I have here a good story for hard times. It is of a clergyman and cotton spinner of the Church of England, who, upon an income of twenty-four pounds a year, lived very comfortably to the age of ninety-four years, reared a family of eight children respectably, gave two of his sons a University education, and left an estate worth two thousand pounds.
Every one will admit that this was a good deal to do upon a salary of one hundred and twenty dollars; and some readers, who find the winter hard to get through, may be interested to know how he did it. To this day, though he has been dead one hundred years, he is spoken of in the region where he lived, as Wonderful Walker. By this epithet, also, he is spoken of by the poet Wordsworth, in the „Excursion:” –
„And him, the Wonderful, Our simple shepherds, speaking from the heart, Deservedly have styled.”
He lived and died in the lake country of England, near the residence of Wordsworth, who has embalmed him in verse, and described him in prose. Robert Walker, the youngest of twelve children, the son of a yeoman of small estate, was bred a scholar because he was of a frame too delicate, as his father thought, to earn his livelihood by bodily labor. He struggled into a competent knowledge of the classics and divinity, gained in strength as he advanced towards manhood, and by the time he was ordained was as vigorous and alert as most men of his age.
After his ordination, he had his choice of two curacies of the same revenue, namely, five pounds a year – twenty-five dollars. One of these, Seathwaite by name, too insignificant a place to figure upon a map, or even in the „Gazetteer,” was situated in his native valley, in the church of which he had gone to school in his childhood. He chose Seathwaite, but not for that reason. He was in love; he wished to marry; and this parish had a small parsonage attached to it, with a garden of three quarters of an acre. The person to whom he was engaged was a comely and intelligent domestic servant such as then could frequently be found in the sequestered parts of England. She had saved, it appears, from her wages the handsome sum of forty pounds. Thus provided, he married, and entered upon his curacy in his twenty-sixth year, and set up housekeeping in his little parsonage.
Every one knows what kind of families poor clergymen are apt to have. Wonderful Walker had one of that kind. About every two years, or less, a child arrived; and heartily welcome they all were, and deeply the parents mourned the loss of one that died. In the course of a few years, eight bouncing girls and boys filled his little house; and the question recurs with force: How did he support them all? From Queen Anne’s bounty, and other sources, his income was increased to the sum mentioned above, twenty-four pounds. That for a beginning. Now for the rest.
In the first place, he was the lawyer of his parish, as well as its notary, conveyancer, appraiser, and arbitrator. He drew the wills, contracts, and deeds, charging for such services a moderate fee, which added to his little store of cash. His labors of this kind, at the beginning of the year, when most contracts were made, were often extremely severe, occupying sometimes half the night, or even all night. Then he made the most of his garden, which was tilled by his own hands, until his children were old enough to help him. Upon the mountains near by, having a right of pasturage, he kept two cows and some sheep, which supplied the family with all their milk and butter, nearly all their meat, and most of their clothes. He also rented two or three acres of land, upon which he raised various crops. In sheep-shearing time, he turned out and helped his neighbors shear their sheep, a kind of work in which he had eminent skill. As compensation, each farmer thus assisted gave him a fleece. In haying time, too, he and his boys were in the fields lending a hand, and got some good hay-cocks for their pains.
Besides all this, he was the schoolmaster of the parish. Mr. Wordsworth positively says that, during most of the year, except when farm work was very pressing, he taught school eight hours a day for five days in the week, and four hours on Saturday. The school-room was the church. The master’s seat was inside the rails of the altar; he used the communion table for a desk; and there, during the whole day, while the children were learning and saying their lessons, he kept his spinning-wheel in motion. In the evening, when school was over, feeling the need of exercise, he changed the small spinning-wheel at which he had sat all day for a large one, which required the spinner to step to and fro.
