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

Chapter 3.

Sandy Mackaye.

That day fortnight came — and the old Scotchman’s words came true. Four books of his I had already, and I came in to borrow a fifth; whereon he began with a solemn chuckle:

“Eh, laddie, laddie, I’ve been treating ye as the grocers do their new prentices. They first gie the boys three days’ free warren among the figs and the sugar-candy, and they get scunnered wi’ sweets after that. Noo, then, my lad, ye’ve just been reading four books in three days — and here’s a fifth. Ye’ll no open this again.”

“Oh!” I cried, piteously enough, “just let me finish what I am reading. I’m in the middle of such a wonderful account of the Hornitos of Jurullo.”

“Hornets or wasps, a swarm o’ them ye’re like to have at this rate; and a very bad substitute ye’ll find them for the Attic bee. Now tak’ tent. I’m no in the habit of speaking without deliberation, for it saves a man a great deal of trouble in changing his mind. If ye canna traduce to me a page o’ Virgil by this day three months, ye read no more o’ my books. Desultory reading is the bane o’ lads. Ye maun begin with self-restraint and method, my man, gin ye intend to gie yoursel’ a liberal education. So I’ll just mak’ you a present of an auld Latin grammar, and ye maun begin where your betters ha’ begun before you.”

“But who will teach me Latin?”

“Hoot, man! who’ll teach a man anything except himsel’? It’s only gentlefolks and puir aristocrat bodies that go to be spoilt wi’ tutors and pedagogues, cramming and loading them wi’ knowledge, as ye’d load a gun, to shoot it all out again, just as it went down, in a college examination, and forget all aboot it after.”

“Ah!” I sighed, “if I could have gone to college!”

“What for, then? My father was a Hieland farmer, and yet he was a weel learned man: and ‘Sandy, my lad,’ he used to say, ‘a man kens just as much as he’s taught himsel’, and na mair. So get wisdom; and wi’ all your getting, get understanding.’ And so I did. And mony’s the Greek exercise I’ve written in the cowbyres. And mony’s the page o’ Virgil, too, I’ve turned into good Dawric Scotch to ane that’s dead and gane, poor hizzie, sitting under the same plaid, with the sheep feeding round us, up among the hills, looking out ower the broad blue sea, and the wee haven wi’ the fishing cobles —”

There was a long solemn pause. I cannot tell why, but I loved the man from that moment; and I thought, too, that he began to love me. Those few words seemed a proof of confidence, perhaps all the deeper, because accidental and unconscious.

I took the Virgil which he lent me, with Hamilton’s literal translation between the lines, and an old tattered Latin grammar; I felt myself quite a learned man — actually the possessor of a Latin book! I regarded as something almost miraculous the opening of this new field for my ambition. Not that I was consciously, much less selfishly, ambitious. I had no idea as yet to be anything but a tailor to the end; to make clothes — perhaps in a less infernal atmosphere — but still to make clothes and live thereby. I did not suspect that I possessed powers above the mass. My intense longing after knowledge had been to me like a girl’s first love — a thing to be concealed from every eye — to be looked at askance even by myself, delicious as it was, with holy shame and trembling. And thus it was not cowardice merely, but natural modesty, which put me on a hundred plans of concealing my studies from my mother, and even from my sister.

I slept in a little lean-to garret at the back of the house, some ten feet long by six wide. I could just stand upright against the inner wall, while the roof on the other side ran down to the floor. There was no fireplace in it, or any means of ventilation. No wonder I coughed all night accordingly, and woke about two every morning with choking throat and aching head. My mother often said that the room was “too small for a Christian to sleep in, but where could she get a better?”

Such was my only study. I could not use it as such, however, at night without discovery; for my mother carefully looked in every evening, to see that my candle was out. But when my kind cough woke me, I rose, and creeping like a mouse about the room — for my mother and sister slept in the next chamber, and every sound was audible through the narrow partition — I drew my darling books out from under a board of the floor, one end of which I had gradually loosened at odd minutes, and with them a rushlight, earned by running on messages, or by taking bits of work home, and finishing them for my fellows.

No wonder that with this scanty rest, and this complicated exertion of hands, eyes, and brain, followed by the long dreary day’s work of the shop, my health began to fail; my eyes grew weaker and weaker; my cough became more acute; my appetite failed me daily. My mother noticed the change, and questioned me about it, affectionately enough. But I durst not, alas! tell the truth. It was not one offence, but the arrears of months of disobedience which I should have had to confess; and so arose infinite false excuses, and petty prevarications, which embittered and clogged still more my already overtasked spirit. About my own ailments — formidable as I believed they were — I never had a moment’s anxiety. The expectation of early death was as unnatural to me as it is, I suspect, to almost all. I die? Had I not hopes, plans, desires, infinite? Could I die while they were unfulfilled? Even now, I do not believe I shall die yet. I will not believe it — but let that pass.

