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

Chapter 13.

The Lost Idol Found.

On my return, I found my cousin already at home, in high spirits at having, as he informed me, “bumped the first Trinity.” I excused myself for my dripping state, simply by saying that I had slipped into the river. To tell him the whole of the story, while the fancied insult still rankled fresh in me, was really too disagreeable both to my memory and my pride.

Then came the question, “What had brought me to Cambridge?” I told him all, and he seemed honestly to sympathize with my misfortunes.

“Never mind; we’ll make it all right somehow. Those poems of yours — you must let me have them and look over them; and I dare say I shall persuade the governor to do something with them. After all, it’s no loss for you; you couldn’t have got on tailoring — much too sharp a fellow for that; — you ought to be at college, if one could only get you there. These sizarships, now, were meant for — just such cases as yours — clever fellows who could not afford to educate themselves; if we could only help you to one of them, now —

“You forget that in that case,” said I, with something like a sigh, “I should have to become a member of the Church of England.”

“Why, no; not exactly. Though, of course, if you want to get all out of the university which you ought to get, you must do so at last.”

“And pretend to believe what I do not; for the sake of deserting my own class, and pandering to the very aristocrats, whom —”

“Hullo!” and he jumped with a hoarse laugh. “Stop that till I see whether the door is sported. Why, you silly fellow, what harm have the aristocrats, as you call them, ever done you? Are they not doing you good at this moment? Are you not, by virtue of their aristocratic institutions, nearer having your poems published, your genius recognized, etc. etc., than ever you were before?”

“Aristocrats? Then you call yourself one?”

“No, Alton, my boy; not yet,” said he quietly and knowingly. “Not yet: but I have chosen the right road, and shall end at the road’s end; and I advise you — for really, as my cousin, I wish you all success, even for the mere credit of the family, to choose the same road likewise.”

“What road?”

“Come up to Cambridge, by hook or by crook, and then take orders.”

I laughed scornfully.

“My good cousin, it is the only method yet discovered for turning a snob (as I am, or was) into a gentleman; except putting him into a heavy cavalry regiment. My brother, who has no brains, preferred the latter method. I, who flatter myself that I have some, have taken the former.” The thought was new and astonishing to me, and I looked at him in silence while he ran on —

“If you are once a parson, all is safe. Be you who you may before, from that moment you are a gentleman. No one will offer an insult. You are good enough for any man’s society. You can dine at any nobleman’s table. You can be friend, confidant, father confessor, if you like, to the highest women in the land; and if you have person, manners, and common sense, marry one of them into the bargain, Alton, my boy.”

“And it is for that that you will sell your soul — to become a hanger-on of the upper classes, in sloth and luxury?”

“Sloth and luxury? Stuff and nonsense! I tell you that after I have taken orders, I shall have years and years of hard work before me; continual drudgery of serving tables, managing charities, visiting, preaching, from morning till night, and after that often from night to morning again. Enough to wear out any but a tough constitution, as I trust mine is. Work, Alton, and hard work, is the only way now-a-days to rise in the Church, as in other professions. My father can buy me a living some day: but he can’t buy me success, notoriety, social position, power —” and he stopped suddenly, as if he had been on the point of saying something more which should not have been said.

“And this,” I said, “is your idea of a vocation for the sacred ministry? It is for this, that you, brought up a dissenter, have gone over to the Church of England?”

“And how do you know”— and his whole tone of voice changed instantly into what was meant, I suppose, for a gentle seriousness and reverent suavity —“that I am not a sincere member of the Church of England? How do you know that I may not have loftier plans and ideas, though I may not choose to parade them to everyone, and give that which is holy to the dogs?”

“I am the dog, then?” I asked, half amused, for I was too curious about his state of mind to be angry.

“Not at all, my dear fellow. But those great men to whom we (or at least I) owe our conversion to the true Church, always tell us (and you will feel yourself how right they are) not to parade religious feelings; to look upon them as sacred things, to be treated with that due reserve which springs from real reverence. You know, as well as I, whether that is the fashion of the body in which we were, alas! brought up. You know, as well as I, whether the religious conversation of that body has heightened your respect for sacred things.”

“I do, too well.” And I thought of Mr. Wigginton and my mother’s tea parties.

“I dare say the vulgarity of that school has, ere now, shaken your faith in all that was holy?”

I was very near confessing that it had: but a feeling came over me, I knew not why, that my cousin would have been glad to get me into his power, and would therefore have welcomed a confession of infidelity. So I held my tongue.

“I can confess,” he said, in the most confidential tone, “that it had for a time that effect on me. I have confessed it, ere now, and shall again and again, I trust. But I shudder to think of what I might have been believing or disbelieving now, if I had not in a happy hour fallen in with Mr. Newman’s sermons, and learnt from them, and from his disciples, what the Church of England really was; not Protestant, no; but Catholic in the deepest and highest sense.”

“So you are one of these new Tractarians? You do not seem to have adopted yet the ascetic mode of life, which I hear they praise up so highly,”

“My dear Alton, if you have read, as you have, your Bible, you will recollect a text which tells you not to appear to men to fast. What I do or do not do in the way of self-denial, unless I were actually profligate, which I give you my sacred honour I am not, must be a matter between Heaven and myself.”

