Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet : An Autobiography, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 11.

“The Yard where the Gentlemen Live.”

I may be forgiven, surely, if I run somewhat into detail about this my first visit to the country.

I had, as I have said before, literally never been further afield than Fulham or Battersea Rise. One Sunday evening, indeed, I had got as far as Wandsworth Common; but it was March, and, to my extreme disappointment, the heath was not in flower.

But, usually, my Sundays had been spent entirely in study; which to me was rest, so worn out were both my body and my mind with the incessant drudgery of my trade, and the slender fare to which I restricted myself. Since I had lodged with Mackaye certainly my food had been better. I had not required to stint my appetite for money wherewith to buy candles, ink, and pens. My wages, too, had increased with my years, and altogether I found myself gaining in strength, though I had no notion how much I possessed till I set forth on this walk to Cambridge.

It was a glorious morning at the end of May; and when. I escaped from the pall of smoke which hung over the city, I found the sky a sheet of cloudless blue. How I watched for the ending of the rows of houses, which lined the road for miles — the great roots of London, running far out into the country, up which poured past me an endless stream of food and merchandise and human beings — the sap of the huge metropolitan life-tree! How each turn of the road opened a fresh line of terraces or villas, till hope deferred made the heart sick, and the country seemed — like the place where the rainbow touches the ground, or the El Dorado of Raleigh’s Guiana settler — always a little farther off! How between gaps in the houses, right and left, I caught tantalizing glimpses of green fields, shut from me by dull lines of high-spiked palings! How I peeped through gates and over fences at trim lawns and gardens, and longed to stay, and admire, and speculate on the name of the strange plants and gaudy flowers; and then hurried on, always expecting to find something still finer ahead — something really worth stopping to look at — till the houses thickened again into a street, and I found myself, to my disappointment, in the midst of a town! And then more villas and palings; and then a village; — when would they stop, those endless houses?

At last they did stop. Gradually the people whom I passed began to look more and more rural, and more toil-worn and ill-fed. The houses ended, cattle-yards and farm-buildings appeared; and right and left, far away, spread the low rolling sheet of green meadows and cornfields. Oh, the joy! The lawns with their high elms and firs, the green hedgerows, the delicate hue and scent of the fresh clover-fields, the steep clay banks where I stopped to pick nosegays of wild flowers, and became again a child — and then recollected my mother, and a walk with her on the river bank towards the Red House — and hurried on again, but could not be unhappy, while my eyes ranged free, for the first time in my life, over the chequered squares of cultivation, over glittering brooks, and hills quivering in the green haze, while above hung the skylarks, pouring out their souls in melody. And then, as the sun grew hot, and the larks dropped one by one into the growing corn, the new delight of the blessed silence! I listened to the stillness; for noise had been my native element; I had become in London quite unconscious of the ceaseless roar of the human sea, casting up mire and dirt. And now, for the first time in my life, the crushing, confusing hubbub had flowed away, and left my brain calm and free. How I felt at that moment a capability of clear, bright meditation, which was as new to me, as I believe it would have been to most Londoners in my position. I cannot help fancying that our unnatural atmosphere of excitement, physical as well as moral, is to blame for very much of the working man’s restlessness and fierceness. As it was, I felt that every step forward, every breath of fresh air, gave me new life. I had gone fifteen miles before I recollected that, for the first time for many months, I had not coughed since I rose.

So on I went, down the broad, bright road, which seemed to beckon me forward into the unknown expanses of human life.

The world was all before me, where to choose,

and I saw it both with my eyes and my imagination, in the temper of a boy broke loose from school. My heart kept holiday. I loved and blessed the birds which flitted past me, and the cows which lay dreaming on the sward. I recollect stopping with delight at a picturesque descent into the road, to watch a nursery-garden, full of roses of every shade, from brilliant yellow to darkest purple; and as I wondered at the innumerable variety of beauties which man’s art had developed from a few poor and wild species, it seemed to me the most delightful life on earth, to follow in such a place the primæval trade of gardener Adam; to study the secrets of the flower-world, the laws of soil and climate; to create new species, and gloat over the living fruit of one’s own science and perseverance. And then I recollected the tailor’s shop, and the Charter, and the starvation, and the oppression which I had left behind, and ashamed of my own selfishness, went hurrying on again.

