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

Chapter 26.

The Triumphant Author.

So to the party I went, and had the delight of seeing and hearing the men with whose names I had been long acquainted, as the leaders of scientific discovery in this wondrous age; and more than one poet, too, over whose works I had gloated, whom I had worshipped in secret. Intense was the pleasure of now realizing to myself, as living men, wearing the same flesh and blood as myself, the names which had been to me mythic ideas. Lillian was there among them, more exquisite than ever; but even she at first attracted my eyes and thoughts less than did the truly great men around her. I hung on every word they spoke, I watched every gesture, as if they must have some deep significance; the very way in which they drank their coffee was a matter of interest to me. I was almost disappointed to see them eat and chat like common men. I expected that pearls and diamonds would drop from their lips, as they did from those of the girl, in the fairy-tale, every time they opened their mouths; and certainly, the conversation that evening was a new world to me — though I could only, of course, be a listener. Indeed, I wished to be nothing more. I felt that I was taking my place there among the holy guild of authors — that I too, however humbly, had a thing to say, and had said it; and I was content to sit on the lowest step of the literary temple, without envy for those elder and more practised priests of wisdom, who had earned by long labour the freedom of the inner shrine. I should have been quite happy enough standing there, looking and listening — but I was at last forced to come forward. Lillian was busy chatting with grave, grey-headed men, who seemed as ready to flirt, and pet and admire the lovely little fairy, as if they had been as young and gay as herself. It was enough for me to see her appreciated and admired. I loved them for smiling on her, for handing her from her seat to the piano with reverent courtesy: gladly would I have taken their place: I was content, however, to be only a spectator; for it was not my rank, but my youth, I was glad to fancy, which denied me that blissful honour. But as she sang, I could not help stealing up to the piano; and, feasting my greedy eyes with every motion of those delicious lips, listen and listen, entranced, and living only in that melody.

Suddenly, after singing two or three songs, she began fingering the keys, and struck into an old air, wild and plaintive, rising and falling like the swell of an Æolian harp upon a distant breeze.

“Ah! now,” she said, “if I could get words for that! What an exquisite lament somebody might write to it, if they could only thoroughly take in the feeling and meaning of it.”

“Perhaps,” I said, humbly, “that is the only way to write songs — to let some air get possession of ones whole soul, and gradually inspire the words for itself; as the old Hebrew prophets had music played before them, to wake up the prophetic spirit within them.”

She looked up, just as if she had been unconscious of my presence till that moment.

“Ah! Mr. Locke! — well, if you understand my meaning so thoroughly, perhaps you will try and write some words for me.”

“I am afraid that I do not enter sufficiently into the meaning of the air.”

“Oh! then, listen while I play it over again. I am sure you ought to appreciate anything so sad and tender.”

And she did play it, to my delight, over again, even more gracefully and carefully than before — making the inarticulate sounds speak a mysterious train of thoughts and emotions. It is strange how little real intellect, in women especially, is required for an exquisite appreciation of the beauties of music — perhaps, because it appeals to the heart and not the head.

She rose and left the piano, saying archly, “Now, don’t forget your promise;” and I, poor fool, my sunlight suddenly withdrawn, began torturing my brains on the instant to think of a subject.

As it happened, my attention was caught by hearing two gentlemen close to me discuss a beautiful sketch by Copley Fielding, if I recollect rightly, which hung on the wall — a wild waste of tidal sands, with here and there a line of stake-nets fluttering in the wind — a grey shroud of rain sweeping up from the westward, through which low red cliffs glowed dimly in the rays of the setting sun — a train of horses and cattle splashing slowly through shallow desolate pools and creeks, their wet, red, and black hides glittering in one long line of level light.

They seemed thoroughly conversant with art; and as I listened to their criticisms, I learnt more in five minutes about the characteristics of a really true and good picture, and about the perfection to which our unrivalled English landscape-painters have attained, than I ever did from all the books and criticisms which I had read. One of them had seen the spot represented, at the mouth of the Dee, and began telling wild stories of salmon-fishing, and wildfowl shooting — and then a tale of a girl, who, in bringing her father’s cattle home across the sands, had been caught by a sudden flow of the tide, and found next day a corpse hanging among the stake-nets far below. The tragedy, the art of the picture, the simple, dreary grandeur of the scenery, took possession of me; and I stood gazing a long time, and fancying myself pacing the sands, and wondering whether there were shells upon it — I had often longed for once only in my life to pick up shells — when Lady Ellerton, whom I had not before noticed, woke me from my reverie.

I took the liberty of asking after Lord Ellerton.

“He is not in town — he has stayed behind for one day to attend a great meeting of his tenantry — you will see the account in the papers tomorrow morning — he comes tomorrow.” And as she spoke her whole face and figure seemed to glow and heave, in spite of herself, with pride and affection.

“And now, come with me, Mr. Locke — the —— ambassador wishes to speak to you.”

“The —— ambassador!” I said, startled; for let us be as democratic as we will, there is something in the name of great officers which awes, perhaps rightly, for the moment, and it requires a strong act of self-possession to recollect that “a man’s a man for a’ that.” Besides, I knew enough of the great man in question to stand in awe of him for his own sake, having lately read a panegyric of him, which perfectly astounded me, by its description of his piety and virtue, his family affection, and patriarchal simplicity, the liberality and philanthropy of all his measures, and the enormous intellectual powers, and stores of learning, which enabled him, with the affairs of Europe on his shoulders, to write deeply and originally on the most abstruse questions of theology, history, and science.