There was no denying that truth; but the longer my cousin talked the less I trusted in him — I had almost said, the less I believed him. Ever since the tone of his voice had changed so suddenly, I liked him less than when he was honestly blurting out his coarse and selfish ambition. I do not think he was a hypocrite. I think he believed what he said, as strongly as he could believe anything. He proved afterwards that he did so, as far as man can judge man, by severe and diligent parish work: but I cannot help doubting at times, if that man ever knew what believing meant. God forgive him! In that, he is no worse than hundreds more who have never felt the burning and shining flame of intense conviction, of some truth rooted in the inmost recesses of the soul, by which a man must live, for which he would not fear to die.

And therefore I listened to him dully and carelessly; I did not care to bring objections, which arose thick and fast, to everything he said. He tried to assure me — and did so with a great deal of cleverness — that this Tractarian movement was not really an aristocratic, but a democratic one; that the Catholic Church had been in all ages the Church of the poor; that the clergy were commissioned by Heaven to vindicate the rights of the people, and to stand between them and the tyranny of Mammon. I did not care to answer him that the “Catholic Church” had always been a Church of slaves, and not of free men; that the clergy had in every age been the enemies of light, of liberty; the oppressors of their flocks; and that to exalt a sacerdotal caste over other aristocracies, whether of birth or wealth, was merely to change our tyrants. When he told me that a clergyman of the Established Church, if he took up the cause of the working classes, might be the boldest and surest of all allies, just because, being established, and certain of his income, he cared not one sixpence what he said to any man alive, I did not care to answer him, as I might — And more shame upon the clergy that, having the safe vantage-ground which you describe, they dare not use it like men in a good cause, and speak their minds, if forsooth no one can stop them from so doing. In fact, I was distrustful, which I had a right to be, and envious also; but if I had a right to be that, I was certainly not wise, nor is any man, in exercising the said dangerous right as I did, and envying my cousin and every man in Cambridge.

But that evening, understanding that a boating supper, or some jubilation over my cousin’s victory, was to take place in his rooms, I asked leave to absent myself — and I do not think my cousin felt much regret at giving me leave — and wandered up and down the King’s Parade, watching the tall gables of King’s College Chapel, and the classic front of the Senate House, and the stately tower of St. Mary’s, as they stood, stern and silent, bathed in the still glory of the moonlight, and contrasting bitterly the lot of those who were educated under their shadow to the lot which had befallen me. [Footnote: It must be remembered that these impressions of, and comments on the universities, are not my own. They are simply what clever working men thought about them from 1845 to 1850; a period at which I had the fullest opportunities for knowing the thoughts of working men.]

“Noble buildings!” I said to myself, “and noble institutions! given freely to the people, by those who loved the people, and the Saviour who died for them. They gave us what they had, those mediæval founders: whatsoever narrowness of mind or superstition defiled their gift was not their fault, but the fault of their whole age. The best they knew they imparted freely, and God will reward them for it. To monopolize those institutions for the rich, as is done now, is to violate both the spirit and the letter of the foundations; to restrict their studies to the limits of middle-aged Romanism, their conditions of admission to those fixed at the Reformation, is but a shade less wrongful. The letter is kept — the spirit is thrown away. You refuse to admit any who are not members of the Church of England, say, rather, any who will not sign the dogmas of the Church of England, whether they believe a word of them or not. Useless formalism! which lets through the reckless, the profligate, the ignorant, the hypocritical: and only excludes the honest and the conscientious, and the mass of the intellectual working men. And whose fault is it that THEY are not members of the Church of England? Whose fault is it, I ask? Your predecessors neglected the lower orders, till they have ceased to reverence either you or your doctrines, you confess that, among yourselves, freely enough. You throw the blame of the present wide-spread dislike to the Church of England on her sins during ‘the godless eighteenth century.’ Be it so. Why are those sins to be visited on us? Why are we to be shut out from the universities, which were founded for us, because you have let us grow up, by millions, heathens and infidels, as you call us? Take away your subterfuge! It is not merely because we are bad churchmen that you exclude us, else you would be crowding your colleges, now, with the talented poor of the agricultural districts, who, as you say, remain faithful to the church of their fathers. But are there six labourers’ sons educating in the universities at this moment! No! the real reason for our exclusion, churchmen or not, is, because we are poor— because we cannot pay your exorbitant fees, often, as in the case of bachelors of arts, exacted for tuition which is never given, and residence which is not permitted — because we could not support the extravagance which you not only permit, but encourage — because by your own unblushing confession, it insures the university ‘the support of the aristocracy.’”

“But, on religious points, at least, you must abide by the statutes of the university.”

Strange argument, truly, to be urged literally by English Protestants in possession of Roman Catholic bequests! If that be true in the letter, as well as in the spirit, you should have given place long ago to the Dominicans and the Franciscans. In the spirit it is true, and the Reformers acted on it when they rightly converted the universities to the uses of the new faith. They carried out the spirit of the founders’ statutes by making the universities as good as they could be, and letting them share in the new light of the Elizabethan age. But was the sum of knowledge, human and divine, perfected at the Reformation? Who gave the Reformers, or you, who call yourselves their representatives, a right to say to the mind of man, and to the teaching of God’s Spirit, “Hitherto, and no farther”? Society and mankind, the children of the Supreme, will not stop growing for your dogmas — much less for your vested interests; and the righteous law of mingled development and renovation, applied in the sixteenth century, must be reapplied in the nineteenth; while the spirits of the founders, now purged from the superstitions and ignorances of their age, shall smile from heaven, and say, “So would we have had it, if we had lived in the great nineteenth century, into which it has been your privilege to be born.”

