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

Chapter 14.

A Cathedral Town.

At length, the wished-for day had arrived; and, with my cousin, I was whirling along, full of hope and desire, towards the cathedral town of D——— through a flat fen country, which though I had often heard it described as ugly, struck my imagination much. The vast height and width of the sky-arch, as seen from those flats as from an ocean — the grey haze shrouding the horizon of our narrow land-view, and closing us in, till we seemed to be floating through infinite space, on a little platform of earth; the rich poplar-fringed farms, with their herds of dappled oxen — the luxuriant crops of oats and beans — the tender green of the tall-rape, a plant till then unknown to me — the long, straight, silver dykes, with their gaudy carpets of strange floating water-plants, and their black banks, studded with the remains of buried forests — the innumerable draining-mills, with their creaking sails and groaning wheels — the endless rows of pollard willows, through which the breeze moaned and rung, as through the strings of some vast Æolian harp; the little island knolls in that vast sea of fen, each with its long village street, and delicately taper spire; all this seemed to me to contain an element of new and peculiar beauty.

“Why!” exclaims the reading public, if perchance it ever sees this tale of mine, in its usual prurient longing after anything like personal gossip, or scandalous anecdote —“why, there is no cathedral town which begins with a D! Through the fen, too! He must mean either Ely, Lincoln, or Peterborough; that’s certain.” Then, at one of those places, they find there is dean — not of the name of Winnstay, true —“but his name begins with a W; and he has a pretty daughter — no, a niece; well, that’s very near it; — it must be him. No; at another place — there is not a dean, true — but a canon, or an archdeacon-something of that kind; and he has a pretty daughter, really; and his name begins — not with W, but with Y; well, that’s the last letter of Winnstay, if it is not the first: that must be the poor man! What a shame to have exposed his family secrets in that way!” And then a whole circle of myths grow up round the man’s story. It is credibly ascertained that I am the man who broke into his house last year, after having made love to his housemaid, and stole his writing-desk and plate — else, why should a burglar steal family-letters, if he had not some interest in them? . . . And before the matter dies away, some worthy old gentleman, who has not spoken to a working man since he left his living, thirty years ago, and hates a radical as he does the Pope, receives two or three anonymous letters, condoling with him on the cruel betrayal of his confidence — base ingratitude for undeserved condescension, &c., &c.; and, perhaps, with an enclosure of good advice for his lovely daughter.

But wherever D—— is, we arrived there; and with a beating heart, I— and I now suspect my cousin also — walked up the sunny slopes, where the old convent had stood, now covered with walled gardens and noble timber-trees, and crowned by the richly fretted towers of the cathedral, which we had seen, for the last twenty miles, growing gradually larger and more distinct across the level flat. “Ely?” “No; Lincoln!” “Oh! but really, it’s just as much like Peterborough!” Never mind, my dear reader; the essence of the fact, as I think, lies not quite so much in the name of the place, as in what was done there — to which I, with all the little respect which I can muster, entreat your attention.

It is not from false shame at my necessary ignorance, but from a fear lest I should bore my readers with what seems to them trivial, that I refrain from dilating on many a thing which struck me as curious in this my first visit to the house of an English gentleman. I must say, however, though I suppose that it will be numbered, at least, among trite remarks, if not among trivial ones, that the wealth around me certainly struck me, as it has others, as not very much in keeping with the office of one who professed to be a minister of the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. But I salved over that feeling, being desirous to see everything in the brightest light, with the recollection that the dean had a private fortune of his own; though it did seem at moments, that if a man has solemnly sworn to devote himself, body and soul, to the cause of the spiritual welfare of the nation, that vow might be not unfairly construed to include his money as well as his talents, time, and health: unless, perhaps, money is considered by spiritual persons as so worthless a thing, that it is not fit to be given to God — a notion which might seem to explain how a really pious and universally respected archbishop, living within a quarter of a mile of one of the worst infernos of destitution, disease, filth, and profligacy — can yet find it in his heart to save £120,000 out of church revenues, and leave it to his family; though it will not explain how Irish bishops can reconcile it to their consciences to leave behind them, one and all, large fortunes — for I suppose from fifty to a hundred thousand pounds is something — saved from fees and tithes, taken from the pockets of a Roman Catholic population, whom they have been put there to convert to Protestantism for the last three hundred years — with what success, all the world knows. Of course, it is a most impertinent, and almost a blasphemous thing, for a working man to dare to mention such subjects. Is it not “speaking evil of dignities”? Strange, by-the-by, that merely to mention facts, without note or comment, should be always called “speaking evil”! Does not that argue ill for the facts themselves? Working men think so; but what matter what “the swinish multitude” think?

