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

Chapter 23.

The Freedom of the Press.

But all this while, my slavery to Mr. O’Flynn’s party-spirit and coarseness was becoming daily more and more intolerable — an explosion was inevitable; and an explosion came.

Mr. O’Flynn found out that I had been staying at Cambridge, and at a cathedral city too; and it was quite a godsend to him to find any one who knew a word about the institutions at which he had been railing weekly for years. So nothing would serve him but my writing a set of articles on the universities, as a prelude to one on the Cathedral Establishments. In vain I pleaded the shortness of my stay there, and the smallness of my information.

“Och, were not abuses notorious? And couldn’t I get them up out of any Radical paper — and just put in a little of my own observations, and a dashing personal cut or two, to spice the thing up, and give it an original look? and if I did not choose to write that — why,” with an enormous oath, “I should write nothing.” So — for I was growing weaker and weaker, and indeed my hack-writing was breaking down my moral sense, as it does that of most men — I complied; and burning with vexation, feeling myself almost guilty of a breach of trust toward those from whom I had received nothing but kindness, I scribbled off my first number and sent it to the editor — to see it appear next week, three-parts rewritten, and every fact of my own furnishing twisted and misapplied, till the whole thing was as vulgar and commonplace a piece of rant as ever disgraced the people’s cause. And all this, in spite of a solemn promise, confirmed by a volley of oaths, that I “should say what I liked, and speak my whole mind, as one who had seen things with his own eyes had a right to do.”

Furious, I set off to the editor; and not only my pride, but what literary conscience I had left, was stirred to the bottom by seeing myself made, whether I would or not, a blackguard and a slanderer.

As it was ordained, Mr. O’Flynn was gone out for an hour or two; and, unable to settle down to any work till I had fought my battle with him fairly out, I wandered onward, towards the West End, staring into print-shop windows, and meditating on many things.

As it was ordained, also, I turned up Regent Street, and into Langham Place; when, at the door of All–Souls Church, behold a crowd and a long string of carriages arriving, and all the pomp and glory of a grand wedding.

I joined the crowd from mere idleness, and somehow found myself in the first rank, just as the bride was stepping out of the carriage — it was Miss Staunton; and the old gentleman who handed her out was no other than the dean. They were, of course, far too deeply engaged to recognise insignificant little me, so that I could stare as thoroughly to my heart’s content as any of the butcher-boys and nursery-maids around me.

She was closely veiled — but not too closely to prevent my seeing her magnificent lip and nostril curling with pride, resolve, rich tender passion. Her glorious black-brown hair — the true “purple locks” which Homer so often talks of — rolled down beneath her veil in great heavy ringlets; and with her tall and rounded figure, and step as firm and queenly as if she were going to a throne, she seemed to me the very ideal of those magnificent Eastern Zubeydehs and Nourmahals, whom I used to dream of after reading the “Arabian Nights.”

As they entered the doorway, almost touching me, she looked round, as if for some one. The dean whispered something in his gentle, stately way, and she answered by one of those looks so intense, and yet so bright, so full of unutterable depths of meaning and emotion, that, in spite of all my antipathy, I felt an admiration akin to awe thrill through me, and gazed after her so intently, that Lillian — Lillian herself — was at my side, and almost passed me before I was aware of it.

Yes, there she was, the foremost among a bevy of fair girls, “herself the fairest far,” all April smiles and tears, golden curls, snowy rosebuds, and hovering clouds of lace — a fairy queen; — but yet — but yet — how shallow that hazel, eye, how empty of meaning those delicate features, compared with the strength and intellectual richness of the face which had preceded her!

It was too true — I had never remarked it before; but now it flashed across me like lightning — and like lightning vanished; for Lillian’s eye caught mine, and there was the faintest spark of a smile of recognition, and pleased surprise, and a nod. I blushed scarlet with delight; some servant-girl or other, who stood next to me, had seen it too — quick-eyed that women are — and was looking curiously at me. I turned, I knew not why, in my delicious shame, and plunged through the crowd to hide I knew not what.

I walked on — poor fool — in an ecstasy; the whole world was transfigured in my eyes, and virtue and wisdom beamed from every face I passed. The omnibus-horses were racers, and the drivers — were they not my brothers of the people? The very policemen looked sprightly and philanthropic. I shook hands earnestly with the crossing-sweeper of the Regent Circus, gave him my last twopence, and rushed on, like a young David, to exterminate that Philistine O’Flynn.

Ah well! I was a great fool, as others too have been; but yet, that little chance-meeting did really raise me. It made me sensible that I was made for better things than low abuse of the higher classes. It gave me courage to speak out, and act without fear, of consequences, once at least in that confused facing-both-ways period of my life. O woman! woman! only true missionary of civilization and brotherhood, and gentle, forgiving charity; is it in thy power, and perhaps in thine only, to bind up the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives? One real lady, who should dare to stoop, what might she not do with us — with our sisters? If —

There are hundreds, answers the reader, who do stoop. Elizabeth Fry was a lady, well-born, rich, educated, and she has many scholars.

True, my dear readers, true — and may God bless her and her scholars. Do you think the working men forget them? But look at St. Giles’s, or Spitalfields, or Shadwell, and say, is not the harvest plentiful, and the labourers, alas! few? No one asserts that nothing is done; the question is, is enough done? Does the supply of mercy meet the demand of misery? Walk into the next court and see!

 

I found Mr. O’Flynn in his sanctum, busy with paste and scissors, in the act of putting in a string of advertisements — indecent French novels, Atheistic tracts, quack medicines, and slopsellers’ puffs; and commenced with as much dignity as I could muster:

“What on earth do you mean, sir, by rewriting my article?”