But such thoughts soon passed away. The image which I had seen that afternoon upon the river banks had awakened imperiously the frantic longings of past years; and now it reascended its ancient throne, and tyrannously drove forth every other object, to keep me alone with its own tantalizing and torturing beauty. I did not think about her — No; I only stupidly and steadfastly stared at her with my whole soul and imagination, through that long sleepless night; and, in spite of the fatigue of my journey, and the stiffness proceeding from my fall and wetting, I lay tossing till the early sun poured into my bedroom window. Then I arose, dressed myself, and went out to wander up and down the streets, gazing at one splendid building after another, till I found the gates of King’s College open. I entered eagerly, through a porch which, to my untutored taste, seemed gorgeous enough to form the entrance to a fairy palace, and stood in the quadrangle, riveted to the spot by the magnificence of the huge chapel on the right.

If I had admired it the night before, I felt inclined to worship it this morning, as I saw the lofty buttresses and spires, fretted with all their gorgeous carving, and “storied windows richly dight,” sleeping in the glare of the newly-risen sun, and throwing their long shadows due westward down the sloping lawn, and across the river which dimpled and gleamed below, till it was lost among the towering masses of crisp elms and rose-garlanded chestnuts in the rich gardens beyond.

Was I delighted? Yes — and yet no. There is a painful feeling in seeing anything magnificent which one cannot understand. And perhaps it was a morbid sensitiveness, but the feeling was strong upon me that I was an interloper there — out of harmony with the scene and the system which had created it; that I might be an object of unpleasant curiosity, perhaps of scorn (for I had not forgotten the nobleman at the boat-race), amid those monuments of learned luxury. Perhaps, on the other hand, it was only from the instinct which makes us seek for solitude under the pressure of intense emotions, when we have neither language to express them to ourselves, nor loved one in whose silent eyes we may read kindred feelings — a sympathy which wants no words. Whatever the cause was, when a party of men, in their caps and gowns, approached me down the dark avenue which led into the country, I was glad to shrink for concealment behind the weeping-willow at the foot of the bridge, and slink off unobserved to breakfast with my cousin.

We had just finished breakfast, my cousin was lighting his meerschaum, when a tall figure passed the window, and the taller of the noblemen, whom I had seen at the boat-race, entered the room with a packet of papers in his hand.

“Here, Locule mi! my pocket-book — or rather, to stretch a bad pun till it bursts, my pocket-dictionary — I require the aid of your benevolently-squandered talents for the correction of these proofs. I am, as usual, both idle and busy this morning; so draw pen, and set to work for me.”

“I am exceedingly sorry, my lord,” answered George, in his most obsequious tone, “but I must work this morning with all my might. Last night, recollect, was given to triumph, Bacchus, and idleness.”

“Then find some one who will do them for me, my Ulysses polumechane, polutrope, panurge.”

“I shall be most happy (with a half-frown and a wince) to play Panurge to your lordship’s Pantagruel, on board the new yacht.”

“Oh, I am perfect in that character, I suppose? And is she after all, like Pantagruel’s ship, to be loaded with hemp? Well, we must try two or three milder cargoes first. But come, find me some starving genius — some græculus esuriens —”

“Who will ascend to the heaven of your lordship’s eloquence for the bidding?”

“Five shillings a sheet — there will be about two of them, I think, in the pamphlet.”

“May I take the liberty of recommending my cousin here?”

“Your cousin?” And he turned to me, who had been examining with a sad and envious eye the contents of the bookshelves. Our eyes met, and first a faint blush, and then a smile of recognition, passed over his magnificent countenance.

“I think I had — I am ashamed that I cannot say the pleasure, of meeting him at the boat race yesterday.”

My cousin looked inquiringly and vexed at us both. The nobleman smiled.

“Oh, the fault was mine, not his.”

“I cannot think,” I answered, “that you have any reasons to remember with shame your own kindness and courtesy. As for me,” I went on bitterly, “I suppose a poor journeyman tailor, who ventures to look on at the sports of gentlemen, only deserves to be run over.”

“Sir,” he said, looking at me with a severe and searching glance, “your bitterness is pardonable — but not your sneer. You do not yourself think what you say, and you ought to know that I think it still less than yourself. If you intend your irony to be useful, you should keep it till you can use it courageously against the true offenders.”

I looked up at him fiercely enough, but the placid smile which had returned to his face disarmed me.

“Your class,” he went on, “blind yourselves and our class as much by wholesale denunciations of us, as we, alas! who should know better, do by wholesale denunciations of you. As you grow older, you will learn that there are exceptions to every rule.”

“And yet the exception proves the rule.”

“Most painfully true, sir. But that argument is two-edged. For instance, am I to consider it the exception or the rule, when I am told that you, a journeyman tailor, are able to correct these proofs for me?”

