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

Chapter 21.

The Sweater’s Den.

I was greedily devouring Lane’s “Arabian Nights,” which had made their first appearance in the shop that day.

Mackaye sat in his usual place, smoking a clean pipe, and assisting his meditations by certain mysterious chironomic signs; while opposite to him was Farmer Porter — a stone or two thinner than when I had seen him last, but one stone is not much missed out of seventeen. His forehead looked smaller, and his jaws larger than ever, and his red face was sad, and furrowed with care.

Evidently, too, he was ill at ease about other matters besides his son. He was looking out of the corners of his eyes, first at the skinless cast on the chimney-piece, then at the crucified books hanging over his head, as if he considered them not altogether safe companions, and rather expected something “uncanny” to lay hold of him from behind — a process which involved the most horrible contortions of visage, as he carefully abstained from stirring a muscle of his neck or body, but sat bolt upright, his elbows pinned to his sides, and his knees as close together as his stomach would permit, like a huge corpulent Egyptian Memnon — the most ludicrous contrast to the little old man opposite, twisted up together in his Joseph’s coat, like some wizard magician in the stories which I was reading. A curious pair of “poles” the two made; the mesothet whereof, by no means a “punctum indifferens,“ but a true connecting spiritual idea, stood on the table — in the whisky-bottle.

Farmer Porter was evidently big with some great thought, and had all a true poet’s bashfulness about publishing the fruit of his creative genius. He looked round again at the skinless man, the caricatures, the books; and, as his eye wandered from pile to pile, and shelf to shelf, his face brightened, and he seemed to gain courage.

Solemnly he put his hat on his knees, and began solemnly brushing it with his cuff. Then he saw me watching him, and stopped. Then he put his pipe solemnly on the hob, and cleared his throat for action, while I buried my face in the book.

“Them’s a sight o’ larned beuks, Muster Mackaye?”

“Humph!”

“Yow maun ha’ got a deal o’ scholarship among they, noo?”

“Humph!”

“Dee yow think, noo, yow could find out my boy out of un, by any ways o’ conjuring like?”

“By what?”

“Conjuring — to strike a perpendicular, noo, or say the Lord’s Prayer backwards?”

“Wadna ye prefer a meeracle or twa?” asked Sandy, after a long pull at the whisky-toddy.

“Or a few efreets?” added I.

“Whatsoever you likes, gentlemen. You’re best judges, to be sure,” answered Farmer Porter, in an awed and helpless voice.

“Aweel — I’m no that disinclined to believe in the occult sciences. I dinna haud a’thegither wi’ Salverte. There was mair in them than Magia naturalis, I’m thinking. Mesmerism and magic-lanterns, benj and opium, winna explain all facts, Alton, laddie. Dootless they were an unco’ barbaric an’ empiric method o’ expressing the gran’ truth o’ man’s mastery ower matter. But the interpenetration o’ the spiritual an’ physical worlds is a gran’ truth too; an’ aiblins the Deity might ha’ allowed witchcraft, just to teach that to puir barbarous folk — signs and wonders, laddie, to mak them believe in somewhat mair than the beasts that perish: an’ so ghaists an warlocks might be a necessary element o’ the divine education in dark and carnal times. But I’ve no read o’ a case in which necromancy, nor geomancy, nor coskinomancy, nor ony other mancy, was applied to sic a purpose as this. Unco gude they were, may be, for the discovery o’ stolen spunes — but no that o’ stolen tailors.”

Farmer Porter had listened to this harangue, with mouth and eyes gradually expanding between awe and the desire to comprehend; but at the last sentence his countenance fell.

“So I’m thinking, Mister Porter, that the best witch in siccan a case is ane that ye may find at the police-office.”

“Anan?”

“Thae detective police are gran’ necromancers an’ canny in their way: an’ I just took the liberty, a week agone, to ha’ a crack wi’ ane o’ ’em. An noo, gin ye’re inclined, we’ll leave the whusky awhile, an’ gang up to that cave o’ Trophawnius, ca’d by the vulgar Bow-street, an’ speir for tidings o’ the twa lost sheep.”