“What —(in the other place)— do you mean by giving me the trouble of rewriting it? Me head’s splitting now with sitting up, cutting out, and putting in. Poker o’ Moses! but ye’d given it an intirely aristocratic tendency. What did ye mane” (and three or four oaths rattled out) “by talking about the pious intentions of the original founders, and the democratic tendencies of monastic establishments?”

“I wrote it because I thought it.”

“Is that any reason ye should write it? And there was another bit, too — it made my hair stand on end when I saw it, to think how near I was sending the copy to press without looking at it — something about a French Socialist, and Church Property.”

“Oh! you mean, I suppose, the story of the French Socialist, who told me that church property was just the only property in England which he would spare, because it was the only one which had definite duties attached to it, that the real devourers of the people were not the bishops, who, however rich, were at least bound to work in return for their riches, but the landlords and millionaires, who refused to confess the duties of property, while they raved about its rights.”

“Bedad, that’s it; and pretty doctrine, too!”

“But it’s true: it’s an entirely new and a very striking notion, and I consider it my duty to mention it.”

“Thrue! What the devil does that matter? There’s a time to speak the truth, and a time not, isn’t there? It’ll make a grand hit, now, in a leader upon the Irish Church question, to back the prastes against the landlords. But if I’d let that in as it stood, bedad, I’d have lost three parts of my subscribers the next week. Every soul of the Independents, let alone the Chartists, would have bid me good morning. Now do, like a good boy, give us something more the right thing next time. Draw it strong. — A good drunken supper-party and a police-row; if ye haven’t seen one, get it up out of Pater Priggins — or Laver might do, if the other wasn’t convanient. That’s Dublin, to be sure, but one university’s just like another. And give us a seduction or two, and a brace of Dons carried home drunk from Barnwell by the Procthors.”

“Really I never saw anything of the kind; and as for profligacy amongst the Dons, I don’t believe it exists. I’ll call them idle, and bigoted, and careless of the morals of the young men, because I know that they are so; but as for anything more, I believe them to be as sober, respectable a set of Pharisees as the world ever saw.”

Mr. O’Flynn was waxing warm, and the bully-vein began fast to show itself.

“I don’t care a curse, sir! My subscribers won’t stand it, and they sha’n’t! I am a man of business, sir, and a man of the world, sir, and faith that’s more than you are, and I know what will sell the paper, and by J——s I’ll let no upstart spalpeen dictate to me!”

“Then I’ll tell you what, sir,” quoth I, waxing warm in my turn, “I don’t know which are the greater rogues, you or your subscribers. You a patriot? You are a humbug. Look at those advertisements, and deny it if you can. Crying out for education, and helping to debauch the public mind with Voltaire’s ‘Candide,’ and Eugène Sue — swearing by Jesus, and puffing Atheism and blasphemy — yelling at a quack government, quack law, quack priesthoods, and then dirtying your fingers with half-crowns for advertising Holloway’s ointment and Parr’s life pills — shrieking about slavery of labour to capital, and inserting Moses and Son’s doggerel — ranting about searching investigations and the march of knowledge, and concealing every fact which cannot be made to pander to the passions of your dupes — extolling the freedom of the press, and showing yourself in your own office a tyrant and a censor of the press. You a patriot? You the people’s friend? You are doing everything in your power to blacken the people’s cause in the eyes of their enemies. You are simply a humbug, a hypocrite, and a scoundrel; and so I bid you good morning.”

Mr. O’Flynn had stood, during this harangue, speechless with passion, those loose lips of his wreathing like a pair of earthworms. It was only when I stopped that he regained his breath, and with a volley of incoherent oaths, caught up his chair and hurled it at my head. Luckily, I had seen enough of his temper already, to keep my hand on the lock of the door for the last five minutes. I darted out of the room quicker than I ever did out of one before or since. The chair took effect on the luckless door; and as I threw a flying glance behind me, I saw one leg sticking through the middle panel, in a way that augured ill for my skull, had it been in the way of Mr. O’Flynn’s fury.

I ran home to Mackaye in a state of intense self-glorification, and told him the whole story. He chuckled, he crowed, he hugged me to his bosom.

“Leeze me o’ ye! but I kenned ye were o’ the true Norse blude after a’!

“For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

A man’s a man for a’ that.

“Oh, but I hae expeckit it this month an’ mare! Oh, but I prophesied it, Johnnie!”

“Then why, in Heaven’s name, did you introduce me to such a scoundrel?”

“I sent you to schule, lad, I sent you to schule. Ye wad na be ruled by me. Ye tuk me for a puir doited auld misanthrope; an’ I thocht to gie ye the meat ye lusted after, an’ fill ye wi’ the fruit o’ your ain desires. An’ noo that ye’ve gane doon in the fire o’ temptation, an’ conquered, here’s your reward standin’ ready. Special prawvidences! — wha can doot them? I ha’ had mony — miracles I might ca’ them, to see how they cam’ just when I was gaun daft wi’ despair.”

And then he told me that the editor of a popular journal, of the Howitt and Eliza Cook school, had called on me that morning, and promised me work enough, and pay enough, to meet all present difficulties.

I did indeed accept the curious coincidence, if not as a reward for an act of straightforwardness, in which I saw no merit, at least as proof that the upper powers had not altogether forgotten me. I found both the editor and his periodical, as I should have wished them, temperate and sunny — somewhat clap-trap and sentimental, perhaps, and afraid of speaking out, as all parties are, but still willing to allow my fancy free range in light fictions, descriptions of foreign countries, scraps of showy rose-pink morality and such like; which, though they had no more power against the raging mass of crime, misery, and discontent, around, than a peacock’s feather against a three-decker, still were all genial, graceful, kindly, humanizing, and soothed my discontented and impatient heart in the work of composition.

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