“Nearer the rule, I think, than you yet fancy.”

“You speak out boldly and well; but how can you judge what I may please to fancy? At all events, I will make trial of you. There are the proofs. Bring them to me by four o’clock this afternoon, and if they are well done, I will pay you more than I should do to the average hack-writer, for you will deserve more.”

I took the proofs; he turned to go, and by a side-look at George beckoned him out of the room. I heard a whispering in the passage; and I do not deny that my heart beat high with new hopes, as I caught unwillingly the words —

“Such a forehead! — such an eye! — such a contour of feature as that! — Locule mi — that boy ought not to be mending trousers.”

My cousin returned, half laughing, half angry.

“Alton, you fool, why did you let out that you were a snip?”

“I am not ashamed of my trade.”

“I am, then. However, you’ve done with it now; and if you can’t come the gentleman, you may as well come the rising genius. The self-educated dodge pays well just now; and after all, you’ve hooked his lordship — thank me for that. But you’ll never hold him, you impudent dog, if you pull so hard on him”— He went on, putting his hands into his coat-tail pockets, and sticking himself in front of the fire, like the Delphic Pythoness upon the sacred tripod, in hopes, I suppose, of some oracular afflatus —“You will never hold him, I say, if you pull so hard on him. You ought to ‘My lord’ him for months yet, at least. You know, my good fellow, you must take every possible care to pick up what good breeding you can, if I take the trouble to put you in the way of good society, and tell you where my private birds’-nests are, like the green schoolboy some poet or other talks of.”

“He is no lord of mine,” I answered, “in any sense of the word, and therefore I shall not call him so.”

“Upon my honour! here is a young gentleman who intends to rise in the world, and then commences by trying to walk through the first post he meets! Noodle! can’t you do like me, and get out of the carts’ way when they come by? If you intend to go ahead, you must just dodge in and out like a dog at a fair. ‘She stoops to conquer’ is my motto, and a precious good one too.”

“I have no wish to conquer Lord Lynedale, and so I shall not stoop to him.”

“I have, then; and to very good purpose, too. I am his whetstone, for polishing up that classical wit of his on, till he carries it into Parliament to astonish the country squires. He fancies himself a second Goethe, I hav’n’t forgot his hitting at me, before a large supper party, with a certain epigram of that old turkeycock’s about the whale having his unmentionable parasite — and the great man likewise. Whale, indeed! I bide my time, Alton, my boy — I bide my time; and then let your grand aristocrat look out! If he does not find the supposed whale-unmentionable a good stout holding harpoon, with a tough line to it, and a long one, it’s a pity, Alton my boy!”

And he burst into a coarse laugh, tossed himself down on the sofa, and relighted his meerschaum.

“He seemed to me,” I answered, “to have a peculiar courtesy and liberality of mind towards those below him in rank.”

“Oh! he had, had he? Now, I’ll just put you up to a dodge. He intends to come the Mirabeau — fancies his mantle has fallen on him — prays before the fellow’s bust, I believe, if one knew the truth, for a double portion of his spirit; and therefore it is a part of his game to ingratiate himself with all pot-boy-dom, while at heart he is as proud, exclusive an aristocrat, as ever wore nobleman’s hat. At all events, you may get something out of him, if you play your cards well — or, rather, help me to play mine; for I consider him as my property, and you only as my aide-decamp.”

“I shall play no one’s cards,” I answered, sulkily. “I am doing work fairly, and shall be fairly paid for it, and keep my own independence.”

“Independence — hey-day! Have you forgotten that, after all, you are my — guest, to call it by the mildest term?”

“Do you upbraid me with that?” I said, starting up. “Do you expect me to live on your charity, on condition of doing your dirty work? You do not know me, sir. I leave your roof this instant!”

“You do not!” answered he, laughing loudly, as he sprang over the sofa, and set his back against the door. “Come, come, you Will-o’-the-Wisp, as full of flights, and fancies, and vagaries, as a sick old maid! can’t you see which side your bread is buttered? Sit down, I say! Don’t you know that I’m as good-natured a fellow as ever lived, although I do parade a little Gil Bias morality now and then, just for fun’s sake? Do you think I should be so open with it, if I meant anything very diabolic? There — sit down, and don’t go into King Cambyses’ vein, or Queen Hecuba’s tears either, which you seem inclined to do.”

“I know you have been very generous to me,” I said, penitently; “but a kindness becomes none when you are upbraided with it.”

“So say the copybooks — I deny it. At all events, I’ll say no more; and you shall sit down there, and write as still as a mouse till two, while I tackle this never-to-beenough-by-unhappy-third-years’-men-execrated Griffin’s Optics.”

 

At four that afternoon, I knocked, proofs in hand, at the door of Lord Lynedale’s rooms in the King’s Parade. The door was opened by a little elderly groom, grey-coated, grey-gaitered, grey-haired, grey-visaged. He had the look of a respectable old family retainer, and his exquisitely neat groom’s dress gave him a sort of interest in my eyes. Class costumes, relics though they are of feudalism, carry a charm with them. They are symbolic, definitive; they bestow a personality on the wearer, which satisfies the mind, by enabling it instantly to classify him, to connect him with a thousand stories and associations; and to my young mind, the wiry, shrewd, honest, grim old serving-man seemed the incarnation of all the wonders of Newmarket, and the hunting-kennel, and the steeple-chase, of which I had read, with alternate admiration and contempt, in the newspapers. He ushered me in with a good breeding which surprised me; — without insolence to me, or servility to his master; both of which I had been taught to expect.