So to Bow-street we went, and found our man, to whom the farmer bowed with obsequiousness most unlike his usual burly independence. He evidently half suspected him to have dealings with the world of spirits: but whether he had such or not, they had been utterly unsuccessful; and we walked back again, with the farmer between us, half-blubbering —

“I tell ye, there’s nothing like ganging to a wise ‘ooman. Bless ye, I mind one up to Guy Hall, when I was a barn, that two Irish reapers coom down, and murthered her for the money — and if you lost aught she’d vind it, so sure as the church — and a mighty hand to cure burns; and they two villains coom back, after harvest, seventy mile to do it — and when my vather’s cows was shrew-struck, she made un be draed under a brimble as growed together at the both ends, she a praying like mad all the time; and they never got nothing but fourteen shilling and a crooked sixpence; for why, the devil carried off all the rest of her money; and I seen um both a-hanging in chains by Wisbeach river, with my own eyes. So when they Irish reapers comes into the vens, our chaps always says, ‘Yow goo to Guy Hall, there’s yor brithren a-waitin’ for yow,’ and that do make um joost mad loike, it do. I tell ye there’s nowt like a wise ‘ooman, for vinding out the likes o’ this.”

At this hopeful stage of the argument I left them to go to the Magazine office. As I passed through Covent Garden, a pretty young woman stopped me under a gas-lamp. I was pushing on when I saw it was Jemmy Downes’s Irish wife, and saw, too, that she did not recognise me. A sudden instinct made me stop and hear what she had to say.

“Shure, thin, and ye’re a tailor, my young man?”

“Yes,” I said, nettled a little that my late loathed profession still betrayed itself in my gait.

“From the counthry?”

I nodded, though I dared not speak a white lie to that effect. I fancied that, somehow, through her I might hear of poor Kelly and his friend Porter.

“Ye’ll be wanting work, thin?”

“I have no work.”

“Och, thin, it’s I can show ye the flower o’ work, I can. Bedad, there’s a shop I know of where ye’ll earn — bedad, if ye’re the ninth part of a man, let alone a handy young fellow like the looks of you — och, ye’ll earn thirty shillings the week, to the very least — an’ beautiful lodgings; och, thin, just come and see ’em-as chape as mother’s milk! Gome along, thin — och, it’s the beauty ye are — just the nate figure for a tailor.”

The fancy still possessed me; and I went with her through one dingy back street after another. She seemed to be purposely taking an indirect road, to mislead me as to my whereabouts; but after a half-hour’s walking, I knew, as well as she, that we were in one of the most miserable slop-working nests of the East-end.

She stopped at a house door, and hurried me in, up to the first floor, and into a dirty, slatternly parlour, smelling infamously of gin; where the first object I beheld was Jemmy Downes, sitting before the fire, three-parts drunk, with a couple of dirty, squalling children on the hearthrug, whom he was kicking and cuffing alternately.

“Och, thin, ye villain, beating the poor darlints whinever I lave ye a minute.” And pouring out a volley of Irish curses, she caught up the urchins, one under each arm, and kissed and hugged them till they were nearly choked. “Och, ye plague o’ my life — as drunk as a baste; an’ I brought home this darlint of a young gentleman to help ye in the business.”

Downes got up, and steadying himself by the table, leered at me with lacklustre eyes, and attempted a little ceremonious politeness. How this was to end I did not see; but I was determined to carry it through, on the chance of success, infinitely small as that might be.

“An’ I’ve told him thirty shillings a week’s the least he’ll earn; and charge for board and lodgings only seven shillings.”

“Thirty! — she lies; she’s always a lying; don’t you mind her. Five-and-forty is the werry lowest figure. Ask my respectable and most piousest partner, Shemei Solomons. Why, blow me — it’s Locke!”

“Yes, it is Locke; and surely you’re my old friend Jemmy Downes? Shake hands. What an unexpected pleasure to meet you again!”

