The old stone inn was warm inside and welcoming to Elizabeth Fry. But in spite of her heavy wool shawl and long wool skirt, she was chilled through and through. She had just returned from a day spent like many days before, working in the cold and drafty women’s side of the prison at Bristol.
“Those filthy stone rooms, with the cold and dripping walls!” she thought as she passed the big cheerful fire that warmed the main room of the inn. “They are no fit place for anyone to stay in, no matter what crimes they have committed! And those poor little children shut up, too! How I’d like to take them out into the sunshine and let them run! All that yelling and fighting! I need to find something to occupy their minds and their hands,” so ran her thoughts as she climbed the winding stairs to her room.
As soon as she opened the door, she sensed something strange about the room. The small-paned windows were still closed, as she had left them in the morning, but a dresser drawer was partly open, with a shawl dangling from it. Glancing down at the floor, she saw the candle from the night stand lying broken on the bare boards. Then she gave a little gasp. There, under the bed, just visible below the patchwork quilt, was the sole of a man’s boot.
What should she do? To give herself time to think, she went quietly to the dresser and closed the drawer. Then she picked up the broken candle. She had reached a decision.
She knelt down beside the boot. She could hear someone breathing hard under the bed, perhaps terrified at the prospect of being caught. “Dear Lord,” she began, “please forgive this man for what he has done. May thy goodness enter his heart and help him to improve his ways.” Her voice was soft and kind.
The boot stirred.
“Dear Lord, this man is confused and needs thy guidance, so he will steal no more.”
The man crawled out from under the bed. He was very thin, with a dark stubby beard and long uncombed hair. “Why are you praying for me?” he asked gruffly. “Why don’t you call the innkeeper and get it over with?”
“The Lord is the only one I’ll call on,” said Elizabeth as she rose from her knees. She was still a little bit afraid, but she looked at him kindly, “Thee must have had a very special reason for coming to my room.” His shoulders drooped.
“Can’t thee tell me what it was?” she asked. The man remained silent. Elizabeth waited.
“I’m hungry, Ma’am,” he said at last. “I’ve been hungry for days. I’ve been stealing scraps of food, but they didn’t fill the empty hole here in my stomach. I needed money, for real food. I was looking for a warm coat too.”
“I’m glad thee came to my room,” said Elizabeth. “I think I can help thee.”
The man looked at her in utter amazement. He had never been treated so kindly before, not even when he was working as a footman on a stagecoach.
Elizabeth pulled a heavy sweater from the drawer. “This is my husband’s sweater,” she said. “I think it will fit thee. Now let’s go downstairs and have dinner.”
The man’s pale face broke into a broad grin. “You’re sure good to me,” he said. “You could have had me put in prison—or will you anyway?” His eyes suddenly darted wildly toward the window.
“No,” said Elizabeth. “I know too much about prisons to send anyone there.” Seeing his puzzlement, she added, “I’ll tell thee about it while we eat dinner.”
Elizabeth led the man downstairs to the big hall of the inn. While he consumed a big plate of boiled mutton and potatoes, she told him about her work in the women’s prisons. Then he gave her a full account of his own troubles.
He had been in prison three times—the first time for owing money he couldn’t pay, the second time for stealing, and the third time just because of his reputation. Since his last time in prison, he had not been able to get a job. His clothes were worn and dirty, and he looked so bad that no one trusted him enough to give him work. He was determined never to be jailed again, so he had almost starved to death before coming at last to Elizabeth’s room.
Elizabeth was moved by his story. It was like so many of the sad stories she had heard from the women in the prison.
In her practical way, she thought first about the man’s need for a job. She talked with him about what work he might do and where he might look for it. When they parted, she gave him some money for soap and a clean set of clothes.
The man left with strength in his body and hope in his heart. Elizabeth returned to her room with a deep sense of peace, grateful that she had been led to respond to him with love rather than with fear.