Lord Lynedale bade me very courteously sit down while he examined the proofs. I looked round the low-wainscoted apartment, with its narrow mullioned windows, in extreme curiosity. What a real nobleman’s abode could be like, was naturally worth examining, to one who had, all his life, heard of the aristocracy as of some mythic Titans — whether fiends or gods, being yet a doubtful point — altogether enshrined on “cloudy Olympus,” invisible to mortal ken. The shelves were gay with morocco, Russia leather, and gilding — not much used, as I thought, till my eye caught one of the gorgeously-bound volumes lying on the table in a loose cover of polished leather — a refinement of which poor I should never have dreamt. The walls were covered with prints, which soon turned my eyes from everything else, to range delighted over Landseers, Turners, Roberts’s Eastern sketches, the ancient Italian masters; and I recognized, with a sort of friendly affection, an old print of my favourite St. Sebastian, in the Dulwich Gallery. It brought back to my mind a thousand dreams, and a thousand sorrows. Would those dreams be ever realized? Might this new acquaintance possibly open some pathway towards their fulfilment? — some vista towards the attainment of a station where they would, at least, be less chimerical? And at that thought, my heart beat loud with hope. The room was choked up with chairs and tables, of all sorts of strange shapes and problematical uses. The floor was strewed with skins of bear, deer, and seal. In a corner lay hunting-whips, and fishing-rods, foils, boxing-gloves, and gun-cases; while over the chimney-piece, an array of rich Turkish pipes, all amber and enamel, contrasted curiously with quaint old swords and daggers — bronze classic casts, upon Gothic oak brackets, and fantastic scraps of continental carving. On the centre table, too, reigned the same rich profusion, or if you will, confusion — MSS., “Notes in Egypt,” “Goethe’s Walverwandschaften,” Murray’s Hand-books, and “Plato’s Republic.” What was there not there? And I chuckled inwardly, to see how Bell’s Life in London and the Ecclesiologist had, between them, got down “McCulloch on Taxation,” and were sitting, arm-inarm, triumphantly astride of him. Everything in the room, even to the fragrant flowers in a German glass, spoke of a travelled and cultivated luxury — manifold tastes and powers of self-enjoyment and self-improvement, which, Heaven forgive me if I envied, as I looked upon them. If I, now, had had one-twentieth part of those books, prints, that experience of life, not to mention that physical strength and beauty, which stood towering there before the fire — so simple; so utterly unconscious of the innate nobleness and grace which shone out from every motion of those stately limbs and features — all the delicacy which blood can give, combined, as one does sometimes see, with the broad strength of the proletarian — so different from poor me! — and so different, too, as I recollected with perhaps a savage pleasure, from the miserable, stunted specimens of over-bred imbecility whom I had often passed in London! A strange question that of birth! and one in which the philosopher, in spite of himself, must come to democratic conclusions. For, after all, the physical and intellectual superiority of the high-born is only preserved, as it was in the old Norman times, by the continual practical abnegation of the very caste-lie on which they pride themselves — by continual renovation of their race, by intermarriage with the ranks below them. The blood of Odin flowed in the veins of Norman William; true — and so did the tanner’s of Falaise!

At last he looked up and spoke courteously —

“I’m afraid I have kept you long; but now, here is for your corrections, which are capital. I have really to thank you for a lesson in writing English.” And he put a sovereign into my hand.

“I am very sorry,” said I, “but I have no change.”

“Never mind that. Your work is well worth the money.”

“But,” I said, “you agreed with me for five shillings a sheet, and — I do not wish to be rude, but I cannot accept your kindness. We working men make a rule of abiding by our wages, and taking nothing which looks like —”

“Well, well — and a very good rule it is. I suppose, then, I must find out some way for you to earn more. Good afternoon.” And he motioned me out of the room, followed me down stairs, and turned off towards the College Gardens.