At last I came to a wood — the first real wood that I had ever seen; not a mere party of stately park trees growing out of smooth turf, but a real wild copse; tangled branches and grey stems fallen across each other; deep, ragged underwood of shrubs, and great ferns like princes’ feathers, and gay beds of flowers, blue and pink and yellow, with butterflies flitting about them, and trailers that climbed and dangled from bough to bough — a poor, commonplace bit of copse, I dare say, in the world’s eyes, but to me a fairy wilderness of beautiful forms, mysterious gleams and shadows, teeming with manifold life. As I stood looking wistfully over the gate, alternately at the inviting vista of the green-embroidered path, and then at the grim notice over my head, “All trespassers prosecuted,” a young man came up the ride, dressed in velveteen jacket and leather gaiters, sufficiently bedrabbled with mud. A fishing-rod and basket bespoke him some sort of destroyer, and I saw in a moment that he was “a gentleman.” After all, there is such a thing as looking like a gentleman. There are men whose class no dirt or rags could hide, any more than they could Ulysses. I have seen such men in plenty among workmen, too; but, on the whole, the gentlemen — by whom I do not mean just now the rich — have the superiority in that point. But not, please God, for ever. Give us the same air, water, exercise, education, good society, and you will see whether this “haggardness,” this “coarseness,” &c., &c., for the list is too long to specify, be an accident, or a property, of the man of the people.

“May I go into your wood?” asked I at a venture, curiosity conquering pride.

“Well! what do you want there, my good fellow?”

“To see what a wood is like — I never was in one in my life.”

“Humph! well — you may go in for that, and welcome. Never was in a wood in his life — poor devil!”

“Thank you!” quoth I. And I slowly clambered over the gate. He put his hand carelessly on the top rail, vaulted over it like a deer, and then turned to stare at me.

“Hullo! I say — I forgot — don’t go far in, or ramble up and down, or you’ll disturb the pheasants.”

I thanked him again for what license he had given me — went in, and lay down by the path-side.

Here, I suppose, by the rules of modern art, a picturesque description of the said wood should follow; but I am the most incompetent person in the world to write it. And, indeed, the whole scene was so novel to me, that I had no time to analyse; I could only enjoy. I recollect lying on my face and fingering over the delicately cut leaves of the weeds, and wondering whether the people who lived in the country thought them as wonderful and beautiful as I did; — and then I recollected the thousands whom I had left behind, who, like me, had never seen the green face of God’s earth; and the answer of the poor gamin in St. Giles’s, who, when he was asked what the country was, answered, “The yard where the gentlemen live when they go out of town”— significant that, and pathetic; — then I wondered whether the time would ever come when society would be far enough advanced to open to even such as he a glimpse, if it were only once a year, of the fresh, clean face of God’s earth; — and then I became aware of a soft mysterious hum, above and around me, and turned on my back to look whence it proceeded, and saw the leaves gold-green and transparent in the sunlight, quivering against the deep heights of the empyrean blue; and hanging in the sunbeams that pierced the foliage, a thousand insects, like specks of fire, that poised themselves motionless on thrilling wings, and darted away, and returned to hang motionless again; — and I wondered what they eat, and whether they thought about anything, and whether they enjoyed the sunlight; — and then that brought back to me the times when I used to lie dreaming in my crib on summer mornings, and watched the flies dancing reels between me and the ceilings; — and that again brought the thought of Susan and my mother; and I prayed for them — not sadly — I could not be sad there; — and prayed that we might all meet again some day and live happily together; perhaps in the country, where I could write poems in peace; and then, by degrees, my sentences and thoughts grew incoherent, and in happy, stupid animal comfort, I faded away into a heavy sleep, which lasted an hour or more, till I was awakened by the efforts of certain enterprising great black and red ants, who were trying to found a small Algeria in my left ear.

I rose and left the wood, and a gate or two on, stopped again to look at the same sportsman fishing in a clear silver brook. I could not help admiring with a sort of childish wonder the graceful and practised aim with which he directed his tiny bait, and called up mysterious dimples on the surface, which in a moment increased to splashings and stragglings of a great fish, compelled, as if by some invisible spell, to follow the point of the bending rod till he lay panting on the bank. I confess, in spite of all my class prejudices against “game-preserving aristocrats,” I almost envied the man; at least I seemed to understand a little of the universally attractive charms which those same outwardly contemptible field sports possess; the fresh air, fresh fields and copses, fresh running brooks, the exercise, the simple freedom, the excitement just sufficient to keep alive expectation and banish thought. — After all, his trout produced much the same mood in him as my turnpike-road did in me. And perhaps the man did not go fishing or shooting every day. The laws prevented him from shooting, at least, all the year round; so sometimes there might be something in which he made himself of use. An honest, jolly face too he had — not without thought and strength in it. “Well, it is a strange world,” said I to myself, “where those who can, need not; and those who cannot, must!”