Yes, let that pass. Perhaps I have lived long enough — longer than many a grey-headed man.

There is a race of mortals who become

Old in their youth, and die ere middle age.

And might not those days of mine then have counted as months? — those days when, before starting forth to walk two miles to the shop at six o’clock in the morning, I sat some three or four hours shivering on my bed, putting myself into cramped and painful postures, not daring even to cough, lest my mother should fancy me unwell, and come in to see me, poor dear soul! — my eyes aching over the page, my feet wrapped up in the bedclothes, to keep them from the miserable pain of the cold; longing, watching, dawn after dawn, for the kind summer mornings, when I should need no candlelight. Look at the picture awhile, ye comfortable folks, who take down from your shelves what books you like best at the moment, and then lie back, amid prints and statuettes, to grow wise in an easy-chair, with a blazing fire and a camphine lamp. The lower classes uneducated! Perhaps you would be so too, if learning cost you the privation which it costs some of them.

But this concealment could not last. My only wonder is, that I continued to get whole months of undiscovered study. One morning, about four o’clock, as might have been expected, my mother heard me stirring, came in, and found me sitting crosslegged on my bed, stitching away, indeed, with all my might, but with a Virgil open before me.

She glanced at the book, clutched it with one hand and my arm with the other, and sternly asked,

“Where did you get this heathen stuff?”

A lie rose to my lips; but I had been so gradually entangled in the loathed meshes of a system of concealment, and consequent prevarication, that I felt as if one direct falsehood would ruin for ever my fast-failing self-respect, and I told her the whole truth. She took the book and left the room. It was Saturday morning, and I spent two miserable days, for she never spoke a word to me till the two ministers had made their appearance, and drank their tea on Sunday evening: then at last she opened:

“And now, Mr. Wigginton, what account have you of this Mr. Mackaye, who has seduced my unhappy boy from the paths of obedience?”

“I am sorry to say, madam,” answered the dark man, with a solemn snuffle, “that he proves to be a most objectionable and altogether unregenerate character. He is, as I am informed, neither more nor less than a Chartist, and an open blasphemer.”

“He is not!” I interrupted, angrily. “He has told me more about God, and given me better advice, than any human being, except my mother.”

“Ah! madam, so thinks the unconverted heart, ignorant that the god of the Deist is not the God of the Bible — a consuming fire to all but His beloved elect; the god of the Deist, unhappy youth, is a mere self-invented, all-indulgent phantom — a will-o’-the-wisp, deluding the unwary, as he has deluded you, into the slough of carnal reason and shameful profligacy.”

“Do you mean to call me a profligate?” I retorted fiercely, for my blood was up, and I felt I was fighting for all which I prized in the world: “if you do, you lie. Ask my mother when I ever disobeyed her before? I have never touched a drop of anything stronger than water; I have slaved over-hours to pay for my own candle, I have! — I have no sins to accuse myself of, and neither you nor any person know of any. Do you call me a profligate because I wish to educate myself and rise in life?”

“Ah!” groaned my poor mother to herself, “still unconvinced of sin!”

“The old Adam, my dear madam, you see — standing, as he always does, on his own filthy rags of works, while all the imaginations of his heart are only evil continually. Listen to me, poor sinner —”

“I will not listen to you,” I cried, the accumulated disgust of years bursting out once and for all, “for I hate and despise you, eating my poor mother here out of house and home. You are one of those who creep into widows’ houses, and for pretence make long prayers. You, sir, I will hear,” I went on, turning to the dear old man who had sat by shaking his white locks with a sad and puzzled air, “for I love you.”

“My dear sister Locke,” he began, “I really think sometimes — that is, ahem — with your leave, brother — I am almost disposed — but I should wish to defer to your superior zeal — yet, at the same time, perhaps, the desire for information, however carnal in itself, may be an instrument in the Lord’s hands — you know what I mean. I always thought him a gracious youth, madam, didn’t you? And perhaps — I only observe it in passing — the Lord’s people among the dissenting connexions are apt to undervalue human learning as a means — of course, I mean, only as a means. It is not generally known, I believe, that our reverend Puritan patriarchs, Howe and Baxter, Owen and many more, were not altogether unacquainted with heathen authors; nay, that they may have been called absolutely learned men. And some of our leading ministers are inclined — no doubt they will be led rightly in so important a matter — to follow the example of the Independents in educating their young ministers, and turning Satan’s weapons of heathen mythology against himself, as St. Paul is said to have done. My dear boy, what books have you now got by you of Mr. Mackaye’s?”