I wandered up and down, feeding my greedy eyes, till I found myself again upon the bridge where I had stood that morning, gazing with admiration and astonishment at a scene which I have often expected to see painted or described, and which, nevertheless, in spite of its unique magnificence, seems strangely overlooked by those who cater for the public taste, with pen and pencil. The vista of bridges, one after another spanning the stream; the long line of great monastic palaces, all unlike, and yet all in harmony, sloping down to the stream, with their trim lawns and ivied walls, their towers and buttresses; and opposite them, the range of rich gardens and noble timber-trees, dimly seen through which, at the end of the gorgeous river avenue, towered the lofty buildings of St. John’s. The whole scene, under the glow of a rich May afternoon, seemed to me a fragment out of the “Arabian Nights” or Spencer’s “Fairy Queen.” I leaned upon the parapet, and gazed, and gazed, so absorbed in wonder and enjoyment, that I was quite unconscious, for some time, that Lord Lynedale was standing by my side, engaged in the same employment. He was not alone. Hanging on his arm was a lady, whose face, it seemed to me, I ought to know. It certainly was one not to be easily forgotten. She was beautiful, but with the face and figure rather of a Juno than a Venus — dark, imperious, restless — the lips almost too firmly set, the brow almost too massive and projecting — a queen, rather to be feared than loved — but a queen still, as truly royal as the man into whose face she was looking up with eager admiration and delight, as he pointed out to her eloquently the several beauties of the landscape. Her dress was as plain as that of any Quaker; but the grace of its arrangement, of every line and fold, was enough, without the help of the heavy gold bracelet on her wrist, to proclaim her a fine lady; by which term, I wish to express the result of that perfect education in taste and manner, down to every gesture, which Heaven forbid that I, professing to be a poet, should undervalue. It is beautiful; and therefore I welcome it, in the name of the Author of all beauty. I value it so highly, that I would fain see it extend, not merely from Belgravia to the tradesman’s villa, but thence, as I believe it one day will, to the labourer’s hovel, and the needlewoman’s garret.

Half in bashfulness, half in the pride which shrinks from anything like intrusion, I was moving away; but the nobleman, recognising me with a smile and a nod, made some observation on the beauty of the scene before us. Before I could answer, however, I saw that his companion’s eyes were fixed intently on my face.

“Is this,” she said to Lord Lynedale, “the young person of whom you were speaking to me just now? I fancy that I recollect him, though, I dare say, he has forgotten me.”

If I had forgotten the face, that voice, so peculiarly rich, deep, and marked in its pronunciation of every syllable, recalled her instantly to my mind. It was the dark lady of the Dulwich Gallery!

“I met you, I think,” I said, “at the picture gallery at Dulwich, and you were kind enough, and — and some persons who were with you, to talk to me about a picture there.”

“Yes; Guido’s St. Sebastian. You seemed fond of reading then. I am glad to see you at college.”

I explained that I was not at college. That led to fresh gentle questions on her part, till I had given her all the leading points of my history. There was nothing in it of which I ought to have been ashamed.

She seemed to become more and more interested in my story, and her companion also.

“And have you tried to write? I recollect my uncle advising you to try a poem on St. Sebastian. It was spoken, perhaps, in jest; but it will not, I hope, have been labour lost, if you have taken it in earnest.”

“Yes — I have written on that and on other subjects, during the last few years.”

“Then, you must let us see them, if you have them with you. I think my uncle, Arthur, might like to look over them; and if they were fit for publication, he might be able to do something towards it.”

“At all events,” said Lord Lynedale, “a self-educated author is always interesting. Bring any of your poems, that you have with you, to the Eagle this afternoon, and leave them there for Dean Winnstay; and tomorrow morning, if you have nothing better to do, call there between ten and eleven o’clock.”

He wrote me down the dean’s address, and nodding a civil good morning, turned away with his queenly companion, while I stood gazing after him, wondering whether all noblemen and high-born ladies were like them in person and in spirit — a question which, in spite of many noble exceptions, some of them well known and appreciated by the working men, I am afraid must be answered in the negative.

I took my MSS. to the Eagle, and wandered out once more, instinctively, among those same magnificent trees at the back of the colleges, to enjoy the pleasing torment of expectation. “My uncle!” was he the same old man whom I had seen at the gallery; and if so, was Lillian with him? Delicious hope! And yet, what if she was with him — what to me? But yet I sat silent, dreaming, all the evening, and hurried early to bed — not to sleep, but to lie and dream on and on, and rise almost before light, eat no breakfast, and pace up and down, waiting impatiently for the hour at which I was to find out whether my dream, was true.

And it was true! The first object I saw, when I entered the room, was Lillian, looking more beautiful than ever. The child of sixteen had blossomed into the woman of twenty. The ivory and vermilion of the complexion had toned down together into still richer hues. The dark hazel eyes shone with a more liquid lustre. The figure had become more rounded, without losing a line of that fairy lightness, with which her light morning-dress, with its delicate French semi-tones of colour, gay and yet not gaudy, seemed to harmonize. The little plump jewelled hands — the transparent chestnut hair, banded round the beautiful oval masque — the tiny feet, which, as Suckling has it,

Underneath her petticoat

Like little mice peeped in and out —

I could have fallen down, fool that I was! and worshipped — what? I could not tell then, for I cannot tell even now.

The dean smiled recognition, bade me sit down, and disposed my papers, meditatively, on his knee. I obeyed him, trembling, choking — my eyes devouring my idol — forgetting why I had come — seeing nothing but her — listening for nothing but the opening of these lips. I believe the dean was some sentences deep in his oration, before I became conscious thereof.

“— And I think I may tell you, at once, that I have been very much surprised and gratified with them. They evince, on the whole, a far greater acquaintance with the English classic-models, and with the laws of rhyme and melody, than could have been expected from a young man of your class —macte virtute puer. Have you read any Latin?”

“A little.” And I went on staring at Lillian, who looked up, furtively, from her work, every now and then, to steal a glance at me, and set my poor heart thumping still more fiercely against my side.