“Werry unexpected pleasure. Tip us your daddle! Delighted — delighted, as I was a saying, to be of the least use to yer. Take a caulker? Summat heavy, then? No? ‘Tak’ a drap o’ kindness yet, for auld langsyne?”

“You forget I was always a teetotaller.”

“Ay,” with a look of unfeigned pity. “An’ you’re a going to lend us a hand? Oh, ah! perhaps you’d like to begin? Here’s a most beautiful uniform, now, for a markis in her Majesty’s Guards; we don’t mention names — tarn’t businesslike. P’r’aps you’d like best to work here to-night, for company —‘for auld langsyne, my boys;’ and I’ll introduce yer to the gents up-stairs tomorrow.”

“No,” I said; “I’ll go up at once, if you’ve no objection.”

“Och, thin, but the sheets isn’t aired — no — faix; and I’m thinking the gentleman as is a going isn’t gone yet.”

But I insisted on going up at once; and, grumbling, she followed me. I stopped on the landing of the second floor, and asked which way; and seeing her in no hurry to answer, opened a door, inside which I heard the hum of many voices, saying in as sprightly a tone as I could muster, that I supposed that was the workroom.

As I had expected, a fetid, choking den, with just room enough in it for the seven or eight sallow, starved beings, who, coatless, shoeless, and ragged, sat stitching, each on his truckle-bed. I glanced round; the man whom I sought was not there.

My heart fell; why it had ever risen to such a pitch of hope I cannot tell; and half-cursing myself for a fool, in thus wildly thrusting my head into a squabble, I turned back and shut the door, saying —

“A very pleasant room, ma’am, but a leetle too crowded.”

Before she could answer, the opposite door opened; and a face appeared — unwashed, unshaven, shrunken to a skeleton. I did not recognise it at first.

“Blessed Vargen! but that wasn’t your voice, Locke?”

“And who are you?”

“Tear and ages! and he don’t know Mike Kelly!”

My first impulse was to catch him up in my arms, and run down-stairs with him. I controlled myself, however, not knowing how far he might be in his tyrant’s power. But his voluble Irish heart burst out at once —

“Oh! blessed saints, take me out o’ this! take me out for the love of Jesus! take me out o’ this hell, or I’ll go mad intirely! Och! will nobody have pity on poor sowls in purgatory — here in prison like negur slaves? We’re starved to the bone, we are, and kilt intirely with cowld.”

And as he clutched my arm, with his long, skinny, trembling fingers, I saw that his hands and feet were all chapped and bleeding. Neither shoe nor stocking did he possess; his only garments were a ragged shirt and trousers; and — and, and in horrible mockery of his own misery, a grand new flowered satin vest, which tomorrow was to figure in some gorgeous shop-window!

“Och! Mother of Heaven!” he went on, wildly, “when will I get out to the fresh air? For five months I haven’t seen the blessed light of sun, nor spoken to the praste, nor ate a bit o’ mate, barring bread-and-butter. Shure, it’s all the blessed Sabbaths and saints’ days I’ve been a working like a haythen Jew, an niver seen the insides o’ the chapel to confess my sins, and me poor sowl’s lost intirely — and they’ve pawned the relaver [Footnote: A coat, we understand, which is kept by the coatless wretches in these sweaters’ dungeons, to be used by each of them in turn when they want to go out. — EDITOR.] this fifteen weeks, and not a boy of us iver sot foot in the street since.”

“Vot’s that row?” roared at this juncture Downes’s voice from below.

“Och, thin,” shrieked the woman, “here’s that thief o’ the warld, Micky Kelly, slandhering o’ us afore the blessed heaven, and he owing £2. 14s. 1/2d. for his board an’ lodging, let alone pawn-tickets, and goin’ to rin away, the black-hearted ongrateful sarpent!” And she began yelling indiscriminately, “Thieves!” “Murder!” “Blasphemy!” and such other ejaculations, which (the English ones at least) had not the slightest reference to the matter in hand.

