or disfigured. I only got a small blister on my hand. The neighbours send us clothes, for it is cold without them.

The child (Kezzy) was born and lived. The Rectory was rebuilt within a year, at a cost of 400 pounds. The day after the fire, as he groped among the ruins in the garden, Mr. Wesley had picked up a torn leaf of his Polyglot Bible, on which these words alone were legible: Vade; vende omnia quot habes; et attolle crucem, et sequere me. He had come to Epworth a poor man: and now, after fifteen years, he stood as poor as then; poorer, perhaps. He had served his parishioners only to earn their detestation. But he stood unbeaten: and as he stared out of his window there gripped him--not for the first time--a fierce ironical affection for the hard landscape, the fields of his striving, even the folk who had proved such good haters. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field--ay, and learn to relish it as no other food. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground. Ah, but to go and surrender that ground to others--there lay the sting! With him, as with many another true man disappointed in his fate, his hopes passed from himself to fasten the more eagerly on his sons. He wanted them to be great and eminent soldiers of Christ, and he divined already that, if for one above the others, this eminence was reserved for John. But he wanted also a son of his loins to succeed him at Epworth, to hold and improve what painful inches he had gained; and again he could only think of John. Could a man devote his life to this forsaken parish and yet be a light set on a hill for the world? Had not his own life taught the folly of that hope?

He sighed and turned from the window. He had quite forgotten Hetty.

He stepped to the door to summon Johnny Whitelamb: but the sound of voices drew him across the passage to the best parlour, and there at the threshold his eyes fell on Sukey's headdress.


"Yes, father." Sukey stepped forward to be kissed.

"Take off that--that thing!"

"Yes, father." She untied the strings obediently.

"If your husband chooses to dress and carry you about the country like a figure of fun, I cannot prevent him. But in my house remember that I am your father, and take my assurance that, although Jezebel tired her head, she had the saving grace of not looking like a fool."

Mr. Wesley turned on his heel and strode back to his books.

"Why don't you stand up to him?" asked Mr. Dick Ellison suddenly, on the road to Kelstein.

"To father?" Hetty came out of her day-dreams with a start.

"Yes: you've been having a tiff this morning, anyone can see. Young man is poison to him, hey? Why don't you take a leaf out of my book? 'Paternal authority'--and a successor of the apostles into the bargain--that's his ground. Well, I don't allow him to take it. 'Beggars can't be choosers' is mine, and I pin him to it. Oh, yes, I'm poison to him, but it does him good. 'That cock won't crow,' I say. He's game enough on his own dunghill, but a high-blooded lass like you ought to be his master by this time. Hint that you'll cut the painter, kick over the traces--you needn't do it, y'know. Threaten you'll run and join the stage--nothing unlikely in that-- and, by George, it'd bring him up with a clove hitch! Where's your invention?"

Hetty gazed at the horse's ears and considered. "It's easy for you, Dick, who have nothing in common with him, not even affection."

"Oh, I like the old fellow well enough, for all his airs with me," said Mr. Dick Ellison graciously.

"If they annoyed you more, you might understand him better--and me," replied Hetty.

Silence fell between them again and the gig bowled on.

Arthur Quiller-Couch