“Very good; you will have the less trouble, then, in the preparation for college. You will find out for yourself, of course, the immense disadvantages of self-education. The fact is, my dear lord” (turning to Lord Lynedale), “it is only useful as an indication of a capability of being educated by others. One never opens a book written by working men, without shuddering at a hundred faults of style. However, there are some very tolerable attempts among these — especially the imitations of Milton’s ‘Comus.’”

Poor I had by no means intended them as imitations; but such, no doubt, they were.

“I am sorry to see that Shelley has had so much influence on your writing. He is a guide as irregular in taste, as unorthodox in doctrine; though there are some pretty things in him now and then. And you have caught his melody tolerably here, now —”

“Oh, that is such a sweet thing!” said Lillian. “Do you know, I read it over and over last night, and took it up-stairs with me. How very fond of beautiful things you must be, Mr. Locke, to be able to describe so passionately the longing after them.”

That voice once more! It intoxicated me, so that I hardly knew what I stammered out — something about working men having very few opportunities of indulging the taste for — I forget what. I believe I was on the point of running off into some absurd compliment, but I caught the dark lady’s warning eye on me.

“Ah, yes! I forgot. I dare say it must be a very stupid life. So little opportunity, as he says. What a pity he is a tailor, papa! Such an unimaginative employment! How delightful it would be to send him to college and make him a clergyman!”

Fool that I was! I fancied — what did I not fancy? — never seeing how that very “he” bespoke the indifference — the gulf between us. I was not a man — an equal; but a thing — a subject, who was to be talked over, and examined, and made into something like themselves, of their supreme and undeserved benevolence.

“Gently, gently, fair lady! We must not be as headlong as some people would kindly wish to be. If this young man really has a proper desire to rise into a higher station, and I find him a fit object to be assisted in that praiseworthy ambition, why, I think he ought to go to some training college; St. Mark’s, I should say, on the whole, might, by its strong Church principles, give the best antidote to any little remaining taint of sansculottism. You understand me, my lord? And, then, if he distinguished himself there, it would be time to think of getting him a sizarship.”

“Poor Pegasus in harness!” half smiled, half sighed, the dark lady.

“Just the sort of youth,” whispered Lord Lynedale, loud enough for me to hear, “to take out with us to the Mediterranean as secretary — s’il y avait là de la morale, of course —”

Yes — and of course, too, the tailor’s boy was not expected to understand French. But the most absurd thing was, how everybody, except perhaps the dark lady, seemed to take for granted that I felt myself exceedingly honoured, and must consider it, as a matter of course, the greatest possible stretch of kindness thus to talk me over, and settle everything for me, as if I was not a living soul, but a plant in a pot. Perhaps they were not unsupported by experience. I suppose too many of us would have thought it so; there are flunkeys in all ranks, and to spare. Perhaps the true absurdity was the way in which I sat, demented, inarticulate, staring at Lillian, and only caring for any word which seemed to augur a chance of seeing her again; instead of saying, as I felt, that I had no wish whatever to rise above my station; no intention whatever of being sent to training schools or colleges, or anywhere else at the expense of other people. And therefore it was that I submitted blindly, when the dean, who looked as kind, and was really, I believe, as kind as ever was human being, turned to me with a solemn authoritative voice —

“Well, my young friend, I must say that I am, on the whole, very much pleased with your performance. It corroborates, my dear lord, the assertion, for which I have been so often ridiculed, that there are many real men, capable of higher things, scattered up and down among the masses. Attend to me, sir!” (a hint which I suspect I very much wanted). “Now, recollect; if it should be hereafter in our power to assist your prospects in life, you must give up, once and for all, the bitter tone against the higher classes, which I am sorry to see in your MSS. As you know more of the world, you will find that the poor are not by any means as ill used as they are taught, in these days, to believe. The rich have their sorrows too — no one knows it better than I”—(and he played pensively with his gold pencil-case)—“and good and evil are pretty equally distributed among all ranks, by a just and merciful God. I advise you most earnestly, as you value your future success in life, to give up reading those unprincipled authors, whose aim is to excite the evil passions of the multitude; and to shut your ears betimes to the extravagant calumnies of demagogues, who make tools of enthusiastic and imaginative minds for their own selfish aggrandisement. Avoid politics; the workman has no more to do with them than the clergyman. We are told, on divine authority, to fear God and the king, and meddle not with those who are given to change. Rather put before yourself the example of such a man as the excellent Dr. Brown, one of the richest and most respected men of the university, with whom I hope to have the pleasure of dining this evening — and yet that man actually, for several years of his life, worked at a carpenter’s bench!”

I too had something to say about all that. I too knew something about demagogues and working men: but the sight of Lillian made me a coward; and I only sat silent as the thought flashed across me, half ludicrous, half painful, by its contrast, of another who once worked at a carpenter’s bench, and fulfilled his mission — not by an old age of wealth, respectability, and port wine; but on the Cross of Calvary. After all, the worthy old gentleman gave me no time to answer.

