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

Chapter 24.

The Townsman’s Sermon to the Gownsman.

One morning in February, a few days after this explosion, I was on the point of starting to go to the dean’s house about that weary list of subscribers, which seemed destined never to be filled up, when my cousin George burst in upon me. He was in the highest good spirits at having just taken a double first-class at Cambridge; and after my congratulations, sincere and hearty enough, were over, he offered to accompany me to that reverend gentleman’s house.

He said in an off-hand way, that he had no particular business there, but he thought it just as well to call on the dean and mention his success, in case the old fellow should not have heard of it.

“For you see,” he said, “I am a sort of protégé, both on my own account and on Lord Lynedale’s — Ellerton, he is now — you know he is just married to the dean’s niece, Miss Staunton — and Ellerton’s a capital fellow — promised me a living as soon as I’m in priest’s orders. So my cue is now,” he went on as we walked down the Strand together, “to get ordained as fast as ever I can.”

“But,” I asked, “have you read much for ordination, or seen much of what a clergyman’s work should be?”

“Oh! as for that — you know it isn’t one out of ten who’s ever entered a school, or a cottage even, except to light a cigar, before he goes into the church: and as for the examination, that’s all humbug; any man may cram it all up in a month — and, thanks to King’s College, I knew all I wanted to know before I went to Cambridge. And I shall be three-and-twenty by Trinity Sunday, and then in I go, neck or nothing. Only the confounded bore is, that this Bishop of London won’t give one a title — won’t let any man into his diocese, who has not been ordained two years; and so I shall be shoved down into some poking little country-curacy, without a chance of making play before the world, or getting myself known at all. Horrid bore! isn’t it?”

“I think,” I said, “considering what London is just now, the bishop’s regulation seems to be one of the best specimens of episcopal wisdom that I’ve heard of for some time.”

“Great bore for me, though, all the same: for I must make a name, I can tell you, if I intend to get on. A person must work like a horse, now-a-days, to succeed at all; and Lynedale’s a desperately particular fellow, with all sorts of outré notions about people’s duties and vocations and heaven knows what.”

“Well,” I said, “my dear cousin, and have you no high notions of a clergyman’s vocation? because we — I mean the working men — have. It’s just their high idea of what a clergyman should be, which makes them so furious at clergymen for being what they are.”

“It’s a queer way of showing their respect to the priesthood,” he answered, “to do all they can to exterminate it.”

“I dare say they are liable, like other men, to confound the thing with its abuses; but if they hadn’t some dim notion that the thing might be made a good thing in itself, you may depend upon it they would not rave against those abuses so fiercely.” (The reader may see that I had not forgotten my conversation with Miss Staunton.) “And,” thought I to myself, “is it not you, and such as you, who do so incorporate the abuses into the system, that one really cannot tell which is which, and longs to shove the whole thing aside as rotten to the core, and make a trial of something new?”

“Well, but,” I said, again returning to the charge, for the subject was altogether curious and interesting to me, “do you really believe the doctrines of the Prayer-book, George?”

“Believe them!” he answered, in a tone of astonishment, “why not? I was brought up a Churchman, whatever my parents were; I was always intended for the ministry. I’d sign the Thirty-nine Articles now, against any man in the three kingdoms: and as for all the proofs out of Scripture and Church History, I’ve known them ever since I was sixteen — I’ll get them all up again in a week as fresh as ever.”

“But,” I rejoined, astonished in my turn at my cousin’s notion of what belief was, “have you any personal faith? — you know what I mean — I hate using cant words — but inward experience of the truth of all these great ideas, which, true or false, you will have to preach and teach? Would you live by them, die for them, as a patriot would for his country, now?”

“My dear fellow, I don’t know anything about all those Methodistical, mystical, Calvinistical, inward experiences, and all that. I’m a Churchman, remember, and a High Churchman, too; and the doctrine of the Church is, that children are regenerated in holy baptism; and there’s not the least doubt, from the authority both of Scripture and the fathers, that that’s the —”

“For Heaven’s sake,” I said, “no polemical discussions! Whether you’re right or wrong, that’s not what I’m talking about. What I want to know is this:— you are going to teach people about God and Jesus Christ. Do you delight in God? Do you love Jesus Christ? Never mind what I do, or think, or believe. What do you do, George?”

“Well, my dear fellow, if you take things in that way, you know, of course”— and he dropped his voice into that peculiar tone, by which all sects seem to think they show their reverence; while to me, as to most other working men, it never seemed anything but a symbol of the separation and discrepancy between their daily thoughts and their religious ones —“of course, we don’t any of us think of these things half enough, and I’m sure I wish I could be more earnest than I am; but I can only hope it will come in time. The Church holds that there’s a grace given in ordination; and really — really, I do hope and wish to do my duty — indeed, one can’t help doing it; one is so pushed on by the immense competition for preferment; an idle parson hasn’t a chance now-a-days.”