When I speak of wealth, I do not mean that the dean’s household would have been considered by his own class at all too luxurious. He would have been said, I suppose, to live in a “quiet, comfortable, gentlemanlike way”—“everything very plain and very good.” It included a butler — a quiet, good-natured old man — who ushered us into our bedrooms; a footman, who opened the door — a sort of animal for which I have an extreme aversion — young, silly, conceited, over-fed, florid — who looked just the man to sell his soul for a livery, twice as much food as he needed, and the opportunity of unlimited flirtations with the maids; and a coachman, very like other coachmen, whom I saw taking a pair of handsome carriage-horses out to exercise, as we opened the gate.

The old man, silently and as a matter of course, unpacked for me my little portmanteau (lent me by my cousin), and placed my things neatly in various drawers — went down, brought up a jug of hot water, put it on the washing-table — told me that dinner was at six — that the half-hour bell rang at half-past five — and that, if I wanted anything, the footman would answer the bell (bells seeming a prominent idea in his theory of the universe)— and so left me, wondering at the strange fact that free men, with free wills, do sell themselves, by the hundred thousand, to perform menial offices for other men, not for love, but for money; becoming, to define them strictly, bell-answering animals; and are honest, happy, contented, in such a life. A man-servant, a soldier, and a Jesuit, are to me the three great wonders of humanity — three forms of moral suicide, for which I never had the slightest gleam of sympathy, or even comprehension.

 

At last we went down to dinner, after my personal adornments had been carefully superintended by my cousin, who gave me, over and above, various warnings and exhortations as to my behaviour; which, of course, took due effect, in making me as nervous, constrained, and affected, as possible. When I appeared in the drawing-room, I was kindly welcomed by the dean, the two ladies, and Lord Lynedale.

But, as I stood fidgeting and blushing, sticking my arms and legs, and head into all sorts of quaint positions — trying one attitude, and thinking it looked awkward, and so exchanged it for another, more awkward still — my eye fell suddenly on a slip of paper, which had conveyed itself, I never knew how, upon the pages of the Illustrated Book of Ballads, which I was turning over:—

“Be natural, and you will be gentlemanlike. If you wish others to forget your rank, do not forget it yourself. If you wish others to remember you with pleasure, forget yourself; and be just what God has made you.”

I could not help fancying that the lesson, whether intentionally or not, was meant for me; and a passing impulse made me take up the slip, fold it together, and put it into my bosom. Perhaps it was Lillian’s handwriting! I looked round at the ladies; but their faces were each buried behind a book.

We went in to dinner; and, to my delight, I sat next to my goddess, while opposite me was my cousin. Luckily, I had got some directions from him as to what to say and do, when my wonders, the servants, thrust eatables and drinkables over nay shoulders.

Lillian and my cousin chatted away about church-architecture, and the restorations which were going on at the cathedral; while I, for the first half of dinner, feasted my eyes with the sight of a beauty, in which I seemed to discover every moment some new excellence. Every time I looked up at her, my eyes dazzled, my face burnt, my heart sank, and soft thrills ran through every nerve. And yet, Heaven knows, my emotions were as pure as those of an infant. It was beauty, longed for, and found at last, which I adored as a thing not to be possessed, but worshipped. The desire, even the thought, of calling her my own, never crossed my mind. I felt that I could gladly die, if by death I could purchase the permission to watch her. I understood, then, and for ever after, the pure devotion of the old knights and troubadours of chivalry. I seemed to myself to be their brother — one of the holy guild of poet-lovers. I was a new Petrarch, basking in the light-rays of a new Laura. I gazed, and gazed, and found new life in gazing, and was content.