There was absolutely no waste and no luxury known in his house. The only indulgence which looked like luxury was that, on a Saturday afternoon, he would read a newspaper or a magazine. The clothes of the whole family were grown, spun, woven, and made by themselves. The fuel of the house, which was peat, was dug, dried, and carried by themselves. They made their own candles. Once a month a sheep was selected from their little flock and killed for the use of the family, and in the fall a cow would be salted and dried for the winter, the hide being tanned for the family shoes. No house was more hospitable, nor any hand more generous, than those of this excellent man. Old parishioners, who walked to church from a distance and wished to remain for the afternoon service, were always welcome to dinner at the parsonage, and sometimes these guests were so numerous that it took the family half the week to eat up the cold broken remains. He had something always to spare to make things decent and becoming. His sister’s pew in the chapel he lined neatly with woolen cloth of his own making.
„It is the only pew in the chapel so distinguished,” writes the poet, „and I know of no other instance of his conformity to the delicate accommodations of modern times.”
Nineteen or twenty years elapsed before this singular and interesting man attracted any public notice. His parishioners, indeed, held him in great esteem, for he was one of those men who are not only virtuous, but who render virtue engaging and attractive. If they revered him as a benevolent, a wise, and a temperate man, they loved him as a cheerful, friendly, and genial soul. He was gay and merry at Christmas, and his goodness was of a kind which allures while it rebukes. But beyond the vale of Seathwaite, he was unknown until the year 1754, when a traveler discovered him, and published an account of his way of life.
„I found him,” writes this traveler, „sitting at the head of a long square table, dressed in a coarse blue frock, trimmed with black horn buttons, a checked shirt, a leathern strap about his neck for a stock, a coarse apron, a pair of great wooden soled shoes, plated with iron to preserve them, with a child upon his knee, eating his breakfast. His wife and the remainder of his children were, some of them, employed in waiting upon each other, the rest in teasing and spinning wool, at which trade he is a great proficient; and, moreover, when it is ready for sale, he will lay it upon his back, sixteen or thirty-two pounds’ weight, and carry it on foot to the market, seven or eight miles.”
He spoke also of his cheerfulness, and the good humor which prevailed in the family, the simplicity of his doctrine, and the apostolic fervor of his preaching; for, it seems, he was an excellent preacher as well. The publication of this account drew attention to the extreme smallness of his clerical income, and the bishop offered to annex to Seathwaite an adjacent parish, which also yielded a revenue of five pounds a year. By preaching at one church in the morning, and the other in the afternoon, he could serve both parishes, and draw both stipends. Wonderful Walker declined the bishop’s offer.
„The annexation,” he wrote to the bishop, „would be apt to cause a general discontent among the inhabitants of both places, by either thinking themselves slighted, being only served alternately or neglected in the duty, or attributing it to covetousness; all of which occasions of murmuring I would willingly avoid.”
Mr. Wordsworth, to whom we are indebted for this letter, mentions that, in addition to his other gifts and graces, he had a „beautiful handwriting.”
This admirable man continued to serve his little parish for nearly sixty-eight years. His children grew up about him. Two of his sons became clergymen of the Church of England; one learned the trade of a tanner; four of his daughters were happily married; and, occasionally, all the children and grandchildren, a great company of healthy and happy people, spent Christmas together, and went to church, and partook of the communion together, this one family filling the whole altar.
The good old wife died first. At her funeral the venerable man, past ninety years of age, had the body borne to the grave by three of her daughters and one granddaughter. When the corpse was lifted, he insisted upon lending a hand, and he felt about (for he was almost blind) until he got held of a cloth that was fastened to the coffin; and thus, as one of the bearers of the body, he entered the church where she was to be buried.
The old man, who had preached with much vigor and great clearness until then sensibly drooped after the loss of his wife. His voice faltered as he preached; he kept looking at the seat in which she had sat, where he had watched her kind and beautiful face for more than sixty years. He could not pass her grave without tears. But though sad and melancholy when alone, he resumed his cheerfulness and good-humor when friends were about him. One night, in his ninety-fourth year, he tottered upon his daughter’s arm, as his custom was, to the door, to look out for a moment upon the sky.
„How clear,” said he, „the moon shines to-night.”
In the course of that night he passed peacefully away. At six the next morning he was found dead upon the couch where his daughter had left him. Of all the men of whom I have ever read, this man, I think, was the most virtuous and the most fortunate.