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

Chapter 35.

The Lowest Deep.

Sullen, disappointed, desperate, I strode along the streets that evening, careless whither I went. The People’s Cause was lost — the Charter a laughing-stock. That the party which monopolizes wealth, rank, and, as it is fancied, education and intelligence, should have been driven, degraded, to appeal to brute force for self-defence — that thought gave me a savage joy; but that it should have conquered by that last, lowest resource! — That the few should be still stronger than the many, or the many still too cold-hearted and coward to face the few — that sickened me. I hated the well-born young special constables whom I passed, because they would have fought. I hated the gent and shop-keeper special constables, because they would have run away. I hated my own party, because they had gone too far — because they had not gone far enough. I hated myself, because I had not produced some marvellous effect — though what that was to have been I could not tell — and hated myself all the more for that ignorance.

A group of effeminate shop-keepers passed me, shouting, “God save the Queen!” “Hypocrites!” I cried in my heart —“they mean ‘God save our shops!’ Liars! They keep up willingly the useful calumny, that their slaves and victims are disloyal as well as miserable!”

I was utterly abased — no, not utterly; for my self-contempt still vented itself — not in forgiveness, but in universal hatred and defiance. Suddenly I perceived my cousin, laughing and jesting with a party of fashionable young specials: I shrank from him; and yet, I know not why, drew as near him as I could, unobserved — near enough to catch the words.

“Upon my honour, Locke, I believe you are a Chartist yourself at heart.”

“At least I am no Communist,” said he, in a significant tone. “There is one little bit of real property which I have no intention of sharing with my neighbours.”

“What, the little beauty somewhere near Cavendish Square?”

“That’s my business.”

“Whereby you mean that you are on your way to her now? Well, I am invited to the wedding, remember.”

He pushed on laughingly, without answering. I followed him fast —“near Cavendish Square!”— the very part of the town where Lillian lived! I had had, as yet, a horror of going near it; but now an intolerable suspicion scourged me forward, and I dogged his steps, hiding behind pillars, and at the corners of streets, and then running on, till I got sight of him again. He went through Cavendish Square, up Harley Street — was it possible? I gnashed my teeth at the thought. But it must be so. He stopped at the dean’s house, knocked, and entered without parley.

In a minute I was breathless on the door-step, and knocked. I had no plan, no object, except the wild wish to see my own despair. I never thought of the chances of being recognized by the servants, or of anything else, except of Lillian by my cousin’s side.

The footman came out smiling, “What did I want?”

“I— I— Mr. Locke.”

“Well you needn’t be in such a hurry!” (with a significant grin). “Mr. Locke’s likely to be busy for a few minutes yet, I expect.”

Evidently the man did not know me.

“Tell him that — that a person wishes to speak to him on particular business.” Though I had no more notion what that business was than the man himself.

“Sit down in the hall.”

And I heard the fellow, a moment afterwards, gossiping and laughing with the maids below about the “young couple.”

To sit down was impossible; my only thought was — where was Lillian?

Voices in an adjoining room caught my ear. His! yes — and hers too — soft and low. What devil prompted me to turn eavesdropper? to run headlong into temptation? I was close to the dining-room door, but they were not there — evidently they were in the back room, which, as I knew, opened into it with folding-doors. I— I must confess all. — Noiselessly, with craft like a madman’s, I turned the handle, slipped in as stealthily as a cat — the folding-doors were slightly open. I had a view of all that passed within. A horrible fascination seemed to keep my eyes fixed on them, in spite of myself. Honour, shame, despair, bade me turn away, but in vain.

I saw them. — How can I write it? Yet I will. — I saw them sitting together on the sofa. Their arms were round each other. Her head lay upon his breast; he bent over her with an intense gaze, as of a basilisk, I thought; how do I know that it was not the fierceness of his love? Who could have helped loving her?

Suddenly she raised her head, and looked up in his face — her eyes brimming with tenderness, her cheeks burning with mingled delight and modesty — their lips met, and clung together. . . . It seemed a life — an eternity — before they parted again. Then the spell was broken, and I rushed from the room.

Faint, giddy, and blind, I just recollect leaning against the wall of the staircase. He came hastily out, and started as he saw me. My face told all.