“But,” I asked again, half-laughing, half-disgusted, “do you know what your duty is?”

“Bless you, my good fellow, a man can’t go wrong there. Carry out the Church system; that’s the thing — all laid down by rule and method. A man has but to work out that — and it’s the only one for the lower classes I’m convinced.”

“Strange,” I said, “that they have from the first been so little of that opinion, that every attempt to enforce it, for the last three hundred years, has ended either in persecution or revolution.”

“Ah! that was all those vile puritans’ fault. They wouldn’t give the Church a chance of showing her powers.”

“What! not when she had it all her own way, during the whole eighteenth century?”

“Ah! but things are very different now. The clergy are awakened now to the real beauty of the Catholic machinery; and you have no notion how much is doing in church-building and schools, and societies of every sort and kind. It is quite incredible what is being done now for the lower orders by the Church.”

“I believe,” I said, “that the clergy are exceedingly improved; and I believe, too, that the men to whom they owe all their improvement are the Wesleys and Whitfields — in short, the very men whom they drove one by one out of the Church, from persecution or disgust. And I do think it strange, that if so much is doing for the lower classes, the working men, who form the mass of the lower classes, are just those who scarcely feel the effects of it; while the churches seem to be filled with children, and rich and respectable, to the almost entire exclusion of the adult lower classes. A strange religion this!” I went on, “and, to judge by its effects, a very different one from that preached in Judea 1800 years ago, if we are to believe the Gospel story.”

“What on earth do you mean? Is not the Church of England the very purest form of Apostolic Christianity?”

“It may be-and so may the other sects. But, somehow, in Judea, it was the publicans and harlots who pressed into the kingdom of heaven; and it was the common people who heard Christ gladly. Christianity, then, was a movement in the hearts of the lower order. But now, my dear fellow, you rich, who used to be told, in St. James’s time, to weep and howl, have turned the tables upon us poor. It is you who are talking, all day long, of converting us. Look at any place of worship you like, orthodox and heretical. — Who fill the pews? — the outcast and the reprobate? No! the Pharisees and the covetous, who used to deride Christ, fill His churches, and say still, ‘This people, these masses, who know not the Gospel are accursed.’ And the universal feeling, as far as I can judge, seems to be, not ‘how hardly shall they who have,’ but how hardly shall they who have not, ‘riches, enter into the kingdom of heaven!’”

“Upon my word,” said he, laughing, “I did not give you credit for so much eloquence: you seem to have studied the Bible to some purpose, too. I didn’t think that so much Radicalism could be squeezed out of a few texts of Scripture. It’s quite a new light to me. I’ll just mark that card, and play it when I get a convenient opportunity. It may be a winning one in these democratic times.”

And he did play it, as I heard hereafter; but at present he seemed to think that the less that was said further on clerical subjects the better, and commenced quizzing the people whom we passed, humorously and neatly enough; while I walked on in silence, and thought of Mr. Bye–Ends, in the “Pilgrim’s Progress.” And yet I believe the man was really in earnest. He was really desirous to do what was right, as far as he knew it; and all the more desirous, because he saw, in the present state of society, what was right would pay him. God shall judge him, not I. Who can unravel the confusion of mingled selfishness and devotion that exists even in his own heart, much less in that of another?

The dean was not at home that day, having left town on business. George nodded familiarly to the footman who opened the door.

“You’ll mind and send me word the moment your master comes home — mind now!”

The fellow promised obedience, and we walked away.

“You seem to be very intimate here,” said I, “with all parties?”

“Oh! footmen are useful animals — a half-sovereign now and then is not altogether thrown away upon them. But as for the higher powers, it is very easy to make oneself at home in the dean’s study, but not so much so as to get a footing in the drawing-room above. I suspect he keeps a precious sharp eye upon the fair Miss Lillian.”

“But,” I asked, as a jealous pang shot through my heart, “how did you contrive to get this same footing at all? When I met you at Cambridge, you seemed already well acquainted with these people.”

“How? — how does a hound get a footing on a cold scent? By working and casting about and about, and drawing on it inch by inch, as I drew on them for years, my boy; and cold enough the scent was. You recollect that day at the Dulwich Gallery? I tried to see the arms on the carriage, but there were none; so that cock wouldn’t fight.”

“The arms! I should never have thought of such a plan.”