Lady Ellerton seemed to guess my thoughts. “You need not be afraid of meeting an aristocrat, in the vulgar sense of the word. You will see one who, once perhaps as unknown as yourself, has risen by virtue and wisdom to guide the destinies of nations — and shall I tell you how? Not by fawning and yielding to the fancies of the great; not by compromising his own convictions to suit their prejudices —”

I felt the rebuke, but she went on —

“He owes his greatness to having dared, one evening, to contradict a crown-prince to his face, and fairly conquer him in argument, and thereby bind the truly royal heart to him for ever.”

“There are few scions of royalty to whose favour that would be a likely path.”

“True; and therefore the greater honour is due to the young student who could contradict, and the prince who could be contradicted.”

By this time we had arrived in the great man’s presence; he was sitting with a little circle round him, in the further drawing-room, and certainly I never saw a nobler specimen of humanity. I felt myself at once before a hero — not of war and bloodshed, but of peace and civilization; his portly and ample figure, fair hair and delicate complexion, and, above all, the benignant calm of his countenance, told of a character gentle and genial — at peace with himself and all the world; while the exquisite proportion of his chiselled and classic features, the lofty and ample brain, and the keen, thoughtful eye, bespoke, at the first glance, refinement and wisdom —

The reason firm, the temperate will —

Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill.

I am not ashamed to say, Chartist as I am, that I felt inclined to fall upon my knees, and own a master of God’s own making.

He received my beautiful guide with a look of chivalrous affection, which I observed that she returned with interest; and then spoke in a voice peculiarly bland and melodious:

“So, my dear lady, this is the protégé of whom you have so often spoken?”

So she had often spoken of me! Blind fool that I was, I only took it in as food for my own self-conceit, that my enemy (for so I actually fancied her) could not help praising me.

“I have read your little book, sir,” he said, in the same soft, benignant voice, “with very great pleasure. It is another proof, if I required any, of the under-current of living and healthful thought which exists even in the less-known ranks of your great nation. I shall send it to some young friends of mine in Germany, to show them that Englishmen can feel acutely and speak boldly on the social evils of their country, without indulging in that frantic and bitter revolutionary spirit, which warps so many young minds among us. You understand the German language at all?”

I had not that honour.

“Well, you must learn it. We have much to teach you in the sphere of abstract thought, as you have much to teach us in those of the practical reason and the knowledge of mankind. I should be glad to see you some day in a German university. I am anxious to encourage a truly spiritual fraternization between the two great branches of the Teutonic stock, by welcoming all brave young English spirits to their ancient fatherland. Perhaps hereafter your kind friends here will be able to lend you to me. The means are easy, thank God! You will find in the Germans true brothers, in ways even more practical than sympathy and affection.”

I could not but thank the great man, with many blushes, and went home that night utterly “tête montée,“ as I believe the French phrase is — beside myself with gratified vanity and love; to lie sleepless under a severe fit of asthma — sent perhaps as a wholesome chastisement to cool my excited spirits down to something like a rational pitch. As I lay castle-building, Lillian’s wild air rang still in my ears, and combined itself somehow with that picture of the Cheshire sands, and the story of the drowned girl, till it shaped itself into a song, which, as it is yet unpublished, and as I have hitherto obtruded little or nothing of my own composition on my readers, I may be excused for inserting it here.

I.

“O Mary, go and call the cattle home,

And call the cattle home,

And call the cattle home,

Across the sands o’ Dee;”

The western wind was wild and dank wi’ foam,

And all alone went she.

II.

The creeping tide came up along the sand,

And o’er and o’er the sand,

And round and round the sand,

As far as eye could see;

The blinding mist came down and hid the land —

And never home came she.

III.

“Oh, is it weed, or fish, or floating hair —

A tress o’ golden hair,

O’ drowned maiden’s hair,

Above the nets at sea?

Was never salmon yet that shone so fair,

Among the stakes on Dee.”

IV.

They rowed her in across the rolling foam,

The cruel crawling foam,

The cruel hungry foam,

To her grave beside the sea:

But still the boatmen hear her call the cattle home,

Across the sands o’ Dee.

There — let it go! — it was meant as an offering for one whom it never reached.

About mid-day I took my way towards the dean’s house, to thank him for his hospitality — and, I need not say, to present my offering at my idol’s shrine; and as I went, I conned over a dozen complimentary speeches about Lord Ellerton’s wisdom, liberality, eloquence — but behold! the shutters of the house were closed. What could be the matter? It was full ten minutes before the door was opened; and then, at last, an old woman, her eyes red with weeping, made her appearance. My thoughts flew instantly to Lillian — something must have befallen her. I gasped out her name first, and then, recollecting myself, asked for the dean.

“They had all left town that morning,”

“Miss — Miss Winnstay — is she ill?”

“No.”

“Thank God!” I breathed freely again. What matter what happened to all the world beside?

“Ay, thank God, indeed; but poor Lord Ellerton was thrown from his horse last night and brought home dead. A messenger came here by six this morning, and they’re all gone off to ——. Her ladyship’s raving mad. — And no wonder.” And she burst out crying afresh, and shut the door in my face.

Lord Ellerton dead! and Lillian gone too! Something whispered that I should have cause to remember that day. My heart sunk within me. When should I see her again?

That day was the 1st of June, 1845. On the 10th of April, 1848, I saw Lillian Winnstay again. Dare I write my history between those two points of time? Yes, even that must be done, for the sake of the rich who read, and the poor who suffer.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/charles/alton-locke/chapter26.html

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