“I’ll come to him!” said Downes, with an oath, and rushed stumbling up the stairs, while the poor wretch sneaked in again, and slammed the door to. Downes battered at it, but was met with a volley of curses from the men inside; while, profiting by the Babel, I blew out the light, ran down-stairs, and got safe into the street.

In two hours afterwards, Mackaye, Porter, Crossthwaite, and I were at the door, accompanied by a policeman, and a search-warrant. Porter had insisted on accompanying us. He had made up his mind that his son was at Downes’s; and all representations of the smallness of his chance were fruitless. He worked himself up into a state of complete frenzy, and flourished a huge stick in a way which shocked the policeman’s orderly and legal notions.

“That may do very well down in your country, sir; but you arn’t a goin’ to use that there weapon here, you know, not by no hact o’ Parliament as I knows on.”

“Ow, it’s joost a way I ha’ wi’ me.” And the stick was quiet for fifty yards or so, and then recommenced smashing imaginary skulls.

“You’ll do somebody a mischief, sir, with that. You’d much better a lend it me.”

Porter tucked it under his arm for fifty yards more; and so on, till we reached Downes’s house.

The policeman knocked: and the door was opened, cautiously, by an old Jew, of a most un“Caucasian” cast of features, however “high-nosed,” as Mr. Disraeli has it.

The policeman asked to see Michael Kelly.

“Michaelsh? I do’t know such namesh —” But before the parley could go farther, the farmer burst past policeman and Jew, and rushed into the passage, roaring, in a voice which made the very windows rattle,

“Billy Poorter! Billy Poorter! whor be yow? whor be yow?”

We all followed him up-stairs, in time to see him charging valiantly, with his stick for a bayonet, the small person of a Jew-boy, who stood at the head of the stairs in a scientific attitude. The young rascal planted a dozen blows in the huge carcase — he might as well have thumped the rhinoceros in the Regent’s Park; the old man ran right over him, without stopping, and dashed up the stairs; at the head of which — oh, joy! — appeared a long, shrunken, red-haired figure, the tears on its dirty cheeks glittering in the candle-glare. In an instant father and son were in each other’s arms.

“Oh, my barn! my barn! my barn! my barn!” And then the old Hercules held him off at arm’s length, and looked at him with a wistful face, and hugged him again with “My barn! my barn!” He had nothing else to say. Was it not enough? And poor Kelly danced frantically around them, hurrahing; his own sorrows forgotten in his friend’s deliverance.

The Jew-boy shook himself, turned, and darted down stairs past us; the policeman quietly put out his foot, tripped him headlong, and jumping down after him, extracted from his grasp a heavy pocket-book.

“Ah! my dear mothersh’s dying gift! Oh, dear! oh dear! give it back to a poor orphansh!”

“Didn’t I see you take it out o’ the old un’s pocket, you young villain?” answered the maintainer of order, as he shoved the book into his bosom, and stood with one foot on his writhing victim, a complete nineteenth-century St. Michael.

“Let me hold him,” I said, “while you go up-stairs.”

You hold a Jew-boy! — you hold a mad cat!” answered the policeman, contemptuously — and with justice — for at that moment Downes appeared on the first-floor landing, cursing and blaspheming.

“He’s my ‘prentice! he’s my servant! I’ve got a bond, with his own hand to it, to serve me for three years. I’ll have the law of you — I will!”

Then the meaning of the big stick came out. The old man leapt down the stairs, and seized Downes. “You’re the tyrant as has locked my barn up here!” And a thrashing commenced, which it made my bones ache only to look at. Downes had no chance; the old man felled him on his face in a couple of blows, and taking both hands to his stick, hewed away at him as if he had been a log.

“I waint hit a’s head! I waint hit a’s head!”— whack, whack. “Let me be!”— whack, whack-puff. “It does me gude, it does me gude!”— puff, puff, puff — whack. “I’ve been a bottling of it up for three years, come Whitsuntide!”— whack, whack, whack — while Mackaye and Crossthwaite stood coolly looking on, and the wife shut herself up in the side-room, and screamed “Murder!”