“Next — I think of showing these MSS. to my publisher, to get his opinion as to whether they are worth printing just now. Not that I wish you to build much on the chance. It is not necessary that you should be a poet. I should prefer mathematics for you, as a methodic discipline of the intellect. Most active minds write poetry, at a certain age — I wrote a good deal, I recollect, myself. But that is no reason for publishing. This haste to rush into print is one of the bad signs of the times — a symptom of the unhealthy activity which was first called out by the French revolution. In the Elizabethan age, every decently-educated gentleman was able, as a matter of course, to indite a sonnet to his mistress’s eye-brow, or an epigram on his enemy; and yet he never dreamt of printing them. One of the few rational things I have met with, Eleanor, in the works of your very objectionable pet Mr. Carlyle — though indeed his style is too intolerable to have allowed me to read much — is the remark that ‘speech is silver’—‘silvern’ he calls it, pedantically —‘while silence is golden.’”

At this point of the sermon, Lillian fled from the room, to my extreme disgust. But still the old man prosed —

“I think, therefore, that you had better stay with your cousin for the next week. I hear from Lord Lynedale that he is a very studious, moral, rising young man; and I only hope that you will follow his good example. At the end of the week I shall return home, and then I shall be glad to see more of you at my house at D— — about —— miles from this place. Good morning.”

I went, in rapture at the last announcement — and yet my conscience smote me. I had not stood up for the working men. I had heard them calumniated, and held my tongue — but I was to see Lillian. I had let the dean fancy I was willing to become a pensioner on his bounty — that I was a member of the Church of England, and willing to go to a Church Training School — but I was to see Lillian. I had lowered myself in my own eyes — but I had seen Lillian. Perhaps I exaggerated my own offences: however that may be, love soon, silenced conscience, and I almost danced into my cousin’s rooms on my return.

 

That week passed rapidly and happily. I was half amused with the change in my cousin’s demeanour. I had evidently risen immensely in his eyes; and I could not help applying, in my heart, to him, Mr. Carlyle’s dictum about the valet species — how they never honour the unaccredited hero, having no eye to find him out till properly accredited, and countersigned, and accoutred with full uniform and diploma by that great god, Public Opinion. I saw through the motive of his new-fledged respect for me — and yet encouraged it; for it flattered my vanity. The world must forgive me. It was something for the poor tailor to find himself somewhat appreciated at last, even outwardly. And besides, this sad respect took a form which was very tempting to me now — though the week before it was just the one which I should have repelled with scorn. George became very anxious to lend me money, to order me clothes at his own tailor’s, and set me up in various little toilette refinements, that I might make a respectable appearance at the dean’s. I knew that he consulted rather the honour of the family, than my good; but I did not know that his aim was also to get me into his power; and I refused more and more weakly at each fresh offer, and at last consented, in an evil hour, to sell my own independence, for the sake of indulging my love-dream, and appearing to be what I was not.

I saw little of the University men; less than I might have done; less, perhaps, than I ought to have done. My cousin did not try to keep me from them; they, whenever I met them, did not shrink from me, and were civil enough: but I shrank from them. My cousin attributed my reserve to modesty, and praised me for it in his coarse fashion: but he was mistaken. Pride, rather, and something very like envy, kept me silent. Always afraid (at that period of my career) of young men of my own age, I was doubly afraid of these men; not because they were cleverer than I, for they were not, but because I fancied I had no fair chance with them; they had opportunities which I had not, read and talked of books of which I knew nothing; and when they did touch on matters which I fancied I understood, it was from a point of view so different from mine, that I had to choose, as I thought, between standing up alone to be baited by the whole party, or shielding myself behind a proud and somewhat contemptuous silence. I looked on them as ignorant aristocrats; while they looked on me, I verily believe now, as a very good sort of fellow, who ought to talk well, but would not; and went their way carelessly. The truth is, I did envy those men. I did not envy them their learning; for the majority of men who came into my cousin’s room had no learning to envy, being rather brilliant and agreeable men than severe students; but I envied them their opportunities of learning; and envied them just as much their opportunities of play — their boating, their cricket, their foot-ball, their riding, and their gay confident carriage, which proceeds from physical health and strength, and which I mistook for the swagger of insolence; while Parker’s Piece, with its games, was a sight which made me grind my teeth, when I thought of the very different chance of physical exercise which falls to the lot of a London artisan.

And still more did I envy them when I found that many of them combined, as my cousin did, this physical exercise with really hard mental work, and found the one help the other. It was bitter to me — whether it ought to have been so or not — to hear of prizemen, wranglers, fellows of colleges, as first rate oars, boxers, foot-ball players; and my eyes once fairly filled with tears, when, after the departure of a little fellow no bigger or heavier than myself, but with the eye and the gait of a game-cock, I was informed that he was “bow-oar in the University eight, and as sure to be senior classic next year as he has a head on his shoulders.” And I thought of my nights of study in the lean-to garret, and of the tailor’s workshop, and of Sandy’s den, and said to myself bitter words, which I shall not set down. Let gentlemen readers imagine them for themselves; and judge rationally and charitably of an unhealthy working-man like me, if his tongue be betrayed, at moments, to envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness.

However, one happiness I had — books. I read in my cousin’s room from morning till night. He gave me my meals hospitably enough: but disappeared every day about four to “hall”; after which he did not reappear till eight, the interval being taken up, he said, in “wines” and an hour of billiards. Then he sat down to work, and read steadily and well till twelve, while I, nothing loth, did the same; and so passed, rapidly enough, my week at Cambridge.

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