Then he came close to the gate, and I left it just in time to see a little group arrive at it — a woman of his own rank, young, pretty, and simply dressed, with a little boy, decked out as a Highlander, on a shaggy Shetland pony, which his mother, as I guessed her to be, was leading. And then they all met, and the little fellow held up a basket of provisions to his father, who kissed him across the gate, and hung his creel of fish behind the saddle, and patted the mother’s shoulder, as she looked up lovingly and laughingly in his face. Altogether, a joyous, genial bit of — Nature? Yes, Nature. Shall I grudge simple happiness to the few, because it is as yet, alas! impossible for the many.

And yet the whole scene contrasted so painfully with me — with my past, my future, my dreams, my wrongs, that I could not look at it; and with a swelling heart I moved on — all the faster because I saw they were looking at me and talking of me, and the fair wife threw after me a wistful, pitying glance, which I was afraid might develop itself into some offer of food or money — a thing which I scorned and dreaded, because it involved the trouble of a refusal.

Then, as I walked on once more, my heart smote me. If they had wished to be kind, why had I grudged them the opportunity of a good deed? At all events, I might have asked their advice. In a natural and harmonious state, when society really means brotherhood, a man could go up to any stranger, to give and receive, if not succour, yet still experience and wisdom: and was I not bound to tell them what I knew? was sure that they did not know? Was I not bound to preach the cause of my class wherever I went? Here were kindly people who, for aught I knew, would do right the moment they were told where it was wanted; if there was an accursed artificial gulf between their class and mine, had I any right to complain of it, as long as I helped to keep it up by my false pride and surly reserve? No! I would speak my mind henceforth — I would testify of what I saw and knew of the wrongs, if not of the rights of the artisan, before whomsoever I might come. Oh! valiant conclusion of half an hour’s self-tormenting scruples! How I kept it, remains to be shown.

I really fear that I am getting somewhat trivial and prolix; but there was hardly an incident in my two days’ tramp which did not give me some small fresh insight into the terra incognita of the country; and there may be those among my readers, to whom it is not uninteresting to look, for once, at even the smallest objects with a cockney workman’s eyes.

Well, I trudged on — and the shadows lengthened, and I grew footsore and tired; but every step was new, and won me forward with fresh excitement for my curiosity.

At one village I met a crowd of little, noisy, happy boys and girls pouring out of a smart new Gothic school-house. I could not resist the temptation of snatching a glance through the open door. I saw on the walls maps, music, charts, and pictures. How I envied those little urchins! A solemn, sturdy elder, in a white cravat, evidently the parson of the parish, was patting children’s heads, taking down names, and laying down the law to a shrewd, prim young schoolmaster.

Presently, as I went up the village, the clergyman strode past me, brandishing a thick stick and humming a chant, and joined a motherly-looking wife, who, basket on arm, was popping in and out of the cottages, looking alternately serious and funny, cross and kindly — I suppose, according to the sayings and doings of the folks within.

“Come,” I thought, “this looks like work at least.” And as I went out of the village, I accosted a labourer, who was trudging my way, fork on shoulder, and asked him if that was the parson and his wife?

I was surprised at the difficulty with which I got into conversation with the man; at his stupidity, feigned or real, I could not tell which; at the dogged, suspicious reserve with which he eyed me, and asked me whether I was “one of they parts”? and whether I was a Londoner, and what I wanted on the tramp, and so on, before he seemed to think it safe to answer a single question. He seemed, like almost every labourer I ever met, to have something on his mind; to live in a state of perpetual fear and concealment. When, however, he found I was both a cockney and a passer-by, he began to grow more communicative, and told me, “Ees — that were the parson, sure enough.”

“And what sort of a man was he?”