But my simple bliss was perfected, when she suddenly turned to me, and began asking me questions on the very points on which I was best able to answer. She talked about poetry, Tennyson and Wordsworth; asked me if I understood Browning’s Sordello; and then comforted me, after my stammering confession that I did not, by telling me she was delighted to hear that; for she did not understand it either, and it was so pleasant to have a companion in ignorance. Then she asked me, if I was much struck with the buildings in Cambridge? — had they inspired me with any verses yet? — I was bound to write something about them — and so on; making the most commonplace remarks look brilliant, from the ease and liveliness with which they were spoken, and the tact with which they were made pleasant to the listener: while I wondered at myself, for enjoying from her lips the flippant, sparkling tattle, which had hitherto made young women to me objects of unspeakable dread, to be escaped by crossing the street, hiding behind doors, and rushing blindly into back-yards and coal-holes.

The ladies left the room; and I, with Lillian’s face glowing bright in my imagination, as the crimson orb remains on the retina of the closed eye, after looking intently at the sun, sat listening to a pleasant discussion between the dean and the nobleman, about some country in the East, which they had both visited, and greedily devouring all the new facts which, they incidentally brought forth out of the treasures of their highly cultivated minds.

I was agreeably surprised (don’t laugh, reader) to find that I was allowed to drink water; and that the other men drank not more than a glass or two of wine, after the ladies had retired. I had, somehow, got both lords and deans associated in my mind with infinite swillings of port wine, and bacchanalian orgies, and sat down at first, in much fear and trembling, lest I should be compelled to join, under penalties of salt-and-water; but I had made up my mind, stoutly, to bear anything rather than get drunk; and so I had all the merit of a temperance-martyr, without any of its disagreeables.

“Well” said I to myself, smiling in spirit, “what would my Chartist friends say if they saw me here? Not even Crossthwaite himself could find a flaw in the appreciation of merit for its own sake, the courtesy and condescension — ah! but he would complain of it, simply for being condescension.” But, after all, what else could it be? Were not these men more experienced, more learned, older than myself? They were my superiors; it was in vain for me to attempt to hide it from myself. But the wonder was, that they themselves were the ones to appear utterly unconscious of it. They treated me as an equal; they welcomed me — the young viscount and the learned dean — on the broad ground of a common humanity; as I believe hundreds more of their class would do, if we did not ourselves take a pride in estranging them from us — telling them that fraternization between our classes is impossible, and then cursing them for not fraternizing with us. But of that, more hereafter.

At all events, now my bliss was perfect. No! I was wrong — a higher enjoyment than all awaited me, when, going into the drawing-room, I found Lillian singing at the piano. I had no idea that music was capable of expressing and conveying emotions so intense and ennobling. My experience was confined to street music, and to the bawling at the chapel. And, as yet, Mr. Hullah had not risen into a power more enviable than that of kings, and given to every workman a free entrance into the magic world of harmony and melody, where he may prove his brotherhood with Mozart and Weber, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Great unconscious demagogue! — leader of the people, and labourer in the cause of divine equality! — thy reward is with the Father of the people!

The luscious softness of the Italian airs overcame me with a delicious enervation. Every note, every interval, each shade of expression spoke to me — I knew not what: and yet they spoke to my heart of hearts. A spirit out of the infinite heaven seemed calling to my spirit, which longed to answer — and was dumb — and could only vent itself in tears, which welled unconsciously forth, and eased my heart from the painful tension of excitement.

Her voice is hovering o’er my soul — it lingers,

O’ershadowing it with soft and thrilling wings;

The blood and life within those snowy fingers

Teach witchcraft to the instrumental strings.

My brain is wild, my breath comes quick.

The blood is listening in my frame;

And thronging shadows, fast and thick,

Fall on my overflowing eyes.

My heart is quivering like a flame;

As morning-dew that in the sunbeam dies,

I am dissolved in these consuming ecstacies.

The dark lady, Miss Staunton, as I ought to call her, saw my emotion, and, as I thought unkindly, checked the cause of it at once.

“Pray do not give us any more of those die-away Italian airs, Lillian. Sing something manful, German or English, or anything you like, except those sentimental wailings.”

Lillian stopped, took another book, and commenced, after a short prelude, one of my own songs. Surprise and pleasure overpowered me more utterly than the soft southern melodies had done. I was on the point of springing up and leaving the room, when my raptures were checked by our host, who turned round, and stopped short in an oration on the geology of Upper Egypt.

“What’s that about brotherhood and freedom, Lillian? We don’t want anything of that kind here.”

“It’s only a popular London song, papa,” answered she, with an arch smile.

“Or likely to become so,” added Miss Staunton, in her marked dogmatic tone.

“I am very sorry for London, then.” And he returned to the deserts.

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