“Dare say you wouldn’t. Then I harked back to the doorkeeper, while you were St. Sebastianizing. He didn’t know their names, or didn’t choose to show me their ticket, on which it ought to have been; so I went to one of the fellows whom I knew, and got him to find out. There comes out the value of money — for money makes acquaintances. Well, I found who they were. — Then I saw no chance of getting at them. But for the rest of that year at Cambridge, I beat every bush in the university, to find some one who knew them; and as fortune favours the brave, at last I hit off this Lord Lynedale; and he, of course, was the ace of trumps — a fine catch in himself, and a double catch because he was going to marry the cousin. So I made a dead set at him; and tight work I had to nab him, I can tell you, for he was three or four years older than I, and had travelled a good deal, and seen life. But every man has his weak side; and I found his was a sort of a High–Church Radicalism, and that suited me well enough, for I was always a deuce of a radical myself; so I stuck to him like a leech, and stood all his temper, and his pride, and those unpractical, windy visions of his, that made a common-sense fellow like me sick to listen to; but I stood it, and here I am.”

“And what on earth induced you to stoop to all this —” meanness I was on the point of saying. “Surely you are in no want of money — your father could buy you a good living tomorrow.”

“And he will, but not the one I want; and he could not buy me reputation, power, rank, do you see, Alton, my genius? And what’s more, he couldn’t buy me a certain little tit-bit, a jewel, worth a Jew’s eye and a half, Alton, that I set my heart on from the first moment I set my eye on it.”

My heart beat fast and fierce, but he ran on —

“Do you think I’d have eaten all this dirt if it hadn’t lain in my way to her? Eat dirt! I’d drink blood, Alton — though I don’t often deal in strong words — if it lay in that road. I never set my heart on a thing yet, that I didn’t get it at last by fair means or foul — and I’ll get her! I don’t care for her money, though that’s a pretty plum. Upon my life, I don’t. I worship her, limbs and eyes. I worship the very ground she treads on. She’s a duck and a darling,” said he, smacking his lips like an Ogre over his prey, “and I’ll have her before I’ve done, so help me —”

“Whom do you mean?” I stammered out.

“Lillian, you blind beetle.”

I dropped his arm —“Never, as I live!”

He started back, and burst into a horse-laugh.

“Hullo! my eye and Betty Martin! You don’t mean to say that I have the honour of finding a rival in my talented cousin?”

I made no answer.

“Come, come, my dear fellow, this is too ridiculous. You and I are very good friends, and we may help each other, if we choose, like kith and kin in this here wale. So if you’re fool enough to quarrel with me, I warn you I’m not fool enough to return the compliment. Only” (lowering his voice), “just bear one little thing in mind — that I am, unfortunately, of a somewhat determined humour; and if folks will get in my way, why it’s not my fault if I drive over them. You understand? Well, if you intend to be sulky, I don’t. So good morning, till you feel yourself better.”

And he turned gaily down a side-street and disappeared, looking taller, handsomer, manfuller than ever.

I returned home miserable; I now saw in my cousin not merely a rival, but a tyrant; and I began to hate him with that bitterness which fear alone can inspire. The eleven pounds still remained unpaid. Between three and four pounds was the utmost which I had been able to hoard up that autumn, by dint of scribbling and stinting; there was no chance of profit from my book for months to come — if indeed it ever got published, which I hardly dare believe it would; and I knew him too well to doubt that neither pity nor delicacy would restrain him from using his power over me, if I dared even to seem an obstacle in his way.

I tried to write, but could not. I found it impossible to direct my thoughts, even to sit still; a vague spectre of terror and degradation crushed me. Day after day I sat over the fire, and jumped up and went into the shop, to find something which I did not want, and peep listlessly into a dozen books, one after the other, and then wander back again to the fireside, to sit mooning and moping, starting at that horrible incubus of debt — a devil which may give mad strength to the strong, but only paralyses the weak. And I was weak, as every poet is, more or less. There was in me, as I have somewhere read that there is in all poets, that feminine vein — a receptive as well as a creative faculty — which kept up in me a continual thirst after beauty, rest, enjoyment. And here was circumstance after circumstance goading me onward, as the gadfly did Io, to continual wanderings, never ceasing exertions; every hour calling on me to do, while I was only longing to be-to sit and observe, and fancy, and build freely at my own will. And then — as if this necessity of perpetual petty exertion was not in itself sufficient torment — to have that accursed debt — that knowledge that I was in a rival’s power, rising up like a black wall before me, to cripple, and render hopeless, for aught I knew, the very exertions to which it compelled me! I hated the bustle — the crowds; the ceaseless roar of the street outside maddened me. I longed in vain for peace — for one day’s freedom — to be one hour a shepherd-boy, and lie looking up at the blue sky, without a thought beyond the rushes that I was plaiting! “Oh! that I had wings as a dove! — then would I flee away, and be at rest!”—

And then, more than once or twice either, the thoughts of suicide crossed me; and I turned it over, and looked at it, and dallied with it, as a last chance in reserve. And then the thought of Lillian came, and drove away the fiend. And then the thought of my cousin came, and paralysed me again; for it told me that one hope was impossible. And then some fresh instance of misery or oppression forced itself upon me, and made me feel the awful sacredness of my calling, as a champion of the poor, and the base cowardice of deserting them for any selfish love of rest. And then I recollected how I had betrayed my suffering brothers. — How, for the sake of vanity and patronage, I had consented to hide the truth about their rights — their wrongs. And so on through weary weeks of moping melancholy —“a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways?”