“What? Eavesdropping?” he said, in a tone of unutterable scorn. I answered nothing, but looked stupidly and fixedly in his face, while he glared at me with that keen, burning, intolerable eye. I longed to spring at his throat, but that eye held me as the snake’s holds the deer. At last I found words.

“Traitor! everywhere — in everything — tricking me — supplanting me — in my friends — in my love!”

“Your love? Yours?” And the fixed eye still glared upon me. “Listen, cousin Alton! The strong and the weak have been matched for the same prize: and what wonder, if the strong man conquers? Go and ask Lillian how she likes the thought of being a Communist’s love!”

As when, in a nightmare, we try by a desperate effort to break the spell, I sprang forward, and struck at him, he put my hand by carelessly, and felled me bleeding to the ground. I recollect hardly anything more, till I found myself thrust into the street by sneering footmen, and heard them call after me “Chartist” and “Communist” as I rushed along the pavement, careless where I went.

I strode and staggered on through street after street, running blindly against passengers, dashing under horses’ heads, heedless of warnings and execrations, till I found myself, I know not how, on Waterloo Bridge. I had meant to go there when I left the door. I knew that at least — and now I was there.

I buried myself in a recess of the bridge, and stared around and up and down.

I was alone — deserted even by myself. Mother, sister, friends, love, the idol of my life, were all gone. I could have borne that. But to be shamed, and know that I deserved it; to be deserted by my own honour, self-respect, strength of will — who can bear that?

I could have borne it, had one thing been left — faith in my own destiny — the inner hope that God had called me to do a work for him.

“What drives the Frenchman to suicide?” I asked myself, arguing ever even in the face of death and hell —“His faith in nothing but his own lusts and pleasures; and when they are gone, then comes the pan of charcoal — and all is over. What drives the German? His faith in nothing but his own brain. He has fallen down and worshipped that miserable ‘Ich’ of his, and made that, and not God’s will, the centre and root of his philosophy, his poetry, and his self-idolizing æsthetics; and when it fails him, then for prussic acid, and nonentity. Those old Romans, too — why, they are the very experimentum crucis of suicide! As long as they fancied that they had a calling to serve the state, they could live on and suffer. But when they found no more work left for them, then they could die — as Porcia died — as Cato — as I ought. What is there left for me to do? outcast, disgraced, useless, decrepit —”

I looked out over the bridge into the desolate night. Below me the dark moaning river-eddies hurried downward. The wild west-wind howled past me, and leapt over the parapet downward. The huge reflexion of Saint Paul’s, the great tap-roots of light from lamp and window that shone upon the lurid stream, pointed down — down — down. A black wherry shot through the arch beneath me, still and smoothly downward. My brain began to whirl madly — I sprang upon the step. — A man rushed past me, clambered on the parapet, and threw up his arms wildly. — A moment more, and he would have leapt into the stream. The sight recalled me to my senses — say, rather, it reawoke in me the spirit of manhood. I seized him by the arm, tore him down upon the pavement, and held him, in spite of his frantic struggles. It was Jemmy Downes! Gaunt, ragged, sodden, blear-eyed, drivelling, the worn-out gin-drinker stood, his momentary paroxysm of strength gone, trembling and staggering.

“Why won’t you let a cove die? Why won’t you let a cove die? They’re all dead — drunk, and poisoned, and dead! What is there left?”— he burst out suddenly in his old ranting style —“what is there left on earth to live for? The prayers of liberty are answered by the laughter of tyrants; her sun is sunk beneath the ocean wave, and her pipe put out by the raging billows of aristocracy! Those starving millions of Kennington Common — where are they? Where? I axes you,” he cried fiercely, raising his voice to a womanish scream —“where are they?”

“Gone home to bed, like sensible people; and you had better go too.”

“Bed! I sold ours a month ago; but we’ll go. Come along, and I’ll show you my wife and family; and we’ll have a tea-party — Jacob’s Island tea. Come along!

“Flea, flea, unfortunate flea!

Bereft of his wife and his small family!”

He clutched my arm, and dragging me off towards the Surrey side, turned down Stamford Street.

I followed half perforce; and the man seemed quite demented — whether with gin or sorrow I could not tell. As he strode along the pavement, he kept continually looking back, with a perplexed terrified air, as if expecting some fearful object.

