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

Chapter 34.

The Tenth of April.

And he was gone at last! Kind women, whom his unknown charities had saved from shame, laid him out duly, and closed his eyes, and bound up that face that never would beam again with genial humour, those lips that would never again speak courage and counsel to the sinful, the oppressed, the forgotten. And there he lay, the old warrior, dead upon his shield; worn out by long years of manful toil in The People’s Cause; and, saddest thought of all, by disappointment in those for whom he spent his soul. True, he was aged; no one knew how old. He had said, more than eighty years; but we had shortened his life, and we knew it. He would never see that deliverance for which he had been toiling ever since the days when as a boy he had listened to Tooke and Cartwright, and the patriarchs of the people’s freedom. Bitter, bitter were our thoughts, and bitter were our tears, as Crossthwaite and I stood watching that beloved face, now in death refined to a grandeur, to a youthful simplicity and delicacy, which we had never seen on it before — calm and strong — the square jaws set firm even in death — the lower lip still clenched above the upper, as if in a divine indignation and everlasting protest, even in the grave, against the devourers of the earth. Yes, he was gone — the old lion, worn out with many wounds, dead in his cage. Where could we replace him? There were gallant men amongst us, eloquent, well-read, earnest — men whose names will ring through this land ere long — men who had boon taught wisdom, even as he, by the sinfulness, the apathy, the ingratitude, as well as by the sufferings of their fellows. But where should we two find again the learning, the moderation, the long experience, above all the more than women’s tenderness of him whom we had lost? And at that time, too, of all others! Alas! we had despised his counsel: wayward and fierce we would have none of his reproof; and now God has withdrawn him from us; the righteous was taken away from the evil to come. For we knew that evil was coming. We felt all along that we should not succeed. But we were desperate; and his death made us more desperate; still at the moment it drew us nearer to each other. Yes — we were rudderless upon a roaring sea, and all before us blank with lurid blinding mist: but still we were together, to live and die; and as we looked into each other’s eyes, and clasped each other’s hands above the dead man’s face, we felt that there was love between us, as of Jonathan and David, passing the love of woman.

Few words passed. Even our passionate artizan-nature, so sensitive and voluble in general, in comparison with the cold reserve of the field-labourer and the gentleman, was hushed in silent awe between the thought of the past and the thought of the future. We felt ourselves trembling between two worlds. We felt that tomorrow must decide our destiny — and we felt rightly, though little we guessed what that destiny would be!

But it was time to go. We had to prepare for the meeting, We must be at Kennington Common within three hours at furthest; and Crossthwaite hurried away, leaving Katie and me to watch the dead.

And then came across me the thought of another deathbed — my mother’s — How she had lain and lain, while I was far away — And then I wondered whether she had suffered much, or faded away at last in a peaceful sleep, as he had — And then I wondered how her corpse had looked; and pictured it to myself, lying in the little old room day after day, till they screwed the coffin down — before I came! — Cruel! Did she look as calm, as grand in death as he who lay there? And as I watched the old man’s features, I seemed to trace in them the strangest likeness to my mother’s. The strangest likeness! I could not shake it off. It became intense — miraculous. Was it she, or was it he, who lay there? I shook myself and rose. My loins ached, my limbs were heavy; my brain and eyes swam round. I must be over fatigued by excitement and sleeplessness. I would go down stairs into the fresh air, and shake it off.

As I came down the passage, a woman, dressed in black, was standing at the door, speaking to one of the lodgers. “And he is dead! Oh, if I had but known sooner that he was even ill!”

That voice — that figure-surely, I knew them! — them, at least, there was no mistaking! Or, was it another phantom of my disordered brain! I pushed forward to the door, and as I did so, she turned and our eyes met full. It was she — Lady Ellerton! sad, worn, transformed by widow’s weeds, but that face was like no other’s still. Why did I drop my eyes and draw back at the first glance like a guilty coward? She beckoned me towards her, went out into the street, and herself began the conversation, from which I shrank, I know not why.

“When did he die?”

“Just at sunrise this morning. But how came you here to visit him? Were you the lady who, as he said, came to him a few days since?”

She did not answer my question. “At sunrise this morning? — A fitting time for him to die, before he sees the ruin and disgrace of those for whom he laboured. And you, too, I hear, are taking your share in this projected madness and iniquity?”

“What right have you,” I asked, bristling up at a sudden suspicion that crossed me, “to use such words about me?”

“Recollect,” she answered, mildly but firmly, “your conduct, three years ago, at D——.”

“What,” I said, “was it not proved upon my trial, that I exerted all my powers, endangered my very life, to prevent outrage in that case?”

“It was proved upon your trial,” she replied, in a marked tone; “but we were informed, and alas! from authority only too good, namely, from that of an ear-witness, of the sanguinary and ferocious language which you were not afraid to use at the meeting in London, only two nights before the riot.”

I turned white with rage and indignation.