“Oh! he was a main kind man to the poor; leastwise, in the matter of visiting ’em, and praying with ’em, and getting ’em to put into clubs, and such like; and his lady too. Not that there was any fault to find with the man about money — but ‘twasn’t to be expected of him.”

“Why, was he not rich?”

“Oh, rich enough to the likes of us. But his own tithes here arn’t more than a thirty pounds we hears tell; and if he hadn’t summat of his own, he couldn’t do not nothing by the poor; as it be, he pays for that ere school all to his own pocket, next part. All the rest o’ the tithes goes to some great lord or other — they say he draws a matter of a thousand a year out of the parish, and not a foot ever he sot into it; and that’s the way with a main lot o’ parishes, up and down.”

This was quite a new fact to me. “And what sort of folks were the parsons all round.”

“Oh, some of all sorts, good and bad. About six and half a dozen. There’s two or three nice young gentlemen come’d round here now, but they’re all what’s-‘ema-call it? — some sort o’ papishes; — leastwise, they has prayers in the church every day, and doesn’t preach the Gospel, no how, I hears by my wife, and she knows all about it, along of going to meeting. Then there’s one over thereaway, as had to leave his living — he knows why. He got safe over seas. If he had been a poor man, he’d been in —— gaol, safe enough, and soon enough. Then there’s two or three as goes a-hunting — not as I sees no harm in that; if a man’s got plenty of money, he ought to enjoy himself, in course: but still he can’t be here and there too, to once. Then there’s two or three as is bad in their healths, or thinks themselves so — or else has livings summer’ else; and they lives summer’ or others, and has curates. Main busy chaps is they curates, always, and wonderful hands to preach; but then, just as they gets a little knowing like at it, and folks gets to like ’em, and run to hear ’em, off they pops to summat better; and in course they’re right to do so; and so we country-folks get nought but the young colts, afore they’re broke, you see.”

“And what sort of a preacher was his parson?”

“Oh, he preached very good Gospel, not that he went very often himself, acause he couldn’t make out the meaning of it; he preached too high, like. But his wife said it was uncommon good Gospel; and surely when he come to visit a body, and talked plain English, like, not sermon-ways, he was a very pleasant man to heer, and his lady uncommon kind to nurse folk. They sot up with me and my wife, they two did, two whole nights, when we was in the fever, afore the officer could get us a nurse.”

“Well,” said I, “there are some good parsons left.”

“Oh, yes; there’s some very good ones — each one after his own way; and there’d be more on ’em, if they did but know how bad we labourers was off. Why bless ye, I mind when they was very different. A new parson is a mighty change for the better, mostwise, we finds. Why, when I was a boy, we never had no schooling. And now mine goes and learns singing and jobrafy, and ciphering, and sich like. Not that I sees no good in it. We was a sight better off in the old times, when there weren’t no schooling. Schooling harn’t made wages rise, nor preaching neither.”

“But surely,” I said, “all this religious knowledge ought to give you comfort, even if you are badly off.”

“Oh! religion’s all very well for them as has time for it; and a very good thing — we ought all to mind our latter end. But I don’t see how a man can hear sermons with an empty belly; and there’s so much to fret a man, now, and he’s so cruel tired coming home o’ nights, he can’t nowise go to pray a lot, as gentlefolks does.”

“But are you so ill off?”

“Oh! he’d had a good harvesting enough; but then he owed all that for he’s rent; and he’s club money wasn’t paid up, nor he’s shop. And then, with he’s wages”—(I forget the sum — under ten shillings)—“how could a man keep his mouth full, when he had five children! And then, folks is so unmarciful — I’ll just tell you what they says to me, now, last time I was over at the board —”

And thereon he rambled off into a long jumble of medical-officers, and relieving-officers, and Farmer This, and Squire That, which indicated a mind as ill-educated as discontented. He cursed or rather grumbled at — for he had not spirit, it seemed, to curse anything — the New Poor Law; because it “ate up the poor, flesh and bone”; — bemoaned the “Old Law,” when “the Vestry was forced to give a man whatsomdever he axed for, and if they didn’t, he’d go to the magistrates and make ’em, and so sure as a man got a fresh child, he went and got another loaf allowed him next vestry, like a Christian;"— and so turned through a gate, and set to work forking up some weeds on a fallow, leaving me many new thoughts to digest.

That night, I got to some town or other, and there found a night’s lodging, good enough for a walking traveller.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44