“The rats! — the rats! don’t you see ’em coming out of the gullyholes, atween the area railings — dozens and dozens?”

“No; I saw none.”

“You lie; I hear their tails whisking; there’s their shiny hats a glistening, and every one on ’em with peelers’ staves! Quick! quick! or they’ll have me to the station-house.”

“Nonsense!” I said; “we are free men! What are the policemen to us?”

“You lie!” cried he, with a fearful oath, and a wrench at my arm which almost threw me down. “Do you call a sweater’s man a free man?”

“You a sweater’s man?”

“Ay!” with another oath. “My men ran away — folks said I drank, too; but here I am; and I, that sweated others, I’m sweated myself — and I’m a slave! I’m a slave — a negro slave, I am, you aristocrat villain!”

“Mind me, Downes; if you will go quietly, I will go with you; but if you do not let go of my arm, I give you in charge to the first policeman I meet.”

“Oh, don’t, don’t!” whined the miserable wretch, as he almost fell on his knees, gin-drinkers’ tears running down his face, “or I shall be too late. — And then, the rats’ll get in at the roof, and up through the floor, and eat ’em all up, and my work too — the grand new three-pound coat that I’ve been stitching at this ten days, for the sum of one half-crown sterling — and don’t I wish I may see the money? Come on, quick; there are the rats, close behind!” And he dashed across the broad roaring thoroughfare of Bridge Street, and hurrying almost at a run down Tooley Street, plunged into the wilderness of Bermondsey.

He stopped at the end of a miserable blind alley, where a dirty gas-lamp just served to make darkness visible, and show the patched windows and rickety doorways of the crazy houses, whose upper stories were lost in a brooding cloud of fog; and the pools of stagnant water at our feet; and the huge heap of cinders which filled up the waste end of the alley — a dreary, black, formless mound, on which two or three spectral dogs prowled up and down after the offal, appearing and vanishing like dark imps in and out of the black misty chaos beyond.

The neighbourhood was undergoing, as it seemed, “improvements” of that peculiar metropolitan species which consists in pulling down the dwellings of the poor, and building up rich men’s houses instead; and great buildings, within high temporary palings, had already eaten up half the little houses; as the great fish, and the great estates, and the great shopkeepers, eat up the little ones of their species — by the law of competition, lately discovered to be the true creator and preserver of the universe. There they loomed up, the tall bullies, against the dreary sky, looking down, with their grim, proud, stony visages, on the misery which they were driving out of one corner, only to accumulate and intensify it in another.

The house at which we stopped was the last in the row; all its companions had been pulled down; and there it stood, leaning out with one naked ugly side into the gap, and stretching out long props, like feeble arms and crutches, to resist the work of demolition.

A group of slatternly people were in the entry, talking loudly, and as Downes pushed by them, a woman seized him by the arm.

“Oh! you unnatural villain! — To go away after your drink, and leave all them poor dear dead corpses locked up, without even letting a body go in to stretch them out!”

“And breeding the fever, too, to poison the whole house!” growled one.

“The relieving officer’s been here, my cove,” said another, “and he’s gone for a peeler and a search warrant to break open the door, I can tell you!”

But Downes pushed past unheeding, unlocked a door at the end of the passage, thrust me in, locked it again, and then rushed across the room in chase of two or three rats, who vanished into cracks and holes.

And what a room! A low lean-to with wooden walls, without a single article of furniture; and through the broad chinks of the floor shone up as it were ugly glaring eyes, staring at us. They were the reflexions of the rushlight in the sewer below. The stench was frightful — the air heavy with pestilence. The first breath I drew made my heart sink, and my stomach turn. But I forgot everything in the object which lay before me, as Downes tore a half-finished coat off three corpses laid side by side on the bare floor.

There was his little Irish wife:— dead — and naked; the wasted white limbs gleamed in the lurid light; the unclosed eyes stared, as if reproachfully, at the husband whose drunkenness had brought her there to kill her with the pestilence; and on each side of her a little, shrivelled, impish, child-corpse — the wretched man had laid their arms round the dead mother’s neck — and there they slept, their hungering and wailing over at last for ever; the rats had been busy already with them — but what matter to them now?

“Look!” he cried; “I watched ’em dying! Day after day I saw the devils come up through the cracks, like little maggots and beetles, and all manner of ugly things, creeping down their throats; and I asked ’em, and they said they were the fever devils.”