“Milton’s Poems and a Latin Virgil.”

“Ah!” groaned the dark man; “will poetry, will Latin save an immortal soul?”

“I’ll tell you what, sir; you say yourself that it depends on God’s absolute counsel whether I am saved or not. So, if I am elect, I shall be saved whatever I do; and if I am not, I shall be damned whatever I do; and in the mean time you had better mind your own business, and let me do the best I can for this life, as the next is all settled for me.”

This flippant, but after all not unreasonable speech, seemed to silence the man; and I took the opportunity of running up-stairs and bringing down my Milton. The old man was speaking as I reentered.

“And you know, my dear madam, Mr. Milton was a true converted man, and a Puritan.”

“He was Oliver Cromwell’s secretary,” I added.

“Did he teach you to disobey your mother?” asked my mother.

I did not answer; and the old man, after turning over a few leaves, as if he knew the book well, looked up.

“I think, madam, you might let the youth keep these books, if he will promise, as I am sure he will, to see no more of Mr. Mackaye.”

I was ready to burst out crying, but I made up my mind and answered,

“I must see him once again, or he will think me so ungrateful. He is the best friend that I ever had, except you, mother. Besides, I do not know if he will lend me any, after this.”

My mother looked at the old minister, and then gave a sullen assent.

“Promise me only to see him once — but I cannot trust you. You have deceived me once, Alton, and you may again!”

“I shall not, I shall not,” I answered proudly. “You do not know me”— and I spoke true.

“You do not know yourself, my poor dear foolish child!” she replied — and that was true too.

“And now, dear friends,” said the dark man, “let us join in offering up a few words of special intercession.”

We all knelt down, and I soon discovered that by the special intercession was meant a string of bitter and groundless slanders against poor me, twisted into the form of a prayer for my conversion, “if it were God’s will.” To which I responded with a closing “Amen,” for which I was sorry afterwards, when I recollected that it was said in merely insolent mockery. But the little faith I had was breaking up fast — not altogether, surely, by my own fault. [Footnote: The portraits of the minister and the missionary are surely exceptions to their class, rather than the average. The Baptists have had their Andrew Fuller and Robert Hall, and among missionaries Dr. Carey, and noble spirits in plenty. But such men as those who excited Alton Locke’s disgust are to be met with, in every sect; in the Church of England, and in the Church of Rome. And it is a real and fearful scandal to the young, to see such men listened to as God’s messengers, in spite of their utter want of any manhood or virtue, simply because they are “orthodox,” each according to the shibboleths of his hearers, and possess that vulpine “discretion of dulness,” whose miraculous might Dean Swift sets forth in his “Essay on the Fates of Clergymen.” Such men do exist, and prosper; and as long as they are allowed to do so, Alton Lockes will meet them, and be scandalized by them. — ED.]

At all events, from that day I was emancipated from modern Puritanism. The ministers both avoided all serious conversation with me; and my mother did the same; while, with a strength of mind, rare among women, she never alluded to the scene of that Sunday evening. It was a rule with her never to recur to what was once done and settled. What was to be, might be prayed over. But it was to be endured in silence; yet wider and wider ever from that time opened the gulf between us.

I went trembling the next afternoon to Mackaye and told my story. He first scolded me severely for disobeying my mother. “He that begins o’ that gate, laddie, ends by disobeying God and his ain conscience. Gin ye’re to be a scholar, God will make you one — and if not, ye’ll no mak’ yoursel’ ane in spite o’ Him and His commandments.” And then he filled his pipe and chuckled away in silence; at last he exploded in a horse-laugh.

“So ye gied the ministers a bit o’ yer mind? ‘The deil’s amang the tailors’ in gude earnest, as the sang says. There’s Johnnie Crossthwaite kicked the Papist priest out o’ his house yestreen. Puir ministers, it’s ill times wi’ them! They gang about keckling and screighing after the working men, like a hen that’s hatched ducklings, when she sees them tak’ the water. Little Dunkeld’s coming to London sune, I’m thinking.

“Hech! sic a parish, a parish, a parish;

Hech! sic a parish as little Dunkeld!

They hae stickit the minister, hanged the precentor,

Dung down the steeple, and drucken the bell.”

“But may I keep the books a little while, Mr. Mackaye?”

“Keep them till ye die, gin ye will. What is the worth o’ them to me? What is the worth o’ anything to me, puir auld deevil, that ha’ no half a dizen years to live at the furthest. God bless ye, my bairn; gang hame, and mind your mither, or it’s little gude books’ll do ye.”

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