“Tell me,” I said —“tell me, if you have any honour, who dared to forge such an atrocious calumny! No! you need not tell me. I see well enough now. He should have told you that I exposed myself that night to insult, not by advocating, but by opposing violence, as I have always done — as I would now, were not I desperate — hopeless of any other path to liberty. And as for this coming struggle, have I not written to my cousin, humiliating as it was to me, to beg him to warn you all from me, lest —”

I could not finish the sentence.

“You wrote? He has warned us, but he never mentioned your name. He spoke of his knowledge as having been picked up by himself at personal risk to his clerical character.”

“The risk, I presume, of being known to have actually received a letter from a Chartist; but I wrote — on my honour I wrote — a week ago; and received no word of answer!”

“Is this true?” she asked.

“A man is not likely to deal in useless falsehoods, who knows not whether he shall live to see the set of sun!”

“Then you are implicated in this expected insurrection?”

“I am implicated,” I answered, “with the people; what they do I shall do. Those who once called themselves the patrons of the tailor-poet, left the mistaken enthusiast to languish for three years in prison, without a sign, a hint of mercy, pity, remembrance. Society has cast me off; and, in casting me off, it has sent me off to my own people, where I should have stayed from the beginning. Now I am at my post, because I am among my class. If they triumph peacefully, I triumph with them. If they need blood to gain their rights, be it so. Let the blood be upon the head of those who refuse, not those who demand. At least, I shall be with my own people. And if I die, what better thing on earth can happen to me?”

“But the law?” she said.

“Do not talk to me of law! I know it too well in practice to be moved by any theories about it. Laws are no law, but tyranny, when the few make them, in order to oppress the many by them.”

“Oh!” she said, in a voice of passionate earnestness, which I had never heard from her before, “stop — for God’s sake, stop! You know not what you are saying — what you are doing. Oh! that I had met you before — that I had had more time to speak to poor Mackaye! Oh! wait, wait — there is a deliverance for you! but never in this path — never. And just while I, and nobler far than I, are longing and struggling to find the means of telling you your deliverance, you, in the madness of your haste, are making it impossible!”

There was a wild sincerity in her words — an almost imploring tenderness in her tone.

“So young!” said she; “so young to be lost thus!”

I was intensely moved. I felt, I knew, that she had a message for me. I felt that hers was the only intellect in the world to which I would have submitted mine; and, for one moment, all the angel and all the devil in me wrestled for the mastery. If I could but have trusted her one moment. . . . No! all the pride, the spite, the suspicion, the prejudice of years, rolled back upon me. “An aristocrat! and she, too, the one who has kept me from Lillian!” And in my bitterness, not daring to speak the real thought within me, I answered with a flippant sneer —

“Yes, madam! like Cordelia, so young, yet so untender! — Thanks to the mercies of the upper classes!”

Did she turn away in indignation? No, by Heaven! there was nothing upon her face but the intensest yearning pity. If she had spoken again she would have conquered; but before those perfect lips could open, the thought of thoughts flashed across me.

“Tell me one thing! Is my cousin George to be married to ——” and I stopped.

“He is.”

“And yet,” I said, “you wish to turn me back from dying on a barricade!” And without waiting for a reply, I hurried down the street in all the fury of despair.

 

I have promised to say little about the Tenth of April, for indeed I have no heart to do so. Every one of Mackaye’s predictions came true. We had arrayed against us, by our own folly, the very physical force to which we had appealed. The dread of general plunder and outrage by the savages of London, the national hatred of that French and Irish interference of which we had boasted, armed against us thousands of special constables, who had in the abstract little or no objection to our political opinions. The practical common sense of England, whatever discontent it might feel with the existing system, refused to let it be hurled rudely down, on the mere chance of building up on its ruins something as yet untried, and even undefined. Above all, the people would not rise. Whatever sympathy they had with us, they did not care to show it. And then futility after futility exposed itself. The meeting which was to have been counted by hundreds of thousands, numbered hardly its tens of thousands; and of them a frightful proportion were of those very rascal classes, against whom we ourselves had offered to be sworn in as special constables. O’Connor’s courage failed him after all. He contrived to be called away, at the critical moment, by some problematical superintendent of police. Poor Cuffy, the honestest, if not the wisest, speaker there, leapt off the waggon, exclaiming that we were all “humbugged and betrayed”; and the meeting broke up pitiably piecemeal, drenched and cowed, body and soul, by pouring rain on its way home — for the very heavens mercifully helped to quench our folly — while the monster-petition crawled ludicrously away in a hack cab, to be dragged to the floor of the House of Commons amid roars of laughter —“inextinguishable laughter,” as of Tennyson’s Epicurean Gods —

Careless of mankind.

For they lie beside their nectar, and their bolts are hurled

Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curled

Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world.

There they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,

Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,

Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.

But they smile, they find a music, centred in a doleful song,

Steaming up, a lamentation, and an ancient tale of wrong,

Like a tale of little meaning, though the words are strong

Chanted by an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,

Sow the seed and reap the harvest with enduring toil,

Storing little yearly dues of wheat, and wine, and oil;

Till they perish, and they suffer — some, ’tis whispered, down in hell

Suffer endless anguish! —

Truly — truly, great poets’ words are vaster than the singers themselves suppose!

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