The unhappy policeman stood at his wits’ end, between the prisoner below and the breach of the peace above, bellowing in vain, in the Queen’s name, to us, and to the grinning tailors on the landing. At last, as Downes’s life seemed in danger, he wavered; the Jew-boy seized the moment, jumped up, upsetting the constable, dashed like an eel between Crossthwaite and Mackaye, gave me a back-handed blow in passing, which I felt for a week after, and vanished through the street-door, which he locked after him.

“Very well!” said the functionary, rising solemnly, and pulling out a note-book —“Scar under left eye, nose a little twisted to the right, bad chilblains on the hands. You’ll keep till next time, young man. Now, you fat gentleman up there, have you done a qualifying of yourself for Newgate?”

The old man had ran up-stairs again, and was hugging his son; but when the policeman lifted Downes, he rushed back to his victim, and begged, like a great school-boy, for leave to “bet him joost won bit moor.”

“Let me bet un! I’ll pay un! — I’ll pay all as my son owes un! Marcy me! where’s my pooss?” And so on raged the Babel, till we got the two poor fellows safe out of the house. We had to break open the door to do it, thanks to that imp of Israel.

“For God’s sake, take us too!” almost screamed five or six other voices.

“They’re all in debt — every onesh; they sha’n’t go till they paysh, if there’s law in England,” whined the old Jew, who had reappeared.

“I’ll pay for ’em-I’ll pay every farden, if so be as they treated my boy well. Here, you, Mr. Locke, there’s the ten pounds as I promised you. Why, whor is my pooss?”

The policeman solemnly handed it to him. He took it, turned it over, looked at the policeman half frightened, and pointed with his fat thumb at Mackaye.

“Well, he said as you was a conjuror — and sure he was right.”

He paid me the money. I had no mind to keep it in such company; so I got the poor fellows’ pawn-tickets, and Crossthwaite and I took the things out for them. When we returned, we found them in a group in the passage, holding the door open, in their fear lest we should be locked up, or entrapped in some way. Their spirits seemed utterly broken. Some three or four went off to lodge where they could; the majority went upstairs again to work. That, even that dungeon, was their only home — their only hope — as it is of thousands of “free” Englishmen at this moment.

We returned, and found the old man with his new-found prodigal sitting on his knee, as if he had been a baby. Sandy told me afterwards, that he had scarcely kept him from carrying the young man all the way home; he was convinced that the poor fellow was dying of starvation. I think really he was not far wrong. In the corner sat Kelly, crouched together like a baboon, blubbering, hurrahing, invoking the saints, cursing the sweaters, and blessing the present company. We were afraid, for several days, that his wits were seriously affected.

And, in his old arm-chair, pipe in mouth, sat good Sandy Mackaye, wiping his eyes with the many-coloured sleeve, and moralizing to himself, sotto voce:

“The auld Romans made slaves o’ their debitors; sae did the Anglo–Saxons, for a’ good Major Cartwright has writ to the contrary. But I didna ken the same Christian practice was part o’ the Breetish constitution. Aweel, aweel — atween Riot Acts, Government by Commissions, and ither little extravagants and codicils o’ Mammon’s making, it’s no that easy to ken, the day, what is the Breetish constitution, and what isn’t. Tak a drappie, Billy Porter, lad?”

“Never again so long as I live. I’ve learnt a lesson and a half about that, these last few months.”

“Aweel, moderation’s best, but abstinence better than naething. Nae man shall deprive me o’ my leeberty, but I’ll tempt nae man to gie up his.” And he actually put the whisky-bottle by into the cupboard.

The old man and his son went home next day, promising me, if I would but come to see them, “twa hundert acres o’ the best partridge-shooting, and wild dooks as plenty as sparrows; and to live in clover till I bust, if I liked.” And so, as Bunyan has it, they went on their way, and I saw them no more.

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