At last, Mackaye, who, as I found afterwards, had been watching all along my altered mood, contrived to worm my secret out of me. I had dreaded, that whole autumn, having to tell him the truth, because I knew that his first impulse would be to pay the money instantly out of his own pocket; and my pride, as well as my sense of justice, revolted at that, and sealed my lips. But now this fresh discovery — the knowledge that it was not only in my cousin’s power to crush me, but also his interest to do so — had utterly unmanned me; and after a little innocent and fruitless prevarication, out came the truth with tears of bitter shame.

The old man pursed up his lips, and, without answering me, opened his table drawer, and commenced fumbling among accounts and papers.

“No! no! no! best, noblest of friends! I will not burden you with the fruits of my own vanity and extravagance. I will starve, go to gaol sooner than take your money. If you offer it me I will leave the house, bag and baggage, this moment.” And I rose to put my threat into execution.

“I havena at present ony sic intention,” answered he, deliberately, “seeing that there’s na necessity for paying debits twice owre, when ye ha’ the stampt receipt for them.” And he put into my hands, to my astonishment and rapture, a receipt in full for the money, signed by my cousin.

Not daring to believe my own eyes, I turned it over and over, looked at it, looked at him — there was nothing but clear, smiling assurance in his beloved old face, as he twinkled, and winked, and chuckled, and pulled off his spectacles, and wiped them, and put them on upside-down; and then relieved himself by rushing at his pipe, and cramming it fiercely with tobacco till he burst the bowl.

Yes; it was no dream! — the money was paid, and I was free! The sudden relief was as intolerable as the long burden had been; and, like a prisoner suddenly loosed from off the rack, my whole spirit seemed suddenly to collapse, and I sank with my head upon the table to faint even for gratitude.

 

But who was my benefactor? Mackaye vouchsafed no answer, but that I “suld ken better than he.” But when he found that I was really utterly at a loss to whom to attribute the mercy, he assured me, by way of comfort, that he was just as ignorant as myself; and at last, piecemeal, in his circumlocutory and cautious Scotch method, informed me, that some six weeks back he had received an anonymous letter, “a’thegither o’ a Belgravian cast o’ phizog,” containing a bank note for twenty pounds, and setting forth the writer’s suspicions that I owed my cousin money, and their desire that Mr. Mackaye, “o’ whose uprightness and generosity they were pleased to confess themselves no that ignorant,” should write to George, ascertain the sum, and pay it without my knowledge, handing over the balance, if any, to me, when he thought fit —“Sae there’s the remnant — aucht pounds, sax shillings, an’ saxpence; tippence being deduckit for expense o’ twa letters anent the same transaction.”

“But what sort of handwriting was it?” asked I, almost disregarding the welcome coin.

“Ou, then — aiblins a man’s, aiblins a maid’s. He was no chirographosophic himsel — an’ he had na curiosity anent ony sic passage o’ aristocratic romance.”

“But what was the postmark of the letter?”

“Why for suld I speired? Gin the writers had been minded to be beknown, they’d ha’ sign’t their names upon the document. An’ gin they didna sae intend, wad it be coorteous o’ me to gang speiring an’ peering ower covers an’ seals?”

“But where is the cover?”

“Ou, then,” he went on, with the same provoking coolness, “white paper’s o’ geyan use, in various operations o’ the domestic economy. Sae I just tare it up — aiblins for pipe-lights — I canna mind at this time.”

“And why,” asked I, more vexed and disappointed than I liked to confess —“why did you not tell me before?”

“How wad I ken that you had need o’t? An’ verily, I thocht it no that bad a lesson for ye, to let ye experiment a towmond mair on the precious balms that break the head — whereby I opine the Psalmist was minded to denote the delights o’ spending borrowed siller.”

There was nothing more to be extracted from him; so I was fain to set to work again (a pleasant compulsion truly) with a free heart, eight pounds in my pocket, and a brainful of conjectures. Was it the dean? Lord Lynedale? or was it — could it be-Lillian herself? That thought was so delicious that I made up my mind, as I had free choice among half a dozen equally improbable fancies, to determine that the most pleasant should be the true one; and hoarded the money, which I shrunk from spending as much as I should from selling her miniature or a lock of her beloved golden hair. They were a gift from her — a pledge — the first fruits of — I dare not confess to myself what.

Whereat the reader will smile, and say, not without reason, that I was fast fitting myself for Bedlam; if, indeed, I had not proved my fitness for it already, by paying the tailors’ debts, instead of my own, with the ten pounds which Farmer Porter had given me. I am not sure that he would not be correct; but so I did, and so I suffered.

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