It was too true; the poisonous exhalations had killed them. The wretched man’s delirium tremens had given that horrible substantiality to the poisonous fever gases.

Suddenly Downes turned on me, almost menacingly. “Money! money! I want some gin!”

I was thoroughly terrified — and there was no shame in feeling fear, locked up with a madman far my superior in size and strength, in so ghastly a place. But the shame and the folly too, would have been in giving way to my fear; and with a boldness half assumed, half the real fruit of excitement and indignation at the horrors I beheld, I answered —

“If I had money, I would give you none. What do you want with gin? Look at the fruits of your accursed tippling. If you had taken my advice, my poor fellow,” I went on, gaining courage as I spoke, “and become a water-drinker, like me —”

“Curse you and your water-drinking! If you had had no water to drink or wash with for two years but that — that,” pointing to the foul ditch below —“if you had emptied the slops in there with one hand, and filled your kettle with the other —”

“Do you actually mean that that sewer is your only drinking water?”

“Where else can we get any? Everybody drinks it; and you shall, too — you shall!” he cried, with a fearful oath, “and then see if you don’t run off to the gin-shop, to take the taste of it out of your mouth. Drink? and who can help drinking, with his stomach turned with such hell-broth as that — or such a hell’s blast as this air is here, ready to vomit from morning till night with the smells? I’ll show you. You shall drink a bucket full of it, as sure as you live, you shall.”

And he ran out of the back door, upon a little balcony, which hung over the ditch.

I tried the door, but the key was gone, and the handle too. I beat furiously on it, and called for help. Two gruff authoritative voices were heard in the passage.

“Let us in; I’m the policeman!”

“Let me out, or mischief will happen!”

The policeman made a vigorous thrust at the crazy door; and just as it burst open, and the light of his lantern streamed into the horrible den, a heavy splash was heard outside.

“He has fallen into the ditch!”

“He’ll be drowned, then, as sure as he’s a born man,” shouted one of the crowd behind.

We rushed out on the balcony. The light of the policeman’s lantern glared over the ghastly scene — along the double row of miserable house-backs, which lined the sides of the open tidal ditch — over strange rambling jetties, and balconies, and sleeping-sheds, which hung on rotting piles over the black waters, with phosphorescent scraps of rotten fish gleaming and twinkling out of the dark hollows, like devilish grave-lights — over bubbles of poisonous gas, and bloated carcases of dogs, and lumps of offal, floating on the stagnant olive-green hell-broth — over the slow sullen rows of oily ripple which were dying away into the darkness far beyond, sending up, as they stirred, hot breaths of miasma — the only sign that a spark of humanity, after years of foul life, had quenched itself at last in that foul death. I almost fancied that I could see the haggard face staring up at me through the slimy water; but no, it was as opaque as stone.

I shuddered and went in again, to see slatternly gin-smelling women stripping off their clothes — true women even there — to cover the poor naked corpses; and pointing to the bruises which told a tale of long tyranny and cruelty; and mingling their lamentations with stories of shrieks and beating, and children locked up for hours to starve; and the men looked on sullenly, as if they too were guilty, or rushed out to relieve themselves by helping to find the drowned body. Ugh! it was the very mouth of hell, that room. And in the midst of all the rout, the relieving officer stood impassive, jotting down scraps of information, and warning us to appear the next day, to state what we knew before the magistrates. Needless hypocrisy of law! Too careless to save the woman and children from brutal tyranny, nakedness, starvation! — Too superstitious to offend its idol of vested interests, by protecting the poor man against his tyrants, the house-owning shopkeepers under whose greed the dwellings of the poor become nests of filth and pestilence, drunkenness and degradation. Careless, superstitious, imbecile law! — leaving the victims to die unhelped, and then, when the fever and the tyranny has done its work, in thy sanctimonious prudishness, drugging thy respectable conscience by a “searching inquiry” as to how it all happened — lest, forsooth, there should have been “foul play!” Is the knife or the bludgeon, then, the only foul play, and not the cesspool and the curse of Rabshakeh? Go through Bermondsey or Spitalfields, St. Giles’s or Lambeth, and see if there is not foul play enough already — to be tried hereafter at a more awful coroner’s inquest than thou thinkest of!

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